Planet Interactive Fiction

August 17, 2019

Renga in Blue

Lugi: The Perils of Randomness

by Jason Dyer at August 17, 2019 05:41 PM

At the start of the game it asks if you want a “short”, “medium”, or “long” time limit. For the vast majority of adventure games this would affect the number of turns. Lugi, instead, keeps track of real time.

That is, while events can’t happen in the middle of you typing a command, time is nontheless moving, and if you leave the game running and come back, on your next turn you will undoubtedly get:


“Aaaaaaaaahhhhh, we found us some dinner!” (chomp, slobber, crunch…)

Additionally, there is no saved game feature.

The statements above would no doubt send many (all?) traditional adventure game players running for the hills, but I decided to try rolling with it; this is meant to be sort of a text-adventure-action-hybrid and just because a genre hasn’t been tried much doesn’t mean it’s inherently bad.

Still, the elements above plus the randomness plus the game having traditional puzzles makes this very hard to play. There are some definite “sequences” programmed in. For example:

You’re in a grimy new-car showroom with a huge glass window, luridly painted on the outside, looking out onto a busy street. You see that you are nearly two miles from the Embassy.
There is one dust-coated car here, a model made eight years ago.

The car is always in this room, and attempting to use it states you need to start the car first. Elsewhere (not in a fixed place) there are keys stuck to the floor. A different room (again not in a fixed place) has a can of acetone. If you open and pour the acetone, you can get the keys free, although the first time I did so I died because the fumes from the acetone overwhelmed me. I didn’t always find both the acetone and thy keys in a given play session, so it took some repeats before I found the same situation again and was able to redo the steps, this time immediately leaving the room after freeing the keys rather than trying to take the keys. This works (a creature licks up the spilled acetone) so I was able to return to the room and get the now-free keys. Then, I had to find the car (again, not a guarantee); when I finally managed to do so and attempt START CAR, this happened:

GrrrRRRrrrRRRrrr–VARROOM! The car lurches sharply forward…

KA-BLLAAAMMMMM!!! Something in the trunk explodes like a bomb, killing you.

I assume I need to OPEN TRUNK or the like, and then possibly solve some other puzzle to disarm the bomb. To get hear to test any theories out I once again need to have a play session where I find the acetone, keys, and car, and of course there’s no guarantee I won’t die again trying to solve a puzzle (I can’t imagine disarming a bomb to be super-safe). It may even be after seeing what happens with the trunk I realize there’s a fourth object I need to solve the puzzle, but I haven’t found that fourth object in that particular playthrough, and have to restart before I can test the puzzle again.

In a classic roguelike game like Nethack (with the same randomness and lack-of-saves as Lugi), usually death is the result of a combination of bad decisions and/or luck; even something infamous like getting turned to stone by a cockatrice makes it fairly transparent what the wrong action was (like: oops, you tried to pick up the corpse but you weren’t wearing gloves). With puzzle-solving in adventure games this isn’t the case, and having all the randomness can make it exceedingly difficult to test theories or have any kind of continuity to the solving experience. Another example:

There’s a small, unhealthy-looking Lugiman here, a real runt, holding a cudgel! He screams at you in Lugonian: something about “filthy Earth vermin” and “stinking Earth germs …us allergic people can’t take it any more!” He raises his cudgel, holding his nose, and prepares to bash your skull in…

There text strongly suggest there’s some way to trigger the Lugiman’s germophobia to do away with him, but you only get one shot before he kills you. In a “normal” game (saved games, fixed geography, fixed item locations) this wouldn’t be a problem, but an idea like “let’s try throwing the half-eaten sandwich I found” might have a 20-minute delay between conception and being able to test it. It’s also possible to run away from this enemy, so there might be no solution at all (although you can get unlucky and have an item you do need start in the same room as this enemy).

I have managed to escape, once, but doing so killed everyone.

You are on a sunny balcony over a busy street.

The instructions state typing OUT here will escape. If you have a rope (another randomly found object) you can do this, but:

Unfortunately, you carried the Lugonian Plague out to the city and wiped out eighty percent of the population!

On a different playthrough (one where I never found the balcony room) I managed to get a can of Raid which caused itching on my arm, and a “fungus” to be visible in my inventory. My guess is I need to be rid of the fungus in order to escape “properly”.

Also (only on some playthroughs) I’ve had

A small scaly thing lunges out and attaches itself to your leg!

who might end up being useful somewhere, but it’s possible the thing must also be removed before escape.

August 16, 2019

These Heterogenous Tasks

Introcomp 2019

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at August 16, 2019 07:42 PM

Introcomp, one of interactive fiction’s long-running annual events, is out, with eleven entries. The past few Introcomps I have either missed or only looked at briefly, and I think I’ve got an expectations mismatch going on. I think that the value … Continue reading

The XYZZY Awards

2018 XYZZY Awards, final results

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at August 16, 2019 07:42 PM

The 2018 XYZZY Awards are complete for this year! Congratulations to our winners:

Best Game: Bogeyman (Elizabeth Smyth)

Best Writing: Animalia (Ian Michael Waddell) and Bogeyman (Elizabeth Smyth) (tie)

Best Story: Bogeyman (Elizabeth Smyth)

Best Setting: Cannery Vale (Hanon Ondricek)

Best Puzzles: Junior Arithmancer (Mike Spivey)

Best NPCs: Animalia (Ian Michael Waddell)

Best Individual Puzzle: solving your murder in Erstwhile (Maddie Fialla, Marijke Perry)

Best Individual NPC: the Bogeyman in Bogeyman (Elizabeth Smyth)

Best Individual PC: the Magpie in Alias ‘The Magpie’ (J. J. Guest)

Best Implementation: Cragne Manor (Ryan Veeder, Jenni Polodna, et al.)

Best Use of Innovation: I.A.G. Alpha (Serhii Mozhaiskyi)

Best Technological Development: Dialog, Linus Åkesson

Best Use of Multimedia: Bandersnatch (Charlie Brooker, David Slade)

The People's Republic of IF

August meeting

by zarf at August 16, 2019 07:41 PM

The Boston IF meetup for August will be Monday, August 26, 6:30 pm, MIT room 14N-233.

The Digital Antiquarian

Alone in the Dark

by Jimmy Maher at August 16, 2019 04:41 PM

Most videogame stories are power fantasies. You spend your time getting ever stronger, ever tougher, ever more formidable as you accumulate experience points, gold, and equipment. Obstacles aren’t things to go around; they’re things you go through. If you can’t get past any given monster, the solution is to go kill some other monsters, then come back when you’re yet more powerful and slay the big beast at last. Life, these games tell us, is or ought to be one unadulterated ride up the escalator of success; a setback just means you haven’t yet risen high enough.

That dynamic held true in 1992 just as much as it usually does today. But during that year there came a well-nigh revolutionary game out of France that upended all of these traditional notions about what the medium of videogames can do and be. It cast you as a painfully ordinary, near-powerless individual adrift in a scary world, with no surefire panaceas in the form of experience points, gold, or portable rocket launchers to look forward to. It was just you and your wits, trapped in a haunted house full of creatures that were stronger than you and badly wanted to kill you. Despite its supernatural elements, this game’s scenario felt more disconcertingly close to real life than that of any of those other games. Here, you truly were alone in the dark. Aren’t we all from time to time?

Any story of how this shockingly innovative game came to be must begin with that of Frédérick Raynal, its mastermind. Born in the south-central French town of Brive-la-Gaillarde in 1966, Raynal was part of the first generation of European youths to have access to personal computers. In fact, right from the time his father first came home with a Sinclair ZX81, he was obsessed with them. He was also lucky: in a dream scenario for any budding hacker, his almost equally obsessed father soon added computers to the product line of the little videocassette-rental shop he owned, thus giving his son access to a wide variety of hardware. Raynal worked at the store during the day, renting out movies and watching them to kill the time — he was a particular fan of horror movies, a fact which would soon have a direct impact on his career — and helping customers with their computer problems. Then, with a nerdy young man’s total obliviousness to proportion, he hacked away most of the night on one or another of the machines he brought home with him. He programmed his very first released game, a platformer called Robix, in 1986 on an obscure home-grown French computer called the Exelvision which his father sold at the store. His father agreed to sell his son’s Exelvision game there as well, managing to shift about 80 units to customers desperate for software for the short-lived machine.

Raynal’s lifestyle was becoming so unbalanced that his family was beginning to worry about him. One day, he ran out of his room in a panic, telling them that all of the color had bled out of his vision. His mother bustled him off to an ophthalmologist, who told him he appeared to have disrupted the photoreceptors in his eyes by staring so long at a monitor screen. Thankfully, the condition persisted only a few hours. But then there came a day when he suddenly couldn’t understand anything that was said to him; he had apparently become so attuned to the language of computer code that he could no longer communicate with humans. That worrisome condition lasted several weeks.

Thus just about everyone around him took it as a good thing on the whole when he was called up for military service in 1988. Just before leaving, Raynal released his second game, this time for MS-DOS machines. Not knowing what else to do with it, he simply posted it online for free. Popcorn was a Breakout clone with many added bells and whistles, the latest entry in a sub-genre which was enjoying new popularity following the recent success of the Taito arcade game Arkanoid and its many ports to home computers and consoles. Raynal’s game could hold its head high in a crowded field, especially given its non-existent price tag. One magazine pronounced it one of the five best arcade games available for MS-DOS, whether commercial or free, and awarded it 21 points on a scale of 20.

Raynal was soon receiving letters at his military posting from all over the world. “Popcorn has made my life hell!” complained one player good-naturedly. Another wrote that “I caught acute Popcornitus. And, it being contagious, now my wife has it as well.” When Raynal completed his service in the summer of 1989, his reputation as the creator of Popcorn preceded him. Most of the companies in the French games industry were eager to offer him a job. His days working at his father’s computer store, it seemed, were behind him. The Lyon-based Infogrames, the most prominent French publisher of all, won the Raynal sweepstakes largely by virtue of its proximity to his hometown.

Yet Raynal quickly realized that the company he had elected to join was in a rather perilous state. An ambitious expansion into many European markets hadn’t paid off; in fact, it had very nearly bankrupted them. Bruno Bonnell, Infogrames’s co-founder and current chief executive, had almost sold the company to the American publisher Epyx, but that deal had fallen through as soon as the latter had gotten their first good look at the state of his books. It seemed that Infogrames would have to dig themselves out of the hole they’d made. Thus Bonnell had slashed costs and shed subsidiaries ruthlessly just to stay alive. Now, having staunched the worst of the bleeding, he knew that he needed as many talented programmers as he could get in order to rebuild his company — especially programmers like Raynal, who weren’t terribly assertive and were naive enough to work cheap. So, Raynal was hired as a programmer of ports, an unglamorous job but an absolutely essential one in a European market that had not yet consolidated around a single computer platform.

Bonnell, for his part, was the polar opposite of the shy computer obsessive he had just hired; he had a huge personality which put its stamp on every aspect of life at Infogrames. He believed his creativity to be the equal of anyone who worked for him, and wasn’t shy about tossing his staff ideas for games. He called one of them, which he first proposed when Raynal had been on the job for about a year, In the Dark. A typically high-concept French idea, its title was meant to be taken literally. The player would wander through a pitch-dark environment, striking the occasional match from her limited supply, but otherwise relying entirely on sound cues for navigation. Bonnell and Raynal were far from bosom buddies, then or ever, but this idea struck a chord with the young programmer.

As Raynal saw it, the question that would make or break the idea was that of how to represent a contiguous environment with enough verisimilitude to give the player an embodied sense of really being there in the dark. Clearly, a conventional adventure-game presentation, with its pixel graphics and static views, wouldn’t do. Only one approach could get the job done: 3D polygonal graphics. Not coincidentally, 3D was much on Raynal’s mind when he took up Bonnell’s idea; he’d been spending his days of late porting an abstract 3D puzzle game known as Continuum from the Atari ST to MS-DOS.

I’ve had occasion to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of this burgeoning new approach to game-making in previous articles, so I won’t rehash that material here. Suffice to say that the interest so many European programmers had in 3D reflected not least a disparity in the computing resources available to them in comparison to their American counterparts. American companies in this period were employing larger and larger teams, who were filling handfuls of floppy disks — and soon CD-ROMs — with beautiful hand-drawn art and even digitized snippets of real-world video. European companies had nothing like the resources to compete with the Americans on those terms. But procedurally-generated 3D graphics offered a viable alternative. At this stage in the evolution of computer technology, they couldn’t possibly be as impressively photorealistic as hand-drawn pixel art or full-motion video, but they could offer far more flexible, interactive, immersive environments, with — especially when paired with a French eye for aesthetics — a certain more abstracted allure of their own.

This, then, was the road Raynal now started down. It was a tall order for a single programmer. Not only was he trying to create a functional 3D engine from scratch, but the realities of the European market demanded that he make it run on an 80286-class machine, hardware the Americans by now saw as outdated. Even Bonnell seemed to have no confidence in Raynal’s ability to bring his brainstorm to fruition. He allowed Raynal to work on it only on nights and weekends, demanding that he spend his days porting SimCity to the Commodore CDTV.

An artist named Didier Chanfray was the closest thing to a partner and confidante which Raynal had at Infogrames during his first year of working on the engine. It was Chanfray who provided the rudimentary graphics used to test it. And it was also Chanfray who, in September of 1991, saw the full engine in action for the first time. A character roamed freely around a room under the control of Raynal, able to turn about and bend his body and limbs at least semi-realistically. The scene could be viewed from several angles, and it could be lit — or not — by whatever light sources Raynal elected to place in the room. Even shadows appeared; that of the character rippled eerily over the furniture in the room as he moved from place to place. Chanfray had never seen anything like it. He fairly danced around Raynal’s desk, pronouncing it a miracle, magic, alchemy.

In the meantime, Bruno Bonnell had negotiated and signed a new licensing deal — not exactly a blockbuster, but something commensurate with a rebuilding Infogrames’s circumstances.

Something tentacled and other-worldly, it seems, got into the water at Infogrames from the start: Didier Chanfray provided this very Lovecraftian concept drawing for Raynal’s game long before the conscious decision was made to turn it a Lovecraft pastiche. Raynal kept the sketch tacked on the wall beside his desk throughout the project as a reminder of the atmosphere he was going for.

The American horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, who died well before the advent of the computer age in 1937, was nowhere near as well-known in 1991 as he is today, but his so-called “Cthulhu Mythos” of extra-dimensional alien beings, terrifying by virtue of their sheer indifference to humanity and its petty morality, had already made appearances in games. The very first work of ludic Lovecraftia would appear to be the 1979 computer game Kadath, an odd sort of parser-less text adventure. Two years later, at the height of the American tabletop-RPG craze, a small company called Chaosium published Call of Cthulhu, a game which subverted the power fantasy of tabletop Dungeons & Dragons in much the same way that Raynal’s project would soon be subverting that of so many computer games. Still, although Call of Cthulhu was well-supported by Chaosium and remained reasonably popular by the standards of its niche industry throughout the 1980s and beyond, its success didn’t lead to any Lovecraftian onslaught in the realm of digital games. The most notable early example of the breed is Infocom’s very effective 1987 interactive fiction The Lurking Horror. But, being all text at a time when text adventures were becoming hard sells, it didn’t make much commercial impact.

Now, though, Bonnell believed the time had come for a more up-to-date Lovecraftian computer game; he believed such a thing could do well, both in France and elsewhere.

Lovecraft had long had a strong following in France. From the moment his books were first translated into the language in 1954, they had sold in considerable numbers. Indeed, in 1991 H.P. Lovecraft was about as popular in France as he was anywhere — arguably more popular on a per-capita basis than in his native land. The game of Call of Cthulhu too had long since been translated into French, giving a potential digital implementation of it as much natural appeal there as in its homeland. So, Bonnell approached Chaosium about licensing their Call of Cthulhu rules for computers, and the American company agreed.

When viewed retrospectively, it seems a confusing deal to have made, one that really wasn’t necessary for what Infogrames would ultimately choose to do with Lovecraft. When Lovecraft died in obscurity and poverty, he left his literary estate in such a shambles that no one has ever definitively sorted out its confusing tangle of copyright claimants; his writing has been for all intents and purposes in the public domain ever since his death, despite numerous parties making claims to the contrary. Prior to publishing their Lovecraft tabletop RPG, Chaosium had nevertheless negotiated a deal with Arkham House, the publisher that has long been the most strident of Lovecraft’s copyright claimants. With that deal secured, Chaosium had promptly trademarked certain catchphrases, including “Call of Cthulhu” itself, in the context of games. Yet as it turned out Infogrames would use none of them; nor would they draw any plots directly from any of Lovecraft’s published stories. Like the countless makers of Lovecraftian games and stories that would follow them, they would instead draw from the author’s spirit and style of horror, whilst including just a few of his more indelible props, such as the forbidden book of occult lore known as the Necronomicon.

The first Lovecraftian game Infogrames would make would, of course, be the very game that Frédérick Raynal had now spent the last year or so prototyping during his free time. By the time news of his work reached Bonnell, most of Infogrames’s staff were already talking about it like the second coming. While the idea that had inspired it had been wonderfully innovative, it seemed absurd even to the original source of said idea to devote the best 3D engine anyone had ever seen to a game that literally wouldn’t let you see what it could do most of the time. It made perfect sense, on the other hand, to apply its creepy visual aesthetic to the Lovecraft license. The sense of dread and near-powerlessness that was so consciously designed into the tabletop RPG seemed a natural space for the computer game as well to occupy. It was true that it would have to be Call of Cthulhu in concept only: the kinetic, embodied, real-time engine Raynal had created wasn’t suitable for the turn-based rules of the tabletop RPG. For that matter, Raynal didn’t even like the Chaosium game all that much; he considered it too complicated to be fun.

Still, Bonnell, who couldn’t fail to recognize the potential of Raynal’s project, put whatever resources he could spare from his still-rebuilding company at the mild-mannered programmer’s disposal: four more artists to join Chanfray, a sound designer, a second programmer and project manager. When the team’s first attempts at writing an authentic-feeling Lovecraftian scenario proved hopelessly inadequate, Bonnell hired for the task Hubert Chardot, a screenwriter from 20th Century Fox’s French division, a fellow who loved Lovecraft so much that he had turned his first trip to the United States into a tour of his dead hero’s New England haunts. One of Chardot’s first suggestions was to add the word “alone” to the title of the game. He pointed out, correctly, that it would convey the sense of existential loneliness that was such an integral part of Lovecraftian horror — even, one might say, the very thing that sets it apart from more conventional takes on horror.

You can choose to enter the mansion as either of two characters.

The game takes place in the 1920s, the era of Lovecraft himself and of most of his stories (and thus the default era as well for Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu game). It begins as you arrive in the deserted Louisiana mansion known as Derceto, whose owner Jeremy Hartwood has recently hanged himself. You play either as Edward Carnby, a relic hunter on the trail of a valuable piano owned by the deceased, or as Emily Hartwood, the deceased’s niece, eager to clear up the strange rumors that have dogged her uncle’s reputation and to figure out what really went down on his final night of life. The direction in which the investigation leads you will surprise no one familiar with Lovecraft’s oeuvre or Chaosium’s RPG: occult practices, forbidden books, “things man was never meant to know,” etc. But, even as Chardot’s script treads over this ground that was well-worn already in the early 1990s, it does so with considerable flair, slowly revealing its horrifying backstory via the books and journals you find hidden about the mansion as you explore. (There is no in-game dialog and no real foreground story whatsoever, only monsters and traps to defeat or avoid.) Like most ludic adaptations of Lovecraft, the game differs markedly from its source material only in that there is a victory state; the protagonist isn’t absolutely guaranteed to die or become a gibbering lunatic at the end.

One of the in-game journals, which nails the spirit and style of Lovecraft perfectly. As I noted in an earlier article about the writer, the emotion he does better than any other is disgust.

Yet Chaosium wasn’t at all pleased when Infogrames sent them an early build of the game for their stamp of approval. It seems that the American company had believed they were licensing not just their trademarks to their French colleagues, nor even the idea of a Lovecraft game in the abstract, but rather the actual Call of Cthulhu rules, which they had expected to see faithfully implemented. And, indeed, this may have been Bonnell’s intention when he was making the deal — until Raynal’s 3D engine had changed everything. Chaosium, who had evidently been looking forward to an equivalent of sorts to the Gold Box line of licensed Dungeons & Dragons CRPGs, felt betrayed. After some tense negotiation, they agreed to let Alone in the Dark continue without the Call of Cthulhu name on the box; some editions would include a note saying the game had been “inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft,” while others wouldn’t even go that far. In return for Chaosium’s largess on this front, Infogrames agreed to make a more conventional adventure game that would make explicit use of the Call of Cthulhu trademarks.

Call of Cthulhu: Shadow of the Comet, the fruit of that negotiation, would prove a serviceable game, albeit one that still didn’t make much direct use of the tabletop rules. But, whatever its merits, it would come and go without leaving much of a mark on an industry filled to bursting with graphical adventures much like it in terms of implementation. Alone in the Dark, on the other hand, would soon be taking the world by storm — and Chaosium could have had their name on it, a form of advertisement which could hardly have failed to increase their commercial profile dramatically. Chalk it up as just one more poor decision in the life of a company that had a strange talent for surviving — Chaosium is still around to this day — without ever quite managing to become really successful.

Infogrames got their first preview of just what an impact Alone in the Dark was poised to make in the spring of 1992, when Dany Boolauck, a journalist from the French videogame magazine Tilt, arrived to write a rather typical industry puff piece, a set of capsule previews of some of the company’s current works-in-progress. He never got any further than Alone in the Dark. After just a few minutes with it, he declared it “the best game of the last five years!” and asked for permission to turn the capsule blurb about it into a feature-length article, complete with a fawning interview with Raynal. (He described him in thoroughly overwrought terms: as a reincarnation of The Little Prince from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s beloved novella of the same name.) In a “review” published in the summer of 1992, still a couple of months before Infogrames anticipated releasing the game, he gave it 19 of 20 stars, gushing over its “exceptional staging” and “almost perfect character movement,” calling it “a revolution in the field of play” that “people must buy!”

Bruno Bonnell was pleased with the positive press coverage, but less thrilled by Boolauck’s portrayal of Raynal as the game’s genius auteur. He called in his introverted young programmer, who seemed a bit befuddled by all the attention, and told him to scrub the words “a Frédérick Raynal creation” from the end credits. Alone in the Dark, he said, was an Infogrames creation, full stop. Raynal agreed, but a grievance began to fester in his heart.

Thanks to Bonnell’s policy of not advertising the individuals behind Infogrames’s games, Raynal’s name didn’t spread quite so far and wide as that of such other celebrated gaming auteurs as Éric Chahi, the mastermind of Another World, France’s standout game from the previous year. Nevertheless, upon its European release in September of 1992, Raynal’s game stood out on its own terms as something special — as an artistic creation that was not just fun or scary but important to its medium. As one would expect, the buzz started in France. “We review many games,” wrote one magazine there. “Some are terrible, some mediocre, some excellent. And occasionally there comes along the game that will revolutionize the world of microcomputers, one that causes sleepless nights, one that you cannot tear yourself away from, can only marvel at. We bid welcome now to the latest member of this exclusive club: Alone in the Dark.” By the end of 1992, the game was a hit not only in France but across most of Europe. Now for America.

Bonnell closed a deal with the American publisher Interplay for distribution of the game there. Interplay had also published Another World, which had turned into a big success Stateside, and the company’s head Brian Fargo was sure he saw similar potential in Alone in the Dark. He thus put the game through his company’s internal testing wringer, just as he had Another World; the French studios had their strengths, but such detail work didn’t tend to be among them. Raynal’s game became a much cleaner, much more polished experience thanks to Interplay’s QA team. Yet Bonnell still had big international ambitions for Infogrames, and he wasn’t willing to let such a remarkable game as this one share with Another World the fate of becoming known to American players simply as an Interplay title. Instead he convinced Fargo to accept a unique arrangement. Interplay and Infogrames each took a stake in a new shared American subsidiary known as I-Motion, under which imprint they published Alone in the Dark.

The game took North America by storm in early 1993, just as it had Europe a few months earlier. It was that rarest of things in games, a genuine paradigm shift; no one had ever seen one that played quite like this. Worldwide, it sold at least 400,000 copies, putting Infogrames on the map in the United States and other non-European countries in the process. Indeed, amidst the international avalanche of praise and punditry, perhaps the most gratifying press notice of all reached Frédérick Raynal’s ears from all the way off in Japan. Shigeru Miyamoto, the designer of Super Mario Bros. and many other iconic Nintendo classics, proclaimed Alone in the Dark to be, more so than any other game, the one he wished he could have come up with.

Arguably the creepiest visual in the game is the weird mannequin’s head of your own character. Its crudely painted expression rather smacks of Chucky the doll from the Child’s Play horror films.

Seen from the perspective of a modern player, however, the verdict on Alone in the Dark must be more mixed. Some historically important games transcend that status to remain vital experiences even today, still every bit as fun and playable as the day they were made. But others — and please forgive me the hoary old reviewer’s cliché! — haven’t aged as well. This game, alas, belongs to the latter category.

Today, in an era when 3D graphics have long since ceased to impress us simply for existing at all, those of Alone in the Dark are pretty painful to look at, all jagged pixels sticking out everywhere from grotesquely octagonal creatures. Textures simply don’t exist, leaving everything to be rendered out of broad swatches of single colors. And the engine isn’t even holistically 3D: the 3D characters move across pasted-on pre-rendered backgrounds, which looks decidedly awkward in many situations. (On the other hand, it could have been worse: Raynal first tried to build the backgrounds out of digitized photographs of a real spooky mansion, a truly unholy union that he finally had to give up on.) Needless to say, a comparison with the lovingly hand-drawn pixel art in the adventure games being put out by companies like LucasArts and Sierra during this period does the crude graphics found here no favors whatsoever. Some of the visuals verge on the unintentionally comical; one of the first monsters you meet was evidently meant to be a fierce dragon-like creature, but actually looks more like a sort of carnivorous chicken. (Shades of the dragon ducks from the original Atari Adventure…)

Dead again! Killed by… Prince during his Purple Rain period?

Then, too, the keyboard-only controls are clunky and unintuitive, and they aren’t made any less awkward by a fixed camera that’s constantly shifting about to new arbitrary locations as you move through the environment; some individual rooms have as many as nine separate camera angles. This is confusing as all get-out when you’re just trying to get a sense of the space, and quickly becomes infuriating when you’re being chased by a monster and really, really don’t have time to stop and adjust your thinking to a new perspective.

The more abstract design choices also leave something to be desired. Sudden deaths abound. The very first room of the game kills you when you step on a certain floorboard, and every book is either a source of backstory and clues or an instant game-ender; the only way to know which it is is to save your game and open it. Some of the puzzles are clever, some less so, but even those that are otherwise worthy too often depend on you standing in just the right position; if you aren’t, you get no feedback whatsoever on what you’re doing wrong, and are thus likely to go off on some other track entirely, never realizing how close you were to the solution. This fiddliness and lack of attention to the else in the “if, then, else” dynamic of puzzle design is a clear sign of a game that never got sufficiently tested for playability and solubility. At times, the game’s uncommunicativeness verges on the passive-aggressive. You’ll quickly grow to loathe the weirdly stilted message, “There is a mechanism which can be triggered here,” which the game is constantly spitting out at you as you gaze upon the latest pixelated whatsit. Is it a button? A knob? A keyhole? Who knows… in the end, the only viable course of action is to try every object in your inventory on it, then go back and start trying all the other objects you had to leave lying around the house thanks to your character’s rather brutal inventory limit.

Fighting is a strange, bloodless pantomime.

Yes, one might be able to write some of the game’s issues off as an aesthetic choice — as merely more ways to make the environment feel unsettling. Franck de Girolami, the second programmer on the development team as well as its project leader, has acknowledged using the disorienting camera consciously for just that purpose: “We realized that the camera angles in which the player was the most helpless were the best to bring in a monster. Players would instantly run for a view in which they felt comfortable.” While one does have to admire the team’s absolute commitment to the core concept of the game, the line between aesthetic choice and poor implementation is, at best, blurred in cases like this one.

And yet the fact remains that it was almost entirely thanks to that same commitment to its core concept that Alone in the Dark became one of the most important games of its era. Not a patch on a contemporary like Ultima Underworld as a demonstration of the full power and flexibility of 3D graphics — to be fair, it ran on an 80286 processor with just 640 K of memory while its texture-mapped, fully 3D rival demanded at least an 80386 with 2 MB — it remained conceptually unlike anything that had come before in daring to cast you as an ordinary mortal, weak and scared and alone, for whom any aspirations toward glory quickly turn into nothing more than a desperate desire to just escape the mansion. For all that it threw the Call of Cthulhu rules completely overboard, it retained this most fundamental aspect of its inspiration, bringing Chaosium’s greatest innovation to a digital medium for the first time. It’s not always impossible to kill the monsters in Alone in the Dark — often it’s even necessary to do so — but, with weapons and ammunition scarce and your health bar all too short, doing so never fails to feel like the literal death struggle it ought to. When you do win a fight, you feel more relieved than triumphant. And you’re always left with that nagging doubt in the back of the mind as you count your depleted ammo and drag your battered self toward the next room: was it worth it?

The legacy of this brave and important game is as rich as that of any that was released in its year, running along at least three separate tracks. We’ll begin with the subsequent career of Frédérick Raynal, its original mastermind.

The seeds of that career were actually planted a couple of weeks before the release of Alone in the Dark, when Raynal and others from Infogrames brought a late build of it to the European Computer Trade Show in London. There he met the journalist Dany Boolauck once again, learning in the process that Boolauck had switched gigs: he had left his magazine and now worked for Delphine Software, one of Infogrames’s French competitors. Delphine had recently lost the services of their biggest star: Éric Chahi, the auteur behind the international hit Another World. As his first assignment in his own new job, Boolauck had been given the task of replacing Chahi with a similarly towering talent. Raynal struck him as the perfect choice; he rather resembled Chahi in many respects, what with his very French aesthetic sensibility, his undeniable technical gifts, and his obsessive commitment to his work. Boolauck called in Paul de Senneville, the well-known composer who had launched Delphine Software as a spinoff from his record label of the same name, to add his dulcet voice to the mix. “We wish to place you in a setting where you will be able to create, where you will not be bullied, where we can make you a star,” said the distinguished older gentleman. “We want to give free rein to the fabulous talent you showed in Alone in the Dark.” When Raynal returned to Lyon to a reprimand from Bruno Bonnell for letting his game’s planned release date slip by a week, the contrast between his old boss and the possible new one who was courting him was painted all too clearly.

Much to Raynal’s dismay, Bonnell was already pushing him and the rest of the team that had made the first Alone in the Dark to make a sequel as quickly as possible using the exact same engine. One Friday just before the new year, Bonnell threw his charges a party to celebrate what he now believed would go down in history as the year when his struggling company turned the corner, thanks not least to Raynal’s game. On the following Monday morning, Raynal knocked on Bonnell’s office door along with three other members of the newly christened Alone in the Dark 2 team, including his most longstanding partner Didier Chanfray. They were all quitting, going to work for Delphine, Raynal said quietly. Much to their surprise, Bonnell offered to match Delphine’s offer, the first overt sign he’d ever given that he understood how talented and valuable they really were. But his counteroffer only prompted Delphine to raise the stakes again. Just after New Years Day, Bonnell bowed out of the bidding in a huff: “You want to leave? Goodbye!”

A couple of weeks later, the videogame magazine Génération 4 held an awards ceremony for the previous year’s top titles at Disneyland Paris. Everyone who had been involved with Alone in the Dark, both those who still worked at Infogrames and those who didn’t, was invited. When, as expected, it took the prize for top adventure game, Bruno Bonnell walked onto the stage to accept the award on behalf of his company. The departure of Raynal and crew being the talk of the industry, the room held its collective breath to see what would happen next. “My name is Bruno Bonnell,” he said from behind the rostrum. “I’d like to thank God, my dog, my grandmother, and of course the whole team at Infogrames for a beautiful project.” And with that he stumped offstage again.

It hadn’t been a particularly gracious acceptance speech, but Raynal and his colleagues nonetheless had much to feel good about. Dany Boolauck and Paul de Senneville were true to their word: they set Raynal up with a little auteur’s studio all his own, known as Adeline Software. They even allowed him to run it from Lyon rather than joining the rest of Delphine in Paris.

Naturally, all of the Alone in the Dark technology, along with the name itself and the Chaosium license (whatever that was worth), stayed with Infogrames. Raynal and his colleagues were thus forced to develop a new engine in the style of the old and to devise a fresh game idea for it to execute. Instead of going dark again, they went light. Released in 1994, Little Big Adventure (known as Relentless: Twinsen’s Adventure in North America) was a poetic action-adventure set in a whimsical world of cartoon Impressionism, consciously conceived by Raynal as an antidote to the ultra-violent Doom mania that was sweeping the culture of gaming at the time. He followed it up in 1997 with Little Big Adventure 2 (known as Twinsen’s Odyssey in North America). Although both games were and remain lovely to look at, Raynal still struggled to find the right balance between the art and the science of game design; both games are as absurdly punishing to play as they are charming to watch, with a paucity of save points between the countless places where they demand pin-point maneuvering and split-second timing. This sort of thing was, alas, something of a theme with the French games industry for far too many years.

This, then, is one legacy of Alone in the Dark. Another followed on even more directly, taking the form of the two sequels which Infogrames published in 1993 and 1994. Both used the same engine, as Bruno Bonnell had demanded in the name of efficiency, and both continued the story of the first game, with Edward Carnby still in the role of protagonist. (Poor Emily Hartwood got tossed by the wayside.) But, although Hubert Chardot once again provided their scripts, much of the spirit of the first game got lost, as the development team began letting the player get away with much more head-to-head combat. Neither sequel garnered as many positive reviews or sales as the original game, and Infogrames left the property alone for quite some time thereafter. A few post-millennial attempts to revive the old magic, still without the involvement of Raynal, have likewise yielded mixed results at best.

But it’s with Alone in the Dark‘s third legacy, its most important by far, that we should close. For several years, few games — not even its own sequels — did much to build upon the nerve-wracking style of play it had pioneered. But then, in 1996, the Japanese company Capcom published a zombie nightmare known as Resident Evil for the Sony Playstation console. “When I first played Resident Evil,” remembers Infogrames programmer Franck de Girolami, “I honestly thought it was plagiarism. I could recognize entire rooms from Alone in the Dark.” Nevertheless, Resident Evil sold in huge numbers on the consoles, reaching a mass market the likes of which Alone in the Dark, being available only on computers and the 3DO multimedia appliance, could never have dreamed. In doing so, it well and truly cemented the new genre that became known as survival-horror, which had gradually filtered its way up from the obscure works of a poverty-stricken writer to a niche tabletop RPG to a very successful computer game to a mainstream ludic blockbuster. Culture does move in mysterious ways sometimes, doesn’t it?

(Sources: the books La Saga des Jeux Vidéo by Daniel Ichbiah, Designers & Dragons: A History of the Roleplaying Game Industry, Volume 1 by Shannon Appelcline, and Alone in the Dark: The Official Strategy Guide by Johan Robson; Todd David Spaulding’s PhD thesis H.P. Lovecraft & The French Connection: Translations, Pulps, and Literary History”; Computer Gaming World of February 1993; Amiga Format of June 1991; Edge of November 1994; Retro Gamer 98. Online sources include Adventure Europe‘s interview with Frédérick Raynal, Just Adventure‘s interview with Hubert Chardot, and the video of Frédérick Raynal’s Alone in the Dark postmortem at the 2012 Game Developers Conference. Note that many of the direct quotations in this article were translated by me into English from their French originals.

The original Alone in the Dark trilogy is available as a package download at

Renga in Blue

Lugi (1980-1981)

by Jason Dyer at August 16, 2019 04:41 AM

One of the best aspects of doing a deep dive into early adventure game history is seeing the breaks from current norms. Modern adventure games tend not to have

(a.) randomized maps


(b.) a structure where there is not necessarily an “ultimate ending” and the “goal” is somewhat up to the player.

Aspect (a.) is just rare in general; we saw it in Mines, and we will see it again in 1984 with Chimaera. I can’t think of other adventure games offhand that have complete map randomization. RPGs had the “roguelike” strand of games which made randomization acceptable, but the Adventure genre never picked up a sub-genre which preserved the idea.

(b.) has been lurking in the shadows with most of the 1970s; original Adventure, while having an “endgame”, really goes out of its way to make a full 350-point run hard to get, and we’ve even had games like Mystery Mansion (1978) where deciding on a “goal” is difficult and the player can choose to escape the mansion while far short of the maximum 999 points. This sort of idea pops up again once in a while — see Ryan Veeder’s Captain Verdeterre’s Plunder from 2013 or Hanon Ondricek’s Transparent from 2014 — but again, it never latched onto any kind of Adventure sub-genre so mostly died as a concept.

Lugi was written at Stanford using their Low Overhead Timesharing System (LOTS) on a DECsystem-2060 by Jay Wilson and Paul Kienitz. The latter mentions Lugi on his webpage and has a partial Java port, but I’m playing the original Pascal version compiled by Peter De Wachter for Windows. (He reports GNU Pascal compiles it “almost out of the box”, if you are on a different platform.)

Text banner from the game’s source code.

You are a CIA agent charged with exploring the Lugonian embassy. Odd things have occured there, including the possibility that the Lugimen (who are from Arcturus IV and resemble trolls) have eaten several people, including (we believe) some of the agents we’ve sent into the building. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to go in, explore as much of the building as you can, and escape alive, bringing any alien-looking objects you find out with you. The only known opening is a balcony high above the street.

The last agent to get out swears that the Lugimen use teleportation like we use telephones. He was constantly vanishing in one place and appearing in another, as were many of the objects he found. Also, the Lugimen rearrange the floor plan of the building unbelieveably often, though the number of rooms in the building remains constant at 35.

The last line indicates the main gimmick: the map is connected entirely at random. I don’t know yet if the set of 35 rooms is always drawn from the same 35 or if it is drawn from a larger set (so a room may appear in one game but not another).

Here is the start of one game:

You’re in a sunny alcove under a bright skylight.
Open exits: N S

There’s a half-eaten sandwich here.
There is a gleep in this place.

Here is the start of another:

You’re in a round, bare room with a flat black metal floor. A brilliant
point of light, brighter than the sun, dazzles your eyes from high above,
illuminating the empty area.
Open exits: S W J C

There is a gleep in this place.

(The “gleep” seems to be some kind of money — I think it may just be points? “J” and “C” stand for “jump” and “climb”.)

The map is so random that a particular exit in a particular room may lead to a different destination on a second trip. There are also objects scattered (again, at random) like a “stick of gum”, “can of acetone”, and a “flask”. It seems like I’m going to have to track this more like a strategy game than an adventure, where I’m looking for a particular set of items and rooms rather than navigating with a set route.

There’s a small, unhealthy-looking Lugiman here, a real runt, holding a cudgel! He screams at you in Lugonian: something about “filthy Earth vermin” and “stinking Earth germs …us allergic people can’t take it any more!” He raises his cudgel, holding his nose, and prepares to bash your skull in…

I’m still trying to feel out if there’s anything resembling an “ultimate objective”; the intro states to just explore as much as possible and bring alien-looking objects. However, there is one scene that suggests to me there might be a way to “defeat” the Lugimen. There is a control room I’ve found several times, and pushing a button always brings the player to a “cylindrical metal cage” on “Arcturus IV, the home planet of the Lugimen” with “none other than Grugza Emperor Ra-Lugi himself, the absolute ruler of the planet”. In all three times I visted there was a “doglike ugly alien beast” and a “small statuette” that was perhaps “religious in nature”. No other room has had this kind of item consistency. Is this just a trap, or is there some way to defeat and/or make peace with the emperor?

Emily Short

Mid-August Link Assortment

by Mort Short at August 16, 2019 04:41 AM


The IEEE Conference on Games (CoG) will be August 20-23 in London. I am keynoting.

The Foundations of Digital Games Conference (FDG) is happening August 26-30 in San Luis Obispo.

September 1 there is a Character Engine workshop run through the London IF Meetup.

The 20th annual European GAME-ON® Conference on Simulation and AI in Computer Games is September 18-20 in Breda, The Netherlands.

IntroComp games are now available for play, and you can vote on your favorites through August 31.


If you use IF in education, or teach about IF, you might want to connect with IFTF’s Education Committee, which is currently building resources and communication networks.

Articles and Podcasts

The Short Game podcast covered Counterfeit Monkey (and liked it, yay!). They’re interested in hearing suggestions for more IF to try and play, so worth letting them know about if you’re interested.

Sam Kabo Ashwell reviews a new boardgame based on the classic Choose Your Own Adventure series.


There is also a Kickstarter for a new version of the classic tabletop storygame Fiasco, this time working with a card deck.

August 15, 2019

Choice of Games

Google Warns Developers that All New Android Apps Require Three Days for Approval

by Dan Fabulich at August 15, 2019 07:48 PM

In conversation with Google Play Store developer support today, they confirmed to me that all new Android apps now require at least three days for approval.

When releasing today’s newest game, Psy High 2: High Summer, our app was greeted with a warning banner, saying, “To help better protect our users, we’ll take more time to thoroughly review your app. Learn More

In a chat with Google support, they confirmed:

    • All new apps are getting the “we’ll take more time” banner. “We’re taking more time to thoroughly review every app.” Plan for at least three days between submitting your app and going live. We’re professional developers, and we can definitely plan a few days in advance, but that then raises another, bigger problem.
    • There is now no way to schedule the release of a new app. When you submit an app for review, it will automatically go live whenever it’s approved, even if the app is approved days before the planned release date. Google offers a “timed publishing” feature, but it only works for app updates. (We discussed using the “closed alpha” process, which also undergoes Google review, but closed alphas go through a separate review process; you still have to plan for three days buffer when promoting a release from closed alpha to production.)
    • Google offers no way to expedite review. “Unfortunately, there is no escalation path, and there is nothing that can be done to expedite the review process. I completely understand your frustration, and I would love to be able to help you get your app approved immediately, but there is nothing I or my team can do.”
    • Developers were not notified of this change ahead of time.

Google’s Warning Appears Too Late, After Submission

The “we’ll take more time” banner appears only after you submit your app to go live in production. There’s no way to know that you have to submit three days in advance until it’s already too late.

Google’s failure to communicate this change is extremely disappointing. Back in April, Google announced on their Android Developer Blog that they were planning to take more time to review certain apps.

Separately, we will soon be taking more time (days, not weeks) to review apps by developers that don’t yet have a track record with us. This will allow us to do more thorough checks before approving apps to go live in the store and will help us make even fewer inaccurate decisions on developer accounts.

We’ve been a developer on the Google Play Store since 2010, so we didn’t think this would impact us. We were wrong.

If you click “Learn More” on the banner, Google doesn’t provide much additional detail; it’s the all-purpose documentation for publishing apps in general. But it does include this note near the top:

Note: For certain developer accounts, we’ll take more time to thoroughly review your app(s) to help better protect users. You’ll receive a notification on your app’s Dashboard about how long this should take. We recommend that you adjust your planning to include a buffer period of at least three days between submitting your app and going live.

“Certain developer accounts?” That didn’t sound like us. We have dozens of games published on the Google Play Store; we’re a developer in good standing.

It turns out that instead of just “developers that don’t yet have a track record,” all new apps are undergoing additional review. App updates may go through quickly if the app itself has earned Google’s trust, but each new app starts with an empty track record.

Luckily, we did submit Psy High 2: High Summer in time to get it approved today. Next time, we’ll have to submit to Google a few days in advance and “soft launch” our app, not announcing the release until the official release day.

Here’s the transcript with Google Play Store developer support.

Dan Fabulich: Our app release for Psy High 2 com.choiceofgames.psyhigh2 seems to be held up in extra delay. We’ve scheduled marketing for today’s release. Please help!

Liz: Thank you for waiting.

I apologize for the delay. Please note that we’re currently still reviewing your app. Due to recent changes, we’re taking more time to thoroughly review every app to help better protect users.

I see your app was updated yesterday, and moving forward, we recommend that you adjust your planning to include a buffer period of at least three days between submitting your app and going live. You can learn more about these changes here:

We do take developer feedback very seriously and I will be happy to pass any you may have regarding this process to the appropriate team for you. Please note you can also learn about new features in our blog here:

Dan Fabulich: Will this delay apply to app updates as well?

Liz: The delay should be less than 3 days, but recommend still planning for 3 days for the review process to complete

Dan Fabulich: Is it possible to request expedited review for Psy High 2?

Liz: Unfortunately, there is no way to expedite the review process

Dan Fabulich: When did this change roll out? Were developers notified that we needed to add a three day buffer?

Liz: I am not sure exactly when the changed rolled out except that it happened a few weeks ago. I do not believe developers were notified, but the Play Console has been updated to reflect this information. I apologize for the inconvenience and the lack of clear communication

Dan Fabulich: Where has the Play Console been updated? The only information I see about this is in the documentation site and a banner on the app we’re trying to release. I just checked a few of our other apps and there’s no sign that we need to add a buffer.

Liz: Yes, there is a banner on the Play Console that states “To help better protect our users, we’ll take more time to thoroughly review your app. Learn more.” Also, if you hover on the question mark next to Processing update, it states “We’re currently reviewing your app. This usually takes a few hours, but can occasionally take more. Learn more”

Dan Fabulich: That banner only appears (only appeared) after submitting the app for review.

Dan Fabulich: There was no way to know that we needed to add a buffer until it was already too late.

Liz: I apologize again for the inconvenience. I will be sure to let our engineering team know that there needs to be more notification given beforehand

Liz: Do you have any other questions for me today?

Dan Fabulich: Liz, I’m sorry to do this, but are you able to escalate me to the next tier of support? It was impossible for us to add buffer without being notified, and we need someone to take action to get our app approved in a timely manner.

Liz: Unfortunately, there is no escalation path, and there is nothing that can be done to expedite the review process. I completely understand your frustration, and I would love to be able to help you get your app approved immediately, but there is nothing I or my team can do

Dan Fabulich: Can you clarify for me how to submit apps without making them go live immediately upon approval? I see that it’s possible to use timed publishing for app updates, but that doesn’t seem to be possible for new apps.

Liz: You could submit your app to a closed Alpha track first, and once everything looks good to go, you could promote it to the Production track

Dan Fabulich: Do closed Alpha tracks undergo submission review? (I’m pretty sure they don’t/didn’t last time I used alpha tracks.)

Liz: Yes, closed Alpha tracks undergo a submission review. We again recommend having a three day buffer. There is also a review once promoting to the Production track

Dan Fabulich: Will we need a three-day buffer when promoting to the production track?

Liz: It should be slightly quicker, but again we recommend three days just to be safe

Dan Fabulich: Well, that’s my question: we want to undergo production-track review before going live, without automatically going live after review, so we can control the date of our release. How can we do that?

Liz: Unfortunately, there is no functionality available for that. As you mentioned previously, we do have the timed publishing feature, but that only applies to updates. I will be sure to also let our engineering team know that developers would like this type of feature

Liz: Do you have any other questions for me today?

Dan Fabulich: Do you have any recommendations for how to submit new apps and release them on a particular calendar day?

Liz: Unfortunately, I do not have any recommendations on how to submit new apps and release them on a specific calendar date.

Dan Fabulich: When you communicate with the engineering team, please mention that we used to be able to release apps on a day of our choosing, but now, due to these changes, that’s impossible.

Liz: Yes, I will definitely be sure to let them know. I am very sorry again for the inconvenience, and thank you very for the feedback

Liz: Is there anything else I can help you with today?

Dan Fabulich: That’s all, thank you.

Liz: You’re very welcome!

Liz: Thanks for supporting Google Play. Have a nice day!

Psy High 2: High Summer — What if summer could last forever?

by Rachel E. Towers at August 15, 2019 05:43 PM

We’re proud to announce that Psy High 2: High Summer, the latest in our popular “Choice of Games” line of multiple-choice interactive-fiction games, is now available for Steam, Android, and on iOS in the Choice of Games Omnibus app. It’s 35% off until August 22nd!

What if summer could last forever? With your psychic powers and a little time magic, it can!

Psy High 2: High Summer is a 270,000 interactive teen supernatural mystery novel by Rebecca Slitt, and the sequel to her 2014 smash hit, Psy High. It’s entirely text-based, without graphics or sound effects, and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination.

One year after saving Kingsport High at the junior prom, you’ve graduated, and you’re working as a counselor at a sleepaway camp before heading off to college. Your power to read minds certainly comes in handy when you’re in charge of a cabin full of nine- and ten-year-olds! You’re responsible for taking care of them and teaching them everything you know. But you’re also enjoying a summer of freedom: you’re away from your parents and on your own.

Camp Cedarcrest has its share of mysteries. Why do the people in the camp’s photos look like they never age? Why is the groundskeeper always lurking on the edges of the camp? Why can’t your friends remember what happened last summer? And what about the ghost stories? Generations of campers tell stories about seeing “the White Lady” floating through the woods.

All your friends from Kingsport High (and their powers) are just a text away: you can always look to your best friend for support, ask the editor of the school newspaper to help with research, or sneak a date with your hometown sweetheart.

But in order to make it through the summer, you’ll have to find the truth about Camp Cedarcrest. And when you discover a powerful source of time magic, you also learn that it comes with a high price. How far are you willing to go to preserve or destroy it?

• Play as male, female, or nonbinary; gay, straight, or bi.
• Find summer love with your co-counselor or a mysterious stranger; or deepen your relationship with your high school sweetheart.
• Sing songs around the campfire, eat s’mores, make friendships that will last forever.
• Learn magic from a powerful mentor, and teach magic to a new generation.
• Earn your campers’ love – or just ignore them and have your own fun.
• Win Colorwars!
• Save Camp Cedarcrest – or shut it down for good
• Explore a secretive society and its powerful magic.
• Be a good influence on your campers, or teach them to be troublemakers, just like you.

We hope you enjoy playing Psy High 2: High Summer. 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.

sub-Q Magazine

Dialogue and Player Choice

by Bruno Dias at August 15, 2019 02:46 AM

There’s a lot to say about writing compelling dialogue in an interactive format, but for this month’s column I want to drill down to the question of player intentionality as it relates to dialogue.

Intentionality, of course, is the player’s ability to not only have goals within the fiction of the game, but to knowingly take actions that meaningfully advance their those. It can be a slippery idea when it comes to dialogue. A lot of dialogue in interactive media, particularly when stories are not themselves dialogue-driven, is very expository. Traditional RPG “dialogue trees” play out as a simple question-and-answer session. This isn’t deep enough to hang an entire game on, even if it is a common and useful pattern in games that are not primarily focused on dialogue.

When writing dialogue scenes for static fiction, we’re usually driven by the idea of character goals and subtext: What are those characters superficially talking about; what do those characters want; how do their wants and their relationship emerge in this conversation even when they’re not being explicitly discussed. Adult drama, realist fiction, and some YA fiction runs on this idea of subtext; characters are always talking about quotidian things as a way of evincing deeper or more complex feelings that are usually not discussed explicitly.

Making this work in an interactive format is challenging. For one thing, the way we present dialogue as choices tends to flatten. Choice text has to be concise and easy to apprehend, whereas rich dialogue often relies on a character talking superficially about one thing when they mean another. Here’s the problem: “These eggs are overcooked, Martha” is a perfectly adequate line of dialogue in a play about a marriage falling apart. As choice text, however, it’s overlong and not expressive of what the character actually wants to convey by talking about the overcooked eggs. Dialogue is often best when it asks the reader to make an interpretive leap in understanding what a character is really talking about, but that interpretive leap can become a stumbling block when a player has to do it for every dialogue choice they’re presented with.

This kind of dialogue choice also does a poor job of expressing character intent beyond the immediate moment of the choice. Even if it signals to the player what the subtext of a given line is, it doesn’t necessarily get across what the direction of the conversation is. What does your player character want to get out of a conversation? Are your conversation choices about what the player character wants, or about how they go about getting it? How does the player direct the conversation to express that intent?

A common solution to all those problems is to use more explicit choice prompts or some kind of abstraction to help the player make choices. This is very common in dialogue-driven games that feature some kind of systemic mechanic in their dialogue. Of course, this means that if your choice prompts within dialogue are abstracted in some way, it can suggest to players that your game has some kind of underlying dialogue system, which might not be true at all. Turning dialogue into an abstracted game mechanic will not suit every game or every story.

Even when using a traditional branching-dialogue design, there are things that can be done to make conversation a more engaging part of interaction. Going in with an understanding of what conversations in your story are about and how the player exerts agency over them can guide many small but significant decisions, such as where to put dialogue branching points and where to allow the conversation to flow without player input.

Traditional branching dialogue can be satisfying, both narratively and interactively, but that requires real attention to how your material is written and what it’s trying to accomplish. Of course, systemic or abstract approaches have their own pitfalls and are not going to fit with every project.

As a very general rule of thumb, the more consistent the conversations in your story are, the more suited your game may be to a systemic dialog mechanic. If they’re all interrogations, or negotiations, or flirting, that makes it easier to build out a dialogue model than a game where a character engages in all kinds of conversations. Branching dialogue is a generalist tool that can be used successfully for a myriad of scenes. Its familiarity and versatility keeps that structure in widespread use.

Even if we can’t find the One True Prescriptive Way of writing dialogue in interactive media, we can ask ourselves these questions to inform our projects, and avoid “auto piloting” through the process of writing dialogue-driven material.

Bruno Dias is a writer and narrative designer based in São Paulo. His work has appeared in video game publications (Waypoint, PC Gamer), games (Where the Water Tastes Like Wine) and interactive fiction on Sub-Q and elsewhere.

The post Dialogue and Player Choice appeared first on sub-Q Magazine.

Actions, Verbs, and Processes: Games and Being Human

by Sharang Biswas at August 15, 2019 02:46 AM

Piled in a corner, at the nexus of walls and floor, are hundreds of multicolored pieces of candy. The cellophane wrappers glint in the light. Your docent invites you to take one. To eat part of this sculpture, to slowly diminish its weight until, dozens and dozens of visitors later, there’s little left of the original pile. As you consume the candy, as you squeeze it between your tongue and your palate, suck on it using the fleshy walls of your inner cheek, and crush down with sharp teeth, the docent tells you about the artwork. Created by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, it is known as “Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.)” [1]. Ross, the artist’s lover, died of AIDS-related complications. The disease slowly consumed his body. It squeezed the fat from his torso, sucked his immune system away, and crushed his white blood cells. It did what you are doing to him right now.

Some people spit out the candy.

In the evening, museum technicians refill the pile to an exact 175 lbs., Ross’s ideal body weight. Perhaps this rejuvenative act grants Ross perpetual life. Or perhaps it chains him to corner like Prometheus, whose liver was devoured every morning by an eagle only to regrow overnight for another day’s gruesome snack.

Eat. Regenerate. Eat. Regenerate. The cycle of actions is Art.

* * *
In his influential book Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames, Ian Bogost talks about videogames as a “subcategory of procedural expression” [2]. By “procedure,” Bogost clarifies, he refers not to the term’s common meanings—with its computational or bureaucratic connotations—but the more general idea of “process”. The book is largely about how videogames (and I would say all games, by extension) can convey meaning through process. Bogost would argue that that the processes players carry out, the actions that they take part in, the verbs they engage with: these comprise the hallmark of a game. Their presence is what differentiates games from other forms of media. Within a verb, within the act of doing something, lies tremendous communicative and artistic potential.

At the inaugural Narrascope conference at MIT earlier this year, Aaron Zemach delivered a primer on drama theory. Synthesizing an array of thinkers, from Aristotle to David Ball, Zemach discussed the primacy of the “action” in a play and how a play is a series of actions, verbs, or processes that convey meaning to an audience. A playwright never writes moral quandaries, internal thoughts, or dramatic conflict, Zemach argued. They can only craft a sequence of actions that produce these metaphysical phenomena in the minds of the audience. He then extended his thoughts to games: “It’s easy to figure out a moral argument by looking at which actions were rewarded and which actions punished.” [3]

Even if Zemach hadn’t been explicitly drawing parallels between theatre and games, the connection between his and Bogost’s thoughts on the semiotic function of action and process is particularly glaring. Be it through the meatspace actions taken by players in LARPs, actions in the psychic space of tabletop roleplaying games, or those encased in the silicone back-end of interactive fiction, the verbs we partake in during our gaming activities become powerful vectors of emotion and meaning. This may partly explain why the “illusion of choice” (or “dream of possibility’ [4]) model for interactive stories work so well. Noting the correlation between an action and its consequence appears to be less important than simply taking the action itself.

* * *
Artists, game designers, and writers of interactive fiction thus have a rich palette with which to express their ideas. Some have taken more unconventional routes.

Zoe Quinn’s interactive story Depression Quest is famous for providing readers with choices that are crossed out and inaccessible. The choices are dangled tantalizingly in front of players but are forever out of reach. Are they even real choices? By deliberately showing players what they cannot do, Quinn attempts to convey how depression can render one powerless to perform even basic functions [5].

In the award-winning tabletop RPG Bluebeard’s Bride, designers Sarah Richardson, Whitney “Strix” Beltrán, and Marissa Kelly pointedly strip the player character, a bride wandering through the folklore-villain Bluebeard’s house, of agency and ability. No matter how plucky or bold players decide their bride is going to be, their actions continue to prove futile. Their rules even prompt the game master to actively comment on the players’ lack of strength, ability and choice, in order to reinforce themes of feminine horror and female powerlessness [6].

Kathryn Hymes and Hakan Seyalioglu’s widely lauded LARP Sign forces players to convey complex emotional truths via pantomime and a crude, improvised sign language—no talking or writing allowed. If you grow frustrated about your signs not being understood, you have to mark yourself in ink, a bodily reminder of your inabilities. The game conveys the frustrations that come with simply trying to be understood by others, while also giving players some idea of the challenges facing deaf children in Nicaragua in the 70s. [7]

The choices in Laura Michet’s interactive story Swan Hill focus more on the setting and emotions than on your actions. You do make decisions about what to do, but many of the interactive, clickable elements are about changing the scenery or your interpretation of the scenery. Michet weaves a tale of nostalgia, guilt, and regret by making you choose how to look at your present surroundings and their relationship to your past.[8]

* * *
Humans are obsessed with doing. We recognize and identify with this trait so much that it has become almost a cliché in fiction: that of all the sentient species in a fantasy world, humans are the most industrious. “Perhaps it is because of their shorter lives,” reads the 5th edition of the Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook, “that they strive to achieve as much as they can in the years they are given.” [9]

Consume. Build. Consume. Build. The cycle of actions is humanity.

Maybe it’s for the best that games overload action with meaning. Maybe games can help us pause in our voracious appetite for doing, pause and think about the candy we’re eating, even if it means spitting it out.

Works Cited

[1] F. Gonzalez-Torres, Artist, Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.). [Art]. The Art Institute of Chicago, 1991.

[2] I. Bogost, Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010.

[3] A. Zemach, All the World’s a Screen: How Improv and Playwriting Can Inform Digital Narrative, Cambridge, MA: Narrascope Conference, 2019.

[4] S. Biswas, “Rituals, Cheating, and The Dream of Possibility,” Sub-Q, February 2019. Available:

[5] Z. Quinn, “Depression Quest,” 14 February 2013. [Online]. Available:

[6] W. Beltrán, M. Kelly and S. Richardson, Bluebeard’s Bride, Magpie Games, 2017.

[7] K. Hymes and H. Seyalioglu, Sign: A Game About Being Understood, Thorny Games, 2012.

[8]L. Michet, “Swan Hill,” 2012. [Online]. Available:

[9] J. Wyatt, R. J. Schwalb and B. R. Cordell, Player’s Handbook, Seattle: Wizards of the Coast, 2014.

Sharang Biswas

Sharang Biswas is an award-winning game designer, an internationally exhibited artist, and a published writer based in New York. He has exhibited work at numerous museums, galleries, and art fairs including the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, Pioneer Works in Brooklyn, and the Toronto Reference Library. He has designed curricula for the Museum of the Moving Image, created learning games for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and written about games, interactivity, and culture for publications including Kill Screen, Sub Q, ZAM and First-Person Scholar. His two food-based games, “Feast” and “Verdure”, have garnered numerous accolades, including an IndieCade Award and and IGDN Indie Groundbreaker Award. Sharang has lectured or taught courses on game design at various universities and cultural institutions including Dartmouth, Columbia Teacher’s College, New York University, The International Center of Photography, and the Museum of the Moving Image, as well as spoken at conferences such as Game Devs of Color, GaymerX, Living Games, IndieCade and Boston FIG Talks.

Sharang holds a bachelor’s in Biotechnology and Biochemical Engineering from Dartmouth College and a master’s in Interactive Design from Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. He is the Experience Designer for The Medici Group, a consulting firm focusing on diversity and innovation.

You can find him on Twitter @SharangBiswas, his website , or on his Itch IO page

The post Actions, Verbs, and Processes: Games and Being Human appeared first on sub-Q Magazine.

August 14, 2019

Renga in Blue

Escape From Mars (1980)

by Jason Dyer at August 14, 2019 06:41 PM

I played Death Ship recently and experienced one of the worst parsers I’ve ever seen, so it may seem strange I’m coming so soon back to the same source (Rodger Olsen, Aardvark Software) but I wanted to see if there was any improvement since last time, and while I easily remember plot and puzzle details from games I played many years ago, exact parser responses fade fast (so I had to get back to this sooner rather than later).

From a 1984 Aardvark software catalog.

At least >LOOK lets you look at the room now. Alas, I still have to reckon with a parser that only understands the first two letters of each word and actions that do something but have no response (I’ve trained myself to *always* LOOK after every action that doesn’t get an outright “HUH??” but it still leads to a disconcerting play experience.)

From the game’s manual. The same paper gives an exact date and time of April 20th, 1980 at 4:30 AM.

I didn’t have as much frustration as I did with Death Ship, but my smoother experience came more from knowing about the Aardvark system’s quirks rather than actual improvement. For example, here are the game’s verbs:

REad, BReak, OPen, LIght, HIt, UNload, LOok, PLay, INventory, PUsh, SMash, TAke, GEt, TIe.

I found “UN” while testing a list of common verbs including UNlock, I didn’t figure out what it actually meant until later. Specifically, I found out the main charcter has pockets (pockets!) and you can OPEN POCKET and LOOK POCKET to find a lighter and a harmonica; for the life of me I couldn’t figure out how to get the items out (just GET HARMONICA or EMPTY POCKET didn’t work). I eventually resorted to testing each of my two-letter verbs, already having assumed UN meant UNLOCK, but after typing UN I found the pocket items had been moved to my inventory. When things are this meta the parser itself can be a puzzle.

Escape From Mars, as the title implies, strands you on Mars with a crashed spaceship.

You need to replace an “injector” as well as make some fuel. To make fuel, you need


This style of the minimalist game relies a bit on outside imagery — i.e. you know what a dragon ought to look like, so THERE IS A DRAGON HERE conveys something without further details — but I admit I was a little fuzzy as to what conception of Mars this was.

Most of the map, excluding connections off the “Deserted Room”; I’ll talk about that in a moment.

Immediately upon setting foot outside the spaceship I stepped on a “barren plain” to find a “sandsled”, a “statue of flute player” and “airrocks”. What are airrocks? Is the flute player supposed to look human-ish or like a crazy tentacle monster? At least I guessed correctly the sandsled was a large vehicle rather than a small toy. (If you GO SANDSLED you find a jeweled club which is useful for breaking things.)

Directly north and south of the plain are moats with water — moats to what? Are there buildings? How does one transition directly from a barren plain to a pool of water?

A short distance away is “Xptl’s Shop of Mating Scents”. What does this shop look like? Do I want to know? How do you pronounce “Xptl” anyway?

I wouldn’t say the rooms are mashed together randomly, just it came off as if there was a background setting in mind only known to the author. To make an analogy, imagine coming across a scene with a minimally-described dragon without knowing what a dragon is.

This had real gameplay implications: there is a rustling sound you occasionally hear, and with a little effort you can get a martian to come into the room.








Again, I had no idea what to visualize, because there are enormous variations on what “Martian” can mean. I ended up settling on Marvin the Martian from Looney Tunes.

The actual NASA Mars Spirit Rover mission patch.

This was partly to make me feel better about what came next: the appropriate action is to GET MARTIAN (and then specify you want to use a NET). Actually arriving at the idea that getting the Martian in a “net” was even feasible required visualizing the scene at least somewhat like the author; at first I imagined something the alien as being little less, ah, portable.

Once “netified” you can then take the Martian’s helmet which is useful for … carrying water. Yep.

This ended up being a “hub” game design where the goal was simply to gather the ingredients. After collecting the WATER, POT, TUBING, and GRAIN, the right action was LIGHT FIRE, and no, I did not come up with that on my own; the action requires referring to a noun which does not yet exist, which is a high-risk endeavor even for games with a decent parser.

There’s one more major bit of interest: from the “Deserted Room” on the east side of the map above, there are two hidden exits: you can either TAKE RUG revealing a trapdoor, or BREAK MIRROR revealing a passage up with a rope. You can then either use the rope on an empty well to climb down or use the trapdoor (you need sneakers for the latter to avoid sliding and falling). Either action leads you to the same place, an area where you can get a replacement injector and the tubing for making fuel. While we’ve seen a fair number of alternate routes in games (prominently Zork) those instances had sprawling maps; this is a tight (8K) sized one where the author nevertheless put enough thought into the geography to have the same area reachable in two ways.

August 13, 2019

Emily Short

Mailbag: Recommendation requests

by Emily Short at August 13, 2019 03:41 PM

I’ve glued together two rather different requests for recommendations here, one about queer representation in IF and the other about classic parser-style work from recent years.

I’m okay with doing this occasionally, but for what it’s worth, IFDB is better than you might think at letting you answer this kind of question for yourself. You can set up polls or search people’s pre-existing curated lists, or use IFDB’s tagging system. I’ve recommended a few related search approaches here as well.

Do you have personally favorite narrative-gaming works among those in which the player character is identifiably queer? (Either incidentally or as part of The Point of the work.)  I imagine you get secondary-research type questions like this with some frequency, but if you have any brief thoughts I would be grateful for thoughts for things in that (very broad) category to especially check out.

These are differently fit for different contexts, but my personal favorite interactive stories of queer protagonists would probably be these:

Birdland by Brendan Patrick Hennessy. Charming lesbian goes to summer camp story. Several of BPH’s games are about queer teenagers (see also Known Unknowns, which gets slightly more seriously into how-this-relationship-can-go-wrong territory, with characters who aren’t out yet or haven’t yet figured out their own sexuality).

With Those We Love Alive, Porpentine. Kind of the other end of the spectrum as far as accessibility. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this one for kids, and it might need unpacking of its trans themes even for some adult audiences. A lot of Porpentine’s other works would qualify here.

SPY INTRIGUE by furkle. This is definitely not for kids either.

But in picking my favorites here, I have a very large set of works to choose from, since queer-protagonist interactive fiction is pretty abundant.

Several pieces explicitly look at some aspect of queer experience as the main point of the story. Among the ones I’ve found most striking are Coming Out Story by Nicky Case; Bloom and Cis Gaze by Caelyn Sandel; and Tentacles Growing Everywhere by Dietrich Squinkifer. I’m also interested in, but haven’t yet had time to play, A Bathroom Myth by Anya Johanna DeNiro.

There are also several brands and serieses that explicitly permit the player to self-define a character’s gender expression or sexual attraction. Here I’d include Fallen London and all the games in its universe including Sunless Sea and Sunless Skies, as well as the Choice of Games brand. Fallen London and many of the CoG games allow non-binary gender protagonists as well as same-gender relationships, and in some cases allow the protagonist to negotiate poly relationships. The Failbetter blog includes a discussion by Hannah Flynn of how they approached gender in their work.

There are other games in which the protagonist is of fixed gender but can opt into relationships with other characters of various genders in the course of play, without explicitly making that part of protagonist identity. 80 Days includes at least one same-sex romance encounter I know of, and there may be more I didn’t see.

An IFDB search for the tag “queer” will turn up further options. Meanwhile, Queerly Represent Me offers some resources on this general topic and on sensitivity reads.

I’m a fan of old-style text adventures. Is anything like those still being produced?

Yes indeed. It’s not entirely clear what time frame we should consider for “still” here, but I’ll arbitrarily band to the past five or six years, with a couple suggestions that go further back if they might have gone overlooked at the time. And as for “old-style,” I’m pairing with some Infocom games but also some canonical early hobbyist IF.

The Enchanter series in general: for comedy-fantasy, try Oppositely Opal (Buster Hudson, 2015) or Illuminismo Iniziato (Michael J. Coyne, 2018). A little further afield from Enchanter but still in the general vein of light-hearted puzzle game with fantasy approach to reality, consider Thaumistry (Bob Bates, 2017). The Wizard Sniffer (Buster Hudson, 2017) is also highly acclaimed, though I personally haven’t played it.

Zork III and Spellbreaker for their challenging set-piece puzzles: Try Scroll Thief (Daniel Stelzer, 2015). It allows you to get the world model into surprising states, and the solutions often left me with a pleasing sense of having really gotten away with something. And if you really want parser puzzles with a minimum of fiction, try Junior Arithmancer (Mike Spivey, 2018) as well as pretty much the entire oeuvre of Arthur DiBianca, who excels at this style.

Deadline: Make It Good is my favorite answer to Deadline, but that itself is now a decade old. More recently, if you were interested in comparing people’s stories and trying to extract a consistent meaning, you might like Color the Truth (mathbrush, 2016).

Infidel: try Arthur DiBianca’s archaeology puzzler Temple of Shorgil (2018). Or, if you want something a bit more Indiana Jones, there’s Tex Bonaventure and the Temple of the Water of Life (Truthcraze, 2013).

Plundered Hearts: If you liked it for its romance theme, I have to reach back a few years to the work of Kathleen Fischer. But if you liked Plundered Hearts for its self-conscious pulpy use genre, its forward-moving plot, and the opportunities to cause wild reactions in the various NPCs you encounter, I recommend the heist game Alias ‘The Magpie’ (J.J. Guest, 2018), or the alien-invasion adventure Brain Guzzlers from Beyond! (Steph Cherrywell, 2015).

Planetfall: I don’t have any recommendations that will give you a Floyd replacement, precisely, but in the “abandoned SF station with puzzles to solve” zone, here’s Richard Otter’s Word of the Day (2017) or Steph Cherrywell’s Chlorophyll (2015).

Hollywood Hijinx: this is one I didn’t get all the way through myself, but Diddlebucker! (J. Michael, 2018) very explicitly casts itself as an Infocom nostalgia piece, and the reviewers appear to have found it a solid puzzle game.

Suspended: Terminal Interface for Models RCM301-303 (Victor Gijsbers, 2018). Well, maybe. I haven’t actually played Suspended. But both of these games involve control of a distant robot that provides your senses.

Nord and Bert Couldn’t Make Head or Tail of It: Andrew Schultz‘s games do wordplay surrealism in pretty much every configuration you can imagine.

Trinity: A Beauty Cold and Austere (Mike Spivey, 2017), a math-themed, historically-informed puzzle-fest. It has a happier meta-arc than Trinity, but the puzzles are generally excellent.

Frenetic Five series: The Owl Consults series consists of two games by different authors, but both involving teams of superheroes whose skills can variously be activated to get through the game.

So Far: Sub Rosa (Joey Jones and Melvin Rangasamy, 2015) presents an excellent selection of puzzles set in an environment that doesn’t physically resemble our own very much at all.

Tapestry: Map (Ade McT, 2015) is my favorite recent-ish parser puzzle game that reflects on key turning points in the protagonist’s life, and what it would mean if they’d gone differently.

Anchorhead: the obvious recommendation here has to be the multi-author tribute game Cragne Manor (everyone under the sun, 2018).

The Act of Misdirection: Three Card Trick (Chandler Groover, 2016).

Bonus suggestions: I didn’t get nearly all the way through Worldsmith (Ade McTavish, 2016), but it’s huge. If you’re looking for something epic and ambitious, maybe that’s worth a try. Also, at 2014, Hunger Daemon falls just outside the category but it’s solid, funny stuff.

If you search for tag:parser published:2015-, you can find IFDB’s list of titles that might also fall into this category.

Finally, I’d also say that there is a whole genre of parser games written in the past five years or so that retain a lot of the parser’s advantages but work on making the experience more accessible to new users. Since they’re not really “old-style”, I haven’t listed them here, but I discuss the phenomenon in this Rock Paper Shotgun column.

August 12, 2019

Choice of Games

Author Interview: Rebecca Slitt, “Psy High 2: High Summer”

by Mary Duffy at August 12, 2019 11:42 PM

What if summer could last forever? With your psychic powers and a little time magic, it can! Psy High 2: High Summer is a 270,000 interactive teen supernatural mystery novel by Rebecca Slitt, and the sequel to her 2014 smash hit, Psy High. One year after saving Kingsport High at the junior prom, you’ve graduated, and you’re working as a counselor at a sleepaway camp before heading off to college. Your power to read minds certainly comes in handy when you’re in charge of a cabin full of nine- and ten-year-olds! You’re responsible for taking care of them and teaching them everything you know. But you’re also enjoying a summer of freedom: you’re away from your parents and on your own.

I sat down with Rebecca to talk about the challenges of sequel writing and the pleasures of writing her second game in the series. Psy High 2: High Summer will be available this Thursday, August 15th.

It’s been five years since you published Psy High and oh my gosh a lot has changed since then. Maybe less has changed inside the world of Psy High. Tell me what our favorite characters have been up to.

First, the light-hearted answer! It’s a year later, and everyone has just graduated from high school. Some of our friends are looking forward to college – Haley is thrilled to be going off to Stanford to study journalism! Some are less happy: Carl/a has a dead-end retail job, and is uncertain about what’s coming next; and Alison/Andrew is getting a lot of family pressure to do something useful. And some are just enjoying the free time: Taylor/Tyler is jetting off to Paris for a very fancy vacation. Kingsport High has a new principal: who that is depends on what happened in Part 1. And also depending on what happened in Part 1, the town of Kingsport itself might be pretty much the same as it was at the beginning, or it might be very different. In case there are any new readers coming in, I won’t spoil it by saying how!

And second, the serious answer: I’ve always tried to keep the world of Psy High slightly disconnected from current events in certain ways. For instance, slang changes by the minute, so whatever words I’d have the characters use would be obsolete by the time the game came out, let alone several years from now! The prom-posal songs in Part 1 were probably the most time-sensitive plot points; they’re all songs that were on the radio in the summer of 2014. People have smartphones and Netflix, and they text a lot, but that’s really the only thing that pegs the action to a specific time or place. I never mention any public figures or political events.

But current events were always in my mind – how could they not be, with the world the way it is now? I started writing this game in spring 2017, so the world changed while I was writing it, too. I remember writing one particular scene just after the midpoint of the game, and thinking “well, this NPC has just gotten a lot angrier about people who stand idly by while injustice is being done.”

I had always intended Part 2 to be more serious and more morally complicated than Part 1: that’s part of growing up, after all, and I wanted to show that broadening awareness of the world and its complexities in the PC’s story. I just couldn’t have anticipated how much these discussions of justice, privilege, power, and altruism would matter outside the game, too.

We’ve been working on quite a number of sequels this year: Psy High 2: High Summer, Grand Academy II: Attack of the Sequel, The Superlatives: Shattered Worlds, and Exile of the Gods. Each one has had their unique challenges in creating a game that satisfyingly picks up where a player may have left off. What were your struggles with this, if any?

When I finished Psy High, I had absolutely no plans to write a sequel! So I made wildly different branches in the ending – which was one of the fun things about writing it, and one of the things that readers responded to really positively. But unfortunately, it meant that I wrote some endings that were great ideas at the time, and satisfying in themselves, but would make it impossible to continue to Part 2: if the PC was in jail, for instance, or had given up their powers. So when I started Part 2, I had to make some choices about which endings could continue on and which couldn’t. Fortunately, most of them could.

I also knew early on that in Part 2 I wanted to play with a different YA genre – the summer-camp story rather than the high-school story – so the game was going to take place in a different location. That made some parts of writing easier, because I didn’t have to track every single point of difference forward from Part 1 to Part 2. But I still needed to have some continuity. First, to show continuing players that their choices had made a difference and were still making a difference; and second, because a lot of players really love building up relationships with NPCs and would want to carry those friendships and romances forward.

Which is a very long way of saying that the biggest challenge was trying to anticipate which elements of Part 1 players would find most meaningful, and therefore would most want to see in Part 2. As it turns out, I was right about some and wrong about others. Beta feedback was really valuable here! So I hope I’ve struck a good balance between continuity and forward motion. There are some visits home, and a lot of opportunities to keep going with friends and romances from Part 1; but also a lot of new people and new ideas.

What was different this time around, with five years of editing games other peoples’ games under your belt?

It is so much easier to write a second game than a first game!

Being an editor has definitely made me a better writer. As an editor, I get to see a lot of code, and that lets me learn new techniques that I might not have thought of on my own. It also helps me work much more easily with ChoiceScript, since I’m immersed in it every day.

Conversely, being a writer has also made me a better editor: I have a better perspective on what authors are trying to do with a certain scene or a certain bit of code because I’ve been there myself, and can advise them more effectively on how to get there. And I can help authors understand what they take for granted because they can see all the code, and help them better craft their text so that they can communicate more effectively with the player.

It’s harder to see some aspects of a game when you’re in the middle of them, of course; when I was going back over my game near the end of the writing process, I realized how utterly tangled some of my code had gotten in the middle. I would absolutely have been able to spot that much earlier in a game I was editing, and been able to advise the author how to sort it out than I was able to advise myself!

As a company, we’ve learned, too: having released so many games in the last five years, we’ve learned a lot more about what players like and don’t like; what’s important to them; and what kinds of game design do and don’t work. I hope I’ve put those lessons into practice effectively.

(And on a smaller note, in the responses to Psy High, I learned how many people really loved Taylor/Tyler, and were really sad about that breakup. Never fear, Taylor/Tyler fans: you are still together in Part 2 if you want to be! But the larger lesson to learn from that is that if a player chooses for their PC to start a romance with an NPC, they really really want a lot of agency in directing that relationship.)

Do you have a favorite NPC you like writing and spending time with?

In the spirit of sequels, I’ve got one each from Part 1 and Part 2.

From Part 1,
definitely Carl/a. When I started writing Part 2, getting to Carl/a’s first scene felt like putting on a favorite comfy old sweater. I instantly slipped back into the rhythm of that voice: snarky, funny, brave, rebellious, flirty, with that not-quite-secret heart of gold. I knew instinctively what jokes Carl/a would make, and what s/he would take seriously. It was hard not to let Carl/a’s scenes take over!

From Part 2, Felicity. You’ll meet her about halfway through. She was actually a late addition to the story; a replacement for another character that just wasn’t working. (Another thing about writing your second game: you can have the confidence later in the writing process to just say “no, this character isn’t working, so I’m going to scrap them and put another one in.”) Once I added Felicity, though, she just blossomed. She’s fun to write because she’s so enthusiastic and curious: she loves asking questions and finding out new things about the world around her, so her voice flows very easily. And, on the other end of the emotional spectrum, one of her speeches actually made me tear up while I was writing it.

What’s the power you would most covet for yourself?

Of the ones that appear in the games, telekinesis would be pretty useful. I could fetch things from across the room without getting up, and I’m really short so it would be super-convenient to be able to get things down from high shelves! I actually wouldn’t want telepathy, the power that the PC has. Being able to send thoughts would be cool, but reading minds? I’d feel really intrusive, looking into people’s thoughts without them knowing – and it would probably not be fun to find out what they really thought of me!

The power I’d love the most of all, though, is to be able to teleport. How excellent would it be to be able to instantaneously travel long distances? I’d never have to sit in traffic again; I could visit my friends who live far away; and I could travel to all of the distant places that I’ve been dreaming of visiting.

When can we expect Psy High 3: Higher Education? 

Well, now that we’ve got time magic in the Psy High-verse…how about yesterday?

August 09, 2019


IF Educators Forum

by Judith Pintar at August 09, 2019 06:41 PM

As the summer winds down, the IFTF Education Committee (EdCom) is looking back at the amazing gathering at IFTF’s first Narrascope conference in Boston, and foward to our next steps.

In June at Narrascope, EdCom ran the evening workshops. Brendan Desilets offered a session on approaches to teaching IF; Chris Klimas and Stuart Moulthrop gave an introduction to Twine; and Anasastasia Salter and Judith Pintar covered the basics of Inform 7. On Saturday we did a “Meet the EdCom” Panel where we shared our experiences teaching IF and our thoughts about the wide range of pedagogical reasons why anyone would want to! We’re interested in uses of IF in classroom from primary school to graduate school, and in disciplines across the humanities, social sciences and STEM.

At the end of that panel presentation, we announced the creation of an IF Educator’s Forum on, as a dedicated space for IF educators to gather. Here we can share our experiences, resources, curricula and games, ask questions, and get feedback and support for writing educational IF, teaching IF, or teaching with IF. It is also a launching site for future community-creating and community-building efforts and initiatives.

If you’re an educator who uses or teaches IF in your classrooms, or would like to do, we want to hear from you! Please drop an email to the forum and introduce yourself.

We’ve also made a short survey, so IFTF EdCom can know more about who we are as a community of educators, including wannabes, and to get a collective sense of what we all teach, what resources we have to share, and what we need.

Please share this blog with your IF colleagues and in your educational networks! Our goal for this fall is to get started building an exciting, fun, and generative IF educator’s community network.

Renga in Blue

Mad Scientist (1980)

by Jason Dyer at August 09, 2019 02:41 AM


From Softside Selections #44, 1983.

Mad Scientist was a type-in by Thomas Hamlin III printed in the November 1980 issue of Softside (dated April 26, giving an idea how much lag between writing and publication there could be). It was later reprinted in 1983 and just to share what kind of pain these sort of things were, here is the source code from the 1983 edition:

By 1983, Softside printed their adventures with an encryption algorithm so that people couldn’t spoil the events of a game for themselves by typing it in. While this might be faintly positive, it meant typing pages of gibberish.


This game falls in my theoretical puzzle-sparse-exploration-heavy genre (see: Death Dreadnaught, Haunted Mansion) where the vast majority of the game is exploration. The only “puzzles” here really are finding secret doors by applying MOVE to things.


I feel like the plot must be eliding something: why do we know there is a beautiful daughter to be rescued? Does she know we’re coming to rescue her? How creepy is the whole situation given the “beautiful” moniker? I choose to believe the genre is “PG-rated 1980s teen horror-comedy” and the totally bogus dad pulled our best friend from school and we knew she was in danger, and the PG rating keeps it from getting too creepy. (This also fits the tone of the game, so I’m not reaching too much.)

Anyhow, as the all-caps intro implies, there’s “obvious directions” given on the screen, in compass rose fashion. Here’s the 1980 TRS-80 version:

Here’s the later Apple II port:

I ended up playing the Apple II version because it runs faster (the TRS-80 version even includes intentional delays on top of being sluggish) although I did test out the TRS-80 enough to note this nifty skeleton graphic that the Apple version lacks:


By having the compass rose built into the interface, the author was free to have room descriptions that don’t bother to describe exits. This can result in elegant prose, as in this room description from Beyond Zork:

Home of the most famous of all Enchanters’ Guilds, Accardi is usually crowded with autograph seekers and hopeful young apprentices. But the crooked streets are oddly quiet today.

The effect with Mad Scientist … is a little less elegant, and sometimes the author describes events rather than places, so the map is a confusing mishmash.

Even given the weird inconsentency of room descriptions that don’t describe the room, I find something refreshing in the minimalism here that I don’t get from the standard Scott Adams minimalism. (That is, this is a sentence someone would voluntarily write, as opposed to being forced to have due to a lack of space.)

You embark on your journey through a gate which slams behind you; an electric fence activates. (This is already a little confusing, since the security system seems intended to keep people out, but it let you in; again, I’ll assume some part of the story is elided, with wacky horror-comedy shenanigans.)

After a little farther in, you run into a door, more or less literally, because the door isn’t mentioned in the room description. The game just says you’re at the entrance, and the compass rose has no exit to the south, so you have to try to go south anyway and get the response THE DOOR IS SHUT.

After opening the door and going in, the door closes shut and locks behind you. This is a relatively elegant way to set-up that the escape (after finding the daughter) is in two layers: first, get back to the area with the driveway and front lawn; second, get past the electrified fence.

After that, the map opens up quite a bit:

Really, most of the game is mapping and the occasional MOVE to an object in view to open some sort of secret. The command list is extremely limited; other than directions, I found just OPEN, TAKE, SHOOT, MOVE, TURN, and CLIMB. These days the limited-command parser is well regarded (see: Midnight. Swordfight. or The Wand) but the problem here is the game pretends to have a parser and objects, but really doesn’t. Mad Scientist should have just announced its limited verb set straightforwardly (like how Eamon lists its verb set if you use an unrecognized verb).

Rooms like this one and the supply room tempt the player into trying to use and/or take stuff, but it’s all scenery.

Early on, I found a ghost; I had one turn to react, but it was apparently the wrong reaction, because the ghost killed me. On a replay I found a LASER GUN and that took care of any ghosts (and skeletons) that randomly popped up as I explored. The game instructions hint there’s some method of handling the monsters that doesn’t involve shooting them, and the laser gun does have a limited number of shots, but I never reached that limit so I never had to reckon with whatever other response the game was looking for.

Next to the room with the laser gun I ran across the mad scientist himself.

He trapped me in a room with a table and surrounded by green burning flames, although didn’t bother to stick around in person. MOVE TABLE revealed a secret passage going down and I was able to escape. (If you go back to the same place you got captured you get captured again, and brought to the same place again; the scientist must be one of those loopy absent-minded ones.)

Nearby where the escape happens, there is a “moon room”, and a helpful sign indicating the daughter is nearby.

If you head north you find the daughter’s bedroom and can >TAKE DAUGHTER with you and try for an escape. Note that this is only open after you’ve done the escape from the lair; I had actually found the moon room early and was futilely poking around looking for secret levers and the like.

Getting out then involved

a.) finding the secret room with a switch that deactivated the electric fence


b.) finding a secret passage under a rug that led me next to the gate (remember the front door locked itself so I needed an alternate route to get back to the fence)

Then, victory!

Oops, wrong screenshot. (This happens if you try to QUIT early.) You’ll have to play the game yourself if you want to see the last screen.

Before closing out, I want to point out the blog Gaming After 40 played this back in 2015. It states that when this was written, the “best practices” for writing adventure games had not yet been established. This is expanded upon with a comment by Roger M. Wilcox, who mentions a “How to Write Adventures” article of Greg Hassett:

… split the input into verb and noun, look up both on a game-wide table of all known verbs and nouns and turn both into a number, then have separate code for handling each verb which you branch to via a large ON-GOTO statement. Rooms and objects were likewise numbered; room descriptions were held in the array P$(), object names were held in the array OB$(), and the room number that each object was in was held in the array OB().

Compare with a line from the 1980 source code of Mad Scientist:

330 IFWH$=”GET LASER”[email protected],”YOU’VE ALREADY GOT IT, STUPID!”;:TIME=15:GOTO610

“GET” and the noun it goes with are not treated separately! No wonder there’s almost no objects in this game. Most actions are bespoke. Consider also the code for “SHOOT” that goes with the laser:

335 IFSH>0ANDLEN(WH$)>5ANDLEFT$(WH$,5)=”SHOOT”[email protected],”ZZZZZZATTT!”

The game checks if the leftmost 5 letters of the player’s input is SHOOT and if the length of the string is long enough for the player to have typed some kind of noun. However, the game never bothers to check what the noun actually is. It’s easy to take for granted the idea parser commands in a text adventure will be checked against some kind of world model, but in this era, it was possible to fake it.

August 08, 2019

These Heterogenous Tasks

House of Danger: CYOA book to tabletop game

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at August 08, 2019 11:42 PM

House of Danger is an adaptation of a Choose Your Own Adventure book into a card-based format, sold in a box in board-game format. Considered purely as game design, this might seem wrong-headed. Turning a choice-based book into a board … Continue reading

Emily Short

Get Your Gun, Dragonfly (Palimrya)

by Emily Short at August 08, 2019 01:41 PM

Get Your Gun, Dragonfly is a medium-short piece about lovers trying to survive outside a society that has become untenably hostile to them. For starters, our protagonists are trans, and any kind of hormonal therapy has been aggressively outlawed. The viewpoint character also has some significant body modifications (such as a powered arm that constantly needs to be topped up on fuel). Her lover is Hispanic, and neither of those things is seen as acceptable, either.

It is not an entirely easy work to start. The language is poetic, the descriptions often metaphorical. At the same time, the setting is just science-fictional enough to contain literal possibilities that could only possibly be metaphors in our world.

So in the early screens it isn’t always obvious whether a reference to chitin means that something merely looks like chitin or whether you’re talking about someone who is actually part insect, or has a bioengineered exoskeleton of some kind, or…

And, in any case, the style of the writing is often lush to the point of overripeness, an effect that is certainly intentional, but that tends to arouse my suspicion as a reader. When writing is so obviously for effect, I often worry that it is going to be only for effect, with less attention to truth and thoughtfulness. In such situations, I tend to read with my empathy in my back pocket, unwilling to commit emotionally yet when I am not sure that commitment has been earned.

But I found that, if I read slowly and didn’t get too impatient to click the next link, it took only a few minutes to get my bearings with this. I could perceive more emotional nuances, and the pace of the work began to come clear. Major narrative passages tend to be more prosaic, but descriptions of important things and people are frequently poems.

At no point does the text become anything you might accuse of restraint, and there are points where the cadence of a line or the choice of a word felt off to me, but this is a matter as much of taste as of substance.

Get Your Gun, Dragonfly takes place in a dystopic, near-future America in which the camps have become even more brutal, the fascism more aggressive and unchecked. For entertainment, middle school students fly Apple- and Google-branded drones around the countryside, hoping to catch footage of a death in progress.

But it’s not all about the more terrifying aspects of the right in America. Several of the most dry and cutting passages are those that describe “your scene” and its reaction to you and your girlfriend, just before they make sure you have nowhere in town to live:

This is not, not at all, a story that excuses abuse, or that argues it shouldn’t receive some kind of communal response. Your girlfriend has had to do a lot of very serious work on herself, work that she has chosen to undertake and that she’s shown struggling through, in the hope of becoming someone better afterward, and some scars of that process are still evident in your interactions when it’s done. Her patience, so different from her past manner, remains a thing to be pointed out and celebrated.

The piece is also, in title and in function, a call to action. There’s a passage on the acknowledgements page about what you can do, now, to help support and protect immigrants.

It may be over-reading what the author intended, but I perceived a parallel between the two stories, the personal story of the abusive girlfriend who becomes a better person and learns to live her beliefs, and the public story, which extends from the fiction into reality, of a country that mistreats the most vulnerable people in its own borders.

The personal story suggests, by analogy, a kind of hope for the latter, though only with hard work and a collective willingness to own responsibility for who we are.

August 07, 2019

Zarf Updates

A quick trip to Riven, and further VR thoughts

by Andrew Plotkin ([email protected]) at August 07, 2019 02:01 AM

Yesterday I said that I was a VR skeptic. I've mentioned this before. But I admit that I don't have an awful lot of VR experience to base my opinion on. I've spent a few minutes playing with a Vive, and I tried out the VR Firmament demo at GDC a couple of years ago.
(I've also spent a couple of minutes playing with a Magic Leap devkit unit. But that's AR, a different category.)
Don't get me wrong: I've enjoyed each of these demos. VR is a good trick. My problem is that it's not that much better than the usual sort of videogame experience. For example, I played Zed a couple of weeks ago. When I think back on that play-through, I don't remember being looking at a flat screen -- I remember being there. That's how I react to first-person videogames. It's how I reacted to Myst and Riven in the 90s, on those terrible 800x600-pixel CRTs. VR certainly gives that sense of being there, but why should I pay hundreds of dollars extra when I can get the same experience from a TV? Plus the ability to drink from my water glass.
However! At Mysterium I had the opportunity to try the latest Starry Expanse demo in VR. I also could have tried Zed and Obduction in VR, but the lines were longer for those, so I just did the one.
This was a very small and unpolished demo. It started in the tram-car station of Survey Island, and then you could walk in to the elevator chamber and summon the elevator. That's it. You couldn't board the tram or ride the elevator.
The game locomotion is still set up for regular controllers: two-stick walk-and-turn navigation. This is widely agreed to be the worst setup for VR motion sickness. Nearly all VR games offer teleportation, tunnel zip, or some other alternative. Starry Expanse is still very much in progress; it hasn't gotten those modes working yet.
As it happens, I didn't feel ill at all -- at least not in my ten-minute session. Moving around was quite comfortable. The most disconcerting effect came after I took the helmet off. Walking away, I felt like I was drifting underwater. The world wasn't wobbling but it was distinctly... shock-absorbed. The sensation passed off after a minute or two.
Apparently my body's reaction to vestibular inconsistency isn't to get sick, but rather to shut my inner ears right down. That's good to know.
So have I changed my opinion about VR? No, but I've refined it some.
The demo pulled me into the world of Riven instantly. That's what felt different from a regular flatscreen game. I'm used to a period of adaptation. I launch the game, I wrangle the preferences, I find the "New Game" button. Then I slide into the first-person experience and the screen fades away. It doesn't take long -- a few minutes at most -- but it does take time. VR is helmet, bang, you're there.
It strikes me that this aspect of VR is more advantageous to quick demos than to long-form games. I mean, if you're in a flashy-noisy PAX expo hall, the instant transition to a fantasy world -- cutting out all the distraction -- is really striking. It gives you something that a flatscreen in the demo booth can't. But at home? In a quiet room where you've already decided to spend your time? That advantage flattens out.
So I wonder if the whole VR craze isn't based on a misapprehension. Maybe the tech companies who demo VR at game shows are drawing false conclusions -- seeing reactions that just don't carry over to home gamers in the living room.
Or maybe I'm just not a typical gamer. Wouldn't be the first time.
Anyway, my original position stands. It's been two days since I walked down that tunnel on Survey Island. I remember being there... just like I was in 1997, when I first played Riven. Of course it was full 3D rather than the old slideshow, but you know what? I don't remember 1997 Riven in slideshow either. The flaws in the experience have annealed in memory. It's a seamless world now, like all the magical worlds I've visited before and since.
I look forward to visiting again. And I'm grateful that the Starry Expanse team is building it for me. (Perhaps under Cyan's imprimatur, if the roadmap holds up.) But I still don't think I need the helmet for it.

August 06, 2019

Renga in Blue

The 1980 Games That Remain

by Jason Dyer at August 06, 2019 04:41 PM

I don’t have that far to go in 1980 (relatively speaking), so I thought I’d give an update on my game list. My original list was compiled from The Interactive Fiction Database, CASA Solution Archive, and Mobygames. I tossed some games off the list for various reasons so I’ll talk about those too.


Just check the All the Adventures list.


Two Programmer’s Guild games:
Dragon-Quest Adventure by Charles Forsythe
TimeQuest by William Demas

The two that remain from Joel Mick’s trilogy:
Treasure Island, Journey Through Time by James Taranto and Joel Mick

Four “private games” that Roger M. Wilcox published many years after 1980, I’ll likely lump them all in one post:
Space Traveller, India Palace, Poseidon Adventure and Vial of Doom by Roger M. Wilcox

The very last of the Greg Hassett games:
Curse of the Sasquatch, Devil’s Palace by Greg Hassett

The last Gary Bedrosian game, written in 1980 but only published in 1982:
G.F.S. Sorceress by Gary Bedrosian

Some random Commodore PET and TRS-80 games:
Will o’ the Wisp by Mark Capella
House of Thirty Gables by Instant Software
Mad Scientist by Thomas M. Hamlin III
Kidnapped by Peter Kirsch

Two very interesting and unusual Apple II games:
Oldorf’s Revenge by Highland Computer Services
The Prisoner by David Mullich

The publisher of Deathship and Trek Adventure had 4 more games from 1980:
Escape From Mars, Nuclear Submarine Adventure, Pyramid, Vampire Castle

Two by the coiner of the phrase “interactive fiction” which use a “conversational” parser:
Six Micro Stories by Robert LaFore
His Majesty’s Ship “Impetuous” by Robert LaFore

A fascinating mainframe game with a lot of randomization, but old Pascal source code is a bear to compile:
Lugi by Jay Wilson and Paul Kienitz

The follow-up to Deathmaze 5000:
Labyrinth by Frank Corr, Jr.

A game I will still get back to, likely at the very end of 1980:
Warp by Rob Lucke and Bill Frolik

I tried this a little and think it may get booted for being not-an-adventure, it feels more like a strategy game, but I haven’t played enough to be official:
Survival by Dr. Charles Kingston

There’s also one game (possibly two games) in a non-English language, but I’ll wait on listing them until I start writing about them.

I can’t know for certain until I start playing them, but I believe the only “long” games I have left are Lugi, Oldorf’s Revenge, G.F.S. Sorceress, Labyrinth, and Warp.


Medieval Adventure by Hugh Lambert
Published by CLOAD in 1981, I see 1980 in multiple places but I don’t know the source. I’m willing to go by year of writing rather than publishing but I can’t find that date in any source code.

Haunted House by Darren Deloach and Tim Koonce
Released “late 1982 or early 1983”.

The Demon’s Eye by John Dueck
A type-in published in 1991 (!).

Pharaoh’s Curse by Tim Koonce
From 1981 (probably).


FisK by John Sobotik and Richard Beigel
Definitely an adventure game (for mainframe), but I still don’t have a copy, and one of the authors requested (for understandable reasons which I won’t go into here) to leave it alone for now.

Manticore: An MS 8k BASIC Adventure by Anonymous and Jon Bradbury, also given as Explore by Jim Butterfield
I played this one and even made a complete map, but it turns out to be entirely an RPG.

Dungeon of Htam by Howard W. Sams & Co
This is an edutainment game where you solve math problems.

Dungeons and Dragons by Peter Trefonas
An RPG which the The CRPG Addict played here.

Eamon games like The Cave of the Mind, The Zyphur Riverventure, etc.
There’s quite a few of these but I’ve tried enough to say they’re essentially RPGs. I might be willing to loop back at some future point since these haven’t got the attention they deserve.

Time Traveller by Krell Software
Interesting, but more of an educational strategy game than an adventure.

Emily Short

The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative (H. Porter Abbott) – Chapters 7-9

by Emily Short at August 06, 2019 03:41 PM


The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative approaches stories from a very different perspective than most of the game writing, novel writing, and screenplay writing books I’ve covered here before; instead, it’s an academic approach to describing what narrative is, based in the field of narratology.

Last month I looked at the first six chapters; now I’m returning to it. As before, I generally found myself reading this overview with an eye to how interactive media tend to compare, since Abbott only examines hypertext to a limited degree, and other interactive narrative very little at all.

Chapter 7 looks at how we interpret narrative: constructing an implied author, who might be very different from an actual author; under-reading or over-reading, by ignoring details or by making too much of some of them; gaps, in which the story does not explain something and relies on the reader to supply what is missing (and by this, incidentally, Abbott means something rather different from the expectation gap between protagonist desire and achievement described by McKee); cruxes, the specific sort of gap in which the reader’s solution will significantly change the meaning of the whole story (e.g., “what sort of person was Heathcliff really”, or “why does Hemingway juxtapose these two incidents in one short story”); repetition, themes, and motifs.

Interactive text is especially well suited for work in which the player’s primary task is explicitly interpretation. Textual fiction allows for interiority and viewpoint, gaps and ambiguities, just as Abbott outlines; meanwhile the interactivity lets the author demand the reader’s opinion, or bend the text around a particular line of interpretation.

One of my favorite cruxes in interactive fiction can be found in Jason McIntosh’s classic parser IF The Warbler’s Nest, where it is up to the player to interpret what is really going on and then act on the interpretation, in a context where it would be horrific to be wrong.

When the objects of interpretation are somewhat more abstract (e.g., “why are these two incidents being related as part of the same story?” in Abbott’s Hemingway example), it’s somewhat less obvious how one might make the interpretation itself interactive. There are certainly interactive works that also function via a creative juxtaposition of elements linked in theme but not in causality, just as one finds in non-interactive work. Perhaps my favorite example of this kind is Le Reprobateur, in which links between passages are thematic but the nature of the thematic resonance sometimes requires a little thought to unpack, so that it is constantly asking the reader to consider why a particular juxtaposition has occurred.

Another classic trick — sometimes abused, but sometimes deployed with very great effect — is to show the player something — perhaps even to let the player manipulate that thing — without ever being entirely clear about what it is.

The earliest example that readily comes to mind here is Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy’s “thing your aunt gave you that you don’t know what it is”, where the ambiguity is played for comedic effect, and you can wander around the game with this unknown article in your inventory.

But elsewhere it can be used to communicate discovery, surprise, or confusion: in a room description, an object might be first called “something glinting under the water”, resolving to a key only when the player has typed TAKE THING or TAKE GLINTING THING.

In the worst case, the nameless object may be implicitly something horrible, an item that the protagonist cannot bear to look at or acknowledge; perhaps returning a “You can’t bear to” sort of response to EXAMINE THING. This takes the unreliable narrator trope and deploys it very specifically to represent a part of the narrator’s mind that refuses to confront reality.

Other media portray this kind of experience — Agave not able to see that she’s carrying her own son’s head, a nearly unendurable scene in Hereditary in which a main character can’t bring himself to look in the rearview mirror — but none so immediately.

Meanwhile, cycling or stopping links in Twine are often deployed to let the reader interrogate what the author meant by a phrase, or to select their own preferred phrase.


In chapter 8, Abbott suggests three broad interpretive approaches (as opposed to picking out the areas in which interpretation is needed): the intentional, in which we assume that all meaning is intended by the author; the symptomatic, in which we might discover symptoms of beliefs or mindsets that the author did not really intend to communicate per se, but which nonetheless have leached through into the work because of the author’s history or background; and the adaptive, in which we take the work over as in some sense our own, and perhaps insert our own significance into it.

This is perhaps the chapter in the entire book where I least felt that there were significant differences to observe between interactive and non-interactive narrative forms. Symptomatic readings of interactive fiction are both possible and frequently performed, and in my view the fact of interactivity doesn’t particularly change how accessible the work is to this kind of assessment.

There are certainly cultural factors surrounding IF and video games in general that tend to make these readings fraught — a critic pointing out that this or that game conveys racist or homophobic attitudes, for instance, and the creators replying that they intended no such thing, which is not actually a rebuttal of the original point.

There is also a fair amount of adaptive reading of IF, sometimes cast into the form of IF itself: works like Re: Dragon or Mystery Science Theater 3000 Presents “Detective” (or other MST3K treatments) entirely encapsulate and reframe other work; Coke Is It! parodically spoofs a bunch of canonical IF scenes as a soda advertisement; Being Andrew Plotkin recasts Being John Malkovich into IF terms with IF personalities. Then, too, there are games written as fan fiction — from Doctor Who and the Vortex of Lust, which I confess I haven’t played because I suspect I’ve enjoyed the title more than I would the game, to the lovingly crafted Muggle Studies.

Rarer, but also present, are the games that explicitly invite the player to endow the work with some meaning(s) of their own, or to make changes in how future players will experience it. Barbetween is a Seltani piece in which players can contribute short strings of text that describe bad experiences they’ve had in the past, which then become part of the next player’s game experience.


Chapter 9, on adaptation across media, looks most of all at the interface between novels and movies, but it recognizes issues of pacing and characterization, gaps of information and changes of focalization, that also arise (and frequently) whenever one tries to adapt a non-interactive work into an interactive form.

August 05, 2019

Zarf Updates

News from Mysterium 2019

by Andrew Plotkin ([email protected]) at August 05, 2019 06:12 AM

I imagine you think of this as just an annual news post. "Hey, here's some Myst news that isn't a kickstarter!" But we really do get together once a year and have a weekend of community love. I don't go to every Mysterium, but this year is the 20th gathering and it's (approximately) the 25th anniversary of Myst's release. We're celebrating Zed being released and Firmament being in production. So I felt I really had to take part.
Plus, a chance to tour the Cyan office! Come on.

But I'll spare you my vacation photos and anecdotes. Here's the news post. This information is straight from Rand Miller's presentation on Saturday, plus other people who presented over the weekend.

Obduction just got a big update on existing platforms. This is optimization and improved VR support; see the release notes. Also -- here's the news -- Obduction is being ported to Xbox. "Coming soon."
The Mac version of Zed should be available on August 15th, on Steam and the Mac App Store. It's in store review now.
Cyan is in talks to publish a new project from Numinous Games, the studio best known for That Dragon, Cancer. This would be a Cyan Ventures project, like Zed was -- developed by Numinous, supported and published by Cyan. I believe this is the title "Into the Mind" that was teased in March by Jessica Brillhart.
Rand also mentioned a project called "Crowbox" that they're developing. This is not a game; it's an app that has something to do with photographs. "Interacts with your photo library" is what I think he said. No other details as yet, except that they're targeting iOS first. I get the impression that it's a small project, a toy that they just thought would be fun to play with.
Firmament is of course the current big Cyan project; they're staffing up for it now. (They've hired veterans Eric A. Anderson and Hannah Gamiel back on.)
Philip Shane's Myst documentary is in progress. Philip was all over Mysterium catching footage. He said that he intends to tell the story of the creation of Myst, framed around the happening-now story of the creation of Firmament. So the documentary will probably come out a year or so after Firmament ships. Maybe in time for Myst's 30th anniversary? We'll see.
Once Firmament is out the door, Rand plans to go back to the original Myst. He wants to build a "definitive edition of Myst". He didn't specify what that meant. I assume that they'd use the same Unreal Engine toolchain as Obduction and Firmament, and they'd make it fully VR-compatible. (If you can't tell, Rand is very, very enthusiastic about VR.)
After that, they'd want to do a refreshed (and VR-compatible) version of Riven. Of course the Starry Expanse fan project has been working on a fully 3D Riven for years now. (They started in 2008!) So Cyan's "definitive Riven" would be cooperative, in some sense, with Starry Expanse. Rand didn't go into details; I'm sure the details are a long way from being worked out. Maybe they'd hire the SE team on; maybe they'd arrange some collaborative model. (Rand was careful to specify that they had no intention of "stealing" the SE team's work or yanking it out from under them.) Again, we'll have to see how it goes.
(The other exciting bit of Starry Expanse news is that the team has recovered the original unmixed sound files from Riven. And when I say "recovered", I mean that Marty O'Donnell, the original sound designer for Riven, showed up at Mysterium and handed them all the sound data! This will make it much easier to recreate the game's soundscapes and cut scenes in the UE4 engine.)
And after rebuilding Myst and Riven? Rand said that they'd really like to do a new game in the Myst universe. He didn't call it "Myst 6". This would be a new entry point, perhaps a new series.
Rand also mentioned the recent TV series news. Obviously, after so many false starts, we all have a degree of skepticism about Myst on TV (or the big screen). So do the Cyan people; they didn't try to hide that. But they're still working on it, and they're more directly involved than they were on previous attempts. Rand and Ryan Miller wrote the script treatment and pilot script themselves. Rand said that they are not trying to adapt the stories from the games; nor are they basing their script on any of the novels. Their TV proposal is a fresh story from a "previously hidden" part of the D'ni timeline. It will also tie into the contemporary surface world somehow.
(Rand said he'd be happy to appear as a cameo in the show.)

That's all the big news. Let me ramble a bit on the state of Cyan. These are entirely my impressions, as interpolated from Rand's remarks.
With the success of the Myst 25 and Firmament kickstarters, and the launch of the "Ventures" publishing arm, Cyan feels like they're getting some momentum back. Rand said this in so many words. They're not rolling in revenue, but they have enough headroom that they can think more than one project into the future. Thus, the new roadmap: Firmament, update Myst, update Riven, new game in the Myst universe. With CV side projects from Numinous and whatever Crowbox is. Of course, everything beyond Firmament is a wavering image.
Do we need another major remake of Myst? (This would be the fifth remake, and the third complete engine switch.) I feel pretty skeptical. But I'm skeptical of VR overall, and VR would be the big selling point for this new edition. Like I said, Rand is a serious VR booster. I don't know how many copies it will move. But I'll buy in just to see Myst Island with Unreal-quality graphics, so I can hardly complain about the plan.
Riven is long overdue for a major remake and a new engine. Again, though, this is a remake of a long-available game, and it's hard to say how well it will do.
I'm most interested in new original games. By positioning "new Myst game" after the Myst and Riven refreshes, Rand implied that we'd have a long wait between Firmament and the next original title. Or will we? Updating Myst to UE4 might be quick job. After all, the company now has a good base of experience with that toolset, and plenty of practice modelling Myst. Riven is a much larger game, but maybe -- I am very much speculating here -- maybe they're counting on enough growth to work on two projects at once. Starry Expanse has a lot of progress laid down already, and I can imagine bringing the SE team in to work on Riven during the Myst production cycle.
Visiting the Cyan office gives one an interesting perspective on the company's history. It's a beautiful little building, obviously custom-made during Cyan's flush years. Nifty architecture, a star-dome conference room, landscaped garden out back, an artificial waterfall. Lots of display cases with game-award trophies and original costumes and props.
It's also mostly uninhabited. Or rather, many of the rooms are rented out to other local businesses. Cyan is a much smaller company than in years past, and they don't expect to ever become enormous again. This is more dramatically illustrated by the larger annex building that they built next door. Cyan expected to scale up tremendously to support the original (2003) launch of Uru Live. When Ubisoft canned that project... poof, building up for grabs. I think Cyan now has it on permanent lease to a local church.
Hey, rental income is income. I guess whatever business you're in, real estate is never a bad investment.
The big flappy wild card of Cyan's future is the TV show. Will it go anywhere this time? If it does, that's a big boost to revenue and (more importantly) public attention for Cyan projects. Particularly Myst-related projects. But, on the other hand, it would rearrange all of Cyan's priorities. The roadmap they described would be all back to the drawing board.
And there's absolutely no way to say if the TV plan will go anywhere.
If there's ever a time for it to happen, it's now. The current death-feud between Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, HBO, Apple, (add to the list), is being waged with those scariest of weapons: firehoses of money. (Much like the death-feud between Steam, Epic, Sony, Microsoft...) It will end in tears in the not-too-distant future. But for the moment, the wildest speculative show ideas are getting funded at a ridiculous rate, and Myst has all the right sails hanging out in the breeze.
More news, we hope, pretty soon.

August 04, 2019

The Gaming Philosopher

Turandot and narrative failure

by Victor Gijsbers ([email protected]) at August 04, 2019 12:42 PM

I'm working on a game that is based loosely -- very loosely -- on Puccini's opera Turandot. This post is not about that game. It is about the opera itself, which is an absolutely fascinating example of a writer (in this case the librettist Giuseppe Adami) setting himself up for narrative failure. But first, a quote from a recent piece in the Guardian: I’ve always hated “Irish jokes”. Having an

August 03, 2019

The Gaming Philosopher

Commenting on this blog

by Victor Gijsbers ([email protected]) at August 03, 2019 01:55 PM

I know of two people who had trouble posting comments to this blog. One of them was me. I'm curious whether this is a general phenomenon -- if some people could try to reply, and if it doesn't work, send me an e-mail about it, I would appreciate it! Address is victor at lilith dot cc.

sub-Q Magazine

A List of My Twenty Favorite Works of Interactive Fiction

by Anya Johanna DeNiro at August 03, 2019 01:42 PM

Every four years, Victor Gijsbers compiles votes for the Top 50 interactive fiction games of all time. The aggregate is certainly compelling reading—if nothing else, to get a baseline for what might be considered “canon” (however loose) for a field that is, especially in recent years, coming from wildly disparate sources. Moreover, it’s worth noting how shifts in games occurred from 2011—right on the advent of Twine—to 2015, and I imagine those differences will be even more pronounced in the 2019 version.

If you want to participate yourself (and you should!), visit the thread on the Interactive Fiction forums.

For my own list, obviously it’s an impossible task to narrow it down to a mere 20. There were definitely about 40 or so games in the mix, and I know there’s somewhat of a weird gap in this list in the mid-2000s, even though tons of great interactive fiction were being produced then. But the games that have stuck with me the most—in that liminal space between “favorite” and “best” that exists in everyone’s head—have been emotionally resonant, generally full of high stakes (which may or not be directly tied to player choice), and full of razor sharp language. The prose doesn’t have to be beautiful, per se (though it often is) as opposed to intertwined with the expressive aims of the story and the interaction.

Aisle by Sam Barlow (1999). I wrote more about Aisle at length here. Suffice it to say, my views of the importance of this work hasn’t really changed!

Galatea by Emily Short (2000). One of the first games to show how conversation, and a laser-like focus on a singular aspect of a narrative, could create a work that pushes into a deep sense of pathos. The work is also angry, right behind the scenes, and this makes the prose cut.

Shade by Andrew Plotkin (2000). Claustrophobic and tornadic. This game has remained one of the best “I’m in my apartment” games, and I would be remiss if I said terribly much more than this.

Vespers by Jason Devlin (2005). The atmosphere of dread is palpable in this work set in a medieval monastery, but the real horror comes with the interaction—and division—between player and character.

The King of Shreds and Patches by Jimmy Maher (2009). A game that seems bigger than it actually is (and it’s already plenty big) by the rich use of history, stagecraft, and Lovecraftian mythos.

Mentula Macanus: Apocolocyntosis by One of the Bruces and Drunken Bastard (2011). Spectacularly obscene (seriously), it’s a comic journey through the ancient world that nonetheless, despite its crudity (or maybe because of it) has a ton of heart.

Kerkerkruip by Victor Gijsbers (2011). I’ve put more hours into this work of IF more than any other. A tightly constructed roguelike flawlessly realized and replete with the pulpish—but not overbearing—language that makes this work so well.

Bee by Emily Short (2012). Created in Varytale, this game is sadly not available anymore, but it’s one of Emily Short’s absolute best. It created a series of recurring “beats” of story that worked perfectly to show both the slow passage and cyclical nature of time in the life of a spelling prodigy in a highly religious family.

howling dogs by Porpentine (2012) (Twine). It’s difficult to overestimate the importance of howling dogs on the history of interactive fiction, but besides that, it’s a wonderful game to play, full of dark pleasure and heartbreaking prose.

Horse Master by Tom McHenry (2013). You have to get your horse ready for a competition. Sort of. Horse Master actually caused me to write my first review on the Interactive Fiction Database. It’s Hunger Games meets Black Beauty—and far, far scarier and weirder than I’m making that sound.

SABBAT by Eva (2013). This work divided many people’s reactions with its gruesome depictions of body horror and ritual magic. But more than anything, what has stuck with me about SABBAT is its deep sense of gothic loneliness that gets transformed into power, from a character who was not particularly powerful. And the choices it gives the player to achieve that power to topple capitalism are high-voltage and visceral indeed.

With Those We Love Alive by Porpentine (2014). This game takes the tightly wound focus of howling dogs and unspools it into a world with a rich, disturbing sense of place.

Creatures Such As We by Lynnea Glasser (2014). This work, created in ChoiceScript, about a tour guide on the moon is a romance in all senses of the word. But more than anything, it’s a close, haunting examination about why we love games and what games are able to give us. Fittingly, there are no clear answers to this.

80 Days by inkle (2014). A sprawling, fully imagined steampunk panoply, 80 Days decolonizes the text by Jules Verne and makes it a rousing adventure about travel, power, and who gets to tell whose stories.

the uncle who works for nintendo by Michael Lutz (2014). Sleepovers can be scary even in the best of times, but add in a dose of gaming creepypasta, and you come up with a deeply unnerving game about girlhood and friendship.

Hollywood Visionary by Aaron Reed (2015). A ChoiceScript game that is equal parts fun (who wouldn’t want to run a studio in the Golden Age of Hollywood?) and mournful (in which you have to deftly choose how much you want to push the envelope with your professional and personal life in tightly constricted systems). Perfectly suited to the ChoiceScript form and, as with all of Reed’s work, the writing is sharp and impeccable.

Known Unknowns by Brendan Patrick Hennessy (2016). This game absolutely broke my heart and stitched it back together again. With a huge, diverse cast filled with unforgettable characters, Known Unknowns is more than a ghost (raccoon) story: it’s about teenagers finding their own identity, with a choice-based structure that captures that roller-coaster at every twist and turn.

Open Sorcery by Abigail Corfman (2016). As the title suggests, magic and code go hand in hand in this game. The worldbuilding, the pace, and the characterization are all so vivid and tightly balanced that once you finish you can’t but help to play it again.

Will Not Let Me Go by Stephen Granade (2017). Chronicling a man with Alzheimer’s, Stephen Granade uses subtle but powerful text effects of Twine to create a deeply human portrait of grief, remembrance, and loss.

Doki Doki Literature Club by Team Savato (2017). Without saying too much, this visual novel breaks open the form and lets loose a Pandora’s box of mayhem. If this were merely an experiment in disruption, it would have its place, but it would not be a masterpiece. Instead, it fully realizes a complicated, at times troubling relationship in a way that, in spite of everything, is exceedingly human.


The post A List of My Twenty Favorite Works of Interactive Fiction appeared first on sub-Q Magazine.

August 02, 2019

The Digital Antiquarian

Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers

by Jimmy Maher at August 02, 2019 04:41 PM

Fair warning: spoilers for Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers are to be found herein!

In 1989, a twenty-something professional computer programmer and frustrated horror novelist named Jane Jensen had a close encounter with King’s Quest IV that changed her life. She was so inspired by the experience of playing her first adventure game that she decided to apply for a job with Sierra Online, the company that had made it. In fact, she badgered them relentlessly until they finally hired her as a jack-of-all-trades writer in 1990.

Two and a half years later, after working her way up from writing manuals and incidental in-game dialog to co-designing the first EcoQuest game with Gano Haine and the sixth King’s Quest game with Roberta Williams, she had proved herself sufficiently in the eyes of her managers to be given a glorious opportunity: the chance to make her very own game on her own terms. It really was a once-in-a-lifetime proposition; she was to be given carte blanche by the biggest adventure developer in the industry at the height of the genre’s popularity to make exactly the game she wanted to make. Small wonder that she would so often look back upon it wistfully in later years, after the glory days of adventure games had become a distant memory.

For her big chance, Jensen proposed making a Gothic horror game unlike anything Sierra had attempted before, with a brooding and psychologically complex hero, a detailed real-world setting, and a complicated plot dripping with the lore of the occult. Interestingly, Jensen remembers her superiors being less than thrilled with the new direction. She says that Ken Williams in particular was highly skeptical of the project’s commercial viability: “Okay, I’ll let you do it, but I wish you’d come up with something happier!”

But even if Jensen’s recollections are correct, we can safely say that Sierra’s opinion changed over the year it took to make Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers. By the time it shipped on November 24, 1993, it fit in very well with a new direction being trumpeted by Ken Williams in his editorials for the company’s newsletter: a concerted focus on more “adult,” sophisticated fictions, as exemplified not only by Sins of the Fathers but by a “gritty” new Police Quest game and another, more lurid horror game which Roberta Williams had in the works. Although the older, more lighthearted and ramshackle [this, that, and the other] Quest series which had made Sierra’s name in adventure games would continue to appear for a while longer, Williams clearly saw these newer concepts as the key to a mass market he was desperately trying to unlock. Games like these were, theoretically anyway, able to appeal to demographics outside the industry’s traditional customers — to appeal to the sort of people who had hitherto preferred an evening in front of a television to one spent in front of a monitor.

Thus Sierra put a lot of resources into Sins of the Fathers‘s presentation and promotion. For example, the box became one of the last standout packages in an industry moving inexorably toward standardization on that front; in lieu of anything so dull as a rectangle, it took the shape of two mismatched but somehow conjoined triangles. Sierra even went so far as to hire Tim Curry of Rocky Horror Picture Show fame, Mark Hamill of Star Wars, and Michael Dorn of Star Trek: The Next Generation for the CD-ROM version’s voice-acting cast.

Jane Jensen with the first Gabriel Knight project’s producer and soundtrack composer Robert Holmes, who would later become her husband, and the actor Tim Curry, who provided the voice of Gabriel using a thick faux-New Orleans accent which some players judge hammy, others charming.

In the long run, the much-discussed union of Silicon Valley and Hollywood that led studios like Sierra to cast such high-profile names at considerable expense would never come to pass. In the meantime, though, the game arrived at a more modestly propitious cultural moment. Anne Rice’s Gothic vampire novels, whose tonal similarities to Sins of the Fathers were hard to miss even before Jensen began to cite them as an inspiration in interviews, were all over the bestseller lists, and Tom Cruise was soon to star in a major motion picture drawn from the first of them. Even in the broader world of games around Sierra, the influence of Rice and Gothic horror more generally was starting to make itself felt. On the tabletop, White Wolf’s Vampire: The Masquerade was exploding in popularity just as Dungeons & Dragons was falling on comparatively hard times; the early 1990s would go down in tabletop history as the only time when a rival system seriously challenged Dungeons & Dragons‘s absolute supremacy. And then there was the world of music, where dark and slinky albums from bands like Nine Inch Nails and Massive Attack were selling in the millions.

Suffice to say, then, that “goth” culture in general was having a moment, and Sins of the Fathers was perfectly poised to capitalize on it. The times were certainly a far cry from just half a decade before, when Amy Briggs had proposed an Anne Rice-like horror game to her bosses at Infocom, only to be greeted with complete incomprehension.

Catching the zeitgeist paid off: Sins of the Fathers proved, if not quite the bridge to the Hollywood mainstream Ken Williams might have been longing for, one of Sierra’s most popular adventure games of its time. An unusual number of its fans were female, a demographic oddity it had in common with all of the other Gothic pop culture I’ve just mentioned. These female fans in particular seemed to get something from the game’s brooding bad-boy hero that they perhaps hadn’t realized they’d been missing. While games that used sex as a selling point were hardly unheard of in 1993, Sins of the Fathers stood out in a sea of Leisure Suit Larry and Spellcasting games for its orientation toward the female rather than the male gaze. In this respect as well, its arrival was perfectly timed, coming just as relatively more women and girls were beginning to use computers, thanks to the hype over multimedia computing that was fueling a boom in their sales.

But there was more to Sins of the Father‘s success than its arrival at an opportune moment. On the contrary: the game’s popularity has proved remarkably enduring over the decades since its release. It spawned two sequels later in the 1990s that are almost as adored as the first game, and still places regularly at or near the top of lists of “best adventure games of all time.” Then, too, it’s received an unusual amount of academic attention for a point-and-click graphic adventure in the traditional style (a genre which, lacking both the literary bona fides of textual interactive fiction and the innate ludological interest of more process-intensive genres, normally tends to get short shrift in such circles). You don’t have to search long in the academic literature to find painfully earnest grad-student essays contrasting the “numinous woman” Roberta Williams with the “millennium woman” Jane Jensen, or “exploring Gabriel as a particular instance of the Hero archetype.”

So, as a hit in its day and a hit still today with both the fans and the academics, Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers must be a pretty amazing game, right? Well… sure, in the eyes of some. For my own part, I see a lot of incongruities, not only in the game itself but in the ways it’s been received over the years. It strikes me as having been given the benefit of an awful lot of doubts, perhaps simply because there have been so very few games like it. Sins of the Fathers unquestionably represents a noble effort to stretch its medium. But is it truly a great game? And does its story really, as Sierra’s breathless press release put it back in the day, “rival the best film scripts?” Those are more complicated questions.

But before I begin to address them, we should have a look at what the game is all about, for those of you who haven’t yet had the pleasure of Gabriel Knights’s acquaintance.

Our titular hero, then, is a love-em-and-leave-em bachelor who looks a bit like James Dean and comes complete with a motorcycle, a leather jacket, and the requisite sensitive side concealed underneath his rough exterior. He lives in the backroom of the bookshop he owns in New Orleans, from which he churns out pulpy horror novels to supplement his paltry income. Grace Nakamura, a pert university student on her summer holidays, works at the bookshop as well, and also serves as Gabriel’s research assistant and verbal sparring partner, a role which comes complete with oodles of sexual tension.

Gabriel’s bedroom. What woman wouldn’t be excited to be brought back here?

Over the course of the game, Gabriel stumbles unto a centuries-old voodoo cult which has a special motivation to make him their latest human sacrifice. While he’s at it, he also falls into bed with the comely Malia, the somewhat reluctant leader of the cult. He learns amidst it all that not just voodoo spirits but many other things that go bump in the night — werewolves, vampires, etc. — are in fact real. And he learns that he’s inherited the mantle of Schattenjäger — “Shadow Hunter” — from his forefathers, and that his family’s legacy as battlers of evil stretches back to Medieval Germany. (The symbolism of his name is, as Jensen herself admits, not terribly subtle: “Gabriel” was the angel who battled Lucifer in Paradise Lost, while “Knight” means that he’s, well, a knight, at least in the metaphorical sense.) After ten days jam-packed with activity, which take him not only all around New Orleans but to Germany and Benin as well — Sins of the Fathers is a very generous game indeed in terms of length — Gabriel must choose between his love for Malia and his new role of Schattenjäger. Grace is around throughout: to serve as the good-girl contrast to the sultry Malia (again, the symbolism of her name isn’t subtle), to provide banter and research, and to pull Gabriel’s ass bodily out of the fire at least once. If Gabriel makes the right choice at the end of the game, the two forge a tentative partnership to continue the struggle against darkness even as they also continue to deny their true feelings for one another.

As we delve into what the game does well and poorly amidst all this, it strikes me as useful to break the whole edifice down along the classic divide of its interactivity versus its fiction. (If you’re feeling academic, you can refer to this dichotomy as its ludological versus its narratological components; if you’re feeling folksy, you can call it its crossword versus its narrative.) Even many of the game’s biggest fans will admit that the first item in the pairing has its problematic aspects. So, perhaps we should start there rather than diving straight into some really controversial areas. That said, be warned that the two things are hard to entirely separate from one another; Sins of the Fathers works best when the two are in harmony, while many of its problems come to the fore when the two begin to clash.

Let’s begin, though, with the things Sins of the Fathers gets right in terms of design. While I don’t know that it is, strictly speaking, impossible to lock yourself out of victory while still being able to play on, you certainly would have to be either quite negligent or quite determined to manage it at any stage before the endgame. This alone shows welcome progress for Sierra — shows that the design revolution wrought by LucasArts’s The Secret of Monkey Island was finally penetrating even this most stalwart redoubt of the old, bad way of making adventure games.

Snarking aside, we shouldn’t dismiss Jensen’s achievement here; it’s not easy to make such an intricately plot-driven game so forgiving. The best weapon in her arsenal is the use of an event-driven rather than a clock-driven timetable for advancing the plot. Each of the ten days has a set of tasks you must accomplish before the day ends, although you aren’t explicitly told what they are. You have an infinite amount of clock time to accomplish these things at your own pace. When you eventually do so — and even sometimes when you accomplish intermediate things inside each day — the plot machinery lurches forward another step or two via an expository cut scene and the interactive world around you changes to reflect it. Sins of the Fathers was by no means the first game to employ such a system; as far as I know, that honor should go to Infocom’s 1986 text adventure Ballyhoo. Yet this game uses it to better effect than just about any game that came before it. In fact, the game as a whole is really made tenable only by this technique of making the plot respond to the player’s actions rather than forcing the player to race along at the plot’s pace; the latter would be an unimaginable nightmare to grapple with in a story with this many moving parts. When it works well, which is a fair amount of the time, the plot progression feels natural and organic, like you truly are in the grip of a naturally unfolding story.

The individual puzzles that live within this framework work best when they’re in harmony with the plot and free of typical adventure-game goofiness. A good example is the multi-layered puzzle involving the Haitian rada drummers whom you keep seeing around New Orleans. Eventually, a victim of the voodoo cult tells you just before he breathes his last that the drummers are the cult’s means of communicating with one another across the city. So, you ask Grace to research the topic of rada drums. Next day, she produces a book on the subject filled with sequences encoding various words and phrases. When you “use” this book on one of the drummers, it brings up a sort of worksheet which you can use to figure out what he’s transmitting. Get it right, and you learn that a conclave is to be held that very night in a swamp outside the city.

Working out a rada-drum message.

This is an ideal puzzle: complicated but not insurmountable, immensely satisfying to solve. Best of all, solving it really does make you feel like Gabriel Knight, on the trail of a mystery which you must unravel using your own wits and whatever information you can dig up from the resources at your disposal.

Unfortunately, not all or even most of the puzzles live up to that standard. A handful are simply bad puzzles, full stop, testimonies both to the fact that every puzzle is always harder than its designer thinks it is and to Sierra’s disinterest in seeking substantive feedback on its games from actual players before releasing them. For instance, there’s the clock/lock that expects you to intuit the correct combination of rotating face and hands from a few scattered, tangential references elsewhere in the game to the number three and to dragons.

Even the rather brilliant rada-drums bit goes badly off the rails at the end of the game, when you’re suddenly expected to use a handy set of the drums to send a message of your own. This requires that you first read Jane Jensen’s mind to figure out what general message out of the dozens of possibilities she wants you to send, then read her mind again to figure out the exact grammar she wants you to use. When you get it wrong, as you inevitably will many times, the game gives you no feedback whatsoever. Are you doing the wrong thing entirely? Do you have the right idea but are sending the wrong message? Or do you just need to change up your grammar a bit? The game isn’t telling; it’s too busy killing you on every third failed attempt.

Other annoyances are the product not so much of poor puzzle as poor interface design. In contrast to contemporaneous efforts from competitors like LucasArts and Legend Entertainment, Sierra games made during this period still don’t show hot spots ripe for interaction when you mouse over a scene. So, you’re forced to click on everything indiscriminately, which most of the time leads only to the narrator intoning the same general room description over and over in her languid Caribbean patois. The scenes themselves are well-drawn, but their muted colors, combined with their relatively low resolution and the lack of a hot-spot finder, constitute something of a perfect storm for that greatest bane of the graphic adventure, the pixel hunt. One particularly egregious example of the syndrome, a snake scale you need to find at a crime scene on a beach next to Lake Pontchartrain, has become notorious as an impediment that stops absolutely every player in her tracks. It reveals the dark flip side of the game’s approach to plot chronology: that sinking feeling when the day just won’t end and you don’t know why. In this case, it’s because you missed a handful of slightly discolored pixels surrounded by a mass of similar hues — or, even if you did notice them, because you failed to click on them exactly.

You have to click right where the cursor is to learn from the narrator that “the grass has a matted appearance there.” Break out the magnifying glass!

But failings like these aren’t ultimately the most interesting to talk about, just because they were so typical and so correctable, had Sierra just instituted a set of commonsense practices that would have allowed them to make better games. Much more interesting are the places that the interactivity of Sins of the Fathers clashes jarringly with the premise of its fiction. For it’s here, we might speculate, that the game is running into more intractable problems — perhaps even running headlong into the formal limitation of the traditional graphic adventure as a storytelling medium.

Take, for example, the point early in the game when Gabriel wants to pay a visit to Malia at her palatial mansion, but, as a mere civilian, can’t get past the butler. Luckily, he happens to have a pal at the police department — in fact, his best friend in the whole world, an old college buddy named Mosely. Does he explain his dilemma to Mosely and ask for help? Of course not! This is, after all, an adventure game. He decides instead to steal Mosely’s badge. When he pays the poor fellow a visit at his office, he sees that Mosely’s badge is pinned, as usual, to his jacket. So, Gabriel sneaks over to turn up the thermostat in the office, which causes Mosely to remove the jacket and hang it over the back of his chair. Then Gabriel asks him to fetch a cup of coffee, and completes the theft while he’s out of the room. With friends like that…

Gabriel is turned away from Malia’s door…

…but no worries, he can just figure out how to steal a badge from his best friend and get inside that way.

In strictly mechanical terms, this is actually a clever puzzle, but it illustrates the tonal and thematic inconsistencies that dog the game as a whole. Sadly, puzzles like the one involving the rada drums are the exception rather than the rule. Most of the time, you’re dealing instead with arbitrary roadblocks like this one that have nothing whatsoever to do with the mystery you’re trying to solve. It becomes painfully obvious that Jensen wrote out a static story outline suitable for a movie or novel, then went back to devise the disconnected puzzles that would make a game out of it.

But puzzles like this are not only irrelevant: they’re deeply, comprehensively silly, and this silliness flies in the face of Sins of the Fathers‘s billing as a more serious, character-driven sort of experience than anything Sierra had done to date. Really, how can anyone take a character who goes around doing stuff like this seriously? You can do so, I would submit, only by mentally bifurcating the Gabriel you control in the interactive sequences from the Gabriel of the cut scenes and conversations. That may work for some — it must, given the love that’s lavished on this game by so many adventure fans — but the end result nevertheless remains creatively compromised, two halves of a work of art actively pulling against one another.

Gabriel sneaks into the backroom of a church and starts stealing from the priests. That’s normal behavior for any moodily romantic protagonist, right? Right?

It’s at points of tension like these that Sins of the Fathers raises the most interesting and perhaps troubling questions about the graphic adventure as a genre. Many of its puzzles are, as I already noted, not bad puzzles in themselves; they’re only problematic when placed in this fictional context. If Sins of the Fathers was a comedy, they’d be a perfectly natural fit. This is what I mean when I say, as I have repeatedly in the past, that comedy exerts a strong centrifugal pull on any traditional puzzle-solving adventure game. And this is why most of Sierra’s games prior to Sins of the Fathers were more or less interactive cartoons, why LucasArts strayed afield from that comfortable approach even less often than Sierra, and, indeed, why comedies have been so dominant in the annals of adventure games in general.

The question must be, then, whether the pull of comedy can be resisted — whether compromised hybrids like this one are the necessary end result of trying to make a serious graphic adventure. In short, is the path of least resistance the only viable path for an adventure designer?

For my part, I believe the genre’s tendency to collapse into comedy can be resisted, if the designer is both knowing and careful. The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes, released the year before Sins of the Fathers, is a less heralded game than the one I write about today, but one which works better as a whole in my opinion, largely because it sticks to its guns and remains the type of fiction it advertises itself to be, eschewing goofy roadblock puzzles in favor of letting you solve the mystery at its heart. By contrast, you don’t really solve the mystery for yourself at all in Sins of the Fathers; it solves the mystery for you while you’re jumping Gabriel through all the irrelevant hoops it sets in his path.

But let’s try to set those issues aside now and engage with Sins of the Fathers strictly in terms of the fiction that lives outside the lines of its interactivity. As many of you doubtless know, I’m normally somewhat loathe to do that; it verges on a tautology to say that interactivity is the defining feature of games, and thus it seems to me that any given game’s interactivity has to work, without any qualifiers, as a necessary precondition to its being a good game. Still, if any game might be able to sneak around that rule, it ought to be this one, so often heralded as a foremost exemplar of sophisticated storytelling in a ludic context. And, indeed, it does fare better on this front in my eyes — not quite as well as some of its biggest fans claim, but better.

The first real scene of Sins of the Fathers tells us we’re in for an unusual adventure-game experience, with unusual ambitions in terms of character and plot development alike. We meet Gabriel and Grace in medias res, as the former stumbles out of his backroom bedroom to meet the latter already at her post behind the cash register in the bookstore. Over the next couple of minutes, we learn much about them as people through their banter — and, tellingly, pretty much nothing about what the real plot of the game will come to entail. This is Bilbo holding his long-expected party, Wart going out to make hay; Jane Jensen is settling in to work the long game.

As Jensen slowly pulls back the curtain on what the game is really all about over the hours that follow, she takes Gabriel through that greatest rarity in interactive storytelling, a genuine internal character arc. The Gabriel at the end of the game, in other words, is not the one we met at the beginning, and for once the difference isn’t down to his hit points or armor class. If we can complain that we’re mostly relegated to solving goofy puzzles while said character arc plays out in the cut scenes, we can also acknowledge how remarkable it is for existing at all.

Jensen is a talented writer with a particular affinity for just the sort of snappy but revealing dialog that marks that first scene of the game. If anything, she’s better at writing these sorts of low-key “hang-out” moments than the scenes of epic confrontation. It’s refreshing to see a game with such a sense of ease about its smaller moments, given that the talents and interests of most game writers tend to run in just the opposite direction.

Then, too, Jensen has an intuitive understanding of the rhythm of effective horror. As any master of the form from Stephen King to the Duffer Brothers will happily tell you if you ask them, you can’t assault your audience with wall-to-wall terror. Good horror is rather about tension and release — the horrific crescendos fading into moments of calm and even levity, during which the audience has a chance to catch its collective breath and the knots in their stomachs have a chance to un-clench. Certainly we have to learn to know and like a story’s characters before we can feel vicarious horror at their being placed in harm’s way. Jensen understands all these things, as do the people working with her.

Indeed, the production values of Sins of the Fathers are uniformly excellent in the context of its times. The moody art perfectly complements the story Jensen has scripted, and the voice-acting cast — both the big names who head it and the smaller ones who fill out the rest of the roles — are, with only one or two exceptions, solid. The music, which was provided by the project’s producer Robert Holmes — he began dating Jensen while the game was in production, and later became her husband and constant creative partner — is catchy, memorable, and very good at setting the mood, if perhaps not hugely New Orleans in flavor. (More on that issue momentarily.)

Still, there are some significant issues with Sins of the Fathers even when it’s being judged purely as we might a work of static fiction. Many of these become apparent only gradually over time — this is definitely a game that puts its best foot forward first — but at least one of them is front and center from the very first scene. To say that much of Gabriel’s treatment of Grace hasn’t aged well hardly begins to state the case. Their scenes together often play like a public-service video from the #MeToo movement, as Gabriel sexually harasses his employee like Donald Trump with a fresh bottle of Viagra in his back pocket. Of course, Jensen really intends for Gabriel to be another instance of the archetypal charming rogue — see Solo, Han, and Jones, Indiana — and sometimes she manages to pull it off. At far too many others, though, the writing gets a little sideways, and the charming rogue veers into straight-up jerk territory. The fact that Grace is written as a smart, tough-minded young woman who can give as good as she gets doesn’t make him seem like any less of a sleazy creep, more Leisure Suit Larry than James Dean.

I’m puzzled and just a little bemused that so many academic writers who’ve taken it upon themselves to analyze the game from an explicitly feminist perspective can ignore this aspect of it entirely. I can’t help but suspect that, were Sins of the Fathers the product of a male designer, the critical dialog that surrounds it would be markedly different in some respects. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether this double standard is justified or not in light of our culture’s long history of gender inequality.

As the game continues, the writing starts to wear thin in other ways. Gabriel’s supposed torrid love affair with Malia is, to say the least, unconvincing, with none of the naturalism that marks the best of his interactions with Grace. Instead it’s in the lazy mold of too many formulaic mass-media fictions, where two attractive people fall madly in love for no discernible reason that we can identify. The writer simply tells us that they do so, by way of justifying an obligatory sex scene or two. Here, though, we don’t even get the sex scene.

Pacing also starts to become a significant problem as the game wears on. Admittedly, this is not always so much because the writer in Jane Jensen isn’t aware of its importance to effective horror as because pacing in general is just so darn difficult to control in any interactive work, especially one filled with road-blocking puzzles like this one. Even if we cut Jensen some slack on this front, however, sequences like Gabriel’s visit to Tulane University, where he’s subjected to a long non-interactive lecture that might as well be entitled “Everything Jane Jensen Learned about Voodoo but Can’t Shoehorn in Anywhere Else,” are evidence of a still fairly inexperienced writer who doesn’t have a complete handle on this essential element of storytelling and doesn’t have anyone looking over her shoulder to edit her work. She’s done her research, but hasn’t mastered the Zen-like art of letting it subtly inform her story and setting. Instead she infodumps it all over us in about the most unimaginative way you can conceive: in the form of a literal classroom lecture.

Gabriel with Professor Infodump.

The game’s depiction of New Orleans itself reveals some of the same weaknesses. Yes, Jensen gets the landmarks and the basic geography right. But I have to say, speaking as someone who loves the city dearly and has spent a fair amount of time there over the years, that the setting of the game never really feels like New Orleans. What’s missing most of all, I think, is any affinity for the music that so informs daily life in the city, giving the streets a (literal) rhythm unlike anywhere else on earth. (Robert Holmes’s soundtrack is fine and evocative in its own right; it’s just not a New Orleans soundtrack.) I was thus unsurprised to learn that Jensen never actually visited New Orleans before writing and publishing a game set there. Tellingly, her depiction has more to do with the idiosyncratic, Gothic New Orleans found in Anne Rice novels than it does with the city I know.

The plotting too gets more wobbly as time goes on. A linchpin moment comes right at the mid-point of the ten days, when Gabriel makes an ill-advised visit to one of the cult’s conclaves — in fact, the one he located via the afore-described rada-drums puzzle — and nearly gets himself killed. Somehow Grace, of all people, swoops in to rescue him; I still have no idea precisely what is supposed to have happened here, and neither, judging at least from the fan sites I’ve consulted, does anyone else. I suspect that something got cut here out of budget concerns, so perhaps it’s unfair to place this massive non sequitur at the heart of the game squarely on Jensen’s shoulders.

But other problems with the plotting aren’t as easy to find excuses for. There is, for example, the way that Gabriel can fly from New Orleans to Munich and still have hours of daylight at his disposal when he arrives on the same day. (I could dismiss this as a mere hole in Jensen’s research, the product of an American designer unfamiliar with international travel, if she hadn’t spent almost a year living in Germany prior to coming to Sierra.) In fact, the entirety of Gabriel’s whirlwind trip from the United States to Germany to Benin and back home again feels incomplete and a little half-baked, from its cartoonish German castle, which resembles a piece of discarded art from a King’s Quest game, to its tedious maze inside an uninteresting African burial mound that likewise could have been found in any of a thousand other adventure games. Jensen would have done better to keep the action in New Orleans rather than suddenly trying to turn the game into a globetrotting adventure at the eleventh hour, destroying its narrative cohesion in the process.

Suddenly we’re in… Africa? How the hell did that happen?

As in a lot of fictions of this nature, the mysteries at the heart of Sins of the Fathers are also most enticing in the game’s earlier stages than they have become by its end. To her credit, Jensen knows exactly what truths lie behind all of the mysteries and deceptions, and she’s willing to show them to us; Sins of the Fathers does have a payoff. Nevertheless, it’s all starting to feel a little banal by the time we arrive at the big climax inside the voodoo cult’s antiseptic high-tech headquarters. It’s easier to be scared of shadowy spirits of evil from the distant past than it is of voodoo bureaucrats flashing their key cards in a complex that smacks of a Bond villain’s secret hideaway.

The tribal art on the wall lets you know this is a voodoo cult’s headquarters. Somehow I never expected elevators and fluorescent lighting in such a place…

Many of you — especially those of you who count yourselves big fans of Sins of the Fathers — are doubtless saying by now that I’m being much, much too hard on it. And you have a point; I am holding this game’s fiction to a higher standard than I do that of most adventure games. In a sense, though, the game’s very conception of itself makes it hard for a critic to avoid doing so. It so clearly wants to be a more subtle, more narratively and thematically rich, more “adult” adventure game that I feel forced to take it at its word and hold it to that higher standard. One could say, then, that the game becomes a victim of its own towering ambitions. Certainly all my niggling criticisms shouldn’t obscure the fact that, for all that its reach does often exceed its grasp, it’s brave of the game to stretch itself so far at all.

That said, I can’t help but continue to see Sins of the Fathers more as a noble failure than a masterpiece, and I can’t keep myself from placing much of the blame at the feet of Sierra rather than Jane Jensen per se. I played it most recently with my wife, as I do many of the games I write about here. She brings a valuable perspective because she’s much, much smarter than I am but couldn’t care less about where, when, or whom the games we play came from; they’re strictly entertainments for her. At some point in the midst of playing Sins of the Fathers, she turned to me and remarked, “This would probably have been a really good game if it had been made by that other company.”

I could tell I was going to have to dig a bit to ferret out her meaning: “What other company?”

“You know, the one that made that time-travel game we played with the really nerdy guy and that twitchy girl, and the one about the dog and the bunny. I think they would have made sure everything just… worked better. You know, fixed all of the really irritating stuff, and made sure we didn’t have to look at a walkthrough all the time.”

That “other company” was, of course, LucasArts.

One part of Sins of the Fathers in particular reminds me of the differences between the two companies. There comes a point where Gabriel has to disguise himself as a priest, using a frock stolen from St. Louis Cathedral and some hair gel from his own boudoir, in order to bilk an old woman out of her knowledge of voodoo. This is, needless to say, another example of the dissonance between the game’s serious plot and goofy puzzles, but we’ve covered that ground already. What’s more relevant right now is the game’s implementation of the sequence. Every time you visit the old woman — which will likely be several times if you aren’t playing from a walkthrough — you have to laboriously prepare Gabriel’s disguise all over again. It’s tedium that exists for no good reason; you’ve solved the puzzle once, and the game ought to know you’ve solved it, so why can’t you just get on with things? I can’t imagine a LucasArts game subjecting me to this. In fact, I know it wouldn’t: there’s a similar situation in Day of the Tentacle, where, sure enough, the game whips through the necessary steps for you every time after the first.

Father Gabriel. (Sins of the fathers indeed, eh?)

This may seem a small, perhaps even petty example, but, multiplied by a hundred or a thousand, it describes why Sierra adventures — even their better, more thoughtful efforts like this one — so often wound up more grating than fun. Sins of the Fathers isn’t a bad adventure game, but it could have been so much better if Jensen had had a team around her armed with the development methodologies and testing processes that could have eliminated its pixel hunts, cleaned up its unfair and/or ill-fitting puzzles, told her when Gabriel was starting to sound more like a sexual predator than a laid-back lady’s man, and smoothed out the rough patches in its plot. None of the criticisms I’ve made of the game should be taken as a slam against Jensen, a writer with special gifts in exactly those areas where other games tend to disappoint. She just didn’t get the support she needed to reach her full potential here.

The bitter irony of it all is that LucasArts, a company that could have made Sins of the Fathers truly great, lacked the ambition to try anything like it in lieu of the cartoon comedies which they knew worked for them; meanwhile Sierra, a company with ambition in spades, lacked the necessary commitment to detail and quality. I really don’t believe, in other words, that Sins of the Father represents some limit case for the point-and-click adventure as a storytelling medium. I think merely that it represents, like all games, a grab bag of design choices, some of them more felicitous than others.

Still, if what we ended up with is the very definition of a mixed bag, it’s nevertheless one of the most interesting and important such in the history of adventure games, a game whose influence on what came later, both inside and outside of its genre, has been undeniable. I know that when I made The King of Shreds and Patches, my own attempt at a lengthy horror adventure with a serious plot, Sins of the Fathers was my most important single ludic influence, providing a bevy of useful examples both of what to do and what not to do. (For instance, I copied its trigger-driven approach to plot chronology — but I made sure to include a journal to tell the player what issues she should be working on at any given time, thereby to keep her from wandering endlessly looking for the random whatsit that would advance the time.) I know that many other designers of much more prominent games than mine have also taken much away from Sins of the Fathers.

So, should you play Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers? Absolutely. It’s a fascinating example of storytelling ambition in games, and, both in where it works and where it fails, an instructive study in design as well. A recent remake helmed by Jane Jensen herself even fixes some of the worst design flaws, although not without considerable trade-offs: the all-star cast of the original game has been replaced with less distinctive voice acting, and the new graphics, while cleaner and sharper, don’t have quite the same moody character as the old. Plague or cholera; that does seem to be the way with adventure games much of the time, doesn’t it? With this game, one might say, even more so than most of them.

The big climax. Yes, it does look a little ridiculous — but hey, they were trying.

(Sources: the book Influential Game Designers: Jane Jensen by Anastasia Salter; Sierra’s newsletter InterAction of Spring 1992, Summer 1993, and Holiday 1993; Computer Gaming World of November 1993 and March 1994. Online sources include “The Making of… The Gabriel Knight Trilogy” from Edge Online; an interview with Jane Jensen done by the old webzine The Inventory, now archived at The Gabriel Knight Pages; “Happy Birthday, Gabriel Knight from USgamer; Jane Jensen’s “Ask Me Anything” on Reddit. Academic pieces include “Revisiting Gabriel Knight” by Connie Veugen from The Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet Volume 7; Jane Jensen’s Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers: The Numinous Woman and the Millennium Woman” by Roberta Sabbath from The Journal of Popular Culture Volume 31 Issue 1. And, last but not least, press releases, annual reports, and other internal and external documents from the Sierra archive at the Strong Museum of Play.

Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers is available for purchase both in its original version and as an enhanced modern remake.)

"Aaron Reed"

Working On Our Thoughts:

by Aaron A. Reed at August 02, 2019 03:42 PM

Working On Our Thoughts: Tool Revolutions and Interactive Content

I recently was invited to speak on behalf of Spirit AI at the Virtual Beings Summit in San Francisco, a unique group of innovators working on various facets of one of today’s most interesting challenges: creating lifelike digital characters and avatars. Maybe counterintuitively, I decided to use my time to focus less on the cutting-edge work we’re doing with Character Engine and more on some lessons from the past.

I believe we’re on the cusp of a huge revolution in how stories are told. The tech maturing today will open a whole new avenue for writers and storytellers to share their ideas. The thrust of my talk was my belief that the biggest challenge we’re facing right now in this space isn’t a technical one: it’s creating the quill, the toolset that will allow creators to leverage AI to help bring their visions to life.

In the rest of the talk I took a survey back through other moments in history when our tools for capturing and sharing ideas had to change. In the 7th century, for instance, St. Isidore of Seville lamented the fact that the sounds of music vanished and there was no way of writing them down. This seems incredible, today, that you could wonder whether it was even possible to record musical melodies: but in St. Isidore’s world there simply was no technology to do so, nor was it clear there even could be. While other cultures unknown to him had, centuries earlier, solved this problem in various ways, the European tradition had yet to catch up. It wasn’t until the 11th century that a Benedictine monk, Guido d’Arezzo, devised the core of what would evolve into modern staff notation, a system which allows anyone who learns it to accurately record and share music, and which has survived as a standard now for coming up on a thousand years.

Printed books went through a long period of experimentation and transformation after the invention of the printing press, when things that seem incredibly obvious now had to be worked out through trial and error. Page numbering, margins, bindings, tables of contents and indices, the sizes and shapes of books, the legibility of fonts: these and many other details had to be slowly and painstakingly evolved. Early bookmakers did this work of experimenting: they didn’t just settle for imperfect traditions carried forward from the days of hand-inscription. They figured out what worked in the new world of the printing press.

Even something as straightforward as the computer mouse signaled a shift not just in technological capabilities, but in how everyday people interacted with computers. Input for most users in the 1980s was becoming less and less about entering complex commands and more and more about choosing from a range of options that could fit on a screen. Here the right tool was something radically simpler, and that streamlining opened up personal computing to a new and much larger audience.

Image courtesy Christopher W. and Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 2.0.

There’s a famous anecdote about how when Nietzsche first sat down at a typewriter, the first words he wrote on it were “Our writing tools are also working on our thoughts.” I can personally attest how painful it is to use the wrong tool for the job of creating interactive content. Whether you’re trying to write the middle of a branching conversation in a word processor, forcing you to try to remember the different possibilities that might come before or after which you can’t see onscreen; working on procedural text in a spreadsheet program that can’t even word wrap properly; or stuck in a proprietary tool that’s falling out of date, bloated with abandoned features, and prone to crashing: not only are these tools frustrating, they don’t help you think procedurally. You forget about the cool nonlinear affordances your system supports and start writing regular dialogue scenes. It starts seeming too difficult to do something truly interactive and you simplify for the sake of your own sanity. Your writing tools are working on your thoughts.

Try not to let office suites work on your interactive narrative thoughts, as a general rule. (Image from an old project of the author’s with content edited via Excel.)

We’ve talked a lot on this blog about the ways we’re trying to build a better authoring tool for Character Engine. It’s a long, long road to build a genuinely new kind of tool, and we’re certainly not there yet. But I firmly believe the most successful platform for virtual beings won’t be the one with the flashiest tech or the smartest code. It’ll be the one with the best tools.

Working On Our Thoughts: was originally published in Spirit AI on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

July 31, 2019

sub-Q Magazine

Author Interview: Eleanor Hingley

by Stewart C Baker at July 31, 2019 06:42 PM

Eleanor Hingley has been writing and gaming, and writing about gaming, for longer than she cares to remember. Find more of her interactive fiction at and non-interactive fiction at She writes reviews of role-playing games and comment on gaming culture at Eleanor is the author of “A Tragedy of Manners,” from our August 2019 issue.

This interview was conducted via e-mail in July of 2019.

Eleanor Hingley

Sub-Q Magazine: What does Interactive Fiction mean to you?

Eleanor Hingley: I’ve loved gamebooks and story-rich computer games for a long time now, but I focused entirely on writing non-interactive fiction for over a decade. Now that I’m learning about interactive fiction, I’m constantly surprised by how playful the process of writing it is, and how much resonance stories can have when the reader has made choices shaping their own experience. I feel that I’m just scratching the surface of what the form can do, and I’m so excited to explore it further!

Sub-Q: One thing that really made this game stand out to us is the deftness with which you use minor details to call up a galaxy-spanning setting. Which came first when you thought up this game: the details, or the setting?

Eleanor: The details were a huge part of what inspired me to write this game. I wanted to take the time to convey richness and luxury, but also to use references to the wider setting to make it seem vast and storied. I say ‘seem’ because the details often led to making up setting elements as I went along! In a novel like ‘Dune’, you get a sense that you’re just at the tip of the iceberg and there’s so much more to explore — a lot of the joy of writing this game was discovering the stories of my own universe as I went.

Sub-Q: We love a good space opera. What are some of your favourites–whether in fiction or in games?

Eleanor: I grew up watching ‘Star Wars’, so my heart will always be with the scoundrels, rebels and space knights! I love anything with dashing space adventures and distant galaxies. Recently I’ve fallen in love with ‘Killjoys’ and ‘Thor: Ragnarok’ for their wit, heart and style. For my game, I particularly drew on ‘Dune’, the ‘Metabarons’ comics, ‘The Chronicles of Riddick’, and ‘The Collapsing Empire’ by John Scalzi.

Sub-Q: The title of this game seems like a pretty clear reference to the dramatic genre of “Comedy of Manners.” Other than the social setting and the title, did you draw any inspiration from that genre?

Eleanor: Absolutely! I love the absurd overreactions characters have in comedies of manners, particularly to breaches in etiquette, so I thought it would be interesting to combine that with a baroque space opera setting where social dilemmas could lead to literal death. Using a light-hearted genre for quite a grim setting appealed to me, and I liked the idea of trying to convey some of the frantic pressure-cooker feel of a farcical plot through an interactive genre.

Sub-Q: What are you working on next?

Eleanor: I tend to write lots of different forms at once: interactive fiction, role-playing games, blogging and novels. Right now I’m working with some amazing teams on independent Dungeons & Dragons adventure anthologies, such as the Uncaged Anthology on the Dungeon Master’s Guild. I’m keen to go back and expand some of my other pieces of interactive fiction on — I wrote them for game jams under time pressure, so I’d love to expand them beyond their original scope. Beyond that, I’m enjoying plotting a traditional English ghost story in the style of M.R. James as a piece of interactive fiction, though it is proving to be quite the challenge!

The post Author Interview: Eleanor Hingley appeared first on sub-Q Magazine.

Author Interview: Nin Harris

by Natalia Theodoridou at July 31, 2019 06:42 PM

Nin Harris is an author, poet, and tenured postcolonial Gothic scholar who exists in a perpetual state of unheimlich. Nin writes Gothic fiction, cyberpunk, nerdcore post-apocalyptic fiction, planetary romances and various other forms of hyphenated weird fiction. Nin’s publishing credits include Clarkesworld, Uncanny Magazine, Strange Horizons, The Dark, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Lightspeed. Nin is the author of our August story, “War is a Mazed Garden” which was first run as a Twitter-based IF in July 2019. 

This interview was conducted via email and chat in July 2019.

Nin Harris

sub-Q Magazine: “War Is a Mazed Garden” shares a world with some of your other work. Could you talk a little about this world and the stories set in it? How did Sesen come about? What brings you back to it?

Nin Harris: Sesen was a world I created as a teenager and it was always this weird slipstream thing that I knew was SF, but I also knew I wanted to play with it so there would be some fantasy/mythic elements. The premise was that settlers on a new planet would build their own stories and mythologies. I’ve always been obsessed by the classics and with history and folklore/fairytales. As a kid I was a weird thing, frequently frightening adults with my solemn pronouncements. But as a teenager these ideas weren’t developed enough and I think I’ve spent most of my life learning weird things for “research”. Up till my mid-twenties I was working on “The Novel That Never Ends” which was basically part of my Sesen series of novels. I gave up on it and started writing other short stories and other novels — but I never forgot Sesen and in my mid-30s, just before I went off for my PhD, redid the entire worldbuilding system from the ground up and renamed everything.

Sometime in 2014, I wrote a suite of short stories to complement “Tower of the Rosewater Goblet”. And to my utter astonishment and delight they’ve nearly all sold (the only one left unpublished is also unfinished as of this writing). I started writing other stories and am optimistic about returning to the novel project after I am done with my Cantata of the Fourfold Realms project.

One of my major influences for the evolution of Sesen was Ursula K. LeGuin’s planetary romances. It tapped into what I always wanted to do with these stories — talk about the human condition in an alien setting. As a racially hybrid 13 year old going through various traumas, building this world saved me. I guess that’s as good an answer as any.

sub-Q Magazine: For the benefit of our readers seeking to read more of Nin’s Sesen stories, here is a list of work published so far:

1. “Tower of the Rosewater Goblet” in Strange Horizons (January 2016)
2. “Morning Cravings” in the People of Colo(u)r Destroy Science Fiction issue of Lightspeed (June 2016)
3. “Butter-Daughters” in The Sockdolager (October 2016)
4. “What The Stories Steal” in Clarkesworld (November 2016)
5. “Violets on the Tongue” in Clarkesworld (April 2018)
6. “Benefactors of Silence” in Beneath Ceaseless Skies (January 2018)
7. “A Cream-Broker’s Courtship” in Lackington’s (April 2019)
8. “Dreams Strung Like Pearls Between War and Peace” in Clarkesworld (March 2019)
9. “Murderbunny’s Magical Moonlight Ride” in Toasted Cake (April 2019)

sub-Q Magazine: What is war to you?

Nin: I don’t know how I can adequately answer this question. I think war is a horrible, ugly thing and the worst thing humanity can wreak upon the universe. But I’ve also been fascinated by the connection between humanity and war. Any student of history and literature would be. As that weirdo 8 year old kid I mentioned, I once stood in front of an entire classroom (we were supposed to do presentations on anything, most people talked about their pets, their friends, idek?), and I lectured them on “Why Is War Even Necessary” followed by a description of World War II, and then, staring at everyone’s faces at the end, awkwardly broke out into a rendition of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” (that saved the day, I think that was the only thing they remembered!).

sub-Q Magazine: Do you have longer work planned in this world?

Nin: The Yrole Triptych is definitely in the works. I already started revising the first novel (a much evolved version of The Novel That Never Ends) and will likely return to it after I am done writing my Cantata of the Fourfold Realms novels (projected as a duology), and Streets Eclectic, a Gothic fantasy set in my Penang-based laneworld storyverse.

sub-Q Magazine: What first drew you to Twitter-based games?

Nin: To be honest, #BungalowSariOne started as a whim. I’d been doing some polls randomly and people seemed to be enjoying them. Then I thought “what if I did a hypertext in poll form”. I’ve since discovered a few other people have also been doing poll games so I can’t claim to be the first but I did enjoy working on it a lot.

sub-Q Magazine: You also teach interactive/hypertext fiction to creative writing students. What do you think writers can get out of working with IF?

Nin: I’ve been teaching hypertext fiction and IF to students since 2011 after I got back from my PhD studies in Australia. While studying, I’d read several critical works on electronic literature and hypertext fiction that got me all fired up about doing something pedagogical with it (although I’ve been working on several hypertext projects since the 90s!). I think it’s particularly helpful w/ EFL/ESL students as it allows them to be intuitive and non-linear in dealing with narrative.

sub-Q Magazine: You are a working academic as well as a prolific fiction writer and poet. How do you find a balance between your academic career and your creative work? Not that these are necessarily antithetical.

Nin: I’d hardly categorize myself as prolific! I feel I’m massively underachieving compared to most of the high-flyers in SFF fiction/poetry! But yes, it is still a decent amount of publications. Some days, I honestly don’t know how I do it. I think about Edna St Vincent Millay’s “First Fig” a lot. My candle feels like it is burning on both ends. But I also feel both aspects of what I do feed into and inform each other. I am a literary academic who teaches creative writing. The research I do on narrative and discourse feeds into my practice as a creative writing instructor and as an author/poet. I just need to be careful not to overtax my reserves and manage my time wisely. These things do not always occur but I find it helps to have a plan. This year, I’ve tried bullet journaling and it’s really helped. Last year I had a planner system using word docs, but in 2019 it’s all analogue and it’s just really restful and meditative.

sub-Q Magazine: What’s next for you?

Nin: It’s the semester break right now. For academics, this means a flurry of meetings and planning for the next semester as well as catching up on writing deadlines. I’ve got a few articles to revise and send out to academic journals, short stories to finish, a novel to revise, an academic monograph to finish drafting and I’m running a fairytale conference disguised as a seminar series.

I also have two forthcoming short stories, “Colonized Bodies, Desiccated Souls” (postcolonial historical zombie) will be out at Diabolical Plots while “When Hope Is Lost, Touch Remains” (Gothic fantasy inflected with folk horror set in my alt-Penang laneworld storyverse) will be forthcoming from Podcastle at some point.

The post Author Interview: Nin Harris appeared first on sub-Q Magazine.

Emily Short

End of July Link Assortment

by Mort Short at July 31, 2019 05:41 PM


On August 3, the SF Bay Area IF Meetup will get together at the Museum of Art and Digital Entertainment.

DiGRA 2019 is being held August 6-10 in Kyoto.

The second round of XYZZY voting is open from now til August 9. Anyone who wants to participate is eligible to vote on the best IF of 2018, with the constraint that people should not vote for their own works and may not canvas for votes. Congrats to all the finalists! (Since Cragne Manor with its 80+ authors was nominated, I suspect this year features by far the largest field of XYZZY nominees ever…)

August 10 is the next date for the Baltimore/DC IF Meetup, discussing Omen Exitio: The Plague.

August 11 is the deadline for submitting games to WordPlay 2019 in Toronto (the event itself takes place November 9-10).

Boston Gameloop 2019 will take place on August 17.

The IEEE Conference on Games (CoG) will be August 20-23 in London. I am keynoting.

The Foundations of Digital Games Conference (FDG) is happening August 26-30 in San Luis Obispo.

September 1 is the deadline to register your intent to participate in IFComp 2019.

If you want to submit a speaker application for WordPlay 2019, the cutoff there is also September 1.

The 20th annual European GAME-ON® Conference on Simulation and AI in Computer Games is September 18-20 in Breda, The Netherlands.


The folks at Thorny Games have a number of intriguing projects available currently highlighted. Their tabletop RPG Dialect: A Game About Language and How It Dies is up for Game of the Year at the 2019 Gen Con ENnies. The game allows players to make (and potentially destroy) their own languages.

Dialect originally had its Kickstarter campaign in 2016, and the physical copy was shipped to the original backers last year. One of the minds behind the project is David Peterson, who created the Dothraki and High Valyrian conlangs for Game of Thrones.

Dialect is available in both a digital edition and a hard copy (and there are a few reviews out there, as well).

In addition, Thorny has a pair of other projects (also language-focused). Sign, which is based on the 1977 creation of a sign language in Nicaragua, is currently for sale. Meanwhile the upcoming Xenolanguage is currently in playtesting, but is aiming for a 2019 release.

If you’re curious about what Sign and Dialect are like to play, Sam Kabo Ashwell has just posted reviews of both.

Digital activities and classes are taking place through Oxfordshire libraries this summer. Among the offerings are classes on IF.

Texture has added a few recent features, notably: a “private library” option under the New Story button, as well as an “unlisted link” option for publishing games without making them public.

Phoenix Leicester is hosting the experimental game Langoors in the Labyrinth, a new commission by Studio Oleomingus. Designed to be played by two players across two screens, the game is set in post-colonial India, and runs until August 18. Dhruv Jani will lead a workshop on interactive storytelling via Skype on August 10, also at Phoenix. Space is limited, so if you’re interested, book in advance.

Articles & Links

Adam Cadre presents another year’s worth of most excellent prose stylings, with the winners of the 2019 Lyttle Lytton Contest.

Articy is posting video recordings of the talks from Narrascope in June, but Storygames by Aaron A. Reed is excellent and well worth a look. Also in a couple of cool pieces of news from Aaron: the recent release of Downcrawl, a supplementary tabletop RPG book, which is available this month. In addition, Archives of the Sky won a Judges’ Spotlight award at Gen Con this year.


New Releases

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In the last Link Assortment, I mentioned the updated version of Nocked! True Tales of Robin Hood, which was originally created for iOS but is newly available on Steam. For additional information, you can see the press release here, which goes into great detail about the snazzy new features.


This isn’t IF, but if (continuing what seems to be a theme of this roundup) you’re interested in language use, linguistics, and digital culture, you may like Because Internet, a book by Gretchen McCulloch on how language use has evolved online.