Planet Interactive Fiction

September 23, 2017

Renga in Blue

Quondam: Irreversible Damage

by Jason Dyer at September 23, 2017 05:40 AM

Since last time, I had managed to apply the mysterious message in a sandwich (see details in the comments) to break into a demonic restraurant:

You are in the kitchen of Beelzebub’s restaurant, full of imps preparing revolting food. The smell of sulfur and roast flesh catch at your throat.
A roast ox is turning on a spit.
A goblin is coming, the light gleaming off its many eyes and claws!
A ring is set in the floor.

Unfortunately, I spent many fruitless hours afterwards with no progress at all, and I decided it was time to break open the hints. In the commercial version, they were provided with the game itself as an envelope meant to be broken open in time of emergency.

It’s time.

Immediately I found my “stopping point” puzzle; it was Yet Another Visualization Problem, but I don’t blame myself here because the text suggests contradictory things.

>NE
You are lost in a trackless forest.
A little bird sings nearby.

>GET BIRD
You grab the bird, but it expires and you drop its remains.

Being able to grab the bird suggests that is literally “nearby” enough that one can reach out and grab it, not that it is perched a few trees over or anything like that. Consequently, it never occurred to me I could do this:

>FOLLOW BIRD
You struggle through briars you thought impassable to get to the bird which then flies to another branch.

>FOLLOW BIRD
You struggle through briars you thought impassable to get to the bird which then flies to another branch.

>FOLLOW BIRD
The bird finally flutters off.
You are on the shore of a wild sea surrounded by forest. There is a misty isle out to sea, which seems to move as you watch it.
An antique brooch lies here!

Compare: the bird is close by and far away at the same time. It’s like the adventure game version of a continuity mistake in a movie.

I’m going to be somewhat forgiving because solving this puzzle is followed by a section which I found breathtaking, enough so that I’m going to give a spoiler warning — this is likely the best part of the game.

Let’s pause with another horror vacui picture. This is the Sarcofago Grande Ludovisi.

I fortunately had my broken blade and my hilt with me (from the “reject sword” gag):

>PLAY HARP
You strum – what else – ‘The minstrel boy’.
The waters carry you off to a strange isle in an eternal twilight. You lose track of time watching its helpful craftsmen.
They mend the sword for you.
You are on the strange timeless isle.

Escape required my “half of a ticket marked ‘Faery'”. Quick question here: is half a ticket normal for transport that uses tickets? Is this some sort of reference? Is it something like “one way is half the ticket, going back again is the other half”?

>WAVE TICKET
A swarm of creatures take the ticket.
There is a Ching! and they carry you back to the beach which has changed subtly. You feel weak, your hands wrinkle and your hair turns white. You have been long on the isle and are paying back the time!
You’re on the shore.

It occurred to me briefly that this was permanent — that you were meant to play the rest of the game as a very aged person — but this always happened on the next turn:

>W
You decay to bones.
Your life is over.

However, you may remember I had an elixir which seemed to be a “shrinking potion”. Not really; that was just a side effect of the true nature:

>DRINK ELIXIR
You drink the elixir. Its youth spell balances your ageing and your health returns.

Aha! The “shrinking” was getting younger, and “vanishing” was simply due to going into negative years.

However, this didn’t turn back the flow of time. This is permanent time travel, on the order of something like 100 years.

Consequently, all parts of the map visited so far changed. The spider web with many small spiders turns into having three large spiders (which you can evade to grab some bones in the center of the web). The knight that has been blocking your way is … still blocking your way.

You’re on a path between two banks. An aged knight in gleaming armour is ready to contest the way.

Think about all the obstacles in generic fantasy worlds you’ve seen, where something / someone is guarding a single room. When you leave, do they still guard that room? Even after 100 years?

>THROW WATER
You slosh the water at the knight, whose armour immediately goes rusty! His movements get slower.

>NW
The rusty armour slows the knight and you slip past him.
You are in a forest clearing.
There is a large climbable tree here.
An elderly dragon puffs smoke rings here.

The “large climbable tree” was previously a “sapling” planted before the magical isle visit occurred.

Note that if you’ve had items lying around, they’ve all disappeared. The way to protect them is to “deposit” them in a bank. There happens to be a bank right where the knight is “You’re on a path between two banks.” (Beware of puns!)

>DEPOSIT KEY
The key is now in your account.

You can get them back again in a “branch office” of the bank in a branch of the tree. (Groan.)

The branch office mentions interest, which suggests if I deposit a treasure before the time travel it might yield some more riches. The only treasure I have to deposit is a “platinum medal” which I can only get I’ve already bribed the knight (meaning I can’t return to the knight’s location until later), so I’m not sure how I would make a deposit yet.

Anyway, as usual, still stuck. The aged dragon is fortunately now easy to get by, but I don’t know what to do in the part beyond:

>NW
You are standing in a forest glade, full of trees except for a road south. There is a small cave nearby, boarded up, with a sign saying ‘Emergency only’.
There is a red and white striped pole standing vertically here.

>U
You are perched on a pole (and look VERY silly)!

Let me backtrack to my moment of thinking the unnatural aging was irreversible damage. That’s not a common thing in any game of any genre. In general, games seem to be deeply uncomfortable with permanent consequences that affect the physical aspects of the main character(s). Choices can have major plot effects and change the actions of other characters, sure, but with the exception of certain roguelikes (like UnReal World and Darkest Dungeon) every injury seems to have a cure potion around the next corner. Characters might be killed off, but never disabled. This is curious when you consider the amount of danger and trauma a typical video game character goes through.


September 22, 2017

Far Far Futures

Concepts in Cybertext 3 – Parsimony

by Joey Jones at September 22, 2017 10:41 PM

There’s a problem that can happen in cybertexts but also more broadly in videogames and tabletop rpgs. Where the player …

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Goblin Mercantile Exchange

new Twine game released today! A Bathroom Myth (all proceeds benefitting the Transgender Law Center)

by Alan at September 22, 2017 03:41 PM

I’ve been working on this for, well, quite awhile now, and it’s finally done. The game’s page is here. Pay what you want–all proceeds benefit the Transgender Law Center. Here’s my little blurb for it. It’s about 15K words and takes about 45 minutes to play the three main branches.

Even a buck or two for the game goes a long way to help the TLC which–needless to say–is a cause that’s very important to me. If you can’t pay anything–that’s fine too…but be sure to follow the great work that the TLC does.

“Once there was a woman’s restroom that had its heart broken by the cruelty of human beings.”

In the City of the Animal, the city legislature has just released an Edict restricting the use of bathrooms “based on biological sex.” The women’s restroom on the 5th floor of a sleepy downtown skyscraper doesn’t think the Edict will have any affect whatsoever on it. That is, until a young trans woman named Astrid bursts into the restroom to seek sanctuary from overzealous police. What happens next will change both of them, and perhaps the liberty of the city itself.

A Bathroom Myth is a completely text-based game–your choices might take you to the inner sanctum of the Musteline Benefactor’s court, to a dreamscape where a skyscraper transforms into magical megafauna, to–yes–sentient public restrooms and competing celestial bureaucracies. But more than that, A Bathroom Myth is about queer communities in which people fight to survive, and to love, and to go to the bathroom without being policed.

Pay what you want–all payments will be donated to the Transgender Law Center, an organization that “works to change law, policy and attitudes so that all people can live safely, authentically, and free from discrimination regardless of their gender identity or expression.” .The game page will be updated often with how much has been raised and donated to TLC.

The Digital Antiquarian

Games on the Mersey, Part 3: The Phoenix

by Jimmy Maher at September 22, 2017 03:41 PM

Ian Hetherington made for a strange choice as the guy to clean up Imagine Software’s confused finances. Brought in very late in the day to serve as the company’s financial director, he had no background in accounting whatsoever. Ironically, Bruce Everiss, who was serving as Imagine’s marketer and operations manager, had gone through an accounting program — yet he was, according at least to his own telling, always kept well away from that side of the business.

Hetherington, for his part, had worked at British Oxygen as a mainframe programmer before trying and failing a few times to get his own computer companies off the ground. The most recent and prominent of such efforts had been DAMS Business Computers, a partnership with DAMS International, a manufacturer of office furniture. The venture produced a number of hardware add-ons for the Commodore VIC-20 and 64 that added memory and features to the machines, but it never took off, and was wound up late in 1983 after lasting barely a year. It was at this point that Hetherington moved on to Imagine.

The trio who had run Imagine to this point were, with the possible partial exception of Everiss, a little in awe of Hetherington. Though he was a Liverpudlian like them, he came from a different social strata; he was a polished, charismatic fellow whose public-school education helped him to talk a very good game indeed. Despite his checkered entrepreneurial career to date, he knew lots of people in the local business community, and knew in the broad sense how business worked — the very connections and competencies his new colleagues so conspicuously lacked. Indeed, it was likely his business connections, and the potential sources of desperately needed financing they could represent, that convinced the others in their naifish, literal-minded way to name him “financial director.” By this point, they were ready to clutch at any straw that might offer an exit from the mess they had created for themselves.

Of course, any hopes along those lines were doomed to be forlorn. No businessperson with an ounce of sense would invest in a company in Imagine’s state, no matter how silver a tongue Hetherington might possess. As we saw in my previous article, each of the principals dealt with the situation in his own way as the death spiral continued; the one consistency in their responses is a heaping helping of denial. Bruce Everiss tried to work his way out of the crisis, believing that if he stayed the course, showed up every day, and kept trying to get the megagames completed it must all work out in the end. (Such optimism may have had its roots in his lack of access to Imagine’s real finances.) All of the others simply checked out, spending less and less time at the office in proportion to Everiss’s increasingly long work week. Mark Butler, perhaps the most likable but certainly the most benighted of the group, adopted a “what I don’t see can’t hurt me” posture, spending his days out and about behind the handlebars of his racing motorcycle or behind the wheel of his BMW. Ian Hetherington and Dave Lawson also disappeared — but they, it would only slowly materialize, were busying themselves with something far more devious.

They made for an unlikely team. Initially, Hetherington, the smooth, cultivated businessman, hadn’t taken at all to Lawson, the plain-spoken Scouser. Hetherington may even have been moved once or twice to deploy the dreaded middle-class epithets of “common” and “peasant” to describe his working-class colleague. Over time, though, they bonded in a growing conviction that the ship of Imagine was going down, and that they didn’t want to go down with it. They would happily cede to Everiss the captain’s role; let him remain on the bridge until the bitter end.

Hetherington, being the more worldly of the pair, evidently came to the conclusion that the Imagine story could only end one way somewhat earlier than Lawson. When Paul Anderson of the BBC first came out to discuss making his television documentary about the company, probably in March or very early April of 1984, it was actually Lawson who carried the day for him, convincing his skeptical colleagues that the publicity was simply too great a chance to pass up. When cameras started to roll a few weeks later, however, both he and Hetherington wanted as little as possible to do with them. We can theorize, then, that reality hit home for Lawson at some point during those intervening weeks.

The plan Hetherington and Lawson were soon hatching was a bizarre combination of guile and naivete. They would form a new company, which they would name Finchspeed. They would quietly go about among the current Imagine staff, offering jobs to those they deemed both personally loyal to them and necessary to finish up the megagames, a total of about twenty people. This group would most definitely not include Everiss, whom both men by now openly loathed; the passive Mark Butler, on the other hand, was a question mark. Once they had the personnel lined up, they would transfer all rights and all ongoing work on the megagames to Finchspeed, leaving Imagine to crash and burn while they enjoyed that most precious thing in life or business: a second chance. So, that covers the guile. Where the naivete comes in, of course, is that neither life nor business usually makes it quite that easy to wash one’s hands of one’s past choices.

The pair did finally decide to include Butler in the conspiracy. The hard fact was that they needed his vote to go forward with the plan; Lawson owned just 45 percent of Imagine, with another 45 percent belonging to Butler and the other 10 percent to the deeply embittered Stephen Blower of the former Studio Sing, who could be expected to vote against anything proposed by the other shareholders as a matter of principle. Although Butler was fond of Everiss, Hetherington and Lawson believed — rightly, as it transpired — that he would be a fairly easy mark if given the choice between having a second chance as a software mogul or going back to selling computers in some shop somewhere. With the pliable Butler on board, they now had an overwhelming voting bloc for anything they might choose to do.

Before they did anything publicly, though, there was other secret business to take care of. Hetherington claimed he had investment contacts in the United States that would let Finchspeed raise £1.5 million to finish up the megagames and get them published. Therefore, after secretly forming Finchspeed and recruiting Butler and the other loyalists, Hetherington and Lawson flew across the Atlantic to try to secure the money. Thus they weren’t in the country for most of that fateful June of 1984, as the writs flew thick and fast and creditors pounded at Imagine’s door. Rumor back in Britain had it that they had fled the country in a panic, perhaps permanently; the real truth, as we’ve now seen, was far more devious.

One of those in the know inside Imagine finally leaked said real truth on June 29 — truly a bombshell of epic proportions for Bruce Everiss and everyone else remaining at the old company who hadn’t been invited to join the new one. An enraged Everiss walked out at midday, threatening all sorts of public consequences. Hoping to put a lid on the situation before it blew up in the press, Hetherington and Lawson rushed home from the United States the very next day. They hadn’t, needless to say, secured the financing Hetherington had so confidently predicted they would. He would later blame Everiss and the anonymous leaker of the bombshell for this failure, saying they had been about to seal a deal when forced to cut their trip short — truly an audacious attempt to play the aggrieved party, given the unconscionable dereliction of executive duties the pair’s leaving the country just as their company was collapsing represented.

Despite the lack of financing to see through their plans, on Sunday, July 1, hours after landing back in Britain, Hetherington and Lawson called an emergency meeting of the three-person Imagine board. Here they officially transferred the copyright on the megagames from Imagine to Finchspeed, who would also be allowed to use Imagine’s offices for free, for however long they still existed. In return, Finchspeed would need to pay Imagine £40,000 for the equipment they would use to develop the megagames, and would have to pay 50 percent of net profits from the games to Imagine after their release, up to a total of £625,000. These last stipulations may sound generous, but it should be remembered that Imagine was already a company well past the point of no return; as Hetherington and Lawson were in a position to know better than anyone, it was exceedingly unlikely that Imagine would still be around when any of the payments came due. Thus these stipulations were more about creating a veneer of plausible deniability than they were a good-faith business negotiation. After the entity that was Imagine no longer existed, Finchspeed could expect to walk away free and clear with the megagames.

Meanwhile Everiss was venting to anyone who would listen in the press, spawning an ongoing soap opera which the public could follow via magazines like Popular Computing Weekly and Home Computing Weekly. “They have set up Finchspeed in order to own Imagine’s megagames and assets for themselves,” Everiss said. “Ian Hetherington and Dave Lawson [were] in the States to raise funds for Finchspeed. Imagine will not see this money.” Everiss claimed that, incredibly, even the pair’s supposed partner Mark Butler hadn’t known they were going to the United States. “The only person they told,” he said, “was Andrew Sinclair [no relation to Clive Sinclair or the computer company of the same name], who basically is just David’s gopher, and Andrew had been spying on Mark and myself and reporting on a daily basis to them in San Francisco.” To add more fuel to the fire, Everiss noted that Hetherington and Lawson had taken their significant others with them to the United States, and claimed they had all traveled in high style, at a final cost of some £10,000 that was charged not to Finchspeed but to Imagine — presumably in the expectation that the whole trip could be written off once the latter went bankrupt.

Hetherington and Lawson’s defense was, to say the least, unconvincing. Speaking from the United States on June 29, Hetherington had claimed that “Dave Lawson and myself have been in Silicon Valley to try to raise money for Imagine for the last two weeks. We set up Finchspeed as an off-the-shelf company to get money into Imagine. There is no point in discussing Finchspeed since it is dead and burned. It’s forgotten.” But if it was “dead and burned,” why were they suddenly transferring Imagine assets to Finchspeed two days later? Hetherington said that “it is important that the megagames go out with Imagine’s name on them, and I will do anything to ensure that they do.” Did that “anything” for some reason need to include transferring their copyrights to another company? At least one of his comments, at any rate, rang true for anyone who was aware of the petty infighting that had been going on for the past several months inside Imagine: “Staff will have to be sacked who are now loyal to Bruce Everiss.”

In the end, this attempt to pull a fast one, like just about everything anyone at Imagine ever touched, turned into an embarrassing failure. When hatching the scheme, Hetherington and Lawson had neglected one stipulation of the law: that any contract entered into by a company that already had a “winding-up” petition filed against it — which Imagine had had since April — could be set aside by the liquidator after said company is declared bankrupt. The law, in other words, had already foreseen the possibility of bright young sparks attempting exactly what Hetherington and Lawson had been trying to do, and had made provisions to prevent it.

It was announced in August that the arrangement between Imagine and Finchspeed dating from July 1 was null and void on these grounds. The megagames, like all of Imagine’s other assets, passed to the liquidator for disposition in whatever manner would most benefit Imagine’s creditors. Dave Lawson, in the face of all the evidence to the contrary, tried to claim this had been understood all along: “There was never any doubt that the megagames were with Imagine’s receivers because the contract between the two companies was not honored.” And again, it wasn’t entirely clear what some of these words were supposed to mean. In what way was the contract “not honored?”

But still the pair refused to give up on their dogged pursuit of the megagames. Whatever else one can say about their business ethics or lack thereof, it’s clear they were deeply, genuinely passionate about the concept, and so attached to it that they were willing to expend enormous effort trying to finish what they had started at Imagine.

In light of such passion, the question of what the megagame concept actually was arises yet again. As I noted last time it reared its head, that was always very difficult to say. Perhaps the best description of the megagame dream was ironically provided by Hetherington and Lawson’s arch-enemy Bruce Everiss, many months after the Imagine collapse. He made them sound much like the “interactive movies” that would soon become the signature products of the American publisher Cinemaware, describing them as a “film which you, the player, take part in”:

You become one of the cast of characters that each have separate and identifiable personalities. What happens when you meet them depends on their personalities and also on what you do, as in real life. Characters then remember how they have been treated by the player and act accordingly on subsequent meetings.

There are no lives or score. It is a matter of trying to achieve what you, the player, wants. There is no status line to ruin the realism. The whole screen is action.

The Commercial Breaks episode dealing with Imagine included a brief, tantalizing glimpse of Bandersnatch, the first of the megagames, in action, and it did indeed seem to conform to this rough description.

Hetherington and Lawson’s hopes of reviving the megagames were given new life when word went through the industry that Sinclair Research was interested in funding and publishing software for their new QL computer. The QL had made its debut at the beginning of 1984, the first machine available to British users that was built around the powerful new Motorola 68000 processor line instead of the old 6502 or Z80. Unfortunately, it was able to beat the competition to the market only through being released months before it ought to have been, with both hardware and operating system still in a shabby, untested state. Sinclair had been struggling ever since to rehabilitate the machine’s image. One way to reverse the QL’s fortunes, they decided, would be to make it play games that would never be possible on a Spectrum. By way of getting that ball rolling, they were ready to fund a number of such projects and then publish the results themselves.1

There was a certain synergy here which it didn’t take Hetherington and Lawson long to spot. The megagames had needed to add new hardware to the Spectrum because they would have been too big and ambitious to contemplate otherwise. That, anyway, had been the old Imagine company line. Now, much the same argument could be used to justify porting them to the QL, without all the complications of the hardware add-on they had planned for the Spectrum version; the QL had 128 K of memory, more than the Spectrum’s 48 K of internal memory and the 64 K of the proposed hardware add-on combined. The advertising practically wrote itself: the megagames are made possible only by the 16-bit power of the QL!

The tireless Ian Hetherington worked out an arrangement and got Sinclair to agree to it. First, Sinclair bought the rights to the megagames at the liquidation auction; these cost them the princely sum of £700, plus a stipulation that Imagine’s creditors be paid a portion of any income they might eventually generate. Then, Hetherington and Lawson and a handful of their loyalists from Imagine set up yet another company, for the older Finchspeed was too beset with questions, too mired in the scandal of the Imagine collapse to continue with — and then there was also the problem of the now-superfluous Mark Butler, who had been given a third of Finchspeed; he would be cut out of the new company, thus ending his brief but colorful career in games.

Hetherington and Lawson’s latest company was named Fireiron. The day it was formed, Sinclair signed a contract with its owners, paying them to port the megagames-in-progress to the QL and then to finish them off on the new platform.

So, Hetherington and Lawson were seemingly back in business, picking up where Imagine had left off. This included, unfortunately, the same tendency toward wildly overambitious pronouncements. “Originally at Imagine we were working on seven megagame titles,” said Lawson. “I see no reason why we shouldn’t continue with them all.” In reality, only two megagames had progressed far enough to have titles, and only one, Bandersnatch, had had significant programming done. Given these realities, it was perhaps dangerous to trust too much in Lawson’s assertion that the old Speccy version of Bandersnatch was “90 per cent complete, ” and could be ported to the QL and completed there in very short order. Still, the new arrangement didn’t seem a bad one, all told. There was even something in it for Imagine’s long-suffering creditors, should the megagames prove successful.

Of course, all of Hetherington and Lawson’s efforts were still dogged by the sorry collapse of Imagine, and the less than standup way they’d responded to it. Judging a good offense to be the best defense, Hetherington took to calling up the most aggressive journalists to throw a mixture of bluster and threats of libel suits back in their faces. He was, he said, “sick to death of people insinuating that anything untoward happened at Imagine.” Sometimes his efforts could lead to uncomfortable juxtapositions, as when he called Crash magazine to push back against a lengthy article on the Imagine collapse they were planning to run, only to be connected with the accounting department, who were more interested in finding out whether the magazine stood any chance of ever being paid for the £5825 advertising bill that the bankrupt Imagine still had outstanding.

For understandable reasons, Hetherington and Lawson wanted more than anything to put the whole Imagine debacle behind them and focus on the future. Ian Hetherington in January of 1985:

My attitude has always been that it’s all over now, and what we’ll do is quickly get our lives back together again. I don’t want people bringing back something that happened six or seven months ago. What we’re doing now, Dave and I, is improving on megagames to produce something quite startling. We want to bow out at the top.

The many creditors who had had faith in Imagine, only to be bilked out of many thousands of pounds — not to mention the many dozens of employees who had lost their jobs — weren’t quite so willing to declare the events of just six months previous to be ancient history. “The lying and deception” Hetherington and Lawson had engaged in, Bruce Everiss said, “were almost boundless.” Assuming he was correct, it certainly did seem like those actions ought to have consequences. Still, there was only so much outrage to be generated; the scandal of Imagine did gradually fade into the past, giving at last to Hetherington and Lawson the fresh start they looked for.

Yet their new life as Fireiron showed every initial sign of following the same pattern as their old one with Imagine. Relations with Sinclair steadily worsened in 1985, with the latter claiming Fireiron was spending far too much of their money in the course of missing deadline after deadline. The original plan had been to release Bandersnatch in the first quarter of 1985, a goal that would most definitely not be met. Meanwhile the Sinclair QL’s position in the marketplace was going from bad to worse, such that it seemed highly unlikely that Bandersnatch or anything else could save the machine. Sinclair unceremoniously dropped Fireiron in the spring of 1985.

But still Hetherington and Lawson refused to give up on their megagames. They hatched yet another scheme, this time to port Bandersnatch to the new Atari ST computer, a machine based on the same 68000 architecture as the Sinclair QL — thus making the task of porting the work-in-progress QL version to it dramatically easier — but one which looked to have a much brighter future. The only problem was that Sinclair still owned the copyrights to the megagames. To get around that issue, Fireiron simply renamed Bandersnatch to Brataccas and dropped the old “megagame” buzzword entirely. (Good riddance, said an exhausted industry!) This move introduced all sorts of new legal jeopardy for the Fireiron folks, but they were fortunate in that Sinclair, who would soon sell off their entire extant computer business to Amstrad, never seemed to pay enough attention to realize what Fireiron had done. Ditto the Imagine liquidators and the creditors, who would no longer be receiving their cut of any royalties the rechristened megagame might generate.

In lieu of Sinclair, Hetherington was able to scare up some alternate financing, this time from one Richard Talbot Smith, a big wheel in the world of Liverpool business, owner of the only steel foundry and the only Mercedes dealership in the city among other ventures. Also coming aboard at this time, perhaps at Smith’s insistence, was an experienced businessman named Jonathan Ellis, who could hopefully serve as the steady hand at the wheel in terms of finances and day-to-day operations that Imagine had never had. The company got yet another new name in the process of making these changes, this one destined to stick. When the rejiggered Fireiron brought a prototype of the Atari ST Brataccas to the Personal Computer World Show in September of 1985, they did so as Psygnosis. The name, according to Hetherington, “just happened.” Beyond the obvious echoes of Psyclapse, the planned second megagame from the old Imagine days, the only clear logic behind the made-up word was an intimation of “knowledge of the mind” in badly garbled Greek.

Roger Dean’s iconic Psygnosis owl logo, one of the most immediately recognizable in the games industry.

Having earlier made a deal as Imagine with the well-known pop artist Roger Dean, only to see it collapse along with the rest of the company, the new Psygnosis now reached out to him again for help in crafting their visual identity. “They kept throwing names at me, and wanted something that said ‘knowledge,’ ‘the future,’ ‘wisdom,’ and ‘fun,'” Dean remembers. What he came up with in response was one of the more enduring logos in videogame history: a slightly robotic-looking owl, rendered in his trademark airbrushed style. It seemed, to him anyway, a perfect representation of “knowledge,” “the future,” and “wisdom”; as for fun, it was after all to be attached to games, so presumably that would be self-evident.

In a way, it was starting to feel like old times again, with the old hype machine once again kicking in. Brataccas was given pride of place inside Atari’s own booth at the Personal Computer World Show, running on four screens in order to be sure it wasn’t missed. Even Eugene Evans was there, hired by Psygnosis to serve as a temporary spokesman, doing the charming PR thing he had always been so good at as smoothly as ever. Rumor had it that even Bruce Everiss had been seen skulking about the Atari booth with a sour expression on his face.

That said, life at Psygnosis wasn’t quite all it had been at Imagine. The company’s new offices, located in a disused warehouse behind Roger Talbot Smith’s steel foundry in the midst of Liverpool’s downtrodden dock district, were a far cry from the old digs. One former employee describes the setting as “a dirty part of town,” remembering how he’d return to his car every evening at quitting time to find it covered in the “crap” spewed by the foundry’s smokestacks. Speaking of cars: the Ferraris, BMWs, and Porsches that had been the company cars at Imagine had been replaced by a fleet of Vauxhall Cavaliers. But Hetherington and Lawson’s megagame dream was still alive, even if it could no longer be described using that word. Against all the odds, it looked like they might just manage to finish Bandersnatch — woops, Brataccas.

Brataccas for the Atari ST shipped in the first week of 1986 in an elaborate oversized box painted by Roger Dean. Hetherington and Lawson had kept the faith through two years of hype and rumor and scandal and conspiracy, through four separate company names, had violated ethical norm after ethical norm in order to reach this fruition of the megagame dream. With a buildup like that, the end result was perhaps doomed to smack at least a little of anticlimax.

What was surprising, however, was just how thorough the anticlimax was. There was no kind way to put it: Brataccas was a hot mess. The unabashedly high-concept game attempted, as its billing had always suggested it would, to be a genuinely new, more dynamic and emergent approach to an adventure game, including context-sensitive conversations and action-oriented combat. Sadly, though, it was just about unplayable. The control scheme was based on mouse gestures; in this it was, like so much about the legacy of Imagine, ahead of its time in conception but atrocious in execution, making things the game seemed to expect you to do with relative ease all but impossible. This alleged animated adventure turned into a slideshow every time other characters were on the screen — if it ran like this on the 68000-based Atari ST, one shuddered to think how it would have performed on the 8-bit Speccy! — and the design of the puzzles and other adventurey bits were even worse than one might have expected from a development team that had never made an adventure game before and had never thought deeply about how to make a playable one. It was impossible to know how to even begin the task of solving the quest, impossible to know what the game really expected of you. And, despite or because of all the time spent in development on all those different platforms, it was horrendously buggy to boot. Even the graphics, in marked contrast to the Psygnosis games that would follow it, weren’t much to write home about.

A cynical observer of Imagine’s history would have said before the release of Brataccas that it was doomed to be a disaster, that no one at the company had ever demonstrated the ability to pull off a concept like this one — and, it was now clear, said cynical observer would have been exactly right. Computer and Video Games magazine wrote that Brataccas “still bore all the scars of its unenviable pedigree. Brataccas is definitely a game whose origins are more interesting than the end product.” Oh, well… Roger Dean’s box sure looked nice.

“A space fugitive walks into a bar….” The unique thing about Brataccas in contrast to contemporary adventure games is its dynamic nature, its focus on simulation. In other words, the young lady whom our hero appears to be chatting up actually will go to Calypso foyer. It’s only a shame that it’s all executed so poorly.

Brataccas’s one saving grace was timing. It hit the market at a time when few games were yet available for the Atari ST, and most of those that were were ports of older 8-bit titles. Despite its own 8-bit origins, Brataccas was, whatever else one said about it, something unique, something you couldn’t play on a Spectrum, a Commodore 64, or a BBC Micro. This factor drove what modest sales the game was able to rack up on the Atari ST, as it also did sales of the Commodore Amiga version which appeared shortly thereafter. The same factor helped Psygnosis set up distribution to North America through a deal with the publisher Mindscape — something Imagine, notwithstanding their stated goal of becoming the preeminent name in computer games “throughout the world,” had never managed.

Still, the “success” of Brataccas, dwarfed as was the game itself by all the hype that had surrounded it for so long now, based more on historical happenstance than the game’s intrinsic qualities, didn’t portend a stable, prosperous, or that matter lengthy future for the company that had made it. Our aforementioned cynical observer doubtless wouldn’t have hesitated to note this reality as well. In this case, though, the observer would be unexpectedly proved wrong. Psygnosis was about to make a pivot from such high-concept fare as Brataccas to something else entirely. And in doing so, Ian Hetherington and Dave Lawson, along with their new partner Jonathan Ellis, would evince a rare and precious quality, one that few would have dreamed that they had in them based on their record to date: they would demonstrate an ability to change.

(Sources: the book Grand Thieves and Tomb Raiders: How British Videogames Conquered the World by Rebecca Levene and Magnus Anderson; Popular Computing Weekly of April 7 1983, July 5 1984, August 16 1984, September 27 1984, October 11 1984, and September 19 1985; Commodore User of June 1983; Crash of January 1985 and February 1985; Home Computing Weekly of July 17 1984; Your Computer of January 1985 and October 1985; Sinclair User of October 1984; Personal Computer Games of September 1984; ZX Computing of February/March 1985; Crash of January 1985, February 1985, and October 1985; Computer and Video Games of August 1986; The One of May 1991; Retro Gamer 50; the online articles “From Lemmings to Wipeout: How Ian Hetherington Incubated Gaming Success” from Polygon, “Dams Double at Nemo” from Channel Info, and “The Psygnosis Story: John White, Director of Software” from Edge Online.)


Comments
  1. One other company to benefit from their largess would be the text-adventure maker Magnetic Scrolls; Sinclair would wind up funding much of the development of their in-house adventure system, and would publish The Pawn, the first game made using it, first for the QL. 

September 21, 2017

IFTF Blog

Take our IFDB user survey

by Andrew Plotkin at September 21, 2017 09:51 PM

IFDB, the Interactive Fiction Database, was launched about ten years ago by Michael J. Roberts. Mike was responding to a commonly-voiced complaint about the IF Archive: it’s full of great stuff, but it’s impossible to search and there’s barely any information about the games there.

I take full responsibility for the IF Archive’s failings, by the way. We occasionally talked about ways to improve searchability, but we never did anything about it — until IFDB came along and pretty much solved the problem for us. It’s the complement that the Archive didn’t know it needed.

IFDB takes a crowdsourcing approach which has worked very well for the past decade. IF enthusiasts fill in bibliographic data about new games (and about old games, as they come to light!); people can contribute reviews, ratings, game lists, polls, and so on. The site instantly became essential to the IF community, and it remains essential.

Having said all that: nobody argues that IFDB is perfect. A couple of weeks ago I ran into a discussion about what sorts of things IFDB isn’t as good at. I immediately got defensive (even though it’s not my site!), and then I started to ask how it should be fixed. And then I took a step back and said, okay, maybe I should be asking everybody what IFDB needs.

Thus, our shiny new IFDB User Survey.

If you have used IFDB at all, please take a few minutes to fill this out. Answer as briefly or as volubly as you like. You may include your name or answer anonymously.

(Yes, I realize the irony in explaining IFDB for four paragraphs and then making a request of people who already knew what IFDB was! Here at IFTF we strive to be educational even at inopportune moments.)

If you’ve already filled out the survey, thank you! (We originally posted it last week.) (And we haven’t changed anything, so there’s no need to do it again.) But if you haven’t run through it yet, please do. The deadline is October 15th.

After we close the survey, we’ll collate the results and post a summary on this blog. It should provide an interesting diversion while we wait for IFComp results.

Now the caveats:

IFDB is not an IFTF service; it is wholly operated by Mike Roberts. Mike has stated that he doesn’t have much free time to update the site these days. So please don’t get the idea that anyone is going to jump straight from collecting suggestions to implementing new features. This is research. Once we have results, we can start thinking about next steps.

We will of course pass the survey results along to Mike. It’s possible that some of the suggestions will turn out to be easy changes. You never know. If there’s a possible role for people to contribute development effort, we’ll be happy to coordinate; but that’s up to Mike, obviously.

However, the survey is deliberately open-ended. It’s possible that the top ideas won’t require server updates at all. They may involve better use of existing IFDB features, or public outreach, or even a brand-new complementary service somewhere.

Thanks for helping out.

The People's Republic of IF

October meetup

by zarf at September 21, 2017 02:41 PM

The Boston IF meetup for October will be Monday, October 23, 6:30 pm, MIT room 14N-233. We will look at some IFComp entries.

Also, come visit us at Boston FIG this Saturday at MIT!

September 20, 2017

IFComp News

New for 2017: Anonymous feedback

September 20, 2017 07:41 PM

Starting this year, IFComp judges will be able to leave anonymous feedback for authors. This was the single most requested new-feature suggestion resulting from the survey that we held after IFComp 2016. Our new system was co-designed by members of IFComp’s advisory committee – including Jacqueline Ashwell of IntroComp and Carolyn VanEseltine of ParserComp, both events which served as models for providing well-implemented player-to-author feedback systems.

Every entry’s row on the ballot will now include a “Leave feedback” hyperlink. Clicking this link will take you to a new webpage, specific to each entry, where you can leave as much feedback as you’d like (well, up to eight kilobytes of it) in a simple text area. You can revisit any game’s feedback page and update the text there as often as you’d like, right up until the ballot box closes after November 15.

After we post the competition’s final results, we will provide authors a new page for viewing all the feedback their entries collected. We will not reveal the names of the people who wrote each such piece of feedback. (That said, nothing stops judges from signing their own names within the feedback they leave, if they wish to do so.)

As a guard against abuse of this new system, the IFComp code of conduct will apply to all feedback, and competition organizers will know which judges wrote what feedback. The competition reserves the right to block inappropriate feedback, or disqualify those who use the system in ways counter to the code of conduct. With these guards in place, we feel confident that the system’s anonymity will help encourage IFComp participants to write honest and constructive criticism about the works they play.

Renga in Blue

Quondam: Three Objects

by Jason Dyer at September 20, 2017 06:40 AM

I have only made small bits of progress, finding new uses for items.

Jim at the Sandwich Tribunal found instructions and recreated all the British Rail sandwiches. The sandwich depicted is marmite. A test eater (one of his children) described the taste as “fermented bouillon cube”.

Object #1: The British Rail Sandwich

I know, I thought I was done with this one too. Just as a reminder, the sandwich gave me strength, but also nausea and death, until I did:

>OPEN SANDWICH
You tear the transparent wrapper off the sandwich.

It turns out that the sandwich hasn’t yielded all its secrets, yet:

>OPEN SANDWICH
You find a note, reading: I am a captive food taster for B.R. Help me by saying the password near the restaurant and I will help you.

There’s a place where a “password” might work:

You are in a room with an obvious exit east and a sign dangling from the roof reading ‘K.TC..N’ and pointing north.

I haven’t had any luck with any words I’ve tested so far, though.


Object #2: The Mirror

Holding the mirror too long is dangerous:

You see yourself in the mirror and, not looking, fall down a hole.
You’ve passed away.

I had come up with a convoluted way of transporting the mirror via rucksack. The issue had a simpler fix:

>TURN MIRROR
OK

Now the item description (when seen in a room) is

A small face down mirror lies here.

and the mirror is perfectly harmless.


Object #3: The Harp

There is a harp made from rare woods here!

A perfectly natural attempt at PLAY HARP led to

You make an awful jangle.

Which in many games is just a signal that “your character can’t play this musical instruments, cut it out”. But no:

>TUNE HARP
OK

>PLAY HARP
You strum – what else – ‘The minstrel boy’.

If I play the harp now for the dragon, the dragon is “pleased”, but still eats me if I try to walk by. I’ll have to experiment some more.


September 19, 2017

Renga in Blue

Quondam: Beware of Puns

by Jason Dyer at September 19, 2017 06:41 AM

I’ve made more progress and still managed to resist the lure of the walkthrough. My main breakthrough was simply finding I could go northwest from the desert and enter a new section.

Included in that area is a place where I can retrieve the items I deposited in “Customs” (the place that had me stuck last time). I also reached what I’ll call an “accidental solve” — if you try to leave the room where you can rescue your treasures, a hermit looks at your inventory disapprovingly and slams the door, trapping you inside. Let me backtrack a little:

You are in a small town square full of churches and monuments. The Spanish Inquisition are here, debating your future.

>W
The crows bars your way.

>PRAY
The throng draws back and leaves a way free.

I had the luck of being stuck at this part (again, just not finding the northwest passage from the desert) and in an attempt to try everything, did this again after the first PRAY in the same location:

>PRAY
A cardinal lays a cross before you.

Eeeeeeeevil. In any case, if you’re carrying the cross (and I was, by luck) the hermit doesn’t shut you away.

I was also able to store treasures permanently.

This is a sunny but cool area. There is a pool of water here, with mud banks by it, and a holiday cottage to the nowrthwest. A path leads west, and all southward directions lead to desert.

>DIG
You find a plate set in the mud, reading ‘Mud bank – alluvial section. Deposits only’ The mud seeps back.

>DEPOSIT DIAMOND
The diamond is now in your account.

Unlike the Customs area I mentioned (where you can retrieve your deposits nearby), this officially “scores” the treasure. This moment is worth a little discussion.

I’ve always thought of puns as a deeply British thing, possibly because of the British crossword. They have the rule that every clue hints at its word (or phrase) twice, except one of the hints is likely some manner of wordplay.

Puzzle jumbled in game (6)

In any case, this section makes clear we’re not in a world-environment in the typical sense; rather, we are in a world of symbols where items can mean things on multiple levels, where signifiers are detached from the things they signify, and the computer-narrator which is supposedly the “eyes and ears” of the player is out to deceive and trick. (The sandwich from last time is a good instance of this — the whole segment is one that could not reasonably happen in real life, but was instead a challenge to extract a hidden layer of meaning.)

The game at least set the player up to think in terms of “deposit”, but the “allevial deposit” of a mud bank is still an outrageous pun on the level of a particularly fiendish crossword in The Guardian.

I feel like I’m not conveying everything by just talking about it, so here’s an opportunity for you, the readers, to solve a puzzle from the game. This didn’t require resolving a “pun” exactly but I did have to re-contextualize my visualization of an object in the game. Everything you need is in the text. How do you get by the invisible barriers?

You’re within a circle of stones. There are triliths to the northwest, southwest, and southeast; a pair of monoliths flanks the northeast path.

>SW
An invisible force stops you.

>SE
An invisible force stops you.

>U
You are on top of a pillar. Nearby is another.

>INV
You are holding:
A harp!
A rock
Half a ticket
A metal rod
Some mushrooms
A stone slab
A sapling
A rope

From The Fall of Babylon (1555) by Jean Duvet.


Emily Short

Moral Discernment as a Game Mechanic

by Emily Short at September 19, 2017 02:40 AM

Recently I’ve been trying to figure out what to do about a bad situation. I don’t see a solution that doesn’t violate some value I consider important. There are many possible things to do or refrain from doing, and I am concerned about the consequences of almost all of them. The stakes are pretty high. Outcomes affect quite a few people. It is hard to calculate the risks. People I love disagree with me about what the priorities are, and about who has a right or responsibility to do anything.

This is the kind of thing that makes moral choices hard in real life, in my experience. It’s not “kill puppy or save puppy.” Nor a Fate-style escalation, “poke puppy / kick puppy / make puppy ill / kill puppy” — though I realize that was partly philosophical thought experiment.

It’s not “there’s a very very painful, possibly heart-breaking, thing that you morally have to do.” I’ve been there, too, but while that situation might be miserable, it’s at least clear. There’s no A vs B. There is only option A, and what you have to do to get through A, and what you can salvage when A is over. Not a choice mechanic but a challenge mechanic.

It’s not “I have so many feelings about this that I don’t trust my own motives.” I do have feelings. I’ve also had quite a bit of processing time.

It’s not “I habitually do not behave as well as I want to behave, and I need to do the slow work to improve those habits: keep my temper, drop an addiction, work out more often, stop saying yes to projects I don’t have time for.”

This is something else. It’s a decision, but it’s a slow, complicated, multipart decision in which the possibilities all seem at least somewhat sickening, and not all the possible solutions are visible at the outset.

And I keep thinking: have I ever played a moral choice that felt like this? What would that even look like?

Recently, also, there has been a lot of talk about the infamous Google gender memo. Heaven knows the internet doesn’t need another take on that, and frequent readers of my blog can probably guess what I think about its contents.

But because all of this has been circulating, I read Yonatan Zunger’s response post and this line chimed with me:

Engineering is not the art of building devices; it’s the art of fixing problems.

And I thought: yes, because of how my brain is furnished, I’ve been trying to approach this moral problem as an engineer. I’ve been thinking about what needs to be fixed, and what the highest-priority fixes are, and what the consequences are if those fixes don’t happen, and how one might tactically approach each of them, and what open questions are left to be resolved. But I also know that even my best work on this is probably going to end with something unhappy.

I’ve been thinking about the principle of double effect, and about Catholic doctrines about how to approach the undesirable side effects of a moral action. I am not a Catholic, but alongside other things I don’t believe or don’t agree with, the Catholic tradition contains centuries of research into moral philosophy.

floatpoint.jpegThere’s one game I’ve written that tries to explode a single moral choice into a large space — though it’s generally considered one of my weaker serious pieces. Floatpoint is about the question of whether to rescue an advanced group of genetically altered and self-altering people by bringing them back to Earth, and if so, under what conditions. The colonists have been away from Earth for centuries, and are now so different from Earth-based humanity in both mores and physical form that their presence is likely to be disruptive and possibly dangerous. However, if left on their home planet, they will probably not survive. And they have some things of value to offer to humans as well.

One of my major goals with this was to allow the player to articulate a complex choice where they had to think about the components of the decision. So you’re constrained to a symbolic language when making a treaty at the end of the game, where physical objects can communicate concepts about whether you will or will not accept the colonists back on Earth but also what limits you’ll put on them when they get there. In addition, the design of the game tries to make sure that in order to get the physical objects needed to communicate any particular decision, you’ll have to encounter some more information about the nuances of that choice.

It’s… well, it’s trying to do morality and communication through the medium of a parser IF world model and medium-sized dry goods. It’s not terribly realistic, and arguably it doesn’t give nearly enough build-up to make the player feel the implications of those choices. I also didn’t really think about it in terms of making a mechanic out of the discernment process itself.

So what would a mechanic look like if it were trying to capture prioritization of principles, the study of stakes, the consideration of risks?

Maybe:

Sift. You start with dozens, hundreds, maybe even thousands of action choices. Before you pick, you select rules for yourself and watch the list of possibilities narrow, as though you were filtering AirBnb. “Only actions that won’t cause trouble for my friends.” “Only actions that will definitely remove my enemies.”

This feels distant and cerebral, though. You could make some point about how certain goals are mutually incompatible, but exploring the database to find that out feels like not much of a story.

Elaborate. You start with a single choice lurking at the bottom of the screen, a single idea about what to do next. It has a display suggesting probabilities and outcomes for that choice, but the display starts out pretty vague.

But you don’t have to click it immediately. You also have ways to interrogate or vary that choice. Use the MITIGATE RISK tool on your choice and it’ll spawn a second choice, safer but maybe less powerful. Use the RESEARCH tool and it’ll give you more precise information on your success odds, or suggest horrible new outcomes.

It’s easier (for me) to imagine how fiction could be attached to these actions, and how the result could feel something like a story, than with the first mechanic. What I don’t like so much about this one is that it is so purely focused on practicalities rather than principles; it seems to suggest that a perfect solution is available and that the process of arriving there is technocratic.

 


September 18, 2017

Far Far Futures

Concepts in Cybertext 2: Momentum

by Joey Jones at September 18, 2017 09:41 PM

Every time a player moves onto a new screen in a cybertext and they are faced with a choice, the …

Continue reading

Concepts in Cybertext 1: Cybertext

by Joey Jones at September 18, 2017 09:41 PM

I’ll be writing a short series of mini-articles about some concepts we can use when thinking about cybertexts. I’ll start …

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September 17, 2017

Zarf Updates

Meanwhile: now in development for Mac and Windows

by Andrew Plotkin ([email protected]) at September 17, 2017 06:22 PM

I wrote that long post about SkiaSharp in Unity, but I never answered the question: what kind of Unity project am I working on, which requires vector outlines and polygons?
Here's your hint:
Almost six years ago, I released Meanwhile: an Interactive Comic for iPhone and iPad. I've since ported it to Apple TV, but folks without Apple hardware have been forced to live without it. (Or to buy the hardback graphic novel, which I admit is a fine alternative.)
But relief is in sight! I have started building a Unity port of Meanwhile, and am working towards a Steam release for Mac and Windows.
For those who aren't familiar with Jason Shiga's nonlinear tale of mad science:
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?
Meanwhile is not an ordinary comic. You make the choices that determine how the story unfolds. Meanwhile splits off into thousands of different adventures. Most will end in doom and disaster. Only one path will lead you to happiness and success.
Why now? Why, I have a secret spreadsheet that correlates thousands of factors about the indie game market, and it predicts that the perfect time...
...No, I'm being silly. In fact it's just one of those collisions of happenstance. A couple of months ago, I picked up a contract gig which required me to learn Unity in a hurry. I read the manual, tried some sample code, and realized that a Meanwhile port was viable -- if I could find some kind of vector library that worked with Unity. You know that part of the story already.
Once I convinced myself that the technical problems were solvable, I contacted Jason and we agreed to move forward with the port.
Now: it's still in an early stage. The contract job I mention takes up most of my time, so Meanwhile has to be a side project. I've made a fair amount of progress, but there's still quite a lot of work to do.
You might think Meanwhile is a simple app, given that the artwork and the map already exist. It looks simple. But the original touchscreen interface took a lot of iterating and adjusting; the exact right scrolling logic wasn't easy to pin down. And then I had to break it down and redesign it for the Apple TV controller.
For the Mac/Win version, I want to support both mouse and game controller -- and let you switch between them freely, as most games do. Unity's input model almost does what I need... so there's a bunch of work right there.
Plus, of course, there's menus and buttons and all that bumf which have to be made right.
So this leaves a lot of questions which I don't yet have answers for.
  • When will Meanwhile be out on Steam? I don't know! I think I can finish the port in a couple of months... but that drops us into the middle of the Thanksgiving sale rush. Which is followed by the Christmas sale rush. Common wisdom says that you shouldn't try to release an indie game in November or December. So maybe mid-January?
  • How much will Meanwhile cost? Ooh, good question. The iOS version is $5. But PC versions on Steam always cost more, right? But this is a fairly old game, and it might strike Steam users as less interactive than they expect... But it isn't aimed at typical Steam users anyway... Oh, well, I'll pick a number.
  • Will it support Linux? As I noted in the Skia post, the SkiaSharp developers don't ship a native Linux library. "...But you can build your own!" Yeah, I'll try it. I don't really have any experience building Linux binaries for other people, so it's anybody's guess whether I'll produce anything usable.
  • What's this contract gig you mentioned? Not for this post to say! Watch this blog.
  • What about your other game projects? I'm afraid that The Flashpaper War is firmly on the back burner. I built several prototypes but they didn't work up the momentum to turn into a live project.
I spent some of this year playing with a prototype for an unrelated puzzle game. (Currently code-named "that thing with the hexagons", no, I don't have a better title.) I am optimistic about the hexagons, but Meanwhile has pushed it down the stack. Mostly, to be sure, because I want to build the hexagons in Unity too! Meanwhile is my Unity quick learning project.
  • What about Jason Shiga's next project? Jason's been talking about a new interactive comic he calls "The Box". (He put up a video preview this summer!) I don't know any more about it than you do, but I'm very excited. And yes, once The Box is finished, I will definitely be talking to him about an electronic version... although I can already see that would be an enormous challenge! Jason is designing for the physicality of bookbound paper. But I look forward to thinking about it.

September 15, 2017

The Digital Antiquarian

Games on the Mersey, Part 2: Last Days in the Bunker

by Jimmy Maher at September 15, 2017 03:41 PM

The first sign that something might be seriously wrong at Imagine Software greeted game buyers in March of 1984, when the company unexpectedly started slashing prices. They announced that their games would go from the current £5.50 to just £3.95, cheaper than all but the cheapest budget titles currently on store shelves. In doing so, they ignited more than a little consternation in their industry.

Like most industries, that of computer games operated within a framework of tacit agreements about how business should be conducted, and some of the most sacred of these had to do with pricing. Games were arrayed in tiers, with standard full-price titles of the sort sold by Imagine expected to be priced at over £5. From the industry’s standpoint, the danger of going lower was bound up in the stark business reality that prices are always easier to cut than they are to raise again. If one publisher chose to cut their prices below the £5 threshold, they could then force the rest of them to do likewise in order to compete, igniting a dangerous price war that would almost certainly end with the new average prices for games considerably lower than they had been before. And the end result of that situation, most believed, would be lower profits for everyone. Imagine, with their penchant for combining mediocre games with extravagant claims of success, had never been terribly well-liked among their peers. This latest move, it seems safe to say, did nothing to improve their popularity.

But the move made them most unpopular of all with the shopkeepers who sold their games, the very people Bruce Everiss had worked so assiduously and successfully to cultivate the previous year. The Imagine games already on their shelves had been purchased at a wholesale price which assumed they would sell at retail for £5.50, yet the shops would now be expected to price them at just £3.95 — a money-losing proposition. Imagine had done nothing to address this situation; certainly there had been no talk of compensating the shopkeepers. They were, it seemed, expected to eat their losses with a smile and say thank you.

Of course, the deeper question about the price cuts wasn’t the what or even the how of the thing but the why of it. When asked why Imagine was making this move now, Bruce Everiss trotted out a couple of different answers. One was that the games Imagine would be releasing later in the year would be so spectacular that they would render everything that had come before them obsolete; thus the price cuts were a way of clearing out the old to make way for the new. But Everiss also alluded to software piracy, the industry’s ever-present bugaboo, expressing a hope that a lower price would make customers more likely to buy Imagine’s games than to copy them from their mates. This response struck many as the more honest answer, and pointed clearly to a company whose sales weren’t quite as healthy as they claimed them to be.

Indeed, Imagine was focusing more and more on the real or theoretical effects of piracy, throwing around heaps of eye-opening but unsubstantiated figures on the subject, such as the claim that only one out of eight people who played the average Imagine game had actually bought it. To this day, Everiss blames a sudden onslaught of piracy for a collapse in sales, but, given that Imagine’s peers experienced nothing like the same collapse, it stands to reason that there was at the very least a lot more to the story than that age-old software-industry bogeyman. The fact was that whatever cachet the Imagine name still held among ordinary gamers was fast draining away in the face of so many underwhelming releases. When a magazine ran a poll to determine the top-ten worst games for the Sinclair Spectrum, three of Imagine’s made the list. This was one chart Imagine would have preferred not to top.

The questions surrounding Imagine only multiplied when, just two weeks after cutting their prices, they suddenly raised them back to the original £5.50. Pressed again for a reason, Everiss claimed they had listened to the discontent of their peers. “We knew that dropping the price would increase sales, but what we hadn’t bargained for was the industry reaction, which was universally unfavorable, from both the distributors and other software houses,” he said. “The feeling was that if we did do it, it would upset the marketplace to such a degree that it would put many smaller software houses out of business.” Such concern about the fates of other software houses had never been a notable aspect of the Imagine character before, and rang more than a little false now. Far from protecting their competition, Imagine looked more and more like a company searching for a way to save themselves. When the rest of the industry looked at Imagine now, they saw a company with shrinking sales who had tried to remedy the situation by slashing their prices, found it only made their bottom line worse, and hastily reversed course. Once so eminently self-assured, Imagine now seemed to lack the courage of their own convictions as they flailed about in search of the magic bullet that would fix their problems overnight. Some began to make jokes about what they called Imagine’s “nervous pitching,” invoking the name of one of their games: Schizoids.

Had they known the full story behind the pricing schizophrenia, Imagine’s competitors would have been able to enjoy their full measure of vindication along with a heaping dose of schadenfreude. Going into the 1983 Christmas season, which Bruce Everiss had ebulliently declared was going to be huge beyond belief, they’d hatched a plan to squeeze out other publishers by buying up literally the entire production capacity of one of the industry’s biggest cassette duplicators. After all, whatever games they manufactured but didn’t sell that Christmas they’d easily be able to move in 1984; Everiss claimed that year was bound to be twice the year for games that 1983 had been.

It all backfired horribly. Imagine sold far fewer games than they had expected to that Christmas, and then their sales dwindled to the merest trickle in the new year, leaving them with hundreds of thousands of aging games that had never been all that great in the first place piled up in warehouses. When thieves broke into one of the warehouses and left with an alleged £200,000 worth of Imagine cassettes, it came almost as a relief; at least they wouldn’t have to pay the storage bills for them anymore.

The full story of the backfired tape-duplication plot — about as clear-cut a case of karma being a bitch as you’ll find in the history of the games industry — wouldn’t surface for many months. But, try as Imagine might to hide them, other cracks in the facade were continuing to appear in the here and now. Late in 1983, they had signed a high-profile deal worth a purported £11 million with Marshall Cavendish, a major publishing consortium, to provide cassettes full of games and programming tutorials to accompany Input, a slick weekly computer magazine which their new partner was planning to launch in 1984. Imagine had purportedly hired many staffers just to work on the Input project. Yet in that same confounding March of 1984 the deal unexpectedly went away. Once again, Everiss spun like crazy:

The original concept was that these would be average, run-of-the-mill games. As we started developing the games, we put them out to be play-tested, which involves comparing them against the reviewer’s favorite game. So the games were enhanced and so on, so that in the end they became so good that it wasn’t worth our while putting them out through Marshall Cavendish.

Everiss’s claim that Imagine’s games were just too good for the magazine was belied by the rumor that it was Marshall Cavendish who had nixed the deal, after Imagine persisted in missing deadlines and delivering substandard work.

Other unsavory stories swirled around Imagine and the Guild of Software Houses, an industry advocacy organization similar to the Software Publishers Association in the United States. GOSH, it seemed, had inexplicably rejected Imagine’s bid for membership. Everiss claimed it was because Imagine was “too big” for what he described as a “small, mutual-back-slapping organization really.” Still, size hadn’t prevented the likes of Thorn EMI from being accepted by the Guild. Did GOSH know something about Imagine that most people didn’t?

Commercial artist Stephen Blower, one of the many whose dealings with Imagine left him feeling bitter and betrayed, at work on one his trademark pieces of slick, airbrushed-looking art.

Still other past events were cast in a different light by these developments. Just after Christmas, Stephen Blower’s Studio Sing, the advertising agency formed to manage Imagine’s public relations, had suddenly gone bankrupt, leaving behind some £90,000 worth of Christmas advertising bills that were still unpaid to them by Imagine and that thus also now went unpaid to the magazines which had run the spots. A healthy and ethical Imagine, it seemed to the magazines who were being stiffed, might have made the payments directly to them. But they did no such thing.

Word on the street in Liverpool had it that Imagine’s managers had contrived to starve Studio Sing in an attempt to force Blower to relinquish his 10-percent stake in their company, only to find that Blower preferred to let his agency die rather than give in to the bullying. It all sounded plausible enough — but maybe the real reason Studio Sing had been starved, murmured a few, was far simpler: maybe Imagine just hadn’t had the £90,000 to pay out in the first place, and had engineered the agency’s failure as a way to dodge their debts. Whatever the reasons behind what transpired, an embittered Blower was left holding the bag:

Imagine tried to accuse me of certain things that I didn’t do. For instance, they said I was detrimental to the company’s image and that I was booking advertising that wasn’t wanted. I was accused of stealing, or misappropriating, £10,000, and my wife was accused of being incapable of keeping the books at Studio Sing.

They were obviously after my 10 [percent]. Imagine owed Studio Sing £89,000, so the way I see it is they attempted to brush that debt under the carpet. The allegations were just an attempt to condone their actions. I was probably the only one at Imagine who stuck to what he was best at doing.

With the stubborn Blower refusing to exit the scene, Imagine now had a shareholder at open war with his colleagues — although Blower, owning just 10 percent of the company, couldn’t do much to affect its direction. He would soon have cause to wish he had given up his stake when asked and gotten out of Dodge while the getting was good.

Behind their public image of cheeky Scousers who had made it big, Imagine was developing a reputation as a very nasty place, replete with fractious infighting and rampant paranoia. When Alan Maton, a Bug-Byte veteran who worked briefly for Imagine as well, left to start a software developer of his own, Dave Lawson allegedly subjected him to such a campaign of invective and harassment that he was forced to seek the protection of a restraining order. After Colin Stokes, a sales manager for Imagine, left to join Maton’s new company, he claimed that Lawson and Mark Butler had bugged his phone upon classing him as an “unreliable,” then thrown into his shocked face verbatim transcripts of his betrayal in place of a conventional exit interview; he was forced to run for the door amidst a hail of insults and legal threats. Incredibly, the one and only issue of Imagine’s fan newsletter — another initiative that was launched with great hoopla and then abandoned as too much trouble to be worth continuing — published samples from the telephone transcripts, claiming that there were 60 more pages of same where these had come from, a petty and potentially actionable public airing of dirty laundry.

Legal threats were becoming something of a way of life for Imagine. When Your Computer magazine — who, perhaps not incidentally, had been among those hounding Imagine for unpaid advertising bills — printed a listing for a game that Bruce Everiss judged to be too similar to one of Imagine’s, the latter whispered darkly that he had his solicitors “looking into the matter.”

Bruce Everiss and Dave Lawson. Do I sense a certain tension in the room?

Rumors spread that the company as a whole had been split into two camps, with Everiss and Butler leading one faction and Lawson and the recently hired Ian Hetherington, Imagine’s financial director and emerging fourth principal power, leading the other; this split accounted for much of the mixed messaging on things like a pricing strategy. When a journalist from Crash magazine spent a day at Imagine for a profile piece, Lawson and Hetherington never showed up for work at all and Butler only popped in for a few minutes, leaving their would-be interviewer to spend most of the day in the company of Everiss. When the final piece appeared, filled for understandable reasons mostly with Bruce Everiss quotes, the journalist got an irate phone call from a jealous Mark Butler, asking why his article had made it sound like Everiss ran the whole company.

Through it all, Imagine’s hype machine was still cranked up and spewing. Hype was, after all, the one thing Imagine had always done best. Almost drowning out all of the other mixed signals in the press was a new campaign for what Imagine liked to call “megagames.” These were nothing less than the amazing new things that Imagine had, according to one of Everiss’s accounts anyway, slashed prices to make room for. They now took center stage in Imagine’s advertising, a publicity blitz for as-yet nonexistent games the like of which the industry had never seen. The magazines, not wanting to be left out in the cold if the megagames did indeed blow up huge, accepted these latest advertisements even after having been stiffed the last time around.

Imagine started running advertisements like this for their upcoming “megagames” very early in 1984. Featured from left to right are programmers Ian Weatherburn, Mike Glover, John Gibson, and Eugene Evans.

It was very hard to determine from the advertisements, or even from talking to Imagine directly, exactly what a megagame would be. Everiss claimed they would be packaged far more elaborately than was the norm in Britain at the time, more in keeping with the games companies like Infocom and Origin were selling in the United States. (He was keenly aware of the state of games across the Atlantic, having been a regular visitor to American trade shows since the late 1970s.) Yet improved packaging was by no means the sum total of the megagame proposition. More intriguing was the prospect of some sort of machine-enhancing hardware add-on that would be included in the box. “We’ve gone as far as we can on these machines given their hardware capabilities, and we have come up with a way of increasing the power of the machine,” said Everiss. “It is not done through software.” Imagine’s games were hardly noted for pushing the capabilities of existing machines all that hard; games coming from competing houses regularly gave the lie to Imagine’s claim of having gone “as far as we can” with current hardware. Nevertheless, this hybrid software/hardware approach was certainly intriguing.

And yet the question remained: what would the megagames be like to actually play? Imagine was frustratingly vague, leaving one with the impression that they were either incredibly cagey or that they themselves didn’t quite know what they were making. All they ever clearly said was that the megagames would be great. Bruce Everiss:

The thing about it is that the game is so big and complex and involved — and it contains several new areas, things that have never been done before. We aren’t going to release it until it’s perfect. The only analogy we can use without giving the game away is that it’s going to make anything that’s gone before look like Noughts and Crosses.

No one’s even seen them yet! They’re so secret that most people at Imagine know nothing about them. Even the people who are working on the project only know sufficient to do their own piece of the work. We give them information on a “need to know” basis. What we’re worried about is somebody else finding out what we’re doing and emulating it.

You don’t have a score, you don’t have levels, you’ve gone completely beyond all that. You wait and see. You’ll be phoning me up when you get them, saying “Brucie was right!”

The price Imagine planned to charge for all this awesomeness just kept going up. Starting at £15, it rose to £20, then to £30, then to £40 — almost eight times the price of the typical new game. “It’s got to be something extraordinary to sell for that price,” said one skeptical distributor. “We’ll just have to wait and see.” “Imagine are claiming these programs are completely innovative,” said another. “If that’s the case, it’s marvelous and good for the industry.” The problem, of course, was that very big “if” which began his thought. Once you cut through all the hype, Imagine’s track record at making innovative games wasn’t very good. Undaunted, they said that the first megagame, to be called Bandersnatch, would be out that summer, and that the next, Psyclapse, would ship well before Christmas.

Many years later, Bruce Everiss would admit to much of the real thinking behind Imagine’s drive to include hardware with their games: “The megagames were an attempt to make our games copy-proof by incorporating a ‘dongle’ that plugged into the back of every customer’s computer.” Only afterward did Imagine’s programmers hatch a scheme to build 64 K of ROM memory into the dongles to supplement the 48 K of RAM in the Sinclair Spectrum, allowing them, theoretically at least, to make games that were much bigger than the norm. Unfortunately, the company, not being home to any hardware engineers, was very ill-equipped to see such a scheme through.

Then, in the midst of all this swirling chaos, the BBC arrived on the scene.

Commercial Breaks director Paul Anderson had first taken note of the emerging computer-game industry very early in 1984, judging it to be a natural subject for an episode of a television series about British entrepreneurs and emerging markets. Flipping through the computer magazines, he saw that one company had the slickest, most elaborate, and most extensive advertising campaign of any of them: Imagine Software. It didn’t take long to connect Imagine with the minor media celebrity Eugene Evans, whose story Anderson, like just about everyone else who had picked up a newspaper during the previous year, had already read. Choosing Imagine as one of his two case studies — the other would be Manchester’s Ocean Software — he made the trip to Liverpool to discuss the idea in person with Butler, Lawson, Everiss, and Hetherington. He didn’t anticipate a lot of problems getting them to agree. Anyone who knew anything about Imagine knew that they loved publicity, and the publicity possibilities for a British computer-game publisher in 1984 didn’t come much bigger than a starring role in a BBC television program. Much to Anderson’s surprise, though, the foursome proved initially reluctant to commit themselves. They had, as we’ve already seen, plenty of reasons not to want to allow any outsider unfettered access to all that was going on internally. It was Dave Lawson who finally turned the tide in Anderson’s favor. Whatever concerns his colleagues might have, he couldn’t resist the lure of having Imagine strut their stuff as Liverpool’s next Beatles on such a grand stage as this. This opportunity, he said, was just too huge to turn away.

The Imagine racing team

When he showed up with his film crew some weeks later, Anderson’s director’s eye was first struck by what a great shooting location Imagine’s spacious accommodations were. The bustling warren of offices and cubicles smacked more of a well-heeled stockbroker than a small 18-month-old technology company. The BBC crew took the requisite time to gawk at and to shoot video of the Ferraris and BMWs that filled the parking garage alongside the star of the vehicular show, Mark Butler’s hand-built Harris racing motorcycle. Butler, Anderson learned, had formed a motorcycle-racing team along with some other like-minded Imagine people. The film crew dutifully followed them out to the Isle of Man for the TT Race, where Butler promptly crashed his bike attempting a reckless maneuver and was carried off to the hospital.

In the beginning, Anderson had no reason nor any desire to be skeptical of the success his subjects claimed to be enjoying. Not being all that plugged-in to the home-computer scene, he knew nothing of the rumors about Imagine. And anyway, the whole point of the program he worked for was to tell positive stories of modern British entrepreneurship, not to scandal monger. Yet it didn’t take him long to pick up the feeling that, despite all the outward trappings of a booming company that surrounded him, something here didn’t quite add up.

His suspicions were first aroused by Eugene Evans, Imagine’s alleged wunderkind programmer. In an episode whose associations must have thrilled the Beatles-obsessed Dave Lawson — and that, indeed, may have been planted in the press by him or Everiss — Evans had been in the news recently for supposedly leaving the Imagine band to make a go of it as a solo artist, only to be lured back into the fold by the entreaties of his mates; shades of George Harrison walking out on the Beatles for a few days back in 1969. Asked whether the rumors about his brief departure were true, Evans, still playing his role superbly, had said in his best cheeky Beatle fashion, “I may have done. There again, I may just have gone on holiday.”

Anderson was naturally eager to spend time with Evans, whereupon he immediately noted the discrepancy between the teenager’s hype and his reality. His treatment around the office hardly fit the profile of Imagine’s star coder; in reality, he didn’t seem to be regarded by the other programmers as all that important at all. And, the leased Lotus in his driveway notwithstanding, he didn’t seem to live like a young man who was earning thousands of pounds every month.

Imagine’s official line had it that Psyclapse, the second of the megagames, was essentially Evans’s project. Perhaps Anderson shouldn’t have been surprised, then, that not much of anything seemed to be happening on that front. John Gibson, Imagine’s other star programmer, did seem to be working hard on Bandersnatch, but few others seemed to share his dedication. In fact, very few of the technical and support staff seemed to be working all that hard on anything at all. Management, meanwhile, was most focused, predictably enough, on all the PR trappings that would surround the megagames. Sitting in on meetings, Anderson learned of a scheme to have Imagine and their megagames commemorated forever via two marble slabs that would be laid in London’s Hyde Park; one couldn’t help but wonder what opinion the authorities who ran the park, whom Imagine had apparently not yet gotten around to contacting, might have thought of the plan to immortalize Imagine Software alongside the likes of the Duke of Wellington. Anderson heard far more discussion about what the megagame boxes should look like than he did about the actual games the boxes were to contain. Imagine had managed to contract with Roger Dean, an artist quite famous in certain circles for the surrealistic album covers he painted for Yes and other progressive-rock bands, to do the box art for the megagames. They were thrilled to have him, as they were thrilled with any public connection they could foster between their company and rock music. Still, there was considerable grumbling that Dean had demanded his £6000 fee be paid up-front. Anderson, by now thoroughly suspicious of his bright young sparks, remembers thinking that Dean was a very wise chap.

Imagine, Anderson was gradually coming to realize, was living on a diet of denial and wishful thinking. Already on April 16, 1984, before the BBC had even started filming, Cornhill Publications had submitted a petition at court to have Imagine forced into bankruptcy if they continued to leave unpaid a massive advertising bill. That June, just a few days before the BBC followed Butler out to the Isle of Man to watch him living his fantasy of the daredevil playboy, Imagine had been in court to argue against the petition, with scant evidence to hand to support their claim that this was just a bump in the road and they would soon be a viable business again — if, indeed, they had ever been a viable business in the first place. Shortly thereafter, Butler, Lawson, and Hetherington all disappeared entirely. The first of these had an excuse, being in recuperation after his motorcycle crash; rumors swirled that the latter two had actually fled the country to dodge the fallout from Imagine’s imminent demise. Only Everiss was left, still coming into the office every day out of some sense of duty.

By this point, those who remained were spending their working days watching videos, playing games, and generally goofing off, apparently determined to enjoy their brief taste of the good life as much as they could before the inevitable. Anderson would later compare these last days of life at Imagine to the desperate decadence of the final days inside Hitler’s bunker as the Soviet tanks closed in on Berlin. When he was asked why no one ever seemed to be available to talk to the BBC cameras anymore, Everiss answered thus:

Well, there was a whole pile of people just playing games there, and they’re hiding from the camera. If you go round the corner here, by the exit, you’ll find there’s a big pile of fire extinguishers because there’s been fire-extinguisher fights all week. That’s been the main event.

The only outsiders still knocking at the door all seemed to be trying to get someone to pay them the money they were owed. Anderson’s film crew captured a man from the cassette-duplication plant whose capacity Imagine had bought up the previous Christmas wandering forlornly about the premises, trying to get someone — anyone — to at least talk to him about the £60,000 his company was still owed. Trying to put a stop to the stream of dark-suited, grim-faced men who lined up to knock at their door each day, Imagine sent out a letter to all their creditors claiming they expected a windfall of £250,000 from some unspecified source within three weeks. The creditors, naturally, didn’t believe them, and the grim-faced men just kept coming, asking fruitlessly for face time with someone — with anyone.

The creditors had still more cause for alarm when it was announced that Beau Jolly, a publisher of discount game compilations, had bought the entire extant Imagine games catalog. This may have been the windfall Imagine had vaguely referred to in their letter to their creditors, although it seems doubtful that Beau Jolly paid them anywhere near £250,000 for their collection of aging, unimpressive games. The transaction prompted alarm rather than hope in the hearts of Imagine’s creditors because the games were assets that in the event of what now seemed the certainty of an Imagine bankruptcy could be sold off to reimburse said creditors. It all rather smacked of a management team trying to get what they could out of the company for themselves while they still had the chance, especially as no offers came forth to pay any of their bills in the aftermath of the sale. In what had long since become a typical scenario for anyone who got into bed with Imagine for any reason whatsoever, even the catalog’s purchaser was soon left feeling disappointed and betrayed. Colin Ashby, Beau Jolly’s managing director:

To be honest, I’m not very happy with the deal. We’re still waiting for the master tape of PC Bill, and I’m not convinced we’ve got everything we agreed to. We weren’t paying over money just for old stock. The idea was to invest in the new games as well, but I think something’s gone wrong. I’ve been trying to get Lawson, Butler, or Hetherington for weeks because we thought we were doing the new games as well in this deal. But I can’t get hold of them.

It really did seem like everyone who was ever foolish enough to make a deal with Imagine wound up in a plaintive state like this one. When someone mentioned to Ashby that the shareholders’ real motivation for selling off the catalog may have been to get money out of the company while they had the chance, it all suddenly made more sense to him: “What a revelation! I hadn’t thought of that.”

Despite his prominence, Bruce Everiss owned no stock in Imagine, and thus was somewhat insulated from the slow-motion car crash happening around him. With his colleagues having abandoned him to the creditors and the BBC, he was increasingly willing to dish the dirt, even as he endeavored to distance himself from what was now looking more like a full-on financial scandal than just another failed company. He made the incredible claim that Imagine had never paid any tax whatsoever on their earnings — indeed, had never even filed a tax return. That was supposed to be the department of financial director Ian Hethrington, but the latter had always been — perhaps, it now seemed, for good reason — the most inaccessible of all the principals to Anderson. And now, like Butler and Lawson, Hetherington had simply disappeared. Everiss declared all three of them “cowards.” “It makes me sick,” he said, “to think that the people who have worked so hard to make the wealth of Imagine have been left high and dry while the directors of the company have stripped it bare and got away scot-free. They did everything to line their own pockets.”

Everiss was plainly protesting a bit too much, given that he too hadn’t hesitated to drive a Ferrari on Imagine’s dime, and given that the “wealth” of Imagine had never really existed in the first place. The story of Imagine Software wasn’t that of a company that was hugely successful and then collapsed so much as it was that of a company that had been built on smoke and mirrors — verging on outright fraud if not crossing that line — from the very beginning. Still, at least Everiss was here, facing the music after a fashion — not to mention those ever-present fish-eye lenses of the BBC. Or he was for a while anyway: on June 29, he quit. With him left the last semblance of Imagine Software as a functioning company. Those who remained behind did so only because it was more fun to hang out here than it was at home.

On July 9, 1984, Imagine was forcibly dissolved by order of the court; the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back was a relatively modest advertising bill for £10,000 to VNU Business Publications, publisher of a short-lived magazine called Personal Computer Games. The long list of other unpaid creditors included Kilsdale, the Gloucestershire cassette duplicator whose capacity Imagine had bought up the previous Christmas; Marshall Cavendish, who were still waiting to be paid back some £250,000 they had given Imagine at the beginning of the cancelled magazine deal; the Liverpool City Council; Henry Matthews and Son, a printer; United Arab Shipping, who owned Imagine’s posh downtown office space; Scalchards, the wine merchant who had catered Imagine’s lavish private parties; G.D. Studios, the agency that had created Imagine’s advertising after Studio Sing had died or been killed; and most of the Spectrum magazines, all clamoring for payment for said advertising. Some of these last, most notably the widely beloved Crash magazine, would later claim that the money they didn’t receive from Imagine very nearly forced them to go under as well. In all, Imagine owed more than £500,000 to the aforementioned entities. When unpaid bank loans, back taxes, and other outstanding government obligations were eventually added to the total, it would reach more than £1 million. Those of you needing help putting these figures in perspective might wish to consider that a typical Liverpool dockworker at the time might earn a salary of about £4000 per year.

Mark Butler, right, with another of Imagine’s racers on the Isle of Man. This picture was taken just before he smashed up his bike and wound up in the hospital, giving him an excuse to avoid being present for much of the final phase of Imagine Software.

Still swaddled in bandages from his motorcycle escapade of a month earlier, Mark Butler chose the day of the bankruptcy order to return to Imagine’s offices. That same day, when the remaining handful of employees and the BBC film crew had all nipped off to the pub for lunch, the bailiffs showed up. When the Imagine people tried to reenter the premises, they found the door locked to them, and Anderson hastily signaled his crew to start rolling video. The offices and everything inside them, they were all informed by the bailiffs, were being forcibly repossessed right now for the benefit of Imagine’s many creditors; Anderson had considerable trouble convincing the bailiffs to let him come inside and extricate the rest of his film crew’s equipment from the jumble. The bailiffs also took that most conspicuous of all signs of Imagine’s alleged success: all of their fancy cars. According to Anderson’s recollection, Butler seemed more stunned and dismayed by the loss of his BMW than by anything else that was transpiring. He stood in a daze in the midst of of it all, seeming for all the world like he genuinely had no idea how the situation had reached such an impasse.

Which isn’t to say that the rest of the Imagine crew reacted all that much more cogently. If the enduring image of the company’s brief heyday would always be that parking garage full of exotic cars, that of the collapse would be a few dozen confused young men milling around outside a door that had just been locked in their faces, trying to figure out what was happening and what they should do about it — all of it as captured by Paul Anderson’s remorseless cameras. He hadn’t known quite what he might be getting into in making his documentary about the British computer-game industry, but he had certainly never dreamed it would turn out like this. But then, it seems safe to say that those who still worked for Imagine felt much the same way.

Facing a court order, Lawson and Hetherington resurfaced at last for the final winding-up meetings, huddling together in a small room while creditors lined up in the hall outside to state their grievances and request financial redress. In the end, the court managed to recover about £300,000 for them by selling Imagine’s office furniture, computers, and all those exotic cars. Meanwhile the accusations continued to fly among the Imagine principals. Stephen Blower, the one-time head of Studio Sing, filed a criminal complaint against Butler and Lawson for ignoring a court order, issued back in February as a result of the fallout from his agency’s bankruptcy, to remove his name from a £100,000 bank guarantee. Asked directly about the matter, a police spokesman replied in terms that weren’t entirely reassuring if you were Butler or Lawson: “The Commercial Squad does not have warrants of arrest out for any of the directors. It is, however, looking at the case in a wider sense.” Butler and Lawson were eventually found guilty of being in contempt of court, but the judge ruled that he wouldn’t send them to prison or fine them if they would now remove Blower’s name as previously agreed and pay his legal fees. This latter they presumably finagled a way to do, as the matter then disappeared from the press.

As the fallout from Imagine’s messy end continued, Paul Anderson had retired back to London to put his documentary together. The finished product, which first aired on BBC2 on December 13, 1984, is as fascinating as it is frustrating. This being an era well before video became ubiquitous, we have precious few similar glimpses into the vintage British games industry. The documentary would thus be of interest even had it not involved such a storied crack-up as Imagine’s. Yet Anderson’s hands were tied to a large extent by the strictures of the Commercial Breaks series for which he had shot his video, with its 30-minute running time and its brief of presenting an essentially positive, upbeat take on modern British entrepreneurship. These factors dictated that he include barely ten minutes of the reported many hours of footage he had shot in and around Imagine; Ocean Software, a far less high-profile but also a far more successful operation, got the balance of the program’s running time. (The television critic for the Times of London hilariously described the two companies in Commercial Breaks as a contrast between “much skin cream, little aftershave” on the one side and “receding hairlines, spreading waists, grit of experience” on the other.) It’s likely that the rest of the Imagine footage, which would have been seen by the BBC’s management at the time as the leavings of a minor episode of a minor, ephemeral program, was destroyed long ago. So, we must content ourselves with what we have.

Few would shed any tears for Imagine Software. Competitors, creditors, and even more than a few ordinary gamers who had been burned by the mismatch between Imagine’s hype and their games’ reality rejoiced to see the company’s humiliating comeuppance on national television. As a final ironic note, Ocean Software, Imagine’s companion company in that episode of Commercial Breaks, wound up buying the name, which they judged to still have cachet in some Continental markets. In British gaming circles, however the name of Imagine was destined to remain synonymous with hubris, greed, tomfoolery, and plain old dishonesty, and for very good reason.

In the wake of Imagine’s collapse, people were left to wonder how it could possibly be that this group of clueless, vindictive naifs could have enjoyed the trappings of success for as long as they had — could, for that matter, have ever enjoyed the trappings of success at all. Imagine’s story is one of those which come along every once in a while to illustrate how much of business — and, indeed, society — is ordered not so much by rigidly stipulated, explicit rules as intuitive, implicit norms of behavior. When a company like Imagine comes along, willing to violate all of those norms, it can take the people around them considerable time to catch on. Imagine’s name proved ironically appropriate: the entire company, the entire Imagine “boom,” was a supreme act of imagination on the part of those — and by no means does this group consist entirely or even mostly of those who actually worked at Imagine — who desperately wanted the dream to be true. Imagine told people they were successful, and people believed them, and so in a sense they did indeed become successful — for a time.

Anderson’s own final take on what he had witnessed over the course of his weeks in Liverpool was far less harsh than that of many others:

It was a fascinating time in a city at the focus of the software business. It’s a shame it all fell apart. There were a lot of talented people there who were let down. It’s a bit like a movie that never got made, all the technicians and all the energy, but the producers failed. It’s going to be interesting to see what will come of them all.

After such a spectacular fiasco as this one, you might expect the people who had made Imagine to hide themselves away in shame. But of course they weren’t that sort of people. On the contrary: most of the people who built Imagine and then burned it to the ground were destined to remain around the games industry for a long time to come. Only Mark Butler, something of an innocent soul at bottom, a fellow who had always seemed almost as over-matched as had been Eugene Evans for the role that was thrust upon him, went at all quietly into that good night, starting a non-gaming software business with his father.

Out of everyone involved with Imagine, it was Eugene Evans who seemed most doomed to fade back into obscurity. He had already entered the media’s “where are they now?” file by the beginning of 1985, when Your Computer reported that he had been forced to trade his famous Lotus for a second-hand Volkswagen Beetle; on the plus side, he could at least actually drive his latest car, having finally gotten a license. But Evans wound up surprising everybody. He went into the management side of the videogame business, a role for which he was far better-suited than that of programmer, and rose through the ranks to become a vice president at Electronic Arts, his brief period of celebrity as Britain’s Teenage Hacker Extraordinaire a mere footnote — an anecdote to share at parties — to a long and successful career.

Some of the other members of Imagine’s old programming staff, including John Gibson, went on to form a development studio of their own called Denton Designs. Without, as they put it, “people of the caliber of Bruce Everiss to cock it up for us,” they established a pretty good reputation, particularly as a maker of the British specialty that was action-adventures, surviving well into the 1990s.

For his part, the indefatigable Bruce Everiss wasn’t about to relinquish the spotlight, even if his choices in business ventures often remained problematic. He first reemerged as an enthusiastic spokesman for the Oric Atmos, an ill-fated attempt to challenge the likes of Sinclair, Acorn, and Commodore in the British home-computer market. After that effort went bust, he formed his own software company, Everiss Software, for just long enough to release a single mediocre game — the unfortunately named Wet Zone — for the BBC Micro. He then moved on to the new budget publisher Code Masters, whom he helped to create a new image for what used to be the dregs of the games industry, the titles on the £1.99 racks. But he remains most proud of having founded the All Formats Computer Fair, a series of events that ran for many years in Britain and helped to reconnect him to his roots as a tireless promoter of computing for the people — an aspect of his makeup that had, like so much else, rather gotten lost amidst all the hype of Imagine Software.

So, Bruce Everiss’s real achievements both before and after his involvement with Imagine are considerable. Yet even before the final collapse of Imagine he began engaging in an often-tortured exercise in triangulation with regard to what still remains for many — fairly or not — his most memorable legacy. He wishes to take credit for the new standards of presentation and advertising he installed at Imagine and for the distribution inroads he engineered, all of which had a major impact on the British games industry as a whole, while separating himself from the excess, waste, foolishness, and sheer incompetence that are an equally indelible part of the Imagine story. “Comparatively little was spent on advertising,” he stated in 1984 in an attempt to minimize his own culpability in Imagine’s legendary profligacy. One suspects that the many magazines who were stiffed for tens of thousands of pounds each by Imagine might beg to differ. (Then again, since Imagine for the most part never actually paid their advertising bills, maybe his claim is perversely true…)

Threading the needle of innovation and complicity at Imagine has led to changing messages over the years. In an opinion piece that took the form of a letter to Eugene Evans which he wrote for Your Computer in 1986, Everiss tried to disavow his role in sculpting the latter’s persona for public consumption, blaming it on his colleagues at Imagine in the abstract whilst indulging in a cruel and pointless critique of Evans’s coding skills while he was at it:

Imagine seized on you as a PR opportunity. The story of a working-class teenager earning a fortune in Liverpool was a natural for the mass media. You had a fleeting fame in newspapers and on television, with strong undertones of John Lennon involved. What you didn’t seem to realise is that Imagine didn’t do it as a favour for you, they did it for themselves. In fact, what they did for you was the exact opposite of a favour.

Back in reality, you wrote a simple game on the 3 K VIC called Wacky Waiters that was just tolerable. Catcha Snatcha which followed was unplayable. Frantic was so bad the company had to withdraw it. Then you converted to the Commodore 64 with an attempt to put Arcadia on it; it was a travesty.

The last few months at Imagine were wasted playing around while pretending to work on a game called Psyclapse. All these attempts at programming were on the relatively simple 6502. You never could handle the more complex Z80. The 68000 must seem as difficult as playing Rachmaninoff backwards on a mouth organ.

Yet, when interviewed for a 2012 book-length history of the British games industry, Everiss was back to being the proud Svengali, thrilled to take all the credit for his greatest personal marketing creation. He claimed that all of the aspects of the Eugene Evans persona that the media latched onto were consciously crafted by him and him alone to make them do just that. Tellingly, the only person who ever publicly compared Evans to John Lennon was Everiss himself. All these decades later, one does have to wonder why Everiss and his colleagues won’t simply admit that they were foolish lads who got carried away and made heaps of awful choices. Few would continue holding a grudge; given similar circumstances, I and plenty of you reading this today likely wouldn’t have done any better at their age.

But, again, neither Eugene Evans nor the rest of the deceptions Everiss indulged in with his colleagues at Imagine should be taken as the sum total of the man’s long career. Something that can easily get lost in an article like this one is the extent to which Everiss did succeed in turning humble Liverpool into one of Britain’s biggest hotbeds of game-development talent. Evans’s replacement in the popular press became Matthew Smith, a Liverpudlian programmer and Microdigital regular who had the advantage over his predecessor of being every bit as brilliant as his press notices would have him be. His games Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy, the former published by Bug-Byte, were a sensation in Spectrum circles at the very time Imagine was imploding, and Smith himself became almost as big a mass-media celebrity as Evans had been. Imagine may have died, but Liverpool-based game development would live on.

As would the final two major players in the Imagine saga. For even as Imagine was burning down around them, and even as Everiss was already working to lay the blame elsewhere, Dave Lawson and Ian Hetherington were also working hard — working on a scheme to birth a phoenix out of the ashes.

(Sources: the book Grand Thieves and Tomb Raiders: How British Videogames Conquered the World by Rebecca Levene and Magnus Anderson; Computer and Video Games of February 1984; Home Computing Weekly of March 20 1984, April 3 1984, December 4 1984, and February 13 1985; Personal Computer Games of March 1984, May 1984, June, and July 1984; Your Spectrum of June 1984; Crash of August 1984, January 1985, and February 1985; Popular Computing Weekly of July 5 1984, July 19 1984, August 9 1984, October 4 1984, December 13 1984, and December 12 1985; Sinclair User of September 1984, October 1984, January 1985, and July 1985; CU Amiga of September 1992; Your Computer of November 1984, March 1985, and January 1986; Times of London of October 16 1984 and December 13 1984. See also Bruce Everiss’s “A History of the UK Video Game Industry Through My Eyes,” parts 1 and 2. The Commercial Breaks episode on Ocean and Imagine is available on YouTube.)


Comments

Emily Short

Mid-September Link Assortment

by Emily Short at September 15, 2017 10:40 AM

IF Comp goes live in a couple of weeks.

If you’d like to submit a game for presentation at WordPlay, the Toronto word-based-game festival, you still have until September 30 to do so. Accepted pieces will be displayed to the public as part of the festival, and the creators will receive an artist fee of 80 CAD.

Community Feedback

IFTF is running a survey about how people use IFDB and how the experience could be improved. You can let them know your views at the link attached.

New and forthcoming releases

Jam City has started a new line of interactive fiction in the mold of Choices and Episode, using a model that includes pay-to-unlock premium choices, but also a subscription option. (At $2.99/week, this is a bit more expensive than Fallen London’s Exceptional Friendship, and I wonder whether people will find a weekly sub more appealing than monthly. My instinct says no, but my instinct is often wrong.)

IF author and sometimes-conference-organizer Jim Munroe has been working on a new VR project called Manimal Sanctuary. It’s pitched thus:

Manimal Sanctuary is a lurking simulator. It leverages low-end VR technology to enable every player’s ultimate fantasy: to play a creature part coral reef, part Cthulhu, who consumes human emotions. Set on the Toronto Islands after the rest of the city is consumed by gibbering monstrosities, you eavesdrop on the survivors and their dramas involving things like bad potato crops and graffiti tags. And if those everyday emotions aren’t filling enough, you can always uncover some devastating secrets…

Naomi Clark’s Consentacle is now on Kickstarter. It is a card game about consent and mutual agreement, and I would be hard-pressed to describe it more than that. If you want your own print of the game (perhaps from seeing it played at GDC, as I did), this may be your one and only opportunity.

Misha Verollet has released a trailer for American Angst, a forthcoming choice-based game:

*

A total tangent: possibly I’m one of the few people who remembers this, but did you know that well before YouTube or the current trend for trailer-making for games, there was a TrailerComp for parser-based IF. The main thing I remember is that Fallacy of Dawn had a trailer set in part to “Smooth Criminal.”


Renga in Blue

Quondam: Structural Solving

by Jason Dyer at September 15, 2017 08:40 AM

Progress! (Also, outright puzzle spoilers follow.)

From the Book of Kells again. Horror vacui still remains an appropriate metaphor,
as solving one puzzle just tightens the game’s net leading to another. I feel a palpable pressure while playing.

One of the puzzles I was stuck on last time involved this object:

There is a B.R. takeaway sandwich here.

Eating it invoked a solution, but also a problem:

You eat the sandwich and its crunchy outside. Your stomach rumbles but you feel a new surge of strength.
You have stomach ache.

>WAIT
OK
You have bad stomach ache.

>WAIT
OK
You are in agony.

>WAIT
OK
You are in agony
Your life is over.

There are some textual clues in retrospect, but the way I solved this was looking at the structure of the game. The sandwich is in a short underground section with many items that seemed necessary to continue, but it also was a one way trip — after exiting and leaving, there didn’t seem to be a way back. I needed to eat the sandwich while still underground to rescue a sword (well, part of one) from a stone, so I knew it was unlikely resolving the sandwich involved some future item. I focused just on what I had, and went through a verb list I had made trying everything reasonable I could think of on the sandwich.

>OPEN SANDWICH
You tear the transparent wrapper off the sandwich.

Ha ha. Ha ha ha. Ok, that one is resolved.

I also managed to escape the spiders that attacked me after visiting the center of a “spider web” area and getting a bottle with an elixir.

A horde of spiders swarms over you and eats you.

I discovered, quite by accident (I was testing out a different theory) that heading west after picking up the elixir did not lead to immediate death. On a hunch, I tried circling the outer portion of the “web” and found the entire route was safe (see the map for some crude MS Paint action):

However, by doing this, it closed off the entire web area — I couldn’t go back without dying. This meant, structurally, that another puzzle in the same area needed to be resolved before the elixir:

You are on a ledge by a cliff. A strand leads northeast to the web and a tunnel leads southeast into the cliff.
A curtain of fire blocks the tunnel!

>SE
You stride into the flames, which don’t burn you – it must be an illusion! You hear a curse and various tinkering noises.
You are in a short cave, where nothing seems to have changed for ages. The only exit is a tunnel northwest.
A curtain of fire blocks the tunnel!
A small mirror lies here.
There is a harp made from rare woods here!

>GET MIRROR
OK

>NW
As you leave, you look at the face-up mirror while the flames lick about you. There is a cry of triumph as the flames reach furance heat.
Your life is over.

I had another item (the rucksack) that the mirror can be stuffed into for safety. However, this led to another issue: the rucksack has a hole. (It took a while for me to realize this). Essentially, every step you take unloads an item onto the ground. This is bad with the mirror because you have to then pick it up while standing on the spider web, and this happens:

>GET MIRROR
OK
You see yourself in the mirror and, not looking, fall down a hole.
Your life is over.

Since the bottle was necessary for another part, I figured I must had everything I needed for the puzzle; necessity forced me to focus. I realized, after some more experimentation, that the rucksack holds 3 items and most, and is first-in-last-out — that is, if I put the mirror in, and then kept refilling it as I was dripping items, I could cart the mirror to safety.

(Well, mostly safe — the falling into a hole business actually can happen outside the spider web, so I still can’t carry the mirror far without it being in the rucksack.)

In any case, I’m out of things to do, other than getting by a dragon (which eats me as soon as it sees me) and the weird “Customs” area I wrote about last time; specifically, leaving Customs leads me to a town square …

You are in a small town square full of churches and monuments. The Spanish Inquisition are here, debating your future.
There is a coil of rope here

>WEST
The crowd bars your way.

>PRAY
The throng draws back and leaves a way free.

… and a desert …

>WEST
You are thirsty.
You are in an expanse of featureless sand under a burning sun.

… but I haven’t found a way out of the area past this point. However, handling the burning sun requires emptying the bottle’s elixir and filling it with water. This suggests another structural solving consideration: if the elixir isn’t just a trap to be avoided (drinking it makes you shrink and disappear) then it needs to be used *before* reaching the Customs area.


September 14, 2017

These Heterogenous Tasks

Heart’s Medicine: Time to Heal

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at September 14, 2017 09:41 PM

It’s commonplace for a time-management game to feature character-driven plot, but Time to Heal sells itself really hard on narrative. The intro frames it as an original story. The game’s bumf is really focused on storytelling (and, in particular, that most irritating qualifier … Continue reading

Choice of Games

The Hero Project: Redemption Season Has a New Short Story: The YouPower Project

by Rachel E. Towers at September 14, 2017 05:41 PM

Can you not wait for the next installment in the Heroes Rise universe? Do you just need to read another story featuring your favorite characters from The Hero Project? Well now you can purchase the The YouPower Project, already available everywhere The Hero Project: Redemption Season is sold!

The YouPower Project is a short story developed by Zachary Sergi and written by Michael Alan Nelson. It's set in the months following The Hero Project: Redemption Season, but is entirely separate, with no spoilers for the main story.

The YouPower Project was originally developed in partnership with Serial Box. Serial Box brings everything that’s awesome about TV (easily digestible episodes, team written, new content every week) to what was already cool about books (well-crafted stories, talented authors, enjoyable anywhere).

New Hosted Game! Lost In The Pages by Felicity Banks, Adrao, Cecilia Rosewood, and Sashira

by Rachel E. Towers at September 14, 2017 05:41 PM

Hosted Games has a new game for you to play!

Travel through different books in a quest to find your uncle! You will travel through a number of stories, seek to understand why they are falling apart, and trying to solve the mystery of your uncle’s bookshop.

Lost in the Pages is a 125,000 word interactive novel by a collection of authors, 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.

There are over a half a dozen stories to choose from, from fantasy and science fiction, to horror or mystery. Can you rescue your uncle and restore order to the stories, or will you be consumed by the menace hanging over him?

• Play as male, female, or non-binary, with any orientation.
• Travel the seas as a mermaid, ride a dragon, explore futuristic worlds or become a detective. The choice is yours!
• Stick to tropes, or break them!
• Save not one world, but many!

Felicity Banks, Adrao, Cecilia Rosewood, and Sashira 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.

Grand Academy for Future Villains — Taking over the world? Come to villain school!

by Rachel E. Towers at September 14, 2017 05:41 PM

We’re proud to announce that Grand Academy for Future Villains, the latest in our popular “Choice of Games” line of multiple-choice interactive-fiction games, is now available for Steam, iOS, and Android. It’s 30% off until September 21st!

Congratulations! We are delighted to welcome you to the Grand Academy for Future Villains, the world’s finest evil preparatory school, where unimaginable power begins with a world-class education!

Grand Academy for Future Villains is a hilarious 200,000-word interactive novel by Katherine Nehring, where your choices control the story. It’s entirely text-based, without graphics or sound effects, and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination.

Looking for a career as an evil overlord? A mad scientist? A megavillain, a wicked witch, a final boss? You’re not going to get there without hard work, dedication, and thorough education. In the space between worlds, between genres, beyond time and space itself, the Grand Academy for Future Villains trains the bad guys that every good story needs.

You, our hero–or our villain, rather–will arrive at the Academy ready to learn, but you’ll quickly discover that there’s so much more to villain school than getting good grades. As you navigate the school year, you’ll have the opportunity to:

• Secure an internship with a prestigious heartless corporation or megalomaniacal dictator
• Seduce a hero to the dark side (Attention students: do NOT allow yourself to be seduced by the forces of good!)
• Put in the extra hours at the lab to become an actual monster.
• Pledge your family’s secret society and become worthy of–or defy–the grand destiny your family has mapped out for you.
• Pay off your student loans (in the blood of your enemies, if necessary).
• Find true love, deadly rivalry, or both at the same time with your fellow students.
• Save your alma mater, take it over, betray it, or drop out in a blaze of glory.

Our alumni have gone on to dominate worlds, conquer galaxies, break hearts, and succumb to the creeping darkness in their souls. The choices that you make at our school will determine whether you join their illustrious company.

Enroll today!

We hope you enjoy playing Grand Academy for Future Villains. 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.

September 13, 2017

Renga in Blue

Quondam: Horror Vacui

by Jason Dyer at September 13, 2017 10:40 PM

So: you’re a budding author determined to produce the most difficult text adventure ever made. How do you proceed?

If you’re Rod Underwood, by horror vacui.

Horror vacui (“fear of empty space”) refers to the artistic practice of filling every nook and cranny on a page or painting, most famously exemplified by the Book of Kells above.

In the sense of this game, it’s filling every space possible with a puzzle. Nearly every location and object has some aspect that can either a.) kill you outright or b.) cause you to make the game unwinnable.

Like this item from the very first room:

>WAVE ROD
The star snaps out on a chain. The morningstar is a tricky weapon and you bash your brains out.
Your life is over.

Nearby, you find an elixir on a spider web. While you are predictably killed by the spiders …

>E
A horde of spiders swarms over you and eats you.
You are very dead.

… you are also killed by the elixir itself.

>DRINK ELIXIR
You drink the elixir. You start to shrink… you’re changing .. Hey, where did you go?
You’ve passed away.

So far, this feels like the Philosopher’s Quest strategy, but that map was sprawling compared to this one.

The right half of the map that I have so far. The left half has an arrangement of hexagons making a spider web, but most of the rooms aren’t useful.

I’ve found 13 locations of significance, and I count 11 open puzzles. Here are all of them:

1. There is a sword in a stone (the REJECT one I quoted in my last post). I can eat a sandwich to gain strength and pull out the sword, although it breaks off at the hilt (I have no idea if the breaking is a puzzle, but the hilt counts as a treasure). However, the sandwich causes nausea and death shortly afterwards.

2. There is a “fungi room” with a “rapidly growing vegetable being”. You can JUMP to avoid immediate death (“You leap over the creature’s limbs just before they close over your legs!”) but after a few turns the being grows too large and kills you.

3. I found (via use of magic word) a customs room.

You are at the customs. The only exit is a portal pulsing red-green to the north. There is a notice here: Any goods left here are stored and will be restored when you leave. Items needed for survival are allowed. Duty is charged.
A fanged customs official waits for you to declare your goods.

Saving your game is safe here. I presumed storing treasures might work as well, but if I try to “declare” one it just disappears. I don’t know what that business about things being “restored when you leave” is. Also, if you’re carrying a rucksack with items inside and you try to leave the room all the items in the rucksack disappear.

4. There’s a desert area where you quickly die of thirst. You have a flask which presumably contains water, but it just breaks and gets you wet if you try to open it.

5. There’s the previously mentioned spiders, which trigger when you try to leave the center of a large spider web.

6. There’s a dragon that outright fries you if you try to go by.

7. There’s a knight that “challenges” you and blocks your way. You can distract by handing him your morningstar (see the first excerpt in this post). If you go back to the same room he returns to his normal behavior, and you can’t get the morningstar back.

8. There’s a cave blocked by an illusion of fire. I was able to pass through and rescue a harp, but there’s also a mirror in there that I can’t take out (if I do, I spot an image of the fire in the mirror that causes the character to pause, and the fire becomes real).

9. There’s a bird in a forest that I don’t know what to do with; if I try to pick the bird up it dies immediately.

10. The forest itself is a maze, and I am unclear if there’s a way to navigate it or if you’re just supposed to stumble at random.

11. It’s unclear how to drink the elixir while surviving it, or if you’re even supposed to (I’m guessing either you get rid of the inside and just use the bottle it came in, or you give it to someone else to drink).

I won’t count it as a #12, but I may or may not have incorrectly gotten past a lock. I was able to BREAK LOCK with ease but knowing this game you need to keep the lock for something later. Strangely, the same room had a key, but no verb that resembled UNLOCK LOCK or PUT KEY or the like was even recognized. This game is so unnerving that even after solving a puzzle I wonder if I’ve really solved the puzzle.


Choice of Games

Author Interview: Katherine Nehring, “Grand Academy for Future Villains”

by Mary Duffy at September 13, 2017 12:41 PM

Looking for a career as an evil overlord? A mad scientist? A megavillain, a wicked witch, a final boss? You’re not going to get there without hard work, dedication, and thorough education. In the space between worlds, between genres, beyond time and space itself, the Grand Academy for Future Villains trains the bad guys that every good story needs. I sat down with Katherine Nehring, author of Choice of Games’ latest release to talk about what influenced her writing. Grand Academy for Future Villains releases Thursday, September 14th. 

Tell me about what influenced your world creation for Grand Academy. What kind of a world is this set in?

Trope-spotting can be both a delight and a distraction when it comes to reading, watching, playing, and otherwise partaking in popular fiction–especially popular genre fiction. There’s a sort of sly double perspective: in-universe you’re asking yourself who this character is within the framework of their created world, but as a reader you’re also asking yourself what type of character they are within your own experience of stories. Who do they remind you of? What do you expect from their narrative arc?

The Grand Academy inverts that order: to be in-universe at the Academy is to be outside the universe of any particular story.  This is a world where the laws of narrative are far more important than the laws of physics–a world where it’s taken for granted that concepts can be prohibited (and confiscated, and smuggled), where acting too much like a protagonist means heroic things start happening to you, and where doing something memorably can be just as effective as doing it competently.

You and I both attended St. John’s College for undergrad, and Jason Hill did a graduate degree there. I see a few parallels between the Grand Academy and SJC. Were you drawing on anything of personal significance in your writing?

I’d never thought of this before, but both the Academy and St. John’s are worlds of books – adhering to this overarching meta-order, living by the rules of narrative (surely one can call SJC’s pared-down arc of Western thought a narrative!) And of course, that’s always in tension with the ‘real world’, with history and particularity and the need to go out and find a job at some point.

The Grand Academy has elements of every one of the schools I attended, going right back to high school (the arbitrary nature of the class schedule is a less-than-fond memory of trying to decipher when lunch hour was). DarkBoard is an only slightly more vivid version of the class management software I used in grad school; Professor Ulik’s brisk, career-oriented Evil Architecture class was definitely influenced by community college classes I took. But St. John’s, with its intensity, eccentricity, and constant narrative engagement, was undoubtedly the biggest influence.

There’s a great cast of weird characters here: the PC’s mother, Maedryn, Dr. Cerebrist, and Professor Mortwain were some of my favorites. Did you have a character you enjoyed writing most?

I had a lot of fun with all of them–probably the most with Aurion and Kinistra. Either one of them could be the focus of an interesting story of their own, I think (or several interesting stories; one of the delightful things about writing this as a game rather than a novel is the way their stories can go very differently depending on their relationship to the player character. For Aurion, there’s something that appeals to me about an overachieving underdog at a school for villains–he has all the markers of a protagonist, but he’s determined to rise to greatness in the realm of evil. Kinistra, on the other hand, the player meets in one of the most classic of heroic ways: as someone to be rescued. And the ways in which you and she either thwart those tropes or fulfill them can have a big effect on how your story plays out.

What did you find challenging about the process of writing in ChoiceScript/our game design?

There was definitely a steep learning curve with ChoiceScript. It’s very easy to pick up, and can do a great many things once you’ve picked it up, and learning how to make those things engaging for players and manageable as a writer is quite a task! The editors were enormously helpful through this process, as were playing other Choice of Games titles, reading the forums, and going through my own game, over and over, until I could look at it both as a player and an author. By the middle of the editing process I was thinking in ChoiceScript, mapping out my daily activities as *choice and *if and *goto, setting my personal stats higher or lower. I’m not new to writing or to games, but I am to game-writing, and creating a game that worked was a challenging discipline. There was nothing I could fudge, handwave, or leave to the reader’s imagination: every loose end had to be woven in on a technical level or the game couldn’t be played at all, woven in on a narrative level or the game wouldn’t be fun to play.  This process taught me a good deal both about games and about writing!

Would you do it again?

In a heartbeat! Well, not a heartbeat. I need to nap for at least a month.

Short answer, Bernard Pivot-style Questionnaire:

Favorite color? 

Green. (A little-known rule of the universe, stemming from color-coded childhood possessions: all green things belong to me.)

Favorite word? 

Peal, apparently, as I learned in the copy-editing process. (I hadn’t realized I used that word so much!)

What profession other than your own would like you like to attempt? 

Alternate-universe me is an art conservator somewhere.

Which would you not want to attempt? 

I’m glad that electricians and tax lawyers exist; I’m very glad I don’t have to be one!

Personal choice for genre dormitory at the Grand Academy?

I think I’m going to have to go with the player character’s mother and say Science Fiction. “Taking over the galaxy” has a nice ring to it.

September 12, 2017

Inkle

inklewriter update

September 12, 2017 03:41 PM

We announced on Twitter recently that inklewriter is now entering a status of "permanent beta". We wanted to clarify here what that means for users, and for the stories you've made using the system.

A little history

Inklewriter was one of our first releases - a neat idea for a simple-to-use, web-based drafting environment for choice-based stories. Our original intention was to use it to run an annual competition for stories from new writers (which we did, with our Future Voices app, but we never ran a follow-up).

Since going live, we've had hundreds of thousands of stories created by hundreds of thousands of users; we've won awards from school and library associations; and hopefully we've helped kickstart a few interactive writers careers. We've used inklewriter internally for sketching out plotlines and prototypes, and for obtaining writing samples from potential new writers (including 80 Days' Meg Jayanth). It was used by bestselling author Kelly Armstrong to write content for the Cainsville Files app we made with Penguin, and by Stoic Studios for the in-game dialogues in the Banner Saga games.

So what's happening?

Inklewriter is mostly stable, but has never been entirely stable - and with browers changing all the time, it's real work to fix the issues that arise. Inklewriter is, and always has been, entirely free, and with our games getting ever bigger and more ambitious, we simply don't have the time to investigate and resolve inklewriter issues.

Unofficially, we've moved away from developing inklewriter for a long time. Our decision to publically shelve it has been prompted by an increasing frequency of persistent bug-reports: in particular two large, known issues that we will not be fixing.

The known issues

The first issue is that shared stories can no longer be read over unsecured connections: that means that "https" links work, but "http" links don't. In practice that also means you can't read stories unless you're logged into inklewriter, so stories can no longer be easily shared.

The second issue we've seen is writers losing stories due to save errors. This seems to be due to drops in the network connection, possibly when too many connections come in from the same source (such as a school classroom). The issue is unpredictable, and we don't know of any work-arounds that ensure work is never lost. Obviously, if this happens to you, it's pretty bad.

The server is staying online, for now

Inklewriter will remain online for the next year. You'll still be able to make accounts, write stories, and read them. However, as browser requirements change, some features might disappear or break, under strange conditions, with very little notice. So you should probably think twice before creating anything permanent using inklewriter.

Does this affect ink and inky?

No. Ink is a completely different technology stack - it's something we've used on every project we've made, and we still use it every day. In fact, part of moving away from inklewriter is to encourage people to shift over to ink: it's more powerful, more useful, and it's stable and going to be supported for some time to come.

Can I rescue my story?

Yes. If you visit the share link of your story, you can use your browser's "Save Page As" (in the File menu) to save off a copy of the playable web page - with all the story data included. That page is entirely standalone, and so will be playable by anyone (avoiding the https issue mentioned above) - and it'll continue to be playable even if inklewriter does eventually go offline. You can also easily edit and alter the layout and presentation of the page, if you know your way around HTML and CSS.

Can I rescue my data?

Yes. You can capture the raw .json file that stores your story, but to use it elsewhere you'll need to write code to parse and run it. (The format is pretty straight-forward, however.)

Any other questions?

If you've got a question about this, please drop us a line via the comments below, and we'll do our best to get back to you.

Finally, apologies if this is disappointing to you! Speaking personally, we love the inklewriter flow and wish we could keep it spritely and alive.

September 10, 2017

Zarf Updates

Aporia: design ruminations

by Andrew Plotkin ([email protected]) at September 10, 2017 08:41 PM

I occasionally repeat the mantra, "All game genres hybridize over time." Today's example is Aporia: Beyond the Valley, which presents itself as a Myst-genre puzzle adventure game. Okay, it's a graphical adventure game and it's got puzzles, but I was surprised at how much it didn't remind me of Myst. (Or that genre's modern exemplars, like Obduction or Quern.) Aporia reminded me of several different games, in fact, at different points.
The game opens with an extended introduction which I would call "linear" if that term weren't entirely dessicated. It is, at any rate, an amble down a trail of minor obstacles, geared to teach you mechanics rather than work your little grey cells. Fine; every game starts that way. But Aporia's intro is long enough to let you assume that you've got the rhythm of the entire game. Paths branch just enough to give you the sense of exploration, without letting you miss the next locked door or the key that opens it.
So that's not quite Myst / Quern / Obduction. The usual adventure formula gives you a small introductory area, and then throws the gates open on a world of puzzley madness. Aporia's guided exploration (with wordless narrative and a bit of resource-foraging) is more like, say, Ico. I don't mean it has combat or serious platforming; I just mean the shape of the map. Complex geography with a clean route through to the next area.
Then you pass through a major building, and the gates are thrown open on... a world. The valley. This is a game about a valley, remember? And the valley is enormous, wide open -- a puzzle shrine here, a puzzle building there, but primarily hills and rocks and waterfalls and trees and marshes. You've gone from Ico to Shadow of the Colossus.
That's not the usual adventure formula either, is it? I love open-terrain exploration, but coming from the Myst mindset, I suddenly wanted to wail: guide me! Show me a shiny beacon of goal in the sky! Where's the next locked door? Where am I supposed to solve?
Okay, no. Deep breath. You've got a map and you can see some nifty standing stones in the distance. You push forth and start learning the world.
The funny thing is that this is where the real puzzles start showing up. I might say they lean closer to the action-adventure model (Tomb Raiders, Princes of Persia) than to Myst-style puzzles -- but that's a thin and hazy line to draw. What I'll say for sure is that you spend your time discovering what's over the next hill, not how to open the next gate. The feel of Shadow of the Colossus dominates.
This is also where other genres start creeping in. You walk into a misty glen, and an evil red ghost jumps out and hoists your ass. Aiyee! You can't fight; running might or might not save you. Getting caught doesn't kill you, or even cost much health, but it knocks you back to home base and annoys the heck out of you. Could it be... the Frictional monster?
No, it's not full-on survival horror. The ghost doesn't show up often enough to dominate the game. But it adds a distinct touch of discouragement to your exploration -- which feels weird in a story-exploration game. Do you really want to go back to that glen? But what else is there to do? By definition, you want to visit everywhere on the map.
But you spend a little more time hunting for health-bushes.
The health-bushes also help with, or perhaps fail to excuse, some hurry-up-hurry-up sequences. Not puzzles, but areas where you have to do something while hot stone or toxic smoke slowly burns away your health. These are small and fairly simple -- but you can die. Dying means being kicked back to the last save-point, and perhaps redoing a fair amount of routine exploration. Again, this would be unsurprising in a Tomb Raider game, but it leaves one a bit out of sorts in an adventure game. (And, I must say, the Tomb Raider series has better autosave scheduling, for exactly this reason.)
On top of all of that, you come across optional puzzles, which are a whole different kettle from the main plot-goals. These are the sort of extra-achievement rewards which are common in action-adventure games and practically mandatory in CRPGs -- but I can't remember seeing them much in the Myst genre. They vary widely, from pure plumb-every-crevice exploration to thematic challenges to formal puzzles. (You'll groan when you run into the three different-sized beakers.)
I rather enjoyed this aspect of the game. The extra-ness of the puzzles allows the designers to push you outside your mental box a little. On the other hand, I solved maybe half of them and I don't intend to go back hunting for the rest.
Overall, my feelings are... mixed, like the game model itself. I admire the designers' intent to pick ideas from any source that suits their needs. They're not stuck on one set of design decisions just because Cyan tripped over them back in 1993. Want to throw in a boat ride? Okay, here's a boat ride. Health meter? Sure. Environmental puzzle sequence in a constrained underwater area? Have one. Aporia isn't afraid to do a lot of different things.
But I felt like the ground was shifting a little too often. Do I expect to spend this game exploring, not exploring, hiding, running, solving, optimizing, collecting... what? The mechanics never quite gelled. It's not that I dislike any of these genres, but you know how it is when your mouth is set for apple juice and you drink iced tea instead? Repeatedly.
Here I have deleted a snarky paragraph about Aporia's wordless-narrative model, because I've railed about that before. The presentation is, at least, interesting and distinctive. And it's neither annoyingly generic-and-vague nor annoyingly wall-of-text info-dumpy. So that's good. You'll have to live without my extended Steven Universe metaphor.
And here is where I explain that this is a design ruminations post, not a review. I like to write long posts about what's strange, unusual, or off-base about a game's structure.
This is not to say it's a bad game! Aporia is engaging; I had a great time playing it.
The visuals are particularly nice. You move through geography, from misty swamp to underground cavern to craggy moor, and each domain has a distinct texture: light, shadows, palette, haze, aural environment. Plus day, night, clear, and rainy variations of each environment! (Okay, not of the underground ones. Except when a shaft of sunlight or moonlight slants down a sinkhole, which happens surprisingly often, because... well, because it's awesome.)
This is not just graphical pizazz. It's part of what gives the game its sense of geographical expanse. As the atmosphere of the world changes around you, you feel that you've travelled a significant distance, even if it's really just a compressed jaunt over a ridgeline. I hate to bring in Shadow of the Colossus again, but that's the game that I think of as pioneering the trick. Aporia does it very well.
If this were a review, I would recommend Aporia, with warnings about falling into assumptions about what kind of game it is. I definitely want to see more adventure genre hybrids -- particularly if they're this beautiful, this imaginative, and this much fun to explore.
I just want designers to think more about how their mechanics fit together in the player's head. What does this toxic smog, this breath limit, this threatening ghost tell the player about their goal? Does it pull them forward or push them back from the kind of gameplay which will get them through the game? Ask that.

Web Interactive Fiction

FyreVM and IFPress Status

by David Cornelson at September 10, 2017 06:41 PM

It’s been about six months since I’ve worked on FyreVM-Web and the infrastructure for ifpress.com. After the most recent developments with Vorple and the clear interest from the community for its progress, I paused to re-evaluate where I spend my time. I think at this point I plan to spend more time on writing than on tool development. This means the status of my tools is going to remain dormant until some nebulous future date.

As everyone knows, platform development is hard and the IF community is somewhat mercurial about shared interests. I tried to enlist a couple of people in helping on the UI side of things where FyreVM is concerned and they flatly replied (paraphrased), “Why should I spend time on this when Vorple is more mature.” OR “I don’t have any extra time for this.”

So at the moment, FyreVM-Web is going to the dust-bin…until I find some future fuel for it or if it gains interest from other capable front-end developers and designers.

On to writing, IF and other things. Cheers.

September 08, 2017

IFTF Blog

An Interview with Judith Pintar

by David Streever at September 08, 2017 05:54 PM

We’re pleased to share this interview with Judith Pintar, our newest board member at the Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation. Judith has been involved in the interactive fiction community for nearly 30 years, and her insights into the past, present, and future of IF are fascinating.

(Note: This interview has been edited in the interests of length and clarity.)

David: How did you start playing interactive fiction? What brought you to the medium?

Judith: Like many of us, I grew up inside the Great Underground Empire, playing interactive fiction the way it was first played—with a group of friends, scratch paper, a pencil, a pizza, and no walkthrough.

David: I didn’t have a community for IF, it was all solo for me, but I had a similar experience with Myst—it was such a challenge and I loved working with my friends! We would really puzzle over everything together. Now I feel like a cheater because I’m always looking up the stumpers.

Judith: We’ve collectively gotten really lazy about puzzles. I play nothing without a walkthrough anymore. So, it’s all of us—maybe it has to do with the pace of leisure.

David: What got you started writing IF? Do you remember your very first game?

Judith: My first game—hmm, honestly that has been lost in the mists of time. My first full-length work was CosmoServe, which won the AGT contest in 1991. It was largely inspired by my experiences as a member of Compuserve’s Gamer’s Forum, where I used the handle Teela Brown.

What made CosmoServe unusual was the simulation. It starts out like a regular IF—you are a programmer in a messy office, but when you turn on your computer, the screen turns into a DOS environment. That’s the point at which players today stop playing. They have no idea how to run a program from a DOS command line. I never intended that to be a puzzle, but it became the hardest one. When you dial up to CosmoServe, it looks like what CompuServe looked like back in the day. In the original AGT version I was put in a screechy modem sound. I used to get emails from people telling me that they got confused whether they were actually online or not. Later in the game when a virus corrupts your in-game computer, which you find out by running the in-game CHKDSK, they freaked out thinking that it was happening to their actual computer.

David Malmberg released the final version of AGT as freeware and ran the last AGT contest in 1993, which I judged. That was the dramatic historical moment when AGT was eclipsed by TADS and INFORM. The IFComp took over as the AGT contest ended. That was also when, from the point of view of the IF community, I seemed to go poof from the world. What actually happened was that I went to graduate school, wrote a dissertation while having a baby, and got my first academic job while having another baby. I never stopped writing IF. While I was out of public circulation, I updated CosmoServe, contacted the IFDB and asked them to replace my game file with the new one. I was surprised by the response. I was told (by whom I wish I could remember) that I was welcome to upload a new version, but that the old version of CosmoServe belonged to history, not to me, and that I could not change it. It’s ironic (and fun) that I’m now on the board of the organization charged with the task of archiving that continuing history.

David: I’d really struggle with that in your position. I’m so used to being able to seamlessly update anything I put online. Was there anything really broken in the original?

Judith: No, it just hard to win because of time pressure. I took into account player feedback when I updated it. As soon as my kids started playing computer games (shortly after birth), I was back at teaching IF, though by then AGT was no longer being maintained, and I faced a conundrum. I had leftover loyalty to AGT, since I had been its defender and one of its public faces. I wanted to move on, but I didn’t want to feel like a traitor to my clan, so to speak. When Inform 7 was released, I saw a path forward. I fell in love with the language. I learned it by rewriting CosmoServe. The Inform 7 version is available to be played in not-quite-beta, here.

David: You’ve authored and co-authored IF; did you prefer one over the other? Does each have a pro/con that makes it unique?

Judith: I am really energized by the creative synergy of collaborative work. In terms of pure cognitive pleasure, though, there is nothing I enjoy more than the solo-work of coding complicated interactive narrative. To give you a quick example of what makes me jump out of bed in the morning, I’ve been working on a text-based poker game in which the player, as Alice, plays poker with the White Rabbit while falling down a well. The map is vertical; the player goes up and down while the White Rabbit is doing the same. The cards are randomly strewn throughout the well. The algorithm that helps the Rabbit to decide what card to take and what to drop is straightforward, but I also wanted the cards to fight with each other, to jump out or push each other out of the player’s hand. I wanted players to hear in the distance these dramas happening in the Rabbit’s hand too, a clue to what the Rabbit is holding. There is a narrative arc in this game that has to be revealed in order to win. The player will have to go looking for it deliberately by putting together particular poker hands. The code for this game was So Much Fun to puzzle out. The game (still being bug-tested) can be played here.

David: I’ll have to look at that after our interview. (Editor’s note: I did, and recommend it: It’s a parser-based Inform 7 work that’s very challenging but rewarding)

Most games have very traditional roles, but interactive fiction spans so many disciplines. How would you describe your role? Writer or programmer? The Storyteller? CEO? If you had to pick one job title, what would it be?

Judith: Storyteller. Before I wrote IF, I was a professional storyteller, performing for children as an artist-in-residence in schools, and for drunk adults in festivals, renaissance fairs, and comedy clubs. I never memorized my stories, which were different every time I performed them, tailored for each audience. I really missed the improvisational and interactive aspects of performance when I wrote my stories down. You see what’s coming here. IF fixes that problem. IF offers the spirit of a live storytelling performance, without the drunks.

My interest in collaborative authoring, and crowd-sourced IF began with SOGGY, but I have been a teacher of IF nearly as long as I have been an author. During the 90s I taught AGT as an artist-in-residence in middle/high schools. Since it was released, Inform 7 is now my language of choice for teaching parser-based IF. I teach other sorts of interactive narrative, through Twine. Besides authoring their own games, students in my Game Design course at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign contribute to an ongoing collaborative IF that takes place inside a sprawling campus-based game world. Each semester the students build upon the work of the students before. They learn to code by fixing the bugs in the code that came before them. You can play the intentionally incomplete, a la Minecraft, ongoing buggy Quad Game here.

David: I can see why you were drawn to IFTF; there are a lot of parallels to your work as a professor, and as a storyteller.

Judith: It’s not immediately obvious to people how my creative work and my academic work fit together (at least, it’s not obvious to academics looking at my vita). But it all makes sense to me. I am a sociologist of science and technology, which means I’m interested in the entangling of society and culture with technology. Most broadly I study collective narrative. I have approached this in the ways that communities remember traumatic war experiences, and in how science becomes culture. I am quite comfortable teaching in the Informatics Program at UIUC, where all my interests converge. I direct the Electronic Literatures & Literacies Lab, which is intended as a place for cross-disciplinary collaboration.

David: Just as albums and IF used to have feelies and have lost them with the shift to full digital, do you see any other future-proofing that we’re missing in interactive fiction?

Judith: That’s a great question. I had a conversation recently with Jerome McDonough who studies digital preservation at the iSchool here at UIUC about his work on archiving “intangible culture,” especially as it relates to games and their technologies. I asked him if CompuServe Gamer’s Forum, as an episode in the history of online gaming, could be archived. He said no, that the old BBS experiences are gone without a trace, lost worlds. We might be able to preserve the system an old game was played on, but we still lose some of the experience. It’s what I said at the beginning of the interview. Infocom games were played by groups of people, with pizza and pencils. How do we archive that?

Obviously we want to archive games and the technologies used to run them. But do we have to, do we want to, can we archive the experience of playing the game. Is the game the same without the feelies? Is the game the same without the community? Is the game the same without the contemporary popular culture? Is the game the same without having played other games first? How do we preserve those intangible things? Or do we just need to let them go?

David: I think that’s all part of why you’re here, right? You have such an impressive background in the field, and you have these great insights into the future of interactive fiction and the importance of archiving. Why did you join the Foundation board? Do you have any specific goals?

Judith: The announcement of the launching of IFTF came across my feed in the usual way, and it seemed to me to be a natural and important development. When I was asked to join the board I was delighted to support its dual mission of preservation and promotion. We want to ensure that that IF (its technologies, tools and games) survive as a living art form and that IFTF, as the guardian of that legacy, is a rock of stability, regardless of who is on the board.

I am happy to take my turn serving the IF community, having been part of it from the beginning. In terms of what I personally bring to the IFTF, I think my interests in digital inclusion, in broadening the use of IF languages and tools (Inform 7, Twine but also other emerging platforms) into the social sciences among other areas, and the development and archiving of IF pedagogical materials, may be two areas in which I can contribute. Other things will emerge unpredictably.

David: Having covered archiving the past…what’s the future of interactive fiction, in your opinion?

Judith: I do think that all kinds of writing are going to become more interactive—nobody thinks twice about hyperlinks, so why can’t branching become ubiquitous too? I see interactive narrative influencing how people think, how they collaborate, how they write papers and reports. I also see AI becoming a more central feature of IF in ways that Emily Short envisions. And of course Twine will be taught to kids at the same time that they learn to write, while Inform 7 will become the first programming language of choice. I see a future where IF authors get well paid for what they do!

My personal IF projects focus on developing collaborative IF environments. Minecraft for IF, that’s what I’m after. I’m going to start looking for grants for “The Illinois Map”. (Editor’s note: Preview this at http://el3.judithpintar.com/collaborations/ and scroll down to the Illinois Map.) It’s going to be an open-ended interactive history of Illinois virtual learning environment, where people can learn to program Inform, can contribute code, bug-test, do research, or write and edit text, on hundreds of short historical simulations written in Inform, the best of which are incorporated into “the map”. A player will be able to travel from downtown Chicago today to Springfield when Lincoln lived there, find him in his law office and have a chat. The map expands in both space and time. The website will have a community aspect, with forums, and tutorials, and statuses, and levels of participation, and guides for teachers, etc… I’m starting the process of looking for grants, but I’m moving ahead even if I don’t find funding. My students have already produced content.

Also on the pedagogy end of things, I’m also prototyping a kind of IF game that teaches Inform as the point of the game (though it’s entwined with a narrative as well). I’ve finished my first iteration of the idea. If you win the game, you are awarded with a text file of Inform code that you can cut and paste into Inform. (Editor’s note: See it at https://judithpintar.com/wp/game/escape/

David: Shades of CosmoServe, in a way! We’re getting into future territory and circling back around to the past. I’m noticing though that, even in just your work, there is a lot of open territory in the future.

Judith: Yes! I believe there’s room to stretch out in multiple directions. What Chris Klimas is doing with narrative form is different from what Emily Short is doing with AI, and different again from what I’m doing with collaboration. I think it’s a really exciting time to be writing IF. Not that I think the classic forms will go away—not at all! IFTF is on top of that. But I do believe that IF’s influence on other sorts of writing and games and yet-to-be-discovered creative genres is going to grow.

And of course we’re going to be talking to our IFs, and not typing. I just had a vision of someone on a long biking trip playing your biking IF while they ride…. Now you have to write it! If you get stuck, drop me a line. (Editor’s note: Judith got me to reveal that I have an always on the backburner work in progress about bike racing early on in our conversation.)

David: Thank you for the offer and for this interview. I’m excited for your role at the Foundation and your future work in IF.

September 06, 2017

PyramidIF

IntroComp 2017 Results Announced

by Hanon Ondricek ([email protected]) at September 06, 2017 02:47 AM


Direct from their website:
We would like to express our very sincere gratitude to everyone who took the time to download, play, rate, and leave feedback for this year's introductions. We would also like to say thank you and congratulations to all the authors!

Here are the results:


1st Place Sherlock Indomitable, by mathbrush
2nd Place Onna Kabuki, by Victor Ojuel
3rd Place The Adam and Eve Project, by Brian Kwak

Honorable Mentions*:
Duckman by Wade
Yukon Yelena by Wing
Prizon by Wes Lesley
Playing with the White Dog by Elizabeth Bernhardt
Good for Nothing by Katalina
The Wishing Wood by Elizabeth Bernhardt
The Sentence Editor by fishandbeer
You Just Might Feel Something by Devin Raposo


*listed in random order

September 05, 2017

Emily Short

Interactive Storytelling for Video Games (Josiah Lebowitz/Chris Klug)

by Emily Short at September 05, 2017 08:41 AM

Screen Shot 2017-06-14 at 9.36.06 AM.pngLast seen on this blog because Chris Crawford panned itInteractive Storytelling for Video Games: A Player-Centered Approach for Creating Memorable Character and Stories.The main body text is written by Josiah Lebowitz, but with interleaved commentary and examples written by Chris Klug.

This book is aimed at relative beginners, starting with a chapter on video game history and then three more chapters on basics of story in general (a point it has in common with a few other how-to-write-games books I’ve surveyed in the past). Each chapter ends, in textbook fashion, with a short list of questions for the student to ponder for later.

And, inevitably, there is a detailed breakdown of the hero’s journey, the references to Joseph Campbell and Christopher Vogler, the examples from Star Wars. However, despite Crawford’s shade, they’re pretty up front about recognizing when they’re talking about standard tropes and clichés, and discussing them as such with the reader, as well as recognizing how those elements are most commonly applied in games. Klug makes a pitch for why the Refusal of the Call phase of the monomyth is important — something I would agree with (though grudgingly, since I wish people were in general less hung up on mapping every game to this formula). (See also Skolnick’s remarks on the Refusal of the Call.)

In some places, though, Interactive Storytelling for Video Games does get pretty dogmatic about things that I would like to hope are flexible. For instance:

…video games tend to focus on fighting and strategy, exploration, puzzle solving, or some combination of the three. These types of external conflicts are far easier to portray in a game-like fashion than the more internal emotional conflicts that are often the focus of things like romance and sitcoms. Therefore, a “proper” game story needs to support a large amount of external conflict. (44)

Though the book does go on to acknowledge the existence of dating sims, flow games like Flower, and other low-conflict types, the book categorizes these as non-ideal story types and emphasizes that “though dating sims are very popular in Japan, they’re rarely, if ever, released overseas.”

Elsewhere, they get similarly dogmatic about procedural generation:

I do not believe “random” content creation is capable of anything deep and interesting. (120)

…though possibly the issue here is the lack of nuance referring to “random” creation: a good PCG system is often expressive because of how it presents the consequences of the designed or authored rules of generation, which is arguably no longer simply random.

In addition to these strong statements, the book tends to give generalized advice (“it’s okay to use some clichés as long as you change them up,” “your characters should be believable,” “it’s good to care about your characters,” etc.), without going as far into specific techniques as I might have preferred.

Or take this line, which condenses a fairly advanced art into a shrug: “Writing lines for NPCs or in-game books usually isn’t too hard — just start with the subject and work from there.” (136) Admittedly I wouldn’t go quite as far as Evan Skolnick’s claim that only professionals should be allowed to write dialogue, but this goes way too far in the other direction.

The main gain for me, especially in the early sections, came in the form of the case studies of games I hadn’t had a chance to play myself: the DS-only The World Ends With You, a dual-protagonist fighting game with fashion-based power-ups which sounds frankly fantastic; ARG-like elements in the Earth and Beyond MMO; a number of Japanese visual novels and RPGs that I haven’t had a chance to play.

A good percentage of the book is focused on what the authors call “player-driven storytelling,” which they define as

a player-driven story is one in which, through their interactions, players can alter the story in significant ways… in some, the player’s impact on the story may be fairly minimal or limited to a single important decision; in others, the player may be given an enormous amount of control over the story’s progression and outcome. (119)

In other words, it refers to what Stacey Mason calls diegetic agency. When they come to analyzing the structures that support this kind of experience, though, the discussion is relatively simplistic, with suggestions like “you may also need to think about how the player can interact with the world and characters.” Well, indeed.

Or the suggestion that having multiple endings to a game may make it impossible to have any particular theme to your story, concluding, “Perhaps it may be true that the interactive medium may not be the place to deliver a powerful theme. I don’t think we’ve come to any solid conclusion either way.” (160) There’s more sophisticated discussion in the IF community and elsewhere about the rhetorical force of narrative structures, and so this hand-wave doesn’t (in my opinion) really prepare the reader very well to choose how to approach these topics.

Quite a few of Chris Klug’s notes throughout the book amount to “I’m not sure we can actually do anything interesting with this yet” or “the jury is still out on whether this is any good” — and while I have no objection to people raising reasonable cautionary notes, I think there’s more evidence to answer some of these questions than the book takes into account.

Another example: “branching path stories tend to require players to complete most — if not all — of their different branches before they can fully understand the story.” (201). This is true for certain genres of project, especially the type of visual novel that has a “true ending” unlocked only when you’ve seen all the others. The case studies here suggest that the authors are working heavily from a subset of the possible types of branching story games.

The authors also don’t go into structures for delivering dynamic story with a lot of diegetic agency other than pure simulations like The Sims or open-world RPGs like Fallout 3. They also tend to assume that a very open story means a very undefined protagonist, whereas it’s possible to choose more focused stat ranges for a particular protagonist.

The final chapters of the book concern a debate over the value of player-driven storytelling, followed by a survey by the authors, about which games players found most pleasing from a story perspective. They conclude: “…interactive traditional storytelling [i.e. without diegetic agency] is the most popular game storytelling style among players, reflected by both their stated preferences and their favorite game stories. Second, in general, the more player-driven the storytelling style, the less popular it is among players.” (277)

So, overall: there are some decent observations here and there about topics such as why it’s not very compelling to let the player play each of three or four game endings in a row — though from my perspective this is not new information. And the case studies provide additional example material for thinking about these problems; in particular, they skew enough towards Japanese storytelling games and visual novels that they may provide a useful starting point for readers who aren’t as familiar with the non-western traditions here. And the writers are clearly really interested in the problems of freedom, agency, and story (choose two, as Andrew Stern wrote years ago).

At the same time, the book doesn’t really get that deep into either the range of narrative models that can support high-agency stories, or the expressive power of doing so: what can this or that structure communicate thematically? How does the variation range you make available for your protagonist become part of the message of your story?


September 04, 2017

The People's Republic of IF

September meetup

by zarf at September 04, 2017 03:41 AM

The Boston IF meetup for September will be Thursday, September 14, 6:30 pm, MIT room 14N-233.

(The date was chosen a couple of weeks ago, I just forgot to post here. Sorry!)

September 02, 2017

Zarf Updates

Late Mysterium news roundup

by Andrew Plotkin ([email protected]) at September 02, 2017 01:44 AM

Mysterium was the weekend of August 5th in Orlando. I didn't go, and I had trouble with the Twitch stream so I couldn't watch the presentations either. Happily, the team has gotten the videos up on Youtube, so I've been able to catch up on the Cyan Q&A.
Every year Rand Miller makes himself available for a chat with the fans. This year he was joined by Ryan Warzecha and some of the other art and production people at Cyan.
These Q&A sessions generally don't produce earth-shaking announcements, but there's usually a few interesting bits of company background and hints of what's to come. I've transcribed the niftiest; you can watch the whole 90-minute video if you want. Just remember that it was recorded a month ago.
First, egoboo for the old-school IF crowd:
Q: What games have influenced your game-making the most?
RM: They're old games. ...I think probably games like Zork. ...It was those early text adventures, because I felt like I was going to another place. The graphics there might even be better.
There were of course many questions about Obduction.
Q: (Material which was planned for the game but cut in production:)
RM: Kaptar had some other areas in it that were visually going to be pretty stunning, and a cool puzzle associated with it. But it was easy to cut, we didn't need it. ... That puzzle is going to find its way into something we do in the future.
RM: One thing that wasn't done as well as it could have been ... the Villein control panels. Originally it was going to be a real training exercise to go through those panels, learn the digits, learn the elements of how that numbering system worked, learn that they could be both individual digits and combined digits. Until at the very end, you were going to have to put all that together in this massive puzzle that you people should be very happy got cut. ... But it did leave a little bit of a [design] hole at the end of those control panels.
Q: What part of Obduction generated the most internal disagreement?
RM: Oh, that's an easy one: the Russian box. The Russian box changed over time, ... but RAWA [Richard Watson] and I stumbled on that and we're like yeah, we're doing that. In the "big bucket of ideas", everyone else would have dumped that one out, and I had to pull rank to keep that one in.
RM: The idea was that you'd come up to this box and you'd be so discouraged [by the complexity] you'd be like "I'm not even going to try this." And then later on, you'd inadvertantly do something with it and it basically just gets crushed. We thought that would be very satisfying.
(The box mechanism wound up not being totally destroyed in the released version, because it was part of an Easter Egg sequence. This was another design flaw, most fans agree.)
Q: Was there outside funding for the Obduction PS4 port?
RM: Yes.
Q: (Xbox port or other ports?)
RM: Anything's possible... but nothing firm.
Q: (Linux?)
RW: No, not at this time.
RM: The big problem with Linux... it would be for one specific variation of Linux, because there's so many SKUs, it's hard to QA that.
Q: Will there be supplemental materials like books or comics?
RM: No, probably not.
Q: (How are Obduction sales?)
RM: As you can tell, it's been enough to keep Cyan going. ... Which is fine, I don't think we're expecting to make some huge profit on every project as long as we can keep going and keep trying a little bigger. ... Obduction sales have not been quite what we had hoped for.
RW: It keeps us going and now we're going to be coming out on PS4, another SKU that will help us.
RM: We look at Obduction in some ways like another Myst, where there's a slower burn. ... We haven't sold as much as the big dogs like Firewatch or The Witness, but we've done better than some of the ones lower down the ladder.
I note in passing that the PS4 version of Obduction shipped this week, but the PSVR feature is stuck in certification hell with no ETA.
Q: (On the fate of the Myst TV series, about which RM made optimistic but noncommital comments last year:)
RM: We've had a weird year with the TV series. We're probably not up as high as we were before. Some things have slowed down and fallen through. So don't hold your breath.
And finally, the big question:
Q: Do you know what you're going to work on post-Obduction?
RM: Yes. In fact those guys [the art team] know what they're working on already. We're pretty small and there's a lot of room for wiggle, but the art team are already working on something new. ... The current stuff they're working on is not Myst-related or Obduction-related. It's a whole new IP that I think we're pretty excited about. ... We'll see what happens. Actually I will tell you one more thing...
RW: No he won't.
RM: ...We had some big meetings about this next project, and what we decided is that one of the features of this next new project is ... we're going to reveal almost nothing about it until it ships.
RM: If we did a Kickstarter for this next thing, we're going to make a video that goes, "We're not gonna tell you what this is. You're going to have to trust us on this one." ... This title lends itself really really well to that. You don't want to know anything about it when you play it.
So that's simultaneously exciting and frustrating.
On to next year and, apparently, a complete lack of news until some kind of game appears.