Planet Interactive Fiction

January 18, 2018

Emily Short

Game Over

by Emily Short at January 18, 2018 08:40 AM

Screen Shot 2018-01-04 at 10.10.46 PM.png

Game Over is a radio play I wrote for BBC radio 4, commissioned and script-edited by Judith Kampfner and starring the phenomenal Sarah Elmaleh. It’s a story about trying to write a game about a particular topic, and the tug of different impulses that go into that process, and the ways it’s possible to screw up.

The play is available to listen to online at the moment, though in a few weeks it will become unavailable again.


Writing a radio play is a really different experience from writing for games. That’s part of the reason I took the job on — curiosity, and a desire to challenge myself in a different direction — but it still managed to surprise me. Some standout differences:

Story ownership. Radio, at least as done here, is a more collaborative medium than many small games and even some larger ones. Judith Kampfner had a very active role in shaping the script — not just in line-level edits, but in encouraging me to explore particular lines of thinking and talking over the themes and structure of the play.

Once that’s done, the actors have their own view of the characters, and become in a sense custodians of those characters. After a first read of the script, Sarah had some thoughts and feedback about how Chelsea would react to various situations. Eden Marryshow, who plays my protagonist’s partner Lee, did a phenomenal job of brightening the humor and chemistry in their relationship, through strong delivery and sometimes ad-libbing. Indeed, every actor contributed something to their character.

Audience. The listeners can’t be assumed to know about games or software development processes or jargon at all. I knew this, but still found myself startled by items that I had sort of assumed were at least somewhat self-explanatory, but that actually weren’t. (The wider world does not necessarily know what “QA” or even “Quality Assurance” means or what it involves. But it’s easy to forget things like this, or slip into assuming the audience will guess from context.) And naturally, the audience can’t be assumed to be familiar with any of the ongoing topics/issues in the games industry.

Storytelling toolkit. In games, I’m used to being able to compel the player’s attention to a particular moment by putting a choice there. If the player has to decide something, they have to pay attention. And a lot of the craft of interactive storytelling has to do with how you set up choices, how you pace their distribution through the story, how you signpost stakes and likely results.

Writing for radio, I felt like some joker had run off with about a third of my standard tools. Radio does, of course, offer other tools of its own — there’s a huge amount you can do with audio cues — but here I had to learn new possibilities, and also rely on Judith’s experience with the medium to point out what could be done.

Compactness. I’m used to editing down lines and descriptions, making a scene short enough to fit within a game. But even a short branching narrative typically has room for a lot of content once all the written scenes are taken together. I’m used to relying on that particularly when I have several different themes I want to bring into a story, and allowing different thematic arcs to occupy different branches or areas of the same narrative space. In radio, as in any other linear medium, there’s no room for all that.

The final version of the play edits out quite a bit of the original script — an entire subplot with the playtester Jared, for instance, and portions of a couple of different scenes, and some background on how Chelsea met Lee.

Setting establishment. Radio doesn’t show the setting or the faces of the people talking. You don’t get an opening room description, an establishing shot or a surrounding bit of game environment to work from — which means you have to situate every scene and let the listener know where it is and who’s there, using only the dialogue and sound effects. But (see “compactness” above) you don’t want to waste too much time on any of that without moving the plot forward at the same time.


And in answer to some questions I’ve gotten: yes, obviously, the opening scene owes much to the annual awards ceremony of the IGF. However, I’m not taking a shot at the IGF here — it’s just the context in which our characters meet. Harrison is not a specific indie game developer, either. This is not a snarky roman a clef about any particular people or companies or groups.

January 17, 2018

Zarf Updates

Meanwhile is now available on Steam! Plus extra DLC comic!

by Andrew Plotkin ([email protected]) at January 17, 2018 04:00 PM

Jason Shiga's Meanwhile is now available on Steam, and also on Itch.IO.

iPhone owners (and people who frequent indie comic shops) are familiar with this groundbreaking interactive comic. Now we are excited to release a version for home computers: Mac, Windows, and Linux.
On the way home from the ice cream store, little Jimmy discovers a mad scientist’s wonderland: an experimental mind-reading helmet, a time machine, and a doomsday device that can annihilate the human race. Which one would you like to test out first?
Special thanks to Doug Orleans, Bob Igo, Cheeseness, Uxilo, and Oreolek for very last-minute Linux testing. I threw the Linux build together over New Year's and I never did figure out a way to test it. (Mac Parallels can't cope with Unity builds -- not enough OpenGL squirrels in the VM.) So the fact that it works is entirely down to the test volunteers.

But wait, there is more news!
The Steam version of Meanwhile comes with two DLC items. (The Itch.IO page is not set up for DLC, I'm afraid, so these items are currently only available through Steam.)
The first is Meanwhile Poster Art. This is a giant JPEG of Meanwhile, laid out just like the app. It's 8640x8640 pixels, so if you print this at 150 dpi, it will be nearly five feet square! (A PNG file is also included, same size.)
That's pretty cool, but the second DLC item is even cooler: The Case of the Missing Science Project!
The Case of the Missing Science Project is a new Shiga choose-your-path comic. Well, it's nearly new -- it was originally published in a 2016 comics anthology called Comics Squad: Lunch. Follow Little Jimmy, Kid Detective as he attempts to unravel the case! There may be dinosaurs!

(Is Little Jimmy the same Jimmy we meet in Meanwhile, or in some of Jason's other comics? That is a question that future bibliologists will have to debate.)
Now, let's be clear: The Case of the Missing Science Project is shorter than Meanwhile, and it's not a computer-playable app. When you purchase the DLC package, you will receive a PDF file which you can print out, fold, and staple. Thus you will wind up with a physical mini-comic of some twenty pages.
Why are we distributing it this way? Well, one answer is that Missing Science Project was a last-minute addition and I didn't have time to build a Unity version. This is accurate, but boring.
A more interesting (but still accurate!) answer is that Missing Science Project has its own unique path-following mechanic. To say more would be a spoiler, but it's a unique idea which only makes sense with pages. It doesn't make sense to reformat the comic into a single large map, like Jason did for Meanwhile.
Creating a digital version of Missing Science Project is an interesting problem, and I might try it someday. But for now, this print-and-staple version is what you get. There's nothing wrong with paper.
Or, of course, you could buy Comics Squad: Lunch, a fine book which includes several other short comics for kids. Edited by Jennifer L. Holm, Matthew Holm, and Jarrett J. Krosoczka; published by Random House, 2016.

Speaking of Steam, here's one more IF-related announcement:
Michael Gentry has posted a coming-soon page for a Steam release of Anchorhead. Anchorhead is one of the classics of the modern IF era -- it was originally released in 1998. It's a weird-horror puzzle game in the best Lovecraftian tradition. Michael has now completely reimplemented it in Inform 7 and added atmospheric hand-drawn illustrations.

Anchorhead appears on Steam courtesy of my Lectrote interpreter, the same one I used for Hadean Lands. It launches on January 31; keep an eye out!

January 16, 2018

Choice of Games

Author Interview: Naomi Laeuchli, “Undercover Agent”

by Mary Duffy at January 16, 2018 06:41 PM

Your mission: go undercover at an evil organization and retrieve a deadly new bio-weapon. But word has leaked there’s a mole, and you’re running out of time to pull off your mission and escape with your life.

You are the top operative at the DTU (Domestic Terrorist Unit), a covert agency that specializes in investigating terrorist groups on US soil. Now put in place as Silas Bishop’s administrative assistant, you are in a prime position to spy on his business and search for the deadly weapon his scientists have engineered. Undercover Agent is a 135,000 word interactive novel by Naomi Laeuchli, releasing Thursday, January 25th. I sat down with Naomi for a short interview. 

What’s your background as a writer?

Since I was six years old, I’ve been writing. I was homeschooled, and something we had to do every day for school was write for half an hour. We could write anything we wanted we just had to write. I even spent a year writing fanfiction for a virtual pet site’s newsletter (it never did get accept). Writing was my favorite part of school, and at some point I realized I was doing it for fun as well.

When I was nineteen I got my first freelance writing job and have been doing it ever since. I’ve written about dentistry, garage doors, and diamond cuts, written reviews and created personality quizzes. During my time off, I wrote a four book romantic suspense series called Holly(Woods) and posted it online in web fiction format (though I’m now releasing it through Amazon).

Currently I’m lead game reviewer for the quarterly magazine Casual Game Insider.

What were some of the challenges of writing in ChoiceScript for you?

Not being able to write it in Microsoft Word! It made proofreading a lot more difficult.

Do you read much interactive fiction? Any favorites from the COG catalogue or otherwise?

I read it both on and off COG. My favorite non-COG one is Long Live the Queen. My favorite COG books are probably A Midsummer Night’s Choice (I adore the setting) and Choice of Alexandria (again, I think the setting is quite unique and I really enjoy that about it). Though I will always have a soft spot for Choice of Zombies, which is the first one I read and how I first discovered Choice of Games. I was nineteen at the time, and I remember thinking it would be amazing to write one of these, but they’d never have me!

What are you working on next?

I’m currently writing a werewolf novel, about a group of teens in a small town who killed a werewolf when they were kids, suffered some pretty bad consequences from it, and are now beginning to suspect there’s a new wolf in town.

Short answer, Bernard Pivot-style Questionnaire:

Favorite color.


Favorite word.


Profession other than your own you’d like to attempt.

Flight attendant or Queen.

Profession you would never want to attempt.


James Bond or George Smiley?

James Bond.

January 15, 2018

Emily Short

Mid-January Link Assortment

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


January 17, I’m presenting at the London IF Meetup on matching story and mechanics. This will be part talk, part workshop.

The next People’s Republic of IF meeting takes place Wednesday, January 24 at 6:30 PM in MIT room 14N-233.

January 26, there will be a livestream playthrough by elitpathfinders of Thomas Disch’s 1986 Amnesia.

February 3 is the next meeting of the SF Bay Area IF Meetup.

February 12 in Leeds, there is a ticketed but free workshop on Twine.

The Opening Up Digital Fiction competition runs through February 15, 2018. It offers cash prizes and the possibility of future publication.

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

Let’s Play

OldGamesItalia has put together a video let’s play of the tutorial scene in Versu, for those who never got to play through that.



Jason Shiga’s Meanwhile, the interactive comic ported to digital forms by Andrew Plotkin, arrives on Steam January 17.



Adventuron is a system for making retro-styled, illustrated text adventures. The creator Chris Ainsley writes:

Adventuron is web hosted, and features a code editor (in which all logic and assets are placed), and has the ability to import maps from Trizbort.

Adventuron features code completion, and a web based game source parser, so the barrier to entry is quite low. I would be fooling myself if I was to claim this is anywhere near the competency of Inform 7, but I hope the code completion and UI features will help it find its audience.

I have a written an introductory article featuring a link to the system itself here


Digital Antiquarian has an interview with Judith Pintar, a pioneer of interactive fiction who took a long break from IF but is now working and teaching with it again. The interview covers a wide range of topics, from Pintar’s early days on CompuServe and the nature of the community there, the development of CosmoServe and Shades of Gray, and her current education work focusing on Inform 7.

Andrew Plotkin profiles several of the games up for IGF Narrative awards.

Chris Crawford writes about the current status of Encounter Editor, and the rest of his Storytron projects.

Clara Fernandez-Vara has a list of tools for building adventure games (including but not limited to text-based games).

Here is my article on IF in 2017, translated to Russian.

Digital Humanities Quarterly has an excellent writeup (from researchers at UC Santa Cruz) on crafting systems in games, and how we measure their quality and other parameters.

Laine Nooney critiques the traditional narratives of IF and adventure game history, including refs to Twisty Little Passages.

January 13, 2018

Choice of Games

How to Get the Most out of Automated Testing—Part 1

by Rachel E. Towers at January 13, 2018 01:41 AM

As part of our support for the Choice of Games Contest for Interactive Novels, we will be posting an irregular series of blog posts discussing important design and writing criteria for games. We hope that these can both provide guidance for people participating in the Contest and also help people understand how we think about questions of game design and some best practices. These don’t modify the evaluation criteria for the Contest, and (except as noted) participants are not required to conform to our recommendations–but it’s probably a good idea to listen when judges tell you what they’re looking for.

If these topics interest you, be sure to sign up for our contest mailing list below! We’ll post more of our thoughts on game design leading up to the contest deadline on January 31, 2018.

Coding in ChoiceScript is relatively simple, but that does not mean it’s always easy. In addition to writing a compelling story with a number of branches and making sure that the story flows naturally no matter which choices are made, you must also add a level of game design—of tension and uncertainty—to give a sense of accomplishment to successes and of replayability in finding more. This means considerations for things such as game balance must be made. If the game is too difficult, it narrows the options available and eliminates possibilities, while if it’s too easy, second and third playthroughs can lack a sense of tension. This is why we test our games. While testing by hand can be a useful tool for shorter games, or to quickly check something, the longer a game becomes, the more tedious and less useful testing by hand is. This is of course where automated tools come in.

There are a few different versions of the testings tools included in ChoiceScript, but for our purposes the html version is the easiest to use. All you need to do to run it is open up the folder you have your copy of ChoiceScript in, and open the html version of the tool in a web browser. (Like everything related to ChoiceScript development, we recommend you use Firefox.) If you would prefer to use the command line version, instructions on running that can be found here.

Now, if you have any errors that quicktest or randomtest are able to catch, the tools will run until they find them, then stop and say what the error is. These errors usually specify what exactly the problem is, but if you need more detailed help with one, our forum has a category dedicated to coding problems, with a number of questions already answered.

Of course, sometimes we know exactly what the problem is, but because of the limits of randomtest, it’s impossible for it to make a reasonable choice. Say, for example, we want to ask a player to input a password they learned earlier in the game. This is a barebones example of what we might use:

What is the password? (Hint: It’s the name of a fish.)
*input_text answer
*if answer = “swordfish”
	*goto correct_answer
	*goto wrong_answer

When we think about how randomtest would run this, we can easily see the problem. Randomtest obviously has no way of actually understanding the question! (As a quick aside for the curious, when presented with *input_text, randomtest always says “blah blah”.)

For these situations we have a special variable called choice_randomtest. This variable never has to be created or set, it simply has to be tested like any other variable, but instead of a value based on player it choice, it simply returns true when the game is run by randomtest, and false when played normally. This will let us create special code to handle situations such as the above password. Of course we can make randomtest test always pass by simply checking *if (answer = “swordfish”) or (choice_randomtest), but let’s do something a little more complex, and have randomtest know the answer only some of the time. To do that, we’ll need to create a temporary variable, randomize it, then use that to set the answer. That would look something like this:

What is the password? (Hint: It’s the name of a fish.)
*input_text answer
*if choice_randomtest
	*temp coin 0
	*rand coin 1 2
	*if coin = 1
		*set answer “swordfish”
*if answer = “swordfish”
	*goto correct_answer
	*goto wrong_answer

We now see that randomtest “guesses” the answer with a coin flip, returning the correct answer half the time, and failing the other half (with “blah blah” as its guess). We can of course tweak things even more, and make this much more complex (maybe it’s a really hard puzzle and randomtest should get it one out of ten times), but this is a good indication of how choice_randomtest can be used to reflect actual game play where randomtest otherwise wouldn’t.

That brings us to another common use for choice_randomtest. Some games include complex looping choices, such as requiring a player to confirm a selection, or there is an option which gives a player extra information, but doesn’t otherwise change the game. In randomtest, these kinds of choices add time to the playthrough (making randomtest take longer to run), and playthrough word count to the total, but don’t really accomplish anything. (This is also a small part of what we mean by coding efficiency.) For example, here is a simple loop where a player has to confirm a choice. (The confirmation is in a subroutine so we can more easily see how it all works together.)

*label take_a_shortcut
Which shortcut do you take?
	#Go through the rose bushes.
		It’s filled with thorns.
		*gosub confirm
		*goto rose_path
	#Climb the wall
		It looks very high. A fall might hurt.
		*gosub confirm
		*goto wall_path
	#Wade through the river
		It is running very fast and you can be swept away.
		*gosub confirm
		*goto river_path
	#Give up on 
		*goto give_up
*label confirm
Are you certain this is the path you want to take?
		*goto obstacle

Looking at this, we can see that when making a choice, randomtest would normally select any given choice about 25% of the time, but when given an opt-out, that one option, the easy path, suddenly becomes a lot more common. For example, if you run this through randomtest, it will give up about 40% of the time, close to double what would happen if there weren’t a confirmation, and almost certainly a lot more than a real player would (because a real player is more likely to assess the risks and take the path where they are most likely to succeed). But with one little change we can make it possible for randomtest to not opt out.

*label confirm
Do you continue?
		*goto obstacle
	*if (not(choice_randomtest)) #No
		*goto take_a_shortcut

In this case, we’ll see that when randomtest makes a choice, it no longer attempts to back out. This returns our run percentage back to reasonable 25% all around. This also has a side effect of speeding up randomtest. Again, we might want to fine tune this for more specific circumstances, but the general idea remains the same.

Looking at this, we see that we can force randomtest to arbitrarily make any decision and run any code. Sometimes we might use this to test specific possibilities in a game by inserting choice_randomtest into our code (and removing it once we’re done testing). For example, say we have a spy game, and while out on mission the player only has room for one hidden tool, and must make the important choice of whether bringing along a lockpicks, a pistol, or a disguise kit, and we lock and unlock certain paths based on what’s selected. Of course we want a player to be able to succeed no matter which tool they pick, and to be certain of that we might need to test what happens with each tool. So we would lock the other ones by an *if not(choice_randomtest), then running randomtest.

Of course, this has to be done with some care, as if randomtest makes decisions a player wouldn’t (or especially one that a player couldn’t) it becomes useless and detrimental to testing. Bad information can be worse than no information at all.

January 12, 2018

Choice of Games

New Hosted Game! The Aether: Life as a God by A. Reddwolf

by Rachel E. Towers at January 12, 2018 06:41 PM

Hosted Games has a new game for you to play!

Create a mortal race to worship you and grow your strength. Guide them in their daily lives and help them grow. The power you collect will grow your mind and body. Dabble in the affairs of other gods or seek to destroy them and steal their power. It’s 33% off until January 18th!

The Aether: Life as a God is a 60,000 word interactive fantasy novel by A. Reddwolf, 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.

• Create a custom mortal race.
• Engage in mortal affairs.
• Travel the Aether and steal power from lesser beings.
• Dabble in political affairs at The Court of Gods.
• Battle other gods in epic one one one conflicts.
• Complete unique quests and events with impactful outcomes.

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

The Digital Antiquarian

King of Space

by Jimmy Maher at January 12, 2018 05:41 PM

The interesting if badly flawed hypertext novel King of Space was born in the late 1980s, when an English professor and aspiring novelist named Sarah Smith met Mark Bernstein of Eastgate Systems at a MacWorld show. “Want to write me something?” Bernstein asked. Smith, who had owned a home computer for ten years already and was a longtime devotee of the text adventures published by Infocom and others, agreed.

At this early date, Bernstein hadn’t yet completed the acquisition of Storyspace, the hypertext-authoring system destined to be the bedrock technology of what I refer to as the Eastgate school. He therefore developed an engine from scratch for Smith’s project, running under HyperCard on the Macintosh; he called it in various places “KingWriter” or “Hypergate.” Smith provided him with the text and the design, and he, with the occasional help of an artist named Matthew Mattingly and a composer named Michael Druzinsky, translated it to the computer.

I ordered King of Space directly from Eastgate some time ago, at the same time that I ordered Michael Joyce’s afternoon, a story for my previous article on the literary movement Eastgate once attempted to foster. It arrived in a simple gray folio containing an instruction booklet and a hand-labelled, obviously hand-burned CD. I would need, the package helpfully informed me, 1 MB of memory and a hard disk in my Macintosh to run it. Given the game’s obscurity even in the days when those minimum system requirements would have been significant, I felt like an intrepid digital explorer, venturing into a realm few had ever visited before me, as I moved the files into a vintage-Mac emulator and began to play.

From the moment that I first turned my attention to the Eastgate school, I had been particularly intrigued by King of Space among the more than forty works of hypertext which they published in their heyday because it lives at the opposite end of a continuum from afternoon, a story and the many similar Eastgate works created in Storyspace. Belying the name of the tool used to create them, those are mostly stateless word salads with little coherent plot or narrative drive. King of Space, by contrast, does have a story it wants to share with you, one which you can guide to some extent by making a series of clearly-delinated choices, much like in a Choose Your Own Adventure novel or a modern choice-based digital interactive fiction. As such, it feels more approachable than was the Eastgate norm to those of us not steeped in the post-structuralist literary theory so many Storyspace works were crafted to illuminate.

King of Space pays homage to Adventure and Zork. One does have to wonder, however, whether most of the academics who were virtually the only ones to play it got the reference.

As the name would imply, King of Space is a science-fiction story. By her own account “a science-fiction fan since the day she got the adult librarian to let her read The Day of the Triffids,” Sarah Smith approaches the genre without contempt, although she does evince a bit of that over-eagerness in her world-building which is so common when “literary” authors make the jump to science fiction. In particular, her story’s introduction is just way, way too dense, the sort of thing you can read five times over and still not make any sense of:

Fifty years ago, Nicholsun’s Plague devastated the Asteroids. The Plague made its victims mindlessly loyal to anyone who gave off a tailored rho-pheromone. Its effects are hereditary. The Terran Empire has quarantined the Asteroids.

Tam Rosse, rebel against the Terrans, has been bred for resistance to the Plague. Escaping from prison, he finds the derelict greatship Lady Nii. The Nii could save his revolution. But to get it, he must fight “King” Brady, the only human aboard the ship, and the ship’s half-mad interface, the Lady Nii herself, Brady’s ally and lover.

Tam Rosse is himself being hunted by the virgin Priestess of Pallas, who emits the rho-pheromone. She needs a lover, bodyguard, and slave. Tam Rosse needs her bioengineering skill.

But the Priestesses of Pallas are part of a fertility cult. To gain her full powers, the Priestess must lose her virginity — and the Plague is spread sexually. How resistant is Tam Rosse? And how resourceful?

Got all that? There will be a quiz later.

Thankfully, it all settles down into a fairly conventional adventure story — at least on the surface — once you get started. You play as Tam Rosse, the aforementioned fugitive from injustice. The lifeboat in which you made your escape is almost out of energy when you come upon the Lady Nii and its inhabitants. Your first task must be to get inside, after which the adventure of exploring a strange spaceship ensues. It’s perfectly possible to approach the whole experience as a sort of high-brow take on Starcross or Rendezvous with Rama.

But of course, this is still an Eastgate work, which means there are agendas at play beyond the space opera at the surface. From Smith’s introductory materials:

For me, the most important writer of “hypermedia” in this century has been James Joyce in Finnegans Wake. King of Space explores two Joycean issues, non-linear narration and sexual mythologies, within the framework of a science-fiction space opera.

Smith then proceeds to describe these two facets of her game, in reverse order from that in which she first listed them. So, let’s begin, as she does, with the “sexual mythologies.”

Mythology of Sex: King of Space deals with the same group of sexual myths depicted in The Golden Bough: the impotent king and the rescue of the land; ritual defloration; depiction of the male as king, lover, protector, but also as persecutor, Bad Father, and rapist; depiction of the female as fertility deity, sex goddess, Castrating Mother, and the land itself. That is, the stories concern myths of female experiences of violence, such as rape, and female rites of passage, such as childbirth, as well as their male equivalents.

It should be clear by now that King of Space is obsessed with sex and reproduction; womb imagery is everywhere in both the text and the occasional illustrations that accompany it. It also seems to be interested in subverting some of the expectations that surround these eternal human concerns. Tam Rosse, cast in the role of the swashbuckling male hero, finds himself struggling to resist the sexual advances of the Priestess. Should he succumb, he faces the loss of his very identity. It isn’t difficult to draw a parallel with the plight of so many women throughout human history, facing marriage as the sublimation of whatever individual identity society currently allows them into the stereotypical roles of wife and mother. (“I haven’t much of my own way at present, but you see, when I’m married I shan’t have it at all,” says Alice Vavasor of her upcoming nuptials in Trollope’s Victorian classic Can You Forgive Her?. “You can’t wonder that I shouldn’t be in a hurry.”)

Yet the archetype of the Priestess, the female sex goddess who is deeply dangerous to men, is of course hardly an uncommon one in myth. This and other references to mythologies of sex are indeed interesting to catalog, but I’m not quite sure what Sarah Smith is really trying to do with them. I’m not sure, in other words, why King of Space should qualify as an exploration of sexual mythologies as opposed to an homage or evocation — a ticking off of the boxes that Smith lists so peremptorily in the extract above. I have no problem with homage, and, indeed, would prefer it to a more polemical approach. It’s just that… well, what, for instance, is the “male equivalent” of childbirth? Smith’s statements about her own work’s premise seems more dashed-off than considered.

And yet the fact does remain that, if we can manage to stop stressing over all this business about sexual mythologies, the story is a reasonably engaging one. I wouldn’t say that Smith’s prose soars, but neither does it conspicuously try to soar and come crashing back to earth like a wingless 747, as is the case for that of so many other writers of the Eastgate school. As a printed novella, it would be a serviceable if less than earth-shattering work of science fiction.

As an interactive work, however, it rather falls down on the job. Let’s consider what Smith herself has to say about this aspect of King of Space.

Non-linear narrative: King of Space has only one story, a rite of passage — not linear because it happens to several people in several ways, but by no means a story without structure. A character needs to undergo a rite; the character makes a choice; the character takes a journey; the character undergoes a test; the character succeeds or fails at the rite. Because this is a computerized novel, some of the choices are given to the reader, and tests are presented as games. Tests and stories lead into one another and are resolved by each other.

King of Space is less well-stocked with choices than a traditional computer game; only a few of the possible stories around these characters are told here. The characters in King of Space are bound by their past and their nature, so that choices they appear to have are blocked. This can be frustrating when you come to it with game-playing expectations — perhaps too frustrating. Let us know.

I find these paragraphs more than a little amusing. I hardly know what to say about the elaborate attempt to justify the mini-games that pop up now and again — more on them momentarily — as “tests” which the character undergoes on his journey; I suspect Smith may have been reading a bit too much Joseph Campbell. The tacit assertion that readers who fail to appreciate works of the Eastgate school do so because they approach them as — gasp! — games would become an all-purpose way of deflecting criticism in academic circles in the years to come. For my own part, I don’t hesitate to call King of Space a “game” because that’s what we as a culture have, for better or for worse, decided to call interactive works like this one. To call it anything else would be to create a false distinction.

So then, writers of narrative games ever since the form’s invention have been coming up with more- or less-compelling justifications for the fact that you can’t just do whatever you want to in their stories. I suppose Smith’s assertion that her characters “are bound by their past and their nature” will do as well as any. But really, Sarah… are you sure it wasn’t because you were working with a very limited hypertext system, and couldn’t build in a lot of real choice without the combinatorial explosion overwhelming you? One of King of Space‘s biggest problems is that it rather forgets that it’s supposed to be an interactive narrative at all for long stretches of time. There are places where a dozen or more screens full of text can go by without you being offered a single choice about anything. Needless to say, this does nothing to foster engagement.

Here we have one of many examples of fake interactivity. You can “look for the air cylinders” until the end of time; the story won’t progress until you “take the software.”

Even when you do appear to have options, it’s often only an appearance of interactivity. King of Space often uses head-fakes dating as far back as the pioneering interactive movie Kinoautomat to keep the story funneling down a manageable pathway. Many — perhaps most — of the choices it presents aren’t really choices at all, yielding little better than a paragraph or two of text whose gist is, “You can’t do that,” and a return to the previous menu. Other choices are accepted, but merge back into a main narrative through-line very quickly.

Anyone who’s seen The Fool’s Errand has seen this before.

Still, Smith was more aware than most Eastgate authors of what was going on in the field of mainstream computer games, and you can see this knowledge in her work. Indeed, she has named as one of King of Space‘s main inspirations Thomas M. Disch’s text adventure Amnesia. Given this background, we perhaps shouldn’t be too surprised that, in addition to the branching (or allegedly branching) choices, King of Space is occasionally broken up by the minigames — excuse me, “tests” — which Smith alluded to above. These are a mixed bag — sometimes trivial, sometimes all but impossible. Many of them bear a marked similarity to the puzzles found in The Fool’s Errand, leading me to believe that either Smith or Bernstein — or both — must have played Cliff Johnson’s puzzling classic. Personally, I got completely stymied by a re-implementation of another gaming classic, one that may very well have gotten Eastgate sued had King of Space not remained so very obscure. There comes a point where you’re expected to fend off an attack from enemy spacecraft by playing the most baffling version of Tetris ever created. Slow, awkward, and confusing as all get-out — you’re apparently meant to repair systems on your ship by lining up certain sequences of blocks — this minigame utterly defeated me, preventing me from ever reaching the end of the story. There’s a germ of a good idea in there, but the implementation… well, suffice to say that it needs some work.

This image illustrates some of the endemic sloppiness of King of Space. We’ve been provided with a map of the Lady Nii, albeit one that serves little purpose in this hypertext narrative. (Sarah Smith does often seem like she’d really rather be designing a text adventure.) Note how the text carelessly spills across boundaries and how the map runs off the edge of the (non-sizable) window, as if nobody could be bothered to take the time to get it right.

This leads us to some of the larger questions that surround the Eastgate works in general — questions which have always left the whole enterprise so ripe for charges of disingenuity. The works invariably employ non-standard, non-intuitive interfaces. But is this really, as the apologists claim, out of a wish to jar the reader/player out of her conventional frame of mind, or is it just because no one at Eastgate knew how to design a good interface? Where, in other words, is the boundary between aesthetic choice and technical incompetence? I suspect the complete lack of a save system in King of Space, a game that could take some hours to play to completion, is down to the latter, although it wouldn’t surprise me to see some theoretical argument marshaled in the opposite direction. Surely the fact that the whole rickety construct crashes with excruciating regularity wasn’t intentional. Or is this too “problematizing the relationship between reader and author” or some such? Call me hidebound, but I feel that if you’re going to charge $25 for a piece of software, as Eastgate did (and continues to do) for this one, then you need to do better than that.

King of Space claims to boast 25 separate endings, but you usually wind up dead-ended at a black screen like this. I’m not entirely sure whether this is intentional or down to another of the bugs that infest the program.

At the level of writing and design as well, similar questions haunt the Eastgate catalog. I have no problem with “difficult” books in the abstract; James Joyce’s Ulysses is among my favorite novels, and, while Finnegans Wake has defeated me on multiple occasions, I have little doubt that there is genius lurking in those daunting pages. Some themes don’t admit themselves to simplicity or conventional readability, just as some nonfictional subjects are just too complex to trivialize. Yet a difficult work has to justify the effort that must go into reading it. Nothing I’ve seen from the Eastgate school has met this standard. When confronted with a confusing pile of disconnected verbiage, one has to ask whether it’s written that way out of thematic necessity or simply because the writer doesn’t know how to produce a conventionally interesting narrative. Indeed, it might be a good idea to require of all would-be James Joyces that they first show that they can write a compelling work of conventionally-structured fiction, as Joyce himself did with Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. After you demonstrate that ability, we’ll be able to take your post-structuralist experimentation more seriously.

Having said that, I should also note that the previous paragraph’s complaints apply more to the Eastgate corpus as a whole than they do to King of Space. Sarah Smith’s sole interactive work is in fact among the most accessible, readable works Eastgate published — perhaps not an overly high bar to clear, but there you go. Smith published her first traditional novel the year after King of Space, and went on to a successful and ongoing career as a writer of historical mysteries. I haven’t had the pleasure of reading any of them — yet — but I’m told by people I trust that she’s quite good.

King of Space, however, displays a good writer who desperately needed to be paired with a good game designer working for a company which understood game development — not least the need to test and to collect feedback. As it is, under any terms — literary or ludic, take your choice — this pile of poorly implemented, un-original puzzle games joined to a text that too often forgets it’s supposed to be telling an interactive story just doesn’t cut it.

On that note, and barring any surprising future discoveries, I do believe this article will mark the end of this blog’s coverage of the Eastgate school. I’ve largely satisfied myself that the Eastgate works’ obscurity is justified, and would rather spend my time on other subjects. And of course I’m sure that you don’t want to read article after article like this one, full of my flailing away at their pretensions, any more than I want to keep writing them. At some level, I’m still in love with the idea of what Eastgate once tried to be during those heady early days of hypertext. But the execution is, to say the least, lacking. So, albeit not without some reluctance, we shall leave these oddities snug in their ivory tower and move on to more rewarding forms of digital antiquaria.

(For general background sources on Eastgate’s history, see my previous article on the subject. Your best bet for seeing a bit of King of Space in action — short, that is, of going through the trouble buying it from Eastgate and getting it running — is to visit the Washington State University at Vancouver Electronic Literature Lab’s “traversal.”)

January 09, 2018

Emily Short

Mailbag: IF Infrastructure From Scratch

by Emily Short at January 09, 2018 07:40 PM

I reached out to you a while ago to ask about your consultation services / fees and you told me that you weren’t taking on any new clients.  I respect that.  I was hoping you might “mailbag” my question or maybe have a little advice off the top of your head.  Any help would be greatly appreciated!  I posted this on the IntFiction forums as well and just hoping to get a little bit of your expertise / feedback.

I am working on a CYOA sandbox visual novel project. My buddy wrote a framework in C# / Unity and I’m currently writing the story in OneNote / Scrivener with articy:draft doing a lot of the node-work / structural organization. I used SimpleMind to do some high-level mapping for the sandbox but it’s been very clunky. I reverted to using Excel so I could bring direct mathematical tests into my work for planning and it’s been really tough to combine the cell-based organizational structure with blocks of text.

Creatively – I don’t write well in little bubbles…at all. I prefer writing in a Word / WordPerfect / Scrivener / Notepad setting. It’s easiest for me to see all the text, re-read what I need to, edit, etc. I’m at a point where the story is getting difficult to test / debug / and translate into Unity. At the end of the day – whatever tools I use – I have to be able to hand my work over to the developer and make sure he understands everything in as neat / concise a manner a possible.

Here’s an example of some of my code:

\INSTRUCTION((ONCLICK.CELLPHONE)(=)(0)) // sets the variable that counts the number of clicks to zero – variable declaration


     \INSTRUCTION((ONCLICK.CELLPHONE)(+)(1)) // adds 1 to the counter variable

     \CONDITIONTEST((ONCLICK.CELLPHONE)(=)(1)) // tests the counter variable – boolean (true / false)


               \ITEMDESCRIPTION((CELLPHONE)(ONCLICK)(This is your cell phone)) // cell phone description on the first click



               \CONDITIONTEST((ONCLICK.CELLPHONE)(=)(2)) // cell phone description on the second click


                         \ITEMDESCRIPTION((CELLPHONE)(ONCLICK)(This is STILL your cell phone))



                \CONDITIONTEST((ONCLICK.CELLPHONE)(>)(2)) // cell phone description on every click after second


                           \ITEMDESCRIPTION((CELLPHONE)(ONCLICK)(Why do you keep checking your cell phone?))






The bottom line: Some of what I do is creative writing – storytelling, dialogue, and narration / item / entity descriptions, etc. And the other part of what I do is basically writing the instructions to the developer so he knows when to call which functions and how the visual novel is basically supposed to operate. Does that make sense? It’s super time-consuming because I have to partition portions of my mind to work on the tasks separately. My biggest hurdle to overcome is finding a medium in which to do this. I can’t write everything in Unity because I don’t know the C# code and that’s really what my buddy is there for. I’d write everything in Scrivener but I need the math functionality.

Here’s an issue I just came to that I’m still unsure how to properly detail:

Because of decisions the PC has made in the past dialogue options change for NPC reactions and PC responses. I need to be able to test those conditions / variables within the dialogue event to determine how the NPC will respond OR what new options open up for the PC. For example he / she can now intimidate the NPC or charm / impress – or maybe the NPC knows that the PC slept with her girlfriend and refuses to even respond, etc. So using the syntax that I posted above the conditional dialogue gets BOGGED DOWN.

My biggest concern right now is PLAYTESTING / AUDITING / DEBUGGING the game. I’m trying to follow my map and getting very confused with seeing variable counters. Hey – at this point in the game what are the values of these 5 variables? With the decisions that were made in the sandbox – how are we tracking affection across different NPCs – okay I want a numerical value that I can condition test at each potential branch / etc. Right now it’s almost impossible to track all the variables and know where they are at whichever point in the story you’re testing. My biggest issue with articy:draft is that the play-through / play-back doesn’t really work the way I expect it to and it’s NOT Excel – so I am having a difficult time using it to AUDIT though it’s decent for setting up the dialogue branches – even the conditional branches.

Lastly – I humbly apologize. I realize my thoughts must be all over the place. Could definitely use a little direction if you’ve done this sort of thing before – any advice is appreciated.

“This sort of thing” — working out how to combine code and writing features comfortably, how to visualize story flow, how to test what you’ve designed, how to make the experience low-friction for non-coding authors and allow for relatively painless revision — this is the substance of IF tool design. It pulls together considerations about the runtime engine, the authoring user interface, and the player experience with the resulting story. In a different domain, this is a significant part of my day job.

So while I have indeed done this sort of thing before, it’s a big job solving the design challenges for a new project. Doing a complete job on this is definitely “hire a consultant” territory rather than “hope someone can write a quick blog post solving your problems” territory. However, I can make a few suggestions.

The easy way. Usually I tell people not to roll their own tools if they can possibly avoid it. This advice may be too late for you, but if you’re using Unity and you want a tested, relatively-friendly way to write interactive text for it, check out ink from inkle studios. It is designed for this purpose and has been used on multiple pro-quality games; and because of how it works with Unity, there’s nothing there to stop your programmer adding whatever other game features you consider necessary at the C# side.

But suppose that’s not workable for you, for some reason. What could you do instead?

Custom-define a syntax that meets your needs. Your sample code above is bulky and repetitive; there would be much briefer ways to communicate the same information with at least equal precision.

Then you could have your coder make you a script that takes a simpler, more compact human-readable text or CSV file, recognizes simple markup in it, and re-exports that as (say) XML that the Unity project can use as an asset. Depending on your comfort with Unity, you might be able to load the resulting project up yourself and playtest the game right away on your own machine, even if you don’t speak C#. Getting to a point where the author can directly load and test their own content is very important, because if the work flow is always going through a second human implementer, the creative process slows to a crawl. So if that’s not already possible for you (and it sounds like it isn’t), you really want to get there as fast as you can.

(An intermediate step would be to do this directly in valid XML, but you’d have to do more typing as an author, in that case, and the Unity engine would still need to be able to read and deploy the XML, so your coder would have to be involved somehow.)

That still leaves a big question, though, which is how your hypothetical authoring file should specify all the features that you need to describe. Here what you’re doing is coming up with a template that captures consistently repeated design elements, and probably streamlining any unusual, unrepeated design elements or generalizing them into something repeatable.

This is still far shy of really writing your own IF language or tool because you’re creating a structure that is designed only and specifically for your one game, meaning you don’t have to work out all the abstractions that would be required for a reusable, multi-game system — but it gives you some of the leverage of having such a system, and it’s the prototyping point from which a lot of more mature IF languages begin.

For instance: the example you’ve given above suggests that you might have a whole category of inventory items that track how many times they’ve been clicked, with associated messages (1, 2, …, default). Here is one of many ways you could express that idea more compactly and readably than you did above:

Inventory: “cellphone”


— 1: “This is your cell phone.”

— 2: “This is still your cell phone.”

— default: “Why do you keep checking your cell phone?”

This syntax should be robust enough to work if you add more enumerated answers (3, 4…) or if you have nothing here but the default.

Doubtless that’s not all you need to specify, though — you might also have dialogue or scene-setting narration, location descriptions, inventory items with state that affects how they’re described, or whatever else.

However, if you have done enough work at this point to understand your design well, you may already know what kinds of variables you’re tracking for each of those items. For instance, your conditional dialogue might (always or merely sometimes) offer a “charm” and an “intimidate” set of options, which unlock only if the protagonist has the right stats. (If you are doing this currently in a completely ad hoc way, with each choice node having arbitrary tests, limits, and variables, then you can also make your life easier, and your game more legible to your players, if you work towards a systematic mechanic that offers a consistent framework for determining whether a player should succeed or fail.)

Testing once the template exists. Having a well-defined template also lets you automate verification: if, e.g., you know that every inventory item must have a custom response of a particular type, your coder can make checks that validate the completeness of the data, or provide a default response in case you haven’t specified one.

There’s quite a lot more one could say here, about designing supportive tools and automated testing and visualization, about types of state that are useful to track in IF development, and about syntax specification, which I’ve described here in a deliberately simplistic way. But perhaps that is enough to think about as a starting point.


For those (probably not the original poster, admittedly) who want to go further in that direction, I’ve written some more elsewhere about IF tool development.

sub-Q Magazine

Open Staff Positions and sub-Q Discord Chat

by Stewart C Baker at January 09, 2018 02:41 PM

It’s Tuesday again!



And whatever that may mean for you, for us at sub-Q it means another week of updates to report on.

Coming Next Week

The Tunnel by Natalia Theodoridou cover sub-QWe’ve been busy working on our January story, Natalia Theodoridou‘s “All Those Parties We Never Cried At.”

As always, Natalia brings a lot of oomph to her storytelling in a short space, and we think you’ll enjoy this compellingly strange take on loss and emotion.

Check in with us this time next week and try it for yourself! (Want something to do in the meantime? Why not try out Natalia’s previous sub-Q offering: “The Tunnel”)

Open Staff Positions

sub-Q is looking for a few good people to help us deliver excellent interactive fiction to the screens of our readers.

Do you have a passion for games?  A passion for stories?  Are you well-organised or at least reasonably able to fake it? sub-Q would love to have you!

What are we looking for in particular?

Editor – This staff member will join our editorial team, helping us review and prepare submitted stories for publication.

Outreach/Marketing Coordinator – This staff member will manage our social media channels, and handle outreach to various communities.

Fundraising Coordinator – This staff member will take the lead in revitalising our Patreon page, coordinate our subscriber benefits, and more.

You can scope out the details about each position on our “Positions” page, which also includes instructions for putting yourself forward as a candidate. Applications will be reviewed as they come in, so come put your name in the hat!

(Note: all positions at sub-Q are volunteer positions, and unpaid. Trust us, we’re as disappointed about that as you are.)

Discord Chat

Did you ever run through one of the stories in sub-Q and wish you had a place to go to share how it moved you? How it opened your mind to new possibilities of storytelling?

Did you ever find a nifty IF-like thing out in the real world, and wish you had somewhere to talk about it?

Well, now you have a place to do all that (and more!) that isn’t blue and bird-shaped.  That’s right: sub-Q is opening up its Discord server to all our readers.

Want to stop by and say hi?  Here’s an invite.

(If Discord isn’t your thing, you can always sign up for our newsletter, which–in most cases–goes out monthly.)

Tripladin Massacre, by Melanie Rees

That’s it from sub-Q this week!  If you haven’t yet, you can check out last month’s story, Melanie Rees’s “Tripladin Massacre,” or read our wrap-up of 2017, published last week.

See you next time, and be kind to each other out there!


The post Open Staff Positions and sub-Q Discord Chat appeared first on sub-Q Magazine.

January 08, 2018

Choice of Games

A Taxonomy of Choices: Axes of Success

by Jason Stevan Hill at January 08, 2018 10:41 PM

As part of our support for the Choice of Games Contest for Interactive Novels, we will be posting an irregular series of blog posts discussing important design and writing criteria for games. We hope that these can both provide guidance for people participating in the Contest and also help people understand how we think about questions of game design and some best practices. These don’t modify the evaluation criteria for the Contest, and (except as noted) participants are not required to conform to our recommendations–but it’s probably a good idea to listen when judges tell you what they’re looking for.

If these topics interest you, be sure to sign up for our contest mailing list below! We’ll post more of our thoughts on game design leading up to the contest deadline on January 31, 2018.

Last time, we discussed basic Testing Choices and their variations. Today, we move to the topic of how certain choices help determine the outcomes of the various plotlines of your game.

To refresh your memory: the ChoiceScript Machine has three steps. The first step is Establishing Choices: where the reader establishes the character’s strengths and weaknesses; the second step is Testing Choices, where the reader applies their aptitudes (Primary Variables) to challenges (tests), resulting in success or failure in pursuit of goals (Secondary Variable effects); then, in Climax Choices, the Secondary Variables are tested to return the game’s End States: was the mob successfully dismantled? Did you get fired or get a promotion? Did your marriage survive? Was your partner caught, discharged, or did he get off scot free?

Previously, Testing Choices were generally set up to have one axis of success, meaning there’s one thing that all the #options are trying to succeed at in a *choice. The next step in opening up your game is the inclusion of Objective Testing Choices, where the #options point towards different Narrative Goals. As with a Testing Choice, a PV will be tested for success, but the different #options will each affect different SVs.

So, in the case of our detective, who finally has a mole in the Mob’s outfit:

#I persuade the mole to wear a wire, overcoming his fears of being
discovered. (Tests $diplomacy. Success: ++evidence_against_mob; failure: 
mole refuses to wear the wire.)
#I browbeat the mole into wearing a wire against my partner. (Tests 
$intimidation. Success:  +evidence_against_partner; failure: the mole 
refuses to wear the wire.)
#I bribe the mole to wear the wire against the mob, even though that’s 
against the law. (-$5000, ++evidence_against_mob, -principles)
#I have couples' counseling; I ask my partner to run the op. (Tests
$partner_rel. Success: +evidence_against_mob, +family_peace; failure: 
your partner does a poor job of convincing the mole to wear the wire, 
so he doesn't.)

Here, narrative tension can be provided by the conflict between Tools and Goals. What if you want to improve things with your family, but you have a poor relationship with your partner? And what if the reader wants to get evidence against their partner, but hasn’t developed any Intimidation? There are multiple axes of choice here: the reader is choosing both how they want to try to succeed, and what they want to try to succeed at. The tension between the PC’s aptitudes and their Narrative Goals deepens the experience for the reader.

OTCs are a key part of a good Choice of Games title. The mid- and late-game should be rife with them, as they force the choose along multiple axes of success.

Finally, we have Climax Choices. Climax Choices follow the basic template of an Objective Testing Choice, but test Secondary Variables instead of Primary Variables. Climax Choices can and (generally) should have Multiple Levels.

For example, in the Internal Affairs proceedings that follow the dismantling of the mob, the PC has the opportunity to make a case for themselves.

#I make a case for my outstanding service to the force and the 
city. (Tests $career; success results in a dismissal of the charges 
and a promotion.)
#I make a case for the guilt of my partner. (Tests 
$evidence_against_partner; success results in his imprisonment, you 
get to keep your job.)
#I make a case for my effectiveness as a detective. (Tests $arrests 
and/or $drugs_in_evidence; success lets the PC keep their job)

As previously mentioned regarding the ChoiceScript Machine, Climax Choices are where we see the payoff of the reader’s actions over the course of the game. If the reader has not made any effort to ensnare her partner, for example, attempts to indict the partner should fail at this moment. Impassioned pleas (a $diplomacy check), for example, are nothing compared to evidence ($evidence_against_partner) collected over the course of the game. These Climax Choices are the mechanical crux of the game, where the narrative forks as a consequence of both the cumulative successes of the player over the course of the game and the tactical response to the choice at hand. As a result of these Climax Choices, the broad contours of the playthrough’s endings are determined.

The different degrees of success in a Climax Choice are an example of End States: if the PC tries to get her partner investigated, the evidence may be overwhelming, resulting in a criminal trial; the evidence may result in the partner being sanctioned by the department; and the accusation may fall on deaf ears. That is the End States for one plot/goal of the game. When the End States for one goal are combined with the End States for all the other goals, we can determine their position within the matrix of End States, which is what the reader perceives as their “ending.”

Such is the basis of the ChoiceScript Machine: Establishing Choice determine Primary Variables; Testing Choices test PVs to effect Secondary Variable; Climax Choices test SVs to situate the player in the matrix of End States.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this taxonomy. It explains my conceptual framework for understanding choices in games, and ChoiceScript games in particular. If you have thoughts on any types of choices I’ve overlooked, I’m curious to hear!


The Four Point Trap is a design pitfall where a game ends up posing the same choice again over and over again. The classic example of this is “do you do the good thing or the evil thing?” Once the player has decided that they’re either good or evil, it’s unlikely that they’ll change their minds during a given playthrough. Therefore, the Four Point Trap is where the game functionally asks the same question over and over again.

In Choice of Games titles, the most frustrating instance of this is in the context of basic Testing Choices specifically, where, for example, the question is: do you solve the problem by being strong, sneaky, smart, or charming? Once you’ve established that you’re one of those four things, an author may end up repeating that basic structure in their choices again and again. After a fashion, the only choice that mattered was the one at the beginning where the reader decided between those four aptitudes. The rest of the story is just about reading comprehension.

There are many ways to mitigate the Four Point Trap. Because the 4PT mostly pertains to skill-based variables, one of the first steps is to have more skills for the PC than you will typically have #options in a choice. Thus, if most of your Testing Choices are going to have three or four #options, then the PC should have at least five skill variables. Then, at the very least, you’ll be inclined to cycle through the skills when writing #options; this means that whatever the PC is best at won’t always be available as an #option.

More importantly, though, is to introduce other axes of choice: motivation, difficulty, and objective being examples mentioned above. Motivations give, at the very least, a sense of nuance to a choice. Multi-Level and Variable-Difficulty Choices change the calculus by offering the player different levels of risk and reward. Most importantly, however, different Narrative Goals produce narrative tension by forcing the reader to choose between (hopefully mutually exclusive) objectives.

January 07, 2018

Zarf Updates

2018 IGF nominees: fascinating experiments

by Andrew Plotkin ([email protected]) at January 07, 2018 06:34 AM

Reiterating: The IGF finalists are out! I was on the jury for Excellence in Narrative.
In today's post, the games that were really interesting but not necessarily entirely successful. This is not to say they were unsuccessful! Some of them go all-out in a particular direction which doesn't ring my particular bell. Some of them have tremendous flair and polish but also have a gap that bothers me. They're all worth playing and discussing.
  • Tacoma
  • The Sexy Brutale
  • Reigns: Her Majesty
  • Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy
  • Where the Water Tastes Like Wine
(I played free review copies of The Sexy Brutale, Reigns, and WTWTLW. The others I paid for.)


Ah, Tacoma. I wrote an enormous post about Tacoma already.
The short form, in case your memory is short: Tacoma was a fascinating experiment that I liked every individual piece of, but there must have been a piece missing because I didn't find the whole very compelling.
I liked the videolog mechanic of rewinding scenes and following characters around. I liked freezing the scenes and "hacking" the AR displays for background info. I liked the corporate-dystopia setting -- I mean, in that unpleasantly-familiar-reality way. I thought the characters and their variously revealed histories were cool. The big disaster plot should have been a hook, but it wasn't. Why not? Why did Gone Home work better? That's what made the post enormous.
The one-line answer, I think, is that there was too much narrative separation between your "real" mission (tied to the station AI) and the stuff you spent the bulk of the game investigating (the station disaster). The disaster plot felt too foregone, and the AI plot didn't tie into or make retroactive sense of anything you'd encountered.
This back-seat analysis doesn't get us anywhere, though. The upshot is that I want to see a lot of games take apart Tacoma's ideas and try them in different stories, because they're great ideas and don't deserve to be thrown out just because Tacoma has a question mark next to it.

The Sexy Brutale

You are trapped in a madhouse resort hotel where the staff are systematically murdering the guests. A blood-red apparition bids you save them all, rewinding time every time you succeed or fail. It's a time-loop adventure game with a very classical interaction model -- all rooms and doors and interesting objects which you can use in various places. I could absolutely see this being prototyped in Inform 7.
The hotel environment is wonderful, with an over-the-top cartoony-gothic tone. This is not primarily due to the art, mind you -- although the visuals are clean and effective. Rather, it's the swinging soundtrack and the text descriptions that really sell the world. (You can examine everything. I wasn't kidding about the parser-IF feel!)
The game mechanics are really well done. This is hard to talk about without spoilers, so I'll just say that you start out with some simple interations (rewinding time, listening at keyholes) and each one is revisited interestingly as you move through the storyline. Every time you save a guest you gain an ability. So the game opens up in a somewhat Metroid-y way, but still within the time-loop framework. Sorry, I know that's vague. I was impressed, is the point.
The interface is also beautifully thought out. As you learn more about each character's actions, their movements appear on a map which you can browse at will. So following (or avoiding!) a particular character through the looped day is very easy. What could be a confusing multi-threaded script becomes clear and easy to understand.
The weak spot, I'm afraid, is the storyline. This is meant to be a story-centric game. But you spend all your time engaged with the mechanics, to the point where the characters are almost entirely sidelined. Each guest-NPC only gets a few lines of dialogue -- which you mostly hear through keyholes, as the scenario forbids you from interacting with anyone directly. (Bar a few brief cut-scenes.) So you never have a chance to get to know any of the characters. They're meant to be your friends, and their deaths should drive the story, but they wind up feeling like a sequence of cardboard cutouts being discarded. Really, the best-portrayed characters are the poker-faced butlers who scuttle and mutter and arrange the murders.
The story wraps itself up in a suitably dramatic finale, and the game mechanics support it in a beautifully twisty way. Unfortunately, the lack of character engagement robs the whole thing of its weight.
It's a satisfying adventure game experience, and I'll happily recommend giving it a shot. But the story would need a whole lot more character time in order to resonate.

Reigns: Her Majesty

I played Reigns last year and it was cute. It was funny. Poking around in it was interesting. But I never felt like I had much control; I just bounced from death to death. I certainly never came close to solving the "curse" puzzle, if it was a puzzle.
This new Reigns is a worthy followup and I have exactly the same responses. It's cute. The writing has a wonderful dry wit. It has, I think, more discoverable secrets -- at least I was able to unlock a fair number of them, by memorizing specific moves to be applied at specific moments. But I had no ability to go looking for those moments. I had to bounce from death to death, waiting for something new to appear. Eventually I got tired of that and put it down for a while.
I picked it back up when the game was released. (I originally started with a pre-release version which had some bugs.) This time I made more progress; I played through to one of the endings (the eclipse sequence).
I'm happier with the game now; the ending sequence gives it some narrative oomph that wasn't visible from the middle. (And I now have more faith that there are more endings which will be similarly satisfying.) Also, I have a clearer view of the women-and-power theme that underlies the whole game. The theme works, and I get the sense (from twitter-chatter) that it resonates strongly with a lot of players.
However, my original complaint still holds: there's little sense of actively achieving anything in the game. (The same was true with the first Reigns.) I believe there are interesting story paths hidden in the twelve astrological signs. When I found a clue that explicitly described one, I was able to go find it. But I only found a couple of such clues! All the other paths are hidden until you trip over them.
That means the gameplay is largely about stumbling through the same events over and over, waiting for a clue to turn up. And since the events turn up randomly, even if you think of a new way to react to one, you still have to bang through an indefinite number of cards to try your idea.
Or put it this way: the game gets uninteresting before it gets interesting.
Maybe the pacing works for some people, but I find it frustrating and I'm not really motivated to search out more endings.

Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy

I know three kinds of people.
  • People who have played Getting Over It for twenty hours, are still playing it, and say it's the game of the year.
  • People who have played Getting Over It for twenty minutes, threw it across the room, and said "Ha ha, no thanks."
  • People who say "I've heard of that. It's a platformer, right?"
I am in the second group of people. I have a sneaking suspicion that the third group are the happiest.
(I also have a sneaking suspicion that I would be better at it if the controls were inverted. I have no desire to test this theory, however.)
The game is intensely committed to being what it is, and what it is is frustrating. I admire that but I don't want to play it. Not my kink.
The narration is another story, er, as it were -- and I was supposed to be judging the narrative quality, after all. But I never got past the third or fourth audio snippet, so what am I supposed to say? The game's primary selling point is that it does its best to keep the narration (and everything else after that stupid oar) away from the player. This makes it not a narrative game, as far as I'm concerned.
(I watched a speed-run on Youtube, but it skipped all the narration.)
Okay, I'm being overly snarky. The opening text was interesting. It's an obvious callback to The Beginner's Guide -- except that instead of making fake games about a fictional game designer, Foddy makes an actual game(*) and talks about an actual game designer, in relation to his real-life self. This is a brilliant stroke and I give it full credit. But it's not my kink.
(* Fun for actual humans(**), I mean.)
(** Not me. But people I've had dinner with. Two different people I've had two different dinners with.)

Where the Water Tastes Like Wine

(Disclaimer: I know some of the writers who contributed to ...Tastes Like Wine, and I work directly with one of them. So I called an abstention on this one -- I omitted it from my IGF ballot. I still wrote about it, though.) (Also, it hasn't shipped yet. I am describing a pre-release version.)
I love many things about ...Tastes Like Wine. I love the music. I love the voice performances. I love the sense of America as vast yet continuous, fragmented-connected, compassable but not encompassable. You can travel across this country but you can't see back to where you started.
I love the pace of travel, which I'm sure is the single thing players complain about most. As with Sunless Sea, you wouldn't value the stories if you didn't accept the stricture of distance between them. The mechanic of whistling to walk very slightly faster gives you something to do with your fingers, although it could maybe be more landscape-integrated. (Some kind of ghost tokens become visible in the world as you whistle?)
What I love, primarily, is that the stories are an unending, shifting tapestry. And they're all good. I mean, they're not all the great American novel -- not that I would read the great American novel on a bet -- but at every turn, you will get a little snippet which is interesting, surprising, or different. Always different, in fact. Perhaps related to stories you've heard; perhaps not. It's a cozy experience, cozy is the word I'm looking for. Every time I jump into ...Tastes Like Wine, I have faith that the writers will catch me.
What it is not: pretty. The hand-drawn character art is great, but you spend a lot more time walking the Earth -- and the Earth is low-poly and ugly. It doesn't fit the style. It's not an abstraction or a map; it's a computer model. I know the game isn't about the visuals, but it has some and they maybe need a rethink.
What it is also not: particularly goal-oriented. I see stories evolve, I see characters advance through "chapters" as I feed them stories, but it's a low-agency system. I can't chase a particular thread. (The characters are supposed to clue you in about where they're heading, but this is less useful than just casting around for campfires.) I have to wander around until the next thread, or some thread, turns up. Also, I'm surprisingly bad at remembering which stories are "wild", "funny", "hopeful", etc. So on that level, too, I'm acting randomly: I'm handing over stories and just hoping that they match the requirements.
You'll recall that I had the same complaint about the Reigns games -- low-agency and a lot of random shuffle. The difference is, the Reigns storylets get repetitive, whereas the stories in ...Tastes Like Wine are always fresh. The stories make it worthwhile.
(Maybe the stories should be categorized in more dimensions? Scary/funny/exciting versus supernatural/inexplicable/realistic... Or maybe a story can be recognized as 80% scary and 20% funny. Some of them are. I dunno, I just want a more fine-grained model than the one I've got.)
So I enjoy the experience, but I lack a purposive sense of game advancement, so I made my own goals. I decided to walk from New York to San Francisco. That's an American sort of road trip, right? So I did that, but when I arrived, I hadn't made much progress on any scale that the game offers. So I walked back, and then down to New Orleans, and got more stories, but I still didn't feel like I'd accomplished anything.
It's not a game about accomplishment, then. "Success", or even the completion of one character's storyline, is not really within view. This is surprisingly outside my wheelhouse! I really prefer narrative games with a finite span and an ending. ...Tastes Like Wine is like (you're going to hate this description) it's like a giant RPG which is all side quest. Infinite side quest.
Once I understood that, I became at peace with the pacing and just wandered around for more stories. And then I completed some storylines, to my surprise, after all.
You know, I really want ...Tastes Like Wine to be a mobile game, not a sit-at-my-computer game. I want to pull it out on the subway, hop a few cities, pick up a few stories. I want to trudge towards campfires while lying in bed late at night. Cozy, like I said.

January 05, 2018

The Digital Antiquarian

A Conversation with Judith Pintar

by Jimmy Maher at January 05, 2018 05:41 PM

Judith Pintar was responsible for what popular consensus holds to be the two best games ever created using AGT. She wrote 1991’s Cosmoserve herself, then organized the team of authors that created 1992’s Shades of Gray. Both works are inextricably bound up with the online life of their era. Cosmoserve is a simulation and gentle satire of daily life on CompuServe, the most popular of the pre-World Wide Web commercial online services, while Shades of Gray was created by people who had met one another only on CompuServe, who used a CompuServe chat room as their primary means of communication. Given that I’ve written so voluminously on the text adventures of Infocom and others over the years, and given I’ve spent most of the last two months chronicling the net before the Web, a conversation with Judith about text adventures on CompuServe seemed the perfect way to tie the two strands together.

As it happened, though, I got much more than I’d bargained for. Although Cosmoserve and Shades of Gray were written many years ago now, Judith’s interest in interactive fiction has never abated. For years she’s been using it as a tool for pedagogical purposes in the classes she teaches, and she’s recently started some fascinating projects in the realm of what we might call massively-multiauthored interactive fiction. I hope you enjoy this transcript of our wide-ranging conversation on such subjects as the pros and cons of AGT, the life and times of the CompuServe Gamers Forum, the fostering of empathy through interactivity, and the plight of verbally-oriented computer programmers in a STEM-heavy world.

Thank you for agreeing to do this so close to Christmas! It’s a great gift for me and my readers.

I’m so delighted that you got in touch with me. I’ve been a fan of your historical work.

It made a huge difference to me when I realized you had released your extended review and treatment of Cosmoserve in your IF history. It was at a really low point in my academic life, and I found it, and thought, “Oh, my God! This is who I am!” It was very nice.

Anyway, I like your writing style and your approach to the history of IF a lot. I teach from your work.

Thank you!

I played Cosmoserve and Shades of Gray for the first time… oh, must be fifteen years ago now. I had a job working in IT on the graveyard shift. We had twelve-hour shifts, from 7 PM to 7 AM, and a lot of the time there just wasn’t that much to do. I couldn’t play a conventional computer game, but I could play IF games because it would just look like I was working at a terminal, typing commands. So I went through the back-history of AGT, a lot of the games nobody ever plays anymore.

And that’s when I played Cosmoserve and Shades of Gray, which I think were probably just about the two best things that were ever done with AGT. It was a very limited system in some ways, but you certainly bent it to your will.

I was always a big cheerleader for AGT. It is true that I went into the Pascal source code for both CosmoServe and Shades of Gray, but most of the changes I made were to increase the available resources in order to accommodate the size of these games. I believed at the time that people’s complaints about AGT were not reasonable, that you could do pretty much whatever you wanted with the language if you were creative and diligent. I still believe this. Until Inform 7 came along, AGT was my IF teaching language of choice.

But obviously the technology improved with TADS and Inform. They’re more flexible languages; AGT had a fair number of assumptions about the world and so on built into it. TADS and Inform of course had some as well, but they could be modified much more easily.

And I do think one other thing that came in with what we think of as the modern IF community, with Curses and the first IF competition and so on in 1993 and 1994, was a strong ethic of quality, of testing games and taking the work very seriously. From my standpoint, that’s something that’s missing in a lot of the AGT work. There was more of a tendency for people to just write games and put them out there without seeking out much feedback or focusing on adding that final polish. So, it wasn’t strictly a matter of technology. There was a cultural shift as well.

I’m not sure that’s completely fair. Some different rules maybe came in with the IF Competition that took over from the AGT Competition, and it certainly broadened the number of people who were involved, but I think the situation is more complex.

I think it’s more accurate to say that there were multiple IF worlds. In CompuServe Gamers Forum, people were writing games and sharing them and critiquing them. Even the contest format really had its origins in the AGT Contest. There was no Internet around, so depending on what bulletin board or users group you were a member of, you could run in different circles. The people who wrote AGT games weren’t necessarily in the same circles as those who formed the modern community, and when AGT fell away, it was really…

Well, in my case, for example, I was not very motivated to learn TADS, because I was publicly identified with AGT. I felt protective of it, and of David Malmberg and what he had achieved with AGT, and what his contest did for popularizing the writing of IF in those early days.

I know it looks like I disappeared from the IF world. I had been a presence in the early 1990s, I was being interviewed, I was very active on CompuServe Gamers Forum, etc., etc. And then I just seemed to be gone. I wasn’t actually. I just went to graduate school. I was still writing IF and teaching AGT at a point when David announced he would no longer be maintaining it. That left me without a language. I could program in Pascal, but I wasn’t really able to take it over. When CompuServe was bought by AOL, that left me without my community too, though I was still part of the larger IF world. I never stopped writing and teaching IF.

Well, the “IF community” has always been very fragmented. You have this sort of central community associated with the IF Comp, which is the most academically respected today. But you also have a whole community of people working in a language called ADRIFT, which is easier to use than Inform or TADS. It’s not really a programming-oriented but a database-based system, where you can put a game together using a GUI. Then for a long time there an “adult” interactive-fiction community, who focused on textual pornography. I’m not really sure how active they still are.

Is it true that they continued to use AGT?

Yes, they stuck with AGT for a long, long time. To whatever extent AGT developed a bad reputation among the larger IF community, I think that may have contributed somewhat to it. Many of the AIF people were using AGT to churn out a lot of junk games meant only for the purpose of getting off. They stuck with AGT well past 2000. If they’re still around, I suspect many of them may still be using it.

My sense of AGT comes from the fact that I taught it to middle-school and high-school kids. I found it to be a really wonderful teaching language. Just a few years ago, I got an email from an old student who now runs a children’s game conference in Austin. He credits that to the fact that I taught him to write games in AGT in the early 1990s.

I actually ported Cosmoserve to Inform; that’s how I learned Inform 7. Going from AGT to Inform 7 was very interesting. There are things — and you must believe me here! — that AGT does better and makes easier than Inform 7, even though Inform 7 is clearly a wildly more powerful language.

It might be useful to look back here to the earliest days of home computers, when BASIC was around, with line numbers and single-letter variable names, GOTO statements everywhere — everything “real” programmers hate.  So, people came along to tell all these computer owners that they should be using Pascal or some other more proper programming language. One famous computer scientist said that anyone who learned BASIC would be “mutilated beyond hope of regeneration.”

But during that era ordinary people were actually programming computers. They were writing games, writing little tools for their own use. That was part of the ethos of owning a computer. The old computer magazines were all very programming-oriented.

Today our programming languages are very well-engineered, excellent tools for professional programmers making heavy-duty applications, but we really do lack any modern equivalent to what BASIC used to be: something not so pretty, not so formally or theoretically correct, but that ordinary people can just pick up and make something with. Maybe in the context of IF it was AGT that was filling that role, to be replaced by slicker languages like TADS and Inform that lacked the same approachability.

I do have a story about AGT that you might like. Earlier I wrote about a game that officially won the 2nd AGT Contest — but it was the first real Contest. That was A Dudley Dilemma by Lane Barrow. I looked him up and interviewed him for the blog, as I’m interviewing you now. We talked quite a lot about his game’s design and what he would do differently if he made it today. He got inspired to pick up the old AGT tools and make some changes, changing a few things that by modern standards were a bit borderline on the fairness scale. That new version’s on the IF Archive now. He said he was shocked at how quickly he was able to pick up AGT again after not using it for 25 or maybe close to 30 years.

So, that’s a story you might appreciate. I never created anything with AGT, so I can’t speak to it that much.

But maybe we could go back and lay some groundwork about the person you were when you created Cosmoserve and Shades of Gray. I’m always amazed by the huge range of backgrounds and experiences that people working in IF have. The thing that leaps out first from your biography is that you were a Celtic harpist throughout the 1980s. That’s certainly an unusual career choice. Would you care to talk a bit about it?

Sure. I’ll tell you the skeleton story.

My BA from the University of Wisconsin was in folklore. It was a degree I put together myself because in my junior year I realized I had no major. So, I made an interdisciplinary major from courses I had already taken: Old Norse, Old English, Greek Mythology. This was the age of Joseph Campbell, and we were all sort of questing.

One summer I hitchhiked through Britain trying to find a harp-maker. My idea about this was intensely romantic, completely based on wanting to be a storyteller — a storyteller needed a harp. I ended up finding a harp-maker in Wales. I had to go back to get it six months later.

To my complete surprise, I was able to play this instrument. I took to it. I learned to play by composing. So I was really quickly performing original music in Milwaukee and around the Midwest.

On the strength of my folklore degree, I applied for a job in the Milwaukee Public School System as a storyteller, even though I had never told a story out loud. I got the job, which was terrifying. I thought I would go in front of a class with my harp and go “pling, pling” and tell little stories, but they walked me into a gym with 500 students waiting for me. I tanked so bad that first time.

Somehow I did become a professional storyteller. I played the harp and told stories in the folk-music circuit, at Renaissance fairs, at Celtic music festivals. I had also landed a recording contract with Sona Gaia, an imprint of the Narada new-age music label. My albums included liner notes with stories that had originally been performed live.

In 1987, I needed to make my third album, so I moved to Colorado, up in the mountains, with two wolf-hybrid dogs and my harp and a little pickup truck. I needed a computer, so for $1000 I bought a used PCs Limited XT clone, 8 MHz in “turbo” mode. On this computer was GAGS by Mark Welch, the precursor to AGT. It was shareware, so I sent a check to Mark Welch. He wrote back to tell me that GAGS was now AGT, and Dave Malmberg was maintaining it. So I purchased AGT.

One fun thing in Cosmoserve is that GAGS is running there.

Yeah, there’s a little GAGS game in there. Is there some in-joke to that, associated with being in Wisconsin on a dairy farm? It was kind of a non sequitur for me as a player. I was thinking, okay, why am I here of all places?

That’s a joke on me! I’m from Milwaukee, I wrote that cow game.

That was your first game?

It was one of them. My first games were written in a cabin in the mountains of Colorado. How’s that for a romantic beginning?

Very nice!

When you first got this copy of GAGS, was that actually your first exposure to text adventures?

No, no, no. Infocom, man! Infocom!

Okay, so you were already a hardcore Infocom fan.

My mom was a high-school math teacher, and she in the 1970s was as tech-savvy as a math teacher could be. Our first personal computer was an Apple II. My first gaming experience was typing in little BASIC text adventures. So, going back to the late 1970s and early 1980s, I was already writing IF, as much as that was possible in BASIC. Then I started playing the Infocom games at home with family and friends. I think I may own them all. So, as an Infocom freak, it was very exciting to find GAGS. It was the first time I realize it would be possible to author a full-length game.

Do you have any favorites in the Infocom catalog that spring to mind?

Well, I loved Zork. How do you not love Zork? And what’s the one that has all the little robots?

That’s Suspended.

Okay. I would say that of all the Infocom games I was most influenced by Suspended.

Interesting. That’s in some ways the most unusual Infocom game. It’s more of a strategy game that’s played in text than a traditional text adventure. It was also, incidentally, the game that prompted Douglas Adams to decide he wanted to make The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy into an Infocom game. Now that you mention it, I fancy I can see some of it in Cosmoserve.

Absolutely. I wanted to shift or jar the player out of reading text and fool them into being present. I believe I succeeded because I got many emails from people telling me that when they played Cosmoserve they referred to it as “going online.” It felt to them like they were going online when they played. Of course, it looked identical to CompuServe. The logon screen was identical in what it said, and also in how long it took to load. There was some metalepsis because there were limits to how far I could make AGT imitate it. But I did pretty well in some places. When the virus infects your own computer and you do “chkdsk” in DOS, and it starts to show that you have all these files that are replicating at this incredible speed and things are starting to get corrupted, people would quit the game, terrified I had infected their computer.

So, backing up just for a moment, how did you end up on CompuServe in the first place?

I moved at the end of 1988 to Santa Cruz, California, with my husband-to-be. There I became an artist-in-residence and started to teach IF. And it was at that point or possibly earlier that I joined CompuServe Gamers Forum. That was huge for me; that was my IF community. More than an IF community. We talked all kinds of games.

It was very pleasant, very civil. There wasn’t a lot of trolling that I recall. Maybe partly because you were paying to be there. And it was really well-moderated. There was always a sysop present in the scheduled public chats.

My handle was Teela Brown. She’s a character in Larry Niven’s Ringworld; she’s the luckiest woman in the world. That’s how I felt in that era of my life. It’s still my handle now with the Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation.

I just have to say that I’m so excited about your work on CompuServe. I’m really so happy that you’ve written about CompuServe because I have a lot of sorrow about it as kind of a lost world. If Cosmoserve can help your project, that would be awesome.

Yeah. The problem is that in histories of these things the focus always goes to the early ARPANET, the invention of TCP/IP, etc. Which is important — incredibly important — but a huge part of contemporary online culture can’t actually be traced back to the ARPANET and early Internet. It was CompuServe that invented and/or popularized real-time chat, e-commerce, online travel reservations, online newspapers, online encyclopedias, much of online gaming, etc., etc. Few people seem to remember that. If you look at what you do on the Internet today, at least as much stems from the early commercial online services as from the early Internet. They should both be given their due.

One of the great tragedies for me as a historian is that all of this stuff that took place on CompuServe has apparently been lost forever. I can go back to look at Usenet discussions that took place 30 years ago; that stuff is still there. CompuServe unfortunately is a different story. That sad reality makes Cosmoserve hugely valuable as more than just an adventure game.

I actually just learned this year that CompuServe is a lost world, that there is no backup. It occurred to me then to be grateful that I had done this. I couldn’t now replicate the experience.

Yes. This to me is one of the fascinating things about text adventures. Unlike the vast majority of games, they’re very personal works, and they tend to be much more reflective of the lives of the people that made them. Of course, you have Cosmoserve, which shows what it was like to log onto this long-gone online service. But it goes even beyond that.

In the case of A Dudley Dilemma, Lane Barrow was a PhD student at Harvard, and he wrote a game about being a PhD student at Harvard. Son of Stagefright, which won the AGT Contest the year after A Dudley Dilemma, was written by a guy who was very active in community theater, so he set his game in the theater where he and his friends would put on plays. Or there’s a game called Save Princeton which was written by a young man who was a student at Princeton at the time, and he included all his friends in the game. That sort of thing is kind of frowned on in IF circles today because it’s not artistic or high-falutin’ enough, but at the same time, when I play that game now there’s actually something very poignant about it. I see all these bright kids who think they’ve got the world figured out, who are going to do this or do that after university. One of them has a Twin Peaks poster on his dorm-room wall; it’s a total time capsule. I wonder where these people are today.  Maybe it resonates more with me than it might with others because I was about their age at about the same time. But I do think that that personal, time-capsule quality is kind of overlooked when people talk about IF.

Yes, I agree. I haven’t read anything addressing that. It’s very interesting.

So, how would you describe the discussions on CompuServe? Was there a lot of talk about how games should be made, what is good and bad design, what is fair and unfair?

Absolutely. We talked about everything, and we absolutely had conversations about what made a good game. There were people in Gamers Forum who wrote games as well as played games. It was really easy to get beta testers.

Those were the people who beta-tested Cosmoserve, which I submitted to the AGT Contest and won. The next year I didn’t want to submit another game; I thought that wasn’t fair. So I decided to organize Shades of Gray instead.

The CompuServe Gamers Forum was a real place to me. It had a geography. There were rooms where you could enter and talk to people, and there was a library. It might seem strange that I would simulate CompuServe through IF, which is traditionally so map-based. But for me CompuServe was mapped too. Gamers Forum had an entirely different feel from other Forums. You traveled between them. They all felt like different geographic destinations in a work of IF. But there were other people there too. You could go into a Forum conference room at any time, day or night, and somebody might be there.

So I recreated that in Cosmoserve. You can just go to a conference and see if anybody is there. Sometimes they are, and sometimes they aren’t. That part feels really real.

And it’s not a bug in Cosmoserve the way the number of people who are supposedly in the Forum always changes. It’s randomized in Cosmoserve as a joke because I never believed it was true on CompuServe.

In terms of the Gamers Forum members who were writing text adventures, were they all or mostly all working with AGT? TADS came out in 1990, but it wasn’t used anywhere near as much as AGT during the early 1990s.

I wouldn’t say we were an AGT community. People were experimenting with many game-making systems — not just IF but others sorts of games as well. We tried all of them, so there was a discussion about tools too, and comparisons. We were pretty eclectic. We didn’t have an identity like the newsgroups had, of being an IF community. We IF people were just in there, fairly integrated. There was no sense of shame, no sense that we were lesser than other kinds of games at all. It was just one of the kinds of games that were being played by everyone.

I assume you as well were playing other kinds of games — certainly by 1990 or so, with Infocom gone. Do you recall what other games you were playing?

Sure. We played all the Sierra Online games. We enjoyed them, despite people having an attitude about the writing, that the general quality of game writing had declined when games went graphic. But that didn’t stop us from playing them! We all loved Myst when it came out too, and there were barely any words there at all.

I was also a big NetHack addict. It’s one of my favorite games ever. I like to teach it.

Have you ever ascended?

I have!



I talk about that game because it shows that a good game can evoke emotion using an ASCII character. You cry when your pet dies. Your heart beats hard when the wizard is chasing you, even though it’s just a little letter going across the screen. So I always talk about that game in game-design classes. The power is in the design. You can have gorgeous graphics and interesting mechanics, and it can still be emotionally empty and touch you not at all. NetHack for me is very powerful.

So, as you’re working on Cosmoserve, it’s obviously a huge technical challenge to bend AGT in that direction. You’ve hinted that you were fairly friendly with David Malmberg. Did he help at all with the changes you had to make for Cosmoserve?

No, no. I hacked it. I did have to tell him that I had done it because I was concerned that I was cheating, but he wasn’t bothered. You can’t compile my game files with the regular compiler.

It started out as just a straight-up game, but as it went on it got bigger and there were things I wanted to do, especially how things printed to the screen. Because I was concerned about cheating in the contest, I did less than I might have. The rumors of my hacking are exaggerated! You didn’t need to change the program to do great things with AGT.

One thing about Compuserve that’s interesting is that you published it in 1991, but it’s set in 2001. You’re extrapolating what’s going to happen to computer technology in the future. You assume, as anyone might, that Intel would continue with the “x86” nomenclature instead of coming out with the Pentium line, so you have this “786” computer in there. And then it’s funny that you’re still using DOS ten years on.

It’s true that whenever you set a story in the future you have to live with what you imagined. I did imagine that there would be GUIs, but that R.J. Wright himself would still want to use DOS. This is also a self-reference. I miss DOS tremendously. I never liked GUIs. I’m verbally-oriented, not visually-oriented, and I was imagining that I would never give up DOS. On my desktop right now, my garbage can is called “Unnecessary Metaphor.” I used to be able to delete a file by typing “delete,” but now I have to imagine that the file is a little piece of paper and I have to physically pick it up and drag it to a little picture of a garbage can to get rid of it. I hated that from the first time that I saw it.

I thought of R.J. Wright too as the kind of person who into the 21st century would still be using DOS. But I was also imagining that there would be VR.

Yes, that’s a huge contrast. DOS and VR!

Right, I imagined more and less. I imagined VR would be more immersive and multiplayer than it is now, and I imagined that DOS would make it.

And there’s another thing: I never imagined the fall of Borland. The “Orfland” products that the player uses in Cosmoserve, and the quest to get Orfland customer service to provide a patch, are an affectionate send-up of Borland products — Turbo Pascal, Paradox, etc. — and the Borland Forum on CompuServe. When we lived in Santa Cruz my husband did some contract programming for Borland, so we were also in their corporate social circle.

A funny story from that era: while I was writing Cosmoserve, which was really a full time job for months and months, cash was tight. So I tried office temping, though I had no prior work experience. All I wrote on my application at the temp agency under skills, as I recall, was “Can Type Real Fast.” I got one job — I was sent to Borland CEO Philippe Khan’s office, to type all the info from his personal Rolodex into his very large, state of the art mobile phone. Now, this Rolodex was jaw-dropping. It had in it the personal addresses and home phone numbers of pretty much every important personage in computing: Gates, Jobs, Wozniak, everybody. It took two days to finish the job because as soon as Phillipe found out I was a musician we spent a lot of time hanging out and talking. I had heard his band, the Turbo Jazz Band, play at a big Borland employee gathering — he plays sax and flute. So we compared our experiences of composing and improvising and performing and recording and by the time I was finished, we were like friends, just fellow musicians, and we gifted each other with our latest CDs. I remember him as a charismatic man at the top of his game. I was going to write him into a sequel to Cosmoserve, but then Borland fell, and of course I never wrote that sequel. I did name my cat Philippe though.

One aspect of Cosmoserve which a modern player might not be too excited about is the time element. It’s a game which you really have to play several times. When I played it, I had to make a schedule for myself. First I’d go on these reconnaissance missions to see what was going on where and when. Then I could use my schedule to make a winning run. As I’m sure you know, there are a lot of modern players who absolutely hate that approach.

That actually got fixed in the 1997 release. I went to the IF Archive and asked them to switch out the old Cosmoserve version for the new version. And they said no, they wouldn’t delete it, because it didn’t belong to me anymore; it belonged to the public, but they’d be happy to add the new version. That was the moment I realized that there was a history of IF bigger than any individual game or designer. Now, being on the IFTF board, I love that caretaking our shared history is part of my job.

The new Inform 7 version of Cosmoserve is much more pleasant to play. I instituted a more comprehensive hint system in every part of the game so that the player can move through the game more smoothly.

I must not have played the 1997 version because I remember this fairly intense time pressure. But I’m an old-school player; I played the Infocom mysteries that were also constructed like this. So, if I know a game is constructed that way going in, it’s not a deal-breaker for me.

Just as a design question, how did you approach removing the time pressure?

I just started the story earlier in the day. The player now has nearly 24 hours to get their Pascal program ready for the courier coming to pick it up the next morning. That seems to be enough time, though I will be looking for additional beta-testing feedback on that. I also removed the much-hated “you must eat pizza or you will die” mechanic. If someone really misses these old-style pressure puzzles they can still play the original version. But the Inform 7 version is more pleasant for the modern player.

Then I also added a hint system using Aunt Edna. Did the version you played have Aunt Edna?

I think I remember her coming by and complaining that I’ll never get a girlfriend or a boyfriend if I keep living like this.

In the new Inform 7 version, you can send her away if you don’t want her. But she’s basically giving you hints to get you through the first phase in your house, to get you online faster. Without breaking the mood, she’ll give you hints to get that first part solved.

And then I’m in the game as Teela Brown. I always was, in VR, but I really improved that so that the game is tracking what you’ve done and not done. Instead of a big laundry list of things you can ask me, which breaks the mood, if you ask me for a hint I’ll tell you, “You need to do this by this time of night” or “This happened at 7:00 and you missed it,” so you don’t go all the way to the end of the game and realize, oh, my, God, I needed to have done this thing. That’s horrible; everybody hates that.

So, let’s talk about Shades of Gray just a little. Which part of that was yours?

The Tarot card reader.

Okay. She’s kind of the jumping-off point to all of the different vignettes.

Yes. I wrote the code that links them all. I also took the individual pieces and made them narratively coherent.

Shades of Gray was unusual for its era in that there’s an overt message to the game; it’s trying to say something. Infocom had done a little bit of that with A Mind Forever Voyaging and Trinity, but their options were always limited by being a commercial game company, by not wanting to offend anybody. Steve Meretzky at Infocom had a lot of ideas for other very political games, and his managers always said, no, you can’t do that.

Of course, later on in the IF community there would be a lot of people making very self-consciously “literary” games. But that was a little later than the AGT era. Do you recall how you decided you wanted to make a game that would not just be another adventure game, that would leave the player with a message?

We didn’t start with that. I started with a message asking who wanted to make a game for the next Competition. And a bunch of people said yes, they did. The team I wound up putting together included Mark Baker, Steve Bauman, Belisana, Hercules, Mike Laskey, and Cindy Yans in addition to myself.

There were a lot of logistics just getting to the nitty-gritty of game design. We didn’t have any clear idea what the game would be. And of course, trying to drive a carriage with twelve horses is really, really difficult. Everybody wanted to do their own thing.

We let people do that for a while while we continued to discuss themes, but pretty soon we came to the idea of moral ambiguity. Robin Hood is a scoundrel from the Sheriff’s point of view, for example. We wanted to show that life and politics are nuanced.

Belisana came up with the overarching narrative, and she wrote the ending.

Was she responsible for the Haiti historical material?


For an American in 1992, that’s a little bit of an esoteric choice of subject. Did she have some connection to Haiti? Do you know where that came from?

I don’t. She came up with the idea and we all loved it. Without giving away any spoilers here, it is fair to say that this is a story about American history, as much as it is about Haiti. And she executed it brilliantly, in her vignette, and in the game ending.

Yes, that was definitely the most powerful part of the game for me.

The making of Shades of Gray was a CompuServe story, a pretty profound one, about what the service made possible, collaboratively. We didn’t know anything about each other personally. We were fellow forum members who became a team.

It was expensive to go on CompuServe; you had to pay per minute. So you rationed the amount of time you spent online. You wrote all your messages offline, then logged on to send them.  In order to do Shades of Gray on CompuServe, I had to convince the Gamers Forum to give us the “free flag.”

And this meant you got to be online for free?

Yes. Anybody involved with the project would get a free flag while they were working on this game. Not only did we get this free flag, but we got a room of our own. I never met any of the other people who worked on the game. That’s really normal now, in the age of the Internet, but at that time it was really strange.

We talked and talked and talked about what Shades of Gray would be; everybody had their own ideas. We had this general theme of moral ambiguity. Everybody wrote their code separately, then I had the job of taking it all and merging it, which was insanely difficult. And we won the AGT Competition. They had to make a special “group project” category for us, to be fair to the shorter games.

Creating Shades of Gray was really fun, and I’d say that the game was more influential on my career path in IF than Cosmoserve was. It’s the inspiration for what I do now at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where my students engage in massive, ongoing  collaborative IF.


I’ve just finished my third year teaching Inform 7 in an IF programming and design course at the U of I. Besides working on their own games, students collaborate on a game that is set on our campus — that is, if our campus had toilet stalls collapsing into underground tunnels with zombies gnawing on the bones of graduate students. Called The Quad Game, it’s an IF sandbox with hundreds of locations and fifty or so endings — so far. It is rough in patches and extravagantly incomplete, deliberately so.

On the first day of class I let the students play the game in groups, each group setting out in a different direction from the center of the campus. I ask them to write down everything that happens that is annoying or buggy or incomplete. I really encourage them to complain. Then I tell them to write at the top of the paper, “To Do.” By the end of the semester they will have to fix it all.

More ambitiously, I’m in the process of developing a public history/collaborative programming project called The Illinois Map. I usually explain it as something like Wikipedia-meets-Minecraft. The vision is to get the entire state of Illinois to become programming literate, by learning the Inform 7 language in order to write interactive, immersive games that simulate key moments in Illinois history.

The site will be like Wikipedia in that every project submitted will need to be referenced. Someone who wants to write a simulation on Abraham Lincoln’s career as a lawyer, for example, will have to provide historical background with primary sources and a justification for why their simulation is historically significant, using secondary sources. They also have to come up with a compelling little story, and then write the Inform 7 code to carry it out.

I’ve taught another IF class for the last two years in which students submit an Illinois Map proposal as their final project– I’ve got fifty of these ready to go as soon as the site is ready. They’re at various stages of narrative development and coding sophistication, but that’s the point. Like Wikipedia, multiple people will be able to collaborate on revising and improving the various parts of any project page.

I imagine that a High School Social Studies teacher will send their students to the Illinois Map. A student will search to see if anybody has done anything on their hometown, and lo and behold: there’s already a little game somebody has started. Maybe the research is good, but the story is lame and the code is pretty weak. They can give some feedback, suggests some edits, or offer code corrections. If their project veers too much, they can submit a new one.

They will gain status as they contribute to the Map, and will aspire to become proficient enough to take the best projects and incorporate them into a Master Game that will let players explore Illinois history from one end to  the other, from its prehistoric beginnings to its imagined future.

And do you hope to release this publicly at some point?

The Quad Game is already available to the public. I’ve got some grant-writing to do before the Illinois Map goes live.

Then the other thing I’m working on is to teach Inform 7 inside an Inform 7 game. I want to write a game where the object is to write code, and where the code the player is writing changes the game they’re playing. You can see my first pass at that. What you get at the end is code which you can cut and paste and drop into Inform to play it.

A couple of people have done something similar to that. A game called Informatory some years ago taught not Inform 7 but Inform 6. And then Andrew Plotkin, whom I’m sure you know, made a game called Lists and Lists to teach a dialect of LISP.

That was actually one of my first languages! I learned LISP, then Pascal, then C++.

I have found Inform 7 to be an ideal first programming language. It introduces the concepts students need to pass a Python class: objects, inheritance, recursion, variables, loops, lists, tables, but it teaches them through story.  I don’t know of a Python course that doesn’t make you learn these concept through algebra. But Inform 7 teaches data relationships and ontologies through metaphor, which everyone’s brain is wired to understand. Pedagogically I call this approach “narrative-based computational thinking.”

This approach is also academically practical. We have an informatics minor here for which students must complete a CS class. These students come from any number of programs across campus — business, arts, journalism — and some of them have a hard time passing a CS course. We had the idea that students taking my Inform 7 class would be able to get through a Python class afterwards, no problem. I think that’s true, but I don’t have the research — yet! We’re going to try to demonstrate it.

I would like to make Inform 7 as ubiquitous as PowerPoint. I think it could be a breakthrough in widespread programming literacy.

So, I think you and I agree with each other philosophically. Our sense of the significance of IF, of where it belongs in the world.

I’m a very strange case. I got my first computer when I was quite young. I grew up with computers, have always loved them. At the same time, though, in everything apart from computers I’m a very verbally-oriented person. When I’d take standardized tests, I’d always score fifteen or twenty points higher on the verbal versus the math component. 

In a way, I think I’ve always seen programming a little bit differently. When I write code, my algorithms aren’t necessarily that wonderful, but I load up the code with commentary. So, the Inform 7 natural-language approach feels very natural to me. In a sense, I was already describing what I was doing in natural language, then having to translate it down to C or whatever. With Inform 7, I don’t have to take the second step.

I know you’re very busy with these massively collaborative IF projects, but have you ever thought about doing another game on your own or as part of a smaller team?

I never stopped writing games. I just didn’t release them publicly. I had won the two competitions I entered, so I was done with competitions, but competitions were how games were still being released. So for a decade or more, I mostly shared my games with my students, as tutorials, sort of like Emily Short’s games in the Inform 7 Cookbook.

But now I do have an Inform 7 game of my own in beta. I wrote it just because it was fun, and for the technical challenge. It’s an IF poker game. You’re Alice, and you’re falling down the well as you play poker with the white rabbit. You’re going down as the rabbit is going up. The cards are scattered randomly through the well. He picks up cards and you pick up cards, and the game keeps track of your hands. But the cards are alive; they fight with each other. So, there’s a story, but you can only access it by having certain cards together in your hand. On the one hand you’re trying to win the poker game, but on the other you can’t really win unless you have in your hand the right characters who will reveal information to you to get the backstory. This was so much fun to write.

Then I have another massive project…

Instead of publishing my sociology dissertation as an academic book, I wrote a novel based on my field experiences in Croatia in the late 1990s. I spent much of that time in Dubrovnik, where Game of Thrones and Star Wars both have filmed. The story tells the 1500-year history of Dubrovnik as a series of failed love affairs. I never found an agent to represent this opus — no one liked the asynchronous relationship between the contemporary story and the vignettes. It finally occurred to me that the real problem was that I had written a novel with the narrative sensibility of an IF. It needs to be read in a non-linear way.

So, now I want to turn it into an actual IF. I’m thinking of making it a multi-platform work where I would use Twine for some aspects of the game along with some parser-based elements. Maybe I can weigh in on the battle between choice-based and parser-based IF by embracing them both. And it also fulfills my other idea, which is IF as historical simulation. I’m interested in broadening IF beyond both games and literature. All of that is packed into the project, which unfortunately I can’t afford to take the time to do. I will eventually get to it.

That’s very interesting direction which is under-explored. If you look at IF’s intrinsic qualities, probably the thing it does best of all — certainly the thing it does most easily — is setting. It can be an incredibly powerful tool for putting you in a place, whether it’s a fantastical place or an historical place. That’s actually something that comes more naturally to the form than narrative or plot, although ever since Infocom there’s been this huge focus on “waking up inside a story,” as they liked to put it.

Certainly IF as history hasn’t been done all that much. Trinity did it of course, and there’s a game called 1893: A World’s Fair Mystery that did it very well, but most IF tends to veer off toward science fiction or fantasy.

Yes. That’s what I’m investigating pedagogically: how to use IF in history classes, in social-science classes. An example of a student project from a class taught on American minority groups:

In Illinois in the early 1990s we had a controversy over a Native American burial mound which had become a museum called Dixon Mounds in Lewiston, Illinois. They had open graves; they’d been open since the 1930s, when an amateur anthropologist found this place and put up a museum around it. In the 1990s Native Americans started protesting Dixon Mounds. It was a really tangled couple of years between people who supported the museum and people coming into town to protest; one governor got involved, then another, etc.

So, my students studied this last year. Then they were divided up into six groups and they wrote an IF simulation of the same physical place from six different points in history: at the point when the people who made the burial mounds lived, then later when another Native group lived in the area, then when the bones were found, then when the museum was active, then the protests, and finally the present, when a new museum has covered the bones. The idea is to explore this geographic space through time, using real sources to make responsive NPCs. So a player going into the games could find out about the controversy by talking to people and experiencing it.

It’s not fun. A lot of the students in their reflections at the end of the semester said, “I wish you’d just let us write games.” To them I said, “Well, take my other class!” But the question on the table is whether a game can create empathy. Can we write a simulation that will cause players not to “have fun” — although it would be nice if they could enjoy themselves — and not even just to learn what happened, but to see another perspective.

I think you’re right that IF’s potential for this sort of thing has been under-explored. I really need to play Trinity again. I think I could use it to show my students what’s possible at the high end.

You know, games are or can be so good at fostering empathy. When you read a book or watch a movie, you’re always at a certain remove. But when you play a game, that’s you in the game.

And if you can put a player in the role of somebody else and say, “Okay, walk a mile in these shoes,” maybe you can do some good. What about a game that places you in the role of a Palestinian dealing with the situation in Jerusalem? Somebody who supports the recently announced move of the American embassy to Jerusalem, who believes the Israelis are entirely right and the Palestinians entirely wrong… well, we kind of come back to what your team did in Shades of Gray, right? Maybe if you put that player in the role of somebody from the other side, you can actually foster some empathy, make the player realize that there are two sides to this story.

Yes. I mentioned that I did role-playing with my students before they started to write code. It was based on an approach to classroom role-playing called “Reacting to the Past.” It’s a new thing in history education. You have these really complicated games which sometimes take a whole semester to play. The students immerse themselves in a character, become that character. They read historical documents and learn to act as that character. Some of these games are fairly brutal. You might to be a slave owner and have to make speeches arguing for slavery. It can be difficult for students to do this, but it gets inside history in a way that’s incredibly powerful.

In reviews of that approach, there are stories like what you’re describing, where somebody takes the role of somebody politically opposite to their own point of view. It’s not that they change their mind, but that they come away with a more nuanced view of the opposition — they understand where the others are coming from.

I’m trying to see whether I can use some of these techniques in computer games. Can I get students writing scenarios, writing characters, that will provide the same thing for players?

Last year a student wrote a game for The Illinois Map where you start out in a Holocaust museum. You’re just looking at objects in the museum, learning a little bit of history. Then you open a closet door and find yourself on the streets of Skokie, Illinois. There’s a big protest going on. You start to chat with people, and realize these are Holocaust survivors and others protesting the fact that the KKK wants to have a rally here. Of course, you’re on their side because you’ve just come out of the Holocaust museum. But then a guy from the ACLU is there, and starts to talk to you about free speech.

And that’s the whole scenario. It just takes you and drops you into that morally ambiguous moment. And that’s the end of the game. These are the kinds of things I’m encouraging my students to write — not huge games, just moments.

Some students are working on a simulation of the Springfield race riots of 1908. You start as a little African-American girl hiding in the attic of her house, peeking out the window watching the riot approach. Then you shift to being a white teenager on the ground, with the riot going past you. Your father is there, going to the riot. As the player, you can go or not go. Just the power of that juxtaposition is really effective.

What if our way of teaching history incorporated interactivity and immersion? I can’t say I’m succeeding. I’m just trying. I can’t suggest it to anybody else until I myself try it.

You’ve been involved with an amazing range of pursuits over your life. In addition to the things we’ve talked about today, you’ve worked as a sociologist, studied trauma in Croatia, written a history of hypnotism. Why so many eclectic choices?

I would say that the thing that connects my entire career is narrative and the power of storytelling — collective storytelling, collective memory, collaborative storytelling. I have an academic interest in that, and I have a creative interest as well. Let’s Tell a Story Together… the name of your IF history. There’s something fairly profound in that. It’s why IF really is different from other types of games and other types of literature.

I think that may be a good note to leave on. Thank you again for doing this!

Thank you! This has been so much fun!

The feeling is mutual. This has been great. Take care, Judith.

Do remember to check out Judith’s personal projects and her fascinating classroom experiments, both now and in the future. I know that I for one will be watching with interest to see how her work evolves.

Zarf Updates

2018 IGF nominees: real lives

by Andrew Plotkin ([email protected]) at January 05, 2018 04:43 AM

The IGF finalists display a wide range of styles, themes, and kinds of interactivity. I say "wide", I mean "yowza".
But I can pick out groups, if not categories, so this post will cover games about real people's lives. Some of these are autobiographical; some are fictionalized stories about the authors' lives; some are fictions which are meant to illuminate real-life situations.
Yes, all fiction is meant to illuminate real-life situations, but I mean directly. Shush.
In this post:
  • Cosmic Top Secret
  • Lost Memories Dot Net
  • Another Lost Phone: Laura's Story
  • Bury Me, My Love
  • Attentat 1942
(Note: I was on the narrative jury and played free review copies of these games. The comments appear in the order that I played them.)

Cosmic Top Secret

This is an exuberant mess. It's family reminiscence in a Swedish family where Dad did... stuff... during the Cold War. You run around picking up clues about what it was. The story is from real life, or so I assume. The recordings are realistically terrible family interviews, at least. You talk to Mom, Dad, and other folks of their now-elderly generation.
The design is so over-the-top that I cannot help loving it. The world is collage cutouts from photographs -- not just cutouts, but modelled as cardboard sheets with corrugated edges -- and you're a cutout too -- so you have to move by rolling around as a crumpled-up ball. When you get upset, your cardboard limbs fall off. It's all like that. You chase around an orienteering course and march with your mother's old Lady's Auxiliary. You collect six different kinds of clues and assemble them on a Rubik's Cube. It's all little puzzles higgledy-piggledy. They're not even great puzzles... but the whole project feels like what I wanted a puzzle hunt videogame to be when I was twelve.
It wouldn't work if it weren't sincere, but it is and it does.
Unfortunately, about two-thirds of the way through, the puzzles were annoying enough that I lost interest in pushing through. It's not difficult, just a lot of tedious rolling around and writing down bits of information. And guessing where the puzzles are under-clued. It stops being fun.
This is a shame because the format really is engaging. We assume that documentaries about old people are boring tape-recorded interviews and grainy newsreel footage. CTS's interactive, cartoony, paper-doll portrayals are the opposite; they're immediate and playful. I think the design just went a little too far on the "play" axis.

Another Lost Phone: Laura's Story

A solid followup to A Normal Lost Phone, and along basically the same lines. The topic is emotionally abusive relationships; the game gives us a didactic exploration of one such relationship. "Didactic" isn't an insult. These games are meant to explain a topic through a fictional life, and it's definitely an explanation by way of story, rather than vice versa. Lots of "common signs" and "some people experience this, others that" checklists.
As with the first one, the story is gated through a few "chapters" by means of passwords and locked apps. You have to trawl the offered email and SMS threads to unlock them. These puzzles are somewhat clunky, both mechanically (you might have to take notes to solve them) and mimetically (if you're hiding information from an abuser, the last thing you'd do is base the password on information they know!) But that aside, the story is tidy and nicely paced. The social-media threads give you a nonlinear story-space to explore and assemble in your head, so the game comes off feeling quite interactive even though it's structurally very simple.
This series has done a great job of wrapping up educational experiences in game form. My only concern is that they may have pushed the "lost phone" structure as far as it can go. The format requires a character who is deliberately discarding a chunk of their life, after all. Both games end with the protagonist leaving town. I don't see how the genre would tackle any problem whose solution is "stay home and face it down." But we'll see what the designers do next.

Lost Memories Dot Net

A slice-of-life story about a much younger generation -- middle-school girls making anime fan blogs in 2004. ("Or you can just use Livejournal, it's free!") There is dating drama: your best friend has a crush on the same cute boy that you do. There is on-line chatting. Some high-school jerk tries to get pics out of you and then disappears. People trade GIFs.
This is in much the same line as Cibele, with the same strengths and weaknesses. It's a story about a moment in somebody's life which has no reason to be a story: there's no moral, no melodramatic triumph or even tragic defeat. Everybody's life contains these moments. And yet the writing keeps you reading -- perhaps because it's so undramatic. It's a particular person's life, all untidy bits and interruptions. You can half-see the lives of the protagonist's family, schoolmates, online friends. The writing doesn't grab you; it's just really easy to keep reading, because it feels like a real person.
The down side is that the stakes are lower than in Cibele. It's the "will I ever hold hands" of middle school, rather than the "will I ever get laid" of college. Yes, it's just as wrenchingly urgent to the protagonist... but that much more distant to the adult player.
Like Cibele, it's structurally very simple. Mostly you chat. You can sometimes select which friend to chat with, and you can jump out to browse web sites when their URLs are mentioned, but you can't switch conversations in mid-chat. Between chats you can work on your blog, but that's limited to the theme and artwork. Blog posts appear non-interactively between chapters, and there are only three chapters. So it lacks the background activity of Cibele's faux-MMO, which at least kept your fingers busy while you chatted. The chat window in Lost Memories has a much sit-and-wait-ier pacing.
Ultimately I was happy to sit through the game, and that really is all down to the writing. It gives you the everyday awkwardness of a 14-year-old girl's life without making it sound either shallow or contrived; that's solid work. I just wish these games had an interactive structure to match the story and writing.

Bury Me, My Love

A live-phone game about a Syrian couple trying to get asylum in Europe. Your wife leaves Homs with a cellphone and a handful of euros. You stay home and offer encouragement.
Your progress -- that is, Nour's progress -- is realistically unpredictable; the trip is full of thieves, border crossings, unreliable vehicles, uncaring soldiers, and missed connections. I played through to one losing ending (indefinite detention in a refugee camp in Bulgaria) and one winning ending (a women's center in Eastern Germany, asylum request in process). But there isn't a strategy to it. If there were, everybody would just do that, right?
Live-phone and lost-phone are interestingly adjacent genres. I haven't played Lifeline or any of its ilk; BMML is my first. I like the effect. I switched real-time mode on and off, playing in roughly half-hour sessions, so that I got through the game in three real-time days instead of the scheduled three weeks. But the situations were tense enough that I wanted breaks, and then I got the experience of being pulled back into the game by a notification banner. It's undeniably effective.
However, the game could have taken the interactivity farther. You start off selecting text messages to send -- often single options, occasionally a choice of two or three, but with a consistent select-and-send UI. However, after a couple of game-days it discards the "fake" choices; it just shows you noninteractive streams of messages until it's time for a branch. (Or, occasionally, a selfie.) This is more distancing than the designers meant it to be, I think.
The missed opportunity is that you (the protagonist) frequently do research for Nour's trip. You look up maps, search wikis, check Facebook for travel hints. But this is entirely passive. You-the-player don't get to do these things, you just read that you've done them. Even a pro-forma interaction for "find info online, send it" would add a lot to the sense of agency.
As I said, the writing is good enough to convey tension and then relief as Nour got through one scrape or another. I wouldn't call it great writing, however. It felt... soft-pedaled. There's this real-world social catastrophe grinding away at entire populations, and this game has tackled the job of conveying it to ignorant Americans. Admirable goal, but the result feels like a winnable game, not a crisis. Also, it reads like a conversation between two almost-Americans who happen to say "by Allah's grace" occasionally. Too-familiar, as opposed to too-othered. I realize this is a translation choice and there's no right answer. I'm still frowning.
(I don't recall a single mention of prayer, either personal or communal, in my run-throughs. Surely that's a gaping hole?)
Solid, certainly educational (for this ignorant American), but it didn't wound me.

Attentat 1942

Life in Nazi-occupied Prague, presented as an investigation: why was my (your, the author's) grandfather arrested by the Gestapo? You interview the grandmother, then neighbors, about the arrest and the war years around it. Interviews with the real-life survivors alternate with motion comics and interactive scenes -- hiding evidence, writing an article for a collaborationist newspaper, cleaning up after a raid, and so on.
The game assembles an encyclopedia of period detail as you proceed. Uncovering key facts in an interview unlocks further parts of the game. However, there's an annoying gamification to it all. If you screw up an interview, by asking a stupid question or offending the interviewee, you're kicked out and have to start over. But starting over costs "coins", which can only be gained by completing the interactive scenes in a historically-aware manner. It is possible to run out of coins (although I didn't). I suppose the game just ends in that case, which seems non-ideal.
The portrayal of the Nazi Protectorate is plenty detailed, but somehow a bit distant. The video interviews are staged, for example, and don't feel very compelling even though they are real people's real-life recollections.
The obvious comparison is to Cosmic Top Secret, which also uses the model of interviewing elderly relatives about the War. CTS also had annoyingly game-y ways to fail (clunky puzzles), but it boasted a ring of authenticity that A1942 somehow misses.
Nonetheless, A1942 is a good picture of the fear and moral fog of a police state. We can hardly argue that the subject is dated.

January 04, 2018

Zarf Updates

Tacoma: design ruminations

by Andrew Plotkin ([email protected]) at January 04, 2018 04:13 AM

The IGF finalists are out!
Once again I was involved in IGF judging, and I was invited back to the jury for Excellence in Narrative. And once again I have a long file of review comments which I intend to post here.
However, my comments on Tacoma got so long that they turned into their own post! So I'm going to start with that one. Tacoma isn't my favorite game of the year, and I wouldn't argue that it's the best, but I'll say it's the most discussable.

Tacoma is a highly polished narrative game which doesn't exactly work. I haven't done a comprehensive review of the reviews, but that's the impression I get of the broad audience response. It doesn't hit home for me either.
To be clear, I thought Tacoma was creative, interesting, and well-written; I had a good time playing it. And it got a Narrative IGF nomination, plus a couple of honorable mentions! So it's certainly not a failure. But I want to focus on what didn't work for me. That's what the design rumination posts are for.
(Also note: I bought Tacoma with my own money when it was released in August. I wrote this post while mulling IGF entries, but I wrote it before the finalists were announced.)

So why did I come out of Tacoma feeling somewhat uninvolved? It's a hard question, because for every complaint I can raise, the game has a clear response. The designers have done this work; they've thought of everything I've thought of.
Complaint: environmental storytelling has no tension because it's all happened already. Response: disaster in space! Everyone's life is in danger! Struggle to survive!
Complaint: the disaster story is shallow. Response: a multiplicity of background stories, involving each of the characters (separately and together). You discover these stories in parallel as you play; you can decide which ones you care about.
Complaint: the interaction mechanic is passive, leaving the player with nothing to do but watch the story unfold. Response: the interaction requires a great deal of participatory listening. You are invited to pause and browse the actors' AR data views to learn more about them. You are invited to follow actors as they step into and out of conversations, presenting different faces in their various relationships. You perceive everyone piecewise, and must consciously assemble what you learn.
I was particularly taken, for example, by the scene in which one character steps out of a room and joins a conversation. If you scroll back and follow her, you realize she was having a panic attack in private; she has just pulled herself together and put on a "coping" mask for public consumption. On TV you'd need a forced structure like a flashback to pull off this kind of story beat. But in an exploratory, interactive medium, it's natural; it's right there for the player to pick up. Tacoma is absolutely playing to its strengths here.
Complaint: the story is fixed; you cannot intervene to help the crew. Response: the parallel thread of the station's AI. The background of that story is presented in past tense, entwined piecewise with the human survival drama. But you are directly involved: the climax of your story arc is your final interactions with the AI. That's the goal you are working towards.

So. Grant me that I enjoyed the exploration and eavesdropping mechanics; I found the characters engaging and the writing lively; I was interested by the world and the background story elements. But -- I still didn't feel Tacoma was very successful. The responses above aren't enough. Why not?
My best approximation of an answer is that the game lacks a core mystery. It has mysteries -- many, at all scales -- but the core question of the plot is "Will these people survive?" And that's a yes/no question, not a mystery.
How they survive is a story, not a mystery. You follow along with it but you don't chase it. Contrariwise, the cause of the disaster is a mystery, but a peripheral mystery. One of many, as I noted.
I'm not trying to cast "core mystery" as some formal requirement. (If I did, I'd have to come up with a formal definition, and then you'd have to kill me.) What I'm trying to describe is... in the traditional adventure game, you are focused on your own survival or escape. Or some such goal; but the point is that all of your actions tie into this. When you solve a puzzle or unlock a door, it leads you to new resources, new possibilities, or a new stage of your journey towards your goal. That's why you do it. Everything in the game ties into that goal.
The challenge of the walking simulator genre is that it replaces your personal survival with a mystery. Doesn't have to be your mystery! In Gone Home, it was "What happened to Samantha?" Everything in the game, everything you discover, ties into mystery of her disappearance. That is your motivation. For every new tidbit you find, you can wonder: "But what does this mean for Sam's disappearance?"
In Tacoma, each tidbit may illuminate what the characters try to do, or what happened to the doctor's career, or what the political structure of the Solar System looks like, or this person's marriage or that person's child. But it doesn't say much about whether the characters survive, because... they will or they won't. "Does this mean they survive?" Uh, probably? We'll have to see. The story moves forward, but you don't have that core motivation to uncover it.
This should have been solved by the parallel thread I mentioned, the story about the station AI. But the story chooses to conceal this thread! It's the protagonist's motivation, but the player isn't aware of it. (Except in the negative space cast by the progress messages you receive through your corporate horsecrap channel. But that's very vague; just a feeling of "This is horsecrap, must be hiding something.")
Once you reach the endgame, the station actors are swept offstage -- more offstage, I mean -- and you begin to see the point of the AI story. The mystery is just "What has my goal been all along?" That would be fine, if it had been an open question all along. But it wasn't; it hasn't been illuminating, or illuminated by, your actions. And now, in retrospect, it still doesn't. It's too late to start caring about your secret mission; the story is over.

How would I fix it? That is not my job, and it's the wrong question to begin with. Tacoma is highly-polished. All those design responses are successful, and any incremental "fix" would break parts of the game. You really have to ask what they should have done differently from the beginning, which can only result in hand-waving.
"Rumination" is Latin for "hand-waving..." (Narrator: no it isn't. Me: shush.)
Perhaps the game should highlight your secret mission from the beginning, making it a "core mystery". That's the obvious answer, given the way I've framed my analysis. That doesn't make it an easy answer! You'd have to make the AI a more prominent story element, so that every bit of the story said something interesting about its fate. Your actions would have to move that story thread forward in clear increments. Maybe you'd need additional, explicit goals. Collecting hardware or software keys which give you AI access in the endgame? Running around the station flipping switches? But that might be too much busywork. It's hard to balance.
Perhaps the game should drop the entire question of whether the crew escaped. Maybe the first thing you see is the political aftershocks of the escape! But you also learn that not everybody made it. You don't know who escaped, who died, who sacrificed what in order to make the escape possible.... And the core mystery is why it matters. This is a subtle change, but I think it would highlight the importance of everybody's motivation. Not just why everybody wants to live (of course they all want to live), but why some of them might be willing to die in order to save the others. Yes?
(The down side, of course, is that somebody's favorite character would die. The curse of a diverse cast: anything you write will be readable as a Tragic Lesbian Death, a Tragic CoC Death, a Tragic Gay Dad Death, or some other cliche. This doesn't mean you can't do it; it means you have to work harder to make everybody human.)
(Or everybody could live after all. This is how Gone Home justified its horror vibe, after all: eucatastrophe and a happy ending. But it's no fun pulling the same trick twice, is it?)
Perhaps I'm misleading myself by comparing Tacoma with Gone Home? It's the obvious comparison -- not just because of the shared development team, but because Gone Home was a successful environmental story. But we could instead invoke any of the lexicon/database game genre. We could even say that Tacoma is a "lost phone" game! ...wildly expanded, with multiple "phones" which project videologs instead of SMS.
But I think this leads us back to the same stop. The lost-phone genre (okay, two games from the same developer) (I promise not to get started on Portal again) is centered around the same question: "what happened to this person, and why"? With a dash of puzzle solving to unlock new phone apps. A Normal Lost Phone didn't have much puzzle, but Tacoma had less. A greater emphasis on AR-hacking might feel like busywork, as I said, but short-term goals are real goals.
These are just ideas. I'm speculating off in all directions.
I enjoyed Tacoma but I wasn't compelled by it. I think every piece of its puzzle is a great idea. The pieces don't quite fit. This is sad, because I want to see more exploration of the pieces! I want more replayable immersive-theater environments. I want more AR hacking. I want more gay dads in space. I want more storylines where the protagonist's motivation is the gap through which you observe the plot.
Mostly, I want more ambitious experimental narratives like Tacoma, whether or not any one of them is a success.

January 03, 2018

Classic Adventure Solution Archive

CASA Update - 11 new game entries, 1 new solution, 3 new maps

by Gunness at January 03, 2018 12:17 PM

For any number of reasons, the final update of 2017 instead became the first update of 2018. But I would be remiss if I didn't thank all of you users and my co-editors for keeping us running. There have been a lot of material added throughout the year, and it wouldn't have happened without so many people lending a hand. So happy New Year, one and all!

In the great world of the Internet, various things are cooking as well. I've always been a fan of Jim Henson's 1982 fantasy film The Dark Crystal, which led to a text adventure by Sierra. Now the game has been made available to play in a browser. Neat.

Gareth Pitchford, who is an adventure author in his own right, has written Twilight Inventory, a book on the "forgotten text adventure games from the 1990s". Gareth reviews a mouthwatering number of homegrown titles from the likes of Zenobi, The Guild and Tartan, and there's plenty to dig into. Of course you're welcome to think "Forgotten! Bah! Not at all", but please keep in mind that the world as such don't necessarily share our educated view on classic text games! The book is available in print form or, for the time being, a free pdf version - however, you're encouraged to donate a bit of money and I think you'll find it money well spent.

Finally, a nod to Stuart Williams' new blog, Eight Bit Adventurer which started recently but sounds very promising indeed.

All in all, it seems like the text adventure community is thriving. Let's make 2018 a good year for the genre.

Contributors: Alex, impomatic, Gunness, Alastair, Dorothy, iamaran

January 02, 2018

Emily Short

The Art of Dramatic Writing (Lajos Egri); also, games

by Emily Short at January 02, 2018 08:40 PM

Screen Shot 2017-08-04 at 9.00.45 PMThe Art of Dramatic Writing is a book from the 1940s about how to write drama, preferably drama with a tragic bent. It’s also a book much referred-to in Lee Sheldon’s Character Development and Storytelling for Games, which is the reason I write about it now.

Egri has one central thesis that animates all his observations about craft, structure, and execution. This is appropriate, because his central thesis… is that a play should have a central thesis.

(Egri uses the word “premise” rather than thesis, but what he means is what we tend to call a thesis statement now, rather than a sitcom-style premise about starting conditions.)

These premises tend to be simple statements about cause and effect, and many of the examples he analyzes are demonstrating those effects in tragic form. For example:

Sacrificial love conquers hopelessness.

Ruthless ambition leads to its own destruction.

Escape from reality leads to a day of reckoning.

He who digs a pit for others falls into it himself.

He adds,

You can arrive at your premise [or thesis] in any of a great many ways. You may start with an idea which you at once convert to a premise, or you may develop a situation first and see that it has potentialities which need only the right premise to give them meaning and suggest an end. (22, in the edition linked above)

Essentially everything else in the book is analysis and application of this idea. Characters should be constructed so as to make them proof-cases for the thesis. The environment of the story must set a stage for a conflict that will show the thesis playing out. Situations, plot, causality must all serve the thesis.

At first blush this might not seem particularly useful grounding for 21st-century interactive storytelling. That’s partly because of the time it comes from: its examples are all stage plays and all old; its ideas about characterization partake of the sexism, racism, and classism of its era. But also there are the structural considerations. Egri’s book emphasizes an idea of inevitability, a story construction in which everything works toward the main character making a decision that executes the thesis. On a naive reading, that might seem to be at odds with the whole concept of interactive story. From another perspective, Egri is describing the underpinnings of procedural rhetoric.

Egri’s imagined playwright is responsible for coming up with a situation where a particular outcome cannot be avoided, and setting up the scenes so that the audience believes that every choice is an inevitable consequence of character and environment. In interactive space, we can offer multiple options but show how they all lead to the same thesis conclusion.

One possibility is full-on persuasive games territory, where the whole mechanic of the game has been developed to make a point about the consequences of a particular system or set of parameters in the world. For instance:

Modern capitalism and fast food industry leads to environmental abuses.”

Or (optimistically, and funded by an energy company) “The various challenges of pollution and energy production can easily be resolved by sensible management and require no major lifestyle changes.”

Or: “A depressed mind is not able to recognize and pursue options that would be open to a non-depressed person.

Or: “For a person with a certain kind of inexperience, it is impossible to avoid hurting your partner in a relationship, and yourself as well.

These are all examples where the thesis was anticipated and baked into the systems design and mechanics of the game. But Egri has also said that it is possible to arrive at a premise through reflection; and indeed I’ve often found that I arrived at the thematic conclusion of a work as part of the process of writing it, rather than at the beginning.

Counterfeit Monkey is almost entirely a puzzle game. While it’s not terribly linear — in the sense that you’re free to wander around and try various things — for the first 90+% of the story, there is no real narrative branching resulting from what you do.

The first moment of real choice comes when the protagonists — two people sharing a body, for reasons explained earlier in the game — disagree about what to do next. Both are emotionally invested in the choice, and committed to their own outcomes. The player can side with one or the other, or commit a pointless act of self-sacrifice that ends the game, but there is no “good” solution that satisfies everyone.

Moreover, the choice, which means that one protagonist wins at the expense of the other, has permanent metaphysical effects on the pair of them. This was a personal representation of a problem elsewhere illustrated in other ways in the story: that in a democracy, the collective will sometimes violates individual conscience, so that it’s possible to wind up with partial responsibility for an outcome that one finds deeply abhorrent.

Several players indicated to me that they wished this problem could be resolved; that there was some “right” solution to this puzzle that would make everything happy and easy again.

But that would have completely undermined the point of the sequence. You are free to pick whichever side you like, but the thematic point of the sequence is served either way: that democracy makes us complicit, that it removes the possibility of innocence. (This is not, incidentally, an argument against democracy. The other options are also bad.)

In some of my earlier work, I took a different approach to deploying choice and multiple endings.

One of my friends has described my personal genre as “Witch in Prison” stories, and if you define witches and prisons broadly enough, that is often fairly accurate. Metamorphoses‘ thesis is (arguably) that a difficult, persistent, and even painful pursuit of knowledge will eventually set you free. That is why there are something like twelve possible endings and it is narratively pretty inconsequential which one you pick, because the whole point is that you’ve struggled through to where you get to pick in the first place. You could trace something like that theme again in other work of mine, even stuff that might on the surface seem to be a very different story — like BEE. But perhaps it’s natural that I would come back to this point:

We are taking it for granted that if you choose the above premise, “Great love defies even death,” you believe in it. You should believe in it, since you are to prove it. You must show conclusively that life is worthless without the loved one. And if you do not sincerely believe that this is so, you will have a very hard time trying to provide the emotional intensity of Nora, in A Doll’s House, or of Juliet, in Romeo and Juliet. (15)

An Egrian approach to choice in games, therefore, might say something like this: the climactic choice should occur only when the conclusion is in some sense foregone, and the thematic outcome inevitable. The outcomes of the choice may be different, but they must all reflect the part of the theme that is inevitable, and is the message of the work.

Do I share Egri’s conviction that a thesis is mandatory? I’m not sure I do; I’ve read, and tried to write, some works that identify a problem but do not posit a solution or conclusion. Floatpoint is one (though perhaps that is why many people have found it less satisfying than some of my other things).

But the thesis-focused approach does provide a way of thinking about (especially) what climax choices should do. They should be difficult, yes. They should be balanced. There should be no easy right and easy wrong. But more than that, as an organizing principle, the different endings should support some common meaning.

sub-Q Magazine

A New Year, A Renewed sub-Q

by Stewart C Baker at January 02, 2018 02:41 PM

2017 was…

Well, it was a year, wasn’t it?

On many fronts, in fact, it was an outright disaster.

Here at sub-Q, we had overall a positive 2017. Although we may have had a few hiccups, we still released some great pieces of interactive fiction, and regained some momentum we intend to keep up through 2018–and beyond.

2017 in Review

We released five pieces of interactive fiction in 2017:

In the last week of December, we also published a guide to submitting an interactive fiction proposal to the magazine. If you have a story that’s itching to be interactive, but have no idea where to begin, our proposal guide is a great place to start.

We’d love to see your stuff!

Coming in 2018

  • More IF! – We’re aiming for a return to one piece of new or reprinted interactive fiction once a month. In 2018, we’ll bring you IF on the third Tuesday of every month. Check for our first offering of the year—”All Those Parties We Didn’t Cry At” by Natalia Theodoridou—on January 16th.
  • Blog posts! – We’ll be rebooting regular blog posts about interactive fiction and other relevant things, as well as guest posts from our authors when possible. Our goal for 2018 is to provide fresh blog content on every Tuesday we don’t have a piece of IF going up. (Why Tuesday? We don’t know. Why not?)
  • Patreon and subscriber benefits! – We’ll be making an announcement in March about these initiatives. Stay tuned!

Staff Changes

sub-Q can’t do what it does without its volunteer staff. Our editors and first readers regularly dedicate their free time to reviewing submissions, providing editorial feedback on prose and interactivity, and generally making sure that we can bring innovative IF straight to your browser.

With that in mind, we have a few staff changes to announce.


Tory Hoke will be taking on the title of Publisher and CTO, which more or less just quantifies what she’s always done for sub-Q: provide us with what we need to provide our readers with high-quality interactive fiction.

Stewart C Baker is taking over as editor-in-chief. Devi Acharya, who had been serving in the role, will continue to provide sub-Q with her excellent talents as part of our editorial team.


Kerstin Hall has stepped down from her role as editor at sub-Q to focus more on her writing and her editorial assistant position at Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Kerstin has been with sub-Q ever since its first few months, providing us with editorial acumen and interviewing expertise. We’ll be sorry to see her go. Best of luck to you, Kerstin, and thanks for all your work!

(Interested in joining the team as an editor of sub-Q yourself? Keep an eye out for a post about that soon.)

First Readers

Blaize Kaye has stepped down from his role as a slush reader to focus more on his own writing. We look forward to seeing what he produces, and thank him for his service!

In his place, welcome Jeremy M. Gottwig. Jeremy’s name may be familiar to sub-Q readers (and to anyone who’s read the first half of this post), as his work appeared in our virtual pages earlier in 2017. We’re thrilled to have his name featured on our staff page now, as well!

Here’s to the New Year!

We’re excited about what 2018 has in store for sub-Q, and hope you’ll check in with us regularly for interactive fiction and other great stuff!

But even if (for some reason) you choose not to spend any time with us at all, here’s wishing you and yours a happy, healthy, enjoyable, and safe 2018.

The post A New Year, A Renewed sub-Q appeared first on sub-Q Magazine.

December 31, 2017

Emily Short

End of December Link Assortment

by Emily Short at December 31, 2017 08:40 PM

Year’s end!

The New Year’s Minicomp is accepting interactive fiction submissions through January 4.

January 6, the SF Bay meetup gets together; agenda is tentative at the time of this writing.

January 13, there’s a meetup in Baltimore, looking at J.J. Guest’s To Hell In a Hamper.

January 17, I’m presenting at the London IF Meetup on matching story and mechanics. This will be part talk, part workshop.

The next People’s Republic of IF meeting takes place Wednesday, January 24 at 6:30 PM in MIT room 14N-233.

The Opening Up Digital Fiction competition runs through February 15, 2018. It offers cash prizes and the possibility of future publication.

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

Releases and Updates

Counterfeit Monkey version 7 is the latest CM build, put out by IF community supporters — many thanks to them for their help with that!

Game Over, my BBC radio play about game development, is available to listen to online. (At least, if you’re from certain countries.)


Lautz of IF

New Authoring System Released – Adventuron

by jasonlautzenheiser at December 31, 2017 06:41 PM

I just received word from the creator that the Adventuron system is now available.  I’ve not played with it yet, but I was contacted a while ago by Chris Ainsley, the creator in regards to an interesting feature he had in the works.  His was adding the ability to import Trizbort maps into his system.

For a long time, Trizbort has had the ability to export it’s maps to different languages (I7, I6, Tads, Zil, Hugo, …), but this is the first case that I’m aware of that a system imports a map for it’s own purposes.  Pretty cool stuff and I’m glad to see Trizbort being used out in the wild and in a unique way.

One thing this got me thinking about in regards to Trizbort itself, is the format of the Trizbort file.  While I have no inside knowledge, I suspect that Adventuron is simply reading the file and parsing it internally.  This will couple it very tightly to the Trizbort files.  While I have no current plans to change the format of the file, doing so in the future could perhaps break this system or others.

So perhaps the time has come to start thinking about breaking out the Trizbort engine into an API that a user could hook into their software, website or whatever that will allow for me to change the format at my hearts content (as long as I update the API as well.)  That might be an interesting refactoring that could make Trizbort more extensible and protect systems from file format changes.

Regardless, I just wanted to share the announcement out there and encourage you to take a look at Chris’ system.  I would also be interested to hear if anyone has some other interesting uses for Trizbort and it’s files.

Eamon Adventurer's Guild Online

Eamon Remastered

by Matthew ([email protected]) at December 31, 2017 12:04 PM

Keith Dechant has done a great job porting Eamon to run on a web based platform with no need for emulators or other softwares. He has already ported 15 adventures from the EDX platform.

Check it out at

December 29, 2017

The Digital Antiquarian

The Text Adventures of 1991

by Jimmy Maher at December 29, 2017 05:40 PM

Coming exactly halfway between the shuttering of Infocom and the release of Graham Nelson’s landmark epic Curses, 1991 was the most exciting year of the little-remembered interstitial between interactive fiction’s commercial era and its supposed rebirth as an endeavor of dedicated hobbyists. The games of 1991 show what a misnomer the word “rebirth” really is in this case; the text adventure never actually went away at all. The tools available to amateur authors were certainly rougher than they would be in years to come, design standards as well less thought-through, but the fact remains that not a single year has gone by since Adventure first took the computing world by storm in 1977 when at least one or two worthy text adventures haven’t been written. In fact, hobbyists did considerably better than that in 1991. Amidst its blizzard of activity, that year yielded the four games I’ll be writing about today: two classics, one enjoyable journeyman, and one heart-breaker which came that close to being one of the finest text adventures ever written. Not bad for a dead form, eh?


It seemed like such a good idea at the time.

As a self-employed computer consultant, working at home was the logical decision: no more long commutes, no expensive office to lease, no boss. Unfortunately you also have no secretary, no janitor and no weekends. Your living room has become a glorified break room and your only human contact is by Electronic Mail.

Thank God for your computer.

It is 3:30pm on Friday the 7th of September, 2001. Everyone else in your time zone is finishing up work and looking forward to a relaxing evening. But you, R.J. Wright, overtired undernourished overeager programmer that you are, have promised to deliver a finished program to a client by 8:00 tomorrow morning.

Time to get to work....

I’ve always been entranced by the personal aspect of so many vintage text adventures of the amateur stripe. In this respect, they stand apart from almost all other games of their era, which preferred to emphasize the science-fictional, the fantastical, the epic. Even when those other games aren’t demanding that we leave the world we know for some strange new one, they almost always prefer the macro to the micro: wars and battles lost and won, the rise and fall of civilizations, the grand sweep of history. But text adventures, by contrast, can give us an intimate view of a single person’s life, whether said life be that of a PhD student at Harvard or a community-theater volunteer in a small California town. To state the case in literary terms, these are the quieter novels of ordinary people that, for some of us at least, become far more interesting than the latest swords-and-sorcery doorstops as we get older.

Cosmoserve, a game written in AGT by a Celtic harpist and sociologist-to-be named Judith Pintar, has the added advantage of providing a window into a world I’ve just spent the last two months on this blog doing my level best to capture: that of the commercial online services of the 1980s and early 1990s, which pioneered so much of what has since become daily life on the Internet. The game’s title is of course playing on that of CompuServe, the most popular of these services for well over a decade, and a service to which Pintar herself was an active subscriber for many years.

Cosmoserve is ostensibly set in 2001, but we can’t award Pintar too many points for her skill at prognostication. She manages to simultaneously underrate and overrate the pace of technological change to come. In her version of 2001, the wide-open World Wide Web never came along to bury the closed ghettos of the commercial online services, Windows never entirely replaced MS-DOS, and Intel never abandoned their old “x86” nomenclature for their microprocessors. And yet, at the same time that Pintar’s fictional universe was progressing more slowly than ours in all these respects, full-on online virtual realities — the sort of thing that’s just starting to become imaginable for us in 2017 — had already become a thing there by 2001.

But then, prognostication isn’t the point of Cosmoserve. Rather than an extrapolation about computing’s future, what you’re actually getting here is a gentle satire of the computing present which Pintar knew as she was writing the game. If you were already a computer freak in 1991, you’ll find yourself chuckling at things that are barely remembered today but were a major feature of the landscape of those times. For instance, do you remember the way that Intel, thanks no doubt to some marketing genius of an MBA inside the company, used to release crippled “SX” versions of their latest chips — versions that in some cases actually performed worse than the chips of the previous generation? I barely did myself, until Pintar reminded me:

This is the newly-released Orfland 786SX. Most of the advanced features of the revolutionary 786 chip were factory-disabled for the SX model: it hasn't got enough memory to run a graphical interface and it chugs along at about 12Mhz, but hey, its still a 786!

The plot of Cosmoserve is a classic shaggy-dog story in text-adventure form, the same approach that would be used to more famous effect by Curses two years later. Playing the role of a harried free-lance computer consultant, you need to get a patch for Turbo Pascal — another blast from computing’s past; the Borland product was by far the most popular development tool in the world in 1991 — in order to complete an assignment for an important client. You should be able to get the patch on Compu… err, Cosmoserve. It’s when you fire up your computer to go online and fetch it that the game, after having started out as a slice of life set in your own house, begins to show its real cards.

Most of Cosmoserve plays as a simulation of that whizz-bang Orfland 786SX computer of yours. First you’ll have to navigate the DOS prompt to get yourself online; in the some-things-never-change department, remembering your password will pose a particular problem on that front. Then, once you do manage to get online, the simulation extends yet one level deeper, allowing you to roam the Cosmoserve service, visiting forums, chat rooms, file libraries, email — all the things I’ve spent so many recent articles describing — along with a few futuristic touches, like the virtual-reality area, presented in recognition of the fact that we’re allegedly in 2001. It eventually emerges that getting the Turbo Pascal patch and finishing your assignment will first require you to stop a computer virus that threatens to take over the world. For those who aren’t aware: yes, viruses were already a problem in 1991. I really could go on forever about this game’s palimpsest of the familiar and the obscure, how it constantly signals all the ways things have changed in computing and all the way they’ve remained the same.

As a purely technical achievement, Cosmoserve is remarkable, especially considering that Pintar wasn’t an experienced programmer. AGT was by the standards of text-adventure authoring systems to come a very primitive tool indeed, riddled with assumptions about the sorts of games it would be used to create that can be almost impossible to completely override. And yet Cosmoserve manages to push AGT farther out of its comfort zone than any other game I’ve ever seen. If its simulations of DOS, of a terminal program, of CompuServe/Cosmoserve itself — even of a text adventure within this text adventure which you can play from the DOS prompt — aren’t always perfect, they’re far better than they have any right to be.

From the standpoint of the modern player especially, Cosmoserve does have some drawbacks. It’s never an unfair game according to its own old-school lights, but it is a demanding one. If you’ve never used MS-DOS, or have forgotten everything you once knew, you’ll likely have to consult a reference manual in order to get anywhere at all. And you’ll certainly have to pay careful attention and make some notes if you hope to solve this one.

More controversially, Cosmoserve plays on a clock. Timing is tight, you have a lot to do, events happen online at specific times… meaning, yes, this is one of those try-and-try-again games which require you to make a series of losing reconnaissance runs to get the lay of the land before you put everything together for your victory dash. This design approach is absolute anathema to some people; if you’re one of those people, nothing I can say will persuade you otherwise. The good news, though, is that in this case at least I don’t really have to.

Judith Pintar revisited Cosmoserve in 1997, adding some further polish to the experience and, most importantly, greatly easing the time pressure. Which version you choose to play must be a reflection of your own preferences as a player. Personally, having been raised on the Infocom mysteries, I don’t mind the try-and-try-again approach overmuch, if it’s done within reason and if I know what I’m getting into. I thus actually prefer the earlier Cosmoserve, which feels like a purer expression of its designer’s original intent to me. But of course those of you who aren’t as old-school — masochistic? — as me should feel free to go for the later version.

Either way, I think you’ll find the experience worthwhile. Whether considered as a pure gaming challenge or as a cultural artifact of its very specific time and (virtual) place, Cosmoserve has a lot to offer; taken on either terms or both, the wit, humor, and humanity of its author shine through. It was given co-winner status in the 1991 AGT Competition, alongside a more traditional text adventure called The Multi-Dimensional Thief. The latter game, a confusing  mashup of Guild of Thieves and The Wizard of Oz that delights in insulting its player when it isn’t dead-ending her, hasn’t aged very well. Cosmoserve, on the other hand, has only become more essential as the online life it chronicles has faded into oblivion and its time-capsule qualities have come to the fore.

Although either the original or the updated version of Cosmoserve can be played most easily on modern computers using the AGT interpreter AGiliTy, you’ll lose much of the atmosphere provided by occasional sound effects, not to mention MS-DOS’s familiar old green text on a black background. I therefore recommend playing it under the original AGT interpreter, in DOS, to get the full effect. To make that as easy as possible for you, I provide versions of Cosmoserve and Cosmoserve 97 — take your pick — ready to run in the DOSBox emulator. Whether you have a Windows, MacOS, or Linux machine, just install the version of DOSBox for your platform and follow the instructions included in the zip file to get the game going.

The Dungeon of Dunjin

You are in a dark, mysterious and confusing forest. Tall fir-trees form a dark wall around you. A cold wind is blowing from the mountains, and in the far distance you can hear wolves howling. Faint trails lead east and south. To the north the forest seems to continue forever, and to the west the vegetation is so dense that it would be impossible to go in that direction.

If you’re anything like me, you may prefer the idea to the reality of the sprawling text adventures that ran on the big institutional computers of the 1970s. Still some of the largest works ever created in the medium of text and parser, games such as the original Zork and Acheton offer immense worlds of hundreds of locations and almost as many puzzles — worlds to get lost inside for weeks or months. They seem absolutely amazing at first. When you start to play them a little more, though, you come to realize that you just can’t trust these games. Standards of good and bad design simply didn’t exist at the time they were being made, meaning that they tend to be riddled with as many terrible puzzles as brilliant ones.

The Dungeon of Dunjin, written by a Swede named Magnus Olsson over the course of about five years, answers the question of what Zork might have been like if it hadn’t, as Robb Sherwin once so memorably put it, hated its player. The setup is as old-school as it gets: you, the nameless faceless adventurer, have arrived near the entrance to the titular dungeon with treasure on your mind. As you play, another plot line does begin to emerge, but it never feels all that compelling. At bottom, The Dungeon of Dunjin is best accepted as a game about looting a landscape and dropping your spoils in a repository for points — a concept that was beginning to feel a little retro already by the time Infocom left Zork behind in 1983. Olsson’s 1991 backward glance comes complete with a sprawling geography of some 180 rooms, filled with locations that in typically old-school fashion often fail to connect with one another in the expected ways; going south and then going north, in other words, isn’t guaranteed to return you to your starting position. (In light of this, you’ll wind up happy that the game engine doesn’t recognize secondary compass directions like northeast.) Needless to say, light sources, trolls, and dragons figure prominently in the puzzles and plot.

But the thing that separates The Dungeon of Dunjin from its legendary forebears is that all the really annoying old-school nonsense is blessedly missing. Olsson has clearly made a conscious, thoroughgoing effort to design a game that the motivated player can actually win, and without being bored to death by petty logistical problems in the process.

The game engine is home-grown, written in Turbo Pascal. (I did tell you it was everywhere in the early 1990s…) It’s nowhere close to the level of even the PDP-10 Zork, possessing only an extremely basic world model and a parser that’s for the most part limited to two-word verb-noun constructions. Many a designer forced to work with such an engine has wound up stretching it past the breaking point, stumbling into the territory of guess-the-verb puzzles and sheer logical incoherence in an attempt to make a more difficult game than the engine can really support. (I would argue that the entire Scott Adams catalog after the fifth or sixth game can be seen as extended proof of this thesis.) But Olsson is too smart to be caught in that trap: he knows how to work within his tools, avoiding puzzles — like those involving intricate mechanical manipulations — which his game engine just can’t handle. There’s enough that it can do, he realizes, to make a perfectly satisfying old-school adventure game.

The most unfortunate aspect of the writing actually comes right up front, in the horrid title. The Dungeon of Dunjin is no literary masterpiece — that’s hardly the point of a game like this one, is it? — but the writing acquits it surprisingly well for that of a non-native English speaker. (Olsson does poke a little fun at the thing many people still think of first when they think of Sweden by making one puzzle revolve around an Abba record.) Like Adventure and Zork before it, the game never takes itself too seriously, freely mixing contemporary culture with high fantasy, placing computer labs practically next door to slavering dragons. Sometimes a sly Zorkian wit peeks through, as when you find a human skull in the dungeon that’s made of plastic and has “Made in Taiwan” printed on the side. The dungeon itself, meanwhile, proves in the end to be a closed-down tourist attraction; shades of the bizarre postmodern endgame of Adventure.

Filled with little homages to its predecessors like these, but perfectly playable if you don’t know a rusty rod with a star on the end from a lonely white house, The Dungeon of Dunjin is one of the better old-school puzzlefests I’ve played in my time, consistently surprising and amusing, consistently challenging — not least as a result of the combinatorial explosion that stems from its considerable size — and yet never insurmountable and only very rarely actively annoying. I enjoyed playing it immensely, and fancy that any of you who are up for a big adventure that will absorb quite some hours of your time and who don’t mind making a map and checking it twice — thankfully, we have Trizbort these days! — may just do so as well. Being a native citizen of MS-DOS, it can only be played through an emulator on modern computers. I’ve therefore prepared a version for you that will make that as easy as possible. Just add DOSBox.

Save Princeton

According to the brochure that the admissions department gave you, Princeton University is one of the last bastions of intellectual pursuit, where students can engage in the quest for learning unencumbered by worldly cares. As far as you can tell, though, the place looks like any one of a thousand clones of Cambridge University that clutter the American academic landscape. Still, you figure there must be something at least vaguely interesting about it, considering the reputation that the place has managed to accumulate over the past 250 or so years.

You decide, therefore, to take an Orange Key Tour. Minutes into it, though, you realize that you have no interest in being shown buildings with cannonball scars from the Revolutionary War. So, as the guide leads you through yet another archway, you break off from the group and wander through a nearby door. You find yourself in an entryway, standing in front of a door labeled with the number 21. When you turn the handle, the door swings open, and you enter, hoping no one will catch you being a voyeur.

As you poke around, the sound of gunfire coming from outside in the courtyard startles you. You dive for cover beneath a desk and remain there, shaking, until the tumult dies down. When you come out, you can sense a tension in the atmosphere. Clearly, something strange has happened.

Written by a Princeton University student named Jacob Weinstein with some assistance from his fellow student Karine Schaefer — “she just helped plot it, and left the geeky stuff to Jacob” — Save Princeton is another entry in a weirdly overstuffed sub-genre of interactive fiction: the collegiate text adventure, a category that includes such earlier classics as The Lurking Horror and A Dudley Dilemma. This game isn’t on the same level as either of those, but it has its charms.

As soon as you start Save Princeton, you’re smacked in the face with how much some things have changed since 1991; a plot involving terrorists taking over a major university would never be treated so flippantly in these times of ours. Here, though, it’s just a mechanism for pushing you to explore the campus and lap up — or, more likely, scratch your head at — the endless in-jokes. While nothing really stands out about the game’s puzzles or construction, there’s nothing notably objectionable either; this is all pretty standard fare, albeit delivered in a pretty user-friendly way, without the inscrutable puzzles, mazes — well, there is a fake maze — or parsing issues that were still typical of most amateur text adventures of this era. Doubtless helping the game’s cause is the fact that it’s written in TADS, a much more powerful and polished system for programming text adventures than AGT, if also a much less popular one in 1991. The writing is actually more ramshackle than the technology or the puzzle design, with the tossed-off feel that was also so typical of early amateur text adventures.

But it isn’t Save Princeton‘s merits as a piece of timeless game design, much less as a piece of writing, that makes me want to cautiously recommend it. It rather comes down once again to that personal quality of so much amateur interactive fiction.

Weinstein fills his slice of life not just with the architecture of Princeton, nor just with the pop-culture detritus of 1991 — “there are posters of such charming items as Laura Palmer’s corpse” — but with himself, along with the friends he has at university. Go to the “Girls’ Common Room” and there’s Lisa, “working on the New York Times crossword puzzle”; there’s Melisande, “buried in an Orson Scott Card novel.” Go to the boys’ room and there’s Eric, “humming the violin part of The Rite of Spring“; there’s Otis, the “fairly accomplished computer programmer” who “won the Mr. Princeton bodybuilding contest his freshman year.” Eventually you’ll also meet Karine — yes, Weinstein’s alleged coauthor — sitting in the romantic glow of a lava lamp, dreaming of Anthony Hopkins of all potential heartthrobs, “making an acidic comment regarding the cultural inferiority of every city in the world except for New York.” Somehow I suspect that Jacob was crushing hard on Karine, to the point of giving her a dubious authoring credit on his game, only to be stuck permanently in the Friend Zone.

Of course, I don’t really know what was going on with any of these young people. Nor have I ever even been on the Princeton campus, meaning that every in-joke is utterly lost on me. And yet — and you can chalk this up to my going all American Graffiti in my middle age if you like — there’s something about this unassuming little game that I find almost unbearably poignant. It so happens that I’m almost the exact same age as the kids we meet in it, and I can’t help but feel a connection with all these entitled little dreamers, so full of grand plans for the future, so convinced that the meaning of life can be revealed to them by the right song, book, or film. Where have their lives taken them? If they were given this game to play today, would they be surprised to meet the people they used to be?

Call me a sentimental fool, but Save Princeton, patently envisioned by its author as just a light-hearted adventure game, kind of puts a lump in my throat. Your own mileage may of course vary, but it’s certainly not a bad little game even if it doesn’t prompt in you the same ruminations about the cycle of life. You can download it from the IF Archive and play it using any of the many freely available TADs interpreters.


You awake from uneasy dreams. Since you're no longer on easy street, maybe that's the way your dreams are going to be from now on. Exactly where you are becomes clear as you sort out the sounds of the river to the east, the rustlings of birds to the north and west, and the sweet scent of sleep-inducing poppies wafting down from the northwest. Apparently, after a day of determined walking about, you burrowed down next to the river and let consciousness drift.

What exactly induced this bout of walking? Well, two nights ago, Count Zero handed you your walking papers and extracted your latchkey to the museum in exchange (little does he know that you keep a spare hidden in the topiary). It's just as well that you were dismissed from the museum--your duties as combination custodian and librarian involved either re-shelving books and dusting off clocks or rewinding timepieces and dusting off books. However, you were onto something. Exactly what is unclear since the pieces of the puzzle seem to disconnect with sleep. You resolve not to sleep until you've recollected and reconnected their jagged edges. You can be just as calculating as the Count. You can even reach beyond the Zero . . .

I had one of the most magical gaming experiences of my life with T-Zero.

About fifteen years ago, I was working the graveyard shift at a computer-services firm in Dallas. From 7 PM to 7 AM, three or four nights per week, I’d sit in a nearly deserted data center babysitting the servers and mainframes, just in case anything should happen. Most of the time, it didn’t, meaning I had a lot of free time on my hands. Boredom was a big problem. There were enough curious eyes wandering about the place doing their system modifications and whatnot that playing anything that looked like a game would have been a really bad idea. Text adventures, however, were a different story. I could sit typing away into a window filled with text, looking for all the world like I was hard at work on something vital. Thus I played a lot of text adventures during this period, delving back into a lot of forgotten games — often justifiably forgotten! — from the early issues of SPAG magazine. One of the games I played was T-Zero.

I was playing it one night when a message popped up out of nowhere, apropos of nothing I was actually doing in the game at the time. “It’s a full moon tonight,” it read. “Go outside and take a look.” So, curious whether this already very old game knew what it was talking about, I did.

Well, the game did know what it was talking about. Outside a huge harvest moon hovered low over the warm night. I’d always loved the silence of the predawn hours, when the only sounds you could hear were the omnipresent Texas crickets. Now the peaceful scene, blanketed in the moon’s silvery sheen, seemed to fuse with the peculiar beauty of the game I’d just been playing. I stood there in front of my employer’s antiseptic corporate building for quite some minutes, marveling at the beauty that can visit us at the most banal times. As I turned to go back inside, I knew that I’d never forget this night. And, as this little reminiscence demonstrates, I was right.

T-Zero truly is a magical game in some ways; at its best, it almost attains the same heights as Trinity, my all-time favorite work of interactive fiction. Indeed, comparisons between the two works strike me as unavoidable. T-Zero at the time of its release had the most subtly textured writing that had been seen in a text adventure since Trinity. More than that, though, it resembles and even pays homage to Infocom’s finest hour in many respects: a sundial and a gnomon, to name an obvious if superficial example, figure prominently in T-Zero as well as in Trinity. Less superficially, both games share an abiding obsession with the mystery of time, and both have a smile-through-tears quality, a gentle whimsy laced with melancholia.

T-Zero was written by one Dennis Cunningham, a person about whom I know nothing beyond his description of himself as “a programmer with literary leanings.” He is or was obviously very talented in both fields. For someone like me who loves words, T-Zero is a source of constant delight. As an example of its love of clever wordplay, consider that you begin it by waking up in the location known as “River Bed” — or consider the “buxom bell” you’ll soon be ringing. Unlike so many self-consciously “literary” interactive works, which tend to get buried under the weight of their own aspirations, T-Zero‘s writing dazzles without ever seeming to try to do so; Cunningham’s writerly touch is light where the others are heavy. I can perhaps best convey his game’s atmosphere by borrowing a line from one of his room descriptions: “Either your vision is becoming near-sighted or this scene has all the pointillist charm of a Monet painting.” Like an Impressionist painter, Cunningham is more interested in the interplay of light and shadow than he is with concrete forms. Maybe that explains why the moonlight affected me so on that one magical night.

I hesitate to trample over the delicate poetry of T-Zero too much more with my leaden reviewer’s prose, but will note that it takes place in the slightly surreal landscape which surrounds a strange museum where you until recently worked as a low-grade custodian and librarian. You will eventually learn that the time is out of joint, and you will have to learn to travel through time to visit the same locations in other millennia, learning of the other inhabitants who dwelt and will dwell here. These inhabitants are not human; nor is it ever entirely clear whether you yourself are. Again, T-Zero isn’t concerned with the concrete. It’s a dream and a meditation, and it’s all the better for it.

T-Zero has a spirit of unabashed intellectualism to it — a complete disinterest in talking down to its player — which looks forward to Graham Nelson’s Curses. Cunningham peppers his game with allusions: to Miguel de Cervantes and his deluded knight, to Edgar Allan Poe and his bells ringing in the night, to Douglas Hofstadter and his Eternal Golden Braid, to the Beatles and their Walrus. This sort of thing can veer into rank pretension in a hurry. But, again like Nelson, Cunningham’s erudition reads as intriguing rather than off-putting, sending you scurrying off to Wikipedia to learn more about the references you don’t entirely get.

With so much going on at the literary level, it may seem almost belittling to focus on the technology that underpins the game, but I’d actually be doing its author a disservice not to mention it. Like Magnus Olsson, Dennis Cunningham chose to write his game from scratch rather than use a text-adventure authoring system like AGT or TADS. And here I have to break out the superlatives yet again: the engine he created is quite simply the best bespoke text-adventure engine I’ve seen. Ever.

Cunningham doesn’t just meet the Infocom standard that was still the aspirational ideal among amateur text-adventure makers in 1991, he actually exceeds it in a number of respects. The parser handles even the most complicated constructions with aplomb, and the game is rife with little conveniences seldom seen during its era: things like undo, like a generous command-history buffer, like a menu-based restore command that doesn’t expect you to remember the name of every save file you create. The world model is complex and coherent, and the addition of carefully chosen shades of color, rather than just looking gaudy as color so often tends to do in an all-text game, adds to the rich atmosphere.

Just look at this! T-Zero offers a menu for disambiguation as one of the conveniences it’s absolutely rife with.

But now, having praised T-Zero to the skies, I have to tell you about its one tremendous flaw: this game is just way, way too hard. A goodly chunk of the puzzles involve wordplay of the Nord and Bert variety, the sort of thing that delights some players and drives others — especially players who don’t have English as a first language — absolutely crazy. This in itself may thus be enough reason for some of you to reject a game, but we’re just getting started with the litany of barriers to solving it. T-Zero muddies the waters further than Nord and Bert did in that it doesn’t have discrete sections devoted to discrete kinds of wordplay; you never know, in other words, whether it’s looking for an idiom or an anagram or an allusion. Or, for that matter, whether it’s looking for something else entirely: there are also plenty of traditional puzzles here, grounded in real-world — or at least text-adventure — physics. And then we have to throw onto the pile the fact that this is a big game with a lot of locations to explore, and over several time periods at that. Because the descriptions of these intricate landscapes are drawn in such loving detail, it’s really, really hard to know for sure which locations contain puzzles waiting to be solved and which just exist for you to drink in on their own terms.

Not helping the situation is a tendency for the parser, so flexible in most ordinary tasks, to suddenly become needlessly persnickety in some specific situations, with failure messages that can be not just unhelpful but actively misleading. For instance, at one point you need to tear the flyleaf out of a book. You need to type it exactly like that: “tear flyleaf out of book.” If you try to “pull flyleaf out of book,” you’re told that “your pull is next to nothing when it comes to the flyleaf.” Far worse, if you just type, “tear flyleaf,” you’re told that there’s “no reason to play the vandal”; if you’re foolish enough to take the game at its word here, you’ll never solve it. There aren’t heaps of situations like this one, but there are more than enough to ruin an otherwise brilliant game for its player even absent the other questionable design choices.

That said, it must also be admitted that there is a partial solution to all these problems built right into the game. Among its other technical wonders, T-Zero includes a full-fledged adaptive hint system that keeps track of your progress and doles out context-specific hints for each location — the first such system I’m aware of in the history of interactive fiction. It breaks my heart, but I have to recommend to any of you who choose to play this game that you use it liberally, typing “hint” as a matter of course in each location you visit. Sometimes doing so gives away the full answer to the puzzle; sometimes it at least leaves a little for you to work out on your own. The former in particular is far from ideal, but what else can you do if you’d prefer not to beat your head for hours and hours against this brick wall of a game? The shame, of course, is that there are some very good puzzles here which you won’t be able to enjoy thanks to the bad ones. Ah, well… at least T-Zero‘s wonderful version of the maze-that-isn’t-really-a-standard-maze, almost as venerable a text-adventure tradition by this point as mazes of the old drop-and-plot variety, isn’t entirely spoiled by the hint system.

Having to recommend that you play T-Zero in this way really does pain me, not least in that it destroys all the critical goodwill I have toward every other aspect of the game. As you regular readers know, I’m deeply skeptical of the idea of the “great, as long as you have a walkthrough” species of adventure game. Adventure games are interactive works, and when their interactivity fails them it’s hard for me to see why one should bother with them. As I once put it, “an adventure game that cannot be solved unaided, or for that matter that can be solved only through sheer doggedness and refusal to give in to tedium, is a bad game.”

But I will say now that this particular bad game comes closer than any other to making me recommend that you go ahead and play it anyway using the hints, just to experience the prose and the beautiful environment it evokes. In the end, you’ll have to decide for yourself whether this failure that by all rights should have been numbered among the all-time greats is worth your time. Once again, you can download an almost-ready-to-play version from this site. The only other thing you need is DOSBox.

Z-Machine Matter

BBC 4 Radio - Game Over

by Zack Urlocker at December 29, 2017 03:10 PM

  BBC game over

Prolific game designer and IF author Emily Short has written her first play for radio entitled "Game Over" now available on BBC 4 Radio. I was lucky enough to be traveling in Canada where the show is accessible.

I'm a fan of Emily Short's interactive fiction and I appreciate her efforts to write about the game industry in her analysis of games, her reviews of books and now in dramatic form. "Game Over" is an interesting take on the industry as it describes an indie game developer's attempt to build a game within the traditional game industry that is far beyond the industry's tropes. The effects of climate change on an Alaskan village could be an apt metaphor for the gaming industry itself. The acting is well done and the production is top notch. It's a good story and definitely worth a listen. 

However, as others have noted, "Game Over" is a bit heavy-handed at times. Perhaps in an effort to make the story realistic, the main characters came across as rigid and not very likeable. In this regard, it's reminiscent of HBO's "Silicon Valley" which has gone from comedy to quasi-documentary, and is full of characters you'd never root for, let alone want to work with. Nonetheless, "Game Over" is a thought-provoking story (and meta story) with a clever ending. 

I believe the show is available streamed from the BBC for 30 days in the UK, Canada and US.

If you've given the show a listen, please share your comments below.



Adventure Blog


December 29, 2017 02:41 AM


We loved this review of Strayed by Kerrie from the Comfy Reading blog!

December 26, 2017

The People's Republic of IF

January meetup

by zarf at December 26, 2017 04:41 PM

The Boston IF meetup for January will be Wednesday, January 24, 6:30 pm, MIT room 14N-233.

We will talk about Mystery Hunt, Synchrony, and whatever else has turned up in January.

sub-Q Magazine

Submitting Interactive Fiction Proposals to sub-Q Magazine

by Stewart C Baker at December 26, 2017 02:41 PM

Got a great story you want to see made into a piece of interactive fiction, but terrified of learning how to code? No sweat! This blog post will walk you through the process of creating an interactivity proposal for a completed short story.

What is an interactivity proposal? Simply put, it’s a document that includes the complete prose of your story plus an explanation (graphical, textual, or otherwise) of how it could be transformed into a piece of interactive fiction.

What is interactive fiction?

That’s a more difficult question: As the annual Interactive Fiction Competition notes, the meaning of the phrase is “subject to changing context and culture”. Interactive Fiction lives at the intersection of the game and the story, of the reader and the player, of the analogue and virtual. Something like that, anyway. There are plenty of great resources on our “Ideas and Resources” page.

What matters to you, would-be Interactive Fiction author, is that we’re happy to find someone to make your story interactive for you, so long as you can give us a clear idea of how it would be done.

First, though, we want to see the story you’re submitting. We prefer submissions to follow Standard Manuscript Format (SMF), although we have a preference for Times New Roman over SMF’s usual Courier. And–as you can see from this sample proposal–we’re a bit more open to seeing links and other kinds of special formatting, as well.

What else is important for a sub-Q submission?

  • Your story should be no more than 5000 words across all possible playthroughs, and no more than 3500 words on a single playthrough.
  • Our minimum wordcount is 1000 words.
  • We prefer 1st and 3rd person point of views, and stories that show the reader things they’ve never seen before.
  • sub-Q‘s submission process is anonymous. After you’ve put your proposal together, you should make sure you’ve stripped any identifying information from your file.
  • We particularly love seeing submissions from creators of color, creators with disabilities, and creators from the QUILTBAG community, and encourage you to include that information in a cover letter if you feel comfortable doing so. Note that cover letters are only visible to the editor-in-chief, and self-reporting of this nature is entirely optional.

To review, then, the first part of your interactivity proposal is your completed story, in a reasonable approximation of SMF, and otherwise meeting our guidelines.

Now let’s move on to the actual proposal part of your submission, where you’ll tell us in as much detail as possible how the story can be turned from prose to a dynamic piece of interactive fiction.

Interactivity Proposal

Your interactivity proposal can be included at the end of your completed prose in a single document, or you can use a number of separate files and compress them all into a single *.zip file for submission when you’re done.
There are a million ways to describe how a piece of text can be made interactive, and a lot of how you proceed at this point is going to depend on your story, your vision for its interactive future, and whether you’re a textual thinker, a visual thinker, or some other kind of thinker. (Submissions which involve punching the editors to prove a point about ‘tactile thinking’ are unlikely to be well-received.) If you have art you’d like to use with the story, either as a cover or internally, please include that as well, with the permission of the artist if the art is not yours.

Interactivity proposals can be as simple or as complicated as you like, so long as they let us know how a story might be turned into a piece of IF.

Describing Interactivity

Written Description

A written description of how your story would work as a piece of interactive fiction is simple enough. Just tell us, in your own words, exactly what would need to be done to turn your completed prose into a piece of interactive fiction. Going through the story in order from start to end is one way of doing this, or you might list out the story’s basic structure and any choices the reader might encounter first, followed by a list of scenes with comments about what’s in each one. You don’t have to use paragraphs either: bulleted lists can be just as effective.

Basically, think about what best defines your vision for your story’s interactivity and run with it.

For example:

My story “Interactivity Proposal for Sub-Q Magazine” is the riveting tale of how to submit a complete short story to Sub-Q magazine for consideration without making it interactive first. The story would be displayed one paragraph at a time, with a link at the end of each section asking the reader if they have learned how to format an interactivity proposal yet or not.

Each time the reader clicks “no,” they lose five hit points before progressing to the next paragraph. When the reader runs out of hit points, the game is over and they receive the “ultimate rejection” ending. If the reader makes it to the end of the game without running out of hit points, they receive the “successful submission ending.”


Since many pieces of Interactive Fiction involve “rooms” (literal or otherwise), flowcharts are an easy way to visually describe how your story connects. If you have a recent version of Microsoft Word, you can create a flowchart using the SmartArt tool. There are also flowchart templates online for various word processors or graphical editing programs, as well as online programs like Hand-drawn flowcharts are fine, too, so long as you write neatly!

example of a flowchart describing two paragraphs of gameplay, with arrows to show how gameplay proceeds

Other Diagram

There are many other kinds of diagram that lend themselves to describing interactivity. Tree diagrams, hierarchies, UML activity diagrams, etcetera. As with flowcharts, many of these can be created natively in the more recent versions of Microsoft Word by using the SmartArt tool, created from templates online, or hand-drawn and scanned in.

example of a diagram, with descriptions of two scenes of gameplay

Links to Examples

It can sometimes be helpful to provide a link to an example piece of Interactive Fiction that you think would be a good model to use for your own.

For example:

Because of the untrammeled genius of my creation, the best way to represent it as a piece of interactive fiction would be to transform it into an HTML-5 compliant version of Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give you Up” that hijacks the player’s browser and computer so that they can never, ever, ever, turn it off. (link) (P.S. I warned you.)

Photoshop, Drawings, or Other Mockups

If you’re a visual person, or your and words just won’t cut it, feel free to include mockups of what you think the finished piece of interactive fiction could look like. Programs that can be used to create mockups include Photoshop, GIMP, MS Paint, and good old-fashioned pencil-and-paper.

Audio and Video Files

Likewise, if your vision contains audio-visual materials, letting us see those will go a long way to showing us what your finished piece might be like.

Send Us Your Work!

Of course, the above methods are only examples. The number of ways you can format an interactivity proposal are limitless. If you have an idea that doesn’t seem to fit any of the methods above, and it describes your ideas clearly and in detail, go for it!

Regardless of the method(s) you use to describe how your story might be made interactive, the important thing is to provide sufficient detail for (1) our editors to envision your story as a piece of Interactive Fiction and (2) a coder to transform your story into it upon acceptance. So, for example, don’t say “When the player dies the screen changes.” but “If the player reaches zero hit points, the screen fades slowly to black.”

At the same time, you don’t want to provide too much detail. Strive for a balance of utility and clarity. Again, aim for “If the player reaches zero hit points, the screen fades slowly to black.” and not “If the variable hit points is reduced to zero by the function called minusHitPoints, then the game calls the function fadeToBlack which uses JavaScript to apply an absolutely positioned DIV with a black background-color and 0 opacity tag over the game screen and animating this element’s opacity to 1 with a 5000ms delay.” (Honestly, if that sentence makes sense, you’ll probably do just fine making the story interactive on your own!)

Of course, exceptions always apply. If there really is one super-specific technique that you think would be crucial to your story’s success as a piece of interactive fiction, definitely mention that, as well as where you heard of it and why you think it would be helpful.

One other important thing to keep in mind is that your proposal should be within the bounds of the reasonably possible. Don’t request things like a story hijacking the user’s net-activated toaster and reprogramming it to print images of Mahatma Gandhi on the next delicious bread product they insert, for instance. There’s a limit to what we can achieve.

It’s also useful to let us know if you’re willing to take a crack at the interactivity yourself upon acceptance or if you’d rather have Sub-Q staff do the leg-work. (Note that we do pay an additional per-word amount for interactivity.)

Once you’ve bundled your proposal together with your story’s completed prose, the only thing left to do is submit it.

We look forward to seeing your work!

The post Submitting Interactive Fiction Proposals to sub-Q Magazine appeared first on sub-Q Magazine.

December 23, 2017

XTads etc.

XTads pre-beta 8 is out

by xtadsetc at December 23, 2017 05:41 PM

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

New in this version:

  • The Open Recent menu now shows proper game titles (when available).
  • Banners with help menus no longer flicker when navigated with keyboard.

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



December 22, 2017

Choice of Games

The Cryptkeepers of Hallowford — Sharpen your sword and save Hallowford!

by Rachel E. Towers at December 22, 2017 09:41 PM

We’re proud to announce that The Cryptkeepers of Hallowford, the latest in our popular “Choice of Games” line of multiple-choice interactive-fiction games, is now available for Steam, iOS, and Android!

Sharpen your sword to save Hallowford in this sequel to The Hero of Kendrickstone! Monstrous creatures prowl beneath the streets of Hallowford. When the enigmatic Cryptkeepers Guild sends a call for adventurers, you must answer. You’ll discover secrets in the crypts that are better left hidden, and a revelation that will shake Hallowford to its very foundations.

The Cryptkeepers of Hallowford is a 360,000 word interactive fantasy novel by Paul Wang, 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.

Step into the role of a veteran adventurer in a high fantasy world. Sharpen your steel, prepare your spells, and practise your silver tongue. Decide who to trust and who to betray. Discover lost secrets and forbidden magic. Ally with the powerful Cryptkeepers Guild, the town watch, your fellow adventurers, or follow your own agenda. Save Hallowford, or engineer its downfall for your own gain.

• Play as male, female, or non-binary; gay or straight.
• Continue the story of your adventurer from The Hero of Kendrickstone or create a new character.
• Play as a mighty warrior, or a smooth-tongued negotiator, a powerful mage, a stealthy infiltrator, or anything in between.
• Amass ancient secrets and lost knowledge to give you an edge in and out of combat.
• Betray or befriend knights, guildmasters, and your fellow adventurers.
• Delve into the sprawling underground passages beneath the town of Hallowford.
• Be an altruistic hero, a cruel villain, or someone just looking to make a little gold.

Will you complete your quest and save the town? Or will you make enemies of the Cryptkeepers of Hallowford?

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

The Digital Antiquarian

Games on the Net Before the Web, Part 3: The Persistent Multiplayer CRPG

by Jimmy Maher at December 22, 2017 02:41 PM

Black Dragon, CompuServe’s first CRPG, was popular enough that the service sold tee-shirts.

The first CRPG to go online with CompuServe was also one of the first entirely original games to appear on the service, following the initial glut of institutional-computing refugees. Black Dragon, written by a programmer of telephone switching systems named Bob Maples, was at bottom a simplified version of Wizardry — not a hugely surprising state of affairs, given that it made its debut in 1981, at the height of the Wizardry craze. The player created a character — just one, not a full party as in Wizardry — and then began a series of expeditions into the game’s ten-level labyrinth, fighting monsters, collecting equipment and experience, and hopefully penetrating a little deeper with each outing. Only the character’s immediate surroundings were described on the scrolling, text-only display, so careful mapping became every bit as critical as it was in Wizardry. The ultimate goal, guaranteed to consume many hours — not to mention a small fortune in connection charges — was to kill Asmodeus, the black dragon of the title, who lurked down on the tenth level. Any player who managed to accomplish that feat and escape back to the surface was rewarded by seeing her name along with her character’s immortalized on the game’s public wall of fame.

Those bragging rights aside, Black Dragon had no multiplayer aspect at all, which might lead one to ask why its players didn’t just pick up a copy of Wizardry instead; doing so would certainly have been cheaper in the long run. But the fact is that not every CompuServe subscriber’s computer could run Wizardry in those early days. Certainly Black Dragon proved quite popular as the first CompuServe game of its kind. Sadly lost to history now, it has been described by some of its old players as far more cleverly designed than its bare-bones presentation and its willingness to unabashedly ride Wizardry‘s coattails might lead one to believe.

Black Dragon‘s success told Bill Louden, the “games guy” at CompuServe, that subscribers had a taste for this sort of experience. In 1982 a second, somewhat more sophisticated single-player CRPG went up. Known as Dungeons of Kesmai, it was, as the name would imply, another work of the indefatigable John Taylor and Kelton Flinn — i.e., Kesmai, the programmers also responsible for CompuServe’s MegaWars III and, a bit later, for GEnie’s Air Warrior. Like so many of CompuServe’s staple games, both Black Dragon and Dungeons of Kesmai would remain on the service for an absurdly long time, until well into the 1990s.

But more ambitious games as well would come down the pipe well before then. A few years later after these first single-player online CRPGs debuted, CompuServe made the leap to multiplayer virtual worlds. As we’ve already seen in my previous article, MUD washed up from British shores in the spring of 1986 under the name of British Legends, bringing with it the idea of the multiplayer text adventure as virtual world. Yet even before that happened, in December of 1985, the CRPG genre had already made the same leap thanks to still another creation from Kesmai: Island of Kesmai.

Taylor and Flinn had originally hoped to make Dungeons of Kesmai something akin to the game which Island would later become, but that project had been cut back to a single-player game when Bill Louden deemed it simply too ambitious for such an early effort. Undaunted, Kesmai treated Dungeons as something of a prototype for their real vision for a multiplayer CRPG and just kept plugging away. They never saw nor heard of MUD when developing the more advanced game, meaning that said game’s innovations, which actually hew much closer than MUD to the massively-multiplayer games to come, were all its own.

Island of Kesmai demonstrated just how far games’ presentation had come on CompuServe in the four years of creeping advancement that had followed Black Dragon. While it was still limited to text and crude character graphics, the latest terminal protocols did allow it to make use of color, and to divide the screen into quadrants dedicated to different purposes: a status “window” showing the state of the player’s character, a pseudo-graphical overhead view of the character’s surroundings, a text area for descriptions of the environment, a command line for the player to issue orders. Island of Kesmai looked like a roguelike, a genre of hardcore tactical CRPG that was a bigger favorite with hackers than with commercial game developers. This roguelike, however, was a multiplayer game set in a persistent world, and that changed everything.

Island of Kesmai used the ASCII graphics typical of roguelikes. Here “>” represents the player’s character; “A” is a monster; “B” is another player’s character; “@@” is a spider web; and “$” is a treasure or other item. The brackets are walls, while “–” represents a closed door and “/” an open one.

As with British Legends, up to 100 players could share Island of Kesmai‘s persistent world at the same time. Yet Kesmai’s creation was a far more coherent, far more designed experience than the cheerful insanity that was life on MUD. Players chose a class for their characters, along with an alignment, a gender, and even a land of origin. As befitted the game’s grounding in CRPG rather than text-adventure tradition, combat was a far more elaborate and tactical affair than in MUD. You had to reckon with the position of your character and your opponents; had to worry about initiative and fatigue; could be stunned or poisoned or even fumble your weapon. The magic system, too, was far more advanced and subtle than MUD‘s handful of ad-hoc spells that had often been added as much for comedic value as anything else.

The Island that gave the game its name was divided into five regions, comprising in total some 62,000 discrete locations, over which roamed some 2500 creatures in addition to one’s fellow players. The game was consciously designed to support differing levels of player engagement. “A person can play casually or seriously,” said Ben Shih, a “scenario designer” hired by Kesmai to continue evolving the game. “He or she can relax and take out frustrations on a few goblins or unwind by joining other players in hunting bear and griffin. But to become a superstar, a ‘mega-character,’ takes time.”

Ben Shih, John Taylor, and Kelton Flinn of Kesmai.

Scenario designers like Shih added content on a regular basis to keep the game fresh even for veteran players, sometimes giving a unique artifact to the first player to complete a new quest. Kelton Flinn was still excited about adding new stuff to the game three years after it had first gone online:

We don’t feel we’re designing games. We’re designing simulations. We create a world and then we let the players roam around in it. Of course, we’re always adding to our view of the world, fiddling with things all the time, creating new treasures, making things work better. I suppose at some point you have to call a halt and say, “Let’s see if we want to make a clean break and try something bigger.” But we haven’t reached that stage yet.

For all the changes the game went through, the ultimate achievement in Island of Kesmai remained always to kill the dragon, the toughest monster in the game. Players who did so were rewarded with everlasting fame as part of the true elite. As for the dragon: he of course re-spawned in a few days’ time, ready to serve as fodder for the next champion.

Those who hoped to do well were almost forced to buy the 181-page manual for the game, available for the low, low price of $16.50 directly from CompuServe. A rather stunning percentage of the elements described therein would still ring true to any World of Warcraft player of today. There was, for instance, a questing system, a ladder of challenges offering ever greater rewards in return for surviving ever greater dangers. Even those looking for an equivalent to the endless stream of World of Warcraft expansions can find it with Island of Kesmai. In 1988, Kesmai opened up the new lands of Torii and Annwn, filled with “more powerful weapons, tougher monsters, and a variety of treasures.” Advanced players were allowed to travel there only after their characters had hit the old Island’s level cap, and weren’t allowed to return again after they passed through the magic portal, lest they wreak havoc among the less powerful monsters and characters they once left behind.

While play on the Island was much more structured than it was in The Land of MUD, it was still the other players who really made the game what it was. Taylor and Flinn went into the project understanding that, and even anticipating to an extraordinary degree the shape of virtual societies to come. “We fully expect that a political system will evolve,” said Taylor upon the game’s launch, “and someone may even try to proclaim himself King of Kesmai.” Much of the design was put in place to emphasize the social aspect of the game. For example, a conference room was provided for strategizing and conspiring, and many quests were deliberately designed to require the cooperation of several characters. The verbiage adopted by players in relation to the quest system still rings true to modern ears. For example, a verb was coined for those loners determined to undertake quests on their own: to “solo.”

Although player-versus-player combat was allowed, it was restricted to specific areas of the Island; an attempt to attack another character in a “civilized” area, such as the town where new players began their adventures, would be met by the Sheriff, an invincible non-player character guaranteed to grind the brawniest hero into dust. Alignment also played a role: a karma meter kept track of players’ actions. Actions like assault or theft would gradually turn a good character neutral, then finally evil. The last alignment was highly undesirable from many perspectives, not least in that it would prevent you from entering the town, with its shops, bars, and trainers.

And there were still other mechanisms for discouraging the veterans from tormenting the newbies in the way so many MUD players so enjoyed. Players were urged to report griefers who preyed excessively upon newbies, even if they only did so in the dungeons and other “uncivilized” areas where player-versus-player combat was technically allowed. If enough people lodged complaints against them, the griefers might find themselves visited by the wrath of the “ghods of Kesmai,” the game’s administrators — the alternate spelling was used so as not to offend the religious — who might take away experience points, steal back their precious magic items, or just smite them dead as punishment. The game thus tended to foster a less cutthroat, more congenial atmosphere than MUD, with most players preferring to band together against the many monsters rather than fight with one another.

A journalist from the magazine Compute’s Gazette shared this tale of his own almost unbelievably positive first encounter with another player in the game:

I desperately wish I could afford to buy a few bottles of balm sold by the vendor here in the nave, but at 16 gold pieces each they are far above my limited budget. Another player walks in from the square. “Hello, Cherp!” she says, looking at me. Taking a close look at her, I recognize Lynn, a middle-aged female fighter from my home country of Mnar.

“Howdy to you. Are you headed down into the dungeon? I’ve just arrived and this is my first trip down,” I tell her.

“Ah, I see. Yes, I was headed down, but I don’t think it’s safe for you to hunt where I’ll be going. Do you have any balm yet?” she asks as she stands next to the balm vendor.

“No, I haven’t got the gold to afford it,” I say hesitantly.

“No problem. I have a few extra pieces. Come and get them.”

“Thank you very much,” I say. Lynn drops some gold on the ground, and we wait as the vendor takes the gold and drops the balm bottles for us. I pick up the bottles and add them to my meager possessions.

“I can’t thank you enough for this,” I say. “Is there some way I can repay you? Perhaps we could meet here again later and I could give you some balms in return.”

“No,” she laughs, “I have no need of them. Just remember there are always other players who are just starting out. They may find themselves in the same position you are in now. Try to lend them a hand when you are sufficiently strong.”

At the risk of putting too fine a point on it, I will just note one more time that this attitude stands in marked contrast to the newbie-tormenting that the various incarnations of MUD always seemed to engender. At least one player of Island of Kesmai so distinguished himself through his knowledge of the game and his sense of community spirit that he was hired by Kesmai to design new challenges and serve as a community liaison — a wiz mode of a different and much more lucrative stripe.

But the community spirit of Island of Kesmai at its finest is perhaps best exemplified by Valis, one of the game’s most accomplished players. This online CRPG was actually the first RPG of any stripe he had ever managed to enjoy, despite attending university during the height of the Dungeons & Dragons fad: “I could never get into sitting around eating crackers and cheese doodles and arguing for twelve hours at a time. I can do as much in a half hour in Island of Kesmai as they did in twelve hours.” Valis became the first person to exhaustively map the entire Island, uploading the results to the service’s file libraries for the benefit of all. Further, he put together a series of beginners classes for those new to what could be a very daunting game. CompuServe’s hapless marketers advertised his efforts as an “escort service,” a name which perhaps didn’t convey quite the right impression.

We think we’ve come up with the perfect way of teaching a beginners class. We spend an hour or so in the conference area with a lecture and questions. Then we go on a “field trip” to the Island itself. I lead the beginners onto the Island, where we encounter a few things and look for some treasure. That usually is enough to get them started.

In many respects, the personal stories that emerged from Island of Kesmai will ring very familiar to anyone who’s been reading my recent articles, as they will to anyone familiar with the massively-multiplayer games of today. Carrie Washburn discovered the game in 1986, just after her son was born fourteen weeks premature. During the months the baby spent in intensive care, Island of Kesmai became the “link back to reality” for her and her husband. After spending the day at the hospital, they “would enter a fantasy world in order to forget the real one. The online friends that we met there helped pull us through.” Of course, the escape wasn’t without cost: Washburn’s monthly CompuServe bill routinely topped $500, and once hit $2000. Later she divorced her husband and took to prancing around the Island as the uninhibited Lynn De’Leslie — “more of a slut, really” — until she met her second husband there. Her sentiments about it all echoed those expressed by the CB Simulator fraternity on another part of CompuServe: “One of the great things about meeting people online is that you get to really known them. The entire relationship is built on talking.” (Appropriately enough for a talker, Washburn went on to find employment as the administrator of the Multiplayer Games Roundtable on GEnie.)

Kelton Flinn once called Island of Kesmai “about as complicated as a game can be on a commercial system.” Yet it deserves to be remembered for the thought that went into it even more than for its complexity. Almost every issue that designers of the massively-multiplayer games of today deal with was anticipated and addressed by Kesmai — sometimes imperfectly, yes, but then many of the design questions which swirl around the format have arguably still not been met with perfect answers even today. Incredibly, Island of Kesmai went online in December of 1985 with almost all of its checks and balances already in place, so thoroughly had its designers thought about what they were creating and where it would lead. To use Richard Bartle’s terminology from my previous article, Island of Kesmai was a “product” rather than a “program,” and it was all the better for it. While MUD strikes me as a pioneering work with an awful lot of off-putting aspects, such that I probably wouldn’t have lasted five minutes if I’d stumbled into it as a player, Island of Kesmai still sounds like it must have been fantastic to play.


One big name in the field of single-player graphical CRPGs took note of what was going on on The Island quite early. In 1987, a decade before Ultima Online would take the games industry by storm, Richard Garriott and Origin Systems began doing more than just muse about the potential for a multiplayer Ultima. They assigned at least one programmer to work full-time on the technology that could enable just such a product. This multiplayer Ultima was envisioned on a more modest scale than the eventual Ultima Online or even the current Island of Kesmai. It was described by Garriot thus: “What you’ll buy in the store will be a package containing all the core graphics routines and the game-development stuff (all the commands and so on), which you could even plug into your computer and play as a standalone. But with a modem you could tie a friend into the game, or up to somewhere between eight and sixteen other players, all within the same game.” Despite the modest number of players the game would support and the apparent lack of plans for a persistent world, Origin did hold out the prospect of a partnership with CompuServe. In the end, though, none of it went anywhere. After 1987 the idea of a multiplayer Ultima was shelved for a long, long time; Origin presumably deemed it too much of a distraction from their bread-and-butter single-player CRPG franchise.

Another of the big single-player CRPG franchises, however, would make the leap — and not just to multiplayer but all way to a persistent virtual world like that of MUD or Island of Kesmai. Rather than running on the industry-leading CompuServe or even the gamer haven of GEnie, this pioneering effort would run on the nascent America Online.

Don Daglow was already a grizzled veteran of the games industry when he founded a development company called Beyond Software (no relation to the British company of the same name) in 1988. He had programmed games for fun on his university’s DEC PDP-10 in the 1970s, programmed them for money at Intellivision in the early 1980s, been one of the first producers at Electronic Arts in the mid-1980s — working on among other titles Thomas M. Disch’s flawed but fascinating text adventure Amnesia and the hugely lauded baseball simulation Earl Weaver Baseball — and finally came to spend some time in the same role at Brøderbund. At last, though, he had “got itchy” to do something that would be all his own. Beyond was his way of scratching that itch.

Thanks to Daglow’s industry connections, Beyond hit the ground running, establishing solid working relationships with two very disparate companies: Quantum Computer Services, who owned and operated America Online, and the boxed-game publisher SSI. Daglow actually signed on with the former the day after forming his company, agreeing to develop some simple games for their young online service which would prove to be the very first Beyond games to see the light of day. Beyond’s relationship with the latter would lead to the publication of another big-name-endorsed baseball simulation: Tony La Russa’s Ultimate Baseball, which would sell an impressive 85,684 copies, thereby becoming SSI’s most successful game to date that wasn’t an entry in their series of licensed Dungeons & Dragons games.

As it happened, though, Beyond’s relationship with SSI also came to encompass that license in fairly short order. They contracted to create some new Dungeons & Dragons single-player CRPGs, using the  popular but aging Gold Box engine which SSI had heretofore reserved for in-house titles; the Beyond games were seen by SSI as a sort of stopgap while their in-house staff devoted themselves to developing a next-generation CRPG engine. Beyond’s efforts on this front would result in a pair of titles, Gateway to the Savage Frontier and Treasures of the Savage Frontier, before the disappointing sales of the latter told both parties that the jig was well and truly up for the Gold Box engine.

By Don Daglow’s account, the first graphical multiplayer CRPG set in a persistent world was the product of a fortunate synergy between the work Beyond was doing for AOL and the work they were doing for SSI.

I realized that I was doing online games with AOL and I was doing Dungeons & Dragons games with SSI. Nobody had done a graphical massively-multiplayer online game yet. Several teams had tried, but nobody had succeeded in shipping one. I looked at that, and said, “Wait, I know how to do this because I understand how the Dungeons & Dragons system works on the one hand, and I understand how online works on the other.” I called up Steve Case [at AOL], and Joel Billings and Chuck Kroegel at SSI, and said, “If you guys want to give it a shot, I can give you a graphical MMO, and we can be the first to have it.”

The game was christened Neverwinter Nights. “Neverwinter” was the area of the Forgotten Realms campaign setting which TSR, makers of the Dungeons & Dragons tabletop RPG, had carved out for Beyond to set their games; the two single-player Savage Frontier games were also set in the region. The “Nights,” meanwhile, was a sly allusion to the fact that AOL — and thus this game — was only available on nights and weekends, when the nation’s telecommunications lines could be leased relatively cheaply.

Neverwinter Nights had to be purchased as a boxed game before players could start paying AOL’s connection fees to actually play it. It looked almost indistinguishable from any other Gold Box title on store shelves — unless one noticed the names of America Online and Quantum Computer Services in the fine print.

On the face of it, Neverwinter Nights was the ugliest of kludges. Beyond took SSI’s venerable Gold Box engine, which had never been designed to incorporate multiplayer capabilities, and grafted exactly those capabilities onto it. At first glance, the end result looked the same as any of the many other Gold Box titles, right down to the convoluted interface that had been designed before mice were standard equipment on most computers. But when you started to look closer, the differences started to show. The player now controlled just one character instead of a full party; parties were formed by multiple players coming together to undertake a quest. To facilitate organizing and socializing, a system for chatting with other players in the same map square had been added. And, in perhaps the trickiest and certainly the kludgiest piece of the whole endeavor, the turn-based Gold Box engine had been converted into a pseudo-real-time proposition that worked just well enough to make multiplayer play possible.

It made for a strange hybrid to say the least — one which Richard Bartle for one dismisses as “innovative yet flawed.” Yet somehow it worked. After launching the game in June of 1991 with a capacity of 100 simultaneous players, Beyond and AOL were soon forced by popular demand to raise this number to 500, thus making Neverwinter Nights the most populous virtual world to go online to date. And even at that, there were long lines of players during peak periods waiting for others to drop out of the game so they could get into it, paying AOL’s minute-by-minute connection fee just to stand in the queue.

While players and would-be players of online CRPGs had undoubtedly been dreaming of the graphics which Neverwinter Nights offered for a long time, smart design was perhaps equally important to the game’s long-term popularity. To an even greater degree than Island of Kesmai, Neverwinter Nights strove to provide a structure for play. Don Daglow had been interested in online gaming for a long time, had played just about all of what was available, and had gone into this project with a clear idea of exactly what sort of game he wanted Neverwinter Nights to be. It was emphasized from the get-go that this was not to be a game of direct player-versus-player conflict. In fact, Beyond went even Kesmai one better in this area, electing not just to ban such combat from certain parts of the game but to ban it entirely. Neverwinter Nights was rather to be a game of cooperation and friendly competition. Players would meet on the town’s central square, form themselves into adventuring parties, and be assigned quests by a town clerk — shades of the much-loved first Gold Box game, Pool of Radiance — to kill such-and-such a monster or recover such-and-such a treasure. Everyone in the party would then share equally in the experience and loot that resulted. Even death was treated relatively gently: characters would be revived in town minus all of the stuff they had been toting along with them, but wouldn’t lose the armor, weapons, and magic items they had actually been using — much less lose their lives permanently, as happened in MUD.

One player’s character has just cast feeblemind on another’s, rendering him “stupid.” This became a sadly typical sight in the game.

Beyond’s efforts to engender the right community spirit weren’t entirely successful; players did find ways to torment one another. While player characters couldn’t attack one another physically, they could cast spells at one another — a necessary capability if a party’s magic-using characters were to be able to cast “buffing” spells on the fighters before and during combat. A favorite tactic of the griefers was to cast the “feeblemind” spell several times in succession on the newbies’ characters, reducing their intelligence and wisdom scores to the rock bottom of 3, thus making them for all practical purposes useless. One could visit a temple to get this sort of thing undone, but that cost gold the newbies didn’t have. By most accounts, there was much more of this sort of willful assholery in Neverwinter Nights than there had been in Island of Kesmai, notwithstanding the even greater lengths Beyond had gone to prevent it. Perhaps it was somehow down to the fact that Neverwinter Nights was a graphical game — however crude the graphics were even by the standards of the game’s own time — that led to it attracting a greater percentage of such immature players.

Griefers aside, though, Neverwinter Nights had much to recommend it, as well as plenty of players happy to play it in the spirit Beyond had intended. Indeed, the devotion the game’s most hardcore players displayed remains legendary to this day. They formed themselves into guilds, using that very word for the first time to describe such aggregations. They held fairs, contests, performances, and the occasional wedding. And they started at least two newsletters to keep track of goings-on in Neverwinter. Some issues have been preserved by dedicated fans, allowing us today a glimpse into a community that was at least as much about socializing and role-playing as monster-bashing. The first issue of News of the Realm, for example, tells us that Cyric has just become a proud father in the real world; that Vulcan and Dramia have opened their own weapons shop in the game; that Cold Chill the notorious bandit has shocked everyone by recognizing the errors of his ways and becoming good; that the dwarves Nystramo and Krishara are soon to hold their wedding — or, as dwarves call it, their “Hearth Building.” Clearly there was a lot going on in Neverwinter.

The addition of graphics would ironically limit the lifespan of many an online game; while text is timeless, computer graphics, especially in the fast-evolving 1980s and 1990s, had a definite expiration date. Under the circumstances, Neverwinter Nights had a reasonably long run, remaining available for six years on AOL. Over the course of that period online life and computer games both changed almost beyond recognition. Already looking pretty long in the tooth when Neverwinter Nights made its debut in 1991, the Gold Box engine by 1997 was a positive antique.

Despite the game’s all-too-obvious age, AOL’s decision to shut it down in July of 1997 was greeted with outrage by its rabid fan base, some of whom still nurse a strong sense of grievance to this day. But exactly how large that fan base still was by 1997 is a little uncertain. The Neverwinter Nights community insisted (and continues to insist) that the game was as popular as ever, making the claim from uncertain provenance that AOL was still making good money from it. Richard Bartle makes the eye-popping claim today, also without attribution, that it was still bringing in fully $5 million per year. Yet the reality remains that this was an archaic MS-DOS game at a time when software in general had largely completed the migration to Windows. It was only getting more brittle as it fell further and further behind the times. Just two months after the plug was pulled on Neverwinter Nights, Ultima Online debuted, marking the beginning of the modern era of massively-multiplayer CRPGs as we’ve come to know them today. Neverwinter Nights would have made for a sad sight in any direct comparison with Ultima Online. It’s understandable that AOL, never an overly games-focused service to begin with, would want to get out while the getting was good.

Even in its heyday, when the land of Neverwinter was stuffed to its 500-player capacity every night and more players were lining up outside, its popularity was never all that great in the grand scheme of the games industry; that very capacity limit if nothing else saw to that. Nevertheless, its place in gaming lore as a storied pioneer was such that Bioware chose to revive the name in 2002 in the form of a freestanding boxed CRPG with multiplayer capabilities. That version of Neverwinter Nights was played by many, many times more people than the original — and yet it could never hope to rival its predecessor’s claim to historical importance.

The massively-multiplayer online CRPGs that would follow the original Neverwinter Nights would be slicker, faster, in some ways friendlier, but the differences would be of degree, not of kind. MUD, Island of Kesmai, and Neverwinter Nights between them had invented a genre, going a long way in the process toward showing any future designers who happened to be paying attention exactly what worked there and what didn’t. All that remained for their descendants to do was to popularize it, to make it easier and cheaper and more convenient to lose oneself in a shared virtual world of the fantastic.

(Sources: the books MMOs from the Inside Out by Richard Bartle and Gamers at Work: Stories Behind the Games People Play by Morgan Ramsey; Online Today of February 1986, April 1986, August 1986, June 1987, January 1988, August 1988, September 1988, and February 1989; Computer Gaming World of June/July 1986; The Gamers Connection of September/October 1988; Compute!’s Gazette of July 1989; Compute! of November 1991; the SSI archive at the Strong Museum of Play. Online sources include Barbara Baser’s Black Dragon walkthrough, as preserved by Arthur J. O’Dwyer; “The Game Archaeologist Discovers the Island of Kesmai” from Engadget. Readers may also be interested in the CRPG Addict’s more experiential impression of playing Neverwinter Nights offline — and be sure to check out the comments to that article for some memories of old players.)

December 20, 2017


The IFTF gift shop is now open

December 20, 2017 06:46 PM

Just in time for the holidays (or anyway smack-dab in the middle of them), we open the doors to the IFTF gift shop.

Right now, we’ve got just one collection of items: T-shirts, mugs, and stickers all featuring gorgeous artwork by Maia Kobabe commemorating the IF Archive’s 25th anniversary, as featured in our recent blog post on this topic.

All proceeds from gift shop purchases go to IFTF, helping it fund its programs and other activities. Pick up a cool bit of IF merch, and support interactive fiction’s public infrastructure in the process! (This complements our various methods for giving more directly — and tax-deductibly, where eligible — to IFTF.)

December 19, 2017


Celebrating 25 years of IF Archive

by Flourish Klink at December 19, 2017 05:06 PM

A map labeled 'The Interactive Fiction Archive - Since 1992', surrounded by books, a lantern, a ball of twine, and other bric-a-brac

After 25 years of continuous operation, the Interactive Fiction Archive feels like a fact of life to members of the interactive fiction community. To those who’ve been involved longest, it’s an old and reliable friend. To newer IF enthusiasts, it can sometimes seem a puzzling relic of the past — it doesn’t look like modern web-based archives, or function like them either. Often taken for granted, the IF Archive is one of the most important collections in the world of electronic gaming.

The IF Archive was founded in November 1992 by Volker Blasius and David Baggett. The original announcement says that “we want this site to be a place where all things related to the art (and science) of interactive fiction can be consolidated,” but it wasn’t exactly a mission statement—at the time, no one could have guessed that it would be such a long-standing endeavor.

At first, the Archive was a simple FTP site. Those of us who weren’t technophiles in the 90s might not recall how files could be distributed this way, without a website at all—in fact, it wasn’t until 1999 that it had an HTML front-end. But even without a web presence, it was at the heart of IF culture for years: Inform and TADS were both originally distributed from the IF Archive, and the first IFComp was run from it. In fact, apart from that web presence, the IF Archive isn’t fundamentally much different from the day it was launched in 1992. The biggest change is its growth: today, the Archive contains about 15,000 files, filling nearly 10 gigabytes of disk space. Every new IFComp adds about a half a gigabyte of storage—an unthinkable amount when the archive was founded. Fortunately, disk space has gotten cheaper faster than the Archive has filled up.

Fundamentally, the Archive is just that: a location to store interactive fiction games, and one that intends to keep them forever, allowing the public to download them freely. It lacks a search function to allow you to find the games or other IF resources you want; it assumes that you’ll already know what you’re looking for. To actually search for works, you’ll have to use a secondary tool. Happily, Mike Roberts created the Interactive Fiction Database (IFDB), which allows anyone to find what they need. It might surprise many people to find out that these are separate tools operated by separate teams!

Still, that’s one of the things that makes the IF Archive so enduring. David Kinder, who started working with the Archive in 1995, writes, “Most technology either becomes useless or gets replaced, but a few things just hang around forever, becoming part of the infrastructure that people rely on, often without even knowing that much about it. That seems to be the way the Archive is going. Hopefully in 25 years anyone who wants to will be able to look back at what was happening in 2017 from what we’ve stored.”

As a community, we’re incredibly lucky to have 25 years of interactive fiction history stored for us — not just individual works of IF, but the discussion and the tools that make the community what it is. This presents its own challenges going forward. Andrew Plotkin says, “We’re not just a single community any more; there isn’t even a single focus of community discussion. There are modern IF communities and audiences that don’t have archiving in their cultural DNA. I am keen to bring them the word. I want IF fans in 2042, twenty-five years from now, to know all of IF’s history—not just the parts I was directly involved in.”

He speaks for IFTF, the charitable nonprofit that assumed legal stewardship of the IF Archive in 2017. Here’s to 25 years of the IF Archive, and we look forward to the next 25!

Artwork for this article by Maia Kobabe.