Planet Interactive Fiction

January 20, 2019

Emily Short

Conversation as Gameplay (Talk)

by Emily Short at January 20, 2019 02:40 PM

[Yesterday I gave a talk at the Oxford/London IF Meetup. The session was about conversation as gameplay, and also featured Flo Minuzzi of Tea-Powered Games, speaking about their released game Dialogue and their upcoming Elemental Flow. There’s a nice livetweeted thread version of my talk available on Twitter thanks to Florence Smith Nicholls, but I promised also to make a blog post about what I said.

Because the talk was written for an audience that included students, game designers from other parts of the industry, and newcomers to interactive fiction, I included some history of my own work that may be redundant for readers of this blog; there’s also some overlap with a talk I gave in Warsaw last September. However, the material towards the end of this talk is largely new.]


The Problem Statement

I want more games to be about human interaction, about the nuances of how people deal with one another, about the kinds of topics that appear in dramatic movies. That’s partly because I’d like to play more games about conversation and social interaction. I’m not as interested in action as a topic, and to be honest I often fall asleep during superhero movies these days.

Meanwhile, as an artist, part of the reason I write games is to explore and interrogate things I don’t yet fully understand. Building procedural systems and seeing how they perform is a great way to explore whether our mental models are correct. How people understand each other (or don’t), how they connect and why, are topics of enduring fascination for me.

So I want more conversation-rich games. For that to work as I’d like, the conversation needs to be rewarding as gameplay — not just bolted on around gameplay, as it so often is.

When it comes to my own work, I have a few more ambitions and requirements as well:

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First, I want it to allow the player to act with intentionality: to lay plans and carry them out. That means that we need some systematic mechanics that the player can learn and manipulate.

For the purposes of this talk, I’m not spending much time on things that are pure branching dialogue trees without ongoing state or clear mechanics. I’ve sometimes written work in that space, and if you’re interested in how to get the most out of a relatively state-light dialogue presentation, I recommend having a look at Jon Ingold’s AdventureX talk about writing sparkling interactive dialogue. But that’s not what we’re looking at today.

[I’ve written more about world model and systematic mechanics for conversation elsewhere.]

Second, I want the resulting mechanic to have good pacing and dramatic qualities — so a mechanic that systematizes conversation but makes it feel very slow, stilted, metaphorical, or hard to manipulate is not what I’m looking for. Some of these can be cool to play, but I myself tend to be looking to write something that has a bit more fluidity.

What’s out there?

Before we get into my own attempts to solve this problem, let’s take a quick survey of what some other games are doing in this space, and of mechanics I’ve considered as inspirations:

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Some games use minigames to represent the dynamics of conversation, like Red Strings Club‘s manipulation of dialogue via cocktails; about Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble and the mini-games that drive interaction there. Some use other gameplay as the main point of interaction and just have the characters in the game react to it, the way Textfire Golf makes the golf-playing into the means of communicating with your colleagues.

Some games, especially mysteries, let you manipulate inventories of information or knowledge in order to turn conversation into a puzzle. Consider the clue inventories used in Phoenix Wright, or the evidence-assembly screens in Detective Grimoire:

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Being able to construct evidence like this and put your own questions to NPCs works pretty well in the context of a mystery game. Puzzles like this are often a good way to confirm that the player has understood the key points of the narrative.

What’s more, the utterance-building is designed systematically enough that the game can give you a little feedback about your wrong guesses. But individual utterances take a while to construct, and the interface is more about manipulating thoughts than about being present in the back-and-forth flow of dialogue with another person. So this example does well on intentionality, but less well on the dramatic/writing strengths that I’m interested in capturing.

Finally, Ladykiller in a Bind gives the player options that appear and vanish again over time, and overtly tells the player when particular choices are going to increase suspicion (undesirable) or gain them votes in a sort of popularity contest (one of your main goals during play):

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(Note that this game is not safe for work.)

This comes closer to capturing the you-are-there aspects of conversation that interest me — the sense of thoughts coming into your head that might or might not be the right things to say; the sense of taking risks or staying silent — and because there are a lot of ways to manipulate your suspicion levels and vote stats, the player gets a bit more room for intentional action than in some systems.

[If you’re interested in even more things than I was able to fit into my talk, I’ve also written a semi-recent mailbag post with examples and categories of conversation mechanics in recent games.]

Aside from all those examples presented in existing conversation-focused games, I’ve also drawn inspiration, historically, from games that aren’t about conversation at all, but that have mechanics that feel like potential inspiration material.

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Polaris is a tabletop story game in which players negotiate about what is allowed to happen next in the story, using key phrases (“okay, that happens, but only if this other thing happens as well”) — which provides an example of how negotiation mechanics might work in general. You might let players stack caveats and requirements, adding more stakes and outcomes to an agreement, until the characters either agree or decide that their negotiation has failed.

Combat games provide examples of attacking, blocking, and parrying that can be used (with a more cooperative spin) in conversational contexts as well. In fact, Tea-Powered’s in-progress Elemental Flow explores exactly that idea, so people who were at my talk had a chance to hear that concept unpacked in some detail.

In Diplomacy — a board game — the players discuss what their alliances will be, then write down detailed moves describing how their armies will move around the board. All of the written moves are resolved at once before anyone gets to enter further discussion or write new moves. A structure based on making complex commitments and then resolving them all at once would allow for players to make really subtle, socially complex decisions that were very expressive. At the same time, that mechanic undercuts pacing, because most conversations don’t involve that much thinking in between lines of dialogue. It’s a better fit for games about writing letters or at the very least emails.

Finally, Jenga captures a short-term mechanic that I’ve often seen successfully rolled into interactive conversations, where you invite the player to push an NPC as far as they dare and see what happens.

Galatea and other parser-based conversation games

After looking at those examples, I talked through some of my own past work: the exploratory gameplay but unyielding UI of Galatea (nearly 20 years old now):

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Galatea let the player ask or tell the character about various keyword topics — and there were enough contextual clues in the environment of the interaction that the player could actually know about some information that the non-player character didn’t have, including emotionally fraught information about what happened to her creator. Dozens of different endings were possible, depending on what you found out about the character and what relationship you ultimately formed with her.

After Galatea, I wrote a number of other parser-based conversational games.

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Perhaps the most notable of these for the current conversation is Alabaster, a game written collaboratively with almost a dozen other writers. To create Alabaster, I built a game with an initial story hook and an engine that let players add new dialogue content whenever they ran into a topic that the game didn’t cover.

We also added a generative art system, the imagery on the left side of the screen, that gave the player visual cues about the mood of the major character. This was particularly useful in the Jenga-mechanic-esque moments of the game. It’s possible, by insistently questioning the player, to drive the non-player character into bad states of mind, and cause bad endings. Players have generally responded well to the visual signals that they’re pushing their luck.

[My blog contains a number of posts about the progress of Alabaster, from when the project was live, if anyone is curious to know more about the development process and design decisions.]


Next I talked about the Versu system, which presented options to the player based on its underlying social model and dialogue options that were hand-authored for that particular moment. A full explanation of how that system worked could occupy an hour all by itself, so I won’t get into too much depth here, except to talk about the UI and model for conversation, and how that design played.

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Moving away from the parser made the game significantly more accessible to new users, while the underlying social model made it possible for players to intentionally play towards different relationships with key characters. The flow of interaction was much smoother, especially since Versu allowed characters to talk to one another: as the player, you could choose to watch NPCs interact for long periods before deciding to interrupt them.

The biggest work released in Versu was Blood and Laurels, a game of Roman imperial intrigue that could end with you getting yourself stupidly killed, or getting your friends killed, or becoming emperor, or restoring the Republic, all the while romancing (or not) any of several NPCs.

One of my favorite affordances of the game was that you could at one point get some poison, and subsequently use it to knock off an enemy at a banquet. When you poisoned someone, that character would have time for another line or two of dialogue before keeling over (though what that dialogue might be depended on the rest of the current conversation flow). It could be a lot of fun watching your enemy say another sentence or two of fatuous or self-serving nonsense, then face-planting into their dinner.

That sequence combined some planning on the player’s part (I want to remove this character, I got the resources to do it in advance), plenty of perceivable consequence (the corpse, the slaves running around in consternation, long-term changes to narrative flow based on that character being gone)… and some procedural variety, since the conversation was likely to be going slightly differently every time you played the poison move, and therefore it wasn’t verbatim the same each time.

Overall, then, the Versu approach was getting me closer to what I want to do with conversation in games, but still with some drawbacks:

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A lot of what didn’t work was about communicating world state to the character. We did have some UI features, like the pictures of the characters along the bottom of the screen, and the ability to tap on their heads to see what they were thinking currently, that were meant to supply that information more richly.

[Though I didn’t get into this in the talk, I at one point ported Galatea to Versu, and I’ve posted about how that change of format affected the game experience. I’ve also written about the experience of creating Versu content in general. My keynote at ICCC 2015 gets into more detail than this talk, and it’s “what next” discussion at the end lays out some of the thinking that later affected the design of Character Engine.]

Character Engine and Restless

I am now working on Character Engine for Spirit AI. Character Engine is middleware designed to let game designers — and in fact people in other industries, such as education, entertainment, and social care — build interactive characters with memory and personality.

Character Engine can build characters that respond to natural language and gestural input, expanding on the repertoire of a traditional chatbot. It produces dialogue that can include emotional markup and expression cues, allowing a CE character to drive real-time text-to-speech, lip-syncing, and performance.

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As with Versu, there’s a lot more to say about Character Engine than would fit into a short talk. One of the major differences, however, is Character Engine’s ability to build very dynamic text output, so that a character’s lines can be subtly rephrased to reflect changing world state, moods, and emotional closeness. The image here with the diagram on the right side of the screen is showing how text is actually realized in real time.

But natural language isn’t the best fit for every possible game, so Character Engine also features a mode in which it can dynamically suggest menu options for the player to choose from. Those menu options can also be built with very dynamic text. To explore this, we built internally a small piece called Restless for a Halloween-themed game jam.

Restless puts the player in the role of a ghost haunting a house. Initially, you can’t do anything but make sinister noises and smells manifest in the house — using the single menu item at the bottom of the screen.


But you also have two emotions, “angry” and “hungry”, that you can choose to turn on and off, which will change your speech options. “A crunch from the entrance hall” might become “A pervasive scent of apples in the scullery” if you want to manifest as hungry. Mixing in anger might change that to “An overwhelming scent of apples” or something else a little more intense. Choosing anger alone might create “Thunder rattling outside the upstairs window” or something along those lines. The player is free to explore and remix their options as much as they wish before selecting a menu item.

[For this part of the talk, I ran silent video of gameplay while I spoke. It comes out to a fairly long sequence, and it’s hard to make that link up with text in a blog post, so I’ve substituted a few screenshots here. However, the game is available to play from itch if you’d like to explore more fully what the user interface feels like.]

In addition, when new major topics come into the conversation, those also become selectable, so that you can prefer menu items that will mention those entities.


After your new acquaintance gives you some animal blood to drink, you have enough of a voice to be able to communicate in words, and the dialogue opens up quite a bit, with new emotion affordances as well. It’s possible to explore the information space of the game, find things out from the NPCs, or work with them to find particular discoveries.

Some actions remain available almost all the time. At almost any point in the game, you can make sinister noises in the house or even set it on fire. You also have a store of knock-knock jokes you can tell to relieve the other character’s anxiety, if you decide to play the “amused” emotional trait. Those are limited resources, because you can only play each punchline once; it’s up to you as a player when or whether you think it’s worthwhile to deploy them.

And in fact pairings of emotions and topics, or more than one emotion, can produce specific meanings.

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This is a game in part about anxiety, and about characters who have trouble facing certain things about themselves. The protagonist was an anxious perfectionist during life, and as a ghost, is still set off by the anxiety of other people, and by elements that remind her of her worst experiences in life. Being open with other characters in the story can be healing, and can unlock backstory that might interest the player, but there are certain topics you can’t go into without deliberately allowing yourself to be sad.

Even when a pair of emotions doesn’t make a major difference, there are some subtle remix effects. For instance, if you’re set to Curious, you might be offered the question “Why not?” If you turn on Angry as well, that question might morph to “Why the hell not?”

The other character can still respond with the same information either way, but the second version of that question carries a different emotional freight.

Restless even includes some of those Jenga-esque, pushing-your-luck moments I talked about earlier. There are certain sequences where choosing to be silent repeatedly has a strong influence on the character who is trying to talk to you, and they respond with increasing distress. At any time in that process, you can break out and answer them. But if you’re curious, you can choose to keep pushing their buttons. We used some character art to communicate when they were getting more worried or angrier, together with tweaks to the exact wording of their dialogue.

A Slightly More Theoretical Analysis

Conceptually, the way I think about this design is that we are giving the player a search mechanism to explore the range of all the currently-open affordances. We only show three menu items at a time, but that’s a small window on a larger space of things that could possibly be said next.

For instance, we could picture the space of all possible things we could say this way, with the dot labeled “lover” representing a question for Sylvie about her lover Anna:

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Meanwhile, the axes of this space (in practice more than three) might represent the emotional tonality or topical relevance of particular options.

As soon as we think of things this way, it becomes clear that we need that state space to be pretty densely populated if we want the player to feel that their search is consistently productive and that they’re getting a lot of expressiveness out of the system. And obviously, generating enough variants by hand to fill all of that territory is not really doable in reasonable human time.

This is where Character Engine’s text generation abilities become particularly important. When creating new lines, the author can use a generative grammar to substitute individual words or entire phrases, and associate those elements with different moods or topics. Here’s a bit of the script view of Restless, as seen in Character Engine’s authoring tool:


And we can add layers and layers of variation to any of these lines, representing different world states and emotion combinations:

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Above are a couple of screens of building out that grammar, where the word “pervasive” might have some differently shaded replacements if the protagonist is expressing anger (“intense”) or sadness (“lingering”, e.g.). There’s a point quite early on where the system has many many adverbs for slurping — vigorous slurping, playful slurping, grotesque slurping, et al — depending on exactly what mood you’re in when you drink your first allotment of blood. The tool has some built-in provisions to pull content from dictionaries etc. to help authors build this kind of content faster.

Of course, the other point is about how we handle those choices and allow them to affect the world model. Restless does less with this than it could — some of our subsequent experiments go further.

But suppose you’ve written the system to generatively build your “Why not?” (curious) and “Why the hell not?” (curious + angry) outcomes. Either way, you want the NPC to answer the question, but you do also want to register the shift to the emotional landscape that comes from the player picking an angry approach. Character Engine tracks this kind of thing with numeric traits within a bounded range and fairmath-style adjustments. That means you can have the player’s choice of angry action to make the NPC a little more displeased each time (for instance), until that adds up enough to produce significant changes in behavior.

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(In fact, Character Engine can go quite a bit further with this than we exposed in Restless: the social action model allows characters to make a decision about how to respond to input depending on their personality traits and current moods.)

Restless Outcomes

I was very happy about a lot of aspects of the game. It’s a game jam piece, but it has a significant amount of optional content and a range of possible endings, which I managed to put together in ca 40 hours of writing work. I estimate that building something similar in less procedural systems would have taken at least 3 times as long and yielded less freedom for the player.

I also really enjoyed the fact that I could make some affordances for the protagonist that were highly specific to particular emotion and topic mixes. If you talk to Sylvie about her girlfriend Anna, and you’re set to be both angry and hungry, you can make menacing comments that suggest you might like to drink Anna’s blood. It’s a creepy interpretation of who the protagonist is.

If I’d turned up that option as one of three immutable options in a more static dialogue tree, that would have had a much bigger effect on the gameplay, because I would have been making a strong statement to the player about who the protagonist wanted to be. Putting the option in the game but in a place where the player had to intentionally pursue an emotional strategy allowed me to include the feature without so strongly biasing the game in the direction of that content.

Overall, some takeaways from this project based on the feedback we got:

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Most of the “didn’t work” elements are fairly easy to address, especially with this experience already in place. Because this was a game jam piece and was written in a small time window, we did more limited iteration than you’d typically do on game UI, and a lot of our testers were people already acquainted with the system. What we found in practice is that some players were confused or surprised by the fact that they could change up the menu. We didn’t tutorialize this much at all — in Restless the only concession to the user’s initial ignorance is that you start out with two emotions to remix rather than six.

Along the same lines, for this size of game it might have made sense to start with fewer emotional axes, perhaps using just four instead of six, but put even more effort into giving the combinatorics interesting effects. Not all players realized that pairs of emotions could be meaningful, and that may mean that we still underpopulated that state space.

A number of players explicitly said that they enjoyed regenerating their character’s text, as a fun/playful/toy aspect of the game, while a few others said that it felt emotionally distancing that they were allowed to do so, and they would rather have been forced to commit to an emotional reaction before seeing what text that turned into. That would have felt much more visceral, and I think in particular it would have decreased the backstory-exploration aspects of the story, in favor of something that really emphasized the emotional wrangling. The underlying engine would allow any of those affordances with some tweaks to the Unity UI level, so it is definitely possible to explore some more of those concepts in the future.

Another point several people raised was that the topic-selecting freedom let the protagonist change the subject abruptly. The game does constrain that in a few places — occasionally an NPC will ask you a significant question that demands an answer, not a non-sequitur — and it was a choice not to do more of that. We also could have set things up so that the player could only move to topics that were somehow related on a graph to the current one, or so that changing the subject drastically caused the other character to react with surprise/confusion.

I’d also say, as an aesthetic point, that Restless taught me a few things about the ideal size for the elements being swapped out by the generative grammar. In this project, we often provided a lot of substitute forms for nouns and verbs, and that can lead to some less-idiomatic expressions without actually giving good value from a gameplay perspective. This and subsequent work have taught me that it’s often more valuable to focus on swapping out elements that are on the level of dialogue actions: is the character using hedges (“somewhat”, “a bit”, “I think [statement]”)? Emphases, as in the “why not / why the hell not” example above? Some individual words and phrases can be productively swapped, especially when they’re e.g. the name that a character is using to refer to another character.

But the takeaway from this is not “provide variants for everything.” Instead, it’s best to focus on variation where a) the variation is within a tightly constrained generative space and variety is part of the point (for instance, Restless can generate many many possible ice cream flavors); or b) the variation is tightly tied to the statefulness we’re trying to communicate.


There are a lot of additional experiments to do in this space. Character Engine is flexible enough to allow for many different UI choices, and those choices are likely to yield significantly different player experiences.

The combination of world model, narrative structure, and dynamic generative text does afford the freedom to make low-stakes exploratory conversations side-by-side with higher-stakes emotional ones. We can give the player an expressive freedom that’s not available in most conversation games, and build content more efficiently for that kind of experience.

If you’d like to get in touch about doing your own work with these tools, please do get in touch. I can be reached as emily at, as well as through my usual contact information here.

January 18, 2019

Web Interactive Fiction

Dave Needs an IF Collaboration Partner

by David Cornelson at January 18, 2019 09:41 PM

I want to get back to writing IF stories. I have several stories in the works, one in particular is relatively far along. I have limited time to devote to writing and programming though, so I’m looking for a collaboration partner. No set agenda or story. No delineation of tasks. Just someone to talk through ideas, then execute ideas into stories.

It’d be great if this person was in the Chicago area for face to face time, but video conferencing is effective as well. I travel to the Boston (Hooksett/NH) area regularly for work, so meeting around there is definitely a possibility.

I prefer old school parser stories and my ideas tend to be complex and include alternate user interface ideas, but not always. I would like to develop a solid medium-sized story in fyrevm-web at some point, so having someone with strong web skills would be a huge plus. This is more of a want though, not a need.

If you’re interested, direct message me on twitter.

The Digital Antiquarian

Life Off the Grid, Part 1: Making Ultima Underworld

by Jimmy Maher at January 18, 2019 04:41 PM

The 1980s was the era of the specialist in game development, when many of the most successful studios did just one or two things, but did them very, very well. For Infocom, that meant text adventures; for Sierra, graphic adventures; for MicroProse, military simulations; for SSI, strategic wargames and Dungeons & Dragons; for Epyx, joystick-twiddling sports and action games; for Origin, Ultima. When such specialists stepped outside of their comfort zones, the results were occasionally a triumph, but more often merely served to reemphasize their core competencies.

The most respected studios of the 1990s, however, tended toward more eclecticism. Developers like Dynamix and Westwood may have had their roots in the previous decade, but they really came into their own in this one, and did so with games of very diverse types. Westwood, for example, was happily making CRPGs, graphic adventures, real-time-strategy games, and Monopoly, for Pete’s sake, all virtually at the same time. Even the holdover specialists from the 1980s — those who were still standing — aggressively tried to diversify in the 1990s: Sierra moved into strategy games, MicroProse into CRPGs and graphic adventures, Origin into Wing Commander.

Still, if we look harder at many 1990s developers, we can find themes that bind together their output. In the case of Dynamix, we might posit that to be an interest in dynamic simulation, even when working in traditionally static genres like the graphic adventure. In that of Westwood, we can identify an even more pronounced interest in bringing the excitement of real time to traditionally turn-based genres like the CRPG and the wargame. And in the case of the studio we’ll be meeting for the first time today — Looking Glass Technologies, arguably the most respected and beloved 1990s studio of all — the binding thread is crystal clear. From beginning to end, they used the flexibility of 3D graphics to bring virtual environments to life in unprecedentedly immersive ways. Whether making a CRPG or a flight simulator, a first-person shooter or a first-person sneaker, this was their constant.

3D graphics were, one might say, baked right into Looking Glass’s DNA. Paul Neurath and Ned Lerner, its two eventual founders, met one another in 1978 in a computer-science course at Wesleyan University, where Neurath was studying environmental science, Lerner physics. For the course’s final project, they teamed up to make a 3D space game rendered in ASCII text. They got a B-minus on it only because their professor considered games to be beneath his course’s dignity.

After university, the two New England boys remained friends as they started their professional careers. When the home-computer craze got rolling in earnest, each bought an Apple II. They started experimenting, together and apart, on games much like the one they written for that computer-science class, only implemented in real bitmap graphics, with a real joystick as a controller. These efforts culminated in a joint game known as Deep Space: Operation Copernicus, which they sold in 1985 to the publisher Sir-Tech, purveyors of the Wizardry CRPG series. Sir-Tech didn’t seem to know quite what to do with Neurath and Lerner’s very different sort of game, and it never escaped Wizardry‘s long shadow. Nevertheless, the experience of making a game and getting paid for it — however modestly — lit a fire in both partners. Each went off to pursue his own agenda, but they remained in touch, keeping one another updated on their progress and often sharing code and technical tricks.

Initially, it was Ned Lerner who made the most determined effort to become a real commercial game developer. He formed a little company called Lerner Research, and started gathering like-minded souls around him. As fixated as ever on 3D graphics, he decided that an at least semi-realistic flight simulator would be a good application for the technology. The leading product of that type on the market, subLOGIC’s generically titled Flight Simulator, he considered akin to a “textbook lesson”; he envisioned a flight simulator of his own that would be more accessible and fun. He hired an aerodynamic engineer to design a flight model for his game, which would focus on high-performance military aircraft like the legendary SR-71 Blackbird rather than the little Cessna that was forever tooling around from airport to airport in subLOGIC’s simulator. In fact, his game would let you fly any of fourteen different airplanes, in contrast to its rival’s one, and would concentrate on goal-oriented activities — “Flight Instruction,” “Test Flight,” “Formation Flying,” or “Airplane Racing” — instead of just expecting you to choose a starting airport and do whatever tickled your fancy.

Chuck Yeager and Ned Lerner discuss the vagaries of aerodynamics.

Electronic Arts, who lacked a competitive flight simulator and were eager to get in on one of the industry’s fastest-growing segments, signed on as publisher. Unlike Sir-Tech, they knew the appeal of snazzy packaging and celebrity endorsements. They convinced Chuck Yeager to put his name on the product. This was quite the coup; Yeager, a World War II fighter ace and the first man to break the sound barrier, was by far the most famous pilot in the country, after having been brought to indelible life by the actor Sam Shepard in the recent hit movie The Right Stuff. It was a decidedly nervous group of nerds and businessmen who met this aerospace legend for the first time in March of 1987. Lerner:

As we were sitting there in the office, listening to the rain outside, Rich Hilleman, associate producer at EA, was first to spot the Blazer entering the parking lot (license plate “BELL X1”). A few minutes later, we heard the unmistakable West Virginia drawl outside the door, as pure and easygoing as the man on TV who sells spark plugs with a shotgun. For a brief second, I remembered the opening scene of Patton where George C. Scott steps forward, dressed to the teeth in full military regalia. The door suddenly opened, and there he was: wearing cowboy boots, blue jeans, and a polo shirt under his racing-style jacket. General Yeager had a trim figure, and his face was tan, well-weathered, as if he had spent a lot of time outdoors. The general stepped forward, shaking hands with the members of the group, but I sensed a certain degree of reservation in his actions.

To get past this awkward beginning, we loaded in the current version of Advanced Flight Trainer. I flew the simulator for a while, then offered to let General Yeager take over. “I never fooled with these things,” he said. “That’s because, you know, the damned things are so…” — he searched for the word — “…insignificant. If you want to really scorch something, hell, you can program the X-31 in there, the aerospace plane. Now, see, you got some kid who can say, ‘Man, this thing is smoking along at mach 25.'”

The ice had finally been broken, and we all began contributing to the conversation. After discussing the subjects of liquid-oxygen fuel and the current type of aircraft that are touching the edge of space, the day was practically over. “This thing’s pretty dang realistic,” he told us. “You’ve got a lot of goodies in there.”

Released about six months later with much publicity, Chuck Yeager’s Advanced Flight Trainer became by far EA’s biggest hit of the year, and one of their biggest of the whole decade. With that push to get them off and running, Lerner Research continued their work on the frontiers of 3D graphics, giving EA a substantially revised version 2.0 of their flagship game in 1989.

Even as Ned Lerner was hobnobbing with famous test pilots, Paul Neurath was making his own inroads with the games industry. Shortly after finishing Deep Space, he had heard that Origin Systems of Ultima fame was located in New Hampshire, not all that far from him at all. On a lark, he drove down one day to introduce himself and take the temperature of the place. He hit it off immediately with Richard Garriott and the rest of the crew there. While he never became a full-fledged employee, he did become a regular around the Origin offices, contributing play-testing, design ideas, and occasional bits of code to their games on a contract basis.

In early 1987, Richard Garriott, who loathed New England with every fiber of his being, packed up and moved back to Austin, Texas, with most of Origin’s technical and creative staff. He left behind his older brother and business manager Robert, along with the latter’s support staff of accountants, secretaries, and marketers. A few developers who for one reason or another didn’t want to make the move also stayed behind. Neurath was among this group.

At about this same time, Neurath got the green light to make a game all his own for Origin. Space Rogue began as another 3D space shooter — another Deep Space, enhanced with some of the latest graphics technology from his friends at Lerner Research. To this template Neurath grafted a trading economy, a customizable spaceship, and a real plot. The player was even able to exit her spaceship and wander around the space stations she visited, talking to others and taking on quests. There was a surprising amount of ambition in this fusion of Deep Space, Elite, and Ultima, especially considering that Neurath designed, wrote, and programmed it all almost single-handedly from New Hampshire while most of his friends at Origin pursued other projects down in Austin. Although its disparate parts don’t ever gel quite well enough to make it a true classic, it’s remarkable that it works as well as it does.

Space Rogue sold in moderate numbers upon its release in 1989. More importantly in terms of gaming history, Chris Roberts of Origin spent a lot of time with it. Its melding of a space shooter with an adventure-game-like plot became one of the inspirations behind Wing Commander, the first Origin game to fully escape the shadow of Ultima — and, indeed, the beginning of one of the blockbuster franchises of the 1990s.

Space Rogue‘s hilarious cover art, with its artfully pouting male model who looks better suited to a Harlequin-romance cover. Paul Neurath remembers Origin’s marketing department asking him about his packaging preferences for his game. He said he would prefer a “non-representational” cover picture. Naturally, the marketers delivered about the most representational thing imaginable.

By the time of Space Rogue‘s release, Paul Neurath was a lonelier game developer than ever. In January of 1989, the last remnants of Origin’s New Hampshire operation had moved to Austin, leaving Neurath stranded in what Richard Garriott liked to call “the frozen wastes of New England.” For him, this was a crossroads of life if ever there was one. Did he want to continue to make games, and, if so, how? Sure, he could probably move down to Austin and get a job with Origin, but, truth be told, he had no more desire to live in Texas than Garriott had to live in New England. But how else could he stay in games?

At last, Neurath decided to take a page from Ned Lerner’s book. He would put together his own little company and try to establish it as an independent studio; after all, it had worked out pretty well for Ned so far. He registered his company under the name of Blue Sky Productions.

Neurath had always loved the CRPG genre, ever since Wizardry had become one of the first games he bought for his new Apple II. That love had once led him to publish Deep Space through Sir-Tech, and sent him to out to Origin’s New Hampshire offices for that fateful visit. Now, he dreamed of taking the first-person dungeon crawl beyond the turn-based Wizardry, even beyond the real-time but still grid-based Dungeon Master, the state of the art in the genre as the 1980s expired. On a visit to Lerner Research, he saw the technology that he believed would make the genre’s next step possible — the foundation, one might even say, for everything he and his fabled studio Looking Glass would do in the 1990s. What he saw was the first 3D texture mapper that was suitable for use in an ordinary computer game.

3D graphics were hardly unknown on personal computers of the 1980s, as can be seen not least through the early careers of Ned Lerner and Paul Neurath. Yet, being enormously taxing to implement in the context of an interactive game, they demanded a lot of aesthetic compromise. Some early 3D games, such as Elite and the first versions of subLogic’s Flight Simulator, didn’t draw in the surfaces of their polygons at all, settling for wire frames. With the arrival of more powerful 16-bit computers in the mid-1980s, filled surfaces became more common in 3D games, but each side of a polygon was drawn in a single color. Combine this fact with the low polygon count that was still necessitated by the hardware of the time — resulting in big, fairly crude polygons — and you had a recipe for blotchy landscapes made up of garishly clashing primary colors.

A few clever developers were able to turn the limitations of 3D graphics into an aesthetic statement in its own right. But most of those who used them — among them makers of flight simulators and space shooters, such as Lerner and Neurath — suffered with their limitations because there just wasn’t any practical alternative for the sorts of games they were making. For an out-the-cockpit view from an airplane, the aesthetic compromises necessitated by going 3D were just about acceptable, given the way the distant landscape below tends to blur into hazy abstractions of color even in real life. But for a more personal, embodied experience, such as a first-person dungeon crawl, real-time 3D graphics were just too crude, too ugly. You couldn’t render the grain of a wooden door or the patina of a stone wall as one uniform splotch of color and expect to get away with it — not with the way that gamers’ audiovisual expectations were increasing every year.

A screenshot from Dungeon Master, the state of the art in dungeon crawls at the end of the 1980s. Notice how the walls, floor, and ceiling are textured. This was possible because movement in Dungeon Master was still based on a grid, giving the computer plenty of time to draw each view. A free-scrolling, truly 3D version would have had to replace all those lovely textures with great uniform slabs of gray. The result, needless to say, would not have been pretty.

None of these problems were unknown to academic computer-graphics researchers; they’d been wrestling with them since well before the first personal computer hit the market. And they’d long since come up with a solution: texture mapping. The texture in question takes the form of an ordinary image file, which might be drawn by hand or digitized from a real-world photograph. A texture suitable for a wooden door, for example, could be an extreme closeup of any slab of wood. The texture is “glued” onto a polygon’s face in lieu of a solid color. Just like that, you suddenly have doors that look like real doors, slimy dungeon walls that look like real slimy dungeon walls.

The problem with texture mapping from the perspective of game development was the same one that haunted the whole field of 3D graphics: the problem of performance. Simple though the basic concept is, a lot of tricky math comes into play when one introduces textures; figuring out how they should wrap and fit together with one another over so many irregular polygonal surfaces is much more complicated than the lay observer might initially believe. At a time when just managing to paint the sides of your polygons in solid colors while maintaining a respectable frame rate was a real achievement, texture mapping was hopeless. Maybe it could be used in another decade or so, said the conventional wisdom, when Moore’s Law put a supercomputer on every desk.

But one recent arrival at Lerner Research wasn’t so sure that texture mapping was impossible using extant PC hardware. Chris Green had considerable experience with interactive 3D graphics, having spent several years at subLogic working on products like Flight Simulator and Jet. He arrived at Lerner Research knowing that texture mapping couldn’t be done on the likes of an 8-bit Apple II, the computer on which Neurath and Lerner among so many others had gotten their start. On the latest 16- and 32-bit MS-DOS hardware, however… he suspected that, with the right compromises, he could make it work there.

There was doubtless much efficient code in the texture mapper Green created, but it was indeed an unabashed compromise that made it feasible to attempt at all. The vertices of the polygons in a 3D graphics system are defined with an X, a Y, and a Z coordinate; it’s this last, of course, that makes such a system a 3D system at all. And it’s also the Z coordinate that is the source of all of the complications relating to 3D graphics in general. Nowhere is this more true than in the case of texture mapping. To do it correctly, textures have to be scaled and transformed to account for their position in relation to the viewing location, as largely defined by their Z coordinate. But Green didn’t bother to do texture mapping correctly; he effectively threw away the Z coordinate and glued his textures onto their polygons as if they were in a 2D space. This technique would come to be known inside the industry as “affine texture mapping.” It yielded an enormous increase in rendering speed, balanced by a degree of distortion that was almost unnoticeable in some situations, very noticeable indeed in others. Still, an imperfect texture mapper, Green decided, was better than no texture mapper at all.

The video clip above, from the finished game of Ultima Underworld, shows some of the spatial distortion that results from affine texture mapping, especially when viewing things from a very short distance. Moving through the game’s virtual space can look and feel a bit like moving through real space after having drunk one beer too many. Nonetheless, the environment is far more realistic, attractive, and immersive than any first-person 3D environment to appear in any game before this one.

Ned Lerner had recently signed a contract with EA to make a driving game bearing the name of Car and Driver magazine. Knowing the technology’s limitations, he planned to use Chris Green’s texture mapper in a somewhat constrained fashion therein, to draw onto the faces of billboards and the like. Yet he wasn’t averse to sharing it with Paul Neurath, who as soon as he saw it wanted to use it to take the next step beyond Dungeon Master.

To do so, however, he’d need more programmers, not to mention artists and all the rest; if there was one thing the two years or so he had spent making Space Rogue had taught him, it was that the days of the one-man development team were just about over. Luckily, a friend of his had a nephew who had a friend who was, as Neurath would be the first to admit, a far better programmer than he would ever be.

Doug Church was an MIT undergraduate who had let himself get so consumed by the fun going on inside the university’s computer labs that it had all but derailed his official education. He and his buddies spent hours every day hacking on games and playing them. Their favorite was a 3D tank game called Xtank, written by one of their number, a fellow student named Terry Donahue. They tinkered with its code endlessly, producing variations that departed radically from the original concept, such as a Frisbee simulator. When not coding or playing, they talked about what kinds of games they would like to make, if only they had infinite amounts of money and time and no hardware limitations whatsoever. They envisioned all sorts of little simulated worlds, rendered, naturally, in photo-realistic 3D graphics. Thus when Neurath introduced himself to Church in early 1990 and asked if he’d like to work on a free-scrolling, texture-mapped 3D dungeon crawl running in real time, he dropped his classes and rushed to get in on the chance. (Terry Donahue would doubtless have been another strong candidate to become lead programmer on the project, but he felt another calling; he would go on to become a priest.)

Neurath also found himself an artist, a fellow named Doug Wike who had worked on various projects for Origin in New Hampshire before those offices had been shuttered. Together the three men put together a crude non-interactive demo in a matter of weeks, showing the “player” moving up a texture-mapped dungeon corridor and bumping into a monster at the end of it. At the beginning of June, they took the demo to the Summer Consumer Electronics Show, where, behind all of the public-facing hype, many of the games industry’s most important deals got made.

As Neurath tells the story, the response from publishers was far from overwhelming. The demo was undeniably crude, and most were highly skeptical whether this unproven new company could get from it to a real, interactive game. It turned out that the only publisher willing to give the project any serious consideration at all was none other than Neurath’s old friends from Origin.

That Neurath hadn’t taken his idea to Origin straight away was down to his awareness of a couple of strategic decisions that had recently been made there, part of a whole collection of changes that were being made to greet the new decade’s challenges. Origin had, first of all, decided to stop giving contracts to outside developers, taking all development in-house so as to have complete control over the products they released. And secondly, they had decided, for the time being anyway, to make all of their output fit into one of two big franchises, Ultima and Wing Commander. Both of these decisions would seem to exclude Blue Sky’s proposed dungeon crawler, which they were calling simply Underworld, from becoming an Origin product. Nor did it help that a sexy public demonstration of the first Wing Commander game1 had become the hit of the show, making it difficult for Origin to focus on anything else; they could practically smell the money they were about to make from their new franchise.

Luckily, Blue Sky and Underworld found a champion at Origin even amidst all the distractions. Warren Spector was a relatively recent arrival at the company, but Neurath knew him pretty well; as his very first task for Origin, Spector had spent about a month expanding and polishing the text in Space Rogue just before its release. Now, looking at Underworld, he was sure he saw not just a game with real commercial potential but a technologically and aesthetically important one. “I was blown away,” he says today. “I remember thinking as I watched that demo that the world had just changed.” Spector convinced his colleagues to take a chance, to violate their rule of in-house development and sign a contract with Blue Sky, giving them a modest advance of $30,000. If the game worked out, they might be in on the ground floor of something major. It might also be something they could brand with the Ultima name, make into the beginning of a whole new sub-series in the franchise — a revival of the first-person (albeit turn-based) dungeons that had been in every Ultima through Ultima V. And if it didn’t work out, the $30,000 they’d lose on the flier was far from a fortune. The deal was done.

With that mission accomplished, Neurath’s little team returned to the office space he’d rented for them in New Hampshire. They spent almost a year there trying to understand the new set of technical affordances which Chris Green’s texture mapper had put at their disposal. They didn’t invent anything fundamentally new in terms of 3D graphics technology during that time. Like the texture mapper which spawned the project, everything they put into Underworld could be found in any number of books and journals at the MIT library, many of them dating well back into the 1970s and even 1960s. It was just a matter of adapting it all to the MS-DOS architecture. As it happened, the hardware they had to work with was about equal to the cutting-edge research workstations of ten years ago, so the old journal articles they pored over actually made a pretty good fit to it.

They kept coming back to the theme of embodiment, what Neurath called “a feeling of presence beyond what other games give you.” None of the earlier dungeon crawlers — not even those in the Dungeon Master tradition that ran in real time — had been able to deliver this. They could be exciting, stressful, even terrifying, but they never gave you the feeling of being physically embodied in their environments. It was the difference between reading a book or watching a movie and really being someplace.

It went without saying that Underworld must place you in control of just one character rather than the usual party of them. You needed to be able to sense the position of “your” body and limbs in the virtual space. Neurath:

We wanted to get a feeling that you were really in this dungeon. What would you expect to do in a dungeon? You might need to jump across a narrow chasm. You might expect to batter down a wooden door. You might expect to look up if there was a precipice above you. All these sorts of physical activities. And we tried to achieve, at least to a reasonable degree, that kind of freedom of motion and freedom of action. That really extended the R&D stage. It was about nine months, even a year, before we had all the underlying technology in place that allowed us to visualize this fantasy universe in a manner that we felt was appropriate and would work well and would allow the player the freedom to maneuver around and perform different kinds of actions.

Over the course of this time, Neurath hired only one more programmer, one Jonathan “J.D.” Arnold, who had previously worked on Infocom’s Z-Machine technology in that company’s twilight years. But finally, in the late spring of 1991, with the basic interface and the basic technical architecture all in place, Neurath decided it was time to hire some more people and make a real game out of it all. Doug Church immediately thought of his old friends back at MIT, and Neurath had no objections to recruiting from that pool; they were smart and passionate and, just as importantly, they were all happy to work for peanuts. Given the time of year it was, Church’s old buddies were all either graduating or finishing up their semester of coursework, leaving them free to come to Blue Sky.

None of these people had ever worked on a commercial computer game before. In fact, most of them hadn’t even played any commercial computer games recently, having been ensconced for the last several years inside the ivory tower of MIT, where the nature of gaming was markedly different, being a culture of creation rather than strictly one of consumption. And yet, far from being a disadvantage, the team’s sheer naivete proved to be the opposite, making them oblivious to the conventional wisdom about what was possible. Doug Church:

I had actually played Space Rogue because one of my friends had a Mac, but the clusters [at MIT] were all Unix boxes so I ran X-Trek and NetHack and things, but I hadn’t played a PC game in five years or something. So we just said, “Let’s do a really cool dungeon game in 3D, let’s go.” It’s interesting because a lot of people talk about how we were doing such a Dungeon Master game, but as far as I know none of us had ever played Dungeon Master. We didn’t have any idea we were doing anything that wasn’t just obvious in some sense because we had no context and the last time any of us had played a [commercial] game was back when we were fourteen. We played games in college, but they were very different; you’re playing networked X-Trek or something, it doesn’t feel like a home-computer game.

At first, the new arrivals all crowded into the New Hampshire office Neurath was renting. But most of them were actually living together in a rambling old three-story house in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and it struck them as silly to make the drive out to New Hampshire every day. They soon convinced Neurath to let them work on the game from home. From dawn until night, seven days a week, they ate, drank, slept, and breathed Underworld there.

At a time when most studios had begun to systematize the process of game development, dividing their employees into rigid tiers of specialists — programmers, artists, designers, writers — Blue Sky made a virtue of their complete lack of formal organization. It was an org-chart-wielding middle manager’s nightmare; just about everybody wound up doing a little bit of everything. There was nothing like a designer giving instructions to a technical team. Instead, Blue Sky’s method of working was more akin to the way that things got done among the hackers at MIT — a crowd of equals pulling together (and occasionally pulling apart) to work toward a common goal. Anyone could contribute absolutely anywhere, knowing his ideas would be judged only on their intrinsic worth.

When it became clear that it was time to start making the actual dungeon the Underworld player would have to explore, the team divided up this design work in the most democratic manner imaginable: everybody made one level, then they were all combined together to make the eight-level final dungeon. Dan Schmidt, who had officially been hired for the role of “AI programmer,” agreed to take on the mantle of “writer,” which really meant coordinating with everyone to merge the levels into a seamless whole.

For most of the time the game was in development, Origin’s role and overall interest — or, rather, lack thereof — was a consistent sore spot. It often seemed to Blue Sky that the folks in Austin had entirely forgotten their existence way off in the frozen wastes of New England. This was good in the sense that they got to make exactly the game they wanted to make, but it didn’t do much for their confidence that a committed publisher would be ready and eager to market it properly when they were done. Warren Spector was busy with Wing Commander and, later, with an Ultima spinoff called Martian Dreams, so Origin initially assigned Jeff Johannigman to Blue Sky in the role of producer. Communication with him was nothing short of terrible. After going two full months without hearing a peep from him, Neurath tried to call him down in Austin, only to be told that he had left the company. A second producer was finally selected, but he wasn’t much more engaged. Blue Sky believed they were making a great, groundbreaking game, but it seemed that Origin really couldn’t care less.

In many ways, Underworld was at odds with the prevailing trends inside Origin, not to mention in much of the games industry at large. Following the huge success of the first Wing Commander, Origin was banking heavily on cinematic games with big, set-piece storylines. The company’s org chart reflected the new impetus, with film-making terminology — producer, director, screenwriter — shoehorned in absolutely everywhere. Blue Sky, on the other hand, was making something very different, an immersive, emergent, non-linear experience without cut scenes or chapter breaks. Yes, there was a plot of sorts — the player got cast into a dungeon to rescue a princess or die trying — along with puzzles to be solved, quests to be fulfilled, and other characters to be spoken to, but it was all driven by the player, not by any relentlessly unspooling Hollywood-style script. Origin, it seemed, wasn’t quite sure what to make of it, wasn’t quite sure where it fit. And certainly it’s easy enough, given Blue Sky’s unorthodox working methods, to understand why so many at Origin were skeptical of their ability to deliver a finished game at all.

The danger of Blue Sky’s approach was that they would keep iterating endlessly as they kept having better and better ideas. This tendency among hackers to never be able to finish something and walk away from it had already derailed more than one promising games studio — not least among them FTL, the makers of the storied Dungeon Master, who had yet to release a proper followup after some four years. (Dungeon Master II wouldn’t finally arrive until 1995.) The need to finish games on a timetable was, one might say, the reason that industry executives had begun to impose the very organizational structures that Blue Sky was now so happily eschewing. Doug Church remembers creating “four movement systems and three combat systems because we’d just write something: ‘Oh, this seems cool, go for it.'” Would they just continue chasing whatever shiny objects struck their fancy until the money ran out? That wouldn’t take much longer, given that Paul Neurath was largely financing the whole effort out of his pocket, with some help from his ever-loyal friend Ned Lerner, whose success with his Chuck Yeager flight simulators had left him with a bit of money to spare.

Thus they were all fortunate that Warren Spector, their once and future savior, suddenly returned on the scene late in 1991. Virtually alone among his colleagues down in Austin, Spector had been watching Blue Sky’s progress with intense interest. Now, having finished up Martian Dreams, he got himself assigned as Underworld‘s third producer. He had considerable clout inside the bigger company; as soon as he started to press the issue there, things started to happen on Origin’s side to reassure Blue Sky that their game would in fact be released if they could only deliver it.

Indeed, after almost eighteen months of uncertainty on the question, Origin finally made it official that, yes, Underworld would be released as an Ultima game. As usual, the star would be the Avatar, who was becoming quite a busy fellow between this game, the mainline Ultima games, and the recent pair of Worlds of Ultima spinoffs. The dungeon in question, meanwhile, would be none other than the Stygian Abyss, where the Avatar had found the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom at the end of Ultima IV. Underworld‘s backstory would need to be bent and hammered enough to make this possible.

Blue Sky soon discovered that becoming an official Ultima game, while great for marketing purposes and for their own sense of legitimacy, was something of a double-edged sword. Origin demanded that they go back through all the text in the game to insert Ultima‘s trademark (and flagrantly misused) “thees” and “thous,” provoking much annoyance and mockery. And Origin themselves made a cinematic introduction for the game in Austin, featuring Richard Garriott, one of the industry’s worst voice actors of all time — and that, friends, is really saying something — in the leading role, bizarrely mispronouncing the word “Stygian.” It seems no one at Origin, much less at Blue Sky, dared to correct Lord British’s diction… (The British magazine PC Review‘s eventual reaction to the finished product is one for the ages: “I had to listen to it two or three times before I fully grasped what was going on because for the first couple of times I was falling about laughing at the badly dubbed Dick Van Dyke cockney accents that all these lovable Americans think we sound like. You know: ‘Awlright, Guv’noor, oop the happle un stairs!'”)

While Origin made the dodgy intro in Texas, Warren Spector got everybody in New England focused on the goal of a finished, shipped game. Doug Church:

Not only was he [Spector] great creatively to help us put finishing touches on it and clean it up and make it real, but he also knew how to finish projects and keep us motivated and on track. He had that ability to say, “Guys, guys, you’re focused in totally the wrong place.” He had that ability to help me and the rest of the guys reset, from the big-picture view of someone who has done it before and was really creative, but who also understood getting games done. It was a huge, huge win.

It’s very easy in hacker-driven game development to wind up with a sophisticated simulation that’s lots of fun for the programmers to create but less fun to actually play. Spector was there to head off this tendency as well at Blue Sky, as when he pared down an absurdly complex combat system to something simple and intuitive, or when he convinced the boys not to damage the player’s character every time he accidentally bumped into a wall. That, said Spector, “doesn’t sound like fun to me” as a player — and it was the player’s fun, he gently taught Blue Sky, that had to be the final arbitrator.

At Spector’s behest, Neurath rented a second office near Boston — officially known as the “Finish Underworld Now” office — and insisted that everyone leave the house and come in to work there every day during the last two months of the project. The more businesslike atmosphere helped them all focus on getting to the end result, as did Spector himself, who spent pretty much all of those last two months in the office with the team.

Spector did much to make Blue Sky feel like a valued part of the Origin family, but the relationship still remained rocky at times — especially when the former learned that the latter intended to release Ultima Underworld just two weeks before Ultima VII, the long-awaited next title in the franchise’s main series. It seemed all but certain that their game would get buried under the hype for Ultima VII, would be utterly forgotten by Origin’s marketers. Certainly marketing’s initial feedback hadn’t been encouraging. They were, they said, having trouble figuring out how to advertise Ultima Underworld. Its graphics were spectacular when seen in motion, but in still screenshots they didn’t look like much at all compared to a Wing Commander II or an Ultima VII. Blue Sky seethed with frustration, certain this was just an excuse for an anemic, disinterested advertising campaign.

In Origin’s defense, the problem their marketers pointed to was a real one. And it wasn’t really clear what they could have done about the release-date issue either. The original plan had been, as they didn’t hesitate to remind Blue Sky, to release Ultima Underworld in time for the Christmas of 1991, but the protracted development had put paid to that idea. Now, Blue Sky themselves needed Ultima Underworld to come out as quickly as possible because they needed the royalties in order to survive; for them, delaying it was simply impossible. Meanwhile Origin, who had cash-flow concerns of their own, certainly wasn’t going to delay Ultima VII, quite possibly the most expensive computer game ever made to that point, for a mere spinoff title. The situation was what it was.

The balloons fly as Doug Church, Paul Neurath, and Warren Spector celebrate Ultima Underworld‘s release.

Whatever was to happen in terms of sales, Blue Sky’s young hackers did get the satisfaction in late March of 1992 of seeing their game as a boxed product on store shelves, something more than one of them has described as a downright surreal experience. Dan Schmidt:

We were a bunch of kids straight out of school. This was the first professional project we’d ever done. We felt lucky that anyone would see it at all. We’d go into a games store and see our game there on the shelf. Someone would walk up to it, and we’d want to say, “No! No! You don’t want to buy that! We just hacked that together. It’s not, like, a real game.”

In the beginning, sales went about as expected. A snapshot from Origin’s in-house newsletter dated July 31, 1992, shows 71,000 copies of Ultima VII shipped, just 41,000 copies of Ultima Underworld. But, thanks to ecstatic reviews and strong word of mouth — Origin may have struggled to see how groundbreaking the game really was, but gamers got it immediately — Ultima Underworld kept on selling, getting stronger every month. “It was the first game that ever gave me a sense of actually being in a real place,” wrote one buyer in a letter to Origin, clear evidence that Blue Sky had absolutely nailed their original design goal. Soon industry scuttlebutt had it outselling Ultima VII by two to one. Paul Neurath claims that Ultima Underworld eventually sold more than half a million copies worldwide, an extraordinary figure for the time, and considerably more than Ultima VII or, indeed, any previous Ultima had managed.

Shortly after Ultima Underworld‘s release, Paul Neurath and Ned Lerner finally did the obvious: they merged their two companies. They had recently discovered that another, slightly older company was already operating under the name of “Blue Sky Software,” making educational products. So, they named the merged entity Looking Glass Technologies. Their first release under the name would be Ultima Underworld II.

Two months after the first Ultima Underworld appeared, a tiny company out of Dallas, Texas, who called themselves id Software released Wolfenstein 3D, another first-person game set in a 3D environment. Their game, however, had none of the complexity of Ultima Underworld, with its quests and puzzles and magic spells and its character to develop and even feed. In id’s game, you ran through the environment and killed things — period.

For the remainder of the 1990s, 3D games would exist on a continuum between the cool, high-concept innovation of Looking Glass and the hot, visceral action of id, who were interested in innovation in the area of their graphics technology but somewhat less so in terms of their basic gameplay template. id would win the argument in terms of sales, but Looking Glass would make some of the most fascinating and forward-looking games of the decade. “We were thinking, ‘Why don’t we just run around and shoot?’” says Austin Grossman, another early Looking Glass employee. “But we were interested in simulation and depth. We were driven by this holy grail of simulated worlds, by that enabled choice and creativity of the player.”

We’ll be following the two companies’ artistic dialog for a long time to come as we continue with this history. First, though, we need to give Ultima Underworld a closer look, from the perspective of the player this time, to understand why it’s not just an example of groundbreaking technology but a superb example of pure game design as well.

(Sources: the books Game Design: Theory & Practice 2nd edition by Richard Rouse III, Ultima VII and Underworld: More Avatar Adventures by Caroline Spector, Dungeons and Dreamers: The Rise of Computer Game Culture from Geek to Chic by Brad King and John Borland, and Principles of Three-Dimensional Computer Animation: Modeling, Rendering, and Animating with 3D Computer Graphics by Michael O’Rourke; Questbusters of February 1992 and September 1992; PC Review of June 1992; Game Developer of April/May 1995, June/July 1995, August/September 1995, December 1995/January 1996, and April/May 1996; Commodore Magazine of January 1988; Origin’s internal newsletter Point of Origin from January 17 1992, March 27 1992, May 8 1992, August 28 1992, and December 18 1992. Online sources include “Ahead of Its Time: A History of Looking Glass” on Polygon, an interview with Paul Neurath and Doug Church on the old Ultima Online site, Gambit Game Lab’s interviews with Paul Neurath and Dan Schmidt, and Matt Barton’s interview with Paul Neurath. My thanks to Dan Schmidt and Ned Lerner for making the time to talk with me personally about their careers.

Ultima Underworld and its sequel can be purchased from

  1. Wing Commander was actually still known as Wingleader at this time

January 17, 2019

Choice of Games

New Hosted Game! Gladiator: Road to the Colosseum by Foong Yi Zhuan

by Rachel E. Towers at January 17, 2019 05:41 PM

Hosted Games has a new game for you to play!

The Romans call you many names. A slave. A gladiator. A champion. Who and what will you be? You decide. Conquer the arena, navigate petty Roman politics and etch your name in the annals of Rome! Or die trying. It’s 25% off until January 24th!

Gladiator: Road to the Colosseum is a 220,000 word interactive novel by Foong Yi Zhuan, where your choices control the story. It’s entirely text-based—without graphics or sound effects—and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination.

• Play as male or female; gay or straight.
• Battles against slaves, gladiators and even wild animals!
• Manage relationships with your friends and enemies, rig a vote or poison a foe!
• Navigate the complicated (and petty) politics of the Roman Senators.
• Unique character tracking system and story that makes each playthrough different!
• Find love amidst the madness of the arena, even in the most desperate of places!
• Fight your way to the Colosseum, through the greatest games the world has ever seen!

Fight for your freedom and etch your name in the annals of Rome!

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

January 16, 2019

sub-Q Magazine

sub-Q’s 2018 in review!

by Stewart C Baker at January 16, 2019 07:41 PM

Wow, so.

2019, huh?

We have a lot of fun things planned for this year–including the winning entries from our first ever game jam, and two new original pieces to join them in February, a few additional non-fiction columns every month, and the possibility of issue-wide cover art too.

But before we get all starry-eyed about the future, I’d like to take a moment and review the amazing games we published last year, in 2018! (If you’re eyeing this post with the new Nebula for Game Writing in mind, I’ve listed whether each piece is original to us or not, with its original publication date/place if it’s not.)

We were also lucky enough to publish an original essay on making interactive fiction by Bruno Dias every month starting in February, as well as several essays by Anya Johanna DeNiro. These essays have been a pleasure to read, and have given me a lot of insight into making my own fiction–whether it’s interactive or not–as well as reading/playing other people’s, so definitely check them out if you missed them last year!



January started the year off with a bang, with a piece from now-sub-Q-editor Natalia Theodoridou titled “All Those Parties We Didn’t Cry At.” Atmospheric and ponderous in the best possible way, “All Those Parties” will have you thinking about your own relationship with tears–and the people in your life.

Remember when we could cry at every little thing?

(Interactivity original to sub-Q, January 16 2018; prose reprinted from Daily Science Fiction, 2016)


Written by game designer, artist, writer, and budding digital xenobiologist Gareth Damian Martin and featuring the sounds of Paws Menu, February’s game was the meditative swimming game “Salt.” (If you like this one, check out Gareth’s upcoming In Other Waters.)

A game about swimming, thinking and the distant possibility of escape.

(Reprinted from 2017’s IFComp)

Our February “Making Interactive Fiction” column from Bruno Dias focused on determining scope for new projects.

We also ran an essay by Anya Johanna Deniro in Febrary which reviewed Emily Short’s “Pytho’s Mask” as an IF Romance.


In March, we brought you “Lost Ones” by Jac Colvin, an original piece that transports you to the watery realm of the Russalka. Will you try to fight your dreams? Or step willingly into them?

Sometimes even dreams can be dangerous.

(Original to sub-Q, March 20, 2018)

Our March “Making Interactive Fiction” column from Bruno Dias was all about branching–why to do it, and how.


April showers bring spring flowers. Another thing they brought us was “Nine Moments in Fairyland” by Hannah Powell-Smith, a short, sharp scattering of a game about catastrophe and the fair folk.

He wanted me to stay.

(Original to sub-Q, April 17th, 2018)

Our April “Making Interactive Fiction” column from Bruno Dias dug into testing, with suggestions and how to go beyond the basics.


In May we ventured into the world of contract-based quality assurance with “Human Error” by Katherine Morayati. Players take on the role of a new contractor fielding error reports for a company who may have a… less than benign approach to product testing.

The greatest threat to any system is its users.

(Original to sub-Q, May 15th, 2018)

Our May “Making Interactive Fiction” column from Bruno Dias was all about procedural generation.

We also ran a piece by Anya Johanna DeNiro in May which talked about interactive poetry and Andrew Plotkin’s “The Space Under the Window.”


In June, we went far beyond the bounds of any one world with Andrew Plotkin’s “Hoist Sail for the Heliopause and Home,” a parser-based adventure set in a faraway galaxy.

When you weary of everything in the world…

(Reprinted from @party, June 2010)

Our June “Making Interactive Fiction” column from Bruno Dias was part one of a 2-part essay on narrative design for writers.


July’s game, “The Hidden King” by dcsross, swapped out boundless space for confinement, as reality and fantasy blur. Is the narrator a lycanthrope? Just disoriented? Which is worse?

The city makes kings of wolves, and wolves of kings.

(Original to sub-Q, July 17, 2018)

Our July “Making Interactive Fiction” column from Bruno Dias was the second part of the narrative design essay.


John Kills Jenny” by S Dean puts you in the place of a convicted murderer. Why did John kill Jenny, though? And will the form of rehabilitation he’s been assigned to by the court ever really help?

Every choice matters, so pick your options carefully.

(Original to sub-Q, August 14, 2018)

Our August “Making Interactive Fiction” column from Bruno Dias talked about scenes as a unit of structure in interactive narratives.


“Welcome to the Medical Clinic at the Interplanetary Relay Station | Hours Since Last Patient Death: 0” by Caroline M. Yoachim was our September game. Take a chance and try to survive a trip to the clinic in this hilarious jab at Choose Your Own Adventure stories. (Don’t forget to read the FAQ.)

If this is an emergency, we’re sorry—you’re probably screwed.

(Reprinted from Lightspeed Magazine, March 2016)

Our September “Making Interactive Fiction” column from Bruno Dias talked about how, when, and why to adapt from other genres.


In October, we published “Queers in Love at the End of the World” by Anna Anthropy. You have just ten seconds to act in this essential piece of contemporary IF. How do you show your loved one you care?

Everything is wiped away.

(Reprinted from, March 2013)

Our October “Making Interactive Fiction” column from Bruno Dias returned to branching for a more in-depth look, with a focus on branching and then merging again.


November’s game was “Ocean’s Call,” the second original piece of interactive fiction we published in 2018 from Jac Colvin. This one takes a more sustained dive into the water than “Lost Ones,” exploring our connection with the ocean and what lies deep beneath.

The ocean calls… Will you answer?

(Original to sub-Q, publication date November 20, 2018)

Our November “Making Interactive Fiction” column from Bruno Dias also dove beneath the surface to look at character interiority.


In December, we published “Thanks for the Memories” by Erin Roberts. In a world where memories are bought and sold, what does it mean to remember yourself? What does it mean to even have a “yourself”? Can you regain it once you’ve lost everything?

Could you piece your life together one memory at a time?

(Original to sub-Q, publication date December 18, 2018)

Our December “Making Interactive Fiction” column from Bruno Dias talked about some of the benefits and drawbacks of interactive anthologies.

December also saw the completion of our first annual subQJam over on We had 28 fantastic entries of very short IF on the theme of love, and will be publishing several of them in February.

You can check out the entries over on now, though!


2018, dang.

Phew–quite a year!

What was your favourite game? Your favourite essay?  Did you take part in our game jam?

Take a moment to think back and share your thoughts with us on TwitterFacebook, or Discord–we’d love to hear from you!

The post sub-Q’s 2018 in review! appeared first on sub-Q Magazine.

Emily Short

Mid-January Link Assortment

by Mort Short at January 16, 2019 09:40 AM

January 16 will be the next Boston IF meetup.

logo-512.pngNarraScope is still accepting submissions for speakers, and the January 18 deadline is upon us.  This is a new games conference that will support interactive narrative, adventure games, and interactive fiction by bringing together writers, developers, and players.  They are interested in a wide range of games and platforms; more information can be found on NarraScope’s home site.

They are currently looking for a) panels and individual talks that explore the field in-depth, and would last about 50 minutes with a 5-10 minute Q&A, and b) Lightning Talks that contain 5-10 minutes of specialized information.  The conference is set for June 14-16 in Boston, MA, and interested parties can check out the event’s proposals page here.

January 19 is the next London IF meetup, and will consist of two talks (one from me) on conversation-based gameplay. If you’re curious about some of the design considerations coming out of my work at Spirit AI, I’ll be talking about that here; and we’ll also be hearing from Florencia Minuzzi of Tea-Powered Games about their conversation-focused designs.

January 22 is a meetup of Chatbots and Voice Assistants London, featuring among other things a talk from BBC R&D on ‘Hidden Cities’ – a 90 minute interactive audio piece where users can explore Berlin. This meetup space is an interesting one in general for people into interactive audio, Alexa games, and similar topics (content varies and is sometimes more commercial, so check out who the speakers are for the particular date you’ve got in mind).

Also January 22, I’m on a short panel about the future of PC gaming at Pocket Gamer Connects.

January 26 the Baltimore / DC IF group will meet to discuss Ian Michael Waddell’s Animalia.

February 2 is the date for the next SF Bay IF Meetup.

February 8-9 there will be a two-day conference Beyond the Console: Gender and Narrative Games.  I will be chairing Friday’s event; for more information about the conference, please click here.


New Releases & Announcements

v1.jpgAs you may already be aware, a wealth of copyrighted material entered the public domain at the beginning of 2019.  To celebrate this, Randy Lubin and Mike Masnick are hosting the jam “Gaming Like It’s 1923,” and are currently accepting submissions until the end of the month.  Participants may submit digital or analog entries, provided that they draw inspiration from at least one work originally from 1923 (the hosts have helpfully included links to lists for those who could use a quick refresher, as a lot has happened since 1923 and some of us may have forgotten what all came out that year.)

On the more technical side, the newest version of the ink tool integration is out, and available on the asset store.

Previously on this blog I’ve referenced Jimmy Maher and the research he’s done with The Digital Antiquarian.  Last week Maher announced that he will be launching a companion site called The Analog Antiquarian. While The Digital Antiquarian records the history of computer gaming and digital culture, The Analog Antiquarian will focus on worldly wonders, starting with the Pyramids of Giza.  (Also worth pointing out that this all represents a substantial amount of work, so if you like and want to support Maher’s research, he has a Patreon here.)


Articles & Links

DSC_4931_grayer_w-1024x684.jpgNot directly IF-related per se, but I thought this was cool: Irene Posch’s Embroidered Computer explores “using historic gold embroidery materials and knowledge to craft a programmable 8 bit computer.”  (Posch’s main website also has a number of other projects, including a Knitted Radio.)

At the beginning of this month, the Independent Games Festival revealed its finalists for the 2019 IGF awards (March 20 at GDC).  Andrew Plotkin, who was on the narrative jury, wrote a trio of articles, each sharing his reactions to some of these games: something notable; mixed reactions; and my favorites.  Good reading for those who want to familiarize themselves with the finalists, as well as those curious to see how a jurist approaches the process.

For Linux, Jericho is an environment that connects learning agents with interactive fiction games. Jericho uses Frotz and Ztools to provide a fast, python-based interface to Z-machine games. (See also my previous article about TextWorld, where learning agents are applied to interactive fiction.)

January 15, 2019

Zarf Updates

2019 IGF nominees: my favorites

by Andrew Plotkin ([email protected]) at January 15, 2019 11:23 PM

There were my favorites among the IGF narrative finalists. I don't mean the best -- although the games I liked did well. I mean the games that I finished with a big grin on my face. The ones that spoke directly to me and said "Zarf, I am what you're here for." Or possibly "I am here for you." (IF authors have trouble telling first-person from second-person pronouns.)
  • Return of the Obra Dinn
  • Seers Isle
  • Wandersong
Repeat: I was on the narrative jury and played free review copies of these games.

Return of the Obra Dinn

Last year I described Gorogoa as partaking of the nature of The Fool's Errand and Kit Williams' Maze. I can describe Return of the Obra Dinn in exactly the same terms, weirdly, even though it's an entirely different sort of game. I could also describe it as a cross between Hadean Lands and Her Story, which is funny because Sam Barlow and I were both on the narrative jury.
Obra Dinn is a narrative puzzle game, and it's absolutely committed to that. You investigate a narrative, and that's all you do. The puzzles consist simply of asking what you've discovered. This is a puzzle format that I like to call the "thematic apperception test" (I cheerfully misuse a term from psychology). It's nothing new; detective games have been exploring the idea in one form or another since the 80s. But Obra Dinn is unique, I think, in building this structure on an intensively detailed environment where everything is part of the story.
I keep wanting to use the word "multisensory". Of course it's not; the 3D rendering has a distinctively stylized look, dithered monochrome, from the earliest Mac days. (I mentioned The Fool's Errand, right?) The soundtrack is simple voiceover plus some orchestral stings. But within those bounds, lordy, this sausage uses every part of the pig. The voiceover talent uses accents and non-English lines; these are clues. When you look around a scene, objects are rendered with motion lines; these are clues. People's clothing is a clue. Facial features are clues. Scars. Stance and body language. Where someone sits. Who is playing what game with who. How people are named on the passenger manifest. How people are drawn in the introductory sketches.
This is the puzzle-book comparison: when you look at an illustration in Maze, you know that any detail could bear meaning. I love this. I'm not good at it, particularly, but I love it. And for once, this fountain of detail is in service of the story. Not "puzzles", the abstract game of find-the-pattern; not the win condition; but the story -- what happened to the Obra Dinn and everybody on board.
So I have to say Obra Dinn is my narrative game of the year. I just have to. And I'll get to the caveats in a minute.
It helps, of course, that it's all done so excellently well. The dithery visuals aren't all that clear, but you don't generally need to make out subtle details. Once you know what you're looking for, you can see it. (In particular, you never need to recognize faces. The UI lets you match figures up with the sketch index for free. To my great relief!) The voiceover and foley work is spot on. The soundtrack, simple as it is, is an elegant emphasis to the critical moments of presentation.
And the story is -- I am heroically avoiding spoilers here, but I appreciate the author's deft touch with genre. The story starts out with classic romantic sea tragedy: pistols, knives, and shouts of mutiny. Then, almost immediately... but that would be telling.
The telling is nonlinear, and this is part of its power. (The Her Story comparison, in case that isn't obvious.) The mechanics require that you see the end of the story first, and then jump up and down the timeline towards the beginning. So you are putting the story together in your head as you go. I've seen this trick work poorly (ask me about replaying Myst 4) and well (Memento is easy to name, but come on, we all loved it). In this case, it worked great for me. The sharp focus on detail -- who died, when, and how? -- helped a lot; I always had specifics in mind. The over-arching plot followed naturally.
Yes, there are caveats. I didn't love the visual style. As I said, it didn't get in my way -- much -- but I still felt like I was squinting all the time. It wasn't as bad as Scanner Sombre, whose rainbow dither left me visually exhausted after just a couple of hours. But I still would have preferred ligne clair.
The ideal player of Obra Dinn would deduce every fact from observed details. I am not the ideal player. I observed maybe three-quarters of the details, and guessed the rest. Quite a bit of guessing, over all. (And I peeked at a couple of Internet hints, too.) The mechanics permit guessing, but don't encourage it. You need three correct sets of facts before the game will check them off, and the possible range of facts is large. So blind guessing is a waste of time. If you can narrow down possibilities -- say, to four faces and four possible names -- well, you can lawnmower 24 combinations. I did it... but it was boring and I felt bad about it. But I did it. (Yes, I had missed a set of clues, but searching the ship yet again would have been even more boring.)
The game doesn't end very satisfyingly. The end of the play experience, I mean. (The end of the Obra Dinn's story is appropriate, but that's where you start.) The game wraps itself up tidily, even cleverly -- but there's no sense of high stakes resolved. It's just the last piece of the puzzle.
It's the opposite of fannish writing. I think this bothered me less than some, but it did bug me. Every design choice is to distance the drama that you witness. It's dense drama, it's complex, it's got tons of (doomed) characters. But you aren't rooting for any of them. Nobody's making "favorite Obra Dinn character" polls.
(This might have come down to a moment when you, as the protagonist, step into the center of things. The author chose not to do that. You have a role and a presence, if not a name. But you are, from first to last, merely an observer.)
Look, the game is unquestionably successful. It sucked me in, it convinced me to play through on its own terms (bar a couple of Internet hints). It left me with a vivid story in my mind's eye. It pulled off a trick that I haven't seen done, and it did it all in service of that story. I recommend Obra Dinn hard. I loved playing. But I think that I could have loved the story, itself, and that would have been even better.

Seers Isle

Visual novel time: a boatload of generally Celtic-oid fantasy protagonists crashes into the sacred island of the seers. They must trek into the interior and Pass The Trials, thus qualifying themselves to level up as shamans.
I snark, but the writing is solid enough to carry the premise. It's not brilliant writing, but it's economical and it focuses (correctly) on the characters, their backgrounds, and the relationships between them. The setting never advances beyond "D&D sourcebook", but the characters and their lives all exist within it, which is enough.
The artwork is awfully nice, too -- detailed digital paintings. The game uses the visual-novel convention of showing each character as a close-up fixed illustration as they speak, with expressive variations. But the characters are also shown in-scene; you get plenty of full-scene illustrations as the story progresses. Subtle effects like "Ken Burns" panning and varied placement of dialog on the screen add to the liveliness.
I initially felt that the game was offering me too much text with too few choice-points in between. (Which is my usual problem with visual novels.) However, it grew on me. The text dumps aren't that long, and the choices feel significant. By the end of the first chapter, I had the sense that the story could have gone down several very different paths (literally!) and I'd had the agency to guide it. The game does a good job of keeping this feeling in place through the entire story.
I have now played through the story twice, and it turns out to be more narrowly constructed than I first thought. It's a fixed chain of episodes; your choices determine how each episode resolves, or whose viewpoint you follow through an episode, but not really what happens next. Then you reach the finale with one of several possible characters, depending on your earlier choices. If I read the achievements screen correctly, there are four major character resolutions with two possible endings per.
I'm not complaining about linearity here. This is a familiar sort of a structure for a choice-based game. I bring it up to emphasize that the game does a great job of feeling like you are steering the story. In fact your choices often determine which character you follow, or which pairs of characters you focus on the interaction of. That's significant to you, even if the team is going to be trudging up the same hill next chapter.
The final (initial) twist is your narrative role: an initially formless and passive observer. But your choices have some diegetic weight, as you influence the protagonists one way or another. As the story goes on, they become aware of you, speak with you, sometimes reject you. Eventually your role in the story becomes clear. I liked this setup quite a bit. It's not the full-bore agent-role surprise that some games have offered. (Where your player role is, big twist, part of the story!) Rather, it's a character who is actually part of the story -- in the relationships-with-other-characters sense -- and this is revealed slowly over the course of things.
...I've probably spent too long dissecting this. It's a cozy story about a bunch of cute D&D teenagers on a road trip. Some of them die, mind you, but it's a good read, it has great art, and the narrative structure has some cleverness to it. I came away solidly pleased with it.


This is a cutesy action platformer, with the open goal of being entirely non-violent. The first thing you do is find a sword. The second thing you do is throw the sword away and make friends with a monster by singing at it. This is the game's position statement.
You are a bard. Your core interaction is singing, which uses an eight-note wheel. Obviously this means plenty of "sing along with somebody" (a low-stress rhythm game), but the game goes way past that. Singing evokes bardic magic in various areas; the directional music-wheel might rotate gears or direct the winds.
This is all fine, and indeed it makes a perfectly good action platformer. However, it's not one that I found particularly compelling at first. The storyline is another round of "collect the plot tokens, save the world". The main character is a characterless doll. (The giant blank eyeblobs creep me out, I'm sorry to say.) The game has fun making tiny vivid cartoon characters out of the NPCs -- of whom there are many -- but tiny cartoons is all they are; briefly amusing at best.
This is perhaps overmuch complaining for what's supposed to be a good-natured, kid-friendly platformer. As I said, it's perfectly good at that. But I gave up on it twice. I tried a pre-release several months ago, got to an annoying wind puzzle, and shut it off. In the release version, I got past that, but then I ran into an annoying water-blob puzzle and shut it off.
These are the moments where, if I'm really into a game -- because of the puzzles, the art, the writing style, anything -- I will muster my stick-to-it-ness and repeat the damn jump until I make it. Wandersong didn't quite get there. Except, see...
Say there was another IGF finalist which was ostentatiously crude and family-hostile and all the characters were dicks. (Just imagine. Sssh.) And say I got tired of playing that, and I wanted to play something good-natured and friendly. So I picked Wandersong back up for the third time. And this time I finished it.
(For, indeed, this is what happened.)
Wandersong remains cute and cartoony and easily accessible to the young mind. But it's not vapid. The cute friendly bard is set up against a Hero, capital H, who is also cute and cartoony -- but has a different take on the story. And they disagree. It's a real argument. The story doesn't shy away from that.
The story is aware that when we see this happy singing cartoon bard, we're seeing a public face. He keeps it up, and sometimes that's hard. He can also, eventually, say "I'm scared" and "you hurt my feelings". I don't mean he turns into a noir hero, or even Steven Universe; but he is a character. Kids will get it because there's something there to get.
When the ending comes around, it's big and happy and (sure) melodramatic and (probably) too mechanically involved for its own good. (Reiterating your puzzle mechanics in the endgame is great, but it can kill the momentum.) It's still worth a cheer, because you believe in the characters enough to root for them. Or against them. (That argument isn't quite resolved...)
So, despite my early impressions and two failures, I wind up recommending Wandersong a lot. Writing for children is hard. When I was a kid, I always sided with the sincere-and-subversive ("The Electric Company") over the sincere-and-supportive ("Mister Rogers' Neighborhood"). But I have come to appreciate the latter, and this is a solid example.

Post Position

A Bit about Alphabit

by Nick Montfort at January 15, 2019 04:38 PM

During Synchrony 2019, on the train from New York City to Montreal, two of us (nom de nom and shifty) wrote a 64 byte Commodore 64 program which ended up in the Old School competition. (It could have also gone into the Nano competition for <=256 byte productions.) Our Alphabit edged out the one other fine entry in Old School, a Sega Genesis production by ModeDude also written on the train.

The small program we wrote is not a conventional or spectacular demo; like almost all of the work by nom de nom, it uses character graphics exclusively. But since we like sizecoding on the Commodore 64, we wanted to explain this small program byte by byte. We hope this explanation will be understandable to interested people who know how to program, even if they may not have much assembly or C64 experience.

To get Alphabit itself, download the program from and run it in a C64 emulator or on some hardware Commodore 64. You can see a short video of Alphabit running on Commodore 64 and CRT monitor, for the first few seconds, for purposes of illustration.

              starting here,
              these bytes load
at:     02 08 01 00 00 9E 32 30
$0808   36 31 00 00 00 20 81 FF
$0810   C8 8C 12 D4 8C 14 D4 C8
$0818   8C 20 D0 AD 12 D0 9D F4
$0820   D3 8C 18 D4 D0 F5 8A 8E
$0828   0F D4 AE 1B D4 E0 F0 B0
$0830   F6 9D 90 05 9D 90 D9 AA
$0838   88 D0 E0 E8 E0 1B D0 DB

Load address. Commodore 64 programs (PRG files) have a very simple format: a two-byte load address, least significant byte first, followed by the machine code which will be loaded at that address. So this part of the file says to load at $0802. The BASIC program area begins at $0801, but as explained next, it’s possible to cheat and load the program one byte higher in memory, saving one byte in the PRG file.

BASIC bootloader, $0802–$080c: This program starts with a tiny BASIC program that will run when the user types RUN and presses ENTER. When run, this program, a bootloader, will execute the main machine code. In this case the program is “0 SYS2061” with the line number represented as 00 00, the BASIC keyword SYS represented by a single byte, 9E, and its argument “2061” represented by ASCII-encoded digits: 32 30 36 31. When run, this starts the machine code program at decimal address 2061, which is $080D, the beginning of the next block of bytes.

Advanced note: Normally a BASIC program would need at least one more byte, because two bytes at $0801 and $0802 are needed to declare the “next line number.” You would have to specify where to go after the first line has finished executing. But for our bootloader, any non-null next line number will work as the next line number. Our program is going to run the machine code at $080d (decimal 2061) and then break. So we only need to fulfill one formal requirement: Some nonzero value has to be written to either $0801 or $0802. For our purposes, whatever is already in $0801 can stay there. That’s what allows this program to load at $0802, saving us one byte.

On the 6502: There are three “variables” provided by this processor, the accumulator (a general-purpose register, which can be used with arithmetic operations) and the x and y registers (essentially counters, which can be incremented and decremented).

Initialization, $080d–$081a: This sets up two aspects of the demo, sound and graphics. Actually, after voice 3 is initialized, it is used not only to make sound, but also to generate random numbers for putting characters on screen. This is a special facility of the C64’s sound chip; when voice 3 is set to generate noise, one can also retrieve random numbers from the chip.

The initialization proceeds by clearing the screen using the Kernal’s SCINIT routine. When SCINIT finishes, the y register has $84 in it. It turns out that for our purposes the noise waveform register and the sustain-decay register can both be set to $85, so instead of using two bytes to load a new value into y (ldy #$85), the program can simply increment y (iny), which takes only one byte. After storing $85 in those two registers, the goal is to set the border color to the same as the default screen color, dark blue, $06. Actually any value with 6 for a second hex digit will work, so again the program can increment y to make it $86 and then use this to set the border color. Finally, the y register is going to count down the number of times each letter (A, B, C … until Z) will be written onto the screen. Initially, the program puts ‘A’ on screen $86 times (134 decimal); for every subsequent letter, it puts the letter on screen 256 times — but that comes later. The original assembly for this initialization:
    iny         ; $85 works for the next two...
    sty $d412   ; voice 3 noise waveform
    sty $d414   ; voice 3 SR
    iny         ; $86 works; low nybble needs to be $6
    sty $d020   ; set the border color to dark blue
Each letter loop, first part, $081b–$0826: This loop counts through each of the 26 letters. The top part of the loop has a loop within it in which some of the sound is produced; then there is just a single instruction after that.

Fortunately, the x register already is set up with $01, the screen code of the letter ‘A’, thanks to SCINIT. In this loop, the value of the current raster line (the lowest 8 bits of a 9-bit value, to be precise) is loaded into the accumulator. The next instruction stores that value in a memory location indexed by x; as x increases during the run of the program, this memory location will eventually be mapped to the sound chip registers for voices 1 and 2, starting at $d400, and this will make some sounds. This is what gives some higher-level structure to the sound in the piece, which would otherwise be completely repetitive. After this instruction, however many characters are left to put onto the screen (counting down from 255 to 0) goes into the volume register, which causes the volume to quickly drop and then spike to create a rhythmic effect. With the noise turned on it makes a percussive sound. All of this takes place again and again until that raster line value is 0, which happens twice per frame, 120 times a second.

After all of this, the value in x (which letter, A–Z, is the current one) is transferred into the accumulator, necessary because of how the rest of the outer loop is written. The original assembly for the beginning of the outer loop:
    lda $d012   ; get raster line (lowest 8 bits)
    sta $d3f4,x ; raster line --> some sound register
    sty $d418   ; # of chars left to write --> volume
    bne raster
Get random, $0827–$0830: This code does a bit more sound work, using the x register to set the frequency. Since this is the current letter value, it increases throughout the run of the program, and the pitch generally rises. Then, a random value (well, not truly random, but “noisy” and produced by the sound chip’s noise generator) is loaded in that x register, with the program continuing to get the value until it is in the range $00–$ef (decimal 0–239). If the value has to be obtained multiple times, frequency gets set multiple times, too, adding some glitchiness to the sound. Because the random value is bounded, the program will place the characters in a 40 character × 6 line (240 character) region.
    stx $d40f       ; current letter --> freq
    ldx $d41b       ; get random byte from voice 3
    cpx #240
    bcs random
Each letter loop, last part, $0831–$083a: In the bottom part of this loop, the characters are put onto the screen by writing to screen memory and color memory. Screen memory starts at $0400, and $0590 is the starting point of our 6-line rectangle in the middle of the screen. The corresponding point in color memory is $d990. Our current character (A–Z) is in the accumulator at this point, while the x register, used to offset from $0590 and $d990, has a random value. After putting the accumulator’s value (as a letter) into screen memory and (as a color) into color memory, the accumulator is transferred back into the x register, a counter. Then the y register (counting down to 0) is decremented. The program keeps doing this whole process, the “each letter loop,” until y reaches 0.
    sta $0590,x  ; jam the current letter on screen
    sta $d990,x  ; make some colors with the value
    bne raster
Outer loop, $083b–$083f: This is the code for counting from 1 to 26, A to Z. Since the x register stores the current letter, it is incremented here. It is compared with decimal 27; if the register has that value, the program is done and it will fall through to whatever is next in memory … probably $00, which will break the program, although anything might be in memory there. It would have been nice to have an explicit brk as part of this PRG, but hey, this is a 64-byte demo with a BASIC bootloader, written one day on a train. If the program has more letters to go through, it branches all the way back up to the beginning of the “each letter loop.”
    cpx #27     ; have we gotten past ‘Z’?
    bne raster

January 13, 2019

Jolt Country

Cryptozookeeper IndieGala bundle

by Ice Cream Jonsey at January 13, 2019 08:40 PM

If you’d like to pick up Cryptozookeeper for Steam for a low price, you can get it through this IndieGala bundle for 12 more hours. Thanks for reading:

January 12, 2019

Zarf Updates

2019 IGF nominees: mixed reactions

by Andrew Plotkin ([email protected]) at January 12, 2019 03:04 AM

And now, IGF finalists that I didn't get into.
This is tricky to introduce. I'm not saying these games were bad. I'm not even saying that I had a bad time playing them. Rather, these are games that are aimed at an audience which isn't quite me.
So you're about to sit through why they didn't work for me. But this really is more audience-analysis than game-analysis.
  • Unavowed
  • Genital Jousting
  • Hypnospace Outlaw
(Repeat: I was on the narrative jury and played free review copies of these games. Except Unavowed, which I bought earlier this year.)


You may recall that I wrote a long blog post after playing the first five minutes of Unavowed. The cold open on the rooftop raised a host of questions by playing off the genre conventions of urban fantasy (and character-based interactive narrative). I did not, at the time, entirely trust the authors to have done that on purpose.
Now that I've finished the game, I can assure you that they did that on purpose. But not entirely successfully. I'll avoid spoilers and just say that their last-act twist, while addressing the questions that the opening raised, didn't really follow the clues that it laid down. It was supposed to be an "of course" moment, but my reaction was more "well I suppose".
But the last-act twist isn't the whole of a game, nor should it be. How is Unavowed overall?
Solid. Not brilliant, at any point, but nowhere fatally flawed either. It's an old-school adventure game without the (terrible) old-school puzzles. This doesn't mean it has fantastic puzzles; it means that it tones the puzzles way down in favor of characters and story structure.
Structure is where it puts in the most effort, really. Unavowed is a set of mini-mysteries built around a team of urban-weird-bollocks hunters. You have wide latitude to play chapters in the order you choose, with the sidekicks you want to bring along. (You meet the sidekicks as you go, but by midgame they're all on board.) This is all rigorously carried through -- every scene can be completed with any combination of sidekicks (and their individual talents). This is very impressive at the design level, but it makes the story itself rather clunky, because half the items you find are red herrings. (E.g., if you don't bring the ghost-talker along, any ghost you meet is just a mute presence. And so on.) In a few cases a character has to awkwardly excuse himself in order to let someone else tag in and advance the plot.
So the play experience is a cycle of talk to the witnesses, examine the scenery, solve a light puzzle (whichever of the available ones matches your current sidekicks), and repeat. The chapters feel fairly short (because you're only hitting half the designed puzzles/interactions in any given playthrough). It works, but again, it never feels brilliant.
I'll say the same for the writing. It's a nice variety of characters. It's the standard urban-fantasy mix of every mythology you can think of, all flung into any city you like as long as it's New York or London. In this case, New York. Can I complain? I have Harry Dresden and Peter Grant novels stacked up on the shelves, so no, I can't complain. But it still feels lazy. In particular, I'm becoming allergic to classic demon/exorcism tropes without Catholicism, and fairy-tale djinn tropes without Islam. Plenty of better-informed folks than me have pointed out the problems here.
(At least Peter Grant's stories are grounded in London, with all that city's deep sense of history. As for Harry Dresden, his shine has rather worn off after seventeen-whatever books of faffing around Chicago.)
The ending is, once again, a structural marvel, tying together all the hard decisions you've made throughout the game into a series of interlocking challenges. The spreadsheets must have been voluminous. But, once again, this just doesn't translate into a very engaging play experience. You apply the resources (Hard Decisions 1 through N) to the puzzles (1 through N) and it pays off with the good ending. Or the range of endings.
So I don't know. It unquestionably does what the designers wanted, and the designers' goals were ambitious. The game works. I had a good time and the gears never slipped. You can push the backstory button for each character and advance your relationship meter. I just feel like I admire the machinery more than the result.

Genital Jousting

You are a sentient cock with balls and an anus. The designers have committed to this gimmick with a fierce and unswerving dedication. Every interaction you have in the game consists of sticking yourself into something, squirting something, farting something, or sliding around on a trail of lube. You live in a world of sentient cocks, and you are a dick with an asshole, and also you are an asshole and a dick. That's the game.
There's some kind of multiplayer mode, but I only played the single-player story. This involves your middle-aged angst over not having a date for your high-school reunion. You go out to try to find true love. If you can't find a girlfriend -- girls are also cocks, by the way -- you'd like to get laid. Failing that, you'd make do with any scrap of self-respect you can dredge up. Spoiler: it's not going to go well.
I'm describing this crudely, because -- well, obviously. It's a crude game. It glories in this. It leaves no dick joke unsprung.
The implementation is extremely solid, to be sure. The Stanley-ish narrator guides you around, and comments on everything you do, but also comments on everything you try or fail to do. There's a whole lot of sneaky reactivity. The designers really do everything possible with their environment and interface, and it all works smoothly. Allow for the fact that sliding around as a cock is a squishy, rubbery experience which is supposed to be frustrating and hard to aim. Realistically.
So I admired that, and I played until I was tired of the gag, and then I rolled my eyes and put the game aside.
After some discussion with other judge-folks, I gave it another chance. Their argument was, okay, this game is not aimed at you, but it does have a point. It's a relentless deconstruction of toxic masculinity and the pure blind selfishness of seeing the world as something to fuck. People like this exist. The game is aimed at them, people who could conceivably clue in and learn something.
Will they? Will this game help? I have no idea. The whole point of being selfish is not caring what anybody else thinks unless it's flattering. This game isn't flattering. The dick does not find true love.
But the game isn't... it's not contemptuous, which is something. I have a lot of anger about selfish assholes, myself, the past few years. I can't get into the discussion; my contempt shows, and why would anyone listen? This game gets into the discussion. It's not subtle; it's about a loser, a self-blinkered loser who cannot move outside his own head. The game is very clear about that. I don't think it's talking down, though. It's inside that dickhead's head, looking out. It's not a pretty view, but it admits the possibility of change. Maybe it will stick.

Hypnospace Outlaw

An allegory about corporate censorship of the Internet. Or so I assume. You are a contractor being fed funbucks to enforce the company's draconian terms of service. The first couple of missions are about bland copyright pettifoggery and adware. Will it spiral into the realm of serious social issues like hate mobs and the destruction of journalism? Will you wind up, as the title implies, turning on your masters and becoming a hero of the people? I suspect either or both, but I've only put in a couple of hours, and it's not yet clear.
The engine looks like trash, but it's sneakily clever about it. It's the first surge of the Web -- 1999 in all its neon-pixel, animated-GIF glory. Which is to say: trash. But the creators have worked in an impressive range of paleo-Web interactions. You can visit personal, fan, and corporate sites; download wallpapers and music; install hacky apps. There's a Web easter egg hunt! (Ah memory.) Your desktop gets cluttered with icons. When you get hit with malware, your desktop gets messed up. And every web page looks like it was built with a cheesy Geocities-ish GUI tool. (Which, to be sure, is exactly what the (real-life) creators used. The tool ships with the game.)
So I see potential here. But I am having a hard time mustering the enthusiasm to keep playing. The problem with evoking old, ugly web sites is that they're ugly. And they blink a lot. You are investigating shallow teenagers and equally shallow net-obsessed adults, at least at first. You have nobody to play for. The closest you get to continuing story characters seem to be the Winklevossian tech CEOs, and they're antagonists-in-waiting.
This territory was all plumbed two years ago in Orwell. That was an icy-grim take on corporate data-mining, entirely unlike Hypnospace's nostalgic cartooniness. But Orwell pulled me in. Hypnospace leaves me wincing and wishing I could go look at something else.
Again, it's an audience problem. I'm old. 1999 happened, I was there; but to me it was just a regrettable interlude of <blink> tags, nestled between Mosaic and Flash. 1999 isn't my formative vision of computers when they were magical and new. (That's Tron, 1982, thank you very much.) But I can see that a lot of people are going to get a big kick out of this.

January 11, 2019

Renga in Blue

Goblins: Deduction vs. Abduction

by Jason Dyer at January 11, 2019 10:40 PM

Alas, I have not quite finished yet. Perhaps this post will give a hint as to why. But first, a brief detour into Sherlock Holmes.

From the start of The Five Orange Pips by Arthur Conan Doyle:

When I glance over my notes and records of the Sherlock Holmes cases between the years ’82 and ’90, I am faced by so many which present strange and interesting features that it is no easy matter to know which to choose and which to leave. Some, however, have already gained publicity through the papers, and others have not offered a field for those peculiar qualities which my friend possessed in so high a degree, and which it is the object of these papers to illustrate. Some, too, have baffled his analytical skill, and would be, as narratives, beginnings without an ending, while others have been but partially cleared up, and have their explanations founded rather upon conjecture and surmise than on that absolute logical proof which was so dear to him.

Sherlock Holmes is oft-stated to always conclude things based on airtight deduction, having a set of facts whereupon to build a case where there can be no other conclusion. However, quite often the character relies on abduction, which instead a probability-based guess based on circumstances. Later, in the same story, a young man arrives:

“Give me your coat and umbrella,” said Holmes. “They may rest here on the hook and will be dry presently. You have come up from the south-west, I see.”

“Yes, from Horsham.”

“That clay and chalk mixture which I see upon your toe caps is quite distinctive.”

The supposition made here is most likely correct, but hardly the only possible one; perhaps the man stole the shoes from someone else who resided in the area. Still, Sherlock Holmes’s inference is the best explanation, likely enough that the reader doesn’t notice it’s not an “absolute logical proof” in the same manner as mathematically proving that 1 + 1 = 2.

To summarize: with deduction, we have fully known rules and circumstances that when together force some kind of conclusion. With abduction, we have circumstances where we have to infer the chain of events, but it’s a probabilistic guess.

By the treehouse where all the treasures are stored in Goblins there is an “old boot”. There is no more detail other than that.

After long frustration I ended up checking a “hint sheet” that was given with the game, and found this:

Submarine. The sub may be surfaced by waving the boot (which was originally fished from the sea) at the beach where the fish is carrying the welcome sign. Be sure to bring the compass when using the sub or all is lost!

I went to the place with the welcome sign …

… and found WAVE BOOT had no effect, nor did any other attempt at using a magical item. No, it turns out you have to be in the bay just north of this part of the beach, and then the action works.

This happens to be an unusually prominent spot for me to highlight an issue with adventure games. I feel like a lot of adventure game writers think they are writing puzzles which will be solved via the process of deduction, but the player needs to use abduction instead.

The author knew the boot was fished from the sea, but somehow failed to convey this fact. The author knew the nature of the boot’s magic. The author knew the boot’s magic could be activated via waving. The author knew the “royal entrance” was next to the sign, but not right at it. If given all those facts, it’s possible to logically conclude both that WAVE BOOT is the right action and where it should be done; without these facts, the player is instead using abduction. They can see the crime scene after the fact and can only make their best guess about what to do.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; a confirmed conclusion from abduction can be highly satisfying. However, it needs to be a most likely conclusion, not one plausible theory out of ten. Many authors are tentative about giving “excess hints” to a puzzle in a game, but they have to keep in mind the player is always working via abduction, and making a puzzle solution 10% more likely to be correct isn’t the same as “giving a puzzle away”.

Choice of Games

Chronicon Apocalyptica — Save medieval England from an ancient evil!

by Rachel E. Towers at January 11, 2019 07:41 PM

We’re proud to announce that Chronicon Apocalyptica, the latest in our popular “Choice of Games” line of multiple-choice interactive-fiction games, is now available for Steam, Android, and on iOS in the Choice of Games Omnibus app. It’s 33% off until January 18th!

Battle Norse raiders, ghosts, and changelings to save medieval England! But beware, if the elves can capture the Book you hold, the world will end.

Chronicon Apocalyptica is a 250,000-word interactive medieval fantasy novel by Robert Davis. It’s entirely text-based, without graphics or sound effects, and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination.

You are an Anglo-Saxon scribe in the year 1000. You hold a Book of secrets written generations ago, including this prophecy: “When Æthelred II is King, he shall not be King, but there shall be an elven changeling in his stead. Should it gain this book and its ink, the world he shall rend asunder.”

The witan advisors to Æthelred have tasked you with a secret mission to research whether the Book is true. Build an unlikely party of adventurers: a nun, a holy warrior, a bard, a beekeeper, and his bee, each with a mysterious past. Judge a witch trial, infiltrate the magical land of the elves, and even travel through time on your quest to extract fact from fiction.

Lovers of England’s mythic history will delight as you meet Excalibur, the Green Children of Woolpit, and the Tremulous Hand, a creepy disembodied hand with a predilection for parchment. Put your analytical, investigative, and storytelling skills to the test as you decide where your loyalties lie: to the church, the crown, or the people of England.

Will you uncover the secret at the heart of English history, or succumb to the evil of the most deadly book ever created?

• Play as male, female, or non-binary; gay, straight, bi, or asexual.
• Discover rare sources, excavate ruins, and collect local legends.
• Fight the forces of darkness, or outwit them with your sharp intelligence.
• Explore decaying strongholds, funeral barrows, and even time itself.
• Choose romance or rivalry with your greatest foe.
• Determine who sits on the English throne.

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

The Digital Antiquarian

The Analog Antiquarian

by Jimmy Maher at January 11, 2019 04:41 PM

I’m very excited today to announce The Analog Antiquarian, a new companion site to this one. While this site continues to be, as the subtitle says, “a history of computer entertainment and digital culture,” the new one will be for “chronicles of worldly wonders” — more wide-angle history articles about some of humanity’s most amazing achievements, beginning with the Pyramids of Giza. Going forward, I’ll be posting new articles to the two sites on alternating Fridays.

Since this is a significant change, I feel I owe you an explanation of how we got to this point.

If you’d asked me a few years ago, I’d have told you that I’d be satisfied to leave behind as my intellectual legacy, as it were, a skeptical but passionate history of the fascinating new medium of interactive entertainment, stretching from its very beginning to however far I managed to get before I kicked the bucket. But I’ve found myself getting more and more creatively restless since then. Despite trying hard to tamp the restlessness down, I’ve slowly had to face the fact that I have more I want to say and more I want to try as a writer than this site’s format really allows for. It’s not so much that I’m tired of the endlessly interesting march of technology, aesthetics, and culture which I’ve been documenting here, as that I’m tired of only writing about those things.

All of this started to come to a head about eighteen months ago, when I started to look into the game of Civilization. As a game, it’s remarkable enough in its own right, but what really floored me was the stuff around the game, particularly the tech tree and the expansive view of human invention that it depicted. To be honest, I sort of fell in love with the thing.

My first thought was thus to write a history of human invention, to explain how we got from primitive but fundamental technologies like pottery to the moon landing and the Internet. I hired a programmer to work on an interactive tech tree of my own which would show how it all fit together, how this begot that; clicking on developments on it would take you to the articles associated with those developments. But we never could arrive at a design that was unarguably more intuitive than a simple table of contents. And meanwhile I was starting to have other doubts about the idea. Could I master so much technology — I’m a writer, not an engineer — and could I write about it in a way that wouldn’t be horribly dry?

So, I set that plan aside. Instead I decided to write a series of articles for this site, exploring the assumptions and ideas behind Civilization‘s view of history. And, as many of you doubtless remember, I did see that plan through. Yet I was never entirely happy with the articles that resulted, and today I’m less happy with them than ever. Building intellectual castles in the sky just isn’t what I’m best at as a writer. I’m better at telling exciting and interesting stories, sneaking the Big Ideas into the cracks and crevices of the narrative.

Regardless, I made a resolution after I finished the Civilization series to buckle back down here in my wheelhouse of gaming history. But many of you who do creative work probably know how that sort of thing goes. That little muse, once she starts talking to you, is impossible to silence. I still wanted to try another sort of writing, and the Civilization series hadn’t done much to scratch that itch. I finally realized there was only one way to be free of her nagging. I started planning a second site once again, even as I still cast about for just the right approach.

For a time, my plan was to write nothing less than a general history of all human civilization, a sort of 21st-century answer to Will Durant. I still find that idea inordinately appealing in some ways, but the more I thought about it, the more concerns I started to have. If such a project was not to take dozens of lifetimes to complete, it would have to be written in a very summarized way. Could such summaries really satisfy my itch to write personal stories full of plots twists and drama? I also was aware that this type of a history could all too easily become a long narrative of war and oppression, of all the worst sides of humanity. I realized that I’d rather focus on the instances of hope and beauty that occasionally rise above that ugly tumult, reflecting the best rather than the worst in us.

At last, I realized that what I was looking for had been in front of me all the time in Civilization: the wonders of the world. These big, singular achievements all have rich, deeply human stories behind them, and I can’t wait to tell them. I don’t necessarily intend to slavishly follow Civilization‘s set of wonders, merely to use the idea as my guide. It’s a less conceptually ambitious approach than some of the other ones I’ve kicked around, but I think it’s exactly the right one for me, given my strengths and weaknesses as a writer. I hope and — in my more self-confident moments anyway — believe that I can do a fantastic job with it. At any rate, I need to try if I’m not to wonder forevermore whether I could have pulled it off.

Now, to speak more directly to you, the readers of this site:

When I’ve wandered off into digressive territory on this site in the past, it’s gotten a mixed reaction: some really liked these changes of pace, some just wanted me to get back to computers and the games they play. This latter is a perfectly reasonable point of view to hold, and I’ll try to dissuade you from it only to the extent of suggesting that you at least have a peek at the new site, just to see if it catches your interest. If the answer is no, fair enough. For you, this announcement today will come as a bit of a disappointment, as it means fewer of the type of articles you do enjoy. I won’t try to spin that into a positive thing. I just hope you’ll be patient with me and my muse, and will want to continue to read and support The Digital Antiquarian on this somewhat slower schedule. Who knows? Maybe having another writerly outlet will make the articles I do write here better. (Oh, yes, I did promise not to spin, didn’t I?)

If, on the other hand, you’re excited by what you see on The Analog Antiquarian, we’ve just arrived at the awkward part of this announcement — the one where I have to ask for your help. The new site is an experiment. In light of all the angst that I went through getting to this point, I’m committed to giving it a good solid try, but the fact remains that each article there demands even more time than each one here; I just can’t continue to do it forever unless I can build a reasonable income from it. I’ve therefore set up a second Patreon campaign for the new site. Please do think about pitching in whatever you can afford and whatever you think the work is worth. (I wish I didn’t have to ask you to sign up for a whole new Patreon, but there just isn’t any alternative. Patreon unfortunately doesn’t offer any way to opt-in for some types of content but not others within a single campaign.) I would be eternally grateful for your support, which, there as here, will let me do the work I love and also put something of real positive value into the world at the same time.

And finally, there is one other thing I would ask of you — even of those of you who aren’t particularly interested in the new site. If you know anyone personally or have social-media circles that might really dig the new content, please do let them know. Establishing a new site on the crowded Internet is hard, and it’s made even harder when you’re a social-media hermit like I am. I’d be ever so grateful for any help you could give in getting the word out.

I think that’s about all I need to say here. You can read more justifications and explanations in the new site’s introductory article and its Patreon page. Again, I hope some of you will find the topics I’ll be tackling on it as exciting as I do, and hope to see some familiar names turn up there. And I hope to see all of you back here next Friday, for the next serving of Digital Antiquaria. Thank you for being the best readers in the world.

January 10, 2019


Accessibility testing underway, and a call for more blind testers

by Jason McIntosh at January 10, 2019 04:15 PM

I’m pleased to announce that the IFTF accessibility testing program has at last commenced its testing exercise. We would like to extend our gratitude to the AbleGamers Player Panels program for helping to gather more than two dozen players with disabilities willing to play our specially prepared test games and report on their experience.

And, of course, our deepest thanks go out to the testers themselves! We’ll collect their feedback over the rest of January, turning that into a report that we’ll present to the IF community later this year. Testers will receive modest gift cards for their participation, so this work also comes to you via IFTF’s financial donors — a special group of people which, as I never tire of reminding y’all, anyone can join at any time, and to any degree.

We have an interesting gap in our present disability coverage that we’d like to fill, though! While many of the initial group identify as vision-impaired — and we absolutely value their input — very few refer to themselves as fully blind. Recognizing the historically special place that text-based games have among the community of blind gamers, we’d like to invite more self-identified blind IF fans with some time to spare this month to help us with this project. If this interests you, please drop me a note.

I also bear a special request from AbleGamers president (and IFTF accessibility committee member) Mark Barlet: if you are a blind IF fan interested in helping video games of all kinds improve their accessibility, Player Panels would love your help! You can learn more about the program here, including information on joining the effort. According to Mark, Player Panels seeks to improve the number of blind gamers within its ranks, and he hopes that this partership with IFTF — AbleGamers’ first foray into interactive fiction — can help with that.

January 09, 2019

Renga in Blue

Text Games to Watch for in 2019

by Jason Dyer at January 09, 2019 10:40 PM

I’ve probably left a few games out; I’ll leave this open for edits if anyone wants to chime in with candidates.

Choice of Games projects these releases for 2019:

Chronicon Apocalyptica: Copyedit. Releasing Jan 10? A 10th Century adventure; The X-Files meets The Name of the Rose, as you travel through England solving the mysteries of an ancient tome, and investigating myths while staving off conflict with Vikings. A sophomore outing from @r_davis, author of Broadway: 1849.
Untitled Superlatives Sequel: Beta. Picking up after the conclusion of The Superlatives: Aetherfall , you work for the Conclave, an interplanetary diplomatic force as you hunt down the mysterious assassin who killed your predecessor. By Alice Ripley.
Platinum Package: Draft revision. In the elite world of high net-worth individuals, someone has to make the impossible happen. By Emily Short.
Exile of the Gods: Draft review. A sequel to Champion of the Gods.
Drag Star: Draft revision. Make your costume, make your face, throw your shade…all to discover, who is the most fabulous drag star of them all?
Fool!: Draft revision. As a jester, you must make your way from the local fair to the court of the king. Put on your motley, tune your lute, and sharpen your wit: to be remembered as the greatest fool, you must put your competition to shame.
Astral Troopers: Draft revision. As a newly appointed sublieutenant of the Astral Corps, you must work to put down a rebellion on the remote planet of Cerberus.
Untitled Grand Academy for Future Villains Sequel: In progress. Picking up after the school-rending conclusion of Grand Academy, face a new school year, new enemies, of course your mom , and perhaps acquire a true villainous destiny.
The Darkling Watchers: In progress. The US Government employs the spirits of the dead as spies? Another mindbending outing by Paul Gresty, author of The ORPHEUS Ruse and MetaHuman, inc.
Pon Pará and the Great Southern Labyrinth: In progress. The first in a new trilogy by Kyle Marquis, author of Empyrean, Silverworld, and Tower Behind the Moon.
Social Services of the Damned: In progress. In a city overrun with trolls, demons, witches, vampires, werewolves, and other supernatural beings, someone has to handle the paperwork! You’re a social worker whose job is to mediate disputes and lay the occasional smack-down on uppity entities when they break the rules or endanger the human populace.
Six Months to Vesta Station: In progress. You’re the captain of a long-haul spaceship in the 24th century, and a wealthy man has paid triple your usual fee to carry him and his mysterious cargo with no questions asked. On the long voyage, navigate your crew’s personalities, interplanetary politics, the asteroid belt, and your ship’s resources as you uncover secrets and conspiracies.
The Esper Smugglers: In progress. As the captain of an airship, you must negotiate with and resist pirates and corporate forces seeking to exterminate the Esper race.
180 Files: The Aegis Project: Draft revision. Winner of the ChoiceScript Competition. As a spy, you must uncover a nefarious plot to destroy the world!
A Tale of Two Cranes: Draft revision. An epic saga of Three Kingdoms-era China. Second place winner of the ChoiceScript Competition.
Heroes of Myth: It’s easy being the most famous and powerful heroes in the world when evil has been vanquished and your cups are constantly full with other peoples’ wine. But when evil raises its ugly head once again, you’re forced to confront the fact that you’re a fraud that’s been grifting the realm for years. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll rise to the occasion.
Psy High: High Summer: A sequel to Psy High by @ladybird. How will use your powers of clairvoyance to make the best summer ever for the kids at a summer camp?

Solace State will likely be released in 2019.

… a 3D visual novel about a young hacker, Chloe, who comes to her political awakening as she seeks out her friends in a sci-fi surveillance society.

Sunless Skies from Failbetter Games comes out on January 31st.

Sunless Skies is a gothic horror roleplay game with a focus on exploration and exquisite storytelling.

The only thing between you and the waste-winds, storms and cosmic lightning is your engine. Tend and upgrade it, buy weaponry and exotic equipment, and keep her hull in good shape to hold the hostile Heavens at bay.

Blackout: The Darkest Night from MiniChimera is coming “early 2019”.

A Choose Your Own Adventure inspired by White Wolf’s World of Darkness, Twin Peaks and H.P. Lovecraft.

The legendary STEINS;GATE visual novel series returns on February 19th with STEINS;GATE ELITE.

STEINS;GATE ELITE follows a rag-tag band of tech-savvy young students who discover the means of changing the past via e-mail using a modified microwave. Their experiments in pushing the boundaries of time begin to spiral out of control as they become entangled in a conspiracy surrounding SERN, the organization behind the Large Hadron Collider, and John Titor, who claims to be from a dystopian future.

Cubus Games is planning on the 3rd game in their Heavy Metal Thunder series called Slaughter at Masada.

Slaughter at Masada takes place on Mars, a brutal warzone where three sides are vying for dominance. Masada has been under siege for three years, and to overcome despair the people trapped in Mount Olympus have embraced a deadly philosophy of WAR FOR THE SAKE OF WAR. They are surrounded by Invader berserkers – criminal psychopaths too dangerous to be trusted inside spaceships. And now the Black Lance Legion has arrived to break the siege and recruit the fighters of Masada – even against their will, if necessary.

Necrobarista is coming early 2019.

In a magical Melbourne cafe, the dead return for one last night and one last cup of coffee.

Pseudavid, who previously got 6th place in IFComp 2018 for The Master of the Land is working on The Good People:

A horror drama about climate, drowned villages and rural legends.

The developer thev1nce previously worked on a mobile game entitled Somewhere: the Vault Papers (trailer above) is working on a new project called Cloak and Data that “will deal with espionage and IT security.”

David Cornelson (previously of Textfyre, cover art from their release Shadow of the Cathedral above) is working on a new parser game called Zombie Salsa.

… a traditional parser-based puzzle fest with a side of horror and humor.

January 08, 2019

Emily Short

Mailbag: Self-Training in Narrative Design

by Emily Short at January 08, 2019 11:40 PM

Big fan here—of your IF pieces and also of the way you’ve spread interactive fiction outside the IF community. I’m emailing to ask if you have any advice on IF education and bringing it to new platforms/media. 

[Some personally identifying information about the writer’s educational background redacted.]

As I move forward with securing workshop/speaking/consulting gigs, I’m feeling a slight panic that my base skills and knowledge of IF are somewhat lackluster. When it comes to a mastery of interactive thinking, I know that I have a lot of room to grow. 

Would you have any thoughts on how to flex those core IF muscles, and also improve the adaptive skills needed for bringing IF to newer formats and into audio?

Okay, so. This is a two-part question. I’m going to break it across two posts. This post will focus on “how do you flex core IF muscles.” I’ll come back next month to the question of skills for adaptation specifically.

The questioner asks about “a mastery of interactive thinking,” not about writing skills, so I’m going to assume the author feels comfortable on topics like prose and character development, and is more interested in understanding and practicing narrative design across multiple media. It also seems to be a design-focused question rather than a tools- or coding-focused question.

So I’ll try to tackle this from two angles: what are the things you might want to learn, and how might you learn them?

Finally, I should say: even with all the scoping-down I just did, this is a topic that I think would take a book to cover, not a single blog post. So the list of things you might want to know is at once very incomplete and unreasonably scary. No one will master all of it in a couple of months.

What I’d recommend doing, therefore, both to the OP and anyone else who is looking to use this as a guide:

  • Pick one or two areas that seem interesting to you and focus on those for a while; let your interest and enthusiasm be your guide
  • Use a mix of strategies to learn from other people (I list a bunch of approaches below)
  • Alternate between working with other people’s input/insights, and building your own thing. When something you’re reading makes an assertion you think is nonsense, build an experiment to prove the opposite. When something you play inspires you, give that a try. When you read a taxonomy of some kind, question whether it covers all the possibilities, and whether you can imagine categories the article-author didn’t consider (and would the results be any fun to play?)

Core IF Skills. What are these?

I’ve divided these, a little artificially, between “grammar” — basic skills that let you put together something that functions from moment to moment; “dialectic” — structural-level skills about creating meaning; and “rhetoric”, the skills you would need to make IF that persuades, moves, or influences the player.

I’ve also put some resource links in for some of these, but not all of them are addressable with single articles, and this is an unreasonably long post already anyway, so the resource coverage is patchy. (Sorry about that.) One could delve deep into most of the particular segments.

Grammar: how do you construct an interactive experience that makes sense?

  • How do you build a choice? If you’re putting a moment of decision in front of the player, what does that look like? What kinds of choices are there? What does a good choice feel like? How many choices do you give the player at a time?
    • Making Interactive Fiction: Branching Choices (Bruno Dias — I’ve called out just this one post, but he has a column at Sub-Q with relatively short, accessible introductions to a lot of topics in IF writing)
    • Successful Reflective Choices in Interactive Narrative (Cat Manning, on choices where the player’s actions do not in fact hugely affect the world model afterwards, but that still have a big effect on how you might feel about what you read)
    • Not All Choice Interfaces Are Alike (me, about ways of rendering choices that allow for expressiveness, embodiment, etc)
    • Taxonomy of Choice series (Jason Stevan Hill/Choice of Games; these are very specific to the Choice of Games brand and use some of their in-house terminology, but can still be interesting from outside that context. Their games include heavy use of player stats.)
    • Choice Poetics by Example (Peter Mawhorter et al, academic article)
  • What about short sequences of choices? How do you build those successfully and what considerations go into creating a good rhythm?
  • If instead of stand-alone choices, you’re thinking in terms of consistent game verbs, how do you use those moves to advance a story?
  • How do you handle non-linear plot structure and manage the potential of combinatorial explosion? How do you understand and talk about different branching and non-branching structures? What about other ways of organizing and unlocking content? How about highly procedural and emergent narratives?
  • How do you create an interactive world that tells a story as the player explores? How do you place gates, where do you reveal information, how do you make sure that your world is legible and traversible? This skill is the bread-and-butter of parser IF rather than hypertext IF, but it teaches a lot of useful lessons for any crossovers with conventional video games as well as VR or other spatially-constructed pieces.
  • How do you deploy challenges and blockers? In the old days we just called these puzzles, but the ability to gate player progress through a story based on some criteria is extremely useful even for interactive stories that aren’t at all like text adventures.
  • How do you communicate world state, goals, interaction affordances, and stakes to players? How do you allow your fiction to communicate what’s under the surface in a lucid way?
  • For me, the latter question is where we get the need for procedural text generation — because only highly adaptive text can reveal everything I want to reveal about the world I’ve built. That’s an art in itself.
  • How do you handle pacing to trade off between plot-advancing, exploring, and idling actions?

Dialectic: how do you make the aspects of your interactive experience cohere into something with an overall thematic thrust or purpose?

Rhetoric: what moves players, what persuades them, what teaches them or makes them think?

  • How do you engage the player on moral questions?
  • How does interactivity alter the handling of sensitive topics? What can we talk about differently in that format?
  • What strategies are effective at allowing the player to experience life from a perspective not their own (cf so-called “empathy games” [which is itself a bit reductive])? What about evoking unusual mental states or emotional experiences?
  • What can interactive stories reveal about structures of power? When is it useful to decenter the player in order to make a point? How do choices communicate the experience of living on the margins?
  • How do systemic games work persuasively? (The tag “persuasive games” was common a few years ago, and a Google search might still turn up some interesting discussion here. Ian Bogost wrote a whole book on the topic.)
  • …and loads of other topics here — this is really just a sampling — because once you level up from “basic craft” to “what are you saying / can you say with IF”, the field is naturally huge

Learning Strategies.

Not everyone learns in the same way, of course. For me, writing about something is an effective way to make myself summarize, consider, and remember… which is why this blog contains so many words. It’s a record of the past decade or two of trying to educate myself in this very field.

There’s one strategy I think you can’t really avoid here, and that’s actually building some creative work in the field you’re studying: if you want to become a good IF author, you need to write IF. (And the author of this letter has done so, for the record.)

To stretch yourself in the design area, you’re going to want to try different projects with different constraints. Build pieces using tools you haven’t tried before. If you’re a Twine Sugarcube expert, try some other Twine versions, then branch out to Texture, ink, or Inform. Experiment with different genres. Pick out competitions or game jams that are going to give you new challenges. Having a constraint and a time limit is both motivating and a good preview of the realities of commercial work, so it’s worth getting used to those.

After you’ve done that, take some time to reflect about the work you made. Read reviews, if any, but also maybe write your own post-mortem, or go back through and comment your source code (if you’ve built the kind of project for which that’s relevant). Refine your sense of what your takeaways were.

Learning from others:

Reading. I’ve listed some resources for particular topics above. Other general resources include my own list of articles, SPAG and Sub-Q, the XYZZY Awards blog with its critique of entrants,

Playing. Try lots of examples of what’s out there, especially if you’re considering working in a new area. For a broader sense of context, also read some of the reviews written about the work you’re trying out. There are lots of ways to identify suggested canon. This list represents a rather old-school IF community perspective on what’s good and what matters, but searching IFDB, checking out tags, or starting a fresh poll can help identify works with a particular quality that you’re interested in. You might also look at winners of the IGF Narrative Awards.

Here is a post I wrote about the history of IF, divided into periods, and here’s a talk I gave at AdventureX, the Past Futures of IF, that looks at what the IF community aspired to at different times — both of those might also suggest some interesting places to look.

Critiquing, workshopping, testing; reviewing. Giving feedback on other people’s work is often a very informative process, because it forces you to articulate why you think something doesn’t work, and because you often learn from hearing from the other person what they’re doing and why they’re trying to do it that way. In the parser IF community of old, that was often about beta-testing — good beta-testers were highly valued people and would sometimes write articles about their methods.

There are lots of ways into this. You could offer your services as a tester. You could write reviews for IFDB, or on a blog or for Sub-Q; or join critical discussions on the intfiction forum.

You could attend live in-person meetups with other IF authors and talk about whatever work is under discussion there. You could start your own meetup, if you live in a reasonably populous English-speaking area that doesn’t have one yet. (Or maybe some non-English-speaking ones, but I have the sense that IF is more sparsely played in some countries. However, there are or have been meetups I know of in Seattle, the SF Bay area, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Boston/Cambridge, and the Baltimore area, as well as something in Vancouver and occasional events in Toronto; also London (which I run), and sometimes in other parts of the UK and in Dublin. Not all of those cities are currently active, but I list everything I know is happening in my link roundups here, and I’m always happy to help publicize new meetups.

Zarf Updates

NarraScope 2019: still seeking talk proposals

by Andrew Plotkin ([email protected]) at January 08, 2019 12:38 AM

Hello! Happy 2019! I know, this is my second blog post of 2019, I forgot. Rabbit vorpal rabbit.
Let me remind everybody that 2019 is the year of NarraScope 2019, the IF/narrative/adventure gaming conference which we will be running in Boston in June. Cambridge, I should say -- it will be on MIT campus.
Let me also remind you (this is the real point here) that we are still accepting proposals for NarraScope talks! And panels, presentations, lightning talks, and so on. If you're advancing the state of the art in interactive narrative, or just doing stuff you're excited to talk about, please sign up.
The deadline for proposals is January 18th, which is just under two weeks away. We hope to hear from you.
NarraScope celebrates the diverse voices of game design. We aim to create a safe, welcoming, and accountable space for all participants.

January 07, 2019

Choice of Games

Author Interview: Robert Davis, “Chronicon Apocalyptica”

by Mary Duffy at January 07, 2019 06:41 PM

Battle Norse raiders, ghosts, and changelings to save medieval England! But beware, if the elves can capture the Book you hold, the world will end. Chronicon Apocalyptica is a 250,000-word interactive medieval fantasy novel by Robert Davis, author of Broadway: 1849. I sat down with Robert to talk about medieval fantasy, and the joy and challenges of writing it. Chronicon Apocalyptica releases this Thursday, January 10th. 

This is a huge departure from Broadway: 1849, your first game with us. Tell me about what led you to develop Chronicon Apocalyptica and why it’s so different.

To be honest, I have no idea where Chronicon came from! There was this one week I was reading the Venerable Bede, playing a board game where you are a gnomish librarian, and listening to a podcast about medieval mysteries, and, at some point, I thought, “all this should be in a game.”

Broadway was modeled on nineteenth century melodrama. Chronicon Apocalyptica (“The Chronicle of the Apocalypse”) is much much weirder. Taking place in the year 1000, it has labyrinthine mysteries and heaps of possibilities, because I see history as a really twisted, rambling place. I mean, in one game you have to keep your theatre afloat during a critical season, and, in the other, you have to fact-check a seemingly sentient book and keep the world from ending while writing impeccable scholarship.

I think the working title for this game was “Anglo-Saxon,” but we honed in on what the crux of the story was: the Book. Tell me a little about what delving into this world of Anglo-Saxons was like.

There was a point when I was doing research for the game when I was like, “I want to date the year 1000.” Anglo-Saxon period gets called the “dark ages” so often that one just assumes not much happened, but I found that, actually, the years between 800-1000 was a time of vibrant change. You had a warrior queen tearing up kingdoms, the church more or less inventing modern scholarship, and the crown constantly struggling with the people we call the Vikings. Getting into this world, and the world of a medieval abbey, was endlessly fascinating. You have NO idea how cool book-making and scriptoria were!

A significant portion of the game takes place in medieval libraries. There was an often-repeated line that scribes wrote, “Three fingers write, the whole body labors,” because the process of writing a book was such painstaking work. Here were these monks, nuns, and scholars stooped over a parchment in the cold and bad light writing until their muscles ached, often as part of their religious devotion. They wrote and copied works ranging from biblical commentary to astronomical computation and history to books of riddles. I wanted this game to show off the period in all its fun, pain, and eccentricity.

What were some of the design challenges this time around? Or did you find your second game easier to write in some ways? 

Chronicon is more ambitious, with more plot points, more characters, and more possible paths than Broadway. That was definitely harder to design, and I blame it entirely on Choice of Games! While writing, I was inspired by two games: The Superlatives, which has the best, most perfectly-balanced team I’ve come across. I wanted to do something like that, but I had no idea how complicated having a group of four or five characters with their own backstories, objectives, and interests would be. That took a lot of planning and figuring out. The second game was Heart of the House, which I think is the best haunted house story in a long time. I am amazed at how the story always keeps the answers one step ahead of you. You think you get it, but the more you press on, the more complicated it becomes and you realize you actually have no idea what’s going on, but in a good way. That’s what I tried to do.

Finally, I think, in doing both games, the editors and beta testers essentially gave me a master class in choice design and managing story arcs to make a compelling, playable game. I would ultimately say that after writing two games, I FINALLY “get” how to write one.

This game combines myth, reality, history, religion, and the supernatural. Quite a heady mix.

My ideal story is one that combines fantasy, horror, and hardcore history. I hope Chronicon does just that. Almost everything in it is accurate to the time period, down to the titles of books and many of the peripheral characters. I do take liberties (there are some historical figures who must be rolling in their graves) but I tried to evoke a sense of what living at this time was like. With ghosts, elves, and witches.

Do you have a favorite NPC?
My first thought is Blædswith because she is a vengeance-driven Joan of Arc, but, in all honesty, it is the Tremulous Hand. I won’t say more because of spoilers, but what’s better than a disembodied hand on a mission?

And what are you working on next? 

I’m working on a novel about 1849 and I’d love to do a third game, maybe a Western.

January 06, 2019

Emily Short

Survey of Storylets-based Design

by Emily Short at January 06, 2019 05:40 PM

Sketching a Map of the Storylets Design Space” is a paper by Max Kreminski prepared for ICIDS 2018, an academic survey of the storylet design space. I wanted to point my blog readers towards it, as it covers a lot of interesting territory in the quality-based narrative/salience-based narrative area (and in fact references my post on structures beyond branching narrative). Those of you interested in ways of structuring IF with more procedural complexity than a branching narrative may find it interesting.

The paper offers an overview of major storylet-based tools and works from both indie and academic experiments new and old, including StoryAssembler, StoryNexus, The King of Chicago, Reigns, and Ice-bound Compendium. It does not discuss Varytale, but then Varytale has been unavailable to play with for some years now, so there may not have been an accessible version for Kreminiski to look at since beginning their research.

Kreminski identifies four dimensions for looking at storylet-based systems: how preconditions for storylets are defined; whether individual storylets can ever be repeated; what sort of content is contained within a storylet (linear text? replacement grammars? branching content?); and finally, the “content selection architecture”, or how storylets are chosen as eligible for display.

Screen Shot 2018-08-29 at 11.10.31 AM.png

Kreminski also built a storylet system and a small prototype game of their own, a piece called Starfreighter. (It’s available on itch, if you want to look at it yourself.) The scenario is a fairly standard space-trading story, in which you accumulate crew and cargo and travel through a procedurally generated graph of solar systems. There are several cool presentational aspects here, including the way that you can select place names in your storylet and get extra information and see the location highlighted on the map. The actual content is not very deeply developed — there’s enough here that you can travel from port to port, do some trading, and have your hull damaged repeatedly by space debris, but it doesn’t dramatically develop very much more than that.

The structurally interesting bit about Starfreighter as a storylet system is that it looks not just for specific qualities (like Fallen London‘s “if your Connected: the Duchess is greater than 10”) but for resources that fit particular qualities, and subsequently binds those identified resources to the storylet for purposes of producing the narration. So for instance you might have a storylet “sell [cargo] on [planet]”, which would become available if you had any cargo (say, a crate of exotic matter) and were on any planet (say, Uinox), so that the storylet text would then be realized as “sell crate of exotic matter on Uinox.”

StoryNexus, or specifically the version used for Fallen London, did eventually gain a couple of related features here. One is a fairly basic form of templating that allows the author to change embedded text in a storylet depending on the value of a particular quality. I used that heavily in the Finishing School portion of The Empress’ Shadow: in this segment, there are storylets that describe how you interact with students you’ve admitted to your school. I wanted to use the same storylets to describe common lessons or situations that could arise at the school, but have them narrated differently depending on which students exactly you’d admitted to your class. Using these variables allowed for a bit of extra local customization.

The other related SN feature is the ability to let the player meet a storylet requirement with a specific object of their choosing. So for instance you could say that a storylet was gated on the player having any Enlightening object, but the player could choose for themselves whether that object should be a book, a scroll, etc. In practice, this was a way for the player to choose how to pay certain costs dynamically, though it was never really developed to its full potential. It would also have been interesting if the player’s choice of unlocking object could also have affected how the storylet subsequently played out. As it is, I used this feature in The Frequently Deceased to let the player choose resources to apply to a particular problem, rather than requiring to have one and exactly one thing.

Still, these are rather late-arrival features in SN and not really designed as part of its core functionality — whereas Starfreighter uses the idea of binding to requirements as a fundamental design principle and makes more robust use of the results. This kind of tool lends itself much more naturally to systemic design: with a (relatively) small number of storylets, Starfreighter gives the player enough material to play for quite a long time. By contrast, one of the challenges with StoryNexus was always the time-to-bootstrap. Making a minimally playable experience with SN took ages because one had to create quite a number of storylets to arrive at anything remotely interesting: there’s a good reason why it’s easier to build onto an existing StoryNexus world than to get one started from scratch. Being able to make some core dynamics with highly reusable storylets would let a new creator get rolling much faster.

As another point of comparison, see also Bruno Dias’ Voyageur, which uses a lot of procedural text generation to produce imagined worlds that are richly described.

Kreminski’s article concludes that there’s space for more easy-access tools in this space, in order to promote experimentation from many artists in the same way that Twine gave rise to an explosion of hyperlink-based content.

January 05, 2019


Recent IF Archive updates

by Andrew Plotkin at January 05, 2019 08:57 PM

I took some time over the holiday to improve the IF Archive setup. This isn’t fancy stuff, but it’s worth mentioning.

First, the directory URLs no longer have capital X in them. You might remember directory URLs like That was an old hack. We’ve transitioned to sensible-looking URLs like (The old ones will still work, though!)

The Archive has been running on a Linode virtual Linux instance with 20 GB of storage. We have 14 GB of IF-related files these days, which is getting close to almost being a squeeze. So I upgraded the instance to 50 GB of storage.

(I realize that 14 GB is fishbait these days. One AAA game or one season of streamed television is larger than that. But when you’re talking about hand-crafted text adventure game files, a gigabyte is really a lot.)

I’ve also put the server on the Cloudflare caching and distribution network. Cloudflare is a popular (and cost-efficient) CDN, and plenty of web sites use it without making a big deal of it. So why do I bring it up?

Roll out the history machine…

Back in, hmm, 2000 or so, when we were first updating the IF Archive to be a web service, the Web wasn’t that big. Bandwidth came in small buckets. We had permission to host the server at CMU and rely on their network, but we didn’t want to use a lot of their network.

So we asked around for volunteers to host copies of the Archive. The mirror maintainers got permission to copy the Archive files through a private rsync channel. In return, they agreed to make those files available on their own web servers. The address was configured to redirect to a randomly-chosen mirror server. So we were able to distribute load over a bunch of servers and donated bandwidth.

This worked pretty well over the years… but not perfectly. We never really had procedures for monitoring the mirrors — making sure they stayed in sync, notifying hosts when they stopped working, finding replacements if they stayed offline.

Cloudflare now takes up the job which those volunteer mirrors handled. It’s done for money rather than love, and in that sense, it’s the end of an era for the IF Archive. But it’s not a lot of money and it works really well.

(And you can now express your love with money! Donations to IFTF help support the Archive and all our other programs.)

The most current mirror list remains visible on the IF Archive web site. It doesn’t include everyone who volunteered over the years, and it’s already out of date. We’re not going to continue updating it. Nonetheless, please take a peek and say “thank you” to everybody who has helped support Archive operations over the years. We’re grateful.

Zarf Updates

2019 IGF nominees: something notable

by Andrew Plotkin ([email protected]) at January 05, 2019 05:32 AM

The IGF finalists have been announced. It's an extremely awesome and diverse slate of games. I'm not going to try to fit them all into one post.
Today, I'm picking out games that might not have gotten a lot of attention -- but they did something narrative interesting, or clever, or just had nice writing that I want to point at.
  • A Case of Distrust
  • The Hex
  • Watch Me Jump
  • levedad
(Note: I was on the narrative jury and played free review copies of these games. Except A Case of Distrust; I bought that one earlier this year.)

A Case of Distrust

I played this several months ago. It didn't wind up on the IGF finalists list, but it was an IGF entry and it's worth a note.
It's a classic hardboiled detective schtick, nicely assembled and with a nice period setting. The writing is pretty solid; the characters, well, a lot of them are detective-schtick puzzle pieces, but the central ones hold up.
The core mechanic is confronting the right character with the right clue -- or the right two clues, put together -- to get them to confide or confess or whatever the next bit is. This probably works well for people who are good at mysteries. I am bad at mysteries, and I spent a lot of time guessing or lawnmowering to get myself unstuck. Finding the right combination by brute force does not make you feel smart; it makes you feel like you turned the page and the detective figured it out for you. But that's my usual experience of detective novels, so I can't mark off for it.
I could quibble that the narration should provide more separation between the protagonist's viewpoint (in character) and the player's viewpoint (game-oriented). You're aiming to check off "Method", "Motive", and "Opportunity", which makes sense -- but it feels weird for the protagonist to talk that way. Same with the tutorial, which is put directly in the protagonist's mouth. But this is a stylistic choice; again, no points off.
The visual style is awfully charming and evocative. My biggest complaint about the UI is that lawnmowering is slow and awkward. And yes, it feels petty to say that, but if I'm stuck then that's exactly what I'm doing, right?
Compact but satisfactory.

The Hex

In a lonely bar, six washed-up videogame protagonists gather to catch up over beers. But, drum roll, one of them is a murderer! And, another drum roll, there will be flashbacks to fill in their backstories!
This reads like high concept, but it's really a send-up, plain and simple. It's a riff on classic game genres, and then it's a riff on all those game-devs-bleed-on-the-keyboard games we played in 2015. (The Beginner's Guide, Magic Circle, Dr. Langeskov.) Plus a few stabs at recent idols like Undertale, Getting Over It, battles royale, and, okay, pretty much else that's happened in videogame history. If nothing else, it's energetic.
The characters are sketched just enough to sell the gag of "videogame characters with real lives and job angst", but they're still cartoons. You don't play it for the character writing. As for the comedy, I'd say it maintains a running smirk with a few laugh-out-loud moments.
So why play it? For the zaniness of the genre collisions as the game world(s) fall into chaos. (Not a spoiler, you knew it was going there.) The game mechanics crash together (and into the fourth wall) in genuinely clever ways. There's a lot of solid puzzle mechanics in there. Some of it is mugging with a self-lanterned "You like my new puzzle mechanic? Eh? Eh?", but you know what, I did like it.
It's an adventure game which is plausibly funny (though not in any deep way) and deeply enthusiastic about remixing its assumptions and surprising you. Not a bad combination.

Watch Me Jump

Writers often ask how to turn a static work (short story, play, film script) into an interactive work. My usual advice is: don't. If the story wasn't designed around a set of action affordances, you wind up with a choppy rhythm of long cut-scenes and shallow choices.
Watch Me Jump is a nice counterexample. I wouldn't say it disproves the rule. Rather, it deploys sharp, intense writing and a tight scope to such good effect that the minimal interactivity doesn't feel like a flaw. It helps that it's essentially all dialogue -- you can walk around in a couple of places, but this is just a variation on "I think I'll go to the {bar/gym} now." We're used to dialogue-based games having this simple choice model, and while I'm all for improving the state of the art, the old classics work if the writing holds up.
The writing does hold up. The story was originally a short theatrical script. You can absolutely imagine the lines banging back and forth between actors, up in each other's faces on stage. It's good enough that it works even in the game's low-res MSPaint-y art style and without any voice acting.
At least, it does once it gets going. The beginning of the game is the weakest point. It opens with a quiet moment in the hotel bar; none of the stakes are yet apparent. An actor on stage can sell this, but the low-fi game presentation just comes off as a boilerplate dialogue choice. You wanna flirt or be forward? You have to play a few more minutes before the hooks come out.
This isn't the sort of play that I'd typically go see -- a contemporary drama about a women's basketball star who's trying to cope with her life flying both over the moon and into the trash at the same time. But here I am playing it, and I'm glad I did.


A photographer on a rooftop. You have eighteen frames on your film roll. Take some photos.
This was really clever! After you take a couple of pictures, the rooftop environment shifts, and a bit of background storytelling begins to spill out. It's not obtrusive or overplayed; just enough to bring the experience to life. The world around you evolves, your character gains a bit of detail. The camera interface expands too -- again, just enough, and then you can experiment with that.
It's a snack-sized experience, but it does a brilliant job of expanding a tiny idea in unexpected ways. It put a smile on my face.

January 04, 2019

The Digital Antiquarian

Life on the Grid

by Jimmy Maher at January 04, 2019 05:41 PM

I’ve long been interested in the process by which new games turn into new gaming genres or sub-genres.

Most game designers know from the beginning that they will be working within the boundaries of an existing genre, whether due to their own predilections or to instructions handed down from above. A minority are brave and free enough to try something formally different from the norm, but few to none even of them, it seems safe to say, deliberately set out to create a new genre. Yet if the game they make turns into a success, it may be taken as the beginning of just that, even as — and this to me is the really fascinating part — design choices which were actually technological compromises with the Platonic ideal in the designer’s mind are taken as essential, positive parts of the final product.

A classic example of this process is a genre that’s near and dear to my heart: the text adventure. Neither of the creators of the original text adventure — they being Will Crowther and Don Woods — strikes me as a particularly literary sort. I suspect that, if they’d had the technology available to them to do it, they’d have happily made their game into a photorealistic 3D-rendered world to be explored using virtual-reality glasses. As it happened, though, all they had was a text-only screen and a keyboard connected to a time-shared DEC PDP-10. So, they made do, describing the environment in text and accepting input in the form of commands entered at the keyboard.

If we look at what happened over the ten to fifteen years following Adventure‘s arrival in 1977, we see a clear divide between practitioners of the form. Companies like Sierra saw the text-only format as exactly the technological compromise Crowther and Woods may also have seen, and ran away from it as quickly as possible. Others, however — most notably Infocom — embraced text, finding in it an expansive possibility space all its own, even running advertisements touting their lack of graphics as a virtue. The heirs to this legacy still maintain a small but vibrant ludic subculture to this day.

But it’s another, almost equally interesting example of this process that’s the real subject of our interest today: the case of the real-time grid-based dungeon crawler. After the release of Sir-Tech’s turn-based dungeon crawl Wizardry in 1981, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the ideal next step would be: a smooth-scrolling first-person 3D environment running in real time. Yet that was a tall order indeed for the hardware of the time — even for the next generation of 16-bit hardware that began to arrive in the mid-1980s, as exemplified by the Atari ST and the Commodore Amiga. So, when a tiny developer known as FTL decided the time had come to advance the state of the art over Wizardry, they compromised by going to real time but holding onto a discrete grid of locations inside the dungeon of Dungeon Master.

Gamers of today have come to refer to dungeon crawls on a grid as “blobbers,” which is as good a term as any. (The term arises from the way that these games typically “blob” together a party of four or six characters, moving them in lockstep and giving the player a single first-person — first-people? — view of the world.) The Dungeon Master lineage, then, are “real-time blobbers.”

By whatever name, this intermediate step between Wizardry and the free-scrolling ideal came equipped with its own unique set of gameplay affordances. Retaining the grid allowed you to do things that you simply couldn’t otherwise. For one thing, it allowed a game to combine the exciting immediacy of real time with what remains for some of us one of the foremost pleasures of the earlier, Wizardry style of dungeon crawl: the weirdly satisfying process of making your own maps — of slowly filling in the blank spaces on your graph paper, bringing order and understanding to what used to be the chaotic unknown.

This advertisement for the popular turn-based dungeon crawl Might and Magic makes abundantly clear how essential map-making was to the experience of these games. “Even more cartography than the bestselling fantasy game!” What a sales pitch…

But even if you weren’t among the apparent minority who enjoyed that sort of thing, the grid had its advantages, the most significant of which is implied by the very name of “blobber.” It was easy and natural in these games to control a whole party of characters moving in lockstep from square to square, thus retaining another of the foremost pleasures of turn-based games like Wizardry: that of building up not just a single character but a balanced team of them. In a free-scrolling, free-moving game, with its much more precise sense of embodied positioning, such a conceit would have been impossible to maintain. And much of the emergent interactivity of Dungeon Master‘s environment would also have been impossible without the grid. Many of us still recall the eureka moment when we realized that we could kill monsters by luring them into a gate square and pushing a button to bash them on the heads with the thing as it tried to descend, over and over again. Without the neat order of the grid, where a gate occupying a square fills all of that square as it descends, there could have been no eureka.

So, within a couple of years of Dungeon Master‘s release in 1987, the real-time blobber was establishing itself in a positive way, as its own own sub-genre with its own personality, rather than the unsatisfactory compromise it may first have seemed. Today, I’d like to do a quick survey of this popular if fairly brief-lived style of game. We can’t hope to cover all of the real-time blobbers, but we can hit the most interesting highlights.

Bloodwych running in its unique two-player mode.

Most of the games that followed Dungeon Master rely on one or two gimmicks to separate themselves from their illustrious ancestor, while keeping almost everything else the same. Certainly this rule applied to the first big title of the post-Dungeon Master blobber generation, 1989’s Bloodwych. It copies from FTL’s game not only the real-time approach but also its innovative rune-based magic system, and even the conceit of the player selecting her party from a diverse group of heroes who have been frozen in amber. By way of completing the facsimile, Bloodwych eventually got a much more difficult expansion disk, similar to Dungeon Master‘s famously difficult Chaos Strikes Back.

The unique gimmick here is the possibility for two players to play together on the same machine, either cooperatively or competitively, as they choose. A second innovation of sorts is the fact that, in addition to the usual Amiga and Atari ST versions, Bloodwych was also made for the Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, and Sinclair Spectrum, much more limited 8-bit computers which still owned a substantial chunk of the European market in 1989.

Bloodwych was the work of a two-man team, one handling the programming, the other the graphics. The programmer, one Anthony Taglioni, tells an origin story that’s exactly what you’d expect it to be:

Dungeon Master appeared on the ST and what a product it was! Three weeks later we’d played it to death, even taking just a party of short people. My own record is twelve hours with just two characters. I was talking with Mirrorsoft at the time and suggested that I could do a DM conversion for them on the C64. They ummed and arred a lot and Pete [the artist] carried on drawing screens until they finally said, “Yes!” and I said, “No! We’ve got a better design and it’ll be two-player-simultaneous.” They said, “Okay, but we want ST and Amiga as well.”

The two-player mode really is remarkable, especially considering that it works even on the lowly 8-bit systems. The screen is split horizontally, and both parties can roam about the dungeon freely in real time, even fighting one another if the players in control wish it. “An option allowing two players to connect via modem could only have boosted the game’s popularity,” noted Wizardry‘s designer Andrew Greenberg in 1992, in a review of the belated Stateside MS-DOS release. But playing Bloodwych in-person with a friend had to be if anything even more fun.

Unfortunately, the game has little beyond its two-player mode and wider platform availability to recommend it over Dungeon Master. Ironically, many of its problems are down to the need to accommodate the two-player mode. In single-player mode, the display fills barely half of the available screen real estate, meaning that everything is smaller and harder to manipulate than in Dungeon Master. The dungeon design as well, while not being as punishing as some later entries in this field, is nowhere near as clever or creative as that of Dungeon Master, lacking the older game’s gradual, elegant progression in difficulty and complexity. As would soon become all too typical of the sub-genre, Bloodwych offered more levels — some forty of them in all, in contrast to Dungeon Master‘s twelve — in lieu of better ones.

So, played today, Bloodwych doesn’t really have a lot to offer. It was doubtless a more attractive proposition in its own time, when games were expensive and length was taken by many cash-strapped teenage gamers as a virtue unto itself. And of course the multiplayer mode was its wild card; it almost couldn’t help but be fun, at least in the short term. By capitalizing on that unique attribute and the fact that it was the first game out there able to satiate eager fans of Dungeon Master looking for more, Bloodwych did quite well for its publisher.

Captive has the familiar “paper doll” interface of Dungeon Master, but you’re controlling robots here. The five screens along the top will eventually be used for various kinds of telemetry and surveillance as you acquire new capabilities.

The sub-genre’s biggest hit of 1990 — albeit once again only in Europe — evinced more creativity in many respects than Bloodwych, even if its primary claim to fame once again came down to sheer length. Moving the action from a fantasy world into outer space, Captive is a mashup of Dungeon Master and Infocom’s Suspended, if you can imagine such a thing. As a prisoner accused of a crime he didn’t commit, you must free yourself from your cell using four robots which you control remotely. Unsurprisingly, the high-tech complexes they’ll need to explore bear many similarities to a fantasy dungeon.

The programmer, artist, and designer behind Captive was a lone-wolf Briton named Tony Crowther, who had cranked out almost thirty simple games for 8-bit computers before starting on this one, his first for the Amiga and Atari ST. Crowther created the entire game all by himself in about fourteen months, an impressive achievement by any standard.

More so even than for its setting and premise, Captive stands out for its reliance on procedurally-generated “dungeons.” In other words, it doesn’t even try to compete with Dungeon Master‘s masterful level design, but rather goes a different way completely. Each level is generated by the computer on the fly from a single seed number in about three seconds, meaning there’s no need to store any of the levels on disk. After completing the game the first time, the player is given the option of doing it all over again with a new and presumably more difficult set of complexes to explore. This can continue virtually indefinitely; the level generator can produce 65,535 unique levels in all. That should be enough, announced a proud Crowther, to keep someone playing his game for fifty years by his reckoning: “I wanted to create a role-playing game you wouldn’t get bored of — a game that never ends, so you can feasibly play it for years and years.”

Procedural generation tended to be particularly appealing to European developers like Tony Crowther, who worked in smaller groups with tighter budgets than their American counterparts, and whose target platforms generally lacked the hard drives that had become commonplace on American MS-DOS machines by 1990. Yet it’s never been a technique which I find very appealing as anything but a preliminary template generator for a human designer. In Captive as in most games that rely entirely on procedural generation, the process yields an endless progression of soulless levels which all too obviously lack the human touch of those found in a game like Dungeon Master. In our modern era, when brilliant games abound and can often be had for a song, there’s little reason to favor a game with near-infinite amounts of mediocre content over a shorter but more concentrated experience. In Captive‘s day, of course, the situation was very different, making it just one more example of an old game that was, for one reason or another, far more appealing in its own day than it is in ours.

This is the screen you’ll see most in Knightmare.

Tony Crowther followed up Captive some eighteen months later with Knightmare, a game based on a children’s reality show of sorts which ran on Britain’s ITV network from 1987 until 1994. The source material is actually far more interesting than this boxed-computer-game derivative. In an early nod toward embodied virtual reality, a team of four children were immersed in a computer-generated dungeon and tasked with finding their way out. It’s an intriguing cultural artifact of Britain’s early fascination with computers and the games they played, well worth a gander on YouTube.

The computer game of Knightmare, however, is less intriguing. Using the Captive engine, but featuring hand-crafted rather than procedurally-generated content this time around, it actually hews far closer to the Dungeon Master template than its predecessor. Indeed, like so many of its peers, it slavishly copies almost every aspect of its inspiration without managing to be quite as good — much less better — at any of it. This lineage has always had a reputation for difficulty, but Knightmare pushes that to the ragged edge, in terms of both its ridiculously convoluted environmental puzzles and the overpowered monsters you constantly face. Even the laddish staff of Amiga Format magazine, hardly a bastion of thoughtful design analyses, acknowledged that it “teeters on unplayably tough.” And even the modern blogger known as the CRPG Addict, whose name ought to say it all about his skill with these types of games, “questions whether it’s possible to win it without hints.”

Solo productions like this one, created in a vacuum, with little to no play-testing except by a designer who’s intimately familiar with every aspect of his game’s systems, often wound up getting the difficulty balance markedly wrong. Yet Knightmare is an extreme case even by the standards of that breed. If Dungeon Master is an extended explication of the benefits of careful level design, complete with lots of iterative feedback from real players, this game is a cautionary tale about the opposite extreme. While it was apparently successful in its day, there’s no reason for anyone who isn’t a masochist to revisit it in ours.

Eye of the Beholder‘s dependence on Dungeon Master is, as the CRPG Addict puts it, “so stark that you wonder why there weren’t lawsuits involved.” What it does bring new to the table is a whole lot more story and lore. Multi-page story dumps like this one practically contain more text than the entirety of Dungeon Master.

None of the three games I’ve just described was available in North America prior to 1992. Dungeon Master, having been created by an American developer, was for sale there, but only for the Amiga, Atari ST, and Apple IIGS, computers whose installed base in the country had never been overly large and whose star there dwindled rapidly after 1989. Thus the style of gameplay that Dungeon Master had introduced was either completely unknown or, at best, only vaguely known by most American gamers — this even as real-time blobbers had become a veritable gaming craze in Europe. But there was no reason to believe that American gamers wouldn’t take to them with the same enthusiasm as their European counterparts if they were only given the chance. There was simply a shortage of supply — and this, as any good capitalist knows, spells Opportunity.

The studio which finally walked through this open door is one I recently profiled in some detail: Westwood Associates. With a long background in real-time games already behind them, they were well-positioned to bring the real-time dungeon crawl to the American masses. Even better, thanks to a long-established relationship with the publisher SSI, they got the opportunity to do so under the biggest license in CRPGs, that of Dungeons & Dragons itself. With its larger development team and American-sized budget for art and sound, everything about Eye of the Beholder screamed hit, and upon its release in March of 1991 — more than half a year before Knightmare, actually — it didn’t disappoint.

It really is an impressive outing in many ways, the first example of its sub-genre that I can honestly imagine someone preferring to Dungeon Master. Granted, Westwood’s game lacks Dungeon Master‘s elegance: the turn-based Dungeons & Dragons rules are rather awkwardly kludged into real time; the environments still aren’t as organically interactive (amazingly, none of the heirs to Dungeon Master would ever quite live up to its example in this area); the controls can be a bit clumsy; the level design is nowhere near as fiendishly creative. But on the other hand, the level design isn’t pointlessly hard either, and the game is, literally and figuratively, a more colorful experience. In addition to the better graphics and sound, there’s far more story, steeped in the lore of the popular Dungeons & Dragons Forgotten Realms campaign setting. Personally, I still prefer Dungeon Master‘s minimalist aesthetic, as I do its cleaner rules set and superior level design. But then, I have no personal investment in the Forgotten Realms (or, for that matter, in elaborate fantasy world-building in general). Your mileage may vary.

Whatever my or your opinion of it today, Eye of the Beholder hit American gamers like a revelation back in the day, and Europe too got to join the fun via a Westwood-developed Amiga port which shipped there within a few months of the MS-DOS original’s American debut. It topped sales charts in both places, becoming the first game of its type to actually outsell Dungeon Master. In fact, it became almost certainly the best-selling single example of a real-time blobber ever; between North America and Europe, total sales likely reached 250,000 copies or more, huge numbers at a time when 100,000 copies was the line that marked a major hit.

Following the success of Eye of the Beholder, the dam well and truly burst in the United States. Before the end of 1991, Westwood had cranked out an Eye of the Beholder II, which is larger and somewhat more difficult than its predecessor, but otherwise shares the same strengths and weaknesses. In 1993, their publisher SSI took over to make an Eye of the Beholder III in-house; it’s generally less well-thought-of than the first two games. Meanwhile Bloodwych and Captive got MS-DOS ports and arrived Stateside. Even FTL, whose attitude toward making new products can most generously be described as “relaxed,” finally managed to complete and release their long-rumored MS-DOS port of Dungeon Master — whereupon its dated graphics were, predictably if a little unfairly, compared unfavorably with the more spectacular audiovisuals of Eye of the Beholder in the American gaming press.

Black Crypt‘s auto-map.

Another, somewhat more obscure title from this peak of the real-time blobber’s popularity was early 1992’s Black Crypt, the very first game from the American studio Raven Software, who would go on to a long and productive life. (As of this writing, they’re still active, having spent the last eight years or so making new entries in the Call of Duty franchise.) Although created by an American developer and published by the American Electronic Arts, one has to assume that Black Crypt was aimed primarily at European players, as it was made available only for the Amiga. Even in Europe, however, it failed to garner much attention in an increasingly saturated market; it looked a little better than Dungeon Master but not as good as Eye of the Beholder, and otherwise failed to stand out from the pack in terms of level design, interface, or mechanics.

With, that is, one exception. For the first time, Black Crypt added an auto-map to the formula. Unfortunately, it was needlessly painful to access, being available only through a mana-draining wizard’s spell. Soon, though, Westwood would take up and perfect Raven’s innovation, as the real-time blobber entered the final phase of its existence as a gaming staple.

Black Crypt may have been the first real-time blobber with an auto-map, but Lands of Lore perfected the concept. Like every other aspect of the game, the auto-map here looks pretty spectacular.

Released in late 1993, Westwood’s Lands of Lore: The Throne of Chaos was an attempt to drag the now long-established real-time-blobber format into the multimedia age, while also transforming it into a more streamlined and accessible experience. It comes very, very close to realizing its ambitions, but is let down a bit by some poor design choices as it wears on.

Having gone their separate ways from SSI and from the strictures of the Dungeons & Dragons license, Westwood got to enjoy at last the same freedom which had spawned the easy elegance of Dungeon Master; they were free to, as Westwood’s Louis Castle would later put it, create cleaner rules that “worked within the context of a digital environment,” making extensive use of higher-math functions that could never have been implemented in a tabletop game. These designers, however, took their newfound freedom in a very different direction from the hardcore logistical and tactical challenge that was FTL’s game. “We’re trying to make our games more accessible to everybody,” said Westwood’s Brett Sperry at the time, “and we feel that the game consoles offer a clue as to where we should go in terms of interface. You don’t really have to read a manual for a lot of games, the entertainment and enjoyment is immediate.”

Lands of Lore places you in control of just two or three characters at a time, who come in and out of your party as the fairly linear story line dictates. The magic system is similarly condensed down to just seven spells. In place of the tactical maneuvering and environmental exploitation that marks combat within the more interactive dungeons of Dungeon Master is a simple but satisfying rock-paper-scissors approach: monsters are more or less vulnerable to different sorts of attacks, requiring you adjust your spells and equipment accordingly. And, most tellingly of all, an auto-map is always at your fingertips, even automatically annotating hidden switches and secret doors you might have overlooked in the first-person view.

Whether all of this results in a game that’s better than Dungeon Master is very much — if you’ll excuse the pun! — in the eye of the beholder. The auto-map alone changes the personality of the game almost enough to make it feel like the beginning of a different sub-genre entirely. Yet Lands of Lore has an undeniable charm all its own as a less taxing, more light-hearted sort of fantasy romp.

One thing at least is certain: at the time of its release, Lands of Lore was by far the most attractive blobber the world had yet seen. Abandoning the stilted medieval conceits of most CRPGs, its atmosphere is more fairy tale than Tolkien, full of bright cartoon-like tableaux rendered by veteran Hanna-Barbera and Disney animators. The music and voice acting in the CD-ROM version are superb, with none other than Patrick Stewart of Star Trek: The Next Generation fame acting as narrator.

Sadly, though, the charm does begin to evaporate somewhat as the game wears on. There’s an infamous one-level difficulty spike in the mid-game that’s all but guaranteed to run off the very newbies and casual players Westwood was trying to attract. Worse, the last 25 percent or so is clearly unfinished, a tedious slog through empty corridors with nothing of interest beyond hordes of overpowered monsters. When you get near the end and the game suddenly takes away the auto-map you’ve been relying on, you’re left wondering how the designers could have so completely lost all sense of the game they started out making. More so than any of the other games I’ve written about today, Lands of Lore: The Throne of Chaos, despite enjoying considerable commercial success which would lead to two sequels, feels like a missed opportunity.

Real-time blobbers would continue to appear for a couple more years after Lands of Lore. The last remotely notable examples are two 1995 releases: FTL’s ridiculously belated and rather unimaginative Dungeon Master II, which was widely and justifiably panned by reviewers; and Interplay’s years-in-the-making Stonekeep, which briefly dazzled some reviewers with such extraneous bells and whistles as an introductory cinematic that by at least one employee’s account cost ten times as much as the underwhelming game behind it. (If any other anecdote more cogently illustrates the sheer madness of the industry’s drunk-on-CD-ROM “interactive movie” period, I don’t know what it is.) Needless to say, neither game outdoes the original Dungeon Master where it counts.

At this point, then, we have to confront the place where the example I used in opening this article — that of interactive fiction and its urtext of Adventure — begins to break down when applied to the real-time blobber. Adventure, whatever its own merits, really was the launching pad for a whole universe of possibilities involving parsers and text. But the real-time blobber never did manage to transcend its own urtext, as is illustrated by the long shadow the latter has cast over this very article. None of the real-time blobbers that came after Dungeon Master was clearly better than it; arguably, none was ever quite as good. Why should this be?

Any answer to that question must, first of all, pay due homage to just how fully-realized Dungeon Master was as a game system, as well as to how tight its level designs were. It presented everyone who tried to follow it with one heck of a high bar to clear. Beyond that obvious fact, though, we must also consider the nature of the comparison with the text adventure, which at the end of the day is something of an apples-and-oranges proposition. The real-time blobber is a more strictly demarcated category than the text adventure; this is why we tend to talk about real-time blobbers as a sub-genre and text adventures as a genre. Perhaps there’s only so much you can do with wandering through grid-based dungeons, making maps, solving mechanical puzzles, and killing monsters. And perhaps Dungeon Master had already done it all about as well as it could be done, making everything that came after superfluous to all but the fanatics and the completists.

And why, you ask, had game developers largely stopped even trying to better Dungeon Master by the middle of the 1990s?1 As it happens, there’s no mystery whatsoever about why the real-time blobber — or, for that matter, the blobber in general — disappeared from the marketplace. Even as the format was at its absolute peak of popularity in 1992, with Westwood’s Eye of the Beholder games selling like crazy and everything else rushing onto the bandwagon, an unassuming little outfit known as Blue Sky Productions gave notice to anyone who might have been paying attention that the blobber’s days were already numbered. This they did by taking a dungeon crawl off the grid. After that escalation in the gaming arms race, there was nothing for it but to finish whatever games in the old style were still in production and find a way to start making games in the new. Next time, then, we’ll turn our attention to the great leap forward that was Ultima Underworld.

(Sources: Computer Gaming World of April 1987, February 1991, June 1991, February 1992, March 1992, April 1992, November 1992, August 1993, November 1993, October 1994, October 1995, and February 1996; Amiga Format of December 1989, February 1992, March 1992, and May 1992; Questbusters of May 1991, March 1992, and December 1993; SynTax 22; The One of October 1990, August 1991, February 1992, October 1992, and February 1994. Online sources include Louis Castle’s interview for Soren Johnson’s Designer Notes podcast and Matt Barton’s interview with Peter Oliphant. Devotees of this sub-genre should also check out The CRPG Addict’s much more detailed takes on Bloodwych, Captive, Knightmare, Eye of the Beholder, Eye of the Beholder II, and Black Crypt.

The most playable of the games I’ve written about today, the Eye of the Beholder series and Lands of Lore: The Throne of Chaos, are available for purchase on

  1. If one takes the really long view, they didn’t, at least not forever. In 2012, as part of the general retro-revival that has resurrected any number of dead sub-genres over the past decade, a studio known as Almost Human released Legend of Grimrock, the first significant commercial game of this type to be seen in many years. It got positive reviews, and sold well enough to spawn a sequel in 2014. I’m afraid I haven’t played either of them, and so can’t speak to the question of whether either or both of them finally managed the elusive trick of outdoing Dungeon Master

January 02, 2019

Classic Adventure Solution Archive

CASA Update - 41 new game entries, 26 new solutions, 3 new puzzle charts, 20 new maps, 3 new hints, 1 new fixed game, 1 new clue sheet

by Gunness at January 02, 2019 11:09 AM

A planned Christmas update turned into a planned New Year's update which in turn led to this first update of 2019. 2018 saw a lot of activity on the site, and as always I'd like to extend my thanks to each and every one of you, whether you're an active contributor or simply use CASA as a site for reference and inspiration.

The year ended on a slightly dissonant note, as users in the forum didn't quite agree on which path the site should take in the future. The site grew out of my interest in the 8-bit scene, which should be fairly obvious if you browse through the games we cover and the people we've talked to over the years. But there's also been an extensive development in adventure gaming since Inform entered the scene some 25 years ago. I'd prefer to cater to our core audience whilst acknowledging that adventure games have continued to evolve since the decline of the 8-bit era. Judging from the debate, it's obvious to me that I need to tread carefully.

This subject nicely ties into the fact that in a short while, CASA will celebrate its 20th anniversary. Where we've come in 20 years and where we'll want to go from here is certainly food for thought.

Happy New Year and happy gaming in 2019!

Contributors: Alex, Garry, Quantum, Payndz, Gunness, ahope1, leenew, fuzzel, auraes, terri, impomatic, stevenjameshodgson, jdyer, iamaran, Alastair, Dorothy, Strident

January 01, 2019

Emily Short

Write Characters Your Readers Won’t Forget (Stant Litore)

by Emily Short at January 01, 2019 01:40 PM

Characters.jpgWrite Characters Your Readers Won’t Forget is actually the first in Stant Litore’s writing series, though I looked at the one on worldbuilding first. It is even slimmer — about a hundred pages in a relatively small-format paperback — and makes for a fast read.

Though very different in form, shape, and style, it reminded me a bit of Lajos Egri’s approach. Litore asks us first about our character’s core strength, a characteristic that will enable them to face down some difficult situation and overcome it. Everything else — both their problems and the solutions to those problems — flow from that strength; just as in Egri’s view of drama, every situation and characterization has to flow from demonstrating the narrative premise.

As in Write Worlds Your Readers Won’t Forget, Litore provides a series of linked exercises for the reader, focused on brainstorming outward from these issues. After the initial task of looking at core strengths, he goes on to build up the reader’s skill in observation. There are exercises on noticing and recording physical sensations associated with emotion, and on developing dialogue style. Ultimately, Litore covers some of the same territory you might see in a more checklist-like approach to building a character bible, but the way he develops the priorities is important. It starts with the things that are likely to matter the most in creating a compelling story, and then allows the details to hang from those.

Some of the exercises here suggest that you talk to another writer or show your work to a critical reader, so they may be easiest to perform, at least in their unedited form, in a writing workshop. And, of course, as with the previous book, none of this is really designed with specifically games writing in mind at all — but the exercises can be applicable in a similar way.

At one or two points, Litore suggests some exercise that I think has obvious applications across to games. His Exercise 26 is about writing and rewriting the same important scene, from the perspective of different participants in the story, until you have enough information and enough nuance to do a good final cut. He doesn’t anticipate that you’ll actually use those earlier examples: those are just exploratory. But interactive stories often do allow the reader to experience them from multiple angles or with multiple perspectives — so it’s possible for all of those pieces to come to bear simultaneously. (That is actually one of my favorite things about writing for interactivity, the ability to embed multiple dimensions of character meaning or thematic significance into the same scene depending on how the player approaches it.)

This is a very lean and effective book, explaining lean and effective techniques. Each chapter suggests methods and skills that could take weeks to exercise and months or years to master — but that’s fine. There’s very little waste either in the length of the book or in the practices Litore recommends.

December 29, 2018

Zarf Updates

"And tomorrow will be beyond imagining."

by Andrew Plotkin ([email protected]) at December 29, 2018 04:24 AM

I took some of my holiday time to re-read The Dark is Rising. It's still good. Shorter than I remember.
Prompted by nothing but the season, I began to wonder: what sort of game might be made of this book?
It must be twenty years since I last read through The Dark is Rising. It was written in 1973, long before fantasy -- much less children's fantasy -- became the battle-hardened marketing category we know today. The devouring gyre of media resurrection has almost entirely overlooked it. (The 2007 movie was reviled by absolutely everybody, as far as I can tell, and vanished in a knot of shame.)
So perhaps nobody has even considered the idea of transforming the story into interactive form.
In some senses, the book is ideal. Young Will Stanton is sent on a quest to find six magical Signs to hold back the Dark. It's the original "collect the plot coupons" story, the very first as best I can tell. (Tolkien had his rings and jewels, the Pevensies their Christmas presents; but it was Susan Cooper who set up entire books around hunting the damn things down. I love them, I love them, but.)
Equally, it's an absurd and unworkable concept. Will Stanton isn't a fighter or a leader or a riddle-solver. He doesn't do game stuff. He acquires magical powers, but not in the well-charted struggle of a student. The magic of the Old Ones is inconceivable. It's the stuff of miracles, and Will gains it entire as his birthright. Yes, he reads a book -- once through, zero to Merlin in a night. After that he isn't human.
(Harry Potter's magic was more than game mechanics, but it could be reduced to game mechanics without much difficulty. Alohomora the door!)
So, we put aside the idea of easily-grasped "light" and "shield" and "open" spells scattered in pages of Gramarye around the English countryside. That's never going to fit the story.
What is The Dark is Rising? Yuletide. Snow. Time out of mind and places out of the world. The vast powers of the Light and the Dark, locked against each other by unspoken rules and rituals. The Great Game at cosmic scale: one misstep will crack the mundane world apart. Will's successes are all doing the right thing at the right time. His failures are of impatience, overstepping a rule, being baited into reacting... thinking as a mortal rather than as an Old One.
You can put those choices into a game. Elements of the environment have a glow, or an audio cue (music!), and that's how the player knows the right thing to do. Pick up a candle, put it in the candalabrum. Press the secret catch in the mantelpiece. You can guide the player through these moments.
You can't build the game around those moments, though. They're player interactions but not player choices. They don't reflect the most crucial junctures of the story, either. Will stands in the great hall, listening to his mother's voice cry outside the door, while his guides say "It's a trap, idiot." Rush to the rescue or stand firm? You check the walkthrough, just to make sure, and then wait dumbly for the scene to end. Continue to follow the bouncing ball through the rest of the plot. Doesn't work.
Let's go back to the idea of acting as an ancient magical being, versus acting as an eleven-year-old boy. The book circles repeatedly around this question. Will chooses to erase his brother's memory of the Dark besieging the church. Therefore, when they find the Walker in the snow, Will cannot warn his family against him. ("Of course, you can't remember, can you?") Will chooses to mock his brother (rather cruelly) to send an (unneeded) warning to Farmer Dawson. Will is repeatedly confronted with threats to his family -- his mother in seeming, and then later in reality. His household when the Rider walks in the front door. At the climax, his sister is held hostage. "But you know what I shall do?" asks the Rider, and Will denies him regardless.
And of course Hawkin, who is this choice in flesh. Who is the crumpled mirror of Will and his mundane relatives both at once. Hawkin, the mortal whom the Old Ones treated as a mortal, and who broke beneath that treatment.
(IMDB says the 2007 movie omitted Hawkin entirely. I can't even imagine.)
So what can we do with this? Make this the central choice of the game -- human life or immortal? -- and make it a free choice that matters.
The book contains this: power draws its opposite. When Will plays with fire, the Dark can find him. On the bank of the Thames, "...because the Rider was abroad, Merriman was near by again too." We can build plot variations on this foundation. Every action or refusal to act will move the plot forward.
At the very beginning, when Will meets the white mare, he decides not to ride her. Or perhaps he chooses to, and then the Rider may come at him with more strength. The mare will still save him, but not in the same way. Later, at home, Will chooses not to exert his strength against the Rider; or perhaps he does, and then the Rider may fight him, to the peril of the unknowing mortals. Either way, the Rider leaves with an advantage; but it doesn't have to be the same advantage.
In the great hall, Will hears his mother crying out. Say this is a real choice. Connect it to the end of the book, when his mother falls off a ladder -- to no very great consequence, in the text. Maybe Will could have prevented it. (Time is fluid to the Old Ones.) If he doesn't try, if he holds his ground, his mother is seriously hurt. If he does try, the Lady must spend herself -- as in the book. That's a choice. It can influence the storyline.
This is a Choice-of-Games story model. Some visual novels are also built this way. It's a chain of scenes with consequences, which might engender variations, but which don't entirely derail the plot. (We will still seek six Signs, and in the same order. Iron for the birthday, water from the thaw, you can't rearrange winter.)
The choices are all about the same thing; they are a long cumulative choice; a stat-based narrative. Will can ignore his family's concerns and throw himself into the work of the Light. Or he can set himself to defend his humanity at every turn. The book can't offer this option; but our game model could.
And then, all through the story, Hawkin. Allow the lost mortal to reflect Will's choices. Hawkin's liege is Will's mentor, after all. If Will chooses his family over magic, he is taking Hawkin's side against Merriman, in a sense. Is Hawkin now more liable to turn back to the Light? Or to betray the Dark and go his own way, perhaps? The story can still end; the Signs are joined and the Dark harried, either way. But we may consider our options, and Will's.
(Hawkin's betrayal "will mould the whole course of your quest, young Will," we are told. This too is an avenue for variation. If Hawkin's choices in the past matter, the story must adapt, scene by scene. Paradox is always worth a look. The book is most itself when Time opens to admit the Other, when Merriman narrates his own future in wry acceptance. Sapphire and Steel would feel at home, I think.)
There is a great deal of story design in what I've described, of course. I make it sound simple, but there are many branches to chart out, most of which Susan Cooper never imagined.
I don't intend to write this game. This is a design exercise. The nights are long and dark and invite contemplation. It's been pleasant to revisit Stantons' Farm, regardless.


Choice-Based Adventuron (CBA)

by Chris Ainsley ([email protected]) at December 29, 2018 03:16 AM

Gamebook Mode

The graphic in this demo is the kitchen from "Bonnie the Bonnie dog" tuturial adventure (bundled with Adventuron).


Adventuron was originally envisaged as a gamebook / choice-based IF engine but it seemed like it was a better idea to start with the more complex problem first.

Thus, the first release of Adventuron was a parser-based release, but from the earliest release it had a hidden "game_type" flag embedded - not that it did anything but complain at a missing implementation.

In hindsight, with the popularity of systems such as popular choice-based IF systems, that it was perhaps not the wisest of decisions to focus on the lesser-loved parser-based text-adventure side of things.

Even though perhaps it wasn't the right move, I am extremely happy with how things have turned out, and to have fulfilled one of my life-goals in the process in delivering the remaster of The Beast hosted in my own engine. And I also think that there are more innovations to come in the field of parser-based text-adventures.

The crunch period leading up to The Beast (30th Anniversary Edition) led to me refining the list selection widgets, and with those widgets developed, it was finally time to focus on writing the gamebook event loop (which is now working).

Outstanding Tasks

Even though the gamebook mode is working, there remains a large set of housekeeping tasks that I would like to take care of prior to release.

It's no good if it works but is a pain to program, so I'll be working on reducing the amount of typing necessary in the normal flow of coding.

The markup notation must also be able to serve all different modes, and to embed lots of different classes of information. There are additional UI components to develop (such as status screen(s)).

There are also plans to integrate a conversation system.

Choice Based IF Criticisms (versus parser based IF)

The skills required to develop an engaging gamebook style adventure are completely different to the skills required to develop a fun text adventure.

At the low end, it's possible to develop games where to win the game all you have to do is exhaust every option.

Really good IF doesn't involve sitting in a location, and being able to select every option. The plot should move forward from each choice and the story should be dynamic based on prior choices.

This style of choice based IF is very different to the typical 8-bit text adventure style of games that has been the bread-and-butter of Adventuron, but I believe a well designed game, will stand on its own two feet as a compelling experience.

My hope is that good games will rise to the top (I don't represent any of the two tech demo videos shown here as GOOD choice-based IF).

Why Choose Adventuron for Choice-Based IF?

Adventuron has a lot of features not typically seen in choice based IF systems, which, if used creatively, could make stories a lot more dynamic and engaging.

Adventuron is good at some things, less good at other things, but if it suits your design - give it a go. Adventuron is just another choice.

When is it available?

The public release of Adventuron 1.0 will be available in Q1 of 2019. If you want to try out the private beta in the meantime, please follow @adventur_on on twitter and drop me a DM.

Social Media

Facebook Page : Adventuron
Twitter : @adventur_on

December 28, 2018

Choice of Games

New Hosted Game! Life of a Mercenary by Philip Kempton

by Rachel E. Towers at December 28, 2018 07:41 PM

Hosted Games has a new game for you to play!

Lead a mercenary company seeking fame and fortune. Be honorable and help defend the kingdom or take contracts to those who pay the most. Rise to the top of the mercenary chain in this medieval story based around the events of The Great Tournament. It’s 25% off until January 4th!

Life of a Mercenary is a 338,000 word interactive fantasy novel by Philip Kempton, where your choices control the story. It’s entirely text-based—without graphics or sound effects—and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination.

• Play as male or female mercenary.
• An open world adventure taking place in a medieval setting.
• Unique combat and leveling system makes every game unique.
• Multiple story lines, hidden quests, and endings.
• Checkpoint system allows you to save your progress and restore to a previous point
• Choose to be an honorable or fight for whoever pays the most gold.
• Participate in war campaigns helping other nations fight off enemies.

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


Lessons Learned from Running an Open-Source Textbook for a Year

by Dan Cox at December 28, 2018 05:00 AM

Hi, I’m Dan Cox. I’ve been creating tutorials, videos, and other guides for Twine for over six years. I’m also the managing editor of the Twine Cookbook project.

Soon after joining the Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation’s Twine committee last year, I started talking with other members about wanting to collect examples of Twine code into a central place. I learned that there had already been a proposal to create a Twine Cookbook along the lines of the Inform Recipe Book or Ren’Py Cookbook. The proposal was similar to what I was thinking of, but also involved covering many of the common problems in Twine.

After discussing different ways it might be done, Chris Klimas proposed looking into using GitBook as the format and to host it on GitHub. Iterating through different possible designs and layouts, we settled on grouping by topic the solutions for each story format that is built into Twine. After starting with over a dozen initial entries, we planned to have rolling updates every few months where parts could be updated and new examples added as needed.

As of late 2018, we are celebrating our first full year of running the Twine Cookbook. It is officially at version 1.0, but the current version represents multiple updates by a half-dozen contributors and hundreds of hours of work in creating and maintaining different topic areas across now over 130 pages of content.


I often use the terms “running” and “managing” to describe my role with the Twine Cookbook. I set its rolling deadlines and try very hard to meet them. I do a full editing pass on all content, and I often prompt or ask other people to contribute code, documentation, and their ideas for how to improve it. The content itself has come from many different regular contributors like Greyelf, Chris Klimas, and Thomas Michael Edwards who provide their own feedback on its content and how it might be improved.

1) Open means open.

As an editor on the Twine Cookbook, I try to be transparent about its changes, deadlines, and how I handle code commits. Everything is done in the open, and that means that anyone can propose any changes to any section. Those suggestions are still filtered through other users, and I ultimately make a decision about how feedback is included, but the openness of the Twine Cookbook means that we listen to everyone.

2) Compromise.

While listening to feedback from different sources can be helpful, balancing that feedback against present and future content demands is another important challenge. As an editor, I have to remind myself that I cannot make everyone happy—including myself. Often, I will want to keep picking at entries to try to make things as perfect as possible. Others, I know, will often propose solutions that are more efficient or optimized for certain problems.

All of these, including my own opinions, have to be balanced against the overall needs of the project. While I am “running” the project, I am highly open to what others tell me and how they would approach different topics. I don’t always use their feedback, but I always try to listen to both what they are telling me and what theme or message might be behind it. Solving these problems is as much a part of being an editor as trying to clean up code and fix punctuation.

3) Don’t try to cover everything.

Early on in the Twine Cookbook project, the committee had conversations about what should—and should not—be in the Cookbook. These conversations revolved around what were considered common solutions on the one hand, and not trying to include hundreds of lines of code on the other. In the end, we reached a compromise that examples would go into the Cookbook as long as they were to solutions to frequent problems and were something someone would think to find in the book. Then, of course, people stated asking for more complex and advanced examples.

One of the constant struggles of writing tutorials and documentation for Twine—and this comes from doing this for years now—is that what many consider “simple,” just as many do not. The general assumption of the Twine Cookbook is that anyone reading an entry does not have advanced knowledge of CSS and JavaScript. They are looking for a solution or inspiration for a future project. They might not know what functionality does, or even that it exists at all.

At the same time, there is a strong pull to try to cover many of the things that browsers can do that Twine can support through JavaScript. The general reply I give when people ask what Twine can do is “anything a web browser can do,” which to an extent is true. As long as it is supported in JavaScript, Twine can do it. However, that does not mean that advanced functionality like gamepad support and virtual reality that have APIs in modern web browsers need Twine Cookbook entries. While people can use those in their projects, not that many Twine users would be interested, and other libraries exist to simplify many of the issues that would bloat the Cookbook to explain in detail, such as cross-browser support and differences in API.

4) Be open to change.

While being open and willing to compromise may seem to cover many of the challenges of being an editor for an open-source project, one of the most important lessons to learn is to be open to change. Finding a compromise can be important, but so is a willingness to change previously-established rules.

When the Cookbook first started, there was an unwritten rule that every topic area would include three examples: one for each built-in story format. For whatever the topic was, it would be covered in every story format. For about six months, this lasted as the rule. And then special cases started to develop.

Some problems are much harder to solve in one story format and others. Integrating anything using JavaScript, for example, is significantly harder in Harlowe than Snowman. And solutions that rely on macros and built-in functionality for styling code are far easier in SugarCube and Harlowe than Snowman. The idiosyncracies of each story format make it complicated to develop universal solutions. Some solutions, we finally decided, simply can’t exist in all story formats.

The same can be said of individual example credit. Looking back on the very first release of the Twine Cookbook, the original plan was that many different contributors would write their own versions of solutions which would be compiled together and linked by topic. This proved to be wildly ambitious and completely wrong. Some people have and continue to contribute code and feedback, but the vast majority of the users of Twine and the Cookbook have become what I call the “silent” community.

I have learned from talking to people both in person and through private online conversations that many people appreciate that the Cookbook exists, but they are often at a loss at what they could individually contribute. Educators especially, a group I claim as my own, often have suggestions for how their students might use the resource, but have to create their own specialized notes for their courses. They can give advice and feedback, but not code or work on the documentation itself.

In trying to decipher how best to work with this “silent” community, I have turned to existing resources: the Q&A, Twine Twitter account, and the Twine Discord server. I try to look through what people are discussing, problems they might be having, and what they ask about. I then make a list of topics that should be covered and try to determine what other topics are dependencies on them. For example, if people are discussing using an external library with Twine, I know that we need sets of examples on both using JavaScript and another set on using external resources and then to link them together.

Looking at what people are using means also shifting away from individual scenarios into examples that build upon each other. The original planning was that other developers would add code, but it turns out that the best changes came not from other authors, but those first learning Twine. By watching what people were struggling with, I was better able to adapt the Cookbook to that audience. Although talking with them would be the best way, I have not always been in a position to do that. Often, I work through what people ask about and how they discuss their issues, playing the role of an ethnographic researcher to my own group and community.

Lessons Learned from Running an Open-Source Textbook for a Year

by Dan Cox at December 28, 2018 05:00 AM

Hi, I’m Dan Cox. I’ve been creating tutorials, videos, and other guides for Twine for over six years. I’m also the managing editor of the Twine Cookbook project.

Soon after joining the Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation’s Twine committee last year, I started talking with other members about wanting to collect examples of Twine code into a central place. I learned that there had already been a proposal to create a Twine Cookbook along the lines of the Inform Recipe Book or Ren’Py Cookbook. The proposal was similar to what I was thinking of, but also involved covering many of the common problems in Twine.

After discussing different ways it might be done, Chris Klimas proposed looking into using GitBook as the format and to host it on GitHub. Iterating through different possible designs and layouts, we settled on grouping by topic the solutions for each story format that is built into Twine. After starting with over a dozen initial entries, we planned to have rolling updates every few months where parts could be updated and new examples added as needed.

As of late 2018, we are celebrating our first full year of running the Twine Cookbook. It is officially at version 1.0, but the current version represents multiple updates by a half-dozen contributors and hundreds of hours of work in creating and maintaining different topic areas across now over 130 pages of content.


I often use the terms “running” and “managing” to describe my role with the Twine Cookbook. I set its rolling deadlines and try very hard to meet them. I do a full editing pass on all content, and I often prompt or ask other people to contribute code, documentation, and their ideas for how to improve it. The content itself has come from many different regular contributors like Greyelf, Chris Klimas, and Thomas Michael Edwards who provide their own feedback on its content and how it might be improved.

1) Open means open.

As an editor on the Twine Cookbook, I try to be transparent about its changes, deadlines, and how I handle code commits. Everything is done in the open, and that means that anyone can propose any changes to any section. Those suggestions are still filtered through other users, and I ultimately make a decision about how feedback is included, but the openness of the Twine Cookbook means that we listen to everyone.

2) Compromise.

While listening to feedback from different sources can be helpful, balancing that feedback against present and future content demands is another important challenge. As an editor, I have to remind myself that I cannot make everyone happy—including myself. Often, I will want to keep picking at entries to try to make things as perfect as possible. Others, I know, will often propose solutions that are more efficient or optimized for certain problems.

All of these, including my own opinions, have to be balanced against the overall needs of the project. While I am “running” the project, I am highly open to what others tell me and how they would approach different topics. I don’t always use their feedback, but I always try to listen to both what they are telling me and what theme or message might be behind it. Solving these problems is as much a part of being an editor as trying to clean up code and fix punctuation.

3) Don’t try to cover everything.

Early on in the Twine Cookbook project, the committee had conversations about what should—and should not—be in the Cookbook. These conversations revolved around what were considered common solutions on the one hand, and not trying to include hundreds of lines of code on the other. In the end, we reached a compromise that examples would go into the Cookbook as long as they were to solutions to frequent problems and were something someone would think to find in the book. Then, of course, people stated asking for more complex and advanced examples.

One of the constant struggles of writing tutorials and documentation for Twine—and this comes from doing this for years now—is that what many consider “simple,” just as many do not. The general assumption of the Twine Cookbook is that anyone reading an entry does not have advanced knowledge of CSS and JavaScript. They are looking for a solution or inspiration for a future project. They might not know what functionality does, or even that it exists at all.

At the same time, there is a strong pull to try to cover many of the things that browsers can do that Twine can support through JavaScript. The general reply I give when people ask what Twine can do is “anything a web browser can do,” which to an extent is true. As long as it is supported in JavaScript, Twine can do it. However, that does not mean that advanced functionality like gamepad support and virtual reality that have APIs in modern web browsers need Twine Cookbook entries. While people can use those in their projects, not that many Twine users would be interested, and other libraries exist to simplify many of the issues that would bloat the Cookbook to explain in detail, such as cross-browser support and differences in API.

4) Be open to change.

While being open and willing to compromise may seem to cover many of the challenges of being an editor for an open-source project, one of the most important lessons to learn is to be open to change. Finding a compromise can be important, but so is a willingness to change previously-established rules.

When the Cookbook first started, there was an unwritten rule that every topic area would include three examples: one for each built-in story format. For whatever the topic was, it would be covered in every story format. For about six months, this lasted as the rule. And then special cases started to develop.

Some problems are much harder to solve in one story format and others. Integrating anything using JavaScript, for example, is significantly harder in Harlowe than Snowman. And solutions that rely on macros and built-in functionality for styling code are far easier in SugarCube and Harlowe than Snowman. The idiosyncracies of each story format make it complicated to develop universal solutions. Some solutions, we finally decided, simply can’t exist in all story formats.

The same can be said of individual example credit. Looking back on the very first release of the Twine Cookbook, the original plan was that many different contributors would write their own versions of solutions which would be compiled together and linked by topic. This proved to be wildly ambitious and completely wrong. Some people have and continue to contribute code and feedback, but the vast majority of the users of Twine and the Cookbook have become what I call the “silent” community.

I have learned from talking to people both in person and through private online conversations that many people appreciate that the Cookbook exists, but they are often at a loss at what they could individually contribute. Educators especially, a group I claim as my own, often have suggestions for how their students might use the resource, but have to create their own specialized notes for their courses. They can give advice and feedback, but not code or work on the documentation itself.

In trying to decipher how best to work with this “silent” community, I have turned to existing resources: the Q&A, Twine Twitter account, and the Twine Discord server. I try to look through what people are discussing, problems they might be having, and what they ask about. I then make a list of topics that should be covered and try to determine what other topics are dependencies on them. For example, if people are discussing using an external library with Twine, I know that we need sets of examples on both using JavaScript and another set on using external resources and then to link them together.

Looking at what people are using means also shifting away from individual scenarios into examples that build upon each other. The original planning was that other developers would add code, but it turns out that the best changes came not from other authors, but those first learning Twine. By watching what people were struggling with, I was better able to adapt the Cookbook to that audience. Although talking with them would be the best way, I have not always been in a position to do that. Often, I work through what people ask about and how they discuss their issues, playing the role of an ethnographic researcher to my own group and community.

December 27, 2018

Post Position

Taper #2 Is Out

by Nick Montfort at December 27, 2018 05:52 AM

The second issue of Taper, a literary magazine featuring small-scale computational work, is now online.

The second issue was edited by Sebastian Bartlett, Lillian-Yvonne Bertram, Angela Chang, Judy Heflin, and Rachel Paige Thompson, working collectively. Bad Quarto (my micropress) publishes the journal.

The call for issue #3 is posted. The deadline is February 18 (2019).

Taper #2 features 18 works by six a., Sebastian Bartlett, Kyle Booten, Angela Chang, Augusto Corvalan, Kavi Duvvoori, Esen Espinsa, Leonardo Flores, Judy Heflin, Chris Joseph, Vinicius Marquet, Stuart Moulthrop, Everest Pipkin, Mark Sample, and William Wu. Go take a look!