Planet Interactive Fiction

November 11, 2019

These Heterogenous Tasks

IF Comp 2019: Black Sheep

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at November 11, 2019 08:42 AM

Black Sheep (Nic Barkdull and Matt Borgard, Twine) is a cyberpunk mystery. Your father – head of a Singularity-focused corporation with a cult following – has died, and your sister has been kidnapped. The protagonist, Irene, is (despite a fake-out … Continue reading

November 10, 2019

Zarf Updates

Current crowdfunds

by Andrew Plotkin ([email protected]) at November 10, 2019 07:21 PM

Speaking of crowdfunding, Aaron Reed's Subcutanean is at about 70% of its (modest) goal. This is not an interactive work, but it is a dynamically-generated text: every printed copy will be different within an authored space. Aaron has written a series of blog posts describing his writing (and implementation) process. He's also progressively posting one edition online -- see the project page for links.
I have not read any version of this; I'm waiting for my own unique edition before I jump in. However, it hits any number of my story kinks. Surreal spaces, unbounded architures, labyrinths... I'm excited about this and I encourage you to help the project succeed.

The other crowdfunding project of the month is, of course IFComp's Colossal Fund. This is our third year raising money for IFComp prizes. This year we've raised the goal to $10000, which is ambitious -- but we're almost 85% of the way there.
The prize fund is set up to reward a wide spectrum of games, not just a couple of top vote-getters. This year, if we hit our goal, we expect to give out over 50 cash prizes ranging from $10 up to $415. So please help us support diverse forms of interactive fiction!
(And if you can't contribute money, you can still donate other prizes. And vote on games! That's important too!)
IFComp voting ends on the 15th, so that's the deadline for the fundraiser as well. (We'll take your money after the 15th, but it will go into the IFComp 2020 prize pool.)
Fair note: the Colossal Fund is also an IFTF fundraiser. 80% of the money goes to IFComp prizes. The rest goes to IFTF operational costs, including web hosting, legal support, and the snazzy illustration above.

Reviews from Trotting Krips

Under the Sea: The Treasure of the Santa Tortosa by Heike Borchers (2019)

by Bryan B at November 10, 2019 05:42 AM

The Little Ugly, Evil Guy On My Shoulder’s Verdict:

I think Heike once read an Aquaman comic and thought to herself, “Woah, this guy’s superpower is that he can talk to fish! This is the coolest superhero of all time!” She is the only person in history to have ever had this reaction to an Aquaman comic.

The Little Nice, Handsome Guy On My Shoulder’s Verdict:

There’s treasure, exploration, friendship, puzzles, humor, and even romance to be found here. What more could an IF player ask for?

My Verdict:

I should probably resent this game for being a thinly conceived vehicle for unrelated and somewhat randomly chosen classic puzzles, but it’s so charming and fun I don’t even care. It turns out spending my life not interacting with sea creatures has left a huge void in my heart that I only now realize I must fill. Thanks, Heike!

Game Information

Game Type: Inform (Glulx)

Author Info: Heike Borchers appears to be a first time IF author of whom there is little public knowledge. Cynical voices might point at this game which is both well-designed and well-informed in IF history and argue it must be the work of a seasoned hand writing under a nom de plume, but I’ll refuse to believe this until the bitter, bitter end. To me, Heike will always be some German chick who digs IF and just started writing her own games in 2019. I welcome her to our community with open arms. By the way, do you think Dave Ahl Jr will ever write another game?

Download Link:

The 2019 Interactive Fiction Competition will not exactly go down as the most family friendly iteration in IFComp’s more than two decade history. Considering just the first four comp games I played this year, the first game featured recreational marijuana use, the second a dead fat guy, the third a dead cat, and the fourth a murderous protagonist. This is exactly the sort of material I’d want any hypothetical children of mine to be exposed to as early as possible, but I can understand why some parents might want to shelter their kids a little longer or at least keep them from falling under the influence of the sick sort of people who still write interactive fiction in 2019. Under the Sea stands out in contrast to the rest of the field as it is exactly the sort of game parents should want their kids to play. It has no death, violence, drugs, or sex. It’s innocent. It’s charming. It has puzzles which require some thought in order to solve but which eager young minds would be capable of solving. It even teaches sound moral values.

Even better, Under the Sea is also the kind of game you could describe in an overly excited tone of voice in order to get an 8 or 38 year old interested in playing it. You’re an adventurer! You’re seeking treasure! It’s buried under the sea! You’ve got to talk to fish in order to find it! There’s a bear! And an octopus too! Even I’m getting excited just typing this out. This isn’t the most intellectual game in the world, but it’s easy to approach and easy to relate to. I don’t know about you, but the only answer I have to the questions “Do you want to find some treasure?” and “Do you want to talk to fish?” is HELL YES.

Treasure hunting games don’t always have much of a moral compass. The whole pursuit is rooted in avarice, after all, and the trail of dead dungeon dwellers we adventurers typically leave in our wake while in pursuit of the shiny is only rarely considered. Under the Sea isn’t heavy-handed in its approach to morality, but it forces the player to choose what kind of adventurer he or she wishes to be. You can be a lying braggart or a kindly truth-teller. You can choose love over money or money over love. There are consequences to every choice, but none are severe or extreme. I loved the fact that I, a bitter old man whose sole guiding moral principle is to not eat people unless very hungry, got the ending with Keira and found myself nominated for an important adventuring honor on my first playthrough. That’s the best ending, I think, and it’s a good illustration that doing good can indeed feel good, particularly when you’re doing good in a text adventure and thus are not subject to all the bullshit people come up with in real life that can sometimes leaves no good deed unpunished. Under the Sea has struck a powerful blow for virtue and it deserves praise for that. On the other hand, I kind of liked the ending where I ended up dirty, stinking rich too even though it was less warm and fuzzy. Avarice is…good? “Awesome” would have more of a ring to it, I suppose.

The game Under the Sea most reminds me of is an AGT classic called Dragons In Chocolate Land by Eclipse. Both games feature a number of animals you must interact with, and both games have a whimsical feel to them. Eclipse, though, seems to have been much more serious about worldbuilding. She created about as realistic a game world that uses chocolate as a building material and is inhabited by dragons as she could, and her animals tend to act more like real animals, albeit animals with generally kind dispositions. Under the Sea in contrast never feels as convincing. The fish and the octopus act more like people than animals. While it’s fun to interact with the sea creatures, you know they’re there mostly to act cutesy and give you extremely unlikely puzzles to solve. You just have to accept that this world you’ve found yourself in has a fish that’s into Morse code and an octopus who likes devious word games. At times, the pretense can wear a little thin and the game can start to feel like a collection of disconnected puzzles.

That said, I mostly enjoyed the puzzles in the game. They all make sense and will be mostly familiar to veteran IF players. I have to admit when I ran into the Morse code puzzle, my first reaction was, “Oh HELL no!” Then I realized that I knew exactly how to solve this and had in fact done this kind of thing before. So I solved it and I felt smart. That’s a good puzzle. The other puzzles I found either straightforward or I solved them on my third attempt. That’s true even for the final puzzle which I recognized as a familiar logic puzzle but couldn’t remember how to solve it for the life of me. So I guessed and solved it on my third attempt. Then the octopus asked me how I solved the puzzle and I guessed the answer he wanted to that on my third attempt. Yeah, I guessed the answer to the puzzle question designed specifically to prevent guessing. It was both my finest and my least finest hour. I really felt like an idiot when I looked up the puzzle online and was reminded of the actual trick to solving it.

One thing that makes this game more difficult than it needs to be is that the parser responsiveness is poor and exact command matches are too frequently required. For example, the game’s parser will understand “say thanks” but not allow you to use thank as a verb. There should definitely be more synonyms implemented and perhaps some more guidance to show players how they should word their commands. The most extreme parser failure I noticed occurred in the opening scene. At this point, you’ve already been told that there’s a treasure map buried somewhere on the island you’ve landed on. You’re on an island and there’s a shovel. It’s pretty obvious what comes next, right? IT’S DIGGING TIME! The only problem is seemingly only one command will do what you want it to do, and every other reasonable command you try will lead to the generic message “I only understood you as far as wanting to dig.” The first time I played through this game I just walked past the scene and found the treasure without the map because I just assumed the map wasn’t actually implemented. It’s not a big game world so you don’t really need a map, but this still bugged me enough that I replayed the game and kept trying until I found that one command that actually did work. It made sense, and I probably would have come up with it long before if only the game had asked me, “Where on the island do you want to dig?” when I tried to “dig island,” “dig in ground,” or “dig for map.” I just needed a little feedback to show me I was on the right track. Is that so wrong?

If you can forgive the overly strict parser and enjoy solving puzzles, you’ll likely find Under the Sea a charming and fun game to play. It’s not a world-beater by any means, but it’s a pleasant diversion and offers a nice escape from more serious competition fare.

Simple Rating: 6/10

Complicated Rating: 28/50

Story: 6/10

Writing: 7/10

Playability: 6/10 (This is a generally well-implemented game with no serious bugs, but the poor parser responsiveness makes it a much less pleasant playing experience.)

Puzzle Quality: 6/10

Parser Responsiveness: 3/10

November 08, 2019

The Digital Antiquarian

New Tricks for an Old Z-Machine, Part 2: Hacking Deeper (or, Follies of Graham Nelson’s Youth)

by Jimmy Maher at November 08, 2019 05:42 PM

Earlier this year, I reached out to Graham Nelson, the most important single technical architect of interactive fiction’s last three decades, to open a dialog about his early life and work. I was rewarded with a rich and enjoyable correspondence. But when the time came to write this article based on it, I found myself on the horns of a dilemma. The problem was not, as it too often is, that I lacked for material to flesh out his personal story. It was rather that Graham had told his own story so well that I didn’t know what I could possibly add to it. I saw little point in paraphrasing what Graham wrote in my own words, trampling all over his spry English irony with my clumsy Americanisms. In the end, I decided not to try.

So, today I present to you Graham Nelson’s story, told as only he can tell it. It’s a rare treat given that Graham is, like so many people of real accomplishment, usually reluctant to speak at any length about himself. I’ll just offer a couple of contextual notes before he begins. The “Inform” to which Graham eventually refers is a specialized text-adventure programming language by that name targeting the Z-Machine (and much later a newer virtual machine known as Glulx which has finally come to supersede Infocom’s venerable creation); Inform has been the most popular tool of its type through the last quarter-century. And Curses is the first full-fledged game ever written with Inform, a puzzly yet eminently literary time-traveling epic which took the huddled, beleaguered text-adventure diehards by storm upon its release in 1993, giving them new hope for their beloved form’s future and inspiring many of them to think of making their own games — using Inform more often than not. In the third and final article of this series on the roots of the Interactive Fiction Rennaissance, I’ll examine both of these seminal artifacts in depth with the detachment of a third party, trying to place them in their proper historical context for you. For today, though, I give you Graham Nelson unfiltered to tell you his story of how they — and he — came to be…

Great Baddow, the quiet Essex village where Graham Nelson grew up.

I was born in 1968, so I’m coeval with The White Album and Apollo 8. I was born in Chelmsford, in Essex, and grew up mainly in Great Baddow, a quiet suburban village. There were arable farms on one side, where in those days the stubble of the wheat would still be burned off once a year. (In fact, I see that the Wikipedia page for “stubble burning” features a photo from the flat countryside of Essex, taken in 1986. The practice is banned now.) My street, Hollywood Close, had been built in the early 1960s on what used to be Rothman’s Farm. The last trees were still being cut down when I was young, though that was mainly because of Dutch Elm Disease. The houses having been sold all at once, to young families of a similar age, my street was full of seven-year olds when I was seven, and full of fifteen-year olds when I was fifteen. I went to local schools, never more than walking distance away. My primary school, Rothman’s Junior, was built on another field of the same farm, in fact.

My father Peter was an electronics engineer at English Electric Valve. My mother Christine — always “Chris” — was a clerical civil servant before she had me, at the National Assistance Board, which we would call social security today. In those days, women left work when they had a child, which is exactly what she did when she had me and my brother. But later on she trained as a personal assistant, learning Pitman shorthand, which I never picked up, and also typing, which I sort of did: I am a two-fingered typist to this day, but unusually fast at it. I did try the proper technique, but on our home typewriter, my little finger just wasn’t strong enough to strike an “A”. Or perhaps I saw no reason to learn how other people did things.

My parents had met in school in Gosport, a naval village opposite Portsmouth, on the south coast of England. As a result, both sides of my family were in the same town; indeed, we were the eccentric ones, having moved away to Essex. My many aunts, uncles, second cousins, and so on were almost all still in Portsmouth, and we would stay there for every holiday or school break. In effect, it was a second home. Though I didn’t know him for long, a formative influence was my mother’s father Albert, a navy regular who became a postman in civilian life. He was ship’s cook on HMS Belfast during the Second World War; my one successful poem (in the sense of being reprinted, which is the acid test for poems) is in his memory.

None of these people had any higher education at all. I would be the first to go to a university, though my father did the correspondence-course Open University degree in the 1970s, and my mother went to any number of evening classes. (She ended up with a ridiculous number of O-levels, rather the way that some Scouts go on collecting badges until their arms are completely covered.) They both came from genuinely poor backgrounds, where you grew a lot of your own food, and had to make and mend. You didn’t buy books, you borrowed them from the library — though my grandmother did have the Pears Cyclopaedia for 1938 and a dictionary for crosswords. But I didn’t grow up in any way that could be called deprived. My father made a solid middle-class income at a time when that could keep a family of four in a house of their own and run a car. He wasn’t a top-bracket professional, able to sign passport applications as a character reference, like a doctor or a lawyer, but he was definitely white-collar staff, not blue-collar. Yes, he worked in a factory, but in the R&D lab at one end. This is not a Bruce Springsteen song. He would not have known what to do with a six pack of beer.

My brother Toby, who later became a professional computer programmer working at Electronic Arts and other places, was two years younger than me, which meant he passed through school with teachers expecting him to be like me, which he both is and isn’t. He’s my only sibling, though I now also have a brother-in-law and sister-in-law. “Graham” and “Toby” are both definitely unusual names in England in our generation, which is the sort of thing that annoys you as a child, but is then usefully distinctive in later life. At least “Graham” is unabbreviable, for which I have always been grateful.

The local education authority would have expected me to pass the eleven-plus exam, and move up the social ladder to King Edward VI Grammar School, the best in the area by far. But my parents, who believed in universal education, chose not to enter me. So at eleven and a half, I began at Great Baddow Comprehensive School. I didn’t regret this then, and don’t now. I had some fine teachers, and though I was an oddity there, I would have been an oddity anywhere. Besides, I had plenty of friends; it wasn’t the social snake-pit which American high schools always seem to be on television.

Until around 1980, there were no commercial home computers in the UK, which was consistently a couple of years behind the United States in that respect. But my father Peter was also an electronics hobbyist. Practical Electronics magazine tended to be around the house, and even American magazines like Byte, on occasion; I had a copy of the legendary Smalltalk number of Byte, with its famous hot-air-balloon cover. But the gap between these magazines — and the book in my school library about Unix — and reality was enormous. All we had in the house was a breadboard and some TTL chips. Remarkably, my father nevertheless built a computer the size of a typewriter. It had no persistent storage; you had to key in opcodes in hex with a numeric keypad. But it worked. It was a mechanism with no moving parts. It’s hard to explain now how almost alchemical that seemed. He would give a little my-team-has-won-again cheer from his armchair whenever the BBC show Tomorrow’s World used the words “integrated circuits”. (I think this was a little before the term “microchips” came into common usage, or possibly the BBC simply thought it a vulgar colloquialism. They were more old-school back then.)

Until I was twelve years old, then, computing was something done on mainframes – or at any rate “minis” like the DEC VAX, running payroll for medium-sized companies. Schools never had these, or anything else for that matter. In the ordinary way of things, I would never have seen or touched a real computer. But I did, on just a few tantalising occasions.

Great Baddow was not really a tech town, but it was where Marconi had set up, and so there were avionics businesses, such as the one my father worked for, English Electric Valve. Because of that, a rising industry figure named Ian Young lived in our street. His two boys were just about the same age as me and my brother, and he and his wife Gill were good friends of my parents — I caught up with them at my parents’ sixtieth wedding anniversary only a few weeks ago. Ian soon relocated to Reading as an executive climbing the ranks of Digital Equipment Corporation, then the world’s number two computer company after IBM, but our families kept in touch. A couple of times each year my brother and I would go off to spend a week with the Youngs during the school holidays. This is beginning to sound like a Narnia book, and in a way it was a little like that. Ian would sportingly take us four boys to DEC’s headquarters — in particular, to the darkened rooms where the programmers worked, in an industrial space shared with a biscuit factory. (Another fun thing about the Youngs was that they always had plenty of chocolate-coated Club biscuits from factory surplus.) We would sit at a VT-220 terminal with a fluorescent green screen and play the DECUS user group’s collection of games for the VAX. These were entirely textual, though a few, like chess or Star Trek, rendered a board using ASCII art. Most of these games were flimsy nothings: a boxing simulator, I remember, a Towers of Hanoi demo, and so on. But the exception was Crowther and Woods’s Adventure, which I played less than a year after Don Woods’s canonical first version was circulated by DECUS. Adventure was like nothing else, and had a depth and an ability to entrance which is hard to overstate. There was no such thing as saving the game — or if there was, we didn’t know about it. We simply remembered that you had to unlock the grating, and that the rusty iron rod would… and so on. Our sessions almost invariably ended in one of the two unforgiving mazes. But that was somehow not an unsatisfying thing. It seemed like something you were exploring, not something you were trying to win.

It was, of course, maddening to be hooked on a game you could play perhaps once every six months. I got my first actual computer in 1980, for my twelfth birthday: an Acorn Atom. I had the circuit diagram on my wall; it was the first and last computer I’ve ever owned which I understood the physical workings of. My father assembled it from the kit form. This was £50 cheaper — not a trivial sum in those days — and was also rather satisfying for him, both because it was a lovely bit of craftsmanship to put together (involving two weekends of non-stop soldering), and also because he was never such a hero to his son as when we finally plugged it in and it worked flawlessly. Curious how much of this story appears to be about fathers and sons…

At any rate, I began thinking about implementing “adventures” very early on. This was close to impossible on a computer with 12 K of RAM (and even that only after I slowly expanded it, buying 0.5 K memory chips one at a time from a local hardware store). And yet… I can still remember the epiphany when I realised that you could model the location of an object by storing this in a byte which was either a room number or a special value to mean “being carried”. I think the most feasible creation I came up with was a procedurally-generated game on a squared grid, ten rooms wide by infinity rooms long, where certain rooms were overridden with names and puzzles. It had no title, but was known in my family as “the adventure of Igneous the Dwarf”, after its only real character. My first published game was an imitation of the arcade game Frogger for the Acorn Atom. I made something like £70 in royalties from it, but it really had no interactive-fiction content of any kind.

My first experience of commercial interactive fiction came for the BBC Micro, the big brother of the Acorn Atom; my father being my big brother in this instance, since he bought one in 1981. The Scott Adams line made it onto the BBC Micro, and so did ports of the Cambridge mainframe games, marketed first by Acornsoft and then by Topologika. I thus played some of the canonical Cambridge games quite a while before going to Cambridge. (Cambridge was then the lodestone of the UK computing industry; things like the BBC Micro and the ARM chip are easily overlooked in Cambridge’s history, given the university’s work with gravity, evolution, the electron, etc., but this was not a small deal at the time.) In particular, the most ambitious of the Cambridge games, Acheton, came out from Acornsoft on a disk release, and I played it. This was an extraordinary thing; in the United Kingdom, few computer owners had disk drives, and no more than a handful of BBC Micro games were ever released in that format.

I made something fractionally like a graphical adventure, called Crystal Castle, for the BBC Micro. (In 2000, Toby helpfully, if that’s the word, found the last existing cassette tape of this, digitised it to a WAV file, signal-processed the result, and ended up with about 22 K of program and data. To our astonishment, it ran.) It was written in binary machine code, which thus had no source code. Crystal Castle was nearly published, but the deal ultimately fell through. Superior Software, then the best marque for BBC Micro stuff, exchanged friendly letters with me, and for a while it really did look like it would happen. But I really needed an artist, and a bit more design skill. So, they passed. I imagine they had quite a large slush pile of games on cassette sent in by aspiring coders back then. You should not think of me as a teenage entrepreneur; I was mostly unsuccessful.

I did get two BBC Micro games published in 1984 by a cottage-industry sort of software house somewhere in Essex, run by a local teacher. Anybody who could arrange to duplicate cassette tapes and print inlay cards could be a “software house” in those days, and quite a lot of firms with improvised names (“Aardvark Software”, etc.) were actually people running a mail-order business out of their front rooms. They sold my two games as one, in that they were side A and side B of the same cassette. The games had the somewhat Asimovian names Galaxy’s Edge and Escape from Solaris. I honestly remember little about them, except that Escape from Solaris was a two-handed game. To play, you had to connect two BBC Micros back-to-back with an RS-232 cable, and then you had to type alternate commands. One program would stall while the other was active, but the thing worked. I cannot imagine that these games were any good, but the milieu was that of alien science being indistinguishable from magic. The role-playing game Traveller may have been an influence, I suppose, but my local library had also stocked a great deal of golden-age science fiction, and I had read every last dreg of it. (I hadn’t, at that time, played Starcross, though I’d probably seen Level 9’s Snowball.) I do not still have copies, and I am therefore spared the moral dilemma of whether I should make them publicly available. I did get a piece of fan mail, I remember, by someone who asked if I was a chemist. From this memory, I infer that there were some science-based puzzles.

The Quill-written games weren’t any influence on me, nor really the Magnetic Scrolls ones. The Quill was a ZX Spectrum phenomenon — and the Spectrum came from Acorn’s arch-enemy Sinclair. I think my father regarded it as unsound. It certainly did not have a keyboard designed to the requirement that it survive having a cup of coffee poured through it, as the BBC Micro did. But it did have an enormous amount of RAM — or rather, it didn’t consume all of that precious RAM on screen memory. The way that it avoided this was a distasteful hack, but also a stroke of genius, making the Spectrum a perfect games machine. As a result, those of my friends whose fathers knew anything about computers had BBC Micros, and the rest had Spectrums. It is somehow very English of us to have invented a new class distinction in the 1980s, but I rather think we did. Magnetic Scrolls were a different case, since they were adopting an Infocom-like strategy of releasing for multiple platforms, but they came along later, and always seemed to me to be more style than substance. The Pawn was heavily promoted, but I didn’t care for it.

I really must mention Level 9, though. They wrote 200-room cave adventures – albeit sometimes the cave was a starship – and by dint of some ingenious compression were able to get them out on tape. In particular, I played through to completion all three of the original Level 9 fantasy trilogy: the first being an extended version of the Crowther and Woods Adventure, the second and third being new but in the same style. I still think these good, in some relative sense. Level 9’s version of the Crowther and Woods Adventure, Colossal Adventure, was the first version which I fully explored, so that it still half seems to me like the definitive version. Ironically, none of Level 9’s games had levels in the normal gaming sense.

I didn’t play any of Infocom’s games until, I think, 1987. I bought a handful, one at a time, from Harrod’s in Knightsbridge — a department store for the rich and, it would like to imagine, the socially elite. I was neither of those things, but I knew what I wanted. Infocom’s wares were luxury goods, and luxury goods tend to stay on the shelves until they sell. Harrod’s had a modest stock, which almost nobody else in the UK did, though you could find a handful of early Infocom titles such as Suspended for the Commodore 64 if you trawled the more plebeian electronics shops of Tottenham Court Road. The ones I bought were CP/M editions of some of the classic titles of 1983 to 1985: Enchanter, I remember, being the first. These we were able to run on my brother’s computer, which was an Amstrad, a British machine built for word processing, but which — thanks to the cheapness of Alan Sugar, Amstrad’s proprietor, a sort of British version of Commodore’s Jack Tramiel — ran CP/M rather than MS-DOS.

That was just after I had begun as an undergraduate at Cambridge and joined the mainframe there, Phoenix, as a user. Each user had an allocation of “shares”, which governed how much computing time you could have. As the newest kid to arrive, I had ten shares. There were legends of a man in computational chemistry, modelling the Schrödinger equation for polythene, who had something like 10,000. At any rate, ten shares was only just enough to read your email in daytime. To run anything like Dungeon, the IBM port of Zork, you had to sit up at night — which we did, a little. I think Dungeon was the only externally-written game playable on Phoenix; the others were all homegrown, using TSAL, the game assembler written by David Seal and Jonathan Thackray. As I wrote long ago, to me and others who played them them those games “are as redolent of late nights in the User Area as the soapy taste of Nestlé’s vending-machine chocolate or floppy, rapidly-yellowing line printer paper.” As I noted earlier, most of them ultimately migrated to Acornsoft and Topologika releases.

But there were other social aspects to Phoenix as well. There was a rudimentary bulletin board called GROGGS (the “General Reverse-Ordered Gossip-Gathering System”) and it was tacitly encouraged by the Phoenix administrators because it stopped people abusing the Suggest program as a noticeboard. (We did not then have access to Usenet.) GROGGS was unusually egalitarian — students and faculty somewhat mingled, which was not typical of Cambridge then. Its undoubted king was Jonathan Partington (JRP1), a young professor who had a generous, playful wit. The Phoenix administrators dreaded his parodies of their official announcements. In his presence, GROGGS was a little like the salon in which the hangers-on of Oscar Wilde would attempt to keep up. Numerous people had a schtick; mine was to mutate my user-name to some version of the Prufrockian “I am not Prince Hamlet”. Commenting on the new Dire Straits album, I would post as “I am not Mark Knopfler”. That sort of thing. Jonathan wrote some of the Cambridge mainframe games. He taught me for a few second-year options.

There was also a form of direct messaging, the “notify” command, and you had the ability to link your filespace to somebody else’s, in effect giving them shared access. At some point Mark Owen and Matthew Richards, inseparable friends at Trinity College, observed that these links turned the users of Phoenix into a directed graph — what we would now call a social network. Mark and Matthew converted the whole mainframe into a sort of adventure game on this basis, in which user filespaces were the rooms, and links were map connections between them. You could store a little text file in your filespace as your own room description. Mark and Matthew’s system was called MEGA, a name chosen as an anagram of GAME. Mark went on to take a PhD in neural networks, back in the days when they didn’t work and were considered a dead end; he eventually wrote a book on signal processing. Matthew, a gifted algebraist and one of the nicest people I have ever known, died of Hodgkin’s disease only a couple of years into his own PhD — the first shock of death close up that most of us had known. The doctors tried everything to keep him alive. There’s no length they won’t go to with a young, strong patient, however cruel.

At any rate, back in the days of MEGA, it occurred to me that more could be done. Rather than storing just a single room description, each user could store a larger blob of content, and we would then have a form of MUD. This system, jointly coded by myself and a CS student called John Croft, was called TERA (I forget why we didn’t go up from MEGA to GIGA — perhaps there already was one?) and its compiler was “teraform”. This is the origin of the “-form” suffix in Inform’s name.

Cambridge mathematics degrees were in four parts: IA, IB, II, and III. Part III was an optional fourth year, which now earns you a master’s, but which for arcane funding reasons didn’t in my day. The Part III people were the aspiring professionals, hoping for a PhD grant at the end of it. Only seven or eight were available, which lent a competitive edge to a social group which was all too competitive already. I was thoroughly settled in Cambridge, living in an old Victorian house off Trumpington Street with four close friends, down by the river meadows. It was a very happy time in my life, and I had absolutely no intention of giving it up. As a geometer, I was hoping to be a research student of Frank Adams, a legendary topologist but a man with an awkward, stand-offish character. I’m now rather glad that this didn’t happen, though I’m sorry about the reason, which was that he died in a car crash. The only possible alternative, the affable Ray Lickorish, was just going on sabbatical. And so I found myself obliged to apply to Oxford instead. I was very fortunate to become the student of Simon Donaldson, only the fifth British mathematician to win the Fields Medal. (He is warmly remembered at St Anne’s College, where I now am, not for the Fields, or the Crafoord Prize, or for being knighted, or winning a $3 million award — not for any of that, but for having been a good Nursery Fellow, looking after the college crèche.) Having opened up a new and, almost at once, a rapidly-moving field of study, Simon was over-extended with collaborators, and I wasn’t often a good use of his time. Picture me as one of those plodding Viennese students Beethoven was obliged to give piano lessons to. But it was a privilege even to be present at an important moment in the history of modern geometry, and in his quietly kind way, Simon was an inspirational leader.

So, although I did find myself a doctoral perch, I had time on my hands — not work time, as I had plenty to do on that front, but social time, since everyone I knew was back in Cambridge. I read a great many books, buying up remaindered Faber literary paperbacks from the Henry Pordes bookshop in Charing Cross Road, London, whenever I was passing through. The plays of Tom Stoppard, Alan Bennett, David Hare; the poems of Philip Larkin, Seamus Heaney, Auden, Eliot, and so forth. I wrote a novel, which had to do with two people who worked in a research lab doing unethical things attempting to control chimpanzees. He took the work at face value, she didn’t, or perhaps it was the other way around. By the time I finished, I knew enough to know that it wasn’t any good, but in so far as you become a writer simply by writing, I had become a writer. I then wrote four short stories, and a one-act play called A Church by Daylight (a title which is a tag borrowed from Much Ado About Nothing). This play was thin on plot but had to do with loss. I wasn’t much good at dialogue, and in some way I boiled the play down to its essence, which was eventually published as a twelve-line poem called “Requiem”.

It was during my second year as a DPhil student that The Lost Treasures of Infocom came out. At this time my computer was an Acorn Archimedes with a 20 MB hard drive. I bought the MS-DOS box because I could read the story files from the MS-DOS disks, even if I couldn’t run the MS-DOS interpreter. I had no modem or network access from my house, and could only get files on or off by taking a floppy disk to the computing-service building right across town. I used the InfoTaskforce interpreter to actually play the games on my Archimedes.

So, I would say that the existence of a community-written interpreter was an essential precondition for Inform. In the period from 1990 to 1992, there were two significant Infocom-archaeology projects going on independently, though they were certainly aware of each other: the InfoTaskforce interpreter, and a disassembler called “txd” by Mark Howell. The InfoTaskforce people were based in Australia, and I had no contact with them, but I saw their code. Mark, however, I did exchange emails with. I remember emailing him to ask if anyone had written an assembler to make new games for the Z-Machine, and he replied with some wording close to: “Many people have had many dreams”. I set myself the task of faking a story file just well enough to allow it to execute on the InfoTaskforce interpreter.

I recall that my first self-made story file computed a prime factorisation and then printed the result. Except that it didn’t. I would double-click on the story file, and nothing would happen. I would assume that this was because there was some further table in the story file which I needed to fake: that the interpreter was refusing my file because it lacked this table, let’s say. As a result, I got into a cycle of making more and more elaborate fakes, always with negative results. Eventually I found that these faux story files had been correct all along; it was just that the user interface for the Acorn Archimedes port of the InfoTaskforce interpreter displayed nothing onscreen until the first moment when a game’s output hit the bottom of its virtual display and caused a scroll event. My story files, uniquely in the history of the Z-Machine, simply printed a few lines and then quit. They didn’t produce enough output to scroll, so nothing ever showed up onscreen. (This is why, for several years, the first thing that an Inform-written game did was to print a run of newlines.) So, when I finally managed to make a story file which factorised the numbers 2 to 100, and found that it worked correctly, I had a fairly elaborate assembler. This was called “zass”, and eventually became Inform 1.

The project might have gone no further except for the arrival of Usenet and the newsgroup. Suddenly my email address was one which people could contact, and my posts were replied to. I was no longer on GROGGS, talking to a handful of people I knew in real life; I was on Usenet, talking to those I would likely never meet. People didn’t really use Inform much until around Inform 3, but still, there was feedback. An appetite seemed to exist.

A curious echo of the fascination the Z-machine held is that a couple of tiny story files produced by me in the course of these experiments — I remember one with two rooms in it and a few sample objects, one of them a football — themselves started to be collected by people. Of course there were soon to be lots of story files, an unending supply of them. But for just a brief period, even the output of Inform had a sort of second-hand glory reflected onto it.

Inform 1 was the result of my experiments to synthesise a story file, so it preceded Curses; it’s not that I set out to create both. Still, I did once write that Inform and Curses were Siamese twins, though the expression makes me flinch now. It’s not a comedic thing to be born conjoined. That aside, was it true, or did it simply sound clever? It’s true in part. I steadily improved Inform as I was building up Curses in size, and Curses undeniably played a role as a proof of concept. Numerous half-finished interactive-fiction systems had been abandoned with no notable games to their credit, but TADS, especially, shone by having been used for full-scale works. Yet this linkage is only part of the story.

In retrospect, the decision to write Curses fits with the pattern of imitation which you tend to find in the juvenilia of writers. I had read some novels, I wrote a novel; I had read some plays, I wrote a play; and so on. Lost Treasures may have played the same role for me, in computer-game terms, that those 1980s Faber & Faber paperbacks played in literary terms. But I also wrote Curses as an entertainment for my friends back in Cambridge, who attacked it without mercy. A very early version caused hilarity not so much for its intrinsic qualities as because the command “unlock fish” crashed it right out.

The title alludes to the recurring ancestral curses of the Meldrew family, each generation doomed never quite to achieve anything. (Read into that what you will, but it caused my father to raise an amused eyebrow.) The name was actually a hindrance for a while. In the days of Archie and Veronica and other pre-Web systems for searching FTP sites, “curses” was a name already taken by the software library for text windows on Unix.

What is Curses about? A few years ago Emily Short and I were interviewed, one after another, at the Seattle Museum of Pop Culture. Emily described Curses as being about the richness of culture and the excitement of discovering it. This may be an overly generous verdict, but I see what she means. Curses has a kind of exuberance to it. The ferment of what I was reading infuses the game, and although most people saw it as a faithful homage to Infocom, it was also a work of Modernism, assembled from the juxtaposed fragments of other texts. At Meldrew Hall, I could connect everything with everything.

There were four main strands here. Most apparent is the many-volume Oxford History of England, an old-school reference work, which lined up on my shelf in pale blue dust jackets. I had collected them by scouring second-hand book shops with the same assiduity as a kid completing an album of football stickers. Something of each went into Curses, from Roman England (Vol. I) through to society paintings by Sir Joshua Reynolds, and so on. The second strand was Eliot and The Waste Land, not solely for its content but also for its permissive style, as if it had authorised me to throw everything together. The third strand was classics: I was reading a lot of those “Cambridge Companion to Ancient Greek Philosophy” type of books, and I liked to grab the picturesque parts. Lastly, of course, the fourth strand is Infocom. Some of the puzzle design is lovingly imitative of Lebling, especially. The hieroglyphics from Infidel make a direct appearance. I also took affectionate swipes at the conventions, as with the infamous “You have missed the point entirely” death incurred simply by going down from the opening room, or the part where the narrator awards some points and then, a few turns later, takes them back again. Or the devil, who gives hints, all of which are lies. People actually filed bug reports over that. But really, I don’t think I did anything so transgressive that Infocom might not have done the same itself.

Those four strands are the main ingredients, but I should also acknowledge the indirect influence of the 1980s turn towards magical realism in fantasy novels, where it became possible to marry the fantastical with the merely historical. I had certainly read John Crowley’s Little, Big, for example. You could, at a stretch, say that Curses lies in the same genre.

The art of the Modernist collage is to somehow provide some cement which will hold the whole thing together. In the case of Curses, that cement is provided by the continuity of the Meldrew family and of the house – to which, and this is crucial, the player is always returning, and which ramifies with endless secret rooms. Moreover, you always experience the house through its behind-the-scenes places, joined in a skeletal way around the public areas which you never get to visit. The game is at its best when this cement is strongest, with the puzzles directly related to family members or to the house’s nooks and crannies. It loses coherence when it goes further afield, and this is why a final proposed addition, to do with the subway systems of various world cities all being joined up, was dropped. It didn’t feel like Curses any more. The weakest parts of Curses are the last parts added, and I suspect that the penultimate release is probably a better experience than the final one.

I am sometimes asked if Curses was autobiographical. As the above makes clear, in one sense yes, in that it’s a logbook of my reading. And in another obvious sense, no: I never actually teleported to ancient Alexandria. Nor have I ever lived in a grand house. My family home was built around 1960. It had seven rooms, none of them secret, and its map was an acyclic graph. There were early players who imagined that I might really be from some cadet branch of the landed gentry, with spacious grounds out of my window. This was not the case. Our estate consisted of one apple tree and two gooseberry bushes. All the same, England is not like America in this respect. Because of the Second World War, and because of inheritance tax, the great stately homes of England had essentially all become public places by the time I was a child. A routine way to entertain visiting grandparents was to take them around, say, the Jacobean manor house at Hatfield, where the Cecils had lived since the reign of James I. You didn’t have to be at all rich to do this.

The Attic area of Curses, where the game begins, does also contain just a little of my real family. The most intriguing place in my childhood home was, for sure, the attic, because it was so seldom accessible to me: a windowless but large space, properly floored, but never converted into a living area. My father would develop photographs up there, pouring chemicals into a tray, under a red lamp with a pull-cord switch. He would allow me to pull this cord. The house also had an airing cupboard — that is, a space around the hot-water boiler where towels could be dried. In this cupboard, my mother at one time made home-brew wine, in a sort of slow chemistry experiment with evil-looking demijohns. My brother doesn’t really make an appearance in Curses, which I’m sad about now, but it’s essential that the protagonist has ancestors rather than contemporaries. Though the protagonist has a spouse and children, mentioned right up front, they never appear, which I think is worth noting in a game where almost everything else that is foreshadowed eventually comes to pass.

Curses is by any reasonable standard too hard. In its first releases, I would update it with new material each time I made bug fixes, so that the game evolved and grew. Some players would play each version as it came out, and this enabled them to get further in, because they had prior experience from earlier builds. A dedicated fan base sent in bug reports, my favourite being that the brass key could not be picked up by the robot mouse, because brass is non-magnetic. The reward for any bug reported was that the reporter could nominate a new song to be added to the radio’s playlist, provided that it was both catchy and objectively dreadful. It would be interesting to extract that playlist now and put it on Spotify.

Feedback from players gave Curses a certain polish, but it wasn’t the only thing. I think it’s noteworthy that, just as Infocom had an editor as well as play-testers, so too I had an editor for at least part of the process: Gareth Rees, a Cambridge friend, author of the very wonderful Christminster. Richard Tucker also weighed in. I have the impression that before 1992 works of interactive fiction didn’t have much quality control, not so much because people didn’t want it, but because networking conditions didn’t allow for it.

To my great regret, the source code for Curses is now lost. It was for a while on a disk promisingly labelled “Curses source code”, but that disk is unreadable, and not for want of trying. Somewhere in my many changes of address and computer, I lost the necessary tech, or damaged it. (And Jigsaw too, alas.) It wouldn’t be hard to resurrect something, by working from a disassembly of the story file: there’s actually a tool to turn story files into Inform 6 out there somewhere. I occasionally think of asking if anyone would like to do that, and perhaps produce a faithful Inform 7 implementation.

Today, people play Curses with a walkthrough by their sides. But the game never quite goes away. Mike Spivey told me recently that he introduced himself to modern interactive fiction – “modern” interactive fiction – by playing Curses in 2017. A few people, at least, still tread Meldrew Hall. I remain fond of the place, as you can probably gather from the length of this reminiscence. Once in a blue moon I am tempted to write a sequel, Curses Foiled. But no. Sometimes you really can’t go back.

"Aaron Reed"

Intentional Collapse: Plausibly Human Randomized Text

by Aaron A. Reed at November 08, 2019 01:42 AM

Here’s an interesting problem: say you’re writing a video game with a conversation tree, with many moments where the conversation might continue in one of several different ways. Normally, the decision of which path to take is driven by the player: they choose an option — presumably the one they find most interesting — and the line of dialogue that responds to it is duly triggered. But what if the system, not the player, had to pick the most interesting way for the conversation to continue? What strategies might it use to ensure the ongoing dialogue feels coherent and intentional, rather than purely random?

The player makes a choice in Mass Effect which controls which conversation text they see next; the conversation system itself doesn’t have to worry about which choice would be best.

My upcoming novel Subcutanean is a book that varies its text for each new printing, choosing at hundreds of decision points from a set of possible alternatives that range in scope from single words to entire scenes. No two copies are ever quite the same. (I’ve written previously about why you would do this and the format I used to write it.) The code that renders a new book has a module called Collapser in charge of turning the master text with variants into a single rendered book, extending a metaphor of “quantum text” that exists in many states simultaneously until it’s “collapsed” down to a single observed outcome. While I at first envisioned Collapser as a mere randomizer, choosing one option from each set of variant texts as it encountered them, as the project moved forward it became clear there were more interesting ways to make those decisions.

For one thing, Collapser needs to help ensure that each novel seems internally coherent: though springing from a quantum soup of possibilities, each instantiation needs to tell a single, consistent version of the story. In regular fiction writing, it’s rare to make a significant change that doesn’t have ripple effects elsewhere: likewise, while Subcutanean has many minor details that simply vary in-place, if choosing one piece of text might affect any other text in the book, that decision must be stored in a variable. The variable itself then becomes what’s randomly set, and we consult it at future variable-gated decision points to know which variant to print. This is used in Subcutanean for everything from which major revelation to use in a climactic scene to minor details like the brand name of a grappling hook.

This might seem painfully obvious and straightforward, but I think authors of procedural text have a tendency to under-use variables, because they take extra work to set up than inline variations. As a result, output texts tend to have fewer moments of recurring consistency, and feel less like texts written by human authors. Years ago my generative text experiment Almost Goodbye inserted random “satellite sentences” into the writing of a hand-authored story, to customize details (like a scene’s setting) for decisions the player had made. For instance, if in one playthrough a conversation takes place in a diner, the system would insert location-specific asides like “A group clinked wine glasses at a nearby table, laughing raucously.” Just a couple little moments like that are enough to make it feel like a scene has been hand-written for that specific place. Mentioning something once is nice, but weaving in mentions across multiple moments and scenes is worldbuilding.

Inserting contextual satellite sentences into a story in the author’s “Almost Goodbye” (2012)

Second, you don’t always need to make decisions about what text to print “just in time,” i.e. right before you print it. In fact, if you make the big decisions right from the beginning, that lets you be much more clever in how you set those moments up before they arrive: again, just like in writing regular fiction. We call this “foreshadowing” when it works on a symbolic or metaphorical level, and, more prosaically, “laying pipe” when it involves setting up plot beats that later pay off.

One of my favorite examples of pipe-laying is in the movie Aliens, when Ripley, rescued after drifting in deep space for a century, finds her skills as a pilot are out of date. She can only get work as a dock loader operating industrial robots. This is a great bit of world-building in the moment, and sets up the next plot beat where Paul Reiser’s weaselly character can use her precarious finances as leverage, but its primary job is actually laying pipe for something that happens all the way at the very end of the film: justifying how Ripley has the means to meet the alien queen on the battlefield as an equal.

Still from Aliens (1986) by 20th Century Fox, or maybe Disney now I guess? Huh.

If, like James Cameron, a generative text system knows in advance how an upcoming pivotal moment’s going to play out, it can do the work to set that moment up in earlier scenes. Subcutanean has many moments that lay pipe and foreshadow moments that come much later. The very first page of the book, for instance, can involve one of three different stories depending on which particular pivotal phone conversation will appear all the way up in Chapter 10. Each of these stories is a writerly response to the problem of priming the reader to appreciate the impact of that much later conversation when it arrives. To be clear, Collapser isn’t doing any reasoning itself over those bits of text — it just knows if Variant 129 was selected there, Variant 37 has to come here — but that basic capability is critical.

An interesting side effect of editing Subcutanean’s quantum text was discovering which major moments didn’t require adjusting any previous text when alternate versions were added. Sometimes that revealed interesting things about the story structure — I hadn’t realized that certain beats were effectively standalone moments that might have gone anywhere — but sometimes it pointed out a weakness in my writing. In some cases it helped me realize I hadn’t properly foreshadowed or laid pipe for a big revelation, and needed to go find a few places in earlier chapters to properly signpost what was coming.

But most of Subcutanean’s variant texts weren’t big moments or recurring details: they were just alternate ways a particular bit of the story could be told. Here’s a hypothetical but representative example:

I struggled for a while with whether it made sense to write these kinds of alternatives at all. Maybe it was just a bad habit I’d picked up on earlier procedural text projects: writing variant texts just because I could. A random decision between these variations seemed to serve little purpose. But then I started to wonder what would happen if Collapser could reason about these decisions, too?

We live in a glorious time for procedural text: anyone can make a Twitter bot, and tools abound for scraping, processing, understanding, and generating textual content. The TextBlob Python library, for instance, offers one-line sentiment analysis that will tell you if a sentence is generally positive (“the birds chirped…”) or negative (“the day was gray and grim”). As I cast around for a more interesting way to choose between textual variants, I started thinking you might be able to use tools like this to create unique but consistent narrators for each telling of Subcutanean.

So say when Collapser starts to render a new book, it sets a variable NarratorOptimist to either true or false. Each time it has to make a decision about a set of alternate texts, it runs each one through TextBlob’s sentiment analysis, and weights each option accordingly. Suddenly you have a narrator who will consistently adopt a particular style (say, preferring pessimistic utterances like “The day was gray and grim”) as it assembles the book.

Subcutanean has a number of these narrator variables. Some narrators are more verbose or prefer bigger words than others; others prefer to say things as simply as possible. Some prefer more subjective language: they would rather use a bruised sky metaphor over an objective statement about its color. Some narrators enjoy alliteration (“gray and grim”). Some would prefer to paraphrase dialogue rather than quote it directly (by simply disfavoring variants that include quotation marks). What each Collapsing ends up with is a unique set of narratorial preferences that together determine how texts get selected in that particular rendering. I’d found a reason to write all of those minor variations, after all: in aggregate, they added another layer of consistency to each generated book. Even if on a more subtle level, they were helping keep each possible output novel consistent, just like the pipe-laying for big moments and variables for matching up minor details.

The top of four promotional bookmarks made for Subcutanean with text from the start of the book; both small per-word variants and the start of two different opening stories (bottom of left two) are visible.

The narrator variable system has proven to be lovely in several ways. First, it’s entirely automatic: I don’t have to manually tag this text in any way, because each narrator variable has its own definitions for the kinds of text it likes. The narrator variables also proved a useful editing tool independent of the actual generation process. For instance, at first I had a narrator variable for preferring active versus passive voice. After a while, perhaps somewhat obviously, it became clear that the active voice was almost always better. But because I could flip a switch and say “generate me the version of this book that maximizes use of the passive voice,” it was easy to find places where the passive version was weak and shouldn’t appear in any version, and remove or replace it. Eventually I no longer needed this narrator and retired it: but it still served a useful purpose in giving me a new window onto the space of possible texts I was writing, and the ability to prune that space towards a version where all possible outputs had strong writing.

In the end, while the elevator pitch for Subcutanean states that its variant text is randomly shuffled, in actual fact it’s rare for Collapser to make any decision entirely at random. Instead, each printing cuts more intentionally through the master text’s large possibility space. This means there are a smaller number of possible outputs (though still a very large number): but now each one feels, hopefully, more consistently authored and more plausibly told. Each one is something closer to what a human would have written, rather than an obscure oddity from a dark corner of Borges’ infinite library.

Subcutanean is crowdfunding now: find out how you can preorder your own unique copy. You can also follow the project on Twitter, Facebook, or Goodreads, or check out my previous design posts.

November 07, 2019

Renga in Blue

Warp: The Endgame

by Jason Dyer at November 07, 2019 10:41 PM

After an extremely long comment thread on one of my prior posts on Warp, I managed to get all the points (1216 out of 1216) and then properly stuck on the final puzzle.

I’m going to explain everything that I believe to be relevant so you can be stuck on the final puzzle, too.

Another piece of ASCII art from the game; not relevant to the final puzzle but here for spoiler space.

The way to the endgame essentially involved fussing about what is most likely a bug, and none of us playing the game (myself, Russell, and Roger) quite understand what triggers it, so I’m not going to put details here. The final result was getting a “power unit”

>look power unit

The power unit is a large, heavy metal box, roughly three feet on each side. Through a perforated metal back panel, you can glimpse large vacuum tubes and transformers inside. It has a small, square receptacle in the top, with a small, hexagonal metal stub rising slightly from the bottom of the receptacle. On the front there is a small access panel, and on the back, near the bottom, there is a large cable connector.

>look in power unit

The Power Unit contains the following:
Rocker Switch

>look at switch

It is a small rocker switch with two positions: ON and OFF.

and a “control unit”:

>look control unit

The control unit is a small, rectangular metal box, perhaps 12 inches wide and 6 inches high. Its face consists of a small hinged metal access panel. A cable connector is located on the back side of the unit. Otherwise, it is featureless.

>look in control unit

The Control Unit contains the following:
Round Depression
Knurled Knob

look at depression

The depression is about four inches in diameter and hemispherical in shape. It has been carefully machined into the control panel, just to the left of the knob and lever.

>look at knob

The knob is small and knurled for a better grip. It can be turned to several positions, clearly labeled 1 through 5.

>look at lever

The lever is short and stubby, more like a switch of some sort. It can be moved to three positions, clearly marked 0, 1/2, and 1.

Also relevant is a “printout”; you have to use up one of the treasures (a Shiny Quarter) to get it, so it’s not an item in my current save file, but the information seems important for the endgame.

This is all referring to a “Warp Room” which has been a longstanding mystery in the game.

Warp Room.
In this otherwise vacant room, you see before you a doorframe, roughly centered against a solid brick wall. Two large cables snake their way from the frame into the center of the room. The other walls of the room are completely blank, and the only apparent exit is the way you entered, back to the east.

I can see the following:
Short Cable attached to a Power Unit
Long Cable attached to a Control Unit
Power Unit
Control Unit

I do have a “framastat” and am able to attach it to the power unit as marked in Step Three of the instructions. What’s missing is Step Four (right before Step Five: Profit!)

Here’s my complete list of items:

I can see the following:
Name Badge
Bag, which contains:
a Scalpel
Glass Bottle, which contains:
a quantity of Water
Treasure Chest
Short Ladder
Absolutely Nothing
Round Peg
Digital Scale
Rusty Shovel
Yellow Wrapper

While I can technically get back a treasure from the display case, Russell already indicated the treasures don’t get used here.

I can “push switch” to get a “Click. Nothing Happens.” but I have not been able to operate either the lever or the knob in the control box. >PUSH on either gives me “Doesn’t seem to work” but I don’t know if that means I have a parser issue or I need to activate something else first. I don’t know what would go in the depression; the round peg doesn’t seem to help.

Feel free to suggest actions in the comments, up to and including for setting the game on fire for having such a tough final puzzle.

Emily Short

The Unknown (1999) and Polyphonic Hypertext

by Emily Short at November 07, 2019 07:41 PM

A screen of The Unknown, explaining as a dialogue between the authors what the project of The Unknown will be.

The Unknown (1999) begins with a page in which its authors are arguing with each other about how to write their new project.

Next, the authors offer a tutorial for interaction, by stating that they don’t want the kind of reader who would require such a tutorial.

Then we discover that the content of this book is a series of vignettes from an imaginary drug-fueled tour in which they’re terrorizing bookstores around the country by reading from their work, The Unknown. A lot of the specific incidents involve getting drunk, or taking drugs, or having a bit of a Hunter S. Thompson ramble; making sure, also, to instruct the reader that this is what they are up to:

A variant of this work, sort of, is now available in print form, as a bound book, thus bringing to life the thing they claimed to have been hawking all over the country. This fact is also documented inside The Unknown, because the documentary about The Unknown is incorporated into The Unknown as part of its substance.

A clickable map of all the places the protagonists speak on their book tour.

This particular piece is available to play, free, online, and you can link into any page of it, which is a convenience.

It’s also a bit friendlier to play than many of its contemporaries. Aside from the links between lexia, the authors offer several indices to the work: a map, a list of the bookstores around the country at which (fictionally) they presented The Unknown, a list of people who are mentioned somewhere in the work. Then there are also six colored “lines,” thematic organizations of material, which bear names like “Parts of Their Story” and “Metafictional Bullshit”.

Perhaps this makes me precisely the sort of reader too amateur for their work, but I was grateful for the structural help.

So in fact, for me, The Unknown does succeed — albeit perhaps in the most self-conscious way imaginable — at being more accessible than many other literary hypertexts of the 1990s. I feel like I understand where this hypertext comes from and what it was trying to do, and I have several available strategies for reading it and theorizing about it. At the same time, it remains very very very inside baseball.

I’ve written before about how embedded early hypertext was in a set of concerns about canonical literature.

The Unknown may be less humorless, but it’s still a bit wrapped up in the same set of anxieties. From the incidents and indeed their own self-descriptions, we find that the authors feel they’ve missed out, that literary culture used to exist, but Barnes & Noble is killing the independent bookstores, and something awful is happening to publishing, and it is too late for them to get onto the same train with David Foster Wallace and Thomas Pynchon.

The most endearing aspect of the project, from my point of view, is when it serves as a documentary about what it’s like to be someone hung up on how one is never going to be Hunter S. Thompson. The Unknown‘s contents include email exchanges, diary entries, even recordings, and the portrayal of this human reality is more appealing to me than the passages in which the authors are engaged in their parodic endeavor.

Another of The Unknown‘s (possibly tongue-in-cheek) assertions is that hypertext shouldn’t be written by a single author, and that having multiple authors frees it from another of the unsavory limitations of literature.

Having multiple authors isn’t, of course, the only sense in which a piece of IF could be considered polyphonic. Judy Malloy’s The Yellow Bowl presents the stories of three characters, two of them invented by the third. People + Places’ Life in a Northern Town presents as a series of stories in different authoring media by different viewpoint characters; if not us does something similar with a collection of Inform and Twine elements.

And there are also ways to have multiple authors work on the same material that don’t involve them sharing the story space: IF has a tradition of pieces that partially or completely reimplement other pieces in order to perform criticism of them — Re: Dragon recently, the MST3K series back in the 90s, a few others in between. There are also anthology pieces in which a group of authors all contribute distinct but related stories: ShuffleComp, the They Might Be Giants tribute album.

I find particularly interesting, though, the cases in which multiple authors — sometimes very many authors indeed — are all contributing to the same piece of interactive narrative, where their contributions may affect the meaning, reception, or even accessibility of the elements contributed by other authors. I’ve meant for some time to write about this phenomenon.

Fallen London. In the beginning, Fallen London’s storylets were all signed with the name of the person who had written them. There also weren’t very many authors seriously writing for it. Consequently, in the early days, it was easy for players to come to recognize the different authorial voices in the work, and distinguish one author from another.

Later, as the storyworld grew and as its commercial requirements shifted, Failbetter brought in more authors, both internal and freelancing, and at the same time removed the signatures from storylets, so that any individual storylet doesn’t proclaim its origins. There are still some contexts — Exceptional Friends stories, which are the main source of fresh content for subscribers — where the author of a particular narrative arc is named and advertised to players. But for the most part Fallen London has now become a storyworld in which it is possible to wander from one person’s fiction to another’s and back again without realizing it; where these fictions are interoperable.

The same applies to Sunless Sea and Sunless Skies, where a single author might be responsible for most of the content of a given port, but other authors’ stories might intersect that same port.

This is both an enjoyable and a disconcerting context to write in. Any storylet can change the world state in essentially arbitrary ways, rendering other storylets by other authors accessible or inaccessible, easy or difficult. The system avoids chaos (mostly) because there are now carefully defined conventions about what authors are allowed to add and how they should scope their work; and this is combined with editing and QA testing to keep the lore consistent and the experience as-intended.

Alabaster. Alabaster was a project in which about a dozen authors contributed dialogue based on a premise and conversation structure that I provided.

I had intended it to be a conversation with a single character, Snow White; though no plan survives contact with the enemy, and one of the participants wrote in the existence of a second character, which necessitated quite an irritating amount of extra coding after I thought I’d provided myself with a neatly contained project.

The form of collaboration was as follows: I would post a build of the game, potential authors would download and play it, and then when they hit a moment where they wanted to ask or tell the character something that had not been accounted for, they could draft a new piece of dialogue for that spot themselves, and the game would automatically generate the source code for this dialogue, which they could mail to me. Every day or two, I recompiled the project with the latest source code and posted it again.

This iterative approach meant that there was no convenient way for an author to write many consecutive lines of dialogue. Instead, each author was constrained to create just a little more content at the edges of the story. Some authors found this frustrating, but I think in this particular case it may have been helpful: it meant that there was a natural constraint that kept the tree of content growing evenly, rather than allowing it to send off energetic runners in any direction. It also encouraged authors to explore and build on one another’s work, since building only upon their own would be a fairly limiting experience.

Where the Water Tastes Like Wine. This piece invited writing from many authors in order to create a story about the multiple voices and varied experiences in the history of America. For all of the major characters, there was one author per character; we were each given a structure to write for, which worked as a series of micro-prompts.

Cragne Manor. Perhaps the most structurally ambitious of all the projects documented here, Cragne Manor incorporates not just text but actual code contributed by most of its authors. (Some of the 84 participants submitted text and a specification for their rooms instead, which the editors of Cragne then devotedly turned into something playable.)

There are also quite a few projects in this space that were intended playfully, more for the social amusement of the participants than for the benefit of future readers. The IF Whispers series are exquisite corpse-style games where the participants built on each other’s work without being able to see all the rest of the game. Pick Up the Phone Booth and Aisle was written on a group vacation, as another distraction alongside board games and barbecuing.

I recognize quite a bit of this quality in The Unknown: it’s partly documenting a social phenomenon, consisting of the friendship of the authors, and their connection to the various people who invited them to come and give readings, as well as other individuals who eventually wrote to them or responded to the work.

There is something about this which I find both attractive and distancing at the same time. Distancing, because such a document comes to resemble an aged high school yearbook, recording interpersonal minutiae mostly interesting to the participants. But attractive, also, because it captures accurately the way that authorship and art are not always solitary enterprises, but activities undertaken playfully and socially, as a way of bouncing ideas off colleagues who share your interests and concerns.

Choice of Games

Grand Academy II: Attack of the Sequel — Seize destiny at our evil preparatory school!

by Mary Duffy at November 07, 2019 06:42 PM

We’re proud to announce that Grand Academy II: Attack of the Sequel, the latest in our popular “Choice of Games” line of multiple-choice interactive-fiction games, is now available for Steam, Android, and on iOS in the Choice of Games Omnibus app. It’s 40% off until November 14th!

Congratulations! We are delighted to welcome you back to the Grand Academy for Future Villains, the world’s finest evil preparatory school. It’s sophomore year, and everyone’s back for a deliciously meta sequel.

Grand Academy II: Attack of the Sequel is a hilarious 215,000-word interactive novel and sequel to Grand Academy for Future Villains, by Katherine Nehring, where your choices control the story. It’s entirely text-based, without graphics or sound effects, and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination.

In the space between worlds, between stories, beyond time and space itself, the Grand Academy for Future Villains trains the bad guys that every epic saga needs. Behold our dormitories, each befitting their narrative genre: horror, fantasy, sci-fi, or thriller.

This year holds terrifying new challenges: a roommate, a pet, and the ominous Board of Visitors and Overlords, who have come to review the Academy’s accreditation. Under the Board’s steely gaze, you may be eligible to receive a destiny, which every true villain craves. They have also set each genre against one another in the house tournament. Will you lead your house to victory, betray your comrades, or perhaps both?

And of course your “friends” are back, too. Aurion, Kinistra, Phil. Why, even your maleficent mother, Maedryn the Terror of Three Worlds, is here. Or shall I call her…Professor Maedryn?

• Play as male, female, or nonbinary (or unhuman), gay, straight, bi, or ace.

• Play the game as a standalone, or import a saved character from Grand Academy for Future Villains.

• As Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, and Thriller battle each other, use your genre-savvy to lead your genre to victory–or to seize a destiny for yourself. • Raise an illicit monstrous pet in your dorm room!

• Support your mother’s plans for school domination–or break free and steal her clone army.

• As a TA, help your favorite professor get tenure–or sabotage their chances, and as the RA of Sci-Fi, Horror, Thriller, or Fantasy, figure out what’s best for your evil little charges.

• Discover the Academy’s fatal weakness!

• Acquire the metafictional tools you’ll need to win the game of genre against genre! What can you do with a plot-hole digger or a flashback gun?

• Defeat your nemesis! Or save them! Or smooch them!

And when things look bleak just remember: it’s a trap! But you should know. You set it.

We hope you enjoy playing Grand Academy II: Attack of the Sequel. 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.

November 05, 2019

Renga in Blue

Curse of the Sasquatch: If It Weren’t for You Meddling Kids

by Jason Dyer at November 05, 2019 10:41 PM

I have finished the game, and there is a genuine Plot Twist™, so spoilers ahoy.

Image from the 1975 movie Curse of Bigfoot. It may be where Greg Hassett got the title for this game. As of this writing it is ranked 1.9 out of 10 stars on IMDB.

I managed to unstick myself from last time by using the old “well, this object LOOKS like it ought to be useful, and so I will try it on every spot on the map” trick.

Specifically, dropping at a ladder just outside the maze from last time let me get to a new area.

Yes, it’s spelled “Padio” in the game.

I had an AXE and was in a FOREST, so CHOP TREES yielded some firewood … and a warning.

Past this was a building filled with pools of oil (the kind you drill for, not the kind you put in cooking). This was the moment it hit me this was not a hunt for Bigfoot at all, but a Scooby-Doo plot.

For those unfamiliar with Scooby-Doo, it is a TV show that has various iterations and reboots for 50 years. According to the Scoobypedia:

The show follows the iconic mystery solving detectives, know as Mystery Inc., as they set out to solve crime and unmask criminals, bent on revenge or committing criminal acts for their own personal gain.

Titular character, Scooby, is followed by his best pal Shaggy as both vie for Scooby Snacks on their adventures! Velma brings her extra intellect and initiative to them, setting out plans to catch criminals. Fred is the team’s leader while Daphne is bold and takes risks all to keep society safe.

More importantly, the prototypical Scooby-Doo plot has the gang discover some mysterious goings-on that appear to be monsters or ghosts or whatnot, but by the end discover it was Old Mr. Crumpet the whole time and somehow he managed to get a hold of both holograms and teleportation technology. He meant to drive people away from the old amusement park so he could buy up the land when it went bankrupt and he would have gotten away with it too if it weren’t for those meddling kids. (Why he didn’t bypass illegality altogether and just profit off his obviously hyper-advanced hologram technology is unknown.)

Turning a knob in the building led to an underground area. This seemed to be a one-way trip.

The underground area included a “wine bottle” (which actually had oil in it) and an oil barrel, just to emphasize the point made earlier: there’s a lot of oil here. There was also an elevator which led down to a “closet” and eventually to a “control room”.

Here I was very, very, stuck. I maybe shouldn’t have been, but as a partial excuse, the game a.) doesn’t have a save game feature b.) has a brutally stringent inventory limit and c.) locks the player into the closet-control room area once arriving. So it was very annoying to test out different possibilities and I eventually resorted to checking Dale Dobson’s playthrough at Gaming After 40. (He got stuck in the same place, and had to check source code.)

I had missed that I could take the firewood I chopped in the forest back to the fireplace in the shack at the very beginning of the game, then type MAKE FIRE followed by LIGHT FIRE. (It sounds logical enough, and there’s even a hint near the beginning about lighting a fire, but at the time I processed it just as a reference to things being cold and didn’t have making a fire on my mental “to do” list. Oops.)

As the screenshot indicates, this opened a secret area on top of the shack, where I found a TRAP and a note to “DROP THIS TRAP AND YOUR BAIT (NOT INCLUDED) WHERE YOU SUSPECT THE SASQUATCH FREQUENTS.”

I took the LIFE-SIZED BIGFOOT DOLL I had and the TRAP over to the control room (crossing my fingers I had this right, since again, no saved game), and…

…victory! I don’t know if any Scooby-Doo villains worked with the Russians, but trying to frighten people off land in order to claim valuable oil is definitely their speed.

I did appreciate the minor twist, and especially that it was heavily signaled early on yet I missed the first signals due to the vague standard way objects in adventure games often are delivered on a convenient platter. For example, I had found a GROWLING TAPE RECORDER which I assumed was needed to be used to attract an actual Bigfoot; it did not occur to me “wait, this is the device the villain used to scare people” even though that’s a more logical conclusion. Essentially, I was tricked by the form of the text adventure itself. (See, comparably, the puzzle that stumped me on The Great Pyramid.)

So, kind of a fun plot finesse, but why would a “life-sized bigfoot doll” (which I assume the villain earlier used as part of the con) be the right bait? Wouldn’t that bait only make sense for an actual Bigfoot?

Also, why were the trap and note on top of the shack in the first place? My best guess it was left by the mysterious person who rescued us and brought us to the shack in the first place. (We never learn who that person is.) Were they trying to conceal the trap from the villain, maybe? I probably am trying a little too hard to find the logic here.

I never worked out the deal with this statue while playing, but I found out later from the Gaming After 40 post that the statue is supposed to be the Tin Man from Wizard of Oz saying “OIL ME”. If you manage to do so he gives a hint about getting into the control room, but I didn’t need the hint to finish the game.

November 04, 2019

sub-Q Magazine

subQjam 2019 opens soon!

by Stewart C Baker at November 04, 2019 08:42 PM

It’s the beginning of November, and that can only mean one thing: NaNoWriMo!

No, wait, that’s not what it means in this context (although if it’s on your agenda we wish you the best!).

Let’s try again: subQjam 2019 is on the horizon!

That’s right, folks. Following the success of last year’s subQjam (theme: love), we’ve decided to make the game jam an annual tradition. Between November 15th and December 15th, you’ll be able to submit your 1000-words-or-less piece of interactive fiction for a chance to land in our February issue alongside our amazing guest authors. (Yes, 1000 words or less. It’s a challenge, but also a lot of fun. Or at least we think so.)

Although we aren’t going to announce the theme this year until the jam opens on the 15th, we’re thrilled to share that one of our guest authors for 2019 is author and translator Ken Liu!

Photo © Lisa Tang Liu

Ken Liu ( is an American author of speculative fiction. A winner of the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy awards, he wrote The Dandelion Dynasty, a silkpunk epic fantasy series (starting with The Grace of Kings), as well as The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories and The Hidden Girl and Other Stories. He also authored the Star Wars novel, The Legends of Luke Skywalker.

Prior to becoming a full-time writer, Liu worked as a software engineer, corporate lawyer, and litigation consultant. Liu frequently speaks at conferences and universities on a variety of topics, including futurism, cryptocurrency, history of technology, bookmaking, the mathematics of origami, and other subjects of his expertise.

If by some chance you haven’t encountered his work before, you’re in for a treat. (Also, do yourself a favour and go read his award-winning “Paper Menagerie,” or some of his other fiction!)

If you’re already a fan, get those interactive fiction engines revving! Two of the entrants in subQjam 2019 will share a table of contents with Ken and our other guest author in our February 2020 issue.

We’re every bit as excited about our other guest author, by the way, but we haven’t gotten the final all-clear to share their name yet. But as soon as we have that, we’ll share it!

In the mean time, you can head on over to our subQjam 2019 sign-up page on for a full list of rules and to join the fun. And if you’re curious to see what did well last time, check out our February 2019 issue, which contains the winning entries for last year’s jam.

If you’ve already signed up, we can’t wait to see what you put together!

The post subQjam 2019 opens soon! appeared first on sub-Q Magazine.

Choice of Games

Author Interview: Katherine Nehring, “Grand Academy II: Attack of the Sequel”

by Mary Duffy at November 04, 2019 04:42 PM

Congratulations! We are delighted to welcome you back to the Grand Academy for Future Villains, the world’s finest evil preparatory school. It’s sophomore year, and everyone’s back for a deliciously meta sequel, Grand Academy II: Attack of the Sequel. This year holds terrifying new challenges: a roommate, a pet, and the ominous Board of Visitors and Overlords, who have come to review the Academy’s accreditation. Under the Board’s steely gaze, you may be eligible to receive a destiny, which every true villain craves. I sat down with Katherine Nehring on Halloween to talk about this long anticipated sequel, and what kind of villain she is. 

This has been an amazing year for sequels at Choice of Games, and though no editor can love one project more than any other (it’s like children), I do have a special fond affection for Grand Academy II: Attack of the Sequel. Tell me about how it was to dive back into this world?

I’m glad this world has an enduring appeal for you – it does for me too. When I was a kid I would tell stories set in a version of the Grand Academy to entertain my siblings, and coming back to that concept so many years later to develop into a full-fledged game was a lot of fun. Because the Academy is a place that’s explicitly set outside the borders of genre, it’s a place where anything can happen. Hordes of mindless replicas swarming the school? The school computer system taking a romantic interest in you? The mailroom being full of–well, I should save that for the game! Of course, that sort of freedom comes with its own restrictions–one wild event after another can lead to a loss of forward momentum, improbably good or bad events can lose the reader’s interest unless they have consequences. So maybe I should say it’s a place where anything can happen–so long as it can be narratively justified.

And like a lot of games written without a sequel in mind, Grand Academy for Future Villains was not an easy game to pick up a number of disparate endings from for people who want to import a character into this sequel.

This was a challenge! The first game featured three very different states for the Academy at the end of the game, including one where the Academy was destroyed. At first I thought I’d design the sequel only for the first two endings, but I realized that people would want to port their characters and experiences over no matter what they did in the first game. So then the challenge was to bring every narrative possibility back together without making it seem like the choices made in the previous game were simply being erased. I’m quite pleased with the solution I eventually came up with. As the title suggests, we’re having some fun with the very idea of sequels.

Grand Academy II sees the return of many of our old friends, we have some wonderful new characters in the form of the Board of Visitors and Overlords. Tell me a little about the inspiration there.

In the last game, the player determined what kind of institution the Academy was going to be (or if it even survived at all). This game asks the next questions: What keeps the Academy going? What underpins it? And who could it possibly answer to?

The names of the governing boards of institutions of higher education have always struck me as a little peculiar. “Board of Visitors,” “Board of Regents,” “Honorable and Reverend Board of Overseers.” From there, the name and role of the Board of Visitors and Overlords was clear.

Why do institutions of education make such wonderful settings for entertaining literary pastiche?

Schools famously straddle the line between reality and unreality. “Wait till you get out in the real world,” students are warned darkly, as if studying a thing were less real than practicing it. Certainly study affords a degree of distance, and I think that’s part of the fun of fictional (and metafictional) educational institutions. You the student are not yet a full-fledged villain (or hero, or wizard, or what have you) so you can look at your field of study from the outside. But you’re not just waiting for your story to begin, you’re having adventures and intrigues within the school setting. Add to that the attempts of teachers and administration to restrain and direct student activities, and you’ve got an entertaining contrast between the world-as-studied and the world-as-experienced.

We’re conducting this interview on Halloween, so I would ask: is Halloween the national holiday of villains? If so, what sort of villain are you?

Dressing up as anything is fun, but Halloween certainly has a particular affinity for the monstrous and the frightening. You can try on the role of a creature of unbridled appetite, of chaos and hedonism, and suffer consequences no worse than indigestion. As for what sort of villain I’d be– my most successful scary costume was dressing as a praying mantis as a kid, with a posterboard mask and large paper plates for eyes. Suddenly swivelling this head produced gratifying reactions in the onlookers.

And finally, if you taught at the Grand Academy for Future Villains, what subject would you teach?

I’ve asked myself this several times! I have a particular fondness for Professor Ulik and the whole Evil Design department–the behind-the-scenes work that goes into creating an effective villainous setting deserves attention! And I’ve put more of myself than I care to admit into Maedryn, the player’s mother, who’s arrogant and high-handed but who constantly overextends herself. But I think if I had to pick a subject, I’d pick something metafictional. Tropes To Watch Out For, perhaps, or Developing a Tragic Backstory.

Reviews from Trotting Krips

The Pawn by Magnetic Scrolls (1985)

by Robb at November 04, 2019 02:42 AM

It’s 1998 and I’m writing Trotting Krips reviews. There are some text adventures I am in love with that I never finish, because finishing means I can’t ever play them again. The Pawn is one of them.

I bought my copy through a mail order circular. It offered The Pawn, Guild of Thieves and Knight Orc for a total of $15. At low amounts of money, inflation comparisons sort of break down. It isn’t much now for three new games and it wasn’t much then. There’s so much I don’t remember regarding a document — the flyer — that was one of the most important pieces of paper in my life. While I do have some old price sheets for computer games in the mid 80s, I don’t have that one. Regardless, the games arrived and they worked on our computer, which had to have been an XT with EGA graphics. The Pawn was always thought, in my household, to be the “leader” of new age IF, what with its parser that understood complicated sentences and its opening title screen, still possibly the greatest opening title screen of its kind.

How can you not feel joy for the graphical text adventure in looking at that picture? Yes, it’s static, but computer games simply did not look like this when The Pawn came out. This is going into the arcade only to find Dragon’s Lair there. This is playing Far Cry for the first time. Or BioShock or King’s Quest, or whatever great leaps forward you have experienced in computer graphics.

It’s now 20 years later since Bryan, Ben and I started the Trotting Krips site. I didn’t feel I would ever have the time and the chops to correctly solve The Pawn without a walkthrough. I grabbed a few of them and had those up in a Firefox browser. I installed the Magnetic interpreter on my Ubuntu machine. I raised the scaling of the graphics by three times and started the game.

There’s that beautiful, majestic graphic.

That went a long way towards covering the fact that The Pawn is not a very good game, and intentionally so.

There are pieces to The Pawn that are mean to be parody. Can you imagine the audience for a full-on parody text game these days? It’s probably 100 people, 95 who quit after turn two. But they were such big sellers in the 1980s that it seemed entirely legitimate for The Pawn to have such scenes – a wandering adventurer that can steal items unless you kill him. A maze that breaks the fourth wall and states that you don’t have to bother with it. A mix of the real world and fantasy for no adequately explains reason – while attempting to meet with the Devil, in Hell, you pass by Jerry Lee Lewis, in what may possibly be the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen in a text adventure. You get ten points for giving him some ale, keeping in mind that there is absolutely no special connection in the world between Jerry Lee Lewis and ale. Keeping in mind that Jerry Lee Lewis is from Louisiana and they had him say “Cheers.” Keeping in mind that if you are headed towards hell and you wanted to have someone related to “fire” and you were desperate about it – Jerry Lee Lewis (as of this writing) is still alive!

Christ, if you had to have Jerry Lee Lewis in your text adventure and wanted there to be something in the game that you could have the player give him in order to gain 10 points it should have been an underage cousin.

I don’t get parody that goes beyond a few minutes. You can spend all that time sending something up, but if you spend just a little more time you can have your own thing. And it’s too bad that The Pawn, which had the promise of something that fundamentally changed my life, is designed in such an awful way. There are good things in this game. Even if they wanted it to just be their Zork – a really good text adventure that did lazy fantasy – they had something to work with. You’re a nameless adventurer, sure, but you have a silver wristband on your arm that you want to remove. This is a great premise for a game where there are a lot of FedEx quests, because various characters can then ask you to do things. And if you can forget about the mid-game, the end-game to The Pawn (serious spoilers starting now) has a ton of potential – you are doing the bidding of the nasty wizard Kronos. You encounter the Devil. The Devil asks you to use a potion to destroy Kronos and then bring him his soul. You meet up with Kronos and take him by surprise and suck up his soul. You return to the Devil and he melts away your wristband and dismisses you with contempt. That’s not the greatest adventure ever set to text, but it’s something.

(The picture above is one of the greatest still images in the history of computer games. It was used in the promotion of the game and it’s easy to see why. Beautifully composed, gorgeous palette that took full advantage of the 16 shades of red and black they had available, it really does set a mood.)

But in the middle of that are some really poor scenes. There is a dragon guarding a horde. And a picture of the dragon, high upon the gold horde. The way you get past the dragon is to examine the shadows (that admittedly are mentioned) and figure out that there are hobbits in the shadows. You have to >point at shapes in the game, though at no earlier section did you ever have to use that verb. And while I played on not the greatest monitor in the world, there isn’t a single hint in the graphic for this scene of any shapes. Not a one. (Or I’m blind. Camouflage absolutely works on me, which is why I almost hit a deer three times a week when I drive out of where I live and into work.) When you kill Kronos there is a platform you can get on if you are not carrying too much, but this is the sort of game where the trowel came in handy a zillion turns after using it twice – the hell would you drop anything? You can sneak past the dragon if you are wearing Kronos’s cloak and pointy hat … once. If you try it a second time, the dragon kills you. Keeping in mind that this is where Kronos chose to live, I guess.

There is an awful bit where you have to >cast spell on tomes, even though at no point in the game do you have any idea that you can cast spells. And you aren’t able – as far as I can tell – able to do so again, just out of thin air. I think the bit was trying to mimic a scene from Adventure where, should you try to kill a dragon, the game asks how – with your bare hands? And you reply >yes and that’s the solution. The casting a spell thing came out of nowhere and it’s not clever, it’s not parody, it’s just bad. Please know how deeply I wanted to love this game before I started really playing it.

There’s one scene I almost liked – you meet a character named Honest John early on, who will sell some items if given a coin or coins. You finally get a coin about three quarters of the way through by searching a cushion. Okay, fine, not bad! That’s where coins go. But when you return to the area where Honest John is, he’s not mentioned in the game’s description. I am pretty sure I had verbosity on. So good luck if you didn’t map and write down the precise location of where he is. I mean, dude selling plot-necessary wares not making it to the room description – that was a bug in 1985 and it’s a bug now.

But really, the great bulk of the game just leaves you asking why – why is there a snowman in Kerovnia, blocking your way? What’s his deal? You can save the princess and get zero points, but the object you need to do that is the only way to get a full score later in the game. Why? I can’t imagine how many months it would take to map this game and figure out that there is a closed path there. Why did they do the things they did? There is no discipline whatsoever in the design of this game.

Then there is the ending. Once the wristband is off, you head to a door. You knock on it. You’re asked if you’re wearing a wristband. If you got it off, you meet the programmers of the game. Who leave, because hey, someone finally solved the game. And you can now wander around the game without being able to be killed. Okay. This is a bad ending. It was a bad ending in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but they at least ran out of money, or so I have heard.

(Okay, there is one thing I liked that emerged – the trowel was very useful for things. This really is a story about a guy and his gardening equipment. If the original creators ever got together to make a sequel, I hope they announce it with just an black and white outline of a trowel and a date.)

I’ve read stories of members of Magnetic Scrolls sort of buffaloing the gaming press by showing some of the neat parser tricks during interviews. The Pawn can handle some stuff just fine, like stacking commands, but even consulting a walkthrough I screwed my head up at having to use the word “lever” as a verb because nothing else did. The game tries to get across concepts that are way too advanced for it. I suppose I can’t get too worked up about Magnetic Scrolls showing happy paths in their demonstrations, really – it’s what happens in demos. I remain baffled why so many sentences lack a period at the end. When I was a kid I thought it was a house style. As an older guy on the Internet, who has seen one moron after another on various forums fail to use any capitalization or punctuation, it just looks stupid. This was the game I looked up to, thinking that there was something wrong with my puzzle-solving skills, thinking it was okay to have a mish mash of unrelated garbage in a game and not follow any sort of plot circle or proper design because, hey, The Pawn didn’t do any of that stuff.

I’ve had dreams of taking one game a week that I have not finished since the 80s and doing just this – refreshing my memory, liberally consulting a walkthrough, liberally allowing for design errors, putting to rest these icons from my childhood. Every game is amazing when it’s an unimplemented design and every game that goes unplayed in my Steam library is an incredible multi-genre masterpiece until I see that it has 7 unskippable opening logo screens. The Pawn has been a small but constant companion for decades, now. I had the poster that came with the game hanging up in my college dorm room. When I worked at Xerox for my first IT job, I printed out the scene I in-lined above with the Devil on the luxury color laser printers I tested. I still have that picture around. I had picked up things over the years that gave me a heads-up that it would not be a good game, but at least now I know. And I don’t really hold it against it. Goodbye, Pawn. I wouldn’t be where I am today without you and for that you’ll always have a piece of my heart.

(For an album of my other screenshots while playing, see below.)


The Pawn

November 02, 2019

"Aaron Reed"

Subcutanean Bonus Rewards and Social Goals

by Aaron A. Reed at November 02, 2019 06:42 PM

Subcutanean, a horror novel where no two copies are the same, has gotten off to a fantastic start on Indiegogo, getting to 70% funded in its first four days! Some reviews have also started to appear in the wild: Jason Dyer says “While the plot begins as a slow burn, the horror and suspense start to multiply to be about as intense as anything you could read.” Carl on Goodreads says it’s “not a gimmick… everything in this novel is deeper than it first appears,” and also posted the lovely image below. You can start reading yourself if you’d like to check out what version 01893 of the book is like.

A few folks have asked if there will be Subcutanean stretch goals. The answer is yes, but… probably not in the way you’re thinking. While I don’t have ambitious plans to radically extend the book itself, I do have some fun bonus rewards in mind.

Rather than tying these to specific funding levels, I’ve created Social Goals you can help me unlock. My biggest challenge for the rest of the campaign will be to get the word out beyond my existing friends and fans. The social goals are some ways you can help me achieve this: some straightforward, some fun, some goofy.

But first, how about those bonus rewards? Here’s the list.

The Bonus Rewards

As social goals are achieved, bonus rewards will unlock in the order listed here. The “End Matter” rewards are for material that can appear at random at the end of each print or digital book, depending on available space in each copy: all unlocked End Matter items will also be available to backers on the project’s website.

1. Audio book podcast.
An audio book version of Seed 01893 of Subcutanean, shared as a podcast and released chapter by chapter along with the text version.

2. End Matter: Backer Thanks page.
At random, a credits page for Indiegogo backers will appear in the back of the book.

3. End Matter: Alternate version of a major scene.
At random, a book’s end matter will include an alternate version of a major scene, different from the version included in your book’s main text.

4. Competing Twitter bots.
I will create two Twitter bots that will tweet out, sentence by sentence, two different versions of Subcutanean. Follow them both and watch the texts diverge!

5. End Matter: Backer Ads.
Remember ads at the back of old books? If we unlock this reward, backers will be able to submit an ad for a project of their own: a random selection of these will appear in the end matter, and all of them will be showcased on the project website.

6. End Matter: Timeline.
Inspired by XKCD’s “Movie Narrative Charts,” a visualization of the complex path taken by the book’s characters as they weave back and forth between different realities — which will have to vary based on the particulars of each book’s text!

7. Open Source Code Release.
I’ll open source and release the .quant parser, Collapser and Latexifier source code, and all other project-specific code, within a year after the final book’s release.

8. End Matter: Map of Downstairs.
I’ll commission a map of Downstairs to be included at random in the end matter and also be posted on the website. (This will also have to vary for different versions of the book!)

OK, I hope you’re excited to see at least one of those! So what are the actual social goals that will unlock these?

The Social Goals

I thought you’d never ask. These have also been added to the main project page and will be kept up to date there: the bracketed number shows progress as of November 1st. Each time any one of these is achieved, in any order, the next Bonus Reward will be unlocked! If we can hit at least eight, all eight bonus rewards will unlock.

  • 250 @subcutanean Twitter followers [144/250]
  • 100 Subcutanean Facebook followers [44/100]
  • 100% Funded [61/100]
  • 75 Indiegogo backers [71/100]
  • 50 mentions of Subcutanean on social media by someone who isn’t me or my mom [14/50]
  • 25 Reddit upvotes on any post about Subcutanean
  • 10 pictures of ominous hallways on social media, tagged with both #CreepyHallway and @subcutanean (credit original source if not your own)
  • 10 creepy stories that happened to you shared on social media, tagged with both #Novembrrr and @subcutanean
  • 10 parallel universes that would be better than this one and why shared on social media, tagged with both #BetterTimelines and @subcutanean
  • 10 good blurbs for Subcutanean, like you’d see on a front/back cover, posted on social media or submitted directly to the author
  • 10 Goodreads reviews [1/10]
  • 5 posts on social networks other than Twitter or Facebook about Subcutanean. (How do these work? I’m old, I don’t know. Send me links or screenshots.)
  • 5 news stories about Subcutanean on sites that don’t have the word “Blog” in their title
  • 4 mentions on a podcast
  • 3 pieces of fan art or music inspired by any part of Subcutanean
  • 2 pieces of fan fiction inspired by any part of Subcutanean
  • 2 video reviews of Subcutanean
  • 1 blurb or review from a published genre fiction writer
  • 1 generative text project that remixes text from the first three chapters (maybe a ProcJam or NaNoGenMo entry?)
  • 1 multimedia video or art project that incorporates spoken words from the first three chapters
  • 1 video or audio recording explaining the concept of “a queer horror novel that changes for each reader” to an elderly relative

If you want to help make progress on social goals, please do one of the following to help me keep track:

Thanks for your support, and if you haven’t backed Subcutanean yet, find out all about the cool reward levels, read up on the design, or watch the book trailer on YouTube or embedded below.

November 01, 2019

Renga in Blue

Curse of the Sasquatch (1980)

by Jason Dyer at November 01, 2019 02:41 PM

My first post on Greg Hassett was 4 years ago so there’s a definite feeling of tension/bittersweetness to be on his last two games. (I’ll be playing game #10 — Devil’s Palace — immediately after this one.)

In a previous news article Mr. Hassett explains he comes up with the titles of his games first, which explains some of his quirks like House of the Seven Gables having no real gables. With this game, I’m not sure where the “curse” comes in, but at least there’s Bigfoot.


Regarding the I love the “RISK YOUR (AND MY) LIFE” part: is the computer literally a character in the game, part of a collaboration with the player? Is it really a symbiosis where the computer embodies the player but is still the same entity, somehow? Or is the computer more of a gamemaster intermediary, intended for the player themselves to be in the world (in which case, how does the computer narrator die)? We’ve seen exotic variants of this, like in CIA Adventure which gives the player a “partner” who is not exactly the same as the computer narrator, or the inclusion of an actual extra player intended as a gamemaster of sorts in Spelunker.

The occasional theorist has hacked at the player-narrator-avatar triad before but it never seems like every permutation gets covered. So any aspiring PhDs with a yen for dodgy TRS-80 games and who are on the hunt for a thesis: here you go.

“Obviously carried to this shack by someone or something” gives the game the same mysterious in media res vibe as The Count. My guess would be Bigfoot Himself is responsible.

After some minor puzzle shenanigans, I was able to get in the fireplace and use a key to enter a secret area.

Most of the puzzles so far have been the Greg Hassett standard; find an item, apply it in the right location (no complex timing, and very little in the way of objects used in combination). Play a flute for a cobra, then use the tranquilizer gun from that room and use it on a tiger.

However, I have mapped what seems to be everything and don’t know where to go!

I’ve found a “lifesize bigfoot doll” (that is described as female) suggesting I might want to make a mock-Bigfoot to attract the shaggy behemoth. In addition, to the flute and tranquilizer gun I already mentioned, I have a “growling tape recorder”, a lighter, a candle, an axe, and a ladder.

There’s also this room, which I think is intended as a joke but I’m not certain; if you try to take any of the items a wizard says you can’t take anything and zaps you dead.

There’s different kinds of Stuck; this is the Not Even Sure What The Obstacle Is kind of Stuck, which is pretty unusual both for games of this era and Greg Hassett games in particular. (Unable to Get By An Obstacle is the most popular, followed by Unable to Get an Item to Do Anything and the occasionally related Unable to Collect the Last Missing Treasures.) Feel free to make suggestions in the comments.

October 31, 2019

Emily Short

End of October Link Assortment

by Mort Short at October 31, 2019 11:41 PM


IF Comp is live now! You can visit the site to play and judge the games. The competition is also still accepting prize donations, in the form of cash or interesting objects, until the end of the judging period. Judging closes on November 15.

Also currently running, Ectocomp features games with a spooky or Halloween theme.

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

The London IF Meetup does not do an activity separately in November in order to avoid competing with AdventureX for people’s time. We also don’t do a December meetup at all because people are usually slammed with other activities, so regular London IF Meetups will resume in January of 2020.

Also November 2 is the next SF Bay IF Meetup, which will feature more playing of IF Comp games.

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

Wordplay in Toronto runs November 9-10 this year, showcasing games focused on words, text, and language.

November 12 is the next meeting of the People’s Republic of IF in Boston/Cambridge.

November 13 there is a Twine workshop at the University of Manchester Library.

November 15, Dan Hett is running, also at the University of Manchester Library, a workshop session on writing compelling interactive fiction in general.

November 23 is the next Baltimore/DC meetup.

OldGamesItalia is running a game jam for Italian-language games; that’s already in progress, with created games due December 15.


Aaron Reed’s horror novel Subcutanean, where each copy is unique, is now available for backing on IndieGoGo.

Upcoming Competitions

Green Stories is a competition for stories about building a sustainable future. The competition includes an interactive fiction division, which has been described to me thus:

The Interactive Fiction competition is looking for entries from both individuals and creative teams, consisting of a complete story or demo of a longer piece, no longer than 30 minutes worth of gameplay in total. It may be the whole piece, the opening section, or a subsequent chapter or scene.

Winners will receive cash prizes and editorial feedback. Entries are due February 3, 2020.

These Heterogenous Tasks

IF Comp 2019: Flight of the CodeMonkeys

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at October 31, 2019 07:42 PM

Flight of the CodeMonkeys (Mark C. Marino) is a cyberpunk-resistance story rendered in the Jupyter Notebook platform for Python coding. You’re a codemonkey, a peon making edits to obfuscated code that, apparently, runs your dystopian society. You interact by editing snippets … Continue reading

October 30, 2019

The People's Republic of IF

November meeting

by zarf at October 30, 2019 07:41 PM

The Boston IF meetup for November will be Tuesday, November 12, 6:30 pm, MIT room 14N-233.

The Digital Antiquarian

Summer Daze

by Jimmy Maher at October 30, 2019 09:42 AM

I want to bring a new project by this blog’s friends Corey and Lori Ann Cole to your attention today. Summer Daze at Hero-U builds upon their earlier Hero-U: From Rogue to Redemption, which was a fine revival in spirit of their much-loved Quest for Glory games of yore. This sequel — or actually prequel — goes in a somewhat different direction, with something of a visual-novel aesthetic and markedly fewer CRPG trappings. The Coles are fine game designers as well as fine people, so I’m sure they’ll pull it off with the same aplomb that made the first Hero-U such a pleasure to play.

The economics of game-making being what they are, however, they could use your support to bring the project to fruition. As of this writing, they’re about $30,000 short of their $100,000 goal on Kickstarter, with six days left to go. Please head on over to the Kickstarter site and give the project a look, and think about pitching in if you like what you see. If I know the Coles at all, I know that they’ll undoubtedly give you your money’s worth in the finished product.

October 29, 2019

Renga in Blue

Review: Subcutanean

by Jason Dyer at October 29, 2019 07:41 PM

Subcutanean is a book where each printed copy is unique; where, rather than writing straight lines of prose, the author Aaron Reed designed text that would spawn multiple variations, what he calls “quantum possibilities”.

Subcutanean is a novel where each copy is custom-printed to be unique; where the author, Aaron Reed, wrote prose designed to spawn a multitude of variants in what he calls “quantum possibilities”.

The novel Subcutanean is by the author Aaron Reed (Blue Lacuna, The Ice-Bound Concordance) but rather than writing straightforward prose, he has written a “generator” that chooses variations of text; each printed copy of the novel is unique.

A sample of variant text from the author’s website; I’ll refer to this later.

Your first question might be “wait, does that work?” which I’ll answer momentarily; however, in general, all I could see was the copy I got (Seed #01893) so I’d first like to review it like an ordinary novel. Do note, however, that any quotes I pull will likely differ from whatever copy you might get (should you choose to buy the novel).

Orion and Niko are friends in college living in an old house. They discover a secret set of stairs leading to a mysterious basement they just refer to as Downstairs: a room “thirty feet across by sixty or seventy long” with “beige carpet and brown wall-paneling” and “five open doorways”.

The open doorways lead to side halls, and those side halls lead to further side halls, and crawlways, and pits, and more angular things.

Without delving too much into spoilers, Orion meets a copy of himself, and things start to slowly go more and more awry such that in order for Orion and Niko escape, they need to go deeper.

While the plot begins as a slow burn, the horror and suspense start to multiply to be about as intense as anything you could read.

There were shots of the pit with nothing else there: no grapples, no ropes, no us. There were shots where the carpet was crawling with beetles. There were shots where the walls were made of meat.

Orion and Niko are extremely well-drawn, and it’s clear the author cares about them both. Orion has a long-standing crush on Niko, and the thematic tension between the two matches the plot without being overbearing.

Relatedly, as a (self-identified) work of queer fiction, this is terrific, and Orion’s feelings of tension and awkwardness and self-discovery are far more believable than many similar attempts I’ve read. Some of the best passages relate to the interplay with Orion’s mental state and past history (“I never once think that he might be like me because I’ve never met anyone like me.”)

The other characters do not fare nearly as well. This is perhaps intentional on the author’s part; the plot is 95% Orion and Niko, and the 5% which involves the rest of the cast is terribly awkward and there’s even some dialogue challenging Orion to remember the names of the housemates. Still, I’ve read novels where the main character was apathetic about others but they were always there, as characters; that doesn’t happen here.

The prose is generally strong and confident. If I didn’t know about the “quantum text” aspect beforehand I likely would never have known about it.

However —

It’s not quite as good as it could be. In some cases I was ready to reach for an editor’s pen (the opening, in particular, could be a lot tighter). I was often left wondering if a potential edit was inherently structural or due to the wild multitude of textual possibilities.

The act of writing well involves many interlocking details, and some combinations display greater artistry than others in a way that’s hard for a procedural text generator to capture.

Compare these two from the author’s site (from the image linked earlier):

“Huh.” I blinked. Green. His eyes were green. “Not really my thing.”

“Huh.” I stirred the pot. “Not really my thing.”

I had the first in my own copy, and actually noted it down at the time as a strong bit of prose. It very subtly gets across Orion’s crush (it was the first moment I was sure this was going to be queer fiction), and has a lovely symmetry besides with the word “green”. It contrasts nicely with the line after (“Not really my thing”) where there are two opposing forces in the narrator’s mind.

By contrast, the second line is non-descript and unmemorable. Not only is the changed portion weaker, but it causes the dialogue line after to be weaker. (Perhaps paired with some other text it might be better, but I don’t know what the possibilities of the generator are.)

I do want to emphasize the experience is still extremely smooth, and there’s a strong meta-aspect that gives the act of reading the novel itself a feeling of suspense. Even on the plot alone this is an excellent yarn, and if the unique-novel aspect interests you at all, I give this a strong recommend.

Subcutanean has a crowdfunding goal in progress on Indigogo. I received a reader copy for free. Aaron Reed runs the Spring Thing competition which I have submitted prizes to before but I otherwise don’t know him personally and I haven’t worked with him professionally.

"Aaron Reed"

Subcutanean Pre-orders Now Available!

by Aaron A. Reed at October 29, 2019 06:42 PM

Subcutanean, a novel where no two copies are the same, is now available for pre-orders on Indiegogo.

Still from the crowdfunding video.

If you’ve been following the project via my design posts (and it’s not too late to start), you already know some of what to expect: a horror novel written with procedural text that’s different for each new reader. The campaign page has some new reveals, including a book trailer, side-by-side diffs of the same scene in two different versions, and some cool backer rewards, including:

  • A pair of copies generated with special code to increase their distinctiveness from each other
  • A special USB key containing ten thousand different versions of the story (!) as well as the master text used to generate them, and all custom source code
  • An utterly unique book with a piece of text guaranteed to only appear in that one copy, based on a prompt you provide

I’d love your help to have a great first day on the campaign, which will help boost visibility and publicity for the rest of the run. Thank you! Check out the campaign page now to get all the details, and follow @subcutanean on Twitter, Facebook, or Goodreads for more ways to keep up with the project.

October 28, 2019

These Heterogenous Tasks

IF Comp 2019: Pas de Deux

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at October 28, 2019 08:42 PM

Pas de Deux (Linus Åkesson, Dialog) is a puzzle about correctly conducting an orchestra. You are the musical director of a community music group in the town of Bournebrook Rill, performing Tchiakovsky’s Pas de deux from the Nutcracker; the orchestra and score … Continue reading

"Aaron Reed"

Why I Made Subcutanean

by Aaron A. Reed at October 28, 2019 07:42 PM

The Subcutanean campaign goes live on Indiegogo tomorrow, October 29th. In this moment before the ride begins, I wanted to reflect on why I made it.

I’ve always loved underground places. One of the first books I read for myself at an early age was The Hobbit, and I remember the journey down to Goblin-town gripping me with an unforgettable mixture of fear and fascination. When I first played Adventure on my grandpa’s Apple II, the notion of getting to go explore an underground world myself was incredibly alluring. (This experience would, as anyone who knows me can attest, have no impact on my later life.) One of the first short stories I wrote at age nine or ten was about a kid named Aaron who discovers a cave in his backyard that stretches underneath the entire world, populated in its deepest passages by strange creatures probably cribbed from Fraggle Rock. I devoured YA books like John Christopher’s The Lotus Caves and Rosemary Wells’ Through the Hidden Door that took their teenaged protagonists not to places far away, but far beneath. A childhood trip to Utah’s Timpanogos Cave was magical; as an adult, caving is one of my favorite non-digital hobbies. Looking back, I’m not sure if one of these experiences sparked the others, or if the underground has just always had a hold on me.

Some of my childhood underground obsessions.

Subcutanean is my third major project dealing with endless underground places, after Ice-Bound and Downcrawl, so maybe this is the point when I retroactively start calling this my Underground Trilogy? You could also consider it part of a conceptual trilogy of minimalist procedural text experiments: this one starts with 18 Cadence (where the reader can rearrange pieces of the story, but not change them) and also includes Archives of the Sky (where players are challenged to assemble a coherent plot out of nothing but evocative words and pieces of dramatic structure). Looking at Subcutanean from a game design perspective is a bit perverse: it removes player interactivity entirely, giving you an entirely prerendered novel as output. But it certainly follows up on my past use of procedural text, from the variable landscapes and characterizations in Blue Lacuna up through my more recent work on Character Engine at Spirit AI.

Each of these projects, including this latest one, have taught me important lessons I can bring back to my game design work. Exploring the limits of generation, interactivity, and agency — both on the ends of extreme complexity and extreme simplicity — has given me useful perspectives on new ways these elements might be used in more traditional interactive stories.

Some of my past projects with procedural text: Blue Lacuna, 18 Cadence, and Archives of the Sky.

If procedural text is the brush and underground space is the backdrop, though, what am I actually painting?

As a work of fiction, Subcutanean is fantastical, but also deeply personal, inspired by my own somewhat messy coming out process at the end of the ’90s in a very conservative state. While I was lucky enough to have supportive friends and family, it took me a long time to realize how pervasively the dominant culture of that time and place had affected my own self-image. I was confident with friends but cripplingly shy with strangers; there weren’t any role models in popular culture for me to look up to; and I didn’t have other gay friends to help me navigate crushes, toxic friendships, or relationships. I made a lot of mistakes in the process of figuring it out on my own. I’d naively thought coming out would be the end of my struggles to love and understand myself, but of course it was only the beginning.

The awkward and sometimes painful fight for self-assurance, as well as how not to hurt and be hurt by the people you love, is a huge theme throughout the book. The particulars are very fictionalized, and as I wrote the characters they naturally developed into their own people with their own stories and traumas, different in many ways from my own. But there’s a lot of emotional truths behind them.

To be honest, I’m more afraid to release this project than anything I’ve ever created. I’m worried it won’t resonate: for straight people, or for queer people who grew up in more accepting places or decades than my protagonist and I. I’m worried the multiple versions are a kind of hedging, or hiding, burying my truths in a fragmented underground labyrinth so no one can ever claim to have found them all. When I click the launch button tomorrow, excitement will be tinged with vulnerability. Opening a door lets things pass through both ways.

And yet it also feels like a story I needed to tell. And telling it many ways at once makes each reader’s relationship to the text even more unique: something they have to figure out for themselves. You’ll have to accept the fact that this story might have gone in different ways for different people, and decide whether you’re going to accept that or worry about what else might have happened. Your opinions about the story will be valid, regardless of which version you have. You’re the one who took that text and brought it to life.

Two different renderings of a scene in Subcutanean.

People have naturally reached towards House of Leaves when looking for something to compare Subcutanean to (they both involve secret basements much bigger than they should be), but to me The Shining is a more apt comparison: in the way a place can become menacing because of the person inside it, and in the way it turns a familiar struggle (Jack’s alcoholism and the way it hurts his family) into an epic and terrifying battle on a supernatural stage. Michael Golding’s A Poet of the Invisible World gives a boy in ancient Persia an extra pair of ears as an external metaphor for his sexuality: they make him an outcast, but also let him hear new and different things. That resonates with me, too. I could reach for other comparisons: Stephen Graham Jones’ Mongrels, about coming of age in a family of werewolves, or Patrick Ness’s Release where the ghost of a murdered girl teaches a gay teen a lesson he needs to hear: both are beautiful books well worth reading. I’ve also joked that the book is A Separate Peace meets Dante’s Inferno, but was advised by an agent that this wasn’t an especially commercial comp.

Maybe that’s okay. It’s not an especially commercial book.

Caves are strange places to explore. Unlike expeditions on the surface with miles of vistas all around, you can’t see most caves all at once. Though you might map them, build mental models of their vastness, you can only experience them in tiny pieces: like books, one passage at a time. A tunnel might dead-end around the next corner, or it might carry on for miles, branching endlessly. The only way to find out is to walk, crawl, or wriggle on through them, pulling yourself forward past smooth slopes and painful edges, making progress in tiny and tactile moments.

Passing through cave tunnels has been likened to passing through birth canals, and their endless subterranean passages have also symbolized routes to the land of the dead. To me they seem much better analogs for the process of figuring out how to live, a few feet of earth at a time.

Subcutanean goes live for pre-orders Tuesday October 29th: you can sign up right now to be notified. You can also follow the project on Twitter, Facebook, or Goodreads, or check out my previous design posts.

Strand Games

The Pawn by Magnetic Scrolls, Remastered From Original Source Code

by hugh at October 28, 2019 05:19 PM

This week we've released desktop versions of The Pawn Remastered on Versions are available for Windows, Mac and Linux. Android and iOS are soon to follow.

Wait! This sounds all too familiar! The Pawn already has been remastered and released quite some time ago?!?

Well, yes, indeed. So what is going on? The fellow followers of this little project know about the previous remasters of The Pawn, Guild of Thieves, and Jinxter. And the incredible adventure with rescuing the ga...

Reviews from Trotting Krips

The Secret of Vegibal Island by Ralf Tauscher (2019)

by Flack at October 28, 2019 01:42 PM

Tweet Review:

A tribute/parody/homage of/to The Secret of Monkey Island. Fans who loved the original LucasArts game will get all the references and be able to overlook all the grammatical and programming issues. Others may find the game more confusing than the island itself.

Full Review:

While the official goal of The Secret of Vegibal Island is to unravel the mystery of the island, a secondary and personal goal of mine was to determine what exactly a “vegibal” is. My original assumption (that “vegibal” is slang for “vegetable”) was disproved, I think, when I encountered, examined, and ultimately conversed with the vegibal late in the game. The vegibal “reminds you talking to that silly guy at the tiki bar that looked like a tiki bar,” and “carries nothing.” If you had planned to look to the internet for the answer, I’ll warn you up front — Google autocorrects “vegibal” to “vaginal,” so now my Google Image cache is completely pink and I have a meeting with my boss on Monday.

An introductory teaser written by the author references “a famous point-and-click adventure” and “revisiting that island,” and if you needed even more clues, the protagonist’s first name is “Buyshrug” — an anagram of Guybrush (as in Threepwood), the protagonist of The Secret of Monkey Island. This game, The Secret of Vegibal Island, is a little bit tribute and a little bit parody of the original LucasArts game.

The game begins in the “real” world with Buyshrug on the wrong side of a locked gate that leads to a vacation resort. Accessing the gate requires possessing three separate wristbands, obtained by completing three separate tasks. Of the three tasks only one was challenging; fortunately, the game gives enough in-text verb/noun hints to nudge players towards the slightly surreal solution. Moments after I had waltzed through the gate, kicked back in a lounge chair and began sipping on a White Russian, poor Buyshrug was hit in the head by an errant cannonball and woke up a prisoner aboard a pirate ship. Escaping your locked quarters leads to the second half of the game, which involves exploring and ultimately learning the secret of Vegibal Island.

If you aren’t familiar with The Secret of Monkey Island, most of the characters, objects, and jokes in this game will be lost on you. I won’t lie — the last time I played the original Monkey Island, I had to reconfigure my AUTOEXEC.BAT and CONFIG.SYS files to free up conventional RAM so my sound card and CD-ROM drive would work at the same time. If it’s been that long for you and random references to bananas, manatees, and leather jackets don’t elicit an immediate chuckle, this isn’t your game. Many characters such as the Voodoo Lady and the three-headed monkey from the original Monkey Island series make appearances here, and some scenes (like the giant gorilla head puzzle) are lifted directly from The Secret of Monkey Island and transcribed into parser format.

Because I haven’t played the original in so long, there were a lot of objects I wasn’t sure what to do with and a few puzzles I left unsolved. Toward the end of the game I had 35 objects in my inventory, two-thirds of which I never used (including, among other things, thirteen large pigs). Along the way I encountered multiple things that seemed like puzzles, but didn’t seem to affect the outcome of the game. Because the game has no score, it was impossible for me to tell how many tasks I left unaccomplished.

It is obvious that English is not the author’s first language, so there’s no sense in beating up the game’s bountiful grammatical quirks. Some of the text is so awkward that it feels like it was translated using automated tools, except there are so many misspelled words that I am pretty sure it was done manually. None of this makes the game or puzzles unplayable, but several times I was unsure what exactly the author was trying to convey.

Along those same lines, the underlying game engine only performs the bare minimum when it comes to logic and error checking. Default parser rules prevent you from eating lounge chairs or picking up people, but I was able to pick up a filled waterbed mattress and store it in my backpack (along with a dozen pigs). Gamers who stick to the intended script may or may not encounter such oddities, but advanced (or simply curious) players will quickly be able to manipulate the laws of physics in ways that don’t make sense.

The Secret of Vegibal Island is a fun little homage to The Secret of Monkey Island, with additional references to Disney (and at least one SCUMMVM joke that made me laugh) thrown in for good measure. The game’s estimated two-hour play time includes solving every single puzzle; those looking to blast through the game and discover the secret of both Vegibal and Monkey Islands in the shortest amount of time possible should be able to do so in less than an hour.

Link: The Secret of Vegibal Island

October 27, 2019

Wade's Important Astrolab

Leadlight Gamma now on (Halloween) sale at

by Wade ([email protected]) at October 27, 2019 03:53 AM

As previously promoted by me, and as described in the subject line of this post, Leadlight Gamma is now on sale at half price on for itch's Halloween-related festivities. Sale ends November 6th at 4AM.

Don't be caught dithering at 3:55 AM on November 6th in whatever time zone they're referring to!

Leadlight Gamma screenshot from Gargoyle

October 26, 2019

Reviews from Trotting Krips

Saturn’s Child by Jerry Ford (2014)

by Bryan B at October 26, 2019 05:42 PM

The Little Ugly, Evil Guy On My Shoulder’s Verdict:

If Wednesday’s Child is full of woe, then Saturn’s Child is full of cable up the butt. Seriously, in this game your character has a cable up his butt for most of the game, as does your girlfriend. When you and your girlfriend have a baby together in space, your kid eventually gets a cable up the butt too. This just reinforces my feeling that all space games are ultimately variations of Xtrek. Every. Single. One. Especially Planets: TEOS.

The Little Nice, Handsome Guy On My Shoulder’s Verdict:

What an epic space adventure! I was totally absorbed from beginning to end, especially during the scenes on Titan and Enceladus. Admittedly the butt stuff was a little weird.

My Verdict:

I loved the adventure, the setting, and the developer’s ambition. I hated the bugs and the excessive focus on procedure. Also, the butt stuff made my butt wince which is never a good thing.

Game Information

Game Type: TADS

Author Info: Following his unfortunate death in 2006, ex-president Jerry Ford decided to set politics aside and focus on a new way to reach the masses from beyond the grave: interactive fiction! No, this particular Jerry Ford actually hails from the mean streets of Pleasant Hills, CA, a veritable world away from the gilded cage of Rancho Mirage. He’s written several games that cover everything from crime to demonic seduction to space exploration. That’s why my nickname for him is Detective Jerry Ford, Demonfucker of Mars! Let’s see if that catches on.

Download Link:

Other Games By This Author: Dark Angel, The Devil in the Details

Before we begin in earnest, I have to tell you something I’ve never shared with anyone else: I’m biased when it comes to space games. That’s because I love space games. I love science fiction in general. I read the books. I watch the movies. I listen to Dimension X. I think about things like space colonization, alien culture, teleportation, and daily life aboard a spaceship on a regular basis. This is an enduring interest for me. Furthermore, I also tend to particularly enjoy interactive fiction set in space, whether it be Infocom classics like Planetfall, graphic adventure game classics like Space Quest, or shooter that occasionally bothers to tell a story classics like Mass Effect. If you want to know how deep the obsession goes, let’s just say I am a genuine fan (present tense) of the BASICA classic Alien and Super Z Trek. Robb reviewed both games fairly on the original incarnation of Reviews From Trotting Krips; I didn’t review either one because I knew I was way too biased to be fair.

So if you want a completely unbiased review of Saturn’s Child you’re not going to be satisfied here because this is definitely a space game and so I’m definitely going to be biased. I’m not so biased that I won’t tell you that the game has both flaws and bugs because it does have both. I’m not even going to write a glowing review because there are as many things I disliked about the game as I liked. It’s just that I have a feeling I enjoyed this game more than most players of interactive fiction will primarily because I love space games. If you don’t share my bias, you could very well think that this is an absolutely terrible game, and I’m not sure I’ll be able to convince you otherwise. When the average interactive fiction player (who also happens to be a stereotypical teenage girl) plays this, the results are predictably combustive:

“The bugs make this game sooooooooooooooooo annoying! Like there was one which made it so I couldn’t go back to my ship. I hate it, I hate it, I hate it!”

“Why do I have to press so many buttons and pull so many levers anyway? This is hella boring! Wouldn’t they have self-flying spaceships or voice-activated controls or something like that in the future?”

“What’s the deal with the whole cable in butt thing? Like ewwwwwwwwwwwwwwww! I bet the guy who did this is a total sicko!”

I bring up the average interactive fiction player’s potential criticisms of this game because they are totally valid. This game does have annoying bugs, it does have an excessive number of buttons, dials, switches, and levers, and it does feature troubling cable-in-butt action. But all that stuff doesn’t absolutely define the game, at least not for me. I prefer to think of the high points. For example, this game features an outstanding sequence where you help your girlfriend give birth to a baby on a spaceship (if your character is male) or actually give birth (if your character is female). This scene and its leadup are pretty intense. During my first playthrough as a male character, I found myself feeling deeply worried I was going to fuck up. After all, I didn’t know nothing about birthing babies. It turned out to be relatively straightforward in terms of what I had to do (which definitely was the easy part), but I was still sweating bullets by the time we were done. The magnitude of what had just happened — the birth of the first baby (human at least) off Earth — awed me. I’m not privy to the development history of this game, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Jerry Ford started out with a more neutral title like Mission to Saturn and then changed the name after writing the birth scene. This is a game that can and will alienate a player with its annoying bugs and insistence on procedure, but the birth scene is interesting enough to draw you back in if you get that far. You could certainly argue that the birth scene is too passive if you’re playing a female character — you don’t even get to push — but it remains powerful because you still get the overwhelming feeling that you’re doing something no human has ever done before. It feels genuinely fresh and exciting, too, because this just isn’t a theme that gets covered in adventure games all that often. I also really enjoyed exploring the Saturnian moons though I was disappointed they felt so similar to one another. To be fair, I should note that you’ll only see one moon in any given playthrough depending on whether you’re the male or the female player character.

The basic premise of Saturn’s Child is that you are in the space program and are on a mission to Saturn together with an opposite sex partner. Your task is to retrieve two probes lost on Titan and Enceladus, two of Saturn’s numerous moons. You can choose to be either the male or the female astronaut. This choice affects your path through the game ever so slightly; most notably, it changes the perspective of the birth scene and determines which moon of Saturn you’ll personally land on. Whether male or female your space duties will be extremely similar, and I wouldn’t say it’s strictly necessary to play both paths. Technically, you can also choose to have no sexual organs or be a hermaphrodite, but this just leads to an early game ending. According to this game, NASA doesn’t accept hermaphrodites into the space program. Even if true, pointing this out in a text adventure seems a little unnecessarily mean. Suffice it to say that hermaphrodites will always have a place in my space program, if you know what I mean. If you DO know what I mean, you definitely have the edge on me because I have absolutely no idea.

The game starts out with you and your partner in training. The first scene is a little similar to the beginning of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in that you find yourself in a dark room with nearly no sensory information to go on. If anything does smell a bit this time around, it’s likely to be the cable you find securely inserted in your ass. You also don’t have any memories. Starting the game out in this manner made me think I wasn’t really an astronaut but rather a kidnap victim. In fact, the first character you meet actually makes an alien anal probe joke. Not exactly the best way to earn my confidence. I had a bit of a hard time buying that my loss of memory was somehow connected to my training as well. Later on, I started to suspect the government might be involved in the pregnancy too, especially when a scientist referred to my child as an extraterrestrial. For whatever reason, the game seems to go out of its way to downplay this possibility — you get your memories back, your baby appears completely human, and a short timeline for the impregnation (which suspiciously no one really seems to remember in any great detail) is provided. Even an explanation for the anal cables is given: the little buggers dispense medicine and report back important health information! In other words, they’re basically a more advanced smartwatch for your butt…who wouldn’t want one? So, no, I can’t exactly prove a secret government research project and alien sperm were actually involved in the birth of my child, but I was totally expecting an ending where my kid sprouted feelers and exhibited telekinetic powers. I’m afraid you’ll have to play the game for yourself to find out if that’s what really happens.

Perhaps the best thing I can say about this game is that Jerry Ford’s ideas are generally good and his ambition is admirable. He’s genuinely succeeded in creating a virtual world that is distinct and memorable though not detailed. He captures some of the majesty and mystery of space and some of the dangers as well as the allure of space travel. The big ship, the lander, and the rover all feel like real environments — it’s easy to play this game and imagine yourself actually in space and actually manipulating these hulking machines. The problem is Ford seems so wrapped up in his ideas and his world that it feels like he sometimes forgets people will be playing his game for fun. I’ll take that back if it turns out NASA is actually using this game to prepare recruits for space travel. If that never happens, it’s very hard to justify what Ford puts his players through at times. For one thing, his favorite type of puzzle seems to be the puzzle of obscurity. One example is the treadmill. It takes multiple steps to get it working and to dismount it, but the most trouble users are likely to have with it is finding how to turn it on. It turns out the machine has an emergency power cutoff lever, but you have to stumble about for a while to find it. Looking at the treadmill won’t tell you anything about any cutoff switch. It’s much the same story with the difficult to find book or the first aid kit that doesn’t want to be used even when your partner is bleeding out. To be frank, it’s unclear if these “puzzles” are really intended to be puzzles or if the author just didn’t want to take the time to flesh his game out. Another point of annoyance is Ford’s love of procedure. Space travel naturally involves a lot of cool machines and electronics, and this game has a number of instances where you need to manipulate buttons, levers, and switches in a specific way to proceed. I can appreciate this to a degree because it does make the game seem more realistic, but it becomes downright ridiculous when you have to spend five minutes using a space microwave that’s exactly the same as its counterpart on Earth. Some parts of this game are downright tedious and dull. I think there’s a place for procedure when you’re doing something important and need to learn a skill you’ll use again in the game. For instance, I wouldn’t complain if I had to learn how to manually navigate a starship in a space game. I got absolutely nothing out of opening and closing the microwave, adding water to various food packets, putting the packets in the microwave, setting the power level, setting the cook time, and turning the power on multiple times, though. That’s just unnecessary tedium.

I’m afraid the bugs are going to get their own paragraph. Sadly, there are a lot of them. Some are easy to ignore, like the unmatched quote error early on. Some principally serve as an annoyance, like the way the scientist keeps telling you to dismount the treadmill even when you’re no longer in the same room if you fail to do the dismounting in time. I don’t think you actually CAN do the dismounting in time if you’re a male character, but it works if you’re a female. Maybe the game’s actually trying to make some sort of social commentary about the male tendency to monopolize exercise equipment. Women may take too long in the bathroom, but guys…uh…take too long on the treadmill? The little bastards just can’t get enough of walking without going anywhere, and Saturn’s Child is here to call them out on it. In any case, there’s a certain humor in having the scientist show up somewhere completely inappropriate, such as on Titan, but you’re likely to see that message about dismounting the treadmill a hundred times or more before you’re through with the game. That brings us to the last and worst category of bugs: the game enders. There are at least two bugs which will leave you stuck and unable to finish, and I ran into both of them. As a male character, you can get stuck on Titan through no fault of your own. I still don’t know what triggered the bug, but I somehow ended up in a position where the game said I had reentered my lander even though I was really still on Titan. My space helmet was removed automatically when I tried to reenter the ship so I found myself aimlessly wandering the surface of Titan, breathing in the atmosphere without a helmet and none the worse for wear. Weird all around. Jerry Ford’s strong belief in gender equality lead to him inserting a similar bug for the female character. This time the bug occurs during a radiation leak that occurs prior to your departure for Enceladus. If you don’t follow the proper sequence of actions, you can end up unable to advance the game no matter what you do. It turns out software bugs are ultimately more deadly than radiation. I think NASA knows exactly what I’m talking about, unfortunately.

In short, Saturn’s Child is a game for a particular type of person: someone who really, really loves space and doesn’t mind bugs, even game-ending bugs. Even though there were aspects of the game that I genuinely enjoyed, it turns out even I don’t love space quite THAT much. There’s just a few too many problems here to forgive and overlook or to expect others to forgive and overlook. The pity is that Saturn’s Child genuinely had the potential to be great…it just didn’t quite manage to realize that potential. In its present form, I suspect those who have some sort of weird cable-butt fetish will end up enjoying the game more than anyone else. If that’s you, this is definitely the game. If that’s not you, well, that’s why we have other reviews.

Simple Rating: 5/10

Complicated Rating: 22/50

Story: 7/10

Writing: 6/10

Playability: 3/10 (Sadly, Jerry Ford seems to struggle to look at his own games from a player’s point of view.)

Puzzle Quality: 1/10

Parser Responsiveness: 5/10 (The parser can be quite picky at times and some of the TADS rewrites for unrecognized inputs are downright bizarre.)

Mentula Macanus: Apocolocyntosis by One of the Bruces

by Robb at October 26, 2019 05:42 PM

I have never played Curses. Any reference that Mentula Macanus: Apocolocyntosis has to Curses is going to be lost on me. However, I did play Apocolocyntosis in a moving vehicle to and from an arcade, with several other people along for the ride and Bruce as the narrator. I believe MM:A gives you quite a lot to think about regarding the magic of a singular vision in design.

Bruce has made the kind of game I suspect he would like to play on some level, but never gets a chance to. Sometimes text games try to answer a question that is always lurking — in Savoir Faire, we wonder “What if I could link these two objects?” In Deadline, we wonder, “What if I could accuse people of a horrible crime?” In Apocolocyntosis we get the answer to, “What if everyone was more-or-less receptive to my engorged video game cock?” Text games are really among the leaders in answering these questions, because doing so with a mainstream title means taking a chance. It’s not remotely pornography, though it’s an incredibly pornographic experience.

There are things I like about this game that have nothing to do with sex mechanic. It’s packed with fun features. I like PONCY MODE being a thing you can enable, and I like that it came out as a result of discussions with people who made the newsgroups unreadable. I like it when people put footnotes in their games. What I liked most was the “hub” design of the game world. There’s areas to explore in Apocolocyntosis, but Bruce doesn’t ask you to play them all over again, like Halo, or play them a second time in reverse order, like Hexen. It’s a difference in preference between generations of gamers, like how quarter-second cuts are totally okay in music videos if you are younger than I am, but a moronic unstyle if you are exactly my age or older. The area worlds are set up like chapters in a book, and filled with characters that I can dislike “properly”: I dislike them because they treated our protagonist badly or were condescending to him, not because the author is broken and projecting his issues onto his characters.

I recall that as a group, we had a bit of trouble with the whale scene, but we were otherwise able to make pretty good progress with only marginal nudging. I was exhausted on the trip back, so more of a passive absorber in that regard, due to my attempts to have sex with the Sinistar machine at the arcade; don’t judge me you fiends. The design, taken as a whole, it is that of a game meant to be played in a session or two, and it’s all very approachable. It, like The Undiscovered Country is unquestionably an adventure game — if you’ve been at all frustrated with puzzleless IF, this is the game for you. Even if you take the fact that it’s a text game out of it, what interests Bruce from a gameplay standpoint is frozen in time, and I am delighted to return to a sort of post-Infocom Meretzky ride with his offerings.

There’s a good deal of subtle humor in the game as well — a great application of scare quotes managed to crack me up every time I did a playthrough, and you’re never going too long without the game giving you a wry observation. More, while I had no idea what a lot of stuff was in the game, especially regarding archiecture, Bruce described it well enough for me to make sense of it. >LOOK is a strong verb in the arsenal once again, at least in my playthroughs.

Completing Apocolocyntosis, I wonder what kind of game Bruce would or could make next. I would most like to see him answer, “What if he gave us Stiffy’s thoughts on all this?” I don’t know if that sort of thing resonates with him much, but it wouldn’t be the first time a mute protagonist spoke in a sequel.

The people who gave it a “1” in the comp are probably babies (no offense). If you have matured to the point where a video game can’t offend you by simply existing there’s a lot of adventure to be found here. I don’t know if we’ll ever get another Adam Thornton game – I hope we do! – but man, what a way to go out if this is the finale.

October 25, 2019

These Heterogenous Tasks

IF Comp 2019: Rio Alto: forgotten memories

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at October 25, 2019 08:42 PM

Rio Alto: forgotten memories (Ambrosio, Unity) is an illustrated adventure game; a disappointed artist retreats to a rural town, where he finds himself entangled in mysteries, secrets and long-harboured resentments. The game opens with a really welcoming piece of UI … Continue reading

"Aaron Reed"

When to Not Trust Dynamic Text

by Aaron A. Reed at October 25, 2019 01:42 AM

My upcoming novel Subcutanean is written such that each time it’s regenerated for a new reader, hundreds of moments of textual variation get collapsed down into a single possibility. If you’ve written dynamic text before (for games, maybe) you’re probably aware that this isn’t as easy to get right as it might first seem. Errors both tiny and tremendous can easily appear. Some of the more insignificant ones around punctuation or spacing show up in the output like typographical mistakes:

great. I’ll see you at the store.
Have fun!. See you later.
She loved chocolateand to swim in the sea.

In each of these cases, the author probably forgot a detail of context around the dynamic text they inserted: that it needed to be upper cased because it would be used at the start of a sentence, or that it should include or omit punctuation or a space. These are common gotchas when you’re working with two pieces of text that will end up next to each other but are written in different places.

Sometimes a join is less about a mechanical problem and more about natural phrasing. You might have written a clever expansion that can say “Yes” in a number of different ways: “Sure,” “OK,” “Sounds great,” and so on. But then one of your Yes expansions might show up somewhere it sounds awkward:

“Are you Spartacus?”
“Sounds great, I am.”

This kind of thing can lead to all kinds of awkward output texts, and a good chunk of the somewhat stilted, unnatural tone we associate with chatbots comes from these kinds of awkward insertions:

I gave the book to he.
Hi, Nicole but you can call me Nikki lol 😛, it’s great to meet you!
She loved chocolate bar and swim in the sea.

These mistakes are even more awkward, by the way, once they’re rendered in a fancy way and inserted into a context that looks like a human created it:

Background courtesy Pam de Butler from Pixabay

Sometimes dynamic text authoring mistakes can be more serious, like when a vital control symbol is mistyped:

“No,” you say firmly, “I could never love you[Yes, kiss me, kiss me now!” you cry, throwing your arms around {love_interest}’s neck.]]]

In a game, a Twitter bot, a web interface, or a NaNoGenMo project, these kinds of mistakes are generally forgivable by readers (if not their authors) as an interesting glimpse behind the curtain. This is in part because some of the charm of procedural text lies in the possibility of the unexpected. We’re intrigued when we see oopsies like this, because it reminds us of the generative nature of the system we’re interacting with.

Subcutanean, however, has very different goals. The output is meant to be a print novel — generated, printed, and shipped in an automatic process with no human review — that will not only remain on your shelf for (possibly) decades, but should also be as immersive and compelling as any other book. The variable possibilities are meant to interest you in reading it in the first place, but not be a distraction once you’ve actually settled down with a copy. In some ways this project is the precise opposite of most generative text works: I want to guarantee that nothing too unexpected can happen, maintaining complete authorial control over every possible output.

Excerpts from two typeset renders of Subcutanean: in one, the narrator’s drunk.

So I decided to take the nuclear option. For each piece of text that could vary, I would manually confirm it. In context. And each time any of the variants or any of that context changed, I would manually confirm it again.

To understand why this is even possible, I should explain that Subcutanean only rarely contains nested expansions (I wrote about why here), as are common when working with something like Tracery. Nor is the text unbounded in the way a procedural text project that uses Wordnet or a Wikipedia corpus might be: each moment of variation is deliberately and thoroughly curated. So this wasn’t as impossible a task as it might sound. Showing the author a range of sample outputs, as many and as quickly as possible, is of course a useful approach adopted by other procedural text authoring systems like Tracery or Character Engine: the difference here was that I wanted to not only show all the variations, but require that each one be manually validated.

The key challenge was to keep thisfrom being a slog, a chore so laborious and annoying that I’d stop doing it, and risk immersion-breaking mistakes slipping through.

To achieve this, I developed a module in my rendering pipeline called Confirm. Each time I export the text, this module shows a couple possible ways bits of text can be rendered, like an aide discretely handing over a couple documents to the boss for a signature. The boss is too busy to sign the whole stack, but if the aide gets a few signatures each time there’s a free moment, eventually everything will be processed.

The Confirm module intervenes before the formatting and output-generation part of the pipeline. First, the whole master text is scanned and each bit of variable text is given a unique key, made up from the line before, the variants themselves, and the line after. The module then renders the “before” and “after” text (including rendering any variants within those, if necessary), glues this together with each way the current variant can be rendered, and shows these outputs to me. Little carets are added between the lines to show exactly where the variant starts and ends. I can take a quick look at each version in a basic double-spaced ASCII rendering (with all formatting and other control characters removed), reading the output as normal prose and only paying attention to the carets if something looks wrong.

Example of a very simple confirm with an optional phrase “you and I.” The text before and after is also slightly different; the system picks one way to render before and after context for each individual confirm (though these can be regenerated with a keypress to see other possibilities).

If everything looks okay, a keypress confirms that set of variants in that particular context — and as long as neither change, the system won’t bother me about it again. But if I edit the surrounding text, the variants, or add or remove options, the key has changed: and therefore that chunk goes back into the review queue. When performing final renders for the eventual book deliverables, the system won’t move on to PDF rendering until each unique key has been confirmed — but I’ll have been working on it piecemeal as I go, one change at a time, rather than saving that huge stack of documents for signatures on the very last day.

The bit about the before and after context is key: sometimes a variant itself is fine, but sounds awkward given what came earlier. A word repetition, for instance, is hard to catch if it’s split between an introduction and the start of the third option in a set of multi-paragraph variants. This kind of thing is easy to catch with Confirm, as well as all the simpler errors around spacing or punctuation, which also stand out clearly.

Catching optional text that needs a space before it.

Of course, the next step is rendering a print-ready PDF from a procedurally assembled LaTeX file, and making sure that nothing’s gone wrong in that process — no overfull boxes have spilled text into margins, no misplaced control characters have erased or distorted huge chunks of text. But that’s a whole new set of problems, and I’ll save those for a future post.

Subcutanean is an upcoming horror novel that changes with each new copy. Find out how to get your own unique copy. You can also follow the project on Twitter, Facebook, or Goodreads, or check out more design posts.

October 24, 2019

These Heterogenous Tasks

IF Comp 2019: Saint City Sinners

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at October 24, 2019 08:42 PM

Saint City Sinners (dgallagher, Twine) is a hardboiled-detective parody, explicitly after the style of Clickhole’s Clickventures series. I know some real good writers who just goddamn love Clickventures. I always felt as though they were fine, but the ratio of wackiness to wittiness didn’t … Continue reading