Planet Interactive Fiction

February 23, 2018

The Digital Antiquarian

The Worlds of Ultima

by Jimmy Maher at February 23, 2018 05:41 PM

Proud papa Warren Spector with a copy of Worlds of Ultima II: Martian Dreams.

In the very early days of Ultima, Richard Garriott made a public promise which would eventually come back to haunt him. Looking for a way to differentiate his CRPG series from its arch-rival, Wizardry, he said that he would never reuse an Ultima engine. Before every new installment of his series, he would tear everything down to its component parts and rebuild it all, bigger and better than ever before. For quite some time, this policy served Garriott very well indeed. When the first Ultima had appeared in 1981, it had lagged well behind the first Wizardry in terms of sales and respect, but by the time Ultima III dropped in 1983 Garriott’s series had snatched a lead which it would never come close to relinquishing. While the first five Wizardry installments remained largely indistinguishable from one another to the casual fan, Ultima made major, obvious leaps with each new release. Yes, games like The Bard’s Tale and Pool of Radiance racked up some very impressive sales of their own as the 1980s wore on, but Ultima… well, Ultima was simply Ultima, the most respected name of all in CRPGs.

And yet by 1990 the promise which had served Richard Garriott so well was starting to become a real problem for his company Origin Systems. To build each new entry in the series from the ground up was one thing when doing so entailed Garriott disappearing alone into a small room containing only his Apple II for six months or a year, then emerging, blurry-eyed and exhausted, with floppy disks in hand. It was quite another thing in the case of a game like 1990’s Ultima VI, the first Ultima to be developed for MS-DOS machines with VGA graphics and hard drives, a project involving four programmers and five artists, plus a bureaucracy of others that included everything from producers to play-testers. Making a new Ultima from the ground up had by this point come to entail much more than just writing a game engine; it required a whole new technical infrastructure of editors and other software tools that let the design team, to paraphrase Origin’s favorite marketing tagline, create their latest world.

But, while development costs thus skyrocketed, sales weren’t increasing to match. Each new entry in the series since Ultima IV had continued to sell a consistent 200,000 to 250,000 copies. These were very good numbers for the genre and the times, but it seemed that Origin had long ago hit a sales ceiling for games of this type. The more practical voices at the company, such as the hard-nosed head of product development Dallas Snell, said that Origin simply had to start following the example of their rivals, who reused their engines many times as a matter of course. If they wished to survive, Origin too had to stop throwing away their technology after only using it once; they had to renege at last on Richard Garriott’s longstanding promise. Others, most notably the original promise-maker himself, were none too happy with the idea.

Origin’s recently arrived producer and designer Warren Spector was as practical as he was creative, and thus could relate to the concerns of both a Dallas Snell and a Richard Garriott. He proposed a compromise. What if a separate team used the last Ultima engine to create some “spin-off” games while Garriott and his team were busy inventing their latest wheel for the next “numbered” game in the series?

It wasn’t actually an unprecedented idea. As far back as Ultima II, in the days before Origin even existed, a rumor had briefly surfaced that Sierra, Garriott’s publisher at the time, might release an expansion disk to connect a few more of the many pointlessly spinning gears in that game’s rather sloppy design. Later, after spending some two years making Ultima IV all by himself, Garriott himself had floated the idea of an Ultima IV Part 2 to squeeze a little more mileage out of the engine, only to abandon it to the excitement of building a new engine of unprecedented sophistication for Ultima V. But now, with the Ultima VI engine, it seemed like an idea whose time had truly come at last.

The spin-off games would be somewhat smaller in scope than the core Ultimas, and this, combined with the reuse of a game engine and other assets from their big brothers, should allow each of them to be made in something close to six months, as opposed to the two years that were generally required for a traditional Ultima. They would give Origin more product to sell to those 200,000 to 250,000 hardcore fans who bought each new mainline installment; this would certainly please Dallas Snell. And, as long as the marketing message was carefully crafted, they should succeed in doing so without too badly damaging the Ultima brand’s reputation for always surfing the bleeding edge of CRPG design and technology; this would please Richard Garriott.

But most of all it was Warren Spector who had good reason to be pleased with the compromise he had fashioned. The Ultima sub-series that was born of it, dubbed Worlds of Ultima, would run for only two games, but would nevertheless afford him his first chance at Origin to fully exercise his creative muscles; both games would be at bottom his babies, taking place in settings created by him and enacting stories outlined by him. These projects would be, as Spector happily admits today, “B” projects at Origin, playing second fiddle in terms of internal resources and marketing priority alike to the mainline Ultima games and to Wing Commander. Yet, as many a Hollywood director will tell you, smaller budgets and the reduced scrutiny that goes along with them are often anything but a bad thing; they often lend themselves to better, more daring creative work. “I actually liked being a ‘B’ guy,” remembers Spector. “The guys spending tons of money have all the pressure. I was spending so little [that] no one really paid much attention to what I was doing, so I got to try all sorts of crazy things.”

Those crazy things could only have come from this particular Origin employee. Spector was almost, as he liked to put it, the proud holder of a PhD in film studies. Over thirty years old in a company full of twenty-somethings, he came to Origin with a far more varied cultural palette than was the norm there, and worked gently but persistently to separate his peers from their own exclusive diets of epic fantasy and space opera. He had a special love for the adventure fiction of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and this love came to inform Worlds of Ultima to as great a degree as Lord of the Rings did the mainline Ultima games or Stars Wars did Wing Commander. Spector’s favored inspirations even had the additional advantage of being out of copyright, meaning he could plunder as much as he wanted without worrying about any lawyers coming to call.

The Savage Empire, the first Worlds of Ultima, is thus cribbed liberally from The Lost World, Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic 1912 adventure novel about a remote region of South America where dinosaurs have survived extinction. The novel’s narrator, an opportunistic journalist named Edward Malone, becomes Jimmy Malone in the game, a companion of yours who bends his journalistic talents to the task of becoming a sort of walking, talking quest log. As in the book, your ultimate goal in the game is to unite the feuding native tribes who live in the lost valley in order to defeat a threat to them all — said threat being a race of ape-men in the book, a race of giant insects in the game. (The closest thing to the ape-men in the game is a tribe of Neanderthals who actually fight on your side.) And yes, as in the book, there are dinosaurs in The Savage Empire — dinosaurs of all types, from harmless herbivores to the huge, ferocious, and deadly tyrannosaurus rex. Along with the insect race, who are known as the Myrmidex, they’re your primary enemies when it comes to combat.

The Savage Empire does add to the book’s plot the additional complication of a mad scientist who has already arrived in the Valley of Eodon. He isn’t bad by nature, but has been driven to his current insanity by a mysterious stone found there. Now, he plots to use the stone to take over the world. In an affectionate tribute to their guiding light, he was named by the development team Dr. Johann Spector, with a dead ringer of a portrait to match.

Evil Warren… err, Johann Spector.

Arthur Conan Doyle was an enthusiastic proponent of much of the flawed pseudo-science of his day, from eugenics to phrenology and craniometry to, late in his life, the spiritualist movement. He was likewise afflicted with most of the prejudices of the Victorian and Edwardian eras. It’s thus not hard to imagine how The Savage Empire could have gone horribly off the rails, what with the leather-bikini-clad princess who serves as your romantic interest and the many “savage” dark-skinned tribes — each modeled on (stereotypes of) an example of same from real-world history — waiting for your party of white men to swoop in and save the day. One might feel especially worried upon learning that Warren Spector wasn’t even around very much to oversee his young charges. After laying out the setting, characters, and basic plot in the form of a twenty-page outline, he moved on to act as producer on the first Wing Commander game, leaving The Savage Empire in the hands of its producer Jeff Johanningman — the source of Dr. Spector’s first name — its designer Aaron Allston, and its “director” Stephen Beeman.1

The Savage Empire‘s cover art marks a major departure from Richard Garriott’s noble policy of refusing to fill his Ultima covers with the buxom women in chainmail bikinis that dominated among the series’s peers. The Avatar’s companion here isn’t dressed in chainmail, but the leather bikini she is wearing is positively straining to keep her naughty bits under wraps. On the other hand, the cover art is right in keeping with the pulpy adventure stories the game evokes, so we can perhaps forgive it.
 
Note also that “Lord British” takes first-writer credit for a game he had nothing to do with. Cheeky fellow, isn’t he? Royalty evidently did have its privileges. Meanwhile the contributions of poor Warren Spector, whose 20-page treatment got the whole project started, went completely unacknowledged, not only on the box but in the credits list found in the manual.

But I’m happy to say that Johanningman, Allston, Beeman, and the others on their team did a surprisingly good job of skirting a fine line. The Savage Empire is definitely pulpy — it was always intended to be — but it never spills over into the offensive. Origin paid a dedicated researcher named Karen E. Bell, holder of a completed PhD, to help them get the feeling of the times right. The various tribes are handled, if not quite with nuance — this just isn’t a very nuanced game — with a degree of respect. At the same time, the game manages to absolutely nail the homage it was aiming for. The manual, for instance, takes the form of an issue of Ultimate Adventures magazine, and can stand proudly alongside the best feelies of Infocom. Clearly the development team embraced Spector’s vision with plenty of passion of their own.

The worst failing of the fiction — a failing which this game shares with its sequel — is the attempt to integrate the pulpy narrative with that of Britannia in the mainline Ultima games; Origin was still operating under the needless stipulation that the hero of every successive Ultima, going all the way back to the first, was the same “Avatar.” For The Savage Empire, this means among other things that the game has to take place in our time rather than in that of Arthur Conan Doyle — albeit a version of our time full of weird anachronisms, like the big box camera with the big magnesium flash that’s carried around by Jimmy Malone.

Origin may have hired a PhD to help with their research, but they don’t take their commitment to anthropology to seriously. I don’t think any real native people had a Larry, Moe, and Curly of their own.

The game design proper, on the other hand, is impressively nonlinear in the best Ultima tradition. Once you’ve figured out that your mission is to convince all of the eleven tribes to make common cause against the Myrmidex, you can begin negotiating with whichever of them you please. Naturally, the negotiations will always boil down to your needing to accomplish some task for the tribe in question. These quests are interesting and entertaining to see through, forcing you to employ a variety of approaches — and often, for that matter, admitting themselves of multiple approaches — and giving you good motivation for traipsing through the entirety of the Valley of Eodon.

The Savage Empire stands out for the superb use it makes of the “living world” concept which had been coming more and more to the fore with every iteration of the mainline Ultima series. Indeed, it does even more with the concept than Ultima VI, the game whose engine it borrowed. The Savage Empire is a game where you can make charcoal by pulling a branch from a tree and burning it in a native village’s fire pit. Then make a potassium-nitrate powder by collecting special crystals from a cave and grinding them down with a mortar and pestle. Then get some sulfur by sifting it out of a pit with a wire screen. Combine it all together, and, voila, gunpowder! But, you ask, what can you actually do with the gunpowder? Well, you can start by borrowing a digging stick from the villagers, taking it down to a riverbank, and pulling up some fresh clay. Fire the clay in the village kiln to make yourself a pot. Put your gunpowder in the pot, then cut a strip off your clothing using some handy scissors you brought along and dip it in the local tar pit to make a fuse. Stuff the cloth into the top of the pot, and you’ve got yourself a grenade; just add fire — luckily, you also brought along some matches — at the appropriate time. This is just one example of the many intriguing science experiments you can indulge in. Don’t try this at home, kids.

Yet for all its strengths, and enjoyable as it is in its own right, The Savage Empire is just the warm-up act for Martian Dreams, the real jewel of the Worlds of Ultima series. This time around, Spector got to do more than just write an outline of the game: he was in charge of this project from beginning to end, thus making Martian Dreams the first game published by Origin — and, for that matter, the first computer game period — that was a Warren Spector joint from beginning to end.

Martian Dreams‘s version of Ultima‘s gypsy is none other than Sigmund Freud. It’s evidently been a hard life so far for Sigmund, who would have turned 39 years old the year the game begins. More seriously, my cursory research would indicate that about 90 percent of players misread the intent of his initial question. He’s not really asking you which parent you felt closer to; he’s trying to find out what gender you are. Many a player, myself included, has gone through the character-creation process trying to answer the questions honestly, only to be confused by arriving in the game as the opposite gender. Call it all those distant fathers’ revenge…

Martian Dreams‘s premise is certainly unique in the annals of CRPGs. In fact, it’s kind of batshit insane. Are you ready for this? Okay, here goes…

Our story begins with the historical character Percival Lowell, the amateur astronomer who popularized the idea of “canals” on Mars, and along with them the fantasy of a populated Mars whose people had built the canals in an effort to recover water from the icecaps of a doomed planet slowly dying of drought. It’s 1893, and Lowell has built a “space cannon” capable of traveling to Mars. He’s showing it off at the Chicago World’s Fair to many of the “leaders of the Victorian era” when a saboteur ignites the cannon’s propellant, sending the whole gang rocketing off to Mars. In addition to Lowell himself, the unwilling crew includes names like Sarah Bernhardt, Calamity Jane, Andrew Carnegie, Marie Curie, Wyatt Earp, Thomas Edison, William Randolph Hearst, Robert Peary, and Louis Comfort Tiffany.

Fast-forward two years. Signals from Mars indicate to the folks back on Earth that the gang survived the trip and landed safely. Now you’re to try to rescue them in a second space cannonball, accompanied by — because why not? — Nellie Bly, Sigmund FreudNikola Tesla, and a dodgy doctor named C.L. Blood (the most obscure historical figure of the lot but one of the most interesting). Also along for the ride is your old friend Dr. Johann Spector, now freed from the insanity that led to megalomania in The Savage Empire and happy just to be your genial boon companion in adventure.

The good Johann Spector.

Upon arriving on the red planet, you find that the air is breathable, if a bit thin, and that sentient — and often deadly — plants roam the surface. You soon begin to make contact with the previous ship’s crew, who are now scattered all over the planet, and the game coalesces around the interrelated goals of learning about the Martian civilization that once existed here and figuring out a way to get your own lot back to Earth; in what can only be described as a grave oversight on your part, it seems that you neglected to devise a means of returning when you set off on your “rescue” mission.

Your reaction to Martian Dreams will hinge on your willingness to get behind a premise as crazy as this one. If the idea of getting fired out of a cannon and winding up on Mars doesn’t put you off, the million smaller holes you can poke in the story very well might; suffice to say that the fact that you boarded a cannonball headed for Mars without any semblance of a return plan is neither the only nor even perhaps the most grievous of the plot holes. Chet Bolingbroke, better known to his readers as The CRPG Addict and a critic whose opinion I very much respect within his favorite genre, dismisses the game’s whole premise with one word: “stupid.”

In defense of the game, I will note that this is very much a period piece, and that within that context some of the stupider aspects of the overarching concept may begin to seem slightly less so. Jules Verne, a writer who always strove for scientific accuracy according to the lights of his time, published in 1865 From the Earth to the Moon, in which a trio of Victorian astronauts flies to the Moon rather than Mars using the technique described in Martian Dreams. The same technique then cropped up again in Georges Méliès’s 1902 film A Trip to the Moon. (Méliès, a French illusionist who became the father of cinematic special effects through that film and others, is another of the historical figures who make it into Martian Dreams.) And then, too, the question of whether there might be an oxygen atmosphere and an alien civilization to breathe it on Mars was by no means settled until well after the turn of the twentieth century; Percival Lowell went to his deathbed in 1916 still a devout believer in his Martian canals, and he was by no means alone in his belief.

Other incongruities may be more difficult to dismiss with a hand-wave to the nineteenth century, but the fact remains that vanishingly few CRPGs have ever made much sense as coherent fictions. Players who love running around inside fantasy worlds in the character of dwarves and elves, casting spells at dragons, might want to be just a little careful when throwing around adjectives like “stupid.” After all, what do all those monsters in all those dungeons actually eat when there aren’t any adventurers to hand? And wouldn’t the citizens of all these assorted fantasy worlds do better to put together a civil-defense force instead of forever relying on a “chosen one” to kill their evil wizards? Martian Dreams‘s premise, I would submit, isn’t really all that much stupider than the CRPG norm. It’s merely stupid in a very unique way which highlights incongruities that long exposure has taught us to overlook in the likes of Dungeons & Dragons. One might say that just about all CRPG stories are pretty stupid at bottom; we forgive them an awful lot because they make for a fun game.

If we can see our way clear to bestowing the same courtesy upon Martian Dreams, there’s a hell of a lot to like about its premise. Certainly the historical period it evokes is a fascinating one. Much of what we think of as modern life has its origins in the 1800s, not least the dizzying pace of progress in all its forms. For the first time in human history, the pace of technological change meant that the average person could expect to die in a very different world from the one she had been born into. Many of the changes she could expect to witness in between must have felt like magic. The invention of the railroad transformed concepts of distance almost overnight, turning what had been arduous journeys, requiring a week or more of carriage changes and nights spent in inns, into day trips; just like that, a country like England became a small place rather than a big one. And if the railroad didn’t shrink the world enough for you, telegraph cables — aptly described by historian Tom Standage as the “Victorian Internet” — were being strung up around the world, making it possible to send a message to someone thousands of miles away in seconds.

Much of modern entertainment as well has its roots in the nineteenth century, with the genre literatures arriving to greet a new mass audience of readers. While the mystery novel was being invented by Edgar Allan Poe, Wilkie Collins, and Arthur Conan Doyle, science fiction was being invented by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells (the latter of whom we meet on our trip to Mars). Meanwhile the soap opera was being invented by Charles Dickens and his contemporaries, who published monthly installments of their novels for a fan base who gathered around the nineteenth century’s version of the office water cooler, obsessing over what would happen next to Little Nell or Oliver Twist. Celebrity too as we know it today has its origins in this period. When Dickens would give public readings of his novels, his female fans would scream and swoon in the throes of a sort of proto-Beatlemania, while Buffalo Bill Cody’s globe-trotting Wild West Show made his face by some accounts the most recognizable in the world by the turn of the century. (Buffalo Bill too is to be found on Mars.) And modern consumer culture begins here, with the first shopping malls opening in Paris and then spreading around the world. I could go on forever, but you get the point.

Martian Dreams proves adept at capturing the spirit of the age, conveying the boundless optimism that surrounded all of this progress in a period before the world wars and the invention of the atomic bomb revealed the darker sides of modernity. The Ultima VI engine’s look has been reworked into something appropriately steampunky, and a period-perfect music-hall soundtrack accompanies your wanderings. The writing too does its job with aplomb. To expect deep characterizations of each of the couple of dozen historical figures stranded on Mars along with you would be to ask far, far too much of it. Still, the game often does manage to deftly burrow underneath the surface of their achievements in ways that let you know that Spector and his team extended their research further than encyclopedia entries.

Theodore Roosevelt is portrayed as an awkwardly self-conscious mix of bravado and insecurity rather than the heroic Rough Rider and Trust Buster of grade-school history textbooks. Martian Dreams‘s take on the man seems to hew rather close to that of Gore Vidal, who in one of his more hilarious essays labelled Roosevelt “an American sissy.”

Martian Dreams‘s portrayal of Vladimir Lenin manages in a single sentence of dialog to foreshadow everything that would go wrong with Karl Marx’s noble dream of communism as soon as it took concrete form in the Soviet Union.

Some of the more obscure historical figures have the most amazing and, dare I say it, inspiring stories of all to share. Do you know about Nellie Bly, the young woman who checked herself into a psychiatric hospital to report first-hand the abuses suffered there by patients? Do you know about George Washington Carver, a black man who was born into slavery and became the foremost expert of his era on the techniques of sustainable farming, publishing research that has saved literally millions of lives? Even the travelers who wind up being the antagonists of the group — Grigori Rasputin, the infamous “mad monk” of late Czarist Russia, and Emma Goldman, an American anarchist activist and occasional terrorist — have intriguing things to say.

Thanks to some technology left behind by the Martians, you’ll eventually get a chance to visit many of these people inside their dreams — or nightmares. These sequences, the source of the game’s name, illuminate their personalities and life stories still further. In the case of Mark Twain, for instance, you’ll find yourself riding down a river on a paddle wheeler, trying to collect the pieces of his latest manuscript and get them to the publisher before the money runs out — about as perfect an evocation of the life the real Twain lived, writing works of genius in order to remain always one step ahead of the creditors dogging his heels, as can be imagined.

A Gallery of Eminent Victorians


bernhardt
blood
bly
calamity
carnegie
carver
clemens
cody
curie
earp
edison
freud
goldman
hearst
lenin
lowell
melies
peary
rasputin
roosevelt
tesla
tiffany
wells

The purely fictional story of the apparently dead Martian civilization is crafted with equal love. Over the course of the game, you’ll slowly revive the technology the Martians left behind, restoring power to the planet and getting the water flowing once again through Percival Lowell’s beloved canals. In the process, you’ll learn that some of the Martians still live on, at least after a fashion. I won’t say more than that so as to preserve for you the pleasure I got out of Martian Dreams. I approached the game completely cold, and found myself highly motivated to make the next discovery and thereby set into place the next piece of a mystery I found genuinely tantalizing. The story that gradually emerges fits right in with the classic lore of the red planet, with echoes of Lowell’s pseudo-science, H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, and Edgar Rice Burroughs’s tales of John Carter on Mars. By the time of Martian Dreams, Origin was at long last beginning to hire dedicated people for the role of writer, instead of handing the task to whatever programmer or artist happened to not have much else going on at the moment. Games like this one were the happy result. Notably, Martian Dreams is the first Origin game to credit one Raymond Benson, a veteran of musical theater who would go on to make a profound impact as the head writer on Ultima VII, the next entry in the mainline series.

The worst aspect of the storytelling is, once again, Origin’s insistence that Martian Dreams fit into the overall story of Ultima‘s Avatar. With this Worlds of Ultima installment being explicitly rather than implicitly set in the past of our own Earth, the contortions the writing must go through to set up the game are even more absurd than those of The Savage Empire. This game whose premise already had the potential to strain many gamers’ credibility past the breaking point was forced to introduce a layer of time travel in order to send the Avatar and his companion Dr. Spector back to 1895, then to engage in yet more hand-waving to explain why our historians haven’t recorded trips to Mars in the 1890s. It’s all thoroughly unnecessary and, once again, best ignored. The game works best as alternate history with no connection to any other Ultima except perhaps The Savage Empire.

The dust storms evidently did one hell of a number on Mars…

I prefer Martian Dreams to The Savage Empire largely thanks to better writing and a richer theme; it doesn’t play all that radically different from its predecessor. It makes somewhat less use of the Ultima VI engine’s crafting potential — there’s nothing here close to the complexity of making grenades in The Savage Empire — but it is a longer game. Thanks to its more developed story, it can’t avoid being a bit more linear than its predecessor over the course of that length, but it never feels unduly railroaded. In my book, then, The Savage Empire is a very good game, while Martian Dreams is a great one.

I must admit that I enjoy both of these games more than any of the mainline Ultima games that preceded them. The latter by the dawn of the 1990s had accumulated a lot of cruft in the form of fan service that just had to be in each new installment. These games, by contrast, were able to start with clean slates — aside from the dodgy attempts to insert the Avatar into them, that is — and the results are tighter, more focused designs. And what a relief it is to escape for a little while from Renaissance Fair fantasy and all that excruciating faux-Elizabethan English! In an uncharacteristic fit of bravado, Warren Spector a few years after Martian Dreams‘s release called it “the best Ultima game ever.” On some days, I’m sorely tempted to agree. Only Ultima Underworld and Ultima VII — both released after Martian Dreams — make the debate at all complicated for me.

The biggest single improvement Worlds of Ultima made to the Ultima VI engine was to move conversations from the corner of the screen, as show above…

…and into the main display.

Still, it wouldn’t do just to praise these two games that I like so very much without pointing out some significant weaknesses. I wasn’t overly kind to the Ultima VI engine in my review of that game, and most of the criticisms I levied there apply to one degree or another here as well. The Worlds of Ultima teams did take some steps to improve the engine, most notably by moving the text that accompanies conversations into the main window instead of cramming it into a tiny space in the corner of the screen. At bottom, however, the Ultima VI engine remains caught out in an uncertain no man’s land between the keyboard-based “alphabet soup” interface of the earlier Ultima games and the entirely mouse-driven interfaces that were yet to come. Some things are much easier to do with the keyboard, some with the mouse — an awkward arrangement that’s only made more frustrating by the way that the divisions between the two categories are so arbitrary. You can get used to it after an hour or two, but nobody would ever accuse the interface of being elegant or intuitive. I’m sure that plenty of players over the years have found it so bafflingly opaque that they’ve given up in disgust without ever getting a whiff of the real joy of the game hidden underneath it.

The Ultima VI engine has a peculiar problem conveying depth. What looks like a stair step here is actually meant to represent an unscaleable cliff. As it is, it looks like we’ve joined the long tradition of videogame characters who can walk and run hundreds of miles but can’t hop up two feet.

In light of this reality, I’ve often seen the Worlds of Ultima games called, in reviews both from their own day and from ours, good games trapped inside a bad game engine. It’s a pithy formulation, but I don’t feel like it quite gives the whole picture. The fact is that some of the problems that dog these games have little or nothing to do with their engine. The most pernicious design issue is the fact that there just isn’t quite enough content for the games’ geographies. It’s here that one fancies one can really start to feel their status as “B” projects at Origin. The Savage Empire sports an absolutely massive abandoned underground city — as big as the entire jungle valley above it — that’s for all intents and purposes empty, excepting only a couple of key locations. I don’t know the full story behind it, but it certainly seems like a map that’s still waiting for the development team to come back and fill it up with stuff. Martian Dreams has nothing quite this egregious, but points of interest on the vast surface of Mars can nevertheless feel few and far between. Coupled with a strange lack of the alternative modes of transport that are so typical in other Ultima games — one teleportation mechanism does eventually arise, but even it’s very limited in its possible destinations — it means that you’ll spend a major percentage of your time in Martian Dreams trekking hither and yon in response to a plot that demands that you visit — and then revisit, sometimes multiple times — locations scattered willy-nilly all over the planet. Warren Spector himself put his finger on what he cogently described as “too much damn walking around” as the biggest single design issue in this game of which he was otherwise so proud.

Mars is mostly just a whole lot of nothing.

Another description that’s frequently applied to these games — sometimes dismissively, sometimes merely descriptively — is that they aren’t really CRPGs at all, but rather adventure games with, as Computer Gaming World‘s adventure critic Scorpia once put it, “a thin veneer of CRPG.” Once again, I don’t entirely agree, yet I do find the issues raised by such a description worthy of discussion.

Proponents of this point of view note that combat is neither terribly important nor terribly interesting in Worlds of Ultima, that magic has been reduced to a handful of voodoo-like spells in The Savage Empire and removed altogether from Martian Dreams, and that character development in the form of leveling-up is neither all that frequent nor all that important. All of which is true enough, but does it really mean these games aren’t CRPGs at all? Where do we draw the lines?

The Savage Empire‘s limited graphics and uninspiring combat manages to make the idea of encountering dinosaurs — dinosaurs, for Pete’s sake! — feel kind of ho-hum.

A long time ago, when I was going through a taxonomical phase, I tried to codify the differences between the adventure game and the CRPG. The formulation I arrived at didn’t involve combat, magic, or experience levels, but rather differing philosophical approaches. Adventure games, I decided, offered a deterministic, bespoke experience, while CRPGs left heaps of room for emergent, partially randomized behavior. Or, to put it more shortly: the adventure game is an elaborate puzzle, while the CRPG is a simulation. A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself whether it’s possible to write a walkthrough listing every single action a player should take in a game, knowing the game will always respond in the same way every time and that said walkthrough will thus be guaranteed to get the player to the winning screen. If you can, you certainly have an adventure game. If you can’t, you may very well be looking at a CRPG.

When I first made my little attempt at taxonomy, I was thinking of early text adventures and the earliest primitive CRPGs. Yet the distinctions I identified, far from fading over time, had become even more pronounced by the time of Worlds of Ultima. Early text adventures had a fair number of logistical challenges — limited light sources, inventory limits, occasional wandering creatures, even occasional randomized combat — which were steadily filed away concurrent with the slow transition from text to graphics, until the genre arrived at 1990’s The Secret of Monkey Island, perhaps the most iconic exemplar of the classic point-and-click graphic adventure. CRPGs, meanwhile, remained much more simulation-oriented, emergent experiences.

So, where does this leave us with the Worlds of Ultima? Well, these definitely aren’t games that can be played by rote from a walkthrough. They sport monsters and people wandering of their own free will, a day-to-night cycle, character attributes which have a significant effect on game play, emergent logistical concerns in the form of food (The Savage Empire), oxygen rocks which allow you to breathe more easily (Martian Dreams), and ammunition (both). Many of the problems you encounter can be dealt with in multiple ways, most or all of which arise organically from the simulation. All of these qualities hew to the simulational focus of the CRPG. Sometimes they can be a bit annoying, but in general I find that they enhance the experience, making these games feel like… well, like real adventures, even if they aren’t the sorts of things that are generally found in adventure games.

Yet I do agree that these games aren’t quite CRPGs in the old-school 1980s sense either. Layered on top of the foundation of emergent simulation is a determinstic layer of narrative, dialog, and even set-piece puzzles. The closest philosophical sibling I can find among their contemporaries is Sierra’s Quest for Glory series, although the latter games have radically different looks and interfaces and were generally purchased, one senses, by a different audience.

Some of the infelicities that can arise in the course of playing the Worlds of Ultima games have at their root a failure of the two layers to account for one another properly. When I played The Savage Empire, I broke the narrative completely by exploiting the simulation layer in a way that the game’s developers apparently never anticipated. Well into the game, after recruiting eight of the eleven tribes onto my team, I got confused about what my next goal should be in a way that I won’t go into here. Suffice to say that, instead of uniting the rest of the tribes and leading them in a coordinated attack on the Myrmidex lair, I went after the murderous insects on my own, accompanied only by an indestructible robot I’d befriended. I devised a strategy for hiding behind the robot when the insects attacked, and thereby made it at last to the heart of the nest, destroying the mystical stone that was the source of the Myrmidex’s power (and of Dr. Spector’s insanity). Just like that, and much to my shock, the finale started to play; I had thought I was just solving another quest. In its way, this anecdote is an impressive testament to the emergent possibilities of the game engine — although it would have been even more impressive had the narrative layer recognized what had happened and accounted for my, shall we say, alternative solution to the problem of the Myrmidex. As it was, I saw an endgame movie that assumed I’d done a whole bunch of stuff I hadn’t done, and thus made no sense whatsoever.

Exterminating bugs with the help of my trusty (and indestructible) robot pal.

Whatever else you can say about it, it’s hard to imagine something like this happening in The Secret of Monkey Island. As CRPGs in general received ever more complex stories in the years that followed the Worlds of Ultima games, they took on more and more of the traditional attributes of adventure games, without abandoning their dedication to emergent simulation. Sometimes, as in Worlds of Ultima, the layers chafe against one another in these more modern games, but often the results are very enjoyable indeed. Largely forgotten by gaming history though they have been, the Worlds of Ultima games can thus be read as harbingers of games to come. In their day, these games really were the road not taken — in terms of adventure games or CRPGs, take your pick. Indeed, I’m kind of blown away by what they managed to achieve, and not even bothered unduly by my rather unsatisfying final experience in The Savage Empire; somehow the fact that I was able to break the narrative so badly and still come out okay in the end counts for more than a final movie that didn’t make much sense.

Unfortunately, gamers of the early 1990s were rather less blown away. Released in October of 1990, The Savage Empire was greeted with a collective shrug which encompassed nonplussed reviews — Computer Gaming World‘s reviewer bizarrely labeled it a “caricature” of Ultima — and lousy sales. With the release of Martian Dreams in May of 1991, Origin re-branded the series Ultima Worlds of Adventure — not that that was an improvement in anything other than word count — but the results were the same. CRPG fans’ huge preference for epic fantasy was well-established by this point; pulpy tales of adventure and Victorian steampunk just didn’t seem to be on the radar of Origin’s fan base. A pity, especially considering that in terms of genre too these games can be read as harbingers of trends to come. In the realm of tabletop RPGs, “pulp” games similar in spirit to The Savage Empire have become a welcome alternative to fantasy and science fiction since that game’s release. Steampunk, meanwhile, was just getting off the ground as a literary sub-genre of its own at the time that Martian Dreams was published; steampunk’s founding text, the novel The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, was published less than a year before the game.

For all that the games were thus ahead of their time in more ways than one, Worlds of Ultima provided a sobering lesson for Origin’s marketers and accountants by becoming the first games they’d ever released with the Ultima name on the box which didn’t become major hits. The name alone, it seemed, wasn’t — or was no longer — enough; the first chink in the series’s armor had been opened up. One could of course argue that these games should never have been released as Ultimas at all, that we should have been spared all the plot contortions around the Avatar and that they should have been allowed simply to stand on their own. Yet it’s hard to believe that such a move would have improved sales any. There just wasn’t really a place in the games industry of the early 1990s for these strange beasts that weren’t quite adventure games and weren’t quite CRPGs as most people thought of them. Players of the two genres had sorted themselves into fairly distinct groups by this point, and Origin dropped Worlds of Ultima smack dab into the void in between them. Nor did the lack of audiovisual flash help; while both games do a nice job of conveying the desired atmosphere with the tools at their disposal, they were hardly audiovisual standouts even in their day. At the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in June of 1991, Martian Dreams shared Origin’s booth with Wing Commander II and early previews of Ultima VII and Strike Commander. It’s hard to imagine it not getting lost in that crowd in the bling-obsessed early 1990s.

So, Origin wrote off their Worlds of Ultima series as a failed experiment. They elected to stop, as Spector puts it, “going to weird places that Warren wants to do games about.” A projected third game, which was to have taken place in Arthurian England, was cancelled early in pre-production. The setting may sound like a more natural one for Ultima fans, but, in light of the way that Arthurian games have disappointed their publishers time and time again, one has to doubt whether the commercial results would have been much better.

The Worlds of Ultima games will occasionally reward major achievements with a lovely graphic like the one above, but it’s clear that their audiovisual budgets were limited.

I’m a little sheepish to admit that I very nearly overlooked these games myself. In light of the awkward engine that powers them, I was totally prepared to dismiss them in a passing paragraph or two, but several commenters urged me to give them a closer look after I published my article on Ultima VI. I’m grateful to them for doing so. And I have a final bit of wonderful news to share: both The Savage Empire and Martian Dreams have been officially re-released as free downloads on GOG.com. Whether you’re a fan of Ultima and/or old-school CRPGs in general or not, I can only suggest as strongly as I know how that you give these games the chance they were denied in their own time, promising yourself beforehand that you’ll make a good solid effort to get used to the interface before you drag them back over to the trashcan of history that’s sitting there on your computer’s desktop. You might just find that your perseverance is amply rewarded.

(Sources: the book Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show: An American Legend by R.L. Wilson; New York Review of Books of August 13, 1981; Origin’s internal newsletter Point of Origin of May 17 1991, June 21 1991, and August 7 1991; Computer Gaming World of March/April 1983, March 1986, March 1991 and September 1991; Questbusters of August 1990, January 1991, and August 1991. Online sources include an interview with Warren Spector published in the fanzine Game Bytes in 1993 and republished on The Wing Commander Combat Information Center; RPG Codex‘s 2013 interview with Spector.)


  1. Stephen Beeman now lives as the woman Siobhan Beeman. As per my usual editorial policy on these matters, I refer to her as “he” and by her original name only to avoid historical anachronisms and to stay true to the context of the times. 

Versificator IF blog

Robin is on Patreon!

by robinjohnson at February 23, 2018 12:41 AM

I’ve created a Patreon crowdfunder for my IF games.

My games will always be free, but it’s not free for me to make them. If you enjoy them, please consider pledging a small amount per month – $1 or more – to fund my time writing, programming, and doing everything else that goes into a work of IF. In return, patrons can receive electronic and physical feelies, and the chance to play beta versions of upcoming games before I release them.

Go and have a look!

 

February 22, 2018

Choice of Games

The Fielder’s Choice — Pitch your way to the top of the major leagues!

by Rachel E. Towers at February 22, 2018 05:41 PM

We’re proud to announce that The Fielder’s Choice, the latest in our popular “Choice of Games” line of multiple-choice interactive-fiction games, is now available for Steam, iOS, and Android. It’s 25% off until March 1st!

Grab a glove and pitch your way to the top of the major leagues! Baseball season is back and you’re on the mound. Starting your career as a rookie pitcher, you’ll develop your repertoire and navigate clubhouse politics in the big leagues. Over eight seasons, you’ll use your talent and charisma to win on—and off—the field.

The Fielder’s Choice is a 115,000-word interactive baseball novel by Nathaniel Edwards. It’s entirely text-based—without graphics or sound effects—and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination.

Your talented arm will take you places you’ve never seen, and introduce you to some of the most driven athletes on the planet. Do you have the massive dedication to succeed in the big leagues, or will you resort to a little bit of cheating? Will you be baseball’s biggest stat geek or the master of hustle and grit? Will you develop an on-field persona that terrifies hitters or a cuddly exterior that lulls them to sleep? Will you go down in history as a Hall of Fame ace or a live arm that fizzled on the big stage? When your lifelong baseball dreams come true, someone else may have to lose everything they’ve ever worked toward.

• Play as male, female, or non-binary; gay or straight
• Play as left- or right-handed
• Choose your pitching style and develop the perfect repertoire to rack up strikeouts
• Perfect a fastball, slider, or curveball
• Find friends, foes, or potential lifelong partners among your teammates
• Pitch in the United States, Japan, or unlock the opportunity to explore a new frontier for baseball
• Use statistical analysis to perfect your game, or #RiseAndGrind to out-hustle your opponents
• Discover the quirky secret behind baseball’s most successful agent

What pitch will you throw when the game is on the line? In that moment, it’s the Fielder’s Choice.

We hope you enjoy playing The Fielder’s Choice. We encourage you to tell your friends about it, and recommend the game on StumbleUpon, Facebook, Twitter, 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.

February 20, 2018

Choice of Games

Author Interview: Nathaniel Edwards, “The Fielder’s Choice”

by Mary Duffy at February 20, 2018 06:41 PM

Grab a glove and pitch your way to the top of the major leagues! Baseball season is back and you’re on the mound. Starting your career as a rookie pitcher, you’ll develop your repertoire and navigate clubhouse politics in the big leagues. Over eight seasons, you’ll use your talent and charisma to win on–and off–the field.

The Fielder’s Choice is a 115,000-word interactive baseball novel, by Nathaniel Edwards. I sat down with Nate to talk about sports, interactive fiction, and his adorable history on the field. The Fielder’s Choice releases this Thursday, February 22nd. 

Tell me a little about your background with baseball. Did you play, growing up? Do you follow any teams now?

When I was a baby, my favorite pacifier had a baseball on it. Somehow or other my parents lost it one day and I would never take another pacifier after that.

I played Little League for a few years, filling the oh-so-valuable role of light-hitting corner outfielder. But really I’ve just been an Atlanta Braves fan for as long as I can remember. For a long time when I was a kid, I wouldn’t leave the house without a Braves hat on and chewing gum in my mouth (That’s gum that baseball players are chewing, right? Couldn’t be tobacco.)

What was the most challenging thing about writing this game?

I had never written anything at this kind of novel-length scale before, so keeping the story organized throughout was a new challenge for me. And then when the story is interactive and two players might get very different versions of the story, there are even more organization problems and continuity errors to worry about. I’m very thankful for the beta testers and editors who are able to catch when I’ve, say, introduced the same character twice, or written that a character threw the ball all the way from first base to…first base again.

How did you find ChoiceScript was for meeting the needs of your fairly complex pitching sim?

I got along very well with ChoiceScript. I got used to it quicker than other IF languages like Inform or Twine. I like a language where I can learn every tool that’s available to me so I can then know how to be creative with the code without constantly worrying that I’m missing out on a function that would make everything ten times easier, and wasting my time looking things up. And thankfully no sport has better statistical information than baseball, so it’s easy to implement realistic odds for everything that happens on the field.

This is really only the second sports game Choice of Games has done, the other being Slammed, about wrestling. What made you want to create a piece of interactive fiction slash pitching sim?

The first things I ever programmed were little choose-your-own-adventures for my TI-83 calculator in middle school. The most complicated thing I made was a soccer management “sim,” so you could say I’ve been making sports-themed interactive fiction games since I was fourteen.

Baseball is my favorite sport, so I knew I wouldn’t get sick of writing and thinking about it for the year it took to put this game together. And there’s been a recent trend of putting strong story modes in sports simulation games like Madden and FIFA, though a modern baseball game hasn’t pulled that off yet. If you don’t mind going back a few console generations, MLB Power Pros has a cartoonish and silly but mechanics-rich story mode that was an inspiration for this game. And on the off-chance you can speak Japanese, that series is still going as Jikkyou Powerful Pro Yakyuu, though it hasn’t been localized to English since 2008. I don’t speak enough Japanese to dig into the story modes very far, but I import those games whenever a new one comes, they’re excellent.

What are you working on next?

Well I’ve got a chicken sandwich sitting next to me I’d like to work on as soon as I’m done writing this answer, but I’d love to write something for IFComp this year. And I have more ideas for Choice of Games if you’ll still have me after that chicken sandwich joke.

Short answer, Bernard Pivot Style Questionnaire

Favorite word.

Gli (one of the Italian words for “the,” pronounced like “lyee”)

Favorite color.

#E32636 Alizarin Crimson

Profession other than your own you would like to attempt?

Seaplane pilot.

Profession you would never want to attempt?

Call center worker.

Can you explain the infield fly rule?

This is a tender subject for Braves fans, I’m afraid. Basically if there are runners on first and second (or the bases are loaded) then any fly ball that should easily be caught by an infielder is automatically an out, whether anybody caught the ball or not. This rule exists because otherwise the defense could easily turn a double or triple play on this kind of fly ball, because the runners don’t know until the ball is caught whether they need to be at their base or at the next base to be safe. So the defense could intentionally drop it and throw them out.

Unfortunately for the Braves, the rule came into effect in an exceptional situation where it benefits the defense instead of the offense. The shortstop accidentally didn’t catch a fly ball way out in left field, so the runners all advanced and the batter was safe. Except, the umpires decided he should have easily caught it, so that’s an infield fly and the batter is out. And this was in a decisive moment in a winner-take-all playoff game. So the fans did the logical thing and threw a bunch of garbage on the field to make their displeasure known. Ah, memories.

The infield fly rule is tricky and complicated for sure, like trigonometry. But the balk rule is like quantum physics.

Emily Short

Downfall (Caroline Hobbs / lessthanthree )

by Emily Short at February 20, 2018 05:40 AM

downfall_cover.pngDownfall is a story game about creating and destroying a culture with a tragic flaw. During the creation portion, you choose a characteristic that is going to be the defining aspect of this new society… and is going to lead to its ruin.

The world-building portion is extremely satisfying — Sam Ashwell’s post gives a good overview of the general concept and functionality here.

In the session I played recently, we started with the flaw of Egalitarianism and a couple of related images (water, lakes, towers), and fairly soon had sketched out Titan Prime, a colony of turrets on an otherwise inhospitable moon. The original colonists had come from Earth generations before, but further ships never arrived, and the colony was now operating more or less independently, recycling all of its water and conserving its resources.

In the next stage of world-building, we established traditions of public and private fashion (everyone always wore uniforms in public); funerals (people were dehydrated for their water, then buried anonymously); justice (judge and jury roles were assigned by lottery, though once you’d been lottery-drafted you did receive some training); family (children were always fostered to someone other than a birth parent); and relationships (there was a complex system to make sure that you didn’t date your birth-sister even despite the fostering scenario). This is a fairly detailed place to get to on a half hour or so of gameplay, and I could easily imagine blending this with other campaign styles, or going over to a game of Microscope here to flesh out the historical events around the story.

The play of actual scenes, I found less tightly constructed.

Ours focused at least as much on the protagonist’s personal life as on the Big Problems of the society. That’s largely, I think, because we tended to frame scenes pretty conservatively, moving the story on only a little a time, and letting the hero’s relationship to the Pillar (their lover) become pretty central. It was still a good and interesting play, in a setting that intrigued me, but I felt like the ruleset depended a fair amount on the players to develop antagonistic scenarios that would blend the hero’s life and the society they belonged to.

And perversely, that had me looking back to the setup phase — which I consider very effective on the world-building front — and wondering whether there should have been more: more to establish the hero’s stakes in all this, and friction in their relationship to the two other mandatory players. (This is something that, e.g., Fiasco does well: by the time you start play, there’s an established relationship between every pair of ongoing characters.)

Maybe that’s something not all players would need. But a playthrough of Downfall can have as few as six role-played scenes, small enough to do in an afternoon, so you don’t want to burn too many scenes in philosophical conversations about the status of your society that don’t yield high-stakes results.

So to play it as a one-shot with less-than-expert players (I’m counting myself here), it might be worth including some extra lines of setup about the tensions between the characters, and exactly what stakes they have in seeing their homeland continue with / break away from the status quo.

More experienced storygamers might not run into this issue, though. And the game is well worth a look from the beginning for the way it ties together world-building with a the establishment of a tragic thesis: overcommitment to [some characteristic] always leads to destruction.

February 16, 2018

The Digital Antiquarian

Adventure-Game Rock Stars Live in Conference

by Jimmy Maher at February 16, 2018 05:41 PM

On August 24, 1990, CompuServe hosted an online discussion on adventure-game design which included Ron Gilbert, Noah Falstein, Bob Bates, Steve Meretzky, Mike Berlyn, Dave Lebling, Roberta Williams, Al Lowe, Corey and Lori Ann Cole, and Guruka Singh Khalsa. This is, needless to say, an incredible gathering of adventuring star power. In fact, I’m not sure that I’ve ever heard of its like in any other (virtual) place. Bob Bates, who has become a great friend of this blog in many ways, found the conference transcript buried away on some remote corner of his hard drive, and was kind enough to share it with me so that I could share it with you today.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you probably recognize all of the names I’ve just listed, with the likely exception only of Khalsa. But, just to anchor this thing in time a bit better, let me take a moment to describe where each of them was and what he or she was working on that August.

Ron Gilbert and Noah Falstein were at Lucasfilm Games (which was soon to be renamed LucasArts). Gilbert had already created the classic Maniac Mansion a few years before, and was about to see published his most beloved creation of all, one that would have as great an impact among his fellow designers as it would among gamers in general: The Secret of Monkey Island. Falstein had created Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade for Lucasfilm in 1989. Their publisher had also recently released Brian Moriarty’s Loom, whose radically simplified interface, short length, and relatively easy puzzles were prompting much contemporaneous debate.

Bob Bates, Steve Meretzky, Mike Berlyn, and Dave Lebling had all written multiple games for the now-defunct Infocom during the previous decade. Bates had recently co-founded Legend Entertainment, where he was working on his own game Timequest and preparing to publish Spellcasting 101: Sorcerers Get All the Girls, Meretzky’s first post-Infocom game and Legend’s first game ever, in a matter of weeks. Berlyn had been kicking around the industry since leaving Infocom in 1985, creating perhaps most notably Tass Times in Tonetown for Interplay; he was just finishing up a science-fiction epic called Altered Destiny for Accolade, and would shortly thereafter embark on the Les Manley games, a pair of Leisure Suit Larry clones, for the same publisher. Lebling was at something of a loose end after the shuttering of Infocom the previous year, unsure whether he even wanted to remain in the games industry; he would eventually decide that the answer to that question was no, and would never design another game.

Roberta Williams, Al Lowe, Corey and Lori Ann Cole, and Guruka Singh Khalsa were all working at Sierra. Williams was in the latter stages of making her latest King’s Quest, the first to use 256-color VGA graphics and a point-and-click interface, and the first to be earmarked for CD-ROM as a “talkie.” Al Lowe was, as usual, hard at work on the latest Leisure Suit Larry game, which also utilized Sierra’s newer, prettier, parser-less engine. The Coles were just finishing up Quest for Glory II: Trial by Fire, which would become the last Sierra game in 16-color EGA and the last with a parser.

Khalsa is the only non-designer here, and, as already noted, the only name here with which longtime readers are unlikely to be familiar. He was another of those unsung heroes to be found behind the scenes at so many developers. At Sierra, he played a role that can perhaps best be compared to that played by the similarly indispensable Jon Palace at Infocom. As the “producer” of Sierra’s adventure games, he made sure the designers had the support they needed, acted as a buffer between them and the more business-oriented people, and gently pushed his charges to make their games just a little bit better in various ways. In keeping with his unsung status, he answers only one question here.

We find all of our participants grappling with the many tensions that marked their field in 1990: the urgent need to attract new players in the face of escalating development budgets; the looming presence of CD-ROM and other disruptive new technologies just over the horizon; the fate of text in this emerging multimedia age; the frustration of not always being able to do truly innovative or meaningful work, thanks to a buying public that largely just seemed to want more of the same old fantasy and comedy. It’s intriguing to see how the individual designers respond to these issues here, just as it is to see how those responses took concrete form in the games themselves. By no means is the group of one mind; there’s a spirited back-and-forth on many questions.

I’ve cleaned up the transcript that follows for readability’s sake, editing out heaps of extraneous comments, correcting spelling and grammar, and rejiggering the flow a bit to make everything more coherent. I’ve also added a few footnotes to clarify things or to insert quick comments of my own. Mostly, though, I’ve managed resist the urge to pontificate on any of what’s said here. You all already know my opinions on many of the topics that are raised. Today, I’m going to let the designers speak for themselves. I hope you’ll find their discussion as interesting and enjoyable as I do.


 

Let’s plunge right into the questions. Before I start, I’d like to thank Eeyore, Flying Gerbil, Steve Horton, Tsunami, Hercules, Mr. Adventure, and Randy Snow for submitting questions… and I apologize for mangling their questions with my editing. And now — drum roll! — on to the first question!

Imagine ourselves five years down the road, with all the technological developments that implies: CD-ROMs, faster machines, etc. Describe what, for you, the “ideal” adventure will look like. How will it be different from current adventures?

Roberta Williams: I think that “five years down the road” is actually just a year or two away. Meaning that a year or two from now, adventure games are going to have a very slick, sophisticated, professional look, feel, and sound to them, and that that’s the way they’re going to stay for a while — standardization, if you will. I mean, how can you improve on realistic images that look like paintings or photographs? How can you improve on CD-quality voices and music? How can you improve on real movement caught with a movie camera, or drawn by a professional animator? That’s the kind of adventure game that the public is going to start seeing within a year or two. Once adventure games reach a certain level of sophistication in look and feel, standardization will set in, which will actually be a boon for all concerned, both buyers and developers alike. After that, the improvements will primarily be in the performance on a particular machine, but the look will stay essentially the same for a while.

Dave Lebling: But if those wonderful pictures and hi-fi sound are driven by a clunky parser or a mythical “parser-less interface,” is this a big improvement? I think not. We can spend $2 million or $5 million developing a prettier version of Colossal Cave. Let’s improve the story and the interface! That doesn’t have to mean text adventures, but there’s more to adventure games than pictures.

Steve Meretzky: I think that in the future the scope of games won’t be limited by hardware but by the marketplace. Unless the market for adventure games expands, it won’t be economical to create super-large environments, even though the hardware is there to support them.

Mike Berlyn: Well, I think that technology can create products which drive the market and create end users — people who need or want to experience something they could experience only on a computer. In the future, I would like to explore “plot” as a structure, something which is currently impossible due to the state of the current technology. Plot cannot be a variable until storage increases and engines get smarter. I can easily see a plot that becomes a network of possibilities.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: We hope as well that the improvements will be in story and design as well as flash: richer stories, more realistic character interaction, etc. Technology, beyond a certain point which we’ve already reached, really isn’t a big deal. Creativity, and an understanding of the differences between “interactive movies” and games is! The move to professional writers and game designers in the industry is helping.

Ron Gilbert: I think that plot has nothing to do with technology. They are almost unrelated. It’s not CD-ROM or VGA that is going to make the difference, it’s learning how to tell a story. Anyone who is any good can tell a great story in 160 X 200-resolution, 4-color graphics on two disks.

Roberta Williams: It’s not that I don’t think a good plot is important! Obviously it is.

Dave Lebling: I didn’t mean to accuse you of not caring about plot. You of all people know about that! I just think the emphasis on flash is a symptom of the fact that we know how to do flash. Just give us a bigger machine or CD-ROM, and, wham, flash! What we don’t know how to do is plot. I don’t think today’s plots feel more “real” than those of five or eight years ago. Will they be better in five years? I hope so, but I’m not sure. We can’t just blindly duplicate other media without concentrating on the interactivity and control that make ours special. If we work on improving control and the illusion that what we interact with is as rich as reality, then we can do something that none of those other media can touch.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: We have never really used the computer as a medium in own right.

Steve Meretzky: You haven’t used it to contact the spirit world?1

Corey and Lorin Ann Cole: There are things that can be done on a computer that can’t be done with other mediums. Unfortunately, the trend seems to be away from the computer and towards scanned images and traditional film and animation techniques.2 If this trend continues, it may be a long time before we truly discover what can be done uniquely with the computer medium. One small example: the much-chastised saved game is a wonderful time- and mind-travel technique that can be a rich tool instead of an unfortunate necessity.

Bob Bates: I agree. You can’t ask a painter at the Art Institute of Chicago to paint you a different scene. You can’t ask a singer at the Met to sing you a different song. (Well, I guess you could, but they frown on requests.) The essence of a computer game is that the player controls the action. The point is to make beautiful music and art that helps the player’s sense of involvement in the game.

I have noticed that a lot of games coming out now are in 256 colors. Does this mean that 256-color VGA is going to be the standard? Has anyone thought about 256 colors in 640 X 480 yet? And how does anyone know who has what?

Bob Bates: The market research on who has what is abominable. As for us, we are releasing our titles with hi-res EGA, which gives us really good graphics on a relatively popular standard, as well as very nice text letters instead of the big clunky ones.

Steve Meretzky: I often get big clunky letters from my Aunt Matilda.

Guruka Singh Khalsa: We’ve been doing a bit of research on who has what hardware, and an amazing number of Sierra customers have VGA cards. Looks like around 60 percent right now. As for 640 X 480 in 256 colors: there’s no hardware standard for that resolution since it’s not an official VGA mode. You won’t see games in that resolution until the engines are more powerful — got to shove them pixels around! — and until it’s an official mode. All SVGA cards use somewhat different calls.

Dave Lebling: The emerging commercial standard is a 386 with VGA and 2 to 4 megs of memory, with a 40-meg hard drive. The home standard tends to lag the commercial one by a few years. But expect this soon, with Windows as the interface.

Does anyone have any plans to develop strictly for or take advantage of the Windows environment?

Dave Lebling: Windows is on the leading edge of the commercial-adoption wave. The newest Windows is the first one that’s really usable to write serious software. There are about 1 million copies of Windows out there. No one is going to put big bucks into it yet. But in a few years, yes, because porting will be easier, and there is a GUI already built, virtual memory, etc., etc. But not now.

With the coming parser-less interfaces and digitized sound, it seems as if text may eventually disappear completely from adventures. Once, of course, adventures were all text. What was gained and what was lost by this shift? Are adventures still a more “literate” form of computer game?

Bob Bates: Well, of course text has become a dirty word of sorts in the business. But I think the problem has always been the barrier the keyboard presents as an input device for those who can’t type. Plus the problems an inadequate or uncaring game designer can create for the player when he doesn’t consider alternate inputs as solutions to puzzles. I think there will always be words coming across the screen from the game. We hope we have solved this with our new interface, but it’s hard for people to judge that since our first game won’t be out for another month…

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: Text will not disappear. Nor should it. We will see text games, parser-less games, and non-text games. And who cares about being “literate”; fun is what matters! I like words. Lori likes words. But words are no longer enough if one also likes to eat — and we do. We also like graphics and music and those other fun things too, so it’s not too big a loss.

Roberta Williams: It’s true that in books stories can be more developed, involving, and interesting than in movies. I believe that there is still room for interactive books. Hopefully there is a company out there who will forget about all the “video” stuff and just concentrate on good interactive stories in text, and, as such, will have more developed stories than the graphic adventure games. But as we progress adventure games in general are going to become more like interactive movies. The movie industry is a larger and more lucrative business than the book industry. For the most part, the adventure-game business will go along with that trend. Currently adventure games are the most literate of computer games, but that may change as more and more text will be lost in the coming years, to be replaced by speech, sound effects, and animation. But I do predict that some company out there will see a huge opportunity in bringing back well-written, high-quality interactive books. It will be for a smaller audience, but still well worth the effort.

Dave Lebling: I think you’re too  optimistic about “some company” putting out text products. We are moving from interactive books to interactive movies. I’m not optimistic about the commercial survival of text except in very small doses.3 Unlike in science fiction, you don’t have to follow a trend until it goes asymptotic. Text won’t go away, but its role will be reduced in commercial adventures. Graphics and sound are here to stay.

Al Lowe: With the coming of talkies, it seems as if all those wonderful dialog cards disappeared! You know, the ones that make silent movies so literate? It’s a visual medium! No one asks for silent movies; most Americans won’t even watch a black-and-white movie. Yes, text-only games are more “literate.” So?

Mike Berlyn: As far as the future of text is concerned, my money is on it sticking around. But I’m not sure it’s at all necessary in these kinds of games. The adventure I’m just finishing up has a little bit of text that reiterates what is obvious on the screen, and manages to add to the player’s inputs in other ways to a create fuller experience. But I still don’t think it’s necessary. I’ve done two completely text-less designs, though neither made it to the market.

Bob Bates: I don’t think it’s the loss of text as output that creates a problem for the designer; I think it’s text as input. It’s hard to design tough puzzles that can be solved just by pointing and clicking at things. And if there are no puzzles — tough puzzles — you’re just watching a movie on a very small screen. The days of the text-only adventure are over. Graphics are here to stay, and that’s not a bad thing, as long as they supplement the story instead of trying to replace it.

We’ve seen fantasy adventures, science-fiction adventures, mystery adventures, humorous adventures. Are there any new settings or themes for adventures? Is there any subject or theme that you’ve always wanted to put in an adventure but never had the chance?

Al Lowe: I’ve had ideas for a Wall Street setting for a game, but somehow I can’t get out of this Larry rut. I’d also like to do a very serious game — something without one cheap laugh, just to see if I could. Probably couldn’t, though. A serious romance would be good too.

Roberta Williams: There should be as many settings or themes for adventure games as there are for fictionalized books and movies. After all, an adventure game is really just an interactive story with puzzles and exploration woven into it. There are many themes that I personally would like to do, and hopefully will someday: an historical or series of historical adventure games; a horror game; an archaeological game of some sort; possibly a western. In between King’s Quests, of course.

Noah Falstein: I’ve always wanted to do a time-travel game with the following features: no manual save or load, it’s built automatically into the story line as a function of your time-travel device; the opportunity to play through a sequence with yourself in a later — and then earlier — time; and the ability to go back and change your changes, ad infinitum. Of course, the reason I’m mentioning all this is that I — and others here — have fried our brains trying to figure out how this could be accomplished. We’d rather see someone else do it right. Or die trying.

Ad infinitum? Won’t that take a lot of memory?

Noah Falstein: Recursion!

Dave Lebling: Gosh, my fantasy is your fantasy! I’ve always wanted to do a game based on Fritz Leiber’s Change War stories — you know, “tomorrow we go back and nuke ancient Rome!” Funny thing is, I’ve always run up against the same problem you ran up against.

Mike Berlyn: My fantasy is to finish a game that my wife Muffy and I were working on for the — sniff! — dead Infocom. It was a reality-based game that had a main character going through multiple/parallel lives, meeting people he’d met before but who were different this time through. In that way, the relationships would be different, the plot would be different, and their lives would interact differently.

Steve Meretzky: In my fantasy, I answer the door and Goldie Hawn is standing there wearing… oh, we’re talking adventure games now, aren’t we? A lot of the genres I was going to mention have already been mentioned. But one is historical interactive nonfiction. I know that Stu Galley has always wanted to do a game in which you play Paul Revere in April of 1775. And before I die I’m going to do a Titanic game.4 Also, in my ongoing effort to offend every man, woman, and child in the universe, someday I’d like to write an Interactive Bible, which would be an irreverent comedy, of course. Also, I’d like to see a collection of “short story” adventure games for all those ideas which aren’t big enough to be a whole game.5

Bible Quest: So You Want to Be a God?. I like it, I like it.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: Ah, but someone will sue over the trademark…6

Bob Bates: The problem of course is marketing. The kinds of games we want to write aren’t always the kinds of games that will sell. This presents something of a quandary for those of us who like to eat.

This question was submitted by Tsunami, and I’ll let him ask in his own words: “Virtually every game I have played on my computer is at least partially tongue-in-cheek. What I am interested in is games with mature themes, or at least a more mature approach to their subjects. Games that, like good movies or plays, really scare a player, really make them feel a tragedy, or even make them angry. What are each of you doing to try to push games to this next level of human interaction?”

Steve Meretzky: Well, I think I already did that with A Mind Forever Voyaging, and it did worse commercially speaking than any other game I’ve ever done. As Bob just said, we have to eat. I’d much rather write a Mind Forever Voyaging than a Leather Goddesses of Phobos, but unless I become independently wealthy, or unless some rich benefactor wants to underwrite such projects, or unless the marketplace changes a lot, I don’t think I’ll be doing a game like A Mind Forever Voyaging in the near future. Sigh.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: Computers are so stupid that even the smartest game tends to do silly things. So, it’s easier to write a silly game. And the development process on a humorous game tends to be more fun. Quest for Glory II: Trial By Fire is fundamentally a very serious game in terms of story line, but we kept lots of silly stuff in to break up the tension. I call it the “roller-coaster effect.” We want the player to get extremely intense about the game at points, but then have a chance to catch his or her breath with comic relief and plain fun.

Bob Bates: My games are usually fairly “mature,” but when 90 percent of what a player tries to do in a game is wrong, you have to keep him interested when he is not solving a puzzle. The easiest way to do this is with humor; you don’t want him mad at you, after all. But I agree that we all should strive to create emotions in the player like what we all felt when Floyd died in Planetfall.

Roberta Williams: I agree with the sentiment that most adventure games, at least up to now, have been not quite “serious” in their approach to the subject matter at hand. I think the reason for that, for the most part, is that professional writers or storytellers have not had their hands in the design of a game. It’s been mostly programmers who have been behind them. I’m not a professional writer either, but I’m trying to improve myself in that area. With The Colonel’s Bequest, I did attempt a new theme, a murder mystery, and tried to make it more mature in its subject matter — more “plot” oriented. I attempted to put in classic “scare” tactics and suspense. I tried to put in different levels of emotion, from repulsion to sadness to hilarity. Whether I accomplished those goals is up to the player experiencing the game. At least I tried!

Noah Falstein: I venture to predict that we all intend to push games this way, or want to but can’t afford it — or can’t convince a publisher to afford it. But I’ll toot the Lucasfilm horn a bit; imagine the Star Wars fanfare here. One way we’re trying to incorporate real stories into games is to use real storytellers. Next year, we have a game coming out by Hal Barwood, who’s been a successful screenwriter, director, and producer for years. His most well-known movies probably are the un-credited work he did on Close Encounters and Dragonslayer, which he co-wrote and produced. He’s also programmed his own Apple II games in 6502 assembly in his spare time. I’ve already learned a great deal about pacing, tension, character, and other “basic” techniques that come naturally — or seem to — to him. I highly recommend such collaborations to you all. I think we’ve got a game with a new level of story on the way.7

Mike Berlyn: I disagree with the idea that hiring professional storytellers from other media will solve our problems for us. Creating emotions is the goal here, if I understood the question. It isn’t whether we write humor or horror, it’s how well we do it. This poses a serious problem. Interactivity is the opposite of the thing that most… well, all storytellers, regardless of medium, require to create emotion. Emotion is created by manipulation. And it is impossible to manipulate emotions when you don’t know where the player has been and you don’t know where the player is going. In linear fiction, where you know what the “player” has just experienced; you can deliberately and continuously set them up. This is the essence of drama, humor, horror, etc. Doing this in games requires a whole different approach. Utilizing an experienced linear writer only tends to make games less game-ish, less interactive, and more linear. In a linear game like Loom, you’re not providing an interactive story or an adventure game. All you’re doing is making the player work to see a movie.

Dave Lebling: Well, emotion also comes from identification with the character in the story. You can’t easily identify in a serious way with a character who looks like a 16 X 16-pixel sprite.8 If he or she is silly-looking, he or she isn’t much more silly-looking than if he’s serious-looking: for example, Larry Laffer versus Indy in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. So, you are at a disadvantage being serious in graphical games. Better graphics will improve that eventually. But even so, I think Bob hit the point perfectly: the player does a lot of silly things, even if there is no parser — running into rocks in the graphic games, for example — and you can’t stay serious. The other thing is that, in my experience, serious games don’t sell. Infocom’s more serious games sold poorly. Few others have tried, and most of those have sold poorly too.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: A really good game — or story — elicits emotions rather than creating them. A good design opens up the player’s imagination instead of forcing them along a path. A frustrated player is too busy being angry at the computer to experience the wonder and mystery of his or her character and the game’s world. By having fair puzzles and “open” stories, we allow players to emote and imagine.

Okay, now we turn from software to hardware. One of the most striking developments over the last few years has been the growing use of MS-DOS machines for game development. This has led some Amiga and Mac owners to complain that there aren’t any good adventures out for their machines, or that the games that are out for those platforms don’t make good use of their full graphics and sound capabilities. How can this problem be solved?

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: Well, I just about went broke trying to develop Atari ST software a few years ago. This was what made it possible to pull up roots and come to Sierra to do games. But I think the real value of all the alternative platforms has been to force IBM and the clone-makers to play catch-up. Myself, I’m waiting for ubiquitous CD-ROM and telecom. I’d really like to be doing multiplayer games in a few years. In the meantime, the cold hard reality is that IBM clones is where the money is — and money is a good thing.

Roberta Williams: Ha! We at Sierra, probably the most guilty of developing our games on MS-DOS machines, are trying to rectify that problem. This past year, we have put teams of programmers on the more important non-MS-DOS platforms to implement our new game-development system in the best way possible for those machines. Emphasis is on the unique capabilities of each machine, and to truly be of high quality on each of them. Our new Amiga games have been shipping for several months now, and have been favorably received — and our Mac games are nearly ready.

Dave Lebling: Get an installed base of 10 million Macs or Amigas and you’ll see plenty of games for them. Probably even fewer are needed, since programmers have the hots for those platforms. But in reality what you need is companies like Sierra that can leverage their development system to move to different platforms. As Windows and 386-based machines become the IBM standard, the differences among the platforms become less significant, and using an object-oriented development system lets you port relatively easily, just like in the old days. Graphics will still be a problem, as the transforms from one machine to another will still be a pain.

Al Lowe: Money talks. When Mac games outsell MS-DOS games, you’ll see Mac-designed games ported to PCs. When Amiga games are hot, etc. In other words, as long as MS-DOS sales are 80 percent or more of the market, who can afford to do otherwise?

Mike Berlyn: I think we all want our games on as many systems as possible, but in reality the publishers are the ones who make the decisions.

When you design a game, do you decide how hard it’s going to be first, or does the difficulty level just evolve?

Ron Gilbert: I know that I have a general idea of how hard I want the game to be. Almost every game I have done has ended up being a little longer and harder than I would have liked.

Noah Falstein: I agree. I’ve often put in puzzles that I thought were easy, only to find in play-testing that the public disagreed. But since Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade I firmly believe that one good way to go is to put in multiple solutions to any puzzles that are showstoppers, and to make the remaining ones pretty easy. I think that’s the best for the players.

Dave Lebling: I think alternate solution are a red herring because you can’t make them radically different in difficulty or the easier one will always be found first.

Noah Falstein: But if you provide incentives to replay the game, you can make both beginners happy, who will find the easy alternative, and experienced gamers happy, who will want to find every solution…

Dave Lebling: Yes, but what percentage of people replay any game? What percentage even finish?

Steve Meretzky: Games that are intended for beginners — e.g., Wishbringer — are designed to be really easy, and games intended for veterans — e.g., Spellbreaker — are designed to be ball-busters. But since of course you end up getting both types for any game, my own theory is to start out with easy puzzles, have some medium-tough puzzles in the mid-game, and then wrap it up with the real whoppers. (Don’t ask me what the Babel-fish puzzle was doing right near the beginning of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.)

Roberta Williams: Usually the decision of how difficult the game is going to be is made about the time that the design actually begins. And that decision is based on who the main player of the game is going to be. In other words, if it’s an adventure game for children, then obviously the game will be easier. If it’s for families, the game will be harder than for children, but easier than a game strictly for adults. If it’s a game with adults in mind, then the difficulty level lies with the designer as he or she weaves the various puzzles into the plot of the story. I think even then, though, the decision of how difficult it’s going to be is made around the start of the design. Speaking personally, I usually have a good sense of which puzzles are going to be more difficult and which ones are easier to solve. There have been a few times when I miscalculated a puzzle. For instance, in King’s Quest II I thought the bridle-and-snake puzzle was fairly straightforward, but no, it wasn’t. And in The Colonel’s Bequest I didn’t think that discovering the secret passage in the house would be as difficult for some people as it turned out to be.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: We try to keep the puzzles on the easy side in the sense of being fair; hints are somewhere in the game. But sometimes the best-laid plans of designers and developers go out the window when programming push-time comes, to mix several metaphors. But we definitely plan difficulty level in advance. The Quest for Glory series was intended to be somewhat on the easy side as adventure games go because we were introducing the concept of role-playing at the same time.

Dave Lebling: I think it’s relatively easy to make a game really hard or really easy. What’s tough is the middle-ground game. They tend to slop over to one extreme or the other, sometimes both in different puzzles, and you get a mishmash.

Mike Berlyn: I tend to design games that have various levels of difficulty within themselves, and so can appeal to a broad range of players. Like Steve, I like to open with an easy one and then mix up the middle game, saving the toughest stuff for the endgame.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: We made a real effort to graduate the puzzles in Quest for Glory I, easier ones in the early phases.

Al Lowe: Does anyone else feel we should lighten up on our difficulty level so as to attract a broader audience and broaden our base of players?

Mike Berlyn: Making games easier isn’t going to attract more players. What will is designing and implementing them better.

Roberta Williams: Perhaps a parser-less interface would help. But I still think that each game should be thought out in advance as to who the target audience is, and then go from there on difficulty level.

Bob Bates: I agree that what is needed is not easier puzzles. I think that players want tough but fair puzzles. Where’s the rush that comes from solving an easy puzzle? What will keep them coming back for more?

Dave Lebling: One person’s easy puzzle is another’s never-solved brain-buster. There need to be a range of games and a range of puzzles in each game. Even Wishbringer, Infocom’s “easiest” game, had huge numbers of people stuck on the “easiest” puzzles.

Adventure designs have recently been criticized for becoming shorter and/or easier. Do you agree with this criticism, and, if so, how do you change a design to make a product longer and/or harder? And are harder games commercially viable?

Dave Lebling: Games are already too easy and not easy enough, and other paradoxes. Meaning that the intentional puzzles are getting too easy, and the unintentional ones — caused by size limitations, laziness, lousy parsers, bugs, etc. — are still too hard. Harder games are commercially viable, but only if the unintentional difficulty is reduced. We aren’t real good at that yet.

Roberta Williams: It may be true, to a certain extent, that adventure games have become shorter and/or easier than in the past. Four to ten years ago, adventure games were primarily text-oriented, and, as such, could be more extensive in scope, size, and complexity. Since the introduction of graphics, animation, and sound — and, coming up, speech — it is much more difficult, if not impossible, to achieve the same sort of scope that the earlier adventure games were able to accomplish. The reason for this is mainly limitations of memory, disk space, time, and cost. We adventure-game developers increasingly have to worry about cramming in beautiful graphics, realistic animation, wonderful sound, and absorbing plots, along with as many places to explore as possible, alternate paths or choices, and interesting puzzles. There is just so much space to put all that in. Something has to give. Even CD technology will not totally solve that problem. Though there is a very large disk capacity with CD, there is still a relatively small memory capacity. Also, the way the adventure-game program needs to be arranged on the CD creates problems. And as usual, with the new CD capabilities, we adventure-game developers are sure to create the most beautiful graphics you’ve ever seen, the most beautiful music you’ve ever heard, etc., etc. And that uses up disk space, even on CD.

Mike Berlyn: Shorter? Yeah, I suppose some of the newer games, whose names will remain untyped, are easier, shorter, etc. But unfortunately, they aren’t cheaper to make. I hate to tell you how much Altered Destiny is going to cost before it’s done. Accolade and myself have over ten man-years in this puppy, and a cast of many is creating it. When I created Oo-Topos or Cyborg or even Suspended, the time and money for development were a fraction of what this baby will cost. In addition, games like King’s Quest IV are larger, give more bang for the buck, and outshine many of the older games.

Steve Meretzky: A few years ago, I totally agreed with the statement that adventure games were getting too short and easy. Then I did Zork Zero, which was massive and ultimately quite hard. A good percentage of the feedback distilled down to “Too big!” It just took too long to play, and it was too hard to keep straight everything you had to do to win the game. Plus, of course, it was a major, major effort to design and implement and debug such a huge game. So, I’ve now come to the conclusion that a nice, average, 50-to-100-room, 20-to-30-hours-of-play-time, medium-level-of-difficulty game is just about right.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: There is plenty of room left for easier games, especially since most “hard” games are hard only because they are full of unfair outguess-the-designer — or programmer or parser — puzzles. Nobody wants to play a game and feel lost and frustrated. Most of us get enough of that in our daily lives! We want smaller, richer games rather than large, empty ones, and we want to see puzzles that further the story rather than ones that are just thrown in to make the game “hard.”

Al Lowe: I’ve been trying for years to make ’em longer and harder!

Groan…

Al Lowe: But seriously, I have mixed emotions. I work hard on these things, and I hate to think that most people will never see the last half of them because they give up in defeat. On the other hand, gamers want meaty puzzles, and you don’t want to disappoint your proven audience. I think many games will become easier and easier, if only to attract more people to the medium. Of course, hard games will always be needed too, to satisfy the hardcore addicts. Geez, what a cop-out answer!

Bob Bates: You have to give the player his money’s worth, and if you can just waltz through a game, then all you have is an exercise in typing or clicking. The problem is that the definition of who the player is is changing. In trying to reach a mass market, some companies are getting away from our puzzle roots. The quandary here is that this works. The big bucks are in the mass market, and those people don’t want tough puzzles. The designers who stay behind and cater to the puzzle market may well be painting themselves into a niche.

Noah Falstein: Al and Bob have eloquently given the lead-in I was intending. But I’d like to go farther and say that we’re all painting ourselves into a corner if we keep catering to the 500,000 or so people that are regular players — and, more importantly, buyers — of adventure games. It’s like the saber-toothed tiger growing over-specialized. There are over 15 million IBM PC owners out there, and most of them have already given up on us because the games are too… geeky. Sorry, folks! Without mentioning that game that’s looming over this discussion, we’ve found that by making a very easy game, we’ve gotten more vehement, angry letters than ever before — as well as more raves from people who never played or enjoyed such games before. It seems to be financially worthwhile even now, and if more of us cater to this novice crowd, with better stories instead of harder puzzles, there will be a snowball effect. I think this is worth working towards, and I hope some of you will put part of your efforts into this. There’s always still some room for the “standard-audience” games. Interestingly enough, 60 to 100 rooms and 20 to 30 hours is precisely the niche we arrived at too! But let’s put out at least one more accessible game each year.

Dave Lebling: Most of the points I wanted to make have been made, and made well, but I’d like to add one more. What about those 20 million or more Nintendo owners out there? What kinds of games will hook them, if any? Have they written us off? I don’t think our fraction of the IBM market is quite as small as Noah’s figures make it look. Many of those IBM machines are not usable for games by policy, as they are in corporate settings. But all of the Nintendos are in home settings. Sure, they don’t have keyboards, but if there was a demand for our sort of game — a “puzzle” game, for want of a better word — there would be a keyboard-like interface or attachment, like the silly gun or the power glove. There isn’t. Why? Are we too geeky? Are puzzles and even the modicum of text that is left too much? We will have the opportunity to find out when the new game systems with keyboards start appearing in the US.

What do you all think about the idea of labeling difficulty levels and/or estimated playing time on the box, like Infocom used to do at one time?

Steve Meretzky: That was a pretty big failure. As was said earlier about puzzles, one person’s easy is another person’s hard.

Al Lowe: Heh, heh…

Steve Meretzky: For example, I found Suspended to be pretty easy, having a mind nearly as warped as Berlyn’s, but many people consider it one of Infocom’s hardest.

Bob Bates: The other Infocommies here can probably be more accurate, but my recollection is that labeling a game “advanced” scared off people, and labeling a game “easy” or “beginner” turned off lots of people too. So most of the games wound up being released as “standard,” until they dropped the scheme altogether. Still, I think some sort of indication on a very easy game, like the ones Noah was talking about, is in order. The customer has a right to know what he is purchasing.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: But Loom was rated as an easy game, and people who were stumped on a puzzle felt like this meant they were dumb or something.

Mike Berlyn: Good point! I’m not sure that labeling a product as being easy, medium, or difficult is a real solution. I know some games which were labeled “beginner” level were too tough for me. What we as designers need to do is write better, fairer, more rounded games that don’t stop players from exploring, that don’t close off avenues. It isn’t easy, but it’s sure my goal, and I like to think that others share this goal.

Okay, this is the last question. What is your favorite adventure game and why?

Noah Falstein: This will sound like an ad, but our audience constitutes a mass market. Ron Gilbert’s next game, The Secret of Monkey Island, is the funniest and most enjoyable adventure game I’ve ever played, including the others our company has done. I’ve laughed out loud reading and rereading the best scenes.

Steve Meretzky: Based simply on the games I’ve had the most fun playing, it’s a tie between Starcross — the first ever adventure game in my genre of choice, science fiction — and the vastly ignored and underrated Nord and Bert Couldn’t Make Head or Tail of It.

Roberta Williams: I hate to say it, but I don’t play many adventure games, including our own! I really love adventure games, though. It was this love of adventure gaming that brought me into this business. However, nowadays I’m so busy, what with working on games of my own, helping my husband run the company, taking care of the kids and the house, and doing other extracurricular activities, that I literally don’t have time to play adventure games — and we all know how much time it does take to play them! Of the adventure games that I’ve played and/or seen, I like the games that Lucasfilm produces; I have a lot of respect for them. And I also enjoy the Space Quest and Leisure Suit Larry series that my company, Sierra, produces. Of my own games, I always seem to favor the game I’m currently working on since I’m most attached to it at that given moment. Right now, that would be King’s Quest V. But aside from that, I am particularly proud of The Colonel’s Bequest since it was a departure for me, and very interesting and complicated to do. I am also proud of Mixed-Up Mother Goose, especially the new version coming out. And looking way back, I still have fond memories of Time Zone, for any of you who may remember that one.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole: Of adventure games, we liked the original mainframe Zork and Space Quest III. But our favorite games are Dungeon Master and Rogue, the only games we keep going back to replay. As for our favorite of all two games we’ve done, we’re particularly proud of what we are doing with Quest for Glory II: Trial By Fire. We’re also proud of the first game, but we think Trial by Fire is going to be really great. Okay, end of commercial, at least as soon as I say, “Buy our game!” But seriously, we’re pleased with what we’ve done with the design.

Bob Bates: “You are standing outside a white house. There is a mailbox here.”

Mike Berlyn: This is my least favorite question in the world. (Well, okay, I could think up some I’d like less.) But it’s a toss-up between A Mind Forever Voyaging, Starcross, and the soon-to-be-forgotten masterpiece, Scott Adams’s Pirate Adventure. Yoho.

Dave Lebling: Hitchhiker’s Guide and Trinity. Both well thought-out, with great themes. But beyond those, the original Adventure. I just played it a little bit last night, and I still get a thrill from it. We owe a lot to Will Crowther and Don Woods, and I think that’s an appropriate sentiment to close with.


  1. One of my favorite things about this transcript is the way that Steve Meretzky and Al Lowe keep making these stupid jokes, and everybody just keeps ignoring them. I fancy I can almost hear the sighs… 

  2. It’s worth noting that the trend the Coles describe as “unfortunate” was exactly the direction in which Sierra, their employer, was moving in very aggressive fashion. The Coles thus found themselves blowing against the political winds in designing their games their way. Perhaps not coincidentally, they were also designing the best games coming out of Sierra during this period. 

  3. This was not what many participating in the conference probably wanted to hear, but it wins the prize of being the most prescient single statement of the evening. Note that Lebling not only predicted the complete commercial demise of text adventures, but he also predicted that they would survive as a hobbyist endeavor; the emphasis on the word “commercial” is original. 

  4. Steve Meretzky’s perennial Titanic proposal, which he pitched to every publisher he ever worked with, became something of an industry in-joke. There’s just no market for such a game, insisted each of the various publishers. When James Cameron’s 1997 film Titanic became the first ever to top $1 billion at the box office, and a modest little should-have-been-an-obscurity from another design team called Titanic: Adventure Out of Time rode those coattails to sales of 1 million copies, the accusations flew thick and fast from Meretzky’s quarter. But to no avail; he still hasn’t gotten to make his Titanic game. On the other hand, he’s nowhere near death, so there’s still time to fulfill his promise… 

  5. Meretzky had pitched both of these ideas as well to Infocom without success. In the longer term, however, he would get one of his wishes, at least after a fashion. “Short stories” have become the norm in modern interactive fiction, thanks largely to the Interactive Fiction Competition and its guideline that it should be possible to play an entrant to completion within two hours. 

  6. Legal threats from the makers of the board game HeroQuest had recently forced the Coles to change the name of their burgeoning series of adventure/CRPG hybrids from the perfect Hero’s Quest to the rather less perfect Quest for Glory. Obviously the fresh wound still smarted. 

  7. After some delays, the game Falstein is talking about here would be released in 1992 as Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis. It would prove to be a very good adventure game, if not quite the medium-changer Falstein describes. 

  8. It’s interesting to see Lebling still using the rhetoric from Infocom’s iconic early advertising campaigns

February 15, 2018

Emily Short

Mid-February Link Assortment

by Emily Short at February 15, 2018 03:40 PM

February 17, the London IF Meetup is doing a Saturday afternoon workshop on using ink and Unity together. This is one of the best methods for creating professional-looking standalone IF applications, and we’ll help you get started with the tools you need.

February 21 is the next meetup of the People’s Republic of IF, in Cambridge MA.

March 1 is the deadline to register if you intend to enter Spring Thing 2018; April 1 is the date to actually submit the games themselves. Spring Thing is the second largest annual IF competition, and runs on slightly different terms than IF Comp in the fall. Among other things, there is usually an option to submit experimental, unfinished, or unusual works in the “Back Garden,” meaning that they are distributed but not ranked or given prizes. It’s a great way to get involved without the actual competition part, which isn’t ideal for all authors or all works.

March 3 is the next meetup of the SF Bay IF Meetup group.

March 4, Dublin Interactive Fiction Writing Meetup convenes for an introductory lunch.

March 5, there is a reading of procedural literature at the Harvard Book Store (Cambridge, MA) with Nick Montfort, John Cayley, Liza Daly, and Allison Parrish, at 7pm.

March 7, Oxford/London IF Meetup hears from Greg Buchanan on writing for games from IF and indie to AAA projects.

The Opening Up Digital Fiction competition runs through March 15, 2018. (Previously announced as February.) It offers cash prizes and the possibility of future publication.

March 17, Queer Code London holds a workshop on graphical uses of Twine (co-sponsored by the Oxford/London IF Meetup).

March 20, Sunderland Creative Writing Festival offers a workshop on writing choose your own ending stories (looks like it’s focused on craft and choice design, and might be non-digital).

I will be at GDC March 19-23, speaking at the AI Summit and present at the Spirit AI expo floor booth.

Through March 21, the MIT Rotch Library (77 Mass Ave, 2nd Floor) is running an exhibit about computer-generated books called Author Function.

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Articles

Anya Johanna DeNiro wrote about my ancient game Pytho’s Mask for sub-q magazine.

Bruno Dias writes about controlling scope in your game.

Joey Jones has a manifesto on puzzle design and incorporating puzzles effectively into narrative.

Releases

amulet.jpgMike Gentry’s 1998 classic Anchorhead is now available in an updated, illustrated version on Steam and Itch, with some new puzzles. Bruno Dias writes about the release for PC Gamer. Mike is even doing a new batch of feelies for the game, including the nifty pewter charm (shown), and a map of the town. A word of warning about this: apparently the contents of the game have changed just enough that walkthroughs for the original version may be unhelpful. But if you want to get hints, you may be able to find help from the good people on the intfiction forum.

God of War: A Call from the Wild is a Facebook Messenger IF piece designed as a tie-in for the next game in the God of War series.

Screen Shot 2018-02-10 at 11.05.39 PM.png

A Case of Distrust is a 1920s mystery game, available on Steam. It’s mostly text in an inkle-ish style (I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s using ink behind the scenes), combined with an evidence inventory (where you can gather information to ask NPCs about later) and silhouette-rich location images. I haven’t finished yet, but the design is elegant, and the ability to show any of your evidence to any character gives it a richness that at times feels more parser-like than choice-like. (And at least in some cases, there are interesting easter eggs and hints about personality when you show someone evidence that doesn’t advance the case but does have personal relevance to them.)

Crowdfunding

goodsociety.pngGood Society is an Austen-themed tabletop RPG currently in fundraising. (The Kickstarter includes a “hardship” reward level that makes the game available at a reduced price for people with less spare money to contribute.)

(Previous Regency and Austen games have been covered on this blog here. And I’ve written about Austen’s influence on Versu as well.)

Murder in the Mail is an object-based mystery where physical items are mailed to your house. There are a number of writers involved in the project, and the whole is curated by the prolific Felicity Banks.

Other Stuff

Over here is a procedural fantasy map generator, and a blog that explains from the ground up how it is being developed. I like the world forms more than I like the location naming, personally. (Though for procedurally generated languages, see Vulgar, which continues to evolve since the last time I linked it here.)

February 13, 2018

Far Far Futures

Embedded Puzzle Manifesto

by Joey Jones at February 13, 2018 03:41 PM

Here follows some statements on puzzle design. I was prompted to write this by the ongoing manifesto jam. I recommend …

Continue reading

sub-Q Magazine

Making Interactive Fiction: Scope

by Bruno Dias at February 13, 2018 02:41 PM

Hi. Welcome to the first of these. Sub-Q magazine has made the frightful editorial decision to give me a monthly column. This posed a problem.

The mandate for writing this column – 600 words about any subject I like, related to IF – is too broad. I had to pare it down, come up with a more focused mission statement of sorts.

Fortunately, this is a problem I see a lot. Let’s talk about cutting scope, about the practice of finding things that were planned to be in your game and taking them out.

Most games and most pieces of fiction eventually find a point where scope has to be cut. The ambitions set out at the start of the project turn out to be unfeasible in practice. Or ideas that have been hanging around since the beginning turn out to be dead weight and have to be shoved out an airlock.

Sometimes it’s a matter of resources, of only having so much space, time, money, patience. That’s always difficult, because it’s externally imposed; we can imagine the world where we halt everything and spend the rest of our lives working on this one thing, and we can maybe just barely see the edge of what the final product of that looks like. Of course, we don’t live in that world.

Sometimes it’s a matter of focus, of trying to cohere disparate ideas together.  Of making sure you’re producing something that can be taken in as a unit, and not as a collection of stuff. Most murals don’t need to wrap around the building they’re painted on. This is hard in a different way, because often the hardest thing to see is the valuable core of something. We arrive at it obliquely too often, still carrying a lingering attachment to an original idea that might not be what matters. A lot of novels start as plot-driven and end up character-driven. In the process of making something, we clarify what that thing needs to be.

So: When cutting scope, one focuses on what’s important, on what’s unique about a project. What’s unique about this column is that it’s an open-ended column about IF, in the very particular space that is Sub-Q. So, writing reviews, impressions pieces, that’s out; I can do that elsewhere. I’m also not going to use this for broad Takes about video games. What can I write here that I can’t get published anywhere else?

Craft advice about writing interactive fiction; more theoretical discussion of issues in that field. Something that exercises my thinking as a working writer, rather than my thinking as a critic.

There are always going to be casualties. 6000-word essay about why Super Mario RPG is the most important game on the SNES catalogue: Gone. Long digression about the colonialist overtones of the Knack franchise: Deleted. In-depth review of Ad Verbum 17 years after its release: Not to be seen in this space.

Instead: How do you create a sense of place in IF? How do you deploy randomness? How did the parser canon of the 1990s influence Twine games in the 2010s? We clear space for things that couldn’t exist anywhere else.

Opening up that space is the trite argument for parsimony. There’s a longer-view point to it, a more significant reason for cutting back: By narrowing down what you set out to make, you might actually manage to finish things.

And whatever you want to accomplish as a writer, finishing something will get you far closer to it than poring over a seventeenth draft will.

The post Making Interactive Fiction: Scope appeared first on sub-Q Magazine.

Emily Short

Mailbag: IF Candidates for Porting

by Emily Short at February 13, 2018 01:40 PM

What IF story would be best for someone with limited time and resources to re-create as a 3D and even VR game? It would have to be under some license such as a Creative Commons license, where derivatives are allowed and preferably a license that allows commercial derivatives.

Before I answer this, I feel I’d be doing a disservice if I didn’t ask why you want to attempt this, and whether you’re sure you’ve thought it through.

Text adventures are good at evocative sense of place (and other events) on a budget; at allowing a huge palette of verbs; at geographical exploration and large game spaces; at (if desired) long play times, sometimes extending over months; at capturing a character’s interiority and viewpoint; at creating a very complicated world state that can offer persistent consequences for the player.

VR is good at intense, 10-20 minute experiences. VR works tend towards limited and simple controls, and require intense asset work for every setting. On many (especially budget) VR systems, they induce the least nausea if the protagonist doesn’t move around that much. Meanwhile, IF levels of world state in VR are a pain, because either that state isn’t visible (in which case, how does the player know?) or it is (in which case, you have to make variations on your assets in order to represent those state changes). Cut scenes and branching narrative outcomes, also cheap(ish) in text, may be very expensive in VR in that they may require animations or additional assets.

Not only that, but any game with a complex parser-based experience is going to be untenable: no one wants to type in VR; you could hook up voice-recognition but it’s likely to multiply the parser errors that are already irritating on the screen ordinarily. There are lots of great one-room IF games, from Rematch to Aisle, that rely heavily on the inventiveness of the player’s input. These would also be a poor match for VR in most instances.

Some similar things are true of 3D games in general, though less so. In a text adventure, you can write a randomized “[The character] is [one of]whistling a jaunty tune[or]staring out the window[or]playing solitaire[at random]” sentence, and you’ve just accomplished something that would take days of idle animation work in 3D.

So that raises the question of what you’re hoping to get by adapting a text game to a very much non-text medium, and whether it wouldn’t make more sense to come up with a new story suited to the affordances of your target medium. The best piece of advice I can offer here is just “don’t do this.” VR is really, really very much its own beast and even 3D console gameplay doesn’t always map at all well to that space.

But, okay. Let’s say that for some reason you don’t want to take the easier route and write a story customized to the storytelling possibilities of VR. What would be the least-awful IF game to port to VR, given minimal development resources?

I’d look for:

  • one room games. There’s a whole genre of these, and having unity of setting will cut your expenses and possibility of player movement issues
  • that rely heavily on examine or a very restricted set of other verbs. Reducing the space of possible interactions will make the game more compatible with a VR user interface; plugging a game that relies on EXAMINE into VR will mean you can use the headset’s gaze-tracking to select items to interact with. Alternatively, you could use voice recognition to drive commands, but we’re going for maximum simplicity here
  • with minimal state. This gets rid of a huge number of one-room puzzle games, because the whole point is to make an intricate puzzle box
  • without other characters present in the room. This isn’t because of VR per se, but characters add a lot of scope to any project. Doing a good job of NPCs is already hard in IF, and then in VR you are likely to want animation, voiceover, lip-syncing, etc. Doable for a professional studio (and in fact a very interesting direction for pro-level VR work) but a challenge for a hobby project working from free IP

I can think of a few games that do come close. Dinner Bell is a surreal single-room piece which leans heavily on searching for things — but most of the fun lies in the writing, which would be lost in translation. Dual Transform is a notionally single-room game with objects that turn into each other — and it’s about virtuality, which is kind of meta. Lime Ergot relies on EXAMINE almost entirely to shift the player’s focus to new things, which sounds promising, except I fear that the telescoping perspective would be nauseating in VR.

Fire Tower is not single-room at all but does rely a lot on setting and examination, and it would make a beautiful environment, if challenging to model.

Exhibition and Ribbons both focus on exploring a space full of items from the perspective of multiple participants, something that might be done with gaze-tracking, voiceover, and a way to swap which perspective you’re currently taking.

Grandma Bethlinda’s Variety Box is single-room, almost single-object, and has the player USE lots of different parts of the titular item, so the verb structure is simple. This is probably non-jokingly the most achievable item on this list, if you were able to persuade the author and if you have the modeling chops to do a good job of the box’s more esoteric behavior. If you were using room-scale VR, you could let the player walk around the box to find new interaction targets; otherwise, perhaps allow the player some way of rotating the box while seated.

But none of those meets your licensing requirements, and I suspect many of the relevant authors would not be keen to part with their IP, especially if the idea was for someone else to profit off their free work. That doesn’t mean it’s totally impossible that you could find an author willing to team up with you, but you’d probably want to approach it cautiously and demonstrate your skill and commitment to the project.

Meanwhile, here’s what I know of that is already licensed to allow ports:

  • Sierra’s Mystery House is officially in the public domain, but it has both NPCs and a bunch of rooms, together with a somewhat old-school puzzle design
  • Many people have reworked Colossal Cave/Adventure in different ways over the years, but again you’re looking at massive geographical scope here
  • My game Bronze has a pretty open-ended CC-BY license that does modification and redistribution as long as the responsible parties are mentioned (and in fact I know there was someone who started on a visual novel project version, though I haven’t heard that it got very far). However, Bronze contains dozens of rooms, an (admittedly not very interactive) NPC, and a whole bunch of flashbacks, as well as object manipulation puzzles including wearing items and carefully placing objects
  • IFDB also lists a small number of games with some form of CC license, though it looks like most of these are No Derivatives or else Share Alike: the former would forbid porting entirely and the latter might interfere with the commercial intent expressed earlier
  • IFDB lists a number of other works as public domain, though it doesn’t always document where that license is announced, so I’d be inclined to verify the status of anything you chose before getting started

Looking through the public domain list for possibilities that I know conform even slightly to the earlier list of requirements, I see

  • Cook-Off! by S. Miracle, a one-room casual cooking game where you put ingredients together to make new foods

…and that’s pretty much it, though I confess I haven’t played many of these, and it’s possible Charlie the Spiffy’s Quest for the Magic Muffin series holds the answer.

So, realistically, my advice is, in this order:

  • Do not adapt a text adventure for VR. Create a new VR concept. Consider what it is you like about text adventures and figure out how to capture that aspect in a way that is VR-suitable
  • If you can’t create a concept and you want a bit of IF-like-ness, find a collaborator from the IF community who is willing to write a new concept for VR
  • If you really must adapt an existing text thing, pick a good single-room candidate and figure out a way to pitch this idea to the author that will be convincing and not irritating; you may want to get to know some IF authors first socially and feel out the options, and be prepared for a lot of no, because many authors will not wish to allow this — that’s especially true for games with a strong existing fanbase
  • If you want to adapt an existing text thing and you don’t want to have to network/develop credibility with authors first, poke through the public domain stuff and hope you find something that’s a decent fit that I missed, or go for an entry in the Surreal Cooking genre
  • If none of that suits — and I’m sorry I’m suggesting this, but thoroughness compels me — adapt A Day for Fresh Sushi. (Full source is in the Inform manual, and I believe I have said somewhere that Inform examples are can be freely reused, which puts this somewhere in the CC/public domain area; so I probably no longer have the right to stop you.)

    To be clear, this means making a game about looking for objects in a studio apartment while a sarcastic talking fish comments on everything you do, and it would be based on a speed-IF I wrote in 2 hours in 2001. There is an NPC, but an NPC you don’t talk to directly and which, since it is a goldfish, will not be held to the usual expectations for animation and lip-sync.

    You could have the fish respond to the things the player selects with gaze tracking. Please note that this is not a good idea.

  • If you do that, the voiceover performance of the fish is crucial.

A final resource: here are devlog materials from Orange River Studios, who (with permission) attempted to convert the classic Vespers. The last update was in 2014, so I suspect this project may have been suspended. It certainly looks as though it was a substantial amount of work.

February 12, 2018

Emily Short

Instead of Power

by Emily Short at February 12, 2018 12:40 AM

CarrieThis is part review, part essay. There are light spoilers for Naomi Alderman’s The Power and N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth series, and major spoilers for The Last Jedi.

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I wrote previously about my hopes for The Last Jedi: that I wanted to see a movie about Leia as an older female leader, a woman of command. I felt the need for that movie badly. I wasn’t at all sure I was going to get it.

So I went to the cinema in a spirit of apprehension and hope.

I came out of the first viewing aware that I’d just seen my favorite Star Wars movie — and that I was probably going to be in the minority.

The Last Jedi gives us the Leia I was hoping to see: a leader of judgment and experience, someone who gives orders but also mentors, inspires, and comforts. Someone whose response to failure is not to force-choke the culprit and move on.

It is a movie with multiple women in command, who handle their positions in different but related ways; a movie that calls out the damage caused by self-centered “heroism” when that heroism isn’t well judged; a movie that honors experience, consideration, and patience. A movie in which doing something amazing once doesn’t armor you forever against doing a bad thing in the future. A movie that engages seriously with how we even regard our celebrities and role models and legends, and how we react to their flaws.

It is a movie about many kinds of relationship — sibling relationships, men and women as colleagues and coworkers, mentors and followers — and a model of friendship that is more personal than “I’ll have your back in a blaster fight.” In the original trilogy, Han smirks his way through most of his feelings, and Luke whines a good bit, but the grief they should all be feeling, especially Leia’s grief about Alderaan, is scarcely even acknowledged. (The Force Awakens echoes this by showing almost no trauma in the wake of the Republic’s destruction.) The Leia/Han romance uses a 1940s playbook where women are not supposed to have sexual agency and Han’s behavior at certain points would now read as straight-up harassment.

In The Force Awakens between Rey and Finn, and now much more in The Last Jedi, we see relationships where friends hold each other accountable, where people share their pain and confront their moral failings together. In our most overt romantic moment, a woman is allowed to make the first move and put a name on her feelings.

So I loved all that on the first viewing. But I thought that the reasons I responded so much to The Last Jedi might be personal and difficult to transfer, especially to people who have never lacked for role models like themselves in positions of power — though others have written about some of the same things I saw.

At the same time, I saw many weird structural defects in TLJ, too many bathetic moments, too many toy-selling inserts. I was annoyed with the porgs, the crystal foxes, the robotic ironing service, BB-8’s “adorable” shenanigans, BB-8’s cutesy evil-droid counterpart. The casino scene felt like an over-obvious shot at current politics, and tonally off: there was no point to having our heroes cross over into the James Bond universe. Leia’s force-flying looked ridiculous to me, at a moment when you want to provoke the opposite of ridicule.

I could have done without several of the action sequences, especially the bit where the red guards break out a bunch of previously unseen weapons to fight Rey and Kylo, which was narratively unnecessary and felt like it was there to support a level of the eventual video game. I would rather have cut straight from the moment where they’re back-to-back to one where Rey and Kylo are standing in a room full of obliterated enemies.

And then… well. I have the impression Mark Hamill is a terrific human being, but I didn’t connect with his acting as much as most of the others on the screen. I couldn’t work out why Luke said he’d teach Rey three lessons and then seemingly taught her only two (but also never explicitly signposted “your third lesson is canceled”). Immediately after viewing, I wrote a friend “Too many scenes on the island don’t have a clear point”; I’ve since read that there was meant to be a third lesson but that it was cut. And I didn’t like how Luke responds to being shown Leia’s old message with (slightly paraphrased) “that was cheap” — it felt like a punchline where we could instead have had dialogue that reflected where his relationship with Leia has gone since.

I went to see TLJ a second time in an attempt to figure out whether it was a worse movie than I thought, and whether I’d half projected what I wanted to see onto the screen.

It’s not a worse movie than I thought. It’s a better one, and what it has to say runs deeper.

There’s so much happening that it can seem unfocused on a first viewing, but the structure is there; it’s just complicated. The second time I watched, I was on guard for things that perhaps should be pulled out. There was, yes, still the stupid humor, and still the unnecessary merchandising set-up, and that could and should have been removed. But it bothered me much less because the rest of the movie shone through more.

Meanwhile, I saw structure I missed the first time: the dawn/sunset/midnight sequence of Rey’s three lessons (and she does receive three, even if Luke doesn’t really orchestrate the last). The way that both Luke and Snoke are training Rey during this sequence. The way Leia and Rey’s binary beacon is links from scene to scene in the story.

And what it has to say goes beyond “your heroes can fail you” or “here is how to be an older woman in a position of power.” It’s a story that suggests we change how we think about personal power and how we pursue it at all.

*

I watched The Last Jedi with the mental background of two science fiction/fantasy pieces that engage with systemic injustice: Naomi Alderman’s The Power and NK Jemisin’s Broken Earth series.

The+PowerThe Power imagines a world where women suddenly develop the ability to electrocute people at will — not far off from Force lightning, in fact. The result is a fast and brutal comeuppance for many male rapists, harassers, and abusers… and a transition to a world in which women are just as abusive, just as entitled, just as prone to demanding or coercing sexual favors, just as condescending to their male colleagues as any man ever was to a woman. The Power to defend becomes the power to coerce, to compel, to kill, to ignore consent; to override the will of another person, or of whole groups of other people; to see pain and experience it as tribute, or even as desirable:

I got on to a subway train in London, and I saw a poster for a movie, which was a poster of a beautiful woman crying. Something just broke inside me because I was going through this horrific break up, waking up every morning crying, and then going to get on with my day. It felt like that was the culture that I live in going, “Hey, that crying that you’re doing right now, carry on with that, that’s sexy, that’s great. We love it when women cry. We love it when women suffer. Do more of that. Hey, it’s really attractive.” I just started thinking furiously on this Tube train about what I would have to do, or what would have to change in the world for me to be sitting opposite a poster of a really beautiful, attractive man crying. — Naomi Alderman Q&A with Swapna Krishna

It isn’t (the book suggests) simply gender or even toxic masculinity per se that’s the problem, it’s the fact that the systemic tilt exists in the first place. When there is a differential, people will use it — and use it sadistically. It’s not really what you’d call an upper about human nature.

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fifthseason

N. K. Jemisin’s trilogy focuses more on race than on gender, but imagines a world in which a group of “orogenes” have the power to detect and control seismic events and otherwise exert control over the earth’s crust. Because the planet they live on is very unstable, orogenic intervention is often the only way to protect human communities. But their ability makes them dangerous — mass murder is easy for an orogene, and untrained orogenes react instinctively to threat. So they’re kept in subjection, rigorously trained and guarded so that they won’t get out of hand. The books explore the idea that those in power can’t bear to relinquish it because it feels inevitable that those they’ve mistreated will take revenge.

Over the course of the trilogy, Jemisin shows us some of the world’s past leading to this point: a history in which orogenes didn’t always exist in their current form, but someone was always the subjected and dehumanized group. Racism persists even as races come and go.

The most memorable and sick-making passages of the trilogy are the ones that touch on how people respond to oppressive power: how they learn to swallow their humiliations, how they mingle love and hate, how they bend themselves this way and that to try to learn to keep on living in horrible situations.

The Fifth Season begins with an exceptionally gifted orogene, no longer able to tolerate this world, drawing on a network of his people and splitting the earth’s crust, opening up a continent-wide rift. This begins a Season, a catastrophic state where the atmospheric and other effects threaten life on the planet. It’s not the first Season, but it might very well be the last, as far as humans are concerned. And the question then persists, throughout the rest of the trilogy: does a world this broken deserve to survive? (If you’re curious for more elaboration than will fit here, Abigail Nussbaum writes about how the story concludes.)

Both The Power and Stone Sky (the last book of Jemisin’s trilogy) left me with disturbing questions. Are we stuck with a world where systemic injustice is unfixable? Where the power to rescue and repair is always also the power to subject, humiliate, and abuse? Where leadership means coercion and pursuit of status?

Closer to home, are we stuck with a situation where so many people internalize their accomplishments as permission to go through life in a state of entitlement? Where others have a hard time recognizing what they’ve done because they don’t want to become too egocentric?

Is there anyone we can trust with power? Is it even healthy to emphasize the possession of power so heavily?

I’ve seen people get weirdly wrapped around the question of their own power: how much do they have? Do they still have as much as they had last time they checked? Less? More? What will it get them currently? The only way to check if you have power is to exercise it somehow, though — and so they test, gratuitously, what they can take from the people around them. For some, the need to retain and demonstrate their power becomes stronger than their ethics or their kindness or their common sense.

I say I’ve seen “people”. I’m not talking about someone on the news. I’m talking about ex-friends. I’m talking about people I trusted and cared about, who burned that trust and care to the ground because dominance mattered more to them.

*

In The Last Jedi, power mirrors power. When the Jedi grow stronger, so do the Sith. Both sides treat the Force as a weapon, an idea recapitulated by the arms dealers on Canto Bight, who wear the finest in black-and-white fashions.

When the exercise of power against power becomes too acute, things break at the middle: Kylo’s face, Snoke’s body, Rey’s light saber. At the still center of the movie, Holdo jumps to light speed and slices Snoke’s ship in two silent halves.

It may be stupid world-building to make a feature standard on every spaceship turn out to be an unprecedentedly powerful weapon — surely people have tried this before, no? But as an image, it fits. It didn’t strike me until the second viewing, but Holdo’s action is treated to a cinematic presentation — time half-suspended, silence, shock — that echoes how movies often show the detonation of a nuclear bomb. It is an act of extremity.

At the same time, this is not simply an exercise of both-sides-ism. It remains clear that good and evil exist, that Leia belongs to the light and Snoke to the darkness, that “live free and don’t become part of the machine” is not a sufficient or acceptable response to this state of war. When Kylo Ren refuses to rescue the remains of the Rebellion, he’s doing something awful.

The good fight persists. It has to be fought, not just once, but repeatedly, as long as there is a galaxy. It is never concluded or even suspended for the length of one person’s lifetime. And even outside of conflict, there is work to do, for which we need leaders and organization.

But for this fight, it is not enough — indeed sometimes it is even counterproductive — to be a powerful Jedi. Power is egocentric, competitive, lonely, harsh, self-regarding and brittle. Power coerces and compels, violates and overrides. Power cannot be vulnerable and it cannot admit equals. Kylo Ren may be the most powerful person alive at the end of The Last Jedi, but he is broken and sad and incredibly ineffective.

We need something else instead of power. We need a different way of getting to our goals, and a different virtue to aspire to.

I’ve written before about alternatives to both the power fantasy (many many games) and to the enactment of powerlessness (a lot of games in the art/personal game space), but that earlier writing was about democratic citizenship, about very reduced but non-zero agency.

In TLJ we see the idea of being effective without being violent, without being cruel, without overriding other people, without accumulating “power” in your own person.

*

Almost the first thing that happens to Leia in The Last Jedi: Poe disobeys her direct order. She is unable to exert her will through the chain of command. Powerless. But that disobedience does not take away her significance and her leadership. Afterward, her primary concern is not about reasserting dominance over Poe. She demotes him and rebukes him, yes, and at one point she even stuns him with a blaster — but she also teaches him something important. When he has learned it, she hands him authority again. (“What are you looking at me for? Follow him.” I disliked this line on viewing one; on viewing two I felt better about it.)

Leia is tied in to the Force, but she has not trained as a Jedi. She uses it in an obvious way when she’s in extremity, but mostly what we see is that the Force connects her to Luke, to Kylo, to Rey.

She cares for her own. She likes Poe despite his severe screw-ups. She has a deep, long-standing friendship with Vice Admiral Holdo. She trains and uplifts her subordinates. She hopes for the best from the people around her, but she’s able to see and acknowledge the worst. She has emotions, she acknowledges and manages them, but she isn’t overwhelmed by them when she needs to do something else.  This happens to overlap with traditionally gendered behavior, but it is not purely a gender issue. Leia has a lot of virtues that might be considered traditionally feminine, but she has many traditionally masculine ones as well. And above all, she gets things done.

It’s not a case where the best lack all conviction. For once, the options aren’t a binary of “powerful but bad” and “useless but weak.” They’re not even “I’m (kind of) a pacifist but I’ve got a lot of badass friends,” in the style certain modern-era Doctor Who.

So I came in looking for a story about how to be an older woman in position of authority other than Matriarch. As I take on more management and community leadership roles, I feel like I can only succeed if I have examples of how not to replicate certain management and culture failings that have harmed me or my friends in the past.

In The Last Jedi, I feel I got that, but also something I didn’t know I was seeking: a message about valuing work instead of power. Work is ongoing. Work is humble and noncompetitive, but also valuable. Work is able to leverage cooperation, but it still functions even if no cooperation is forthcoming. Work is what changes the galaxy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

February 11, 2018

IFTF Blog

A couple of program-chair updates

by Jason McIntosh at February 11, 2018 01:03 AM

After last year’s IFComp wrapped up, I announced on the competition’s blog that Jacqueline Ashwell would become its new head organizer, beginning in 2018. I held the role for four years, and I feel very fortunate to pass it along to one so apt.

The mid-winter months are a traditionally sleepy time for IFComp, as you may expect, but I can report (from my privileged vantage point) that Jacq has begun warming up the controls and taking charge of planning 2018’s competition. I know it seems prosaic to say every year that this year’s comp will be the best comp yet, but… well, I’m sure looking forward to October, and I hope you are too.

What with my newfound free time and all, I’ve assumed leadership of IFTF’s accessibility testing program. After guiding the team towards making some good progress in 2017, its chair, furkle, had to step down due to a shift in personal priorities. Happily, furkle will remain on the committee as its resident Twine expert, and the whole volunteer lineup from the program’s founding remains present and active. The program’s goal stays the same as well, if a bit calendar-shifted: we aim to deliver a report on the accessibility of interactive fiction software by the end of 2018. This will almost certainly involve a call for community participation, so: stay tuned.

In the meantime, and in the interest of transparency, I have made the program’s mailing-list archives public. This occurs with the team’s consent, after I pruned off and stashed away all discussion prior to this year. I consider this a bit of an experiment, but it’s a technique I learned about at the All Things Open conference a few months back, in a talk given by an Apache Software Foundation member. It struck me as an easy way for a community-funded nonprofit like ours to build further good-faith public accountability while also passively creating public documentation of our own work. If it fits well here, I plan to recommend that appropriate future IFTF mailing lists open up their archives as well.

(As an aside: our “Friends of IFTF” mailing list, home of our monthly newsletters, also has an archive. I really ought to post links to these sorts of things a bit more prominently, hm?)

February 10, 2018

XTads etc.

XTads pre-beta 9 is out

by xtadsetc at February 10, 2018 05:42 PM

XTads is a TADS 2/3 interpreter for macOS (version 10.9 and higher). It’s a GUI application, with native macOS look and feel. Game output is text-only, with limited/simplistic support for HTML.

New in this version:

  • A new “Open for Testing” dialog, to allow recording/playback of command scripts and recording output transcripts, aiding game authors in regression testing. See Game development features for more details.
  • Misc. UI tweaks.
  • (Much internal cleanup.)

XTads is still a work in progress. Bug reports and suggestions are more than welcome – see contact info in the program’s About panel.

Executable: https://www.ifarchive.org/if-archive/programming/tads2/executables/XTads-prebeta-9.zip

Source: https://www.ifarchive.org/if-archive/programming/tads2/source/XTads-prebeta-9-src.zip

February 09, 2018

Choice of Games

New Hosted Game! The Great Tournament 2 by Philip Kempton

by Rachel E. Towers at February 09, 2018 08:41 PM

Hosted Games has a new game for you to play!

In this sequel to The Great Tournament, continue your quest to defend the kingdom of Magincia. Play as a Knight, Lord, or Prince in this medieval fantasy where every choice you make affects the story. Lead armies in battle against powerful foes or use diplomacy to resolve conflicts. It’s 25% off until February 16th!

The Great Tournament 2 is a 300,000 word interactive low fantasy novel by Philip Kempton, 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.

• Character generation and random events ensures no one game is the same.
• Play as a devoted knight, honorable lord, or ruthless tyrant.
• Multiple storylines with over a dozen different endings.
• Use diplomacy or war to resolve global conflicts.
• Raise and train an army to defend the kingdom.
• Conqueror territories and expand your kingdom.
• Manage village and kingdom finances.
• Fight waves of barbarian armies in Survival Mode.

Philip Kempton developed this game using ChoiceScript, a simple programming language for writing multiple-choice interactive novels like these. Writing games with ChoiceScript is easy and fun, even for authors with no programming experience. Write your own game and Hosted Games will publish it for you, giving you a share of the revenue your game produces.

The Digital Antiquarian

Dr. Brain

by Jimmy Maher at February 09, 2018 05:41 PM

The line between entertainment and education at the Sierra of the early 1990s was much less clearly drawn among the design staff than it was in the company’s marketing materials. The exact same people who made the purely entertaining adventure games took up the task of making entries in Sierra’s new “Discovery Series” of educational games when that line made its debut in 1991.1 Discounting for obvious reasons only the early-education titles, the results of their efforts could be every bit as satisfying for adults as they were for children and adolescents. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that much of the very best work done at Sierra during this period was done for the Discovery Series. The fact that they were designing games for a theoretical audience of youngsters seemed to prompt some of the staff to show a bit more kindness and mercy, to think about issues of playability in ways they sometimes couldn’t be bothered to do when making their other games. It’s thus a real shame that the Discovery Series tends to be overlooked by even many of the most ardent Sierra fans of today, who shy away instinctively from the educational label which Sierra’s marketers placed upon it. More or less educational these games may very well be, but many or most of them are also a hell of a lot of fun, whether you happen to be young, old, or somewhere in-between.

The inception of the Discovery Series was marked by a meeting of all of Sierra’s creative staff, aimed at drumming up ideas for educational games. One of the sample ideas which Ken Williams himself presented there was for something he called Mathemagical Mansion, a game whose player would have to solve math problems to explore ever deeper into the house in question. Programmer and game designer Corey Cole, who had recently created the first two titles in the adventure-game series Quest for Glory alongside his wife Lori Ann Cole, left the meeting having already decided to take the idea and run with it. He planned to expand on Ken Williams’s base by adding the character of a “Dr. Brain,” whom the player would need to impress in order to get a job working in his research laboratory. And he also planned to broaden the base of puzzle topics to include science, technology, and even a dash of culture to go along with the math problems. In additions to the merits of the original idea itself, practical and even political considerations prompted him to go this way. He knew that no new Quest for Glory game was in the cards for 1991, and he knew that, should his proposal not be accepted, he’d likely finding himself working as a programmer on one of the educational proposals that had been. And, most importantly, he knew that Ken Williams would have a natural affinity for a proposal based on his own germ of an idea. His political calculus proved correct; after he showed a prototype demonstrating the basic interface and a few puzzles, Castle of Dr. Brain got the green light. His wife Lori, meanwhile, was similarly politically clever in proposing the early-education game Mixed-Up Fairy Tales, a pseudo-sequel to Roberta Williams’s Mixed-Up Mother Goose, and was also rewarded with a gig as lead designer on her own Discovery Series project.

Corey and Lori Ann Cole didn’t need to up their design standards for their latest projects in the way that some of their colleagues would for other Discovery Series titles; the two Quest for Glory games they had already made were, in this reviewer’s opinion anyway, the absolute best adventures to come out of Sierra to this point. So, they only needed to continue to hew to the high standard they had already set.

Nevertheless, Castle of Dr. Brain represented a leap into unexplored territory in more ways than one for Corey. Lori had taken the lead on many aspects of the Quest for Glory games. The overall arc of the planned four-game series, drawn up before any implementation began on the first game, had been largely her vision, as had been much of the detail of plot and character within the two games that had been produced to date. While Lori had thus played the “artistic” role, Corey had been the puzzle guy, nailing down the details of what the player had to do and where she had to do it. But now, for the first time, he wouldn’t have Lori’s talents to lean on; Castle of Dr. Brain was all his baby. He comforted himself with the knowledge that it was to be at bottom just a big box of puzzles — and if there was one thing he felt he knew, it was puzzles. His attitude toward the project thus gradually moved from trepidation to exhilaration. By the time the game was finished, he would finally feel, as he put it to me many years later, “like a real game designer.”

Which isn’t to say that Castle of Dr. Brain was an easy game to make. The label on the box says that it’s designed for children aged twelve and up, implying that some sort of rigorous pedagogic methodology had gone into that formulation. In later years, certainly, any software from a major publisher daring to bill itself as “educational” would likely be approved if not designed by genuine educators, by people familiar with current age-appropriate curricula and theories of learning and all the rest. But Sierra back in those days just winged it. “While they aren’t intended to be hardcore educational products,” explained the brand manager for the Discovery Series, “they’re more than just games. They have legitimate academic content” — whatever “legitimate academic content” meant. Corey talked to exactly no education professionals in the course of making his educational game, unless you count his wife, who had worked as a schoolteacher years ago. Subject matter as well as pedagogic technique were left entirely up to him. He had promised Ken Williams a game that would have some math in it along with lots of other vaguely defined “educational” things. He got to decide what those things would be for himself.

Instead of some mythical stereotype of late childhood found only inside pedagogic textbooks, Corey aimed his game at the twelve-year-old self he remembered. Perhaps, he mused, he was unusually well-equipped to speak to bright kids of the sort he had once been. He remembered when, back at university, someone had passed an essay he had written through a computerized text analyzer, and the program had said that he wrote on a seventh-grade reading level. “That’s great!” said the analyzer’s programmer by way of comforting a Corey Cole whose first reaction was embarrassment. “You’ve written this so any adult or high-school student can understand it. Most people think they need to sound clever or sophisticated, but all they accomplish is to make their work inaccessible.” One of the worst sins would-be writers of children’s and young-adult fiction can commit is to write down to their target audience; youngsters can smell such condescension a mile away. It seemed that Corey would, at the very least, be free of that sin.

A staple of games like this one: the sliding-block puzzle.

All of which was well and good, but it still left the matter of the actual puzzles to be sorted out. Corey had always loved books of puzzles and brainteasers, and had had this love in mind when he first pitched his idea for Castle of Dr. Brain. Maybe, he had thought, such books could even provide him with most of the puzzles he would need. Yet that proved not to be the case when the time came to roll up his sleeves and start making his game. Corey:

The puzzle books were useless. A book advertising “over 60 puzzles and brainteasers” typically had four formats, and 15 puzzles in each format. They might have cryptograms, crossword puzzles, and grid puzzles (“Who lives in the purple house? What’s their job, hobby, and favorite food?”). Most of these are weak in a computer game, and I wanted to have a dozen or more unique puzzles.

Corey wound up creating groupings of puzzles on the various subjects he chose, clustering them together in rooms of Dr. Brain’s castle. First came three math problems, then three puzzles dealing with time. And so on and so on, incorporating among others a word-puzzle room, a robotics-and-computers room, even an astronomy room — all adding up to 24 multifarious puzzles in all. The puzzle books may have proved a dead end, but some of the puzzles that made their way into the game are nevertheless variations on old favorites of one type or another, such as Mastermind, Hangman, and Knights and Knaves. Roughly half of the puzzles, though, are indeed completely original. Unsurprisingly, these are the ones that tend to make the most impact, to the point of being at least vaguely remembered by some old players of Castle of Dr. Brain literally decades after they last saw them.

The robot maze that’s shown above, for instance, is a marvel of elegant, minimalist design, played in real time to make it exciting for youngsters (and oldsters) raised on videogames. You need to collect cards from all of the red “A” symbols by running the little blue robot over them, while avoiding the swirling red-and-purple vortexes, which will swallow it up. Running over the green crosses, meanwhile, will toggle various vortexes off, thus making them safe to travel over, and on, thus making them decidedly unsafe. The robot will always move straight ahead, until it encounters an obstacle in the form of a wall, which will cause it to turn around and go back whence it came. But there is one exception to this rule, an exception that also happens to be the only way you can interact with the puzzle: you can click on any of the intersections marked with four red dots to cause the robot to turn right when it reaches that intersection; click again to turn off this “traffic signal.” And that’s it. From one verb is created a hugely intriguing possibility space.

But most beloved of all might just be the robot-programming puzzle. You need to retrieve certain items out of a locked cabinet by writing a program to move a robot arm through the correct sequence of steps. Besides being a brilliantly original and entertaining puzzle in its own right, it’s also a fine introduction to the joy of programming.

Writing a program to control a robot arm…

…and running it.

To make Castle of Dr. Brain accessible to as wide an audience as possible, Corey Cole implemented three difficulty levels, which the player can change at any time to adjust for those types of puzzles she’s better or worse at. The “expert” level of any given puzzle should offer an enjoyable challenge to almost any adult, while the “novice” level is good even for many children who are younger than the game’s stated minimum age of twelve. Yet Corey didn’t settle for this form of adjustable difficulty alone. He also came up with a mechanic for “puzzle coins” which ties into your final score in the game. You earn coins by completing puzzles, and can then trade them in for hints if a later puzzle has you stumped. Your final score will take a hit in doing so, but this only adds a bit of replayability to a game that’s really not all that long.

The puzzle design constitutes much of what makes the finished game great, but the puzzles aren’t quite the sum total of the experience. Being made using an engine designed first and foremost for adventure games, and by a company and a designer known first and foremost for same, Castle of Dr. Brain is an embodied experience rather than an exercise in purely abstract puzzling. The plot isn’t up to much — “solve puzzles to move through the castle until you meet Dr. Brain and he gives you a job” is all it consists of from beginning to end — but, hey, it’s there. The charming old coot himself even pops up from time to time to offer encouragement. A stronger line connecting Castle of Dr. Brain to the Quest for Glory adventure games in particular comes in the form of the plethora of optional gags and Easter eggs in every area of the castle. You can click on almost anything and get a reaction. From the front door on which you can pound instead of ringing the doorbell to the telephone you can pick up in the good doctor’s inner sanctum, the game is a riot of interactivity, just as any good adventure game should be, paying full attention to what designer Bob Bates calls the “else” of the “if, then, else” logic of adventure design. And Castle of Dr. Brain is full of the same horrid puns and general good nature which mark the Quest for Glory games. I don’t believe Corey Cole is capable of making a game that’s less than thoroughly likable.

Within the framework of adventure lent by the SCI engine, however, Castle of Dr. Brain and its sequel are unique among the Discovery Series — in fact, unique among Sierra’s adventures in general — for a certain spirit of formal innovation. Those other Discovery games mostly look and play like standard Sierra adventures of their time; it’s just that their puzzles and plots are aimed at an ostensibly younger audience. But, perhaps because Corey was himself an experienced SCI programmer, Castle of Dr. Brain dared to shake up the status quo. Replacing the third-person view and visible onscreen avatar of the typical Sierra adventure is a first-person viewpoint. And then, too, the protagonist here goes unnamed and uncharacterized; the protagonist, in other words, is meant to be you. There is much to be said for both third-person and first-person approaches to the graphical adventure, just as there is for both the richly characterized adventure-game protagonist and the “nameless, faceless adventurer” of Zork. For today, I will only say that the choices Corey made here — both departing from the norm at Sierra — strike me as eminently correct for the game he wanted to make and the audience he wanted to reach. To be constantly switching between a third-person “exploration mode” and a series of screen-filling set-piece puzzles would have felt jarring. And then, too, children love nothing better than to imagine themselves inside their entertainments.

So, Corey Cole had good reason to feel proud of the finished game. Proud he was — and is: he still describes Castle of Dr. Brain as the most satisfying single project of his career. And Sierra too had reason to be pleased after the game was released: it became by far the most commercially successful of all the Discovery Series. Corey estimates that it sold over 100,000 copies in its initial full-price form, then another 150,000 copies as a budget re-release. Those numbers were almost comparable to what might be expected from a new Space Quest or Leisure Suit Larry — flashier games with much bigger development budgets. Sierra’s accountants thus couldn’t help but see Castle of Dr. Brain as a bargain, a relatively cheap investment that had made them quite a lot of money.

With numbers like those, and with the series-loving Ken Williams running Sierra, a sequel was inevitable. Corey was ready and eager to helm that project, but he wasn’t given a fair chance to do so. After Castle of Dr. Brain was finished, he was moved back to the programmer’s role he had been able to avoid for a while by making it, assigned the task of porting Sierra’s SCI engine to the Sega Genesis videogame console. He was offered the “opportunity” to design the sequel strictly as a moonlighting project, if he was willing to give up the 1-percent royalty he had received on the first game in favor of a small lump-sum payment. Understandably, he turned down an offer that would have consumed his nights and weekends for many months to come for very little financial reward. The task of designing the sequel was instead handed to one Patrick Bridgemon, a technical writer who had been responsible for many Sierra manuals and hint books, but whose only experience to date working on the games proper had consisted of a polishing-up of the writing in the first Police Quest game for a recent point-and-click remake of same.

Given these circumstances, one would rather expect the game that became known as The Island of Dr. Brain to disappoint. And, indeed, the general critical consensus over the years has tended to paint it as something of a pale shadow of its illustrious predecessor. In this case, though, I find myself in disagreement with the consensus; I don’t think that The Island of Dr. Brain fares badly at all in comparison to its predecessor. Yes, some of the puzzles are cribbed directly from the previous game, and, yes, more old chestnuts do make an appearance; the game’s lowlight is definitely the supremely tedious (is there any other kind?) Tower of Hanoi puzzle. Yet there are also a number of completely original puzzles here which can stand proudly alongside the best puzzles from the earlier game. And, once again, the vast majority of the puzzles, whether original or cribbed, are great fun to solve.

A chemistry puzzle.

There’s a bit more to the plot this time around. Someone has knocked the good doctor over the head — with a pink-flamingo lawn ornament, no less! — and absconded with his most powerful and dangerous invention. In practice, however, the plot still doesn’t really matter all that much. Now duly hired as Dr. Brain’s assistant, you’ve been sent to your boss’s private island to retrieve a vital battery that’s necessary to stop the evil one’s dastardly plan. But you can’t just walk in and pick it up; you have to solve puzzles in order to make your way to the center of the island where the battery lies waiting. As security systems go, this one doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but there you go. The real point, of course, is the puzzles.

It should be amply clear by now that Bridgemon, doubtless responding to dictates from his managers, adopted a “don’t fix what isn’t broken” approach to the sequel. Still, he did manage to innovate modestly within the established framework. This time out, the puzzles and their solutions are all randomized to one degree or another, thus addressing the most obvious complaint customers who had spent $40 or more on the first game might have made: the fact that it just wasn’t very long at all. The Island of Dr. Brain even sets up a sort of meta-challenge for the truly hardcore. If you solve all 26 puzzles four times on each of the three difficulty levels (!), without using any of your hint coins, you earn the maximum of 1000 points, and are rewarded with a special picture. I can’t say that I can muster up that much dedication today, but it’s easy to imagine a patient youngster taking on the challenge, and thereby getting many, many hours out of the game.

Playing with polynominoes. Eat your heart out, Alexey Pajitnov.

Likewise, the sequel not only embraces its predecessor’s wide range of educational themes but actually expands upon it. Puzzles in The Island of Dr. Brain often deal with the expected: mathematics, spatial logic, computer programming (the logic-gates puzzle is every bit as good as Corey Cole’s programming puzzles from the previous game). At the same time, though, Bridgemon shows no fear of the humanities, despite the latter being a field of knowledge so much less obviously suited to puzzles. The Island of Dr. Brain finds clever ways to dive into foreign languages, musical notation, even masterpieces of literature and the visual arts. One of my favorite puzzles teaches you to identify the works of great artists, from Vincent van Gogh to Jackson Pollock, by their unique styles.

The sequel shipped with an “EncycloAlmanacTionaryOgraphy” in the box, a 104-page book full of information that’s sometimes useful for solving the puzzles but is more often there just to add depth to the topics the puzzles cover. As its name would imply, it’s a glorious mess, a big splat of completely unrelated data — a random cross-section of some tiny portion of all the sheer stuff the human race has learned and done and achieved over the centuries. I love it.

The Island of Dr. Brain didn’t do quite as well as its predecessor had commercially, but sold well enough that these two games would not mark the end of Dr. Thaddeus Egghead Brain’s puzzling career. The second game would be, however, the last of the series to be developed by Sierra in-house. Later entries were given to Bright Star Technology, a developer specializing in educational software which Sierra acquired in 1992 as part of Ken Williams’s general educational push. Those Dr. Brain games — there were five more of them in all, stretching all the way to 1999 — are slicker productions in many ways, but lack their predecessors’ gonzo spirit. They’re just well-made educational products — no more, no less.

Which only leads me to emphasize once again what a pleasure these first two Dr. Brain games still are to play. The EncycloAlmanacTionaryOgraphy nicely illustrates the overarching Dr. Brain take on education. In a world obsessed with specialists and specialties, these games dare to tell us that knowledge in general is a sumptuous banquet which is only made more exciting through variety. A person, they imply, should feel free to become a computer programmer and a poet, a geneticist and a musician. At the risk of offending the many hard-working pedagogues out there, I can’t help but think that much of the reason these particular educational games are so bracing is because of the lack of a formal disciplinarian to say, “No, you can’t follow up a mechanical-engineering problem with an art-appreciation exercise. The child will be confused by such an abrupt shift and will fail to internalize the lessons. Such disparate subject matters should be separated by a reasonable pause, and are best contained in separate software programs designed for the individual needs of disparate educational models….” blah, blah, blah. Just throw it all in there, I say, and let children (and adults) enjoy drinking from the fire hose. I often think that half the modern world’s dysfunction is due to the fact that we’ve all become so specialized — so segregated — that we don’t know how to talk to one another anymore. I believe that we desperately need more Renaissance people, more jacks of all trades, even if that means fewer masters of one. The Dr. Brain games, it would appear, agree with me.

If we set aside the educational aspect and consider the Dr. Brain games purely as puzzle collections, they do suffer in some ways in comparison to The Fool’s Errand, the game I still consider the standard by which all other puzzlers should be measured. The Dr. Brain games were created at the dawn of the age of multimedia computing, when Sierra even more so than most companies was determined to put in every bit of digitized sound and color they could fit onto a reasonable number of floppy disks. Such rather garish presentations perhaps haven’t aged as well as The Fool’s Errand‘s austere, elegant black-and-white look. And the Dr. Brain games lack anything like The Fool’s Errand‘s dazzling structural complexity; structurally, they’re just a collection of standalone puzzles, to be solved one at a time until you solve the last one and win. But of course, all of these alleged negatives could equally be read as positives. Certainly the audiovisuals of Dr. Brain have plenty of goofy charm of their own, and you may very well have more room in your life for a casual series of discrete puzzles than for the all-consuming obsession that The Fool’s Errand can become once you’ve fallen down its rabbit hole.

Unlike many of the Sierra titles from their era, the Discovery Series has never been officially re-released as digital downloads — doubtless thanks once again to that dreaded “educational” tag. Yet they richly deserve to be remembered and, most of all, to be played. I’m therefore going to take the liberty of offering Castle of Dr. Brain and The Island of Dr. Brain for download here. As usual, I’ve included a configuration file that will make them as easy as possible to get running with the aid of DOSBox, whether you’re using a Windows, Macintosh, or Linux machine. Happy puzzling!

(My huge thanks go to Corey Cole, who took the time to correspond with me at length on this phase of his career. Be sure to check out Hero-U: From Rogue to Redemption, a new game in the spirit of the Quest for Glory series which Corey and Lori Ann Cole have created. As of this writing, its release is expected in a matter of weeks.

Other sources include the issues of Sierra’s official magazine from Fall 1991, Fall 1992, and Winter 1992.)


  1. The name “Discovery Series” wasn’t actually used until 1992. Before then, the earliest games in the series were sold simply as educational titles, without any further branding. 

Renga in Blue

Some updates

by Jason Dyer at February 09, 2018 06:40 AM

Sorry for being quieter than usual, but I’ve been busy with something that has a deadline. (It’s also all-or-nothing; I’ll find out soon if I have a follow-up announcement worth making.)

I certainly hope to be back to Quarterstaff and the lurking 1980 games soon!

In the meantime, I wanted to mention that Gareth Damian Martin — who entered Salt in last year’s IFComp — is trying to Kickstart a new game called In Other Waters. “Guide a stranded xenobiologist as they explore and study the secrets of an alien ocean.”

Also, I don’t believe the creators here have any particular past in interactive fiction, but the trailer just looks rad. Genesis Noir: “A noir adventure game set before, during, and after the Big Bang. To save your love, you must stop the expansion of the universe.”

The new-ish blog Comparative Creation has a series on Wander. It mentions the possibility that work started on Aldebaran III before Castle. This feels likely to me; the former certainly feels more “made from the void” than the latter. (Also, the character Retief was already in full swing in 1974.) Given the potential faultiness of author memory I think the only way to be certain would be to unearth the early BASIC version, which still might be lurking in an archive somewhere.

February 06, 2018

Emily Short

Slay the Dragon: Writing Great Video Games (Giglio/Bryant)

by Emily Short at February 06, 2018 09:40 PM

Screen Shot 2017-08-04 at 9.32.06 PM.png

Slay the Dragon: Writing Great Video Games (2015). This book builds from the following thesis statement:

The story has to involve the player. The player has to want to do and see cool things in the game world… the game mechanics (such as dragon slaying) should enhance the story, and vice versa. They have to work in concert. We’ll guide you through the coming pages so you understand how to tell your story through gameplay in an integrated fashion. (26)

The book is aimed at film writers who want to get into games, at game writers who want to improve their skillsets, and at enthusiasts who are into narrative games in general. Helpfully, the authors provide an overview (33-35) of which chapters to read if you’re coming from a particular background. There are also quite a few exercises for the user of the book, starting with designing a narrative board game and moving up from there.

In contrast with Steve Ince’s take, Bryant and Giglio are optimistic about where story is going in games and excited about the possibilities. While AAA games and development processes get plenty of attention, that’s not their only point of interest. They call out successes in the independent game space (for instance profiling all the best narrative IGF nominees from 2014) and even in IF. (In the spirit of full disclosure: this blog gets a mention.)

They see the primary problem of narrative agency as not “how do we handle all these branches” — a real, but technical issue — and rather as “how do we make this meaningful”:

We do know that good branching narrative uses player choices to shape their experience in a meaningful way — one that resonates with the theme of the work or which evokes a emotional response. If you recall, however fondly, reading back and forth in the old Choose Your Own Adventure books was fun, but not necessarily meaningful. It had the feeling of opening all the boxes in an advent calendar all at once. It didn’t matter what the rules were, you just wanted to see what was in there.

The style of this book is quick and breezy: it wants to provide lots of resources without wasting your time, and it grounds its points in specific examples. Lists are common: lists of canonical games, lists of game mechanics or websites to follow or gameplay styles. At times it is so accessible that it feels like the observations might be a bit shallow — but in fact there’s good meat here. People who already know the basics of game design and story structure can skip ahead to the later chapters, which start to get into more depth.

Where some game writing books feel like a lecture series, this one feels more like a series of workshops, designed to get you launched on activities. Each chapter is short enough that one could easily read it in a lunch break or during evening down-time, then spend an hour or two on the associated exercises. (Compare Game Narrative Toolbox, which looks to coach the reader through a portfolio’s worth of small projects.) They’re pretty grounded exercises, while leaving enough room for creativity. Exercise 07.3, about brainstorming a story from mechanics, is not much different from one I’ve run several times myself with students. Elsewhere, they give some instructions about how to get started with (among others) inklewriter or Twine, as a way to get one’s hand in writing interactive stories.

At the same time, Bryant and Giglio aren’t typically prescribing a single formula for good writing: they acknowledge and describe several different narrative structures, for instance, that could be useful in thinking through game designs from short pieces to on-going Telltale-style episodic work. They also have some guidance about how level design mirrors story design, dialogue writing and planning tools, approaches to writing for MMOs, the challenge of creating barks, and so on.

There’s more that could be said in a more intermediate-to-advanced text on narrative design, but for people in the beginning-to-intermediate stages, this is one of the better craft books available. It’s optimistic, readable, fun, inclusive about a wide range of game styles, without putting down other game writers or game writing books. There’s an excellent ratio of useful insights to reading time.  If you’re seriously studying from it, go ahead and do some of the exercises — they’re good.

Post Position

Using Electricity readings, with video of one

by Nick Montfort at February 06, 2018 08:34 PM

I’m writing now from the middle of a four-city book tour which I’m on with Rafael Pérez y Pérez and Allison Parrish – we are the first three author/programmers to develop books (The Truelist, Mexica, and Articulations) in this Counterpath series, Using Electricity.

I’m taking the time now to post a link to video of a short reading that Allison and I did at the MLA Convention, from exactly a month ago. If you can’t join us at an upcoming reading (MIT Press Bookstore, 2018-02-06 6pm or Babycastles in NYC, 2018-02-07 7pm) and have 10 minutes, the video provides an introduction to two of the three projects.

Rafael wasn’t able to join us then; we are very glad he’s here from Mexico City with us this week, and has read with us in Philadelphia and Providence so far!

sub-Q Magazine

Author Interview: Gareth Damian Martin

by Stewart C Baker at February 06, 2018 03:41 PM

Gareth Damian Martin is the author of our February game, “Salt,” which will be published on February 20th. Gareth is a writer, game designer and artist. He is studying for a PhD in experimental literature and is currently developing a game about Xenobiology and alien oceans called In Other Waters.

This interview was conducted over e-mail in February of 2018

sub-Q: In addition to “Salt,” you also have a Kickstarter going right now for a longer game, In Other Waters. Could you tell us a little about what led you to an ocean theme for both of these games?

Gareth: The root of both games actually lies in the same set of experiences swimming in the gulf of Torreneos in Greece in the summer of 2017. I was there with my daughter, my partner, and her parents, and we swam everyday in what was the most turquoise water I have ever seen. I encountered a nursery of needlefish, an indescribable organism that resembles a bag of luminous organs, and when I swam out as far as I dared one morning I had a strange but mutually respectful stand-off with a barracuda. Those experiences started to crystallise many of my thoughts about the ocean. While I had held these for a long time (I grew up to the rhythms of the North sea on the Orkney Islands) they never felt so relevant and apparent.

“Salt” is about the inward aspect of communing with the sea, the self-reflection it offers and the possibility of escaping the self its immersion seems to offer. In Other Waters looks outward, towards the grim future our seas and oceans have ahead of them, but also to the deeply wrought connection we, and all life, has to oceans.

sub-Q: As well as being oceany, both these games also stand out as a little different from interactive fiction (in the case of “Salt”) and a more typical game (in the case of In Other Waters). What drew you to the game design choices you made in both cases?

Gareth: I would say that “Salt” really is an experiment in expressing something that I experienced in a deep and meaningful way through text and interactivity. I wasn’t purposefully looking to undercut or question interactive fiction with its approach, it just occurred to me as the most effective way of expressing what I wanted. I suppose I am used to turning to experimental work as a way of expressing my emotions, as my PhD concerns experimental narrative and its relationship to the self, but I also really wanted to make an IF game that asked something of the player, asked them to engage rather than just observe.

With In Other Waters I have been guided by an interest in how games are able to build worlds, atmospheres, spaces and narratives with simple, almost abstract elements. Its an interactive fiction or pen and paper RPG ethos I think, but in this case I’m applying it to a UI-based game. As a long-time graphic designer, I was also interested in integrating this knowledge and experience into games to make something visually evocative that didn’t rely on processing power or a huge art budget. I think lone creators in games have to be agile and unpredictable, and thankfully there’s still a lot of unexplored space out there to be just that.

sub-Q: I noticed on your Kickstarter that you have a 2-year-old daughter. How has having a child around changed the way you look at fiction, games, art, and your other creative pursuits?

Gareth: I wouldn’t say that my daughter has changed the way I see fiction or art, but she has changed the way I make it. Her arrival came with a surprising leap in motivation and drive. Though my time was stretched thin I found myself making better use of time, and being able to focus more effectively. In a way, I wonder if that was in part due to a change in the pressures I felt. I am very much a believer in generational inheritance over personal valorisation. My father was the first person in his family to go to university, which paved the path for me, my PhD and my work. With my daughter I have lost some of the pressure I felt to be a “success” and have felt better about just “making the work” in the knowledge that what I am able to do will feed into her life and her possibilities for the future. That’s a deeply reassuring feeling!

I have found myself thinking about our wider inheritance though, and the problems we leave to future generations too, and I suppose that has galvanised the world of In Other Waters somewhat to be a dystopia, a warning, but also a way forward, an experiment in what we might become.

The post Author Interview: Gareth Damian Martin appeared first on sub-Q Magazine.

Romance in Early IF: A Review of Pytho’s Mask

by Anya Johanna DeNiro at February 06, 2018 03:41 PM

Interactive fiction’s history both intersects and acts as an alternative space to modern game development—even indie, narrative-based developmentwith its own unique traditions and community standards. One of the most prominent is “comp,” which could also be a “mini-comp” or a “speed comp.” Most were small, one-shot affairs with perhaps a few games entered, while others became stalwarts in the annual IF calendar. It’s in this context that one of the most important early mini-comps, 2001’s SmoochieComp, “a reviewed competition for short games with a plot focusing on love or romance ” should be evaluated.

It cannot be underestimated how romance was a rare beast in interactive fiction for a long while. Besides the Infocom game Plundered Hearts, there are a few notable exceptions in late-90s/early-00s IF with romance in games by Christopher Huang, Kathleen Fischer and Liza Daly. But SmoochieComp stands out as an important milestone. And one of the best games from that comp was the one created by its organizer, Pytho’s Mask by Emily Short.

Pytho’s Mask, though not perfect (I wished that the feminist themes running throughout this piece were pushed up from the subtext a bit more), is nonetheless a gem. It’s one of Emily Short’s lesser known games but the dynamism between the conversation system, the landscape, and kinetic action with the parser is as deeply satisfying as any of Short’s longer games.romance pytho's mask emily short

The game has a lot of intriguing characters to talk to, and the map is neatly made but never feels too constrictive. As a woman and member of the Order of the Phoenix (the, er, novel of the same name came out in 2003), you’re tasked with discovering the nature of a plot against the King in an astrologically regimented royal court. You received an invitation to the Night of the Comet celebration, and the story pieces itself together the more you talk to people in the court: the comet at its apogee can create momentary chaos, and the entire social order might be upended. There’s also a masked man of a swashbuckling persuasion in your past, and a prince who seems to have taken a keen interest to you.

 

There a lot of moving parts in such a short game, but for the most part it all hangs together. As the motivations of those in the court become clearer, the game does a great job of increasing the urgency. When it comes to moving inside a space and having to balance action with figuring things out, it’s hard to beat parser interactive fiction when it’s working well. The conversation system also warrants special attention, though occasionally it got a little finicky. (I would keep a walk-through handy if you get a bit stuck.) It blends topic-based and menu-based conversation, and the snappy flow of talking back and forth lends itself to your character feeling a bit in over her head, but at the same time being constantly underestimated by the men around her.

It’s tempting to say that we’ve “evolved” a great deal in the last 17 years. But in hindsight creating a game like Pytho’s Mask, in a comp geared specifically for romance and love, was a revolutionary act in its time. Hell, here in 2018, creating a game with real female agency still feels like a revolutionary act in many quarters. We can learn a lot from games like Pytho’s Mask, and from SmoochieComp, when—let’s be perfectly honest—we need games about love now more than ever.

Anya Johanna DeNiro’s works of IF have included Solarium, Deadline Enchanter and A Bathroom Myth. She can be reached on Twitter at @adeniro and her Patreon is http://www.patreon.com/adeniro.

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February 03, 2018

The People's Republic of IF

February meetup

by zarf at February 03, 2018 11:41 PM

The Boston IF meetup for February will be Wednesday, February 21, 6:30 pm, MIT room 14N-233.

If you’re early, you can meet us at the Rotch Library gallery at 6:00 to take a gander at the Author Function exhibit. This is computer-generated texts and artwork from Nick Montfort’s collection. We’ll head back to the Trope Tank by 6:30 to start the regular meeting.

The Rotch (anagrams to “Torch”!) Library is MIT room 7-238. This is on the second floor, adjacent to the MIT main entrance off Mass Ave.

Eamon Adventurer's Guild Online

Eamon Mystery - William Trent and the "Search for the Key"

by Matthew ([email protected]) at February 03, 2018 12:00 AM

It's Groundhog Day! To celebrate, let's look back at a letter that Dr. William Trent wrote to the EAG way back in March of 1991:
Dear Tom,

One of my favorite games is a short game (only 20 rooms) called "Search for the Key" (#80) by Donald Brown. For the casual player this game probably doesn't do much for them. You cannot enter this game with a powerful character but as a beginner. I note that it is rated as a 2. My rating for it since it is such a challenge would be about 7. I have played it at least 200 times and have lost only about 5 times in the last 150 times. I would say that I know more about this little game than the author. Usually I lost because of broken weapons so that I had no way to eliminate the black panther. I usually finish up with $80,000 to $100,000 and four of the best weapons that money can buy. I don't know anyone who ever was able to get more than two weapons. At one time I was running it as the Eamon Challenge on our BBS offering anyone who could come out of the game with $40,000 a $25 prize. No one solved the mystery so I have not revealed it. I doubt if the author even realized the quirk in the game which allowed me to win this way. I wonder if you or any of the other adventurers can
figure out how I do it. - Wm. Trent

Wow. How do you do it, Bill? - Tom
Well, I've looked at the program myself and couldn't find out what he was talking about either. So, back in 2003, I wrote him a letter to ask for the solution. He responded in December 2003 as follows:
In 1983 I had an Apple computer which had very few capabilities but it did have Eamon games which I played a lot.  After a couple of years the Apple changed to Macintosh and upgraded to a format which was not compatible to the Apple.  As a result I became disgusted with them and switched to an IBM computer and did not play Eamon games any longer.
 At that time you had to write almost any program yourself as there were very few except Appleworks typing programs.  I wrote one Eamon game myself "A Trip to Fort Scott" which was my home town in Kansas before I joined the navy.  (I'm a Pearl Harbor Survivor)
 That has been too long ago for me to remember anything about my early computer years.  I am sorry but at age 84 I can't remember anything about the Eamon games.  In fact one of the things that happens to you when you get old is your memory goes.
 I can go to a movie and a year later my wife will say, "We saw that movie".
 I will say, "I never saw that movie."
 I am on the computer quite a bit but have to keep reviewing to be able to remember the programs I use most of the time.  I "bookmark"  anything which I wish to find on line with the computer and keep most of the program icons on my desktop so they are easy to find.
 I keep a very descriptive index of all the files I have on the hard disk.
 I am very sorry but I do not remember anything about any of the Eamon Games.
 Dr. William H. Trent, DDS (retired for 18 years)
So, my question for the Eamon community is, what was he talking about? The data file doesn't indicate that it's possible to have that many weapons or to earn that much money. The MAIN PGM is likewise rather mundane. Was it possible that he got some customized version from a non-EAG source?

February 02, 2018

sub-Q Magazine

It’s February! Here’s What’s Coming Over the Tubes.

by Stewart C Baker at February 02, 2018 11:41 PM

Well, folks, here we are in February already.

In January, we brought you “All Those Parties We Didn’t Cry At,” by Natalia Theodoridou. Haven’t played that yet? Go check it out! We’ll wait. Played it? We’d love to hear what you thought!

In February, we’re picking up the pace a little as we move to bring you more written content in addition to our regular line-up of stories and author interviews.

What’s that going to look like this month?

It’s going to look awesome.

On February 6th, we’ll have a super-nifty review post by Anya Johanna DeNiro about comps, romance in IF, and Emily Short’s Pytho’s Mask.

Also on February 6th, we’ll be running our author interview with Gareth Damian Martin, author of this month’s game, “Salt.” Gareth will talk oceans, IF and games, and his latest project In Other Waters, which just happens to be launching on Kickstarter this month.

On February 13th, we’re thrilled to bring you the first post in a new monthly column by Bruno Dias. As befits new beginnings, Bruno will explore the idea of starting a new project—specifically, how to think about scope.

On February 20th, it’s our story of the month! “Salt” is an immersive, meditative journey through literal and metaphorical waters, with some atypical IF elements I’m excited to see reach a wider audience.

Finally, on February 27th, our inimitable editor PJ Anthony will host a round-table interview with some of the winners of the 2017 IFComp.

A lot going on for such a short month, hey?

BUT WAIT THERE’S MORE!

We’re also still looking for a few volunteers: an editor, a social media and outreach guru, and a fundraising wizard. Strike your fancy? E-mail [email protected] with the subject line POSITION QUERY. We’ll be making our decisions on these positions by February 15th, so act fast if you’re interested!

And remember, if you’d like to support us, we offer subscriptions and there’s also a sub-Q Patreon. Starting in March, we hope to offer subscribers and patrons early access to our content, so there’s never been a better time to hop on board.

Thank you all for sticking with us, and we’ll see you on Tuesday!

 

 

 

The post It’s February! Here’s What’s Coming Over the Tubes. appeared first on sub-Q Magazine.

Choice of Games

Choice of Games Contest for Interactive Novels: Submissions Closed

by Mary Duffy at February 02, 2018 06:41 PM

The Choice of Games Contest for Interactive Novels submission deadline has come and gone! We want to thank everyone for participating. We received 25 entries, which is a wonderful result for our first contest.  Here is the official list of entries:

180 Files: The Aegis Project
A Scoundrel’s Choice
Critical Mass: The Black Vein
Critical Mass: The Bridge
Dragon Racer
Gladiator: Road to the Colosseum
Isolation: Deep Dive
Missing Wings
Night Shift
Nuclear Powered Toaster
Ouroboros Reset
Pathways
Quarterlife
Robin Hood’s Unusual Tales
Tale of Two Cranes
The Aegis Saga
The Butler Did It
The Grim and I
The Last Wizard
The Lawless Ones
The Magician’s Burden
The Trial of Souls
The Twelve Trials
WEAK
Wonders, Horrors, and Miracles

While judging will not be complete for some time, we expect to begin our first round of review next week, and we’ll have a better sense of how long it will take to judge the contest in full, in a few weeks’ time. We are a small staff, and have a limited amount of time for publishing games, keeping the lights on, and reading contest entries, but after our initial review we will have a better sense of how long it will be before we can announce the winners.

Once again, congratulations to all the entrants. Writing a full game in ChoiceScript is a stunning achievement, and we hope you will find a way to celebrate this weekend.

The Digital Antiquarian

The Sierra Network

by Jimmy Maher at February 02, 2018 11:41 AM

Ken Williams got the online religion early or late, depending on how you look at it. Despite running a company whose official name was Sierra On-Line — admittedly, the second part of the name was already being de-emphasized by the end of the 1980s, and would eventually be dropped entirely — he had paid no more attention than most of his peers to the rise of commercial online services like CompuServe. Sierra maintained a modest presence in such places, even agreed to the occasional online chat, but telecommunication was hardly central to their business strategy during the first eight years or so of their existence. All that began to change, however, when a new service called Prodigy made a splashy entrance in 1988.

Almost a decade after CompuServe’s consumer service had been born, Prodigy breezily declared themselves to be the “first consumer online service,” full stop. In so doing, they demonstrated a certain chutzpah in which they would never be lacking, and which would decidedly fail to endear them to most others in their industry. Yet underneath the bluster there was perhaps an honest aspirational vision. Backed by the unlikely partners of Sears and IBM, Prodigy desired to be, to coin a phrase, the online service for the rest of us. They became the first service after the Commodore 64-only QuantumLink to allow access only through a graphical front-end which they themselves provided to their customers. There would be no scrolling green text for their subscribers, but rather attractive screen layouts full of color and even pictures. Preferring to see themselves as the next step in traditional, top-down mass media — the natural successor or at least adjunct to newspapers, magazines, and television — they hewed to this philosophy to the complete exclusion of the user-driven initiatives that had done so much to build the other online services: things like chat, file libraries, and self-organizing communities of interest. (Incredibly, online chat, the killer app that had first gone up on CompuServe in the Dark Ages of 1980, wouldn’t arrive on Prodigy until 1994.)

In compensation, Prodigy planned to offer more content from Big Media than had ever been seen online before, alongside enough online shopping to make any brick-and-mortar mall stroller green with envy. Indeed, it was typical mall shoppers rather than typical computer hobbyists that they were really trying to reach. Rather than hosting chats with the likes of computer-game developers and NASA engineers, they curated question-and-answer forums with such mainstream celebrities as the fitness diva Jane Fonda and the famed sportscaster Howard Cosell. Further, they offered all of this at a flat rate, a first for the industry. The monthly subscription price of $10 — a price which would only buy you about two hours at best on any of the other services — was augmented by online advertising that took full advantage of the graphical front end. In this area as well, then, Prodigy became a pioneer, albeit of a perhaps more dubious stripe.

Prodigy went live on April 11, 1988. From the moment he first logged on later that year, Ken Williams was excited by what he saw there in a way he had never been by CompuServe or any of the other text-based services. He called Prodigy “a preview of the future” in his “President’s Corner” of Sierra’s corporate magazine.

I boot it up in the morning, and I’m greeted with a “front page” that gives headlines on the major news stories of the day. Beside each headline is a number to punch up the text of the feature, which is written in a professional journalistic style. After the front page, I can check the price of my company’s stock through Prodigy’s Dow Jones service. Because I’m a West Coaster and Wall Street opens before I get out of bed each morning, the stock price I see represents the price of my stock as it was within the last fifteen minutes (not what it was after closing last night).

I can also catch the up-to-date prices of other publicly-traded home-software companies or I can check to see if any of the top computer makers has made a big announcement. I also check the local weather, and occasionally the weather of a city I’m to travel to that day (Prodigy will give me a report for almost anywhere), and I always, always read the PC Industry Column by Stewart Alsop III.

If I have time during the morning (but usually at night), I’ll access one of the “interactive magazine” sections of Prodigy. Among the writers for Prodigy are Gene Siskel (of Siskel and Ebert’s At the Movies), Sylvia Porter (finances), Jane Fonda (fitness), Jolian Block (taxes), and a host of others. Each of these people contributes a column worth reading, and the columns are written when news happens, not just once a week or once a month.

It’s great to have this online magazine rack constantly available, but the best part of Prodigy is that you can write the writers. Recently I saw a Gene Siskel review of the movie Parents on Prodigy. As I enjoy such offbeat movies, and Gene appeared to have similar taste, I wrote him a quick note asking if he could recommend similar films. The next day when I booted up the service I had a short note waiting from Gene that contained the names of two other films I would like. Once, I didn’t like a Stewart Alsop column, and I got my aggressions out immediately by sending him a note of disagreement (no response from Stewart was given or expected). I consider this interactivity to be the major plus of this interactive-magazine format.

The reasons for Ken Williams’s immediate enthusiasm for Prodigy aren’t hard to divine in the context of his strategic vision for Sierra and his industry. As we saw in my last article, he was convinced that computers were simply too hard to use, and that the path to more universal acceptance of his company’s products lay in smoothing out the rough edges of being a computer gamer, in commodifying games like any other form of mass media. If this process entailed the loss of some of hacker culture’s old can-do spirit of empowered creativity, well, such was the price of progress; tellingly, and even as he rejected making games for the platform himself, Williams was a great admirer of Nintendo and their carefully-curated walled garden of cartridge-based videogames. Prodigy in the online space, like Nintendo in the console space, was moving in the direction he hoped to take Sierra in the computer-game space.

Yet the example of Prodigy was also more to Ken Williams than just an object marketing lesson from a related industry. It woke him up to the possibilities — the possibilities, that is, for Sierra themselves — in the online space. Williams, in short, wanted in on that action which he was coming to believe would do so much to shape the future not only of computers but of media in general.

In 1989, a new terminal program from an outside programmer reached Sierra by a somewhat circuitous route that wound through their close relationship with Radio Shack. They chose to revise it and publish it as one of their rare forays into application software. Sierra’s On-Line — yes, the name is a little too cute — was designed, in what was fast becoming the typical Sierra fashion, to make going online just that little bit easier for people who didn’t eat and breathe baud rates and transfer protocols. It shipped, for instance, with a script that would do all the work of getting you logged in and signed up with CompuServe for the first time for you, following up that helping hand with a guided tour of the service. (Ken Williams himself may have been most enamored with Prodigy, but that didn’t mean Sierra would ignore the only online service with more than half a million subscribers in 1989.) After that introduction, many tasks could be automated by clicking big, friendly onscreen buttons, sort of an attempt to bring the Prodigy experience to CompuServe. Previous terminal programs, ran Sierra’s marketing line, had been “too complex and intimidating for the average user to want to tackle; one look at a two- or three-inch thick manual, and most people decided they weren’t really all that interested in going online.” Sierra’s On-Line, by contrast, would make online life “available to a much wider audience than before. With a program this easy, convenient, and inexpensive, going online would be within the reach of anyone with a computer and a telephone.”

While there’s no indication that Sierra’s On-Line became a particularly big seller, much less revolutionized the online demographic in the way the company seemed to have hoped, it is illustrative of their thinking as the 1990s loomed. Ditto the “Sierra BBS” which they set up around the same time, sporting enough incoming telephone lines to let 32 people be online at once. Sierra claimed that over 35,000 people were visiting each month by the end of 1989, getting hints for the games and downloading demos, patches, and curiosities like a “3-D Animated Christmas Card” and a standalone version of “Astro Chicken,” an action game embedded in Space Quest III. And at the same time, Sierra became a great booster of Prodigy. In addition to setting up a big presence on the new service proper, they took to dropping signup kits directly into their game boxes, thus getting them into the hands of hundreds of thousands of gamers.

In a 1990 address, Steve Jobs, a visionary who gets lots of credit for the many things he got right but little blame for the equal number of things he got wrong, said that the 1990s would be “the decade of interpersonal computing.” When he said it, he was talking of small-scale connectivity via LANs, not the wide-scale connectivity that was already being enabled by services like CompuServe and Prodigy, much less the epoch-making invention that would be the World Wide Web. Ken Williams responded, rightly, that Jobs was “thinking too small. I agree that ‘interpersonal computing’ — the idea that the individual computer owner will soon find himself acting as part of a bigger connected computer community — is the next step in the evolution of personal computing. But I disagree with Jobs’s vision of the company office as the birthplace of this technology.”

Even as Jobs was articulating his narrow vision of interpersonal computing to an industry conference, Williams had put Sierra to work attempting to forward his own, more expansive view of computing’s future in a more direct fashion than even the Prodigy relationship entailed. On October 31, 1990, Sierra quietly announced that they had begun testing a new, self-standing online service of their own, one that would go far beyond the Sierra BBS. Ken Williams, from the press release:

Sierra is interested in extending our core product-development technology to have multiplayer capabilities. Our long-term goal is to have games, similar to those we now sell, which can be played simultaneously by large groups of people over a wide-area network. We have no plans currently to announce any particular product, any timetable for roll-out, or even any sense of what form a national roll-out might take — e.g., whether we would operate our own network or offer our product through some existing network. This announcement is only made to correct misinformation that may have been leaked by our testers. Whereas we are very excited about this test, it is much too early to speculate as to whether it might lead to some marketable product. We should know more by early next year, at which time we will be able to comment further.

And so, with slightly under 1000 volunteer testers located in the Los Angeles area, a modest slate of classic parlor games like chess and bridge, and heaps of caveats like those above, The Sierra Network was born.

The test “yielded amazing results,” reported another press release the following May: “Many of our testers had never touched a computer before, but were suddenly averaging 20 hours per week and more on TSN.” In choosing the testers, Sierra had deliberately reached out beyond the demographic that typically played computer games, even going so far as to loan computers to those of their non-techie guinea pigs that needed them. Ken Williams had been inspired by his mother, an avid bridge player, to make that game a special priority, as he did the people of her advanced age who tended most frequently to play it — i.e., the least likely of all people to use a computer under normal circumstances.

The influence of Prodigy could be seen all over The Sierra Network, from the graphical interface that was designed to be easy enough for that much-abused least-common denominator, the proverbial grandmother, to the plan for flat-rate pricing of about $12 per month. It’s thus somewhat ironic to note that Prodigy itself was in danger of crashing in flames at the same time that The Sierra Network was getting off the ground. The former service’s membership had soared by 1991 to 600,000, but, as might have been predicted had its administrators looked more closely at the experience of CompuServe and other predecessors, a big chunk of those subscribers were proving more interested in interacting with one another than they were in engaging with the curated content Prodigy and their corporate-media partners provided. This was throwing the financial model all out of whack. Prodigy responded by censoring forum discussions, by limiting email to 30 messages per month, and by raising the subscription price to $15 per month. Some of their subscribers organized a so-called “Cooperative Defense Committee” to fight back, precipitating an internecine conflict the likes of which has never quite been seen before or since. Members of the user resistance claimed Prodigy was reading their emails, and a rumor spread, never to be conclusively proved or disproved, that Prodigy’s software was snooping through the contents of subscribers’ hard drives — thus providing the service with another dubious first as the centerpiece of the first notable spyware scandal in the history of the computer industry. Although the civil war had little obvious effect on the service’s overall subscriber count, which only continued to grow in a bullish environment for the idea of interpersonal computing in general, it cost Prodigy something less tangible but equally precious. After the great PR debacle of 1991, Prodigy would never again enjoy the prestige and influence of their first moment in the sun. Their thunder would increasingly be stolen by America Online, a service launched with much the same aspirations toward mainstream, non-computer-geek Middle America, but one which would prove to be much better managed in the long run.

So, as Sierra charged ahead with their own online service they had object lessons, should they choose to heed them, that managing such a service — especially at flat-rate pricing — was more difficult and expensive than it might first appear to be. In addition to Prodigy, they could look to PlayNet, the service which seven years before had tried to offer at discount prices to owners of Commodore 64 computers a suite of simple board and card games not all that dissimilar from those of the nascent Sierra Network, only to go bust within a few years, largely because little PlayNet had been unable to negotiate the favorable terms with the big telecommunications firms that might have made their business viable. Sierra too, while a big wheel in the computer-game industry, was next to nothing in the eyes of the telecom giants. Yet they believed they could overcome the factors that had killed PlayNet and nearly done in even Prodigy by using their basic service almost as a loss leader for premium content in the form of bigger, meatier games. Ken Williams described The Sierra Network as the cable television of online services. Sure, you could pay a fairly small flat fee and just get the basic package, but to get the online equivalent of HBO you’d have to pay a premium. The folks at Dynamix were already testing an online version of their hit World War I dogfighting simulator Red Baron, and Sierra planned to make two new “theme parks,” called SierraLand and LarryLand, available to subscribers at additional cost by 1992.

On May 6, 1991, Sierra announced that The Sierra Network was officially a go, being spun off as a wholly-owned subsidiary of the parent company. They intended to make it available to most of California at the flat rate of $12 per month by the end of the month, and to the entire country at that rate within a year. In the meantime, subscribers outside of California could gain access for $5 per month plus $2 per hour, still far cheaper than most other online services of the day.

As one might expect, though, early paying members were heavily concentrated in California. Far from being a disadvantage, this situation was in some ways just the opposite. When wildfires burned more than a thousand homes to the ground in northern California, The Sierra Network’s subscribers put together an impromptu emergency-response center to keep everyone updated on the fires’ current course. During happier times, subscribers organized pot lucks and picnics in the non-virtual world. And, inevitably, romance soon sprouted from this fertile soil of friendship; the first Sierra Network marriage proposal took place as early as August 30, 1991.

But Sierra’s ambitions for the service had of course always extended well beyond California. On June 1, 1992, they rolled out, just as they had promised, nationwide flat-rate pricing: $13 per month, with a usage cap of 30 hours per month to head off the sorts of heavy users who had so nearly been the death of Prodigy. To date, the service had been growing at a reasonable if not breathtaking pace despite going virtually un-promoted outside of Sierra’s own magazine, surpassing 25,000 subscribers in the first year. If not enough to set CompuServe, Prodigy, or America Online shaking in their boots, it still wasn’t bad for a service that offered little beyond games and socializing; even a non-gaming something as basic as email had taken months to arrive. Now, with the nationwide roll-out underway in earnest, Sierra launched the biggest advertising blitz in their history to that point, encompassing glossy print and even television. To accommodate the expected surge in subscriptions, the parent company found their online subsidiary their own space, moving them into a building that had formerly been the home of a local Oakhurst steakhouse known as The Old Barn. (The place had been a popular stop for tourists to nearby Yosemite National Park; there was a bit of a problem with trail-weary hikers turning up, marching in through the front door, and asking for a menu without ever noticing the changed signage.)

Ken Williams’s cable-television-inspired “premium packages” also started to come online — and also just as promised — during 1992. For the extra price of $4 per month per package, subscribers could access SierraLand, an online amusement park complete with white-water rafting, mini-golf, a videogame arcade, and paintball; LarryLand, an online casino, a veritable Lost Wages straight out of Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards; and MedievaLand, whose centerpiece was The Shadow of Yserbius, a more limited but better-looking multiplayer CRPG than America Online’s Neverwinter Nights. The truly hardcore could get access to it all, plus unlimited online time, for the low, low price of $150 per month — still a bargain compared to what some people were shelling out just to chat on services like CompuServe.

Ken Williams’s greatest business hero was Walt Disney. He particularly admired Uncle Walt’s talent for turning his cartoon characters into indelible icons of international pop culture, and strove to do the same for the stars of Sierra’s games. In the early 1990s, Larry Laffer, whose gradual transformation from the skeevy pervert of the first Leisure Suit Larry game to lovable loser was by then complete, suddenly started turning up everywhere: on tee-shirts; on coffee mugs; as an opponent in the casual-game collection Hoyle Book of Games; as the proprietor of LarryLand on The Sierra Network; even as the ersatz software mogul behind The Laffer Utilities, a collection of otherwise businesslike MS-DOS add-ons. If Larry never quite became the mainstream icon Sierra wished, you certainly can’t fault them for lack of effort.

To their credit, Sierra had understood from the beginning that the socializing that took place around the games would be at least as important as the games themselves to their subscribers; in this sense at least, they were the polar opposite of Prodigy’s benighted management. “Where people meet people to have fun,” ran The Sierra Network’s early tagline, consciously placing the “people” part before the “fun” of the games. “Playing [offline board and card] games has very little to do with gaming,” wrote Ken Williams. “An evening playing bridge with friends has more to do with the quality of your relationship with your friends than with the actual card-playing.” Sierra worked hard to recreate this chummy atmosphere in an online context.

Even as the various components of The Sierra Network might point back to PlayNet, to Neverwinter Nights, or (in the case of the online Red Baron) to GEnie’s Air Warrior, Ken Williams’s animating vision of the service made it stand out from an online marketplace of increasingly indistinguishable offerings. In the eyes of most modern gamers, the single-player plot-heavy adventure games that are still Sierra’s most famous vintage stock-in-trade might seem to exist at the opposite end of a continuum from the shorter-form grab-and-go games that made up the majority of The Sierra Network’s offerings. Yet Williams didn’t see things that way at all at the time.

In my recent conversation with Judith Pintar, she mentioned how she came to see CompuServe as a sort of virtual space with a spatial architecture of its own, a maze of twisty little passages winding through chat rooms, discussion boards, and online games. While that may have been an idiosyncratic take on CompuServe — an outgrowth of her unique personality — it was one that Ken Williams wanted to make real for everybody on The Sierra Network. To an extent rivaled only by Habitat, the earlier but brief-lived online community Lucasfilm Games had created for QuantumLink, he strained to turn The Sierra Network into an embodied space not at all far removed from the virtual spaces inside his company’s adventure games. Just as much as Sierra’s offline adventure games, their online service was to be a form of “interactive multimedia.” The Sierra Network, Williams had long since declared, was nothing less than “my vehicle for experimenting with virtual reality.” His vision was perhaps summed-up best in a tossed-off line he offered even while the premium “theme parks” were still twinkles in their developers’ eyes: “Wouldn’t it be nice if you could play our games, but all the other characters you ran into were real people?”

The first step a new subscriber took on the service was to make an avatar using the “FaceMaker” program, choosing an age, a sex, a race, a hair style and color, a facial expression, and more; it all added up to an almost infinite range of possibility. Some subscribers tried to construct avatars that looked pretty much like they themselves did — or at least like idealized versions of themselves — but others used The Sierra Network as an opportunity to try out entirely different identities. Such practices, which became known among the subscribers as “masquerading,” weren’t discouraged by the service’s administrators. On the contrary: a single subscriber was allowed to have multiple avatars, and plenty took advantage of that, putting on different looks, personalities, and even genders to suit their mood of any given evening. “Being us, whoever we are, is tough work,” said Jeffrey Leibowitz, The Sierra Network’s director of marketing. “It’s nice sometimes to not be you.” Marketing considered adopting as a slogan “Be all that you can’t be,” a great riff on the United States Army’s longtime slogan of “Be all that you can be,” but it was sadly rejected in the end, probably out of fear of offending delicate patriotic sensibilities.

The Sierra Network wasn’t a collection of services that you used; it was rather a geography of places that you visited.

The sense of embodied physicality was perhaps the key thing that made The Sierra Network so precious to the many — and there are a surprising number of them — who remember it with such nostalgic fondness today. The terminology of a cyber-space is all over Sierra’s own way of talking about the service — sometimes, one senses, for calculated reasons, but other times for unconscious reasons, simply because that terminology seemed the best to use to describe an experience of this nature. So, you didn’t sign into SierraLand or LarryLand, you went there. And once there, you didn’t enter commands or even click buttons; you strolled the midway of the amusement park or the aisles of the casino, looking for something — or someone — that caught your interest. Even the simplest games on The Sierra Network were constructed with this eye toward embodied virtual space; when you played bridge, you saw the table along with your partner and your opponents sitting across it, just as if you were really there. What if online life writ large had eschewed the metaphors of print from the beginning for embodied virtual reality? The Sierra Network takes us as close as we’re likely to get to answering that counter-factual.

By 1992, a real buzz was growing up around online services in general. America Online had an IPO that spring which exceeded all expectations, attracting committed backing from such influential patrons as Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Ross Perot, an independent candidate for President of the United States who would manage to attract 18.9 percent of the vote that November, was making news with his proposals for an “electronic town hall,” where citizens across the nation could come together to discuss the issues of the day with the politicians who served them.

The Sierra Network fit right into this zeitgeist, attracting considerable mainstream attention of its own. Noted tech pundit John Dvorak called it nothing less than “the future of telecommunications.” The Washington Post‘s business section wrote about it using words that might have been cribbed directly from Sierra’s own press releases: “If TSN takes off, it could define a new medium — the merger of computer games and online information services into a form of entertainment never seen before. TSN could ultimately propel Sierra into the big leagues, pushing the company far beyond its current annual sales of about $50 million.” Alan Truscott, arguably the world’s foremost authority on the game of bridge, promoted The Sierra Network’s online version of his favorite pastime via his New York Times column on same: “Playing on Sierra is less impersonal than it sounds. From a list of those available, designated by first names or code names, you invite three others to play. Each player designs a face that may or may not be an accurate portrait of themselves, which shows on your computer screen. It is easy to discuss bidding methods, conduct a postmortem, or simply chat.” “It would be wrong to suppose,” he concluded, “that playing bridge in one’s home while linked by computer and telephone to three other players must be an unsocial activity.”

Playing bridge on The Sierra Network.

By some metrics, then, The Sierra Network was doing quite well. Doubtless thanks not least to all this positive press, total subscription revenues jumped from a paltry $266,000 in the first year all the way to $2.825 million in the second.  And yet one stubborn fact couldn’t be disguised by all the good news: Ken Williams’s pet online service just wasn’t making Sierra any money. In fact, it was costing them a bundle. Unusually for this company that saw themselves as a maker of “premium” products with premium prices to match, Sierra had priced their service far too aggressively to ever turn a profit even with the optional packages. They had misjudged the cost of maintaining the computing and networking infrastructure to run the service, misjudged the speed at which telecommunications costs in general would decrease, and misjudged their ability to negotiate with the telecom giants as a paltry $50-million-a-year company.

Nor was the news unadulteratedly positive even on the demand side. By the spring of 1993, Sierra Network membership was showing ominous signs of having already plateaued, or even of having started going in the other direction. Many of the most basic aspects of running an online service — things that companies like CompuServe had been doing for years with apparent ease — were a huge struggle for Sierra. Their service crashed with disconcerting regularity, and they could never seem to catch up to customers’ demands on their bandwidth; trying to connect to The Sierra Network for a casual game of backgammon could often be, as Sierra’s marketing director John Williams put it, like trying to get through to Microsoft’s customer support right after the release of a new version of MS-DOS. In addition to spotty reliability and connectivity, another big problem the service faced in trying to further build its membership rolls was the very fact that it was so exclusively games-focused. The typical pattern on CompuServe or America Online was for customers to sign up with plenty of sober, practical reasons in mind or at least on the tongue — online news, online stock-market quotes, etc. — and then get inadvertently hooked on chat and games. The Sierra Network couldn’t pull the same bait and switch, for the simple reason that it lacked the same bait. To sign up for The Sierra Network, you had to be willing to say up-front that this was strictly an entertainment expense — strictly an indulgence, if you will. For some reason, many potential subscribers — even the ones with gigantic cable-television bills — seemed to find that a hard admission to make.

In the fiscal year ending March 31, 1993, Sierra as a whole turned the wrong kind of corner after years of steady profitability, posting an ugly loss of $12.3 million. While the reasons for this stark downturn extended well beyond the money being spent on The Sierra Network — fodder for future articles on this site — the latter certainly wasn’t helping the situation any. The online service alone lost $5 million that year. To this point, it had cost its parent $7.5 million over and above the revenue it had managed to generate during the period of its existence — or about the cost of making ten single-player multimedia adventure games and then giving them all away for free. Sierra was in the confusing position of having collected a fair number of subscribers for their online service, yet not seeing those numbers translate into less red ink on the bottom line. The annual report for fiscal 1993 reflects the frustration this was causing inside the parent company. “There can be no assurance that costs will not become prohibitive and threaten the economic viability of the network,” it states. “Further, there can be no assurance the revenue growth rate will continue into the future or that The Sierra Network will ever become profitable.” Ken Williams had had high hopes for The Sierra Network — hopes, one might even say, that brought him as close as such a hard-nosed businessman could ever come to real idealism — but he had never been noted for his patience with money-losing ventures. “To obtain necessary funding of our marketing campaigns and new product-development efforts for The Sierra Network,” concludes the annual report, “we sought a strategic partner who could bring capital, a well-respected brand name, and a large customer base.” That partner was to be AT&T. “If you’re a young online service out to compete with the big boys,” wrote John Williams in Sierra’s magazine, “AT&T is the kind of friend you want to have.”

On July 28, 1993, the deal was consummated after months of talks. AT&T bought a 20-percent stake in The Sierra Network, while General Atlantic Partners, a venture-capital firm who had done much to broker the deal, bought another 20 percent. But of almost more import than the initial sale was the statement that the long-term plan was for AT&T “eventually to assume controlling interest.” Sierra, trying to dig themselves out of a financial hole, were gradually divesting from their grandest experiment.

Because it made little sense to continue to call an online service that would be run with decreasing input from Sierra proper The Sierra Network, it was rechristened The ImagiNation Network. In a letter to his subsidiary’s employees, Ken Williams said the things that bosses generally do under such circumstances, promising that “there will be no significant changes as a result of this partnership” — right before informing his charges of all the things that would be changing. For example, they would soon be moving out of The Old Barn and, indeed, out of Oakhurst entirely, with its “inadequate communications links and unreliable electric power.” Instead of continuing as a closed playground curated solely by Sierra, ImagiNation would become “open” to “developers of entertainment, information, and transaction software and services.” In keeping with this new spirit of openness, a bridge of sorts would be built between ImagiNation and Prodigy to allow the latter’s 2.2 million subscribers access to all the delights of SierraLand, LarryLand, and MedievaLand. Thus Ken Williams and his online service came full circle, back to the original motivator.

On November 15, 1994, AT&T bought all remaining ImagiNation shares from Sierra and General Atlantic Partners for $40 million. While the former was still under contract to provide technical support and even to build occasional additions and enhancements, their active role in steering the service ended here if not earlier. In their eyes it was now, depending on which Sierra insider was doing the looking, either a failed experiment or a worthwhile venture that had had to be set free in order to reach its full potential. Sadly, the verdict of history would lean toward holders of the first view.

There is, however, one fascinating might-have-been associated with this final stage of The Sierra Network story. Among the documents in the Sierra archive at the Strong Museum of Play is a letter to Ken Williams from Bill Gates of Microsoft. It’s dated May 5, 1993, and is written in response to the impending initial buy-in by AT&T, which was already an open secret in the tech sector by that date. Gates, it seems, had wanted in on The Sierra Network himself. He’s more than a little miffed that Williams chose AT&T over Microsoft.

I am really disappointed you didn’t talk with us further after we sent our first proposal for working together on your Network. We feel that working with us would have provided the best deal for your shareholders since we would have paid more than AT&T and would have provided more of an outlet for the creative work at Sierra. Some of the key differences between the AT&T and Microsoft proposals are:

A. We believe in the entertainment service. We would have put some of our best people onto scaling up the marketing and technology immediately. AT&T is simply hiring a new person in and seeing what happens while adding priorities relating to new platforms when the focus should be cementing over 200,000 subscribers.

B. All of our online efforts would have been focused on the one network, providing for synergy. AT&T has their Eastlink, Telescript, and other consumer-network efforts completely separated from TSN.

C. Microsoft is focused on online activities. If you had spent more time with Bob Allen and me, the difference would have become clear.

Just why Ken Williams spurned such an enthusiastic, deep-pocketed, and comparatively agile suitor in favor of the rather hidebound AT&T is unknown to me. Had he chosen another course, the latter-day history of his personal passion project would, at the very least, have been very different.

As it happened, though, the most interesting and innovative stage of the former Sierra Network’s history was already behind it by the time Bill Gates wrote his letter. SierraLand, LarryLand, and MedievaLand remained around for some time to come, descending gradually into a homey decrepitude, but AT&T struggled with little success to build anything new and compelling around them. On August 7, 1996, America Online bought the service from AT&T for an undisclosed amount. There its last remnants were gradually engulfed and devoured by its owner’s higher-profile offerings. And thus passed into history Ken Williams’s unique, perhaps impractical but certainly romantic vision for an embodied online community — for, one might even say, the online service as virtual world. It would be many years before our real world would see its like again.

(Sources: the book On the Way to the Web: The Secret History of the Internet and Its Founders by Michael A. Banks; Sierra’s official magazines from Spring 1989, Fall 1989, Spring 1990, Summer 1990, Spring 1991, Summer 1991, Fall 1991, Spring 1992, Fall 1992, Winter 1992, June 1993, Summer 1993, and Holiday 1993; Computer Gaming World of November 1991 and December 1992; Electronic Games of December 1992; New York Times of April 12 1988, May 2 1993, July 18 1993, and August 19 1993; Washington Post of November 9 1992; San Francisco Chronicle of August 7 1996; Matt Barton’s YouTube interview with Susan Manley; press releases, annual reports, and other internal and external documents from the Sierra archive at the Strong Museum of Play.)

February 01, 2018

Choice of Games

New Hosted Game! Comrade or Czar by Albnoob

by Rachel E. Towers at February 01, 2018 07:41 PM

Hosted Games has a new game for you to play!

Are you prepared to lead the Revolution Of 1917? It’s the fall of the Czars! How will you build The Motherland!? It’s 25% off until February 8th!

Comrade or Czar is a 60,000 word interactive novel by Albnoob, 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.

• Lead armies to conquer the world!
• Build and reform Russia!
• Embrace Communism or stomp it out!
• Lead your side to victory!

Albnoob developed this game using ChoiceScript, a simple programming language for writing multiple-choice interactive novels like these. Writing games with ChoiceScript is easy and fun, even for authors with no programming experience. Write your own game and Hosted Games will publish it for you, giving you a share of the revenue your game produces.

January 31, 2018

Web Interactive Fiction

Nybbles.IO

by David Cornelson at January 31, 2018 05:41 PM

A good friend of mine, Jeff Panici, is going to post videos for a year, detailing how to build an old MS-DOS based video game in assembly language.

https://nybbles.io/
YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCaV77OIv89qfsnncY5J2zvg/featured

Check it out!

January 30, 2018

Post Position

Author Function

by Nick Montfort at January 30, 2018 10:15 PM

The exhibit Author Function, featuring computer-generated literary art in print, is now up in MIT’s Rotch Library (77 Mass Ave, Building 7, 2nd Floor) and in my lab/studio, The Trope Tank (Room 14N-233, in building 14, the same building that houses the Hayden Library). Please contact me by email if you are interested in seeing the materials in the Trope Tank, as this part of the exhibit is accessible by appointment only.

There are three events associated with the exhibit happening in Cambridge, Mass:

February 7, 6pm-7pm, a reading and signing at the MIT Press bookstore. Nick Montfort, Rafael Pérez y Pérez, and Allison Parrish.

March 5, 4:30pm-6pm, a reception at the main part of the exhibit in the Rotch Library.

March 5, 7pm-8pm, a reading and signing at the Harvard Book Store. John Cayley, Liza Daly, Nick Montfort, and Allison Parrish.

In addition to a shelf of computer-generated books that is available for perusal, by appointment, in the Trope Tank, the following items of printed matter are displayed in the exhibit:

  • 2×6, Nick Montfort, Serge Bouchardon, Andrew Campana, Natalia Fedorova, Carlos León, Aleksandra Ma&lstrokecka, and Piotr Marecki
  • A Slow Year: Game Poems, Ian Bogost
  • Action Score Generator, Nathan Walker
  • American Psycho, Mimi Cabell and Jason Huff
  • Anarchy, John Cage
  • Articulations, Allison Parrish
  • Autopia, Nick Montfort
  • Brute Force Manifesto: The Catalog of All Truth, Version 1.1, Series AAA-1, Vol 01, Brian James
  • Clear Skies All Week, Alison Knowles
  • Firmy, Piotr Puldzian P&lstrokucienniczak
  • for the sleepers in that quiet earth., Sofian Audry
  • From the Library of Babel: Axaxaxas Mlo – The Combed Thunderclap LXUM,LKWC – MCV – The Plaster Cramp, Christian Bök
  • Generation[s], J.R. Carpenter
  • Google Volume 1, King Zog
  • How It Is In Common Tongues, Daniel C. Howe and John Cayley
  • Incandescent Beautifuls, Erica T. Carter [Jim Carpenter]
  • Irritant, Darby Larson
  • Love Letters, Letterpress Broadside, Output by a reimplementation of a program by Christopher Strachey
  • Mexica: 20 Years – 20 Stories / 20 años – 20 historias, Rafael Pérez y Pérez
  • My Buttons Are Blue: And Other Love Poems From the Digital Heart of an Electronic Computer, A Color Computer
  • My Molly [Departed], Talan Memmott
  • no people, Katie Rose Pipkin
  • Phaedrus Pron, Paul Chan
  • Puniverse, Volumes 32 and 38 of 57, Stephen Reid McLaughlin
  • Re-Writing Freud, Simon Morris
  • Seraphs, Liza Daly
  • The Appearances of the Letters of the Hollywood Sign in Increasing Amounts of Smog and at a Distance, Poster, David Gissen
  • The Poiceman’s Beard is Half Constructed: Computer prose and poetry by Racter
  • The Truelist, Nick Montfort
  • Tristano, Nanni Balestrini
  • Written Images, Eds. Matrin Fuchs and Peter Bichsel

Here are some photos documenting the exhibit:

Author Function Rotch main display case

Author Function book displays and gallery walls

Author Function book displays and gallery walls

Author Function book displays and gallery walls

Author Function book displays and gallery walls

Author Function book displays and gallery walls

Author Function book displays and gallery walls

Author Function book displays and gallery walls

Author Function book displays and gallery walls

Author Function book displays and gallery walls

Author Function book displays and gallery walls

Author Function book displays and gallery walls

Author Function book displays and gallery walls

Author Function book displays and gallery walls

Author Function book displays and gallery walls

Author Function book displays and gallery walls

Author Function book displays and gallery walls

January 28, 2018

Wade's Important Astrolab

Eamon keeps on chugging in Eamon Remastered

by Wade ([email protected]) at January 28, 2018 07:26 AM

Keith Dechant recently released Eamon Remastered:

"Eamon is a classic interactive fiction game with RPG elements, written for the Apple 2 in 1980. Eamon Remastered is a remake of the classic game for the modern web. Play Eamon adventures in your browser without needing an emulator."

The Lair of the Minotaur in Eamon Remastered

I’ve tried Eamon Remastered, and it’s very good, graceful work, though still with a few light bugs and features to come that are being tweaked out. Eamon Remastered provides a mechanically faithful port of Eamon’s Main Hall, the place where you make your characters, plus a collection of classic Eamon adventures you can try in any order you choose. Characters are stored locally on your computer, so all you need to play is a web browser. There are twenty adventures on the site so far. The starting selection appears to be a curated one, a mix of the historically famous (in Eamon circles), the good, and the reasonable/sensible. I mean reasonable in the sense that the player won’t be killed in such adventures, instantly and repeatedly, by deathtraps and supermonsters. The 250+ adventures made for Eamon during its heyday vary massively in their difficulty level, quality and setting because they were all written by different people, and weren’t subject to any oversight or master plan. Keith’s choice of adventures to port to Eamon Remastered so far looks to spare random visitors from the threat of wack difficulty, and also from the conundrum of having too many adventures to choose from.

(If you’d like to read more about the harsh nature of the challenge presented by some old school Eamons, see my reviews of The Tomb of Y’Golonac and The Pyramind of Anharos on IFDB.)

Keith’s work builds on an MS-DOS port of Eamon called Eamon Deluxe, by Frank Black, a previous (and indefinitely ongoing? Or is it now definitely not-going?) project that had one of the same aims as Eamon Remastered: to make Eamon more easily playable by more people. Eamon Deluxe sought to achieve this via the ubiquity of the DosBOX emulator and by enhancing screen reader compatibility, but when I recently retried Eamon Deluxe on a High Sierra Mac, it was a bit tetchy.

Eamon’s history has enough spread and divergence that it’s as fascinating a one to wander as that of its more cerebral antecedent, Crowther and Woods’s Adventure. You can follow Jason Dyer’s exhaustive attempts to catalogue differences across early versions of Adventure over in his Renga in Blue blog. Eamon was born in a similarly accessible/hackable programming environment, and so from it grew a tree of numerous cousins, offshoots and ports, some with minor tweaks, some with major. Some of them were to other systems and some to languages other than English. Just over the past few years, more thought-to-be-lost adventures on old floppies have turned up and been added to the general library, or to the PC Eamon Museum.

Matt Clark’s intermittently updated blog The Eamon Adventurers Guild tracks all of these finds and updates. It's a good read if you want to see what Eamon stuff has been going on between 2004 and the present. A couple of my favourite posts include the tour of the historical promo disk for an envisioned (read: now vaporware) Apple IIGS-specific version of Eamon and the review of a sneaky commercial version of Eamon called Load’N’Go Beginners Cave.

A ton of heavy Eamon lifting was done post-heyday by Frank Black with Eamon Deluxe. As I understand it, another of its goals was an exhaustive one: to eventually port every Eamon adventure to Eamon Deluxe. It seems unlikely that will ever happen, but Eamon Deluxe already sports a solid catalogue of adventures, including some original ones for the system. It also contains a reorganised Eamon adventure tree with vacant branches in it ready to receive the yet-to-be-ported games. I was chuffed to see there’s even a slot in there for my game Leadlight.

Another neat feature of Eamon Deluxe is that it holds reviews for many of the adventures in the app itself. That’s to say that you can read them from the same interface in which you browse the adventures. This approach gives Eamon Deluxe the potential to be the Ultimate All-In-One Eamon Box, though I think it will remain a potential.

To read more about the earliest days of Eamon (from a recent perspective) you can also check out Jimmy Maher’s posts about it in The Digital Antiquarian.

January 26, 2018

PyramidIF

Doki Doki Literature Club! (and best playthroughs)

by Hanon Ondricek ([email protected]) at January 26, 2018 08:40 PM

Not like this game needs more praise piled on it, but I wrote up a short ramble worshipping Team Salvato and linking to my favorite playthroughs. I'm not syndicating this on Planet IF due to spoilers, but you can read it on my blog.