Planet Interactive Fiction

July 08, 2020

Renga in Blue

Alien Adventure (Chou, 1981)

by Jason Dyer at July 08, 2020 01:41 AM

We’ve had quite a few games by teenagers now, enough so that it’s hardly a surprise when I unearth another one: Alien Adventure is a TRS-80 game written by Thomas Chou,

SOPHOMORE 1980-81
WARREN CENTRAL HIGH SCHOOL
VICKSBURG, MISSISSIPPI

What has been surprising so far is a lack of teenaged “voice”. Barring spelling and grammar errors; the sheer minimalism enforced by computer limits has led to relatively brisk prose. For example, in the game I just played, Interstellar War:

A missile streams out from this space ship, and misses the enemy ship!
The enemy ship returns fire with its own missile!
Your point defense laser system knocks it out of the sky just in time before it reaches you!

Compare with the stand-alone story the game was based on, that is, what the teen-aged author Roger Wilcox was like when he didn’t have to worry about character limits.

“Then what are you waiting for?? Send out an anti- missile!!”

The helmsman didn’t waste time in responding, but simply carried out the order. The small missile streaked toward its intended target, but instead of exploding when it hit, it…melted! That thing must’ve had a temperature of over three thousand degrees celsius!! As the thing continued to race toward Zelta-Dee, the commander gave the order to split it with their most powerful microwelding laser. The laser went through it as a sword through butter, but it did not split in half— instead, it reassembled into a long, narrow cylinder. Now it became obvious—yes it was matter, but in the form of a very hot liquid or gas— probably liquid. The commander made his biggest defensive order: “With the only exception being life support, divert all power to the screen!”

In Alien Adventure, Thomas Chou jettisoned some typical parser amenities (you’ll see specifics shortly) for longer text, but that resulted in a very, ah, high school sophomore kind of read.

Before the game proper even starts there’s an “intro” file which gives credit to a “Cord Coslor” in addition to Chou, asks the player PLEASE INSERT 25 CENTS and prompts the player to type the number 25, and then has a long screen before the game proper starts.

Now this reminds me of the writing of teenagers; the rambling tone, the bragging about the BASIC being machine language quality, the “SINCE YOU’RE CRYING NOW JUST FORGET IT YOU BIG BALL BABY” line and the “MWA” at the end.

The game asks your name and if you’re male or female, and then it’s off to the mission:

The game strongly hinted (in that long opening) you needed to HIT DOOR, so I was quite baffled when I HIT DOOR and the game responded “What ?”

This wasn’t an error message. The parser asks for the verb and noun separately. “Your command” is not referring to a full VERB NOUN combo, but just the verb; then it prompts “What ?” where you enter just the noun.

This was an absolute pain and I kept accidentally typing two-word commands the entire time I was playing, then having to type the noun again. An example from later in the game:

THERE IS A HEAVY DUTY FLASHLIGHT HERE.

Your command ? GET FLASHLIGHT

What ? FLASHLIGHT

(This is incidentally the approach some early Japanese adventure games used, since parsing Japanese is difficult and really only managed successfully when SystemSoft made ports of Infocom games in the 90s.)

Back to the opening: after HIT and then DOOR:

You’re dropped in a space station with lots of bodies and aliens that attack at random.

You have a gun (from the start) which you can use to teleport but not kill the aliens.

There are at least two sepulvadites; a male and female version. Remember, the game asked you to choose a gender at the start; if you are the opposite gender of the sepulvadite you are facing, you can KISS / SPULVADITE to drive it away.

They’re strictly hetero; if you try to kiss the male alien when you’re male or female alien when you’re female, you’re told “Being a member of the same sex, it (Luckily) shows no interest in you.”

Placed randomly, the first floor of the station has a silver knife, a key, a flashlight, a battery, a root beer, and glasses.

The glasses can be used to read a message on the wall.

To escape, you need to get into one of the “hidden passage” rooms using UNLOCK / DOOR followed by OPEN / DOOR while holding a key. Inside the hidden rooms are dark, so you also need a flashlight and a battery and then the commands TURN ON / FLASHLIGHT.

TURN ON I needed to dive the source code for; I was under the impression all verbs were single word commands, so I tried LIGHT (as works in most games) but no: it has to be specifically TURN ON.

Once inside the hidden passage, you can try CLIMB / ESCALATOR but sometimes it doesn’t work and the game says “No”. I don’t understand why; when this happened I would wander the station a little and come back and try again.

The second floor has three escape ships. The goal (according to the source code) is to find the correct one of the three ships, TURN ON / SHIP, and fly to victory. I’m saying “the source code” because I never quite managed it, possibly due to a bug.

The problem is when entering the ship room the game is programmed to make the protagonist thirsty.

While dying from thirst, the player can’t use the ship. I drank root beer which had a message indicated the effect was cured, yet the effect kept going. So I suspect there’s a bug here.

I might be missing something. There’s a room with a voice saying DRINK ME

a similar one with a voice saying EAT ME, and a moss that complains about being dry.

However, I haven’t been able to get anything useful to happen at those places, and death results in a reset with the strange non-working escalators, so I’m past my patience enough to throw in the towel here. The alien eats well tonight.

(Still, there’s always someone from my audience who is curious, so you can play the game online here or read the source code here.)

July 06, 2020

Choice of Games

Author Interview: Karelia Hall, 180 Files: The Aegis Project

by Mary Duffy at July 06, 2020 01:41 PM


Uncover a web of evil as an elite superspy! You might break a few rules—or a few hearts—but you won’t break cover. As Agent 180, a star secret agent, you’ve never found a problem you couldn’t solve with guns, gadgets, or a devastating quip. But after a personal tragedy sends your life off course, your next mission will test you to your very limits.

180 Files: The Aegis Project is a 184,000 word interactive spy thriller by Karelia Hall. I sat down with Karelia to talk a little about how the game went from contest winner to Choice of Games title. 180 Files: The Aegis Project releases this Thursday, July 9th.

How did 180 Files come about? What prompted you to begin writing it?

The original idea came from thinking about how the action genre and the Bond-inspired superspy genre tends to have very clearly-defined character roles. You have the good guy, the clearly evil bad guy, the sexy love interest, and so on. I thought it would be fun to play around with that, so that what the reader is expecting might not be the role that character actually has, and I wrote a short story-game based on that premise. When the contest came up I then decided to expand that into a full-sized game in order to enter. The concept changed a lot in that process. I had originally intended it to be essentially a genre parody, but as I began developing plot and characters it naturally became more serious (though I still left the crocodile pit in).

In the full game, I liked the idea of having a focus on Agent 180, the player character as a character in their own right and not just a cipher. It ties into what for me is one of the great strengths of interactive fiction, which is the feeling that you’re inviting the reader/player to help you tell this story. I’ll tell you where the character is, but you tell me how they got here, and why, and together we’ll see where they’re going next…

This was the winner of the Choice of Games contest in 2018, and now it’s being published. Can you talk a little about the process of editing the game between now and then?

One of the main changes made in the editing process was making changes to the game stats. The three original skill stats were expanded into five. To give the player some more concrete goals to aim for, some more tracking stats were added like the Coverup/Expose stat which linked into a pre-existing subplot involving a reporter investigating the same case as the player character.

I also got the chance to flesh out some parts of the game that needed it. For example, in the climax of the original game, if you’d failed some earlier checks you ended up with all sorts of exciting obstacles. But if you’d been successful all the way through then it became too easy and lost some of the tension. Now there’s a lot more happening there!

What surprised you most about that process?

It can be surprising just how much even making what seems like small changes to the game stats and structure can change things downstream. A tweak here becomes another possible branch there which then becomes a whole extra scene that’s needed to tie things back to the rest of the game.

What did you find most challenging in editing the game for publication?

The most challenging part for me was probably keeping a sense of how the game is balanced throughout. You have to be going through it with an eye to the stat options you use–have you been favouring one more than others? Is this part going to be too difficult? Is it going to be too easy, so players will likely miss out on interesting things that can happen when you fail? When the game branches, is the amount of content in each branch roughly equal? It can be especially difficult if you have great ideas for one or two options but are struggling to think of a third – sometimes that requires you to go right back to the drawing board to figure out what the scene really needs.

Do you plan to write another game?

Yes, I do have a few plans, but that’s all I’m saying for now!

July 05, 2020

what will you do now?

That itch bundle: Sagebrush, Hidden Folks

by Verity at July 05, 2020 11:42 AM

Sagebrush

Redact Games. First person perspective. Time to completion: 2h 44min

I finished Sagebrush, an atmospheric exploration game where you explore what’s left of a cult compound, and find out what happened to it via journals and voice recordings.

Screenshot from game showing outdoor scene under a starlit night sky

Sagebrush is quite sparse in some sense, not least because it is literally set in an arid landscape. But it oozes atmosphere, from the lo-fi rendering to lighting changes throughout. On a side note, recommend that you fiddle with the accessibility settings if you have difficulty making out details. I had to increase the in-game brightness to maximum…

Good writing, with a twist that seems believable. The end sequence I found protracted, but wrapped most things up.


Hidden Folks

Adriaan de Jongh. Isometric point and click. Time to completion: 3h

Game header image, showing a hand-drawn streetside scene

Hidden Folks was on my wishlist for the longest time, and I’d forgotten about it until the bundle! This is Where’s Waldo, but on an epic scale. There is some truly gorgeous artwork, and adjusting from the initial impression of “wow, there’s far too much!” to scanning the image, to admiring details, is incredibly satisfying.

Characters are sketched out in a line or two, with some effort towards wider representation… at least with non-English names. The sound effects are entirely human-generated, which means the soundtrack release is called Mouth Sounds! It is delightful!

July 03, 2020

Renga in Blue

Interstellar War: Safe for Peace

by Jason Dyer at July 03, 2020 07:41 PM

For those not versed in the ways of Star Trek, a brief supercut of technobabble from Discovery:

Starting in the Next Generation days, writers would often put “(TECH)” in their draft scripts to be later filled in by the science advisor André Bormanis. With technobabble, the audience does not need to understand the actual content of what is being said; it only needs to be conveyed that the characters have confidence in what is going on.

In interactive form, having the audience not understand how things work is significantly more of a problem. Infocom’s Starcross (1982) managed fairly well with the inclusion of realistic physics which could be sussed out by a canny player; Interstellar War’s second part of the game, on the other hand, mostly feels like “magic”.

I left off last time having teleported onto a ship orbiting above the main character’s destroyed planet, and a “treaty”. The room with the treaty also had a red button marked “limbo” and a gold button marked “fire” which did nothing. A bit of poking around yielded a computer room with a “chip shunt”, a “engine room” with an “empty drive box”, and a “vacuum oven” where it’s possible to die in colorful fashion.

You are in a plastic room beside a vacuum oven. Visible items:

Pulled-down lever. Open oven door.

Obvious exits: West

>PUSH LEVER
Ok
Through a window in the door, you see a red glow.
And the heat comes out! You’re fried!

A storage room included a magnetic bottle, field-charged tongs, a lightning rod, and a suit of hardened titanium armor.

Technobabble Moment #1: In the engine room, there’s valve which releases “fusile deuterium” from the engine; in normal circumstances this kills you, but if you’re holding the magnetic bottle, it gets contained inside. There’s no reason to suss this out other than just experiment.

You are in the engine room. Visible items:

Window into engine. Large knob & valve. Empty drive box.

Obvious exits: North

>TURN KNOB
A stream of fusile deuterium shoots out from the engine, and is instantly pulled into the magnetic bottle.

This is still pretty easy to run into accidentally, but here I was terribly stuck and had to resort to periodic checks at Dale Dobson’s walkthrough. (He himself had to check the source code for some things.)

The first thing I missed was that the titanium armor lets you go back to the sandstorm that melted the wrench from last time, and enter it. I admit a failure to visualize; I didn’t think of the sandstorm being an extra “room” it was possible to enter.

You’re right on top of a dangerous whirlpool of sand. The sand is swirling fast enough to grind anything.

Obvious exits: South

>ENTER WHIRLPOOL
You are in the sandy whirlpool. Visible items:

Piece of silicon.

Obvious exits: Up

Technobabble Moment #2: Once you have the silicon you can take it back to the vacuum oven, turn on the oven, and end up with … still the silicon, but also some transistor crystals.

>PUSH LEVER
Ok
Through a window in the door, you see a red glow.

>PULL LEVER
Ok
The glow from the oven window ceases.

>OPEN DOOR
Ok

>GO DOOR
Ok

You are in the vacuum oven. Visible items:

Piece of silicon. Transistor crystals.

Technobabble Moment #3: You can then take the two items and MIX which obtains a computer chip, which is then usable at the chip shunt. This fixes the inactive red and gold buttons. The gold button fires a missile which flies harmlessly into space, while the red button complains the engine isn’t working yet.

>PUSH GOLD
A missile streams out from this space ship, and travels harmlessly into space.

Technobabble Moment #4: To fix the engine requires dropping the bottle with fusile deuterium, getting out the lightning rod and typing THROW ROD.

>DROP BOTTLE
Ok

>THROW ROD
It flies into the air, catches a bolt, and brings it down to the bottle.

The bottle becomes a “reverse-charged bottle” in the process.

Technobabble Moment #5: Now the bottle can be inserted into the empty drive box at the engine, and the engine is now described as full of antimatter. So (begin Trek monologue here) fusile deuterium combined with lightning obtained by throwing a lightning rod should generate sufficient antimatter to run the drive, Captain! (end Trek monologue)

>PUSH RED
A tunnel of seemingly infinite length forms in front of your ship, and it is suddenly whisked into it. Stars pass by at tens of thousands of times the speed of light for a few minutes, and then the “limbo” travel draws to a close.

This flies the ship into a confrontation with the enemy! Fortunately, we have the arsenal of freedom:

>PUSH GOLD
A missile streams out from this space ship, and misses the enemy ship!
The enemy ship returns fire with its own missile!
Your point defense laser system knocks it out of the sky just in time before it reaches you!

>PUSH GOLD
A missile streams out from this space ship, and scores a direct hit!
In a soundless concussion of light, the entire enemy ship is enveloped in a thermonuclear fireball!
You’ve made the systems safe for peace! … For now.

This would have been mostly satisfying without the technobabble blitz. The usual “fix” would be to add more description to the various items so that, e.g., it’d be clear that the lightning rod was a thing you throw. I realize intent was likely to force the player to experiment; while experiment can on occasion be satisfying, the overall narrative effect was of the main character blundering into a working ship.

From the first-draft script for Voyager’s episode Parallax, season 1. You can see the use of (TECH). Image originally from an eBay auction.

The Digital Antiquarian

Under a Killing Moon

by Jimmy Maher at July 03, 2020 03:41 PM

We couldn’t believe one CD could be filled up so quickly.

— Aaron Conners

Bountiful, Utah, is the second city of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Legend has it that its patriarch, a herdsman named Perrigrine Sessions, exclaimed, “Here at last is paradise on earth!” on the day in 1847 when he first looked down upon the lush valley where the city stands today.

Like so many Mormon communities, Bountiful seems frozen in time, or rather out of time, a vision of a bucolic 1950s small-town America that barely ever existed in reality. The city’s newsletters have a weirdly anachronistic tone, regardless of their cover date. An issue from 1993 notes with alarm that a gang (!) has been formed, whilst going on to add a little reluctantly that it doesn’t appear to have committed any actual crimes yet. (“We hope that gang activity can be stopped before it takes a foothold.”) The same issue looks forward to “patriotic Americana” in the city park with “Utah Voices and the 23rd Army Band.” Somewhere in Bountiful, one senses, a middle-aged matron is still shaking her head disapprovingly over Elvis Presley and those gyrating hips of his — “and yet he seems such a nice, well-spoken young man otherwise…”

She was doubtless doing the same in the late 1960s, when a handful of Bountiful kids started to shoot their own movies on the new Kodak film format of Super 8. Chris Jones, Doug Vandegrift, and a collection of assorted siblings, cousins, and friends spoofed the things they were watching at the local cinema and on television: Batman, Tarzan, Mission: Impossible. Judging from the few fragments of their movies that have survived, they were hopelessly square — it’s hard to believe that they’re contemporaneous with the likes of Woodstock and Easy Rider — but also clever and endearingly cheeky. Typical Bountiful art, in other words.

Inspired by these experiments, Vandegrift went off to university to study acting, while Jones, being of a more practical bent, went out for finance. After university, Vandegrift switched from acting for a camera to drawing for one, landing a job with Hanna-Barbera illustrating Saturday-morning cartoons. He parlayed that gig into an impressive career; he won an Emmy Award in 1988 for his work on Muppet Babies. Meanwhile Jones wound up an accountant at an engineering firm in Salt Lake City.

Jones had a friend named Bruce Carver, who in 1982 bought one of the first Commodore 64s ever sold in Utah. He discovered a latent genius in himself as soon as he began to program it, and founded Access Software to publish his work. Jones initially joined the venture, whose offices would move back and forth between Salt Lake City and Bountiful as it grew, as its part-time sales representative and accountant, but he quickly grew fascinated with the creative potential of the new medium his friend was exploring. Thus he sketched out the scenario for a multi-part action game called Beach-Head, which Carver then proceeded to implement in code. Like virtually everything else Jones would ever do on a computer, this first game was inspired by his love of movies — in this case, by rah-rah World War II movies starring John Wayne and similarly lantern-jawed leading men. Thanks to Carver’s programming chops and Jones’s instinct for cinematic drama, Beach-Head became the breakout hit that put Access on the map upon its release in October of 1983. Raid Over Moscow and Beach-Head II, more games in the same style, did almost as well in 1984 and 1985.

After that, however, Bruce Carver stumbled upon the subject matter that would sustain Access for almost two decades. He and his brother Roger Carver made a golf game called Leader Board in 1986, which begot World Class Leader Board the following year, which in turn begot the long-running Links series in 1990. These games were very, very good for Access in general, but something of a mixed blessing for Chris Jones, who was now working full-time for the company, keeping track of all the money they were bringing in. The reality was that he just didn’t have much to contribute creatively to a golf simulation.

So, he decided to get the old gang back together and make another movie instead. Vandegrift had recently returned to Bountiful to take a job as Access’s art director, and was more than up for Jones’s plan. The two had dreams of showing at Sundance as they wrote a script that combined The Maltese Falcon with Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Jones took the starring role of a private detective born in the wrong time, who channeled not only Humphrey Bogart but also Roy Rogers, what with his penchant for yodeling cowboy tunes. The detective-cum-cowboy’s name was Tex Murphy.

Tex Murphy the yodeling cowboy, as seen in Plan Ten from Outer Space.

But the film went disastrously wrong. All Sundance ambitions went out the window when someone stole the gang’s brand-new 16-millimeter camera, forcing them to switch back to Super 8, then to videotape because, hey, film gets expensive. Most of the soundtrack got lost, forcing everyone to re-dub their lines. The project devolved into Plan Ten from Outer Space, a ludicrous farce whose only obvious advantage over the awful Ed Wood film it purports to spoof is the fact that it knows how terrible it is. And yet it’s also really, genuinely funny, even when it’s abundantly clear that its creators have no idea what they’re doing. It’s smart in its amateurishness, bursting with a joie de vivre that just can’t be faked. In this, it has much in common with what came later from many of the same creators.

Disappointed to have made a film that could only be shown to family and friends, however much fun he’d had with it, Jones proposed adapting it into a computer game built out of spare parts that happened to be lying around the Access offices. Bruce Carver had been blending real-world photography with computer graphics since making the first Leader Board a couple of years before; for that game and its sequel, he had captured Roger Carver swinging a golf club on videotape and imported selected frames using primitive digitization technology, all in order to give a smooth, realistic depiction of the subject. And Access also had a vaguely Starglider-like outer-space shoot-em-up called Echelon on the shelf, which Bruce Carver had worked very hard on but which had given a poor return on his investment; the game had never sold very well. Now, he agreed to let Jones make an adventure game relying heavily on digitized images, its puzzle-solving scenes glued together by a flight-simulator game that re-purposed some of the old Echelon code. It would move Tex Murphy into the dystopian world of the year 2033, largely dropping his Roy Rogers persona but doubling down on Humphrey Bogart. Cheerfully appropriating the name of a classic Martin Scorsese film without giving it a second thought, Jones dubbed the game Mean Streets.

Today Jones regards Mean Streets, like Plan Ten from Outer Space, as non-canonical, a piece of Tex Murphy juvenilia, and that’s probably a fair assessment. But, as with the movie, auguries of what came later are all over this work. Mean Streets mixes wildly disparate interfaces and modes of play with giddy abandon: the flight simulator you use to fly Tex’s speeder from place to place, the side-scrolling shoot-em-up you get dumped into when negotiations go south, the adventure game of searching locations for clues, the menu-driven conversations with some two dozen witnesses and suspects in the crime you’re trying to solve. It stitches this crazy quilt together using cutting-edge technical tricks from its time: all of the characters you meet are presented as 256-color digitized photographs — Jones once again plays Tex — and snippets of digitized speech pop up here and there, thanks to another of Bruce Carver’s brilliant innovations, a technology called Real Sound that let a game play back just what the name would imply on an MS-DOS computer without an add-on sound card.

Such an overweening focus on trendy gimmicks seldom yields a classic game; no surprise, then, that Mean Streets doesn’t quite earn that label. And yet Jones, working with Doug Vandegrift as art director, managed to bring it closer to that status than one might expect, thanks to yet another quality that would show up again in the future: a thoroughgoing willingness among the developers to put themselves in the player’s shoes, to try to play with her rather than against her. In Mean Streets, you can fly your speeder manually everywhere if that’s what you enjoy, or you can turn on the autopilot and zip to your destination; you can screw around in the desert outside of town shooting bounty hunters all day, or you can diligently pursue the resolution of the mystery with the help of the notepad thoughtfully included in the box. Even when it comes to the gimmicks, one never gets the impression the developers were thinking, “Including real pictures in our game will surely make us market leaders and sell a million copies!” No, it’s rather, “Gee, real pictures… in a game! How cool is that? Let’s do it!”

The “cast” of Mean Streets consisted of colleagues and friends, along with a smattering of fashion models recruited from a local agency. This character, whose name is Sylvia Linsky, would later show up in Under a Killing Moon as Tex Murphy’s ex-wife. (The course of love is never straight and true…) Even these few lines of text are enough to demonstrate the awkward writing that dogged these early games, which would be remedied only by the arrival of Aaron Conners on the scene. “If only I knew how she felt for me…” About me, maybe?

Released in late 1989, Mean Streets sold well enough to justify continuing with adventure games as a sideline to Access’s main business of golf simulations. In fact, Jones, Vandegrift and their colleagues made no fewer than three more games in the same general style as Mean Streets, minus only the flight simulator and shoot-em-up sequences, which most players of the first game had agreed were a bridge too far. The games in question were called Countdown, Martian Memorandum, and Amazon: Guardians of Eden, of which trio only the middle entry starred Tex Murphy. Then, the era of juvenilia ended as Jones and company took things to another level entirely.

Access was flying higher than ever at the time, but the reasons for their success still had much more to do with their golf games than their adventure games. In 1992, the year that Chris Jones made Amazon, Bruce Carver made Links 386 Pro, the first major game of any stripe to require a high-resolution “Super VGA” graphics card. It became a smashing hit, selling to many gamers who couldn’t care less about the sport of golf but just wanted to take in the mouth-watering details of the game’s meticulously recreated real-world courses. With Access thus flusher than ever with cash, Jones sought and won permission to, as he put it, “make the Links 386 of adventure games,” employing not only the new technology of SVGA but also CD-ROM. It was a tremendous gamble — the industry had been waiting in vain for CD-ROM to break through for literally years already — but the money flowing in from Links put Access in a position where they could afford to take such risks.

Although Doug Vandegrift had provided welcome assistance, all of Access’s adventure games to date had been Chris Jones’s babies at bottom, a fact that was perhaps not completely to their benefit. Jones was many things, but he wasn’t a terribly accomplished writer, and it often showed. Luckily, Access had recently hired as a technical writer a fellow named Aaron Conners, holder of a degree in English literature from the University of Utah. He’d become chummy with Jones when he was assigned to write hints for Amazon. Now, Jones asked him to write a full-length script for a third Tex Murphy game that would pull out all the stops.

It was the best move he ever made; Conners brought a whole new dimension to the character, adding not just more layers of humor but a degree of pathos as well. Conners:

He’s a man out of time, which works well because we can put him in an environment that none of us are familiar with, and he doesn’t seem to be familiar with it either. So, we can relate to him.

At the same time, he’s got the sensibilities of the 1940s, which is nostalgic to us. I think it ties in really well together, but it’s inherently humorous because he’s constantly out of place, no matter where he goes. He’s a [private detective], and he doesn’t really have any peers [in the future]. When he goes to the people who hire him, they’re generally higher class and think he’s scum. And yet he thinks that everyone at his level or lower is scum.

Tex’s basic attitude reminds me of the George Carlin line: “When you’re out driving, anyone driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone driving faster than you is a maniac.” That’s kind of the way Tex is. He doesn’t seem to fit in with anyone. Tex has an inherent dislike of people who are born privileged. So he just has to poke them all the time. That’s how I see Tex’s character, fueled by this natural irreverence.

In November of 1992, three months after being given the assignment, Conners handed Jones the story for Under a Killing Moon, then stepped up to join him as co-designer. The two have been professionally inseparable ever since.

The story takes place in the San Francisco of 2042, ten years after Mean Streets. The people of the city, who live out their lives in a Blade Runner-esque nocturnal setting, have been segregated into “norms” who don’t evince radiation-induced mutations and “mutes” who do. Tex himself is a norm, but he feels more comfortable among the mutes who inhabit the ghettos of the city. In the course of the game, his investigation of a petty robbery at a local pawnshop puts him on the trail of a worldwide eugenicist conspiracy to cleanse the earth of mutants and re-constitute the human race from pure stock.

Doug Vandegrift crafted the look of the setting, blending film noir with science fiction in a way whose only obvious antecedents were his and Jones’s own earlier works and the aforementioned Blade Runner. Jones:

The model was old-style, rundown, down and out, seedy, making it feel like the [Great] Depression. In Tex’s neighborhood it could be 1938. Dirty, dark alleys and streets, wrecked buildings, that post-apocalypse feel. Then in the new city, Tex moves through beautiful condominiums and high-tech office complexes and facilities.

Like the Access adventure games that had come before it, Under a Killing Moon would knit together all of the trendiest new techniques in game development. But, in a telling sign of the changing times, the nature of those techniques was now such that this game would necessarily be ambitious — and expensive — on an almost unprecedented scale. At its core, it would be built around two seemingly wildly disparate approaches: a 3D-rendered virtual reality and full-motion video starring real actors.

At the time that Under a Killing Moon was first being conceived, the potential for 3D rendering outside the context of vehicular simulations was best demonstrated by two games with polar-opposite personalities: Blue Sky Productions’s CRPG Ultima Underworld and id Software’s Wolfenstein 3D. The former was by far the more complete implementation of a 3D environment, but paid the price for it by running rather slowly even on machines that met its steep system requirements. Wolfenstein 3D, on the other hand, was much more limited — it was more of an illusion of a 3D environment than the real thing — but it ran like blazes on almost any computer made during the last five years. Ultima Underworld let you do all sorts of things in its world, from swimming to flying to casting spells; Wolfenstein 3D let you run through suspiciously uniform corridors and shoot Nazis. As the decade progressed, all games that employed 3D rendering would sort themselves on a continuum between these two archetypes.

Under a Killing Moon boasted some of the most impressive 3D environments yet seen on a computer. This part of the game was a technological marvel in its own right.

Jones and Conners, for their part, were interested in using 3D not as a test of reflexes but to bring their world to life in a way that third-person graphic adventures, including Access’s own earlier ones, did not. Although Tex Murphy must sometimes use stealth to hide from enemies in the 3D sequences, he never shoots anyone at all within them. Even all these years later, Under a Killing Moon and its eventual sequels still stand out as unusual, noble efforts to use the potential of 3D in the service of something other than what the politicians would soon be labeling “murder simulators.” Jones:

When we sat down to create this experience, we asked ourselves, “If I’m a private investigator, what do I want to do?” Hey, I want to look in drawers! I want to crawl around, look at footprints on the floor, pull things out and examine them! And I want to do that stuff myself. I want to control the action. I don’t want some mouse click to take me on a path over there. Give me all the freedom that you can, then let me interact with that environment.

In talking about “some mouse click to take me on a path over there,” Jones is implicitly comparing his game to The 7th Guest, the industry’s first big CD-ROM-exclusive hit, which appeared in March of 1993 and paved the way for Under a Killing Moon by unleashing at last the long-anticipated wave of CD-ROM uptake among consumers. And indeed, at a casual glance The 7th Guest seems like a very similar game to Access’s effort: it too blends 3D environments with full-motion-video clips of real actors, and it too is among the earliest games to require an SVGA graphics card.

Look closer, however, and the differences become stark. The 7th Guest uses a node-based movement system; thus Jones’s disparaging reference above. Your movements from node to node inside the haunted mansion where it takes place are presented via pre-rendered 3D animations. Under a Killing Moon, on the other hand, does its rendering on the fly, giving you a glorious free-scrolling environment to roam as you will — crouching, bending, looking on top of things and under things and inside things. It’s an extraordinary achievement, especially given that it’s almost entirely the work of a single programmer, a longtime Access stalwart named Bruce Johnson. In order to get the speed he needed from the hardware available at the time, he had to write it in pure assembly language — an approach which even as storied a programmer as id’s John Carmack had abandoned by that point as just too much trouble. Access Software is seldom mentioned as a 3D pioneer on the level of Looking Glass Technologies (née Blue Sky Productions) and id Software, but perhaps that’s unjust. Their reputation in this field may have been ironically undermined by their other ambitions — for, instead of being content merely to redefine the state of the art in 3D environments, Jones and Conners used 3D as just one component in their game.

The other side of the equation is, as mentioned, full-motion video, which is used for cut scenes that advance the story along and for your menu-driven conversations with others. Like virtually all such productions from the 1990s, Under a Killing Moon leaves much to be desired by the cineastes among us. Even the most experienced professional actors would surely have struggled to deliver good, natural-feeling performances when forced to ply their trade in front of a plain blue screen, waving around clumsy props that would later be painted over by Access’s artists, being directed by Jones and Conners themselves, who, clever and creative though they were, had never been to film school. But then, much of the cast of Under a Killing Moon are not professional actors, and, believe me, it shows.

A conversation with Beek Nariz, who was played by Doug Vandegrift. He “nose” a lot about goings-on in the criminal underworld, and what he doesn’t know he can sniff out.

Whether that quality of rank amateurishness is ultimately to the game’s detriment, however, is a different question. Under a Killing Moon‘s secret sauce, which makes it work even where it really ought not to, is its sheer likability. Chris Jones deadpans his way through the role of Tex in a fashion that will never win him any acting awards, but it does win the viewer’s sympathy. The same applies to virtually every other amateur who appears onscreen, often in ludicrous homemade prosthesis and makeup appropriate for their mutant personae. Whether childhood friends of Jones and Vandegrift or people who just happened to work at Access, they’re clearly having a great deal of fun with their roles, and they clearly want us to have fun watching too.

Deep into production, Jones learned during a chance conversation with his brother that the latter knew a Hollywood talent agent who was in Salt Lake City casting for a movie. Doug Vandegrift:

She said, “If you guys want to hire Hollywood actors, I can arrange that.” But we really didn’t take it seriously until she called up one day and said, “I’ve got Margot Kidder. She’s got to go to the airport in three hours, but right now she’s sitting in Salt Lake City doing nothing. If you’d like for her to come, you can have her for three hours.” Aaron quickly wrote something, she showed up, and had great fun doing it.

We thought, well, if we can get her, maybe we can get somebody else. Before we knew it, Brian Keith came in for a day.

In an amusing reminder of Access’s essential Mormon-ness, Brian Keith, whose gruff persona in television shows like Hardcastle and McCormick apparently wasn’t affected, became in Aaron Conners’s recollection the first person ever to “drop an F-bomb” in the office. This must mark some sort of record; normally the F-bombs flow like soda inside a games studio…

Russell Means, a supporting player in the recent movie The Last of the Mohicans, also joined the cast. These “stars” who came on such short notice and left just as quickly stand out from the amateur thespians considerably less than one might expect. Like so many Hollywood actors who slummed it in CD-ROM during the heyday of the full-motion-video craze, they used Under a Killing Moon as an opportunity to chew up some scenery and have a little fun playing out-sized versions of the roles for which they were best known. “I don’t think she was really quite sure of what we were doing,” says Chris Jones about Margot Kidder. “Her reference point was Nintendo and Sega.”

Undoubtedly Access’s biggest coup was the casting of James Earl Jones, the iconic voice of Darth Vader himself, as narrator. It was really on a lark that they even rang up his agent — and sure enough, the initial response was, to say the least, not positive: “No way, no way will we do this, no way.” In the end, though, James Earl Jones did agree to do the job, and for a fraction of his normal rate at that, because his son had played and loved Access’s earlier adventure games and had been following the progress on this one closely: “Dad, you’ve got to do this!” Consider: LucasArts had just started making Star Wars games at the time, and yet with all their connections were forced to settle for a soundalike in the role of their Darth Vader. But here he was, performing for Access. Under a Killing Moon truly was a charmed project.

But if its makers were lucky, they earned their luck by doing everything they could to make sure that everyone who played it got more fun than frustration out of the experience. For example, it’s impossible to lock yourself out of victory without knowing it. Another telling sign that this game is on its player’s side is its interactive hint system, which you’re free to use as much or as little as you want. There’s even an “easy play” mode that lets you skip the puzzles completely and just explore the story. The designers plainly aren’t entirely comfortable with the idea — “you’ll enjoy a new level of entertainment” if you only use easy mode to “become familiar with the controls” and then move on to the real thing, says the manual — but, hey, if you really want to play that way, that too ought to be your right.

The travel interface, to which locations are added as time goes on and you learn about them. Under a Killing Moon uses plot time instead of clock time: time advances only in response to you making progress in your investigations. This technique, which had been pioneered by Infocom in Ballyhoo and used to good effect in the first Gabriel Knight adventure in the year before this game was released, was by this point becoming a staple of the adventure genre. And small wonder: it allows for a dynamic, unfolding plot without letting said plot run away without the player. What it sacrifices in realism, in other words, it recoups in practicality and mercy.

Yet another innovation for the player’s sake — perhaps the most enduring of all — is found in the conversation system. Menu-based conversations had been a staple of graphic adventures for quite some time, but Jones and Conners noted how awkward it felt to click on a line of dialog for Tex and then hear him parrot the very same line back. Aaron Conners:

Almost every game at the time would show the full line of dialog. We said, “This is so tedious.” A lot of the wordy games, including some of the best ones, like Monkey Island — fantastic, wonderful humor… but even with that I got tired of reading it and then hearing it. I had to come up with some other way to do it.

So, they implemented a mood-based conversation menu: instead of seeing exactly what Tex will say, you see options like (in the case of a potential love interest) “subtle innuendo,” “lovesick puppy,” and “charmingly curious.” This way, you still feel like you’re directing the course of the conversation, but some element of surprise is preserved. This system went on to influence no less a gaming blockbuster than the Mass Effect franchise, whose development teams included some avowed fans of the Tex Murphy games.

There’s an honesty about Under a Killing Moon, a commitment to its plot and premise that is lacking from most contemporary interactive movies. Again, a comparison to The 7th Guest is unavoidable. The earlier game is the poster child for puzzles that exist purely to give the player something to do, that have no connection whatsoever to a game’s fiction. But, in the words of Chris Jones, “there are no 7th Guest-type things” in Under a Killing Moon: “You know, ‘Here’s a puzzle to solve so you can move to the next room. Move these little marbles around here or whatever. None of that. In Under a Killing Moon, everything is interrelated.” The things you do in the game are mostly the things that a real private detective might be expected to do in order to solve a crime: interviewing people, searching premises for clues, piecing together the evidence to come another step toward the solution. Even those that are thoroughly goofy and would certainly never appear in a detective movie still bear directly on the case you’re trying to solve. And even those puzzles that might initially seem like roadblocks for the sake of roadblocks — like Tex’s urgent need for a new fax machine to replace his broken one — turn out to be useful as background, in this case by establishing just how down and out our hero actually is. At the time of its release, Under a Killing Moon was simply the best, most honest interactive implementation of a mystery — arguably the fictional genre most naturally amenable to becoming an adventure game — to appear since The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes.

By the time it was released just in time for the Christmas of 1994, Under a Killing Moon had taken two years and some $2 million to create, making it one of the two most expensive computer games ever made to that point. It was also one of the two biggest games yet made in terms of sheer number of bits: it grew from one CD to two to three to four over the course of its development. In both departments, it was equaled only by the near-simultaneously released Wing Commander III from Origin Systems, another, very different take on the full-motion-video interactive movie. How strange to think that just a year or two earlier developers had been fretting over how they would ever manage to fill up a single CD! Not content with blowing past the one-gigabyte barrier in 1994, these two games had already exceeded two gigabytes in size. It was as frenzied a period of technological change as gaming has ever known.

Under a Killing Moon was greeted with a brutal review in Computer Gaming World, courtesy of Charles Ardai, that magazine’s resident curmudgeon as well as my favorite gaming scribe of the 1990s. His take-down is odd not least because he had previously given Countdown and Martian Memorandum fairly glowing reviews. Nevertheless, his review of Under a Killing Moon makes some very valid points, so much so that I want to quote from it here as the flip-side to my positive take on the game.

With the plot about the cult and the crusade for genetic purity, [the developers] appear to be trying to tell a serious story, with serious threats and grim implications. Yet every time the story threatens to go in an interesting direction, they cut it off at the knees by throwing in lame, inappropriate jokes and cheap slapstick, such as scenes that involve Tex falling over in his chair or walking into walls or getting captured by villains who do Three Stooges-style eye-poking shtick.

This undisciplined willingness to sacrifice the story in order to stick gags in where they don’t belong is typical of amateur writers, and it is deeply unsatisfying. Jones and Conners seem to be hoping that they can make a single game be both a serious thriller and a goofy comedy, both Chinatown and Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, and it just doesn’t work.

Ardai isn’t precisely wrong about any of this; the game’s tone really is all over the map, in that way all too typical of adventure-game writers — and, yes, amateur writers of all stripes — who lack the courage of their convictions, and seek to head off criticism of their productions’ manifest weaknesses by suddenly playing them for laughs. Normally, this sort of thing irritates me as badly as it does Ardai.

In this case, however, it doesn’t; I recognize the game’s disjointedness, not only in terms of its fiction but in the disparate gallery of techniques and interfaces it uses to present its story, but I’m just not that bothered by it. For me, Under a Killing Moon is a shaggy beast for sure, but also a thoroughly lovable one. When I ask myself why this should be, I find myself tempted to fall back on those vague platitudes that are the hallmark of the amateur critic: that the game has “soul”; that it is, God help us, “greater than the sum of its parts.”

Since that will obviously never do, let me note that it has at least three saving graces. One is a certain cultural sophistication which peeks through the game’s pastiche, telling us that its creators were a bit older than the norm and had a taste for things beyond Dungeons & Dragons and Star Wars: the street where Tex Murphy lives is called Chandler Avenue after the beloved crime novelist; the central Mcguffin of the game is a bird statuette, a nod to The Maltese Falcon. Another is its bold spirit of innovation, its willingness to try not just one new thing but a whole pile of them, despite working in the terminally conservative ludic genre of the adventure game, which usually departs from the tried and true only with the utmost reluctance. And a third — probably the most important of all — is one that I’ve already mentioned: its exuberant likability. Just being nice — being the kind of person that other people enjoy being around — will get you a surprisingly long way in life. If Under a Killing Moon is any evidence, the same is true in games.

Here, then, is the ultimate difference maker between Under a Killing Moon and a game like The 7th Guest: the former is generous to its player while the latter is stingy. Although Under a Killing Moon gleefully employs every piece of trendy technology its developers can get their hands on, it’s all done for the purpose of making a fun game of the sort that said developers themselves would like to play; it’s not done merely to make a statement about the alleged multimedia zeitgeist, much less to rake in beaucoups of cash. The money, one senses, was always secondary when it came to Tex Murphy. (Why else invest millions into risky interactive movies at all instead of wallowing contently in the ocean of guaranteed profit from the Links franchise?)

There’s an open-hearted joy about Under a Killing Moon that makes up for a multitude of acting and even writing sins. It’s still bursting with that excitement which Jones and Vandegrift felt as kids — “We’re making a movie!” It’s just that now it’s an interactive movie. Under a Killing Moon is a wonderful tonic in a cynical world. If that sounds odd, given that the game takes place in such a dystopian setting, it serves only to point out how special its personality really is. The game tells us that the best parts of us, the things we sometimes call our basic humanity, will always survive. Chris Jones:

Okay, this world’s worn-out and ugly and partially destroyed, but people are people. People still have their sense of humor. People still have an outlook they can hang onto. Even if the world’s going to hell, it’s the only world they’ve got. To be dragged down in the mud attitude-wise or [imagine] things never improving… well, maybe they will never improve, but there’s got to be some hope that they will.

It strikes me that the most under-discussed aspect of Under a Killing Moon, as well as quite possibly our key to understanding all this, is the Mormon community from which it sprang. There are all sorts of reasons for the silence on the subject, starting with many would-be game historians’ apparent belief that individual games can be understood without taking account of the real-world beliefs and biases that went into them, passing through the way that the people who made this particular game studiously avoid the subject, ending with how loaded any discussion at all of religion has become in our societies. Not everyone who worked on Under a Killing Moon was Mormon — even a community like Bountiful is “only” 75 percent Mormon, with a substantial Catholic minority among its other believers and non-believers — and the game never, ever proselytizes; it wants to entertain you, not convert you. Nevertheless, it has a distinct Mormon sensibility, and is all the better for it.

There is, I think, a tendency among many non-believers who lack experience with religious communities to imagine them as unduly grim milieus, where everyone marches in lockstep as Soldiers of God, where there is no room for warmth or humor or whimsy, no space for secular culture of any stripe. But, as Under a Killing Moon amply demonstrates, that’s not always or even usually the case at all.

Of course, like any dogmatic religion, Mormonism comes complete with a set of Lines That Shall Not Be Crossed, whose nature I won’t belabor here. Yet it’s more forward-looking than many religions, with surprisingly little aversion to modernity within its strict lines of demarcation. Based on my own limited experience, this orientation translates into a genuine desire to see the faithful live up to their individual talents here in the world. You can see this quality manifested in Under a Killing Moon, along with much else that will strike a chord of recognition with anyone who has ever lived among or around Mormons. I recently discussed the subject with Jeff Roberts of RAD Game Tools, a longtime friend of this site who did some contract work on the game’s video-compression system:

Yeah, I joke about how LDS the humor seems to me. It’s super chaste, awkward humor. Very dad-joke humor. I grew up in Utah as a non-Mormon, so I sense that feeling immediately (Book of Mormon nails that perfectly). But yeah, any clips of Access games immediately trigger a “whoa…” in me to this day. They did a “comical” golf game a few years later that really pegs the Mormon meter for me: “Extreme” something… yikes, so bad.

I remember a funny story about Bruce [Johnson] being a henchman that has to grab a girl that was being abducted, but Bruce was embarrassed and it kept filming badly, which led to the actor playing the girl finally just saying, “Look, can you just grab me, so I can go home?”

Tex looks very uncomfortable in this situation…

Under a Killing Moon is the videogame equivalent of Mitt Romney, the whitest man in the world, marching gawkily along with a Black Lives Matter protest, just because, gosh darn it — and Mitt Romney would actually say, “Gosh, darn it,” in 2020 — it’s the right thing to do. As far as the game is concerned, the Right Thing is to try its own earnest, gawky best to give its players the best time ever.

Fortunately for Access, most gamers hewed more to my verdict on Under a Killing Moon than to Charles Ardai’s. In spite of a coveted segment on the television show Entertainment Tonight, the game didn’t become a breakaway mainstream icon of the early CD-ROM era like The 7th Guest or Myst. But it did do well among the slowly expanding audience of core gamers, enough to earn back its development budget and justify another Tex Murphy game. So, one of the most likable series in the history of adventure gaming got to continue on its goofy way, and thus will be making another appearance as part of these histories before all is said and done. In the meantime, give the game a shot if you haven’t already. You might be surprised at how much wholesome fun a post-apocalyptic dystopia can be.

(Sources: the book Under a Killing Moon: The Official Strategy Guide by Rick Barba; Computer Gaming World of January 1990, January 1991, January 1992, August 1994, and January 1995; Electronic Entertainment of November 1994 and January 1995; Commodore Magazine of July 1987 and August 1987; Provo Daily Herald of January 25 1989, August 1 1990, August 21 1990, June 23 1992, September 19 1993, and October 8 1994; various Bountiful city newsletters. Video sources include the original film of Plan Ten from Outer Space, with commentary from the makers; the documentary The Making of Tex Murphy; and Chris Jones, Aaron Conners, and Mat Van Rhoon on the Back Seat Designers podcast. And I owe a huge thank you to Jeff Roberts for sharing his impressions of working with Access Software.

Under a Killing Moon is available for digital purchase on GOG.com.)

Zarf Updates

Followup on Apple Arcade

by Andrew Plotkin ([email protected]) at July 03, 2020 01:55 AM

Back in September I wrote up my impressions on Apple Arcade's goals and where it might settle down.
Not long after that, I fired up my free trial month on the Arcade and started poking around. Which was fun! As always, I was most interested in short narrative games and clever puzzle toys. In that line, I was happy to discover Assemble With Care, What the Golf?, Card of Darkness, Over the Alps, Where Cards Fall, Tint, Discolored, and others.
(I'll also mention Manifold Garden, Neo Cab, and Mutazione. I played those three on PC, but they also fly the Arcade banner. Platforms should be tripping over each other to fund titles like those.)
At the end of my trial month, I let Arcade lapse. No regrets, no surprise. I'm not implacably opposed to subscription entertainment packages, but I'd rather pay for my fun (and spend my free time) a la carte. So far I've stuck to that plan. Yes, I watched Game of Thrones and Star Trek Discovery a year behind everyone else. Turns out I'm okay with that.
Now Apple Arcade hates me, right? I tried but didn't buy. I'm apparently not alone, either. This article just popped up:
Apple Inc. has shifted the strategy of its Apple Arcade gaming service, canceling contracts for some games in development while seeking other titles that it believes will better retain subscribers. [...] Apple is increasingly interested in titles that will keep users hooked, so subscribers stay beyond the free trial of the service [...].
For what it's worth, this fits with what I hear on the indie grapevine. So what does it mean for Arcade?
It's clear what it means for me: Apple Arcade doesn't want me back. It's jettisoning exactly the subgenres I care about. Myst/Room-style puzzlers (Discolored) are not meant to be replayed. Short narrative games or visual novels (Over the Alps, Neo Cab) may be worth two or three sessions to try different endings, but you're not going to sink hours into them every week. Puzzle collections like Tint can offer hundreds of levels, but honestly, I'm going to put them aside after twenty or fifty. (If it has only twenty or fifty more-focused levels, then I'll get completist about it.)
I'll occasionally get hooked on a roguelike or Brough-like (Card of Darkness), but that's rare.
No complaints! I declared that I wasn't in Arcade's target market; they turned elsewhere. Fair.
But it's a blow to the premium/unique/boutique brand that they launched with. Turns out, Arcade is chasing the same addiction-loop games as everybody else in the freemium market. Their fixed monthly fee precludes the worst "buy gems for your next move" abuses, but it's still the same genre. Games must be designed to hook you and maximize playtime.
In other words, no more Neo Cab, Mutazione, or Manifold Garden. Nothing like Monument Valley, either. Too bad for Apple.
This doesn't exactly match any of the imaginary futures in my post. Oh, my #2 was close: "Apple stops pumping money, continues curating a [narrow] list of games for Arcade." But I was thinking of curated premium games. Arcade has moved out of that space entirely. The games I care about are back where they were last year: poking hopefully at the smart indie publishers (mostly Annapurna), or trying to wangle deals with the other platform holders. (Sony, Microsoft, and Epic are still funding some interesting stuff. Nintendo is... still Nintendo. The Switch isn't completely played out yet for developers, which I admit surprises me.)
Those games are also appearing in the App Store, to be clear. Back in the fall, when Arcade was still launching five titles a week, the regular App Store got seriously quiet. But it's rebounded; my sort of stuff now pops up at the usual rate. (Song of Bloom, Samsara Room, The Almost Gone, If Found...)
Is Arcade a failure? It's certainly past its season of buzz. Nobody talks about Arcade any more. It will never again be the epicenter of exciting mobile games -- not unless Apple changes course yet again.
But look. Sometimes Apple puts up an unexciting product, lets it run long after everybody has written it off, adjusts it a few times, and then announces that it's making a zillion dollars a year. "Services" is now 22% of Apple's revenue. Maybe in a couple of years, Arcade will be an unstoppable powerhouse of... games I don't play much. Or maybe it will be quietly folded up and put away. I guess I'll post again when I know.

July 02, 2020

Choice of Games

New Hosted Game! Trees Don’t Tell by Taylor Zane

by Kai DeLeon at July 02, 2020 05:41 PM

Hosted Games has a new game for you to play!

Find your way through the haunting forest in this puzzle narrative. Is this a nightmare or reality? The trees trap all who enter. You must discover what it takes to truly be free.

It’s 33% off until July 9th!

Trees Don’t Tell is a spooky interactive puzzle novel by Taylor Zane, where your choices help you find your way through the story. It’s mostly text-based—without graphics or sound effects – and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination.

Folk tales have spread about the forests of Shonnra Morr. Tales of were-beasts, ghosts and demons. The trees are a hotspot for the paranormal, drawing in the curious. Teens go to explore, but few dare to enter. Of the few that do, none have returned.

  • Choose to play as a male or female.
  • Unique action loop counter that really defines the insanity of the forest.
  • Every choice you make is on you. Which way do you go? Which item do you investigate? Some lead to answers, some lead to death.
  • Entire items, rooms and even characters can be left undiscovered for multiple playthroughs.
  • Uncover the history kept secret by the forest.
  • A beast stalks you amongst the shadows. Escape his grasp or be devoured.
  • Unveil the reality of your worst nightmare.

Taylor Zane 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.

Renga in Blue

Interstellar War (1981)

by Jason Dyer at July 02, 2020 05:41 PM

This marks this blog’s 9th game by Roger M. Wilcox (see: 123, 456, 7, 8). His best from 1980 is (in both his and my opinion) #7, Vial of Doom. He went on a streak in 1981 and finished nine games. They were “private” games only released to the public much, much, later.

Interstellar War is based on a short story the author wrote when he was 15.

Then, a scientist thought to be mad created an advanced form of the antimatter bomb, which was directional and apparently one-way. The fascinating thing about this bomb was that when the center of the explosion was examined, it had poked a hole in the continuity of space that was two-dimensional and one-sided. Essentially, this was a hyperspace bomb! When the bombs were delivered to the five systems, an unusual and unique idea was developed. The idea was to line up the bombs exactly (within a thousandth of a second) between two systems (starting with A. Centauri and Sol), and firing them simoultaneously. Theoretically, this would make a hyperspace “tunnel” capable of shooting craft (and radio) through it at unmeasurable speeds.

Before long, the five systems had links between them in a circular fashion, formina a rather crude pentagon, and trade had become a way of life. Forevermore, light would be considered extremely slow.

(The spelling is as in the original.) Wilcox later developed a Pentagon War universe with extra background materials and a hexmap game.

I browsed but admittedly did not read closely the materials; no matter what I would have been puzzled at the game’s opening.

You are in a jungle full of dead foliage. Visible items:

Dead fern tree.

It’s unclear at the start who the main character is and how this starting place is related to the Pentagon universe, although both things get revealed later. Given the “private game” status it’s possible the author didn’t have any particular in medias res method in mind and just started writing, but this does (accidentally?) make a moment later in the game where everything locks into place more effective.

After climbing the tree and swinging on a vine, I was locked in for a while in two desert locations.

You are in a desert wasteland. Visible items:

Big pile of rocks.

Obvious exits: North

>N

You are in a desert wasteland. Visible items:

Lower half of a body.

Obvious exits: South

>LOOK BODY

You found something.

This yielded me a wrench, but going back to the rocks and trying to whack at them in various ways with it didn’t help. I finally resorted to KICK ROCKS, which buried me in a landslide, but I was able to DIG and get out.

You are in a completely decimated village. The decimation seems to have been caused by a single weapon.

Obvious exits: North South East West

>S

You are on the outskirts of the village. Technology seems to have been practiced and was thriving here once. Visible items:

Dead body.

Obvious exits: North East

>LOOK BODY
The lower half of his body seems to have been blown far away by the same thing that destroyed this village. The upper half was in the process of pulling down a lever in panic just before the lower half got blown away. A sign above the lever reads: “For emergency use only.” The dead body has bled the lever in place.

Well, there’s the other half of the body. I fruitlessly tried applying the wrench in attempt to turn the lever, but the game told me it was “bled shut”.

This was an interesting piece of distraction; clearly, the original poor soul was trying to use the wrench on the lever, but the wrench here gets used in a much different way.

The open map included a shallow pond, an ammonia-filled area (which causes instant death) and a “dangerous whirlpool of sand” where “the sand is swirling fast enough to grind anything”. I also found a bucket and a curious plastic bag.

You’d have to roll around in order to move while inside it. It can be closed, but only from the inside. Inside it is a small valve control, which opens & closes the valve to a pouch on he outside of the bag.

I went in the bag, closed in, rolled into the ammonia area, opened the valve to let in some ammonia, rolled all the way to the pond, opened the valve, and got myself a puddle of ammonium hydroxide. I was then able to use the bucket to get the hydroxide and clean the bloody lever, although it was still “rusted”.

To take care of the rust, I had to drop the wrench at the sandstorm, which melted it, then pick up the melted part with the bucket (…somehow) and pour the metal onto the lever.

Well, the author is trying hard to subvert expectations at least. The transformation of objects was unusual enough it took me a while to get through the above. Pulling the lever teleported me to a spaceship.

You are in a plastic four-way intersection.

Obvious exits North South East West

I’ve explored the ship and found a “peace” treaty, and the quote marks are there in the game…

“We Alpha-Centaurians and humans agree to terms of peace, even though we want to tear each others’ throats out.
Signed,
James Carter
Holsteader”
Both signatures appear reluctant.

…and this room.

You are in the viewing chamber. Visible items:

Your decimated planet.

Obvious exits: Down

Up to here, it wasn’t clear the protagonist had any investment in what was going on; there’s the implication that the vaporized village was, in fact, the one they lived in, which contextualized the previous events in a way I found startling.

There’s an engine that looks like it needs fixing before I make any further progress, and a “suit of titanium armor”. As I’m stuck and don’t want to spoil any puzzles yet, I’m going to stop off here until next time.

IFTF Blog

An update on the NarraScope transparency report

July 02, 2020 03:01 AM

A short update on the NarraScope transparency report that was previously mentioned on this blog. As the conference committee worked on the report this past week, it became evident that more time is needed to prepare a complete retrospective on the event. As a result, the planned publication date of the report has changed to Monday, August 3. We appreciate everyone’s patience and understanding.

June 30, 2020

XTads etc.

XTads pre-beta 12 is out

by xtadsetc at June 30, 2020 01:42 PM

XTads is a TADS 2/3 interpreter for macOS (version 10.12 Sierra or higher). It’s a GUI application, with native macOS look and feel. Game output is text-only, with partial support for HTML TADS features.

In this version:

    • Games can now set text and background colors.
      • Added a user option to allow/disallow games to set text and background colors. See Preferences | Colors tab.
        Use with caution – some games rely on color to show the selected item in help menus.
    • Bug fixes.

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

Executable: https://www.ifarchive.org/if-archive/programming/tads2/executables/XTads-prebeta-12.zip

Source: https://www.ifarchive.org/if-archive/programming/tads2/source/XTads-prebeta-12-src.zip

Emily Short

End of June Link Assortment

by Emily Short at June 30, 2020 12:41 PM

Events

July 4 is the next meeting of the SF Bay Interactive Fiction Meetup.

July 4 is also the final day for submissions to The Next Adventure Jam. The 8-Bit-Centric contest welcomes games developed with Adventuron Classroom. Contest rules are in the link.

https___cdn.evbuc.com_images_104266328_11605589405_1_original.jpgJuly 6 is an online event for those interested in starting and building a career in game narrative. Andrew Walsh and the WGGB work hard at helping new writers find their way into the game industry, and existing writers build connections and careers. The event is free, but does require registration.

New Releases

Unmapped Path is releasing its first game, Night in the Unpleasant House. Writing and Illustration are by Joel Haddock, and the code is being written by Chris Klimas, who has been mentioned multiple times here, as he created Twine. The mobile game is for iOS devices: “a classic tale of revenge, local politics, pseudoscience, questionable botany, love, and loss.”

 

Talks, Articles, and Podcasts

NarraScope 2020 wrapped in June, and the folks at the Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation plan to post a transparency report about the event (similar to what was done in 2019) in the near future. Many of the talks are currently available on YouTube for those that missed them the first time around.

June 28, 2020

Kristian Still's Blog

Story speaker – interactive audio fiction

by Kristian Still at June 28, 2020 04:41 PM

As an English teacher I was always looking for ways to get my students excited about reading and writing. Interactive fiction was one such experiment. I quite often revisit Zork or Hitchhikers Guide to Galaxy or Lost Pig and the students always love it. Writing IF was a bit tricky however we had some successes…
Read more

June 26, 2020

Retroactive Fiction

LAND (1989) — a lost MUD recreated

by Ant at June 26, 2020 11:41 PM

DEClogin

I’ll admit it: I don’t know very much about MUDs. (Nor am I familiar with the various spinoffs — the MUCKs, MOOs and MUSHes — that proliferated in the early days of the Net.) Many years ago, I would occasionally peek over the shoulder of someone who was engaged in playing one of those new-fangled online multiplayer games, only to shake my head in bewilderment at the strangeness of what was essentially a bunch of people who’d never met in real life, chattering away on the internet by laboriously typing and sending messages to each other in plain text. It seemed boring and weird and I was convinced it would never catch on.

Today, of course, MUDs are practically ancient history, if you’re reckoning in tech years. They were the precursors to a multiplayer online gaming industry which is worth billions of dollars, but which has apparently left the world of pure text far behind.

So, it’s quite possible that I would never have had any reason to even think about MUDs again — if it hadn’t been for an improbable set of circumstances that brought them crashing into my orbit and into contact with what has become the mainstay of this irregular blog of mine: text adventure games on the 8-bit BBC Micro computer.

You see, a wide-eyed dreamer called Darren Higgs recently got it into his head that it might be a good idea to recreate one of the earliest MUDs as a single-player text adventure game on the BBC Micro — and he actually did it, too. It’s called LAND, and you can play it online right now:

Disc999-LAND

The opening text of the BBC Micro port of LAND

 

History

LAND was originally a MUD that ran on the DEC mainframe computer at the University of Essex in the 1980s and 90s. The mainframe version of LAND was written by Darren Higgs (alias Toodleoo), Jonathan Cornell (Arnie), Bret(t) Giddings (Bret), and Richard Thombs (Zarf) — and it was Darren Higgs who, in 2020, ported the game to the BBC Micro.

Before LAND, the legendary Essex University mainframe had hosted the original MUD, known as MUD1, which was created by Roy Trubshaw and Richard Bartle in 1978. Professor Bartle, now a popular writer and speaker on gaming and virtual worlds, licensed MUD1 to Compuserve in 1987, which meant that the only MUD that was left running on the Essex mainframe was MIST, a “derivative” of MUD1 with “similar gameplay”.

It was around this time that Darren Higgs enrolled at Essex and, already being a fan of text adventuring on the BBC Micro from a young age, eventually found his way to the computer lab to see if he could have a go at this much-fabled MUD thingy that even the Beeb magazines couldn’t help talking about. Darren himself takes up the story on the Stardot forum:

 

Conversion

The experience of playing MIST at Essex — and then of creating his own MUD on the same machine, using Trubshaw and Bartle’s MUDDL programming language — obviously had a lasting impact on Darren because, decades later, he decided to recreate LAND for the retro scene on what was presumably one of his favourite home computers, the venerable Beeb.

On the mainframe, LAND featured over 200 rooms, lots of puzzles, and various “mobiles” or NPCs that players could fight in order to level up in their quest for the prized status of wizardhood. Also, like any MUD, LAND was, at heart, a multiplayer game — but the multiplayer feature would clearly have to be the first thing to dump in the re-engineering of LAND if it was to run on a standalone 8-bit machine (or an emulator thereof) which boasted a whopping 32 kilobytes of user memory and a 2MHz processor.

But even if you accept that the multiplayer experience has to go, squeezing the game into the Beeb is still a lot to ask. But Darren had an answer. Working from his original maps and notes, he wrote some bespoke text-compression routines in BBC BASIC; developed a custom “adventure engine” — a hand-written program in assembly language, targeting 6502 machine-code; and made use of seven banks of Sideways RAM.

Sideways RAM (SWRAM) is an ingenious bit of vintage machine architecture — or, as Wikipedia more prosaically puts it, it was “Acorn’s bank-switching implementation” — and it allowed the humble Beeb to “page in” one of a number of different memory banks, each containing 16 kilobytes’ worth of RAM, as and when a program needed it — and to page it out again after use.

LAND requires seven banks of SWRAM to be available — expanding the memory in the Beeb to a mind-boggling 140K or thereabouts — and that’s a quantity that was never found in actual BBC Micros back in the day, but in our current era of powerful and ubiquitous computing, one thinks nothing of configuring an emulator with the requisite mnemonic heptad. Certainly, Matt Godbolt’s BBC Micro emulator in JavaScript, JSBeeb, can provide you with seven banks of SWRAM without even breaking sweat, and it allows you to play LAND in most browsers wherever and whenever you want:

June 25, 2020

"Aaron Reed"

Code Archaeology with “Super Star Trek”

by Aaron A. Reed at June 25, 2020 10:42 PM

One of the most interesting things about BASIC programs is their line numbers. Often decried by younger coders as enablers of the dreaded GOTO, they were actually a clever way to enable interactive coding at a time before text editors or even (in some cases) text interfaces. More interestingly for historians, they sometimes allow for some rational reconstructions of software histories in codebases created far before modern version control systems.

A quick BASIC primer for those unfamiliar: each line of code begins with a number, which provides both a label for referring to it and the order in which a program will execute. Lines could be entered at the terminal in any order.

10 PRINT “HELLO, WORLD”
20 GOTO 10

If you wanted to later add a new line between two statements, you could give it an intermediate number like 15 (which was the reason line numbers generally incremented in units of 10, not 1). While some BASICs offered a command to renumber a program into even divisions after making such edits, in practice this carried exactly the same risk as using a refactoring feature in a modern IDE. The danger that your code might get seriously messed up — GOTOs leading to the wrong place, and at the very least all your personal mnemonics for what line numbers to find things on scrambled — seemed high to novices, and even many experienced users. Programmatically renumbering code was usually left to professionals or power users.

Early BASIC programs were often shared around and improved willy-nilly with little regard to original authorship: those modifications were made relatively easy by an interactive BASIC and line numbers. One of the most famous early BASIC programs was a space combat game by Mike Mayfield inspired by TV’s Star Trek. This version is well-documented in part because of its inclusion in David H. Ahl’s 1978 BASIC Computer Games, often credited as the first computer book to sell a million copies. It would go on to inspire Atari’s Star Raiders, which in turn inspired Elite, Wing Commander, and (along with Spacewar!) a huge swath of the space combat genre.

In Mayfield’s game you control the Enterprise, moving through an 8x8 grid of galactic quadrants, each divided itself into an 8x8 grid populated with stars, Klingons, and starbases. The goal is to use your phasers and torpedos to take out all the Klingons before the time expires or the Enterprise runs out of power. Starbases refuel and restock torpedos, but time must be wasted finding them and docking to receive their benefits.

It’s actually quite hard to find a playable version of the original game given that there are so many ports and variants with identical names. You can play a fairly faithful C64 port online (color and sound effects added), or to experience the unadulterated original try downloading Vintage BASIC and running the 1978 source code directly.

The game’s genealogy and how it came to be known as Super Star Trek is complicated, but there are three key early versions this article is concerned with:

  • Mayfield’s original version, believed lost, written in 1971 for the BASIC on a SDS Sigma 7 computer while he was still in high school.
  • A revised 1972 version in HP Time-Share BASIC, which Mayfield wrote in exchange for free computer time. This was added to HP’s library of software and is the earliest version with surviving source code that I know of.
  • An updated version converted again to BASIC-PLUS by Mary Cole and David H. Ahl at DEC. This version was printed in the EDU newsletter and then reprinted in the 1973 book 101 BASIC Computer Games (under the unfortunately confusing name SPACWR).

Mayfield’s game became the most influential of the many early Trek games in large part because of an improved version that appeared in Ahl’s later 1978 book. The improvements made for that version, called Super Star Trek, are well documented. But while researching the game’s history I became curious about what was changed between Mayfield’s near-original HP version and the Cole and Ahl port. In the notes to the ’73 book, Ahl claims he and Cole “added a few bits and pieces,” and several additional people are also credited in the comments at the top of the program, so I assumed there must be some sort of noteworthy revisions in there. I sat down with both program listings to find out what they were.

It turns out the changes are almost entirely insignificant. The title is printed as STAR TREK in Mayfield’s version and *** STAR TREK *** in Cole and Ahl’s. A few other bits of punctuation in the output are tweaked, and a handful of comments are added to mark divisions in the code. But for the most part, Mayfield’s algorithms, magic numbers, and text remain identical, and in fact his line numbering is preserved throughout. The few changes that do exist are mostly to adjust to a slightly different flavor of BASIC. For instance, HP BASIC did not support multiple statements per line, but BASIC-PLUS did. Combined with the fact that the DEC version would be printed on paper, rather than distributed on tape, this incentivized Cole and Ahl to save space by combining statements. Here’s Mayfield’s version of an early bit of initialization for determining how many starbases and stars are in a quadrant, followed by Cole and Ahl’s:

(Mayfield)
670 IF R1>.96 THEN 700
680 B3=0
690 GOTO 720
700 B3=1
710 B9=B9+1
720 S3=INT(RND(1)*8+1)

(Cole and Ahl)
670 IF R1>.96 THEN 700
680 B3=0:GOTO 720
700 B3=1:B9=B9+1

720 S3=INT(RND(1)*8+1)

Note the jumps in line numbers in the second version to stay aligned with Mayfield. By keeping the line numbering matched up, the latter program avoids needing to risk a refactor that might break the various GOTOs and GOSUBs sprinkled throughout the program.

(…And there are a lot of GOTOs. And a lot of variables. Working out how Mayfield’s Trek functions is not an easy task. Most BASICs at the time only allowed variable names that were a single letter, or a letter and a number. Trek has few comments and over 60 variables, meaning their purpose must be gleaned through careful analysis of the program’s flow, which jumps all over the place in the usual style of code written iteratively by a budding coder. It’s filled with clever but awkward hacks to get around the limitations of early BASIC, and many situations where the limited structure of the language itself inhibits understanding. Functions were supported in this version of HP BASIC, for instance, but only up to 26 of them, which had to be named FNA, FNB, FNC, etc… not exactly the best mnemonic for remembering what each one did. I mention all this to point out both that Mayfield was a clever but unpracticed coder working in a limiting environment, and that Cole and Ahl had a difficult task to modify his game without breaking its fragile structures, especially in a time before the simple text editor conveniences we take for granted today.)

The line numbering in Mayfield’s code is orderly, almost always increasing in units of 10. This strongly suggests that it was mechanically renumbered at some point near the end of its design, perhaps by Mayfield himself or by HP when it was added to their catalogue. There are a few exceptions, however, which indicate that the code listing that survives is from slightly later than that original “it’s done now” renumbered version. For instance, here’s a portion of the code for converting a warp trajectory into the Enterprise’s new X,Y coordinates:

1870 X=S1
1880 Y=S2
1885 C2=INT(C1)
1890 X1=C[C2,1]+(C[C2+1,1]-C[C2,1])*(C1-C2)
1900 X2=C[C2,2]+(C[C2+1,2]-C[C2,2])*(C1-C2)

The anomalous line 1885 suggests a later refactor. Note that the new temporary C2 variable appears in the next two lines, which presumably were also rewritten. A good guess is that an older version of the code converted the floating point number C1 to an integer inline whenever the integer version was needed, which would have been much uglier and more confusing:

1890 X1=C[INT(C1),1]+(C[INT(C1)+1,1]-C[INT(C1),1])*(C1-INT(C1))

Someone, either Mayfield or HP, probably added the extra line to pull the conversion out and make the next two lines of code (marginally) more clear.

There are only a handful of these instances of extra or missing line numbers in the Mayfield code. However, when comparing them side by side to the Cole & Ahl version, one caught me up short, and for a while caused me to question the entire lineage and established genealogy of this program! Here’s the two bits of code, which come at the end of the initialization sequence where the galaxy is generated. Don’t worry about understanding what they do yet, but note the jump in numbering in Mayfield’s version:

(Mayfield)
770 K7=K9
775 IF B9 <= 0 OR K9 <= 0 THEN 490
780 PRINT “YOU MUST DESTROY”K9;” KLINGONS IN”T9;” STARDATES WITH”B9;” STARBASES”
810 K3=B3=S3=0

(Cole and Ahl)
770 K7=K9
775 PRINT:PRINT
780 PRINT”YOU MUST DESTROY”K9" KLINGONS IN”T9" STARDATES WITH”B9" STARBASES”
790 IF B9>0 THEN 810
800 G(6,3)=114
810 K3,B3,S3=0

The code around the PRINT statement here is handling the situation where the galaxy generation process has produced a world without enough starbases or Klingons. What’s suspicious is that Mayfield’s code, supposedly earlier, skips two lines that the Ahl & Cole version uses, 790 and 800, which appear to be fixing an overlooked case in the generation. This seems like a huge red flag! Why would a supposedly earlier version have a blank space where a later version fixed a bug? What’s going on here?

The answer is an interesting exercise in code archaeology: buckle up. (But the short version is that, no, we don’t have to rewrite this little bit of history: with some digging we can find a very plausible explanation for the original chronology.)

Let’s look more closely at exactly what these two pieces of code are doing. The pseudocode for the first part Mayfield’s version boils down to: “If there are no starbases or no Klingons anywhere in the galaxy after generation is complete, restart the generation process from scratch.”

This can in fact happen. The way galaxy generation works is that the program iterates through each of the 64 quadrants and populates them based on probability. For each quadrant there’s a 2% chance it will contain 3 Klingons, a 3% change it will have 2, a 15% chance it will have 1, and an 80% chance it will have none. Likewise, there’s a 4% chance each quadrant will have one starbase and a 96% chance it won’t.

After repeating this algorithm 64 times, it’s possible (but extremely unlikely) to have never generated a Klingon: 0.8 ^ 64 gives us about a 0.00006% chance of this. It’s much more likely, though, that we’ll have missed out on at least one starbase: this will happen about 7% of the time. That’s high enough to suggest the missing starbase might have been a real-world bug Mayfield caught: or maybe a situation he didn’t think at first was a problem, but later decided was. And indeed the line numbering suggests this was a case that hadn’t been accounted for in the original “finished” code submitted to HP, and had to be patched later:

770 K7=K9
775 IF B9 <= 0 OR K9 <= 0 THEN 490
780 PRINT “YOU MUST DESTROY”K9;” KLINGONS IN”T9;” STARDATES WITH”B9;” STARBASES”

Line 775 simply jumps back to the start of generation on 490 if B9 (the total number of bases) or K9 (the total number of Klingons) isn’t at least 1.

Cole and Ahl’s version, however, takes a different approach. It boils down to this: “If there are no starbases after generation is complete, then replace whatever you generated in quadrant (6,3) with one starbase, one Klingon, and 4 stars.” That’s what their line 800 is doing:

800 G(6,3)=114

To explain: the game has a Long Range Scanner feature that will give you an encoded number representing the state of a distant quadrant of the galaxy. The hundreds digit shows the number of Klingons, tens the number of starbases, and ones the number of stars. It turns out this format is actually the way the game stores a quadrant map internally, in the G array (presumably G for “galaxy”). Positions are randomized each time a sector is entered, which feels okay because you rarely have cause to re-enter the same quadrant twice. If you do, it’s usually because you had to flee from an enemy, and it makes sense for them to be in a different position once you return. Most players would be unlikely to notice that the stars had moved, too.

Back to Cole and Ahl’s revisions. Their solution seems like an odd way to solve the problem. Maybe they were wary of a fix that had no mathematically bounded runtime: in theory, Mayfield’s code might keep generating invalid galaxies over and over again. Maybe they thought it wasteful of computer time to throw out an entire generated galaxy and start again. Regardless of their reasoning, their alternate solution has several serious problems. First, it no longer accounts for the case of zero Klingons, although as this is highly unlikely it’s perhaps an understandable omission. More seriously, it alters the galaxy after telling the user how many starbases and Klingons are in it. While the number of Klingons might coincidentally end up correct, the starbase number will always be wrong when this edge case occurs: it will show as 0 even when the next line explicitly adds one.

780 PRINT”YOU MUST DESTROY”K9" KLINGONS IN”T9" STARDATES WITH”B9" STARBASES”
790 IF B9>0 THEN 810
800 G(6,3)=114

But even worse — and this is not obvious without a close reading of the code — it neglects to update the B9 and K9 variables which track the total number of bases and Klingons in the galaxy. The latter is used to determine when the game is won, for instance. There seems a pretty obvious explanation for how this happened: there is no distinction between local and global variables in BASIC, and looking at the generation code alone it might seem that B9 and K9 only exist to report galactic statistics to the user on line 780. One might not expect these variables to pop up hundreds of lines later in photon torpedo and victory condition calculations.

Cole and Ahl’s version, not to put to fine a point on it, has bugs. It’s a cure that’s worse than the disease. Interestingly, its listing in 101 Basic Computer Games includes the disclaimer:

Note: This program appears to have one or two minor bugs. It’s eminently usable, but occasionally funny little things happen.

One can well imagine “funny little things” might include the game sometimes stubbornly refusing to end, even when the status report says there are no remaining Klingons in the galaxy; or a message saying there are no starbases when the galaxy clearly contains one. I don’t want to knock Cole and Ahl here, given the herculean challenges in understanding a hundred and one obtusely-written programs well enough to adapt them to a standard BASIC — but I’d also find it kind of amusing if these two professionals “fixed” a high-schooler’s codebase and inadvertently made it buggier.

But we still haven’t solved the issue of why Mayfield’s earlier code has blank space where this later “fix” was inserted. After studying the two codebases more carefully, the solution that seems most plausible to me is that it’s actually just a coincidence, but a revealing one. Let’s start by assuming the established chronology is correct, and the version of Mayfield’s code we have does predate the Cole and Ahl listing. Given that assumption, the jump in line numbers is easily explainable if we consider that while HP BASIC didn’t support multiple statements per line, it did support multiple assignments:

780 PRINT “YOU MUST DESTROY”K9;” KLINGONS IN”T9;” STARDATES WITH”B9;” STARBASES”
810 K3=B3=S3=0

It seems sensible that at some point after the program had been renumbered, either Mayfield or HP decided to tighten this up from a more verbose original:

780 PRINT “YOU MUST DESTROY”K9;” KLINGONS IN”T9;” STARDATES WITH”B9;” STARBASES”
790 K3=0
800 B3=0
810 S3=0

Adding even more plausibility, the chance to make this improvement could have been spotted while putting in the original fix for missing starbases or Klingons, which occurs just before this block and which we can guess from the numbering was also a later addition:

775 IF B9 <= 0 OR K9 <= 0 THEN 490

So that brings us back to Cole and Ahl’s version, and I think we can now glean even more insight about why they made the change in the odd way they did. Let’s look at their whole sequence again:

770 K7=K9
775 PRINT:PRINT
780 PRINT”YOU MUST DESTROY”K9" KLINGONS IN”T9" STARDATES WITH”B9" STARBASES”
790 IF B9>0 THEN 810
800 G(6,3)=114
810 K3,B3,S3=0

First, having decided Mayfield’s “start over from scratch” approach was wrong, they reclaimed his line 775 for a more prosaic purpose. In 101 BASIC Computer Games, line 780 is already too long for a two-column listing, and the last few characters have to be inelegantly shoved underneath, like a long line of poetry:

The reclaimed line 775 can now be used for the extra blank lines drawn by PRINT:PRINT, helping if not entirely solving this spacing problem.

Cole and/or Ahl may have already noticed the gift just after this: two missing lines where they could slot in their “better” fix for the galaxy generation edge case originally on line 775. Perhaps too eager to make this seem like an elegant addition without the need for interstitial line numbers, they shove their solution into those two empty lines, the first simply jumping past the second if there are already enough starbases:

790 IF B9>0 THEN 810
800 G(6,3)=114

Just picking some quadrant and rewriting its signature to mandate a starbase there must have seemed like a clever hack, an easy way to solve the problem without needing to tax the user’s computer by generating the galaxy all over again. It’s possible they missed the fact that B9 and K9 were used elsewhere, but it’s also possible the problem of accounting for them just seemed too overwhelming. To modify them properly we’d first need to laboriously pull the individual components out of the compressed signature of the old sector (6,3), then branch on whether there were already Klingons there or not, since we’d need to increment the counter if there were none or more than one Klingon, but not do so if there was exactly one already… it’d be an ugly mess, totally ruining the aesthetics of this elegant one-liner solution.

Interestingly, the later and most-famous edition of the program included in 1978’s BASIC Computer Games takes the time to do this properly, but also totally gives up on the notion of aesthetics, cramming multiple statements onto every line and even removing the spacing between characters (which, distressingly, was legal in BASIC) in an attempt to get the program listing to fit in as small a space as possible. Decipher the below if you really want, or take my word for it, and just note that this version of the program was not nicely renumbered before making it to print:

But back in ’73: whether Cole and Ahl understood the tradeoffs and didn’t want to muck up their lovely hack, or simply made the understandable mistake of not realizing those counter variables had a longer lifespan, it’s fascinating to me that we can reconstruct so much of the process of editing and revising this old program just by taking a closer look at those much-derided line numbers.

Thanks for reading! If you’re interested in following my historical games work, follow me on Twitter at @aaronareed, or subscribe to my project announcements mailing list for news on my upcoming book on text games history.


Code Archaeology with “Super Star Trek” was originally published in The Startup on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Choice of Games

From the author of Creme de la Creme a free update and expansion to Blood Money!

by Mary Duffy at June 25, 2020 09:42 PM


We’re proud to announce that Blood Money, by Hannah Powell-Smith, author of the the smash-hit Creme de la Creme, now has a brand new expansion and update–10,000 more words of expanded romance scenes!

This update is free for all customers who have already purchased the game, and for those who haven’t: get Blood Money on sale until July 2nd!

By the power of your blood, you and your ghosts will take over your crime family!

Blood Money is a 300,000-word interactive novel by Hannah Powell-Smith. It’s entirely text-based, without graphics or sound effects, and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination.

When your cousin murders the city’s most notorious crime boss–your mother–a power struggle erupts across the criminal underworld. As your sisters Octavia and Fuschia vie for control, you alone in the family possess the blood magician’s power to summon and command ghosts. They hunger for your blood; if it’s blood they want, then blood they’ll have.

Will you take over the family business? Remain loyal, go it alone, or defect to a rival gang?

• Play as male, female, or non-binary; gay, straight, bi, or ace.
• Embrace your unearthly gifts and build connections with the dead, or banish ghosts to the underworld to protect the living
• Look for love, or manipulate your friends and allies; Betray those who trust you, or maintain family loyalty no matter the cost
• Fight a gang war for your family, defect to your rivals, or reject a life of crime
• Negotiate volatile family relations: resolve squabbles, fall in line as a loyal lieutenant, or sharpen your knife for backstabbing
• Influence citywide politics: exploit the Mayor’s office for your own ends, or use your connections for a greater cause

What will you sacrifice for freedom, and who will you sacrifice for power?

June 24, 2020

The Gaming Philosopher

[IF Comp 2019] Dull Grey by Provodnik Games

by Victor Gijsbers ([email protected]) at June 24, 2020 09:13 PM

(I'm here analysing a fantastic piece of interactive fiction, and the analysis will contain spoilers. So do yourself a favour and play it first!) The first thing one notices about Dull Grey is how it looks. Provodnik Games's previous piece, Railways of Love, was presented as a retro pixel-art game, which was nice enough; but for Dull Grey the authors have chosen to use a large-scale visual

[IF Comp 2019] Pirateship, by Robin Johnson

by Victor Gijsbers ([email protected]) at June 24, 2020 08:37 AM

I haven’t played anything by Robin Johnson, I think, but I know his Detectiveland won the competition a few years ago. That’s a pretty high recommendation. Silly pirates is not a theme I’d otherwise be too interested in, but I can have fun with the genre. Indeed, I wasted quite some hours this summer playing through an electronic version of the Fighting Fantasy gamebook Bloodbones. That was

[IF Comp 2019] Randomized Escape, by Yvan Uhlmann

by Victor Gijsbers ([email protected]) at June 24, 2020 08:26 AM

Randomized Escape is a game in which you have to escape from a randomly generated area of vacant lots, unnamed streets, discarded junk and, worst of all, ghostly apparitions. To do so, you must find several clues and items that are also randomly distributed, and then go through a rusty door. This is a sound set-up. With the right design, one could create a game that offers fresh challenges

June 23, 2020

IFTF Blog

NarraScope 2020: videos, games, and upcoming reports

by Jason McIntosh at June 23, 2020 11:31 PM

NarraScope 2020 wrapped up earlier this month. The IFTF board of directors sincerely thanks every member of the conference committee, as well as every speaker, sponsor, and other contributor for so rapidly adapting all their original plans for a weekend at the University of Illinois into a week-long, entirely online celebration of interactive narrative.

And, of course, our great thanks to the hundreds of you who showed up for the talks, hung out in the Discord, and participated in the game jam — in every case providing the energy and enthusiasm that made entirely clear that all this transformative effort was well worthwhile.

I’m pleased to share that videos of most NarraScope 2020 talks and other public sessions are available on IFTF’s YouTube channel, for you to enjoy at your leisure.

The conference committee plans to publish a transparency report about this year’s conference, much like it did for NarraScope 2019. Running an originally in-person conference as an entirely online event did not happen without its snags and missteps, so alongside the financial disclosure, the team will address other issues that arose this year, including plans about how to improve NarraScope for everyone in future years — whether online or in-person.

The conference team plans to have the report published by July 1. We will update this blog — and our newsletter — when it’s up.

"Aaron Reed"

Machines for Getting Lost on Purpose

by Aaron A. Reed at June 23, 2020 07:42 PM

Machines for Getting Lost on Purpose: Kentucky Route Zero and the Future(s) of Adventure [Part 2]

This post is a lightly-edited transcript of a talk I gave of the same title at NarraScope 2020. It is adapted from a chapter in Adventure Games: Playing the Outsider. Read Part 1 here.

So now we’ve arrived at the present: what KRZ has to say about today.

As with the Xanadu story, I think a lot of the game works on multiple levels, commenting on both society at large while also being in dialogue with its genre and its past. But I want to start with one of the game’s most obvious layers. It’s a story about many things, but one of them, certainly, is debt and poverty.

Kentucky, of course, is Rust Belt country. It’s a region that hasn’t seemed to have caught much of a break in a long time. In Act I you explore an old mine tunnel and hear a story inspired by many true ones of miners paid only in company scrip, only able to buy things from the company store, never able to save enough to leave, and in fact only growing more and more indebted to their employers. A point the game makes again and again is that these abhorrent practices are not things of the past. Predatory loans, union-busting, the weakening of worker protections, recessions, wealth inequality, and many other ugly parts of capitalism continue to grind people down, and force them to struggle to retain their humanity in the face of the inhuman systems which Consolidated Power represents.

Across the game you meet dozens of characters, and almost all of them are all struggling to survive in the face of foreclosures, recessions, floods, hard luck. Conway, a recovering alcoholic on his last delivery for a closing shop and helplessly slipping into debt, ends up traveling with a kid whose parents abandoned him at a bus station, a repairwoman who only fixes analog TVs and who is two hundred dollars away from eviction, and two musicians who aren’t sure where their next meal is coming from. Co-creator Jake Elliott has said “it’s not a game about people who are in power. It’s definitely a game about people who have been disempowered by circumstances.” Laura Hudson had a lovely take in a article for Slate where says: “Although your motley crew has the look of adventurers, when you listen to their stories… you realize there’s another word for what they are: homeless.”

Adventure games have a long history of telling stories about outsiders and underdogs, although originally with a less serious bent. Many of the genre’s earliest protagonists were lovable losers. Characters like space janitor Roger Wilco, or Leisure Suit Larry, or Laverne in Day of the Tentacle, or Guybrush Threepwood. Maybe this was a result of the contrast that more intellectual puzzle-y games made with the power fantasies in more action-focused titles, and heroes like Lara Croft, Solid Snake, or Master Chief. Or maybe it said something about the kinds of people making and playing these games — and I say that with the maximum amount of love possible.

Outsider characters from 1990s adventure games: Roger Wilco in Space Quest V, Laverne in Day of the Tentacle, Leisure Suit Larry, and Guybrush Threepwood in The Curse of Monkey Island.

But as modern adventure games have struggled to recapture whatever it was that made the genre memorable in the first place, they’ve often turned to more serious stories about outsider characters and misfit heroes. Characters like Henry in Firewatch, a man struggling with the shame of running away from his dying wife, or Chloe in Life is Strange, or Mave from Night in the Woods, or Conway. As always, the slower, more contemplative pace of adventure games provides a stage for telling different kinds of stories than mainstream games, and centering other kinds of characters.

Outsider characters from 2010s adventure games: Henry in Firewatch, Conway in Kentucky Route Zero, Chloe in Life Is Strange, and Mave in Night in the Woods.

And I think the ensemble cast of Kentucky Route Zero fit right into this pattern. Overlooked people and marginalized identities fill up the game’s extended cast, where you can meet characters who are queer, brown, blind, orphaned, old, jobless, broke, or neuroatypical, each with their own stories to tell. To pick just one out of many examples: at a floating gas station along the Echo River, you can find an elderly divorcee waiting to meet a woman he met through his first ever online personals ad. He’s never met anyone through the computer before, and is terrified it’s not going to work, and he’s going to spend the rest of his life alone. He asks you for feedback on his ad, which reads, in its entirety: “I’m a good natured man, retired, and spend most of my time sailing the Echo River, riding currents of subterranean gas and that strange invisible wind that moans out of the small tunnels along the bank. Seeking a companion to map the river with me. I have two grown children but they live far away. No goofballs.” This is not the kind of character who gets to tell their story often in a typical video game.

KRZ’s characters are haunted by ghosts, sometimes literal but often figurative, and they’re filled with powerful yearnings for something they once had that’s since slipped away. Deep underground, you can meet the last telephone operator at an almost-forgotten switchboard, training the machines that will finally replace her: “Think of me when you dial zero,” she says. At the failing community-access television station, the producer muses: “We’re hanging on long past our expiration date,” just before a catastrophic flood that sweeps her and her studio away. Bats in the cave are dying and no one knows how to help them — something that’s also happening in real life. In a mine in Act I, Conway stumbles across an archive of reel-to- reel tapes, forgotten working songs of long-dead miners: since the old wires in the mine can only power one system at a time, the tapes can only be played in the dark. And in one of the game’s most powerfully human moments, itinerant musicians Junebug and Johnny sing a song to a near-empty dive bar called “It’s Too Late to Love You Now.” I think KRZ’s creators are drawing a parallel to the twin lost sparks of the American Dream and the potential of early computing. The magic of those early games is fondly remembered by many but has often seemed extinguished, unable to be recaptured, “too late” to love.

“Think of me when you dial zero.” From Kentucky Route Zero, Act IV.

Some of the many stories you hear in KRZ are sad. But some find hope in the resilience of the human spirit, and that connects to another of the game’s dominant metaphors: its obsession with the technology dominant when adventure games were born. The game is filled with 1970s computers, reel machines and tape recorders, videocassette archives, CRTs, chattering printers: these were the world the earliest adventure games were written in, a period straddling the uneasy transition from analog to digital, and — crucially — from tech that can be easily understood, hacked, repurposed, and subverted to sealed devices and closed platforms that cannot. Our increasingly Consolidated real-world tech-makers are often hostile to outsider creators, preventing unlicensed software from being installed on their devices or content from being distributed except at their company stores. They want their angel’s share. Apple no longer makes anything like the Hypercard platform that enabled so many outsiders to create their own computer games, including Myst, still probably the best-selling adventure game of all time. Music purchased from Google Play in 2019 could not even be downloaded, let alone remixed, copied, or sampled. By the end of 2020, as you may have heard, you won’t even be able to play it any more.

Music is another running thread in KRZ, especially folk music and experimental sound art: music created for love, not profit. In Act IV, playing as orphaned kid Ezra, you travel the river for a while with a performance artist named Clara, who gives you an old tape recorder and asks you to find interesting sounds. Later, while a riverboat audience gathers to hear her play the theremin (another quintessential straddling of the analog/digital divide), she asks you to accompany her by choosing tapes to play, and how and whether to modify them by tweaking the volume, speed, or direction. I found this sequence surprisingly moving. There’s something in this old tech, the game seems to say at every turn, and our ability to own, modify, share, and remix it, that’s worth keeping around, that shouldn’t live only in the past.

This theme of reclamation and reinvention is another strong thread throughout KRZ that counters the gloom. Conway and Lula’s journeys both lead them to the Bureau of Reclaimed Spaces, tracking things displaced and places renamed, housed itself in a former cathedral. And across all five of the game’s acts you’ll find ad-hoc communities pulling together despite long odds. While its characters are sometimes sad and often struggling, they’re also surprisingly hopeful, resilient, and fearless in their quests to thrive outside the mainstream, remaking themselves in answer to the normative systems that cast them out. Many of the characters you meet have forged new identities out of the broken pieces they’ve been given, making art from noise, homes from ruins, feasts from whatever’s dredged up from an underground river. Wandering musicians Junebug and Johnny, it turns out, are mechanical people, built by a mining company for menial labor: they too found the old recordings of dead miners’ songs, and in them a spark of humanity that led them to escape their masters and rebuild themselves in a self-made image.

Driving the game’s backroads you can find many beautiful, optional vignettes, easily missed by those rushing through but profoundly important in aggregate to the game’s overall meaning. One of my favorites is when Conway finds an abandoned office building, the home of a rural electric cooperative swallowed up by Consolidated Power. The building seems ominous, a red glow coming from somewhere inside, but if you brave its dark hallways what you find is not death but a strange new beginning:

The handle is loose, and the door swings open easily. The hallway fills with warmth, light, and the smells of smoke and coffee.
About a dozen men and women sit around a campfire in the middle of a large room. Cubicle walls have been cut into pieces: some leaning up against the walls, and some arranged into stacks of firewood.
One of the women waves to Conway, and offers him an empty chair. It’s missing wheels, but it’s comfortable and easily adjustable to his height. Someone takes a pot hung above the fire and pours coffee into a Styrofoam cup. Conway accepts it, and they all return to watching the fire.

And that brings us to the futures of adventure. And this theme of reclamation dovetails nicely with another, maybe less obvious thread I see in KRZ about challenging norms and remaking old structures. Bo Ruberg’s book Videogames Have Always Been Queer talks about “deep-seated resonances between queerness and games,” and by that Ruberg means both queer games in the literal sense of representation — games by or about queer people — but also in the more conceptual sense that comes from the field of queer studies. Ruberg talks about how we can read “queerness as a way of being, doing and desiring differently… a term for a way of reimagining, resisting, and remaking the world.” Across the book they consider how modern indie games are challenging “the normative logics that traditionally have dictated how games are played and how they communicate meaning.”

KRZ isn’t a queer game in the representational sense, but this notion of challenging norms, experimentation, and inventing new futures resonates with me as a lens for interpreting it. It’s a game writhing with challenges to the status quo, both in terms of the plot and characters we’ve been looking at, but also in its mechanics and design. It’s filled with ideas about different ways stories might be fluid: almost every scene has some new twist on your mode of interaction, part of why the game’s become so beloved among interactive narrative designers in particular.

Just to name a few of these moments:

  • You can visit a diner with a procedurally generated menu;
  • play a scene where you’re controlling multiple conversations simultaneously with parallel dialog trees;
  • get narrators reminiscing about the events you’re seeing from the future, or framing your choices as hypotheticals, not actual events;
  • there are games within games (from a menu- driven interface to an arcade claw machine, to navigation minigames, to some of the playable recreations of early text games we mentioned earlier;
  • and even games within games within games, as in the several instances where characters in an internal vignette find themselves, in turn, playing yet another nested interactive story.

In “Limits and Demonstrations” you can interact with a Lula Chamberlain piece that’s an homage to real-world video artist Nam June Paik, who among other things is credited with inventing the “superhighway” analogy for the internet. A maze of magnetic tape strips hangs in the gallery, and you manually move a tape head over them to hear a story — which turns out to be interactive, with choice points represented as instructions to physically move the tape head a certain number of feet and inches in particular directions.

This thread of experimentation carries through parts of the game outside its dialogue system, too: in one scene as you move Conway through a space with Ezra following, you eventually start to realize that you’re no longer controlling Conway, but Ezra. The exact moment your control switched is slippery. By the time you notice it, you’ve already missed it.

KRZ is constantly challenging our assumptions about what kinds of things dialogue options are supposed to control, about what our relationship to an onscreen avatar is meant to be. It rewards exploration and rejecting what’s flagged as the “straight” path through or the “right” choices to make. Like many classic adventure games, it contains dozens of unusual responses and optional scenes, often nestled in far corners of maps that can be larger than they first appear.

Ruberg has also talked about the idea of “permalife,” for games which not only include but center the notion of making death impossible. They discuss this originally in the context of walking simulators like Virginia, and note that permalife games are often made by queer designers, positing that quote “permanent living represents a particularly potent trope for expressing both hopes and concerns about contemporary queer life in the face of an uncertain future.” But Ruberg resists the reading of this mechanic as purely utopian:

In contrast to [the dominant] narrative of LGBTQ lives and histories “getting better,” permalife suggests alternative models for queer ways of living that persist in time: loops, endless flat lines, a constant entanglement with death (which, in these games, is always intimately entwined with life)… It also challenges us to look for the consequences of living in video games as well as the consequences of dying, to think about existing and not just surviving as difficult, and to identify places where life — and not death — is what gives video games meaning.

You can’t die in the traditional adventure game sense in KRZ, although you often lose control of the character you’re playing, sometimes permanently. Instead, the characters you play mostly have to go on living, no matter what choices they make, and as hard as that might be.

And to me this suggests one possible future for adventure games. Games like walking simulators have often been challenged for not offering the chance to divide players into hierarchical groups, to demonstrate the mastery so closely associated with traditional gaming. You can’t really get better at a walking simulator than someone else. There’s no way to divide elite from noob. And lest you think I’m just talking action games, adventure games do this too, branding players as either the clever ones who solved the puzzles or the dunces who could not. Permalife games, queer games, in the broad sense we’re been talking about, are one approach to breaking down these kinds of binaries. What does it mean to design games around other conceits than these, and how can we tell interactive stories about more complex concepts than choosing the left or right path?

One approach which KRZ often uses is to make the player’s choices less about controlling the narrative than about engaging with it on a more emotional level. While some of your choices are in fact quite impactful — you can see two almost completely different Act IVs depending on which characters you choose to follow — more often the game’s asking you to participate in a different kind of way. Reviewer Ansh Patel said this about the game’s choices: “Ranging from despondent, bitter to hopeful, each choice holds a mirror to the player, asking them a basic question that games rarely if ever bother asking: ‘How do you feel?’” In one scene along the Echo River, Conway’s crew visits a greasy-spoon diner with a table covered in shellac, perfectly preserving a long-ago half-finished meal. The husband and wife owners each have a different story about why the table is preserved: what it means to each of them. The game doesn’t care which of them is right, if one of them has a faulty memory or if both of them do. It asks you to think about what the stories mean to the people who tell them, and what they mean to you.

We’ve mentioned puzzles a few times, and I also want to talk about what KRZ has to say about them. It’s not quite true to say the game has none — in the opening scene, for instance, the way to find something that glows-in-the-dark is to turn off your light. But these moments are gentle and rare. The designers have talked about wanting to design “mysteries, not puzzles,” a distinction borrowed from an unlikely source. During the era of George W. Bush, political analyst Gregory Treverton (paraphrased in the quote below by Malcolm Gladwell) wrote about the changing landscape of world powers in the 21st century, where once-straightforward seeming problems were becoming anything but:

Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts are a puzzle. We can’t find him because we don’t have enough information… The problem of what would happen in Iraq after the toppling of Saddam Hussein was, by contrast, a mystery. It wasn’t a question that had a simple, factual answer. Mysteries require judgments and the assessment of uncertainty, and the hard part is not that we have too little information but that we have too much.

You can solve a puzzle if you find all the clues, but a mystery, to quote KRZ’s designer Jake Elliot again, “cannot be answered, it can only be framed. Puzzles are clearly more satisfying, but the world increasingly offers us mysteries.” The designers of KRZ found this an appropriate metaphor for their story drawing inspiration from the struggles of real people with no easy solutions to their problems.

This approach is thematically appropriate for KRZ but also suggests a new way forward for narrative games more generally: inviting the player to engage their own creativity and meaning-making rather than imposing a single correct outcome. Puzzles take much of their joy from a moment of inspiration where you suddenly see the correct solution, and that joy in turn is a key part of the pleasure of classic adventure games. But other kinds of revelations can be just as powerful. Porpentine and Brenda Neotenomie’s game With Those We Love Alive asks you, the player, to draw symbols on yourself at key moments of the story, as a ritual to help the game’s protagonist achieve increasingly emotional goals. The experience is intense because the game makes you relate its fiction to your own personal vocabulary of meaning and experience, and asks you to decide how much to open up and let it in. Another interesting example is Sam Barlow’s Her Story, where you’re exploring a maze of video clips via the words used in each one. Exploring this massively interconnected archive is so idiosyncratic that two players might have very different journeys and moments of revelation, because the focus is less on fixed challenge points than on discovering the sparks in your own understanding that connect one plot thread to another.

Screen from Maze War (1973), one of the earliest first-person games.

There’s another kind of mystery that has a pretty bad rap among game designers: the maze. There’s a great talk from KRZ’s creators called “How to Get Lost in a Cave,” where they call a maze “a machine for getting lost on purpose.” (You can tell I love that because it’s the title of this talk.) Mazes were a much-hated part of classic games, but in this talk Jake Elliott speaks of their potential pleasures, a place where “we can just focus on the feeling of lostness, the reason we’re there in the first place.” The sense of disorientation, frustration, and uncertainty of being lost in a maze, like the frustrations of being stuck on a puzzle, have often been designed out of modern games, rejected for not being “fun,” “juicy,” or addictively rewarding. But I think Elliot and Kemenczy are right when they say there’s something of value that’s lost when we streamline those moments of frustration and uncertainty out our design vocabulary entirely. Having spaces to get lost in is important. Having games games that ask us to work to engage with them is necessary.

So here I identify another future for adventure games: continuing to be weird, challenging, disorientating spaces, sites where players can explore material and mechanics outside their comfort zones. In their talk, KRZ’s creators offer instructions for how to get lost in a cave that might also be useful for game designers too: “First, establish a basecamp… And now, here’s the hard part: start walking away from the basecamp. That’s what it’s for. It’s the thing that you walk away from.”

Kentucky Route Zero begins with a sunset, and most of the game takes place across one long, underground night. Adventure games, too, have lived through a sunset and appeared to slip underground for a long time. Like Donald, many of us could be accused of huddling around our bonfires of dead computers, thinking only about the past, not the future.

But the underground is a potent metaphor. It can be a place to escape the light, but also a place to grow and thrive outside it. It can be where things go to die but also the place they emerge from, reborn. At the end of three decades of commercial stagnation, adventure games occupy a strange place in gaming’s cultural landscape: at once both a distant memory of a long-forgotten form and a vibrant, influential source of threads still active in mainstream design.

A handful of 2010s games inspired explicitly or implicitly by adventure game aesthetics.

Sam Barlow, designer of Her Story, has observed that the continuing narrative of the adventure games’ demise hides a deeper truth about its role in gaming culture:

I think part of it comes from a certain self-consciousness and a certain desire for the medium to hurry up and grow up. Adventure games often feel like an awkward middle ground between the proper narrative games we aspire to and our cruder earlier attempts.

Adventure games are indeed, and always have been, awkward. They provide a stage to try out being heroes weirder than those in the mainstream, but maybe, also, with more truth inside them. They get us lost and ask us to find our own way out again, coming to a new understanding of the world, the way we think about it, or ourselves. Rather than a focus on mastery of skill and separating winners from losers, they can center the uncertain but tantalizing sensation of encountering the unfamiliar.

From the live action version of “Un Pueblo de Nada.”

Near Kentucky Route Zero’s conclusion, at the end of Act IV, the enigmatic character Weaver Márquez offers not a puzzle but a mystery, in the close-captioning of a distorted pirate television signal:

Go underground, as deep as you can go. The air is cool and the earth is damp, and when you close your eyes you are surrounded by the dead. Remember where that is? You’ll find your way from there. I think this place is what you’re looking for.

I’m Aaron A. Reed. Thank you for listening, thanks to the organizers and volunteers of NarraScope for having me, and for your efforts to bring this conference back this year, and I hope you enjoyed the talk.

Thanks for reading! If you’re interested in my historical games work, subscribe to my project notification mailing list to get announcements when I release new major stuff (a few times a year).

June 21, 2020

ZIL Crazy After All These Years

Ballyhoo Sample Transcript Game

by Roody ([email protected]) at June 21, 2020 05:33 PM

After finally getting my Hugo library addition to a place I was happy with, I returned my attention to ZIL and have completed (at least, to my own satisfaction) my coding of the sample transcript included with the Infocom game "Ballyhoo."

It's not perfect.  There are response differences that I imagine would require more REPLACE-DEFINITION stuff to fix, some spacing differences that I was just too lazy to look into, and some commands which aren't supported at all (and changing the library is pretty much beyond my abilities).

Some commands from the transcript that don't work:
PICK UP THE CANDLEPIN THEN GIVE IT TO THE JUGGLER
GIVE THE LACROSSE BALL AND THE APPLE TO THE JUGGLER

I also didn't do a "The dog runs around you playfully." QUEUE routine for the dog in the park at all.  I figured I had spent enough time on QUEUEs with the juggler.

I also didn't go to great lengths to fix up all of the responses to things so it's probably still very easy to get a nonsensical response to a command.  If this actually were a game, it'd probably be half done just implementation-wise.

The current ZIL library doesn't support the EVERYWHERE token for commands like ask and tell, so I had to create a bunch of topic objects and put them in GENERIC-OBJECTS and redirect the parser as necessary.

Of the new content I added just to make it feel more like a game, I think this is my favorite:

> n
By the Magician
Park Street continues north and south here. A hedge to the east runs 
parallel to Park Street.

A woman wearing a black top hat and a tuxedo is here. She is waving 
colorful handkerchiefs around, which turn into flowers, and then turn 
back into handkerchiefs.

> x flowers
Whoops, they are handkerchiefs now.

> x handkerchiefs
Whoops, they are flowers now.

Originally, I had hoped to code the juggler objects with some fancy table, but eventually, I just gave up.  Also, I felt there was an implied randomness to the juggler in the transcript, so I had to guess at the logic there as best I could.

Beyond the creation of ZILF (and the ZILF library) itself, this definitely would not exist without the help of Jesse McGrew, who both supplied code for some of the trickier parts and coached me through the rest.

That said, if anybody wants to clean up my code and polish it off (I also never added any kind of scoring system)- feel free to do so!

The source and game can be found here:

https://drive.google.com/file/d/1rULu34qfPSptkL2MAoH8dNH-fuMNxPeK/view?usp=sharing

Originally, I had plans to also do the Lurking Horror sample transcript (possibly for the Halloween Ectocomp, now that it allows 3+ hour coded games).  I'm not sure how likely that is now, though.  For now, I'll be going back to some of my Hugo projects.  Nice to get this one done, though!

June 20, 2020

"Aaron Reed"

Machines for Getting Lost on Purpose

by Aaron A. Reed at June 20, 2020 08:42 PM

Machines for Getting Lost on Purpose: Kentucky Route Zero and the Future(s) of Adventure [Part 1]

This post is a lightly-edited transcript of a talk I gave of the same title at NarraScope 2020. It is adapted from a chapter in Adventure Games: Playing the Outsider.

Kentucky Route Zero is a game deeply concerned with both the past and future of adventure games. Across its five acts it tells a mysterious, wistful, and entrancing story about hard times, friendships and found families, and living with the past. Finally completed this past January with the release of Act V, almost a decade after a modest Kickstarter asked for six thousand dollars to fund a “magic realist adventure game,” it’s only now that we can take a step back to look at the game as a whole, and what it has to say about the genre of adventure games and interactive narrative writ large.

A note: this talk has been designed to hopefully be interesting regardless of whether you’re a die-hard KRZ fan, or someone who’s never played but is curious to learn more. We’ll be doing a deep dive into elements of its plot and mechanics, so there will be spoilers if you haven’t played, but I think they’re mostly the kind that would enhance, not ruin, your experience of playing the game for yourself. We’ll start by reviewing the game’s overall structure, and then consider what it has to say about the past of adventure games (in this part) and then what it has to say about their present and future (in part two).

Cover image for the 2011 KRZ Kickstarter.

As I mentioned, the game began with a 2011 Kickstarter for a simple adventure game (with a very different art style than the final version), planned at first to be released later that year. As the developers began to work on it, they realized the story they wanted to tell was spilling out of the boundaries of its original frame. KRZ was ultimately released in five acts with interstitial pieces in between, across a period of 7 years:

  • Act I (January 2013)
  • Limits & Demonstrations
  • Act II (May 2013)
  • The Entertainment
  • Act III (May 2014)
  • Here and There Along the Echo
  • Act IV (July 2016)
  • Un Pueblo de Nada
  • Act V & TV Edition (January 2020)

The game is primarily the work of three creators: Jake Elliott and Tamas Kemenczy, who between them did the design, coding, writing, and art, and Ben Babbitt who did the sound and music. They released the game under the label Cardboard Computer.

The story of KRZ unfolds mostly across the course of a single long night, juggling dozens of characters, locations, and ideas: but two main through lines emerge.

The first is the present-day struggle of a driver named Conway, whom the player most often controls, to make one last delivery for a closing antique store, along with of a ragtag band of companions he meets along the road, all similarly struggling with past traumas and uncertain futures. Conway’s search for his delivery address leads him underground to the titular highway, the Kentucky Route Zero, and the subterranean Echo River, which both meander through a dreamlike underworld Appalachia whose residents face the same struggles as folks on the surface.

Conway (left) and Lula (right).

The second story, seen mostly through distancing reminiscences, recreations, or retellings, centers around the artist Lula Chamberlain, part of a fictional band of computer pioneers who retreated to underground caverns in the 1970s to complete a revolutionary computer simulation system called Xanadu. The project failed, leaving its survivors in eternal limbo, always wondering how things might had been had they succeeded.

As with everything in the game, these threads are closely twined together, sometimes in space- and time-bending ways: the address of Conway’s delivery, for instance, 5 Dogwood Drive, is the apartment where Lula was living decades earlier when the dream of Xanadu was born, suggesting the game’s journey is a quest, possibly fruitless, to return to a long-vanished place of inspiration. Given the strong parallels KRZ makes between Xanadu and the classic game Adventure (and we’ll dive more into that soon), it’s not unreasonable to see one layer of the game as a study in how, whether, and why one might try to recapture the magic of the adventure games of old. So let’s start there, with the ways both obvious and subtle that KRZ connects to the adventure genre’s rich history and distinct traditions.

The game’s visual design is an obvious place to jump in. Its stylized characters evoke, while not directly copying in the sense of 8-bit aesthetics, the limited graphical capabilities of early home computer systems, and the way it frames its scenes in mostly long establishing shots mirrors the technical limitations that led pre-3D adventure games to divide space up this way as well.

But KRZ turns this artistic limitation into an deliberate device, connecting this kind of perspective view to theatrical traditions of stage sets and scenery. With an elegant, choreographed artistry, the game’s sets function like backdrops in an enormous theater, gliding smoothly on and off stage, the camera tightly controlled to shift the framing of each scene’s beats as a single unbroken moment. The designers have spoken of being inspired by theatrical traditions around space, blocking, and set design in contrast to techniques from cinema that most modern games emulate like the cut, the close-up, or the tracking shot.

The game also moves at a slower and more contemplative pace than most modern games. Its designers mention taking inspiration from filmmakers like Tarkovsky and Kurosawa, who are “bold in their use of slowness and stillness.” But this also echoes the pace of classic adventure games. One of the things I notice most when I go back and play these games now is how slow it feels to have to wait for your character to walk across the screen. In some games, like Loom, the view would sometimes pull back even farther to reveal the immensity of a space, and your character, lost within it. That kind of slowness has been designed out of most modern games, but it’s present, even drawn attention to, in KRZ. Conway injures his leg early in the game and moves with a limp through its cavernous underground spaces, often leaving you no choice but to wait for him to arrive where he’s going, and think about what you’re looking at.

Cavernous spaces in Loom (1990) and Kentucky Route Zero Act II (2013).

Another way KRZ connects to its adventure game ancestors is through its use of multiple channels of storytelling. Infocom’s text adventures famously came with “feelies,” from fliers to comic books to in-world props, in an effort to make their worlds feel more expansive than what a single disk could contain. Loom came with a cassette tape containing a thirty minute audio prequel, and a physical notebook to record magic spells in. Games from this era often had hint lines you could call, navigating phone trees to get the right nudge to unblock your progress.

KRZ likewise yearns to reach beyond its boundaries, and the interstitial releases between acts often included weird experiments and real-life components. “Limits & Demonstrations” is a playable museum exhibit of Lula Chamberlain’s work, which was also staged in partial form at a real life gallery in Philadelphia. “Here and There along the Echo” was originally released as a phone number you could dial to navigate a surreal phone tree. At least one extension invites you to share a memory after the beep: in the game’s next act, released many months later, a character can check his answering machine messages to listen to a seemingly endless stream of these recordings. The creators also sold real phones on eBay and in live streaming auctions modified to only be able to call the Echo River number. “The Entertainment” is a full one-act play which could be bought as a printed book, experienced in virtual reality as an on-stage but silent cast member or reenacted with friends via a series of detailed instructions. And “Un Pueblo De Nada” takes place behind the scenes of a public access television station during a live broadcast, which was also actually filmed with human actors and released online.

Until its final “compilation release” this January that brought some of these pieces together in a single download, the experience of playing KRZ, like those early games, spilled out of its notional boundaries as a single piece of software bound within a box, a screen, or a fixed duration of play. Those of us who were fans all along lived with KRZ’s unfinished state for years, much like as kids playing adventure games, it would sometimes be months before the solution to a puzzle would unlock the next bit of story.

The game’s primary interaction mechanic, other than movement, is the dialogue tree, a convention popularized by LucasArts adventure games like The Secret of Monkey Island. While in classic games this mechanic was generally used simply to pick what to say in conversation, KRZ uses the mechanic in a much broader way: to establish how your character feels about what’s happening, to help define parts of the story world, to interact with devices, to direct pacing and flow. We’ll delve more later into the game’s take on the meaning of choice and agency in an interactive story, but the dialogue trees are another part of classic adventure game design vocabulary that KRZ reworks and repurposes to serve its own more modern ends.

KRZ is built on these general adventure game tropes, but is also rich with references to specific adventure games, particularly the earliest. The strongest thread is its connection to Will Crowther and Don Woods’ original Adventure, which history remembers (with some typical fuzziness) as the first adventure game. Laine Nooney has done some great work recently challenging this narrative, by the way, that’s well worth checking out. But it’s absolutely true that Crowther & Woods’ Adventure had a big impact on the generation that would build the first adventure games. In the early ‘80s these games were often called just “Adventures,” and multiple companies were named after it. And KRZ has references aplenty to Crowther & Woods’ original game. To name just some:

  • Adventure was inspired by the real-world Mammoth Cave, based in Kentucky: hence the game’s name, and Act IV’s mechanical mammoth;
  • In its first scene you’re given a lamp as you head underground, just like in Adventure;
  • The game’s geography makes frequent references to locations in Adventure, like the Hall of the Mountain King or its twisty little passages, and people connected to the real Mammoth Cave, like Stephen Bishop, a slave who hoped to earn his freedom by exploring and mapping it for his master, and whose maps were still in use generations later;
  • The game even has a character named Donald and a character named Will, if you still hadn’t figured it out.

In fact the game’s creators used to wear this inspiration even more on their sleeve. Before they were Cardboard Computer, they went by the moniker “The Guardians of the Tradition,” under which name they created an exhibition piece housed in an Infocom-styled box remixing text from Adventure with biographical stories about Will Crowther.

And while it’s a graphical game, KRZ also includes long sequences that play out entirely in text, sometimes fading the visuals away entirely, connecting it to the text-based games that dominated the first decade of the genre’s existence, and have continued to be a rich source of designers and ideas ever since.

So it’s clear the game’s creators want us to see KRZ as connecting to the deep history of adventure games. There’s almost a palimpsesting that happens here: the real Mammoth Cave and its many stories and legends; the game made about it that spawned the industry of digital storytelling; and this new game where going underground is both a physical act and a powerful metaphor, and where the context of what’s on the surface still matters.

There are also references to other parts of early computer history. The first character you meet in the game is a blind gas station owner named Joseph Wheattree, who vaguely alludes to having once written “poetry on the computer.” On his office desktop you can encounter a thinly veiled clone of 1960s chatbot ELIZA, which was one of the first programs to bring the idea of computers understanding and responding to language into the public consciousness. ELIZA was created by Joseph Weizenbaum — whose last name is German for “wheat tree.” The game’s Joseph Wheattree is blind, and it’s possible this is a reference to Weizenbaum’s later disavowal of ELIZA, claiming that people’s desires to project intelligence and empathy onto his simple program did more harm than good, despite it firing the imagination of generations of creators.

Magnus Hildebrandt, in a great series of posts called “Kentucky Fried Zero” (thanks to the Internet Archive for preserving this now-dead link), catalogued dozens of other possible references in the game’s character names:

  • Lula Chamberlain shares a last name with William Chamberlain, who in 1984 published the book The Policeman’s Beard Is Half-Constructed, attributing authorship to his program RACTER and calling it the first book written by a computer.
  • Conway’s first companion, Shannon Márquez, may reference the author of One Hundred Years of Solitude, one of the most famous works of magical realism: Gabriel García Márquez.
  • Conway himself shares a last name with the creator of Conway’s Game of Life, the first digital cellular automaton.
Conway’s Game of Life.

There’s a theme across all these references about the edges between reality and magic, or between software and sentience, an homage to the most magical moments computers have brought us in the past half-century, moments of collaboration between people and code. And adventure games are certainly part of that tradition of wonder.

One of the spots where these references are most richly layered is in Act III, the only one to focus mainly on the Lula Chamberlain and Xanadu side of the story. In a vast chamber called (after Adventure) the Hall of the Mountain King, you find the abandoned Xanadu computer, visually styled after the groundbreaking PDP-1 mainframe that debuted in 1960, and on which was created the first interactive word processor, the first computer chess, the first major timesharing system, and some of the first examples of computer music.

The PDP-1 (left) and KRZ’s Xanadu.

On the Xanadu computer, you can start playing a game that mingles the exact opening text of Adventure with line-graphics reminiscent of Roberta Williams’ Mystery House, one of the first graphical adventure games. The Xanadu game quickly turns into a playable version of its own origin story, as if it can only tell you its history in the language of the transporting games it was designed to enable. Soon you find yourself playing a resource management game reminiscent of Hamurabi, another of the earliest text-based computer games, to convey the way Xanadu’s creators had to fight against time and the elements in the hopes of completing their masterpiece.

The leader of the doomed Xanadu project was a man named Donald, and interestingly there have been several influential Donalds in computer history associated with grandiose projects and doomed ambitions. There’s Don Woods, of course, who extended Will Crowther’s Adventure and brought it to the masses. There’s software architect Donald Knuth, whose fifty-year mission to define The Art of Computer Programming remains unfinished; or A.I. pioneer Donald Michie, who created one of the first self-learning computer programs.

But there’s an even more obvious analogue for the game’s Donald: early computer visionary Ted Nelson, whose real-world 1970s Xanadu hypertext project envisioned a radically new, never-fully-realized way of interacting with interconnected text. Nelson was one of the earliest advocates for the transformative power of computers. A decade before most Americans would start getting the chance to interact with one, his Computer Lib / Dream Machines manifesto foresaw the enormous revolution that access to computers would bring about, and the urgent need to find new systems of organization and thinking that would thrive in an interconnected world, rather than letting stale old models pollute this digital Eden. But as big businesses shouldered their way in and created a home computer industry, Nelson’s radical ideas were smoothed out and paved over. In the game, Donald sits around a perpetually burning bonfire of old computers, and says “Do you have any idea what it’s like to spend your life building something, and then sit powerlessly as your work declines into ruin?”

KRZ’s Donald and the original cover of “Computer Lib.”

In Act III you learn how Donald, Lula and a handful of other visionaries had to go literally underground with their research into more and more elaborate computer simulations: there’s a great description of them slipping into the mouth of a cave with bulky computers, rather than expedition gear, strapped to their backs. There they devoted their lives to building this perfect system that would realize all their dreams. Donald wistfully rhapsodizes of Xanadu: “There was so much more to it… Ornate labyrinths of memory, exhaustively-simulated parallel cave ecosystems. Real artificial intelligence built on sophistical neural network algorithms! The birds in the forest could flock in three dimensions. The bats could learn to sing!” He tells you the secret of Xanadu’s potential: the digital circuitry had fused together with cave mold, making it unpredictable, chaotic, perhaps even, once, alive. Donald says: “You’ve seen it for yourself, what’s left of it. The chalky bones of a beautiful dream. But you can see what it once was, can’t you? Can’t you?”

I see in Xanadu shades of Ted Nelson and the early hacker dreams of truly open systems that could change the world. And I see a parallel story there to the history of adventure games, which also made big promises and drew players to their beautiful dreams of nearly limitless potential. Many of us fans can rightly be accused of being almost as starry-eyed as Donald.

But it’s relevant to this interpretation that KRZ’s Xanadu didn’t fail on principle: it was sabotaged. You learn the computer was continually tampered with by “the strangers,” who appear in the game as skeletons of crackling electricity, representatives of the soulless corporate power company that’s been slowly taking over the game’s Kentucky both above and below ground. Countless once-local and independent outfits have been shut down, bought out, or crippled by Consolidated Power. One of these is Hard Times Whiskey, whose product Consolidated has turned into a tool of addiction and control, and this turns out to be the source of the strangers’ interest in Xanadu.

This is kind of convoluted, but stick with me.

When whiskey ages — and this is a real thing — some of it evaporates, what’s called the “angel’s share.” We learn in the game that Consolidated Power’s owners decided Xanadu’s organic mold was feeding off that whiskey in the air — which they considered their whiskey — that the Xanadu project was stealing from them, even if that theft cost them nothing. They sent the strangers to sabotage Xanadu, crippling it: both to defend an abstract principle but also to keep everyone else under their thumb, and all the control flowing back to them.

Maybe I’m reaching, but we might read Consolidated Power as the business forces that took over gaming from its outsider creators, turning their radical experimentation and dreams of a revolution caused by the unpredictable collaboration of man and machine into a system of controlled, reproducible successes, inventing addictive game mechanics to keep players hooked, smoothing away the “rough corners” of experiences like moving too slowly, typing whatever you wanted at a prompt, or sharing software with your friends.

But there are no easy villains in KRZ: at one point you find a “degausser” that momentarily makes the skeletons less faded, giving each one a few moments to tell you their life story, and their name. It turns out they’re all just regular folks who got in too deep with the power company and were offered a job to pay off their debt. None of them want to be what they’ve become. They’re just doing their best to get by in a world that would crush them if they didn’t.

Here’s Part 2 of the talk, about what KRZ has to say about the present and future of adventure games.

Thanks for reading! If you’re interested in my historical games work, subscribe to my project notification mailing list to get announcements when I release new major stuff (a few times a year).

June 19, 2020

The Gaming Philosopher

[IF Comp 2019] The Mysterious Stories of Caroline by Soham S

by Victor Gijsbers ([email protected]) at June 19, 2020 08:46 PM

This has been a difficult review to write. I wanted to like this piece, but I believe it gravely mishandles its highly sensitive content in at least one of the possible endings. Before I get to that, I want to say something about the interface first, just to get it out of the way so that we can then focus on the narrative content of the game. The Mysterious Stories of Caroline uses quite a

[IF Comp 2019] Each-uisge by Jac Colvin

by Victor Gijsbers ([email protected]) at June 19, 2020 08:25 PM

Each-uisge is a supernatural horror story set in Scotland and based on Scottish mythology. You play a child of around ten years old who has to confront an animal that may be just a horse, but is probably either a dangerous kelpie or an even more dangerous each-uisge. In spite of the prominent horror elements you can’t actually die, I believe, and the entire piece feels like it’s aimed at

Choice of Games

Volume 2 of War of the Gods is out now!

by Kai DeLeon at June 19, 2020 04:41 PM

We’re proud to announce that Volume 2 of War of the Gods, the second part and 170,000-word thrilling conclusion of War of the Gods is now available as an in-app purchase in War of the Gods on our website, Android, and on iOS in the “Hosted Games” app.

Volumes 1 and 2 are 33% off until June 25th!

Fight the god of death on your way to godhood! Choose your path with six different characters:  warrior, assassin, mage, thief, storm rider, and beastmaster.  Destroy the death god’s minions by sword, magic, storms, or beasts.  Rise in power to eventually destroy the death god himself.  Seize your own path toward godhood.

War of the Gods is a two-part, 255,000-word interactive novel by Barbara Elzey, where your choices control the story. It’s entirely text-based, without graphics or sound effects, and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination.

  • Play a Solarian, a creature who is invulnerable by day and weak at night.
  • Play the human assassin who must fight his way free from bondage.
  • Play a Storm Rider, an ancient race that harnesses the power of the storm.
  • Play a thief known as the Silver Fox, who must save her people from the death cultists who killed her family
  • Play a Deodrin mage, a creature from an ancient race, who hurls spells to save a family from the despotic king.
  • Play a human beastmaster, who is the true heir to the throne, and who gathers allies for war, both human and beasts.
  • Choose your gender; romance as gay, straight or asexual, and select your physical traits.
  • Find romance with different fantastical species and characters.
  • Defeat the minions of death.
  • Gain power toward your own rise to godhood.

The Digital Antiquarian

The Shareware Scene, Part 5: Narratives of DOOM

by Jimmy Maher at June 19, 2020 03:41 PM

Let me begin today by restating the obvious: DOOM was very, very popular, probably the most popular computer game to date.

That “probably” has to stand there because DOOM‘s unusual distribution model makes quantifying its popularity frustratingly difficult. It’s been estimated that id sold 2 to 3 million copies of the shareware episodes of the original DOOM. The boxed-retail-only DOOM II may have sold a similar quantity; it reportedly became the third best-selling boxed computer game of the 1990s. But these numbers, impressive as they are in their own right, leave out not only the ever-present reality of piracy but also the free episode of DOOM, which was packaged and distributed in such an unprecedented variety of ways all over the world. Players of it likely numbered well into the eight digits.

Yet if the precise numbers associated with the game’s success are slippery, the cultural impact of the game is easier to get a grip on. The release of DOOM marks the biggest single sea change in the history of computer gaming. It didn’t change gaming instantly, mind you — a contemporaneous observer could be forgiven for assuming it was still largely business as usual a year or even two years after DOOM‘s release — but it did change it forever.

I should admit here and now that I’m not entirely comfortable with the changes DOOM brought to gaming. In fact, for a long time, when I was asked when I thought I might bring this historical project to a conclusion, I pointed to the arrival of DOOM as perhaps the most logical place to hang it up. I trust that most of you will be pleased to hear that I no longer feel so inclined, but I do recognize that my feelings about DOOM are, at best, conflicted. I can’t help but see it as at least partially responsible for a certain coarsening in the culture of gaming that followed it. I can muster respect for the id boys’ accomplishment, but no love. Hopefully the former will be enough to give the game its due.

As the title of this article alludes, there are many possible narratives to spin about DOOM‘s impact. Sometimes the threads are contradictory — sometimes even self-contradictory. Nevertheless, let’s take this opportunity to follow a few of them to wherever they lead us as we wrap up this series on the shareware movement and the monster it spawned.


3D 4EVA!

The least controversial, most incontrovertible aspect of DOOM‘s impact is its influence on the technology of games. It was nothing less than the coming-out party for 3D graphics as a near-universal tool — this despite the fact that 3D graphics had been around in some genres, most notably vehicular simulations, almost as long as microcomputer games themselves had been around, and despite the fact that DOOM itself was far from a complete implementation of a 3D environment. (John Carmack wouldn’t get all the way to that goal until 1996’s Quake, the id boys’ anointed successor to DOOM.) As we’ve seen already, Blue Sky Productions’s Ultima Underworld actually offered the complete 3D implementation which DOOM lacked twenty months before the latter’s arrival.

But as I also noted earlier, Ultima Underworld was complex, a little esoteric, hard to come to terms with at first sight. DOOM, on the other hand, took what the id boys had started with Wolfenstein 3D, added just enough additional complexity to make it into a more satisfying game over the long haul, topped it off with superb level design that took full advantage of all the new affordances, and rammed it down the throat of the gaming mainstream with all the force of one of its coveted rocket launchers. The industry never looked back. By the end of the decade, it would be hard to find a big boxed game that didn’t use 3D graphics.

Many if not all of these applications of 3D were more than warranted: the simple fact is that 3D lets you do things in games that aren’t possible any other way. Other forms of graphics consist at bottom of fixed, discrete patterns of colored pixels. These patterns can be moved about the screen — think of the sprites in a classic 2D videogame, such as Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros. or id’s Commander Keen — but their forms cannot be altered with any great degree of flexibility. And this in turn limits the degree to which the world of a game can become an embodied, living place of emergent interactions; it does no good to simulate something in the world model if you can’t represent it on the player’s screen.

3D graphics, on the other hand, are stored not as pixels but as a sort of architectural plan of an imaginary 3D space, expressed in the language of mathematics. The computer then extrapolates from said plan to render the individual pixels on the fly in response to the player’s actions. In other words, the world and the representation of the world are stored as one in the computer’s memory. This means that things can happen there which no artist ever anticipated. 3D allowed game makers to move beyond hand-crafted fictions and set-piece puzzles to begin building virtual realities in earnest. Not for nothing did many people refer to DOOM-like games in the time before the term “first-person shooter” was invented as “virtual-reality games.”

Ironically, others showed more interest than the id boys themselves in probing the frontiers of formal possibility thus opened. While id continued to focus purely on ballistics and virtual violence in their extended series of Quake games after making DOOM, Looking Glass Technologies — the studio which had previously been known as Blue Sky Productions — worked many of the innovations of Ultima Underworld and DOOM alike into more complex virtual worlds in games like System Shock and Thief. Nevertheless, DOOM was the proof of concept, the game which demonstrated indubitably to everyone that 3D graphics could provide amazing experiences which weren’t possible any other way.

From the standpoint of the people making the games, 3D graphics had another massive advantage: they were also cheaper than the alternative. When DOOM first appeared in December of 1993, the industry was facing a budgetary catch-22 with no obvious solution. Hiring armies of artists to hand-paint every screen in a game was expensive; renting or building a sound stage, then hiring directors and camera people and dozens of actors to provide hours of full-motion-video footage was even more so. Players expected ever bigger, richer, longer games, which was intensely problematic when every single element in their worlds had to be drawn or filmed by hand. Sales were increasing at a steady clip by 1993, but they weren’t increasing quickly enough to offset the spiraling costs of production. Even major publishers like Sierra were beginning to post ugly losses on their bottom lines despite their increasing gross revenues.

3D graphics had the potential to fix all that, practically at a stroke. A 3D world is, almost by definition, a collection of interchangeable parts. Consider a simple item of furniture, like, say, a desk. In a 2D world, every desk must be laboriously hand-drawn by an artist in the same way that a traditional carpenter planes and joins the wood for such a thing in a workshop. But in a 3D world, the data constituting the basic form of “desk” can be inserted in a matter of seconds; desks can now make their way into games with the same alacrity with which they roll off of an IKEA production line. But you say that you don’t want every desk in your world to look exactly the same? Very well; it takes just a few keystrokes to change the color or wood grain or even the size of your desk, or to add or take away a drawer. We can arrive at endless individual implementations of “desk” from our Platonic ideal with surprising speed. Small wonder that, when the established industry was done marveling at DOOM‘s achievements in terms of gameplay, the thing they kept coming back to over and over was its astronomical profit margins. 3D graphics provided a way to make games make money again.

So, 3D offered worlds with vastly more emergent potential, made at a greatly reduced cost. There had to be a catch, right?

Alas, there was indeed. In many contexts, 3D graphics were right on the edge of what a typical computer could do at all in the mid-1990s, much less do with any sort of aesthetic appeal. Gamers would have to accept jagged edges, tearing textures, and a generalized visual crudity in 3D games for quite some time to come. A freeze-frame visual comparison with the games the industry had been making immediately before the 3D revolution did the new ones no favors: the games coming out of studios like Sierra and LucasArts had become genuinely beautiful by the early 1990s, thanks to those companies’ rooms full of dedicated pixel artists. It would take a considerable amount of time before 3D games would look anywhere near this nice. One can certainly argue that 3D was in some fairly fundamental sense necessary for the continuing evolution of game design, that this period of ugliness was one that the industry simply needed to plow through in order to emerge on the other side with a whole new universe of visual and emergent possibility to hand. Still, people mired in the middle of it could be forgiven for asking whether, from the evidence of screenshots alone, gaming technology wasn’t regressing rather than progressing.

But be that as it may, the 3D revolution ushered in by DOOM was here to stay. People would just have to get used to the visual crudity for the time being, and trust that eventually things would start to look better again.


Playing to the Base

There’s an eternal question in political and commercial marketing alike: do you play to the base, or do you try to reach out to a broader spectrum of people? The former may be safer, but raises the question of how many more followers you can collect from the same narrow slice of the population; the latter tempts you with the prospect of countless virgin souls waiting to embrace you, but is far riskier, with immense potential to backfire spectacularly if you don’t get the message and tone just right. This was the dichotomy confronting the boxed-games industry in the early 1990s.

By 1993, the conventional wisdom inside the industry had settled on the belief that outreach was the way forward. This dream of reaching a broader swath of people, of becoming as commonplace in living rooms as prime-time dramas and sitcoms, was inextricably bound up with the technology of CD-ROM, what with its potential to put footage of real human actors into games alongside spoken dialog and orchestral soundtracks. “What we think of today as a computer or a videogame system,” wrote Ken Williams of Sierra that year, “will someday assume a much broader role in our homes. I foresee a day when there is one home-entertainment device which combines the functions of a CD-audio player, VCR, videogame system, and computer.”

And then along came DOOM with its stereotypically adolescent-male orientation, along with sales numbers that threatened to turn the conventional wisdom about how well the industry could continue to feed off the same old demographic on its head. About six months after DOOM‘s release, when the powers that were were just beginning to grapple with its success and what it meant to each and every one of them, Alexander Antoniades, a founding editor of the new Game Developer magazine, more fully articulated the dream of outreach, as well as some of the doubts that were already beginning to plague it.

The potential of CD-ROM is tremendous because it is viewed as a superset not [a] subset of the existing computer-games industry. Everyone’s hoping that non-technical people who would never buy an Ultima, flight simulator, or DOOM will be willing to buy a CD-ROM game designed to appeal to a wider audience — changing the computer into [an] interactive VCR. If these technical neophytes’ first experience is a bad one, for $60 a disc, they’re not going to continue making the same mistake.

It will be this next year, as these consumers make their first CD-ROM purchases, that will determine the shape of the industry. If CD-ROM games are able to vary more in subject matter than traditional computer games, retain their platform independence, and capture new demographics, they will attain the status of a new platform [in themselves]. If not, they will just be another means to get product to market and will be just another label on the side of a box.

The next couple of years did indeed become a de-facto contest between these two ideas of gaming’s future. At first, the outreach camp could point to some notable successes on a scale similar to that of DOOM: The 7th Guest sold over 2 million copies, Myst sold an extraordinary 6 million or more. Yet the reality slowly dawned that most of those outside the traditional gaming demographic who purchased those games regarded them as little more than curiosities; most evidence would seem to indicate that they were never seriously played to a degree commensurate with their sales. Meanwhile the many similar titles which the industry rushed out in the wake of these success stories almost invariably became commercial disappointments.

The problems inherent in these multimedia-heavy “interactive movies” weren’t hard to see even at the time. In the same piece from which I quoted above, Alexander Antoniades noted that too many CD-ROM productions were “the equivalent of Pong games with captured video images of professional tennis players and CD-quality sounds of bouncing balls.” For various reasons — the limitations inherent in mixing and matching canned video clips; the core limitations of the software and hardware technology; perhaps simply a failure of imagination — the makers of too many of these extravaganzas never devised new modes of gameplay to complement their new modes of presentation. Instead they seemed to believe that the latter alone ought to be enough. Too often, these games fell back on rote set-piece puzzle-solving — an inherently niche activity even if done more creatively than we often saw in these games — for lack of any better ideas for making the “interactive” in interactive movies a reality. The proverbial everyday person firing up the computer-cum-stereo-cum-VCR at the end of a long workday wasn’t going to do so in order to watch a badly acted movie gated with frustrating logic puzzles.

While the multimedia came first with these productions, games of the DOOM school flipped that script. As the years went on and they too started to ship on the now-ubiquitous medium of CD-ROM, they too picked up cut scenes and spoken dialog, but they never suffered the identity crisis of their rivals; they knew that they were games first and foremost, and knew exactly what forms their interactivity should take. And most importantly from the point of view of the industry, these games sold. Post-1996 or so, high-concept interactive movies were out, as was most serious talk of outreach to new demographics. Visceral 3D action games were in, along with a doubling-down on the base.

To blame the industry’s retrenchment — its return to the demographically tried-and-true — entirely on DOOM is a stretch. Yet DOOM was a hugely important factor, standing as it did as a living proof of just how well the traditional core values of gaming could pay. The popularity of DOOM, combined with the exercise in diminishing commercial returns that interactive movies became, did much to push the industry down the path of retrenchment.

The minor tragedy in all this was not so much the end of interactive movies, given what intensely problematic endeavors they so clearly were, but rather that the latest games’ vision proved to be so circumscribed in terms of fiction, theme, and mechanics alike. By late in the decade, they had brought the boxed industry to a place of dismaying homogeneity; the values of the id boys had become the values of computer gaming writ large. Game fictions almost universally drew from the same shallow well of sci-fi action flicks and Dungeons & Dragons, with perhaps an occasional detour into military simulation. A shocking proportion of the new games being released fell into one of just two narrow gameplay genres: the first-person shooter and the real-time-strategy game.

These fictional and ludic genres are not, I hasten to note, illegitimate in themselves; I’ve enjoyed plenty of games in all of them. But one craves a little diversity, a more vibrant set of possibilities to choose from when wandering into one’s local software store. It would take a new outsider movement coupled with the rise of convenient digital distribution in the new millennium to finally make good on that early-1990s dream of making games for everyone. (How fitting that shaking loose the stranglehold of DOOM‘s progeny would require the exploitation of another alternative form of distribution, just as the id boys exploited the shareware model…)


The Murder Simulator

DOOM was mentioned occasionally in a vaguely disapproving way by mainstream media outlets immediately after its release, but largely escaped the ire of the politicians who were going after games like Night Trap and Mortal Kombat at the time; this was probably because its status as a computer rather than a console game led to its being played in bedrooms rather than living rooms, free from the prying eyes of concerned adults. It didn’t become the subject of a full-blown moral panic until weirdly late in its history.

On April 20, 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, a pair of students at Columbine High School in the Colorado town of the same name, walked into their school armed to the teeth with knives, explosives, and automatic weapons. They proceeded to kill 13 students and teachers and to injure 24 more before turning their guns on themselves. The day after the massacre, an Internet gaming news site called Blue’s News posted a message that “several readers have written in reporting having seen televised news reports showing the DOOM logo on something visible through clear bags containing materials said to be related to the suspected shooters. There is no word yet of what connection anyone is drawing between these materials and this case.” The word would come soon enough.

It turned out that Harris and Klebold had been great devotees of the game, not only as players but as creators of their own levels. “It’s going to be just like DOOM,” wrote Harris in his diary just before the massacre. “I must not be sidetracked by my feelings of sympathy. I will force myself to believe that everyone is just a monster from DOOM.” He chose his prize shotgun because it looked like one found in the game. On the surveillance tapes that recorded the horror in real time, the weapons-festooned boys pranced and preened as if they were consciously imitating the game they loved so much. Weapons experts noted that they seemed to have adopted their approach to shooting from what worked in DOOM. (In this case, of course, that was a wonderful thing, in that it kept them from killing anywhere close to the number of people they might otherwise have with the armaments at their disposal.)

There followed a storm of controversy over videogame content, with DOOM and the genre it had spawned squarely at its center. Journalists turned their attention to the FPS subculture for the first time, and discovered that more recent games like Duke Nukem 3D — the Columbine shooters’ other favorite game, a creation of Scott Miller’s old Apogee Software, now trading under the name of 3D Realms — made DOOM‘s blood and gore look downright tame. Senator Joseph Lieberman, a longstanding critic of videogames, beat the drum for legislation, and the name of DOOM even crossed the lips of President Bill Clinton. “My hope,” he said, “[is] to persuade the nation’s top cultural producers to call a cease-fire in the virtual arms race, to stop the release of ultra-violent videogames such as DOOM. Several of the school gunmen murderously mimicked [it] down to the choice of weapons and apparel.”

When one digs into the subject, one can’t help but note how the early life stories of John Carmack and John Romero bear some eerie similarities with those of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. The two Johns as well were angry kids who found it hard to fit in with their peers, who engaged in petty crime and found solace in action movies, heavy-metal music, and computer games. Indeed, a big part of the appeal of DOOM for its most committed fans was the sense that it had been made by people just like them, people who were coming from the same place. What caused Harris and Klebold, alone among the millions like them, to exorcise their anger and aggression in such a horrifying way? It’s a question that we can’t begin to answer. We can only say that, unfair though it may be, perceptions of DOOM outside the insular subculture of FPS fandom must always bear the taint of its connection with a mass murder.

And yet the public controversy over DOOM and its progeny resulted in little concrete change in the end. Lieberman’s proposed legislation died on the vine after the industry fecklessly promised to do a better job with content warnings, and the newspaper pundits moved on to other outrages. Forget talk of free speech; there was too much money in these types of games for them to go away. Just ten months after Columbine, Activision released Soldier of Fortune, which made a selling point of dismembered bodies and screams of pain so realistic that one reviewer claimed they left his dog a nervous wreck cowering in a corner. After the requisite wave of condemnation, the mainstream media forgot about it too.

Violence in games didn’t begin with DOOM or even Wolfenstein 3D, but it was certainly amplified and glorified by those games and the subculture they wrought. While a player may very well run up a huge body count in, say, a classic arcade game or an old-school CRPG, the violence there is so abstract as to be little more than a game mechanic. But in DOOM — and even more so in the games that followed it — experiential violence is a core part of the appeal. One revels in killing not just because of the new high score or character experience level one gets out of it, but for the thrill of killing itself, as depicted in such a visceral, embodied way. This does strike me as a fundamental qualitative shift from most of the games that came before.

Yet it’s very difficult to have a reasonable discussion on said violence’s implications, simply because opinions have become so hardened on the subject. To express concern on any level is to invite association with the likes of Joe Lieberman, a politician with a knack for choosing the most reactionary, least informed position on every single issue, who apparently was never fortunate enough to have a social-science professor drill the fact that correlation isn’t causation into his head.

Make no mistake: the gamers who scoff at the politicians’ hand-wringing have a point. Harris and Klebold probably were drawn to games like DOOM and Duke Nukem 3D because they already had violent fantasies, rather than having said fantasies inculcated by the games they happened to play. In a best-case scenario, we can even imagine other potential mass murderers channeling their aggression into a game rather than taking it out on real people, in much the same way that easy access to pornography may be a cause of the dramatic decline in incidents of rape and sexual violence in most Western countries since the rise of the World Wide Web.

That said, I for one am also willing to entertain the notion that spending hours every day killing things in the most brutal, visceral manner imaginable inside an embodied virtual space may have some negative effects on some personalities. Something John Carmack said about the subject in a fairly recent interview strikes me as alarmingly fallacious:

In later games and later times, when games [came complete with] moral ambiguity or actual negativity about what you’re doing, I always felt good about the decision that in DOOM, you’re fighting demons. There’s no gray area here. It is black and white. You’re the good guys, they’re the bad guys, and everything that you’re doing to them is fully deserved.

In reality, though, the danger which games like DOOM may present, especially in the polarized societies many of us live in in our current troubled times, is not that they ask us to revel in our moral ambiguity, much less our pure evil. It’s rather the way they’re able to convince us that the Others whom we’re killing “fully deserve” the violence we visit upon them because “they’re the bad guys.” (Recall those chilling words from Eric Harris’s diary, about convincing himself that his teachers and classmates are really just monsters…) This tendency is arguably less insidious when the bad guys in question are ridiculously over-the-top demons from Hell than when they’re soldiers who just happen to be wearing a different uniform, one which they may quite possibly have had no other choice but to don. Nevertheless, DOOM started something which games like the interminable Call of Duty franchise were only too happy to run with.

I personally would like to see less violence rather than more in games, all things being equal, and would like to see more games about building things up rather than tearing them down, fun though the latter can be on occasion. It strikes me that the disturbing association of some strands of gamer culture with some of the more hateful political movements of our times may not be entirely accidental, and that some of the root causes may stretch all the way back to DOOM — which is not to say that it’s wrong for any given individual to play DOOM or even Call of Duty. It’s only to say that the likes of GamerGate may be yet another weirdly attenuated part of DOOM‘s endlessly multi-faceted legacy.


Creative Destruction?

In other ways, though, the DOOM community actually was — and is — a community of creation rather than destruction. (I did say these narratives of DOOM wouldn’t be cut-and-dried, didn’t I?)

John Carmack, by his own account alone among the id boys, was inspired rather than dismayed by the modding scene that sprang up around Wolfenstein 3D — so much so that, rather than taking steps to make such things more difficult in DOOM, he did just the opposite: he separated the level data from the game engine much more completely than had been the case with Wolfenstein 3D, thus making it possible to distribute new DOOM levels completely legally, and released documentation of the WAD format in which the levels were stored on the same day that id released the game itself.

The origins of his generosity hearken back once again to this idea that the people who made DOOM weren’t so very different from the people who played it. One of Carmack’s formative experiences as a hacker was his exploration of Ultima II on his first Apple II. Carmack:

To go ahead and hack things to turn trees into chests or modify my gold or whatever… I loved that. The ability to go several steps further and release actual source code, make it easy to modify things, to let future generations get what I wished I had had a decade earlier—I think that’s been a really good thing. To this day I run into people all the time that say, whether it was Doom, or maybe even more so Quake later on, that that openness and that ability to get into the guts of things was what got them into the industry or into technology. A lot of people who are really significant people in significant places still have good things to say about that.

Carmack speaks of “a decade-long fight inside id about how open we should be with the technology and the modifiability.” The others questioned this commitment to what Carmack called “open gaming” more skeptically than ever when some companies started scooping up some of the thousands of fan-made levels, plopping them onto CDs, and selling them without paying a cent to id. But in the long run, the commitment to openness kept DOOM alive; rather than a mere computer game, it became a veritable cottage industry of its own. Plenty of people played literally nothing else for months or even years at a stretch.

The debate inside id raged more than ever in 1997, when Carmack insisted on releasing the complete original source code to DOOM. (He had done the same for the Wolfenstein 3D code two years before.) As he alludes above, the DOOM code became a touchstone for an up-and-coming generation of game programmers, even as many future game designers cut their teeth and made early names for themselves by creating custom levels to run within the engine. And, inevitably, the release of the source code led to a flurry of ports to every imaginable platform: “Everything that has a 32-bit [or better] processor has had DOOM run on it,” says Carmack with justifiable pride. Today you can play DOOM on digital cameras, printers, and even thermostats, and do so if you like in hobbyist-created levels that coax the engine into entirely new modes of play that the id boys never even began to conceive of.

This narrative of DOOM bears a distinct similarity to that of another community of creation with which I happen to be much better acquainted: the post-Infocom interactive-fiction community that arose at about the same time that the original DOOM was taking the world by storm. Like the DOOM people, the interactive-fiction people built upon a beloved company’s well-nigh timeless software engineering; like them, they eventually stretched that engine in all sorts of unanticipated directions, and are still doing it to this day. A comparison between the cerebral text adventures of Infocom and the frenetic shooters of id might seem incongruous at first blush, but there you are. Long may their separate communities of love and craft continue to thrive.



As you have doubtless gathered by now, the legacy of DOOM is a complicated one that’s almost uniquely resistant to simplification. Every statement has a qualifier; every yang has a yin. This can be frustrating for a writer; it’s in the nature of us as a breed to want straightforward causes and effects. The desire for them may lead one to make trends that were obscure at best to the people living through them seem more obvious than they really were. Therefore allow me to reiterate that the new gaming order which DOOM created wouldn’t become undeniable to everyone until fully three or four years after its release. A reader recently emailed me the argument that 1996 was actually the best year ever for adventure games, the genre which, according to some oversimplified histories, DOOM and games like it killed at a stroke — and darned if he didn’t make a pretty good case for it.

So, while I’m afraid I’ll never be much of a gibber and/or fragger, we should continue to have much to talk about. Onward, then, into the new order. I dare say that from the perspective of the boots on the ground it will continue to look much like the old one for quite some time to come. And after that? Well, we’ll take it as it comes. I won’t be mooting any more stopping dates.

(Sources: the books The Complete Wargames Handbook (2000 edition) by James F. Dunnigan, Masters of Doom by David Kushner, Game Engine Black Book: DOOM by Fabien Sanglard, Principles of Three-Dimensional Computer Animation by Michael O’Rourke, and Columbine by Dave Cullen; Retro Gamer 75; Game Developer of June 1994; Chris Kohler’s interview with John Carmack for Wired. And a special thanks to Alex Sarosi, a.k.a. Lt. Nitpicker, for his valuable email correspondence on the legacy of DOOM, as well as to Josh Martin for pointing out in a timely comment to the last article the delightful fact that DOOM can now be run on a thermostat.)

June 18, 2020

what will you do now?

That itch.io bundle

by Verity at June 18, 2020 07:42 PM

The itch.io Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality raised an astounding eight MILLION dollars for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and Community Bail Fund. It is a feat, and a bundle, that invites hyperbole, and for good reason. As of its close last Tuesday, over 800 thousand people contributed – meaning people contributed on average $10, for almost $9000 worth of games and art and literature. This means 814,738 people who now have indie, often leftist games: certainly an incredible prospect!

The question now, of course, is how to go through all these games?!

Much like IFComp, it can often seem like being a kid in a candy shop, overwhelmed by the sheer variety available. I’m working through it, bit by bit. Over the next few weeks, I’ll try to regularly post initial impressions of the games I have tried! They’re probably going to be narrative more than action, and only the ones which can run on a Mac.

June 15, 2020

Emily Short

Mid-June Link Assortment

by Emily Short at June 15, 2020 04:41 PM

Links below the fold for those who find them useful; the fold itself is here to acknowledge that the movement I wrote about fifteen days ago is ongoing even if media coverage is somewhat decreased; and that the work of change is more important than anything in the rest of the post.

I’ll put this up here, though: if you have not encountered it yet, you may be interested in the itch.io bundle for Racial Justice and Equality.

Events

June 20 will be the next virtual meeting of the Baltimore/DC Area IF Meetup, to discuss Captain Verdeterre’s Plunder.

June 24 will be the next virtual meeting of the Boston Area IF Meetup.

July 4 is the next meeting of the SF Bay Interactive Fiction Meetup. (Maybe? It being July 4 might be postponed, I’m guessing. But that’s what’s on the schedule currently.)

The Oxford and London Meetup has not scheduled anything this month.

NarraScope 2020 has, at this point, come to an end. But because of the nature of this year’s virtual event, there are many resources available to those who were unable to participate. Most (if not all) of the 2020 talks are available on YouTube.

If anyone missed the NarraScope presentations, there is included (among many other talks) an update by Graham Nelson on some of the recent developments taking place with regard to Inform 7. If anyone prefers to read the info instead of watch a video, a written version of the presentation is available here on the Inform site.

Competitions

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The Next Adventure Jam continues through July 4. The 8-Bit-Centric contest welcomes games developed with Adventuron Classroom. Contest rules are in the link, and additional information about Adventuron can be found here, including an intro text adventure for anyone new to the experience

Crowdfunding

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On Kickstarter right now, Zaire Lanier’s Afropunk Fantasy Horror comic The Bone Herder. This piece is not interactive, but Zaire also does game writing and narrative design, which is how I heard of her.

Tools & Design

Branching story design can be a challenge even for experienced writers, if they have a background that’s primarily in other forms of fiction (Sharang Biswas discusses this briefly in a recent Sub-Q interview).

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One of the most recent tools to try to address this issue is Celestory, a code-free application that allows you to test your storylines without demanding that you use one particular system or another, but does also allow you to export a complete application. You can also share and get feedback from others, should you wish to use the tool’s collaborative features. There are free and multiple premium versions of the system. (I have not yet had time to play with it much myself.)

New Releases

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The most recent offering from Choice of Games has arrived. Light Years Apart is a 230,000-word interactive sci-fi novel by Anaea Lay, where your choices control the story.

Can you and your sister outfox a galaxy-spanning AI to save your home planet? A rollicking adventure with space pirates, spies, and snarky computers.

Talks, Articles, and Podcasts

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Over the years, I’ve included a fair number of links to the magazine Sub-Q. They’ve frequently published intriguing articles about the methods underlying IF––sometimes focusing on practical application, sometimes delving into more philosophical or abstract ideas.

The magazine is going on indefinite hiatus starting in August of this year. While there are many legitimate reasons for that (outlined here) their voice will certainly be missed. If you feel like contributing a little to their operating expenses for the summer, you can support them here.

June 11, 2020

Choice of Games

Light Years Apart–Outfox a galaxy-spanning AI to save your planet!

by Mary Duffy at June 11, 2020 01:42 PM

We’re proud to announce that Light Years Apart, the latest in our popular “Choice of Games” line of multiple-choice interactive-fiction games, is now available for Steam, Android, and on iOS in the “Choice of Games” app.

It’s 40% off until June 18th!

Can you and your sister outfox a galaxy-spanning AI to save your home planet? A rollicking adventure with space pirates, spies, and snarky computers.

Light Years Apart is a 230,000-word interactive sci-fi novel by Anaea Lay, 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.

You trained at the Kempari College, an academy for super spies, fighting against the Aydan-machine interplanetary AI. Aydan-machine and its affiliated megacorp, the ICA, have monopolized control over FTL weft-drives.

You resigned from the College when your teachers ordered you to commit murder. Since then, you’ve wandered the galaxy for a decade, so long that your shipboard computer has become your surrogate parent.

But now, the ICA has blockaded Kempus, and you’re in a unique position to prevent thousands of unnecessary deaths. Will you ally with the enemy, or return to the rebels who once betrayed you?

What’s more, your hacker sister has brought your old flame back into your orbit, and the love you left behind is now mission-critical. As a former spy, you have flexible morals, but there are certain lines you won’t cross. The blockade is real, and it’s killing kids.

When your planet needs you, will you step up or storm off?

• Play as male, female, or non-binary; gay, straight, bi, poly or asexual
• Unleash artful and infinite swearing
• Swap stories and strategies with your secret agent peers
• Drink yourself silly on extraterrestrial moonshine
• Team up with space pirates
• Watch a planet breed with its moon
• Smuggle two weird teenagers past an interplanetary blockade

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

June 09, 2020

sub-Q Magazine

A Thousand Thanks for Five Years of sub-Q

by Tory Hoke at June 09, 2020 01:42 PM

As Stewart has explained, sub-Q is going on indefinite hiatus after our August 2020 issue. I hope the magazine can return in the not-too-distant future, and I hope it can find the same world of readers, creators, and supporters it was fortunate enough to find the first time. In the meantime, there are so many people I owe a debt of thanks.

To Stewart Baker, who brought together more authors, readers, and supporters than I could have dreamed, thank you. Your ideas and energy brought sub-Q to the next level of polish, creativity, and engagement. I am in awe of what you built sub-Q to be.

To Devi Acharya, whose Inky Path inspired sub-Q into being, and whose passion and talent fostered sub-Q even before the first issue was released, thank you. I can’t wait to see what you create next.

To Natalia Theodoridou, whose work it is as much of a pleasure to read as it is to publish, thank you. I am so grateful for your willingness to help grow sub-Q into its next phase. I hope that phase is yet to be. In the meantime, count me another loyal reader.

To our other editors and first readers, thank you for your work these past five years. It moves me that you volunteered so much time and skill to keep sub-Q in steady supply of quality content.

To our creators, thank you for giving sub-Q the chance to publish your work. Every issue has been a delight.

To our subscribers, thank you for your kind and generous support. It’s because of you we made it this far.

It has been an honor to be on this team.

If you’re reading this, you too played a part in sub-Q‘s success. Thank you. None of what you see here would have been possible without you.

More information will follow as we conclude publication. For now, all I have to offer is thanks.

Take care, and write on.

The post A Thousand Thanks for Five Years of sub-Q appeared first on sub-Q Magazine.