Planet Interactive Fiction

October 23, 2017


Review – The Richard Mines

by Jack at October 23, 2017 04:41 PM

This is a medium-length parser-based game set in an abandoned German facility in the post-WWII period. The material that accompanies the game provides a lot more information about the historic locations that were used as a basis for the story, but unfortunately, the player does not encounter that background within the game itself (to be fair, though, the in-game “ABOUT” command directs the player to the release notes).

[Some spoilers follow beyond this point]

The main character is not described and his motivations for entering the abandoned (and structurally unsound) facility are unclear. Maybe he just went for a walk in the woods, knocked over a tree, climbed a barbed wire fence, circumnavigated a nazi fortress, and scrambled down a collapsing entrance way into a dark underground facility for fun. On the other hand, the player is left to wonder — was this someone who fought against (or maybe for) the facility? Does the player know what’s in there, and is therefore willing to take some risks? Impossible to say.

Once in the facility, the collapsed entrance serves as a one way valve, and the player is motivated if nothing else to find a way out. That entails some exploration of the underground complex and solving of some mechanical puzzles with a classic IF flavor. I found the puzzles well-clued, and thought the bulk of the game played smoothly. There is a rudimentary hint system, but most players probably won’t need to invoke it.


Story: 5

Voice: 2

Play: 7

Polish: 5

Technology: 5

Preliminary Score: 4.8

Transcript: mineScript

The post Review – The Richard Mines appeared first on Dhakajack.

Review – Salt

by Jack at October 23, 2017 04:41 PM

This was an experimental piece written in Twine and notable for the requirement that the player continually hit the spacebar. In the story, this represents swimming, and failure to hit the spacebar returns the player to the surface. If the review seems short, it is at least in part because it is exceedingly difficult to hit the space bar, pay attention to text output, occasionally follow instructions to hit the up or down key, and also take notes on one computer.

[Some spoilers follow beyond this point]

At the start, the pace is leisurely. The prompt for swimming in a horizontal bar that contracts; on each stroke, it expands to its full width. There is a steady, regular rhythm and relatively sparse descriptive text is displayed slowly. If the player misses a beat, the screen brightens, music changes, and there is a sudden emergence from the water, which feels disruptive.

Eventually, the game kicks into overdrive increasing the required frequency of keystrokes to keep swimming. The game seemed to go quickly from relaxing to frantic. I found myself playing the first few measures of Billy Joel’s Angry Young Man on my spacebar.

I wasn’t able to really pay attention to any verbiage scrolling by at that point. I thought that earlier in the game the mechanic was helpful for both setting pace and requiring a commitment of attention and constant but mindless interactivity. Picking up the pace was also effective, but I don’t think this medium works well for twitch-gaming.


Story: 4. Some of the early text was moody, but I have to admit that I was 90% paying attention to hitting the keyboard. I guess I’m not an IF multi-tasker.

Voice: 6

Play: 5

Polish: 9

Technical: 8


Preliminary Score: 6.4



The post Review – Salt appeared first on Dhakajack.

Review – Day of the Djinn

by Jack at October 23, 2017 04:41 PM

Day of the Djinn is a twine-based story that starts strong and gets lost along the way. On the first page, we learn that the protagonist has been cursed — his sister has a set a djinn against him, and he has a day to live. Understandably, the main character begins looking for a way of escaping this fate and mentions that the answer might be in some of his books.

Between that scene and cracking a book open, I spent quite a while wandering around a deeply implemented apartment full of items that really don’t advance the plot. A number of the items do trigger short recollections of the main character’s interaction with his sister, mostly positive memories, but they fail to shed any light on why she wants him dead, which I would consider to be a major plot point.

[Some spoilers follow beyond this point]

While wandering the apartment, I picked up a knife in the kitchen — why? to defend myself from the magical djinn? No, to pry open a picture in my living room. I’d never noticed it before, but it contains a secret hidden message.

Both the frame and a book in my collection reference a fictitious history which involves spice (shades of Dune?), ancient tribes, and the existence of magic and djinns. It’s creative, but not well integrated, except that all clues conveniently point to the park next door as the nexus of all these threads.

As in the apartment, I spent quite a while navigating around the park, taking in the scenery. My looming death, now less than a day away, didn’t seem to bother me much or spur my pace. A fantastical man/deer guards a path, and it’s clear that you need to get past him, and a there’s a witch who you can convince to weave you a bird, but to what end?

I got to a point in my wandering where I just didn’t see where the game was going and tossed in the towel. There just isn’t enough narrative coal to stoke the engines through the Sargasso Sea of hyperlinks.

It could be that part of the game was not accessible to me — I hit the following error at one point (perhaps fixed in later versions, as I was playing from the day-of-release download):


Story: 4

Voice: 4

Play: 3

Polish: 7. The text is well-proofed, but the story itself needs a good editor and would have benefitted from more aggressive play testing.

Technical: 6. Links for save, menu, and inventory at bottom of the page would have worked better in a collapsible side panel, but I do appreciate that they were available to the player at all times.


Preliminary Score: 4.8


The post Review – Day of the Djinn appeared first on Dhakajack.

Review – The Skinny One

by Jack at October 23, 2017 04:41 PM

This is a Twine story told from the point of view of a college-age woman with an eating disorder. I would recommend reading the ABOUT before playing because it adds some helpful context. First, that this is not autobiographical, but rather came out of an academic project with the intent of realistically portraying the experience of having an ED. The author also provides the sort of trigger warnings you would expect for a work on this subject as well as links to reference material.

While the author cannot speak from personal experience, I think that is something of a strength. She is clearly familiar with the condition, but is not defensive and can provide choices in the story that will clearly take Claire, the main character, in a self-destructive direction.

[Some spoilers follow beyond this point]

This story weaves in enough of Claire’s family background to understand why she is so driven and focused on self-discipline and also desperate for social affirmation. The story does not focus on some behaviors that typically show up in television movies, such as self-induced emesis or laxative abuse, but rather stresses Claire’s internal thought processes.

There is a tendency to focus in stories like this on the disorder and to forget that it takes place on the background of everyday life. The author does a good job occasionally putting other things in the foreground: college life and in particularly, Claire’s volunteer job at a dog shelter.

I found the ending a little abrupt — maybe that’s specific to the path I took through the story. In one paragraph, she’s in the library throwing a scone in the trash, and in the next, she’s on the road to recovery. The story had mentioned in passing her visiting the university counseling services, but I felt like maybe I had missed a page of text.


Story: 7

Voice: 9

Play: 7

Polish: 9. I did hit one error that complained about an if/then conditional issue. It’s too bad that there isn’t a “release mode” for Twine, where error messages are suppressed. In this case, I don’t think it affected the game, and if I hadn’t seen the error message, I wouldn’t have been any the wiser.

Technical: 7


Preliminary Score: 7.8

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Review – Swigian

by Jack at October 23, 2017 04:41 PM

It is ironic that the “verbose” command even works in this game of few words.

In the Epic Age, heroes didn’t ramble on, they just did stuff.

In this game, that’s how it works.


Because that is how it is done.


[No Spoilers.]

There is a real art to creating the perception of a light parser. For all the hand waving about “limited parser” games this year, it’s worth noting that the best of them are deeply implemented, and in fact do not ignore broad input, but redirect it seamlessly. In fact, a game like Eat Me has extensive procedures for dealing with whatever the player tries, but it is done with such finesse that all the player remembers are their successes with the key verb. Here too, the terseness is studied. Objects are not under-implemented, they are implemented as much as they need to be. Input is not ignored or rejected, but almost anything the player tries will elicit a custom, if brief, response.

This is a game that paints in big strokes: there is maybe one action per location and then it is time to move on. It is the polar opposite of an apartment-style game, where the puzzle involves sifting through every mundane object in sight and fiddling with subparts of subparts of finicky devices.

If you find a spear, you will use it when you need to.

The spear isn’t there to evoke a flashback to a moral dilemma.

In keeping with this style, the description of the player character is limited and figuring out your identity is part of the game’s puzzle. Motivation is not explicit either, but your actions make it clear that you are a standard-issue colossal cave spelunker, nor a part-time whip-wielding archeologist on a plunder quest.

That’s a lot of review for a game of few words, and I think the fewer said, the better.


Story: 8

Voice: 10

Play: 10

Polish: 10

Technical: 6


Evaluation: 9.8

Transcript: swigScript


The post Review – Swigian appeared first on Dhakajack.

Interactive Friction

IFComp 2017 Review: VR Gambler by Robert DeFord

by snowblood ([email protected]) at October 23, 2017 03:41 PM

These are quick thoughts about an entry in the 2017 Interactive Fiction Competition.

VR Gambler is an extremely old school text-based RPG that harks back to... well, I was going to see Beyond Zork, but I think 1987's Beyond Zork actually was more sophisticated than this game, released 30 years later. An on-screen map, a multi-window layout, procedural generation: these are all features that were considered innovative back in the day, but which VR Gambler foregoes. So I'm assuming there is some earlier antecedent that I'm unaware of? There were, of course, plenty of RPGs before 1987, but most were graphical in nature, if I'm not mistaken. I guess 1980's Zork I had some light RPG elements, but didn't foreground the stats in the way a normal RPG like this one does. So I'm at a loss. If anybody can recognise the primary influences, please let me know in the comments below.

The word "traditional" comes to mind a lot when thinking of words to describe the gameplay. You start the game in a cellar as a weakling, barely able to fend off a rat and a spider, but gradually find progressively stronger weapons and armour, allowing you to take on more dangerous beasties. This boosts your experience points, which may level you up, making you more agile, and causes loot drops: monsters relinquish gold, treasure and even better equipment. There are separate stats for your sharp weapons ability and your bludgeoning weapons ability, so a decision needs to be made about your career path early on, although I'm not sure how much difference it actually makes over the course of the game. I chose to be a sharp weapons expert, and found a plentiful supply of daggers, knives and swords lying around. Possibly the bludgeoning weapons option is a "hard mode", as I barely encountered any such weapons.

Combat is also of the "traditional" variety. You take turns to clobber each other, slowly whittling down each other's armour points, if you or the monster are wearing any, then whittling down health points once the armour is destroyed. Get it down to zero, and you win. If yours falls to zero, you lose. This means typing ATTACK RAT, watching the numbers fall, then typing AGAIN (or G) over and over until one of you keels over. It gets pretty tedious reading "You strike and miss!" over and over again, let me tell you. This is light years away from the sophisticated combat of Insignificant Little Vermin, also from this year's competition. Strategy comes in the form of a health-restoring tonic (choose the right moment to gulp it down), and in choosing the order in which to battle the enemies. Each defeated monster yields goodies which will improve your odds against a tougher opponent, so you will want to go after the weaker ones first. It's the most rudimentary form of challenge, and it becomes virtually meaningless when SAVE, RESTORE and UNDO are so readily available. I would urge the author to take a look at Treasures of a Slaver's Kingdom, which turns the "which order to battle the enemies" concept into the entire meta-puzzle of the game.

There are some puzzles scattered around, too. They follow (surprise!) a "traditional" mold. It's crucial to EXAMINE everything, as almost everything in the room description has some associated text, and a lot of it has associated hidden secrets too. If you're planning to go for the the game's maximum score, you will need to methodically uncover all the hidden gold and treasure hidden in each room. Puzzles may be involve manipulating the environment, or using objects in your inventory at opportune times. There may be some opportunities to bypass combat by defeating a monster in a clever way too. This all seemed to be pretty logical. I did get stuck on a few, but the SPOILER command provides in-built solutions. Not hints, which I would have preferred, but full room-specific solutions.

The world is your regular, everyday, incoherent fantasy mish-mash. There are ice caves directly next to volcano vents. You cross Aztec jungles to reach a Greek/Roman amphitheatre. "Traditional." But, and here's where things get interesting, there is a framing device. This is all a virtual reality gambling game hosted by a Las Vegas casino. And everything is consistent with that theme. Like a slot machine, it works on the Skinner box principle. Defeat a monster and you are showered with gold, experience points, treasure and EXCLAMATION POINTS!!! The endorphins released from watching the numbers go up will keep you hooked: you have a constant sense of forward progress, a constant feeling of more rewards just around the corner. It really captures that feeling of a Vegas slot machine, that just-one-more-go rush: I can easily imagine that there will be virtual reality experiences like this in Vegas sooner rather than later.

There are occasional moments where the Vegas casino aspect of the game breaks through into the generic fantasy-land simulation: here is the hilarious response to examining a skeleton:

It's just your typical old skeleton found the world over by adventurers such a yourself when they aren't in a casino frittering away their money. It is wearing some old copper armor.

(NOTE: The Gold Coast Casino has just fined the AI for making judgmental statements to a player. Please accept our apologies and try your examination again.) 

And here is what happens when you defeat your first monster:

An android in a Gold Coast Casino hostess uniform appears and gives you a complimentary drink in a small bottle. "Nice work!" she says with a dazzling smile as she vanishes in a cloud of multi-colored pixels.

I would have appreciated more humour in this vein. Actually, I expected that there would be more to the game than just playing through the Casino's VR simulation, more of a connection between the VR world and the real world. Especially when a shady android starts peddling apparently "illegal" stuff half way through, implying that something is not quite right with the whole setup. Maybe you will be hacking into the code to break the machine, possibly with an ulterior motive for playing the game: an intent to damage the casino, because they have wronged you in some way? But it never goes there. It never really subverts expectations, nor does it really take advantage of its text medium. I feel this may have worked better in graphical form: certainly some shiny graphics, jaunty music and some "coin dropping" sound effects could have really helped to sell this Vegas casino ambience. And the dull as dishwater combat engine would be immeasurably more fun with some pictures to illustrate it. If we treat it as a prototype for a possible future graphical version, it's definitely got that moreish quality that the most evil casino machines have, so the basic foundations are solid.

There is pleasure to be taken from simple things done well. VR Gambler may not be the most ambitious game in the competition, but it delivers on its straightforward premise: it's a well-implemented, largely bug-free, entertaining old-school RPG, which is both tidily written and technically sound. It's always good to be able to track visible improvement in an author's work. VR Gambler is the latest effort from Robert DeFord, whose debut effort, The Egg and the Newbie, I reviewed back in 2012. I found that game to be a neat implementation exercise (a chicken farm simulation) ruined by by being grafted onto a silly sci-fi dystopia back story. Three games and five years later, VR Gambler is a similarly neat implementation exercise, but this time the back story, as little of it as there is, helps to enhance the scenario, even explaining some of its tropey goofiness, rather than detract from it.

These Heterogenous Tasks

IF Comp 2017: a partial list of things for which I am grateful

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at October 23, 2017 06:41 AM

a partial list of things for which I am grateful (Devon Guinn) is an extremely short Twine piece. Any review of it will inevitably take up more words than are in the actual piece. Its main use of hypertext is … Continue reading

IFComp News

IFComp 2017 reviews

October 23, 2017 05:41 AM

With IFComp 2017’s six-week judging period halfway done, now’s a great time to look at this year’s crop of reviews.

As always, the IFWiki has kept a running link-list of this year’s reviews, arranged by reviewer. A major source for this list is this thread on the forums, where reviewers link to their own work. If you’re reviewing IFComp games this year, please do consider adding your own link to either list!

October 22, 2017

These Heterogenous Tasks

IF Comp 2017: The Traveller

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at October 22, 2017 09:41 PM

The Traveller (Kaelan Doyle Myerscough) is an visual novel about space exploration, alien contact and loneliness. The story is highly Odyssey-influenced, to the point where it might be readable as a very loose retelling: the protagonist is a lost wanderer trying to find … Continue reading

October 21, 2017

Doug's World

"Bookmoss" (review)

by Doug Egan ([email protected]) at October 21, 2017 01:22 AM

"Bookmoss" is a hypertext style interactive fiction written by Devon Guinn for the 2017 interactive fiction competition.

The first thing which caught my attention were the "instructions" linked to the title page. I have never seen instructions with a hypertext game before. These provided an interactive introduction to beginning players. These gave me some sense that the author cared about me, the player. That sense of confidence in author carried me through the first two chapters, but waned as I began to fear this was just a mundane account of a father-daughter trip to the Harvard library. Fortunately by the third chapter some elements of magical realism are introduced. By the fifth or sixth chapter there is even a compelling goal. But it was a little slow to start.

I noticed three distinct writing styles: detailed descriptions of place, scripted dialogue, and excerpts from classic books. I'll describe these one at a time.
Read more »

October 20, 2017

Interactive Friction

IFComp 2017 Review: Swigian by Rainbus North

by snowblood ([email protected]) at October 20, 2017 08:33 PM

These are quick thoughts about an entry in the 2017 Interactive Fiction Competition.

This is a game that will work best if you go into it cold, so I would suggest giving it a try first before continuing reading. There will nevertheless be no spoilers in this review.

There is a current trend in parser-based interactive fiction towards "limited parser". Swigian does not follow that trend, instead opting for "limited descriptions". At first, I thought this was an attempt to evoke the old-school style of Scott Adams adventures, like ASCII and the Argonauts, but it turns out there is a very good reason for the super-terse descriptions which is nothing at all to do with nostalgia or a lack of computer memory.

"I don't like talking. Let's build a fire" our unnamed protagonist tells us in the one-line introduction. Deposited at the opening location, we are told:

You are by a lake. The lake is still. 

You can see an axe here.

Looking south, you see the Forest.

Attempting to examine anything yields "It is what it is. I'll tell you everything that's important the first time." Examining yourself, you learn "You look like me". This is not a game that's going to give its secrets away that easily. Head south to the forest, and you encounter a log. Axe. Log. How would you put those two things together? This is the kind of ultra-basic puzzle you will find yourself solving through the course of the game. The difficulty does ramp up, but there is never any complicated machinery to tinker with, tricky NPC encounters to deal with, or obscure verbs to guess. Find an object, use it in its obvious place. In fact, the narrator will often straight up tell you what to do with whatever object you've just picked up.

It takes a while for any hint of plot to appear: "They came while you were asleep. You're not where you should be. You are hungry. You are cold.". So you need to get somewhere, traversing the land, both above ground and below ground, clearing any obstacles in your path, dealing with your hunger, your thirst, or your tiredness when appropriate, avoiding the mysterious "they" whenever possible, and defeating them when not possible. It's obvious that there is something more going on with all this weirdness: for me, it took a good two-thirds of the game before things clicked. The hyper-minimalist writing, the "snacks" you discover along the way, the nature of "they": it all comes together beautifully as realisation dawns about what this is. Others might clock on faster than I did, and I'm wondering how that would affect their experience of the game. I don't think it would negatively affect it at all, as it's not a game that lives and dies on its "twist". The feeling when my suspicions were finally confirmed about what was going on were not "Oh my god this changes everything!", more like "Yes. That figures. It all slots into place now."

There were two moments were I got stuck: the first, at the crypt, the second, in the treasure halls, but both were amply clued by typing HINT: this gives multi-level context-sensitive clues, but still does so in the established voice of the player-character. The mistakes were my own, not reading the descriptions carefully enough, or not noticing a change in the description. There is no moon logic here. There is a lovely puzzle involving falling boulders that is beautifully simple and elegant, and feels genuinely innovative: I can't recall anything similar at all in previous games.

There were some very minor technical issues that can easily be solved in an update, but I didn't find any spelling or grammatical issues. I guess its easier to proof-read when you have much less text to deal with. The story is doled out carefully, in small doses, over the entire course of the game. There are, of course, no info-dumps, but there are no points where you as a player are left floundering, wondering what to do to progress. Your score (out of 15) will regularly tick up, which both gives a sense of accomplishment and acts as a time-bar of sorts. It's easy to underestimate the psychological power of having a score in a game to keep the player engaged.

Swigian is delightful. The game hits the sweet spot between puzzle adventure and story-driven interactive fiction. It will appeal to those who hark back to the "classic" Infocom days just as much as those with a more "literary" sensibility, and that is a rare feat indeed. Graham Nelson, in his seminal book The Craft of the Adventure, described an adventure game as "a crossword at war with a narrative". With Swigian, it feels more like a crossword sitting round a campfire with a narrative, drinking mead together under a starry night sky.

These Heterogenous Tasks

IF Comp 2017: Hexteria Skaxis Qiameth

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at October 20, 2017 07:41 PM

Hexteria Skaxis Qiameth (Gabriel Floriano) is a short Twine piece about language. It’s extremely Borgesian, so much so that it’s really best thought of as Borges fanfic. It’s quite good Borges fanfic, with a good ear for the basic tone, and … Continue reading

The Digital Antiquarian

A Full-Motion-Video Consulting Detective

by Jimmy Maher at October 20, 2017 04:41 PM

Over the course of six months in 1967, 50 million people visited Expo ’67 in Montreal, one of the most successful international exhibitions in the history of the world. Representatives from 62 nations set up pavilions there, showcasing the cutting edge in science, technology, and the arts. The Czechoslovakian pavilion was a surprisingly large one, with a “fairytale area” for children, a collection of blown Bohemian glassware, a “Symphony of Developed Industry,” and a snack bar offering “famous Pilsen beer.” But the hit of the pavilion — indeed, one of the sleeper hits of the Expo as a whole — was to be found inside a small, nondescript movie theater. It was called Kinoautomat, and it was the world’s first interactive movie.

Visitors who attended a screening found themselves ushered to seats that sported an unusual accessory: large green and red buttons mounted to the seat backs in front of them. The star of the film, a well-known Czech character actor named Miroslav Horníček, trotted onto the tiny stage in front of the screen to explain that the movie the visitors were about to see was unlike any they had ever seen before. From time to time, the action would stop and he would pop up again to let the audience decide what his character did next onscreen. Each audience member would register which of the two choices she preferred by pressing the appropriate button, the results would be tallied, and simple majority rule would decide the issue.

As a film, Kinoautomat is a slightly risque but otherwise harmless farce. The protagonist, a Mr. Novak, has just bought some flowers to give to his wife — it’s her birthday today — and is waiting at home for her to return to their apartment when his neighbor’s wife, an attractive young blonde, accidentally locks herself out of her own apartment with only a towel on. She frantically bangs on Mr. Novak’s door, putting him in an awkward position and presenting the audience with their first choice. Should he let her in and try to explain the presence of a naked woman in their apartment to his wife when she arrives, or should he refuse the poor girl, leaving her to shiver in the altogether in the hallway? After this first choice is made, another hour or so of escalating misunderstanding and mass confusion ensues, during which the audience is given another seven or so opportunities to vote on what happens next.

Kinoautomat played to packed houses throughout the Expo’s run, garnering heaps of press attention in the process. Radúz Činčera, the film’s director and the entire project’s mastermind, was lauded for creating what was called by some critics one of the boldest innovations in the history of cinema. After the Expo was over, Činčera’s interactive movie theater was set up several more times in several other cities, always with a positive response, and Hollywood tried to open a discussion about licensing the technology behind it. But the interest and exposure gradually dissipated, perhaps partly due to a crackdown on “decadent” art by Czechoslovakia’s ruling Communist Party, but almost certainly due in the largest part to the logistical challenges involved in setting up the interactive movie theaters that were needed to show it. It was last shown at Expo ’74 in Spokane, Washington, after which it disappeared from screens and memories for more than two decades, to be rescued from obscurity only well into the 1990s, after the Iron Curtain had been thrown open, when it was stumbled upon once again by some of the first academics to study seriously the nature of interactivity in digital mediums.

Had Činčera’s experiment been better remembered at the beginning of the 1990s, it might have saved a lot of time for those game developers dreaming of making interactive movies on personal computers and CD-ROM-based set-top boxes. Sure, the technology Činčera had to work with was immeasurably more primitive; his branching narrative was accomplished by the simple expedient of setting up two film projectors at the back of the theater and having an attendant place a lens cap over whichever held the non-applicable reel. Yet the more fundamental issues he wrestled with — those of how to create a meaningfully interactive experience by splicing together chunks of non-interactive filmed content — remained unchanged more than two decades later.

The dirty little secret about Kinoautomat was that the interactivity in this first interactive film was a lie. Each branch the story took contrived only to give lip service to the audience’s choice, after which it found a way to loop back onto the film’s fixed narrative through-line. Whether the audience was full of conscientious empathizers endeavoring to make the wisest choices for Mr. Novak or crazed anarchists trying to incite as much chaos as possible — the latter approach, for what it’s worth, was by far the more common — the end result would be the same: poor Mr. Novak’s entire apartment complex would always wind up burning to the ground in the final scenes, thanks to a long chain of happenstance that began with that naked girl knocking on his door. Činčera had been able to get away with this trick thanks to the novelty of the experience and, most of all, thanks to the fact that his audience, unless they made the effort to come back more than once or to compare detailed notes with those who had attended other screenings, was never confronted with how meaningless their choices actually were.

While it had worked out okay for Kinoautomat, this sort of fake interactivity wasn’t, needless to say, a sustainable path for building the whole new interactive-movie industry — a union of Silicon Valley and Hollywood — which some of the most prominent names in the games industry were talking of circa 1990. At the same time, though, the hard reality was that to create an interactive movie out of filmed, real-world content that did offer genuinely meaningful, story-altering branches seemed for all practical purposes impossible. The conventional computer graphics that had heretofore been used in games, generated by the computer and drawn on the screen programmatically, were a completely different animal than the canned snippets of video which so many were now claiming would mark the proverbial Great Leap Forward. Conventional computer graphics could be instantly, subtly, and comprehensively responsive to the player’s actions. The snippets in what the industry would soon come to call a “full-motion-video” game could be mixed and matched and juggled, but only in comparatively enormous static chunks.

This might not sound like an impossible barrier in and of itself. Indeed, the medium of textual interactive fiction had already been confronted with seemingly similar contrasts in granularity between two disparate approaches which had both proved equally viable. As I’ve had occasion to discuss in an earlier article, a hypertext narrative built out of discrete hard branches is much more limiting in some ways than a parser-driven text adventure with its multitudinous options available at every turn — but, importantly, the opposite is also true. A parser-driven game that’s forever fussing over what room the player is standing in and what she’s carrying with her at any given instant is ill-suited to convey large sweeps of time and plot. Each approach, in other words, is best suited for a different kind of experience. A hypertext narrative can become a wide-angle exploration of life-changing choices and their consequences, while the zoomed-in perspective of the text adventure is better suited to puzzle-solving and geographical exploration — that is, to the exploration of a physical space rather than a story space.

And yet if we do attempt to extend a similar comparison to a full-motion-video adventure game versus one built out of conventional computer graphics, it may hold up in the abstract, but quickly falls apart in the realm of the practical and the specific. Although the projects exploring full-motion-video applications were among the most expensive the games industry of 1990 had ever funded, their budgets paled next to those of even a cheap Hollywood production. To produce full-motion-video games with meaningfully branching narratives would require their developers to stretch their already meager budgets far enough to shoot many, many non-interactive movies in order to create a single interactive movie, accepting that the player would see only a small percentage of all those hours of footage on any given play-through. And even assuming that the budget could somehow be stretched to allow such a thing, there were other practical concerns to reckon with; after all, even the wondrous new storage medium of CD-ROM had its limits in terms of capacity.

Faced with these issues, would-be designers of full-motion-video games did what all game designers do: they worked to find approaches that — since there was no way to bash through the barriers imposed on them — skirted around the problem.

They did have at least one example to follow or reject — one that, unlike Kinoautomat, virtually every working game designer knew well. Dragon’s Lair, the biggest arcade hit of 1983, had been built out of a chopped-up cartoon which un-spooled from a laser disc housed inside the machine. It replaced all of the complications of branching plots with a simple do-or-die approach. The player needed to guide the joystick through just the right pattern of rote movements — a pattern identifiable only through extensive trial and error — in time with the video playing on the screen. Failure meant death, success meant the cartoon continued to the next scene — no muss, no fuss. But, as the many arcade games that had tried to duplicate Dragon’s Lair‘s short-lived success had proved, it was hardly a recipe for a satisfying game once the novelty wore off.

Another option was to use full-motion video for cut scenes rather than as the real basis of a game, interspersing static video sequences used for purposes of exposition in between interactive sequences powered by conventional computer graphics. In time, this would become something of a default approach to the problem of full-motion video, showing up in games as diverse as the Wing Commander series of space-combat simulators, the Command & Conquer real-time strategy series, and even first-person shooters like Realms of the Haunting. But such juxtapositions would always be doomed to look a little jarring, the ludic equivalent of an animated film which from time to time switches to live action for no aesthetically valid reason. As such, this would largely become the industry’s fallback position, the way full-motion video wound up being deployed as a last resort after designers had failed to hit upon a less jarring formula. Certainly in the early days of full-motion video — the period we’re interested in right now — there still remained the hope that some better approach to the melding of computer game and film might be discovered.

The most promising approaches — the ones, that is, that came closest to working — often used full-motion video in the context of a computerized mystery. In itself, this is hardly surprising. Despite the well-known preference of gamers and game designers for science-fiction and fantasy scenarios, the genre of traditional fiction most obviously suited for ludic adaptation is in the fact the classic mystery novel, the only literary genre that actively casts itself as a sort of game between writer and reader. A mystery novel, one might say, is really two stories woven together. One is that of the crime itself, which is committed before the book proper really gets going. The other is that of the detective’s unraveling of the crime; it’s here, of course, that the ludic element comes in, as the reader too is challenged to assemble the clues alongside the detective and try to deduce the perpetrator, method, and motive before they are revealed to her.

For a game designer wrestling with the challenges inherent in working with full-motion video, the advantages of this structure count double. The crime itself is that most blessed of things for a designer cast adrift on a sea of interactivity: a fixed story, an unchanging piece of solid narrative ground. In the realm of interactivity, then, the designer is only forced to deal with the investigation, a relatively circumscribed story space that isn’t so much about making a story as uncovering one that already exists. The player/detective juggles pieces of that already extant story, trying to slot them together to make the full picture. In that context, the limitations of full-motion video — all those static chunks of film footage that must be mixed and matched — suddenly don’t sound quite so limiting. Full-motion video, an ill-fitting solution that has to be pounded into place with a sledgehammer in most interactive applications, suddenly starts seeming like an almost elegant fit.

The origin story of the most prominent of the early full-motion-video mysteries, a product at the bleeding edge of technology at the time it was introduced, ironically stretches back to a time before computers were even invented. In 1935, J.G. Links, a prominent London furrier, came up with an idea to take the game-like elements of the traditional mystery novel to the next level. What if a crime could be presented to the reader not as a story about its uncovering but in a more unprocessed form, as a “dossier” of clues, evidence, and suspects? The reader would be challenged to assemble this jigsaw into a coherent description of who, what, when, and where. Then, when she thought she was ready, she could open a sealed envelope containing the solution to find out if she had been correct. Links pitched the idea to a friend of his who was well-positioned to see it through with him: Dennis Wheatley, a very popular writer of crime and adventure novels. Together Links and Wheatley created four “Dennis Wheatley Crime Dossiers,” which enjoyed considerable success before the undertaking was stopped short by the outbreak of World War II. After the war, mysteries in game form drifted into the less verisimilitudinous but far more replayable likes of Cluedo, while non-digital interactive narratives moved into the medium of experiential wargames, which in turn led, in time, to the great tabletop-gaming revolution that was Dungeon & Dragons.

And that could very well have been the end of the story, leaving the Dennis Wheatley Crime Dossiers as merely a road not taken in game history, works ahead of their time that wound up getting stranded there. But in 1979 Mayflower Books began republishing the dossiers, a complicated undertaking that involved recreating the various bits of “physical evidence” — including pills, fabric samples, cigarette butts, and even locks of hair — that had accompanied them. There is little indication that their efforts were rewarded with major sales. Yet, coming as they did at a fraught historical moment for interactive storytelling in general — the first Choose Your Own Adventure book was published that same year; the game Adventure had hit computers a couple of years before; Dungeons & Dragons was breaking into the mainstream media — the reprinted dossiers’ influence would prove surprisingly pervasive with innovators in the burgeoning field. They would, for instance, provide Marc Blank with the idea of making a sort of crime dossier of his own to accompany Infocom’s 1982 computerized mystery Deadline, thereby establishing the Infocom tradition of scene-setting “feelies” and elaborate packaging in general. And another important game whose existence is hard to imagine without the example provided by the Dennis Wheatley Crime Dossiers appeared a year before Deadline.

Prior to the Mayflower reprints, the closest available alternative to the Crime Dossiers had been a 1975 Sherlock Holmes-starring board game called 221B Baker Street: The Master Detective Game. It plays like a more coherent version of Cluedo, thanks to its utilization of pre-crafted mysteries that are included in the box rather than a reliance on random combinations of suspects, locations, and weapons. Otherwise, however, the experience isn’t all that markedly different, with players rolling dice and moving their tokens around the game board, trying to complete their “solution checklists” before their rivals. The competitive element introduces a bit of cognitive dissonance that is never really resolved: this game of Sherlock Holmes actually features several versions of Holmes, all racing around London trying to solve each mystery before the others can. But more importantly, playing it still feels more like solving a crossword puzzle than solving a mystery.

Two of those frustrated by the limitations of 221B Baker Street were Gary Grady and Suzanne Goldberg, amateur scholars of Sherlock Holmes living in San Francisco. “A game like 221B Baker Street doesn’t give a player a choice,” Grady noted. “You have no control over the clue you’re going to get and there’s no relationship of the clues to the process of play. We wanted the idea of solving a mystery rather than a puzzle.” In 1979, with the negative example of 221B Baker Street and the positive example of the Dennis Wheatley Crime Dossiers to light the way, the two started work on a mammoth undertaking that would come to be known as Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective upon its publication two years later. Packaged and sold as a board game, it in truth had much less in common with the likes of Cluedo or 221B Baker Street than it did with the Dennis Wheatley Crime Dossiers. Grady and Goldberg provided rules for playing competitively if you insisted, and a scoring system that challenged you to solve a case after collecting the least amount of evidence possible, but just about everyone who has played it agrees that the real joy of the game is simply in solving the ten labyrinthine cases, each worthy of an Arthur Conan Doyle story of its own, that are included in the box.

Each case is housed in a booklet of its own, whose first page or two sets up the mystery to be solved in rich prose that might indeed have been lifted right out of a vintage Holmes story. The rest of the booklet consists of more paragraphs to be read as you visit various locations around London, following the evidence trail wherever it leads. When you choose to visit someplace (or somebody), you look it up in the London directory that is included, which will give you a coded reference. If that code is included in the case’s booklet, eureka, you may just have stumbled upon more information to guide your investigation; at the very least, you’ve found something new to read. In addition to the case books, you have lovingly crafted editions of the London Times from the day of each case to scour for more clues; cleverly, the newspapers used for early cases can contain clues for later cases as well, meaning the haystack you’re searching for needles gets steadily bigger as you progress from case to case. You also have a map of London, which can become unexpectedly useful for tracing the movements of suspects. Indeed, each case forces you to apply a whole range of approaches and modes of thought to its solution. When you think you’re ready, you turn to the “quiz book” and answer the questions about the case therein, then turn the page to find out if you were correct.

If Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective presents a daunting challenge to its player, the same must go ten times over for its designers. The amount of effort that must have gone into creating, collating, intertwining, and typesetting such an intricate web of information fairly boggles the mind. The game is effectively ten Dennis Wheatley Crime Dossiers in one box, all cross-referencing one another, looping back on one another. That Grady and Goldberg, working in an era before computerized word processing was widespread, managed it at all is stunning.

Unable to interest any of the established makers of board games in such an odd product, the two published it themselves, forming a little company called Sleuth Publications for the purpose. A niche product if ever there was one, it did manage to attract a champion in Games magazine, who called it “the most ingenious and realistic detective game ever devised.” The same magazine did much to raise its profile when they added it to their mail-order store in 1983. A German translation won the hugely prestigious Spiel des Jahres in 1985, a very unusual selection for a competition that typically favored spare board games of abstract logic. Over the years, Sleuth published a number of additional case packs, along with another boxed game in the same style: Gumshoe, a noirish experience rooted in Raymond Chandler rather than Arthur Conan Doyle which was less successful, both creatively and commercially, than its predecessor.

And then these elaborate analog productions, almost defiantly old-fashioned in their reliance on paper and text and imagination, became the unlikely source material for the most high-profile computerized mysteries of the early CD-ROM era.

The transformation would be wrought by ICOM Simulations, a small developer who had always focused their efforts on emerging technology. They had first made their name with the release of Déjà Vu on the Macintosh in 1985, one of the first adventure games to replace the parser with a practical point-and-click interface; in its day, it was quite the technological marvel. Three more games built using the same engine had followed, along with ports to many, many platforms. But by the time Déjà Vu II hit the scene in 1988, the interface was starting to look a little clunky and dated next to the efforts of companies like Lucasfilm Games, and ICOM decided it was time to make a change — time to jump into the unexplored waters of CD-ROM and full-motion video. They had always been technophiles first, game designers second, as was demonstrated by the somewhat iffy designs of most of their extant games. It therefore made a degree of sense to adapt someone else’s work to CD-ROM. They decided that Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective, that most coolly intellectual of mystery-solving board games, would counter-intuitively adapt very well to a medium that was supposed to allow hotter, more immersive computerized experiences than ever before.

As we’ve already seen, the limitations of working with chunks of static text are actually very similar in some ways to those of working with chunks of static video. ICOM thus decided that the board game’s methods for working around those limitations should work very well for the computer game as well. The little textual vignettes which filled the case booklets, to be read as the player moved about London trying to solve the case, could be recreated by live actors. There would be no complicated branching narrative, just a player moving about London, being fed video clips of her interviews with suspects. Because the tabletop game included no mechanism for tracking where the player had already been and what she had done, the text in the case booklets had been carefully written to make no such presumptions. Again, this was perfect for a full-motion-video adaptation.

Gary Grady and Suzanne Goldberg were happy to license their work; after laboring all these years on such a complicated niche product, the day on which ICOM knocked on their door must have been a big one indeed. Ken Tarolla, the man who took charge of the project for ICOM, chose three of the ten cases from the original Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective to serve as the basis of the computer game. He now had to reckon with the challenges of going from programming games to filming them. Undaunted, he had the vignettes from the case booklets turned into scripts by a professional screenwriter, hired 35 actors to cast in the 50 speaking parts, and rented a sound stage in Minneapolis — far from ICOM’s Chicago offices, but needs must — for the shoot. The production wound up requiring 70 costumes along with 25 separate sets, a huge investment for a small developer like ICOM. In spite of their small size, they evinced a commitment to production values few of their peers could match. Notably, they didn’t take the money-saving shortcut of replacing physical sets with computer-generated graphics spliced in behind the actors. For this reason, their work holds up much better today than that of most of their peers.

Indeed, as befits a developer of ICOM’s established technical excellence — even if they were working in an entirely new medium — the video sequences are surprisingly good, the acting and set design about up to the standard of a typical daytime-television soap opera. If that seems like damning with faint praise, know that the majority of similar productions come off far, far worse. Peter Farley, the actor hired to play Holmes, may not be a Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett, or Benedict Cumberbatch, but neither does he embarrass himself. The interface is decent, and the game opens with a video tutorial narrated by Holmes himself — a clear sign of how hard Consulting Detective is straining to be the more mainstream, more casual form of interactive entertainment that the CD-ROM was supposed to precipitate.

First announced in 1990 and planned as a cross-platform product from the beginning, spanning the many rival CD-ROM initiatives on personal computers, set-top boxes, and game consoles, ICOM’s various versions of Consulting Detective were all delayed for long stretches by a problem which dogged every developer working in the same space: the struggle to find a way of getting video from CD-ROM to the screen at a reasonable resolution, frame rate, and number of colors. The game debuted in mid-1991 on the NEC TurboGrafx-16, an also-ran in the console wars which happened to be the first such device to offer a CD-ROM drive as an accessory. In early 1992, it made its way to the Commodore CDTV, thanks to a code library for video playback devised by Carl Sassenrath, long a pivotal figure in Amiga circles. Then, and most importantly in commercial terms, the slow advance of computing hardware finally made it possible to port the game to Macintosh and MS-DOS desktop computers equipped with CD-ROM drives later in the same year.

Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective became a common sight in “multimedia upgrade kits” like this one from Creative Labs.

As one of the first and most audiovisually impressive products of its kind, Consulting Detective existed in an uneasy space somewhere between game and tech demo. It was hard for anyone who had never seen actual video featuring actual actors playing on a computer before to focus on much else when the game was shown to them. It was therefore frequently bundled with the “multimedia upgrade kits,” consisting of a sound card and CD-ROM drive, that were sold by companies like Creative Labs beginning in 1992. Thanks to these pack-in deals, it shipped in huge numbers by conventional games-industry terms. Thus encouraged, ICOM went back to the well for a Consulting Detective Volume II and Volume III, each with another three cases from the original board game. These releases, however, did predictably less well without the advantages of novelty and of being a common pack-in item.

As I’ve noted already, Consulting Detective looks surprisingly good on the surface even today, while at the time of its release it was nothing short of astonishing. Yet it doesn’t take much playing time before the flaws start to show through. Oddly given the great care that so clearly went into its surface production, many of its problems feel like failures of ambition. As I’ve also already noted, no real state whatsoever is tracked by the game; you just march around London watching videos until you think you’ve assembled a complete picture of the case, then march off to trial, which takes the form of a quiz on who did what and why. If you go back to a place you’ve already been, the game doesn’t remember it: the same video clip merely plays again. This statelessness turns out to be deeply damaging to the experience. I can perhaps best explain by taking as an example the first case in the first volume of the series. (Minor spoilers do follow in the next several paragraphs. Skip down to the penultimate paragraph — beginning with “To be fair…” — to avoid them entirely.)

“The Mummy’s Curse” concerns the murder on separate occasions of all three of the archaeologists who have recently led a high-profile expedition to Egypt. One of the murders took place aboard the ship on which the expedition was returning to London, laden with treasures taken — today, we would say “looted” — from a newly discovered tomb. We can presume that one of the other passengers most likely did the deed. So, we acquire the passenger manifest for the ship and proceed to visit each of the suspects in turn. Among them are Mr. and Mrs. Fenwick, two eccentric members of the leisured class. Each of them claims not to have seen, heard, or otherwise had anything to do with the murder. But Louise Fenwick has a little dog, a Yorkshire terrier of whom she is inordinately fond and who traveled with the couple on their voyage. (Don’t judge the game too harshly from the excerpt below; it features some of the hammiest acting of all, with a Mrs. Fenwick who seems to be channeling Miss Piggy — a Miss Piggy, that is, with a fake English accent as horrid as only an American can make it.)

The existence of Mrs. Fenwick’s dog is very interesting in that the Scotland Yard criminologist who handled the case found some dog hair on the victim’s body. Our next natural instinct would be to find out whether the hair could indeed have come from a Yorkshire terrier — but revisiting Scotland Yard will only cause the video from there which we’ve already seen to play again. Thus stymied on that front, we probe further into Mrs. Fenwick’s background. We learn that the victim once gave a lecture before the Royal Society where he talked about dissecting his own Yorkshire terrier after its death, provoking the ire of the Anti-Vivisection League, of which Louise Fenwick is a member. And it gets still better: she personally harassed the victim, threatening to dissect him herself. Now, it’s very possible that this is all coincidence and red herrings, but it’s certainly something worth following up on. So we visit the Fenwicks again to ask her about it — and get to watch the video we already saw play again. Stymied once more.

This example hopefully begins to illustrate how Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective breaks its promise to let you be the detective and solve the crime yourself in the way aficionados of mystery novels had been dreaming of doing for a century. Because the game never knows what you know, and because it only lets you decide where you go, nothing about what you do after you get there, playing it actually becomes much more difficult than being a “real” detective. You’re constantly being hobbled by all these artificial constraints. Again and again, you find yourself seething because you can’t ask the question Holmes would most certainly be asking in your situation. It’s a form of fake difficulty, caused by the constraints of the game engine rather than the nature of the case.

Consider once more, then, how this plays out in practice in “The Mummy’s Curse.” We pick up this potentially case-cracking clue about Mrs. Fenwick’s previous relations with the victim. If we’ve ever read a mystery novel or watched a crime drama, we know immediately what to do. Caught up in the fiction, we rush back to the Fenwicks without even thinking about it. We get there, and of course it doesn’t work; we just get the same old spiel. It’s a thoroughly deflating experience. This isn’t just a sin against mimesis; it’s wholesale mimesis genocide.

It is true that the board-game version of Consulting Detective suffers from the exact same flaws born of its own statelessness. By presenting a case strictly as a collection of extant clues to be put together rather than asking you to ferret them out for yourself — by in effect eliminating from the equation both the story of the crime and the story of the investigation which turned up the clues — the Dennis Wheatley Crime Dossiers avoid most of these frustrations, at the expense of feeling like drier, more static endeavors. I will say that the infelicities of Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective in general feel more egregious in the computer version — perhaps because the hotter medium of video promotes a depth of immersion in the fiction that makes it feel like even more of a betrayal when the immersion breaks down; or, more prosaically, simply because we feel that the computer ought to be capable of doing a better job of things than it is, while we’re more forgiving of the obvious constraints of a purely analog design.

Of course, it was this very same statelessness that made the design such an attractive one for adaptation to full-motion video in the first place. In other words, the problems with the format which Kinoautomat highlighted in 1967 aren’t quite as easy to dodge around as ICOM perhaps thought. It does feel like ICOM could have done a little better on this front, even within the limitations of full-motion video. Would it have killed them to provide a few clips instead of just one for some of the key scenes, with the one that plays dependent on what the player has already learned? Yes, I’m aware that that has the potential to become a very slippery slope indeed. But still… work with us just a bit, ICOM.

While I don’t want to spend too much more time pillorying this pioneering but flawed game, I do have to point out one more issue: setting aside the problems that arise from the nature of the engine, the cases themselves often have serious problems. They’ve all been shortened and simplified in comparison to the board game, which gives rise to some of the issues. That said, though, it must also be said that not everything in the board game itself is unimpeachable. Holmes’s own narratives of the cases’ solutions, which follow after you complete them by answering all of the questions in the trial phases correctly, are often rife with questionable assumptions and intuitive leaps that would never hold up on an episode of Perry Mason, much less a real trial. At the conclusion of “The Mummy’s Curse,” for instance, he tells us there was “no reason to assume” that the three archaeologists weren’t all killed by the same person. Fair enough — but there is also no reason to assume the opposite, no reason to assume we aren’t dealing with a copycat killer or killers, given that all of the details surrounding the first of the murders were published on the front page of the London Times. And yet Holmes’s entire solution to the case follows from exactly that questionable assumption. It serves, for example, as his logic for eliminating Mrs. Fenwick as a suspect, since she had neither motive nor opportunity to kill the other two archaeologists.

To be fair to Gary Grady and Suzanne Goldberg, this case is regarded by fans of the original board game as the weakest of all ten (it actually shows up as the sixth case there). Why ICOM chose to lead with this of all cases is the greatest mystery of all. Most of the ones that follow are better — but rarely, it must be said, as airtight as our cocky friend Holmes would have them be. But then, in this sense ICOM is perhaps only being true to the Sherlock Holmes canon. For all Holmes’s purported devotion to rigorous logic, Arthur Conan Doyle’s tales never play fair with readers hoping to solve the mysteries for themselves, hinging always on similar logical fallacies and superhuman intuitive leaps. If one chooses to read the classic Sherlock Holmes stories — and many of them certainly are well worth reading — it shouldn’t be in the hope of solving their mysteries before he does.

The three volumes of Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective would mark the end of the line for ICOM, who, faced with the mounting budgets that it made it harder and harder for a small developer to survive, left the gaming scene quietly in the mid-1990s. Their catalog of games is a small one, but includes in Déjà Vu and Consulting Detective two of the most technically significant works of their times. The Consulting Detective games were by no means the only interactive mysteries of the early full-motion-video era; a company called Tiger Media also released a couple of mysteries on CD-ROM, with a similar set of frustrating limitations, and the British publisher Domark even announced but never released a CD-ROM take on one of the old Dennis Wheatley Crime Dossiers. The ICOM mysteries were, however, the most prominent and popular. Flawed though they are, they remain fascinating historical artifacts with much to teach us: about the nature of those days when seeing an actual video clip playing on a monitor screen was akin to magic; about the perils and perhaps some of the hidden potential of building games out of real-world video; about game design in general. In that spirit, we’ll be exploring more experiments with full-motion video in articles to come, looking at how they circumvented — or failed to circumvent — the issues that dogged Kinoautomat, Dragon’s Lair, and Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective alike.

(Sources: the book Media and Participation by Nico Carpentier; Byte of May 1992; Amazing Computing of May 1991, July 1991, March 1992, and May 1992; Amiga Format of March 1991; Amiga Computing of October 1992; CD-ROM Today of July 1993; Computer Gaming World of January 1991, August 1991, June 1992, and March 1993; Family Computing of February 1984; Softline of September 1982; Questbusters of July 1991 and September 1991; CU Amiga of October 1992. Online sources include Joe Pranevich’s interview with Dave Marsh on The Adventure Gamer; the home page of Kinoautomat today; Expo ’67 in Montreal; and Brian Moriarty’s annotated excerpt from Kinoautomat, taken from his lecture “I Sing the Story Electric.”

Some of the folks who once were ICOM Simulations have remastered the three cases from the first volume of the series and now sell them on Steam. The Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective tabletop line is in print again thanks to Asmodee Games. While I don’t love it quite as much as some do due to the some of the issues mentioned in this article, it’s still a unique experience today that’s well worth checking out.)


Renga in Blue

IFComp 2017: TextCraft: Alpha Island

by Jason Dyer at October 20, 2017 04:40 PM

By Fabrizio Polo. Played on desktop. Not finished.

There ought to be a compact word for “I did something that checks off the things I’m really interested in theoretically, but turns out to have major issues which I found intractable in practice so now I am sad”.

TextCraft: Alpha Island is a parser game written in Java. The main character is fulfilling a bet that they can survive alone on an island for 7 days. The game is simulationist (tracking hunger, thirst, and sleep), in real time, and includes a crafting system.

I did not have a good time. This excerpt of me trying to set my shorts on fire gives a fair mental impression:

The issues:

1. The parser is highly restricted. I know “limited vocabulary” parsers are all the rage but that only works if your set of verbs is small and sensible. This game isn’t that: it has a medium-sized list of verbs, but no synonyms. The result (for instance) is I made a lean-to shelter, but then spent 10 minutes trying to enter it. I had to look up spoilers (it’s GO IN SHELTER).

2. Related to issue #1, I found a water bottle I wanted to fill with the falling rain from the first day. I never did figure out the syntax to do this. I consequently died several days later. Note this isn’t an instant-loss either — it’s a protracted death by dehydration, where you start to get exhausted and need to sleep every few turns.

I don’t know if saying I’m energized three times in a row is a bug, or intentionally indicating I got some sort of super-sleep. Four moves after this I had to sleep again.

3. There’s no regular save, only auto-save after the conclusion after every day. Died late in the first day? Start over. Stuck in a “dead man walking scenario” like in point #2? Start the game over.

4. The example things that you can craft are a sandwich, shelter, and hat. This does not give an intuitive direction as to what’s on the available list — it’s pretty limited and you can go through many, many unrecognized words before finding one the game likes. Even given that, you’ll probably miss something essential, like I did with “trap” …

>craft trap

If you want to craft a conical basket fish trap you will need something you can weave.

… and no, the first thing that occurs to me with the word “trap” is not “conical basket fish trap”, which I never even knew was a thing. Also the game doesn’t give any indication there is any animal life on the island; in fact, the only way to see a fish I could find was to catch one.

That’s not even getting into the fact the craft system syntax is highly finicky when it doesn’t need to be. You have to put items in the exact order the game wants. If you get a single preposition off the game won’t accept it. This is the sort of behavior I’d expect from an early 80s parser, not a modern one.

5. There’s a plot which includes the main character remembering things about his/her friends as time passes. They are giant walls of text, but time passes while you’re trying to read them; the best option is to PAUSE after every long chunk of text. I didn’t get that far in the plot (kept dying) but what I did see was so tangential and irrelevant to the idea of island survival I found it a distraction.

I think it’s possible to make a good game with this system, but this one isn’t it. In order to fix it: First, the parser needs to be a full parser. Highly limited works as a parser, but this isn’t that, nor would this game in particular work with that. Second, although it’s possible the plot came together somewhere, it needs to be something more relevant to the actions of the character. I really don’t care about some friend’s computer company when I’m dying of thirst. Third, there needs to be a lot more “teaching the system” going on with what works in crafting. It shouldn’t be necessary to check the game’s wiki to find out what’s possible to make.

Interactive Friction

IFComp 2017 Review: The Murder in the Fog by Xiao Ru

by snowblood ([email protected]) at October 20, 2017 04:15 PM

These are quick thoughts about an entry in the 2017 Interactive Fiction Competition.

Liu Cixin's The Three Body Problem won a Hugo award in 2015 and proved there was an appetite for Chinese genre fiction in the west. This year's competition has multiple entries from Chinese authors, translated into English, and I must say I am intrigued to see a different outlook than the prevalent white anglo one that dominates the field.

The Murder in the Fog by Xiao Ru takes it cues, in terms of presentation and structure, from the mobile hit Lifeline (2015). Your character, a pubescent schoolboy obsessed with girls, video-games, and, strangely, 90's American movies (Se7en is a major plot point), is attending evening classes when the power is cut and a deep fog rolls over the school. You begin receiving text messages over Tencent QQ, an instant messaging phone app popular in China. A mysterious girl, Fengzi, has just received a creepy image with a scary message, and needs your help to decipher it. There may be a killer on the loose, you need to uncover their identity and motives, and survive the night.

While Lifeline commits entirely to its text messaging format, The Murder In The Fog alternates between first-person narration and conversations with this girl. Confusingly, it also seems to switch viewpoints at some points, as we get long narrations from the girl about what she's been up to. It's never made very clear if she is still texting you these long paragraphs or if we are now in narration mode instead. To muddle things further, a third character, Fengzi's best friend Qiu Lina, is then introduced, and we get a long stretch where Fengzi narrates what her Qiu Lina has been up to. Everything is displayed in the same white font, with no visual indication of who is talking at any point. To compound the problems with lack of clarity further, the white text is presented against impressive, blurry photographs of the current location or the current thematic focus. Unfortunately, there are often large blocks of white in the photographs, and white text against a white background is not a good look. I was straining to read some of it, a major faux pas for a text-based game. Either the photographs needed to be colour-filtered, or the text should presented in a different colour, or with a border.

I enjoyed the portrayal of schoolkids obsessed with the opposite sex, even when being stalked by an unseen killer. When the player-character receives the first message request, their first thought is either to ask if she's a girl, or ask for "sexy pics". Fengzi, meanwhile, vows to kill the killer, unless he's "handsome". "If he's handsome, maybe I can spare his life." Simple moments of levity in a pretty grim, violent story. On the other hand, the setup is rather contrived. As far as I understood it, your school has started its term early, in secret, to presumably get better exam results later, without telling the national educational board, and they have decided to run those classes in the evening in a deserted campus building. Does that happen a lot in China? A lot of the motivations seem odd, too. Fengzi decided to sneak into your class when a desk became free, because she wanted to go shopping after school with Qiu Lina. At 9.15pm? Really? Chinese schoolkids sure have a lot of independence. I thought these kids were "high school sophomores", which would make them 12 years old? It also suffers the same problem the first Lifeline game had: these guys sure do a lot of typing while being chased, fighting off assailants, searching corpses, finding escape routes. How do they find the time to stop and type all these texts? This was ret-conned by the later Lifeline games: apparently our hero, Taylor, was using a voice-to-text device that was converting his speech into text messages. I don't think that current technology has quite advanced that far though, even in China, and unlike Lifeline, this isn't a sci-fi game, so that get-out clause doesn't apply.

Gameplay is, like Lifeline, restricted to simple binary choices. Do you go to find Fengzi, or protect yourself? When you stumble on a dead body, do you search it, or run? There are multiple endings, and seemingly a good amount of branching. Inevitably, there are railroaded choices, where you are given two options but they both resolve to one single path after a few lines of extra text, but I found that each play-through gave me a lot of different insights into the central mystery. I don't think I have stumbled on the best ending, but am generally intrigued enough by the story to be willing to go back for more. There is no walk-through available, sadly.

The Chinese-to-English translation is shaky, at best. "If the guy stands behind me and stabs me with a knife, I'll be dead!" is grammatically correct, sure, but sounds extremely strange. It's just about understandable though, and it gets points for effort, given the lack of any common root between the two languages. Given the large amount of Latin in English, I hold Spanish-to-English translations to a higher standard, which is why I cannot give the equally poorly translated My night similar plaudits. The Murder in the Fog also doesn't suffer from parser problems (admittedly easy enough, given that it has no parser) and can actually be played through to an ending (even without a walk-through). It sure as hell isn't going to win a Hugo award, but its a promising first effort from Xiao Ru.


IFTF now hosts

by Jason McIntosh at October 20, 2017 02:16 PM

I’m pleased to announce that IFTF now hosts, home of the Twine project. We launched our organization last year with Twine support as a core program, and I feel so excited to see the dividends paying off now, between this and the recently launched Twine Cookbook.

Granted, stuff like the Cookbook arguably deserves your excitement more, since that represents something new. Setting up Linux machines and shuffling domain names around doesn’t necessarily thrill anyone — especially since, if we did everything right, the new system looks and works exactly the same as the old one did. But that’s a big part of IFTF’s mission in action, really! By taking stewardship of important community resources like, we extend our organization’s legal protections and and public funding to help keep these resources online, safe and stable for a long time to come.

And, yes, for this server we must once again extend our terribly nerdy naming scheme for IFTF-hosted machines. Just like last time, we found quite obvious which bit of Zork’s early-game inventory to borrow for this purpose. As such, the servers that IFTF runs now include lantern (IFTF website and mailing lists), sword (IFComp), bottle (IF Archive)… and now rope, for

These Heterogenous Tasks

IF Comp 2017: Salt

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at October 20, 2017 01:41 AM

Salt (Gareth Damian Martin) is a (heavily-customised) Twine piece about swimming. It’s focused on immediate experience, physical and mental. It has a very vaguely-defined protagonist, because it’s about an activity that takes you out of yourself. The protagonist starts on the … Continue reading

October 19, 2017

Renga in Blue

IFComp 2017: Haunted P

by Jason Dyer at October 19, 2017 09:40 PM

By Chad Rocketman. Finished (?) on desktop using Gargoyle.

I’m not sure what the intent is with entries like this.

> x me
youre a cool enby and you got a great hat and a subpar tie and some good sunglasses. dont ever take them off because then something terrible will probably happen

> i
You are carrying:
PlayerChefHat (being worn)
PlayerMirrorShades (being worn)
PlayerCurvasiousRedAndBlackTie (being worn)

> talk to bilbert
PLAYER….. a terible fate hath befallen me… a fate of SCIENCE. and MAGICK. talk to me again to get more info
> talk to bilbert
You must go inside me to heal me of my affliction. talk to me again to get more info
> talk to bilbert
don’t talk to me again or i’ll die
> talk to bilbert
oh noooooooooooooooooooo
> talk to bilbert
bilbert is dead you fool. you killed him. he’ll never come back no matter what you do

I mean, it’s funny / weird enough for the 4 minutes it lasts, I guess, and I think I reached the ending which involved entering one of Bilbert’s kidneys and doing some sort of science/magic in the secret place and healing him. And then afterwards I talked to him again and killed him again.

Questions for Discussion:

1. What is a “cool enby”?

2. You can, in fact, take off the hat, shades, and tie, and nothing terrible at all will happen. What does this mean?

3. You enter Bilbert in a “cool invincible science ship”. Is this ship, in fact, invinicible? If an invincible ship collided with another invicible ship, what would happen? Discuss.

4. Both the left and right kidneys contain the “secret place”. Does that mean the innards of Bilbert represent some sort of quantum waveform? Compare and contrast the two kidneys.

5. After healing Bilbert, you can go in and repeat the process as many times as you like; the game will not end. You can also kill Bilbert and keep repeating the process; he talks to you even though he is still dead. Does this hold special meaning?

Interactive Friction

IFComp 2017 Review: My night by Ivsaez

by snowblood ([email protected]) at October 19, 2017 09:35 PM

These are quick thoughts about an entry in the 2017 Interactive Fiction competition.

After playing Eat Me, I thought I had already spotted the winner of this year's competition. How wrong I was. My night is a terrifying science fiction story about a strange chameleonic alien creature masquerading as a human that can change its gender at will. Called a "Mireia", it is described thus:

She is a girl who can be considered tall. It has a beautiful red hair, long and curly. His skin is very clear and full of freckles. It is somewhat thin, which makes it appear that his head is too large, which has earned him numerous mockery of classmates.His face is one of terror. She has been scared with the blackout, no doubt.

Within the space of six sentences, this horrifying abomination has gone from female, to genderless, to male, to genderless again, to male (within the same sentence), and back to female before her description has even finished. Truly a sight to inspire fear in all who behold it.

Trapped in an old house with a group of friends, who will survive and what will become of them? Well, not Marcos, for starters. Its subtle, but read his description carefully and the clues are there that he has already been "turned" by the creature before the start of the game, and has begun mutating into some kind of hideous mutant freak:

He's just turned 18. He's a tall boy, with wide backs and a little overweight. That is something that can never be said to him, as he thinks he is strong. He is not overly graceful, and now less after shaving his head in summer.

He's grown an extra back! Run! Run for your lives! Do your best to keep your little sister Noelia safe. You can't allow here to come to any harm. But wait. Oh no. Not her too!

She is the youngest of the group with 16 years. She has her hair cut at half mane, dark and always perfectly combed with the streak in the middle. She is very nice of face, but nevertheless never leaves the house without makeup. It is short but has a thin and well-proportioned body. Last year her breasts grew excessively, a fact that has given her an excess of self-confidence.

Half mane? She's mutating into a half-human, half-horse creature: the horror, the horror! And that's not all! She has also somehow become androgynous, and yet simultaneously gained gigantic oversized breasts? What dark black magic is this? Fleeing from these abominations, you manage to make it to the bedroom. But nowhere is safe:

When you look up you see your uncle Alfonso standing and hunched in the corner. He looks at you with a scary face, but that is not the worst, the worst is what he is doing. He has his fly open and is grabbing the penis with his hand, while frantically shaking. You look at him between frightened and curious. That's what the boys in your class should do when they talk about masturbation and their dirty things, but you've never seen that, you could not even imagine what it could be. Suddenly your mother enters the room in a rage, shouting to your uncle that he hardly rises his fly. She yells at you not to look, and you look away obediently. You hear how he repeatedly slaps your uncle.

Maria: - Now you are going to see! I'm going to lock you in the cellar all night!
Alfonso: - No, please, the cellar is very scary!
Maria: - That way you will learn not to do those dirty things.

Your mother takes your uncle from the room, while she slaps him again. 

This is surely one of the greatest paragraphs in text adventure history. Nothing, and I mean nothing, in this years competition (or, indeed, in any previous competition) has generated a reaction in me as strong as this did. This is 100% pure gold. The Man Booker Prize has just been awarded to George Saunders for Lincoln in the Bardo, but I'm sure the awards committee will want to re-convene and reconsider after reading the paragraph above. You just don't see quality like this too often.

In a world falling apart under the pressures of Trump, Brexit, a resurgence of Nazism, environmental catastrophe and overwhelming poverty, My night, with its incredibly powerful home-brew parser, its masterful translation of Spanish to English, and its gob-smacking levels of technical excellence, provides the beacon of hope humanity needs. I believe that from this point on, it should become mankind's mission to figure out how to replace that blown fuse in the garage, in order to be able to continue on and see the rest of this game. Only then can the full majesty of author Ivsaez's final message to creation be truly revealed. Amen.

what will you do now?

IFComp 2017: The Richard Mines

by verityvirtue at October 19, 2017 07:41 PM

By Evan Wright [Parser; IFDB link here; IFComp link here]

viewgame.pngCover art: monochrome picture of a mine entrance; in the bottom right corner, “Eintritt Verboten!” in gothic letters

The blurb tells us that this is ostensibly about one or more abandoned German mines in Czechoslovakia, circa 1949. If I had been playing without that knowledge, I would never have known that.

Despite it being about discovery and exploration, the narration is devoid of excitement. The PC betrays no emotion or indeed reaction to anything. Because of that, it was hard for me to find in-game motivation to keep exploring. Most of the context comes from the blurb, in fact.

While this game could do with a little proofreading and beta-testing for functionality expected of most parser games (the game doesn’t end properly, for instance), this game was not submitted without thought: relatively straightforward puzzles whose presentations suggest their solutions, and an object-based hint system. A decent entry, though using the exploration to frame a story would have given it more depth.

Tagged: Evan Wright, exploration, ifcomp 2017, parser

IFComp 2017: Haunted P

by verityvirtue at October 19, 2017 07:41 PM

By Chad Rocketman. [Parser; IFDB link here; IFComp link here]

First impressions: this game has serious shades of Toiletworld, the infamous troll game from last year’s IFComp. The author’s name is similar; the… tone is likewise jocular; most tellingly, the game is underimplemented, with many of the pitfalls of the modern parser. And, of course, “Chad Rocketman” is not too far from “Chet Rocketfrak”.

While not as thematically… consistent as Toiletworld, Haunted P is not as actively hostile toward the player as Toiletworld was. There is actually some measure of progress. I’m not sure it’s actually possible to get to an ending, but perhaps that’s part of the attraction.

Assuming, again, that the author of Toiletworld was responsible for this work, Haunted P is perhaps not as much of a talking piece as Toiletworld, because it’s almost… too normal.

Tagged: chad rocketman, ifcomp 2017, parser

These Heterogenous Tasks

IF Comp 2017: My night

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at October 19, 2017 07:41 PM

My night (Ivsaez) is a horror game about Spanish teenagers. Five kids are having a party in a family home, and mess around with a ouija board; then the lights go out, the protagonist starts walking around the darkened house alone in … Continue reading

Renga in Blue

IFComp 2017: The Fifth Sunday

by Jason Dyer at October 19, 2017 06:41 PM

By Tom Broccoli. Played to completion on desktop using Chrome.

Three of the entries from IFComp are from Chinese authors off of the Qiaobooks group. I haven’t tried the others yet but it seems to be a binary-choice system.

In The Fifth Sudnay, a murder happens …

Sister Yang was dead.

… and you control the actions of Lin Guangrong, who realizes he is a prime suspect. You can, straight from the opening text, try to finger the murderer right away. This is in fact what I did, and I apparently got lucky with my clicks and won in 30 seconds flat.

OK, not the intended route. I restarted and picked “I can’t judge yet” to keep the case going. The structure seems to be: play the binary choices to an ending, get some clues, and then restart enough times that the murder is solved. The end state when the murder goes unsolved comes off as a little bizarre: you get specific facts like in a game of Clue, and “The End” just happens, there’s no real happy or unhappy conclusion.

Here’s a sample excerpt from mid-game:

“What…What happened?

The pungent smell of blood made Mr. J pale. He turned his head away from the cold body, but looked at Lin Guangrong.

“I don’ t know”

His answer left Mr. J at a loss…More precisely; there was a trace of anger in his loss.

“You don’ t know?”

(The space after the ‘ mark happens every time — I assume this is a coding error and not the fault of the text.)

Consider the structure of the penultimate line. The ordering is strange — we first have to parse Mr. J as being “at a loss” (whatever that means, I’m not sure in this context) then modify this emotion with “a trace of anger”, and then apply those emotions to the line “You don’t know?” which immediately follows. A more straightforward version of the line might be “Mr. J said, with a trace of anger, ‘You don’t know?'” It’s possible in Chinese the structure of “general emotion -> tinge to emotion -> line said with previous mentioned emotions” might make more sense, but in English it comes across a slippery and uneven.

All the text is like this. I felt like I had to read out of order. Unfortunately I have trouble enough solving mysteries in games with strong interactivity and prose; with this game I found getting traction nearly impossible.

Choice of Games

The Superlatives: Aetherfall — Lead a superpowered team to save Victorian London

by Rachel E. Towers at October 19, 2017 05:41 PM

We’re proud to announce that The Superlatives: Aetherfall, the latest in our popular “Choice of Games” line of multiple-choice interactive-fiction games, is now available for Steam, iOS, and Android. It’s 30% off until Octobet 26th!

Lead a superpowered team of “Superlatives” to defend 19th-century Victorian London! Battle a Martian warship, clockwork monsters, and nefarious inventors.

The Superlatives: Aetherfall is a 260,000-word interactive novel by Alice Ripley. It’s entirely text-based, without graphics or sound effects, and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination.

The prestigious Society for the Advancement of Individuals of Superlative Talent and the Protection of the Queen has invited you to become their newest member! But on the very day the Society plans to initiate you, unknown Villains destroy the Society headquarters and kidnap your colleagues! As the sole remaining full member of the Superlative Society, you must initiate new recruits to investigate the abduction.

Meet your team: Nimble—faster than lightning; Wailer—a “banshee” with sharp blades and sonic shriek attacks; Arturek—the gruff Martian warrior; Tua—a Venusian who commands the power of plants; and Black Orchid—a strangely familiar new recruit. Your efforts are bolstered by your faithful Clockwork assistant, Gatsby, and your always-butting-in rival, Hallow.

Will your gain your team’s trust and convince them to work together, or will they fall apart under the pressure? Will you cut a deal with London’s Villains, or even turn the Society into Villains yourself? Will you trust the mysterious Dusk and Mr. Ink, who offer you help, or will you uncover their many secrets?

• Play as male, female, or nonbinary; gay, straight, bisexual, asexual, or aromantic
• Draw power from your preternatural nature, alien heritage, or genius gadgets
• Protect the Earth from torrential aetherfalls
• Keep your identity secret from your nosy landlady, Mrs. Rathbone
• Negotiate with minute Mercurian monarchs (Mercurians stand only four inches tall)
• Push your teammates to transcend their origins or pursue their destiny
• Foil the Nefarious Clockwork Contraptions of Dr. Eisengeist and discover his origins

Don your mask, take to the skies, and God save the Queen!

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

Renga in Blue

IFComp 2017: A Beauty Cold and Austere

by Jason Dyer at October 19, 2017 04:40 PM

By Mike Spivey. Finished on desktop using Gargoyle.

I don’t think I’ve seen anything quite like this in IFComp. We’ve had math-related parser games before going all the way back to the first one (1995!) with The Magic Toyshop by Gareth Rees, but this is straight-up educational — it’s fairly clear the author’s intent was to present a journey and teach some math at the same time.

It begins with the player character’s attempt at cramming a “survey course in conceptual mathematics”. A helpful roommate has provided a mysterious pill that’s “perfectly safe, all-natural, and organic”. Shortly after taking it the player falls asleep and essentially enters the dreamworld of Math, a place haunted by both abstract mathematical objects and a plethora of famous mathematicians.

You find yourself in a deep dark blue – almost black – expanse of space that extends as far as you can see in all three dimensions. The only thing that breaks up this space is the white disk floating in mid-air that you are standing on. While the disk doesn’t appear to be supported by anything, there is a hole in the middle of it.

The style includes some self-contained-minigame-type puzzles. Let me give an example:

On the wall are carved numbers from 1 to 100, in ten rows of ten each. It looks like you could push any of the numbers. Next to the numbers is a switch, with two settings: “Remove Number,” and “Remove Larger Multiples of the Number.” The switch is currently set to “Remove Number,” although you could easily move it to the other setting by flipping the switch. … At the bottom is a challenge from the librarian: “To access the map room, leave just the primes between 1 and 100 by pushing only five numbers.”

So far, so straightforward. However, there’s also many “world integrated” puzzles, include a “square root” device which can be used to EXTRACT roots of numbers and a curious roller coaster which traces the path of functions.

The game requires wading through serious infodumps. Sometimes in just puzzle presentation …

> x bronze
(the bronze balance scale)
This is a double-pan balance scale made of bronze. The left pan contains two brown x blocks and two tan pebbles; the right pan contains twelve sepia pebbles.

> x silver
(the silver balance scale)
This is a double-pan balance scale made of silver. The left pan contains three gray y blocks and six ash pebbles; the right pan contains a gray x block and ten slate pebbles.

> x gold
(the gold balance scale)
This is a double-pan balance scale made of gold. The left pan contains a yellow x block, a yellow z block, and four sand pebbles; the right pan contains a yellow y block and eight maize pebbles.

… and sometimes in long and technical dialogue segments.

You give Euclid a nod, as if to say that there’s no need to apologize. He interprets it as interest.

“I was just thinking about the postulates in my Elements. These are what I call the basic truths on which I build all of my geometric arguments. I’m happy with the first four, but the fifth one is too… I don’t know… wordy?

“It’s basically equivalent to saying this: Given any straight line and a point not on that line, there exists exactly one other straight line that passes through the point and never intersects the first line. This is true no matter how far you extend the two lines. So there’s exactly one other line that’s parallel to the first line and that goes through the point.

“I’m trying to figure out how to derive this one from the first four so that I don’t have to claim it as a postulate. But I can’t seem to do it.

I’m actually pretty forgiving of walls of text, but walls of text plus technical language make for a hard read. They also make the characters feel very artificial and dehumanized. While there are some funny moments (I liked Pascal’s betting style in poker and Hypatia fielding calls on her cell phone) the character aspects tend to be in-jokey enough I’m not sure if anyone who doesn’t already have a strong knowledge of math history will grok them.

> read fifth page
The matrix

1 1 0
0 1 0
0 0 1

keeps the y and z coordinates the same from the original object to the transformed object. However, to create the x coordinates of the transformed object, it adds the x and y coordinates of the original object. A cube, for example, would be transformed into an object that looks like a box that has been partially crushed so that its sides are at an angle. (Technically the transformed object is a parallelpiped, a three-dimensional version of a parallelogram.) This kind of transformation is known as a shear transformation.

Also, this game blew well past the 2 hour limit — it took me roughly 6 hours to finish, and this is with a strong mathematical background. I expect 10-12 hours would not be unusual. There are a some very neat puzzles nestled throughout the game and the atmosphere is fairly unique, but I can’t help wondering if there is some friendlier approach that would work for the presentation.

Interactive Friction

IFComp 2017 Review: A Walk In The Park by Extra Mayonnaise

by snowblood ([email protected]) at October 19, 2017 01:37 PM

These are quick thoughts about an entry in the 2017 Interactive Fiction Competition.

"You're a punk in the park and you've no place to go. Meet some interesting people. Enjoy a bird's company. Don't get lost. And avoid authority."

What is punk? Pete Shelley of the Buzzcocks defined it as "something which brought people together, so they realized something was possible”. Billy Bragg felt it was all about "a sneer, a safety pin and a pair of bondage trousers.” John Lydon, typically contrarian, called punk "a circus". As for Sid Vicious? Leave it to good ol' Sid to lay out the rules as plainly and succinctly as possible: “undermine their pompous authority, reject their moral standards, make anarchy and disorder your trademarks. Cause as much chaos and disruption as possible but don’t let them take you alive.”

So what is punk? We still can't pin it down exactly, even 40 years after the fact. We can only define it in relation to what is not punk. Here is an actual sentence from near the beginning of A Walk In The Park:

"Aching in your head is last night's memory of cherries swirling through the neighborhood as blue and red silhouettes scattered staggering into the burbs like so many intoxicated ants deaf to the blaring megaphones."

What the hell? That's not punk. No way. That's alt-rock. That's indie. That's new romantic, for Pete (Shelley)'s sake. That's the sound of educated, well off art-schoolers trying to put poetry into their lyrics to impress their intellectual friends. That's not punk.

This is "Smash It Up" by The Damned:

Smash it up, you can keep your krishna burgers
Smash it up, and your Glastonbury hippies
Smash it up, you can stick your frothy lager
Smash it up, and your blow wave hairstyles

See the difference? The protagonist of A Walk In The Park is exactly that krishna-burger eating, Glastonbury attending, frothy lager drinking, blow wave hairstyle poser appropriating the punk image for some free unearned street-cred while ignoring its politics, its attitude, its seething anger born of disenfranchisement. This game seriously wants us to accept that punk just means having green hair and popping pills. You must be joking. If I was to give it the benefit of the doubt, I would be willing to concede that maybe, just maybe, the author does recognise that, and that indeed, this protagonist, is actually supposed to be a punk-poser. And that the game would resolve itself with this absolute tool either recognising the error of his ways, ditching his mainstream lifestyle for real and going full punk, or stumbling on a group of real punks, trying to hang, and getting laughed out of the room (or getting his head kicked in).

But I couldn't get that far to find out. I spend five turns stuck on a bus, forced to read tortuous pseudo-grammatical sentence after pseudo-grammatical sentence before the damn thing allows me to get off. Apparently the bus has hit a horse-drawn carriage and deposited me by a town park. I'm now supposed to make my own way home, I guess? Actually giving any goals or direction seems to be anathema to this game. Or is that its "punk spirit" again? Anyway, let's see. Here's a drinks vending machine. Here we get one of the few diamonds in the rough:

"The machine belches a tonal buzz and promptly sends a cold twelve ounce can of cancer research in an easy-to-carry Alzheimer's shell rumbling to the catch below."

I like that, even if I don't really understand it. Soft drinks give you cancer and Alzheimer's? Sure, why not. The cadence and flow of that sentence is pretty cool, regardless. We need more in that vein.

Oh look, I don't have enough money for a can of "Twang", so I suppose my goal is to get the missing 50 cents. Here's a homeless man, here's a Canadian penny, okay this makes sense so far. Puzzles. And goals. Yippee. Here are some tablets. I can't do anything with these but eat them, and... its gone. I conk out, and wake up in a jail cell, with seemingly no escape. Is it "punk" to not give a "***You have lost***" message at this point? Screw this game. Let's have a look at the walkthrough: apparently I need to take a pill at the right location and a bird will show up. Let's try that... no bird. So what now? The walkthrough is lying? Punk as hell!

Look, I get it. Punk is about the attitude, not the musical virtuosity. It's about the get-up-and-go DIY ethos. It's gonna have rough edges. But none of that is going to let me give A Walk In The Park a pass. Punk is not a new phenomenon, even the the world of text adventures. Check out Punk Points (2000) by Jim Munroe (admittedly its about the more 'pop' Ramones-influenced New York punk scene). Actually, check out all of Jim Munroe's works, because he captures that feeling of disaffected youth better than anyone. And check out Cryptozookeeper (2011) by Robb Sherwin. Actually, check out all of Robb Sherwin's works, because he captures the raw, lyrical directness of the best punk anthems in his dialogue better than anyone. A Walk In The Park can't claim to be innovative, can't claim to capture the punk attitude correctly, and can't even claim to be a competently made game in its current, dishevelled state.

In conclusion, here is "Idiot Box" by The Damned:

I can turn you off
Well I just tried and left you off
Tumbling you made me art
But you sure ain't a rock'n'roll

'Nuff said.

Doug's World

"Guttersnipe" and "Behind the Door". A review of two Quest games

by Doug Egan ([email protected]) at October 19, 2017 02:08 AM

"Guttersnipe: St Hesper's Asylum for the Criminally Mischievous" by Bitter Karella and "Behind the Door" by eejitlikeme are both Quest games written for the 2017 Interactive Fiction competition.

These are two of the three games written for this year's competition in Quest. Despite the somewhat limited popularity of this platform, there are a lot of good things to say about it from the player's perspective. I like the automatic mapping that shows up in "Guttersnipe" and in Bitter Karella's previous entry "Night House". I like the hybrid of typed input and menu driven input that seems to be the default in Quest games. "Behind the Door" allows no typed input but even without that, "Behind the Door" gives the player an illusion of having a wider freedom of choices than the standard CYOA hyper-link game will offer.

What I don't like about Quest is the instability of on-line play. There is a time limit for online play, which feels even more onerous if the player has not logged in with a Quest account. The games tend to stop or crash at the most inopportune moments. In one case the Quest interpreter crashed while I was reading the final paragraph of the end game for "Guttersnipe". Fortunately I had a recently saved backup and was able to return to the same end fairly quickly.

Individual game reviews following the break.

Read more »

October 18, 2017

Hannah Powell-Smith

IF Comp 2017: The Dream Self

by Hannah at October 18, 2017 08:56 PM

The Dream Self is an Ink and Unity game by Florencia Minuzzi, Co-Director of Tea-Powered Games. Spoilers below the cover image.


Set over the course of several months, it depicts the everyday activities of a character based in London. The PC stays with their parents, works, and interacts with and befriends other characters, but the game is generally light on details about their life. Greater richness abounds in the dreamscapes the PC explores in their sleep, in which a compelling unknown figure plays an increasingly prominent role.

Between its dreamy periwinkle-and-teal cover art, the clear and clean interface, and the ingame art, The Dream Self makes an attractive impression. The dimming and brightening effect overlaying the PC’s room as the sun rises and sets, along with the dates flicking past, is a handy visual shorthand for the passage of time. Different dreams have different colours, elegantly emphasising the mood and tone of the text.

And there is a lot of text. It’s not hard to read by any means, but I found that with frequent strings of passages without choices, the click-read cycle grew repetitive. It was interesting to read, but the images and events didn’t grab my attention enough to stop me wondering when I was going to be able to have input into the story. For a game focused on surrealism and dream logic, the prose is quite straightforward and workmanlike.

When choices arose, I enjoyed being able to state how the PC felt about the events that were happening to and around them, but there were a few too many sections ending in a single clickable choice. For example, when shaking the hand of the dream-figure, the PC could not let go, and the only option available was to “Struggle”, whereas I would have been interested to have an option like “Grip desperately” or some such. Maybe my prior choices restricted the choices displayed, but there didn’t seem to be anything ingame to suggest this.

This seems a good time to mention my personal elephant in the room: that Birdland by Brendan Patrick Hennessy has spoiled me for dream sequences. Not only does Birdland’s style shift wildly between the real world and the dreams, while the stats highlight where dream-actions affect Bridget’s abilities in the real world. Where options are restricted, the game makes this obvious. However, in The Dream Self, things are less clear. Actions in the real world seem to affect events in the dreams, but it’s implied rather than explicit. Occasionally text is bolded; in some cases, it seemed to be conditional text based on previous actions, but elsewhere I wasn’t so sure. This ambiguity, and my uncertainty about whether the dreams affected reality, made it harder for me to care about the PC’s actions.

Having said that, I found that the development of the PC’s personality was effectively presented. I never had the sense that I should have been trying to gear my choices towards a particular type of character: I felt that I could pick and choose different attitudes as I went. As it turns out, Minuzzi based a large proportion of the choices on personality test responses, and I was impressed at the amount of nuance in the emotions the PC can express: no Harry Potter Sorting Hat style “do you want to go cliffdiving, read a book, give your friend a hug or murder someone” here!

In contrast, the unknown figure is by necessity a cypher. In my playthrough, the PC and the figure reached a sort of therapist-client accord, for the PC to confide in and return to when their worries took over. The connection the PC felt with them did not always feel quite earned, and yet at the end I found myself smiling at the interactions between the two, and wondering what would happen next in the PC’s life.

I found The Dream Self a gentle game with a thread of melancholy running through it, and I’m intrigued to see how other people’s playthroughs panned out. Despite wanting more zip and spark from the prose, the game is beautifully put together, and I’m intrigued to see more from Minuzzi and Tea-Powered Games.


Update, and Spring Thing preview

by Hannah at October 18, 2017 08:56 PM

There’s been a whole lot going on and not a lot of time to post about it (not to mention that I wanted to review more IF Comp games than ended up happening – that’ll teach me not to bite off more than I can chew), so have some IF related cliffnotes:

  • I spoke on a panel at the Cambridge Festival of Ideas about interactive fiction where we discussed audience complicity, combining interactive and static literature, and the longevity of digital literature. It was very well-attended and it was great to meet and chat with my co-panellists Saci Lloyd and Kate Pullinger as well as the Creative Writing Anglia Ruskin University lecturers, who were the kinds of lecturers I would have loved to have when I was doing my degree!
  • I did a talk at WordPlay London discussing Sam Kabo Ashwell’s Standard Patterns in Choice-Based Games, and moderated a panel on worldbuilding. The British Library was a great space, the conference was super busy, and I got to listen to some great talks and hang out with a bunch of online IF friends who I hadn’t met in person before. All in all a wonderful (though exhausting) day. Fingers crossed that WordPlay comes to London again!
  • I switched from working 9-5 five days a week to four which, although not a magic bullet, has done good things for my health as well as for my writing work.
  • Recently I started a contracted IF project which I’m over the moon about! More on that in future.
  • Aforementioned project is taking up most of my writing time, which means that I most likely won’t be able to enter IF Comp 2017 as I’d hoped – however, the annual IF festival Spring Thing 2017 is nearly upon us and I’ve entered for the first time! My entry is made in Texture, and is a short scifi noir game about a cop whose torch singer informant (and illicit girlfriend) is in trouble. It’s inspired by several Dessa songs, notably Dixon’s Girl and Alibi, as well as, loosely, LA Noire. Below is a little teaser, in the form of the cover art by Irina Goodwin. Keep an eye out for the festival entries when they’re released around the 6th April – it’s set to be the Spring Thing yet!