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Planet Interactive Fiction

Wednesday, 18. May 2022

Renga in Blue

Xanadu Adventure: The Easy Part

As I mentioned last time, difficulty for Xanadu likely points in a very different direction than Quondam. According to the ad copy for the game there are “over 100 rooms” and I have 95 or so of them mapped, so it feels like I might already have most of the layout of the game. There […]

My map in progress; incomplete, but probably not terribly so.

As I mentioned last time, difficulty for Xanadu likely points in a very different direction than Quondam. According to the ad copy for the game there are “over 100 rooms” and I have 95 or so of them mapped, so it feels like I might already have most of the layout of the game. There have been some puzzles along the way but they have all had a very cribbed-from Adventure feel that made them easy to solve. For example:

You’re at the South end of the vaulted chamber. There are no openings in the walls, but there is a six foot diameter hole in the ceiling through which the light shines.

It was not shocking to find a beanstalk was needed.

Backing up a little, one of the things I did in Madness in the Minotaur that I now believe was a mistake was to keep iterating on new random layouts for too long before settling on a “final map”. This time I saved my game immediately on my first attempt and kept going to that save, with all the objects already in their places (there’s still at least a little randomization done mid-game, which I’ll get to). This meant I could treat item locations as normal and immutable on making a map. I may still find something in the layout is impossible to reckon with later, but for now I feel like I’ve had a lucky draw, especially given the dragon from last time. Remember I died in two steps? This time I bought a sword and tried my luck, and managed to slay it.

MINH, when used in a nearby “Magic Room”, teleports treasures to the aboveground, and if no treasures are at hand, teleports yourself to the aboveground. It also works to teleport back again. It is, in other words, good for optimizing steps, although I haven’t got to that phase yet.

Nearby the dragon corpse was a small chasm, but help was nearby (at least in my iteration):

I think the ladder doesn’t have many places it can go, because you get stopped trying to take it down passages going the “wrong way” (it’s described as too big to carry), I assume with the intent to avoid breaking some puzzle later?

The chasm area incidentally had some keys which unlocked the grate I found at the start, so there’s yet another passage to the surface.

Shades of The Hermit’s Secret (except in that game nothing needed to be optimized).

There’s a shockingly tame maze; nothing much to say about it other than I found a “growbag” (needed for that beanstalk earlier) and a “dulcimer” (needed shortly for a different puzzle).

Just past the beanstalk, exactly like Crowther/Woods, there is a door that needs oil. Going even farther, there’s a troll demanding a treasure, although we finally have one deviation, since I haven’t found the FEE/FIE/FOE/FUM eggs and I’m not sure how to toss a treasure to the troll without losing it. I can still preview the rest of the map, though.

Past the bridge is a castle, with an interesting “trap room” with two phials were one of them says “poison” and the other one says “transporter”.

As far as I can tell, if you drink the poison or not is random, so if you get it wrong you just need to restore a save and try again.

There’s also a giant (…again similar to Adventure, although you never meet the giant in that game…) which can be lulled to sleep.

The magic word you get here can be one instead that teleports you back to safety aboveground. I have one puzzle I haven’t solved yet via “normal” means — a giant cockroach with skin too tough to break through — by using ITHURD instead. I don’t know if that’s “wrong” or just one possible approach.

So far, so standard. If I didn’t know better I think I’d wandered into the most standard Adventure clone we’ve seen yet, but unless various commenters of the past are playing a very long con, things are about to get very sticky as I try to liberate all the treasures I’ve seen. I suspect there’s a lot of under-the-surface difficulties that don’t manifest until I’ve started sending up cargo.

Let me give an example of what might come up. There’s a very short side room trip that’s needed to fill a bottle with water for beanstalk-watering.

Oh yes, there’s a dwarf that fixes broken swords. I have yet to break a sword. The several times I encountered a second dragon (randomly, after the first one with the paper) I straight-up died, with no chance to break anything.

Technically, going in the Chamber With Pool and filling-up takes three precious turns of torch light. Original Adventure let you fill a bottle outdoors, but it’s not possible here because the stream is dried up. But what if there was a puzzle to refill the dry stream, not for any holistic benefit, but just to save the three moves it takes to get water underground? That’s the kind of evil contortion I’m keeping my eyes out for.

Tuesday, 17. May 2022

Wade's Important Astrolab

Autumnal Jumble 2022 review: Phenomena by Dawn Sueoka

Preface: When I tried Phenomena, I didn't realise it had some mechanical interactivity in it; you can click the lines in the poems to change them. I reviewed it without this knowledge, and that's the review you're about to read. Phenomena made a bit of a mistake in not giving any direct instructions about how/where you could change elements in its presentation.–––Phenomena by Dawn Sueoka, a Back Ga

Preface: When I tried Phenomena, I didn't realise it had some mechanical interactivity in it; you can click the lines in the poems to change them. I reviewed it without this knowledge, and that's the review you're about to read. Phenomena made a bit of a mistake in not giving any direct instructions about how/where you could change elements in its presentation.

–––

Phenomena by Dawn Sueoka, a Back Garden entry in Autumnal Jumble 2022, is a set of seven seven-line poems about UFOS. These poems are static from a technical perspective. It is their shared subject matter, and the broad similarity of their trajectories and on-screen presentation, that invites cross-reading of them. The author encourages readers to do this in the epigraph; this is the site of interactivity. The author says that the inspiring model is the 1961 book "A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems" by Raymond Queneau.

I like the poems. Some are sensorial and about gazing at the sky ("Only the flimsiest stars were visible"), others are metaphorical about what's up there. The one called AND HOW WOULD YOU UNPACK THAT? reads like an art film depiction of a pscyhoanalytic session under hypnosis. I was surprised that there were a few laughs and cute moments about the place, too. The first poem quickly moves from its evocative introduction to a camp bit of dialogue with which to greet a flying saucer: "Hello, darling!" Some of the last poem could be a quasi-text-messaging gotcha:

"This was never a story about UFOs!

It was a story about the night all along lol."

I also love comedic dialogue that magnifies pettiness, and the last line of the poem called HE WOULDN'T SHUT UP ABOUT HIS PLANET is, "Go back to your stupid planet, then, if you love it so much!"

The modern or colloquial elements woven amongst more expected (by me, in poetry) lyrical content in Phenomena make me wonder if some stochastic element was used to help make the poems. What I can say of each poem is that it has a satisfying dynamic of its own.

This brings me to the invitation to interactivity. Once I noticed each poem had seven lines, I tried flitting between them to see if I could slice equivalent numbered lines amongst the poems to new effect. The reason this didn't do much for me is because I'm already quite satisfied with the poems. Why muck around with complete entities I like? The other issue is one of technical facilitation. I'd have found the poem-slicing easier if I could have at least clicked instantly on any poem at any time so that the poems would visually replace each other on-screen. Instead, poems are separated by a BACK button. Still, I noted that a couple of poems, while maintaining an internal dynamic, consist entirely of one type of content. Poem five has only one-word lines. Poem six is all direct speech. In this way, they would allow their respective content types to be slid into any position in another poem.

I enjoyed reading Phenomena's poems as they are, and I was interested to learn of the "A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems" idea, but since the whole thing's presented digitally, I think its invitation to read its poems in different ways would be more appetising if it leveraged some programming or a user interface that would help a reader do this.

Monday, 16. May 2022

Renga in Blue

Xanadu Adventure (1982)

Paul Shave (see previously: Atom Adventure, Pirate Island) went for broke with his last adventure, moving from the Atom to the more capable BBC Micro. Back in 2014 he was contacted by Anthony Hope (one of our regular commenters); Paul helped Anthony beat Xanadu Adventure, and as Paul himself stated in this interview: I’m pretty […]

Paul Shave (see previously: Atom Adventure, Pirate Island) went for broke with his last adventure, moving from the Atom to the more capable BBC Micro. Back in 2014 he was contacted by Anthony Hope (one of our regular commenters); Paul helped Anthony beat Xanadu Adventure, and as Paul himself stated in this interview:

I’m pretty sure he [Anthony] was the first.

In other words, at the time of release, it was too difficult for anyone to beat. Will it dethrone Quondam as the most difficult adventure ever?

From Every Game Going.

Having built up that hype, I should add the caveat that “difficulty” is not really a linear spectrum and has lots of elements mashed inside. Judging by Atom Adventure (which Anthony Hope claims is sort of a mini-version of Xanadu) the difficult aspects go in a rather different direction.

Quondam involved paying attention to extreme object micro-interactions, and was tightly packed with nearly every action requiring some sort of puzzle to be solved.

Xanadu’s difficulty is in randomization and optimized timing. Regarding the latter, most games — even the evil Phoenix mainframe ones — gave a lamp with a relatively generous lifespan that doesn’t require watching every step. The Paul Shave games all have, on the other hand, given exactly the amount of light needed, and not a step more; this gets to the level of being cautious what entrance to take into a cave as one entrance uses up a precious extra move of light and will eventually cause failure.

The randomization I’ve seen places some objects at random, so despite the absolute optimization condition above, you still have to deal with improvising a path (and Atom Adventure, at least, occasionally gave a literally impossible layout).

Absolutely tight limits and randomization make for an incredibly high-pressure experience. The closest comparison I can think of is Madness and the Minotaur (which I played last year) but while Madness and the Minotaur arguably had even more randomization, it at least tried to provide ample opportunity to “refresh” decaying health and light sources, going as far as randomly spawning a new refresh after one gets used up. I don’t expect any such niceties here.

As is usual for authors still under the shadow of Crowther/Woods, the objective is to gather treasures. As is slightly unusual, the instructions state you need to DEPOSIT the treasures rather than DROP them to get points. The instructions don’t give how many treasures there are or even a maximum possible score.

Before embarking further, I should also note this odd portion from the instructions:

There are lots of dwarves and dragons about. To kill them, you need weapons (you can kill them without, but it’s very unlikely). A sword has a weapon count of 10, an axe’s count is 5. To kill a dragon outright, you need a weapon count of 20; for a dwarf it’s 15, but if you throw an axe at a dwarf you always kill it. Your chances of killing monsters are proportional to your weapon count.

It sounds like all the weapons being carried contribute to your weapon “count” (as opposed to just using your best one), so if you have a sword, an axe, and a ??? you can outright kill dragons, but only have a probability of doing it with a sword. This feels weird and uneasy and I suspect there’s a trick hidden here somewhere.

The “1 or 2 Adventurers” question is interesting, but I’m going to ignore that feature for the moment.

You start in an “adventurer shop”, and no, you can’t just buy two swords right away for some dragon hunting action; the shop runs out. I’m unclear what’s optimal here but I’m the “messing about” portion of my gameplay so far so I’m trying everything out, including the postcards.

Speaking of postcards, I did my usual process for ultra-hard games and created a verb list right away. MAIL is not on my usual-test list but I thought it might work on the postcards.

CLIMB, SWIM, READ, BREAK, OPEN, CLOSE, DRINK, EAT, KILL, FILL, LIGHT, THROW, HIT, UNLOCK, LOCK, POUR, PAY, FEED, PULL, SCARE, USE, INSERT, KICK, BUY, STAB, PLAY, FIGHT, SING, CROSS, MEND, MAIL, DEPOSIT

A few to keep in mind as I move forward: MEND is quite out-of-the-ordinary (only previously seen in Hezarin) as well as SCARE (which I’ve seen maybe twice?) I also wouldn’t immediately think to SING anywhere, and USE being in play means I’ll need to test it in lots of places. Some of the typical magic-item manipulations like WAVE and RUB are out of play, but there’s always magic words.

After shopping, you go out to find a locked grate, Adventure style, and no keys; your first treasure, a ruby ring; and an empty bottle.

There’s a mostly unmappable forest (I tried, you can see my attempt above, but items started getting moved around and some exits shift at random); the only purpose of going in is to finding a pagoda.

Thankfully for maze-mapping, the “diagonal” directions of NE/NW/SE/SW are not allowed.

In addition to the outside being a treasure deposit area, you can go IN and then DOWN into darkness for what I assume is a random experience. I only got two moves in before getting wrecked by a dragon.

I’m assuming the dragon’s placement is random, and I’d get something less aggressive on a second playthrough. I’ll have to keep throwing dead bodies at the cave and return with a report.


Gold Machine

[3/3] This Ain’t Jumpman: Cutthroats

128K could’ve and the z-machine should’ve. Maybe then Cutthroats would’ve. Watching the Wires Instead of the Actors In two short years, the novel, innovative, and fascinating simulation elements created for 1982’s Deadline had come to feel either exhausted or misspent. In Cutthroats, various cardboard cutouts of underdescribed character “types” get shuffled aroun

128K could’ve and the z-machine should’ve. Maybe then Cutthroats would’ve.

Watching the Wires Instead of the Actors

In two short years, the novel, innovative, and fascinating simulation elements created for 1982’s Deadline had come to feel either exhausted or misspent. In Cutthroats, various cardboard cutouts of underdescribed character “types” get shuffled around a less-than-vivant tableau vivant of mostly repetitive, empty geography. I hope readers will forgive the length of this quoted passage, which adequately dramatizes the rather bare clockwork of Hardscrabble Island:

>i
You are carrying:
  A Mariners' Trust passbook
  A room key
  A wrist watch (being worn)
You have $15 in your pocket.

>e
Wharf Road
You are on the Wharf Road, with the McGinty Salvage office to the south. The ocean lies to the north, its brine smell strong and refreshing.

>e
Wharf Road
You are on the Wharf Road where the wharf starts up to the north. The former site of Outfitters International's warehouse fronts the south side of the road.

>s
Vacant Lot
You are standing on the former site of the Outfitters International warehouse, which burned down a few months back. To the north is the Wharf Road and an alley is to the south.

>s
Back Alley
You are in an east/west alley. To the north is a vacant lot, and an overgrown field lies to the south.

>e
Back Alley
You are in an alley behind Outfitters International. An abandoned field lies to the south.

>e
Back Alley
You're at the east end of an east/west alley. The back door of The Shanty is to the north, and an overgrown field is to the south. Narrow paths to the northeast and southeast lead to the Ocean Road.

>se
Ocean Road
You are halfway along the Ocean Road, with the start of an alley off to the northwest. An empty field lies to your west, and the dangerous ocean shore lies off to your east.

>s
Ocean Road
This is the south end of the Ocean Road. To the southeast is a small path leading up to about 100 feet above sea level. The Ocean Road heads north, and the Shore Road starts to the southwest.

>sw
Shore Road
This is the east end of the Shore Road, an east/west road with a ferry landing at its west end. The Mariners' Trust, the island's only bank, is off to the north. The Ocean Road starts up to the northeast.

>n
Mariners' Trust
You are in Mariners' Trust, the Island's bank. In it are a table and a teller's window. You can see the safe beyond, and it looks pretty empty.
A teller sits behind the window.

>examine passbook
This is a distinctive Mariners' Trust passbook which shows a balance of $603. The last date stamped in it is April 23.

>withdraw $603
The teller takes your passbook, enters the withdrawal, hands you the money and your passbook, and says "Have a good day."

>s
Shore Road
This is the east end of the Shore Road, an east/west road with a ferry landing at its west end. The Mariners' Trust, the island's only bank, is off to the north. The Ocean Road starts up to the northeast.

>ne
Ocean Road
This is the south end of the Ocean Road. To the southeast is a small path leading up to about 100 feet above sea level. The Ocean Road heads north, and the Shore Road starts to the southwest.

>se
Point Lookout
You are at Point Lookout, a small, high cliff that affords a spectacular view of the sea. The cliff bottom is dangerous, so the only safe path is the northwest footpath back to the Ocean Road.

>z
Time passes...

>z
Time passes...

>z
Time passes...
To the northwest McGinty comes into view from the north.

>z
Time passes...
McGinty, off to the northwest, disappears from sight to the southwest.

>z
Time passes...
To the northwest Johnny Red comes into view from the north.

>z
Time passes...
Johnny Red appears, striding like a proud lion.
Johnny turns toward you. "Well? Did you bring the money?"

>show money
(to Johnny Red)
He smiles and flashes a wad that represents the contributions of your three partners.

"Glad you're with us. Since you're okay, I'll level with you. Before Hevlin died, he told me he gave you the book. He also said you could handle this job. He's the one who gave me the dinner plate. I didn't want to say anything in front of Pete and the Weasel just in case.

"We're gonna need a boat, but I don't know which one. If you need deep-sea diving gear, it'll have to be the Mary Margaret. Is the treasure more than 200 feet deep?"
To the northwest McGinty comes into view from the southwest.

>no
"We'll rent the Night Wind. Let's go get what we need."
McGinty, off to the northwest, disappears from sight to the north.
Johnny Red heads off to the northwest.

Note that, near the end, criminal “mastermind” McGinty appears. Performing certain actions or else carrying certain things when he is in the room will render the game unwinnable. So far as I know, Cutthroats never explains how or why this might happen. It seems we are expected to recognize him as a villain; perhaps his cigar gives him away:

McGinty Salvage
You are in the McGinty Salvage office, a concern whose main business is salvaging wrecks. The place is a mess, and the floor is littered with chewed-on cigar stubs. To the north lies the Wharf Road. You can't help feeling uncomfortable here.
McGinty, a small, nervous man, is sitting behind a desk. His lips clamp around a cigar too large for his face.

>examine McGinty
He is wiry, hyper, and devoid of ethics. A fat cigar seems to be his only companion, since he's the type of man who would sell his own mother if given the opportunity.

We are a long way from Deadline‘s luxuriant metatextuality conveyed via interview transcripts and lab reports. Before the player ever meets George, they have a sense of who he is. That certainly is not the case with McGinty, Pete the Rat, The Weasel, or even poor, old Hevelin. Cutthroats‘s greatest achievement is underscoring what a difference Deadline‘s dossier made in terms of reader experience, and additionally emphasizing how empty an IF simulation can be without attention to character development and worldbuilding. The Witness and Suspect fail in similar ways, but no Infocom game based on the Deadline model of simulation fails as explosively as Cutthroats. In the opening half of the game, the player never sees its characters (or setting) take flight because Cutthroats shows little more than the wires holding them aloft.

Cutthroats: Underwater Caving

What of the shipwrecks, then? I think they are the most interesting part of Cutthroats, and they certainly feel the most polished. The main reason is that each shipwreck is essentially a small, constrained “cave game” like Zork. While there was not a mature model for the Hardscrabble Island experience, there certainly was one for moving between enclosed locations, solving puzzles, and finding treasure. However, they are very short compared the island parts of the game, and there are so few of them. The unfortunate result is that the game emphasizes the failed and/or abandoned formal experimentation of the island over the more familiar gameplay of treasure hunting. Adding insult to injury, the game determines which wreck will be available near the very beginning of the game. Completionists will be seeing a lot of the island, and more than once.

The treasure hunts make use of the underwater settings to create unusual puzzles. A problem dealing with an air pocket stands out in particular. Still, there are only a couple of puzzles per dive. The package, which features a colorful photograph (very unusual for Infocom), dramatically portrays a SCUBA diver with a cut air hose (I’m not sure this can happen in-game. As always, feel free to correct me!). The marketing people (and everyone else, I’m sure) knew that the prospects of underwater treasure hunting would excite shoppers, but the game as shipped must have disappointed many of them.

A screen capture from the 1983 platforming game "Jumpman" It shows a horizontal, 2D view of a white stick figure running and jumping on platforms made of green girders. The screen also features 10 red dots scattered across the screen as well as many pink ladders.
Despite its storage and memory limitations, the Commodore 64 excelled as a video game machine.

Cutthroats: Big Ideas, Small Computers

By May 1984, a handful of less powerful (and less popular) microcomputers were falling out of support with Infocom. The TRS-80 line, as well as the TI-99 missed out on Cutthroats altogether. While these decisions served to raise the “floor” for new releases in terms of system requirements, the Commodore 64, which by 1984 was the US market leader in the low-end computer market, was probably too attractive a platform for Infocom to abandon. In fact, with its custom graphics and sound capabilities, many viewed the C64 as a “respectable” alternative to dedicated video game hardware. This was the year after the great video game crash, after all.

What happens, though, if someone has an IBM- or Apple-sized idea for a Commodore 64? One of the things that can happen without scope or requirements management is the skeleton of a large game crammed in a small box. This is what Cutthroats, with its well-made feelie about four shipwrecks (only two made it into the shipped game), sadly turned out to be. Cutthroats declares physically–not just on disk or in code–that it meant to be more than it is.

In fact, as a concept Cutthroats sounds far more ambitious than anything Infocom had ever done: possibly seven wrecks, more activities on the ship, and procedural generation. While such goals would likely be whittled down during the course of the project–isn’t this always the case?–Infocom seemed unwilling to find an intermediate point between a big game and a bad one.

CornerTombStone

When I recently wrote about the end of Infocom’s golden age, I pointed to Sorcerer as a game that capitalized on past successes while falling short in terms of worldbuilding and craft. Cutthroats, meanwhile, is a game that was well-positioned to excel technically and artistically–perhaps raising the bar for IF at large–were it in different managerial hands. Infocom, though, had become a business software company that made games. There was no advantage, from an executive perspective, in cultivating bleeding-edge Interactive Fiction technologies when Infocom’s glorious destiny lay before it. Why invest in the future when you can sell 50k copies in the first year? After Cornerstone launched, word of mouth and game sales wouldn’t matter, anyway.

This was a game that had divided authorial and technical responsibilities between Mike Berlyn and Jerry Wolper, and, perhaps for the first and last time (It’s best to wait until Moonmist before evaluating Stu Galley and Jim Lawrence), this specialization situated Infocom to attend to matters of craft in new and ambitious ways. While the leader of a game company would have perhaps seen the loss of C64 sales as an investment in the future, Infocom, unfortunately, hadn’t been a game company for a while.

The Commodore 64, meanwhile, would remain a strong platform for games designed for sound and graphics, featuring a library ranging from Jumpman to Pool of Radiance. In the long run, Infocom needed Cutthroats more than Commodore did, and Cutthroats needed to be more than it was. In an unusual moment of (well-deserved) snark, Jimmy Maher quips that “Mediocrity, it seems, does have its rewards.”

A screen from the 1984 role-playing game "Pool of Radiance." The screen is divided in three parts: At top left, a drawn pixel image of a skeleton lies in the dirt, surrounded by weeds. At top left, the names of characters are shown with key statistics. The bottom pane contains narrative elements in green letters. The letters curl slightly at their edges to give an old fashioned look.
Pool of Radiance is perhaps one of the most technically impressive C64 ports, using as it did multiple gameplay disks to lend the game its massive scope.

Still, as time would tell, Cornerstone would devour those C64 sales and so much more. What could 50K copies do to shore up a multi-million dollar loss? As it would turn out, things were so upside down with Infocom financially that even a mega hit like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy would not pull the company into shallow waters, let alone to the shore.

Did Somebody Mention The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy?

Next week, Gold Machine will kick off a special, four-part series on Infocom’s second biggest seller of all time, and the greatest “bookware” game of the 1980s. Why is it special? For the first time, Gold Machine will feature a guest author: Aaron A. Reed, author of Subcutanean, 50 Years of Text Adventures, and even more cool stuff! He’ll be giving us an exclusive look at content for the upcoming 50 Years book. I’ll post more as the date gets closer, but this will be one series to watch.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is also the only game out of Infocom’s stacked 1984 lineup that I love, for whatever that’s worth.

Think I’m wrong about Cutthroats or want a Starcross hint? Get in touch! Here, email golmac at golmac.org, or twitter.

The post [3/3] This Ain’t Jumpman: Cutthroats appeared first on Gold Machine.


:: CASA ::

CASA Update - 261 new game entries, 177 new solutions, 111 new maps, 16 new hints, 5 new fixed games

♦ A cry of "It's alive!" seems to be in order! We're almost halfway through 2022 and our site is still flourishing with several very active contributors. With over 250 new games and more than 175 new solutions added in the past few months, text adventures prove to have a strong endurance. If we keep this pace within the next year we will reach the milestone of having a massive amount of 10,000 g

Image
A cry of "It's alive!" seems to be in order! We're almost halfway through 2022 and our site is still flourishing with several very active contributors. With over 250 new games and more than 175 new solutions added in the past few months, text adventures prove to have a strong endurance.

If we keep this pace within the next year we will reach the milestone of having a massive amount of 10,000 games in our database. Apart from our site there are other, very active text adventure communities. Even in 2022 it is possible to take adventure classes, and interesting new games are still being developed. Check for instance I Doesn’t Exist, which will soon seek crowdfunding.

Contributors: Ambat Sasi Nair, Garry, Strident, Alex, RetroBasic, iamaran, redhighlander, Sylvester, boldir, terri, The Glass Fractal, Exemptus, Dorothy, Mousey, Geoff, Denk, ahope1, eriktorbjorn, urbanghost, auraes, OVL, Voltgloss, Canalboy, Sharpworks, Paul Ingerson, nimusi, Sudders, Oloturia


Renga in Blue

Space Gorn (1982)

We just saw a one-move game in the May 1982 edition of Softdisk. While we’re going through light adventures let’s knock one more down, appearing in the very next month. As you might tell from the title if you’re a Star Trek fan, yes, this is an original series reference (the Gorn have also shown […]

We just saw a one-move game in the May 1982 edition of Softdisk. While we’re going through light adventures let’s knock one more down, appearing in the very next month.

The actual title of the last game we played was The Room, the filename is A.SHORT.ADVENTURE.

As you might tell from the title if you’re a Star Trek fan, yes, this is an original series reference (the Gorn have also shown up in Discovery….?) To get you in the mood, witness Captain Kirk’s hand-to-hand technique in this slow-moving battle from the episode Arena:

Truly unmatched in the history of martial arts using Styrofoam scenery.

Moving on to the actual game, the title screen gives it as “by Anthony Chiang” and “Chiang Mini-Adventure #1”. The mini part is serious: this is very short.

This is almost more text than the rest of the game.

I should put extra emphasis — unusually short. It’s easy with modern gaming to find endless parades of 15-minute confections on itch.io, some even highly acclaimed, but adventure games circa 1982 tended to longer. I assume (given the last game we just saw) the Softdisk format allowed for publishing tiny projects that would normally never survive to us today.

YOU’RE INSIDE THE SHIP’S DOCK

OBVIOUS EXITS:
NORTH

Here’s the entire map:

In one of the Aardvark opuses they’d have everything criss-crossed multiple times with abstruse object interactions that take hours to detangle. Here, you pick up a “LAZER KEY”, walk a few steps away, unlock a door, and find the SPACE GORN.

WITH ONE MIGHTY SWISH OF HIS TAIL THE SPACE GORN SLICES YOU IN HALF. REST IN PIECE.

.
Just missing a few steps along the way: there’s a picture of William Shatner you need to tear down with a safe behind. You can OPEN PICTURE to find the safe combo inside (there’s a hint elsewhere to do this) and find a disintegrator gun. Fresh batteries for the gun are laying around in the open nearby. A quick hop back to the Gorn, and, victory?

Hmm, at least one catch. Given how little there is to work with … what if we had the Gorn shoot the gun instead? That doesn’t quite work, but the Death Dreadnaught technique works perfectly.

Again: this is, objectively compared to modern games, a minor bit of fluff. But compared to games from the time, intentionally tiny adventures (maybe not action games) are unusual; most self-respecting authors would pad things out with a few more deathtraps or obscure puzzles or at least a maze or two. I have the feeling there are many games like this that were made but — not having an appropriate commercial outlet — were never passed on. The closest comparison I can think of is the early Roger Wilcox work, and the only reason we have those is the author dug up his old tapes and tossed them on his own web page many years later.

And if for some reason the short works bother you, don’t worry; our next game is going to be both long and very heavy and I suspect might be the eventual winner of Most Difficult Adventure of 1982.

Sunday, 15. May 2022

Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling

Mid-May Link Assortment

Events June 4 is the next meeting of the SF Bay IF Meetup.

Saturday, 14. May 2022

Renga in Blue

The Room (1982)

Softdisk Magazette we’ve previously experienced with the Daniel Tobias games, the surprisingly clever Planet of the Robots and the unfortunately bland Smurk. They took a hiatus from adventure games after their January 1982 issue until one arose again in May, of a very unusual nature indeed. So unusual, it is (as of this writing) not […]

Softdisk Magazette we’ve previously experienced with the Daniel Tobias games, the surprisingly clever Planet of the Robots and the unfortunately bland Smurk. They took a hiatus from adventure games after their January 1982 issue until one arose again in May, of a very unusual nature indeed. So unusual, it is (as of this writing) not entered into any games-listing archive. It took major effort to find a copy, as May 1982 is strangely missing from the places I checked; I almost gave up until encountering Softdisk Supreme, a CD with nearly all the Apple II content they ever published (except for some Penguin/Polarware games that had to be removed for copyright reasons).

Having said all that, The Room is Paul Raymer’s only game credit, and only minimally counts as a game. Yet: it somehow accidentally wanders into being the first escape room game (beating the next-earliest candidate by a year), and the first single-command game.

I think most readers are familiar with the former, but let me explain the latter, which is something of a rare breed which only makes sense to talk of with text adventures. The game Aisle by Sam Barlow (of later Silent Hill: Shattered Memories and Her Story fame) is the most prominent example:

Late Thursday night. You’ve had a hard day and the last thing you need is this: shopping. Luckily, the place is pretty empty and you’re progressing rapidly.

The game presents a perfectly ordinary scene in a grocery store, but what’s unusual is then it lets you type nearly any command you might think of. Try to wave at the woman in the same aisle? Lie down and sleep? Rip open bags of pasta and eat them on the spot?

The pasta is a seething mass of off-white food. You tear at the plastic bags until the curls and tubes and twists and shells cascade onto the floor and into your hands. Scooping up a collection of different shapes you cram the pasta into your mouth. It is dry, it is hard. That’s what your body is saying. But you learnt something a while back–that your body (your eyes, your hands, your heart) isn’t always right. No, you’ve learnt to listen to your mind. And your minds says: soft, warm, slightly salty pasta. Tangy sauce. What a feast!

They spoil your fun, they take you away–or so your body says. Your mind knows better; you’re still in Rome eating pasta, drinking wine–everything is fine.

The game is essentially stateless: it simply generates a new story based on your command at that juncture, with no continuation. (The stories don’t even all have a consistent background setting — the main character has multiple possible backgrounds and it picks one depending on the act.)

While I enjoyed Aisle greatly, I’m an even bigger fan of the spoof version, Pick Up the Phone Booth and Aisle (link to play online here).

The Town Square
You are standing in the middle of a pretty town square in the center of a nondescript New England town. Like most any other nondescript New England town, there’s not much to see or do here, but maybe you’ll find something amusing and enjoyable to do.

A shiny metal phone booth sits in the center of the square.

>EAT BOOTH
Ah, yes, the gnocchi flowed freely that week in Venice! She looked at you pleadingly as she bled slowly on the checkered tablecloth, gasping, “My love, do you forgive me?” As you opened your mouth to answer her, a low plooping sound descended and all became black.

Several weeks of hell in total darkness followed, culminating with your joining a bell choir and learning from a young boy how to cook Italian food with moss.

Elegance, Silence, Violence! You wind up sitting alone in a shopping cart somewhere, a lonely old man.

So it is with The Room (1982).

You have one command, and only one, and then the game either tells you about success or failure. Unfortunately, if you try an unsuccessful escape — and it recognizes some wacky ones, like SUPERMAN or DYNAMITE — it just says that whatever you picked “IS NOT THE WAY” as opposed to comedically depicting Superman running into a wall or something. The weird thing is the game could have done this without much extra effort — the author took the time to list a wide variety of escape attempts, and the parser is Eliza-style, meaning it just searches for the keywords, so even sentences work. Without that it’s just the one-off joke of what actually works to escape the room.

Since this is a one-command game, it seems appropriate for me not to spoil the answer here. Please make your best attempt to escape in the comments!

260 REM THE ROOM
270 REM A MYSTERY PROGRAM
280 REM USING ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE
290 REM BUT NOT MUCH
300 REM PAUL RAYMER
310 REM VI/II/MCMLXXX


Impulsing The Game

Wait… What?

Ah yes. Definitions. Who: “What person or people” When: “At what time” Where: “In what place or at what location” Why: “For what reason or purpose” How: “In what way or manner” Hmm… Those all use “what”. Let’s go see what’s “what”. What: “used as an interrogative expressing inquiry about̷

Ah yes. Definitions.

Who: “What person or people”

When: “At what time”

Where: “In what place or at what location”

Why: “For what reason or purpose”

How: “In what way or manner”

Hmm… Those all use “what”. Let’s go see what’s “what”.

What: “used as an interrogative expressing inquiry about…”

Thanks. That clarifies things. We don’t really know what “what” is, but we do know how it’s used.

So the next time someone asks you, “Which is the odd one out of ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘when’, ‘why’, etc.”, now you can tell them.

Thursday, 12. May 2022

Choice of Games LLC

Nikola Tesla: War of the Currents—Rewrite the shocking history of electricity!

We’re proud to announce that Nikola Tesla: War of the Currents, the latest in our popular “Choice of Games” line of multiple-choice interactive-fiction games, is now available for Steam, Android, and on iOS in the “Choice of Games” app. It’s 30% off until May 19th! At the dawn of the electrical age, can you outsmart Thomas Edison and electrify the world? Rewrite history with world

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

It’s 30% off until May 19th!

At the dawn of the electrical age, can you outsmart Thomas Edison and electrify the world? Rewrite history with worldwide wireless power, alien contact, death rays and sapient machines!

Nikola Tesla: War of the Currents is a 225,000-word interactive science-fiction novel by Dora Klindžić. It’s entirely text-based, without graphics or sound effects, and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination.

The man who invented the 20th century was a queer immigrant from Serbia. Nikola Tesla dreamed of distributing free energy to all of mankind but passed away in a New York hotel room alone and forgotten. What if it had gone differently?

In the year 1886, you join the eccentric Tesla as his laboratory apprentice. Notoriously bad at monetizing his inventions, but nonetheless ingenious at building them, Tesla needs your help with making a living wage as much as your help in the lab.

Fend off Edison’s spies, Wall Street bankers, electrical industry magnates and other unsavory types as you navigate real historical adventures involving electrocuted elephants, the Niagara Falls electric plant, pigeons, and that time Mark Twain had the mishap of soiling his trousers in Tesla’s lab.

Develop your own science skills, your social life, or opt to be more business-minded. Manage your mentor’s fragile mental state while balancing your laboratory’s checkbook. Love your work, your pigeon, or pursue a risqué romance with Edison’s daughter. Will you manage to maintain enough funding and influence to prevent the destruction of Wardenclyffe tower and perform the most esoteric of experiments? Bring free power to all, contact the aliens, or accidentally flatten a city. The history of the last great independent inventor, as well as the future of society, are in your hands.

• Play as male, female, or non-binary; gay, straight, bi, or asexual/aromantic.
• Achieve fame through spectacular inventions, people skills or cunning business.
• Change historic events such as the invention of the electric chair, the Chicago World Fair, the social unrest at the turn of the 20th century, and more.
• Monetize your inventions or uphold Tesla’s ideals of working for the betterment of mankind.
• Uncover secret societies lurking in the background of early-capitalist New York.
• Meet a cast of historic characters such as Thomas Edison and his family, George Westinghouse, Mark Twain, J.P. Morgan, Joseph Pulitzer, Lewis Latimer, Charles Steinmetz, Lord Kelvin and many more.

The world awaits in darkness, ready for your electric light.

We hope you enjoy playing Nikola Tesla: War of the Currents. 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.

Wednesday, 11. May 2022

Renga in Blue

The Hermit’s Secret: De Profundis Ad Astra

Into space we go. I missed a few exits, and two seriously random magic word locations. Complete spoilers follow, and make sure you’ve read my other posts first before going on. So I had a nagging feeling I was missing yet more rooms, and indeed I was. You are standing next to a large ornamental […]

Into space we go. I missed a few exits, and two seriously random magic word locations. Complete spoilers follow, and make sure you’ve read my other posts first before going on.

My favorite of the Dian Girard book covers. Unfortunately, she passed away in 2017 so I can’t ask any questions about her work.

So I had a nagging feeling I was missing yet more rooms, and indeed I was.

You are standing next to a large ornamental urn on the south-most edge of a lovely terrace.
A flight of stairs leads down to the east.
N

You are at the south end of a wide flagstone terrace. There is a table here with several chairs sitting around it, as if the owner was expecting company.

This region I missed yielded two more treasures, plus an apple that worked on the angry hog I had met earlier who was then my friend. (Unfortunately, the hog did not dig where I thought it would, but somewhere else instead; this was a highly obscure bit I needed a walkthrough for, as I’ll explain later.)

This led to yet another way into the underground. I also found a room in the warehouse with oil I had somehow previously missed; filling my can with oil (as opposed to water, hello Adventure clone) let me make friends with the angry robot.

The robot takes the can, sniffs delicately at the oil, sips a little of it, and murmurs, “Pennsylvania State, 1975. Excellent vintage!” He vanishes through a secret door.

The robot clearing out led to a whole new set of rooms I hadn’t visited, including a salamander defeated by a nearby ice cube:

You are in an alien shrine. Well, not alien if you’re a gnome, I suppose, but it certainly is wierd!

A fiery red salamander blocks your path. The heat from its glowing body is almost more than you can stand.
KILL SALAMANDER WITH CUBE

With what, one lousy little ice cube?
YES
The salamander shivers violently, then sneezes, coughs, and falls flat on its face. It really is amazing what you can do with one tiny little ice cube!

Fairer than original Adventure’s prompt about the dragon; this felt like a question that really was meant to be answered as opposed to an interface glitch.

Besides the salamander there’s a gas mask (that takes care of the spot I mentioned last time where you get dizzy)…

You’re in a somber little room where a marble tomb stands in silent sorrow on the floor. The lid of the tomb has a carved outline of some sort of animal and the simple word, “JENNY.” A withered wreath completes the pathetic picture. The only exit leads west.

There is an old gas mask dumped in a heap here.

…and a bit where I could redeem my green paper from the start of the game for a rare coin.

Off my checklist last time I also mentioned treasure being hidden somewhere by the pirate; this just involved wandering randomly in the Gnomish Vaults until I came across the right place, where there was indeed a Pirate Chest that would not have been there had I not already had my items swiped.

You are in the Gnome King’s dungeon.

A magnificent diamond is gleaming by your feet.
Aha, the Gnome King’s little treasure chest is here.
There’s a vial of rare perfume here.
There is a rare and valuable coin here.

Past here I was really close to done but definitely needed a walkthrough (by Richard Bos, who did amazing walkthroughs for the Phoenix games). The downside is I found out the code for the buttons was 235 without understanding why (it just opens the passage between the two button rooms, so is yet another optional transport-puzzle). It did reveal two parts I would have not worked out alone under any circumstances:

1.) At a “curtain room” in the underground you can type PIRATE to get to a secret room. I worked out on my own I could type WATERFALL to go to the outdoor waterfall and CURTAIN to get back again — these are both off the list of words I had in my earlier post — but I never saw PIRATE anywhere. Even stranger, is while in the secret room, you can get to a second-level secret room by typing JENNY (see the tomb above). Even knowing the existence of the word, why would anyone think to type it there in particular?

PIRATE
You are in a secret room.

A jeweled Gnomish shovel has been left here.
JENNY

CONGRATULATIONS! You have found the Supersecret Room!

A platinum figure of a burro is standing here!

2.) Nearby the curtain room there’s a muddy room. This is where the hog/pig is useful. There’s no real prompting for this to happen, but it’s at least semi-logical:

You are in a room with a big oozy mud puddle in the middle of the floor. The walls are wet, and strange fungi fill the crevices and corners. Exits lead north and west.
DIG

As the pig roots around happily in the muck, its snout turns up a magnificent pearl, as big as your fist!

Taking all the treasures back, and waiting very briefly, leads to final victory. Remember the nosecone of the rocket? It launches on its own once all the treasures are present.

There is a great rushing sound, and a tremendous sense of force and motion. Through the porthole in the nosecone you can see the earth first dropping away and then rushing up to meet you! The rocket lands gracefully in front of a cheering throng of people. As you climb out of the hatch, they rush up to escort you and your treasure through customs and into a life of health, wealth, happiness, and celebrity!

The game possibly outwore its welcome by a smidge, but I do appreciate the ambition of it. There were so many linkages and passages and extra passages and secret passages and optional puzzles I lost count of how many ways there could be to reach a particular area. The walkthrough I mentioned earlier doesn’t even list the WATERFALL password, or the one using the memory room.

Perhaps the most interesting thing is that the alternate routes started to get to be too much? I’m not sure why that happened, given Zork does something similar, and I never felt trouble there. Something about the Zork geography (and lamp time limit, which I never ran into with Hermit’s Secret) made for an extra feeling of danger, and extra feeling of gratification when I had more entry points. Here, realizing there was yet another magic word that worked in a random location started to feel … random. The universe just wasn’t quite tight and convincing enough for me to understand why JENNY led to a supersecret room with a burro.

A clip from Richard Bos’s map.

Still not bad for a first game, and since this is a first game, not just a one-off, we’ll get to visit Dian Girard again in 1982. But for now, let’s move on to a new discovery I recently made which marks a significant first in adventure games (or at least, the earliest of a type anyone has ever found).


Zarf Updates

Patricia McKillip (1948-2022)

This afternoon, Locus posted an obituary for Patricia McKillip.I have trouble finding what to say. Really a large part of everything I've written has started with "Maybe I could do that too." After reading Riddle-Master or Changeling Sea or Fool's Run or just remembering a line or a phrase or a turn of thought.I'm gonna just go back into my book room and pick out some words."If you hate the sea so
This afternoon, Locus posted an obituary for Patricia McKillip.
I have trouble finding what to say. Really a large part of everything I've written has started with "Maybe I could do that too." After reading Riddle-Master or Changeling Sea or Fool's Run or just remembering a line or a phrase or a turn of thought.
I'm gonna just go back into my book room and pick out some words.
"If you hate the sea so now," Mare asked in wonder one day, "why don't you leave?" Mare was a few years older than Peri, and very pretty. She came to work in the morning with a private smile in her eyes. Down at the docks, Peri knew, was a young fisherman with the same smile coming and going on his face. Mare was tidy and energetic, unlike Carey, who dreamed that the king's son would come to the inn one day and fall in love with her green eyes and raven tresses. Carey was slow and prone to breaking things. Peri attacked her work grimly, as if she were going to war armed with a dust cloth and a coal scuttle.
That same smile.
He woke in the morning, face-down in a book. Nyx was stirring the fire.
"You should never sleep between two spells," she commented.
Witches and magicians turn out to be the protagonists. It's common these days but back then they drifted on-stage as helpmeets and quest-givers and destinations. McKillip's could be confused, arrogant, ignorant, and central. Sometimes the sorcerer ran off with the girl or the boy rather than vice versa.
"...Then, outside the seventh door, his name was called again; but the Thing did not touch the door. He waited in despair for it to enter, but it did not. Then he grew impatient, longing for it to enter, but it did not. Finally he reached out, opened the door himself. The Thing was gone. And he was left to wonder, all the days of his life, what it was that had called out to him."
He stopped. Elliard said in spite of himself, "Well, what was it?"
"Kern didn't open the door. That is the only riddle to come out of Hed. The stricture, according to the Riddle-Masters at Caithnard is this: Answer the unanswered riddle. So I do."
So I do, when I'm most myself.
The walls flickered around them at the changing hour. The chartreuse heated to a vibrant orange that caused them both to duck over their beers.
"Lord," Sidney said painfully. "I had no idea what goes on here at this time of morning."
My virtual space on IFMud runs in those times and colors. Well, my colors, not the Constellation Club's. Later, I put them in Dreamhold. I may yet run them up the walls of my house.
Calyx made a satisfied noise. "Here we are. According to Chrysom, the power to move Ro House is passed from generation to generation of Holders' children, who are born with an innate ability, for the Holders instinctively seek out as mates those who may inspire the power within the child conceived."
...They all gazed at Iris. She put down her needlework uncertainly, flushing. The Holder's brows had risen. She pulled a pin out of her hair absently, her mind running down the past; a smile, reminiscent, wondering, touched her eyes.
"Mother," Iris said accusingly.
"Well, I didn't know," the Holder said. "He seemed a very practical man."
Just look at them.
Peace, tremulous, unexpected, sent a taproot out of nowhere into Morgon's heart.
For us all.

Tuesday, 10. May 2022

Gold Machine

[2/3] What’s in the Box: Cutthroats

While Cutthroats promises deep-sea treasure hunts, its central conflict revolves around the far less interesting challenge of hiding pieces of paper. Note: a screen-reader transcription of all Cutthroats documentation is available online. Note #2: This essay is chock full of spoilers. Be warned! True Tales of Adventure As I’ve previously mentioned here, Cutthroats was the […] The post [

While Cutthroats promises deep-sea treasure hunts, its central conflict revolves around the far less interesting challenge of hiding pieces of paper.

Note: a screen-reader transcription of all Cutthroats documentation is available online.

Note #2: This essay is chock full of spoilers. Be warned!

True Tales of Adventure

As I’ve previously mentioned here, Cutthroats was the first game to be packaged in Infocom’s famed “gray box” format. As such, its box opened to a so-called “browsie” that shoppers could view in-store: a September 1984 issue of True Tales of Adventure. Devoted players (or readers of Gold Machine) will recognize the title from the mimetic, in-universe manual for the folio edition of Infidel. As would become Infocom’s custom, the magazine is mostly humorous, and its humor is not necessarily well-aligned with the tone of the game itself.

Some of the material is perhaps too caught up in the spirit of its time, and its treatment of native peoples does not come across well:

Thirty years ago, Ray had heard Pagu’s Pug Pap tribesmen talk of rare gems that were trapped in ancient sunken wrecks off Pagu.

“Luckily, I believed every word of it,” Ray said, “and I knew that the only way to get a crack at that treasure would be to ‘go native.”‘

Lilly recalls: ”After life in America, it was tough becoming a native again. But we learned to adjust to the Pug Pap ways-the hammocks, the Yik Fish Stew, the roast grubs and the ‘dress.’ Of course, Bill and I weren’t trying to be Margaret Mead-type anthropologists; we were strictly in it for the money.

“After about eight
months of acculturation, we were able to recruit two Pug Pap guides who would take us out on the reefs to some of their sacred fishing grounds. ‘Magic Lim’ and ‘B.C.,as we called our two companions, proved to be able, if somewhat superstitious, partners.

The story is graced by a photo of two American treasure hunters with septum piercings that must be intended to resemble the tradition of bone piercings in some cultures.

The magazine also contains gentle nudges for players, such as those contained in articles like “Danger at Fifty Fathoms!” that identify pitfalls and best practices for successful divers. True Tales of Adventure also invites readers to enter a contest by submitting their own brief (200 words or less) story to Infocom. Fan engagement–best typified by the Status Line newsletter–was a strength in those days, and there were many such opportunities for players to extend their Infocom experiences beyond the confines of diskettes and packaging.

Four Shipwrecks Off Hardscrabble Island

The first of two feelies bundled with Cutthroats is a booklet discussing four potential sites for treasure hunting near the player’s starting place of “Hardscrabble Island.” This book is the best thing in the box. It is attractively illustrated, and Four Shipwrecks Off Hardscrabble Island is tonally consistent, reading like something a historical society might write:

THE FIANNA WAS ORIGINALLY KNOWN as the Gloria Dieu, a British tea clipper built for speed to race across the great distances of the China Trade routes. She was designed by Phineas Hayes, then commissioner of Chatham Yard, and was laid down in Woolrich in 1869. The vessel was composite-built; that is, while she was an ironclad, her keel, stem and sternpost were of wood.

Cutthroats might be, in terms of textual bulk, the most doggedly and expansively copy-protected game in the Infocom catalog. The player must use the shipwreck descriptions to determine which dive point to use. The map included with the booklet provides not only dive coordinates but depth, which dictates what equipment the player needs to procure.

The Outfitter’s Price List

The copy protection doesn’t stop there. A small pamphlet called “Outfitters International Fall/Winter Supplemental Price List” featuring black-on-green text includes two–TWO–forms of copy protection. Since the game does not tell the player what equipment is available for sale, they must instead select items from the printed list (more on this practice below). Additionally, the back of the pamphlet features a tide table that identifies the time that the player must meet up with the ship’s crew.

A photo of the tide table included with Cutthroats. It is a very busy chart with sixteen columns and sixty rows!
Oh Boy.

The Narrative

It will be hard to discuss the “story” of Cutthroats without stealing thunder from next week’s post, so I hope readers will give these issues a chance to play out in the future.

At the beginning of Cutthroats, an acquaintance named Hevlin interrupts the protagonist’s brown study. He is drunk and distraught, stating that he may have revealed the location of a rumored-yet-undiscovered treasure near Hardscrabble Island, where the game begins. Hevlin gives his copy of Four Shipwrecks Off the Coast of Hardscrabble Island to the protagonist before stumbling into the night one last time. He is promptly murdered outside your window.

Hevlin’s death serves as little more than background noise: there is no apparent law enforcement presence on Hardscrabble Island, and his “friend” Red only mentions him to ask where the treasure is located. Besides Johnny Red, your travel companions include the auspiciously named “Pete the Rat” and “The Weasel.”

The diver later learns that one of them is a plant: The Weasel works for McGinty, a kind of mobbed-up boogeyman who never really gets his comeuppance. McGinty wanders the island like one of the less-than-talkative bots from Suspect (don’t miss our coverage of Suspect is a couple of months!), an underdeveloped game-ender who wants to muscle in on the score. Players may not understand how carrying a bankbook in front of McGinty could lead to an unwinnable game, but it does. Cutthroats is so committed to treating the McGinty bot as a sort of maritime Hunt the Wumpus that the player cannot do the obvious (and obviously possible) thing:

>get passbook
Taken.
>examine passbook
This is a distinctive Mariners' Trust passbook which shows a balance of $603. The last date stamped in it is April 23.
>put it in pocket
It won't fit.

The early part of the game consists of preparing for the dive while hiding your plans from McGinty. That includes getting money for the trip as well as buying equipment. In the meantime, the protagonist must discover the identity of McGinty’s inside man or else they will be killed during–let me know if I misremember–the game’s final move. It is a long hike, replaying all of the content in between.

Then the player must do the dive. Even though four wrecks are mentioned in Four Shipwrecks Off Hardscrabble Island, only two are possible, and that wreck is chosen randomly early in the game. If the player has bought the right equipment (more on this tomorrow), they are treated to a more conventional (and enjoyable) puzzle-solving experience. Each wreck is a small area with only a few problems to solve. I’ll discuss this in greater detail, but the greatest failure of Cutthroats is that more playtime is committed to the less interesting cat and mouse with McGinty than to the treasure hunt.

To add insult to injury, the player must also hide a note from The Weasel. At times, Cutthroats feels more of a paper-hiding game than it does an undersea adventure.

If the protagonist has done everything right, they can return to the ship, treasure in tow, without having their air hose (or throat) cut by The Weasel. This effort culminates in a third and empty gesture in the direction of already-forgotten murder victim Hevlin:

>u
You get out of the water and reboard your ship...
When your shipmates find that you've recovered these priceless stamps, they congratulate you. Johnny slaps you on the back. "Good job, matey!" As you return to the island over the calm, dazzling blue sea, you contemplate your wealth with a touch of sadness. You think of Hevlin and hope his soul is resting a little easier now.
Your score is 250 out of a possible 250.
This score gives you the rank of a rich diver.

It is customary for such characters to rest easier when their killers are brought to justice, but poor Hevlin must make do with a newly-retrieved stamp collection.

Coming Soon

If it seems like there is little-to-no story in Cutthroats, or if it feels like a promising setting gone to waste, that’s because both characterizations are accurate. Why is this, and how did it happen? Next week, we’ll discuss the boldly ambitious nature of Cutthroats‘s early scoping and design, and the technological issues that prevented Berlyn and Wolper from realizing their ambitions.

Stay tuned for Gold Machine’s third and final essay on Cutthroats!

The post [2/3] What’s in the Box: Cutthroats appeared first on Gold Machine.


Renga in Blue

The Hermit’s Secret: Dearie, Do You Remember?

Not a lot of progress, but I did manage to connect up all the map, and I wanted to — for my benefit as much as yours — lay out all the puzzles I still had left to resolve, and items that have yet to hold a purpose. The first bit of progress was not […]

Not a lot of progress, but I did manage to connect up all the map, and I wanted to — for my benefit as much as yours — lay out all the puzzles I still had left to resolve, and items that have yet to hold a purpose.

The first bit of progress was not really from me but from a commenter, the astute Matt W.:

also, what if you try “meadow” or “remember meadow” in the memory room?

Well, let’s try it:

You are in a small, many-sided room. There is an obvious exit to the northeast. Some roughly carved letters on the south wall say “DEARIE, DO YOU REMEMBER?”
REMEMBER MEADOW

You’re in the center of the grassy meadow.
REMEMBER MEMORY

You’re in the Memory Room.

It’s another XYZZY-style teleport. I don’t know if it is useful for a puzzle or just for convenience. The map really tries hard to have multiple entrances and it does all hook together. My “second” and “third” undergrounds hadn’t connected yet, but this room

This is a lovely little room that looks like some kind of beautiful luminous blue jewel inside. A narrow opening heads off to the northeast, and a smooth path leads upward.

There is a message scrawled on the stones. The walls shine with a lovely irridescent glow.
READ MESSAGE

Some demented person has scrawled on the floor “Bongo, Bongo, Bongo, I Don’t Wanna Let The Gong Go.”

and this room

You are in a neat square room with an odd device in the middle of the floor. It has a big metal container, some copper tubing, and smells like something gone sour.

The only visible exit goes south.

E
You bruise your head painfully on the rock wall.

both link up. Specifically, if you drag the gong to the room with the message, and bring a rubber hammer from next to the cargo room, you can make a new exit.

BOINNNG!! CRASH, rumble, rumble …
When the dust clears you see that the lovely blue wall has crumbled and fallen into a heap of rubble, revealing a room to the west.

Here’s everything linked into one big underground:

I’m unclear if I’m close or not to revealing everything, but the obstacles I haven’t resolved are:

1. Getting dizzy and falling when going down a stair.

You are on a very dangerous path that winds up and down along the sheer stone wall of the abyss.
D

Suddenly you feel light-headed, sick. Your eyes refuse to focus. You begin to cough, and there is a tight feeling in your chest. You fall to the ground …

2. An abyss you may or may not be able to cross. If something does work I suspect magic.

You are at the west end of a gigantic cavern. The towering walls remind you of some sort of gothic cathedral, and your eyes peer vainly upward in an effort to see the ceiling. Faint wisps of mist eddy around you like lost souls. A narrow opening leads southwest, and the cavern stretches out to the east, where a bottomless abyss crosses the floor.

The abyss effectively blocks you from crossing the cavern.

3. A hog on the outside who won’t let you approach; I suspect it may be connected to a spot on the outside that needs to be dug up. The game says you don’t have a shovel, but it may be the hog can do the digging?

You are in a small smelly animal pen. There is a pile of well-chewed corncobs in one corner, and a lot of mud. The only ways out of the pen are to the east and southeast.

A rather hostile pink hog is snorting at you from a corner.
GET HOG

The hog glowers at you out of little close-set eyes and snorts angrily. He doesn’t seem to like the idea.

4. The robot, which I have still to defeat.

A huge, heavily built robot rolls menacingly around the room, sensors blinking, and refuses to let you pass.

5. There’s a “pirate” gnome that will grab treasures if they’re in your inventory or on the floor, and I have yet to find out where they get stashed; if it is like Original Adventure, by finding the stash there will be a new treasure.

There’s a message about “ominous rustling” I assume has to be from the pirate if you have nothing valuable.

There is an ominous rustling sound from the darkness behind you. When you whirl around, someone — or some THING — dodges back into the shadows.

6. Two rooms of buttons I have yet to be able to do anything with. I still haven’t found anything resembling a combination, but I suspect if there’s any “you just missed an exit and a side room” type puzzle left, it’s this one.

There is a large panel in the west wall. It is firmly shut.
Next to the panel are ten buttons labeled 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9.

Items I haven’t used are a magazine…

It’s a copy of “Games for the IBM PC,” but unfortunately it’s the special gnomish edition — all in GNULLIAC.

… and … that’s pretty much it. Everything else has served a purpose. Maybe the rubber mallet that rang the gong also does something else, but I doubt it? I burned using a tuna sandwich to placate a mountain lion and technically the lion is optional. That fur muff I speculated about last time was indeed useful for putting down the fragile sphere:

The lovely crystal sphere lands lightly on the fur muff.

Not much more to keep scratching at, so I suspect victory or bust next time. (I’ll also take hints in comments, but ROT13 only please.)

Another Dian Girard book, this one co-written with her husband.

Monday, 09. May 2022

Choice of Games LLC

Author Interview: Dora Klindžić, Nikola Tesla: War of the Currents

At the dawn of the electrical age, can you outsmart Thomas Edison and electrify the world? Rewrite history with worldwide wireless power, alien contact, death rays and sapient machines! Nikola Tesla: War of the Currents is a 225,000-word interactive science-fiction novel by Dora Klindžić. I sat down to talk with Dora about rewriting history and what makes Tesla and this period such a fantastic sett

At the dawn of the electrical age, can you outsmart Thomas Edison and electrify the world? Rewrite history with worldwide wireless power, alien contact, death rays and sapient machines!

Nikola Tesla: War of the Currents is a 225,000-word interactive science-fiction novel by Dora Klindžić. I sat down to talk with Dora about rewriting history and what makes Tesla and this period such a fantastic setting for a Choice of Games title. Nikola Tesla: War of the Currents releases this Thursday, May 12th. You can try the first three chapters for free, today.

This is your first piece of interactive fiction, I think? But your background as a writer is in sci-fi/speculative fiction. Tell me more about how you became interested in writing about Nikola Tesla, I’m sure the fact that he is a countryman of yours must have come into it.

Part of my fascination with Nikola Tesla comes from our shared Serbo-Croatian identity, as he’s been elevated to the status of folk hero in the Balkan consciousness. But his significance in my life peaked when I started my studies as a physicist. During times of hardship in my undergrad years, when I wasn’t sure why I went into science or whether I was capable enough to graduate, reading Tesla’s biographies restored the magic of invention in my mind and inspired me to keep working at the dream. In the later years of my studies, I got a job as a student curator at Zagreb’s Nikola Tesla Museum, where I learned even more about his personal life, and had the privilege to share the wonder of his inventions with the world. There is a veil of romance and legend surrounding his character, a mythology he had partially cultivated himself, which made me wish I could have traveled back in time to visit his laboratory just for a day. This interactive novel is the embodiment of that lifelong dream.

What were the most fun parts of being able to write (and rewrite) Tesla’s story?

There was a definite aspect of self-indulgence in writing the camaraderie between Tesla and the player’s character! I have always wished to know more about the intimate sphere of Nikola’s life, like the quality of his friendship, the quiet moments of daily cohabitation in the laboratory, or sharing in the intellectual pleasure of a philosophical battle of wits. Writing Nikola Tesla: War of the Currents gave me the opportunity to imagine and explore what it would have been like to have truly known Nikola Tesla, using the inevitably domestic nature of the inventor-assistant relationship. By placing the player into the role of an interpreter between Tesla and the world, I could show Tesla for who he was — queer, misfit, neurodivergent — as well as how the cut-throat world of budding American capitalism responded to his many idiosyncrasies, and let the player decide on how to resolve this perpetual conflict between the poet-inventor’s soul and the cold hard market of electrical engineering. It was deeply satisfying to offer the possibility of resolution which departs from the true historic outcome of Nikola Tesla dying alone in his hotel room, penniless. Who hasn’t, upon reading a biography of Tesla, wondered how differently it might have gone if Tesla had actually succeeded in his big dreams? And then it was also fun to get a little playful with the weird science, to write about robots, aliens, death rays and all the other surprises…

Did writing historical fiction present any unique challenges to you?

I found the research into the early electrical industry surprisingly invigorating, and have fallen down many a rabbit hole involving mad inventors and Gilded Age era social intrigue. There were simply so many fascinating historic events unfolding in those three decades, from Thomas Edison electrocuting elephants to Mark Twain soiling his pants in Tesla’s lab, that the greatest issue was keeping the story in scope. The major recurring characters in the game are all fascinating figures, like Marion Edison, Thomas’ firstborn daughter, Bertha Lamme, the first female electrical engineer, and Lewis Latimer, the black inventor who perfected the light bulb. It might take the players several playthroughs to get to know each of their personal stories within the wider historical context of the Edison-Tesla electrical race. Even the smaller side-characters like Charles Steinmetz or Stanford White have rich historic backstories which beg to be written. I feel like I could have collected two more novels’ worth of stories about these people, but I suppose I will have to leave the joy of continuing that research to the readers.

Did you have a favorite NPC?

That’s a really tough call, as there was something about each of the characters that I found magnetic! Even the ones who only make miniature cameos, like Eugene Debs or Emma Goldman, were a thrill to include. But I’d have to say I have a special sense of achievement with my version of Mark Twain, who initially seemed the most daunting voice to write for the sake of the levity he brings, and whom I ended up making a little more, ahem, politically radical…

What was your experience with text-based games or TTRPGs prior to writing this?

I’ve enjoyed interactive fiction from the first choose-your-own-adventure books I read as a child, and in recent years through beautiful videogame narrative experiences like Kentucky Route Zero or the inspiring collection over at sub-Q magazine. Choice of Games really opened my eyes to what the genre of text-based games can be in the modern world, with immersive novels which felt lived-in rather than merely witnessed, achieving complexity in their branching structure that some triple-A game titles can only dream of.

What are you working on next?

I’m extremely proud to say I’ve joined the writing team at ZA/UM studio, the makers of Disco Elysium, and could not be happier about what the future has in store!

Saturday, 07. May 2022

Impulsing The Game

Further Thoughts on The Three Bears as Code

After writing and uploading the previous post about a computer programmer stylized rendition of “The Three Bears” (https://www.aniamosity.net/if-authors-wrote-stories-the-way-programmers-write-code/), I spent a good deal of time reflecting on what I had done. And there ended up being some interesting aspects to the process I went through that might cast some light on what we do as [R

After writing and uploading the previous post about a computer programmer stylized rendition of “The Three Bears” (https://www.aniamosity.net/if-authors-wrote-stories-the-way-programmers-write-code/), I spent a good deal of time reflecting on what I had done. And there ended up being some interesting aspects to the process I went through that might cast some light on what we do as programmers when writing and refactoring code.

So I wanted to dive into that a bit…

The first question might be, “What was the process you used to arrive at that?” And there were different aspects to that.

High-level Structure

The initial step was to look at the overall story and see what the meaningful chunks were. It ended up being roughly along paragraph boundaries, but not exactly. In fact, the initial paragraph made more sense to split into two, semantically, since they’re actually about different aspects of the story. (That could be considered a “bug” in the original story’s use of paragraphs.)

I actually think the high-level steps in Story give a pretty good overall sense of the progress of the story – that is, if you know what they mean. So that can be useful in computer code as well: by pushing lower-level details down into functions, you can allow someone to get a good sense of what a function is doing at a high level.

This raises an interesting point, which I hadn’t thought of before:

It’s easier to understand the lower level details when you know where they fit into the higher level structure.

Someone who has read The Three Bears, for example, can know exactly where this fits in:

define Sitting_In_My_Chair:
    Someone's been sitting in my chair

They can see that small piece and understand its role in the overall story.

There is the counterpart to that as well:

It’s easier to understand the higher level structure when you know what the lower-level details do and where they fit.

Something like the overall structure of Story is only as clear as the step names can offer – and you can only put so much information into a name. That is one of the problems I have with the idea of “self-documenting code” as a sort of excuse for having virtually no comments in code: identifiers are of necessity limited. They can only contain and convey so much information.

However, once you know what they mean, then they can be good shorthand for things. Once I know what happens in Girl_Chairs, for example, I can just look at it as “the part where she interacts with the chairs”, and if I later want to find where the bears discover she has eaten the porridge, I can quickly jump to Bears_Food – once I know that that’s where it is. On the other side, if I know the overall arc of the Three Bears story, I could probably jump right there even if I had never seen this particular “code” before. I can map what’s in my head onto the story’s structure.

You can move your level up and down within the code. I think it could be argued that decomposition works best when the view level of the code goes down as you go down into sub-pieces and vice versa. Beware of decomposition where the result is actually at the same level. That can point to an arbitrary creation of concepts rather than a refinement of concepts.

Extracting Common Constructs

Moving on, another aspect of the “codifying” was to extract some constants from the code. Now, that wasn’t necessary, but it can have advantages later. It might be a bit silly to generalize “porridge” as {Food} or to allow the name of the girl to not be “Goldilocks” – “Ms. Locks”, perhaps? On the other hand, I have seen the bears named “Papa Bear” and “Mama Bear” instead “Daddy Bear” and “Mummy Bear”. By having constants outside of the main body that can be changed, then all of their references will change automatically, if so desired.

The structure of the story is the same, but minor details can be easily changed, on a whim.

This is the first part of what is typically referred to in software development circles as “DRY” or “Don’t Repeat Yourself”. Consolidating repeated values like names into overarching constants or variables (or doing so with bits of code into common functions) offers at least two advantages:
1) You can easily change the value of all instances of one of them at once by changing the higher-level definition.
2) By making them all refer to the same thing (for example, Girl for “Goldilocks”), you are saying, “These things are all the same.” That might seem obvious in this case, but there will be cases where that isn’t true. Having that additional clue when looking at the code makes it easier work with, because you know what is meant to be the same and what isn’t.

When refactoring, we need to differentiate between things that happen to be the same and things that actually are the same, especially when we consider coding them as the same thing.

Consider, for example, my injection of Bear_Scene to replace the three repetitive bear sections. On the surface, it seems reasonable: if you look at those sections, they are basically the same as each other, structurally, with just some minor differences in wording. However, I made a mechanical decision, which is that I would make them all be expressions of the same pattern simply because it worked to do so. I really don’t know if the author deliberately intended that they would be the same or should be the same or if it just worked out that way. In other words, I don’t know if the pattern I ascribed to them is a deliberate pattern or just something accidental.

That might seem like a very nuanced (and maybe pointless) point, as the code works, but when you’re working with software, the distinction in semantics can become important if things need to change later. By forcing the text to fit the pattern (and I sneakily did that by changing Daddy_Bear’s dialogue tag from “growled” to “said” in the chair section to make it fit – does that violate the requirements?), it then becomes much more difficult later to change things if, for example, we need to add an additional line into one case but not the others.

The pattern works while it’s a pattern. But if things need to change in one case, then the question becomes, “Do I need to remove this case from the pattern, or do I need to extend the pattern to cover this varying case?” And you can typically do it either way, though if you do the latter too much, it can lead to horribly complicated code with lots of exceptions and variability, trying to account for variations in a pattern that might not actually be a pattern anymore.

This is where it really helps to understand what the code actually means. But we can’t always have that insight, especially when it’s code written by others.

Objectifying the Bears

After some initial breaking down of what varied in the various scenes, I discovered I had a number of constants like “Daddy_Chair_State”, “Mummy_Chair_State”, “Daddy_Chair_Size”, etc. where all three bears had the same set, and I had unique calling cases for each bear. At that point, I saw I could invert things a bit by dividing and consolidating the constants into structures, one for each bear. Then the other chunks could look at which bear was in play and use its values. I could just pass the bear around instead of the values within, and the underlying chunk could pick out the part it needed.

So “Daddy_Chair_State”, for example, became “bear.chair_state”, where “bear” could be one of the Daddy_Bear, Mummy_Bear or Baby_Bear “things”.

This isn’t really “object oriented”, in that there is neither encapsulation nor even any inheritance. It’s really more “structured data”. In fact, I made a point of using “thing” instead of “object” (which had connotations) or “struct” or “structure” (which sounded techie and even language specific).

There is possibly more that could be done along those lines. But then, there’s a limit to the gains you make, and doing too much can lead to code being harder to understand, even if it “works”.

This leads us to some of the difficulties I noticed during this exercise.

The Difficulties with Compression

As I mentioned before, it’s easier to understand the lower-level pieces when you know where they fit into the higher-level structure. That is one reason why the person writing the code is in a better place to understand the decomposed, semantically compressed code, as they (at least when they wrote it) have the full picture in their mind of what it all means and where it all fits together.

Someone coming onto the code for the first time won’t have that advantage. And that is something I think we need to be aware of as programmers: that someone else won’t have the same mindset that we do, even if “someone else” is us 5 years down the road. (Though, in all fairness, I tend to find it easier to get back into a mindset I once had, even if I’m not in it at first when encountering old code.) It might make sense for us as the all-knowing programmer to keep breaking the code down into smaller and smaller pieces, as we know how they all fit and – more importantly – what they all mean. But someone else won’t, at least not at first. At that makes the code harder to understand, if the pieces become so small that they have little semantic information on their own, or if the divisions are along syntactic lines rather than semantic lines, where it becomes hard to work out what something actually means.

Take, for example, the Said_Food_Is chunk. That is exactly one line, and it’s used in exactly one place. That came into being because I originally replaced a few separate lines with that (doing a sort of textual replacement), and then later when I compressed the resulting structures using those lines into one thing, it became a single instance again.

The question is, “Is this chunk useful or does it make the code harder to understand?” Initially, it had a use, as it replaced several common sections. But I would postulate that, now that it’s back to a single use, not only does it not serve a purpose, but it makes the code harder to understand, as the name for it doesn’t add any useful information and it’s just another level of indirection. It becomes just another concept to have to deal with when understanding what is happening. The decomposition has gone too far.

What’s interesting to consider is how “helpful” decompositions differ from “harmful” decompositions. If you look back at the original Story breakdown, it felt “helpful” because it allowed us to operate at a higher level and gain an understanding of the code at that level, without having to plow through all the low-level details. It actually added information, by providing a structure that we might not have noticed otherwise. However, the Said_Food_Is chunk doesn’t have that benefit – it doesn’t take us up or down levels. It’s just a replacement with no value. It is introducing an extra step to go through, but it doesn’t offer any additional insight, whether it be structural or “these things are all the same”, which is what you get when replacing things used in multiple places. It’s barely a separate thought, and yet it’s trying to be one.

The Difficulties with Abstraction

I wanted to look at one more chunk, which is the Bear_Scene one. This is really a template to be filled in. And it works for what it needs to do. However, if you were to hand that to someone outside of the context of this code, it would be hard to get a good sense of it. I mean, you could see what it does, but you may not know exactly what it means. And this is something I have noticed often in code, which isn’t a 100% generality, but it happens often enough to make it worth watching out for:

While it can feel good to find patterns and generalize the code through common abstractions for those patterns, abstractions tend to be harder to initially grasp than concrete code.

Again, I wouldn’t say it’s generally true. Things like templated or generic containers, for example, have good semantics that make immediate sense. However, other abstractions – especially if they don’t have a unifying concept behind them – can be harder to grasp until they can be placed into context so their usage can be seen. We can extract the pattern out, but not all patterns have good semantics outside of the code that uses them, which would allow them to stand on their own in our minds.

Friday, 06. May 2022

Impulsing The Game

If Authors Wrote Stories the Way Programmers Write Code

There is a saying in coding circles that code should read like well-written prose. While on the surface this sounds like an admirable goal, we’re actually taught to break down our code, which can lead to it being hard to follow and understand if done to too fine a detail. Its interesting to compare that […]

There is a saying in coding circles that code should read like well-written prose. While on the surface this sounds like an admirable goal, we’re actually taught to break down our code, which can lead to it being hard to follow and understand if done to too fine a detail. Its interesting to compare that sort of writing to actual prose.

The following is a made up example of the other way around: what prose would look like if written like typical code. The main point of this is that code readability is something worth thinking about – and that maybe the automatic decomposition of code into smaller and smaller units may not always be the best thing to do, especially if we are interested in having the code be able to be easily understood. At some point, we begin to lose a lot of the context and coherence that allows us to maintain it properly in our minds.

I don’t really have hard-and-fast rules for when to break down or not, but it’s something I have been keeping firmly in mind when writing code lately. I think it’s worth thinking about and exploring in different ways to see what actually works best.

The story is “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”, with text taken from this website: https://www.wardleyce.co.uk/serve_file/699125

I fixed one error in the text and normalized some of it to keep the code from getting too special-case. There may actually be bugs in this, as it’s not something that can actually be run.

Enjoy!

=================================================================

{Story}         # Execute the story!

define Story:
    {Intro}
    {Girl_Enters}
    {Girl_Food}
    {Girl_Chairs}
    {Girl_Beds}
    {Bears_Enter}
    {Bears_Food}
    {Bears_Chairs}
    {Bears_Bed}
    {Girl_Exits}

constant Girl: "Goldilocks"
constant Food: "porridge"

constant Just_Right: "just right."

constant Daddy_Size: "big"
constant Daddy_Bowl_Size: "large"  # fix this inconsistency?
constant Mummy_Size: "medium"
constant Baby_Size: "small"

thing Daddy_Bear: [
    name: "Daddy Bear",
    bowl_size: Daddy_Bowl_Size,
    food_state: "too salty!",
    chair_size: Daddy_Size,
    chair_state: "too big!",
    bed_size: Daddy_Size,
    bed_state: "too hard!"
]

thing Mummy_Bear: [
    name: "Mummy Bear",
    bowl_size: Mummy_Size,
    food_state: "too sweet!",
    chair_size: Mummy_Size,
    chair_state: "too big, too!",
    bed_size: Mummy_Size,
    bed_state: "too soft!"
]

thing Baby_Bear: [
    name: "Baby Bear",
    bowl_size: Baby_Size,
    food_state: Just_Right,
    chair_size: Baby_Size,
    chair_state: Just_Right,
    bed_size: Baby_Size,
    bed_state: Just_Right
]

define Eating_My_Food:
    Someone's been eating my {Food}

define Sitting_In_My_Chair:
    Someone's been sitting in my chair

define Sleeping_In_My_Bed:
    Someone's been sleeping in my bed

define Intro:
    Once upon a time there lived three bears and a little girl called {Girl}.

define Girl_Enters:
    One day, she saw a house and went inside.
    {{break}}

define Girl_Porridge: 
    She saw some {Food}.
    {{break}}
    {Tasted_Bowl_And_Commented(Daddy_Bear)}
    {Tasted_Bowl_And_Commented(Mummy_Bear)}
    {Tasted_Bowl_And_Commented(Baby_Bear)} She ate it all up.
    {{break}}

define Girl_Chairs:
    {Girl} saw three chairs.
    {{break}}
    {Sat_In_Chair(Daddy_Bear.chair_size)}. “{Chair_Is(Daddy_Bear.chair_state)}” she said.
    {Sat_In_Chair(Mummy_Bear.chair_size)}. “{Chair_Is(Mummy_Bear.chair_state)}” she said.
    {Sat_In_Chair(Baby_Bear.chair_size)} and said, “{Chair_Is(Baby_Bear.chair_state)}” Then it broke.
    {{break}}

define Girl_Beds:
    {Girl} went upstairs.
    {{break}}
    {Lay_Down_On_Bed(Daddy_Bear)}
    {Lay_Down_On_Bed(Mummy_Bear)}
    {Lay_Down_On_Bed(Baby_Bear)} She fell asleep.
    {{break}}

define Bears_Enter:
    The Three Bears came home.
    {{break}}

define Bears_Porridge:
    {Bear_Scene({Eating_My_Food}, "it's all gone")}

define Bears_Chairs:
    {Bear_Scene({Sitting_In_My_Chair}, "it's broken")}

define Bears_Beds:
    They went upstairs.
    {{break}}
    {Bear_Scene({Sleeping_In_My_Bed}, "she's still there")}

define Girl_Exits:
    {Girl} woke up and screamed. She ran away and never went back into the woods again.

define Tasted_Bowl_And_Commented(bear):
    {Tasted_Bowl(bear.bowl_size)} and {Said_Food_Is(bear.food_state)}

define Tasted_Bowl(size):
    She tasted the {size} bowl

define Said_Food_Is(food_state):
    said, “This {food} is {food_state}”

define Sat_In_Chair(chair_size):
    She sat in the {chair_size} chair

define Chair_Is(chair_state):
    This chair is {chair_state}

define Lay_Down_On_Bed(bear):
    She lay down on the {bear.bed_size} bed and said, “This bed is {bear.bed_state}”

define Bear_Scene(each_said, baby_added):
    “{each_said},” said {Daddy_Bear.name}.
    “{each_said},” said {Mummy_Bear.name}.
    “{each_said}, and {baby_added}!” cried {Baby_Bear.name}.
    {{break}}

Interactive Fiction – The Digital Antiquarian

A Web Around the World, Part 9: A Network of Networks

UCLA will become the first station in a nationwide computer network which, for the first time, will link together computers of different makes and using different machine languages into one time-sharing system. Creation of the network represents a major step in computer technology and may serve as the forerunner of large computer networks of the […]

UCLA will become the first station in a nationwide computer network which, for the first time, will link together computers of different makes and using different machine languages into one time-sharing system. Creation of the network represents a major step in computer technology and may serve as the forerunner of large computer networks of the future. The ambitious project is supported by the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), which has pioneered many advances in computer research, technology, and applications during the past decade.

The system will, in effect, pool the computer power, programs, and specialized know-how of about fifteen computer-research centers, stretching from UCLA to MIT. Other California network stations (or nodes) will be located at the Rand Corporation and System Development Corporation, both of Santa Monica; the Santa Barbara and Berkeley campuses of the University of California; Stanford University and the Stanford Research Institute.

The first stage of the network will go into operation this fall as a sub-net joining UCLA, Stanford Research Institute, UC Santa Barbara, and the University of Utah. The entire network is expected to be operational in late 1970.

Engineering professor Leonard Kleinrock, who heads the UCLA project, describes how the network might handle a sample problem:

Programmers at Computer A have a blurred photo which they want to bring into focus. Their program transmits the photo to Computer B, which specializes in computer graphics, and instructs Computer B’s program to remove the blur and enhance the contrast. If B requires specialized computational assistance, it may call on Computer C for help. The processed work is shuttled back and forth until B is satisfied with the photo, and then sends it back to Computer A. The messages, ranging across the country, can flash between computers in a matter of seconds, Dr. Kleinrock says.

Each computer in the network will be equipped with its own interface message processor (IMP), which will double as a sort of translator among the Babel of computers languages and as a message handler and router.

Computer networks are not an entirely new concept, notes Dr. Kleinrock. The SAGE radar defense system of the fifties was one of the first, followed by the airlines’ SABRE reservation system. However, [both] are highly specialized and single-purpose systems, in contrast to the planned ARPA system which will link a wide assortment of different computers for a wide range of unclassified research functions.

“As of now, computer networks are still in their infancy,” says Dr. Kleinrock. “But as they grow up and become more sophisticated, we will probably see the spread of ‘computer utilities,’ which, like present electric and telephone utilities, will serve individual homes and offices across the country.”

— UCLA press release dated July 3, 1969 (which may include the first published use of the term “router”)



In July of 1968, Larry Roberts sent out a request for bids to build the ARPANET’s interface message processors — the world’s very first computer routers. More than a dozen proposals were received in response, some of them from industry heavy hitters like DEC and Raytheon. But when Roberts and Bob Taylor announced their final decision at the end of the year, everyone was surprised to learn that they had given the contract to the comparatively tiny firm of Bolt Beranek and Newman.

BBN, as the company was more typically called, came up in our previous article as well; J.C.R. Licklider was working there at the time he wrote his landmark paper on “human-computer symbiosis.” Formed in 1948 as an acoustics laboratory, BBN moved into computers in a big way during the 1950s, developing in the process a symbiotic relationship of its own with MIT. Faculty and students circulated freely between the university and BBN, which became a hacker refuge, tolerant of all manner of eccentricity and uninterested in such niceties as dress codes and stipulated working hours. A fair percentage of BBN’s staff came to consist of MIT dropouts, young men who had become too transfixed by their computer hacking to keep up with the rest of their coursework.

BBN’s forte was one-off, experimental contracts, not the sort of thing that led directly to salable commercial products but that might eventually do so ten or twenty years in the future. In this sense, the ARPANET was right up their alley. They won the bid by submitting a more thoughtful, detailed proposal than anyone else, even going so far as to rewrite some of ARPA’s own specifications to make the IMPs operate more efficiently.

Like all of the other bidders, BBN didn’t propose to build the IMPs from scratch, but rather to adapt an existing computer for the purpose. Their choice was the Honeywell 516, one of a new generation of robust integrated-circuit-based “minicomputers,” which distinguished themselves by being no larger than the typical refrigerator and being able to run on ordinary household current. Since the ARPANET would presumably need a lot of IMPs if it proved successful, the relatively cheap and commonplace Honeywell model seemed a wise choice.

The Honeywell 516, the computer model which was transformed into the world’s first router.

Still, the plan was to start as small as possible. The first version of the ARPANET to go online would include just four IMPs, linking four research clusters together. Surprisingly, MIT was not to be one of them; it was left out because the other inaugural sites were out West and ARPA didn’t want to pay AT&T for a transcontinental line right off the bat. Instead the Universities of California at Los Angeles and Santa Barbara each got the honor of being among the first to join the ARPANET, as did the University of Utah and the Stanford Research Institute (SRI), an adjunct to Stanford University. ARPA wanted BBN to ship the first turnkey IMP to UCLA by September of 1969, and for all four of the inaugural nodes to be up and running by the end of the year. Meeting those deadlines wouldn’t be easy.

The project leader at BBN was Frank Heart, a man known for his wide streak of technological paranoia — he had a knack for zeroing in on all of the things that could go wrong with any given plan — and for being “the only person I knew who spoke in italics,” as his erstwhile BBN colleague Severo Ornstein puts it. (“Not he was inflexible or unpleasant — just definite.”) Ornstein himself, having moved up in the world of computing since his days as a hapless entry-level “Crosstelling” specialist on the SAGE project, worked under Heart as the principal hardware architect, while an intense young hacker named Will Crowther, who loved caving and rock climbing almost as much as computers, supervised the coding. At the start, they all considered the Honeywell 516 a well-proven machine, given that it had been on the market for a few years already. They soon learned to their chagrin, however, that no one had ever pushed it as hard as they were now doing; obscure flaws in the hardware nearly derailed the project on more than one occasion. But they got it done in the end. The first IMP was shipped across the country to UCLA right on schedule.

The team from Bolt Beranek and Newman who created the world’s first routers. Severo Ornstein stands at the extreme right, Will Crowther just next to him. Frank Heart is near the center, the only man wearing a necktie.


On July 20, 1969, American astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the Moon, marking one culmination of that which had begun with the launch of the Soviet Union’s first Sputnik satellite twelve years earlier. Five and a half weeks after the Moon landing, another, much quieter result of Sputnik became a reality. The first public demonstration of a functioning network router was oddly similar to some of the first demonstrations of Samuel Morse’s telegraph, in that it was an exercise in sending a message around a loop that led it right back to the place where it had first come from. A Scientific Data Systems Sigma 7 computer at UCLA sent a data packet to the IMP that had just been delivered, which was sitting right beside it. Then the IMP duly read the packet’s intended destination and sent it back where it had come from, to appear as text on a monitor screen.

There was literally nowhere else to send it, for only one IMP had been built to date and only this one computer was yet possessed of the ability to talk to it. The work of preparing the latter had been done by a team of UCLA graduate students working under Leonard Kleinrock, the man whose 1964 book had popularized the idea of packet switching. “It didn’t look like anything,” remembers Steve Crocker, a member of Kleinrock’s team. But looks can be deceiving; unlike the crowd of clueless politicians who had once watched Morse send a telegraph message in a ten-mile loop around the halls of the United States Congress, everyone here understood the implications of what they were witnessing. The IMPs worked.

Bob Taylor, the man who had pushed and pushed until he found a way to make the ARPANET happen, chose to make this moment of triumph his ironic exit cue. A staunch opponent of the Vietnam War, he had been suffering pangs of conscience over his role as a cog in the military-industrial complex for a long time, even as he continued to believe in the ARPANET’s future value for the civilian world. After Richard Nixon was elected president in November of 1968, he had decided that he would stay on just long enough to get the IMPs finished, by which point the ARPANET as a whole would hopefully be past the stage where cancellation was a realistic possibility. He stuck to that decision; he resigned just days after the first test of an IMP. His replacement was Larry Roberts — another irony, given that Taylor had been forced practically to blackmail Roberts into joining ARPA in the first place. Taylor himself would land at Xerox’s new Palo Alto Research Center, where over the course of the new decade he would help to invent much else that has become an everyday part of our digital lives.

About a month after the test of the first IMP, BBN shipped a second one, this time to the Stanford Research Institute. It was connected to its twin at UCLA by an AT&T long-distance line. Another, local cable was run from it to SRI’s Scientific Data Systems 940 computer, which was normally completely incompatible with UCLA’s Sigma machine despite coming from the same manufacturer. In this case, however, programmers at the two institutions had hacked together a method of echoing text back and forth between their computers — assuming it worked, that is; they had had no way of actually finding out.

On October 29, 1969, a UCLA student named Charlie Kline, sitting behind his Sigma 7 terminal, called up SRI on an ordinary telephone to initiate the first real test of the ARPANET. Computer rooms in those days were noisy places, what with all of the ventilation the big beasts required, so the two human interlocutors had to fairly shout into their respective telephones. “I’m going to type an L,” Kline yelled, and did so. “Did you get the L?” His opposite number acknowledged that he had. Kline typed an O. “Did you get the O?” Yes. He typed a G.

“The computer just crashed,” said the man at SRI.

“History now records how clever we were to send such a prophetic first message, namely ‘LO,'” says Leonard Kleinrock today with a laugh. They had been trying to manage “LOGIN,” which itself wouldn’t have been a challenger to Samuel Morse’s “What hath God wrought?” in the eloquence sweepstakes — but then, these were different times.

At any rate, the bug which had caused the crash was fixed before the day was out, and regular communications began. UC Santa Barbara came online in November, followed by the University of Utah in December. Satisfied with this proof of concept, ARPA agreed to embark on the next stage of the project, extending the network to the East Coast. In March of 1970, the ARPANET reached BBN itself. Needless to say, this achievement — computer networking’s equivalent to telephony’s spanning of the continent back in 1915 — went entirely unnoticed by an oblivious public. BBN was followed before the year was out by MIT, Rand, System Development Corporation, and Harvard University.


It would make for a more exciting tale to say that the ARPANET revolutionized computing immediately, but such was not the case. In its first couple of years, the network was neither a raging success nor an abject failure. On the one hand, its technical underpinnings advanced at a healthy clip; BBN steadily refined their IMPs, moving them away from modified general-purpose computers and toward the specialized routers we know today. Likewise, the network they served continued to grow; by the end of 1971, the ARPANET had fifteen nodes. But despite it all, it remained frustratingly underused; a BBN survey conducted about two years in revealed that the ARPANET was running at just 2 percent of its theoretical capacity.

The problem was one of computer communication at a higher level than that of the IMPs. Claude Shannon had told the world that information was information in a networking context, and the minds behind the ARPANET had taken his tautology to heart. They had designed a system for shuttling arbitrary blocks of data about, without concerning themselves overmuch about the actual purpose of said data. But the ability to move raw data from computer to computer availed one little if one didn’t know how to create meaning out of all those bits. “It was like picking up the phone and calling France,” Frank Heart of BBN would later say. “Even if you get the connection to work, if you don’t speak French you’ve got a little problem.”

What was needed were higher-level protocols that could run on top of the ARPANET’s packet switching — a set of agreed-upon “languages” for all of these disparate computers to use when talking with one another in order to accomplish something actually useful. Seeing that no else was doing so, BBN and MIT finally deigned to provide them. First came Telnet, a protocol to let one log into a remote computer and interact with it at a textual command line just as if one was sitting right next to it at a local terminal. And then came the File Transfer Protocol, or FTP, which allowed one to move files back and forth between two computers, optionally performing useful transformations on them in the process, such as going from EBCDIC to ASCII text encoding or vice versa. It is a testament to how well the hackers behind these protocols did their jobs that both have remained with us to this day. Still, the application that really made the ARPANET come alive — the one that turned it almost overnight from a technological experiment to an indispensable tool for working and even socializing — was the next one to come along.

Jack Ruina was now long gone as the head of all of ARPA; that role was now filled by a respected physicist named Steve Lukasik. Lukasik would later remember how Larry Roberts came into his office one day in April of 1972 to try to convince him to use the ARPANET personally. “What am I going to do on the ARPANET?” the non-technical Lukasik asked skeptically.

“Well,” mused Roberts, “you could do email.”

Email wasn’t really a new idea at the time. By the mid-1960s, the largest computer at MIT had hundreds of users, who logged in as many as 30 at a time via local terminals. An undergraduate named Tom Van Vleck noticed that some users had gotten in a habit of passing messages to one another by writing them up in text files with names such as “TO TOM,” then dropping them into a shared directory. In 1965, he created what was probably the world’s first true email system in order to provide them with a more elegant solution. Just like all of the email systems that would follow it, it gave each user a virtual mailbox to which any other user could direct a virtual letter, then see it delivered instantly. Replying, forwarding, address books, carbon copies — all of the niceties we’ve come to expect — followed in fairly short order, at MIT and in many other institutions. Early in 1972, a BBN programmer named Ray Tomlinson took what struck him as the logical next step, by creating a system for sending email between otherwise separate computers — or “hosts,” as they were known in the emerging parlance of the ARPANET.

Thanks to FTP, Tomlinson already had a way of doing the grunt work of moving the individual letters from computer to computer. His biggest dilemma was a question of addressing. It was reasonable for the administrators of any single host to demand that every user have a unique login ID, which could also function as her email address. But it would be impractical to insist on unique IDs across the entire ARPANET. And even if it was possible, how was the computer on which an electronic missive had been composed to know which other computer was home to the intended recipient? Trying to maintain a shared central database of every login for every computer on the ARPANET didn’t strike Tomlinson as much of a solution.

His alternative approach, which he would later describe as no more than “obvious,” would go on to become an icon of the digital age. Each email address would consist of a local user name followed by an “at” sign (@) and the name of the host on which it lived. Just as a paper letter moves from an address in a town, then to a larger postal hub, then onward to a hub in another region, and finally to another individual street address, email would use its suffix to find the correct host on the ARPANET. Once it arrived there, said host could drill down further and route it to the correct user. “Now, there’s a nice hack,” said one of Tomlinson’s colleagues; that was about as effusive as a compliment could get in hacker circles.

Stephen Lukasik, ARPA head and original email-obsessed road warrior.

Steve Lukasik reluctantly allowed Larry Roberts to install an ARPANET terminal in his office for the purpose of reading and writing email. Within days, the skeptic became an evangelist. He couldn’t believe how useful email actually was. He sent out a directive to anyone who was anyone at ARPA, whether their work involved computers or not: all were ordered to accept a terminal in their office. “The way to communicate with me is through electronic mail,” he announced categorically. He soon acquired a “portable” terminal which was the size of a suitcase and weighed 30 pounds, but which came equipped with a modem that would allow him to connect to the ARPANET from any location from which he could finagle access to an ordinary telephone. He became the prototype for millions of professional road warriors to come, dialing into the office constantly from conference rooms, from hotel rooms, from airport lounges. He became perhaps the first person in the world who wasn’t already steeped in computing to make the services the ARPANET could provide an essential part of his day-to-day life.

But he was by no means the last. “Email was the biggest surprise about the ARPANET,” says Leonard Kleinrock. “It was an ad-hoc add-on by BBN, and it just blossomed. And that sucked a lot of people in.” Within a year of Lukasik’s great awakening, three quarters of all the traffic on the ARPANET consisted of emails flying to and fro, and the total volume of traffic on the network had grown by a factor of five and a half.



With a supportive ARPA administrator behind them and applications like email beginning to prove their network’s real-world usefulness, it struck the people who had designed and built the ARPANET that it was time for a proper coming-out party. They settled on the International Conference on Computers and Communications, which was to be held at the Washington, D.C., Hilton hotel in October of 1972. Almost every institution connected to the ARPANET sent representatives toting terminals and demonstration software, while AT&T ran a special high-capacity line into the hotel’s ballroom to get them all online.

More than a thousand people traipsed through the exhibition over the course of two and half days, taking in several dozen demonstrations of what the ARPANET could do now and might conceivably be able to do in the future. It was the first that some of them had ever heard of the network, or even of the idea of computer networking in general.

One of the demonstrations bore an ironic resemblance to the SAGE system that had first proved that wide-area computer networking could work at all. Leonard Kleinrock:

One of the things that was demonstrated there was a distributed air-traffic-control system. The idea was there would be some air traffic on the system. And as a plane moved out of its region, it would be picked up by another computer in the next region, data would be exchanged, and collectively the computers would be managing airspace over a large region. This package also had the ability to freeze the simulation at any given point, take the program on Machine A, squeeze it over to Machine B, and then continue the simulation with the user being none the wiser. So there were really some sophisticated things going on there.

Severo Ornstein, who was also present, must have been having flashbacks to his early experiences with Crosstelling…

A Stanford researcher named Vint Cerf remembers three principal reactions among the attendees.

The first came from the die-hard circuit-switching people from the telephone industry, who didn’t believe packet switching could possibly work. And they were stunned because it did work. It was almost like the rail industry disbelieving that airplanes could really fly until they saw one in flight. The second group were the people who didn’t know anything about computer communications at all to speak of, and who were sort of overwhelmed by the whole thing. But then there was the third group: the people who were just as excited as little kids because of all these neat things that were going on.

Amidst the demonstrations of email, file transfers, remote logins, even remote software development, the hit of the show was something far more frivolous. Stanford’s AI Lab had brought a program called Parry, a “simulation” — we would call it a chatbot today — of a patient undergoing psychological therapy. They had wired Parry up to talk with another program called Eliza, a computerized psychotherapist created by one Joseph Weizenbaum at MIT back in 1966.

Good evening. Tell me your problems. Please terminate input with a period or a question mark.

People get on my nerves sometimes.

I am not sure I understand you.

You should pay more attention.

Suppose you should pay more attention.

You're entitled to your own opinion.

What makes you think I am entitled to my own opinion?

It bothers me just to be around people in general.

Please go on.

I went to the track at Bay Meadows a while back.

Why do you say that just now?

There's a lot of crooked gambling going on there.

Please go on.

I gamble on horses.

What does that suggest to you?

Do you know anything about bookies?

What makes you think I know anything about bookies?

A bookie didn't pay me off once.

What does that suggest to you?

I beat up the bookie who did not pay off, and I thought he might use his friends in the underworld to get even with me.

What are you really talking about?

Have you ever really thought about the mafia?

Suppose you ever really thought about the mafia.

Let's talk about something else.

And so it went. As Joseph Weizenbaum himself was at pains to point out later in his career, Eliza and Parry were nothing more than clever parlor tricks, a set of rote semantic transformations and randomized catchphrases meant to convey a tissue-thin simulacrum of real understanding, convincing only to the naïve and those actively determined to believe. Their presence here as the shabby best that the strong-AI contingent could offer, surrounded by so many genuinely visionary demonstrations of computing’s humanistic, networked future, ought to have demonstrated to the thoughtful observer how one vision of computing was delivering on its promises while the other manifestly was not. But no matter: the crowd ate it up. It seems there was no shortage of gullible true believers in the Hilton ballroom during those exciting two and a half days.


The International Conference on Computers and Communications provided the ARPANET with some of its first press coverage beyond academic journals. Within computing circles, however, the ARPANET’s existence hadn’t gone unnoticed even by those who, thanks to accidents of proximity, had no opportunity to participate in it. During the early 1970s, would-be ARPANET equivalents popped up in a number of places outside the continental United States. There was ALOHANET, which used radio waves to join the various campuses of the University of Hawaii, which were located on different islands, into one computing neighorbood. There was the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) network in Britain, which served that country’s research community in much the same way that ARPANET served computer scientists in the United States. (The NPL network’s design actually dated back to the mid-1960s, and some of its proposed architecture had influenced the ARPANET, making it arguably more a case of parallel evolution than of learning from example.) Most recently, there was a network known as CYCLADES in development in France.

All of which is to say that computer networking in the big picture was looking more and more like the early days of telephony: a collection of discrete networks that served their own denizens well but had no way of communicating with one another. This wouldn’t do at all; ever since the time when J.C.R. Licklider had been pushing his Intergalactic Computer Network, proponents of wide-area computer networking had had a decidedly internationalist, even utopian streak. As far as they were concerned, the world’s computers — all of the world’s computers, wherever they happened to be physically located — simply had to find a way to talk to one another.

The problem wasn’t one of connectivity in its purest sense. As we saw in earlier articles, telephony had already found ways of going where wires could not easily be strung decades before. And by now, many of telephony’s terrestrial radio and microwave beams had been augmented or replaced by communications satellites — another legacy of Sputnik — that served to bind the planet’s human voices that much closer together. There was no intrinsic reason that computers couldn’t talk to one another over the same links. The real problem was rather that the routers on each of the extant networks used their own protocols for talking among themselves and to the computers they served. The routers of the ARPANET, for example, used something called the Network Control Program, or NCP, which had been codified by a team from Stanford led by Steve Crocker, based upon the early work of BBN hackers like Will Crowther. Other networks used completely different protocols. How were they to make sense of one another? Larry Roberts came to see this as computer networking’s next big challenge.

He happened to have working just under him at ARPA a fellow named Bob Kahn, a bright spark who had already achieved much in computing in his 35 years. Roberts now assigned Kahn the task of trying to make sense of the international technological Tower of Babel that was computer networking writ large. Kahn in turn enlisted Stanford’s Vint Cerf as a collaborator.

Bob Kahn

Vint Cerf

The two theorized and argued with one another and with their academic colleagues for about a year, then published their conclusions in the May 1974 issue of IEEE Transactions on Communications, in an article entitled “A Protocol for Packet Network Intercommunication.” It introduced to the world a new word: the “Internet,” shorthand for Khan and Cerf’s envisioned network of networks. The linchpin of their scheme was a sort of meta-network of linked “gateways,” special routers that handled all traffic going in and out of the individual networks; if the routers on the ARPANET were that network’s interstate highway system, its gateway would become its international airport. A host wishing to send a packet to a computer outside its own network would pass it to its local gateway using its network’s standard protocols, but would include within the packet information about the particular “foreign” computer it was trying to reach. The gateway would then rejigger the packet into a universal standard format and send it over the meta-network to the gateway of the network to which the foreign computer belonged. Then this gateway would rejigger the packet yet again, into a format suitable for passing over the network behind it to reach its ultimate destination.

Kahn and Cerf detailed a brand-new protocol to allow the gateways on the meta-network to talk among themselves. They called it the Transmission Control Protocol, or TCP. It gave each computer on the networks served by the gateways the equivalent of a telephone number. These “TCP addresses” — which we now call “IP addresses,” for reasons we’ll get to shortly — originally consisted of three fields, each containing a number between 0 and 255. The first field stipulated the network to which the host belonged; think of it as a telephone number’s country code. The other two fields identified the specific computer on that network. “Network identification allows up to 256 distinct networks,” wrote Kahn and Cerf. “This seems sufficient for the foreseeable future. Similarly, the TCP identifier field permits up to 65,536 distinct [computers] to be addressed, which seems more than sufficient for any given network.” Time would prove these statements to be among their few failures of vision.

It wasn’t especially easy to convince the managers of other networks, who came from different cultures and were all equally convinced that their way of doings things was the best way, to accept the standard being shoved in their faces by the long and condescending arm of the American government. Still, the reality was that TCP was as solid and efficient a protocol as anyone could ask for, and there were huge advantages to be had by linking up with the ARPANET, where more cutting-edge computer research was happening than anywhere else. Late in 1975, the NPL network in Britain, the second largest in the world, officially joined up. After that, the Internet began to take on an unstoppable momentum of its own. In 1981, with the number of individual networks on it barreling with frightening speed toward the limit of 256, a new addressing scheme was hastily adopted, one which added a fourth field to each computer’s telephone number to create the format we are still familiar with today.

Amidst all the enthusiasm for communicating across networks, the distinctions between them were gradually lost. The Internet became just the Internet, and no one much knew or cared whether any given computer was on the ARPANET or the NPL network or somewhere else. The important thing was, it was on the Internet. The individual networks’ internal protocols came slowly to resemble that of the Internet, just because it made everything easier from a technical standpoint. In 1978, in a reflection of these trends, the TCP protocol was split into a matched pair of them called TCP/IP. The part that was called the Transmission Control Protocol was equally useful for pushing packets around a network behind a gateway, while the Internet Protocol was reserved for the methods that gateways used to pass packets across network boundaries. (This is the reason that we now refer to IP addresses rather than TCP addresses.) Beginning on January 1, 1983, all computers on the ARPANET were required to use TCP rather than NCP even when they were only talking among themselves behind their gateway.



Alas, by that point ARPA itself was not what it once had been; the golden age of blue-sky computer research on the American taxpayer’s dime had long since faded into history. One might say that the beginning of the end came as early as the fall of 1969, when a newly fiscally conservative United States Congress, satisfied that the space race had been won and the Soviets left in the country’s technological dust once again, passed an amendment to the next year’s Department of Defense budget which specified that any and all research conducted by agencies like ARPA must have “a direct and apparent relationship” to the actual winning of wars by the American military. Dedicated researchers and administrators found that they could still keep their projects alive afterward by providing such justifications in the form of lengthy, perhaps deliberately obfuscated papers, but it was already a far cry from the earlier days of effectively blank checks. In 1972, as if to drive home a point to the eggheads in its ranks who made a habit of straying too far out of their lanes, the Defense Department officially renamed ARPA to DARPA: the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Late in 1973, Larry Roberts left ARPA. His replacement the following January was none other than J.C.R. Licklider, who had reluctantly agreed to another tour of duty in the Pentagon only when absolutely no one else proved willing to step up.

But, just as this was no longer quite the same ARPA, it was no longer quite the same Lick. He had continued to be a motivating force for computer networking from behind the scenes at MIT during recent years, but his decades of burning the candle at both ends, of living on fast food and copious quantities of Coca Cola, were now beginning to take their toll. He suffered from chronic asthma which left him constantly puffing at an inhaler, and his hands had a noticeable tremor that would later reveal itself to be an early symptom of Parkinson’s disease. In short, he was not the man to revive ARPA in an age of falling rather than rising budgets, of ever increasing scrutiny and internecine warfare as everyone tried to protect their own pet projects, at the expense of those of others if necessary. “When there is scarcity, you don’t have a community,” notes Vint Cerf, who perchance could have made a living as a philosopher if he hadn’t chosen software engineering. “All you have is survival.”

Lick did the best he could, but after Steve Lukasik too left, to be replaced by a tough cookie who grilled everyone who proposed doing anything about its concrete military value, he felt he could hold on no longer. Lick’s second tenure at ARPA ended in September of 1975. Many computing insiders would come to mark that day as the one when a door shut forever on this Defense Department agency’s oddly idealistic past. When it came to new projects at least, DARPA from now on would content itself with being exactly what its name said it ought to be. Luckily, the Internet already existed, and had already taken on a life of its own.



Lick wound up back at MIT, the congenial home to which this prodigal son had been regularly returning since 1950. He took his place there among the younger hackers of the Dynamic Modeling Group, whose human-focused approach to computing caused him to favor them over their rivals at the AI Lab. If Lick wasn’t as fast on his feet as he once had been, he could still floor you on occasion with a cogent comment or the perfect question.

Some of the DMG folks who now surrounded him would go on to form Infocom, an obsession of the early years of this website, a company whose impact on the art of digital storytelling can still be felt to this day.[1]In fact, Lick agreed to join Infocom’s board of directors, although his role there was a largely ceremonial one; he was not a gamer himself, and had little knowledge of or interest in the commercial market for home-computer games that had begun to emerge by the beginning of the 1980s. Still, everyone involved with the company remembers that he genuinely exulted at Infocom’s successes and commiserated with their failures, just as he did with those of all of his former students. One of them was a computer-science student named Tim Anderson, who met the prophet in their ranks often in the humble surroundings of a terminal room.

He signed up for his two hours like everybody else. You’d come in and find this old guy sitting there with a bottle of Coke and a brownie. And it wasn’t even a good brownie; he’d be eating one of those vending-machine things as if that was a perfectly satisfying lunch. Then I also remember that he had these funny-colored glasses with yellow lenses; he had some theory that they helped him see better.

When you learned what he had done, it was awesome. He was clearly the father of us all. But you’d never know it from talking to him. Instead, there was always a sense that he was playing. I always felt that he liked and respected me, even though he had no reason to: I was no smarter than anybody else. I think everybody in the group felt the same way, and that was a big part of what made the group the way it was.

In 1979, Lick penned the last of his periodic prognostications of the world’s networked future, for a book of essays about the abstract future of computing that was published by the MIT Press. As before, he took the year 2000 as the watershed point.

On the whole, computer technology continues to advance along the curve it has followed in its three decades of history since World War II. The amount of information that can be stored for a given period or processed in a given way at unit cost doubles every two years. (The 21 years from 1979 to 2000 yielded ten doublings, for a factor of about 1000.) Wave guides, optical fibers, rooftop satellite antennas, and coaxial cables provide abundant bandwidth and inexpensive digital transmission both locally and over long distances. Computer consoles with good graphics displays and speech input and output have become almost as common as television sets. Some pocket computers are fully programmable, as powerful as IBM 360/40s used to be, and are equipped with both metallic and radio connectors to computer-communication networks.

An international network of digital computer-communication networks serves as the main and essential medium of informational interaction for governments, institutions, corporations, and individuals. The Multinet [i.e., Internet], as it is called, is hierarchical — some of the component networks are themselves networks of networks — and many of the top-level networks are national networks. The many sub-networks that comprise this network of networks are electronically and physically interconnected. Most of them handle real-time speech as well as computer messages, and some handle video.

The Multinet has supplanted the postal system for letters, the dial-telephone system for conversations and teleconferences, standalone batch-processing and time-sharing systems for computation, and most filing cabinets, microfilm repositories, document rooms, and libraries for information storage and retrieval. Many people work at home, interacting with clients and coworkers through the Multinet, and many business offices (and some classrooms) are little more than organized interconnections of such home workers and their computers. People shop through the Multinet, using its funds-transfer functions, and a few receive delivery of small items through adjacent pneumatic-tube networks. Routine shopping and appointment scheduling are generally handled by private-secretary-like programs called OLIVERs which know their masters’ needs. Indeed, the Multinet handles scheduling of almost everything schedulable. For example, it eliminates waiting to be seated at restaurants and if you place your order through it it can eliminate waiting to be served…

But for the first time, Lick also chose to describe a dystopian scenario to go along with the utopian one, stating that the former was just as likely as the latter if open standards like TCP/IP, and the spirit of cooperation that they personified, got pushed away in favor of closed networks and business models. If that happened, the world’s information spaces would be siloed off from one another, and humanity would have lost a chance it never even realized it had.

Because their networks are diverse and uncoordinated, recalling the track-gauge situation in the early days of railroading, the independent “value-added-carrier” companies capture only the fringes of the computer-communication market, the bulk of it being divided between IBM (integrated computer-communication systems based on satellites) and the telecommunications companies (transmission services but not integrated computer-communication services, no remote-computing services)…

Electronic funds transfer has not replaced money, as it turns out, because there were too many uncoordinated bank networks and too many unauthorized and inexplicable transfers of funds. Electronic message systems have not replaced mail, either, because there were too many uncoordinated governmental and commercial networks, with no network at all reaching people’s homes, and messages suffered too many failures of transfers…

Looking back on these two scenarios from the perspective of 2022, when we stand almost exactly as far beyond Lick’s watershed point as he stood before it, we can note with gratification that his more positive scenario turned out to be the more correct one; if some niceties such as computer speech recognition didn’t arrive quite on his time frame, the overall network ecosystem he described certainly did. We might be tempted to contemplate at this point that the J.C.R. Licklider of 1979 may have been older in some ways than his 64 years, being a man who had known as much failure as success over the course of a career spanning four and a half impossibly busy decades, and we might be tempted to ascribe his newfound willingness to acknowledge the pessimistic as well as the optimistic to these factors alone.

But I believe that to do so would be a mistake. It is disarmingly easy to fall into a mindset of inevitability when we consider the past, to think that the way things turned out are the only way they ever could have. In truth, the open Internet we are still blessed with today, despite the best efforts of numerous governments and corporations to capture and close it, may never have been a terribly likely outcome; we may just possibly have won an historical lottery. When you really start to dig into the subject, you find that there are countless junctures in the story where things could have gone very differently indeed.

Consider: way back in 1971, amidst the first rounds of fiscal austerity at ARPA, Larry Roberts grew worried about whether he would be able to convince his bosses to continue funding the fledgling ARPANET at all. Determined not to let it die, he entered into serious talks with AT&T about the latter buying the whole kit and caboodle. After months of back and forth, AT&T declined, having decided there just wasn’t any money to be made there. What would have happened if AT&T had said yes, and the ARPANET had fallen into the hands of such a corporation at this early date? Not only digital history but a hugely important part of recent human history would surely have taken a radically different course. There would not, for instance, have ever been a TCP/IP protocol to run the Internet if ARPA had washed their hands of the whole thing before Robert Kahn and Vint Cerf could create it.

And so it goes, again and again and again. It was a supremely unlikely confluence of events, personalities, and even national moods that allowed the ARPANET to come into being at all, followed by an equally unlikely collection of same that let its child the Internet survive down to the present day with its idealism a bit tarnished but basically intact. We spend a lot of time lamenting the horrific failures of history. This is understandable and necessary — but we should also make some time here and there for its crazy, improbable successes.



On October 4, 1985, J.C.R. Licklider finally retired from MIT for good. His farewell dinner that night had hundreds of attendees, all falling over themselves to pay him homage. Lick himself, now 70 years old and visibly infirm, accepted their praise shyly. He seemed most touched by the speakers who came to the podium late in the evening, after the big names of academia and industry: the group of students who had taken to calling themselves “Lick’s kids” — or, in hacker parlance, “lixkids.”

“When I was an undergraduate,” said one of them, “Lick was just a nice guy in a corner office who gave us all a wonderful chance to become involved with computers.”

“I’d felt I was the only one,” recalled another of the lixkids later. “That somehow Lick and I had this mystical bond, and nobody else. Yet during that evening I saw that there were 200 people in the room, 300 people, and that all of them felt that same way. Everybody Lick touched felt that he was their hero and that he had been an extraordinarily important person in their life.”

J.C.R. Licklider died on June 26, 1990, just as the networked future he had so fondly envisioned was about to become a tangible reality for millions of people, thanks to a confluence of three factors: an Internet that was descended from the original ARPANET, itself the realization of Lick’s own Intergalactic Computer Network; a new generation of cheap and capable personal computers that were small enough to sit on desktops and yet could do far more than the vast majority of the machines Lick had had a chance to work on; and a new and different way of navigating texts and other information spaces, known as hypertext theory. In the next article, we’ll see how those three things yielded the World Wide Web, a place as useful and enjoyable for the ordinary folks of the world as it is for computing’s intellectual elites. Lick, for one, wouldn’t have had it any other way.

(Sources: the books A Brief History of the Future: The Origins of the Internet by John Naughton; Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet by Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon, Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution by Steven Levy, From Gutenberg to the Internet: A Sourcebook on the History of Information Technology edited by Jeremy M. Norman, The Dream Machine by M. Mitchell Waldrop, A History of Modern Computing (2nd ed.) by Paul E. Ceruzzi, Communication Networks: A Concise Introduction by Jean Walrand and Shyam Parekh, Computing in the Middle Ages by Severo M. Ornstein, and The Computer Age: A Twenty-Year View edited by Michael L. Dertouzos and Joel Moses.)

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 In fact, Lick agreed to join Infocom’s board of directors, although his role there was a largely ceremonial one; he was not a gamer himself, and had little knowledge of or interest in the commercial market for home-computer games that had begun to emerge by the beginning of the 1980s. Still, everyone involved with the company remembers that he genuinely exulted at Infocom’s successes and commiserated with their failures, just as he did with those of all of his former students.

Thursday, 05. May 2022

Renga in Blue

The Hermit’s Secret: The Undergrounds

In addition to being a member of a science fiction club, Dian Girard wrote books and stories herself. She published a number of short stories earlier in her life (including one from the collection above) and a story entitled Invisible Encounter from a 1982 collection (the year of this game). She later wrote a set […]

In addition to being a member of a science fiction club, Dian Girard wrote books and stories herself.

This is from a 1974 volume where authors were asked to write stories predicting the future of 2020.

She published a number of short stories earlier in her life (including one from the collection above) and a story entitled Invisible Encounter from a 1982 collection (the year of this game). She later wrote a set of sci-fi/comedy books. Here’s the description from Hypneratomachia (2009):

Hard on the heels of the side-splitting, hair-raising bestseller Tetragravitron, comes an all new adventure of Captain Spycer, that voluptuous, redheaded, space heroine, and her trusty crew–robot Peter Decade, scaly red Col. Krabchake, lewd and lecherous Prof. Groppe, and that wide-eyed innocent Brian Lefarge–are off to save the universe in their cosmic-powered ship. In this new challenge, our stalwart crew is looking for the evil masterminds behind some mysterious force that sucks the power out of stars, leaving their satellites frigid and lifeless.

As you might have guessed, they also lean on the bawdy side, making it possible that the mysterious unnamed sixth game she wrote is the infamous Granny’s Place, also published by Temple Software and using the same system as the other games. We’re save worrying about that for a future day and dive back into the underground world of The Hermit’s Secret.

My actual gameplay of late has not felt like narrative, but not like puzzle either. I’m not sure a good analogy, but let me describe in two ways:

a.) you’ve figured out how to map “standard” mazes in adventure games before, and drop a bunch of objects and fill in spots; there are no twists. You aren’t really doing a puzzle, and it certainly doesn’t come off as some kind of narrative: maybe an “activity”?

b.) you’re writing a research paper about genealogy. You are studying various family trees and following them back and finding connections. This isn’t a puzzle, really, but it certainly isn’t a narrative, even though there’s an “implied narrative” in the process of parents having children. It’s not drudgery and perhaps even kind of interesting.

My gameplay in the last few days have been a little from columns a and b. Even though there’s been a puzzle or two, they’ve been quick solves, and really, all I’ve been doing is taking the three distinct underground maps and trying to merge them together. (Kind of four, but the sequence I figured things out led me to already know how something was connected the moment I found it.)

To explain, let me first update the meta-map from last time:

Now there are four entrances to the underground, all marked as shown. The “silo” was next to the barn, and I thought it might be an isolated puzzle when I found it (that is, getting in would lead to a single room but no extra exits or geography):

You’re standing in front of a large tall stone silo.
There is a small black box by the door. It seems to be a voice print lock of some sort. Paths lead in most directions.

I found out how to get in by wandering the “bureaucracy area” from last time. One room has a tape; another, a tape machine, and in yet another, a presentation room with a button. Spooling in the tape and pressing the button gets a curious message I still haven’t fully deciphered:

This is a large control room. There are big switches and even bigger machines all around you. Exits go south and east.

There is a glowing white button in front of a display screen. The screen says “ACCESS RESTRICTED – CONFIDENTIAL” and has a list of words: CURTAIN WATERFALL DAVE SHACK REMEMBER MEADOW.

“Dave” seemed like a distinctive word. If you go in the underground through the shack (which I’ll go into detail on later) there is a sign from “Dave” talking about claim jumpers being shot, and I suspect he’s supposed to be the hermit of the title. While back out at the silo (I just started a fresh game) I tested each of the words off the list and DAVE hit paydirt.

You are inside the silo door.

A broad curving gray surface fills the room from top to bottom. It is about ten feet in from the outer stone wall of the silo. There seems to be a doorway in it some distance to the north.

This turns out to be only a few rooms away from the nosecone and the cargo room from last time where all the treasures go. This makes it really convenient to use the treasure stash and pop from there either back outside (with the DAVE word) or inside (through the bureaucracy area).

In case you’re curious, here’s my current latest haul, although there’s a bracelet and fossil I know I haven’t bothered to tote back yet. (Also, there’s still a glass treasure that shatters; it is possible the rug is soft enough to absorb it? I also found a fur muff at the end of my last session that might work to keep it from breaking.)

There is a lovely emerald here.
There is a wonderful little jeweled airplane here.
A magnificent diamond is gleaming by your feet.
A valuable erotic etching has been left here.
An expensive ruby necklace is lying here.
A very valuable stamp is lying here.
There’s a beautiful — and expensive — gold ring here.
There’s a nice persian rug on the floor.
There’s a big bar of silver here.

Despite the list building nicely, I feel like there’s a lot of map to go. Before I start showing off pictures, I want to explain that any “corner mark” that you see represents a room where I’ve tested exits. That is, I didn’t just trust the text (or at least my own reading skills) to put which directions I could go, but did every possible direction possible to see which would work. The game is generally good about listing directions but I did have one spot (in what I’m calling the “third underground”) with a “secret exit”:

You are standing by an immense stone idol. The fantastically carved vaults of an ancient temple stretch out to the south.
NW

Sorry, there’s no way to get through in that direction.
You are standing by the Great Idol.
SW

Sorry, there’s no way to get through in that direction.
You are standing by the Great Idol.
SE

You have found a secret staircase. Dark openings lead north and northwest from here.

Perhaps the author only put one, but the presence of one (and my own downfall of forgetting to mark exits) made me check all of them, and there were a few that were only vaguely described which I might have otherwise not have gotten.

Having gotten that out of the way, let’s finish off the bureaucracy section:

Other notable locations include a “cage room” with a mongoose which you are able to pick up assuming you have an animal cage from elsewhere (one of the other “undergrounds”)…

You’re in some kind of animal care center. Empty cages, their doors hanging ajar, line the walls. Some of them are small, and others are disturbingly large.

A pretty little cream-colored animal with a bushy tail is sitting on the floor, looking at you.

…a “map room” which is clearly meant as a meta joke…

You are in a large room full of charts and graphs. Corridors lead north and south from here.

A large map completely covers the west wall.
READ MAP

Well, it’s sort of hard to describe. It has a lot of little boxes on it, connected by lines, with names like “Steep Path,” “Grassy Meadow,” “Rocky Tunnel,” and so on. Very odd, really.

…a room with buttons where I am unable to refer to any of the buttons…

You are in the Check Room.

There is a large panel in the west wall. It is firmly shut.
Next to the panel are ten buttons labeled 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9.

…some minutae like a rec room and lounge which make the life of the dungeon keeper feel black and dreary…

You are in the employee lounge. There are chairs and tables, a small microwave, and all the usual things.
Exits lead north, south, and east.
S

You have reached the recreation room. There are some old ping pong tables here, and a dartboard without any darts.
There is a doorway north of you.

…and a robot blocking passage to the south. I have a theory on how to get by but I haven’t had time to test it yet.

You are in a large paneled east-west hall. It’s quite fancy, with carpet on the floor and indirect lighting.

A huge, heavily built robot rolls menacingly around the room, sensors blinking, and refuses to let you pass.

Importantly, on the other side of the robot is one of the other undergrounds, the one reached by entering from the shack.

This second underground is enterable from the shack guarded by the thirsty dog — this is where the warning sign from “Dave” appears.

You are at the entrance to an old gold mine. A dark rocky tunnel leads off to the south, and there is a ladder going up to some higher level.

There is a notice nailed up one one wall.
READ NOTICE

“Claim jumpers will be shot on sight. This means you!”
It’s signed by someone named “Dave.”

Oddly, enough, there’s a heavy gong in one location. It is to the south of an unsteady bridge where the game specifically calls out a weight limit, and to the north there’s a hint that a gong is needed in a particular place:

This is a lovely little room that looks like some kind of beautiful luminous blue jewel inside. A narrow opening heads off to the northeast, and a smooth path leads upward.

There is a message scrawled on the stones. The walls shine with a lovely irridescent glow.
READ MESSAGE

Some demented person has scrawled on the floor “Bongo, Bongo, Bongo, I Don’t Wanna Let The Gong Go.”

This suggests to me that the gong needs to go up out of the Gold Mine Underground and back through the Bureaucracy Underground in order to fulfill its destiny (which requires beating the robot).

There’s otherwise simply a lot of geography to trudge through, leading down to a very curious “memory room”, which feels like it came out of a Phoenix mainframe game (and I also have no idea what to do with it):

You are in a small, many-sided room. There is an obvious exit to the northeast. Some roughly carved letters on the south wall say “DEARIE, DO YOU REMEMBER?”

I should finally mention there’s got to be another link between the second and first undergrounds, as there’s a button room that’s a clone of the previous one I mentioned (“ten buttons labeled 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9.”) I would suspect an elevator but the game doesn’t even recognize the noun “button” so I’m at a loss as to how to operate it.

The third underground (which I’ll term The Gnomish Underground Empire) comes beneath a air control tower at an airfield.

The Gnome Dungeon represents a maze of some kind which I think has randomization, so I’m likely just going to save mapping it for when I’m desperate; sometimes it connects to the “Gnome King’s Dungeon” which I have placed below it.

I haven’t been able to connect this one up, although I assume there’s a link somewhere.

Also present is the “secret stair” I referenced earlier; it leads to a “still room”, and testing one of the directions there gave a unique response indicating there’s a secret passage somehow.

Tree roots have grown down into this room, piercing the ceiling and walls until it looks like a forest inside. There are exits leading north and west.
N

You are in a neat square room with an odd device in the middle of the floor. It has a big metal container, some copper tubing, and smells like something gone sour.

The only visible exit goes south.

E
You bruise your head painfully on the rock wall.

Again, there isn’t so much “obstacles” as much as “stuff I haven’t finished mapping yet”; there is one abyss I can’t get across, but the room description suggests I’ll reach the other side from some other route rather than finding a way across as if it were a puzzle.

You are at the west end of a gigantic cavern. The towering walls remind you of some sort of gothic cathedral, and your eyes peer vainly upward in an effort to see the ceiling. Faint wisps of mist eddy around you like lost souls. A narrow opening leads southwest, and the cavern stretches out to the east, where a bottomless abyss crosses the floor.

The abyss effectively blocks you from crossing the cavern.

I have intuition I’m closing in on the “exploration stopping point” — where I’m doing finding new rooms just by virtue of wandering and now need to look hard at what puzzles remain and what objects I have access to and start finishing the game. Every time I look there’s been a new area, so I’m not going to bet on it; the author was clearly fond of the “imaginary landscape” portion of Adventure (terminology she uses in the PC Mag article) and since she didn’t have her notions filtered through the technical limitations of Scott Adams TRS-80 games, she kept to the same hundreds-of-rooms mentality as original Adventure without compromise.

Girard’s story The Nothing Spot first appeared in this 1978 issue of Galaxy. From the International Science Fiction Database.


Choice of Games LLC

New Hosted Game! Life of a Space Force Captain, plus Paradox Factor is now on Steam!

Hosted Games has a new game for you to play! Have you ever wanted to be the captain of a faster-than-light starship? You will live a full life starting as a young child of the future. It’s 33% off until May 12th! Play as human, various species of alien, or even a robot. With the help of your friends and your loyal, upgradable robo-pet, you will go to school to learn skills of your own choosin

Hosted Games has a new game for you to play!

Have you ever wanted to be the captain of a faster-than-light starship? You will live a full life starting as a young child of the future.

It’s 33% off until May 12th!

Play as human, various species of alien, or even a robot. With the help of your friends and your loyal, upgradable robo-pet, you will go to school to learn skills of your own choosing before taking a position as a lowly cadet.

You’ll choose which department to join and rise within as the Solar System trembles in fear when a powerful foe threatens its very existence.
Will you master the psionic arts or use technology to enhance yourself with cybernetics? Will you follow the rules or will you do whatever is necessary? The choice is yours in Life of a Space Force Captain!

  • A new look at the Lucidverse. After the Lost Heir, Life of a Wizard, and the Last Wizard, there was New Daria (home of Life of a Mobster and Paradox Factor.) This story takes place a few hundred years after that.
  • 6 Friends with full back stories, character arcs, and possible romances, if you wish.
  • Cybernetic Implants vs Psionic Skills
  • An upgradeable faithful robo-pet companion.
  • 5 distinct departments to join (Engineering, Medical, Science, Navigation, and Security)
  • 7 Traits: Strength, Agility, Endurance, Perception, Willpower, Charm, and Intelligence.
  • 9 Skills: Combat, Computers, Ranged Weapons, Leadership, Mechanics, Medicine, Pilot, Science, Streetwise
  • 6 Fully Playable Species: Aurellian (beautiful bio-luminescent alien), Linnera (giant cockroach with hive mind), Orrok (strong four-armed alien), Reticulan (traditional bald, grey-skinned, black-eyed alien), Solarian (human), Synthetic Humanoid (robot)
  • 21 exciting and unique endings.


Life of a Space Force Captain author Mike Walter’s classic Hosted Game, Paradox Factor is back— and we’ve released it on Steam for the very first time! Now with new art and a new option to play as nonbinary, you can enjoy Paradox Factor for 50% off until May 12th!

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


The People's Republic of Interactive Fiction

May meetup — hybrid!

The Boston IF meetup for May will be Thursday, May 12, 6:30 pm Eastern time. The Trope Tank is once again open and operating at MIT! Therefore, we are experimenting with a cautious hybrid meeting format. We will offer a Zoom call as usual on May 12. But if you are in the Boston area […] ↓ Read the rest of this entry...

The Boston IF meetup for May will be Thursday, May 12, 6:30 pm Eastern time.

The Trope Tank is once again open and operating at MIT! Therefore, we are experimenting with a cautious hybrid meeting format. We will offer a Zoom call as usual on May 12. But if you are in the Boston area and you want to attend in person, you are welcome.

The new Trope Tank is in MIT building 14, east wing, room 14E-316. This is the same building as its old location, but one floor above.

Attendees must be fully vaccinated (including booster if eligible) and not feeling any COVID symptoms. Please see MIT’s visitor policy for more details.

If you plan to attend in person, please RSVP to Angela Chang at [email protected] Please arrive at the northeast door of building 14 (McDermott Court, by the black Calder sculpture) by 6:30 so that Angela can let you in. The building will otherwise be locked.

We hope to see you, either virtually or face-to-face.

Monday, 02. May 2022

inkle

Letters

A Highland Song is described in the blurb of our announcement trailer as "a narrative adventure with rhythm and survival elements". It's also a game about walking across the wild and empty Scottish highlands, alone. So how does one tell a story, when you're on your own? A lonely trek? Games are a bit peculiar when it comes to telling stories with only one character: in films i

A Highland Song is described in the blurb of our announcement trailer as "a narrative adventure with rhythm and survival elements". It's also a game about walking across the wild and empty Scottish highlands, alone.

So how does one tell a story, when you're on your own?

A lonely trek?

Games are a bit peculiar when it comes to telling stories with only one character: in films it's usually considered a basic requirement to have two people going on a journey together (so they can argue along the way), and even the most introspective books usually move their protagonist from human encounter to human encounter.

But games with solo protagonists going on lonely journeys are common, whether it's Breath of the Wild or Elden Ring. As players, we're used to long stretches without storytelling (or with purely "environmental storytelling", which is really another word for "set dressing") as we go from village to town, or from NPC to NPC (or to a coffin on the edge of a lava waterfall, for some reason).

inkle's games are usually different. When you travel the world in 80 Days you're in constant contact with your master, Phileas Fogg; and when you sail the rivers of the Nebula, your robot Six is heckling you the whole time. But then again, for most of Sorcery! you're a lone adventurer (unless you've been cursed by a talkative, grumpy wizard, I suppose.)

What's made A Highland Song more difficult, though, are the Highlands themselves. There are no villages or towns between Moira and the sea. There are some characters, but not too many - too many, and these empty wilds would start to feel weirdly crowded. Not only that, but the journey goes ever-forwards, so players can't backtrack from one character to another: the people you do meet are quickly left behind.

There are no shops to buy upgrades from, and no bandits or tricksters on the roads. So where and how does a narrative arise?

Walking and thinking

We realised early on in the project this was a game about walking. And when one's out walking, after a while, things arise - thoughts, feelings, memories... Walking is a way of shaking out your brain and seeing what sticky things come loose. So as Moira walks she has ideas, and thoughts - and she remembers things, the most common of which are things written to her by her Uncle Hamish, who has been sending her letters since she was small.

As the narrative designer on the project, one of my jobs is to ensure that what Hamish has to say is - to be blunt - interesting. I might write a wonderful series of remarks on the subject of wild Scottish heather, but if the player hasn't seen any, doesn't know what it is, and anyway, is up in the snow-capped mountains at this point where the heather doesn't grow, it's not going to be very relevant.

This is always a tricky problem in games (how often has a game character shouted out a useful hint or piece of advice to you in a game? And how often was that advice actually relevant a moment earlier, but not any more?) But in a game about stories, and legends - and in a game with a mystery at its heart, which A Highland Song has - it's not just about making sure the storytelling is relevant. It wants to be more than relevant. It wants to be rewarding.

Letters, and letters back

It was on a walk (from a coffeeshop to home) when I understood that I'd been missing something. The problem with Hamish writing you letters (well, having written you letters that you're now thinking back on) is that, unlike a conversation with a sidekick, you don't get to ask questions in return. You can't lead the conversation; you can't focus on what you're interested in; you can't follow up...

... but the other thing about Hamish having written you letters, in the past, is that Moira might well have written letters back. Letters in response to Hamish's letters: letters asking him questions, or asking for more information.

Of course, all those letters were written well before the game started... but what did Moira ask? What should she have asked? Those are exactly the kinds of decisions we like letting the player take for the protagonist.

Conversation by correspondence

So that leads us to Highland's core "conversation" mechanic, which is perhaps the oddest one we've ever built. As you settle down to sleep, Moira will recall a letter she wrote to her Uncle, asking him something... and she'll recall her Uncle's reply; a little fragment of story, legend, memory (or, like, a joke), all of which add up to form the main narrative thread that winds from peak to peak as you make your way to the sea.

And like the conversations that pass between Aliya and Six in Heaven's Vault, what Moira can ask about is highly contextual, driven by what you've found and what you've seen, by what you've learned recently... What Moira remembers is decided by whatever's at the forefront of Moira's mind, and what threads she's been following.

Guide her to ask more about the ruined castle known as the Outer Wall, and you might learn more about the legendary Queen Morag, which in turn might bring up further questions... but change the subject to Uncle H and his lighthouse, and you'll learn something else.

Explore without and within

A Highland Song is always going to be a game about being on your own, in a place much bigger than you, for which you're ill-prepared. But even if you're alone, you don't need to be lonely. We all carry a universe of voices inside our heads, and there's plenty to explore inside as well as out.

I said above there's a mystery at the heart of the game. Rest assured: Moira has all the answers she needs; if she can only find them...


Gold Machine

[1/3] Hell Is Other Divers: Cutthroats

L’enfer, c’est les autres plongeurs. Cutthroats (1984) Implemented by Mike Berlyn and Jerry Wolper Packaging, Extras, and Documentation Cutthroats grey box documentation (MoCAGH)Cutthroats grey box documentation (IDP)Cutthroats Invisiclues (IDP with Parchment)(For best results, open MoCAGH images in a new tab)The Obsessively Complete Infocom Catalog: CutthroatsNathan Simpson’s Lis

L’enfer, c’est les autres plongeurs.

Cutthroats (1984)

Implemented by Mike Berlyn and Jerry Wolper

Packaging, Extras, and Documentation

Cutthroats grey box documentation (MoCAGH)
Cutthroats grey box documentation (IDP)
Cutthroats Invisiclues (IDP with Parchment)
(For best results, open MoCAGH images in a new tab)
The Obsessively Complete Infocom Catalog: Cutthroats
Nathan Simpson’s List of Infocom Bugs: Cutthroats
Transcript #1: Stamps
Transcript #2: Coins

SPECIFICATIONS

(Courtesy of the Infocom Fact Sheet and this forum post). For comparison’s sake, Zork I‘s specifications follow in parentheses (this idea comes from the excellent Eaten by a Grue podcast).

Rooms: 68 (110)
Vocabulary: 790 (697)
Takeable Objects: 21 (60)
Size: 112.5KB (76KB)
Total Word Count (outputted text): 16,540 (14,214)

Opening Crawl

Nights on Hardscrabble Island are lonely and cold when the lighthouse barely pierces the gloom. You sit on your bed, thinking of better times and far-off places. A knock on your door stirs you, and Hevlin, a shipmate you haven't seen for years, staggers in.

"I'm in trouble," he says. "I had a few too many at The Shanty. I was looking for Red, but he wasn't around, and I started talking about ... here," he says, handing you a slim volume that you recognize as a shipwreck book written years ago by the Historical Society.

You smile. Every diver on the island has looked for those wrecks, without even an old boot to show for it. You open the door, hoping the drunken fool will leave. "I know what you're thinkin'," Hevlin scowls, "but look!" He points to the familiar map, and you see new locations marked for two of the wrecks.

"Keep it for me," he says. "Just for tonight. It'll be safe here with you. Don't let -- " He stops and broods for a moment. "I've got to go find Red!" And with that, Hevlin leaves.

You put the book in your dresser and think about following Hevlin. Then you hear a scuffle outside. You look through your window and see two men struggling. One falls to the ground in a heap. The other man bends down beside him, then turns as if startled and runs away. Another man then approaches the wounded figure. He kneels beside him for a long moment, then takes off after the other man.

It isn't long before the police arrive to tell you that Hevlin's been murdered. You don't mention the book, and hours later, as you lie awake in your bed, you wonder if the book could really be what it seems.

CUTTHROATS
Copyright (c) 1984 by Infocom, Inc. All rights reserved.
CUTTHROATS is a trademark of Infocom, Inc.
Release 23 / Serial number 840809

Your Room, on the bed
You're in your room in the Red Boar Inn. It's sparsely furnished, but comfortable enough. To the north is the door, and there's a closet without a door to the west.
On the floor is a note that must have been slipped under the door while you slept.
In a corner of the room is a lopsided wooden dresser.

Dear Gold Microphone:

I mentioned Cutthroats on an episode of Gold Microphone recently, and not in a flattering light. We received the following email soon thereafter:

hullo…first, it’s awesome that yer doing this series. in 1981, Zork I was my introduction to IF and PCs in general. been needing an IF podcast fix, with Eaten by a Grue slowing down to close…

am listening to the most recent Gold Microphone cast and when you threw the Cutthroats comment into the stream, it made me smile.

i am a Cutthroats fan..

i am a Cutthroats fan because it is desolate.
i am a Cutthroats fan because it is sketchy.
i am a Cutthrotas fan because it is a horrible day.
i am a Cutthroats fan because i lived in Olympia, WA, right off the Sound, and it feels like home.
i am a Cutthroats fan because it is the Goondocks of INFOCOM.

Kevin and Carrington nailed it in their episode. i am eagerly looking forward to your review. the more dislike that is poured on Cutthroats, the more it actually becomes, well, Cutthroats.

best wishes,

brian

Cutthroats and the Legacy of Zork

While they are few, Mike Berlyn’s Cutthroats has its adherents because it is entirely unique in the Infocom catalog in terms of both setting and mood. The rather too-on-the-nose “Hardscrabble Island,” the setting of Cutthroats, is likely inspired by Florida’s Treasure Coast, though its minimalist lousiness might place it anywhere rough customers and diveable shipwrecks could be found.

Cutthroats, in its way, has more to do with Zork than any of the later games which bear that name. It is the story of a nameless looter at odds with another looter who ventures into yet another mass grave for material wealth. The primary difference is that this protagonist (we’ll call him the Diver) has no long game. He isn’t collecting these treasures to please some sort of panoptical boogeyman, even though Cutthroats asserts–rather weakly–at game’s end that the Diver hopes that the presumably watchful soul of a deceased friend “is resting a little easier now.”

Cutthroats asks–unintentionally, I think–what Zork without purpose might look like. What is Zork without Demons and Dungeon Masters to satisfy or master? It is a directionless and constrained existence. Even though Johnny Red, the Diver’s sometime friend, asserts that he is a “great diver,” at game’s opening he has been idling–for who knows how long–in a lightly implemented room without a television or any other sort of amusement. He has no apparent source of income, no employment, and his peers are all sources of life-threating peril.

An illustration of a submarine confronting a giant squid. The water is black, suggesting that they are deep under the ocean.
Artistic dramatization of a scene from Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

And yet: there he likely remains, waiting for someone to find a new undersea tomb to pilfer, one hopefully laden with culturally significant objects. Is our Diver in hell? The souls of murdered acquaintences looking over his shoulder? Doomed to oscillate between abject boredom and mortal terror? At the “victorious” conclusion of Cutthroats, the protagonist contemplates his “wealth with a touch of sadness.” It is not clear that he will–or can–leave the island, and may well be doomed to wait in his underfurnished hotel room for another romp through a watery land of the dead.

The Critical Context of Cutthroats

Cutthroats would prove to be Mike Berlyn’s last work of interactive fiction with Infocom, though he would be remembered as a key contributor to the culture of Infocom’s golden age (I’ve argued that this period runs from 1980 to 1983). Fortunately, he would go on to create many more games with his wife and creative collaborator Muffy. It’s hard to keep from seeing his talents as misused. Despite an apparent lack of enthusiasm for Infidel, he remained the sole author of what would become known as the “Tales of Adventure” line of games (Seastalker, which nobody knew what to call, would later be inducted). The promise of the wholly unique and philosophically provocative Suspended would, unfortunately, go unfulfilled. It was a release characteristic of 1984, which featured more than one underwhelming game from a company with scant history of disappointing customers.

It is worth noting that Mike Berlyn did not handle coding for Cutthroats. Its ambition would have initially required architectural work (Marc Blank was this man behind the curtain for Suspended), and Berlyn found ZIL (Zork Implementation Language) fussy and counterintuitive. For Cutthroats, Berlyn had the support of Jerry Wolper, a capable programmer and MIT graduate. This kind of division of labor first occurred with the recent Seastalker and would continue–most visibly with the Adams-Meretzky team up for Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

As I have already said, Cutthroats was the first Infocom release to be packaged in the iconic “Gray Box” format, and it comported itself well in that regard, including an “issue” of Tales of Adventure, a historical booklet of local shipwrecks, and a pamphlet for a diving outfitter. Readers can find links to those materials above. I’ll discuss those items in detail, along with its grim and minimal story, in next week’s essay.

The third and final essay will assess the ambitious nature of Cutthroats and its failure to iterate appropriately when those goals proved unrealistic. For many, Cutthroats would consequently prove to be Infocom’s most disappointing adult game to-date (few dislike The Witness as much as I do), a truth that its initial sales numbers belied.

Get in touch! I’m reachable via this site’s contact form, email ([email protected]) or on Twitter: @golmacB.

The post [1/3] Hell Is Other Divers: Cutthroats appeared first on Gold Machine.


Renga in Blue

The Hermit’s Secret (1982)

The Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society is one of the earliest “fan clubs” for science fiction, founded in 1934. Their clubzine, De Profundis, was first published in 1957. One of the members, Dian Girard, is the author of our game today, and significantly, the author of five more games after: Phantom’s Revenge, Castle Elsinore, Monster […]

The Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society is one of the earliest “fan clubs” for science fiction, founded in 1934. Their clubzine, De Profundis, was first published in 1957.

Logo (and the dates above) from the Fancyclopedia.

One of the members, Dian Girard, is the author of our game today, and significantly, the author of five more games after: Phantom’s Revenge, Castle Elsinore, Monster Rally, Valley of the Kings, and one we don’t even have a name for. I say “significantly” because she seems to be the first woman who was also a “solo author” to have produced multiple adventures. The one-off Miser from the previous year was by Mary Jean Winter; Roberta Williams and Alexis Adams both worked as part of teams (although Alexis did get sole credit for Voodoo Castle) and the other women who have come up so far have been co-authors (like Christine Johnson with Mad Venture or half the team that made In Search Of… Dr. Livingston).

In other words, she was one of the multi-game auteurs at the time, one who, like Scott Adams, produced an article for outlining her methods. There’s a fair chance you haven’t heard of her — beyond the current modern obscurity of text adventures — because her work was originally published by a company not known for games, Norell.

Norell was one of the very early publishers focusing on DOS, and if they’re remembered for anything at all now it is their Pack & Crypt software, essentially the first widespread compression format. Unfortunately (for them) they charged for both compression and decompression utilities, whereas others made their decompression products free, so while it had been well-poised to become a format suitable for the BBS age and the ascent of IBM-compatible clones, they were essentially dead by 1986.

From PC Mag, Feb-Apr 1983.

But back to games: a summer 1982 catalog listed Original Adventure, and two of the Girard games were out by the end of the year.

The Adventure port is of note because Gillogly originally did one extremely early using the C language (1977 while at Rand, later it went in the BSD Unix compilation) and it looks like the Gillogly/Billofsky version is simply a port of that. It’s also of note because The Hermit’s Secret has a strong foot in Original Adventure to the extent it might borrow some code elements (it keeps variants of dwarves and the pirate, for instance, although heavily reskinned). There clearly was also some influence from Infocom, as you can see from just the screen layout:

The screenshot is from the re-published version by Temple Software. No Norell versions are available anywhere and that means the two games Temple never picked up (Monster Rally and Temple of the Kings) are currently lost altogether.

That’s the iconic static status line “moves” and “score” dropped in the corner, there. The parser also accepts some element of full-sentence parsing — you can FILL CAN WITH WATER, for instance — but not everything as it does not accept (for example) TAKE ALL.

As implied from the ad-copy earlier and the title screen, and especially by the derivation-from-Adventure feel, this is a treasure hunt, and as the INFO screen of the game informs us all the treasures go into a room with a sign marked LOAD. It took me a long time to find this room, because the game is quite large. Essentially, the main design decision here is to have, just like Adventure, long descriptions which can’t (generally) be referred to, and where the only items where interaction works are separated from the text. This allows a lot of text without much cost (unlike Infocom, which had to bother describing things with the EXAMINE command).

You are walking along beside a merrily bubbling stream. There is a high cliff north of you, and there is a small path to the southeast that winds down the side of the mountain.
N

You are standing at the bottom of a waterfall that cascades like a white veil down the sheer cliff face. A steep path goes northeast from here, and another path leads south.
NE

You are on a steep path that forks at this point. You can go north or east into the mountains, or to the southwest where a waterfall cascades down into an icy mountain pool.

On the three descriptions above, you can fill a container with water, which solves an early puzzle, but otherwise the rooms are there for trekking by and making a map.

The above is what I have so far, a great deal of which is outdoors; I’ve only solved an absolute minimum of puzzles. Much of my time was spent wandering and checking exits. For example, there’s a “mountain” area which doesn’t look so terrible once laid out, but was sufficiently maze-y with “loops” that I had to drop objects in each room and test every possible direction.

Also, one of the exits randomly goes between a choice of two rooms, which is guaranteed to give me a headache.

Here’s a metamap of the general layout:

The most confusing thing — and it took me genuinely an extra 15 minutes or so to reckon with it — is that going north far enough loops around; that is, you can start at the Meadow and take northward directions to eventually loop back to the Meadow without anything particularly mazelike on the way.

The three marked places (Airfield, Shack, Mountains) all have passages leading into darkness, and that’s where the underworld part of the game is. To get into any of them you need a light source first, which requires entering the shack by solving a minor puzzle with a thirsty dog.

You’re at the hermit’s shack.

There is a large dog, panting slightly, lying across the the doorway. He eyes you with interested anticipation. There is an empty water dish sitting next to the shack.

POUR WATER IN DISH
The dog laps up the water, wags his tail in a friendly manner, and then wanders off to lay down under a nearby tree.

Other than the lamp, there’s a megaton of other items, including treasures, all lying around in the aboveground.

gold ring, ruby necklace, crystal sphere (breaks when you drop it, like the vase in Adventure), emerald, jeweled airplane, valuable etching, keys, a rare stamp (found by using the keys to unlock a mailbox), green paper (“Gnome Industrial – One Unit Voucher”), card (which says “Gnome Industrial” and has a brown stripe)

Two hours in I finally made it to the underground — passing through the warehouse on my meta-map above — and found a bureaucratic complex.

You are in a small conference room. The walls are painted standard off-white, and the furniture all looks rented.
The only exits lead west and south.
S

This is a rather large conference room. The walls are paneled with golden oak and the furniture looks quite expensive. There’s even a built-in bar at one end. One exit goes north, and another leads west.

A yellowing old memo has been left on the floor.
GET MEMO

An old memorandum
Okay.
READ MEMO

“ALL LAB PERSONNEL –
Be certain that megarat cages are securely locked, and all lights are left ON at the close of your shift. In event of a megarat escape, close safety doors immediately and notify Plant Security. These animals are dangerous. Take no chances.”

(Megarats are the “grues” of the game and keep you from wandering around in the dark.)

This setup feels like it’s trying to do something akin to a Zork parody, but with some Adventure-style characters still tossed in. A “very short man in a brown business suit” tries to kill you with an axe, and you have later encounters with “assassins” who you need to kill with the axe. Unfortunately, your aim isn’t great, so it’s quite possible to miss and die without being able to do anything, but here’s what happens when things go well:

You killed a small dark-robed assassin! No sooner does he fall to the ground than six little men in dark suits run out and snatch up the corpse. A moment later a little black hearse labeled “Utter Gnome” roars by and vanishes into the darkness.

There’s also another gnome which scarfs treasures (both in your hand and off the floor) and spirits them away somewhere, just like the pirate/thief.

The very last thing I found in my play session — and it seemed a good stopping point to come here and communicate with y’all — is the room where treasures go.

A broad curving gray surface fills the room from top to bottom.
A slender ladder leads up the surface to some higher level.
U

You are in a cargo room. There is a large bin against one wall, and the word “LOAD” is stenciled on its side. Exits lead up and down along slender steel ladders.
U

You’re in the nosecone of a rocket. A fascinating array of dials, buttons, and switches are set into a control panel in front of a comfortably padded chair. A steel ladder goes down to the cargo room, and a smooth steel corridor leads east.

The treasures go in the “cargo room”. The positioning below the rocket makes me wonder if for the endgame, rather than random getting teleported to an endgame area, our objective will be to take off into space. Because riding into space toting a hold full of treasure would be… awesome? I guess we’ll see.