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Sunday, 10. December 2023

The XYZZY Awards

XYZZY Awards 2022: first round

The XYZZY Awards, honouring the interactive fiction games of 2022, are open for first-round voting. Time to nominate some games! The XYZZYs are open-voting, and use your IF Comp login; if you need to register an account with the Comp, or you’ve forgotten your account details, go here. You can log in here (you’ll get kicked back to […]

The XYZZY Awards, honouring the interactive fiction games of 2022, are open for first-round voting. Time to nominate some games!

The XYZZYs are open-voting, and use your IF Comp login; if you need to register an account with the Comp, or you’ve forgotten your account details, go here. You can log in here (you’ll get kicked back to the front page, but do not adjust your set: you are in fact logged in) and then vote here

In the first round, anyone can nominate up to two eligible games in each category. (You are asked not to vote for your own work, or to organise voters to support a particular game or slate.)

First-round voting will remain open through Saturday, 16 December.

Friday, 08. December 2023

Interactive Fiction – The Digital Antiquarian

Putting the “J” in the RPG, Part 2: PlayStation for the Win

From the Seven Hills of Rome to the Seven Sages of China’s Bamboo Grove, from the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World to the Seven Heavens of Islam, from the Seven Final Sayings of Jesus to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the number seven has always struck us as a special one. Hironobu Sakaguchi […]

From the Seven Hills of Rome to the Seven Sages of China’s Bamboo Grove, from the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World to the Seven Heavens of Islam, from the Seven Final Sayings of Jesus to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the number seven has always struck us as a special one. Hironobu Sakaguchi and his crew at Square, the people behind the Final Fantasy series, were no exception. In the mid-1990s, when the time came to think about what the seventh entry in the series ought to be, they instinctively felt that this one had to be bigger and better than any that had come before. It had to double down on all of the series’s traditional strengths and tropes to become the ultimate Final Fantasy. Sakaguchi and company would achieve these goals; the seventh Final Fantasy game has remained to this day the best-selling, most iconic of them all. But the road to that seventh heaven was not an entirely smooth one.

The mid-1990s were a transformative period, both for Square as a studio and for the industry of which it was a part. For the former, it was “a perfect storm, when Square still acted like a small company but had the resources of a big one,” as Matt Leone of Polygon writes.  Meanwhile the videogames industry at large was feeling the ground shift under its feet, as the technologies that went into making and playing console-based games were undergoing their most dramatic shift since the Atari VCS had first turned the idea of a machine for playing games on the family television into a popular reality. CD-ROM drives were already available for Sega’s consoles, with a storage capacity two orders of magnitude greater than that of the most capacious cartridges. And 3D graphics hardware was on the horizon as well, promising to replace pixel graphics with embodied, immersive experiences in sprawling virtual worlds. Final Fantasy VII charged headlong into these changes like a starving man at a feast, sending great greasy globs of excitement — and also controversy — flying everywhere.

The controversy came in the form of one of the most shocking platform switches in the history of videogames. To fully appreciate the impact of Square’s announcement on January 12, 1996, that Final Fantasy VII would run on the new Sony PlayStation rather than Nintendo’s next-generation console, we need to look a little closer at the state of the console landscape in the years immediately preceding it.

Through the first half of the 1990s, Nintendo was still the king of console gaming, but it was no longer the unchallenged supreme despot it had been during the 1980s. Nintendo had always been conservative in terms of hardware, placing its faith, like Apple Computer in an adjacent marketplace, in a holistic customer experience rather than raw performance statistics. As part and parcel of this approach, every game that Nintendo agreed to allow into its walled garden was tuned and polished to a fine sheen, having any jagged edges that might cause anyone any sort of offense whatsoever painstakingly sanded away. An upstart known as Sega had learned to live in the gaps this business philosophy opened up, deploying edgier games on more cutting-edge hardware. As early as December of 1991, Sega began offering its Japanese customers a CD-drive add-on for its current console, the Mega Drive (known as the Sega Genesis in North America, which received the CD add-on the following October). Although the three-year-old Mega Drive’s intrinsic limitations made this early experiment in multimedia gaming for the living room a somewhat underwhelming affair — there was only so much you could do with 61 colors at a resolution of 320 X 240 — it perfectly illustrated the differences in the two companies’ approaches. While Sega threw whatever it had to hand at the wall just to see what stuck, Nintendo held back like a Dana Carvey impression of George Herbert Walker Bush: “Wouldn’t be prudent at this juncture…”

Sony was all too well-acquainted with Nintendo’s innate caution. As the co-creator of the CD storage format, it had signed an agreement with Nintendo back in 1988 to make a CD drive for the upcoming Super Famicom console (which was to be known as the Super Nintendo Entertainment System in the West) as soon as the technology had matured enough for it to be cost-effective. By the time the Super Famicom was released in 1990, Sony was hard at work on the project. But on May 29, 1991, just three days before a joint Nintendo/Sony “Play Station” was to have been demonstrated to the world at the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago, Nintendo suddenly backed out of the deal, announcing that it would instead be working on CD-ROM technology with the Dutch electronics giant Philips — ironically, Sony’s partner in the creation of the original CD standard.

This prototype of the Sony “Play Station” surfaced in 2015.

Nintendo’s reason for pulling out seems to have come down to the terms of the planned business relationship. Nintendo, whose instinct for micro-management and tough deal-making was legendary, had uncharacteristically promised Sony a veritable free hand, allowing it to publish whatever CD-based software it wanted without asking Nintendo’s permission or paying it any royalty whatsoever. In fact, given that a contract to that effect had already been signed long before the Consumer Electronics Show, Sony was, legally speaking, still free to continue with the Play Station on its own, piggybacking on the success of Nintendo’s console. And initially it seemed inclined to do just that. “Sony will throw open its doors to software makers to produce software using music and movie assets,” it announced at the show, promising games based on its wide range of media properties, from the music catalog of Michael Jackson to the upcoming blockbuster movie Hook. Even worse from Nintendo’s perspective, “in order to promote the Super Disc format, Sony intends to broadly license it to the software industry.” Nintendo’s walled garden, in other words, looked about to be trampled by a horde of unwashed, unvetted, unmonetized intruders charging through the gate Sony was ready and willing to open to them. The prospect must have sent the control freaks inside Nintendo’s executive wing into conniptions.

It was a strange situation any way you looked at it. The Super Famicom might soon become the host of not one but two competing CD-ROM solutions, an authorized one from Philips and an unauthorized one from Sony, each using different file formats for a different library of games and other software. (Want to play Super Mario on CD? Buy the Philips drive! Want Michael Jackson? Buy the Play Station!)

In the end, though, neither of the two came to be. Philips decided it wasn’t worth distracting consumers from its own stand-alone CD-based “multimedia box” for the home, the CD-i.[1]Philips wasn’t, however, above exploiting the letter of its contract with Nintendo to make a Mario game and three substandard Legend of Zelda games available for the CD-i. Sony likewise began to wonder in the aftermath of its defiant trade-show announcement whether it was really in its long-term interest to become an unwanted squatter on Nintendo’s real estate.

Still, the episode had given some at Sony a serious case of videogame jealousy. It was clear by now that this new industry wasn’t a fad. Why shouldn’t Sony be a part of it, just as it was an integral part of the music, movie, and television industries? On June 24, 1992, the company held an unusually long and heated senior-management debate. After much back and forth, CEO Norio Ohga pronounced his conclusion: Sony would turn the Play Station into the PlayStation, a standalone CD-based videogame console of its own, both a weapon with which to bludgeon Nintendo for its breach of trust and — and ultimately more importantly — an entrée to the fastest-growing entertainment sector in the world.

The project was handed to one Ken Kutaragi, who had also been in charge of the aborted Super Famicom CD add-on. He knew precisely what he wanted Sony’s first games console to be: a fusion of CD-ROM with another cutting-edge technology, hardware-enabled 3D graphics. “From the mid-1980s, I dreamed of the day when 3D computer graphics could be enjoyed at home,” he says. “What kind of graphics could we create if we combined a real-time, 3D computer-graphics engine with CD-ROM? Surely this would develop into a new form of entertainment.”

It took him and his engineers a little over two years to complete the PlayStation, which in addition to a CD drive and a 3D-graphics system sported a 32-bit MIPS microprocessor running at 34 MHz, 3 MB of memory (of which 1 MB was dedicated to graphics alone), audiophile-quality sound hardware, and a slot for 128 K memory cards that could be used for saving game state between sessions, ensuring that long-form games like JRPGs would no longer need to rely on tedious manual-entry codes or balky, unreliable cartridge-mounted battery packs for the purpose.


In contrast to the consoles of Nintendo, which seemed almost self-consciously crafted to look like toys, and those of Sega, which had a boy-racer quality about them, the Sony PlayStation looked stylish and adult — but not too adult. (The stylishness came through despite the occasionally mooted comparisons to a toilet.) Notice the slick iconography used in place of words on the power and CD-eject buttons. That was not yet typical in the 1990s.

The first Sony PlayStations went on sale in Tokyo’s famed Akihabara electronics district on December 3, 1994. Thousands camped out in line in front of the shops the night before. “It’s so utterly different from traditional game machines that I didn’t even think about the price,” said one starry-eyed young man to a reporter on the scene. Most of the shops were sold out before noon. Norio Ohga was mobbed by family and friends in the days that followed, all begging him to secure them a PlayStation for their children before Christmas. It was only when that happened, he would later say, that he fully realized what a game changer (pun intended) his company had on its hands. Just like that, the fight between Nintendo and Sega — the latter had a new 32-bit CD-based console of its own, the Saturn, while the former was taking it slowly and cautiously, as usual — became a three-way battle royal.

The PlayStation was an impressive piece of kit for the price, but it was, as always, the games themselves that really sold it. Ken Kutaragi had made the rounds of Japanese and foreign studios, and found to his gratification that many of them were tired of being under the heavy thumb of Nintendo. Sony’s garden was to be walled just like Nintendo’s — you had to pay it a fee to sell games for its console as well — but it made a point of treating those who made games for its system as valued partners rather than pestering supplicants: the financial terms were better, the hardware was better, the development tools were better, the technical support was better, the overall vibe was better. Nintendo had its own home-grown line of games for its consoles to which it always gave priority in every sense of the word, a conflict of interest from which Sony was blessedly free.[2]Sony did purchase the venerable British game developer and publisher Psygnosis well before its console’s launch to help prime the pump with some quality games, but it largely left it to manage its own affairs on the other side of the world. Game cartridges were complicated and expensive to produce, and the factories that made them for Nintendo’s consoles were all controlled by that company. Nintendo was notoriously slow to approve new production runs of any but its own games, leaving many studios convinced that their smashing success had been throttled down to a mere qualified one by a shortage of actual games in stores at the critical instant. CDs, on the other hand, were quick and cheap to churn out from any of dozens of pressing plants all over the world. Citing advantages like these, Kutaragi found it was possible to tempt even as longstanding a Nintendo partner as Namco — the creator of the hallowed arcade classics Galaxian and Pac-Man — into committing itself “100 percent to the PlayStation.” The first fruit of this defection was Ridge Racer, a port of a stand-up arcade game that became the new console’s breakout early hit.

Square was also among the software houses that Ken Kutaragi approached, but he made no initial inroads there. For all the annoyances of dealing with Nintendo, it still owned the biggest player base in the world, one that had treated Final Fantasy very well indeed, to the tune of more than 9 million games sold to date in Japan alone. This was not a partner that one abandoned lightly — especially not with the Nintendo 64, said partner’s own next-generation console, due at last in 1996. It promised to be every bit as audiovisually capable as the Sony PlayStation or Sega Saturn, even as it was based around a 64-bit processor in place of the 32-bit units of the competition.

Indeed, in many ways the relationship between Nintendo and Square seemed closer than ever in the wake of the PlayStation’s launch. When Yoshihiro Maruyama joined Square in September of 1995 to run its North American operations, he was told that “Square will always be with Nintendo. As long as you work for us, it’s basically the same as working for Nintendo.” Which in a sense he literally was, given that Nintendo by now owned a substantial chunk of Square’s stock. In November of 1995, Nintendo’s president Hiroshi Yamauchi cited the Final Fantasy series as one of his consoles’ unsurpassed crown jewels — eat your heart out, Sony! — at Shoshinkai, Nintendo’s annual press shindig and trade show. As its farewell to the Super Famicom, Square had agreed to make Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, dropping Nintendo’s Italian plumber into a style of game completely different from his usual fare. Released in March of 1996, it was a predictably huge hit in Japan, while also, encouragingly, leveraging the little guy’s Stateside popularity to become the most successful JRPG since Final Fantasy I in those harsh foreign climes.

But Super Mario RPG wound up marking the end of an era in more ways than Nintendo had imagined: it was not just Square’s last Super Famicom RPG but its last major RPG for a Nintendo console, full stop. For just as it was in its last stages of development, there came the earthshaking announcement of January 12, 1996, that Final Fantasy was switching platforms to the PlayStation. Et tu, Square? “I was kind of shocked,” Yoshihiro Maruyama admits. As was everyone else.

The Nintendo 64, which looked like a toy — and an anachronistic one at that — next to the PlayStation.

Square’s decision was prompted by what seemed to have become an almost reactionary intransigence on the part of Nintendo when it came to the subject of CD-ROM. After the two abortive attempts to bring CDs to the Super Famicom, everyone had assumed as a matter of course that they would be the storage medium of the Nintendo 64. It was thus nothing short of baffling when the first prototypes of the console were unveiled in November of 1995 with no CD drive built-in and not even any option on the horizon for adding one. Nintendo’s latest and greatest was instead to live or die with old-school cartridges which had a capacity of just 64 MB, one-tenth that of a CD

Why did Nintendo make such a counterintuitive choice? The one compelling technical argument for sticking with cartridges was the loading time of CDs, a mechanical storage medium rather than a solid-state one. Nintendo’s ethos of user-friendly accessibility had always insisted that a game come up instantly when you turned the console on and play without interruption thereafter. Nintendo believed, with considerable justification, that this quality had been the not-so-secret weapon in its first-generation console’s victorious battle against floppy-disk-based 8-bit American microcomputers that otherwise boasted similar audiovisual and processing capabilities, such as the Commodore 64. The PlayStation CD drive, which could transfer 300 K per second into memory, was many, many times faster than the Commodore 64’s infamously slow disk drive, but it wasn’t instant. A cartridge, on the other hand, for all practical purposes was.

Fair enough, as far as it went. Yet there were other, darker insinuations swirling around the games industry which had their own ring of truth. Nintendo, it was said, was loath to give up its stranglehold on the means of production of cartridges and embrace commodity CD-stamping facilities. Most of all, many sensed, the decision to stay with cartridges was bound up with Nintendo’s congenital need to be different, and to assert its idiosyncratic hegemony by making everyone else dance to its tune while it was at it. The question now was whether it had taken this arrogance too far, was about to dance itself into irrelevance while the makers of third-party games moved on to other, equally viable alternative platforms.

Exhibit Number One of same was the PlayStation, which seemed tailor-made for the kind of big, epic game that every Final Fantasy to date had strained to be. It was far easier to churn out huge quantities of 3D graphics than it was hand-drawn pixel art, while the staggering storage capacity of CD-ROM gave Square someplace to keep it all — with, it should not be forgotten, the possibility of finding even more space by the simple expedient of shipping a game on multiple CDs, another affordance that cartridges did not allow. And then there were those handy little memory cards for saving state. Those benefits were surely worth trading a little bit of loading time for.

But there was something else about the PlayStation as well that made it an ideal match for Hironobu Sakaguchi’s vision of gaming. Especially after the console arrived in North America and Europe in September of 1995, it fomented a sweeping change in the way the gaming hobby was perceived. “The legacy of the original Playstation is that it took gaming from a pastime that was for young people or maybe slightly geeky people,” says longtime Sony executive Jim Ryan, “and it turned it into a highly credible form of mass entertainment, really comparable with the music business and the movie business.” Veteran game designer Cliff Bleszinski concurs: “The PlayStation shifted the console from having an almost toy-like quality into consumer electronics that are just as desired by twelve-year-olds as they are by 35-year-olds.”

Rather than duking it out with Nintendo and Sega for the eight-to-seventeen age demographic, Sony shifted its marketing attention to young adults, positioning PlayStation gaming as something to be done before or after a night out at the clubs — or while actually at the clubs, for that matter: Sony paid to install the console in trendy nightspots all over the world, so that their patrons could enjoy a round or two of WipEout between trips to the dance floor. In effect, Sony told the people who had grown up with Nintendo and Sega that it was okay to keep on gaming, as long as they did it on a PlayStation from now on. Sony’s marketers understood that, if they could conquer this demographic, that success would automatically spill down into the high-school set that had previously been Sega’s bread and butter, since kids of that age are always aspiring to do whatever the university set is up to. Their logic was impeccable; the Sony PlayStation would destroy the Sega Saturn in due course.

For decades now, the hipster stoner gamer, slumped on the couch with controller in one hand and a bong in the other, has been a pop-culture staple. Sony created that stereotype in the space of a year or two in the 1990s. Whatever else you can say about it, it plays better with the masses than the older one of a pencil-necked nerd sitting bolt upright on his neatly made bed. David James, star goalkeeper for the Premier League football team Liverpool F.C., admitted that he had gotten “carried away” playing PlayStation the night before by way of explaining the three goals that he conceded in a match against Newcastle. It was hard to imagine substituting “Nintendo” or “Saturn” for “PlayStation” in that statement. In May of 1998, Sony would be able to announce triumphantly that, according to its latest survey, the average age of a PlayStation gamer was a positively grizzled 22. It had hit the demographic it was aiming for spot-on, with a spillover that reached both younger and older folks. David Ranyard, a member of Generation PlayStation who has had a varied and successful career in games since the millennium:

At the time of its launch, I was a student, and I’d always been into videogames, from the early days of arcades. I would hang around playing Space Invaders and Galaxian, and until the PlayStation came out, that kind of thing made me a geek. But this console changed all that. Suddenly videogames were cool — not just acceptable, but actually club-culture cool. With a soundtrack from the coolest techno and dance DJs, videogames became a part of [that] subculture. And it led to more mainstream acceptance of consoles in general.

The new PlayStation gamer stereotype dovetailed beautifully with the moody, angsty heroes that had been featuring prominently in Final Fantasy for quite some installments by now. Small wonder that Sakaguchi was more and more smitten with Sony.

Still, it was one hell of a bridge to burn; everyone at Square knew that there would be no going back if they signed on with Sony. Well aware of how high the stakes were for all parties, Sony declared its willingness to accept an extremely low per-unit royalty and to foot the bill for a lot of the next Final Fantasy game’s marketing, promising to work like the dickens to break it in the West. In the end, Sakaguchi allowed himself to be convinced. He had long run Final Fantasy as his own fiefdom at Square, and this didn’t change now: upper management rubber-stamped his decision to make Final Fantasy VII for the Sony PlayStation.

The announcement struck Japan’s games industry with all the force of one of Sakaguchi’s trademark Final Fantasy plot twists. For all the waves Sony had been making recently, nobody had seen this one coming. For its part, Nintendo had watched quite a number of studios defect to Sony already, but this one clearly hurt more than any of the others. It sold off all of its shares in Square and refused to take its calls for the next five years.

The raised stakes only gave Sakaguchi that much more motivation to make Final Fantasy VII amazing — so amazing that even the most stalwart Nintendo loyalists among the gaming population would be tempted to jump ship to the PlayStation in order to experience it. There had already been an unusually long delay after Final Fantasy VI, during which Square had made Super Mario RPG and another, earlier high-profile JRPG called Chrono Trigger, the fruit of a partnership between Hironobu Sakaguchi and Yuji Horii of Dragon Quest fame. (This was roughly equivalent in the context of 1990s Western pop culture to Oasis and Blur making an album together.) Now the rush was on to get Final Fantasy VII out the door within a year, while the franchise and its new platform the PlayStation were still smoking hot.

In defiance of the wisdom found in The Mythical Man-Month, Sakaguchi decided to both make the game quickly and make it amazing by throwing lots and lots of personnel at the problem: 150 people in all, three times as many as had worked on Final Fantasy VI. Cost was no object, especially wherever yen could be traded for time. Square spent the equivalent of $40 million on Final Fantasy VII in the course of just one year, blowing up all preconceptions of how much it could cost to make a computer or console game. (The most expensive earlier game that I’m aware of is the 1996 American “interactive movie” Wing Commander IV, which its developer Origin Systems claimed to have cost $12 million.) By one Square executive’s estimate, almost half of Final Fantasy VII‘s budget went for the hundreds of high-end Silicon Graphics workstations that were purchased, tools for the unprecedented number of 3D artists and animators who attacked the game from all directions at once. Their output came to fill not just one PlayStation CD but three of them — almost two gigabytes of raw data in all, or 30 Nintendo 64 cartridges.

Somehow or other, it all came together. Square finished Final Fantasy VII on schedule, shipping it in Japan on January 31, 1997. It went on to sell over 3 million copies there, bettering Final Fantasy VI‘s numbers by about half a million and selling a goodly number of PlayStations in the process. But, as that fairly modest increase indicates, the Japanese domestic market was becoming saturated; there were only so many games you could sell in a country of 125 million people, most of them too old or too young or lacking the means or the willingness to acquire a PlayStation. There was only one condition in which it had ever made sense to spend $40 million on Final Fantasy VII: if it could finally break the Western market wide open. Encouraged by the relative success of Final Fantasy VI and Super Mario RPG in the United States, excited by the aura of hipster cool that clung to the PlayStation, Square — and also Sony, which lived up to its promise to go all-in on the game — were determined to make that happen, once again at almost any cost. After renumbering the earlier games in the series in the United States to conform with its habit of only releasing every other Final Fantasy title there, Square elected to call this game Final Fantasy VII all over the world. For the number seven was an auspicious one, and this was nothing if not an auspicious game.

Final Fantasy VII shipped on a suitably auspicious date in the United States: September 7, 1997. It sold its millionth unit that December.

In November of 1997, it came to Europe, which had never seen any of the previous six mainline Final Fantasy game before and therefore processed the title as even more of a non sequitur. No matter. Wherever the game went, the title and the marketing worked — worked not only for the game itself, but for the PlayStation. Coming hot on the heels of the hip mega-hit Tomb Raider, it sealed the deal for the console, relegating the Sega Saturn to oblivion and the Nintendo 64 to the status of a disappointing also-ran. Paul Davies was the editor-in-chief of Britain’s Computer and Video Games magazine at the time. He was a committed Sega loyalist, he says, but

I came to my senses when Square announced Final Fantasy VII as a PlayStation exclusive. We received sheets of concept artwork and screenshots at our editorial office, sketches and stills from the incredible cut scenes. I was smitten. I tried and failed to rally. This was a runaway train. [The] PlayStation took up residence in all walks of life, moved from bedrooms to front rooms. It gained — by hook or by crook — the kind of social standing that I’d always wanted for games. Sony stomped on my soul and broke my heart, but my God, that console was a phenomenon.

Final Fantasy VII wound up selling well over 10 million units in all, as many as all six previous entries in the series combined, divided this time almost equally between Japan, North America, and Europe. Along the way, it exploded millions of people’s notions of what games could do and be — people who weren’t among the technological elite who invested thousands of dollars into high-end rigs to play the latest computer games, who just wanted to sit down in front of their televisions after a busy day with a plug-it-in-and-go console and be entertained.

Of course, not everyone who bought the game was equally enamored. Retailers reported record numbers of returns to go along with the record sales, as some people found all the walking around and reading to be not at all what they were looking for in a videogame.

In a way, I share their pain. Despite all its exceptional qualities, Final Fantasy VII fell victim rather comprehensively to the standard Achilles heel of the JRPG in the West: the problem of translation. Its English version was completed in just a couple of months at Square’s American branch, reportedly by a single employee working without supervision, then sent out into the world without a second glance. I’m afraid there’s no way to say this kindly: it’s almost unbelievably terrible, full of sentences that literally make no sense punctuated by annoying ellipses that are supposed to represent… I don’t know what. Pauses… for… dramatic… effect, perhaps? To say it’s on the level of a fan translation would be to insult the many fans of Japanese videogames in the West, who more often than not do an extraordinary job when they tackle such a project. That a game so self-consciously pitched as the moment when console-based videogames would come into their own as a storytelling medium and as a form of mass-market entertainment to rival movies could have been allowed out the door with writing like this boggles the mind. It speaks to what a crossroads moment this truly was for games, when the old ways were still in the process of going over to the new. Although the novelty of the rest of the game was enough to keep the poor translation from damaging its commercial prospects overmuch, the backlash did serve as a much-needed wake-up call for Square. Going forward, they would take the details of “localization,” as such matters are called in industry speak, much more seriously.

Oh, my…

Writerly sort that I am, I’ll be unable to keep myself from harping further on the putrid translation in the third and final article in this series, when I’ll dive into the game itself. Right now, though, I’d like to return to the subject of what Final Fantasy VII meant for gaming writ large. In case I haven’t made it clear already, let me state it outright now: its arrival and reception in the West in particular marked one of the watershed moments in the entire history of gaming.

It cemented, first of all, the PlayStation’s status as the overwhelming victor in the late-1990s edition of the eternal Console Wars, as it did the Playstation’s claim to being the third socially revolutionary games console in history, after the Atari VCS and the original Nintendo Famicom. In the process of changing forevermore the way the world viewed videogames and the people who played them, the PlayStation eventually sold more than 100 million units, making it the best-selling games console of the twentieth century, dwarfing the numbers of the Sega Saturn (9 million units) and even the Nintendo 64 (33 million units), the latter of which was relegated to the status of the “kiddie console” on the playgrounds of the world. The underperformance of the Saturn followed by that of its successor the Dreamcast (again, just 9 million units sold) led Sega to abandon the console-hardware business entirely. Even more importantly, the PlayStation shattered the aura of remorseless, monopolistic inevitability that had clung to Nintendo since the mid-1980s; Nintendo would be for long stretches of the decades to come an also-ran in the very industry it had almost single-handedly resurrected. If the PlayStation was conceived partially as revenge for Nintendo’s jilting of Sony back in 1991, it was certainly a dish served cold — in fact, one that Nintendo is to some extent still eating to this day.

Then, too, it almost goes without saying that the JRPG, a sub-genre that had hitherto been a niche occupation of American gamers and virtually unknown to European ones, had its profile raised incalculably by Final Fantasy VII. The JRPG became almost overnight one of the hottest of all styles of game, as millions who had never imagined that a game could offer a compelling long-form narrative experience like this started looking for more of the same to play just as soon as its closing credits had rolled. Suddenly Western gamers were awaiting the latest JRPG releases with just as much impatience as Japanese gamers — releases not only in the Final Fantasy series but in many, many others as well. Their names, which tended to sound strange and awkward to English ears, were nevertheless unspeakably alluring to those who had caught the JRPG fever: Xenogears, Parasite Eve, Suikoden, Lunar, Star Ocean, Thousand Arms, Chrono Cross, Valkyrie Profile, Legend of Mana, Saiyuki. The whole landscape of console gaming changed; nowhere in the West in 1996, these games were everywhere in 1998 and 1999. It required a dedicated PlayStation gamer indeed just to keep up with the glut. At the risk of belaboring a point, I must note here that there were relatively few such games on the Nintendo 64, due to the limited storage capacity of its cartridges. Gamers go where the games they want to play are, and, for gamers in their preteens or older at least, those games were on the PlayStation.

From the computer-centric perspective that is this site’s usual stock in trade, perhaps the most important outcome of Final Fantasy VII was the dawning convergence it heralded between what had prior to this point been two separate worlds of gaming. Shortly before its Western release on the PlayStation, Square’s American subsidiary had asked the parent company for permission to port Final Fantasy VII to Windows-based desktop computers, perchance under the logic that, if American console gamers did still turn out to be nonplussed by the idea of a hundred-hour videogame despite marketing’s best efforts, American computer gamers would surely not be.

Square Japan agreed, but that was only the beginning of the challenge of getting Final Fantasy VII onto computer-software shelves. Square’s American arm called dozens of established computer publishers, including the heavy hitters like Electronic Arts. Rather incredibly, they couldn’t drum up any interest whatsoever in a game that was by now selling millions of copies on the most popular console in the world. At long last, they got a bite from the British developer and publisher Eidos, whose Tomb Raider had been 1996’s PlayStation game of the year whilst also — and unusually for the time — selling in big numbers on computers.

That example of cross-platform convergence notwithstanding, everyone involved remained a bit tentative about the Final Fantasy VII Windows port, regarding it more as a cautious experiment than the blockbuster-in-the-offing that the PlayStation version had always been treated as. Judged purely as a piece of Windows software, the end result left something to be desired, being faithful to the console game to a fault, to the extent of couching its saved states in separate fifteen-slot “files” that stood in for PlayStation memory cards.

The Windows version of Final Fantasy VII came out a year after the PlayStation version. “If you’re open to new experiences and perspectives in role-playing and can put up with idiosyncrasies from console-game design, then take a chance and experience some of the best storytelling ever found in an RPG,” concluded Computer Gaming World in its review, stamping the game “recommended, with caution.” Despite that less than rousing endorsement, it did reasonably well, selling somewhere between 500,000 and 1 million units by most reports.

They were baby steps to be sure, but Tomb Raider and Final Fantasy VII between them marked the start of a significant shift, albeit one that would take another half-decade or so to come to become obvious to everyone. The storage capacity of console CDs, the power of the latest console hardware, and the consoles’ newfound ability to easily save state from session to session had begun to elide if not yet erase the traditional barriers between “computer games” and “videogames.” Today the distinction is all but eliminated, as cross-platform development tools and the addition of networking capabilities to the consoles make it possible for everyone to play the same sorts of games at least, if not always precisely the same titles. This has been, it seems to me, greatly to the benefit of gaming in general: games on computers have became more friendly and approachable, even as games on consoles have become deeper and more ambitious.

So, that’s another of the trends we’ll need to keep an eye out for as we continue our journey down through the years. Next, though, it will be time to ask a more immediately relevant question: what is it like to actually play Final Fantasy VII, the game that changed so much for so many?

Did you enjoy this article? If so, please think about pitching in to help me make many more like it. You can pledge any amount you like.

Sources: the books Pure Invention: How Japan Made the Modern World by Matt Alt, Power-Up: How Japanese Video Games Gave the World an Extra Life by Chris Kohler, Fight, Magic, Items: The History of Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and the Rise of Japanese RPGs in the West by Aidan Moher, Atari to Zelda: Japan’s Videogames in Global Contexts by Mia Consalvo, Revolutionaries at Sony: The Making of the Sony PlayStation by Reiji Asakura, and Game Over: How Nintendo Conquered the World by David Sheff. Retro Gamer 69, 96, 108, 137, 170, and 188; Computer Gaming World of September 1997, October 1997, May 1998, and November 1998.

Online sources include Polygon‘s authoritative Final Fantasy 7: An Oral History”, “The History of Final Fantasy VII at Nintendojo, “The Weird History of the Super NES CD-ROM, Nintendo’s Most Notorious Vaporware” by Chris Kohler at Kotaku, and “The History of PlayStation was Almost Very Different” by Blake Hester at Polygon.


1 Philips wasn’t, however, above exploiting the letter of its contract with Nintendo to make a Mario game and three substandard Legend of Zelda games available for the CD-i.
2 Sony did purchase the venerable British game developer and publisher Psygnosis well before its console’s launch to help prime the pump with some quality games, but it largely left it to manage its own affairs on the other side of the world.

Thursday, 07. December 2023

Choice of Games LLC

Lies Under Ice—Lead a colony on a distant frozen moon!

We’re proud to announce that Lies Under Ice, the latest in our popular “Choice of Games” line of multiple-choice interactive-fiction games, is now available for Steam, Android, and on iOS in the “Choice of Games” app. Lies Under Ice is 33% off, and Trials of the Thief-Taker, by the same author, is 40% off until December 14th! Lead the first settlement on Jupiter’s frozen moo
Lies Under Ice

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

Lies Under Ice is 33% off, and Trials of the Thief-Taker, by the same author, is 40% off until December 14th!

Lead the first settlement on Jupiter’s frozen moon, Europa! What alien life lurks beneath the ice? Who is sabotaging your mission? Who can you trust?

Lies Under Ice is a 200,000-word interactive science fiction novel by Joey Jones, 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.

The year is 2079. Your mission is to build a settlement, explore Europa’s treacherous oceans, terraform the moon, and send findings back to Earth.

But political factions within your colony vie for dominance, constantly on the brink of open conflict. While they are technically collaborating on this mission, each one has their own goals for Europa. Will this colony be a site for new trade? A home for Earth’s ever-growing population? A clean slate where humans can break free of older social models? How far will each side go to get what they want?

With the most advanced science at your disposal—massive terraforming systems, gene splicing, AI therapy-bots, nerve-connected bionic prosthetics, and more—you can venture from the safety of your spaceship out into the hostile frozen world. Descend beneath the ice of Europa, pilot a submarine through frigid waters that no human has ever seen, and uncover ancient secrets of an alien world.

There’s definitely alien life here. But does it pose a danger to you and your fellow settlers, or is it the greatest opportunity that humanity has ever known?

  • Play as male, female, or nonbinary; gay, straight, bi, or aromantic; poly or monogamous.
  • Choose among six distinct professional backgrounds: diplomat, aerospace engineer, arcologist, asteroid miner, pilot, or marine biologist.
  • Manage the complex needs of an extraterrestrial base: prioritize the comfort of the workers, maximize scientific output, build luxury domes, dig mazes of ice tunnels, or engage in terraforming.
  • Navigate the treacherous politics of Earth’s squabbling factions from millions of miles away!
  • Interact with Europa’s alien ecosystem: will you release fish as a sustainable food source, bring along cats for companionship, or rely on synthetic creatures to avoid introducing invasive species?
  • Run for office in Europa’s fledgling government!

Delve beneath the ice, and reach for the stars!

We hope you enjoy playing Lies Under Ice. We encourage you to tell your friends about it and to 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.

Monday, 04. December 2023

Gold Machine

“Fumbling Through to Survive:” Critical Receptions of Trinity 2/2

Canonicity before an indeterminate audience. IFDB Data: Rating Trinity over the Years In our recent discussion of audience attitudes toward Trinity in the years since its release, I wrote: Trinity has not changed, obviously, but audience reception of it has. Nevertheless, it has enjoyed a staying power that Planetfall has not. What is it about […] The post “Fumbling Through to Survive:&

Canonicity before an indeterminate audience.

IFDB Data: Rating Trinity over the Years

In our recent discussion of audience attitudes toward Trinity in the years since its release, I wrote:

Trinity has not changed, obviously, but audience reception of it has. Nevertheless, it has enjoyed a staying power that Planetfall has not. What is it about Trinity that has held audiences in thrall across the long years?

Mike Russo, a well-regarded reviewer and author of contemporary IF, retrieved the IFDB rating history for Trinity. There are some interesting things to think about there! I’ve graphed both reviews per year and average rating per year on a single chart. I have to share it as a photo here, but the data is available in this spreadsheet.

Some notes:

  • The ratings count for 2008 has been clipped for scaling purposes. The actual value is 19. This presumably reflects a “backlog” of ratings from people who played the game before IFDB existed.
  • Ratings have not fluctuated wildly over the years. There’s no dramatic drop that would completely explain performance shifts on the “Interactive Fiction Top 50 of All Time” polls:
    • 2011: 10th place (tie)
    • 2015: 32nd place (tie)
    • 2019: 4th place (tie)
    • 2023: 21st place (tie)
  • The period between 2015 and 2019 seems to be of particular interest.

Since this second part of our survey deals with reviews and reactions spanning 2011 to now, we can consider both polling and rating information in our analysis.

Audience and Critical Responses

While the number of ratings at IFDB had stabilized, writing about Trinity in blogs or even IFDB reviews tapered off in 2011. In fact, my searching only turned up one piece of writing about Trinity in years ranging from 2010 to 2015: a retrospective “30 Best Text-Adventures/Interactive-Fiction Games Over 5 Decades” by “Toddziak.”

The game is quite though-provoking without shoving the message right into your face. What’s more, it’s well-written, entertaining and with hard, but rewarding puzzles. Basically, it would be a shame not to play it even once.

Trinity continued to enjoy very positive ratings and was rated the tenth-best game of all time in that year’s poll. Perhaps it was believed that there was nothing new to say. It was, many believed, Infocom’s best game, as it showcased inventive puzzles with its wry, evocative prose.

There was, fans would soon learn, more–a lot more–to say about Trinity.

Historicizing History

The flow of Trinity-related discourse would shift following Jimmy Maher’s massive series of posts regarding it (the series begins here). It is an astounding nine posts long and almost certainly more than 20,000 words. The comments sections of each essay, populous enough to make any other Infocom critic writhe with envy, speak to the success of this series.

These posts appeared in the beginning of 2015, too late to influence voting in the “Best IF of All Time” poll held that same year, but it’s hard to avoid imagining it affecting the subsequent 2019 poll. Maher’s critical lens is an unusual one. These many posts are not always–perhaps “not usually” would be more accurate–about the game as a game or as work of fiction. Rather, they are deeply concerned with the historical realities of the atomic bomb’s scientific and material genesis. This is all of a set, of course, with the New Zork Times‘s own insistence upon the historical rigor with which author Brian Moriarty invested his authorial process (c.f. post one in this series!).

As a lot of you might guess, I’m more interested in what audiences thought about the history of the bomb or about historical research generally than these essays are. How did these perceptions influence player experiences? Judging from responses to Maher’s series of posts, it would seem that many readers do find a connection between historical “truth” (a slippery thing) and artistic merit. This is a subject for another day, but it would be impossible to talk about critical reactions to Trinity without mentioning the Maher posts. It may be the largest amount of text associated with a single Infocom game (though my own series on A Mind Forever Voyaging might be a competitor) and was completely unprecedented at the time. The emphasis upon history, an academic discipline, must have lent it a credibility that no other Infocom game could match, especially not on Maher’s terms.

Fresh on the heels of Maher’s posts, Andrew Plotkin speculated (with input from his readership) as to how he might have handled the ending of Trinity, had he made the game himself. This is the not kind of thing that many people can carry off, but Plotkin is one of the few that can. It’s too soon (I want to talk about the ending in a future post) to dive into that, but I will say that I agree with his assertion that “the plot logic of the ending doesn’t really hold together.”

2015 and Beyond

Reviews of Trinity resumed following Maher’s series at The Digital Antiquarian. A review at IFDB (I’m not linking specific reviews at IFDB, since I can’t assume that posters desire the attention. You can find every IFDB review of Trinity here) obviously appreciates the craft elements, but ultimately measures the game and interactive fiction generally in terms of puzzles.

I made a point to beat the game without help, but it took me long hours, and a couple of times I was close to throwing the towel. But that’s what makes a great IF game in my opinion; Trinity strikes a perfect balance, which makes it very rewarding to play.

A 2016 reviewer remarks doesn’t mention history at all, instead focusing on atmosphere and puzzles.

I loved exploring the main area of Trinity, and accessing several of the mini-areas… The final area was a beast, although everything is fairly well hinted at. Or not…

An emerging idea is that Trinity afforded a model for many successful post-Infocom parser games, that of what I’ve taken to calling the “accessibly literary puzzler.” Graham Nelson’s Curses is an early example, and games in this oeuvre still do well in competitions. Trinity is what I consider an ultimate expression of the old, Zorkian “cave game” design, featuring as it does an expansive map with gated geographies, thing-centered interactivity, and pervasive humor (even a self-serious game like Trinity can be filled with wry, sardonic wisecracks). Since Moriarty quotes the apostle Matthew, I will paraphrase him: Trinity came not to abolish the Zorkian, but to fulfill it. It is the last great Zork game in terms of its structure, better than either Beyond Zork or Zork Zero.

A 2020 reviewer writes, rather forgivingly, of Trinity‘s unforgiving nature.

The Wonderland middle section is long but also tightly created with its dreamlike setting and classic Infocom humor and puzzles. This is a save-often, unforgiving type of IF but nothing too tricky.

This prompts an interesting craft question: we aging Infocom fans tend to excuse “zombificiation” (the phenomenon producing an unwinnable yet still active game) broadly rather than looking at individual cases. I’m fairly sure that the original Zork games had relatively few unwinnable states despite their reputations. Trinity, by comparison, is crowded with zombies; this nuclear apocalypse is also a zombie apocalypse! I’ve done some research on this, and I will dig it up for inclusion in a future post.

While less discussed in Interactive Fiction circles, the Adventurer’s Guild features six substantial posts from 2020. It is very nearly the exact opposite of Maher’s, often focusing on the moment-to-moment experience of play. It is a good presentation of the current critical consensus: Trinity is a well-written and atmospheric puzzle game with elusive imagery and action that are alternatingly frustrating and fascinating.

By 2021, at least one player was not open to Trinity‘s unforgiving style of play:

I can’t even count how many walking dead situations I encountered, including a couple that require restarting the game completely and obtaining items that are not exactly out of the way but also not obviously important either. While again this is expected for an 80s game, it still hurts the spirit of the experience to suggest the reason you aren’t able to save the world from atomic destruction is because you didn’t pick up a piece of paper in London right before the bomb dropped.

It is worth wondering why Trinity, Infocom’s most overtly literary work in terms of its ambitions, is also among its least forgiving. How did Brian Moriarty, a thoughtful designer, arrive at this approach? It is hard to imagine that something isn’t meant by all of the possible failures in a game that insists–rather insistently–upon the inevitability of its ending.

What Else?

It seems multiple valid avenues of critical inquiry have been uncovered. While not all of them merit a full post, I would like to at least look at the following:

  • History and artistic merit
  • Cruelty, art, and intent
  • The literary puzzler as the peak of the “cave game” design model
  • Inevitability, time, and repetition (the ending)

I think a brief summary of the story and setting should come next, just to establish my critical baseline.


More Trinity! I apologize for more delays. I have been very busy with Inform 7 development (and writing about Inform development) and have not yet found a good balance between Gold Machine and making my own games. In order to avoid diluting what’s shared here, I’ve created a separate blog for Inform 7 content, and will likely add contemporary reviews to the mix at some later date. More on this later.

The post “Fumbling Through to Survive:” Critical Receptions of Trinity 2/2 appeared first on Gold Machine.

Choice of Games LLC

Author Interview: Joey Jones, Lies Under Ice

Lead the first settlement on Jupiter’s frozen moon, Europa! What alien life lurks beneath the ice? Who is sabotaging your mission? Who can you trust? Lies Under Ice is a 200,000-word interactive science fiction novel by Joey Jones. We sat down with Joey to talk about his work. Lies Under Ice releases this Thursday, December 7th. You can play the first three chapters for free today.  Congratul

Lead the first settlement on Jupiter’s frozen moon, Europa! What alien life lurks beneath the ice? Who is sabotaging your mission? Who can you trust?

Lies Under Ice is a 200,000-word interactive science fiction novel by Joey Jones. We sat down with Joey to talk about his work. Lies Under Ice releases this Thursday, December 7th. You can play the first three chapters for free today. 

Congratulations on your second title for Choice of Games! Obviously, the setting for Lies Under Ice is vastly different from your first game: Trials of the Thief-Taker was set in eighteenth-century London, and this one is in twenty-first-century Europa! How did the different setting and genre affect your approach to writing this game as opposed to your first one? Were there any unexpected points of similarity between the two settings?

Thank you! For both stories, I started with a period of research, but that looked quite different for each one. Trials of the Thief-Taker, I holed up in a library for a few days poring over history books, plays and stories on the early 18th century England to provide a wealth of details and situations that I wanted to include. I read up on highway-robbery, masquerade balls, smuggling, prison breaks, and, of course, the institution of thief-taking. I clearly couldn’t take the exact approach to writing about the future, but for Lies Under Ice I also began by reading around the subject. I read an excellent book on Europa itself, Richard Greenberg’s Unmasking Europa, which gave me a grounding in what the moon was really like, and what scientists were arguing about (like the academic dispute over how thick the ice really is). I was inspired by recent social and technological trends, and I imagined how they might be taken further. I read up on artificial therapists, gene-editing, next generation 3D printing, and the theories of xenobiologists on the conditions for life outside of Earth. The settings were quite distinct, but one point of similarity is having a pressure-cooker environment. Both old London and the moon base environments are places where a lot of different people from all over are thrown together; people with conflicting goals and few avenues to escape.

What about the process of writing your second ChoiceScript game? What did you find different about that?

I learned a lot from the first work and had a list of things I wanted to do different the second time over. (If I made a third, I’m sure I’d come up with another list entirely.) Lies Under Ice is much bigger, perhaps twice the play-length, and there are a lot more world-shaking outcomes of player choice to account for. I had to use a different plot structure too. In Trials of the Thief-Taker I could organise the plot as a series of cases. It was always straightforward to add another case if I felt it needed it (and in the years since release I’ve had a lot more ideas for other cases I’d love to put in if I have the time). In Lies Under Ice, the base faces a series of challenges, crises, and discoveries, but the player is also pro- actively shaping the direction of their settlement, so I had to think of new ways of framing the scenes. Where the game takes place over a ten-year time span, I ended up having short interlude chapters between the main chapters to help smooth out the passage of time.

The big writing difference is where the variation comes in. In Trials of the Thief-Taker, the player often engages in challenges that test their skills, and often there would be gradations of success, with around five different outcomes based on skill level, to reward different ways of roleplaying through the game. Such variation only becomes obvious to players if they replay a lot. When I came to writing Lies Under Ice, ChoiceScript had actually improved in a number of ways, and one of which was the introduction of ‘multi-replace’, which made varying text within a passage much easier. So now, in Lies Under Ice, almost every scene has a high degree of internal variation based on the player’s earlier choices, giving the player a much more direct and constant reflection of their choices. Both games were quite branchy, but Lies Under Ice takes it to a whole new level.

This game includes a lot of science fiction, but it’s clearly informed by present-day science fact, especially the idea that there may be life under the ice on Jupiter’s moon Europa. What’s the one thing you most want readers to know about the real science that’s included in this game? Were there any facts that you had to leave out that you’re just dying to talk about?

Some people have asked me why I picked Europa over, say, Ganymede. Europa is the best candidate for life outside of Earth. Like our own planet, it has a rocky core and a salty tidal ocean. Europa is covered in a layer of ice at least a few miles thick (possible much thicker). It’s comparatively smooth (there are no real mountains or valleys) and unlike the dead surface of our own moon, Europa’s ice surface steadily remakes itself through tidal pressures. Still, it’s a dramatic and alien landscape, and not just endless flat ice sheets some people might imagine when they think of an icy-moon. The features of the moon all make an appearance in Lies Under Ice: the cracks that interlace it with a series of parallel ridges (the lineae), the spires that surround the craters, the chaos terrain. Probably most things I was interested in make an appearance somewhere in the work, but one thing didn’t. I recently discovered that some researchers think that instead of protecting us from asteroids, Jupiter has actually been flinging them towards Earth!

Your academic work also focuses on branching narrative. Can you tell us a little more about that? How did your research inform the process of creating this game, and vice versa?

That’s right, there’s a considerable overlap. Working on games like these informed my research, as did speaking to other writers. I’m interested in the strategies writers of interactive fiction use to manage the scope with long projects. In an interactive medium, there’s a tendency for the workload to keep expanding the longer and more complex the work gets. Choice of Games have a good house style for keeping a lot of this in check: breaking the work down into more-or-less self-contained chapters that always happen in the same order helps a lot. I’m interested in these kinds of structure-based approaches. Throughout Lies Under Ice, I tried a few different techniques to give the player a lot of options that really change the outcome of the game, while not increasing the workload exponentially. I don’t recommend doing a PhD while also making a huge game, everything takes much longer, but it has given me an opportunity to write about the process of actually making something real, and not just a proof of concept.

What’s next for you? Do you have any other games in the works?

In the short-term, rest and recuperation, and then finishing my thesis! In the longer run I’m definitely going to keep making games. I’ve got a few smaller projects in various states of completion, including a game where you’re trying to build a coalition of animals for a revolution in a zoo, and an urban fantasy puzzle game where the protagonist has the power of psychometry. But the next game in the pipeline is a much overdue rerelease of The Chinese Room, a philosophy thought experiment text adventure I made with Harry Josephine Giles nearly half a lifetime ago.

Saturday, 02. December 2023

Key & Compass Blog

Atmospheric messages as conversation

Recently, I was playing an RPG-style IF game called Glik I, and every turn while your character is outside, the game displays one of these ten messages purely at random. Every. Single. Turn. Dust seems to rise like footprints in the distance. It suddenly gets cooler. Nausea overcomes you momentarily. The hairs on the back […]

Recently, I was playing an RPG-style IF game called Glik I, and every turn while your character is outside, the game displays one of these ten messages purely at random. Every. Single. Turn.

  • Dust seems to rise like footprints in the distance.
  • It suddenly gets cooler.
  • Nausea overcomes you momentarily.
  • The hairs on the back of your neck stand up.
  • You hear a soft rustling behind you.
  • You hear a twig snap.
  • You hear the whispering of voices somewhere nearby.
  • You notice the distinct lack of life.
  • You see something in the corner of your eye flit past you.
  • You swear the shadows move on their own.

Okay, so, obviously, most authors would know to turn that down a notch and at least make the messages show up at most a third of the time, and perhaps tweak the randomness so the player doesn’t see the same message twice in a row.

Or maybe, the author could add more messages to the mix. If there were, say, thirty messages instead of ten, then maybe the messages wouldn’t seem quite so repetitious.

And yes, maybe those methods would be sufficient for most games where you want to establish a sense of menace or unease. But wait. Look at this message:

  • You notice the distinct lack of life.

Which isn’t quite true. There are trees and even flowers, but what the author means is that there’s no people, animals, or insects. The backstory, when you discover it, is that a curse was laid upon the land, and as a result, gradually, everyone who used to live here died. The curse increases misfortune, causes crops to fail, and what does grow is sickly. And that sense of desolation and emptiness is very different from the bog-standard twig-snapping someone’s-creeping-up-behind-you sort of menace.

Anyway, I do think atmospheric messages are the way to convey the appropriate unease, but as I thought more about it, I don’t think just rewriting the messages to be more appropriate is the best option. What if the messages weren’t random, but sequenced? Or better, what if the messages were like a conversation, responding to your current environment?

I seem to remember an article by Emily Short that touched on this general idea, where you want to convey information to the player, but you’re not particularly fussy on who tells you that the prince is hosting a masquerade ball, for example. If you go into the bakery first, the baker can tell you about the ball. Or if you see the fishmonger first, she can tell you. It doesn’t matter who it is as long as the information is conveyed. So I’m actually reworking her idea, except instead of people telling you the plot points, the general environment is.

In Glik I, as you wander outside, you will find an orchard sign, a rope bridge, an abandoned hut, a newspaper, and a burnt tavern, all of which are clearly man-made. It seems to me that you could cue up a list of things to say about the lack of people, triggered to possibly display a message whenever you encountered or interacted with a new man-made item.

And when you first encounter the witch, perhaps there should be a sense of relief on seeing another person, even if she’s ugly, even if she’s mocking you?

How to speak about the lack of animals or lack of insects is less obvious, but I would target places where you might reasonably expect to see some. No fish in the river. No bees on the flowers. No ants on the trees. No twig-snapping animals in the forest. No birdsong.

You’d want to build this sort of thing up slowly, in layers. It’s difficult to notice something that isn’t there, after all. After the PC has reached certain levels of awareness of the problem, new messages can be offered based on the new awareness. They might even just be subtle variations on some of the previous messages, where nothing’s really changed to the landscape, but the PC’s reaction to it has.

Anyway, just my two cents on the issue. Much more work for the author, of course, but sometimes the payoff might be worth the effort.

Friday, 01. December 2023

Zarf Updates

A few narrative game comments

IGF season is upon us, which means a lot of review posts in the pipeline for January. In the meantime, here's a couple of games that aren't IGF entries! Jusant by Don't Nod -- game site Rock-climbing puzzle game in a strange world that blends ...

IGF season is upon us, which means a lot of review posts in the pipeline for January. In the meantime, here's a couple of games that aren't IGF entries!


Rock-climbing puzzle game in a strange world that blends desert and coral reef. The sea is gone, but the cnidaria remain.

The climbing emphasizes persistence and planning, not speed or timing. You're always roped, for a start. If you fall, the worst that can happen is dangling and climbing back up.

I thought the game could have leaned harder into the climbing-sandbox idea. The engine supports very open mechanics: you can attach your rope anywhere, swing from any attachment point, jump from any hold. But most of the routes are restricted to a single good path. Occasionally the game hands you a big open wall with lots of options, but I felt like that should have been the whole game. At least after the intro chapter.

But it's a lovely world, full of quiet depths and secrets and sea-colored light. I was delighted to spend my hours ascending through it.

The story... I dunno. Everybody wants to talk about climate change. I get this. The journal-threads of communities surviving in a strange world: great stuff. (Reminded me of Sable.) But the fairy-tale "boy ascends mountain, talks to ancient machinery, a miracle occurs -- whales!" That just doesn't land any more. That's 20th-century fantasy. We gotta save ourselves.

Single-player videogames are very biased towards the single-savior story. Of course! We still need to start thinking in bigger terms though.

The Invincible

"Explore creepy abandoned spaceships from your first-person space-helmet" is a pretty well-established trope at this point. (Event[0], Tacoma, Moons of Madness, Deliver Us the Moon... Even Outer Wilds starts there, although it takes it to another level entirely.)

The layering of Lovecraftian slime varies; the puzzle-to-story ratio varies. But most of these games have pretty linear plots. You explore, but the puzzle gating pins you to a well-crafted sequence of story beats.

The Invincible is a satisfying break from that tradition. It leans hard into meaningful story variation. Character interaction scenes have several possible outcomes which affect the following chapters. When you explore an area, you can be as thorough as you please, or not. Reading more notes and journals gives you a different perspective on later revelations, but they're not the main story. Even when getting from point A to point B, you've usually got a couple of possible routes through the delightfully topological landscape. The difference may be just "cautiously navigate a slope" vs "slip, scream, and fall," but it feels like a different story beat.

I haven't read the Stanislaw Lem story that the game is based on. Feels authentic to Lem's writing as I remember it, though. (Creepy dystopian alienness Lem, not comedy spacepilot / robot Lem.)

There's also a lot of climbing, which somehow ties The Invincible in with Jusant even though the gameplay is completely different. It's extremely haptic climbing. You heave yourself up with your fat space-glove hands, and sometimes you slip and fall, and you can feel it in your gut. That's how I'd sum up the game: it uses first-person to make an alien world visceral, but it doesn't neglect the narrative variation. I liked it.

Thursday, 30. November 2023

Renga in Blue

Crime Stopper: On Computer Disk Preservation

I haven’t had a lot of time to play, unfortunately, but I still wanted to make a post as Matt W. in the comments last time skillfully sleuthed out the issue: I was using a bad disk. Specifically: I had been using this version of the game from the Internet Archive (added 2018-08-08 by 4am) […]

I haven’t had a lot of time to play, unfortunately, but I still wanted to make a post as Matt W. in the comments last time skillfully sleuthed out the issue: I was using a bad disk.

Specifically: I had been using this version of the game from the Internet Archive (added 2018-08-08 by 4am) but I should have been using this version of the game from the Internet Archive (added 2019-09-29 by 4am).

Apple II preservation history is long and complicated as the first emulator goes back to 1990 (!) and the emulator I typically use, AppleWin, goes back to 1994. Early files were in DSK, PO, or DO format, which copied file content but not necessarily their exact layout on the disk; much later, technology was developed to dump the disk as a whole including disk structures that don’t port over with DSK (NIB files). In 2018 things went even further to allow dumps at the individual magnetic flux level and the WOZ file format.

Visualization from AppleSauce of the Crime Stopper disk.

The big catch here to all this which makes Apple II emulation tricky is copy protection. Piracy was rampant (as well as methods of circumventing copy protection) but copy protection bypasses also sometimes broke the software in subtler ways. The most amusing I’ve encountered is how The Queen of Phobos has the nuke in the game get set off right away if you’re running off a disk sector other than 000.

You can generally expect early dumps to be based on cracks from the 80s — especially since some of the dumps genuinely go back to 1990 — while WOZ files are based on “fresh cracks” on current technology and the ability to account for subterfuge like what disk sector a program is running on. This means that WOZ files are usually preferrable to DSK, although in Kabul Spy I had the opposite: there was a bug present in the newer WOZ dump not in the DSK format.

None of this was actually relevant here! The two dumps were both in WOZ format, although one of them was more recent than the other. I’ve checked all the ways I can and they seem to be the same “version” (an early version of Oo-Topos was unfinishable) but yet something is different enough about the dumps that there is a signifcant gameplay difference.

In the 2018 version of the file, looking at your desk in your office says you see nothing special.

I also hadn’t found the secret behind the picture last time I played.

In the 2019 version, you find a drawer.

You can still refer to the drawer in the 2018 version dump (which is why I went hunting for version numbers first) but you just have to guess one exists.

(ADD: 4am confirmed on Mastodon it was different versions rather than different dumps. There isn’t anything visible to the player.)

Neither dump led me to realize the other issue, which Matt. W also pointed out: this game has a clue via sound. Specifically, there’s a loud obnoxious beeping sound at the start, which is supposed to indicate your telephone is ringing. This never gets mentioned in the text. (Sorry, I’m still not turning on Apple II sound otherwise except in dire circumstances.)

The message from the phone, combined with the telegram on our desk…


…led me to the subway where I could use my newfound cash from the desk to be able to get on board.

I assume this means the game has 13 places in total we can go to.

Arriving at the Sizemore building, we are handed a ransom note and a letter.

So, as far as we know so far, we’re supposed to help deliver ransom money in order to get a kidnapped daughter back. Something tells me the plot won’t be this straightforward, but I’ll try to pick up the momentum from here next time.

Choice of Games LLC

The Nascent Necromancer is now on Steam, and it’s 33% off!

We’re happy to announce that The Nascent Necromancer, our popular Hosted Game by Samuel Young, is now available on Steam for the first time ever! To celebrate, you can buy The Nascent Necromancer for 33% off until December 7th. Sorcery is forbidden and punishable by death. These punishments are summarily handed out by the Witch Hunters, a powerful organization of inquisitors.  When a gro

We’re happy to announce that The Nascent Necromancer, our popular Hosted Game by Samuel Young, is now available on Steam for the first time ever!

To celebrate, you can buy The Nascent Necromancer for 33% off until December 7th.

Sorcery is forbidden and punishable by death. These punishments are summarily handed out by the Witch Hunters, a powerful organization of inquisitors. 

When a group of corrupt witch hunters comes to your village, accusing your brother of sorcery and wrongly accusing you of abetting him, your life takes a violent and abrupt change for the worse. After you’ve suffered more than you can bear and endured terrible tragedy, perhaps your only option left is to become the very thing that your enemies fear and despise so much.

The Nascent Necromancer is an epic, 238,000 word interactive fantasy novel by Samuel Young, where your choices control the story. It’s entirely text-based, and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination.

  • Play as male, female, or nonbinary. Romance men, women, both, or no one at all. 
  • Embark on a perilous journey, facing witch hunters, trolls, and goblins as you seek to gain the terrible power that will bring you revenge on your persecutors. 
  • Romance the cold, aloof Tozi; the sarcastic, charismatic Tanno; the shy, sweet Kenda; the kind, easygoing Meylor; or even the idealistic witch hunter, Lonnie.
  • Read approximately 100,000 words per playthrough! 
  • Choose among three kinds of spells; mental, physical, or conjuration. Cast torture spells; summon flying, undead hands; control the minds of your enemies, and much more.

If they want a witch hunt, you’ll give them one. 

The People's Republic of Interactive Fiction

November meeting (online)

The Boston IF meetup for November will be Thursday, November 30, 6:30 pm Eastern time. We will post the Zoom link to the mailing list on the day of the meeting.

The Boston IF meetup for November will be Thursday, November 30, 6:30 pm Eastern time.

We will post the Zoom link to the mailing list on the day of the meeting.

October 2023 PR-IF Post Mortem

The People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction convened on Friday, Oct 27, 2023 online. Zarf, anjchang, Kirill, Josh, Hugh (StrandGames), Dana, Kathryn, Kaylah (NEU) welcomed newcomer Sara, a sci-fi writer. Warning: What follows is probably not proper English, but just my log of notes from the meeting to jog people’s memories. What we’re playing: Josh working on […] ↓ Read the rest

The People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction convened on Friday, Oct 27, 2023 online. Zarf, anjchang, Kirill, Josh, Hugh (StrandGames), Dana, Kathryn, Kaylah (NEU) welcomed newcomer Sara, a sci-fi writer. Warning: What follows is probably not proper English, but just my log of notes from the meeting to jog people’s memories.

What we’re playing: Josh working on an Ink Visual Novel Template tool. Josh did a Twitch interview about it on the HandEyeSociety’s channel. Also working with Geoffrey Golden on minigames from— sign up for the newsletter to receive text adventures by email. Also mentioned Fix Your Mother’s Printer We’re enjoying these tiny games, quick to play! Sara, a sci-fi writer, is interested in the art of narrative design and interactive narrative. Looking into Porpentine. Played Horse Master recently. Zarf update: playing Gnosia a sci-fi deduction RPG. Reviewing the dystopian game The Archivist and the Revolution by Autumn Chen. Sara noted that how that game uses daily tasks and time passing to provide a commentary or critique of modern life.

If anyone is hiring, please send to the email list and let us know of opportunities for game designers, illustrators, etc.

Ecto Comp underway (we did a short play-through; see notes at the end of this meeting).

Zarf also working admin stuff for IFTF. There’s an IFTF grant competition, deadline today!

People from Tumblr were inspired by Naked Twine Jam, check out the Bare-Bones Jam

Microsoft’s acquisition of Activision is the buzz. The IF world is hoping for transparency about what is happening with Infocom. Trademarks history.

Halloween discussion:

Zine discussion:

For those who don’t know, check out the IntFiction forums Forums

Narrascope planning is happening, feel free to volunteer for positions. Hopefully will have more news in November. Join the discord and get involved.

Group play-through: Sara has an Ectocomp game entry. A playthrough of Mothman, Sara’s EctoComp game, was enjoyed. The novelty of multiple choice! The pacing was great. Is it an unreliable narrator. We got a 63% as a group, how close we got to figuring out the true narrative. Discussion of explanation from the teacher or ambiguity or expecting multiple playthroughs. Maybe an image of the moom with percentage of how much you got right. Waxing and waning moons… is a full moon possible, is the narrator reliable? Good fun!

Wednesday, 29. November 2023

Key & Compass Blog

New walkthroughs for November 2023

On Wednesday, November 29, 2023, I published new walkthroughs for the games and stories listed below! Some of these were paid for by my wonderful patrons at Patreon. Please consider supporting me to make even more new walkthroughs for works of interactive fiction at Patreon and Ko-fi. The Vambrace of Destiny (2023) by Arthur DiBianca […]

On Wednesday, November 29, 2023, I published new walkthroughs for the games and stories listed below! Some of these were paid for by my wonderful patrons at Patreon. Please consider supporting me to make even more new walkthroughs for works of interactive fiction at Patreon and Ko-fi.

The Vambrace of Destiny (2023) by Arthur DiBianca

In this one-keystroke-per-command fantasy game, you play as Mr Bartholloco, an apprentice watchmaker. The Society of Wizardry hired you to recover the Staff of Many Powers, stolen by a wizard now hiding inside the Halls of Morok. To aid you, you have the vambrace of Morok’s daughter Destiny. Every gem you find for the vambrace adds a new spell you can use. Solve puzzles, defeat monsters, and earn treasure!

This game was an entry in IF Comp 2023 where it took 5th place.

IFDB | My walkthrough and maps

Honk! (2023) by Alex Harby

In this comedy game, you play as Lola, the circus’s greatest and only clown. Your skills include pie-throwing, balloon-animal-making, and nose-honking. The Ringmaster whimpers about a ghost, a Phantom sabotaging the acts. You tell him you’ll sort the Phantom out while he deals with the paperwork.

This game was an entry in IF Comp 2023 where it took 4th place.

IFDB | My walkthrough and maps

One King to Loot them All (2023) by Onno Brouwer

In this custom-command tale of adventure, you play as the Barbarian King. Regard the scene. You have just slain the demon that an enemy sorcerer sent into your very throne room through a magical portal. Your blood sings. You crave vengeance. Seize your weapon, smite your foes, and loot their spoils!

This game was an entry in IF Comp 2023 where it tied for 18th place.

IFDB | My walkthrough and map

Glik I: Undead Menace (2011) by Logan Edwards

In this RPG-style game, it’s 600 years after the Cataclysm, when the Ancients used horrible weapons. Much knowledge was lost, but artifacts remain. You style yourself as an archaeologist. The cursed land of Glik is rumored to have many terrible beasts but also great wealth. You mean to claim that treasure for yourself. In part one, you explore caves inhabited by the undead and ruled by a Lich.

IFDB | My walkthrough and maps

baby tree (2012) by Lester Galin

This short minimalist surreal horror piece begins with a verse from PLACEBO’s “Song to say goodbye”. You play as a woman in bed with a knife. You can’t sleep. A boil on your throat hurts too much.

IFDB | My walkthrough and map

Hide a pachyderm! (2014) by Simon Deimel

In this simple and very short one-room joke game, you have six turns to hide your pet elephant before your angry landlord forces his way into your tenement. Good luck!

IFDB | My walkthrough and map

Inspiration! (2011) by Jacob Polar

In this small slice-of-life game, you are a new homeowner trying to write an interactive fiction game, but you lack inspiration. Walk around your barely-furnished new home and search for inspiration. When you’re ready, return to your office to write your game.

IFDB | My walkthrough and map

Statue (1999) by David A. Clysdale

In this small, simple art piece, you are traveller who finds a king’s statue in the desert, its head broken off and half-buried in the sand. What will you do?

This artwork was a particpant in the 1999 Summer IF Art Show where it won the Best in Show ribbon in the Still Life category.

IFDB | My walkthrough and map

The People's Republic of Interactive Fiction

September PR-IF Post Mortem

The People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction convened on Thursday, Sept. 28th Zarf, Doug, Stephen Eric Jablonski, Hugh, Andrew Stephens, and anjchang. Warning: What follows is probably not proper English, but just my log of notes from the meeting to jog people’s memories. Discussion of saved game format. Storing deltas vs storing the full state game. Advantage of […] ↓ Read the rest of

The People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction convened on Thursday, Sept. 28th Zarf, Doug, Stephen Eric Jablonski, Hugh, Andrew Stephens, and anjchang. Warning: What follows is probably not proper English, but just my log of notes from the meeting to jog people’s memories.

Discussion of saved game format. Storing deltas vs storing the full state game. Advantage of storing deltas. But you need intelligent merge of old save objects with new deltas. Making a system like that reliable is very difficult.

Recap of MIT Museum after Dark. Meeting David and Michael was amazing! Discussion of influence of Adventure, the idea that we need “more like this,” Zork treasure mechanics.

NIck Montfort’s gallery at the Trope Tank The Hops Ahead Exhibit will be running until Friday 6pm. There are 18 works by artists responding to the interactive narrative themes and ideas in Hopscotch by   Julio Cortázar

Narratives where you don’t know what the character knows. Dramatic irony.

Hugh talked about his if comp game submission. It was enjoyed as we talked about the challenges on mobile and text input, also the size of images. A lot of games write their own keyboard for better layout and ergonomics. Fun fact, DAZ graphics from came first, and then the story around it. Kit bashing for graphics. Andrew working on his own game with Blender. Extreme stylization. Angela starts with Tinkercad and imports models into Blender later.

Hugh was working on an IFcomp story. it yesterday via weblink. Written in his own language for Strand games. Went on a deep dive of his source code. His story platform is open source.

IF COMP voting coming up! Go Play!

Wednesday, 22. November 2023

Choice of Games LLC

Out now: All World Pro Wrestling Bonus Stories 3!

We’re proud to announce that a new special set of All World Pro Wrestling  “Bonus Stories” are now available for iOS and Android in our “Heart’s Choice” app, as well as on Steam! “Bonus Stories 3” is a special non-interactive set of short pieces in the world of the game, and it’s on sale for $1.99! Strap in for three all-new stories of gay wrestling erotica! It’s

We’re proud to announce that a new special set of All World Pro Wrestling  “Bonus Stories” are now available for iOS and Android in our “Heart’s Choice” app, as well as on Steam! “Bonus Stories 3” is a special non-interactive set of short pieces in the world of the game, and it’s on sale for $1.99!

Strap in for three all-new stories of gay wrestling erotica! It’s everything you love about the All World Pro Wrestling franchise: steamy grappling, intimately detailed descriptions, and the hottest gay male wrestlers around!

  • Sex Fed 3 – Return to Las Vegas’s most exclusive – and sexiest – wrestling club! Scope out your opponents and choose what happens in each practice bout as muscles ripple and sparks fly. When the dominance play starts, who will come out on top?
  • Who You Callin’ a Jobber, Bro? – It’s another Jobbers’ Showcase! Get up close and watch every move with these up-and-coming wrestlers. Who will turn heel? Who will fight his way into the spotlight? And who will discover a whole new kind of excitement when he’s locked in a tight clinch with his opponent?
  • Battle of the Big Boys – Bring on the muscle bears! Huge thighs and massive arms are on display in every bout. And after their training session is over, these big men get together for some private celebrations, where they get to see every single huge part of each other’s bodies.

Since 2009, the team behind Choice of Games has created high-quality interactive novels in all genres. Now, our new Heart’s Choice label puts romance at the center of the story, and you at the center of the romance. Heart’s Choice games contain no graphics or sound effects, so we can focus on the story. Every game is filled with vivid, fully-developed characters and complex narratives that respond to your choices.

How will you find your happily ever after?

Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling

Dialogue Expressiveness in Mask of the Rose

Mask of the Rose is a dating-and-murder-mystery virtual novel set in Failbetter’s Fallen London universe. In line with that genre, it typically gives the player between two and four dialogue choices for conversation – occasionally more or fewer than that, but usually keeping things in that range. The trick was, though, that we wanted to actually … Continue reading "Dialogue Expressivene
Promotional art for Mask of the Rose, showing several characters in a dark setting of Victorian London.

Mask of the Rose is a dating-and-murder-mystery virtual novel set in Failbetter’s Fallen London universe. In line with that genre, it typically gives the player between two and four dialogue choices for conversation – occasionally more or fewer than that, but usually keeping things in that range.

The trick was, though, that we wanted to actually grant the player a lot more latitude than that to decide what they wanted to say. I’ve always been interested in expressiveness in player dialogue, both as an aid to roleplaying and as a way to enable intentional, high-agency game play.

My goal in designing this way is to let the player plan ahead, adopt specific approaches to other characters, and play them out, as opposed to being entirely reactive to whatever dialogue choices happen to pop up in a given scene.

Screenshot of conversation with two characters in Mask of the Rose.

In Mask, this takes two major forms. One is through the player’s character traits and wardrobe: at the start of play, you can decide what sorts of conversation options are on brand for you. Do you tend towards jokes or melancholy observations? Are you rigorous about the truth, or do you lie sometimes?

Many games put those personality-characterising options side by side in a dialogue menu, but that means that if you’re trying to play a consistently melancholy character, you’re stuck with your dialogue choices pretty much pre-decided for you: you just have to pick the one Melancholy option every time. And there isn’t really as much room to define your PC around multiple distinct types of trait, whereas in Mask we wanted the player to be able to combine, e.g., being melancholy and boastful, or gloomy but confiding.

To accomplish that in Mask, we have a larger pool of potential dialogue at any given stage in the conversation, and filter it to show just the options that are currently suitable for the player.

(If you’re interested in the technical aspects of doing something like this in the Ink language, by the way, I recommend Inkle’s posts on Overboard!, where they’re also drawing dialogue options from a pool each turn.)

Of course, our choices can be determined by situation as well as by personality, so for Mask we let the player further inflect how they’ll present themselves using the wardrobe. Different wardrobe items advertise different social affiliations, or spin the PC towards a snobbish, flirty, or unfriendly self-presentation.

Screenshot from Mask of the Rose, showing the outfit selection screen.

That got us halfway to where we wanted to go, giving the player range to roleplay someone with a specific social style, using a fairly large palette of available options.

Beyond the social element, though, we also wanted to deal with knowledge, and let the player express particular ideas or ask particular questions. Handling player knowledge is always a significant challenge in interactive narrative: while you can track what the player has seen during gameplay, you can’t track what they remember, and you definitely don’t know what they’ve concluded on their own. So if the aim is to present the player with the ability to articulate the state of the world as they actually understand it, you first have to find out what the player does understand. Which isn’t always easy.

Many mystery games just dodge this problem completely and use straight adventure game mechanics (solve this string of puzzles and you’ll find the necessary evidence). These might be using other genre trappings of a mystery, but they’re not really asking the player to deduce the solution. Other mystery games ask the player to demonstrate they understand the mystery’s logic, but still only in reactive circumstances, like presenting counter-evidence when a witness lies in Phoenix Wright, or noting when an NPC has said inconsistent things in Contradiction.

For Mask, we wanted to enable an active process – one where the player forms hypotheses, investigates their ideas, and refines what they think based on new information.

To let the player express their hypotheses, we put together an interface where the player has a sort of red strings murder board (without the actual red strings). This is essentially a crafting system, and one in which the player can craft both questions about the mystery and their own finished explanations for what really happened.

Once they’ve formed a hypothesis, it opens up options in dialogue… though it may still not always be wise to say what’s on your mind:

The storycrafting system is best shown off with some screenshots. These shots are not completely spoilery, but if you want to play Mask of the Rose fresh, you may want to stop here. (And in that case, you may like to know the game is currently on sale on Steam.)

For those open to mild spoilers, here’s a bit more detail. The screenshots and description talk about the very latest release of Mask, iterating on player feedback on some things they found confusing at launch – so if you’ve played and these look a little different, that’ll be why.


When you’re working with your murderboard, you can put in your own theories about means, motive, and opportunity, based on your inventory of evidence.

Sometimes (especially early on), you won’t yet know enough to be able to plug in a definite answer to a particular spot. In that case, you can use an “unknown” token instead – indicating that you think something happened, of a particular kind, but you don’t know what that something is.

Here we’re expressing the idea that the victim did something to annoy the hypothetical murderer, but we don’t know what that might be:

Screenshot from Mask of the Rose showing the player choosing what action they think the murder victim performed in order to provoke attack.

Once that murderboard has been completed, it looks like this:

Screenshot from Mask of the Rose showing a finished hypothesis, in which the murder victim provoked attack somehow.

…which is to say, a finished hypothesis that Archie was the murderer but was reacting to something David did. The text on the right hand side of the screen turns that combination of tokens into a continuous narrative, so that the player can see what the system is doing with the player’s input: we put that together using a tagged expansion grammar.

Going out in the world with this hypothesis then unlocks dialogue to ask different characters about Archie’s potential motivation.

The other thing the system does is check some constraints on the juxtaposition of different tokens. There are some murder ideas that just don’t make sense at all: particular characters who wouldn’t have had the opportunity to use particular murder methods. Because the system is backed by a constraint system, we can prevent the player from constructing those totally impossible theories, and guide them back towards ones that are at least theoretically conceivable.

In essence, this is addressing a challenge that arises with parser-based text adventures as well: if we give the player a lot of freedom to combine tokens of meaning, how do we respond when they put them together wrong? And how do we steer them towards combinations that do make sense?

Using the murderboard and the inventory of discovered evidence, we let the player form and articulate hundreds of different theories, and open up new narrative space every time they have a conversation that presents new evidence. At the same time, by ruling out particular item combinations, we eliminate much of the need to have the game issue the equivalent of error messages (e.g., NPCs complaining that your idea is incomprehensible).

Ultimately, the player can build a substantial range of finished theories, including the truth or partial versions thereof, but also a number of alternative explanations.

All of these can be presented to the court for trial, with very significant consequences for the outcome of the game.

We enjoyed working with the murderboard so much that we let the player do a few other things with the same system as well… but I’ll leave that for another post.

A quick afterward about mystery structures in interactive form: Several of Jon Ingold’s games, including both Make It Good and Overboard!, solve the player knowledge issue by presenting a puzzle situation that the player can only resolve if they’ve correctly analysed the motives and past actions of the NPCs.

I really enjoy this and find it ingenious, but I think it can risk encouraging an instrumental approach to the NPCs: they become pawns on the player’s chessboard, potentially, rather than personas who deserve consideration in their own right. Because Mask is fundamentally a game about relationships, we wanted to go a different direction – and that required structuring the knowledge question in a very different way.

Tuesday, 21. November 2023

Zarf Updates

All that Infocom interpreter code

Jason Scott posted the source code for all the Infocom games in 2019. This was pretty awesome. Everybody who is interested in that stuff cheered, and now it's part of the common knowledge of Infocom. If you're researching the history of those ...

Jason Scott posted the source code for all the Infocom games in 2019. This was pretty awesome. Everybody who is interested in that stuff cheered, and now it's part of the common knowledge of Infocom. If you're researching the history of those games, or want to study their design, you can dig in.

Not just research, either. Some fans have grabbed the Infocom source and run with it. For example, "less-cruel" mods of Zork or Planetfall without the lamp/food time limits. Or bug fixes for Mini-Zork 2. Or this recent fan construction of the Hitchhiker's sequel. (Can't call it a "reconstruction" when the original was so sketchy; this Milliways is mostly original work.)

So the game source was big news. Infocom's interpreter source, however, remained obscure. This was the game-playing software for each platform: the Apple 2 interpreter, the Commodore 64 interpreter, and so on. A particular Infocom game release ("Zork 3 for the C64", say) was a floppy containing the C64 interpreter and the Zork-3 game file. Boot the floppy, the interpreter starts up; it loads the game data and the game begins.

These interpreters were well-studied by IF enthusiasts in the early 1990s. That's how we got the first open-source IF interpreters and the modern Z-machine specification. Functionally, we know how they work.

But we never had their source code. You might ask, who cares? It would have been pretty opaque assembly code anyhow. But it's a layer of insight into the developers' minds. Comments, variable names, documentation.

We got a first glimpse of this in 2018 when Brian Moriarty donated the interpreter source for the TRS-80 Color Computer. This assembly code wound up at the CoCo Archive.

(Confusingly, Infocom referred to their interpreters as ZIP, the "Zork Interpreter Program". These days if you say ZIP you're talking about a compression tool. But if you dig into that CoCo package, the file is the compiled ZIP program! Don't try to unzip it.)

Anyhow, as far as I knew, no other platform's source was available...

...Until a couple of weeks ago, when someone mentioned in a forum thread that they had all the old interpreter source lying around. Had for years.

Long story short, here it is.

(Yes, the CoCo source matches what was posted in 2018.)

Part of the long story involved checking over all the files to make sure there were no personal emails or other material that would be impolite to release. As I was doing that, I took notes. The README therefore contains info about most of the files. I don't guarantee the accuracy of that stuff; I took a lot of guesses. Corrections welcome.

As a followup, David Fillmore posted the IBM PC interpreter source, which he had lying around. (Mostly C, a little assembly.) That wasn't in the original source dump.

What's interesting in these files?

There's changelogs and release dates for different versions of some of the interpreters. I'm sure this will be good for something.

There's a bunch of internal documentation about creating disks for the various platforms. Remember that in the 1980s, floppy disks were pretty incompatible between platforms. To write a C64 disk, you had to get the game data and interpreter onto a C64 which could then write it to disk. But how did you do that? No Wifi, no Ethernet port... Infocom's solution was to run a serial cable from their DEC-20 (where all the games were developed) to the C64 (or wherever). The serial transfer program is called "TFTP" in most of these folders. Do strings like com1:9600,n,8 turn you on? You might be a serial port!

There's also a few implementations of a program called "DIP", or sometimes "GRIP". (This seems to have stood for "Display Interpreter Program" or "GRaphical Interpreter Program".) This was like ZIP, but definitely a different format -- meant for graphical games rather than text games.

Aha, you say, DIP must have been used for Infocom's graphical games like Zork Zero or Journey. Nope! Those adventures used a modified ZIP which Infocom called YZIP. (These days we say "Z-machine version 6".)

No, DIP was used for exactly one Infocom release... the digital board game Fooblitzky. Which sold like a lead balloon. I never played it. The Infocom fans of 1990 never decompiled it. So we never got an open-source DIP, or really any information about DIP at all.

Now we do! But I don't think anybody's champing at the bit to make Fooblitzky web-playable. Oh well.

(The source code to Fooblitzky has not yet turned up. I suppose Infocom would have called that language "DIL"? But we have the game file, or at least I think we do. A file called foo.dat was preserved along with the Unix DIL source, presumably for testing.) (No idea whether it's the full game or just a testing stub.)

You'll notice that I posted this stuff on GitHub last week. I mentioned it on the IF forum. And then I... sort of didn't announce it anywhere else.

The truth is, I didn't want to make a big fuss. You remember my post about trying to get the Infocom IP open-sourced? That's still in progress. (I made contact with some Activision/Microsoft folks, but big companies move very slowly. Still working on it -- nothing to announce -- watch this space please.)

A lawyer would say, "Don't keep releasing source code while you're negotiating with the original rights-holder". That would be good legal advice. I, er, ignored the good-advice part of my brain there.

I mean, Activision/Microsoft doesn't have any financial interest in these old interpreters. They're not part of any modern Infocom port. They don't represent beloved artistic works like the games. They're just infrastructure for 80s hardware.

At any rate, I did make them publicly visible on GitHub and the IF forum, and people noticed pretty quick. Slashdot and HackerNews picked up the story. So it's out there; fine; it was me what did it.

Enjoy, anyhow.

Yes, I plan to update my Obsessively Complete Infocom Catalog page to include this stuff. Eventually! The files have existed for a long time, and they're safe on GitHub now.

(You know, I only just now noticed that the correct abbreviation for Obsessively Complete Infocom Catalog is "ocicat". Now I will call it "ocicat" forever because ocicats are adorable.)

Monday, 20. November 2023

IFComp News

2023 IFComp Results & Survey

The results of the 2023 Interactive Fiction Competition are now live at If you missed the livestream, it will be available over the coming days at and is permanently archived over on YouTube at Of course, we are already planning for the ‘24 Comp. Please provide your feedback on what went well, wha

The results of the 2023 Interactive Fiction Competition are now live at

If you missed the livestream, it will be available over the coming days at and is permanently archived over on YouTube at

Of course, we are already planning for the ‘24 Comp. Please provide your feedback on what went well, what could have gone better, what we should do more of, and what we should consider changing or leaving behind:

We are so grateful to everyone who helped make this year’s comp happen.  Thank you!

PS - We made an IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENT during the awards stream: next year’s IFComp is bumped up one month so that IFComp no longer overlaps with ECTOCOMP. If you are thinking of entering the comp as an author in 2024, your game is due at the end of August instead of the end of September! Plan ahead!

Friday, 17. November 2023

Interactive Fiction – The Digital Antiquarian

Putting the “J” in the RPG, Part 1: Dorakue!

Fair warning: this article includes some plot spoilers of Final Fantasy I through VI. The videogame industry has always run on hype, but the amount of it that surrounded Final Fantasy VII in 1997 was unparalleled in its time. This new game for the Sony PlayStation console was simply inescapable. The American marketing teams of […]

Fair warning: this article includes some plot spoilers of Final Fantasy I through VI.

The videogame industry has always run on hype, but the amount of it that surrounded Final Fantasy VII in 1997 was unparalleled in its time. This new game for the Sony PlayStation console was simply inescapable. The American marketing teams of Sony and Square Corporation, the game’s Japanese developer and publisher, had been given $30 million with which to elevate Final Fantasy VII to the same status as the Super Marios of the world. They plastered Cloud, Aerith, Tifa, Sephiroth, and the game’s other soon-to-be-iconic characters onto urban billboards, onto the sides of buses, and into the pages of glossy magazines like Rolling Stone, Playboy, and Spin. Commercials for the game aired round the clock on MTV, during NFL games and Saturday Night Live, even on giant cinema screens in lieu of more traditional coming-attractions trailers. “They said it couldn’t be done in a major motion picture,” the stentorian announcer intoned. “They were right!” Even if you didn’t care a whit about videogames, you couldn’t avoid knowing that something pretty big was going down in that space.

And if you did care… oh, boy. The staffs of the videogame magazines, hardly known for their sober-mindedness in normal times, worked themselves up to positively orgasmic heights under Square’s not-so-gentle prodding. GameFan told its readers that Final Fantasy VII would be “unquestionably the greatest entertainment product ever created.”

The game is ridiculously beautiful. Analyze five minutes of gameplay in Final Fantasy VII and witness more artistic prowess than most entire games have. The level of detail is absolutely astounding. These graphics are impossible to describe; no words are great enough. Both map and battle graphics are rendered to a level of detail completely unprecedented in the videogame world. Before Final Fantasy VII, I couldn’t have imagined a game looking like this for many years, and that’s no exaggeration. One look at a cut scene or call spell should handily convince you. Final Fantasy VII looks so consistently great that you’ll quickly become numb to the power. Only upon playing another game will you once again realize just how fantastic it is.

But graphics weren’t all that the game had going for it. In fact, they weren’t even the aspect that would come to most indelibly define it for most of its players. No… that thing was, for the very first time in a mainstream console-based videogame with serious aspirations of becoming the toppermost of the poppermost, the story.

I don’t have any room to go into the details, but rest assured that Final Fantasy VII possesses the deepest, most involved story line ever in an RPG. There’s few games that have literally caused my jaw to drop at plot revelations, and I’m most pleased to say that Final Fantasy VII doles out these shocking, unguessable twists with regularity. You are constantly motivated to solve the latest mystery.

So, the hype rolled downhill, from Square at the top to the mass media, then on to the hardcore gamer magazines to ordinary owners of PlayStations. You would have to have been an iconoclastic PlayStation owner indeed not to be shivering with anticipation as the weeks counted down toward the game’s September 7 release. (Owners of other consoles could eat their hearts out; Final Fantasy VII was a PlayStation exclusive.)

Just last year, a member of an Internet gaming forum still fondly recalled how

the lead-up for the US launch of this game was absolutely insane, and, speaking personally, it is the most excited about a game I think I had ever been in my life, and nothing has come close since then. I was only fifteen at the time, and this game totally overtook all my thoughts and imagination. I had never even played a Final Fantasy game before, and I didn’t even like RPGs, yet I would spend hours reading and rereading all the articles from all the gaming magazines I had, inspecting all the screenshots and being absolutely blown away at the visual fidelity I was witnessing. I spent multiple days/hours with my Sony Discman listening to music and drawing the same artwork that was in all the mags. It was literally a genre- and generation-defining game.

Those who preferred to do their gaming on personal computers rather than consoles might be excused for scoffing at all these breathless commentators who seemed to presume that Final Fantasy VII was doing something that had never been done before. If you spent your days playing Quake, Final Fantasy VII‘s battle graphics probably weren’t going to impress you overmuch; if you knew, say, Toonstruck, even the cut scenes might strike you as pretty crude. And then, too, computer-based adventure games and RPGs had been delivering well-developed long-form interactive narratives for many years by 1997, most recently with a decidedly cinematic bent more often than not, with voice actors in place of Final Fantasy VII‘s endless text boxes. Wasn’t Final Fantasy VII just a case of console gamers belatedly catching on to something computer gamers had known all along, and being forced to do so in a technically inferior fashion at that?

Well, yes and no. It’s abundantly true that much of what struck so many as so revelatory about Final Fantasy VII really wasn’t anywhere near as novel as they thought it was. At the same time, though, the aesthetic and design philosophies which it applied to the abstract idea of the RPG truly were dramatically different from the set of approaches favored by Western studios. They were so different, in fact, that the RPG genre in general would be forever bifurcated in gamers’ minds going forward, as the notion of the “JRPG” — the Japanese RPG — entered the gaming lexicon. In time, the label would be applied to games that didn’t actually come from Japan at all, but that evinced the set of styles and approaches so irrevocably cemented in the Western consciousness under the label of “Japanese” by Final Fantasy VII.

We might draw a parallel with what happened in music in the 1960s. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and all the other Limey bands who mounted the so-called “British Invasion” of their former Colonies in 1964 had all spent their adolescence steeped in American rock and roll. They took those influences, applied their own British twist to them, then sold them back to American teenagers, who screamed and fainted in the concert halls like Final Fantasy VII fans later would in the pages of the gaming magazines, convinced that the rapture they were feeling was brought on by something genuinely new under the sun — which in the aggregate it was, of course. It took the Japanese to teach Americans how thrilling and accessible — even how emotionally moving — the gaming genre they had invented could truly be.

The roots of the JRPG can be traced back not just to the United States but to a very specific place and time there: to the American Midwest in the early 1970s, where and when Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, a pair of stolid grognards who would have been utterly nonplussed by the emotional histrionics of a Final Fantasy VII, created a “single-unit wargame” called Dungeons & Dragons. I wrote quite some years ago on this site that their game’s “impact on the culture at large has been, for better or for worse, greater than that of any single novel, film, or piece of music to appear during its lifetime.” I almost want to dismiss those words now as the naïve hyperbole of a younger self. But the thing is, I can’t; I have no choice but to stand by them. Dungeons & Dragons really was that earthshaking, not only in the obvious ways — it’s hard to imagine the post-millennial craze for fantasy in mass media, from the Lord of the Rings films to Game of Thrones, ever taking hold without it — but also in subtler yet ultimately more important ones, in the way it changed the role we play in our entertainments from that of passive spectators to active co-creators, making interactivity the watchword of an entire age of media.

The early popularity of Dungeons & Dragons coincided with the rise of accessible computing, and this proved a potent combination. Fans of the game with access to PLATO, a groundbreaking online community rooted in American universities, moved it as best they could onto computers, yielding the world’s first recognizable CRPGs. Then a couple of PLATO users named Robert Woodhead and Andrew Greenberg made a game of this type for the Apple II personal computer in 1981, calling it Wizardry. Meanwhile Richard Garriott was making Ultima, a different take on the same broad concept of “Dungeons & Dragons on a personal computer.”

By the time Final Fantasy VII stormed the gates of the American market so triumphantly in 1997, the cultures of gaming in the United States and Japan had diverged so markedly that one could almost believe they had never had much of anything to do with one another. Yet in these earliest days of digital gaming — long before the likes of the Nintendo Entertainment System, when Japanese games meant only coin-op arcade hits like Space Invaders, Pac-Man, and Donkey Kong in the minds of most Americans — there was in fact considerable cross-pollination. For Japan was the second place in the world after North America where reasonably usable, pre-assembled, consumer-grade personal computers could be readily purchased; the Japanese Sharp MZ80K and Hitachi MB-6880 trailed the American Trinity of 1977 — the Radio Shack TRS-80, Apple II, and Commodore PET — by less than a year. If these two formative cultures of computing didn’t talk to one another, whom else could they talk to?

Thus pioneering American games publishers like Sierra On-Line and Brøderbund forged links with counterparts in Japan. A Japanese company known as Starcraft became the world’s first gaming localizer, specializing in porting American games to Japanese computers and translating their text into Japanese for the domestic market. As late as the summer of 1985, Roe R. Adams III could write in Computer Gaming World that Sierra’s sprawling twelve-disk-side adventure game Time Zone, long since written off at home as a misbegotten white elephant, “is still high on the charts after three years” in Japan. Brøderbund’s platformer Lode Runner was even bigger, having swum like a salmon upstream in Japan, being ported from home computers to coin-op arcade machines rather than the usual reverse. It had even spawned the world’s first e-sports league, whose matches were shown on Japanese television.

At that time, the first Wizardry game and the second and third Ultima had only recently been translated and released in Japan. And yet if Adams was to be believed,[1]Adams was not an entirely disinterested observer. He was already working with Robert Woodhead on Wizardry IV, and had in fact accompanied him to Japan in this capacity. both games already

have huge followings. The computer magazines cover Lord British [Richard Garriott’s nom de plume] like our National Inquirer would cover a television star. When Robert Woodhead of Wizardry fame was recently in Japan, he was practically mobbed by autograph seekers. Just introducing himself in a computer store would start a near-stampede as people would run outside to shout that he was inside.

Robert Woodhead with Japanese Wizardry fans.

The Wizardry and Ultima pump had been primed in Japan by a game called The Black Onyx, created the year before in their image for the Japanese market by an American named Henk Rogers.[2]A man with an international perspective if ever there was one, Rogers would later go on to fame and fortune as the man who brought Tetris out of the Soviet Union. But his game was quickly eclipsed by the real deals that came directly out of the United States.

Wizardry in particular became a smashing success in Japan, even as a rather lackadaisical attitude toward formal and audiovisual innovation on the part of its masterminds was already condemning it to also-ran status against Ultima and its ilk in the United States. It undoubtedly helped that Wizardry was published in Japan by ASCII Corporation, that country’s nearest equivalent to Microsoft, with heaps of marketing clout and distributional muscle to bring to bear on any challenge. So, while the Wizardry series that American gamers knew petered out in somewhat anticlimactic fashion in the early 1990s after seven games,[3]It would be briefly revived for one final game, the appropriately named Wizardry 8, in 2001. it spawned close to a dozen Japanese-exclusive titles later in that decade alone, plus many more after the millennium, such that the franchise remains to this day far better known by everyday gamers in Japan than it is in the United States. Robert Woodhead himself spent two years in Japan in the early 1990s working on what would have been a Wizardry MMORPG, if it hadn’t proved to be just too big a mouthful for the hardware and telecommunications infrastructure at his disposal.

Box art helps to demonstrate Wizardry‘s uncanny legacy in Japan. Here we see the original 1981 American release of the first game.

And here we have a Japan-only Wizardry from a decade later, self-consciously echoing a foreboding, austere aesthetic that had become more iconic in Japan than it had ever been in its home country. (American Wizardry boxes from the period look nothing like this, being illustrated in a more conventional, colorful epic-fantasy style.)

Much of the story of such cultural exchanges inevitably becomes a tale of translation. In its original incarnation, the first Wizardry game had had the merest wisp of a plot. In this as in all other respects it was a classic hack-and-slash dungeon crawler: work your way down through ten dungeon levels and kill the evil wizard, finito. What background context there was tended to be tongue-in-cheek, more Piers Anthony than J.R.R. Tolkien; the most desirable sword in the game was called the “Blade of Cuisinart,” for Pete’s sake. Wizardry‘s Japanese translators, however, took it all in with wide-eyed earnestness, missing the winking and nodding entirely. They saw a rather grim, austere milieu a million miles away from the game that Americans knew — a place where a Cuisinart wasn’t a stainless-steel food processor but a portentous ancient warrior clan.

When the Japanese started to make their own Wizardry games, they continued in this direction, to almost hilarious effect if one knew the source material behind their efforts; it rather smacks of the post-apocalyptic monks in A Canticle for Liebowitz making a theology for themselves out of the ephemeral advertising copy of their pre-apocalyptic forebears. A franchise that had in its first several American releases aspired to be about nothing more than killing monsters for loot — and many of them aggressively silly monsters at that — gave birth to audio CDs full of po-faced stories and lore, anime films and manga books, a sprawling line of toys and miniature figures, even a complete tabletop RPG system. But, lest we Westerners begin to feel too smug about all this, know that the same process would eventually come to work in reverse in the JRPG field, with nuanced Japanese writing being flattened out and flat-out misunderstood by clueless American translators.

The history of Wizardry in Japan is fascinating by dint of its sheer unlikeliness, but the game’s importance on the global stage actually stems more from the Japanese games it influenced than from the ones that bore the Wizardry name right there on the box. For Wizardry, along with the early Ultima games, happened to catch the attention of Koichi Nakamura and Yuji Horii, a software-development duo who had already made several games together for a Japanese publisher called Enix. “Horii-san was really into Ultima, and I was really into Wizardry,” remembers Nakamura. This made sense. Nakamura was the programmer of the pair, naturally attracted to Wizardry‘s emphasis on tactics and systems. Horii, on the other hand, was the storytelling type, who wrote for manga magazines in addition to games, and was thus drawn to Ultima‘s quirkier, more sprawling world and its spirit of open-ended exploration. The pair decided to make their own RPG for the Japanese market, combining what they each saw as the best parts of Wizardry and Ultima.

Yuji Horii in the 1980s. Little known outside his home country, he is a celebrity inside its borders. In his book on Japanese videogame culture, Chris Kohler calls him a Steven Spielberg-like figure there, in terms both of name recognition and the style of entertainment he represents.

This was interesting, but not revolutionary in itself; you’ll remember that Henk Rogers had already done essentially the same thing in Japan with The Black Onyx before Wizardry and Ultima ever officially arrived there. Nevertheless, the choices Nakamura and Horii made as they set about their task give them a better claim to the title of revolutionaries on this front than Rogers enjoys. They decided that making a game that combined the best of Wizardry and Ultima really did mean just that: it did not mean, that is to say, throwing together every feature of each which they could pack in and calling it a day, as many a Western developer might have. They decided to make a game that was simpler than either of its inspirations, much less the two of them together.

Their reasons for doing so were artistic, commercial, and technical. In the realm of the first, Horii in particular just didn’t like overly complicated games; he was the kind of player who would prefer never to have to glance at a manual, whose ideal game intuitively communicated to you everything you needed to know in order to play it. In the realm of the second, the pair was sure that the average Japanese person, like the average person in most countries, felt the same as Horii; even in the United States, Ultima and Wizardry were niche products, and Nakamura and Horii had mass-market ambitions. And in the realm of the third, they were sharply limited in how much they could put into their RPG anyway, because they intended it for the Nintendo Famicom console, where their entire game — code, data, graphics, and sound — would have to fit onto a 64 K cartridge in lieu of floppy disks and would have to be steerable using an eight-button controller in lieu of a keyboard. Luckily, Nakamura and Horii already had experience with just this sort of simplification. Their most recent output had been inspired by the adventure games of American companies like Sierra and Infocom, but had replaced those games’ text parsers with controller-friendly multiple-choice menus.

In deciding to put American RPGs through the same wringer, they established one of the core attributes of the JRPG sub-genre: generally speaking, these games were and would remain simpler than their Western counterparts, which sometimes seemed to positively revel in their complexity as a badge of honor. Another attribute emerged fully-formed from the writerly heart of Yuji Horii. He crafted an unusually rich, largely linear plot for the game. Rather than being a disadvantage, he thought linearity would make this new style of console game “more accessible to consumers”: “We really focused on ensuring people would be able to experience the fun of the story.”

He called upon his friends at the manga magazines to help him illustrate his tale with large, colorful figures in that distinctly Japanese style that has become so immediately recognizable all over the world. At this stage, it was perhaps more prevalent on the box than in the game itself, the Famicom’s graphical fidelity being what it was. Nonetheless, another precedent that has held true in JRPGs right down to the present day was set by the overall visual aesthetic of this, the canonical first example of the breed. Ditto its audio aesthetic, which took the form of a memorable, melodic, eminently hummable chip-tune soundtrack. “From the very beginning, we wanted to create a warm, inviting world,” says Horii.

Dragon Quest. Ultima veterans will almost expect to meet Lord British on his throne somewhere. With its overhead view and its large over-world full of towns to be visited, Dragon Quest owed even more to Ultima than it did to Wizardry — unsurprisingly so, given that the former was the American RPG which its chief creative architect Yuji Horii preferred.

Dragon Quest was released on May 27, 1986. Console gamers — not only those in Japan, but anywhere on the globe — had never seen anything like it. Playing this game to the end was a long-form endeavor that could stretch out over weeks or months; you wrote down an alphanumeric code it provided to you on exit, then entered this code when you returned to the game in order to jump back to wherever you had left off.

That said, the fact that the entire game state could be packed into a handful of numbers and letters does serve to illustrate just how simple Dragon Quest really was at bottom. By the standards of only a few years later, much less today, it was pretty boring. Fighting random monsters wasn’t so much a distraction from the rest of the game as the only thing available to do; the grinding was the game. In 2012, critic Nick Simberg wondered at “how willing we were to sit down on the couch and fight the same ten enemies over and over for hours, just building up gold and experience points”; he compared Dragon Quest to “a child’s first crayon drawing, stuck with a magnet to the fridge.”

And yet, as the saying goes, you have to start somewhere. Japanese gamers were amazed and entranced, buying 1 million copies of Dragon Quest in its first six months, over 2 million copies in all. And so a new sub-genre was born, inspired by American games but indelibly Japanese in a way The Black Onyx had not been. Many or most of the people who played and enjoyed Dragon Quest had never even heard of its original wellspring Dungeons & Dragons.

We all know what happens when a game becomes a hit on the scale of Dragon Quest. There were sequels — two within two years of the first game, then three more in the eight years after them, as the demands of higher production values slowed down Enix’s pace a bit. Wizardry was big in Japan, but it was nothing compared to Dragon Quest, which sold 2.4 million copies in its second incarnation, followed by an extraordinary 3.8 million copies in its third. Middle managers and schoolmasters alike learned to dread the release of a new entry in the franchise, as about half the population of Japan under a certain age would invariably call in sick that day. When Enix started bringing out the latest games on non-business days, a widespread urban legend said this had been done in accordance with a decree from the Japanese Diet, which demanded that “henceforth Dragon Quest games are to be released on Sunday or national holidays only”; the urban legend wasn’t true, but the fact that so many people in Japan could so easily believe it says something in itself. Just as the early American game Adventure lent its name to an entire genre that followed it, the Japanese portmanteau word for “Dragon Quest” — Dorakue — became synonymous with the RPG in general there, such that when you told someone you were “playing dorakue” you might really be playing one of the series’s countless imitators.

Giving any remotely complete overview of these dorakue games would require dozens of articles, along with someone to write them who knows far more about them than I do. But one name is inescapable in the field. I refer, of course, to Final Fantasy.

Hironobu Sakaguchi in 1991.

Legend has it that Hironobu Sakaguchi, the father of Final Fantasy, chose that name because he thought that the first entry in the eventual franchise would be the last videogame he ever made. A former professional musician with numerous and diverse interests, Sakaguchi had been working for the Japanese software developer and publisher Square for a few years already by 1987, designing and programming Famicom action games that he himself found rather banal and that weren’t even selling all that well. He felt ready to do something else with his life, was poised to go back to university to try to figure out what that thing ought to be. But before he did so, he wanted to try something completely different at Square.

Another, less dramatic but probably more accurate version of the origin story has it that Sakaguchi simply liked the way the words “final’ and “fantasy” sounded together. At any rate, he convinced his managers to give him half a dozen assistants and six months to make a dorakue game.[4]In another unexpected link between East and West, one of his most important assistants became Nasir Gebelli, an Iranian who had fled his country’s revolution for the United States in 1979 and become a game-programming rock star on the Apple II. After the heyday of the lone-wolf bedroom auteur began to fade there, Doug Carlston, the head of Brøderbund, brokered a job for him with his friends in Japan. There he maximized the Famicom’s potential in the same way he had that of the Apple II, despite not speaking a word of Japanese when he arrived. (“We’d go to a restaurant and no matter what he’d order — spaghetti or eggs — they’d always bring out steak,” Sakaguchi laughs.) Gebelli would program the first three Final Fantasy games almost all by himself.


Final Fantasy I.

The very first Final Fantasy may not have looked all that different from Dragon Quest at first glance — it was still a Famicom game, after all, with all the audiovisual limitations that implies — but it had a story line that was more thematically thorny and logistically twisted than anything Yuji Horii might have come up with. As it began, you found yourself in the midst of a quest to save a princess from an evil knight, which certainly sounded typical enough to anyone who had ever played a dorakue game before. In this case, however, you completed that task within an hour, only to learn that it was just a prologue to the real plot. In his book-length history and study of the aesthetics of Japanese videogames, Chris Kohler detects an implicit message here: “Final Fantasy is about much more than saving the princess. Compared to the adventure that is about to take place, saving a princess is merely child’s play.” In fact, only after the prologue was complete did the opening credits finally roll, thus displaying another consistent quality of Final Fantasy: its love of unabashedly cinematic drama.

Still, for all that it was more narratively ambitious than what had come before, the first Final Fantasy can, like the first Dragon Quest, seem a stunted creation today. Technical limitations meant that you still spent 95 percent of your time just grinding for experience. “Final Fantasy may have helped build the genre, but it didn’t necessarily know exactly how to make it fun,” acknowledges Aidan Moher in his book about JRPGs. And yet when it came to dorakue games in the late 1980s, it seemed that Sakaguchi’s countrymen were happy to reward even the potential for eventual fun. They made Final Fantasy the solid commercial success that had heretofore hovered so frustratingly out of reach of its creator; it sold 400,000 copies. Assured that he would never have to work on a mindless action game again, Sakaguchi agreed to stay on at Square to build upon its template.

Final Fantasy II, which was released exactly one year after the first game in December of 1988 and promptly doubled its sales, added more essential pieces to what would become the franchise’s template. Although labelled and marketed as a sequel, its setting, characters, and plot had no relation to what had come before. Going forward, it would remain a consistent point of pride with Sakaguchi to come up with each new Final Fantasy from whole cloth, even when fans begged him for a reunion with their favorite places and people. In a world afflicted with the sequelitis that ours is, he can only be commended for sticking to his guns.

In another sense, though, Final Fantasy II was notable for abandoning a blank slate rather than embracing it. For the first time, its players were given a pre-made party full of pre-made personalities to guide rather than being allowed to roll their own. Although they could rename the characters if they were absolutely determined to do so — this ability would be retained as a sort of vestigial feature as late as Final Fantasy VII — they were otherwise set in stone, the better to serve the needs of the set-piece story Sakaguchi wanted to tell. This approach, which many players of Western RPGs did and still do regard as a betrayal of one of the core promises of the genre, would become commonplace in JRPGs. Few contrasts illustrate so perfectly the growing divide between these two visions of the RPG: the one open-ended and player-driven, sometimes to a fault; the other tightly scripted and story-driven, again sometimes to a fault. In a Western RPG, you write a story for yourself; in a JRPG, you live a story that someone else has already written for you.

Consider, for example, the two lineage’s handling of mortality. If one of your characters dies in battle in a Western RPG, it might be difficult and expensive, or in some cases impossible, to restore her to life; in this case, you either revert to an earlier saved state or you just accept her death as another part of the story you’re writing and move on to the next chapter with an appropriately heavy heart. In a JRPG, on the other hand, death in battle is never final; it’s almost always easy to bring a character who gets beat down to zero hit points back to life. What are truly fatal, however, are pre-scripted deaths, the ones the writers have deemed necessary for storytelling purposes. Final Fantasy II already contained the first of these; years later, Final Fantasy VII would be host to the most famous of them all, a death so shocking that you just have to call it that scene and everyone who has ever played the game will immediately know what you’re talking about. To steal a phrase from Graham Nelson, the narrative always trumps the crossword in JRPGs; they happily override their gameplay mechanics whenever the story they wish to tell demands it, creating an artistic and systemic discontinuity that’s enough to make Aristotle roll over in his grave. Yet a huge global audience of players are not bothered at all by it — not if the story is good enough.

But we’ve gotten somewhat ahead of ourselves; the evolution of the 1980s JRPG toward the modern-day template came in fits and starts rather than a linear progression. Final Fantasy III, which was released in 1990, actually returned to a player-generated party, and yet the market failed to punish it for its conservatism. Far from it: it sold 1.4 million copies.

Final Fantasy IV, on the other hand, chose to double down on the innovations Final Fantasy II had deployed, and sold in about the same numbers as Final Fantasy III. Released in July of 1991, it provided you with not just a single pre-made party but an array of characters who moved in and out of your control as the needs of the plot dictated, thereby setting yet another longstanding precedent for the series going forward. Ditto the nature of the plot, which leaned into shades of gray as never before. Chris Kohler:

The story deals with mature themes and complex characters. In Final Fantasy II, the squeaky-clean main characters were attacked by purely evil dark knights; here, our main character is a dark knight struggling with his position, paid to kill innocents, trying to reconcile loyalty to his kingdom with his sense of right and wrong. He is involved in a sexual relationship. His final mission for the king turns out to be a mass murder: the “phantom monsters” are really just a town of peaceful humans whose magic the corrupt king has deemed dangerous. (Note the heavy political overtones.)

Among Western RPGs, only the more recent Ultima games had dared to deviate so markedly from the absolute-good-versus-absolute-evil tales of everyday heroic fantasy. (In fact, the plot of Final Fantasy IV bears a lot of similarities to that of Ultima V…)

Ever since Final Fantasy IV, the series has been filled with an inordinate number of moody young James Deans and long-suffering Natalie Woods who love them.

Final Fantasy IV was also notable for introducing an “active-time battle system,” a hybrid between the turn-based systems the series had previously employed and real-time combat, designed to provide some of the excitement of the latter without completely sacrificing the tactical affordances of the former. (In a nutshell, if you spend too long deciding what to do when it’s your turn, the enemies will jump in and take another turn of their own while you dilly-dally.) It too would remain a staple of the franchise for many installments to come.

Final Fantasy V, which was released in December of 1992, was like Final Fantasy III something of a placeholder or even a retrenchment, dialing back on several of the fourth game’s innovations. It sold almost 2.5 million copies.

Both the fourth and fifth games had been made for the Super Famicom, Nintendo’s 16-bit successor to its first console, and sported correspondingly improved production values. But most JRPG fans agree that it was with the sixth game — the last for the Super Famicom — that all the pieces finally came together into a truly friction-less whole. Indeed, a substantial and vocal minority will tell you that Final Fantasy VI rather than its immediate successor is the best Final Fantasy ever, balanced perfectly between where the series had been and where it was going.

Final Fantasy VI abandoned conventional epic-fantasy settings for a steampunk milieu out of Jules Verne. As we’ll see in a later article, Final Fantasy VII‘s setting would deviate even more from the norm. This creative restlessness is one of the series’s best traits, standing it in good stead in comparison to the glut of nearly indistinguishably Tolkienesque Western RPGs of the 1980s and 1990s.

From its ominous opening-credits sequence on, Final Fantasy VI strained for a gravitas that no previous JRPG had approached, and arguably succeeded in achieving it at least intermittently. It played out on a scale that had never been seen before; by the end of the game, more than a dozen separate characters had moved in and out of your party. Chris Kohler identifies the game’s main theme as “love in all its forms — romantic love, parental love, sibling love, and platonic love. Sakaguchi asks the player, what is love and where can we find it?”

Before that scene in Final Fantasy VII, Hironobu Sakaguchi served up a shocker of equal magnitude in Final Fantasy VI. Halfway through the game, the bad guys win despite your best efforts and the world effectively ends, leaving your party wandering through a post-apocalyptic World of Ruin like the characters in a Harlan Ellison story. The effect this had on some players’ emotions could verge on traumatizing — heady stuff for a videogame on a console still best known worldwide as the cuddly home of Super Mario. For many of its young players, Final Fantasy VI was their first close encounter on their own recognizance — i.e., outside of compulsory school assignments — with the sort of literature that attempts to move beyond tropes to truly, thoughtfully engage with the human condition.

It’s easy for an old, reasonably well-read guy like me to mock Final Fantasy VI‘s highfalutin aspirations, given that they’re stuffed into a game that still resolves at the granular level into bobble-headed figures fighting cartoon monsters. And it’s equally easy to scoff at the heavy-handed emotional manipulation that has always been part and parcel of the JRPG; subtle the sub-genre most definitely is not. Nonetheless, meaningful literature is where you find it, and the empathy it engenders can only be welcomed in a world in desperate need of it. Whatever else you can say about Final Fantasy and most of its JRPG cousins, the messages these games convey are generally noble ones, about friendship, loyalty, and the necessity of trying to do the right thing in hard situations, even when it isn’t so easy to even figure out what the right thing is. While these messages are accompanied by plenty of violence in the abstract, it is indeed abstracted — highly stylized and, what with the bifurcation between game and story that is so prevalent in the sub-genre, often oddly divorced from the games’ core themes.

Released in April of 1994, Final Fantasy VI sold 2.6 million copies in Japan. By this point the domestic popularity of the Final Fantasy franchise as a whole was rivaled only by that of Super Mario and Dragon Quest; two of the three biggest gaming franchises in Japan, that is to say, were dorakue games. In the Western world, however, the picture was quite different.

In the United States, the first-generation Nintendo Famicom was known as the Nintendo Entertainment System, the juggernaut of a console that rescued videogames in the eyes of the wider culture from the status of a brief-lived fad to that of a long-lived entertainment staple, on par with movies in terms of economics if not cachet. Yet JRPGs weren’t a part of that initial success story. The first example of the breed didn’t even reach American shores until 1989. It was, appropriately enough, the original Dragon Quest, the game that had started it all in Japan; it was renamed Dragon Warrior for the American market, due to a conflict with an old American tabletop RPG by the name of Dragonquest whose trademarks had been acquired by the notoriously litigious TSR of Dungeons & Dragons fame. Enix did make some efforts to modernize the game, such as replacing the password-based saving system with a battery that let you save your state to the cartridge itself. (This same method had been adopted by Final Fantasy and most other post-Dragon Quest JRPGs on the Japanese market as well.) But American console gamers had no real frame of reference for Dragon Warrior, and even the marketing geniuses of Nintendo, which published the game itself in North America, struggled to provide them one. With cartridges piling up in Stateside warehouses, they were reduced to giving away hundreds of thousands of copies of Dragon Warrior to the subscribers of Nintendo Power magazine. For some of these, the game came as a revelation seven years before Final Fantasy VII; for most, it was an inscrutable curiosity that was quickly tossed aside.

Final Fantasy I, on the other hand, received a more encouraging reception in the United States when it reached there in 1990: it sold 700,000 copies, 300,000 more than it had managed in Japan. Nevertheless, with the 8-bit Nintendo console reaching the end of its lifespan, Square didn’t bother to export the next two games in the series. It did export Final Fantasy IV for the Super Famicom — or rather the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, as it was known in the West. The results were disappointing in light of the previous game’s reception, so much so that Square didn’t export Final Fantasy V.[5]Square did release a few spinoff games under the Final Fantasy label in the United States and Europe as another way of testing the Western market: Final Fantasy Legend and Final Fantasy Adventure for the Nintendo Game Boy handheld console, and Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest for the Super Nintendo. Although none of them were huge sellers, the Game Boy titles in particular have their fans even today. This habit of skipping over parts of the series led to a confusing state of affairs whereby the American Final Fantasy II was the Japanese Final Fantasy IV and the American Final Fantasy III was the Japanese Final Fantasy VI. The latter game shifted barely one-fourth as many copies in the three-times larger American marketplace as it had in Japan — not disastrous numbers, but still less than the first Final Fantasy had managed.

The heart of the problem was translation, in both the literal sense of the words on the screen and a broader cultural sense. Believing with some justification that the early American consoles from Atari and others had been undone by a glut of substandard product, Nintendo had long made a science out of the polishing of gameplay, demanding that every prospective release survive an unrelenting testing gauntlet before it was granted the “Nintendo Seal of Quality” and approved for sale. But the company had no experience or expertise in polishing text to a similar degree. In most cases, this didn’t matter; most Nintendo games contained very little text anyway. But RPGs were the exception. The increasingly intricate story lines which JRPGs were embracing by the early 1990s demanded good translations by native speakers. What many of them actually got was something very different, leaving even those American gamers who wanted to fall in love baffled by the Japanese-English-dictionary-derived word salads they saw before them. And then, too, many of the games’ cultural concerns and references were distinctly Japanese, such that even a perfect translation might have left Americans confused. It was, one might say, the Blade of Cuisinart problem in reverse.

To be sure, there were Americans who found all of the barriers to entry into these deeply foreign worlds to be more bracing than intimidating, who took on the challenge of meeting the games on their own terms, often emerging with a lifelong passion for all things Japanese. At this stage, though, they were the distinct minority. In Japan and the United States alike, the conventional wisdom through the mid-1990s was that JRPGs didn’t and couldn’t sell well overseas; this was regarded as a fact of life as fundamental as the vagaries of climate. (Thanks to this belief, none of the mainline Final Fantasy games to date had been released in Europe at all.) It would take Final Fantasy VII and a dramatic, controversial switch of platforms on the part of Square to change that. But once those things happened… look out. The JRPG would conquer the world yet.

Where to Get It: Remastered and newly translated versions of the Japanese Final Fantasy I, II, III, IV, V, and VI are available on Steam. The Dragon Quest series has been converted to iOS and Android apps, just a search away on the Apple and Google stores.

Did you enjoy this article? If so, please think about pitching in to help me make many more like it. You can pledge any amount you like.

Sources: the books Pure Invention: How Japan Made the Modern World by Matt Alt, Power-Up: How Japanese Video Games Gave the World an Extra Life by Chris Kohler, Fight, Magic, Items: The History of Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and the Rise of Japanese RPGs in the West by Aidan Moher, and Atari to Zelda: Japan’s Videogames in Global Contexts by Mia Consalvo. GameFan of September 1997; Retro Gamer 69, 108, and 170; Computer Gaming World of September 1985 and December 1992.

Online sources include Polygon‘s authoritative Final Fantasy 7: An Oral History”; “The Long Life of the Original Wizardry by guest poster Alex on The CRPG Addict blog; Wizardry: Japanese Franchise Outlook” by Sam Derboo at Hardcore Gaming 101, plus an interview Robert Woodhead, conducted by Jared Petty at the same site; Wizardry‘s Wild Ride from West to East” at VentureBeat; “The Secret History of AnimEigo” at that company’s homepage; Robert Woodhead’s slides from a presentation at the 2022 KansasFest Apple II convention; a post on tabletop Wizardry at the Japanese Tabletop RPG blog; and Dragon Warrior: Aging Disgracefully” by Nick Simberg at (the now-defunct) DamnLag.


1 Adams was not an entirely disinterested observer. He was already working with Robert Woodhead on Wizardry IV, and had in fact accompanied him to Japan in this capacity.
2 A man with an international perspective if ever there was one, Rogers would later go on to fame and fortune as the man who brought Tetris out of the Soviet Union.
3 It would be briefly revived for one final game, the appropriately named Wizardry 8, in 2001.
4 In another unexpected link between East and West, one of his most important assistants became Nasir Gebelli, an Iranian who had fled his country’s revolution for the United States in 1979 and become a game-programming rock star on the Apple II. After the heyday of the lone-wolf bedroom auteur began to fade there, Doug Carlston, the head of Brøderbund, brokered a job for him with his friends in Japan. There he maximized the Famicom’s potential in the same way he had that of the Apple II, despite not speaking a word of Japanese when he arrived. (“We’d go to a restaurant and no matter what he’d order — spaghetti or eggs — they’d always bring out steak,” Sakaguchi laughs.) Gebelli would program the first three Final Fantasy games almost all by himself.
5 Square did release a few spinoff games under the Final Fantasy label in the United States and Europe as another way of testing the Western market: Final Fantasy Legend and Final Fantasy Adventure for the Nintendo Game Boy handheld console, and Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest for the Super Nintendo. Although none of them were huge sellers, the Game Boy titles in particular have their fans even today.

Wednesday, 15. November 2023

The Rosebush

Behind “The Bloody Wallpaper”

In “The Bloody Wallpaper” the player is conscripted to work in a luxury hotel for a single evening. But menial labor isn’t famous for being fun, and “The Bloody Wallpaper” is premium DLC for an online game: it needs to be fun, doesn’t it?

Chandler Groover discusses the design of gameplay meant to evoke the frustration of menial labor without being frustrating.

Setting the Scene

In the late 19th century, Queen Victoria struck a bargain with supernatural powers and sold the City of London. The entire metropolis—buildings, streets, and even the Thames—was subsequently engulfed by bats, plucked from England, and transported into a massive underground cavern. All the people were transported too. Now the city sits next to Hell. Lovecraftian beasts mingle with aristocrats. Dreamers can physically enter their dreams, and nightmares leak into reality.

This is the setting for Fallen London. Developed by Failbetter Games, Fallen London was first launched in 2009 and has been running continuously ever since. It’s a browser-based text game with single-player and multi-player elements. Players create characters, navigate the city’s Gothic horrors, develop skills like Glasswork (the ability to pass through mirrors) and Kataleptic Toxicology (the mastery of fantastical poisons), while striving to avoid penalties like Suspicion and Scandal.

A partially-melted candle with 19/20 actions remaining. "Next in 4:04" announces when the last action will regenerate, refilling the counter to 20/20.

The game employs turn-based timers called Candles. By performing actions, you gradually burn down your Candle; to keep playing, you have to wait for the Candle’s flame to recharge. This means that it takes real time to complete stories in the setting, and the setting contains hundreds, each with their own plots, characters, and mechanics.

Most of Fallen London is free to play, but players can purchase premium Exceptional Stories. These stories function like DLC and plug into the base game. Because they’re self-contained, Failbetter can experiment with different narrative designs for each one. Their publication model also allows the studio to showcase work from different authors. Since April 2015, they’ve published a new story every month, and I was commissioned to write their 100th Exceptional Story: “The Bloody Wallpaper.”1

To commemorate the milestone, “The Bloody Wallpaper” is a special Exceptional Story. For one thing, it’s much longer than almost any other story in Fallen London’s catalogue. It’s also more idiosyncratic. I’d like to discuss its design, but in order to do that, it’s important to explain how it fits into the game’s overarching narrative—and how class informs that narrative.

Climbing the Social Ladder

Players can roleplay as a variety of characters in Fallen London: monster-hunters, arcane scholars, priests, bohemians, spies, and assassins (just to name a few options). No matter what roleplaying choices you make, however, everyone begins the game the same way: by breaking out of prison.

As an escaped convict, you start your journey penniless, unhoused, without friends or acquaintances. But you quickly work your way up the social ladder—by ingratiating yourself with influential figures, increasing your skills, and performing notable feats. More than anything else, you accumulate wealth—not just money, but also abstract currencies like Blackmail Material and Favours in High Places.

In the world of Fallen London, economic power has occult resonance. This underpins the game’s horror. The forces of capitalism are “cosmic principles” embedded in the universe. Social hierarchies are supernaturally mandated, and the authorities who rule London—known as the Masters of the Bazaar—have monopolized everything from iron to wine to dreams. Love itself is taxed.

A great deal of Fallen London is concerned with deconstructing the city’s economic and social systems. Entire factions, such as the Revolutionaries, are concerned with deconstructing these systems literally. Nevertheless, to advance through the game, one must climb the social ladder. After climbing high enough, the player can become a “Person of Some Importance”—with “importance” linked directly to economic influence within London’s capitalist dystopia.

In other words, if you aren’t rich, then your life isn’t important.

Of course, this is an oversimplification, especially when you consider how many stories Fallen London contains, how they each explore the setting differently, and how roleplaying can shape the game uniquely for everyone. But the core gameplay progression entrenches London’s class system, and even the most revolutionary players will ascend into royal orbits by amassing capital.

One way the text represents the player’s upper-class lifestyle is by not representing the lower-class servants who populate London—and who staff the player’s own lodgings. This narrative technique—communicating a presence via an absence—subversively echoes 19th-century British fiction, where servants are commonly taken for granted and therefore not described.2

For the game’s 100th Exceptional Story, I wanted to invert the default focus and give service work the spotlight. “The Bloody Wallpaper” strips the player’s advantages—financial, social, political—and its mechanics are designed to simulate menial labor. In this Exceptional Story, the player is conscripted to work in a luxury hotel for a single evening. But menial labor isn’t famous for being fun, and “The Bloody Wallpaper” is premium DLC for an online game: it needs to be fun, doesn’t it?

Are You Not Entertained?

The question of whether “fun” should be the primary objective of games as a medium will never have a universal answer. Players will always have personal tastes and, perhaps more importantly, individual tolerance levels for difficulty. But certain studios have built entire brands around the grueling reputation of their games. FromSoftware’s Dark Souls is marketed with the now-infamous tagline: “Prepare To Die.” Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy advertises itself as a game “made for a certain kind of person. To hurt them.” And the “bullet hell” genre has “hell” right in the name.

Then again, even these games might be said to entertain people with frustration. A dash of masochism may be necessary for players to enjoy them, but players do enjoy them. The greater the challenge, the more satisfying it is to overcome—if you’re up for a little struggle.

Fallen London itself employs grueling mechanics in the optional questline “Seeking Mr Eaten’s Name,” which repeatedly warns the player not to play it. “Seeking” is a small piece of the game, unnecessary for anyone to complete, but its warnings to “stay away” are precisely what encourage players to attempt it, frequently spurred by a sense of contrarian defiance. Nor is “Seeking” alone. Another optional questline that I wrote for Fallen London, known as “Discordant Studies,” features similar mechanics to challenge late-game players who have already leveled up most of their skills.

“Seeking” and “Discordant Studies,” however, are not only optional but also free to play. If people find them too challenging, they can simply play other questlines in Fallen London instead, and they won’t feel as though they’ve misspent their money. Games like Dark Souls and Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy come with a price-tag, but players purchase these titles because they’re difficult.

“The Bloody Wallpaper” exists at a different intersection of in-game difficulty and real-world capitalism. All of the Exceptional Stories in Fallen London’s catalogue are designed to have enjoyable mechanics, and “The Bloody Wallpaper,” by simulating the frustration of menial labor, is not just atypical for an Exceptional Story but goes against the grain of Fallen London as a whole. Prior to its publication, ninety-nine other Exceptional Stories established a consistent challenge level, setting expectations for the audience about what they were purchasing when they bought DLC for the game.

Beyond breaking away from Fallen London’s standard gameplay, “The Bloody Wallpaper” also breaks from the traditional idea in the games industry of “challenge as something to overcome.” Difficult mechanics in this Exceptional Story aren’t implemented as puzzles that will be satisfying to solve, but to evoke frustration as an emotion—and yet “The Bloody Wallpaper” can’t be too frustrating to play! It can’t really break away from Fallen London’s standard gameplay either, because it still has to function as the 100th Exceptional Story, faithfully celebrating the anniversary.

This is a tricky tightrope to walk. While appearing to challenge the player, the story needs to quietly smooth over obstacles and make everything easy to figure out. The player should enjoy the story and want to keep playing—and simultaneously dislike the labor and want to stop working! Ultimately, the tension of these contradictions should enrich the experience.

I don’t want to spend too much time discussing the plot of “The Bloody Wallpaper.” Rather, this article will explore the nuts and bolts of the story’s mechanical implementation: how the gameplay is designed to evoke frustration without being frustrating.

The Grind

Almost everyone who plays online games—and almost everyone who has held a job—will know about “the grind.” In order to get ahead, tasks must be repeated to make progress.

Fallen London is no exception. If players are roleplaying as poets, they have to grind “Inspiration” to write a sufficiently creative verse; if they’re embroiled in courtly romance, they have to grind their “Fascinating” attribute to attract a lover’s attention; and the grind for more money is never-ending. But these grinds are rarely center stage. Structurally, they’re connective tissue between larger plot points. Moreover, these grinds are dispersed throughout the city: if players need money, they can hunt giant rats for bounties, conduct heists, or dabble in espionage—and that barely scratches the surface.

“The Bloody Wallpaper” is different. In this Exceptional Story, the grind isn’t connective tissue. Instead, it’s the main feature. Not only that, but “The Bloody Wallpaper” traps the player in “a state of binding servitude” at the Royal Bethlehem Hotel until the grind is complete. Normally in Fallen London, players can move freely between areas, dropping one narrative thread to pick up another, but “The Bloody Wallpaper” restricts the player’s physical and social mobility.

I’ve already mentioned Suspicion and Scandal, which are penalties the player can acquire by failing challenges. Too much Suspicion, and you’re temporarily imprisoned. Too much Scandal, and you’re temporarily exiled. If you have too many Nightmares, that’s another penalty: after reaching a certain limit, you’re sent to the Royal Bethlehem to “relax” until your Nightmares have subsided.

In the real world, the Royal Bethlehem is a mental hospital in London. During the Victorian era, it did not have a pleasant reputation.3 But in Fallen London’s alternate history, the Royal Bethlehem is a luxury hotel. Suites are in high demand. If a player successfully reserves the penthouse, this is one of the game’s biggest achievements. Whether you have a reservation or not, however, you’re still sent to the Beth if you suffer from excessive Nightmares, and you can’t leave until you’ve reduced them.

“The Bloody Wallpaper” employs the same narrative-mechanical logic: until players reduce their Nightmares, they can’t leave the hotel. But during this Exceptional Story, rather than staying as a guest, the player is compelled by the hotel’s Manager to work as a servant. Whereas guests have many avenues to reduce their Nightmares, servants do not; their Nightmares perpetually increase, trapping them at the bottom of the social hierarchy. The grind is their only option.

The grind, in this case, involves collecting laundry, delivering room service, and performing general housekeeping tasks. In terms of gameplay, these actions are accomplished easily—merely by clicking a button to “start cleaning the room,” for instance.

"The Red Suite" is an Opportunity Card. Root text displays the room's general description. Two branches represent the player's choice of actions: "Start cleaning the room" or "Assist the Prince with his wardrobe."

It’s simple to click a button, but every time the player does, their Candle burns down a little more, depleting their pool of available actions. What this means is that “The Bloody Wallpaper” traps the player inside the hotel in real time as a servant.

Fallen London has many currencies, but time is the game’s most valuable asset. Time is also the game’s only universally valuable asset. Certain players may have vast stores of disposable in-game wealth, but time is precious for everybody. It is only by consuming a player’s Candle, therefore, that the game can apply meaningful pressure and express hardship.

But a grind that exists purely to consume time is unlikely to be very fun… which is why “The Bloody Wallpaper” doesn’t actually feature grinding!

Elsewhere in Fallen London, if a player clicks the same button multiple times, the game will usually print the same text. Some results have procedurally generated variations, but many do not. The base game, therefore, trains the player to expect this behavior from the mechanics. Whenever new text is displayed, on the other hand, that indicates progress. At a fundamental level, players are playing the game for new text, which is the most significant reward a text-based game can deliver.

“The Bloody Wallpaper” exploits these preconceptions about the mechanics. You may have to click the same “clean the room” button multiple times, but you’ll never reread the same result. Every action in this Exceptional Story rewards the player with new text—and what this means is that the grind inside the hotel is an illusion. The player may feel like they’re running in place, stuck in a sort of narrative hamster-wheel, but the hamster-wheel is rolling forward. The story is always advancing, and each fine-grained interaction is a fresh plot point.

Working for Tips

In addition to the grind’s illusory nature, the entire purpose of grinding is also inverted. Players earn in-game monetary rewards from Fallen London’s traditional grinds, and Exceptional Stories always deliver a valuable prize at the end. “The Bloody Wallpaper” concludes with a similar payout, but that payout isn’t the story’s largest financial reward. Instead, smaller payments are sprinkled throughout the story after the player completes various tasks. Cumulatively, these add up to a sizeable amount of in-game currency—more than Exceptional Stories usually reward.

This payment scheme guarantees that everyone will receive compensation by spending their Candle’s actions inside the hotel. Due to the drip-feed nature of these smaller payments, however, players won’t get the conventional dopamine hit that they’ve come to expect from “climactic” payouts at the end of a grind. This allows the story to deliver the sensation of “underpaid labor” without underpaying the player.

Since the hotel’s guests provide some of these smaller payments in the form of tips, the payments also have thematic weight. Most tips are individually unremarkable, which makes it noteworthy when the player receives a bigger tip. This communicates narrative information about how servants might extract additional income from the hotel—and what they might have to endure.4

Whether your service is “good” or “bad,” on the other hand, isn’t a metric that “The Bloody Wallpaper” measures. Although it would be possible to program “customer satisfaction” mechanics for each NPC, the complexity of implementing such a system would expand beyond the scope of a single Exceptional Story—especially one like “The Bloody Wallpaper,” which already pushes the scope to its limit.

Instead, the system is binary: tasks are either complete or incomplete. The service that you provide, therefore, has a universal baseline, and the baseline is excellent. Your impeccable etiquette, due to its mandatory nature, feeds into the story’s nightmarish scenario, with even the smallest rebellion—such as offering lackluster service—rendered impossible.5 You may receive “good” or “bad” tips, but this depends entirely on the character of the guests, and not on your own character at all.

Upstairs and Downstairs

In normal gameplay, the Royal Bethlehem Hotel is a “menace zone.” These zones always feature a few permanently available “storylets” at the bottom of the screen. Storylets in Fallen London represent narrative events: each storylet has “root text,” which explains the event, followed by “branches,” which provide the player with options for how to react. Inside a menace zone, the storylets offer methods to reduce the zone’s associated penalty—Nightmares, in the Royal Beth’s case.

Each zone also features an Opportunity Deck. After clicking the deck, the player receives Opportunity Cards, which are dealt like playing cards at the top of the screen. These cards are structured similarly to the permanent storylets, but since they’re randomly dealt, players won’t always have access to the same options. Opportunity Cards in the hotel can reduce a player’s Nightmares by a greater degree than the permanent storylets—if the player is lucky enough to draw the right cards.

The Royal Bethlehem menace zone has an Opportunity Deck at the top of the screen with "2 cards waiting!" since a hand has already been drawn, exhausting most of the cards. "Next in 1:10" announces when another card will be added to the recharging deck.

In the screenshot above, you can see Royal Bethlehem’s normal layout. The Opportunity Deck is in the top left corner. Five cards have already been dealt and are displayed in a line to the right of the deck. The text boxes on the bottom—“Drink from the fountain in the lobby” and “Chat to the guests”—are permanent storylets in the menace zone.

The setting of “The Bloody Wallpaper” is built to mirror this design. Just like the menace zone, it features storylets at the bottom of the screen and an Opportunity Deck at the top. Even though it’s coded as a completely separate area, the hotel inside this Exceptional Story will feel like the same hotel the player is accustomed to visiting.

Now that you’re working as a servant, though, the space inside the hotel is more expansive: you have access to areas that would be off-limits to guests. One of the permanent storylets represents a lift, which the player can take upstairs and downstairs to different floors. On every floor, the Opportunity Deck contains unique cards. Each time the player travels between floors, the Opportunity Deck resets, and the player has to click the deck again to deal more cards.

The layout of the screen in "The Bloody Wallpaper" resembles the Royal Bethlehem menace zone, since the narrative action takes place in the same setting.

This screenshot displays the hotel’s lobby as it appears in “The Bloody Wallpaper.” The fountain is now an Opportunity Card in the player’s hand at the top of the screen. The Opportunity Deck has “No draw limit,” allowing the player to draw endless cards.

On the hotel’s upper floors, each card in the Opportunity Deck represents a guest’s room. On the lower floors, each card represents a service area, such as the kitchen or laundry. Gameplay involves taking requests from upstairs, traveling downstairs to perform the necessary labor, and then traveling upstairs again to deliver the result to the appropriate guest. For example, if the player receives a Bundle of Dirty Laundry, it must be carried downstairs for washing—whereupon the Bundle will be transformed into an Impeccably Ironed Assortment of Spotless Laundry, which must be carried back upstairs.

Because accomplishing these tasks is as simple as clicking a button, the “challenge” comes from navigating the hotel to click the correct buttons in the correct places. As the player makes progress through the story, guests will continuously request more services, creating an ever-growing list of demands.

With this evolving variety of errands, the player must constantly move between floors. Each time they arrive at a new floor, they’ll have to click their Opportunity Deck again, and the game will deal another hand of cards.

Fallen London almost never requires this much movement. It also never requires the Opportunity Deck to be reshuffled so persistently. The hotel’s chaos isn’t confined to the narrative; the user-interface itself embodies the pandemonium of service work, with more cards routinely spilling across the screen.

The back-and-forth grind can get overwhelming—which is the point! But this sense of being overwhelmed is an illusion too. The player might feel like they’re struggling to coordinate their duties, but one of the permanent storylets in the hotel—Slowcake’s Etiquette Guide—contains an updating task list. It tells you exactly what you have to do at any given moment.

The player's task list might sometimes get a little overwhelming. "Behold! The glory of your current privileges: Serve a Plated Dish to the Inebriated Cat at the long bar. Deliver an Impeccably Ironed Assortment of Spotless Laundry to the Gentleman in Room 24-B. Serve a Plated Dish to the Gentleman in Room 24-B. Return five weasels to the Countess in the Pomegranate Room. Serve a Plated Dish to the Parliamentarian in Room 777. Deliver an Impeccably Ironed Assortment of Spotless Laundry to the Prince in the Red Suite. Use a Bucket of Cleaning Supplies to tidy the Red Suite."

There’s a bit of time-sensitive stress involved, too, since the story begins by instructing the player that they have “until midnight” to finish their tasks. But it’s another illusion: midnight is programmed to arrive only after you’ve completed everything.

Mini Menaces

“The Bloody Wallpaper” is nonlinear. Players can visit the hotel’s floors in any order, and they can fulfill requests from the guests in any order too. But this freedom of movement comes with a potential drawback. If the player can go anywhere, then the player can also stay in one place, monotonously performing tasks on a single floor. You might think, well, that’s grinding, isn’t it? And this Exceptional Story encourages grinding, so what’s the issue?

The issue is that the grinding in “The Bloody Wallpaper” should always remain an illusion. If the player becomes stuck doing the same repetitive action, then the story threatens to impose a real grind, which is the last thing we want. To prevent this, the story must force the player to move around the hotel, which is where two new penalties enter the picture: The Vapours and The Urge.

The Vapours6 and The Urge7 are “mini menaces” exclusive to this Exceptional Story. You start to get The Vapours whenever you use cleaning supplies, and you start to get The Urge whenever you interact with the guests. After you’ve accumulated too many points of either penalty, you won’t be able to use more cleaning supplies or serve more guests without reducing The Vapours and The Urge back to zero. In order to reduce them, you must visit the hotel’s lower floors to seek treatment.

You won’t actually suffer negative consequences if The Vapours or The Urge rise too high. Their primary purpose is to put a limit on how many actions the player can perform upstairs before being required to switch gears and travel downstairs. The Urge has a maximum level of 7, which the player must hit before treatment becomes available. But the maximum level for The Vapours is 3. The player will hit this faster. You can reduce The Vapours anytime, however, without waiting to hit the maximum level.

These different thresholds add variety to the player’s range of “compulsory” movement. If the player is already downstairs, they might choose to click the button that reduces The Vapours, even if they only have 1 or 2 points of The Vapours. Or they might choose to ignore that button and wait until The Vapours reaches the maximum level of 3 before seeking treatment.

Because you must hit the maximum level of 7 with The Urge before reducing it, this mini menace has a secondary purpose: it serves as a linear spine for the nonlinear story. Although no two players will finish their errands in the same order, every player will hit level 7 of The Urge consistently. When players go downstairs to reduce The Urge, the text can deliver important plot points at predetermined intervals.

Threading plot points through a nonlinear story by attaching them to a linear spine isn’t an uncommon technique, but like many components of “The Bloody Wallpaper,” this spine has a certain illusory property. The spine isn’t presented as a spine. It’s off to the side of the story—something that you encounter “incidentally.” The plot points should initially seem like pieces of trivia, but they lay important groundwork for the climax.

Narrative Integration

Exceptional Stories occupy a unique space in the overall narrative of Fallen London. Although they’re standalone stories, they still depend on the surrounding game to provide context. In this respect, they can’t stand alone. If someone tried to play an Exceptional Story without having played Fallen London, most stories would make little sense.

At the same time, once an Exceptional Story is finished, it’s finished. Completing a story might reward the player with a small perk like an inventory item, but Exceptional Stories can’t impact the setting too significantly. There are simply too many stories! If each one added something new to the base game, the complexity of the implementation would grow exponentially.

This poses a challenge when writing Exceptional Stories: how do you make the story matter if the narrative consequences will rarely extend beyond the story itself?

Some stories lean away from connections to the base game. If their plots are self-contained and they feature new NPCs, it’s easier for Exceptional Stories to incorporate moments of heightened drama. For example, you could write a story in which an NPC’s life is at stake. If the NPC only appears during one Exceptional Story, they might really die, since they won’t need to reappear elsewhere.

But there’s a trade-off: if you only encounter an NPC in one story, you might feel like they’re not “truly” living in London. Even if the stakes are higher within the story, the stakes might feel lower within the setting at large.

To counteract this, “The Bloody Wallpaper” leans into connections to the base game by incorporating pre-existing NPCs. Nothing too extreme can happen to them, of course, since they already have roles in Fallen London, and their roles must remain intact. But what Exceptional Stories can do is give players another lens through which to view these characters—and such lenses, which exist within the player’s mind and don’t require mechanical implementation, can have large impacts.

As the 100th Exceptional Story, “The Bloody Wallpaper” needed to leave a bigger impact than normal. I wanted to weave multiple characters from the base game into the plot, and a hotel is the perfect place to encounter NPCs from all walks of life.8

During your shift at the hotel, you interact with prominent guests: aristocrats, kings, ambassadors, politicians. If an average Londoner tried to meet them, these NPCs would be inaccessible, but for the length of this Exceptional Story, you’re one of the city’s “invisible” laborers—exactly the sort of person whose existence your own character usually takes for granted. With the hierarchy inverted, now the upper-class NPCs take you for granted.

Your “invisibility” has mechanical repercussions. If your character has met these NPCs before, and if the game has given you items or attributes to track the status of your acquaintance with them, those items and attributes now cease to matter. Because you’re a servant, the NPCs don’t perceive you as a person and don’t recognize you. Your social connections are irrelevant. In other words, your “invisibility” has invisible repercussions on the mechanics, with this Exceptional Story refusing to acknowledge your character’s past accomplishments.

But there’s an upside to being invisible: the hotel’s guests have loose lips around servants, since servants are not “Persons of Some Importance” and therefore don’t matter. As a consequence, this Exceptional Story offers backstage glimpses into some of the setting’s most esoteric lore, such as the political intrigues of various dream-dwelling NPCs. Secrets percolate everywhere in the hotel.

Apart from in-game monetary rewards, knowledge itself is a prize in Fallen London. Piecing together the lore is a major element of the game’s appeal, and “The Bloody Wallpaper” is filled with revelations about the guests. But in a story about service work, I didn’t want the upper-class NPCs to get all the attention. Most of the text is devoted to the experience of the lower-class employees, and the story’s greatest revelations are centered around the hotel and how it operates.

Even if you’re already familiar with the Royal Bethlehem, the base game only showcases its public-facing areas. “The Bloody Wallpaper” exposes the Beth’s internal bureaucracy, revealing details about the Manager… and the Assistant Manager, the Regional Manager, the Owners, the Accountants, and a wide variety of Staff Members9—plus the landlords and tax-collectors. If you were only staying as a guest, you would never learn about these characters. Indeed, the hotel would suppress knowledge of their existence, papering over the unglamorous realities of the business to promote an illusion of effortless luxury. Working behind the scenes, however, you see how the sausage gets made.

Dreams and Nightmares

The Urge provides a linear spine that extends through the story, but it’s not a spine that the player can easily see. Since progression is so fragmented, however, and since the story is so long, the player needs some method to estimate their time spent and time remaining. For that purpose, “The Bloody Wallpaper” features a progress bar in the form of a “dream” called Nothing Gold Can Stay.

There are many dreams in Fallen London.10 Most are coded as “pyramidal qualities,” which means that the player needs one point to unlock the first level of the dream, two points to unlock the second, three for the third, etc. As more levels are unlocked, the dreams add new Opportunity Cards to the base game. These cards tell dream-related stories.

Nothing Gold Can Stay doesn’t work like the other dreams in Fallen London. It’s not pyramidal. It doesn’t have different levels to unlock. Instead, it has a progress bar with a maximum level: 77.11 Each time the player completes a task, they earn another point, and the progress bar increases.

Mechanically, the progress bar provides a concrete goal for the player. Even though there are many different errands to run, they all contribute points to the same dream. By looking at the progress bar, the player knows what percentage of the Exceptional Story they’ve already completed.

Narratively, the progress bar is significant because it breaks the pattern for how dreams are coded. Something is unusual about this one. Eventually, the player will realize that it doesn’t behave like the others because the Manager of the Royal Bethlehem is controlling it. The entire Exceptional Story takes place within the dream. When your shift is over, the Manager harvests the dream from your mind. Then you can finally leave the hotel—just like you can normally leave the Royal Beth’s menace zone after your Nightmares have been reduced.

Peeling the Wallpaper

After finishing your assignments, the Manager gives you one final task: he asks you to strip the titular wallpaper from every room in the hotel. This wallpaper-peeling sequence is the story’s climax. Although it constitutes a sizeable chunk of the narrative, players will not deplete their Candles by performing this specific task. Instead, each button has a 0-action cost during the climax.

This brings me back to the role of time in “The Bloody Wallpaper,” and to the value of time as a currency in Fallen London. By requiring the player to perform so many menial duties, “The Bloody Wallpaper” depletes your Candle, trapping you in the hotel. Every player will reach a point during the story where, having burnt their Candles to stumps, they will have to wait for the flames to recharge.

Usually when this happens in Fallen London, the player won’t have anything else to do. Most buttons in the game have a 1-action cost. If you can’t click any buttons because your Candle has melted away, then you won’t be able to read most branches in the game—unless they cost 0 actions.

“The Bloody Wallpaper” has quite a few 0-action branches. Whenever you travel between floors, movement costs 0 actions. Whenever you speak to the Manager, conversation costs 0 actions. Once you’ve finished serving a guest, you’ll be able to check on the guest again—at a cost of 0 actions—and the guest will often share important information.

With so many 0-action branches, players can still explore the hotel and experience little nuggets of interaction even when their Candles are exhausted. These nuggets won’t completely occupy them while they’re waiting for their Candles to recharge, but the branches provide more “free” text than usual.

During the climax, when every option is a 0-action branch, this is much more free text than usual. By decoupling plot progression from the Candle’s action limit, “The Bloody Wallpaper” allows the player to barrel towards the end of the story. Rather than trapping the player, the mechanics now propel the player, releasing all the narrative pressure which the grind has been building since the start.

At this point in the story, it’s midnight. The player’s shift at the hotel should be over, but the Manager ekes a few more actions out of you. When he makes his final demand, requiring you to strip the wallpaper, he’s technically asking you to work overtime—which is one reason the task doesn’t technically cost any actions. You’re working, but you’re “off the clock.” You may be expending effort, but you’re not expending time. Your Candle doesn’t burn down (very much).

Each room in the hotel has wallpaper, and each room is represented by an Opportunity Card. When you strip the wallpaper from a room, you can’t draw that room’s card anymore. As you remove the wallpaper, therefore, you’re also removing cards from your Opportunity Deck.

Eventually, when you click on the deck to draw more cards, there won’t be enough left to completely fill your hand; spots on the screen will remain blank. But you’ll have to keep stripping the wallpaper. The story will present you with no other options. Room by room, and card by card, you’ll dismantle the user-interface. Working behind the scenes as a servant, you’re working inside the hotel’s mechanics. By stripping features from the hotel, you’re also stripping features from the game.

Clocking Out

“The Bloody Wallpaper” is designed to evoke feelings of disorientation, exasperation, and powerlessness. It’s also designed to be entertaining, with engaging gameplay, clear mechanics, and—perhaps most importantly—comedy. Humor is a vital ingredient in Fallen London, and it’s especially relevant here. Without humor, the experience of working at the Royal Bethlehem would be too grueling for this format of interactive fiction. If you’re laughing, however, the labor is more bearable. If you’re learning secrets about the hotel and the guests, you’ll also have more incentive to keep playing.

But why should the player be subjected to menial labor in the first place? Whether humor lightens the mood or not, why doesn’t “The Bloody Wallpaper” simply strive to be fun without frustration?

Normally, I would leave such questions for players to consider. When authors start discussing the meaning behind what they’ve written, it can stifle the audience’s own interpretation; for that reason, there are dimensions to the plot of “The Bloody Wallpaper” that I haven’t mentioned, and that I don’t plan to mention. But this Exceptional Story sits at an odd juncture in the literal marketplace of ideas: it’s a product of labor, and it’s about labor; it’s designed to critique capitalist drudgery, but it must appeal to consumers in a capitalist system. Even this article is a cog in the system, with its discussion of implementation techniques for “player-friendly” frustration. What message is “The Bloody Wallpaper” really sending, and who is receiving it?

If someone has never worked in the service industry, then playing this Exceptional Story, of course, might provide a basic level of insight. Being able to feel the grind through the gameplay is radically different than just being told about it. Or perhaps someone has service-industry experience, but not hospitality experience; perhaps they have hospitality experience, but not luxury hospitality experience—in which case, “The Bloody Wallpaper” might still offer new perspectives while providing entertainment.

The vast majority of the game’s audience, however, does not belong to the elite social class whose members conscript you into servitude in this story. It’s common for people to play Fallen London as an escape from the harsh reality of our own capitalist society—even if the dystopian hellscape of an alternate-history Victorian era might not seem the likeliest escape. For those players, the game offers a little breathing room while also reflecting contemporary problems. Like holding a carnival mirror up to modern life, Fallen London twists the world into bizarre shapes, revealing new angles from which to view difficult issues—and making people laugh at the same time.

2023 was a challenging year for me personally, and I wrote “The Bloody Wallpaper” at a low point. Despite my own life’s stressful circumstances—and also because of them—I wanted to design an Exceptional Story that would brighten the player’s day. “The Bloody Wallpaper” is meant to evoke frustration, but also to evoke a sense of understanding. If the narrative works as intended, then the player character might struggle through their shift at the hotel, but the player should feel that the text is sympathetic, and the overall experience should hopefully be uplifting.

At the same time, I didn’t want players to come away with the impression that their job at the Royal Beth wastheworstLondon has to offer. If this Exceptional Story is funny, narratively and financially rewarding, and mechanically easy to play, then it can’t be anywhere close to the worst! This is why, when you clock out and leave the hotel, the text explicitly establishes that you were working during a slow night. All of the troubles that your character experienced are trivial to the lower-class servants.

This division between the player and the player character is always relevant, and it’s central in “The Bloody Wallpaper.” After the story, you’ll plunge right back into Fallen London’s base game and continue to climb the social ladder. Since literal divinities are sitting at the top, even the wealthiest characters will still have a long ascent ahead of them. But just as “The Bloody Wallpaper” provides you with new lenses to view certain NPCs, it also provides you with new lenses to view the entire system—and your character’s position within that system—if you choose to look from a different angle.


You could discuss this article on the forums.

1 You may detect an echo between the title of this Exceptional Story and “The Yellow Wallpaper,” a classic short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman first published in 1892. You may also notice that more than the titles echo. An analysis of their thematic acoustics, however, would require its own article. But while we’re listening for echoes, here’s another: “Delightful Wallpaper,” the 2006 text adventure by Andrew Plotkin.

2 Certain stories in Fallen London bring these undescribed servants to the foreground, such as “The Frequently Deceased,” which was written by Emily Short and released in 2016.

3 The word “bedlam” is derived from the hospital’s nickname.

4 Of course, when guests don’t tip, that’s meaningful too.

5 Impossible, that is, until the end of the Exceptional Story, when you’re finally presented with a chance to release some pressure. But it’s important to remember that “The Bloody Wallpaper” doesn’t exist in a vacuum: within the context of Fallen London, rebellion is far from impossible.

6 Historically, a wide-ranging cornucopia of unrelated mental and physical ailments (some less legitimately diagnosed than others) were lumped together and attributed to “the vapours.” The Vapours in this Exceptional Story are not quite the same as the historical “malady,” but there is overlap.

7 The Urge is undefined by the narrative, but it represents a growing impulse to react “inappropriately” to any given situation. If you’ve worked in the service industry, you’ll be familiar with it.

8 Having worked at a luxury resort, this premise also allowed me to draw directly on personal experience to write the story. Considering that it’s set in a nightmare version of Victorian London, “The Bloody Wallpaper” is autobiographical to a frightening degree.

9 Among these Staff Members, immigrants and women constitute a not-insignificant percentage. However, it would take another article (if not an entire series) to even begin to explore the roles of gender, race, and nationality in the hospitality industry—in Fallen London generally, in this Exceptional Story specifically, and in the space where reality intersects with the game’s fiction.

10 Fallen London’s dreams have formulaic titles. “Having Recurring Dreams: What the Thunder Said” is one dream in the base game, and every dream features the same “Having Recurring Dreams” label. “What the Thunder Said” is a reference to “The Waste Land” by T.S. Eliot, which is referenced by many other dreams. Not every dream will reference Eliot, but every dream will reference a poem: this is the in-game formula. The dream in “The Bloody Wallpaper” is no different, but the poetic reference is slightly “off.” It’s a reference to Robert Frost, who is otherwise unlinked to Fallen London’s dream cycles. The flavor of the reference is “off” too, suggesting that the “Nothing Gold” dream is entering the player’s mind through a different route than usual.

11 Whenever the number 7 appears in Fallen London, it carries a thematic connection to the Master of Dreams, who plays a central role in the “Seeking Mr Eaten’s Name” questline. Some players might overlook the 77 on the progress bar, but for other players, this will provide an early hint that the Master’s influence is permeating the story. Even the most mechanical elements of Fallen London’sgameplay will often have narrative weight.

Renga in Blue

Crime Stopper (1982)

This case has more twists than a Martini drinkers’ convention. You’re Al Club, private eye, and you’ve got to grab a beautiful heiress from the gang that snatched her. Hayden Publishing company was founded in the early 1950s (trademark registered 1954) as a technical publisher, generally associated with electronics and mathematics, although they branched into […]

This case has more twists than a Martini drinkers’ convention. You’re Al Club, private eye, and you’ve got to grab a beautiful heiress from the gang that snatched her.

Hayden Publishing company was founded in the early 1950s (trademark registered 1954) as a technical publisher, generally associated with electronics and mathematics, although they branched into other subjects including language arts.

From The Mathematics Teacher, March 1965.

They were well positioned to enter computers as well, starting in the 60s. As far as games goes they re-published what is arguably the first “commercial” CRPG in the second edition of William Engel’s book Stimulating Simulations, which includes the CRPG Devil’s Dungeon. (The 1977 self-published 1st edition does not include it but a self-published 1978 booklet does, which was folded into Hayden’s first version in 1979.) They also published non-books around this time like Sargon II and Sargon III, two of the most important early chess programs. Relevant for our purposes today, in late 1982 they published two Apple II text adventures by Daniel Kitchen, Crystal Caves and Crime Stopper, the latter also giving story credit to Barry Marx.

Crystal Caves was written first (people of this era tended to copy the fantasy of Adventure before branching out), but they don’t form a series, I’m not being that picky about chronology as long as I’m playing within a year, and I’m still needing a break from Adventure Quest, so: hard-boiled crime it is.

Dan Kitchen, a New Jersey native, got his game-design start in handheld toys, making Bank Shot and Wildfire for Parker in 1979. He obtained an Apple II that year:

I was a big fan of Microsoft Adventure and all of Scott Adams’ games … I fell in love with text adventures instantly and knew I wanted to make my own.

With his brother Garry Kitchen he co-founded Imaginative Systems Software and got a contract with Hayden (also in New Jersey) for six games.

The idea for Crime Stopper came from one of my brother’s friends, Barry Marx, a writer and a brilliant chap. He suggested he write the story and I would make it interactive using my Crystal Caverns engine. And he’s responsible for the Sam Spade pun.

You start in your stereotypical office, with a telegram urgently summoning you:

Unfortunately, I haven’t gotten to the actual crime-solving part of the game. If you climb to the roof of the building your office is in you cand find a “hanky”…

…and if you go out into the street you can find an ice cream shop and a diner.

However, to get to the building mentioned in the telegram (2nd and 50th) we need to ride the subway, but the subway requires cash, and our protagonist has no cash.

I’ve very thoroughly examined every object described in every room, I’m still stuck with just the HANKY and the TELEGRAM. I tried GIVE HANKY in the ice cream parlor (…maybe they’d give me something I could get money out of?…) but the game responded I didn’t have any money, suggesting it thought I was trying to buy ice cream instead. To be fair trading a hanky for ice cream isn’t logical but when I’m stumped already I’m willing to try anything.

There’s hints out there — Crime Stopper is even a featured game in the Kim Schuette book I’ve re-visited in this blog many times — but I’d very much like to avoid spoiling the very first puzzle in the game, as that makes me much less likely to hold out for anything later which might involve solving an actual mystery.

My map of the city streets so far.

Tuesday, 14. November 2023

Zarf Updates

A kitchen is born

Time for another post about my home! This blog is hosted at "Zarfhome" is my virtual Internet home but it's also literally my house. You might even have seen my library a couple of years ago. The house is great but the kitchen ...

Time for another post about my home!

This blog is hosted at "Zarfhome" is my virtual Internet home but it's also literally my house. You might even have seen my library a couple of years ago.

The house is great but the kitchen was vintage. Formica, particle board, and stick-on linoleum.

A bare kitchen with laminate counters, cheap cabinets, and bad stick-on tile flooring. Nice woodwork on the window though. The kitchen as of May. You don't even want to know what the stove looked like.

I finally saved up enough to do something about that. The remodel started mid-May and now it's done. The final inspection was this morning; they've towed away the site portajohn.

Left-hand view of a kitchen with new appliances, hardwood floor, and custom blue-and-green tile backsplash. Center view of the kitchen. Right-hand view of the kitchen. The kitchen as of August. The under-cabinet lights are on to highlight the tile.

Now, the main reason for this post is to say Look at my awesome new kitchen. Look at it! But since your attention has already been drawn to that tile mosaic backsplash, I'll go into a bit more detail.

Yes, I designed the mosaic. It was fun! You can do stuff like that if you're willing to pay someone to assemble it.

What is it? Well, it's an abstract swoopy pattern. Or maybe it's gas flames. Or maybe...

Speaking of Diane Duane’s “Door Into” series… My kitchen remodel has reached the point of installing my custom tile backsplash. I’m not saying that the design is an invocation of the blue Fire. But if you asked me point-blank, I wouldn’t deny it very hard either. Even an atheist can try to make Goddess feel welcome in their kitchen. That’s just common courtesy. -- @zarfeblong, July 21

I had the mosaic done by Susan Jablon Mosaics. I recommend them wholeheartedly -- except that as I write this, they're not taking orders due to supply chain faffery. If you are suddenly struck by the desire for a mosaic, check their web site status.

The design process took a lot of tinkering. I started in Inkscape, using lots of gradients:

A pattern of blue stripes on a blue-green gradient.

I then rendered this as a PNG file at the desired size (one pixel per real-world inch).

Now comes the clever bit. I went on the tile site and selected a set of tile colors that I wanted to use. I downloaded the sample photos of those tiles, worked out the average RGB value of each one, and created a color palette file (in GnuIMP) which included all those colors. Then I just loaded the PNG file and dithered it to that palette!

Okay, there was more to it than that. I dithered the foreground and background separately. I added some iridescent tiles to the pattern for extra texture. I tweaked a bunch of the pixels by hand. And the grout color! Did you know grout comes in different colors? It matters.

Then I learned that Jablon didn't have the tile colors I'd chosen in stock. (Supply chain faffery.) So I had to pick a new set of colors from a different manufacturer's line, download more sample photos, and re-dither. Moral: save all your intermediate files.

The mosaic ships on 12x12" mesh sheets. The installer just has to mount and grout them. To make life easier for everybody, I drew all the sheets out on a grid:

A pixelized segment of the mosaic sliced in 12x12 blocks. Part of the master diagram. The reddish tiles represent iridescent black, really. The grey areas are behind the cabinets so no tile at all.

I even used the sample photos to fake up what the sheets should look like at full size. Grout is "Platinum 115".

One 12x12 sheet of the mosaic. Sheet 20-A from the design spec

Photo of the real mosaic. The same section as it came out in real life.

Miscellaneous notes:

  • There were a lot of Python scripts involved. There always are.

  • Yes, the cabinets are still empty. This is a shiny new kitchen, not yet a working kitchen. I told you, final inspection was just this morning. The first batch of muffins is still to come.

  • Yes, I'm still job-hunting. I saved up enough for the remodel before I got laid off. I didn't see any reason to put the work on hold. That old kitchen had to go.

  • If you're comparing the new photos to the old photo, realize that the new stove is where the sink used to be. The new sink is in front of the old window. Yes, they had to reconstruct the windowframe. Yes, they saved the original trim and used it for a new window.

  • Yes, a lot of unsightly white outlet and switch covers intrude on the mosaic. Building codes insist on them. I am going to dig up some model paint and paint the covers to blend in.

  • The beast on the refrigerator magnet is Deinotherium giganteum, art by Mark P. Witton.

  • You want another photo? Course you do.

Right-hand view of a kitchen with new appliances, hardwood floor, and custom blue-and-green tile backsplash. The kitchen in natural light.

EDIT-ADD, November:

Here's what it looks like now that I'm using it as an actual kitchen!

Right-hand view of the same kitchen with stuff on the counters and the cabinets. The kitchen as a functional kitchen.

Yes, there's stuff on the counters in front of the wonderful tile backsplash. That's okay. I still walk into the kitchen and think "Man, this tile looks great."

Notice the matching light switch covers! I didn't wind up using model paint, though. Tried it; didn't like the result. Instead, I found a place on the Internet that prints out custom plates.

I hung up a little curtain valance thing, too. I never thought I'd become a person who would say "This window needs a valance," but there it is.

Sunday, 12. November 2023

Renga in Blue

Building of Death (1982)

The first programming contest was held at Texas A&M back in 1970 on a large mainframe using punchcards. Teams competed to finish problem tasks within a set time. This eventually transformed into the The Association for Computing Machinery’s Scholastic Programming Contest, and even later the International Collegiate Programming Contest. Back before the contest was international, […]

The first programming contest was held at Texas A&M back in 1970 on a large mainframe using punchcards. Teams competed to finish problem tasks within a set time.

This eventually transformed into the The Association for Computing Machinery’s Scholastic Programming Contest, and even later the International Collegiate Programming Contest. Back before the contest was international, in 1988, there was a set of 8 problems that teams has 6 hours to complete, using Apple Macintosh computers. The contest had recently switched from allowing both Pascal and FORTRAN to just only having programs given in Pascal (this made it easier to give problems, as they were designed previously so that neither language would have an advantage). The winning team — for the second time, and they only started competing in 1986 — was Caltech.

Caltech’s team had two graduate students (David Gillespie and Scott Hemphill) one senior majoring in biology (Adam Greenblatt) and one junior majoring in computer music: Ron Goodman. Likely, Ron — also the founder of the group Synthesized Music Enthusiasts of Los Angeles — was responsible for the victory lap that happened after winning, as all programs were finished with 43 minutes left to go:

We spent the remaining time fooling around, programming the computer to play musical scales.

Ron Goodman later went on to work for Creative Labs (most famously known for the Sound Blaster). In 1998, while working on some new mixer software as well as the Nomad (a predecessor to the iPod) he started to get major arm and wrist pain. He was diagnosed with De Quervain’s disease and tried to use a pre-existing software to help:

Eventually, intense pain prevented me from clicking the mouse. I found a free utility that would click for me, and I asked the author to make a few tweaks to make it more usable. He was “busy” and politely suggested I do it. Slowly, I did! My dev environment required that I come up with a name – I chose RSIGuard with far too little consideration. I thought I’d finish the program in a couple of months, never imagining I was starting a 20+year project.

Ron made a small webpage and received an order for “50 licenses” from Hewlett-Packard. He decided this was the time to leave Creative and start his own business; Mr. Goodman still works as the product manager for RSIGuard today.

You’ll notice all this, including the contest, is long after the year for today’s game (1982). Goodman was another one of the teen programming prodigies we’ve seen and was quite involved with computers all the way through the 80s; for example, in 1983 he wrote a technical article for Dr. Dobbs about the shift and rotation commands on the Z80 processor.

Goodman was 15 or 16 at the time he sent Building of Death for publication in the TRS-80 tapemag CLOAD.

CLOAD, October 1982. Technically speaking this is the month a disk started being available, so it was also a diskmag.

The copy provided by the CLOAD editor just states that

Just in time to miss Halloween – Building of Death. This is an adventure game with many ways to die.

and it isn’t more complicated than that: we’re in a building, we need to get out. The novel bit is that the Building of Death is a department store.

Now, just being written by a teenager doesn’t mean a game is bad; Frankenstein Adventure, published in CLOAD exactly a year before this game, is a good case in point — it genuinely is one of the best from 1981.

I regret to inform you, alas, that this game does not accomplish the same feat. It is quite dodgy.

Just to illustrate with one screen:

Yes, immediately after using the word PLAY to play a portable game from the toy department, we are informed trying that the game doesn’t understand the word PLAY. The cassette incidentally is “A cassette labeled ‘Adventure hints'” and if you go back to the TRS-80 at the start you can LOAD it or CLOAD it (I had to look this up) but this gets a checksum message I never was able to get by.

It doesn’t really matter though; I checked the source code and if you manage to get in farther the computer explodes and you die.

Just to give a general sense of geography, let me first give a zoom-out of the entire map…

…and a zoom-in on the starting area, which is the only part that feels like a normal department store.

Some observations:

1. The large grid makes me wonder if the author was riffing off of Conquest of Memory Alpha, like Danny Browne did. The layout and parsing in the actual source code are different enough that I don’t think so, but the author may still have played it, as there’s a similar notion of a “central area” that the player breaks into.

2. Rooms are incidentally specified by X and Y coordinate; here’s a line from the source code, where (7,0) is at a vending machine:

260 IFC$=”INS”ORC$=”PUT”IFB$”QUA”THENC$=”DRO”:GOTO230:ELSEIFX7ORY0THENPRINT”Where ???”:GOTO120:ELSEI(0)=512:PRINT”The machine rumbles for a second then stops.”:VM=1:GOTO120

3. The vending machine lets you use a quarter that starts in your player’s inventory to get food and some garlic. The food must be eaten to avoid starving (yawn) and the garlic fends off a vampire that randomly enters the store later and starts hunting you. Somehow you are supposed to WEAR the garlic, garlic breath like Adventure Quest doesn’t work:

A vampire attacks
But your garlic warded her off

4. Most of the inventory is stuffed in the upper right corner, where you get some no-slip boots, a flat handball, some dill pickles, some meat, and the aforementioned food and garlic. Only the meat, food, and garlic are useful. Throughout the map you can also find a chalkboard, a torn leash, a bottle of vitamins, and a comb; again, none are useful. Most of this map is a red herring.

5. The red-marked rooms all have lions which kill you. None are worth visiting, and one even specifies the lion has a key, but that’s just another red herring.

Most of the experience of the game — due to the giant grid — is walking through large, empty halls. Again, it invokes the Memory Alpha experience a little, and can also be compared a little to a CRPG like Wizardry.

Again useless. Leading up to here are simply “dimly lit hallways” and rooms with strong stenches.

Barring randomly being killed by lions (and also one bit where there’s a spider on a key, again a red herring, just don’t get the key) the central part is where the action really begins.

Starts from the lower right.

First, a dog you need to give meat to.

Then, a door you need to KNOCK to get by. (The portable game from earlier gave a hint about this.)

Then there’s some grease you need to JUMP over. There’s an explicit hint elsewhere about acting like a kangaroo, but I still wasted a fair amount of time trying to wear the no-slip boots which have no purpose at all (“I don’t think you want to put it on”).

Proceeding further I get exceedingly stuck on a door.

Here’s the relevant bit of code:

315 IFC$=”OPE”ANDB$=”DOO”THENIFX0ORY0THENPRINT”Oh! You are upsetting!!!”

The command OPEN DOOR only works at the “front door” to the building, in the far left corner at (0,0). Otherwise it gives the weird response shown. You can still open the door, but you need to TURN DOOR (??) or TURN KNOB.

Then you can straightforwardly find the front door key, although don’t leave just yet! There’s also a room with a “rusty pin” where if you take it summons an elevator and you are asked if you want to go in. Say Y and an animation starts.

On the top you can find a bulletproof vest.

Leaving teleports you out close to the exit, and with both front door key and bulletproof vest in hand you can leave safely.

The first part of this gets animated with a “screen shake” effect but I’m going to be polite and leave it off.

So yes, dodgy. At least memorable and slightly unique-feeling, with the vast majority of the content as a red herring; I did kind of like the fake keys as it wasn’t too hard to catch on to the fact they were unnecessary.

This game is otherwise noteworthy insofar as a tape (now diskmag) was willing to publish it as late as 1982; they clearly were still scrounging for material.

13000 I(1)=512:PRINT”You lost your sunglasses. It is much too bright to see. Your
eyes are burning up. You are blind.
Do you wish to continue this adventure as a blind person (Y/N)”

IFComp News

End of Voting Draws Nigh! Awards Nov 19

♦Greetings, Authors & Judges! The end of the 2023 Interactive Fiction Competition is nearly upon us! Voting will end on November 15, 2023 at 11:59 PM, Eastern time. You only had to vote on five games to be a judge, but make sure you got all of your votes in! We will announce the top 20 results via live stream at 4:00 PM Eastern on Sunday, November 19th. The stream will be held at

Greetings, Authors & Judges!

The end of the 2023 Interactive Fiction Competition is nearly upon us! Voting will end on November 15, 2023 at 11:59 PM, Eastern time. You only had to vote on five games to be a judge, but make sure you got all of your votes in!

We will announce the top 20 results via live stream at 4:00 PM Eastern on Sunday, November 19th. The stream will be held at

To confirm what time the awards stream will be for you in your time zone, visit

Hope to see you there!

Thursday, 09. November 2023

Renga in Blue

Adventure Quest: The Final Battle

I have completed Adventure Quest, and as usual, my previous posts on the game are needed to understand this one. I completed the game with no hints. I was very much on track to win already; the problem with this sort of game is you never quite know if you’re inches away or miles. All […]

I have completed Adventure Quest, and as usual, my previous posts on the game are needed to understand this one.

I completed the game with no hints.

In some of the later printings of Level 9 games they included this paper you could send by physical mail for a clue. From the Museum for Computer Adventure Games.

I was very much on track to win already; the problem with this sort of game is you never quite know if you’re inches away or miles. All that is really needed to finish from where I ended is

1.) getting all four stones plus the talisman together at the end, which is more trouble than it sounds like

2.) also bringing the “onion” that’s really garlic (except I found out after the fact I didn’t need to tote it around at all)

You get “locked in” at the last part with all four inventory slots spoken for, so it turns out you don’t need to laboriously bring over the silver ball, the stick that makes fruit, etc.

I left off on a marsh where I found a Mist-Stone and teleported to escape (you find boots later which let you just trudge back through quicksand, but I only found them after I already had the stone liberated). The whole marsh area is tricky insofar as hands keep trying to grab you, and you need to HIT them with your sword to shake them loose. The sword occupies one of the four crucial inventory slots.

For a while, I was toting the sword and the insulated cloak and the magic lamp and making runs back and forth to tote items forward using my one available inventory slot (it turns out there was a faster way, but just like with the boots and the Mist-Stone I only realized this after the fact). Still, in a text game it doesn’t take that long to shove things forward, and eventually, I had the Stones plus the talisman. I also brought the “onion” (garlic) along because I had found this building on a side path in the marsh:

Gee, I wonder what’s inside?

I first thought I needed to cut the garlic or throw it, but you’re actually supposed to eat it, attaining permanent garlic breath. I could have done this at the very start of the game, even.

At the top of the building are some boots (the ones that protect from quicksand) and a window. The window is one-way but you can pitch all five items (Stones + talisman) before going through. Then it’s just a short walk through more quicksand (hope you kept the boots) and the Black Tower.

In the room back at the lake that sucks down items, they go to the quicksand room. I found this out after doing most of my work toting things through the biomes of the game, though.

What follows is simply a series of doors of different colors, and you insert each of the stones. This is a satisfying sequence despite — really, because of — the simplicity of it. The work is already done, you’re just proving it.

At the gold door and above you are locked in one-way, which is why — as I mentioned before — you are stuck with all four of your inventory slots full: three Stones, plus the Talisman. This was honestly helpful because it meant I could stop tracking all those previous items in the game thinking they’d may yet be useful. (Maybe the picnic table from the very start is useful in the final battle, who knows!)

Once on top you get a forced sequence where you are surrounded by orcs and pushed to the face-off with AGALIAREPT. Given there’s only one inventory item left it isn’t hard to figure out what to do.

You give the demon chase; the orcs chase you. This is a very short section where there are tunnels with dead ends but you just need to find the right room to hide in.

Having juked the orcs, you can go down a previously blocked passage to find the central lair of the demon.

The Phoenix has been following us around (as visible if you just stop and WAIT or LOOK) and now is its time to shine, as was told in the prophecy:

No idea what’s up with the point system, I don’t care much but I am not surprised there’s a wide possible range. The structure of this game led to more alternate solves but in an unusual way. That is, there are some puzzles you can simply ignore.

Remember the octopus I killed with an air-filled bag? You don’t need to fight it at all. It lurks at the white dot in the lake, and there’s a black dot right at the final quicksand that goes there, but there’s no need to use it. You can either a.) properly anticipate which items should be tossed through the window to the final area so you don’t have to go back or b.) use the magic lamp to teleport instead. Shockingly, giving how much magic lamp use I had in the game, I went with a.

The moor where you get cold? The insulated cloak works (I was keeping it because I was using the fire-stair at the volcano) but you technically can walk all the way from your teleport landing point to safety without it. Or you can use the brazier (the one that was “glowing like a commercial”) by dropping it so it provides warmth. Or you can eat a fruit (according to Ilmari Jauhiainen, I never even discovered that). And if you’re out of fruit, you can drop the stick which provides more fruit, and finally I understand why the item exists.

Again, I want to emphasize: the unusual aspect here isn’t alternate solutions so much as the ability to ignore the existence of a puzzle. I had no idea removing the djinn from the oasis was meant to be a puzzle until later. The fact you could run by the tentacles really suggests that the authors purposefully engineered a way to ignore the whole sequence in getting the ruby and throwing it. This means someone could blissfully skip the unfair puzzle at the slab (SAY OPEN SESAME) and maybe even think it was scenery and not a puzzle at all! A player could even skip the sphinx, snakes, and priestess; at least it seems clear you’re intended to solve something there. But it’s definitely still possible to at least skip the sphinx and think that maybe teleportation was the intended route!

While I eventually found the lung-fish model, I ended up never strictly needing it; even lighting up the dark portion of the underwater was optional. You might think that there’s no way someone would pass by dark rooms and without realizing there’s a puzzle, but at the very start of the game — in the first building — there’s a dark room that never gets lit up! With teleport luck you could probably bring the jellyfish down into the well but maybe the authors never even bothered to give the room a description and you’d see a glitch.

I will admit I would only recommend Adventure Quest to others under very specialized circumstances. The mazes weren’t bad — except for the very start I wouldn’t say the game had mazes as much as tricky geography to keep track of — but the four-item limit is really obnoxious after a while, and it gave me tension the entire game wondering if I needed to go back yet again to my stash (a convoluted operation) to test another object out for solving a puzzle.

The endgame was satisfying, though. It was in a way very quick and easy, and I think designers are afraid of something like that — making a gameplay denouement when the plot is at its climax — but it works, as the game was all about pre-planning, so the ending is just showing the result of all the player’s planning falling into place.

Trilogies help. Adventure Quest sells as people play Colossal. Middle Earth was a convenient fantasy setting. It was a way of telling people the type of world they were getting.

— Pete Austin, from an interview in Sinclair User, May 1985

Level 9 eventually got called the British equivalent of Infocom. I don’t think they are there yet with this game — the parser is still completely basic, the design is still too tedious in parts — but at least I get the fringes of what is meant, as there’s ambition for some fairly complex overlapping systems at a grand scale. So I’m still looking forward to their next game, but I hope you understand when I say there will be a large gap before we get there.

We’ve had a big chunk of both concentrated fantasy and concentrated Britishness, so for our follow-up let’s go in a different direction. Next up I’ve got two games from the United States: a building that wants to kill you, followed by a hard-boiled detective story.