Planet Interactive Fiction

March 03, 2021

Renga in Blue

The Staff “Slake” (1981)

by Jason Dyer at March 03, 2021 05:41 AM

The ever-prolific Roger M. Wilcox still has seven games left for our 1981 roster, so let’s knock one down, shall we?

His previous two (In the Universe Beyond, Creatures that Live in the Sun) were a bit wacky (that’s technical jargon for “the work of an imaginative teenager who was noodling around with sci-fi ideas and kept cranking games out without worrying about being published”), but this game plays it straight with another collect-a-thon, where the most interesting thing is the title item.

“Slake” is a magical staff composed almost entirely of gold save a ruby on its front tip. Its bottom seems worn from tapping against the ground. It is capable of a “retributive strike” down its middle, which seems divided for this purpose or possibly for another. Its design has three gold snakes wrapped around the entire length of the staff, which is a symbol of weaponry and protection.

The closest I could find to the staff the game is named after. This is a religious staff (a crozier) used by the Eastern Orthodox religion, and is short one snake. (Picture by Kokkarani, CC BY-SA 3.0).

You start fairly traditional aboveground, with a lantern and a passage into darkness. To get the lantern going requires pulling materials from a mound of “white phosphorus” and a “pile of sulfur” (which just happen to be lying around) and MIX them in order to LIGHT LANTERN.

You can use a shovel to dig out some “dirt walls” to find, rather creatively, a “river of wine” that you can use to fill a canteen, as well as a stone called “Staffbreaker” that will be helpful later.

I was stuck for a while on the “Stronghold Entry Point” on the map — there’s a locked gate and no key. I had tried DIG everywhere (including at the aforementioned river of Dionysian bliss) when I hit the realization that while shovels in text adventures usually don’t bother with nouns, it’s still possible to use one.

This doesn’t really count as guess-the-verb, guess-the-noun, or any sort of standard bad parser behavior, yet I was still psyched out by the parser.

Past the locked gate I was able to get into a treasure room with the staff from the title.

The staff later gets three different uses, all cued by the description text I quoted earlier: the “ruby on its front tip”, the bottom that “seems worn from tapping against the ground”, the middle allowing a “retributive strike”, and it being a “symbol of weaponry and protection”.

For example, proceeding further, you come across a warrior at a “guard station”.

The warrior is swinging a magic sword at you right now!

where the right action is to PARRY.

You parried the swing! In fact, the parry caused your attacker to drop his sword onto the floor. He runs away in fear, leaving the sword behind.

This would have been a hard verb to normally summon up, but I had been stung before by In the Universe Beyond where the hints give information nearly impossible to find otherwise, so I had tried HELP earlier to see if it worked.

I know the verbs PARRY and FILL.

The warrior runs away but does not leave; in order to exit back upstairs (either right after the initial confrontation, or later) the sword left behind must be used against its original owner.

Speaking of odd verbs, just trying to EXAMINE the body indicates two puncture wounds. To find the hidden items — a two-handed sword and a bag — you need to FRISK ADVENTURER.

The second function of the staff is to shoot at stuff; in particular if you jump into a pit (there’s a treasure down there) your way out is blocked by a boulder.

Realizing that you need to “turn” first is subtle and non-obvious. The way I figured it out was fascinating in a ludic-theory sort of way: the game helpfully warns you if you jump in the pit without the staff that you’ve made the game unwinnable, and offers to let you back up. It struck me the only difference between getting the message and not getting the message was having the staff, so the staff had to be the solution, leading me to experiment more and arrive at TURN STAFF. Solving by realizing what was in the negative space, so to speak.

The third use — and more or less the climax puzzle — requires destroying the staff altogether. There’s a stone door where zapping with the staff won’t work, and there’s no key, but you can drop the staff and throw the “Stonebreaker” stone (from back at the river) and cause it to blow the staff up. This is interesting insofar as the staff as it is a treasure, but in being destroyed it makes a new treasure which works as a replacement: gold dust.

I needed to meta-solve past a bug, though. When the explosion happens, the screen flashes RETRIBUTIVE STRIKE! and the main screen returns … but not the prompt. However, game saves were still possible via the menu, so I saved and reloaded, and found myself with an open door and gold dust as was apparently meant to happen.

It isn’t necessarily the climax puzzle because there’s a few side puzzles to mop up (some leprechauns want the wine from the canteen, for instance) the most amusing being a carnivorous goose who can only be satiated by the taste of human skeleton bones.

Untitled Goose Game: The Early Years.

However, I managed to end at 100% treasure without too much trouble after.

The game doesn’t end. You just can take the hint from the declaration of victory and skedaddle whenever.

I did like the game centering around an object with multiple uses that was destroyed in the end. It reminded me of Wilcox making a consistent set of puzzles around an object with The Vial of Doom. The Vial of Doom still remains his strongest game I’ve played so far; The Staff “Slake” isn’t quite top tier simply due to the mundane nature of the treasure hunt, but it still came with some interesting ideas.

March 01, 2021

Reviews from Trotting Krips

Amishville by Jacob Amman (2002)

by Bryan B at March 01, 2021 06:43 AM

The Little Ugly, Evil Guy On My Shoulder’s Verdict:

I don’t have much use for the Amish generally speaking. Do they not realize we fought a goddamn war just so we wouldn’t be called English anymore? That said, I do love the idea of rumspringa. You live a sheltered, desolate, and extended childhood only to suddenly be unleashed on the world, free to finally discover all the good things in life for yourself. Imagine getting to experience sex, cocaine, Alien, Predator, and Alien vs Predator for the first time on the SAME DAY. It’s enough to make me almost wish I was Amish…almost.

The Little Nice, Handsome Guy On My Shoulder’s Verdict:

Their ways are different from ours, but we should respect and celebrate those differences rather than mock them in our text adventures. I wonder what Amish text adventures have to say about US.

My Verdict:

Terrible games deserve terrible parodies which in turn deserve terrible reviews. So goeth the eternal cycle of one room joke games.

Game Information

Game Type: Inform

Author Info: Jakob Ammann was a Swiss Anabaptist leader born in 1644 who probably didn’t actually write this game. Still, anyone who’d name their only son Baltz is OK with me.

Download Link:

Other Games By This Author: None known.

One thing I regret about my old reviews is how hard I tended to come down on the one room joke games that were once inexplicably commonplace on the IF Archive. I didn’t like those games then and I don’t like them now, but the difference is I don’t think I’d call any text adventure clutter or suggest it has no valid reason to exist today. There’s nothing actually wrong with putting out a game just for laughs. If you put in the time and made a thing, you have every right to share it with the world. What kind of monster do you have to be to hate creativity and humor, anyway? I refuse to be that monster any longer. When I reflect back on my school days, it’s not the girls, the learning, or the minor achievements that I look back on most fondly. Instead, it’s the memories of those times I made someone laugh that shine brightest in my mind’s eye and are the least tinged by regret. Humor is something wonderful and beautiful, a superpower anyone can use. If you’re truly creating a game because you want to make people laugh, that’s awesome and actually kind of noble. This life of pestilence and sorrow doesn’t deserve you.

With all this in mind, I briefly considered replacing my usual rating system with a new rating system just for joke games which would be based on the number of laughs I incurred while playing each said game. I abandoned this idea when I realized every one room joke game I’ve ever played would receive the same rating of zero laughs under this new regime. At least with my old rating system no game actually gets a simple rating worse than a 1! Sadly, it’s been my general experience that joke IF games tend not to be particularly funny. I don’t think it has to be that way; there’s nothing inherent in the format of the one room joke game that forces it to suck. Of course you’re not going to make the next A Mind Forever Voyaging, but you could theoretically at least take a clever idea and do something funny with it. For some reason, that seems to happen only very rarely if at all in practice. No matter. I’ll still defend the one room joke game’s right to exist to my dying breath. If a joke game makes just one person laugh, even if it is just the author, surely that is enough to make the whole endeavor worthwhile to some degree no matter what the nattering nabobs of IF criticism have to say. Of course, “worthwhile” doesn’t mean “worth playing” and as one of those aforementioned nabobs I’m going to have to say a number of unpleasant things about joke games in this and future reviews. I just want it to be clear that it isn’t personal and I’m not condemning a whole subgenre of IF or advocating that any games be purged from the Internet just because I didn’t like them. With that out of the way, let’s talk about the game!

Amishville is a one room joke game and it isn’t funny. It probably has a better reason for not being funny than most of its compatriots, and that’s because it’s a parody of Amissville, a “game” that was relentlessly overhyped on the IF newsgroups in the early 2000s but was essentially as I understand it an in-joke that became an Internet performance art piece. There was even a pseudo-company behind the game called Santoonie Corporation which gave the project a veneer of corporate respectability until people began to realize most Santoonie employees had adopted the names of Confederate generals as pseudonyms. You could think of Santoonie as the original Proud Boys of interactive fiction if the Proud Boys were as well known for vaporware as they are for racism. The groundbreaking title we were promised on the newsgroups never quite materialized and Santoonie Corporation never became the new Infocom, but you can still find multiple Amissville-themed titles and parodies on the IF Archive if you dare to look for them. What they all have in common is that they are all pretty bad. In the case of the parodies at least, the lack of quality is obviously intentional. Would a quality Amissville parody even make any sense at all given the history involved? Jacob Ammon or whoever did this game had to underperform just to meet society’s expectations. There’s a harsh cruelty to that. Even if you don’t like the game (and trust me, you do not like the game), it’s not hard to sympathize with Ammon. The position he found himself in was truly unenviable.

Amishville takes the one room joke game concept to startling extremes. A brief introduction establishes your character as an Amish man who is currently just outside of his barn. Unfortunately, there’s no more story to uncover after that. Almost every valid input the parser recognizes reveals the joke and ends the game. I appreciated still being allowed to enter verbose mode the way I always do, but verbose and brief were the only commands I found that worked and didn’t end the game. The design of the game gives it a certain aura of mystery; it’s certainly possible there is hidden content that just isn’t very easy to find, but I can’t say I found anything interesting despite numerous attempts. As for the joke, it takes the single fact most people know about the Amish and uses that as the punchline. It’s obvious enough that there’s a good chance you will already have a pretty good idea what the joke is going to be before actually playing the game. It’s so predictable that it’s almost reassuring. No matter how topsy-turvy your life may be, you can still play Amishville and realize you have a basic handle on the way the world works at least when it comes to the type of jokes people who know little of the Amish tend to tell about the Amish.

Taken just as a parody, Amishville shows a little promise, but it remains very undeveloped. It mocks the strange Preface, Prologue, Introduction opening of the fragment of Amissville that was publicly released and is written in a loose, active style that somewhat resembles but doesn’t quite capture the spirit of the original game. The moment that brought me closest to laughter was the line, “But your adventurous spirit continues to drive your heart to the dangers and perils that spawn from adventure and wearing buttons.” If nothing else, this line gives every Amish scholar the chance to point out that many groups of Amish people do in fact wear clothes with buttons. A brief moment of sunshine in their otherwise dreary lives. Even if you do enjoy the writing, that doesn’t change the fact that game is essentially just an introduction with no interactive elements whatsoever. I’m afraid I can’t quite bring myself to recommend it. I give it ZERO LAUGHS!

Simple Rating: 1/10

Complicated Rating: 6/50

Story: 1/10

Writing: 3/10

Playability: 1/10

Puzzle Quality: 1/10 (What if the WHOLE GAME is the puzzle?)

Parser Responsiveness: 0/10

February 28, 2021

Emily Short

End of February Link Assortment

by Mort Short at February 28, 2021 11:41 PM


March 1 is the registration deadline for Spring Thing 2021, so if you’re planning on participating, sign up ASAP.

March 6 is the next meeting of the SF/Bay Area IF Meetup.

March 21 is the next meeting of the Seattle/Tacoma IF Meetup. The group will feature Hanon Ondricek to play and discuss his 2016 game Fair 1.

March 28 is the submission deadline for Spring Thing 2021.

March 31 is the submission deadline for the Text Adventure Literacy Jam.

Game Jams & Competitions

The Text Adventure Literacy Jam is underway this month, and continues to accept submissions until March 31st. The jam encourages authors to build text adventure games suitable for absolute beginners. There are two versions of the game jam, one in English, and one in Spanish.

ParserComp 2021 is also on the horizon. The page has not been set up yet, but should be ready on April 1 when registration opens. The comp focuses on text input games in the style of Zork, Photopia or Unhallowed.

New Releases

The newest offering on Choice of Games is Fate of the Storm Gods, a 275,000-word interactive fantasy novel by Bendi Barrett.

Harness wind, earth, fire, and all the forces of nature to destroy your enemies! Will you stabilize the broken magic of the weather, or revel in its chaos?


There are just nine days to go for Failbetter Games’ Kickstarter for Mask of the Rose: A Fallen London Romance, a romantic visual novel set in the Fallen London universe. (In full disclosure: I’m the lead writer on this project.)

If you’d like to take a peek at some of what we’re creating, you can see some of it here:


Experimenting with Procedurally Generated Mysteries

February 28, 2021 08:42 PM

One of my long-term pet projects has been procedurally generated content for mystery games, where the mystery's suspects, clues, and solution are all dynamic. My most recent experiment is a short text game called AKA: Sammy the Blade. The game's objective is to identify a fugitive among the guests at a hotel. The mystery, at its core, is a logic puzzle. Read more

February 27, 2021

Renga in Blue

Adventure 448: The Shape of a God

by Jason Dyer at February 27, 2021 05:41 AM

I’ve gotten through all the new material and found all the new treasures (all six of them). The ending is apparently unchanged (and I’ve, uh, seen it before a few times) so I skipped getting to that. Special thanks to Arthur O’Dwyer who came up with a full walkthrough that I needed to refer to multiple times.

Just to clarify from my last post, the years ’78, ’79, ’80, and ’82 are almost certainly graduation years. So the initial crew of four at Brown University (Dave Wallace, Dave Nebiker, Eric Albert, Les Wu) did their work in April 1978, and Eric Swenson (“[email protected]”) converted the game for the MIT system a year later.

April 1978 is extremely early; there were no adventures for home computers as of yet, the first coming out in summer of that year (a conversion of Adventure for Heathkit). Adventureland and Pirate Adventure came later. The authors had Zork to refer to, but other than than that they almost certainly hadn’t seen anyone else’s efforts (like Mystery Mansion, Wander, or Acheton) so this is in the earliest depths of adventure gaming, where people were making it up as they went.

The immortal bird and snake fight, which I’ve now seen on loop across many iterations of Adventure, including Crowther’s original. Even this scene has had additions — in particular Don Woods in his “version 2” Adventure put a scene where you can bring the bird outside to a forest — but it generally has been left untouched. Picture from the AMC Halt and Catch Fire version of Adventure.

When I approach one of these games, I always started with my Trizbort file of 350-point Adventure, assuming it gets used as a base, and then run through the map marking as I go which rooms have been checked. Once I start to hit new geography I add new rooms with a special color so I know they weren’t part of the original map.

I found the Throne Room last time, but I had the bad luck of finding the last extra rooms right at the end of my survey. I had been starting to think the Throne Room was the entrance to all the new material, but no: the new stuff is shuffled up next to the entrances to the mazes (all alike and all different).

Some tweaks are minor; the silver bars got moved to a new room, the pirate lair got moved slightly for some reason. The essential “main attractions” are a wizard tower and a druid temple. They are essentially independent of the main game, with one exception.

Here is how the wizard tower opens:

You’re on a spiral staircase lit by torches with an eastern door.

The game uses Adventure’s unfortunate feature of “probabilistic exits” to make the geography messy here. If you go up one floor, going east kills you

You enter a thick, cold, gray mist. You seem to be falling forever and the light slowly fades away.

If you go up twice (without interference from the random number generator) and east, you can find a dagger

You’re in a small hexagonal room with a single door in the west wall.

There is a short ornate dagger here.

but in all likelihood you’ll hit a few “loops” that make the staircase seem endless, and if you aren’t being careful, kill yourself as shown above. This has been a source of endless suffering for me in the past (see especially the “secret exit” room from a maze in Adventure 500) but at least here it was thematic — I totally expect a wizard tower to have weird, TARDIS-like geographical oddities going for it.

Incidentally, going one room up again — with an identical staircase room — and trying to go east leads to death

A hoard of angry dwarves charges through the door as soon as you open it. They are brandishing all manner of weapon and you get crushed in their rush downstairs.

but we can get in there from a different direction. Still, the preponderance of confusion and deathtraps feels slightly off from 350-point Adventure.

There’s something higher if you keep going up but you need an item first to reach the top, which you can find from the magician himself, who you’ll find by going down rather than up.

You’re in the Magician’s Chamber, a large pentagonal room with a spiral staircase leading up from the center of the room.

The magician’s staff is leaning against the wall.

The Magician is here gesturing frantically in front of the elven door.

There is a massive stone Elven door set into the western wall. The surface of the door is covered with indecipherable runes.

Just like the dwarves, violence is the answer to this one.


Your dagger strikes the Magician, who stumbles back in astonishment and vanishes in a cloud of orange smoke.

It maybe should have occurred to me I just killed a Gandalf-analogue, frustrated at trying to get an elven door open, because the next step is the magic word FRIEND. The source code has the text “Speak, friend, to enter” but I wasn’t able to get it to appear; READ DOOR or READ RUNES don’t work.

(The famous door showed up a year later in a game set in actual-Tolkien-verse, Ringen, although in that game you had to nerd out and use the Elvish version of the word.)


You’re in a long straight corridor ending in a massive slab of stone to the east. To the west a slightly smaller corridor continues while there is a passage leading up to the northwest and another leading down to the southwest.

Nearby you can get a “gleaming coat of Mithril chain mail” which you can’t wear (“The mithril mail is a small size, even for dwarves. You don’t stand chance of getting it on yourself.”) and explore some more Tolkien-fan-fiction room descriptions, before finally arriving back in the magic spiral staircase.

You’re in the Dwarves Great Hall where in the past were held great feasts and displayed the most beautiful of their craft. Now the hall look as if a great battle had been waged here. All the smaller passages leading out have been blocked intentionally. The only exits are wide staircases leading down to the west and up to the east.

Once you’re holding the wizard staff (which you can scoop up after killing the magician) you’re also able to get out of the loop in the spiral stair to make it to the top of the tower.

You’re in the magician’s tower, a small cluttered room filled with all manner of strange artifacts, the purpose of which cannot be kenned immediately. The walls of the chamber are themselves cloaked in shadows which seem to move of their own accord. There is one small window in the wall but it is far over your head and lets in a minimum of light. Torches set in the wall across from the window supplement the meager light but the entire room seems to disapprove of light and gloom clings to all the corners. In the center of the room a spiral staircase descends into to the lower levels of the cave.

There is a dusty old broom lying on the ground.

There is a large map on the wall.

There is an unadorned gold ring on a hook on the wall!

The Magician’s Book of Spells is here.


The map shows a small complex of rooms connected to the throne
room by a passage beneath the throne.


The book seems to be a big book of fairy tales. This particular tale concerns an adventurer wandering around in a cave.

The ring counts as a treasure and “being royal”. The ring and the crown from last time are useful for a scene elsewhere; one outside of the wizard tower, but only a few steps away.

You are at a crossover of a high N/S passage and a low E/W one. You are in a slightly sloping N/S passage which seems to fall off sharply not too far to the North. There is a ONE WAY sign pointing in that direction.

The new passage (heading north) leads down to a druid temple.

You are in a large chamber decorated like an ancient Druid temple continuing to the west with passages leading off to the north and south. A large stone dominates the center of the room.

The sword is firmly imbedded in the stone!

I needed to check the walkthrough here; GET SWORD just says “You can’t be serious!” and you have to PULL SWORD. You need to be sufficiently royal (wearing both crown and ring) otherwise you get this:


TUG! GROAN! It seems to be stuck. Shall I keep pulling?


Oh Dear! It seems I pulled a little too hard. The sword has shattered into many tiny pieces.

At least it asks before you step into your own softlock? If things go well, you get a treasure instead. (No, you can’t fight stuff with the sword.)


Voila! The sword has slid effortlessly out of the stone.

There’s a small area nearby where you can SWEEP with the broom from the wizard tower in hand to find a secret area.

The passage leads northeast and northwest.

There is a large piece of crystal here carved to the shape of a God!

If you have the crown and ring, you can escape and take a secret passage back to the Throne Room.

There is one more secret treasure; the broom is useful elsewhere. If you have your Adventure map memorized, you might know where it goes:

You are in a large room full of dusty rocks. There is a big hole in the floor. There are cracks everywhere, and a passage leading east.


Your sweeping stirs up the dust and reveals a piece of paper on the ground.




“Congratulations. Due to your extraordinary abilities as an adventurer, you have won a full four-year scholarship to the College of your choice — limited to Cambridge Massachusetts. Sorry, but Harvard excluded. Void where prohibited by law.”

The code is structured such that Arthur O’Dwyer and Nathanael Culver suspect changing the diploma from Brown to MIT is the only extra change when [email protected] converted the Brown game to the MIT system.

I very much appreciate that this piece of early history got unearthed — even relative to other “mods” of Adventure this is quite early, only beaten by Adventure 366 (which only tweaked the game in a minor way) and possibly Crystal Cave (which is more like an entirely new game based on the Adventure base game, and where I’m still very uncertain on the dating.

The broom in particular applying both to the self-contained world of the expanded universe and making a new use for an old location was quite delightful. I think the randomizer was perhaps too heavily abused in the wizard tower, but at least there was a plot reason for it. Just to get very specific at the code level (referring to O’Dwyer’s work again), here is the spot on the stairs next to the dagger.

East goes to the dagger room.

Down goes two steps down with probability 60%, one step up with probability 15%, and loops to the room the player is already in with probability 25%.

Up goes one step up with probability 60%, two steps down with probability 15%, and loops to itself with probability 25%.

Just dropping a few items as reference alleviates the problem here, but it’s still a bit unnerving to play through.

One final update to mention: Adventure 448 is now enshrined within Nathanael Culver’s list of Adventure variants, which means it … exists for real, I suppose?

February 25, 2021

"Aaron Reed"

Pirate Adventure (1978)

by Aaron A. Reed at February 25, 2021 06:42 PM

In the overwhelmingly male-dominated world of 1970s hackers, a popular tale was the one about the wife or girlfriend who just didn’t get it. So-called “computer widows” didn’t or couldn’t understand what was so interesting about the bulky machines and the code they ran — or so the stories went — and sometimes lashed out in “hysterical” ways. One particular oft-retold anecdote went like this:

One day she had finally had it. I came home to find that she had put all my disks… in the oven. I was not going to program anymore, she said, unless I spent some time with her. Luckily, [she] had been so mad that she’d forgotten to turn the oven on!

Like all stories, these were shared because they reinforced myths the listeners wanted to believe. The corollaries implied by the words — that women were too emotionally unstable for the world of computers, or too scatterbrained to carry out even simple plans — were rarely examined. Behind this particular story (which did happen, more or less) lies a pretty obvious truth: the woman in it had intended, of course, for the oven to be off. It wasn’t a botched execution. It was a threat.

Continue reading at the home of my new blog series, “50 Years of Text Games.”

Adventure International logo

February 22, 2021


ink version 1.0 release!

February 22, 2021 04:43 PM

We're proud to announce that ink, our open-source scripting language for interactive narrative, has now officially reached version 1.0!

Inky screenshot in dark mode

What's new in Version 1.0?

Version 1.0 is a stable release of "the story so far". The core features are well-tested and well-used, and the current integration has powered two full inkle releases: 2019's 3D adventure game, Heaven's Vault, and 2020's procedurally narrated tactics game, Pendragon.

But there's one big new feature: we've introduced the concept of parallel, shared-state story-flows - allowing the game to, say, switch between different simultaneous NPC conversations, while still allowing one conversation to affect the other.

We've also improved error handling and improved the way ink calls game-side functions. Inky now has a dark mode (see above!), zoom, a word count and stats menu, and better syntax highlighting. The default web player has new features for links and audio. And the Unity integration now allows live recompilation mid-game.

Full details can be found on the release notes page for ink, Inky and the ink-Unity-integration plugin.

What is ink?

ink is designed from the ground up to be "Word for interactive fiction". Open it up, and start writing. Branch when you need to, rejoin the flow seamlessly, track state and vary what's written based on what came before - without any need to plan, layout, or structure in advance. Organise your content when you know what shape it wants to take, not before.

It was recently awarded an Epic Megagrant, and we're otherwise supported by a Patreon.

Epic MegaGrant logo

A Different Approach To Interactive Writing

ink takes a different approach from other interactive fiction writing software in several ways.

It's entirely script-based, with no diagrams or flow-charts. Instead of being optimised for loops, it allows writers to quickly and robustly create heavily branching flow that runs naturally from beginning to end - as most interactive stories do.

All code and technical information is added as mark-up on top of text, making it easy to scan, proof-read, redraft and edit. It's also easy to see what's been changed in a file when using source-control.

Another key concept is global, always-on state tracking: every line the player sees in the course of the game is remembered, automatically, by the engine, without the need to define variables. This allows for fast iteration on game-logic and the easy implementation of cause-and-effect, without the need for "boilerplate" code.

Flexible and Powerful

But that doesn't mean ink is limited: it has variables, functions, maths and logic should you need them, and can also hand off complex decision-making to the game-code itself.

ink is also deliberately layout-agnostic. By handing the UI over to the game, it can be used to make hyperlink games, visual novels, RPGs, chatbots, FMV games, or simply to deliver highly-responsive barks in an first-person action game.

Over on the engine side, ink comes with a run-time debugger that allows reading and poking of variable state, and a profiling tool to help developers in frame-rate dependent environments to find and fix story-side slowdowns.


ink has been adopted by game studios and other developers all around the world. It's been used on big indie games such Haven, NeoCab, Over the Alps, Falcon Age, Signs of the Sojourner and others.

For people looking to learn more about using ink, we've got several talks on our approaches, including this on from GDC 2017 on how Heaven's Vault drives its 3D world from a text-based script:

Development History

Here at inkle, ink has been our bedrock. We've used ink on every single title we've released over the last ten years, expanding and developing the feature set of the language over that time from quick mark-up for authoring branching choice-based narratives (Sorcery!) to authoring open-world, responsive, go-anywhere-and-do-anything narratives (er, Sorcery! 3. Also, Heaven's Vault.)

And we're continuing to find new ways to use the engine, like last year's experiment in procedurally narrating a chess-like game.

Originally released as an open source beta in 2016, ink quickly accrued an editor, inky, for easily writing and testing content, and a dedicated Unity plug-in to assist with integrating and testing stories at run-time.

Community Development

Since its release, a wide community of developers and enthusiasts have contributed to the project. There is a full javascript port, built into inky, which allows the editor to produce stand-alone web-playable games. There is a port for the popular Godot engine, and work is progressing on a C port that will ultimately enable Unreal integration.

We've had contributions in the form of bug fixes and features requests to the main ink code base, and too many contributions to ink to list - from Dark Mode, through auto-complete, to an integrated version of the "Writing With Ink" documentation and, most recently, an "open recent project" menu listing.

Looking back, we think these developments have justified our decision to make ink fully free and open source: the development around the system that's taken place would never have happened without the efforts of other developers, and we'd like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who's offered contributions, both large and small, over the last five years.

The core meeting point for ink developers has been the inkle Discord, which is now the go-to place on the internet for assistance with implementing ink features, and contains a wealth of tips and ideas.

Looking forward!

As inkle continues to develop games, we're continuing to develop and extend both ink and the Unity integration to allow us to tackle new problems.

Though we're naturally more cautious with new languages features now the codebase is mature, we have an internal roadmap of issues and features we'd like to address.

The more support we get - both financially, and in terms of bug and community support - the more we can push forwards.

Meanwhile, ink will continue to be free to use and available to all for as long as we are able to support it!

Happy writing!

Renga in Blue

Adventure 448 (1978-1979)

by Jason Dyer at February 22, 2021 05:41 AM

Adventure 448 is a variant of Adventure that isn’t listed (as of this writing) on Nathanael Culver’s giant list of variants, nor does it appear anywhere in the archives. As far as I can tell it simply has been dematerialized from history until very recently. I came across it in rather a strange manner —

Last year, early source code for Zork (circa 1977) was unearthed from MIT archives and put up at Github. This later became playable via a telnet link, which I tried out, but didn’t dive into deeply (I will eventually write about 1977 Zork more in depth, but it hasn’t been a priority).

Unrelatedly, Aaron Reed has recently embarked on a “50 Years of Text Games” series, writing about one text game each week; in 1977 he covered Zork. As part of that he mentioned being able to play Zork online, linking to Andrew Plotkin’s page.

Out of curiosity, I tried the link which included these instructions:

You can try the ITS environment online! Telnet to, port 10003 (telnet 10003). When it says “Connected…”, hit ctrl-Z. Then type :login yourname. (Any name will work.) Then type :zork to play. :advent is also available; that’s the original Crowther version. You can also try :games;adv350 and :games;adv448.

This boggled me for a second — I wasn’t looking at Zork, but rather the last statement, about adv448. I’d never heard of such a thing, and after checking all my sources, nobody else had either. I consulted with Lars Brinkhoff (one of the main people behind the MIT archive finds) and he said someone else had added adv448 to the PDP emulator that Zork was on, and he gave the credits from the source code:

C Modified for the Brown University system, April 1978
C Dave Wallace ’78
C Dave Nebiker ’79
C Eric Albert ’80
C Modified for the ITS system, July 1979 by [email protected]

The actual game itself doesn’t list any of the names, but just states “Additional features added at Brown University.”

For most mainframe games with a long time span, the vast majority of the work was done early, and the later dates involve bug fixes (like Warp, Haunt, and Battlestar). Given this game passed through at least four different pairs of hands, I’m not sure if the same metric applies; however, for mainframe games I’ve been going by “first time available to people other than the authors”. I can’t definitely say what happened here, but to be internally consistent with the other versions of Adventure I’ve written about I’ll be shelving it on my big All the Adventures list as 1978.

ADD: Arthur O’Dwyer made the point that the years ’79, ’80’ and ’82 are probably graduation years, so that means it was done all in one go at Brown in 1978, with the “modified for the ITS system” happening a year later in 1979. That makes sense to me (and otherwise the sequence listed is a bit mystifying) so I changed the title to be just 1978-1979.

I knew I had to make this game priority on my queue, not just due to the mysterious circumstances of it being unearthed, but due to the generally ephemeral nature of telnet servers (although I hope the Zork one stays up a long time!)

While I’ll need to do another test run, it looks like nothing outside is changed, but the famous building is slightly different.

You are inside a building, a well house for a large spring.
There are some keys on the ground here.

There is food here.

There is a bottle of water here.

I didn’t make a typo: there is no lamp! The game forces you to use the iconic grate before reaching the lamp.

You are in a 20-foot depression floored with bare dirt. Set into the dirt is a strong steel grate mounted in concrete. A dry streambed leads into the depression.

The grate is locked.

unlock grate

The grate is now unlocked.


You are in a small chamber beneath a 3×3 steel grate to the surface.
A low crawl over cobbles leads inward to the west.
There is a shiny brass lamp nearby.

I find this an interesting change, and not one I’ve quite seen before. Other versions allow skipping unlocking the grate altogether and blazing through with already-known magic words, but here the authors wanted to force one particular narrative.

That means in Adventure 448 there should be a lamp in this picture. Detail from map by Dennis Donovan.

I haven’t checked far enough to see all the differences, and assess if the changes are major or minor, but here’s the room north of the Hall of the Mountain King.

You’re in the throne room where the walls are covered with large brightly painted murals of Colossal Cave and the lands surrounding it. In the center of the room is a large throne on a raised dias. To the south can be seen the entrance to a large hall while a low passage exits to the north heading slightly downwards.

There is an old crown sitting on the throne!

The resemblance is strong enough I’m wondering if there’s some relation to David Long’s Adventure 501

You are on the east side of the throne room. On the arm of the throne has been hung a sign which reads “Gone for the day: visiting sick snake. –M.K”
An ancient crown of elvin kings lies here!

but I’ll need to get in deeper to tell. My suspicion is this is just coincidence caused by the fact that the named “Mountain King” strongly hints to writers who want to extend the game that it would be appropriate to insert something royal nearby.

February 21, 2021

Renga in Blue

Palace in Thunderland: Finished!

by Jason Dyer at February 21, 2021 06:41 AM

250 out of 250. One of my jokes turned out to be prophecy. This won’t make much sense without reading the prior posts first. Complete spoilers follow.

I had gotten killed by the Queen of Hearts while playing her game of croquet.

I had noticed that the nearby red and black cards seemed slightly discontented, and also, based on this clue


I had made a joke the command was to >LEAD REVOLUTION. I was, in fact, quite close.

The odd thing about the above is this won’t work unless you have the flamingo and hedgehog. I suppose the narrative explanation is that the peasants aren’t really paying attention to you until you are set for a game of croquet. At least I solved it, and there is a second clue:


(read the first part backwards)

With that resolved, I realized I still wasn’t getting anywhere without finally working out the power outage issue. If you wait until after the lights go out there’s a “busted fuse” but I didn’t have any luck replacing it; Voltgloss provided some handy hints which led me to the suspiciously empty Arboretum. (I mean, in a lot of 1981 games it wouldn’t be suspicious, but this is a game where nearly everything gets used somewhere.)


For some reason I had failed to EXAMINE POOL and find out the light was too bright to see in the pool. The key was to wait until the lights go out entirely, then use the flashlight.

The goal then is to take the penny down and use it as a fuse. (A Google search for “use penny as fuse” attests to this being a real thing, including this strange Forbes article which uses replacing a fuse with a copper penny as an analogy for businesses on economic life support.) Unfortunately, the flashlight doesn’t quite have enough life left to make the full trip.

Not quite far enough!

I had fortunately had in mind a previous scene with a dormouse which I already wrote about, but let me jog your memory with a screenshot.

The Great Hall with the grandfather clock happens to be close enough to reach with an active flashlight (just west, southwest, then south) so I tried it and had the exact same message as before appear. However, secretly, this extended the flashlight life.

This was enough to make it all the way to where I could insert the penny and get the lights back on. Phew. This is incidentally the only timed event in the game, and you can play at your leisure after, but note in the process of rushing it’s possible to solve a puzzle with an unfortunate shortcut.

It was a shortcut I was suspicious of; it was back with the Jabberwocky where it was trivial to use the sword to kill it. That was the wrong move. The “pink hairnet” I had made last time can be used to catch the critter, which makes me sad, because I had tried to THROW HAIRNET there already and the right syntax is instead CATCH JABBERWOCKY.

Grr, right solution, wrong verb. At least another singing sword hint does signal the intent quite strongly:


Part of the catch to all this is THROW is mapped as a synonym for DROP. With that decision made, there’s a design dilemma, because the author has to either

a.) ignore a perfectly reasonable way to phrase an action

b.) cause a verb which normally behaves one way to switch behaviors in a special circumstance

I’d say b.) is clearly the lesser of the two evils, but it genuinely has been confusing in some games for the Project where a verb takes special dimension and meaning in one circumstance where it takes an entirely different one elsewhere. For example, the HAIRLOOM I utilized last time only worked with USE HAIRLOOM, but the game otherwise acts like it doesn’t even understanding what you are talking about with the verb USE (often in text games, this means “please be more specific”).

Anyway, with that resolved, it wasn’t too hard to work out what to do next, as there were very few unresolved problems. Time to unleash the power of a horrible beast on some infant children.

I’m sure they’ll be fine.

With this, I nearly had all the treasures. (I skipped talking about opening an oyster — it’s another “you can blow an item too early” situation — you just need to keep the pink prybar before making a flamingo out of it and OPEN OYSTER to get some pearls.)


I was clearly missing just one, but at a loss as to where and here I confess to blowing through an entire set of Voltgloss’s carefully-constructed clues all the way to the end. Yet another singing sword clue shows up:


You can SAY INSPECTOR at the wine cellar downstairs to cause a “PINK PANTHER DIAMOND” to appear. Bah. It’s sort of cryptic crossword style, where you’re supposed to omit the “I” from the “I say” and just take “SAY INSPECTOR CLOSEAU” as instructions.

I mean, this puzzle is in line with many of the others, like leading the peasants to revolt, but somehow I still found it totally arbitrary. At least the “seebone” puzzle had the clue in the location it was used, and the clue essentially gives exact directions if you read it correctly. Here, while I understand what’s going on at an intellectual level, this felt like a random kick at the player for fun.

Nevermind, all eight treasures found and safely stowed where the game explicitly says to:

Going up you can see peasants below asking WEAR IS THE RULER?? I had some clothing loot (crown and sceptre) which seemed sufficiently royal.

Oops, not quite. The “ermine robe” is also royal (and I remembered being wearable).

I still hadn’t used one singing sword clue, where it sang “SHAKE, RATTLE, AND ROLL”.


This is just indicating you can go back to the start and collect big winner kudos.

This is going to make it my “personal enjoyment” list for 1981 but not my general recommendations. It has been a sort of game I’ve been lacking for a while: dropping the “maze” nonsense, making a compact map, and leveraging the era’s comfort with dead-end puzzle solutions and slightly obtuse hints to make a raw puzzlefest that was, for the most part, fair. It’s something that I know has been in the technical capabilities of the computers in question — even as a TRS-80 type-in — but very few had quite struck the mark, not being able to shake off the cruft of Adventure and Zork.

Also, the extra “dimension” that opened up by realizing the singing sword had unique songs was far more memorable than just a single secret door; it’s as if all the rooms in the game suddenly gained potential secret doors.

We’re not done with Dale Johnson; just like Mad Venture contained a promo for Thunderland, Thunderland contains a promo for his next game.


It eventually came out in 1982 under the name Madsquerade, and involves tracking down a hit man. Sounds rather different from an treasure hunt, so I’m looking forward to it.

In the meantime, I’m going to stay with treasures a bit longer, because there’s a newly unearthed game — one that nobody in the history of adventures, as far as I can find, has ever written about — to dive into next time.

February 20, 2021

The People's Republic of IF

January Meeting Post Mortem

by Angela Chang at February 20, 2021 12:41 AM

January 2021 PR-IF attendees

The People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction convened on Tuesday, January 19, 2020.  Zarfkaysavetz and Carrington (Eaten by a Grue), Stephen JablonskiMark Pilgrim, nickmHugh SteersDave Thompsen, and anjchang welcomed Michael Verdi,   Warning: What follows is probably not proper English, but just my log of notes from the meeting to jog people’s memories:

Kay shared
Carrington to Everyone (6:34 PM)

Carrington – Twitch & Sniff Along-
series on twitch where people do a play-through of games with scratch and sniff\

Zarf- MIT Mystery hunt happened -There was one Inform 7 puzzle, carefully engineered to fetch the spoilery responses from server so you couldn’t decompile the game file.
Mentions of Ryan Veeder’s Lurking Horror text puzzle
VCV Rack, Synth pack simulator
Instrument pack from Popcorn song
Lurking Horror II:

Kay and Carrington are still playing Arthur.
Carrington is an Earl. Kay is still a serf. Really enjoying it.
Much better than Shogun. Feels like a Zork game. Mark mentions the DIgital Antiquarian review of Arthur.

Mark P mentions Easter Egg in Thaumistry

Pitch Dark update– Pitch Darker. Non infocom text adventure, like Pitch Dark but volume 2.

New Z3 games — John Wilson made 3 new games compiled in Z3. Works well on 8-bit machines.

Star Wars Episode IV IPv6

Zork – check out the Binary from original ITS Mainframe without sword. You can try the ITS environment online! Telnet to, port 10003 (telnet 10003). When it says “Connected…”, hit ctrl-Z. Then type :login yourname. (Any name will work.) Then type :zork to play.

diff r88 to r119:

Mark does work with classic infocom grades ported to harddrive, lots of apple2 “Pitch Dark” Collection

Narrascope 2021 is taking a break. IFTF is in the process of trying to expand. Michael Verdi reported that he attended virtually and had good feedback.

This past week was Boston Independent Gamed Festival
ARESIA , Readercon SCIFI convention

Maybe a Boston Game Jame

XYZZY Awards planning under way.

Spring Thing is coming along.

Parsercomp Competiton for Parser Games

Stephen mentions his archive of Mac Plus games

February 19, 2021

Renga in Blue

Palace in Thunderland: Hedgehog Croquet

by Jason Dyer at February 19, 2021 09:41 PM

Not quite at the end, but two quick updates.

First, I figured out what the pink medicine does. It’s rather subtle, and exploits the fact the player is “looking through the eyes” of the main character as opposed to seeing them from the outside, like a standard third-person point-and-click game.

After growing the pink hair, referring back to this song the singing sword


I used the shears to cut my own hair off, then did USE HAIRLOOM to form a PINK HAIRNET. I am not sure what to do with it (you can’t even wear it).

Second, as a team of commenters figured out, the singing sword’s message of


while in the laundry room was a hint to “say” (“c’est”) the word “seebone” “in this location” (“endeesh lokay shown”).

This opened a secret passage going up, leading to a tower with a hedgehog. I could pick the spiky hedgehog up, and importantly, the description matched that of the queen having a hedgehog playing croquet. I had previously got a flamingo but was missing a ball: now I had both of them! So it was time to take both flamingo and improvised ball over to the queen and take her up on her offer to play croquet.

I admit I was heavily anticipating this moment — I have been whacking at the game for a while and kept wondering what the croquet game would be like. This made what happened next even more comical:

With Fortress at Times-End when I was talking about a good trap? This was a good trap. It hit the “participatory comedy” marks — it required the player to act to cause their own demise, it was possible to foresee ahead of time, and it had a long anticipation period beforehand. It is also kind of hilarious.

Unfortunately it also means I’m stumped! I’m willing at this point to accept ROT13 hints of any kind for the remaining treasures, how to handle the power outage, and how to handle the Queen.

The Digital Antiquarian

Ultima VIII (or, How to Destroy a Gaming Franchise in One Easy Step)

by Jimmy Maher at February 19, 2021 05:41 PM

In 1994, Origin Systems’s Ultima series was the most universally lauded franchise in computer gaming. Over the course of seven mainline games and five spinoffs and side stories, the Ultima brand had consistently stood for elaborate but doggedly nonlinear plots which seriously engaged with questions of ethics; for the familiar but ever-evolving and ever-welcoming world of Britannia in which most of the games took place; for a merry group of recurring boon companions with whom the Avatar, the player-defined protagonist of the games, adventured each time; for complex rules systems and knotty central mysteries that required brainpower and lots of notepaper rather than reflexes to work through.

But then, for the eighth game in the mainline Ultima series, Origin decided to try something just a little bit different. They made a game in which you played a thoughtless jerk moving on rails through a linear series of events; in which you never went to Britannia at all, but stayed instead on a miserable hellhole of a world called Pagan; in which you spent the whole game adventuring alone (after all, who would want to adventure with a jerk like you?); in which the core mechanics were jumping between pedestals like Super Mario and pounding your enemies over the head with your big old hammer.

Tens of thousands of eager Ultima fans, some of whom had been buying every installment of the series for ten years or more, rushed home from their local software stores with Ultima VIII: Pagan in their hot little hands. An hour later, they were one and all sitting there scratching their heads and asking themselves what the hell had happened. Had they bought the wrong game entirely? No, it said “Ultima” right there on the box!

For the past quarter century, Ultima fans have continued to ask themselves that same question: what the hell happened with Ultima VIII? It stands today as one of the most bizarre would-be series continuations in gaming history, such a colossal failure to meet its players’ expectations that, alone and unaided, it killed dead at a stroke the most venerable franchise in computer gaming. No, really: Origin couldn’t have shot Ultima in the head more efficiently if they’d tried. And so we ask ourselves again: what the hell happened? What the hell was Origin thinking?

In seeking to explain the seemingly unexplainable, Ultima fans have tended to hew to a simple, naturally appealing narrative that paints Electronic Arts — gaming’s very own Evil Empire — as the unmitigated villain. After acquiring Origin in late 1992, so the story goes, EA forced them to abandon all of the long-established principles of Ultima in order to reach the mass market of lowest-common-denominator players to which EA aspired. Richard Garriot — a.k.a. “Lord British,” the father of Ultima and co-founder of Origin — has embraced this explanation with gusto, part and parcel of a perhaps too prevalent tendency with His Lordship to lay his failures at the feet of others. From Garriott’s 2017 memoir:

The reality is that EA earns most of its revenue with terrific games like Madden Football. Every year they publish a new edition, which reflects the changes in the NFL. They don’t have to create much that’s new — they just tweak their football-game engine and update the rosters. The rules of football change slowly. At the deadline they wrap it up and release it. The audience is pre-sold.

Conversely, the games we were making could easily take two years or more to create. We released them when we were done. That was not EA’s way of doing business. “Richard,” they told me, “your release of games is incredibly unreliable.” They wanted us to change our development process to meet their deadlines. The game we were developing when we sold Origin was Ultima VIII; EA wanted it on the shelves in time for the following Christmas. This was the first time in my life that the realities of business became more important than the quality of a product. They were adamant: “Richard, you need to cut whatever needs to be cut to get this game done.” So I cut it; I cut it and I cut it and I cut it, and as a result I shipped the most incomplete, dumb, buggy game I’ve ever shipped. I still believe that if we had waited until it was complete, Ultima VIII would have been a great game. We would have been the first to market with a variety of features that eventually proved very popular in other games. But we didn’t wait, and that was my fault. I bowed to the outside pressure.

Most distressing was seeing the results of making those cuts on both the game and my team. The team saw past the warts, knew what we were up against, and loved the game for what it was; they appreciated the innovations in it rather than bemoaning what it could have been. But the press, as well as a number of players, didn’t like it at all. The reviews were terrible. All the money I’d been paid had no meaning. I felt awful that I had let down so many people in my effort to be loyal and learn from EA.

And a lot of people had made serious sacrifices to meet EA’s schedule. Many of our programmers had worked twelve hours a day, seven days a week for ten months. We would bring dinner in for them because we were afraid if they left, they might not come back. The last month or so we gave them every other Sunday off so, as one of them pointed out, they could see their family or do some laundry. The creative joy we’d once shared in developing a game had been replaced by the prosaic demands of running a business. It was hard to believe how much had changed; only a few years earlier our people would happily work all night and love every minute of it, and now we had become a sweatshop.

At least partially as a consequence of that disappointment, management told me, basically, that they didn’t want me making big games like Ultima anymore.

This classic passive-aggressive apology — “I felt awful that I had let down so many people in my effort to be loyal and learn from EA” doesn’t exactly ring out with contrition — isn’t even internally consistent; if the development team loved their game so much, why was Origin’s management forced to devise stratagems to keep them from going home out of the fear that they wouldn’t come back? Nevertheless, it does contain a fair amount of truth alongside its self-serving omissions; one would be foolish to deny that the EA acquisition played a major role in the Ultima VIII debacle. And yet the discussion should perhaps be framed rather differently. It might be more accurate to see Origin’s acquisition by EA and the eventual Ultima VIII as mutual symptoms rather than cause and effect, both being the result of Origin trying to negotiate trends that seemed to leave Ultima with less and less space to be what it had always been.

Let’s start by looking more closely at the timeline than Garriott deigns to do above. EA and Origin signed the acquisition contract in September of 1992, just five months after Ultima VII: The Black Gate had shipped. Ultima VIII would still have been in the early-concept phase at best at that point. When he refers to “the following Christmas” above, Garriott thus presumably means the Christmas of 1993. While this release date may have been a stated aspiration, it’s hard to believe it was a serious one; it would have marked the swiftest turnaround time between two mainline Ultima games since the first three of them in the early 1980s. As it was, Ultima VIII wouldn’t ship until March of 1994, still in a woefully unfinished state.

Yet the story of Ultima VIII is more than that of just one more game that was released before its time. Even had all of Origin’s plans for it come off perfectly, it would still have been a radical, seemingly nonsensical departure from everything Ultima had been in the past. Multiple sources confirm that it was in fact Richard Garriott himself rather than any soulless suit from EA who decided that the latest installment in Origin’s epic CRPG series ought to become a… platformer. He was inspired in this not by Super Mario Bros., as many fans would later suspect, but rather by Prince of Persia, Broderbund Software’s hugely popular, widely ported, elegantly minimalist, intensely cinematic linear action game. Prince of Persia was and is a more than worthy game in its own right, but it seems a strange choice indeed to use as inspiration for the latest Ultima. We should try to understand where the choice came from in the context of the times.

Garriott has often joked that he spent the first twelve years of his career making essentially the same game over and over — merely making said game that much bigger and better each time out. If so, then Ultima VII was the ultimate, if you will, version of that game. Today its reputation is as hallowed as that of any game of its era; it remains a perennial on lists of the best CRPGs of all time. Yet its mixed reception in 1992 rather belies its modern reputation. Many reviewers expressed a certain ennui about the series as a whole, and ordinary gamers seemed less excited by its arrival than they had been by that of Ultima IV, V, or VI. Ultima Underworld, a more action-oriented spinoff which was created by the outside studio Blue Sky Productions and published by Origin just a month before Ultima VII, collected more critical praise and, likely most frustratingly of all for the hyper-competitive Garriott, continued to outsell its supposed big brother even after the latter’s release. A survey in the March 1993 issue of Computer Gaming World magazine is particularly telling: Ultima VII is rated as the 30th favorite game of the magazine’s readers, while Ultima Underworld is in a tie for third favorite. Meanwhile Origin’s eighteen-month-old Wing Commander II, a cinematic action game of Star Wars-style space combat, still sits at number six.

Indeed, the role of Wing Commander in all of this should not be neglected. The brainchild of an enthusiastic young Englishman named Chris Roberts, the first game in that series had upon its release in 1990 surprised everyone by handily outselling that same year’s Ultima VI. The Wing Commander franchise had kept on outselling Ultima ever since, whilst being faster and easier to make on an installment-by-installment basis.This too could hardly have sat well with Garriott. The House That Ultima Built had become The Home of Wing Commander, and Chris Roberts was now more in demand for interviews than Lord British. The harsh truth was that EA had been far more excited about Wing Commander than Ultima when they decided to acquire Origin.

Taken as a whole, all of this must have seemed intensely symbolic of a changing industry. As computers got faster and came to sport higher-fidelity audiovisual capabilities, visceral action titles were taking a bigger and bigger slice of computer-game sales, as evinced not only by the success of Ultima Underworld and Wing Commander but by other big hits like id Software’s Wolfenstein 3D. Onscreen text was out of fashion, as was sprawl and complexity and most of the other traditional markers of an Ultima. Shorter, more focused games of the sort that one could pick up and play quickly were in. Origin had to keep up with the trends if they hoped to survive.

In fact, Origin was in an extremely perilous financial state just before the EA acquisition. EA’s deep pockets would allow them to keep pace with spiraling development costs for the time being. But in return, the games they made had to have enough mass-market appeal to recoup their larger budgets.

This, then, was the calculus that went into Ultima VIII, which begins to make the inexplicable at least somewhat more comprehensible. At this juncture in time, epic CRPGs were at literally their lowest ebb in the entire history of computer games. Therefore Ultima, the series that was virtually synonymous with the epic CRPG in the minds of most gamers, needed to become something else. It needed to become simpler and faster-paced, and if it could also jump on the trend toward grittier, more violent ludic aesthetics — I point again to the rise of id Software — so much the better. It may not have been a coincidence that, when Ultima VIII eventually shipped, it did so in a box sporting garish orange flames and a huge pentagram — the same general graphics style and even iconography as was seen in DOOM, id’s latest ultra-violent hit.

Of course, the flaws in the thought process that led to Ultima VIII aren’t hard to identify in retrospect. Games which lack the courage of their own convictions seldom make for good company, any more than do people of the same stripe. The insecure child of a nervous creator who feared the world of gaming was passing him by, Ultima VIII could likely never have aspired to be more than competent in a derivative sort of way.

The biggest blunder was the decision to slap the Ultima name on the thing at all, thereby raising expectations on the part of the franchise’s preexisting fan base which the game was never designed to meet. Ironically, the audience for an Ultima was every bit as “pre-sold,” as Garriott puts it above, as the audience for the latest Madden. And yet one game that fails to meet fan expectations can destroy just such a pre-sold audience really, really quickly, as Garriott was about to prove. (An analogy to the radical change in course of Ultima VIII might be a Madden installment that suddenly decided to become a cerebral stat-based game of football management and strategy instead of an exercise in fast-paced on-the-field action…) It would have been better to announce that Ultima was taking a break while Lord British tried something new. But it seems that Garriott identified so strongly with the only line of games he had ever seriously worked on that he couldn’t imagine not calling his latest one Ultima VIII.

So much for the conceptual flaws in the project. Alas, its execution would prove even more of a disaster.

Richard Garriott’s involvement in the day-to-day work of game development had been decreasing almost year by year, ever since he had first agreed to let other programmers help him with Ultima V back in 1986. The Ultima VIII project was set up in the same way that the last couple had been: Garriott provided a set of general design goals and approaches along with a plot outline, then dropped in occasionally on the Origin staff who were assigned to the project while they made it all happen. This time the role of project director fell to one Mike McShaffry, who had come to Origin in 1990 to work as a programmer on Ultima Worlds of Adventure 2: Martian Dreams, then held the same role on Ultima VII. Meanwhile the nuts-and-bolts designers of Ultima VIII became John Watson and Andrew Morris.

None of these people were incompetent; all would continue to pursue fruitful careers in the games industry after Ultima VIII was behind them. But on this occasion they found themselves in an untenable situation, given neither the time nor the support they needed to make a competent game even of the dubious type for which Garriott was asking. Ultima VIII would not employ the talents of Raymond Benson, the accomplished wordsmith who had made Ultima VII‘s script so exceptionally rich and subtle; he was now gone from the company, driven away like many of his peers by the insanely long hours Origin demanded of their employees. Rather than replacing him with another proper writer, Origin cobbled together a collection of programmers, artists, and designers to provide all of its comparatively scant text, most of them doing double duty with their other roles on the project. After all, it was now the age of multimedia action. How much did mere words really matter anymore?

As 1993 wore on, external events heaped more and more pressure on the team. Chris Roberts’s latest game Strike Commander appeared in the spring of 1993; it moved his patented Wing Commander approach into the milieu of a near-future techno-thriller. Everyone confidently expected it to become Roberts’s latest blockbuster hit, EA’s first great dividend on the price of the Origin acquisition. But instead it under-performed relative to expectations; gamers seemed nonplussed by the change in setting, and their computers struggled to meet its high system requirements. Origin would manage to score some successes on a more modest scale in 1993 with other, cheaper Wing Commander spinoffs and an Ultima VII Part Two, but their big cannon for the year had shot a dud. It was now up to Ultima VIII to put smiles on the faces of EA’s management.

For all that the EA acquisition certainly was a major factor in the story of Ultima VIII, it’s difficult to say for sure how much of the pressure Origin felt was brought directly to bear by their new corporate parent and how much was merely perceived. As we’ve seen, Richard Garriott hasn’t hesitated to chalk the failure of Ultima VIII up to EA’s interference, full stop. Yet the actual EA executives in question have vociferously denied micromanaging the project, insisting on the contrary that it was conceived, created, and finally shipped on terms dictated by no one outside of Origin. Even some Origin employees have admitted that EA handled their new charge with a fairly light touch for the first couple of years; it was only after such disappointments as Strike Commander and Ultima VIII had convinced them that adult supervision was sorely needed down in Austin that they took a more hands-on approach. In the end, then, we can say for sure only that the appalling state in which Ultima VIII was released was down to some gradation in between an earnest desire on Origin’s behalf to please their parent and a stern dictate from said parent to ship it now, or else!

It must be said as well that the reality of crunch time at Origin prior to Ultima VIII was somewhat different from the rosy picture which Garriott paints above. The bad-cop counterpart to Garriot the lunch-providing good cop was Dallas Snell, Origin’s hard-driving production manager. The company’s internal newsletters from the early 1990s are littered with complaints about the stresses of crunch time, sometimes accompanied by Snell’s strident but unconvincing attempts to defend the practice on the basis of passion, dedication, and esprit de corps. As a result, Raymond Benson was only one of a steady stream of talented people who came to Origin, stayed there a relatively brief period of time, and then moved on to other parts of the games industry or to other industries entirely, having made the perfectly sensible decision that no job is worth sacrificing one’s health and general well-being for.

Still, the crunch that produced Ultima VIII was extreme even by Origin’s usual standards, and the stress was undoubtedly compounded by the bad vibe of compromise and trend-chasing that had clung to the project from the start. It didn’t help that Mike McShaffry had never attempted to manage a software-development project of any sort before; he was completely unequipped to bring any semblance of order to all of the frantic effort, as he freely admits today:

To a lot of people on the development team, Ultima VIII unfortunately was a very negative development experience. Most of the team who were managing Ultima VIII — myself especially — you know, it was our first really big management task, and so…to say I really screwed it up doesn’t really come close, I don’t think, to the truth.

You can’t just put anybody at the helm of an oil tanker and say, “Take it through the strait!” and not expect something really horrible to happen. And Ultima’s a big ship to steer, and it was unfortunate that I never had the chance to figure out how to manage a team that large. It took me another ten years to really get better at it.

All of these factors led to Ultima VIII shipping in a state that almost defies critical description; seldom has a game so blatantly unfinished been allowed onto store shelves. The writing is so sparse and unrefined that it often seems like placeholder text, and yet still manages to leave threads dangling and plot holes yawning everywhere; the cloth map that is included in the box bears almost no relation to the world in the game itself, what with so much of the latter having gone missing in action; what’s left of the CRPG mechanics are so broken that it’s possible to max out your character in less than an hour of play; every place in the game looks the same, being all too clearly built from the same handful of pre-rendered graphics (giant mushrooms everywhere for the win!); every single chest in the game explodes, even if it doesn’t contain anything, as if the developers didn’t have time to address each one individually and so just set a global flag somewhere; your unresponsive lunk of a character drowns instantly if he falls into two feet of water. Tellingly, the one part of Ultima VII that is painstakingly preserved in Ultima VIII is its most annoying: an impossible inventory-management system that forces you to spend minutes at a time dragging around tiny overlapping icons just to find anything.

But none of that was quite enough to make the original version of Ultima VIII worthy of the adjective “unplayable.” What served for that was the absurdly broken jumping system. Super Mario Bros. and Prince of Persia had been designed for joypads and joysticks. Seeking to translate those paradigms to a moused-based computer, Origin came up with a relativistic jumping system whereby the length of your leap would be determined by the distance the cursor was from your character when you clicked the mouse, rather than opting for the more intuitive solution whereby you simply pointed at and clicked on a would-be destination to attempt to jump there. McShaffry:

I think, for us, it was such a departure from what we were used to. And honestly, a jumping mechanic like what we were trying to do… I think that we just didn’t have enough people on the team who were really hardcore platformer players. Something like Mario, where you have an intuitive feel for what works in a jumping system and what doesn’t work in a jumping system. I certainly hadn’t played a lot of those games until then, and so I honestly didn’t know what I was looking for.

Honestly, that’s a case where we should have listened a whole lot more to QA. They were platformers! They played every Nintendo console [game] out there, and they came back to us and said, “Hey, this jumping is kind of busted.”

I think sometimes in product development we’d get on the high horse and go, “It’s not busted; we know what we’re doing.” And in that case… that was a horrible mistake on our part to not listen to them. But hey, we were in our twenties; when you’re in your twenties, you think you’ve got god-like powers and you’re immortal.

In truth, jumping in Ultima VIII wasn’t “kind of busted” at all; it was completely, comprehensively busted. Figuring out where any given jump would land you was a black art, thanks to the sloppy mouse cursor and the impossibility of accurately judging depths in the game’s canted isometric view. The only way to get anywhere was to save before each jump and give it a try, then reload and adjust until you got it right. After four or five attempts, you might just manage it if you were lucky. Then you got to rinse and repeat for the next jump, out of what might be a dozen or more in all to get across a single obstacle. In order to fully appreciate the horror of all this, you have to remember that every single save or restore would have taken on the order of 30 seconds back in 1994. And now imagine trying to work through this process when some of the platforms you need to jump from and to are moving. On release day, Ultima VIII really was perilously close to being literally unplayable.

Oh, my… I’m afraid we’re going to be here a while…

In keeping with a tradition dating back to the early 1980s, Richard Garriott, Mike McShaffry, and several other members of the development team turned up on CompuServe for an online conference with fans just a couple of weeks after the game’s release. These affairs were heavily moderated, and this prevented the outrage that was already percolating through the fan community from being expressed too aggressively. Nevertheless, the developers quickly learned that this meetup was not to be the usual love fest. Instead they got an earful from the fans:

Let me say that I have been playing Ultimas since I was charmed and amazed by Ultima IV on my Commodore 64. One of the best things about Ultimas was the rich, detailed world and intricate, lengthy storylines. I could look forward to easily over 100 hours with each new Ultima, an excellent value for the money. Ultima VIII, on the other hand, is way too short…

It seems like there were a lot of bugs in Ultima VIII…

I thought the game was a little rough around the edges, especially the jumping. Since many Ultima players don’t like the heavy arcade element, are you set on keeping Ultima a CRPG/action game?…

My favorite part of Ultima VII was the large world. I was a little disappointed when I found that the world in Ultima VIII was actually smaller. Will Ultima IX have a larger world and more puzzles that require thinking, as opposed to jumping and running?…

I note with some trepidation your interest/fascination with “action” and “digital speech.” I think that too many game companies are spending too many resources on the latest graphics, sounds, etc., and nowhere near enough on character development and story and interaction. Is the swing to action/arcade a marketing-driven decision, your personal [decision], or [down to] some other reason?…

I have noticed a trend toward a single-threaded story line. Any hopes of returning to the original roots with the Ultima IX story line?…

What I and a lot of other old Ultima fans saw disappear after Ultima VII was the great ability to interact. Like baking bread, etc., and I would like to know if you plan for this to return in Ultima IX. And will you pay more attention to the plot?…

I’m concerned about the decline in the Avatar’s principles. I spent two days trying to solve Bane and Vordion without breaking my oath…

I am disappointed about the length of Ultima VIII, as others have said. There’s too much running around, and the clues to locations are far too vague…

I’m disappointed in Ultima VIII. I’ve played every single Ultima, and I feel Ultima VIII is a serious step back from previous Ultimas. I hope you realize that it takes more than glitz and sound to make a good CRPG. Lastly, I really do hope you’ll fix more bugs. I had to reformat my whole hard drive because of Ultima VIII…

Are we ever going to get various sexes and races of Avatars to choose from again?…

If they didn’t know it before, Origin must have realized by the time this conference ended that they had a big, big problem on their hands. The subsequent fan reactions to Ultima VIII were and remain far more entertaining than the game itself; few games have inspired as many unhinged, poetically profane rants as this one. Writing in the fannish newsletter Questbusters, Charles Don Hall struggled to reconcile this awful game with the Lord British cult of personality that so much of hardcore Ultima fandom had always been: “My best guess is that Lord British had nothing at all to do with it, and turned development over to soulless drones who were capable of playing the earlier Ultimas but incapable of understanding what made them such great games.”

The glossier magazines weren’t quite sure what to do about Ultima VIII. Torn between the need to serve their readerships and Origin’s advertising dollars, they equivocated like crazy, often settling on an “it’s not the game, it’s me” approach: i.e., I didn’t much enjoy Ultima VIII, but you might.

The big exception was Computer Gaming World, the most long-lived and respected of all the journals, whose status gave it a degree of insulation from the need to chase advertisers. Scorpia, the magazine’s influential adventure-gaming columnist, ripped the game to shreds in her review. I’ll share just a few highlights here:

Pagan, the purported Ultima VIII, is unlike any other Ultima you may have played. If you were expecting characterization, rich story, role-playing — you’re expecting it from the wrong game…

The game might easily have been called, as a friend of mine put it, “Mario: The Avatar.” If the name “Ultima” wasn’t on the box, you might think you’d picked up the latest Sega or Nintendo game by mistake…

Pagan could well be subtitled “School Daze,” as a good 75 percent of it is having the Avatar prove he is worthy to belong to a particular magic organization. “You want to be a Necromancer? First, you must be tested!” “You want to be a Theurgist? First, you must be tested!” “You want to be a Sorcerer? First you must be tested!”…

The story, such as it is, can be summed up as “Homeward-Bound Avatar Wrecks World…”

[The Avatar] lies to become a Necromancer; joins the Theurgists solely to steal an item (thereby negating their spell-casting abilities); betrays a Sorcerer who trusted him (thereby becoming an accessory to murder); kills (in supposed self-defense) the Master of Sorcerers to obtain another needed item; and frees the two bound Titans, so the world is wracked by continual violent storms and lava rain…

Overall, Pagan is a disaster, and an embarrassment to Origin, Lord British, and Ultima fans everywhere. It tries to go in two directions at once, and succeeds only in tearing itself apart, failing dismally on all fronts…

Instead of giving a smattering of hints and tips for Ultima VIII, as was her wont with the games she reviewed, Scorpia published an outright walkthrough, in order to “help anyone playing it to finish quickly and move on to better things.” For the following issue, she wrote a detailed retrospective of Ultima IV, her avowed favorite game of all time, pointing out all the ways in which it was the archetypal Ultima — and, by pointed implication, all of the ways in which Ultima VIII had failed to live up to its legacy.

In that very same issue, Origin offered an unprecedented mea culpa for Ultima VIII. Having clearly decided that this installment was beyond hope, they tried to save the franchise’s future by throwing it, and to at least some extent its project leader Mike McShaffry, under the bus. Richard Garriott had, he said, “heard the cry of his fans”; he admitted that “the latest game design had moved too close to action gaming and strayed too far from the strengths of the series.” Origin would, they promised, place the rock-steady Warren Spector — the man who had helmed Ultima VI, Martian Dreams, and the two Ultima Underworld games — in charge of Ultima IX. “If,” Spector pleaded, “we can get some of our followers who were disappointed in Pagan to try Ultima IX, we don’t think they’ll be disappointed.” In the meantime, an all-but-complete Ultima VIII expansion disk was axed as part of a general desire to forget that the game had ever happened.

One man, however, could not possibly forget. Mike McShaffry says today that he “felt like persona non grata at Origin because I personally felt like I was being blamed for the mistakes.” After months of ineffectual bad feelings, he finally decided to do something about it. He took all of the Ultima VIII code home with him over the Thanksgiving weekend of 1994 and, as he puts it, “fixed the jumping myself,” replacing the weird system of relative leaps with a simple click-here-to-jump-here approach. Despite their wish to flush the whole thing down the memory hole, Origin agreed to put out a patch incorporating this change and a number of other desperately needed quality-of-life improvements.

It’s this version of Ultima VIII that you’ll find hosted on digital storefronts today. It’s definitely a vast improvement over the original, even taking into account the philosophical objection that it turns the jumping — intended to be a major part of the experience — into a triviality. Much respect to Mike McShaffry for making it; if he hadn’t done so, the game’s reputation would be even worse today. Even Scorpia took note of the patch in her column, and was prompted to soften her stance toward the game ever so slightly. (“I can’t guarantee the game will be more fun, but it will certainly be less frustrating.”)

Indeed, it’s quite common to hear today that Ultima VIII really wasn’t a bad game at all — that it was merely a bad Ultima, in departing way too radically from that series’s established traditions. Some fuel for this argument is provided by Crusader: No Remorse and Crusader: No Regret, a pair of science-fiction action games that used the engine developed for Ultima VIII, but were able to do so without the baggage which the Ultima name brought with it. Both were well-received upon their release in 1995 and 1996 respectively, and are still fondly remembered in some circles today. Some have gone so far as to claim that the engine influenced Diablo, Blizzard Entertainment’s 1996 mega-hit of a streamlined, story-light action-CRPG.

Still, to say that McShaffry’s patch makes a good game out of Ultima VIII strikes me as a leap too far (pun intended). At best, it moves it from unplayable to the lower end of mediocre: the boring environments, uninteresting and/or broken mechanics, poor and sometimes nonexistent writing, and general air of unpleasantness remain unpatched. Ultima VIII is not the misunderstood classic that a few thoroughgoing contrarians would have it be.

Ultima VIII is best studied not as an exercise in game design in the abstract but as an endlessly illustrative sign of its times, showing what happened when the changes being wrought upon the culture of computer gaming by the likes of Wolfenstein 3D and DOOM — not to mention Wing Commander! — collided head-on with one of that culture’s traditional standard bearers. In this case, the standard bearer in question would never be the same again. The Ultima IX which certain factions inside Origin were so eager to make as a way of spitting out the bad taste of Ultima VIII would keep getting pushed down in the priority queue after Wing Commander III appeared in late 1994 and finally provided the big hit which Origin had been looking for ever since the EA acquisition. With that event, Wing Commander‘s takeover of Origin was complete. It would be over two and a half years before gamers would hear the name of Ultima from Origin again.

(Sources: the books Explore Create by Richard Garriott with David Fisher and Dungeons and Dreamers by Brad King and John Borland; Computer Gaming World of March 1994, July 1994, August 1994, and May 1995; Electronic Entertainment of April 1994; Questbusters 111; PC Gamer of May/June 1994; PC Zone of June 1994; Dragon of August 1994; Origin Systems’s internal newsletter Point of Origin of December 1993, March 1994, and May 5 1995. Online sources include Sheri Graner Ray’s memories of her time at Origin Systems, “The Conquest of Origin” at The Escapist, and the Ultima Codex interviews with Mike McShaffry and Jason Ely. My huge thanks to Judith Pintar for digging up the online CompuServe conference that followed Ultima VIII‘s release. Note that I’ve heavily edited the excerpts that are included here for grammar, clarity, and brevity; feel free to download the full, unedited transcript.

Ultima VIII is available as a digital purchase at

"Aaron Reed"

Zork (1977)

by Aaron A. Reed at February 19, 2021 01:42 AM

If Adventure had introduced hackers to an intriguing new genre of immersive text game, Zork was what brought it to the public at large. In the early 1980s, as the personal computer revolution reached into more and more homes, a Zork disk was a must-buy for first-time computer owners. By 1982 it had become the industry’s bestselling game. In 1983, it sold even more copies. Playboy covered it; so did Time, and American astronaut Sally Ride was reportedly obsessed with it. In 1984 it was still topping sales charts, beating out much newer games including its own sequels. At the end of 1985 it was still outselling any other game for the Apple II, half a decade after its first release on the platform, and had become the bestselling title of all time on many other systems besides.

Continue reading at the home of my new blog series, “50 Years of Text Games.”

Infocom Zork logo.

February 18, 2021

Not Dead Hugo

More Necromancy

by Roody ([email protected]) at February 18, 2021 04:29 PM

In awesome news, Juhana Leinonen was able to convert my old Hugo By Example backups and give it a new presence on github.  Hugo By Example was a wiki created by Royce Odle for learning Hugo, but sadly, it has been unavailable for several years now.  The things I learned while writing for it were largely responsible for the creation of Roodylib.  Even as one of its more prolific contributors, back in the days where I actually wrote games (gasp!), there were certain pages I referred to all of the time.  It's just great to have a resource where things like error message numbers and constant values (things that are not always covered to the full extent in the Hugo Book) are cleanly listed without having to dig through the Hugo library every time.

Hugo By Example was last updated in 2013 so in the coming weeks, I'll be focusing my attention at correcting statements that are no longer true, fixing dead links, and updating it with all of the changes we have seen since then.  I hope the site becomes as useful to someone else as the original was to me.

Beyond that, we also have a new hub (also created by Juhana) for all things Hugo collecting links to the current interpreters, repositories, and other resources that a Hugo user might need.

Personally, I'm very excited about these things.


Welcome to Flora, animator extraordinaire!

February 18, 2021 11:41 AM

A few weeks ago we put out a call for animators. Well, that call was answered by lots of incredibly talented individuals, and we're delighted to say we're now working with the brilliant Flora Caulton (check out her amazing portfolio!)

Here are some initial animation sketches for our protagonist. We're super excited to see these hand-drawn animations going into the game!

February 16, 2021

Emily Short

Mid-February Link Assortment

by Mort Short at February 16, 2021 12:41 AM


February 21 is the next meeting of the Seattle/Tacoma Area IF Meetup.

March 1 is the registration deadline for Spring Thing 2021, so if you’re planning on participating, sign up soon.

March 6 is the next meeting of the SF/Bay Area IF Meetup.

March 28 is the submission deadline for Spring Thing 2021.


Failbetter Games is currently running a Kickstarter for Mask of the Rose: A Fallen London Romance, a romantic visual novel set in the Fallen London universe. (In full disclosure: I’m the lead writer on this project.)

If you’d like to take a peek at some of what we’re creating, you can see some of it here:

February 14, 2021

Zarf Updates

Unwinnability and Wishbringer

by Andrew Plotkin ([email protected]) at February 14, 2021 06:25 PM

Someone asked recently about a version of Zork modified to avoid all the classical Infocom annoyances. Expiring light sources, random combat, crucial items stolen by the thief... Zork comes from an era where all these were simply part of the fun. You saved a lot, optimized your run, and tried again if you failed. But the gaming world -- I include myself -- has largely decided over time that this isn't fun.
As far as I know, there is no such modified Zork. But it's an intriguing idea! In fact someone is working on a modified Planetfall in just this vein. A new MODERN command switches to a mode with no hunger timer and, ideally, no unwinnable situations.
When we talk about those early games, it's easy to fall into the trap of calling those unwinnable situations mistakes or design flaws. Once you do that, you're stuck searching for explanations of why the designers made those mistakes. Answers come in two flavors. Either (a) the state of the art was too primitive to understand that unwinnable situations were bad; or (b) the designers were padding out their games to a given level of difficulty or play time.
Speaking as one who played the games back in the day: this is just wrong.
This Giant Bomb article puts it well:
The early generations of text adventure games tended to have a lot of chances that could lead players to unwinnable states, as a way to make a game deeper and more challenging; this kind of game design was not yet considered unfair to players. It was usually considered a product of the game’s difficulty rather than poor design and encouraged (or, as its critics would say, forced) replayability.
The need for many failed run-throughs before one figures out the perfect approach was certainly an element of the challenge. But it was never padding. It was as much a part of the design as the treasures and the magic words.
There's a deeper confusion, though. The same article goes on to say:
Mike Dornbrook, Infocom's Head of Marketing, conducted a customer survey in late 1984 which showed a clear correlation between the Infocom games players considered their favourites and the games they had actually finished. This piece of marketing intelligence led to the more foolproof design of Wishbringer and later games.
-- ibid
Wishbringer was Infocom's second junior-level game. It is friendlier than earlier games, more forgiving, and more generous in its design. Most of the major puzzles have at least two solutions. But it's a misconception to say that Wishbringer avoids unwinnable situations, or that Infocom changed its design stance after 1984.
It's true that Wishbringer was immediately followed by A Mind Forever Voyaging, which was focused on narrative exploration rather than puzzles. But this was just halfway through Infocom's high season. Their later slate (Spellbreaker, Leather Goddesses, Trinity, Lurking Horror, ...) embraced the model of failable game design and refined it into some of their best-regarded work. With Journey, Infocom redesigned IF from the ground up (discarding the parser!) -- but doubled down on failable puzzles, structuring the game around a limited resource system which took much trial and error to solve.
To untangle this, we're going to have to dig into the ways in which games can become unwinnable. How does it happen and why?

First, consider the difference between losing the game and the game becoming unwinnable. If you attack a troll and it hacks you to death, it's very clear that you've lost! RESTORE (or UNDO) and try again. Whereas if the troll breaks your sword and you run away, you live -- but if you need the sword elsewhere, you're hosed. You might make progress elsewhere in the game, but ultimately you'll have to throw it away and redo it.
Or maybe a broken sword is a clear sign of failure? Adventurers don't waste resources! There's an ambiguity here: if the game signals that you've made an irreparable mistake, you know to back up and try again. But signals are a matter of convention and culture.
(These are the issues I was trying to get at with my old "cruelty scale". When you've fallen into an unwinnable situation, do you know it? Reasonable players may disagree, particularly if they're from different decades. Some games clarify with pointed mutters: "You feel like that was a mistake," or perhaps by penalizing your score.)
Here's a subtler question: have you really lost progress just because you need to restart and try again? In an adventure game, progress is understanding the world and solving puzzles. Solving a puzzle again is just a bit of extra typing!
I'm pushing a point here, but the classical parser games really did have a different rhythm than we're used to nowadays. Even on the old eight-bit machines, a experienced player could replay a section of a game nearly as fast as they could type. It wasn't fun, no. But if you already expected to need to restart a few times, then exploring with unwinnable mistakes hanging over your head just wasn't a serious penalty.
This balance shifted with the later graphical adventures. In the third-person (Sierra/LucasArts) games, walking and other animations made replaying a much more tedious chore. In the Myst-likes, the loading times of those graphically rich scenes slowed you down nearly as much. It's no surprise that the "unstuckable" game model had its renaissance in the graphical era.

But we should take a closer look at the ways a game might become unwinnable.
Let us assume that you are hosed. Why? Because you need something to win the game and you don't have it. Either you've lost access to it and you can't get it back, or you've run out of it and you can't get more.
In practice, these situations usually fall into a few general types:
  • An area gets closed off partway through the game. You left some critical item there and you can't get back to it.
  • You run out of time. Or you run out of something that is consumed over time: lamp fuel, food, health.
  • You accidentally destroy or lose an item while experimenting.
  • You use up a resource trying to solve a problem, but it's the wrong problem.
  • Random events in the game ruin your path to victory.
What led authors to create games with these situations? What did the games, and the intended audiences, gain from them? Let's go point by point.

An area gets closed off partway through the game

What we gain: A sense of a living world (if the game geography changes), or a dynamic storyline (if the player is pushed into a new area).
The fun this adds: The challenges of planning and thoroughness. You have to sweep an area for every possible resource. If you can't snarf them all on your first run-through, you at least have to remember what was available. When facing later puzzles, you have to consider everything you've encountered in the game, not just what you've got right now.
(Yes, I am taking for granted that more challenges mean more fun. Obviously you don't have to be into this kind of fun! But when we analyze these old games, we have to think about what fans got out of them -- and the fans, by definition, were the people who enjoyed them.)
How do we get this in a modern game? Think about narrative games which aren't parser IF. They typically don't have a DROP action! If the player can't leave objects scattered around, the problem of closing off areas becomes much easier to manage. You just have to make sure the player picks up everything they need -- either as part of the narrative, or in order to solve the puzzles leading to the section break. (This is the old cliche of opening a chest and finding a key underneath a coil of rope. No getting out of that room without the rope!)

You run out of time (or light, or food...)

What we gain: A sense of tension.
The fun this adds: The challenge of optimization. First you have to figure out what to do; then you have to figure out how to do it in the limited time available.
(Captain Verdeterre's Plunder is an example of building an entire game around this challenge.)
How do we get this in a modern game? The familiar gimmick is to narrate a time limit, but really sync the clock to the player's progress. The mine timbers may shudder threateningly, but they won't actually fall until the exact moment the player dives clear. The idea isn't to fool the player -- it's usually a pretty transparent gimmick -- but to give them a mood to play along with.
(I recall Christminster as the first time I noticed this gimmick, but I'm sure Infocom used it first.)

You accidentally destroy or lose an item

What we gain: A sense of a systematic model world. You can eat food and then it's gone. You can throw items down a pit and then they're gone. You can set things on fire and then they're gone, or perhaps (if the game model is ambitious) scorched and ruined.
The fun this adds: These systematic interactions can be worked into puzzles; everyone loves a systematic puzzle mechanic. But the puzzles won't make sense unless the player has already experimented with the interactions. That means giving the player rope (no pun intended) to hang themselves.
How do we get this in a modern game? This is a tricky one. You have to come up with ways for every single resource to be replenishable, which can feel artificial.

You use up a resource solving the wrong problem

What we gain: A sense of deep exploration. There are many ways to approach a problem, and you may have to explore several of them before you're done.
The fun this adds: You've solved a bunch of puzzles, but the solutions are mutually exclusive -- you need one item in three different places. Now you have a metapuzzle! Go back and juggle the previous solutions until they fit together. You may have to take another stab at one of the puzzles and find a new solution to it; but first you have to figure out which one.
(Enchanter is my earliest glowing example of this idea. That dispel scroll solves all sorts of puzzles -- but you can only use it once!)
How do we get this in a modern game? This is the road that led me to Hadean Lands. My solution was (a) the RESET command, which effectively replenished every resource by restarting the story; and (b) the goal system, which removed the tedium of retrying a sequence of puzzles. Everything was geared towards letting you grapple with the metapuzzles.

Random events in the game ruin your path to victory

What we gain: Okay, this one is the joker. Even in 1978, nobody was happy that the thief was running around Zork stealing your treasures. Yes, it provided the challenge of persistence -- you had to be bloody-minded enough to retry the game when the thief boned you. (Or, in Zork 2, the wizard.) But it wasn't a surprise that Infocom retired this theme from their repertoire after about 1981.
(It turned up again in Beyond Zork with its randomized mazes and monster combat. And, yes, everyone called it a design flaw. I don't know what Moriarty was thinking.)
How do we get this in a modern game? Do the math -- or run the test suite -- and verify that no combination of random events can hose the player.

All right, we've walked the bounds. Where does Wishbringer lie in this territory?
(Spoilers for Wishbringer in this section.)
(I will confess that I did not replay the whole game for this article. I played through the opening chapter, familiarized myself with Festeron, and pulled down the source code for reference purposes.) (Oh, this is the 1985 version of the game -- release 69, serial 850920. Note that the 1988 "solid gold" release has bugs in its time-of-day code!)
Wishbringer's opening salvo is a strict time limit. The game starts at 3:00 pm; you must reach the Magick Shoppe by 5:00. That's 120 turns. If you optimize your route -- which is to say, on your second or third try -- you can make it under 40 turns. But the typical player will examine the scenery, go back and forth a bit solving the initial puzzle, look around town -- and run out the clock.
Looks like the story's over. But don't despair! Interactive fiction lets you learn from your mistakes.
The "mistakes" here include mapping the town like a diligent adventurer. That definitely takes more than 120 turns.
The town holds a few other ways to wreck yourself during that initial exploration:
A shower of sparks erupts from the back of the game machine, and the video screen goes black.
That's unfixable. There's also a seahorse who dies three turns after you encounter it, unless you offer aid. And so on.
But let's say you skip the tour, head straight towards the Magick Shoppe (the game's feelie map is helpful), and reach your goal by, say, 4:30 pm. The shopkeeper introduces your true quest, hands you a joke snake-in-a-can, and shoos you out to a changed landscape.
You now face your first serious puzzles: getting down from the hill and back across the bridge into town. The hill path is a fog-shrouded maze, but you were explicitly advised to map it on your way up; if you didn't, you can bumble your way through by trial and error.
As for the bridge, it follows the game's master schema by offering two solutions. You can hand the troll the snake can -- now containing a live snake in this altered world -- which scares him off. Or, if you've brought the horseshoe and the gold coin from town, you can WISH FOR LUCK and give him the coin. (It's not legal tender in Witchville, but "luckily" the troll doesn't notice.)
But note that both these solutions are failable. If you haven't searched the town for both the coin and horseshoe, and you release the snake before meeting the troll, then the puzzle becomes impossible. In fact, the "easy" path of the wish is rather more likely to be foreclosed -- a beginning player probably won't have scoured the town for items.
I didn't play much past that point, but I ran into another amusing failure back in town. (1) Get thrown in jail before extracting the stone from the can; (2) crawl down into the tunnels; (3) get lost in the dark; (4) squeeze the can. The stone falls into the dark and is lost forever. Whoops.
So Wishbringer is already three for five: time limits, closed-off areas, and accidentally destroyed resources.
Then there are the wishes themselves. Each can be used at most once. Some have more than one puzzle application; all can be wasted through experimentation. That checks off both "accidentally destroyed resources" and "solving the wrong problem". No, you're not strictly making the game unwinnable, since every puzzle can be solved without recourse to wishes. But if the intended experience of the game is "win using wishes, then replay and try winning without any", then wasting wishes pushes pretty hard into breaking-the-game territory.

Let's be clear: Wishbringer has many affordances for beginning players. It begins in a tightly bounded area with a handful of rooms, two takeable objects, and one puzzle. Solve that and you gain access to the town; but the game firmly (and repeatedly) reminds you that the Magick Shoppe is your first goal. NPCs interact with you in brief scenes with clear direction. You can (and, in some sense, should) go off-track; but the track is clearly laid out.
There are also, despite my litany above, several guard-rails against unwinnable states. If you open the snake-can inside the Shoppe, the proprietor resets it for you. If you drop an item in the fog outside, it will be found waiting for you at the bottom of the hill. And I think that the game makes an effort to always show your failures as clear results of your actions, or (at worst) of your missed actions.
What the game does not have is a systematic design of avoiding unwinnable states entirely. It just avoids a few of the worst ones! Nor does it make any attempt to lead the player through to victory on the first run. Wishbringer is, in this sense, exactly like Hitchhiker or Spellbreaker: a game which wants to be approached iteratively. You will try some stuff, fail, back up to an earlier save, retry, save again, realize what you really needed the first time, do a definitive run of the first chapter, save, explore the town for a while, fail in a new way...
The saga of the unlosable adventure game begins a few years later. ...I should close with a rhetorical flourish by naming it, right? Only I don't have any idea when the idea took hold. I didn't play enough of those early Lucas/Sierra games. (Certainly by Loom (1990) we all knew what the score was, no pun intended. But that feels late.)
I don't even remember if Infocom got there. Did Nord and Bert have unwinnable states? Sheesh, it's been way too long.
Well, there's your blog post hook. Enjoy!

February 13, 2021

The People's Republic of IF

February meetup (online)

by zarf at February 13, 2021 11:41 PM

The Boston IF meetup for February will be Friday, February 19, 6:30 pm Eastern time.

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

Zarf Updates

A couple of Myst fandom notes

by Andrew Plotkin ([email protected]) at February 13, 2021 03:49 AM

We're still waiting for the PC release of the new rebuilt Myst. But that doesn't mean that nothing's going on.

This week Cyan announced official support for the long-standing Myst fan wiki at
We are delighted to announce that as part of the Lore Project, Cyan Worlds, Inc. will be utilizing the Guild of Archivists website as the Official wiki for the Myst franchise!
The Lore Team knows how important the preservation of the franchise’s mythos and our community’s history is, and wants to ensure it can live on a continuing platform which is not filled with ads or subject to shutting down.
To that end, while Alahmnat will still remain the Guild’s Grand Master, today Cyan is formally committing to providing server space and our support to ensure the Archive and other Guild of Archivists resources will remain online, independent, and ad-free forever!
-- Cyan announcement, Feb 9 2021
The Guild of Archivists (according to its own about page!) has been running for twenty years. If you look back into my old Uru pages you'll find many links to D'niPedia, the wiki's original home at It's one of those fan resources which has become invaluable to the original creator, and Cyan's offer of support reflects this.

I also caught scent of an online documentary series called Preserving Worlds. I'm not familiar with Means TV, the studio that created it -- they seem to cover political topics primarily -- but they seem to have taken a stab at videogame history. The show was created by Derek Murphy and Mitchell Zemil; it consists of six thirty-minute episodes covering ZZT, Second Life, Myst Online, and other multiplayer games of yore.
(Bonus points for the Chicago font styling!)
I just watched the Myst Online episode. It consists of an in-depth interview with Zib (Max Batchelder), a long-time fan -- I've seen him around the forums and conventions forever. He gives a good thumbnail overview of Uru's checkered history and its many fan incarnations, followed by a tour of several fan-created Ages.
The background footage of the show is clips from Uru Ages. Some are familiar areas from Cyan's original game, others are fan Ages; but the documentary presents them on an equal footing. There's no hierarchy of "canon versus fandom" -- they stand entirely on their own merits until Zib begins to introduce particulars. (And then there's a credits list at the end.) I thought that was a nice touch.
The interview was recorded last summer, before Cyan's surprise release of three fan Ages on the official Myst Online server. Each of those three appears in the show; so do several others that I'd only seen as static snapshots in a gallery. I appreciated the walking tour.

February 12, 2021

Far Far Futures

Interactive Fiction Resources

by Joey Jones at February 12, 2021 09:41 PM

I maintain a list of interactive fiction resources for the IF facebook page. It’s a bit a big list but …

Continue reading

February 11, 2021

"Aaron Reed"

Adventure (1976)

by Aaron A. Reed at February 11, 2021 06:42 PM

In May of 1977 Adventure became the first computer game blockbuster. While older hits like Hunt the Wumpus or Super Star Trek had trickled out slowly through mail-order paper tape or listings in magazines, and others like dnd were limited to niche platforms, Adventure arrived just as a critical mass of computer users began connecting to the ARPANET, the network of computers that would eventually evolve into the modern Internet. As a result, it hit everywhere all at once, shared and re-shared from one system to the next, and soon became all anyone with computer access was talking about. A famous anecdote goes that the game proved so distracting it “set the entire computer industry back two weeks.” Dave Lebling, later a co-founder of Infocom, recalled: “For a couple of weeks, dozens of people were playing the game and feeding each other clues. Everyone was asking you in the hallway if you had gotten past the snake yet.” It would eventually name both the text adventure and adventure game genres: at the time of its release, few people had seen anything remotely like it.

Continue reading at the home of my new blog series, “50 Years of Text Games.”

Logo for 50 Years of Text Games

February 09, 2021


IFTF Is Adopting, Relocating, and Improving IFDB

by Dan Fabulich at February 09, 2021 03:22 AM

We’ve got three big pieces of news about IFDB, the Interactive Fiction Database:

  • In 2021, the new “IFDB Committee” of IFTF will adopt IFDB from its founder, Michael J Roberts.
  • We’re planning to move IFDB from its home at to The new site isn’t ready yet. We’ll redirect old links to the new website when it becomes available.
  • The source code of IFDB is now available on Github; we’re open for pull requests!

We’re Adopting IFDB

Michael J Roberts founded IFDB in 2007, with the goal “to make IFDB a one-stop shopping site for IF.” Today, thanks to Michael’s heroic work over 14 years, IFDB is a thriving database of community-sourced metadata, bibliographic information, and reviews of interactive fiction. IFDB makes it easy for everyone to find, play, and review interactive fiction.

This week, IFTF has chartered a new IFDB committee. In 2021, this new committee will adopt IFDB, overseeing its operation, maintenance, and improvement.

IFDB Is Moving to

We’re planning to move IFDB from its home at to

The new site isn’t ready yet. We’ll redirect old links to the new site when becomes available, so you won’t have to update links from the old site to the new one.

Hack on IFDB’s Source Code with Us

For the first time, IFDB’s source code is now publicly available on Github.

You can download it and follow the instructions in our README to set up a local, private copy of IFDB from the comfort of your own laptop, and file pull requests to make enhancements to the code.

(Our setup guide will automatically download a copy of IFDB’s MySQL database from the IF Archive.)

We have a bunch of ideas for major improvements we could make to IFDB. We’re currently tracking those big ideas in a separate IFDB Suggestion Tracker.

We’re looking forward to your suggestions and your pull requests!

(This post originally appeared on the forum; discussion continues there.)

February 08, 2021


The Songlines, by Bruce Chatwin

February 08, 2021 11:41 AM

Joe had the idea for our highland game.

The "idea" here doesn't mean the idea of setting a game in the Highlands (okay, he had that idea too), but rather the "idea" is the "idea" which sits at the heart of the game and makes the game into this game. It's the idea we haven't talked about yet (except occasionally, by accident.) We've not formally declared: "hey, we had this idea."

We didn't. Joe did. And it's a great idea.

But when he told me the idea - which I'm not about to tell you, now - it reminded me of something. And for a long time I couldn't put my finger on it. When I say a long time, I mean multiple years, because Joe told me this idea in 2017 and I just realised what it made me think of.

If you want to know, the clue is in the title of this post. It's a book called The Songlines by a writer called Bruce Chatwin.

The Story of a Journey

The Songlines was published in 1987, which makes it essentially ancient history at this point. I read it much later, after writing a play about two explorers in a post-apocalyptic desert arguing about whether a line of burnt-out cars indicated a path to follow or not, when various people in my family told me my play was "basically just The Songlines". They were wrong - my play had more jokes in it, and ends on a gunshot - but they were also right; the play, like the book, was about route-finding, about journeys, stories and lines.

It's a sort-of anthropological book; it describes a journey by the author into Australia. I can't remember what happens on this journey and it's not terribly important. But the book culimates in a collection of thoughts about walking: what it means to walk and how people know which way to walk.

It proposes that us humans are not defined by being "the animal that talks".

We are "the animal that walks".

That sounds ridiculous but it isn't, it's really fascinating.

(This, by the way, is what I think anthropology is supposed to do: take something really mundane and then make you realise how fascinating and bizarre it is. My favourite example of that is "the three-second rule"; the one that allows you to eat crisps which have fallen on the floor of a pub, but only if they've been there for three seconds or less. After that, they become instantly disgusting and filthly. That's sensible, right? Wait. No, it's not. Anyway.)

The Journey of a Story

One of the things discussed in The Songlines (which, I should warn you, may or may not be true, and may be massively oversimplified) is the way Aborigines use stories - songs - as a way to navigate the enormous terrain of the Australian interior. Without maps (there being no paper, presuambly), the traveller recalls a tale, the major beats of which take place at major landmarks along the route. Here is the tree where the story begins; here is the rock where it continues; here is the river the characters crossed; and here is the ending, right where we wanted to go. The stories are the journey, and the journey repeats and reinforces the story.

The sounds ridiculous, doesn't it? Except, only, how many times have you walked through a city and said to your friend, "we go past the place where we met so-and-so; then turn left at that tree you tried to climb but feel out of; then right at the cinema complex where you were stood up that time; and then it's at the end of the street."

The Joy of Walking

This game is a journey about stories, that form the story of a journey. It's also about how glorious, how basic, how simple and how delightful it is to walk.

And when walking is truly delightful, one breaks into...

... ah, now, but that would telling.

February 05, 2021

The Digital Antiquarian

The Second Coming of Star Wars

by Jimmy Maher at February 05, 2021 04:41 PM

It’s all but impossible to overstate the influence that Star Wars had on the first generation of microcomputer games. The fact is, Star Wars and early home computers were almost inseparable — in some odd sense part of the same larger cultural movement, if you will.

The first film in George Lucas’s blockbuster trilogy debuted on May 25, 1977, just days before the Apple II, the first pre-assembled personal computer to be marketed to everyday consumers, reached store shelves. If not everyone who loved Star Wars had the money and the desire to buy a computer in the months and years that followed, it did seem that everyone who bought a computer loved Star Wars. And that love in turn fueled many of the games those early adopters made. J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings novels and, perhaps more arguably, the Star Trek television and movie franchise are the only other traditional-media properties whose impact on the fictions and even mechanics of early computer games can be compared to that of Star Wars.

And yet licensed takes on all three properties were much less prominent than one might expect from the degree of passion the home-computer demographic had for them. The British/Australian publisher Melbourne House had a huge worldwide hit with their rather strange 1982 text-adventure adaptation of Tolkien’s The Hobbit, but never scaled similar heights with any of their mediocre follow-ups. Meanwhile Star Trek wound up in the hands of the software arm of the print publisher Simon & Schuster, who released a series of obtuse, largely text-based games that went absolutely nowhere. And as for Star Wars, the hottest property of them all… ah, therein lies a tale.

Like The Lord of the Rings before it, Star Wars was a victim of the times in which its first licensing deals were signed. In the months before the first movie was released, both George Lucas himself and 20th Century Fox, the studio that distributed the film, sought after someone — anyone — who would be willing to make a line of toys to accompany it. They were turned down again and again. Finally, Marc Pevers, Fox’s president of licensing, got a nibble from a small toy maker called Kenner Products.

Kenner was owned at that time by the big corporate conglomerate General Mills, who also happened to own Parker Brothers, the maker of such family-board-game staples as Monopoly, Clue, and Sorry!. Thus when Kenner negotiated with Lucas and Fox, they requested that the license cover “toys and [emphasis mine] games,” with responsibility for the latter to be kicked over to Parker Brothers. For at this early date, before the release of the Atari VCS videogame console, before even the arrival of Space Invaders in American arcades, “games” meant board games in the minds of everyone negotiating the deal. Indeed, Kenner explicitly promised that at a minimum they would produce four action figures and a “family game” to help prime the pump of a film whose commercial prospects struck just about everyone as highly dubious.

There are conflicting reports as to the other terms of the deal, but it seems most likely that Kenner agreed to pay Lucas and Fox either a 5-percent royalty or a flat $100,000 per year, whichever amount was greater. If Kenner ever failed to pay at least $100,000 in any given year, the arrangement would end immediately. Otherwise, it would go on in perpetuity. It was quite a sweet deal for Kenner by any standard, very much a reflection of the position of weakness from which Fox and Lucas were negotiating; one Kenner employee later joked that they had gotten Star Wars for “$50 and a handshake.”

Of course, we all know what happened with that first Star Wars film upon its release a few months after the contract was signed. After a slow start in 1977 while they tooled up to meet the completely unexpected level of demand, Kenner sold 42 million pieces of Star Wars-branded merchandise in 1978 alone; by 1985, the worldwide population of Star Wars action figures was larger than the United States’s population of real human beings. Lucas publicly excoriated Marc Pevers for a deal that had cost him “tens of millions,” and the two wound up in libel court, the former eventually forced to pay the latter an unspecified sum for his overheated remarks by a settlement arrangement.

Lucas’s anger was understandable if not terribly dignified. As if the deal for the toy rights alone wasn’t bad enough, Pevers had blithely sold off the videogame rights for a song as well, simply by not demanding more specific language about what kinds of games the phrase “toys and games” referred to. Kenner’s first attempt at a Star Wars videogame came already in 1978, in the form of a single-purpose handheld gadget subtitled Electronic Laser Battle. When that didn’t do well, the field was abandoned until 1982, when, with the Atari-VCS-fueled first wave of digital gaming at its height, Parker Brothers released three simple action games for the console. Then they sub-contracted a few coin-op arcade games to Atari, who ported them to home consoles and computers as well.

But by the time the last of these appeared, it was 1985, the Great Videogame Crash was two years in the past, and it seemed to the hidebound executives at General Mills that the fad for videogames was over and done with, permanently. Their Star Wars games had done pretty well for themselves, but had come out just a little too late in the day to really clean up. So be it; they saw little reason to continue making them now. It would be six years before another all-new, officially licensed Star Wars videogame would appear in North America, even as the virtual worlds of countless non-licensed games would continue to be filled with ersatz Han Solos and Death Stars.

This state of affairs was made doubly ironic by the fact that Lucasfilm, George Lucas’s production company, had started its own games studio already in 1982. For most of its first ten years, the subsidiary known as Lucasfilm Games was strictly barred from making Star Wars games, even as its employees worked on Skywalker Ranch, surrounded with props and paraphernalia from the films. Said employees have often remarked in the years since that their inability to use their corporate parent’s most famous intellectual property was really a blessing in disguise, in that it forced them to define themselves in other ways, namely by creating one of the most innovative and interesting bodies of work of the entire 1980s gaming scene. “Not being able to make Star Wars games freed us, freed us in a way that I don’t think we understood at the time,” says Ron Gilbert, the designer of the Lucasfilm classics Maniac Mansion and The Secret of Monkey Island. “We always felt we had to be making games that were different and pushed the creative edges. We felt we had to live up to the Lucasfilm name.” For all that, though, having the Lucasfilm name but not the Star Wars license that ought to go with it remained a frustrating position to be in, especially knowing that the situation was all down to a legal accident, all thanks to that single vaguely worded contract.

If the sequence of events which barred Lucasfilm from making games based on their own supreme leader’s universe was a tad bizarre, the way in which the Star Wars rights were finally freed up again was even stranger. By the end of 1980s, sales of Star Wars toys were no longer what they once had been. The Return of the Jedi, the third and presumably last of the Star Wars films, was receding further and further into the rear-view mirror, with nothing new on the horizon to reignite the old excitement for the next generation of children. For the first time, Kenner found themselves paying the guaranteed $100,000 licensing fee to Lucas and Fox instead of the 5-percent royalty.

At the beginning of 1991, Kenner failed to send the aforementioned parties their $100,000 check for the previous year, thereby nullifying the fourteen-year-old contract for Star Wars “toys and games.” Fan folklore would have it that the missing check was the result of an accounting oversight; Kenner was about to be acquired by Hasbro, and there was much chaos about the place. A more likely explanation, however, is that Kenner simply decided that the contract wasn’t worth maintaining anymore. The Star Wars gravy train had been great while it lasted, but it had run its course.

There was jubilation inside Lucasfilm Games when the staff was informed that at long last they were to be allowed to play in the universe of Star Wars. They quickly turned out a few simple action-oriented titles for consoles, but their real allegiance as a studio was to personal computers. Thus they poured the most effort by far into X-Wing, the first Star Wars game ever to be made first, foremost, and exclusively for computers, with all the extra complexity and extra scope for design ambition which that description implied in those days.

Lawrence Holland, circa 1992.

The mastermind of X-Wing was a soft-spoken, unassuming fellow named Lawrence Holland, whose path into the industry had been anything but straightforward. His first passion in life had been archaeology and anthropology; he’d spent much of his early twenties working in the field in remote regions of East Africa and India. In 1981, he came to the University of California, Berkeley to study for a doctorate in anthropology. He had never even seen a personal computer, much less played a computer game, until he became roommates with someone who had one. Holland:

I was working as a chef at a restaurant in Berkeley — and I realized I didn’t particularly want to do that for the next six years while I worked on my doctorate. At the time, my roommate had an Atari 800, and he was into programming. I thought, “Hey, what a cool machine!” So I finally got a Commodore 64 and spent all my spare time teaching myself how to use it. I’d always wanted to build something, but I just hadn’t found the right medium. Computers seemed to me to be the perfect combination of engineering and creativity.

The barriers to entry in the software industry were much lower then than they are today; a bright young mind like Holland with an aptitude and passion for programming could walk into a job with no formal qualifications whatsoever. He eventually dropped out of his PhD track in favor of becoming a staff programmer at HESWare, a darling of the venture capitalists during that brief post-Great Videogame Crash era when home computers were widely expected to become the Next Big Thing after the console flame-out.

While working for HESWare in 1985, Holland was responsible for designing and programming a rather remarkable if not quite fully-realized game called Project: Space Station, a combination of simulation and strategy depicting the construction and operation of its namesake in low Earth orbit. But soon after its release HESWare collapsed, and Holland moved on to Lucasfilm Games. Throughout his many years there, he would work as an independent contractor rather than an employee, by his own choice. This allowed him, as he once joked, to “take classes and keep learning about history and anthropology in my copious spare time.”

In writing about the LucasFilm Games of the late 1980s and early 1990s in previous articles, I’ve focused primarily on the line of graphic adventures which they began in 1987 with Maniac Mansion, stressing how these games’ emphasis on fairness made them a welcome and even visionary alternative to the brutality being inflicted upon players by other adventure developers at the time. But the studio was never content to do or be just one thing. Thus at the same time that Ron Gilbert was working on Maniac Mansion, another designer named Noah Falstein was making a bid for the vehicular-simulation market, one of the most lucrative corners of the industry. Lawrence Holland came to Lucasfilm Games to help out with that — to be the technical guy who made Falstein’s design briefs come to life on the monitor screen. The first fruit of that partnership was 1987’s PHM Pegasus, a simulation of a hydrofoil attack boat; it was followed by a slightly more elaborate real-time naval simulation called Strike Fleet the following year.

With that apprenticeship behind him, Holland was allowed to take sole charge of Battlehawks 1942, a simulation of World War II aerial combat in the Pacific Theater. He designed and programmed the game in barely six months, in time to see it released before the end of 1988, whereupon it was promptly named “action game of the year” by Computer Gaming World magazine. Battlehawks 1942 was followed in 1989 by Their Finest Hour, another winner of the same award, a simulation of the early air war in Europe; it was in turn followed by 1991’s Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe, a simulation of the later years of war there. Each simulator raised the ante over what had come before in terms of budget, development time, and design ambition.

The Early Works of Lawrence Holland

Project: Space Station (1985) is an amazingly complex simulation and strategy game for the humble Commodore 64. Holland took the project over after an earlier version that was to have been helmed by a literal rocket scientist fell apart, scaling down the grandiose ideas of his predecessor just enough to fit them into 64 K of memory.

PHM Pegasus (1987) was designed by Noah Falstein and implemented by Holland. It simulates a military hydrofoil — sort of the modern equivalent to the famous PT Boats of World War II.

Strike Fleet (1988), Holland’s second and last game working with Falstein as lead designer, expands on the concept of PHM Pegasus to let the player lead multiple ships into fast-paced real-time battles.

Battlehawks 1942 (1988) was Holland’s first flight simulator, his first project for LucasArts on which he served as lead designer as well as programmer, and the first which he coded on MS-DOS machines rather than the Commodore 64. A simulation of carrier-based aviation during the fraught early months of World War II in the Pacific, it was implemented in barely six months from start to finish. Dick Best, the leader of the first dive-bomber attack on the Japanese aircraft carriers at the Battle of Midway — and thus the tip of the spear which changed the course of the war — served as a technical advisor. “I am thinking about buying an IBM just so I can play the game at home,” said the 78-year-old pilot to journalists.

Their Finest Hour (1989) was the second game in what would later become known as Holland’s “air-combat trilogy.” A portrayal of the Battle of Britain, it added a campaign mode, a selection of set-piece historical missions to fly, and even a mission builder for making more scenarios of your own to share with others.

Holland’s ambition ran wild in Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe (1991). Beginning as a simulation of such oddball latter-war German aircraft as the Messerschmitt Me-163 rocket plane and the Me-262 jet fighter, it wound up encompassing the entire second half of the air war in Europe, including a strategy game about the Allied strategic-bombing campaign that was detailed enough to have been put in a separate box and sold alone. As much a gaming toolbox as a game, it was supported with no fewer than four separate expansion packs. Holland and Edward Kilham, his programming partner for the project, crunched for a solid year to finish it, but nevertheless ended a good twelve months behind schedule. With this object lesson to think back on, Holland would rein in his design ambitions a bit more in the future.

As I described at some length in a recent article, flight simulators in general tend to age more like unpasteurized milk than fine wine, and by no means is Holland’s work in this vein entirely exempt from this rule. Still, in an age when most simulators were emphasizing cutting-edge graphics and ever more complexity over the fundamentals of game design, Holland’s efforts do stand out for their interest in conveying historical texture rather than a painstakingly perfect flight model. They were very much in the spirit of what designer Michael Bate, who used a similar approach at a slightly earlier date in games he made for Accolade Software, liked to call “aesthetic simulations of history.” Holland:

Flight simulators [had] really focused on the planes, rather than the times, the people, and how the battles influenced the course of the war. [The latter is] what I set out to do. It’s become my philosophy for all the sims I’ve done.

We get letters from former pilots, who say, “Wow! This is great! This is just like I remember it.” They’re talking about a gut, sensory impression about the realism of flying and interacting with other planes — not the hardcore mathematical models. I’ve focused on that gut feeling of realism rather than the hardcore mathematical stuff. I’ve emphasized plane-to-plane engagement, seat-of-the-pants flying. I like to keep the controls as simple as possible, so someone can jump in and enjoy the game. Of course, the more technically accurate the flight model, the more difficult it is to fly. Unless they’re really familiar with flight simulators, people tend to be intimidated by having to learn the uses of a bunch of different keys. That makes a game hard to get into. I want them to be able to hop into the cockpit and fly.

In some ways at least, Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe remains to this day the most ambitious game Lawrence Holland has ever made. At a time when rival flight simulators like Falcon were going micro, attempting to capture a single aircraft with a pedant’s obsession for detail, Secret Weapons provided a macro-level overview of the entire European air war following the entry of the United States into the conflict. Holland called it a “kitchen-sink” game: “It’s fun and challenging to keep thinking of different ways for the player to interact with the product on different levels.” In Secret Weapons, you could pilot any of eight different airplanes, including the experimental German rocket planes and jets that gave the game its misleadingly narrow-sounding name, or even fly as a gunner or bombardier instead of a pilot in a B-17. You could go through flight school, fly a single random mission, a historical mission, or fly a whole tour of duty in career mode. Or you could play Secret Weapons as a strategy game of the Allied bombing campaign against Germany, flying the missions yourself if you liked or letting the computer handle that for you; this part of the game alone was detailed enough that, had it been released as a standalone strategy title by a company like SSI, no one would have batted an eye. And then there were the four (!) expansion packs LucasArts put together, adding yet more airplanes and things to do with them…

Of course, ambition can be a double-edged sword in game design. Although Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe came together much better in the end than many other kitchen-sink games, it also came in a year late and way over budget. As it happened, its release in late 1991 came right on the heels of the news that Lucasfilm Games was finally going to be allowed to charge into the Star Wars universe. Lawrence Holland’s life was about to take another unexpected twist.

It isn’t hard to figure out why LucasArts — the old Lucasfilm Games adopted the new name in 1992 — might have wished to create a “simulation” of Star Wars space battles. At the time, the biggest franchise in gaming was Origin Systems’s Wing Commander series, which itself owed more than a little to George Lucas’s films. Players loved the action in those games, but they loved at least equally the storytelling which the series had begun to embrace with gusto in 1991’s Wing Commander II. A “real” Star Wars game offered the chance to do both things as well or better, by incorporating both the spacecraft and weapons of the films and the established characters and plot lore of the Star Wars universe.

Meanwhile the creative and technical leap from a simulation of World War II aerial combat to a pseudo-simulation of fictional space combat was shorter than one might initially imagine. The label of space simulator was obviously a misnomer in the strictly literal sense; you cannot simulate something which has never existed and never will. (If at some point wars do move into outer space, they will definitely not be fought anything like this.) Nevertheless, X-Wing would strive to convey that feeling of realism that is the hallmark of a good aesthetic simulation. It wouldn’t, in other words, be an arcade game like the Star Wars games of the previous decade.

In point of fact, George Lucas had aimed to capture the feel of World War II dogfighting in his movies’ action sequences, to the point of basing some shots on vintage gun-camera footage. It was thus quite natural to build X-Wing upon the technology last seen in Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe. You would have to plan your attacks with a degree of care, would have to practice some of the same tactics that World War II fighter pilots employed, would even have to manage the energy reserves of your craft, deciding how much to allocate to guns, shields, and engines at any given juncture.

Still working with LucasArts as an independent contractor, Holland hired additional programmers Peter Lincroft and Edward Kilham — the former had also worked on Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe — to help him out with the project. LucasArts’s in-house staff of artists and composers saw to the audiovisual assets, and their in-house designers developed most of the missions. With the struggle that his last game had been still high in his memory, and knowing all too well that LucasArts’s first Star Wars computer game needed to be released in a timely fashion if it was to compete with the Wing Commander juggernaut, Holland abandoned any thoughts of dynamic campaigns or overarching strategic layers in favor of a simple series of set-piece missions linked together by a pre-crafted story line — exactly the approach that had won so much commercial success for Wing Commander. In fact, Holland simplified the Wing Commander approach even further, by abandoning its branching mission tree in favor of a keep-trying-each-mission-until-you-win-it methodology. (To be fair, market research proved that most people played Wing Commander this way anyway…)

Smoke ’em if you got ’em: X-Wing in action.

X-Wing‘s not-so-secret weapon over its great rival franchise was and is, to state it purely and simply, Star Wars. Right from the iconic flattened text crawl that opens the game, accompanied by the first stirring chords of John Williams’s unforgettable theme music, it looks like Star Wars, sounds like Star Wars, feels like Star Wars. The story it tells is interwoven quite deftly with the plot of the first film. It avoids the slightly ham-handed soap-opera story lines which Wing Commander loves to indulge in in favor of a laser focus on the real business at hand: the destruction of the Death Star. Whereas Wing Commander, with its killer alien cats and all the rest, never rises much above the level of earnest fan fiction, X-Wing is… well, it certainly isn’t great literature, any more than the films upon which it’s based are profound drama, but it is solidly crafted pulp fiction for the kid in all of us, and this quality makes it exactly like the aforementioned films. Playing it really does feel like jumping into one of them.

But X-Wing also has an Achilles heel that undoes much of what it does so well, a failing that’s serious enough that I have trouble recommending the game at all: its absolutely absurd level of difficulty. As you advance further in the game, its missions slowly reveal themselves to be static puzzles to be solved rather than dynamic experiences. There’s just one way to succeed in the later missions in particular, just one “correct” sequence of actions which you must carry out perfectly. You can expect to fly each mission over and over while you work out what that sequence is. This rote endeavor is the polar opposite of the fast-paced excitement of a Star Wars film. As you fail again and again, X-Wing gradually becomes the one thing Star Wars should never be: it becomes boring.

There’s a supreme irony here: LucasArts made their name in adventure games by rejecting the idea that the genre must necessarily entail dying over and over and, even worse, stumbling down blind alleys from which you can never return without restoring or restarting. But with X-Wing, the company famous for “no deaths and no dead ends” delivered a game where you could effectively lock yourself out of victory in the first minute of a mission. It’s hard to conceive of why anyone at LucasArts might have thought this a good approach. Yet Computer Gaming World‘s Chris Lombardi was able to confirm in his eventual review of the game that the punishing mission design wasn’t down to some colossal oversight; it was all part of the plan from the beginning.

Through an exchange with LucasArts, I’ve learned from them that the missions were designed as puzzles to be figured out and solved. This is entirely accurate. The tougher missions have a very specific “solution” that must be executed with heroic precision. Fly to point A, knock out fighters with inhuman accuracy, race to point B, knock out bombers with same, race to point C, to nip off a second bomber squadron at the last possible second. While this is extremely challenging and will make for many hours of play, I’m not convinced that it’s the most effective design possible. It yanks [the player] out of the fiction of the game when he has to play a mission five times just to figure out what his true objective is, and then to play the next dozen times trying to execute the path perfectly.

Often, success requires [the player] to anticipate the arrival of enemy units and unrealistically race out into space to meet a “surprise” attack from the Empire. It’s all a matter of balance, young Jedi, and on the sliding scale of Trivially Easy to Joystick-Flinging Frustration, X-Wing often stumbles awkwardly toward the latter. From the reviewer’s high ground of hindsight, it seems a player-controlled difficulty setting might have been a good solution.

Despite this tragic flaw lurking at its mushy center, X-Wing was greeted with overwhelmingly positive reviews and strong sales upon its release in March of 1993. For, if X-Wing left something to be desired as a piece of game design, the timing of its release was simply perfect.

The game hit the scene in tandem with a modest but palpable resurgence of interest in Star Wars as a whole. In 1991 — just as Kenner Products was deciding that the whole Star Wars thing had run its course — Timothy Zahn had published Heir to the Empire, the first of a new trilogy of Star Wars novels. There had been Star Wars books before, of course, but Zahn’s trilogy was unique in that, rather than having to confine himself to side stories so as not to interfere with cinematic canon, its author had been given permission by George Lucas to pick up the main thread of what happened after Return of the Jedi. Everyone who read the trilogy seemed to agree that it represented a very credible continuation indeed, coming complete with an arch-villain, one Imperial Grand Admiral Thrawn, who was almost as compelling as Darth Vader. All three books — the last of them came out in 1993, just after X-Wing — topped genre-fiction bestseller lists. Star Wars was suddenly having a moment again, and X-Wing became a part of that, both as beneficiary and benefactor. Many of the kids who had seen the films multiple times each in theaters and carried Star Wars lunchboxes with them to school were now in their early twenties, the sweet spot of the 1993 computer-game demographic, and were now feeling the first bittersweet breaths of nostalgia to blow through their young lives, even as they were newly awakened to the potential of space simulators in general by the Wing Commander games. How could X-Wing not have become a hit?

The people who had made the game weren’t much different from the people who were now buying it in such gratifying numbers. Zahn’s novels were great favorites of Holland and his colleagues as well, so much so that, when the time came to plan the inevitable sequel to X-Wing, they incorporated Admiral Thrawn into the plot. In the vastly superior game known as TIE Fighter, which takes places concurrently with the second Star Wars film, a younger Thrawn appears in the uneasy role of subordinate to Darth Vader.

Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine TIE Fighter, which dares to place you in the role of a pilot for the “evil” Empire, ever coming to exist at all without the Zahn novels. For it was Zahn’s nuanced, even sympathetic portrayal of Thrawn, and with it his articulation of an ideology for the Empire that went beyond doing evil for the sake of it, that first broadened the moral palette of the Star Wars universe to include shades of gray in addition to black and white. Zahn’s version of the Empire is a rather fussily bureaucratic entity that sees itself as tamping down sectarianism and maintaining law and order in the galaxy in the interest of the greater good, even if the methods it is sometimes forced to employ can be regrettably violent. The game took that interpretation and ran with it. Holland:

Our approach is that the propaganda machines are always running full-blast during warfare. So far, the propaganda we’ve been exposed to has been from the Rebels. But in warfare, neither side is always clean, and both sides can take the moral high ground. So we’re trying to blur the moral line a little bit and give the Empire a soapbox to communicate its mission: the restoration of peace and order.

For instance, there’s a lot of civil war going on. The fighting planets are lost in their hate and don’t have the galactic perspective the Empire can provide. In this regard, the Empire feels it can serve to stop these conflicts. Within the Empire there are a lot of people — like the pilot the player portrays — who have an honorable objective.

At the risk of putting too fine a point on it: I would hardly be the first Internet scribe to note that the established hegemony of developed Western nations in our own world resembles the Empire far more than the Rebel Alliance, nor that the Rebel freedom fighters bear a distinct similarity to some of the real-world folks we generally prefer to call terrorists.

TIE Fighter casts you as a pilot of good faith who earnestly believes in the Empire’s professed objective of an orderly peace and prosperity that will benefit everyone. In order to capture some of the murderous infighting that marks the highest levels of the Imperial bureaucracy in both the movies and Zahn’s novels, as well as to convey some of the moral rot taking cover beneath the Empire’s professed ideology, the game introduces a mysterious agent of the emperor himself who lurks in the shadows during your mission briefings, to pull you aside afterward and give you secret objectives that hint of machinations and conspiracies that are otherwise beyond your ken. In the end, you find yourself spending almost as much time fighting other factions of the Empire as you do Rebels — which does rather put the lie to the Empire’s claim that only it can provide a harmonious, orderly galaxy, but so be it.

What really makes TIE Fighter so much better than its predecessor is not the switch in perspective, brave and interesting though it may be, but rather the fact that it so comprehensively improves on X-Wing at the level of the nuts and bolts of game design. It’s a fine example of a development team actually listening to players and reviewers, and then going out and methodically addressing their complaints. In the broad strokes, TIE Fighter is the same game as X-Wing: the same linear series of missions to work through, the same basic set of flight controls, a different but similarly varied selection of spacecraft to learn how to employ successfully. It just does everything that both games do that much better than its predecessor.

Take, for example, the question of coordinating your tactics with your wingmen and other allies. On the surface, the presence of friends as well as foes in the battles you fight is a hallmark not just of X-Wing but of the Wing Commander games that came before it, being embedded into the very name of the latter series. Yet your helpmates in all of those games are, as Chris Lombardi put it in his review of X-Wing, “about as useful as a rowboat on Tatooine.” Players can expect to rack up a kill tally ten times that of their nearest comrade-in-arms.

TIE Fighter changes all that. It presents space battles that are far more complex than anything seen in a space simulator before it, battles where everyone else flies and fights with independent agency and intelligence. You can’t do everything all by yourself anymore; you have to issue real, substantive orders to the pilots you command, and obey those orders that are issued to you. Many reviewers of TIE Fighter have pointed out how well this ethos fits into that of a hyper-organized, hyper-disciplined Imperial military, as opposed to the ramshackle individual heroism of the Rebel Alliance. And it’s certainly a fair point, even if I suspect that the thematic resonance may be more a happy accident than a conscious design choice. But whatever the reasons behind it, it lends TIE Fighter a different personality. Instead of being the lone hero who has to get everything done for yourself, you feel like a part of a larger whole.

For the developers, the necessary prerequisites to success with this new philosophy were an improved technical implementation and improved mission design in comparison to those of X-Wing. In addition to the audiovisual evolution that was par for the course during this fast-evolving era of computing — the 3D models are now rendered using Gouraud shading — TIE Fighter gives you a whole range of new views and commands to make keeping track of the overall flow of battle, keeping tabs on your allies, and orienting yourself to your enemies much easier than in X-Wing. Best of all, it abandons the old puzzle-style missions in favor of the unfolding, dynamic battlescapes we were missing so keenly last time. It does you the small but vital kindness of telling you which mission objectives have been completed and which still need to be fulfilled, as well as telling you when a mission is irrevocably failed. It also introduces optional objectives, so that casual players can keep the story going while completists try to collect every last point. And it has three difficulty levels to choose from rather than being permanently stuck on “Hard.”

TIE Fighter was released in July of 1994, five months before the long-awaited Wing Commander III, a four-CD extravaganza featuring a slate of established actors onscreen, among them Mark Hamill, Mr. Luke Skywalker himself. LucasArts’s game might have seemed scanty, even old-fashioned by comparison; it didn’t even ship on the wundermedium of CD at first, but rather on just five ordinary floppy disks. Yet it sold very well, and time has been much kinder to it than it has to Origins’s trendier production, which now seems somehow more dated than the likes of Pong. TIE Fighter, on the other hand, remains what it has always been: bright, pulpy, immersive, exciting, Star Warsy fun. It’s still my favorite space simulator of all time.

TIE Fighter

How could it be Star Wars without that iconic opening text crawl? TIE Fighter and its predecessor succeed brilliantly in feeling like these movies that define the adjective “iconic.” This extends to the sound design: the whoosh of passing spacecraft and closing pneumatic doors, the chatter of droids, the various themes of John Williams’s soundtrack… it’s all captured here with remarkable fidelity to the original. Of course, there are some differences: the sequence above is initially jarring because it’s accompanied by Williams’s ominous Imperial theme rather than the heroic main Rebel theme which we’ve been conditioned to expect.

One of the many places where TIE Fighter borrows from Wing Commander is in its commitment to a diegetic interface. You don’t choose what to do from a conventional menu; you decide whether you want to walk to the training simulator, briefing room, film room, etc.

The staff of LucasArts were big fans of Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire trilogy of novels. Thus Grand Admiral Thrawn, the books’ most memorable character, shows up as a younger Imperial officer here.

TIE Fighter‘s in-flight graphics weren’t all that spectacular to look at even by the standards of their day, given that they were implemented in standard VGA rather than higher-resolution SVGA. Wing Commander III, which appeared the same year, did embrace SVGA, and looked much better for it. Luckily, TIE Fighter had other things working in its favor…

Having decided to present the most complex battles yet seen in a space simulator, TIE Fighter needed to provide new ways of keeping track of them if it was to remain playable. Thankfully, the developers were up to the task, devising a whole array of clever command-and-control tools for your use.

You wind up spending almost as much time fighting other Imperial factions as “Rebel scum.” Call it a cop-out if you must…

You fly the climactic final mission side by side with Darth Vader. Unable to secure the services of James Earl Jones to voice the role, LucasArts had to settle for a credible soundalike. (Ironically, Jones did agree to provide voice acting for a game in 1994, but it wasn’t this one: it was Access Software’s adventure game Under a Killing Moon. He reportedly took that gig at a discount because his son was a fan of Access’s games.)

Both X-Wing and TIE Fighter later received a “collector’s edition” on CD-ROM, which added voice acting everywhere and support for higher-resolution Super VGA graphics cards, and also bundled in a lot of additional content, in the form of the two expansions that had already been released for X-Wing, the single TIE Fighter expansion, and some brand new missions. These are the versions you’ll find on the digital storefronts of today.

Time has added a unique strain of nostalgia to these and the other early LucasArts Star Wars games. During their era there was still an innocent purity to Star Wars which would be lost forever when George Lucas decided to revive the franchise on the big screen at decade’s end. Those “prequel” films replaced swashbuckling adventure with parliamentary politics, whilst displaying to painful effect Lucas’s limitations as a director and screenwriter. In so thoroughly failing to recapture the magic of what had come before, they have only made memories of the freer, breezier Star Wars of old burn that much brighter in the souls of old-timers like me. LucasArts’s 1990s Star Wars games were among the last great manifestations of that old spirit. The best few of them at least — a group which most certainly includes TIE Fighter — remain well worth savoring today.

(Sources: the books How Star Wars Conquered the Universe by Chris Taylor, Droidmaker: George Lucas and the Digital Revolution by Michael Rubin, and the X-Wing and TIE Fighter Collector’s Edition strategy guides by Rusel DeMaria, David Wessman, and David Maxwell; Game Developer of February/March 1995 and April/May 1995; Compute! of March 1990; Computer Gaming World of April 1988, November 1988, October 1989, January 1990, September 1990, December 1990, November 1991, February 1992, September 1992, June 1993, October 1993, February 1994, October 1994, and July 1995; PC Zone of April 1993; Retro Gamer 116; LucasArts’s customer newsletter The Adventurer of Fall 1990, Spring 1991, Fall 1991, Spring 1992, Fall 1992, Spring 1993, and Summer 1994; Seattle Times of December 25 2017; Fortune of August 18 1997. Also useful was the Dev Game Club podcast’s interview with Lawrence Holland on January 11, 2017.

X-Wing and TIE Fighter are available as digital purchases on

"Aaron Reed"

dnd (1975)

by Aaron A. Reed at February 05, 2021 01:42 AM

In the early 1970s, in the midst of a cold winter in Urbana, Illinois, a high schooler opened the door to a university lab late one night. He’d been tipped off at a party that something interesting was happening on campus:

“The room lights were off. Cigarette smoke thick in the air, the ceiling disappeared in the gloom. Odd metal boxlike structures lined the room…. Dozens of people in the room, sitting in groups of twos and threes, hunched over each of the boxes, their faces weirdly lit with a strange orange glow coming from some sort of non-TV screen on the front of each box….”

Continue reading at the home of my new blog series, “50 Years of Text Games.”

50 Years of Text Games logo.

February 04, 2021

"Aaron Reed"

Subcutanean is on sale all week!

by Aaron A. Reed at February 04, 2021 10:42 PM

It’s the one-year anniversary of Subcutanean, my permutational horror novel of mirror universes, released on the mirror-date of 0202–2020. To celebrate, you can get your own unique copy of this book that changes for each new reader for 20% off this week.

One of the things I’m proudest about with Subcutanean is that despite being a procedural text project, reviewers have strongly connected with its story of self-discovery and identity. It’s got a 98% positive rating on Goodreads, and it’s been incredible to read the reactions as people have discovered the book over the past year. I wanted to share a few of my favorite excerpts from Goodreads reviews.

  • Thomas Gizbert wrote: “My worry when pledging for this book was that it wouldn’t transcend its core gimmick, or, worse, that the randomised aspects of the text would hinder the book, rendering it choppy or disjointed. I was wrong, of course. …a compulsive page-turner that kept me reading even when it got deeply scary.” Thanks for powering through, Thomas!
  • Carl wrote: “I kept asking myself, ‘Is this a mystery? a horror? fantasy? science fiction?’ As events progressed, I found my perspective shifted from one genre to another as if the story were branching as I read it. This is a feature, not a bug! This realization marked when I felt like I understood what Aaron was trying to do — just knowing other readers will read a slightly different version of events means what is on my page is but one interpretation of a larger story. Perhaps your interpretation will be different, but isn’t that the point?” Thanks for the thoughtful review, Carl.
  • CaseyTheCanadianLesbrarian (what a dope username!) wrote: “an inventive and creepy queer horror thriller [with] very cool meta-narrative details.” Thanks, Casey.
  • Shannon wrote: “Take House of Leaves’ Navidson Record endless house of horrors, mix in heavy helpings of Dark Matter’s parallel universes and sprinkle in some great LGBTQ representation and you get Subcutanean. …The moments of horror were often delightfully blindsiding and were handled SO well. I finished the story desperately wanting to read it again. And the best part is that I CAN reread it and have it be different the next time through.” Thank you, Shannon!
  • Katrina wrote: “Read this book. Not only is the fact that each copy is unique an amazing concept, but the goddamn thing is proper creepy.” Thanks for the kind words, Katrina.
  • Matt (TeamRedmon) wrote: “Every page is a new discovery and just when I thought I knew where the story was going I quickly realized I was wrong.⁣” Glad to keep surprising you, Matt!
  • Peter Terry wrote: “not just smartly written but a fantastically fun read. The characters are deep and relatable; the plot has great subtext and kept me hooked. It’s eerie, creepy, and drips existential dread. That you can get your own permutation of the novel feels clinical and calculated — a perfectly resonate and thematic touch.” Thanks Peter!
  • Tim Chaplin wrote: “I’m a slow reader; it takes me about a month to get through a book, mostly because I read a chapter or less at a time after I get into bed. I tore through this book in 2 sittings. I literally can’t remember the last time that happened. I’ve also never reviewed a book online, but I felt like I had to tell people about it.” Thank you Tim, and it’s much appreciated.

If you haven’t got your own Subcutanean yet, you can get a unique print or e-book copy on sale through the first week of February 2021, or follow my other work on Twitter or my projects website.

February 01, 2021

Reviews from Trotting Krips

Alone by Paul Michael Winters (2020)

by Bryan B at February 01, 2021 05:42 AM

The Ugly, Evil Guy On My Shoulder’s Verdict:


The Nice, Handsome Guy On My Shoulder’s Verdict:

This game is a prayer for a swift ending to all pandemics, present and future. Amen.

My Verdict:

Paul Michael Winters gave us the perfect game for 2020, for better or worse.

Game Information

Game Type: Inform (Glulx)

Author Info: Paul Michael Winters is a new, emerging IF author with an uncertain background and biography and an apparently limited web presence. One of his games is on if you’re into that sort of thing.

Download Link:

Other Games By This Author: The House on Sycamore Lane, The Long Nap

“Hope.” That’s the closing line of this game if you get the good ending. I don’t think I’m really spoiling anything by mentioning that here, but that line struck me as the absolute perfect way to end what is a rather grim work about a deadly disease. In 2020 and so far in 2021, hope is exactly what the world has been trying desperately to hold on to as millions have died, tens of millions have been infected, public squares and businesses have been and continue to be closed, and vaccine rollouts have been botched to varying degrees. I’m not sure I personally would have chosen to write a game about a devastating illness in 2020, but I think I understand why Paul Michael Winters made that difficult choice. Alone is art that captures the spirit of the times. It is a mirror that reflects back on us the fear, the desperation, and the uncertainty of the pandemic. As you might expect, it’s not a very pleasant picture for the most part.

When I first played this game, I immediately saw some of its promise, but I set it aside for a couple of months before actually finishing it. Part of me just didn’t want to keep playing a game that uncomfortably reminded me of real life. After all, IF is something that can offer an excellent escape from overbearing reality. I appreciated each and every 2020 IFComp game I played which didn’t make me think about Covid-19 or other current events. Yet IF also has a role it can play in illuminating reality and making us face difficult issues. This probably isn’t the right thing to play if you just attended Grandpa’s funeral via Zoom or have been up all night worrying about why you seem to have all the symptoms…and I do mean ALL of them. If you’re in the right frame of mind to appreciate it, however, Alone can be powerful and resonate strongly. Winters wrote a game which has a bigger emotional impact in 2020 than it would have had any previous non-pandemic year. In 2019, my short review of this game would probably have gone something like, “Haha, deadly pandemic game! Fun fun!” No one’s writing that review in 2020 or 2021. We’re just too close to it to consider the premise dispassionately or mockingly. My review of Texas Chainsaw Massacre for the Atari 2600 wouldn’t have gone, “Haha, chopping up kids game! Fun fun fun!” if thousands of kids were actually being murdered with chainsaws in 1983. (In retrospect, that probably still wasn’t the most socially responsible review I’ve ever written even though chainsaw murders were at a 30 year low at the time.) The topicality of the subject matter combined with Winters’ grim and serious tone commands our attention. It doesn’t feel like just a game. It could be a glimpse of a possible future…perhaps even tomorrow’s reality, unfortunately.

The pandemic in the game is probably even worse than what we’re facing in the real world. It is causing people to drop dead in the streets (and elsewhere) after developing horrific symptoms including black veins in the neck and temporary insanity. Our protagonist — hell, I’ll say it, OUR HERO — is staying alive in a most desperate and daring fashion. Rather than social distancing at home and waiting for inevitable death, he’s taken to the road. He drives aimlessly through a now eerily empty countryside, only stopping when he must to collect gas and other vital supplies. This might not seem like the most Fauci-approved survival strategy, but these are exceptionally bad times. We can safely surmise the main character didn’t feel safe at home. Maybe supplies were dwindling. Maybe there were riots. Maybe Uncle Jim got infected, and you know that guy’s a hugger. Death Ride 2020 isn’t anyone’s first choice for a pandemic lifestyle. Our dude has found a way to survive, but it’s wearing on him and doesn’t seem sustainable. Everything comes to a head when he runs out of gas and must venture out on foot into the darkness. There’s a gas station nearby, but we pretty much know already that it’s not going to be that easy. Not at all.

Paul Michael Winters uses a very spare, austere writing style through much of the game. Alone largely packs its storytelling punch into the introduction and ending sections of the game. The intro is terrific and immediately made me identify with the main character, that lonely, exhausted figure who cannot stop driving ever onwards into the dark and gloomy night. The ending — well, the best ending anyway — provides a satisfying, life-affirming conclusion that makes the journey seem totally worthwhile in the end. It’s the journey itself that tested my motivation to finish at times. When you’re in the puzzle solving and obstacle removing portion of the game (which is the bulk of it), you won’t be getting much exposition or description. The minimalistic style of the writing fits the somber, lonely narrative, but I had questions about the disease and the state of the world I was hoping would be answered as I progressed through the game that weren’t. Part of the problem is my unreasonable expectation that my reward for solving puzzles in a text adventure should be more exposition. Not all games work like that. This game demands some patience and the recognition that answers aren’t always readily available when a pandemic is ravaging the world. There is some background information provided in written materials you find scattered around, but it’s quite limited in scope. The main character seems to know more about the disease than we do, but perhaps not much more. He isn’t investigating the disease’s origin or trying to cure the world — he’s just trying to survive, and that’s quite hard enough under the circumstances.

I know nothing concrete about Paul Michael Winters or his wintery ways, but in my mind he’s a young IF author who is still honing his craft. If it turns out he’s actually 63 and an old hand at text games, then my bad…though I will say that’s still fairly young by IF standards. If you were to play his first game (reviewed by Flack here) and then this one immediately after, it would be obvious to you that he’s improving and growing as an author and a developer. Maybe that alone doesn’t definitively prove the Young Winters Theory, but it does show PMW is pretty serious about this whole IF thing. He clearly put some extra time in for testing and polishing this time around. For the most part, this is a game that just works. It’s a triumph of implementation in its own way. Considering the number of objects you must use to get past a variety of electrical, electronic, and mechanical obstacles, there’s a lot that could’ve potentially gone wrong here that didn’t. As a player, it’s a relief to be able to encounter a gate or a control panel in the game and know it’s going to work as you would expect if you’ve got the right items in tow. I’ve been replaying Vampire: the Masquerade — Bloodlines recently so when I saw an air duct in this game I was both overjoyed and extremely eager to get inside. One of the major differences between video games and real life for me personally is that I’d essentially never voluntarily enter a air duct in real life but I’ll pretty much never pass up a chance for some quality ductin’ time in a video game. As it turns out, the air duct turned out to be totally serviceable though very small. A lot of air ducts have those two qualities, I imagine. The important thing is it worked. Good ductin’, man, good ductin’! The one object I found somewhat fiddly to work with was the drug synthesis machine. Nothing major — it’s just somewhat awkward to use and I blame it for getting me killed when I forgot to do something stupid. In summation, air ducts rule and life-saving, drug-dispensing wondermachines suck.

The worst parsers try to fight you on everything. Even something as simple as going south or opening a door can be an ordeal, let alone a more complex action like entering an air duct to get some good ductin’. The best parsers understand pretty much everything reasonable you throw at them. It’s like the author knew exactly what you were going to type before you typed it! I swear there’s a line in Deadline Marc Blank threw in just for me to find during my fourth playthrough. The parser in Alone is somewhere in between those two extremes. I generally found that if my first attempt at wording a command didn’t work the second would, but your mileage may vary. There are definitely verbs that should’ve been implemented that weren’t. Have you ever noticed that it’s generally the verbs you don’t implement that you find yourself missing the most? On the other hand, the game understood some complex commands I almost didn’t expect it to. I fully expect PMW to keep the cycle of improvement going and for his next game to be even better than this one so I’m sure he’ll focus more on the parser next time. There’ll be more verbs, more synonyms, more accepted alternatives, and hopefully more air ducts. The parser doesn’t ruin this game by any means, but it may test your patience at times.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Alone is the moral choice you must make towards the end of the game. It’s so cleverly implemented that you might never even recognize it as a moral choice or even feel like you have a choice, but it absolutely is. You can “win” the game either way and feel like you did what you needed to do, but one ending is much, much more satisfying than the other. I strongly recommend playing it at least twice so you can see both endings. You’ll actually probably end up playing it three times because xyzzy kills you. The only things I hate more than life-saving, drug-dispensing wondermachines are death-bringing xyzzy implementations, but the game is still good and very much worth playing.

Simple Rating: 7/10

Complicated Rating:35/50

Story: 7/10

Writing: 7/10 (I’d give it an 8 at its best and a 5 or 6 through most of the game. So somehow it ended up being a 7!)

Playability: 7/10

Puzzle Quality: 8/10 (I’m counting the moral choice as a puzzle with multiple solutions. The other puzzles are generally good as well.)

Parser Responsiveness: 6/10

January 31, 2021

Emily Short

End of January Link Assortment

by Mort Short at January 31, 2021 11:41 PM


February 6 is the next meeting of the SF Bay Area IF Meetup.

February 21 is the next meeting of the Seattle/Tacoma Area IF Meetup.

New Releases

Serania – Path of the Scion is launching February 4th 2021.

Serania is a new flavor of choice-based text adventure set in a Nordic style medieval fantasy world. The game has its own style with a fast-paced, progressive flow, combined with a multi-level choice-system that seamlessly brings elements from role playing and traditional text adventures into the choices.It is designed specifically for mobile and is using its own FableTree engine.

Contest, Jams, & Festivals

The Gaming Like It’s 1925 game jam, drawing on inspiration from works created in 1925, is still open to entries through January 31.

The French IF Competition also has ten games currently available for play and judging.

Articles & Links

Northeastern University is currently accepting applications for an Associate Professor/Full Professor of Games at their Boston Campus. Despite the listed deadline, they are still looking at additional candidates, and are seeking candidates “with an international record of excellence in research and/or creative practice in one or more areas including but not limited to: HCI, algorithmic bias, game analytics, creative coding, experiential technologies, extended reality, interdisciplinary design, player psychology, generative design, art games, serious games, and interactive narrative.”

January 28, 2021

Adventure Blog


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January 28, 2021 06:42 PM

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