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Planet Interactive Fiction

Tuesday, 07. February 2023

Zarf Updates

A treasury of Zork maps

Yesterday a Reddit link started going around the IF circles:♦"Wait," I thought, "haven't I seen that map before?" No, I had not. But I sort of had? Then I looked through my collection of Zork maps. Then I realized, oh no, I have a collection of Zork maps, and it's incomplete.Project time! Let's start at the very beginning.♦Zork map, David Lebling, 1978The original fair-hand map of MIT Zork, drawn b
Yesterday a Reddit link started going around the IF circles:
"Wait," I thought, "haven't I seen that map before?" No, I had not. But I sort of had? Then I looked through my collection of Zork maps. Then I realized, oh no, I have a collection of Zork maps, and it's incomplete.
Project time! Let's start at the very beginning.

Zork map, David Lebling, 1978

The original fair-hand map of MIT Zork, drawn by one of the Implementors during the game's development. Look at that French-curve showcase of a logo!

Zork official hint map, David Ardito and David Lebling, 1981
Once Infocom began publishing Zork as a commercial product, there was an obvious market for hints. Here's Infocom's very first hint-book map. It was advertised within the game itself. An in-game note told you to write away to Infocom for "...the Movement Assistance Planner (MAP) and Hierarchical Information for Novice Treasure Seekers (HINTS)".
This message only existed in the very earliest releases of Zork (the ones labelled "R2" and "R5" in this catalog). This was so early that the game was not yet branded "Zork 1".

Zork 1 poster, David Ardito, 1981
This lovely poster was drawn for Infocom by David Ardito.
The poster is not meant as a map, of course. It's a collection of instantly-recognizable vignettes from the game: white house, troll, cyclops, the Land of the Dead. But the spatial connections between some areas are visible.
You can spot the Adventurer, wearing the same ridiculous headgear as in the "Barbarian Zork" cover illustration. The Thief lurks genteelly behind. And if you peer very closely, you'll find that the priceless painting in the Studio appears to be a miniature of this entire poster.
(Another detail: the altar in the Temple is inscribed with the names "Jacob", "Carrie", and (?) "Juok". Anybody know what that's about?)


Zork 1 map from the Zork Users Group, David Ardito and Steve Meretzky, 1982
A year later, Infocom had sort-of-but-not-really spun off its marketing division as the "Zork Users Group". (Again, see Jimmy Maher's history.) ZUG distributed maps, t-shirts, bumper stickers, and more. This was one of their earlier Zork maps. It has the line-and-box diagrammatic style, familiar to any adventurer who ever scribbled a map on scrap paper. But David Ardito embellished it with more Zork vignettes. (Some are taken directly from the color poster above. The Adventurer has lost the silly helmet, though.)

Zork 2 poster from the Zork Users Group, Pier Giovanni Binotti, 1983

ZUG still sold the posters, though. This is their Zork 2 poster, in a completely different style, by Pier Giovanni Binotti. The fine ink drawing leaves plenty of room for easter-egg detail. I'll only note one quirk: in the starting location, the brass lantern is drawn as a flashlight rather than the traditional Tilley lamp.

Zork 1 map from Infocom, 1983 (page 1)

Sometime in 1983, ZUG was reabsorbed into Infocom. The updated official hint-book map uses the same diagrams, but the artistic detail has sadly been replaced by a generic stone-wall texture. Well, I shouldn't say generic -- it's the dungeon wall motif from the Zork logo. But it's not very interesting.
Infocom continued to use this map all the way through the Activision acquisition, the Lost Treasures and Masterpieces collections, and even the 2012 Lost Treasures re-release on the iOS App Store.

But let us not imagine that the story of Zork maps was over! Fans have been drawing their own maps since the earliest years.

Dungeon map by Steven Roy, 1982

In 1982, Steven Roy drew this handsome map of the original Zork ("Dungeon", the MIT version). It's diagrammatic, but thoughtfully designed with a map-like layout.

Dungeon map by Patrick Vincent after Steven Roy, 2008

Many years later, Patrick Vincent re-rendered Roy's map in Photoshop, showing even more territorial context and also adding in the endgame region.

Zork 1 map by cart00nlion, 2014

Separately, user cart00nlion created this wonderful cutaway map of Zork 1, which is also -- I think -- a work of concrete poetry. The artist says "This illustration contains every location from the game," although the mazes are somewhat condensed.

Zork map by Keith Orlando (ion_bond), 2017

And this brings us around at last to Keith Orlando (user ion_bond). In 2017, they posted this beautiful hand-painted map of MIT Zork. The layout roughly follows the Roy map, but with several changes to improve the balance.

Zork map by Keith Orlando (ion_bond), 2023

Then, this weekend, Keith posted this updated version. This updates the layout yet again (where does one stuff the mazes?), and uses an isometric layout for an appropriately game-y sense of space. Note that the treasures have a *golden glow*.
Also note the eternal confusion about how much of the Frigid River runs underground. I always assumed that the Reservoir was subterranean -- it is described as "cavernous" and is canonically dark. However, Flood Control Dam #3 is not dark, and neither is the river downstream. To add to the fun, Zork 1 says (at Canyon View) that "The mighty Frigid River flows out from a great dark cavern." But that text was a later amendment; MIT Zork's Canyon View implies that FCD#3 is visible above ground. The whole matter is probably best left to lie.

That, as far as I know, concludes our tour of artistic Zork maps.
There are of course countless line-and-box maps to be found in adventure game cheat files and hint books. (Kim Schuette's Book of Adventure Games, 1984, is dear to my heart.) I'm not going to try to catalog those.
I am also omitting large-scale maps of Quendor. Infocom and Activision drew several of these as the Zork universe expanded, trying to put the various games into context. However, these have little connection to original Zork, beyond maybe showing "Frigid River" as a squiggly line. So I don't find them very interesting.
If I've missed any maps, please let me know!


Monday, 06. February 2023

Gold Machine

Spellbreaker: Endgame

When I was an Adventurer, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became an Enchanter, I put away childish things. Spellbreaker (1985)Dave Lebling Play and read along with game and source files (Obsessively Complete Infocom Catalog)Packaging, copy protection, etc. (MoCAGH archive)Packaging, copy protection, etc. […] The post Spellbreaker: Endgame appeared

When I was an Adventurer, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became an Enchanter, I put away childish things.

Spellbreaker (1985)
Dave Lebling

Play and read along with game and source files (Obsessively Complete Infocom Catalog)
Packaging, copy protection, etc. (MoCAGH archive)
Packaging, copy protection, etc. (Infodoc archive)
Internet Archive query: “spellbreaker”
HTML Invisiclues
Archival (Z5) Invisiclues
Map (Infodoc archive)

Opening Crawl

SPELLBREAKER
An Interactive Fantasy
Copyright (c) 1985 by Infocom, Inc. All rights reserved.
SPELLBREAKER is a trademark of Infocom, Inc.
Release 87 / Serial number 860904

Council Chamber
You are in the Council Chamber of the ancient Guild Hall at Borphee. To the south is the entry of the Guild Hall. There is a meeting of the guildmasters going on. You are standing among a group of about ten sorcerers, each the master of an Enchanters Guild chapter somewhere in the land.

A Critical Introduction to Spellbreaker

I visited the Interactive Fiction Database this morning in hopes of finding support for a theory I might express here. I hoped to argue that Spellbreaker, once considered the least of the three games in Infocom’s famed “Enchanter” trilogy, was now widely considered the best of all. I would guess that it is, at least, a contender. My plan was to look at archived versions of this page, which shows the aggregate rankings of all games with the “infocom” tag. Why archived versions? The aggregator considers all rankings between the inception of IFDB (or thereabouts) and today. Since the IFDB tracks the times of individual ratings, the data is likely there, though I don’t have it presently.

For now, the only compelling time-relevant data that I can find comes from Victor Gijsbers’s poll “Interactive Fiction Top 50 of All Time,” whose results are radically different–at least when it comes to Infocom games–from the rankings of the IFDB aggregator. That poll features only a few Infocom games. While the aggregator ranks Enchanter and Sorcerer higher than Spellbreaker, those games don’t even appear in the 2019 poll. Only Spellbreaker can be found there. Clearly, something has changed over the years, but what? For reference, here are the other Infocom games that made the list ordered from highest ranking to lowest:

  • Trinity (Moriarty)
  • A Mind Forever Voyaging (Meretzky)
  • Wishbringer (Moriarty)
  • Spellbreaker (Lebling)
  • Suspended (Berlyn)
  • Zork I (Blank, Lebling)
  • Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Meretzky, Adams)

Interestingly, Spellbreaker did not place in similar polls held in 2011 and 2015. It’s curious that only Zork I and Spellbreaker, the beginning and concluding “bookends” of the six-game series that I call the “Zork Saga” have made the cut. I hope that we all know by now what is special about Zork I, which was a pop culture phenomenon that burst free of the narrow discourse of the video game press, spilling into the New York Times at a time when everyone still read newspapers. It is historic, and no longer needs to be loved and enjoyed (though many still do) to be relevant, just as nobody need love the Battle of Hastings. It was more than a game; it was an event, an occasion.

[Zork] is historic, and no longer needs to be loved and enjoyed (though many still do) to be relevant, just as nobody need love the Battle of Hastings.

Spellbreaker can stake no such claim. Released in 1985, it was the conclusion to a series of games that was no longer anticipated by a great number of people. Oh, how the mighty had fallen! If Infocom received any sort of attention in the wider world of national news, it was as the star of a cautionary tale about Cornerstone and sticking to one’s last. That’s not to say that Infocom no longer garnered interest in technology and gaming circles, which it absolutely did, but the gaming world no longer belonged to text.

Spellbreaker was, in its day, in the company of A Mind Forever Voyaging as the two worst-selling games that Infocom had produced so far. Now they are in esteemed company as two of Infocom’s best-loved titles. While I have done my best to detail the merits of AMFV, it is time to sing of Spellbreaker, which I have come to praise rather than bury.

Do You Like Hard Games?

Perhaps Infocom’s chief marketing bungle–considering Spellbreaker not as a text but as a commercial product–was promoting Spellbreaker as a nigh-unbeatable game. In those days, the additional purchase of an Invisiclues hint booklet added ten dollars to a game already priced at a premium ($49.99 in 1980s money). While it’s hardly scientific to say so, I was personally unwilling to buy an “impossible” game with my weekly allowance of five dollars. “Harder than Zork I, Zork II, Enchanter, and Sorcerer” must have been an incredibly niche proposition.

By the time Infocom announced the release of Spellbreaker in the New Zork Times, they had begun to pull their punches a bit, but I suspect many of us longtime fans were annoyed (or worse) by the decision to gate the conclusion of a six-game series behind a difficulty level that none of the other games had reached.

Things are different now, of course. For one thing, nobody pays for Infocom games anymore. Well, some might, but one couldn’t buy Spellbreaker today except as a collectible at collectible prices. The Invisiclues, too, are widely available. Now that money is no longer a concern, it is perhaps easier to appreciate what Spellbreaker is as opposed to resenting what it is not.

What is it? It’s hard, yes, but nearly all of the puzzles are very reasonably clued. It’s a (mostly) fair game that makes sense. It benefits from the advances that Infocom had recently made with regard to modularity. The player is tasked with collecting objects in order to open new geographies that often feel separate and connected all at once. One could make a reductionist argument that these objects–white cubes–are really just keys that gate areas, but the subjective experience of play is quite different from that. For one thing, Lebling’s succinct prose and surreal imagery make every so-called “door” feel entirely unique. This is, more than either Sorcerer or Enchanter, an insistently magical world where even the most mundane settings are connected by otherworldly strangeness.

Lebling’s succinct prose and surreal imagery make every so-called “door” feel entirely unique. This is, more than either Sorcerer or Enchanter, an insistently magical world where even the most mundane settings are connected by otherworldly strangeness.

It is, in this sense, as literary as A Mind Forever Voyaging. While that game is concerned with heady ethical and epistemological problems, Spellbreaker is surprisingly beautiful. At times, it is downright poetic. Consider, for instance, this bizarre scene in which light no longer protects the Enchanter (this is what I have always called him) from our age-old enemies, the grues:

Dark Room
This room is totally black, so black that you see nothing when you look around it. All light is absorbed by the substance of the place. You can tell it is physical, because you can feel your feet touching the floor, but your eyes tell you nothing.

>d
As you leave, the "rock" cube reappears in your hand.

Dark Cave
This is a large cave with a rough floor. You can tell little about the surroundings, because your frotz spell doesn't seem to be working normally here and produces only a wan and sickly glow. The light coming from the zipper has been reduced to a thin, barely glowing stream of tiny blobs that drips, spurts and sputters uselessly to the ground. There it collects into a small pile which is slowly disappearing, perhaps by evaporation.

>d
You make your way carefully in the almost non-existent light down to an area filled with dim shapes. They move about purposefully, making horrible gurgling noises. The floor is rough and jumbled near the walls, so you haven't been noticed yet.

Grue Cave
This is a large underground chamber filled with nightmarish, barely visible shapes. There is very dim light issuing from somewhere near the center of the room.

>d
The shapes are coming closer. They have noticed the zipper.

They approach you warily, avoiding the tiny drips of light. They grab you, overwhelm you, and devour you, grunting, gurgling, and snapping at each other as they fight over the best parts.

    ****  You have died  ****

Spellbreaker is a game of often overlooked virtues. While the puzzles are, in fact, usually exceptional, they tend to eclipse discussion of Lebling’s prose. Moreover, I hardly ever see Spellbreaker mentioned as the last game in a six-game series. The ending–which is undoubtedly notable–is framed as an ending to the Enchanter Trilogy, and not as a mirror to, say, Zork III when it is undoubtedly both.

Coming Soon

I’ll spend the next two posts covering what I consider absent significances in the discourse surrounding Spellbreaker, particularly the story of both individual game and the Zork Saga. It’s also worth taking brief note of the continuing and unfortunate tendency toward tonal incoherence between Zork gray box packaging and the text of the games themselves.

What’s that? You’re wishing that I would spend time on Spellbreaker‘s famous puzzles? Look no further than Gold Machine’s complete playthrough (with commentary) of Spellbreaker, including maps, game saves, and transcripts. It includes some very excellent and insightful comments from other users. Check it out!

The post Spellbreaker: Endgame appeared first on Gold Machine.

Saturday, 04. February 2023

IF – Dhakajack

ConFI 2023: Premières Réflexions

Je suis déjà en retard pour commencer mes critiques du Concours 2023 ! Avec 25 titres, je n’ai d’autre choix que de tricher un peu : j’écris mon premier commentaire sans même jouer à un seul jeu. Sans doute sera-t-elle superficielle, mais cette pratique a l’avantage d’apparaître immédiatement, assouplissant la faim des auteurs qui se … Continue reading "ConFI 202

Je suis déjà en retard pour commencer mes critiques du Concours 2023 ! Avec 25 titres, je n’ai d’autre choix que de tricher un peu : j’écris mon premier commentaire sans même jouer à un seul jeu. Sans doute sera-t-elle superficielle, mais cette pratique a l’avantage d’apparaître immédiatement, assouplissant la faim des auteurs qui se meurt du manque de retours des joueurs.

Pour cette revue, je ne prends en compte que les titres, illustrations, et descriptions des jeux sur le site du concours.

Titres:

  1. Le Héros dont vous êtes le livre : C’est un titre parfait pour ce concours, mais je suis curieux de savoir de quoi il s’agit. Est-ce que je suis vraiment un livre ? Ce jeu suivra-t-il le format LDVEH ? Ou, plutôt, HDVEL ? Intrigant.
  2. Quel Roi êtes vous ? Un titre court mais plein de potential. Pourquoi le trait d’union a-t-il disparu du titre ? Un acte de trahison politique ? Est-ce que le roi a été trouvé dans le cachot dans une flaque de sang, ce trait plongé dans la poitrine ? Je mets ce jeu en haut de ma liste pour resoudre de telles questions déroutantes.
  3. Au royaume des aveugles on ne regarde pas les dents: Je suppose que c’est le Tome I d’une série dont le Tome II serait “Au royaume des édentés on ne mord pas les yeux”, suivi de Tome III, “Dentistes Contre Ophtalmologistes : la Bataille pour le Royaume.”
  4. Archives et Trahison: Il n’y a pas de titre mieux ciblé que les deux themes eux-mêmes, et entre “Archives et Trahison” et “Trahison et Archives”, le premier a un son plus agréable et logique à mon avis. Ce style de titre risque de declencher des guerres de titres dans les futurs concours, par exemple, “Les cinq trahisons et les cents archives”. On pourrait imaginer que ce genre d’escalade pourrait facilement dégénérer en chaos.

Illustrations:

  1. L’heure du toast – Quoi de plus approprié à ce jeu qui concerne les archivistes qu’une image provennante des archives nationales françaises ? Un grand avantage de la fiction interactive est qu’un seul auteur peut réaliser un jeu entier. L’utilisation de ressources d’image et de son open source permet à l’auteur de se concentrer uniquement sur l’écriture. Tchin-tchin !
  2. Je dois reconnaître les bons choix de typographie : le look rétro de “Le grenier de mon grand-père”, raffiné de “Les Saisons de Pippa”, et hypermoderne de “DOL-OS”. Je peux imaginer le titre de “Les Prophéties Perdues” imprimé avec la même police sur la couverture d’un roman. J’applaudis également le titre en grec de “Apoikia”, mais je trouve une petite faute d’orthographe : les lettres grecques de l’illustration seraient translittérées en “Arthikia”.
  3. Minigolf et trahisons : Des nains de jardin meurtriers et du mini golf ? Prenez mon argent.

Descriptions:


J’encourage les auteurs qui n’ont pas écrit une courte description de leur jeu pour le site du concours à le faire. Une ou deux phrases peuvent faire la différence si quelqu’un joue ou non à votre jeu.

  1. Gent Stickman Vs Evil Meat Hand (VF). La description dit “Jeu d’analyseur de fiction interactif SANS TEXTE.” Comment ça ? J’ai hâte de découvrir le secret de cet analyseur non verbal. Par contre, le reste de la description me fait un peu hésiter : “Des puzzles courtes, minimalistes et difficiles.” Je suis nul en puzzles.
  2. Selon les descriptions, les jeux déroulent… (probablement) dans le passé: 3 (Transatlantique, Apoikia, Archives Culinaires Royals); dans l’avenir : 3 (Objectif Mars, DOL-OS, Retour vers l’extérieur); dans un autre univers (Les Saisons de Pippa, Minigolf et trahisons). Deux jeux abordent le thème du destin : La Harpe du Dieu-Rouge et La Prophéties Perdues.
  3. Enfin, je remarque que 8 jeux sur 25 mettent “fiction interactive” dans leurs descriptions. C’est pour ça que je suis venu, mais je suggère qu’il serait préférable de commmiquer le genre avec des tags et d’ecrire de courtes phrases descriptives qui attireront les joueurs. Quelques bons exemples: Objectif Mars!, La Harpe du Dieu-Rouge, Transatlantique, Quel Roi êtes vous?, DOL-OS, La Venus de Capri, et Minigolf et Trahisons.

Friday, 03. February 2023

Interactive Fiction – The Digital Antiquarian

Sequels in Strategy Gaming, Part 2: Master of Orion II

MicroProse had just published Master of Magic, the second grand-strategy game from the Austin, Texas-based studio SimTex, when SimCity 2000 made the world safe for numbered strategy sequels. After a quick palate cleanser in the form of a computerized version of the Avalon Hill board game 1830: Railroads & Robber Barons, Steve Barcia and the […]

MicroProse had just published Master of Magic, the second grand-strategy game from the Austin, Texas-based studio SimTex, when SimCity 2000 made the world safe for numbered strategy sequels. After a quick palate cleanser in the form of a computerized version of the Avalon Hill board game 1830: Railroads & Robber Barons, Steve Barcia and the rest of the SimTex crew turned their attention to a sequel to Master of Orion, their 1993 space opera that was already widely revered as one of the finest ever examples of its breed.

Originally announced as a product for the Christmas of 1995, it took the sequel one full year longer than that to actually appear. And this was, it must be said, all for the better. Master of Magic had been a rather brilliant piece of game design whose commercial prospects had been all but destroyed by its premature release in a woefully buggy state. To their credit, SimTex patched it, patched it, and then patched it some more in the months that followed, until it had realized most of its immense potential as a game. But by then the damage had been done, and what might have been an era-defining strategy game like Civilization — or, indeed, the first Master of Orion — had been consigned to the status of a cult classic. On the bright side, MicroProse did at least learn a lesson from this debacle: Master of Orion II: Battle at Antares was given the time it needed to become its best self. The game that shipped just in time for the Christmas of 1996 was polished on a surface level, whilst being relatively well-balanced and mostly bug-free under the hood.

Gamers’ expectations had changed in some very significant ways in the three years since its predecessor’s release, and not generally to said predecessor’s benefit. The industry had now completed the transition from VGA graphics, usually running at a resolution of 320 X 200, to SVGA, with its resolutions of 640 X 480 or even more. The qualitative difference belies the quantitative one. Seen from the perspective of today, the jump to SVGA strikes me as the moment when game graphics stop looking undeniably old, when they can, in the best cases at any rate, look perfectly attractive and even contemporary. Unfortunately, Master of Orion I was caught on the wrong side of this dividing line; a 1993 game like it tended to look far uglier in 1996 than, say, a 1996 game would in 1999.

So, the first and most obvious upgrade in Master of Orion II was a thoroughgoing SVGA facelift. The contrast is truly night and day when you stand the two games up side by side; the older one looks painfully pixelated and blurry, the newer one crisp and sharp, so much so that it’s hard to believe that only three years separate them. But the differences at the interface level are more than just cosmetic. Master of Orion II‘s presentation also reflects the faster processor and larger memory of the typical 1996 computer, as well as an emerging belief in this post-Windows 95 era that the interface of even a complex strategy game aimed at the hardcore ought to be welcoming, intuitive, and to whatever extent possible self-explanatory. The one we see here is a little marvel, perfectly laid out, with everything in what one intuitively feels to be its right place, with a helpful explanation never any farther away than a right click on whatever you have a question about. It takes advantage of all of the types of manipulation that are possible with a mouse — in particular, it sports some of the cleverest use of drag-and-drop yet seen in a game to this point. In short, everything just works the way you think it ought to work, which is just about the finest compliment you can give to a user interface. Master of Orion I, for all that it did the best it could with the tools at its disposal in 1993, feels slow, jerky, and clumsy by comparison — not to mention ugly.

The home screen of Master of Orion I

…and its equivalent in Master of Orion II. One of the many benefits of a higher resolution is that even the “Huge” galaxy I’ve chosen to play in here now fits onto a single screen.

If Master of Orion II had attempted to be nothing other than a more attractive, playable version of its antecedent, plenty of the original game’s fans would doubtless have welcomed it on that basis alone. In fact, one is initially tempted to believe that this is where its ambitions end. When we go to set up a new game, what we find is pretty much what we would imagine seeing in just such a workmanlike upgrade. Once again, we’re off to conquer a procedurally generated galaxy of whatever size we like, from Small to Huge, while anywhere from two to eight other alien races are attempting to do the same. Sure, there are a few more races to play as or against this time, a new option to play as a custom race with strengths and weaknesses of our own choosing, and a few other new wrinkles here and there, but nothing really astonishing. For example, we do have the option of playing against other real people over a network now, but that was becoming par for the course in this post-DOOM era, when just about every game was expected to offer some sort of networked multiplayer support, and could expect to be dinged by the critics if it didn’t. So, we feel ourselves to be in thoroughly familiar territory when the game proper begins, greeting us with that familiar field of stars, representing yet another galaxy waiting to be explored and conquered.

Master of Orion II‘s complete disconnection from the real world can be an advantage: it can stereotype like crazy when it comes to the different races, thereby making each of them very distinct and memorable. None of us have to feel guilty for hating the Darlocks for the gang of low-down, backstabbing, spying blackguards they are. If Civilization tried to paint its nationalities with such a broad brush, it would be… problematic.

But when we click on our home star, we get our first shock: we see that each star now has multiple planets instead of the single one we’re used to being presented with in the name of abstraction and simplicity. Then we realize that the simple slider bars governing each planetary colony’s output have been replaced by a much more elaborate management screen, where we decide what proportion of our population will work on food production (a commodity we never even had to worry about before), on industrial production, and on research. And we soon learn that now we have to construct each individual upgrade we wish our colony to take advantage of by slotting it into a build queue that owes more to Master of Magic — and by extension to that game’s strong influence Civilization — than it does to Master of Orion I.

By the middle and late game, your options for building stuff can begin to overwhelm; by now you’re managing dozens (or more) of individual colonies, each with its own screen like this. The game does offer an “auto-build” option, but it rarely makes smart choices; you can kiss your chances of winning goodbye if you use it on any but the easiest couple of difficulty levels. It would be wonderful if you could set up default build queues of your own and drag and drop them onto colonies, but the game’s interest in automation doesn’t extend this far.

This theme of superficial similarities obscuring much greater complexity will remain the dominant one. The mechanics of Master of Orion II are actually derived as much from Master of Magic and Civilization as from Master of Orion I. It is, that is to say, nowhere near such a straightforward extension of its forerunner as Civilization II is. It’s rather a whole new game, with whole new approaches in several places. Whereas the original Master of Orion was completely comfortable with high-level abstraction, the sequel’s natural instinct is to drill down into the details of everything it can. Does this make it better? Let’s table that question for just a moment, and look at some of the other ways in which the game has changed and stayed the same.

The old research system, which allowed you to make progress in six different fields at once by manipulating a set of proportional sliders, has been replaced by one where you can research just one technology at a time, like in Civilization. It’s one of the few places where the second game is less self-consciously “realistic” than the first; the scientific establishment of most real space-faring societies will presumably be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. But, in harking back so clearly to Civilization rather than to its own predecessor, it says much about where Steve Barcia’s head was at as he was putting this game together.

Master of Orion I injected some entropy into its systems by giving you the opportunity to research only a randomized subset of the full technology tree, forcing you to think on your feet and play the hand you were given. The sequel divides the full ladder of Progress into groupings of one to three technologies that are always the same, and lets you choose one of them from each group — and only one of them — for yourself rather than choosing for you. You still can’t research everything, in other words, but now it’s you who decides what does get researched. (This assumes that you aren’t playing a race with the “Creative” ability, which lets you gain access to all available technologies each step of the way, badly unbalancing the game in the process.)

The research screen in a game that’s pretty far along. We can choose to research in just one of the eight categories at a time, and must choose just one technology within that category. The others are lost to us, unless we can trade for or steal them from another race.

We’re on more familiar ground when it comes to our spaceships and all that involves them. Once again, we can design our own ships using all of the fancy technologies our scientists have recently invented, and once again we can command them ourselves in tactical battles that don’t depart all that much from what we saw in the first game. That said, even here there are some fresh complications. There’s a new “command point” system that makes the number of fleets we can field dependent on the communications infrastructure we’ve built in our empire, while now we also need to build “freighters” to move food from our bread-basket planets to those focused more on industry or research. Another new wrinkle here is the addition of “leaders,” individuals who come along to offer us their services from time to time. They’re the equivalent of Master of Magic‘s heroes, to the extent that they even level up CRPG-style over time, although they wind up being vastly less consequential and memorable than they were in that game.

Leaders for hire show up from time to time, but you never develop the bonds with them that you do with Master of Magic‘s heroes. That’s a pity; done differently, leaders might have added some emotional interest to a game that can feel a bit dry.

The last major facet of the game after colony, research, and ship management is your relationship with the other aliens you eventually encounter. Here again, we’re on fairly familiar ground, with trade treaties, declarations of war and peace and alliance, and spying for purposes of information theft or sabotage all being possible and, on the more advanced difficulty levels, necessary. We have three ways of winning the game, which is one more than in Master of Orion I. As before, we can simply exterminate all of the other empires, or we can win enough of them over through friendship or intimidation that they vote to make us the supreme leader of a Galactic Council. But we can now also travel to a different dimension and defeat a mysterious alien race called the Antarans that live there, whereupon all of the races back in our home dimension will recognize us as the superior beings we’ve just proved ourselves to be. Here there are more echoes of Master of Magic — specifically, of that game’s two planes of Arcanus and Myrror and the dimensional gates that link them together.

The workings of the Galactic Council vote are virtually unchanged from Master of Orion I.

What to make of this motley blend, which I would call approximately 50 percent Master of Orion I, 25 percent Civilization, and 25 percent Master of Magic? First, let me tell you what most fans of grand strategy think. Then, I’ll give you my own contrarian take on it..

The verdict of the masses is clear: Master of Orion II is one of the most beloved and influential strategy games of all time. As popular in the latter 1990s as any grand-strategy game not called Civilization, it’s still widely played today — much more so, I would reckon, than the likes of its contemporary Civilization II. (Certainly Master of Orion II looks far less dated today by virtue of not running under Windows and using the Windows 3 widgets — to say nothing of those oh-so-1990s live-action video clips Civilization II featured.)  It’s often described as the archetypal strategic space opera, the Platonic ideal which every new space-based grand-strategy game must either imitate or kick against (or a little of both). And why not? Having received several patches back in the day to correct the few issues in its first release, it’s finely balanced (that “Creative” ability aside — and even it has been made more expensive than it used to be), rich in content, and reasonably attractive to look at even today. And on top of all that there’s a gob-smackingly good interface that hardly seems dated at all. What’s not to like?

Well… a few things, in this humble writer’s opinion. For me, the acid test for additional complexity in a game is partially whether it leads to more “interesting choices,” as Sid Meier would put it, but even more whether it makes the fiction come more alive. (I am, after all, very much an experiential player, very much in tune with Meier’s description of the ideal game of Civilization as “an epic story.”) Without one or preferably both of these qualities, added complexity just leads to added tedium in my book. In the beginning, when I’m developing only one or two planets, I can make a solid case for Master of Orion II‘s hands-on approach to colony management using these criteria. But when one or two colonies become one or two dozen, then eventually one or two hundred, the negatives rather outweigh the positives for me. Any benefits you get out of dragging all those little colonists around manually live only at the margins, as it were. For the reality is that you’ll quickly come up with a standard, rote approach to building up each new planet, and see it through as thoughtlessly as you put your shirt on each morning. At most, you might have just a few default approaches, depending on whether you want the colony to focus on agriculture, industry, or research. Only in a rare crisis, or maybe in the rare case of a truly exceptional planet, will you mix it up all that much.

Master of Orion II strikes me as emblematic of a very specific era in strategy gaming, when advances in computing hardware weren’t redounding entirely to the benefit of game design. During the 1980s and early 1990s, designs were brutally constrained by slow processors and small memories; games like the first Master of Orion (as well as such earlier space operas as the 1983 SSG classic Reach for the Stars) were forced by their circumstance to boil things down to their essentials. By 1996, however, with processor speeds starting to be measured in the hundreds of megahertz and memory in the tens of megabytes, there was much more space for bells, whistles, and finicky knob-twiddling. We can see this in Civilization II, and we can see it even more in Master of Orion II. The problem, I want to say, was that computing technology had fallen into a sort of uncanny valley: the latest hardware could support a lot more mechanical, quantitative complexity, but wasn’t yet sufficient to implement more fundamental, qualitative changes, such as automation that allows the human player to intervene only where and when she will and improved artificial intelligence for the computer players. Tellingly, this last is the place where Master of Orion II has changed least. You still have the same tiny set of rudimentary diplomatic options, and the computer players remain as simple-minded and manipulable as ever. As with so many games of this era, the higher difficulty levels don’t make the computer players smarter; they only let them cheat more egregiously, giving them ever greater bonuses to all of the relevant numbers.

There are tantalizing hints that Steve Barcia had more revolutionary ambitions for Master of Orion II at one point in time. Alan Emrich, the Computer Gaming World scribe who coined the term “4X” (“Explore, Expand, Exploit, Exterminate”) for the first game and did so much to shape it as an early play-tester that a co-designer credit might not have been out of order, was still in touch with SimTex while they worked on the second. He states that Barcia originally “envisioned a ‘layered’ design approach so that people could focus on what they wanted to play. Unfortunately, that goal wasn’t reached.” Perhaps the team fell back on what was relatively easy to do when these ambitions proved too hard to realize, or perhaps at least part of the explanation lies in another event: fairly early in the game’s development, Barcia sold his studio to his publisher MicroProse, and accepted a more hands-off executive role at the parent company. From then on, the day-to-day design work on Master of Orion II largely fell to one Ken Burd, previously the lead programmer.

For whatever reason, Master of Orion II not only fails to advance the conceptual state of the art in grand strategy, but actually backpedals on some of the important innovations of its predecessor, which had already addressed some of the gameplay problems of the then-nascent 4X genre. I lament most of all the replacement of the first game’s unique approach to research with something much more typical of the genre. By giving you the possibility of researching only a limited subset of technologies, and not allowing you to dictate what that subset consists of, Master of Orion I forced you to improvise, to build your strategy around what your scientific establishment happened to be good at. (No beam-weapon technologies? Better learn to use missiles! Weak on spaceship-range-extending technologies to colonize faraway star systems? Better wring every last bit of potential out of those closer to home!) In doing so, it ensured that every single game you played was different. Master of Orion II, by contrast, strikes me as too amenable to rote, static strategizing that can be written up almost like an adventure-game walkthrough: set up your race like this, research this, this, and this, and then you have this, which will let you do this… every single time. Once you’ve come up with a set of standard operating procedures that works for you, you’ve done so forever. After that point, “it’s hard to lose Master of Orion II,” as the well-known game critic Tom Chick admitted in an otherwise glowing 2000 retrospective.

In the end, then, the sequel is a peculiar mix of craft and complacency. By no means can one call it just a re-skinning; it does depart significantly from its antecedent. And yet it does so in ways that actually make it stand out less rather than more from other grand-strategy games of its era, thanks to the anxiety of influence.

For influence, you see, can be a funny thing. Most creative pursuits should be and are a sort of dialog. Games especially have always built upon one another, with each worthy innovation — grandly conceptual or strictly granular, it really doesn’t matter — finding its way into other games that follow, quite possibly in a more evolved form; much of what I’ve written on this very site over the past decade and change constitutes an extended attempt to illustrate that process in action. Yet influence can prove a double-edged sword when it hardens into a stultifying conventional wisdom about how games ought to be. Back in 1973, the literary critic Harold Bloom coined the term “anxiety of influence” in reference to the gravitational pull that the great works of the past can exert on later writers, convincing them to cast aside their precious idiosyncrasies out of a perceived need to conform to the way things ought to be done in the world of letters. I would argue that Civilization‘s set of approaches have cast a similar pall over grand-strategy-game design. The first Master of Orion escaped its long shadow, having been well along already by the time Sid Meier’s own landmark game was released. But it’s just about the last grand-strategy game about which that can be said. Master of Orion II reverts to what had by 1996 become the mean: a predictable set of bits and bobs for the player to busy herself with, arranged in a comfortably predictable way.

When I think back to games of Master of Orion I, I remember the big events, the lightning invasions and deft diplomatic coups and unexpected discoveries. When I think back to games of Master of Orion II, I just picture a sea of data. When there are too many decisions, it’s hard to call any of them interesting. Then again, maybe it’s just me. I know that there are players who love complexity for its own sake, who see games as big, fascinating systems to tweak and fiddle with — the more complicated the better. My problem, if problem it be, is that I tend to see games as experiences — as stories.

Ah, well. Horses for courses. If you’re one of those who love Master of Orion II — and I’m sure that category includes many of you reading this — rest assured that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. As for me, all this time spent with the sequel has only given me the itch to fire up the first one again…



Although I’ve never seen any hard sales numbers, all indications are that Master of Orion II was about as commercially successful as a game this time-consuming, slow-paced, and cerebral — and not named Civilization — could possibly be, most likely selling well into the hundreds of thousands of units. Yet its success didn’t lead to an especially bright future for SimTex — or MicroProse Austin, as it had now become known. In fact, the studio never managed to finish another game after it. Its last years were consumed by an expensive boondoggle known as Guardians: Agents of Justice, another brainchild of Steve Barcia, an “X-COM in tights,” with superheroes and supervillains instead of soldiers and aliens. That sounds like a pretty fantastic idea to me. But sadly, a turn-based tactical-combat game was at odds with all of the prevailing trends in an industry increasingly dominated by first-person shooters and real-time strategy; one frustrated MicroProse executive complained loudly that Barcia’s game was “slow as a pig.” It was accordingly forced through redesign after redesign, without ever arriving at anything that both satisfied the real or perceived needs of the marketers and was still fun to play. At last, in mid-1998, MicroProse pulled the plug on the project, shutting down the entirety of its brief-lived Austin-based subsidiary at the same time. And so that was that for SimTex; Master of Orion III, when it came, would be the work of a completely different group of people.

Guardians: Agents of Justice was widely hyped over the years. MicroProse plugged it enthusiastically at each of the first four E3 trade shows, and a preview was the cover story of Computer Games Strategy Plus‘s December 1997 issue. “At least Agents never graced a CGW cover,” joshed Terry Coleman of the rival Computer Gaming World just after Guardians‘s definitive cancellation.

Steve Barcia never took up the design reins of another game after conceiving Guardians of Justice, focusing instead on his new career in management, which took him to the very different milieu of the Nintendo-exclusive action-games house Retro Studios after his tenure at MicroProse ended. Some might consider this an odd, perchance even vaguely tragic fate for the designer of three of the most respected and beloved grand-strategy games of all time. On the other hand, maybe he’d just said all he had to say in game design, and saw no need to risk tarnishing his stellar reputation. Either way, his creative legacy is more than secure.

(Sources: the book The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry by Harold Bloom; Computer Gaming World of October 1995, December 1996, March 1997, June 1997, July 1997, and October 1998; Computer Games Strategy Plus of December 1997. Online sources include Alan Emrich’s retrospective on the old Master of Orion III site and Tom Chick’s piece on Master of Orion II for IGN.

Master of Orion I and II are available as a package from GOG.com. So, you can compare and contrast, and decide for yourself whether I’m justified in favoring the original.)


Renga in Blue

Inferno (1981)

Let’s loop back just slightly to a game I missed from 1981. It is rather obscure; it wasn’t listed on any of my regular sources until after I had already locked my 1981 list into place. (An eternity ago, 2019.) This is perhaps understandable, as The Software Emporium hails from Tulsa, Oklahoma and this is […]

Let’s loop back just slightly to a game I missed from 1981. It is rather obscure; it wasn’t listed on any of my regular sources until after I had already locked my 1981 list into place. (An eternity ago, 2019.) This is perhaps understandable, as The Software Emporium hails from Tulsa, Oklahoma and this is their only game.

From the Museum of Computer Adventure Games.

I don’t have author names or biographical information otherwise. The manual thanks Rainbow Computing, Inc. (an Apple II publisher out of California), Crowther and Woods (there’s a fair chance the authors only saw Adventure before writing this) and “our wives for their help and patience”. There’s also a phone number but I haven’t been brave enough to test out if a 42-year old phone number still works.

This is animated, with the little dragon walking by.

After the graphical intro, there’s a long scroll full of lore. If you want to watch it in real-time, I’ve embedded a video below.

In times of old, there was a “divergence” between swordsmasters and wizards, such that those who used one method of power could not use the other.

The greatest wizard at the School of Magic in the East, Cossa, became interested in the dark arts. A great warrior came to prominence at the same time, and due to the wizard’s cruel deeds, the two ended up in a showdown; the warrior came to the wizard’s palace, slaying foul creatures as he went.

The warrior and wizard went to blows, the warrior using an elven sword passed down from his ancestors that could defend against spells. The warrior approached for a final blow, but the wizard cast a last-minute spell while dying, opening the ground beneath the warrior and sending him into the Inferno.

You are not playing the warrior, but someone else who has been tossed into the Inferno.

Maybe he’ll be corrupted into a Dark Knight for a final boss battle.

The game, after various bits of instructions, tells you that YOU HAVE BEEN GRANTED 500 LIFE POINTS FOR THIS TRIP TO THE INFERNO.

The life points serve as the “lamp timer” for the game; they continuously go down as you walk around the environs. (This is, at least, somewhat fair in a verisimilitude sense, even if old-school game design.) Your life points can decrease by getting hurt for other reasons; most obnoxiously, there’s an orc that wanders about and serves and sort of the game’s dwarf/pirate. If the orc wanders in you have a chance to fight or run. I have yet to win a fight, but based on the screen messages (and a comment in this review) I know it is possible to win, but with your life points still having sustained damage.

Death results in another animation:

Other rooms can be deadly as well. For example, one room is Yog-Sothoth’s Chamber; there is a random chance the creature in question will be in.

While the game has a line that describes explicit exits, the game has quite a few “secret exits”, so you have to test all eight cardinal directions plus up and down in every single room. This is not fun combined with the random chance of orc-death. Red connections in the map below are secret:

Points of interest include:

– A bridge that collapses and kills you.

– A mirror that kills you if you break it.

– A “hexagonal cell” with a basilisk that kills you.

– A “ballroom” that asks you to join the dance. The dance, strangely, does not kill you, but says YOU FEEL VERY STRANGE! and reduces your precious life points by a whopping 150.

– Astaroth, who doesn’t kill you, just blocks your way.

– A creature being cooked in a vat that wants us to put the fire out.

I don’t have much to work with; there’s an IDOL that falls to pieces when I look at it, leaving DUST, HOOVES, and a HORN; there’s some rusty ARMOR on a shelf that I have been unable to de-rustify. That is everything.

So far the game has felt slightly gamebook-like, where each room has a special “encounter” to deal with, and the authors avoided the mega-expansive feel of their much-admired Adventure. Based on the review I mentioned earlier, the game also lacks in mazes, and only includes one “trick maze” not meant to be mapped. I hence expect further developments to be interesting, even if completely and totally unfair.

(Also, since the game is hard to search for, here’s a link to a playable version online. I’d recommend downloading it and trying on an emulator with speed cranked to high, but not to highest; if you crank it too far the death messages zip by too fast to read.)

Thursday, 02. February 2023

Choice of Games LLC

Fallen Hero: Retribution—So you’re a villain now. Let’s see if you survive the experience.

Hosted Games has a new game for you to play! So you’re a villain now? Let’s see if you survive the experience. Fallen Hero: Retribution is a 1.45-million word interactive superhero novel by Malin Rydén, where your choices guide the story. It’s entirely text-based—without graphics or sound effects—and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination. Be the telepathic vill

Hosted Games has a new game for you to play!

So you’re a villain now? Let’s see if you survive the experience.

Fallen Hero: Retribution is a 1.45-million word interactive superhero novel by Malin Rydén, where your choices guide the story. It’s entirely text-based—without graphics or sound effects—and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination.

Be the telepathic villain you always wanted to be and embark on a career as a thief, mob boss, hero hunter, or anarchist in your own bespoke base. Will you start to regret your actions, or double down and commit more heinous crimes? No matter your choice, your old hero friends in the Rangers will be out to stop your criminal rampage. To them, the fact that you are on the wrong side of the law is more important than the crimes you commit, no matter your motivation. Luckily you can remain one step ahead of them thanks to your telepathic powers, but it would be best to not push your luck and get too close. Or reveal your secrets.

  • Explore relationships as straight, gay, bisexual, or aromantic.
  • Pick your brand of villainy: become a thief, hunt heroes, run a mob or dabble in politics.
  • Delve deeper into the underworld and match wits with the kingpin of Los Diablos.
  • Set up your base in the rat-infested sewers, buy a luxury lair, or anything in between.
  • Deepen your previous two relationships or explore one or more of the three new ones; the young hero idolizing your past, your most dangerous opponent, or the Marshal himself.
  • Juggle two bodies and three identities, play as male, female or genderqueer.
  • Explore your feelings about gender and your body.

Hopefully, your past stays buried. If not, get a shovel.

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

Wednesday, 01. February 2023

Renga in Blue

Ferret: The Penultimate Post

(Prior posts on Ferret here. Also, I semi-spoil the endings to some 70s TV shows.) No progress, alas. We have failed to reach the endgame. I thought of maybe likening this post to the ending of Blakes 7 (which has a super-high body count and the evil Federation wins) but maybe The Little House on […]

(Prior posts on Ferret here. Also, I semi-spoil the endings to some 70s TV shows.)

No progress, alas. We have failed to reach the endgame.

Sorry, Link.

I thought of maybe likening this post to the ending of Blakes 7 (which has a super-high body count and the evil Federation wins) but maybe The Little House on the Prarie is more appropriate. After 8 regular seasons and a 9th “New Beginnings” Season there were some TV movies, including A Last Farewell, where an evil tycoon buys up Walnut Grove. The response of the townspeople is to blow everything up.

Having the sets blown up meant that it was of course the last piece of Little House of Prairie TV made, but oddly enough, it was not the last TV movie. Despite shooting earlier, the special Bless All the Dear Children showed after the explosive finale.

Such as it is here: we’ve been playing Ferret since the start of October, all the way to the end of January, setting a new record (Warp, even given the fact I broke it in two parts, took three months to finish). The patience of my dear readers desperately hoping for an Apple II game with a soothing phosphor beam or maybe some janky ZX Spectrum art has been pushed long enough, and I need to write about new games. But we really are one room away from the endgame (we know this, not just guessing) and we have some folks determined to see things to the end, so action will continue in the comments here.

How do we know we’re one room away? Well, in an earlier version the authors made an error which let us jump into phase 17 early. I’m going to wait until the last post proper to share too much, but you land in the escape ship we’ve been trying to get to, and end up in a disorienting place similar to Adventure 550. Then something slightly unhinged happens and maybe even transcendental which seems to be some sort of grand meta-puzzle. So it is worth waiting for, and I’m hoping to write up The End, on, say, February 28. (No promises, though. Maybe it’ll even happen sooner.)

Anyway, on progress: we kind of devolved. The game was updated today to 10.30, and we found that the trick of putting radioactive pellets in a leather wallet no longer worked to protect us. (I mean, fair, that wouldn’t work in real life: but the game has had a few bits of science fantasy so it didn’t feel too absurd either.) So that means we are back at square one as far as what to do with the broken warehouse.

Shadow of a Warehouse
A large open area exhibiting the ground shadow of an immense warehouse. The remainder of the warehouse is to the south. To the north is a fenced lane. To the west is a set of railway tracks, to the east is the rear end of a train locomotive which appears to be sinking very slowly into the ground.
Exits: NS-W ——– —
There are some shards of timber here
Score increment of 10 points.
-> s
Warehouse
A large open area in the remains of an immense warehouse. There is another
large open area to the north.
Exits: N— ——– —
There is a thallium receptacle here
-> open receptacle
Opening the thallium receptacle reveals:
some radiant pellets

Maybe the pellets are a red herring and we really want some broken wood? Maybe there’s some alternate way to carry the radioactive material with us? (If the latter is true, we could just use a prior version to make it through.)

Incidentally, the update did fix the map, so we can reach all the rooms whilst in space that we are supposed to. As predicted, the Escape from Hot ITV room is the missing one, although now you can see the location via asymmetry:

I don’t have too many other insights to share. I’ve tried naming locations to teleport to in every way I can think of, and typing in the same manner. I’ve tried stuffing various random items into slots rather than just identity cards and those don’t work either. I’ve tried eating the ooze.

Not such a good idea. Your stomach starts to implode. You are being positively gut-wrenched. As you start to suffer from severe convulsions you realise that maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to eat something that might be poisonous.
It’s time to meet the big Ferret in the sky.

I’ve tried various actions with the space suit, but there’s no pockets in the suit and you can’t wear the teleport bracelet at the same time as the suit.

Finally, I tried various whacks at the mysterious Blake sarcophagus message. Let me just give all that text again, in case any puzzle solving maven has some idea even if they’ve not been playing Ferret at all.

Clue #1

The sarcophagus glisters and sparkles in a most tremendous way. You are bedazzled and, not to a small degree, hypnotised by the beauty of the object. Strange that such wonder should be associated with the morbidity of death. Any road up, you may be interested in the inscription on the side of the gaudy object which reads:
The Most Exulted
The Highmost
The Leader of Freed Men
The Champion of the Underdog
The Most Betrayed of All
Put to Death this Day
ABCDXY0123789
By Federation Termination Order
May his Magnificence Rest in Peace

Clue #2

Mong the Magnificent, King of Throb, Ruler of the Vibrations, Artisan of the Pulsating Wobblers was universally revered for his insights into the art of personal pleasure, usually of an exotic nature. It is assumed that he had discovered some incredibly good blow before coining this wonderful quip, full of deep thought and liberating enthusiasm:

“It could be that 0123789 is a number pure and simple, representing, say, the number of days since a given start point, possibly denoted by some other equation. Alternatively, it could be symbolic, with, for example, 9 and 0 denoting some simple code, one that often stares people in the face.”

Or, just maybe, Mong has sustained such physical and mental abuse in pursuit of hedonistic pleasure that he had gone completely barking.

Clue #3

Yo, ya kno’ that Graham geezer and his massive number. Well, like, X is the spot an’ it’s the last free digits, dig it?

Clue #4

Blap, blap. This is fierce. Y, oh Y, does the posse go mental when I jive some symbols at ’em? All I said was “pi and mash”.

Clue #5

It appears that a builder from some distant time in the past (the language appears to be ancient estuarine) has left his calculations inscribed for posterity on the wall.

Wifdf = AX
Hiftf = BY
Lemff = 9782C310

Clue #6 (possibly irrelevant, but here just in case)

I need to explain this before I expire. My life’s research has led me here. Sadly, I think my mind has been failing over the most recent years, things not having the clarity they used to possess. For what it is worth, and I hope it is worth something, otherwise my life has been for nought, my findings are as follows. Please pass on to Prof. Anderson of the Anthropology Department of Springfield University if you can.
“Every story of lore had three protagonists, they say. Let’s call them A, B and C. These lovely three were not related but they were from the same family, which means they are related, if you see what I mean. The first degree of freedom is the order of significance, which, in this case only, is reverse alphabetic order with a small, but significant, amount of moistness. Now, each of A, B and C can represent an individual digit, number, equation or some combination of some or all of the parts. Suffice to say the permutations are nearly endless, but in this case, think of some bears with a propensity to sugary conserves. The second degree of freedom is magnitude, for which an analogy with the late 20th century telephone will suffice coupled with the standard innuendo. The third degree of freedom is position within the arithmetic equation (or it is not how big it is, but what you do with it, to use televisual allegory). In this case we need to look to X and Y. If X is larger than Y then B is below the line, whereas if you are playing bridge it would be definitely above the line, if not straddling it. If Y is larger or equal in magnitude to Y then all are above the line with a straightforward multiplier effect. Not forgetting, of course, the geographical offset.”

One more Data General Eclipse ad for good measure. Computerworld, Nov. 15, 1976.

Tuesday, 31. January 2023

Zarf Updates

2023 IGF nominees: mind dot dot dot blown

Finally, my IGF top favorites. At this point I have entirely departed the realm of objective, considered judgement. These are the games which made me cackle with glee -- in my head at least.ImmortalityNORCOTunic(Necessary footnote: I was on the narrative jury and had access to free review copies of these games. But in fact I bought them all before IGF judging started.)Immortalityby Half Mermaid --
Finally, my IGF top favorites. At this point I have entirely departed the realm of objective, considered judgement. These are the games which made me cackle with glee -- in my head at least.
  • Immortality
  • NORCO
  • Tunic
(Necessary footnote: I was on the narrative jury and had access to free review copies of these games. But in fact I bought them all before IGF judging started.)

Immortality

The biggest, most "holy crap you can't do that" Sam Barlow game yet. What else do you need to know?
Yes, the pacing is weird (even compared to the pacing-is-accidental structure of Her Story and Telling Lies). Searching for film clips is janky and hard to do systematically. I don't know when or why the credits roll. None of that matters.
The thing about Sam Barlow is that he came up with this moment of experience -- the moment where that thing happens. Then he said, well, to make that work for the player, I'm going to have to film three consecutive movies. So he did.

NORCO

I wrote a short review of this for last year's IGF, but that was based on just the first act. Let me expand my comments from last year, which began:
A filthy, mucky, cyber-goth breakdown of the Louisiana slums. You're back in the town you swore you left forever. Your mother is dead, your brother is missing, the household robot is rebuilding [a jacked-up] motorcycle chassis out back. Your stuffed monkey keeps beating you at staring contests.
The visuals are decent pixel art -- not bad, not the best I've seen. [...] But the writing carries it over the top in the best way. This is a deeply screwed-over world, twenty minutes into the future of our screwed-up reality. Gig jobs, bitcoin, giant oil companies eating the world. Every line jabs you with a pinprick detail.
This is ostensibly a point-and-click adventure. In fact it's a mashup of genres leaving neon tire-tracks on each other: exploration puzzle, database mind-map, quicktime combat. The narrative is seamlessly distributed across these modes as you uncover cults, political machinations, and what happened to your family.
There were elements I wished had been better developed. (The plot point of your mother selecting memories for posterity could have tied into your mind-map in interesting ways.) But it's still a kick in the gut and a shout in the face. It's funny, it's grim, it's furious. Play it.

Tunic

Wait, I never wrote anything about Tunic? The can't-believe-how-deep-this-fox-hole-goes game of 2022?
You're a cute nonverbal fox with a sword, set loose upon a Zelda-ish world of adventure. Find secrets! Kill little blob monsters with a stick! Kill giant Souls-style behemoths with a stick! No, wait, let's go back to the secrets thing.
There are two important things to know about Tunic from the start:
  • You can turn off the combat.
  • It is still an award-worthy game, a game of the year game, with the combat off.
There are several combat difficulty settings, in fact. But on the first major boss, I went straight for the maximal "you are invulnerable" mode and stayed there for the rest of the game. (For some bosses, you still have to do a bit of pattern-dancing to land a blow. But you have infinity tries to get it right.)
The point is the secrets. And the puzzles. And the secret puzzles. And the actual secrets, the hidden stuff. The Zelda-Souls-like is just a framework, a fictional game whose manual you uncover as you play. Or possibly as you play again -- someone's marked up the manual with all sorts of notes to themself. Might have been you.
When I finished the game -- all the way, good ending, the works -- there were still some bonus things left to find. I said "Eh, not for me" and peeked at spoilers. Um. There was some stuff that I had never even noticed.
I'm not saying you need to find all this stuff to enjoy Tunic. But if you enjoy finding stuff in games, you will not run low.

The People's Republic of Interactive Fiction

January Post Mortem

The People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction convened on Monday, Jan. 30th on Zoom. Zarf, anjchang,  Josh Grams,  Stephen Eric Jablonski, Hugh,  Kirill Azernyi, Dana, Kyler HE, Michael Hilborn, , and Mike Stage welcomed newcomer Andrew Stephens.  Warning: What follows is probably not proper English, but just my log of notes from the meeting to
PR IF January 2023 meetup

The People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction convened on Monday, Jan. 30th on Zoom. Zarfanjchang,  Josh Grams,  Stephen Eric JablonskiHugh,  Kirill AzernyiDana, Kyler HE, Michael Hilborn, , and Mike Stage welcomed newcomer Andrew Stephens.  Warning: What follows is probably not proper English, but just my log of notes from the meeting to jog people’s memories.

Hugh participated in SeedComp. The idea was to develop someone else’s idea into a game (read more about it here). SeedComp is currently in part 2, with the game deadline for Feb.

Colossal Cave released their 3D version of the original Colossal Cave Adventure. Zarf wrote a blog post about it here. Zarf shared some screenshots. Discussion about what people liked and didn’t like. Pictures are not of the original cave, and the 3D adaptation has additional story elements.Could expose a new generation to the old Colossal Cave (which you just die a lot in). Currently PC only, Steam says MacOS Catalina (10.15) or higher and console release is Q1 2023. Josh shared the podcast with Roberta Williams.

Modern games are more user friendly than the original Colossal Cave. What is the fun of dying a lot? Although nowadays, Angela reports that in elementary school, kids are loving the impossible game, where you continue completely based on memory. Also reminds us of Nethack. Will there be a sequel or expansion to Colossal Cave Adventure? What would that look like– there caves, seeing existing variants would be cool. Family tree of Adventure variants: https://mipmip.org/IFrescue/ajf/

Andrew asks do people feel about randomness to add to repeatability? Full randomization as a basis for different game play is not all that common. Hugh uses randomness to bury the text description, not for state of game play to support repeat-reading. The state machine isn’t randomized. For randomizing NPC or object positions as “background color” it’s often not very interesting.

Kyrill playing NORCO. Visceral meta games that might not make much sense. Loved the monkey thing. Zarf recommends as “one of my top games of the year.” High praise is also mentioned for Roadwarden, Citizen Sleeper, Betrayal from Club Low by Cosmo Dee, Case of the Golden Idol,ButterflySoup 2 (visual novel), Space Wreck game (French) about surviving a wreck. Hugh planning to play Syberia 3, having played Syberia some time ago. Angela’s played a bit of Carrington’s beta for the Dorm game. Didn’t finish yet but it was fun and interesting. Learned a lot about retro computing and Kansas Fest sounds fun.

Angela’s latest project is trying to figure out why some Commodore 64s are not working after being in storage. Got some pointers to check out the RAM chips and salvage the C64 audio chips (since they’re a commodity).

Kyrill asks “Where to publish a small IF piece” SubQ Magazine used to be a venue. We talked about ELO, the Electronic Literature Organization. Their fourth collection is out, https://collection.eliterature.org/4/ and the prior collections are available here https://collection.eliterature.org. Some people “publish” at media events and museums. For example, Brucker-Cohen’s Wordplay exhibit at the NY Hall of Science, now running until March.

Kyrill talked about visceral games, and the sensations we get through text adventures. In FPS games, it is hard to pause and reflect on the emotion, mentality, and perceptions in the moment of the action. Games like Saints Row, when you’re robbing a bank can be thrilling, but there’s not a lot of reflection or space to pause when the action is going down. But Angela would find it useful to understand those moments more. Recommendation to check out PayDay and other RPGs. There’s another aspect of viscerality when we are all in a room together experiencing the joy of solving a game together. An intellectual darshan or elation from being in a crowd.

Hugh brought up graphical stealth based games like Spider and Web. We talked about how the story is told through the narrative of a capture spy. The recollections build up to the downfall of the spy. Highly recommended as an investigation into visceral description of tense moments.

FYI how to turn on Inform debugging:
Verb "xdeterm" * -> Xdeterm;


Renga in Blue

Ferret: Overwhelming Power and Imminent Danger

(Continued directly from here.) Okay, based on what I know of Phase 17, we aren’t going to beat that superfast. But we’ve made enough progress we might get there by tomorrow, and that would be highly satisfying since, as earlier mentioned, I’m making my second-to-last post on Ferret tomorrow, and I will save any follow-up […]

(Continued directly from here.)

Okay, based on what I know of Phase 17, we aren’t going to beat that superfast. But we’ve made enough progress we might get there by tomorrow, and that would be highly satisfying since, as earlier mentioned, I’m making my second-to-last post on Ferret tomorrow, and I will save any follow-up for when (if?) “Won!” happens.

But first: the worst puzzle in the game. And I am not exaggerating.

So: broom closet attached to a Mastermind puzzle. Hours of various efforts thrown at it by myself and others (thanks to everyone who joined it!) and the authors needed to explicitly give the solution anyway: you need to input the answer to the Mastermind puzzle but not hit the rainbow button. (The one that gives black-black-black-black.)

-> west
Broom Cupboard
A very small room with an aluminium door set in the east wall.
There is a book here
Score increment of 20 points.
-> close aluminium door
Closed.
As the door closes the floor descends taking you and the room with it.
Base of Shaft
A very small room.
Exits: –E- ——– —
-> east
Pipeline of Despair
Corridor running east west.

They explained that the general process behind the game was to slowly optimize a play-through, dropping things unneeded, until the perfect run is arrived at. But why would we expect the Mastermind mechanism to work without pushing the button? There is no clue to this behavior whatsoever. What’s more, the point increases at the Broom Closet when the game has been softlocked, which violates one of the central tenets of the game: that you can rely on point increases as a signal that you’re on the right track. It certainly has been possible to skip things, but unlike, say, getting points for a later phase (where it is obvious a skip is happening) this was a subtle and non-obvious softlock. Also remember this was 100% a secret exit, and unlike the pier which had no items at all, the book may have been considered important enough to warrant 20 points.

To explain things in a more theoretical way, dropping an elevator controlled via Mastermind puzzle is an intentional non-realistic abstraction of a puzzle into a universe (commonly known as a “soup cans” puzzle). I’ve defended such puzzles before, with the notion that movie musicals don’t wring their hands every time they stop and break out in song, and as long as a game is clearly in a particular style, having a random 15 puzzle or crypto-crossword spelled out in room tiles fits in with the story. However, such a conceit needs to recognize that the abstraction is happening and not hinge something critical on thinking of it as a realistic mechanism. As there is no realistic basis for Mastermind opening an elevator, there is equally no realistic basis for putting a “color input” in a different way operating differently! At the very least, there needs to be a solid mechanic feedback, which is lacking here: the only thing presented is the abstraction.

Let’s not linger any longer:

Vessel of Dreams
End of corridor.
Exits: NS-W ——– —
-> south
Prince of Wales
A large gloomy room. In the centre of the floor is a carved pillar, atop which is a beige ball. The ball is emitting regular light pulses which cast an eerie glow over the room.
Exits: NS– ——– —
-> south
Couloir
A long room.
Exits: NS– ——– —
-> south
Amaurotic Ambulatory
A short room.
Exits: N— ——– —
There is an identity card here
-> take identity card
Taken.
-> look at card

Not only did we get the long-sought-after identification, but on the other branch we found the questions to go with the answer key that we found a while back. That is:

1,1 First named building.
1,2 Should be repressed according to the open diary.
1,3 Age when she left.
1,4 Near at the start of work.
1,5 Movement of lunch queues.

goes with:

The clues are all about the book 1984 (which is the reason that clue was there in the first place — in order to answer these questions).

VICTORY M(A)NSIONS
BIG (B)ROTHER
TEN OR E(L)EVEN
TEL(E)SCREEN
JER(K)ED

The letters rearrange to, as expected, BLAKE, and go with ROJ BLAKE. This means the long sequence of theater (with the enormously complicated puzzle which the authors self-admit is the trickiest in the game) leading to the island and the answer key was — by appearances now — solely in order to derive the Roj Blake reference. This is deeply odd because there are enough other Blakes 7 references to catch on; people started noticing as soon as I produced map with character names, there’s the bit with the intercepted message in the headphones…

This is Civil Administration ship London. We are in transit from Earth to Cygnus Alpha, transporting prisoners to the penal colony. We have Federation clearance for direct flight, authority number K-Seven-Zero-One.”

…and there’s a paper near the same headphones that gives explicit detail:

Phases are an important part of the game as it was designed and released in batches of rooms called Phases – originally a limitation of 16-bit technology, the authors leveraged it to allow the game to continue development in an incremental fashion. 40 years (yes, 40) after inception a final release was posted with an end game – which, as far as we can ascertain, has never been cracked. The final conceit has heavy overtones of a TV series popular at the time of the games’ original release – an innovative (for British TV) series called Blake’s 7 (this was in the early Star Trek era). Players have noted that the Phase is called Liberation (Blake’s ship is called Liberator), that there are 51 rooms (with curious names) on the ship, yet 52 episodes in the TV series. Many theories have been expounded but most seem to revolve around the notion of finding Room 52 – there is a Teleport that understands the room names of the ship so that might be the way in.

We’re about to get to the boldface part in a moment.

So, with identity card in hand, we can head back to phase 16 and the lift up into space. (Which originally didn’t work, because I was carrying too much stuff — your inventory needs to be light enough.)

Bottom of Lift
You are in a small aluminium-lined room. To the south is a steel door. Next to the door is a red button, under which is a chrome plate.
Exits: -S– ——– —
Score increment of 10 points.
-> close door
Closed.
-> push button
Click.
The lift ascends.
Top of Lift
You are in a small aluminium-lined room. To the south is a steel door. Next to the door is a red button.
-> open door
As the door opens you are sucked with extreme prejudice across a room only to discover a hard surface (commonly known as a wall) to arrest your progress.
You’ve croaked like a frog (widdip).

Of course, in typical Ferret fashion, the game then causes immediate death. You need to wait a few turns for the airlock to cycle properly.

-> s
Airlock
You are in a featureless airlock. There is a steel door to the north.
Exits: NS– ——– —
Score increment of 10 points.
-> s
Airlock
You are in a featureless airlock. There is a door to the south.
Exits: N— ——– —
-> open door
Opened.
-> s
God Washed Font
Airlock. South. Small. Bare. Door. Ooze.
Exits: NS– ——– —
Score increment of 5 points.
-> s
Not Dun Cow
Antechamber. North. East. West. Ooze.
Exits: N-EW ——– —

Now things get very odd and terse, almost like a TRS-80 game. All room descriptions (except for one I’ll get to) are done in a short, single word style. All the rooms include “Ooze”.

-> s
Gauss Carhop
Corridor. North. South. East. West. Ooze.
Exits: NSEW ——– —
-> e
Lude
Navigation. West. Keyboard. Slot. Ooze.
Exits: —W ——– —

There’s plenty of rooms with items you can’t refer to (like a medical bay) and the above is the first one that seems to have a gizmo you can work: you can put things in the slot and type in the keyboard. Does that mean you insert the id card and type a code on the keyboard? Perhaps.

There’s also a room with a space suit (“Nut Boy” above, and I’ll talk about the funny room names shortly). The space suit operates like the diving suit did, where you can’t walk around while wearing it. One might expect wearing it and popping open an airlock, and there’s an escape hatch on one of the ship that might fit the bill, but the game does not let the player refer to it in the parser, so I’m guessing that’s a bust.

The third location of major interest is the teleport room.

Thatch-Wade
Teleport. East. West. Up. Bench. Control Panel. Slot. Ooze.
Exits: –EW ——– U-
Score increment of 20 points.

The slot is the only thing you can refer to. If you’re wondering where the Ooze is coming from, Up from this location gives the answer.

Senator
You are on the flight deck of a high-gain constant acceleration max-thrust Interstellar Transport Vehicle. Around the flight deck are many instruments including illuminated orange, amber, green, white, yellow and pink buttons, a slim lever, a chromed lever and a round knob. In the centre of the room is an array of flight-control positions consisting of high-backed gravity-lock seats each with their own set of controls, monitors and gauges. There are specific and dedicated seats for the astro-navigator, pilot and ship’s master. The pilot is provided with additional controls that look like counterpoise lampstands. There is a stairway leading down from the flight deck opposite of which is a deep cavity set into the hull of the ship. Above the cavity is a television screen. To one side of the screen is a vertically mounted section of a dome, the highest point of the dome pointing directly into the room. Various random light patterns play on the inside of the dome. On the other side of the screen is an area of racking containing strange devices that appear to be hand-held haircare products. Seeping through the joins of the structure of the flight deck is a most disgusting ooze; it appears to be alive as it pulsates and gradually expands across the surfaces of the ship.
The ship is throbbing gently.
Hovering in mid-air, in the middle of the flight deck, is a most awe-inspiring, pulsating plasma ball. The atmosphere around the ball is highly charged, as if with some form of electricity, creating the impression of overwhelming power and imminent danger. You feel incredibly strange as if experiencing a dream-state, is this reality, a hallucination maybe, or has something deeply alien taken control of your senses.
Exits: —- ——– -D
-> d
The plasma ball appears to consist of matter and forces hereto before unknown to your puny species. Its role in a strange life is to protect and it expedites this function with considerable flare. A flare of ectoplasm in fact, which is ejected with utmost force towards your snivelling form. You are reduced to items of matter smaller than quarks.
Quark, quark, dead duck.

If you eyeball the description carefully you’ll notice lots of buttons and some levers, but none of them can be referred to by the parser, so I’ve got relatively high certainty (let’s say 70%) that this room is a trap and should not be visited.

The problem is the ooze is also causing you to slowly die, so whatever is being done needs to be done quickly. I would assume the instructions earlier about finding the room to teleport to is the ticket. Every room available on the ship past the airlock is an anagram of the name of an episode of Blakes 7.

In Pert Mode -> Redemption
He Cared To Fly To Get With Ed -> City at the Edge of the World
Drown Bake -> Breakdown
Fakir Shares Hot Vote -> The Harvest of Kairos
Caro -> Orac
Trail -> Trial
Glod -> Gold
Lude -> Duel
South Of A Murder -> Rumours of Death

Etc. Some rooms we couldn’t get to (because of what seems like a bug, one room has an exit that loops) but managed to do anagrams of anyway by using the GOTO command and the room name and seeing if the room exists. One anagram was really stumping us, though: Voice from the Past.

Being a longer text than the others, it has many, many, possible anagrams and was resisting solution until Voltgloss noticed that the funny paper with five sort-of-cryptic clues from a few posts ago…

1. Hector can feel the pressure (8, 2).

2. Right in tout in large stream (5, 5).

3. Get away, morf back, too much heat on Independent Television (6, 4, 3, 3).

4. Top footballer, winning trophies (6, 4).

5. Bristling with fame, loves anchovies, participates (1, 6).

…had, if you take number 3 as a charade clue with no secondary definition, ESCAPE FROM HOT ITV. This is an anagram for Voice from the Past! The extra bit of effort nearly guarantees that this is the secret room we are supposed to teleport to. However, to get there, we need the teleport to work!

The most logical action, wearing the teleport bracelet (from way back in Phase 9), putting the id card in the slot, and saying the destination doesn’t work. This also matches roughly what goes on in the show, although there may be some details from said show that will help work out what we’re missing (so Blakes 7 experts still welcome!) Damian Murphy suggests in the comments to use the navigation computer first to go to a particular location, then teleporting from there.

There’s still a decent chance the text at Blake’s sarcophagus is relevant, but rather than dropping all the text again I’ll leave the link there; that has the inscription with the odd message “ABCDXY0123789” on it.

Whatever’s going on, we’ve got 24 hours to figure it out.

(Sort of. Again, I’m happy to continue in comments, but I really would like to crack into the Guru phase by January 31, it seems like it’d make a sort of capstone.)


Zarf Updates

2023 IGF nominees: wildly miscellaneous

And now my "I couldn't think of a category" category.Case of the Golden IdolThe Forest QuartetGnosiaQueer Man Peering Into A Rock Pool.jpg (Necessary footnote: I was on the narrative jury and had access to free review copies of these games.)Case of the Golden Idolby Color Gray Games -- game siteThis one has a category: it's an evidence-deduction game, aka "Obra-Dinn-like". But it's the only one I'v
And now my "I couldn't think of a category" category.
  • Case of the Golden Idol
  • The Forest Quartet
  • Gnosia
  • Queer Man Peering Into A Rock Pool.jpg
(Necessary footnote: I was on the narrative jury and had access to free review copies of these games.)

Case of the Golden Idol

This one has a category: it's an evidence-deduction game, aka "Obra-Dinn-like". But it's the only one I've seen this year, so I have to put it here.
The evidence puzzles are excellent. The art can best be described as Beavis-and-Butthead-ish: everybody is exaggerated caricatures, which serves the purpose very well. The story is cleverly constructed but not much of a story, and the Golden Idol itself is kind of a let-down. But you should still play it if you like deduction puzzles.

The Forest Quartet

A sweet little puzzle game about a Scandinavian jazz band trying to get back together. The puzzles are lightweight but thematic. There's a combination of ethereality (light and song) and physical heft (spinning flywheels) which is satisfying to work through even if the solutions are generally straightforward. The environments are very pretty, too.
Games about artists dealing with anxiety and depression and loss are, okay, a cliche at this point. But this one is convincing -- primarily down to the the voice acting, which just nails it. It's just three guys (plus a radio host) talking about their music; low-key but right on target. And they do, in fact, play jazz.
Don't get me wrong. This is a tiny little game that you can get through in an hour; it's not trying to go head-to-head with the year's big hits. But it's lovely. The designers didn't have to put in this level of polish and craft for a snack-sized game. It's worth calling that out for applause.

Gnosia

It's Werewolf. It doesn't pretend to be anything else. You're on a spaceship with a crew of anime hotties, you don't know anything about any of them, and one or more has been infected (replaced?) by the "Gnosia". The Gnosia acts exactly like people except at night they murder one of you. During the day you vote to put one person in cold sleep, thus neutralizing them. You know how it works.
Time is circular; each round gives you a random group of crew members, and randomizes which are evil. There's a bit of story on top of that, but most of what you do is play the game.
Now, I've been saying since, you know, 1997 that a computer Werewolf player is pointless. It's a game of bluffing and lying, so what is a bot going to do? Believe the opposite of whatever you say? Assume you are double-bluffing, or triple-bluffing, or N-bluffing for N large? The most sensible strategy (or at least the easiest) is to ignore what every player says and choose at random.
Gnosia doesn't do this. (At least I don't think it does!) Every player, including you, has a set of stats. How likely people are to think you're Gnosia; how likely people are to think you're lying; how easily you perceive lies; how seriously people take your accusations; and so on.
So there's a whole social sim playing out within the round. And since the round is one human (you) and a bunch of NPCs, you can try to game the sim. This is nifty! It's an approach that I never thought about; my opinion was implicitly based on the idea of dropping one bot player into a group of humans. A round of Gnosia is a tactical game which you can win. Play enough rounds and you can raise your stats.
Interesting, but not a game that I particularly enjoy. I will leave the story for other folks to explore.

Queer Man Peering Into A Rock Pool.jpg

On a beach, under a neon-pink tropical sky, a man wearing a puffy jacket and a scruffy mustache peers into rock pools. Things pop out and follow him around. They are katamaris... memories... from before the flood... singularity... naptime....
Look, it doesn't go into words real well. Although there is a cosmic pink laser of memory shining up from the ground, so Philip K. Dick has to be napping around here somewhere. But the game is mostly about getting postcards from your boyfriend and then emailing him about them. And walking on the phosphor-palette beach, in a contemplative way, collecting... whatever they are.
The strolls are slow and nothing exactly resolves. The colors shift from gentle contentment to nostalgia to gentle regret to quiet joy. "Gentle" is the operative word, really. If the protagonist is dead on his beach (and, to an approximation, all walking simulators start with the protagonist dead) he's got someone to share the beach with.

Monday, 30. January 2023

Key & Compass Blog

New walkthroughs for January 2023

On Sunday, January 29, 2023, I published new walkthroughs for the games and stories listed below! Some of these were paid for by my wonderful patrons at Patreon. Please consider supporting me to make even more new walkthroughs for works of interactive fiction at Patreon and Ko-fi. According to Cain (2022) by Jim Nelson In […]

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


According to Cain (2022) by Jim Nelson

In this Bible-inspired game, you play as a novitiate Indagator of the Academy. The Provost orders you to discover the answer to this ancient mystery: What is the Mark of Cain? You are sent back in time to East of Eden to investigate.

Content warning: This game contains descriptions of murder, animal abuse, self-mutilation, and incest.

This game was an entry in IF Comp 2022 where it took 6th place overall; it also won 1st place for Miss Congeniality.

IFDB | My walkthrough and maps


Hollywood Hijinx (1986) by Dave Anderson and Liz Cyr-Jones

Your Aunt Hildegarde has just died. To inherit everything, you must find ten “treasures” hidden in and around Hildebud, the Hollywood estate she shared with your Uncle Buddy, the famous producer of several questionable schlock movies. But you only have one night to do it, or one of their other nieces and nephews will get their chances. Good luck!

This game was written in ZIL and published commercially by Infocom, Inc.

IFDB | My walkthrough and maps


The Seven Doctors (1998) by David Burke

In this game inspired by Doctor Who, you play as the Seventh Doctor. Old foes have captured your previous six incarnations. Rescue the Doctors by giving each a time-ring; they will return to when and where they belong.

IFDB | My walkthrough and maps


The Time Machine (1981, 1983, 1998) by Brian Howarth

In this Scott-Adams-style game, you play as a newspaper reporter who wants to interview Dr. Potter in his home in the foggy moors. But instead of finding the doctor, you find his time machine and a request to rescue him.

This is a port of Episode 2 of Brian Howarth’s Mysterious Adventures, published by Digital Fantasia in 1981 or 1983. (My sources give conflicting dates.)

IFDB | My walkthrough and maps


Advent Mirror (2022) by Andrew Plotkin

In this sequel to Advent Door, you are once again a Traveller in the City of Doors. Where has the portal taken you? Featuring a very interesting and tall mirror.

This game was an entry in the Confounding Calendar 2022.

IFDB | My walkthrough and maps


IF Aquarium (2010) by Michael Kichline and Michael Eckhart

In this short and flawed art piece, you play as anyone visiting an aquarium. You begin in a glass tunnel, with sharks swimming on the other side of the glass. The exits are east and west, and there’s a closed trap door above you.

IFDB | My walkthrough and map


Trial of the Inuop (2017) by Jordan Jones

In this short one-room game, you are a homeowner abducted by aliens called the Inuop. They invite you to escape their space vessel before a timer runs out or they’ll invade Earth. Examining and taking inventory do not use up turns. The timer shows 11 turns left. Good luck!

IFDB | My walkthrough and map


Who Shot Gum E. Bear? (2022) by Damon L. Wakes

In this mystery game, you play as Bubble Gumshoe. You and Officer Donut are in an alley. At your feet is the lifeless body of Gum E. Bear, lying in a puddle of his own liquid centre. Investigate this crime and ACCUSE the culprit.

This game was an entry in IF Comp 2022 where it took 35th place.

IFDB | My walkthrough and map


Renga in Blue

Ferret: Big Brother is Watching You

(Directly based off my previous post.) No progress at all! But time is tight (see above) so let me update anyway. After a number of increasingly absurd attempts at setting the system date, and looking into creating a giant batch file script that would check every possible system date from 1984 to 1988, we received […]

(Directly based off my previous post.)

No progress at all! But time is tight (see above) so let me update anyway.

After a number of increasingly absurd attempts at setting the system date, and looking into creating a giant batch file script that would check every possible system date from 1984 to 1988, we received another missive from the author hivemind:

The Broom Cupboard. The answer is not related to the date and you don’t need to change the settings of your computer.

Phew. Saved by the bell. But also:

There is something anomalous about the Foyer and Broom Cupboard.

There is a very subtle clue in the first sentence/page of the book, but that wasn’t designed to be the way to solve the problem, it just happens to be there.

Hmm. Curious. Here’s the two descriptions again:

Foyer
In a derelict warehouse. Large open area. Lit through semi-transparent skylights. Main warehouse to the north. To the west an aluminium door.
Exits: NS– ——– —
-> open door
Opened.
-> w
Broom Cupboard
A very small room with an aluminium door set in the east wall.
Exits: –E- ——– —
There is a book here

I certainly fiddled more in the cupboard than in the Foyer, so spent some time looking for oddities there. On the face of it, the big difference is that one is large and the other is very small, but I already knew that. (I had suspected that perhaps this indicated the room was really an elevator, but this suspicion led to no specific action.)

The Foyer lacks a “skylight” object even though the description of skylights is identical to other rooms in the warehouse, but that seems like a glitch more than a clue.

Fine, maybe the book will be revealing? The clue was unclear if what was meant was the first sentence upon reading the book’s description, or the first page of the real book 1984, so let’s consider both.

The book is very old and appears to have been damaged by immersion in water.

I never thought much of the water here — it makes for a good way to have identify-the-book be a naturalistic puzzle rather than a forced one — but maybe there’s something more to this comment. Specifically, maybe the book was left in the broom closet intact, and was only damaged by water later? In that case, where did the water come from? Leaks in the room? The ability to slide down and get submerged? This thought led me (and others in the comments) to prod heavily and the ceiling and floor, at least more heavily than before, but nothing came out that wasn’t a default message.

We tried bringing actual water in the room (akin to the well in Zork) with no result. I even tried ritually dropping the book into the water, theoretically giving it even more damage, but nothing changed (I don’t think the physics modeling of Ferret even is handling it properly).

Fine, what about the actual Orwell book? What counts as the first page depends on what font things get printed in, so let’s just give the first three paragraphs:

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of Victory Mansions, though not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of gritty dust from entering along with him.

The hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats. At one end of it a coloured poster, too large for indoor display, had been tacked to the wall. It depicted simply an enormous face, more than a metre wide: the face of a man of about forty-five, with a heavy black moustache and ruggedly handsome features. Winston made for the stairs. It was no use trying the lift. Even at the best of times it was seldom working, and at present the electric current was cut off during daylight hours. It was part of the economy drive in preparation for Hate Week. The flat was seven flights up, and Winston, who was thirty-nine and had a varicose ulcer above his right ankle, went slowly, resting several times on the way. On each landing, opposite the lift-shaft, the poster with the enormous face gazed from the wall. It was one of those pictures which are so contrived that the eyes follow you about when you move. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption beneath it ran.

Inside the flat a fruity voice was reading out a list of figures which had something to do with the production of pig-iron. The voice came from an oblong metal plaque like a dulled mirror which formed part of the surface of the right-hand wall. Winston turned a switch and the voice sank somewhat, though the words were still distinguishable. The instrument (the telescreen, it was called) could be dimmed, but there was no way of shutting it off completely. He moved over to the window: a smallish, frail figure, the meagreness of his body merely emphasized by the blue overalls which were the uniform of the party. His hair was very fair, his face naturally sanguine, his skin roughened by coarse soap and blunt razor blades and the cold of the winter that had just ended.

As Voltgloss observed, the bit about the lift being shut down during daylight hours might be kind of like a hint, and it does align with the room being an elevator. I then tried various ways of convincing the game the room was dark, but no joy, including absurd commands I knew just weren’t going to work, just in case there was a helpful error message.

-> cover skylight with linen
I can’t see anything like that around here.

Other efforts include getting the game to hardlock by using the cyborg. I was slightly incorrect last time about the cyborg; she does have a random chance of making it all the way up to the Foyer (I think the reason WAIT FOR wasn’t working is that she is more likely to get stuck at the Waterfall.) I tried going south and typing WAIT FOR CYBORG and the game completely locked up and I had to hit control-C to quit out. Voltgloss had something similar when he trapped the cyborg in the broom closet by closing the door. I suspect this means the cyborg still isn’t our candidate for solution, but at least crashing was a result other than futility.

I’m completely stumped from here. Usually in this scenario the issue requires something outside the puzzle, like messing with power elsewhere, but my minor attempts at doing alternate button presses at the lake yielded no results. Is there some other method to convince the warehouse that “the rave is open” so to speak and it is fine to open any kind of secret night-time passage or elevator? I can’t think of any.

ADD: We had a breakthrough due to a much more explicit hint from the authors — details in the comments. Updated save at the start of Phase 16 here for anyone playing along (note that nothing is done yet in Phase 16 in the save, including releasing the handbrake or putting in the tickets).

But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.


Interactive Fiction, 'Wake Reality

I'm writing Interactive Fiction, and the Finnegans Wake Reality theme isn't gone. Twine development

 1 year ago, January 2022, I had some seizures in my brain and I'm not recovering from it. I've been hospitalized 3 times in 12 months. I started www.GutknechtAutism.org to express where I'm at with my autism.I am back on why I got into Interactive Fiction in 2016 and started this blog: Finnegans Wake. As in "Wake Reality" of James Joyce 1928 "Work in Progress" storytelling.I am mixing a Twine

 1 year ago, January 2022, I had some seizures in my brain and I'm not recovering from it. I've been hospitalized 3 times in 12 months. I started www.GutknechtAutism.org to express where I'm at with my autism.

I am back on why I got into Interactive Fiction in 2016 and started this blog: Finnegans Wake. As in "Wake Reality" of James Joyce 1928 "Work in Progress" storytelling.

I am mixing a Twine  (+SugarCube) story with real-world Internet Domains.

www.ॐ.guide has one of the many entry points.

Indra's Net is a key theme, tied to ॐ meaning and the ThunderWords of Finnegans Wake.

www.ء.rocks is another story entry point. Take care, thank you.

Sunday, 29. January 2023

Zarf Updates

Colossal Cave (2023)

A year ago, Ken and Roberta Williams boothed at GDC with a demo of their coming-out-of-retirement project: Colossal Cave in 3d. I wrote some thoughts at the time:In a graphical environment, how do we render the confusing exits of Witt's End? How do we show that your inventory matters in the Tight Squeeze? Can you really not move around in the dark?These are interesting questions! You can have fun t
A year ago, Ken and Roberta Williams boothed at GDC with a demo of their coming-out-of-retirement project: Colossal Cave in 3d. I wrote some thoughts at the time:
In a graphical environment, how do we render the confusing exits of Witt's End? How do we show that your inventory matters in the Tight Squeeze? Can you really not move around in the dark?
These are interesting questions! You can have fun thinking about them. I hope Roberta and Ken have had fun thinking about them. But I'd say that the best answers are going to point to a free adaptation of the game.
Now it's out, and I can say: this is a tight, nay, a pedantic adaptation of the original game.
(Warning: I assume you've long since played or at least read about the original game. So SPOILERS top to bottom, here on out.)
(By the way, when I say "the original" I mean the 350-point Fortran Adventure by Crowther and Woods. That's the ancestor of nearly every other version. If you're curious about the earliest history of Adventure / Colossal Cave, Dennis Jerz's 2007 article is definitive. And if you want to play the original -- not exactly the Fortran version, but close -- click here.)

Colossal Cave 2023 introduces itself by saying, in a reassuring British baritone: "Somewhere nearby is Colossal Cave, where others have found fortunes in treasure and gold..." Sends a wisp of mist down your spine, doesn't it?
It goes on to recite the rest of the original game's HELP text, only slightly updated for the graphical UI. (It says "Keep watch on your compass" instead of referring to parser commands like NORTH and SOUTH.)
And then you are in a nicely-rendered forest by a small building. Click anywhere, and the game says: "You are standing at the end of a road before a small brick building. Around you is a forest. A small stream flows out of the building and down a gully."
A well-house for a large spring.
The aim is clearly to include all the original text from Colossal Cave, as narration over a graphical environment. It even replicates the verbose/brief experience! If you click again in the opening location right away, it just says "You're at the end of the road again."
This is strangely comforting to me. But it's strange. It's like one of those Shakespeare adaptations that exactly follows the original text while transplanting the story to 90s California.
You can read the text if you want to follow along. So let's talk about the graphics instead.
You're in cavern with waterfall.
This is, well, I'd call it "nice for an indie Unity game". That sounds dreadfully faint, I know. It is nice! Look at that flowstone! But it's not a 2020s-era visual wonderland, or even mid-2010s. The budget for environmental detail is rather tight -- no doubt to play on consumer-level VR sets. As a result, the outdoor environments are seriously shrunk down. The "lost in a forest" experience is reduced to a single clearing.
Once you get underground, ironically, the environment feels more expansive. The areas near the surface are cramped ("a low crawl...") and littered with tourist trash. But then the tunnels open into larger spaces, with dark abysses above or below, and you really start to feel like an explorer in a vast and mysterious space.
(I didn't play in VR, in case you were wondering. As I've written before, VR doesn't do a lot for me. Old-fashioned mouse-and-screen games are as just immersive for me as headsets, so I don't bother.)
You are in an awkward sloping east-west canyon.
The original text is preserved, but the creators haven't hesitated to add more detail. They've tried to make the caverns into a more consistent environment. Large stretches are reimagined as a dwarvish mine. You can spot dwarves mining gold nuggets and sparkling diamonds -- or reading a magazine -- in the appropriate spots. (These "scenery" dwarves always flee your presence without interacting.)
I'm somewhat ambivalent about these changes. It's disconcerting to come across a sturdy ladder leading up or down, when I know perfectly well that Crowther's vision was squirmy limestone chimneys. Similarly, the Hall of the Mountain King is a crumbling subterranean palace rather than a natural cavern enlivened by a fanciful nickname. The different-maze isn't caves at all, but a set of steel-walled bunkers. (No doubt to fit thematically with the vending machine found within.)
Occasionally these changes clash with the gameplay. The dwarven areas are detailed with clip-on electric lights; other caves have fanciful glowing crystals or fungi. But let your lamp go out and you'll find that these are purely decorative. If the original game says an area is dark, it's gotta be dark.
Lighting quirks aside, I can't argue with a more cohesive environment. And if I prefer the natural cave areas to the constructed ones, well, more fool me. The "Cave Under Construction" zone slyly hints that the entire underworld is dwarven craftsmanship. (Remember Old Gods Rising?)
(Another sly joke: the bunkers of the different-maze are visually all alike. You have to click to hear the "different" textual descriptions. Whereas in the alike-maze, you can see the exits and which way they twist -- so those rooms are visually all different! Now that's smart adaptation of the original design.)
If you want a bit of commentary on the game's visual design, check out this ArtStation page from Jayson Bennett and this set from Morgan Hamilton. I was particularly tickled by the Main Office, which includes the very PDP-10 that the game is running on.

The magic of the Adventure parser is that, once you know the basics of IF-ese, you can type anything you can think of to try. (Or at least you can convince yourself so!) Can we bring this freedom of action to a graphical point-and-click game?
It turns out that you can! For Colossal Cave, anyhow. Here's a complete list of the game's UI actions:
  • Move around with WASD/mouse. (No jumping.)
  • Click on anything to examine it.
  • Alt-click on a portable object to pick it up.
  • Alt-click on a scenery object to do the "obvious" contextual action with your bare hands. (OPEN DOOR, CLIMB LADDER, etc.) (Yes, your bare hands, you're way ahead of me.)
  • In your inventory, you can select an item and get three options:
    • DROP ITEM.
    • Some contextual action appropriate to the item (LIGHT LAMP, EAT FOOD, EMPTY BOTTLE).
    • USE the item on something in the world around you (again, with the appropriate contextual action).
  • The inventory has a sidebar of magic words you've learned; select one to SAY it.
This isn't Myst's one-button UI, but it's well within the bounds of graphical adventure convention. And it's enough to completely implement Colossal Cave.
I don't think this is a universal solution for adapting parser games. It would have trouble with any scene where there are several possible contextual verbs. (Imagine a movable crate that you could PUSH or PULL, for example. Or the difference between GIVE AXE TO TROLL and KILL TROLL WITH AXE.) But Colossal Cave happens not to have any of those!
Of course USE X ON Y covers a lot of sins, but in most cases it feels natural. You want to unlock the grate: select the keys, hit USE, click them on the grate. Catching the little bird in the cage: same thing really. Giving a treasure to the troll? You get the idea.
It only gets awkward in scenes where the original game was awkward. UNLEASH BIRD ON SNAKE isn't exactly clued anywhere, but if you have the idea it's clear how to do it. Probably the worst offense is WAVE ROD AT FISSURE, which I don't see how anybody would think of -- either in the original game or this one -- without being part of an Internet forum ARG-ing on solutions. Which, of course, the original game had.
Mind you, the fissure bridge is an optional puzzle -- you can bypass it by way of the Hall of the Mountain King! So in some sense, a moon-logic solution is appropriate. But it's still a clunky piece of design.
Some other awkward design choices:
The cave has lots of art greeblies, from bits of paper to dwarf shovels to inexplicable trash cans. I mentioned the decorative lights, too. None of this stuff does anything, but if you haven't memorized the original game, it's hard to know what to ignore without clicking everywhere. (Portable objects are highlighted, which is good, but that doesn't help with all the scenery.)
There's even stuff like a non-functional rowboat on the underground reservoir. If you try to use it, the game says "That isn't your boat," which is a brazen assertion given how much stolen treasure you're toting around.
Some events (like hearing PLUGH spoken) have a chance of triggering when you enter a room. This is consistent with the original game, but since "rooms" are now arbitrary demarcations of 3D space, you sometimes have to dance back and forth through a doorway to trigger them.
(Is the lamp juice also measured in actions and room transitions? I bet it is. I tend to sprint around the cave to save time, but it's probably bootless.)
Narration means canonical pronounciations of XYZZY and PLUGH. I disapprove on principle. (The game says "zizzy" but I've always spelled it out, and don't tell me I'm wrong.)
On the up side, the mirror window gag works better in graphical form. You see a gesticulating figure matching your position! They're right there! On the down side, the mirror window gag never served any game purpose, so why all the effort? (In Graham Nelson's Inform port, you could distract a dwarf from chasing you by running past the mirror, but I think that was an addition.)

Okay, yes, the dwarves. And other annoyances.
The great flaw of replicating a 1970s game is all the design decisions which people had gotten throughly sick of by, say, the 1990s. Like a lamp that runs out of juice while you're still exploring. Or dwarves that appear and fling cutlery at you with no way to dodge.
I don't know whether Colossal Cave uses the same dwarf logic as the original text game. I'm going to presume it does. That's a 9.5% chance of death every time a dwarf appears, with some tweaks.
(The very first time a dwarf attacks you it will always miss. If they get mad, their aim improves. There are five dwarves following you around; several of them can attack you at the same time, which is bad. It's possible to kill them all off, which is good. The various ports and adaptations of Colossal Cave may follow these principles closely, loosely, or not at all.)
In modern adventure terms, or honestly even in 1990s adventure terms, a monster surprise-killing you is an absolute buzzkill. The first time Colossal Cave did that, I stopped playing for several days -- the thought of it happening again was just exhausting.
(Most modern text ports of Colossal Cave support UNDO, which makes this a bit more bearable. Sadly, not here.)
Oh, the pirate happens too. He appears and steals all your treasures and hides them in his maze. This isn't entirely terrible. It's a handy way to bypass your inventory limit and cache treasures within striking distance of the exit. Except for the treasures which are also puzzle solutions! Having those stolen can wreck your run! Argh.
Oh yes, the inventory limit. Did we mention the inventory limit?
None of this is unmanageable if you save every few rooms, keep all your save files, and replay every part of the game several times to optimize your run. The game is happy to let you do this. It even retains your map when you restart or reload a game, which is of course how we all played back when maps were scribbled on scrap paper. But the idea that you should play this way will be very strange to anyone under forty.
I feel like the game needs footnotes everywhere. "Yeah, your lamp will die soon. This seemed like a good idea in 1977. Sorry!" Although, I should note, there's an "easy mode" for the lamp. If you read the instructions at the beginning (which costs ten points) you get your lamp lifetime doubled for free! Now, how about a "no dwarves no pirate" option for another ten points? Eh?
As it is, I still haven't mustered the energy to finish the new Colossal Cave. I've mapped nearly all of the rooms and most of the treasures. I've seen the magnificent cavern and the breath-taking view. (I have not yet brought light to the dark room.) But the prospect of paperworking my way to 350 points, with a treasure checklist and an indexed spreadsheet of save files, is -- again -- exhausting. I don't think it's gonna happen.

So who, in this end, is this game for? Why write such a thing?
One perfectly good answer is "Roberta Williams got a wild hair and decided it would be fun." I will never say a bad word about such projects. That's how most IF is made these days!
Same goes for "This seems impossible and Williams wanted to prove it could be done." Rock on.
Another answer is "People want to experience a classic cave game in VR." I admit I'm willing to say a bad word about VR. As I noted, the graphics are scaled for Quest 2, which makes for a weak experience compared to even a modest indie PC game. But I guess people who are drooling for VR will be into it.
(In these situations, I always wonder if Facebook chartered the whole project as a loss leader for Quest. Pretty sure that's what happened with Myst, for example. But according to at least one interview, no -- VR was the CC team's own idea.)
Yet another possible reason to make this game is "Bring original Adventure to a new generation." Here I start to get skeptical. The new generation is going to be annoyed by this game -- just like I was. There are so many design infelicities which could be cleaned up. Not just the dwarves! There's dead ends. There's non-deterministic exits. There's wild swerves of design theme and mismatched chunks of terrain. There's an absolute refusal to ask "what is that doing there?" There's a total lack of systematic puzzle elements to master.
That's why I started out talking about a "free adaptation". Sticking to the exact original text is clearly a goal, but so few people will appreciate it. Perhaps just me! A game like this could attract a wider indie audience... but I suspect this game won't.
Only that's a downer, and I refuse to end this review on a downer.
Colossal Cave is a heck of an idea, and it does what it does almost impeccably. It's got miles of atmospheric cavern to wander through. It's a fully playable graphical game (once you embrace the map-and-save-file mindset) which recreates the entire intent of the parser original. It's got the dragon.
I didn't think this game would work, and it works. Rock on.

2023 IGF nominees: the personal

A game can be one person talking about a thing, in their own voice, framed by a bit of game stuff. This is a well-understood category, although it doesn't have a name that I know of. "Topical" misses the author's voice. "Confessional" makes it prurient. I could suggest "listening simulator" if that didn't come off as snark, which is not how I intend it.It's hard to say much about games like this. T
A game can be one person talking about a thing, in their own voice, framed by a bit of game stuff. This is a well-understood category, although it doesn't have a name that I know of. "Topical" misses the author's voice. "Confessional" makes it prurient. I could suggest "listening simulator" if that didn't come off as snark, which is not how I intend it.
It's hard to say much about games like this. The game mechanics aren't the point. If you explain the point, you're pushing the author offstage. So these comments will be brief; the games can speak for themselves.
  • Of Moons and Mania
  • He Fucked the Girl Out of Me
  • Atuel
(Necessary footnote: I was on the narrative jury. The games in this post are free or name-your-price.)

Of Moons and Mania

A story about the author's mental health crisis, somewhat fictionalized. A simple 2D dodge mechanic paces the narration while also gesturing at the experience of intrusive ideation.
This is straightforwardly presented, but it opens a window into an extreme personal experience. And I think the game mechanic, simple as it is, is effective. It grounds you in the story in a way that static prose wouldn't.

He Fucked the Girl Out of Me

The semi-autobiographical story of the author's experience with sex work, presented as a Gameboy ROM. (Or emulated in-browser.) It's a rough experience, although the game is not meant to be rough to play. It's meant to recount someone's story, not re-inflict it.
(Thus, we presume, the Gameboy UI. The cute-and-cozy imagery is a veneer -- a flimsy one in spots, as the background art sometimes gets eerie -- but it lets you play the game at arms' length if that's what you need.)
This is most effective for its directness and honesty, including honesty about how much the writer is not (yet?) able to be honest about. It's openly a construction, fragments of stories pushed together; that's how memory works in trauma. It still works.

Atuel

This one is interesting: not one person's voice, but a collection of voices describing the Rio Atuel in Argentina.
You steer a drop of water, or a rush of it, or a bird or fish, as scientists and inhabitants describe their perspectives of the river. A small project but a really lovely, evocative presentation.

Saturday, 28. January 2023

Renga in Blue

Ferret: One Room

After all our efforts and travels, our final act of desperation might boil down to one room. (Prior posts on Ferret here.) Before getting to the Jean-Paul Sartre simulator single puzzle of doom, I should mention we do have progress! But on the “backsolve” part of the game: how to make a projector. Namely, Mustelid […]

After all our efforts and travels, our final act of desperation might boil down to one room. (Prior posts on Ferret here.)

From a Data General Eclipse C/330 Computer System, via the Computer History Museum.

Before getting to the Jean-Paul Sartre simulator single puzzle of doom, I should mention we do have progress! But on the “backsolve” part of the game: how to make a projector.

Namely, Mustelid observed that the various “staffrooms” that have appeared in a few phases all have a tilted ceiling that resembles that type used with some projectors.

Staffroom
This room appears to have been used by the station staff during their rest periods. There are some basic facilities including a worktop with an opening for a sink and a broken tap. Under the opening for the sink is a cupboard. Above the worktop the ceiling is angled at 45 degrees as if the room is built under a sloping roof. There is a wooden door to the west.

Some playing around with the lit orb yielded far more results than we ever had before.

-> turn knob
Clunk.
The orb starts to emit a bright light.
-> put orb in sink
Done.
A rectangular area of the angled ceiling is brightly lit.

The fruit bowl I mentioned last time worked as a lens; if you put in one of the transparencies we’ve been toting around, symbols result:

-> put orb in sink
Done.
A rectangular area of the angled ceiling is brightly lit.
-> put bowl in sink
Done.
The rectangular area of the angled ceiling is diffusely lit. There appear to be
some symbols projected on to the ceiling.

You need to lay down both transparencies at the same time in order to get a full picture:

The map we already have, via brute force: it is the dark maze that had the leather wallet and the life vest.

It also, curiously enough, has one of the transparencies. The intended game flow (assuming you don’t sequence break like we did) is to use the bottom half of the map to obtain a second transparency, then do the combined transparencies to get the top half of the map.

The “key” (read top to bottom) is allegedly the clue we need to get at the plum ticket. We should likely say something like “state of enlightenment” at the Archive of Angst, but I wasn’t able to get it to work. I didn’t experiment that hard, though.

Archive of Angst
Cramped, poorly lit, smelly hovel. This room appears to have been partitioned from a previously larger room as, incongruously, there is a brass plate set off-centre in one wall. The plate features a grille under which is an engraved instruction. Sprayed across one wall is a graffito that reads: “Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be”.
Exits: N— ——– —
-> read instruction
The engraving mandates: “State your destination”.

I didn’t experiment that hard because I’ve been focused on the puzzle of doom. Namely, trying to find the identity card in order to get into the last part of Phase 16. That is, where is this room?

Amaurotic Ambulatory
A short room.
Exits: N— ——– —
There is an identity card here

The Authors, in their mercy, have dropped notice that the Broom Closet is in fact the important place for finding a secret, and the 20 points acquired are not just from finding the book inside. (The book, a copy of George Orwell’s 1984 with a mangled cover, may even be a red herring.) So efforts need to be focused there. But there just isn’t much to say:

Foyer
In a derelict warehouse. Large open area. Lit through semi-transparent skylights. Main warehouse to the north. To the west an aluminium door.
Exits: NS– ——– —
-> open door
Opened.
-> w
Broom Cupboard
A very small room with an aluminium door set in the east wall.
Exits: –E- ——– —
There is a book here
Score increment of 20 points.

Our vision of the future showed the secret room with an entrance from the north, so assuming this doesn’t lead to something more complex, there is some way to open the south wall here.

The way to unlock the visible door was to win a game of Mastermind. So possibility one is that there’s something additional to be done at the game. It consists of a giant, 20 by 4 block of rooms.

Broom closet marked in blue.

For each row, the westmost room has a “rainbow button” that will let us register a guess, and there are “rotary switches” that allow picking colors in any of the four rooms in a row:

Theodore’s Spike
In a derelict warehouse. Partitioned area. Lit through semi-transparent skylights. On one wall a set of disco lights, rainbow button and rotary switch.
No way west.
-> turn switch
The room is suffused by a glow of Red
-> turn switch
The room is suffused by a glow of Orange
-> turn switch
The room is suffused by a glow of Yellow
-> turn switch
The room is suffused by a glow of Green
-> turn switch
The room is suffused by a glow of Blue
-> turn switch
The room is suffused by a glow of Indigo
-> turn switch
The room is suffused by a glow of Violet

I found out, via prior experimentation, that the right sequence from west to east is Violet, Yellow, Orange, Yellow. This results, when the rainbow button is pushed, an “all black” light configuration (just like the black pegs of the real game). This sequence can be delivered in any of the rows. One possibility might have been that there is really a second combination the layout switches to after the first “all black” that needs to be solved for, but no: it’s still always Violet-Yellow-Orange-Yellow. I even tried setting every single one of the rows to all-black to no effect.

This doesn’t completely discard the possibility the Mastermind is relevant, but I can say I haven’t eked out any extra clues.

Another possibility might be that the wandering cyborg (the one we killed to get an orb to solve that projector puzzle I just mentioned) could come into play, maybe having her wander into the broom closet can have some effect? But the “chunky bracelet” which influenced the movements of the automaton in phase 9 (I think? … still unclear there) does not do anything with the cyborg, and if you just sit at the broom clause at WAIT FOR CYBORG the game just says “Looks like a no-show.” If you head to the room just south (Terminus) and do the same thing: “The cyborg has just slinked into the room.” It is clear the limit of the cyborg’s range cuts off right before the broom closet.

That leaves shenanigans in the broom closet itself, literal pounding on the wall in an empty room. I’ve tried saying various words important to the book 1984 (FREEDOM IS SLAVERY), poking and prodding at each of the wall directions (you can refer to SOUTH WALL, NORTH WALL, etc.), doing DANCE and SING, and probably most absurdly yet more promisingly, changing the system clock. And yes, I mean the date/time feature on the computer I am using to play the game.

To back up a bit, there was a puzzle I solved more or less by pure luck way back in Phase 2 where a particular device only worked at a particular time of day. I only realized this because when I first played through the section I was playing during the correct time span, but when I tested the same actions later they didn’t work. Here, the suspicion is we may or may not be setting a time, but the important thing is the system date.

The reason for this suspicion is the flier I mentioned last post out in the Mastermind puzzle is in a room called Timeshift Passage:

MC Emsee and the Enormous Possie
present
A Rave to Remember
featuring
* DJ Spong
* Fardy Snapwit
* The New House Bandeleroos
* Aching Vomit and the Wretches
12th December, Late till Later
Warehouse on Conduit Road
Zonndo Promotions init
Max schtumm to avoid babylon

The 1984 book also contains a second date reference (a copyright of 1987, but based on the edition the ASCII seems to be based on that’s technically correct) and of the voucher and placard I also mentioned last time one makes a 1984 reference (kind of) and one makes a specific date reference:

A Jenny Talls’ Promotion
The Fashion Event of the year featuring:
Heady Grobuttucks
Noni Nonutts
Hugh Ampleforth
This voucher admits one only.
Non-transferable. Not for sale.
Validation Number: 55378008

Jenny Taylor’ Promotions
In association with the Rigid Digit Troupe
are delighted to announce a new collection
Juicy Lucy and the Suppurating Slits
with Hardlong Pipe and the Plumbers will play
The Come and Get It Adlib Concert
for one night only
Do not miss this once in a lifetime show
31st October 1985
An aural orgasm – The Voice of the Streets
Promoting Agents: Throbbing Vain Acts

So, I’ve changed my system clock to 31-OCT-1985, 12-DEC-1985, as well as 84, 86, and 87 permutations of the same. None seem to have any effect. I did not know what to set the timer to — none of the clues seem to be specific about that — so I tried 10 pm as a good “late till later” approximation. I also mucked about with 1 pm, in reference to the clocks ringing thirteen in the first sentence of 1984.

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

Of course, this sentence suggests April but… when? I’ve come up with all sorts of weird combinatorial possibilities but none of them seem justified past the obvious dates I’ve tried. I’m starting to think this is again the wrong path, especially because there are computers where changing the date that far back is not something accomplished with ease. (Also, did you know browsers will think your computer is hacked if you change your system date to the 1980s?)

And, just as a reminder, three days remain.


Zarf Updates

2023 IGF nominees: good old adventures

You may recall that I wrote a blog post on recent old-school narrative games just a few months ago. Unsurprisingly, a bunch turned up as IGF entries. So I've written half this post already!Return to Monkey IslandThe Excavation of Hob's BarrowThe Past WithinBeacon PinesBackfirewall_Ib(Necessary footnote: I was on the narrative jury and had access to free review copies of these games. Of course, I'd
You may recall that I wrote a blog post on recent old-school narrative games just a few months ago. Unsurprisingly, a bunch turned up as IGF entries. So I've written half this post already!
  • Return to Monkey Island
  • The Excavation of Hob's Barrow
  • The Past Within
  • Beacon Pines
  • Backfirewall_
  • Ib
(Necessary footnote: I was on the narrative jury and had access to free review copies of these games. Of course, I'd played some already, but I played Ib, Beacon Pines, and Backfirewall for free.)

Return to Monkey Island

A satisfying return to a world which I never played in the first place, but that's okay. I know most of the jokes. This polishes and modernizes the gameplay; it keeps the jokes light, the story fresh, and the puzzles non-stupid; it's appropriately reflective about its long history. And Dominic Armato enjoys every chance he gets to say "Guybrush Threepwood, mighty pirate!" You can tell.

The Excavation of Hob's Barrow

Ancient horror on the moors of England. Lots of classic person-needs-you-to-do-one-thing gameplay. Lots of misty landscapes. (Albeit in pixel-art form, which I don't think does them any favors.) You're a spunky adventuress, but don't expect a spunky adventure; this is folk horror and the fix is in. Just warning you.

The Past Within

A two-player coop adventure in the Rusty Lake universe. You have to pass clues back and forth to advance. The game mechanics are rather constrained, and the story is the usual Rusty-Lake creepy bagatelle. But the idea is novel and it's a fun coop experience.
(Or so I assume. I totally cheated and soloed it on two screens.)

Beacon Pines

Cute cartoon kids' adventure. The design is rather interesting: a branching narrative where you have to explore all the branches. The storyline in each branch unlocks new choice options which can be used in different branches, so you get an expanding tree rather than a traditional choice-of-endings. This means that you-the-reader often know more than the protagonist; the story reveals itself piecewise as you put together events from different run-throughs.
This is not an entirely new trick. (There was a 2001 game called Shadow of Destiny / Shadow of Memories. Plus any number of play-all-paths visual novels.) But it's not nearly as common as the (now-overdone) time loop gimmick, so I was happy to see this.
The story itself left me a little cold, though. It starts out cute and then goes dark, but in a somewhat ragged and incoherent way. Crass one moment, cold-blooded murder or body horror the next, and then it goes back to cute and goofy and the power of friendship. Eventually it more or less settles down to YA adventure ("kids foil villainous adult plot") but I never really connected with it.
Also there's this coy narrator who never really comes into focus. I suppose she's needed to clarify the story structure for narrative newcomers, but I expected her to be connected with the story itself. Is the game's temporal macguffin supposed to be connected with the narrative history-sliding? I don't see it. (Go ahead, tell me I missed a clue.)
The art is pretty good, and it's doing something narratively interesting, but I wasn't entirely convinced.

Backfirewall_

You're an update process running around somebody's phone trying to update the OS. But cartoony, not Tron-style. The NPCs are all like the Photos app, the Social Media app, the Zip utility, and so on.
It's a first-person puzzle game. There's tiny bits of platforming and stealth, but not hard stuff. Nice variety of puzzles, too. Sort of a first-person point-and-click? It's not the usual inside-the-computer schtick of endless arbitrary logic puzzles. (Yeah, yeah, I see you pointing at System's Twilight. These are way more adventure-y puzzles.)
It's fluff but a fun ride.

Ib

Remake of a horror RPGMaker game from 2012. I didn't catch it (probably because it was in Japanese) so I'm glad folks drew it to my attention this time around.
You're a little girl running around a modern art gallery with your parents. Then the lights flicker, your parents are missing, and the art starts to turn creepy.
This is really nicely done. Getting a recognizable art style into a gallery of thumb-sized pixel art is no mean trick. (The original had even fewer pixels!) The gameplay is mostly puzzles, which are decently done and creepy enough to not break the atmosphere as you crank your way through the clues. I'd say the game didn't need a hit-point gauge, but more modern horror games have made that mistake so I'm not complaining.
Short but memorable and (I am told) influential as well.

Friday, 27. January 2023

Zarf Updates

2023 IGF nominees: visual novels

I don't really follow visual novels. But there are a lot of them, and some turn up in IGF every year, and I play the ones that are getting the most attention. That doesn't mean the best visual novels of the year! Just a couple that happen to come my way.Butterfly Soup 2The WreckEternal Threads(Necessary footnote: I was on the narrative jury and played free review copies of these games.)Butterfly So
I don't really follow visual novels. But there are a lot of them, and some turn up in IGF every year, and I play the ones that are getting the most attention. That doesn't mean the best visual novels of the year! Just a couple that happen to come my way.
  • Butterfly Soup 2
  • The Wreck
  • Eternal Threads
(Necessary footnote: I was on the narrative jury and played free review copies of these games.)

Butterfly Soup 2

Another year in the life of the top-flight fully automated junior high school girl friends. And girlfriends. This is much along the lines of the first Butterfly Soup: an old-school visual novel, mostly dialogue with occasional choices and "look at around the scene" scenes.
It's all on the dialogue, and the dialogue works. It's impossible not to like these energetic, confused, outraged and outrageous specimens of humanity-in-progress. Like its predecessor, the story shifts fluidly between their messy friendships and relationships, the absurd situations of school life, and the bite of growing up Asian in America.
Unlike its predecessor, this game draws in older generations: the kids' parents, a grandparent and family overseas. Adults are outsiders, as they must be in a YA story, but they're present and not entirely alien. It's a more mature story, in more ways than the literal.
I laughed; I smiled at the end; it's good stuff.

The Wreck

Interactive narrative about a car accident and a tension-wracked family. Junon tries to deal with a tragedy -- her mother's illness -- while still coping with issues from her past.
This is really sharp. The presentation shifts smoothly between different modes of interaction as you alternate between the hospital and Junon's memories. It's strongly guided without being on rails. In the memory scenes, you get to look around for comments which advance the dialogue; in the hospital scenes you are both making choices and considering stretch-text-style variations of the text.
Maybe I'm stretching a little to call it a visual novel? It's primarily dialogue with occasional choices. But then there are the memory scenes, which are more walking-sim than anything else, although it's really float-through-your-memories-sim.
The writing is excellent, which is the main thing. Junon comes across as prickly and defensive while also being self-aware and funny. As you run through your day at the hospital -- versions of your day -- you learn more about her and the people around her. As you do, you get a chance to unpick what's wrong.

Eternal Threads

In May of 2015, in a rooming house in probably Manchester, the electricals went up and six people died of smoke inhalation. You're a time traveller with a history replay gadget and the ability to alter (only) small decisions. Save everybody!
I will admit that the gameplay isn't very deep. You can freely run up and down the week preceding the fire, but this is fairly pointless until you're oriented. So you start by watching the entire seven-day drama. You might try flipping a few decisions and observing the changes, but it's hard to be goal-oriented until you've sunk several hours into watching clips.
But that's okay! Sinking several hours into the game is a pleasure. The voice acting and mocap are entirely solid; you instantly care about these six British weirdos. And their friends. (And their accents, which are an absolute bonanza of chewy UK regionalisms.)
Anyhow, once you've gotten a sense of the timeline, it's mostly a matter of getting everybody to make better life choices. It's not entirely true that you can win by always choosing "face your problems", "talk it out", and "consider counseling". (Some characters need a bit of shaking up to bring their problems into the open so that they can face them.) But, in general, your better impulses will be rewarded. The hardest part is remembering where all the bad decisions are so you can flip them.
(The timeline screen is almost great for this. Unfortunately the "influence lock" button, which is supposed to let you scroll through all causes of an event, seemed to be buggy.)
Now, I'm definitely stretching when I call this a visual novel. But... it sort of is? It's mostly dialogue (full-animated, but so what) and then you get to try different story-paths to see how they come out! Is this not the core experience of the catch-all-the-endings visual novel? Except interwoven rather than branching, and you're searching for one "best" ending.
(Come to think of it, The Wreck also has this idea of altering events to find the best ending. This only exists at the story level, not gameplay -- you're incrementally improving in a memory loop -- but it's another visual-novel-ish aspect.)
Anyway, Eternal Threads is eight hours of soap opera dramatics, a wee bit of puzzly exploration (a few rooms of the house need to be unlocked), and a sequel hook. I enjoyed it.

Renga in Blue

Ferret: Feeling Well Dead

So painfully, painfully close. (Prior posts on Ferret here.) We have since last time managed to wrangle through the crossword, which I’ll give the solution of first. (As observed by a couple people, “Live back against the ten commandments” should probably be “Lived back”, so that reversing “lived” gets “devil”, otherwise “evil” would

So painfully, painfully close.

(Prior posts on Ferret here.)

From Major Activities in the Atomic Energy Programs, January – December 1960.

We have since last time managed to wrangle through the crossword, which I’ll give the solution of first.

(As observed by a couple people, “Live back against the ten commandments” should probably be “Lived back”, so that reversing “lived” gets “devil”, otherwise “evil” would be the better answer.)

The missing clue, 7 across, is just SEVEN. It is unclear (like so many things) if this puzzle is meant to go anywhere; we’ve already had ample warning about BLAKE’S (or BLAKES) SEVEN being important, but maybe it is meant to just be a little extra. There is incidentally a signal nearby which relates; I mentioned there was an “audio guide” that activated upon wearing some headphones. At a random time while walking around there is a special message having nothing to do with the location you’re in:

There is a sharp click followed by a blast of white noise. Then silence. After a few seconds, initially faintly, then more strongly, you hear: “This is Civil Administration ship London. We are in transit from Earth to Cygnus Alpha, transporting prisoners to the penal colony. We have Federation clearance for direct flight, authority number K-Seven-Zero-One.”
The radio broadcast finishes and the original presentation starts afresh.

This is in direct references to Blakes 7; this is the prison ship that transports Blake in the opening episodes.

A moment from the first episode where they discuss lack of identification.

This all suggests “K701” will be used somewhere, but we haven’t reached it yet.

One of the other unsolved sections in Phase 16 was a “blast control” area.

Hooter must be sounded no more than minute(s) before blasting.
Wind plunger turn(s) to prime blaster rotor.
Depress plunger to initiate blast sequence.

Blasting is forbidden between the hours of and .
In event of problems call Central Mining Control Centre.
Operations out of normal parameters contact neighbourhood liaison on red.
Last safety check completed:

A nickel key (from the water maze in Phase 15) was required; after some fiddling I realized “winding the plunger” meant turning the aforementioned key, so getting the explosion to happen was a matter of guessing how many turns were required.

-> put nickel in keyhole
Done.
-> press toggle
A siren wails, echoing around the mine workings.
-> turn nickel;turn nickel;turn nickel
Clunk.
Clunk.
Clunk.
-> lift plunger
Done.
-> push down plunger
Done. After a fractional pause there is an enormous explosion in the bowels of the mine workings.

LIFT and PUSH DOWN would both be absurdly hard to find but I just used TEST PLUNGER twice causing the game to magically come across the right verbs for me.

My dilemma now was, having caused the explosion, what use it had. Nothing seemed to move or change. It took some hints from Voltgloss to move things around, and most specifically the observation that if you go down to the first branch the “boring” one which just leads to a dead and at a warehouse, you can briefly observe a railway track whilst heading to the dead end.

Lane
On a fenced lane running east west parallel to a railway track. The lane slopes down from west to east.

This track is extremely important: what it indicates is the track we’ve been riding the train on for a very long time now keeps going! Normally, if you try to drive the train past Phase 16, it just gets stuck:

You are in the cab of a locomotive which is currently resting very firmly against the buffers at the end of a siding.

I assumed that was that, but the game is being deceptive in the description here: if it were not for some blockage it could keep going farther north. In particular, by a nearby earthquake, like from a large explosion like you can cause at the blast area! However, this still seems unhelpful, since entering phase 16 is a one-way trip; however, if you think to RELEASE HANDBRAKE at the train before starting the explosion, the train will keep rolling along of its own volition.

End of Lane
On a fenced lane running north south. The southern end of the lane exhibits a ground shadow synonymous with the previous existence of an immense warehouse.
Exits: NS– ——– —
-> s
Shadow of a Warehouse
A large open area exhibiting the ground shadow of an immense warehouse. The remainder of the warehouse is to the south. To the north is a fenced lane. To the west is a set of railway tracks, to the east is the rear end of a train locomotive which appears to be sinking very slowly into the ground.
Exits: NS-W ——– —
There are some shards of timber here

I’ve gone on the record already as “preparation puzzles” being highly satisfying; this was no different, and I really do like the very subtle clue of the recurrence of railway tracks. I would be a little more pleased if the text upon trying to move the train too far was a little less deceptive.

Inside the warehouse, as our “reward” we can die again.

-> s
Warehouse
A large open area in the remains of an immense warehouse. There is another
large open area to the north.
Exits: N— ——– —
There is a thallium receptacle here
-> open receptacle
Opening the thallium receptacle reveals:
some radiant pellets
-> get pellets
Taken.

Alternately, we can take the whole receptacle along. Either way, the messages come:

You are starting to feel unwell.

You are feeling well bad.

You are feeling well dead.
Phase 16 (Liberation)
Mode: Master
You have scored 1515 (out of 1670) points in 3940 moves.
Rooms visited: 887. Rank achieved: Supremo.

Oops! Radiation safety, everyone! Which I discovered (including another insight from Voltgloss) in carrying in a leather wallet and putting the pellets inside; closing the wallet keeps them from causing damage, so we can now safely stick them as fuel somewhere.

Assuming the headphones section is a one-way “quantum echo” (and it certainly feels that way) the only thing left to deal with in Phase 16 is the lift with the mysterious NAPIVS warning.

I inquired directly about this from the authors and received a mysterious hint:

Amaurotic Ambulatory
A short room.
Exits: N— ——– —
There is an identity card here

Some further prodding revealed that if there’s a room you’re trying to find, typing GOTO ROOM will give an error if the room doesn’t exist (that is, you’re in the wrong phase) while typing GOTO ROOM in the correct phase will have the game try to pathfind a route there:

-> goto Amaurotic Ambulatory
Plotting a course…
No way, jose.

Using this trick we realized the identity card we needed was back in Phase 12, with the cyborg, waterfall, and Mastermind game. Solving the Mastermind game had unlocked a room with a book that I managed to decipher as being a particular edition of George Orwell’s novel 1984.

Broom Cupboard
A very small room with an aluminium door set in the east wall.
Exits: –E- ——– —
There is a book here

Arriving at this room gives the player some points. It is possible the points are there simply because the information about the existence of the book is simply later, but it was suspicious: could there be something more here? Unfortunately, all my attempts at prying open a secret door or the like have been for naught. I went back to the various Mastermind rooms and tried prodding at combinations to see if there was any other result to be found — maybe after solving Mastermind once it would be a totally different combo? This didn’t seem to be the case though. The sequence always remained Violet-Yellow-Orange-Yellow.

Stones and Soot
In a derelict warehouse. Partitioned area. Lit through semi-transparent skylights. On one wall a set of disco lights, rainbow button and rotary switch.
No way west.
Exits: NSE- ——– —
-> turn switch
The room is suffused by a glow of Orange
-> push button
Click.
The lights are showing: White Unlit Unlit Unlit

(That’s: one color correct but in wrong position, all other colors incorrect.)

I then resorted to going back to the broom closet and trying a bunch of words and phrases from Orwell, like IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH, but no dice. The game has been decently good about cuing when there is a voice signal (although we got tripped up in the pyramid on a series of riddle rooms where the last one had no clue) and I went through nearly every strongly-associated word/phrase so I think the trick must be something else.

There’s one more possibility, and that’s the fact that the warehouse includes, randomly in one spot, a flier.

MC Emsee and the Enormous Possie
present
A Rave to Remember
featuring
* DJ Spong
* Fardy Snapwit
* The New House Bandeleroos
* Aching Vomit and the Wretches
12th December, Late till Later
Warehouse on Conduit Road
Zonndo Promotions init
Max schtumm to avoid babylon

There’s both a voucher and a placard from back in Phase 9 which seem related:

Jenny Taylor’ Promotions
In association with the Rigid Digit Troupe
are delighted to announce a new collection
Juicy Lucy and the Suppurating Slits
with Hardlong Pipe and the Plumbers will play
The Come and Get It Adlib Concert
for one night only
Do not miss this once in a lifetime show
31st October 1985
An aural orgasm – The Voice of the Streets
Promoting Agents: Throbbing Vain Acts

A Jenny Talls’ Promotion
The Fashion Event of the year featuring:
Heady Grobuttucks
Noni Nonutts
Hugh Ampleforth
This voucher admits one only.
Non-transferable. Not for sale.
Validation Number: 55378008

How does this relate to the problem? Do we wave the voucher in a particular room to get in the secret disco club underneath the disco club? “Ampleforth” is incidentally a character in 1984, someone who rewrites poetry for the Ministry of Truth, but it is hard to turn that knowledge into a tangible action in the game.

‘These things happen,’ he began vaguely. ‘I have been able to recall one instance — a possible instance. It was an indiscretion, undoubtedly. We were producing a definitive edition of the poems of Kipling. I allowed the word “God” to remain at the end of a line. I could not help it!’ he added almost indignantly, raising his face to look at Winston. ‘It was impossible to change the line. The rhyme was “rod”. Do you realize that there are only twelve rhymes to “rod” in the entire language? For days I had racked my brains. There was no other rhyme.’

My last order of business here is to bestow a medal upon Mustelid for inquiring about bringing the remote generator and the orb together.

This marathon medal seems appropriate.

Some explanation: we’ve been still trying to make a projector, to back-solve the business with the plum ticket, with the clue that an “opaque orb” is important. There is an ultra-heavy remote generator from Phase 9 that an automaton follows around once you activate it. If you try to take the generator onto the train, and turn the knob to move the train, it appears maybe the generator is too heavy:

-> release handbrake
Done.
-> turn knob
Clunk.

The catch is the parser: it is getting caught by the fact that the remote generator also has a knob. The knob in the train is a “knurled knob” and you need to “turn knurled” in order to move the train rather than “turn knob” once the generator is onboard.

The upshot of all this is if you manage to bring the generator and orb together, turning the generator will cause the orb to glow! So we have a light source; now we just need to make a projector out of it. We can toss the orb in a “fruit bowl” which might serve as a lens, but otherwise the game is frustratingly unresponsive to any kind of command that involve combining objects (I might want to cover the bowl with linen and poke a hole, but neither is understood). Still, the projector seems tantalizingly close.

Will we get there, though? Only five days remain.

Thursday, 26. January 2023

Choice of Games LLC

New Witch in Town—Make friends and cast spells in your magical small town!

We’re proud to announce that New Witch in Town, the latest in our popular “Choice of Games” line of multiple-choice interactive-fiction games, is now available for Steam, Android, and on iOS in the “Choice of Games” app. It’s 33% off until February 2nd! Make friends, cast spells, and uncover secrets in your magical small town! Will you preserve the forest or let the town gro

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

It’s 33% off until February 2nd!

Make friends, cast spells, and uncover secrets in your magical small town! Will you preserve the forest or let the town grow?

New Witch in Town is a 750,000-word interactive YA fantasy novel by Grace Card. It’s entirely text-based, without graphics or sound effects, and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination.

When you were a kid, you lived with your grandmother in the small town of Silvertree, on the edge of a magical forest. Grandma is a witch, and she taught you how to use your magic to affect the natural world, too. “Magic is a part of you,” she always told you. “Learning how to use it means figuring out who you are.”

Now you’re 19 and on your own. After years of living in the forest while you perfected your witchcraft, you’ve returned to take care of your grandmother’s house and crow-familiar while she’s gone. Figuring out who you are feels more important than ever – not to mention, figuring out what Silvertree is. A lot is just as you remembered: the friendly generous next-door neighbors with a kid just your age, the proud town council, the quaint little shops with quirky punny names, the gentle shadowy forest full of magic.

But now it feels run-down, with potholes in the streets and overgrown empty lots where stores used to be. A big real-estate developer promises to help the town by expanding into the forest. What’s the best thing for the people of Silvertree and for the magical forest? What mysteries wait to be uncovered in the town archives? And more importantly, where did your grandmother go? Why do you keep having strange dreams?

And how did a tree grow overnight right in the middle of Main Street? Is it possible that you’re not the only new witch in town?

• Play as male, female, or non-binary; gay, straight, bi, pan, or aromantic
• Choose your familiar – a dog, cat, or owl – and bond with her, then go on to pet every single animal in town
• Find love with an earnest dreamy history major, a tattooed stranger with a not-so-secret soft spot for animals, an adventurous aspiring journalist, or your old friend the kid next door
• Become a good citizen of your new town, or break every rule on the books
• Heal old family wounds by bringing together parents, grandparents, and children
• Keep your magic a secret, or use it everywhere you go
• Make your voice heard in local politics: speak up at a town council meeting, join a protest, write in to the local newspaper, or bring Silvertree’s history to light
• Advocate to preserve the forest, or make way for progress and new houses so that Silvertree can grow

Friendship is magic, and so are you!

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


Zarf Updates

2023 IGF nominees: the RPG bonanza

IGF nominations!Now, my usual habit is to lay down a stream of posts reviewing all my favorite nominees. And honorable mentions. And other IGF entries which I feel like reviewing.However, this year will have to go a little bit differently, because I've already posted about a lot of the entries! So these posts will have a lot of "see previous review". Sorry about that. Anyhow. You may recall that la
Now, my usual habit is to lay down a stream of posts reviewing all my favorite nominees. And honorable mentions. And other IGF entries which I feel like reviewing.
However, this year will have to go a little bit differently, because I've already posted about a lot of the entries! So these posts will have a lot of "see previous review". Sorry about that.
Anyhow. You may recall that last year I had mixed reactions about the slate of entries. Lots of games doing great things, but few overall favories.
This year? Too many overall favorites. Seriously. I could name a dozen games that made my "game of the year" list. And I will! But let's take them one group at a time.

The first standout group of games: awesome narrative RPGs.
Of course I'm using "role-playing" in the sense derived from tabletop RPGs. You have stats, you have ways to improve your stats, you're dropped into a world full of stat-based challenges. You may also have to scrounge money (or whatever) to buy food (or whatever). Stuff like that.
Games like this stand or fall on their game mechanics. Sure, we've all played D&D, roll 16 on a d20 to hit armor class 4... But that's just the start of the road. How does the gameplay suit this particular story? Are you rolling for results or for options? Is the game about luck, planning, or negotiation?
  • Citizen Sleeper
  • I Was a Teenage Exocolonist
  • Roadwarden
  • Betrayal at Club Low
  • The Pale Beyond
(Necessary footnote: I was on the narrative jury and had access to free review copies of these games. I played a review copy of Roadwarden. The Pale Beyond is not yet releaseed; I played the public demo. The other games, I had already purchased by the time IGF judging began.)

Citizen Sleeper

Far-future RPG using the "plot clock" concept. You're cheap mind-clone labor trying to make your way in the slums of deep space. Start by sweeping the docks; watch for your chance.
The setting and writing are delightful -- a run-down space-station full of social strata and people trying to make their way. ("People" of course includes robots, AIs, mushrooms...) You've got lots of branching plots to explore and limited resources to explore with. Everything is about building relationships and communities.
The dice system is of the sort where you roll first and then decide what to apply the dice to. And every major goal requires many turns, with explicit count-down or count-up clocks to surface how you're doing. This may seem weird to D&D grognards but it works really well. You constantly feel that you're on the brink of ruin (so few dice, and some of them were bad rolls!) but you've actually got a lot of latitude to shape your destiny and avoid an ignominious early death.

I Was a Teenage Exocolonist

Far-future RPG about a bunch of kids in a newly-established planetary colony. You land at age 10; play through age 20.
This somewhat suffers from being a school simulator. You (realistically) don't have a lot of control over your life in the first few years. You basically go to class to grind skill points and then see what story pops up. The planetary exploration scenes are the only sections where you can play for specific story goals.
But the story that pops up is always engaging. Your life is a well-rounded, interesting group of kids in an agreeably cozy (though not perfect or stress-free) society. So I was happy to play. Also, the mechanics are very nicely done. You beat challenges with a simple card-chaining game, but the cards represent everything you've achieved in the game so far. You really feel like you're building your adult self out of your teen experiences. Plus, you know, opportunities for smooching.

Roadwarden

Narrative RPG in a D&D-ish fantasy setting. You wander, keeping the roads safe for travel and doing people favors. Lots and lots of favors.
I found this more impressive for its depth of implementation than the story per se. The peninsula is loaded with quests, but not of the typical "kill N rats" style. Every one is a hand-crafted story: finding a lost pouch under a bridge, spreading the word about a plague, bringing offerings to an altar. At the same time, the game has a few systematic mechanics that run across many stories. Your health, hunger, and filthiness are general stats (though in a coarse-grained "lots/some/none" way, not a fine numerical scale). Your trust level in various villages is significant and can be shifted in various ways.
The result is that you wind up juggling an intricate web of quest requirements. This is tactically interesting! Except I found it tactically sort of tiring instead. It was a lot to keep track of. The in-game journal is great at showing your current goals and knowledge, but it doesn't really show immediate needs. I found myself doing a lot of "Go to village X, oh yeah, the mayor doesn't trust me, how do I make nice with her? Eh, I'll go somewhere else."
(This is where Citizen Sleeper's plot clocks really help. They're not in-character but they sure make planning your choices easier!)
The story bits are all well-written but I didn't find the world or the characters particularly engaging. The game makes a point of letting you flesh out your character and background with periodic questions, which is nicely paced but still didn't grab me.
As a piece of craft, this is certainly up with the other games in this post. But after about two game-weeks of play, I decided it wasn't for me.

Betrayal at Club Low

Comedy heist caper in the surreal cosmos of Off-Peak City.
Mechanically this is pretty solid. It's an RPG with a fast-paced dice system. Try a thing; roll for results, maybe good maybe bad; results affect the next roll. You have various ways to tweak the dice but you have to deploy them judiciously. No single failure is catastrophic but too many ends your run. Runs are meant to be pretty quick (30-60 minutes) so you can try repeatedly and learn your way through the heist.
I love Off-Peak City as a setting; I loved the earlier (adventurey) games from Cosmo D. But I had trouble getting into this one. It just felt too hard. I had to use all the easy-mode settings to make any progress at all, and even then I got a non-optimal ending.
I think you're supposed to make multiple runs, learning more about Club Low each time, until you finally triumph. But I generally don't replay games. So I was left somewhat unsatisfied.
On the up side, pizza dice. Pizza dice. Genius idea, or genius idea with pepperoni?

The Pale Beyond

A crew of doughty sailors heads south, trying to reach an earlier expedition lost in the ice. But, oh no, you're trapped in the ice yourself! And where has the Captain gone?
I only played a bit of the demo. But it looked like a really neat worker-placement sort of RPG. You can distribute your crew to various weekly tasks: shoveling coal, scouting the ice floes, hunting for food. But of course the crew members are people with personalities and story arcs, not just skills and stats. You're continually having little encounters with them. If you lose their trust, things may go very badly.
Looking forward to the full version.

Wednesday, 25. January 2023

The People's Republic of Interactive Fiction

January meeting (online)

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

The Boston IF meetup for January will be Monday, January 30, 6:30 pm Eastern time.

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

Monday, 23. January 2023

Choice of Games LLC

Author Interview: Grace Card, New Witch in Town

Make friends, cast spells, and uncover secrets in your magical small town! Will you preserve the forest or let the town grow? New Witch in Town is a 750,000-word interactive YA fantasy novel by Grace Card. I sat down with Grace to discuss her work and writing process. New Witch in Town releases this Thursday, January 26th. You can play the first three chapters today for free. The world of New Witch

Make friends, cast spells, and uncover secrets in your magical small town! Will you preserve the forest or let the town grow?

New Witch in Town is a 750,000-word interactive YA fantasy novel by Grace Card. I sat down with Grace to discuss her work and writing process. New Witch in Town releases this Thursday, January 26th. You can play the first three chapters today for free.

The world of New Witch is such a fun place to spend time. How did you conceive of it?

My original thought when I first started planning the game was that it would be fun to explore the culture shock of a witch moving from a magical forest to a small town, with misunderstandings and mystery and cute animals throughout. When I actually started to write the game, however, I realised I wanted to take it in a slightly more ‘realistic’ direction, because for me personally, fantasy and speculative fiction in general are at their most interesting when they’re juxtaposed with ‘real life’. I like to imagine how magic would fit within the real world, thinking about how it might work alongside modern technology, or the unexpected ways it could impact on ordinary parts of our lives. And I wanted the world to feel like it had depth, so that when you bring magic into it, it feels all the more strange and fantastical, with potentially higher stakes for using it. So since I wanted to try and create a sense of realism, it felt pretty natural to take inspiration from places I already know. Silvertree is a place with lot of interesting history, which is pretty but also neglected, and which feels a bit isolated – very like the place I currently live.

Even with all of that, I still wanted the game to be fun, and funny, and full of mystery – and I realised I could, because humor and joy are just as real as uncertainty and fear. Some of my favourite parts of the game to write were conversations between characters who knew each other and their town too well, and knew how to make each other laugh about it.

As for the magical side of the game’s world, however, that was something I had to work at far more. I hadn’t written a lot of fantasy before I started this game, and so my imagination about all the things magic could do was somewhat limited. But since I’d had the idea for the main character to be living in a magical forest before the start of the game, I started to take inspiration from nature, and began to imagine magic as a natural entity similar to a forest, or even the ocean or outer space; something awe-inspiring, which humans can interact with, but with no personal concern for human lives. Within the game, magic became a bit like the forest itself – beautiful, vast, potentially dangerous, and mysterious. With all of that in mind, I began to think of ways that the main character could use their magic, but also be perplexed by it, with elements of fantasy and mystery emerging from their relationship with magic. I think I still have a lot to learn about fantasy writing, but my lack of experience led me to consciously putting in effort to think about how magic can be interesting, and without giving anything away, I ended up with some ideas I was pretty excited about.

What were some of the challenges of writing a Choicescript game for you?

At first almost everything about it was a learning curve. I had never written interactive fiction before this game, and I’d never done any sort of coding, so it took me a few weeks of writing in Choicescript to feel at home with all of the different commands. I made a fair few beginnger’s mistakes, but it wasn’t too long before it started to feel quite natural; it’s just a matter of practice. If anybody is feeling unsure about whether they could learn Choicescript, I’d really recommend at least trying it out, because it really is designed for anyone to be able pick up.

In terms of writing the game itself, the endings were definitely one of the hardest things for me to manage. Since I was new to interactive fiction, it was a very new thing to not only come up with multiple distinct endings (I struggled with how to make some of them feel unique while still fitting into the story), but then to write them all in a way that felt satisfying. One thing I definitely found challenging (and this goes for individual choices as well as the game’s endings) was creating a breadth of options without sacrificing depth. I did at times fall to the temptation of giving the player a lot of branching paths, only to realise that each one would need to be equally interesting; and given the time and energy it takes to write just one scene, I sometimes found myself struggling to finish everything I had started. I learned through writing the game that it’s better to give the player fewer, more meaningful options, rather than feeling that more options are always better. I ended up cutting quite a lot of endings I had originally planned, because I realised there was no feasible way I could write them all, and it was better to focus on building up the ones I had already started.

Speaking of choices, one interesting thing I found after writing a lot of the game was that some of the trickiest choices for me to write were ordinary speech options. I have a bit of trouble finding what to say in real life, and although I find it easier to write fictional conversations, I started to find it difficult giving the player 3+ options for what their character could say while talking to friends or neighbors (specifically, options that were different from all the other conversations I’d written) – and then coming up with 3+ replies from the person they’re talking to! I tried my best, though – and I think I managed to improve my own conversational skills a little bit.

On a more personal level, writing such a large project – which was completely my own choice, and about a world and characters I genuinely loved – became a difficult thing to manage. This game was the first major project I’ve ever actually finished, and in some ways it was a very positive experience; as I say, I loved the story, and I learned so much about how to plan and execute a piece of writing on this scale. But without going into details, I pushed myself too hard while writing this game, to the point that existing health issues were exacerbated and writing anything became harder and harder. I’m very grateful to the Choice of Games staff who were so supportive through all of that, including to the point of taking over the remainder of the game’s editing when I was struggling to get it finished. Thankfully, I’ve started to make my health more of a priority, and I’m doing much better now – but I’m still constantly reminding myself to pace myself, and that no matter how many plans I have, it’s okay to focus on one thing at a time.

What surprised you about the process?

I was actually surprised how much I enjoyed the coding aspect – once I got to grips with the basics, I started looking for more creative ways I could use the commands, and honestly found it very satisfying putting the logic into place. Things could definitely get confusing, and I’m sure my code looks like a tangled mess at times, but I managed to find my way around it okay and it honestly made me want to learn more about programming. I’ve even started watching an introductory course on computer science in my spare time, and I’m finding it fascinating!

I also wasn’t expecting just how different writing interactive fiction is to standard prose fiction. In a lot of ways I could approach it like any other story, but I also had to be aware that I wasn’t just writing one story, but five or ten or even more – and so I had to think of it more as a world to be explored than just a straightforward story.

Another surprise, honestly, was much much I ended up loving the story I was writing. It’s not that I didn’t like it at all to begin with – I just didn’t expect how deeply I would start to think about the town, and its history, and its characters, and really want to explore pretty much every inch of the world. I’m not planning on writing a direct sequel to the game, but there are a few things I still really want to write about; and I plan on doing just that! It will be in a different form, but I’m going to keep exploring the game’s world for a bit longer (see the last question for more details about that!).

Do you have some favorite magic-centered books or films that you drew inspiration from?

To be totally honest, I’m quite new to the fantasy genre all around. I read a fair bit as a child – including some very popular series that have probably influenced the game in ways I don’t even realise – but as an adult I tended more towards historical fiction (if I read at all; it’s been difficult for me for quite a few years). I love Spirited Away, for its symbolism and its beautiful focus on magic within more mundane moments as well as the impossible ones. Another thing that inspires me in a lot of things I write is folk music, which is a huge love of mine. Their stories are often magical, with magic being fantastical but also sometimes strange and frightening as well. And in a lot of songs/stories, magic is used as a means to try and understand real-life concerns, which are often very personal or political.

Also, it’s not a book or a film, but one of my biggest inspirations when I first started writing New Witch was the game Night in the Woods. It’s not strictly a game about magic, but it involves a series of inexplicable events that soon start to seem supernatural. But even as that happens, the characters’ ordinary, realistic lives never feel less important – if anything, it throws them into an even more significant light. When something scary and unexplainable happens, it just shows all the more how important the ‘smaller’ things are, from worries about jobs and the future to friendships and mental health and just hanging out eating pizza.

What else are you working on?

Right now, I’ve decided that I’m only going to focus on one main writing project at a time (rather than planning ten projects at once and somehow expecting myself to work on them all). After spending a little while trying to narrow down a few different ideas, I’ve decided to start working on what I hope will be my first novel. It’s still in the planning stages (though writing this game hugely improved my story-planning skills!), but it’s going to be about the new life taken on by a formerly-abandoned town, and all the ways history begins to repeat itself as it’s reinhabited in different ways by people and wildlife. It’s also been a plan of mine for a while to try and write a musical somewhere down the line – I’m challenging myself a bit with that one, but I’m a singer and I’ve written some music before, and I figured there’s no point talking myself out of it before I’ve even tried!

I think I’d really love to write more interactive fiction in the future, since I feel like I’ve learned a lot and there are so many interesting things you can do with an interactive story. But prose fiction is what I’ve always wanted to write, and now this game is done it feels like the perfect time to put all my focus there.

Also, although my main project for now is a novel, I’ve recently opened a Patreon (patreon.com/silvertreetoday) where I’m going to be posting a lot of bonus content related to New Witch in Town. My plan is to post short side-stories expanding on things that I couldn’t fit into the game, as well as my own art of characters and important locations, etc. As I wrote the game there were so many things I wished I could have gone on huge tangents about – as the game’s lore developed I got so excited about certain characters and parts of the town’s history that there just wasn’t space to talk about, but since I still have all of those ideas I’m hoping to be able to put it all on my Patreon in some form. If anyone is at all interested – and it’s totally fine if not! – I’m hoping to start posting regularly there from February 2023.