Planet Interactive Fiction

July 23, 2019

The XYZZY Awards

XYZZY Awards 2018: finalists and final round

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at July 23, 2019 05:42 PM

The final round of the XYZZY Awards is open, and the finalists announced! Congratulations, all!

Anyone may vote for the Awards. The XYZZYs use your IF Comp login; if you need to register an account with the Comp, or you’ve forgotten your account details, go here. You can log in here (you’ll get kicked back to the front page) and then vote here. You should not vote for works that you authored, and you should not direct voters to vote for particular games or slates of games. Voting will remain open through August 9.

Without further ado, the finalists:

Best Game

  • Alias ‘The Magpie’ (J. J. Guest)
  • Bogeyman (Elizabeth Smyth)
  • Cannery Vale (Hanon Ondricek)
  • Cragne Manor (Ryan Veeder, Jenni Polodna, et al.)
  • I.A.G. Alpha (Serhii Mozhaiskyi)

Best Writing

  • Alias ‘The Magpie’ (J. J. Guest)
  • Animalia (Ian Michael Waddell)
  • Bogeyman (Elizabeth Smyth)
  • Human Errors (Katherine Morayati)
  • Tethered (Linus Åkesson)

Best Story

  • Alias ‘The Magpie’ (J. J. Guest)
  • Animalia (Ian Michael Waddell)
  • Bogeyman (Elizabeth Smyth)
  • Cannery Vale (Hanon Ondricek)
  • Dead Man’s Fiesta (Ed Sibley)
  • Dungeon Detective (Wonaglot, Caitlin Mulvihill)

Best Setting

  • Alias ‘The Magpie’ (J. J. Guest)
  • Bogeyman (Elizabeth Smyth)
  • Cannery Vale (Hanon Ondricek)
  • Six Silver Bullets (William Dooling)

Best Puzzles

  • I.A.G. Alpha (Serhii Mozhaiskyi)
  • Illuminismo Iniziato (Michael J. Coyne)
  • Junior Arithmancer (Mike Spivey)
  • The Lurking Horror II: The Lurkening (Ryan Veeder)
  • The Temple of Shorgil (Arthur DiBianca)

Best NPCs

  • Alias ‘The Magpie’ (J. J. Guest)
  • Animalia (Ian Michael Waddell)
  • Bogeyman (Elizabeth Smyth)
  • Erstwhile (Maddie Fialla, Marijke Perry)

Best Individual Puzzle

  • defeating Ynf-Okh-Omm in The Lurking Horror II: The Lurkening (Ryan Veeder)
  • The last Flower Child puzzle in The Temple of Shorgil (Arthur DiBianca)
  • Rooftop puzzle in I.A.G. Alpha (Serhii Mozhaiskyi)
  • solving your murder in Erstwhile (Maddie Fialla, Marijke Perry)
  • Werewolf/moon puzzle in The Origin of Madame Time (Mathbrush)

Best Individual NPC

  • Arthur the cat in Charming (Kaylah Facey)
  • The Bogeyman in Bogeyman (Elizabeth Smyth)
  • Colin Ritman in Bandersnatch (Charlie Brooker, David Slade)
  • Crystal in Illuminismo Iniziato (Michael J. Coyne)
  • Lemmy in Terminal Interface for Models RCM301-303 (Victor Gijsbers (as VigiMech Corporation))
  • Ruslan in I.A.G. Alpha (Serhii Mozhaiskyi)

Best Individual PC

  • Author in Cannery Vale (Hanon Ondricek)
  • Jacob Morris in Grimnoir (ProP)
  • the Magpie in Alias ‘The Magpie’ (J. J. Guest)
  • Nikolai in I.A.G. Alpha (Serhii Mozhaiskyi)
  • the Silver Agent in Six Silver Bullets (William Dooling)

Best Implementation

  • Alias ‘The Magpie’ (J. J. Guest)
  • Cragne Manor (Ryan Veeder, Jenni Polodna, et al.)
  • Junior Arithmancer (Mike Spivey)
  • The Master of the Land (Pseudavid)

Best Use of Innovation

  • Cragne Manor (Ryan Veeder, Jenni Polodna, et al.)
  • I.A.G. Alpha (Serhii Mozhaiskyi)
  • Re: Dragon (Jack Welch)
  • Restless (Emily Short)

Best Technological Development

Best Use of Multimedia

  • Bandersnatch (Charlie Brooker, David Slade)
  • DEVOTIONALIA (G. Grimoire)
  • Ürs (Christopher Hayes, Daniel Talsky)
  • Soft Earth (Jon Sorce)
  • StupidRPG (Steven Richards)
  • Where the Water Tastes Like Wine (Dim Bulb Games)

Emily Short

Heaven’s Vault (inkle)

by Emily Short at July 23, 2019 01:41 PM

Heaven’s Vault is a game about piecing together meaning from atom-sized pieces.

The game’s chief mechanic involves translating inscriptions from Ancient, building a larger and larger personal dictionary until you’re able to interpret entire passages of scripture and significant warnings.

This mechanic is highly satisfying, especially during the early phases of the game. Words in Ancient are made up of a small number of primitives joined together, so as you guess at the meanings of words and sentences, you’re also developing an understanding of what the primitives stand for, what marks stand for nouns or verbs or changes of tense. The more inscriptions you find (and pretty much everything in the Heaven’s Vault universe seems to have a phrase or two of Ancient scratched onto or sewn into it) the more you’re able to decode. Like a crossword, it lets you use leaps of insight in any one area to shed light on others. And because you’re uncovering text, new inscriptions frequently offer new narrative insights.

I really, really enjoyed doing this. While the language of Heaven’s Vault is pretty much encoded English and doesn’t feature the ambiguities and alternative world views embedded in real foreign languages, the process of learning to read Ancient lit up the same parts of my brain as other forms of translation; so much so that I found myself identifying an sequence that meant “voice” and thinking, φωνή.

The game has some pacing issues, noted by other reviewers, and those pacing issues did affect my experience. And by the end of the first play-through, I wished the decoding mechanic would change up and let me make more extensive types of guess on my own, because frequently I “officially” was unable to read something whose meaning was perfectly obvious to me in reality.

Even so, decoding this game kept me onboard for more than 15 hours, at a period in my life where I have relatively little available time for playing anything and have to be extremely picky. And if you replay, you have a new game+ option that starts you over with your existing language learning intact, an accretive PC trick that allows the protagonist at last to feel like she actually is an expert in her chosen field. So if you feel you might also enjoy a translation adventure game, do try it out.

I wish to emphasize this point because I am now going to go into a mass of detail about what I think might have worked better if it had been done differently.

But that’s because this is a really interesting piece of work pioneering comparatively unexplored areas of puzzle design and narrative structure, and it’s at its most instructive when we look at what doesn’t quite work.

Archaeology

A bunch of the reviews say things like “this is the first game about archaeology that actually feels like archaeology.” And it certainly bears a much greater resemblance to archaeology than does Tomb Raider, without being that much like working a dig site or trying to decipher an ancient text in real life.

During play, I started to imagine what the game would have been like if the sluggish, low-stakes travel sequences had been replaced with an exercise in interactive stratigraphy.

I could see from a game design perspective that these sections provided a sense of scale and gravitas to the Nebula, which otherwise might have seemed a surprisingly small place; but the travel itself conveyed little challenge, excitement, or danger. In 80 Days, most journeys probably won’t kill you, but you can still screw up the logistics in ways that will affect the rest of your trip. In Heaven’s Vault you can miss stopping at a ruin if you’re not careful, but you can always loop around (if tediously) to try to reach it again. Then, too, there are some games, like Wheels of Aurelia, where the driving experience is meant as a backdrop to an interesting conversation. But in HV most of the dialogue that happens while you’re on the rivers is pretty lightweight, not enough to sustain the sequence on its own.

Also, here the lack of danger in travel caused some ludonarrative dissonance. Most people in the world of Heaven’s Vault do not travel to other moons much at all, and it’s implied that that’s because the process is risky and very much dependent on the configuration of the rivers. But one doesn’t actually experience that in the gameplay to any meaningful degree. There is one point at the very end where the changing of rivers locks you out of returning to certain places, but up until then, the rivers of the Nebula actually felt significantly less threatening than the average California freeway.

Honestly, I think mimetic travel is often a mistake in story-driven games and I would seriously encourage designers to at least consider whether it’s lending anything to the themes or the emotional experience of the story to make the player walk, run, ride, or sail from one bucket of plot to the next; or whether it would work to substitute in a different spacer activity, or handle travel as a montage of events instead of an analogue progression.

Accordingly, in Heaven’s Vault I started to wish that the spacer activity had been, well, conducting something closer to a real excavation. What if you actually had to dig up all these items and make guesses about them based on the context in which they were found? If there were a risk of destroying objects or losing information if you worked too carelessly? That would have introduced an element of meaningful risk and potential loss — which does exist in archaeology — without killing off the player character.

Linguistics

The handling of language is another place where I enjoyed what Heaven’s Vault had to offer, found it novel, and wished it had gone even further. A language is a system that embeds a way of thinking about the world (or, if you believe Sapir-Whorf, actually constrains the thought possibilities of the speakers) and constructing a language is a form of world-building that forces you to engage directly with thoughts and philosophies.

In Ancient, the words combined out of primitives hint at a specific way of understanding the world. The word for an Emperor is related to the word for a God, and that word in turn is built out of the concepts of personhood and knowledge. The word for peace means a place that contains no enemies: a negative concept, very different from a peace based on compromise, resolution, or justice.

But a great deal of Ancient is English in a chiffon-sheer disguise, from the word order to the handling of homonyms to the fact that grammar ideas like “first person” are embedded in the language though there is no guarantee that a different grammar system would refer to them this way.

I had a bit of mental friction when “There is a…” — an existential use of “there,” to assert that something is present in the world — was translated with primitive glyphs more suited to the deictic meaning of “there”, the opposite of “here”, pointing out a location not associated with oneself. Yes, in English, we use the same “there” in “there is a dog” and “the dog is over there.”

Not every language does, though. Even languages as (relatively) close as French and Latin handle this very differently. French’s “il y a” would literally mean something like “he has there.” Latin, meanwhile, just piles that extra meaning on “est”, which otherwise means “is”. But Ancient does use “there is”, while spelling the word with glyphs that specifically encode the deictic meaning. I am a weird pedant, but it was a moment when I found it particularly hard to pretend Ancient was something other than an encipherment of English.

But never mind the individual idiosyncrasies. What deeper and more resonant world building might have been possible had the game been able to teach a few stranger ideas in its language? If it contained a few concepts that could not easily be pinned to a single English noun? What if, in a culture with a deep philosophy of cyclical repetition, there were a verb tense specifically dedicated to the concept of did-and-will-again?

More esoteric effects might have been hard to teach, certainly, in a game; and I don’t feel any distress that Heaven’s Vault omitted the linguistic drift, the dialect and spelling variations, the damage to letter surfaces, and the varied writing conventions that make classical epigraphy a specialist field in its own right. (Check out boustrophedon for a good time.) But I do think a few more resonant truths about the minds of the ancients could have been smuggled to player within the form of the language itself.

Procedural Text and the Particularity of History

The world of Heaven’s Vault is crowded with objects, and many of the smaller and less-important ones have what I think must be procedurally generated descriptions — a small bent tablet, a worn copper telescope, a sextant. This works very smoothly, in the sense that I seldom if ever encountered a description that didn’t feel idiomatic. Moreover, there seemed to be a thematic connection between the general type of object and the sort of inscription one might find there, so a navigation-related artifact would likely be inscribed with a message about not getting lost.

For my own aesthetic proc-text preferences, though, the generative grammar was a bit too homogenous and the elements too singular in meaning. A bent metal tablet might be different from a smooth wood tablet, but none of the descriptors were significantly more surprising than others; none of the combinations of description stood out as meaning more than the sum of the parts. It’s the classic bowl of oatmeal problem; or in Parrigues procgen terminology, there is no Venom at all. In a related interview, Jon Ingold makes clear that he saw the dialogue riffing on the generated content in a way that provided the missing variety, and I see his point but also believe more could have been done within the generated material proper.

Sprinkletti candy decorations for Christmas cakes: note variable sizing

(As a side note: I saw an excellent talk several years ago about how Pixar animators use a Pareto distribution to distribute a few large objects and a lot of small ones when, e.g., automatically generating a forest. Sadly, I’m not able to find an article about this, or any recordings of the talk, but it made an impression on me because of how natural and pleasing the generated material looked.

Since I haven’t been able to find this talk or any images from it, I will instead illustrate this with a picture of Sprinkletti cake decorations, which similarly come in a large-and-small distribution, though whether accurately Pareto-esque, I am not sure. I mention this because I think a similar principle describes the most effective distribution of unique, unusual, or surprising content vs ordinary and bland content in generated text output.)

Something similar might be said about the actual content of the less-important inscriptions. Inscriptions on big monuments typically had some major narrative function, but inscriptions on pieces of sailcloth were more generic: “follow the wind”, say, or “do not get lost.”

Here I would have dearly loved a little more particularity of content and a little more variety of tone. I am doubtless bringing to bear the Greco-Roman perspective of my own training, but in that context, among inscribed or painted texts you encounter a range of maker’s marks (“Phaedo painted this”), labels (“the guy on this vase painting is Achilles”), personal and sexual graffiti (“Marcus is a thief”, “Anthea has pleasing buttocks”), inventories and calendars (“ten wine skins and two oil jars”, “market day is the fifth of the month”), prayers and votives (“may the person who stole my clothes at the bath die of a plague”, “thanks to Asclepius for healing my infected foot”), records of manumission (“Ignatius purchased his freedom for five gold coins”) and burial inscriptions (“here lies Chloe who died in her twelfth year, before she could be married”).

They are often profane or banal, and at the same time they often hint at very personal stories, and I find them touching. The museum at Ancient Corinth has — or had, when I was there twenty years ago — beautiful sculptures and monumental objects on public display, and then a basement crammed with the cookware, the worn coins, the second-rate vases, the smaller and cheaper statues, the tiny metal figurines and laurel wreaths that were mass produced for poor people to give to the gods when they couldn’t afford something worthier. It was in the basement that one felt the crowded humanity of history.

There were one or two items in Heaven’s Vault that came close to doing that for me: a gift given with an instruction to remember and come back to the mother who gave it, for instance. And perhaps the authors felt that the vocabulary to cover market days, bath thefts, infections, and shapely posteriors would have been a distraction from the story they wanted to tell. But I longed for the added texture.

Game Feel for Choice-Heavy Games

I said at the top that this is a game about piecing together meaning from small bits, and that’s true at the narrative structure level also. The plot comes in atom-sized pieces which may be distributed as necessary. There are many moons to visit, and various incidents that can happen on these moons, but they can occur in almost any order; you unlock access to new moons by finding a sufficient number of artifacts that come from the source world.

Not only that, but the choices you make when translating inscriptions feed into the dialogue you have with other characters, so that your guesses about the meaning of text ripple outward into personal interactions.

In consequence, there’s a lot of potential variation in what happens, in what order. In some places that’s evident, but in most places I know about it only because I’ve heard from other people about the alternate experiences they had in play. At the same time, few of those choices are framed as high stakes. Meanwhile, the explicitly high-stakes choices you are allowed to make (whether to hand over an important artifact to someone you no longer trust, for instance) sometimes have disconcertingly minimal consequences.

So, at least in my own experience of the game, the choices that were framed as meaningful tended to do less than I expected, while actions with no signaled importance turned out to shape the later flow of the narrative.

The result is a very rare thing: an interactive story in which the player experiences much less diegetic agency than she actually has. The world is full of interactive stories that use smoke and mirrors to convince you that you’ve made a difference. Heaven’s Vault frequently deceives you into thinking that you haven’t. Though your actions massively reshape the story, most of the time it feels like you’re being swept along one of the Nebula’s rivers, able to make only minor adjustments to your course and speed, uncertain about where these tweaks will take you.

I’ve recently been reading Steve Swink’s book Game Feel. I have been doing this because although Swink describes game feel in a way that is very very explicitly not about narrative text games, the description resonates for me with a sensation of agency and narrative control that I believe many narrative games attempt and few achieve. Here’s how Swink defines game feel:

Real-time control of virtual objects in a simulated space, with interactions emphasized by polish.

And he talks about fighting games and driving games; this is not about interactive stories. But a bit later, he writes

The aesthetic sensation of control is the starting experience of game feel. It is the pure, aesthetic pleasure of steering something around and feeling it respond to input.

And isn’t there, sometimes, a pure aesthetic pleasure of steering a narrative? A rare but eminently desirable experience when, for instance, we know that the protagonist is on the verge of doing something very stupid, and we tiptoe up to the edge of disaster before withdrawing; when we know that a particular statement will send an NPC over the edge into a dramatic rage, and we choose to say the words? This is something I tried to explain in my talk at Progression Mechanics a few years ago, though I had not at the time read Swink’s book.

I can pick out dozens of specific beats in my own work where I was trying, whether or not successfully, to create this feel for the player: in Alabaster, when the player is driving Snow White to the breaking point with a particular line of questioning, and the imagery in the sidebar becomes more and more aggressive to indicate that we’re close to disaster; in Glass, when as a parrot you can wait out an NPC-driven conversation to drop exactly the right word into conversation at exactly the right time, and cause havoc; multiple times in Blood & Laurels where there are opportunities to flatter or offend strategically. And I’ve found it in other works also: the most famous puzzle in Spider and Web, a late game moment in Portal 2; the alternate endings of Slouching Towards Bedlam; quite a lot of Ingold’s own Make It Good, once you’ve played the game through eight times or so and are beginning to get a notion of what you’re supposed to do.

A single large choice rarely accomplishes the effect, for me, unless it’s been set up as the consequence of a long quest — which is why I am interested in microstructures of choice. Those small “are you sure” moments that set the stakes or provide a bit of additional stake-setting give those choices just enough heft, enough weight, to make steering feel good.

But in Heaven’s Vault, those microstructures are sometimes deployed to ask whether you’re sure about an action that will actually have no consequences to speak of, while other actions are too light, without even a “Six will remember that” to warn you that they mattered.

A Cold Heaven

Ultimately, Heaven’s Vault left me with a strong sense of isolation and loneliness. Even the protagonist’s own backstory is presented as a series of dates on her timeline, there for you to explore if you want. I found that both extremely clever, and expressive of Aliya’s essential disconnected quality.

Other players have complained that her dialogue is not what they would choose to say themselves. I generally like a highly characterized protagonist, but I found Aliya’s character uncomfortable to inhabit. Perhaps this too was the result of some inadvertent stat-setting I unknowingly did at the beginning. But my Aliya soon revealed herself, against my will, as a scientist who was nonetheless strangely incurious about Six’s past and memories; a nominal abolitionist who abused her robots even when it became clear that they had some level of personality and sentience; a figure who resents being used but is highly utilitarian in her approach to others. Is there ever a moment of open connection between her and anyone she meets?

At one of the crowning moments of the story, Six retrieved an entire codex for me, a huge book full of ancient and revealing inscriptions to read. As a player, I coveted it more than anything else in the game. As a character, Aliya seemed to feel the same. But even then, there was no “thank you” in the menu, no opportunity to show Six a little appreciation.

At the end of the game, I made a destructive, antisocial decision, and I did so for two reasons:

  • I didn’t really care about the people I was leaving behind me, and Aliya definitely didn’t care about them
  • I was eager, finally, to pull a lever and see a significant result

After the times I’d tried to do something big earlier in the story, this felt like my last chance; as though if I didn’t take action, the Nebula would continue in a depressingly static state.

And now I’ve gone on at horrible length about all this: this is an astonishing game. I really want more people to make more conlang narrative games ASAP, and I am also extremely impressed by the flexibility of content that inkle managed to create.

Other reviews and coverage:

and if you found this interesting, you might also enjoy the language-focused tabletop RPG work of Thorny Games.

Renga in Blue

Lost Ship Adventure (1980)

by Jason Dyer at July 23, 2019 04:41 AM

From 80 Microcomputing, December 1980.

Charles Forsythe joins the ranks of Greg Hassett, Joel Mick, and the authors of Stuga as a teenager publishing software (15 at the time of this game). After playing the Scott Adams games, his biography mentions that:

He was excited about adventure, but like all youngsters, was unable to buy the programs he needed to satisfy his new interest. So he began writing them.

This sounds familiar. When I was very young if I wanted a new adventure I had to write it. The first adventure game I remember playing was a type-in from a library book.

I’ve been relatively glib whenever we’ve hit a treasure hunt (gather all the treasures, put them in central location X) but I decided to chart all the games I’ve played so far for All the Adventures to track the evolution of plot styles:

“Rescue” has a primary motivator of someone or something being extracted, “Investigation” is about figuring things out and putting pieces together, “Escape” is motivated by getting the player out of danger, and “Enemy” is a plot about an opposing force that must be defeated.

These categories are quite rough and some games I just had to make a ballpark decision, but you can at least get a fair idea of how well-copied the treasure hunt concept from Crowther and Woods Adventure was in this era. In 1978 it made up essentially every game, but by 1980 (assuming the ratio continues when I play the rest of the year) only about half of the adventure games were treasure hunts.

WHILE DIVING FOR TREASURE IN THE CARRIBEAN, YOU COME ACROSS A LONG LOST PIRATE SHIP, ADRIFT FOR YEARS.

For this game, the idea of lost ship salvage is one of the most appropriate uses of a treasure hunt, since it matches the experience of real-life salvage (if not the lawyer fees).

Noteworthy: the steak is rotten so does *not* work on the dog, who has apparently been resourceful enough to live alone on an abandoned ship for several years.

This game opens badly, with a serious parser issue:

>CUT CORAL
DON’T BE SO DESTRUCTIVE!
>BREAK CORAL
WITH WHAT, I.E. “WITH FEATHER”
>WITH DAGGER
YOU’VE UNCOVERED SOMETHING

I’ve got enough grizzled experience I can neatly plow through this kind of problem (“hmm, I better test a couple verbs, even though the first one implies not to do the action, because that’s a default message”) but I can see someone booting up the game and stopping right there.

Besides the section above I haven’t been able to make much early progress. I have access to

  • The main deck as shown above, where I can’t reach the black flag. I can attempt to SET SAIL but the game says I haven’t set a course.
  • The crow’s nest, where there are some gull eggs (and I get knocked into the sea if I try to get them).
  • The map room of the ship, where SET COURSE is recognized but the game says I have nothing to mark the map with. (Trying to STAB MAP to be all pirate-style just gets the “DON’T BE SO DESTRUCTIVE!” message.)
  • A nearby beach where a sign says I can STORE treasures there. I have stored 0 treasures so far.
  • A cargo hold with a rusty machine, some decaying bags, a working fishing net (although no fish around) and a bag of gold. I tried to take the bag of gold to the beach to STORE it but the game says I don’t know what’s inside (??). I suspect a genuine bug at work.

Despite the early stuckness, I’ve got some goodwill left because I like the environment. The main character wears a diving suit and can walk around underwater. The abandoned ship feels mysterious but not mystical (yet), and while I don’t think the layout is “authentic” the author also didn’t feel obliged to pack in an unrealistic amount of space. I can read a simple description like

THE WINDOWS LOOK OUT ONTO AN ENDLESS OCEAN. THE SEA BREEZE COMES THROUGH THEM.

and take a few breaths of another world; sometimes, that’s all I’m needing out of an adventure game.

Choice of Games

New Hosted Game! One Minute Mysteries by Michael Gray

by Rachel E. Towers at July 23, 2019 12:42 AM

Hosted Games has a new game for you to play!

One Minute Mysteries is a collection of fifty-five short, challenging mysteries by Michael Gray. Join Andy Carson and Sandy Crewe as they tackle hidden clues, tricky puzzles, wacky suspects, and relentless riddles! Each mystery is under 300 words long, so you can read it in under a minute! It’s 25% off until July 29th!

• Follow the detectives as they investigate crimes.
• Confront liars, cheats and kidnappers.
• Meet fun and interesting characters.
• Test your wits against a wide variety of difficult puzzles.
• Who did it? Only YOU can figure it out!

Michael Gray 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.

July 22, 2019

Choice of Games

Author Interview: Abigail Trevor, “Heroes of Myth”

by Mary Duffy at July 22, 2019 04:42 PM

 

Everyone thinks you saved the world three years ago. It was all a lie. The truth is, the “dark lord” you and your friends supposedly slew never existed; you used magical illusions to fake a prophecy. But now, as you relax into a life of fame and luxury, the omens from your false prophecy are happening again, and this time, you had nothing to do with it. Heroes of Myth is a 560,000-word interactive novel by Abigail C. Trevor, a staff member of Choice of Games. I sat down with Abby to talk about her first game with us and the challenges of writing long. Heroes of Myth releases this Thursday, July 25th. 


Abby, this is your first game for Choice of Games, and you’ve been on staff for just over two years now, right? Tell me a little about how you managed to write Heroes of Myth and work, and stay sane?

Well, the simplest answer is that I worked during the day and wrote at nights and on weekends. Since 2015 I’d had a system in place where I wrote something every day, though that makes it sound a little more stringent than it really was: it was more like I’d do something related to writing every day, which would sometimes be actually making progress on my current project and would sometimes be plot notes, worldbuilding, outlining, or even drawing maps or charts. I also never gave myself any word count requirements: some days would be fewer than 10 words, some near the end of the Heroes of Myth writing process were over 4000, and the vast majority of them were somewhere in between. I started this to finish a (currently unpublished) novel and switched over to Heroes of Myth a couple of years ago. I’d already been in college or working for most of the time I’d been doing this, so having the discipline to work consistently on the game wasn’t too big an adjustment.

Of course, when the later chapters of Heroes of Myth started to get over 70,000 words long, I was looking at far more writing in a shorter period of time than I’d ever had to contend with when I was working alone on my novel with no deadlines. It was taking over my non-work hours a little more than I would have preferred by the end, but fortunately I managed to finish the game before it got too overwhelming. And aside from beta testing, I’ve been taking a bit of a break from writing since then, which was much needed.

Heroes of Myth is going to be followed pretty closely by another staff-written game, Psy High 2: High Summer. Do you have favorite Choice of Game titles, either from before you started working here, or since, or even ones which are still in the works?

I can’t remember if Affairs of the Court: Choice of Romance was the first Choice of Games title I ever played, but it was definitely the one I fell in love with, a few years before I started working here. Our game design has gotten more sophisticated since then, but I still have a lot of affection for it, and I still remember the glee I felt on first scheming my way to the throne (and the only slightly concerning texts I sent my friends about how much I was enjoying all the different ways the game let me eliminate my competition). I also really enjoyed Cannonfire Concerto and Thieves’ Gambit: Curse of the Black Cat when they were first released, and I ended up doing some of my early editorial and QA training with them once I started working here, which was particularly cool. With the music and the intrigue, Cannonfire Concerto features a combination of things I really adore, and the heists in Curse of the Black Cat are a ton of fun.

Since I started working here, there are lots of games I’ve really enjoyed playing and watching develop. Just a few of these are Heart of the House, Blood Money, The Mysteries of Baroque, and Asteroid Run: No Questions Asked, all of which have beautifully-drawn characters in deeply compelling settings. As for upcoming games, I’ll cheat and say I’m very excited about all the games I’m currently editing – one of which, Crème de la Crème by Hannah Powell-Smith, is currently in full draft review, and might be familiar to some forum-goers!

What part of Heroes of Myth did you enjoy writing most? World-building, NPCs, interesting choices, fight scenes?

Characters and dialogue are always my favorite parts of anything I’m writing, and Heroes of Myth is no exception. In more linear writing I always have to resist the urge to let conversations I’m enjoying writing spiral on forever, and while that isn’t necessarily any more advisable in interactive fiction, I love creating conversations that can branch in multiple directions. Figuring out how a character might respond to all the different things the PC might conceivably say is so much fun. Some of my favorite lines in the game are hidden in relatively insignificant dialogue branches, and I dearly hope people find them!

If you had it to do over, what would you do differently?

Anything that would keep the game from taking over my life quite as much as it did in the final chapters – whether that’s figuring out a better schedule, writing a shorter game, or getting a better sense of how long something will be before I write it, I’m not sure. People always talk about interactive fiction ballooning out of control as the branches accumulate, which is certainly part of the problem, but I’ve never written anything that didn’t come out much longer than I was intending it to be, interactive or otherwise.

Which part of the process surprised you, despite knowing exactly how things go behind the scenes here?

I was only a few months into working here when I started the game, so I certainly didn’t know everything about how things go behind the scenes then, and I’m not sure I’d say I do even now – there are always still new things I’m learning! One thing might have surprised me precisely because I’m familiar with how the process works, which is how quickly things moved once the game was submitted. Which is not to say that we have routine catastrophes or anything, just that I was well aware of all the places where the game could get bogged down, and that more or less didn’t happen. That said, it hasn’t actually been released yet, so I should probably stop talking and may have already said too much.

And what do you want to write next!?

As I mentioned, I’ve been taking a writing break, so I’ve only recently started thinking seriously about concepts for my next game. After the doomsday prophecies of Heroes of Myth, I’d love to do something where the stakes are just a bit lower than the apocalypse – but where the choices you make feel just as important, of course! And somewhere in there I’d like to work in revisions to the novel I mentioned, but I’ve discovered I love writing games too much to put that down for long. When I get all of that ironed out, you’ll be one of the first to know!

July 20, 2019

Renga in Blue

Deathmaze 5000: Finale (Grendles módor / ides áglaécwíf / yrmþe gemunde)

by Jason Dyer at July 20, 2019 04:41 AM

Bonus nerd cred for anyone who figures out the title of this post before I explain it.

Every item in the game has been in a box. I assume this is to make them feasible to draw in the 3D environment.

Even if you drop an item that you’ve been holding, a box suddenly forms around it.

For the first part of the game, I would >OPEN BOX and >TAKE WHATEVER each time I wanted an object (even if I knew what it was) but once I realized the game let you skip the box part and jump straight to taking the item, I started thinking of the boxes more as abstractions than as real things.

Later, when absent-minded, I wanted to >TAKE RING, but conflated the two old commands and typed >TAKE BOX instead. Which led to a box in my inventory.

Interesting! I wondered if there was anywhere I could use that trick. I had been valiantly trying to find a way to take a flute from the fourth floor back up to the second floor, because there was a snake there, and in adventure games circa 1976-198X flutes are effective in charming snakes. However, the ability to TAKE BOX meant I could do things the other way around and take the snake down to the flute.

I was able to drop the box in the upper right corner of floor 4 (at the bottom of a pit), play the flute causing the snake to rise, climb the snake, and grab a sword that was just past.

The inversion of turning a dangerous trap into a tool reminds me of the part in Mystery Fun House where you solve a puzzle with an informational item. Call it unexpected re-purposing, if you like.

Immediately after, I was entirely stuck, and knew I *had* to work out the calculator. Once again, I set a timer for an hour to prevent myself from hitting hints too early, but I honestly would have been fine just diving in; it was a parser issue. The “.2” bit that had been bothering me the whole time was just a hint to press the “two” button.

>PRESS TWO

Given I had been valiantly attempting to find any verb at all that would work the calculator, I don’t think even an extra three hours would have helped.

Activating the calculator teleports the player to level five, where the torch is knocked out by some wind, and a monster approaches.

Not the same monster as before: this time you’re attacked by the monster’s mother.

Doing >RAISE on the RING that has so far been useless brings forth a magical light. I had >RAISE on my verb list this time, but only because I had tried it on the magic staff (I was visualizing the usual “lift and shoot lightning bolts” type maneuver). (It’s a good thing that the staff was of indirect use, because in game terms the magic staff is utterly useless. That long segment I went through trying to get by two attack dogs? Totally unnecessary. I’m normally relaxed about games with a few red herrings, but grrrr.)

The magical light chases away the monster’s mother, but only temporarily.

The fifth-floor maze was a giant lead-up to getting a golden key. All the time, the mother started getting more confident, until she attacked…

… and I defeated her on my first try via >BLOW HORN making a roar that sounded like another monster, then applying the sword. I guess the puzzles don’t all have to be hard and unfair; in a way this was just the culminating reward for solving the snake puzzle.

Upon attaining the golden key comes the final challenge. There is a row of five locks on the rightmost wall.

Each one kills you in a different and creative way.

You unlock the door…
and three men in white coats take you away!

You unlock the door…
and the walls falls on you!

You unlock the door…
and a 20,000 volt shock kills you!

However, the second from the top is particularly theatrical: you don’t die right away, but the screen starts flashing and TICK TICK appears on the top. If you wait a bit longer, the entire maze blows up.

The ticking lock still turns out to be the correct one. After activating the bomb, you can find a previously hidden “sixth lock” to the south of the row of five. It leads to an elevator where you fall into a bed of spikes and die.

Oops!

I admit to grumpiness and frustration and decided to go for a hint right away. I needed to take the crystal ball from the first floor of the game and >THROW BALL. This caused the elevator to “disappear” and a passage to show up leading to the outside. I have no idea why this worked. I imagine if I was patient enough to run through all the various red herring objects I could have solved this on my own, but I doubt I would have got any satisfaction.

The game then throws one more curveball: before you’re allowed to win, the game asks what the name of the monster was.

The game might better have asked: what famous monster also had a mother who attacked after he died?

>GRENDEL

This hints at the “madness” theme Med Systems would hit starting in 1981 with the game Asylum.

If you’re not familiar with Beowulf: a kingdom ruled by King Hrothgar is being attacked by the monster Grendel. The legendary Beowulf slays Grendel in Hrothgar’s mead hall. And then an “avenger” appears:

Grendles módor (Grendel’s mother,)
ides áglaécwíf (lady troll-wife,)
yrmþe gemunde (remembered misery)
sé þe wæteregesan (she who the dreadful water)
wunian scolde (had to inhabit)
From Benjamin Slade’s translation, lines 1258-1260

Grendel’s mother, who lives underwater, wants revenge. (Spoiler: she doesn’t get it.)

I admit, given the last part of the game is clearly not underwater, I was a touch confused. Re-visualizing the last level as, say, ankle-deep makes it suitably close. There’s an intrinsic danger to citing something of greater artistry and power than your own work, but I suppose it’s excusable for the very end of this silly (but innovative) game.

July 19, 2019

The Digital Antiquarian

Chief Gates Comes to Oakhurst: A Cop Drama

by Jimmy Maher at July 19, 2019 05:41 PM

One day in late 1992, a trim older man with a rigid military bearing visited Sierra Online’s headquarters in Oakhurst, California. From his appearance, and from the way that Sierra’s head Ken Williams fawned over him, one might have assumed him to be just another wealthy member of the investment class, a group that Williams had been forced to spend a considerable amount of time wooing ever since he had taken his company public four years earlier. But that turned out not to be the case. As Williams began to introduce his guest to some of his employees, he described him as Sierra’s newest game designer, destined to make the fourth game in the Police Quest series. It seemed an unlikely role based on the new arrival’s appearance and age alone.

Yet ageism wasn’t sufficient to explain the effect he had on much of Sierra’s staff. Josh Mandel, a sometime stand-up comic who was now working for Sierra as a writer and designer, wanted nothing whatsoever to do with him: “I wasn’t glad he was there. I just wanted him to go away as soon as possible.” Gano Haine, who was hard at work designing the environmental-themed EcoQuest: Lost Secret of the Rainforest, reluctantly accepted the task of showing the newcomer some of Sierra’s development tools and processes. He listened politely enough, although it wasn’t clear how much he really understood. Then, much to her relief, the boss swept him away again.

The man who had prompted such discomfort and consternation was arguably the most politically polarizing figure in the United States at the time: Daryl F. Gates, the recently resigned head of the Los Angeles Police Department. Eighteen months before, four of his white police officers had brutally beaten a black man — an unarmed small-time lawbreaker named Rodney King — badly enough to break bones and teeth. A private citizen had captured the incident on videotape. One year later, after a true jury of their peers in affluent, white-bread Simi Valley had acquitted the officers despite the damning evidence of the tape, the Los Angeles Riots of 1992 had begun. Americans had watched in disbelief as the worst civil unrest since the infamously restive late 1960s played out on their television screens. The scene looked like a war zone in some less enlightened foreign country; this sort of thing just doesn’t happen here, its viewers had muttered to themselves. But it had happened. The final bill totaled 63 people killed, 2383 people injured, and more than $1 billion in property damage.

The same innocuous visage that was now to become Sierra’s newest game designer had loomed over all of the scenes of violence and destruction. Depending on whether you stood on his side of the cultural divide or the opposite one, the riots were either the living proof that “those people” would only respond to the “hard-nosed” tactics employed by Gates’s LAPD, or the inevitable outcome of decades of those same misguided tactics. The mainstream media hewed more to the latter narrative. When they weren’t showing the riots or the Rodney King tape, they played Gates’s other greatest hits constantly. There was the time he had said, in response to the out-sized numbers of black suspects who died while being apprehended in Los Angeles, that black people were more susceptible to dying in choke holds because their arteries didn’t open as fast as those of “normal people”; the time he had said that anyone who smoked a joint was a traitor against the country and ought to be “taken out and shot”; the time when he had dismissed the idea of employing homosexuals on the force by asking, “Who would want to work with one?”; the time when his officers had broken an innocent man’s nose, and he had responded to the man’s complaint by saying that he was “lucky that was all he had broken”; the time he had called the LAPD’s peers in Philadelphia “an inspiration to the nation” after they had literally launched an airborne bombing raid on a troublesome inner-city housing complex, killing six adults and five children and destroying 61 homes. As the mainstream media was reacting with shock and disgust to all of this and much more, right-wing radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh trotted out the exact same quotes, but greeted them with approbation rather than condemnation.

All of which begs the question of what the hell Gates was doing at Sierra Online, of all places. While they were like most for-profit corporations in avoiding overly overt political statements, Sierra hardly seemed a bastion of reactionary sentiment or what the right wing liked to call “family values.” Just after founding Sierra in 1980, Ken and Roberta Williams had pulled up stakes in Los Angeles and moved to rural Oakhurst more out of some vague hippie dream of getting back to the land than for any sound business reason. As was known by anyone who’d read Steven Levy’s all-too-revealing book Hackers, or seen a topless Roberta on the cover of a game called Softporn, Sierra back in those days had been a nexus of everything the law-and-order contingent despised: casual sex and hard drinking, a fair amount of toking and even the occasional bit of snorting. (Poor Richard Garriott of Ultima fame, who arrived in this den of iniquity from a conservative neighborhood of Houston inhabited almost exclusively by straight-arrow astronauts like his dad, ran screaming from it all after just a few months; decades later, he still sounds slightly traumatized when he talks about his sojourn in California.)

It was true that a near-death experience in the mid-1980s and an IPO in 1988 had done much to change life at Sierra since those wild and woolly early days. Ken Williams now wore suits and kept his hair neatly trimmed. He no longer slammed down shots of tequila with his employees to celebrate the close of business on a Friday, nor made it his personal mission to get his nerdier charges laid; nor did he and Roberta still host bathing-suit-optional hot-tub parties at their house. But when it came to the important questions, Williams’s social politics still seemed diametrically opposed to the likes to Daryl Gates. For example, at a time when even the mainstream media still tended to dismiss concerns about the environment as obsessions of the Loony Left, he’d enthusiastically approved Gano Haines’s idea for a series of educational adventure games to teach children about just those issues. When a 15-year-old who already had the world all figured out wrote in to ask how Sierra could “give in to the doom-and-gloomers and whacko commie liberal environmentalists” who believed that “we can destroy a huge, God-created world like this,” Ken’s brother John Williams — Sierra’s marketing head — offered an unapologetic and cogent response: “As long as we get letters like this, we’ll keep making games like EcoQuest.”

So, what gave? Really, what was Daryl Gates doing here? And how had this figure that some of Ken Williams’s employees could barely stand to look at become connected with Police Quest, a slightly goofy and very erratic series of games, but basically a harmless one prior to this point? To understand how all of these trajectories came to meet that day in Oakhurst, we need to trace each back to its point of origin.


Daryl F. Gates

Perhaps the kindest thing we can say about Daryl Gates is that he was, like the young black men he and his officers killed, beat, and imprisoned by the thousands, a product of his environment. He was, the sufficiently committed apologist might say, merely a product of the institutional culture in which he was immersed throughout his adult life. Seen in this light, his greatest sin was his inability to rise above his circumstances, a failing which hardly sets him apart from the masses. One can only wish he had been able to extend to the aforementioned black men the same benefit of the doubt which other charitable souls might be willing to give to him.

Long before he himself became the head of the LAPD, Gates was the hand-picked protege of William Parker, the man who has gone down in history as the architect of the legacy Gates would eventually inherit. At the time Parker took control of it in 1950, the LAPD was widely regarded as the most corrupt single police force in the country, its officers for sale to absolutely anyone who could pay their price; they went so far as to shake down ordinary motorists for bribes at simple traffic stops. To his credit, Parker put a stop to all that. But to his great demerit, he replaced rank corruption on the individual level with an us-against-them form of esprit de corps — the “them” here being the people of color who were pouring into Los Angeles in ever greater numbers. Much of Parker’s approach was seemingly born of his experience of combat during World War II. He became the first but by no means the last LAPD chief to make comparisons between his police force and an army at war, without ever considering whether the metaphor was really appropriate.

Parker was such a cold fish that Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, who served as an LAPD officer during his tenure as chief, would later claim to have modeled the personality of the emotionless alien Spock on him. And yet, living as he did in the epicenter of the entertainment industry — albeit mostly patrolling the parts of Los Angeles that were never shown by Hollywood — Parker was surprisingly adept at manipulating the media to his advantage. Indeed, he became one of those hidden players who sometimes shape media narratives without anyone ever quite realizing that they’re doing so. He served as a consultant for the television show Dragnet, the first popular police drama, which all but placed a halo above the heads of the officers of the LAPD. The many shows that followed it cemented a pernicious cliché of the “ideal” cop that can still be seen, more than half a century later, on American television screens every evening: the cop as tough crusader who has to knock a few heads sometimes and bend or break the rules to get around the pansy lawyers, but who does it all for a noble cause, guided by an infallible moral compass that demands that he protect the “good people” of his city from the irredeemably bad ones by whatever means are necessary. Certainly Daryl Gates would later benefit greatly from this image; it’s not hard to believe that even Ken Williams, who fancied himself something of a savvy tough guy in his own right, was a little in awe of it when he tapped Gates to make a computer game.

But this wasn’t the only one of Chief Parker’s innovations that would come to the service of the man he liked to describe as the son he’d never had. Taking advantage of a city government desperate to see a cleaned-up LAPD, Parker drove home policies that made the city’s police force a veritable fiefdom unto itself, its chief effectively impossible to fire. The city council could only do so “for cause” — i.e., some explicit failure on the chief’s part. This sounded fair enough — until one realized that the chief got to write his own evaluation every year. Naturally, Parker and his successors got an “excellent” score every time, and thus the LAPD remained for decades virtually impervious to the wishes of the politicians and public it allegedly served.

The Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts burns, 1965.

As Parker’s tenure wore on, tension spiraled in the black areas of Los Angeles, the inevitable response to an utterly unaccountable LAPD’s ever more brutal approach to policing. It finally erupted in August of 1965 in the form of the Watts Riots, the great prelude to the riots of 1992: 34 deaths, $40 million in property damage in contemporary dollars. For Daryl Gates, who watched it all take place by Parker’s side, the Watts Riots became a formative crucible. “We had no idea how to deal with this,” he would later write. “We were constantly ducking bottles, rocks, knives, and Molotov cocktails. It was random chaos. We did not know how to handle guerrilla warfare.” Rather than asking himself how it had come to this in the first place and how such chaos might be prevented in the future, he asked how the LAPD could be prepared to go toe to toe with future rioters in what amounted to open warfare on city streets.

Chief Parker died the following year, but Gates’s star remained on the ascendant even without his patron. He came up with the idea of a hardcore elite force for dealing with full-on-combat situations, a sort of SEAL team of police. Of course, the new force would need an acronym that sounded every bit as cool as its Navy inspiration. He proposed SWAT, for “Special Weapons Attack Teams.” When his boss balked at such overtly militaristic language, he said that it could stand for “Special Weapons and Tactics” instead. “That’s fine,” said his boss.

Gates and his SWAT team had their national coming-out party on December 6, 1969, when they launched an unprovoked attack upon a hideout of the Black Panthers, a well-armed militia composed of black nationalists which had been formed as a response to earlier police brutality. Logistically and practically, the raid was a bit of a fiasco. The attackers got discombobulated by an inaccurate map of the building and very nearly got themselves hemmed into a cul de sac and massacred. (“Oh, God, we were lucky,” said one of them later.) What was supposed to have been a blitzkrieg-style raid devolved into a long stalemate. The standoff was broken only when Gates managed to requisition a grenade launcher from the Marines at nearby Camp Pendleton and started lobbing explosives into the building; this finally prompted the Panthers to surrender. By some miracle, no one on either side got killed, but the Panthers were acquitted in court of most charges on the basis of self-defense.

Yet the practical ineffectuality of the operation mattered not at all to the political narrative that came to be attached to it. The conservative white Americans whom President Nixon loved to call “the silent majority” — recoiling from the sex, drugs, and rock and roll of the hippie era, genuinely scared by the street violence of the last several years — applauded Gates’s determination to “get tough” with “those people.” For the first time, the names of Daryl Gates and his brainchild of SWAT entered the public discourse beyond Los Angeles.

In May of 1974, the same names made the news in a big way again when the SWAT team was called in to subdue the Symbionese Liberation Army, a radical militia with a virtually incomprehensible political philosophy, who had recently kidnapped and apparently converted to their cause the wealthy heiress Patty Hearst. After much lobbying on Gates’s part, his team got the green light to mount a full frontal assault on the group’s hideout. Gates and his officers continued to relish military comparisons. “Here in the heart of Los Angeles was a war zone,” he later wrote. “It was like something out of a World War II movie, where you’re taking the city from the enemy, house by house.” More than 9000 rounds of ammunition were fired by the two sides. But by now, the SWAT officers did appear to be getting better at their craft. Eight members of the militia were killed — albeit two of them unarmed women attempting to surrender — and the police officers received nary a scratch. Hearst herself proved not to be inside the hideout, but was arrested shortly after the battle.

The Patty Hearst saga marked the last gasp of a militant left wing in the United States; the hippies of the 1960s were settling down to become the Me Generation of the 1970s. Yet even as the streets were growing less turbulent, increasingly militaristic rhetoric was being applied to what had heretofore been thought of as civil society. In 1971, Nixon had declared a “war on drugs,” thus changing the tone of the discourse around policing and criminal justice markedly. Gates and SWAT were the perfect mascots for the new era. The year after the Symbionese shootout, ABC debuted a hit television series called simply S.W.A.T. Its theme song topped the charts; there were S.W.A.T. lunch boxes, action figures, board games, and jigsaw puzzles. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to be like Daryl Gates and the LAPD — not least their fellow police officers in other cities: by July of 1975, there were 500 other SWAT teams in the United States. Gates embraced his new role of “America’s cop” with enthusiasm.

In light of his celebrity status in a city which worships celebrity, it was now inevitable that Gates would become the head of the LAPD just as soon as the post opened up. He took over in 1978; this gave him an even more powerful nationwide bully pulpit. In 1983, he applied some of his clout to the founding of a program called DARE in partnership with public schools around the country. The name stood for “Drug Abuse Resistance Education”; Gates really did have a knack for snappy acronyms. His heart was perhaps in the right place, but later studies, conducted only after the spending of hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars, would prove the program’s strident rhetoric and almost militaristic indoctrination techniques to be ineffective.

Meanwhile, in his day job as chief of police, Gates fostered an ever more toxic culture that viewed the streets as battlegrounds, that viewed an ass beating as the just reward of any black man who failed to treat a police officer with fawning subservience. In 1984, the Summer Olympics came to Los Angeles, and Gates used the occasion to convince the city council to let him buy armored personnel carriers — veritable tanks for the city streets — in the interest of “crowd control.” When the Olympics were over, he held onto them for the purpose of executing “no-knock” search warrants on suspected drug dens. During the first of these, conducted with great fanfare before an invited press in February of 1985, Gates himself rode along as an APC literally drove through the front door of a house after giving the occupants no warning whatsoever. Inside they found two shocked women and three children, with no substance more illicit than the bowls of ice cream they’d been eating. To top it all off, the driver lost control of the vehicle on a patch of ice whilst everyone was sheepishly leaving the scene, taking out a parked car.

Clearly Gates’s competence still tended not to entirely live up to his rhetoric, a discrepancy the Los Angeles Riots would eventually highlight all too plainly. But in the meantime, Gates was unapologetic about the spirit behind the raid: “It frightened even the hardcore pushers to imagine that at any moment a device was going to put a big hole in their place of business, and in would march SWAT, scattering flash-bangs and scaring the hell out of everyone.” This scene would indeed be played out many times over the remaining years of Gates’s chiefdom. But then along came Rodney King of all people to inadvertently bring about his downfall.

King was a rather-slow-witted janitor and sometime petty criminal with a bumbling reputation on the street. He’d recently done a year in prison after attempting to rob a convenience store with a tire iron; over the course of the crime, the owner of the store had somehow wound up disarming him, beating him over the head with his own weapon, and chasing him off the premises. He was still on parole for that conviction on the evening of March 3, 1991, when he was spotted by two LAPD officers speeding down the freeway. King had been drinking, and so, seeing their patrol car’s flashing lights in his rear-view mirror, he decided to make a run for it. He led what turned into a whole caravan of police cars on a merry chase until he found himself hopelessly hemmed in on a side street. The unarmed man then climbed out of his car and lay face down on the ground, as instructed. But then he stood up and tried to make a break for it on foot, despite being completely surrounded. Four of the 31 officers on the scene now proceeded to knock him down and beat him badly enough with their batons and boots to fracture his face and break one of his ankles. Their colleagues simply stood and watched at a distance.

Had not a plumber named George Holliday owned an apartment looking down on that section of street, the incident would doubtless have gone down in the LAPD’s logs as just another example of a black man “resisting arrest” and getting regrettably injured in the process. But Holliday was there, standing on his balcony — and he had a camcorder to record it all. When he sent his videotape to a local television station, its images of the officers taking big two-handed swings against King’s helpless body with their batons ignited a national firestorm. The local prosecutor had little choice but to bring the four officers up on charges.


The tactics of Daryl Gates now came under widespread negative scrutiny for the first time. Although he claimed to support the prosecution of the officers involved, he was nevertheless blamed for fostering the culture that had led to this incident, as well as the many others like it that had gone un-filmed. At long last, reporters started asking the black residents of Los Angeles directly about their experiences with the LAPD. A typical LAPD arrest, said one of them, “basically consisted of three or four cops handcuffing a person, and just literally beating him, often until unconscious… punching, beating, kicking.” A hastily assembled city commission produced pages and pages of descriptions of a police force run amok. “It is apparent,” the final report read, “that too many LAPD patrol officers view citizens with resentment and hostility.” In response, Gates promised to retire “soon.” Yet, as month after month went by and he showed no sign of fulfilling his promise, many began to suspect that he still had hopes of weathering the storm.

At any rate, he was still there on April 29, 1992. That was the day his four cops were acquitted in Simi Valley, a place LAPD officers referred to as “cop heaven”; huge numbers of them lived there. Within two hours after the verdict was announced, the Los Angeles Riots began in apocalyptic fashion, as a mob of black men pulled a white truck driver out of his cab and all but tore him limb from limb, all under the watchful eye of a helicopter that was hovering overhead and filming the carnage.

Tellingly, Gates happened to be speaking to an adoring audience of white patrons in the wealthy suburb of Brentwood at the very instant the riots began. As the violence continued, this foremost advocate of militaristic policing seemed bizarrely paralyzed. South Los Angeles burned, and the LAPD did virtually nothing about it. The most charitable explanation had it that Gates, spooked by the press coverage of the previous year, was terrified of how white police officers subduing black rioters would play on television. A less charitable one, hewed to by many black and liberal commentators, had it that Gates had decided that these parts of the city just weren’t worth saving — had decided to just let the rioters have their fun and burn it all down. But the problem, of course, was that in the meantime many innocent people of all colors were being killed and wounded and seeing their property go up in smoke. Finally, the mayor called in the National Guard to quell the rioting while Gates continued to sit on his hands.

Asked afterward how the LAPD — the very birthplace of SWAT — had allowed things to get so out of hand, Gates blamed it on a subordinate: “We had a lieutenant down there who just didn’t seem to know what to do, and he let us down.” Not only was this absurd, but it was hard to label as anything other than moral cowardice. It was especially rich coming from a man who had always preached an esprit de corps based on loyalty and honor. The situation was now truly untenable for him. Incompetence, cowardice, racism, brutality… whichever charge or charges you chose to apply, the man had to go. Gates resigned, for real this time, on June 28, 1992.

Yet he didn’t go away quietly. Gates appears to have modeled his post-public-service media strategy to a large extent on that of Oliver North, a locus of controversy for his role in President Ronald Reagan’s Iran-Contra scandal who had parlayed his dubious celebrity into the role of hero to the American right. Gates too gave a series of angry, unrepentant interviews, touted a recently published autobiography, and even went North one better when he won his own radio show which played in close proximity to that of Rush Limbaugh. And then, when Ken Williams came knocking, he welcomed that attention as well.

But why would Williams choose to cast his lot with such a controversial figure, one whose background and bearing were so different from his own? To begin to understand that, we need to look back to the origins of the adventure-game oddity known as Police Quest.


Ken Williams, it would seem, had always had a fascination with the boys in blue. One day in 1985, when he learned from his hairdresser that her husband was a California Highway Patrol officer on administrative leave for post-traumatic stress, his interest was piqued. He invited the cop in question, one Jim Walls, over to his house to play some racquetball and drink some beer. Before the evening was over, he had starting asking his guest whether he’d be interested in designing a game for Sierra. Walls had barely ever used a computer, and had certainly never played an adventure game on one, so he had only the vaguest idea what his new drinking buddy was talking about. But the only alternative, as he would later put it, was to “sit around and think” about the recent shootout that had nearly gotten him killed, so he agreed to give it a go.

The game which finally emerged from that conversation more than two years later shows the best and the worst of Sierra. On the one hand, it pushed a medium that was usually content to wallow in the same few fictional genres in a genuinely new direction. In a pair of articles he wrote for Computer Gaming World magazine, John Williams positioned Police Quest: In Pursuit of the Death Angel at the forefront of a new wave of “adult” software able to appeal to a whole new audience, noting how it evoked Joseph Wambaugh rather than J.R.R. Tolkien, Hill Street Blues rather than Star Wars. Conceptually, it was indeed a welcome antidote to a bad case of tunnel vision afflicting the entire computer-games industry.

In practical terms, however, it was somewhat less inspiring. The continual sin of Ken Williams and Sierra throughout the company’s existence was their failure to provide welcome fresh voices like that of Jim Walls with the support network that might have allowed them to make good games out of their well of experiences. Left to fend for himself, Walls, being the law-and-order kind of guy he was, devised the most pedantic adventure game of all time, one which played like an interactive adaptation of a police-academy procedure manual — so much so, in fact, that a number of police academies around the country would soon claim to be employing it as a training tool. The approach is simplicity itself: in every situation, if you do exactly what the rules of police procedure that are exhaustively described in the game’s documentation tell you to do, you get to live and go on to the next scene. If you don’t, you die. It may have worked as an adjunct to a police-academy course, but it’s less compelling as a piece of pure entertainment.

Although it’s an atypical Sierra adventure game in many respects, this first Police Quest nonetheless opens with what I’ve always considered to be the most indelibly Sierra moment of all. The manual has carefully explained — you did read it, right? — that you must walk all the way around your patrol car to check the tires and lights and so forth every time you’re about to drive somewhere. And sure enough, if you fail to do so before you get into your car for the first time, a tire blows out and you die as soon as you drive away. But if you do examine your vehicle, you find no evidence of a damaged tire, and you never have to deal with any blow-out once you start driving. The mask has fallen away to reveal what we always suspected: that the game actively wants to kill you, and is scheming constantly for a way to do so. There’s not even any pretension left of fidelity to a simulated world — just pure, naked malice. Robb Sherwin once memorably said that “Zork hates its player.” Well, Zork‘s got nothing on Police Quest.

Nevertheless, Police Quest struck a modest chord with Sierra’s fan base. While it didn’t become as big a hit as Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards, John Williams’s other touted 1987 embodiment of a new wave of “adult” games, it sold well enough to mark the starting point of another of the long series that were the foundation of Sierra’s marketing strategy. Jim Walls designed two sequels over the next four years, improving at least somewhat at his craft in the process. (In between them, he also came up with Code-Name: Iceman, a rather confused attempt at a Tom Clancy-style techno-thriller that was a bridge too far even for most of Sierra’s loyal fans.)

But shortly after completing Police Quest 3: The Kindred, Walls left Sierra along with a number of other employees to join Tsunami Media, a new company formed right there in Oakhurst by Edmond Heinbockel, himself a former chief financial officer for Sierra. With Walls gone, but his Police Quest franchise still selling well enough to make another entry financially viable, the door was wide open — as Ken Williams saw it, anyway — for one Daryl F. Gates.


Daryl Gates (right) with Tammy Dargan, the real designer of the game that bears his name.

Williams began his courtship of the most controversial man in the United States by the old-fashioned expedient of writing him a letter. Gates, who claimed never even to have used a computer, much less played a game on one, was initially confused about what exactly Williams wanted from him. Presuming Williams was just one of his admirers, he sent a letter back asking for some free games for some youngsters who lived across the street from him. Williams obliged in calculated fashion, with the three extant Police Quest games. From that initial overture, he progressed to buttering Gates up over the telephone.

As the relationship moved toward the payoff stage, some of his employees tried desperately to dissuade him from getting Sierra into bed with such a figure. “I thought it’s one thing to seek controversy, but another thing to really divide people,” remembers Josh Mandel. Mandel showed his boss a New York Times article about Gates’s checkered history, only to be told that “our players don’t read the New York Times.” He suggested that Sierra court Joseph Wambaugh instead, another former LAPD officer whose novels presented a relatively more nuanced picture of crime and punishment in the City of Angels than did Gates’s incendiary rhetoric; Wambaugh was even a name whom John Williams had explicitly mentioned in the context of the first Police Quest game five years before. But that line of attack was also hopeless; Ken Williams wanted a true mass-media celebrity, not a mere author who hid behind his books. So, Gates made his uncomfortable visit to Oakhurst and the contract was signed. Police Quest would henceforward be known as Daryl F. Gates’ Police Quest. Naturally, the setting of the series would now become Los Angeles; the fictional town of Lytton, the more bucolic setting of the previous three games in the series, was to be abandoned along with almost everything else previously established by Jim Walls.

Inside the company, a stubborn core of dissenters took to calling the game Rodney King’s Quest. Corey Cole, co-designer of the Quest for Glory series, remembers himself and many others being “horrified” at the prospect of even working in the vicinity of Gates: “As far as we were concerned, his name was mud and tainted everything it touched.” As a designer, Corey felt most of all for Jim Walls. He believed Ken Williams was “robbing Walls of his creation”: “It would be like putting Donald Trump’s name on a new Quest for Glory in today’s terms.”

Nevertheless, as the boss’s pet project, Gates’s game went inexorably forward. It was to be given the full multimedia treatment, including voice acting and the extensive use of digitized scenes and actors on the screen in the place of hand-drawn graphics. Indeed, this would become the first Sierra game that could be called a full-blown full-motion-video adventure, placing it at the vanguard of the industry’s hottest new trend.

Of course, there had never been any real expectation that Gates would roll up his sleeves and design a computer game in the way that Jim Walls had; celebrity did have its privileges, after all. Daryl F. Gates’ Police Quest: Open Season thus wound up in the hands of Tammy Dargan, a Sierra producer who, based on an earlier job she’d had with the tabloid television show America’s Most Wanted, now got the chance to try her hand at design. Corey Cole ironically remembers her as one of the most stereotypically liberal of all Sierra’s employees: “She strenuously objected to the use of [the word] ‘native’ in Quest for Glory III, and globally changed it to ‘indigenous.’ We thought that ‘the indigenous flora’ was a rather awkward construction, so we changed some of those back. But she was also a professional and did the jobs assigned to her.”

In this case, doing so would entail writing the script for a game about the mean streets of Los Angeles essentially alone, then sending it to Gates via post for “suggestions.” The latter did become at least somewhat more engaged when the time came for “filming,” using his connections to get Sierra inside the LAPD’s headquarters and even into a popular “cop bar.” Gates himself also made it into the game proper: restored to his rightful status of chief of police, he looks on approvingly and proffers occasional bits of advice as you work through the case. The CD-ROM version tacked on some DARE propaganda and a video interview with Gates, giving him yet one more opportunity to respond to his critics.

Contrary to the expectations raised both by the previous games in the series and the reputation of Gates, the player doesn’t take the role of a uniformed cop at all, but rather that of a plain-clothes detective. Otherwise, though, the game is both predictable in theme and predictably dire. Really, what more could one expect from a first-time designer working in a culture that placed no particular priority on good design, making a game that no one there particularly wanted to be making?

So, the dialog rides its banality to new depths for a series already known for clunky writing, the voice acting is awful — apparently the budget didn’t stretch far enough to allow the sorts of good voice actors that had made such a difference in King’s Quest VI — and the puzzle design is nonsensical. The plot, which revolves around a series of brutal cop killings for maximum sensationalism, wobbles along on rails through its ever more gruesome crime scenes and red-herring suspects until the real killer suddenly appears out of the blue in response to pretty much nothing which you’ve done up to that point. And the worldview the whole thing reflects… oh, my. The previous Police Quest games had hardly been notable for their sociological subtlety — “These kinds of people are actually running around out there, even if we don’t want to think about it,” Jim Walls had said of its antagonists — but this fourth game takes its demonization of all that isn’t white, straight, and suburban to what would be a comical extreme if it wasn’t so hateful. A brutal street gang, the in-game police files helpfully tell us, is made up of “unwed mothers on public assistance,” and the cop killer turns out to be a transvestite; his “deviancy” constitutes the sum total of his motivation for killing, at least as far as we ever learn.

One of the grisly scenes with which Open Season is peppered, reflecting a black-and-white — in more ways than one! — worldview where the irredeemably bad, deviant people are always out to get the good, normal people. Lucky we have the likes of Daryl Gates to sort the one from the other, eh?

Visiting a rap record label, one of a number of places where Sierra’s pasty-white writers get to try out their urban lingo. It goes about as well as you might expect.

Sierra throws in a strip bar for the sake of gritty realism. Why is it that television (and now computer-game) cops always have to visit these places — strictly in order to pursue leads, of course.

But the actual game of Open Season is almost as irrelevant to any discussion of the project’s historical importance today as it was to Ken Williams at the time. This was a marketing exercise, pure and simple. Thus Daryl Gates spent much more time promoting the game than he ever had making it. Williams put on the full-court press in terms of promotion, publishing not one, not two, but three feature interviews with him in Sierra’s news magazine and booking further interviews with whoever would talk to him. The exchanges with scribes from the computing press, who had no training or motivation for asking tough questions, went about as predictably as the game’s plot. Gates dismissed the outrage over the Rodney King tape as “Monday morning quarterbacking,” and consciously or unconsciously evoked Richard Nixon’s silent majority in noting that the “good, ordinary, responsible, quiet citizens” — the same ones who saw the need to get tough on crime and prosecute a war on drugs — would undoubtedly enjoy the game. Meanwhile Sierra’s competitors weren’t quite sure what to make of it all. “Talk about hot properties,” wrote the editors of Origin Systems’s internal newsletter, seemingly uncertain whether to express anger or admiration for Sierra’s sheer chutzpah. “No confirmation yet as to whether the game will ship with its own special solid-steel joystick” — a dark reference to the batons with which Gates’s officers had beat Rodney King.

In the end, though, the game generated decidedly less controversy than Ken Williams had hoped for. The computer-gaming press just wasn’t politically engaged enough to do much more than shrug their shoulders at its implications. And by the time it was released it was November of 1993, and Gates was already becoming old news for the mainstream press. The president of the Los Angeles Urban League did provide an obligingly outraged quote, saying that Gates “embodies all that is bad in law enforcement—the problems of the macho, racist, brutal police experience that we’re working hard to put behind us. That anyone would hire him for a project like this proves that some companies will do anything for the almighty dollar.” But that was about as good as it got.

There’s certainly no reason to believe that Gates’s game sold any better than the run-of-the-mill Sierra adventure, or than any of the Police Quest games that had preceded it. If anything, the presence of Gates’s name on the box seems to have put off more fans than it attracted. Rather than a new beginning, Open Season proved the end of the line for Police Quest as an adventure series — albeit not for Sierra’s involvement with Gates himself. The product line was retooled in 1995 into Daryl F. Gates’ Police Quest: SWAT, a “tactical simulator” of police work that played suspiciously like any number of outright war simulators. In this form, it found a more receptive audience and continued for years. Tammy Dargan remained at the reinvented series’s head for much of its run. History hasn’t recorded whether her bleeding-heart liberal sympathies went into abeyance after her time with Gates or whether the series remained just a slightly distasteful job she had to do.

Gates, on the other hand, got dropped after the first SWAT game. His radio show had been cancelled after he had proved himself to be a stodgy bore on the air, without even the modicum of wit that marked the likes of a Rush Limbaugh. Having thus failed in his new career as a media provocateur, and deprived forevermore of his old position of authority, his time as a political lightning rod had just about run out. What then was the use of Sierra continuing to pay him?


Ken and Roberta Williams looking wholesome in 1993, their days in the hot tub behind them.

But then, Daryl Gates was never the most interesting person behind the games that bore his name. The hard-bitten old reactionary was always a predictable, easily known quantity, and therefore one with no real power to fascinate. Much more interesting was and is Ken Williams, this huge, mercurial personality who never designed a game himself but who lurked as an almost palpable presence in the background of every game Sierra ever released as an independent company. In short, Sierra was his baby, destined from the first to become his legacy more so than that of any member of his actual creative staff.

Said legacy is, like the man himself, a maze of contradictions resistant to easy judgments. Everything you can say about Ken Williams and Sierra, whether positive or negative, seems to come equipped with a “but” that points in the opposite direction. So, we can laud him for having the vision to say something like this, which accurately diagnosed the problem of an industry offering a nearly exclusive diet of games by and for young white men obsessed with Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings:

If you match the top-selling books, records, or films to the top-selling computer-entertainment titles, you’ll immediately notice differences. Where are the romance, horror, and non-fiction titles? Where’s military fiction? Where’s all the insider political stories? Music in computer games is infinitely better than what we had a few years back, but it doesn’t match what people are buying today. Where’s the country-western music? The rap? The reggae? The new age?

And yet Williams approached his self-assigned mission of broadening the market for computer games with a disconcerting mixture of crassness and sheer naivete. The former seemed somehow endemic to the man, no matter how hard he worked to conceal it behind high-flown rhetoric, while the latter signified a man who appeared never to have seriously thought about the nature of mass media before he started trying to make it for himself. “For a publisher to not publish a product which many customers want to buy is censorship,” he said at one point. No, it’s not, actually; it’s called curation, and is the right and perhaps the duty of every content publisher — not that there were lines of customers begging Sierra for a Daryl Gates-helmed Police Quest game anyway. With that game, Williams became, whatever else he was, a shameless wannabe exploiter of a bleeding wound at the heart of his nation — and he wasn’t even very good at it, as shown by the tepid reaction to his “controversial” game. His decision to make it reflects not just a moral failure but an intellectual misunderstanding of his audience so extreme as to border on the bizarre. Has anyone ever bought an adventure game strictly because it’s controversial?

So, if there’s a pattern to the history of Ken Williams and Sierra — and the two really are all but inseparable — it’s one of talking a good game, of being broadly right with the vision thing, but falling down in the details and execution. Another example from the horse’s mouth, describing the broad idea that supposedly led to Open Season:

The reason that I’m working with Chief Gates is that one of my goals has been to create a series of adventure games which accomplish reality through having been written by real experts. I have been calling this series of games the “Reality Role-Playing” series. I want to find the top cop, lawyer, airline pilot, fireman, race-car driver, politician, military hero, schoolteacher, white-water rafter, mountain climber, etc., and have them work with us on a simulation of their world. Chief Gates gives us the cop game. We are working with Emerson Fittipaldi to simulate racing, and expect to announce soon that Vincent Bugliosi, the lawyer who locked up Charles Manson, will be working with us to do a courtroom simulation. My goal is that products in the Reality Role-Playing series will be viewed as serious simulations of real-world events, not as games. If we do our jobs right, this will be the closest most of us will ever get to seeing the world through these people’s eyes.

The idea sounds magnificent, so much so that one can’t help but feel a twinge of regret that it never went any further than Open Season. Games excel at immersion, and their ability to let us walk a mile in someone else’s shoes — to become someone whose world we would otherwise never know — is still sadly underutilized.

I often — perhaps too often — use Sierra’s arch-rivals in adventure games LucasArts as my own baton with which to beat them, pointing out how much more thoughtful and polished the latter’s designs were. This remains true enough. Yet it’s also true that LucasArts had nothing like the ambition for adventure games which Ken Williams expresses here. LucasArts found what worked for them very early on — that thing being cartoon comedies — and rode that same horse relentlessly right up until the market for adventures in general went away. Tellingly, when they were asked to adapt Indiana Jones to an interactive medium, they responded not so much by adjusting their standard approach all that radically as by turning Indy himself into a cartoon character. Something tells me that Ken Williams would have taken a very different tack.

But then we get to the implementation of Williams’s ideas by Sierra in the form of Open Season, and the questions begin all over again. Was Daryl Gates truly, as one of the marketers’ puff pieces claimed, “the most knowledgeable authority on law enforcement alive?” Or was there some other motivation involved? I trust the answer is self-evident. (John Williams even admitted as much in another of the puff pieces: “[Ken] decided the whole controversy over Gates would ultimately help the game sell better.”) And then, why does the “reality role-playing” series have to focus only on those with prestige and power? If Williams truly does just want to share the lives of others with us and give us a shared basis for empathy and discussion, why not make a game about what it’s like to be a Rodney King?

Was it because Ken Williams was himself a racist and a bigot? That’s a major charge to level, and one that’s neither helpful nor warranted here — no, not even though he championed a distinctly racist and bigoted game, released under the banner of a thoroughly unpleasant man who had long made dog whistles to racism and bigotry his calling card. Despite all that, the story of Open Season‘s creation is more one of thoughtlessness than malice aforethought. It literally never occurred to Ken Williams that anyone living in South Los Angeles would ever think of buying a Sierra game; that territory was more foreign to him than that of Europe (where Sierra was in fact making an aggressive play at the time). Thus he felt free to exploit a community’s trauma with this distasteful product and this disingenuous narrative that it was created to engender “discussion.” For nothing actually to be found within Open Season is remotely conducive to civil discussion.

Williams stated just as he was beginning his courtship of Daryl Gates that, in a fast-moving industry, he had to choose whether to “lead, follow, or get out of the way. I don’t believe in following, and I’m not about to get out of the way. Therefore, if I am to lead then I have to know where I’m going.” And here we come to the big-picture thing again, the thing at which Williams tended to excel. His decision to work with Gates does indeed stand as a harbinger of where much of gaming was going. This time, though, it’s a sad harbinger rather than a happy one.

I believe that the last several centuries — and certainly the last several decades — have seen us all slowly learning to be kinder and more respectful to one another. It hasn’t been a linear progression by any means, and we still have one hell of a long way to go, but it’s hard to deny that it’s occurred. (Whatever the disappointments of the last several years, the fact remains that the United States elected a black man as president in 2008, and has finally accepted the right of gay people to marry even more recently. Both of these things were unthinkable in 1993.) In some cases, gaming has reflected this progress. But too often, large segments of gaming culture have chosen to side instead with the reactionaries and the bigots, as Sierra implicitly did here.

So, Ken Williams and Sierra somehow managed to encompass both the best and the worst of what seems destined to go down in history as the defining art form of the 21st century, and they did so long before that century began. Yes, that’s quite an achievement in its own right — but, as Open Season so painfully reminds us, not an unmixed one.

(Sources: the books Blue: The LAPD and the Battle to Redeem American Policing by Joe Domanick and Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces by Radley Balko; Computer Gaming World of August/September 1987, October 1987, and December 1993; Sierra’s news magazines of Summer 1991, Winter 1992, June 1993, Summer 1993, Holiday 1993, and Spring 1994; Electronic Games of October 1993; Origin Systems’s internal newsletter Point of Origin of February 26 1993. Online sources include an excellent and invaluable Vice article on Open Season and the information about the Rodney King beating and subsequent trial found on Famous American Trials. And my thanks go out yet again to Corey Cole, who took the time to answer some questions about this period of Sierra’s history from his perspective as a developer there.

The four Police Quest adventure games are available for digital purchase at GOG.com.)

July 17, 2019

Renga in Blue

Deathmaze 5000: The Monster at the Edge of Sight

by Jason Dyer at July 17, 2019 05:41 PM

Back in 1996 Andrew Plotkin famously separated “difficulty” and “cruelty” in games with a five-tier system to describe what the latter means:

Merciful: cannot get stuck
Polite: can get stuck or die, but it’s immediately obvious that you’re stuck or dead
Tough: can get stuck, but it’s immediately obvious that you’re about to do something irrevocable
Nasty: can get stuck, but when you do something irrevocable, it’s clear
Cruel: can get stuck by doing something which isn’t obviously irrevocable (even after the act)

A lot of people now associate the cruel category with bad design, and that’s often fair; a good example would be the ningy in Acheton, where it’s possible to block yourself off a large chunk of the game without realizing it.

However, “cruel” design can sometimes accomplish narratively unique goals. Quondam has an instance of where a lot of time passes; if the player plants a “sapling” beforehand, it will have grown into a full-sized tree when they return. This is clearly a one-way trip; there’s no “reverse” mechanism (this isn’t time travel, just time passing) so having it be possible the player gets stuck is a necessity.

Both cases in gameplay terms require loading a save game to a past state, but the flavors of “cruel” feel very different. The system might need a “transparency” axis. There was essentially no way to know something went wrong with the ningy, whereas with the tree in Quondam it’s possible to “retroactively solve” and realize both what you need to do and what the result will be even before testing the action out.

Defeating the monster in Deathmaze 5000 hit a note between the two extremes. I don’t have the theoretical framework to describe exactly where. Let me at least narrate the best I can.

Before getting into the monster, here are two things that will become relevant:

1.) There’s a spot on the wall on the third floor marked “A Perfect Square”.

It turns out you can just walk right through.

This led me to another torch, more food, and a ball of wool.

2.) If you recall from a previous post, on the second floor of the maze there were two attack dogs. One dog was in a “fixed” position and only attacked upon entering the player entering a certain square, and the second dog was based on a timer. Either dog can be removed by throwing the sneaker, but you only have one sneaker. I had to choose between:

a.) defeating the “fixed position” dog, getting a magic staff, but skipping picking up a torch and jar.

b.) defeating the “timed” dog, getting all the items on the second floor except the magic staff.

After some experimentation, I realized KILL DOG also works as long as you have a dagger. The dagger gets used up on the process. This neatly bypassed the issue above and I was able to get past both dogs (one by sneaker, one by dagger).

A monster follows you the entire game. It’s possible to get a fair way in without realizing it.

The first reference I saw was when I tried throwing a frisbee, as I mentioned in an earlier post:

The frisbee magically flies around a convenient corner…

The monster grabs the frisbee, throws it back, and it saws your head off!

(Note the grammar says “the monster” as if you’ve known there was a monster there the whole time.)

On the second floor, the sneaker-dog sequence involves the monster:

A vicious dog attacks you!

>THROW SNEAKER

The Sneaker magically flies around a convenient corner and is eaten by the monster!!!

The dog chases the sneaker! and is eaten by the monster!!!

I later discovered if you let your torch run out, the monster comes to devour you.

The ground beneath your feet begins to shake!

A disgusting odor permeates the hallway!

The monster attacks you and you are his next meal!

However, the monster is still generally just a nuisance until you try to spend enough time on the fourth floor to gather all the items. (I think it’s just based on a timer and not linked to anything else.) The monster eventually decides, regardless of if you have a strong light or not, to come eat you.

You are another victim of the maze!
Do you want to play another game (Y or N)?

That means surviving any farther requires defeating the monster. The ball of wool turned out helpful:

The Wool magically flies around a convenient corner

and the monster grabs it, gets tangled, and falls over!

However, while you get time for a command as the monster untangles itself, it kills you the next turn. Nothing I tried worked.

It then occurred to me that the dagger should work just as well on a monster as a dog (as long as the monster was tangled). But I no longer had a dagger! I had to go back to reconsider my two-dog situation.

Staring at the map, I realized that all I really needed to do was get to the staff (marked “2”), and if I could move over the pit somehow, that would work as an alternative to fighting the “fixed position” dog.

Somehow … flying … through the air …

Wait. No. Oh No. Would they? Yes, they would.

Farting to victory!

To sum up:

1.) I was able to gather all items on the second floor by defeating one attack dog by throwing a sneaker, and just skipping the second attack dog entirely but still reaching the magic staff.

2.) This let me keep my dagger, so I was able to bring it down to the monster.

>THROW WOOL

The Wool magically flies around a convenient corner

and the monster grabs it, gets tangled, and falls over!

>KILL MONSTER

The monster is dead and much blood is spilt!

(Note the “throw wool” maneuver does not work until the monster starts charging, so even though you find the wool on the third floor, you can’t have this scene until after some exploration of the fourth floor. Also, if you are holding the jar and FILL JAR right after killing the monster, you get a jar full of monster blood. I haven’t been able to apply it anywhere useful.)

So, where do I go from here? I’m not sure. There’s no obvious next exit. There’s a pit in the upper right of floor 4 that might be climbable to a new area, but I haven’t had any luck so far.

I’ve got one theory which might be utterly wrong, but let me fire it off anyway. That “perfect square” thing: what if it was referring not the square on the wall but the actual room immediately past it (that is being “framed” like a picture)?

What’s special about that square? Well, if you build a grid as shown below, and go by the system floor-column-row …

… then you get the perfect square 324 (18 times 18 = 324). Thus the purpose of the marking might be to indicate how the coordinates of a teleportation system works (maybe by the calculator).

Far-fetched, but this game has already gone some crazy places.

July 16, 2019

Emily Short

The Twentieth Entry: SPY INTRIGUE (furkle)

by Emily Short at July 16, 2019 12:41 AM

In my top 20 list earlier this week, I left a spot blank at the end of my list, because I was pretty sure that I needed to replay this game: furkle’s SPY INTRIGUE, from IF Comp 2015.

2015 is the year the comp broke me. There were 50-odd games to cover in a six week period, and I’d committed to cover on my blog every one I considered recommendation-worthy: a time investment of several hours apiece, though some took longer. I also tried to find ways to send some positive responses back even about the things I couldn’t completely recommend. But I handled that maladroitly and hurt some feelings; and it’s not exactly a challenging feat of empathy to guess that my approach was going to land wrong, so I felt pretty bad about that.

Fitting the equivalent of a new full-time job into my life alongside my other commitments was hard, and it was also an emotionally demanding position to be in. I got email and DMs from authors who wanted me to hurry up and get to their work; to give further information about the contents of my reviews; to reconsider what I’d already written. In one case someone wrote to chew me out for setting the wrong standards for how comp games should be handled by the community at large because I wasn’t giving each game enough attention.

This was the point where (belatedly, you may think) I decided this was an unhealthy situation and I was done reviewing the Comp. I would finish 2015 and then bow out.

But around the same time all this was going on, someone — not the author — pinged me and said could you please post a review of SPY INTRIGUE, it’s gotten so little coverage, hurry it up please. So I assembled and posted what I had to say about it, but that wasn’t very much, relative to what the piece actually is.

What I primarily experienced, trying it out in 2015, were all the ways the game resists the player: the hard to read all-caps text, the staticky backgrounds, the text-shakes and screen-flashes. (I believe the accessibility features at the start of the game do let you turn those off if they’re likely to be bad for you.) Then there’s the way the UI gets a facelift every time you’ve gotten the hang of it, so you have to sort of relearn it; the very long instruction text that only makes things more confusing if you aren’t already acquainted with the game; the absence of markers to help you understand how the story relates to our world.

At the very beginning, it seems like maybe the author just has tremendously bad design sense about what’s going to be comfortable for the average IF reader. Later it becomes clear that the aesthetics are very intentional, but that “maybe it’s incompetence?” look is a really challenging thing to try in the beginning of a comp game, unless that game happens to be attached to the name of someone already well-known. There is, after all, quite a lot of genuinely mishandled work submitted to competitions.

Then, too, it doesn’t align itself to many recognizable tropes of IF. If I think about what might be closest to it, I think of maybe ULTRA BUSINESS TYCOON III for the layering of fantasy and real life; maybe Zest for the inspection of how worldview makes life livable, and the function of supposedly-recreational substances. But even so neither of those is very similar to SPY INTRIGUE. There just isn’t anything very similar to SPY INTRIGUE. This is part of what’s amazing about it, but it’s another challenge to entry.

And in the context in which I originally played, even SPY INTRIGUE’s length was a thing that made it resistant. In a literal sense, I read fast enough — that is, I can get the basic sense of words quickly enough — that I could get to an ending in two hours. But that was nowhere near enough time to understand it, apprehend its themes and structure, and play it sympathetically.

In the intervening years, a couple of things have happened. One, despite a general lack of community discussion about this game, a handful of people whose tastes I trust have told me it was great. Two, I’ve gotten to know furkle personally.

I decided I wanted to replay it; and, at the same time, that I needed to do that at a time when I could approach it completely differently than I did the first time — without the sense of obligation, without the idea that my role vis a vis this work was to be its Designated Reader.

This weekend I replayed. I took a lot more time over it — probably something like eight hours elapsed between start and finish. I wasn’t reading continuously that whole time; on the contrary, I put it aside several times. That’s not because I was bored with it, but there was a sufficient richness that I found I needed a bit of a break at times, to process, before deciding how to re-engage.

I found it hugely easier to get into this time. That’s partly the different reading approach; partly that I’d played it once before, so the UI features were known to me; and partly that knowing more about the author gave me more context for interpreting the game’s ambiguities. This is one of those pieces where knowing the rough plot outline in advance is a significant help in grasping the overall meaning of the work. So I’m going to go into more specifics here than I usually do in a review.

And I really hope more people will play it. Here is a game that placed 29th in its competition, for reasons that I understand completely — but the fact that it was under-played and under-discussed represents a major missed opportunity, especially for people in the community who are interested in the more narrative and writerly possibilities of IF.

SPY INTRIGUE is one of the finest and bravest things ever produced in this medium: personal and true, technically masterful in both code and design, literary in the best sense.

Some people, I’ve seen, refer to it as raw. I wouldn’t call it so; I’d say it has a quality I prefer to rawness, an ability to present the most intense and traumatic experiences with such understanding that it offers others a tool to dismantle their own pain.

Yes, I am still talking about a game in which you can shove banana bread down the front of your spy pants. That game. Yes.

Hypertext Structure

Other reviewers have explained at a high level how the game works. The surface narrative is about being a spy, but a spy in a ludicrous adventure scenario, in which you sneak into an enemy compound alone armed only with, say, a packet of spy oatmeal because all the other spies have died of spy mumps.

You can navigate this space with the help of a visor that allows you a kind of precognition: the visor UI is showing you how many future nodes lead away from your present bit of story, and how many branches those will have.

The graph at the bottom of the screen is telling me how many lexia are linked from this one, and how many from those.

So you can move, if you like, towards greater or lesser density of action; you can intentionally execute a breadth-first search, say, on the narrative space.

(Usually. There are points in the story when this changes, when the visor is unavailable or ineffective, and a few points when a choice link is initially invisible until you’ve tried enough other links from the same page. Then the new link begins to fade into the list of choices, as though it were rising to the surface. Like the die in a Magic 8-ball.)

In some sections, each node represents a room and the layout describes a physical map; in others, a node corresponds to a moment in time. The game is thus fluid, at times feeling more parser-esque, more attached to a world model, and at other times embracing its status as hypertext.

In addition to showing you the shape of the surrounding narrative space, the visor even indicates which nodes are going to be deadly. You can see, before you click a link, whether it is going to kill you. But this doesn’t mark links you should avoid.

Just the contrary: to die in the spy fantasy is to revisit the real world, and the real world is where the meaning of the story becomes clear. In this setting, we see three major phases of the protagonist’s life — childhood, teenagerdom, and a traumatic incident in early adulthood — through the lens of the fourth phase, where the protagonist is temporarily (or perhaps not so temporarily) in a mental hospital.

At the best end of the story, the layers of the story collapse to one, and the protagonist has the opportunity to choose a way forward, for the first and only time typing an input rather than selecting one. SPY INTRIGUE is not the first interactive fiction to end by freeing the protagonist into real choice, but it is likely the most effective at this.

Framing and Levels of Reality

Eventually, it becomes clear that the spy fantasy is an escape, commentary, or re-interpretation of that reality, but it isn’t a simple analogue — it’s not that the people you meet in the spy fantasy are “really” your mom and dad, for instance — because, in contrast with some infamous unreliable narrator pieces, this is not playing towards a gotcha twist ending. Rather, the fantasy is the harmony line or even the counterpoint to the main line of the story.

The real world is still not our world — it is a future or an alternate existence in which most mammals have gone extinct, in which the US has faded into an ex-imperial force, in which household cleaning robots are common. Things that are at least somewhat true now, but here with the dial turned up. When the protagonist is young, snipers pick off random people in your neighborhood: a reference, I think, to the Beltway snipers of 2002, though the story defies being grounded to that date.

The protagonist in the real world sequences is revealed to be very bright and verbally adroit but to have difficulty with attention and reading social cues, suffering from a condition called Gately’s Encephalopathy. In the early sections of the game, we see your experiences as a child or perhaps a very young teenager, being diagnosed with Gately’s, struggling to decide how to feel about their testing. To compensate for the lack of instinctive ability to connect with people, the protagonist is developing an acute skill at faking sociability and reasoning from first principles towards what people intend.

In the spy fantasy, you navigate with your machinery, and find your environment and the NPCs deeply difficult to understand, though you consider them closely and in detail. You are sexually aroused by banana bread. You are strongly aware of physical sensations, yet at times bewildered by them, as though your body were yet another mechanism nearly impossible to comprehend or control.

Key points in the real world narrative are punctuated with scanned documents: psychiatric assessments, police reports, city maps, information about prescription medicines.

These images are the notionally-objective touchstones in this otherwise intensely subjective and interior work, the only moments when we move outside the protagonist’s perspective and are offered something that we can know to be “real.” They give us the chance to read how other people might see the protagonist: doctors, authority figures. But at the same time, these documents are missing the point, failing to understand who the protagonist is. And they are also objects that have come into the protagonist’s possession, therefore mirrors in which you are trying to see yourself, in order to better reason about who and what you are, and how you fit into the world.

Meanwhile, as the documents are a more objective layer under the real world narrations, there are also even more subjective layers above the spy fantasy. Within the fantasy, you can tell or hear stories, or go to sleep and dream, creating yet additional layers of distance and surrealism.

In one of your dreams, for instance, you find yourself in an old-fashioned diner full of plates of sentient cooked pork. Other dreams are jokes, or entire little short stories of their own, like the one where you become the doppelganger of a celebrity, physically linked to everything her body undergoes.

It is in the deeper fantasies that you can think earliest and most clearly about being trans. The narrative voice addresses this obliquely, in your longing for a bra, and via other markers: as a thing that is already known but cannot be spoken aloud. Later, as the protagonist gets older, the real life portion is also able to be more direct about this topic, as the realization becomes conscious.

At the same time, the story is always in a certain way evasive about which gender you were assigned at birth: in all the real-world documents, your gender is blacked out; sex scenes talk about the genitalia of your partners but leaves your own as a matter for your, the player’s, personal choice..

Voice and Protagonist Identity

To call this a stream-of-consciousness narrative would suggest perhaps that it contains few incidents, which is not the case. The narration is deeply interior, so involved with the cognitive state of the protagonist that everything else sometimes fades out. Here, for instance, is a room description:

THE HALLWAY IS BARE AND FACELESS TO THE EXTREME, ABSENT ANY SORT OF DESIGN OR PURPOSE

LIKE AN ANCIENT GEOLOGICAL FORMATION, OR A CONVEYANCE BUILT BY CREATURES WHO TRAVEL BY A SENSE OTHER THAN VISION

LIKE INSECTS, WRITING PATCHWORK TRAILS OUT OF PHEREMONES

YOU CAN NEARLY SMELL IT NOW

It is describing the surroundings a little bit, but mostly it describes the protagonist’s thoughts about the surroundings, which here as in many other places consist of brilliant, alienated speculation about what this place could possibly be for.

When you lose your cat:

every night you wander the city like an inconsolable revenant, calling after her, shaking a tin of food, making the same “come here” noises you never realized could contain grief at all. but there is a socket in everything for grief, and no matter how small it always manages to effect a shift in space and time, from pleasantry into some shadowy, twilit thing

What a paragraph this is. Zooming from the melodramatic to the concrete to the philosophical, from ghostly-ness to flesh and back. “There is a socket in everything” echoes Leonard Cohen, less hopefully.

But this is also the same narrative voice that sometimes mimics the most affectless text adventure description (“THERE IS A GUARD AT THE DOOR / THERE IS A ROCK ON THE GROUND”), and other times makes dirty jokes. Sometimes it feigns being inarticulate, for a very precise and intentional effect.

There is an infamous interview with V. S. Naipaul in which he says, “I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me… And inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too.”

Reading that interview, I thought: oh, god, I know what you mean. I observe that, in some literary criticism, the confidence and authority assumed by the implied author is confused with other merits: perception, truth, literary genius. Part of the noxious lie that being sure is the same as being right.

And as Naipaul is evidently aware, that magisterial complacency about one’s own perspective does come more easily to people who are, or consider themselves, “complete masters” in any social context. I just disagree with him about whether “complete master” is a term of approbation, or whether its meaning might be embedded a very short cosine distance away from “total bastard.”

Still, at the same time, there is a courage necessary in writing down any general observation about how the world works. There is often value in such observations, and consequently, value in the sort of writing written by the sort of people who feel emboldened to do it.

Here is how SPY INTRIGUE accomplishes such a thing:

a few minutes later he places the chit in your hand and you shake his other hand with your other hand and the last thing you see as you walk out and he closes the door is the cat looking at you, not angry, not upset, just mostly concerned, disappointed, torn up in the way only one who watches a close friend ignore their counsel in irreparable ways can ever look

…where the anxious, breathless parataxis, not to mention the shame of the protagonist’s actions, place the implied author very far from any position of either comfort or authority.

And then the paragraph punches you through the heart with a knitting needle, because it says, “do you remember this look I am talking about?” and you probably do, because either you have seen that look or you have worn it yourself, and whenever that happened in your life, it was probably an incredibly bad day.

This is life wisdom submitted as a pull request. It’s up to you whether you accept it, whether you agree, whether you’ve had like experiences; the author doesn’t feel inclined or indeed entitled to force you.

July 15, 2019

Emily Short

Mid-July Link Assortment

by Mort Short at July 15, 2019 11:41 AM

Events

In Cork, the meeting of the Electronic Literature Organization is currently in progress through July 17. The program includes several artist forum sessions in which authors will be talking about their own projects; for instance, Katherine Morayati on Human Errors the 17th.

July 21 is the next Seattle Area IF Meetup, focusing on works in progress.

download-6The SIGIR Conference is taking place in Paris from July 21-25.

July 25 is the next Boston Area IF Meetup.

The 57th Annual Meeting of the Association for Computational Linguistics (ACL) will take place in Florence (Italy) at the ‘Fortezza da Basso‘ from July 28-August 2.

DiGRA 2019 is being held August 6-10 in Kyoto.

Nh4sqhAugust 10 the Oxford/London IF Meetup is doing a workshop on Bitsy, a tool for creating small easy games with some narrative content and also some spatial navigation.

The IEEE Conference on Games (CoG) will be August 20-23 in London; I will be giving a keynote here, looking at some of Spirit’s recent work.

The Foundations of Digital Games Conference (FDG) is happening August 26-30 in San Luis Obispo; I’ll also be speaking here, but only by Skype, so I’ll miss those of you in California. (Sorry! But I’ve been doing too much flying lately.)

September 25, the London IF meetup will be doing a session on immersive theater, LARP, and live-action interactive experiences. The details aren’t yet live on the website, but we’ve got some excellent speakers lined up, so if that’s a topic that interests you, join the group if you haven’t already, and we’ll announce when the venue details are final.

Screen Shot 2019-07-13 at 9.11.44 AMAdditionally: Narrascope 2019 is already in the rear-view mirror, but the folks at Articy are sharing recordings from some of the event’s presentations.

logo-512Starting it off is Natalia Martinsson’s keynote address, with more videos planned. If you weren’t able to attend, this can give you a sense of the event and some of the individual speakers and topics.

And finally: tickets have gone on sale for AdventureX, which is November 2-3 at the British Library. The Narrative Games Convention has also released its lineup with some of the included speakers. As of this post (July 2019) the event seems to be sold out, unless/until they release another block of tickets, which their Twitter account suggests they will.

So: if you were disappointed not to have gotten in on that first round, don’t despair! But do follow the AdventureX Twitter account and/or sign up for the mailing list, if you want to maximize your chances of snagging a ticket for yourself.

Tools & Authoring Systems

Villanelle is an experimental authoring system to let creators build complex character behaviors for interactive fiction. The project is put together by Chris Martens and her team at NCSU. They are actively seeking outside opinions, so if you’re interested, you can first try out the prototype, and then fill out a feedback form to help the team evaluate and refine the project.

Twine-Monogatari is a project to let authors write content in Twine and present it in the Monogatari visual novel system. Monogatari is an open-source tool designed to let authors (among other things) present visual novels in a web browser, and has some other neat features even when used without Twine.

Jams & Contests

ifcomp

The 2019 IF Comp is open for authors to submit intents, now through September 1, if you’d like to contribute a game to the competition.

XYZZY Award voting is currently open, and you’re welcome to participate by nominating up to two games per category.

Articles

In Wing and a Prayer — Stress and Structure, Ian Thomas explores the potential emotional impact of LARP / simulations, via Allied Games’ recreation of a British Ops room in World War II. (More info about the game itself can also be found here.)

This integration allows users to play the original Zork Trilogy through Slack.

Chris Klimas shares his Narrascope presentation on the history of Twine (and its current state).

Forthcoming Releases

headerElsinore, a time-looping adventure from Golden Glitch that explores the story of Hamlet from the point of view of Ophelia, as she relives the same four days and tries to avert the tragic endings of the play.

The game is slated for release on Steam on July 22.

Also coming soon is the rerelease of Nocked!, which originally came out in 2017 for iOS and which I reviewed on this blog at the time. This time around, the game is getting a new-and-improved desktop version, available on July 17.

The Twine-based historical adventure drops players into Medieval England at the start of Robin Hood’s outlaw adventures, and with dozens of potential endings, the choices made will lead to wildly different conclusions.

Author Andrew G. Schneider has added 100,000 words to the branching narrative for the Steam version, so there will be plenty of extra material for those already familiar with the game (and given that the original already had 400,000 words, that leaves plenty for those coming to it for the first time.)

July 14, 2019

Renga in Blue

Deathmaze 5000: One of the Most Deeply Inscrutable Puzzles in Adventure Game History

by Jason Dyer at July 14, 2019 11:41 PM

I ran a little experiment; the text below I wrote *before* starting my next play session in earnest, and then I follow with the conclusion.

I’m still hacking at the calculator room puzzle. On my last post, Carl Muckenhoupt wrote what’s in the title of this post, adding “I will be very, very surprised if you get it without hints.”

Now, if you aren’t familiar with Carl, keep in mind:

a.) He is the only person I know who has finished Wizardry 4 without any hints, aka One of the Hardest RPGs Ever Written. This was done back when the game was released, so he didn’t even use any save states.

b.) He used to curate “Baf’s Guide to the Interactive Fiction Archive” which attempted to catalogue absolutely everything in the IF Archive at the time. He’s played as many if not more adventure games than I have.

c.) He still writes regularly at The Stack, one of the best post-as-you-play-games blogs I know. For old-adventure fans, try his series on Time Zone starting with this post.

So when Carl says a puzzle is inscrutable, the wise thing would be to give up and check the solution. But I’m going to be foolish and work at this a bit longer anyway, albeit with a rule: I must work on the puzzle for at least one hour before checking the official hint sheet.(“At least” means I can take longer, but the goal here is to stop the temptation to give up early.)

Spoiler: Carl was right.

First, I tried to write down all the detail I knew: when entering the position on the map with the calculator, the hall is sealed off. The wall shows the message “To everything there is a season.” The message changes as you hit keys to turn:

Steps 1-5 show: “To everything there is a season.”
Steps 6-14 show: nothing
Steps 15-20 show: “To everything there is a season.”
Steps 21-25 include TURN, TURN, TURN added to the original message
Steps 26 and further: no message

The calculator initially displays 317 but CLEAN CALCULATOR reveals it actually showing 317.2.

My first impulse was that the game wanted the left/right arrow keys pressed in the right series in some sort of code. I tried, for example 3 left, 1 right, 7 left, 2 right; 3 left, 1 turn-around, 7 right, 2 turn-around; 3 right, 1 left, 7 right, 2 left; and so on for many, many more attempts.

Even if the “3172” digits were correct, any complexity past just using the digits in order would have required just sheer luck to come across. There are far too many possibilities and arrangements. (As the previous sentence implies, the 3172 digits were not correct, but let’s get back to that in a moment.)

I then went for some “outside the game” type solves. First, the inverted calculator idea, which I illustrated in my last post:

Again, without any extra clues, proceeding from here involved testing a bunch of variants: LIE, 2LIE, ZLIE, LIE LIE, REST LIE, and so forth. This was made worse by “SAY” being a verb so the game might have accepted the right command as a “magic word” or it might have required me to “SAY” it; so I had to test twice every word I listed.

Past that point and even more desperate, I tried looking up Ecclesiastes 3, the original source of the song lyrics, which includes a verse 3:17.

I said in mine heart, God shall judge the righteous and the wicked: for there is a time there for every purpose and for every work.

I tried every single word here like “heart” and “judge” and crossed them out as I went.

I checked if this could be a “phone code” using the letters on a phone, but realized while “2” has “ABC” there are no letters on the 1.

I considered if latitude or longitude was involved (there is the “.2” part which doesn’t show up at random) but on Earth those metrics max out at 180, so I’d need to be referring to somewhere in outer space. I tried words like MARS and VENUS just to feel like I was doing something.

I tried checking if the digits reversed (that is, 317.2 being 2.713) were somehow mathematical. Euler’s number starts out 2.718, and just in case the authors made a typo I tried out EULER and various possible mispellings. (This might seem to be reaching into absurd territory, but there is a well-known game in a very well known series where a certain name is spelled wrong, and the game only accepts the wrong spelling.)

While I didn’t know it, I was getting further and further away from the answer. When I buckled (after about an hour and 20 minutes), I found out my very first guess about a left/right code was absolutely correct. The way out of the room was to

1.) turn left five times
2.) turn right four times
3.) turn left three times

Where does the 5-4-3 sequence come from? I finally puzzled it out, and it takes a combination of the insights above:

1.) flip the letters calculator-style to get LIE
2.) find LIE on a telephone; the letters are on the buttons 5-4-3 in order.

I have no idea what the “.2” part was about. If you draw a “Z” shape from the bottom you get left-right-left … but there’s no reason why you can’t draw from the top either, and that connection seems way too stretched to be correct.

To explain what went wrong with this puzzle, I’m going to hop briefly over to cryptic crosswords.

A cryptic crossword is one where each word is clued twice, once explicitly and once with wordplay; however, the break between wordplay and second definition isn’t always obvious.

Cod nutrition changed the starting point (12)

is a clue for introduction. “Cod nutrition” is an anagram of “introduction”; “changed” is the word indicating an anagram is being used. “Starting point” is the definition of “introduction”.

There’s essentially one “transformation step” before we’ve reached a point we can verify a solution is correct (by matching our result with the definition).

It is possible but considered bad form to have require multiple transformations to the same word.

Listening, elf moved a boat messily using white powder (5)

“Messily” indicates another anagram, but on the “Elf moved a boat” section. However, before the anagram starts, the definition of “row” needs to be substituted for “moves a boat” so the thing we are anagramming is “elf row”. This anagrams into “flower”. Then we apply “listening” to indicate that “flower” is a homonym for “flour”, which is the “white powder”.

While it’s *possible* to go through the logical steps, having to leap from one to the next without reinforcement really makes for an uncomfortable solving experience. It exposes puzzlers to too many combinatoric possibilities.

With the calculator puzzle, the solver had to make a chain of actions similar to the bad cryptic clue: flipping the calculator to make the word LIE, taking that result and putting it on a phone pad, then taking that result and applying it in a left-right-left code order. Only at the very end of this improbable chain is there any indication the player is on the right track. While it’s fine to have a little bit of exploration on the player’s part where a clue is abstracted into an action, once multiple “layers” are added there are thousands of possibilities to search.

The Gaming Philosopher

Thoughts on criticism

by Victor Gijsbers ([email protected]) at July 14, 2019 08:02 PM

The primary aim of a review is to tell us whether a particular piece of fiction is worthy of our attention. The primary aim of criticism is to teach us to read. There is of course no sharp line between the two genres, and a single article can have both aims. But it is nonetheless a useful distinction to make. Good criticism teaches us to read. How? By showing us good reading in action. In

Emily Short

A Top 20 List of IF

by Emily Short at July 14, 2019 01:41 PM

Every four years, Victor Gijsbers puts together a list of the top 50 IF games of all time. To vote for this, one sends Victor a list of the 20 best games; those games that fall on the most “best” lists wind up on the Top 50 list. (You can participate, or see the spreadsheet that contains the current state of play, at the intfiction forum.)

I find this interesting, and also extremely hard to vote for, because I can think of many more than twenty games that have a reasonable claim to be “best” in some regard. So I have to pick some additional criteria in order to filter the thing down.

This year, I’ve deliberately skewed my list towards the criterion of maturity: games that represent what IF has become as a medium, that benefit from thought and careful play, and that communicate something about the human condition that is truthful, important, and hard to convey.

This is not the same thing as recency, but in the nature of things it does mean that the list skews a bit towards games that have come out in the past decade, and often towards works by authors who had already worked in the medium for a long time.

The list therefore omits a lot of games that I find delightful for their playfulness and polish: Lost Pig, Treasures of a Slaver’s Kingdom, Secret Agent Cinder, Brain Guzzlers from Beyond!, Magical Makeover, Midnight. Swordfight, several games by CEJ Pacian, and quite a lot of Ryan Veeder’s catalog.

It leaves out works that do a single thing perfectly — the telescopic narration of Lime Ergot, the linguistic mindbending of The Gostak, the jewel-beauty of The Moonlit Tower, the unfolding horror of My Father’s Long, Long Legs or the puzzle discipline of Suveh Nux. It skips others that impress through their extraordinary ambition and scope, from Tin Star or Blue Lacuna to 1893, Delusions and First Things First. It omits anything where I found myself writing too much extenuating text, any games I thought were great in one respect but got seriously in their own way in some other regard.

The list also skips many canonical works that helped define IF for the community: Zork, Deadline, Curses, Anchorhead, Spider and Web, Photopia, Shade, Rameses, Slouching Towards Bedlam. Even Jigsaw, which wrestles seriously with the weight and meaning of history, is also hampered by too-difficult puzzles and by limiting tropes of text adventures as they existed at the time. Influential and original, many of these games established what was possible in interactive fiction, and many of them are still very entertaining to play; others feel a little faded, documents of a different culture, as awkward to watch as a 90s sitcom. But if you want a list of this kind of canon, IFDB will supply several. I didn’t set out to omit anything because it was canonical, but I found that the criteria I set for this particular list tended to land on other nominees.

Several pieces, from Bloom to Shadow in the Cathedral, I left off the list because the narrative is not yet concluded. (I have hopes Bloom will be completed; I think we’re unlikely ever to get the end of the story of Shadow.)

Also not shown: works that meant a lot to me on a personal level for some reason, but that might not bear that same freight for someone else: Necrotic Drift, with its gut-punch ending about personal responsibility; Plundered Hearts, whose plottiness and NPC focus gave me the first ideas towards the type of IF I would one day want to write.

At the same time, there’s a lot of subjectivity here, and I did leave out some works, like Cape, or The Life (and Deaths) of Dr M, where excellent interaction design and writing served to explore some very significant theme, but where I just couldn’t quite agree with the conclusions; or the excellent Mama Possum, which is poignant and observant but didn’t leave me turning over the significance as much in my own mind, afterward.

Games that I contributed to myself, from Fallen London and Where the Water Tastes Like Wine to Cragne Manor, are also omitted, though I think the trend of anthology fiction with multiple authorial voices is an intensely interesting one and I should definitely write more about that. Later. Not in this list.

So. The list:

With Those We Love Alive, Porpentine, 2014. Porpentine’s work is consistently surprising and challenging, as well as often mechanically inventive. This piece demands a great deal and offers an experience of surprising intimacy: it asks the player to write on their own skin, and to contemplate the ways that societies encourage us to participate in their violence. (A second strong contender is the keynote game Porpentine created for the V&A this year, and which I MC’d; as this was a live event with a playing audience, though, very few people got to experience that performance and it’s impossible to recommend. I can however offer this tweet thread about how it went.)

80 Days, Meg Jayanth, inkle, 2014. On the surface, polished, accessible, and charming; in content, an anthology of stories that speak to the sheer variety of human experience, and the fact that the white British male Fogg does not have an authoritative understanding of the world.

Make It Good, Jon Ingold, 2009. This is perhaps the greatest game of NPC manipulation I have ever played: an intensely, ludicrously difficult parser puzzle game in which you must make an intricate plan of deception and misdirection in order to get the other characters spontaneously to act as you wish. It is an even more delicate clockwork than Deadline or Varicella, and the result is a kind of player agency over the minds of others that is both morally frightening and essentially unique.

Reigns: Her Majesty, Leigh Alexander, 2017. A follow-up to the fun but largely light-hearted original Reigns, Her Majesty combines mechanical effects and razor writing to convey a complicated, female relation to power, in which social expectations and personal relationships constantly need management and balance. Especially with its ending framing, the piece doesn’t read as a simple polemic, though; instead it is quietly, effectively observant, and never entirely comfortable. (Bonus, non-interactive recommendation: Leigh’s The Future We Wanted, a short story about gender and robots.)

Hadean Lands, Andrew Plotkin, 2014. (I also wrote this up for IF Only, my erstwhile Rock Paper Shotgun column.) A transcendent masterwork of puzzle design. There are relatively few puzzlefests on this list, because I often find such games are enjoyable but have less to say to me in the long term, and thus fail the “truth” criterion I’m otherwise looking for on this list. But Hadean Lands explores its puzzle system to the absolute maximum, and in the process becomes a meditation on intellectual mastery and the forms of joy that arise from it.

Birdland, Brendan Patrick Hennessy, 2015. As a piece of YA interactive fiction, this might seem a non-obvious choice for this list. But its character portrayals are extremely fine, and on the level of narrative design, Birdland uses a stat-based approach to personality in a disciplined and thoughtful way, avoiding a lot of the ambiguities that can arise in this type of model. Makes something very difficult look easy.

Invisible Parties, Sam Kabo Ashwell, 2014. Slightly janky in its first release, Invisible Parties was later polished up into one of my favorite games. The setting writing is some of the most evocative in IF, calling up not only landscapes but entire worldviews and modes of thinking. The verbs reflect this as well: Invisible Parties is a splendid demonstration of how parser IF can change up its verbset and its possibility space. And it’s also a love story about being drawn to, and compatible with, the abilities of another person; attracted not by a face or even a mind, but by character-in-action.

18 Cadence, Aaron Reed, 2013. Aaron’s catalog of interactive work is very extensive, and this is probably not the obvious work to choose; others might go for Blue Lacuna or Ice-Bound Concordance or Hollywood Visionary. I myself considered instead choosing Maybe Make Some Change, a game I found extremely challenging to play in an open exhibition space and which therefore left me with one of my most intense IF experiences ever. But 18 Cadence, perhaps surprisingly, is the game I came back to most often in both play and thought, because of the way it offers up a set of signs and a spatial tool for making meaning, and then leaves the interpretation in the hands of the players, to share with one another. Players have pulled out of this game: anti-war propaganda, vignettes on the changing roles of women, sound poems, lists of dates, dirty jokes… The spareness of the presentation suggests that the effect might be simple, but it absolutely is not; not every collection of signs offers such polysemy, and 18 Cadence demonstrates how corpus curation can itself be an intense authorial act, while its understated text generation gives the player immense expressive freedom to glue fragments together. What comes out of the experience is a sense of how many different causes, personal and accidental and cultural, underlie any event; and how much of life is about assembling story to put around these incidents.

Human Errors, Katherine Morayati, 2018. Dark, dense, and funny, Human Errors tells, through the mechanic of a customer service interface, a story about capitalism and oppressive systems and the tiny apertures through which we can try to risk connecting with other people. It is inventive in both form and content, and fits an astonishing amount into a very tight word count.

The Reprover, François Coulon, 2008. One of two pieces I added to IFDB for the sake of this poll. At the time it was released, the Reprover (or Le Reprobateur, in French) felt decidedly outside the realm of what we then called interactive fiction, since it pieces together audio and video elements into a linked montage. Now, some years later, the piece has not changed but our definition of IF has. As I wrote more recently for Rock Paper Shotgun, The Reprover is a thematically organized series of anecdotes on the theme of self-control and social permission/constraint. It’s sometimes bizarre and often quite funny.

Bogeyman, Elizabeth Smyth, 2018. Through spare music and art, visceral writing, and extremely effective deployment of complicity, Bogeyman speaks to abuse and gas-lighting — and the disquieting desire to be approved by one’s abuser.

Everybody Dies, Jim Munroe, 2008. A somewhat surreal short story in which it would be hard, at certain key points, to say exactly what was going on. But it works, through a judicious mix of text and illustration, in looking at the interrelated nature of human lives.

Solarium, Anya Johanna DeNiro, 2013. Solarium is a beautifully written and haunting fantasy about how the desire for mastery — and terror of the enemy — lead people to do terrible things. It tells its story with tropes of alchemy and religion, but also through the history of the Cold War. The most terrifying parts are the ones it did not invent.

Horse Master, Tom McHenry, 2013. Lures the player into thinking they can win the game of capitalist dystopia; proves that this is soundly not possible. It is horrible in the best way.

Harmonic Time-Bind Ritual Symphony, Ben Kidwell and Maevele Straw, 2016. A very detailed, lyrical, strange, and often joyous depiction of mania, which bends the affordances of textual IF in all sorts of interesting directions in order to communicate what it is like to be a bit removed from consensus reality. It is, I gather, autobiographical to a significant degree, and interactive autobiography puts another complication into the existing triangle of identities, in a way I still haven’t fully sorted out.

Will Not Let Me Go, Stephen Granade, 2017. The story of a man with dementia, and about the loss of familiarity, love, and self. It is… not precisely cheerful, but meditative; portrays characters prone to both kindness and rage, generosity and prejudice, without oversimplifying them; and, without mawkishness, lands on the idea that love and human connection are of eternal value even if bounded by time.

Fabricationist DeWit Remakes the World, Jedediah Berry, 2015. A lyrically beautiful Twine about life that persists after apocalypse and about the construction of meaning from the shattered remains of what came before.

Endless, Nameless, Adam Cadre, 2012. This is Cadre’s last released piece of IF, and its relatively quiet reception probably had quite a bit to do with why he didn’t write more. It is partly a commentary on the history of interactive fiction, and its development from the realms of fiddly object puzzles into the area of human nature. As the author’s comments on my review suggest, it may be best understood as an interactive intellectual memoir of sorts; and as memoir I think it works better than as pure fiction.

Mentula Macanus, Adam Thornton, 2011. Here’s a game that’s hard to recommend to anyone as a first dip into interactive fiction: a lengthy, pornographic parser puzzle game that features a glowing blue cock and whose jokes rely on a working knowledge of TS Eliot, Petronius, and Curses. But it is also at the same time a study of the components that make up human existence, and a sort of argument for the integration (and thus integrity) of body and mind.

*

That’s 19. I’ve left one spot, reserved, for a game I really need to replay, because I suspect it belongs on this list and that I didn’t read it in nearly enough depth when I encountered it in a past competition. I want to see if I can get to it before the list collection closes.

Edited to add: I have now done so. My final entry on the list is SPY INTRIGUE, furkle, 2015. Perhaps the closest thing in IF to late 20th century/early 21st century literary fiction. It is a piece that needs some time and attention to read, but ultimately rewards that commitment at every level from the individual sentences to the overall messaging; and which, among other things, suggests that empathy learned intentionally as a skill is not morally inferior to the kind that comes naturally.

Zarf Updates

Early Myst Online prototypes recovered

by Andrew Plotkin ([email protected]) at July 14, 2019 02:14 AM

A couple of days ago, Cyan's Eric Anderson posted some delightful links via Twitter:


Here's a fun treat for all the Myst/D'ni/Uru fans out there... The original pre-Uru, pre-Mudpie "DIRT/Descent" demo, in all its fully-playable glory! Don't ask us for support, just cross your fingers and hope it works. PS: This thing is 19 YEARS OLD! tinyurl.com/DIRT-Descent pic.twitter.com/hxzYqKLD2F

And for all you HARD CORE fans: Here is the 20-year-old Pre-DIRT "Nexus" Demo built before Cyan even acquired Headspin! It's so old you need to install a (included) Glide GPU wrapper! Also, I have no idea how to solve the "puzzle". Enjoy! tinyurl.com/NexusDemo99 pic.twitter.com/DtoR0PEpBt

Extra Double Bonus!!!!!! Here is the playable "Hector Cove" demo as well (also from around 2000)... Because why not - right? Go harass some janky birbs! tinyurl.com/HectorCove pic.twitter.com/o2yYaMEF5I
(Headspin was an independent studio which developed the first version of the Plasma 3D engine. Cyan acquired Headspin in 1998 and used their engine for RealMyst, Myst 5, and all the versions of Uru / Myst Online. A GPL version is now available.)
I never played these demos; I didn't start tunnelling into Myst Online fandom until 2003-ish. And I'm sorry to admit that I still haven't played them. My Windows gaming machine is currently packed in a box, and it'll be a couple of weeks before I have access to it again.
But you're not me, so have at it.

July 13, 2019

Renga in Blue

Deathmaze 5000: A Time to Be Born, a Time to Die

by Jason Dyer at July 13, 2019 06:41 PM

I skipped mentioning the motivation and plot last time, so let’s remedy that first. From the manual:

Your only goal is to leave Deathmaze. Alive.

Ayep. Deep. So let’s segue into

FARTING

There’s a FART command and it gets mentioned on the opening screen.

I don’t know what the “scientific marvel” mentioned on this screen is yet.

The effect is to propel the player forward until they hit a wall.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to save in-game time. I say this is unfortunate because a.) there’s a hunger timer; I’ve found food in two places but it’s definitely possible to starve b.) there’s a timer on torch health, and if it becomes dark you get eaten by a monster.

For the maps that follow, I need to keep in mind some route optimization. Turning counts as a “step”, so when a path is “wiggly”, it can take more travel time than a straight corridor covering the same number of spaces.

An example: The corridor on the left takes twice as long to pass through as the corridor on the right.

LEAVING LEVEL ONE

I still haven’t solved the calculator problem from last time, although I should mention LOOK CALCULATOR reveals there’s a smudge, and CLEAN CALCULATOR shows the actual number on the screen is 317.2.

The number combined with being on a calculator combined with the “TURN, TURN, TURN” hint suggests this might be a word on an inverted calculator.

Matt in the comments suggest “Z.LIE” and I’ve tried a bunch of permutations like “LIELIE” and “TWO LIE” but no luck.

It’s possible I need an item of some sort, because you can move on to the lower levels without solving the puzzle. One of the items just lying about (a HAT) gives you explicit instructions if you LOOK HAT:

Wear this hat. CHARGE a wall near where you found it.

Specifically, if you face north and CHARGE, you bust through the wall and fall down a pit to level two.

LEVEL TWO

Here’s where the Deathmaze really started living up to its name. One of the item boxes has a snake that kills you if you open it (I haven’t decided if this is a red herring or a puzzle that needs solving)

There’s an “elevator” which just crushes you by the walls coming in sideways.

There are two attack dogs, one which occurs after a certain number of steps, and one which happens in a specific spot. I have only found the sneaker useful in fending him off, although it causes the sneaker to disappear:

A vicious dog attacks you!

>THROW SNEAKER

The Sneaker magically flies around a convenient corner and is eaten by the monster!!!

The dog chases the sneaker! and is eaten by the monster!!!

The dog that is in a fixed spot is blocking a box that has a magic staff. Also, while this level has both food and a torch, the torch is far enough away (notice how it’s at the end of a “wiggly” corridor) that it gives time for the “timed dog” to attack. This means I can choose from either a.) fighting the fixed dog and taking the magic staff or b.) fighting the timed dog and getting an extra torch, although that means I skip the magic staff.

Of course, c.) find an extra way to defeat a dog and do both is possible, but I haven’t wrangled it yet.

LEVEL THREE

There’s not as much content here, but the “L” shape does indicate there’s probably more to this level. I don’t know if it’s possible to enter in the upper right area on this level (indicating a secret door or some related shenanigans) or if it’s a “closed area” that can only be entered from below.

LEVEL FOUR

This is where my journey so far has bottomed out. Apart from running out of torch time or dying of hunger, again things aren’t too dangerous. It may be the next direction is “up” — the bottom of the pit doesn’t correspond to any existing pits, so it must go up to the “missing” section on level 3. I suspect a method of scaling pits will be the next step in the journey, but given farts are a method of propulsion, I won’t be surprised if things go sideways.

Part of where I’m stumped is a short verb list. This is the entire list I’ve found so far.

CLIMB, BREAK, OPEN, EAT, FILL, LIGHT, RUB, THROW, UNLOCK, PUT (same as DROP), YELL, SAY, RUB (same as CLEAN), BURN, WEAR, FART, CHARGE, ROLL, BLOW (for the horn), PLAY (for the flute)

None of these are the usual WAVE that gets used to activate a magic staff in many a game, or GAZE to use the crystal ball from the first level. CLIMB wants a noun and the bottom of pits (where it seems like climbing might work) I haven’t been able to get the game to recognize any particular use.

July 12, 2019

Choice of Games

Choice of the Dragon, now on Alexa! Hear your roar!

by Rachel E. Towers at July 12, 2019 05:42 PM

It’s Choice of the Dragon as you’ve never heard it before! Enjoy this classic Choice of Games title on your Amazon Alexa!

In partnership with Matchbox Mobile, we’ve newly edited this game to optimize it for audio, with revised options, vivid sound effects, character voices, and more. Thanks to the Amazon Alexa’s text-reading capability, you can get the same customized experience that you could on the page.

Choice of the Dragon is a thrilling interactive novel by Dan Fabulich and Adam Strong-Morse, where your choices control the story.

Tyrannize the kingdom as a fire-breathing dragon who sleeps on gold and kidnaps princesses for fun! Battle heroes, wizards, and rival dragons in your insatiable thirst for gold and infamy. Start by dominating a local tribe of goblins, then usurp the kingdom, defending and expanding your despotic regime to annex neighboring kingdoms, incinerating the peasants in their thatched-roof cottages.

Find the skill here, or just say, “Alexa, open Choice of the Dragon.” Play the first part for free! It’s $0.99 to unlock the rest of the game once, and $2.99 to unlock unlimited playthroughs.

O, mighty dragon, spread your wings and let your shadow fall over the terrorized nation beneath you – and listen to the sound of your roar!

July 11, 2019

Choice of Games

Exile of the Gods — Wield the chains of destiny, or shatter them?

by Rachel E. Towers at July 11, 2019 04:42 PM

We’re proud to announce that Exile of the Gods, the latest in our popular “Choice of Games” line of multiple-choice interactive-fiction games, is now available for Steam, Android, and on iOS in the Choice of Games Omnibus app. It’s 30% off until July 18th!

In the great war between the gods, will you wield the chains of destiny, or shatter them forever?

Exile of the Gods is a 460,000 word interactive epic fantasy novel by Jonathan Valuckas, 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.

Our story begins twenty years after the action of the first game, 2015’s Champion of the Gods. Which ending did you get? Start this game as the Champion, a warrior born to serve the gods, and follow the holy destiny the Weavers have crafted for you. Or start this game as the Exile, enemy of the gods, and forge a new life for yourself in the faraway land of Khovros–where mortals are free to choose their own fates.

Champion and Exile alike must unravel a deadly conspiracy, and confront the brewing war upon their gods. Will you vanquish this invading force, or use its power to free your realm from its ruthless creators forever? Take revenge on the gods who exiled you, or steal this chance to prove your worth to the pantheon, and seize your destiny of glory?

The gods made you what you are. Now, you will show them what you are made of.

• Play as male, female, or nonbinary; gay, straight, bi, or ace
• Take the role of your realm’s beloved savior, or that of a vengeful warrior living in exile
• Explore a world inspired by the myths of Ancient Greece
• Fight land and sea battles inspired by the military campaigns of antiquity
• Unravel a divine conspiracy that spans two realms, complete with shocking twists
• Use the power of Inspiration to endow your companions with unearthly prowess, or wield Rapture to stun your enemies with bliss
• Move the hearts of your foes with your sincerity, or harness the power of deception to spin a lie that suits your fancy
• Play the game in standalone mode, or import your skills and backstory from “Champion of the Gods” to unlock new storylines–and a terrifying bonus power
• Confront golems, fire-wielding mystics, and the armies of the dead
• Receive a horoscope for your character, based on their virtues and humors

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

Author Interview: Jonathan Valuckas, “Exile of the Gods”

by Mary Duffy at July 11, 2019 12:42 PM

 

In the great war between the gods, will you wield the chains of destiny, or shatter them forever? Our story begins twenty years after the action of the first game, 2015’s Champion of the Gods. Which ending did you get? Start Exile of the Gods as the Champion, a warrior born to serve the gods, and follow the holy destiny the Weavers have crafted for you. Or start as the Exile, enemy of the gods, and forge a new life for yourself in the faraway land of Khovros–where mortals are free to choose their own fates. Exile of the Gods is a 460,000 word interactive epic fantasy novel by Jonathan Valuckas. I sat down with Jonathan to talk about his latest game and how it feels returning to this world after four years. Exile of the Gods releases today, Thursday, July 11.

Champion of the Gods is one of our most popular Choice of Games titles, and it has a special resonance for me. It was the first game I worked on, my first week at Choice of Games, which was its release week. And that was four years ago almost to the day! Tell me about Exile of the Gods. What was the biggest challenge in continuing the story?

First and foremost, happy anniversary! I love that Champion was your inaugural title. I was in the midst of a big job-related move while I wrote it, so it’s also cool to see I am not the only person who associates this game with a “new office.”

Another fun fact about Champion (and I promise, I am segueing to the question!) is that it used to end with your character’s funeral. The idea was, we were going to make your character a god in the second game, and depending on how well you’d done in Champion, you would either become a deity or not. That was how you’d know if you “won.”

But this knowledge that you weren’t going to make it out of the game alive gave me free rein to twist the action of the penultimate chapter in all kinds of weird directions, so I started letting wildly different things happen during playtesting. Want to have your family at your wedding? Sure you do! Want to run off with your fighting companion? Why not! Want to get exiled yourself? But of course! It didn’t matter that I was complicating things, because your character was just going to die anyway, and then we’d make the sequel about something entirely new and different. Done and done!

Needless to say, that is not how things worked out. The more complex the endings got, the more the funeral started to feel like a cop-out. In fact, a lot of these new endings just didn’t feel like endings anymore; they felt like the beginnings of new stories. So we cut the funeral at the last minute, and wound up with all these endings that shot off all over the place–which was great for people finishing the first game, and not so great for the poor schlump who had to write the sequel!

At least I can say that I have only myself to blame.

What did you most enjoy about the writing process the second time around?

For one reason or another, most of this game was written on the go: much of it at shopping malls in New Jersey, and the rest of it on trains, at train stations, at various casinos (I have family in Las Vegas), and at our nation’s many Paneras (my wordcount can be measured in cinnamon crunch bagels).

Writing this way made the game feel like a travelogue where I wasn’t allowed to explicitly mention any of the places I was going, but it also translated into a really fun writing experience–one that’s made revising the game like opening a scrapbook. I’ll scroll through the code and be like: “Aww, remember the time we were at the Starbucks between the Venetian and the Palazzo, and we wrote the part where the player confronts the archivist in the Hall of Law? Good times, good times.”

Which NPC in Exile do you like spending the most time with, as a writer?

Cephiel, hands down. Please don’t @ me here, I realize she’s done questionable things! But in the second game, especially in the pathways for continuing players, I feel like we start to see this other side of her. She tries to atone, in her way, for the mistakes she has made. And even if she isn’t successful, I feel like she’s the one god out of all of them that you could have a good conversation with. In fact, I may not actually be speaking as a writer here, because I would 100% go to lunch with Cephiel in real life.

Is this story over for now, or is there a third game there?

I have the sinking suspicion there will be a third game! I have only the vaguest idea what it would be about at this point, but there is a lot of potential there. And speaking logistically, about as many open-ended plot points show up at the end of Exile as we resolved at the beginning, so it’s conceivable I could write a third volume that will not take twice as long to write as this one did. (Nobody quote me on this, please!)

What else are you working on?

I have a novel that’s due for a fourth draft before anyone should be subjected to it, so I will be digging into that. It has pretty dense world-building in it, despite technically taking place in this one.

I’m also going to start doing stand-up! I have been talking about doing stand-up incessantly for years, but saying it would have to wait until the game was out, so now that the game is out I’m officially trapped. I get a weird level of satisfaction from public humiliation, so it should be fine.

And finally, I’m going to watch non-documentary movies! I have this oddball allergy to watching new fiction whenever I’m working on fiction. I can leave Investigation Discovery and HGTV on all day, I can even watch fictional movies I’ve seen before, I just can’t watch anything new. So before I hit the novel, there is this window where I have to try to cram in the last six years of film, while resisting the urge to watch “Profondo Rosso” over and over again instead.

July 10, 2019

The Gaming Philosopher

[IF Comp 2018] Railways of Love

by Victor Gijsbers ([email protected]) at July 10, 2019 09:27 AM

Another review from last year's IF Comp. Spoilers ahead. Railways of Love by Provodnik Games One of the questions that kept nagging me as I played through Railways of Love was whether the game really had a Russian vibe, or whether I was just imagining this, based on the fact that you can choose between Russian and English. Of course, the long train journey might conjure up images of the

July 09, 2019

Emily Short

Mailbag: Environmental Storytelling

by Emily Short at July 09, 2019 12:41 PM

This is actually a reprint of a comment exchange that appeared earlier on this blog, but it’s the kind of question that I typically mailbag, so I’m reproducing it here for visibility.

A question, if I may: I’m not much of a story-writer (as in coming up with the ‘adventure’ part of the equation), but I’m working on a densely interactive VR diorama (http://naam.itch.io/apotu) and a story/plot is starting to emerge from all the incidental detail popping up everywhere, taking shape in my head. It’s more of a situation/slice-of-life thing than a story per se. What would you (or any other reader!) say is a good way to come up with narrative cues to divulge this to the visitor?

I guess I’m mainly struggling with process – how to come up with just the right bits of information to relate to the listener, and how to make that matter.

Start by identifying the bare minimum. What are the 3-7 most important events or beats the player must know about in order to understand your story? What traces might those events have left on the world?

Recordings of from eyewitnesses (meaning artifacts such as diary entries, ship logs, etc) are less powerful than actual evidence of the event itself having marked the environment, but sometimes one must fall back on a bit of exposition from the past in order to make clear what has happened.

Whatever you pick, make these traces notable and place them where the player cannot avoid encountering them in the process of traversing your world. And by “notable”, I mean ideally things the player must actually interact with in order to proceed through the space; or, failing that, environmental set pieces large enough that it’s very difficult to miss them by looking the wrong way.

Now, what are the attitudes of the characters who participated in the story? What were their motives? Why did they do what they did? These can be even harder to communicate without expository elements in the characters’ own voices, but it’s possible to work with clues — foreclosure bills, discarded wedding ring, prescription medication for a chronic illness.

As a general rule, place the clues for these motives where they will be found after the player has found the event they motivated, so they have had a chance to wonder why something happened before discovering a reason.

If you must include diary entries or logs or similar things, make those elements do as much work as possible: have them speak in a character’s voice, have them communicate personality and side detail; have the character who is writing the diary entry be perhaps focused on something quite different from what the player is trying to find out by reading it, and reveal the truth only as an incidental.

Some additional resources:

July 08, 2019

The Gaming Philosopher

[IF Comp 2018] They Will Not Return

by Victor Gijsbers ([email protected]) at July 08, 2019 10:46 AM

Another review from IF Comp 2018; spoilers ahead! They Will Not Return by John Ayliff They Will Not Return tells the story of a robot who spends his life cleaning up after his human owners, until one day a deadly virus wipes out all of humanity. The protagonist slowly comes to grip with this fact and ends up having an opportunity to master himself and thus become free. In terms of craft,

July 07, 2019

Zarf Updates

Apps, tools, and what I use to get through life

by Andrew Plotkin ([email protected]) at July 07, 2019 03:13 PM

Apple did their annual developer announcements last month. The general response is that there's good stuff in store for the Mac/iOS/tvOS ecosystem. Common dev toolkit across all platforms, a new declarative interface builder, multi-window UI and thumb-drive support for iPads, a consistent undo gesture. Decent controller support for iOS games.
I could link to articles with titles like "Audacity" and "Changes Everything". Let's just go with this summary from Dave Mark.
I have spoken to a lot of longtime developers, and many new developers this week to gauge the reaction of what’s going on behind-the-scenes at WWDC. The response has been overwhelmingly positive for what Apple has introduced publicly and what they are saying and doing in the talks and labs during the conference. [...] If developers are happy, consumers are going to be pleased because we are going to get some great apps in the coming months.
(--Dave Mark, Thoughts on WWDC 2019)
That all sounds nice, and I bumped along for a few weeks in a cloud of mild Apple euphoria. But at some point I started trying to figure out what this means for me, specifically. How does my life improve?
Turns out -- it doesn't. I know that sounds weird; I'm a lifetime Mac user and I have no intention of jumping ship. But somehow, I'm not in the app market. I just don't buy productivity tools.

Let me try to quantify this. I've just spent a year helping to organize and run an IF conference. As co-chair, I was involved in every aspect of this thing -- the web site, the program book, the budget, everything. What was my toolset for this daunting job?
  • BBEdit. My Mac text editor since forever. I spent a surprisingly long time on the free BBEdit Lite and TextWrangler tools, but when TextWrangler retired a couple of years ago, I paid for the full version. Therefore, I am now out of the market for text editors.
  • Emacs. Yes, I use both Emacs and BBEdit. I go back and forth without thinking. Don't ^@ me.
  • Numbers. This is the spreadsheet that comes free on Mac/iPhone/iPad. We kept piles of data in spreadsheets. However, there was nothing specifically Apple about the way I did it. I could have used Excel or Google Sheets. In fact, when sharing data with the rest of the team, I always exported it to .xlsx files, .csv files, or Google.
  • Pages. This is Apple's free word processor, sibling to Numbers. Again, it was nice to use a native app, but any number of equivalent tools would have worked. The end goal was always to export a PDF. (If I didn't want a PDF, I'd be in Emacs or BBEdit.)
  • Inkscape. Open-source vector illustration editor. This is actually in a precarious state -- the Mac port is two years out of date and about to capsize in the MacOS 32-bit purge. But it's still my go-to tool for any kind of illustration.
  • Google Forms and Google Docs. We ran several attendee surveys and questionnaires.
  • Dropbox. Our shared document repository.
  • Slack. For what you use Slack for.
  • Python. For ad-hoc everything. Also for the web site, which was based on the Pelican static generator.
Really, you ask, Python? Yup. For example, when I laid out the program book, I did it in two columns for the two-page spreads. Oops -- the printing service wanted one column per page. Rather than reformatting, I wrote up a quick script to (1) convert the PDF to image data; (2) slice that into left and right halves; (3) write them out as PNG files.
Similarly, when I sent out email to attendees, I used a little script which chewed through the attendance spreadsheet (in .csv form) and sent email to each address. Stuff like that. There's plenty of ways to do these tasks, but I reach for a script.
This is why I bounce off all those articles saying "I've switched to the iPad as my regular work machine!" We got another round of them this month -- not without justification. But the fact is that all of my workflows eventually expand to include a Python script. It sounds like a joke, but it's the honest truth.
(I'm writing this blog post in BBEdit. When I'm done, I'll pipe it through a script to convert the Markdown syntax to HTML, and shove that into Google's Blogger interface. That's how I roll.)

This is probably more detail than you need about my tech obsessions. It boils down to: I like open-source tools and tools which can interoperate with them. And I'm quite resistant to changing gears. If something works, I'd rather figure out how to keep it working.
As a result, I have no idea what the last dozen hot new drawing apps are. Sorry! (Nor am I asking for recommendations.) I suppose this entire post is an indulgence of cane-waving. Sure, new tools can be fun, but haven't you already figured out how to do your work twenty years ago? Rarggh, kids, lawn, etc.
When I look at my iOS devices, the last serious app I installed was Slack. And Slack's been going for a while now, right? Oh, and I installed a bank app because I opened an account at a new bank.
(Note that games are a different scene entirely. I grab new iOS games at a whim; I regularly browse the app store lists looking for new ones. Sometimes I'll try a new game because it's a lazy morning and I'd rather pay three bucks than get out of bed right then. You know how it is.)
Let me turn the question around (before this gets any more embarrassing). What are the tools that have changed the way I work? And when did I adopt them?
(I'm not going to count software development languages, because that's work in its own right. I'm talking about tools that help me with not-inherently-software tasks. Like running a convention.)
  • Text editors (Emacs, BBEdit). Before that I think I wrote stuff down in my terrible handwriting until my hand cramped. I used word processors in high school, but mostly for assignments, not saving data. Then I got my first computer account where I could save files -- and not in the uncertain hell of floppy disks. Life-changing. (Arguably, this includes the crucial flip-side skill of "organizing files in a directory tree".)
  • Email. Any serious communication, I want it in email. Email is my memory. Plain text please; HTML just gets stripped. Attachments are fine but I'll save them off separately.
  • Vector graphics (PostScript, Inkscape/SVG). I did not do art until I could program it. Then I found out about PostScript and started trying stuff like this. Not that this is terrific art, but it was a space I could mess around with. I worked up to projects like the Hadean Lands map, which I did in Inkscape.
  • Scripting languages (csh, Python). See above. Perl happened to a lot of people of my generation, but I skipped it.
  • Online chat (Zephyr, MUDs, IRC, XMPP, Slack). Many different work, social, and mixed-work-social circles. Chat has gone through a lot of different platforms; I've used all of them in roughly the same way. I can coordinate with people entirely via email, but chat complements email by letting you have a discussion right now. Yes, Slack has nice amenities -- file attachments! -- but when Slack is ruined by corporateness we'll move on to something else. (Note: Discord is a bad replacement and will not survive.)
  • Distributed version control (Git). Yes, I used SVN before Git. And RCS before that. RCS was bad, SVN was fine. But Git was when I said, oh right, I should use this on anything that might need revisions. No server setup, just git init and start work. Revelatory.
  • Spreadsheets. I came very late to spreadsheets. I didn't start one until I wanted to track sales of iOS apps, which was 2011. They certainly solve a bunch of problems, though.
  • Bug/issue trackers? I'm not sure this looms as large as the other items, but it's a runner-up.
And... that's it. That's the toolbox. Oh, I use innumerable other tools ad hoc, but these are the ones that rearranged how I do everything.
You see immediately that these are all old technologies. I picked most of them up in college. Git and spreadsheets are the only recent additions, and of course spreadsheets were around much earlier. So if there's a moral (and I've been rambling long enough that there better be a moral), it's that I've been a conservative old fart my entire life.
That said, you never know. I did figure out spreadsheets at age 40, and I'm not dead yet.
pbpaste | blogmark.py | pbcopy

July 05, 2019

"Aaron Reed"

Spirit AI: Tightening the Edit Loop in Character Engine

by Aaron A. Reed at July 05, 2019 10:42 PM

Spirit AI: Tightening the Feedback Loop in Character Engine

A key way for developers to become more efficient is finding ways to shorten the time between making a change and seeing it in action. In coding, this is sometimes called the “edit-compile-test loop”: if after making a change to code you need to sit through a lengthy recompile, a staging process, a reboot of an engine and a reload and reinitialization of a project — all to just see if the single change you made works — this is much less efficient than if you can skip or shorten any of these steps to get more immediate feedback.

Hence this relatable classic.

In the latest version of Spirit AI’s Character Engine, we’ve introduced a new feature for testing a natural language project directly within the authoring tool. This can significantly shorten the loop for certain kinds of projects, making it quicker and easier to try out the conversational interactions you’re authoring in a bare-bones format. For instance, if you’re working on a Unity game, you can skip the whole process of manually exporting your project, switching tabs to Unity, restarting and waiting for your game to reload.

Authors can now easily switch between the Plot and Game tabs to test their content in action.

You can also see some basic diagnostics about the input and response: for instance, we can see that the natural language classifier rated the player’s statement “I’m a friend, I swear it!” as most likely to be an Assertion. This kind of info has been exposed previously in debug messages (such as on the Unity console) but you might have needed to fiddle with log levels, or sort through a swath of debug messages from your own project, to find it. Having it front and center makes it easier to evaluate how Character Engine is understanding what you’re saying, and how NPCs are deciding how to respond. The current diagnostics information is limited, but we hope to improve it in a future release with a more elaborate sidebar that lets you trace each step the engine took in handling a player input and deciding on a response, to help diagnose situations where you see a response you weren’t expecting.

“Analysis. Why did you say that?” (Image from and copyright HBO’s Westworld.)

(Interestingly, in implementing the Play In Editor functionality we’ve created a powerful abstraction that will make it much easier to communicate between arbitrary Character Engine instances and displays going forward, which will allow us to support exciting features like standalone CE debuggers, integration with third-party testing tools, or even a browser-based or mobile UI for diagnosing CE games running somewhere on the cloud! But one step at a time…)

Play In Editor helps you understand your project’s small moments and individual interactions, but what about the bigger picture? We already offer a few views that show you things like how much of your knowledge model has been filled out, or (if you’re using “events”) how they fit together on a timeline…

…but we’ve been experimenting internally with more kinds of visualizations. For instance, what if you could see all the fragments of content you’ve authored and the ways they fit together?

Experiment showing data from a Character Engine project: orange dialogue lines link to blue content fragments that help customize their performances, sometimes governed by green states from the game engine.

This opens up new ways of grasping the “big picture” state of a Character Engine project with a complex possibility space. You might want to filter a visualization like this in many different ways: only showing content for a particular character or emotional state, or a particular scene, or for how different scenes can connect to each other. Each such filter gives you a different way of understanding the narrative possibility space you’re creating, and provides another key method of shortening the “edit-compile-test loop” of authoring dynamic character conversations.

This has mostly been a forward-looking post, but as we continue improving Play In Editor and other aspects of Character Engine (and its authoring tool), we hope to keep making strides towards further tightening the iteration loop, and helping authors of digital characters master a whole new kind of editing and revision.


Spirit AI: Tightening the Edit Loop in Character Engine was originally published in Spirit AI on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

The XYZZY Awards

XYZZY Awards 2018: First Round Open

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at July 05, 2019 05:42 PM

The XYZZY Awards for the interactive fiction works of 2018 is now open for first-round voting. (Probably setting a record for the latest in the year; sorry about that.)

The XYZZYs use your IF Comp login; if you need to register an account with the Comp, or you’ve forgotten your account details, go here. You can log in here (you’ll get kicked back to the front page) and then vote here. In the nominee round, you can nominate two works in each category. You should not nominate works that you authored, and you should not direct voters to vote for particular games or slates of games.

The first round will remain open through the 19th of July (technically, with votes closing at 1 AM US-Pacific time on the 20th).

The full list of eligible games, harvested from IFDB with the help of juxi and Claire Furkle, is here; if there are any errors or omissions, please let me know (either at [email protected], in comments here, or on Twitter at @XYZZYAwards or @tsawac ).

Below the cut are the list of works listed on IFDB which were not eligible for the Awards.

DO NOT EXIST

These are IFDB entries which don’t seem to correspond to a real game, or which don’t seem to be available to the public.

Alone with Yourself, Jeremiah Van Elgort
The Amusement Park, Ryan Dolner
Amnesia, Mads
A Cockwork Orange, Jame Gumb, Jr.
Cookie Clickers, ITzJayGames
Date Night: Intimate Moments for a Sensual Evening in a Dangerously Delicious Time of Modern Romance, anon
Defender, Eggball4444
Effects of Wealth on Sentencing, Chase Foreman
Instruction Set
Men Don’t Play With Dolls, Jordan Leendertsen
na, na
The Neophyte, Bilal Mahmood
Pirates are a Hot Mess, Anonymous
RealityQuake: Bootstrap Redux: Paradox+, necrophobicgoth
Samantha’s Cover Letter, Samantha Cheung
Red Alert – Adrift in Space, Gizmodeus
Scourge of Andromeda, Nicholas Fuhrmann
Smish Test v0.1, Anonymous
Solus, DrYitz
Toby’s Misadventure, yoon
vampiro, vico
weird first time quiz with ending, Tyconxcon
Winter Quiet, Nathan McRae
White Waker, PsychoFox
The Voodoo You Do 3, Marshall Tenner Winter
Wrath of Chance, A Dashing Saint
NOT FIRST RELEASED AS COMPLETE IN 2018

Works in progress, updated games, works which only exist as DLC or expansions for earlier games, and ports of older games are not XYZZY-eligible. In particular, this means that Fallen London Exceptional Stories have not been eligible, since they are expansions of Fallen London that cannot be played separately.

The Beast of Torrack Moor – 30th Anniversary Edition, Linda Doughty, Chris Ainsley, Andy Green: a slightly updated port of a 1988 PAW game
Chiara’s Adventure (Unfinished), TheGiantPig
TrolleyMania, Gareth Pickford
Where the Heart Is, cheekygimp

The Bones of London – Gavin Inglis
Daylight – Ash McAllan
Factory of Favours – Graham Robertson
For All The Saints Who From Their Labours Rest – James Chew
The Magician’s Dream – Mary Goodden
A Little Pandemonium – Jack de Quidt
The Murgatroyd Formula – Mary Goodden
The Price of Loss – Kevin Snow
The Pursuit of Moths – Harry Tuffs
The Rat-Catcher – Chandler Groover
Required Repairs – Gavin Inglis
Written in the Glim – Mary Goodden

NOT IF
Exfate: Sen (a platformer)

 

 

The Digital Antiquarian

The Mortgaging of Sierra Online

by Jimmy Maher at July 05, 2019 02:41 PM

The Sierra Online of the 1980s and very early 1990s excelled at customer relations perhaps more than anything else. Through the tours of their offices (which they offered to anyone who cared to make the trip to rural Oakhurst, California), the newsletter they published (which always opened with a folksy editorial from their founder and leader Ken Williams), and their habit of grouping their games into well-delineated series with predictable content, they fostered a sense of loyalty and even community which other game makers, not least their arch-rivals over at LucasArts, couldn’t touch — this even though the actual games of LucasArts tended to be much better in design terms. Here we see some of the entrants in a Leisure Suit Larry lookalike contest sponsored by Sierra. (Yes, two of the contestants do seem suspiciously young to have played a series officially targeted at those 18 and older.) Sadly, community-building exercise like these would become increasingly rare as the 1990s wore on and Sierra took on a different, more impersonal air. This article will chronicle the beginning of those changes.

“The computer-game industry has become the interactive-entertainment industry.”

— Ken Williams, 1992

Another even-numbered year, another King’s Quest game. Such had been the guiding rhythm of life at Sierra Online since 1986, and 1992 was to be no exception. Why should it be? Each of the last several King’s Quest installments had sold better than the one before, as the series had cultivated a reputation as the premier showcase of bleeding-edge computer entertainment. Once again, then, Sierra was prepared to pull out all the stops for King’s Quest VI, prepared to push its development budget to $1 million and beyond.

This time around, however, there were some new and worrisome tensions. Roberta Williams, Sierra’s star designer, whose name was inseparable from that of King’s Quest itself in the minds of the public, was getting a little tired of playing the Queen of Daventry for the nation’s schoolchildren. She had another, entirely different game she wanted to make, a sequel to her 1989 mystery starring the 1920s girl detective Laura Bow. So, a compromise was reached. Roberta would do Laura Bow in… The Dagger of Amon Ra and King’s Quest VI simultaneously by taking a sort of “executive designer” role on both projects, turning over the nitty-gritty details to assistant designers.

Thus for the all-important King’s Quest VI, Sierra brought over Jane Jensen, who was fresh off the task of co-designing the rather delightful educational adventure EcoQuest: The Search for Cetus with Gano Haine. Roberta Williams described her working relationship with her new partner in a contemporary interview, striking a tone that was perhaps a bit more condescending than it really needed to be in light of Jensen’s previous experience, and that was oddly disparaging toward Sierra’s other designers to boot:

I took on a co-designer for a couple of reasons: I wanted to train Jane because I didn’t want Sierra to be dependent on me. Someone else needs to know how to do a “proper” adventure game. We’re all doing a good job from a technology standpoint, but not on design. In my opinion, the best way to learn it properly is side by side. Overall, it was a positive experience, and it was very good for the series because Jane brought in some new ideas. She learned a lot, too, and can take what she’s learned to help create her new games.

There’s something of a consensus among fans today that the result of this collaboration is the best overall King’s Quest of them all. This strikes me as a fair judgment. While it’s not a great adventure game by any means, King’s Quest VI: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow isn’t an outright poor one either in terms of writing or design, and this is sufficient for it to clear the low bar of the previous games in the series. The plot is still reliant on fairy-tale clichés: a princess imprisoned in a tower, a prince who sets out to rescue her, a kingdom in turmoil around them. Yet the writing itself is more textured and coherent this time around, the implementation is far more complete (most conceivable actions yield custom messages of some sort in response), the puzzles are generally more reasonable, and it’s considerably more difficult than it was in the earlier games to wander into a walking-dead situation without knowing it. Evincing a spirit of mercy toward its players of a sort that Sierra wasn’t usually known for, it even has a branching point where you can choose from an easier or a harder pathway to the end of the game. And when you do get to the final scene, there are over a dozen possible variants of the ending movie, depending on the choices you’ve made along the way. Again, this degree of design ambition — as opposed to audiovisual ambition — was new to the series at the time.

The fans often credit this relative improvement completely to Jensen’s involvement. And this judgment as well, unkind though it is toward Roberta Williams, is not entirely unfounded, even if it should be tempered by the awareness that Jensen’s own later games for Sierra would all have significant design issues of their own. Many of the flaws that so constantly dogged Roberta’s games in particular were down to her insistence on working at a remove from the rest of the people making them. Her habit was to type up a design document on her computer at home, then give it to the development team with instructions to “call if you have any questions.” For all practical purposes, she had thus been working as an “executive designer” long before she officially took on that role with King’s Quest VI. This method of working tended to result in confusion and ultimately in far too much improvisation on the part of her teams. Combined with Sierra’s overarching disinterest in seeking substantive feedback from players during the development process, it was disastrous more often than not to the finished product. But when the time came for King’s Quest VI, Jane Jensen was able to alleviate at least some of the problems simply by being in the same room with the rest of the team every day. It may seem unbelievable that this alone was sufficient to deliver a King’s Quest that was so markedly better than any of the others — but, again, it just wasn’t a very high bar to clear.

For all that it represented a welcome uptick in terms of design, Sierra’s real priority for King’s Quest VI was, as always for the series, to make it look and sound better than any game before. They were especially proud of the opening movie, which they outsourced to a real Hollywood animation studio to create on cutting-edge graphics workstations. When it was delivered to Sierra’s offices, the ten-minute sequence filled a well-nigh incomprehensible 1.2 GB on disk. It would have to be cut down to two minutes and 6 MB for the floppy-disk-based release of the game. (It would grow again to six minutes and 60 MB for the later CD-ROM release.) A real showstopper in its day, it serves today to illustrate how Sierra’s ambitions to be a major media player were outrunning their aesthetic competencies; even the two-minute version manages to come off as muddled and overlong, poorly framed and poorly written. In its time, though, it doubtless served its purpose as a graphics-and-sound showcase, as did the game that followed it.

My favorite part of the much-vaunted King’s Quest VI introductory movie are the sailors that accompany Prince Alexander on his quest to rescue Princess Cassima. All sailors look like pirates, right?

A more amusing example of the company’s media naiveté is the saga of the King’s Quest VI theme song. Sierra head Ken Williams, who like many gaming executives of the period relished any and all linkages between games and movies, came up with the idea of including a pop song in the game that could become a hit on the radio, a “Glory of Love” or “I Will Always Love You” for his industry. Sierra’s in-house music man Mark Seibert duly delivered a hook-less dirge of a “love theme” with the distressingly literal title of “Girl in the Tower,” then hired an ersatz Michael Bolton and Celine Dion to over-emote it wildly. Then, Sierra proceeded to carpet-bomb the nation’s radio stations with CD singles of the song, whilst including an eight-page pamphlet in every copy of the game with the phone numbers for all of the major radio stations and a plea to call in and request it. Enough of Sierra’s loyal young fans did so that many a program director called Ken in turn to complain about his supremely artificial “grass-roots” marketing strategy. His song was terrible, they told him (correctly), and sometimes issued vague legal threats regarding obscure Federal Communications Commission laws he was supposedly violating. Finally, Ken agreed to pull the pamphlet from future King’s Quest VI boxes and accept that he wasn’t going to become a music as well as games impresario. Good Taste 1, Sierra 0. Rather hilariously, he was still grousing about the whole episode years later: “In my opinion, the radio stations were the criminals for ignoring their customers, something I believe no business should ever do. Oh, well… the song was great.”

The girl in the tower. Pray she doesn’t start singing…

While King’s Quest VI didn’t spawn a hit single, it did become a massive hit in its own right by the more modest sales standards of the computer-games industry. In fact, it became the first computer game in history to be certified gold by the Software Publishers Association — 100,000 copies sold — before it had even shipped, thanks to a huge number of pre-orders. Released in mid-October of 1992, it was by far the hottest game in the industry that Christmas, with Sierra struggling just to keep up with demand. Estimates of its total sales vary widely, but it seems likely that it sold 300,000 copies in all at a minimum, and quite possibly as many as 500,000 copies.

But for all its immediate success, King’s Quest VI was a mildly frustrating project for Sierra in at least one way. Everyone there agreed that this game, more so than any of the others they had made before, was crying out for CD-ROM, but too few consumers had CD-ROM drives in their computers in 1992 to make it worthwhile to ship the game first in that format. So, it initially shipped on nine floppy disks instead. Once decompressed onto a player’s hard drive, it filled over 17 MB — this at a time when 40 MB was still a fairly typical hard-disk size even on brand-new computers. Sierra recommended that players delete the 6 MB opening movie from their hard disks after watching it a few times just to free up some space. With stopgap solutions like this in play, there was a developing sense that something had to give, and soon. Peter Spears, author of an official guide to the entire King’s Quest series, summed up the situation thusly:

King’s Quest VI represents a fin de siecle, the end of an era. It is a game that should have been — needed to be — first published on CD-ROM. For all of its strengths and gloss, it is ill-served being played from a hard drive. If only because of its prominence in the world of computer entertainment, King’s Quest VI is proof that the era of CD playing is upon us.

Why? It is because imagination has no limits, and current hardware does. There are other games proving this point today, but King’s Quest has always been the benchmark. It is the end of one era, and when it is released on CD near the beginning of next year, it should be the beginning of another. Kill your hard drives!

Sierra had been evangelizing for CD-ROM for some time by this point, just as they earlier had for the graphics cards and sound cards that had transformed MS-DOS computers from dull things suitable only for running boring business applications into the only game-playing computers that really mattered in the United States. But, as with those earlier technologies, consumer uptake of CD-ROM had been slower than Sierra, chomping at the bit to use it, would have liked.

Thankfully, then, 1993 was the year when CD-ROM, a technology which had been around for almost a decade by that point, finally broke through; this was the year when the hardware became cheap enough and the selection of software compelling enough to power a new wave of multimedia excitement which swept across the world of computing. As with those graphics cards and sound cards earlier on, Sierra’s relentless prodding doubtless played a significant role in this newfound consumer acceptance of CD-ROM. And not least among the prods was the CD-ROM version of King’s Quest VI, which boasted lusher graphics in many places and voices replacing text absolutely everywhere. The voice acting marked a welcome improvement over the talkie version of King’s Quest V, the only previous game in the series to get a release on CD-ROM. The fifth game had apparently been voiced by whoever happened to be hanging around the office that day, with results that were almost unlistenably atrocious. King’s Quest VI, on the other hand, got a professional cast, headed by Robby Benson, who had just played the Beast in the hit Disney cartoon of Beauty and the Beast, in the role of Prince Alexander, the protagonist. Although Sierra could all too often still seem like babes in the woods when it came to media aesthetics, they were slowly learning on at least some fronts.

In the meantime, they could look to the bottom line of CD-ROM uptake with satisfaction. They shipped just 13 percent of their products on CD-ROM in 1992; in 1993, that number rose to 36 percent. Already by the end of that year, they had initiated their first projects that were earmarked only for CD-ROM. The dam had burst; the floppy disk was soon to be a thing of the past as a delivery medium for games.

This ought to have been a moment of unabashed triumph for Sierra in more ways than one. Back in the mid-1980s, when the company had come within a whisker of being pulled under by the Great Home Computer Crash, Ken Williams had decided, against the conventional wisdom of the time, that the long-term future of consumer computing lay with the operating systems of Microsoft and the open hardware architecture inadvertently spawned by the original IBM PC. He’d stuck to his guns ever since; while Sierra did release some of their games for other computer platforms, they were always afterthoughts, mere ways to earn a little extra money while waiting for the real future to arrive. And now that future had indeed arrived; Ken Williams had been proved right. The monochrome cargo vans of 1985 had improbably become the multimedia sports cars of 1993, all whilst sticking to the same basic software and hardware architecture.

And yet Ken was feeling more doubtful than triumphant. While he remained convinced that CDs were the future of game delivery, he was no longer so convinced that MS-DOS was the only platform that mattered. On the contrary, he was deeply concerned by the fact that, while MS-DOS-based computers had evolved enormously in terms of graphics and sound and sheer processing power, they remained as cryptically hard to use as ever. Just installing and configuring one of his company’s latest games required considerable technical skill. His ambition, as he told anyone who would listen, was to build Sierra into a major purveyor of mainstream entertainment. Could he really do that on MS-DOS? Yes, Microsoft Windows was out there as well — in fact, it was exploding in popularity, to the point that it was already becoming hard to find productivity software that wasn’t Windows-based. But Windows had its own fair share of quirks, and wasn’t really designed for running high-performance games under any circumstances.

Even as MS-DOS and Windows thus struggled with issues of affordability, approachability, and user-friendliness in the context of games, new CD-based alternatives to traditional computers were appearing almost by the month. NEC and Sega were selling CD drives as add-ons for their TurboGrafx-16 and Genesis game consoles; Philips had something called CD-i; Commodore had CDTV; Trip Hawkins, founder of Electronic Arts, had split away from his old company to found 3DO; even Tandy was pushing a free-standing CD-based platform called the VIS. All of these products were designed to be easy for ordinary consumers to operate in all the ways a personal computer wasn’t, and they were all designed to fit into the living room rather than the back office. In short, they looked and operated like mainstream consumer electronics, while personal computers most definitely still did not.

But even if one assumed that platforms like these were the future of consumer multimedia, as Ken Williams was sorely tempted to do, which one or two would win out to become the standard? The situation was oddly similar to that which had faced software makers like Sierra back in the early 1980s, when the personal-computer marketplace had been fragmented into more than a dozen incompatible platforms. Yet the comparison only went so far: development costs for the multimedia software of the early 1990s were vastly higher, and so the stakes were that much higher as well.

Nevertheless, Ken Williams decided that the only surefire survival strategy for Sierra was to become a presence on most if not all of the new platforms. Just as MS-DOS had finally, undeniably won the day in the field of personal computers, Sierra would ironically abandon their strict allegiance to computers in general. Instead, they would now pledge their fealty to CDs in the abstract. For Ken had grander ambitions than just being a major player on the biggest computing platform; he wanted to be a major player in entertainment, full stop. “Sierra is an entertainment company, not a software company,” he said over and over.

So, at no inconsiderable expense, Ken instituted projects to port the SCI engine that ran Sierra’s adventure games to most of the other extant platforms that used CDs as their delivery medium. In doing so, however, he once again ran into a problem that Sierra and other game developers of the early 1980s, struggling to port their wares to the many incompatible platforms of that period, had become all too familiar with: the fact that every platform had such different strengths and weaknesses in terms of interface, graphics, sound, memory, and processing potential. Just because a platform of the early 1990s could accept software distributed on CD didn’t mean it could satisfactorily run all of the same games as an up-to-date personal computer with a CD-ROM drive installed. Corey Cole, who along with his wife Lori Ann Cole made up Sierra’s most competent pair of game designers at the time, but who was nevertheless pulled away from his design role to program a port of the SCI engine to the Sega Genesis with CD drive:

The Genesis CD system was essentially identical to the Genesis except for the addition of the CD. It had inadequate memory for huge games such as the ones Sierra made, and it could only display 64 colors at a time from a 512 color palette. Sierra games at the time used 256 colors at a time from a 262,144 color palette. So the trick became how to make Sierra games look good in a much smaller color space.

Genesis CD did supply some tricks that could be used to fake an expanded color space, and I set out to use those. The problem was that the techniques I used required a lot of memory, and the memory space on the Genesis was much smaller than we expected on PCs at the time. One of the first things I did was to put a memory check in the main SCI processing loop that would warn me if we came close to running out of memory. I knew it would be close.

Sierra assigned a programmer from the Dynamix division to work with me. He had helped convert Willy Beamish to the Genesis CD, so he understood the system requirements well. However, he unintentionally sabotaged the project. In his early tests, my low-memory warning kicked in, so he disabled it. Six months later, struggling with all kinds of random problems (the hard-to-impossible kind to fix), I discovered that the memory check was disabled. When I turned it back on, I learned that the random bugs were all caused by insufficient memory. Basically, Sierra games were too big to fit on the Genesis CD, and there was very little we could do to shoehorn them in. With the project now behind schedule, and the only apparent solution being a complete rewrite of SCI to use a smaller memory footprint, Sierra management cancelled the project.

While Corey Cole spun his wheels in this fashion, Lori Ann Cole was forced to design most of Quest for Glory III alone, at significant cost to this latest iteration in what had been Sierra’s most creative and compelling adventure series up to that point.

The push to move their games to consoles also cost Sierra in the more literal sense of dollars and cents, and in the end they got absolutely no return for their investment. Some of the porting projects, like the one on which Corey worked, were abandoned when the target hardware proved itself not up to the task of running games designed for cutting-edge personal computers. Others were rendered moot when the entire would-be consumer-electronics category of multimedia set-top boxes for the living room — a category that included CD-i, CDTV, 3DO, and VIS — flopped one and all. (Radio Shack employees joked that the VIS acronym stood for “Virtually Impossible to Sell.”) In the end, King’s Quest VI never came out in any versions except those for personal computers. Ken Williams’s dream of conquering the living room, like that of conquering the radio waves, would never come to fruition.

The money Sierra wasted on the fruitless porting projects were far from the only financial challenge they faced at the dawn of the CD era in gaming. For all that everyone at the company had chafed against the restrictions of floppy disks, those same restrictions had, by capping the amount of audiovisual assets one could practically include in a game, acted as a restraint on escalating development budgets. With CD-ROM, all bets were off in terms of how big a game could become. Sierra felt themselves to be in a zero-sum competition with the rest of their industry to deliver ever more impressive, ever more “cinematic” games that utilized the new storage medium to its full potential. The problem, of course, was that such games cost vastly more money to make.

It was a classic chicken-or-the-egg conundrum. Ken Williams was convinced that games had the potential to appeal to a broader demographic and thus sell in far greater numbers than ever before in this new age of CD-ROM. Yet to reach that market he first had to pay for the development of these stunning new games. Therein lay the rub. If this year’s games cost less to make but also come with a much lower sales cap than next year’s games, the old financial model — that of using the revenue generated by this year’s games to pay for next year’s — doesn’t work anymore. Yet to scale back one’s ambitions for next year’s games means to potentially miss out on the greatest gold rush in the history of computer gaming to date.

As if these pressures weren’t enough, Sierra was also facing the slow withering of what used to be another stable source of revenue: their back catalog. In 1991, titles released during earlier years accounted for fully 60 percent of their sales; in 1992, that number shrank to 48 percent, and would only keep falling from there. In this new multimedia age, driven by audiovisuals above all else, games that were more than a year or two old looked ancient. People weren’t buying them, and stores weren’t interested in stocking them. (Another chicken-or-the-egg situation…) This forced a strike-while-the-iron-is-hot mentality toward development, increasing that much more the perceived need to make every game look and sound spectacular, while also instilling a countervailing need to release it quickly, before it started to look outdated. Sierra had long been in the habit of amortizing their development costs for tax and other accounting purposes: i.e., mortgaging the cost of making each game against its future revenue. Now, as the size of these mortgages soared, this practice created still more pressure to release each game in the quarter to which the accountants had earmarked it. None of this was particularly conducive to the creation of good, satisfying games.

At first blush, one might be tempted to regard what came next as just more examples of the same types of problems that had always dogged Sierra’s output. Ken Williams had long failed to instill the culture and processes that consistently lead to good design, which had left well-designed games as the exception rather than the rule even during the company’s earlier history. Now, though, things reached a new nadir, as Sierra began to ship games that were not just poorly designed but blatantly unfinished. Undoubtedly the most heartbreaking victim of these pressures was Quest for Glory IV, Corey and Lori Ann Cole’s would-be magnum opus, which shipped on December 31, 1993 — the last day of the fiscal quarter to which it had been earmarked — in a truly woeful condition, so broken it wasn’t even possible to complete it. Another sorry example was Outpost, a sort of SimCity in space that was rendered unplayable by bugs. And an even worse one was Alien Legacy, an ambitious attempt to combine strategy with adventure gaming in a manner reminiscent of Cryo Interactive’s surprisingly effective adaptation of Dune. We’ll never know how well Sierra’s take on the concept would have worked because, once again, it shipped unfinished and essentially unplayable.

Each of these games had had real potential if they had only been allowed to realize it. One certainly didn’t need to be an expert in marketing or anything else to see how profoundly unwise it was in the long run to release them in such a state. While each of them met an arbitrary accounting deadline, thus presumably preventing some red ink in one quarter, Sierra sacrificed long-term profits on the altar of this short-term expediency: word quickly got around among gamers that the products were broken, and even many of those who were unfortunate enough to buy them before they got the word wound up returning them. That Sierra ignored such obvious considerations and shoved the games out the door anyway speaks to the pressures that come to bear as soon as a company goes public, as Sierra had done in 1988. Additionally, and perhaps more ominously, it speaks to an increasing disconnect between management and the people making the actual products.

Through it all, Ken Williams, who seemed almost frantic not to miss out on what he regarded as the inflection point for consumer software, was looking to expand his empire, looking to make Sierra known for much more than adventure games. In fact, he had already begun that process in early 1990, when Sierra acquired Dynamix, a development house notable for their 3D-graphics technology, for $1 million in cash and some stock shenanigans. That gambit had paid off handsomely; Dynamix’s World War II flight simulator Aces of the Pacific became Sierra’s second biggest hit of 1992, trailing only the King’s Quest VI juggernaut whilst — and this was important to Ken — appealing to a whole different demographic from their adventure games. In addition to their flight simulators, Dynamix also spawned a range of other demographically diverse hits over this period, from The Incredible Machine to Front Page Sports: Football.

With a success story like that in his back pocket, it was time for Ken to go shopping again. In July of 1992, Sierra acquired Bright Star Technology, a Bellevue, Washington-based specialist in educational software, for $1 million. Ken was convinced that educational software, a market that had grown only in fits and starts during earlier years, would become massive during the multimedia age, and he was greatly enamored with Bright Star’s founder, a real bright spark himself named Elon Gasper. “He thinks, therefore he is paid,” was Ken’s description of Gasper’s new role inside the growing Sierra. Bright Star also came complete with some innovative technology they had developed for syncing recorded voices to the mouths of onscreen characters — perhaps not the first problem one thinks of when contemplating a CD-ROM-based talkie of an adventure game, but one which quickly presents itself when the actual work begins. King’s Quest VI became the first Sierra game to make use of it; it was followed by many others.

Meanwhile Bright Star themselves would deliver a steady stream of slick, educator-approved learning software over the years to come. Less fortunately, the acquisition did lead to the sad demise of Sierra’a in-house “Discovery Series” of educational products, which had actually yielded some of their best designed and most creative games of any stripe during the very early 1990s. Now, the new acquisition would take over responsibility for a “second, more refined generation of educational products,” as Sierra’s annual report put it. But in addition to being more refined — more rigorously compliant with established school curricula and the latest pedagogical theories — they would also be just a little bit boring in contrast to the likes of The Castle of Dr. Brain. Such is the price of progress.

Sierra’s third major acquisition of the 1990s was more complicated, more expensive, and more debatable than the first two had been. On October 29, 1993, they bought the French developer and publisher Coktel Vision for $4.6 million. Coktel had been around since 1985, unleashing upon European gamers such indelibly (stereotypically?) French creations as Emmanuelle: A Game of Eroticism, based on a popular series of erotic novels and films. But by the early 1990s, Coktel was doing the lion’s share of their business in educational software. In 1992, estimates were that 50 to 75 percent of the software found in French schools came from Coktel. The character known as Adi, the star of their educational line, is remembered to this day by a whole generation of French schoolchildren.

Sierra had cut a deal more than a year before the acquisition to begin distributing Coktel’s games in the United States, and had made a substantial Stateside success out of Gobliiins, a vaguely Lemmings-like puzzle game. That proof of concept, combined with Coktel’s educational line and distributional clout in Europe — Ken was eager to enter that sprawling market, where Sierra heretofore hadn’t had much of a footprint — convinced the founder to pull the trigger.

But this move would never quite pan out as he had hoped. Although the text and voices were duly translated, the cultural idiom of Adi just didn’t seem to make sense to American children. Meanwhile Coktel’s games, which mashed together disparate genres like adventure and simulation with the same eagerness with which they mashed together disparate presentation technologies like full-motion video and 3D graphics, encountered all the commercial challenges that French designs typically ran into in the United States. Certainly few Americans knew what to make of a game like Inca; it took place in the far future of an alternate history where the ancient Incan civilization had survived, conquered, and taken to the stars, where they continued to battle, Wing Commander-style, with interstellar Spanish galleons. (The phrase “what were they smoking?” unavoidably comes to mind…) Today, the games of Coktel are remembered by American players, if they’re remembered at all, mostly for the sheer bizarreness of premises like this one, married to puzzles that make the average King’s Quest game seem like a master class in good adventure design. Coktel’s European distribution network undoubtedly proved more useful to Sierra than the company’s actual games, but it’s doubtful whether even it was useful to the tune of $4.6 million.

Inca, one of the strangest games Sierra ever published — and not really in a good way.

Ken Williams was playing for keeps in a high-stakes game with all of these moves, as he continued to do as well with ImagiNation, a groundbreaking, genuinely visionary online service, oriented toward socializing and playing together, which stubbornly refused to turn a profit. All together, the latest moves constituted a major shift in strategy from the conservative, incrementalist approach that had marked his handling of Sierra since the company’s near-death experience of the mid-1980s. From 1987 — the year the recovering patient first managed to turn a profit again — through 1991, Sierra had sold more games and made more money each year. The first of those statements held true for 1992 as well, as sales increased from $43 million to within a whisker of $50 million. But profits fell off a cliff; Sierra lost almost $12.5 million that year alone. Sales increased impressively again in 1993, to $59.5 million. Yet, although the bottom line looked less ugly, it remained all too red thanks to all of the ongoing spending; the company lost another $4.5 million that year.

In short, Ken Williams was now mortgaging Sierra’s present against its future, in precisely the way he’d sworn he’d never do again during those dark days of 1984 and 1985. But he felt he had to make his play for the big time now or never; CD-ROM was a horse he just had to ride, hopefully all the way to the nerve center of Western pop culture. And so he did something else he’d sworn he would never do: he left Oakhurst, California. In September of 1993, Ken and Roberta and select members of Sierra’s management team moved to Bellevue, Washington, to set up a new “corporate headquarters” there; sales and marketing would gradually follow over the months to come. Ken had long been under pressure from his board to move to a major city, one where it would be easier to recruit a “first-rate management team” to lead Sierra into a bold new future. Bellevue, a suburb of Seattle that was close to Microsoft, Nintendo of America, and of course Sierra’s own new subsidiary of Bright Star, seemed as good a choice as any. Ken promised Sierra’s creative staff as well as their fans that nothing would really change: most of the games would still be made in the cozy confines of Oakhurst. And he spoke the truth —  at least in literal terms, at least for the time being.

Nevertheless, something had changed. The old dream of starting a software company in the woods, the one which had brought a much younger, much shaggier Ken and Roberta to Oakhurst in 1980, had in some very palpable sense run its course. Sierra had well and truly gone corporate; Ken and Roberta were back in the world they had so consciously elected to escape thirteen years before. Oh, well… the arrows of both revenue and profitability at Sierra were pointing in the right direction. One more year, Ken believed, and they ought to be in the black again, and in a stronger position in the marketplace than ever at that. Chalk the rest of it up as yet one more price of progress.

(Sources: the book Influential Game Designers: Jane Jensen by Anastasia Salter; Sierra’s newsletter InterAction of Spring 1992, Fall 1992, Winter 1992, June 1993, Summer 1993, Holiday 1993, Spring 1994, and Fall 1994; The One of April 1989; ACE of May 1989; Game Players PC Entertainment of Holiday 1992; Compute! of May 1993; Computer Gaming World of January 1992; press releases, annual reports, and other internal and external documents from the Sierra archive at the Strong Museum of Play. An online source was the Games Nostalgia article on King’s Quest VI. And my thanks go to Corey Cole, who took the time to answer some questions about this period of Sierra’s history from his perspective as a developer there.)

July 04, 2019

The Gaming Philosopher

[IF Comp 2018] Writers are not Strangers

by Victor Gijsbers ([email protected]) at July 04, 2019 11:06 AM

Continuing with my reviews for the Interactive Fiction Competition 2018. I wrote reviews for most games in a topic on the private authors' forum over at the interactive fiction forum. I'm posting the more interesting and more spoilery ones over here, and the less interesting and less spoilery ones directly on the IFDB. So, again: spoilers ahead! Writers are not Strangers by Lynda Clark (Placed

July 03, 2019

Wade's Important Astrolab

Final Girl, inaccessible stuff from the past, porting old reviews to IFDB

by Wade ([email protected]) at July 03, 2019 11:50 AM

There was a topic on intfiction.org recently where someone was asking if it was possible to play Hanon Ondricek's StoryNexus horror game from IFComp 2013, Final Girl, amongst other games. The short answer for Final Girl is: no.

Someone else commented they felt lucky to have played the game at the time. I realised I also felt that way, and I enjoyed my memory of this thing that I can't guarantee I will have access to again, though there are rumblings of a remounting from the author.

This in turn led me to look at the IFDB page for Final Girl, from which my original blogged review of the game was linked. However, in a fashion similar to what had happened to the game, tech change or rot had occurred, so the link didn't work.

This was more easily repairable than Final Girl itself – I just updated the link. But it made me realise all my other links from that vintage have probably broken in the same fashion. Then, at risk of repeating the phrase 'This in turn led me to...' ... this in turn led me to think that, in a fashion similar to previous sweeps of review transference to IFDB that I've done, I should do a new sweep of review transference from old blogs to IFDB.

Looking at reviews I hadn't ported yet, I could see in each case there was usually some apparent reason I hadn't done it. Some had to do with spoilery-ness (which usually has to be couched in tags on IFDB) or contemporary-ness (they'd make less sense outside of IFComp) or over technical-ness for IFDB, at least in my own opinion (my review of Ollie Ollie Oxen Free was mostly a long critique on the implementation, and I don't know if the game has been updated from the comp version I played).

Just the passing of time has dealt with some of the issues above, whether for real or just in my mind, so I've started porting another selection of unported reviews to IFDB.

July 02, 2019

Post Position

Gomringer’s Untitled Poem [“silencio”], an Unlikely Sonnet

by Nick Montfort at July 02, 2019 03:54 PM

The untitled poem by Eugen Gomringer that we can only call “silencio” is a classic, perhaps the classic, concrete poem. According to Marjorie Perloff’s Unoriginal Genius, the “silencio” version of the poem dates from 1953. In my 1968 edition of The Book of Hours and Constellations I find the German manifestation of this poem (with the word “schweigen”) and the English poem (with the word “silence”), on the same page at the very beginning of the book — but no “silencio.” The place where I do find “silencio” is An Anthology of Concrete Poetry from 1967, edited by Emmett Williams. My copy is the re-issue by Primary Information.

Williams mentions tendencies and tries not to too strongly characterize any particular poets in the anthologies when he writes, in the introduction:

The visual element of their poetry [the concrete poets’ poetry] tended to be structural, a consequence of the poem, a “picture” of the lines of force of the work itself, and not merely textural. It was poetry beyond paraphrase … the word, not words, words, words or expressionistic squiggles …

There are several essential points here about the project of concrete poetry and how it differs from, for instance, the shapes of “Easter Wings” and the other poems in George Herbert’s The Altar, as well as the way Lewis Carroll presented the image of a mouse’s tail in words that tell the mouse’s tale in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. However brilliant these two writers were, in these cases they were using language to make pictures; the concrete poets, beginning with Gomringer, worked to create structures. Their poems are not just verse (lineated language), but made from lines of force. In many cases, as with the unnamed poem I must call “silencio,” an entire concrete poem can be understood to cohere as a word.

There are other interpretations of Gomringer’s poem that situate it in history, but I will give a simple one that situates it within the project of concrete poetry — followed by another that places it in a different and much longer-lived poetic tradition.

The lines of force of this poem are, most obviously, those that allow for the gap in the middle where the ground (the absence of text, the absence of “silencio”) becomes figure. As ink declares silence, or, if we read the text aloud, as our voice declares silence, attentive readers can’t help but notice a truer silence in the middle of the page.

At the next stage, there is silence between each “silencio,” horizontally and vertically. We overlook this gap, which is seen even when text is not presented on a grid. It too will be represented if we read the poem aloud, however, between each spoken word.

We can go further, although ear and eye would not agree about the silences. There are spaces, and thus silences of a visual sort, between each of the letters in “silencio,” too.

Fascinating, isn’t it, that John Cage’s 4’33” was composed and presented in 1952, preceding this poem? This poem, too, seems to structurally show, through its lines of force, that silence can take center stage.

In any case, without offering more than a brief appreciation, I mean to make it clear that this is a quintessential concrete poem. One can read it out loud, but that does not provide the listener with the effect of apprehending the structure of the poem on the page. The poem is not a picture of anything. It is a structure. And it is not squiggles or simply a bunch of words, even if the single lexeme “silencio” is repeated fourteen times. It is fitting to apprehend and read the whole poem as a word, not a bunch of words.

Accepting this, I would like to offer an interpretation of this poem that may seem perverse, but which I believe shows this poem’s radical versatility: It can be seen in the light of a poetic tradition that long predates concrete poetry. This poem is not only a concrete poem, but also a sonnet. Specifically, I’ll argue that although the repeated word is a Spanish word, it fits into the English-language tradition of the sonnet. Because concrete poetry is a transnational phenomenon and Gomringer writes in English as well as German and Spanish, this disjunction may be less unusual that it otherwise would be.

Consider that the poem consists of fourteen occurrences of “silencio,” which despite their unusual arrangement on the page can be read aloud as fourteen lines. It would be hard not to read them this way.

Because each word is the same, the poem follows the rhyme scheme of a sonnet — any rhyme scheme, including the Petrarchan or Shakespearean in English, including those typical in Spanish.

If some reader finds it impossible for the same line to be repeated fourteen times in a sonnet, I refer this reader to the 2002 “Sonnet” by Terrance Hayes, which consists of fourteen repetitions of the line “We sliced the watermelon into smiles.”

But is it metrical? The word “silencio” pronounced by itself has two metrical feet ( x / | x / ) and is in perfectly regular iambic dimeter. This is also the meter of Elizabeth Bishop’s last poem, “Sonnet,” which begins:

Caught — the bubble
in the spirit level,
a creature divided;
and the compass needle

There’s much more variation in Bishop’s poem, but the metrical regularity of Gomringer’s poem shouldn’t preclude it from being in this particular form. While I don’t have an example of a sonnet with repeated lines (like the one by Hayes) from before 1953, there are earlier sonnets in dimeter, or one, at least: a piece of light verse by Arthur Guiterman, published in The New Yorker on July 7, 1939.

Sonnets can be about anything, although the form does have a heritage. Reading the poem as a sonnet allows us to make a connection to the sonnet tradition if we wish. We can, for instance, ask whether this sonnet has anything to do with love, whether in the most traditional sense of love for a woman or, in John Donne and Herbert’s senses, religious love. Could the silence of this sonnet be that of being understood, and of not needing to say anything aloud?

Seeing this Gomringer poem as a sonnet also allows us to put it into conversation with other one-word texts (those that have several tokens but repeat a single type) that can also be viewed as sonnets, because they have fourteen tokens.

The one I know of, and which fascinates me, is Dance, a typing by Christoper Knowles that I saw contextualized as visual art in his 2015 solo show at the Philadelphia ICA. The page of this work is blank except for a line at the top that repeats the word “DANCE” (in capital letters) fourteen times, with a space between each occurrence. This makes for 83 characters: 5 × 14 = 70 for the word DANCE, plus the 13 spaces that go between each pair of words. While a sheet of paper is typically thought to accommodate 80 typewritten characters across its width, Knowles found that by beginning at the extreme left edge of the page and typing to the extreme right edge, he could fit exactly 83 onto it.

The typing Dance can be read as a sonnet in hemimeter — a term used by George Starbuck for “half-feet,” and associated with light verse. Where “silencio” offers a more static and contemplative structure, I can’t help but imagine Knowles typing DANCE repeatedly, his hands dancing on the typewriter, as he also produced a text that is a score, instructing us to dance. Not so much a structure, it seems to me, but an exhortation and a trace of its making. And, of course, a text that can be read in the sonnet tradition, asking us to consider how dance, repeated, insistent, filling the width of the page completely, relates to love.

The Gaming Philosopher

[IF Comp 2018] The broken bottle

by Victor Gijsbers ([email protected]) at July 02, 2019 08:30 AM

After a bit of a hiatus, I'm back posting some of my IF Comp 2018 reviews. They're all quite spoilery, so beware! The Broken Bottle by Josh Irvin In Disney’s The Little Mermaid, the mermaid and the prince she so desperately loves end up marrying. In the original Andersen fairy tale, the prince marries a princess and the mermaid’s heart breaks. Disney changed the story in order to make it

June 28, 2019

Storytron

Storytron Summer 2019 Update

by Bill Maya at June 28, 2019 02:42 PM

The End

Crawford’s “un-quitting” has made me question my current plans to support and enhance the Storytron code.

While we currently have permission to host the Storytron source code I now realize that this permission could be revoked at any time. There are probably some unresolved copyright issues around the entire code base that I did not think of last year or feel that I had to worry about until now.

Because of these ambiguities I am suspending all of my current Storytron 1.0 work except where noted below.

The Tutorial

An initial Gossip storyworld has been uploaded to its own repository and I have started work on a tutorial wiki that explains the internal workings of this storyworld. I am going to continue working on this tutorial until I feel it adequately illustrates how its companion storyworld is constructed and operates. I make no promises but I will do my best.

The pages from the original Storytron Author’s Guide have been moved to the SWAT wiki. The original Storytron tutorial can be found here. Both of the original sites are mirrored at this wiki.

The Other Editors

I will not be attempting to integrate the Encounter Editor or the Face Editor into the SWAT application at this time.

The Repositories

One new repository, Siboot, has been uploaded. This was the second attempt to re-imagine the game Trust & Betrayal: The Legacy of Siboot using Storytron technology (the first attempt can be found here).

All existing repositories will remain online for future spelunking and forking.

The Publications

The Storytron Google Group will remain online as a historical archive though I plan on disabling the ability of existing members to post on July 1st. I suggest that people still interested in interactive storytelling check out the Interactive Fiction Community Forum.

This Storytron publication on Medium will remain online as well.

The Patreon

I have paused the July billing cycle so existing patrons should not get charged for the month of July. I plan on messaging existing patrons individually to thank them for their support and tell them to withdraw their current pledges.

Our Patreon online balance currently stands at $263.35. I plan on using this money to renew our existing URLs and mailboxes for an extended period of time. I will donate whatever remains after that to the Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation.

The Future

First, I would like to thank all of you for your support, advice, and suggestions over the past year.

I do not know what I will work on next related to interactive storytelling. I might revisit my original StoryCalc idea. My NarraScope adventure two weeks ago renewed my interest in Inform 7 and its open sourcing excites me. I am also part of Spirit AI’s Character Engine beta and I am very interested in figuring out how it works.

If you want to follow what I do next please continue following this site or subscribe to my personal site’s RSS feed.


Storytron Summer 2019 Update was originally published in Storytron on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.