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Planet Interactive Fiction

Sunday, 23. January 2022

Renga in Blue

Time Zone: A Barren Land

I’ve mapped everything I can get to of 50BC and 1000AD. I’ll give a rundown, but first let me isolate something I call the absurd object sourcing problem. This is a problem held by some adventure games where you go through complex shenanigans in order to obtain, say, a cup of water, in a world […]

I’ve mapped everything I can get to of 50BC and 1000AD. I’ll give a rundown, but first let me isolate something I call the absurd object sourcing problem.

This is a problem held by some adventure games where you go through complex shenanigans in order to obtain, say, a cup of water, in a world situation where cups of water should normally be plentiful. Or all the items currently in inventory are easily obtainable via a quick stop by a grocery store, but instead our hero needs to swing by rope while wearing a mask made of leaves and superglue in order to pick up a spatula.

This sort of handy improvisation can make sense thematically if the player is “trapped” in a scenario or otherwise has restricted resources; I’ll even grant credit to Crowther/Woods Adventure as starting with some reasonable supplies (like food, light, and water) and any further improv (like reusing the water bottle to hold oil) feels in the spirit of normal exploration.

Time Zone doesn’t have exactly the same problem. The protagonist starts the game at their home which I would assume has easy access to some supplies that show up later (like a rock) but the general rule about not taking technology back in time puts a little bit of a damper on theoretical grab-everything-an-easier-way scenarios.

However, you’re still stealing a mirror from Maid Marion’s house in order to give it to some aborigines in Australia to trade for a boomerang.

Supposedly in 1000 AD. Not only are there fictional characters, but Richard I’s reign didn’t start until the late 1100s. To be fair, there were some bad Sheriffs of Nottinghamshire around this time, like William Brewer, who was so bad that King John got bribed by three different counties to get him moved to other countries.

But let’s start in…

50 BC

I found it helpful, and more manageable, to have all the maps from a particular time zone in one clump, like this:

Order: top is North America, Europe, then Asia. Bottom is South America, Africa, Australia.

There’s Antarctica tossed in up there too, and it’s the easiest one to start with. Behold:

I’m not sweating if I can solve puzzles (although I did manage a few in my explorations). My goal has been to document up to the point of what puzzles are active (and what objects I can obtain) so that I have a holistic view and can fluently jump around testing out puzzle solutions as they come to me. In Antarctica I need warmer clothing to survive. (It is also possible the location is essentially a red herring; just like later Sierra games where you can wander off a ledge by pushing the wrong direction key, not every death indicates a puzzle.)

North America is also cold, dropping you in Alaska, although the obstacle is a polar bear, not the cold:

South America drops you into the Andes where you die by unseen Indians. Africa is a little more expansive, putting you by the Nile:

Heading north on the Nile leads to the death-by-starvation above; you can also try to visit Cleopatra (a guard stops you) and fail to obtain some fruit (you need Egyptian money).

Europe I’ve already given screens from on my last post, but here’s the lion I mentioned last time:

As I also mentioned last time, there’s a dark maze in Europe if you go underground. Will I find a light source or food for the lion first?

Asia for 50 BC I made quite a bit of progress on, and may have even “finished”. You start in a rice paddy by the Yangtze, where there is a long pole and a boat that you can row across.

Across the review is a Buddhist temple with a rock garden and a shovel. You can nab the shovel but also dig in the same spot to find some jade, then take the jade over to a peasant whole will trade for a bag of rice.

You might think the rice might help me avoid starvation in Egypt, but eating it doesn’t work.

The temple also has a statue with an emerald and you will get killed if you try to steal it. I suspect the emerald is a red herring but I have to mark it down to be sure. If it is a red herring then I am done with 50BC Asia, unless there was something different the peasant was willing to trade for and the jade was useful elsewhere. (I don’t know how heavy this game is into you-used-the-wrong-item softlocks but there was one in Wizard and the Princess so I have to account for the possibility.)

The shovel is also useful in 50BC Australia, where there is a buried rhea egg which you can nab with the shovel. After picking up the egg you cannot drop it without it breaking, so there may be some specific order this must be done in.

I thought of taking the egg back to prehistoric times and swapping with one of the pterodactyl eggs, but it doesn’t go that far. Weirdly, you can take it to the stone age without it going poof.

Once all listed out, that doesn’t sound too terrible in terms of size? Things didn’t even take super-long to map, but I did feel bad for the fact that every location has a unique picture and all of them had to be rendered by the artists, led by 18-year old Terry Pierce. According to Jimmy Maher’s correspondence with John Williams who worked on the packaging design, the effort had Terry “almost in tears”.

With information on 50 BC scoped out, I went forward to

1000 AD

Same order to the continents as before:

North America lands you with the Maya, where you find two fishermen but they kill you with spears if you approach.

South America was a little more elaborate, with a visit to the Inca. There’s a pyramid which requires dropping all your items to climb (including the egg if you’re carrying it, and remember it breaks if you drop it)…

…and inside was a tomb with a torch. Trying to carry the torch back down the pyramid is deadly. You can throw the torch instead which puts the torch out. I haven’t experimented past there if that was the right action.

You can also get yourself human-sacrificed, but it is another situation where I’m unclear if it is meant as a dead-end trap or a puzzle.

Europe has a forest with Robin Hood, an empty Maid Marian’s house, and a Sherriff. There is a suspicious back window with bars that I can’t get open, but otherwise both Robin Hood and the Sheriff seem apathetic.

I was able to filch that mirror, as I mentioned earlier, and cart it over to Australia for a boomerang.

Asia this time is near Baghdad. You can find a camel merchant who wants something for trade but is ambiguous for what, exactly.

There’s a palace as well with guards that won’t let you through…

…and a desert where _normally_ you die of starvation/thirst, but for some reason if I take a particular path the death doesn’t trigger and I am able to get up to a suspicious mountain. Keeping King’s Quest V in mind, I tried typing OPEN SESAME on a whim and got the mountain to open.

However, the inside of the mountain is dark and I need a light source to get any further. Unlike King’s Quest V, OPEN SESAME work from inside the mountain so you don’t get trapped.

Finally, 1000AD Africa starts you at the Congo river where you can get killed by a python named Monty or get stuck with several logs by the river. (It understands MAKE RAFT but says I don’t have everything yet — I assume I need some vines or rope?)

There’s my whirlwind tour so far. I’ll probably organize my notes and take a few whacks at what I have so far before moving on (I especially haven’t tried noodling with the torch yet, and the Baghdad cave at the least could use the light).

What I’m still consistent on figuring out is when objects can go back in time, and how useful they’ll be. Rocks, as I mentioned last time, go all the way back to prehistoric times without disappearing. For some reason the long pole used with the boat does as well (even though it is clearly a “crafted” item). I’m just making sure to test when I have a new batch of items to see if any disappear as a I step backwards in time, but given the rhea egg goes back some in time before eventually poofing in the prehistoric era means there may be cases where I am supposed to bring an item back just one step.

Despite all the fussiness of obtaining the above information I’m generally enjoying myself. It’s just raw exploration and I haven’t gotten frustrated trying out any highly improbable item interactions yet. Some adventures play fine until you actively try to start accomplishing things.

HOURS PLAYED: 3.25


IFTF Blog

IFTF adopts IFWiki

More good news: as of the beginning of the year, IFWiki is officially an IFTF project. IFWiki was founded in 2004 by David Cornelson to record the history and culture of the IF community. It was quickly adopted as a complement to the IF Archive (which stores games). (And, a few years later, IFDB, which collects game bibliographic data and reviews.) IFWiki has continued as a community-edited resour

More good news: as of the beginning of the year, IFWiki is officially an IFTF project.

IFWiki was founded in 2004 by David Cornelson to record the history and culture of the IF community. It was quickly adopted as a complement to the IF Archive (which stores games). (And, a few years later, IFDB, which collects game bibliographic data and reviews.) IFWiki has continued as a community-edited resource for almost two decades under the management of Peter Seebach, David Cornelson, and Carl Muckenhoupt.

Over the holiday break, discussion among the community editors and volunteers led to the idea of moving the site to IFTF hosting. (See thread, thread.) Everyone was on board with the plan, and that’s what we’re here for, right? So we got to work.

We’re still cranking through the paperwork of a formal IFTF IFWiki committee. But the good part is done! IFWiki now has a new server, a current version of MediaWiki, and a variety of updates to its content and presentation.

For a start, take a look at the new summary boxes on interpreter and platform wiki pages. These are drawn from a wiki database which can be easily updated and extended. See this post for more info.

Watch for more updates, and more active editing and support, in the future.

Our enormous gratitude to Jonathan for getting this ball rolling, shepherding the process, and agreeing to be our IFWiki committee chair.

These four sites — IFWiki, IFDB, the IF Archive, and the IntFiction forum — are the backbone of the IF community’s long-standing commitment to preservation, accessibility, and public awareness. We’re proud to have them all under one roof and secured for future. For discussion and requests, see our new forum section on IFTF resources.

(Speaking of preservation, did you know that the IF Archive hosts public data dumps of the other three sites? One of IFTF’s goals is to not be a single point of failure.)

(Oh, and IFDB just got its 10000th contributed review. This has nothing to do with IFWiki but we just had to say!)

And, of course, thanks to you all for your continued support of IFTF.

Friday, 21. January 2022

Interactive Fiction – The Digital Antiquarian

A Web Around the World, Part 2: If At First You Don’t Succeed…

The early history of the telegraph in commercial service can largely be told as a series of anecdotes, publicity coups that served to convince people that this was a technology worth embracing. The first of these occurred just a few days after the Washington-to-Baltimore line’s inauguration. On May 18, 1844, this first American telegraph service […]

The early history of the telegraph in commercial service can largely be told as a series of anecdotes, publicity coups that served to convince people that this was a technology worth embracing. The first of these occurred just a few days after the Washington-to-Baltimore line’s inauguration. On May 18, 1844, this first American telegraph service brought to the capital the shocking news that, after nine ballots’ worth of wrangling over the issue, the Baltimore-based Democratic National Convention had settled on a dark-horse candidate for president by the name of James K. Polk; word of this game changer reached the ears of the Washington political establishment within five minutes of the deciding votes being cast. Clearly the telegraph had its uses, in politics as in so many other facets of life. The newspapers were soon filled with more personal anecdotes about the new technology, such as reports of births and deaths delivered instantaneously to the family members affected.

Nevertheless, Samuel Morse found Congress to be stubbornly unforthcoming with more money to build more telegraph lines. After lobbying fruitlessly over the balance of 1844 for what struck him as the next logical step, an extension of the existing line from Baltimore to New York City, he gave up and turned to the private investors who were now beginning to knock at his door. Although neither he nor they could possibly realize it at the time, it would prove a fateful change of course whose aftereffects can still be felt in the world of today. Unlike the European nations, whose communications networks would be funded and managed by their governments, the United States would rely mostly on private industry. The two contrasting funding and governance models more or less persist to the present day.

Rather than attempting to raise capital and wire the United States all by himself, Morse was content to license his telegraph patent to various regional players. The first of these private telegraph lines, linking Philadelphia to New York City, opened in January of 1846. The telegraph’s spread thereafter was breathtaking; the stampede to get onto the World Wide Web during the 1990s has nothing on the speed with which the telegraph became a fixture of everyday American life during the second half of the 1840s.

By 1851, one could send telegraph messages to and from almost any decent-sized American town east of the Mississippi River. To the average mid-nineteenth-century American, the telegraph seemed literally to be a form of magic. Newspapers published rapturous poetry dedicated to Morse’s wondrous invention, which had “annihilated time and space.” Thanks to the telegraph, the United States as a whole became infatuated with the wonders of technology — an infatuation that has never really left it. A thoroughly impressed British visitor reported on the extraordinary range of uses to which the telegraph was already being put just five years after the first lines opened for business:

It is employed in transmitting messages to and from bankers, merchants, members of Congress, officers of government, brokers, and police officers. [It is used for] items of news, election returns, announcements of deaths, inquiries respecting the health of families and individuals, daily proceedings of the Senate and the House of Representatives, orders of goods, inquiries respecting the sailing of vessels, proceedings of cases in various courts, summoning of witnesses, messages for express trains, invitations, the receipt of money at one station and its payment at another; for persons requesting the transmission of funds from debtors, consultation of physicians, and messages of every character usually sent by the mail. The confidence in the efficiency of telegraphic communication is so complete that the most important commercial transactions daily transpire by its means between correspondents several hundred miles apart.

The financiers who built this network out from nothing in almost no time at all were more often than not connected with the railroads that were busily binding the sprawling nation together in another way. Indeed, the telegraph and the railroad were destined to be boon companions for a long, long time to come; the two usually ran along the same rights-of-way, just as with that very first telegraph line from Washington, D.C., to Baltimore. Together they were the necessary prerequisites of a burgeoning new age of big business; they became the handmaids of the modern bureaucratic corporation, with its tendrils stretching across the country like the arms of an octopus (a rather sinister analogy that would become a populist favorite during the Gilded Age to come).

In the meanwhile, Western Europe was being wired together at a slower pace. The telegraph first captured anecdotal headlines in Britain on August 6, 1844, when it was used to send word from Windsor Palace to Fleet Street that Prince Alfred, Queen Victoria’s second son, had been born. The Duke of Wellington forgot to bring his best suit down from London with him for the celebratory banquet, but the telegraph and the railroad, those two fast stablemates of Progress, saved the day: an urgent electronic message was sent back up the line, and the duke’s ensemble arrived on the next train.

On January 3, 1845, the railroad and the telegraph had starring roles in a sensational murder case, when one John Tawell killed his mistress in Slough and jumped on a train for London. The police in Slough sent a telegraph message to their counterparts in London to watch for him at the station, and the blackguard was apprehended as he climbed down from his carriage. “It may be observed,” wrote the London Times, “that had it not been for the efficient aid of the London telegraph, the greatest difficulty as well as delay would have occurred in the apprehension of the party now in custody.” After the murderer was duly executed, the telegraph was immortalized in verse as “the cords that hung John Tawell.”

Observing the more rapid expansion of the telegraph in the United States, Britain and the other European nations grudgingly came to accept that Samuel Morse’s simple, robust system was more practical than any of their more baroque approaches. And so, gradually, the rudimentary tool that was the Morse key and the more refined one that was the Morse Code became an international standard. Morse himself, who was determined to receive every dollar and every bit of credit he felt he had coming to him for his inventions, was less pleased than he might have been by these developments, in that he usually wasn’t paid for Europe’s copycat systems. (In 1860, France and several other European nations would finally agree to pay him a one-time joint indemnity of $80,000, far less than he believed he was owed.)

Of course, Morse’s original telegraph had to evolve in some ways in order for a single 40-mile wire to be transformed into a dense network of connections binding entire nations together. Although the core components of Morse’s telegraph — a Morse key used to transmit Morse Code — would remain the same for a century and more, everything else was ripe for improvement. Better batteries and better cables stretched the possible distance between stations and repeaters almost exponentially year by year; switchboards, timetables, and manual routing protocols were developed to move messages through the system quickly and efficiently from any given source to any given destination.

The new telegraph companies attracted the sort of brainy young men who, had they been born in the following century, might have become computer hackers. A freewheeling culture of competitive cooperation that wasn’t at all far removed from the future hacker culture developed around the telegraph, as all of these bright sparks relentlessly optimized their systems, creating their own legends and lore, heroes and villains in the process. They developed shortcuts for talking with one another along the wires that smack of nothing so much as Internet chat: “SFD” stood for “stop for dinner,” “GM” for “good morning”; one almost expects to find an “LOL” lurking around in there somewhere. During downtime, they filled the lines with such idle chatter, or played checkers and chess with their counterparts in other cities using a special system of codes they’d developed — the original form of networked gaming. And surely they must have made fun of the clueless suits who believed they were the ones running things…

As the second half of the nineteenth century began, then, the telegraph had already become an inexorable transformative force on two continents. There now remained only the most world-transforming feat of connectivity of them all: to bridge the aforementioned two continents themselves, thereby to turn two discrete communications networks into one.

Over the last 50 years, the arrival of steamships on the scene had reduced the time it took to get news across the Atlantic from four or six weeks to as little as ten days under ideal conditions. Yet in the new age of the telegraph such an interval still seemed painfully long. What was needed was obvious: a telegraph wire running across — or rather under — the Atlantic Ocean. Samuel Morse had envisioned just such a thing already in 1843: “A telegraph communication on my plan may with certainty be established across the Atlantic! Startling as this may seem now, the time will come when this project is realized.” Nine years later, the magazine Scientific American dreamed of a future when “the earth will be belted by the electric wire, and New York will yet be able to send the throb of her electric pulse through our whole continent, Asia, Africa, and Europe in a second of time.” Such aspirations seemed far-fetched even in light of the magical powers of current telegraph systems. And yet one thoroughly remarkable man would soon set in motion a major transatlantic effort to realize them — an effort whose vision, daring, and sheer audacity makes it worthy of comparison to the twentieth century’s Project Apollo.


Cyrus Field

This giant nerve, at whose command
The world’s great pulses throb or sleep —
It threads the undiscerned repose
Of the dark bases of the deep.

Around it settle in the calm
Fine tissues that a breath might mar,
Nor dream what fiery tidings pass,
What messages of storm and war.

Far over it, where filtered gleams
Faintly illumine the mid-sea day,
Strange, pallid forms of fish or weed
In the obscure tide softly sway.

And higher, where the vagrant waves
Frequent the white, indifferent sun,
Where ride the smoke-blue hordes of rain
And the long vapors lift and run,

Pauses, perhaps, some lonely ship
With exile hearts that homeward ache —
While far beneath it flashed a word
That soon shall bid them bleed or break.

— “The Atlantic Cable” by Charles G.D. Roberts

During this antebellum era of the United States, New York City’s Astor House was the most famous hotel in the country, the place where all of the movers and shakers stayed when they came to the business capital of the nation. In January of 1854, two of the Astor’s guests happened to be Matthew Field, a prominent railroad engineer, and Frederick Gisborne, a Canadian entrepreneur who was attempting to secure additional funding for a project that had proved much more difficult than he had first anticipated: a telegraph line linking the town of St. John’s on the island of Newfoundland with the town of Sydney on the island of Cape Breton, which entailed some 400 miles of overland and about 85 miles of undersea cable.

Map of Newfoundland and Cape Breton

The undersea portion of the telegraph line would need to be run between Channel-Port aux Basques and the northern tip of Cape Breton, where Cape Breton Highlands National Park is today.

When they bumped into one another one evening in the bar and Gisborne told Field how strapped for cash he was, his interlocutor could well understand the reluctance of potential investors. He asked Gisborne why on earth he wanted to build a telegraph cable in such a remote and inhospitable location at all, serving a Newfoundland population of fishermen that numbered in the bare handful of thousands. Gisborne’s response surprised him: he explained that St. John’s was actually the most easterly town in the Americas, fully one-third closer to Europe than New York City was. If fast steamers carrying urgent messages docked there instead of at one of the larger eastern cities, then passed said messages on to a telegraph operator there, they could substantially cut the communication time between the two continents. Gisborne envisioned a bustling trade of businesses and governments willing to pay well to reduce their best-case communication lag from ten to seven days.

Matthew Field was intrigued enough that he mentioned Gisborne and his scheme to his brother Cyrus Field, who at the age of just 33 was already one of the richest men in New York City. He had made his fortune in paper, but was now semi-retired from business life; being possessed of a decided taste for adventure, he had recently returned from an expedition to some of the more remote regions of South America, in the company of the great landscape painter Frederic Church. Cyrus Field took a meeting with Gisborne, but wasn’t overly impressed with his plan, which struck him as an awful lot of trouble and expense for a fairly modest gain in communication speed. The matter might have ended there — but for one thing. “After [Gisborne] left,” wrote Henry M. Field (another of Cyrus’s brothers) in his history of the Atlantic Cable, “Mr. Field took the globe which was standing in the library, and began to turn it over. It was while thus studying the globe that the idea first occurred to him that the telegraph might be carried further still, and be made to span the Atlantic Ocean.”

It’s hard not to compare this realization with Samuel Morse’s own eureka moment aboard the Sully 22 years earlier. Like Morse at the time, Field was enough of a rank amateur to believe that his brainstorm was a new idea under the sun. Knowing nothing whatsoever about telegraphy, eager to find out if a transatlantic cable was a realistic possibility, Field dispatched two letters. One was to Morse, the one name in the field that absolutely everyone was familiar with. The other was to one Matthew Fontaine Maury, a noted oceanographer and intellectual jack-of-all-trades who wore the uniform of the United States Navy. Both responded enthusiastically: Morse was excited enough to join the project as an official advisor and to offer Field the use of his precious telegraph patent for free, while Maury explained that he had thought about the question enough already to propose a route for the cable between Newfoundland and Ireland, based upon deep-sea soundings he had recently conducted. The route in question was, he said, “neither too deep nor too shallow; yet it is so deep that the wires but once landed will remain forever beyond the reach of vessels’ anchors, icebergs, and drifts of any kind, and so shallow that the wires may be readily lodged upon the bottom.”

The planned course of the cable between Ireland and Newfoundland.

Field’s further inquiries revealed that underwater telegraphy wasn’t an entirely black art. As early as 1845, well before the landlocked telegraph became a reality of daily life in the developed world, an experimental cable had been laid under the Hudson River between New York City and Fort Lee, New Jersey, sheathed in a rubber-packed lead pipe; it had functioned for several months, until the winter ice did it in. In 1851, an underwater cable had bridged the 31 miles of the English Channel, to be followed soon after by another cable connecting Britain to Ireland. Using the latest batteries and wiring, such distances and more were by now possible without employing any repeaters.

So, Field set about enlisting other wealthy men into his cause, whilst getting Gisborne to accept a relegation to the role of chief engineer in what was now to be a much more ambitious venture than he had ever envisioned. In March of 1854, a company was founded with an appropriately ambitious name: the New York, Newfoundland, and London Telegraph Company. The founders estimated that they would need about $1.5 million to complete their task. This was no small sum in 1854; the entire budget of the federal government of the United States that year totaled just $54 million. Nevertheless, the project would end up costing far, far more. “God knows that none of us were aware of what we had undertaken to accomplish,” Cyrus Field would muse later. Had they known, it is doubtful they ever would have begun.


There is nothing in the world easier than to build a line of railroad or of telegraph on paper. You have only to take the map and mark the points to be connected, and then with a single sweep of the pencil to draw the line along which the iron track is to run. In this airy flight of the imagination, distances are nothing. All obstacles disappear. The valleys are exalted, and the hills are made low, soaring arches span the mountain streams, and the chasms are leaped in safety by the fire-drawn cars.

Very different it is to construct a line of railroad or of telegraph in reality; to come with an army of laborers, with axes on their shoulders to cut down the forests, and with spades in their hands to cast up the highway. Then poetry sinks to prose, and instead of flying over the space on wings, one must traverse it on foot, slowly and with painful steps. Nature asserts her power, and, as if resentful of the disdain with which man in his pride affected to leap over her, she piles up new barriers in his way. The mountains with their rugged sides cannot be moved out of their place, the rocks must be cleft in twain, to open a passage for the conqueror, before he can begin his triumphal march. The woods thicken into impassable jungle, and the morass sinks deeper, threatening to swallow up the horse and his rider, until the rash projector is startled at his own audacity. Then it becomes a contest of forces between man and nature, in which, if he would be victorious, he must fight his way. The barriers of nature cannot be lightly pushed aside, but must yield at last only to time and toil, and “man’s unconquerable will.”

— Henry M. Field, The Story of the Atlantic Telegraph

The newly incorporated New York, Newfoundland, and London Telegraph Company decided that its first goal ought to be the completion of Gisborne’s original project, which would also constitute the fulfillment of two-thirds of its name: a telegraph line linking Newfoundland to New York City, via Cape Breton. Such a line would hopefully bring some money in to help fund the vastly more audacious final third of the company’s name.

The first stage of this first goal required no underwater cable, but was daunting enough in its own right: it entailed running an overland cable from St. John’s across the widest part of Newfoundland to the point where the underwater cable was planned to begin. Gisborne had managed to complete the first 40 miles of this link before his money ran out; that left 260 miles still to go. Matthew Field took charge of this endeavor in the summer of 1854, anticipating that it would be done within a year. But he hadn’t reckoned with the rugged, isolated, in many places well-nigh unmapped terrain the work party had to cross, where opportunities for living off the land were few. The logistics surrounding the building of the line thus became much more complicated than the construction effort itself; the 600 men involved in the effort had to build their own roads as they went just to get supplies in and out. “Recently, in building half a mile of road, we had to bridge three ravines,” wrote Matthew Field to his brother Cyrus on one occasion. “Why didn’t we go around the ravines? Because Mr. Gisborne had explored twenty miles in both directions and found more ravines. That’s why!” The whole project could have served as a case study in why builders of telegraph lines usually preferred to follow the smooth, straight paths which the builders of railroads had already cut through the landscape. Alas, that wasn’t an option on Newfoundland.

And then the dark, cold northern winter set in, exacerbating the builders’ suffering that much more. “What hardships and suffering the men endured — all this is a chapter in the History of the Telegraph which has not been written, and which can never be fully told,” writes Henry Field. Bridging Newfoundland and then constructing another 100 miles of overland telegraph line on Cape Breton to reach Sydney wound up taking two years and costing more than $1 million all by itself.

While Matthew Field’s party was inching its way across the wilds of coastal Canada, Cyrus Field was growing impatient to begin laying the undersea part of the route, which he saw as an important test run of sorts for the eventual laying of an Atlantic-spanning cable. He went to London to purchase 85 miles of the best undersea cable money could buy, the same as that which had been used to connect Britain to France and Ireland. It consisted of three intertwined copper-alloy wires, sheathed in tarred hemp, gutta-percha, and galvanized iron wire — guaranteed, so the sellers said, to be impervious to water forever. Field made plans to lay the undersea cable already in the summer of 1855, when the overland cable was still only half completed.

Having as keen an instinct for publicity as any tech mogul of today, Field decided to turn the laying of the cable into a junket for existing and potential investors. Thus on August 7, 1855, the luxury coastal steamer James Adgar departed New York Harbor with many of the brightest stars in the moneyed East Coast firmament aboard. It was to rendezvous off the coast of Newfoundland with an older sailing ship, a sturdy brig called the Sarah L. Bryant carrying the shiny new cable from London, then tow it as it paid out the cable behind it across the Cabot Strait that separates Newfoundland from Cape Breton.

Right from the start, everything that possibly could went wrong, a result not only of bad luck but of a thoroughgoing lack of planning and preparation. The Bryant failed to turn up at the appointed time. When it did appear several days late, it was in a sorry state, having been badly battered by a rough Atlantic crossing weighted down by the cable in its hold. More days were spent on repairs, after which an impenetrable fog rolled in and forced the two ships to sit idle for yet 48 more hours. When the weather cleared at last and the Adgar tried to take the Bryant in tow to begin the operation, a series of cock-ups caused the steamship to ram the brig broadside, very nearly breaking it in two. The captain of the Adgar, whose name was Turner, was by now convinced — and not without justification, it must be admitted — that he was dealing with a bunch of rank amateurs; he grew willfully uncooperative, refusing to steer the course and speed asked of him even after he finally had the Bryant in tow. Cyrus Field and his party watched with alarm as the Adgar‘s high speed, combined with the weight of the cable spooling out behind, caused the Bryant‘s stern to dip lower and lower into the water. Meanwhile the light breeze that had marked the morning’s weather was becoming a howling sidelong gale by mid-afternoon, threatening to capsize the already floundering brig. The captain of the Bryant felt he had no choice: he cut both the tow rope and the telegraph cable, letting the latter fall uselessly into the ocean.

John Wells Stancliff, an amateur painter who was a part of the 1855 attempt to lay a telegraph cable from Newfoundland to Nova Scotia, created this dramatic image of the Sarah L. Bryant being towed through dangerously choppy seas by the James Adgar.

The company’s first attempt to lay an undersea cable had proved an unadulterated fiasco, with the chattering class in ringside seats for the whole sorry spectacle. The final price tag: $351,000 almost literally tossed into the ocean.

Publicly, the partners blamed it all, more than a little disingenuously, on Captain Turner of the Adgar: “We had spent so much money, and lost so much time, that it was very vexatious to have our enterprise defeated by the stupidity and obstinacy of one man.” In truth, though, the obstinate captain was neither the only nor the most important reason that everything had gone sideways. The company had learned the hard way that a sailing ship in tow simply didn’t have the maneuverability necessary to lay a cable in the notoriously temperamental waters of the North Atlantic.

Luckily, Cyrus Field was a man capable of learning from his mistakes. He traveled to London again and bought another cable. And the next summer, just as the overland lines across Newfoundland and Cape Breton were being completed, he tried again to lay it under the ocean. This time, however, he used the agile modern steamer Propontis for the purpose, and invited no one to witness the endeavor, in case it all went wrong again. He needn’t have worried: it all went off without a hitch. The newly minted telegraph connection between St. John’s and Sydney would suffer no service interruptions for the next ten years — a very impressive service record for any line by the standards of the mid-nineteenth century.

Unfortunately, the completion of Frederick Gisborne’s original project had cost the company all of its starting capital and then some — and yet there were still 2000 miles to go if the cable was to reach Ireland. The completed stretch of line ended up bringing in the merest pittance, as Field had suspected it would when Gisborne first broached his idea to him.

So, Field traveled yet again to London, the financial capital of the world, to beat the bushes for more investors. He met with no less skepticism there than he had in his home country; no less august a personage than the head of the Royal Greenwich Observatory called it “a mathematical impossibility to submerge the cable at so great a depth, and if it were possible, no signals could be transmitted through so great a length.” But Cyrus Field could be persuasive: by the time he left Britain six months later, he had formed a new corporation called the Atlantic Telegraph Company, with £350,000 (the equivalent of £40 million or $53 million today) of investment capital; the roll call of those who had pledged their money to the cause included such well-known names as the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray. Lest anyone accuse him of failing to put his money where his mouth was, know that the total also included the majority of Field’s own remaining fortune.

Almost as importantly, the British government promised to pay £14,000 per year to use the telegraph for diplomatic dispatches, and offered to loan the company the recently commissioned 3500-ton steam-powered battleship HMS Agamemnon for the laying of the cable — a poetically appropriate choice, given how the ship shared a name with the ancient tragedy which contains the first documented description of a long-distance signaling system. So, just like that, the Atlantic Telegraph Company had its first customer. Shortly thereafter, it gained its second, when the American government agreed to virtually the same deal: $70,000 per year to make use of the cable. And the Americans too offered a ship for the purpose of laying it: the USS Niagara, a fast, modern 5200-ton steam-powered frigate that was due to be commissioned in the spring of 1857 in the New York Navy Yard. The pride of the United States Navy already, the Niagara was set to become the biggest and arguably the most powerful warship in service anywhere in the world.

The USS Niagara. It dates from that odd era in naval history when builders were still hedging their bets between sail and steam power by equipping their ships with both. Its hull too was a hybrid of old and new, being made of wood draped over a skeleton of steel.

Working from the proposals of Matthew Fontaine Maury, the company plotted a relatively level course for the cable across the Atlantic seafloor. The company’s engineers believed that, by combining a big power source with a cable big enough to handle all the juice it put out without melting, they could push a signal fully 2000 miles without a single repeater; the old, vexing problem of signal loss down a wire had largely been solved by now by brute force. But another problem had cropped up that rather smacked of this older one.

It was slowly becoming clear to the electrical engineers of the mid-1850s that an electric current moved down a wire very quickly but not instantaneously. This phenomenon, which was dubbed electrical retardation, was not a problem in the most obvious sense: a signal traveling at just one percent of the speed of light can still cross the Atlantic in less than one second. The real issue was that different frequencies of current traveled at different speeds, and a telegraph signal contained many frequencies. Thus by the time the signal reached the end of a really long wire, the  sharp, staccato dots and dashes of Morse Code could turn into a fuzzy haze of white noise. A British mathematician and physicist named William Thomson concluded that there was a “law of squares” governing retardation, meaning it was inversely proportional to the square of the cable’s length, echoing a similar claim which Peter Barlow had once made about signal-strength decay. Right on cue, one Wildman Whitehouse, a British surgeon and gentleman experimenter, came forward to play the role of Joseph Henry to Thomson’s Barlow: at worst, retardation increased linearly down the length of a cable, Whitehouse claimed. So, he said, the problem actually wasn’t as big as Thomson made it sound. The battle lines were drawn again, the nay-saying academic once again pitted against the can-do practical man.

There was, to be sure, a straightforward solution of sorts to the problem of retardation even when it was at its worst: operators could simply work their Morse keys more slowly to ensure that every pulse remained distinct. Field was willing to gamble that he would be able to transmit enough messages along his line to make a profit, retardation or no.

The next question to be settled was that of the design of the cable itself. Clearly it had to be much larger in diameter than the typical terrestrial telegraph cable to carry a signal the distance asked of it. But how much larger? The thicker the cable, the more retardation it would be subject to, for the latter is a function not just of a cable’s length but of its total surface area. Thus four qualities needed to be balanced: the positive ones of electrical capacity and physical strength versus the negative ones of degree of signal retardation and physical bulk. This last was no trivial concern. The cable “must be strong, or it would snap in the process of laying,” wrote Henry Field later. “Yet it would not do to have it too large, for it would be unmanageable.” In September of 1855, a British vessel attempting to lay an undersea cable between Sardinia and Algeria had almost been pulled under when the capstan around which the cable was wound had suddenly given way, sending a dead weight of sixteen tons plunging into the ship’s wake “with fearful velocity.” In light of their own recent nautical misadventures off the coast of Newfoundland, such disastrous possibilities were very much on the company’s minds.

Cyrus Field asked both William Thomson and Wildman Whitehouse what type of cable they thought would work best. Predictably enough, they were in complete disagreement. To ensure adequate tensile strength and signal retention, Thomson recommended a cable as thick as a man’s upper arm. To address the retardation that such a thick cable would only exacerbate, he proposed a core made of more conductive pure copper instead of the typical copper alloy, and also proposed a new, ultra-sensitive galvanometer for detecting signals on the receiving end, something he had ideas for but had yet to make a reality. Whitehouse, on the other hand, was vastly more sanguine. A much thinner cable made from a copper alloy, combined with the already proven technologies for sending and receiving, would be just fine according to him. He argued that the retardation engendered by the thinner cable would necessarily be milder, and what there was of it could be easily dealt with by training operators to key their messages somewhat more slowly. His proposed cable would be only as big around as a man’s wrist.

The future Atlantic Cable being made in London.

Unsurprisingly, Field opted for Whitehouse’s approach, which would be far cheaper and faster. Without considering the matter further, he sent an order to London for 2500 miles of cable conforming to Whitehouse’s specifications, at a price of £225,000. (The peaks and valleys of the ocean floor, plus the fact that the cable would not be stretched completely taut, meant that crossing 2000 miles of ocean would surely take considerably more than just 2000 miles of the stuff.) When Thomson was given a snippet of it to test, he was horrified to discover its alloy core was so sloppily made that some sections were twice as conductive as other sections. But the die was now cast.

Whitehouse’s cable may have been comparatively light, but it still weighed one ton per mile, and there was no ship in the world at the time capable of carrying a load of 2500 tons. Therefore the company made plans to load half of this longest length of cable ever made aboard each of the Agamemnon and the Niagara. The ships would sail together, and when the first ship ran out of cable somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic, the other would splice the beginning of its cable onto the end of the first and complete the job.

On April 24, 1857, the Niagara departed New York Harbor on its maiden voyage across the Atlantic, its decks and holds cleared of guns and ammunition to make room for the massive weight of cable that was to be loaded in Britain. Aboard were the Field brothers, Samuel Morse, and a party of engineers and technicians in the employ of one or the other of Cyrus Field’s recently formed telegraph companies; more personnel would be picked up in Britain. Relations between the United States and Britain were not yet as warm as they would become in later decades; the British Army had, after all, sacked and burned Washington, D.C., within the lifetime of most of the politicians there. The Atlantic cable and the cooperative endeavor of laying it were therefore invested with huge symbolic importance by the governments of both nations. Windy speeches and toasts accompanied the Niagara as it met up with the Agamemnon in Plymouth, England, then continued apace as the two ships loaded their unique cargoes, a tricky process that wound up taking quite some weeks. When that task was completed at last, they sailed on to the tiny port of Queenstown (now known as Cobh) on the southern tip of Ireland, where the eastern end of the cable was to make landfall. As a further symbol of the emerging spirit of transatlantic cooperation and trust, the American Niagara was to begin the laying of the cable on the British side of the ocean, while the British Agamemnon would complete it on the American side.

Loading the cable aboard the ships was no small task in itself. It had to be dragged up from the quay and laboriously wound around the giant spools in the ships’ holds.

But first, the two ships anchored side by side off the coast of Ireland to conduct an important test. The crew of the Niagara ferried the end of their cable over to the Agamemnon, where it was spliced with the one onboard that ship. Telegraph operators aboard each of the ships then sent a series of test signals back and forth. The 2500-mile connection worked, but the degree of retardation was much more extreme than Whitehouse had promised it would be; it proved possible to send only about two words per minute, one-fifth the rate he had stated would be the worst possible case. But whatever the infelicities of the advice Field had elected to follow and the cable he had elected to purchase, the moment was a telling testament to an extraordinarily rapid evolution in electrical engineering and materials science since that time less than two decades before when Samuel Morse had struggled to push a decipherable signal down 40 feet of wire. Field trusted that even a telegraph able to send only two words per minute across the Atlantic would be of immeasurable value to diplomacy and commerce.

With the test completed, it was time to begin the actual laying of the cable. Its end came ashore on the evening of August 5, 1857, to the accompaniment of much celebration and speechifying. Cyrus Field was clearly touched when he stepped up to the podium:

I have no words to express the feelings which fill my heart tonight — it beats with love and affection for every man, woman, and child who hears me. I may say, however, that, if ever at the other side of the waters now before us, any one of you shall present himself at my door and say that he took hand or part, even by an approving smile, in our work here today, he shall have a true American welcome. I cannot bind myself to more, and shall merely say, “What God has joined together, let not man put asunder.”

Paying out the first of the cable from the stern of the Niagara. Note the cage around the ship’s screws, put there to make sure the cable couldn’t become entangled in them. The sailors liked to call it a “crinoline,” after the wire hoops used to support ladies’ skirts.

A 25-year-old British telegraph engineer named Charles Bright had designed an ingenious mechanism for drawing the cable up from the spools in the ships’ holds and paying it out in a controlled fashion behind them. As the Niagara and its escort crept away from Ireland at a speed of three to six knots, Bright himself monitored his machine day and night, adjusting it constantly to account for the shifting topography of the seafloor beneath and the wind and waves that buffeted the vessel on whose deck it rode. Telegraph operators ashore in Ireland and aboard the ship tapped out a constant patter back and forth to confirm that the cable was still functioning. The distinctive, steady rumble of the pay-out mechanism became an equally important source of comfort to everyone aboard, another reminder that everything was working as it ought to. “If one should drop to sleep, and wake up at night,” wrote Henry Field later, “he has only to hear the sound of ‘the old coffee mill,’ and his fears are relieved, and he goes to sleep again.”

Charles Bright’s paying-out mechanism on the deck of the Niagara.

By the dawn hours of August 10, almost 300 miles of cable had been laid without a hitch, and Bright stepped away from his machine for some much needed rest, leaving it in the charge of one of his assistants. At 3:45 AM, the ship plunged into the trough of an unusually large wave. As it rose again, the cable was pulled taut. The attendant Bright had left in charge should have reduced the braking force in the mechanism, to let the cable spool out faster and ease the strain on it. But he failed to do so in time. The cable snapped with a sound that reverberated through the decks like the clap of doom. In a flash, the frayed end was lost forever beneath the ocean.

“Instantly ran through the ship a cry of grief and dismay,” writes Henry Field. “All gathered on deck with feelings which may be imagined.” The captain of the Niagara would remember the moment as akin to the death of a “dear friend”; he promptly ordered his ship’s flag lowered to half mast.

Field and his colleagues did a quick assessment, and concluded that the well over 300 miles of cable they had lost left them without enough of it remaining to start over again and hope to complete their task. There was nothing for it but to return to Britain. Once back in London, Field learned that it wasn’t possible to manufacture the needed additional cable before the Atlantic winter made the project of laying it too dangerous to attempt. So, the Niagara sailed for home for the season, and the naysayers and mockers on both sides of the ocean came out in force. A parody of “Pop Goes the Weasel!” made the music-hall rounds:

Pay it out! Oh, pay it out
As long as you are able:
For if you put the damned brake on:
Pop goes the cable!

But Cyrus Field professed himself to be undaunted — indeed, to be more encouraged than discouraged by recent events. Rather than the dismal failure described in the popular press, he chose to see his first attempt to lay his Atlantic Cable as a successful proof of concept; he had sent and received underwater telegraph signals over a gap several times longer than anyone had ever managed before. All he needed to go the full distance were a modestly redesigned paying-out mechanism and some equally modest operational refinements. He said as much in a letter to his investors:

The successful laying down of the Atlantic Telegraph Cable is put off for a short time, but its final triumph has been fully proved by the experience that we have had. My confidence was never so strong as at the present time, and I feel sure that, with God’s blessing, we shall connect Europe and America with the electric cord.

The first Atlantic cable may have been lost forever beneath the cold, dark waves of the ocean, but Field’s passion for the task burned as warmly as ever.

(Sources: the books The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage, Power Struggles: Scientific Authority and the Creation of Practical Electricity Before Edison by Michael B. Schiffer, Lightning Man: The Accursed Life of Samuel F.B. Morse by Kenneth Silverman, A Thread across the Ocean: The Heroic Story of the Transatlantic Telegraph by John Steele Gordon, and The Story of the Atlantic Telegraph by Henry M. Field. Online sources include “The Telegraph and Chess” by Bill Wall, Distant Writing: A History of the Telegraph Companies in Britain between 1838 and 1868 by Steven Roberts, and History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications.)


Gold Machine

Gold Microphone: Enchanter

Is Enchanter the best Zork? Our week-long Enchanter extravaganza starts with a new episode of the Gold Microphone podcast. This episode includes some thoughtful and thought-provoking listener mail, a discussion of Enchanter‘s new magic system, and further wrestles with deep matters of lore (!). Gold Microphone is available on all major streaming platforms. If it […] The post Gold Microp

Is Enchanter the best Zork?

Our week-long Enchanter extravaganza starts with a new episode of the Gold Microphone podcast. This episode includes some thoughtful and thought-provoking listener mail, a discussion of Enchanter‘s new magic system, and further wrestles with deep matters of lore (!).

Gold Microphone is available on all major streaming platforms. If it isn’t on your platform of choice, let us know and we’ll try to get it added. If you’d like to hear it directly from its webhost, find it here.

eNCHanter: Show Notes

Spell books, talking turtles, and the end of the world: Join Callie and Drew as they discuss one of their all-time favorite games–Enchanter!

As discussed in the podcast, here are some links.

Get in touch:

The post Gold Microphone: Enchanter appeared first on Gold Machine.


Zarf Updates

Way up in the middle of the air

"Biblically accurate angels" are a semi-regular topic on Twitter and such. Particularly around Christmas, of course. You've probably seen photos go by of a Christmas tree topped with a bizarre halo of wings and eyes. I see it's a regular tag on Etsy, too. Wings and eyes, eyes and wings, wheels within wheels.♦(From https://www.reddit.com/r/excatholic/comments/kj87fq/biblical_angel_christmas_tre
"Biblically accurate angels" are a semi-regular topic on Twitter and such. Particularly around Christmas, of course. You've probably seen photos go by of a Christmas tree topped with a bizarre halo of wings and eyes. I see it's a regular tag on Etsy, too. Wings and eyes, eyes and wings, wheels within wheels.
(From https://www.reddit.com/r/excatholic/comments/kj87fq/biblical_angel_christmas_tree_topper/ and probably a bunch of other places on reddit too)
When people do this stuff, they're recalling the Book of Ezekiel:
And I looked, and behold four wheels beside the cherubim, one wheel beside one cherub, and another wheel beside another cherub; and the appearance of the wheels was as the colour of a beryl stone.
And as for their appearances, they four had one likeness, as if a wheel had been within a wheel.
When they went, they went towards their four sides; they turned not as they went, but to the place whither the head looked they followed it; they turned not as they went.
And their whole body, and their backs, and their hands, and their wings, and the wheels were full of eyes round about, even the wheels that they four had.
That's Ezekiel chapter 10. (There's similar stuff in chapter 1. You know when you find two slightly different verses for the folk song, I mean holy text, and you can't decide so you copy them both down to sort out later?)
Now, the first version I encountered wasn't that Biblical text. It was the old spiritual, the version arranged by William Dawson. I sang it in junior high school choir, I do believe.
Ezekiel saw the wheel; way up in the middle of the air! Ezekiel saw the wheel, way in the middle of the air!
Everybody loves this stuff -- holy men tripping balls. Ezekiel is great for it. (Not just wheels! If you're a fan of The Prisoner, you know what the hip bone's connected to, dem dry bones: that's chapter 37.) So quite a few modern texts have picked up the imagery. I grew up with these covers of A Wind in the Door, for example.

More recently, I've become fond of Kill Six Billion Demons, an over-the-top web comic about angels and demons kung-fu-fighting. The angels are chaotic -- well, not chaotic -- assemblages of wings, wheels, and eyes. They bleed wings and eyes.

(From Kill Six Billion Demons, page 2-29.5)
On the videogame side, I recall the original Bayonetta going heavily for wheel-and-wing angels. The PS2 Dororo had some wheely monsters too. (El Shaddai and Darksiders didn't, but they should have, c'mon.)
But that's not really what this post is about.
Here's a (sorta) secret: I always feel a little smug at these illustrations of wheels and wings and eyes. Why? Ten years ago, I saw them.
Literally. Way up in the middle of the air.

(Andrew Plotkin, Medford MA)
This was October 27, 2012. Hurricane Sandy was bearing down on the East Coast. It hadn't struck yet, but the atmosphere was in motion, and that afternoon it slung a whole lot of moisture into the upper air. That means high-altitude ice crystals.
Water droplets in sunlight form rainbows, because water droplets are round. Each droplet refracts light from the sun in just one way; so you see refracted light at just one angle from the sun. That makes a circle in the sky. Part of the circle is cut off by the ground (unless you're lucky in an airplane) so a rainbow is always an arch.
Ice crystals in sunlight refract and reflect light in several directions. If they're all aligned -- which they tend to be -- you see many arcs and circles. Here's another photo, taken by David Hathaway in Alabama on Oct 30th:
(David Hathaway via Spaceweather.com)

But if you're not thinking about hexagonal crystals and angles of reflection, what do you see? What are those shapes? Any child or holy man will tell you: those are wings, and eyes, and wheels within wheels.
That was one of the more unexpectedly stunning afternoons of my life. A thing that I, a Jewish atheist, call holy. But that's not really what this post is about either.
Lots of people saw that sky! My neighborhood Livejournal page had a thread of photos. Local news reported it. People collected photos and photo galleries.
You know what all those links have in common? They're all broken today.
The neighborhood group shifted to Dreamwidth (and copied over the post history, so I can still link to it, thank you). The Universal Hub page is still up but the images are broken. (Wayback Machine got it, thank you.) Lockerz doesn't even remember that it exists. And so on, and so on.
It's been a bit under ten years. Frankly, it's embarrassing. Frankly, we're doing this wrong.
I wish I had a better idea. Run your own web sites, kids. (It's a lot of work.) Keep supporting the Internet Archive and Wayback Machine. (They're great but they can't be solely responsible for saving civilization.) Save your photos and keep backups. Also, backups.
(Someone is going to comment with "bl*ckchain" and I will laugh as I moderate that horsecrap into the ether. Don't bother.)
I guess my point is that nothing on the Internet stays around without people -- actual people, not profit centers -- actively working to keep it around.
Web sites stay up because of love. Long run, nothing else works.
What I've done today is go through all those old busted links and trawl out every photo I could find of those solar arcs and halos. I've stashed them on one page -- the same page I created ten years ago to hold my own pair of humble sky photos. That page is mine; I run it; it's not in the pocket of any social media company. I think it will still exist in 2032.
If not, try the Wayback Machine link. (Which is probably how you're reading this if my web site died.) It should have captured the page and all its photos, as of this writing. If you try to click through to one of the images and it doesn't appear, try hitting "Latest".
(Note that this is all blatant copyright violation. I've linked and attributed every single image, but nobody gave me permission to grab copies of them. (Except the one from Wikipedia, which is CC-BY-SA.) I hear the copyright gorgons are on the march again. But that, again, isn't really what this post is about.)
Look. I can't think of much to say beyond, "I'm tired and this isn't going to get better." It's 2022; that's all of us. I've tried to save one good thing.
If you have photos from the hurricane-weather skies of October 2012, feel free to pass them along.

Thursday, 20. January 2022

inkle

ink: the official user's guide, is out now!

Newly released via the inkle bookshop: the official user's guide to the ink scripting language. Consisting of three parts, the guide covers everything from installing the software, to integrating it with Unity, through to using more complex patterns and tricks to push the limits of what's possible in your interactive stories. Suitable for beginners, but with something to offer the exper

Newly released via the inkle bookshop: the official user's guide to the ink scripting language.

Consisting of three parts, the guide covers everything from installing the software, to integrating it with Unity, through to using more complex patterns and tricks to push the limits of what's possible in your interactive stories.

Suitable for beginners, but with something to offer the expert, the official guide is the definitive companion to ink.

Buy the guide

Books

The guide

The guide has three parts: Writing with Ink, Running your Ink and Ink Patterns.

Writing with Ink is the manual contained within inky, which guides you from first principles, through to the more complex features of the language. The guide's version is up-to-date with the latest language features, and has been thoroughly revised with new examples.

Running your Ink is also revised from the free copy available with the ink repo: the new version contains additional sections on profiling your ink, managing save files between release versions of your game and localisation.

And the third part, Ink Patterns, is a new release that pulls together several tricks and ink structures we've developed over the years. Some of these have been previously released via Patreon and on Discord; but we've pulled them together and organised them into sections covering lists, loops, shuffling choices, decision-trees and more.

Wednesday, 19. January 2022

Renga in Blue

Time Zone: Pilots of the Stone Age

I didn’t get any more progress going in 400 million BC, so I decided to move on and try some other ages. In addition to it being needless to slam my head on a brick wall of being stuck (with a T-rex and a pterodactyl) when there were roughly a billion rooms in other ages […]

I didn’t get any more progress going in 400 million BC, so I decided to move on and try some other ages. In addition to it being needless to slam my head on a brick wall of being stuck (with a T-rex and a pterodactyl) when there were roughly a billion rooms in other ages to map, I wasn’t completely 100% sure nothing could be taken back in time; I thought it possible there was some exceptions if an item was very old and not-manufactured, and I turned out to be right — there was one item in 10,000 BC, the Stone Age, that I was able to take back: a rock.

The rock is near here, just north of where the time machine lands.

The rock was no use at all in the past. (At least by all my experimentation so far.) However, I did make progress in the stone age (and used the rock), to enough of an extent I believe I made it to “the end” of that particular area.

Before I really get into that, here is my list of verbs present on disk side B.

Orange indicates recognized verbs, and according to the manual, this list is unique for the disk side I was on, and I should expect entirely different verb-sets elsewhere.

Remember, the manual specifies exactly what zones are on each disk. In this case, we can reach 400 Million Years BC, 10,000 BC, and 2082 BC (Europe, specifically London) without changing the disk.

I found the Stone Age to be a relatively pleasant mix of plain scenery rooms

and actual incident.

This was easy to solve, since I knew CLIMB was on the verb list.

The sharpened stick from dino-era was useful against a saber-tooth tiger; the tiger ran away with the stick in its body, so that used up the item. This makes me of course paranoid there is some sort of softlock where the spear is also useful in a futuristic city, and you have to use it in the future first, but I can’t fret about that now.

Past the tiger there was a hare I was able to KILL by using the rock. I could then take the hare into a cave and offer it for friendship.

Then, using two sticks from elsewhere, I was able to MAKE FIRE (both MAKE and CREATE were on the verb-list so this one was also not hard to sniff out) and they let me have their stone hammer in exchange.

An object! And probably the whole point of going to 10,000 BC, which honestly sounds a little funny narratively. On a whim I decided to try the other location on the same disk, 2082 in Europe.

Not nearly as much progress here, but not much to do progress on. I have heard this game has a lot of empty space, and here it really shows that off.

The map locations aren’t unpleasant-looking, exactly — at least the places fare better than the people —

but the mapping was more like sketching out one of those old-school Might and Magic mazes, except with almost no encounters. London only had two in particular.

First, as shown above, is a police station. The note talks about dogs free for a good home. You can take one, but the dog runs away upon leaving, so you only have a rope in your inventory.

Second, is a thief that (after one turn) takes your stuff.

And…that’s it. There are some cars in locations, but you can’t go in them or refer to them in any way. I think it remotely possible the only reason to visit London 2082 is to get some rope. Of course, I may be missing a hatpin that lets me fend off the thief from the Victorian Era or some such craziness so I don’t really know. I was really expecting to be able to FLY some sort of vehicle, given the word’s presence on the verb list, but perhaps that mean to be used somehow stuck way back in the pterodactyl nest. No flying in the stone age, alas.

I think my next best bet is to approach the game in a wide sense, just visiting each age/location in turn, making a map, and finding out what presumably small interesting pieces there are. Then I can line up all the obstacles I’m stuck on in a more organized way so I can pop back and forth with a little more efficiency. Otherwise, who knows where the stone hammer I got from 10,000 BC goes? I did try one more era, that of 50 BC in Europe, which turns out to be — predictably — Rome. As prophesized, the map is mostly dead air, but here’s a few screenshots.

I’m willing to appreciate the gonzo bit here.

The important parts are near the “arena”. You can find some prisoners that look miserable

a pit that has a dark labyrinth (if you wander you eventually die)

and in one location you get summarily tossed into a lion’s pit for just walking around.

Some serious trudging to come. Expect that “Hours Played” to go up a bit next time? Although mapping nothing is faster than you might think.

HOURS PLAYED: 1.5

Tuesday, 18. January 2022

The People's Republic of Interactive Fiction

January meetup (online)

The Boston IF meetup for January will be Thursday, January 27, 6:30 pm Eastern time. We will post the Zoom link to the mailing list on the day of the meeting.

The Boston IF meetup for January will be Thursday, January 27, 6:30 pm Eastern time.

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

Monday, 17. January 2022

Gold Machine

Video Game publishing, NFTs, And New Delusions of Value

How Nice for Them. Publishers and a New Valuation of Value While there are no certainties when it comes to artistic judgement, I struggle to imagine that anyone bought those monkey NFTs for their aesthetic beauty. I believe the entire collection is cumulatively measured in the billions as of January 2022 (I don’t want to […] The post Video Game publishing, NFTs, And New Delusions of Val

How Nice for Them.

Publishers and a New Valuation of Value

While there are no certainties when it comes to artistic judgement, I struggle to imagine that anyone bought those monkey NFTs for their aesthetic beauty. I believe the entire collection is cumulatively measured in the billions as of January 2022 (I don’t want to give the source clicks. It’s findable with a good google). Surely this valuation is not a matter of taste.

An assortment of six "bored ape" NFT. They are all iterations of the same template. All have large, exposed teeth and large heads atop slender necks. The first wears a red and plaid shirt and a black motorcycle cap. The second wears a bright yellow and black flannel plaid shirt with a yellow and black motorcycle cap. And so forth. All are, given their perceived value, surprisingly ugly.
Ugly nonsense = billions.

This is low-hanging rhetorical fruit. Many others have authored and tweeted about this incredible (I use the word in its literal, dictionary-derived sense) new perception of value.

“Value” is a belief, after all. Money has value because enough people believe that it does. It is common to pay workers in the United States based on perceptions of market condition that have no real linkage to the amount or intensity of work performed. To do so reflects beliefs about value, community, and arbitrarily delineated margins of profit. The stock market, which of course considers many factual sources, considers them in order to inform a belief about the future. It is obviously belief–no one can predict the future.

A worthwhile point of comparison is this blog’s interest in the physicality of old Infocom games: their packaging, their documents, and their fellies. As a quick scan of Ebay will show, these collectibles are valuable due in large part to their physical nature. Widely available digital scans and photographs of these items are free and considered a service to the community. It is not at all clear that the gaming industry can offer digital goods that effectively marry utility and value.

This isn’t an awkward and out-of-my-depth attempt to instruct you about economics, or, perhaps, my beliefs regarding economics. Instead, I hope to direct your attention toward a pernicious development in something that interests Gold Machine: video game publishing. In recent months, executives of varied AAA game publishers have spoken breathlessly about integrating Blockchain and NFTs with their current and future product portfolios (for example, Square Enix and Take Two Interactive). These large publishers are mostly publicly traded companies, and many of their stockholders view games as just another widget.

Their excitement is understandable. For years now, they have pushed preorder bonuses and “digital deluxe” editions with hopes of instilling within their customers a belief in their value. I would call these efforts a mixed success. From a customer perspective, a key problem with their offerings is that any belief in their value is tenuous. Take last year’s Resident Evil VIII: Village digital deluxe edition. Besides the game, it offered the following “goodies” at launch.

  • Samurai Edge: a nostalgic family of pistols used by the original members of S.T.A.R.S. A non-upgradable gun that is only slightly better than the default at the beginning of the game. Because it can’t be modded or upgraded, it soon becomes useless.
  • Resident Evil VII Found Footage filter: play the game with grainy, black and white visuals. A niche offering with limited appeal.
  • Resident Evil VII tape recorder save point: replace the save game typewriter with a tape recorder. Inconsequential and something few people would pay money for.
  • Saferoom Music “Go Tell Aunt Rhody.” Change music in saferooms to a song from Resident Evil VII.
  • Mr. Everywhere Weapon Charm: Dangle a knickknack from your gun that occasionally blocks your field of vision.
  • Unlock “Village of Shadows” Difficulty. Yes, a difficulty level was locked behind a paywall at launch.
  • The Tragedy of Ethan Winters artwork: a collection of admittedly cool concept art and commentary from the art director of Resident Evil VIII. Its contents are posted publicly on the internet, which adversely affects its value.
  • The Baker Incident Report: While this is arguably the most interesting extra (a presumably canon summary of the events of Resident Evil VII), its text is also widely available on the internet.

Is this worth ten dollars? A buyer must decide for themselves, but on paper it is a collection of inconsequential bric a brac. Under this current model, corporations must struggle to foment a widespread belief in the value of digital deluxe releases. Meanwhile, they have clearly done their best to minimize labor costs. The concept art already exists, the Resident Evil VII items either exist or at least have an existing model. The art director had to pen less than a thousand words to accompany “The Tragedy of Ethan Winters.” The author of the “Baker Incident Report” presumably spent the most time researching and checking against franchise canon. Such packages, which nearly all large publishers offer, primarily capitalize a customer’s Fear of Missing Out. The value of allaying such impulses is tenuous at best.

A promotional picture for the Resident Evil VII pre-order bonus: A "Mr. Racoon" Weapon charm--an anthropomorphized racoon figure that dangles from the barrel of a gun. Additionally provided is a "survival resources pack" that includes items already available in the game: a lockpick, a box of pistol ammuniction, shotgun shells, and a bottle of healing fluid. All items are of limited value.
The pre-order value proposition

It is obvious that publishers would be better off if they could tap into an already existing belief in value. This is where NFTs come in: they can simply welcome customers aboard an already-chugging hype machine. Why throw developers and marketing people at a technology that seems to promote itself (with some help from its fervent believers)? Why invest in products that require creative labor and ongoing maintenance when there are profitable alternatives?

What would it cost, I wonder, for players to experience the majesty of Chris Redfield in a monkey hat? Or a collectible “card” of Jill Valentine eating a sandwich? What would these things cost Capcom? The sticking point is whether or not customers are willing to believe in the value of these items. Executives, excited at the prospects of a widespread customer valuation far above and beyond production costs, have the serial number of a JPEG of bridge to sell you.

Note: I haven’t mentioned the environmental implications of these technologies. This isn’t because I don’t care. It’s because these companies don’t care. The fact that large corporations are more concerned with profit than ecological preservation should surprise no one at this late date.

Coming Soon:

Callie’s schedule permitting, we will release a new episode of Gold Microphone on Friday, January 21, 2022. We will be discussing Enchanter.

On Monday, January 24, the Enchanter bonanza continues with the first of three essays about it right here on Gold Machine.

Since you can’t YOMIN us, you’ll have to check them out for yourself!

The post Video Game publishing, NFTs, And New Delusions of Value appeared first on Gold Machine.

Saturday, 15. January 2022

Renga in Blue

Time Zone: 400MILBC

On June 17, 2020, an important milestone in the history of Time Zone was achieved: So the game is beatable given I have 38 years of time to work on it. Given how gnarly it is supposed to be, I figured it wise to spend time with the manual first, in case there were any […]

On June 17, 2020, an important milestone in the history of Time Zone was achieved:

So the game is beatable given I have 38 years of time to work on it.

Given how gnarly it is supposed to be, I figured it wise to spend time with the manual first, in case there were any deft hints or fun facts. Here’s the first one (well, middle one, but I’m not doing them in page-order):

On our adventure we need to visit a variety of time areas (using the time machine from the screenshot earlier that appeared next to our house in 1982) in order to collect a variety of items to defeat Evil-Bad-Guy Ramadu in 4081 AD. The game helpfully lists not only what the time zones are but on what disks they appear in. (Wildly, in a meta-sense, this is so if one of your disks goes bad and you need to send for a new one, you can keep playing the game by exploring other zones. This is an open world game where the physical media you are exploring on at a given moment is important, which sounds like it should be an element of some bizarre art installation.)

Based on another manual hint…

…I knew that the timezones were essentially going to be “in order”. Perhaps some hopping around continents once reaching a particular time “level”, but since no items can go back farther, the only possibility for reverse-hopping would be from seeing, say, a secret area in a later time period that is buried in an earlier one, but can be unburied if you know where to dig. So the order should be

400,000,000 BC
10,000 BC
50 BC
1000 AD
1400 AD
1700 AD
2082 AD
4082 AD

where the two earliest periods and the last period only have one “location” to go to.

The “knowledge of technology” hint suggests to me we’re going to make gunpowder somewhere, because it’s always gunpowder.

Nothing too serious here, except the glaring emphasis on food suggests we’ll being doing that kind of puzzle more than once.

The second paragraph is quite notable. In the interview I linked in my last post Roberta Williams suggests the game being used in schools to teach history, but this paragraph definitely suggests something different, more of a Mystery-Science-Theater-3000-style romp (“If you’re wondering how he eats and breathes / And other science facts / Then repeat to yourself ‘It’s just a show, / I should really just relax.'”)

Now, even if you haven’t read my occasional random drops like the time I invoked late 1960s minimalist art or my discussion of US inflation in the 1970s you might suspect from the very nature of the All the Adventures project I am something of a history nerd, and you’d right; however, I do tend to be a little more chill than my fellow nerdlings about inaccuracy and anachronism in media. As long as something recognizes it is a little gonzo I can roll with it, and this mention in the manual works for me. Maybe Ms. Williams (or by proxy, Mr. Williams) was just hoping to sell more copies to the educational market?

Also, this isn’t making excuses from a late printing. This is printed early enough that the manual advises players not to bother to send for hints until May 1982 (the game came out in March) “due to the large amount of information our support staff will need to absorb”.

It additionally helps the game starts with dinosaurs, and I’m always a sucker for dinosaurs–

After the dream of becoming savior of the universe you find a time machine in your back yard. Inside is a gas mask; be sure to remove it before going back in time, otherwise it will disappear (remember the manual!… and also welcome to 1982, where a softlock in giant adventure game can happen right at the start).

There’s dials to set time and continent. For 400MILBC there’s no need to set a location.

My first experience was to get quickly chomped by a dinosaur.

You get a turn before this happens, so I assume there’s something you can do to stop it (that is, this isn’t just a trap).

Look: I know these things are unmerciful. You just have to approach with the attitude that you’re collecting deaths, like Pokemon. (I have seen an adventure game streamer once accidentally pick the correct option off a list and go back to try the bad one to not miss out on the death scene.)

Like this death, where you get swept up by a “pteridactyl” and the game gives up for you on the next move:

Well, I don’t see any way out of this mess. You are enventually going to be dinner for the pteridactyl, so I will spare you and end the game right now.

Oh, there’s a swamp too.

The only bright spots have been the only object I’ve gotten (a sharp stick) and a friendly brontosaurus.

So, rough start? I might think to DIG but that verb isn’t recognized (it might be recognized on other disks; the manual indicates that verb vocabulary can be inconsistent across time zones). So while I haven’t eaten up much time as of yet, I thought here would be at least a good moment to write the opening, because I suspect the next hour will involve a lot of banging my a head against a wall, or at least a dinosaur.

HOURS PLAYED: 0.25


Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling

Mid-January Link Assortment

Events Feb 5 is the next meeting of the SF Bay IF Meetup. If you wish to enter Spring Thing this year with a new work of interactive fiction, you have until March 1 to submit your intent to enter, and March 31 to complete your game. Releases chiaroscuro is a short, low-fantasy IF novella … Continue reading "Mid-January Link Assortment"

Events

Feb 5 is the next meeting of the SF Bay IF Meetup.

If you wish to enter Spring Thing this year with a new work of interactive fiction, you have until March 1 to submit your intent to enter, and March 31 to complete your game.

Releases

chiaroscuro is a short, low-fantasy IF novella from Kim Berkley, author of Harbinger’s Head, about a young American artist in Rome, choosing her artistic and personal path.


Reviews From Trotting Krips

Borrowed Time by Interplay (1985)

Borrowed Time starts with a frame-per-second animation of a guy breaking through the glass window on your door and then reaching around and turning the doorknob to let him in to presumably start smashing you next. On the PC, anyway! The PC version does this. The version I played for this review was the Amiga’s […]

Borrowed Time starts with a frame-per-second animation of a guy breaking through the glass window on your door and then reaching around and turning the doorknob to let him in to presumably start smashing you next. On the PC, anyway! The PC version does this. The version I played for this review was the Amiga’s and the game’s introduction just shows a pretty sedate office without any violence whatsoever. I mean, I guess that was the biggest difference between the Amiga and the IBM PCjr: the Amiga’s most famous demo is a simple bouncing ball in a family-friendly box while the PCjr ran ads with an actor wearing the same moustache that killed six million souls in the Holocaust. But here we have the second biggest difference between the platforms in my opinion. The history of entertainment software for the IBM PC is that of a game having to try twice as hard because it looks four times as bad.

We had the real folio package of Borrowed Time in my family.  I’ve spilled a lot of ink on the Internet about software piracy but I don’t think we actually warezed that much software, all told. I didn’t have the kind of money to buy this when it was released, so I assume my father paid for it as he was the only one working in the family in 1986. A year after he bought this game for my brother and I to play he had a heart attack and I have no memory of the events before and after that, an absolute brain blackout for something that should have been firing off the thickest (?) synapses I had at the time. Every year we got from my dad after his heart attack was a bonus, we didn’t take any for granted after his bypass surgery.

So this was a replay of Borrowed Time because I had it as a kid and got pretty far but also a replay because I sure didn’t remember much beyond the opening. While (re) playing the opening, I kept coming back to the wonderful things this game does as a text adventure. One of the pitfalls of my own interactive fiction is that the “>talk” command starts solving all problems. It’s easy to get into a very small subset of commands which gets the player’s brain trained upon those commands and makes anything out of the ordinary a verb that must be guessed. Borrowed Time doesn’t do that – within the first ten minutes we have an >answer phone, a >read case files, a >hide (it took me a MONTH to implement hiding in Cryptozookeeper during the scene where the character Ben plays turns people into stone if he sees you to early, and this game just elegantly makes it the obvious command as shots start firing) a password you can sleuth out and then a wonderful scene where you get a slow motion play by play of the hired muscle (“Rocco”) emerging through a doorway where you can smash him in the head with a candlestick. We use the >hide command in the end game as well and I do like how it is implemented – you have the most obvious “hide” command in the beginning of the game (and you are specifying what to hide behind!) and in the end game you also need to hide behind something (trash in this instance) but it doesn’t come out of nowhere.

After this crazy opening there is an entire little town to explore and that leads to the biggest misstep of Borrowed Time – it will kill you if it feels you aren’t making enough progress. It’s deserves to get dinged for this but the MiSTer and other Amiga emulators have you covered because saving to a slot on the ADF file itself works – this gives you a chance to save after the game’s opening and run around town to see what is going on and restore after this picture:

You have about 10 moves after the game tells you that “you hear a gun cocking somewhere” – in getting the screenshot up above, the thug shot me right outside a police station, which – hey, you’ve got to give a guy with skin pinker than Sinestro and the exact same moustache as Sinestro credit for having the balls to do his job even if the environmental conditions aren’t ideal. This is a man who does not subscribe to the 2022 mantra of “nobody wants to work.”

The mid-game has you finding evidence to put away the crooks in town that want to end you, Boss Farnham included, who seems to be the mastermind. There is a “give a dog a bone” puzzle, that old classic, and a better one where you have a confrontation with Boss Farnham and observe that he uses the word “Hiyo” to calm his ravenous Dobermans, which you can later use yourself to stop them from ripping your throat out.

The constant anxiety created by the daemon that kills you if you dawdle is there until the end game. I wish I could see the source code to see what’s going on. It’s tough because this is a game without much to say, but you still want to take time to look at objects and yet you do there is that sensation that the Murder Clock is ticking. Even when firmly into the game’s final puzzles – escaping the act of getting tied up, showing a bunch of evidence to the cops – you still get the listings that you feel watched and that death is coming.

There are some other problems that aren’t solved by modern technology as well. Whereas Infocom’s text adventures can show you more text on the screen this century, thanks to Frotz and other interpreters created well after the games were released, you get six lines at about 7 words each for the game’s text, so when a couple things are happening at once, the economy of words it can present is pretty stifling. I don’t see anyone making a modern Interplay interpreter and even if someone did, the content from a writing standpoint just does not exist.

Is this worth playing in 2022? The inability to take your time and explore without reloading really distracts from what you can learn from this game. But! It has some really good bits if you’re looking to learn something about adventure game design. Borrowed Time puts on a masterclass in the opening and has enough interesting pieces throughout. It’s not really noir, although it uses a lot of the marginalia from noir –  everything does get wrapped up in a neat bow, there really isn’t a femme fatale of much note and there is absolutely no “voice” present from a hard-boiled private dick. For me, though, I am glad I spent a couple weeks with it again. This is a game of a place and time. This is a game that will always remind me of the neighborhood I grew up in. My brother and I were excited to have something like this to spend weeks on. The men who owned homes in the neighborhood I grew up in are all passing now, the husbands and father all dying as they hit age 77 and beyond. They lived life in a way I should probably try to emulate, while they were all PC gamers, they certainly didn’t spend evening after evening staring at a computer screen.  They all knew how to build houses (with what, their bare hands? >yes) and raise kids who had infinitely easier and better lives than they did, all while ensuring their wives and loved ones were financially taken care of when they started dying. This game makes you feel like you are never more than 5 moves away from getting gunned down and as I grow older I see the same thing pretty regularly in the generation that came before me. I’m trying to appreciate what I have around me as we crawl through the middle(?) of a deadly pandemic. But I’m gonna be honest. After the last couple of years it definitely feels like each day is just some Borrowed Time in real-life too.

 

Friday, 14. January 2022

what will you do now?

IFComp 2021: 4×4 Archipelago

Author: Agnieszka Trzaska (IFDB) | Choice-based A Twine-powered roguelite*/D&D imagining. It’s surprisingly expansive with lots of side quests – I took well over 2 hours. There is some inevitable lawnmowering, but with enough random in it to make it interesting. I think it stands up to replay, mainly because of the different main quests. I … Continue reading IFComp 2021:

Author: Agnieszka Trzaska (IFDB) | Choice-based

A Twine-powered roguelite*/D&D imagining. It’s surprisingly expansive with lots of side quests – I took well over 2 hours. There is some inevitable lawnmowering, but with enough random in it to make it interesting. I think it stands up to replay, mainly because of the different main quests. I found the speed of progress largely determined by the starting class and characteristics.

*it’s been a while but I think that’s right? Procedurally generated, permadeath if you don’t reload from game save, turn-based combat

Otherwise a well constructed RPG, with all the bits you would expect (map, money system, combat, side quests, lore). This did well in IFComp, ranking 8th out of 71.


Choice of Games LLC

New Hosted Game! Studies in Darkness by Nathaniel Johnson

Hosted Games has a new game for you to play! Your submarine is gripped by giant tentacles! You are in a battle of wills with a murdered classmate! You play as every scoundrel in this fantasy heist. Steal a dark power… Escape with your soul! It’s 33% off until January 20th! Studies in Darkness is an adventurous 30,000 word interactive dark fantasy novel by Nathaniel Johnson, where your choices

Hosted Games has a new game for you to play!

Your submarine is gripped by giant tentacles! You are in a battle of wills with a murdered classmate! You play as every scoundrel in this fantasy heist. Steal a dark power… Escape with your soul!

It’s 33% off until January 20th!

Studies in Darkness is an adventurous 30,000 word interactive dark fantasy novel by Nathaniel Johnson, 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.

In the haunted gothic city of Doskvol, you control the last surviving members of a secret society. Restore your infamous reputation by heisting treasure from an abandoned laboratory. Use ectoplasm-powered steampunk technology to dive deep underwater for a unique and precious artifact.

Beware, you are breaking into the Morlan Hall of Unnatural Philosophy. You will face the result of centuries of experiments with the occult and the undead. But you are prepared! Unleash the power of alchemy, electricity, and each scoundrel’s unique supernatural abilities!

  • Play as a heist crew of five young men and women.
  • Experience the award-winning Blades in the Dark system, where your every choice is significant and may bring both success AND terrible consequences!
  • Jump between the students’ perspectives in each chapter!
  • Solve a murder mystery by stepping into the realm of the undead!
  • Fight off the corrupt cops that are raiding your school!
  • “Flashback” to key events in the past, revealing hidden stories and special advantages!
  • Tap into your “Stress” resource to overcome impossible odds. Beware, too much stress will drive you mad!

The pressure is rising. Your future has been stolen from you. Steal it back!

Nathaniel 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.

Thursday, 13. January 2022

Choice of Games LLC

New Hosted Game! The Soul Stone War 2 by Morgan Vane

Hosted Games has two new games for you to play! The Soul Stone War 2 by Morgan Vane You have survived. You have survived and endured, still standing after beating unbeatable odds. But at what cost? It’s 30% off until January 20th! One of your companions is lost to you, and your party has been battered down. Secure in his supremacy, Manerkol holds all the cards. Yet the power of the Gods now r

Hosted Games has two new games for you to play!

The Soul Stone War 2 by Morgan Vane

You have survived. You have survived and endured, still standing after beating unbeatable odds. But at what cost?

It’s 30% off until January 20th!

One of your companions is lost to you, and your party has been battered down. Secure in his supremacy, Manerkol holds all the cards.

Yet the power of the Gods now runs through your veins. Find allies to your cause, gather more Soul Stones, grow into your legend, and make choices that will change the shape of your world.

Will you accept the hand fate has dealt you, or will you fight against the presence filling your mind with visions of power and domination?

The Soul Stone War 2 is the thrilling 400,000-word sequel to the interactive fantasy novel The Soul Stone War.  Meet characters old and new, pick up on the friendships and romances you began and grow into the hero that you’re meant to be.

  • Play as female, male, or non-binary—with options to be straight, gay, bisexual, or aromantic.
  • Continue your romance or try to find new love in an unexpected place.
  • Choose how to deal with the powerful being now sharing your mind and body.
  • Infiltrate Manerkol’s palace and reclaim your lost companion.
  • Learn one of the biggest secrets in the series.
  • Nurture the bonds of kinship between your group and grow into a power to rival the Lord of All.
  • Find new and innovative ways to tackle problems, utilizing your unique skills, traits, and the new powers granted to you by the Soul Stones.
  • Immerse yourself in a rich world full of magic, sacrifice, and love where every choice has unexpected consequences for everyone.

Rise, Soul Stone Wielder. Your fate lies in your hands.

Morgan 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.

Wednesday, 12. January 2022

Gold Machine

Intentionality and the Gamification of Tedium: Planetfall

Planetfall and the unique challenge of digital canonicity. A word of warning: this essay contains gameplay and story spoilers for Planetfall, up to and including its ending. Additionally, this essay spoils the ending of Trinity. If you have not yet played these games, it may be best if you return at a later date. Points […] The post Intentionality and the Gamification of Tedium: Planetfall ap

Planetfall and the unique challenge of digital canonicity.

A word of warning: this essay contains gameplay and story spoilers for Planetfall, up to and including its ending. Additionally, this essay spoils the ending of Trinity. If you have not yet played these games, it may be best if you return at a later date.

Points of Departure

It is 1996. A reader loves nearly all of Slaughterhouse Five, but they do not care for the ending. It would be better, they think, if Edgar Derby did not die at the end (believe it or not, this is not a spoiler). They write their own ending and print it on custom-sized sheets of paper. Then, they tear out the back pages of their paperback edition and staple their own ending to the cover.

It is 2019. A reader loves nearly all of Trinity, but they do not care for the ending. It would be better, they think, if the protagonist had simply rid the world of nuclear weapons forever. They could then return happily to America, having survived an incredible adventure. Since this reader has the source code and a compiler, they rewrite the ending and compile a new story file.

It is 1983. A high school student makes a ROM dump of Jumpman Jr in order to share disk copies with their friends. They sign their handiwork by adding a graphic and codename to the loading screen.

It is 2021. A fan transposes images and text to a text-only document in order to make a game accessible to a wider audience.

It is 1935. An artist makes a near-perfect copy of the Mona Lisa, only the subject is wearing sunglasses and has a cigar in her mouth.

It is 2016. A hobbyist downloads a trainer program for Dark Souls that allows a player to grant their characters superpowers and unlimited resources. The Dark Souls series is famous for its uncompromising difficulty.

It is 2023. A fan remake of the 2002 remake of Resident Evil is released to mostly positive reception.

It is 2018. An author writes a Naruto fan fiction featuring a romance between their favorite characters. It is uploaded to a fan fiction community that hosts thousands of fan-written stories.

It is 1977. A group of wisecracking MIT students begin work on a fan-made sequel/tribute to the first widely played text adventure game. They call it “Zork.”

It is anytime, anywhere. The relationships between audiences and artists are elastic and permeable, and it is not always clear what–if any–special considerations art might deserve. Digital media–including Infocom games–pose new questions due to novel technologies and the internet-connected subcultures that use them. New and old points of discussion might include distribution, copyright law, constructive vandalism (as in the crackscreen example above), program and/or program data modification, tributes, fan fiction, and parody. There are doubtless many others.

Planetfall‘s Linearity and The Timelessness of Zork

As I am fond of pointing out, time does not really flow in most Infocom games. Instead, there is a phenomenon we may as well call “Zork Time.” Rather than having a single, unified timeline, Zork I has timers:

  • The candles can only be lit a set number of turns (after the Adventurer touches them).
  • The number of turns that the lamp can be lit is limited
  • A timer dictates how long it takes to fill and empty the reservoir.
  • The control room will flood (and remain flooded) if not repaired in time.

I’m sure there are other examples. Please feel free to mention them in a comment! Zork Time is event-centered. A player acts, and a timer begins ticking away turns. The reason, so far as I can tell, for implementing Zork Time rather than a unified timeline is simple: it wouldn’t add anything to the game. Additionally, ADVENT, which first established the conventions of text adventures, did not have linear time. Why would Zork?

Zork Time has seen tweaks and embellishments for specific games. Both Zork III and Starcross experimented with timers that affected the entire world, creating an illusion of unified time. Deadline would be the first Infocom game to simulate linear time as we experience it, incorporating global, reactive scheduling for character behaviors and world events. Because actions and events occur independent of player action, the game world is placed in an ambiguous, or quantum state. While The Witness implements Deadline‘s model of unified time, it rarely seems important.

That brings us to Planetfall with its radical new approach to time. While both Zork Time and Linear Time models dictate changes in the world and its objects, Planetfall‘s model has internal–not external–implications. That is to say, it is the protagonist‘s own body and not the world that changes as time passes. This isn’t clear at first. We discover, perhaps with some annoyance, that the Cadet must eat and sleep. There are bathrooms and beds and, rather than filling out the realistic necessities of, say, the Robner estate, these novelties imply a new and significant reality: the protagonist has a body. He eats, sleeps, may–off camera, naturally–use the bathroom. For the first time, an Infocom protagonist is embodied in a meaningful way. Sure, the Adventurer and the Human can experience bodily death, but there is no persistent sense of embodiment (In Zork I and III, the Adventurer can be wounded in battle, but he heals after a number of turns. In any case, woundedness is event-based and therefore participates in Zork Time).

Most important: the Cadet gets sick. Planetfall does not merely feature embodiment as a new kind of simulation. Embodiment is, in fact, the central problem of the plot. The protagonist must find a cure to a disease before it kills him.

>diagnose
You are a bit sick and feverish.
You feel well-rested.
You seem to be well-fed.

A feature of the story of Planetfall is that the protagonist’s body deteriorates over linear time. Realizing this physicality implied a new requirement. Since the Cadet’s illness progresses over a period of days, this time must be marked in the game world. Hence, sleep becomes a necessary part of the simulation.

You begin to feel weary. It might be time to think about finding a nice safe place to sleep.
[after a number of turns]
>lie down
(on the bed)
Ahhh...the bed is soft and comfortable. You should be asleep in short order.

>wait
Time passes...

You slowly sink into a deep and restful sleep.

***** SEPTEM 7, 11344 *****

You wake up feeling refreshed and ready to face the challenges of this mysterious world.

Because simulating the effects of time on the body is central to the story of Planetfall, the protagonist must also eat:

A growl from your stomach warns that you're getting pretty hungry and thirsty.

The belief that eating and sleeping in Planetfall are mere ancillary tedium is a misunderstanding. Simulated embodiment is core to its story and is the primary source of narrative propulsion in Planetfall. Awareness of the Cadet’s body is a constant source of pressure on the player.

I have read arguments that eating is only implemented as way to impose a time limit in the game, just as lamp batteries limited the number of turns in Zork II (we can debate whether the canteen has meaningful utility after reaching the second complex another day), but this isn’t true. Stretch things out far enough, and the Cadet dies of the Disease. Food only delays the inevitable. This is fitting, since eating (and sleeping) are both expression and consequence of a new demarcation of linear time: the deterioration of the embodied Cadet. For the first time in an Infocom game, the world resists change while wreaking change upon a protagonist.

Perhaps, in Planetfall the video game, the body is as inconsequential as it is for some virtual reality avatars–merely implied by a pair of hands. Planetfall the text, on the other hand, never lets you forget that time destroys all.

One of three postcards packaged with Planetfall. It reads "Greetings from historic Ramos II." The artwork is divided into two panels. The left shows a four-armed alien with with a ducklike beak. It holds the trunk of a giant, tree-sized flower. On the right, a three eyed alien waves. Above it, far away in space, is a orange planet with yellow and purple leaves.
One of three postcards included with Planetfall. Retrieved from MoCAGH.

Final Thoughts on Planetfall

I played Stationfall and Enchanter before playing Planetfall, and that led to a “This again?” reaction to its timers. While the passing of days matters in Stationfall, embodiment does not. Sleep serves to mark the passing of time but has no other apparent narrative significance. If the player is stingy with their food, the game ends anyway. As in Planetfall, hunger does not function as a time limit. I saw no point to the mechanic, because, so far as I can tell, it has none. Similarly, eating in Enchanter has no purpose, nor does it ultimately impose a time limit. Sleep serves an important function because it marks the days and provides hints. However, in both cases the protagonist’s physicality does not matter, and I assumed the same would be true for Planetfall.

The result was that I saw no value in sleep or hunger timers in the text of any Infocom game. The order in which I played these games made all the difference: I assumed that what didn’t matter in Stationfall wouldn’t matter in Planetfall. It didn’t help that I saw video games as mere amusements at the time, and the idea of artistic choice or intentionality in Planetfall would never have crossed my mind. I have to admit that, even as a college sophomore double-majoring in English and Philosophy, I had a rather limited conception of art. I may as well say it: I was an elitist and an intellectual snob.

It is likely no surprise that I enjoy Planetfall more than I did all those years ago. I appreciate its escalating sense of desperate urgency that pushes the player forward, and the strange tension between the protagonist’s deterioration and Floyd’s constant silliness. The puzzles, compared with those in Zork, are consistently well-clued and organic to the world. I even accept the tedium of embodiment as essential to the story of Planetfall and its themes.

Still, it may or may not be easy to forgive the pointlessness of the dial door, or the inevitability of traveling to the second complex without all of the needed items. Some questions one must answer for oneself.

Planetfall is, then, a well-considered and well-implemented game. Its chief weakness is its ending, which feels out of place in a story paced out with such care. As many have pointed out, it was not Meretzky’s original ending, which was changed based on tester feedback. Perhaps this is another point of consideration: what are the implications of creating something that is both consumer product and art? In the field of video game development, this must be a constant source of pressure. Perhaps, as an audience, we sometimes feel it, too.

Next

As a Gold Machine first, both Gold Machine and Gold Microphone will tackle the same game at the same time. Will this combination be fun and interesting? Or will I simply repeat here what I say there? Stay tuned for a Machine/Microphone team-up: Enchanter!

The post Intentionality and the Gamification of Tedium: Planetfall appeared first on Gold Machine.

Tuesday, 11. January 2022

Renga in Blue

Time Zone (1982)

There are some games that have loomed as dark, brooding hulks, games I have known about for a long time but have never touched. I’ve been afraid of Time Zone ever since roughly I knew the All the Adventures project would be a thing, back in March of 2011. “Audacious” is the right word. After […]

There are some games that have loomed as dark, brooding hulks, games I have known about for a long time but have never touched.

I’ve been afraid of Time Zone ever since roughly I knew the All the Adventures project would be a thing, back in March of 2011.

“Audacious” is the right word. After Roberta Williams polished up her trilogy from 1980 (Mystery House, Wizard and the Princess, Mission: Asteroid) she wanted to make a game that kept going and going and going. From a Computer Gaming World interview, not long after release:

It’s not an easy game. And it’s not for beginners. It takes a really long time to get through TIME ZONE; even for someone who knows the answers. If I sit down to test TIME ZONE, it takes me a good week to go through it one time while testing it and I know the answers! Make sure you have GOOD maps. Use your imagination. Don’t give up. It’s going to take a LONG time.

I might get into details on the creation of Time Zone while amidst my playthrough, although Jimmy Maher already essentially has it covered. What I’m more interested in is the story of Roe Adams III, reviewer for Softalk, who (according to Steve Levy’s book Hackers) “went virtually without sleep for a week” to beat the game before declaring it “one of the greatest gaming feats in history.”

Just how plausible is this? Unfortunately, Hackers is a book that must be taken with several grains of salt (and as far I’ve been able to reckon, all later tellings of the story derive from it) but it does seem plausible to finish the game in the 150-odd hours that a week-with-very-little-sleep and no hints whatsoever would have entailed.

I’d like to test the theory, a little. Unlike most of my playthroughs, I’m going to keep a timer. Usually I don’t do this because

a.) I often play “off-and-on” and may dip in a game for five minutes to test a theory before leaving to do something else

b.) Sometimes an insight can occur “off the computer” so there is some element of “playing” even when the game is not at hand

c.) I don’t like time pressure in general

but I really am curious what the actual modern time to beat would be while avoiding hints as much as possible. Now, keep in mind I am using an emulator so I don’t have to worry about load times, but I also won’t have quite the “immersion experience” that Roe Adams III did, so maybe they’ll cancel each other out? One thing I do have going is that Roberta’s last substantial game, Wizard and the Princess, I managed to complete entirely without hints and found it basically fair, despite other accounts finding it much less fair. So possibly, I’m on the right wavelength for this.

The credits have a few more people involved other than just these, but apparently Terry Pierce did the lion’s share of the art.

I am still somewhat a sucker for the “pastoral opening” to an adventure game.

Let’s just go on a walk! And find out quite immediately after that we experienced a vivid dream.

Why we are uniquely able to defeat the evil ruler of the Planet Neburon I am unclear on, but I assume some technology like the TARDIS is afoot, where the time machine always goes where it needs to be.

It begins.

HOURS PLAYED: 0


Zarf Updates

2022 IGF nominees: fireworks

We come to the end of my IGF review posts: the games that made me stand up and say "Holy zorch, you did not just do that!" Because, let's be clear, they just did that.As I said at the beginning, this is not the same as being my "favorite game of the year". All of these games also did something else that I wasn't into. Maybe I didn't even play them all the way through.But this is an important point!
We come to the end of my IGF review posts: the games that made me stand up and say "Holy zorch, you did not just do that!" Because, let's be clear, they just did that.
As I said at the beginning, this is not the same as being my "favorite game of the year". All of these games also did something else that I wasn't into. Maybe I didn't even play them all the way through.
But this is an important point! I don't want my favorites to become the best-of-the-year stars. I mean, yes I do, of course I do. But next year's games aren't going to be the same as this year's award-winners. They're going to build on these games. They're going to learn from them. So we must talk about the games that pushed the boundaries of technique or design or straight-up bravura.
  • Inscryption
  • Overboard!
  • Opus: Echo of Starsong
  • Tux and Fanny
(Necessary footnote: I was on the narrative jury and played free review copies of some of these games. I bought Inscryption, Overboard, and Opus: Echo of Starsong on my own before IGF judging started.)

Inscryption

Okay, this starts as a faux-90s card battler and then weird crap starts leaking through all the seams. All the seams. The first thing it does is tell you to "stand up from the table!" -- the table you're playing cards at -- and then you can walk around the creepy cabin and mess with your opponent's stuff. After that we're in no-spoiler territory, but the game spares no effort to rip holes in your assumptions and make origami out of the scraps. Then you get to a whole other layer that you didn't know existed and has implications for what you've been doing all along, and you start you realize you have no idea how deep this thing goes.
Plus it's a good solid card game. Until you figure out how to break it. This is part of the story.
However -- admission time -- I didn't finish Inscryption.
Act 1 blew my mind. Act 2 recontextualizes everything, which is awesome, but playing it is a bit of a slog. Then act 3 recontextualizes it again, with even more metatextual fireworks, but it's even more of a slog. (Maybe I wasn't good enough at breaking the card game.) My patience wore thin. I finally bailed out when they did a "Ha ha going to hack your real-life hard drive" gag, which, sorry, I am not up for. (It's a consent thing. You understand.)
I know, right? Isn't this exactly the experience I am looking for in games? And if I hadn't felt worn down by losing card battle after card battle, I might have stuck until the end. Or if I hadn't run into one metatextual gag that tried my patience, I might have plugged through another few card battles. But it hit the wrong nerve. This is an entirely personal reaction.
Look. Inscryption is unquestionably the narrative head-trip of the year. It is madness of the finest kind. It is exactly the quantum advance beyond The Hex that that head-trip game deserved. Inscryption also annoyed me and I put it away.
I will not give it a mixed review: it's great and you should go play the thing. You may not finish it. That's okay.

Overboard!

Inkle does it again, and by "it" I mean "something completely unlike what they've done before, but still clever as dammit and unmistakably Inkle."
You're a society lady on a cruise ship. Last night you pushed your louse of a husband overboard. Convince your fellow passengers that something else happened to him, and it's off to merry widowhood in America. A reverse detective game, if you will.
The thing flies entirely on the power of its narrative engine. (Ink, but more importantly Inkle's experience in using Ink.) Your options in a given situation are always contextually appropriate to what you've learned and done. You have plenty of ways to sneak around, fake evidence, and subvert people -- but only if you properly set yourself up to do them. And if you don't get caught. The game tracks what everybody sees and knows, not just you. When you reach the big "why I've called you here" scene at the end, it will all come out.
I confess that I had trouble getting into the game. Veronica is a terrible person, and capable of truly terrible decisions, and the game is gleeful about offering both sorts of options at every turn. And that can be fun! Clonk the steward over the head and stuff his corpse under the bunk! (Spoiler: don't do that.) (Unless you want the achievement for "murder as many people as possible", which, come on, of course you do.)
But real victory depends on methodically mapping out everybody's weak points and then taking advantage of every one. I had trouble forcing myself to go through it all, over and over. You're supposed to do it that way -- you can speed-replay scenes -- but the friction was still a little high.
(As with Outer Wilds, I found myself wishing for a Hadean Lands-style "replay goal" command. And as with Outer Wilds, I realized that it's not really possible! My alchemy game was set in a frozen domain of perfectly replicable actions. No minor variations; no messy human factors. Paints a picture of me, doesn't it? But this is not that. Overboard isn't randomized, but it's about people and details always matter. You can't do just one thing.)
Anyhow: Overboard is smartly done, deeply explorable, and always has that seamless Inkle narrative flow that makes any play-through seem hand-crafted. I managed to avoid jail time, but I didn't come close to a perfect ending. Even if you get there, you've got a rolling list of shipboard secrets to uncover. If that's the sort of thing you're into, it will be very satisfying.

Opus: Echo of Starsong

Reviewed back in September. I was not really into the headline story arc, which is angsty anime romance of a very generic sort. However, the back-end world-building is great and the presentation of the world is spot-on fantastic. It's a explorable storylet space full of history and viewpoints. Your path through is a matter of chance, choice, and contextual relevance. Reminded me of what I liked best about FTL, Out There, and Voyageur.

Tux and Fanny

A screwball point-and-click riff in an MS-Paint-Adventures sort of style. Help a pair of blobby cartoon shapes fix their soccer ball.
The design, like the visual style, is deliberately simplistic -- except when it gets glitchy. You're running around, or rather Tux and Fanny are, picking up items and solving basic adventure-y puzzles. Except there's also a cat and a flea. And sometimes you, or the screen, or the universe starts to hallucinate. It's not all pixel art, trust me.
It's a big silly world with a great number of puzzles to solve and things to collect. As to where it's going, I can't tell you. I played a fair way into it before losing momentum and putting the game down. I'm generally up for glitch and chaos -- that's pretty much how Inscryption hooked me. But in Tux and Fanny, the chaos doesn't seem to be going anywhere. I don't feel like there's either a story or a Terrible Secret waiting to appear on stage.
(Or a Wonderful Secret either. I'm into those too.)
As usual, all reactions are personal. You may well find that the torrent of attention-deficit absurdity is exactly your thing, in which case be assured that Tux and Fanny has a firehose of it.

Monday, 10. January 2022

Gold Machine

Planetfall: Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired

Steve Meretzky’s Planetfall would prove to be funnier and more emotionally engaging than any other Infocom game to-date. Two prefatory remarks: MoCAGH does not have the complete folio scans available, so I will have to refer to grey box materials. If someone knows where I can find the folio manual, etc., please let me know […] The post Planetfall: Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired appeared f

Steve Meretzky’s Planetfall would prove to be funnier and more emotionally engaging than any other Infocom game to-date.

Two prefatory remarks:

  • MoCAGH does not have the complete folio scans available, so I will have to refer to grey box materials. If someone knows where I can find the folio manual, etc., please let me know in the comments or email me: [email protected]
  • This essay contains open gameplay and story spoilers, up to and including the end of Planetfall. If you want to discover these things for yourself, play the game (necessary resources posted here) and come back afterward!

Establishing the Comedic Context of Planetfall

The front cover of Planetfall is a visual joke, and one that might take a moment to sink in. A person wearing a green (approximately the green of US Army fatigues) uniform with red highlights at the neck, belt, and cuffs appears to run toward the viewer. He wears a red helmet with a shining visor and silvery chin protector.

Over his left shoulder is a moon, and from its top-right position of the image it punctuates a field of stars. Lines behind this uniformed man end with bright points of light. They appear to be shooting stars, racing forward from behind him. It is a scene of action, a proclaimed dynamism of purposeful movement. So familiar-seeming is this visual rhetoric that no-one can be blamed for, in a moment of mental shorthand, seeing a rifle cradled butt-to-stock.

The gag is this: it is not a gun but a mop in his hands, and this spaceman’s heroically forward propulsive movement has pushed a mop bucket into a dangerous teeter. We see, amidst all this excitement, a sloshing bucket in the second before it tumbles, spilling soapy water everywhere. The text atop the scene differs between the folio and grey box editions. The folio reads:

STELLAR PATROL: SPECIAL ASSIGNMENT FORCE
But even your expert technical training
won’t save you now.
PLANETFALL

Meanwhile, here is the modified text of the grey box:

Stellar Patrol: It’s not just a job–
It’s an adventure!
PLANETFALL

It’s a change typical of the grey box rereleases. The marketing department had determined that comedy and fantasy were traits preferred by Infocom customers, and the grey box reprints were opportunities to bring this market data to bear. The results were often unfortunate, as the new content often felt mismatched with source materials. The most egregious example is the silly “Frobozzco International Report, 778 GUE” packaged with Zork III, which simply adds insult to the injury of its bungled conclusion.

However, the change makes sense here because the accompanying pack-ins are unambiguously comedic. The jokes are rather weightless, eschewing satirical bite for what Jimmy Maher calls “good-natured goofiness. They are an extended riff on the promises vs the realities of military enlistment. One section lists and describes recruit-level jobs, then names their civilian equivalents:

Mess Service (MS)-MS’s control every aspect of the chow detail-from the ordering of supplies through the serving of well-balanced, appealing meals prepared in artificial-gravity ovens. Excellent equilibrium is necessary. Comparable civilian jobs: scrap metal recycler and faith healer.

I think these jokes–which are quite clever–landed differently when I first saw them in 1993. Today, it’s hard to see enlistment separated from the realities of class or financial pressures. Moreover, the human costs of decades-long military engagement in the middle east certainly complicate this 1980s delineation of “good” and “bad” assignments.

Still, the brochure, with its oily knack for euphemism, is funny, as is the Douglas Adams-flavored enlistment questionnaire at the back of the brochure. Perhaps most charming of all are the postcards, which possess a new, sentimental warmth in our post-mail world. They are all “regulation size” and could be easily mailed. Each applies the rhetoric (visual and textual) of a tourist promotion and features an otherworldly destination. The set accentuates the Federation’s exaggerated promise of travel and adventure.

The packaging complements the mostly humorous tone of Planetfall. Perhaps it insists, when things grow serious, that Planetfall is still light-hearted. Perhaps it makes–and keeps–a promise about the game’s ending.

A Stellar Patrol ID card. Its background consists of three differently-colored stripes: yellow, white, and red. At center-left is a water bucket and scrub brush. The bucket is surrounded by an orbital model with four "planets" circling it.
A bucket and brush at the center of an orbital model. Jokes!

In Space, No One Can Hear You Smile

The story of Planetfall begins on paper or–in these post-paper days–in a PDF file. Several handwritten pages of Stellar Patrol stationary document the protagonist’s enlisted life immediately preceding the game’s events. Besides serving to characterize the protagonist as a frustrated new recruit who appears stuck in a dead-end assignment with an antagonistic supervisor, we also get a sense of the sprawling, military bureaucracy that has become his whole world.

I say “him” because the “blank slate” protagonist is once again not completely blank. A training film is titled, “Shoreline Shirley: How to Guard Against Contracting Alien Diseases,” which seems to reflect assumptions regarding gender, etc.

As the game begins, the protagonist has received 100 demerits and two shifts scrubbing Deck Nine, “the filthiest deck on the ship.” There he is: Deck Nine, scrub brush in hand. There aren’t too many things to do. Wander too far and the protagonist–let’s call him the “Cadet”–is ordered back by a stock blowhard supervisor type. The penalty for disobedience is getting locked in the brig just before the ship explodes.

Players can wait, though I generally choose to scrub the floor. After a couple of turns, a slime-dripping alien happens by, and it is the Cadet’s responsibility to clean up after him. (Un)fortunately, the ship begins to explode before the slime can be cleared away. While the next several moves are not terribly interactive, they do feel momentous. It’s reminiscent of the Human’s trip to the Artifact in Starcross. While the player is not in control, that only serves to generate suspense. I’ve heard others express frustration with Planetfall’s opening, but I think it’s very effective.

In this case, the Cadet is lucky to be on Deck Nine, because an escape pod is nearby. It is no exaggeration to say that he has escaped at the last possible moment:

Escape Pod
This is one of the Feinstein's primary escape pods, for use in extreme emergencies. A mass of safety webbing, large enough to hold several dozen people, fills half the pod. The controls are entirely automated. The bulkhead leading out is open.
The ship shakes again. You hear, from close by, the sounds of emergency bulkheads closing.
>enter web
You are now safely cushioned within the web.
The pod door clangs shut as heavy explosions continue to buffet the Feinstein.
>look through window
You can see debris from the exploding Feinstein.
You feel the pod begin to slide down its ejection tube as explosions shake the mother ship.

Just as in Starcross, the next several turns are on rails as the craft flies toward its destination. In this case, it is an apparently habitable planet. The pod lands in a sea or ocean (unlucky) right next to a research base of some sort (lucky), and, should the player properly time their commands, the Cadet will soon have made not only planet- but landfall. A plaque near a balcony reads:

SEENIK VISTA
Xis stuneeng vuu uf xee Kalamontee Valee kuvurz oovur fortee skwaar miilz uf xat faamus tuurist spot. Xee larj bildeeng at xee bend in xee Gulmaan Rivur iz xee formur pravincul kapitul bildeeng.
[SCENIC VISTA
This stunning view of the Kalamontee Valley covers over forty square miles of that famous tourist spot. The large building at the bend in the Gulmaan River is the former provincial capitol building.]

There is no valley, though, nor is there a capitol building:

>look through window
Water. Lots and lots of water.

Climbing a set of stairs, the Cadet finds himself in an eerily quiet complex designed to house a great many people in dormitories. There is a mess hall, which implies that the facility has a military affiliation or purpose. Exploring further, this location, which must have once housed hundreds of people, is abandoned. There are no bones or signs of struggle. Everyone is simply… gone. The civilization to which this building and the plaque belonged appears to have vanished.

It’s a creepy, drab place, and for want of a better idea–there is no apparent way to contact Stellar Patrol–the Cadet wanders about, in search of problems to solve. He’s hardly a problem, but one early discovery is Floyd, a famously endearing sidekick character that was likely–at the time of his debut–the most emotionally affecting character in an American video game, ever (as always, I welcome your counterexamples!). I’ve tried, asking in a few venues, to gather player impressions of Floyd, but it’s surprisingly hard to find a self-sustaining Infocom conversation that isn’t about coding or puzzle design.

So I’ll ask you, reader: how did you feel about Floyd? Did you consider his characterization a transformational moment in video games? I played Stationfall before Planetfall–for whatever reason, the local hackers weren’t passing around copies of Planetfall–which meant that Floyd’s big moment (more on this later) didn’t affect me much. I regret that it happened this way, because I lost a chance to weigh in on an important conversation. It seems to be a “you had to be there” moment.

Unlike most players, I knew Floyd already. I knew the sorts of things that he said and did. But others have observed–and I feel this to be true–that he is a foil to the drab isolation of the game world. Floyd is youthful and energetic. He’s cheerful, even. Meanwhile, the game world has been abandoned for so long that even the geography around it has changed. It is like an empty tomb.

The Cadet, Floyd in tow, reaches the second half of the complex, which is dedicated to science labs and computers. He begins to feel sick, and the game cleverly leaves his illness as one of many hidden truths to be teased out of the game environment. One of the things that Planetfall absolutely gets right (Besides the puzzles. In terms of batting average Steve Meretzky was Infocom’s best puzzle designer, even if other Implementors had some higher highs) is the way information is managed in the game. While Planetfall is not a quote-unquote “mystery,” it is a kind of mystery. It offers the satisfaction of finding clues, and there are opportunities to deduce elements of whatever disaster befell this planet.

Once the mystery of the complex–and of the illness–is solved, the player finally has clear objectives. He must repair certain systems, and ultimately fix the computer that is working on a cure to the disease–it is stuck at 99.985%. This last part–repairing the computer, may be the best endgame in the Infocom canon (we can debate Trinity when the time comes). First, we have Floyd’s sacrifice (Jimmy Maher discusses it in detail here). Then there is the cool factor of shrinking to microscopic size in order to clean (ironic, considering the beginning of the game) a relay on a microchip which culminates in a shootout with a microbe! Next is a harrowing sprint through the biolab filled with the monsters that killed Floyd.

At the last possible moment, the Cadet reaches an elevator leading to a rather explosively improbable happy ending. Blather (the Cadet’s supervisor) has been demoted, the planet has been saved, countless people climb out of cryosleep immediately, the cadet is now a Lieutenant, on and on. And yes: Floyd isn’t dead after all.

I like Carrington’s (Eaten by a Grue) take on the ending. It is like the movie Brazil (his comparison) or “An Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge” (mine). The ending feels like a dying man’s hallucination. Or maybe it is a dream–this is the first Infocom protagonist who dreams. Perhaps, by the end of Stationfall, he will wake up. It doesn’t really matter, though. The game is so charming that Meretzky gets away with it–for my money this bit is the funniest in the game:

A team of robot technicians step into the anteroom. They part their ranks, and a familiar figure comes bounding toward you! "Hi!" shouts Floyd, with uncontrolled enthusiasm. "Floyd feeling better now!" Smiling from ear to ear, he says, "Look what Floyd found!" He hands you a helicopter key, a reactor elevator card, and a paddleball set. "Maybe we can use them in the sequel..."

Yes. That damnable helicopter card.

Speaking of apparently useless phenomena: in the third and final essay in this series on Planetfall, I examine an unpopular innovation new to Infocom. It seems no one can stand the protagonist’s need for nourishment and rest. Perhaps we would be happy to see these sleep and hunger timers gone. Don’t they get in the way of good old fashioned video game fun? It may seem that sleep and hunger are poorly considered attempts at simulation, but perhaps there is something more at work. What if the timers make a bad video game but good art? Which would you choose? I doubt my answer will surprise anyone, but ultimately each must answer for themselves. Stay tuned for the shocking conclusion to our three-part series in Intentionality and the Gamification of Tedium: Planetfall.

Contact Us:

Want to talk? Grill me about Infocom trivia? Chide me about my dislike of The Witness? There are tons of ways to reach out. You can comment here, sure. But perhaps you’d like to call me out on Twitter: @GolmacB. Then again, you could email me. [email protected] We may read your comment/message on the podcast, unless you say not to.

The post Planetfall: Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired appeared first on Gold Machine.

Sunday, 09. January 2022

Zarf Updates

2022 IGF nominees: miscellaneous

Yeah, I tried to come up with a category to fit this batch into. Nope, didn't work.You could maybe call these "familiar game genres with a twist", but then you could say that about every game, right? We're all in the business of offering reassuring familiarity with a twist.SablePapeturaLacunaDagonKathy Rain: The Director's CutChronicles of Tal'Dun: The RemainderStrange Horticulture(Necessary footno
Yeah, I tried to come up with a category to fit this batch into. Nope, didn't work.
You could maybe call these "familiar game genres with a twist", but then you could say that about every game, right? We're all in the business of offering reassuring familiarity with a twist.
  • Sable
  • Papetura
  • Lacuna
  • Dagon
  • Kathy Rain: The Director's Cut
  • Chronicles of Tal'Dun: The Remainder
  • Strange Horticulture
(Necessary footnote: I was on the narrative jury and played free review copies of most of these games. But I bought Sable on my own before IGF judging started. Dagon is entirely free. Strange Horticulture and The Remainder are not yet released.)

Sable

An open-world exploration game with climbing puzzles and narrative. You're a teenager, at the age where a teenager gets a hoverbike and a glidey-stone and goes off bildungsroming. The world is full of things to do. And climb. (But not fight, not in this game.) Figure out what you want to be when you grow up!
You inhabit an egalatarian techno-tribal world with lots of social niches, plenty of lively characters, and a bit of SFnal backstory. But, let's face it, it's all about the Moebius-esque art style. The art style is worth the entire game. Blazing days, pastel-washed nights, clear-line ink-etched detail. The quests and climbing are an excuse to go zimming across the sand. And then climb stuff.
I played the initial public release, which was rather regrettably buggy; the menus and inventory screens had a strong tendency to go off the rails. (There's been patches since then.) But I was able to finish the game in spite of the bugs, and I'm not going to count them against it.
I will say that the clair-ligne visuals and the environments were what really hooked me, but the narrative is solid too. The dialogue isn't particularly deep or interactive, but a lot of love went into this quirky world.
Oh, and I enjoyed the soundtrack -- that went straight on my "buy" list.
(I note that Sable got on the narrative and audio IGF lists, but was not mentioned for Best Visuals. I guess not everybody agrees with me! Which is why I post these reviews.)

Papetura

A small point-and-click of the modern puzzle-box style. (In the vein of Samorost or Submachine, that is, rather than the classic Lucas/Sierra adventure.) You're an animated curl of paper in a paper-modelled world. Someone has stolen the light -- or set the world on fire -- or something; it's a nonverbal narrative whose metaphors shift playfully underfoot. That's fine, though. The goal is to advance, as is usual in these games. Do the next thing. Get to the end, everybody cheers.
The puzzles are all about light, illumination, helpful critters, and shooting spitballs at everything. Some of the puzzles were kind of obtuse, but there's a full contextual hint system, so you're only as stuck as you want to be. Although there's also some timing and dexterity mixed in; nothing hardcore but you might need a few tries to get through certain tasks.
Mostly it's an excuse to look at the trippy glowing papier-mâché environments and the cute paper critters. Nothing wrong with that.

Lacuna

Pixel-art sci-fi police procedural. You're a cop on a near-future-ish planet. (Not our future, not our solar system, but the tropes are familiar.) An important diplomat is visiting from the next planet over. Guess what would enmesh an honest flatfoot in a tangle of messy politics? Crime, crime! It's everywhere.
Nice, expressive pixel-art style -- lots of layering for the smoggy skylines and such.
This is solidly put together but it didn't quite ring my chimes. The political situation is made of the kind of one-line characterizations you expect from an RPG sourcebook. Planet of unobtanium miners, colony wants freedom, rich corporations, terrorists, gentrification. (Cop corruption, but not as much on cop racism as I'd expect in BLM times.) The detective stuff, too, tilts away from lies and motivation. Your cases are picked out in clear material clues, drawn with blue outlines so you don't miss anything. It's entirely playable but not much on subtlety.
It leans on the language of noir -- dirty streets, a nagging nicotine habit -- and indeed you get drawn into a moral swamp of complicity. You have to make choices; the story branches based on them. Also on whether you solve the cases correctly. This is the kind of detective game where you can screw up. No take-backs if you turn in a report accusing the wrong guy. Thus, a range of possible endings from bad to could-be-worse.
Again, though, I never entirely felt the punch of my various choices. The consequences were there, but the protagonist's cigarette-break noir monologues didn't convince me that they hurt. I don't know. Noir ain't easy.

Dagon

Walking-sim-ish illustration of Lovecraft's early story "Dagon". The complete text of the story is narrated (it's short) with a sequence of pannable scenes. The only interactivity is to advance, and (optionally) hunt for footnote-spots which detail the background of Lovecraft's life and world.
The concept (a "pano-novela"?) is worth a look. However, this example doesn't sell it. The initial environments of squalid garret and cargo ship are nicely illustrated; the seascapes are really atmospheric. However, the Lovecraftian guts of the story -- right where you're supposed to be overwhelmed with the mind-destroying horror -- come out rather flat and uninspired. Neither the monolith nor the monster does much to convince me of the protagonist's mental break.
Anyhow, the idea of using an uninterrogated Lovecraft story is pretty sketchy at this point. The closest the story comes to acknowledging this is when it illustrates the fish-people as having narrow, pinched mouths. (Because if you follow the text's description of "shockingly wide and flabby lips" you've drawn a golliwog caricature.) But the game dodges the question of why it dodged this question. Awkward all round.

Kathy Rain: The Director's Cut

I did not play the original release of Kathy Rain, so I don't know what's different. Walkthroughs imply that some puzzles and scenes have been added.
In any case, what we have is a good solid point-and-click with decent pixel art and excellent attention to detail. That's artistic detail (rain on the windows) as well as UI detail (the game minimizes inventory juggling and annoying repeated actions). It's also pleasantly forgiving about different ways to combine items or manipulate machines. When I tried something, it generally worked.
Puzzles: mostly good, not too tricky. You'll spend more time crossing the map asking about clues than being stuck. (A couple of the riddles were underclued, but that's what walkthroughs are for.) As for the story -- well, there's a lot of Silent Hill in its DNA, but the focus is on Kathy and her personal demons rather than generic blood-and-barbed-wire. Kathy is entertaining enough to carry the show. The other characters all manage to show a bit of depth, too. Good enough to be getting on with.

Chronicles of Tal'Dun: The Remainder

Visual novel: you wake up with amnesia in a wizard's house. Can't exactly criticize the setup, can I? (You will get this joke if you played my 2004 game The Dreamhold.)
The Remainder is the kind of esoteric fantasy that asks you to read a lot of background between the lines. I'm usually into that, but this has a lot of background, and a lot of lines, and not all that much going on to anchor the story. You've got some sort of (mind-wiped) romance with the hot silver-haired wizard who feeds you the plot, but the dialogue doesn't really carry it. Mostly you alternate between hallucinating and complaining to your maybe-lover. In theory you have a goal (find a spell in your spellbook) but the game gives you very few choices that relate to that.
Imaginative and atmospheric, but I wasn't that engaged by the intro chapter. You may well like it more than I did, though.

Strange Horticulture

A puzzle game of herbal lore. You have to collect plants and identify them based on partial descriptions -- color, shape, taste, smell, folkloric associations. Think Obra Dinn, except leaves and flowers instead of corpses. Then you offer the plants to the villagers in exchange for more info. There's also maps, riddles, secrets, a bit of potion-brewing, and basically a whole lot of stuff that I enjoy.
This is a great example of full-modal investigative experience. You really do have to observe everything the game tells you. Guessing is never strictly necessary, but there's lots of process of elimination, and I was often somewhat uncertain about my conclusions. Wrong guesses accumulate "dread", and if you get too much dread, it's bad. (I never did but I had to be careful. I guess that means it's well-balanced.)
The setting is generally European-ish medieval-ish, without much distinction other than "somewhat creepy". (Not Failbetter-level creepy, but like I said, you have a dread meter.) Lots of recurring characters who visit your shop, each with their own plot thread -- reminded me a bit of Astrologaster. An overall plot which is satisfying if somewhat stiff. A handful of endings based on a handful of choice points. A cat to pet.
I had a lot of fun. It's a narrative-oriented game where you use a lot of fun toys to advance the story. It's not primarily a story game, mind you. Call it an herbalist procedural.

Renga in Blue

007: Aqua Base (1982)

Texas Instruments started development of their first computer at the same time the Trinity was out (TRS-80, Apple II, Commodore PET) and — due to their prowess with scientific calculators — was projected to make a strong splash. The TI-99/4 released in 1979 instead made a sort of dull thud, despite being the very first […]

Texas Instruments started development of their first computer at the same time the Trinity was out (TRS-80, Apple II, Commodore PET) and — due to their prowess with scientific calculators — was projected to make a strong splash.

The TI-99/4 released in 1979 instead made a sort of dull thud, despite being the very first 16-bit home computer. It had a strange “calculator key” keyboard and only shipped around 20,000 units before being replaced by the TI-99/4A which did much better, debuting March 1981 at a price of $525 and having what resembled a real keyboard.

Business-wise, what Texas Instruments is most remembered for is then getting in a price war with Commodore and its VIC-20, which was disasterous given the VIC-20’s lower specs; eventually the price was dropped ludicrously below cost to make ($99) and TI hoped to make its money back in software. It didn’t work out and manufacture stopped in 1984, but not before shipping around 3 million units.

That 3 million is in fact fairly strong, so it is a bit unfair to think of the machine as a failure at least in 1982; from the perspective of an owner, it was just one of the many machines available. One of the fans of the system was apparently Scott Morgan, who throughout 1982 cranked out a grand total of six text adventure games before dropping from sight. (It is possible he even used the less-loved original /4 model, as the games were advertised as working for both systems and were written in BASIC.)

The games were all published by the Wisconsin-based American Software Design and Distribution Co. all in one chunk in 1983. An ad in a January 1983 issue of 99’er Magazine has no mention of the games, and they suddenly appear a month later as “new games”, listed as

Haunted House
Aqua Base
Stone Age
The Four Vedas
Fun House
Miner ’49 ER

I’m not sure what the order should be here. I started with 007: Aqua Base since CASA Solution Archive listed it as first. After finishing it the game implores you to try Haunted House, which might logically come after, except CASA lists it as game number 3.

I am fine considering Aqua Base to be game number 1 also in that it is marked as “beginner” difficulty and feels like an author’s first attempt.

As implied from the cover art I already posted, your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to stop a Generic Evil Person from DESTROYING THE WORLD by sneaking into their underwater base. I don’t quite follow what the play of the villain is here, given they can’t really cash out from an apocalypse. (Moonraker’s villain wanted to kill everyone but had a replacement “ark” of humans.)

The table at the start has an ID card, a remote control also lurks nearby, and the only way to progress otherwise is to hop into a CAR. Handily enough, the car has a button that turns it into a submarine.

Using the submarine, you can find a “coral reef”. Typing PUSH REMOTE causes the reef to open to a secret passage, and the submarine can go inside. This leads to a request for ID, which you can follow through with assuming you checked the table at the start of the game.

This leads to a very series of corridors and more doors needing you to show id cards. One of them doesn’t work, but there’s fortunately (?) a dead janitor you can swipe an upgraded one from. The villain’s only minion is dead?

The DERADIOACTIVATOR supposedly has a red button but doing LOOK DERADIOACTIVATOR didn’t reveal it. I inferred its presence from a mention in the manual plus a check at the source code.

Past a few more camera doors (picking up a pocket mirror) along the way leads to the master villain’s lair, where they’re sleeping on the job.

You can swipe a top-level ID card from the Operator and also type LASER DOWN to move the laser (this was this biggest pain to figure out, but I’ll go back and talk about all the various annoyances of this game in a moment). Very close is the laser room, and as long as you’ve lowered the laser, you can BACKFIRE LASER / WITH MIRROR to cause it to malfunction (BACKFIRE is mentioned in the manual, otherwise I don’t see how anyone would get it).

It is only a few steps more to get to a hatch exit with a suit; make sure you press the red button on the DERADIOACTIVATOR here because otherwise the suit kills you from radiation. Donning the suit you can swim out the hatch to victory.

So, all those actions make the game sound like it ought to be beginner level, and it was certainly short and straightforward in action (…and really showcasing the world’s weakest supervillain) but the game was still a huge pain to get to completion because of the parser.

It was incredibly fiddly about everything. GO CAR works but ENTER CAR doesn’t; PUSH REMOTE activates it even though there’s no description that’s how the operation works, yet the de-radiation gizmo requires pushing a red button which I was never able to get the game to admit was there.

In Death Satellite and Zodiac I complained about the simplicity of error messages, and that there was no information other than I CAN’T when something didn’t work. This game is worse. It has actively deceptive messages. If you PUSH AWERASEF the game says

NOTHING HAPPENS.

It is, in other words, fake-parsing, so when you’re looking at mention in the manual about a red button, so you try PUSH RED BUTTON and see NOTHING HAPPENS, it is hard to be certain whether the command really didn’t make sense or that you are in fact holding an item with a red button.

The only part that had any difficulty in a puzzle sense was dealing with the laser. If you try to use the mirror on it before moving it, the message is that you can’t reach. I initially thought perhaps I needed to stand on something, so went back to a “ladder” and tried to take it. The game told me I couldn’t take it; I assume it was locked in place for moving down from a ledge, but it was still unclear from the description and I tried quite a bit of noodling there before thinking about ways to get the laser pointed differently.

For pointing the laser differently, I tried TYPE on the keyboard at the lair, but the game told me not to use the verb TYPE. So…. what then? I finally realized that “any command that isn’t a movement one can be assumed to be typed on the keyboard” so came up with LASER DOWN, making the whole endeavor only 5% solving and 95% communication struggle.

Not a fun game, but at least it is only the author’s first, and we’ve seen big improvements with other authors. The game wasn’t quite the palate cleanser I was hoping for, but nonetheless, I am plowing ahead to the first big monolith of 1982: the Apple II game Time Zone by Roberta Williams, her attempt at making a game that lasts forever, retailing for $99 at launch, which according to an inflation calculator would make it $288 dollars in 2021 money.


Key & Compass Blog

Migrating from Trello to Checklister

One of the consequences of moving into a slum with unreliable internet is that I’ve stopped using Trello for tracking my interactive fiction walkthrough work. Instead, as a local solution, I’ve written a Perl program called Checklister that skims through all my markup files and summarize the results. For that to work, I must now […]

One of the consequences of moving into a slum with unreliable internet is that I’ve stopped using Trello for tracking my interactive fiction walkthrough work. Instead, as a local solution, I’ve written a Perl program called Checklister that skims through all my markup files and summarize the results.

For that to work, I must now add a checklist section in each of my many many markup files to record the various and numerous statuses I’m interested in tracking. This will take time. The Checklister program itself isn’t quite done yet, and some things it’s not doing correctly, but it’s in a good-enough-for-now stage.

Since it’s entirely designed to work without needing internet access, uploading a copy of the Checklister report to the web isn’t going to be a high priority. Hopefully, I’ll be able to upload it every Sunday, but most likely I’ll only upload it twice a month.

You are welcome to visit http://plover.net/~davidw/check/Checklist.html to see which games, stories, and other works I’m working on. Walkthroughs that I’ve already published are also on the list so I can double-check that they’re all up to my current standards. Needless to say, that will also take time.


Zarf Updates

2022 IGF nominees: intimate and/or personal

Some of these are cozy. Some are the opposite of cozy. All of them tell you straight-up where the authors come from.Several of these reviews wind up saying "This is really good but I didn't entirely connect with it." Honestly, that's 2021 talking. Connection is hard. We're all walking around with deflectors at maximum.UnpackingNo Longer HomeTOEMLast CallNORCOLakeAn Airport for Aliens Currently Run
Some of these are cozy. Some are the opposite of cozy. All of them tell you straight-up where the authors come from.
Several of these reviews wind up saying "This is really good but I didn't entirely connect with it." Honestly, that's 2021 talking. Connection is hard. We're all walking around with deflectors at maximum.
  • Unpacking
  • No Longer Home
  • TOEM
  • Last Call
  • NORCO
  • Lake
  • An Airport for Aliens Currently Run by Dogs
(Necessary footnote: I was on the narrative jury and played free review copies of most of these games. But I bought Lake and Airport Dog on my own before IGF judging started. NORCO is not yet released; I played a demo chapter.)

Unpacking

Open the boxes and put the stuff away... eight times, across a span of a person's life.
This is biography with the lightest possible touch; just stacks of objects. It's very, very deft. Spreading your stuff out into a dorm room is one mood; trying to fit it back into your parents' place is another. What stuff you keep over the years, what stuff you want to put on display or hide away, habits and favorite foods... The triumphs and failures are startlingly specific.
The gameplay is a light puzzle of getting everything to fit on the shelves. At least, it's supposed to be light. I found it draggy at times. Especially when putting away socks. And I stumbled several times over some object that I had no idea what it was or where the game wanted me to put it. (I suppose my aunt gave it to me.)
So the whole experience went on longer than it was really able to support. Yes, it's supposed to be zen and feel like doing your chores. But more the latter than the former. The cleverness of conveying story through objects is impressive, but there's not much to the story beyond that spark of figuring it out. Charming as heck, though. And certainly lots of my friends loved it. I might just be reacting a little more disconnectedly than most.
Bonus points for pixel art which is thoughtful and beautiful instead of just being pixels. You can peer at the book covers and very nearly recognize them, even though they're about ten-by-ten.

No Longer Home

A short expressive game derived from the authors' experience of moving out after university. It's about packing up and going. Naturally this goes right after Unpacking!
Don't go in expecting much game-structure. It uses the format of choice-based dialogue, but I never felt I was making real decisions. In fact, I would often select a dialogue choice by accident while clicking through lines -- and that didn't much affect the experience. This is not a complaint! I'm just saying that the game is the dialogue equivalent of a walking simulator. It's there for the characters to see and say certain things. You take in the mood and then you're done.
The ordinariness of the dialogue is set up against the not-always-ordinary setting. The environments slide from the mundane college flat -- dripping just a bit of florescent decay -- to odd underground psyche-scapes. Which, come to think of it, leak back just a bit into the dialogue. Everything is understated and liminal.
(If you're thinking Kentucky Route Zero, yes, it's an open homage. Complete with world-geometry folding and unfolding like stage-sets. It's also got a semi-interactive prelude, like KR0's interludes. Also parser IF references. If you've been wondering "Who's doing stuff like KR0?" These folks.) (Also Variable State.)
I admire this, I enjoyed it, and I am a whole-hearted fan of transforming psyche-scapes. If I have a complaint, it's that I never quite connected with the characters and their low-key discontent. Which is exactly the low-key unresolvedness that the authors were trying to communicate! It's all intended. So what's my complaint? None, really; I'm just... a bit discontented with it all. Snap. Don't let me stop you from playing the thing.

TOEM

A lightweight open-worlder in the tradition of A Short Hike, only with photography. It's pleasant; it does pretty much everything it needs to do. Lots of secrets, lots of (slightly) hidden goals. Micro-quests with amusing dialogue. Nonviolent and cozy; all about doing favors for people. You only need to check off about half the goals in each level before moving on to the next, so it never gets frustrating. The views even get kind of spectacular, considering that it's all black-and-white line art.
I still didn't wind up feeling all that moved, and I'm not sure why not. Maybe it just went on a smidge too long. I finished it in one evening but it felt like I was pushing myself through to the end.

Last Call

  • by Nina Freeman and Jake Jefferies -- game site
An autobiographical game from Nina Freeman. This bites deeper than the earlier entries in the "series" (Cibele and Lost Memories Dot Net): it concerns a toxic, abusive relationship. It's presented in the framework of packing up an apartment, presumably (or at least metaphorically) in the aftermath of that relationship.
What works really well is the match between mood and setting. The world is boxes of someone's possessions, someone's particular possessions -- but on fire (maybe) and booby-trapped with memories. As you process them, the flames (maybe) cool. But the worst moments are lying in wait.
What doesn't work, at least for me, is the recommended voice interface. You're meant to say "I see" or "I hear you" -- out loud, into your mic -- to progress through the memories. It's a Porpentinian idea but I found it anti-immersive. When the game asked me to speak, those were the moments that I glanced at the clock.
Nonetheless, it's a powerful piece in its offered introspection and its harsh-lit honesty.
It also felt better integrated than the previous games. I felt less like I was listening to dialogue while doing something with a mouse. The apartment of memories is an abstraction, but it also grounds those memories in a physical way, just a bit. Just enough for me to feel directly engaged with the exploration.
I think the most inspiring thing about this loose series is that the author surveys her life and sees game-seeds everywhere. I contort myself to invent any fantasy scenario which might have meaningful interactivity. These three games have very different tones and moods, but they're games -- each allows you to approach the experience in a natural and appropriate way. And that's just three personal incidents! Make it look easy, why don't you?

NORCO

A filthy, mucky, cyber-goth breakdown of the Louisiana slums. You're back in the town you swore you left forever. Your mother is dead, your brother is missing, the household robot is rebuilding the motorcycle chassis out back. Your stuffed monkey keeps beating you at staring contests.
I've played through the first act and this is firing on all cylinders so far. It's point-and-click exploration plus a "mind map" of topics as you discover them. But it's not a simple division of plot advancement in the real world and backstory in your memories. The two modes trade off roles effortlessly, letting you fill in the world by ask/answering questions about yourself and your memories. But then your mom was visiting a "neural versioning clinic", so what do you want to bet that memories are a story mechanic? Like I said, Act I. It's setup so far but I'm really impressed.
The visuals are decent pixel art -- not bad, not the best I've seen. (I wish it wouldn't rely on unenhanced pixel zooms. That's just big squares.) But the writing carries it over the top in the best way. This is a deeply screwed-over world, twenty minutes into the future of our screwed-up reality. Gig jobs, bitcoin, giant oil companies eating the world. Every line jabs you with a pinprick detail.
Looking forward to the rest.

Lake

Reviewed back in September. Sweet but so determinedly light-weight that I almost didn't care.

An Airport for Aliens Currently Run by Dogs

Reviewed back in June. I laughed a lot.
(Perhaps I am stretching to imagine that Xalavier Nelson grew up in an alien airport surrounded by comedy dog photos. Perhaps I'm stretching to imagine that he didn't.)

Saturday, 08. January 2022

Zarf Updates

2022 IGF nominees: on history

IGF finalists are out! Only eight months since the last time I said this, I know. Here we go.My theme this year is... mixed reactions. I throw no shade! I played a lot of great games. But I didn't come away with overall favorites. Instead, I played a lot of games that did something fantastic but then this other game did something else fantastic and I want to talk about all of them....I say "all of
IGF finalists are out! Only eight months since the last time I said this, I know. Here we go.
My theme this year is... mixed reactions. I throw no shade! I played a lot of great games. But I didn't come away with overall favorites. Instead, I played a lot of games that did something fantastic but then this other game did something else fantastic and I want to talk about all of them.
...I say "all of them", but of course this week's posts are a highly curated list. IGF got over 400 entries this year -- and that's light; it's usually 500+. I didn't play every game and I'm not going to post about every game I played. Not even every finalist. Think of this as a collection of spotlights. A glint here, a facet there.

In this post: games which interrogate history.
Several of these games use, or riff on, the "database" game model -- a collection of story snippets which the player is free to explore at will. (Or perhaps just the illusion of free will.) These days the database game is familiar from Sam Barlow's Her Story and Telling Lies, but fans of this blog will not needed to be reminded of Rob Swigart's archetypical Portal.
The database game is an easy fit for a game about history, because the database is static. It's a slice of history. The player makes no choices except what to read next. Or is that necessarily true? Let's see.
  • Closed Hands
  • Blackhaven
  • Neurocracy
  • Inua
  • The Rewinder
(Necessary footnote: I was on the narrative jury and played free review copies of most of these games. Blackhaven is entirely free, mind you. Inua is not yet released; I played a demo chapter.)

Closed Hands

A database game about a terrorist bombing in a (fictional) small UK city. It begins with the explosion and spirals outward through a web of connected events. We see the incident from five entangled points of view: the journalist, the analyst, the father, the witness, the bystander.
I say "spirals outward" because the bombing is the center of the web. We see chains of consequence running forward, but also chains of causality running backward. How did these people get where they are? Why are they these people?
You play through events as dialogue, news stories, email and text message exchanges. There's a bit of dialogue interactivity leading to light branching and a handful of alternate endings for the characters. (Although this was somewhat buggy. A couple of times I opened up parallel threads that were meant to be mutually exclusive.)
(It's interesting to note that the center-out structure would support alternate beginnings in exactly the same way as alternate endings. The game doesn't try this, but I wonder if the author considered it.)
The game is most interested in racism, radicalization, and the cycle of divisions that plague us. There is no such thing as an isolated incident. The story openly aligns the thread of radical violence in Islamic groups to the neofascist, white-supremacist threads in UK society. (Trumpian America is offstage but the connections are obvious.)
But it's a wide-ranging narrative -- everything is told from all sides. The focus is always on the detail and the moment. There are plenty of minor voices in addition to the five core ones. Police, boyfriends, girlfriends, bosses, random folks on the street. It's tight, keenly observed, entirely convincing in language and tone. Harrowing in content. Perhaps over-optimistic, but then perhaps I'm a pessimist. It's really good, is what I'm trying to say. This is not easy stuff to deal with; I'm glad someone is making the attempt.

Blackhaven

A historical piece... no, wrong word. It's not set in history; it's about historians. Historiographical? You're an intern at Blackwood Manor, a small museum on the site of a (fictionalized) Virginia plantation house. The rest of the staff is out at a Flag Day picnic; you have to hold down the fort.
The opening is a tour of the site and its museum gallery, by way of getting you oriented. Then you have to scan some historical documents for the boss. As you do, some discrepancies turn up...
This is sharp on portraying systemic racism. The Blackhaven manor is a whole historical cross-section: Revolutionary era plantation life, the Civil War, Reconstruction, 20th-century heritage societies, contemporary foundations hiring interns. What we see is that racism has meant a lot of different things through American history. Every era has its sting.
The game is also good on showing actual historical research. It's a simplified scenario, but it's the kind of evidence that you'd really be putting together. On the down side, the game pretty much pulls you through in a straight line. It's a walking sim rather than a detective game. And the writing is on the clunky side. (The protagonist does a lot of talking, but I didn't feel like she became a character until the third act.)
But the museum environments definitely hit home. Everything was precise: dioramas, display cases, plaques, the rumble of the artifact case drawers.
The story has a point, anyhow, which makes it worth playing. I am interested in the upcoming sequel. Looks like Cassius really is set in history; it will tie up some of the clues that Blackhaven leaves dangling. I'm sure that mysterious figure 8 will get its day in the sun.

Neurocracy

A multi-threaded science fiction story told through a future Wikipedia. It is a fascinating and brilliant exploration of nonlinear storytelling, a direct descendant of Portal. It is also rather hard going.
It's Oct 1, 2049. The world is a heady mix of climate change, multinational tech conglomerates, injectable neural colloids, reality TV, and mad fish disease. The CEO of Zhupao Ltd has just been assassinated. Lots of other stuff is going on too.
Neurocracy extends the now-familiar idea of the database game with the even-more-familiar idea of the Wikipedia trawl. Pick an article (or click "random"); read up; follow links; slowly assemble a snapshot of the world.
...And then you can jump to Oct 2. This is a layered snapshot. Every article evolves from day to day, covering a ten-day crisis. New articles are added each day, following up critical actors or events as they emerge.
This is, as I said, brilliant. We've all seen encyclopedia stories (shoutout to The Book of the War) but nobody's done a sequential one. Controlling the vertical and the horizontal! Facts evolve. Details are edited in and out (by who?). Accusations are leveled, twisted, and upgraded to truth -- or memory-holed. You have to compare each day's posts to the previous day. The "view changes" button is your friend.
The down side is that, well, you're reading Wikipedia articles. I love a "news article" interlude; who doesn't? That impersonal contrasting tone. It lets you break from your protagonist's viewpoint and throw a juicy handful of details into the mix. But a story that's all news article? 100% objective-dispassionate voice? It's hard to digest.
(Neurocracy does not encompass the Wikipedia trope of the discussion page. Maybe that's what I was missing; the personal bit, where the editors' own voices come out.) (I know, it wouldn't exactly fit in with the story...)
I found I was only able to get through two or three story-days (an hour or so of reading) per session. Then my eyes glazed over and I had to put it down for the night. That made for about three real-time evenings -- and the end of that wasn't really a resolution. A bunch of threads connected up, yes, but it was still the middle of an ongoing story (history). Not to mention that I probably missed some of the implicit connections.
So, overall: you should play/read this thing. Pay attention and learn. There's something in this direction and I want to see the next step.

Inua

  • by Iko / The Pixel Hunt / ARTE France -- game site
This looks nifty! A historical game about the 1845 Franklin Arctic expedition. You're a journalist reporting from a (modern) research boat which is recovering artifacts from the (historical) sunken ships. I can't tell from the demo how fictionalized the history is, but it's presenting an interesting mix of British, European, and Intuit takes on events.
The narrative structure is a topic-query system; you discover evidence and then peek into the heads of the various crew members to see what they think. This is then extended into the historical period, reconstructing the events of 1845. It's not particularly interactive -- the gameplay seems to be lawnmowering options to advance. But it's good pacing and it gives you the sense of digging into clues.
Also, I like the hand-drawn watercolor style.
It's a short demo, but I'm sufficiently intrigued to keep an eye on it.

The Rewinder

Pixelly point-and-click based on Chinese mythology. You are an investigator from the afterlife, digging into the affairs of the living. In the physical world, you hunt for clues and solve puzzles. In the world of memory, you can abstract ideas from people's memories and use them to convince other people to make better decisions. Changing people's minds in the past changes the present.
(Okay, putting this in my "historical" post is a stretch. But it has the idea of interrogating a history.)
This combines a bunch of mystery-game ideas: a rewindable timeline, a memory map, combining ideas, partial solutions. (If you don't completely fix a past timeline, you can advance in the game with partial credit. At least I think that's what happened in my second attempt!)
The game plays a little awkwardly, and the translation isn't great, but I think it works. It really gets into the mindset of the Chinese afterlife -- not that I'm an expert! But it's got the judges of Hell, the spirit offerings, the hungry ghosts. The broth of the afterlife. Feels solid. And the investigative gameplay gives you scope to think about the scenarios and figure out what's going on (or fail to).
I haven't played very far in, but I will keep on. Recommended for storytelling and a good mystery-game implementation.