Planet Interactive Fiction

December 15, 2019

Emily Short

Mid-December Link Assortment

by Mort Short at December 15, 2019 05:41 AM


SubQJam closes tomorrow, December 16, for submissions of short interactive fiction, and winners will be featured in SubQ Magazine next year.

The Oxford/London IF Meetup does not get together during the festive season, so we’ll not be together again until 2020.

January 4 is the next gathering of the SF Bay Interactive Fiction Meetup.

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

The NarraScope organizers have announced that there will be a NarraScope 2020: specifically, May 29-31, in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois. There is not yet a call for talks that I’ve seen, but I imagine that will follow soon.

Last year was the inaugural year for this conference, focused on narrative games from classic IF and text adventures through point-and-click adventures to VR games, interactive audio, and mobile story games, TTRPGs and LARP, and quite a bit more. Meanwhile, if you missed this year’s event, or would just like to revisit its glories, there is a new podcast, Through the NarraScope, that discusses some of the talks and content.

December 12, 2019

The Gaming Philosopher

Sexual jealousy and the fragile male ego in 1532

by Victor Gijsbers ([email protected]) at December 12, 2019 05:06 PM

Suppose that you pick up a book published in 1532. You're probably not expecting its values to align very much with our own. Indeed, having seen that it's a fantasy epic full of riveting tales of knights and adventures, you might expect that you can have some fun with it, but on one condition: that you're willing to overlook its undoubtedly old-fashioned morals, morals that will surely include a

Choice of Games

In the Service of Mrs. Claus–Save Xmas as her top secret elven agent!

by Mary Duffy at December 12, 2019 04:42 PM

We’re proud to announce that In the Service of Mrs. Claus, the latest in our popular Choice of Games line of multiple-choice interactive-fiction games, is now available for Steam, Android, and on iOS in the Choice of Games Omnibus app. It’s 25% off until December 19!

Let me tell you the true secret of Christmas: Santa Claus died centuries ago. You see, in ancient times, as the Gods began to die, Santa Claus married a goddess. She was worshiped as Bast in Egypt, as Artemis in Greece, Diana in Rome. She’s been called a witch, a hero, an assassin. You call her Mrs. Claus.

In the Service of Mrs. Claus is a 167,000-word interactive fantasy thriller by Brian Rushton, where your choices control the story. It’s entirely text-based—without graphics or sound effects—and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination.

When Santa died, Mrs. Claus invested the power of Christmas in Santa’s Heart, which she buried with Santa in a top-security tomb beneath Claus Castle. But now, someone has stolen the Heart. As Mrs. Claus’ top secret agent–her most trusted elf–you must go undercover to recover the Heart and take back Christmas from the forces of darkness.

As you unveil the dark secrets of the Fae, you’ll magic up giant marshmallows and deadly candy canes, romance sweet friends and roguish villains, and vie with the mysterious Krinkle Corporation to save Christmas from ruin. But in the final battles you must decide whether to blast the armies of darkness with your winter elf magic, or join them and betray your mistress.

• Play as a shape-shifting elf who flows between gender, species, and form at will.
• Clash with cults, gods, and giant corporations as they strive to overthrow Mrs. Claus’s empire.
• Use magic to complete clandestine missions as Mrs. Claus’s secret agent.
• Visit earthly children to determine their naughty or nice designations…and presents, if any.
• Decide the fate of Christmas and the Fae world itself.
• Discover the truth about Santa’s death.
• Play nice with your enemies or put them on your naughty list.
• Restore Mrs. Claus to power, betray her, or marry her.

Christmas is coming. You’d better watch out.

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

Renga in Blue

Nuclear Sub (1980)

by Jason Dyer at December 12, 2019 05:41 AM

Aardvark gives us one last game for 1980, this time by Bob Retelle (who previously wrote Trek Adventure).

From a 1983 Aardvark catalog. It states the game was plotted by Rodger Olsen, Bob Retelle, and “someone you don’t know”. We definitely won’t know if there’s no name!

I was looking forward to this one, given Trek Adventure was quite solid even given the minimalism. This game, alas, mostly just made me grumpy.

It starts just like Trek Adventure (and Deathship) on a vehicle headed to disaster.

Unlike those two games, the goal is not to rescue the ship, but merely to escape. This was part of the reason I was originally baffled; I spent a while trying to “fix” the problem, leading me down entirely the wrong path. The game constantly reminds you about rising core temperature

and even though it turns out time is relatively ample, getting a message of imminent death every 10 turns threw off my normally patient adventurer demeanor.

The first major puzzle involved getting a leaking battery (whilst wearing gloves) and pouring the battery acid on a broken hatch. This led to a flooded compartment, going down was death.

The right action here was HOLD BREATH. I had sussed out an identical action in Savage Island Part 1, so theoretically I could have found this on my own, but keep in mind this is still with the Aardvark two-letter-only parser where communicating anything at all is rough.

After HOLD BREATH you can go down into a flooded compartment to find a locker and a chest. If you open either one, you get no description, but you can then either LOOK LOCKER or LOOK CHEST to find out what’s inside…

…and then die again. HOLD BREATH only gives you one turn of leeway. So you have to HOLD BREATH, GO DOWN into the flooded compartment, OPEN LOCKER, go back up, HOLD BREATH again, GO DOWN again, see what’s in the locker (an underwater lantern and a box of washers), and forgetfully try to then OPEN CHEST and die from drowning yet again.

Wait, that maybe shouldn’t be “you” there, but it was sure “me”. This was incredibly frustrating; it turns out the CHEST has SCUBA GEAR, and once the player has the gear they’re safe from drowning.

From here, the game had stripped off pretty much all resistance I had to checking for hints. I have zero regrets, because the next puzzle was even worse.

Would you think to … LOOK UP?

I suppose the puddle was supposed to be a clue, but the action is entirely out of left field for text adventures.

After knowing the pipes are there, you can BREAK PIPES with a SLEDGEHAMMER which causes the submarine to flood completely (this is why you needed the scuba gear). You’re informed all the electrical systems are now shot, but the meltdown has fortunately now stopped.

If the PIPES were in the room description to begin with, this would have been a conceptually cool puzzle: in order to prevent reactor meltdown, we have to destroy something else and completely change the environment. And it really is changed, because now inside the sub there is a MORAY EEL and ELECTRIC EEL (you can see previously both outside in the ship’s periscope).

The effect of trying to get past the moray eel.

You can pick up the electric eel as long as you have rubber gloves (whether this is remotely plausible in real life, I have no idea) and then you can use the electric eel to scare away to moray eel. This isn’t quite so unreasonable, except for the verb you need to use.

That’s SHOO EEL, and this may be the only time in a text adventure game I ever see the verb SHOO. (ADD: Andrew Plotkin and Matt W. are theorizing other options in the comments, given SH is the recognized verb. SHOCK definitely works.)

Past the EEL is the torpedo room. If you’ve fired a torpedo before shutting down the power (you just declare FIRE TORPEDO, there doesn’t seem to be a button or anything), you’re able to go through the torpedo tube to the outside and escape.

So, in summary: HOLD BREATH, LOOK UP, and SHOO EEL. Nuclear Sub had some good ideas, but it needed a better parser and world model to pull them off.

I was still impressed by the player causing the entire map to get immersed underwater. This kind of dramatic change is very rare, but is the sort of dynamism that makes adventure games interesting.

I also like how the map felt very tight and modern; nothing tangled or sprawling, and it is easy to remember where everything is.

December 10, 2019

Renga in Blue

Odyssey #3, Journey Through Time (1980)

by Jason Dyer at December 10, 2019 04:41 PM

Joel Mick and James Taranto return for one last game. By my best reckoning, this is the first adventure game ever made that involves traveling back in time. (Krell Software’s Time Traveller is more a strategy game, and TimeQuest didn’t come out until 1981. There were also no Dr. Who adventure games until 1981. )

A shot from the trailer for Time Bandits (1981), which feels relevant even though it came out a year after Odyssey #3.

The first two Odyssey games (#1, #2) both had prior background of the player character that isn’t fully disclosed right away. In game #1, the plot didn’t move at all until the player chooses to kill a royal messenger; in game #2, the player rummages through a dead person, takes their stuff, and steals a plane.

The second game, in particular, was fairly grating, whereas the character for this game, while also cheerfully amoral, was a lot more fun to play.

My theory is that Odyssey #2 did nothing to establish the character as the type of person who might steal a plane. It started with a default “the player is you” but then expected some acts that “you” might not normally consider taking. Odyssey #3, on the other hand, establishes the player character as some sort of absent-minded mad scientist before the main action starts of going: a robbery spree across time. Additionally, “robbery spree across time” just feels like something a character who is more Chaotic Good than Lawful Evil would do — akin to the Time Bandits movie mentioned above. (There’s also a level of PC wickedness that’s too much for me, even given a distinctly well-drawn character, but we haven’t reached any game like that in the All the Adventures series yet.)

You start in a bedroom with no other context (see above), but given the circumstances later, the player character is just being forgetful. Stepping north leads to the first obstacle of the game.

After getting by the mouse (using a furry little kitten) there’s a STRANGE LABORATORY with a LOCKED DOOR, DINGUS, TEST TUBES, and TINY WHITE MICE.


The DINGUS is described as having a battery clip, and if you ATTACH BATTERY to it, you are told


and it turns into a TIME MACHINE. The time machine has a black and a white button; the white button jumps to the “present” while the black button jumps between different periods.

Each period has a single treasure you can acquire. A fair number of them are in the open, not even designed as a “puzzle” really — for example, in London, there’s a costume (and you are told explicitly it looks like it’d be fun to wear); if you wear it you find a Shakespeare manuscript inside.

What puzzles do exist are relatively minor; the building that contains the TRS-80 prototype in the screenshot above has a guard who is open to bribery.

Where I had the most difficulty was not nabbing treasures, but getting them to their “home”. I had every single treasure before I could reach the place they needed to go — a locked door in the laboratory — but since a treasure is required to get the key, this seemed to be quite intentional sequencing.

This was — by a multiplier — more fun than most of the “easy” games from 1980, and I think it came down to the actions being performed; bribing a guard as an action on its own is mundane, bribing a guard to steal the TRS-80 prototype from 1977 is kind of hilarious. As another example, the treasure in Germany is a Gutenberg Bible; however, instead of stealing one, you have to fix a machine and print a brand-new one for yourself.

If you’d like to try Treasure Acquisition Journey Through Time for yourself, the game is on IF-Archive (unfortunately I don’t have an online play link, so you’ll need to use an emulator, there’s guide on how to do that here).

Emily Short

Mailbag: Moments of Non-Choice

by Emily Short at December 10, 2019 01:41 PM

This is a slightly unusual mailbag post because the question was asked in chat context, but it turned out to be something where I felt a number of other people would be interested in the answer, so I’ve paraphrased and expanded what I said there.

I have a story point where the protagonist has to do something. It feels bad not to offer them any choice here, but if they don’t do the thing, then the whole plot comes apart.

I have a bunch of tactics to offer here, depending on where in the story this is happening and what it means.

Tricks for the start of a story

What Lies Beneath the Clock Tower is partly about engagement vs withdrawal, and its start-of-adventure choice has more thematic validity than most

Start the story after the choice has been made. “The protagonist has to do this thing” is a pretty common situation at the beginning of a game where we’re looking at the inciting incident for the story. You usually don’t want to allow the player to choose not to go on the quest for Smaug’s gold. It’s better to assume that, if the player’s started a game about this quest, they want to play the quest, and we should just get on with the first interesting choice that happens after they’ve already committed.

There are very occasional cases where I think an aesthetic argument can be made for including such a choice, but they’re very much the exception.

Tricks that work later

Shift responsibility for the incident. You can decide that some other, external force is responsible for the protagonist’s bad situation — which may then require some setup to prepare. This often works fine in an action/adventure-y scenario where we expect that misadventures will regularly occur to motivate the plot.

Alternatively, we can make the bad twist into an unforeseeable but inevitable result of an action that was perfectly sensible for the protagonist to do. Perhaps they’ve rescued a puppy, in line with their characterization as a lover of animals, only this particular puppy is the carrier of a disease that sickens all the other animals in the shelter. This is where the idea of the expectation gap becomes useful.

Provide strong motivation in the choice framing. The more one digs into this, the more the difference between interactive and non-interactive story starts to melt away. A non-interactive story can force its protagonist to do something stupid on command — but the viewer still wants to understand that this act is in character.

Maybe the protagonist did steal a car and take it for a joy ride and get arrested — but they did that because it’s a flashy sports car that their asshole brother bought and drove to Thanksgiving dinner just to show off how much better he’s doing, and it pushed all of the protagonist’s buttons at once.

The thing is that if you put that same level and quality of setup into an interactive story, and then you offer the player the choice

  • Eat my turkey, keep my mouth shut
  • Join Dad in congratulating Ryan on his brilliant career choices
  • Pretend I need to pee, go outside, break into Ryan’s Porsche and drive it to Vegas

…there are pretty decent odds they will want to choose three.

And, if not, it’s also likely they’ll understand what the interface is communicating about the character if it’s greyed out the first two options as unavailable.

Dialogue in Neo Cab can be available or unavailable depending on the protagonist’s evolving mood. Disallowed choices options are conventional enough that most players will understand — even if the protagonist is actually forced to be in one specific mood at the key moment when you want to control their actions.

Skip the moment of decision. Use an act break or the space between episodes to skip ahead in the story until after the protagonist has done this.

This effect is distancing. The previous approach asks the player to think as much as possible in character with the protagonist, adopting their motivations and feelings so much that they do something that might not be in their own interests. This one, by contrast, pushes the player out of the protagonist’s head. Both can work, but they achieve different things.

You then do still need to reconcile the player to what’s just happened, though — justifying the protagonist at least in retrospect is often going to be critical to the player’s sense of themselves.

(I think my all-time least-favorite example of this is in Emily is Away, where control of the relationship is taken from the player in such a way that the protagonist engages in what could be construed as a dubiously consensual situation.)

One form of reconciliation is to make a mystery out of why the protagonist did this, and have the explanation gradually emerge through the next segment of play. I urge you not to motivate this via amnesia unless you absolutely have to, though.

Another approach is to show the aftermath of the Bad Choice, then tell what led to it in flashback. Think of all the TV shows that start with a shocking incident, then go back with “72 hours earlier…” to show how we got there. It’s a bit hackneyed, but it can work; and telling part of an interactive story in flashback mode means that we can ask some different types of question during this part of the story.

Which brings us to…

Useful any time

Offer a form of choice other than “what do you do?” Here are things you can ask the player instead:

How do you do this? Questions of method rather than intent are really common in Choice of Games works, and they feed into protagonism/identification forms of agency generally.

With what resources / at what cost / with what benefit? A bit related to “how,” but this choice gets the player engaged with the stakes of this part of the story.

Why do you do it? Motivation questions allow the player to put their own spin on an event. At the start of the game, this kind of question might let the player pick a backstory for their protagonist; later, it might have some other functions, like setting a new goal or calling back to a previous story outcome.

How do you feel about it afterward? A reflective choice with a slightly different flavor than the motivation question, often good to use as a character beat or a quiet moment between more action-y elements.

And then there are a few more esoteric options:

When, where, or with whom do you do this? All of your standard journalism questions are fair game for a choice point. And when/where/with whom questions can be good setup for an exploration or investigation sequence. Where do you go first? is a very common choice in a mystery scenario.

If there isn’t an obvious exploratory meaning, though, these questions may take a bit of framing to make them interesting — why does it matter where the player does the action? The answer to that might vary a lot depending on the narrative.

Sometimes from a narrative point of view it’s easier to think of these as resource/cost/benefit questions that just happen to be pegged to secondary characters or in-world locations.

You do this. What is the result? This one really flips the script, and sometimes it will feel deeply weird. But it can be a way to invite the player to co-authorship (at the more extreme/daring end of the spectrum). Alternatively, especially at the beginning of play, it can again let the player establish something about their protagonist’s family and home life. An example:

You put on a black leather corset with the red ribbon ties, and head for the front door. At which point…

  • Mom completely flips out — something about the fate awaiting all immodest women — but I’ve heard it before.
  • Mom completely flips out — wearing real leather is going to destroy the planet! — but I’ve heard it before.
  • Mom doesn’t look up from her laptop long enough to notice.

The corsetry event always happens, with whatever inevitable consequence, but we’ve given the player the chance to pick one of three possible conflict engines with the protagonist’s mother: she’s a workaholic too busy to give us attention, she’s conservatively controlling, or her ecology-focused activism makes her hard to live with.

December 09, 2019

Choice of Games

Author Interview: Brian Rushton, In the Service of Mrs. Claus

by Mary Duffy at December 09, 2019 02:42 PM

Let me tell you the true secret of Christmas: Santa Claus died centuries ago. You see, in ancient times, as the Gods began to die, Santa Claus married a goddess. She was worshiped as Bast in Egypt, as Artemis in Greece, Diana in Rome. She’s been called a witch, a hero, an assassin. You call her Mrs. Claus.

In the Service of Mrs. Claus is a 167,000-word interactive fantasy thriller by Brian Rushton. I sat down with Brian to talk about Christmas and our first holiday-themed game. In the Service of Mrs. Claus releases Thursday, December 12th.

In the Service of Mrs. Claus is a highly specific imagining of the world of Christmas spirits/elves/etc. Tell me where that came from.

I’ve always loved elves and faeries, from the stories of the Brothers Grimm and Irish legends to cheesy Christmas cartoons and the Lord of the Rings. I wanted to make a world where all these types of elves and Fae could exist together. These were all thought of by humans, so why not have a world fueled by mortal imagination? And that led to a much larger world than I had originally planned, a world where Claus Castle had to share space with creatures like mythological gods, the Tooth Fairy and Bloody Mary. Looking back, I think that the book The Neverending Story was a big influence on this world, because it also has that ‘big tent’ view where all mythological creatures belong together, influenced by human wishes and dreams.

This is one of the few Choice of Games titles where the PC is non-human, and also not a super-human. Do you think that presents challenges for the player, or does it function much the same way in crafting a PC?

I definitely think there are some challenges! One difference in being an elf instead of a human is that you have no set shape. Elves can change size, gender, and species at will. So the only thing that sticks around with your character is the personality, powers, and friendships.

Some players might feel frustrated that they can’t tailor a character with specific eye color or fixed gender. On the other hand, it can feel freeing not to be tied down to any one body. One of the main skills in the game is Shifting, the power to transform yourself. Several players have mentioned how much fun it can be to turn into a pixie for cooking or a dragon for fighting. So there are definitely some advantages in having a non-human protagonist.

Do you have a favorite part or favorite personal tradition as part of the holiday season?

I think spending time together with family is my favorite. Growing up, we used to have big family parties every Christmas Eve. Most of my cousins could play an instrument, so we’d put together a big band and play Christmas carols together. We had four violins, a flute, piano, a tuba, a clarinet, a few guitars, and I’d play saxophone. Sometimes my grandfather would play washtub bass. We had little green booklets that had the carols arranged for our own instruments, and everyone who wasn’t playing would sing.

Later that night, our parents would let us pick one present to open early. My mom usually tried to get us to pick the fluffy packages that were obviously pajamas. But one year I ended up with a coat (which I wore to bed just to get some use out of it) and another year I opened up an SNES game without the SNES (I ended up reading the manual all night).

My grandfather was the head of all these things, and he passed away this year. So in a way I’d hope that this game could help honor his memory.

This is certainly the only holiday-themed game we’ve published, but tell me why this game would be fun at any time of year.

In the Service of Mrs. Claus is a Christmas game the same way that Die Hard and The Nightmare Before Christmas are Christmas movies. Christmas provides the background and the motivation, but most of the story is not about Christmas itself.

Instead, it’s about questioning your identity in the face of extreme trials. The PC has their core beliefs challenged, gets hunted by extra-dimensional beings, and ends up betrayed by former friends. One beta tester described the theme as “Christmas horror” and I think that’s pretty accurate!

This is not your first IF rodeo, though I believe it is your first ChoiceScript game. Tell our readers about some of your other projects.

My longest game before this was a parser-based game called Color the Truth. It’s a murder mystery set in a 1980’s radio station where their star radio host has been found dead. You have to interview the suspects by playing through their memories, but everyone is lying. If you catch them in a lie by combining clues, you can replay again and see what really happened.

I also partnered with IF author and pixel artist Marco Innocenti to make an illustrated parser game called Swigian, which is a retelling of Beowulf. In contrast to my other games, it’s completely minimalistic, with as little words as possible. I love the way Marco’s art turned out for it!

And what are you working on next?

For the last few years, I’ve been offering a prize in the Interactive Fiction Competition where I make a small game set in the same world as the winner’s game. Right now I’m working on a sequel to last year’s winner, Alias the Magpie, a British crime caper. My game is set on a train, where you have to overcome suspicious servants and a talkative parrot to rob an American oil magnate.

I’m also running (with permission) a tribute competition for the 20th anniversary of Emily Short’s game Galatea, which is still one of the best conversational games out there. It’ll be running next year from March 24th to April 2nd, and it’s a chance for people to have some fun and make something that celebrates Galatea and Short’s other work. Choicescript games are welcome!

December 08, 2019

Renga in Blue

Vampire Castle (1980)

by Jason Dyer at December 08, 2019 04:41 PM

Aardvark released six adventure games in 1980; so far we’ve seen Trek Adventure, Deathship, Escape from Mars, and Pyramid.

Vampire Castle is (as far as I can tell) Mike Bassman’s only adventure game. It was, as usual, originally written for Ohio Scientific computers, and (also as usual) later ported to the Commodore 64.

From the Aardvark November 1981 catalog.

Rather unusually, there was also a MS-DOS port.

The sign says “the vampire wakes up at midnight”.

I went ahead and played the Ohio Scientific version as I did with the prior games, but I should note while the “concealed goal” idea mentioned in the instructions above seems cool conceptually, in practice here it’s bizarre; I’m in a game called Vampire Castle, I wonder if there might be some enemy I might need to defeat, one that likes to hang out in coffins?

This is also a quite straightforward and easy game, where I only got stopped twice (once from parser trouble, once from a genuinely interesting bit where I had already used up a resource). Hence, I think it’s an ideal test-bed for something I’ve wanted to try for a while: make a map not of the game, but of the inter-relation between puzzles. (If you desperately need a traditional map — and I’m not going to begrudge you because a fair number of visitors to this blog come for the maps — CASA has you covered.)

Now, this is not an novel enterprise; game designers make this kind of thing all the time[1], but I haven’t seen it as much from the player end, and I figured it might be an interesting device in my arsenal to have if I’m stuck on a game (perhaps allowing the ability to use structural solving, for instance).

To go there, I need to explicitly spoil the entire sequence of the game, so veer away now if for some reason you plan to play this first. (You can play the MSDOS version online at this link; it has some differences from the original but is close enough.)

Here’s a public domain spooky moon picture for spoiler space.

The game starts in an east-west hall with a fireplace, a library, and a parapet accessible. You also find an axe and sledgehammer in the same hall. Entering the fire leads to being burned to death, and GO PARAPET leads to falling, so those puzzles aren’t solvable right away. The library has a scroll indicating not all exits are obvious, and PUSH BOOKCASE opens an exit down.

The down-exit goes to a secret passage with a rope, a flask of oil, a bucket, and a crate. The axe can be applied to break the crate and get some wooden stakes.

The rope is sufficient to go to the parapet and TIE ROPE. This opens up an area with a key, holy water, and an oar. You can get the holy water with the bucket.

Once obtaining the water, you can DROP WATER at the fireplace to extinguish the flames. Inside the fireplace is a torch but nothing else; however, you can BREAK FIREPLACE to open a secret passage[2].

The hidden passage leads to a boat, which you can row as long as you have the oar. Then there’s a tapestry nailed to an overhang. The overhang is too high to reach, but if you haven’t destroyed the crate yet, you can drop it and use it as a step-stool to reach the overhang and remove the nails (using the sledgehammer, which apparently doubles as a regular hammer). This lets you pull down the tapestry and get to a secret passage[3].

There’s then a rusty door which requires oil to get through, followed by a room with a coffin. Opening the coffin (using the key) reveals the vampire; if you’ve got the wooden stakes you can then KILL VAMPIRE and win.

Only having the parser understand the first two letters of each word wrecks havoc on one’s spelling.

That’s the setup, here’s my diagram:

Dotted lines indicate a resource is used up.

I’m not happy with it yet; it looks like something meant to be read by computers rather than people, it doesn’t lead to any extra insights, and on a more complicated game this is going to turn into a nightmarish tangle. So, I need to keep experimenting.


1.) Rather than insisting on an arrow for everything, have some “distance connections” indicated by matching numbers (like on some complex text adventure geographical maps).

2.) Make the objects smaller and more like unified lists, so the actual puzzle-events have more space.

3.) Mark the crate in a special way indicating it’s possible to waste it before it can be used (that is, if you break it before using it as a step-stool, the game is soft-locked).

Any suggestions along these lines are helpful, I might take another crack at this soon. In the meantime, I’m down to 7 games to go before finishing off 1980!

[1] Does anyone have a lead on what the first extant documentation is for this sort of map? (That is, a map of puzzle relations, not a map of geography.)

[2] This is the spot of the game I had parser trouble. BREAK WALL didn’t work and the fireplace itself doesn’t appear as a listed noun when inside; it’s just in the title of the room.

[3] This is the second place I got stuck, because I had destroyed the crate already, and in evaluating my potential objects for use, I forgot to account for objects that existed only in the past. I’m also not sure why you can’t just apply an axe to the tapestry to get through.

December 07, 2019

Renga in Blue

Odyssey #2, Treasure Island: Finished!

by Jason Dyer at December 07, 2019 11:41 AM

One of my commentators managed to crack the case.

From Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, the Milo Winter illustrated edition.

I had been stumped with this “crossword puzzle”.


I assumed (in fact correctly) that 1. indicated “MAGIC” and 2. indicated “WORD”, but I tried things like SAY MAGIC WORD with no luck. I was parsing the clue slightly wrong.


It’s indicating that ACROSS is the MAGIC WORD. So at the RAVINE where I was stuck, I just needed to SAY ACROSS.

This led me to some COAL. I was also able to DROP my LADDER here to get over to a *CAVE PAINTING* (another treasure), but obviously the coal (in its starting form) didn’t quite qualify. There was no magic machine as in Zork to process the coal, but it occured to me this might be a situation like Pyramid of Doom where the coal was just surrounding something else. Going over to the ocean and typing SWIM OCEAN gave the coal enough of a bath to get a *DIAMOND*. UPDATE: It looks like the bath part was unnecessary, just LOOK COAL is enough to cause it to switch to a diamond.

I also mentioned last time not being able to get anything off a newsstand; I was misunderstanding the situation and it’s possible to GO NEWSSTAND as if it were a room to get a copy of Hustler. There’s more detail in the comments, so I’m going to just refer to that and that say the entire business is optional.

December 06, 2019

The Digital Antiquarian

Eric the Unready

by Jimmy Maher at December 06, 2019 04:41 PM

In September of 1991, Bob Bates of Legend Entertainment flew to Florida for a meeting of the Software Publishers Association. One evening there after a long day on the job, still dressed in his business suit, he took a walk along the beach, enjoying a gorgeous sunset as he anticipated a relaxing dinner with his wife and infant son, who had joined him on the trip.

Yet his mind wasn’t quite as peaceful as was the scenery around him. He was in fact wrestling with a tension which everybody who does creative work for a living must face at some point: the tension between what the artist wants to create and what the audience wants to buy. Bob had made Timequest, his first game after co-founding Legend, as a self-conscious experiment, meant to determine whether a complicated, intricate, serious, difficult parser-driven adventure game was still a commercially viable proposition in 1991. The answer was, as Bob puts it today, “kind of”: Timequest hadn’t flopped utterly, but it hadn’t sold in notably big numbers either. Steve Meretzky’s decidedly lower-brow games Spellcasting 101 and 201, which had bookended Timequest on Legend’s release schedule, had both done considerably better. Bob had already started making notes for a Timequest II by the time the first one shipped, but he soon had to face the reality that the sales numbers just weren’t there to support more iterations on the concept.

Now, in the midst of his walk on the beach, a name sprang unbidden into his head: “Eric the Unready.” Such a gift from God — or from his subconscious — had never come to him before in that manner, and never would again. But no matter; once in a lifetime ought to be enough for anyone. He found the name hilarious, and chuckled to himself over it the rest of the way to the restaurant. At last, he knew what his next game would be: a straight-up farce about a really, really unready knight named Eric. With that decision made, he was ready to enjoy his evening.

The more he thought about the idea upon returning to daily life inside Legend’s Virginia offices, the more he realized that it had more going for it in practical terms than most rarefied bolts from the blue can boast. Indeed, it was an idea about which no marketer could possibly have complained, being well-nigh precision-targeted to hit the industry’s commercial sweet spot as accurately as any Legend title could hope to. If the success of Legend’s Spellcasting games hadn’t sufficiently proved to the company how potent a combination comedy and fantasy could be, there was plenty of other evidence on offer. Adventure gamers loved comedy, which was just as well given that it was the default setting the form always wanted to collapse back into, a gravitational attraction that could be defied by a designer only through serious, single-minded effort; these realities explained why Sierra made so many comedies, and why LucasArts’s adventure catalog contained very little else. And gamers in general just couldn’t get enough fantasy; this explained the quantity of dungeon-crawling CRPGs clogging store shelves, not to mention the success of Sierra’s King’s Quest adventure series. To complete the formula for sales gold, Bob soon decided that Eric the Unready would also toss aside all of Timequest‘s puzzle complexity to jump onto what Legend saw as another emerging industry trend: that of making adventure games friendlier, more accessible to the non-hardcore. In short, Bob’s latest game would be easy.

So, Eric the Unready was to be an unabashed bid for mainstream success, as safe a play as Legend knew how to make at this juncture. But such a practical commercial profile isn’t necessarily an artistic kiss of death; like all of the best of such efforts, Eric the Unready is executed with such panache that even a jaded old critic like me just can’t help but love it in spite of his snobbishness.

Inveterate student of history that he is, Bob’s first impulse upon starting any project is always to head to the library. In fact, one might say that his research for Eric the Unready began long before he even thought to make the game. The name itself actually has an historical antecedent, one which was doubtless bouncing around somewhere in the back of Bob’s mind when he had his brainstorm: Æthelred the Unready is the name of an English king from shortly before the Norman Conquest. The epithet had always amused Bob inordinately. (For the record: the word “unready” in this context means something closer to poorly advised than personally incompetent. Nevertheless, it was the latter, anachronistic meaning which Bob was about to embrace with glee.)

After the project began in earnest, Bob’s research instinct meant lots of reading of contemporary fantasy, a genre he had heretofore known little about. More out of a sense of duty than enthusiasm, he worked through Margaret Weis and Tracey Hickman’s Dragonlance and Death Gate novels, Michael Moorcock’s Elric saga, and even Stephen R. Donaldson’s terminally turgid Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever.

In the end, none of it would prove to have been necessary — and this was all for the best. Eric the Unready has little beyond its “fantasy” label in common with such po-faced epics. The milieu of the finished game is vaguely Arthurian, as you might expect of a game written by the Anglophile creator of Arthur: The Quest for Excalibur. This time out, though, Bob tempered his interest in Arthurian myth with a willingness to toss setting and even plot coherence overboard at any time in the name of a good joke. As such, the game inevitably brings to mind a certain Monty Python movie — and, indeed, there is much of that beloved British comedy troupe in the game. Other strong influences which Bob himself names include Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, and, hitting closer to home, Steve Meretzky.

The humor of Eric the Unready might best be summarized as “maximalism with economy.” Bob:

My [plots] were always meant to be scrupulously well-designed,. There was never a logical inconsistency. All of them were solidly constructed. But with Eric the Unready, I consciously said, “If I see the opportunity for a joke that doesn’t quite make sense, I’m going to do it anyway.” Toward the end of the project, I wondered how many jokes there were in Eric. I can remember counting that there were over a thousand of them. It’s just crammed full of funny material: in the newspapers, hidden in the conversations, hidden all over the place.

The economy comes in, however, with Eric the Unready‘s determination never to beat any single joke into the ground — something that even Steve Meretzky was prone to do in too much of his post-Infocom work. As Graham Nelson and others have pointed out, one of Infocom’s secret weapons was, paradoxical though it may sound, the very limitations of their Z-Machine. The sharply limited quantity of text it allowed, combined with the editorial oversight of Jon Palace, Infocom’s unsung hero, kept their writers from rambling on and on. But text had become cheap on the computers of the 1990s, and thus Legend’s software technology, unlike Infocom’s, allowed the author an effectively unlimited number of words — a dangerous thing for any writer. A Legend author was under no compulsion whatsoever to edit himself.

Luckily, Bob Bates’s dedication to doing the research came through for him here, in a way that ultimately proved far more valuable than his study of fantasy fiction. He had been interested in the mechanics and theory of comedy long before starting on the game, and now reread what some of the past masters of the form — people like Milton Berle and Johnny Carson — had to say about it. He recalled an old anecdote from the latter, which he paraphrases as, “Not everybody is going to like every joke. But if you can get 60 percent of the people to laugh at 60 percent of your jokes, you’re a success.” One of the funniest writers ever once noted in the same spirit that “brevity is the soul of wit.” Combining these two ideals, Bob’s approach to the humor in Eric the Unready became not to stress over or belabor anything. He would crack a joke, then be done with it and move on to the next one; rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat. “There’s always another bus coming,” says Bob by way of summing up his comedy philosophy. “If you don’t get this one, don’t worry; you’ll get the next one.”

At this point, then, I’d like to share some of Eric the Unready‘s greatest comedic hits with you. One of the pleasures for me in revisiting this game a quarter-century on has been remembering all of the contemporary pop culture it references, pays homage to, or (more commonly) skewers. Thus many of the screenshots you see below are of that sort — wonderful for remembering the somehow more innocent media landscape of the United States during the immediate post-Cold War era, that window of peace and prosperity before history caught up with us again on September 11, 2001. (Why does the past always strike us as more innocent? Is it because we know what will come after, and familiarity breeds quaintness?)

But another of my agendas is to commemorate Legend’s talented freelance art team, whose work was consistently much better than we had any right to expect from such a small studio. Being a writer myself, I have a tendency to emphasize writing and design while giving short shrift to the visual aesthetics of game-making. So, let me remedy that for today at least. The quality of the artwork below is largely thanks to Tanya Isaacson and Paul Mock, Legend’s two most important artists, who placed their stamp prominently on everything that came out of the company during this period.

Each chapter includes a copy of the newspaper for that day. Together, they provide a running commentary on Eric’s misadventures of the previous chapters — and lots of opportunities for more jokes. Shay Addams, the publisher of the Questbusters newsletter and book series and a ubiquitous magazine commentator and reviewer, rivaled Computer Gaming World‘s Scorpia for the title of most prominent of all the American adventure-game superfans who parleyed their hobbies into paychecks. (Scorpia as well showed up in games from time to time — perhaps most notably, as a poisonous monster in New World Computing’s Might and Magic III, her comeuppance for a negative review of Might and Magic II.) Alas, Addams disappeared without a trace about a year after Eric the Unready was published. Rumor had it that he took up a career as a professional gambler (!) instead.

A really old-school shout-out, to Scott Adams, the first person to put a text adventure on a microcomputer. “Yoho” was a magic word in his second and most popular game of all, Pirate Adventure.

The computer-game industry of the early 1990s still had some of the flavor of pre-Hays Code Hollywood. Even as parents and politicians were fretting endlessly over what Super Mario Bros. was doing to Generation Nintendo, computer games remained off their radar entirely. That would soon change, however, bringing with it the industry’s first attempts at content rating and self-censorship.

The “tastes great, less filling” commercials for Miller Lite were an inescapable presence on American television for almost two decades, placing athletes and B-list celebrities in ever more elaborate beer-drinking scenarios which always concluded with the same tagline. They still serve as a classic case study in marketing for the way they convinced stereotypically manly, sports-loving male beer drinkers that it was okay to drink a (gasp!) light beer.

We couldn’t possibly skip an explicit homage to Monty Python and the Holy Grail, could we?

Wheel of Fortune — and the bizarre French obsession with Jerry Lewis.

More risque humor…

David Letterman’s top-ten lists were a pop-culture institution for almost 35 years. Note the presence on this one of Vice President Dan Quayle, who once said that Mars had air and canals filled with water, and once lost a spelling bee to a twelve-year-old by misspelling “potato.”

Rob Schneider’s copy-machine guy was one of the more annoying Saturday Night Live characters to become an icon of his age…

Speaking of Saturday Night Live: in one of the strangest moments in the history of the show, the Irish singer Sinead O’Connor belted out a well-intentioned but ham-fisted a-capella scold against human-rights abuse in lieu of one of her radio hits. At the end of the song, she tore up a picture of the pope as a statement against the epidemic of child molestation and abuse in the Catholic Church.

Some of Miller Lite’s competition in terms of iconic beer commercials for manly men came in the form of Old Milwaukee and its “It just doesn’t get any better than this” tagline. (Full disclosure: Old Milwaukee was my dad’s brew of choice, I think mostly because it was just about the cheapest beer you could buy. I have memories of watching John Wayne movies on his knee, coveting the occasional sip of it I was vouchsafed.)

Madonna was at her most transgressive during this period: she had just released an album entitled Erotica and a coffee-table book of softcore porn entitled simply Sex. Looked back on today, her desperate need to shock seems more silly than threatening, but people reacted at the time as if the world was ending. (I should know; I was working at a record store when the album came out. Ah, well… even as an indie-rock snob, I had to recognize that her version of “Fever” slays.) Meanwhile the picture that accompanies the newspaper article above pays tribute to another pop diva: Grace Jones.

My favorite chapter has you exploring a “galaxy” of yet more pop-culture detritus with the unforgettable Captain Smirk, described as “250 pounds of captain stuffed into a 175-pound-captain’s shirt.” (This joke might just be my favorite in the whole game…)

Fantasy Island, in which a new collection of recognizable faces was gathered together each week to live out their deepest desires and learn some life lessons in the process, was one of the biggest television shows of the pop-culture era just before Eric the Unready, when such aspirational lifestyle fare set in exotic locations — see also Fantasy Island‘s more family-friendly sibling The Love Boat — was all the rage. It all really does feel oddly quaint and innocent today, doesn’t it?

Eric the Unready manages to combine all three of actor and decadent lifestyle icon Ricardo Montalbán’s most recognizable personas in one: as Mr. Roarke of Fantasy Island, as Khan of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and as a pitchman for Chrysler.

And at last we come to Gilligan’s Island, a place within a three-hour sailing tour of civilization which has nevertheless remained uncharted — the perfect scene for a sitcom as breathtakingly stupid as its backstory.

Eric the Unready is the first Legend game to fully embrace the LucasArts design methodology of no player deaths and no dead ends. Even if you deliberately try to throw away or destroy essential objects out of curiosity or sheer perversity, the game simply won’t let you; the object in question is always restored to you, often by means that are quite amusing in themselves. Just as in a LucasArts comedy, the sense of freedom this complete absence of danger provides often serves the game well, empowering you to try all sorts of crazy and funny things without having to worry that doing so will mean a trip back to your collection of save files. Unlike many LucasArts games, though, Eric the Unready doesn’t even try all that hard to find ways of presenting truly intriguing puzzles that work within its set of player guardrails. In fact, if there’s a problem with Eric the Unready, it must be that the game offers so little challenge; Bob Bates’s determination to make it the polar opposite of Timequest in this respect carried all the way through the project.

The game is really eight discrete mini-games. At the start of each of these “chapters,” Eric is dumped into a new, self-contained environment that exists independently of what came before or what will come later. By limiting the combinatorial-explosion factor, this structure makes both the designer’s and the player’s job much easier. Even within a chapter, however, there are precious few head-scratching moments. You’re told what you need to do quite explicitly, and then you proceed to do it in an equally straightforward manner — and that’s pretty much all there is to solving the game. Bob long considered it to be the easiest game by far he had ever designed. (He was, he noted wryly when I spoke to him recently, forced by popular demand to make his recent text adventure Thaumistry even easier, which serves as something of a commentary on the ways in which player expectations have changed over the past quarter-century.)

All that said, it should also be noted that Eric the Unready‘s disinterest in challenging its player was more of a problem at the time of its original release than it is today. Whatever their other justifications, difficult puzzles served as a way of gumming up the works for the player back in the day, keeping her from burning through a game’s content too quickly at a time when the average game’s price tag in relation to its raw quantity of content was vastly higher than today. Without challenging puzzles, a player could easily finish a game like Eric the Unready in less than five hours, in spite of its having several times the amount of text of the average Infocom game (not to mention the addition of graphics, music, and sound effects). At a retail price of $35 or $40, this was a real issue. Today, when the game sells as a digital download for a small fraction of that price, it’s much less of one. Modern distribution choices, one might say, have finally allowed Eric the Unready to be exactly the experience it wants to be without apologies.

Certainly Bob has fantastically good memories of making this game; he still calls it the most purely enjoyable creative endeavor of his life. Those positive vibes positively ooze out of the finished product. Yet there was a shadow lurking behind all of Bob’s joy, lending it perhaps an extra note of piquancy. For he knew fairly early in Eric the Unready‘s development cycle that this would be the last game of this type he would get to design for the foreseeable future. Legend, you see, was on the verge of dumping the parser at last.

They had fought the good fight far longer than any of their peers. By the time Eric the Unready shipped in January of 1993, Legend had been the only remaining maker of parser-based adventure games for the mainstream, boxed American market for over two years. As part of their process of bargaining with marketplace realities, they had done everything they could think of to accommodate the huge number of gamers who regarded the likes of an Infocom game much as the average contemporary movie-goer regarded a Charlie Chaplin film. In a bid to broaden their customers demographic beyond the Infocom diehards, Legend from the start had added an admittedly clunky method of building sentences by mousing through long menus of verbs, nouns, and prepositions, along with copious multimedia gilding around the core text-adventure experience.

As budgets increased and the market grew still more demanding, Legend came to lean ever more heavily on both the mouse and their multimedia bells and whistles. By the time they got to Eric the Unready, their games was already starting to feel as much point-and-click as not, as the regular text-and-parser window got superseded for long stretches of time by animated cut scenes, by full-screen static illustrations, by mouseable onscreen documents, by mouse-driven visual puzzles. Even when the parser interface was on display, you could now choose to click on the onscreen illustrations of the scenes themselves instead of the words representing the things in them if you so chose.

Still, it was obvious that even an intermittent recourse to the parser just wouldn’t be tenable for much longer. In this new era of consumer computing, a command line had become for many or most computer users that inscrutable, existentially terrifying thing you got dumped into when something broke down in your Windows. The last place these people wanted to see such a thing was inside one of their games. And so the next step — that of dumping the parser entirely — was as logical as it was inevitable.

Eric the Unready wouldn’t quite be the absolute last of its breed — Legend’s Gateway 2: Homeworld would ship a few months after it — but it was the very last of Bob’s children of the type. Once Eric the Unready and Gateway 2 shipped, an era in gaming history came to an end. The movement that had begun when Scott Adams shipped the first copies of Adventureland on hand-dubbed cassette tapes for the Radio Shack TRS-80 in 1978 had run its course. Yes, there was a world of difference between Adams’s 16 K efforts with their two-word parsers and pidgin English and the tens of megabytes of multimedia splendor of an Eric the Unready or a Gateway 2, but they were all nevertheless members of the same basic gaming taxonomy. Now, though, no more games like them would ever appear again on the shelves of everyday software stores.

And make no mistake: something important — precious? — got lost when Legend finally dumped the parser entirely. Bob felt the loss as keenly as anyone; through all of his years in games which would follow, he would never entirely stop regretting it. Bob:

What you’re losing [in a point-and-click interface] is the sense of infinite possibility. There may still be a sense that there’s lots you can do, and you can still have puzzles and non-obvious interactions, but you’ve lost the ability to type anything you want. And it was a terrible thing to lose — but that’s the way the world was going.

I found the transition personally painful. That’s evidenced by the fact that I went back and wrote another parser-based game more than twenty years later. A large part of the joy of making this type of game for me is the sense that I’m the little guy in the box. It’s me and the player. The player senses my presence and feels like we’re engaged in this activity together. There’s a back-and-forthing — communication — between the two of us. It’s obviously all done on my part ahead of time, but the player should feel like there’s somebody behind the curtain, that it’s a live exchange. It should feel like somebody is responding as an individual to the player.

As Bob says, point-and-click games are … not necessarily worse, but definitely different. The personal connection with the designer is lost.

A long time ago now in what feels like another life, I entitled the first lengthy piece I ever wrote about interactive fiction “Let’s Tell a Story Together.” At its best, playing a text adventure really can feel like spending time one-on-one with a witty narrator, raconteur, and intellectual sparring partner. I would even go so far as to admit that text adventures have cured me of loneliness once or twice in my life. There’s nothing else in games comparable to this experience; only a great book might possibly compare, but even it lacks the secret sauce of interactivity. Indeed, text adventures may be the only truly literary form of computer game. Just as a book is the most personal, intimate form of traditional artistic expression, so is a text adventure its equivalent in interactive terms.

Granted, some of those qualities may initially be obscured in Eric the Unready by all the flash surrounding the command prompt. But embrace the universe of possibilities that are still offered up by that blinking cursor, sitting there asking you to try absolutely anything you wish to, and you’ll find that the spirit which changed the lives of so many of us when we encountered our first Infocom game lives on even here. Don’t just rush through the fairly trivial task of solving this game; try stuff, just to see what the little man behind the curtain says back. Trust me when I say that he’s very good company. One can only hope that all of those who bought Eric the Unready in 1993 appreciated him while he was still around.

(My huge thanks go to Bob Bates for setting aside yet another few hours to talk about the life and times of Legend circa 1992 to 1993.

Eric the Unready can be purchased on It’s well worth the money.)

Renga in Blue

His Majesty’s Ship ‘Impetuous’: We May Both Live to Regret This

by Jason Dyer at December 06, 2019 05:41 AM

From last time, we had a dilemma where the young officer Fallow cursed out the King of England and in so doing condemned himself. The punishment as given by law is death, but the captain is allowed to pardon an offense. However, the execution will hurt morale (for obvious reasons) and a pardon will as well (as it appears that the law is not enforced).

We had landed on an isolated bay on mainland France so Fallow could attend the burial of his brother, and pulled him aside after out of earshot. What’s interesting here is while the game explicitly gives execute and pardon as choices, the game hints there might be “another way”. This is related to an idea I laid out while writing about Star Trek: 25th Anniversary — that an issue with choice-based moral decisions is that in reality, even knowing there is a choice at all can be difficult.

I had surveyed all of you, the readers, to give me responses, and they fell into a few categories.

Category #1: Pardon

“I’ve decided to pardon you. The men will understand, in the circumstances.”

pardon the boy.”

Two people went with the given “pardon” option even though the game was hinting at a hidden “third option”; I find this particularly interesting in that even knowing about the third option this one is still tempting. A potential problem I see with the “hidden choice” mechanic is the feeling that once found, that choice is always better than the other two. Based on events later in the story, it is mechanically, but that doesn’t mean it’s still morally (by whatever metric the player is roleplaying as) the best choice.

Category #2: Escape


“I’ve decided to shoot you with an unloaded or empty pistol. When you hear my gunshot, fall down and play dead or feign or fake your death. Do not move again until we have left. From there you are on your own. Good luck lad. Now, I order you to run.”

Both of these are understood the same way.

Note that the complex plan in the second doesn’t quite work in the physical situation — the captain already has loaded pistols, so essentially this would require going back in time and changing the setup. I find this one fascinating from a game design angle: suppose you had a parser that genuinely understood the whole thing as typed, what would be the optimal response? Would saying “your guns are already loaded” be acceptable here? Or maybe it’s possible to “retroactively” change reality — Schrödinger’s gun, so to speak, which is neither loaded nor unloaded until it becomes clear what the player’s intent is?

This may also indicate simply that the distance between choice-points in a traditional CYOA structure might be a little too large to pull this sort of thing off — if all the preparation steps were simulated like a traditional text adventure game (>PICK UP PISTOLS, >LOAD PISTOLS, etc.) it would have been possible to prepare the complicated scenario.

Category #3: Doesn’t Quite Make Sense Given the Scenario


I actually typed this when I first played the game! But if you go back and read carefully, this is on the French mainland, so “maroon” doesn’t make sense as an idea here. Again, I’m curious what the optimal response here is (“But we’re on the mainland, sir. Are you feeling ok?”)

Category #4: Maybe Doesn’t Give Enough Instruction



Neither of these are understood, but in even in an optimal understand-everything parser, I’m not sure they ought to be? It doesn’t really convey to Fallow what to do right at that moment. Something like “What exactly are you proposing, sir?” or that like.

Category #5: Indicating Future Action in an Ambiguous Way

“…sentence you to death, but allow you to escape.”

Is this indicating the captain will be giving a later chance of escape somehow? This option is fascinating because it seems to want to plan events in the future, but in such a way that it’s not guaranteed particular things will hold up (perhaps the intent is to have him escape by boarding the boat, but he might already be restrained by another crewmember at that point — is the captain going to somehow wrangle that to not happen?) The game incidentally parses this like Category #2.

For all of these, it helps to find the “third way” if the dialogue about “what if he tries to escape?” is visible. In the game that text is on the previous screen, and I was actually quite baffled. Not just in the usual puzzle-solving way, but with the existential dread of anything I could possibly type being an option. It was a unique experience. It made me wonder even if game responsiveness and AI evolved to the point we could have a full “holodeck”, would the player even “play” in a way that led to a responsive story? Does the ability to do anything still require a tutorial?

Robert Lafore himself discussed this puzzle in a later essay, and it definitely seemed intended players might miss the solution the first time through the game.

You have to decide whether to hang him or not. If you do, the crew thinks you’re being too harsh. If you don’t, they think you’re soft. Either way, in the big sea battle at the end of the story, they abandon their posts. It requires a little imagination to figure out the right thing to do. It’s a third choice in a situation that seems to have only two choices. Most people figure it out eventually. That’s one of the tricky parts of writing interactive fiction: The decisions the reader—the hero—is called upon to make have to be hard enough to be challenging but not so hard that the story becomes frustrating. The idea is that the third or fourth time the reader faces the situation he suddenly sees the solution, smites himself on the forehead, and cries. “Why didn’t I think of that before!

Softline, September/October 1983

I’m not quite sure how optimal this really is. Keith Palmer mentioned a contemporary review…

A 1982 review from 80 Micro.

…wherein the reviewer gave up and just hung Fallow because he was frustrated. This is the meta-frustration of lack of communication, not the in-universe recreation of the captain’s dilemma.

Before I go into spoiling the rest of the story, I should mention Jimmy Maher has converted the entire thing to Choicescript so you can just click your way through, rather than type. There are still some differences — I’ll get into those later — but the most significant puzzle you’ve already had spoiled (assuming you’ve read to this point) so you’re fine playing the converted version.

The structure is in three parts:

The Burial of Fallow (Chapter 1, 2 and 3)

In addition to the events above, the player has to choose who to promote to be the new Lieutenant. They are explicitly given two choices:

Lt. Beagle, who is fiercely loyal but sometimes brash in battle.

Lt. Wiley, who is very competent but also ambitious and angling for the captain’s job.

Either choice can work out; the next part of the story includes two incidents, one where it’s better to have Beagle, and one where it’s better to have Wiley, and the player needs to be aware enough when a particular action is a bad fit.

The Spanish Galleon and the Small French Ship (Chapter 4 and 5)

In the next chapter the Impetuous comes across a Spanish treasure ship, but because the ship is near a fort, attacking it requires a daring plan.


(Replace “Walton” with the name the player chose, and “Wiley” with “Beagle” as appropriate.)

The choice here is simple to attack or pass on by.

If the player has Wiley, this mission is as success; if the player has Beagle, he will shout “Death to the Spanish!” early and spoil the plan.

Later, the captain has orders to steer clear of all encounters and meet the fleet. The Impetuous encounters a French ship pursuing an American one.






If you made Wiley a senior officer, attacking here is a bad idea — he will report your behavior to the admiralty. Beagle, as the loyal one, will not.

This gives a chance to get treasure by using either officer — if Wiley, the Spanish vessel, if Beagle, the French one. Of course, a player in the midst of the game isn’t aware of the structure, so they might attack the Spanish Galleon even if they’re aware it could be a bad idea, just because of concern this might be the only way to get treasure (this was, ahem, me in my first playthrough).


The Battle of the Fleets (Chapter 6 and 7)



The finale is where the captain meets with Admiral Wormwood, and the player gets reminded of any mistakes made in previous chapters. Here is some of the actual BASIC source code.

5170 GOSUB2000

Then the battle begins in earnest, as the Impetuous faces off against “towering masts” akin to a “giant forest”.



The best result comes from attacking right away, but it only works if the ship is at full strength — no hits to morale or people lost during the Spanish Galleon attack.


If waiting, it’s still possible to have made a mistake and still survive — another ship comes in and steals the glory, but at least you’re not sunk.


There’s other small events in between the ones above; the steward occasionally comes by to offer wine or dinner; Stayson has the occasional question about sails. Some of the type-in prompts are definitely designed for open roleplaying. When attacking the Spanish galleon, you can say something to inspire the crew (but your words get lost in the din of combat, so the game even is clear as to the fact it had no “in game” effect). The game even encourages swearing at one point:

7035 D$=”
7040 GOSUB2000:GOSUB1000
7044 IFLI/2-FIX(LI/2)=0 A$=

(#1 is the captain’s name, #2 is either BEAGLE or WILEY depending.)

There’s also a nice moment talking with the Admiral where you seem to be prompted with for a THANK YOU, but you need to remember this is chain of command, so either THANK YOU, SIR or THANK YOU, ADMIRAL is the appropriate phrase. You get berated for getting this wrong (but not in a way that affects the story arc). I admit being rather pleased to getting the “SIR” in the first time around.

Even though ‘Impetuous’ has its share of communication issues, I’d say it made a noble try at open-ended player interaction, even more open-ended than either parser or choice have aspired to. Nearly 40 years later, it feels like a map to some hidden shell — covering new possible worlds of gameplay — yet to be cracked open.

Title graphic from the Apple II version of the game. Via Mobygames.

December 05, 2019

Emily Short

Little Emperor Syndrome (David Thomas Henry Wright)

by Emily Short at December 05, 2019 10:41 PM

Little Emperor Syndrome is a hypertext that won an honorable mention, in 2019, from the Electronic Literature Organization’s Robert Coover prize: a piece contemporary with a great deal of Twine work, or with Liza Daly’s beautiful morphing text interfaces, but one that shows more of an affinity with the literary hypertext community of the 90s.

Specifically, this is something like a stretchtext, and one that starts out fully stretched. Each chapter starts out at full length on the page, weaving together events from different points in the viewpoint character’s life, reminiscence and present moment. As the reader, you can turn on or off the coloring scheme that distinguishes these segments from one another. You can elect not to view certain periods at all. Or you can shuffle the order in which they’re presented to you, going for something more chronological or more randomized.

In the same settings interface, you can change the font size.

This fact irked me, the way an obtrusive clothing tag or an insect bite might irk. It seemed to say that the affordance of changing font size — a question of accessibility and ease of reading — was equivalent to the affordances of turning on and off different aspects of the protagonist viewpoint.

More broadly, I felt that the creator of this piece hadn’t really thought through how he wanted or expected the reader to encounter those affordances; or else that he was operating from a tradition very distant from the traditions of hypertext reading in which I am most comfortable.

In theory, I actively like the idea of being able to turn on certain perspectives and mute others, or the idea of being able to explore how the present narration evokes past events in the protagonist’s life.

The practical experience of reading this particular piece, though, felt backward. Because all the text is visible at the outset, I felt encouraged — almost required — to read all the text through in its original order, before experimenting with its concealment; and this concealment, when it happened, could only ever be a brief toying with the portrayal of words I’d already read. This interactivity was appended to the linear text, a minimally-functional gloss.

By contrast, if the words had started out not fully stretched, I would have had to seek the meaning between meanings, gradually opening it out, exploring, and allowing my exploration to be guided by readerly interest, in an experience perhaps reminiscent of PRY or its ilk. I would have had the opportunity to be curious, and to satisfy that curiosity through interaction.

As for the content — again, there are things here to like, even to admire, and at the same time I find myself recoiling quite frequently. For instance: Chapter Two of the story concerns a westerner teaching English and Art History in China. He finds China affordable but repellent; he dislikes everything from the food to the manners. It rings true, as a depiction of a particular experience of alienation in a foreign country. At the same time, it wasn’t a mindset I really wanted to inhabit for very long; a perspective that was un-empathetic towards everyone, beginning with himself.

sub-Q Magazine

Interview with Jei D. Marcade

by Stewart C Baker at December 05, 2019 03:42 AM

Jei D. Marcade is a Korean-American speculative fiction writer whose work has appeared in Uncanny Magazine, PodCastle, and Strange Horizons. They can be found haunting or tweeting sporadically @JeiDMarcade.

This interview was conducted over e-mail in November of 2019.

Jei D Marcade

sub-Q Magazine: You write short stories as well as fiction of the interactive variety. Do you find yourself approaching both genres in a different way?

Jei D. Marcade: Yes and no! Operationally, it’s been quite similar: I take a pretty fragmented approach to my stories in both forms, so working in Twine felt like a fairly organic transition after using Scrivener for years. And while my process usually depends on the project, I’m inclined to build character-driven scenes first and worry about narrative continuity later, which lends itself to a certain adaptability of structure.

When writing a game, I’m more conscious of the proximity and clarity of consequences, whereas in traditional fiction, I frequently rely on the reader’s ability to retain or review certain lines to appreciate the emotional weight of much later ones (a strategy deployed with debatable degrees of success, I’m sure). Because I personally am far less patient when I play narrative games, I also try to build atmosphere with an even more economic use of words than in traditional short fiction, which is already pretty spare!

sub-Q Magazine: That Night at Henry’s Place hits on a lot of horror (and other) movie tropes. Do you have a favorite trope? A least favorite?

Jei D. Marcade: I don’t know that I have a particular favorite, though I’m pretty fond of Affably Evil and Retired Monster. And while I’m usually rather desensitized to on-screen violence/gore, I absolutely cannot abide any body horror that involves parasites, hands, or teeth.

Probably the strongest influence to Henry’s Place is the simple happenstance of having grown up in Illinois, where so many modern horror stories are set.

sub-Q Magazine: I noticed that you’ve written a few Twitter-bots (@tinydiviner and @allhailyourself, for the curious!) Which do you think would win in a debate?

Jei D. Marcade: As my eldest botchild, @tinydiviner will always hold a special place in my heart, but I suspect that @allhailyourself would be the kind of debater to simply shout down their opponent and call it a clear victory. (They do mean well.)

sub-Q Magazine: What new projects are you working on? Or, if you’ve got another recent or upcoming release to share, tell us about it!

Jei D. Marcade: I recently released a little Hallowe’eny game called “Trick/Treat” in which Henry makes a cameo appearance, and I’m writing an IF novel for Choice of Games that deals with witchcraft, academia, and organized crime that I’m very excited about.

Re: trad fic, I’ve been working on a secondary-world fantasy novella loosely inspired by Korean history and East Asian folklore, and have a couple short stories, “Where Black Stars Rise” and “#MotherMayhem,” coming out in anthologies slated for mid- to late-2020 releases that are chock full of eldritch abominations and body horror involving hands.

The post Interview with Jei D. Marcade appeared first on sub-Q Magazine.

Interview with Astrid Dalmady

by Stewart C Baker at December 05, 2019 03:42 AM

Astrid Dalmady is a venezuelan writer and narrative designer. You can find her work at Astrid is the author of Night Guard / Morning Star from our November issue, which was first published in 2019’s IFComp.

This interview was conducted over e-mail in November of 2019.

Sub-Q Magazine: What interests you the most about writing interactive fiction?

Astrid Dalmady: I really enjoy the multimedia aspect of it. In addition to crafting a story, I also get to craft the presentation. I get to think much more about how the player will experience the work: what choices to offer, how to offer them, how to signal differences between them, how to lay out a page, how much text to put on each page, etc, etc.

It adds a whole new set of challenges and gives me a lot of fun things to chew on. And there’s nothing better for my writer’s block than working on a project’s CSS for a while. The two feed into each other for me.

Sub-Q Magazine: Night Guard / Morning Star took 7th place in the 2019 IFComp, and some of your other games (like Blue Cactus Motel and the delightful Arcane Intern (Unpaid)) have done well there in past years of the competition. What about the contest keeps you coming back, and do you have any advice for first-time entrants?

Astrid Dalmady: I enjoy entering the comp whenever I can because of the feeling of connectedness. It’s a month and a half where you know people are playing your games, and talking about them, and (hopefully) enjoying them. There are forums and twitter and twitch streams and podcasts and a whole lot of noise and fuss. Writing can be a lonely business, so being able to toss out the project and be able to see the buzz and connect with others in your same position is pretty great.

As for advice for first-time entrants, there’s the obvious: get others to test early and often. The player will always introduce unknowns and the faster you can catch them the better.

Less obvious: don’t underestimate the intro. The beginning of your game has to do a lot of heavy lifting in interactive fiction because it needs to introduce story AND mechanics. You want to try and get people on board as soon as possible, so think about what choices you present early on and give the player a taste of all the cool things to come.

Sub-Q Magazine: The family dynamics in Night Guard / Morning Star are–as the content warning notes–very messed up. What challenges did you face in writing about this kind of family?

Astrid Dalmady: Mostly I struggled with how much to make obvious. I knew I wanted to focus on the ambiguity of memories and to have an unreliable narrator. But it’s a feature of the format that you tend to inhabit someone else, so to ask the player to doubt themselves can be a pretty big ask.

The mother in Night Guard / Morning Star is never a good mother. That wasn’t the question I wanted to pose. I wanted to ask the player if they thought the main character was a good daughter, and hopefully, things weren’t that clear cut.

Sub-Q Magazine: What’s next on the horizon for you?

Astrid Dalmady: Nothing is set in stone yet. I have about 3 projects in the brainstorming stage at the moment, but I like to do A LOT of planning before I sit down to write, and so far nothing has coalesced enough to start in earnest. I do hope to have something in time for Spring Thing though.

The post Interview with Astrid Dalmady appeared first on sub-Q Magazine.

December 04, 2019

IFComp News


December 04, 2019 09:41 AM

It has come to the attention of IFComp that Marshal Tenner Winter committed a violation of the IFComp Code of Conduct, which reads as follows:

The Interactive Fiction Competition strives to provide a safe and welcoming environment to IF creators and players of every kind. Participants who personally harass other participants may have their votes or entries disqualified from the competition, and may also be banned from further participation in the IFComp, at the organizers’ discretion.  

We have decided that the manner in which this rule was violated is serious enough to merit a permanent ban. Because the violation did not occur until after voting had closed, we have decided to allow his 2019 entry to maintain its standing in the 2019 competition. However, he is banned from future participation in the IFComp.

December 03, 2019

Emily Short

Storylets Play Together

by Emily Short at December 03, 2019 03:41 PM

In my previous post on storylets, I showed how storylets can replicate standard interactive narrative structures that are familiar from video games or CYOA.

This post gets into the other things storylets can do for your narrative structure that would be harder to achieve with a conventional method. Specifically, storylets let you build a system where

  • episodic stories can feed into a larger narrative arc, and it’s easy to add new episodic content without ripping out all the existing stuff
  • the player is guided within, but not constrained to, a story they’re currently playing
  • different episodes interact with each other in fictionally and mechanically interesting ways

To take those one at a time:

Large and small narrative arcs

A big storylet-based story might have a long narrative arc and then a bunch of smaller internal stories inside it.

Bee was written for the Varytale platform, which is, alas, no longer available.

My game Bee, for instance, takes place over several years of the protagonist’s life. There’s an overall arc about her growing up until she’s no longer eligible for any more spelling bees, and the changes in her life that go alongside that. Within each year of her life, she experiences traditional holidays, trains, does chores, and develops relationships with the members of her family.

To track where the player is in this story, I tracked several different progress stats:

  • How many years have passed?
  • What month is it?
  • How far has she progressed with character relationships and their associated story arcs?

“How many years have passed?” controls high level progress through the story. When it reaches a high enough number, we’ll get to the endgame, a story about her last spelling bee ever.

“What month is it?” makes seasonal content available, and of course advances the year count. This means that

  • A storylet about Christmas has “month=December” as a prerequisite
  • Every storylet advances the month after it’s played, as an effect
  • If the month is December, the new month becomes January and the year stat is also advanced by 1

The character relationships, meanwhile, are mostly detached from those temporal measures. A player might progress rapidly through all the stages of a character story during the first “year” of the main narrative.

To generalize from that a bit, we can have episodic progress stats that track where we are in a small story (like the character relationships) and other stats that rise more slowly, or have much larger values, that track our progress through the main narrative arc:

In some games, completing an episode is what drives the main arc forward. Neo Cab works a bit along these lines: you can pick up 3-4 passengers a night, and it’s up to you which ones you want to drive.

But when you’ve ended your shift, the day ends and your overall progress ratchets forward, opening up new elements in the main storyline.

Guided but not constrained

A branching narrative struggles to tell the player more than one story at a time. Typically, the player has a tightly defined set of options at any given moment.

Conversely, parser-based text adventures and a lot of open world games can confront the player with a bewildering amount of freedom, leaving them unsure what they ought to do.

A storylet system can offer a happy medium here: contextually relevant options from all the stories you’re currently in the middle of, plus any “always available” elements. Making this comfortable for the player depends on some good UI design, as well, but the underlying system supports it.

Stories that interlock

Month, year, and character story progress are not the only stats in Bee. The game also tracks spelling skill, motivation, and family poverty.

These other stats aren’t progress stats, though. Motivation and spelling skill are resources. The protagonist needs motivation to be able to play certain storylets that improve spelling skill. And she needs spelling skill at a certain level to be able to pass the end of year spelling bee.

Meanwhile, poverty is a menace — something the player doesn’t want to increase, but which may rise as a result of events in the story. When poverty is too great, certain storylet options become unavailable, and others open up.

Seasonal events in Fallen London introduce new happenings in existing game locations, and unlock new elements within existing storylines.

This is still a fairly systems-light representation — other storylet games have lots of resources and menaces in play. In Sunless Skies, for instance, gaining too much terror unlocks Nightmare storylets that plague the protagonist with unspeakable visions.

Thanks to these abstractions, one story can meaningfully affect what happens in another.

Here’s the branch and bottleneck storylet diagram from last post, except this time we’re including the idea that the player will sometimes need to go outside the episodic story she’s in if she wants to get the means to unlock the next episode. And conversely, sometimes she might need to do some other, unrelated activity to prevent a menace stat from going too high:

Some lovely storytelling dynamics can arise from systems like this, dynamics that echo the effects you find in long-running series television.

Suppose this episode is about tracking down a family of werewolves, but in order to unlock a midgame storylet, Mulder needs clues from an informant. That’s his source stat. Fortunately, he already has an informant available, unlocked through earlier play. He does have to go back through a familiar action or two of putting a signal in his apartment window in order to get his informant to show up — but that’s the kind of content reuse that feels fictionally justified.

Now suppose that in the midgame, one storylet has Mulder insist on sitting out in the woods in a convertible to watch the full moon. But nothing happens all night long except they get a lot of mosquito bites, and in the morning the menace stat “Agent Scully’s Exasperation” ticks upward a little. Or a lot.

Now Scully’s exasperation score unlocks a whole new episode when this one is over, a Mulder-and-Scully-fight episode. Alternatively, Mulder realizes he’s gotten himself into trouble and engages in a menace-reducing activity of buying her an apology gift, as a beat between the plot beats of continuing to hunt werewolves.

All of those are elements that someone could bake into a traditional branching narrative as options at the critical points. But building the system of storylets means that there’s a whole reusable economy of menaces and resources.

It means that I could have holiday seasonal events where Mulder has extra options for cheering Scully up on her birthday, or where she’ll read his intentions differently if it’s around Valentine’s Day.

Or maybe the identity of Mulder’s informant changes depending on what has happened in the top-level narrative progression. Maybe any informant will do for getting the Information resource commodity, but the costs of doing so and the fictional tonality of the interaction shift a lot.

In fact, we might have a scenario where there are multiple sources available for information, and the player has to decide how long Mulder will spend investigating each of the sources before trying to move on from this point — the more intel-gathering storylets he plays, the better the outcome he can unlock:

…but other things might be happening at the same time. Menaces might be climbing; a time stat might be counting down.

At its core, this is standard game systems design advice: make sure your systems affect each other.

It’s possible to design with this kind of systems thinking in mind for (say) a branching narrative system, but storylets make it particularly natural to do so because they foreground the stats — what are you tracking? Which storylets become available, and which are locked, as a result?

This presentation by Tadhg Kelly, and this post on his blog, talk about four kinds of numbers in games — currencies, metrics, tools, and territory. Some of his definitions feel a little alien to me — I wouldn’t think of a tennis ball as a currency in the game of tennis. But using these broad categories and thinking about how they apply to stats in narrative design, we might divide them like this:

Progress stats, menaces, reputation, and relationship stats are metrics, advancing the storyline and opening up optional events.

Money, inventory items, consumable “favors owed” by other characters, and subtler items like energy are all currencies. Currencies are most fun if they have a backstory: the currency of Hell might not be acceptable to churchgoers. Creating fungible, convertible rewards allows different storylines to affect each other in fun and fictionally surprising ways.

Most of the storylet-based games I’ve played have at least some metrics and some currencies.

Some, but not all, also have a sense of territory — a stat representing the player’s location in the game universe, for instance. Territory works well with investigation or exploration gameplay where the player needs to figure out where to look next for something.

Tools, we might understand as things that open up new affordances and actions that wouldn’t otherwise be there.

Some storylet games use personality traits or skills this way, for instance by letting the player learn lockpicking in order to defeat any forthcoming locks. The challenge is that, to pay off properly, this really requires the content creators to be disciplined and make sure that there are regular opportunities to show off a particular skill or trait throughout the rest of the content. (There are procedural ways to help make sure that’s the case; that’s a more advanced design solution, though.)

Another interesting but less common way to design “tools” in a storylet system is to have something that affects how other options play out.

  • Reduce risk. Fallen London gives the player a supply of “second chances”, a resource the player can spend to guarantee herself a second roll of the dice on a risky attempt where she wants to increase her chance of succeeding.
  • Modify core metric stats. Inventory items and outfits might increase the player’s stats in particular areas, temporarily making certain storylets accessible.
  • Multiply / divide consequences. Make a storylet produce double the currency that it otherwise would! Make a compliment twice as effective on your relationship stats with the Countess! Etc.

December 02, 2019

Choice of Games

Heart’s Choice is here!

by Mary Duffy at December 02, 2019 05:41 PM

We’re proud to announce the release of the first four Heart’s Choice games in a new omnibus app on Google Play, Apple’s App Store, and the Amazon Android Marketplace; and as individual games on Steam. Right now you can:

Since 2009, the team behind Choice of Games has created high-quality interactive novels in all genres. Now, our new Heart’s Choice label puts romance at the center of the story, and you at the center of the romance. Heart’s Choice games contain no graphics or sound effects, so we can focus on the story. Every game is filled with vivid, fully-developed characters and complex narratives that respond to your choices.

How will you find your happily ever after?

December 01, 2019

Zarf Updates

The Adventure of the London Waterworks

by Andrew Plotkin ([email protected]) at December 01, 2019 04:37 AM

The formal title of this puzzle book is The Sherlock Holmes Escape Book: The Adventure of the London Waterworks by Ormond Sacker. Yes, genre labels are always terrible; "escape book" is what people are calling them these days. And yes, "Ormond Sacker" is a pseudonym. The puzzle and text were created by David Whiteland, who created the Planetarium web puzzle that I reviewed... oh, jeez, I wrote that review exactly twenty years ago.
At any rate! You are Holmes, investigating dastardly goings-on at the Kew Bridge Waterworks. (A historical location, now the London Museum of Water and Steam.) Watson follows you around with his revolver and his reliably dunderheaded commentary. Okay, that's not fair. He points out clues as often as he misses them, and he tends to roll his eyes at your snottiness when you're not looking.
Waterworks has the format of a CYOA book, but it's not a branching-path story. Instead, it's a sequence of puzzles. Some solutions are a number, and you are meant to turn to that page. Others boil down to a multiple-choice question: if the answer is odd, turn to page X; if even, page Y. Or that sort of thing.
But can't you cheat your way through just by peeking at every possible page? Some wrong solution-paths lead to an obvious disaster. Others send you down a false trail that leads to failure in short order. But the book can be more sneakily discouraging. The finale puzzles require you to put together several clues you've found in your travels. In many cases, if you screw up a puzzle, you're sent to a page with a bad clue. You won't realize this until you hit an end-game puzzle and find that your collected clues are inconsistent or useless.
Yes, you can always guess. The ending is not a full-on metapuzzle where you must assemble all the information to make any progress. It is, ultimately, a choice of two or four options. But if you want to cheat, you might as well just turn to the back -- hints and solutions are included. If you want to solve the thing honestly, you're on the honor system.
I recommend giving it an honest try. There's a wide variety of puzzles -- enough that a few are likely to annoy you. I looked at answers for two or three. But the majority were satisfying to push through.
Plus, the book has a cipher wheel in the front cover! That would make Waterworks a Cool Puzzle Book even if the rest didn't measure up.
I'll line up my quibbles:
  • Most of the puzzles are on the easy side. Some are so easy that the book asks you to solve them with a time limit. This seems like a design flaw. (Yes, I saw what you did with that maze, that was nice.)
  • Many of the illustrations conceal clues or hidden marks. However, these are often quite small or dim. You really will need a magnifying glass, at least if you're over the age of 30.
  • You don't need to be a Sherlockian fanatic to solve this. But if you're not, you're going to be checking Wikipedia in a few places. That's fine, it's not cheating.
  • Print out the Dancing Men cipher (Sørensen's version) before you start. It's a lot easier than using the code wheel.
  • The puzzles don't always connect to the story in any mimetically meaningful way. Sometimes they do, but sometimes they're just pasted in. This is, unfortunately, most noticeable in the finale puzzles. The story tells you to collect clock times, and the clock times are clues, but there's no in-story reason for them to be clues.
  • The antagonist is Moriarty. Moriarty is boring. It's always flippin' Moriarty. At least it's not meant as a surprise -- Holmes spills Moriarty's name on the second page. (And there's a sly "seeing Moriarty everywhere" gag later in the book which made me laugh.)
My only serious complaint (aside from the magnifying glass) is that it's not a very Holmesian experience. Yes, there's a blizzard of canon in-jokes, but not much sense of the lightning observation and deduction which makes the stories fun. When you observe something, the narration just tells you that you've observed it. And when you go to work, you're solving formal puzzles, following the book's instructions. Really it feels like Watson's job... so much so that I kept forgetting who the narrator was!
Of course, Watson's point of view is always more comfortable. He narrated the original stories; the various TV and movie versions mostly followed suit. Game versions have gone both ways (we all remember Creepy Watson). But inhabiting Holmes's first-person (or second-person) viewpoint requires more than snippy banter. The story has to convey being brilliant. This book mostly conveys things being obvious but Watson didn't see them. I suppose it's how the Holmes POV should work, but the fun is missing.
To be clear, this is purely a complaint about the narrative style. The puzzles are fun; the book is cleverly put together. It pulls a couple of admirably sneaky tricks. The sense of place is solid -- I felt like I was sneaking around the real Waterworks, dodging hoodlums and searching for clues amid the offices and machinery. It's a good puzzle book. I recommend the thing and I hope the creators make more of them.

November 30, 2019

Choice of Games

Heart’s Choice Author Interview: David Monster & Jim Dattilo, All World Pro Wrestling

by Mary Duffy at November 30, 2019 07:42 PM

You’re a trainee in the male Erotic Professional Wrestling Federation… and you’re reader to take on all comers. Training includes sparring, matches in the ring against the other trainees, tag team competitions, a battle royal, antics in the showers and locker room, and even ringside seats at the Championship Match.

All World Pro Wrestling is a 310,000-word interactive erotic gay novel by David Monster and Jim Dattilo, one of the first set of games releasing with the launch of Heart’s Choice. I sat down with the authors to talk about writing interactive romance. Heart’s Choice games release December 2nd.

All World Pro Wrestling is part of the first launch of Heart’s Choice games and it’s the first gender and sexuality locked game we’re releasing for gay men. Jim you’ve written non-genderlocked games as well. Can you talk a little about the difference?

Writing a gender and sexuality locked game certainly has some advantages. The most obvious first advantage is that we don’t have to code gender pronouns, which saves time in coding and editing.

The next major advantage is in creating the characters. As a writer of choice games you want to give players lots of options. As a writer of fiction you want to give the reader highly specific characters. So in a game like Zombie Exodus, I need to have a huge variety of characters which are all open to various sexualities. Hopefully every player can find someone they are interested in or identify with. It is a phenomenal amount of work. However in All World Pro Wrestling, we can focus on a smaller set of characters, making them highly detailed.

Wrestling is also having a little cultural moment right now, it seems. What informed your decision to write wrestling fetish interactive fiction?

There’s currently a great climate in independent pro wrestling. They seem to be embracing diversity, especially LGBT, in a way that major federations are not. The independents are a lot more entertaining because they have a great sense of humor, especially guys like Joey Ryan, RJ Skinner, Brian Cage, The Golden Lovers, and Jervis Cottonbelly. It’s a lot more appealing to me, because through the humor, they are acknowledging the homoerotic aspect of the sport in a way that’s exciting, amusing, and not derogatory.

After I published my first book, Service, people contacted me to tell me they loved it but wanted more sex and erotica. So, I wrote a gay erotic pro wrestling novel. It’s such a natural, because beyond being a sport, pro wrestling is really a fetish, and along with the homoeroticism, there’s a brotherhood that naturally lends itself to man-on-man romance.

I have a lot of gay male fans through my other writing and they provide some of the best feedback on romance. There are so few choice games or forms of interactive fiction focused on LGBT characters that players are more willing to voice their support and criticism. As game designers we need both forms of feedback.

When David and I decided to collaborate, we thought to convert his gay male erotica novel into a choice driven story. His novel already had a rich setting, plot, and set of characters. This is why we wanted to pitch it.

Are you fans of regular wrestling?

Yes, I watch all different kinds of wrestling, mainly on YouTube. I like vintage pro wrestling, like AWA and GWF from the 50s to the 80s. When it comes to current wrestling, I’m a big fan of the independents. They’ve evolved as much more entertaining than WWE, currently the largest federation. I can’t watch WWE anymore. I’ll tune in every ten years or so, and it’s always the same storylines, same choreography. The guys are great-looking, but I need more than that.

I’m also a fan of Collegiate Wrestling. I wish I would have trained in amateur wrestling and grappling. All the great MMA fighters say it’s a necessary foundation for their sport.

As a kid I was a big fan of wrestling, back in the early days of Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage. I stopped watching at the time the WWF became the WWE, because as David said, the storylines became recycled. I don’t fault anyone for enjoying it now. Sometimes I’ll see a commercial for a large event and it will pique my interest.

This game is full of different romanceable characters. Tell me about some of them and which ones you enjoyed writing most.

To tell you the truth, I love them all. They all have different attributes that make them special. Rory is an extremely cute blond boy. He’s sweet and kind, but he has the heart of a fighter. He always wants to win but wants all his friends to win, too. Bravon’s a real man, the best athlete in the facility, and a good friend to have. He’s a handsome muscle stud with the most extreme abs. Mandrew’s a cute jock boy and the class clown. He’s funny and always a good time, although he’s straight (or at least he says he is). Marcos is a big, hairy bear, and a total pushover. If you’re a power top, he’s your guy. He’s truly up for almost anything.

Finally there’s Stan. He’s a short little mountain of muscles, and, by far, the toughest guy in the training facility. He’s built is solidly as a wall of concrete which also represents the walls he built around himself to hide his vulnerabilities. He’s a loyal warrior, who is devoted to training but always searching for love.

Beyond these characters, you can have flings with lots of other characters.

Could you talk a little about your collaborative writing process?

It was a learning process for me. I’ve never written a multiple choice game before, and Jim had already done three. He was my teacher and mentor, and taught me things about making a game you can’t learn from a tutorial. Jim’s guidance made me a much better writer.

David was the primary writer while I was the developer and coder. After writing a very extensive outline based on his book, we went through several rounds of drafts and edits until we came up with the shell of the game. David would write a chapter in a form of pseudocode, and I would take that document and convert it to ChoiceScript. Along the way we would talk about adding new content and deleting certain parts that weren’t working. David was always willing to do rewrites or punch up some text if needed. Since this was really his subject matter, I had to lean on him for the majority of the content. And he never made me feel like I was working for him. We were always collaborative and equal.

And what’s next for you guys? 

I released the book this game is based on, called Rowdy Armstrong 2 – Pro Wrestling Rookie. It’s available on Amazon, and you can check out the website for pics of all the characters in the book:

I hope Jim and I can work on the sequel to this game, very soon. He’s so busy with Zombie Exodus. His fans are constantly demanding more of that story, because he has created a really cool world there.

I have another game, with accompanying book, I hope Choice of Games or Heart’s Choice will host. It’s a non-genderlocked fantasy story that will not involve wrestling.

I have a podcast, called Unimaginary Friendcast, and will continue to talk about this game on it. We have interviewed Jim twice, so search for that. It’s worth a listen, for sure.

Here’s my webpage, if you want to know more:

I’m continuing to work on Zombie Exodus: Safe Haven, Part 3 primarily. I’m also currently working on a new title for Choice of Games. It’s a secret project, and I hope to share some details on this game early next year.

"Aaron Reed"

Subcutanean: Final Days to Back!

by Aaron A. Reed at November 30, 2019 06:42 PM

Friends, we’re in the FINAL DAYS of crowdfunding for my latest project Subcutanean, a novel where no two copies are the same. If you’ve already backed, I’d love your help spreading the word. And if you haven’t, this is your chance to reserve your own unique copy!

Back Subcutanean Now!

About the book: Subcutanean tells the story of two friends who find themselves trapped in an endless basement that seems to multiply everything: architecture, emotions, even people. Its endless tunnels and empty rooms connect to subtly different parallel dimensions. But those overlapping possibilities spill into the production of the book itself: the master copy contains hundreds of places where words, sentences, even entire scenes can change. Each printing is generated from a unique seed, and no two copies are ever quite the same.

About the campaign: During the Indiegogo campaign, a number of unique reward levels are available. You can reserve your own unique e-book or paperback copy of Subcutanean; get a pair of unique books at a discount price to read with a friend and compare notes; get a special USB key with ten thousand versions of the book (no kidding!) and all its master text and source code; even reserve a special copy with a piece of text guaranteed to only appear once, in that single printing. Some of these rewards are exclusive to the Indiegogo campaign and some will only be available afterwards until supplies run out, so don’t miss your chance to claim one now!

How you can help:

Thank you for being a fan and for your support. See you on the other side!

— Aaron

sub-Q Magazine

December 2019 table of contents

by Stewart C Baker at November 30, 2019 02:41 PM

It’s December. Here in the northern hemisphere, that means cold weather and more hours of darkness. To celebrate the season, we’ve loaded this issue chock full searches for things that go bump in the night.

Jei D. Marcade’s “That Night at Henry’s Place” takes on horror movie tropes as you search for a missing friend at a party that’s getting out of hand. In Astrid Dalmady’s “Night Guard / Morning Star,” you must hunt down a vanished painting–and the truth about your relationship with your mother. Last–but certainly not least!–Elizabeth Smyth’s “Zoinks!” asks one of life’s fundamental questions: Can you get away with it, in spite of those meddling kids? (And their mangy mutt, too.)

We’ll round out the issue with essays from Anya Johanna DeNiro and Sharang Biswas, and “I Found You First,” our festive, seasonally appropriate cover art by Laura De Stefani.

This is our last issue for 2019–phew! 2020 is going to be a little different. For one thing, we’re going to be switching to a non-profit organization. To support that goal, and to make sure that sub-Q is sustainable for the long term, we’ll be running a subscription drive some time in the summer.

One important impact of that on 2020 is that for now, we don’t have an open subscription period planned. That’s because the three issues planned for the year (February, April, and June/July) either already have content or will be special cases. February will include the winners of our 2019 subQjam (which you can join now on!) alongside a game by Ken Liu and one other guest author. The June/July issue will be our subscription drive issue.

A little bit more about that: Rather than a Kickstarter-style fundraiser where success is measured in dollar amounts, we’re hoping to gain enough subscribers to keep the magazine going without having to run a fundraiser every year.

The success of the drive will affect how the rest of 2020 looks in terms of what and how much we publish and how much we can afford to pay for it. We’ll have more news in early 2020, but the short version is that we can’t keep running the magazine without help from our readers.

All told, we’ll need just over 260 annual subscribers (or a similar number of monthly ones) to stay in the game at our current level. Currently our numbers are about a factor of ten lower than that, so if you want to help us meet our goals you can get a head start by signing up for our Patreon or subscribing on the website today. Doing so will also mean you get to see our special issue as soon as it’s available–instead of only if we reach our funding goal.

(Note, though, that we still haven’t become a transition at this point, so donations and subscriptions are not tax deductible quite yet!).

Of course, if we hit our goal before June/July, well… that means we’ll just stay open for business as usual, probably with an open submission period early in the year.

The post December 2019 table of contents appeared first on sub-Q Magazine.

Emily Short

End of November Link Assortment

by Mort Short at November 30, 2019 05:41 AM


December 2 is the deadline if you’d like to submit a talk proposal or an exhibition piece (interactive fiction might very well be suitable) for the Electronic Literature Organization’s next conference, July 16-19 2020 in Orlando. Details of the call here.

December 7 is the next SF Bay IF Meetup.

December 10 is the next meeting of the People’s Republic of IF in the Boston/Cambridge area.

The Oxford/London IF Meetup does not get together during the festive season, so we’ll not be together again until 2020.

The NarraScope organizers have announced that there will be a NarraScope 2020: specifically, May 29-31, in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois. If you’re interested in speaking there, the call for proposals is now open.

Last year was the inaugural year for this conference, focused on narrative games from classic IF and text adventures through point-and-click adventures to VR games, interactive audio, and mobile story games, TTRPGs and LARP, and quite a bit more. Meanwhile, if you missed this year’s event, or would just like to revisit its glories, there is a new podcast, Through the NarraScope, that discusses some of the talks and content.

New Narrative Games

Tender Claws is the company behind the amazing PRY. They have a new piece out now for Oculus Quest, The Under Presents.

Meanwhile, Choice of Games has a new line of romance IF coming out, under the imprint Heart’s Choice. The first three titles will be available on Steam shortly, and consist of A Pirate’s Pleasure, Dawnfall (science fiction), and Jazz Age.

And this one isn’t a new release, but new accessibility for old releases: David Welbourn continues to release a steady stream of verbose, friendly walkthroughs for parser IF games from the 1990s and 2000s. His walkthroughed games can be found on IFDB via the lists that he publishes each month. Recent walkthroughs include Dr Dumont’s Wild P.A.R.T.I., a formerly commercial game.


Aaron Reed’s every-version-is-different novel Subcutanean is funding for a couple more days.

Competitions and Exhibitions


IF Comp 2019 has closed, with Steph Cherrywell winning first place for Zozzled. The full set of rankings and results is available on the competition website.

SubQJam is open now through December 16 for submissions of short interactive fiction, and winners will be featured in SubQ Magazine next year.

Ryan Veeder has announced his Second Quadrennial Exposition for Good Interactive Fiction, an event whose purpose is to create games that are pleasing to Ryan Veeder. Fortunately, Ryan’s IF tastes tend to elicit games that appeal to a lot of other folks as well. Last time around, the winner was the highly entertaining Foo Foo. As a taster of the sort of thing to expect, here is how Ryan describes his preferences:

Entrants should be advised that I like games that are funny, cute, elegant, spooky, friendly, dumb, and/or sincere. Entrants should be advised that I dislike games that are cynical, depressing, gory, horrifying, serious, and/or important.

Entries to the Second Quadrennial Exposition are due… well, at potentially several different times in early 2020. Rather than confuse matters by trying to summarize here, I refer interested parties to Ryan’s own site.

If you’re hankering to write a long game, or a game you don’t think is going to appeal to Ryan Veeder, or a game that is just going to take a bit longer to complete, Spring Thing 2020 is accepting intents from authors now, and through March of next year.

Finally, Green Stories is a competition for stories about building a sustainable future. The competition includes an interactive fiction division.

Articles and Videos

Jon Ingold talks to Meghna Jayanth about her work, the upcoming project Sable, and her presence in the game industry at AdventureX 2019.

Ed Fear talks about challenges around representation in games, and about writing gay characters in particular. Also from AdventureX. (Several other videos from AdventureX are now available as well.)

Jimmy Maher on Digital Antiquarian writes about the Z-Machine and the early days of Inform and Curses, with quite a bit of input from Graham Nelson. (Introductory thoughts about the Z-Machine, Graham’s personal account, Jimmy’s take on the IF Renaissance)

Those interested in the problems of teaching an ML agent to play interactive fiction may like these articles courtesy of Prithviraj Ammanabrolu: Interactive Fiction Games: A Colossal Adventure – formalizing the task of playing text games with reinforcement learning agents, a software platform ( and series of baseline agents designed to play a wide variety of text based games. Transfer in Deep Reinforcement Learning using Knowledge Graphs – answering the question of how well an agent can play a text adventure by learning to play other text adventures within a genre. Toward Automated Quest Generation in Text-Adventure Games – looking at the other side of the problem, instead of playing a game, how can we use AI to help generate content for a game (here in the form of a quest within a given world).

November 29, 2019

The Gaming Philosopher

[IF Comp 2019] Girth Loinhammer and the Quest for the Unsee Elixir, by Damon L. Wakes

by Victor Gijsbers ([email protected]) at November 29, 2019 09:51 PM

Girth Loinhammer and the Quest for the Unsee Elixir is a fantasy comedy about a dungeon lord who didn't realise what crowd you'll attract when you open a dungeon. Having seen things he would rather forget, Loinhammer goes on a quest for the unsee elixir (not a typo), and you, dear reader, go on the quest with him. I decided to put on some horribly cheesy fantasy metal – Rhapsody of Fire – just to

Choice of Games

Heart’s Choice Author Interview: RoAnna Sylver, Dawnfall

by Mary Duffy at November 29, 2019 09:41 PM

Find true love and family with a pirate crew at the ends of the universe, where aliens, ghosts, and portals open the space between worlds…and your heart. You are a Navigator, one who creates and guards portals from one dimension to another, wary of the liminal sea between them.

Your universe is made of two worlds: one contains the magic-infused world of Zephyria, and the other, the dystopian space station Eclipse. The worlds are balanced, until one day, an explosive disaster, a deadly energy storm, and an infamous pirate—the Ghost Queen—upend your life and plunge you into a race to save both worlds.

Dawnfall is a 232,000 word interactive romance novel by RoAnna Sylver,  one of the first set of games releasing with the launch of Heart’s Choice. I sat down with the author, RoAnna Sylver, to talk about writing interactive romance. Heart’s Choice games release December 2nd.

Dawnfall has frankly an insanely wonderful setting for a romance game. Tell me about the aliens, the pirates, the ghosts, and the alien-pirate-ghosts. 

Hi there! I’m so glad you think this sounds fun! Yeah, Dawnfall is weird as heck, and that’s one of the things I love about this story. It’s weird in a way I don’t think we’ve seen much of before. I really just tried to put in everything I find fun or interesting, and that I’ve always wanted to write. Dawnfall started out as a total brain-candy project, and runs on pure Rule of Cool. Pirates? Yes. Magic? Yes. A slice of cyberpunk? Hell yes. Eerie ghosts and faerie-tale influences and memory-sharing potions? Giant bird people? The power of rock n’roll? Yes, yes, yes.

And also everybody’s dateable, and in a couple cases, dating each other. We weave a tangled web, but I think it’s a pretty badass and spectacular web.

You seem to really neatly straddle the genre fence here with a romance and sci-fi/fantasy. What was challenging about cramming all of that into one game?

Thank you so much for saying that. I’ve always adored SFF, and there’s so much in this genre-collection, so many extremes and concepts and contrasting colors, that I couldn’t limit myself to picking just one to play with. This weird game-book is kind of a love letter to fantasy and science fiction and haunted house stories and cyberpunk adventures—I thought a lot about the Disney movie Treasure Planet for its genre-blending beauty, and the Bioware game Mass Effect for its array of fascinating, multidimensional alien cuties to interact with and date… and then turned it up to eleven.

I guess you’d expect the challenge to be in making it all fit together/be “believable,” but I kind of threw that out the window. I don’t expect anyone to find it ‘realistic’ (setting-wise anyway; I tried to make every character ring true of course), and I don’t really care if someone thinks it’s silly, or doesn’t take it seriously. It is silly in a lot of ways. DAWNFALL is a giant ridiculous queer space magic pirate adventure, and the only goal is fun. If you have fun, I’ve done my job, and there should be something fun in here for everyone.

Did you have a favorite NPC you enjoyed writing most? 

Honestly I love them all so much in different ways, and I know them so well by now it’s really second nature. Their voices come so easily and they’re all so much fun. The Queen’s swagger is awesome though, and her mental voice/mannerisms probably come through especially clearly. I love Zenith’s vulnerable moments when xie lets xir guard down and lets go of the need to entertain or please. I love Averis’s journey and growth from cute wibbly nerd to a confident swashbuckler (who is also still a cute wibbly nerd). I love how deeply Oz feels, how strongly he loves and remembers and honors memory, and how unafraid he is to show softness and warmth. And I love a certain spoilery ghost-babe and how they’re so full of joy at the beauty of life.

I do want to give special mention to Aeon, though. This is a story about connection, and I wanted to show that sibling bonds are every bit as important and strong as romantic or any other. I also wanted to show a complex, multidimensional antagonist figure who holds heartbreaking secrets along with authority, and is genuinely trying to do what she thinks is the best thing, and wants what’s best for you, the PC, even if you might not always agree. Her balance between being so emotionally guarded and determined and unyielding, while hopefully being extremely easy to read and tell what she wants and fears and loves—spoiler: you; she loves you!—was a challenge I hope I pull off.

…Also I enjoy any time Vyranix gets his pompous feathered ass handed to him. I think we all know a Vyranix, or at least of one, and it’s always fun to take them down, even in fantasy.

Who would you be romancing as a player?

I’m gonna say “everyone,” and here it won’t actually be cheating, because you can romance everyone! At once! In varying degrees/relationship dynamics and attractions. You don’t see a lot of polyamory-friendly games or books or anything really, and this is an incredibly important thing for me. The second I got the idea for Dawnfall I knew it had to let players romance anyone they wanted and show polyamory in a realistic, healthy light. I’m also a-spec (asexual and aromantic), and having not just good representation but being actively included and welcomed and celebrated in fiction is so huge too.

Dawnfall is a romance of course, being part of Heart’s Choice, but one of the single most vital elements for me is making it inclusive for aromantic and asexual players and player-characters. Essentially, I wanted to write a romance that didn’t penalize players for not experiencing the attractions the way we’re otherwise expected or required—and I’m so grateful that my amazing editors and community not only accepted but supported everything I was trying to do here. (It’s so refreshing not to have to fight for inclusion and freedom. It shouldn’t be, but it is.)

And that’s where the concept of “Heart-Stars” and “Same-Feathers” came from. I’ve never seen anything honor queerplatonic relationships like I’m trying to do here, and I want everyone, of every sexuality and attraction, to feel like they have a place here and can experience this adventure without limits. And I wanted to show that it’s a very normal thing, hence this being the same for the human characters as well as alien. (One of the nonbinary characters being human is also no mistake. I love me some wild alien genders, but there are tons of awesome nonbinary humans too!)

…That being said, I think I gave Averis most of my anxiety-issues, and would really just like to curl up with Oz and watch The Great British Bake-Off. That sounds like a perfect night in my books.

What were some of the things you found surprising about the game-writing process?

Coding was definitely the biggest learning curve. I’d never coded anything before in my life, and it’s such a new skillset to learn, entirely different from any kind of writing I’ve ever done. Sometimes it felt rewriting my brain, which did not at all do this intuitively—and also sometimes like I bit off much more than I could chew (first game ever being not only a huge piece of interactive fiction, but a polyamorous romance with aro and ace possibilities, and so many more variables than expected!), but it’s been worth it. Entirely. If my writing makes anyone feel seen and accepted and invited to have fun as they are, it’s worth every bit of struggle.

Also, oddly, interactive fiction is in some ways easier for me than writing a plain old book! Probably because I love AUs so much, and every choice in a game is like writing a tiny AU of the story, so I get to do the same scenes several different ways. My ADHD-brain finds something about this extremely satisfying, most likely because it somehow feels more like multitasking! Several stories in one, and if I like two ideas, I don’t have to pick just one to write!

Honestly though, I think the most surprising part is just being done, and…that I could do this at all. It was so huge, and took so long, and I learned so much, and every day I’m just kind of going “who the hell am I?” about doing all of this. I’m proud of it. I did a cool thing. And trying to get better at saying that.

And, what are you working on now?

I always have about 8 active projects going at once (which shouldn’t come as a surprise after last question!), but my next interactive fiction game is with Tales/Fable Labs! It’s shaping up to be a Dawnfall-sized project, but a little faster-moving and action-y.

It’s called Every Beat Belongs To You, and it’s a romantic thriller that feels like Twin Peaks meets Mr. Robot, with a smattering of Repo: The Genetic Opera. A creepy Pacific Northwest town with a secret (and a rash of ritualized murders), a super-slick medical research company whose flagship product is a 100% perfect synthetic heart, a mysterious new-age group, and a sister who went missing just before discovering how it’s all connected. Also five simultaneously-dateable (including ace and aro ships!) cuties of varying genders! Who will you trust with your heart?

I’m very excited about Everybeat, which should be just as queer, polyam, exciting, and weird as all my stuff! Aside from that, I’m working on Stake Sauce Book 2, its companion f/f vampire series Death Masquerade, and Chameleon Moon Book 3. I’m not always working…sometimes there are videogames, and sleep. But I really hope to have a lot more fun things to share soon!

Oh, and depending on how this weird, fun thing goes, I do have some ideas for prequel Dawnfall stories; maybe games, maybe books, but the ideas are there. The world—worlds, really—is so huge, and I’m not done playing in it yet! I also have some character art drawn, and I want to do a lot more of them. It’s another way to show love.

So thank you so much! I really hope Dawnfall is as fun to everyone to read/play as it was for me to write. I can’t wait to share it with you!

The Gaming Philosopher

[IF Comp 2019] Sugarlawn, by Mike Spivey

by Victor Gijsbers ([email protected]) at November 29, 2019 11:36 AM

Mike Spivey made a name for himself with his 2017 game A Beauty Cold and Austere and his 2018 game Junior Arithmancer. Both of these were mathematical puzzle games, that is, puzzle games that were about mathematics; and both of them were very well received, placing 7th and 7th in their respective interactive fiction competitions. And now we can add Sugarlawn to the list, a game that did even

November 26, 2019


TWO - A Two Word Text Adventure

by Chris ([email protected]) at November 26, 2019 05:47 AM

I recently released TWO, which is a two word text adventure game, written in Adventuron Classroom.

The idea behind TWO is to strip away anything resembling a story, and just focus on puzzles.

The game is available to play here:

The treasure hunt genre was chosen for the game because it doesn't require a story and a two word game is a puzzle box rather than IF.

The game plays well on mobile:

"I see more than two words on the screen."

Here are the quite arbitrary rules:

  • Every location has a maximum of two words description.
  • Every object has a maximum of two words description (multiple objects may be listed in a location).
  • Apostrophe'd words count as one word, but no using the - characters to connect words.
  • Every response message is a maximum of two words.
  • The intro text is a maximum of two words.
  • The game over text is a maximum of two words.
  • Items in lists have their own two word allocations (such as directions, objects).

I really enjoyed this exercise in puzzle building, and I think that minimal parser based games really suit mobile as a platform. I'll be creating a gamejam around this rules shortly.

The link above has the full game, as well as full clues, encoded with base64, to avoid spoiling later puzzles. It also has a puzzle dependency chart for the game downloadable as an SVG, a preview (probably non readable, available here. Don't read onward if you want to avoid spoilers ...

November 25, 2019


NarraScope 2020 is accepting proposals for talks

by Andrew Plotkin at November 25, 2019 06:26 PM

The call for proposals for NarraScope 2020 is up! We’re now accepting proposals for talks and panels.

The details are all on the web site. We’re looking for cutting-edge discussions about adventure games, narrative design, interactive fiction, and anything else that falls under our umbrella. NarraScope represents a wide range of viewpoints — indies, academics, communities outside the gaming mainstream.

(Have a look at our 2019 schedule if you want an idea of how NarraScope runs. But we’re always hoping to expand our range!)

NarraScope 2020 will take place at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign from May 29-31, 2020.

Proposals are due by January 17th. We expect to have 60-minute and 30-minute talks and panel discussions, plus a session of lightning talks (five to ten minutes).

We regret we are unable to cover travel expenses for speakers this year.

Thanks in advance!

November 24, 2019

The Gaming Philosopher

[IF Comp 2019] Extreme Omnivore: Text Edition, by Hazel Gold

by Victor Gijsbers ([email protected]) at November 24, 2019 08:30 PM

Parser games excel in representing space, in placing the player in an environment consisting of multiple -- even many -- locations and allowing them to explore it. It is no coincidence that the drawing of maps is deeply associated with parser games; that Adventure started out as a cave exploration game; or that the one thing you need to do to create a legal Inform 7 source text is declaring a

November 22, 2019

The Digital Antiquarian

New Tricks for an Old Z-Machine, Part 3: A Renaissance is Nigh

by Jimmy Maher at November 22, 2019 06:42 PM

In 1397, a Byzantine scholar named Manuel Chrysoloras arrived in Florence, Italy. He brought with him knowledge of Greek, along with many ancient manuscripts in Greek and Latin that had been lost to the West in the chaos following the collapse of the Roman Empire. This event is considered by many historians to mark the first stirrings of the Italian Renaissance, and with them the beginning of the epoch of scientific, material, and social Progress which has persisted right up to the present day.

In 1993, an Oxford graduate student named Graham Nelson released a text adventure called Curses that, among other things, functioned as an advertisement for a programming language he called Inform, which targeted Infocom’s old Z-Machine. This event is considered by most of us who have seriously thought about the history of text adventures in the post-Infocom era to mark the first stirrings of the Interactive Fiction Renaissance, and with them the beginning of an interactive-fiction community that remains as artistically vibrant as ever today.

Yes, I can see you rolling your eyes at the foregoing. On one level, it is indeed an unbearably pretentious formulation, this comparing of one of the most earthshaking events in human culture writ large with the activities of a small community of niche enthusiasts. Yet, if we can agree to set aside the differences in scale and importance for the moment, the analogy really is a surprisingly apt one. Like the greater Renaissance in Europe, the Interactive Fiction Renaissance prepared a group of people to begin moving forward again by resurfacing old things that had been presumed lost forever. Taking pride of place among those things, being inextricably bound up with everything that followed, was the Z-Machine, functioning first as a means of running Infocom’s classic games, as we saw in the first article in this series; and then as a means of running new games, as we began to see in the second article and will examine in still more detail today.

As Graham Nelson began to pursue the dream of writing new software to run on Infocom’s old virtual machine, he had no access to the refined tools Infocom had used for that task. Thus he was forced to start from nothing — from what amounted to a bare chunk of (virtual) computing hardware, with no compilers or any other software helpers to aid his efforts. He had to start, in other words, at the bare metal, working in assembly language.

Assembly language is the lowest level at which any computer, whether real or virtual, can be (semi-)practically programmed. Its statements correspond to the individual opcodes of the processor itself, which normally encompass only the most granular of commands: add, subtract, multiply, or divide these numbers together; grab the number from this local register and put it into that memory location; etc. Assembly language is the primordial language which underpins everything, the one which must be utilized first to write the compilers that allow programmers to develop software in less granular, more structured, more human-friendly languages such as C, Pascal, and BASIC.

Already at this level, however, the Z-Machine separates itself from an ordinary computer. Alongside the rudimentary, granular opcodes that are common to any Turing-complete computer, it implements other opcodes that are absurdly baroque. The “read” opcode, for example, does all of the work of accepting a full line of text from the keyboard, then separating out its individual words and “tokenizing” them: i.e., looking them up in a dictionary table stored at a defined location in the virtual machine’s memory and converting them into the codes listed there. Another opcode, “save,” simply orders the interpreter to save the current state of the machine to disk, however it prefers to go about it; ditto the “restore” opcode. These complex and highly specialized opcodes exist because the Z-Machine, while it is indeed a Turing-complete, fully programmable anything machine in the abstract, is nevertheless heavily optimized toward the practical needs of text adventures. Thus an object table meant to represent rooms and things in the world of a game is hard-coded right into its memory map, and there are other single opcodes which encapsulate relatively complex tasks like looking up or changing the properties of an object in the world, or moving one object into another object.

Strictly speaking, none of this is really necessary; the Z-Machine is far more complicated than it needs to be in abstract terms. Infocom could have created a robust virtual machine which implemented only traditional low-level opcodes, building everything else out in the form of software libraries running on said virtual machine. But they had a strong motivation for hard-coding so many of the needs of a text adventure right into the virtual hardware: efficiency. A baroque opcode like “read” meant that all of the many steps and stages which went into accepting the player’s command could take place at the interpreter level, running natively on the host computer. Implementing a virtual machine of any sort was a serious challenge on a 1 MHz 8-bit computer like an Apple II or Commodore 64; Infocom needed every advantage they could get.

By the time of Graham Nelson’s experimentation with the Z-Machine, most of the concerns that had led Infocom to design it in this way had already fallen by the wayside. The average computer of the early 1990s would have been perfectly capable of running text adventures through a simpler and more generic virtual machine where the vagaries of the specific application were implemented in software. Nevertheless, the Z-Machine was the technology Graham had inherited and the one he was determined to utilize. When he began to work on Inform, he tailored it to the assumptions and affordances of the Z-Machine. The result was a high-level programming language with an unusual degree of correspondence to its underlying (virtual) hardware. Most obviously, the earliest versions of Inform couldn’t make games whose total compiled size exceeded 128 K, the limit for the version 3 Z-Machine they targeted. (This figure would be raised to 256 K once Inform began to target the version 4 and 5 Z-Machine.)

Yet this limitation was only the tip of the iceberg. Each function in Inform was limited to a maximum of 15 local variables because that was all that the stack mechanism built into the Z-Machine allowed. Meanwhile only 240 global variables could exist because that was the maximum length of the table of same hard-coded into the Z-Machine’s memory map. Much of Inform came to revolve around the Z-Machine’s similarly hard-coded object table, which was limited to just 255 objects in version 3 of the virtual machine. (This limitation was raised to 65,535 objects in the version 4 and 5 Z-Machine, thereby becoming in practice a non-issue.) Further, each object could have just 32 attributes, or states of being — its weight, its open or closed status, its lit or unlit status, etc. — because that was all that was allowed by the Z-Machine’s standard object table. (Starting with version 4 of the Z-Machine, objects could have up to 48 attributes.) All of the dynamic data in a game — i.e., data that could change during play, as opposed to static data like code and text strings — had to fit into the first 64 K of the story file, an artifact of the Z-Machine’s implementation of virtual memory, which had allowed it to pack 128 K or more of game into computers with far less physical memory than that. This limitation too was inherited by Inform despite the fact that by the early 1990s the virtual-memory system had become superfluous, a mere phantom limb which Inform nevertheless had to accept as part of the bargain with the past which it had struck.

Indeed, having been confronted with so many undeniable disadvantages arising from the use of the Z-Machine, it’s natural for us to ask what actual advantages accrued from the use of a fifteen-year-old virtual machine designed around the restrictions of long-obsolete computers, as opposed to taking the TADS route of designing a brand new virtual machine better suited to the modern world. One obvious answer is portability. By the early 1990s, several different open-source Z-Machine interpreters already existed, which between them had already been ported to virtually every computing platform in the world with any active user base at all. Any Inform game that Graham Nelson or anyone else chose to write would become instantly playable on all of these computers, whose combined numbers far exceeded those to which Mike Roberts, working virtually alone on TADS, had so far managed to port his interpreter. (The only really robust platform for running TADS games at the time was MS-DOS; even the Macintosh interpreters were dogged by bugs and infelicities. And as for Graham’s favored platform, the British-to-the-core Acorn Archimedes… forget about it.)

In reality, though, Inform’s use of the Z-Machine appealed at least as much to the emotions as to technical or practical considerations. The idea of writing new games to run on Infocom’s old virtual machine had a romantic and symbolic allure that many found all but irresistible. What better place to build a Renaissance than on the very foundations left behind by the storied ancients? Many or most of the people who came to use Inform did so because they wanted to feel like the heirs to Infocom’s legacy. Poor TADS never had a chance against that appeal to naked sentimentality.

Even as Inform was first gaining traction, it was widely known that Infocom had had a programming language of their own for the Z-Machine, which they had called ZIL: the “Zork Implementation Language.” Yet no one outside of Infocom had ever seen any actual ZIL code. How closely did Inform, a language that, like ZIL, was designed around the affordances and constraints of the Z-Machine, resemble its older sibling? It wasn’t until some years after Inform had kick-started the Interactive Fiction Renaissance that enough ZIL code was recovered to give a reasonable basis for comparison. The answer, we now know, is that Inform resembles ZIL not at all in terms of syntax. Indeed, the two make for a fascinating case study in how different minds, working on the same problem and equipped with pretty much the same set of tools for doing so, can arrive at radically different solutions.

As I described in an article long ago, ZIL was essentially a subset of the general-purpose programming language MDL, which was used heavily during the 1970s by the Dynamic Modeling Group at MIT, the cradle from which Infocom sprang. (MDL was itself a variant of LISP, for many years the language of choice among artificial-intelligence researchers.) A bare-bones implementation of the famous brass lantern in Zork I looked like this in ZIL:

           (LOC LIVING-ROOM) 
           (ADJECTIVE BRASS) 
           (DESC "brass lantern") 
           (ACTION LANTERN-F) 
           (FDESC "A battery-powered lantern is on the trophy 
           (LDESC "There is a brass lantern (battery-powered) 
           (SIZE 15)>

Inform has a fairly idiosyncratic syntax, but most resembles C, a language which was initially most popular among Unix systems programmers, but which was becoming by the early 1990s the language of choice for serious software of many stripes running under many different operating systems. The same lantern would look something like this in a bare-bones Inform implementation:

Object -> lantern "brass lantern"
  with name 'lamp' 'lantern' 'light' 'brass',
      "A battery-powered lantern is on the trophy case.",
      "There is a brass lantern (battery-powered) here.",
  after [;
      give self light;
      give self ~light;
  size 15,
  has switchable;

After enough information about ZIL finally emerged to allow comparisons like the above, many Infocom zealots couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed about how poorly Infocom’s language actually fared in contrast to Graham Nelson’s. Having been designed when the gospel of object-oriented programming was still in its infancy, ZIL, while remarkable for embracing object-oriented principles to the extent it does, utilizes them in a slightly sketchy way, via pointers to functions which have to be defined elsewhere in the code. (This is the purpose of the “ACTION LANTERN-F” statement in the ZIL code above — to serve as a pointer to the routine that should run when the player tries to light the lantern.) Inform, on the other hand, allows all of the code and data associated with an object such as the brass lantern to be neatly encapsulated into its description. (The “SwitchOn” and “SwitchOff” statements in the Inform excerpt above explain what should happen when the player tries to light or extinguish the lantern.) A complete implementation of the Zork I lantern in Inform would probably fill a dozen or more lines than what we see above, monitoring the charge of the battery, allowing the player to swap in a new battery, etc. — all neatly organized in one chunk of code. In ZIL, it would be scattered all over the place, wired together via a confusing network of pointers. In terms of readability alone, then, Inform excels in comparison to ZIL.

Most shockingly of all given the Infocom principals’ strong grounding in computer science, they never developed a standard library for ZIL — i.e., a standardized body of code to take care of the details that most text adventures have in common, such as rooms and compass directions, inventory and light sources, as well as the vagaries of parsing the player’s commands and keeping score. Instead the author of each new game began by cannibalizing some of the code to do these things from whatever previous game was deemed to be most like this latest one. From there, the author simply improvised. The Inform standard library, by contrast, was full-featured, rigorous, and exacting by the time the language reached maturity — in many ways a more impressive achievement than the actual programming language which undergirded it.

Because it was coded so much more efficiently than Infocom’s ad-hoc efforts, this standard library allowed an Inform game to pack notably more content into a given number of kilobytes. The early versions of Curses, for example, were already sprawling games by most standards, yet fit inside the 128 K Z-Machine. Later versions did move to, and eventually all but fill, the version 5 Z-Machine with its 256 K memory map. Still, the final Curses offers vastly more content than anything Infocom ever released, with the possible exception only of Zork Zero (a game which was itself designed for a version 6 Z-Machine that took the ceiling to 512 K). Certainly any comparison of A Mind Forever Voyaging and Trinity — both famously big games with a story-file size pegged to the version 4 and 5 limit of 256 K — to the final version of Curses — story-file size: 253 K — must reveal the last to be an even more complex, even more expansive experience.

So, the Inform development system could hold its head up proudly next to ZIL; in fact, it was so well-thought-through that ZIL would thoroughly disappoint by comparison once hobbyists finally learned more about it. But what of Curses itself, the game with which Inform was so indelibly linked during the first few years of its existence? Was it also up to the Infocom standard?

Before delving into that question in earnest, I should perhaps elaborate a bit on Graham Nelson’s own description of Curses from the previous article.

In the game, then, you play the role of a rather hapless scion of a faded aristocratic family. Aristocratic life not being what it once was, you’ve long since been forced to register the familial mansion with the National Trust and open it up to visitors on the weekends in order to pay the bills. As the game proper begins, your family is about to take a jaunt to Paris, and you’ve come up to the attic — a place in as shabby a state as the rest of the house — to look for a tourist map you just know is lying around up here somewhere.

It's become a matter of pride now not to give up. That tourist map of Paris must be up here somewhere in all this clutter, even if it has been five years since your last trip. And it's your own fault. It looks as if your great-grandfather was the last person to tidy up these lofts...

The attics, full of low beams and awkward angles, begin here in a relatively tidy area which extends north, south and east. The wooden floorboards seem fairly sound, just as well considering how heavy all these teachests are. But the old wiring went years ago, and there's no electric light.

A hinged trapdoor in the floor stands open, and light streams in from below.

In the best tradition of shaggy-dog stories, your search for the map turns into an extended adventure through space and time. You just keep finding more and more secret areas and secret things in the attics and the grounds surrounding the house, including a disconcerting number of portals to other times and places. The whole thing eventually comes to revolve around an ancient familial curse reaching back to the time of Stonehenge. If you manage to get to the end of the game — no small feat, believe me! — you can finally lift the curse. And, yes, you can finally find the bloody Paris tourist map.

It’s hard to know where to start or end any discussion of Curses. It’s one of those works that sends one off on many tangents: its technology, its historical importance, its literary worth as a writing exercise or its ludic worth as an exercise in design. Faced with this confusion, we might as well start with what Curses has meant to me.

For Curses is indeed a game which carries a lot of personal importance for me. I first discovered it about four or five years after its original release, when I was working a painfully dull job as a night-shift system administrator — a job which paid not so much for what I did each night as for my just being there if something should go wrong. I had, in other words, copious amounts of free time on my hands. I used some of it playing a bunch of post-Infocom text adventures which I hadn’t previously realized existed. Because they looked — or could be made to look — like just another scrolling terminal window, they suited my purposes perfectly. Thus my memory of many a 1990s classic is bound up with those nights in a deserted data center — with the strange rhythm of being awake when everyone else is asleep, and vice versa.

Of all the games I played during that time, Curses made one of the greatest impressions on me. I was still young enough then to be profoundly impressionable in general, and I found its casual erudition, its willingness to blend science with poetry, mathematics with history, to be absolutely entrancing. Having been a hopeless Anglophile ever since I first heard a Beatles record at circa six years old, I was well-primed to fall in love with Graham Nelson’s dryly ironic and oh-so-English diction. In fact, as I began to write more seriously and extensively myself in the years that followed, I shamelessly co-opted some of his style as my own. I like to think that I’ve become my own writer in the time since that formative period, but some piece of Graham is undoubtedly still hiding out down there somewhere in the mishmash of little ticks and techniques that constitute my writer’s voice.

For all that Curses entranced me, however, I never came close to completing it. At some point I’d get bogged down by its combinatorial explosion of puzzles and places, by its long chains of dependencies where a single missed or misplaced link would lock me out of victory without my realizing it, and I’d drift away to something else. Eventually, I just stopped coming back altogether.

I was therefore curious and maybe even slightly trepiditious to revisit Curses for this article some two decades after I last attempted to play it. How would it hold up? The answer is, better than I feared but somewhat worse than I might have hoped.

The design certainly shows its age. I have less patience than ever today for walking-dead scenarios that are as easy to stumble into as they are here. I wholeheartedly agree with Graham’s own statement that “Curses is by any reasonable standard too hard.”

So far, so expected. But I was somewhat more surprised by my crotchety middle-aged take on the writing. Mind you, some aspects of it still bring a smile to my face; I still can’t resist saying, “It’s a wrench, but I’ll take it,” every time I pick up a wrench in real life, much to my wife’s disgust. (Luckily, as she’d be the first to point out, I’m not much of a handyman, so I don’t tend to pick up too many of them.) In other places, though, what used to strike me as delightful now seems just a little bit too precious for its own good. I can still recognize the influence it had over me and my own writing, but it does feel at times like an influence I’ve ever so slightly outgrown. Today, things like the game’s quotation of the lovely Dorothy Parker poem “Inventory” — “Four be the things I’d been better without: Love, curiosity, freckles, and doubt.” — when you first type the command of the same name can feel just a little bit facile. Curses is constantly making cultural cross-connections like these, but they’re ultimately more clever than they are profound. It’s a game packed with a lot of cultural stuff, but not one with much to really say about any of it. It instead treats its cultural name-dropping as an end unto itself.

Curses strikes me as a young man’s game, in spite of its showy erudition — or perhaps because of it. It was written by a prodigious young man in that wonderful time of life when the whole world of the intellect — all of it — is fresh and new and exciting, when unexpected pathways of intellectual discovery seem to be opening up everywhere one looks. In this light, Emily Short’s description of it as a game about the sheer joy of cultural discovery rings decidedly true. Graham himself recognizes that he could never hope to write a game like it today; thus his wise decision not to return to the well for a sequel.

But to fairly evaluate Curses, we need to understand its place in the timeline of interactive fiction as well as in the life of the man who created it. It’s often billed — not least by myself, in this very article’s introduction — as the game which kicked off the Interactive Fiction Renaissance, the first of a new breed which didn’t have to settle for being the next best thing to more Infocom games. It was the first hobbyist game which could stand proudly shoulder to shoulder with the best works of Infocom in terms of both technical and literary quality.

On the face of it, this is a fair evaluation — which is, after all, the reason I’ve deployed it. Yet the fact remains that Curses‘s mode of production and overall design aesthetic mark it as a distinctly different beast from the best later works of the Renaissance it heralded. While the games of Infocom certainly were an influence on it, they weren’t the only influence. Indeed, their influence was perhaps less marked in reality than one might imagine from the game’s intimate connection to the Z-Machine, or from its borrowing of some fairly superficial aesthetic elements from Infocom, such as the letterboxed literary quotations which were first employed to such good effect by Trinity. While Curses‘s technology and its prose were unquestionably up to the Infocom standard, in spirit it verged on something else entirely.

In the beginning — the very beginning — text adventures were written on big institutional computers by unabashed eggheads for a very small audience of other eggheads. Games of this type were expected to be hard; questions of fairness rarely even entered the conversation. For these games weren’t just designed for single eggheads to play and conquer — they were rather designed for entire teams of same; adventure gaming in these early days was regarded as a group activity. These games were made publicly available while still works-in-progress; their mode of production bore an ironic resemblance to modern attitudes about “software as a service,” as manifested in modern gaming in things like the Steam Early Access program. In fact, these text-adventures-as-a-service tended not to ever really get finished by their designers; they simply stopped growing one day when their designers left the institution where they lived or simply got bored with them. Graham Nelson was exposed to this tradition early on, via his first encounters with the Crowther and Woods Adventure. (Remember his telling reminiscence: “It seemed like something you were exploring, not something you were trying to win.”) When he came to Cambridge in 1987, he was immersed in a sustained late flowering of this design aesthetic, in the form of the text adventures made for the Phoenix mainframe there.

This attitude cut against the one which Infocom had long since come to embrace by the time Graham arrived at Cambridge: the notion that text adventures should be interactive fictions, soluble by any single player of reasonable intelligence in a reasonable amount of time. As the name “interactive fiction” would imply, Infocom adopted a fundamentally literary mode of production: a game was written, went through lots of internal testing to arrive at some consciously complete state, and then and only then was sent out into the world as the final, definitive work. Infocom might release subsequent versions to fix bugs and incongruities that had slipped through testing, just as the text of a book might receive some additional correcting and polishing between print runs, but Infocom’s games were never dramatically expanded or overhauled after their release. Post-Curses, the hobbyist interactive-fiction community would embrace this Infocom model of production almost exclusively. In fact, a game released “before its time,” still riddled with bugs and sketchily written and implemented, would attract the most scathing of rebukes, and could damage the reputation of its author to the point that she would have a hard time getting anyone to even look at a subsequent game.

Yet Curses was anything but an exemplar of this allegedly enlightened interactive-fiction production function. Graham Nelson’s game grew up in public like the institutional games of yore, being expanded and improved in six major stages, with more than two years elapsing from its first release to its last. Betwixt and between them, Graham shared yet more versions on a more private basis, both among his local peer group and among the burgeoning community of Curses superfans on the Internet. As each new version appeared, these armies of players would jump into it to find the new puzzles and give their feedback on what else might be added to or improved, just as an army of MIT students once did every time the people who would eventually found Infocom put up a new build of the PDP-10 Zork. There are, for example, seven separate ways to solve an early puzzle involving the opening of a stubborn medicine bottle in the final version of Curses, most of them the result of player suggestions.

So, Curses should be understood as an ongoing creative effort — almost, one might say, a collaboration between Graham Nelson and his players — that grew as big as it could and then stopped. A scrupulous commitment to fairness just wasn’t ever in the cards, any more than a rigorously pre-planned plot line. In a telling anecdote, Graham once let slip that he was surprised how many people had finished Curses at all over the years. It was designed, like his beloved Crowther and Woods Adventure, to be a place which you came back to again and again, exploring new nooks and crannies as the fancy took you. If you actually wanted to solve the thing… well, you’d probably need to get yourself a group for that. Even the hint system, grudgingly added in one of the later versions, is oblique; many of the hints come from a devil who tells you the exact opposite of what you ought to be doing. And all of the hints are obscure, and you’re only allowed three of them in any given session.

All of which is to say that, even as it heralded a new era in interactive fiction which would prove every bit as exciting as what had come before, Curses became the last great public world implemented as a single-player text adventure. It’s an archetypal Renaissance work, perched happily on the crossroads between past and future. Its shared debt to the institutional tradition that had stamped so much of interactive fiction’s past and to the Infocom approach that would dictate its future is made most explicit in the name of the language which Graham developed alongside the game. As he told us in the previous article in this series, the first syllable of “Inform” does indeed refer to Infocom, but the second syllable reflects the habit among users of the Cambridge Phoenix mainframe of appending the suffix “-form” to the name of any compiler.

Speaking of Inform: Curses also needs to be understood in light of its most obvious practical purpose at the time of its creation. Most new text-adventure creation systems, reaching all the way back to the time of Scott Adams, have been developed alongside the first game to be written using them. As we’ve seen at some length now in this article and the previous one, Inform was no exception. As Graham would add new features to his language, he would finds ways to utilize them in Curses in order to test them out for himself and demonstrate them to the public. So, just as Inform reflects the Z-Machine’s core capabilities, Curses reflects Inform’s — all of them. And because Inform was designed to be a powerful, complete system capable of producing games equal in technical quality to those of Infocom or anyone else, the puzzles which found their way into Curses became dizzying in their sheer multifariousness. Anything ZIL could do, Graham was not so subtly implying, Inform could do as well or better.

Here, then, the Infocom influence on Curses is much more pronounced. You can almost go through the Infocom catalog game by game, looking at the unique new interactive possibilities each release implemented and then finding a demonstration somewhere in Curses of Inform’s ability to do the same thing. Zork II introduced a robot to which the player’s avatar could issue verbal commands, so Curses does the same thing with a robot mouse; Enchanter had an underground maze whose interconnections the player could alter dynamically, so Curses has a hedge maze which let its player do the same thing; Infidel drew hieroglyphic symbols on the screen using groups of ASCII characters, so Curses has to demonstrate the same capability; etc., etc. (One of the few Infocom affordances that doesn’t show up anywhere in Curses is a detailed spell-casting system, the linchpin of the beloved Enchanter trilogy — but never fear, Graham wrote an entirely separate game just to demonstrate Inform’s capabilities in that area.) If all this doesn’t always do much for the game’s internal coherence, so be it: there were other motivations at work.

Graham Nelson’s own story of the first release of Curses is stamped with the unassuming personality of the man. On May 9, 1993, he uploaded it to an FTP site connected with the Gesellschaft für Mathematik und Datenverarbeitung — a research institute in Bonn, Germany, where a friendly system administrator named Volker Blasius had started an archive for all things interactive fiction. He then wrote up a modest announcement, and posted it to the Usenet newsgroup — a group originally set up by stuffy academic hypertext enthusiasts of the Eastgate stripe, which had since been rudely invaded and repurposed by unwashed masses of text-adventure enthusiasts. After doing these things, Graham heard…nothing. Feeling a little disappointed, but realizing that he had after all written a game in a genre whose best days seemed to be behind it, he went about his business — only to discover some days later that his incoming Usenet feed was bollixed. When he got it fixed, he found that his little game had in fact prompted a deluge of excitement. No one had ever seen anything like it. Just where had this mysterious new game that somehow ran on Infocom’s own Z-Machine come from? And where on earth had its equally mysterious author gone to after releasing it?

It really is hard to overstate the impact which Curses, and shortly after it Inform, had on the interactive-fiction community of 1993. Text adventures at that time were largely an exercise in nostalgia; even all of the work that had been done to understand the Z-Machine and make new interpreters for it, which had been such a necessary prerequisite for Graham’s own work, had been done strictly to let people play the old games. While some people were still making new games, none of them could comprehensively stand up next to Infocom at their best. Yes, some of them evinced considerable creativity, even a degree of real literary ambition, but these were held back by the limitations of AGT, the most popular text-adventure development system at the time. Meanwhile Adventions, the makers of the most polished games of this period, who were wise enough to use the technically excellent TADS rather than the more ramshackle AGT, were more competent than inspired in churning out slavish homages to Zork. All of the absolute best text adventures, the ones which combined literary excellence and technical quality, were still those of Infocom, and were all more than half a decade old.

And then along came Curses as a bolt out of the blue. Even if we wish to argue that some aspects of it haven’t aged terribly well, we cannot deny how amazing it was in 1993, with its robust determination to do everything Infocom had done and more, with its distinct and confident literary sensibility, and not least — the appeal this held really cannot be emphasized enough — the fact that it ran on Infocom’s own virtual machine. It dominated all online discussion of text adventures throughout the two years Graham spent continuing to improve and expand it in public. The gravitational pull of Curses was such that when Mike Roberts, the creator of TADS, released an epic of his own later in 1993, it went oddly unremarked — this despite the fact that Perdition’s Flames was progressive in many ways that Curses distinctly wasn’t, making it impossible to lock yourself out of victory, prioritizing fairness above all other considerations. It stands today as the better game in mechanical terms at least, recommendable without the caveats that must accompany Graham’s effort. Yet it never stood a chance in 1993 against the allure of Curses.

And so it was that the quiet, thoughtful Englishman Graham Nelson — hardly the most likely leader of a cultural movement — used Curses and Inform to sculpt a new community of creation in his own image.

Graham’s technological choices became the community’s standards to a well-nigh shocking extent. The version 5 Z-Machine, the last and most advanced of its text-only iterations to come out of Infocom, had only been used by a few late Infocom games, none of them hugely beloved. Thus its implementation had tended to be a somewhat low priority among interpreter writers. But when Curses outgrew the 128 K memory space of the version 3 Z-Machine fairly early in its release cycle, and Graham stepped up to the 256 K version 5 Z-Machine, that decision drove interpreter writers to add support for it; after all, any Z-Machine interpreter worth its salt simply had to be able to play Curses, the sensation of the text-adventure world. Thus the version 5 Z-Machine became the new standard for the hobbyist games that followed, thanks not only to its expanded memory space but also to its more advanced typography and presentation options. (Graham would later define two new versions of the Z-Machine for really big games: an experimental and seldom-used version 7 and a version 8 which did come into common use. Both would allow story files of up to 512 K, just like Infocom’s graphical version 6 Z-Machine.)

Graham was utterly disinterested in making money from his projects. He made Inform entirely free, destroying the shareware model of AGT and TADS. David Malmberg, the longtime steward of AGT, stepped down from that role and released that system as well as freeware in 1994, signalling the end of its active development. Mike Roberts did continue to maintain and improve TADS, but soon bowed to the new world order ushered in by Inform and made it free as well. Not coincidentally, the end of the era of shareware text adventures as well as shareware text-adventure development systems coincided with Graham’s arrival on the scene; from now on, people would almost universally release their games for free. It’s also of more than symbolic significance that, unlike earlier hotbeds of text-adventure fandom which had coalesced around private commercial online services such as CompuServe and GEnie, this latest and most enduring community found its home on the free-and-open Internet.

It’s important to note that Graham’s disinterest in making money in no way implied a lack of seriousness. He approached everything he did in interactive fiction with the attitude that it was worth doing, and worth doing well. In the long run, his careful attention to detail and belief in the medium as something worthy of serious effort and serious study left as pronounced a stamp on the culture of interactive fiction as Inform or Curses themselves.

In 1995, he produced “The Z-Machine Standards Document,” which replaced years of speculation, experimentation, and received hacker wisdom with a codified specification for all extant versions of the Z-Machine. At the same time that he worked on that project, he embarked on The Inform Designer’s Manual, which not only explained the nuts and bolts of coding in the language but also delved deep into questions of design. “The Craft of Adventure,” its included essay on the subject, remains to this day the classic work of its type. Working with what was by now an enthusiastic hobbyist community which tempered its nostalgia for the medium’s commercial past with a belief in its possibilities for the present and future, Graham even saw The Inform Designer’s Manual — all 500-plus pages of it — printed as a physical book, at a time when self-publishing was a much more fraught endeavor than it is today.

But the most amusing tribute to the man’s sheer, well-earned ubiquity may be the way that his personality kept peeking through the cracks of every game made with Inform, unless its author went to truly heroic lengths to prevent it. His wryly ironic standard responses to various commands, as coded into the Inform standard library — “As good-looking as ever” when you examined yourself; “Violence isn’t the answer to this one” when you gave in to frustration and started trying to beat on something; “You are always self-possessed” when you attempted to take yourself — proved damnably difficult to comprehensively stamp out. Thus you’d see such distinctly non-Nelsonian efforts as zombie apocalypses or hardcore erotica suddenly lapsing from time to time into the persona of the bemused Oxford don wandering about behind the scenes, wondering what the heck he’d gotten himself into this time.

Seen with the hindsight of the historian, the necessary prerequisites to an Interactive Fiction Renaissance aren’t hard to identify. The Internet gave text-adventure fans a place to gather and discuss the games of the past, as well as to distribute new ones, all unbeholden to any commercial entity. Free Z-Machine interpreters made it easy to play Infocom’s games, widely recognized as the best of their type ever made, in convenient ways on virtually every computer in existence. Activision’s two Lost Treasures of Infocom collections made the complete Infocom canon easy to acquire, placing all text-adventure fans on an even footing in the course of providing them with their equivalent of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. And then Graham Nelson came along and gave so much: a superb programming language in Inform, a superb demonstration of where interactive fiction could go in the post-Infocom era in Curses, documentation that exceeded the standard of most professional efforts, and, perhaps most of all, a living example of how interactive fiction was worth taking seriously in all its aspects, worth doing completely and well — and forget worrying about making money out of it. So, my next statement is as cringe-worthy as it is inevitable: Graham Nelson became interactive fiction’s Renaissance Man.

Now, it was just a matter of time before all of these forces forged something rather extraordinary. The year after Graham arrived on the scene in such exciting fashion was actually one of the quietest in the history of text adventures in terms of new releases; AGT was dying, while Inform was just beginning to pick up steam as an entity separate from Curses. But the following year, 1995, would see an embarrassment of worthy releases, large and small, trying all sorts of things, even as the cultural capstone to the new edifice of post-Infocom interactive fiction — an annual Interactive Fiction Competition — arrived to complete the construction process. The events of 1993 had been the harbinger; 1995 would become the true Year One of the Interactive Fiction Renaissance.

(Sources: the book The Inform Designer’s Manual by Graham Nelson; Stephen Granade’s timeline of interactive fiction on Brass Lantern; archives of and, available on the IF Archive. My warmest thanks go once again to Graham Nelson for sharing so much of his story for these articles.

Curses remains available for free. It can of course be played on any Z-Machine interpreter.)

Classic Adventure Solution Archive

CASA Update - 59 new game entries, 20 new solutions, 23 new maps, 1 new manual, 9 new hints, 1 new fixed game

by Gunness at November 22, 2019 12:39 PM

The CASA database is large and ever growing. I'll be the first to admit that there are (probably) lots of errors in our data. That sort of goes with the territory, seeing how we're investigating rare and sometimes lost games from 35+ years ago. Hence it pleases my inner historian to no end when I see the amount of research that some of our users put into getting the facts right. Case in point: Jyym Pearson's Saigon: The Final Days, which might or might not be part of the Other Ventures series. Feel free to join the debate here if you think you have any information to add.
Speaking of mr. Pearson, I've personally only played two of his games, The Institute and Lucifer's Realm, which are both decidedly oddball - in a good way.

Contributors: Csabo, Sylvester, Gunness, NomadColossus, iamaran, Alex, Mousey, Jesper Hvid, Moitcho, zjuric, leenew, rkarlberg, nimusi, stevenjameshodgson, jimjamsgames, D. Jones, Strident, devwebcl