Planet Interactive Fiction

September 16, 2019

Renga in Blue

Six Micro Stories (1980)

by Jason Dyer at September 16, 2019 11:41 PM

It’s been a while since we’ve visited Robert Lafore (Local Call for Death, Two Heads of the Coin) so just as a reminder, he:

a.) coined the term “interactive fiction” (trademarked it, even, when publishing with Adventure International? although that apparently didn’t stick)

b.) wrote “conversational parser” games which looked for keywords, like Eliza; Two Heads of the Coin was a “pure conversation” game while Local Call for Death included a scene with a world model

From a Radio Shack catalog, via Ira Goldklang’s.

This was sold as #1 in the Interactive Fiction series, but given Six Micro Stories was advertised as an “introduction to the world of Interactive Fiction” it’s possible this was as situation like Mission: Asteroid where game #0 was written after games #1 and #2 (or in Lafore’s case, game #1 being written after games #2 and #3). It’s also possible this is a collation of earlier experiments by the author, or maybe he had some of the scenarios already written and added three more. Unless some other evidence surfaces I don’t think it’s worth the energy to speculate; just note the internal copyright here is 1980 and the copyright on the other two games is 1979, although they didn’t start getting sold overall until 1980.

The structure for the six parts is to

give some prompt that the player responds to
with a back-and-forth with from one to four or five sentences
and then the micro-game ends.

There’s a “starter program” where you pick a gender and name (I went with MALE and being named “BOBA FETT”) and then it goes through the six stories in a prescribed order stating


The Fatal Admission casts the player as an American spy in the Third Reich, who is posing as Colonel Braun, a “decorated Luftwaffe air ace”.

In history, there is no Admiral Kurtz. There is a Colonel Kurtz from the 1979 movie Apocalypse Now, suggesting Robert Lafore plucked the name from the movie.

After saying YES or NO, the story continues:



It seemed glaringly obvious that the story was going for the “ha-HA, there is no Captain Eiderdown, you are a spy!” kind of twist, so my first time through I just tried to say NO, I DON’T.


Er, I did? The result of my NO was being dragged off and executed.

The game wants you to more specifically deny the premise of the question.

I admit the turn of story here seemed so implausible I thought of saying NO, but I ran with YES and indeed became a courier for many top-secret documents that were able to be fed directly to the Americans, where Mr. Fett was able to retire to in glory after the war ended.

Upon further contemplation, the story really doesn’t make sense — the main character here would definitely know what flight wing they were with as part of their cover story, so not only is their unawareness of what trap is being set absurd, but Admiral Kurtz’s use of trickery related to the flight wing as the one and only method of determining if he’s talking to a spy just went over the top.

The story did have the virtue of understanding essentially everything that it needed to, parser-wise. I suspect there’s a way to deny the 57th Flight Wing exists and have the computer not understand, but I wasn’t able to find it.

Following grim war with infatuation, we have Encounter in the Park. If you are using a female character, the game informs you that this particular story only works with male perspective, so you are temporarily named HENRY. (“PERHAPS YOU CAN PRACTICE YOUR ROLE-REVERSAL ABILITIES.”) The game also neglects to mention that Henry/whoever is of hetero orientation:



This does not describe my ideal, and no doubt it isn’t the ideal of many readers, but the premise is to roleplay.


(Unlike Admiral Kurtz, this is an actual Updike book.)




Saying NO continues the conversation:



If you say “YES” to liking spy stories, she runs off in a huff and your main character goes off and joins a Zen Buddhist monastery, which seems like an overreaction. Also, this is probably referring to John Le Carre novels, which were excellent in the 1970s, so this lady clearly doesn’t deserve Henry/Boba/Whoever.



If you don’t offend the lady past this point, she invites you to ice cream, and eventually, you end up on the beach with her on Bali in “COSMIC BLISS”. OK then.

I admit to never having all that stellar a playthrough, although the source code is an interesting read. This micro-game (and most of the others, really) seem highly sensitive to individual experience; it’s possible to type full sentences and having a pleasing conversation and finale, and it’s possible to have something weird and stunted that nevertheless leads to “cosmic bliss”.

I think the main issue isn’t strictly the Eliza system of finding keywords and pretending they reflect the entire sentence, but that the conversations in Six Micro Stories are all high-stakes and short. With the investigation sequence of Local Call for Death, if you make a deduction the game doesn’t understand, it doesn’t feel like you’ve broken an entire story; you can try again, and if you’re having trouble with phrasing, Lord Colin will often suggest something to help out. Here, the main character can be murdered via parser failure.

Perhaps, as a general principle: if communication failure in a story is possible, the story must be of the kind that gives a little slack.

I’m not going to spoil the exact details of the remaining stories, but just to summarize:

The Big Deal casts the player in negotiations to sell their company, but their company is secretly near-bankrupt. A lot of the conversation involves numbers (which the parser can grok just fine) and there’s even a “secret ending”, so I found it the most successful of the stories.

The Empty World involves a doomed 747 plane. You might not even get a chance to type a sentence on this one; if you type enough characters you get “interrupted” and the plane crashes.

In The Unexpected Question, the player’s Ph.D depends on them successfully communicating what art is.



Out of all the games, I found this one to be filled with the most non-sequiturs in terms of what I typed versus what the game actually thought I typed. After a few honest tries (and failures), I managed to pass the exam with more-or-less gibberish.

Finally, The Guilty Look has the player surreptitiously returning a piece of stolen silver and being caught in the act. I was never able to get a bad ending on this story.

The easiest way to play these is online (via this link; if you click on the “speaker” icon at the bottom you can turn off the disk sounds), but note that you’re started in the middle of the sequence (at The Empty World). As this is the sort of game where playthroughs can vary wildly, I’d really like to hear some stories. Did Encounter in the Park come across naturalistically? Did anyone have an actual sensible discussion of art? Is there a way to communicate, well, just about anything in The Guilty Look?

September 15, 2019

Emily Short

Mid-September Link Assortment

by Mort Short at September 15, 2019 04:41 AM


September 17 is the next meeting of the People’s Republic of IF at MIT, for those in the Boston/Cambridge area. The website here also features notes from previous meetups.

The 20th annual European GAME-ON® Conference on Simulation and AI in Computer Games is September 18-20 in Breda, The Netherlands.

September 25, the London IF Meetup has a 7 PM talk on interactive and immersive theatre and LARP projects. This will be a densely-packed session with four speakers, talking about work by Fire Hazard Games, Coney and Venice as a Dolphin, and Crooked House.

IF Comp begins properly at the beginning of October, and is still accepting donations to the Colossal Fund as well as donations of prizes of other types.

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

October 12, the London IF Meetup gets together to play IF Comp games, starting with contributions created by our own members. We play for much of the afternoon, with someone reading the text and someone else driving interaction, while the audience participates by voting for what we do next. We sometimes get through five games or more in the play time, meaning that participants have played enough to vote in the Comp if they wish.

Indiecade Festival will be in October in Santa Monica, CA.

Ectocomp will be running again this year, with submissions opening October 27, if you’d like to contribute a piece of spooky interactive fiction.

AdventureX runs November 2 and 3 at the British Library — I think it’s already sold out, however, so if you’re attending, you probably already know that.

November 7-8 is Code Mesh 2019 in London.  The conference focuses on promoting useful non-mainstream technologies to the software industry.


Sam Ashwell on how to write a good blurb for a comp game, which may be relevant to a number of people around now.

Chris Martens and Owais Iqbal on Villanelle, a research language for authoring autonomous characters in IF.

September 14, 2019

Renga in Blue

Kidnapped: The Parallel Universes Problem

by Jason Dyer at September 14, 2019 03:41 AM

I got past my dilemma from last time and finished the game; I had run into something I (now) call The Parallel Universes Problem.

Suppose you are a happy adventurer going from point X to point Z and manage to do so without any obstacles. However, you later restore a previous game (because you got eaten by a bear, say).

After restoring, you try going from point X to point Z, but get stopped in the middle at point Y this time. Something different happened! What changed? Perhaps you had picked up an item in universe #1 but didn’t realize it; perhaps there was some secret timing element that you lucked out on the first time. Either way, you ran across the frustrating situation of being in an alternate universe without being aware something had changed.

With Kidnapped, I was stalled trying to get by the kidnapper, who was in a vault counting money. I needed a dollar to get a string from a vending machine.

I had tried:

A. shooting a gun at the kidnapper; the gun turns out to be full of blanks and doesn’t work.

B. stealing the money; the kidnapper spotted and killed me.

However, I didn’t realize with action B that I wasn’t holding the gun at the time. If you are, then you automatically threaten the kidnapper with the gun (but don’t shoot it!) the same time you GET DOLLAR.

I’ll come back to the implicit action embedded in GET DOLLAR, but the important point is I didn’t realize the scenario of universe A was different from universe B. In contrast to my abstract X-to-Z scenario, at no point was the puzzle solved; I had done the correct action for solving the puzzle but only if the conditions that I thought held (that I was living in universe A, holding the gun) were true.

I’ve been stuck on games with this sort of issue multiple times without having a name for the problem, but I figured now is good a time as any to bestow some nomenclature.

The above wouldn’t have been a problem had the game let me WAVE GUN or POINT GUN or THREATEN KIDNAPPER or some such, but this is a typical BASIC 16K parser here; I eventually gave up and tried GET DOLLAR for the alternate result, even though I was sure I had tried it already.

The game also does implicit actions with keys and doors; UNLOCK is not understood. You just have to go straight to typing OPEN DOOR if you have the right key, and the game assumes it gets applied in the process of opening.

Having the implicit actions done for me tricked into a false sense of complacency when later jumping between floors while holding MARY POPPIN’S UMBRELLA:


I assumed OPEN UMBRELLA wasn’t needed since keys and guns are both used automatically. Oops. Back to level 9 for me.

(I incidentally never got save states working, but on the “upside” it means I experienced the game as originally intended. It did lead to a slightly longer game and some tension where I was worried I would wreck my game on floor 2 and have to repeat everything. Fortunately, the difficulty overall stayed low.)

Things only got wackier from there. You have to put out a fire with sprinklers but subsequently, your clothes get wet and you have to discard them. You then use KNITTING NEEDLES and a BALL OF YARN and end up with a FINE SUIT, which suggests to me the main character really IS Mary Poppins.

The reason you can’t just keep going naked is you need go in an office with a key and — I am quoting directly here — SEXY, YOUNG GIRL OFFICE WORKERS.


This is also the sort of game where you don’t know how to swim, but there’s a nearby BOOK you can READ on how to swim and immediately after you’re backstroking like an expert.

Near the end, you find out the fate of the kidnapper.

For the very last obstacle, the front door is locked, but no key is in sight. However, a piano is nearby, and if you make the leap and TAKE KEY while in the room…


…you can make it to victory. I admit to being very surprised here, since we’ve only seen wordplay shenanigans in one other game, Quondam, which is one the hardest games I’ve played, while Kidnapped (even without a save game feature) is one of the easiest.

September 13, 2019

Renga in Blue

Kidnapped (1980)

by Jason Dyer at September 13, 2019 05:41 AM

The kidnapper is elsewhere, busy counting the ransom money. Your only job is to escape from the building, floor by floor. You must beware of the kidnapper, and stay alive. Many traps have been set, so be careful!

According to a note in the source code, Peter Kirsch wrote Kidnapped in June of 1980. It was published as a type-in for Softside magazine in December of 1980. (Dr. Livingston and Mad Scientist, which we’ve looked at previously, were both from the same magazine.)

Unlike a lot of authors of type-in programs we’ve gone through lately, Peter Kirsch wrote more than one adventure game. The CASA Solution Archive credits him working on 23 of them because of his later involvement with “SoftSide Adventure of the Month” which went through over 20 games before Softside finally folded in August 1984. I’m not sure how many he ported versus wrote personally, but that’s still a tie for most adventure games I’ve seen associated with one person (the legendary C64 author Dorothy Millard also has 23 to her name). Despite being one of the most prolific adventure game authors ever, I’ve never encountered any interviews with Mr. Kirsch nor any mentions in history books.

Kidnapped came before the Adventure of the Month series started and is probably his first game.

Softside, December 1980.

The premise is: you find that you’ve been kidnapped and are on the top of a 9-floor building where you need to make your escape. You work your way down from 9 to 1, and every floor is separate, so Kidnapped could be considered a set of 9 distinct mini-adventures.

The mini-adventure concept ends up being a good gimmick! Structurally, the tiny areas give a (slightly) modern feel to the proceedings, in that you can essentially ignore map-making if you like, nor do you have to keep track of a large system of interlocking parts, nor do you have to wander through a maze (at least of what I’ve seen so far).

The first floor (floor 9) is shown above. There’s a key on a ledge outside that your fingers can’t quite reach, but there’s a nearby broom that lets you GET KEY. With that key, you can open a cabinet and find a flashlight and electrical tape. There’s also an elevator where the button doesn’t work, but if you drop a chair nearby, you can clamber up to a “crawlspace” with two live electrical wires. You need to wait until midnight (there’s a helpful clock in a different room) for a scheduled power outage, and then you can TAPE WIRE. (If you attempt this too early you get electrocuted.) After taping the wire you can finally use the elevator which takes you down one floor, and in the process you discard your items before entering floor 8.

In the department of nitpicks, note that:

a.) the item discarding doesn’t necessarily make sense here, but for ludic purposes I just rolled with it. Besides, at least two of the later exits are through windows, which definitely could be a situation where an inventory is impossible to have.

b.) somehow the power needs to turn on again after fixing the elevator, but the timing is unusual here. Time advances with each turn until midnight, but “freezes” just past midnight so you can fix the elevator. Then the flow of time resumes again after the elevator is fixed. This may sound terribly odd, but it isn’t too far off modern games with “plot timers” that don’t trigger until the player character has reached a certain location.

The next few floors are straightforward puzzles along the lines of: here is a broken step, you have a piece of wood and superglue, what do you do?

However, I have gotten stuck on Floor 6. The map has a gun, a balloon, a helium tank, and a vending machine which requires $1 to get a piece of string. There’s also a ledge you can walk on and reach a “vault” where you find the kidnapper counting money.

If you try to shoot the gun you find out it is only blanks and the kidnapper kills you. If you try to take a dollar and run the kidnapper spots you and kills you. There’s also a locked door but no sign of a key on this level.

What really doesn’t help is that there is no save game feature. I’m playing on the original TRS-80 version, and I suspected with one of the other ports (like the Atari) I could at least use save states, but the only Atari copy I’ve found gets me strange errors upon booting. Every failed attempt that kills me off sends me through all the steps to get from levels 9 to 6 before trying again, which doesn’t lend itself to lawnmower-testing of verbs or really any kind of typical adventure game experimentation.

September 12, 2019

Choice of Games

Sword of the Slayer — Fight monsters with your magic talking sword!

by Dan Fabulich at September 12, 2019 04:42 PM

Sword of the Slayer

We’re proud to announce that Sword of the Slayer, the latest in our popular “Choice of Games” line of multiple-choice interactive-fiction games, is now available for Steam, Android, and on iOS in the Choice of Games Omnibus app. It’s 40% off until September 19!

Fight monsters and free the ancient city with your enchanted talking sword!

You’re a common orphan scraping a living on the streets of Targas Adur—a city older than memory, full of dark corners and darker magics, ruled by a merciless Sorcerer King, Demorgon. While exploring one of those dark corners, you stumble upon…the sword, an ancient weapon of power. And it can talk, in a voice only you can hear.

“Sword of the Slayer” is 185,000-word interactive fantasy novel by S. Andrew Swann, 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.

Dark creatures do as Demorgon bids, and his royal guard keeps order with an iron fist. All gods and temples are suppressed except for his own Dark Tabernacle. But with the re-emergence of the sword, Demorgon’s power may be waning. Evil monsters invade the city, and sections of Targas Adur have fallen to their influence. It’s up to you to slay them.

You must train yourself in sword-fighting to protect the ones you love, as you battle the demons of Targas Adur, including the dread White Wyrm. Thrust into the role of monster-slayer, you find yourself the focus of decadent nobles who want to return to power, devoted monks who want to see the gods return to the city, and—most troubling—you now have the attention of the Sorcerer King himself.

Will you become a foe of the monsters, a threat to Sorcerer King’s regime, or a hope for the forces trying to bring down his rule? Or will you give yourself over to the sword, losing control of your mind and body?

  • Play as male, female, or non-binary; gay, straight, bi, or asexual
  • Rise from the gutter to the highest level of power
  • Support the gods, the nobles, or a rival sorcerer for the rule of the ancient city
  • Bring back the gods or fight the Great White Wyrm when you enter the Dark Tabernacle
  • Make allies in your quest to free the city
  • Protect your childhood friend, and your swordsman trainer from capture and death
  • Face monsters of all sorts, up to the Sorcerer King himself
  • Save your place before a chapter and you can return to that point after the story’s end and try a different set of choices

An enchanted sword. An ancient evil. A hero waits.

We hope you enjoy playing Sword of the Slayer. 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.

September 11, 2019

Renga in Blue

Labyrinth: Roller Skate Delivery Service and Pies to the Face

by Jason Dyer at September 11, 2019 09:41 PM

I finished, and as Will Moczarski predicted, this game was easier for me to knock down than Deathmaze 5000.

The main reason was a complete lack of red herrings. Every item ends up being useful, and you don’t have to waste time realizing, e.g. a frisbee is just there to kill you.

(Complete spoilers for most of the game follow this point.)

Last time I left off mentioning a “haunted jar” I didn’t know what to do with. I had tried to OPEN JAR and was told the lid was stuck. This was a hint I was supposed to get it open by any means necessary.

Very close to the start there’s a “crushing” room adopted straight from Deathmaze.

However, unlike that game (where it’s a red herring trap), here if you’re holding a “metal rod” the walls stay open. You can drop the jar and leave and the walls crush the jar and release a ghost, which says the word “mevar” as it leaves. (This is unfortunately somewhat inconsistent, since the crushing doesn’t work on other objects; fortunately the first thing I tested it on was the jar, otherwise, I could have been led far astray in solving the puzzle.)

Armed with that word, I used the other magic word I knew (PTOOII) to teleport to a sword, and MEVAR to escape the place with the sword. From my last post, I originally thought the sword was just a trap, but again, I was in Deathmaze mentality; here is where I started to suspect Labyrinth was instead a no-red-herrings game.

Once I got the sword I was able to take down the “ugly man” who had been attacking me in a particular corridor. Past the corridor, I found a “maiden” who (after carrying her for a bit) turns into a “witch”. The witch then turns the player into a monster who guards the witch in the same spot the ugly man did, and eventually you die via another adventurer. Strange loops.

I did say “eventually” — there’s a bit of lag time between picking up the maiden and having her invoke her witch powers. If you’re wearing the roller skates, that’s enough time to skate over to where a nearby cave bear is. I had yet to play a game where I fed a “maiden” to a bear, but there’s always a first time:

This yields an emerald. The emerald isn’t useful yet, and here I was stuck, basically only having the cave gnome to deal with. I ended up doing the text adventure version of “click every item in inventory and try it out”; I listed out every verb and item and ran through essentially every combination.

I finally hit upon SAY MEVAR (previously used to escape the area with the sword) as causing the gnome to “temporarily freeze”. Any action after killed me, so I had to reset my “try everything” list and lawnmower through until I hit upon THROW SALT which causes the gnome to “dissolve”. I think the idea is the “freezing” is meaning literally a block of ice, so the salt makes it … melt faster, I guess … even though the gnome can break out of it almost immediately otherwise. Bleh. This was one of those puzzles where even though I solved it entirely on my own, I would have been better looking up the solution and saving time.

By killing the gnome I got some coins; using INSERT COIN on a nearby vending machine yielded some matches, which I was then able to light a lantern with. (If you try to light the lantern with a torch, the game just claims torches can only light other torches. I have no idea why this would be the case. I honestly think the torch mechanic made more sense in Deathmaze and it was just a holdover here from using the same engine.)

With the lantern I was able to get through the “fog” which normally attracted a minotaur near the very start of the game. (The lantern disappears after you use it.)

After the fog comes a “wraith” who is defeated via cream pie.

The same map also has a “ruby” and a “fan”. Upon returning to the “main area” from this maze, the minotaur was suddenly attracted by the fact I was holding the ruby and emerald at the same time, and killed me two turns later. The best way I found around this was to TAKE BOX instead of TAKE RUBY (this trick was needed in Deathmaze for the snake) so you can carry the ruby around without the minotaur “sensing” it.

Since I had the minotaur coming to me, I needed a method of killing it. I admit spending an inordinate amount of time back at the “crushing” machine trying to trick the minotaur into stepping inside, but I couldn’t logistically find a way to have the minotaur step in and escape (I tried to time out a teleport via PTOOII, but it just wasn’t working). I finally had to resort to my one hint of the game, although I probably should have realized the issue — there was a map section I hadn’t visited yet.

I had mentally thought “hm, interesting they didn’t use it this time” but still never came to the conclusion I could sneak in that area, since I had checked all the nearby walls thoroughly. It turns out I wasn’t done with the vending machine yet. KICK MACHINE caused it to swing open to a dark area.

By dark area, I mean “so dark even the torch doesn’t work”. This led to an experience likely familiar to old-school CRPG players — stumbling around hitting walls and trying to map out a “permanently dark” region. This was made doubly annoying by a.) a pit which dropped you in the fog (and recall, I had already used up the lantern) and b.) the fact there’s an item hidden around, but you can’t see it. This required typing OPEN BOX in random locations until reaching a hit, which was a DEVICE way in the corner. Using PRESS BUTTON revealed the device was a lightsaber.

I opened the box I’d been toting around with the ruby, and while holding the ruby and emerald, the minotaur came just like before, but this time I had THE FORCE on my side:

A winner is me! You might have noticed I mentioned a “fan” but never used it yet I claimed a complete lack of red herrings. I essentially skipped a puzzle. You can drop another coin in the vending machine and get a battery, then apply the battery to get the fan to run. The fan will get rid of the fog (so the pit in the dark area is no longer deadly, just annoying). I sidestepped having to worry about the fan because of the ruby-in-box trick letting me tote both gems all the way over to where the lightsaber was.

To loop back to my comparison of this game with Deathmaze: I still hold that Deathmaze had a stronger plot. This is despite the razor-thin “your only job is to escape” opening. There was a genuine arc: opening bottleneck -> progress to level 4 -> defeat of the monster on level 4 -> teleport to level 5 -> fight with the monster’s mother -> grand finale with the exploding maze. Labyrinth, while much tighter on puzzles (despite a few teeth-gritting moments like the cave gnome) didn’t have that kind of dramatic tension, and while the sense of humor was roughly the same, I still felt like the atmosphere of Labyrinth was generally sillier.

Still, if you had to play one of the two games, without hints? Definitely pick Labyrinth over Deathmaze.

September 10, 2019

Emily Short

Mailbag: Pedagogical Uses of IF in the Classroom

by Emily Short at September 10, 2019 10:41 PM

Pardon, may I ask for some suggestions of resources (articles, short essays) about Interactive Fiction in classrooms? Thank you very much.

And then when I asked whether they were looking for IF taught as the subject or as a means to learning other things:

Surely I’m interested in IF used as a pedagogical tool, as broad as possible (in terms of grades, subjects, case history). An introductory (and inspiring!) blog post would be very useful. Thank you!

Interactive fiction has a long history of classroom use at most levels (a little bit of elementary-level use, but then more in middle school, high school, and university teaching). Several researchers have built syllabus materials that make extensive use of IF; have published about IF-related pedagogy; or have given talks and workshops about how to teach using interactive fiction. At NarraScope, for instance, there were some workshops on this topic as well as a panel on IF and education.

I haven’t done much hands-on work with this myself, but here are some links that may be useful in this area:

Broad and general-purpose resources:

Using IF to teach English, language arts, and literature:

Using IF to teach history:

Using IF to teach foreign languages:

Specific IF works that were designed to teach some topic, though they may or may not ever have been used in a classroom. (You can find more using the IFDB search tags mentioned above.)

Renga in Blue

Labyrinth: Teleporting Via Gaze

by Jason Dyer at September 10, 2019 08:43 PM

It took me quite a while to suss out how the teleporting system in Labyrinth works. Partly this is due to my prior experience with RPGs like Wizardry and The Bard’s Tale, where the general rule is that entering a square is what causes an effect to happen. (Labyrinth came out before either, so it doesn’t surprise me it’d do something different, but I still found the entire concept I outline below hard to wrap my head around.)

Here is an animation of passing through a corridor and turning around. Notice how the path back seems to have changed.

I originally created my map assuming square X would teleport me to square Y, but I kept running into inconsistencies trying to match everything up; I was getting errors like corridors overlapping with other corridors.

The way the game actually handles teleports is that if you stand in the relevant square and look in a particular direction, the teleport triggers. I puzzled this out by taking an item (salt, in my case) and repeatedly dropping and trying to pick it up as I walked through one of the mysterious corridors; eventually, I narrowed down the exact instant the teleport happened, which was when I turned, not when I stepped.

For example, if you go to the position marked “T1” and turn south…

you end up in the other position marked “T1”.

You often get your “compass” turned in the process, so you’re facing towards the “open direction” of the map you’re on when you land. In this example, if you start at the first T1 and teleport you stay facing south. However, if you try to teleport back again by turning east, you’ll land at the original T1 facing west. If that was confusing to read, double that confusion; that’s how confusing it is to play.

I can say with confidence now that “levels” is the wrong way of looking at the map — it’s really just a big strange loop. You can fall through a pit and walk your way back to where you started, so the “pits” serve more as a different method of teleportation rather than realistic geographic movement. This is in contrast to Deathmaze 5000 where one of the puzzles involved climbing up a pit to a previously inaccessible section (where the map layout itself gave a hint this was possible).

Speaking of contrast, in the department of geography-as-narrative, I found Deathmaze’s 5000 simple trudge-down-the-levels to be a little more dramatic than Labyrinth’s open world. The former game starts with a bottleneck puzzle, and while you can get down to level 4 by essentially skipping most things, there’s still a feeling of an organized “story”. I can mentally remember level 1 as That One With Lots of Items and an Invisible Guillotine, level 2 as having Attack Dogs and a Snake, level 3 as The Square on the Wall, and level 4 as Where you Finally Have to Meet the Monster. I don’t have a similar characterization for the sections of Labyrinth, other than the start being right next to the fog which hides the minotaur. It’s more of a blur and less of a story.

Admittedly, there is the utter cruelty of the one-way-travel effect to Deathmaze which makes it easy to leave an item behind, but this has the side effect of reducing possible options: for example, I knew I didn’t need to use any items below level 2 to handle the snake of that level, since there was no way to return to it.

With Labyrinth, every item is open to solving every puzzle, and I haven’t solved any yet. The open puzzles are

  • a cave bear who attacks
  • an ugly man who attacks
  • a cave gnome who attacks
  • a vending machine which attacks, er, I mean needs a coin

The items I have are

  • roller skates
  • a steel rod
  • a cream pie
  • salt
  • a lantern
  • a haunted jar, whatever that is
  • a book

The last item has the word PTOOII. If you SAY PTOOII you get teleported to an area with a sword, but with no way out. I suspect this is simply a trap (especially since the sword would be useful for all the puzzles listed up to and including the vending machine; clearly I should intimidate it into giving me a soda).

I don’t see any obvious connections (can you throw a cream pie at a bear? will the bear care?) so I’ll probably have to just start testing things at random.

September 09, 2019

Choice of Games

Author Interview: S. Andrew Swann, “Sword of the Slayer”

by Mary Duffy at September 09, 2019 04:42 PM

Your first game for us was Welcome to Moreytown, which was based in a world you’d already written about in your novels. What was challenging for you in writing Sword of the Slayer in a new setting?

I think the most challenging thing was avoiding being too wordy. This genre is one in which it’s easy to fall down a hole of descriptive prose that would probably quite annoying for anyone clicking through pages of text to get to the next choice. Keeping things concise while still serving the genre could be a hard balance to strike.

Have you written much fantasy in this direction?

About a third of what I’ve written has been some sort of fantasy or other. I’ve done light humorous fantasy with my Dragon series, and I’ve done dark fantasy with medieval werewolves and the Teutonic Knights (Wolfbreed and Wolf’s Cross). This is, however, the first straight-up sword & sorcery work I’ve written.

What parts did you most enjoy writing? NPCs? Monsters? The Sword? Fight scenes?

I really enjoyed writing the gods, especially since I was writing four poles on a moral axis that’s not the old D&D good/evil law/chaos dichotomies. The sword was also fun to write, as it definitely has its own opinions about what’s going on and how the PC should be dealing with it.

I’m pretty sure the sword is the first talking inanimate object we’ve had that’s also a major character in the game. That must have been interesting to think through as you were working on parts where it’s interacting with the player. It’s kind of like an evil or at least morally compromised Jiminy Cricket. 

The really interesting thing about the sword is that it’s a major character that has very limited agency. After all, it’s a sword. It might be magic, but it can only do anything if someone is wielding it. So having it as an active participant in events is a bit of a challenge. Also, at times, it is a rather ambiguous ally to the PC. Sure, it wants the PC to make it through this, but that’s because it has its own agenda and the PC is the easiest means to that end.

Sword of the Slayer feels like one story about Targas Adur. Is it a setting you see yourself returning to?

Possibly. I don’t have any immediate plans in that direction, but it’s a place I could easily return to if I wanted.

What are you working on now?

I’ve been hired on to a big exciting project that I can’t really talk about yet. I can say it’s a new novel and I’m just polishing up the outline now.

September 06, 2019

"Aaron Reed"

Character Engine 1.0 Release Candidate

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

Character Engine 1.0 Release Candidate Now Available

We’re pleased to announce a new stable release of Character Engine that we’re confident enough in to label version 1.0! After more than a year of iterative improvements, our release this month includes a number of updates and fixes to the tool, engine, and infrastructure, representing the most advanced version yet of Character Engine. We’re releasing this version on our developer portal a bit early to give beta users time to experiment before the official release, expected within the next few weeks.

If you’ve been a part of our developer program, you might have expected this version to be called “Release 12.” In some ways it’s just another incremental improvement to the tool and SDK we’ve been shipping for over a year. But there are a couple nice features in this one that we think users will appreciate. Some of the highlights of this release include:

  • The “Play in Editor” functionality now works with both Natural Language and Dynamic Menus projects, making it possible to test projects of both kinds directly within the tool.
  • Some major speed and usability improvements: faster export, more organized Tag lists, quicker navigation of large projects, a cleaned-up top toolbar, word-wrapped long lines in more places, and more.
  • On the SDK side, a new startup and initialization flow that’s more consistent across multiple use cases
  • Documentation is now incorporated directly into the tool in a separate panel, making it easier to keep this reference close at hand.
  • Improved support for using third-party natural language classifier stacks, non-English projects, Unicode, and more

If you’re a part of our developer program, we hope you’ll give this new release and try, and celebrate this milestone with us as we look forward to the next steps!

Character Engine 1.0 Release Candidate was originally published in Spirit AI on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

The Digital Antiquarian

Origin Sells Out

by Jimmy Maher at September 06, 2019 01:48 PM

One day in early June of 1992, a group of executives from Electronic Arts visited Origin Systems’s headquarters in Austin, Texas. If they had come from any other company, the rank and file at Origin might not have paid them much attention. As it was, though, the visit felt a bit like Saddam Hussein dropping in at George Bush’s White House for a fireside chat. For Origin and EA, you see, had a history.

Back in August of 1985, just prior to the release of Ultima IV, the much smaller Origin had signed a contract to piggyback on EA’s distribution network as an affiliated label. Eighteen months later, when EA released an otherwise unmemorable CRPG called Deathlord whose interface hewed a little too closely to that of an Ultima, a livid Richard Garriott attempted to pull Origin out of the agreement early. EA at first seemed prepared to crush Origin utterly in retribution by pulling at the legal seams in the two companies’ contract. Origin, however, found themselves a protector: Brøderbund Software, whose size and clout at the time were comparable to that of EA. At last, EA agreed to allow Origin to go their own way, albeit probably only after the smaller company paid them a modest settlement for breaking the contract. Origin quickly signed a new distribution contract with Brøderbund, which lasted until 1989, by which point they had become big enough in their own right to take over their own distribution.

But Richard Garriott wasn’t one to forgive even a small personal slight easily, much less a full-blown threat to destroy his company. From 1987 on, EA was Public Enemy #1 at Origin, a status which Garriott marked in ways that only seemed to grow pettier as time went on. Garriott built a mausoleum for “Pirt Snikwah” — the name of Trip Hawkins, EA’s founder and chief executive, spelled backward — at his Austin mansion of Britannia Manor. Ultima V‘s parser treated the phrase “Electronic Arts” like a curse word; Ultima VI included a gang of evil pirates named after some of the more prominent members of EA’s executive staff. Time really did seem to make Garriott more rather than less bitter. Among his relatively few detail-oriented contributions to Ultima VII were a set of infernal inter-dimensional generators whose shapes together formed the EA logo. He also demanded that the two villains who went on a murder spree across Britannia in that game be named Elizabeth and Abraham. Just to drive the point home, the pair worked for a “Destroyer of Worlds” — an inversion of Origin’s longstanding tagline of “We Create Worlds.”

And yet here the destroyers were, just two months after the release of Ultima VII, chatting amiably with their hosts while they gazed upon their surroundings with what seemed to some of Origin’s employees an ominously proprietorial air. Urgent speculation ran up and down the corridors: what the hell was going on? In response to the concerned inquiries of their employees, Origin’s management rushed to say that the two companies were merely discussing “some joint ventures in Sega Genesis development,” even though “they haven’t done a lot of cooperative projects in the past.” That was certainly putting a brave face on half a decade of character assassination!

What was really going on was, as the more astute employees at Origin could all too plainly sense, something far bigger than any mere “joint venture.” The fact was, Origin was in a serious financial bind — not a unique one in their evolving industry, but one which their unique circumstances had made more severe for them than for most others. Everyone in the industry, Origin included, was looking ahead to a very near future when the enormous storage capacity of CD-ROM, combined with improving graphics and sound and exploding numbers of computers in homes, would allow computer games to join television, movies, and music as a staple of mainstream entertainment rather than a niche hobby. Products suitable for this new world order needed to go into development now in order to be on store shelves to greet it when it arrived. These next-generation products with their vastly higher audiovisual standards couldn’t be funded entirely out of the proceeds from current games. They required alternative forms of financing.

For Origin, this issue, which really was well-nigh universal among their peers, was further complicated by the realities of being a relatively small company without a lot of product diversification. A few underwhelming attempts to bring older Ultima games to the Nintendo Entertainment System aside, they had no real presence on videogame consoles, a market which dwarfed that of computer games, and had just two viable product lines even on computers: Ultima and Wing Commander. This lack of diversification left them in a decidedly risky position, where the failure of a single major release in either of those franchises could conceivably bring down the whole company.

The previous year of 1991 had been a year of Wing Commander, when the second mainline title in that franchise, combined with ongoing strong sales of the first game and a series of expansion packs for both of them, had accounted for fully 90 percent of the black ink in Origin’s books. In this year of 1992, it was supposed to have been the other franchise’s turn to carry the company while Wing Commander retooled its technology for the future. But Ultima VII: The Black Gate, while it had been far from an outright commercial failure, had garnered a more muted response than Origin had hoped and planned for, plagued as its launch had been by bugs, high system requirements, and the sheer difficulty of configuring it to run properly under the inscrutable stewardship of MS-DOS.

Even more worrisome than all of the specific issues that dogged this latest Ultima was a more diffuse sort of ennui directed toward it by gamers — a sense that the traditional approach of Ultima in general, with its hundred-hour play time, its huge amounts of text, and its emphasis on scope and player freedom rather than multimedia set-pieces, was falling out of step with the times. Richard Garriott liked to joke that he had spent his whole career making the same game over and over — just making it better and bigger and more sophisticated each time out. It was beginning to seem to some at Origin that that progression might have reached its natural end point. Before EA ever entered the picture, a sense was dawning that Ultima VIII needed to go in another direction entirely — needed to be tighter, flashier, more focused, more in step with the new types of customers who were now beginning to buy computer games. Ultima Underworld, a real-time first-person spinoff of the core series developed by the Boston studio Blue Sky Productions rather than Origin themselves, had already gone a considerable distance in that direction, and upon its near-simultaneous release with Ultima VII had threatened to overshadow its more cerebral big brother completely, garnering more enthusiastic reviews and, eventually, higher sales. Needless to say, had Ultima Underworld not turned into such a success, Origin’s financial position would have been still more critical than it already was. It seemed pretty clear that this was the direction that all of Ultima needed to go.

But making a flashier next-generation Ultima VIII — not to mention the next-generation Wing Commander — would require more money than even Ultima VII and Ultima Underworld together were currently bringing in. And yet, frustratingly, Origin couldn’t seem to drum up much in the way of financing. Their home state of Texas was in the midst of an ugly series of savings-and-loan scandals that had made all of the local banks gun-shy; the country as a whole was going through a mild recession that wasn’t helping; would-be private investors could see all too clearly the risks associated with Origin’s non-diversified business model. As the vaguely disappointing reception for Ultima VII continued to make itself felt, the crisis began to feel increasingly existential. Origin had lots of technical and creative talent and two valuable properties — Wing Commander in particular was arguably still the hottest single name in computer gaming — but had too little capital and a nonexistent credit line. They were, in other words, classic candidates for acquisition.

It seems that the rapprochement between EA and Origin began at the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago at the very beginning of June of 1992, and, as evidenced by EA’s personal visit to Origin just a week or so later, proceeded rapidly from there. It would be interesting and perhaps a little amusing to learn how the rest of Origin’s management team coaxed Richard Garriott around to the idea of selling out to the company he had spent the last half-decade vilifying. But whatever tack they took, they obviously succeeded. At least a little bit of sugar was added to the bitter pill by the fact that Trip Hawkins, whom Garriott rightly or wrongly regarded as the worst of all the fiends at EA, had recently stepped down from his role in the company’s management to helm a new semi-subsidiary outfit known as 3DO. (“Had Trip still been there, there’s no way we would have gone with EA,” argues one former Origin staffer — but, then again, necessity can almost always make strange bedfellows.)

Likewise, we can only wonder what if anything EA’s negotiators saw fit to say to Origin generally and Garriott specifically about all of the personal attacks couched within the last few Ultima games. I rather suspect they said nothing; if there was one thing the supremely non-sentimental EA of this era had come to understand, it was that it seldom pays to make business personal.

Richard and Robert Garriott flank Stan McKee, Electronic Arts’s chief financial officer, as they toast the consummation of one of the more unexpected acquisitions in gaming history at EA’s headquarters in San Mateo, California.

So, the deal was finalized at EA’s headquarters in San Mateo, California, on September 25, 1992, in the form of a stock exchange worth $35 million. Both parties were polite enough to call it a merger rather than an acquisition, but it was painfully clear which one had the upper hand; EA, who were growing so fast they had just gone through a two-for-one stock split, now had annual revenues of $200 million, while Origin could boast of only $13 million. In a decision whose consequences remain with us to this day, Richard Garriott even agreed to sign over his personal copyrights to the Ultima franchise. In return, he became an EA vice president; his brother Robert, previously the chief executive in Austin, now had to settle for the title of the new EA subsidiary’s creative director.

From EA’s perspective, the deal got them Ultima, a franchise which was perhaps starting to feel a little over-exposed in the wake of a veritable flood of Origin product bearing the name, but one which nevertheless represented EA’s first viable CRPG franchise since the Bard’s Tale trilogy had concluded back in 1988. Much more importantly, though, it got them Wing Commander, in many ways the progenitor of the whole contemporary craze for multimedia “interactive movies”; it was a franchise which seemed immune to over-exposure. (Origin had amply proved this point by releasing two Wing Commander mainline games and four expansion packs in the last two years, plus a “Speech Accessory Pack” for Wing Commander II, all of which had sold very well indeed.)

As you do in these situations, both management teams promised the folks in Austin that nothing much would really change. “The key word is autonomy,” Origin’s executives said in their company’s internal newsletter. “Origin is supposed to operate independently from EA and maintain profitability.” But of course things did — had to — change. There was an inescapable power imbalance here, such that, while Origin’s management had to “consult” with EA when making decisions, their counterparts suffered no such obligation. And of course what might happen if Origin didn’t “maintain profitability” remained unspoken.

Thus most of the old guard at Origin would go on to remember September 25, 1992, as, if not quite the end of the old, freewheeling Origin Systems, at least the beginning of the end. Within six months, resentments against the mother ship’s overbearing ways were already building in such employees as an anonymous letter writer who asked his managers why they were “determined to eradicate the culture that makes Origin such a fun place to work.” Within a year, another was asking even more heatedly, “What happened to being a ‘wholly owned independent subsidiary of EA?’ When did EA start telling Origin what to do and when to do it? I thought Richard said we would remain independent and that EA wouldn’t touch us?!? Did I miss something here?” Eighteen months in, an executive assistant named Michelle Caddel, the very first new employee Origin had hired upon opening their Austin office in 1987, tried to make the best of the changes: “Although some of the warmth at Origin has disappeared with the merger, it still feels like a family.” For now, at any rate.

Perhaps tellingly, the person at Origin who seemed to thrive most under the new arrangement was one of the most widely disliked: Dallas Snell, the hard-driving production manager who was the father of a hundred exhausting crunch times, who tended to regard Origin’s games as commodities quantifiable in floppy disks and megabytes. Already by the time the Origin had been an EA subsidiary for a year, he had managed to install himself at a place in the org chart that was for all practical purposes above that of even Richard and Robert Garriott: he was the only person in Austin who was a “direct report” to Bing Gordon, EA’s powerful head of development.

On the other hand, becoming a part of the growing EA empire also brought its share of advantages. The new parent company’s deep pockets meant that Origin could prepare in earnest for that anticipated future when games would sell more copies but would also require more money, time, and manpower to create. Thus almost immediately after closing the deal with EA, Origin closed another one, for a much larger office space which they moved into in January of 1993. Then they set about filling up the place; over the course of the next year, Origin would double in size, going from 200 to 400 employees.

The calm before the storm: the enormous cafeteria at Origin’s new digs awaits the first onslaught of hungry employees. Hopefully someone will scrounge up some tables and chairs before the big moment arrives…

And so the work of game development went on. When EA bought Origin, the latter naturally already had a number of products, large and small, in the pipeline. The first-ever expansion pack for an existing Ultima game — an idea borrowed from Wing Commander — was about to hit stores; Ultima VII: Forge of Virtue would prove a weirdly unambitious addition to a hugely ambitious game, offering only a single dungeon to explore that was more frustrating than fun. Scheduled for release in 1993 were Wing Commander: Academy, a similarly underwhelming re-purposing of Origin’s internal development tools into a public-facing “mission builder,” and Wing Commander: Privateer, which took the core engine and moved it into a free-roaming framework rather than a tightly scripted, heavily story-driven one; it thus became a sort of updated version of the legendary Elite, and, indeed, would succeed surprisingly well on those terms. And then there was also Ultima Underworld II: Labyrinth of Worlds, developed like its predecessor by Blue Sky up in Boston; it would prove a less compelling experience on the whole than Ultima Underworld I, being merely a bigger game rather than a better one, but it would be reasonably well-received by customers eager for more of the same.

Those, then, were the relatively modest projects. Origin’s two most expensive and ambitious games for the coming year consisted of yet one more from the Ultima franchise and one that was connected tangentially to Wing Commander. We’ll look at them a bit more closely, taking them one at a time.

The game which would be released under the long-winded title of Ultima VII Part Two: Serpent Isle had had a complicated gestation. It was conceived as Origin’s latest solution to a problem that had long bedeviled them: that of how to leverage their latest expensive Ultima engine for more than one game without violating the letter of a promise Richard Garriott had made more than a decade before to never use the same engine for two successive mainline Ultima games. Back when Ultima VI was the latest and greatest, Origin had tried reusing its engine in a pair of spinoffs called the Worlds of Ultima, which rather awkwardly shoehorned the player’s character from the main series — the “Avatar” — into plots and settings that otherwise had nothing to do with Richard Garriott’s fantasy world of Britannia. Those two games had drawn from early 20th-century science and adventure fiction rather than Renaissance Faire fantasy, and had actually turned out quite magnificently; they’re among the best games ever to bear the Ultima name in this humble critic’s opinion. But, sadly, they had sold like the proverbial space heaters in the Sahara. It seemed that Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Rice Burroughs were a bridge too far for fans raised on J.R.R. Tolkien and Lord British.

So, Origin adjusted their approach when thinking of ways to reuse the even more expensive Ultima VII engine. They conceived two projects. One would be somewhat in the spirit of Worlds of Ultima, but would stick closer to Britannia-style fantasy: called Arthurian Legends, it would draw from, as you might assume, the legends of King Arthur, a fairly natural thematic fit for a series whose creator liked to call himself “Lord British.” The other game, the first to go into production, would be a direct sequel to Ultima VII, following the Avatar as he pursued the Guardian, that “Destroyer of Worlds” from the first game, from Britannia to a new world. This game, then, was Serpent Isle. Originally, it was to have had a pirate theme, all fantastical derring-do on an oceanic world, with a voodoo-like magic system in keeping with Earthly legends of Caribbean piracy.

This piratey Serpent Isle was first assigned to Origin writer Jeff George, but he struggled to find ways to adapt the idea to the reality of the Ultima VII engine’s affordances. Finally, after spinning his wheels for some months, he left the company entirely. Warren Spector, who had become Origin’s resident specialist in Just Getting Things Done, then took over the project and radically revised it, dropping the pirate angle and changing the setting to one that was much more Britannia-like, right down to a set of towns each dedicated to one of a set of abstract virtues. Having thus become a less excitingly original concept but a more practical one from a development perspective, Serpent Isle started to make good progress under Spector’s steady hand. Meanwhile another small team started working up a script for Arthurian Legends, which was planned as the Ultima VII engine’s last hurrah.

Yet the somewhat muted response to the first Ultima VII threw a spanner in the works. Origin’s management team was suddenly second-guessing the entire philosophy on which their company had been built: “Do we still create worlds?” Arthurian Legends was starved of resources amidst this crisis of confidence, and finally cancelled in January of 1993. Writer and designer Sheri Graner Ray, one of only two people left on the project at the end, invests its cancellation with major symbolic importance:

I truly believe that on some level we knew that this was the death knell for Origin. It was the last of the truly grass-roots games in production there… the last one that was conceived, championed, and put into development purely by the actual developers, with no support or input from the executives. It was actually, kinda, the end of an era for the game industry in general, as it was also during this time that we were all adjusting to the very recent EA buyout of Origin.

Brian Martin, one of the last two developers remaining on the Arthurian Legends project, made this odd little memorial to it with the help of his partner Sheri Graner Ray after being informed by management that the project was to be cancelled entirely. Ray herself tells the story: “Before we left that night, Brian laid down in the common area that was right outside our office and I went around his body with masking tape… like a chalk line… we added the outline of a crown and the outline of a sword. We then draped our door in black cloth and put up a sign that said, ‘The King is Dead. Long live the King.’ …. and a very odd thing happened. The next morning when we arrived, there were flowers by the outline. As the day wore on more flowers arrived.. and a candle.. and some coins were put on the eyes… and a poem arrived… it was uncanny. This went on for several days with the altar growing more and more. Finally, we were told we had to take it down, because there was a press junket coming through and they didn’t want the press seeing it.”

Serpent Isle, on the other hand, was too far along by the time the verdict was in on the first Ultima VII to make a cancellation realistic. It would instead go down in the recollection of most hardcore CRPG fans as the last “real” Ultima, the capstone to the process of evolution a young Richard Garriott had set in motion back in 1980 with a primitive BASIC game called Akalabeth. And yet the fact remains that it could have been so, so much better, had it only caught Origin at a less uncertain, more confident time.

Serpent Isle lacks the refreshingly original settings of the two Worlds of Ultima games, as it does the surprisingly fine writing of the first Ultima VII; Raymond Benson, the head writer on the latter project, worked on Serpent Isle only briefly before decamping to join MicroProse Software. In compensation, though, Serpent Isle is arguably a better game than its predecessor through the first 65 percent or so of its immense length. Ultima VII: The Black Gate can at times feel like the world’s most elaborate high-fantasy walking simulator; you really do spend most of your time just walking around and talking to people, an exercise that’s made rewarding only by the superb writing. Serpent Isle, by contrast, is full to bursting with actual things to do: puzzles to solve, dungeons to explore, quests to fulfill. It stretches its engine in all sorts of unexpected and wonderfully hands-on directions. Halfway in, it seems well on its way to being one of the best Ultima games of all, as fine a sendoff as any venerable series could hope for.

In the end, though, its strengths were all undone by Origin’s crisis of faith in the traditional Ultima concept. Determined to get its sales onto the books of what had been a rather lukewarm fiscal year and to wash their hands of the past it now represented, management demanded that it go out on March 25, 1993, the last day of said year. As a result, the last third or so of Serpent Isle is painfully, obviously unfinished. Conversations become threadbare, plot lines are left to dangle, side quests disappear, and bugs start to sprout up everywhere you look. As the fiction becomes a thinner and thinner veneer pasted over the mechanical nuts and bolts of the design, solubility falls by the wayside. By the end, you’re wandering through a maze of obscure plot triggers that have no logical connection with the events they cause, making a walkthrough a virtual necessity. It’s a downright sad thing to have to witness. Had its team only been allowed another three or four months to finish the job, Serpent Isle could have been not only a great final old-school Ultima but one of the best CRPGs of any type that I’ve ever played, a surefire entrant in my personal gaming hall of fame. As it is, though, it’s a bitter failure, arguably the most heartbreaking one of Warren Spector’s storied career.

Unfashionable though such an approach was in 1993, almost all of the Serpent Isle team’s energy went into gameplay and script rather than multimedia assets; the game looks virtually identical to the first Ultima VII. An exception is the frozen northlands which you visit later in the game. Unfortunately, the change in scenery comes about the time that the design slowly begins to fall apart.

And there was to be one final note of cutting irony in all of this: Serpent Isle, which Origin released without a lot of faith in its commercial potential, garnered a surprisingly warm reception among critics and fans alike, and wound up selling almost as well as the first Ultima VII. Indeed, it performed so well that the subject of doing “more games in that vein,” in addition to or even instead of a more streamlined Ultima VIII, was briefly discussed at Origin. As things transpired, though, its success led only to an expansion pack called The Silver Seed before the end of the year; this modest effort became the true swansong for the Ultima VII engine, as well as the whole era of the 100-hour-plus, exploration-focused, free-form single-player CRPG at Origin in general. The very philosophy that had spawned the company, that had been at the core of its identity for the first decade of its existence, was fading into history. Warren Spector would later have this to say in reference to a period during which practical commercial concerns strangled the last shreds of idealism at Origin:

There’s no doubt RPGs were out of favor by the mid-90s. No doubt at all. People didn’t seem to want fantasy stories or post-apocalypse stories anymore. They certainly didn’t want isometric, 100 hour fantasy or post-apocalypse stories, that’s for sure! I couldn’t say why it happened, but it did. Everyone was jumping on the CD craze – it was all cinematic games and high-end-graphics puzzle games… That was a tough time for me – I mean, picture yourself sitting in a meeting with a bunch of execs, trying to convince them to do all sorts of cool games and being told, “Warren, you’re not allowed to say the word ‘story’ any more.” Talk about a slap in the face, a bucket of cold water, a dose of reality.

If you ask me, the reason it all happened was that we assumed our audience wanted 100 hours of play and didn’t care much about graphics. Even high-end RPGs were pretty plain-jane next to things like Myst and even our own Wing Commander series. I think we fell behind our audience in terms of the sophistication they expected and we catered too much to the hardcore fans. That can work when you’re spending hundreds of thousands of dollars – even a few million – but when games start costing many millions, you just can’t make them for a relatively small audience of fans.

If Serpent Isle and its expansion were the last gasps of the Origin Systems that had been, the company’s other huge game of 1993 was every inch a product of the new Origin that had begun to take shape following the worldwide success of the first Wing Commander game. Chris Roberts, the father of Wing Commander, had been working on something called Strike Commander ever since late 1990, leaving Wing Commander II and all of the expansion packs and other spinoffs in the hands of other Origin staffers. The new game took the basic idea of the old — that of an action-oriented vehicular simulator with a strong story, told largely via between-mission dialog scenes — and moved it from the outer space of the far future to an Earth of a very near future, where the international order has broken down and mercenaries battle for control over the planet’s dwindling resources. You take to the skies in an F-16 as one of the mercenaries — one of the good ones, naturally.

Origin and Chris Roberts pulled out all the stops to make Strike Commander an audiovisual showcase; the game’s gestation time of two and a half years, absurdly long by the standards of the early 1990s, was a product of Roberts constantly updating his engine to take advantage of the latest cutting-edge hardware. The old Wing Commander engine was starting to look pretty long in the tooth by the end of 1992, so this new engine, which replaced its predecessor’s scaled sprites with true polygonal 3D graphics, was more than welcome. There’s no point in putting a modest face on it: Strike Commander looked downright spectacular in comparison with any other flight simulator on offer at the time. It was widely expected, both inside and outside of Origin, to become the company’s biggest game ever. In fact, it became the first Origin game to go gold in the United States — 100,000 copies sold to retail — before it had actually shipped there, thanks to the magic of pre-orders. Meanwhile European pre-orders topped 50,000, an all-time record for EA’s British subsidiary. All in all, more than 1.1 million Strike Commander floppy disks — 30 tons worth of plastic, metal, and iron oxide — were duplicated before a single unit was sold. Why not? This game was a sure thing.

The hype around Strike Commander was inescapable for months prior to its release. At the European Computer Trade Show in London, the last big event before the release, Origin put together a mock-up of an airplane hangar. Those lucky people who managed to seize control for few minutes got to play the game from behind a nose cowl and instrument panel. What Origin didn’t tell you was that the computer hidden away underneath all the window dressing was almost certainly much, much more powerful than one you had at home.

Alas, pride goeth before a fall. Just a couple of weeks after Strike Commander‘s worldwide release on April 23, 1993, Origin had to admit to themselves in their internal newsletter that sales from retail to actual end users were “slower than expected.” Consumers clearly weren’t as enamored with the change in setting as Origin and just about everyone else in their industry had assumed they would be. Transporting the Wing Commander formula into a reasonably identifiable version of the real world somehow made the story, which hovered as usual in some liminal space between comic book and soap opera, seem rather more than less ludicrous. At the same time, the use of an F-16 in place of a made-up star fighter, combined with the game’s superficial resemblance to the hardcore flight simulators of the day, raised expectations among some players which the game had never really been designed to meet. The editors of Origin’s newsletter complained, a little petulantly, about this group of sim jockeys who were “ready for a cockpit that had every gauge, altimeter, dial, and soft-drink holder in its proper place. This is basically the group which wouldn’t be happy unless you needed the $35 million worth of training the Air Force provides just to get the thing off the ground.” There were advantages, Origin was belatedly learning, to “simulating” a vehicle that had no basis in reality, as there were to fictions similarly divorced from the real world. In hitting so much closer to home, Strike Commander lost a lot of what had made Wing Commander so appealing.

The new game’s other problem was more immediate and practical: almost no one could run the darn thing well enough to actually have the experience Chris Roberts had intended it to be. Ever since Origin had abandoned the Apple II to make MS-DOS their primary development platform at the end of the 1980s, they’d had a reputation for pushing the latest hardware to its limit. This game, though, was something else entirely even from them. The box’s claim that it would run on an 80386 was a polite fiction at best; in reality, you needed an 80486, and one of the fastest ones at that — running at least at 50 MHz or, better yet, 66 MHz — if you wished to see anything like the silky-smooth visuals that Origin had been showing off so proudly at recent trade shows. Even Origin had to admit in their newsletter that customers had been “stunned” by the hardware Strike Commander craved. Pushed along by the kid-in-a-candy-store enthusiasm of Chris Roberts, who never had a passing fancy he didn’t want to rush right out and implement, they had badly overshot the current state of computing hardware.

Of course, said state was always evolving; it was on this fact that Origin now had to pin whatever diminished hopes they still had for Strike Commander. The talk of the hardware industry at the time was Intel’s new fifth-generation microprocessor, which abandoned the “x86” nomenclature in favor of the snazzy new focused-tested name of Pentium, another sign of how personal computers were continuing their steady march from being tools of businesspeople and obsessions of nerdy hobbyists into mainstream consumer-electronics products. Origin struck a promotional deal with Compaq Computers in nearby Houston, who, following what had become something of a tradition for them, were about to release the first mass-market desktop computer to be built around this latest Intel marvel. Compaq placed the showpiece that was Strike Commander-on-a-Pentium front and center at the big PC Expo corporate trade show that summer of 1993, causing quite a stir at an event that usually scoffed at games. “The fuse has only been lit,” went Origin’s cautiously optimistic new company line on Strike Commander, “and it looks to be a long and steady burn.”

But time would prove this optimism as well to be somewhat misplaced: one of those flashy new Compaq Pentium machines cost $7000 in its most minimalist configuration that summer. By the time prices had come down enough to make a Pentium affordable for gamers without an absurd amount of disposable income, other games with even more impressive audiovisuals would be available for showing off their hardware. Near the end of the year, Origin released an expansion pack for Strike Commander that had long been in the development pipeline, but that would be that: there would be no Strike Commander II. Chris Roberts turned his attention instead to Wing Commander III, which would raise the bar on development budget and multimedia ambition to truly unprecedented heights, not only for Origin but for their industry at large. After all, Wing Commander: Academy and Privateer, both of which had had a fraction of the development budget of Strike Commander but wound up selling just as well, proved that there was still a loyal, bankable audience out there for the core series.

Origin had good reason to play it safe now in this respect and others. When the one-year anniversary of the acquisition arrived, the accountants had to reveal to EA that their new subsidiary had done no more than break even so far. By most standards, it hadn’t been a terrible year at all: Ultima Underworld II, Serpent Isle, Wing Commander: Academy, and Wing Commander: Privateer had all more or less made money, and even Strike Commander wasn’t yet so badly underwater that all hope was lost on that front. But on the other hand, none of these games had turned into a breakout hit in the fashion of the first two Wing Commander games, even as the new facilities, new employees, and new titles going into development had cost plenty. EA was already beginning to voice some skepticism about some of Origin’s recent decisions. The crew in Austin really, really needed a home run rather than more base hits if they hoped to maintain their status in the industry and get back into their overlord’s good graces. Clearly 1994, which would feature a new mainline entry in both of Origin’s core properties for the first time since Ultima VI had dropped and Wing Commander mania had begun back in 1990, would be a pivotal year. Origin’s future was riding now on Ultima VIII and Wing Commander III.

(Sources: the book Dungeons and Dreamers: The Rise of Computer Game Culture from Geek to Chic by Brad King and John Borland; Origin’s internal newsletter Point of Origin from March 13 1992, June 19 1992, July 31 1992, September 25 1992, October 23 1992, November 6 1992, December 4 1992, December 18 1992, January 29 1993, February 12 1993, February 26 1993, March 26 1993, April 9 1993, April 23 1993, May 7 1993, May 21 1993, June 18 1993, July 2 1993, August 27 1993, September 10 1993, October 13 1993, October 22 1993, November 8 1993, and December 1993; Questbusters of April 1986 and July 1987; Computer Gaming World of October 1992 and August 1993. Online sources include “The Conquest of Origin” at The Escapist, “The Stars His Destination: Chris Roberts from Origin to Star Citizen at US Gamer, Shery Graner Ray’s blog entry “20 Years and Counting — Origin Systems,” and an interview with Warren Spector at RPG Codex.

All of the Origin games mentioned in this article are available for digital purchase at


September 04, 2019

These Heterogenous Tasks

How To Write A Good IF Comp Blurb

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at September 04, 2019 03:51 AM

IF Comp is fast approaching. We’re in an era where comps get a lot of entries – almost eighty, in the past couple of years, which is way too many for most judges to play. It’s more important than ever … Continue reading

September 03, 2019

Emily Short

The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative (H. Porter Abbott) – Chapters 10-14

by Emily Short at September 03, 2019 07:41 PM

The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative is a book I’ve been chewing on now for several months, since it raises a number of issues about how to describe and think about narration but doesn’t (except occasionally and briefly) attempt to apply those terms or concepts to interactive literature. So this series has become less anything resembling a review than a set of responses and observations; although I am still trying to summarize the contents just enough that someone who might not want to read the whole book could come away with a clear sense of its subject matter and purpose.

Chapter 10 goes more deeply into issues of characterization, what it means to have a flat or rounded character, and the deployment of types.

In interactive work, we often invite the player in by offering her a stereotyped protagonist to start with — a character defined by genre tropes whose attitudes can be quickly and easily assumed — before (perhaps, not always) layering additional character traits in place later. There are of course exceptions to this: some genres and sub-brands, most notably tabletop RPGs and Choice of Games interactive fiction, conventionally allow for character creation as an opening to the rest of the story, so that the player is unlikely to be annoyed that the first decisions she must make exist just to define her personality.

The final section of the chapter touches on autobiography, which is a tricky and fascinating area for interactive narrative to attempt, especially if the work invites the player to try to take the role of the author. Abbott observes that life writing is necessarily performative; that to write one’s memoirs means taking an attitude to those experiences, and to cast oneself as a particular type of character, presumably with specific desired effects on the audience. Interactive autobiography is certainly unavoidably performative in this sense, while sometimes simultaneously requiring a matching performance from the player — demanding that the user enact the role of the protagonist according to the author’s own design, in a way that can be at once awkward and immensely powerful.

Chapter 11, Narrative and Truth, looks at the difference between fiction and non-fiction; the ways in which fiction could be said to be truthful without being nonfictional; the way a work is framed as fiction/non-fiction affects its meaning and reception; and the reader’s assumptions about how fiction maps to real life.

I semi-regularly encounter a naive assumption that non-fiction cannot be interactive because interactivity offers the player control over what happens, and therefore some of what happens must not correspond to what actually happened.

In practice, of course, there’s a substantial field of interactive documentary. Relatively little of this field overlaps with the interactive fiction world at all, though some pedagogical IF would probably qualify. There are loads of ways to interact with factual information that do not undermine its function as non-fiction: by selecting a viewpoint on an unchanging story; by interpreting or selecting elements for reading; by interacting with a narrative that is designed to be typical or exemplary without being about a named individual.

While investigating how narrative and truth relate, Abbott particularly calls out Marie-Laure Ryan’s “principle of minimal departure,” which says that we assume fiction lines up with our own real world except when the work explicitly calls out the exceptions. I think this is a strong observation, but not quite right. If I am reading a work of vampire fiction and the author is silent on the subject of wooden stakes, I will assume that wooden stakes through the heart are indeed fatal to vampires in this world — not because wooden stakes are actually fatal to actual vampires, as to the best of my knowledge none exist, but because the tropes of the genre form a kind of secondary structure between the specifics of this story and the details of the real world.

In Chapter 12, Narrative Worlds, Abbott gets into stories — some of which predate computer-based interactive storytelling — of the form he calls “forking path,” in which multiple conflicting plots co-exist in the same telling. This chapter recognizes Groundhog Day and Run, Lola, Run, but also older works such as The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee (1974) or In the Labyrinth (1959) in which a linear narrative traverses many possible paths.

I have the loose, untested impression that this form has proliferated recently: Russian Doll explicitly relies on video game metaphors, while Life After Life or The Seven and a Half Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle simply assume that the reader is comfortable imagining (with little initial explanation) a die-repeatedly-until-you-get-it-right kind of approach to life.

In Seven and a Half Deaths there is a specific goal set out for the protagonist, to detect who murdered the eponymous character, and most of the story takes the form of an intricate mystery which he investigates from inside the perspectives of several different characters who are all living the same day but whose consciousnesses allow him to access the events out of strict chronological sequence. It is a concept that could equally have been turned into interactive fiction and that bears a certain oblique formal kinship (if no kinship in tone or subject matter) with Stephen Granade’s Common Ground. Near the end of the novel, we learn that there is a different and broader significance to what is happening, but this reframing felt artificial and its moral heft slighter than that of what had gone before. It’s the midi-chlorian effect, the introduction of a “reasonable” explanation that in fact isn’t particularly reasonable and whose presence serves not to explain, but to undercut the thematic power of a story.

Both Life After Life and Russian Doll, by contrast, refrain from trying to explain how the protagonist’s death-and-rebirth came about exactly. Life After Life also mostly wipes the memory of Ursula Todd, whose lives these are, and starts her over from birth each time. Though there is an ultimate trajectory, erasing Ursula’s history and making many of her deaths unavoidable means this is less an exploration of how to live differently and better with practice, and more a Life’s Lottery-esque statement about how minor variations in circumstance can produce radically different outcomes. Life After Life, if it were assembled into a piece of interactive fiction, would be a time cave with branches of extremely varying length.

Russian Doll, though, would be a sort of gauntlet, or perhaps loop-and-grow, since each life builds to some degree on the others; there is an end for the protagonist to seek, though the goal is not made explicit at the beginning.

All of these stories assume that the reader will accept, and be sympathetic to, a story in which the protagonist restarts, and I have wondered whether this is a trope much readier to hand for authors since the introduction of video games.

But through his examples, Abbott demonstrates that the desire to tell stories this way predates the interactive forms.

The final two chapters, Narrative Contestation and Narrative Negotiation, talk about cases where multiple stories are pitted against one another (Abbott uses the example of a trial for this, but there are tabletop story games in which the players provide contesting narratives), and about how meaning is managed within a single work; finally ending with the suggestion that closure may be impossible.

Zarf Updates

The Zarfian Cruelty Scale, revisited

by Andrew Plotkin ([email protected]) at September 03, 2019 04:41 PM

The Zarfian Cruelty Scale is 23 years old as of last month. That's not a numerically interesting anniversary, but it's respectable age for a offhand scrap of critical theory that still gets mentioned regularly.
I am pleased and amused by the Cruelty Scale's continuing currency. But I also worry that people might apply it more broadly or rigidly than it deserves. The Cruelty Scale has had caveats almost from the beginning; it embodies many 1996-ish assumptions about IF and game design. I think it's time to, at minimum, dig into those assumptions. We should make sure we know what we're thinking when we use it.

September 02, 2019

The People's Republic of IF

September meeting

by zarf at September 02, 2019 04:42 PM

The Boston IF meetup for September will be Tuesday, September 17, 6:30 pm, MIT room 14N-233.


Storytron Fall 2019 Update

by Bill Maya at September 02, 2019 01:43 PM

I have changed my mind and decided to continue working on improving the Storytron software. However, the direction I am going to go in has changed.

Storytron was originally supposed to be a platform and business for interactive storytelling. It was an exciting, quixotic venture that failed. My open source efforts over the past year were in service of that original goal. Now Storytron has a new mission — to become a game-agnostic tool for experimenting with procedural narrative design for dramatic storytelling.

Over the years I have read about procedural generation in one form or another as it relates to game development. I recently read two books, Procedural Generation in Game Design and Procedural Storytelling in Game Design, that got me thinking about this technique again.

There are many games, too many to mention here, that use procedural generation in their creation, and this has given rise to numerous approaches, techniques, and frameworks. Online groups, conferences, and events like ProcJam, NaNoGenMo, Narrascope, IntFiction, and others provide numerous opportunities for conversation and cross-pollination. There is also a rich history of procedural story generation going back to the 1970’s with programs like Meehan’s Tale-Spin, Turner’s Minstral, and Leibowitz’s Universe (I plan on exploring some of these early programs in future posts to see what can be learned).

With this new direction I will temporarily “forget” about the interactive side of Storytron and focusing on its story-creating capabilities. The software already has many of the building blocks necessary to calculate dramatic situations as well as a scripting language and utilities to tweak and refine the final product. I imagine reading the final result will be a cross between watching a short play and reading a short story or poem.

Here are two examples of procedurally generated stories. The first is from Micro-Talespin, a recreation of Meehan’s original program (the Micro-Talespin source code can be found here).

One day,
The end.

And here is the output from my 2010 attempt to re-imagine the game “Trust & Betrayal: The Legacy of Siboot” using Storytron.

Felsym is dead! The fourth Shepherd of Kira has died and one of his seven acolytes must take his place as the spiritual leader of Laminian civilization.
Vetvel what are you going to do?
you depart for Kendra’s House from Temple of Siboot
you arrive at Kendra’s House from Temple of Siboot
you wait
Kendra greets you formally
Kendra rejects Vetvel
Kendra doesn’t believe that Vetvel’s trust towards her is almost non-existent
Kendra says her trust towards Vetvel is almost non-existent
Skordokott greets you warmly
Skordokott is skeptical Vetvel
Skordokott believes that Vetvel’s trust towards him is moderate
Skordokott says his trust towards Vetvel is moderate
you depart for Wiki’s House from Kendra’s House
you arrive at Wiki’s House from Kendra’s House
you wait

This log from the second example shows the detailed calculations that are saved for each event in the story, events that can be manipulated by the scripting language.

I admit that neither of these examples is great literature or particularly entertaining. Both are light years away from anything written by Shakespeare, Marlowe, Mamet, or Stoppard. But they are a start. Once a dramatic non-interactive story can be created using Storytron, adding in the player interaction should be as easy as flipping a PC/NPC switch on a specific actor (though I bet that is probably easier written then done).

I realize that my approach will be considered heresy by some since interactivity is considered to be the computer’s competitive advantage. Process, they will say, should take precedence over data. Any attempt to marginalize interactivity, they will say, reduces the chances of “true” interactive storytelling.

Maybe. We’ll see.

Suggestions or comments are welcome below.

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

September 01, 2019

Emily Short

End of August Link Assortment

by Mort Short at September 01, 2019 04:41 AM


September 1 is the deadline if you want to submit an intent to enter IF Comp 2019. (That’s tomorrow!)

PAX West in Seattle features a panel September 2 about building an interactive fiction portfolio and becoming a paid IF author.

September 7 is the next meeting of the SF Bay area IF Meetup.

September 14 is Boston FIG, or festival of indie games, held at Harvard.

Also September 14, the Baltimore/DC IF meetup gets together to discuss Hanon Ondricek’s Cannery Vale.

The 20th annual European GAME-ON® Conference on Simulation and AI in Computer Games is September 18-20 in Breda, The Netherlands.

September 25 is the next meeting of the London IF Meetup, and we will be hearing about live-action interactive narrative experiences including immersive theatre and LARP from several amazing speakers.

Indiecade Festival will be in October in Santa Monica, CA.

New Releases

Greg Boettcher has released an illustrated parser game that debuted in IntroComp 2006. It is now, at last, available from his website, and for a limited time you can also make a charitable donation and receive some feelies as a reward.

Sam Barlow’s Telling Lies is now out, a new FMV/exploration story that is not a sequel but perhaps a conceptual heir to Her Story.

Community and Volunteer Things

Sofia Kitromili is looking to interview IF authors about their experiences creating games and using IF tools. You can contact her any time in the next several months if you would like to speak to her and contribute to her doctoral research.

The Colossal Fundraiser is now raising money for prizes for this year’s IF Comp, as well as to cover the IF Technology Foundation’s other needs and overhead for the year. IFTF supports the IF Archive and other community technology, preserves interactive fiction work and tools that might otherwise be abandoned, and leads accessibility and education initiatives to improve the IF community’s resources.

August 30, 2019


ZILF 0.9 released

by Jesse ([email protected]) at August 30, 2019 06:14 AM

Version 0.9 of ZILF was released recently! Highlights include easier setup for non-Windows platforms, compatibility with the unearthed Infocom source, and lots of bug fixes.

Get it at

August 29, 2019

Zarf Updates

Abusers, another shoe in the wall

by Andrew Plotkin ([email protected]) at August 29, 2019 07:06 PM

When I said "I know stories that are still not public," I didn't expect them to get blown open within 24 hours.
Yesterday, Meg Jayanth posted this thread:
An anon account has been naming abusers in the games industry. Alexis Kennedy is one of them. I can't speak to the motives of the anon, but Alexis is a well-known predator in the games industry. I have been warning people about him for years.
Olivia Wood followed up with a description of her experience, in which Alexis Kennedy took advantage of his position of authority over her. Emily Short added her observations. Many other women have spoken up about his manipulative and boundary-pushing behavior.
Kennedy is not the only name to hit the spotlight since my first post, but he's the case that strikes closest to home. I played Echo Bazaar and Sunless Sea. They were great games. His company, Failbetter Games, was and is a highlight of innovative design in the narrative game world. After Kennedy left Failbetter, I was excited to see what he would do next. (Until I started hearing rumors about his behavior, it did not occur to me to wonder why he had left Failbetter Games.)
Failbetter also was and is publicly devoted to foregrounding the voices of underrepresented groups, including women. Many of my friends wrote for Echo Bazaar and Sunless Sea. As Emily said, it was a shock to learn that Kennedy was taking public credit for this good citizenship while privately treating it as his personal grabbing ground.
(Kennedy's new company has a "mentorship program" for indies. Unsurprisingly, the indie devs in that program are now cutting ties.)
So. This sucks. It has sucked for a lot of women, privately, for years. I wasn't happy to find out about it, and if you're just finding out now, you're not happy either. Nevertheless it is incumbent on us to know, acknowledge, and make sure these stories are heard.
Those who are speaking up now have my gratitude and admiration. I know it didn't just happen. It was a long process of people taking care of each other -- making sure that they could come forward, if not safely, at least from a position of support. These posts are my attempt to aid and support that effort.
I'll leave off with this thread:
We believe and stand with everyone who has come forward to speak out about Alexis Kennedy tonight.
Alexis left Failbetter three years ago. We no longer have any ties with him personally, creatively or financially.
We know that for some of you, Fallen London and Sunless Sea are irredeemably linked with him. It can be heartbreaking to love something as much as people love these games and feel they're tainted by association.
We fully understand and respect that. This sort of behaviour has no place in our industry, or in any other. We can only say that we strive to be a studio we can be proud of, and that you can be proud to support.

Choice of Games

New Hosted Game! Samurai of Hyuga Book 4 by Devon Connell

by Rachel E. Towers at August 29, 2019 06:42 PM

Hosted Games has a new game for you to play!

Become the vagabond you always knew you were. Rely on your blade and wits, for little else will save you amidst the cold and unforgiving North! Retrace the steps of your past and rekindle a love once lost. Or try your best to snuff it out—either way, it’s going to burn. You may be the toughest ronin around, but even you aren’t prepared for what’s next! It’s 25% off until September 5th!

Samurai of Hyuga Book 4 is a 375,000 word interactive fantasy novel by Devon Connell, where your choices control the story. It’s entirely text-based—without graphics or sound effects—and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination.

• Play as male, female; gay, straight.
• Survive amidst a clan war between the Uesugi and the Takeda!
• Unravel the secrets of your past and embrace your forbidden power!
• Enjoy 27 beautiful illustrations that bring the world of Hyuga to life!

The truth behind the forbidden style of the Jigoku and a hell of a lot more await you in the fourth book of this epic series!

Devon Connell 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.

August 27, 2019

Zarf Updates

Abusers in the game-dev world

by Andrew Plotkin ([email protected]) at August 27, 2019 04:35 PM

Two personal accounts appeared yesterday -- no, screw passive voice. Nathalie Lawhead and Zoe Quinn spoke out yesterday, naming two prominent game designers/musicians as abusers and rapists: Jeremy Soule and Alec Holowka. Nathalie's account; Zoe's account.
I hang around indie dev circles but I'm pretty peripheral. I don't think I've ever run into either of these men. I learn these stories when they go public, or when women tell them to me in confidence.
Sometimes, I hear a story along with a warning that the victim is still vulnerable to retaliation, that she does not want the story to go public yet. I know stories that are still not public and names that people warn each other about in private.
I cannot say anything else about those names. What I can say is: I believe Zoe and Nathalie. They are speaking up with courage to share what they know and help prevent future abuses.
I'll also note that this trail of terrible revelations is another aspect of crunch in the gaming industry. Nathalie's story, in particular, is about being rendered vulnerable by the desperation and insecurity of her "opportunities" in the game-dev world. Unscrupulous higher-ups in the industry are able to take advantage of workers -- particularly newcomers. Crunch is the public, "acceptable" face of this abuse: exhaustion, erosion of personal time and personal relationships. Inevitably, that is not the end of it. Sometimes it is assaulting people and then pressuring them to be silent about it.
So that's today's bitter thought. Take hands.

UPDATE, Aug 29th: see also next post.

UPDATE, Sep 3rd: Scott Benson has posted his experiences with Alex Holowka, who died last week as this discussion and its consequences spun on.

Classic Adventure Solution Archive

CASA Update - 111 new game entries, 39 new solutions, 28 new maps, 1 new hints, 1 new fixed game, 1 new clue sheet

by Gunness at August 27, 2019 12:52 PM

Gaming pioneer Scott Adams, who has introduced many of us to the adventure genre, is hard at work again. This time around he's creating something called Conversational Adventures, the first title being Adventureland XL. I'm not quite sure what this entails, but among other things voice input is promised. If the first game proves a success, more of Scott's classics might join the series. You can read more (and support the game) over at his Patreon account.

Contributors: Mousey, Strident, Garry, adventuron, Kozelek, benkid77, redhighlander, ahope1, Gunness, terri, RetroBasic, nimusi, Andre Leao, impomatic, stevenjameshodgson, Dorothy, Jewwbat, devwebcl, iamaran

Emily Short

IntroComp 2019

by Emily Short at August 27, 2019 11:41 AM

IntroComp is an annual IF competition that invites authors to contribute partial and unfinished works for feedback. IntroComp 2019 is currently in progress, and if you’d like to check out the work here, you too can judge the entries.

Below the fold, some words on a few of the entries that I had time to play — but you may want to try them out yourself without spoilers.

Voting closes August 31.

Deadline is choice-based, but uses a world model with distinct locations, and provides inventory items and goals for interaction, which gives it a bit of an adventure-game feel.

Deadline (not the Infocom game of the same name) has you rushing to work to give an important presentation. Pretty much everything that can go wrong does, however, and you soon find yourself chasing all over the Metro trying to retrieve your stolen briefcase. This piece was more of a teaser than a full game, but I liked the presentation details, and the way it creates the sense of a specific environment.

The writing and situations did feel a bit on the generic side — annoying boss, nameless presentation, non-specific promotion you’ve been angling for — and I found myself wishing for a little more observant specificity about the main character’s working life.

Steamed Hams But It’s A Twine Game is a Twine implementation of part of an episode of the Simpsons. It’s supplemented with audio clips and even video bits from the original episode.

You may think — as I did — that this is an eccentric thing for someone to make. It turns out that there is apparently a whole meme around making alternative-medium versions of this content.

So I imagine this is a super-hilarious joke to someone, and I wish many fine belly-laughs to the intended audience. But my response is best described as “…huh?” followed by “…okay.”

Sunder is an interactive poem, read aloud as audio files that accompany the piece. The audio plays automatically and energetically. The scenario seemed to me to be about someone who lives, or had lived, in a tower block, perhaps using or perhaps refusing heroin; or (simultaneously or alternatively) is a monster of sorts; or (again) is a kind of Odysseus trying to return to Ithaca.

Sunder is written in Twine, and on some pages there is text that you can click to expand — a common Twine effect, but the audio presentation always reads that text aloud, whether you’ve expanded it or not, so that the visual screen and the audio layer may be in or out of sync. I’m not sure whether this effect was intentional, or whether the author imagined that the reader would always have clicked the text to expand it by the time the reader reached that phrase.

I didn’t always; on the contrary, I found it was distracting to try to both read the text and listen to it, so I would tend to pause and hear it before trying to read through.

The Devil’s Music (Harkness Munt) is a parser-based game in which you’re a devil come to earth to collect a soul promised to you. In places, the writing is a little more florid than I might prefer, but it is in service of at atmospheric setting: a sunlit evening, a vista over the Mississippi river, steamboats passing. Hints here and there suggest a backstory of angelic and demonic forces. There are a few points where the implementation could be more robust — for instance, the game repeatedly draws your attention to a strong odor, but SMELL says you smell nothing unexpected. Generally, however, this seems like the beginning of an enjoyable puzzle adventure game.

Neurocracy glosses its text with pop-up definitions and explanations, often in place of cross-linked full articles. This gives it some of the feel of Wikipedia without needing the same expansiveness of content.

Neurocracy presents us with an Omnipedia, a Wikipedia-like set in its own fictional universe in 2049. In this pseudo-dispassionate frame, it presents a horrifying story: the spreading of a degenerative brain disease due to an under-regulated fish farming corporation; the scientific explorations of that disease; the development of technology that simultaneously helps resolve the disease and enables a more extensive form of global surveillance.

The story has a temporal axis as well, since you can choose which date’s version of Omnipedia you want to read. New articles are added each day (though, somewhat implausibly perhaps, they appear fully formed rather than in-development).

It’s a somewhat dystopian piece, though not really any more dystopian than the reality we currently inhabit.

The article style is pitch-perfect, and the technical content reads persuasively: there’s quite a lot about protein behavior and medical implants that feels plausible to me (though I admit this is not my field of expertise, so I would be unlikely to recognize subtle errors). The world-building feels very robust, covering topics in politics, economics, entertainment, world health, agriculture, climate change, etc.

If I have a complaint or criticism, it’s this: there’s a lot to read, and sometimes it takes some thought to tease out the implications of the medical facts.

I found myself wishing for a reading experience that would allow me to form significant questions (“what’s going on with this plague?”) and then take action to explore for the answers. I think the piece could achieve this without even significantly diverging from its current content if, for instance, it began with less-complete versions of the articles gradually being filled in over time; or if it led in with articles that were more peripheral to the main point of the story.

As it is, I think the presentation somewhat undercuts the emotional power of the story it’s telling.

August 24, 2019

The People's Republic of IF

July 2019 meeting Post mortem

by Angela Chang at August 24, 2019 04:41 AM

PR-IF meeting July 2019

The People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction convened on Thursday, July 25, 2019. FenericadriDoug, Zarf, anjchang, Jake, and Yaron welcomed newcomer aria. Friends of Yerone Check out more photos here.

Everyone’s moving to Davis
Mysterium in Spokane. Tour of cyan’s office. Next adventure game filament coming out next year. 25th anniversary of Myst 
Adri planning for next narrascope
Making games making friends
Feneric Dec.2015 Dr Who’s audio cyoa recommended. ““You Are the Doctor and Other Stories”. Only “You Are the Doctor” is in CYOA form. The “other stories” are linear. It uses CD tracks as choice destinations.” 

Talk on location based gaming working on twine Ironworks area
Minima based mystery
Music profits
Inform 7 open source announcement. Community interest
Release hoped in October
Zarf project discussion
Revisit the Narrascope conference website for updates on media
Jake played Elsinore timeline loop based on Hamlet, interesting solid writing
Adri streaming herself playing adventures fans twitch channel
Angela mentioned YA cyoa and development of baby duck color story
Aria wants to pkay…Patchwork girl how to play? Last version was for Mac osx Sierra has a Mac emulator so you can run old games in a browser
Victor Gijsbers  top 50 poll…on Twitter
Victor’s design notes are uploaded and archived

“outer wilds” little price time loop
The lurking horror
Baphl there were two June and July
Escape room
Puzzle hunts

Ifcomp next
If advent calendar
Cragne manor object interactions 
Boston FIG is coming out in September
Game loop unconference about game Dec in August
Boston gamedev picnic
Women in games invited speaker August on level design

Aria and Yaron have both
Zarf Hadrian lands among other things
Adri social media and games Feb
Fenwick Halloween ghost story competitive, entries worldwide and from all ages and three continents
Ghosts stealing food
Doug wrote 2011 the last day of summer part of four games linked to each other, IF archive volunteer
Jake mentions Twifcomp,and various compilations
Manifest destiny in scheme by Doug

Make 7 day brough like competition
Michael brough roguelikes. Small grid 7 5 4
Hoplite hexagonal 7drl
Segmentation fault by Jake
Arcade python games bizarre dependency on fork oh piglet
Aria mentioned canes of code
Kickstarter cootie catcher with story
Fabrication is the air
Two jed berries
The periwinkle

Notes from email:

Following up on Minima, Feneric has released  Anteform. “Same general control scheme as Minima, but there’s a bigger focus on story. More people have unique dialog (in Minima there were quite a few “standard” responses, but in Anteform they’re all different) and more things are searchable (in Minima there was really only one thing to search for, in Anteform clues can be found all over the place). He tried to make Anteform focus a lot more on the story (or as best as I could within the tiny memory limits). It’s not what it at first appears. If you like Anteform and/or Minima, please do rate it. A single five-star rating makes a huge difference in discoverability.”

Doug Xyzzy awards update. These are the Best Game nominees:

  • 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)

Here are the  2018 XYZZY Award. results.

Brendan Desilets writes “Interactive Fiction Club at the Pollard Memorial Library in Lowell, Massachusetts is now reading “Muggle Studies” by PR-IF member Flourish Klink. In its ten years of operation, the club, which is for middle school and high school students, has also experienced IF games by several other PR-IF stalwarts, including Andrew Plotkin, Jason McIntosh, and Nick Montfort.

The next Boston Interactive Fiction meeting will be Monday, August 26, 6:30 pm, MIT room 14N-233.  Hope to see you there!

August 22, 2019

IFComp News

The 2019 Colossal Fundraiser has begun

August 22, 2019 07:42 AM

You know the drill! Or maybe you don’t, in which case we’ll explain the drill to you.

Every year, the Colossal Fund raises money for IFComp prizes. (I can say “every year” because this is the third time we’ve done it.) Last year, IF supporters (that’s you) donated $9000; we distributed $7200 to the authors of 51 IFComp entries.

Now it’s time to open the Colossal Fund for IFComp 2019. The donation button is live! See your name listed on our donor page. (Or listed as “anonymous”, if you prefer.)

The fundraising deadline is November 15th (the end of IFComp voting).

This year we’re edging the goal up to an even $10000. As usual, 80% of the proceeds ($8000) will be distributed among the top two-thirds of IFComp finishers. The other 20% ($2000) goes to support IFTF and its operations, including IFComp, the IF Archive, the forums, and other programs.

What does this mean for authors? Because we’re dividing the money among the top finishers, the exact numbers depend on how many IFComp entries there are. We’ve had about 80 entries for the past couple of years. Assume that remains true in 2019. Then we will divide the money among the top 53 entries. If we reach our target of $10000, the prize chart will look like this:

1: $424.89 15: $233.12 29: $100.35 43: $26.60
2: $409.24 16: $221.68 30: $93.13 44: $23.59
3: $393.88 17: $210.54 31: $86.20 45: $20.88
4: $378.83 18: $199.70 32: $79.58 46: $18.47
5: $364.08 19: $189.16 33: $73.26 47: $16.36
6: $349.63 20: $178.93 34: $67.24 48: $14.55
7: $335.48 21: $168.99 35: $61.52 49: $13.05
8: $321.63 22: $159.36 36: $56.10 50: $11.84
9: $308.08 23: $150.03 37: $50.98 51: $10.94
10: $294.83 24: $141.00 38: $46.16 52: $10.34
11: $281.89 25: $132.27 39: $41.65 53: $10.04
12: $269.25 26: $123.84 40: $37.43
13: $256.90 27: $115.71 41: $33.52
14: $244.86 28: $107.88 42: $29.91

The numbers add up to $8000, which is 80% of $10000.

As you see, this is not a winner-take-all plan. Our goal is to distribute prizes across a broad range of IF styles and ideas. Any game which does even moderately well should receive a decent prize.

Other details:

  • How do I donate? Go to and push the big blue Paypal button.
  • Is my donation tax-deductible? Yes, to the extent allowed by law. (Consult a tax professional, that’s all we can say.)
  • Does the Colossal Fund replace the usual IFComp prize list? No! These cash prizes will be in addition to the usual IFComp prize list. Please visit this page to donate objects and services as prizes.
  • How will the cash prizes be distributed? Via PayPal. If you can’t accept PayPal, we can mail a US check to a US address. If that doesn’t work for you, or if you wish to decline the cash prize, we will roll the money into next year’s prize fund.
  • Was any money rolled into this year’s fund from last year? Yes! Some of last year’s winners declined their prizes. So we are starting the 2019 CF fund with $780 already in the pot.

If you have further questions, please contact us at [email protected] And thanks for your support!


The 2019 Colossal Fundraiser has begun

by Andrew Plotkin at August 22, 2019 04:17 AM

You know the drill! Or maybe you don’t, in which case we’ll explain the drill to you.

Every year, the Colossal Fund raises money for IFComp prizes. (I can say “every year” because this is the third time we’ve done it.) Last year, IF supporters (that’s you) donated $9000; we distributed $7200 to the authors of 51 IFComp entries.

Now it’s time to open the Colossal Fund for IFComp 2019. The donation button is live! See your name listed on our donor page. (Or listed as “anonymous”, if you prefer.)

The fundraising deadline is November 15th (the end of IFComp voting).

This year we’re edging the goal up to an even $10000. As usual, 80% of the proceeds ($8000) will be distributed among the top two-thirds of IFComp finishers. The other 20% ($2000) goes to support IFTF and its operations, including IFComp, the IF Archive, the forums, and other programs.

What does this mean for authors? Because we’re dividing the money among the top finishers, the exact numbers depend on how many IFComp entries there are. We’ve had about 80 entries for the past couple of years. Assume that remains true in 2019. Then we will divide the money among the top 53 entries. If we reach our target of $10000, the prize chart will look like this:

1: $424.89 15: $233.12 29: $100.35 43: $26.60
2: $409.24 16: $221.68 30: $93.13 44: $23.59
3: $393.88 17: $210.54 31: $86.20 45: $20.88
4: $378.83 18: $199.70 32: $79.58 46: $18.47
5: $364.08 19: $189.16 33: $73.26 47: $16.36
6: $349.63 20: $178.93 34: $67.24 48: $14.55
7: $335.48 21: $168.99 35: $61.52 49: $13.05
8: $321.63 22: $159.36 36: $56.10 50: $11.84
9: $308.08 23: $150.03 37: $50.98 51: $10.94
10: $294.83 24: $141.00 38: $46.16 52: $10.34
11: $281.89 25: $132.27 39: $41.65 53: $10.04
12: $269.25 26: $123.84 40: $37.43
13: $256.90 27: $115.71 41: $33.52
14: $244.86 28: $107.88 42: $29.91

The numbers add up to $8000, which is 80% of $10000.

As you see, this is not a winner-take-all plan. Our goal is to distribute prizes across a broad range of IF styles and ideas. Any game which does even moderately well should receive a decent prize.

Other details:

  • How do I donate? Go to and push the big blue Paypal button.
  • Is my donation tax-deductible? Yes, to the extent allowed by law. (Consult a tax professional, that’s all we can say.)
  • Does the Colossal Fund replace the usual IFComp prize list? No! These cash prizes will be in addition to the usual IFComp prize list. Please visit this page to donate objects and services as prizes.
  • How will the cash prizes be distributed? Via PayPal. If you can’t accept PayPal, we can mail a US check to a US address. If that doesn’t work for you, or if you wish to decline the cash prize, we will roll the money into next year’s prize fund.
  • Was any money rolled into this year’s fund from last year? Yes! Some of last year’s winners declined their prizes. So we are starting the 2019 CF fund with $780 already in the pot.

If you have further questions, please contact us at [email protected]. And thanks for your support!

August 18, 2019

The Digital Antiquarian

Rick Loomis Could Use Your Help

by Jimmy Maher at August 18, 2019 12:41 PM

Rick Loomis, the founder of Flying Buffalo, is ill with lymphatic cancer. His has been one of the quiet voices of influence behind the culture of gaming, both on the tabletop and on the computer, since the early 1970s. His company pioneered one of if not the first play-by-mail game run on a mainframe computer, the great ancestor to the ubiquitous multi-player online games of today. And, perhaps even more relevantly for readers of this blog in particular, it served as an incubator of writing and design talent — names like Michael Stackpole, Elizabeth Danforth, and Ken St. Andre — that would later leave a mark on such fondly remembered computer games as Wasteland, Neuromancer, and Star Trek: 25th Anniversary among others. Although I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting him personally, I know that he’s been considered one of the genuine Nice Guys in his industry for many years.

Unfortunately, the American medical system being what it is, Rick is forced to worry over medical bills and mounting debt during this critical time in his life. Anything you could pitch in to help with that would be greatly appreciated. You can do so at the Go Fund Me campaign set up by his friend Steve Crompton. Thanks!

August 16, 2019

These Heterogenous Tasks

Introcomp 2019

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at August 16, 2019 07:42 PM

Introcomp, one of interactive fiction’s long-running annual events, is out, with eleven entries. The past few Introcomps I have either missed or only looked at briefly, and I think I’ve got an expectations mismatch going on. I think that the value … Continue reading

The XYZZY Awards

2018 XYZZY Awards, final results

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at August 16, 2019 07:42 PM

The 2018 XYZZY Awards are complete for this year! Congratulations to our winners:

Best Game: Bogeyman (Elizabeth Smyth)

Best Writing: Animalia (Ian Michael Waddell) and Bogeyman (Elizabeth Smyth) (tie)

Best Story: Bogeyman (Elizabeth Smyth)

Best Setting: Cannery Vale (Hanon Ondricek)

Best Puzzles: Junior Arithmancer (Mike Spivey)

Best NPCs: Animalia (Ian Michael Waddell)

Best Individual Puzzle: solving your murder in Erstwhile (Maddie Fialla, Marijke Perry)

Best Individual NPC: the Bogeyman in Bogeyman (Elizabeth Smyth)

Best Individual PC: the Magpie in Alias ‘The Magpie’ (J. J. Guest)

Best Implementation: Cragne Manor (Ryan Veeder, Jenni Polodna, et al.)

Best Use of Innovation: I.A.G. Alpha (Serhii Mozhaiskyi)

Best Technological Development: Dialog, Linus Åkesson

Best Use of Multimedia: Bandersnatch (Charlie Brooker, David Slade)

The People's Republic of IF

August meeting

by zarf at August 16, 2019 07:41 PM

The Boston IF meetup for August will be Monday, August 26, 6:30 pm, MIT room 14N-233.