Planet Interactive Fiction

March 22, 2019

The Digital Antiquarian


by Jimmy Maher at March 22, 2019 05:41 PM

Darklands may well have been the most original single CRPG of the 1990s, but its box art was planted firmly in the tacky CRPG tradition. I’m not sure that anyone in Medieval Germany really looked much like these two…

Throughout the 1980s and well into the 1990s, the genres of the adventure game and the CRPG tended to blend together, in magazine columns as well as in the minds of ordinary gamers. I thus considered it an early point of order for this history project to attempt to identify the precise differences between the genres. Rather than addressing typical surface attributes — a CRPG, many a gamer has said over the years, is an adventure game where you also have to kill monsters — I tried to peek under the hood and identify what really makes the two genres tick. At bottom, I decided, the difference was one of design philosophy. The adventure game focuses on set-piece, handcrafted puzzles and other unique interactions, simulating the world that houses them only to the degree that is absolutely necessary. (This latter is especially true of the point-and-click graphic adventures that came to dominate the field after the 1980s; indeed, throughout gaming history, the trend in adventure games has been to become less rather than more ambitious in terms of simulation.) The CRPG, meanwhile, goes in much more for simulation, to a large degree replacing set-piece behaviors with systems of rules which give scope for truly emergent experiences that were never hard-coded into the design.

Another clear difference between the two genres, however, is in the scope of their fictions’ ambitions. Since the earliest days of Crowther and Woods and Scott Adams, adventure games have roamed widely across the spectrum of storytelling; Infocom alone during the 1980s hit on most of the viable modern literary genres, from the obvious (fantasy, science fiction) to the slightly less obvious (mysteries, thrillers) to the downright surprising (romance novels, social satires). CRPGs, on the other hand, have been plowing more or less the same small plot of fictional territory for decades. How many times now have groups of stalwart men and ladies set forth to conquer the evil wizard? While we do get the occasional foray into science fiction — usually awkwardly hammered into a frame of gameplay conventions more naturally suited to heroic fantasy — it’s for the most part been J.R.R. Tolkien and Dungeons & Dragons, over and over and over again.

This seeming lack of adventurousness (excuse the pun!) among CRPG designers raises some interesting questions. Can the simulation-oriented approach only be made to work within a strictly circumscribed subset of possible virtual worlds? Or is the lack of variety in CRPGs down to a simple lack of trying? An affirmative case for the latter question might be made by Origin Systems’s two rather wonderful Worlds of Ultima games of the early 1990s, which retained the game engine from the more traditional fantasy CRPG Ultima VI but moved it into settings inspired by the classic adventure tales of Arthur Conan Doyle and H.G. Wells. Sadly, though, Origin’s customers seemed not to know what to make of Ultima games not taking place in a Renaissance Faire world, and both were dismal commercial failures — thus providing CRPG makers with a strong external motivation to stick with high fantasy, whatever the abstract limits of the applicability of the CRPG formula to fiction might be.

Our subject for today — Darklands, the first CRPG ever released by MicroProse Software — might be described as the rebuttal to the case made by the Worlds of Ultima games, in that its failings point to some of the intrinsic limits of the simulation-oriented approach. Then again, maybe not; today, perhaps even more so than when it was new, this is a game with a hardcore fan base who love it with a passion, even as other players, like the one who happens to be writing this article, see it as rather collapsing under the weight of its ambition and complexity. Whatever your final verdict on it, it’s undeniable that Darklands is overflowing with original ideas for a genre which, even by the game’s release year of 1992, had long since settled into a set of established expectations. By upending so many of them, it became one of the most intriguing CRPGs ever made.

Darklands was the brainchild of Arnold Hendrick, a veteran board-game, wargame, tabletop-RPG, and console-videogame designer who joined MicroProse in 1985, when it was still known strictly as a maker of military simulations. As the first MicroProse employee hired only for a design role — he had no programming or other technical experience whatsoever — he began to place his stamp on the company’s products immediately. It was Hendrick who first had the germ of an idea that Sid Meier, MicroProse’s star programmer/designer, turned into Pirates!, the first MicroProse game to depart notably from the company’s established formula. In addition to Pirates!, for which he continued to serve as a scenario designer and historical consultant even after turning the lead-designer reins over to Meier, Hendrick worked on other games whose feet were more firmly planted in MicroProse’s wheelhouse: titles like Gunship, Project Stealth Fighter, Red Storm Rising, M1 Tank Platoon, and Silent Service II.

“Wild” Bill Stealey, the flamboyant head of MicroProse, had no interest whatsoever in any game that wasn’t a military flight simulator. Still, he liked making money even more than he liked flying virtual aircraft, and by 1990 he wasn’t sure how much more he could grow his company if it continued to make almost nothing but military simulations and the occasional strategic wargame. Meanwhile he had Pirates! and Railroad Tycoon, the latter being Sid Meier’s latest departure from military games, to look at as examples of how successful non-traditional MicroProse games could be. Not knowing enough about other game genres to know what else might be a good bet for his company, he threw the question up to his creative and technical staff: “Okay, programmers, give me what you want to do, and tell me how much money you want to spend. We’ll find a way to sell it.”

And so Hendrick came forward with a proposal to make a CRPG called Darklands, to be set in the Germany of the 15th century, a time and place of dark forests and musty monasteries, Walpurgis Night and witch covens. It could become, Hendrick said, the first of a whole new series of historical CRPGs that, even as they provided MicroProse with an entrée into one of the most popular genres out there, would also leverage their reputation for making games with roots in the real world.

The typical CRPG, then as now, took place in a version of Medieval times that had only ever existed in the imagination of a modern person raised on Tolkien and Dungeons & Dragons. It ignored how appallingly miserable and dull life was for the vast majority of people who lived through the historical reality of the Middle Ages, with its plagues, wars, filth, hard labor, and nearly universal illiteracy. Although he was a dedicated student of history, with a university degree in the field, Hendrick too was smart enough to realize that there wasn’t much of a game to be had by hewing overly close to this mundane historical reality. But what if, instead of portraying a Medieval world as his own contemporaries liked to imagine it to have been, he conjured up the world of the Middle Ages as the people who had lived in it had imagined it to be? God and his many saints would take an active role in everyday affairs, monsters and devils would roam the forests, alchemy would really work, and those suspicious-looking folks who lived in the next village really would be enacting unspeakable rituals in the name of Satan every night. “This is an era before logic or science,” Hendrick wrote, “a time when anything is possible. In short, if Medieval Germans believed something to be true, in Darklands it might actually be true.”

He wanted to incorporate an interwoven tapestry of Medieval imagination and reality into Darklands: a magic system based on Medieval theories about alchemy; a pantheon of real saints to pray to, each able to grant her own special favors; a complete, lovingly detailed map of 15th-century Germany and lands adjacent, over which you could wander at will; hundreds of little textual vignettes oozing with the flavor of the Middle Ages. To make it all go, he devised a set of systems the likes of which had never been seen in a CRPG, beginning with a real-time combat engine that let you pause it at any time to issue orders; its degree of simulation would be so deep that it would include penetration values for various weapons against various materials (thus ensuring that a vagabond with rusty knife could never, ever kill a full-fledged knight in shining armor). The character-creation system would be so detailed as to practically become a little game in itself, asking you not so much to roll up each character as live out the life story that brought her to this point: bloodline, occupations, education (such as it was for most in the Middles Ages), etc.

Character creation in Darklands is really, really complicated. And throughout the game, the spidery font superimposed on brown-sauce backgrounds will make your eyes bleed.

All told, it was one heck of a proposition for a company that had never made a CRPG before. Had Stealey been interested enough in CRPGs to realize just how unique the idea was, he might have realized as well how doubtful its commercial prospects were in a market that seemed to have little appetite for any CRPG that didn’t hew more or less slavishly to the Dungeons & Dragons archetype. But Stealey didn’t realize, and so Darklands got the green light in mid-1990. What followed was a tortuous odyssey; it became the most protracted and expensive development project MicroProse had ever funded.

We’ve seen in some of my other recent articles how companies like Sierra and Origin, taking stock of escalating complexity in gameplay and audiovisuals and their inevitable companion of escalating budgets, began to systematize the process of game development around this time. And we’ve at least glimpsed as well how such systematization could be a double-edged sword, leading to creatively unsatisfied team members and final products with something of a cookie-cutter feel.

MicroProse, suffice to say, didn’t go that route. Stealey took a hands-off approach to all projects apart from his beloved flight simulators, allowing his people to freelance their way through them. For all the drawbacks of rigid hierarchies and strict methodologies, the Darklands project could have used an injection of exactly those things. It was plagued by poor communication and outright confusion from beginning to end, as Arnold Hendrick and his colleagues improvised like mad in the process of making a game that was like nothing any of them had ever tried to make before.

Hendrick today forthrightly acknowledges that his own performance as project leader was “terrible.” Too often, the right hand didn’t know what the left was doing. An example cited by Hendrik involves Jim Synoski, the team’s first and most important programmer. For some months at the beginning of the project, he believed he was making essentially a real-time fighting game; while that was in fact some of what Darklands was about, it was far from the sum total of the experience. Once made aware at last that his combat code would need to interact with many other modules, he managed to hack the whole mess together, but it certainly wasn’t pretty. It seems there wasn’t so much as a design document for the team to work from — just a bunch of ideas in Hendrick’s head, imperfectly conveyed to everyone else.

The first advertisement for Darklands appeared in the March 1991 issue of Computer Gaming World. The actual product wouldn’t materialize until eighteen months later.

It’s small wonder, then, that Darklands went so awesomely over time and over budget; the fact that MicroProse never cancelled it likely owes as much to the sunk-cost fallacy as anything else. Hendrick claims that the game cost as much as $3 million to make in the end — a flabbergasting number that, if correct, would easily give it the crown of most expensive computer game ever made at the time of its release. Indeed, even a $2 million price tag, the figure typically cited by Stealey, would also qualify it for that honor. (By way of perspective, consider that Origin Systems’s epic CRPG Ultima VII shipped the same year as Darklands with an estimated price tag of $1 million.)

All of this was happening at the worst possible time for MicroProse. Another of Stealey’s efforts to expand the company’s market share had been an ill-advised standup-arcade version of F-15 Strike Eagle, MicroProse’s first big hit. The result, full of expensive state-of-the-art graphics hardware, was far too complex for the quarter-eater market; it flopped dismally, costing MicroProse a bundle. Even as that investment was going up in smoke, Stealey, acting again purely on the basis of his creative staff’s fondest wishes, agreed to challenge the likes of Sierra by making a line of point-and-click graphic adventures. Those products too would go dramatically over time and over budget.

Stealey tried to finance these latest products by floating an initial public offering in October of 1991. By June of 1992, on the heels of an announcement that not just Darklands but three other major releases as well would not be released that quarter — more fruit of Stealey’s laissez-faire philosophy of game development — the stock tumbled to almost 25 percent below its initial price. A stench of doom was beginning to surround the company, despite such recent successes as Civilization.

Games, like most creative productions, generally mirror the circumstances of their creation. This fact doesn’t bode well for Darklands, a project which started in chaos and ended, two years later, in a panicked save-the-company scramble.



If you squint hard enough at Darklands, you can see its roots in Pirates!, the first classic Arnold Hendrick helped to create at MicroProse. As in that game, Darklands juxtaposes menu-driven in-town activities, written in an embodied narrative style, with more free-form wanderings over the territories that lie between the towns. But, in place of the straightforward menu of six choices in Pirates!, your time in the towns of Darklands becomes a veritable maze of twisty little passages; you start the game in an inn, but from there can visit a side street or a main street, which in turn can lead you to the wharves or the market, dark alleys or a park, all with yet more things to see and do. Because all of these options are constantly looping back upon one another — it’s seldom clear if the side street from this menu is the same side street you just visited from that other menu — just trying to buy some gear for your party can be a baffling undertaking for the beginner.

Thus, in spite of the superficial interface similarities, we see two radically opposing approaches to game design in Pirates! and Darklands. The older game emphasizes simplicity and accessibility, being only as complex as it needs to be to support the fictional experience it wants to deliver. But Darklands, for its part, piles on layer after layer of baroque detail with gleeful abandon. One might say that here the complexity is the challenge; learning to play the entirety of Darklands at all requires at least as much time and effort as getting really, truly good at a game like Pirates!.

The design dialog we see taking place here has been with us for a long time. Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax, the co-creators of the first incarnation of tabletop Dungeons & Dragons, parted ways not long afterward thanks largely to a philosophical disagreement about how their creation should evolve. Arneson saw the game as a fairly minimalist framework to enable a shared storytelling session, while Gygax saw it as something more akin to the complex wargames on which he’d cut his teeth. Gygax, who would go on to write hundreds of pages of fiddly rules for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, his magnum opus, was happily cataloging and quantifying every variant of pole arm used in Medieval times when an exasperated Arneson finally lost his cool: “It’s a pointy thing on the end of a stick!” Your appreciation for Darklands must hinge on whether you are a Gary Gygax or a Dave Arneson in spirit. I know to which camp I belong; while there is a subset of gamers who truly enjoy Darkland‘s type of complexity — and more power to them for it — I must confess that I’m not among them.

In an interview conducted many years after the release of Darklands, Arnold Hendrick himself put his finger on what I consider to be its core problem: “Back then, game systems were often overly complicated, and attention to gameplay was often woefully lacking. These days, there’s a much better balance between gameplay and the human psychology of game players and the game systems underlying that gameplay.” Simply put, there are an awful lot of ideas in Darklands which foster complexity, but don’t foster what ought to be the ultimate arbitrator in game design: Fun. Modern designers often talk about an elusive sense of “flow” — a sense by the player that all of a game’s parts merge into a harmonious whole which makes playing for hours on end all too tempting. For this player at least, Darklands is the polar opposite of this ideal. Not only is it about as off-putting a game as I’ve ever seen at initial startup, but it continues always, even after a certain understanding has begun to dawn, to be a game of disparate parts: a character-generation game, a combat game, a Choose Your Own Adventure-style narrative, a game of alchemical crafting. There are enough original ideas here for ten games, but it never becomes clear why they absolutely, positively all need to be in this one. Darklands, in other words, is kind of a muddle.

Your motivation for adventuring in Medieval Germany in the first place is one of Darklands‘s original ideas in CRPG design. Drawing once again comparisons to Pirates!, Darklands dispenses with any sort of overarching plot as a motivating force. Instead, like your intrepid corsair of the earlier game, your party of four has decided simply “to bring everlasting honor and glory to your names.” If you play for long enough, something of a larger plot will eventually begin to emerge, involving a Satan-worshiping cult and a citadel dedicated to the demon Baphomet, but even after rooting out the cult and destroying the citadel the game doesn’t end.

In place of an overarching plot, Darklands relies on incidents and anecdotes, from a wandering knight challenging you to a duel to a sinkhole that swallows up half your party. While these are the products of a human writer (presumably Arnold Hendrick for the most part), their placements in the world are randomized. To improve your party’s reputation and earn money, you undertake a variety of quests of the “take item A to person B” or “go kill monster C” variety. All of this too is procedurally generated. Indeed, you begin a new game of Darklands by choosing the menu option “Create a New World.” Although the geography of Medieval Germany won’t change from game to game, most of what you’ll find in and around the towns is unique to your particular created world. It all adds up to a game that could literally, as MicroProse’s marketers didn’t hesitate to declare, go on forever.

But, as all too commonly happens with these things, it’s a little less compelling in practice than it sounds in theory. I’ve gone on record a number of times now with my practical objections to generative narratives. Darklands too often falls prey to the problems that are so typical of the approach. The quests you pick up, lacking as they do any larger relationship to a plot or to the world, are the very definition of FedEx quests, bereft of any interest beyond the reputation and money they earn for you. And, while it can sometimes surprise you with an unexpectedly appropriate and evocative textual vignette, the game more commonly hews to the predictable here as well. Worse, it has a dismaying tendency to show you the same multiple-choice vignettes again and again, pulling you right out of the fiction.

And yet the vignettes are actually the most narratively interesting parts of the game; it will be some time before you begin to see them at all. As in so many other vintage CRPGs, the bulk of your time at the beginning of Darklands is spent doing boring things in the name of earning the right to eventually do less boring things. In this case, you’ll likely have to spend several hours roaming the vacant back streets of whatever town you happen to begin in, seeking out and killing anonymous bands of robbers, just to build up your party enough to leave the starting town.

The open-ended structure works for Pirates! because that game dispenses with this puritanical philosophy of design. It manages to be great fun from the first instant by keeping the pace fast and the details minimal, even as it puts a definite time limit on your career, thus tempting you to play again and again in order to improve on your best final score. Darklands, by contrast, doesn’t necessarily end even when your party is too old to adventure anymore (aging becomes a factor after about age thirty); you can just make new characters and continue where the old ones left off, in the same world with the same equipment, quests, and reputation. Darklands, then, ends only when you get tired of it. Just when that exact point arrives will doubtless differ markedly from player to player, but it’s guaranteed to be anticlimactic.

The ostensible point of Darklands‘s enormously complex systems of character creation, alchemy, religion, and combat is to evoke its chosen time and place as richly as possible. One might even say the same about its lack of an overarching epic plot; such a thing doesn’t exist in the books of history and legend to which the game is so determined to be so faithful. Yet I can’t help but feel that this approach — that of trying to convey the sense of a time and place through sheer detail — is fundamentally misguided. Michael Bate, a designer of several games for Accolade during the 1980s, coined the term “aesthetic simulations” for historical games that try to capture the spirit of their subject matter rather than every piddling detail. Pirates! is, yet again, a fine example of this approach, as is the graceful, period-infused but not period-heavy-handed writing of the 1992 adventure game The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes.

The writing in Darklands falls somewhat below that standard. It isn’t terrible, but it is a bit graceless, trying to make up for in concrete detail what it isn’t quite able to conjure in atmosphere. So, we get money that is laboriously explicated in terms of individual pfenniges, groschen, and florins, times of day described in terms that a Medieval monk would understand (Matins, Latins, Prime, etc.), and lots of off-putting-to-native-English-speakers German names, but little real sense of being in Medieval Germany.

Graphically as well, the game is… challenged. Having devoted most of their development efforts to 3D vehicular simulators during the 1980s, MicroProse’s art department plainly struggled to adapt to the demands of other genres. Even an unimpeachable classic like Sid Meier’s Civilization achieves its classic status despite rather than because of its art; visually, it’s a little garish compared to what other studios were putting out by this time. But Darklands is much more of a visual disaster, a conflicting mishmash of styles that sometimes manage to look okay in isolation, such as in the watercolor-style backgrounds to many of the textual vignettes. Just as often, though, it verges on the hideous; the opening movie is so absurdly amateurish that, according to industry legend, some people actually returned the game after seeing it, thinking they must have gotten a defective disk or had an incompatible video card.

One of Darklands‘s more evocative vignettes, with one of its better illustrations as a backdrop. Unfortunately, you’re likely to see this same vignette and illustration several times, with a decided sense of diminishing returns.

But undoubtedly the game’s biggest single problem, at the time of its release and to some extent still today, was all of the bugs. Even by the standards of an industry at large which was clearly struggling to come to terms with the process of making far more elaborate games than had been seen in the previous decade, Darklands stood out upon its belated release in August of 1992 for its woefully under-baked state. Whether this was despite or because of its extended development cycle remains a question for debate. What isn’t debatable, however, is that it was literally impossible to complete Darklands in its initial released state, and that, even more damningly, a financially pressured MicroProse knew this and released it anyway. To their credit, the Darklands team kept trying to fix the game after its release, with patch after patch to its rickety code base. The patches eventually numbered at least nine in all, a huge quantity for long-suffering gamers to acquire at a time when they could only be distributed on physical floppy disks or via pricey commercial online services like CompuServe. After about a year, the team managed to get the game into a state where it only occasionally did flaky things, although even today it remains far from completely bug-free.

By the time the game reached this reasonably stable state, however, the damage had been done. It sold fairly well in its first month or two, but then came a slew of negative reviews and an avalanche of returns that actually exceeded new sales for some time; Darklands thus managed the neat trick of continuing to be a drain on MicroProse’s precarious day-to-day finances even after it had finally been released. Hendrick had once imagined a whole line of similar historical CRPGs; needless to say, that didn’t happen.

Combined with the only slightly less disastrous failure of the new point-and-click graphic-adventure line, Darklands was directly responsible for the end of MicroProse as an independent entity. In December of 1993, with the company’s stock now at well under half of its IPO price and the creditors clamoring, a venture-capital firm arranged a deal whereby MicroProse was acquired by Spectrum Holobyte, known virtually exclusively for a truly odd pairing of products: the home-computer version of the casual game Tetris and the ultra-hardcore flight simulator Falcon. The topsy-turvy world of corporate finance being what it was, this happened despite the fact that MicroProse’s total annual sales were still several times that of Spectrum Holobyte.

Stealey, finding life unpleasant in a merged company where he was no longer top dog, quit six months later. His evaluation of the reasons for MicroProse’s collapse was incisive enough in its fashion:

You have to be known for something. We were known for two things [military simulators and grand-strategy games], but we tried to do more. I think that was a big mistake. I should have been smarter than that. I should have stuck with what we were good at.

I’ve been pretty hard on Darklands in this article, a stance for which I don’t quite feel a need to apologize; I consider it a part of my duty as your humble scribe to call ’em like I see ’em. Yet there is far more to Darklands‘s legacy than a disappointing game which bankrupted a company. Given how rare its spirit of innovation has been in CRPG design, plenty of players in the years since its commercial vanishing performance have been willing to cut it a lot of slack, to work hard to enjoy it on its own terms. For reasons I’ve described at some length now, I can’t manage to join this group, but neither can I begrudge them their passion.

But then, Darklands has been polarizing its players from the very beginning. Shortly after the game’s release, Scorpia, Computer Gaming World magazine’s famously opinionated adventure-game columnist, wrote a notably harsh review of it, concluding that it “might have been one of the great ones” but instead “turns out to be a game more to be avoided than anything else.” Johnny L. Wilson, the magazine’s editor-in-chief, was so bothered by her verdict that he took the unusual step of publishing a sidebar response of his own. It became something of a template for future Darklands apologies by acknowledging the game’s obvious flaws yet insisting that its sheer uniqueness nevertheless made it worthwhile. (“The game is as repetitive as Scorpia and some of the game’s online critics have noted. One comes across some of the same encounters over and over. Yet only occasionally did I find this disconcerting.”) He noted as well that he personally hadn’t seen many of the bugs and random crashes which Scorpia had described in her review. Perhaps, he mused, his computer was just an “immaculate contraption” — or perhaps Scorpia’s was the opposite. In response to the sidebar, Wilson was castigated by his magazine’s readership, who apparently agreed with Scorpia much more than with him and considered him to have undermined his own acknowledged reviewer.

The reader response wasn’t the only interesting postscript to this episode. Wilson:

Later, after 72 hours of playing around with minor quests and avoiding the main plot line of Darklands, I decided it was time to finish the game. I had seven complete system crashes in less than an hour and a half once I decided to jump in and finish the game. I didn’t really have an immaculate contraption, I just hadn’t encountered the worst crashes because I hadn’t filled my upper memory with the system-critical details of the endgame. Scorpia hadn’t overreacted to the crashes. I just hadn’t seen how bad it was because I was fooling around with the game instead of trying to win. Since most players would be trying to win, Scorpia’s review was more valid than my sidebar. Ah, well, that probably isn’t the worst thing I’ve ever done when I thought I was being fair.

This anecdote reveals what may be a deciding factor — in addition to a tolerance for complexity for its own sake — as to whether one can enjoy Darklands or not. Wilson had been willing to simply inhabit its world, while the more goal-oriented Scorpia approached it as she would any other CRPG — i.e., as a game that she wanted to win. As a rather plot-focused, goal-oriented player myself, I naturally sympathize more with her point of view.

In the end, then, the question of where the point of failure lies in Darklands is one for the individual player to answer. Is Darklands as a whole a very specific sort of failure, a good idea that just wasn’t executed as well as it might have been? Or does the failure lie with the CRPG format itself, which this game stretched beyond the breaking point? Or does the real failure lie with the game’s first players, who weren’t willing to look past the bugs and other occasional infelicities to appreciate what could have been a whole new type of CRPG? I know where I stand, but my word is hardly the final one.

Given the game’s connection to the real world and its real cultures, so unusual to the CRPG genre, perhaps the most interesting question of all raised by Darklands is that of the appropriate limits of gamefication. A decade before Darklands‘s release, the Dungeons & Dragons tabletop RPG was embroiled in a controversy engendered by God-fearing parents who feared it to be an instrument of Satanic indoctrination. In actuality, the creators of the game had been wise enough to steer well clear of any living Western belief system. (The Deities & Demigods source book did include living native-American, Chinese, Indian, and Japanese religions, which raises some troublesome questions of its own about cultural appropriation and respect, but wasn’t quite the same thing as what the angry Christian contingent was complaining about.)

It’s ironic to note that much of the content which Evangelical Christians believed to be present in Dungeons & Dragons actually is present in Darklands, including the Christian God and Satan and worshipers of both. Had Darklands become successful enough to attract the attention of the same groups who objected so strongly to Dungeons & Dragons, there would have been hell to pay. Arnold Hendrick had lived through the earlier controversy from an uncomfortably close vantage point, having been a working member of the tabletop-game industry at the time it all went down. In his designer’s notes in Darklands‘s manual, he thus went to great pains to praise the modern “vigorous, healthy, and far more spiritual [Catholic] Church whose quiet role around the globe is more altruistic and beneficial than many imagine.” Likewise, he attempted to separate modern conceptions of Satanism and witchcraft from those of Medieval times. Still, the attempt to build a wall between the Christianity of the 15th century and that of today cannot be entirely successful; at the end of the day, we are dealing with the same religion, albeit in two very different historical contexts.

Opinions vary as to whether the universe in which we live is entirely mechanistic, reducible to the interactions of concrete, understandable, computable physical laws. But it is clear that a computer simulation of a world must be exactly such a thing. In short, a simulation leaves no room for the ineffable. And yet Darklands chooses to grapple, to an extent unrivaled by almost any other game I’m aware of, with those parts of human culture that depend upon a belief in the ineffable. By bringing Christianity into its world, it goes to a place virtually no other game has dared approach. Its vending-machine saints reduce a religion — a real, living human faith — to a game mechanic. Is this okay? Or are there areas of the human experience which ought not to be turned into banal computer code? The answer must be in the eye — and perhaps the faith — of the beholder.

Darklands‘s real-time-with-pause combat system. The interface here is something of a disaster, and the visuals too leave much to be desired, but the core idea is sound.

By my lights, Darklands is more of a collection of bold ideas than a coherent game, more of an experiment in the limits of CRPG design than a classic example of same. Still, in a genre which is so often in thrall to the tried and true, its willingness to experiment can only be applauded.

For sometimes experiments yield rich rewards, as the most obvious historical legacy of this poor-selling, obscure, bug-ridden game testifies. Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk, the joint CEOs of Bioware at the time that studio made the Baldur’s Gate series of CRPGs, have acknowledged lifting the real-time-with-pause combat systems in those huge-selling and much-loved games directly out of Darklands. Since the Baldur’s Gate series’s heyday around the turn of the millennium, dozens if not hundreds of other CRPGs have borrowed the same system second-hand from Bioware. Such is the way that innovation diffuses itself through the culture of game design. So, the next time you fire up a Steam-hosted extravaganza like Pillars of Eternity, know that part of the game you’re playing owes its existence to Darklands. Lumpy and imperfect though it is in so many ways, we could use more of its spirit of bold innovation today — in CRPG design and, indeed, across the entire landscape of interactive entertainment.

(Sources: the book Gamers at Work: Stories Behind the Games People Play by Morgan Ramsay; Computer Gaming World of March 1991, February 1992, May 1992, September 1992, December 1992, January 1993, and June 1994; Commodore Magazine of September 1987; Questbusters of November 1992; Compute! of October 1993; PC Zone of September 2001; Origin Systems’s internal newsletter Point of Origin of January 17 1992; New York Times of June 13 1993. Online sources include Matt Barton’s interview with Arnold Hendrick, Just Adventure‘s interview with Johnny L. Wilson, and Arnold Hendrick’s discussion of Darklands in the Steam forum.

Darklands is available for purchase on

March 21, 2019

Choice of Games

Choice of the Dragon is now on Steam

by Rachel E. Towers at March 21, 2019 04:42 PM

We’re happy to announce that Choice of the Dragon, is now available on Steam for Windows, Mac, and Linux. (It’s still available on iOS and Android, too.) It’s 40% off on Steam until March 28th!

Tyrannize the kingdom as a fire-breathing dragon who sleeps on gold and kidnaps princesses for fun!

Choice of the Dragon is a thrilling interactive novel by Dan Fabulich and Adam Strong-Morse, where your choices control the story. The game is entirely text-based–30,000 words, without graphics or sound effects–and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination.

Battle heroes, wizards, and rival dragons in your insatiable thirst for gold and infamy. Start by dominating a local tribe of goblins, then usurp the kingdom, defending and expanding your despotic regime to annex neighboring kingdoms, incinerating the peasants in their thatched-roof cottages.

O, mighty dragon, spread your wings and let your shadow fall over the terrorized nation beneath you!

• Play as male, female, neither, or an undetermined gender
• Find and seduce another dragon to be your mate
• Kidnap princesses for good conversation, to bait heroes, or for a light snack
• Isn’t it a little sexist to always kidnap princesses? Kidnap a prince instead
• Ransack holy temples, blaspheming against vengeful gods

March 20, 2019

Renga in Blue

Before Adventure, Part 3: Caves (1973)

by Jason Dyer at March 20, 2019 08:40 PM

Let’s start things a little differently.

Visualize you are living in 1973, where there are almost no computer games at all, and those that exist tend to be conversions of board games and educational games, with a smattering of simulation games and Star Trek.









# 2 # 3 # 4 ARE WHERE YOU CAN GO

# 5 # 6 # 7 # 1 ARE WHERE YOU CAN GO

# 8 # 9 # 10 # 4 ARE WHERE YOU CAN GO

# 11 # 12 # 13 # 7 ARE WHERE YOU CAN GO

!!! SUNLIGHT !!!

!!! FRESH AIR !!!




AGAIN (1=YES, 0=NO)?

Again: take a moment, visualize, imagine your take of the transcript above as of you-in-1973, not you-in-now. Hold that thought.

From People’s Computer Company newspaper, May 1973.

The first mention of Caves, aka Caves1, aka Lost in the Caves, is from PCC May 1973, which gives a “sample transcript” of the game being played, and labels it as being by Dave Kaufman. It does not provide source code, which doesn’t appear until a special “Games” PCC publication from 1974, presumably because the game is fairly long by PCC standards.

Back to you-in-1973: what do you think? Is it a different experience, at least? Does it make you want to try again, at a harder difficulty?

From a 2019 perspective, the game doesn’t offer much: it’s a pure-exploration game in a morass of undifferentiated rooms. To summarize: you’re dropped in a cavern that is numbered, with other caverns attached, and need to navigate from cavern to cavern until finding the exit. Although not clear from the transcript above, every map is in the form of a “tree”, with each cavern branching down.

For 1973, there was definitely some novelty. While prior games had placed “you” in a simulation context (most notably in HIGHNOON from 1970) this was “you” as an explorer navigating a space at a “first person” level.

But in 2019 … argh. Although the author doesn’t state it outright, I suspect there was a pedagogical purpose of exploring a computer science structure; the end result is a very mechanical feeling to gameplay. The higher difficulty levels aren’t much better; sometimes you have to backtrack, but there is very little surprise. This is map-as-topology rather than map-as-exploring a real place, and the difference is fairly clear after a few playthroughs.

Of course, you don’t have to just trust me, you can try it yourself. The source code isn’t easy to get to these days, so I hand-typed the entire thing from the PCC publication.

Caves1 BASIC source

This is in a modified version that QBASIC can handle. While I’m not selling the game very well, it does verge close enough to Adventure Games to be worth a try by anyone interested in the genre.

Perhaps sensing the gameplay needed more complexity, the author tried very hard to add “meta-game” activities. Here’s one example, from the book What to Do After You Hit Return:

As shown above: play through, pick a room, swap places with your friend, and have them try to find the room you picked.

This is the sort of thing people do all the time with video games (i.e. playing Halo by ignoring the objective and trying to do stunts instead) but I’ve rarely seen endorsed. Board games, sure. But video games always present a veneer of only the “official” rules being used. Anyone else have some more examples of playing video games in an “alternate” way?

One of the newspaper clips above mentioned Caves2, Caves3, and Wumpus. Wumpus deserves its own post, but let’s get Caves2 and 3 out of the way. They’re both “create your own” games.

Caves2 has the exact same structure as Caves1, except you enter the maze yourself first, rather than having the computer randomly generate it. The idea is that you can then challenge friends to solve your maze.

The problem here is, again, the “tree” structure is highly limiting. There’s not much to differentiate a “creative” maze from one made at random. I suppose someone could try alternating patterns, or embedding Fibonacci sequences, or spelling words based on the numbers the dead ends are at.

Caves3 is a bit more interesting; now connections can be arbitrary.

PCC September 1973.

With Caves3 it might be possible to make something approaching a real map, but without distinguishing factors like names, the rooms are still just undifferentiated topology. There needs to be either be a.) some activity other than pure map-making which makes otherwise “blank” rooms gather narrative value or b.) some extra element to the rooms themselves that make them interesting to look at.

In the remaining posts for the Before Adventure series, we’ll be looking at a set of games that does (a.) first, followed by a fascinating attempt at (b.)


2018 Transparency Report now available

March 20, 2019 03:33 PM

IFTF has published its Transparency Report for 2018 as an eight-page PDF. It summarizes IFTF’s activity from January 2018 through December 2018, including a high-level accounting of the organization’s financial income and expenditures.

As a public-service organization that many people entrust with their time, attention, and money, IFTF presents this annual report in an effort to show how it has applied its community’s investments over the past calendar year.

IFTF president Jason McIntosh wrote most of it this year, so it also contains at least one extremely dry joke. Please give it a look at your own convenience.

March 19, 2019

Emily Short

The Advanced Game Narrative Toolbox (ed. Tobias Heussner)

by Emily Short at March 19, 2019 05:40 PM

advancedgamenarrativeThe Advanced Game Narrative Toolbox is a brand-new followup to The Game Narrative Toolbox, which I covered previously. The “advanced” bit means that the book doesn’t re-cover all the same ground already found in game writing books. The authors suggest that if you are entirely new to game literacy and writing advice, you should go to the first book in the series, to Skolnick’s Video Game Storytelling, and/or to McKee’s Story.

Where the first book walked the reader through steps for building a basic portfolio of game design documents and related materials, The Advanced Game Narrative Toolbox is more topic-driven, each chapter written by a different author (with just a couple of repeats).

The topics cover a range of craft, commercial, and cultural considerations. Many (but not all) of the chapters end with a suggested exercise for the reader, as they did in the first book; but the feel here is less of a core syllabus and more of a set of electives you might pick to round out your understanding.

Many of the chapters approach their subject by defining process: what are the steps that you would take to go about a given task, what considerations should you apply, who else needs to be involved, what could go wrong, and how will you know when you’re done? So, for instance, a chapter is more likely to say (I paraphrase) “next, make a map that shows where each step of the quest will occur in the game world,” and less likely to dive into deep analysis of different possible map designs and how they will affect player experience. Typically, that process guidance is really useful, especially as it comes paired with lists of references if you need more technique training, but you should be aware which you’re getting.

The book is expensive. I bought it as soon as I heard of it, and I’m glad I did, but I flinched at checkout. Price is not typically something the authors can control, but it means I talk later in the review about how to tell whether you’re likely to get enough value from it to justify the price. That’s not meant to reflect on the book’s quality: it’s good, no question. If you get a chance to pick up a used copy for $15, just buy it.

The first chapter topics fall into the category I called “rhetoric” in my narrative self-training post, looking at best practices for handling subject matter that has often proved tricky in games. Tanya DePass of I Need Diverse Games writes on what authentic diversity means and how people can approach writing characters of different backgrounds. Heidi McDonald covers portrayals of romance and sexuality, the concept of “playersexuality” (NPCs who are attracted to whatever gender the protagonist happens to be), depictions of queerness, and the difference between romances that are developed via mechanics and those that evolve over the course of the story.

Next, the book covers the relationship between video games and other media. Two chapters on adaptation talk about how to turn a book or a movie into a game (or vice versa). There’s also a chapter on storytelling board games (from Alexander Bevier), which is fun, though this is a topic that could easily expand into a lot more space than the book gives it.

There’s a world-building chapter from Danny Wadeson, and while there are lots of resources on world-building in general, this chapter is tightly focused on how the problem works in video games specifically, looking at examples such as the weapon flavor texts in Destiny. (This chapter also name-drops Heaven’s Vault.)

Brian Kindregan provides a fairly long and meaty chapter on how and when to use cutscenes, whether pre-rendered or in-game, with tips on how and when to provide exposition, and how to handle drafts and feedback. This chapter feels like it would be especially relevant if you’ve come up primarily in smaller indie or text-based games and are looking to make the jump into writing for a AAA project.

There are two chapters from Tobias Heussner (also the editor of the whole volume), one on learning enough about scripting, art, and level layout to communicate your ideas to colleagues and, if necessary, help implement them in your game; and another on mission and quest design. These two chapters pair well, because they address how you might tie your narrative content together with the game’s physical space and difficulty progression, and then make sure that vision is shared and can be carried out by the rest of the team.

The final chapters touch on aspects of writing as a process — how to plan and organize one’s work — and as a profession, including two excellent chapters on editing and freelance writing by Toiya Kristen Finley. These are sensible and specific, and explain things that are often hard to pick up unless you happen to have access to a community of other game writers — which many people starting out haven’t yet cultivated.

In the freelancing chapter, Finley talks about what to look for in a contract, how to gauge your own experience level, what to charge, how to vet clients and use freelancing sites, how many jobs you should chase at a time, what you need to know from a job description, and how to write a query letter, complete with a sample letter to work from. This stuff is gold. I could really have benefitted from knowing all this when I started my freelance career.

Meanwhile, the story editing chapter gets into a similar level of detail about a role that is even less discussed than freelance writing. Here Finley lays out the differences between developmental edits and copyedits, how to give feedback, how to edit dialogue that’s going to be voice-acted vs dialogue that isn’t, and how to develop a style guide (along with reasons that style guide might different from styles for a different type of publication).

There’s even a section specifically on how to do diversity consulting well. I’ve never seen anyone offer tips on how to approach doing this before. (Admittedly, since I’m not myself positioned to do diversity consulting, I also haven’t sought guidance — but it hasn’t appeared in any of the myriad other game writing books I’ve read.)

If you’re starting a freelance career in writing or editing, these chapters probably make the book worth buying on their own, and I say that with full acknowledgement that it’s not a cheap book.

Overall, it’s a solid book, with good advice from very experienced practitioners. That said, most of the chapters are relatively short. If you’re weighing the price/value question, I’d say go for it if Toiya Finley’s chapters are likely to be directly relevant to your career, or if you anticipate that you’d use more than one of the other chapters. If you’ve written for other types of game but are now transitioning to your first AAA or MMORPG job, you might also find it worthwhile, especially the chapters from Heussner and Kindregan.

If on the other hand you’re not doing narrative design for pay, or if your interest in advanced narrative design focuses on the marriage of narrative and mechanics and you really want to read about that in depth, then it may not be what you’re looking for.

March 18, 2019

Choice of Games

Author Interview: Alice Ripley, “The Superlatives: Shattered Worlds”

by Mary Duffy at March 18, 2019 04:41 PM

Conquer assassins and alien invaders in Superlative London! Defend Earth and negotiate interplanetary peace as you race to rescue Queen Victoria in this thrilling sequel to The Superlatives: AetherfallThe Superlatives: Shattered Worlds is a 218,000-word interactive novel by Alice Ripley. You are the Arbiter, a planet-hopping operative assigned to stabilize a peace summit between Mars, Venus, and Earth. But when Queen Victoria is targeted for assassination, you must find her killer, unmask the Mysterious Officer he serves, and stop an otherworldly invasion before it’s too late! I sat down with Alice Ripley for a talk about Shattered Worlds and the challenges of sequel writing. 

The Superlatives: Shattered Worlds is available for pre-order today, March 18th, and will release next Thursday, March 28th.

The Superlatives world is a place I love to spend time, and we’re thrilled to get a sequel to Aetherfall. What are some of the technical and literary challenges of writing a sequel?

It’s a huge undertaking to write a sequel in a branching narrative. There are a lot of hard decisions to make about what decisions to track, and how much weight to give them, striking a balance between making it feel like those decisions mattered and creating such different world-states that it becomes impossible to corral. Especially since almost every secondary character in the first game has the potential to be, well, dead.

Setting aside the branching, one of my primary goals with Shattered Worlds was to open up the world and explore a new aspect of the Superlatives universe—namely, the interplanetary aspect. Mars and Venus have some presence in Aetherfall, especially through Tua and Arturek, but in the sequel I wanted to delve into the alien cultures and politics on a deeper level, and show how one city on one blue planet fits into a much bigger context.

Shattered Worlds works really well as a standalone game as well as a sequel and I think it speaks to the versatility of this world and the characters in it. Tell me a little about what a standalone playthrough as a new character looks like. Who is the Arbiter?

We get a glimpse of the Arbiter in the Aetherfall epilogue. They are the agent of an interplanetary body called the Divergent Conclave, a somewhat mysterious organization dedicated to peace (and anti-colonialism) in the solar system. So a standalone game gives you the interesting opportunity to play an outsider, someone who isn’t part of London Superlative society, and may have a slightly different view of things—whether that means being more reluctant to intervene in certain matters, or being more sympathetic to various alien causes. Playing as the Arbiter means that rather than encountering the Conclave for the first time, as an Aetherfall PC does, you’ve been working with the Conclave—and with your prickly assistant Kesh—for many years. I really enjoyed creating this different context, and a character suited for the interplanetary challenges that form the backbone of Shattered Worlds.

Kesh is probably my favorite new NPC in the Superlatives. How did you come up with her?

Kesh is probably my favorite new NPC as well! She was the first one created for Shattered Worlds, and she is the type of character I always have the most fun writing: passionate, intelligent, and more than a little violent. And, of course, she has a few secrets in her past that the right PC can uncover. Her initial characterization—the secretary who is good with a knife and not so good with paperwork—came easily, but delving beyond the surface meant putting a lot of thought into her background, and how she came to work for the Conclave. Kesh is a Martian who is not of Mars, and thinking about what makes her an alien to both Earth and her “home” culture made her really come alive for me.

There are some cats in this game. Any special kitties and moggies in your life?

I have one wicked and ancient shelter cat, kept from death by pure spite (and prescription cat food). She’s named after a cylon (Boomer), because from the beginning she’s been inclined to sudden betrayal. We also have a doofy golden retriever, Vonnegut, whom she hates deeply and who loves her with his whole being.

This is probably going to be the last Superlatives game from you for a little while. If you did a third, what would you want to explore?

Shattered Worlds is a bit of a departure in focusing on the alien contingent. I think in a third game I would focus more on the human Superlatives themselves again, but branch out beyond London. This is a very international setting, and we haven’t had the chance to explore that much yet. And of course, without going into spoiler territory, the discoveries in Shattered Worlds have far-reaching implications for what other sorts of places might be explored.

Oh, and time travel is fun. And not at all prone to spiraling out of control when you add it to a branching narrative, right?

Pre-order The Superlatives sequel, Shattered Worlds today!

by Rachel E. Towers at March 18, 2019 04:41 PM

We’re offering our fans a chance to pre-order our next game, The Superlatives: Shattered Worlds by Alice Ripley, the upcoming sequel to The Superlatives: Shattered Worlds.

We’ll release the game to the public on Thursday, March 28th; you can buy it today at a discounted price. If you buy it here on our website, you’ll be able to play it on your preferred device when the game comes out.

Hunt a killer and save the solar system!

Conquer assassins and alien invaders in Superlative London! Defend Earth and negotiate interplanetary peace as you race to rescue Queen Victoria in this thrilling sequel to The Superlatives: Aetherfall.

The Superlatives: Shattered Worlds is a 218,000-word interactive novel by Alice Ripley. It’s entirely text-based, without graphics or sound effects, and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination.

You are the Arbiter, a planet-hopping operative assigned to stabilize a peace summit between Mars, Venus, and Earth. But when Queen Victoria is targeted for assassination, you must find her killer, unmask the Mysterious Officer he serves, and stop an otherworldly invasion before it’s too late! Armed with powerful aetheric artifacts and your own wit and skill, you’ll fight alongside your allies to unravel the mystery of this new threat, defend your home planet, and face a final foe both strange and strangely familiar.

Your employers, the shadowy body known as the Divergent Conclave, are dedicated to maintaining peace between the planets. Impress the Conclave and its members might help you protect Earth—or recruit you to serve their personal agendas. Will you manipulate them to gain their support? If the peace summit falters, will you placate the parties, or choose a faction? How will you stop the impending invasion? And who will you romance?

What started as a job of politics and diplomacy could end in murderous chaos. Face aliens, automata, and whole new worlds on a quest to save the solar system!

  • Play as male, female, or non-binary; gay, straight, bi, or aromantic
  • Import a Superlative character from The Superlatives: Aetherfall, or create a new Arbiter character from scratch
  • Wield your very own invisibility cloak
  • Uncover a double agent within the Queen’s Superlative Service
  • Charm a menagerie of aliens, from multiform, jellyfish Jovians to miniature Mercurians to furry Saturnians
  • Play as a battle-loving brawler or persuasive pacifist
  • Romance a driven detective, stylish secret agent, or your violent Martian secretary
  • Solve murders, negotiate with pirates, and uncover interplanetary conspiracies
  • Cultivate your reputation among cats…or is it just one cat?

How the pre-order works

Today: Anyone can go to our The Superlatives: Shattered Worlds page, play the first part of the game for free on our website, and purchase the game at a discounted price.

But the rest of the game is not available to play today, even if you pay now. Everyone who pre-orders the game will get to play it when it becomes available to the public on March 28th.

iOS/Android: On March 28th, we’ll make The Superlatives: Shattered Worlds available in the Choice of Games Omnibus app on iOS, and as a free app on the Google Play and Amazon App stores. Anyone can play the first part of the game for free on iOS and Android (or on our website). Once you reach the end of the free trial, the app will ask you to either purchase the game or “restore” your purchase.

If you’ve pre-ordered the game on our website, you’ll be able to restore your purchase on iOS/Android at no additional charge, unlocking the rest of the game.

Windows/Mac/Linux: After purchasing the game, you can email [email protected] and we’ll send you a Steam key that will unlock the game on March 28th.

March 15, 2019

Renga in Blue

Before Adventure, Part 2: Mugwump, Hurkle, Snark (1973)

by Jason Dyer at March 15, 2019 10:40 PM

Before leaving Project SOLO, I’m going to quote from an essay by Dr. Richard Bellman printed in one of their early newsletters, Number Four from October 16th, 1970.

We are citizens of a large and successful society. Consider, for example, the following statistics. We tolerate one-half million serious auto accidents a year plus 60,000 fatalities; we support an 80 billion dollar a year military establishment of our own in addition to subsidizing those of Cambodia, Thailand, the Philippines, South Korea, South Vietnam and North Vietnam, (albeit involuntarily and indirectly), and others; we can allocate 40 billion dollars to a TV spectacular on the moon using a hand-held camera. This is impressive evidence of success.

The essay carries this same tone for 7 pages. This is kind of hardcore for an educational program partly funded by the National Science Foundation. However, it does give a good sense of the dread and optimism permeating this era: massive global strife cojoined with massive technical innovation.

I mention this because it helps explain the front page of the first issue of People’s Computer Company, October 1972.

Computers are mostly
used against people instead of for people
used to control people instead of to free them
time to change all that —
we need a …
People’s Computer Company

The People’s Computer Center (and the accompanying People’s Computer Company newspaper) was founded in 1972 by Bob Albrecht. At the time, the only feasible way to use a computer was either to be associated with a large institution like a university or have the good fortune to attend a K-12 school that had access. There were unfeasible ways, of course, but it’s safe to say computers were Not for the Public. (Personal computers also weren’t an option: the first wasn’t released until 1975.)


is a place.

…a place to do the things the People’s Computer Company talks about.
…a place to play with computers — at modest prices.
…a place to learn how to use computers.

We have a small, friendly computer . . . an EduSystem 20 (see Page 14), a timesharing terminal that connects us to the world and a Textronix programmable calculator, and some small simple calculators and books to help you learn …

Most relevant to us is to remember that the People’s Computer Center was open enough that it consisted of young children all the way up through adults. Games might be targeted at one, neither, or both.

The folks at PCC somehow had gotten hold of Hide and Seek (aka Project SOLO Module #0201), because they mention it as the inspiration for a game called Mugwump, which itself was the inspiration for a game called Hurkle.

Via PCC, Feb. 1973.

A game called Snark appeared a few months later. All three games shared the idea of finding something hidden in a 10 by 10 grid. Unlike Hide and Seek, which had 4 “players” to find, each of the three games had only one.

I. Mugwump

I’m not going to spend too long on this one, as it was a direct adaption of Hide and Seek. The only changes were

1.) to reduce the number of “players” to 1

2.) to change the “player” to a “mugwump”

3.) throw grammar to the wind and write UNIT(S) as UNIT, leading to the possible phrase “YOU ARE 1 UNITS FROM THE MUGWUMP.”

4.) to modify the maximum number of guesses from 10 to 4. (The exact value is tweakable by a line in the source code.)






Note the rounding is still in effect: this is why I was told the mugwump was 9 units away at (0,0) even though (9,1) is a little more than 9 units away. I don’t mind the issue since it makes the game slightly less mechanical.

Also, while it’s not relevant enough for us to get too deep into, there were multiple versions of Mugwump within PCC itself. The first version (based on the February 1973 transcript) had a limit of 4 guesses, whereas a version printed in 1974 had unlimited guesses. Perhaps there was some interplay between “pedagogical tool” and “game”; as a game it’s (maybe?) better to have the ability to lose and add tension to a fourth guess, whereas when trying to teach the specific topic of distance on a coordinate grid it might be better not to cut the player’s calculations short. (Although again, maybe? … perhaps the tension would be more motivating to find a good method of winning, as opposed to trying repeatedly.)

II. Hurkle

Hurkle changed the thing hiding from a “mugwump” to a “hurkle”. Instead of giving a distance after making a guess, the game gave a direction of indicating which way where the hurkle was hiding relative to the last guess.


?5, 5

?3, 3

?1, 1

?2, 1

This essentially took a relatively complex mathematics exercise and turned into one for younger children. Again, the original game had a guessing limit (5) that was removed in a printed 1974 version.

Technically it’s possible to always win in 4 moves. Think of the first coordinate alone: it could be at any one of

0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

Pick 5 (guess #1), which is either correct, or cuts the list to 0 1 2 3 4 or 6 7 8 9. Suppose it is the longer of the two lists:

0 1 2 3 4

Now pick 2 (guess #2), which is either correct, or cuts the list to 0 1 or 3 4. Suppose it is 0 1:

0 1

Now pick either choice (guess #3), which if it is the right choice it means you have the right number for that coordinate, and if it is the wrong choice then there’s only one possibility left (which can be used for your guess #4).

The other coordinate can be treated independently with the same method.

In practice, this easier than I’m making this sound, which is why I said this game was for younger children; just go “halfway” in the right direction at each prompt and you’ll make it to the hurkle in time.)

III. Snark

Snark’s concept is somewhat a hybrid of Mugwump and Hurkle. You guess a position and a circle radius, and then the game tells you if the hurkle is inside, outside, or on the circle that you guess. To guess an exact spot, the radius should be 0.







This was the most complicated of the games to play, and I never ended up settling on an optimal strategy.

IV. Observations

These certainly came across more as math exercises than as games. The only reason I enjoyed playing them was the historical creation angle.

For one thing, you might expect that Hurkle (the easiest game) was made first, but since Mugwump was a direct adaption from elsewhere (including parts of the same source code) development happened in reverse: the next game added simplicity rather than complexity. Snark went both directions; aesthetically, simpler, since it’s just stating if a point is inside, outside, or on a circle; in gameplay practice, more complicated in that the best general algorithm for winning isn’t as obvious.

Additionally, two of the three games insert a slightly-ambiguous creature as the thing being sought after, whereas one is … a humorous political word?

Mugwump, as discussed by the Oxford English Dictionary blog:

The word mugquomp, meaning ‘war leader’ or ‘great chief’, appeared frequently in John Eliot’s 1663 translation of the Bible into the Massachusett language, where it was used as a gloss for ‘officer’, ‘captain’, and ‘duke’. By the early 1800s the form ‘mugwump’ had been adopted into English as a humorous term for an important person, leader, or boss.

One of the PCC publications admits directly that Hurkle comes from the short story The Hurkle is a Happy Beast by Theodore Sturgeon. As discussed in this science fiction blog:

In a “different universal plane,” there is a planet called Lirht. There, during a disaster, the door to a lab is carelessly left open, and a hurkle kitten wanders in. Hurkles are pets on this world. They’re small and cheerful and purr by emitting radiation.

Snark is from the most famous source, The Hunting of the Snark by Lewis Carroll, but no easier to visualize. Quoting directly from the poem:

They hunted till darkness came on, but they found
Not a button, or feather, or mark,
By which they could tell that they stood on the ground
Where the Baker had met with the Snark.

In the midst of the word he was trying to say,
In the midst of his laughter and glee,
He had softly and suddenly vanished away—
For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.

This is “narrative by association”, so to speak, but it’s still a little stronger and more vivid than the “players” of Hide and Seek.

A picture of the “mugwump” from the book What To Do After You Hit Return. It looks like the mugwump was meant to be a fictional creature as well, although the only references I can find are like the Oxford one where it’s just a name for “leader”. Anyone know of a 1973-or-earlier story that uses the word in a different sense?

V. The Next Link

We need a little more of the chain for anything we’ve seen so far to link to adventure games.

For our next step, we’ll look into a game which was the first to bring game perspective to “first-person exploration”: in a cave, navigating via room numbers from place to place.

Those familiar with it may be thinking I’m talking about Hunt the Wumpus.

But: I’m talking about a different game that came before it, also at the PCC, that seems to have been entirely forgotten in the annals of computer game history.

Emily Short

Mid-March Link Assortment

by Mort Short at March 15, 2019 04:41 PM



GDC is just next week; March 18-22 in San Francisco.

March 24 is the deadline for submitting full technical papers to the IEEE Conference on Games (CoG).  The conference itself will be August 20-23 in London, and I will be there.

March 24 is also the next meeting of the Seattle Area IF Meetup.

March 30, the Baltimore/DC Area IF Meetup will discuss Within a Circle of Water and Sand.

April 6, the Oxford/London IF Meetup hears from Tom Kail (inkle) and Xalavier Nelson Jr (freelance) about game design considerations in IF and narrative games.

Also on April 6, the SF/Bay Area IF Meetup will be playing through games from the 2019 Spring Thing competition.

indie-cade-featured.jpgApril 15 is the late deadline for designers to submit their work to Indiecade Festival.  The event itself is in October in Santa Monica, CA.

The Oxford/London IF Meetup has an excellent program in process for the weekend of June 8, interactive audio experiences for phones, smart speakers, and similar devices. Saturday, we’re going to be hearing about craft, tools, and commercial considerations, with a couple of speakers coming from out of town. Then Sunday we have a workshop on using Spirit AI’s Character Engine for natural language interactions.

If you’re interested in going to Narrascope, the big narrative game conference this summer in Boston, registration is now open.

New Releases9781138595309.jpg

I contributed to the forthcoming Procedural Storytelling in Game Design (“forthcoming” here is a term that will only be applicable for about a week; the book comes out on March 21.)

Each chapter in this collection is written by a different contributor and focuses on a unique topic in Procedural Storytelling. Tanya X. Short and Tarn Adams were the editors, and more info is available here.

41YXldsW6jL._SX392_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgThe Advanced Game Narrative Toolbox is a new book release following on to The Game Narrative Toolbox, which I reviewed previously.  I have it ordered but haven’t read it yet; I’ll share thoughts here once I’ve had a chance to do that. (Actually, I have now read it. Review coming Tuesday.)

The Quest Smith is cool, and a bit reminiscent of Jerry Belich’s Choosatron.

Lastly, another Kickstarter to check out: the “H2O: A Drop in the Ocean” project is live as of this month.

Articles & Podcasts

the bettercast is an interesting long-form podcast about learning to do conversation design for natural language interactions, from Danielle Frimer of Xandra (and formerly ToyTalk).


ElWtNt4e_400x400.jpgAnd we’ve recently had two related announcements about how science fiction and fantasy interactive fiction markets are now being recognized by SFWA.

First of all, Choice of Games announced at the end of February that three of their titles have been selected as finalists for the 2018 Nebula Game Writing Award.

A week later, sub-Q also had some good news of their own.

Talespinners has just announced their collaboration with the University of Southampton on the IF portion of the Green Stories Writing Competition.

The University’s aim is to explore the topic of sustainability through stories. The competition has a wide scope: novels, stage plays, radio dramas, short films, and various varieties of screenplay are all welcome.


According to the site: “all genres will be considered, but stories must engage with the idea of environmentally sustainable practices and/or sustainable societies.”

The IF contest is accepting submissions until December 1, 2019. It’s free to submit, and there are a number of prizes. For more information, check out the competition page here.

March 14, 2019

Choice of Games

Drag Star! — Slay the catwalk on TV’s hottest drag competition!

by Rachel E. Towers at March 14, 2019 04:41 PM

We’re proud to announce that Drag Star!, 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 40% off until March 21st!

Get ready, honey! You’re a contestant on Drag Star!, the reality TV drag competition. You better throw shade, serve looks, and slay each episode to become the next drag icon!

Drag Star! is a 150,000-word interactive novel by Evan J. Peterson, 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 (and sass).

As a contestant on the newest season of Drag Star! You’ll prove your skills on the S.H.A.D.E. scale: Smarts, Humor, Artistry, Daring, and Enchantment. Through celebrity impersonation, singing, dancing, costuming, and comedy, you’ll need to be sickening in every stunt to win it all. But how will you steal the show?

Enter the Twerkshop with your own catchphrase, meet your new drag family, and try to maintain self-care and integrity while still playing to win. How will you balance competing and bonding with castmates like Lady Kali, Scandal Dupree, and Dorian Slay? Oh, but there’s more. Not everyone is playing by the same rules—there’s a saboteur on the cast, waiting for the right opportunities to cause even more drama.

Will you emerge as a finalist and grab the crown? Will you own the catwalk and the title of Fan Favorite? Will your wig stay on while you whip it back and forth? And will you be able to save the show from a devilish saboteur?

• Play as a drag queen, a drag king, or a nonbinary or genderfluid performer.
• Throw shade, turn looks on the catwalk, dance the house down, and write original jokes and song lyrics.
• Compete against a diverse cast of fierce drag performers—or are you here to make friends?
• Specialize your style: villainous or sweet, campy or elegant, classic or avant garde
• Build your drag family: win episodes together, be a mentor, stoke or resolve rivalries.
• Solve the mystery of the sabotage—or ignore that drama entirely.
• Win Fan Favorite or Most Congenial.
• Join the Abbey of the Perpetually Fabulous, a new drag religion.
• Maintain your self-care or push yourself and take risks for more fan attention.
• Make it as a finalist in Season Eight of Drag Star! and win the crown.

Don’t be a filler contestant—slay your way to legendary status!

We hope you enjoy playing Drag Star!. 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

Before Adventure, Part 1: Hide and Seek (1972)

by Jason Dyer at March 14, 2019 03:40 PM

I’ve always liked seeing the starts of things.

The earliest known fossils. The earliest known poet. The earliest known trees. The earliest existing piece of film. The earliest known melody.

Note the word “known” repeated above; for each category, even film, there’s a vast amount of unknown. We can surmise and hypothesize about predecessors and successors that may exist etherially, but each snapshot is necessarily incomplete.

Part of the fun of the All the Adventures project is, with a few exceptions, we have access to everything. It’s possible to see all the evolutionary steps, all the false starts, all the connections, all the broken ideas.

This is the first in a series I might call pre-steps. I wouldn’t necessarily consider anything I’m going to talk about an adventure game, but there’s clear evidence some early works had direct influence. I do have to draw the line somewhere, so I’m not just including “all narratives”, because once you start tracing that back you’d need to study every book that was ever written (less exaggeratedly: every choose-your-own-adventure and gamebook, which sounds like a good project but isn’t mine). [1] [2]

Project SOLO was started in 1970 by Thomas A. Dwyer as an experimental program in “exploring the potential of computers in the hands of high school teachers and students.” The name was meant to reference the transition of a pilot learning to fly, from “dual” flying with an instructor to “solo” flying alone.

The program included many “modules” written in BASIC, mostly on mathematics, but with a little of every subject. For our story, the relevant bit of material is the June 1972 Project SOLO newsletter. It includes

  • “A module on computer graphing with an x-y plotter”
  • “Several student-written programs in elementary and advanced mathematics, French, and U.S. history to show how peer teaching can be accomplished with a computer”
  • “Four simulations–lunar landing module, crazy eights, rectangular billiards, and elliptical billiards.”

and most importantly

  • “four computer games: hide-and-seek, NIM, MODULO, and space war.”

Hide and Seek, also known as “Project Solo module #0201” was written by “the students of mathematics teacher, Bud Valenti.”

The goal is to “FIND THE FOUR PLAYERS WHO ARE HIDDEN ON A 10 BY 10 GRID.” You are given 10 guesses; each guess you pick a point on the grid, and are told the distances to each of the hidden players. (If your guess is right where a player is located, then you get credit for finding that person.)

The grid is the first quadrant of the Cartesian coordinate system, with (0,0) in the lower left of the grid. More sample points are below:

Image made using Desmos.

As far as I am aware the source code hasn’t seen sunlight since the early 1970s, so I typed the source from the newsletter by hand.

Link to original source code

Link to the modified source code that works well in QBASIC for DOS

As the second link implies, rather than trying to recreate an old mainframe environment, I made a version of the game that could run under DOSBox. (More modern versions of BASIC diverge quite a bit from the original, whereas QBASIC is pretty forgiving of 1972 code.) And since I am here to play games, I then proceeded to play:



? 4, 3

? 5, 3

? 3, 9

? 3, 3

My first runs just had me picking points by instinct. I noticed, generally, that when the distance didn’t have a decimal point involved, the hidden player was on the same row or column as my guess. I say “generally” because there is a little wrinkle: the system rounds to the tenth, but always rounds down. For instance, the points (0,0) and (5,1) are approximately 5.099 units apart (just using the Pythagorean Theorem) if you are 5-and-1 away from a target the game will say you’re a distance of 5.

What’s a good strategy for winning in the fewest turns? The Project SOLO newsletter suggests the method of triangulation. If you pick a point at, say, (7,3), and find out a hidden is a radius of 2.1 away, draw a circle of radius 2.1 with a center at (7,3). Repeat for two more points. The place where the three circles intersect must be where that player is hidden.

This turns out to be overkill, because when two circles intersect, they can intersect at most two points. If the points you test (that is, the centers of the circles) are both at the “0 row”, then one of those two circle intersections must fall outside the play zone.

One intersection is at (2, 1). The other would be at (2, -1) but it is “off-grid” so doesn’t count.

Since each guess gives us information about all four players, winning is simply a matter of

1.) testing the point at (0,0)
2.) testing the point at (9,0)
3.) drawing arcs from (0,0) with four different distances that were given
4.) drawing arcs from (9,0) with the four different distances that were given
5.) using four more turns to locate all the hidden players.

Step 1, 2, and 5 cumulatively mean the win can generally happen in 6 moves. (Of course, it’s possible to get lucky, but I’m talking a general strategy here.)

A complete playthrough is below, with my notes; given high school students in 1972 probably wouldn’t have calculator access, I tried to play “authentically” with pencil and paper.

? 0, 0

? 9, 0

? 8, 0

? 8, 2

? 0, 2

? 6, 5



If the above summation started to make you pine for the days of unsolvable mazes at this blog, I want to reassure you we’ll be back to things resembling adventures before long. But first, notice a strange detail: the game has a narrative. Mind you, a very crude one, but the program could have just said “find four points hidden on the grid” — instead, it said there were “four players”; that is, there are characters who are actively playing with you as part of the game. Also, the instructions to the game suggest carrying on the “playing a game with others” conceit on if you “lose”:


This glimpse of narrative is just a spark, but it will get much bigger.

[1] Demian’s Gamebook Web Page currently lists over 11,000 titles dating back to 1927 all the way up through the present day. 2018 saw the release of Therapy Quest: An Interactive Quest through Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, a combination self-help book and fantasy story which involves fairies somehow.

[2] You might naturally ask “what is an adventure game?” at which point I will pretend I just received a phone call, throw my phone at the wall, and slip out the back door while you’re confused and distracted. [3]

[3] Fine, there is some purpose to thinking about the question. For an all-encompassing review like All the Adventures it sets limits on what to collect, and while the interlocking web of influences in creating game ideas doesn’t technically know any bounds, it’s much easier to see the threads of ideas when sticking with one genre.

There are also clusters of elements that “mesh” with particular genres, and visible clashes when two gameplay genres are used at the same time. (Quarterstaff is a strong example of this.) [4]

[4] I guess I still didn’t answer the question, huh. I’m going to punt this one to the end of the Before Adventure series, for Reasons.

March 12, 2019

Emily Short

Emotional Mechanics

by Emily Short at March 12, 2019 11:40 PM

[Most months, I devote the second Tuesday of the month to a mailbag post that answers a question someone’s sent to me. I’m still doing one of those in March, but it will come out in two weeks’ time.

Instead, this post is part of a short series on Character Engine and what we’re doing at Spirit AI. I’m writing these posts with IF and interactive narrative folks in mind, but more general-audience versions of the same content are also appearing on Spirit’s Medium account. Follow us there if you’re interested in hearing regularly about what Spirit is up to.]


In January, I published a talk about conversation as gameplay, and in particular my ECTOCOMP game jam piece Restless. There, I talked about using Character Engine to give the player more expressive ability. They can tune their dialogue to be open, scary, vulnerable, aggressive, playful; they can pick input topics that they want to focus on.

I’m now revisiting Restless to address some of the flaws I identified in that piece, to give it a better tutorial introduction, polish its use of dynamic text, and add some depth to the content. Tea-Powered has created some additional art, so we can better signal gradations of character emotion. And I’m also refining some of the mechanics under the hood, particularly those that deal with gradual changes in character emotion.

What I’m going for in terms of the design:

  • perceivable consequence:
    • all of the player’s actions should have some effect on the outcome of the story, even if just by moving stats in one direction or another
    • the NPC’s emotional state should be apparent to the player, communicated through art, words, and actions
    • some areas of the NPC’s emotional state space should trigger narrative progression, by having the character get angry, leave, reveal new information, go back to sleep, etc
  • intentionality:
    • the NPC’s reactions should be consistent and predictable enough that the player can choose what to do and be rewarded by an expected outcome, even if there is an additional unexpected consequence
    • the player should have some warning when the NPC is approaching a state that will trigger a significant reaction
  • hysteresis:
    • the NPC should not rapidly cycle back and forth between two emotional states in response to opposed actions from the player; the history of interactions should matter
  • varied narrative intensity and pacing
    • not all player actions should be of equivalent efficacy; some actions should be more important, memorable, or high-stakes
    • it should not be possible to achieve an important result by grinding repetition of an unimportant action

That last point possibly deserves a little bit of expansion. One of the issues with stat-based relationship tracking in games is that it can mean that you could do a lot of banal minor services for a character, and work your way to a point where you’ve maxed out your affinity and now they want to marry you.

This is bad for multiple reasons. One, it’s unrealistic; humans don’t work like that. Two, it’s boring gameplay and boring story. Doing minor favors over and over feels like a chore, from a gameplay perspective. And narratively, there’s no sense of rising stakes, or risk, or the thrill of the relationship becoming more intense.

One way to resolve this would be to throw away the consequences of player action after a certain point. If you’re already at 50% affinity, paying one more compliment to the character does nothing at all. Now you can’t grind your way to romance through compliments: problem solved! Except that this goes against the earlier design principle that all player actions should have consequences of some kind.

So, instead, what we have to do is turn off the player’s ability to do minor actions when we’re in major consequence territory. Compliment away… while your relationship is still in trivial flirt zone. But work your way up to where things are getting serious, and the available affinity moves also get more serious, more freighted. And just having those “bigger” moves popping up in the choice menu should communicate to the player, along with the character art, that we’re in a more important situation.

Fortunately, all of that is pretty doable, by restricting dialogue lines to particular ranges of the emotional space.

This work is still in progress — I’ll post when the new version of Restless is generally available.

March 07, 2019

Choice of Games

Sordwin: The Evertree Saga by Thom Baylay

by Rachel E. Towers at March 07, 2019 05:41 PM

Hosted Games has a new game for you to play!

Set sail for adventure and mystery on the island of Sordwin. Explore the town in secret or in style, meet and mingle with the island’s residents, wield weapons and magic and uncover clues before darkness falls! It’s 40% off until March 14th!

Sordwin: The Evertree Saga is an immersive 440,000 word interactive experience by Thom Baylay, and the second book in the Evertree Saga. It’s entirely text-based–without graphics or sound effects–and fueled by the vast unstoppable power of your imagination.

A simple request from a wealthy lord is about to get a lot more complicated when you find yourself sailing for an island under quarantine. Will you try to help the terrified townsfolk, or is completing the mission your highest priority? Enter an open world, where the choices you ignore matter as much as the ones you explore and where every interaction has a reaction.

• Play as male, female or non-binary; gay, straight, bisexual or asexual.
• Continue the story started in Evertree Inn or play as a brand new adventurer.
• Make enemies and friends; continue a growing love story or find new romance with all new characters.
• Boldly confront the townsfolk or lurk in the shadows as you uncover clues.
• Battle with any weapon you can imagine or unleash an impressive arsenal of spells.
• Overcome obstacles with multiple different skills.
• Customise your character’s appearance and personality.
• Drink with pirates in the tavern, test your faith at the temple, explore the abandoned observatory and much more.

Find out if you have what it takes to survive on Sordwin!

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

Emily Short

Natural Language Understanding for Characters

by Emily Short at March 07, 2019 11:40 AM

[This post is part of a short series on Character Engine and what we’re doing at Spirit AI. I’m writing these posts with IF and interactive narrative folks in mind, but more general-audience versions of the same content are also appearing on Spirit’s Medium account. Follow us there if you’re interested in hearing regularly about what Spirit is up to.]

Character Engine is designed for two kinds of interaction: it can either generate input options for the player (as seen in Restless), or it can take natural language input, where the user is typing or using a speech-to-text system.

screen shot 2019-01-20 at 1.02.02 pm

That natural language approach becomes useful for games in AR or VR where more conventional controls would really get in the way. It’s also good for games that are using a chatbot style of interaction, as though you were chatting to a friend on Facebook; and a lot of interactive audio projects deployed on platforms like Alexa use spoken input.

There are plenty of business applications for natural language understanding, and a lot of the big tech players — IBM, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook — offer some sort of API that will take a sentence or two of user input (like “book a plane to Geneva on March 1”) and return a breakdown of recognized intents (like “book air travel”) and entities (“March 1”, “Geneva”). If you prefer an open source approach over going to one of those companies, RASA is worth a look.

For people who are used to parser interactive fiction, there’s some conceptual overlap with how you might set up parsing for an action: we’re still essentially identifying what the command might be and which in-scope nouns plug into that system. In contrast with a parser, though, these systems typically use machine learning and pre-trained language models to allow them to guess what the user means, rather than requiring the user to say exactly the right string of words. There are trade-offs to this. Parsers are frustrating for a lot of users. Intent recognition systems sometimes produce unexpected answers if they think they’ve understood the player, but really haven’t. In both cases, there’s an art to refining the system to make it as friendly as it can be, detect and guide the user when they say something that doesn’t make sense, and so on.

Some natural language services also let the developer design entire dialogue flows to collect information from the user and feed it into responses — usually interchanges of a few tens of sentences, designed to serve a repetitive, predictable transaction, and lighten the load on human customer service agents.

Those approaches can struggle a bit more when it comes to building a character who is part of an ongoing story, who has a developing relationship with the player or user, and who uses vocabulary differently each time.

That’s exactly where Character Engine can naturally provide a bit more support. We’re tracking character knowledge and personality traits. We’re doing text generation to build output that varies both randomly and in response to lots of details of the simulated world. And because dialogue in Character Engine is expressed in terms of scenes of interaction, making it easier to maintain large and complex flows where the same input should be understood differently at different times.

We don’t want to be in a race with the providers of existing NLU solutions, though. What we want to do is facilitate author-friendly, narrative-rich writing options that tie into whatever happens to be the current state of the art in language understanding. So here’s a bit about how we do that:

Mix and match third-party intent systems with custom Spirit classifiers. Character Engine can plug into one or more external APIs, if you want characters who respond to pre-trained intents from some other system. You can also use classifiers we’ve trained at Spirit, which look for types of question (if you want to be able to interrogate a character about lore) or for various kinds of social interaction.

Or, if you’re savvy about your NLU methods and you’d rather build your own classifiers, you can do that as well, as long as what you build is returning data according to our format standards.

That means we’re agnostic about how your model is implemented. Got a state of the art TensorFlow classifier to plug in? Cool. Built something in Python that uses some regular expressions to determine whether the dialogue matches what you’re looking for? No problem. Want to deploy classifiers for Arabic or Mandarin even though Spirit hasn’t directly tackled those languages yet? Also doable.

If you wanted, you could build a set of classifiers that recognized standard text adventure commands like in the Inform library and hook those up to Character Engine, and use them either alone or in conjunction with more chat-focused understanding.

Use selected custom classifiers offline. Some of Spirit’s classifiers can be used offline rather than via an online service, so it’s possible to build some natural language experiences that don’t require the user to be constantly connected to the internet.

Work with inputs other than language. There are other triggers and inputs that some developers might want to work with besides verbal input. In a room-scale VR scenario, they might want to respond to the player approaching a character. In interactive audio, they might want to trigger a new response if the player has been silent for a long time. Elements like this can be used to trigger dialogue responses from characters, either alone or in combination with verbal input.

Detect things other than intent. Maybe instead of recognizing what the player is saying, you’re more interested in how it’s being said. Is the sentiment good or bad? Is the vocabulary formal or informal, polite or toxic? Classifiers for those aspects of language can run alongside the rest, and give you an opportunity to respond to performances of anger, dominance, or friendliness.

Author without having to memorize everything about your NLU system first. To create a conversation move in the Character Engine tool, you type a line of sample dialogue that you want to match, and the tool adds metadata to show you what classifiers and entities would correspond to that dialogue. You can then hand-tweak the results, add additional restrictions, and more.


March 06, 2019

sub-Q Magazine

A Note on sub-Q’s Eligibility for the 2019 Hugo Awards

by Stewart C Baker at March 06, 2019 09:41 PM

The nomination period for the 2019 Hugo awards is well underway, and those of us at sub-Q thought it might be helpful if we made a little post about our eligibility as a magazine.

1. sub-Q Magazine is eligible for the Best Semiprozine award. (We have a high enough circulation and we pay contributors.) Unless something changes, that’s likely to be true in future years as well. We will keep you posted!

2. You can find a list of original interactive fiction we published last year in this post: Each of the pieces of fiction we published in 2018 is a short story (under 7500 words) as well as being interactive fiction, so they’re all eligible for the Best Short Story award.

3. In addition to fiction, the post above lists all the non-fiction we published in 2018 (we had a regular column written by Bruno Dias in 2018 and several essays by Anya Johanna DeNiro). Each of these essays is eligible for the Best Related Work award.

4. We put out more than 4 issues of the magazine a year, so our editors are eligible for the Best Editor (Short Form) award. Our editors in 2018 were Stewart C Baker, Devi Acharya, PJ Anthony, and Natalia Theodoridou. Although Stewart is editor-in-chief, all of our editors work hard for each issue of the magazine, both in the selection of content and in working with authors to make final changes to pieces we select, so all of them should–in our opinion–be eligible.

Finally, we want to be very clear that we’re not trying to buy/encourage votes for sub-Q with any of this.

Vote for what you love! If that’s not us, we totally understand.

And a final final note on eligibility, from the Hugo awards website:

The 2019/1944 Hugo Awards are administered by the Hugo Awards Administration Subcommittee of Dublin 2019, and all decisions regarding the eligibility of works and the administration of nominations are exclusively the committee’s responsibility.

The post A Note on sub-Q’s Eligibility for the 2019 Hugo Awards appeared first on sub-Q Magazine.

March 05, 2019

Emily Short

Memory and Knowledge for Characters

by Emily Short at March 05, 2019 09:40 AM

[For a couple of years now, I’ve reserved the first Tuesday of the month for a review of a book on writing or game design that might be of interest to IF folks. I’m still doing one of those in March, but it will come out the 19th, while I’m at GDC.

Instead, this post is part of a short series on Character Engine and what we’re doing at Spirit AI. I’m writing these posts with IF and interactive narrative folks in mind, but more general-audience versions of the same content are also appearing on Spirit’s Medium account. Follow us there if you’re interested in hearing regularly about what Spirit is up to.]

Knowledge and memory are a somewhat vexed area for game characters. It’s easy to think of characters who don’t remember the last fifty times you asked them the same exact lore question, or are strangely forgetful about the ways you’ve harmed them, or who aren’t equipped to answer common-sense questions about the world they live in.

So why is this a problem? Simply recalling that something has happened is not the main challenge. We can set flags; we can assign variables; we can check on quest journals to see what the player has already done. We can refer back to whatever data store is otherwise tracking world state in this game.

The hard part is building a system where

  • everything important to remember is stored in a reasonably systematic way
  • differences between world truth and character knowledge are handled as much as (and no more than) useful
  • there’s a way to track and author for the combinations of possible state so that the NPCs always have something to say about what they remember and know

There are quite a few technical, design, and writing challenges packed into those three bullet points.

“Everything important to remember” means that we have to have some idea of what counts as important in this game world. A fact is important from a game design perspective if it affects the player’s ability to act in the world, and the mechanics that they’re going to be able to bring to bear. It’s important from a narrative perspective if it determines stakes, motives, or consequences of a given conflict or choice point. And it’s important from a systems legibility standpoint if it later allows the game to tell the player why something happened.

“…stored in a reasonably systematic way” means that we’ve anticipated how we’re going to be using that information again later, and we’ve made sure our data structure has laid the groundwork for that.

“Differences between world truth and character knowledge.” Though it’s usually easy(ish) to track what has happened in the game world, things get more complex when we want to track what individual characters know as distinct from the actual world state (“The murder weapon was a knife” vs “Bob knows the murder weapon was a knife”). It gets further complicated if we want characters to track what they think other characters know (“Bob knows that Sue knows that the murder weapon was a knife.”)

“…handled as much as (but no more than) useful.” In practice, there are very few games that do very much with characters who have ideas about the knowledge of other characters.

Where I’ve seen this done successfully, it has always been driven by the narrative design first. It’s not usually interesting for characters to be reasoning about where they last saw the cat, so there’s no reason to build a heavyweight system to store that information; it’s enough to have a much sparser model of beliefs about narratively critical information. Jon Ingold’s text adventure Make It Good does this: it’s a murder mystery where the game play is all about manipulating what the other characters know, or think they know.

“There’s a way to author to reflect all that state.” Very very broadly speaking, there are a few standard ways to approach dynamic text that reflects world state:

Have a template system that can be filled in with variables. A lot of interactive fiction tools, from Twine to Inform, would let you use this approach. It works for a lot of basic purposes, but if you’re going to be using the same template a lot in the course of the game, it soon becomes quite obvious to players that they’re dealing with something a bit boilerplate. “Curse you, [epithet for player]! I am still [emotion] about the time you [description of past crime]!” becomes less amazing if you’ve heard it enough times.

Have a generative grammar like Tracery, where a single top-level concept can randomly expand into lots of different sentence (or paragraph) formats. This is typically a super-set of the template system, and can also do some variable substitution.

Have a salience-based system that fires the most salient line given the current world state, and can fall back to defaults. This is the method used by Left4Dead and described by Elan Ruskin in this GDC talk, and borrowed by Firewatch. This approach means the developer can have one default version of a line and then lots of somewhat or very specific variations. Players are less likely to recognize a formula, but it’s more likely that the world state coverage won’t be very thorough: that is, it’s more likely that there will be lots of states the world can get into that the system isn’t designed to mention or call out.

Building Lots of Ways to Convey Information Depending on Circumstances

screen shot 2019-01-20 at 1.02.02 pm

Character Engine’s text generation system does all of these in combination. We use a tagged generative grammar, so that every line of dialogue can be indexed with its metadata. The generative grammar aspect means that we can systematically build out variants to cover lots of possibilities. Perhaps we want to use one epithet for the player by default, and another if the speaking character is related to the player; perhaps we want to choose between “Curse you” or something stronger depending on how angry the character is.

The tagging then allows us to pick the most salient of all our generated options. Perhaps one variation of a line reflects that the character is angry and open-minded and that they’re mentioning a particular event. Another variation of the line mentions the same event, but it’s suitable to a character who is happy. The system can then select the most salient option.

After it’s done that, we expand embedded variables in the line and perform some other work, like automatically substituting pronouns to refer back to current topics of conversation.

There are additional nuances here, like the ability to mark some lines for single use only, or specify a line to be used the first time a particular grammar node is expanded. We’ve also put a good bit of work into optimizing the system for runtime performance and to support rapid authoring.

The end result: text generation tools that let authors rapidly account for a wide range of world state in a systematic way — including dialogue that adapts to the speaker’s knowledge and memory.

All of that is available in the engine now: we can take a content request for a single piece of information, or a single narrative beat, and built that out into many potential representations.

Summarizing Events and Histories

The next step, still in progress, is the ability to dynamically summarize multiple pieces of information. Imagine, for instance, that we’ve recorded several events that were important in a character’s past. Maybe those events were dynamically generated by a simulation or a procedural backstory-generation system. Maybe they came about because of the player’s actions. Either way, they weren’t pre-authored. And yet, somehow, we need to let characters talk about their pasts.

For that task, we need an additional layer of reasoning — allowing characters to pick which events are important enough or currently relevant enough to mention; deciding how much detail to go into, and which details. That reasoning then produces a compound content request (“please mention this fact and that fact”)… which can then be fed into the same text generation system as before.

The result: characters who can talk about event sequences that the author never specifically anticipated, in language that is specific to their current mood and persona.

March 04, 2019


NarraScope registration is open

by Andrew Plotkin at March 04, 2019 03:29 PM

The registration page for NarraScope 2019 is now open.

Really we opened it up on Friday — you may have seen the tweets. But we were quiet about it through the weekend in case any last-minute problems turned up. Maybe they still will, but now it’s time to shout about it!

While we’re shouting, here’s some more things you should know:

The event is limited to 500 attendees. The venue rooms only hold so many people.

We expect registration to sell out well before June. There will be no at-the-door registration! We’ll post regularly to let people know how fast the tickets are selling.

We want NarraScope to be accessible to everyone interested in narrative games, regardless of their background. Therefore, we have several classes of ticket available.

  • The standard membership costs $85. This gives you access to the entire conference; it also includes lunch Saturday and Sunday.

  • If you can’t justify the cost of the standard membership, we also have a restricted-budget membership for $35. This gives you access to the entire conference, including lunch Saturday and Sunday. That is, it’s exactly the same as a standard membership — it just costs $50 less.

  • To counterbalance this, we offer a community supporter membership for $135. This is, again, exactly the same as a standard membership — it just costs $50 more. The extra money goes to support one restricted-budget membership.

  • Current MIT students may register for free. Our thanks to MIT for giving us affordable function space on campus! The MIT student membership gives access to the entire conference, but does not include lunch. Sorry about that.

  • If you are a confirmed speaker, we have emailed you a complimentary registration code. Check your inbox.

By the way, the restricted-budget and community-supporter memberships are entirely on the honor system. Pay what you can afford. We hope and expect that it will all balance out in the end.

Also: we’re aware that Boston is an expensive city, and a $50 discount on membership doesn’t go far towards the cost of travel and housing. We apologize that we can’t do more. We’ll see how it works out this time, and we’ll consider every option to make NarraScope more accessible and affordable in the future.

(If you are interested in sponsoring NarraScope, please contact us!)

The People's Republic of IF

March meetup

by zarf at March 04, 2019 05:41 AM

The Boston IF meetup for March will be Wednesday, March 20, 6:30 pm, MIT room 14N-233.

That’s in the middle of GDC, but nobody says you have to go to GDC every year. There are other events! Like PR-IF meetings! And also (smooth segue…) NarraScope 2019 in June. Just to name one.

March 03, 2019


Introducing the Twine News Blog

by Chris Klimas at March 03, 2019 07:37 PM

Beginning in December 2018, we debuted Twine News. It’s a roundup of Twine game releases, educational resources, events, and pretty much anything else that people in the Twine community would be interested in. If there’s something Twine-related you’d like to get the word out about, please submit a suggestion using the site’s online form. If you’d like to follow the Twine community more closely, there’s also a Subreddit and Discord, too.

March 01, 2019

Renga in Blue

Break, and Preview

by Jason Dyer at March 01, 2019 09:40 PM

I’ve been managing lately to get up regular blog posts, so I hate to break momentum, but I’m going to be taking next week off. I have some work and personal things, but I also am preparing a series of posts for the week after (starting March 11th) which involves

  • a history tale starting all the way back in 1970
  • clearing up misconceptions about a very famous game
  • unearthing not just one but multiple pieces of source code thought to be lost to the ages
  • an innovation far ahead of its time
  • some really nice art

Thank you for reading! If you get a chance while I’m out, maybe share the All the Adventures project with your friends?

The Digital Antiquarian

Scientology and the Fellowship

by Jimmy Maher at March 01, 2019 05:41 PM


The people who believe in the Guardian, the masses who believe in him, are completely good people who are completely duped. And so this cult religion is building, in belief of the Guardian and the Guardian’s ends. The lowest level members of the Fellowship, which is this organization that believes in the Guardian, don’t hear him. The Guardian doesn’t even speak to them.

Do you remember the Time article about Scientology where the lowest level is the self-help group? And it isn’t until you’ve gotten into Scientology for a while that you are told that in fact your body is inhabited by Thetans that have been lying dormant in your body for 75 million years, and they got there when the evil ruler Zog kicked them off their planet Nimpto. I’m serious. This is Scientology. But you don’t find this out until you’re into Scientology.

— Richard Garriot, 1992

L. Ron Hubbard and John W. Campbell

Of all the things to come out of the golden age of pulp science fiction, the strange pseudo-religious cult of Scientology has been among the least welcome.

The man who would found the cult was a charismatic fabulist named L. Ron Hubbard. After dropping out of university at age 21 in 1932, he resolved to make his living by doing what he most enjoyed: telling tall tales. Luckily, he lived in New York City, the heart of the pulp-publishing industry.

Hubbard proved unusually prolific even by the standards of the pulps, churning out multiple stories every week. He wrote in any genre that paid, from westerns to mysteries, but he showed a particular affinity for science fiction. Although his prose was dubious, his stories had a gonzo over-the-top energy about them that soon made his name a significant draw on magazine covers. One might say that Hubbard was the pulpiest of pulp writers. While authors like Isaac Asimov, Jack Williamson, and Ray Bradbury sometimes defied the lurid blurbs and cover art that accompanied their work to present stories of surprising thoughtfulness and texture, an L. Ron Hubbard story was exactly what it appeared to be on the surface: all flashing ray guns, whizzing spaceships, and heaving female bosoms. And that sort of thing, of course, was exactly what so many of the eager adolescent boys who bought the pulps were looking for.

The beginning of the Second World War marked the end of the first heyday of the pulps, as most of their writers were inducted into one form or another of military service. Hubbard parlayed a peacetime reserve commission into a regular officer’s posting in the Navy, but his wartime record proved a decidedly inglorious one. He was given the command of a submarine chaser in 1943, only to be relieved of that duty within a month for using a populated island off the coast of Mexico for gunnery practice. He never came close to meeting the enemy in any of his postings, which saw him mostly sitting behind desks in port-side offices.

After the war, he made his way to Hollywood, where he became involved for some time with a semi-serious cult that embraced Thelema, Aleister Crowley’s egoistic and hedonistic take on mysticism. Here he learned hypnotism; indeed, the group became something of a training ground for his future as a cult leader. He moved back to New York City after a year or so and resumed writing for the pulp market, which was now enjoying a postwar second wind. But he already had grander schemes in mind.

In the December 1949 issue of Astounding, the most prestigious science-fiction magazine in the business, the already legendary editor John W. Campbell made the first mention in print of Dianetics, Hubbard’s new “science of the mind.” “This is not a hoax,” he wrote. “Its power is almost unbelievable.” Campbell hardly had a reputation for gullibility, and his willingness to take every word that fell from Hubbard’s lips on this subject as gospel truth became a source of considerable wonder among his stable of more skeptical writers. Nevertheless, believe in Dianetics he did, turning his magazine into a soapbox for Hubbard’s vaguely Freud-like — but, as Hubbard would be the first to point out, not Freudian — theories about an “analytical mind” and a “reactive mind,” the latter being the subconscious product of often unremembered traumas that constantly undermined one’s attempts to be one’s best self. The only way to become a “Clear” — i.e., free of the reactive mind’s toxic influence — was to undergo a series of “audits” aimed at locating and rooting out the hidden traumas, or “engrams,” as Hubbard called them.

Hubbard would teach ordinary people to become auditors, and together they would become the vanguard of a new, Clear society free of most current worldly woes. Every medical problem from near-sightedness to cancer, Hubbard claimed, could be cured by purging the reactive mind that was their wellspring. Ditto societal problems. What were wars, after all, but products of the mass reactive-mind psychosis?

Published in book form in May of 1950, Dianetics was roundly condemned from the start by professional psychologists, who saw it, reasonably enough, as unmoored to any shred of real scientific evidence and potentially dangerous to the mental health of its more vulnerable practitioners. This rejection spawned in Hubbard a lifelong hatred of traditional psychology; he would pass the sentiment on to the cult he would found, among whom it remains a fundamental tenet to this day.

Nonetheless, Dianetics enjoyed a substantial degree of mainstream attention and even acceptance for a few years. For war veterans in particular, dealing with an overtaxed Veterans Administration that still had little understanding of post-traumatic-stress disorders, its promise of a quick fix for their pain was very appealing indeed. Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health climbed high on the bestseller lists, and Hubbard, suddenly making more money than he had ever seen in his life, busied himself with making still more of it, by setting up a nationwide network of Dianetic Research Foundations peddling auditing sessions for neophytes and auditing courses for those who wished to make the leap from patient to therapist. In terms of sheer numbers of people actively engaging with his ideas, the early 1950s was by far the most successful period of Hubbard’s life.

But it wasn’t to last. As it became clear that Dianetics wasn’t actually allowing people to throw away their eyeglasses, much less curing cancer, the wave of earnest interest collapsed as quickly as it had built, to be replaced by scorn and ridicule. The research foundations went bankrupt one by one. Meanwhile John W. Campbell’s magazine never recovered from its editor’s tryst with pseudo-science. It gradually lost its status as science fiction’s most prestigious journal, declining into near irrelevance for the next generation of up-and-coming writers and readers.

With his Dianetics empire crumbling around him, Hubbard sent a telegram to his remaining loyalists announcing “important new material.” And with that material, at a stroke, he turned the pseudo-science of Dianetics into the pseudo-religion of Scientology. Spinning a yarn that he might once have sold to the pulps, he told of a race of immortal beings, existing outside the bounds of space and time, known as the Thetans. (The similarity of the name to Crowley’s Thelema was perhaps telling.) The Thetans had created the universe on a lark, only to get themselves trapped within it. Now, they constituted the souls of human beings, but had forgotten their true nature. But never fear: Hubbard could help a person unlock her inner Thetan, thereby attaining superpowers the likes of which immortality was only the beginning. The first official chapter of his Church of Scientology was founded on February 18, 1954.

Whereas Dianetics had aimed to clear the whole world as quickly as possible, Scientology was for a small group of chosen ones able to recognize its spiritual potency. The true believers lumped everyone else in the world — especially those who had been exposed to Scientology and had chosen to reject it — under the contemptuous category of “wog.” In other words — to put it into terms a cynic can understand — Hubbard had switched from extracting a little bit of money from each of many people to extracting a whole lot of money from each of relatively few people. Early Scientology courses were cheap or even free, but progressing down the “Bridge to Total Freedom” required paying more and more for each successive step. Soon the most dedicated members were giving virtually everything they earned to the church. And it never ended; there was always a further, even more expensive level of enlightenment to be achieved, courtesy of a founder who could always dash one off whenever it was needed. His training with the pulps, it seemed, was still paying dividends.

The full story of the Church of Scientology is as complicated as it is bizarre, encompassing pitched battles with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Internal Revenue Service, and many a foreign government, along with a culture of secrecy and paranoia that only got more pronounced from year to year. The church’s history intersects with that of late-20th-century history more generally in often surprising, usually sinister ways. For example, Charles Manson flirted with Scientology while in prison, and later applied some of the techniques of control and manipulation he had learned from it when he started The Family, his own murderous cult of personality.

Perhaps the strangest period of Scientology was that spanning from 1966 to 1975, during which Hubbard, still nursing unrequited dreams of naval heroism, sailed a “fleet” of dilapidated ships, crewed by enthusiastic and comely if dangerously unskilled young followers, all over the world. Much of the current church’s symbology and iconography, such as the “Sea Org” which serves as a sort of elite honor guard for its most precious people and secrets, still dates from this period, as does a policy of harsh paramilitary discipline. For Scientology, claimed Hubbard, was now at war with an outside world bent on destroying it. Journalists and psychologists were its greatest enemies of all, to be shown no mercy whatsoever.

Scientology could and did ruin the lives of its critics. The classic cautionary tale became that of the investigative journalist Paulette Cooper, who in 1971 published an extremely critical history of L. Ron Hubbard and his church under the title of The Scandal of Scientology. She was subjected to a years-long campaign of abuse, taking the form of some twenty separate lawsuits, along with constant harassing phone calls and even break-ins to her apartment. Scientologists wrote her phone number on bathroom walls (“For a good time, call…”), passed out fliers in her neighborhood peddling her alleged services as a prostitute, and sent bomb threats to their own church in her name; these they then referred to the FBI, leaving Cooper to battle criminal charges with a sentence of up to fifteen years in prison. “For months, my anxiety was so terrible I could taste it in my throat,” Cooper says. “I could barely write, and my bills, especially legal ones, kept mounting. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep.”

L. Ron Hubbard himself withdrew even further from public view when his declining health forced him to return to land in 1975. There was great concern within the church that he might soon be arrested on charges of fraud and tax evasion — indeed, this had been one of Hubbard’s ostensible motivations for taking to the sea in the first place — but there was also a degree of embarrassment that the pot-bellied old man was anything but a poster child for the perfect physical fitness and eternal youth he had so long promised his followers. He thus spent the last few years of his life in complete isolation at secret locations. Fading both physically and mentally, he was now being controlled by the church’s senior leadership rather than vice versa.

He died — or, as the church put it, “moved forward to his next level of research” — on January 27, 1986. By that time, a mad struggle for control of the organization he had founded had been underway for years, and had largely been won already by one David Miscavige, who was still just 25 years old at the time of Hubbard’s death. He consolidated his power in the aftermath, and remains in charge to this day of an organization that is more insular and secretive than ever.

Miscavige’s most far-reaching innovation, which he began to implement even well before Hubbard’s death, was the so-called “celebrity strategy.” Eager to attract prominent people with enviable lifestyles for promotional purposes, Miscavige opened a special “Celebrity Centre” in Hollywood. It boasted, as the journalist Janet Reitman describes it, “39 hotel rooms, several theaters and performance spaces, a screening room, an upscale French restaurant, a casual bistro and coffee bar, tennis courts, and an exercise room and spa.”

The profession of actor may appear glamorous from the outside, but it can be almost unbelievably brutal from the inside, even for those who have achieved a degree of success. In this respect, the profession defies direct comparison to almost any other. An actor must face constant, detailed, explicit critiques of her appearance, her voice, her way of holding herself and moving — in short, of her very being. Thus Scientology found in Hollywood a receptive audience for the doctrines of personal empowerment and self-belief that it had always used to lure new members into the fold. The movie stars John Travolta and Tom Cruise became the most visible celebrity faces of Scientology, but it spread its tendrils throughout the entertainment industry, snaring countless other names both recognizable and obscure — for in Hollywood, today’s obscurity may be tomorrow’s marquee name, as Miscavige understood very well. Better, then, to sign them all up.

Since the publication of Paulette Cooper’s book in 1971, most journalists, well aware of the pain said book had brought upon its author, had chosen to keep their distance from the church. But finally, in its issue dated May 6, 1991, Time magazine ran the first lengthy exposé of Scientology in a generation, under the byline of one very brave reporter named Richard Behar. The hook for his piece was the tragic story of Noah Lottick, a “normal, happy” 24-year-old who had given all of his money to the church in the span of seven months, then committed suicide by jumping from a tenth-story window. “We thought Scientology was something like Dale Carnegie,” said the young man’s grieving father. “I now believe it’s a school for psychopaths. Their so-called therapies are manipulations. They take the best and the brightest people and destroy them.”

Other affecting personal tragedies were sprinkled amidst the article’s accusations of financial malpractice, eavesdropping, and harassment, all products of what Behar labelled “a thriving cult of greed and power,” worthy of comparison to the Mafia. Like so many cults, the Scientologists showed a marked tendency to prey upon the most vulnerable:

Harriet Baker learned the hard way about Scientology’s business of selling religion. When Baker, 73, lost her husband to cancer, a Scientologist turned up at her Los Angeles home peddling a $1300 auditing package to cure her grief. Some $15,000 later, the Scientologists discovered that her house was debt free. They arranged a $45,000 mortgage, which they pressured her to tap for more auditing until Baker’s children helped their mother snap out of her daze. Last June, Baker demanded a $27,000 refund for unused services, prompting two cult members to show up at her door unannounced to interrogate her. Baker never got the money and, financially strapped, was forced to sell her house in September.

Predictably, the Church of Scientology sued Time for libel. It would take almost ten years for the magazine to win a final legal victory, on the basis that everything reported in the story was substantially accurate.

The timing of this article is highly significant for our purposes: it was read by Richard Garriott, who had recently decided that Ultima VII should have a “real bad guy” as the antagonist for the first time since Ultima III. “Richard came up with the initial idea,” remembers Raymond Benson, the game’s head writer, “but I’m pretty sure I came up with everything the Fellowship did, as well as their various tenets and beliefs.”

Of all the many and varied threads taken up by Ultima VII, that of the Fellowship is the most thoroughgoing. This isn’t surprising on the face of it, given how important the Fellowship is to the game’s overarching plot. What is surprising, however, is how subtle and even wise — not words I use often in connection with CRPGs, believe me! — the game’s depiction of the cult really is. Taken as a whole, the Fellowship’s practices demonstrate a canny understanding of how non-stupid people can be convinced to believe in really stupid things, and how they can be convinced — or coerced — to dedicate their lives to them. Indeed, although the direct inspiration for the Fellowship is Scientology, the understanding of cultish behavior which Ultima VII demonstrates applies equally to many of them. “It wasn’t just Scientology we were knocking,” says Benson, “but all kinds of religious cults.”

Separated at birth? L. Ron Hubbard…

..and Batlin.

The Guardian, the disembodied spirit of evil who’s the prime motivator behind the Fellowship, prefers to hide behind the scenes. The cult’s ostensible founder and public face is instead an unprepossessing fellow named Batlin, who carefully cultivates an everyman persona. In the Book of the Fellowship included with the game — quite possibly the only game manual ever to be written from the point of view of the eventual villain — he speaks of his “humble hope that these words may be for thee a dawning, or at least, a type of awakening.” He is a “traveller” just like you are, who has stumbled upon a form of enlightenment, and he “would very much appreciate sharing the rewards with you.”

This is the modern face of the cult leader, couched in a superficial aura of approachability. Hubbard too dressed casually and encouraged those around him to call him “Ron.” Yet it is indeed a facade; the leader is in fact not an everyman. The affectation of humility is an act, meant to demonstrate the leader’s superior character. He may be a fellow traveler, but the fact remains that he became enlightened while the rest of the world did not; he is, by definition, special, as any cultist who takes his affectation of humility too seriously and challenges his edicts in any way will quickly learn. The Fellowship, like Scientology, is as hierarchical an organization as ever existed.

Still, the impression of casual normality conveyed by the leader is essential to the recruitment process. No one consciously signs up for a cult; people are captured by an innocuous pitch for self-improvement that seems to offer considerable rewards for little investment of time, energy, or money. It’s only after the recruit is inside that the balance begins to subtly shift and the cult begins to demand more and more of all three.

Scientology has studied the recruitment process long and hard, adopting approaches that lean more on theories of marketing than religion. The first pitch says nothing about Thetans; it restricts itself to the relatively more grounded psuedo-science of Dianetics, described as a self-help program that helps one to live a more effective life. The corporate banality of it all smacks of nothing so much as a dodgy vacation-timeshare pitch. In her book on Scientology, Janet Reitman describes her own first encounter with the church in New York City:

At various times during the year, clusters of attractive young men and women are posted on street corners, where they offer free “stress tests” or hand out fliers. Ranging in age from the late teens to the early twenties, they are dressed as conservatively as young bank executives.

On a hot July morning several years ago, I was approached by one of these clear-eyed young men. “Hi!” he said, with a smile. “Do you have a minute?” He introduced himself as Emmett. “We’re showing a film down the street,” he said, casually pulling a glossy, postcard-sized flier from the stack he held in his hand. “It’s about Dianetics — ever heard of it?”

I was escorted to a small screening room to watch the free introductory film. After the film, a woman came into the screening room and told me that she’d like me to fill out a questionnaire. She began her pitch gently. Laurie delivered a soft sell for Scientology’s “introductory package”: a four-hour seminar and twelve hours of Dianetics auditing, a form of consuling that cost $50. “You don’t have to do it,” Laurie said. “It’s just something I get the feeling might help you.” She patted my arm.

That initial request for $50 will grow in a remarkably short time to hundreds, then thousands of dollars, all absolutely required for one to reach the coveted status of Clear and commune with one’s inner Thetan.

The Fellowship recruitment process works much the same way. Every town you visit in Britannia has a Fellowship Hall — or, as it is known in the cult’s corporatese, a “Recreational Facility and Learning Center.” (One of the prime innovations of Scientology, and apparently of the Fellowship as well, was to turn religion into a corporate franchise operation.) While the towns themselves are diverse, every Fellowship Hall looks the same, right down to the Book of the Fellowship standing in a place of honor just inside each of their doorways. (“Books by L. Ron Hubbard lined the walls,” notes Reitman of her Scientology recruitment experience, “as did black-and-white photos of the man.”)

The people hanging about the Fellowship Halls all casually bring up the “Triad of Inner Strength”: “Strive For Unity,” “Trust Thy Brother,” “Worthiness Precedes Reward.” These three principles hardly represent major advances in moral philosophy; they simply say that people should work together whenever possible, should trust in the basic goodness of their fellow humans, and should do good work for the satisfaction of the work itself, understanding that external rewards will come of themselves in due course. The Triad of Inner Strength, in other words, is something most of us learned in grade school.

And yet, banally harmless though it sounds at first blush, the Triad of Inner Strength can all too easily be twisted into something less than benign, as Richard Garriott noted in an interview with Caroline Spector from around the time of Ultima VII‘s release:

And so the Fellowship is this cult religion that is founded upon three principles. The first is Unity. To work for a better world, we all need to work together. If we work together, we’ll be better. This is your “go out and evangelize and convert them to our beliefs” syndrome.

The next thing after Unity is Worthiness. You should always strive to be worthy of that which you wish to receive. Always try to deserve that which you wish to receive. Which is another way of saying, you get what you deserve. Which means, as far as the Guardian is concerned, if you’ve been bad, he kills you. You obviously got what you deserved.

The third principle is called Trust. If you and I are going to work together in the same organization, like me and my brother Robert, we have to trust each other. If I constantly think that Robert’s going to stab me in the back, I won’t get any work done. We’d be constantly checking on each other, making sure that what we’re telling each other is the truth. So, you have to trust the other members of the Fellowship. If I tell you to carry this box from here to there, don’t ask me what’s in it. Just trust me.

Spector: Trust has a condition on it, though. The condition is that you do whatever I tell you to do without question.

Trust! Just trust me!

Spector: That’s really not trust.

I didn’t say it was really trust. I said that’s the word they use.

In practice, then, the Triad of Inner Strength leaves the members of the Fellowship ripe for all sorts of psychological manipulation. “Strive for Unity” and “Trust Thy Brother” militate against critical thinking among the membership, while “Worthiness Precedes Reward” can be used to justify all sorts of acts which the membership would otherwise view as heinous.

The recruitment pitch of both Scientology and the Fellowship culminates in a much-vaunted but borderline nonsensical personality test. The Scientology version poses questions like “Do you often sing or whistle for the fun of it?” and “Do you sometimes feel that your age is against you (too young or too old)?” The Fellowship’s questions are at least a bit more elaborate, and actually do offer some food for thought in themselves. In fact, they might remind you of some of the questions posed by a certain gypsy fortune teller at the beginning of Ultima IV.

Thou art feeling depressed right now. Is it more likely because – A: Thou hast disappointed a friend, or B: A friend has disappointed thee?

At a festive gathering thou dost tell a humorous anecdote, and thou dost tell it very well, creating much amusement. Didst thou tell this comedic story because A: thou didst enjoy the response that thou didst receive from thine audience, or B: because thou didst want to please thy friends?

Thou art in a boat with thy betrothed and thy mother. The boat capsizes. In the choppy waters thou canst only save thyself and one other person. Who dost thou save from drowning, A: thy betrothed, or B: thy mother?

(Freud would have had a field day with that last one.)

Whatever answers you give, on either cult’s test, the end result is always the same: you have much potential, but you need the counseling that only Scientology or the Fellowship can provide. (“Thou art a person of strong character, Avatar, but one who is troubled by deep personal problems that prevent thee from achieving thy true potential for greatness.”)

As you wander Britannia talking to Fellowship members — whatever else you can say about Batlin’s cult, it’s achieved a degree of market penetration of which Scientology can only dream — they all parrot the same lines when speaking of the organization. At first, you might be tempted to chalk this up to laziness on the part of the writing team. But later, as you come to see that laziness simply isn’t a part of Ultima VII‘s writerly personality, you realize that it’s been done with purposeful intent, to illustrate the subtle process of brainwashing that occurs once one begins to open oneself to a cult. And as this realization dawns, the parroting that started out as merely annoying begins to take on a sinister quality.

Indeed, the control of language constitutes an important part of a cult’s overall control of its members. Scientology has developed a veritable English dialect all its own, a strange mixture of tech speak, corporate speak, and messianic grandiosity. The word “love” is replaced by “affinity”; the verb “to audit” now means “to listen and compute.” Hubbard’s own writings — Scientology’s version of holy scripture — is the church’s “technology” or “tech.” More ominously, a “suppressive person” is someone who speaks critically of the church, thereby suppressing the truth of Hubbard’s wisdom in herself and in those around her; these people, Scientology’s version of heretics, are fair game for any sort of punishment. One former member and current suppressive person describes Scientology’s manipulation of language thusly:

It’s very, very subtle stuff, changing words and giving them a whole different meaning. It creates an artificial reality. What happens is, this new linguistic system undermines your ability to even monitor your own thoughts because nothing means what it used to mean. I couldn’t believe that I could get taken over like that. I was the most independent-minded idiot that ever walked the planet. But that’s what happened.

The Fellowship too manipulates language for its own ends, preferring convoluted purple prose to directness in such linguistic pillars as the Triad of Inner Strength. The core of the group’s philosophy is “sanguine cognition.” This is just another way of saying “cheerful knowledge,” Batlin helpfully tells us, which rather begs the question why he doesn’t instruct his followers to simply say the latter. The answer is that clear language illuminates its subject, whereas a cult’s mission is always to obscure the sheer banality of its teachings.

The languages of Scientology and the Fellowship alike are meant to highlight their status as modern belief systems suitable for the modern world. This is important, for any argument for the absolute truth of a religion or life philosophy must carry with it the implied corollary that all other current religions and life philosophies are false, or at least of lesser utility. Batlin has this to say about the system of virtues that arrived in Britannia at the time of Ultima IV, more than 200 years ago in the series’s internal chronology:

As one who has followed the Eight Virtues, I know whereof I speak when I say that it is impossible to perfectly live up to them. Even the Avatar was unable to do so continuously and consistently. Can anyone say that they have been honest every moment of their lives? Can anyone say that they are always compassionate, valorous, just, sacrificing, honorable, humble, or spiritual at all times? The philosophy of the Eight Virtues does little more than emphasize our own personal deficiencies. I have met many adherents to the ways of the Virtues who are racked with guilt over what they perceive to be their spiritual failures, for that is what the Virtues are based upon. Having been shown our weaknesses, now is the time to strengthen them. The philosophy of The Fellowship has been created to eradicate the failures from one’s life. It is a philosophy based upon success and it enhances everything that has come before it.

It’s right here that Ultima VII levels its most subtle but perhaps most important critique of Scientology and similar movements in our own world. A religion, some wag once said, is another person’s cult, and vice versa. I would push back against that notion to the extent that the great religions of the world, regardless of their claim to objective truth, engage with the full scope of the human condition, including its fundamentally tragic nature. Religion engages with failure and weakness at least as much as it does with success and strength; it engages with pain and loss, with aging and death — because, as another wag once said, none of us gets out of this life alive.

So, a true religion grasps that it cannot deny the tragic realities of life, replacing them with some shallow notion of “success,” as if the ineffable mysteries of life were just a series of bullet points on a CV. As Sophocles and Shakespeare understood, much of life is pain, and true spiritual enlightenment is the ability to laugh in spite of that pain, not to deny its existence. True enlightenment requires one to get outside of one’s self. Scientology and the Fellowship, on the other hand, are egotism masquerading as spirituality. What can I get out of this? It’s in this way, it seems to me, that they’re most depressingly modern of all.

And yet moral judgments, as the Ultima series did such a good job of teaching us over the years, are seldom absolute. Me-focused self-help programs doubtless do some people a great deal of good, as do Scientology and the Fellowship. For decades now, Scientology has run addiction-treatment programs that have changed at least some lives. The Fellowship too runs homeless shelters and treats serpent-venom addicts (serpent venom being Britannia’s version of cocaine).

Assuming we believe in the notion of people as sovereign individuals, we must give them permission to believe strange things if they wish to do so. And, assuming we believe in the right of free speech, we must give them permission as well to try to convince others of their beliefs — even to try to convince others to join their group and behave as they do. Where do the boundaries lie? Efforts to outlaw Scientology in some countries of our own world have struck many as overreaching. But, likewise, the organization’s ongoing tax-exempt status in other countries strikes many as a travesty in its own right.

Of course, there are limits to the parallels between Scientology and the Fellowship. At the end of the day, the fact remains that Ultima VII is a work of genre fiction. Our ingrained media literacy assures that, from the time when we first meet the Fellowship just minutes after starting the game, we know that they can’t possibly be up to anything good. Indeed, it’s almost a comfort to learn that the Fellowship is being directed by a spirit of manifestly bad intent. That’s the sort of thing we know how to deal with as players of CRPGs. By contrast, very few people in our real world — not even cult leaders — believe themselves to be evil. Evil here is far more subtle, and often occurs in spite of — or sometimes because of — our best intentions. Those who pull the levers of Scientology are not the Guardian — not disembodied spirits of evil cackling over their nefarious plans — but ordinary humans who, I would guess, honestly feel in their heart of hearts that they’re doing good.

Still, if it’s comfort we Scientology skeptics are looking for, we can find some in the fact that the church is by all indications a shadow today of what it was at the time of Ultima VII‘s release. It’s always been damnably difficult to collect hard numbers about the church’s membership at any point in its history, due to its consistent determination to exaggerate its size and influence. Yet, tellingly, even the exaggerations are much smaller today than they were two or three decades ago. Scientology today may have as few as 50,000 active members worldwide, down from a peak of perhaps 500,000 at the time of the Time magazine article. Even its stranglehold on Hollywood has been noticably weakened, with many of its superstar converts having quietly backed away. Much of the veil of secrecy around the organization has been pierced, and Scientology’s penchant for retaliation against its critics doesn’t have the same silencing effect it once did. Today, tell-all memoirs about “my life in Scientology,” of wildly varying degrees of veracity and luridness, have became a veritable cottage industry in publishing. Their authors have found a form of safety in numbers; when Scientology has so many critics, it’s hard for it to go after each one of them with the old gusto, especially given its current straitened membership rolls.

I suspect that Scientology will die out entirely in another generation or three. For all but the people whose lives it has ruined (or saved) and those close to said people, it will go down in history as just another kooky cult, another proof of the eternal human penchant to believe weird things and to cede control of their lives to others in the name of those beliefs. Even as Scientology slowly dies, however, other cult-like belief systems promising love, wealth, and happiness — for a small price — will continue to arise. So, there will never be a shortage of real-world analogues for the Fellowship. Sadly, Ultima VII‘s claim to thematic relevance is never likely to be in doubt.

(Sources: the books Inside Scientology: The Story of America’s Most Secretive Religion by Janet Reitman, The Scandal of Scientology by Paulette Cooper, The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, edited by Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn, and Ultima: The Avatar Adventures by Rusel DeMaria and Caroline Spector; Time of May 6 1991. Online sources include The Ultima Codex interview with Raymond Benson, the comprehensive anti-Scientology resource Operation Clambake, and Frederick Pohl’s memories of Hubbard on The Way the Future Blogs. I owe a special thank you to Hoki-Aamrel, whose “The Fellowship and the Church of Scientology Compared” served as my spirit guide for researching this article. And my thanks go as well to Peter W., who pointed out in a comment to my previous article that The Book of the Fellowship may be the only game manual ever written from the point of view of the villain.)


Heralding two upcoming reports

by Jason McIntosh at March 01, 2019 03:13 PM

IFTF plans to publish its third annual transparency report by the end of March. This is a little later than last year’s publication date, due in part to my own coming up to speed with the authorship task after former board member Flourish Klink handed the job over to me. I thank the board and the community for its patience, and will of course update this blog with a link once the report goes public.

I also have the privilege of overseeing the IFTF Accessibility Testing Committee’s report, which — after a rather longer delay! — looks on-target to appear later this year. The accessibility program successfully concluded the testing exercise it began in January, with its public call for more participants resulting in a tidy doubling of the initial tester-pool. (We also extended the testing period by a week to better accomodate these later arrivals.) The committee now possesses accessibility survey responses from several dozen players with disabilities, including both IF veterans and those new to the form. We now turn our attention to transforming this data into a meaningful report, and I very much look forward to presenting it to the community.

February 28, 2019

Renga in Blue

Reality Ends: The City Falls

by Jason Dyer at February 28, 2019 10:40 PM

I thought for a while I definitely would have to bail on this one, but I had a lightning soaked victory in the end.

A somewhat relevant public domain picture for spoiler space.

I had two sticking points:

(a.) something close to guess-the-verb, although it was more like guess-the-chain-of-events
(b.) me reading a word incorrectly.

Let’s start with the more inglorious (b.)

Early on I found a “deep ravine” in a room with “mail”. The game suggested you need to jump over the ravine to get to the mail, but doing so led to falling and death. Fortunately, I quickly realized a horse elsewhere in the map was useful here, and after I did RIDE HORSE I was able to jump the ravine and retrieve the mail. And then … nothing. I tried >READ MAIL. I tried >OPEN MAIL. I tried >DEILVER MAIL. I tried all sorts of strange things, but the purpose of the mail eluded me most of the game.

Later in the game, I was trying to work out how to fight a “fanatic leader”. I had a sword but trying to do battle led to “NICE SWORDSMANSHIP, BUT YOU CAUGHT A CHEST WOUND” and death.

Much later in the game … well, perhaps you’ve already put these parts together, but it dawned on me that “mail” was NOT the kind of mail you open and read and find coupons in. No, this was mail as in armor that you wear. After WEAR MAIL:

To be fair, this is a good reason why it helps to be able to examine your objects! But I was still just a little sheepish.

So, for (a.):

Trying to get the plants just led to sinking in quicksand.

I had some rope that I had tried to use in many ways, including attaching to other things and the like, until I finally hit upon THROW ROPE:


The next appropriate command is PULL ROPE


whereupon then you can finally GET PLANTS.

After getting the plants, I went back to a tavern where I previously came across a fatal brew.

This time I did EAT PLANTS beforehand


and I was able to safely drink the brew.


I ignored the suggestion for revenge and just took the empty stein. All that process was to be able to go to a place that had acid rain and FILL STEIN. Then I could take the acid to a locked box and POUR ACID breaking it open, revealing some silver.

Back in the acid rain place I also got some diamonds, and was able to go to Israel to trade them for guns. No, really:

Remember, the conceit here is you are not traveling through “rooms”, but “parallel universes”, including, apparently, an Israeli gun market circa 1980.

My next task was going to the “City of Margon” which had an “Amulet of Sangi” and fight Margon to be able to get the Amulet. It turns out if you hire marksman and give them guns you can try to put up a fight … and he kills you because “GUNPOWDER DOESN’T WORK IN THIS UNIVERSE”.


The solution turns out to be: after you buy the guns in Israel, you can USE POLISH to have them make gunpowder out of some jeweler’s polish you find in a different universe. It turns out Margon will *still* kill you unless the bullets are also silver, so you can USE SILVER (the silver from the locked box) and the gun shop will helpfully turn those into silver bullets for you.

Finally, being prepared with an army of marksmen using silver bullets, you can go back to the city and KILL MARGON:

Let’s skip ahead a bit: once you get the Amulet of Sangi, you just need the fanatics (that I mentioned earlier), a staff (which happens to be sitting on the ground next to the endgame room) and a magic word CIMAL (which you can get by stealing a book of lore from a minotaur). Then it’s just a matter of going to the CITADEL OF BALDIR which threatens the DISSOLUTION OF REALITY and letting fury reign:

So, that was a curious introduction to the library of Med Systems, to say the least. They’re going to appear twice more in 1980 with first-person 3D perspective adventure games Labyrinth and Deathmaze 5000.

Yes, 3D first-person perspective in 1980. If you’re dying with anticipation, the Adventure Gamer covered Deathmaze 5000 in their “missed classic” series so you can see some glorious screenshots.

February 26, 2019



by Hanon Ondricek ([email protected]) at February 26, 2019 01:06 AM

Welcome to the all-new Interactive Fiction Community Forum!

We exist to support the IF community in all its shapes and forms. This is the place to discuss IF games and stories, to get help writing your own, to announce a story you’ve published, and to review competition entries. If you’re an IF author, a player, a fan, or just want to find out more, this is the place for you!
  • New look
  • Updated, modern design
  • Better community-assisted moderation
  • Powerful search
  • Markdown for posting
  • New categories
  • Optimization for mobile displays
  • Over 10 years of archived discussion and conversations by fans, players, creators, and curators of IF

February 25, 2019

Web Interactive Fiction

The New

by David Cornelson at February 25, 2019 10:41 AM

I guess the powers that be have decided for the community. Pretty shameful demonstration of community leadership. I won’t join or be a part of the Discourse forums. There was always a joke about the “cabal” and now that sentiment seems to have come to a reality. I thought the creation of a non-profit and demonstrated leadership was a solid move forward. I’m not so sure anymore.

The IF community was always a herd of cats to begin with and now it will go on without one of those cats.

I stand apart in protest.

February 23, 2019

The People's Republic of IF

February meeting Post Mortem

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nod to Adam Thornton and Twitter hacking feats

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

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

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

Next we played a Polish translation by .habib joulo. Hellboj h-prg, hypertext style piece

Spring thing reg deadline by Mar 1

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

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

February 20, 2019

Classic Adventure Solution Archive

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

by Gunness at February 20, 2019 02:16 PM

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

February 19, 2019

The People's Republic of IF

January Meetup: Post Mortem

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

January 2019 PR-IF meetup

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 15, 2019

The Digital Antiquarian

Ultima VII

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

Fhtagn! - Tales of the Creeping Madness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Available for Windows on Steam and