Planet Interactive Fiction

May 25, 2019

Renga in Blue

Savage Island Part 1: What Was, Must Be

by Jason Dyer at May 25, 2019 06:41 AM

My first revelation since last time was I could HOLD BREATH while in the lake, and SWIM DOWN to explore the bottom.

I found a knife and a small plastic block, although I couldn’t get them out of the lake; I kept drowning in the attempt.

I suspected the log would come in handy and had already tested it out; I was foiled by expecting to need an action like CLIMB LOG or such to indicate I was “riding the top of the log” so to speak. No, you just hold the log in your inventory, and you can swim through the lake holding whatever else you want, including a knife, fish bones, an empty bottle, and a partridge in a pear tree.

(To put things less glibly: the game only considered weight and buoyancy, whereas I was thinking of logistics and having enough arms. I had even tried holding the knife with my teeth like in pirate movies.)

Once I realized this, most of my problems were settled, except for a very evil part–

The log doesn’t appear until after the hurricane starts. So the sequence goes

1.) Store the rum in the cave (possibly being randomly mauled by the bear while doing so).

2.) Drop the bottle off and swim across the lake holding nothing; go over to the beach and wait for the hurricane to hit.

3.) Once the hurricane hits, grab a log. Go back to the cave and get the empty bottle.

4.) Use the log to ferry the empty bottle across the lake, then jump back to the beach and fill the empty bottle with seawater.

5.) Loop yet again back to the bear cave, use the hot floor to get salt from the salt water, give the salt to the bear, and finally wait out the storm in the cave (now that you’ll be safe from both wild animals and the storm).

The very evil part is that in addition to the bear possibly randomly killing you, and the hurricane randomly killing you in almost *any* room once it starts, the save game option is disabled while the hurricane is going on. I had to run through the whole sequence multiple times, hoping for good RNG; in my second to last try the bear mauled me right as I was about to give him some salt.

Grah. I’m being traditionalist here so I can report to you, my faithful readers, what the experience is like, but for anyone playing along, please feel free to use emulator save states as needed.

Anyhow! Once past this hurdle I was able to rescue the knife and plastic block (via another log pass) with the interesting dilemma that the log doesn’t fit in the west crevice to go over to the beach. If you carry the log while trying to climb up the volcano (which normally just sends you right back down) you drop the log while attempting this and it helpfully falls back onto the beach side of things.

I combined that log with another one the hurricane generated and some vines I cut from the jungle to MAKE RAFT. Launching it from the beach’s tidepool, I did PADDLE EAST and PADDLE WEST for a while until I came across an “atoll”. Remembering the cannon fire, I did WAIT and a pirate ship appeared.

…oh yeah, the rum. I forgot to bring that! Fortunately, I hadn’t “broken” my sequence too much and was able to shuffle the empty bottle back to the cave, fill it with the rum I had stored, use the log again to ferry the bottle back to the beach, make the raft again, find the atoll again, wait for the pirate ship again, and then GIVE RUM. The pirate accepted the gift and left; his bandanna fell off, revealing antennae (it’s an alien pirate), and he left behind a note as well.

I also found amongst my raft travels a cave with drawings and a hinged stalactite, although I haven’t been able to do anything with the latter yet (I suspect it may just be parser wrangling, though).

Whew, that’s a lot of progress! Again, feel free to speculate if you’re just playing along, and restrain yourself from hints if you’ve beaten this before.

May 24, 2019

Renga in Blue

Twisty Little Passages on Kickstarter

by Jason Dyer at May 24, 2019 09:41 PM

No, not the Nick Montfort book. This is a “dungeon crawl puzzle book adventure”.

Each pair of facing pages is a puzzle, where you

Fight monsters, acquire keys to open doors, get life-boosting elixirs, powerful equipment and enchanted items, and defeat the boss at the end of each level. Use your wits to find the right path through each area and survive. Solve each puzzle to move forward with the story.

If you’re familiar with DROD RPG, this is basically the book form of that. Here’s a sample:

You keep track of attack, defense, health, and equipment for solving each puzzle. The pages of the book will be laminated so you can solve using a dry-erase marker.

The first four puzzles of the book are up, so you can test things out for yourself.

Link to Twisty Little Passages Kickstarter

The Kickstarter runs until June 13, 2019. It’s already funded, but there are bonus puzzles to unlock and so forth, and I figured y’all seem the types to be interested, so here you go.

One of the harder puzzles that just got posted; click on the Kickstarter and look for the PDF files to get more detail.

The Digital Antiquarian

The Last Works Before the Renaissance

by Jimmy Maher at May 24, 2019 05:41 PM

By 1993, textual interactive fiction was reaching the fag end of the unsettled, uncertain half-decade-and-change between the shuttering of Infocom and the rise of a new Internet-centered community of amateur enthusiasts. Efforts by such collectives as Adventions and High Energy Software to sell text adventures via the shareware model had largely proved unfruitful, while, with the World Wide Web still in its infancy, advertisement and distribution were major problems even for someone willing to release her games for free. The ethos of text and parsers seemed about as divorced as anything could possibly be from the predominant ethos in game development more generally, with its focus on multimedia, full-motion video, and ultra-accessible mouse-driven interfaces. Would text adventures soon be no more than obscure relics of a more primitive past? To an increasing number even of the form’s most stalwart fans, an answer in the affirmative was starting to feel like a foregone conclusion. Few text-adventure authors had serious ambitions of matching the technical or literary quality of Infocom during this period, much less of exceeding it; the issue for the medium right now was one of simple survival. In this atmosphere, the arrival of any new text adventure felt like a victory against the implacable forces of technological change, which had conspired to all but strangle this new literary form before it had even had time to get going properly.

Thankfully, history would later mark 1993 as the year when the seeds of an interactive-fiction rebirth were planted, thanks to an Englishman who repurposed not only the Infocom aesthetic but also Infocom’s own technology in unexpected ways. Those seeds would flower richly in 1995, Year Zero of the Interactive Fiction Renaissance. I’ll begin that story soon.

Today, though, I’d like to tell you about some of the more interesting games to emerge from the final days of the interstitial period — games which actually overlap, although no one could realize it at the time, with the dawning of the modern interactive-fiction community. Indeed, the games I describe below manage to presage some of the themes of that community despite being the products of a text-adventuring culture that still spent more time looking backward than looking forward. I’m fond of all of them in one way or another, and I’m willing to describe at least one of them as a sadly overlooked classic.

The Horror of Rylvania

The hiking trip across Europe has been a wonderful experience for two recent college graduates like yourself and your friend Carolyn. From the mansions of England to the beaches of Greece, you’ve walked in the footsteps of the Crusaders and seen sights that few Americans have ever seen.

Carolyn had wanted to skip the Central European nation of Rylvania. “Why bother?” she’d said. “There’s nothing but farmers there, and creepy old castles - nothing we haven’t seen already. The Rylvanians are still living in the last century.”

That, you’d insisted, was exactly why Rylvania was a must-see. The country was an intact piece of living history, a real treasure in this modern age.

If only you hadn’t insisted! As night fell, as you approached a small farming village in search of a quaint inn to spend the night, the howling began. A scant hundred yards from the village, and it happened...the wolves appeared from the black forest around you and attacked. Big, black wolves that leaped for Carolyn’s throat before you could shout a warning, led by a great gray-black animal that easily stood four feet at the shoulder. Carolyn fell to the rocky path, blood gushing from her neck as the wolves faded back into the trees, unwilling, for some unknown reason, to press their attack.

If she dies, it will be your fault. You curse the darkening sky as you cradle Carolyn’s head, knowing that you have little time to find help. Perhaps in the village up the road to the north.

The Horror of Rylvania marks the last shareware release from Adventions, a partnership between the MIT graduate students Dave Baggett and D.A. Leary which was the most sustained of all efforts to make a real business out of selling interactive fiction during the interstitial period. Doubtless for this reason, the Adventions games are among the most polished of all the text adventures made during this time. They were programmed using the sophisticated TADS development system rather than the more ramshackle AGT, with all the benefits that accrued to such a choice. And, just as importantly, they were thoroughly gone over for bugs as well as spelling and grammar problems, and are free of the gawky authorial asides and fourth-wall-breakings that were once par for the course in amateur interactive fiction.

For all that, though, the Adventions games haven’t aged all that well in my eyes. The bulk of them take place in a fantasy land known as Unnkulia, which is trying so hard to ape Zork‘s Great Underground Empire that it’s almost painful to watch. In addition to being derivative, the Unnkulia games think they’re far more clever and hilarious than they actually are — the very name of the series/world is a fine case in point — while the overly fiddly gameplay can sometimes grate almost as much as the writing.

It thus made for a welcome change when Adventions, after making three and a half Unnkulia games, finally decided to try something else. Written by D.A. Leary, The Horror of Rylvania is more plot-driven than Adventions’s earlier games, a Gothic vampire tale in which you actually become a vampire not many turns in. It’s gone down in certain circles as a minor classic, for reasons that aren’t totally unfounded. Although the game has a few more potential walking-dead scenarios than is perhaps ideal, the puzzles are otherwise well-constructed, the implementation is fairly robust, and, best of all, most of the sophomoric attempts at humor that so marked Adventions’s previous games are blessedly absent.

That said, the end result still strikes me more as a work of craftsmanship than genius. The writing has been gone over for spelling and grammar without addressing some of its more deep-rooted problems, as shown even by the brief introduction above; really, now, have “few Americans ever seen” sights advertised in every bog-standard package tour of Europe? (Something tells me Leary hadn’t traveled much at the time he wrote this game.) The writing here has some of the same problems with tone as another Gothic horror game from 1993 set in an ersatz Romania: Quest for Glory IV. It wants to play the horror straight most of the time, and is sometimes quite effective at it — the scene of your transformation from man to vampire is particularly well-done — but just as often fails to resist the centrifugal pull which comedy has on the adventure-game genre.

Still, Horror of Rylvania is the Adventions game which plays best today, and it isn’t a bad choice for anyone looking for a medium-sized old-school romp with reasonably fair puzzles. Its theme adds to its interest; horror in interactive fiction tends to hew more to either H.P. Lovecraft or zombie movies than the Gothic archetypes which Horror of Rylvania intermittently manages to nail. Another extra dimension of interest is added by the ending, which comes down to a binary choice between curing your friend Carolyn from the curse of vampirism, which entails sacrificing yourself in the process, or curing yourself and letting Carolyn sod off. As we’ll shortly see, the next and last Adventions game perhaps clarifies some of the reasons for such a moral choice’s inclusion at the end of a game whose literary ambitions otherwise don’t seem to extend much beyond being a bit of creepy fun.

The Jeweled Arena

You let out a sigh of relief as you finish the last paper. “That’s the lot.”

“Good work, ma’am,” says Regalo, your squire. “I was almost afraid we’d be here until midnight.”

“Don’t worry, Regalo, I wouldn’t do a thing like that, especially on my first healthy day after the flu. In any case, Dora wants me home by eight. The papers look dry, so you can take them to Clara’s office.”

As Regalo carries the papers to the adjoining office, you stand up and stretch your aching muscles. You then look through the window and see a flash of lightning outside. It looks like quite a storm is brewing.

“I’m beginning to think my calendar is set wrong,” you say as Regalo returns. “Dibre’s supposed to be cool, dry, and full of good cheer; so far, we’ve had summer heat, constant rain, and far too many death certificates. Perhaps this storm will blow out the heat.”

“I hope it blows out the plague with it, ma’am. I’ve lost three friends already, and my wife just picked it up yesterday. No one likes it when the coroner’s staff is overworked.”

“It doesn’t help that Clara and Resa are both still sick. If we’re lucky, we’ll have Resa back tomorrow, which I’m sure your feet would appreciate. I presume Ernando and Miranda have already left for the day?”

“Yes ma’am.”

“Now I’m really worried. The only thing worse than being the victim of one of Miranda’s pranks is going a day without one of her pranks -– it usually means you missed something. Perhaps she decided to be discrete [sic] for a change.”

“I didn’t get the impression her sense of humor was taking the day off, but I don’t know what she did. It can wait until tomorrow. Is there anything else you need me to do before I leave?”

Written by David S. Raley, The Jeweled Arena was the co-winner of what would turn out to be the last of the annual competitions organized by AGT’s steward, David M. Malmberg, before he released the programming language as freeware and stepped away from further involvement with the interactive-fiction community. Set in a fantasy world, but a thankfully non-Zorkian and non-Tolkienesque one, it’s both an impressive piece of world-building and a game of unusual narrative ambition for its time.

In fact, the world of Valdalan seems like it must have existed in the author’s head for a long time before this game was written. The environment around you has the feeling of being rooted in far more lore and history than is explicitly foregrounded in the text, always the mark of first-class world-building. As far as I can tell from the text, Valdalan is roughly 17th-century in terms of its science and technology, but is considerably more enlightened philosophically. Interestingly, magic seems to have no place here, making it almost more of an alternative reality than a conventional fantasy milieu.

The story takes place in the city of Kumeran as it’s in the throes of a plague — a threat which is, like so much else in this game, handled with more subtlety than you might expect. The plot plays out in four chapters, during each of which you play the role of a different character. The first chapter is worthy of becoming a footnote in interactive-fiction history at the very least, in that it casts you as one half of a lesbian couple. In later years, certain strands of interactive fiction — albeit more of the hypertext than the parser-driven type — would become a hotbed of advocacy for non- hetero-normative lifestyles. The Jeweled Arena has perhaps aged better in this respect than many of those works have (or will); it presents its lesbian protagonist in a refreshingly matter-of-fact way, neither turning her into an easy villain or victim, as an earlier game might have done, nor celebrating her as a rainbow-flag-waving heroine, as a later game might have done. She’s just a person; the game takes it as a given that she’s worthy of exactly the same level of respect as any of the rest of us. In 1993, this matter-of-fact attitude toward homosexuality was still fairly unusual. Raley deserves praise for it.

Unfortunately, The Jeweled Arena succeeds better as a place and a story than it does as a game, enough so that one is tempted to ask why Raley elected to present it in the form of a text adventure at all. He struggles to come up with things for you to really do as you wander the city. This tends to be a problem with a lot of interactive fiction where the puzzles aren’t the author’s primary focus; A Mind Forever Voyaging struggles to some extent with the same issue when it sends you wandering through its own virtual city. But The Jeweled Arena, which doesn’t have a mechanic like A Mind Forever Voyaging‘s commandment to observe and record to ease its way, comes off by far the worse of the two. Most of the tasks it sets before you are made difficult not out of  authorial intention but due to poor authorial prompting and the inherent limitations of AGT. In other words, first you have to figure out what non-obvious trigger the game is looking for to advance the plot a beat, and then you have to figure out the exact way the parser wants you to say it. This constant necessity to read the author’s mind winds up spoiling what could have been an enjoyable experience, and makes The Jeweled Arena a game that can truly be recommended only to those with an abiding interest in text-adventure history or the portrayal of homosexuality in interactive media. A pity — with more testing and better technology, it could have been a remarkable achievement.


You are standing at the top of an ocean bluff. Wind is whipping through your hair and blowing your voluminous black cape out behind you. You can hear the hiss of the surf crashing far below you. Out towards the horizon, a distant storm sends flickers of lightning across the darkening sky. The last rays of the setting sun reflect red off the windows of the grey stone mansion to the East. As you turn towards the house, you catch a glimpse of a haunting face in one of the windows. That face, you will never forget that face......

> wait
The surf and cliffs fade from sight............

You awake to find yourself in your living room,lying on the couch. Your cat, Klaus, is chewing and pulling on your hair. Static is hissing from the TV, as the screen flickers on a station long off the air. You look at your watch and realize that it is 3 AM.

You must have fallen asleep on the couch right after you got home from work, and settled down to read the newspaper.

I noted earlier that the Adventions games are “free of the gawky authorial asides and fourth-wall-breakings” that mark most early amateur interactive fiction. That statement applies equally to The Jeweled Arena, but not at all to Carol Hovick’s Klaustrophobia. The other winner of the final AGT competition, its personality could hardly be more different from its partner on the podium. This is a big, rambling, jokey game that’s anything but polished. And yet it’s got an unpretentious charm about it, along with puzzles that turn out to be better than they first seem like they’re going to be.

What Klaustrophobia lacks in polish or literary sophistication, it attempts to make up for in sheer sprawl. It’s actually three games in one — so big that, even using the most advanced and least size-constrained version of AGT, Hovick was forced to split it into three parts, gluing them together with some ingenious hacks that are doubtless horrifying in that indelible AGT way to any experienced programmer. The three parts together boast a staggering 560 rooms and 571 objects, making Klaustrophobia easily one of the largest text adventures ever created.

Like the Unnkulia series and so much else from the interstitial period, Klaustrophobia is hugely derivative of the games of the 1980s. The story and puzzles here draw heavily from Infocom’s Bureaucracy, which is at least a more interesting choice than yet another Zork homage. You’ve just won an all-expenses-paid trip to appear on a quiz show, but first you have to get there; this exercise comes to absorb the first third of the game. Then, after you’ve made the rounds of not one but several quiz shows in the second part, part three sends you off to “enjoy” the Mexican vacation you’ve won. As a member of that category of text adventure which the Interactive Fiction Database dubs the “slice of life,” the game has that time-capsule quality I’ve mentioned before as being such a fascinating aspect of amateur interactive fiction. Klaustrophobia is a grab bag of pop-culture ephemera from the United States of 1993: Willard Scott, Dolly Parton, The Price is Right. If you lived through this time and place, you might just find it all unbearably nostalgic. (Why do earlier eras of history almost invariably seem so much happier and simpler?) And if you didn’t… well, there are worse ways to learn about everyday American life in 1993, should you have the desire to do so, than playing through this unforced, agenda-less primary source.

The puzzles are difficult in all the typical old-school ways: full of time limits, requiring ample learning by death. Almost inevitably given the game’s premise, they sometimes fail to fall on the right side of the line between being comically aggravating and just being aggravating. And the game is rough around the edges in all the typical AGT ways: under-tested (a game this large almost has to be) and haphazardly written, and subject to all the usual frustrations of the AGT parser and world model. Yet, despite it all, the author’s design instincts are pretty good; most of the puzzles are clued if you’re paying attention. Many of them involve coming to understand and manipulate some surprisingly complex dynamic sequences taking place around you. The whole experience is helped immensely by the episodic structure which exists even within each of the three parts: you go from your home to the bank to the airport, etc., with each vignette effectively serving as its own little self-contained adventure game. This structure lets Klaustrophobia avoid the combinatorial explosion that can make such earlier text-adventure epics as Acheton and Zork Zero all but insoluble. Here, you can work out a single episode, then move on to the next at your leisure with a nice sense of achievement in your back pocket — as long, of course, as you haven’t left anything vital behind.

Klaustrophobia is a game that I regard with perhaps more affection that I ought to, given its many and manifest flaws. While much of my affection may be down to the fact that it was one of the first games I played when I rediscovered interactive fiction around the turn of the millennium, I like to believe this game has more going for it than nostalgia. It undoubtedly requires a certain kind of player, but, whether taken simply as a text adventure or as an odd sort of sociological study — a frozen-in-amber relic of its time and place — it’s not without its intrinsic appeal. Further, it strikes me as perfect for its historical role as the final major statement made with AGT; something more atypically polished and literary, such as Shades of Gray or even Cosmoserve, just wouldn’t work as well in that context. Klaustrophobia‘s more messy sort of charm, on the other hand, feels like the perfect capstone to this forgotten culture of text adventuring, whose games were more casual but perhaps in some ways more honest because of it.

The Legend Lives!

A pattern of bits shifts inside your computer. New information scrolls up the screen.

It is not good.

As the impact of the discovery settles on your psyche, you recall the preceding events: your recent enrollment at Akmi Yooniversity; your serendipitous discovery of the joys of Classical Literature – a nice change of pace from computer hacking; your compuarchaeological discovery of the long-forgotten treasures that will make your thesis one of the most important this decade. But now that’s all a bit moot, isn’t it?

How ironic: You were stunned at how *real* the primitive Unnkulian stories seemed. Now you know why.

David Baggett’s The Legend Lives! is the only game on this curated list that dates from 1994, the particularly fallow year just before the great flowering of 1995. The very last production of the Adventions partnership, it was originally planned as another shareware title, but was ultimately released for free, a response to the relatively tepid registration rate of Advention’s previous games. Having conceived it as nothing less than a Major Statement meant to prod the artistic growth of a nascent literary medium, Baggett stated that he wished absolutely everyone to have a chance to play his latest game.

Ironically, the slightly uncomfortable amalgamation that is The Legend Lives! feels every bit as of-its-time today as any of the less artistically ambitious text adventures I’ve already discussed in this article. Set in the far future of Adventions’s Unnkulia universe, it reads like a checklist of what “literary” interactive fiction circa 1994 might be imagined to require.

There must, first and foremost, be lots and lots of words for something to be literary, right? Baggett has this covered… oh, boy, does he ever. The first room description, for the humble dorm room of the university student you play, consists of six substantial paragraphs — two or three screenfuls of text on the typical 80-column monitor displays of the day. As you continue to play, every object mentioned anywhere, no matter how trivial, continues to be described to within an inch of its life. While Baggett’s dedication is admirable, these endless heaps of verbiage do more to confuse than edify, especially in light of the fact that this game is, despite its literary aspirations, far from puzzleless. There’s a deft art to directing the player’s attention to the things that really matter in a text adventure — an art which this game comprehensively fails to exhibit. And then there are the massive non-interactive text dumps, sometimes numbering in the thousands of words, which are constantly interrupting proceedings. Sean Molley, reviewing the game in the first gush of enthusiasm which accompanied its release, wrote that “I certainly don’t mind reading 10 screens of text if it helps to advance the story and give me something to think about.” I suspect that most modern players wouldn’t entirely agree. The Legend Lives! is exhausting enough in its sheer verbosity to make you long for the odd minimalist poetry of Scott Adams. “Ok, too dry. Fish die” starts looking pretty good after spending some time with this game.

And yet, clumsy and overwrought though the execution often is, there is a real message here — one I would even go so far as to describe as thought-provoking. The Legend Lives! proves to be an old-school cyberpunk tale — another thing dating it indelibly to 1994 — about a computer virus that has infected Unnkulia’s version of the Internet and threatens to take over the entirety of civilization. The hero that emerges and finally sacrifices himself to eliminate the scourge is known mostly by his initials: “JC.” He’s allegedly an artificial intelligence, but he’s really, it would seem, an immaculate creation, a divinity living in the net. An ordinary artificial intelligence, says one character, “is smart with no motivation, no goals; no creativity, ya see. JC, he’s like us.” What we have here, folks, is an allegory. I trust that I need not belabor the specific parallels with another famous figure who shares the same initials.

But I don’t wish to trivialize the message here too much. It’s notable that this argument for a non-reductionist view of human intelligence — for a divine spark to the human mind that can’t be simulated in silicon — was made by a graduate student in MIT’s artificial-intelligence lab, working in the very house built by Marvin Minsky and his society of mind. Whatever one’s feelings about the Christian overtones to Baggett’s message, his impassioned plea that we continue to allow a place for the ineffable has only become more relevant in our current age of algorithmization and quantization.

Like all of the Adventions games, this one has been virtually forgotten today, despite being widely heralded upon its release as the most significant work of literary interactive fiction to come along since A Mind Forever Voyaging and Trinity. That’s a shame. Yes, writers of later text adventures would learn to combine interactivity with literary texture in more subtle and effective ways, but The Legend Lives! is nevertheless a significant way station in the slow evolution of post-Infocom interactive fiction, away from merely reflecting the glory of a storied commercial past and toward becoming a living, evolving artistic movement in its own right.

Perdition’s Flames

*** You have died. ***

All is dark and quiet. There is no sensation, no time. Your mind floats peacefully in a void. You perceive nothing, you feel nothing, you think nothing. Sleep without dreams.

All is hazy and gray. Sensation is vague and indistinct. Your mind is sluggish, sleepy. You see gray shapes in a gray fog; you hear distant, muffled sounds. You think, but your thoughts are fleeting, disconnected, momentary flashes of light in a dark night. Time is still frames separated by eons of nothing, brief awakenings in a long sleep.

All is clear and sharp. Sensation crystalizes from a fog. You see, you hear, you feel. Your mind awakens; you become aware of a place, and a time.

You are on a boat.

Last but far from least, we come to the real jewel of this collection, a game which I can heartily recommend to everyone who enjoys text adventures. Perdition’s Flames was the third game written by Mike Roberts, the creator of the TADS programming language. While not enormous in the way of Klaustrophobia, it’s more than substantial enough in its own right, offering quite a few hours of puzzling satisfaction.

The novel premise casts you as a soul newly arrived in Hell. (Yes, just as you might expect, there are exactly 666 points to score.) Luckily for you, however, this is a corporate, postmodern version of the Bad Place. “Ever since the deregulation of the afterlife industry,” says your greeter when you climb off the boat, “we’ve had to compete with Heaven for eternal souls — because you’re free to switch to Heaven at any time. So, we’ve been modernizing! There really isn’t much eternal torment these days, for example. And, thanks to the Environmental Clean-up Superfund, we have the brimstone problem mostly under control at this point.”

As the game continues, there’s a lot more light satire along those lines, consistently amusing if not side-splittingly funny. Your goal is to make the ascent to Heaven, which isn’t quite as easy as your greeter implies. Achieving it will require solving lots and lots of puzzles, which are varied, fair, and uniformly enjoyable. In fact, I number at least one of them among the best puzzles I’ve ever seen. (For those who have already played the game: that would be the one where you’re a ghost being pursued by a group of paranormal researchers.)

Although Perdition’s Flames is an old-school puzzlefest in terms of categorization, it’s well-nigh breathtakingly progressive in terms of its design sensibility. For this happens to be a text adventure — the first text adventure ever, to my knowledge — which makes it literally impossible for you to kill yourself (after all, you are already dead) or lock yourself out of victory. It is, in other words, the Secret of Monkey Island of interactive fiction, an extended proof that adventure games without deaths or dead ends can nevertheless be intriguing, challenging, and immensely enjoyable. Roberts says it right there in black and white:

Note that in Perdition’s Flames, in contrast to many other adventure games, your character never gets killed, and equally importantly, you’ll never find yourself in a position where it’s impossible to finish the game. You have already seen the only “*** You have died ***” message in Perdition’s Flames. As a result, you don’t have to worry as much about saving game positions as you may be accustomed to.

I can’t emphasize enough what an astonishing statement that is to find in a text adventure from 1993. Perdition’s Flames and its author deserve to be celebrated for making it every bit as much as we celebrate Monkey Island and Ron Gilbert.

Yet even in its day Perdition’s Flames was oddly overlooked in proportion to its size, polish, and puzzly invention alone, much less the major leap it represents toward an era of fairer, saner text adventures. And this even as the merciful spirit behind the humble statement above, found buried near the end of the in-game instructions, was destined to have much more impact on the quality of the average player’s life than all of the literary pretensions which The Legend Lives! so gleefully trumpets.

Roberts’s game was overshadowed most of all by what would go down in history as the text adventure of 1993: Graham Nelson’s Curses!. Said game is erudite, intricate, witty, and sometimes beautifully written — and runs on Infocom’s old Z-Machine, which constituted no small part of its appeal in 1993. But it’s also positively riddled with the types of sudden deaths and dead ends which Perdition’s Flames explicitly eschews. You can probably guess which of the pair holds up better for most players today.

So, as we prepare to dive into the story of how Curses! came to be, and of how it turned into the seismic event which revitalized the near-moribund medium of interactive fiction and set it on the path it still travels today, do spare a thought for Perdition’s Flames as well. While Curses! was the the first mover that kicked the modern interactive-fiction community into gear, Perdition’s Flames, one might argue, is simply the first work of modern interactive fiction, full stop. All of its contemporaries, Curses! included, seem regressive next to its great stroke of genius. Go forth and play it, and rejoice. An Interactive Fiction Renaissance is in the offing.

(All of the games reviewed in this article are freely available via the individual links provided above and playable on Windows, Macintosh, and Linux using the Gargoyle interpreter among other options.)

"Aaron Reed"

More Readable Project Files in Character Engine

by Aaron A. Reed at May 24, 2019 04:42 PM

Best of Both Worlds: Flexible Project Files in Character Engine

Anyone designing an authoring tool for a dynamic system faces a particular dilemma: IDE or DSL? That is, should you make an integrated development environment that provides an abstracted authoring interface into the underlying data, with high-level features and visualizations tailored to working with that particular data, or design a domain-specific language, a specification and compiler for authoring content in your system purely as lines of text?

Each approach offers advantages and drawbacks. A DSL can be used in the writer’s environment of choice, including powerful third-party text editors that may bring decades of design iteration and developer expertise to bear. On the other hand, a DSL can feel much more like programming, perhaps locking out non-engineers from content creation (whether through legitimate skill barriers or mere intimidation). IDEs can be much more user-friendly, but also risk growing overly complex as more and more features are added, and may be more difficult to keep up to date with a changing system. DSLs can offer more power, but IDEs generally make that power easier to deploy.

Authoring in Inke’s pure-IDE Inklewriter (left) vs DSL Ink (right, running in mini-IDE Inky)

Previous interactive narrative systems have used a variety of approaches. Inkle first offered the more IDE-like Inklewriter, but later discontinued it to focus on the easier-to-maintain (and more powerful) DSL, Ink. Twine’s graphical editor for creating nodes, or the in-house Telltale Tool used to create that studio’s narrative games, are each more IDE-like. Inform 7 is a DSL coupled with a powerful IDE with features for automated testing, release packaging, and diagnostics.

When we started designing the authoring tool for Spirit AI’s Character Engine several years ago, we had a number of discussions about the best approach to take. We settled on an IDE in part because one of our key missions is opening up the creation of complex interactive characters to writers more broadly, not just writers with coding experience. The tool has incorporated a few DSL-like conventions from the beginning, though: most notably, a “screenplay” view where authors can sketch in the bulk of their content by typing conventional-looking dialogue, and wait until they’re ready to step out of a creative flow to go back and modify these nodes to make them more dynamic and procedural.

Character Engine Authoring tool Plot View lets you create lines of dialogue just by typing, then go back later to add conditions, effects, procedural text tags, and other details.

A limitation of some IDEs is that their native file formats are not (or not easily) human editable. Authors who do have some programming expertise might find themselves wanting to create custom automation shortcuts, generate batches of similar content procedurally, or create special high-level commands that can be mechanically translated into the system’s native format — things that are all easier to do with a DSL than an IDE. This kind of automation has not previously been possible with Character Engine, but we’re happy to announce that in our upcoming Release 11 we’re switching to a new project format that will make it more possible to achieve these kinds of advanced workflows.

Specifically, our project format is changing from the single-file compressed .aiproj format to a folder with plain text files called a .sheaf. Written in the human-readable TOML format, the .sheaf format provides a number of advantages. It makes it easier for multiple authors to collaborate on the same project via version control, since each authoring change can easily be seen in a diff. It’s now possible to make small edits directly within the .sheaf, outside the context of the authoring tool (although you’ll still want to use the tool for day-to-day editing). But we’re especially excited about the possibility this opens up to integrate writing for Character Engine into more complex authoring workflows.

Example of an authoring update to a .sheaf project in a version control tracker, showing a change where a line had its text edited and a tag removed.

For instance, say you wanted to author a large number of lines with a complex set of preconditions and state-change effects. There were a few ways to achieve this previously — you could put all of these tags in a reusable Fragment used by each line, for instance — but sometimes there was no alternative but to duplicate large numbers of effects and conditions by hand. With the .sheaf format, you could create your own custom marker (say, a comment like #SpecialLine) and use a find/replace tool across the sheaf files to replace this with the full set of tags and conditions you wanted to appear. Other possible uses: automatically generating or importing large numbers of topics or knowledge model entries, project-specific validation (if, say, your scenario requires that each line spoken by Simon must transition to a line spoken by Jerry), or even just running your project through a language- or project-specific spell checker before committing an update.

We’re also working on a standardized Python library for manipulating .sheaf data — although this will not appear in Release 11, since we want to thoroughly exercise it internally before making it public. But we’re hoping when this comes out, it will make it even simpler to procedurally modify .sheafs to your heart’s content.

Sometimes the best solution to the IDE or DSL question is to offer the flexibility to choose whichever approach is best for your current needs. We’re hoping the new .sheaf format is another step towards continuing to make Character Engine useful in a wider and wider variety of scenarios and workflows.

The new format is just one of several new features in Release 11, which will launch in the next few weeks. Look for the official release announcement soon!

More Readable Project Files in Character Engine was originally published in Spirit AI on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Zarf Updates

Heaven's Vault: design ruminations

by Andrew Plotkin ([email protected]) at May 24, 2019 02:29 AM

I've played through Heaven's Vault twice now.
At the end of the first run, I had this distinct thought which I had never put into words before. I wrote:
What's the word for when you finish a story, and now you can really start to discover the story? Because, on the second run, the boundaries and spaces of what you can do will be distinguishable from "what I just did". It's this feeling of "I've seen the covers, now I can open the book."
Jon Ingold immediately shot back "archeology", which was on target, but not really the answer. If you are interested in games, you read a game for its interactive structure. That's distinct from reading the story. But in a well-designed game, the interactive structure is part of the story. Or vice versa. They support each other. That's the idea I was trying to get at: the story can't have its full impact until you understand the game mechanics, and you can't fully understand the mechanics until you've run through the story a few times and kicked the boundaries.
This is true of all games; you always think about how else your session might have gone. But it's not always such a present truth! Many games make their boundaries pretty clear on the first run-through. You've already felt your way around the walls, you might say, in the course of making your way to the exit.
I'm not describing games that we think of "linear" vs "nonlinear" (those weakest of game descriptors). When I played through Night in the Woods, I spent my story time talking to Bea. I could have hung out with Gregg instead, and it's clear that would have led to a different story. But I also had a good sense of how it would be different. I might yet replay the game to see those Gregg conversations, and to see any of a number of other story variations. I wouldn't expect to it to be a different game.
Finishing Heaven's Vault was very different! I had the overwhelming sense that I didn't know what kind of game it was yet. I didn't know which of my choices were vital; I didn't even know which of my actions had been choices. And so I started the game over. (Not immediately, but after a break of a couple weeks.)

As it happens, my second HV run-through felt quite similar to my first.
I don't meant it was a disappointment! For one thing, I had a much stronger grasp of the alien language. (The game allows you to keep your translation dictionary across runs. This is a well-chosen, if unsubtle, enticement for those odd people who don't get obsessed with game design questions at the end of round one...)
I don't even mean that the story played out the same way the second time. I visited locations in a different order. I explored many of those locations from different angles. I made a couple of brand-new (-to-me) discoveries. And, to tick the most obvious box, I chose a different "final ending" and changed the fate of the Nebula.
On the other hand: I visited all the same locations, and met all the same people (minus one extra, plus one surprise). I was heading to the same final destination all the time. In broad arc, I was playing the same game. Only every single detail was different, or potentially different.
In some sense Heaven's Vault telegraphs this. It's told in flashback, after all! The first scene you see is the final chapter: under the eye of a watchful god, you and your robot discover a sealed vault.
So you know that this is your final destination. Every possible variation of the story will lead there. You know that you will arrive with the robot. No story branch can end with your death, or the robot's disappearance or destruction. The game has to be about ordering and details.
(But I didn't think about that until the second run-through...)
What the game does best is care about these details, these large-or-tiny variations. You see this most clearly when you fire up a game-in-progress. It opens with a text summary -- a rundown of what you've done so far. Every reviewer praises this feature, but it's not easy to explain how stunningly smooth this summary is. It's not just a bullet-point list of everything you've done. That would be excruciating and unboundedly long.
No, what HV gives you is the story so far. It's the high points; no more than five lines, and they have arc. "You are searching for X, but you've also found Y, which has put you on the trail of Z." Cause and effect. The distinction between "and" and "but".
Furthermore, everything is described in terms of what you know. A location might be "an undiscovered Holy Empire site" or "a Holy Empire garden" or "a Holy Empire mausoleum", depending on whether you've explored it, what you've found, and what you've deduced. One site wound up with completely different descriptors in my first and second run-throughs, because the protagonist discovered slightly different evidence and then came to entirely different conclusions about what had occurred there.
This application of your game history is not just for the opening summaries, by the way. It extends through the entire design. Everything is described in terms of your present knowledge: map labels, navigation choices, references in dialogue. When you leave a site, your character reflects (out loud) on what she's done there and what she might do next. When you arrive in a familiar location, such as your university, she might comment on the tasks she expects to do there -- but only later in the game, when you've built up habits!
It's all powered by the same history-tracking engine, which stores and contextualizes everything from the broad arc of play to the moment-by-moment arc of a conversation. I mentioned the difference between "and" and "but"? You can see this when you're working through one of the linguistic challenges. "This word is right, and this other word is also right." Or: "This word is right, but this other word is wrong." To generate those sentences, HV needs to track successes and failures within the challenge. And the same, at macro scale, for the entire game.

I said my two run-throughs were similar. In some ways I tried to make them as different as possible. I looked at location X before location Y, instead of after. I took different tacks when overcoming certain difficulties. I drank heavily instead of abstaining in the bar.
But I didn't alter my basic approach to play. I was methodical, as I am in most games. I tried to search every location thoroughly, find every artifact, and read every inscription before I left. So it is not surprising that I found the same locations and made most of the same basic discoveries. It was all of the locations, so it was the same list! If I'd taken a hastier and more headstrong tack, I would have had a very different gameplay experience. A journey to the same ending, but with more gaps; no doubt filled by guesswork, perhaps with a very different final perception of how the world had gotten there.
(Less correct, you say? Based on less data, to be sure. But this is archeology: always guesswork in the end. There are always gaps. We'll never know the complete history of the Nebula, no matter how many times we play or how many wiki pages we fill.)
Nonetheless: two play-throughs, even two thorough play-throughs, are two different experiences. And it was striking (the second time!) how many differences derived from small changes of my focus or small differences in timing.
On one moon, I poked around exploring while the robot examined a device. Then, feeling done, I decided to leave. That was in the first run-through. Second run-through: I poked around exploring for a few minutes longer. Hey, says the robot of a sudden, just noticed something about the device! Which led to a question, which led to a conversation, which led to another trip, which led to a revelation that I'd had no clue about in my first session.
This revelation was one of the high dramatic moments of the session. Everything that followed was cast in the new terms that I had discovered. It was what the story was about, at least in part. And yet this moment was so easy to miss! In the first session, I blew right past it; I never knew there was anything to miss.
It wasn't even a choice, from my point of view. The game never presented a menu selection between "explore the moon for eight minutes" vs "explore the moon for ten minutes". It was just a thing I happened to do. And there were several more choices I had to make in order to stumble across this particular plot thread. I happened to ask person X about the robot's discovery, and then suggest plan Y...
If you frame this HV story line as a puzzle, a challenge for the player with story as the reward -- it's a blatantly unfair puzzle. Frame it as an achievement and it's even worse. "Stand here for N minutes, doing nothing, with no feedback"; players reach for their pitchforks.
HV has a few scenes with traditional adventure-game puzzles -- but only a few. To frame it as a puzzle game is just a mistake. You really have to view the game as a big bag of things the player might do. Some of these require patience and methodical search. Some require fiddling with mechanical controls and platforms. Some require treating NPCs in certain ways, or not treating them in other ways. Most require some combination of circumstances which you can't reasonably plan for, in your first game session or any other.
But if any given goal is so "unfairly difficult" to achieve, why play? Because the game isn't about all the stuff that you fail to notice. It's about the one thing you do notice. There's such a density of goals that you are very likely to achieve some of them. Whatever revelation or dramatic moment you reach -- that's what the story is about! ...For you; in that session; do you see? The history-tracking engine is able to seamlessly describe your particular discovery as the arc of the story.
That is to say: you're going to do something, indeed, a great number of things. You'll do the things that suit you as a player: exploring, or searching, or puzzling, waiting, negotiating, flirting. Something. And you'll find some astonishing secret. And whatever you find will be a reward for whatever you did.
This is hard to describe, isn't it? It sounds like a tautology when I say it. And yet I've never seen it done like this.
I grew up with puzzle-fest adventure games. Games that challenge you to do every single thing, and unlock the ending when you do it. Or to make a choice, and unlock the one ending (out of several) which is determined by that choice. Then we had the choice-based style and visual novels, which had branching structure all the way through. Lots of explicit choices, with implicit consequences, and variations of each chapter as you progressed.
More recently, we have the heap-of-side-quests game, like Sunless Skies or Inkle's previous hit 80 Days. In those games, you find a grab-bag of parallel micro-stories in a large universe. As in HV, the micro-stories you find follow what you happen to do; you have no hope of discovering or experiencing them all.
But HV goes beyond that bag-of-quests format. The story threads don't spread out into a haze of disparate starbursts. Every thread is part of the story of the Nebula; they all work towards that final chapter in the vault. And any handful of them make a story. I won't say they're all equally satisfying, but they all feel like plausible middles to that ending. There, that's my tag-line for the game. Forget multiple endings; we've entered the era of games with multiple middles.

Speaking of endings, this blog post probably ought to have one.
You understand that I am, necessarily, talking out my ear. I claim that the real value of Heaven's Vault is all the stories that I've never seen -- that I can't even tell where I missed seeing them. I've only played it twice! How could I even know?
Well, I recall Jon Ingold commenting that nobody can see more than 30% of the game content in a run-through. I know, it's cheating to believe what the designer says, but it fits with my experience. As I said, I've seen a couple of major revelations. I've also seen a few mysteries that I tried to plumb and couldn't. In my sessions, they were mysteries of the past, the lost foundations on which the story rests. But I have no doubt that some path leads down there.
Beyond that, I trust in probability. If I found a couple of treasures by unlikely chance, how many are there to find?

May 23, 2019

Emily Short

Curating Simulated Storyworlds (James Ryan) – Ch 4-5

by Emily Short at May 23, 2019 10:41 PM

This is the second of several posts about James Ryan’s dissertation, Curating Simulated Storyworlds. The previous post looked at chapters 1-3, which set out the concept of the dissertation and documented the pleasures of emergent narrative.

Here I read Chapter 4, concerned with the pain of emergent narrative, including critiques from other scholars and projects in emergent narrative that have failed; and Chapter 5, in which he presents his argument for curationist emergent narrative.

The major issues Ryan identifies with simulations are:

Boringness. Some simulations are simulating events that aren’t that engaging, and therefore they will never have the range to compel readers. (Something I was wondering about while reading chapters 1-3.)

Granularity extremes. The system is operating on either too large or too small a scale. As an example, Ryan showcases the system that controls how drinks may be taken in the Saga II story generation system, with an arguably excessive focus on moving objects from hand to hand.

  • As a side note: this is a granularity of state that most text adventure games wouldn’t bother with. There are some exceptions, though a few of the most granular works I know of were also never finished: for many years NK Guy worked on a game code-named Hamsterworld, which attended to player clothes and body parts (and many other systems) with great precision; of Gunther Schmidl’s And the Waves Choke the Wind, only a first few scenes were ever released. TADS 3’s library supports more in this range than any other text adventure world model I’m aware of, and handles some of the related challenges around making small actions implicit when they aren’t individually very interesting, so that at its best, the granularity of the world model becomes invisible except when there is something down in those details that really does interfere in the player’s intended action, at which point the consequence is reported. Return to Ditch Day remains one of the best examples of this kind of work, and Eric Eve’s work is also exemplary here.

Lack of modularity. The idea here is that elements of the simulation must be small and reusable; otherwise, it isn’t possible to recombine them in interesting ways. To illustrate this issue, Ryan looks at Sheldon Klein’s murder mystery generator, an example I haven’t seen written up particularly often (though perhaps I’ve been looking in the wrong places).

Lack of abstraction. Here, Ryan argues for the value of simulators that can cast different characters in different spaces and situations, rather than retelling (possibly different) stories about the same set of characters and events, since if we have a large number of stories about different characters, the appeal of the vast and the appeal of the ephemeral are preserved. (These are key features of the aesthetic of emergent narrative, as Ryan lays these out in earlier chapters.)

I am not sure what I think about this one. I will grant that the repetition of the same characters can give a kind of sameyness to story generators — though some systems, from Fallen London to Rafael Pérez y Pérez‘ Mexica, refer to characters by title or function in order to avoid the concrete effect of granting them a name.

Modeling gaps. This refers to places where it seems the simulation ought to cover some possibility or set of actions, based on what else is modeled, but for some reason certain elements are omitted.

Causality issues. Here Ryan describes how simulation causality can be too diffuse to make for good storytelling, especially in systems that rely on utility scoring where many different aspects of world state could all be considered to partially explain a particular outcome. (He gives a detailed example based on trying to interpret consequence in Prom Week, which is especially valuable here.) Though I’ve encountered this phenomenon, I haven’t seen the problem labeled or analyzed in depth before.

The solution Ryan proposes — contingent unlocking, where some events explicitly are made possibly by a finite set of prior conditions, and causal bookkeeping, where the system somewhere records how a particular outcome has been made available — will apparently come back in later chapters when he talks about his own work.

It’s a method we also used to some degree in Versu, where characters could record a string that represented why they’d adopted a particular attitude towards the player; and for that matter I use it lightly in my Choice of Games work in progress, which is not a simulation of the kind Ryan is talking about at all, but I still find it useful for the sake of later callbacks to be able to recall, say, the worst thing one character has ever done to another.


After these, Ryan next identifies pains of curation, and this is where the gloves come off.

No telling, no curation, poor curation. Since, in Ryan’s view, curation is essential, a system that has none is in a difficult state. Mere simulation traces from an engine aren’t enough to count as a narrative, and sometimes they look almost indistinguishable from a debugging console log.

During these sections, Ryan digs more into the idea of curation by backward chaining through causalities, which he brought up when discussing Labov in earlier chapters.

Poor presentation. This includes bad prose, often generated.

Failure to mount. Here Ryan drives particularly into the issue of narrative simulation systems that are presented to the public only via academic paper descriptions or in the form of sample output, instead of ever being rendered into a media experience.

Aesthetic posturing. Calling anything “aesthetic posturing” seems rather to presume some values about what’s within, but I don’t entirely disagree with what follows. Ryan here argues that generative artworks are interesting in partly because of the way they use and expose their generative nature, and that it’s not primarily interesting to come up with systems that can duplicate entirely human creations.


On page 108, Ryan gets into the question of what makes a story tellable, and suggests a process for finding narratable events that consists of finding the most interesting final event, working one’s way backward through causally linked events, and stopping when one reaches an event that requires no explanation. (Here he is drawing on some pre-existing scholarship as well, especially from William Labov.)

This kind of question relates quite a bit to a challenge I’m personally interested in: if we are building virtual humans or digital beings, then one of the things we need to do is accumulate a history for those characters, and give them the ability to narrate their own experiences. Being able to account for why you are doing something is fundamental to the construction of a persona. So one may imagine virtual beings who interact with the real world in some fashion and record events to an ever-expanding database of experiences, perhaps at the same time tracking information about the valence of those experiences, and causal links. A bad experience speaking at a conference, perhaps, might be marked with a negative valence and give the character a distaste for public speaking.


A footnote in Chapter 4 includes these sentences:

I think we can do full-fledged emergent narrative without losing the evocative aesthetics of the computational, but doing so means carrying out a procedure of curation. This is the primary call of this thesis.

This is what we get into in Chapter 5. Ryan begins by rejecting drama management as a good solution for emergent narrative, on largely aesthetic grounds:

…when a simulated storyworld is modulated through the intervention of an external system—a model of creative writing, a drama manager, a plotlevel narrative planner—it no longer works like nonfiction. By the interventionist pattern, events spawn according to the policies of a modulating system, which means they do not emerge out of the happenstance of simulation. They do not actually happen, and they do not feel like they actually happen.

I am not sure I would myself take such a hard line, but I would say that building a drama manager alongside a simulation system is often very painful. Building a simulation tends to be an expansive process in which one wants to add more and more to the expressive range of the system, and make it capable of doing more; meanwhile, a drama manager often tends to constrain what is actually presented by the system, or fiddle with it to such a degree that the expressive range is significantly narrowed again. It’s possible to spend a good bit of time in a cycle of adding a lot of simulation content, and then adding a lot of drama management to ensure that (in practical terms) that content is rarely or never seen.

For a system where drama management is a priority — and this is often the case for interactive narratives where the system needs to riff on the player’s input, and where we don’t have the luxury of running a simulation system through hundreds or thousands of frames before presenting any results to the player — I generally try to design from the dramatic production angle first and select for abstractions that will support the drama, choosing what is worth bothering to simulate purely on the basis of what sorts of dramatic outcomes I’m seeking.

I’m not sure Ryan would actually condemn that approach, but it’s trying to do something different from the emergent narrative that interests him. The drama-first approach is a route into interactive fiction rather than procedural non-fiction.

Screen Shot 2019-04-01 at 12.35.25 AM.png

Next, Ryan considers architectures that support curation approaches, including feedforward architectures (where a simulation is used to create the material for a story that will be presented in a second medium) and feedback architectures (where the story is told within the simulation somewhere else — e.g. by an NPC telling a story about what happened within the generated world). I find the feedforward possibilities intriguing, but the feedback approach closer to what I actually need in a majority of my own projects.

In addition to the ideas of contingent unlocking and causal bookkeeping, Ryan proposes that one might use sifting patterns (matching particular formats of event in the source material) or sifting heuristics (more loosely defined) to determine which events generated by a simulation would be worthy of narration. He also does discuss the fact that some simulations are more capable than others of producing the raw material of interesting stories, which was one of my questions back in Chs. 1-3.

Choice of Games

Fool! — Jest your way from obscurity to royal acclaim!

by Rachel E. Towers at May 23, 2019 05:42 PM

We’re proud to announce that Fool!, 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 30% off until May 30th!

Jest your way from obscurity to royal acclaim as the King’s pet, beloved by all! As a talented young court fool with dreams of fame, scrabble with other young jesters to secure prestigious positions in the courts of Brenton’s nobility. In a royal court humming with intrigue, keep them smiling as spies, assassins, blackmailers, ambitious nobles and a reluctant Heir wait in the wings.

Fool! is a 420,000-word interactive fantasy novel by Ben Rovik. It’s entirely text-based, without graphics or sound effects, and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination.

Dive-roll into the tightrope world of Brenton’s courtly entertainers, where your jests can see you seated at the right hand of power, or set down to the gallows.

What manner of fool are you: the shrewd knave ever ready with a venomous quip? The renowned artiste at pains to stay above the political fray? The bawdy buffoon known as much for off-stage antics as on-stage mirth? Or the clever counselor whose real audience is the noble ear they whisper into? Face unruly audiences onstage and skulduggerous schemers in the wings! Can you sling keen jests and still evade the whipping-post and assassin’s blade? The kingdom itself will be shaped by your choices!

• Play as male, female, non-binary; gay, straight, bi or ace.
• Evade tossed produce, whippings, assassins and the stocks with your wit and quick feet!
• Battle a lifelong rival for artistic glory within a secret society of writers and gadflys!
• Train your pet ape to master prodigious feats, or at least to stop biting you!
• Mediate between nobles to forge compromise; or stir them up to your own advantage!
• Partner with fellow thespians to win friends, or upstage them to win glory!
• Balance your passion for the limelight with your passion for …passion!

When the Master calls, you’d do well to come running—with bells on!

We hope you enjoy playing Fool!. 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.

Z-Machine Matter

John Yorke's Into The Woods

by Zack Urlocker at May 23, 2019 08:41 AM

Yorke woods 2

Here's another book for aspiring writers, called “Into the Woods: A Five-Act Journey Into Story.” Although the book is primarily about screenwriting, I think it's quite good for game authors or novelists who want a better understanding of story structure. first of this book on the British Podcast “The Bestseller Experiment.” This is a very well written analysis of story structure by BBC TV producer and script editor John Yorke. Yorke has also worked in radio and video games, so his ideas have quite broad applicability. Unlike a lot of screenwriting books, Yorke is attempting to provide a formula for perfection. Instead he explains why certain structures are used and their impact on the story. So if Blake Snyder's "Save The Cat" and Robert McKee's "Story" seems a bit too formulaic, you might like the more scholarly inquiry that Yorke provides.

Bxp podcastFor writers seeking a bit of inspiration, BXP is the best podcast I’ve found on writing: informative, entertaining and motivational. What more could you ask for? It’s the ongoing story of two middle-aged blokes in their quest to write and and publish a bestselling novel called “Back To Reality” --currently on sale for $0.99. They’ve done some great interviews with a number of authors I admire, including Ian Rankin, Joe Hill, Michael Connelly, Taylor Jenkins-Reid and more.

May 22, 2019

Renga in Blue

Savage Island Part 1: Intricate Choreography

by Jason Dyer at May 22, 2019 10:41 PM

I’ve been thinking of this game in terms of Andrew Plotkin’s A Change in the Weather. That’s a game with a slate of actions that must be done in time for a weather event, and various dependencies require a sort of choreography where things get in the right places at the right times.

I made a decent chunk of progress since last time, then realized in a way I hadn’t, because there was an action I missed. My sequencing is now thrown for a loop, and I don’t know how to fix it.

First, and most silly, is the fact that after DIG SAND / WITH HANDS, I could LOOK SAND, which yields seeing a hole, followed by LOOK HOLE which yields finding a bottle. I’d like to emphasize how little sense this makes in a mimetic context; if you make a hole when digging, you’d know by the act of digging, right? This isn’t like pushing a button and not seeing a result because things moved off screen, this is the direct result of physical action your player takes. I suspect Mr. Adams never even thought it was a puzzle.

The bottle contained rum, but I could empty it and fill it with saltwater. Then I took it to a room next to the bear cave and poured it out:

I’m on the edge of a hot rocky cliff outside the volcano
Visible items:
Puddle. Crevice.

Since the cliff is hot, the puddle of water evaporates to leave salt behind. The poor bear, who all this time had been “sickly” and trying to lick me when sweaty, was short of salt.

One happy bear later, I was able to go down in the dark maze, whereupon I used WAIT and found the hurricane passing (??). A little confusion, here: I guess this is meant to be a “dynamic schedule” that reacts to what puzzles you’ve solved, and since I found a good place to camp away from the hurricane, the hurricane came and went without a fuss. It’s not like I waited more turns than usual; the hurricane just passed by faster.

Darkness still approaches, but as I mentioned last time, I found an area west of the lake where I could SLEEP without interference from wild animals. Huzzah, survival to day 2! I also made it to the beach where I heard cannon offshore, but can’t find a ship. >GO SHIP does get an amusing response:

not till

Except: in the events above I made a fatal error. Pause before going on; do you see it?

Public domain island picture, for spoiler space.

Before filling the bottle with seawater I had to waste the rum inside. On a hunch during a replay, I tried EMPTY BOTTLE at the stone basin in the cave (which I still hadn’t used yet):

Uh oh. The fact this works (and not with anything else) indicates that the rum needs to be used somewhere, and this is the method of preserving it. Normally this would be fine: I could just go and fill the bottle with seawater and be on my way. However, the volcano area’s lake is fresh water so doesn’t have any salt, and I can’t swim through the lake holding the bottle without drowning. Somehow I need to send the bottle back to the opening area so I can fill it with seawater and get my progress back on track. As is, I just sent myself back to Day 1, and I suspect not for the last time.



by Chris ([email protected]) at May 22, 2019 04:25 AM

I made a short video demonstrating how to import custom fonts + images into Adventuron (Classroom).

The font used in the screenshot is "Dead Forest" by Damien Guard, and the image used is by Andy Green.

May 21, 2019

Emily Short

Curating Simulated Storyworlds (James Ryan) – Ch 1-3

by Emily Short at May 21, 2019 07:41 PM

James Ryan recently graduated from UC Santa Cruz, and he was kind enough to make available his dissertation, Curating Simulated Storyworlds, for anyone to read. Of academic work coming out recently, this is one of the more interesting to the interactive fiction crowd, and I’ve already recommended it to quite a few people. I’m going to be writing about it in a few posts, since it’s long enough that I wasn’t able to read it in a single sitting.

As with other posts about academic work, I’m aiming partly to make interesting academic work on interactive narrative visible and accessible to hobbyists and people from the game industry; but I also use the opportunity to record my own thoughts and reactions to the material, and these are often based especially on the history of interactive fiction. So while Ryan’s dissertation is not primarily about text adventures, I will sometimes draw connections from his ideas to work from the text adventure community.

The basic idea: Ryan is interested in the kinds of emergent stories that can be built by Dwarf Fortress-like simulations — large, complex worlds that generate many many events over many simulated years of interaction, often with striking and memorable chains of causality. But from a narrative perspective, experiencing these worlds is not always satisfying. Sometimes they generate fascinating emergent plots. Sometimes they just seem unfocused or dull. Hence: curation. We need either a human being or a second AI system capable of extracting the good stories from the simulator and presenting those to the reader:

To understand the successes, we might ask this essential question: what is the pleasure of emergent narrative? I contend that the form works more like nonfiction than fiction—emergent stories actually happen—and this produces a peculiar aesthetics that undergirds the appeal of its successful works. What then is the pain of emergent narrative? There is a ubiquitous tendency to misconstrue the raw transpiring of a simulation (or a trace of that unfolding) as being a narrative artifact, but such material will almost always lack story structure. (xii)

This is an area that a few others have touched on; Jacob Garbe’s Dwarf Grandpa project is essentially about curating a simulated storyworld.

In essence, Ryan’s assertion at the beginning of the dissertation appears to be that the difference between good and bad emergent narrative generators is simply whether anyone is sufficiently interested to bother curating the output: so Dwarf Fortress and the Sims are good emergent narrative generators because people retell their constructs, while some academic projects are not because no one is moved to retell those. To me this did seem to miss some points about what makes generators effective, including

  • whether they use a number of systems that interlock in interesting ways (this is a somewhat handwavy description, but Tarn Adams describes the point much more effectively)
  • whether the systems account for the possibility of stakes and motivations, or whether they mostly model less interesting things
  • whether the components of the systems are polysemous or symbolically rich, thus capable of supporting additional interpretive constructions beyond what the author might have intended
  • what range of outcomes and story shapes can be achieved; the expressive range of the generator

…though it may be that Ryan will come back to those or similar points later in the dissertation.

Ryan’s approach includes an explicit, extensive discussion of the aesthetics of emergent narrative. Why are we even bothering with this, and what experiences are we attempting to achieve? What does emergent narrative make possible, and what are the problems with it?

I was very glad to see this, because I think this kind of discussion is of critical interest for people who approach these systems from an artistic perspective, and they’re often entirely omitted or at best not very thoroughly considered in academic writing on procedural narrative systems.

The dissertation is sizable, so I’m going to be talking about it in a multiple chunks here.

The early chapters of the dissertation provide a detailed definition and history of the concept of emergent narrative: what we mean by this, when the terms were first used, and what else has been written about the topic from the 90s on.

In the third chapter, Ryan begins by pulling apart what it is that we might like about nonfiction (and even the question of what nonfiction is in the first place), in order to argue that simulation-based narratives offer that same kind of pleasure. He also suggests that historical writing involves a sense-making procedure that is different from merely recording event sequences, so that some curation activity is required for nonfictional as well as fictional narratives.

Chapter three also introduces the idea of computer art brut, “art by a computer that is distinctly removed from the aesthetic sensibilities of human art”.

Then he identifies a series of ways that emergent narrative can appeal to us:

  • the actual; a sense of “true events,” even if they are simulated
  • the personal, a story being told or generated specifically for or about the listener
  • the uncanny and sometimes farcical; the dedication to strange or surreal logic that nonetheless does have some rules
  • the unauthored or co-authored; the absence of a human hand at some key point of creation, or the idea that the results are partly outside human control
  • the “uncovered”; the fact that the recipient of the story might be exploring or uncovering that story themselves, which relates to interactive stories that rely strongly on mechanics of exploration
  • the improbable; the idea that most events and sequences invented by the simulation are dull and therefore non-dull sequences, curated to the surface, are memorable because they’re unusual
  • the vast, focusing on the sheer size of generated worlds and the number of events that might be created within one
  • the ephemeral, because such worlds can be produced and destroyed with the touch of a button

I think this is a good list, though some of the items on it seem to me to belong more than others, and though it leaves off a few items that I myself would likely have included.

For instance, from my point of view, one of the values of a simulation is that it invites the reader or player over time to draw conclusions about how the world works; indeed, when I put randomized or procedural text into a game I’m building, it’s often because I want the player to get a sense for the kind of thing they should expect to see in this space, the tendency being more important than the individual instance. The generated item descriptions for abstract items in Counterfeit Monkey, the generated book names in many a text adventure library — these are pointers towards an entire physical or cultural system that can’t be adequately sketched by means of a single example. These are exactly the same cases where, if I were telling the story orally to a particular audience, I might riff and invent new examples at the moment of telling.

Meanwhile, though I like the idea of the uncovered story, it feels like this refers to a quality of how a story is presented to the player, rather than an aspect of the generative system. You can have simulation-based stories that the player does not explore, or hand-authored stories that the player does discover via archaeological gameplay — as witness nearly every classic game narrative that heavily relies on found diary pages and environmental storytelling. While it is indeed satisfying to have a simulation that leaves study-able traces of events — indices, in the sense of Clara Fernandez-Vara’s indexical storytelling — I’m not sure that the item belongs on this particular list.

The uncanny, on the other hand, interests me very much, particularly because it tends to confront us with the errors in our own thinking. If the original simulation is a simplified representation of how we think the world works, or might work, then when it kicks up uncanny or unacceptable results, these results point out the assumptions we did not bother to add in to the simulation. Testing our own assumptions via procedural art is in my view one of the most interesting things to do with the form.

Renga in Blue

Savage Island Part 1: Exhausting Options

by Jason Dyer at May 21, 2019 05:41 PM

I’ve been pulling out all the stops in terms of listing available verbs and puzzles, trying to be as systematic as possible. There’s a little pleasure in at least documenting things out, although it would be more enjoyable if I could solve … at least something?

Speculation is welcome from people who haven’t played before; if you have beaten this game or seen a walkthrough, please hold off on any hints for now.


52 moves: “My bones ache” message starts appearing; I’m guessing this is just physically sensing the hurricane is coming.

67 moves: “Hurricane Alexis hits island”

At this point the palm log on the beach can land (“CRASH!”), although which exact turn it happens seems to be random; sometimes it happens on move 67, but I’ve seen it happen as late as 120 or so.

It also becomes unsafe to move outside after this time, and (at random) the hurricane can kill you.

217 moves: “Getting dark”

247 moves: “Sunset”

After sunset, the room description is simply “Its too dark to see!” It’s still possible to move around (as long as you don’t go in any invalid exit directions, which causes you to trip and fall).

?? moves: “I hear cannon offshore”

I haven’t tracked how many moves this is at exactly, but it isn’t too long after sunset.

No other timed events seem to occur. It’s possible more get triggered by being able to SLEEP after sunset, but I haven’t found anywhere safe to sleep. I either get a.) blown away by the hurricane b.) eaten by wild animals or c.) both, which makes you double-dead as the excerpt below demonstrates.

Not safe
I’m attacked by wild animal
Not safe
to move in hurricane
storm lifts me out to sea

I did find one place where I could SLEEP successfully without being attacked by wild animals

West of the lake on a secluded ledge on the volcano wall

but unfortunately, this place is not safe from the hurricane so I can’t use it to wait out the storm.

It’s certainly possible the intent is to win the game within 247 moves (that’s a lot of moves for a Scott Adams game) but the hurricane hitting at 67 moves makes moving around deadly very early, so I’m not sure.


The available verbs I’ve found are


although both DRINK and EAT have glib responses

I’m a bottle baby

and KILL is highly suggestive of “don’t bother”.

If you like to kill monsters play “MACES & MAGIC”!

Nouns that work include KNIFE, BUTTON, LEVER, and KNOB, although I haven’t found any of those four in any location.

Nouns NOT included: LIGHT, LAMP, TORCH, COAL, LAVA, CANDLE, FIRE. It’s still possible there’s an aforementioned BUTTON or some such to turn on lights, but I suspect the darkness is either just simply left as darkness, or there’s some “natural geography” resolution. (I’ve thought about: the cave’s opening is to the east, and there’s a basin, so if we get water in the basin maybe on sunup the sun will reflect off the basin and shine light into the dark maze. Maybe? I’d have to survive sleeping first, though.)


Puzzle #1: Opening the coconuts
Objects/locations involved: The Coconuts start at Top of a Tree on the east beach
Likeliness of being a real puzzle: High
Description: The response to OPEN COCONUT or BREAK COCONUT is “How?” which requires a WITH (noun) response; WITH HANDS doesn’t work.

There might be an item that will work, although I’ve wondered if they could just break themselves open in the right circumstances, i.e. being blown off a tall cliff and landing where they get smashed.

Once open, I suspect they could be used as a container for water (since FILL is a verb). That would be a portable way to wash off sweat, plus something that could be used to fill the stone basin.

Puzzle #2: Handling the bear
Objects/locations involved: The bear starts in a cave, but can go outside next to the lake or deeper inside into the dark maze.
Likeliness of being a real puzzle: High
Description: The bear moves about more or less at random but will track the player if nearby. It licks and eats the player if they are sweating. Sweating can happen from either physical exertion (initially climbing the volcano) or from just being around the bear (being nervous).

The bear is described as “sickly”, and since the game is pretty spare with descriptions, that seems it should be a significant hint.

There’s some fish bones in the cave that seem like they should distract the bear, but I haven’t been able to get any reaction.

In an earlier Scott Adams game we were able to knock a bear off a cliff, so I do wonder if geography can somehow be used to our advantage; haven’t seen the bear get carried away by the wind or anything like that, though.

Puzzle #3: Digging in darkness
Objects/locations involved: The dark maze under the bear cave
Likeliness of being a real puzzle: High
Description: Last time I wrote about the dark maze, and how one of the rooms let you DIG with a response of YUCK! the first time (and only the first time). It’s faintly possible the intent is to play literal guess-the-noun to figure out what was dug up, although a way of bringing light into the cave would of course alleviate the problem.

Puzzle #4: West in the darkness
Objects/locations involved: The dark maze under the bear cave
Likeliness of being a real puzzle: Low
Description: In the same room that digging is possible, the west exit is blocked off. This may simply be the portion we can GO CREVICE to escape, but it’s faintly possible there is some obstacle in the darkness, like a crack that must be jumped over? JUMP is a strange verb in the game; you can JUMP any noun you want to, and it will just say OK. The only time I’ve seen JUMP work is a spot where you can get from the volcano area back to the opening beach.

Puzzle #5: Surviving the night
Objects/locations involved: Everywhere
Likeliness of being a real puzzle: Medium
Description: After 67 moves, hurricane-force winds start; after 247 moves, sunset hits and sleep is required to bring back the day. I haven’t found anywhere safe to sleep. It may be that there is no safe place to sleep, so the game must be beaten before sunset, or a light source (?? can’t imagine what now) needs to be found.

Puzzle #6: Sand
Objects/locations involved: The starting beach
Likeliness of being a real puzzle: Low
Description: For completeness, I should mention the opening beach has SAND. You can DIG SAND followed by WITH HANDS and get an OK message; however, nothing changes in the room. Perhaps there is a more efficient way to dig, or you need to dig at the right time?

May 20, 2019

Choice of Games

Author Interview, Ben Rovik: “Fool!”

by Mary Duffy at May 20, 2019 04:41 PM

Jest your way from obscurity to royal acclaim as the King’s pet, beloved by all! As a talented young court fool with dreams of fame, scrabble with other young jesters to secure prestigious positions in the courts of Brenton’s nobility. In a royal court humming with intrigue, keep them smiling as spies, assassins, blackmailers, ambitious nobles and a reluctant Heir wait in the wings. Fool! is a 420,000-word interactive fantasy novel by Ben Rovik. I sat down with Ben to talk about his setting and why the jester is such an important figure. Fool! releases this Thursday, May 23rd. 

This is your first time writing interactive fiction, right? What drew you to this medium?
Yep, first time! As a kid of the 80’s I’ve always had a soft spot for choose-a-path stories, and had it in the back of my head that I’d do that kind of writing some day.  But I spent most of my time in and after college focused on playwriting, and had some early success getting ten-minute plays and comedies produced and published. That’s where I lived as a writer for many years.

Then my wife and I stumbled across Choice of Robots one day and found ourselves playing it again and again to see what we could discover. That was when I learned about CoG and ChoiceScript, and that amorphous “maybe someday” vision of writing interactive fiction suddenly looked feasible.

I’ve always loved pushing myself to try new forms. As a lifelong lover of fantasy with a fun side I created and self-published the Mechanized Wizardry series, getting a few novels and novellas under my belt; I’ve also written the libretto for two operas and music/lyrics for eight childrens’ musicals. Interactive fiction was the next big realm to venture into. The ten-minute play and the 400,000+ word interactive novel are about as far apart as written works get, like the teacup poodle and the bull mastiff side by side. It was definitely a shift! But I think having learned to imagine all the angles for how a scene can go will serve me well in everything I write going forward.

What is it about your quasi-Shakespearean setting that you enjoyed writing most?
So I’ve been in the tank for the Bard for ages, since I got painted green as Puck for the seventh-grade production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I was president of the Shakespeare Club in high school and did an apprenticeship at the Folger Shakespeare Library in DC that had a huge impact on me. I toured around as a professional actor for six years after college and Shakespeare was always part of the mix; I got to perform in huge roadhouses, little black boxes, school gyms and even prisons. It’s unbelievable how much of our modern vocabulary is just right out of Shakespeare’s brain; and while some of his plays are definitely clunkers (I was in All’s Well That Ends Well and it took the director a lot of cutting to make it fun) some of the others are so transcendently cool that I’m sure people will keep on with them for another 500 years.

There are some of Shakespeare’s settings where fools fit right in, like Verona and Athens. I wanted the Kingdom of Brenton in Fool! to feel more like the stuffy, serious, slightly on edge world of the Henry IV plays. Brenton’s a place where frowning and fretting come more easily than laughing, so the PC’s often got a big uphill battle in terms of winning over a room or a more intimate audience. In a down-to-earth fantasy like this, where you can have a big impact on the kingdom without ever touching a sword or shooting fire from your eyes, I thought that the most satisfying setting would be on the dour side; that way, if your choices start helping you win people over, you can see your corner of the kingdom start to transform into a more cheerful place.

I had a blast following Shakespearean conventions during this writing process, like having the nobles always speak in verse (except for Prinxe Hail, the heir to the Throne, who like Henry V switches freely between verse and prose). There’s also a lot of herbalism that shows up, which has been an interest of mine since my wife introduced me to the joys of picking wild blackberries and wineberries from the side of the road and I started seeing classifying the plants around me as more than just “weed,” “tree,” “bush,” etc. With the number of times I Googled things like “Toxic foliage Great Britain lethal dose” I’m sure I’m on a police watchlist somewhere. It was great fun to put it all together and hopefully put enough color on the different settings the PC moves between to make them pop in your mind while you read.

Why is the fool a compelling figure in literature?
The fool is the one who not only gets to tell the Emperor he has no clothes, but to point and laugh and mock his personal hygiene in the process. It’s always dramatically satisfying to see someone speak truth to power, and licensed fools play that role all over the place. The inversion of status makes it more exciting too; since fools are mostly commoners who are only allowed to be in court because luck or talent elevated them there, they take their entire careers, livelihoods, or lives in their hands when they dare to speak up to Kings and Queens, and they do it anyway. In stories with mostly noble or royal casts it can be hard for the audience to find someone to relate to on their level; having a fool in the mix makes sure there’s someone for the audience to latch on to.

Shakespeare really understood that moments of lightness and humor in otherwise dark pieces give the audience a little change of pace, and can help them get more enmeshed in the story to boot, since laughter is a social glue that binds groups together. Even the relentlessly dark Macbeth has the drunk porter who gives an extended riff on being Hell’s doorman.  These moments add color and shading to the whole experience, and when they’re written best they really deliver a big dramatic payoff.

I thought it’d be fun to explore life as a fool because of my own experiences as a performer, where as soon as you telegraph to an audience “I’m going to be funny for you now,” their deflector shields go up full power. There’s a sense of challenge between audience and performer that can be really intense. It’s easier IMHO to deliver funny lines as a character in a play, where the humor comes at the audience sideways through the story, than it is to go at them straight like stand-up comics do and just be up there saying funny stuff for a whole show’s duration. For a medieval-style fool, dressed in motley and capering around in the court while everyone’s chomping at their meat, I can hardly imagine the stress of having a target like that on your back. People are very good at choosing not to laugh if they’re not in the mood, so it seemed like there could be a lot of mileage in letting PCs be their own kind of fool and come at audiences with a lot of different tactics to win them over and lead the laughter, not become the butt of it.

What did you find most challenging about the writing process?
Stopping! In a play the dramatic throughlines and character arcs you’re trying to get across only happen one way, so even though it can take a lot of tweaking to get them right, once you’ve got them you can step back and watch.  For me in Fool!, trying to keep things balanced between different paths meant that every time I expanded this part, it made me want to tweak this other path, which had implications for that moment two chapters later, and on and on until I felt like things were out of balance again.

My plan is to detox after Fool! with much shorter formats again for a while. I got a lot of kind feedback about all the poetry that’s embedded in Fool! at various points, so I’ve been pushing ahead with that and writing sonnets about any and everything: blobfish, hold music, the interrobang, etc. I set up a Fiverr account at to take mini-commissions for sonnets as a fun quick way to keep my hand in while I decompress from the big push to get Fool! ready.

Who’s your favorite NPC in Fool! ?
It was really fun to write the PC’s monkey-companion, who shows up in Act II. Trying to imagine how the little beast would react across a range of situations, helpfully and less so, was really enjoyable.

I think my favorite human NPC is the steward Malodoro, who’s as no-nonsense and imposing as they come (inspired by the similarly party-pooping Malvolio from Twelfth Night). I wrote this book over a span of years which included lots of huge personal transitions; consequently, in a number of cases when I went back to check something in an earlier chapter I’d come across a snatch of dialogue that I had absolutely no memory of writing. That happened several times with the Malodoro scenes, where a one-liner that had slipped my mind would catch me off guard in a good way. I can’t wait to see who readers connect with most!

May 19, 2019


Coding A Room Escape Game In Adventuron

by Chris ([email protected]) at May 19, 2019 11:51 PM

Single location "escape from the room" games started with the parser, with 1988's "Behind Closed Doors" series, and sans-parser, the genre is more popular than ever. I thought I'd produce a tutorial of how one might take the genre back to its roots.

In this post I include the Puzzle Dependency Diagram of a trivial room escape game, and include the final source code for the game (minus theming).

  • The full step by step tutorial is available here.
  • The game can be played here.
  • The PDC was produced using Vizon, here.

start_at = cell

locations {
cell : location "You are in your cell. You see a door, a bed and bland wallpaper adorns the walls." ;

objects {
wallpaper : object "a strip of wallpaper" ;
pen : object "a pen" ;
key : object "a small key" ;

booleans {
is_key_in_keyhole : boolean "true" ;
is_key_on_paper : boolean "false" ;
is_paper_under_door : boolean "false" ;

vocabulary {
: noun / aliases = [wallpaper, paper]

on_command {

: match "search bed; examine bed" {
: if (has_not_created "pen") {
: print "You find something" ;
: create "pen" ;
: press_any_key ;
: redescribe;

: match "examine wallpaper" {
: if (has_not_created "wallpaper") {
: create "wallpaper" ;
: print "A piece of the wallpaper falls away" ;
: press_any_key ;
: redescribe;
: else {
: print "You think you should leave the rest of the wallpaper in place." ;

: match "examine door" {
: print "A solid looking oak door with a keyhole." ;
: if (is_paper_under_door) {
: print "The wallpaper is peeking out from under the door." ;

: match "examine keyhole" {
: if (is_key_in_keyhole) {
: print "There appears to be a key in the keyhole on the other side of the door." ;
: else {
: print "The key is no longer in the keyhole.\nYou can't see anything else of interest due to the darkness." ;

: match "slide wallpaper;insert wallpaper;place wallpaper" {
: if (is_carried "wallpaper") {
: if (noun2_is "door") {
: if (is_paper_under_door) {
: print "You can't slide it under the door any more." ;
: else {
: print "You slide the wallpaper under the door." ;
: set_true "is_paper_under_door" ;
: destroy "wallpaper" ;
: else {
: print "Where?" ;
: else {
: print "You don't have it." ;

: match "poke keyhole; poke key; insert pen; put pen" {
: if (is_key_in_keyhole) {
: if (is_carried "pen" && (noun2_is "pen" || noun2_is "keyhole" )) {
: set_false "is_key_in_keyhole" ;
: if (is_paper_under_door) {
: print "The key falls onto the paper." ;
: set_true "is_key_on_paper" ;
: else {
: print "The key falls onto the floor behind the door and bounces away." ;
: print "More planning is perhaps required." ;
: print "GAME OVER" ;
: end_game ;
: else {
: print "Your finger is too big." ;
: else {
: print "The key has already fallen" ;

: match "pull paper; get paper" {
: if (is_paper_under_door) {
: pocket "wallpaper" ;
: if (is_key_on_paper) {
: print "You pull the paper back from underneath the door. You also take the key that is resting upon it." ;
: pocket "key" ;
: else {
: print "You pick up the wallpaper." ;
: pocket "wallpaper" ;
: set_false "is_paper_under_door" ;
: set_false "is_key_on_paper" ;
: press_any_key ;
: redescribe;

: match "unlock door; open door" {
: if (is_carried "key") {
: print "Using the small key, you unlock the door, open it, and continue onward to your next adventure." ;
: press_any_key ;
: end_game ;
: else {
: print "The door is locked" ;

Renga in Blue

Savage Island Part 1: Solving Too Early

by Jason Dyer at May 19, 2019 05:41 PM

Have you ever solved a puzzle in an adventure game with a combination lock, and you had most but not all of the combination, so you said “eh, forget it” and brute force guessed the rest of the way through?

I mapped out the dark maze since last time, although I’m not sure if I was supposed to.

You might think the first step is getting some sort of light inside. However, the nouns LAMP, LIGHT, FLASHLIGHT, TORCH, FIRE, etc. are not recognized, nor any verbs that might logically go with those, suggesting that there is no light source. We have had some required-moving-in-darkness before, so it seems possible.

The bear is still on your tail, though, and while it seems to only be able to eat you (by random chance) when you have sweat, physical exertion isn’t the only way to get sweaty; just being around the bear makes you nervous and causes sweat. (This feels like a Dr. Who monster; it kills you if you show fear, and just being around it makes you fearful, but if you weren’t fearful you would have nothing to fear.)

1 is the entrance. 4 lets you GO OPENING to get back to the cave where you started.

The “FELL” bit is interesting; the game keeps says it’s dangerous to move in the dark, but you only trip if you go in one of the marked directions above. You’re able to drop items but not see them; however, you can still pick them up, so mapping was a slow process of testing a direction and trying to pick up the items I had seeded to see which one would work. Since the bear randomly kills you while all this is going on, I had a lot of reloads in this process. Sometimes the bear would kill me upon loading a saved game, so I would have to reload several times just to do any actions at all.

I did find I could DIG (followed by WITH HANDS) while in maze room #4, and the game says


and subsequently digs get no message, so presumably I found something but not what it was. This particular bit is what makes me suspect I’m not supposed to be in the maze yet at all; hard to be sure, though.

I can’t say I’m “stuck” yet; I still have been getting ideas for things to try. I haven’t experimented much with the time element, for instance — are there any other items that blow in with the wind, and can the hurricane affect the bear?

May 17, 2019

Choice of Games

New Hosted Game! The Saga of Oedipus Rex by Jac Colvin

by Rachel E. Towers at May 17, 2019 11:41 PM

Hosted Games has a new game for you to play!

Your name is Oedipus, Prince of Corinth: And you’ve just discovered your future has been cursed by the gods themselves. Travel back to a time of magic and monsters in ancient Greece. Can you successfully fight to free yourself? Or will you succumb to the fate that was prophesied? It’s 25% off until May 24th!

The Saga of Oedipus Rex is an epic 100,000 word interactive fantasy novel by Jac Colvin, where your choices control the story. It’s entirely text-based—without graphics or sound effects—and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination.

• Play as Prince Oedipus, heir to the rulership of Corinth.
• Test your wits against the Sphinx.
• Immerse yourself in ancient Greek life.
• Remain in the country of your birth, or travel afar to Egypt.
• Will you appeal to the gods, challenge their decisions, or let fate run its course?
• With 8 distinct endings: Will you follow the future that has been prophesied or find your own way?

Jac Colvin 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.

May 16, 2019

Emily Short

Mid-May Link Assortment

by Mort Short at May 16, 2019 09:41 AM


logo.pngThe Nebula ConferenceMay 16-19 in Woodland Hills, CA, features multiple talks on interactive fiction by Mary Duffy (Choice of Games) and Stephen Granade (long-time IF Comp organizer and author of many games) among others; there will be a panel on consent in interactive stories.

The deadline to register for Narrascope is fast approaching. May 17 is the date listed on the site, so if you are planning to attend and haven’t yet signed up, now is the time. (More about the actual event below.)

May 18, the Baltimore / DC Area Meetup will discuss The Empty Chamber from Spring Thing.

E4GrZW8x.jpgMay 22, the London IF Meetup hears from Chris Gardiner about the narrative design of Sunless Skies.

The 2nd International Summer School on AI and Games will be held in New York City, May 27-31.  The event is organized by Georgios N. Yannakakis and Julian Togelius, who wrote the Artificial Intelligence and Games book.  More info can be found at the site.

June 1 will be the next San Francisco Bay Area IF Meetup.

June 8 and 9, the London IF Meetup has talks (the 8th) and a workshop (the 9th) on interactive fiction designed for audio devices. We’re welcoming some out of town guest speakers for this one, one of our most ambitious events yet.

June 9 is the deadline to exhibit a game or to speak at AdventureX, which is taking place November 2-3 at the British Library.

June 11 is the deadline for submitting Game Industry talk proposals to the IEEE Conference on Games (CoG).  The conference itself will be August 20-23 in London.

June 10-12 in London is the CogX Festival of AI and Emerging Technology, where I will be speaking about the work we’re doing at Spirit.

logo-512.pngNarrascope is set for June 14-16 in Boston, MA.  This is a new games conference that will support interactive narrative, adventure games, and interactive fiction by bringing together writers, developers, and players. Both Graham Nelson and I will be there and will speak; I’ll be on a panel about Bandersnatch, and Graham will be updating people on the current status of Inform. More information can be found on NarraScope’s home site.

ICCC 2019 takes place on June 17-21 in Charlotte, NC.  The event is in its tenth year and is organized by the Association for Computational Creativity.

July 2-5 will be the ACM IVA Conference, taking place in Paris.  IVA 2019’s special topic is “Social Learning with Interactive Agents”.


unnamed.pngAdventureX will be back at the British Library November 2-3, for International Games Week. The event is currently seeking participants in the form of speakers or game submissions. It is free to exhibit a game as part of the event, and the deadline is June 9.

If you want to know more, AdventureX has posted talks from last year’s event to their YouTube Channel. You can get an idea for the format and content with this talk on dialogue by Jon Ingold (Heaven’s Vault).

Articles & Links

Here’s one on the experience of teaching Twine to young students.

Gamebook News posted a roundup for the the month of May, including profiles of a number of recently released gamebooks, as well as a few online games.

May 15, 2019

These Heterogenous Tasks

Eastshade: Fantasy Without Crisis

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at May 15, 2019 07:41 PM

Eastshade is a game somewhere between a traditional CRPG and a walking simulator. You’re a painter, exploring an unfamiliar island in a game without combat or skill-based challenge. It is, very approximately, Skyrim without swords and monsters, a CRPG led by environmental … Continue reading

The Digital Antiquarian

Out with 1992, In with 1993

by Jimmy Maher at May 15, 2019 04:41 PM

First, the bad news: I’m afraid I won’t have a new article for you this Friday. My wife Dorte and I are going to take a long weekend in beautiful Bornholm, and I’ve been using this shortened work week to do some preparations for my next few months of writing. Both this site and The Analog Antiquarian will be pushed back one week because of this.

By way of compensation, though, I do have a new ebook for you, covering 1992 in this blog’s chronology. As usual, its existence is down to the good offices of Richard Lindner. You’ll find his email address on the title page of the ebook, so if you enjoy it, by all means send him an email to thank him.

A new ebook means, of course, that we’ve made it through another year. In fact, we’ve already started on 1993 with the Return to Zork coverage.

This one isn’t just any old year: a strong argument could be made that 1993 was the pivotal year in the entire history of computer gaming, the dividing line between its antiquity and modernity. For this was the year when CD-ROM finally went mainstream, virtually eliminating any and all technical restrictions on the size of games. The transformation this wrought on the graphics and sound of games, on their budgets, on their potential consumer appeal, and, indeed, on their very nature is almost impossible to overstate. We’ll have to wait until the rise of ubiquitous digital distribution well into the 2000s before we again see any single technology remotely as disruptive.

But as if the CD-ROM revolution wasn’t enough to make 1993 a special year, there was also the 3D graphics revolution, as exemplified by Doom, the game many would doubtless consider the game of the 1990s, at least in terms of pure populist appeal.

In addition to these two seismic events, the year is positively bursting with other themes, technologies, and franchises that remain inescapable today. An exciting time indeed.

So, here’s a broad outline of the specific topics I anticipate covering as we make our way through this year for the ages. (Needless to say, if you want to be totally surprised by each new article, skip this section!)

  • In addition to all of the multimedia flash that marked 1993, it was also the year when the groundwork for an Interactive Fiction Renaissance was laid, thanks to a game called Curses! which re-purposed Infocom’s legendary Z-Machine for its own ends. We’ll look at where the technology to make that seminal title came from as well as the game itself.
  • In the view of many fans, 1993 was the year that LucasArts peaked as a maker of graphic adventures, with perhaps the two most beloved games they ever made that don’t have “Monkey Island” in their names. Both will get their due here.
  • 1993 was the year that Sierra went into an economic tailspin, thanks to budgets and multimedia ambitions that were increasing even faster than sales. We’ll follow them as they start down this beginning of the road to acquisition and eventual oblivion — and we’ll also look at some of Sierra’s individual adventure games from the year, especially the much-loved first Gabriel Knight title.
  • 1993 was the year that Legend Entertainment finally had to face market realities and drop the parser from their adventure games, marking the definitive end of the text adventure as a commercial proposition. (Lucky that aforementioned amateur Renaissance was waiting in the wings, eh?) We’ll look at this end of Legend’s first era and beginning of their second, during which they became a maker of point-and-click adventures.
  • 1993 was the year that Alone in the Dark invented the survival-horror genre. We’ll look at where that game came from and how it holds up today.
  • 1993 was the last big year in CRPGs for quite some time, as a glut of samey titles tried gamers’ patience past the breaking point. We’ll look at Sierra’s Betrayal at Krondor, one of the less samey titles, and also at how the end of the CRPG gravy train affected Origin Systems and SSI, two of the leading practitioners of the genre.
  • 1993 was the year that the wheels came off for Commodore even in Europe, thanks to new Amiga models that arrived as too little, too late. We’ll look at the sad end of a company and a platform that once held so much promise.
  • 1993 was the year of the sequel to Lemmings! Enough said.
  • 1993 was the year of a little game from Interplay that I’ve always wished I could like more, Buzz Aldrin’s Race into Space. We’ll use the occasion of its release to examine the checkered history of space-program management simulations in general, a sub-genre that seems like it ought to have worked beautifully but somehow never quite did.
  • 1993 was the year of Master of Orion, perhaps not the first grand 4X space opera in absolute terms but the one to which every subsequent game of the type would always be compared. Enough said.
  • 1993 was the year when shareware peaked. We’ll look at this rich culture of amateurs and semi-professionals making games of many stripes and asking people to pay for them after they got them.
  • 1993 was the year that The 7th Guest, the poster child for form over substance in gaming, popularized SVGA graphics, pushing the industry onward at last after six years stuck on the VGA standard. Along with The 7th Guest itself and the meteoric rise and fall of its maker Trilobyte, we’ll find out how a computer industry that had always looked to IBM to set its standards finally learned to drive its own technological evolution in a world where IBM had become all but irrelevant.
  • 1993 was the year of Myst, the best-selling adventure game in history. Was it a brilliant artistic creation, or did it ruin adventure games for the rest of the decade? Or are both things true? We shall investigate.
  • And 1993 was, as mentioned, the year of Doom, the yang to Myst‘s yin, the only shareware product ever to make its sellers multi-millionaires. We’ll try to address the many and varied aspects of what some would consider to be the most iconic computer game of all time. We’ll start with its incredible technology, end with the way its defiantly low-concept, ultra-violent personality coarsened the culture of gaming, and cover a heck of a lot of ground in between.

As some of that last bullet point would imply, not everything that happened in 1993 was unadulteratedly positive, but it was all important. And certainly the year produced more than its share of classic games that still stand up wonderfully today. I’m looking forward to digging into it.

So, let me close by thanking all of you who support this ongoing project in one way or another. Without you, it just wouldn’t be possible. If you’ve been reading for a while and you haven’t yet become a supporter, please do think about contributing through Patreon or PayPal (you’ll find the links in the right-hand sidebar). It really does make all the difference in the world to my ability to continue this work. And if you’re interested in history more generally, do check out The Analog Antiquarian as well. I’m very proud of the writing I’m doing there.

See you all in a week and half, when we’ll buckle down and get started on the to-do list above. Until then, thanks again for being the best readers in the world!

The People's Republic of IF

Our June meeting will be NarraScope

by zarf at May 15, 2019 03:41 PM

We will not be meeting in the Trope Tank in June. Instead, join us at NarraScope 2019, June 14-16, in MIT building 32!

Registration closes on Friday, so decide soon…

Note that if you’re local and you want to experience NarraScope for free, you can volunteer at the conference. Volunteers can help out for part of the weekend and get into the rest of the event for free. Yes, this includes lunch.

May 14, 2019

Emily Short

Mailbag: Multimedia in Spanish Text Parser IF

by Mort Short at May 14, 2019 10:41 PM

Hi Emily,

I thought you might be able to shed some light on this question:

Text parser IF tends to rely heavily on the text for narrative, and uses little by way of multimedia.  Until you get to Spanish parser IF… here, multimedia is much more common. Spanish-language games often incorporate video, pictures, or sound effects.  Is there a reason behind this (possibly due to Spanish-language games using different engines better suited to multimedia?).  Or is there another reason?  Can Inform and similar platforms support these elements as well?

[Ed note: at the request of the asker, the original question has been re-written from a longer, less anonymous format.]

Several points here. One: for a lot of English-speaking IF fans, the defining IF of the commercial age came from Infocom in the early to mid 1980s, and almost all of their work was without illustration. There were a handful of late exceptions, but they were generally not considered Infocom’s best work.


Arthur: The Quest for Excalibur (Infocom / Bob Bates, 1989)

In Spain, by contrast, the golden age of commercial IF came just a few years later, on different hardware. Adventuras AD was publishing illustrated interactive fiction and setting expectations somewhat differently for hobbyist fans to follow. So most likely there was a certain amount of founder effect at work, in terms of what interactive fiction fans wanted to build.

Perhaps as a result of this, or perhaps coincidentally, Spanish language IF games have been written with an overlapping set of tools to Inform. Superglus for instance is a tool that compiles to the Glulx virtual machine, but uses a different, non-Inform parser.

And, in fact, the French and Italian IF communities have also traditionally done more with multimedia parser games than the Anglophone community — I’ve put a few links about this below as well.

Can Inform and similar platforms support these elements as well?

Yes, they can, though historically it was quite a bit of effort to get them set up. That’s less true now.

TADS and Hugo were ahead of Inform in their graphics handling, back in the day: TADS offered a version called HTML-TADS that allowed embedded images and other features, and a few late 90’s games explored the possibilities here: see for instance NK Guy’s Six Stories, which uses images and sound effects in-line with the text, or 1893: A World’s Fair Mystery, which draws on historical archives and features contemporary photos of many of the locations in the game. Robb Sherwin also wrote a number of illustrated games in Hugo, with an intentionally scruffy graphical aesthetic; and Hugo creator Kent Tessman made a commercial graphical game called Future Boy!, complete with voice acting.

For Inform, the main option for many years was Glulx, but games in Glulx were significantly harder to set up and bundle than conventional z-code games; when I was building City of Secrets, a game with a fairly limited range of imagery and menu support, I needed quite a bit of advice and help from other members of the community to get everything to work; and then there were a lot of minor discrepancies in how Glulx interpreters worked, which meant that you could get certain effects with, say, borderless windows or partially transparent PNG files that would work in one interpreter but look like total garbage in the next. It was a bit of a nightmare to try to achieve something attractive in this format, and many people decided it wasn’t a major goal to try.

There were a few standout games produced in the 2000s anyway. Carma did a lot of difficult effects that weren’t much replicated for some time afterward. Everybody Dies, where the illustrations are a key part of the story. A few other English-language games with graphics, such as The Moon Watch and Beyond, were actually written in or translated into English by authors from the Italian IF community.

The arrival of Inform 7 helped a little, at least in the sense that it became easier to set up parser IF to make use of Glulx. By the time I was building Alabaster, a few years on from City of Secrets, I still had to worry about interpreter discrepancies but had to do much less work to get a Glulx game started at all.

Meanwhile, some people in the English-speaking IF community who wanted to updated the look of text adventures became more interested in making interpreters that did a decently attractive job of typography on almost all games. The Gargoyle interpreter, for instance, was originally built with the motive of making standard text games look pleasant on the screen, with no special authorial intervention.

Recent English-language IF does incorporate quite a lot more art, sound, and other multimedia features than it used to. There’s now a “best use of multimedia” category in the XYZZY Awards, for instance, which is a relatively recent change. But that shift has happened at the same time as the shift towards doing more hypertext interaction, so multimedia parser games remain comparatively uncommon.

However, the tech to produce multimedia parser games has improved significantly, and now makes it possible to attach a parser game to all the standard affordances of a modern web browser.

I’d recommend anyone interested in this to take a look at Juhana Leinonen’s Vorple, which allows Inform 6 or Inform 7 to drive a web-based front end with art, videos, text that is removed from the screen again after it’s been shown (which is surprisingly hard to do in a conventional Glulx interpreter). IFDB lists these games produced with Vorple, if you’re interested in seeing what it can do. Hugo Labrande has also made a nice intro video for it:

Other resources:


May 11, 2019

Z-Machine Matter

Daisy Jones & The Six

by Zack Urlocker at May 11, 2019 11:03 PM


I admit, I have a weakness for rock and roll biogs: The Doors, The Kinks, The Ramones, The Clash, KISS; I've read them all. Hell, I've read and enjoyed biogs by bands like Kraftwerk and I don't even particularly like their music! But it's pretty rare to find a novel that does rock and roll justice. Daisy Jones & The Six comes pretty close to being the perfect rock and roll novel.

The book is told entirely as an oral history charting the rise and fall of a fictional 1970s band Daisy Jones & The Six.  This is quite different from a traditional novel and the story reads like an extended Rolling Stone or MTV interview with a real band. The device works extremely well and pulls you into each of the characters, their foibles, their egos in a way that brings things to life. The story is being told many years after the fact, and the sometimes conflicting accounts are used to great effect in the story. You can still feel the raw emotions of how peoples lives are brought together including all of the joys, pains, hurt feelings and bruised egos. The characters are not always likable and the structure gives the book a bit of a meandering style, but it all comes together in a way that I can only describe as heartwrenching. Jenkins Reid has layered so much drama and emotion into the story that the climax is nothing short of magnificent. She captures the feeling of performance, songwriting, fame and addiction in a way that is truly memorable. 

The book had been on my list for a while, but when I heard an interview with the author Jenkins Reid on the highly-addictive Bestseller Experiment podcast, I bought the book immediately on Audible. The book works especially well in audio because each of the different characters is voiced by a different actor. It's a fantastic book which I highly recommend.  The only other novel I know that captures rock and roll is "Evening's Empire" by Former MTV exec Bill Flanagan. Flanagan's book is in some ways both funnier and deeper, but Jenkins-Reid's will may you cry.

Emily Short

Metamorphic Texts (Talk)

by Emily Short at May 11, 2019 01:41 PM

These are some slides and text based on the talk I gave at the British Library’s Off the Page: Chapter Two event on April 13. I was invited to speak about works of mine that make use of classical sources. It’s relatively rare that I get to give a talk actually about classics (even in the context of games) and I jumped at it.


What I’m talking about today connects those two points, because I’m going to be discussing three games I wrote that drew on classical poetry, history, and mythology. (I didn’t pitch it this way in the room, but this is partly a talk on classical reception, the field that looks at how work from the ancient world is recast by later authors, artists, playwrights and propagandists.)

I’ll start with the most recent, Endure.


Calling it a game might be a bit of a stretch, so we might call it an art piece or just an interactive experience of some kind. Endure looks like this:


This is a passage from just after Odysseus has returned home, after being away for twenty years, to discover that his house is full of suitors who are wooing his wife. It’s too dangerous for him to go in and announce who he is, and no one recognizes him after all this time anyway, so he is hanging around at his own doorstep, disguised as a beggar, trying to decide what to do next.

So he tells himself, be strong; you’ve been through worse, back when you were captured by the Cyclops and he ate many of your men before you were able to figure out a cunning way to escape.

This resonated with me when I read it, and it still means a lot to me; there was a period when I had it printed off and stuck to the wall of my living room, when I was going through a difficult time. To me it represents how we can take positive strength from past trauma .

(At this point I ran a video of Endure playing through several different ways of translating the text.)

Endure lets the player explore the text using different translation strategies to uncover the meaning of the Greek. So they’re partly constructing their own preferred translation and emphasis, deciding how often to place jokes.

There’s also a subtler point I was trying to capture about what it’s like to read a text as a student or non-native speaker when you might only recognize some of the words and need to look up others. The first words you translate in Endure establish some themes, so if you translate phrases about the Cyclops first, you establish a Cyclops-themed viewpoint on the text and other phrases about Odysseus and his men are translated more unsympathetically. But if you start with Odysseus’ trait of cleverness, the reading of other phrases shifts to emphasize Odysseus in that way.


The second piece I’m going to talk about is more evidently a game, one that you can direct towards good or bad outcomes:


…and if you don’t know what necromancy is, that’s when you consult an oracle that is supposed to put you in touch with dead spirits in order to get your questions answered about the present or future.

Here’s an “actual” necromanteion:


…though in fact there’s also decent evidence that this space was actually a grain warehouse and was never used for theatrical consultations of the dead. Besides that, even if authentic, the supposed necromanteion would at best represent Greek, not Roman, religious practices, and from a different era than the one I was representing in Blood & Laurels.

But it gave me a hook that I really liked: the protagonist of Blood & Laurels is sent by his politically connected master, an army general, to ask whether the general’s coup might succeed against the current emperor. If the player asks the general whether he even believes in messages from the dead, the general says he does not — but that this is a way of assaying whether the temple and religious organization would take his side.

So the protagonist goes to the consultation, and has an encounter there that alarms him — the voice of a deceased previous emperor who says that he, the protagonist, is the one who will come to power. The priestesses of the necromanteion seem confused and alarmed by the message, which it appears they didn’t orchestrate. And the player is left to decide what to do with this information. Tell his boss the truth, and risk being seen as disloyal? Lie? Pursue political power for himself, or try to protect others?

The actual game looked like this:



Blood and Laurels is of course no longer available to play, for reasons to do with the app store (among other things). (This prompted a bit of tweeting during the talk about the need for better digital archiving, a point I entirely agree with.)

And finally, here’s a piece where I was working with a myth rather than a text or a historical period; this is also the oldest of the things I’m talking about here, the first game that I released to the public back in 2000.


(Here I took the viewers through the opening of Galatea and explained the premise, a conversation with a character who claimed to have been brought to life from a marble statue, but was being displayed in an AI exhibit.)


So because I’ve been given the keynote slot, I was tempted to make a couple of more sweeping statements that you may feel where not fully supported by the talk I just gave. But here goes.


Reading is a creative act. We aren’t just passively absorbing information as we encounter it. Back when I was still teaching classics students, I sometimes had undergrads who would ask me, what is the point of working on this material when it has been studied so much already? There’s already centuries of scholarship.

What I would say is that when we engage with this material, we’re building a bridge from the present to the past. And while the past may be fixed in place, the present is not. We need to build this bridge over and over again if we want to gain access to that material.

So that leaves the question, why engage via games? Games as a craft offer us the opportunity to think and write about systems and structures:


…and about what is possible in a particular imagined universe. They also invite the player to bring her own meaning into the story and make it part of the fabric of the experience.

May 10, 2019

Choice of Games

All of Kyle Marquis’ Games on Sale!

by Rachel E. Towers at May 10, 2019 05:42 PM

If you’ve enjoyed Pon Para you’ll be thrilled to know that all of Kyle Marquis games are up to 33% off this week!


Far below the city of Actorius lies the mysterious world of the Deep Tech—creatures and plants both living and mechanical, and powered by unknown forces. Your father harvests the tech to create experimental airships, and the Revolution that fights his every move races to do the same. Your father’s aero, the Empyrean, is governed by Deep Tech dynamics not even he understands.


In a world of trackless jungles, colossal beasts, and cruel pre-human civilizations, you must survive the past if you want to save the future! You were only meant to guard the laboratory, but when a treacherous power cripples Doctor Sabbatine’s time machine, you’re left stranded! Face the savage inhabitants of Silverworld and build your own civilization—or plunder the past and return home unimaginably rich!

Tower Behind the Moon

You are the greatest magician in the Sublunar World. It is not enough. As a rare Conjunction approaches, immortality is within reach. But the gods have noticed you trying to unlock the doors of heaven. Some demand you ascend–or else–while others plot your destruction. There are only two paths for you now, archmage: immortality or annihilation.

May 09, 2019

Choice of Games

Pon Para and the Great Southern Labyrinth — War against dark gods to save reality!

by Rachel E. Towers at May 09, 2019 04:42 PM

We’re proud to announce that Pon Para and the Great Southern Labyrinth, 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 30% off until May 16th!

Chosen by the gods, you must battle savage monsters, corrupt priests, and mad philosophers to save reality from the dark god of destruction!

Pon Para and the Great Southern Labyrinth is an interactive Bronze Age fantasy novel by Kyle Marquis, the first game in the Pon Para trilogy, where your choices control the story. It’s entirely text-based–430,000 words, without graphics or sound effects–and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination.

Years ago, in the Behemoth War, the forces of evil tried to destroy the world with Raun, the dark axe of destruction. Your parents united with King Hyras to win the Behemoth War and save the kingdom, becoming legendary heroes.

You have been raised far from the intrigues and corruption of the great cities–and from the plots of the gods. But after twenty years of peace, the pirate king Lord Vankred has found Raun. Under the threat of war, the gods grant you their powers. You must find the mad King Hyras and defeat Vankred before he can assassinate the King and shatter the Three Nations.

But the gods have their own plans for you, and so does the secret master of the Great Southern Labyrinth.

• Play as male, female, or non-binary; gay, straight, bi, or ace.
• Defeat enemies with sword and spell, or make allies with diplomacy, deception, and the miracles of your god.
• Train your companions in alchemy, infiltration, diplomacy, or the arts of war
• Explore haunted forests, corrupt cities, and jungles littered with the remains of a fallen civilization.
• Find friendship, romance, or rivalry with an immortal nymph, a desert thief, or an ambitious monarch.
• Unlock secret magic techniques forgotten for centuries.
• Survive the wrath of the Emissary Beasts to open the labyrinth’s final door.

The labyrinth holds the key to untold mysteries. Once you know the truth, whose side will you take?

We hope you enjoy playing Pon Para and the Great Southern Labyrinth. 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.

May 07, 2019

Z-Machine Matter

Operation Paperclip

by Zack Urlocker at May 07, 2019 06:57 PM


I've been revising the latest draft of my novel, "Gumshoe Rules." The publisher asked me to provide more historical context around some events during and following World War II. As a result, I have been researching the liberation of the Mittelwerk slave labor manufacturing facility by the 104th Infantry Division of the Army and Operation Paperclip, the US Government program to recruit German scientists to the US after the war. Both of these elements feature in the background of the story.

For those who are curious about Operation Paperclip, I highly recommend the book of that name by Annie Jacobsen. She provides a detailed account of many famous scientist and doctors who were recruited to the US, including Wernher von Braun, who was instrumental in developing the Saturn V rockets which powered the Apollo mission to the moon. He also ran the underground slave labor factory which made V-2 rockets at Mittelwerk and was both a Nazi party member and a Sturmbannfuhrer in the SS. I don't think any of these scientists were quite what they purported to be, but the US government did not want them falling into the hands of the Russians. 

So that’s been the focus for the past month. I’m glad to report that a new revised outline has been submitted and new writing has begun. While it’s still the same noir detective murder mystery, there is a more ambitious middle section and an overall faster pace. My book is available for pre-order at Inkshares and I expect to finish all of the rewriting and editing in the next couple of months.

Classic Adventure Solution Archive

CASA Update - 83 new game entries, 17 new solutions, 11 new maps, 4 new hints, 1 new clue sheet

by Gunness at May 07, 2019 11:54 AM

There's no rest for the wicked! Anniversary or not, we try to keep the updating of the game database at a (mostly) steady clip. A particularly large thank you and welcome to Kozelek/Pablo, who has just joined the editorial team and has already been fixing and updating like there's no tomorrow. Kozelek will have a special focus on the Spanish releases, which suits me splendidly as my grasp of that language is woefully bad.
Speaking of.... we can always use more editors, not the least if you speak any languages outside of English (Italian, Russian and French would be nice!)

Contributors: Garry, jgerrie, Alex, benkid77, leenew, Gunness, fresel, iamaran, RetroBasic, pippa, Sylvester, Kozelek, Tinker, Alastair, Strident, devwebcl, adventuron

May 03, 2019

The Digital Antiquarian

Return to Zork

by Jimmy Maher at May 03, 2019 06:41 PM

Where should we mark the beginning of the full-motion-video era, that most extended of blind alleys in the history of the American games industry? The day in the spring of 1990 that Ken Williams, founder and president of Sierra On-Line, wrote his latest editorial for his company’s seasonal newsletter might be as good a point as any. In his editorial, Williams coined the term “talkies” in reference to an upcoming generation of games which would have “real character voices and no text.” The term was, of course, a callback to the Hollywood of circa 1930, when sound began to come to the heretofore silent medium of film. Computer games, Williams said, stood on the verge of a leap that would be every bit as transformative, in terms not only of creativity but of profitability: “How big would the film industry be today if not for this step?”

According to Williams, the voice-acted, CD-based version of Sierra’s King’s Quest V was to become the games industry’s The Jazz Singer. But voice acting wasn’t the only form of acting which the games of the next few years had in store. A second transformative leap, comparable to that made by Hollywood when film went from black and white to color, was also waiting in the wings to burst onto the stage just a little bit later than the first talkies. Soon, game players would be able to watch real, human actors right there on their monitor screens.

As regular readers of this site probably know already, the games industry’s Hollywood obsession goes back a long way. In 1982, Sierra was already advertising their text adventure Time Zone with what looked like a classic “coming attractions” poster; in 1986, Cinemaware was founded with the explicit goal of making “interactive movies.” Still, the conventional wisdom inside the industry by the early 1990s had shifted subtly away from such earlier attempts to make games that merely played like movies. The idea was now that the two forms of media would truly become one — that games and movies would literally merge. “Sierra is part of the entertainment industry — not the computer industry,” wrote Williams in his editorial. “I always think of books, records, films, and then interactive films.” These categories defined a continuum of increasingly “hot,” increasingly immersive forms of media. The last listed there, the most immersive medium of all, was now on the cusp of realization. How many people would choose to watch a non-interactive film when they had the opportunity to steer the course of the plot for themselves? Probably about as many as still preferred books to movies.

Not all that long after Williams’s editorial, the era of the full-motion-video game began in earnest. The first really prominent exemplar of the species was ICOM Simulations’s Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective series in 1992, which sent you wandering around Victorian London collecting clues to a mystery from the video snippets that played every time you visited a relevant location. The first volume of this series alone would eventually sell 1 million copies as an early CD-ROM showcase title. The following year brought Return to Zork, The 7th Guest, and Myst as three of the five biggest games of the year; all three of these used full-motion video to a greater or lesser extent. (Myst used it considerably less than the other two, and, perhaps not coincidentally, is the member of the trio that holds up by far the best today.) With success stories like those to look to, the floodgates truly opened in 1994. Suddenly every game-development project — by no means only adventure games — was looking for ways to shoehorn live actors into the proceedings.

But only a few of the full-motion-video games that followed would post anything like the numbers of the aforementioned four games. That hard fact, combined with a technological counter-revolution in the form of 3D graphics, would finally force a reckoning with the cognitive dissonance of trying to build a satisfying interactive experience by mixing and matching snippets of nonmalleable video. By 1997, the full-motion-video era was all but over. Today, few things date a game more instantly to a certain window of time than grainy video of terrible actors flickering over a background of computer-generated graphics. What on earth were people thinking?

Most full-motion-video games are indeed dire, but they’re going to be with us for quite some time to come as we continue to work our way through this history. I wish I could say that Activision’s Return to Zork, my real topic for today, was one of the exceptions to the rule of direness. Sadly, though, it isn’t.

In fact, let me be clear right now: Return to Zork is a terrible adventure game. Under no circumstances should you play it, unless to satisfy historical curiosity or as a source of ironic amusement in the grand tradition of Ed Wood. And even in these special cases, you should take care to play it with a walkthrough in hand. To do anything else is sheer masochism; you’re almost guaranteed to lock yourself out of victory within the first ten minutes, and almost guaranteed not to realize it until many hours later. There’s really no point in mincing words here: Return to Zork is one of the absolute worst adventure-game designs I’ve ever seen — and, believe me, I’ve seen quite a few bad ones.

Its one saving grace, however, is that it’s terrible in a somewhat different way from the majority of terrible full-motion-video adventure games. Most of them are utterly bereft of ideas beyond the questionable one at their core: that of somehow making a game out of static video snippets. You can almost see the wheels turning desperately in the designers’ heads as they’re suddenly confronted with the realization that, in addition to playing videos, they have to give the player something to actually do. Return to Zork, on the other hand, is chock full of ideas for improving upon the standard graphic-adventure interface in ways that, on the surface at any rate, allow more rather than less flexibility and interactivity. Likewise, even the trendy use of full-motion video, which dates it so indelibly to the mid-1990s, is much more calculated than the norm among its contemporaries.

Unfortunately, all of its ideas are undone by a complete disinterest in the fundamentals of game design on the part of the novelty-seeking technologists who created it. And so here we are, stuck with a terrible game in spite of it all. If I can’t quite call Return to Zork a noble failure — as we’ll see, one of its creators’ stated reasons for making it so callously unfair is anything but noble — I can at least convince myself to call it an interesting one.

When Activision decided to make their follow-up to the quickie cash-in Leather Goddesses of Phobos 2 a more earnest, better funded stab at a sequel to a beloved Infocom game, it seemed logical to find themselves a real Infocom Implementor to design the thing. They thus asked Steve Meretzky, whom they had just worked with on Leather Goddesses 2, if he’d like to design a new Zork game for them as well. But Meretzky hadn’t overly enjoyed trying to corral Activision’s opinionated in-house developers from a continent away last time around; this time, he turned them down flat.

Meretzky’s rejection left Activision without a lot of options to choose from when it came to former Imps. A number of them had left the games industry upon Infocom’s shuttering three years before, while, of those that remained, Marc Blank, Mike Berlyn, Brian Moriarty, and Bob Bates were all employed by one of Activison’s direct competitors. Activision therefore turned to Doug Barnett, a freelance artist and designer who had been active in the industry for the better part of a decade; his most high-profile design gig to date had been Cinemaware’s Lords of the Rising Sun. But he had never designed a traditional puzzle-oriented adventure game, as one can perhaps see all too well in the game that would result from his partnership with Activision. He also didn’t seem to have a great deal of natural affinity for Zork. In the lengthy set of notes and correspondence relating to the game’s development which has been put online by The Zork Library, a constant early theme on Activision’s part is the design’s lack of “Zorkiness.” “As it stands, the design constitutes more of a separate and unrelated story, rather than a sequel to the Zork series,” they wrote at one point. “It was noted that ‘Zork’ is the name of a vast ancient underground empire, yet Return to Zork takes place in a mostly above-ground environment.”

In fairness to Barnett, Zork had always been more of a state of mind than a coherent place. With the notable exception of Steve Meretzky, everyone at Infocom had been wary of overthinking a milieu that had originally been plucked out of the air more or less at random. In comparison to other shared worlds — even other early computer-game worlds, such as the Britannia of Richard Garriott’s Ultima series — there was surprisingly little there there when it came Zork: no well-established geography, no well-established history which everybody knew — and, most significantly of all, no really iconic characters which simply had to be included. At bottom, Zork boiled down to little more than a modest grab bag of tropes which lived largely in the eye of the beholder: the white house with a mailbox, grues, Flood Control Dam #3, Dimwit Flathead, the Great Underground Empire itself. And even most of these had their origin stories in the practical needs of an adventure game rather than any higher world-building purpose. (The Great Underground Empire, for example, was first conceived as an abandoned place not for any literary effect but because living characters are hard to implement in an adventure game, while the detritus they leave behind is relatively easy.)

That said, there was a distinct tone to Zork, which was easier to spot than it was to describe or to capture. Barnett’s design missed this tone, even as it began with the gleefully anachronistic, seemingly thoroughly Zorkian premise of casting the player as a sweepstakes winner on an all-expenses-paid trip to the idyllic Valley of the Sparrows, only to discover it has turned into the Valley of the Vultures under the influence of some pernicious, magical evil. Barnett and Activision would continue to labor mightily to make Return to Zork feel like Zork, but would never quite get there.

By the summer of 1992, Barnett’s design document had already gone through several revisions without entirely meeting Activision’s expectations. At this point, they hired one Eddie Dombrower to take personal charge of the project in the role of producer. Like Barnett, Dombrower had been working in the industry for quite some time, but had never worked on an adventure game; he was best known for World Series Major League Baseball on the old Intellivision console and Earl Weaver Baseball on computers. Dombrower gave the events of Return to Zork an explicit place in Zorkian history — some 700 years after Infocom’s Beyond Zork — and moved a big chunk of the game underground to remedy one of his boss’ most oft-repeated objections to the existing design.

More ominously, he also made a comprehensive effort to complicate Barnett’s puzzles, based on feedback from players and reviewers of Leather Goddesses 2, who were decidedly unimpressed with that game’s simple-almost-to-the-point-of-nonexistence puzzles. The result would be the mother of all over-corrections — a topic we’ll return to later.

Unlike Leather Goddess 2, whose multimedia ambitions had led it to fill a well-nigh absurd 17 floppy disks, Return to Zork had been planned almost from its inception as a product for CD-ROM, a technology which, after years of false promises and setbacks, finally seemed to be moving toward a critical mass of consumer uptake. In 1992, full-motion video, CD-ROM, and multimedia computing in general were all but inseparable concepts in the industry’s collective mind. Activision thus became one of the first studios to hire a director and actors and rent time on a sound stage; the business of making computer games had now come to involve making movies as well. They even hired a professional Hollywood screenwriter to punch up the dialog and make it more “cinematic.”

In general, though, while the computer-games industry was eager to pursue a merger with Hollywood, the latter was proving far more skeptical. There was still little money in computer games by comparison with movies, and there was very little prestige — rather the opposite, most would say — in “starring” in a game. The actors which games could manage to attract were therefore B-listers at best. Return to Zork actually collected a more accomplished — or at least more high-profile — cast than most. Among them were Ernie Lively, a veteran supporting player from television shows such as The Dukes of Hazzard; his daughter Robyn Lively, fresh off a six-episode stint as a minor character on David Lynch’s prestigious critic’s darling Twin Peaks; Jason Hervey, who was still playing older brother Wayne on the long-running coming-of-age sitcom The Wonder Years; and Sam Jones, whose big shot at leading-man status had come with the film Flash Gordon back in 1980 and gone with its mixed reception.

If the end result would prove less than Oscar-worthy, it’s for the most part not cringe-worthy either. After all, the cast did consist entirely of acting professionals, which is more than one can say for many productions of this ilk — and certainly more than one can say for the truly dreadful voice acting in Leather Goddess of Phobos 2, Activision’s previous attempt at a multimedia adventure game. While they were hampered by the sheer unfamiliarity of talking directly “to” the invisible player of the game — as Ernie Lively put it, “there’s no one to act off of” — they did a decent job with the slight material they had to work with.

The fact that they were talking to the player rather than acting out scenes with one another actually speaks to a degree of judiciousness in the use of full-motion video on Activision’s part. Rather than attempting to make an interactive movie in the most literal sense — by having a bunch of actors, one of them representing the protagonist, act out each of the player’s choices — Activision went for a more thoughtful mixed-media approach that could, theoretically anyway, eliminate most of the weaknesses of the typical full-motion-video adventure game. For the most part, only conversations involved the use of full-motion video; everything else was rendered by Activision’s pixel artists and 3D modelers in conventional computer graphics. The protagonist wasn’t shown at all: at a time when the third-person view that was the all but universal norm in adventure games, Activision opted for a first-person view.

The debate over whether an adventure-game protagonist ought to be a blank slate which the player can fill with her own personality or an established character which the player merely guides and empathizes with was a longstanding one even at the time when Return to Zork was being made. Certainly Infocom had held rousing internal debates on the subject, and had experimented fairly extensively with pre-established protagonists in some of their games. (These experiments sometimes led to rousing external debates among their fans, most notably in the case of the extensively characterized and tragically flawed protagonist of Infidel, who meets a nasty if richly deserved end no matter what the player does.) The Zork series, however, stemmed from an earlier, simpler time in adventure games than the rest of the Infocom catalog, and the “nameless, faceless adventurer,” functioning as a stand-in for the player herself, had always been its star. Thus Activision’s decision not to show the player’s character in Return to Zork, or indeed to characterize her in any way whatsoever, is a considered one, in keeping with everything that came before.

In fact, the protagonist of Return to Zork never actually says anything. To get around the need, Activision came up with a unique attitude-based conversation engine. As you “talk” to other characters, you choose from three stances — threatening, interested, or bored — and listen only to your interlocutors’ reactions. Not only does your own dialog go unvoiced, but you don’t even see the exact words you use; the game instead lets you imagine your own words. Specific questions you might wish to ask are cleverly turned into concrete physical interactions, something games do much better than abstract conversations. As you explore, you have a camera with which to take pictures of points of interest. During conversations, you can show the entries from your photo album to your interlocutor, perhaps prompting a reaction. You can do the same with objects in your inventory, locations on the auto-map you always carry with you, or even the tape recordings you automatically make of each interaction with each character.

So, whatever else you can say about it, Return to Zork is hardly bereft of ideas. William Volk, the technical leader of the project, was well up on the latest research into interface design being conducted inside universities like MIT and at companies like Apple. Many such studies had concluded that, in place of static onscreen menus and buttons, the interface should ideally pop into existence just where and when the user needed it. The result of such thinking in Return to Zork is a screen with no static interface at all; it instead pops up when you click on an object with which you can interact. Since it doesn’t need the onscreen menu of “verbs” typical of contemporaneous Sierra and LucasArts adventure games, Return to Zork can give over the entirety of the screen to its graphical portrayal of the world.

In addition to being a method of recapturing screen real estate, the interface was conceived as a way to recapture some of the sense of boundless freedom which is such a characteristic of parser-driven text adventures — a sense which can all too easily become lost amidst the more constrained interfaces of their graphical equivalent. William Volk liked to call Return to Zork‘s interface a “reverse parser”: clicking on a “noun” in the environment or in your inventory yields a pop-up menu of “verbs” that pertain to it. Taking an object in your “hand” and clicking it on another one yields still more options, the equivalent of commands to a parser involving indirect as well as direct objects. In the first screen of the game, for example, clicking the knife on a vulture gives options to “show knife to vulture,” “throw knife at vulture,” “stab vulture with knife,” or “hit vulture with knife.” There are limits to the sense of possibility: every action had to be anticipated and hand-coded by the development team, and most of them are the wrong approach to whatever you’re trying to accomplish. In fact, in the case of the example just mentioned as well as many others, most of the available options will get you killed; Return to Zork loves instant deaths even more than the average Sierra game. And there are many cases of that well-known adventure-game syndrome where a perfectly reasonable solution to a problem isn’t implemented, forcing you to devise some absurdly convoluted solution that is implemented in its stead. Still, in a world where adventure games were getting steadily less rather than more ambitious in their scope of interactive possibility — to a large extent due to the limitations of full-motion video — Return to Zork was a welcome departure from the norm, a graphic adventure that at least tried to recapture the sense of open-ended possibility of an Infocom game.

Indeed, there are enough good ideas in Return to Zork that one really, really wishes they all could have been tied to a better game. But sadly, I have to stop praising Return to Zork now and start condemning it.

The most obvious if perhaps most forgivable of its sins is that, as already noted, it never really manages to feel like Zork — not, at least, like the classic Zork of the original trilogy. (Steve Meretzky’s Zork Zero, Infocom’s final release to bear the name, actually does share some of the slapstick qualities of Return to Zork, but likewise rather misses the feel of the original.) The most effective homage comes at the very beginning, when the iconic opening text of Zork I appears onscreen and morphs into the new game’s splashy opening credits. It’s hard to imagine a better depiction circa 1993 of where computer gaming had been and where it was going — which was, of course, exactly the effect the designers intended.

Once the game proper gets under way, however, modernity begins to feel much less friendly to the Zorkian aesthetic of old. Most of Zork‘s limited selection of physical icons do show up here, from grues to Flood Control Dam #3, but none of it feels all that convincingly Zork-like. The dam is a particular disappointment; what was described in terms perfect for inspiring awed flights of the imagination in Zork I looks dull and underwhelming when portrayed in the cruder medium of graphics. Meanwhile the jokey, sitcom-style dialog that confronts you at every turn feels even less like the original trilogy’s slyer, subtler humor.

This isn’t to say that Return to Zork‘s humor doesn’t connect on occasion. It’s just… different from that of Dave Lebling and Marc Blank. By far the most memorable character, whose catchphrase has lived on to this day as a minor Internet meme, is the drunken miller named Boos Miller. (Again, subtlety isn’t this game’s trademark.) He plies you endlessly with whiskey, whilst repeating, “Want some rye? Course you do!” over and over and over in his cornpone accent. It’s completely stupid — but, I must admit, it’s also pretty darn funny; Boos Miller is the one thing everyone who ever played the game still seems to remember about Return to Zork. But, funny though he is, he would be unimaginable in any previous Zork.

Of course, a lack of sufficient Zorkiness need not have been the kiss of death for Return to Zork as an adventure game in the abstract. What really does it in is its thoroughly unfair puzzle design. This game plays like the fever dream of a person who hates and fears adventure games. It’s hard to know where to even start (or end) with this cornucopia of bad puzzles, but I’ll describe a few of them, ranked roughly in order of their objectionability.

The Questionable: At one point, you find yourself needing to milk a cow, but she won’t let you do so with cold hands. Do you need to do something sensible, like, say, find some gloves or wrap your hands in a blanket? Of course not! The solution is to light some of the hay that’s scattered all over the wooden barn on fire and warm your hands that way. For some reason, the whole place doesn’t go up in smoke. This solution is made still more difficult to discover by the way that the game usually kills you every time you look at it wrong. Why on earth would it not kill you for a monumentally stupid act like this one? To further complicate matters, for reasons that are obscure at best you can only light the hay on fire if you first pick it up and then drop it again. Thus even many players who are consciously attempting the correct solution will still get stuck here.

The Absurd: At another point, you find a bra. You have to throw it into an incinerator in order to get a wire out of it whose existence you were never aware of in the first place. How does the game expect you to guess that you should take such an action? Apparently some tenuous linkage with the 1960s tradition of bra burning and, as a justification after the fact, the verb “to hot-wire.” Needless to say, throwing anything else into the incinerator just destroys the object and, more likely than not, locks you out of victory.

The Incomprehensible: There’s a water wheel out back of Boos’s house with a chock holding it still. If you’ve taken the chock and thus the wheel is spinning, and you’ve solved another puzzle that involves drinking Boos under the table (see the video above), a trapdoor is revealed in the floor. But if the chock is in place, the trapdoor can’t be seen. Why? I have absolutely no idea.

Wait! Don’t do it!

The Brutal: In a way, everything you really need to know about Return to Zork can be summed up by its most infamous single puzzle. On the very first screen of the game, there’s a “bonding plant” growing. If you simply pull up the plant and take it with you, everything seems fine — until you get to the very end of the game many hours later. Here, you finally find a use for the plant you’ve been carting around all this time. Fair enough. But unfortunately, you need a living version of it. It turns out you were supposed to have used a knife to dig up the plant rather than pulling or cutting it. Guess what? You now get to play through the whole game again from the beginning.

All of the puzzles just described, and the many equally bad ones, are made still more complicated by the game’s general determination to be a right bastard to you every chance it gets. If, as Robb Sherwin once put it, the original Zork games hate their players, this game has found some existential realm beyond mere hatred. It will let you try to do many things to solve each puzzle, but, of those actions that don’t outright kill you, a fair percentage lock you out of victory in one way or another. Sometimes, as in the case of its most infamous puzzle, it lets you think you’ve solved them, only to pull the rug out from under you much later.

So, you’re perpetually on edge as you tiptoe through this minefield of instant deaths and unwinnable states; you’ll have a form of adventure-game post-traumatic-stress syndrome by the time you’re done, even if you’re largely playing from a walkthrough. The instant deaths are annoying, but nowhere near as bad as the unwinnable states; the problem there is that you never know whether you’ve already locked yourself out of victory, never know whether you can’t solve the puzzle in front of you because of something you did or didn’t do a long time ago.

It all combines to make Return to Zork one of the worst adventure games I’ve ever played. We’ve sunk to Time Zone levels of awful with this one. No human not willing to mount a methodical months-long assault on this game, trying every possibility everywhere, could possibly solve it unaided. Even the groundbreaking interface is made boring and annoying by the need to show everything to everyone and try every conversation stance on everyone, always with the lingering fear that the wrong stance could spoil your game. Adventure games are built on trust between player and designer, but you can’t trust Return to Zork any farther than you can throw it. Amidst all the hand-wringing at Activision over whether Return to Zork was or was not sufficiently Zorky, they forgot the most important single piece of the Infocom legacy: their thoroughgoing commitment to design, and the fundamental respect that commitment demonstrated to the players who spent their hard-earned money on Infocom games.  “Looking back at the classics might be a good idea for today’s game designers,” wrote Computer Gaming World‘s Scorpia at the conclusion of her mixed review of Return to Zork. “Good puzzle construction, logical development, and creative inspiration are in rich supply on those dusty disks.” None of these, alas, is in correspondingly good supply in Return to Zork.

The next logical question, then, is just how Return to Zork‘s puzzles wound up being so awful. After all, this game wasn’t the quickie cash grab that Leather Goddesses of Phobos 2 had been. The development team put serious thought and effort into the interface, and there were clearly a lot of people involved with this game who cared about it a great deal — among them Activision’s CEO Bobby Kotick, who was willing to invest almost $1 million to bring the whole project to fruition at a time when cash was desperately short and his creditors had him on a short leash indeed.

The answer to our question apparently comes down to the poor reception of Leather Goddesses 2, which had stung Activision badly. In an interview given shortly before Return to Zork‘s release, Eddie Dombrower said that, “based on feedback that the puzzles in Leather Goddesses of Phobos [2] were too simple,” the development team had “made the puzzles increasingly difficult just by reworking what Doug had already laid out for us.” That sounds innocent enough on the face of it. But, speaking to me recently, William Volk delivered a considerably darker variation on the same theme. “People hated Leather Goddesses of Phobos 2 — panned it,” he told me. “So, we decided to wreak revenge on the entire industry by making Return to Zork completely unfair. Everyone bitches about that title. There’s 4000 videos devoted to Return to Zork on YouTube, most of which are complaining because the title is so blatantly unfair. But, there you go. Something to pin my hat on. I made the most unfair game in history.”

For all that I appreciate Volk sharing his memories with me, I must confess that my initial reaction to this boast was shock, soon to be followed by genuine anger at the lack of empathy it demonstrates. Return to Zork didn’t “wreak revenge” on its industry, which really couldn’t have cared less. It rather wreaked “revenge,” if that’s the appropriate word, on the ordinary gamers who bought it in good faith at a substantial price, most of whom had neither bought nor commented on Leather Goddesses 2. I sincerely hope that Volk’s justification is merely a case of hyperbole after the fact. If not… well, I really don’t know what else to say about such juvenile pettiness, so symptomatic of the entitled tunnel vision of so many who are fortunate enough to work in technology, other than that it managed to leave me disliking Return to Zork even more. Some games are made out of an openhearted desire to bring people enjoyment. Others, like this one, are not.

I’d like to be able to say that Activision got their comeuppance for making Return to Zork such a bad game, demonstrating such contempt for their paying customers, and so soiling the storied Infocom name in the process. But exactly the opposite is the case. Released in late 1993, Return to Zork became one of the breakthrough titles that finally made the CD-ROM revolution a reality, whilst also carrying Activision a few more steps back from the abyss into which they’d been staring for the last few years. It reportedly sold 1 million copies in its first year — albeit the majority of them as a bundled title, included with CD-ROM drives and multimedia upgrade kits, rather than as a boxed standalone product. “Zork on a brick would sell 100,000 copies,” crowed Bobby Kotick in the aftermath.

Perhaps. But more likely not. Even within the established journals of computer gaming, whose readership probably didn’t constitute the majority of Return to Zork‘s purchasers, reviews of the game were driven more by enthusiasm for its graphics and sound, which really were impressive in their day, than by Zork nostalgia. Discussed in the euphoria following its release as the beginning of a full-blown Infocom revival, Return to Zork would instead go down in history as a vaguely embarrassing anticlimax to the real Infocom story. A sequel to Planetfall, planned as the next stage in the revival, would linger in Development Hell for years and ultimately never get finished. By the end of the 1990s, Zork as well would be a dead property in commercial terms.

Rather than having all that much to do with its Infocom heritage, Return to Zork‘s enormous commercial success came down to its catching the technological zeitgeist at just the right instant, joining Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective, The 7th Guest, and Myst as the perfect flashy showpieces for CD-ROM. Its success conveyed all the wrong messages to game publishers like Activision: that multimedia glitz was everything, and that design really didn’t matter at all.

If it stings a bit that this of all games, arguably the worst one ever to bear the Infocom logo, should have sold better than any of the rest of them, we can comfort ourselves with the knowledge that Quality does have a way of winning out in the end. Today, Return to Zork is a musty relic of its time, remembered if at all only for that “want some rye?” guy. The classic Infocom text adventures, on the other hand, remain just that — widely recognized as timeless classics, their clean text-only presentations ironically much less dated than all of Return to Zork‘s oh-so-1993 multimedia flash. Justice does have a way of being served in the long run.

(Sources: the book Return to Zork Adventurer’s Guide by Steve Schwartz; Computer Gaming World of February 1993, July 1993, November 1993, and January 1994; Questbusters of December 1993; Sierra News Magazine of Spring 1990; Electronic Games of January 1994; New Media of June 24 1994. Online sources include The Zork Library‘s archive of Return to Zork design documents and correspondence, Retro Games Master‘s interview with Doug Barnett, and Matt Barton’s interview with William Volk. Some of this article is drawn from the full Get Lamp interview archives which Jason Scott so kindly shared with me. Finally, my huge thanks to William Volk for sharing his memories and impressions with me in a personal interview.)

April 29, 2019


Introducing Natalia Martinsson as the keynote speaker for NarraScope 2019

by Andrew Plotkin at April 29, 2019 05:21 PM

We are delighted to announce our keynote speaker! Natalia Martinsson of Killmonday Games will kick off NarraScope in June.

Natalia is an illustrator, animator, and the designer of indie hit Fran Bow and the upcoming Little Misfortune. Together with her partner Isak Martinsson, she creates adventure games with a sparkling mix of childhood whimsy and gruesome nightmare.

You may pet a doggy, a fishy, a wolfie, the Kraken, the kitty and the foxy.

— from the preview of Little Misfortune

Natalia will speak about shaping games with emotional intelligence. Her approach to character design colors every aspect of Killmonday’s games — writing, narrative design, even the studio workplace and production process.

We look forward to hearing Natalia speak and welcoming her into the NarraScope conversation!

Remember, NarraScope registration closes on May 17th. We’re coming down to the last couple of weeks here. If you want to be a part of this conversation, now’s the time to push the button.

By the way, we’ve gotten several inquiries about video recording of the NarraScope presentations. Karsten Feyerabend of articy Software has volunteered to record some of the talks. (With the permission of the speakers, of course.) He can’t cover the entire conference, but we should be able to get a selection of the talks online. We’ll let you know the details as we work them out.

Thanks to articy Software for helping with this! Hopefully in future years we’ll be able to expand our recording capabilities.

April 23, 2019

The People's Republic of IF

May meeting

by zarf at April 23, 2019 09:41 PM

The Boston IF meetup for May will be Tuesday, May 14, 6:30 pm, MIT room 14N-233.

Also note: if you still haven’t registered for NarraScope 2019, the deadline for registration is May 17! (The conference itself is June 14-16 on MIT campus.)