Planet Interactive Fiction

September 25, 2018

sub-Q Magazine

Author Interview: Caroline Yoachim

by Natalia Theodoridou at September 25, 2018 01:41 PM

Hugo and three-time Nebula Award finalist Caroline M. Yoachim is a prolific author of short stories, appearing in Asimov’s, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Clarkesworld, and Lightspeed, among other places. Her debut short story collection, Seven Wonders of a Once and Future World & Other Stories, came out in 2016. Caroline is the author of our September game, Welcome to the Medical Clinic at the Interplanetary Relay Station. Hours Since the Last Patient Death: 0.

This interview was conducted via e-mail in September 2018.

Caroline Yoachim

sub-Q Magazine: Hello! How are you? How was Worldcon?

Caroline Yoachim: Hello! In the time it has taken me to answer the interview questions, summer has shifted to fall, and Worldcon already seems a long way off. It was a busy convention for me, but a good one. I was on a nice mix of panels and readings, and I enjoyed attending the Hugo ceremony with friends, many of whom were also nominees. I had wonderful conversations with far too many people to name. A full con report is a bit much for one interview, but one particularly memorable moment for me was meeting George RR Martin at the Hugo Losers party. We had a brief conversation:

me: “I’m one of tonight’s Hugo Losers.”
GRRM: “What was your category?”
me: “Short story.”
GRRM: “I lost short story back in 1974. Who did you lose to?”
me: “Rebecca Roanhorse.”
GRRM: I lost to Ursula K. LeGuin. I only lose to the best.”

I also lose to the best, and I look forward to seeing what Rebecca Roanhorse does from here. I hope to someday sit at a Hugo Losers party and console future finalists with the story of the time I lost to her in the short story category, way back in 2018.
sub-Q: “Welcome to the Medical Clinic…” subverts the CYOA format to play not with choice but with futility. Why did you decide to tell the story this way?

Caroline: At the time I wrote this story, I was getting allergy shots once or twice a week in hopes of treating my seasonal allergies. Immunotherapy works by injecting a very small dose of the thing you are allergic to and gradually increasing that dose. For safety, patients stay in a waiting room at the clinic for 30-60 minutes after each shot. So basically: I spent a lot of time in a clinic waiting room with giant itchy welts on my arm where I’d had the shot.

In the end, I turned out not to be a good candidate for allergy shots–I had too many severe reactions and had to stop getting shots before I reached the level where they would help with my allergy symptoms. The shots had been time consuming and sometimes painful, but ultimately, futile. And that struck me as a good starting point for a medical humor story.
sub-Q: What’s your relationship with humour?

Caroline: I don’t write a whole lot of humor, and for a long time I assumed I wasn’t any good at it. The main reason I got into it was that Alex Shvartsman started his UFO (Unidentified Funny Objects) series of humor SFF anthologies, and he mentioned that the people who think they aren’t good at humor often write funnier stories than the people who think they’re good at it. So I decided to try my hand at it, and I wrote a flash story (“Carla at the Off-Planet Tax Return Helpline”) which appeared in UFO3.

“Welcome to the Medical Clinic…” has a few references to that earlier humor story, ranging from the title (Interplanetary Relay Station can be shortened to IRS) to the aliens (the Tarmandian Spacemite appears in both stories).
sub-Q: You have published extensively in multiple genres and styles. Is this sort of versatility something you cultivate, or are you wired this way?

Caroline: Both! I like to chase down shiny new ideas, but I also think it is good for me to actively try to stretch myself. One lovely thing about short stories is that you can try a lot of things, and if you fail you’re only out a few thousand words. This gives me a lot of freedom to experiment with structure, content, and style. . . .and it keeps me from getting bored.
sub-Q: What are your goals when you start writing a story?

Caroline: On a practical level, my goal when I start writing a story is to get it onto the page fast enough that it stays shiny and interesting. I have a tendency to get tired of stories if I work on them too long, and to lose some of the threads/arcs that were in my head when I started. If I can get the story out quickly, writing is fun. If I can’t, writing becomes something of a slog.

In terms of what I want to accomplish with the story itself, that varies from one story to the next. Usually I have an idea that I particularly want to highlight–I’m definitely a concept writer, not a character writer. Once I have my core concept, I’ll think about what emotions I want to evoke, and how I can tie specific story events into a broader theme. Mostly, though, my goal is to write something that resonates with readers–to make people laugh or cry or think about something in a way they hadn’t before.
sub-Q: What do you do for fun?

Caroline: My main creative pursuit, outside of writing, is photography–mostly nature and macro photography. Much like writing, I tend to go through phases with my photography. Currently I’m taking a lot of photos of flowers and plants. In the past I’ve been more focused on food. At one point I did a series of photography projects with gummy bears, including creating a gummy bear tarot deck.

I also love board games, Doctor Who, cooking/chef documentaries, and Broadway musicals.
sub-Q: What’s next for you? Any plans, plugs, recommendations?

Caroline: I’ve been focused on longer stories lately–currently I’m about midway through writing a novella. I do have a couple of shorter pieces coming out in the near future. First is my short story “The Clockwork Penguin Dreamed of Stars,” which will be out in November in Mechanical Animals (edited by Selena Chambers and Jason Heller).

I also have a novelette coming out in Lightspeed early next year called “The Archronology of Love.” It has a concept that I really love–a twist on archaeology where instead of digging through layers of dirt the characters have found a way to dig through layers of time. It also has aliens and a mysterious plague that kills off a colony planet. . . and at the core of it all is a love story.

The post Author Interview: Caroline Yoachim appeared first on sub-Q Magazine.

Emily Short

TextWorld (Inform 7 & machine learning)

by Emily Short at September 25, 2018 01:40 PM

Inform 7 is used in a number of contexts that may be slightly surprising to its text adventure fans: in education, in prototyping game systems for commercial games, and lately even for machine learning research.

TextWorld: A Learning Environment for Text-Based Games documents how the researchers from Tilburg University, McGill University, and Microsoft Research built text adventure worlds with Inform 7 as part of an experiment in reinforcement learning.

Reinforcement learning is a machine learning strategy in which the ML agent gives inputs to a system (which might be a game that you’re training it to play well) and receives back a score on whether the input caused good or bad results. This score is the “reinforcement” part of the loop. Based on the cumulative scoring, the system readjusts its approach. Over many attempts to play the same game, the agent is trained to play better and better: it develops a policy, a mapping between current state and the action it should perform next.

With reinforcement learning, beacuse you’re relying on the game (or other system) to provide the training feedback dynamically, you don’t need to start your machine learning process with a big stack of pre-labeled data, and you don’t need a human being to understand the system before beginning to train. Reinforcement learning has been used to good effect in training computer agents to play Atari 2600 games.

Using this method with text adventures is dramatically more challenging, though, for a number of reasons:

  • there are many more types of valid input than in the typical arcade game (the “action space”) and those actions are described in language (though the authors note the value of work such as that of BYU researchers Fulda et al in figuring out what verbs could sensibly be applied to a given noun)
  • world state is communicated back in language (the “observational space”), and may be incompletely conveyed to the player, with lots of hidden state
  • goals often need to be inferred by the player (“oh, I guess I’m trying to get that useful object from Aunt Jemima”)
  • many Atari 2600 games have frequent changes of score or frequent death, providing a constant signal of feedback, whereas not all progress in a text adventure is rewarded by a score change, and solving a puzzle may require many moves that are not individually scored

TextWorld’s authors feel we’re not yet ready to train a machine agent to solve a hand-authored IF game like Zork — and they’ve documented the challenges here much more extensively than my rewording above. What they have done instead is to build a sandbox environment that does a more predictable subset of text adventure behavior. TextWorld is able to automatically generate games containing a lot of the standard puzzles:

Screen Shot 2018-08-26 at 2.19.51 PM.png

Their system works out a set of objects and puzzles, generates Inform 7 code to describe these, compiles a game, and then has the ML agent play the resulting game:

Screen Shot 2018-08-26 at 2.50.36 PM.png

They’re also using some simple text generation to build the descriptions of objects and rooms you encounter.

To make a system basic enough for reinforcement learning, the authors pare back to situations that human players would find depressingly basic: rooms with objects lying on the floor to pick up; perhaps a single container or two. But the groundwork is here for more complicated challenges.

The article includes an analysis (Appendix A) of standard text adventure puzzles, and a chart (Appendix B) of most Infocom games and a number of more modern-era puzzlefests, breaking down which types of puzzles are present in each. The researchers also found the zarfian cruelty scale useful, and include cruelty ratings in the chart, perhaps because a cruel game may lead an ML agent into a training dead-end where it cannot progress but also cannot detect that it’s stuck.


See also this masters’ thesis by Mikulas Zelinka on reinforcement learning to play text-based games; on automatic puzzle generation within text or graphical adventure tropes, see Clara Fernandez-Vara’s work on the puzzle dice system.

September 24, 2018

"Aaron Reed"

Storygame Genre

by Aaron A. Reed at September 24, 2018 11:42 PM

Changeful Tales

“Changeful Tales” is a blog series where I rework my dissertation into more bite-sized, readable, and visible ideas.

Game genre is a frustratingly inexact concept, as many have observed. Designer Ernest Adams, for instance, calls this problem “genre muddle,” speaking to the many contradictory spectra we use to categorize games, and formally identifying four: audience, setting, theme, and purpose. When we talk about a horror game (theme), a casual game (audience), a Wild West or space game (setting), or a serious game (purpose), we shift naturally between different, non-hierarchical, overlapping ways of cataloguing.

Nor are these the only ways of dividing the space of game genres, obviously: whether arranging games by their platform (“PC”) or company (“Nintendo”), shared mechanics (“shooters”) or interface elements (“point-and-click adventures”) or required skills (“bullet hell”), we are constantly moving between different kinds of distinctions when we put games into categories. This happens in other media as well, of course, but the space of games is so broad that this muddle can become a problem when we try to speak and think critically about them.

The Game Genres circa 2017, according to Steam.

Steam, for instance, gives games a single top-level category. This includes a grab-bag of different approaches to genre, from market size to number of players to shared mechanics to subject matter. While Steam has experimented with various kinds of non-hierarchical tags over the years, the primary genre remains crucial for the kinds of games its users browse, purchase, and think of as similar to games they’re already playing.

There are issues with this. Nearly all narrative games, for instance, are lumped into the categories of “RPG” or “adventure,” and these games are often wildly at odds with the way those labels are used in other contexts. My game The Ice-Bound Concordance has elements of “simulation” and “strategy,” but it’d probably better find its target audience if listed as “adventure” — though it’s not an adventure game by any stretch of the definition. Nor is it an “RPG,” the only other story-centering option. Maybe “Indie,” although that implies all sorts of assumptions about how much I should charge for it. And let’s not get into the angst of making a category selection like this when you’re submitting your game to a review site…

This arbitrary bucketing has a real effect not only on which games we can find to play, but on how we consider them similar and different. For example, despite the fact that games about managing sports teams have made major technical advances in social simulation, narration of dynamic stories, and drama management, these games are rarely studied alongside other kinds of procedural narrative games simply because most people making each kind of game are rarely exposed to the other. Much of the design work in these two communities is therefore mutually unknown, to the detriment of all. (A nice exception is this free GDC Vault talk by Peter Garcin, if you’re curious.)

Even surface-level genre divisions have marred our ability to study shared systems and mechanics. Despite being largely similar in their underlying structure, text adventures, graphical adventures, and narrative puzzle-platformers have rarely been studied alongside each other. And yet these genres contain many of the same core elements, such as exploring a fictional world as part of uncovering a story, and coming to a new understanding of that world that allows one to advance — a very different kind of puzzle-solving than is found in pure logic puzzles. In an upcoming book on adventure games, my collaborators and I look at a wide selection of games across many “genres” that have several critical factors like the above in common, but have rarely been considered together as part of the same tradition: this kind of analysis is still surprisingly rare in game studies.

Scenes from Limbo (2010), Space Quest II (1987), and Trinity (1986), all demonstrating an identical puzzle and moment of narrative revelation, despite being from different “genres.”

Given the problems with genre, how can we make useful distinctions between different styles of storygame?

One approach is to zoom out and abstract the problem up to a less hierarchical, less exclusive level. In literature, we might say a book is operating in a certain mode (such as the comic, ironic, or didactic mode) which doesn’t preclude someone else (or myself, in a different lit class) from interpreting it as part of other traditions as well. Literary modes are a “critical term usually identifying a broad but identifiable literary method, mood, or manner that is not tied exclusively to a particular form or genre.” Interpreting a work as an example of a particular mode can offer insights into the intentions of its creator and tools for understanding its aims and how it goes about advancing them, without being quite as categorical or imperfectly precise as genre.

But for a genuinely useful solution, we also need to zoom in, looking at the specific mechanics, design choices, and implementation details that make one storygame experientially different from another. When speaking about storygame’s design, it’s perhaps less useful to know whether it’s a “graphical adventure” or a “text adventure” than to learn something about how its narrative systems actually work.

Take a Twine. It might have a completely linear structure of nodes with no choice points. It might, instead, have ten thousand nodes and fifty thousand links. It might hide nearly all of those options behind a single link two-thirds of the way through the piece, or make them all easily accessible from a central hub, or be richly interconnected throughout. The lexia in the piece might be completely static, completely procedurally generated, or do something in between such as templated text; the structure of the links might likewise be static or dynamic.

But we don’t learn any of this from the label “Twine,” and we don’t have a commonly accepted set of alternative labels to use either. Even more surprisingly, outside of a few experts you often don’t even find this kind of information in a review — let alone in the marketing, where every single one of the above structures will unfailingly be described with a phrase like “your choices really matter!”

Solutions often arise to differentiate works from each other within particular communities of practice, though these rarely cross over or become mainstream. The hypertext and gamebook communities have terms to cover the above situations, but they’re not the same terms and they’re not widely known outside their respective niches. Or consider the Cruelty Scale for parser IF, invented by Andrew Plotkin (Zarf) in the mid-1990s: this metric assigns a game one of five possible rankings based on how seriously the wrong input can screw up your chances of winning. A “cruel” rating means the player can take an action that makes the game impossible to win, without notifying the player that this has happened, making anything you do after that point completely futile. (Many early text adventures were retroactively given this rating, such as Infocom’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, wherein you must feed a certain dog a certain cheese sandwich at a certain early moment or be unexpectedly killed by an alien battle fleet much later, in service of a joke about the arbitrariness of cause and effect — it’s very Douglas Adams.)

While some players enjoy this sort of thing, others find it an obnoxious waste of their time (especially when not softened by Douglas Adams prose). The Zarfian cruelty rating became a widely used metric among IF fans specifically because it revealed in a single word a vital aspect of a game’s structure, which might well impact one’s decision to play it at all (and how close at hand to keep a walkthrough, if one does).

These early Changeful Tales posts are in part about defining a particular vocabulary for interactive stories that lets us speak more precisely about how they work. The way I use storygame itself is part of this precision, as is distinguishing expressive input from control schemes that don’t give the player as open a space of interaction. Returning to the graph with which I began this series:

…we can think of this as working towards a way of discussing interactive story structures with words that’s as immediately clear as this graph. In my next post, I’ll introduce another useful concept, narrative logics, that provides another analytical tool more useful than genre.

Zarf Updates

Myst, 25 years old

by Andrew Plotkin ([email protected]) at September 24, 2018 09:24 PM

The history books say that Myst was originally released for Mac and Windows on September 24th, 1993. Or, at least, that's what Wikipedia and Mobygames say. Let's call it accurate for the purposes of wearing the party hat.
The anniversary collectible box-set is still in progress, but all the games are now available on GOG -- including Myst 3 and 4, which were out of print until now. As I write this, Myst 3 and 4 have not yet appeared on Steam, but Cyan indicated (in a KS update) that those games should be out for general release today. (KS backers have already received Steam keys, and I've replayed a bit of Myst 4 on Steam already.)
Fans should also take a look at the Myst community rewards page, which has some of the downloadable goodies that were promised as stretch goals. These include 3D printable models, scans of concept art, and design documents.

Here's one of the 3D models, which I had printed via Shapeways. If you want a copy, you should use my cleaned-up model. I printed it in steel, 8 cm high; cost me $100.
Another anniversary announcement: Mysterium, the Myst fan convention, is planning a Global Mysterium Day -- people will organize local fan get-togethers in as many cities as possible. The date is not set, probably spring of 2019 sometime. There's a mailing list, particularly if you're interested in hosting.
Mysterium itself will no doubt be back with its regular convention in late summer.
And finally, let me give a quick boost to The Five Cores Remastered, a Kickstarter which is now in its final day. The Five Cores was a Myst-inspired low-budget adventure game from 2012. The author now plans to update it to the Unreal engine, improve puzzles, make the environment more dynamic, and generally improve things.
I never played the original release -- I didn't have a decent Windows machine in 2012. So I'm excited about having a new "as it was meant to be" version available. As I write this, the Kickstarter is barely $100 short of its goal, so let's not let that wipe out.

The People's Republic of IF

October meetup

by zarf at September 24, 2018 03:41 PM

The Boston IF meetup for October will be Thursday, October 11, 6:30 pm, MIT room 14N-233.

Perhaps we will look at some IFComp games!

September 21, 2018

The Digital Antiquarian

The Gateway Games of Legend (Preceded by the Legend of Gateway)

by Jimmy Maher at September 21, 2018 04:41 PM

Frederik Pohl was still a regular speaker at science-fiction conventions in 2008.

Frederik Pohl, who died on September 2, 2013, at age 93, had one of the most multifaceted careers in the history of written science fiction. Almost uniquely, he played major roles in all three of the estates that constitute science fiction’s culture: the first estate of the creators, in which he wrote stories and novels over a span of many decades; the second estate of the publishers and other business interests, in which he served as a highly respected and influential agent, editor, and anthologist over a similar period of time; and the third estate of fandom, in which his was an important voice from the very dawn of the pulp era, and for which he never lost his enthusiasm, attending science-fiction conventions and casting his votes on fan committees right up to the end.

Growing up between the world wars in Brooklyn, New York, Pohl discovered the nascent literary genre of science fiction in 1930 at the age of 10, when he stumbled upon an issue of Science Wonder Stories. From that moment on, he spent his time at every opportunity with the likes of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Princess of Mars and Doc Smith’s Lensmen — catnip for any red-blooded young boy with any sense of wonder at all. In comparison to other young science-fiction fanatics, however, Pohl stood out for his personableness, his ambition, his spirit of innovation, and his sheer commitment to the things he loved. He became a founding member of the Brooklyn Science Fiction League, one of the earliest instances of organized science-fiction fandom anywhere in the country, and by the ripe old age of 13 or so had become a prolific editor and publisher of fanzines, many of which enjoyed a total circulation reaching all the way into two figures.

The world of science fiction was indeed still a small one, but that had its advantages in terms of access, especially when one was fortunate enough to live in the pulp publishing capital that was New York City. The boundaries between science-fiction fan and the “profession” of science-fiction writer were porous, and by the latter half of the 1930s Pohl was hobnobbing with such luminaries as Isaac Asimov and Cyril Kornbluth in an informal club of like-minded souls who called themselves the Futurians. He stumbled into the job of acting as the Futurians’ literary agent, which entailed buying stamps and envelopes in bulk, mailing off his friends’ stories to every pulp publisher in the Big Apple, and collecting lots of rejection slips alongside the occasional letter of acceptance in the return post.

In 1939, a 19-year-old Frederik Pohl got himself an editor’s job at the pulp house Popular Publications by virtue of knocking on their door and asking for one. He was given responsibility for Astonishing and Super Science Stories, second-tier magazines that paid their writers a penny per word and trafficked in the stories that weren’t good enough for John W. Campbell’s Astounding, the class of the field. Most of the authors whose stories Pohl accepted are justifiably forgotten today, but he did get his hands every now and then on a sub-par offering from the likes of a Robert A. Heinlein or L. Sprague de Camp that Campbell had rejected; Pohl, alas, was in no position to be so choosy.

But then along came the Second World War to put everything on hold for a while. Pohl wound up joining the Army Air Force, and was rewarded with what he freely described as a “cushy” war experience, working as meteorologist for a B-24 squadron based in Italy. When he returned from Europe, he returned to publishing as well but, initially, not to science fiction. Now a married man with familial responsibilities, he worked for a few years as an advertising copywriter, then as an editor for the book adjuncts to the magazines Popular Science and Outdoor Life; this constitutes the only substantial period of his entire professional life spent outside science fiction.

Yet the pull of science fiction remained strong, and in the early 1950s Pohl resumed his old role of literary agent for his writer buddies, albeit now on a slightly more professional footing. The locus of science-fiction profits was moving from the pulps to paperback novels and short-story collections in book form; thus Pohl became an editor for Ballantine’s new line of science-fiction paperbacks. By this point, the name of Frederik Pohl, while still fairly obscure to most readers, was known to everyone inside the community of science-fiction writers. He really was on a first-name basis with everyone who was anyone in the field, from hard science fiction’s holy trinity of Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clarke to lyrical science fiction’s patron saint Ray Bradbury.

In 1960, a 41-year-old Pohl accepted what was destined to become his most influential behind-the-scenes role of all when he agreed to become editor of a troubled ten-year-old also-ran of a magazine called Galaxy Science Fiction. “The pay was miserable,” he would later remember. “The work was never-ending. It was the best job I ever had in my life.”

At that time, science fiction was on the precipice of a new era, as a more culturally, racially, sexually, and stylistically diverse generation of up-and-coming writers — the so-called “New Wave” — began to arrive on the scene with a new interest in prose quality and formal experimentation, alongside an interest in exploring the future in terms of human psychology rather than technology alone. Many or most of the old guard who had cut their teeth in the pulp era, whose politics tended to veer conservative in predictable middle-aged-white-male fashion, greeted this invasion of beatnik radicals with dismay and contempt. The card-carrying John Birch Society member John W. Campbell, who was still editing Astounding — or rather, as it had recently been renamed, Analog Science Fiction — was particularly vocal in his criticism of all this new-fangled nonsense.

Frederik Pohl, however, was different from most of his peers. He had always read widely outside the field of science fiction as well as inside it, and was as comfortable discussing the stylistic experiments of James Joyce and Marcel Proust as he was the clockwork plots of Doc Smith. And as for politics… well, he had spent four years as a card-carrying member of the American Communist Party — take that, John Campbell! — and even after disillusionment with the Soviet Union of Josef Stalin had put an end to that phase he had retained his leftward bent.

In short: Frederik Pohl welcomed the new arrivals and their new ideas with open arms, making Galaxy a haven for works at the cutting edge of modern science fiction, superseding Campbell’s increasingly musty-smelling Analog as the genre’s journal of record. He had to, as he later put it, “encourage, coax, and sometimes browbeat” his charges to get the very best work out of them, but together they changed the face of science fiction. Indeed, it was arguably helping other writers be their best selves that constituted this multifariously talented man’s most remarkable talent of all. Perhaps his most difficult yet rewarding writer was the famously irascible Harlan Ellison, who burst to prominence in the pages of Galaxy and If, its sister publication, with stories whose names were as scintillatingly trippy as their contents: “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman,” “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream,” “The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World.” Such stories were painfully shaped over the course of a series of bloody rows between editor and writer. Most readers would agree that Ellison’s later fiction has never approached the quality of these early stories, churned out under the editorship of Frederik Pohl.

Burned out at last by the job of editing Galaxy, Pohl stepped down at the end of the 1960s, a decade that had transformed the culture of science fiction every bit as much as it had the larger American culture that surrounded it. In the following decade, however, he continued to push the boundaries as an editor for Bantam Books. It was entirely thanks to him that Bantam in 1975 published Samuel R. Delany’s experimental masterpiece or colossal con job — depending on the beholder — Dhalgren, nearly 900 pages of digressive, circular prose heavily influenced by James Joyce’s equally controversial Finnegans Wake. Whatever else you could say about it, science fiction had come a long way from the days of Science Wonder Stories and Edgar Rice Burroughs.

All of which is to say that Frederik Pohl would have made a major impact on the field of science fiction had he never written a word of his own. In actuality, though, he managed to combine all of the work I’ve described to this point with an ebbing and flowing output of original short stories and novels, beginning with, of all things, a rather awkwardly adolescent poem called “Elegy to a Dead Satellite: Luna,” which appeared in Amazing Stories in 1937. Through the ensuing decades, Pohl was regarded as a competent but second-tier writer, the kind who could craft a solid tale but seldom really dazzled. Yet he kept at it; if nothing else, continuing to work as a writer in his own right gave him a feeling for what the more high-profile writers he represented and edited were going through. In 1967, he even switched roles with his frenemy Harlan Ellison by contributing a story to the latter’s Dangerous Visions anthology, a collection of deliberately provocative stories — the sorts of things that could never, ever have gotten into print in earlier years — from New Age writers and adventurous members of the old guard; it went on to become what many critics consider the most important and influential science-fiction anthology of all time.

But even Pohl’s contribution there — “The Day After the Day After the Martians Came,” a parable about the eternal allure of racism and xenophobia that was well-taken then and now but far less provocative than many of the anthology’s other stories — didn’t really change perceptions of him as a fine editor with a sideline in writing rather than the opposite. That shift didn’t happen until a decade later, when the now 58-year-old Pohl published a novel called Gateway. Coming after the most important work of the vast majority of his pulpy peers was well behind them, Pohl’s 21st solely-authored or co-authored novel constitutes the most unlikely story of a late blooming in the history of science fiction.

Described in the broadest strokes, Gateway sounds like the sort of rollicking space opera which John W. Campbell would have loved to publish back in the heyday of Astounding. In our solar system’s distant past, when the primitive ancestors of humanity had yet to discover fire, an advanced star-faring race, later to be dubbed the Heechee by humans, visited, only to abandon their bases an unknown period of time later. As humans begin to explore and settle the solar system in our own near future, they discover a deserted Heechee space station in an elliptical orbit around our sun. They find that the station still contains bays full of hundreds of small spaceships, and discover the hard way that, at the press of a mysterious button, these spaceships sweep their occupants away on a non-negotiable faster-than-light journey to some other corner of the galaxy, then (hopefully) back to Earth at the press of another button; for this reason, they name the station Gateway, as in, “Gateway to the Stars.” Many of the destinations the spaceships visit are pointless; some, such as the interior of a black hole, are deadly. Sometimes, though, the spaceships travel to habitable planets and/or to planets containing other artifacts of Heechee technology, worth a pretty penny to scientists, engineers, and collectors back on Earth.

Earth itself is not in very good shape socially, culturally, or environmentally. Overpopulation and runaway capitalism have all but ruined the planet and created an underclass of have-nots who make up the vast majority of the population, working in unappetizing industries like “food shale mines.” The so-called Gateway Corporation, which has taken charge of the station, runs a lottery for people interested in climbing into a Heechee spaceship, pressing a button, and seeing where it takes them. Possibly they can end up rich; more likely, they might wind up dead, their bodies left to decay hundreds of light years from home. But, conditions being what they are among the teeming masses, there’s no shortage of volunteers ready and willing to take such a long shot. These intrepid — or, rather, desperate — explorers are known as the Gateway “prospectors.”

That, then, is the premise —  a premise offering a universe of possibility to any writer with an ounce of the old pulpy space-opera spirit. Who are (or were) the Heechee? Why did they disappear? Did they intend for humans to discover their technology and start using it to explore the galaxy, or is that just a happy (?) accident? Will the two races meet someday? Or, if you like, table all those Big Mysteries for some series finale off in the far distance. Just the premise of flying off to parts unknown in all these Heechee spaceships admits of an infinite variety of adventures. Gene Rodenberry may have once famously pitched Star Trek as “Wagon Train to the Stars,” but the starship Enterprise has got nothing on this idea.

Here’s the thing, though: having come up with this spectacular idea that the likes of a Doc Smith could have spent an entire career milking, Frederik Pohl perversely refused to turn it into the straightforward tales of interstellar adventure that it was crying out to become. Gateway engages with it instead only in the most subversively oblique fashion. Half of the novel consists of a series of therapy sessions involving a robot psychologist and a Gateway prospector named Robinette Broadhead who’s neither conventionally adventurous nor even terribly likable. Robinette is the only survivor — under somewhat suspicious circumstances — of a recent five-person prospecting expedition. He’s now rich, but he’s also a deeply damaged soul, just one of the many who inhabit Gateway, a rather squalid place beset by rampant drug abuse, a symptom of the literal dead-enders who inhabit it between prospecting voyages. We spend far more time exploring the origins and outcomes of Robinette’s various psycho-sexual hangups than we do gallivanting about the stars. It’s as if we wandered into a Star Trek movie and got an Ingmar Bergman film that just happens to be set in space instead. Gateway is a shameless bait-and-switch of a novel. Robinette Broadhead, I’m afraid, lost his sense of wonder a long time ago, and it seems that he took Frederik Pohl’s as well.

The best way to understand Gateway may be through the lens of the times in which it was written: this is very much a novel of the 1970s, that long, hazy morning after to the rambunctious 1960s. The counterculture of the earlier decade had focused on collective struggles for social justice, but the 1970s turned inward to focus on the self. Images of feminist activists like Betty Friedan shouting through bullhorns at rallies were replaced in the media landscape with the sitcom character Mary Tyler Moore, the career gal who really did have it all; rollicking songs of mass protest were replaced by the navel-gazing singer-songwriter movement; the term Me Generation was coined, and suddenly everyone seemed to be in therapy of one kind or another, trying to sort out their personal issues instead of trying to fix society writ large. Meanwhile a pair of global oil crises, acid rain, and the thick layer of smog that hovered continually over Hollywood — the very city of dreams itself — were driving home for the first time what a fragile place this planet of ours actually is. Oh, well… on the brighter side, if you were into that sort of thing, lots of people were having lots and lots of casual sex, still enjoying the libertine sexual mores of the 1960s before the specter of AIDS would rear its head and put an end to all that as well in the following decade.

It’s long been a truism among science-fiction critics that this genre which is ostensibly about our many possible futures usually has far more interesting things to say about the various presents that create it. And nowhere is said truism more true than in the case of Gateway. For better or for worse, all of the aspects of fashionable 1970s culture which I’ve just mentioned fairly leap off its pages: the therapy and accompanying obsessive self-examination, the warnings about ecology and environment, the sex. It was so in tune with its times that the taste-makers of science fiction, who so desperately wanted their favored literary genre to be relevant, able to hold its head up proudly alongside any other, rewarded the novel mightily. Gateway won pretty much everything it was possible for a science-fiction novel to win, including its year’s Hugo and Nebula, the most prestigious awards in the genre; it sold far better than anything else Frederik Pohl had ever written; it made Pohl, four decades on from publishing that first awkward adolescent poem in Amazing Stories, a truly hot author at last.

The modern critical opinion tends to be more mixed. In fact, Gateway stands today as one of the more polarizing science-fiction novels ever written. Plenty of readers find its betrayal of its brilliant space-operatic setup unforgivable, and/or find its unlikable, self-absorbed protagonist insufferable, and/or find its swinging-70s social mores and dated ideas about technology simply silly. I confess that I myself largely belong to this group, although more for the latter two reasons than the first. Other readers, though, continue to find something hugely compelling about the novel that’s never quite come through for me. And yet even some of this group might agree that some aspects of Gateway haven’t aged terribly well. With some of the best writers in the world now embracing or at least acknowledging science fiction as as valid a literary form as any other, the desperate need to prove the genre’s literary bona fides at every turn that marked the 1960s and 1970s no longer exists. Gateway today feels like it’s trying just a bit too hard.

In at least one sense, Gateway did turn into a case of business as usual for a popular genre novel: Frederik Pohl published three sequels plus a collection of Gateway short stories during the 1980s. These gradually peeled back the layers of mystery to reveal who the Heechee were, why they had once come to our solar system, and why they had left, using the same oblique approach that had so delighted and infuriated readers of the first book. None of the them had the same lightning-in-a-bottle quality as that first book, however, and Pohl’s reputation gradually declined back to join the mid-tier authors with which he had always been grouped prior to 1977. Perhaps in the long run that was simply where he belonged — a solid writer of readable, enjoyable fiction, but not one overly likely to shift any paradigms inside a reader’s psyche.

At any rate, such was the position Pohl found himself in in early 1991, when Legend Entertainment came calling with a plan to make a computer game out of Gateway.

As a tiny developer and publisher in a fast-growing, competitive industry, Legend was always doomed to lead a somewhat precarious existence. Nevertheless, the first months of 1991 saw them having managed to establish themselves fairly well as the only company still making boxed parser-driven adventure games — the natural heir to Infocom, co-founded by an ex-Infocom author named Bob Bates and publishing games written not only by him but also by Steve Meretzky, the most famous Infocom author of all. Spellcasting 101, the latter’s fantasy farce that had become Legend’s debut product the previous year, was selling quite well, and a sequel was already in the works, as was Timequest, a more serious-minded time-travel epic from Bates.

Taking stock of the situation, Legend realized that they needed to increase the number of games they cranked out in order to consolidate their position. Their problem was that they only had two game designers to call upon, both of whom had other distractions to deal with in addition to the work of designing new Legend adventure games: Bates was kept busy by the practical task of running the company, while Meretkzy was working from home as a freelancer, and as such was also doing other projects for other companies. A Legend “Presentation to Stockholders” dated May of 1991 makes the need clear: “We need to find new game authors,” it states under the category of “Product Issues.” Luckily, there was already someone to hand — in fact, someone who had played a big part in drawing up the very document in question — who very much wanted to design a game.

Mike Verdu had been Bates’s partner in Legend Entertainment from the very beginning. Although not yet out of his twenties, he was already an experienced entrepreneur who had founded, run, and then sold a successful business. He still held onto his day job with ASC, the computer-services firm with many Defense Department contracts which had acquired the aforementioned business, even as he was devoting his evenings and weekends to Legend. Verdu:

I was the business guy. I was the CFO, the COO, the guy who went and got money and made sure we didn’t run out of it, who figured out the production plans for the products, tried to get them done on time, figured out the milestone plans and the software-development plans. I was a product guy inasmuch as I was helping to hire programmers and putting them to work, but I wasn’t a game designer, and I wasn’t writing code or being the creative director on products. And I really wanted to do that.

So, there was this moment when I had to decide between continuing to work with ASC and doing Legend part time or doing Legend full time. I decided to do Legend full time. But as a condition of that, I said, “I’d like to be a part of the teams that are actually making the games.”

But I didn’t believe I had the chops to create a whole world and write a game from scratch. I was sort of looking for a world I could tell a story in. So I talked to Bob about licensing. I was incredibly passionate about Frederik Pohl’s novels. So we talked about Gateway, and Bob made the connection and negotiated the deal. It went so much smoother and easier than I thought it would. I was so excited!

The negotiations were doubtless sped along by the fact that the bloom was already somewhat off the rose when it came to Gateway. The novel’s sequels had been regarded by even many fans of the original as a classic case of diminishing returns, and the whole body of work, which so oozed that peculiar malaise of the 1970s, felt rather dated when set up next to hipper, slicker writers of the 1980s like William Gibson. Nobody, in short, was clamoring to license Gateway for much of anything by this point, so a deal wasn’t overly hard to strike.

Just like that, Mike Verdu had his world to design his game in, and Legend was about to embark on their first foray into a type of game that would come to fill much of their catalog in subsequent years: a literary license. For this first time out, they were fortunate enough to get the best kind of literary license, short of the vanishingly rare case of one where an active, passionate author is willing to serve as a true co-creator: the kind where the author doesn’t appear to be all that interested in or even aware of the project’s existence. Mike Verdu never met or even spoke to Frederik Pohl in the process of making what would turn out to be two games based on his novels. He got all the benefits of an established world to play in with none of the usual drawbacks of having to ask for approval on every little thing.

Yet the Gateway project didn’t remain Verdu’s baby alone for very long. Bates and Verdu, eager to expand their stable of game designers yet further, hit upon the idea of using it as a sort of training ground for other current Legend employees who, like Verdu, dreamed of breaking into a different side of the game-development business. Verdu agreed to divide his baby into three pieces, taking one for himself and giving the others to Glen Dahlgren, a Legend programmer, and to Michael Lindner, the company’s music-and-sound guru. All would work on their parts under the loose supervision of the experienced Bob Bates, who stood ready to gently steer them back on course if they started to stray. Verdu:

We learned how to write code. We learned the craft of interactive-fiction design from Bob, then we would huddle as a group and hash out the storylines and puzzles for our respective sections of the game, then try to tie them all together. That was one of the best times of my career, turning from a defense-industry executive into a game designer who could write code and bring a game to life. Magical… incredibly great!

You were writing, compiling, and testing in this constant iteration. You would write something, then you would see the results, then repeat. I think that was the most powerful flow state I’ve ever been in. Hours would just evaporate. I’d look up at four in the morning and there’d be nobody in the office: Good God, where did the last eight hours go? It was a wonderful creative process.

It was an unorthodox, perhaps even disjointed way to make a game, but the Legend Trade School for Game Design worked out beautifully. When it shipped in the summer of 1992, Gateway was by far the best thing Legend had done to that point: a big, generous, well-polished game, with lots to see and do, a nice balance between plot and free-form exploration, and meticulously fair puzzle design. It’s the adventure-game equivalent of a summer beach read, a page turner that just keeps rollicking along, ratcheting up the excitement all the while. It isn’t a hard game, but you wouldn’t want it to be; this is a game where you just want to enjoy the ride, not scratch your head for long periods of time over its puzzles. It even looks much better than the occasionally garish-looking Legend games which came before it, thanks to the company’s belated embrace of 256-color VGA graphics and their growing comfort working with multimedia elements.

You might already be sensing a certain incongruity between this description of Gateway the game and my earlier description of Gateway the novel. And, indeed, said incongruity is very much present. A conventional object-oriented adventure game is hardly the right medium for delving deep into questions of individual psychology. A player of a game needs a through line to follow, a set of concrete goals to achieve; this explains why adventure games share their name with adventure fiction rather than literary fiction. Do you remember how I described Gateway the novel as setting up a perfect space-opera premise, only to obscure it behind therapy sessions and a disjointed, piecemeal approach to its narrative? Well, Gateway the game becomes the very space opera that the novel seemed to promise us, only to jerk it away: a big galaxy-spanning romp that Doc Smith could indeed have been proud of. Mike Verdu, the designer most responsible for the overarching structure of the game, jettisoned Pohl’s sad-sack protagonist along with all of his other characters. He also dispensed with the foreground plot, such as it is, about personal guilt and responsibility that drives the novel. What he was left with was the glorious wide-frame premise behind it all.

The game begins with you, a lucky (?) lottery winner from the troubled Earth, arriving at Gateway Station to take up the job of prospector. In its first part, written by Mike Verdu, you acclimate to life on the station, complete your flight training, and go on your initial prospecting mission. In the second part, written by Michael Lindner, you tackle a collection of prospecting destinations in whatever order you prefer, visiting lots of alien environments and assembling clues about who the Heechee were and why they’ve disappeared. In part three, written by Glen Dahlgren, you have to avert a threat to Earth posed by another race of aliens known as the Assassins — that race being the reason, you’ve only just discovered to your horror, that the Heechee went into hiding in the first place. The plot as a whole is expansive and improbable and, yes, more than a little silly. In other words, it’s space opera at its best. There’s nothing wrong with a little pure escapism from time to time.

Gateway the game thus becomes, in my opinion anyway, an example of a phenomenon more common than one might expect in creative media: the adaptation that outdoes its source material. It doesn’t even try to carry the same literary or thematic weight that the novel rather awkwardly stumbles along under, but by way of compensation it’s a heck of a lot more fun. As an adaptation, it fails miserably if one’s criterion for success is capturing the unadulterated flavor and spirit of the source material. As a standalone adventure game, however, it’s a rollicking success.

Legend had signed a two-game deal with Frederik Pohl right from the start, and had always intended to develop a sequel to Gateway if its sales made that idea viable. And so, when the first Gateway sold a reasonable 35,000 units or so, Gateway II: Homeworld got the green light. Michael Lindner had taken on another project of his own by this point, so Mike Verdu and Glen Dahlgren divided the sequel between just the two of them, each taking two of the sequel’s four parts.

Reaching stores almost exactly one year after its predecessor, Gateway II became both the last parser-driven adventure Legend published and the last boxed game of that description from any publisher — a melancholy milestone for anyone who had grown up with Infocom and their peers during the previous decade. The text adventure would live on, but it would do so outside the conventional computer-game industry, in the form of games written by amateurs and moonlighters that were distributed digitally and usually given away rather than sold. Never again would anyone be able to make a living from text adventures.

As era enders go, though, Gateway II: Homeworld is pretty darn spectacular, with all the same strengths as its predecessor. In its climax, you finally meet the Heechee themselves on their hidden homeworld — thus the game’s subtitle — and save the Earth one final time while you’re at it. It’s striking to compare the driving plot of this game with the static collections of environments and puzzles that had been the text adventures of ten years before. The medium had come a long way from the days of Zork. This isn’t to say that Legend’s latter-day roller-coaster text adventures, sporting music, cut scenes, and heaps of illustrations, were intrinsically superior to the traditional approach — but they certainly were impressive in their degree of difference, and in how much fun they still are to play in their own way.

One thing that Zork and the Gateway games do share is the copious amounts of love and passion that went into making them. Unlike so many licensed games, the Gateway games were made for the right reasons, made by people who genuinely loved the universe of the novels and were passionate about bringing it to life in an interactive medium.

For Mike Verdu, Michael Lindner, and Glen Dahlgren, the Gateway games did indeed mark the beginning of new careers as game designers, at Legend and elsewhere. The story of Verdu, the business executive who became a game designer, is particularly compelling — almost as compelling, one might even say, as that of Frederik Pohl, the mid-tier author, agent, and editor who briefly became the hottest author in science fiction almost five decades after he decided to devote his life to his favorite literary genre, in whatever capacity it would have him. Both men’s stories remind us that, for the lucky among us at least, life is long, and as rich as we care to make it, and it’s a shame to spend it all doing just one thing.

Gateway and Gateway II: Homeworld in Pictures

Gateway employs Legend’s standard end-stage-commercial-text-adventure interface, with music and sound and graphics and several screen layouts to choose from, straining to satisfy everyone from the strongly typing-averse to the purists who still scoff at anything more elaborate than a simple stream of text and a blinking command prompt.

Mike Verdu wanted a license to give him an established world to play with. Having gotten his wish, he used it well. Gateway puts enormous effort into making its environment a rich, living place, building upon what is found in Frederik Pohl’s novels. Much of this has nothing to do with the puzzles or other gameplay elements; it’s there strictly to add to the experience as a piece of fiction. Thanks to an unlimited word count and heaps of new multimedia capabilities, it outdoes anything Infocom could ever have dreamed of doing in this respect.

We spend a big chunk of Gateway II in a strange alien spaceship — the classic “Big Dumb Object” science-fiction plot, reminding us not just of classic novels but of earlier text adventures like Infocom’s Starcross and Telarium’s adaptation of Rendezvous with Rama. In fact, there are some oddly specific echoes of the former game, such as a crystal rod and a sort of zoo of alien lifeforms to deal with. That said, you’ll never mistake one game for the other. Starcross is minimalist in spirit and presentation, a cerebral exercise in careful exploration and puzzle-solving, while Gateway II is just a big old fun-loving thrill ride, full of sound and color, that rarely slows down enough to let you take a breath. I love them both equally.

Many of the illustrations in Gateway II in particular really are lovely to look at, especially when one considers the paucity of resources at Legend’s disposal in comparison to bigger adventure developers like Sierra and LucasArts. There were obviously some fine artists employed by Legend, with a keen eye for doing more with less.

Some of the cut scenes in Gateway II are 3D-modeled. Such scenes were becoming more and more common in games by 1993, as computing hardware advanced and developers began to experiment with a groundbreaking product called 3D Studio. The 3D Revolution, which would change the look and to a large extent the very nature of games as the decade wore on, was already looming in the near distance.

The parser disappeared from Legend’s games not so much all at once as over a series of stages. By Gateway II, the last Legend game to be ostensibly parser-based, conversations and even some puzzles had become purely point-and-click affairs for the sake of convenience and variety. It already feels like you spend almost as much time mousing around as you do typing, even if you don’t choose to use the (cumbersome) onscreen menus of verbs and nouns to construct your commands for the parser. Having come this far, it was a fairly straightforward decision for Legend to drop the parser entirely in their next game. Thus do most eras end — not with a bang but with a barely recognized whimper. At least the parser went out on a high note…

(Sources: I find Frederik Pohl’s memoir The Way the Future Was, about his life spent in science fiction, more compelling than his actual fiction, as I do The Way the Future Blogs, an online journal which he maintained for the last five years or so of his life, filling it with precious reminiscences about his writing, his fellow authors, his nearly century-spanning personal life, and his almost equally lengthy professional career in publishing and fandom. I’m able to tell the Legend Entertainment side of this story in detail thanks entirely to Bob Bates and Mike Verdu, both of whom sat down for long interviews, the former of whom also shared some documents from those times.

Feel free to download the games Gateway and Gateway II, packaged to be as easy as possible to get running under DOSBox on your modern computer, from right here. As noted in the article proper, they’re great rides that are well worth your time, two of the standout gems of Legend’s impressive catalog.)

September 20, 2018

The People's Republic of IF

September Meeting Post Mortem

by Angela Chang at September 20, 2018 05:41 PM

Adventure Games Studio, Noah @swartzcr, Michael Hilborn visit with the usual suspects

The People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction convened on Wednesday Sept 20th.  doug, zarf,nickm, matt w, adri and anjchang welcomed newcomers Judy Heflin (judyannheflin),  noah (swartzcr) from San Francisco , our long lost founding member Michael Hilborn (biggles2k)  and honored visitors from Adventure Games Studio. AGS folks sported Tricorner hats (from touring the Freedom Trail):  Francisco Gonzalez (aka Grundislav), Gunnar Harboe (snarky),  Jess Haskins (jess_haskins) (from NYC),  and  Tom Simpson)!   to share news about games and narrative doings among Commodore 64s and ZX Spectrum mod running IF demos at the Trope TankWarning: what follows is probably not proper English, but just my log of notes from the meeting to jog people’s memories:

First an awesome showing by Adventure games studios visiting from their conference (aka Mittens) in Nahant.  could it be a reference  to a Witten (old english for meeting)….  also note that their meeting site’s url is haha.

noah is organizing the Roguelike Celebration Roguelike eclipsed IRDC International Roguelike Developers Conference in the US. Commodore 64 roguelike showing anticipated

grundislav just launched lamplight city  

Cragne Manor recap– Anchorhead tribute… Last meeting we had 50% (5 out of 10) people who attended the pr-if meeting involved. They are still working on it. Three rooms left. Everyone is in anticipation to play!

Nick distributed  material artifacts for perusal. How to play if cards. Several new computer generated books in the Using Electricity Series by MIT Press. Readings Oct 17 in Cambridge and Oct 18 at Wordhack hosted by Babycastles NYC

Hard West turn Computer generated based on Wikipedia about violence in American History

Boston FIG in two weeks (Sept 29th). At MIT. Two floors. One with board games. We will be hosting a table. 9-5:30pm with setup Friday before. There might be interactive props.

Hillborn talked about Nercomp. Talk. Interactive fiction talk Dec. 5 in higher education want to reach out to IFTF. Brendan Desilets at UMass. Judith Pintar U of I.  Ben Miller inform documentary. Electronic and digital literature. Scott reitberg electronic literature book. Mentioned Clara Fernandez Vara.
Hilborn will also be giving a Lightning talk for educause in Denver Colorado in October

zarf presenting some work at Different games Conference hosted by WPI –28 games, Memory block. Outsider art mentioned.

Discussion about puzzle game mechanics, puzzle theory and application to fiction by doug.
Jonathan Blow was going to compile a puzzle game mechanics resource.
Thinking into the box article by Jon Ingold about puzzle deployment in the IF theory reader

Zarf demo of python parser prototype coolness.
Non parser interface to give a parser kind of interaction for a tablet game using drag and drop.  Popup window to show contents. Verb set is fixed. Examine open add an item to existing command. Stateful.. almost parser like games but more intuition. Metaphor of filesystem and containers.
Question whether that view window is stateful. Currently not stateful but can be.
Designed with icons in mind.
Package called text jar web browser based drag and drop mentioned.
Recursed mentioned by Noah. Computer world with consequences based on how it’s modeled.
Nick mentioned adventure shell

anjchang mentioned Mass cultural council deadline Oct 15. for towns in massachusetts. Propose something narrative/game/community building for your town. You can apply if you’re from a town in ma to your local or nearby cultural council.

anjchang’s app Babyduck Day is out to help parents demonstrate literacy to their children using interactive fiction.

Nick talked about curveship narrative variation parser.  Examples and looking for collaborators to implement things in it.

The meeting adjourned at 7:30pm and people went to dinner.  The most hardcore gamer from AGS (Tom) took home a sweet messenger bag as loot.  Also  Jess  shared her newest acquisition– A brief Discourse on Eighteent Century Games. See more photos of the meeting here.

Note: want to clarify something in this post? add a comment!

Choice of Games

The Mysteries of Baroque — Rise from the dead to take revenge on your killers!

by Rachel E. Towers at September 20, 2018 04:41 PM

We’re proud to announce that The Mysteries of Baroque, the latest in our popular “Choice of Games” line of multiple-choice interactive-fiction games, is now available for Steam, Android, and on iOS in the Choice of Games Omnibus app. It’s 35% off until September 27th!

Mad science raised you from the dead! Pursue justice or vengeance, love or secrets, as you save or destroy the world with forbidden eldritch power.

The Mysteries of Baroque is a 200,000-word interactive Gothic horror novel by William Brown, where your choices control the story. It’s entirely text-based—without graphics or sound effects—and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination.

One dark and stormy night in a remote castle in the mountains, you awake anew, resurrected by the brilliant Dr. Holofernes. But even a mad scientist can’t keep you alive forever. As the procedure reverses itself over time, you will begin to die again. You must fight to stay alive long enough hunt down your killers, avenge yourself, and protect the ones you love.

Operating out of the mysterious Grand Guignol Theater, your quest will take you through the darkest shadows of the city of Baroque, the City of Dreadful Night, from its vast subterranean slums to the opulent mansions of its jaded, debauched aristocracy. Will you lose yourself in the distractions of romance, assure your own survival through the Holofernes Procedure, or sacrifice everything to take your revenge?

• Play as male, female, or non-binary; gay, straight, or ace.
• Fight to reclaim your old life and identity – or make a new home for yourself in the Grand Guignol Theater
• Trade your soul to a dark god in return for vengeance – or reject its help and fight alone.
• Stalk your killers through the glittering demimonde, mansions, and the slums.
• Learn the sanity-blasting secrets of the occult and risk your mind by unleashing them on your enemies.
• Use the power of science to devise and build bizarre inventions: death rays, gliders, and hallucinogenic grenades.
• Augment your regenerating body with clockwork technology like wings, a camera eye, or steel claws.
• Uphold the forces of law and order, the revolutionary Worker’s Council, or the enigmatic Vendetta faction in the battle for Baroque’s soul.
• Embark on dream quests and night visions to learn new skills and uncover ancestral memories.
• Bring comfort and hope to the suffering citizens of Baroque, or drive them further into darkness in pursuit of vengeance.

You died betrayed. You died in pain. And your troubles are just beginning.

We hope you enjoy playing The Mysteries of Baroque. 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.

September 18, 2018

Emily Short

Quarantine Circular (Bithell Games)

by Emily Short at September 18, 2018 02:40 PM

Screen Shot 2018-08-26 at 12.50.07 PM.png

Quarantine Circular is not a sequel to Subsurface Circular, but is very much an extension of the same core concept: a dialogue-driven game with dialogue menu and topic inventory, plus a lot of polish. In a few select places the topic inventories even allow you to combine concepts, constructing questions with multiple facets.

It’s less puzzle focused than Subsurface Circular, though, and more ambitious in the way it simulates social circumstances. You’re often talking to multiple parties at once, and things that please one character may irritate another in the same conversation. The story is less linear, as well: there’s more room to make choices early in the interaction that may have some long term effects. Meanwhile, the handling of the protagonist has shifted. Subsurface Circular has the player play a single character. In Quarantine, you take on several different viewpoint characters — though you may have limited access to those characters’ true understanding and motivation.

So mechanically, this has a lot of features that appeal to me — more than the original did. But that meant shifting more focus onto the fiction, and that didn’t bear up quite as well as I would have liked.

The story involves an alien who has recently arrived on a plague-ridden earth, and whether the various protagonists — doctors, military people, security officers, et al — are willing to trust it.

The world building is a preach-fest. The plague results from overuse of antibiotics, thanks to the poor medical decision-making of our current era. Moreover, it’s waterborne, so flooding exacerbates it, which means that global warming leads to rising sea levels which lead to flooding which leads to the plague being worse. Furthermore, there’s recently been a war between England and the rest of Europe (thanks Brexit!). I don’t really take exception to any of these possible storylines, but the characters spend an awful lot of time talking about how stupid their ancestors were, and after a certain point I started growling “yes, I get it, but I didn’t vote for that, thanks” at the screen.

But the bigger sin for a dialogue-driven game: the dialogue didn’t always seem to know what it was trying to accomplish. In Subsurface Circular, things were sometimes not very realistic, but that’s because they were clearly in service of puzzles, there was pretty much one puzzle going on at a time, and there was always a direction to the interaction.

In Quarantine Circular, the puzzles are absent and the story is trying for greater realism, but the scenes aren’t framed around particular stakes or objectives. The player is still given goals, but those can be tellingly weak: “find out as much as you can before being kicked out of the room,” for instance, or “hear X’s opinion.” Frequently conversation goes in circles, characters reiterating ground they’ve already covered or arguing without introducing any new information. At one point, one character calls out another for monologuing pointlessly when there’s a critical time limit on their actions. When you find your own characters complaining about the conversation flow — that it’s melodramatic, implausible, or boring — it’s time to rewrite the dialogue.

At other points, characters make dramatic shifts of trust without any clear motivation. Imagine this. An alien has landed on your planet, the first alien you’ve ever seen. It looks very scary. It has given no rational explanation for why it’s here or what it wants. It’s refused to speak to you in detail. Worse, you believe it’s responsible for the plague on your planet and that it’s in the middle of carrying out a plan to weaken humanity and invade the Earth. You’ve ignored its first couple assertions of good intent, and you’re inclined to regard everything it says as a lie.

But now it tells you a third time that it’s come in peace. It offers no more information or evidence than the last several times it said this. However, this time, you are convinced! In fact, you apologize for not trusting it before!


My best guess is that it’s “because the author needed that to happen and hadn’t come up with a better way to make that transition.” Perhaps the outline said there was a scene where the alien convinces this character, but it didn’t say how.

Figuring out those transitions is a big part of what writing is. Not just coming up with some words, but figuring out the underlying emotional logic, the stakes, the structure. Often it’s about defining the opening situation well enough, with enough conflict, that the interaction has somewhere to go. What does each character want, and what resources do they have in play?

Having a single sentence explanation of your plot hook is not just a marketing point, it’s evidence that there’s enough energy in your premise. Quarantine Circular doesn’t, quite. “An alien lands on a plague-ridden earth and offers to help, but it is physically very large and therefore a bit scary”? There’s just not quite enough there. It turns out very late in the story that one of the characters has slightly more cause for distrust, maybe, but that critical fact is held back well past the point where it logically should have been revealed.

Directionless dialogue isn’t all that common in AAA-sized games — there’s usually a lot of pressure to keep conversation sequences compact, and often dialogue there is challenged by having too much to accomplish, rather than too little. But lack of direction is rapidly becoming one of my biggest peeves with indie and hobbyist conversation games that are trying to explore exactly the kind of territory I’m interested in.

It’s great to have space and creative freedom to try out character interaction as the main mechanic of a game! But that doesn’t remove the need for clear stakes and motives. You can give me any number of options about what to say to a character, but they’re going to be the most satisfying if those options are loaded.

In Quarantine Circular, the initial concept does have a lot of implied danger — first alien contact is a classic premise for exactly that reason. We’d like to believe the alien has come in peace and is going to open the mysteries of the universe to us, but it might also be here with the intent and the ability to destroy all humanity. But the writing leans away from that rather than into it. Characters under-react to significant revelations. They take too long to put their concerns out in the open. They threaten each other half a dozen times before they get to an actual showdown.

A handful of times, the systemic aspects of Quarantine Circular do help, providing goals and tension that the writing did not supply on its own. In my first interaction with the alien, I’ve got a status bar indicating how much it trusts me, and I wound up removing its restraining bolt simply because I wanted to see that status bar go up. You could say that that was anti-fictional, or you could say that the mechanic actually represented something about the protagonist in the first scene — his eagerness to please, his desire to establish rapport, the fact that connection matters more to him than fear. Shortly thereafter, in a dialogue with multiple characters, I find that dialogue that raises trust with one character lowers the patience of another: again, a mechanical way to signal a valid fictional tension.

But not all of the scenes are structured this way, and some of them feel quite floppy and loose. A couple of the later scenes introduce puzzles that are genuinely a bad idea: at one point you can get into a sort of wordplay parlor game with the alien. This makes no sense from a plot perspective — you’ve got critical tasks and limited time and the fate of your ship and humanity as a whole rests in the balance, so this is just not the moment for such behavior. And it doesn’t work to structure and drive the scene, either. The point of the overall scene is something completely different.

It’s probably a bit unfair to unload my full frustration about this just on Quarantine Circular. It’s not the worst offender I’ve played in the last few months; many of the other games, I decided not to review and in several cases not to complete at all.

Strand Games

New Illustrations for Jinxter by Magnetic Scrolls

by hugh at September 18, 2018 01:43 PM

As part of our history project, things are well underway on the restoration of Jinxter by Magnetic Scrolls. We're calling this one, "Jinxter Revived".

For each game, we try to bring something new to the remaster. For The Guild of Thieves, it was animation and game-specific word suggestions. Sadly, The Guild did not have much animation and unfortunately Jinxter hasn't any at all. So we wanted to do something new for the artwork.


Magnetic Scrolls was a pioneer of artwork...

September 17, 2018

Choice of Games

Author Interview: William Brown, “The Mysteries of Baroque”

by Mary Duffy at September 17, 2018 04:41 PM

Mad science raised you from the dead! Pursue justice or vengeance, love or secrets, as you save or destroy the world with forbidden eldritch power. One dark and stormy night in a remote castle in the mountains, you awake anew, resurrected by the brilliant Dr. Holofernes. But even a mad scientist can’t keep you alive forever. As the procedure reverses itself over time, you will begin to die again. You must fight to stay alive long enough hunt down your killers, avenge yourself, and protect the ones you love. The Mysteries of Baroque is a 200,000-word interactive Gothic horror novel by William Brown. I sat down with William to talk about horror and the fabulous world in his game The Mysteries of Baroque, which releases this Thursday, September 20th.

Tell me how you conceived of the world of Baroque. What are the influences on this game?

I wanted to write a game set in a dark, strange world, one filled with all kinds of Gothic mysteries and weird tales. I pictured the PC as a vengeance-seeking revenant moving through the shadows of this world, learning secrets, making friends and enemies, and gathering allies and resources. As such, one big influence is the Gothic tradition that began with authors like Horace Walpole, Mary Shelley, Anne Radcliffe, Matthew Lewis, E.T.A. Hoffmann and the Brontë sisters. One of the things I love about Gothic is that it’s just weird in ways that go beyond having ghosts or vampires or werewolves or whatever. The plots go off on these strange, hallucinatory tangents or spooky side-stories, the characters are generally in this constant state of operatic, overwrought intensity. I wanted to capture some of that feeling with Baroque, a sense that weird horror somehow operates an almost gravitational pull on this city that nobody can escape.

Among more recent influences, I’d mention the TV show Penny Dreadful and, of course, Failbetter Game’s brilliant, mesmerising game Fallen London.

Who is the PC in this game? Are they Frankenstein’s monster or the Phantom of the Opera, or is that really only incidental to the plot? 

There’s definitely elements of both characters to the PC’s backstory but it’s up to the individual player how much they want to play to that. The PC can definitely have a Frankenstein’s monster-like dysfunctional relationship with Holofernes in the game and play as a troubled outcast, or they can appoint themselves as a Phantom-like mysterious guardian and custodian of the Grand Guignol Theater or they can take a completely different direction. They could play as a dark champion of the people, or a Moriarty-like supervillain and spymaster, or an avenging angel like the Bride from Kill Bill.

This is a world filled with violence and madness, evil forces, even eldritch horrors. Fun to write?

Oh yes! Baroque may have all kinds of horror, cruelty, insanity, and tragedy but it’s also meant to be an inviting, exciting world in its own weird way, a place with lots of things to explore and all sorts of secrets to learn, mysteries to solve and dark adventure to be had.

I think the only section that did bother me was Chapter 3, the Asylum chapter. I found the idea of mind-control and extreme psychological abuse being carried out on helpless people, as portrayed in that chapter, very disturbing (it probably didn’t help that I was had the flu and was running quite a high fever at the time I started writing that chapter!). Dr. Tausk was based on the serial killer H.H. Holmes, and his machine was based on the imaginary mind-controlling “Air Loom” described by the nineteenth-century paranoid schizophrenic James Tilly Matthews—I found myself quite haunted by the vivid, detailed way Matthews describes the Machine and its operators.

This is your first interactive fiction project, yes? What did you find most challenging about the form?

It can be hard at times to keep the flow of a narrative going while providing a range of different options. It can feel like you’re constantly stopping and starting at times, which can make it difficult to work towards a conventional emotional climax.

Has your writing or thinking changed as a result?

I think so. I find it easier to visualize what will or won’t work in a piece of interactive fiction. You can introduce a surprising amount of variety by adding even just a few tweaks to personalize the game for each player, to allow them to feel ownership of the story. I love that idea–that Baroque will be a bit different for everyone who plays it, that some people will see it as the story of how they took a terrible revenge on Vincent and others will see it as a love story featuring Nicholas (or whoever), that some people will be most interested in the eldritch horror storyline and some people will just want to hang out with their friends at the Grand Guignol. Maybe some people will get very invested in the political espionage storyline and others won’t even be aware that it was happening at all. I think some people might want to replay the game several times to see all the possible stories, see what changes if they hang out with different characters or pursue different objectives, but for others, their first play-through and the choices they made then will always be ‘their’ story. I like both approaches!

What are you working on next? 

I’m considering a few different ideas but I think my favorite is a homage to adventure serials and pulp fiction, plus the media that they’ve inspired. Thrilling, two-fisted action-adventure in a crazy Art Deco fantasy version of the 1930s, with every chapter ending in a cliff-hanger and every sentence ending with an exclamation mark.

September 15, 2018

Emily Short

Mid-September Link Assortment

by Emily Short at September 15, 2018 12:40 PM


From “Design/Play/Disrupt” at the Victoria & Albert

Entries for IF Comp are due the end of this month.

From Now – February 24, 2019, the Victoria and Albert Museum is featuring an exhibit on contemporary video games. I saw this on a preview night, and it is terrific — so much so that I feel like I need to go back because I didn’t take it all in on the first visit.

Some of it is a picture of the process and considerations of design, with notes and concept art from games all along the indie/AAA spectrum. Some is a reflection on the social context of games and the voices of the people who make and play games: a room full of video clips and thoughtful statements from folks I’ve often linked on this very blog. The third section is about esports — about the size and the spectacle. Where the design section feels intimate and draws you in to look closely at small and intricate objects, the esports room has you to sit down below a huge curved screen playing footage of a match in South Korea, in a position that commands awe. But then the exhibit gives you your agency back again: the final section is a Babycastles-affiliated room with an arcade box where you can play QWOP (among many other things).

It is the first exhibit about video games I’ve seen at a major institution that felt like it was about the video games I know, not purely as a nerdy curiosity or as a commercial phenomenon (though there’s plenty of commercial work there), but for their culture, their design, their power to attract and connect people.

Along with many many other people at different times, I had a small advisory role in giving input on this exhibit, but at the time I was blown away by the thought and care going into the design, and the final result is better than I could have imagined. If you’re in London and can spare the exhibit fee, do check it out.

September 19 is the next Boston IF Meetup.

September 22 is the next Baltimore/DC Are IF Meetup, discussing Kevin Gold’s Choice of Magics.

October 6 is the next SF Bay IF Meetup.

October 6 is the Oxford and London gathering to play games from IF comp.

Also October 6-7, Roguelike Celebration is coming up in San Francisco — this is obviously a bit different from IF material, but there’s some interesting procedural storytelling work that comes up in this space. This year their speakers include Tarn Adams, Pippin Barr, and Max Kreminski, all people who have turned up on this blog/in IF circles before.

October 19-28 is the submission window for the fifth annual PROCJAM, seeking entries for generative software.

October 20 is the Oxford and London workshop in the Ren’Py tool for building visual novels.

October 22 is the deadline for’s 21st Annual Ghost Story Contest.  They accept both traditional prose entries and IF.  Official rules can be found here.

November 10-11, AdventureX will return, this time at the British Library. AdventureX is a conference focused on narrative rich games, whether those are mobile or desktop, text-based or graphical; it’s grown significantly in size and professionalism over the last couple of years. (Incidentally, they’ve published their exhibitor list and it’s pretty sweet.) At the time of writing, weekend passes and Saturday passes are sold out, but there are still a few places for Sunday.

December 2 is the deadline for entering the Russian Language IF competition KRIL.


playing smart.jpg

New Releases

Julian Togelius is releasing his new book Playing Smart, which explores the evolving relationship between games and AI.  The book comes out on November 6 and is available for pre-order on Amazon.

inkjam is over, and there are some 60 different entries using the tool, all on the theme “It’s Not What You Think”.

Bonus non-interactive book recommendation: Stay with Me by Nigerian author Ayobami Adebayo. I bought this for a plane flight and found it compulsively readable: it’s a story of a marriage in difficulties, and the surrounding family and cultural expectations that affect it.

Articles and Podcasts

Articulation Points by Mark Bernstein.

Cooper Stevenson has put together the first issue of a new IF magazine called Discoverer’s Digest.

I was interviewed.


The Colossal Fund is raising money for IF Comp prizes this year, and also to support the regular work of the IFTF — including archive support, Twine development, and accessibility improvements for interactive fiction games and tools.


Mythaxis is seeking IF to include in its upcoming February 2019 issue; however, it does not pay.


Pixelberry (the studio behind Choices) is hiring, including for a senior writer with interactive fiction experience and published titles.

September 14, 2018

The Digital Antiquarian

Shades of Gray

by Jimmy Maher at September 14, 2018 04:41 PM

Ladies and gentlemen, come and see. This isn’t a country here but an epic failure factory, an excuse for a place, a weed lot, an abyss for tightrope walkers, blindman’s bluff for the sightless saddled with delusions of grandeur, proud mountains reduced to dust dumped in big helpings into the cruciform maws of sick children who crouch waiting in the hope of insane epiphanies, behaving badly and swamped besides, bogged down in their devil’s quagmires. Our history is a corset, a stifling cell, a great searing fire.

— Lyonel Trouillot

What’s to be done about Haiti?

Generations have asked that question about the first and most intractable poster child for postcolonial despair, the poorest country in North or South America now and seemingly forever, a place whose corruption and futility manages to make the oft-troubled countries around it look like models of good governance. Nowhere feels James Joyce’s description of history as “a nightmare from which I am trying to awake” more apt. Indeed, Haiti stands as perhaps the ultimate counterargument to the idealistic theory of history as progress. Here history really is just one damned thing after another — differing slightly in the details, but always the same at bottom.

But why should it be this way? What has been so perplexing and infuriating about Haiti for so long is that there seems to be no real reason for its constant suffering. Long ago, when it was still a French colony, it was known as the “Pearl of the Caribbean,” and was not only beautiful but rich; at the time of the American Revolution, it was richer than any one of the thirteen British American colonies. Those few who bother to visit Haiti today still call it one of the most beautiful places of all in the beautiful region that is the Caribbean. Today the Dominican Republic, the nation with which Haiti shares the island of Hispaniola, is booming, the most popular tourist spot in the Caribbean, with the fastest-growing economy anywhere in North or South America. But Haiti, despite being blessed with all the same geographic advantages, languishes in poverty next door, seething with resentment over its condition. It’s as if the people of Haiti have been cursed by one of the voodoo gods to which some of them still pray to act out an eternal farce of chaos, despair, and senseless violence.

Some scenes from the life of Haiti…

…you are a proud Mandingue hunter in a hot West African land. But you’re not hunting. You’re being hunted — by slavers, both black and white. You run, and run, and run, until your lungs are near to bursting. But it’s no use. You’re captured and chained like an animal, and thrust into the dank hold of a sailing ship. Hundreds of your countrymen and women are here — hungry, thirsty, some beaten and maimed by your captors. All are terrified for themselves and their families, from whom they’ve been cruelly separated. Many die on the long voyage. But when it’s over, you wonder if perhaps they were the lucky ones…

The recorded history of the island of Hispaniola begins with the obliteration of the people who had always lived there. The Spanish conquistadors arrived on the island in the fifteenth century, bringing with them diseases against which the native population, known as the Taíno, had no resistance, along with a brutal regime of forced labor. Within two generations, the Taíno were no more. They left behind only a handful of words which entered the European vocabulary, like “hammock,” “hurricane,” “savanna,” “canoe,” “barbecue,” and “tobacco.” The Spanish, having lost their labor force, shrugged their shoulders and largely abandoned Hispaniola.

But in the ensuing centuries, Europeans developed a taste for sugar, which could be produced in large quantities only in the form of sugarcane, which in turn grew well only in tropical climates like those of the Caribbean. Thus the abandoned island of Hispaniola began to have value again. The French took possession of the western third of the island — the part known as Haiti today — with the Treaty of Ryswick, which ended the Nine Years War in 1697. France officially incorporated its new colony of Saint-Domingue on Hispaniola the same year.

Growing sugarcane demanded backbreaking labor under the hot tropical sun, work of a kind judged unsuitable for any white man. And so, with no more native population to enslave, the French began to import slaves from Africa. Their labor turned Saint-Domingue in a matter of a few decades from a backwater into one of the jewels of France’s overseas empire. In 1790, the year of the colony’s peak, 48,000 slaves were imported to join the 500,000 who were already there. It was necessary to import slaves in such huge numbers just to maintain the population in light of the appalling death toll of those working in the fields; little Saint-Domingue alone imported more slaves over the course of its history than the entirety of the eventual United States.

…you’re a slave, toiling ceaselessly in a Haitian cane field for your French masters. While they live bloated with wealth, you and your fellows know little but hardship and pain. Brandings, floggings, rape, and killing are everyday events. And for the slightest infraction, a man could be tortured to death by means limited only by his owners’ dark imaginations. What little comfort you find is in the company of other slaves, who, at great risk to themselves, try to keep the traditions of your lost homeland alive. And there is hope — some of your brothers could not be broken, and have fled to the hills to live free. These men, the Maroons, are said to be training as warriors, and planning for your people’s revenge. Tonight, you think, under cover of darkness, you will slip away to join them…

The white masters of Saint-Domingue, who constituted just 10 percent of the colony’s population, lived in terror of the other 90 percent, and this fear contributed to the brutality with which they punished the slightest sign of recalcitrance on the part of their slaves. Further augmenting their fears of the black Other was the slaves’ foreboding religion of voodoo: a blending of the animistic cults they had brought with them from tribal Africa with the more mystical elements of Catholicism — all charms and curses, potions and spells, trailing behind it persistent rumors of human sacrifice.

Even very early in the eighteenth century, some slaves managed to escape into the wilderness of Hispaniola, where they formed small communities that the white men found impossible to dislodge. Organized resistance, however, took a long time to develop.

Legend has it that the series of events which would result in an independent nation on the western third of Hispaniola began on the night of August 21, 1791, when a group of slave leaders secretly gathered at a hounfour — a voodoo temple — just outside the prosperous settlement of Cap‑Français. Word of the French Revolution had reached the slaves, and, with mainland France in chaos, the time seemed right to strike here in the hinterlands of empire. A priestess slit the throat of a sacrificial pig, and the head priest said that the look and taste of the pig’s blood indicated that Ogun and Ghede, the gods of war and death respectively, wanted the slaves to rise up. Together the leaders drank the blood under a sky that suddenly broke into storm, then sneaked back onto their individual plantations at dawn to foment revolution.

That, anyway, is the legend. There’s good reason to doubt whether the hounfour actually happened, but the revolution certainly did.

…you are in the middle of a bloody revolution. You are a Maroon, an ex-slave, fighting in the only successful slave revolt in history. You have only the most meager weapons, but you and your comrades are fighting for your very lives. There is death and destruction all around you. Once-great plantation houses lie in smouldering ruins. Corpses, black and white, litter the cane fields. Ghede walks among them, smiling and nodding at his rich harvest. He sees you and waves cheerfully…

The proudest period of Haiti’s history — the one occasion on which Haiti actually won something — began before a nation of that name existed, when the slaves of Saint-Domingue rose up against their masters, killing or driving them off their plantations. After the French were dispensed with, the ex-slaves continued to hold their ground against Spanish and English invaders who, concerned about what an example like this could mean for other colonies, tried to bring them to heel.

In 1798, a well-educated, wily former slave named Toussaint Louverture consolidated control of the now-former French colony. He spoke both to his own people and to outsiders using the language of the Enlightenment, drawing from the American Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, putting a whole new face on this bloody revolution that had supposedly been born at a voodoo houfour on a hot jungle night.

Toussaint Louverture was frequently called the black George Washington in light of the statesmanlike role he played for his people. He certainly looked the part. Would Haiti’s history have been better had he lived longer? We can only speculate.

…and you are battling Napoleon’s armies, Europe’s finest, sent to retake the jewel of the French empire. You have few resources, but you fight with extraordinary courage. Within two years, sixty thousand veteran French troops have died, and your land is yours again. The French belong to Ghede, who salutes you with a smirk…

Napoleon had now come to power in France, and was determined to reassert control over his country’s old empire even as he set about conquering a new one. In 1802, he sent an army to retake the colony of Saint-Domingue. Toussaint Louverture was tricked, captured, and shipped to France, where he soon died in a prison cell. But his comrades in arms, helped along by a fortuitous outbreak of yellow fever among the French forces and by a British naval blockade stemming from the wars back in Europe, defeated Napoleon’s finest definitively in November of 1803. The world had little choice but to recognize the former colony of Saint-Domingue as a predominately black independent nation-state, the first of its type.

With Louverture dead, however, there was no one to curb the vengeful instincts of the former slaves who had defeated the French after such a long, hard struggle. It was perfectly reasonable that the new nation would take for its name Haiti — the island of Hispaniola’s name in the now-dead Taíno language — rather than the French appellation of Saint-Domingue. Less reasonable were the words of independent Haiti’s first leader, and first in its long line of dictators, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who said that “we should use the skin of a white man as a parchment, his skull for an inkwell, his blood for ink, and a bayonet for a pen.” True to his words, he proceeded to carry out systematic genocide on the remaining white population of Haiti, destroying in the process all of the goodwill that had accrued to the new country among progressives and abolitionists in the wider world. His vengeance cost Haiti both much foreign investment that might otherwise have been coming its way and the valuable contribution the more educated remaining white population, by no means all of whom had been opposed to the former slaves’ cause, might have been able to make to its economy. A precedent had been established which holds to this day: of Haiti being its own worst enemy, over and over again.

…a hundred years of stagnation and instability flash by your eyes. As your nation’s economic health declines, your countrymen’s thirst for coups d’etat grows. Seventeen of twenty-four presidents are overthrown by guile or force of arms, and Ghede’s ghastly armies swell…

So, Haiti, having failed from the outset to live up to the role many had dreamed of casting it in as the first enlightened black republic, remained poor and inconsequential, mired in corruption and violence, as its story devolved from its one shining moment of glory into the cruel farce it remains to this day. The arguable lowlight of Haiti’s nineteenth century was the reign of one Faustin Soulouque, who had himself crowned Emperor Faustin I — emperor of what? — in 1849. American and European cartoonists had a field day with the pomp and circumstance of Faustin’s “court.” He was finally exiled to Jamaica in 1859, after he had tried and failed to invade the Dominican Republic (an emperor has to start somewhere, right?), extorted money from the few well-to-do members of Haitian society and defaulted on his country’s foreign debt in order to finance his palace, and finally gotten himself overthrown by a disgruntled army officer. Like the vast majority of Haiti’s leaders down through the years, he left his country in even worse shape than he found it.

Haiti’s Emperor Faustin I was a hit with the middle-brow reading public in the United States and Europe.

…you are a student, protesting the years-long American occupation of your country. They came, they said, to thwart Kaiser Wilhelm’s designs on the Caribbean, and to help the Haitian people. But their callous rule soon became morally and politically bankrupt. Chuckling, Ghede hands you a stone and you throw it. The uprising that will drive the invaders out has begun…

In 1915, Haiti was in the midst of one of its periodic paroxysms of violence. Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam, the country’s sixth president in the last four years, had managed to hold the office for just five months when he was dragged out of the presidential palace into the street and torn limb from limb by a mob. The American ambassador to Haiti, feeling that the country had descended into a state of complete anarchy that could spread across the Caribbean, pleaded with President Woodrow Wilson to intervene. Fearing that Germany and its allies might exploit this chaos on the United States’s doorstep if and when his own country should enter the First World War on the opposing side, Wilson agreed. On July 28, 1915, a small force of American sailors occupied the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince almost without firing a shot — a far cry from Haiti’s proud struggle for independence against the French. Haiti was suddenly a colony again, although its new colonizers did promise that the occupation was temporary. It was to last just long enough to set the country on its feet and put a sound system of government in place.

When the Americans arrived in Haiti, they found its people’s lives not all that much different from the way they had lived at the time of Toussaint Louverture. Here we see the capital city of Port-au-Prince, the most “developed” place in the country.

The American occupation wound up lasting nineteen years, during which the occupiers did much practical good in Haiti. They paved more than a thousand miles of roadway; built bridges and railway lines and airports and canals; erected power stations and radio stations, schools and hospitals. Yet, infected with the racist attitudes toward their charges that were all too typical of the time, they failed at the less concrete tasks of instilling a respect for democracy and the rule of law. They preferred to make all the rules themselves by autocratic decree, giving actual Haitians only a token say in goings-on in their country. This prompted understandable anger and a sort of sullen, passive resistance among Haitians to all of the American efforts at reform, occasionally flaring up into vandalism and minor acts of terrorism. When the Americans, feeling unappreciated and generally hard-done-by, left Haiti in 1934, it didn’t take the country long to fall back into the old ways. Within four years President Sténo Vincent had declared himself dictator for life. But he was hardly the only waxing power in Haitian politics.

…a tall, ruggedly handsome black man with an engaging smile.

He is speaking to an assembled throng in a poverty-stricken city neighborhood. He tells moving stories about his experiences as a teacher, journalist, and civil servant. You admire both his skillful use of French and Creole, and his straightforward ideas about government. With eloquence and obvious sincerity, he speaks of freedom, justice and opportunity for all, regardless of class or color. His trenchant, biting criticisms of the establishment delight the crowd of longshoremen and laborers.

“Latin America and the Caribbean already have too many dictators,” he says. “It is time for a truly democratic government in Haiti.” The crowd roars out its approval…

The aspect of Haitian culture which had always baffled the Americans the most was the fact that this country whose population was 99.9 percent black was nevertheless riven by racism as pronounced as anywhere in the world. The traditional ruling class was the mulattoes: Haitians who could credit their lighter skin to white blood dating back to the old days of colonization, and/or to the fact that they and their ancestors hadn’t spent long years laboring in the sun. They made up perhaps 10 percent of the population, and spoke and governed in French. The rest of the population was made up of the noir Haitians: the darker-skinned people who constituted the working class. They spoke only the Haitian Creole dialect for the most part, and thus literally couldn’t understand most of what their country’s leaders said. In the past, it had been the mulattoes who killed one another to determine who ruled Haiti, while the noir Haitians just tried to stay out of the way.

In the 1940s, however, other leaders came forward to advance the cause of the “black” majority of the population; these leaders became known as the noiristes. Among the most prominent of them was Daniel Fignolé, a dark-skinned Haitian born, like most of his compatriots, into extreme poverty in 1913. Unlike most of them, he managed to educate himself by dint of sheer hard work, became political at the sight of the rampant injustice and corruption all around him, and came to be known as the “Moses of Port-au-Prince” for the fanatical loyalty he commanded among the stevedores, factory workers, and other unskilled laborers in and around the capital. Fignolé emphasized again and again that he was not a Marxist — an ideology that had been embraced by some of the mulattoes and was thus out of bounds for any good noiriste. Yet he did appropriate the Marxist language of proletariat and bourgeoisie, and left no doubt which side of that divide he was fighting for. For years, he remained an agitating force in Haitian politics without ever quite breaking through to real power. Then came the tumultuous year of 1957.

Daniel Fignolé, the great noiriste advocate for the working classes of Haiti.

…but you’re now a longshoreman in Port-au-Prince, and your beloved Daniel Fignolé has been ousted after just nineteen days as Provisional President. Rumors abound that he has been executed by Duvalier and his thugs. You’re taking part in a peaceful, if noisy, demonstration demanding his return. Suddenly, you’re facing government tanks and troops. Ghede rides on the lead tank, laughing and clapping his hands in delight. You shout your defiance and pitch a rock at the tank. The troops open fire, and machine-gun bullets rip through your chest…

One Paul Magloire, better known as Bon Papa, had been Haiti’s military dictator since 1950. The first few years of his reign had gone relatively well; his stridently anticommunist posturing won him some measure of support from the United States, and Haiti briefly even became a vacation destination to rival the Dominican Republic among sun-seeking American tourists. But when a devastating hurricane struck Hispaniola in 1954 and millions of dollars in international aid disappeared in inimitable Haitian fashion without ever reaching the country’s people, the mood among the elites inside the country who had been left out of that feeding frenzy began to turn against Bon Papa. On December 12, 1956, he resigned his office by the hasty expedient of jumping into an airplane and getting the hell out of Dodge before he came to share the fate of Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam. The office of the presidency, a hot potato if ever there was one, then passed through three more pairs of hands in the next six months, while an election campaign to determine Haiti’s next permanent leader took place.

Of course, in Haiti election campaigns were fought with fists, clubs, knives, guns, bombs, and, most of all, rampant, pervasive corruption at every level. Still, in a rare sign of progress of a sort in Haitian politics, the two strongest candidates were both noiristes promising to empower the people rather than the mulatto elites. They were Daniel Fignolé and François Duvalier, the latter being a frequent comrade-in-arms of the former during the struggles of the last twenty years who had now become a rival; he was an unusually quiet, even diffident-seeming personality in terms of typical Haitian politics, so much so that many doubted his mental fortitude and intelligence alike. But Duvalier commanded enormous loyalty in the countryside, where he had worked for years as a doctor, often in tandem with American charitable organizations. Meanwhile Fignolé’s urban workers remained as committed to him as ever, and clashes between the supporters of the two former friends were frequent and often violent.

The workers around Port-au-Prince pledged absolute allegiance to Daniel Fignolé. He liked to call them his wuolo konmpresé — his “steamrollers,” always ready to take to the streets for a rally, a demonstration, or just a good old fight.

But then, on May 25, 1957, Duvalier unexpectedly threw his support behind a bid to make his rival the latest provisional president while the election ran its course, and Fignolé marched into the presidential palace surrounded by his cheering supporters. In a stirring speech on the palace steps, he promised a Haitian “New Deal” in the mold of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s American version.

The internal machinations of Haitian politics are almost impossible for an outsider to understand, but many insiders have since claimed that Duvalier, working in partnership with allies he had quietly made inside the military, had set Fignolé up for a fall, contriving to remove him from the business of day-to-day campaigning and thereby shore up his own support while making sure his presidency was always doomed to be a short one even by Haitian standards. At any rate, on the night of June 14, 1957 — just nineteen days after he had assumed the post — a group of army officers burst into Fignolé’s office, forced him to sign a resignation letter at gunpoint, and then tossed him into an airplane bound for the United States, exiling him on pain of death should he ever return to Haiti.

The deposing of Fignolé ignited another spasm of civil unrest among his supporters in Port-au-Prince, but their violence was met with even more violence by the military. There were reports of soldiers firing machine guns into the crowds of demonstrators. People were killed in the hundreds if not thousands in the capital, even as known agitators were rounded up en masse and thrown into prison, the offices of newspapers and magazines supporting Fignolé’s cause closed and ransacked. On September 22, 1957, it was announced that François Duvalier had been elected president by the people of Haiti.

Inside the American government, opinion was divided about the latest developments in Haiti. The CIA was convinced that, despite Fignolé’s worrisome leftward orientation, his promised socialist democracy was a better, more stable choice for the United States’s close neighbor than a military junta commanded by Duvalier. The agency thus concocted a scheme to topple Duvalier’s new government, which was to begin with the assassination of his foreign minister, Louis Raimone, on an upcoming visit to Mexico City to negotiate an arms deal. But the CIA’s plans accidentally fell into the hands of one Austin Garriot, an academic doing research for his latest book in Washington, D.C. Garriot passed the plans on to J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, who protested strongly that any attempt to overthrow Duvalier would be counter to international law — and who emphasized as well that he had declared himself to be strongly pro-American and anti-Soviet. With the top ranks of the FBI threatening to expose the illegal assassination plot to other parts of the government if the scheme was continued, the CIA had no choice but to quietly abandon it. Duvalier remained in power, unmolested.

He had promised his supporters a bright future…

…before a shining white city atop a hill. A sign welcomes you to Duvalierville. As you walk through the busy streets, well-dressed, cheerful people greet you as they pass by. You are struck by the abundance of goods and services offered, and the cleanliness and order that prevails. Almost every wall is adorned with a huge poster of a frail, gray-haired black man wearing a dark suit and horn-rimmed glasses.

Under the figure are the words: “Je suis le drapeau Haitien, Uni et Indivisible. François Duvalier.”

Everyone you ask about the man says the same thing: “We all love Papa Doc. He’s our president for life now, and we pray that he will live forever.”

Instead the leader who became known as Papa Doc — this quiet country doctor — became another case study in the banality of evil. During his fourteen years in power, an estimated 60,000 people were executed upon his personal extra-judicial decree. The mulatto elite, who constituted the last remnants of Haiti’s educated class and thus could be a dangerous threat to his rule, were a particular target; purge after purge cut a bloody swath through their ranks. When Papa Doc died in 1971, his son Jean-Claude Duvalier — Baby Doc — took over for another fifteen years. The world became familiar with the term “Haitian boat people” as the Duvaliers’ desperate victims took to the sea in the most inadequate of crafts. For them, any shred of hope for a better life was worth grasping at, no matter what the risk.

…you find yourself at sea, in a ragged little boat. Every inch of space is crowded with humanity. They’re people you know and care about deeply. You have no food or water, but you have something more precious — hope. In your native Haiti, your life has become intolerable. The poverty, the fear, the sudden disappearances of so many people — all have driven you to undertake this desperate journey into the unknown.

A storm arises, and your small boat is battered by the waves and torn apart. One by one, your friends, your brothers, your children slip beneath the roiling water and are lost. You cling to a rotten board as long as you can, but you know that your dream of freedom is gone. “Damn you, Duvalier,” you scream as the water closes over your head…

And now I have to make a confession: not quite all of the story I’ve just told you is true. That part about the CIA deciding to intervene in Haitian politics, only to be foiled by the FBI? It never happened (as far as I know, anyway). That part, along with all of the quoted text above, is rather lifted from a fascinating and chronically underappreciated work of interactive fiction from 1992: Shades of Gray.

Shades of Gray was the product of a form of collaboration which would become commonplace in later years, but which was still unusual enough in 1992 that it was remarked in virtually every mention of the game: the seven people who came together to write it had never met one another in person, only online. The project began when a CompuServe member named Judith Pintar, who had just won the 1991 AGT Competition with her CompuServe send-up Cosmoserve, put out a call for collaborators to make a game for the next iteration of the Competition. Mark Baker, Steve Bauman, Belisana, Hercules, Mike Laskey, and Cindy Yans wound up joining her, each writing a vignette for the game. Pintar then wrote a central spine to bind all these pieces together. The end result was so much more ambitious than anything else made for that year’s AGT Competition that organizer David Malmberg created a “special group effort” category just for it — which, it being the only game in said category, it naturally won.

Yet Shades of Gray‘s unusual ambition wasn’t confined to its size or number of coauthors. It’s also a game with some serious thematic heft.

The idea of using interactive fiction to make a serious literary statement was rather in abeyance in the early 1990s. Infocom had always placed a premium on good writing, and had veered at least a couple of times into thought-provoking social and historical commentary with A Mind Forever Voyaging and Trinity. But neither of those games had been huge sellers, and Infocom’s options had always been limited by the need to please a commercial audience who mostly just wanted more fun games like Zork from them, not deathless literary art. Following Infocom’s collapse, amateur creators working with development systems like AGT and TADS likewise confined almost all of their efforts to making games in the mold of Zork — unabashedly gamey games, with lots of puzzles to solve and an all-important score to accumulate.

On the surface, Shades of Gray may not seem a radical departure from that tradition; it too sports lots of puzzles and a score. Scratch below the surface, though, and you’ll find a text adventure with more weighty thoughts on its mind than any since 1986’s Trinity (a masterpiece of a game which, come to think of it, also has puzzles and a score, thus proving these elements are hardly incompatible with literary heft).

It took the group who made Shades of Gray much discussion to arrive at its central theme, which Judith Pintar describes as one of “moral ambiguity”: “We wanted to show that life and politics are nuanced.” You are cast in the role of Austin Garriot, a man whose soul has become unmoored from his material being for reasons that aren’t ever — and don’t really need to be — clearly explained. With the aid of a gypsy fortune teller and her Tarot deck, you explore the impulses and experiences that have made you who you are, presented in the form of interactive vignettes carved from the stuff of symbolism and memory and history. Moral ambiguity does indeed predominate through echoes of the ancient Athens of Antigone, the Spain of the Inquisition, the United States of the Civil War and the Joseph McCarthy era. In the most obvious attempt to present contrasting viewpoints, you visit Sherwood Forest twice, playing once as Robin Hood and once as the poor, put-upon Sheriff of Nottingham, who’s just trying to maintain the tax base and instill some law and order.

> examine chest
The chest is solidly made, carved from oak and bound together with strips
of iron. It contains the villagers' taxes -- money they paid so you could
defend them against the ruffians who inhabit the woods. Unfortunately, the
outlaws regularly attack the troops who bring the money to Nottingham, and
generally steal it all.

Because you can no longer pay your men-at-arms, no one but you remains to protect the local villagers. The gang is taking full advantage of this, attacking whole communities from their refuge in Sherwood Forest. You are alone, but you still have a duty to perform.

Especially in light of the contrasting Robin Hood vignettes, it would be all too easy for a reviewer like me to neatly summarize the message of Shades of Gray as something like “there are two sides to every story” or “walk a mile in my shoes before you condemn me.” And, to be sure, that message is needed more than ever today, not least by the more dogmatic members of our various political classes. Yet to claim that that’s all there is to Shades of Gray is, I think, to do it a disservice. Judith Pintar, we should remember, described its central theme as moral ambiguity, which is a more complex formulation than just a generalized plea for empathy. There are no easy answers in Shades of Gray — no answers at all really. It tells us that life is complicated, and moral right is not always as easy to determine as we might wish.

Certainly that statement applies to the longstanding question with which I opened this article: What to do about Haiti? In the end, it’s the history of that long-suffering country that comes to occupy center stage in Shades of Gray‘s exploration of… well, shades of gray.

Haiti’s presence in the game is thanks to the contributor whose online handle was Belisana.1 It’s an intriguingly esoteric choice of subject matter for a game written in this one’s time and place, especially given that none of the contributors, Belisana included, had any personal connection to Haiti. She rather began her voyage into Haitian history with a newspaper clipping, chanced upon in a library, from that chaotic year of 1957. She included a lightly fictionalized version of it in the game itself:


PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, Oct. 8 — The United States government today shut down two-thirds of its economic aid to Haiti. The United States Embassy sources stressed that the action was not in reprisal against the reported fatal beating of a United States citizen last Sunday.

The death of Shibley Matalas was attributed by Col. Louis Raimone, Haitian Foreign Minister, to a heart attack. Three U.S. representatives viewed Mr. Matalas’ body. Embassy sources said they saw extensive bruises, sufficient to be fatal.

Through my own archival research, I’ve determined that in the game Belisana displaced the date of the actual incident by one week, from October 1 to October 8, and that she altered the names of the principals: Shibley Matalas was actually named Shibley Talamas, and Louis Raimone was Louis Roumain. The incident in question occurred after François Duvalier had been elected president of Haiti but three weeks before he officially assumed the office. The real wire report, as printed in the Long Beach Press Telegram, tells a story too classically Haitian not to share in full.

Yank in Haitian Jail Dies, U.S. Envoy Protests

Port-au-Prince, Haiti (AP) — Americans were warned to move cautiously in Haiti today after Ambassador Gerald Drew strongly protested the death of a U.S. citizen apparently beaten while under arrest. The death of Shibley Talamas, 30-year-old manager of a textile factory here, brought the United States into the turmoil which followed the presidential election Sept. 22 in the Caribbean Negro republic.

Drew protested Monday to Col. Louis Roumain, foreign minister of the ruling military junta. The ambassador later cautioned Americans to be careful and abide by the nation’s curfew.

Roumain had gone to the U.S. Embassy to present the government’s explanation of Talamas’ death, which occurred within eight hours of his arrest.

The ambassador said Roumain told him Talamas, son of U.S. citizens of Syrian extraction, was arrested early Sunday afternoon in connection with the shooting of four Haitian soldiers. The solders were killed by an armed band Sunday at Kenscoff, a mountain village 14 miles from this capital city.

Drew said Roumain “assured me that Talamas was not mistreated.”

While being questioned by police, Talamas tried to attack an officer and to reach a nearby machine gun, Roumain told Drew. He added that Talamas then was handcuffed and immediately died of a heart attack.

The embassy said three reliable sources reported Talamas was beaten sufficiently to kill him.

One of these sources said Talamas’ body bore severe bruises about the legs, chest, shoulders, and abdomen, and long incisions that might have been made in an autopsy.

A Haitian autopsy was said to have confirmed that Talamas died of a heart attack. The location of the body remained a mystery. It was not delivered immediately to relatives.

Talamas, 300-pound son of Mr. and Mrs. Antoine Talamas, first was detained in the suburb of Petionville. Released on his promise to report later to police, he surrendered to police at 2 p.m. Sunday in the presence of two U.S. vice-consuls. His wife, Frances Wilpula Talamas, formerly of Ashtabula, Ohio, gave birth to a child Sunday.

Police said they found a pistol and shotgun in Talamas’ business office. Friends said he had had them for years.

Before seeing Roumain Monday, Drew tried to protest to Brig. Gen. Antonio Kébreau, head of the military junta, but failed in the attempt. An aid told newsmen that Kébreau could not see them because he had a “tremendous headache.”

Drew issued a special advisory to personnel of the embassy and U.S. agencies and to about 400 other Americans in Haiti. He warned them to stay off the streets during the curfew — 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. — except for emergencies and official business.

Troops and police have blockaded roads and sometimes prevented Americans getting to and from their homes. Americans went to their homes long ahead of the curfew hour Monday night. Some expressed fear that Talamas’ death might touch off other incidents.

Calm generally prevailed in the country. Police continued to search for losing presidential candidate Louis Déjoie, missing since the election. His supporters have threatened violence and charged that the military junta rigged the election for Dr. François Duvalier, a landslide winner in unofficial returns.

Official election results will be announced next Tuesday. Duvalier is expected to assume the presidency Oct. 14.

The Onion, had it existed at the time, couldn’t have done a better job of satirizing the farcical spectacle of a Haitian election. And yet all this appeared in a legitimate news report, from the losing candidate who mysteriously disappeared to the prisoner who supposedly dropped dead of a heart attack as soon as his guards put the handcuffs on him — not to mention the supreme leader with a headache, which might just be my favorite detail of all. Again: what does one do with a place like this, a place so corrupt for so long that corruption has become inseparable from its national culture?

But Shades of Gray is merciless. In the penultimate turn, it demands that you answer that question — at least this one time, in a very specific circumstance. Still playing the role of the hapless academic Austin Garriot, you’ve found a briefcase with all the details of the CIA’s plot to kill the Haitian foreign minister and initiate a top-secret policy of regime change in the country. The CIA’s contracted assassin, the man who lost the briefcase in the first place, is a cold fish named Charles Calthrop. He’s working together with Michael Matalas, vengeance-seeking brother of the recently deceased Shibley Matalas (né Talamas), and David Thomas, the CIA’s bureau chief in Haiti; they all want you to return the briefcase to them and forget that you ever knew anything about it. But two FBI agents, named Smith and Wesson (ha, ha…), have gotten wind of the briefcase’s contents, and want you to give it to them instead so they can stop the conspiracy in its tracks.

So, you are indeed free to take the course of action I’ve already described: give the briefcase to the FBI, and thereby foil the plot and strike a blow for international law. This will cause the bloody late-twentieth-century history of Haiti that we know from our own timeline to play out unaltered, as Papa Doc consolidates his grip on the country unmolested by foreign interventions.

Evil in a bow tie: François Duvalier at the time of the 1957 election campaign. Who would have guessed that this unassuming character would become the worst single Haitian monster of the twentieth century?

Or you can choose not to turn over the briefcase, to let the CIA’s plot take its course. And what happens then? Well, this is how the game describes it…

Smith and Wesson were unable to provide any proof of the CIA’s involvement in Raimone’s killing, and they were censured by Hoover for the accusation.

The following Saturday, Colonel Louis Raimone died from a single rifle shot through the head as he disembarked from a plane in Mexico City. His assassin was never caught, nor was any foreign government ever implicated.

It was estimated that the shot that killed Raimone was fired from a distance of 450 yards, from a Lee Enfield .303 rifle. Very few professionals were capable of that accuracy over that distance; Charles Calthrop was one of the few, and the Lee Enfield was his preferred weapon.

Duvalier didn’t survive long as president. Without the riot equipment that Raimone had been sent to buy, he was unable to put down the waves of unrest that swept the country. The army switched its allegiance to the people, and he was overthrown in March 1958.

Duvalier lived out the rest of his life in exile in Paris, and died in 1964.

Daniel Fignolé returned to govern Haiti after Duvalier was ousted, and introduced an American-style democracy. He served three 5-year terms of office, and was one of Kennedy’s staunchest allies during the Cuban missile crisis. He is still alive today, an elder statesman of Caribbean politics.

His brother’s death having been avenged, Michel Matalas returned to his former job as a stockman in Philadelphia. He joined the army and died in Vietnam in 1968. His nephew, Shibley’s son Mattieu, still lives in Haiti.

David Thomas returned to Haiti in his role as vice-consul, and became head of the CIA’s Caribbean division. He provided much of the intelligence that allowed Kennedy to bluff the Russians during the Cuban missile crisis before returning to take up a senior post at Langley.

What we have here, then, is a question of ends versus means. In the universe of Shades of Gray, at least, carrying out an illegal assassination and interfering in another sovereign country’s domestic politics leads to a better outcome than the more straightforwardly ethical course of abiding by international law.

Ever since it exited World War II as the most powerful country in the world, the United States has been confronted with similar choices time and time again. It’s for this reason that Judith Pintar calls her and her colleagues’ game “a story about American history as much as it is about Haiti.” While its interference in Haiti on this particular occasion does appear to have been limited or nonexistent in our own timeline, we know that the CIA has a long history behind it of operations just like the one described in the game, most of which didn’t work out nearly so well for the countries affected. And we also know that such operations were carried out by people who really, truly believed that their ends did justify their means. What can we do with all of these contradictory facts? Shades of gray indeed.

Of course, Shades of Gray is a thought experiment, not a serious study in geopolitical outcomes. There’s very good reason to question whether the CIA, who saw Daniel Fignolé as a dangerously left-wing leader, would ever have allowed him to assume power once again; having already chosen to interfere in Haitian politics once, a second effort to keep Fignolé out of power would only have been that much easier to justify. (This, one might say, is the slippery slope of interventionism in general.) Even had he regained and subsequently maintained his grip on the presidency, there’s reason to question whether Fignolé would really have become the mechanism by which true democracy finally came to Haiti. The list of Haitian leaders who once seemed similarly promising, only to disappoint horribly, is long; it includes on it that arguably greatest Haitian monster of all, the mild-mannered country doctor named François Duvalier, alongside such more recent disappointments as Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Perhaps Haiti’s political problems really are cultural problems, and as such are not amenable to fixing by any one person. Or, as many a stymied would-be reformer has speculated over the years, perhaps there really is just something in the water down there, or a voodoo curse in effect, or… something.

So, Shades of Gray probably won’t help us solve the puzzle of Haiti. It does, however, provide rich food for thought on politics and ethics, on the currents of history and the winds of fate — and it’s a pretty good little text adventure too. Its greatest weakness is the AGT development system that was used to create it, whose flexibility is limited and whose parser leaves much to be desired. “Given a better parser and the removal of some of the more annoying puzzles,” writes veteran interactive-fiction reviewer Carl Muckenhoupt, “this one would easily rate five stars.” I don’t actually find the puzzles all that annoying, but do agree that the game requires a motivated player willing to forgive and sometimes to work around the flaws of its engine. Any player willing to do so, though, will be richly rewarded by this milestone in interactive-fiction history, the most important game in terms of the artistic evolution of the medium to appear between Infocom’s last great burst of formal experiments in 1987 and the appearance of Graham Nelson’s milestone game Curses! in 1993. Few games in all the years of text-adventure history have offered more food for thought than Shades of Gray — a game that refuses to provide incontrovertible answers to the questions it asks, and is all the better for it.

In today’s Haiti, meanwhile, governments change constantly, but nothing ever changes. The most recent election as of this writing saw major, unexplained discrepancies between journalists’ exit polling and the official results, accompanied by the usual spasms of violence in the streets. Devastating earthquakes and hurricanes in recent years have only added to the impression that Haiti labors under some unique curse. On the bright side, however, it has been nearly a decade and a half since the last coup d’etat, which is pretty good by Haitian standards. You’ve got to start somewhere, right?

(Sources: the books Red & Black in Haiti: Radicalism, Conflict, and Political Change 1934-1957, Haiti: The Tumultuous History — From Pearl of the Caribbean to Broken Nation by Philippe Girard, and Haiti: The Aftershocks of History by Laurent Dubois; Life of June 3 1957; Long Beach Press Telegram of October 1 1957. My huge thanks go to Judith Pintar for indulging me with a long conversation about Shades of Gray and other topics. You can read more of our talk elsewhere on this site.

You can download Shades of Gray from the IF Archive. You can play it using the included original interpreter through DOSBox, or, more conveniently, with a modern AGT interpreter such as AGiliTY or — best of all in my opinion — the multi-format Gargoyle.)

  1. I do know her real name, but don’t believe it has ever been published in connection with Shades of Gray, and therefore don’t feel comfortable “outing” her here. 

September 13, 2018

Classic Adventure Solution Archive

CASA Update - 1 new solution

by Gunness at September 13, 2018 09:12 AM

Finally everything is in working order again. What started as a simple server migration (with a few technical hiccups) grew way above my technical skills once I foolishly tried to upgrade the forum software to solve these problems. After several attempts to fix things, I had to call in the cavalry - Dave and Mr. Creosote - whom I can't thank enough for getting us back on track again. Thank you so much, guys!

One task that remains is figuring out the look of the forum. Unfortunately our old style doesn't work with the updated forum, so I'll have to figure out how to fix it. Might not happen right away.
Anyway, thanks for being patient - happy gaming!

Contributors: ahope1

September 11, 2018

sub-Q Magazine

Making Interactive Fiction: Adapting from Other Genres

by Stewart C Baker at September 11, 2018 07:41 PM

The best kind of interactivity in a story is interactivity that resonates with its themes and characters. One useful approach to thinking about design issues is to adapt models from other genres. Even if the result doesn’t much resemble the starting point, it’s productive to have a guide to direct where you’re going.

Emily Short’s First Draft of the Revolution is a pretty straightforward example of how to do this. It’s an adaptation of epistolary fiction, where the interaction consists of drafting and redrafting letters. The story uses the interaction prompts themselves to reveal more and more of its characters and its world, a complement to the core idea of the epistolary novel as a narrow window into the lives of its characters.

Not all genres lend themselves so readily to this kind of translation, of course. Many attempts and iterations have been made on constructing an interactive mystery story, and those have met with difficulty. In a way, the mystery novel already relies on a form of interactivity (given the expectation that the reader might tease out the solution ahead of the characters), which, when made explicit as actual interactivity, loses its expressive power. Jon Ingold’s Make it Good presents itself as a detective story, but contains a twist that recasts it into a different type of narrative entirely — that twist enables it to have the trappings of a detective story while shaking off the expectations that might render it nonfunctional.

For the sake of an object example, I want to walk through adapting in a different direction. Rather than looking to literary genres and adapting into interactive fiction, I want to think of video game ideas and adapt them into interactive fiction. To pick up on last month’s column about building climactic moments, I’d like to consider the boss fight.

Boss fights work poorly in a lot of games. Often they seem tacked on, nothing but an enemy with an exceedingly long health bar. But where they work well — as in Dark Souls’ gallery of grotesques, or in the Monster Hunter series where the entire game revolves around elaborate boss fights — they can be a real anchor for what a game is about and how it feels to play it. I’m not interested, here, in the fiction of fighting a large monster, but in the underlying mechanical ideas and how we might plunder them for our own use. Maybe the Monster Hunter hunt could be a basis for something else — an emotional confrontation with a character, perhaps.

Monster Hunter’s monsters are, in themselves, complex systems with many mechanics attached to them: they can become enraged, exhausted, or hungry; they can flee in fear; hunters can stun them, make them flinch, mount them, trip up their legs to bring them down or attack their wings to keep them from taking flight. But what makes the hunt a useful example to me is that each one of those systems is individually very simple and straightforward, and they all work in orthogonal ways that are comparable to each other. Stunning the monster is done by dealing “KO damage,” which comes from hitting the head with an impact attack. Mounting the monster is done by dealing “mounting damage,” by attacking it from above, and so on. Those values are hidden to the player (indeed, Monster Hunter tells you almost nothing about the monster’s state explicitly, preferring to use animation and diegetic cues), in much the same way a lot of IF uses underlying variables that are hidden. Tripping, stunning, or toppling the monster creates a big opening to deal damage and move the fight towards its conclusion, but the special damage needed to bring it down increases each time, making it hard to repeatedly employ the same tactics.

How do we think about this in terms of a different kind of story? When trying to persuade someone, or walk them to some emotional catharsis, we might have different weapons we can bring to bear: appealing to their reason, their guilt, their emotional attachments, the opinions of third parties, their better angels (or worse devils). Maybe some of these choices are made ahead of time, before the confrontation even starts; we choose what we bring to the table, much like a hunter chooses which weapon to take into a hunt.

We build a cycle of threat-response-reaction. The adversary starts to make a move, argument, or direct the conversation; the player character responds in some way; the adversary reacts to that response, concluding their original move. In a way, the two characters are talking past each other, each one trying to make their point separately — mimicking plenty of real arguments I’ve been in.

Successfully reacting to a move might create an opening for the player character to insert their own appeals into the conversation, whatever it may be; concluding that argument might break down a barrier that allows the conflict to progress. The characters start by circling around each other warily, but their responses gradually get more aggressive, desperate, and involved. On the adversary’s side, as they approach exhaustion (or catharsis, depending on your story); on the player’s side, as they employ and then discard each tactic available to them in turn.

Of course, this is a very adversarial, even cruel, framework to apply to interactions between two people — maybe that’s right for your story, or maybe not. But I hope the underlying idea is helpful: You can find models for building story mechanics in strange places, and sometimes there’s serendipitous consonance there.

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

The post Making Interactive Fiction: Adapting from Other Genres appeared first on sub-Q Magazine.

Emily Short

Mailbag: Deep Conversation

by Mort Short at September 11, 2018 03:40 PM

This one was a follow-up question to the asker wondering whether Blood & Laurels was still available anywhere. (It isn’t.)

If there are any other games (IF or otherwise) that you’d recommend for deeper conversational experiences, I’d love to hear about those… I have a rather broad set of interests there, so anything you find especially exciting, new or odd would be great to hear about, especially where conversation is at the center of the game.

…right, okay. Well, that’s quite a broad field, but here are some possibilities, preferring more recent games (though interesting conversation games go back for quite a while).

Exploration-focused Dialogue

Parser-based conversation games are often designed to let the player explore concepts that interest them, treating the non-player character like a big encyclopedia rather than a goal-oriented partner in dialogue. That tradition goes back — well, back to the 80s, really, since Infocom’s murder mysteries allowed you to ask characters about important subjects and clues.

A few more recent examples that are either carry some of this concept over to a different interface or allow a different spin on it:

Screen Shot 2018-08-25 at 7.34.33 PM.png

Subsurface Circular (above) and Quarantine Circular are both primarily conversation games. Subsurface Circular has some embedded puzzles in the dialogue, including puzzles around manipulating emotional states and the knowledge of both the PC and other characters. As you find out new things, you gain “focus points”, an inventory of topics that you can introduce into conversation.

Speaking of manipulating emotional states, that’s really the primary approach in The Red Strings Club: you mix drinks for NPCs to affect their emotional status, then ask dialogue-tree questions.

Mirror and Queen is parser-based and allows you to type in keywords that evoke a response from the magic mirror. It discourages repeating words, and the main point of the scene is for the protagonist to meditate on her circumstances, rather than to get anything out of the NPC. This makes for a drifting, goalless exploration of the story’s conceptual space.

Weird City Interloper directs most of the player’s interactions with a whole city via conversation topics; it’s subordinating space to dialogue in a way that only a text-rich interface could really do.

Where the Water Tastes Like Wine trades in a currency of stories heard elsewhere in one’s travels. (I contributed to this multi-author work.)

Dialogue and Factual Information

Sometimes the player is asked to reason about the world and express that reasoning back through conversation, or to use persuasion of some kind on another character. This tends to be enough effort — user interface and verb system — that it appears only in games where it’s a pretty central mechanic. The overwhelming majority of such games are mysteries, where deduction is the point.

Screen Shot 2014-11-19 at 1.30.22 PM

Detective Grimoire invites the player to assemble statements about particular pieces of evidence by swapping out pieces of their sentence before they commit to something.

Contradiction is a game about catching people out in contradictory statements, so you’ve got an inventory of past things they’ve said to you and can combine these to unlock new discoveries. And, of course, the Phoenix Wright games trade on the player’s ability to find relevant evidence to introduce during courtroom scenes. (See also Wright-alike Aviary Attorney.)

Several parser IF games also explore putting together concepts out of several components. Color the Truth is probably the most recent successful implementation of this kind of idea. The player can combine existing knowledge in order to create new conversation topics for use, like this:


Dialogue and Time

Many conversation-focused games don’t do much with the temporal dimension of conversation — or, if they do, they handle it purely as a timed countdown to make you pick an option under pressure. (See Heavy Rain and many recent Telltale games.) A handful of pieces do more with time, though:

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Ladykiller in a Bind does a novel thing where dialogue options become available and go away again over time, so you can be deciding whether you want to go for one of the options available now or wait and pick one later. Christine Love has also talked a bit about rolling her own tools to write this conversation style. (Her portion starts at about 32 minutes in the linked talk; discussion of the tools proper appears around 40 minutes in.)

Wheels of Aurelia is a game that asks you to divide your attention between driving and chatting with the hitchhikers you’ve picked up in your car. I personally found this kind of hard to do well. I know some people who were extremely into it, though.

Dialogue and Relationships

Aside from the Versu games, Prom Week uses a social practice model to guide how characters are likely to react to you and pass on information; Facade, of course, is an old and well-known example here that still has few serious emulators.

Symbolic or Metaphorical Conversation

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10pm by Litrouke is a curious story in which the protagonist struggles to communicate and the player must drag and drop symbols to communicate.

Socrates Jones: Pro Philosopher is in the vein of the Phoenix Wright games mentioned above, but it makes its interaction verbs things like “Question Relevance” and “Press for Backing.” The point here is to teach strategies of logical argument.

Dialogue: A Writer’s Story uses several different interaction metaphors for conversation — I wrote about the demo version here, though I haven’t completed the full version.

See also Lucian Smith’s The Edifice, where a major puzzle involves speaking to a character in an invented language that you first need to learn; and Words of Power and Suveh Nux, both of which have small magical grammars that you must master to manipulate your environment.

Voice Input

With the introduction of voice assistants, there are now a number of Alexa Skills that are games, and that use a conversational mediator to narrate gameplay. There is an Alexa Skill for playing classic interactive fiction, though from customer reviews it looks like there are some clashes of vocabulary in practice that might be a bit frustrating.

Natural Language Input

Don’t Make Love (Maggese) invites you into a romantic relationship between praying mantises.

Event[0] (Ocelot Society) has a chatbot/parser interface for communicating with a shipboard AI. The AI will decide whether to humor your requests depending on its view of you so far.

Little Pink Best Buds (Double Fine Amnesia Fortnight) was a game jam piece built using Bruce Wilcox’s ChatScript. There’s a playthrough on YouTube.

LabLabLab builds tools and does research in an academic context into NLU-driven game design.

Dialogue with Text Generation

Fitzwilliam Darcy’s Dance Challenge has the player interact by dancing, then autogenerates responses based on how good your dance performance happens to be. (Mine was always bad.)

If I can mention one of my own projects — it’s a pretty niche item, but The Mary Jane of Tomorrow is a parser-based IF game that uses generative grammars to create a character with multiple dialogue styles and the ability to make up poems off the cuff.

Significant Quantity of Dialogue

Many visual novels do loads and loads of conversation; I’m not sure whether that’s specifically worth calling out, but for sheer volume it might be relevant.

In the Twine universe, Brendan Patrick Hennessy‘s work has a lot of high-quality dialogue content. I particularly recommend Birdland and Known Unknowns for this.

The entire Lifeline series focuses on chat conversations with the character experiencing the story.

Oxenfree is a graphical adventure game with a significant amount of conversation content.

Spoken Content Tightly Tied to World Model State

Firewatch makes use of a salience system that draws on Elan Ruskin’s dialogue method in Left4Dead.

Related Material

A piece on why I’m interested in conversation interfaces to start with.

Posts of mine that touch on conversation modeling as a general problem.

Here is an IFDB search for interactive fiction works with a lot of conversational content.

Here’s a semi-recent interview with Chris Avellone on related topics.

September 10, 2018

The Cloak of Darkness

by pixiemusingsblog at September 10, 2018 07:41 AM

The Cloak of Darkness is a specification for an adventure game that has been created in numerous systems, with the purpose of giving prospective authors some idea of what is involved in each system.

IFWiki says of it:

This adventure is a tiny adventure designed to be easy to port to a given Authoring system. It is, if you will, the interactive fiction equivalent of “Hello, world!”

The Cloak of Darkness has its own web site that at one time kept up to date with IF authoring systems and their implementation of it.

Unfortunately it has not been updated in well over a decade, and apparently that is not about to change. Quest is on there, but a very early version, 3.5, which is very much a different system. Back then, Quest had two programs, one that was free, to play games on, and the QuestPro version, which you had to pay for, and could be used to create games. The file format was also completely different.

Modern Quest dates from August 2011, and the introduction of Quest 5, when it went open-source, free for everyone and XML-based.

I recently came across a thread on about the Cloak of Darkness (the first I had heard of it), and thought it would be interesting to do a modern version of it.

There is a problem with the concept behind The Cloak of Darkness. It is attempting to show how easy it is to create in each language, by showing the source code. But with Quest – and other systems too – you do not look at the source code. You would need to look at numerous windows and tabs (things that make authoring much easier, but make documenting authoring rather more trouble!).

So you can look at the source code for the Quest version, but really that does not tell you much. You need to understand the steps involved in creating it.

And so I present:

The Second Quest Tutorial!

This is a new page in the Quest documentation that describes how to build a full version of Cloak of Darkness from scratch, explaining at each step not just how to do it, but why it was done that way. There are links to a working game, and you can download the source code and open it up in the desktop version to take a look too.

September 08, 2018

Zarf Updates

Memory Blocks at Different Games 2018

by Andrew Plotkin ([email protected]) at September 08, 2018 04:51 PM

Memory Blocks, the Twine anthology game I mentioned a while back, is showing at the Different Games Arcade! That's the weekend of Oct 13 in Worcester, MA.
Some memories fade. Some memories break. Some memories outlive us.
I have a small chapter in Memory Blocks, but there are many other chapters by a whole bunch of cool people. Plus music, art, and overall production by Ghoulnoise.
I see a bunch of cool people showing games and speaking at Different Games, so I expect it will be a good time. I'll be hanging around, so I'll see you there, if you're there! Look for the green jacket.
(Will I have a new IF work of my own to show off? Depends whether I get more done on the puzzles, the story, or the UI in the next five weeks...)

September 07, 2018

The Digital Antiquarian

Agrippa (A Book of the Dead)

by Jimmy Maher at September 07, 2018 04:41 PM

Is it the actor or the drama
Playing to the gallery?
Or is it but the character
Of any single member of the audience
That forms the plot
of each and every play?

“Hanging in the Gallery” by Dave Cousins

I was introduced to the contrast between art as artifact and art as experience by an episode of Northern Exposure, a television show which meant a great deal to my younger self. In “Burning Down the House,” Chris in the Morning, the town of Cicely, Alaska’s deejay, has decided to fling a living cow through the air using a trebuchet. Why? To create a “pure moment.”

“I didn’t know what you are doing was art,” says Shelley, the town’s good-hearted bimbo. “I thought it had to be in a frame, or like Jesus and Mary and the saints in church.”

“You know, Shell,” answers Chris in his insufferable hipster way, “the human soul chooses to express itself in a profound profusion of ways, not just the plastic arts.”

“Plastic hearts?”

“Arts! Plastic arts! Like sculpture, painting, charcoal. Then there’s music and poetry and dance. Lots of people, Susan Sontag notwithstanding, include photography.”

“Slam dancing?”

“Insofar as it reflects the slam dancer’s inner conflict with society through the beat… yeah, sure, why not? You see, Shelley, what I’m dealing with is the aesthetics of the transitory. I’m creating tomorrow’s memories, and, as memories, my images are as immortal as art which is concrete.”

Certain established art forms — those we generally refer to as the performing arts — have this quality baked into them in an obvious way. Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones once made the seemingly arrogant pronouncement that his band was “the greatest rock-and-roll band in the world” — but later modified his statement by noting that “on any given night, it’s a different band that’s the greatest rock-and-roll band in the world.” It might be the Rolling Stones playing before an arena full of 20,000 fans one night, and a few sweaty teenagers playing for a cellar full of twelve the next. It has nothing to do with the technical skill of the musicians; music is not a skills competition. A band rather becomes the greatest rock-and-roll band in the world the moment when the music goes someplace that transcends notes and measures. This is what the ancient Greeks called the kairos moment: the moment when past and future and thought itself fall away and there are just the band, the audience, and the music.

But what of what Chris in the Morning calls the “plastic arts,” those oriented toward producing some physical (or at least digital) artifact that will remain in the world long after the artist has died? At first glance, the kairos moment might seem to have little relevance here. Look again, though. Art must always be an experience, in the sense that there is a viewer, a reader, or a player who must experience it. And the meaning it takes on for that person — or lack thereof — will always be profoundly colored by where she was, who she was, when she was at the time. You can, in other words, find your own transitory transcendence inside the pages of a book just as easily as you can in a concert hall.

The problem with the plastic arts is that it’s too easy to destroy the fragile beauty of that initial impression. It’s too easy to return to the text trying to recapture the transcendent moment, too easy to analyze it and obsess over it and thereby to trample it into oblivion.

But what if we could jettison the plastic permanence from one of the plastic arts, creating something that must live or die — like a rock band in full flight or Chris in the Morning’s flying cow — only as a transitory transcendence? What if we could write a poem which the reader couldn’t return to and fuss over and pin down like a butterfly in a display case? What if we could write a poem that the reader could literally only read one time, that would flow over her once and leave behind… what? As it happens, an unlikely trio of collaborators tried to do just that in 1992.

Very early that year, a rather strange project prospectus made the rounds of the publishing world. Its source was Kevin Begos, Jr., who was known, to whatever extent he was known at all, as a publisher of limited-edition art books for the New York City gallery set. This new project, however, was something else entirely, and not just because it involved the bestselling science-fiction author William Gibson, who was already ascending to a position in the mainstream literary pantheon as “the prophet of cyberspace.”

Kevin Begos Jr., publisher of museum-quality, limited edition books, has brought together artist Dennis Ashbaugh (known for his large paintings of computer viruses and his DNA “portraits”) and writer William Gibson (who coined the term cyberspace, then explored the concept in his award-winning books Neuromancer, Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive) to produce a collaborative Artist’s Book.

In an age of artificial intelligence, recombinant genetics, and radical, technologically-driven cultural change, this “Book” will be as much a challenge as a possession, as much an enigma as a “story”.

The Text, encrypted on a computer disc along with a Virus Program written especially for the project, will mutate and destroy itself in the course of a single “reading”. The Collector/Reader may either choose to access the Text, thus setting in motion a process in which the Text becomes merely a Memory, or preserve the Text unread, in its “pure” state — an artifact existing exclusively in cyberspace.

Ashbaugh’s etchings, which allude to the potent allure and taboo of Genetic Manipulation, are both counterpoint and companion-piece to the Text. Printed on beautiful rag paper, their texture, odor, form, weight, and color are qualities unavailable to the Text in cyberspace. (The etchings themselves will undergo certain irreparable changes following their initial viewing.)

This Artist’s Book (which is not exactly a “book” at all) is cased in a wrought metal box, the Mechanism, which in itself becomes a crucial, integral element of the Text. This book-as-object raises unique questions about Art, Time, Memory, Possession—and the Politics of Information Control. It will be the first Digital Myth.

William Gibson had been friends with Dennis Ashbaugh for some time, ever since the latter had written him an admiring letter a few years after his landmark novel Neuromancer was published. The two men worked in different mediums, but they shared an interest in the transformations that digital technology and computer networking were having on society. They corresponded regularly, although they met only once in person.

Yet it was neither Gibson the literary nor Ashbaugh the visual artist who conceived their joint project’s central conceit; it was instead none other than the author of the prospectus above, publisher Kevin Begos, Jr., another friend of Ashbaugh. Ashbaugh, who like Begos was based in New York City, had been looking for a way to collaborate with Gibson, and came to his publisher friend looking for ideas that might be compelling enough to interest such a high-profile science-fiction writer, who lived all the way over in Vancouver, Canada, just about as far away as it was possible to get from New York City and still be in North America. “The idea kind of came out of the blue,” says Begos: “to do a book on a computer disk that destroys itself after you read it.” Gibson, Begos, thought, would be the perfect writer to which to pitch such a project, for he innately understood the kairos moment in art; his writing was thoroughly informed by the underground rhythms of the punk and new-wave music scenes. And, being an acknowledged fan of experimental literature like that written by his hero William S. Burroughs, he wasn’t any stranger to conceptual literary art of the sort which this idea of a self-destroying text constituted.

Even so, Begos says that it took him and Ashbaugh a good six to nine months to convince Gibson to join the project. Even after agreeing to participate, Gibson proved to be the most passive of the trio by far, providing the poem that was to destroy itself early on but then doing essentially nothing else after that. It’s thus ironic and perhaps a little unfair that the finished piece remains today associated almost exclusively with the name of William Gibson. If one person can be said to be the mastermind of the project as a whole, that person must be Kevin Begos, Jr., not William Gibson.

Begos, Ashbaugh, and Gibson decided to call their art project Agrippa (A Book of the Dead), adopting the name Gibson gave to his poem for the project as a whole. Still, there was, as the prospectus above describes, much more to it than the single self-immolating disk which contained the poem. We can think of the whole artwork as being split into two parts: a physical component, provided by Ashbaugh, and a digital component, provided by Gibson, with Begos left to tie them together. Both components were intended to be transitory in their own ways. (Their transcendence, of course, must be in the eye of the beholder.)

Begos said that he would make and sell just 455 copies of the complete work, ranging in price from $450 for the basic edition to $7500 for a “deluxe copy in a bronze case.” The name of William Gibson lent what would otherwise have been just a wacky avant-garde art project a great deal of credibility with the mainstream press. It was discussed far and wide in the spring and summer of 1992, finding its way into publications like People, Entertainment WeeklyEsquire, and USA Today long before it existed as anything but a set of ideas inside the minds of its creators. A reporter for Details magazine repeated the description of a Platonic ideal of Agrippa that Begos relayed to him from his fond imagination:

‘Agrippa’ comes in a rough-hewn black box adorned with a blinking green light and an LCD readout that flickers with an endless stream of decoded DNA. The top opens like a laptop computer, revealing a hologram of a circuit board. Inside is a battered volume, the pages of which are antique rag-paper, bound and singed by hand.

Like a frame of unprocessed film, ‘Agrippa’ begins to mutate the minute it hits the light. Ashbaugh has printed etchings of DNA nucleotides, but then covered them with two separate sets of drawings: One, in ultraviolet ink, disappears when exposed to light for an hour; the other, in infrared ink, only becomes visible after an hour in the light. A paper cavity in the center of the book hides the diskette that contains Gibson’s fiction, digitally encoded for the Macintosh or the IBM.


The disk contained Gibson’s poem Agrippa: “The story scrolls on the screen at a preset pace. There is no way to slow it down, speed it up, copy it, or remove the encryption that ultimately causes it to disappear.” Once the text scrolled away, the disk got wiped, and that was that. All that would be left of Agrippa was the reader’s memory of it.

The three tricksters delighted over the many paradoxes of their self-destroying creation with punk-rock glee. Ashbaugh laughed about having to send two copies of it to the copyright office — because to register it for a copyright, you had to read it, but when you read it you destroyed it. Gibson imagined some musty academic of the future trying to pry the last copy out of the hands of a collector so he could read it — and thereby destroy it definitively for posterity. He described it as “a cruel joke on book collectors.”

As I’ve already noted, Ashbaugh’s physical side of the Agrippa project was destined to be overshadowed by Gibson’s digital side, to the extent that the former is barely remembered at all today. Part of the problem was the realities of working with physical materials, which conspired to undo much of the original vision for the physical book. The LCD readout and the circuit-board hologram fell by the wayside, as did Ashbaugh’s materializing and de-materializing pictures. (One collector has claimed that the illustrations “fade a bit” over time, but one does have to wonder whether even that is wishful thinking.)

But the biggest reason that one aspect of Agrippa so completely overshadowed the other was ironically the very thing that got the project noticed at all in so many mainstream publications: William Gibson’s fame in comparison to his unknown collaborators. People magazine didn’t even bother to mention that there was anything to Agrippa at all beyond the disk; “I know Ashbaugh was offended by that,” says Begos. Unfortunately obscured by this selective reporting was an intended juxtaposition of old and new forms of print, a commentary on evolving methods of information transmission. Begos was as old-school as publishers got, working with a manual printing press not very dissimilar from the one invented by Gutenberg; each physical edition of Agrippa was a handmade object d’art. Yet all most people cared about was the little disk hidden inside it.

So, even as the media buzzed with talk about the idea of a digital poem that could only be read once, Begos had a hell of a time selling actual, physical copies of the book. As of December of 1992, a few months after it went to press, Begos said he still had about 350 copies of it sitting around waiting for buyers. It seems unlikely that most of these were ever sold; they were quite likely destroyed in the end, simply because the demand wasn’t there. Begos relates a typical anecdote:

There was a writer from a newspaper in the New York area who was writing something on Agrippa. He was based out on Long Island and I was based in Manhattan. He sent a photographer to photograph the book one afternoon. And he’d done a phone interview with me, though I don’t remember if he called Gibson or not. He checked in with me after the photographer had come to make sure that it had gone alright, and I said yes. I said, “Well aren’t you coming by; don’t you want to see the book?” He said “No; you know, the traffic’s really bad; you know, I just don’t have time.” He published his story the next day, and there was nothing wrong with it, but I found that very odd. It probably would have taken him an hour to drive in, or he could have waited a few days. But some people, they almost seemed resistant to seeing the whole package.

It’s inevitable, given the focus of this site, that our interest too will largely be captured by the digital aspect of the work. Yet the physical artwork — especially the full-fledged $7500 edition — certainly is an interesting creation in its own right. Rather than looking sleek and modern, as one might expect from the package framing a digital text from the prophet of cyberpunk, it looks old — mysteriously, eerily old. “There’s a little bit of a dark side to the Gibson story and the whole mystery about it and the whole notion of a book that destroys itself, a text that destroys itself after you read it,” notes Begos. “So I thought that was fitting.” It smacks of ancient tomes full of forbidden knowledge, like H.P. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon, or the Egyptian Book of the Dead to which its parenthetical title seems to pay homage. Inside was to be found abstract imagery and, in lieu of conventional text, long strings of numbers and characters representing the gene sequence of the fruit fly. And then of course there was the disk, nestled into its little pocket at the back.

The deluxe edition of Agrippa is housed in this box, made out of fiberglass and paper and “distressed” by hand.

The book is inside a shroud and another case. Its title has been burned into it by hand.

The book’s 64 hand-cut pages combine long chunks of the fruit-fly genome alongside Daniel Ashbaugh’s images evocative of genetics — and occasional images, such as the pistol above, drawn from Gibson’s poem of “Agrippa.”

The last 20 pages have been glued together — as usual, by hand — and a pocket cut out of them to hold the disk.

But it was, as noted, the contents of the disk that really captured the public’s imagination, and that’s where we’ll turn our attention now.

William Gibson’s contribution to the project is an autobiographical poem of approximately 300 lines and 2000 words. The poem called “Agrippa” is named after something far more commonplace than its foreboding packaging might imply. “Agrippa” was actually the brand name of a type of photo album which was sold by Kodak in the early- and mid-twentieth century. Gibson’s poem begins as he has apparently just discovered such an artifact — “a Kodak album of time-burned black construction paper” — in some old attic or junk room. What follows is a meditation on family and memory, on the roots of things that made William Gibson the man he is now. There’s a snapshot of his grandfather’s Appalachian sawmill; there’s a pistol from some semi-forgotten war; there’s a picture of downtown Wheeling, West Virginia, 1917; there’s a magazine advertisement for a Rocket 88; there’s the all-night bus station in Wytheville, Virginia, where a young William Gibson used to go to buy cigarettes for his mother, and from which a slightly older one left for Canada to avoid the Vietnam draft and take up the life of an itinerant hippie.

Gibson is a fine writer, and “Agrippa” is a lovely, elegiac piece of work which stands on its own just fine as plain old text on the page when it’s divorced from all of its elaborate packaging and the work of conceptual art that was its original means of transmission. (Really, it does: go read it.) It was also the least science-fictional thing he had written to date — quite an irony in light of all of the discussion that swirled around it about publication in the age of cyberspace. But then, the ironies truly pile up in layers when it comes to this artistic project. It was ironically appropriate that William Gibson, a famously private person, should write something so deeply personal only in the form of a poem designed to disappear as soon as it had been read. And perhaps the supreme irony was this disappearing poem’s interest in the memories encoded by permanent artifacts like an old photo album, an old camera, or an old pistol. This interest in the way that everyday objects come to embody our collective memory would go on to become a recurring theme in Gibson’s later, more mature, less overtly cyberpunky novels. See, for example, the collector of early Sinclair microcomputers who plays a prominent role in 2003’s Pattern Recognition, in my opinion Gibson’s best single novel to date.

But of course it wasn’t as if the public’s interest in Agrippa was grounded in literary appreciation of Gibson’s poem, any more than it was in artistic appreciation of the physical artwork that surrounded it. All of that was rather beside the point of the mainstream narrative — and thus we still haven’t really engaged with the reason that Agrippa was getting write-ups in the likes of People magazine. Beyond the star value lent the project by William Gibson, all of the interest in Agrippa was spawned by this idea of a text — it could been have any text packaged in any old way, if we’re being brutally honest — that consumed itself as it was being read. This aspect of it seemed to have a deep resonance with things that were currently happening in society writ large, even if few could clarify precisely what those things were in a world perched on the precipice of the Internet Age. And, for all that the poem itself belied his reputation as a writer of science fiction, this aspect of Agrippa also resonated with the previous work of William Gibson, the mainstream media’s go-to spokesman for the (post)modern condition.

Enter, then, the fourth important contributor to Agrippa, a shadowy character who has chosen to remain anonymous to this day and whom we shall therefore call simply the Hacker. He apparently worked at Bolt, Beranek, and Newman, a Boston consulting firm with a rich hacking heritage (Will Crowther of Adventure fame had worked there), and was a friend of Dennis Ashbaugh. Kevin Begos, Jr., contracted with him to write the code for Gibson’s magical disappearing poem. “Dealing with the hacker who did the program has been like dealing with a character from one of your books,” wrote Begos to Gibson in a letter.

The Hacker spent most of his time not coding the actual display of the text — a trivial exercise — but rather devising an encryption scheme to make it impenetrable to the inevitable army of hex-editor-wielding compatriots who would try to extract the text from the code surrounding it. “The encryption,” he wrote to Begos, “has a very interesting feature in that it is context-sensitive. The value, both character and numerical, of any given character is determined by the characters next to it, which from a crypto-analysis or code-breaking point of view is an utter nightmare.”

The Hacker also had to devise a protection scheme to prevent people from simply copying the disk, then running the program from the copy. He tried to add digitized images of some of Ashbaugh’s art to the display, which would have had a welcome unifying effect on an artistic statement that too often seemed to reflect the individual preoccupations of Begos, Ashbaugh, and Gibson rather than a coherent single vision. In the end, however, he gave that scheme up as technically unfeasible. Instead he settled for a few digitized sound effects and a single image of a Kodak Agrippa photo album, displayed as the title screen before the text of the poem began to scroll. Below you can see what he ended up creating, exactly as someone would have who was foolhardy enough to put the disk into her Macintosh back in 1992.

The denizens of cyberspace, many of whom regarded William Gibson more as a god than a prophet, were naturally intrigued by Agrippa from the start, not least thanks to the implicit challenge it presented to crack the protection and thus turn this artistic monument to impermanence into its opposite. The Hacker sent Begos samples of the debates raging on the pre-World Wide Web Internet already in April of 1992, months before the book’s publication.

“I just read about William Gibson’s new book Agrippa (The Book of the Dead),” wrote one netizen. “I understand it’s going to be published on disk, with a virus that prevents it from being printed out. What do people think of this idea?”

“I seem to recall reading that this stuff about the virus-loaded book was an April Fools joke started here on the Internet,” replied another. “But nobody’s stopped talk about it, and even Tom Maddox, who knows Gibson, seemed to confirm its existence. Will the person who posted the original message please confirm or confess? Was this an April Fools joke or not?”

The Tom Maddox in question, who was indeed personally acquainted with Gibson, replied that the disappearing text “was part of a limited-edition, expensive artwork that Gibson believes was totally subscribed before ‘publication.’ Someone will publish it in more accessible form, I believe (and it will be interesting to see what the cyberpunk audience makes of it — it’s an autobiographical poem, about ten pages long).”

“What a strange world we live in,” concluded another netizen. Indeed.

The others making Agrippa didn’t need the Hacker to tell them with what enthusiasm the denizens of cyberspace would attack his code, vying for the cred that would come with being the first to break it. John Perry Barlow, a technology activist and co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told Begos that unidentified “friends of his vow to buy and then run Agrippa through a Cray supercomputer to capture the code and crack the program.”

And yet for the first few months after the physical book’s release it remained uncracked. The thing was just so darn expensive, and the few museum curators and rare-books collectors who bought copies neither ran in the same circles as the hacking community nor were likely to entrust their precious disks to one of them.

Interest in the digital component of Agrippa remained high in the press, however, and, just as Tom Maddox had suspected all along, the collaborators eventually decided to give people unwilling to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on the physical edition a chance to read — and to hear — William Gibson’s poem through another ephemeral electronic medium. On December 9, 1992, the Americas Society of New York City hosted an event called “The Transmission,” in which the magician and comedian Penn Jillette read the text of the poem as it scrolled across a big screen, bookended by question-and-answer sessions with Kevin Begos, Jr., the only member of the artistic trio behind Agrippa to appear at the event. The proceedings were broadcast via a closed-circuit satellite hookup to, as the press release claimed, “a street-corner shopfront on the Lower East Side, the Michael Carlos Museum in Atlanta, the Kitchen in New York City, a sheep farm in the Australian Outback, and others.” Continuing with the juxtaposition of old and new that had always been such a big thematic part of the Agrippa project — if a largely unremarked one — the press release pitched the event as a return to the days when catching a live transmission of one form or another had been the only way to hear a story, an era that had been consigned to the past by the audio- and videocassette.

When did you last hear Hopalong Cassidy on his NBC radio program? When did you last read to your children around a campfire? Have you been sorry that your busy schedule prevented a visit to the elders’ mud hut in New Guinea, where legends of times past are recounted? Have you ever looked closely at your telephone cable to determine exactly how voices and images can come out of the tiny fibers?

Naturally, recording devices were strictly prohibited at the event. Agrippa was still intended to be an ephemeral kairos moment, just like the radio broadcasts of yore.

Of course, it had always been silly to imagine that all traces of the poem could truly be blotted from existence after it had been viewed and/or heard by a privileged few. After all, people reading it on their monitor screens at home could buy video cameras too. Far from denying this reality, Begos imagined an eventual underground trade in fuzzy Agrippa videotapes, much like the bootleg concert tapes traded among fans of Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead. Continuing with the example set by those artists, he imagined the bootleg trade being more likely to help than to hurt Agrippa‘s cultural cachet. But it would never come to that — for, despite Begos’s halfhearted precautions, the Transmission itself was captured as it happened.

Begos had hired a trio of student entrepreneurs from New York University’s Interactive Television Program to run the technical means of transmission of the Transmission. They went by the fanciful names of “Templar, Rosehammer, and Pseudophred” — names that could have been found in the pages of a William Gibson novel, and that should therefore have set off warning bells in the head of one Kevin Begos, Jr. Sure enough, the trio slipped a videotape into the camera broadcasting the proceedings. The very next morning, the text of the poem appeared on an underground computer bulletin board called MindVox, preceded by the following introduction:

Hacked & Cracked by
Rosehammer & Pseudophred
Introduction by Templar

When I first heard about an electronic book by William Gibson… sealed in an ominous tome of genetic code which smudges to the touch… which is encrypted and automatically self-destructs after one reading… priced at $1,500… I knew that it was a challenge, or dare, that would not go unnoticed. As recent buzzing on the Internet shows, as well as many overt attempts to hack the file… and the transmission lines… it’s the latest golden fleece, if you will, of the hacking community.

I now present to you, with apologies to William Gibson, the full text of AGRIPPA. It, of course, does not include the wonderful etchings, and I highly recommend purchasing the original book (a cheaper version is now available for $500). Enjoy.

And I’m not telling you how I did it. Nyah.

As Matthew Kirschenbaum, the foremost scholar of Agrippa, points out, there’s a delicious parallel to be made with the opening lines of Gibson’s 1981 short story “Johnny Mnemonic,” the first fully realized piece of cyberpunk literature he or anyone else ever penned: “I put the shotgun in an Adidas bag and padded it out with four pairs of tennis socks, not my style at all, but that was what I was aiming for: If they think you’re crude, go technical; if they think you’re technical, go crude. I’m a very technical boy. So I decided to get as crude as possible.” Templar was happy to let people believe he had reverse-engineered the Hacker’s ingenious encryption, but in reality his “hack” had consisted only of a fortuitous job contract and a furtively loaded videotape. Whatever works, right? “A hacker always takes the path of least resistance,” said Templar years later. “And it is a lot easier to ‘hack’ a person than a machine.”

Here, then, is one more irony to add to the collection. Rather than John Parry Barlow’s Cray supercomputer, rather than some genius hacker Gibson would later imagine had “cracked the supposedly uncrackable code,” rather than the “international legion of computer hackers” which the journal Cyberreader later claimed had done the job, Agrippa was “cracked” by a cameraman who caught a lucky break. Within days, it was everywhere in cyberspace. Within a month, it was old news online.

Before Kirschenbaum uncovered the real story, it had indeed been assumed for years, even by the makers of Agrippa, that the Hacker’s encryption had been cracked, and that this had led to its widespread distribution on the Internet — led to this supposedly ephemeral text becoming as permanent as anything in our digital age. In reality, though, it appears that the Hacker’s protection wasn’t cracked at all until long after it mattered. In 2012, the University of Toronto sponsored a contest to crack the protection, which was won in fairly short order by one Robert Xiao. Without taking anything away from his achievement, it should be noted that he had access to resources — including emulators, disk images, and exponentially more sheer computing power — of which someone trying to crack the program on a real Macintosh in 1992 could hardly even have conceived. No protection is unbreakable, but the Hacker’s was certainly unbreakable enough for its purpose.

And so, with Xiao’s exhaustive analysis of the Hacker’s protection (“a very straightforward in-house ‘encryption’ algorithm that encodes data in 3-byte blocks”), the last bit of mystery surrounding Agrippa has been peeled away. How, we might ask at this juncture, does it hold up as a piece of art?

My own opinion is that, when divorced from its cultural reception and judged strictly as a self-standing artwork of the sort we might view in a museum, it doesn’t hold up all that well. This was a project pursued largely through correspondence by three artists who were all chasing somewhat different thematic goals, and it shows in the end result. It’s very hard to construct a coherent narrative of why all of these different elements are put together in this way. What do Ashbaugh’s DNA texts and paintings really have to do with Gibson’s meditation on family memory? (Begos made a noble attempt to answer that question at the Transmission, claiming that recordings of DNA strands would somehow become the future’s version of family snapshots — but if you’re buying that, I have some choice swampland to sell you.) And then, why is the whole thing packaged to look like H.P. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon? Rather than a unified artistic statement, Agrippa is a hodgepodge of ideas that too often pull against one another.

But is it really fair to divorce Agrippa so completely from its cultural reception all those years ago? Or, to put it another way, is it fair to judge Agrippa the artwork based solely upon Agrippa the slightly underwhelming material object? Matthew Kirschenbaum says that “the practical failure to realize much of what was initially planned for Agrippa allowed the project to succeed by leaving in its place the purest form of virtual work — a meme rather than an artifact.” He goes on to note that Agrippa is “as much conceptual art as anything else.” I agree with him on both points, as I do with the online commenter from back in the day who called it “a piece of emergent performance art.” If art truly lives in our memory and our consciousness, then perhaps our opinion of Agrippa really should encompass the whole experience, including its transmission and its reception. Certainly this is the theory that underlies the whole notion of conceptual art —  whether the artwork in question involves flying cows or disappearing poems.

It’s ironic — yes, there’s that word again — to note that Agrippa was once seen as an ominous harbinger of the digital future in the way that it showed information, divorced from physical media, simply disappearing into the ether, when the reality of the digital age has led to exactly the opposite problem, with every action we take and every word we write online being compiled into a permanent record of who we supposedly are — a slate which we can never wipe clean. And this digital permanence has come to apply to the poem of “Agrippa” as well, which today is never more than a search query away. Gibson:

The whole thing really was an experiment to see just what would happen. That whole Agrippa project was completely based on “let’s do this. What will happen?” Something happens. “What’s going to happen next?”

It’s only a couple thousand words long, and dangerously like poetry. Another cool thing was getting a bunch of net-heads to sit around and read poetry. I sort of liked that.

Having it wind up in permanent form, sort of like a Chinese Wall in cyberspace… anybody who wants to can go and read it, if they take the trouble. Free copies to everyone. So that it became, really, at the last minute, the opposite of the really weird, elitist thing many people thought it was.

So, Agrippa really was as uncontrollable and unpredictable for its creators as it was for anyone else. Notably, nobody made any money whatsoever off it, despite all the publicity and excitement it generated. In fact, Begos calls it a “financial disaster” for his company; the fallout soon forced him to abandon publishing altogether.

“Gibson thinks of it [Agrippa] as becoming a memory, which he believes is more real than anything you can actually see,” said Begos in a contemporary interview. Agrippa did indeed become a collective kairos moment for an emerging digital culture, a memory that will remain with us for a long, long time to come. Chris in the Morning would be proud.

(Sources: the book Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination by Matthew G. Kirschenbaum; Starlog of September 1994; Details of June 1992; New York Times of November 18 1992. Most of all, The Agrippa Files of The University of California Santa Barbara, a huge archive of primary and secondary sources dealing with Agrippa, including the video of the original program in action on a vintage Macintosh.)

September 06, 2018

Choice of Games

Choice of Broadsides: HMS Foraker — Set sail for danger, glory, and victory!

by Rachel E. Towers at September 06, 2018 04:41 PM

We’re proud to announce that Choice of Broadsides: HMS Foraker, the latest in our popular “Choice of Games” line of multiple-choice interactive-fiction games, is now available for Steam, Android, and on iOS in the Choice of Games Omnibus app. It’s 40% off until September 13th!

Command a royal warship and destroy your enemies at sea! As a veteran navy captain in the world of Choice of Broadsides, you’ll fend off (smugglers, slavers, and) foes of the crown to seize your place in history.

Choice of Broadsides: HMS Foraker is an 85,000 word interactive novel by Paul Wang, where your choices control the story. It’s entirely text-based—without graphics or sound effects—and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination.

It’s 1813, and you’re a key sailor in the naval war between Columbia and Albion, where aggression is rewarded and cowardice can get you killed. If you seize enough treasure, you could be set for life – but hesitate against the enemy and you could end up facing the firing squad.

Board enemy ships and force them to surrender, or use your connections to stay out of the fray. Will you steer your crew to glory, or go down in infamous defeat? What mercy will you show your prisoners? Can you control your composure while fighting a war? Revenge yourself on old rivals and reward your allies for their devotion. And whatever you do…

Don’t give up the ship!

• Serve the queen or the king, with an all-male or all-female crew.
• Captain the powerful warship HMS Foraker.
• Train your crew for combat, with kindness or cruelty.
• Parley with smugglers, slavers, and other unsavoury characters for tactical advantage or personal gain.
• Inspire devotion from your crew, or sway your superiors back home.
• Confront storms, accidents, and other maritime disasters.
• Master the balance between bravery and cowardice, cunning and folly.
• Win glory, treasure, promotion, a knighthood, or even a noble title.

We hope you enjoy playing Choice of Broadsides: HMS Foraker. 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.

Emily Short

Donut County (Ben Esposito)

by Emily Short at September 06, 2018 08:40 AM

Screen Shot 2018-08-29 at 10.31.55 AM.png

Donut County is a mellow casual puzzle game wrapped in story. The gameplay: you control a hole moving across the ground. If you place it under something small enough to fall in, the object vanishes below, and the hole gets bigger. It’s Katamari-esque, but there are some nifty extra effects: the hole can fill with water, which makes things float on the surface; sometimes items that are in the hole give off smoke or fumes, or leave appendages sticking out, which you can use to affect the environment in new ways. (Note for new players, by the way: I initially found the gameplay a little sluggish, but going to the settings and turning control responsiveness up to maximum made it a much more natural and enjoyable experience.)

The story? This is all a game-within-a-game presented within a flashback, with multiple protagonists, sort of. Let me start from the beginning because there’s a lot to unpack here.

Donut County begins with a frame story that everyone in town is living at the bottom of the hole, after six weeks in which this hole has been terrorizing the community. Mira, a human, blames BK, a raccoon who has all this time been playing an addictive video game that involves hole manipulation (and just incidentally manages to really swallow things in the real town). BK also happens to run a donut shop, and the hole tends to turn up whenever anyone orders donut delivery at home.

As you, the player, play levels of Donut County, you receive experience points and rewards that correspond to the in-game points BK is trying to accumulate; and then you cut back to the frame story in which the denizens of Donut County are talking about what has happened to them over the past few weeks and whose fault it all is.

This makes for one of the most convoluted triangle-of-identity problems I’ve yet seen. The framing introduces an undercurrent of unease and self-doubt in what is otherwise a relaxing, candy-pink game of playful destruction.

Where do you-the-player stand in all this? Are you BK, playing the game and destroying the entire community? Are you one of the other townspeople or perhaps Mira herself, telling the story of how the gameplay destroyed the community, a kind of interactive reenactment? Is there a possible redemption in store after you’ve done all this? Should you maybe stop being a hole?

I want to talk about where the story goes from there, but this will involve spoilers, so let’s have a break first.

I first became interested in Donut County after seeing a GDC talk several years ago in which Ben Esposito discussed his decision to abandon a Hopi theme for the game because he realized it wasn’t his place to tell that story. It’s a good talk and you can see it for free.


Donut County in its final form tells a story that’s a lot closer to home. The longer you play, the clearer it becomes that Donut County is the greater Los Angeles area: Hollywood sign, Griffith Observatory, 405 freeway. The donut shop in question is reminiscent of Randy’s or something like it. (By total coincidence, I was at Randy’s just a couple of months ago, where I ordered a Texas donut to find out what it was. Something to do with barbecue perhaps? Answer: it is an ordinary glazed donut only way, way bigger. I didn’t finish mine, but receiving a donut the size of a life preserver, still warm from the oven, at 3 AM, is an extremely good metaphor for consumer excess.)

The raccoons — BK and his bosses included — are running the place to their own capitalist, colonizing and/or gentrifying advantage. They’ve got a macho lust for tough machinery. They’ve stripped the local resources to the point of nonexistence. They’ve disrespected the lifestyles of people they didn’t understand, too. One of the key points of the mid-game is that BK regards people’s homes and possessions as trash to be collected.

At one point, Mira also tells BK off for trying to get her to absolve his guilt about everything the raccoons have done — a reflection, perhaps, of the way white people too often make their own feelings the center of conversations about racism.

There are lots of different references here. None of them is played too heavily. This is not strictly an environmentalist story or an anti-capitalist story or a story about race or gender or colonization or cultural appropriation. Rather, it’s a little bit about each of the above. “I was just playing the game to get rewards!” represents overlapping complicities in multiple destructive systems, and the addictive reward structures that distract people from their actual ethical beliefs, until More Money or More Power become ends in themselves, disconnected from any desired effect.

For that matter, Mira herself doesn’t have entirely clean hands. She had reason to think BK was causing the hole trouble and said nothing about it until the entire neighborhood had been destroyed.

I think ultimately the message of the game is that if you’ve been benefitting from a destructive system, you have a special responsibility to help dismantle that system and create a more just replacement. Donut County is still a pretty light-hearted game, though — so it represents this massive effort of systemic change as though it could be accomplished with one boss fight and a really big catapult. If only it were that easy.

September 04, 2018

sub-Q Magazine

Table of Contents – September, 2018

by Stewart C Baker at September 04, 2018 09:41 PM

When I was a kid, there was little I liked more than reading—unless maybe it was computer games.

So the first time I saw a Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) book in my school’s library, I was excited. It was like the best of both worlds! I got to be in control of the characters, just like in a computer game, but I also got the engrossing word-joy of reading. Plus I could carry it with me and jump in whenever (it was a few years before Game Boy was a thing).

What wasn’t to like? I checked it out on the spot, took it home, and cracked it open, eager to dive in.

And then I died on page 2. And then I died on page 26. And then…  Well, you get the picture. And if you’ve ever played a CYOA book, you’re probably not surprised.

Whether or not you have any idea what I’m talking about here, you’re in for a special treat this month, with an adaptation of “Welcome to the Medical Clinic at the Interplanetary Relay Station | Hours Since the Last Patient Death: 0” by Nebula- and Hugo-nominated author Caroline M. Yoachim (whose initials oh-so-coincidentally have the letters CYOA in them in that order).

“Welcome” puts you straight into the story—even if it doesn’t put U into the story—and, well…  It just has to be experienced, really. Anything I can say would just cheapen it.


Here’s what else we have for you this month:

September 11th: Our regular column from Bruno Dias, this month about recognizing and adapting ideas from other genres to interactive fiction.

September 18th: Our game of the month, “Welcome to the Medical Clinic at the Interplanetary Relay Station | Hours Since the Last Patient Death: 0.” (Don’t want to wait? Patreon subscribers get early access to our games. Sign up for our Patreon.)

September 25th: An author interview with Caroline M. Yoachim.

The post Table of Contents – September, 2018 appeared first on sub-Q Magazine.

Choice of Games

Author Interview: Paul Wang, “Choice of Broadsides: HMS Foraker”

by Mary Duffy at September 04, 2018 03:41 PM

Command a royal warship and destroy your enemies at sea! As a veteran navy captain in the world of Choice of Broadsides, you’ll fend off smugglers, slavers, and foes of the crown to seize your place in history. Choice of Broadsides: HMS Foraker is an 85,000 word interactive novel by Paul Wang. I sat down with Paul to talk about writing it, the nature of fic, and what he’s working on next. Choice of Broadsides: HMS Foraker releases this Thursday, September 6th. 

You’re one of the most prolific Hosted Games and Choice of Games authors in our stable of writers. How did Foraker come about?

Initially, Foraker was supposed to be sort of a palate cleanser before going into Lords of Infinity. There were a few systems I wanted to test out on a smaller scale before I committed to implementing them in a larger project. Likewise, I wanted to get back into the saddle when it came to writing in the particular style of the Dragoon Saga, as opposed to my other work in The Cryptkeepers of Hallowford and Burden of Command. I figured a relatively small self-contained title would be just the sort of thing I needed to shift gears.

I also really, really like Choice of Broadsides, and I’ve been wanting to write a story in its setting for years now.

What drew you to write,  essentially, Choice of Broadsides fic? Is that an unfair characterization of Foraker? If so, why? Show your work. 

Choice of Broadsides fic” is absolutely how I’d characterise Foraker, and it’s more or less how I’ve always envisioned it. When I started writing, I didn’t really have any pretensions that it would get an official release or be adopted into Broadsides “canon”, so it’s a real honor to be given that official recognition.

If anything, I’d take Foraker being thought of as “Broadsides fic” as a compliment, doubly so if it ends up being thought of as “really good Broadsides fic”.

I think much to the disappointment of many, publishing this was the kind of thing we’d do only with someone like yourself. I.e., I think we have no plans to accept submissions for addendums/sequels/in-world adjuncts to others of our games. But of course, you’re mister alt/low-fantasy historical-ish military genre. So this is your wheelhouse. How fun was it to be inhabiting the world of Broadsides, as a writer?

Choice of Broadsides was the first Choice of Games title I ever played, all the way back in 2011 or so. It’s what more or less convinced me that writing interactive fiction was a thing that I could do, though not necessarily as a day job (that came later). It’s been a huge influence on me as an IF writer. I even originally envisioned Sabres of Infinity as “Sharpe to Broadsides‘ Hornblower”, so actually being able to play around in this setting is a huge thrill.

That being said, I’m highly conscious of the fact that this isn’t my setting. I’ve tried to avoid taking particularly egregious liberties with what’s been established, which is why Foraker is set in one of the “gaps” which Broadsides mostly left empty. Even so, I’ve had a blast filling in that gap in the same “historical roman a clef” style of the original, though I’ve probably gone into quite a bit more detail with my references.

The main thing I chose to iterate on from Broadsides was the focus of the story. Broadsides follows an officer from before their examination for Lieutenant all the way up to taking command of a frigate and in my opinion, it ends just as it starts getting good. Frigate command is probably the most storied and exciting part of a naval officer’s career in the age of sail. Beforehand, they may be the Commander of an undergunned sloop or a Lieutenant under another Captain. Afterwards, they’ll command a big lumbering ship of the line, shackled to blockade duty or acting under the constant watchful eye of an admiral. A frigate is fast enough to get into trouble and heavily-armed enough to shoot its way out. Forester first introduced Hornblower as the captain of a frigate. O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey commands the frigate HMS Surprise through most of his series.

Foraker places the player in much the same position they left Broadsides, in command of a frigate on independent duties, far away from the oversight of an admiral or the drudgery of blockade duty. Command of a frigate not only means control of a powerful fleet unit, but also serving as absolute dictator of a community of hundreds, who must maintain discipline and morale. A Captain must also lead that community into life and death struggles against similar floating communities. In that sense, Foraker is the equivalent of appending a chapter onto the end of Broadsides, and expanding that chapter into a whole story.

Still, it wouldn’t feel right to me to write a direct sequel or anything like that, not just because I’d be overriding Broadsides‘ original ending, but also because I’d be muddying the waters if Broadsides‘ original authors ever decide to do a sequel themselves. Which is part of the reason why the story is both geographically and chronologically removed from the original.

Everyone wants to know what you’re working on next.

I’ve still got some work for Burden of Command left, but I’ve been working on the systems and mechanics for Lords of Infinity for the past few months, and I look forward to starting the actual writing work for it soon.

Is it “Damn, the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!” or “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!”

Long Answer: There are something like half a dozen different conflicting accounts by half a dozen witnesses. While the sentiment of the original quote is probably accurate, the actual words have probably been lost to time.

Short Answer: “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!”

September 03, 2018

Quest 5.8 is out!

by pixiemusingsblog at September 03, 2018 11:41 AM

This is my second major release for Quest, and in fact most of it has been done by other people, and in particular KV and SoonGames. Thanks also to the beta-testers and other “helpful helpers”: Anonynn, Darryl Huen, DavyB, Dcode, Pertex. Also to Luis for his support with regards to the web site (it has taught me what a pain in the neck that is!).

Apologies if I have missed anyone. This has very much been a community effort, which I think is great.

Some issues, hopefully now resolved

So Quest 5.8 is out, and not without a few issues… This was a rather more ambitious release than Quest 5.7 (which made hardly any changes outside the core libraries). Turns out the rest of the code has all sorts of inter-dependencies and pitfalls that only Alex was aware of. It was also unfortunate that while my side of it was ready several weeks ago, Luis could only upload to just a couple of days before I was away on holiday, so we had a couple of weeks where it was up and running – more or less – but no one was around to address issues. I guess we will chalk it up to experience. In the future we will be much more careful of changes to any files outside the core .aslx files. We will also have a better idea of what needs testing; issues with publishing from desktop and uploading to the web site, and problems in the web player not finding files.

We are still very much learning how to do this since Alex retired from Quest, and that will probably continue for a couple more updates. As a “one man band” Alex knew Quest inside out; I doubt we will ever get to that stage! That said, some documentation in the code might have helped…

Hopefully the issues have now been resolved.

So what is new?

New Interface

The big change in this version is the new interface. This is all thanks to SoonGames. Take a look! We hope you like it.


All the work on getting Quest better set up for internationalisation was also done by SoonGames. Thanks also to everyone who contributed translations:

– Danish: Benny Askham
– German: SoonGames
– Greek: Thanasis Chrysos
– Italian: Skarnisk
– Spanish: Luis

If you can help to get Quest translated for your language, or to update an existing translation, please get in contact. We can now offer translations for the editor, but only where we have the translations available, which so far is only German and, to a limited extent, Spanish.

Other changes

Quest will not allow bad attribute names in the editor (“object”, “turnscript”, etc.). Previously these could break your game. You can still use these in a script, which is still a problem.

A new command, TELL <char> TO <text> or <char>, <text> has been added to the _Ask/Tell_ tab.

Turnscripts have been revised a little. There is a new function, SuppressTurnscripts, which will stop all turnscripts for one turn. You might want to do this for a HELP command, for example, or for events caught by the map. The UNDO command now does this automatically, so turnscripts make more sense in that context. Also, turnscripts now run in alphabetical order (previously the order of global and local scripts would be reversed in a loaded game; now the order is always the same). If you allow multiple commands on one line in your game, each command will trigger the turnscripts.

Scope for a command can now be set to an object list attribute of the player object.

It has been the case that cloning an object also clones its child objects. Now they get the correct “alias” and “prototype” attributes set.

Following a suggestion from mrangel, text processor directives are now extensible. More towards the end of this page.

You can use the QuickParams function to quickly create a dictionary with up to three entries, useful for quickly sending parameters to a script.

The GetDefiniteName function will return the name or alias of an object, with “the” prepended where appropriate.

Thanks to KV:

You can now check if your game is being played on webplayer, desktop or mobile.

RESTART command added.

Advanced popups added.

LOOK AT now counts how many times an object has been looked at.

TAKE ALL will ignore any object with “not_all” set to true (which it is for NPCs by default), and this has generally be made more sensible with regards to items in containers. Will now give the correct response if there is nothing to take. If you have your own take/drop command this should not be affected.

Transcripts and logging now possible.

Improved VERSION command.

You can now check the “isroom” attribute to see if an object is a room, and use AllRooms to get a list of rooms in the game.

New functions DictionaryAdd and DictionaryRemove, the first will overwrite an existing entry if it exists, rather than throw an error, the latter will do nothing if it does not exist.

Thanks to Pertex:

Games can now send data to external sites, for processing, eg by PHP. This means you could set up a site that saves high scores, or records the number of people who chose a certain path through your game.

Thanks to SoonGames:

DeveloperMode (see here).

September 02, 2018

The People's Republic of IF

August Meeting Post Mortem

by Angela Chang at September 02, 2018 09:42 PM

The People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction convened on Thursday Avgvst 23rd.  Doug, zarf, jmac, Jake, anjchang, R and EricB (feneric), adri, and Naomi H  welcomed newcomers Matt W and long-time friend Reed (aka skeleton_hugs) returning from Pasadena, CA! Warning: what follows is probably not proper English, but just my log of notes from the meeting to jog people’s memories:

Speeding to ifcomp
Sept 1 is intents
Sept 28 complete
Oct 1 judging
Newbies get started by Rate 5 games
Fund is up to $3k

Introcomp voting
Space ferrets by R

Boston FIG Sept 29th 9-6 need volunteers

Cragnw Manor participants discussion  Feneric, skeleton_hugs (Reed). Naomi adri
Puzzlegraph neighbors
How everyone worked. Sarah built it all then went on vacation, stopped down stuff
Adrii conference inspired
Reid started iteratively and then didn’t work then stripped things
80 people writing
Ryan’s tweet  was read.

Zarf blogged about first 9 9seconds of Unavowed.
Jake plans to play heaven will be mine
Adri plans to play layers of fear
Jmac playing horror be game, liked layers of fear,
Zarf and jmac think it’s worth playing
Adri going to retro futurism festival this weekend NeonRI
Kevin good new choice of ganea, game Choice of Magic
Doug last game was hero of misery
A gentleman’s murder is out

Pico 8 game being written by EricB (feneric)
Jake played nitsg games
Spacewhale Jam called the Traveler and the Whale
Reed bitsy mmo
Reed working on a tabletop game

Zarf following puzzlescript game by rosden
Hazeldens puzzle. Discord
Vi Hart also working on a puzzle game
Zard parser like game prototype work on progress

Jmac played and enjoyed curse of the garden isle. Being in a Hawaiian island. Out the rocks away. Look at chickens.

First two of the zoo escape game
Jmac see my blog. Fogknife,  The Nonary Games room escape sequences, elegant hint system
Replay value
Old infocom invisihint cluea
Rated r content advisory

Heavens vault games John ingalla

Matt W is writing something called  Zorroberg

EricB accepting entries
Halloween themed
Deadliwn Oct 22

Naomi wrote a play and is acting in it Heroes & Villains
Stephen Granade  and Aaron Reed were at a conference, talking about if conference — so its going around
Webpage almost done
Scott Adams (adventure games international) might be a good speaker. Gloomy room escape company
Stu galley of Infocom passed away
Old infocom office being demolished :(
55 wheeler street

Suggestion to dedicate this year’s infocomp Ari Montgomery.

Who won the Hugo
Eb cyoa game card decks
Chris is working on cyoa adventure Odyssey board game
Hoala with verb cards

Zarf saved the URL links of the inform 6 doc
Set up specifications
Zarf visited Iceland and sat on Eve online monument

Jmac IFTF log reading
Liza Daly added to IFTF board
Stone harbour, IFMud
Graham Nelson new to advisory board
Jmac open source article
Focus on accessibility
Two test grants, how to recruit players

Big night

Link to photos.

August 31, 2018

Renga in Blue

Journey (1979)

by Jason Dyer at August 31, 2018 05:40 PM

I picked up the thread of this one with an academic paper.

Al Tommervik’s 1981 Softalk feature highlighting the Williamses and their company shelves any claim to ADVENT’s primacy: “Roberta discovered and mastered Microsoft’s Adventure and fell in love with the genre. She bought Softape’s Journey and every Scott Adams adventure that was released. She loved them all, and then there were none left.”
Let’s Begin Again: Sierra On-Line and the Origins of the Graphical Adventure Game, Laine Nooney

The quick summary is: other academic papers just jump directly from Crowther and Woods Adventure to Mystery House, but Roberta Williams clearly had other influences.

Given what I’ve been doing on this blog for 7 years, I can support a thesis like that, but it struck me: what is this Journey game? The paper gave no detail, but based on the time span, it had to be a game from 1979 that I hadn’t heard of before. After an exhaustive archive search, I didn’t find the game anywhere on the internet, the only reference being from the Museum of Computer Adventure Game History which apparently had a copy. (It’s now listed on the CASA Solution Archive as well.)

From the Museum. The design here is pretty clever: that’s a hole where the tape goes, so the outer packaging works with any of Softape’s games.

I emailed Howard Feldman, the proprietor of the Museum, and after some back-and-forth on tech issues he managed to pull the game off his tape. The game is quite rare and without Howard’s help there is a strong chance it would have fallen into oblivion.

You can now download the game with the manual, right at this link. You will need an Apple II emulator (I recommend AppleWin if you’re using Windows.)

So, yes: this is one of the only games aside from Adventure and the Scott Adams games that Roberta Williams played before she embarked on writing Mystery House. I hoped there might be some obvious connection with her work, and there is a strong one in particular.

I’m not going to go into detail yet, because I feel strange spoiling the game immediately after announcing its discovery. I will post more next week.

If you do plan to try it, note there is an Integer Basic version and an Applesoft Basic version (the tape had one version on each side). I recommend the Applesoft one generally, but if you want more specific spoilers as to the main difference: (in ROT13) Gurer vf n eng va gur tnzr gung nggnpxf lbh ng enaqbz ybpngvbaf va gur Nccyrfbsg irefvba (nxva gb gur qjneirf bs Nqiragher) gung qbrf abg frrz gb nccrne va gur bgure irefvba ng nyy.

Also, while it is mentioned in the manual, I should give fair warning DESCRIBE is used instead of EXAMINE as a verb.

August 29, 2018

Classic Adventure Solution Archive

CASA Update - 22 new game entries, 1 new solution, 1 new map

by Gunness at August 29, 2018 10:16 AM

UPDATE 12.09.2018: We're experiencing some major site issues. The forum should be back online now. A login bug remains, so you can't log i to your account. I'll keep you posted. Apologies for the inconvenice.

Our old hosting company was taken over by another, so CASA switched servers on Monday. I thought I had fixed everything, but as it turned out, our forum software didn't gel with the new server. A huge thank you to Dave for swooping in and saving us. Much appreciated!

Contributors: DannieGeeko, Alex, Dorothy, Gunness, Strident, ChickenMan, jgerrie, Highretrogamelord, iamaran

August 28, 2018

The People's Republic of IF

September meetup

by zarf at August 28, 2018 08:41 PM

The Boston IF meetup for September will be Wednesday, September 19, 6:30 pm, MIT room 14N-233.

sub-Q Magazine

Author Interview: Sunyi Dean

by Stewart C Baker at August 28, 2018 03:41 PM

Sunyi Dean is a writer of speculative fiction, currently living in the UK. Some of her other stories can be found lurking suspiciously in the pages of FFO, Andromeda Spaceways, and Aurealis. Sunyi is the author of our August game, John Kills Jenny.

This interview was conducted via e-mail in August of 2018.

Author Sunyi Dean

sub-Q Magazine: What does interactive fiction mean to you?

Sunyi Dean: Cutting edge or modern are descriptors that spring to mind. Everything is increasingly interactive in modern life, so it makes sense that fiction would be, too. Japanese “visual novels” are a good example of the medium expanding into new ground, and gaining solid fanbases.

sub-Q: “John Kills Jenny” takes a pretty dark look at freedom of choice versus predetermination. Do you think we’re destined to make the choices we do?

Sunyi: I don’t believe in free will. It doesn’t make any logical sense to me. In a universe where every effect has a cause, all facets of our existence–from personality, to circumstances, to life experiences, and more–are part of an enormous biochemical chain reaction. For us to have free will, our consciousnesses would have to be capable of defying the laws of the natural universe. I wouldn’t say we’re ‘destined’, though, as destiny implies someone or something is purposefully directing the universe, and I don’t subscribe to that belief, either.

Some cheerful thoughts for the day! 🙂

(Caveat: I’m neither scientist nor philosopher, and all my views are based on my own limited understanding.)

sub-Q: One of the things our slushers noticed about this story was the way you write about a woman’s murder without fetishizing it. What goals did you have in mind when you set out to write about this topic?

Sunyi: I’m glad the intention came through; I did worry when querying it that the story would give the impression of glorifying violence against women.

The topic itself was sort of an accident. JKJ started out as a writing exercise that I set myself, to help me learn how plot points and character motivations interact. I read crime fiction (in addition to SFF) so murder felt like a natural choice of conflict.

But I also really dislike the Refrigerated Women trope, and wanted to pick it apart a little bit. John’s decision to kill isn’t excusable in any of his scenarios, and likewise the Game’s condemnation of him isn’t wrong. It recognises his guilt with perhaps more clarity than a human would. I think the Game’s voice-over interjections also helps to steer the narrative away from fetishisation, because the Game is actively guiding the reader towards neutral facts and away from John’s self-justification. Hopefully, anyway!

sub-Q: If you were a convicted criminal of the far-distant future, what would The Game(tm) hold for you?

Sunyi: I’d probably be found guilty of having created the Game in the first place, and thus impacting human society for the worse.

The post Author Interview: Sunyi Dean appeared first on sub-Q Magazine.

August 27, 2018

Renga in Blue

Haunt: Descendants

by Jason Dyer at August 27, 2018 09:40 PM

I have “finished” with one puzzle left undone (the combination safe). I’m going to spoil three puzzles. One of them threw off my entire conception of what is possible in a game.

From Brenda Starr #1 (1947) via the Digital Comic Museum. We’ll get to this shortly.

There’s a library where the response to >GET BOOK led me astray.

You get a book but discover it has only virtual pages.
The book disappears.

I assumed that meant the books were a decoy and moved on. I should have remembered the rule that in any game involving books or textual materials, to always try reading multiple times. I don’t know why so many adventure game writers have settled on this as a thing to do. In any case, after a second GET BOOK:

The title of the book is ‘Vampires I have known’

Vampires can only be destroyed by a stake through the heart, or by the light of day. They are invunerable to all other attacks. They dislike garlic and fear crosses. They are known to frequent dark rooms.

Even though the book seems generic, this is a strong hint as to how to deal with this guy:

When you open the casket you notice that a well dressed man
with pale skin is inside. He appears dead.
There is a huge diamond ring on his left hand.
Suddenly his eyes blink open, you notice the irises are red.
It is Dracula. Oops.
The casket is open.
Dracula has left his casket and is approaching you.

I have trouble categorizing this puzzle. It requires a step that is so out of the norm for a regular text adventure that it has never occurred to me before. I’m reminded a little of the game +=3 from 1994, which was created in response to the question “it is possible for a puzzle to have a completely logical solution, and yet be nearly impossible to solve except by randomly guessing commands?”

This isn’t quite that, and it might even be a “fair puzzle”, but it feels like the same territory. Since I’ve dripped a few hints already, I am fairly confident one of my readers can figure it out, as long as I also provide an inventory list:

piece of valuable jade
empty bottle
silver candlesticks
diamond corkscrew
old chair

. . .

Getting out of the house: hoo boy. While the previous puzzle was marginally solvable, this one required a hint from the author because of how the game uses the parser. Things start in the elevator:

You are in the elevator.
There are a bunch of buttons on the wall.
They are labeled: P, H, B, HALT, OPEN DOOR.
Scrawled on a wall is ‘Homer kisses dead goats’
and ‘Homer turns my head’
On the floor it says, ‘L__t g_e_ _ere!’
The H is lit.

To be fair, the entire game the HALT button has been taunting me. If you push one of the regular floor buttons the elevator makes it there before you have time to push HALT, and the button does nothing if the elevator is already at a floor. I assumed that perhaps you slowed the elevator down with a heavy enough load, giving enough time for an extra button press.

This was not the case. The parser, while not taking unlimited sentences, does take up to five words, and you were supposed to type:


The elevator doors close. BOOM!
The elevator bounces to a halt. SCREEEECH!
The H is lit.

I just want to be clear that NO OTHER SYNTAX WORKS. Even though PUSH B BUTTON works, for instance, PUSH B BUTTON THEN PUSH HALT BUTTON does not because it is longer than 5 words. Especially bad is


because it gives the HALT command which is one of the ways of quitting the game. I first thought I hit a crash, but no: the game was interpreting my input “correctly”.

In any case, after the elevator halt, you can make it here:

You are atop the elevator. The machinery is of alien creation
On the side of it is a small decal.
The decal reads ‘afihYwn Matter Transmission, Inc’
There are two buttons on the machine, one says NORMAL.
The other says WAY OUT.

After activating WAY OUT and getting back in the elevator, using it leads to escape.

The doors squeek close.
The elevator shakes and starts to move down.
You feel like you are in free fall.
You hit a bump, and start to slow down.
You made it. The elevator has stopped.
The doors open.
You suddenly feel very ill. Your body seems to be dematerializing.
You can’t hold on to the stuff you were carrying.
You’re on the front walk.

Sadly, because of the parser troubles, this was the worst puzzle in the game, although it was to be followed by the most astonishing. (I don’t necessarily mean the next puzzle was “good”, but … you’ll see.)

. . .

The other main dilemma of the game, other than escaping the house, was that the house gives madness. I mentioned this at my first post about Haunt and it has remained a central mystery of the whole game. Specifically, it seems like only “your family” is capable of surviving the madness, so I had studied this clue:

This is a tiny closet. Against the wall is a skeleton.
Scrawled on the wall, next to the skeleton is:
Dear Bas,
So the mystery man finally decides to come home.
Well you’re a little late.
I was never able to resurrect your mother, but I saw in the paper that you have a beautiful redheaded wife, and a lovely child. I only hope she hasn’t inherited our disease.
I finally succumbed to the illness when I was unable to take care of the crop.
Good luck,

“I was unable to take care of the crop” suggested something about the dead garden outside, but watering it required getting a bottle from the house (which required me solving the elevator puzzle first). After watering the garden, an black orchid came out, and on a hunch, I tried to >EAT ORCHID:

Chomp! chomp. I don’t think your real family had a taste for orchids.
It looks like you aren’t one of those that knows how to digest orchids.

The beginning of the game asks for your name. While this is nearly universally always a customization choice, it occurred to me that this was perhaps a puzzle, and tried out “Bas” as the name. Unfortunately, this led to nothing different.

I was close, but not quite; I needed the author’s help here.

Brenda Starr is a soap opera comic that ran from the late 1940s all the way to the early 2010s. (Trivia note: it was written and illustrated by women for the entirety of the run.) The main love interest was (at least until the 1980s) the depicted Basil St. John, with black-orchids-as-medicine often playing a part of the plotlines.

The name “Bas”, the “redheaded wife”, and especially the orchid were supposed to be clues to this specific piece of pop culture. So at the very start of the game, you have to give your name as


‘Oh, so you’re one of my descendants. Come in.’
‘You don’t have to answer any more questions.’
‘Good luck in your quest. Maybe you’ll do better than your father.’

although I should note anything ending with “St. John” or even just “John” works, so you don’t *have* to be the eye-patch character from the comic. If you choose the appropriate last name, the choice of liking “male, female, etc.” gets bypassed and instead the game sets that you are a “redhead” lover.

The door creaks open.
A voice from within says: ‘Welcome, redhead lover.’

This means that you can pick any of the descendants of St. John to get by the puzzle (maybe one that doesn’t have a redheaded wife, but your character still has to like redheads). However, it’s still true that to win the game, you need to name yourself correctly.

I can’t think of any other game which subverts the character creation process quite so completely. (I can think of a recent one that comes close, but I will skip discussing it due to spoilers.) In film, there’s a trick where what appears to be background music turns out to be actual music in the “real cinema world” (Blazing Saddles has a good instance of this); this similarly takes something which appears entirely outside the regular process of the game – just customization – and makes it both an essential puzzle and the thing the entire plot hinges upon.