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Planet Interactive Fiction

Saturday, 06. August 2022

Renga in Blue

Two Kickstarters (Stereotypical, Andromeda Acolytes)

Sorry for the delay in my next post! Trying to bring Quest to some sort of satisfactory landing so we can get into all sorts of other shenanigans. In the meantime, I have two Kickstarters to mention: Sterotypical In this point-and-click, choice-based puzzle adventure, you’ll solve cases as a quirky detective and his super spy […]

Sorry for the delay in my next post! Trying to bring Quest to some sort of satisfactory landing so we can get into all sorts of other shenanigans. In the meantime, I have two Kickstarters to mention:

Sterotypical

In this point-and-click, choice-based puzzle adventure, you’ll solve cases as a quirky detective and his super spy partner through stories you’ll think you’ve seen before. But be careful! You’ll have to look past the stereotypes to uncover the story’s true ending.

This one is of particular interest as it is a project of Clopas LLC, that of none other than Scott Adams (of Adventureland, The Count, etc.)

This is not a regular text adventure (that’d be Adventureland XL), but a mobile game with character stats, akin to something from Choice of Games.

Andromeda Acolytes is from Wade Clarke who you might know from Leadlight and Six, and is developing a text adventure in the Andromeda “shared universe” with other games like Andromeda Apocalypse.

You’ll play four very different heroines drawn into each other’s orbit when an accident awakens a mysterious power on the planet Monarch. You’ll negotiate underwater mechs, artificial intelligences, abandoned cities, crime, friendship, suspense, horror, humour, an art exhibition, virtual realities and a tank. Experience each PC via first-person prose as you puzzle, converse and explore.

Kickstarter link here

This one’s actually got a demo for the first chapter that you can try here and looks to be a fairly elaborate traditional adventure.

Friday, 05. August 2022

Interactive Fiction – The Digital Antiquarian

Discworld on Page and Screen, Part 2: The First Three Discworld Games

As a man of wide-ranging curiosity, Terry Pratchett was drawn to personal computers early. In 1981, he purchased a Sinclair ZX81 in kit form and soldered it together successfully. He soon upgraded to a Sinclair Spectrum and then to an Amstrad CPC 464, which was his first computer strong enough to run a practical word […]

As a man of wide-ranging curiosity, Terry Pratchett was drawn to personal computers early. In 1981, he purchased a Sinclair ZX81 in kit form and soldered it together successfully. He soon upgraded to a Sinclair Spectrum and then to an Amstrad CPC 464, which was his first computer strong enough to run a practical word processor. From the second Discworld novel on, he wrote all of his books digitally; this was undoubtedly a factor in the prodigious writing and publishing pace he maintained for so many years. But computers were more than a tool to him: right from the beginning, he also played computer games enthusiastically. In a 1986 interview, for example, he mentions being obsessed with Infocom’s interactive version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

The first Discworld computer game came surprisingly quickly, courtesy of a teenage entrepreneur named Fergus McNeill and his little company Delta 4, who had made a name for themselves by writing slapstick fantasy parodies as Quill-based text adventures, with names like Bored of the Rings (which didn’t share anything but a name and a certain sensibility with the book of the same name) and The Boggit. While it would be a stretch to say that they transcended their author’s age and the technology used to create them, they were amusing in their way, and became quite popular. Some of them reportedly sold as many as 20,000 copies, a very impressive number in the British games industry of the mid-1980s. They made McNeill a natural to adapt Terry Pratchett to an interactive medium, given that the latter’s first couple of Discworld novels were content to plow much the same satirical territory, albeit in a more erudite and sophisticated way.

The Boggit contains its share of literal toilet humor.

McNeill says that he originally bought the novel The Colour of Magic “as a present for someone else, but I accidentally started reading it myself and found myself unable to stop.” It was he who suggested an adaptation to Pratchett’s publisher, to capitalize on the British appetite for bookware. “It’s important to remember that this was Olden Times — the 1980s, for goodness sake,” he says. “So, when I said ‘Terry Pratchett,’ people didn’t laugh at my audacity for wanting to work with the great man. They frowned and said, “Who’s he?'”

Thus McNeill was able to make the deal, and created his Colour of Magic text adventure in short order, with some direct input from Pratchett himself. The end result, which was released in late 1986 in Britain and Europe only, is an abbreviated version of the novel, walking through its plot scene by scene. Solving it entails looking up what Rincewind did in the same situation in the book, then figuring out how to express the concept to the balky, fiddly parser. Those who have read the book, in other words, will vacillate between boredom and frustration, while those who haven’t will be utterly lost. Even in its day, when a disconcerting number of players were willing to accept fighting the parser as an inherent part of the challenge of playing a text adventure, the game was less popular than its license might suggest.

The Colour of Magic replaces the standard text-adventure compass directions with those of the Disc: “hubward,” “rimward,” “turnwise,” and “widdershins.” One plus for verisimilitude, but ten minuses for annoying the heck out of the player.

McNeill speaks of his communications with Pratchett fondly, going so far as to call him “a big inspiration for me,” whilst calling being allowed to make the game at all “a huge privilege.” Yet Pratchett was enough of a gamer himself to recognize how underwhelming the final product really was. In his view, it cheapened the Discworld brand, of which he was always keenly protective; he would refer to the interactive Colour of Magic only as a “bad experience” in later years. It was enough to make him shy away from further game adaptations for quite some time, despite his personal fondness for computers and the games they played. It wasn’t until mid-1993, when Discworld mania was in full swing, that someone managed to convince Pratchett to give the idea of ludic Discworld a second chance.

Actually, there were two someones, the first of whom was one Angela Sutherland, who had gotten her start in the games industry back in 1983. She had been studying to become a sculptor at that time at the Edinburgh College of Art, when a fellow student and good friend named Sandy White had showed her a simple action game called Ant Attack which he had been writing on his Sinclair Spectrum. She helped him to flesh it out and get it published, whereupon it became one of the big early hits on the Speccy. Sutherland worked with White on several more games after that, moved on to become head of development for Firebird and Rainbird, and then became a producer for the British division of Beam Software, the Australian software house famous for The Hobbit, probably the best-selling text adventure of all time (and the thing which Fergus McNeill’s early games were really parodying, at least as much as Tolkien’s books).

Seeing an opportunity in the market, she left Beam and founded her own studio, Teeny Weeny Games, in 1991. Its name reflected its focus: games for handheld systems like the Nintendo Game Boy. Such gadgets were not yet hugely popular among consumers in her home country, but the average British wage was lower than that of the average American or Japanese, making a British studio such as the one she was setting up a good option for big publishers looking to get a product onto the international market quickly and fairly inexpensively, but also competently. So, Teeny Weeny cut their teeth on playable but forgettable licensed fare and ports. For all that it was the games industry’s version of flyover country, this was also a space where a pragmatist like Sutherland could do very well for herself. These sorts of projects would remain the studio’s bread and butter throughout its lifetime.

Teeny Weeny enjoyed an unusual symbiotic relationship with another studio called Perfect 10 Productions, founded at almost the same time by Gregg Barnett, a former colleague of Sutherland from Beam. Perfect 10 had much the same business philosophy as Teeny Weeny, but focused on the full-sized console systems; this created an opportunity for the two developers to collaborate in order to bring the same game out on living-room and handheld consoles. And indeed, they came to share code, assets, strategies, and even office space and to some extent employees with one another, until it became difficult for the outside observer to see where one stopped and the other began.

Thus it was Sutherland and Barnett together who made the pitch to Terry Pratchett for a Discworld adventure game. It seems that their pragmatism had served to conceal a streak of more ambitious creativity, a desire to make something more exciting than the games that were currently keeping the lights on in their offices. But at the same time, they were still hard-nosed enough to appreciate the value of licenses — particularly a license of the biggest literary phenomenon in Britain, a series of novels which Sutherland and Barnett happened to adore, just like millions of their countryfolk.

Angela Sutherland, Terry Pratchett, and… Death.

Pratchett, however, was not easy to convince. It took six months of tireless courting, and ultimately the presentation of a complete design document written by Barnett himself, to get him to say yes. “The main reason he signed,” says Barnett, “was that we did a design, which showed we were willing to put in the work without any initial reward, and that we understood and respected the property.” Sutherland and Barnett promised Pratchett that they would wash away the bad taste of the Colour of Magic text adventure by sparing no expense or effort this time around. They would make a fully-voiced point-and-click graphic adventure for the latest CD-ROM-capable personal computers, one that was as good or better than any of the big titles coming out of the United States.

In fact, the Discworld game almost came out under one of those American publishers’ imprint. Using their international connections to maximum advantage, Sutherland and Barnett signed a deal with Sierra, along with LucasArts one of the two biggest names of all in adventure gaming. The agreement would let them make their game using that company’s state-of-the-art SCI engine, with the support of some Sierra personnel who would temporarily relocate to the project’s South London headquarters. But the American publisher didn’t quite seem to grasp what a huge license Discworld really was on the other side of the Atlantic. Bleeding money from their visionary but unprofitable online gaming space The Sierra Network, they backed out of the deal. Talks with the American giant Electronic Arts also fell through, whereupon Sutherland and Barnett finally signed with the homegrown publisher Psygnosis, best known for the global hit Lemmings, the most popular British-developed videogame prior to the Grand Theft Auto franchise many years later. By virtue of their location at Ground Zero of Discworld mania, Psygnosis knew very well how big a Discworld game could be, such that they had already tried without success to pitch the idea directly to the wary Pratchett. At their first meeting with Sutherland and Barnett, they became the suitor rather than the courted: they “wouldn’t leave until we did a deal,” says Barnett.

Pratchett himself was if anything even more into games now than he had been during the previous decade. For a man who had grown up in a house without electricity or an indoor toilet, the games of the 1990s were nothing short of wondrous. “I play games a lot — and I mean a lot,” he said in a contemporary interview. “Sitting in front of a screen writing, you need some relaxation, and what better way than to load in something like Wing Commander, which is one of my faves. One of the nice things about making lots of money from books is that I can go down to the local Virgin Store and buy what I want!” This habit, combined with his protectiveness of Discworld as a property, ensured that he would take a healthy interest in the Discworld game. He went so far as to rewrite some of Gregg Barnett’s dialog.

Barnett’s script borrows heavily from Pratchett’s 1989 novel Guards! Guards!. Given how close Watch Commander Sam Vimes, its protagonist, was to his creator’s heart, it must have rankled Pratchett a bit when Barnett elected to write him out of the story, replacing him with Rincewind as chief investigator and player’s avatar. Ditto when Barnett cut out most of the novel’s serious subtext, leaving behind only the gags, jokes, and tropes. And double ditto when the game’s developers eventually cast Eric Idle of Monty Python — a part of the archly absurdist Oxbridge comedy tradition that also included the likes of Douglas Adams, and to which Pratchett did not see Discworld as belonging — to voice the part of Rincewind.

Yet Pratchett was also a reasonable man with a good grasp of what it took to sell creative product, and he could see the logic behind each of Barnett’s decisions. Rincewind was still the series’s most well-known character at this stage in its evolution; serious themes are even harder to bring off in a comic adventure game than they are in a comic novel; and the casting of a real live member of Monty Python in any game was a tremendous coup, even if Eric Idle wasn’t Barnett’s first choice of John Cleese. (According to Barnett, “Fuck off! I don’t do games,” was the latter’s response to his inquiry…) The finished game does absorb some of the flavor of Monty Python — Barnett admits to making the onscreen Rincewind into something of a doppelgänger of Idle’s typically disheveled Python personae — but the combination works. I dare you to try to read a Discworld novel that stars Rincewind after playing this game without hearing Idle’s voice in your head.

The voice-acting cast was rounded out with some other enviable comedic talents: Tony Robinson, Blackadder’s perpetual sidekick; Kate Robbins of Spitting Image; Jon Pertwee, the third incarnation of Doctor Who; and Rob Brydon, a relative newcomer with a prolific career still in front of him (international audiences may know him best today for starring in the very funny Trip series of travel mockumentaries). The only problem with the cast is that there just aren’t enough of them, meaning that everyone with the exception of Idle is juggling many roles, a fact which mugging and accent-switching can’t completely obscure. Still, if one must settle for a cast of less than half a dozen, one couldn’t do much better these actors. It’s a pleasure to listen to the game’s collection of skittish, skeevy, occasionally lovable characters, every single one of them more or less off their nut, prattle on about nothing much in particular. “Is this fish fresh?” Rincewind asks a fishmonger. “Fresh? Fresh?” he replies. “It just made a pass at my wife, sir!”

The game’s visuals are equally distinctive. Under the direction of veteran artist Paul Mitchell, the metropolis of Ankh-Morpork, where the entire game takes place, becomes a Disney film as viewed by a cock-eyed drunk: everything is subtly warped and shifted, with nary a straight line to be seen (or heard, for that matter). Rincewind shuffles from location to location in his bedraggled wizard’s robes, looking like he would rather be anywhere else. (Maybe that’s understandable, given that every other character in the game asks him why he’s wearing a “dress.”) He’s trailed all the time by The Luggage, an inexplicably sentient suitcase with the legs of a centipede, the disposition of a pit bull, and the teeth of a bear trap; this movable feast serves as the means of conveyance of the incredible amount of stuff Rincewind will eventually collect and tote through the city.

As in the novel Guards! Guards!, the plot hinges on a fire-breathing dragon which a cabal of less-than-upstanding Ankh-Morpork citizens have summoned. Thwarting the monster and its minions requires playing through three lengthy, non-linear acts, followed by the climactic showdown with the dragon. Two of the main acts are scavenger hunts: find the five ridiculous things that are needed to build a Dragon’s Lair Revealer; steal the six golden talismans from the dragon-summoning cabal. We’ve all been here before — as has Rincewind apparently, judging from the scorn he is constantly heaping on the whole enterprise. Many adventure games use this sort of self-referential humor as a lazy excuse for derivative, uninspired design, and perhaps Discworld cannot be fully absolved of this sin. It does, however, have the virtue of being much, much funnier than the vast majority of such exercises. And, given that it’s meant to evoke the aesthetic of the early Discworld novels, which lampooned the conventions of paperback fantasy fiction in a similar way, the sin is venal rather than mortal.

Still, the game’s satire is at its best when it aims slightly higher in a meta-fictional sense. The point of the third act is to manipulate circumstances so that Rincewind will have exactly a million-to-one chance against the dragon. Because, as Terry Pratchett himself once put it, “we know — it is built into our very understanding of the narrative universe — that if it is a million-to-one chance that might just work, it will work. Because no one has ever heard of a million-to-one chance that just might work not working. In other words, a million-to-one chance is a certainty. It’s a cliché that we accept. We accept it from James Bond and from Bilbo Baggins.”


Josh Kirby, Terry Pratchett’s longtime cover illustrator, provided the art for the Discworld game box as well.

Rincewind with the Luggage.

Unseen University, where Rincewind has been studying without any obvious benefit to himself or society for years and years.

Death makes a cameo in the first Discworld graphic adventure. He will take a starring role in the second.

“A wizard’s staff has a knob on the end of it…”


Released in Britain in early 1995 under the name of simply Discworld, the game was praised to the skies by reviewer after reviewer. PC Zone magazine wasn’t that much of an outlier in calling it “possibly the best point-and-click adventure game ever made.” Everyone marveled over the graphics, the voice acting, and the humor, declaring that it really was like seeing the world of the novels come to life. Most of all, though, they marveled over the sheer size of the thing. They noted, accurately, that each of the game’s first three acts could easily have been a standalone game in its own right. It was and remains abundantly obvious that the people who made this game did so for all the right reasons, that they genuinely loved Anhk-Morpork and wanted to shove as much of it as possible onto a CD.

Unfortunately, these same people had never actually made an adventure game before. And, once the initial euphoria died down, players could all too plainly see this too in the finished product. It is — or at least ought to be — a truism in adventure design that every puzzle you make is ten times harder than you think it is. The only way to calibrate your game’s difficulty is to put it in front of real players and see how much they struggle. Sadly, it is all too clear that the people who made this game failed to do that in the midst of their zeal to keep adding more, more, more to it.

Discworld is for all intents and purposes insoluble. There is simply no way to reason out many of its puzzles; this is where the cockamamie nature of the world comes back to bite. The designers have paid no heed to what Bob Bates calls the “else” rule of good puzzle design. It states that, if the player has not done the correct thing, but she has done some other thing that might make some degree of logical or comedic sense, the game should recognize and acknowledge that in some way, ideally whilst embedding within its response a hint as to the correct way forward. In this game, though, everything you try to do that isn’t the One True Way Forward is met only by a scornful Eric Idle telling you, “That doesn’t work!” This is the one quote from Discworld that absolutely everyone remembers. Long before you finish the first act, it will have begun to haunt your very dreams, will pop back into your head to enrage you at random moments throughout your day. And just to ensure that you get to hear it even more often than you otherwise might, the game is littered with red herrings that have no purpose whatsoever.

To sum up, then, we have a huge environment to wander around in, one which provides no shortcuts to get from place to place, just Rincewind’s lackadaisical stroll; an enormous pile of objects, many which are literally good for nothing; puzzles whose solutions are amusing in retrospect but cannot possibly be anticipated before the fact; and no middle ground between wrong and right when it comes to solving them, to provide useful feedback or at least some small dollop of amusement. Oh, and there are also dead ends that you can stumble into without realizing it, after which you’ll get to spend hours banging your head against brick walls even more fruitlessly than usual. As a piece of game design, Discworld is hopeless.

When the game came out in the United States several weeks after its British release, the reviewers there were clearer-eyed, being carried away with neither excitement over the very existence of a Discworld game nor home-country partisanship. Computer Gaming World magazine wrote that “the overall impression the game conveys is not one of richness but one of clutter and surfeit.” It sold in only middling numbers in the American market.

But that was not the case in Britain and much of Europe. There the game sold hundreds of thousands of copies before second takes started to appear in the gaming press and on the Internet, noting belatedly that labeling it “best adventure game of all time” may have been laying it on a bit thick. Needless to say, it was full speed ahead on the sequel.

Before starting on it in earnest, Angela Sutherland and Gregg Barnett finally did the logical thing and merged their two companies together as Perfect Entertainment. The new entity continued to devote the preponderance of its effort to workaday projects for the console market, but the connections forged thereby brought more than financial benefits to the passion projects: both Discworld and its sequel would be ported to the Sony PlayStation and the Sega Saturn, opening up whole new worlds of potential sales. (Their publisher Psygnosis had in fact been bought by Sony in 1993.)

If the first Discworld game is a sad story of good intentions and soaring ambitions derailed by a lack of experience with the nuts and bolts of adventure design, Discworld II: Missing, Presumed…!? is a happier tale of a development team willing and able to learn from their failures — a less common phenomenon than one might expect in the world of adventure games. It doesn’t so much try to break new ground as to perfect the experience which Perfect Entertainment had attempted to deliver last time around. And it succeeds on these terms rather magnificently. Right from the first page of the manual, where they promise that this Discworld game is “a little easier,” the makers make it clear that they understand what they did wrong last time.

Interestingly, Pratchett was less involved with the sequel. “I let them have their heads a bit more,” he said after its release. “It seemed that they could create a game that had the right kind of feel to it, so I didn’t have to shepherd them so much. There wasn’t quite so much shouting this time around.”

Once again the broad plot is lifted from a beloved Discworld novel: this time it’s 1991’s Reaper Man, in which Death decides to quit his job and retire to the countryside, with chaotic results for the whole Disc. As in the last game, matters are rejiggered to insert Rincewind into the story as the protagonist, while space is also made for elements of the 1990 Discworld novel Moving Pictures, an entertaining if not particularly deep pastiche of old Hollywood (“Holy Wood” on the Disc), with motion-picture cameras which consist of fast-painting imps trapped inside windowed boxes.

The second game is another joy to listen to; Eric Idle agreed to return, as did Kate Robbins and Rob Brydon. Tony Robinson elected not to, however, while the elderly Jon Pertwee was too ill to participate. (He died in May of 1996, leaving Discworld I as one of his last media legacies.) To take up some of the slack, Perfect hired Nigel Planer, another stalwart comedy veteran, who had narrated almost all of the audio-book versions of the Discworld novels. Barnett tried to recruit Christopher Lee for the role of Death — an inspired choice by any standard — but Perfect couldn’t afford his asking price in the end. So, Rob Brydon took the role instead, and did very well with it, bringing out the mix of fussiness, petulance, and compassion that has since made Death arguably the most popular Discworld character of all time. On the whole, then, the voice acting in Discworld II is on a level with that of the first game — including, alas, the same major weakness of there just not being enough different actors. Kate Robbins, for example, voices every single female character in both games, and most of the children to boot.

The truly striking change from the first game to the second is the look of the production; the difference here is truly night and day. The switchover in the mid-1990s from the VGA graphics standard, with a typical resolution of 320 X 200, to SVGA, with a resolution of 640 X 480 or more, strikes me as the second of the two most dramatic inflection points in the history of computer-game graphics. (The first, for the record, is the arrival of the Commodore Amiga in the mid-1980s, followed soon after by VGA on MS-DOS machines.) The first and second Discworld graphic adventures stand on either side of the VGA/SVGA Rubicon, which divides games that look undeniably old today from those that can at least potentially still look quite contemporary. I would place Discworld II among this group without hesitation.

The higher resolution allowed Perfect to outsource the animation to Hanna-Barbera’s studio in the Philippines, a decision which would have made no sense under the constraints of VGA. Characters and backgrounds that looked a bit muddy and blurry in the first game pop on the screen in sharp, vivid cartoon colors this time around. Meanwhile the static views of the first game are replaced by fades, pans, and close-ups; it’s like going from the typical 1930s film to Citizen Kane.

Most importantly of all, Discworld II plays better. We have the same three-act structure as last time, with all of the acts no more than scavenger hunts at bottom. But this time we get to venture beyond Ankh-Morpork to other locations on the Disc. Counterintuitively with this last, the game as a whole is a bit smaller — and yet this is by no means a bad thing. The combinatorial explosion is much reduced, thanks to fewer locations, fewer objects, almost no red herrings, an absence of dead ends, and a much more concentrated effort to calibrate the puzzles to that sweet spot which lies equidistant from the trivial and the impossible. Discworld II isn’t an easy game; its puzzle-dependency chains are sometimes nested a dozen layers deep. Yet it is a soluble one, with puzzles that make a modicum of sense on the vast majority of occasions. Rincewind even deigns to say something other than “That doesn’t work!” some of the time when you try something that, well, doesn’t work. And the world of the game is even more of a delight than last time just to explore, being stuffed to the brim with eccentric characters and curious sights. Meaty, funny, generous, and yet unabashedly traditionalist, it succeeds in actually being everything its predecessor tried but failed to be.


Josh Kirby again provided the cover art for Discworld II.

Eric Idle, who was always Monty Python’s go-to song-and-dance man, contributed an original song to Discworld II.

On a “Holy Wood” set, complete with troll security for the actors’ trailers.

You can move around on a larger world map this time. Notice the Luggage swimming behind Rincewind’s ship.

Visiting Death’s home, which is as Gothic chic as a Bauhaus song.

Oh, my, what’s happened here? In one of the best gags in a game that delights in pulverizing the fourth wall at every opportunity, Rincewind 2.0 gets transported for a few minutes back into the world of Discworld I, where he meets his low-res counterpart.


Thanks to already-built tools and the outsourcing of the animation, Perfect Entertainment was able to finish their second Discworld game in less than eighteen months, and Psygnosis released it in late 1996. By this time the adventure market in the United States was showing undeniable signs of mushiness, but it was still holding up comparatively well in Britain and Germany; Broken Sword, another homegrown British production from Revolution Software, would be a substantial hit that holiday season. Still, a sense of gloom was creeping in even on this side of the Atlantic. Discworld II testifies to this with a considerable amount of gallows humor about its genre. “Aren’t you gonna miss it when they stop making these games?” says Rincewind at one point.

Discworld II did reasonably well in the friendliest markets, but not as well as the first game. And it again made even less of an impact in the United States, despite a gushing review from Scorpia, Computer Gaming World‘s long-tenured, infamously cantankerous adventure columnist. “It’s been too long since I could unreservedly recommend a game,” she wrote. “I can do it now.”

Between its computer and console versions, Discworld II sold just well enough to justify one more game. This would be a brave effort which eschewed the low-hanging fruit of cartoon comedy in favor of a dramatically different direction, enough so as to justify comparisons with Equal Rites, the Terry Pratchett novel which proved that the literary Discworld was more than just a fantasy version of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. We’ll turn to that final Discworld computer game to date, as well as the later years in Pratchett’s life and literary career, in due course, in another article.

For now, though, let me echo Scorpia’s unreserved endorsement of Discworld II. Its predecessor is an interesting but badly flawed creation, best left for hardcore fans of Rincewind who are willing to play with a walkthrough by their side, but the sequel deserves to be better remembered today as the minor classic it is. It represents the Discworld comedy game perfected.

(Sources: the books The Magic of Terry Pratchett by Marc Burrows and Terry Pratchett’s Discworld: The Official Strategy Guide by Glen Eldridge; Starlog of August 1990; CD-ROM Today of April 1995; Computer Gamer of January 1987; Computer Gaming World of June 1995 and May 1997; Computer and Video Games of September 1986; Electronic Entertainment of July 1995; GameFan of September 1997; Next Generation of August 1997; PC Zone of January 1995, August 1996, November 1996, and May 1999; PC Powerplay of November 1996 and July 1997; Sinclair User of December 1986; The One of September 1993; Retro Gamer 94 and 164.

None of the Discworld game are available for legal purchase today, doubtless due to complications with the literary license. Thankfully, Perfect Entertainment’s Discworld and Discworld II are available in ready-to-play Windows versions on The Collection Chamber. Mac and Linux users can import the data files there into their computer’s version of ScummVM.)

Thursday, 04. August 2022

Choice of Games LLC

A Mage Reborn: Book One by Adam Alamsyah

Hosted Games has a new game for you to play! Walk the path of a legendary mage, and uncover the dark secrets of your heritage! Will you seek revenge, or pursue a path to reconciliation? It’s 25% off until August 11th! “A Mage Reborn: Book One” is a thrilling 154,000-word interactive fantasy novel written by Adam Alamsyah. It’s entirely text-based—without graphics or sound effects—and fu

Hosted Games has a new game for you to play!

Walk the path of a legendary mage, and uncover the dark secrets of your heritage! Will you seek revenge, or pursue a path to reconciliation? It’s 25% off until August 11th!

“A Mage Reborn: Book One” is a thrilling 154,000-word interactive fantasy novel written by Adam Alamsyah. It’s entirely text-based—without graphics or sound effects—and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination.

You’ve spent many years on the run from your turbulent past, outmaneuvering your darkest demons for as long as you can remember. After a short stint of hard-earned peace in a village where no one knows your secrets, you are once again thrown headfirst into danger and excitement. An expansive web of royal politics and magical intrigue threatens to swallow the continent whole, and you find yourself right in the thick of the action.

The world churns with danger and arcane secrets at every turn, and the task of navigating it has fallen to you. Will your fearsome powers see you safely to the other side? What kind of legacy will you leave behind?

  • Play as a man, woman, or non-binary.
  • Walk the path of a legendary mage, combining four different schools of magic to devastating effects.
  • Find love with a warrior king or an aspiring saintess, weaving the start of a romance that transcends lifetimes.
  • Sift through the memories of your past, and decide how they will determine your future.
  • Uncover the secrets of your dark heritage, and harness the tremendous powers that course through your bloodline.
  • Strike a bargain with arcane deities beyond your ken, and invoke their powers on the field of battle—at a steep price.
  • Rise to lofty heights as the right hand of royalty, and navigate a fall from grace that results in your execution.
  • Prime yourself for revenge or reconciliation, while the truths of the world slowly unfold around you.

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Pride and Prejudice and Murder—He’s proud, she’s prejudiced, someone’s dead!

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“Pride and Prejudice and Murder” is a 210,000 word interactive murder-mystery novel by Abigail Shaffer Fuller and Michael Gray, where your choices control the story. It’s entirely text-based—without graphics or sound effects—and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination.

In a room full of loved ones, one of them is a coldblooded killer. Who can be trusted? And what secrets lie hidden underneath a well-crafted murder?

Solve the crime by navigating through multiple pathways and multiple choices. Read the story through the narrator of your choice in order to see different perspectives. You never know where the next clue will lie, or who has the darkest secret to expose.

  • Expose a killer in this thrilling sequel to Jane Austen’s classic novel
  • Watch the mystery unfold through more than 10 different narrators
  • Play out multiple endings
  • Interact with all of the classic Pride and Prejudice characters
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Wade's Important Astrolab

Andromeda Acolytes Kickstarter is live!

My exciting news is that today I launched my Kickstarter for my sci-fi text adventure Andromeda Acolytes:♦Here's the page:https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/wadeclarke/andromeda-acolytes-a-state-of-the-art-sci-fi-text-adventureI'm running the Kickstarter campaign for three weeks. I think the resulting game will be a novel and exciting one, bringing longer form character POV to a parser-driven adv

My exciting news is that today I launched my Kickstarter for my sci-fi text adventure Andromeda Acolytes:

Andromeda Acolytes banner

Here's the page:

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/wadeclarke/andromeda-acolytes-a-state-of-the-art-sci-fi-text-adventure

I'm running the Kickstarter campaign for three weeks. I think the resulting game will be a novel and exciting one, bringing longer form character POV to a parser-driven adventure while keeping the sci-fi, puzzling and mystery elements that define the Andromeda games initiated by Marco Innocenti in 2011's Andromeda Awakening.

If this is something you'd like to see realised – or you suspect you'd like to see it realised but perhaps need a bit more seduction via the information-richness of my Kickstarter page – please visit that page. I hope you'll back me! And don't forget to spruik the link to anyone and anything you think might be interested.

In this blog and in Planet-IFfy circles, it's a relief that I don't have to sell the idea of a text game or interactive fiction in the first place. I thought I might instead say something about the first chapter of the game, which I've released as a playable demo:

https://wadeclarke.com/ifdemos/andacdemo/

I had minor nerves that this chapter might not be showy enough for the Kickstarter. The early chapters introduce different PCs, one per chapter, and in each case the chapter begins during what is a normal day in the life of that PC on the planet Monarch. If you're familiar with the scale of recent parser games, you might already note that it's not usual for a parser game to introduce PCs at such length.

Also, I'd say the first PC, Korhva, is the least demonstrative and most reserved of the cast. This makes her a little more challenging to write, and maybe harder to get a handle on.

Nevertheless, the first chapter is the starting place for the story, so I never really considered using anything else. It's also technically strong. I started this work in 2019, so the first chapter's had more testing than any other.

If you back the game or spread the word or help me in any way, I offer you my sincerest thanks.

Wednesday, 03. August 2022

Gold Machine

Parsercomp: Brian Rushton (The Impossible Stairs)

Introducing Brian Rushton The Interactive Fiction Database is, among other things, a repository of player-written game reviews. A new visitor to the site will soon deduce a) that there have been a lot of interactive fiction games and b) that there have been many, many reviews of said games. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that I […] The post Parsercomp: Brian Rushton (The Impossible Stairs

Introducing Brian Rushton

The Interactive Fiction Database is, among other things, a repository of player-written game reviews. A new visitor to the site will soon deduce a) that there have been a lot of interactive fiction games and b) that there have been many, many reviews of said games. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that I first visited to read reviews of (all) the Infocom games. One day, I might write a critical survey of Infocom games (a survey of criticism, rather)—do people really rate Zork Zero more highly than Zork I? In particular, do people who join websites about interactive fiction rate Zork Zero more highly than Zork I?

I am getting off-track. One of the things I noticed while reading these reviews (and even after drifting into non-Infocom territory) was that one name seemed to appear in every list of reviews: mathbrush. “My goodness,” I thought, “this person has played bunches of interactive fiction.” I didn’t know the half of it. Mathbrush is the username of Brian Rushton, the IFDB’s most prolific reviewer (2,487 at press time!). What I have only recently realized is that Rushton is a prolific developer as well: his IFDB page lists 21 author credits.

His most recent game, The Impossible Stairs, is a ParserComp 2022 entry. I reviewed it and other ParserComp games in a thread at the Interactive Fiction Community Forum. For those readers who would rather not visit the thread: I enjoyed it quite a bit. The Impossible Stairs has interesting yet accessible mechanics and stands out as a highly polished, competition ready game. It has an understated emotional weight that never oversells or feels manipulative. I was happy to have a chance to talk to Rushton about his experiences with the IF community generally and his new game specifically.

A Possible Interview

[Note: This interview was conducted during the ParserComp judging period but held until after judging closed. Some text has been edited for clarity, but in all cases my editorial priority was preserving the content of Rushton’s comments in total. DSC]

dREW cOOK

While the focus of this discussion will be craft, I think we should start with introductions. What is your IF origin story? How did you discover it, what did you love about it, and how did you get involved with the contemporary interactive fiction community (if that wasn’t your introduction, that is)?

Brian Rushton

I found it when I was already an adult. I had seen Zork and educational games as a kid but wasn’t really into them.

I got a tablet in 2010 and needed games to play on it. I remembered Zork existed, so I tried to find it, and instead found an interpreter called Frotz bundled with a bunch of games. I was hooked! I loved Curses!, which is still my favorite game, and Anchorhead.

But I got married and gave it up for mutual hobbies instead.

Five years later, I got back into it, replaying Anchorhead, and never left. I noticed that a ton of games on IFDB didn’t have any reviews, so I started trying to play every IFComp game and then Infocom games so I could review them all.

I thought the field was dead, so I was excited to find out IFComp was still going. I entered that year and met a lot of other authors that I still talk to today. I got hooked into entering competitions and reviewing games. I’m almost up to 2500 reviews!

Drew Cook

Your review count is pretty incredible. I think you’ve reviewed more games than most people will ever play. As an author of IF, which of those titles stand out to you as influential? What’s special about those games?

Brian Rushton

For influential games on the genre as a whole, I’d say:

Adventure. I’ve only played Inform ports, but it’s surprisingly complex and self-referential. It has clever puzzles and is poetic at times. There were a few text games before, but this is the genre-definer.

Zork: so much has been said about this I can’t really say more. Inspired by Adventure but had an even wider audience and a ton of innovations.

Curses!: my personal favorite. It showed that an amateur language could be as powerful as the Infocom language, and it ran on the same interpreters, which gave a huge boost to Inform’s adoption.

John’s Fire Witch: A 2-hour game at a time most games were epics. Specifically, it was the inspiration for IFComp, there are several direct quotes from the old forums about it.

A Change in the Weather: More than Photopia 3 years later, I think this game marked the sea change between zany adventures and “literary” interactive fiction becoming popular.

Howling Dogs: This game really made people stand up and pay attention to Twine as a serious contender for making IF games. There was another very good choice-based game in earlier years, The Play, but this one attracted many direct imitators.

There are other games that were great but no one successfully imitated (Galatea, Violet, Blue Lacuna, etc.), or are masterpieces of craft without a lot of innovation (Anchorhead, Wizard Sniffer), or are too recent to tell if they’ll have a lasting impact (Detectiveland, Impossible Bottle).

I probably missed some, but these are the first ones I thought of.

Drew Cook

When I began to lurk the IF community a couple of years ago, I noticed that your name kept popping up on IFDB review lists, but I didn’t realize you were an author, too. It sounds like you wrote a competition game (Ether, I think) soon after your return to IF in 2015?

How did that come together? Had you always been interested in writing a game? Did you have any background in programming?

Brian Rushton

I had a big goal to play and review all the great games I could find, but I also wanted to analyze them and find patterns.

I realized that there were some mechanics that no one had really done effectively, and I felt I wanted to do those things “right”. For this game, I wanted to make a three-dimensional environment, as I found that most games either didn’t have vertical motion or handled it weirdly. (Later I found games written before mine that were great at this, like Threediopolis).

I was nervous writing a game, so I asked for help from beta testers, and I found some amazing ones, like Andrew Schultz and Sean Shore, who helped me and many others than and for years after. Having a lot of beta testers became a major thing for me after that.

So my game was meant to be about 3d movement. I had also made a “toy” IF game with one room before this about Abraham and Isaac that required players to search gravel to find some gloves. No one who tested them found them, so I resolved in this game to make everything obviously visible so no one missed anything.

That’s how I ended up making a game about a flying nautilus in a 5x5x5 grid where you have to catch and use various objects. I had fun making it, and years later commissioned new artwork for it.

I tried to reach for some emotional moments in the game, but Emily Short and several others pointed out that the game hadn’t properly set them up, and that really shook me, so much that I avoided emotional descriptions and overt feelings in games for years afterwards. Looking back now, I can completely see where they were coming from. All in all, I was really happy to place in the top 10.

…You have to listen to testers and be open to change. There’s no point in getting feedback if you won’t act on it.

Drew Cook

I would be, too. From my inexperienced POV, IF Comp is the most challenging of the annual competitions. I’m glad you mentioned beta testing. Testing came up in one of our previous emails, and I agree that it makes all the difference.

In a lot of fields, there’s a sort of auteur perspective that can overshadow the work of other contributors. Infocom’s testing department, for instance, was the gold standard at the time. They had brilliant marketing and editorial staff. Those people hardly ever come up on Infocom fan pages, though. It’s refreshing to see that type of work acknowledged in contemporary IF. Since you’ve given testing a lot of thought (as designer and as tester), could you speak a bit about beta testing? What does a good tester do? How does an author effectively collaborate with testers?

Brian Rushton

Different testers have different strengths. Andrew Schultz is one tester who helps tons of people all the time; his strength is trying out all of the standard actions and checking thoroughly for mechanical errors.

Another tester, Ade McTavish, author of games like Worldsmith and 15 Minutes, has been really good at providing overall feedback for tone, story, and puzzle design.

One thing all good testers do for parser games is keep a transcript with anything the author should notice commented on, usually with an asterisk * or some other symbol in front to draw attention to it. Seeing how the game played out is very useful, especially when text is generated dynamically and causes problems you couldn’t see before.

As for how to best collaborate, there is a lot of debate about that. There was a thread on intfiction.org recently about how many testers to have. Some said 4-5, because any more would mean there won’t be enough to play and review it. Most of them mentioned doing testing for a couple of weeks at the end.

But I like to start testing very early, as soon as the framework is in place. Early testers can see big problems, like whole sections that need fleshing out or removing. About 1/3 of the puzzles in my game Impossible Stairs were added because testers suggested making the game larger (this includes the recipe, crossword puzzle book, etc.) and the intro and ending scenes and almost all dialog in my game came from tester feedback.

Overall, I always shoot for 20 testers but have always ended up with at most 14. When people stop finding things to fix, the game is done. I usually shoot for 4-5 months of testing interspersed with fixing; the longer the game is, the more time it spends in testing.

The last thing I’d say is that you have to listen to testers and be open to change. There’s no point in getting feedback if you won’t act on it. I had one very late tester who had great suggestions that I couldn’t implement because there was only a week left and it would involve a lot of interconnected systems. I should have given myself more time so I could properly act on his ideas!

Drew Cook

While most of your games seem to be written in Inform 7, I noticed some Twine games, a ChoiceScript game, and now, with your latest effort, Dialog. What have you learned from these different platforms? I imagine that each has advantages.

Brian Rushton

Part of [the appeal of] writing games for me has been the challenge, which is true for a lot of people. So I enjoy exploring some of the other tools.

I learned Twine partly to teach it to others. I ran a Twine camp at my school, and taught my son Twine at 5, which he used to make a bunch of fun games.

I learned Choicescript purely for financial motives. Choicescript games are financially viable, with contracts running into thousands of dollars. I had gotten into debt for vet bills and needed to get my (now ex-)wife a wheelchair van, so I submitted an application and got a contract. I also got a contract with a big publisher who had a secret new app coming out, and wrote a Twine game, but the company shut down the division.

Commercial writing was excruciating and honestly traumatizing. I like Inform’s system-based design and like fleshing out a skeleton game, while Choicescript and the commercial publishers are centered around linear writing, one chapter at a time. I struggled to finish the game, and it is now the worst-selling game in Choicescript history!

Learning Dialog was, to me, part of the prize to Linus [the author of The Impossible Bottle]. Not a lot of people have written Dialog games, and he won the IFComp prize I submitted where I’d write a game in his world. He said I didn’t have to use Dialog, but I thought I’d honor him. It’s a great system, best suited for people who want a traditional programming language rather than Inform’s natural language. I’m going to go back to Inform, but I’d much rather use Dialog than ADRIFT, Quest, or Adventuron, all of which I’ve poked around with a bit. All of those focus on single interactions (eating an apple, or swimming in a lake), while Dialog and Inform are system-based (rules for eating in general or for all apples).

Drew Cook

I’m glad you’ve mentioned Linus Åkesson. For readers who don’t follow the contemporary IF scene closely, Åkesson’s game The Impossible Bottle was a massive critical success. It tied for first place in the 2020 IF Competition, and additionally received a handful of nominations (and wins) at the 2020 XYZZY Awards (a sort of ‘Oscars’ for interactive fiction). It’s proven quite popular at the IFDB, with high ratings and many user reviews.

Meanwhile, you had pledged to write an in-universe game as a prize for IFComp. When Åkesson won first prize in IFComp, you were committed to writing a game in the same world as his game, The Impossible Bottle. Do I have this right?

How did it feel, knowing you would write a follow-up game to such a blockbuster hit?

Brian Rushton

You have the situation right.

I felt excited to make a sequel. I’ve done it twice before, and it’s a real win-win-win. IF is a small field, and no IF author is going to get stopped by people on the street asking for autographs. It’s hard to feel validation for being great.

So offering this prize to IFComp winners provides a concrete way to validate their work. I spent many hours on the games; I spend a long time studying their old games; so it helps the authors feel seen.

I benefit from using pre-existing characters and settings that have a fan base.

And players benefit from having more games in a series they already enjoyed.

So I didn’t really feel intimidated, since all of these benefits could still happen if I made a bad sequel. That actually happened with my first sequel, The Origin of Madame Time. I was trying to write it while working on both my commercial contracts and finishing a giant Introcomp Sherlock Holmes game, and the quality really suffered.

But I think Impossible Stairs turned out okay. Linus liked it, and the prize was for him!

Drew Cook

That’s a great way to look at it. I know that if someone spent that kind of time on my poetry, I would be quite flattered no matter what came of it!

Since making sequels to other peoples’ games is an experience a lot of us will never have, what’s your initial approach? What things do you believe make a good sequel?

Brian Rushton

For sequels I try to target people who liked the first game and wanted to play more of it.

I try to identify what worked in the first game and emulate it. That usually means similar tone and mechanics.

My first sequel was to a superhero game, so I included a bunch of superheroes with weird powers. The second game I wrote a sequel to, Alias the Magpie, had a very dynamic main character and was centered on heists, so I centered the game around that character and theft.

But Impossible Bottle had characters that were very archetypal (Dad, Mom, etc.), which was hard to directly emulate. So instead, I tried focusing on the mechanic. Impossible Bottle had a consistent mechanic (don’t want to spoil it) involving space that didn’t require any special actions from the player outside of the usual take, drop, go, etc.

So for my sequel I wanted a time-based mechanic (to contrast with space) that also didn’t require any special commands. That was my starting point.

Drew Cook

The primary mechanic works really well in that regard. It not only works without special commands, but it also makes intuitive sense. I don’t recall needing an explanation or instructions, either. It’s almost a magical realism-type experience in that both characters and narrator talk about the time mechanic is a very matter of fact, nonplussed way. Did this mechanic evolve over time? Or did you get it right the first time?

Brian Rushton

It evolved only in the design notes. I like to sketch out things on paper ahead of time or play around with ideas in my head for a while. I was thinking about this game on and off for about a year and a half before I really started it, because I was busy completing my last game.

I originally wanted a calendar you’d flip, or something like a clock, but both of those would require fiddly interactions and players would most likely try all sorts of commands (like FLIP PAGE or WIND CLOCK). I eventually settled on stairs because of the Klein bottle in Impossible Bottle, which reminded me of the Klein bottle in Trinity, which has a similar mechanic to what ended up in my game.

Drew Cook

You mentioned earlier that some reviews criticized Ether for its attempts at emotional moments in the game. How do you feeling about emotions and games you’ve written recently? I’m not the only reviewer that picked up on an undercurrent in The Impossible Stairs where we are reminded of the way loss and time seem to be inseparable. I found this to be moving without being cheap or manipulative (a common pitfall in my opinion). I also know that testing influenced this feature of the game.

What are your thoughts on this part of the experience of playing your game? I think it will resonate with many players. What are your thoughts generally on emotionally potent games? In my old writing days, I would have said that such games have something at stake, or that a writer has risked something. It’s risky because people tend to react strongly when it isn’t done well. My favorite post-Infocom games tend to risk something emotionally.

Brian Rushton

Well, I changed recently on emotional things. I’m a math teacher at a high school, but I also teach a creative writing elective. Some of the students are very smart, and we workshopped all of our projects together. One of the students suggested my static fiction focuses a ton on descriptions and almost none on emotions, probably due to my IF background.

So I looked up some writing tips and decided to include some more specific emotional descriptions.

For this game, though, I still wanted to hold back. I decided to present just plain facts that people could draw conclusions from. I had both of my closest grandparents die two years ago, and I felt their loss a lot. I thought that just having family in the game that clearly pass away as they age (indicated through graves or, later, a memory wall) would be enough for people to project their own feelings.

Then, like you said, testers wanted more than just the wall, and that’s where more characterization and conversation came from.

And I think that’s a good path and another argument for extended beta testing. Keeping things mild at first and only adding on when people want more helps keep from being maudlin.

I agree about games that take risks! One of my favorite games, Creatures Such as We, is a very bold risk for a game, self-referential and with very little state tracking. Even when such games strongly resonate with one person, they don’t reach everyone. Some games like that. They mean a lot to me when I play them, and I try to review them kindly. I’ve never written a game like that; I always coldly calculate what I think will please, and don’t really make games from the heart.

Drew Cook

As a final question, you made what I considered an insightful twitter thread about the ofttimes awkward pairing of new IF technologies and competition games a few weeks before ParserComp. In retrospect, it seemed prophetic. ParserComp featured a number of homebrew engines in various stages of completion. There were also some lively conversations about what might be and might not be a parser game.

As someone who’s played a ton of IF, closely watched many competitions, and authored many games: what do you think the prospects are for innovations in the IF technology space? And would anyone notice? When playing competition entries, I expect games to run as well as a solidly made Inform or Twine game. It’s not a good forum for introducing shaky but promising tech—not to me, anyway.

Looking forward: can you think of any features that would constitute a breakthrough in the IF tech space? Do you think they’ll come? Any other thoughts on the future of IF?

Brian Rushton

I think most growth in interactive fiction is lateral rather than linear. It doesn’t get better and better; it branches out into new directions and ideas of equal worth to the old ones.

Parser IF is limited in two ways. One is that any innovation still has to be compelling as a game; if you have a brilliant technical idea but don’t have a solid storyline or puzzle mechanic, it will fail. Conversely any game with at least one of those two things can thrive no matter the platform.

It’s also limited because it’s a rear-facing, retro community focused on obsolete technology. IF already evolved into point-and-click Adventure games, Roguelikes, Mystlikes, and Eye of the Beholder-type games. The future of IF happened 35 years ago.

Looking back over IF history, it seems like most IF innovations were trends more than advances. Puzzleless games first became popular a few years before and after 2000. The influx of Twine from 2012-2014 and ongoing brought a lot of imitation in parsers through the use of menus (like in Brain Guzzlers from Beyond) or limited parser vocabulary (like Arthur DiBianca’s games).

I expect in the next few years to see continued parser-choice hybrids, more attempts at voice-based IF (I think a game like Toby’s Nose or Weird City Interloper would be a great fit for that medium, since repeated movement commands are annoying out loud), and a few more AI experiments. I think the fundamentals of strong stories and strong puzzles will continue to be the main criteria for success.

Drew Cook

This has been great. Thanks for answering my questions in such detail! I’m sure readers will appreciate it.

Brian Rushton

Thanks, it’s been a lot of fun!

Coming Soon

Gold Machine’s final ParserComp interview will be published next Monday. Join us for a lively conversation about craft, poetry, and the relatively unexplored field of aesthetics in IF.

As always, you can track me down here, on Twitter, or over at the Interactive Fiction forum.

[All images generated by Craiyon]

The post Parsercomp: Brian Rushton (The Impossible Stairs) appeared first on Gold Machine.

Sunday, 31. July 2022

Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling

End of July Link Assortment

Events August 6 is the next meetup of the San Francisco Bay IF Meetup, and will be conducted online. The next virtual meetup of the Seattle/Tacoma IF group will be on Sunday, August 21, from 2 – 4 PM PDT via Discord. (This month they’re playing Pytho’s Mask.) In early September, inkJam will be running to … Continue reading "End of July Link Assortment"

Events

August 6 is the next meetup of the San Francisco Bay IF Meetup, and will be conducted online.

The next virtual meetup of the Seattle/Tacoma IF group will be on Sunday, August 21, from 2 – 4 PM PDT via Discord. (This month they’re playing Pytho’s Mask.)

In early September, inkJam will be running to encourage new games written in Ink.

Meanwhile, if you’d like to submit an entry to IFComp this year, you can register your intent to participate as an author any time between now and September 1, and make sure you’re getting email and updates about the competition as the deadline approaches. Actual games will be due September 28.

Inform Evolution

Narrascope has been running yesterday and today. Yesterday, Graham Nelson gave a talk on proposals for upcoming Inform features; the ones under current development/discussion are listed on github.

Among those is a longish proposal for expanding Inform to do better dialogue handling, to which I contributed fairly extensively.

It’s designed to

  • support scripting of dialogue for both parser- and choice-based interfaces
  • dovetail with Inform’s world model, letting authors script a combination of dialogue and in-world action
  • let authors write long continuous flows of dialogue, short re-mixable chunks, or some of each
  • allow for lines that belong to specific characters but also lines that can be cast to an appropriate speaker at runtime (e.g. a line for “Any angry person”)
  • provide some affordances to support localisation and VO (assuming the author isn’t getting too procedural with the internal content of lines)

    This is a proposal at the moment rather than a finished thing, but it’s definitely slotted for development.

New Curiosities

Folly is software to let people play Z-machine parser games on a Remarkable tablet, giving their input in the form of handwritten notes with the ebook pen. There are some fun images of it in play here.

Thursday, 28. July 2022

Choice of Games LLC

The Dragon and the Djinn—You hold a djinn in a bottle. Make a wish!

We’re proud to announce that The Dragon and the Djinn, 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” app. It’s 40% off until August 4th! You hold a djinn in a bottle. Make a wish! Will you slay the dragon, or overthrow the emir? Or will you free the djinn, and

We’re proud to announce that The Dragon and the Djinn, 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” app.

It’s 40% off until August 4th!

You hold a djinn in a bottle. Make a wish! Will you slay the dragon, or overthrow the emir? Or will you free the djinn, and accept the consequences?

The Dragon and the Djinn is a 710,000 word interactive Arab epic fantasy novel by Athar Fikry, 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.

A dragon terrorizes the grand city of Ghariba – the same dragon that slew the city’s emira. Now a new emir, Alaaeldin, sits upon the throne. He throws lavish parties for the nobility while religious and social unrest churns beneath the city’s surface – and as the dragon’s devastating attacks worsen day by day.

You have come to Ghariba in pursuit of your sister. She stole the magical sword that you made, claiming that it is her destiny to slay the dragon.

But your destiny finds you instead. Jaafar, the Grand Wazir, hands you an unexplained gift, the most precious and dangerous thing of all: a djinn who will grant your every wish. (You may wish as many times as you like! Wish and wish and wish, until your djinn has had enough, twists your words against you, and destroys you with your own wishes.)

With your djinn in your hands, every faction is now vying for your aid. You must use your wits, your words, your strength, and your magic to navigate the politics of the palace, the city, and even the world beyond.

How will you use your wishes? Will you protect Ghariba from the dragon by helping your sister? Will you slay the dragon yourself? Will you listen to those who consider it sacred and want to keep it safe? Will you be able to unravel the mystery behind the dragon’s sudden appearance? Or will you simply take advantage of the chaos to make yourself the richest person in Ghariba?

• Play as male, female, or nonbinary; gay, straight, or bi; cis or trans; aromantic, asexual, or both, with many shadings of asexuality!
• Race through the skies on a magic carpet.
• Use your djinn to wish for information, wealth, and more – or free the djinn and discover even more wonders.
• Slay a dragon – or save it, and help it speak so that it can tell you its secrets.
• Achieve your destiny as a grand magician, a silver-tongued poet, the protector of the realm, or something even greater.
• Secure the reign of Emir Alaaeldin or join forces with those who would depose him—and even take the throne for yourself!
• Find love with a dragon-slaying warrior, a charming court poet, an idealistic prophet, a lofty priestess, a wealthy noble—or even a djinn!

Be careful what you wish for…

We hope you enjoy playing The Dragon and the Djinn. 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.

Tuesday, 26. July 2022

Zarf Updates

I am a person who bought a Steam Deck

Last year I pre-ordered a Steam Deck. I said it seemed like an "obvious winner move on Valve's part". People want a portable that plays their Steam library. I like a big screen for some kinds of games, but then there are little thinky puzzlers which I want to pick up and play one or two levels over lunch. For that, a portable device is ideal.Supply chains being what they are, my Steam Deck shipped
Last year I pre-ordered a Steam Deck. I said it seemed like an "obvious winner move on Valve's part". People want a portable that plays their Steam library. I like a big screen for some kinds of games, but then there are little thinky puzzlers which I want to pick up and play one or two levels over lunch. For that, a portable device is ideal.
Supply chains being what they are, my Steam Deck shipped just about exactly a year after my pre-order went in. And then shipping was a bit of a clown show. (No props to Fedex for delivering my package to the building next door, where it sat in the lobby for three days... but I got it eventually.)
I've only tried out a few games so far. But: so far, I like it! The thing does what I want. Mission success.
Yes, it is big and clunky. It is not a carry-everywhere-in-your-bag device like an iPad or a Switch. It's a hang-out-on-the-coffee-table device.
The biggest constraint on the hardware is obviously the Intel architecture. Steam (Windows) games are x86 binaries, so the Steam Deck can't go ARM like every other portable device. That means it sucks power like a newborn calf. If calves sucked electricity. You know what I mean. The Steam Deck's battery is more than twice the size of the Switch's, and reviews are still frowny about the play time. (Another reason to keep it on the coffee-table -- next to the charger.)
(But, again, I didn't buy this thing to play God of War. 2D puzzle games are way less battery strain.)
The good news is the OS. It's Linux. Nobody cares! It doesn't matter! Windows games just run. Proton (WINE) is that solid now.
The compatibility headaches I ran into were all about input. The thing is definitely thumbstick-first, touchscreen second, keyboard a distant third. Games that support controller input will either work out of the box, or will require minimal updates. Everything else is iffy.
I tried one indie game that I thought supported controller input. Nope, it really wanted WASD keyboard control. I couldn't even get past the "Hit any key to begin" prompt. Another WASD-and-mouse game was playable -- the thumbsticks worked and it accepted touchscreen input -- but the screen was too small or my fingers too fat for the "mouse control" to be practical.
The Steam Deck UI has extensive support for customizing each game's controller input. I haven't looked at it much because I want things to magically work. In theory, even if a game doesn't have official controller support, players can contribute mappings (under "Community Layouts"). I'm not seeing it yet, but as I said, I've only looked at a handful of games.
Naturally, I've tested my own games! Here's what I've got:
Meanwhile magically works. This is where Valve's efforts really pay off. Meanwhile uses a five-year-old Unity build with a third-party controller toolkit grafted on, and it works perfectly on Steam Deck.
The only nuisance is that you have to click through the pick-your-resolution dialog box when you launch. This requires a touchscreen tap to hit "Ok". After that, controller buttons work as expected. You can play directly on the touchscreen, too -- that's no problem.
(I will do my best to get rid of the launch dialog in a future build.)
Hadean Lands, um, not so magical. Don't bother trying. It runs but the on-screen keyboard covers up half the screen. And then the keyboard gets confused and starts flickering on and off. Not playable.
The Steam developer SDK must have ways to stick the keyboard in place and position the game window above it. But plumbing that into the Lectrote interpreter (Electron framework) is probably not worth it. The screen is small, the on-screen keyboard is small, you're locked in landscape mode. This is not a device for lots of typing.
(I thought maybe a bluetooth keyboard? But I couldn't get mine to pair with the Steam Deck. Oh well.)
Upshot for Windows developers: I think Steam Deck support is now a big deal. Surprise: your game already runs on Linux! Test it, yeah, but don't be scared. But: you must have game controller support if that makes sense for your game at all. If not, dive into Steam's controller template docs and start tweaking.
And raise a glass to the Proton/WINE people. This is their moment of quiet glory.

Monday, 25. July 2022

Choice of Games LLC

Author Interview: Athar Fikry, The Dragon and the Djinn

You hold a djinn in a bottle. Make a wish! Will you slay the dragon, or overthrow the emir? Or will you free the djinn, and accept the consequences? The Dragon and the Djinn is a 710,000 word interactive Arab epic fantasy novel by Athar Fikry. I sat down with Athar to discuss the genesis of the game and its lore. The Dragon and the Djinn releases this Thursday, July 28th. You can play the first fou

You hold a djinn in a bottle. Make a wish! Will you slay the dragon, or overthrow the emir? Or will you free the djinn, and accept the consequences? The Dragon and the Djinn is a 710,000 word interactive Arab epic fantasy novel by Athar Fikry. I sat down with Athar to discuss the genesis of the game and its lore. The Dragon and the Djinn releases this Thursday, July 28th. You can play the first four chapters for free, today. 

This is such an incredible game, vastly different from anything we have published before. Tell me about your background and the genesis of this story.

Thank you, you’re far too kind. Here’s hoping for a slew of games in The Dragon and the Djinn’s vein to follow!

The genesis of this story, now that I think about it, probably started when I was listening to a podcast summarizing the original Aladdin story. Now, I’m Egyptian, so the Aladdin story and other stories from 1001 Nights have been a sort of ambient noise in the background for a lot of my life. There was a local radio series about them ages ago, plenty of pop culture references and so on, but listening to it in English was a different experience. I’m sure other bilinguals can relate—things live in different parts of my brain in different languages, and the fantasy writer part is in English.

So when Aladdin wished for a palace and servants and riches, my fantasy writer brain sat up and said, “Hang on, where did they come from?”

Because djinn aren’t all-powerful. They can’t create from nothing. In the Muslim tradition I was raised in—and take this with a grain of salt, because I’m not Muslim anymore—it’s emphasized that even when djinn can seem to have knowledge of the future, for instance, it’s only because they eavesdropped on heaven. No phenomenal cosmic powers here. So if Aladdin’s genie can’t know the unknown or click his fingers and make something from nothing, where did it all come from?

Then I smashed that together with my fascination for people adjacent to Chosen Ones and here we are, a truly absurd number of words later.

What about the djinn legends intrigued you as a setting for interactive fiction?

The thing is, djinn aren’t quite legends here in Egypt. Not really. They’re mentioned in the Quran and therefore many people consider them very real, just the sort of real you don’t tend to talk about. For me, djinn have always lived in that sort of in-between space where you scoff at the superstition in the bright light of morning and then it’s half-dark and you’re alone in the house and rushing past a mirror in your hallway, chased by the whisper of what if?

Djinn are versatile too, which is very fun. Supposedly, they live in a world adjacent to ours, but also in the hidden spaces of our world. They have different powers and rankings, some are good and some are bad, some are tied to you and some want to lure you to a horrible end and some live their lives as far away from humans as they can get. There’s a lot of material to play with here.

You’re obviously very steeped in fantasy lore–what books, games, artwork, or films inspired you as you were writing this game?

I have a very distinct memory of this one time I was reading S.A. Chakraborty’s The City of Brass on my phone at work, and I remember coming across the word aywa which means yes in Egyptian Arabic, and just…the sheer delight of recognition there. It’s such a small thing, that aywa, but I am often very skeptical of books set in Egypt—more often than not they’re actually set in what I like to call Pyramidland and they just don’t know it—and the bright fizzle of, “Oh that’s mine, I recognize it!” was very heady. Invoking that feeling in others has driven a lot of my writing for this game.

Otherwise, I could go on about my fantasy touchstones—Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series for its voice, the effect of Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Lions of Al-Rassan as the first time I saw an Arab protagonist in a fantasy novel—but truthfully when I was actually writing, I was grabbing inspiration from everywhere I could and very little of it was from epic high-fantasy books.

I looked to translations of Arabic novels like Basma Abdelaziz’s The Queue to see how the translators grappled with communicating the society to a foreign audience. I looked to other SWANA fantasy writers to see how they handled bringing their cultures into made-up worlds, and Somaiya Daud’s Mirage comes to mind. I played a truly ridiculous amount of rpgs to get a feel for choices and when they worked for me and when they made me feel cheated and, needless to say, Disco Elysium was a revelation. I found a lot of inspiration from live play ttrpgs like Dimension 20 for how gleefully they take from, riff off of, and gently poke fun at fantasy tropes. I’ve also been pickling myself in horror audio dramas for the past several years, each a master class in developing atmosphere and distinct character voices. I’m especially fascinated by what Malevolent is doing right now, as an interactive podcast.

But strangely, looking back, I think the most inspiration I got was from a twitter thread. I wish I could find it again now, but I think it was a conversation (or maybe multiple conversations) started by author Jeannette Ng, which emphasized how often creators of color who choose to bring their non-Western cultures to their writing face a certain pressure for their stories to be historically accurate and capital-C Correct and how we should get to be silly with it. So often people expect our creations to be educational and representative of our cultures, and meanwhile European-based fantasies can swan about mixing eras and languages and architectural styles and having potatoes and all sorts of fun. So I decided I also wanted to have fun with my setting.

Don’t get me wrong, I still did an absurd amount of historical research—did you know the Abbasids had ice-based desserts?—but Ghariba is not meant to represent one specific city in one specific time, per se, so much as evoke the general feel of one. I combined historical details with some details of my day-to-day life here in Cairo, mixed Arabic dialects in some cases and in other cases entirely avoided naming things, so as not to tie them to a specific region. I took what I thought was cool and threw away what wasn’t, remixed myths and stories to my liking, and then there’s a bunch of stuff I just invented whole-cloth. It’s been an interesting experiment, and I hope readers have as much fun in this setting as I did.

This game is 700,000 words long, and so is quite the fantasy epic. What were the challenges for you of writing such a long game?

Okay I’m going to be glib for a second here: the main challenge of writing such a long game was…the writing.

No, hang on, hear me out.

The issue was twofold. First, I hadn’t realized quite what a behemoth this game would turn out to be. I knew it would be big, obviously, but it’s a bit like I’d psyched myself up to eat an elephant and then just as I’d finished snacking on its trunk, I realized it was actually just a third of a dragon’s tail and whoo boy, I still had a lot to go. In hindsight, of course, I should have known, considering I start chapter two with the player in four possible locations (pro tip: don’t do this) but when I was mired in the middle it felt like an insurmountable thing. Especially as I started having to deal with the consequences of my very many branches and figure out what could and could not be trimmed back and how to fit it all together. It took me a good long while to just push through.

Second is that…well, it took me a good long while to push through.

I started writing The Dragon and the Djinn in 2018. Now I don’t know about you, but four years is a very long time. I switched careers, got my ADHD diagnosis, developed carpal tunnel, lost my gender somewhere along the way, not to mention witnessed the world becoming, broadly, a trashfire. Each of those things influenced me and changed how I work, how I write, how much I can write, and what I want to write, and so my earlier chapters had to be changed to reflect that as well and whatever couldn’t be reworked, I added to later on. I’m glad I had the time to let the draft grow and develop this way (and I have a lot of appreciation for the CoG team for being flexible enough to give me that time) but the changes I needed to make certainly weren’t helping the workload any.

What do you think will surprise players about The Dragon and the Djinn?

Ooh, that’s difficult to say. I mean, surprise relies largely on expectations, right? And it’s difficult to predict what players’ expectations will be, going into this game. I suppose players may end up surprised by how much Arabic they’re osmosing, because I sure do use a lot of it, or how many stories and myths I’ve chopped up and stuffed into various nooks and crannies throughout.

Or by my horrible Disney’s Aladdin-based jokes because I couldn’t resist.

I also really, really hope my fellow aro and ace players are pleasantly surprised by some of the relationship options I’ve written.

What are you working on next?

I’m currently a contributing writer on Emerald Templars, a dark fantasy ttrpg, and I’ve been having a blast slowly wading into the ttrpg space. I have a few short ttrpgs of my own in the works as well, including at least one that will be set in the world of The Dragon and the Djinn. It’s a Honey Heist hack wherein players are flying carpets, and I think it’s going to be very fun.

Otherwise, I’ve been focusing on short stories, mostly to remind myself I am indeed capable of finishing projects without them turning into nonsense behemoths. To prove me wrong, a new game concept has decided to gently gnaw on my brain. I suppose it was only a matter of time before all the horror I’ve been consuming consumed me as well, and IF seems like the perfect medium for exploring the agency (or lack thereof) of a horror protagonist. Whether it’s with this concept or something else, though, I doubt this will be my last foray into ChoiceScript. I just hope my next will be more…contained, shall we say.


Key & Compass Blog

New walkthroughs for July 2022

On Monday, July 25, 2022, I published new walkthroughs for the games and stories listed below! Some of these were paid for by my wonderful patrons at Patreon. Please consider supporting me to make even more new walkthroughs for works of interactive fiction at Patreon and Ko-fi. Impossible Stairs (2022) by Mathbrush In this puzzling […]

On Monday, July 25, 2022, I published new walkthroughs for the games and stories listed below! Some of these were paid for by my wonderful patrons at Patreon. Please consider supporting me to make even more new walkthroughs for works of interactive fiction at Patreon and Ko-fi.


Impossible Stairs (2022) by Mathbrush

In this puzzling game, you play as CJ, a young woman at her family home who gets a list of chores in an odd way. Did you forget that you have spatio-temporal disjunction? That is, whenever you go upstairs, you go 20 years into the future, and whenever you go downstairs, you go back 20 years into the past, aging or de-aging as appropriate.

This work was written in Dialog and was an entry in ParserComp 2022 where it took NTH place. It’s also an authorized sequel to Impossible Bottle by Linus Åkesson.

IFDB | My walkthrough and map


The Bony King of Nowhere (2017) by Luke A. Jones

In this game, you play as a Northerner living a quiet life in your hovel with your faithful dog, Dylan. When you step outside, a foul-mouthed pigeon drops a letter at your feet, but when you look at it, you learn to your dismay that it’s addressed to the Bony King of Nowhere who lives far to the south, and that you must now deliver the letter personally to the King or be executed. Well that’s just perfect.

This game was written in Quest 5 and was an entry in the Main Festival of Spring Thing 2017. A sequel to this game, Citizen of Nowhere, was published in 2019.

IFDB | My walkthrough and map


FORK: The Great Underground Dining Room (2007) by Chris Federico

In this large puzzle game, you play as someone on vacation who enjoys old video games, especially Atari and Commodore ones. Therefore, you’re at a games convention in this odd hotel, looking for adventure. Explore far enough and who knows what you’ll find? Maybe you’ll even have dinner with some old friends.

CAUTION: Many read-author’s-mind moments.

IFDB | My walkthrough and maps


Text Adventure Collector (2020) by Rex Mundane

In this minimalist-style adventure, you play as someone who wants to collect text adventures. Find ten text adventures and drop them in your basement library to win.

This game was written in Adventuron and was a participant in the Adventuron Treasure Hunt Jam where it took 6th place.

IFDB | My walkthrough and map


Grue (2017) by Charles Mangin

In this tiny adventure, you play as a grue, lurking in your lair. It is pitch black. Your goal is simple: eat a tasty adventurer.

This game was an entry in IF Comp 2017 where it took 54th place.

IFDB | My walkthrough and map


In The Spotlight (1998) by John Byrd

In this tiny one-room puzzler, you are someone whose vision fades while at the computer. The remaining light condenses into a spotlight high above you. All you can see are two dangling strings, a pair of heavy scissors, a wad of cotton, and a matchbook.

This game was an entry in IF Comp 1998 where it took 21st place.

IFDB | My walkthrough and map


A Masochist’s Heaven (2002) by Tne Mad Monk

In this tiny game, you play as a masochist in Heaven, and you don’t like it. You want pain! You want suffering! Find a way to get kicked out of Heaven and into Hell where you belong.

This game was written in ADRIFT 4 and was an entry in the ADRIFT 1st 1-Hour Comp 2002.

IFDB | My walkthrough and map


Mystery! (2016) by Gene Welborn

In this game based on the board game Clue, you play as an investigator summoned to Tudor Mansion to do one last job for Rick Mortis. Unfortunately, you’ll be solving his murder. Who did it where with which weapon? A random solution each time you play.

IFDB | My walkthrough and map


Perilous Magic (1999) by David Fillmore

In this very short fantasy game based on a comment in the Enchanter manual, you play as a civil servant. You need to triplicate a report in the next half hour, but you’re all out of paper.

IFDB | My walkthrough and map


Weird City Interloper (2014) by C.E.J. Pacian

In this game driven exclusively by topics of conversation, you play as a hooded stranger visiting the city of Zendon. Orz, the city gate barnacle, wants to know if you’re here for [trade] or [worship].

At the 2014 XYZZY Awards, this game was a finalist in the Best NPCs category.

IFDB | My walkthrough and map


Gold Machine

You’re My Type: ParserComp 2022

Interviews with ParserComp organizers past and present. What is a ParserComp? Competitions are a pillar of the contemporary interactive fiction scene. They greatly increase an entrant’s prospects for critical attention, and likewise increase a critic’s prospects for being read. This is because a competition is a way to concentrate and centralize the IF conversation around […] The post YouR

Interviews with ParserComp organizers past and present.

What is a ParserComp?

Competitions are a pillar of the contemporary interactive fiction scene. They greatly increase an entrant’s prospects for critical attention, and likewise increase a critic’s prospects for being read. This is because a competition is a way to concentrate and centralize the IF conversation around a pool of contestants. For a month or so, the entrants’ games are played, discussed, and evaluated. These are exciting times for players and authors alike.

As some of you might recall, Gold Machine covered the Spring Thing Festival in April. The focus of that coverage was providing impressions and recommendations for entry games that I had played. During that time, Adam Sommerfield, an organizer for a smaller but well-regarded competition called ParserComp, asked me to write something about it when the time came. Said contest is a natural fit for discussion here at Gold Machine, since it exclusively considers parser-based interactive fiction. A “parser” is a natural language interpreter of text commands. It’s the input mechanism that all Infocom text adventures are based on (even Journey in my opinion, though disagreement is a valid response).

I was a little dissatisfied with my Spring Thing coverage. In retrospect, I think I spent too much time summarizing reviews that I had already posted elsewhere. I’ve decided to sacrifice breadth of coverage for depth this time and will feature ParserComp-related interviews for the next three weeks (my 2022 ParserComp reviews can be found in this thread). This first post features organizers (past and present) of the competition, in hopes of understanding the history, philosophy, and goals of this community event. I started by contacting Adam Sommerfield to get some historical background.

[Note 1: ParserComp judging is open until July 31st 2022, 6 PM CST! As of press time, there are over five days remaining to play and rank ParserComp games. Check them out here.

Note 2: All interview content has been edited for clarity and economy. It was gathered via messaging at the Interactive Fiction Community Forum over a number of days.

Note 3: Voting has been extended to August 2, So a) there is more time to play and rate games and b) the Brian Rushton interview will be published after voting closes.]

An AI-generated image of a keyboard. The lines are irregular and the letters and numbers are unreadable.

Drew Cook

I’m doing a short interview with Christopher Merriner and Jeff Greer about the competition, but I’d like to start from the beginning. Would you mind sending me a few words about the history of ParserComp: what it is, why you started it, and what its mission is?

Adam Sommerfield

ParserComp was actually created in 2015 and ran for a season and a half. It was quite successful, but the creator stopped. Here’s a link:

http://www.sibylmoon.com/parsercomp-2015/ 1

So Chris, Jeff and I can’t claim to be the original concept creators, but we certainly have brought it back and also shook the rules up a bit. It started a few years back, around Autumn 2020, with a post on IntFiction that I made saying that it would be great to have a “War of the Z-Machine” competition; you can compete if your system can create a “*.Z3/Z5” playable game [a format used by most Infocom games].

The conversation, as it so often does on IntFiction, steered towards bringing back ParserComp. I really loved the idea, and I already knew that I wanted to give it more of a Jam feel; with this in mind I immediately set up an account on itch.io.

I wrote the rules, promoted it, and I remember that it really ran itself in many ways—it all felt very natural and flowed easily through the stages. The rules were well-received, and everyone followed them.

In short, what I wanted was a competition where you could use any software to create your game but from the user’s perspective it must play like a traditional Parser game first and foremost. I used the phrase “think Zork or Photopia” a lot!

I then went to run ParserComp again in 2022 (earlier this year) but I began to feel unwell. I stepped away asking Chris if he would kindly step in, which he did.

[What follows is correspondence with 2022 ParserComp organizers Christopher Merriner and Jeff Greer.]

Drew Cook

Since not all of my readers will follow the IF scene as closely as we do, I think it would be best to start by asking: what is ParserComp? What is its history, and how did you get involved?

Jeff Greer

ParserComp was started in the first part of 2021 by Adam Sommerfield. I have followed Adam’s activities in various areas of IF, particularly impressed by his work with Zil/Zilf including instructional videos on YouTube. When Adam was unable to continue running ParserComp 2021, I volunteered to take over the admin duties and he accepted my offer. From that point forward I ran the comp, provided an end of comp spreadsheet with game data and announced progress on the forum. After the comp and judging was complete, I announced final game winners on the IntFiction forum.

When it came time for ParserComp 2022, Adam again asked for volunteers to run the comp. I had intended to help out with admin duties and offered to help.

Adam selected Christopher along with me and we began working together to make the comp happen again in 2022. I expect ParserComp to continue well into the future. It seems quite popular for a new comp.

Christopher Merriner

I’d also add that the original iteration of ParserComp (organised by Carolyn VanEseltine) was back in 2015 but the competition then lapsed until Adam Sommerfield decided to revive it last year. The competition is intended to showcase parser-based interactive fiction games, where the player interacts with the game by typing text commands and the output is, usually, more text. The style dates right back to the inception of the genre with Crowther and Wood’s Colossal Cave Adventure in the late ’70s and remained popular during its commercial heyday in the ’80s with big hitters like Infocom involved, and then through the post-commercial era to the present day, aided by the availability of free development tools like Inform and TADS.

In the past couple of decades, the IF scene has proliferated and different styles of text game have come to the fore, alongside (if not actually supplanting) traditional parser-based games—most notably, choice-based games, where players advance through the game by selecting options leading to different passages of text. A few years ago, there was a lot of debate in the IF community, sometimes acrimonious, about the relative legitimacy of these different styles of text games. That’s thankfully in the past, and these days major IF competitions like Spring Thing and IFComp tend to feature as many choice-based games as parser-based games. It is a great illustration of the diversity of the current scene, but we feel that there is still a place for an exclusively parser-based competition, where entries are competing against others of the same type. There is still a lot of diversity even within that narrower field, as this year’s competition has proved.

Another AI-generated image of a keyboard. The lines are irregular and the letters and numbers are unreadable. It looks as if the keys are made out of modelling clay.

As for how I got involved: as Jeff says, plus I was an entrant last year and, having enjoyed the experience, was very keen for the competition to continue. Jeff took over from Adam at the end of last year’s competition, and I offered my services this year. Even with a relatively small event like this, there is quite a lot to do. It’s great to have another organiser to discuss and bounce ideas off.

Drew Cook

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced running ParserComp?

Christopher Merriner

Well, apart from a couple of technical issues to do with itch.io, the website we’re using to host the competition (for example, we encountered a glitch when we first set it all up that prevented people from voting at all – now thankfully fixed), one of the main problems we’ve encountered is how to define a parser game. We’ve described such games as involving text input and output, where the primary method of control is entering commands via the keyboard (rather than selecting choices to advance through passages of text) as that seems to typify the sort of classic ‘Zork’ type game that most people (or at least, most people of a certain age) tend to think of as a parser game but, inevitably, there are grey areas – for instance, games that are largely driven by clicking on key words rather than typing in commands. Engines like Robin Johnson’s Gruescript make games that work in that way, but the overall effect is still very much parser-like, even if the underlying mechanics work differently, and we’ve decided to allow such games into the competition. Other examples don’t look or feel very much like parser games at all, and we disqualified one such game from the competition on those grounds, although the author has since made a detailed case for it being a parser game after all.

The challenge is that we want to be inclusive and welcome innovation in the form, but at the same time we need to police some boundaries to keep ParserComp as a recognisably parser game event – otherwise we might end up with another general text game competition like IFComp or Spring Thing. There’s a major subjective element to this, of course, and others are bound to disagree about what we consider to be a parser game and what should and shouldn’t be allowed in. However, as the organisers, that’s our cross to bear, and we hope that participants and judges alike will accept what we’re trying to do in good faith. Similarly, our voting categories are geared towards those elements that are typically found in a classic parser game, with categories for story, characters, puzzles etc., but we do acknowledge that there’s a long tradition of largely or entirely puzzle-free parser games (like Adam Cadre’s Photopia, to name a famous example) and story-lite puzzle-box type text games, that it would be difficult to score in those categories. It’s certainly a learning experience, and we’ll be looking closely at how the scores come out this year to see what, if anything, we need to change for next time round.

craiyon_114005_KEYBOARD_parser_interactive_fiction_2X

Jeff Greer

Itch.io is not the most flexible game jam environment. Their rating system is pretty set in its ways. We had a problem early on. I had to jump though quite a few coding hoops to get the rating system to work. Itch.io support was no help at all. They didn’t even respond.

We definitely intend to keep ParserComp going well into the future. During the off time this year, we hope to develop a better system for rating. I am looking into third party support as well as developing a self-contained ParserComp system. We see how it develops into next year.

For now, we are pretty much involved with end of the game processing at this time.

I have had trouble getting the winning trophy engraved as I would have liked. It is still good but not what I intended. I visited a very nice high-end engraving company here in Houston this morning. They were not interested in my small job. I will work on a better option for next year.

Drew Cook

I asked about the problems first because I’d like to end in a more positive way. Could each of you share what ParserComp means to you personally? There’s so much that needs to be done at any time in the IF community, and it is always a labor of love. What was it about this competition that pulled you in? I see it as a valuable service to authors and players alike.

There’s something enduring and magical about the parser game genre that appeals particularly to literary-minded game players and game-orientated writers, but also to lots of others who find themselves, for one reason or another, intrigued and drawn in by the genre—Christopher Merriner

Christopher Merriner

I find providing a platform to display the parser game for the art form that it most certainly is to be very rewarding. The parser game is one of those good ideas that has stood the test of time, despite its commercial heyday having passed decades ago and the world having, in many ways, moved on. The genre seems incredibly resilient: periodically over the years there’s been a lot of anxiety about the death of the parser game and the inevitability of it being eclipsed by other forms of interactive fiction, but those fears have proven to be misplaced. Parser games exist in a niche, but it’s a thriving and diverse one, as shown by the sheer number of new works being published each year, the range of authors involved (some veterans who have been involved in the scene for decades and many new authors coming to the form for the first time, excited by its possibilities), and the number of different approaches and authoring tools on display.

In ParserComp, we’ve had games written in well-known systems like Inform, Dialog and ADRIFT, long-forgotten languages like AdvSys, and a whole variety of home-grown approaches, some of which are very novel (like Gent Stickman vs Evil Meat Hand in this year’s competition which takes text commands as input and has hand drawn cartoon sketches as output). There’s something enduring and magical about the parser game genre that appeals particularly to literary-minded game players and game-orientated writers, but also to lots of others who find themselves, for one reason or another, intrigued and drawn in by the genre. As a parser game player, and as a parser game author myself, it’s a real privilege to be able to curate a space dedicated exclusively to showing off these works.

Jeff Greer

Text based stories stimulate the mind. Our minds are so much better at filling in details and giving characters, places, and storylines life. Life in an imaginary world that has been developed by the author and fleshed out by the reader. In interactive fiction, the reader IS the central character. When done well, the player character (reader) has the power to make the story his or her own. It is the player’s game, not the author’s version. The story is so much richer when the player is so involved.

Parser/text IF has stood the test of time. The more general jams and competitions always include a significant number of parser / text entries and frequently win more than their percentage share of accolades.

I played text based IF in the very early days. Many in the IF community did as well. As a teacher, I always try to utilize “play” and “fun” to enhance learning. Graphics and video don’t give students and people in general the same experience. It is too passive. Having to engage in the game and use abstract reasoning brings satisfaction, enjoyment and learning to the forefront.

The IF authoring systems have become so sophisticated in these modern times. Authors are able to leverage these systems to develop their game ideas and bring them to the players like never before, both text-based and graphical. Modern development systems are still being developed by brilliant individuals. These systems generate a lot of interest.

Text IF is the most challenging for me both writing and playing, but I have a weakness. I think all text-based IF is great, just some better than others. I like to give back to the community. Sponsoring and facilitating jams is one of my ways to give back.

The competitions and jams bring adventure to life. I like to be a small part of that adventure.

Drew Cook

Thanks to both of you for these great answers. I appreciate you both running this year’s ParserComp! I’ve had a good time.

Jeff Greer

Thank you. It is my hope that we can make ParserComp better and better.

Next:

Gold Machine will turn the spotlight to authorship with the first of two contestant interviews. We’ll talk with Brian Rushton, AKA mathbrush, about his game The Impossible Stairs. He’s a seasoned author and prolific reviewer, and those experiences make for a lively and insightful conversation.

See you then! If you have thoughts on this new format at Gold Machine, by all means comment here, send a message, or find me on Twitter.

[Images retrieved from craiyon.com]

The post You’re My Type: ParserComp 2022 appeared first on Gold Machine.


Wade's Important Astrolab

Necrocomp. It's on now (July 25-29, 2022)

Want to try your hand at a swords'n'sorcery parser adventure and compete for high score glory and Steam/itch game prizes during a five-day play window? These are the wages and circumstances of Necrocomp, which I'm running now (July 25-July 29, Australian time).The game you'll be playing in Necrocomp is Necron's Keep by Dan Welch. This combat-RPG is janky and buggy, but also fun and challenging. Get

Want to try your hand at a swords'n'sorcery parser adventure and compete for high score glory and Steam/itch game prizes during a five-day play window? These are the wages and circumstances of Necrocomp, which I'm running now (July 25-July 29, Australian time).

The game you'll be playing in Necrocomp is Necron's Keep by Dan Welch. This combat-RPG is janky and buggy, but also fun and challenging. Get ready to die A LOT as you try to find out what happened to the archmage Necron. Grapple with xp, levels, spells, spell components, hit points – and no UNDO – as you try to get the highest score you can.

Necrocomp is open to everyone. I'm hosting it simultaneously from intfiction.org and my Andromeda Acolytes Discord server. Technically it's the third competition in the Discord, but I've realised it's too great a challenge for text adventuring newbies, hence I'm casting the net open to more regular or experienced players of parser games.

The competition prizes are all adventure/RPG/interactive fiction computer games. Mostly from Steam, with some from itch-io or direct download.

To read the rules of Necrocomp and get the online play link, visit my topic on intfiction.org

Join in, have fun.

PS – My sci-fi parser game Andromeda Acolytes is having a beta test preview on Steam from July 30 to August 2. It's now accepting signups on Steam. Just press the green Request Access button on its Steam page. The Andromeda Acolytes Kickstarter opens on August 3.

The beta is for chapter one of the game which, as you might expect of a first chapter, is fairly gentle, and includes the tutorial.

Friday, 22. July 2022

Interactive Fiction – The Digital Antiquarian

Discworld on Page and Screen, Part 1: Serious Comedy

One American writer said to me, “Your books will never sell in America because you can’t hear the elves sing. Americans go in for fantasy books where you can hear the elves sing.” I would like that put on my gravestone: “At least you can say that in Pratchett’s books, the bloody elves never sang!” […]

One American writer said to me, “Your books will never sell in America because you can’t hear the elves sing. Americans go in for fantasy books where you can hear the elves sing.”

I would like that put on my gravestone: “At least you can say that in Pratchett’s books, the bloody elves never sang!”

— Terry Pratchett

Two arguments are commonly trotted out for the genre literature of the fantastic as actually or potentially something more than mere escapism. One, which applies only to the science-fiction side of the science-fiction/fantasy divide, claims that it can be a form of useful social prognostication. By observing the trends of the current day, the writer can extrapolate where we are likely to end up in the future and present it vividly on the page, whether as a prophecy or a warning. Granted, science fiction’s record of prediction is not particularly good; the writers of just a handful of decades ago almost all believed we would have settled Mars by now, while vanishingly few of them imagined anything like the modern Internet. Still, if you believe that a society’s hopes and fears for the future say a lot about its present, there is a certain sociological value even in the failed prognostications. (Indeed, the academic critic Farah Mendlesohn goes so far as the claim that much classic science fiction is “a sense of wonder combined with [a] presentism” which only masquerades as futurism.)

But it’s the other argument for fantastic literature’s enduring worth that I find most convincing: by transporting some of our most fraught current problems and conflicts into another, less familiar context, we can examine them in a fresh light. Many of us have thought at one time or another how weird our ceaselessly squabbling planet must look to any aliens who happen to stumble across it, what with all the trivialities we continue to fight and kill one another over and the looming existential threats we continue to leave woefully under-addressed. Not only science-fiction but also fantasy literature can literally or figuratively put us in the shoes of those aliens (assuming they wear shoes), allowing us to examine ideas and values with fresh eyes, less cultural baggage, and less of a knee-jerk response.

From the mid-1980s until the mid-2010s, the writer who made perhaps the most consistent case of all for fantasy literature as a laboratory of ideas that are eminently relevant to the real world was Terry Pratchett. And if that didn’t do it for you — well, he really was quite funny to boot.


Terry and Lyn Pratchett on their wedding day in 1968. On their honeymoon, Terry would grow the beard which he would sport for the rest of his life.

Terence David John Pratchett was born on April 28, 1948, in a rural village in Buckinghamshire, England. The only child of an auto mechanic and a secretary, he grew up in a house with no indoor toilet, no hot water, and no electricity. But a less economically advantaged upbringing does not automatically mean a bad one: young Terry spent his days rambling over the same green and pleasant English landscapes that had inspired J.R.R. Tolkien’s Shire, while in the evenings he read books by the light of an oil lamp. Amidst it all, he absorbed his parent’s commonsense belief in what the British call “common decency.” He was not a member of the social class that typically went to university, and this was never regarded as a serious option for him by his teachers or his parents even when he showed an unusual talent for reading and writing. Instead he walked into the office of his local newspaper at the age of seventeen and asked to become an apprentice journalist.

And so he embarked on what his peers and his betters would have considered a perfectly respectable if not quite exciting life for one of his social station. He spent a decade and a half working as a small-town beat reporter, columnist, and editor, before switching to a less demanding job with the civil service, as a press officer for the Central Electricity Generating Board. Betwixt and between his professional accomplishments, he married his first-ever girlfriend before he turned 21, fathered a daughter with her, and lived with his family in a tidy little cottage no better nor worse than a thousand others in its corner of England.

He had just one obvious eccentricity: he loved science-fiction and especially fantasy literature, and wrote some of it himself on and off. By 1982, he had published three competent if derivative novels, in small print runs with the help of a friend with the requisite connections. Yet his closest brush with real literary fame remained the letter he had received from J.R.R. Tolkien back in 1968, in response to a piece of fan mail he had sent to the aging Oxford don.

By this point, fantasy literature had well and truly come into its own, thanks to the ongoing popularity of Tolkien and an odd new tabletop game called Dungeons & Dragons that was reaching Britain from American shores. Bookstore shelves were filling up with fat, multi-volume epics from other authors like Terry Brooks and Raymond E. Feist, who were all straining so hard to be Tolkien that one could almost hear them huffing and puffing in the background as one turned the pages. But Terry Pratchett, despite loving Tolkien so much himself that he claimed to have read The Lord of the Rings at least once per year ever since discovering it at the age of thirteen, wasn’t at all sure that such slavish imitation was the best form of flattery. He decided to write a book making fun of the trend.

To be sure, it wasn’t the highest-hanging of fruit as targets of satire went; these ponderous, interminable, oh-so-serious tomes could almost be read as parodies of Tolkien already, albeit inadvertent ones. Nor was Pratchett the first writer to have the idea; as early as 1969, when “Frodo Lives!” could be found emblazoned on the walls of the Boston subway alongside “Clapton is God!”, a pair of Harvard students had published a satire of the counterculture’s favorite fantasist called Bored of the Rings. But thankfully, Pratchett had a cleverer approach in mind than their frat-boy slapstick.

The germ of it dated back to 1978, and a column he had written poking gentle fun at the Star Wars craze. His long experience as a reporter had taught him that the proverbial little people of our own or, presumably, any other world are more exercised by mundane concerns than epic adventure. Applying this lesson to Star Wars, he offered up a science-fictional take on the banality of evil, in the form of the chief personnel officer on the Death Star, fielding complaints about the lousy coffee in the canteen, parrying worries over all those droids that were taking so many human Stormtroopers’ jobs.

Now, taking the same approach over to a world of epic fantasy, Pratchett considered what the little people there would be doing while the heroes were prattling on about Courage and Sacrifice and all the rest of that rot. The star of this “realist fantasy” — a term invented by Pratchett’s biographer Marc Burrows — would be an inept wizard named Rincewind, a perpetual graduate student at a school of magic called Unseen University. His greatest talent would be that of shirking danger and, when push came to shove, simply running away as fast as his knobby-kneed little legs could carry him. For, as Burrows writes, “when faced with violence and the threat of death, most people do not throw themselves honourably into the fray: they get the hell out of there. Rincewind is the very distillation of Pratchett’s central premise of treating a fantasy world literally.”

The fantasy world in question is, as Pratchett wrote at the beginning of the book and then proceeded to spend the next 30 years patiently repeating at the beginning of every interview he gave to the mainstream media, a flat disc borne on the backs of four giant elephants, who in turn stand on the back of a giant turtle swimming through the outer space of “a distant and secondhand set of dimensions, in an astral plane that was never meant to fly”; the premise displays Pratchett’s lifelong interest in astronomy and Hindu cosmology, as well as his love of dreadful puns. The chronically exasperated Rincewind and his unlikely companion, a naïve tourist named Twoflower whose insatiable curiosity causes him to run toward every danger from which Rincewind wants to run away, spend the book traveling across the Discworld and getting caught up in a series of comic misadventures that expose countless inviolate fantasy clichés to the cold, harsh light of real-world logic. At the time, Pratchett seems to have seen the book he called The Colour of Magic as little more than a palate cleanser between more substantial ones. The cliffhanger ending was just another concession to the genre he was lampooning; maybe he’d actually write a sequel someday, maybe he wouldn’t.

The original, rather drab-looking hardcover edition of The Colour of Magic.

The Colour of Magic was published in November of 1983, in a British print run of just 506 copies, a testament to its publisher’s low expectations. Nothing happened right away to prove they were mistaken; the books languished on shelves for months. But then Pratchett had the stroke of luck which every budding superstar author needs. Some years ago now, the BBC had broadcast a radio serial by one Douglas Adams, a comedic send-up of science fiction that was similar in spirit to what Pratchett was now doing for (or to) the fantasy genre. Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy had gone on to become a very hot property indeed, spawning three internationally bestselling novels to date along with record albums, a BBC television series, and, soon, a hit computer game. In light of all this, the BBC decided to give The Colour of Magic a try over the airwaves. Between June 27 and July 10, 1984, BBC Radio 4 broadcast an abridged reading of the book by Nigel Hawthorne, one of the stars of the hugely popular television sitcom Yes, Minister. The programs received a very good response, putting Terry Pratchett’s name on the lips of everyday Britons for the first time ever. Just like that, things started to happen. In January of 1985, Corgi, a British division of Bantam Books, published The Colour of Magic in paperback, with an initial print run of no less than 26,000 copies. A second print run was needed well before the end of the year. Discworld was off and running.

With his fiction receiving widespread attention for the first time ever, Pratchett needed little encouragement to write that sequel to The Colour of Magic now rather than later. The Light Fantastic, which was published in June of 1986, was largely more of the same, notable mostly for having a slightly more focused plot and for giving prominent place to the character of Death — you know, the skeleton dressed all in black, with the scythe and so on. Belying his terrifying appearance, Death’s Discworld persona is that of an overworked, sometimes irascible, but basically well-meaning bureaucratic functionary. In time, he became arguably the most beloved of all Pratchett’s recurring characters. Many Discworld fans, facing the last days of a loved one or even their own final exit, have found surprising comfort in the seven-foot-tall, cat-loving apparition who brings peace with him rather than pain or judgment. He was an early sign that there might be something more to Discworld than just a succession of clever gags.

Pratchett was very fortunate to connect with an artist named Josh Kirby, whose colorful, winsome, but often subtly subversive covers became the indelible look of Discworld, impossible to separate in the minds of most fans from the words on the page.

Still, it wasn’t entirely unreasonable even at this stage to see Pratchett as an author trying his derivative darnedest to be fantasy fiction’s answer to Douglas Adams. It hadn’t helped his cause when, in a couple of unguarded early interviews, he had admitted that he had been reading the Hitchhiker’s books at the same time he was writing The Colour of Magic. Now, though, he was bristling at the comparison more and more. Adams’s works, he claimed with some truth, were archer, colder, and crueler than his own humor; Adams laughed at his characters, while Pratchett laughed with them at the absurdity of the universe.

Whether it was written in response to the accusations of unoriginality or was just a natural progression, the next book in the Discworld series made the argument that Pratchett was nothing more than a second-rate Douglas Adams untenable. That said, the leap Pratchett made with Equal Rites, the third Discworld novel, was in some ways a fairly obvious one. He was already mining humor from portraying a world of heroic fantasy in a “realistic” way, imagining the experience of the characters there who weren’t larger-than-life heroes on epic quests, and showing how even the fantastic becomes by definition mundane as soon as it becomes the stuff of everyday life. (If you doubt this truism, just look at the technological wonders all around us today which would have seemed almost like magic 30 years ago, but to which we hardly give a thought…) From here, it was a relatively short leap to begin using Discworld as a philosophical laboratory to address the questions and problems with which our own mundane societies are grappling. And yet, short leap though it may have been, it was an audacious one nonetheless. “I want to get away from the idea that I’m automatically sending fantasy up,” Pratchett would say a few years later. “What I’m concerned about now is sending up ideas, ways of looking at the world, people’s expectations.”

The phallic wand the female protagonist of Equal Rites is carrying as she claims powers usually reserved for men is a fine example of Josh Kirby’s subversive edge. Pratchett absolutely loved the image. As his characters loved to sing, “A wizard’s staff has a knob on the end…”

Published barely six months after The Light Fantastic, Equal Rites was the first Discworld novel that could be reasonably said to have overarching themes and a moral compass. Abandoning Rincewind and Twoflower for the time being, it’s a bildungsroman about the coming of age of a young girl — dangerous territory for a middle-aged male author to venture into, but Pratchett pulls it off pretty well. Of course, this being still a fantasy novel, her coming of age involves her coming into her own as a magic user, which in turn involves being apprenticed to the local witch and having many ensuing adventures. Nevertheless, the message the book hammers home relentlessly is as relevant to our own world as any message can possibly be. It’s right there in the book’s title (overlooking another dreadful pun): that women are every bit as capable as men, and deserve to be treated that way. There’s also an even broader and equally important theme, about the value of empathy in general. To illustrate this, Pratchett invents the magical skill of “borrowing,” which lets a being quite literally walk a mile in another being’s shoes — or, rather, in another being’s mind — experiencing the world as they do. If only all of us could and would do the same before we pass judgment…

The next Discworld book, Mort, was published in November of 1987, and remains among the most beloved of the canon, often recommended as an ideal place for beginners to start thanks to its very straightforward, self-contained plot. It involves Mortimer, a hapless young fellow who has just been hired for the dubious position of apprentice to Death. Among other things, the book is a sort of companion piece to Equal Rites, this story being about the travails of male adolescence. Even more so than its predecessor, Mort is elevated by its author’s essential humanity; there is no cruelty in Terry Pratchett. Pratchett:

In Mort, I keep referring to the “sex scenes,” and somebody who was interviewing me said, “But there aren’t any sex scenes in Mort!” I said, “No, but that’s what’s funny!” You see two young people who are terribly embarrassed in each other’s presence, which was about 90 percent of sex when I was a kid. That’s what it was all about: being horribly tongue-tied and embarrassed the whole time.

Much to Pratchett’s gratification, these most recent two, more ambitious Discworld novels sold even better than the first two, allowing him to quit his job in the civil service with the confidence of an established, bankable author. It was at this point that he separated himself from Douglas Adams in another way. If the latter had lived on the Discworld, he would doubtless have been written up as one of the practical jokes the gods there love to play on mortals: he was a brilliant writer who would rather do almost anything else than write, who, as he once memorably put it, preferred to spend his days soaking in a cozy bath and listening to deadlines whooshing by outside the window. Pratchett, on the other hand, had the work ethic of an ant colony. In the first five years after quitting his day job, he published ten Discworld novels, three non-Discworld novels for children, and the standalone novel Good Omens, a much-heralded collaboration with Neil Gaiman, author of the Sandman comic books. And then, as if all that wasn’t enough, Pratchett also found time to write a few short stories and a non-fiction book about cats.

The middle-aged family man Terry Pratchett and the too-cool-for-school hipster Neil Gaiman, hobnobber with rock stars, made an odd couple to be sure, but the two genuinely liked and respected one another, and many fans consider Good Omens to be among the best things either ever wrote.

Needless to say, we can’t hope to analyze this fire hose of output in any depth here. Suffice to say that Pratchett kept pushing at the boundaries of what a Discworld novel could be, producing everything from intricately plotted detective yarns to poignant character studies, along with the occasional unabashed satirical romp for diehard fans of Rincewind and Twoflower and their ilk. We shouldn’t get too precious about Pratchett’s books from this or any other period; as he would be the first to admit, he was first and foremost a commercial author writing with at least one eye on the needs of the market. He wasn’t above gloating a bit over each huge check that rolled in from his publisher, and very much wanted to keep the money spigot open. Doubtless many of his books could have been even better if he had spent more time with them, if he hadn’t felt compelled to rush pell-mell to the next one. On the other hand, much the same thing can be said of many another highly regarded author, and not just in the genre literatures; the names of William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens come to mind as just two of history’s insanely prolific writers-for-hire with a surfeit of genius.

We might pull out just a few books from this era by way of illustrating just how far Discworld could stray from the template of The Colour of Magic. Take, for example, the 1989 novel Guards! Guards!, another one often recommended by the Discworld cognoscenti as an excellent starting point.

In it, a cabal summons a dragon to lay piecemeal waste to the sprawling metropolis of Ankh-Morpork, the biggest city on the Disc. One of the usually shiftless Ankh-Morpork police force, a fellow named Sam Vimes who would go on to become the most frequently recurring Discworld-novel protagonist of all, has the bright idea of actually investigating for a change, leading to both comedy and drama. Guards! Guards! can be considered a landmark in the evolution of the Discworld series thanks to the presence of Vimes alone. He is, claims Pratchett’s biographer Burrows, “a character that grew out of Pratchett’s need to put his personality on the page. Vimes is a deposit for the author’s burning anger, and is fueled by a deep sense of injustice that Pratchet had so far managed to keep a lid on. The character is utterly flawed. He’s a drunk, he spends his life miserable, and, despite a keen intelligence, has a habit of speaking truth to power that has kept him from rising further than the city’s least-desirable command — captain of the night watch.”

Writing in a genre famous for seeing good and evil as (sometimes all too literally) white and black, Pratchett understands how the gray of ordinary people leading ordinary lives can slowly but surely turn into deepest ebony.

There are people who will follow any dragon, worship any god, ignore any inequity. All out of a kind of humdrum, everyday badness. Not the really high, creative loathsomeness of the great sinners, but a sort of mass-produced darkness of the soul. Sin, you might say, without a touch of originality. They accept evil not because they say yes, but because they don’t say no.

Or take 1991’s Reaper Man, the second Discworld novel with Death as a main protagonist. The books begins with a crazy premise: that Death has retired to become a farmhand, which causes serious problems on the Disc as everyone currently alive becomes suddenly immortal. What initially seems like nothing but another clever gag becomes in due course a wise, compassionate meditation on time and its passing, on how birth and death are the natural, necessary way of the universe, on how old lives must ultimately end to make space for young ones.

No one is finally dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away — until the clock he made winds down, until the wine she made has finished its ferment, until the crop they planted is harvested. The span of someone’s life is only the core of their actual existence.

Or take 1992’s Small Gods, a simultaneously satirical and sympathetic examination of the eternal human quest for Higher Truths, told from the standpoint of both idealists and cynics.

Take it from me, whenever you see a bunch of buggers puttering around talking about truth and beauty and the best way of attacking Ethics, you can bet your sandals it’s because dozens of other poor buggers are doing all the real work around the place…

Here’s a riff on Plato that comes about as close as any passage can to summing up Pratchett’s philosophy of a happy life:

Life in this world is, as it were, a sojourn in a cave. What can we know of reality? For all we see of the true nature of existence is, shall we say, no more than bewildering and amusing shadows cast upon the inner wall of the cave by the unseen blinding light of absolute truth, from which we may or may not deduce some glimmer of veracity, and we as troglodyte seekers of wisdom can only lift our voices to the unseen and say, humbly, “Go on, do Deformed Rabbit… it’s my favorite.”

And then there’s my very favorite, as cogent an argument for the value of blue-sky research as I’ve ever read:

It’s always worth having a few philosophers around the place. One minute it’s all Is Truth Beauty and Is Beauty Truth, and Does A Falling Tree in the Forest Make A Sound if There’s No One There to Hear It, and then, just when you think they’re going to start dribbling, one of ’em says, “Incidentally, putting a thirty-foot parabolic reflector on a high place to shoot the rays of the sun at an enemy’s ships would be a very interesting demonstration of optical principles.”

By the early 1990s, Pratchett had managed an incredible, not to say paradoxical, feat: he had busted right out of the fantasy ghetto whilst remaining an unapologetic genre author in outlook and orientation. You were guaranteed to see at least one or two Discworld novels during any given trip on the London Underground, as often as not clutched in the hands of riders who were not your stereotypical fantasy nerds. Discworld cut across all the usual boundaries of class, age, race, and gender. In 1992, W.H. Smith, the biggest bookstore chain in Britain, stated that 10 percent of their total science-fiction and fantasy sales consisted of Terry Pratchett books. By 1998, Pratchett accounted for 2 percent of all their revenues. When you combined the sales of all of his novels together, he became simply the most popular single British author of the 1990s. There was something comforting in the way that these unpretentiously entertaining, gently wise books were able to hold their own and then some against all of the latest controversial political screeds and tawdry celebrity memoirs. If Discworld wasn’t quite great literature, it was certainly a cut above most of the rest of the bestseller list.

Pratchett himself was only slightly slowed by the interviews and book signings that came with being Britain’s most popular living author; he continued to crank out a reliable two books per year. Unlike so many authors whose names have become a brand, Pratchett never stooped to hiring ghostwriters to create his content; every word in every Discworld novel was his own. He became a very rich man, but that didn’t slow him down either. Clearly money wasn’t the main reason he wrote. While he enjoyed it in a way, that way was mostly as a handy measure of his success; his actual lifestyle changed surprisingly little.

Pratchett at a 1996 Discworld convention with a costumed fan.

For all of Discworld‘s 1990s popularity in Britain and some other parts of Europe — Germany proved another especially strong market — it never became more than a cult phenomenon in the United States. (Tellingly, the British edition of Good Omens listed Pratchett’s name first as the more salable author, while the American edition did just the opposite.) This relative failure irked Pratchett, who went so far as to rewrite parts some of his books to better suit what he judged to be the American comedic sensibility. Nonetheless, he wouldn’t manage to place a book on the New York Times bestseller list until 2004.

There really are no obvious American analogues for Pratchett’s place in British pop culture during the decade before that one. Piers Anthony churned out whimsical fantasy novels set in his own pun-strewn world of Xanth at almost as prodigious a pace, and fostered a similarly personal connection with his readers, but his series was vastly more crass, formulaic, and juvenile, not at all the sort of thing most respectable adults were willing to be caught reading on a train.

Confined to Europe though it was, the 1990s Discworld mania was very real and very huge. In addition to the novels themselves, there were television cartoons, audio books, music CDs, collectible figures and toys, tee-shirts and other clothing, jewelry, candles, maps, companion source books, quiz books, a tabletop role-playing game, paper fanzines, conventions, websites, and one of the most popular newsgroups on Usenet: alt.fan.Pratchett, where the author himself occasionally dropped by to leave a post. “Anyone could be a Discworld fan,” writes Marc Burrows, “and sometimes it felt like just about everybody was.”

Naturally, then, there were also computer games…

(Sources: the books The Magic of Terry Pratchett by Marc Burrows and The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction edited by Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn; Starlog of August 1990 and May 2000. And of course the many books of Terry Pratchett!)

Thursday, 21. July 2022

Renga in Blue

Quest: The Quantum Princess

The PCL version of Quest is buggy in a way where it isn’t obvious if a particular glitch is really a bug. To give a straightforward example: I mentioned last time a room with a dog show. You are at the national elvish dog show. All around, all breeds both the familiar and the strangely […]

The PCL version of Quest is buggy in a way where it isn’t obvious if a particular glitch is really a bug.

System 10, the system Quest was programmed on, from Bitsavers. The original System 10 was made by Singer — that’s the same as the sewing machine company — before being bought by ICL.

To give a straightforward example: I mentioned last time a room with a dog show.

You are at the national elvish dog show. All around, all breeds both the familiar and the strangely novel are being put through their paces and judged by elderly and distinguished looking elves. The general show like atmosphere continues to the east, but there don’t seem to be any dogs up that end of the hall.

There is another room with an elvish fox hound. It can follow you to the room to the immediate west, but doesn’t like to go south so can’t reach the show (map below, the two pertinent locations are marked in blue).

Leaving the fox hound behind and then immediately going back north finds a normal, intact fox hound still waiting. Repeating the process has the hound still there, but is now dead.

The small but perfect specimen of a pedigree elvic fox hound is dead.

I originally thought perhaps I was missing some subtle clue that was causing this to happen (there’s a “ravenous man-eating orchid” nearby that I thought might be related), but now I’m relatively convinced the game is just being buggy, especially once I discovered the quantum princess. (Before going on, I should add that Roger Durrant who has been keeping up a long stream of notes in my last post, managed to pick the hound up with the verb CARRY and take it to the show for some points. I have been unable to do this; the game just claims what I’m picking up isn’t portable. It is possible Roger had some extra unmentioned object that is helping, but I’m 75% sure it’s just another bug.)

To reach the quantum princess, you need to head north from the Western town, the west to the front of a castle. There’s a cannon nestled nearby.

Assuming you have a cannonball and gunpowder (both just lying around elsewhere on the map) you can load the cannon up and then fire it. This breaks open the portcullis leading in the castle so you can sneak in and find a logic puzzle.

You are now in the main keep of the castle of El Numero the Wise, numerologist, extraordinary and tyrant ruler of these parts. In the comer of his office there is a large safe with combination lock and the following inscription:

if forty + ten + ten = sixty

then my key is onyx.

(No, I haven’t bothered to solve this yet, it’s clearly a number cryptogram, and you’re welcome to take a crack in the comments.)

Downstairs you can find a series of cells (see the map). One always has a skeleton, and two of them are sometimes empty. I say sometimes because one of the times I went through I found a princess.

You are in a small cell. In one comer, bound hand and foot with thick ropes and sobbing loudly is the (obviously distressed) figure of a beautiful fair damsel.

You can free the damsel who will follow you briefly before saying she has to go back to her family farm, whereupon she teleports off (I assume the idea is she “walks off” but game-mechanically she telports).

The catch is: I’ve only found the princess once. There doesn’t seem to be any procedural generation going on, and I haven’t traced any different actions I’ve taken through alternate playthroughs. It’s like the princess is simultaneously there and not there at the same time.

At the far north of the hall, rather than the door opening into a cell it opens into the vastness of space.

One portion of a screenshot just as a reminder what things look like on my end. And yes, the princess followed me into space and teleported from there.

You are floating too far away to get into the blue box. In order to move closer you need to throw an item at let Newton do the rest, but not any item; out of the inventory I had the first time around the only thing that worked without some sort of “I don’t understand that” error was my set of keys. I get the strong impression there is zero world modeling in this game, but rather everything is coded in a bespoke way, so the game can’t interpret the properties of objects in a way that allows any sufficiently hefty item to work. The only items that work are whatever the person doing the port happened to add by hand to their list.

It leaves your hand, and you start to float gracefully toward the phone box, until a few seconds later, you bump gently into it, You are now hovering just by the door to the phone box.

Inside the TARDIS (same description as before, including K-9) I was able to push a button and found myself warped into an empty courtyard with a minor puzzle; a plant crying for water. Where have we seen this before?

There’s also a rusty can with a hole and a puddle of water. You can FIX CAN to take care of the hole (with what? I don’t know, but it worked, and gave me no message) and then fill the can (it gave me an error message but I guess worked anyway) and get the plant to turn into a tall vine.

Your score has been increased for perseverance, patience, and attention to detail. Congratulations!! You are now atop the southern wall of the court- yard. Looking down, you can see that there are handholds down the outside of the wall. The vine has shrunk to its original size after its enormous effort.

Heading off the wall drops you back to an enchanted forest right near the log cabin at the start of the game. (The forest incidentally has a murderous elf, but I had fortunately blasted it with my gun before going through this scene so I didn’t have to worry about it.)

So, the whole purpose of that sequence was … points? I’m not clear if I missed something. Maybe a digging spot? I can say the game has a bizarre relationship with score — or at least I should say, a very different conception than I’ve seen from other games. Points can go up or down for actions that clearly are optional. For example, there’s a fruit machine that you can play, and eventually get a winning combination; this causes your score to go up by 15, but nothing else to happen. I have not verified but it is possible you can keep playing the machine forever to infinitely increase your score. Roger Durrant somehow got to 27,325 points at one point, and I’ve gotten to something abysmal before like -500 for reasons I don’t understand.

Most adventure games treat score as a sort of progress counter, with some points for optional puzzles, with the possibility of losing points for taking hints and the like on games close in spirit to Crowther-Woods. This game clearly is adding and subtracting points at the right moments but with no sense of limits, and the general feels is akin to an episode of Whose Line is it Anyway? (“where everything is made up and the points don’t matter”) or possibly Calvinball.

Now, there are such a thing as treasures — or at least I managed to store one treasure — but the experience was odd. If you go down the stairs at the very start you can find a gold nugget; while it is “too heavy” to bring back up the stairs, you can do an alternate route up through the Enchanted Forest (where that murderous elf I mentioned is) and make it back to the Log Cabin. Dropping the gold nugget yields 20 points, indicating that is likely the right action, but in the process the gold nugget entirely disappears. I tried picking it up again and the item was gone. Perhaps it was getting “stored”? There’s no message, just the score going up.

Yes, this thing is an experience. I certainly will get at least one more entry — I haven’t explored the dinosaur area yet (reached via a different TARDIS) and I’d like to find at least a few more treasures, but based on my luck with the game so far there is no such concept as a maximum score and the player won’t even have a mechanism for recognizing all the treasures are found. Despite the extreme jank, I at least can’t say the game has been boring.

Wednesday, 20. July 2022

Choice of Games LLC

Statement on M.A.R. Barker, Tékumel, and Choice of the Petal Throne

In spring 2022, it came to light that, under a pseudonym, M.A.R. Barker, the late creator of the Tékumel universe, wrote an antisemitic novel and served on the editorial review committee of a Holocaust denial journal. When Choice of the Petal Throne was published in 2015, neither the author nor Choice of Games was aware of this work by Barker, or of his antisemitic views. Neither the author nor Cho

In spring 2022, it came to light that, under a pseudonym, M.A.R. Barker, the late creator of the Tékumel universe, wrote an antisemitic novel and served on the editorial review committee of a Holocaust denial journal.

When Choice of the Petal Throne was published in 2015, neither the author nor Choice of Games was aware of this work by Barker, or of his antisemitic views. Neither the author nor Choice of Games included any antisemitic content in Choice of the Petal Throne.

We condemn antisemitism in all forms. We condemn the denial of the Holocaust.

As a company, we are committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion. We believe that the rising rate of antisemitism in the world today is extremely dangerous, and we will continue to do everything we can to combat it.

We have agreed with the Tékumel Foundation that no further revenue from Choice of Games or Choice of the Petal Throne will go to the Foundation, Barker’s estate, or any organization connected to Barker. We will not publish any additional works set in the Tékumel universe or any other setting created by Barker.

Instead, Choice of Games, the Tékumel Foundation, and Danielle Goudeau, author of Choice of the Petal Throne, have agreed that all revenue from Choice of the Petal Throne from the beginning of 2022 onward will be donated to Jewish Family Services of the East Bay, specifically to their Holocaust Survivor Services program.

Monday, 18. July 2022

Gold Machine

[3/3] There Goes The Neighborhood: Suspect

“Your lovin’ gives me a thrill / But your lovin’ don’t pay my bills.”—Barrett Strong, “Money (That’s What I Want)” [Spoilers for Suspect Follow] Big Time: Suspect 1984 was Infocom’s biggest sales year yet, and if storm clouds had gathered at the edges of things, numbers and money might have made them easy to overlook. […] The post [3

“Your lovin’ gives me a thrill / But your lovin’ don’t pay my bills.”
—Barrett Strong, “Money (That’s What I Want)”

[Spoilers for Suspect Follow]

Big Time: Suspect

1984 was Infocom’s biggest sales year yet, and if storm clouds had gathered at the edges of things, numbers and money might have made them easy to overlook. Despite a middling year in terms of critical legacy, Infocom was apparently at the top of their game. It’s worth listing off those 1984 games, which I name chronologically:

  • Sorcerer: I realize I represent a minority opinion, but I consider Sorcerer the weakest entry in the six-game Zork saga. As Jimmy Maher writes, “It’s not one of the more ambitious games of Infocom nor, truth be told, one of the absolute best, but it is a solid, occasionally charming, playable game.”
  • Seastalker: While I’m sure someone out there loves it, I have never encountered anyone who will admit to liking Seastalker. Its themes haven’t aged well, either.
  • Cutthroats: It certainly has its adherents, but its critical legacy is that of a disappointing game with some good ideas.
  • Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Unquestionably the brightest spot of the 1984 release calendar, HHGG would become Infocom’s second-highest selling game in terms of lifetime sales. It additionally remains a fan favorite despite its difficulty.
  • Suspect: The end of Infocom’s “Quantum Detective” trilogy, poorly remembered at IFDB and elsewhere, whose most vividly recalled quality seems to be its mechanical complexity.

While sales were strong in 1984, it’s important to note that many high-selling titles were legacy games released prior to that year. Zork I, that tireless golden goose, was Infocom’s top seller for 1984 (it would be dethroned by HHGG in 1985). Zork II, Planetfall, Zork III, and The Witness would all outsell Seastalker and Sorcerer (sales data retrieved from one of Steve Meretzky’s Infocom Cabinets. I recommend downloading a PDF for more comfortable reading).

Such is the commercial context of Suspect‘s release: record annual sales (Infocom’s peak, in fact) buoyed in large part by long-tailed legacy software. Perhaps there was a sense that there was nowhere to go but up. Cornerstone would release only one month later, and perhaps hopes were high for that new venture. The release of Suspect would be celebrated at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas with a lavish murder mystery gala in a rented mansion. At the time, David H. Ahl, reporting on CES events, wrote, “Most intriguing CES party: The Infocom participatory murder mystery staged by the New York based Murder-To-Go troupe. Guests were witness to various incriminating scenes and could examine the place where the body was found as well as police reports. Nine people solved the mystery, and the top winner won a trip to Bermuda” (Creative Computing 11.4).

It’s worth repeating for emphasis: the winner of the murder mystery game, staged by a troupe of New York actors, was a trip to Bermuda. There was no doubt about it: Infocom had hit the big time.

Cartoon characters Richie Rich and his girlfriend Gloria stand underneath a tree that has leaves shaped like dollar signs. Richie is raking them with a smile while Gloria looks on and says "Sigh! Leave it to Richie to have a tree like this!"
Richie Rich and Gloria find a money tree.

Suspect and Its Overtly Mechanical Population

It has to be admitted: Suspect is mechanically impressive. Just as the simulations of Suspended and Deadline were novel and appealing in their day, Suspect was, under the hood, more sophisticated than either. It featured more potential suspects than Deadline, and their schedules were far more complex.

Unfortunately, this complexity was generally made manifest by references to undifferentiated names walking someplace off in the distance:

Colonel Marston is to the west, heading toward the east.
To the west the Astronaut comes into view from the south.
Smythe is to the north, heading away from you.

Most turns in which the player is mobile end with such messages. As has been previously discussed here, the beginning player is likely to be completely at a loss as to who these disembodied names are.

It has been frequently mentioned elsewhere (perhaps most humorously on the Eaten by a Grue podcast): the human machinery of Suspect is apparently incapable of mourning. After a perfunctory performance of dismay, the guests return to the dance floor as if nothing has happened.

Michael stops here.
Michael stares, horrified, at the body.
Colonel Marston stops here.
Colonel Marston stares, horrified, at the body.
The Astronaut stops here.
The Astronaut stares, horrified, at the body.

The result is a narrative uncanniness. While Suspect seems to assume the characters’ humanity, it fails to convince most players of the same. These are not people any more than the tiny figures that populate an elaborate model train display are.

Suspect may be the only Infocom game that is best experienced by reading its source code, since doing so better marries form with content.

A photo of japanese mockups and/or prototypes of robots. Two look like manga characters: while they are human shaped, they look like "battle robots". The third looks more human, with a face covered with synthetic skin, hair, and human-like eyes.
Robots everywhere!

Not in My Backyard

The inhuman machinery of Suspect is an uncritical participant in various elements of wider social phenomena. For instance, the “Maryland Rambler” article about the encroachment of the middle class upon the properties of the landed gentry has as its sentimental heart an anecdote about “privileged equestrians” (note that the word lacked its present sociological implications in 1984) and their fox hunts that “refuse to be bullied.”

The “Rambler,” generally speaking, is concerned with upper middle-class rabble violating the forested seclusion of Maryland’s financial and political elite (a senator attends the party). The only choice that Maryland’s wealthy have in this fiction is leave or shut the interlopers out. Coexistence is simply not an option for Suspect‘s elites. Meanwhile, persons who sell their property are perceived as class traitors: “A group of old-money landowners has formed a coalition to save what’s left of the Hunt Country life; they are making no concessions to Cochrane and others like him. Their weapons? Money and influence.”

The phenomenon of working-class people moving away from the city (Washington, D.C. is mentioned in the “Rambler”) is widely recognized by American sociologists as a symptom of urban decay whereby middle-class families leave the city, potentially displacing wealthier people. When more people leave the city, suburban residents are driven to the exurbs. And so forth. These movements are typically driven by racism and classism, and Suspect‘s failure to engage with these factors despite a primary concern with land values and class pressures is, like its clockwork simulacra, a failure to believably render what is human.

Suspect: More Human Than Human

These two factors—the social and the programmatic—make it hard for a player to ignore that they participate in a fiction. This insistently fictional quality makes reader immersion difficult for many and impossible for the rest of us. One might say, “Well of course it is fiction. Zork is obviously fiction, too.” Granted, but the best fiction distracts us from its nature. It misdirects us, it allows us to forget about what it is and does. In the best cases, fiction makes it possible for us to forget what we are doing altogether; it holds our entire consciousness captive.

Metafiction is, of course, a notable exception, but beyond some inside jokes—a bit about a trapdoor and a rug; a horse named “Lurking Grue”—its constantly on-the-move characters seem quite sincere in their incredibility. The “Rambler” does not feel satirical—its angst over vanishing opportunities for fox hunting is presented as a real thing that we, its readers, might find relatable.

While it is true that Suspect‘s browsie is satirical, it appears to be a satire of a certain type of discourse about etiquette rather than a parody of the class issues subsumed within its content. It even goes so far as to mock “guilt-ridden liberals”, even though we likely believe today that it is the wealth and material plentitude of the rich that fascinate so many far more ordinary people.

It is accident, it must be, that Infocom’s next release would be Cornerstone, a fever dream borne aloft by unsecured capital and a slash and burn disposition toward its chief product line, its name recognizability, and, ultimately, the sole source of its independence. In other words, Infocom made a choice to bet the farm on what would ultimately be their legacy. Not so terribly different from what happens in Suspect, is it?

In two weeks, Gold Machine will feature a one-shot piece on Cornerstone—remember that this project covers all releases—which will focus on historical analysis with references to some great secondary sources. It represents the fulcrum of Infocom’s game development seesaw and is an important topic for fans of their interactive fiction content.

Image of an IBM Model M keyboard from 1990. Looks very sturdy, and features mechanical keys that physically "clack" when pressed.
Vintage IBM Model M keyboard: For that old timey parser feel.

Next: ParserComp 2022

As some of you may know, the contemporary interactive fiction scene is built around a schedule of competitions held throughout the year. ParserComp, a competition happening right now, has some great games available that you can play for free (and even rate in the contest!). I have some reviews up at the Interactive Fiction Community Forum if you’d like to check them out. Next week, I’ll feature interviews with the organizers, as well as with two authors who wrote games I really enjoyed. If you’ve wanted to check out contemporary IF but haven’t known where to start, try some of the games I liked and then tune in next week!

The post [3/3] There Goes The Neighborhood: Suspect appeared first on Gold Machine.

Friday, 15. July 2022

Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling

Mid-July Link Assortment

Events ParserComp games are still available to play and vote on through July 31, and players are reviewing these games over on the intfiction forum. Hops Ahead: The Art of Alternate Histories, Presents, and Futures is an exhibition of interactive narrative works, curated by Clara Fernández-Vara and Nick Montfort, running December 4-7 at UC Santa … Continue reading "Mid-July Link Assortment"

Events

ParserComp games are still available to play and vote on through July 31, and players are reviewing these games over on the intfiction forum.

Hops Ahead: The Art of Alternate Histories, Presents, and Futures is an exhibition of interactive narrative works, curated by Clara Fernández-Vara and Nick Montfort, running December 4-7 at UC Santa Cruz alongside the ICIDS conference. Now through July 31, the curators are inviting submissions of work on the themes of

  • Alternate histories, presents, and futures
  • Social connection and disconnection
  • Cultural universals and differences
  • Working across languages
  • Playful words and languages

    Accepted artwork will be displayed at the exhibit, and afterwards participants will be invited to contribute to a peer-reviewed book; there is also a small honorarium. Parser-based and hypertext interactive fiction are explicitly called out as appropriate formats to submit to this event (along with a range of others).

Narrascope will run July 30-31: the event is low-cost and remote, and features speakers on many aspects of interactive narrative.

August 6 is the next meetup of the San Francisco Bay IF Meetup, and will be conducted online.

In early September, inkJam will be running to encourage new games written in Ink.

Meanwhile, if you’d like to submit an entry to IFComp this year, you can register your intent to participate as an author any time between now and September 1, and make sure you’re getting email and updates about the competition as the deadline approaches. Actual games will be due September 28.

Podcasts

Voice actor Sarah Elmaleh talks about the work of voicing games: what the work involves from a practical perspective, the labour protections involved, what she’d advocate to game studios, the imaginative requirements of acting for a scene or environment that doesn’t exist.

This is part of Jude Kampfner’s Creative Confidential podcast – Jude talks about creative processes to a range of different people, some not related to games or IF at all, but you may also enjoy her older conversation with Matthew S. Burns.


Interactive Fiction – The Digital Antiquarian

Transfixed by 1996

I’m afraid I don’t have a regular article for you this week. By way of compensation, I do have a new ebook for you, compiling all of the articles from our recently concluded historical year of 1995, along with the special “Web Around the World” series about the birth of worldwide communications networks and (eventually!) […]

I’m afraid I don’t have a regular article for you this week. By way of compensation, I do have a new ebook for you, compiling all of the articles from our recently concluded historical year of 1995, along with the special “Web Around the World” series about the birth of worldwide communications networks and (eventually!) the Internet. Because some of you have requested it, Richard Lindner and I have also prepared a special ebook volume that includes only the latter series. If you enjoy these ebooks, don’t hesitate to drop Richard a line at the email address on their frontispieces to thank him for his efforts.

We’re a couple of articles into 1996 already; I’ve covered Toonstruck and the first Broken Sword game. In keeping with a developing Digital Antiquarian tradition, let me tell you what else I have planned for the year as a whole:

  • The Discworld and Discworld II adventures, preceded by a short digression about Terry Pratchett and his literary Discworld universe in general, which has intersected with games on multiple occasions. (As many of you doubtless know, Terry Pratchett himself was a dedicated gamer, and his daughter Rhianna Pratchett has become a notable games journalist and designer in her own right.)
  • The second (and, sadly, last) Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes game, which plunges you even deeper into Victoriana than does its predecessor.
  • Rama and The Martian Chronicles, which are by no means great games. Nevertheless, they are on one level fairly typical exemplars of the Myst variants that were everywhere in the mid-1990s, and make for worthy objects of inquiry on that basis alone. And on another level, I think it will be interesting, constructive, and maybe even a bit nostalgic to compare them with earlier adaptations of Arthur C. Clarke and Ray Bradbury, from the first era of bookware. (The Martian Chronicles was even created by Byron Preiss Productions, the same folks behind the old Telarium bookware line.)
  • Titanic: Adventure Out of Time, the penultimate million-selling adventure of the 1990s, a case study in being in the right place at the right time — said time being in this case very close to the release date of a certain blockbuster movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet.
  • The Pandora Directive. Enough said. Tex Murphy needs no justification.
  • Spycraft, an interactive spy movie by Activision, one of the more elaborate multimedia productions of its day, which courted controversy by letting you torture prisoners while playing the role of a CIA agent. Almost a decade later, the revelations about Guantánamo Bay would give this scene an uncomfortable aura of verisimilitude.
  • Star Control 3, Legend Entertainment’s much-maligned sequel to a much-beloved game.
  • Wing Commander IV. If anyone was wondering why Toonstruck‘s $8 million budget made it only the second most expensive computer game ever as of 1996, this article will provide the answer.
  • Battlecruiser 3000 AD. Because sometimes you just need a good laugh, and this story is like an Onion satire of the games industry come to life.
  • Terra Nova, Looking Glass’s next, somewhat less successful but nevertheless innovative experiment with immersive, emergent 3D world-building after the seminal System Shock.
  • Civilization II, Master of Orion II, and Heroes of Might and Magic II. I lump these three games together here because they are all strategy sequels — a thought-provoking concept in itself, in that they are iterations on gameplay rather than the next chapters of ongoing stories. They will, however, each get an article of their own as part of a mini-series.
  • The post-DOOM generation of first-person shooters, up to Quake and the advent of hardware-accelerated 3D graphics. I know some of you have been itching for more coverage of these topics, to which I can only plead that they just aren’t my favorite sorts of games; chalk me up as too old, too slow, too pacifistic, and/or too bookish. This means I’m really not the best person to cover most first-person shooters in great individual depth. But I’ll try to do a group of them some sort of historical justice here, and spend some time on the software and hardware technology behind them as well, which I must confess to finding more interesting in some ways than the actual games.
  • Tomb Raider. Lara Croft has become arguably the most famous videogame character in the world in the years since her debut in 1996, as well as a lightning rod for discussion and controversy. Is she a sadly typical example of the objectification of women for the male-gamer gaze, or a rarer example of a capable, empowered female protagonist in a game? Or is she perhaps a little of both? We shall investigate.
  • Her Interactive. The story of the earliest games of Her Interactive, who would later carve out a permanent niche for themselves making Nancy Drew adventure games, is another fascinating and slightly bizarre tale, about attempting to sell games to teenage girls through partnerships with trendy fashion labels, with plots that might have been lifted from Beverly Hills 90210, in boxes stuffed with goodies that were like girlie versions of the Infocom gray boxes of yore. Do the games stay on the right side of the line between respectful outreach and pandering condescension? Again, we shall investigate.
  • Windows 95. The biggest topic for the year, this will serve as a continuation of not one but two earlier series: “Doing Windows” and the recently concluded “A Web Around the World.” Windows 95 was anything but just another Microsoft operating system, reflecting as it did its maker’s terror about a World Wide Web filled with increasingly “active” content that might eventually make traditional operating systems — and thus Microsoft themselves — irrelevant. And Windows 95 also introduced a little something called DirectX, which finally provided game developers with a runtime environment that was comprehensively better than bare-bones MS-DOS. But why, you may be asking, am I including Windows 95 in the coverage for 1996? Simply because it shipped very late in its titular year, and it took a while for its full impact to be felt.

To answer another question that will doubtless come up after reading the preceding: no, I’m not going to skip over Blizzard Entertainment’s Diablo, one of the most popular games of the decade. I’ve just decided to push it into 1997, given that it appears not to have reached store shelves in most places until just after the new year. And I’ll make time for a round-up of real-time-strategy games, from Blizzard and others, before covering Diablo.

As always, none of this is set in stone. Feel free to make your case in the comments for anything I’ve neglected that you think would make a worthy topic for an article, or just to register your voice as a conscientious objector in the case of the games I won’t be able to get around to.

And if what’s coming up seems exciting to you and you haven’t yet signed up to support this project, please do think about doing so. Of course, I realize all too well that much in the world is uncertain right now and many of us feel ourselves to be on shaky ground, not least when it comes to our finances. By all means, take care of yourself and yours first. But if you have a little something left over after doing so and want to ensure that my voluminous archives continue to grow, anything you can spare would be immensely appreciated. See the links at the top right of this page!

And thank you — a million times thank you — to all of you who have already become Patreon patrons or made one-time or recurring PayPal donations. Your pledges and donations are the best validation a writer could have, in addition to being the only reason I’m able to keep on doing this. It’s been quite a ride already, and yet we have a long, long way still to go. See you next week for a proper article!

Thursday, 14. July 2022

Choice of Games LLC

Author Zachary Sergi on the 10th Anniversary of Heroes Rise

To celebrate the 10th Anniversary of Heroes Rise, we’ve commissioned brand new game art for Heroes Rise: The Prodigy, new line-art headers for the original Heroes Rise trilogy, and placed all the Sergiverse games on sale until July 21st! We’re proud to publish author Zachary Sergi’s reflections on this occasion below. *** The year was 2011. I was one year out of college, trying to

To celebrate the 10th Anniversary of Heroes Rise, we’ve commissioned brand new game art for Heroes Rise: The Prodigy, new line-art headers for the original Heroes Rise trilogy, and placed all the Sergiverse games on sale until July 21st! We’re proud to publish author Zachary Sergi’s reflections on this occasion below.
***
The year was 2011. I was one year out of college, trying to find my footing in Los Angeles as a TV writer. I had hustled my way into a Disney Channel original movie think tank, a process that introduced me to my first (short-lived) manager. This matters because that manager did one thing for me: he told me a new company called Choice of Games was looking for fiction writers to pitch ideas for interactive novels.

I had studied fiction all through high school and college, and had written contemporary novel-length works before. Far more importantly, I grew up loving to invent my own RPGs with my action figures and obsessing over pathways in the Goosebumps: Reader Beware…You Choose The Scare CYOA-style novels. I even tried my hand at constructing my own interactive stories in elementary school: a teen slasher called Killer Central and a superhero team-up called The Mega Force Saga (lol).

A lifelong Marvel Comics reader (X-Men, specifically), I also always had a super hero world in my head, one based on an American Idol style competition that funneled into The Avengers, but that was also queer and diverse (having grown up as a gay teen on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, this kind of inclusion felt mundanely everyday to a naively-younger me). While I kept building this superhero world in my mind, I had never actually written about it—my high school and college classes demanded contemporary fiction only, at the time.

Heroes Rise was one of a few pitches I submitted to Choice of Games, expecting another rejection to add to my growing pile—but they bought it. Now, at age 23, I had agreed to write a full length novel, in a genre I had never written in before, in a format that didn’t really exist in a way I could find at the time, in a coding-format language I didn’t understand, for a brand new company, which would publish exclusively digitally on an app. For context, I still had a Blackberry then. I didn’t really even understand what an app was, and in those days it was kind of unfathomable that anyone would pay for one, since virtually all apps came free.

Basically: I thought there wasn’t a chance in hell anyone would actually read this novel. The pressure was off, in that way. I was free to just write what was in my head, without worrying if it was commercial or sellable or fitting within any typical genre confines.

The learning curve was steep, but I found I really enjoyed writing in this coding-formatting, half-game, half-novel style. My brain swam in both lanes faster than I expected. Choice of Games had developed a very clean language and an even cleaner vision for choice pacing/styling (which has evolved over time, but the core remains equally pristine). I also felt free not having to live within the perspective of a static main character—that had always been the weakest point of my early fiction writing, but the second person MC openness meant I didn’t even have to worry about that. The perspective had to be weak, to allow the reader to fill in the cracks.

The biggest challenge was trying to outline an enticing story full of plot twists and interesting characters, but that also allowed for some degree of reader control/flexibility. I saw my primary job to tell the best story possible, and my secondary job to build compelling choices and game structure within that story. I found the choices that mattered most to me were defining the Main Character, navigating their relationships, and encountering morally-loaded sociological dilemmas. The choices were designed to make the reader stop and think, not necessarily have vast control over the story. (This has become a cornerstone of my own particular interactive style, which is subjectively loved and hated).

I also know that, during that year, I was reading the 4th-7th Harry Potter books for the first time. I had read the first three when they came out, but literally couldn’t carry the larger hardcovers on the subway with me. Looking back, I think you can see the more whimsical spirit in that first Heroes Rise as a result. I was also really miserable in my personal life the first couple years out of college, graduating into a recession and living in a city where I didn’t have many existing friendships. So much of my drive for a big writing career, a big love, and a sense of belonging in Los Angeles was infused into The Prodigy. Even though this novel wasn’t real-world contemporary, so much of who I was and what I knew was still infused. Grandma was based on my own, Jenny was inspired by my dearest friend at the time, Chelsea. I was living with my parents (who I adore), but needed some self-defining separation from. And then the orphan, Jury, and Victon vibes came straight from Harry Potter. Then, as always, there’s X-Men social allegory and The Avengers fame fun.

It was a genre-blending brew—turns out, that’s another cornerstone of what I write. The final element came straight from college, where I took a class purely studying utopian literature (and discovered my then-much-lesser-known favorite novel, The Handmaid’s Tale). Writing about societal constructs via utopian/dystopian themes was also something I always intended to explore. Looking back, Heroes Rise: The Prodigy was a mad explosion of myself coming together for the first time, empowered by a company that didn’t edit me into any corners (to their infinite credit), and from a space where unafraid to fail—because to me back then, failure was already implied. I remember saying to my mom late one night: “No one will read this, but if I die tomorrow, I at least got to write something fully and wholly me.”

Naturally, absolutely zero people in my life understood what I was doing, literally or career-trajectory wise. But I was 23. I was allowed a year to write a passion project, especially one that was paid. Life would go on afterwards.

Sometime before the July 2012 release, I got an iPhone (so I could buy the book, mostly). I was also blown away when the cover drafts came in—it was the first time I had ever seen a character I wrote brought to life visually. That one detail emboldened me enough to try and treat this like a traditional book launch—I made social media accounts and planned a little book launch party at the writing office I used then. People came to the party, but no one understood what the book was. Is it a game? Is it a novel? Wait, it’s an app? It’s about superheroes, but it’s not Marvel or DC? And it’s about societal allegory and fame culture? Well, thanks for the free cheese board…

I was right about one thing: to this day, the majority of my family and friends haven’t read Heroes Rise. But do you know who did? All you readers who somehow found The Prodigy (I still don’t quite know how that happened). Reader emails and messages started coming in. Fan art of the characters started popping up (mind fully blown every time, with that one). People from other countries were somehow reading it. I even got some hate mail and awful reviews—but I was thrilled. People cared enough to do all that? Turns out I was very wrong about no one reading this thing. I was so startled that this interactive novel on this new platform reached anyone, especially something that was so idiosyncratically me. It was a revelation, one I’m grateful for to this day.

I guess I should say, even though I didn’t expect this outcome, I did hope (and plan) for it. I had designed Heroes Rise as a trilogy, in typical Young Adult fiction style. (Oh yeah, I started calling my stuff Young Adult too, because it was easier to “sell and pitch” myself in the various businesses. I still don’t know if Heroes Rise is really YA, but I also don’t think it matters). I didn’t pitch The Hero Project in the original Heroes Rise because I didn’t want to potentially give away my best idea to an unknown home. But this home had made itself fully known.

Thankfully, Choice of Games agreed. Not only that, but the founders of the company saw the ravenous need for queer, diverse, and inclusive representation in superheroes and gaming. This was years before those things became “trendy” marketing talking points—and I still wish we were further into this movement, especially amidst all this recent queer book-banning.

Mostly, I tried to listen to the audience, thankful for having one to begin with. I knew I needed to evolve the overly-simplistic gaming structure and choice style (especially now that I actually knew what I was doing). In the decade since, I’ve made huge steps forward (and sometimes backward) working out ways to expand interactivity—while still meeting the publish-once-a-year deadlines. I also wrote so many storylines requested by you readers: romances with Jenny, Jury, and Prodigal (which never would have occurred to me). I also remember posting screenshots of homemade strategy guides, then getting dozens of emails from blind readers asking for text-versions so voice-assistive technology could read them aloud. We had blind readers? Time for representation in that community (hello Weaver, among others).

I also learned how to navigate the tricky waters of writing about societal and political constructs, sometimes favoring my own beliefs unfairly. This is how I came to define my mission statement as a writer: to always empower readers; to expose you to new worlds & ideas and let you decide for yourselves what to think & believe. Additionally, I always focus on LGBTQIA+ representation and exploring issues of intersectional inclusion, funneled through a (usually Young Adult) genre-mashing blend of humor, action & drama.

Looking back on these early days building out the Sergiverse (as social media coined it, and I wholeheartedly adopted) via the Heroes Rise Trilogy, The Hero Project Duology, and the Versus Trilogy, I mostly wish I had the stamina I did in my 20s to write 150+ thousand words a year while also developing TV shows. (Now in my 30s, my body and brain require a lot more care). There’s so much I’d handle differently with the benefit of hindsight, but mostly I’m proud of what we all built together.

Having now finished the eight-part epic I dreamed up in my 20s last year with Versus: The Deathscapes (that warrants its own essay, let me tell you), I’m lucky to have gotten the chance to help establish another interactive precedent. I wrote Heroes Rise: The Prodigy when I was 23, and ten years later at 33, I got to publish a first-of-its kind hardcover Interactive Novel, Major Detours. And next year, my first-ever Hosted Games project will publish on January 5: Fortune the Fated, where I’m experimenting with yet another totally-different (for me, at least) interactive plot structure.

Exactly a decade later, I also have another superhero world bubbling and half-written. It’s in the same spirit at Heroes Rise, but with a focus on allegory for professional sports (if you’re thinking The Hero Project: The Legend of Korra meets Friday Night Lights, you’d be right). I’ll hopefully find a publishing home for that project soon, but it strikes me now, how I feel compelled to return to this spirit of storytelling a decade later—kind of like a call to come home.


Truly, every inch of this started with Heroes Rise: The Prodigy and the visionary founders of Choice of Games. Those same founders have been gracious enough to create a special 10th Anniversary cover for The Prodigy, one that captures its spirit perfectly. I think it’s maybe time I fully re-read it, myself? As always, I have the same question: Will you take this journey with me?

Tuesday, 12. July 2022

Renga in Blue

Quest: High Noon with Billy the Gnome

I’ve tried to play up to a point where I feel like I’ve “colored” in a lot of the edges but the game keeps going and going. I’m just going to highlight a few events just to give you a sense of what I’m up against. This game is dense in a way that’s odd […]

I’ve tried to play up to a point where I feel like I’ve “colored” in a lot of the edges but the game keeps going and going. I’m just going to highlight a few events just to give you a sense of what I’m up against.

From Resurrection: The Bulletin of the Computer Conservation Society. The System 25 was ICL’s followup to the System 10, which Quest was originally written for.

This game is dense in a way that’s odd to describe. There’s a colorful events and characters and rooms, but for the most part you can’t refer to the world modeling that gets implied and where a good chunk of the text is there for pure scenery. To illustrate what I mean, here’s a bit where I managed to get a lamp:

The door is opened by Bert, wearing a fine red cap and olive green suit. Traditional elf hospitality being what it is, he invites you in. You are now in old Bert’s house. The shelves are lined with all manner of strange artifacts gathered during old Bert’s 357 years of life. “I shall show you some of my more prized possessions later if you like” says old Bert “will you stay to tea?”

>YES

Tea is (as always in an elvish household) magnificent. The traditional 27 different courses are all served with the necessary pomp and ceremony. The dishes range from the piquant pickled subterranian mushrooms in oak root sauce to the rare and succulent delicacy of boiled arboron ears in jelly. After tea (which lasts some five hours) Bert takes you through into his back room museum in which his favourite treasures are housed, After browsing, for a pleasant half hour among such rare exhibits as a complete set of coinage from the reign of elf king Zorgat the large, and an autographed copy of the complete works of Cedric Dewdrop, Bert wishes you a fond farewell with a parting gift of a beautiful silver oil lamp with hand painted scenes of the orient on it, You are outside the house of Bert the elf.

You don’t even have a chance to refer to the 27 courses of the coinage or whatnot — this is a scene that just lands the oil lamp in your hands, which you incidentally don’t even have to turn on, it works automatically in previously dark areas.

I wouldn’t say all this extra material is “fluff”, but it can be a little disconcerting compared to one of the Cambridge mainframe games where every ounce of text needs to be pored over as a clue. The game is not afraid to randomly toss you in a “Gnome of Year” Ideal Gnome Show (immediately adjacent to a Dog Show) where you have to pick one of two contestants to win (neither which can be examined or talked to for more detail), and if you make a choice the loser socks you and your score goes down.

You are at “Elves Court” where the annual Ideal Gnome Show is being held. A number of gnomes of all sizes and genders are exhibiting themselves in the hope of being judged “Gnome of the Year”.

The judges however are in a quandary, being unable to decide between two finalists – Basil Wolstegnome and Maria Gnomesick.

As an unbiased outsider, your opinion is sought who do you choose?

Close to this scene — east and down some stairs, although you need the lamp to make it through — there’s a Western town.

You are in what looks like the main street of an old western town. An icy wind is blowing, along the street from the south, sending the odd ball of tumbleweed hurtling past, Above the high pitched shriek of the wind, the sound of piano music can be heard from the saloon to the west. On the building on the east side of the street the sign “sherrif” hangs at a slight angle.

The “sheriff” is asleep and has a gun you can get; as far as I can tell there’s no way to wake the sheriff (the game doesn’t even recognize any related words). You can go into the saloon where you come across Billy the gnome, who starts following you and being aggressive, eventually shooting you to death no matter which way you walk:

You are in a ladies boudoir. The occupant is (unfortunately) not present, but discarded items of clothing scattered here and there tend to indicate that she is in the habit of dressing in the manner of a bygone age (and in rather a hurry !). There are no windows, but the light from a small gas lamp reveals a small bed against the north wall, and a wardrobe against the west wall. The main door is to the east. Standing quietly nearby sneering at you is the tall rugged figure of Billy the gnome, the infamous outlaw. Billy the gnome draws his gun and fires, As you are now dead, would you like to be re-incarnated?

There’s ammo elsewhere for the sheriff’s gun; so you can have a shootout if you like. Unfortunately the game doesn’t let you bring the gun in the saloon where Billy is (even though he has his gun) so I had to leave the gun in the street, run outside after he started chasing, and try to shoot back.

B a n g !!! Unfortunately Billy beat you to the draw. You have been shot in the arm, but I think it should heal. Billy the gnome draws his gun and fires. As you are now dead, would you like to be re-incarnated?

Score: -140

So, things not going terribly well so far. Weirdly, I had an easier time killing a dragon:

You are in a vast, slimy cavern with festoons of phosphorescent moss hanging from the roof. Illuminated in the leprous, green glow, you can see a winding tunnel snaking off to the east, disappearing through the floor is what appears to be a fireman’s pole. To the west is the remains of a brick wall. Leaning against a wall is a dayglo-green dragon with smoke billowing from its mouth, and a strong smell of paraffin.

You can eventually keep trying to shoot it and it will die, but it doesn’t block anything; it just causes a danger if you try to pick up a torch while the dragon is tailing along (“there is a satisfactory loud whoomf!!! and the dragon explodes in a sheet of flame”), if you want to pick up the torch you have to kill it anyway.

I’m still trying to get a grip on the geography — it’s pretty randomly connected — and just as one more thing, past the dragon there’s a river leading up to an ocean, and past the ocean there’s … a German beach?

Sie befinden sich nun am noerdlichen Badestrand im deutschsprachigen Viertel der Hoehle. Die sonnengebraeunten Koerper der faulen Reichen sonnen sich in den Sonnenstrahlen welche durch Loecher in der Hoehlendecke in die Hoeble hinein strahlen, Im westen glitzert der tiefblaue ozean im sonnenlicht, Die hitze schimmert ueber dem heissen sand.

Yes, the game switches to German for that room description, and just that room description. I originally wondered if there was a file corruption or the like, but this was clearly intentional.

I’ll try to wrap the game up into something coherent next time. One more random location for good measure, though, placed in the middle of a cave next to the ocean:

You are in the lounge bar of the Elf club of Great Britain. All around you, a variety of elves, gnomes and other minority groups are having a good time, eating drinking and making merry (who is having a pretty good time also). The door to the west has a sign above it in elfish which you cannot read. The door to the east has the word “exit” above it in 42 different languages (one of them english). Standing in a corner polishing some glasses is the jovial and rotund figure of the club barman.

Monday, 11. July 2022

Gold Machine

[2/3] But Is It Art? The Intermittently-Beloved Art of Suspect

Alan E. Cober’s artwork for Suspect has proven so controversial that few authors have paused to consider whether the metatext bundled with Suspect has any utility in the first place (narrative, gameplay, or otherwise). A Curious Metatextual Trend in the Mysteries of Infocom NOTE: THIS ESSAY CONTAINS SPOILERS In the last update from Gold Machine, […] The post [2/3] But Is It Art? The Int

Alan E. Cober’s artwork for Suspect has proven so controversial that few authors have paused to consider whether the metatext bundled with Suspect has any utility in the first place (narrative, gameplay, or otherwise).

A Curious Metatextual Trend in the Mysteries of Infocom

NOTE: THIS ESSAY CONTAINS SPOILERS

In the last update from Gold Machine, I shared links to the various materials that accompanied each purchased copy of Suspect. If you haven’t seen them before, heading back might be worth your time. Since this is the third and final game in what I refer to as the “Quantum Detective” series of mysteries, it will likely be instructive to step back and consider the packaging for all such titles. Perhaps there is a trend or underlying movement that might say something about the narrative evolution of Infocom’s mysteries.

Deadline was the first Infocom game to include feelies. Its metatext served two purposes. One was utilitarian in the sense that the documents informed the player’s decision-making and understanding of the game world. The other function was the creation of atmosphere, since the feelies were presented in recognizable formats (reports, interview transcripts, etc.) that fostered a sense of belonging to a crime-solving bureaucracy—all objects are things that a “Chief of Detectives” might have. Importantly, these documents were neither window dressing nor garnish. They were essential elements included to solve a design problem. The limitations of the z-machine (Infocom’s virtual machine used for running games across multiple platforms) at that time dictated a theoretical size limit of 128 KB for game files. The practical reality, though, was that many games could not even reach that ceiling. This included some important customer bases in 1982—I believe the TI/99 was especially limited—so, Marc Blank needed to figure out a way to include all of the text that was part of the design some other way.

As much as we all love Infocom packaging, I think we must admit that most of it isn’t in place to meet design goals (other than copy protection). This is most obviously the case with the gray box rereleases, but it’s a general trend that crops up everywhere, including the mysteries that we’ve gathered here today to discuss. Take The Witness, for instance. The newspaper is fun to read, and it is an incredible recreation of period ephemera. It has very little to do with playing the game. While Deadline prepared players by introducing the suspects and providing significant details regarding the crime, only a few facts in this large, multi-paged newspaper have any bearing on the crime or its suspects: we learn that Monica Linder is a mechanical engineer (oh noes!), that Virginia Linder committed suicide, and that Freeman Linder is a war profiteer of some sort.

This shortcoming is masked by the undeniable charm of the newspaper’s incredibly eccentric stories, but it ultimately does nothing that the Deadline metatextual elements do. It isn’t like that information was not needed. The characters are largely types or loose collections of cultural assumptions. If The Witness gets away with such omissions, it is only because it is a narrative held together with cultural assumptions—not exactly a strength—and because there are so few characters that very little is needed to keep them straight.

An advertisement for binoculars. Sturdy-looking case with neck strap included. The caption reads: "Move in on the action! American Optical Company."
Detail from a vintage binoculars ad that was part of the folio release of The Witness.

What of Suspect, then, our game of the day and the culmination of simulation-based mystery at Infocom? It is like The Witness, only more so. More so because someone must have gotten the memo that “funny” browsies were a recipe for sales success, while the earliest mysteries may not have been able to capitalize on this business reality. The browsie—Suspect was the only classic mystery to initially release in the gray box format—was a booklet titled “Murder and Modern Manners,” a rather dark (for Infocom) satire of etiquette advice authors (they were popular syndicated features at the time) illustrated by then-recognizable commercial artist Alan E. Cober, future inductee into the Illustrators Hall of Fame. A surprisingly large and vocal number of Infocom fans dislike the art. However, it’s a quality browsie to be sure, with strong art, writing, and presentation. Whatever one’s tastes, it is well-made. Unfortunately, it does nothing to answer some important questions for the player. Chief among them is likely to be “who in the world are these people wandering around?” If Deadline players required such assistance, then why wouldn’t readers need help identifying the more numerous and ambulatory inhabitants of Suspect?

As in the case of The Witness, Lebling (and the marketing department, one must assume) seem to know what made Deadline cool while overlooking what made it work. The enclosed 2-page excerpt from the “Maryland Rambler” fares better, identifying as it does a small subset of the game’s cast (largely with a sentence or two), but it’s hardly enough to reflect an investigative reporter’s (that’s the protagonist, by the way) background research and preparation.

Like Deadline, the story file for Suspect is stuffed to the point of bursting. Unlike Deadline, the metatext of Suspect does little-to-nothing to fill in gaps in the player’s knowledge—gaps that the protagonist would almost certainly not have. If I haven’t already made this clear in earlier discussions of Infocom’s changing attitude toward metatext and product marketing: while feelies originated as a way to overcome design limitations, browsies had no duty to the games they accompanied. As a bit of in-store promotional material, they were at least as concerned with marketing as they were with enhancing player experience with the games themselves. The browsie for Suspect could have solved some glaring in-game problems, but that was not its objective.

A highly stylized drawing of a murder that was part of Suspect's documentation. A man lies face down on the ground while another man kneels on the victim's back, holding a revolver to his head.
One of Alan E. Cober’s illustrations for Suspect.

Do Automata Have Stories?

Another advantage of Deadline‘s metatext is that it constructs something recognizable as a narrative context: an “industrialist” dies, the body is found, various people characterize their relationships to the deceased and account for their day, a detective finds that suicide is the likely cause. You, that detective’s supervisor, have this story as a context while simultaneously coming to dismantle that story.

Suspect is a different beast. You, an investigative reporter, go to a fancy society party and get framed for murder. As a player, your goal is to follow these strangers (few will join you in conversation, so they remain strangers) around until you figure out where and when someone(s) have arrived at specific coordinates on a temporal map until you have the killer identified. In principle, this isn’t so different from Deadline or The Witness. The problem is that these characters are so undeveloped that it will be impossible for many players to suspend disbelief, accepting that these untalkative wind-up toys are in fact people. Both Deadline and, to a lesser extent, The Witness stave off this sense of inhuman clockwork through atmosphere and metatext. Suspect seems most concerned with complicating the simulation—with technical achievement, in other words—rather than with recreating what made Deadline work in spite of its impersonal simulations.

Suspect, then, is a matter of being in the right places at the right time. One of those places is outside, checking the weather when Michael’s girlfriend arrives. Another is next to a fireplace when Marston burns a document (I’m not sure that there is a way to discover this without following him around all night). The player must also fingerprint a glass in a trash can. Following all of the characters will make for a great many playthroughs, sometimes finding nothing at all. Deadline pushed the tolerance envelope for this type of play, in my opinion. Did anyone finish Deadline only to say: “This is fine, but I wish that there were more people moving around more frequently?”

Rather than leave you in suspense: Veronica was killed by her husband Michael who conspired with his girlfriend Alicia. Michael was trying to cover up the fact that he and Colonel Marston were embezzling her funds.

This may or may not surprise you, but neither Alicia nor Michael are mentioned in Suspect‘s metatext.

Suspect: Get Rich or kill Trying

Next time around, Gold Machine will problematize Suspect‘s uncritical portrayal of classism, its subsumed fears of working and/or nonwhite persons, and the ways in which its inhuman portrayal of mechanical personhood serves to amplify these phenomena.

It’s shaping up to be a doozy! Don’t miss the third and final piece in Gold Machine’s series on Suspect.

The post [2/3] But Is It Art? The Intermittently-Beloved Art of Suspect appeared first on Gold Machine.

Sunday, 10. July 2022

Zarf Updates

Severance and the Prisoner of Tomorrow

I normally avoid subscription TV, but my new phone came with three months of free Apple-watching, so I watched Severance. Also Fraggle Rock and Foundation. But Severance is the one to talk about.(Big ol' SPOILERS for Severance, if that wasn't clear. Read this post after you've finished watching the first season.)It doesn't take a lot of digging to connect Severance to The Prisoner. If the paranoia,
I normally avoid subscription TV, but my new phone came with three months of free Apple-watching, so I watched Severance. Also Fraggle Rock and Foundation. But Severance is the one to talk about.
(Big ol' SPOILERS for Severance, if that wasn't clear. Read this post after you've finished watching the first season.)
It doesn't take a lot of digging to connect Severance to The Prisoner. If the paranoia, surveillance, off-key horror of daily minutiae, and aseptic surrealism didn't tip you off, you probably caught Helly's last line in the last episode: "We're prisoners--"
Come to think of it, isn't that also the point of the red pajamas in the opening credits? It must be a prison jumpsuit. Just realized that.
But I think there's more to this than a few in-jokes. Severance is aesthetically a tribute to The Prisoner (1967), but it's thematically a reboot-done-right of the 2009 remake miniseries, also called The Prisoner.
The 2009 show wasn't a success, despite Jim Caviezel and Ian McKellen. I wrote about it at the time. My conclusion was that McKellen was magnificent, Caviezel did a great job, the underlying cinematological gimmick was laser-gaze brilliant; but it wasn't The Prisoner. It wasn't memorable either. The 1967 show has a loyal and enduring fandom; the 2009 show vanished without a cultural ripple.
This is a bit of a pity. The 2009 show really did try to reconstruct the themes of the original for the (then-) modern era. Rather than the faceless manipulative forces of the Cold War nation-powers, we had the faceless manipulative forces of corporate America. Number Six has resigned from some kind of corporate data analyst job. It was the right approach; it just didn't do anything convincing with it.
Now Severance picks up the same theme -- with one new insight which pulls it all together. Your opponent, the new Number Two, isn't the Handler or the Boss. He's you. The modern dystopia of employment, after all, is the prison that you check yourself into every morning. The question hanging over your head is: "Why DON'T you resign?" What's stopping you? You are, Number Six!
Severance literalizes this and runs with it. That's what makes the show compelling as hell. The creepy white corridors and the goats and the waffle thing are the set dressing, and they're great, but they're not the show. The show is that, no matter how much you like your job, you're of two minds about it.
This still isn't The Prisoner. The original show gave us the solitary purity of perfect paranoia. Who do I trust? Nobody. Every relationship in Number Six's world is a trap and a betrayal. He only triumphs when he plays others better than they play him.
Severance doesn't go there. Oh, Cobel is a faceless enigma and Milchick is a creepily smiling one. Nobody trusts them, nor Graner or the Board or (whoops) Miss Casey. But the good faith of the MDR team is not really in question. The four protagonists are on the same side. And then the middle arc of the season demonstrates the same about Optics and Design. Lumon wants the teams to be hostile and suspicious of each other, but we know that Irving and Burt's love is pure. (Turturro and Walken are the big names of the cast, and their scenes together show why.)
This is another point that the 2009 Prisoner missed, although I didn't realize it at the time. If the Village is your job, then the Village must admit the possibility of solidarity. We can't trust ourselves but we can trust each other, if we can only realize that.

This is not to say that Severance is perfect. (The Prisoner was perfect.) I think Severance fails to balance the early Village-esque everything-is-weird episodes with the "final" reveal. We spend too much time on the goats and the finger-traps and the scary number screens. Why are Mark's outie friends all flaming weirdos? Why is Cobel spying on his sister? Why is security so ostentatiously bad? It's great setup, but when we get around to the last episode, the only answer on order is "Lumon wants to stress-test the severance procedure." Which means it's all flummery and busywork; it doesn't mean anything. (Except for the specific test of throwing Mark and Miss Casey together.)
It's a fun ride, but it's a bit disappointing when you look back on it. The Prisoner was full of surrealistic theater, but you could fit it into a pattern: everything was intended to wind up Number Six. Everything was an assault on his integrity. Confusion and disorientation were par for the course. I don't think Severance sells its pattern. It's just weird because the audience likes that kind of thing.
(Note how nobody breaks character, not even behind the scenes, until the gala in the last episode. Cobel is a true believer even when it's just Milchick in the room. The Board talks through a mouthpiece, why? Because it was a good gag in Counterpart? None of this has anything to do with severance or Lumon's ostensible goals. And yes, they've got a second season to pull in some of the loose threads, but as it stands I'm not really convinced.)
Anyway, waffling aside, Severance is a good show. Recommended. And I'm happy to see Patrick McGoohan's this-man-is-an-Island isolation disappear with the 20th century. We need more than that to survive today.
("Waffling." Heh.)

Saturday, 09. July 2022

Renga in Blue

News: Narrascope & Fighting Fantasy

Sorry I’ve been a bit quiet, but I’ve been working on the presentation I’m giving for Narrascope, an online conference. Saturday (July 30) What I’ve Learned From (Attempting) to Play Every Adventure Game Ever Made – Jason Dyer (12:00–1:00, Track 1) Jason Dyer has taken the opposite tack from Aaron Reed, looking at every single […]

Sorry I’ve been a bit quiet, but I’ve been working on the presentation I’m giving for Narrascope, an online conference.

Saturday (July 30)

What I’ve Learned From (Attempting) to Play Every Adventure Game Ever Made – Jason Dyer
(12:00–1:00, Track 1)
Jason Dyer has taken the opposite tack from Aaron Reed, looking at every single playable adventure game up through 1981. Are old games only remarkable as history, or do they have interesting things to say about the modern design of games and narrative?

Registration for the conference is here; it only costs $10, or $3 if you happen to be shorter on funds.

And incidentally, as the text of the blurb for my talk implies, Aaron Reed is giving a talk as well, the keynote in fact! (Also, congrats to him for a successful Kickstarter which managed to make over half a million dollars for a book about text games.)

In other news, both Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone — the original two — are coming out with new Fighting Fantasy books:

Steve Jackson’s Tweet

Ian Livingstone’s Tweet

While I’m at it, I should plug Nathan Mahney’s blog Your Adventure Ends Here, which has been playing through all the Fighting Fantasy books (and mini-adventures in magazines) in chronological order. If you read just one thing, try his assault on Dungeon of Justice (note the link will be reverse chronological) as it seems like a perfectly ordinary dungeon crawl except for one unhinged twist which violates all norms of game design.