Planet Interactive Fiction

December 14, 2018

Renga in Blue

Goblins: Terrible Maps

by Jason Dyer at December 14, 2018 10:40 PM

Goblins start you off able to access a *very* large chunk of the map – I’m going to guess, by the capacity of Apple II games, most of it — and most of is terrible. Take a look at the outdoor section above. Starting at “By Lake”, N, SW, S, NW gets you back to where you started. While outdoors. Argh!

The troubles are triple-multiplied by the minimal descriptions also saying nothing about room exits. The only way to tell what the room exits are is to thoroughly test N, S, W, E, NE, SE, SW, NW, U, and D. In every single room in the game. Yes, I had to do this with all of them. It made mapping incredibly slow.

Of course there is a maze. Hoo boy, is there a maze.

This really doesn’t look so bad, does it? However.

a.) Any exit that’s not displayed on the map actually does a loop. I had to keep track of which loops I tested as I went along.

b.) Sometimes (randomly) instead of a loop, you find a “smelly tunnel” and go to a random location in the maze instead. It took me a while to catch on to this and some parts of my map were originally wrong.

c.) The goblins are still out and about and occasionally killing you. I ran out of items to drop in rooms for mapping purposes and tried to go out and get more, but I couldn’t because they kept stabbing me. I ended up resorting to moving the knife around (see “knife 1”, “knife 2”, “knife 3”) and hoping that it wouldn’t get things totally confused.

d.) Unless I’m missing something, the maze is essentially useless – notice it just goes in a loop, with no treasures indicated. There’s a room to the left of the starting room (“Light From Above”) that you can use to poke your head above ground and get killed by the silly-looking ogre you saw from my last post, but that doesn’t require navigating the maze at all.

It’s possible a lot of this was “busy work” trying to justify the game being commercial (it sold for $27.50; in 2017 dollars that would be $75.26).

There is one saving grace, and that is the “safe place” the game wants you to store treasures in has a magic word associated with it — two, in fact. HXME (found on a tree) takes all objects the player is carrying and teleports them to a treehouse, while QIM (found in a mine) will teleport the player (but not what they’re carrying). So you can choose to teleport just treasures to the treehouse, or you can just teleport yourself, or you can teleport both. This has been genuinely handy in a few circumstances, and I don’t recall it in any other game I’ve played.

There’s a little animation of the ghost moving around when you enter (the ghost is that blob-thing in the upper-left of the picture). It doesn’t seem to be either friendly or hostile, it just floats there. I don’t know if I’m supposed to banish it or come up with a way to ally with it or whatnot yet.

I’m at the point now I have a list of objects and obstacles, but they’re all far apart from each other. I’m going to tilt this game over from “easy” to at least “annoying” but it’s starting to lean to the “hard”; I need to keep going to be sure.

Choice of Games

7th Sea: A Pirate’s Pact — Command the high seas as an up-and-coming pirate!

by Rachel E. Towers at December 14, 2018 06:41 PM

We’re proud to announce that 7th Sea: A Pirate’s Pact, 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 33% off until December 21th!

Fight for what’s right—as an up and coming pirate! Battle slavers, sea monsters, and your own corrupt government to become a hero of the high seas. But will you betray your own crew for wealth and power?

7th Sea: A Pirate’s Pact is a 200,000-word interactive adventure novel by Danielle Lauzon, set in the world of the table-top role playing game 7th Sea. It’s entirely text-based, without graphics or sound effects, and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination.

Looking for adventure at sea? You’ll get more than you bargained for when you end up joining a pirate crew. These pirates are known among sailors for having their own moral code, one that is now yours. You’ll have the chance to rescue prisoners, uncover a secret plot, and even build a navy to liberate an island fort full of slaves.

But you’ll also be tempted to break your pirate bonds to seek your own gain. Would you still free the slaves if you could take out your own rivals instead? How far will you go to save your friends? And when you uncover corruption in your homeland, will you choose villainy or vengeance?

Earn your crew’s loyalty and they might make you their captain, but get careless and you might have to walk the plank!

• Play as male, female, or non-binary; gay, straight, bi, asexual, or poly.
• Choose from three different nations as your homeland, with distinct stories for each.
• Romance other pirate captains, or compete with them as your rivals.
• Fight for good, or work for evil.
• Lead a rescue, uncover a secret plot, and defeat tyranny.
• Visit various island nations to win them to your side and build a navy.

If it’s the pirate’s life for you, what will you sacrifice for freedom?

We hope you enjoy playing 7th Sea: A Pirate’s Pact. 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.

December 13, 2018

Renga in Blue

Goblins (1979, 1981)

by Jason Dyer at December 13, 2018 08:40 PM

We just went through a game Roberta Williams explicitly cited as an influence. But what if there was an influence that was intentionally left out?

Goblins was originally a text-only adventure game for Apple II by Hal Antonson and Linda Stix:

We sent the program to Programma International in California for publishing. It was “released” in 1979. This version was strictly text. There were no graphics. I have forgotten how many copies for which we were paid. I think it was 13 or 30! An interesting note. Roberta and Ken Williams had just moved to Coarsegold and had started Sierra Systems. They had a copy from Programma. Ken was the assembler guy and Roberta became the Queen of fantasy games. There are a dozen similarities in their first game, “The Wizard and the Princess,” to Goblins.

In 1981, a version with graphics was published by Highlands Computer Services. This is the version that survives today.

I’m not sure what to think of the above story – The Wizard and the Princess (from 1980) isn’t the Williams’ first game, and the business names they went through were On-Line Systems and Sierra On-Line respectively. I can chalk the discrepancies up the usual fuzziness of memory, but it means the rest of the story may include some of the same fuzziness. Really, the easiest way to confirm the link is to play the two games. Since Goblins theoretically came first chronologically, I’m playing it first.

However, the 1981 game clearly isn’t identical to the 1979 one. If Sierra borrowed from Goblins, then Goblins must have borrowed back from Sierra, because this game includes some rooms that are described purely by the visuals, which wouldn’t work in a text-only game.

These rooms are scattered throughout regular named text rooms, although the rooms are quite minimally described. (There’s enough of them I can understand why – the game undoubtedly pushed a disk capacity limit.)

Every item has an associated picture which gets drawn on top of the room graphic (those two strange ovals are the limes).

In any case, the premise is that you are tromping through “goblin country”. From the instructions:




Every once in a while you get attacked by a goblin, with a random chance at killing the player. As far as I can tell so far there is no way to evade or avoid this, which means sometimes the player just dies because a random number generator decreed it to be so.

I’ll report back when I have more of the map filled in; I still can’t tell yet if this is going to be an easy game or a toughie.

December 12, 2018

sub-Q Magazine

Making Interactive Fiction: Anthologies

by Bruno Dias at December 12, 2018 05:41 AM

Where the Water Tastes Like Wine, one of my favorite things I’ve worked on, came out this year. And The Silence Under Your Bed, one of my favorite things I’ve played, came out a few weeks earlier. And Cragne Manor came out this week, and has been calling to me. All of these are anthology works, and that’s as good a reason as any to talk about how to put one together.

I’d love to see more anthology-based IF, and there are many reasons for creating it: anthologies are a good way of sharing expertise and easing new people into IF writing; anthologies are a cooperative way of pursuing attention together, as opposed to competitions. And anthologies can highlight different points of view or facets on a theme, contrasting them against each other.

Anthologies are also great for developing new voices and drawing attentions to under-served authors. They allow someone with a platform or a well-known voice to act as an “anchor” for other authors.

There are a lot of questions that arise when thinking about anthologies: How tightly do you stick to a given theme, tone, and focus? Do you include a framing story?

I feel anthologies work best when there is a commonality that joins all stories together, and a few threads of commonality that aren’t necessarily present in every story. That was roughly the model we used in Where the Water Tastes Like Wine, for mechanical reasons, but it would work well as a purely story-based approach too.

Framing stories are very popular because they provide context, a way in, and a format for the underlying stories. They often make anthologies easier to construct and easier to present. Enforcing a certain viewpoint can be helpful in keeping players from being jarred by transitioning from one story to another, too.

Another thing that can elevate an anthology is collaboration between different authors. Riffing on one another’s ideas, and weaving those thematic threads throughout. A good anthology doesn’t read like something disjointed, but like looking at the same thing from different angles. This of course creates more work for everyone; once you’re not just handing in your piece of it, but reading other people’s work so you can collaborate, you have to invest more time.

Anthologies do ultimately come down to someone doing a lot of work. An editor has to knit everything together, keeping the style and voice of the anthology. Anthologies create labor costs and friction, beyond what a similarly-sized work would require from a single author. But I believe they’re rewarding, and worth it, because they can produce works that aren’t really possible as a single-author venture.

In Where the Water Tastes Like Wine, the breadth of perspective brought by a huge group of writers allowed for a point of view that would be difficult or impossible for a single writer to address properly. This is one question where anthologies interest me: What benefits from a plurality of viewpoints? What can you do as a group that you can’t alone?

And I hope this point raises another question: The value of editing, organizing, and just general wrangling in producing great work. I’ve come to believe that giving recognition to those kinds of roles, and elevating collaborative IF and not just individual authors, is critical to advancing the field.

I hope this opens up a discussion about ways of getting IF made that don’t rely on competitions, jams, and other “parallel” formats. Anthologies, to me, represent a nexus of creative possibilities and practical utility that shouldn’t be ignored. And some of my favorite work has come out of them, in ways that make me feel like they’re an underrated way forward for the medium.

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: Anthologies appeared first on sub-Q Magazine.

December 11, 2018


Found In Translation

by Jack at December 11, 2018 09:42 PM

Based on some feedback from IFComp, for the current version, the cover art was dezombified and a serif font was chosen.

This year, I learned a few things about implementing text games in languages other than English, or more specifically, in porting a single game across three languages. My IF Comp game, “En Garde” was originally written in French for the 2018 Francophone IF Competition. Subsequently, I translated it to English for IFComp and the game is now part of the 2018 Russian KRIL Competition thanks to translation by Valentin Kopeltsev. I would like to share some practical experience regarding this effort and some of the solutions that I found along the way.


For background, the game was written in the most recent release of Inform 7 and the preview version of Vorple 3. I thought that this would be a good game to experiment with in terms of translation because of three major constraints: the amount and complexity of the text is limited (mostly because of my French language skills); it is a limited parser game, with essentially ten single word commands; and finally, the interface involves clicking on hyperlinks that issue commands rather than typing. These constraints reduced complexity and bypassed some technical issues related to porting the game between languages.

Minimized Grammar

For this project, I did not employ language-specific versions of Inform 7. While there is a Russian-localized version of Inform 6, to my knowledge Inform 7 has not been ported (and probably won’t be for structural reasons discussed below). There are, however, French versions of both Inform 6 and Inform 7. The French version of Inform 7 is implemented as a extension to Inform 7 release 6G60. In it, the inform programming language itself is rendered in French, and of course it generates all library responses in French as well; with minor tweaks, this version is compatible with the current release of Vorple.

To keep things simple for myself, I stuck with my familiar English version of Inform 7 for all three implementations (sources for the French, English, and Russian versions are on github). The game consists of doing simple things and some canned conversational text between turns. Since the conversation text is fixed, I only had to worry about responses generated by doing the ten things implemented as commands (go a direction, eat something, open a door, press something, etc.), plus any implicit action that Inform would generate, such as looking when entering a room.

Rather than implement true grammar for each language, I took some short cuts. A number of the commands needed to be defined as new actions since the default commands such as open, unlock, etc., require a direct object. Since I defined these actions from scratch, it was trivial to bake in customized responses. I also added a customized “you can’t go that way” message and a rule for implicitly taking items, i.e., “(first taking the …)”.

The only point where the parser had free rein was in describing the location, where it would list the items present, whether they are open or closed, and describe the containment relationships. For French, I found it helpful to add a male/female flag to objects so that they would get the appropriate definite or indefinite article. I also wrote a customized rule for listing nondescript items in the location. The rule made all sorts of assumptions for the sake of simplifying the coding, but since it only needed to work in the context of this specific game, I thought that was a reasonable way to go.

One comment I received in the French comp was that the way locations were described was authentically parser-like, in the old school tradition. The “You see a X, on which is a Y, containing a Z”. Of course, this was the case — that is exactly what was going on under the hood.

So far, so good. When I translated to English, I removed the lines related to grammar customization and fell back to the default library responses. Knowing that the Russian translation was coming, though, I further limited the parser’s role in generating output by creating some rules for “printing a locale paragraph about” items of interest in each location. I thought that improved the way the room descriptions scanned.

Russian is more of a challenge because the language is inflected for gender, number, and case. On the other hand, there are no articles to worry about. I addressed this by putting the print name of objects in the accusative case. That turned out to work for all the parser-generated messages encountered in this game, for example, the list of objects that you can see.

I had to be careful to avoid expressions that would require objects to be in a different case, like negated expressions where the direct object would be in the genitive case, containment expressions with items in or on other items in the prepositional case, or the need for the instrumental case after the word “with”, and so on. My work-around for these situation was almost entirely handled with rules for printing a location paragraph about the item. I had some of this in the back of my head as I was writing the English translation, knowing that the Russian version was coming next.

Character Encoding

Inform 7 has no issues with French diacritical marks, but there are some significant gotchas in going beyond the extended Latin character set, for example with Cyrillic characters. The issue is more complicated on the input side, so let me begin with output.

In terms of mechanics, there is no problem typing in Russian within the I7 IDE — at least that is true of the platform I’m using, a Mac Pro. Printed names can be given in Cyrillic characters without a problem. Similarly, you can mix Russian, Greek, Latin, etc., characters within a “say” phrase — but only up to a certain length. I forget the limit that I hit, but it was something like 270 characters, about two and a half lines of text for my set up. Any longer and the IDE spits out an error message during compilation:

The cause is obvious — during an early compilation step, every non-latin character is replaced by a unicode substitution of the form “[unicode 1077]”. So, what was a single character inflates to 14 characters (brackets included), which exceeds the amount of text permitted between quotation marks in Inform 7.

That in itself is not a game breaker. You can always break up text into several “say” phrases, but that would be unsightly and kind of inefficient. I settled on making a “tell” phrase to replace large “say” phrases.

The “tell” phrase operates on a list of text. In practice, I just drop the text I want to say between some curly braces and break it up into comma-separated bits of quoted text about two lines long. Kind of kludgy, but it does keep all the text together as a unit, for example:

I think it is also relatively efficient as invariant phrases can be stored as literal text. Where this doesn’t work great is in text with embedded [one of] options. In that case, it does make sense to use multiple say statements, like “[one of][phrase1][or][phrase2][or][phase3][at random].”

Beyond that, things get hairy. Cyrillic characters won’t work for grammar tokens, so you cannot say:

Sorry for the picture here rather than text. WordPress keeps murdering non-Latin characters. I think it’s the database settings.

The non-Latin characters themselves can’t be stored in dictionary words; the underlying data structures were not designed to accommodate unicode characters. The only way around this that I’ve seen is the I7 extension “Unicode Parser written by Andrew Plotkin, which performs dark magic at the I6 level, replacing bits and pieces of code with unicode-friendly versions. The most recent version I see in the public library is version 7, which was built for Inform 7 release 6K92. It probably works with the current release, 6M62, but hasn’t specifically been tested against it. There are some caveats and limitations mentioned in the documentation for this extension, but it looks like it was a ton of work to write, so hopefully work will continue on this extension.

However, reading the characters is not the whole story, additional processing would be required to match the entered text against a token. For verbs, commands are traditionally entered in the infinitive (except when the imperative is used to give instructions to another actor), so that is not a huge problem. However, nouns would be declined according to their function in the input phrase. Those input nouns would then need to match up against the corresponding grammar token. Perhaps some sort of happy medium could be struck using regular expressions to match noun stems, trading off grammatical precision versus ease of implementation.

For my game, I got around all this by using English behind the scenes. All of the commands are issued by clicking hyperlinks, but the command that is issued is divorced from the label that appears on the hyperlink. To provide the appearance that commands were being issued in Russian, I echoed a prompt and the corresponding Russian command to the screen before processing each command.

A General Vorple-based Solution To Unicode Text Entry

I have found a way to allow entry of (I think) any language into an Inform 7 game without using the Unicode Parser extension. My solution is to leverage Vorple such that the parser only sees transliterated characters that fall within the Latin character set.

Running in the Vorple interpreter as part of a web page, the command prompt is a text input box and the text entered is piped over to the Inform parser each time the input line form is submitted. Between hitting “return” and Inform seeing the text, there is an opportunity to transform it.

I poked through the underlying javaScript, found that spot, and spliced in some of my own code. I’m a doctor, not a javaScript programmer, dammit, but it works. The way I did it is decidedly not pretty — the right way would have been to rebuild all of Vorple with this additional bit of code, but I wanted a quick and dirty proof of principle.

The code is on my github repository. The demo game can be played (don’t get too excited — the game consists of taking items and putting them in a box) online.

While this is a humble beginning and the game isn’t much fun to play, this solution could facilitate projects in languages not previously attempted on the Inform 7 platform. While my implementation is hacky, it wouldn’t be too hard to incorporate a feature into some subsequent release of Vorple where a user could optionally provide a text file with of transliteration mapping. That would avoid any monkeying with the internals of Vorple, but allow pretty much any language to be used along with Inform 7.


One of the things that required more attention that I would have suspected was punctuation. Here is the same passage in French, English, and Russian:

Starting with the French, a subtle but important difference relative to English is that there is space around some punctuation: after an opening quotation mark and before a closing one, and to each side of question marks, colons, semicolons, and percentage signs, but not commas and periods. Not only are there spaces where I wouldn’t ordinarily put them, but they are non-breaking spaces (espaces insécables) to assure that a question mark does not get stranded after a line wrap. I used [unicode 160] for this purpose, although it’s not entirely correct as not only should the space be non-breaking, but narrower than a typical inter-word space. Believe me, it is very easy to dive down a rat hole in researching all the different kinds of space characters in unicode, but the limiting factor is really what code points are implemented on user systems. I didn’t want to take a chance that some exotic albeit more correct space character would show up as a question mark or black diamond, so I went with what seems to be a well-supported non-breaking space.

French uses guillemets « and » rather than quotation marks, and these characters are widely supported. The real issue is how to format quotations. French is very efficient when it comes to dialogue-heavy passages: a single guillemet opens the quotation and then each speaker’s dialogue is set off with a long dash. To my eye, [unicode 8212] looked nice for this purpose. Finally, another guillemet closes the dialogue block. This style lent itself to very concise code, and was much more pleasant to type than in English where every line begins and ends with [quotation mark]. For internal quotations, I used English-style double quotation marks.

Guillemets are traditional for quoted material in Russian, although they also use inverted double commas. For internal quotations, they often use German-style quotation marks, the initial one below the line, the closing one above. The placement of punctuation is just enough different from English to require some adjustment, particularly when there is a speaker attribution in mid-sentence or after dialogue, as seen in the second example, below:


A final word on this project, if anyone has remained awake through the above tract on grammar and punctuation: I had a lot of help. The French IF community was very supportive and even before beta-testing, a few folks did proofing passes to help iron out some of the more major gaffes. When it came to Russian, Valentin was a huge help not only with the translation, but because he was working with the output of the English game, his suggestions made the English version much stronger as well, so he gets double-billing as beta-tester on the English version and translator on the Russian version.

The post Found In Translation appeared first on Dhakajack.

Emily Short

Mailbag: AI Research on Dialogue and Story Generation (Part 3)

by Emily Short at December 11, 2018 04:40 PM

This is a continuation of an earlier mailbag answer about AI research that touches on dialogue and story generation. As before, I’m picking a few points of interest, summarizing highlights, and then linking through to the detailed research.

This one is about a couple of areas of natural language processing and generation, as well as sentiment understanding, relevant to how we might realize stories and dialogue with particular surface features and characteristics.

Transferring text style

Screen Shot 2018-08-25 at 2.27.27 PM.png

Style transfer is familiar in image manipulation, and there are loads of consumer-facing applications and websites that let you make style changes to your own photographs. Textual style transfer is a more challenging problem. How might you express the same information, but in different wording, representing a different authorial manner? Alter the sentiment of the text to make it more positive or negative? Translate complex language to something more basic, or vice versa? Capture the distinctive prose characteristics of a well-known author or a specific era? Indeed, looked at the right way, translation from one human language into another can be regarded as a form of style transfer.

Style Transfer in Text: Exploration and Evaluation is an overview of why text style transfer is harder than image style transfer — lack of data with parallel content being a significant issue. The paper also proposes metrics of transfer strength and content preservation to determine the quality of text style transfers. Initial results, though, don’t yet look good enough to use in real-world applications where we might demand high accuracy from the output:

Screen Shot 2018-08-25 at 3.18.01 PM.png

Style Transfer from Non-Parallel Text by Cross-Alignment (Shen et al) proposes methods to deal with the lack of parallel content and establishes several challenges around sentiment transfer and decipherment that might serve as a proving ground for style transfer.

Unsupervised Text Style Transfer Using Language Models as Discriminators builds on the foregoing. It proposes an alternative to generative adversarial networks using binary classifiers. Their LM+classifier outputs make better word substitution choices than the previous examples:

Screen Shot 2018-08-25 at 2.47.33 PM.png

Fighting Offensive Language on Social Media with Unsupervised Text Style Transfer focuses specifically on taking offensive examples from Twitter and Reddit and translating the sentences into others that are more socially acceptable. this approach sets it apart from a lot of previous work on ML-based text classification that simply seeks to identify offensive language in social media postings.

Screen Shot 2018-08-25 at 3.50.48 PM.png

The results here, like the results on story generation above, are fascinating while at the same time demonstrating how far the state of the art has to go in this space. Result sentences sometimes lose the meaning of the originals — “bros before money” does not mean the same thing as “bros before hoes” — and in some places they are less effective than a simple word redaction and replacement approach.

(As a sidebar: this approach assumes that all offensive utterances could be turned into inoffensive ones with just a change of wording and no loss of meaning — but “bros before hoes” implies that men are capable of friendship and solidarity while women are always nothing more than transactionally-motivated sex objects. There is no possible way of phrasing that idea that would render it harmless.)

Recognizing sentiment in chat or spoken text

A companion to the problem of being able to generate prose in a particular mood or style is the problem of being able to recognize those elements in text that we take in.

Sentiment analysis at its most basic is about trying to tell whether a piece of writing is overall positive or negative about the thing that it’s describing, and one of its main commercial applications as been to analyze huge numbers of reviews online in order to detect whether a given company’s products are liked or disliked by consumers. There’s a lot more we might ask from sentiment analysis, though — the ability to pick out more nuances than just “good” vs “bad”; the ability to detect ironic or sarcastic utterances, which is sometimes hard even for humans; the ability to act on shorter pieces of text.

Deepmoji is a project using large quantities of Twitter data to correlate emoji with tweet content. The results are often significantly better than other sentiment analysis sorts of models (if we read the emoji as representing different types of sentiment). Sometimes the system has obviously recognized some topical content as well.

Impressively, this model is sometimes able to distinguish between sentences that are formally almost the same but where a human reader would recognize one as ironic. Here I am loving donuts, probably sincerely:

Screen Shot 2018-08-25 at 3.02.03 PM.png

But if I claim to love finals? Deepmoji gives that one the side-eye.

Screen Shot 2018-08-25 at 3.02.12 PM.png

Applying personality and emotion to dialogue

I’ve also written in the past about some less machine learning-based tools and methods for applying personality and emotion to dialogue, as well as research into how dialogue communicates the state of the speaker. References through the link.

Here is an older (2014) post about procedural text tools in the IF world specifically, and here is one on rendering world models in text. Both of these are directed more at interactive fiction authors than at AI researchers.

Wade's Important Astrolab

Cragne Manor – Anchorhead – Michael Hayes' Guided Tour

by Wade ([email protected]) at December 11, 2018 05:24 AM

The mega-collaboration-twenty-year-anniversary-tribute-to-Michael-Gentry's-1998-H.P.-Lovecraft-inspired-adventure-game-Anchorhead, called Cragne Manor, was released to the public this week. This is a great thing/event, but it's already been described a few times in a row on Planet IF, which is where I assume most (or all) readers of this blog come from. Therefore I don't feel like repeating all the details here – though it would be my deity-given right to do so if I wanted. I'll instead refer you to Andrew Plotkin's blog post about the game, to which I contributed a location. (I contributed a location to the game, not his blog post.)

I instead want to take a step back to Anchorhead itself. A further step back is first necessary, where I give a potted history of my experience with text adventures.

If mainframes are the beginning, I was there soon after the beginning. I played the Sierra (On-Line Systems) graphics adventures, Scott Adams adventures, and a bunch of other new graphic adventure games on my dad's Apple II computer in the 1980s. On the Infocom front, I had a mania for Suspended, which we picked up cheap in a Dick Smith store one day, but only for the beginning of it, which I replayed over and over because I couldn't get any further.

Later Infocom adventures mostly came to me in pirated fashion, and what with their elaborate manuals and such that you don't get with cracked copies, I got nowhere. So even though I now feel I know a ton about Infocom games, I haven't played many of them deeply. Except for Suspended, and later Wishbringer. No Zork for me.

Commercial text adventures went out of style. I particularly disliked the offspring of King's Quest, and also wasn't too interested in the point-and-click school. This includes both icon-driven games and things like Myst.

For a long time, I did nothing on this front. I only came back to text adventures in 2010 when I made Leadlight, and that happened because of a long delayed childhood wish to make a horror Eamon adventure on the Apple II. Finding IFComp via Leadlight was how I got back into text adventures. I began to explore the games that had been made while I was elsewhere.

A big thing that had been made while I was elsewhere was Anchorhead. While Andrew Plotkin, someone who never went away from these games, mentions looking back on it fondly in his post (the one I linked to in the first paragraph) from the perspective of having been there at the time, that's certainly not how I got involved in Cragne Manor. For me, Anchorhead was a large concrete block of frustration I came at repeatedly over time. I've noticed I find a lot of the major puzzle-centric games from around that time too hard. I want some kind of helpful hint system for them, and in most cases – and in Anchorhead's case – there wasn't one within or without the game. A dump of commands to enter manages to be both clunky and spoilery. Plus, the game just made me feel that I could be doing anything. But what was I supposed to be doing? This feeling was experienced as a sort of unhelpful aimlessness.

I think there's definitely a mental school of like experiences with Anchorhead out there. I mean, there's a topic on intfiction right now called Anchorhead is too hard for me, which I assure you I had nothing to do with.

Before you start thinking I'm just going to go tediously slagging off Anchorhead for the duration of this post, let me jump to the part of the story where, this year, when Cragne Manor was at the announcement stage, I thought, 'OK, I'll give Anchorhead another shot.' I looked around for better help, and this time found it in the form of Michael Hayes' Guided Tour (link is on the right of the Anchorhead IFDB page) which seems to hail from 2015. This was a Hallelujah moment for me. The guide comes as a spreadsheet with the game divided into sections, and it has a verbose list of commands with extra comments and context to help you along. Using this guide, I played through the game. Now finding myself out on the other side of the puzzles that had blocked me all those other times, I also found I had enjoyed Anchorhead and acquired a great admiration for it. (Admittedly, tempered with my prior roadblock experience of it. It will always be tempered!)

I then went and bought the new illustrated edition from

I would say my difficult experience with Anchorhead was partly due to my DNA, and partly due to my expectations of IF games, which formed both well before and after the chunk of IF time when Anchorhead arrived on the scene, but not during it. As I've said, I find games from that middle period sometimes exhibit the twin qualities of being too difficult and short on help. They're also much rawer in user-friendliness than what I discovered when I got back into IF in 2010. I mean, I restarted with Aotearoa, one of the most user-friendly IF games ever.

So if you've ever had trouble with Anchorhead, I recommend Michael Hayes' guide (from the Anchorhead IFDB page.) Thanks Michael Hayes, and viva Anchorhead (tempered!)

December 10, 2018

Choice of Games

Author Interview: Danielle Lauzon, “7th Sea: A Pirate’s Pact”

by Mary Duffy at December 10, 2018 06:41 PM

Fight for what’s right—as an up and coming pirate! Battle slavers, sea monsters, and your own corrupt government to become a hero of the high seas. But will you betray your own crew for wealth and power? 7th Sea: A Pirate’s Pact is a 200,000-word interactive adventure novel by Danielle Lauzon, set in the world of the table-top role playing game 7th Sea. I sat down with Danielle to talk about the unique challenges of adapting material for Choice of Games. 7th Sea: A Pirate’s Pact releases this Thursday, December 13th. 

I usually begin author interviews by asking something like “how did you develop this world” but in this instance, 7th Sea: A Pirate’s Pact, is sprung from a table-top rpg. Tell me a little about that and your background writing for 7th Sea.

7th Sea was originally published in 1999 by AEG. The game was designed by John Wick while he worked there. At that time, the game was innovative as a game that showed diversity in its writing, such as women doing swashbuckling and adventuring, despite its roots in 17th century Europe. In 2016, John released a 2nd Edition after regaining the rights from AEG. I joined the team shortly after its release to help develop the many supplements unlocked during the Kickstarter campaign.

Moving forward in the 2nd edition, we wanted to take those 16 year old innovations and push them forward even further. We endeavored to hire subject matter experts, and people with close ties to the real world locations we were bringing into the game world. And while Theah isn’t actually 17th century Europe, etc., there’s enough real world nods for our history buffs. Writing for 7th Sea as a property has made me dig into historical minutia I’ve never encountered before, and writing this novel was no different. I’ve learned so much, which is pretty amazing.

This is actually the second table-top game that’s been adapted for us, Choice of the Petal Throne being a Tekumel game. What is it like working within an established world? Did you feel many constraints?

Honestly, I have been so immersed in creating the setting for 7th Sea, that writing this game felt like second nature. The biggest constraints I felt were that we wanted to have a non-magical story for our first Choice of Games game, and ignoring the magical parts of the world was very difficult. Otherwise, the parallels built into 7th Sea with our own world made it very easy to write as I was able to pull a lot of information and inspiration from real world locations and events.

This is your first time writing interactive fiction but not your first time writing an RPG. What did you feel were the differences in concretizing a set of options for a player as opposed to writing like a more open-ended campaign?

Running a game of 7th Sea is pretty free form. I spent a lot of time considering options in 7th Sea: A Pirate’s Pact as challenges I’d throw at the players, then knowing my players, thinking of what they would want to do in those situations. It was interesting to consider multiple options for the same action or consider various ways to approach a situation. I never do that in RPG campaign planning, but now I want to incorporate that kind of logic when designing a campaign for play at home.

One thing that I got stuck on a bit was translating the 7th Sea game stats to Choice of Games. In the table-top RPG, those stats are open to interpretation and as long as the story makes sense you could really roll anything to accomplish a goal. Making those more static so that players could reasonably predict which stat would be used for each choice made me really think about what goes into those stats and what they really mean when describing your Hero.

What’s more fun than piracy? How much did you enjoy writing these swashbuckling scenes?

I can’t think of much I’d consider more fun that piracy, except maybe space piracy. Writing adventure scenes is a bit out of my wheelhouse when it comes to writing, so stretching my creativity into these scenes was fun if sometimes nerve wracking. But I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

And what are you working on next?

Well, I’m still making table-top RPGs over on the other side of the fence. I have been considering writing another Choice of Games novel that is in it’s own unique universe (maybe space pirates). And maybe if the IP licensing stars align properly, a sequel to A Pirate’s Pact.

December 09, 2018

Lautz of IF

Cragne Manor is released

by jasonlautzenheiser at December 09, 2018 06:41 PM

As most readers of this probably already knows.  Cragne Manor, has been released.

Back in June, Ryan Veeder and Jenni Polodna organized this twentieth anniversary tribute to Anchorhead.  Eighty-four people signed up to author a room.  Each author, being assigned a room, worked independently, not knowing what the other authors were doing.

Ryan and Jenni, built the map and handed out the assigments, with minimal instruction.  Nothing more than what your connecting rooms were and some minimal instructions on an overarching goal of the room.  For example, your room may have to contain a certain object or include a puzzle utilizing one object to get another.

How you implemented this was up to you.  Some rooms may flat out give you the information needed in some atmospheric way, some may just contain a simple obvious puzzle, some are much more difficult and could be full games in themselves.

I was one of the authors and given my time spent on Trizbort over the last few years, I’ve done very little game development, so this was a lot of fun for me.  What’s cool about this, is that I know nothing about the rest of the game, other than what little I made it through in testing the beta versions.  I’m not even sure how far into the game my room is, nor how important my room is to the overall game.

So check it out, it’s long, it’s probably got bugs, but I suspect it will be a lot of fun.  Ryan and Jenni did a great job and spent a lot of time pulling this all together and bringing our mishmash of story and code into one cohesive pile.  Much thanks and credit go to them for their work on this!



KRIL 2018 Thoughts

by Jack at December 09, 2018 05:41 AM

Logo for KRIL 2018The Russian counterpart of IFcomp, KRIL, went online yesterday with 25 original games, two translated games (one of them mine), and two exhibition games that will not be included in voting. KRIL has been an annual event since 2006, but since I was not involved in previous years, this is my first look at it. I thought it would be interesting to compare and contrast a bit with IFcomp. I should add the disclaimer that my Russian is pretty rusty and that all the heavy lifting on my entry was done by Valentin Kopeltsev, so if I get any of the details below wrong, just leave a comment.

First of all, KRIL has its own website, and this year’s games are listed in a familiar graphic / blurb format at As with IFComp, there is the option to list games alphabetically or according to a personal shuffle. There is also an option for a completely random shuffle (the personal shuffle is always the same order when you return to the website, whereas the truly random option shuffles each time). In addition to the graphic and blurb, the author’s name, the system used for authoring and outbound links are provided.

The rules for KRIL are provided on the website in Russian as well as an overview in English. The English version is aimed at non-Russian authors who might be approached by translators interested to port their games to Russian to enter in the “translated game” category.

This year’s organizer, Oreolek, has aligned many KRIL’s rules with those of IFcomp, for instance, judges are required to vote on at least five games. Also similar to IFcomp’s Colossal Fund, there is a central fund for the competition. One clever feature on the website is a calculator widget, which allows users to explore prize award amounts as a function of the total amount in the fund. In addition to monetary prizes for the top games in each category, there are some monetary prizes for games that meet certain criteria, according to theme or platform. In principle, physical items can be donated as prizes, but I don’t think there are any this year, or at least none announced yet. As far as I can tell, there is no equivalent to IFcomp’s Miss Congeniality Award or Golden Banana of Discord.

The Russian counterpart of the forum is, and KRIL has it’s own general discussion. In addition, the forum itself is used for voting. Games are listed in a grid, providing the name of the game, the blurb text, author and game system information, and comments on the game by other forum users. When you click a title, some additional information is presented along with a the game’s graphic and links for documentation, walkthrough, download, etc. Most important, though, at the top of the page is a box filled with ten stars. The user clicks the number of star to rate the game. The forum is moderated and requires a password, so this assures that each person has one vote per game.

A look through the listings points up some major differences in authorship tools between IFcomp and KRIL. In recent IFcomps, Twine and Inform have dominated, with about twice as many Twine as Inform. Other systems in common use include Quest, Texture, ChoiceScript, and depending on the year, Adrift, TADS, ALAN, and other established systems and the occasional homebrew system.

By contrast, in this year’s KRIL, the most popular authoring system was Apero, although that may reflect incentive prizes for that authoring system. On the other hand, there were similar incentives for the Russian version of Inform 6 (rInform) and no entries were received. Other authoring systems included various versions of AXMA Storymaker (3), Twine (3), FireURQ (3), Atril (3), Instead (2), Ink (1), QSP (1), and Ren’py (1). In addition, one entry was submitted in GoogleForms, and two were hyperlinked CYOA text documents. My entry was the only one written in Inform 7. Ink may be more popular than this list reflects; in other comments, several authors mentioned using it as part of their development process.

Some of these systems have made at least limited appearance in previous IFcomps. In 2018, Serhii Mozhaisky‘s (TechniX) “I.A.G. Alpha” was written in Instead. Hanon Ondricek used AXMA storymaker for this year’s IFcomp entry Cannery Vale and last year’s Alice Aforethought.

There is some overlap between this year’s IFcomp and KRIL as well in terms of authors as well. Serhii, mentioned above, submitted a game to the translated works category, Michael Lutz and Kimberly Parker’s “The Uncle Who Works for Nintendo” (link to his Russian Version). Additionally, Provodnik Games, who submitted “Railways of Love” in IFComp, have entered with another original game, “Grayness“.

I have just started poking at the games, so I don’t yet have a good grip on themes, but it looks like fantasy and RPG are strongly represented, followed by sci-fi. I’m particularly intrigued by the game implemented in GoogleForms — will this be “Let’s Explore Geography! Canadian Commodities Trader Simulation Exercise” of KRIL 2018?

The post KRIL 2018 Thoughts appeared first on Dhakajack.

Emily Short

IF Comp Post-Mortems

by Mort Short at December 09, 2018 05:40 AM

Now that some time has elapsed since 2018 IF Comp has closed, a number of authors have followed up with post-mortems (and in some cases, there have also been a few game updates based on player feedback).

This is a tradition that has grown up over the past couple of years, and one that I really like: these posts in aggregate represent a pretty broad picture of the thinking around IF design and development at the moment, and one often hears from authors who don’t otherwise blog about their craft.

IF Comp saw a high number of entries, and there’s a lot to look at in the post–mortems.  In fact, there’s more than I personally could track, but with the help of my new blog assistant (“Mort”), we’ve done a little curation on posts to call out some interesting content and sort them by subject covered.

Just as a reminder, these all link to posts that are riddled with spoilers, so consider this your warning on that score.

Presentation & User Experience These post-mortems shed particular light on questions regarding user interface, design, and what the game would be like for the player.

Instruction Set (Jared Jackson). Jared wrote his entry with Scratch, which is fairly extraordinary given how very much Scratch is not a language designed for text presentation. The post-mortem explains a bit about why he took that approach, and what he learned from coming into IF Comp from a non-traditional direction using a different set of tools.

Abbess Otilia’s Life and Death (Arno von Borries). This piece invested heavily in presenting something that looked like a medieval manuscript, but that raised challenges and some players complained about readability. The post-mortem looks at the implementation challenges and trade-offs between readability and historical accuracy.

showimage.pngBogeyman (Elizabeth Smyth) “The nature of those weekly life-or-death decisions remains at the core of the game. It’s the only choice you really get to make: good vs “good”; conscience vs authority; defiance vs submission; integrity vs survival. Almost every major choice is designed around that conflict.”

The 2018 runner-up Bogeyman has a wonderfully detailed post-mortem that delves into concept, design, character, and the Bogeyman himself.  In the end, though, these elements were created in service to the choices in front of the player/character, as Elizabeth Smyth produced a game straightforward in its design, but emotionally resonant for those who experienced it.

Creative Process These post-mortems gave insight into creating the game, and what the experience was like for the designer.

Master of the Land (Pseudavid)

Erstwhile (Maddie Fialla & Marijke Perry)

Ailiphilia (Andrew Schultz)

The Origin of Madame Time (Mathbrush)

Bullhockey! (B F Lindsay)

Border Reivers (Vivienne Dunstan)

Forgotten Tavern (Peter M.J. Gross)

Ostrich (Jonathan Laury)

yspn49v69hzc8rtb.jpgAlias ‘The Magpie’ (J. J. Guest) “It had been a source of deep regret for me that I had not released a brand new game for 8 years, and I decided to do something about it. I threw myself into the game, and over the next year poured hundreds of hours into getting it finished.” 

J. J. Guest’s post-mortem for 2018’s 1st Place game is quite broad in its scope, with discussion covering all of the major topics listed. We included it here with the other “Creative Process” posts because there is a substantial opening section detailing what it was like to make this game from a personal point of view.  It’s worth reading the post-mortem in its entirety, as Guest explores the relationship of puzzles to the chronology of the larger narrative, the desire to maximize the player’s options during gameplay, and the considerable amount of beta-testing that shaped this year’s winner.


Narrative Structure These post-mortems gave extra attention to the subject of story, and the narrative aspects of the game.

Tethered (Linus Åkesson) plays with changes of narrative viewpoint and real vs imagined events — raising some of the same challenges as an unreliable-narrator game. (I’m being intentionally vague here to avoid spoilers.) The post-mortem particularly looks at which of those choices worked well for players and which could have been differently executed.

The other very notable point about Tethered is that it was developed with Dialog, a new IF tool by the same author. Dialog is documented and discussed via these posts on the intfiction forum.

Grimnoir (ProP). This post-mortem goes into some depth about the characterization of its protagonist and the genre influences in play.

rg7sieqyg1b9rxpt.pngLux (Agnieszka Trzaska) “I think Lux may be summed up as a game about piecing together events that already happened. There’s a lot of scattered backstory to discover.” 

Agnieszka Tzaska, whose Lux took 10th place, wrote a post-mortem that could just as easily fit in the User Experience category as in Narrative.  But in the case of Lux, these two factors are closely linked.  Players experience the world of Lux through a protagonist who is blind, and the backstory is illuminated even as the player is often in the dark about what’s happening in the present.  A word of warning – this is one of the more ‘spoilery’ post-mortems out there as major twists are revealed (but worth the read!).


Puzzles and Challenges These post-mortems were for games that contained a strong puzzle element, where the author goes into some exploration of that topic.

Space Punk Moon Tour (J_J)

Junior Arithmancer (Mike Spivey). Junior Arithmancer‘s math-based puzzles are based on a systematic mechanic of the kind I particularly enjoy. Here the author writes about the other systematic-puzzle games that inspired him, how the puzzles came together, and what inspired a few of the optional challenges.


A Little Bit of Everything These post-mortems gave a balanced look at the above topics, or focused on something else not mentioned.

Stone of Wisdom (Kenneth Pedersen)

Dungeon Detective (Wonaglot)

Diddlebucker! (J. Michael)



December 08, 2018

Zarf Updates

Cragne Manor is available to play

by Andrew Plotkin ([email protected]) at December 08, 2018 05:43 PM

Cragne Manor, the absurdly monumental and monumentally absurd collaborative tribute to classic horror IF, is now available to play.

I mentioned this back in June:
A strong female character wanders the halls of a decrepit mansion. Her husband is in danger. She has to help him. Each room into which she points her flickering flashlight teems with arcane danger and unspeakable history. Each room has been designed and written by a different author.
The project was organized by Ryan Veeder and Jenni Polodna as a twentieth-anniversary tribute to Anchorhead. Anchorhead is Michael Gentry's seminal work of Lovecraftian IF. I played it twenty years ago (obviously) when the revival of IF was a new and shining star in the sky. (Michael Gentry has now released an updated, polished, illustrated version of Anchorhead; you can buy it on Steam and Itch. The original release remains free to play at IFDB.)
I remember Anchorhead fondly, and so, as it turns out, does everyone else. Eighty-four people showed up to contribute rooms to Cragne Manor. The author list includes many of the great names of interactive fiction -- including Michael Gentry.
It's glorious. It's a mess. It's a glorious mess. You have to understand: Cragne Manor was built exquisite-corpse style. Each author worked independently, not knowing what any other author was doing. Ryan and Jenni designed the underlying map, and handed out assignments like "your room must contain a library book" or "your room must have a puzzle that requires object X and reveals object Y."
Ryan and Jenni have labored mightily to compile all the contributed source code together. Inform 7, and IF design techniques in general, work best with a unified vision. (This is why IF-inspired MUDs always felt patchy and underimplemented.) If you ask eighty-four people to design rooms without even talking to each other... well, which do you mean: the iron key, the iron key, the rusty iron key, the iron key, or the large iron key? For a start. The organizers have done amazing work just to get the thing playable from start to finish.
The result, inevitably, is a wild mish-mash of tone, difficulty, and style. That was Ryan's grand vision; that's what he got. To quote the introductory note:
This resulted in a game that is ridiculous. The world the authors created is inconsistent and often nonsensical. Commands that are necessary to progress in one room might not work anywhere else. Many of the puzzles are, by ordinary human standards, deeply unfair. By ordinary human standards, this is not a good game.
Except I disagree; it's a great game, for what it is. It's a grand collection of vignettes by the biggest collective of IF authors ever gathered in one fictional Vermont town. It's a demonstration of varied styles, varied approaches to puzzle design, and varied takes on the idea of "Lovecraftian/Anchorheadian game". It's creepy and funny and gross and poetic. It's got simple rooms and inordinately complex rooms. It's got bugs. (There will always be bugs.)
It's also... well... enormous. I said that already. This thing will swallow teams of experienced IF players for weeks -- if you can find a team of experienced IF players who aren't on the author list. Or even if you are on the author list! I've only seen the first little bit; I have no idea how to reach my own room. The playtesting group took several weeks to finish the game, and that was working together.
And yet, somehow, Cragne Manor hangs together. I have no idea how. Maybe because IF games always feel like a strangely jointed reality -- little self-contained rooms floating as bubbles on a map. We're used to filling in the gaps and visualizing a world. Somehow, even when the landscape shifts surreally from one room to the next, the world is still there.
If you have ever had any love of interactive fiction, give Cragne Manor a look. It's a cross-section of my world for the past twenty years.

Emily Short

Cragne Manor

by Emily Short at December 08, 2018 04:40 PM

cragneCragne Manor is now available!

Considering the number of authors on this game, it feels possible that every person who is interested in parser-based interactive fiction is already part of this project. But I know there are a few exceptions, so for those who aren’t already familiar:

Cragne Manor was organized by Ryan Veeder and Jenni Polodna as a 20-years-later tribute to Michael Gentry’s classic 1998 Lovecraftian horror game Anchorhead. They put out an open call to the IF community for authors to write one room each — without being able to see each other’s work — and they themselves would stitch the results together.

I think it’s fair to say this succeeded more thoroughly than they anticipated. More than 80 authors created rooms for Cragne Manor — some of them small, atmospheric rooms like mine; others packed with story or constituting ingenious set-piece puzzles; still others brief and elegant vignettes. There are some individual author contributions in Cragne that would make respectable IF Comp entries in their own right. Not only that, but Ryan and Jenni did an epic amount of work, with great ingenuity, to come up with a puzzle structure that would make all of those disparate pieces contribute to a functional, enjoyable gameplay flow.

I haven’t finished it — a reflection partly of my supply of free time, but also the fact that this game is huge. But I can tell you already that if you like parser IF, you want to play this. It’s sometimes scary, sometimes disgusting, sometimes funny, sometimes weird, and sometimes all of those at once — but I’ll let you find the horse for yourself. And somehow all that surreal adds up to something greater than the sum of its parts.

Thanks, Ryan and Jenni. This was really, really fun.


Two Short Ludum Dare 43 Gems

by Hanon Ondricek ([email protected]) at December 08, 2018 06:24 AM

The Vault is an "escape room" with some interesting mechanics. The Twine styling is perfect, and subtle use of sound effects contribute to the atmosphere and mystery.

Sacrifices Must Be Made is a simple lane-based card battle elevated by a short and very creepy story which felt very much like Interactive Fiction. I beat it in about twenty-five minutes and was disturbed in a good way.

Check out all the Ludum Dare 43 games!

December 07, 2018

Renga in Blue

Journey: The Deathtrap Legacy

by Jason Dyer at December 07, 2018 05:40 PM

Quick recap: Journey was a game by Steve Baker from 1979. Roberta Williams mentioned as an influence before embarking on writing Mystery House; it seemed to be entirely gone from the internet, but with the help of Howard Feldman it’s now on both The Internet Archive and if-archive.

The manual for the game.

Note the use above of “DESCRIBE” instead of “EXAMINE”; it looks like Steve Baker’s only previous experience was 350-point Adventure, which didn’t have an examine command. (I find these early variations on common norms fascinating, like peering into alternate universes. Mystery Mansion had LIST instead of INVENTORY. Empire of the Over-Mind not only eschewed compass directions but required you to >HOLD an object before you could do anything with it. Warp tried adding conditional commands to the parser.)



In any case, a few steps away there’s a house:


Inside the house:




The goal, as the instructions indicate, is to find all the treasures and store them in the *SAFE* EST place possible (there’s a safe in the house). Every once in a while (assuming you’re playing the Applesoft version) you get attacked



The rat is are essentially like the dwarves from Adventure; they will appear randomly throughout the adventure and you have to use a KNIFE found in the mansion to fend them off.



Earlier the game mentions “a small crevice” which is described much like one of the cave entrances of Adventure. However, things take a turn rather quickly:



At this point, my brain had to entirely shift what time and place the game was happening at. The map might assist (click to enlarge):

The west side is the “city” area and includes an underground sewer. The right side is the mansion, and there’s a very small “cave” area connecting the two up top (“Below Granite Rock”, “Dimly Lit Cave”).

This was, in the end, a fairly short game, but I wanted to mention three more things:

1.) I rather liked the feel of this scene, a horror movie in miniature:



>>> SHAZAM <<<


2.) The treasures are scattered at random and will change if you reset and restart the game. I didn’t work out the entire system, but I should note this was pretty unusual for the time and the only comparable game I can think of from that era is Lords of Karma.

3.) There are a few ways to die, and two in particular are noteworthy.







Now, it’s not like we haven’t seen our fair share of death in prior adventure games, but for the most part death has been either a sudden consequence for failing a puzzle or a straight-up arbitrary event. In this case, there’s a long wind-up, like setting up a joke, and the player is essentially complicit in their own demise. (Compare to participatory comedy in Mystery Fun House.)

Here’s another instance:




So far, so good. This place happens to be next to the police station, so if you later get arrested, and try to get out:




Death as both obstacle and amusement is essentially one of the trademarks of the Sierra adventure style; one could argue it was exactly here where it started.

With the manhole death I could see the little EGA figure falling.

The Digital Antiquarian

Controlling the Spice, Part 3: Westwood’s Dune

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

Brett Sperry and Louis Castle

Louis Castle first became friends with Brett Sperry in 1982, when the two were barely out of high school. Castle was selling Apple computers at the time at a little store in his native Las Vegas, and Sperry asked him to print out a file for him. “I owned a printer, so I invited him over,” remembers Castle, “and he looked at some animation and programming I was working on.”

They found they had a lot in common. They were both Apple II fanatics, both talented programmers, and both go-getters accustomed to going above and beyond what was expected of them. Through Castle’s contacts at the store — the home-computer industry was quite a small place back then — they found work as contract programmers, porters who moved software from one platform to another. It wasn’t the most glamorous job in the industry, but, at a time when the PC marketplace was fragmented into close to a dozen incompatible platforms, it was certainly a vital one. Sperry and Castle eventually came to specialize in the non-trivial feat of moving slick action games such as Dragonfire and Impossible Mission from the Commodore 64 to the far less audiovisually capable Apple II without sacrificing all of their original appeal.

In March of 1985, they decided to give up working as independent contractors and form a real company, which they named Westwood Associates. The “Westwood” came from the trendy neighborhood of Los Angeles, around the UCLA campus, where they liked to hang out when they drove down from Las Vegas of a weekend. “We chose Westwood as the company name,” says Castle, “to capture some of the feeling of youthful energy and Hollywood business.” The “Associates,” meanwhile, was nicely non-specific, meaning they could easily pivot into other kinds of software development if the games work should dry up for some reason. (The company would become known as Westwood Studios in 1992, by which time it would be pretty clear that no such pivot would be necessary.)

The story of Westwood’s very first project is something of a harbinger of their future. Epyx hired them to port the hoary old classic Temple of Apshai to the sexy new Apple Macintosh, and Sperry and Castle got a bit carried away. They converted the game from a cerebral turn-based CRPG to a frenetic real-time action-adventure, only to be greeted with howls of protest from their employers. “Epyx felt,” remembers Castle with no small sense of irony, “that gamers would not want to make complicated tactical and strategic decisions under pressure.” More sensibly, Epyx noted that Westwood had delivered not so much a port as a different game entirely, one they couldn’t possibly sell as representing the same experience as the original. So, they had to begrudgingly switch it back to turn-based.

This blind alley really does have much to tell us about Westwood’s personality. Asked many years later what common thread binds together their dizzily eclectic catalog of games, Louis Castle hit upon real-time gameplay as the one reasonable answer. This love of immediacy would translate, as we’ll soon see, into the invention of a whole new genre known as real-time strategy, which would become one of the most popular of them all by the end of the 1990s.

But first, there were more games to be ported. Having cut their teeth making Commodore 64 games work within the constraints of the Apple II, they now found themselves moving them in the other direction: “up-porting” Commodore 64 hits like Super Cycle and California Games to the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga. Up-porting was in its way as difficult as down-porting; owners of those more expensive 16-bit machines expected their capabilities to be used to good effect, even by games that had originated on more humble platforms, and complained loudly at straight, vanilla ports that still looked like they were running on an 8-bit computer. Westwood became one of the best in the industry at a very tricky task, not so much porting their source games in any conventional sense as remaking them, with dramatically enhanced graphics and sound. They acquired a reputation for technical excellence, particularly when it came to their compression systems, which allowed them to pack their impressive audiovisuals into very little space and stream them in quickly from disk. And they made good use of the fact that the Atari ST and Amiga were both built around the same Motorola 68000 CPU by developing a library for the Amiga which translated calls to the ST’s operating system into their Amiga equivalents on the fly; thus they could program a game for the ST and get the same code running on the Amiga with very few changes. If you wanted an 8-to-16-bit port done efficiently and well, you knew you could count on Westwood.

Although they worked with quite a number of publishers, Westwood cultivated a particularly close relationship with SSI, a publisher of hardcore wargames who badly needed whatever pizazz Sperry and Castle’s flashier aesthetic could provide. When SSI wanted to convince TSR to give them the hugely coveted Dungeons & Dragons license in 1987, they hired Westwood to create some of the graphics demos for their presentation. The pitch worked; staid little SSI shocked the industry by snatching the license right out from under the noses of heavier hitters like Electronic Arts. Westwood remained SSI’s most trusted partner thereafter. They ported the  “Gold Box” line of Dungeons & Dragons CRPGs to the Atari ST and Amiga with their usual flair, adding mouse support and improving the graphics, resulting in what many fans consider to be the best versions of all.

Unfortunately, Westwood’s technical excellence wasn’t always paired with equally good design sense when they occasionally got a chance to make an original game of their own. Early efforts like Mars Saga, Mines of Titan, Questron II, and BattleTech: The Crescent Hawk’s Inception all have a lot of ideas that aren’t fully worked through and never quite gel, along with third acts that fairly reek of, “We’re out of time and money, and now we just have to get ‘er done.” Ditto the first two original games they did for SSI under the Dungeons & Dragons license: the odd California Games/Gold Box mashup Hillsfar and the even odder dragon flight simulator Dragon Strike.

Still, Brett Sperry and Louis Castle were two very ambitious young men, and neither was willing to settle for the anonymous life of a strict porting house. Nor did such a life make good business sense: with the North American market at least slowly coalescing around MS-DOS machines, it looked like porting houses might soon have no reason to exist. The big chance came when Sperry and Castle convinced SSI to let them make a full-fledged Dungeons & Dragons CRPG of their own — albeit one that would be very different from the slow-paced, turn-based Gold Box line. Westwood’s take on the concept would run in — you guessed it — real time, borrowing much from FTL’s Dungeon Master, one of the biggest sensations of the late 1980s on the Atari ST and Amiga. The result was Eye of the Beholder.

At the time of the game’s release in February of 1991, FTL had yet to publish an MS-DOS port of Dungeon Master. Eye of the Beholder was thus the first real-time dungeon crawl worth its salt to become available on North America’s computer-gaming platform of choice, and this fact, combined with the Dungeons & Dragons logo on the box, yielded sales of 130,000 copies in the United States alone — a sales figure far greater than that of any previous original Westwood game, greater even than all but the first two of SSI’s flagship Gold Box line. The era of Westwood as primarily a porting house had passed.

Over at Virgin Games, the indefatigable Martin Alper, still looking to make a splash in the American market, liked what he saw in Westwood, this hot American developer who clearly knew how to make the sorts of games Americans wanted to buy. And yet they were also long-established experts at getting the most out of the Amiga, Europe’s biggest gaming computer; Westwood would do their own port of Eye of the Beholder to the Amiga, in which form it would sell in considerable numbers in Europe as well. Such a skill set made the little Las Vegas studio immensely attractive to this executive of Virgin, a company of truly global reach and vision.

Alper knew as soon as he saw Eye of the Beholder that he wanted to make Westwood a permanent part of the Virgin empire, but, not wanting to spook his target, he approached them initially only to ask them to develop a game for him. As far as Alper or anyone else outside Virgin’s French subsidiary knew at this point, the Cryo Dune game was dead. But Alper hadn’t gone to all the trouble of securing the license not to use it. In April of 1991 — just one month before the departure of Jean-Martial Lefranc from Virgin Loisirs, combined with a routine audit, would bring the French Dune conspiracy to light — Alper signed Westwood to make a Dune game of their own. It wasn’t hard to convince them to take it on; it turned out that Dune was Brett Sperry’s favorite novel of all time.

Even better, Westwood, perhaps influenced by their association with the turn-based wargame mavens at SSI, had already been playing around with ideas for a real-time (of course!) game of military conflict. “It was an intellectual puzzle for me,” says Sperry. “How can we take this really small wargame category, bring in some fresh ideas, and make it a fun game that more gamers can play?” The theme was originally to be fantasy. But, says Louis Castle, “when Virgin offered up the Dune license, that sealed our fate and pulled us away from a fantasy theme.”

Several months later, after Martin Alper reluctantly concluded that Cryo’s Dune had already cost too much money and had too much potential of its own to cancel, he found himself with quite a situation on his hands. Westwood’s Dune hadn’t been in development anywhere near as long as Cryo’s, but he was already loving what he had seen of it, and was equally unwilling to cancel that project. In an industry where the average game frankly wasn’t very good at all, having two potentially great ones might not seem like much of a problem. For Virgin’s marketers, however, it was a nightmare. Their solution, which pleased neither Cryo nor Westwood much at all, was to bill the latter’s game as a sequel to the former’s, naming it Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty.

Westwood especially had good reason to feel disgruntled. They were understandably concerned that saddling their fresh, innovative new game with the label of sequel would cause it to be overlooked. The fact was, the sequel billing made no sense whatsoever, no matter how you looked at it. While both games were, in whole or in part, strategy games that ran in real time, their personalities were otherwise about as different as it was possible for two games to be. By no means could one imagine a fan of Cryo’s plot-heavy, literary take on Dune automatically embracing Westwood’s action-heavy, militaristic effort. Nor did the one game follow on from the other in the sense of plot chronology; both games depict the very same events from the novel, albeit with radically different sensibilities.

The press too was shocked to learn that a sequel to Cryo’s Dune was due to be released the very same year as its predecessor. “This has got to be a new world record for the fastest ever followup,” wrote the British gaming magazine The One a few weeks after the first Dune‘s release. “Unlike the more adventure-based original, Dune II is expected to be more of a managerial experience comparable to (if anything) the likes of SimCity, as the two warring houses of Atreides and Harkonnen attempt to mine as much spice as possible and blow each other up at the same time.”

The Westwood Studios team who made Dune II. On the front row are Ren Olsen and Dwight Okahara; on the middle row are Judith Peterson, Joe Bostic, Donna Bundy, and Aaron Powell; on the back row are Lisa Ballan and Scott Bowen. Of this group, Bostic and Powell were the game’s official designers, and thus probably deserve the most credit for inventing the genre of real-time strategy. Westwood’s co-founder Brett Sperry also played a critical — perhaps the critical — conceptual role.

It was, on the whole, about as good a description of Dune II as any that appeared in print at the time. Not only was the new game dramatically different from its predecessor, but it wasn’t quite like anything at all which anyone had ever seen before, and coming to grips with it wasn’t easy. Legend has it that Brett Sperry started describing Dune II in shorthand as “real-time strategy” very early on, thus providing a new genre with its name. If so, though, Virgin’s marketers didn’t get the memo. They would struggle mightily to describe the game, and what they ended up with took unwieldiness to new heights: a “strategy-based resource-management simulation with a heavy real-time combat element.” Whew! “Real-time strategy” does have a better ring to it, doesn’t it?

These issues of early taxonomy, if you will, are made intensely interesting by Dune II‘s acknowledged status as the real-time-strategy urtext. That is to say that gaming histories generally claim, correctly on the whole in my opinion, that it was the first real-time strategy game ever.

Yet we do need to be careful with our semantics here. There were actually hundreds of computerized strategy games prior to Dune II which happened to be played in real time, not least among them Cryo’s Dune. The neologism of “real-time strategy” (“RTS”) — like, say, those of “interactive fiction” or even “CRPG” — has a specific meaning separate from the meanings of the individual words which comprise it. It has come to denote a very specific type of game — a game that, yes, runs in real time, but also one where players start with a largely blank slate, gather resources, and use them to build a variety of structures. These structures can in turn build military units who can carry out simple orders of the “attack there” or “defend this” stripe autonomously. The whole game plays on an accelerated time scale which yields bursts if not sustained plateaus of activity as frantic as any action game. This combination of qualities is what Westwood invented, not the abstract notion of a strategy game played in real time rather than turns.

Of course, all inventions stand on the shoulders of those that came before, and RTS is no exception. It can be challenging to trace the bits and pieces which would gel together to become Dune II only because there are so darn many of them.


The earliest strategy game to replace turns with real time may have been Utopia, an abstract two-player game of global conquest designed and programmed by Don Daglow for the Intellivision console in 1982. The same year, Dan Bunten’s1 science-fiction-themed Cytron Masters and Chris Crawford’s Roman-themed Legionnaires became the first computer-based strategy games to discard the comfortable round of turns for something more stressful and exciting. Two years later, Brøderbund’s very successful Ancient Art of War exposed the approach to more players than ever before.

In 1989, journalists started talking about a new category of “god game” in the wake of Will Wright’s SimCity and Peter Molyneux’s Populous. The name derived from the way that these games cast you as a god able to control your people only indirectly, by altering their city’s infrastructure in SimCity or manipulating the terrain around them in Populous. This control was accomplished in real time. While, as we’ve seen, this in itself was hardly a new development, the other innovations of these landmark games were as important to the eventual RTS genre as real time itself. No player can possibly micromanage an army of dozens of units in real time — at least not if the clock is set to run at anything more than a snail’s pace. For the RTS genre as we’ve come to know it to function, units must have a degree of autonomous artificial intelligence, must be able to carry out fairly abstract orders and react to events on the ground in the course of doing so. SimCity and Populous demonstrated for the first time how this could work.

By 1990, then, god games had arrived at a place that already bore many similarities to the RTS games of today. The main things still lacking were resource collecting and building. And even these things had to some extent already been done in non-god games: a 1987 British obscurity called Nether Earth demanded that you build robots in your factory before sending them out against your enemy, although there was no way of building new structures beyond your starting factory. Indeed, even the multiplayer death matches that would come to dominate so much of the RTS genre a generation later had already been pioneered before 1990, perhaps most notably in Dan Bunten’s 1988 game Modem Wars.

Herzog Zwei

But the game most often cited as an example of a true RTS in form and spirit prior to Dune II, if such a thing is claimed to exist at all, is one called Herzog Zwei, created by the Japanese developer Technosoft and first published for the Sega Genesis console in Japan in 1989. And yet Herzog Zwei‘s status as an alternative RTS urtext is, at the very least, debatable.

Players each start the game with a single main base, and an additional nine initially neutral “outposts” are scattered over the map. Players “purchase” units in the form of Transformers-like flying robots, which they then use to try to conquer outposts; controlling more of them yields more revenue, meaning one can buy more units more quickly. Units aren’t completely out of the player’s direct control, as in the case of SimCity and Populous, but are ordered about in a rather general way: stand and fight here, patrol this radius, retreat to this position or outpost. The details are then left to the unit-level artificial intelligence. For this reason alone, perhaps, Herzog Zwei subjectively feels more like an RTS than any game before it. But on the other hand, much that would come to mark the genre is still missing: resource collection is still abstracted away entirely, while there’s only one type of unit available to build, and no structures. In my opinion, Herzog Zwei is best seen as another of the RTS genre’s building blocks rather than an urtext.

The question of whether and to what extent Herzog Zwei influenced Dune II is a difficult one to answer with complete assurance. Brett Sperry and Louis Castle have claimed not to even have been aware of the Japanese game’s existence prior to making theirs. In fact, out of all of the widely acknowledged proto-RTS games I’ve just mentioned, they cite only Populous as a major influence. Their other three stated inspirations make for a rather counter-intuitive trio on the face of it: the 1984 Apple II game Rescue Raiders, a sort of Choplifter mated to a strategic wargame; the 1989 NEC TurboGrafx-16 game Military Madness, an abstract turn-based strategy game; and, later in the development process, Sid Meier’s 1991 masterpiece Civilization (in particular, the tech tree therein).

Muddying these waters, however, is an anecdote from Stephen Clarke-Willson, an executive in Virgin’s American offices during the early 1990s. He says that “everyone at the office was playing Herzog Zwei” circa April of 1991: “I was given the task of figuring out what to do with the Dune license since I’d read the book a number of times. I thought from a gaming point of view the real stress was the battle to control the spice, and that a resource-strategy game would be good.” Clarke-Willson further claims that from the outset “Westwood agreed to make a resource-strategy game based on Dune, and agreed to look at Herzog Zwei for design ideas.” Sperry and Castle, by contrast, describe a far more open-ended agreement that called for them simply to make something interesting out of the license, allowing the specifics of their eventual Dune to arise organically from the work they had already started on their fantasy-themed real-time wargame.

For what it’s worth, neither Sperry nor Castle has a reputation for dishonesty. Quite the opposite, in fact: Westwood throughout its life stood out as a bastion of responsibility and stability in an industry not much known for either. So, whatever the true facts may be, we’re better off ascribing these contradictory testimonies to the vagaries of memories than to disingenuousness. Certainly, regardless of the exact influences that went into it, Dune II has an excellent claim to the title of first RTS in the modern neologism’s sense. This really was the place where everything came together and a new genre was born.

In the novel of Dune, the spice is the key to everything. In the Westwood game, even in the absence of almost everything else that makes the novel memorable, the same thing is true. The spice was, notes Louis Castle, “very adaptable to this harvest, grow, build for war, attack gambit. That’s really how [Dune II] came about.” Thus was set up the gameplay loop that still defines the RTS genre to this day — all stemming from a novel published in 1965.

The overarching structure of Dune II is also far more typical of the games of today than those of its peers in the early 1990s. You play a “campaign” consisting of nine scenarios, linked by snippets of narrative, that grow progressively more difficult. There are three of these campaigns to choose from, depicting the war for Arrakis from the standpoint of House Atreides, House Harkonnen, and House Ordos — the last being a cartel of smugglers who don’t appear in the novel at all, having been invented for a non-canonical 1984 source book known as The Dune Encyclopedia. In addition to a different narrative, each faction has a slightly different slate of structures and units at its command.

There’s the suggestion of a more high-level strategic layer joining the scenarios together: between scenarios, the game lets you choose your next target for attack by clicking on a territory on a Risk-like map of the planet. Nothing you do here can change the fixed sequence of scenario goals and opposing enemy forces the game presents, but it does change the terrain on which the subsequent scenario takes place, thus adding a bit more replayability for the true completionists.

You begin a scenario with a single construction yard, a handful of pre-built units, and a sharply limited initial store of spice, that precious resource from which everything else stems. Fog of war is implemented; in the beginning, you can see only the territory that immediately surrounds your starting encampment. You’ll thus want to send out scouts immediately, to find deposits of spice ripe for harvesting and to learn where the enemy is.

While your scouts go about their business, you’ll want to get an economy of sorts rolling back at home. The construction yard with which you begin can build any structure available in a given scenario, although it’s advisable to first build a “concrete slab” to serve as its foundation atop the shifting sands of Arrakis. The first real structure you’re likely to build is a “wind trap” to provide power to those that follow. Then you’ll want a “spice refinery,” which comes complete with a unit known as a “harvester,” able to collect spice from the surrounding territory and return it to the refinery to become the stuff of subsequent building efforts. Next you’ll probably want an “outpost,” which not only lets you see much farther into the territory around your base without having to deploy units there but is a prerequisite for building any new units at all. After your outpost is in place, building each type of unit requires its own kind of structure, from a “barracks” for light infantry (read: cannon fodder) to a “high tech factory” for the ultimate weapon of airpower. Naturally, more powerful units are more expensive, both in terms of the spice required to build the structures that produce them and that required to build the units themselves afterward.

Your real goal, of course, is to attack and overwhelm the enemy — or, in some later scenarios, enemies — before he or they have the chance to do the same to you. There’s a balancing act here that one could describe as the central dilemma of the game. Just how long do you concentrate on building up your infrastructure and military before you throw your units into battle? Wait too long and the enemy could get overwhelmingly powerful before you cut him down to size; attack too soon and you could be defeated and left exposed to counterattack, having squandered the units you now need for defense. The amount of spice on the map is another stress point. The spice deposits are finite; once they’re gone, they’re gone, and it’s up to whatever units are left to battle it out. Do you stake your claim to that juicy spice deposit just over the horizon right now? Or do you try to eliminate that nearby enemy base first?

If you’ve played any more recent RTS games at all, all of this will sound thoroughly familiar. And, more so than anything else I could write here, it’s this sense of familiarity, clinging as it does to almost every aspect of Dune II, which crystallizes the game’s influence and importance. The only substantial piece of the RTS puzzle that’s entirely missing here is the multiplayer death match; this game is single-player only, lacking the element that for many is the most appealing of all about the RTS genre. Otherwise, though, the difference between this and more modern RTS games is in the details rather than the fundamentals. This anointed first example of an RTS is a remarkably complete example of the breed. All the pieces are here, and all the pieces fit together as we’ve come to expect them to.

So much for hindsight. As for foresight…

Upon its release in the fall of 1992, Dune II was greeted, like its predecessor from Cryo, with positive reviews, but with none of the fanfare one might expect for a game destined to go down in history as such a revolutionary genre-spawner. Computer Gaming World called it merely “a gratifying experience,” while The One was at least a bit more effusive, with the reviewer pronouncing it “one of the most absorbing games I’ve come across.” Yet everyone regarded it as just another fun game at bottom; no one had an inkling that it would in time birth a veritable new gaming subculture. It sold well enough to justify its development, but — very probably thanks in part to its billing as a sequel to a game with a completely different personality, which had itself only been on the market a few months — it never threatened Eye of the Beholder for the crown of Westwood’s biggest hit to date.

Nor did it prompt an immediate flood of games in the same mold, whether from Westwood or anyone else. The next notable example of the budding genre, Blizzard’s Warcraft, wouldn’t appear until late 1994. That title would be roundly mocked by the gaming intelligentsia for its similarities to Dune IIComputer Gaming World would call it “a perfect bit of creative larceny” — but it would sell much, much better, well and truly setting the flame to the RTS torch. To many Warcraft fans, Westwood would seem like the bandwagon jumpers when they belatedly returned to the genre they had invented with 1995’s Command & Conquer.

By the time that happened, Westwood would be a very different place. Just as they were finishing up Dune II, Louis Castle got a call from Richard Branson himself. “Hello, Louis, this is Richard. I’d like to buy your company.”

“I didn’t know it was for sale,” replied Castle.

“In my experience, everything is for sale!”

And, indeed, notwithstanding their unhappiness about Dune II‘s sequel billing, Brett Sperry and Louis Castle sold out to Virgin, with the understanding that their new parent company would stay out of their hair and let them make the games they wanted to make, holding them accountable only on the basis of the sales they generated. Unlike so many merger-and-acquisition horror stories, Westwood would have a wonderful relationship with Virgin and Martin Alper, who provided the investment they needed to thrive in the emerging new era of CD-ROM-based, multimedia-heavy gaming. We’ll doubtless be meeting Sperry, Castle, and Alper again in future articles.

Looked upon from the perspective of today, the two Dune games of 1992 make for an endlessly intriguing pairing, almost like an experiment in psychology or sociology. Not only did two development teams set out to make a game based on the same subject matter, but they each wound up with a strategy game running in real time. And yet the two games could hardly be more different.

In terms of historical importance, there’s no contest between the two Dunes. While Cryo’s Dune had no discernible impact on the course of gaming writ large, Westwood’s is one of the most influential games of the 1990s. A direct line can be traced from it to games played by tens if not hundreds of millions of people all over the world today. “He who controls the spice, controls the universe,” ran the blurb on the front cover of millions of Dune paperbacks and movie posters. Replace “spice” with the resource of any given game’s choice, and the same could be stated as the guiding tenet of the gaming genre Dune birthed.

And yet I’m going to make the perhaps-surprising claim that the less-heralded first Dune is the more enjoyable of the two to play today. Its fusion of narrative and strategy still feels bracing and unique. I’ve never seen another game which plays quite like this one, and I’ve never seen another ludic adaptation that does a better job of capturing the essential themes and moods of its inspiration.

Dune II, by contrast, can hardly be judged under that criterion at all, given that it’s just not much interested in capturing any of the subtleties of Herbert’s novel; it’s content to stop at “he who controls the spice controls the universe.” Judged on its own terms, meanwhile, strictly as a game rather than an adaptation, it’s become the ironic victim of its own immense influence. I noted earlier that all of the pieces of the RTS genre, with the exception only of the multiplayer death match, came together here for the first time, that later games would be left to worry only about the details. Yet it should also be understood that those details are important. The ability to give orders to groups of units; the ability to give more complex orders to units; ways to get around the map more quickly and easily; higher-resolution screens able to show more of the map at one time; a bigger variety of unit types, with greater variance between opposing factions; more varied and interesting scenarios and terrains; user-selectable difficulty levels (Dune II often seems to be stuck on “Brutal”)… later games would do all of this, and so much more besides. Again, these things do matter. Playing Dune II today is like playing your favorite RTS game stripped down to its most basic foundation. For a historian or a student of game design, that’s kind of fascinating. For someone who just wants to play a fun game, it’s harder to justify.

Still, none of this should detract from the creativity and sheer technical chops that went into realizing Dune II in its own time. Most gaming genres require some iteration to work out the kinks and hone the experience. The RTS genre in particular has been so honed by such a plethora of titles, all working within such a sharply demarcated set of genre markers, that Dune II is bound to seem like a blunt instrument indeed when we revisit it today.

So, there you have it: two disparate Dune games, both inspired and worthy, but in dramatically different ways. Dune as evocative storytelling experience or Dune as straightforward interactive ultra-violence? Take your pick. The choice seems appropriate for a novel that’s been pulled back and forth along much the same axis ever since its first publication in 1965. Does it have a claim to the mantle of High Literature or is it “just” an example of a well-crafted genre novel? Take your pick. The same tension shows itself in the troubled history of Dune as movie, in the way it could attract both filmmakers who pursued — or at least believed themselves to be pursuing — a higher artistic calling, like Alejandro Jodorowsky, and purveyors of the massiest of mass-market entertainments, like Arthur P. Jacobs. Dune as art film or Dune as blockbuster? Take your pick — but please, choose one or the other. Dino and Raffaella De Laurentiis, the first people to get an actual Dune film made, tried to split the difference, making it through a mainstream Hollywood studio with a blockbuster-sized budget, but putting all those resources in the hands of a director of art films. As we’ve seen, the result of that collision of sensibilities was unsatisfying to patrons of multiplexes and art-house theaters alike.

In that light, perhaps it really was for the best that Virgin wound up accidentally releasing two Dune games. Cryo’s Dune locked down the artsier side of Dune‘s split media personality, while Westwood’s was just good fun, satisfying the timeless urge of gamers to blow stuff up in entertaining ways. Thanks to a colossal bureaucratic cock-up at Virgin, there is, one might say, a Dune game for every Dune reader. Which one really is “better” is an impossible question to answer in the end. I’ve stated my opinion, but I have no doubt that plenty of you readers could make an equally compelling case in the other direction. So, vive la différence! With all due apologies to Frank Herbert, variety is the real spice of life.

(Sources: Computer Gaming World of April 1993, August 1993, and January 1995; Game Developer of June 2001; The One of October 1992, January 1993, and July 1993; Retro Gamer 90; Westwood Studios’s customer newsletter dated Fall 1992. Online sources include Louis Castle’s interview for Soren Johnson’s Designer Notes podcast, “Retro Throwback: Dune 2 by Cole Machin on CGM, “Build, gather, brawl, repeat: The history of real-time strategy games” by Richard Moss on Ars Technica, “A New Dawn: Westwood Studios 15th Anniversary” by Geoff Keighly with Amer Ajami on GameSpot, and “The Origin of Realtime Strategy Games on the PC” by Stephen Clarke Willson on his blog Random Blts.

Feel free to download Dune II from right here, packaged so as to make it as easy as possible to get running using your chosen platform’s version of DOSBox.)

  1. Dan Bunten died in 1998 as the woman Danielle Bunten Berry. As per my usual editorial policy on these matters, I refer to her as “he” and by her original name only to avoid historical anachronisms and to stay true to the context of the times. 

December 06, 2018

Choice of Games

Death Collector — Severing tongues just became a career move.

by Rachel E. Towers at December 06, 2018 05:41 PM

We’re proud to announce that Death Collector, 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 33% off until December 13th!

Sever and preserve the tongues of the dying to steal their stories! Whether you gather their tales and memories for the greater good, or use what you learn to become one of the elite who decide what to call “History” is up to you.

Death Collector is a 300,000 word interactive fantasy novel by Jordan Reyne, 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.

As a Death Collector, your job is to visit the dying and harvest their stories by cutting out their tongues. Whether you seek fame, fortune, love, or renown, you’ll find playing Death is more than just a job. Will you be able to stomach the gore-work that is cutting the tales of the dead from their mouths, or will you find out how the Ministry disposes of their workers?

• Play as male, female, or non-binary; gay, or straight.
• Learn to kill with style and professionalism, or to plunder information you were never meant to know.
• Join the elite ranks of the Board, or reveal the rot at the center of the system and lead a revolution.
• Get to know your cloak—a weird, organic entity that can render you invisible.

The wages of Death are yours for the taking!

We hope you enjoy playing Death Collector. 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.

December 05, 2018

Emily Short

Counterfeit Monkey (Release 8)

by Mort Short at December 05, 2018 10:40 AM

Cover.pngCounterfeit Monkey is now being maintained as an open source, community project, with Petter Sjölund spearheading the effort. Thanks to Petter and the rest of the team, it has just had its latest update with Release 8, available here.  This version fixes various bugs discovered since the last release, which came out about a year ago.  Thanks to Damien Neil, Dan Brown, Ian Kelly, Lauren Brazier, and Michael Gundlach for reporting bugs!  And special thanks to Dannii Willis and Andrew Plotkin.

There’s a link to the complete change log for those who are curious, but a quick summary is below.

Among the most important changes:

  • Fixes a hang that would occur on some interpreters when resizing the game window or clicking on the compass rose while being asked to reply yes or no.
  • Fixes a bug where the game would use the achievements from the save file rather than the external monkeyac file after restoring, This meant that a save game from a different session, such as from another interpreter or computer, would award you the achievements from that session. Achievements are now properly reloaded from the monkeyac file after a restore.
  • Works around a bug where the player could get stuck after showing the pass to the secretary.
  • No longer awards achievements upon dying that were meant to be awarded when finishing the game.
  • Makes all player input case-insensitive.
  • Fixes a bug where restoring a save game from an interpreter without support for graphics would break the map display on an interpreter which supports graphics.
  • Adds a massive pug.


Counterfeit Monkey is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 license.

December 04, 2018

Emily Short

Save the Cat (Blake Snyder)

by Emily Short at December 04, 2018 08:40 PM


Save the Cat is one of those screenwriting books, like Robert McKee’s Story, that you can’t help running into if you’re looking at writing advice at all. The title refers to the idea that you must establish your protagonist in a movie with some sympathetic action. There are a lot of musts in this book. Snyder is telling you specifically how to write a three-act, 110-page movie script that fits a Hollywood formula of a few years back — down to which pages of the script should feature major events and reversals; how many beats should appear within each act; and how the hero should be feeling at the midpoint of the movie.

He explains that the heroes ought to be in their 20s at the latest because Men Under 25 are the most coveted viewing demographic. He does not overtly say they should be white, but that assumption is I think implicit. The book is a few years old; after Black Panther and Get Out and Crazy Rich Asians and so on, perhaps Snyder would now have something different to say about representation.

In any case, the book is largely about formula — and a formula much more genre-bound than my nemesis The Hero’s Journey. Snyder has very little to say about theme, other than to acknowledge that you probably should have one and mention it early in your screenplay. He has not much to say, either, about developing characters or about representing personal truths. He doesn’t very much care what the substance of your work might be. This book is about how to package it, how to make it accessible to audiences in a format that is familiar to them and that will help them quickly understand the emotional landscape.

So if this is mainly formula for a different medium and different market from games, does it have anything to offer?

Some of the value comes from looking at Snyder’s suggestions and mapping them to game equivalents if any exist. The famous Save the Cat admonition itself, for instance: in games, this is not just “do you like the protagonist?” but “are you going to enjoy being the protagonist?” What’s it like to play this particular character? What can they do? What are their goals? How do they perceive the world? All of those things do need to be conveyed fairly immediately, and they involve a blend of mechanics and fiction. It’s fun to play Batman in Arkham because he has cool stealth moves that let you enact a lot of micro-stories of cleverly ambushing people.

Another of Snyder’s suggestions is to use “the Pope in the pool” move — a reference to a screenplay in which some exposition was delivered while the Pope swam laps in the Vatican swimming pool. The world building and comedy of this slice of life in the Vatican kept the scene interesting (according to Snyder). Though they don’t always do so effectively, games are well-positioned to provide interesting stage business for the player to offset exposition — see, for instance, the times you’re driving a carriage in Red Dead Redemption while your passenger tells you some backstory.

Snyder also advises against spending too much time “laying pipe”, which is to say, setting things up in Act I before getting to anything interesting. Here, commercial games at least tend to have much less room to dally than even the formula movies Snyder is describing. Often, there effectively is no Act I in a game plot, or it consists of about thirty seconds of scene-setting, before we jump right into the point where the player’s required to take some action.

Still — it takes some translation to get from the movie advice to something applicable to games, and that exercise is likely to come most naturally to people who already know something about how game writing typically works.

There is one aspect of the book that I think does have some direct transfer value, though, and that’s the section about working out the plot beats you’re going to need in your story. Snyder’s particulars about how acts should be divided up and how many scenes are allowed per act — all of that doesn’t apply, and different games will substitute their own structural demands instead. We have so many levels that we need to wrap in story, or we have so many locations that can be tied into the game world, or whatever else.

But the general technique of identifying what you need to communicate at each stage of the story, checking your scenes to make sure they offer enough conflict and enough emotional change, and imposing adequate structure at that scene level — all of that is really very useful.

And I think it may be particularly useful to IF writers. Structural sloppiness is a fairly common issue in interactive fiction. IF authors often write long because there’s nothing to stop them doing so — no external editor, no resource constraints — and it’s easy to wind up with scenes, especially around the middle, where it’s just not clear why that scene exists. If you struggle with this kind of structural discipline, Snyder’s suggestions may be useful. You might even find that you want to adopt a few of his formula rules about how many scenes are allowed, or make up your own: yes, they’re arbitrary, but a well-chosen constraint or two can do a lot to help structure an unwieldy project.

sub-Q Magazine

Table of Contents – December, 2018 (Plus, author reveal for our game jam!)

by Stewart C Baker at December 04, 2018 02:41 PM

It’s December, somehow, already, and that means we have another game to set before you!

This month on the 18th, we’ll be bringing you “Thanks for the Memories,” an original sci-fi piece from author and game writer Erin Roberts.

On the 25th, we’ll feature a guest interview with Erin, where she talks about her process for the game and IF in general.

And of course, next Tuesday, the 11th, will be our regular column from Bruno on Making Interactive Fiction, this time on the topic of anthology games. (New to that term? Check out Ryan Veeder’s Tales from Castle Balderstone, which took 1st place in the Grand Guignol category of this year’s EctoComp.)

February Issue Invited Authors

In other exciting news, I’m pleased to be able to reveal our invited authors for the #subQjam February issue!

Joining the two completed pieces of IF we select from our game jam, and the two proposals we select from our Submittable queue will be an original piece from Olivia Wood and another from Cassandra Khaw and James Persaud.

Read on to learn more about our intrepid contributors!

Olivia Wood works as an editor and writer both freelance and for Failbetter Games (Fallen London, Sunless Sea, Sunless Skies). She has written for the award winning narrative game Where the Water Tastes Like Wine, and is working on the next game of the BAFTA-nominated studio, the Pixel Hunt.

She was selected by BAFTA in 2017 as a Breakthrough Brit. Olivia works with clients to create narrative designs with strong story arcs and writes character-driven stories that marry human relationships to fantastical environments.

Cassandra Khaw is an award-winning games writer, an award-nominated author, represented by Michael Curry of DMLA, and a scriptwriter at Ubisoft Montreal.

James Persaud is a games industry veteran who has done programming for the likes of Paradox, Firefly Studios, Blue Byte, and Rovio. He tweets sometimes as and is very fond of owls.


We can’t wait to see what they’ll come up with on our theme of “love”, and hope you’ll consider sending in a game or a proposal as well—if you haven’t already! You can find more information about our game jam and proposal queue here:

The post Table of Contents – December, 2018 (Plus, author reveal for our game jam!) appeared first on sub-Q Magazine.

December 03, 2018

Choice of Games

Author Interview: Jordan Reyne, “Death Collector”

by Mary Duffy at December 03, 2018 05:41 PM

Sever and preserve the tongues of the dying to steal their stories! Whether you gather their tales and memories for the greater good, or use what you learn to become one of the elite who decide what to call “History” is up to you. As a Death Collector, your job is to visit the dying and harvest their stories by cutting out their tongues. Whether you seek fame, fortune, love, or renown, you’ll find playing Death is more than just a job.  Death Collector is a 300,000-word interactive fantasy novel by Jordan Reyne, author of Choice of the Cat. I sat down with Jordan to talk about her upcoming game and the challenges inherent in creating new worlds across cultures. Death Collector releases this Thursday, December 6th. 

The world of Death Collector is so different and compelling. Tell me what inspired you in creating it.

There seems to be a kind of morbid, desperate archeology of identity going on throughout the world at present. Although it has a different flavour, I see it happening in Europe as much as it happens in places like the States and New Zealand that have very young identities to begin with. Along with general malcontent, it’s like we, as individuals, feel increasingly disconnected from the world and each other, which perforates upwards into how nations behave as entities. It’s an easy thing to exploit and there are a number of ways to do so.

I wanted to create a world where the search for reflections on who we are, and who we are not, has become as physically and obviously grim as it is in theory. In the real world, there are really two ways you can go about creating or encouraging certain identities and discouraging others: by creating heroes, and by demonizing others. In order to make it seem “objective,” one has the option of raking through history, like the Death Collectors do after harvesting tongues. They are looking for examples of whatever supports the chosen method.

The game focuses on the method of creating heroes, even though in the real world we often chose the easier option of highlighting who we are NOT. That’s where demonization method comes in. Creating heroes has its dangerous and creepy side as well, however. Quite apart from putting people into the categories of special and not-special, which keeps them separate too, we end up overlooking flaws that are important to acknowledge and learn from. We end up relegating part of even a real hero’s qualities into the world of shadow: the shadow being those things we ignore about them, but that will burst through and find a voice on their own at some point, and destroy us if we have not braved facing them.

The world of Death Collector is a world of stealth and subterfuge. Of old-world agendas and attempts at influence that may or may not get you loved or killed. In the end though, it is about who we are and how we construct ourselves and others.

The invisible cloaks are amazing. What would you do if you had one?

Haha! If I answered honestly it would be a definite spoiler! Answering from the info all players will get, though, I would probably just use it to aid in leading a quiet life. Or perhaps to get on trains I cannot pay for and travel through the rest of Europe!

You’re the author of Choice of the Cat, which when it was published was our longest game ever, and it’s still I think the second longest. It’s also extremely different from Death Collector. What kind of contrasts brought themselves out when you were writing this second game?

Cat was really more a comedy, and set to the background of a middle-class life. It was safe, bar the potential for some gruesome violence on one playthrough. Death Collector‘s world is not safe by any means. In a way, Cat was about the potential for chaotic behaviors to meet banality and cause big things (or hilarity, or disasters) to happen. The world of the Death Collector is almost the opposite. All those around the player are engaged in big plans, grand actions, and power plays.

The Death Collector’s challenge is more like steering a boat in a storm of magic, politics and the potential to have their own identity wiped forever. The cat, as a character, is really the author of her own destiny. The Death Collector has to at least pay lip-service to being the author of other peoples’ destinies instead. The Death Collector has more potential to become a sort of heroic introvert (although you can obviously play as someone who wants all the credit and attention) whereas the cat, by virtue of its species, lends herself more to extroversion. She does not have to juggle presenting the austere non-face of bureaucracy with the actual fact of her gore-riddled life. The cat may chose gore or not, the Death Collector has it as their bread and butter.

This game has a kind of general European feel to it, much like Cat does and it’s a really fun and interesting place to spend time while playing your games, I think. What has been your experience living in Europe versus where you grew up?

I could probably write a whole book on that topic, but it might not be as intriguing as the game! I grew up in New Zealand, and it’s different to Europe on more levels than I can mention here. I guess the main thing for me was that in New Zealand, there was this ever-present feeling that the rest of the world was someplace far away, and that it almost might not really exist. It’s a 13 hour flight to Asia, which is really the nearest place that isn’t similar (the States and Australia being similar, colonialist countries, with native populations whose culture and artifacts were all but destroyed, like ours).

In Europe, you can catch a train and be in another country and culture in a matter of hours. There are different languages everywhere, different traditions, different views on the world. I have ended up standing in buildings that existed before a single human being set foot in New Zealand. The first people there being the Maori, who are thought to have arrived a thousand years ago (though at the time of writing, I think this is still contested as being both possibly earlier and possibly later). We don’t have a lot of historical structures as the Maori built mostly in wood and things that decompose. Europeans arrived less than 200 years ago. Buildings get a “heritage” sign slapped on them if they are 100 years old, which is kind of a joke to people here in Europe when I tell them. Though possibly not as absurd as how we paint snow on the windows at Christmas, and then go outside for a swim because it is summer.

In any case, living in Europe is the first time I have ever felt like I belong. My family live in New Zealand, but we have no contact, so the sense of belonging there stopped a long time ago. New Zealand is beautiful, but beauty is certainly not all I am looking for in life.

What do you find most challenging about interactive fiction design?

On the one side, the usual challenges that exist for anyone who is self-employed. You have to manage time very carefully, and hope to hell there are no unforeseen problems, or you can end up in serious trouble. The other side is the challenges posed by anything with a creative element. It is very hard to invoke ideas and inspiration at will. Sometimes you just have to start typing, and then, at the end of the day, you might realise you can’t use any of it, and need to work longer hours to make up for a lost day, and hope to hell your muse comes back. Other times, it’s easy, and the ideas come thick and fast. Of course, then you can’t rest on your laurels, because you don’t know when the next “block” might come.

On that note though, I actually don’t believe in “writer’s block.” I think it exists as an idea because the expectation is that creatives (be they musicians, writers, or any form of arts) will produce in a linear, production-line fashion. I’ve read that a lot of creatives think more in terms of a cycling of periods of production, followed by one of absorption/digestion, where new ideas have time to form—or you are able to actually experience things that become what you will write about. Of course, trying to juggle that pattern with the expectations of the linear, output-oriented business-world can be a bit like trying to fit a circle in a square hole.

Jordan is a writer and musician with eleven albums, two books and two interactive fiction novels to her credit. She has been nominated for several New Zealand Music awards, and made guest appearances on several international projects, the most recent being guest vocalist on Resident Evil’s theme tune “Go Tell Aunt Rhody.” She currently lives in an artist community building in Poland, where she is working on her newest album “Bardo.”

You can find her work at

December 02, 2018


Storytron Winter 2018 Update

by Bill Maya at December 02, 2018 12:42 AM

The Sea of Ice (The Shipwreck of Hope) — Casper David Friedrich

TL;DR — SWAT v1.1 released, new “old” storyworld repository available, Storytron Patreon created

SWAT version 1.1

In the five months since the StoryWorld Authoring Toolkit (SWAT) was open sourced there has been progress. Version 1.1 of the software is available here with these new features:

Menu Reorganization

The SWAT menus have been reorganized to make them conform to the File, Edit, etc. application standards that everyone is familiar with.

File Open Menu Item

This one is a personal favorite of mine.

Selecting Open will allow you to select and load an existing storyworld into the editor. Previously, to open a new storyworld you had to quit and restart SWAT.

File New Menu Item

Another personal favorite.

To create a new storyworld with previous versions of SWAT you had to open up the BareBones storyworld and save it with a new name.

With version 1.1 you select New from the File menu to create a new storyworld. In the subsequent dialog you provide a new name for your storyworld and a directory location where you want it to be created.

Selecting Save will create a copy of a starter storyworld in the directory you selected with the name you provided.

Be careful though, you can overwrite an existing storyworld if it doesn’t have a corresponding resources folder (which is automatically named “<storyworld_name>_rsc.”

Edit Menu Change

If you look closely at the bottom of the Edit menu you’ll notice a checkbox menu item called Sounds On. Selecting the menu item will select and deselect the menu’s checkbox, enabling or disabling the SWAT sound effects (the menu item is selected by default).

This menu item replaces the original SWAT > Sounds… dialog box and removes a bit of unnecessary code (always a good thing).


A toolbar has been added underneath the menu bar and some commonly used command buttons have been added (there’s room for plenty more).

From left to right the toolbar buttons are New, Open, and Save. Their functions mirror their menu counterparts.

I know what some of you are probably thinking — some of these enhancements are nothing to shout about and they probably should have been in the application back in the 2000’s. If you’re thinking that you are absolutely correct.

What I think is important about them is what they represent. First, they’re features that I personally wished were included in SWAT back in 2010 (maybe not the toolbar, that was Chris Conley’s idea) and, second, because of open source, I was able to scratch my own personal itch and add them to the code, something I wouldn’t have been able to do when SWAT was closed sourced. And implementing them was an excellent introduction to the inner workings of Eclipse, Java, and the SWAT source code.

Anyone interested in enhancing SWAT can do the same thing — fork the repository, make their changes, and then submit a pull request back to the original repository. I hope you’ll take a crack at it.

There were some enhancements that I was thinking of doing for this release but I decided not to do them

Protagonist Checkbox

I thought that the 2000’s version of SWAT had a checkbox in the Actors editor that let you select which character was played by the user. However, no screenshot or documentation I could find confirmed that assumption.

I emailed Chris Crawford to see if he could shed any light on that question and he wrote back that at one time it was possible to allow any actor to be the protagonist but he removed that option because it added unnecessary complexity (a text search in the engine code for “protagonist” finds a number of commented out references). When he removed that option he wasn’t 100% sure.

Based on Chris’ information and my inability to determine where this mysterious Protagonist checkbox used to be located in the Actors editor, I deferred re-enabling this feature until a later date (if at all).

Based on my review of the source code I believe that the first actor in the Actors editor list is hard-coded to be the protagonist.

Editors as Tabs

Chris Conley suggested that the Editors menu be removed and the individual editors appear as tabs underneath the toolbar.

Mockup — Editor Tabs

Because of my unfamiliarity with the Java Swing library I deferred this feature until later.

I think tabs could be useful. Besides providing a little more visibility into the which editors are available and which editor is currently active, the tabs themselves might be able to host controls that allow an author to switch between various editor “views.”

For example, suppose you’re in the Verb editor. You’ve added a bunch of new verbs and hooked them into your existing verb web and you want to make sure you haven’t missed any connections or you just want to get a high level view of how things connect. Imagine if there a button in the actual tab itself that allowed you to switch to this type of view.

Mockup — Editor Tab Buttons

Using it you could quickly switch to this view and drill down into verb details (you can read more about it in the Visual Verb Web View section below).

Storyworlds Repository

There’s a new storyworlds repository containing all of the storyworlds that I could find developed by various authors between 2009–2017.

A majority of the storyworlds that were originally found in the /swat/res/data/ directory have been moved to this repository. Only a copy of ChitChat can be found in it’s original location (BareBones was removed since you can now create a new storyworld easily using the File > New menu item).

There’s a list of each storyworld and a brief description for some of them in the repository’s ReadMe. Most of them are just brief “sketches” and some don’t run correctly but they’ll give you a good picture of what was going on in Storytron’s infancy.

I also went through every storyworld and replaced all occurrences of the Protagonist operator with the first actor in the Actor list, i.e. the protagonist Actor.

Storytron Patreon

I’ve created a Patreon page to support future Storytron Org development. Though right now our financial needs are modest I could use some help to defray future expenses and support future efforts.

There are two tiers.

  • $2 Supporter — You get these rewards without pledging but your contribution is appreciated and will help us defray expenses.
  • $4 Influencer — If you want to join the conversation to help determine the direction that Storytron takes then this is the tier for you.

Details about each tier’s rewards can be found on the Patreon page.

There are two reasons why I created a Patreon for Storytron.

First, while I’m happy (honored?) to spend my time reviewing and making changes to the source code and I’m willing to lay out a bit of money for a URL and an email address, I’m not willing to fund future Storytron plans out of my own pocket. $2 a month, $24 a year, puts $19.02 in the Storytron account for future efforts (the Patreon page lists some of them).

Second, I’ve seen the Storytron community ebb and flow over the years. Everyone’s got their opinions but few are willing to put in the time and do the work.

I want committed people to help determine Storytron’s future direction. But how do you determine commitment when everyone feels that they should be able to state their opinion online and have it given equal weight? Nowadays everyone feels they should get a trophy for participation.

Not with Storytron. You can post your thoughts or opinions to the Interactive Storytelling or Storytron groups on Facebook or tweet to our StorytronOrg Twitter account. Congratulations, you’re involved but you’re not committed.

Involved vs. Committed

Commitment is forking the repository, making some code changes, and submitting a pull request (it might not get accepted but it will get code reviewed and commented upon). Commitment is signing up to write some documentation.

What’s that, don’t know Java, don’t have the time to fiddle with code, or can’t write. Well you can still download the code, run SWAT and try to create a storyworld or two. Based on your experiences and background you may have some valid suggestions. Commit to $4 a month, $48 a year ($41.04 to Storytron) and you’ll be able to have conversations about the future of Storytron with equally committed people.

To bastardize Thoreau: “There are nine hundred and ninety-nine patrons of Storytron to one Storytron man.”

That’s it. You may agree or disagree, but that’s how the storyworld works.

As of this writing two patrons have subscribed at the $2 level and two patrons have subscribed at the $4 level (we’ve also got four followers).

Thanks in advance for those of you who will decide to contribute this holiday season

New Storytron Publication

I’ve created a new Storytron publication on Medium and moved all the stories that were in the old StoryCalc publication to this new publication (the old publication has been deleted so update your links).

The best way to follow future Storytron developments is to keep an eye on the this publication, the Storytron Patreon, or the Storytron Google Group (we’ve also been added to the PlanetIF aggregator so if you’re already subscribed to that you’ll know what we’re up to.

What about social media you say? On Facebook there are two groups — one specifically for Storytron and another for Interactive Storytelling in general. We’ve also got a StorytronOrg Twitter account. Anything posted to those three areas will probably get seen and read and Liked.

Future Development Roadmap


For the foreseeable future the Java version of SWAT will be the primary development platform for Storytronics storyworlds. However, I don’t think it will ever be the way that storyworlds are delivered to reader/gamers.

However the existing tools need some refinement. And I also envision moving some of the current analysis tools into the Storyteller for the runtime debugging of storyworlds.

I also have plans to integrate copies of the Face Editor and Encounter Editor code that Chris Crawford send me into SWAT.

Standalone Engine

Back in 2009 I wrote this on the original Storytron bulletin board in response to the post “Should Storytron Attempt to Adapt to Games?”

“As much as I believe in the potential of the Storytron technology, I don’t think it will achieve a significant market presence in it’s current incarnation. Storytron’s strength, it’s focus on flexible interpersonal interaction through the Deikto interface, is adversely offset by its primitive output.
While Storytron ‘listens’ and ‘thinks’ quite well I don’t think it ‘speaks’ as well as it could. Emoticubes were a start, dynamic emoticubes are a direction, but to truly engage and move readers (players?), Storytron needs the ability to express itself procedurally in the most appropriate media whether it’s words, images, sounds, animation, or video. Implementing this might dilute the Sapir-Whorf nature of Storytron but I think the potential benefits outweigh the consequences.
The best way to integrate Storytron technology into existing games is to productize the Storytron platform. Storytron, Inc. doesn’t need to create the storyworld equivalent of Doom or Quake, they need to create the dramatic engine that any developer can drop into their C#, Python, Ruby, Java, Objective-C, or JavaScript game.”

Other people like Victor Didra are thinking the same thing today

“One thing I think that would be highly beneficial is compartmentalization. SWAT should have hooks that other engines can use to find out what emotions the actors should be showing, but no or only a basic graphics system itself.
My ideal application of it as an example; I would love to use it with Unity. If it worked with UE4 I’m sure there would be developers that would pick up and use it there as well. Both of these would provide far superior graphics potential, even if the storyworld creator wanted to keep them low rez.
I know there is a thought that SWAT should do everything within itself but I think that’s a mistake. Let the application do what it is good at, and make it accessible to other applications that are good at what they are good at.”

To do this we probably need to apply the Model-View-Controller (MVC) pattern to the existing code, making it so the engine, i.e. Controller, can run within SWAT and also on the platforms where we want to “play” our storyworlds (this is not a new concept, Infocom did it with their Z-Machine back in the 1980’s and 90's).

In this type of type of implementation, the storyworld file, created using SWAT, is the Model, the engine is the Controller, and the View could be any game framework/platform the developer wants to release on (providing the controller can run on that platform).

This means that the engine needs to be ported to another language for storyworld distribution. The two languages that I’m considering are Kotlin or Microsoft’s C#/Mono Xamarin framework.

While I’m familiar with C#/Mono Kotlin has the benefit of being able to interoperate with Java.

The entire engine code could be re-written in Kotlin and work within the original SWAT Java ecosystem.

This Kotlin engine code could be released as a community StoryCalc engine, allowing us to maximize our investment and only have one engine code base to maintain.

From what I’ve read I believe Spirit AI is using this approach with their Character Engine. Even Inform 7 is moving towards this direction.

Other Possible Enhancements

We’ve currently got 11 issues in the swat repository. If you think of something you’d like to see in SWAT you can create an issue of your own.

Here are some of the other enhancements that we’ll be talking about on the Storytron Google Group.

Personality Model

Should we limit the personality model to five traits for now?

Chris Crawford has narrowed down a good starting personality model to three traits after years of work:

  • bad_good
  • false_honest
  • submissive_domineering

I think it’s a good starting point. In order to keep things simple and manageable for novice storyworld builders should we limit the personality model to five traits total, the three listed above (which could not be removed or have their names edited) and two that the storyworld author could create, tailored towards their specific storyworld’s needs?

I’ve always thought that constraints foster creativity and I think the limitation of five traits for now would force storyworld authors to be rigorous in their creation of their personality model and prevent things from getting out of hand.

“Some storyworld authors are tempted to build a huge personality model containing every possible trait they can imagine. Whenever a design problem arises, they throw a new personality trait into their model — and poof! The problem is gone. This ultimately comes back to bite them, because as they add more and more personality traits, it becomes more and more difficult to determine which traits should be applied in any given situation. A good personality model must be small enough to keep inside your head at all times. If you have to consult it every time you use it, then you’ve made it too big.” Chris Crawford on Interactive Storytelling, 2nd edition, page 194

Talking To Character Attributes

When I was creating Siboot for Storytron I wanted to know two things related to actors on a stage

Which actors weren’t in conversation with other actors and available to be greeted by me.

Which actor I had greeted so I knew who I was currently having a one-on-one conversation with.

Because of SWAT limitations I had to resort to a hack, creating TalkingTo traits for each character in the storyworld’s personality model — TalkingToVetvel, TalkingToKendra, TalkingToSkordokott, etc. I also had to create numerous SetActor consequences in the “greet” verb to handle greetings and responses to greetings. It was a kludge — it worked, but it wouldn’t have scaled.

Talking to other actor is a major part of a Storytronics storyworld so what if, as a new actor is added to the storyworld, a new Talking_To_That_Actor attribute is added to every other actor’s state, and vice versa? This would cut down on a lot of the manual work that I had to do with Siboot.

Replace Swing UI with JavaFX?

JavaFX is the graphical user interface library that was designed to replace Swing, the library currently used to create SWAT’s windows, controls, and menus.

There appears to be a lot of boilerplate code that had to be written to implement the SWAT user interface. I don’t know if moving to JavaFX would reduce the amount of code that had to be written or if just refactoring the existing code would accomplish the same thing.


Some of the existing editors could use some work.

Visual Relationship Editor

The current relationship editor where you set the perceived and confidence traits of one actor for another is painful to use.

Current SWAT Relationship Editor

It might be helpful to redesign it to present the same information graphically and allow you to see the results by visually manipulating character relationships.

Mockup — Visual Relationship Editor

All Characters Traits Editor

It might be helpful to have a high level view of how an actor’s traits relate to the traits of the other actors so you can fine tune the personality models of all the actors in your storyworld

Mockup — All Character Traits Editor

Visual Verb Web Editor

The current Verb editor interface is serviceable but could be improved. While you can see your storyworld’s verbs in a tree view it’s impossible to easily see the relationships between verbs at a glance or drill down to get a greater level of detail

A different view on the Verb editor, maybe tying into the tab icons mentioned earlier, could alleviate this roadblock.

Mockups — Visual Verb Web Editor


Should we remove the X and Y spatial coordinates associated with each stage?

Should we limit the number of stages that can be created in a storyworld, maybe initially limiting storyworld authors to one or two stages?


Matt Chelen wrote this in Some Thoughts on Interactive Storytelling:

“The author defines scenes and the narrative emerges from the way that the player interacts with those scenes…”

That line stood out because you don’t have scenes in Storytron, you have stages (you do have scenes in Inform 7).

That got me thinking that maybe we should add a similar construct to Storytronic storyworlds. A scene could consist of one or more stages, one or more actors, and a verb web tailored for that specific scene. Maybe scene verbs are only “active” in the scene where they’re defined. Maybe scenes could have start and end conditions.

Having a scene construct might allow multiple storyworld authors to collaborate. One writes the assassination scene, another writes the betrayal scene, and so on. Of course, there needs to be a way to import scenes into your storyworld and link them together. There’s no way to do that right now but open source offers a way.

Gossip Storyworld

I’ll be creating a Gossip storyworld based on the iOS game Teen Talk that I developed with Chris Crawford back in 2013 (which itself was based on his 1983 game for Atari and his 2012 re-imaging).

Teen Talk — iOS

The creation of this storyworld will be done in tandem with the writing of a new SWAT tutorial.

New Documentation

Chris Conley and I will be creating a new set of documentation focused on the open source version of Storytron, combining the best of the old (here, here, and here) with the new features and functions being developed.

Our initial plan is to create a manual and a tutorial for Beta sometime in the 1st or 2nd quarter of 2019 (both are currently in extreme Alpha). Future plans include engine documentation along the lines of the Z-Machine Standards Document.

I hope some of you are excited about where I want to take Storytron and get involved or committed in some way.

Have a great holiday.

Wanderer above the Sea of Fog — Casper David Friedrich

Storytron Winter 2018 Update was originally published in Storytron on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

November 30, 2018

The Digital Antiquarian

Controlling the Spice, Part 2: Cryo’s Dune

by Jimmy Maher at November 30, 2018 03:41 PM

Philippe Ulrich

To hear him tell the story at any rate, Philippe Ulrich had always been destined to make a computer game out of Dune. On July 21, 1980, he was a starving young musician living in an attic closet in Paris without heat or electricity, having just been dropped by his tiny record label after his first album had stiffed. Threading his way through the tourists packing the Champs-Élysées that scorching summer day, he saw an odd little gadget called a Sinclair ZX80 in the window of an electronics shop. The name of the shop? Dune. His destiny was calling.

But a busy decade still lay between Ulrich and his Dune game. For now, he fell in love at first sight with the first personal computer he had ever seen. His only goal became to scrape together enough money to buy it. Through means fair or foul, he did so, and within a year he had sold his first game, a BASIC implementation of the board game Othello, to Sinclair’s French distributor. He soon partnered up with one Emmanuel Viau, a medical student eager to drop out of university and pursue his real love of programming games. The two pumped out arcade clones and educational drills to raise cash, and officially incorporated their own little software studio, ERE Informatique, on April 28, 1983.

Rémi Herbulot

ERE moved up from the ranks of regional developers and arcade-clone-makers to score their first big international hit thanks to one Rémi Herbulot, a financial controller at the automotive supplier Valeo who had learned BASIC to save his company money on accounting software, only to get himself hopelessly hooked on the drug that was programming to personalities like his. Without ever having seen the American Bill Budge’s landmark Pinball Construction Set, Herbulot wrote a program along the same lines: one that let you build your own pinball table from a box of interchangeable parts and then play and share it with your friends. As soon as Herbolut showed his pinball game to Ulrich, he knew that it had far more potential than anything ERE had made so far, and didn’t waste any time hiring the creator and publishing his creation. Upon its release in 1985, Macadam Bumper topped sales charts in both France and Britain, selling almost 100,000 copies in all. It was even picked up by the American publisher Accolade, who released it as Pinball Wizard and saw it get as high as number 5 on the American charts despite the competition from Pinball Construction Set. Just like that, ERE Informatique had made it onto the international stage. For a second act, Rémi Herbulot soon provided the action-adventure Crafton & Xunk — released as Get Dexter! in some places — and it too became a hit across Europe.

Yet none of the free spirits who made up ERE Informatique was much of a businessman — least of all Philippe Ulrich — and the little collective lived constantly on the ragged edge of insolvency. Hoping to secure the funding needed to make more ambitious games to suit the new 16-bit computers entering the market, Ulrich and Viau sold their company to the Lyon-based Infogrames, the largest games publisher in France, in June of 1987. The plan was for ERE to continue making their games, still under their old company name, while Infogrames quietly took care of the accounting and the publishing.

For the past year already, much of ERE’s energy had been absorbed by Captain Blood, a game designed by Ulrich himself and a newer arrival named Didier Bouchon, a student of biology, interior design, film, and painting whom Ulrich liked to describe as his company’s very own “mad scientist.” And, indeed, Captain Blood was something of a Frankenstein’s monster of a game, combining a fractal-based space-flight simulator with a conversation engine that had you talking with the aliens you met in an invented symbolic language. With its Giger-inspired tangles of onscreen organics and technology and a color palette dominated by neon blues and deep purples, it was all extremely strange stuff, looking and playing more like a conceptual-art installation than a videogame. Not least strange was the plot, which cast the player as a programmer who got sucked into an alternate dimension inside his computer, then saw his identity fractured into six by a “hyperspace accident.” Now he must scour the galaxy to find and destroy his clones and reconstitute his full identity. In a major publicity coup, Ulrich managed to convince the famous composer and keyboardist Jean-Michel Jarre to license to ERE the piece of music that became the game’s main theme. Such a collaboration matched perfectly with the company’s public persona, which depicted their games not so much as commercial entertainments as an emerging artistic movement, in line with, as Ulrich liked to say, Impressionism, Dadaism, or surrealism: “Why should it not be the same with software?”

Captain Blood

Released for the Atari ST in France just in time for the Christmas of 1987, Captain Blood certainly was, whatever else you could say about it, a bold artistic gambit. The French gaming magazine SVM talked it up if anything even more than Ulrich himself, declaring it “a masterpiece,” “the most beautiful game in the world,” the herald of a new generation of games “where narrative sense and programming talent are at the service of a new art.” This sort of stilted grandiosity — sounding, at least when translated into English, a bit like some of the symbolic dialogs you had with the aliens in Captain Blood — would become one of the international hallmarks of a French gaming culture that was just beginning to break out beyond the country’s borders. Captain Blood became the first poster child for what Philippe Ulrich himself would later dub “the French Touch”: “Our games didn’t have the excellent gameplay of original English-language games, but graphically, their aesthetics were superior.”

It took some time to realize that, underneath its undeniable haunting beauty, Captain Blood wasn’t really much of a game. Playing it meant flying around to random planets, going through the same tedious flight-simulator bits again and again, and then — if you were lucky and the planet you’d arrived at wasn’t entirely empty — having baffling conversations with all too loquacious aliens, never knowing what was just gibberish for the sake of it and what was some sort of vital clue. As Ulrich’s own words above would indicate, he and some other French developers really did seem to believe that making beautiful and conceptually original games like Captain Blood should absolve them from the hard work of testing, tweaking, and balancing them. And perhaps he had a point, at least momentarily. What with owners of slick new 16-bit machines like the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga eager to see them put through their audiovisual paces, gameplay really could fall by the wayside with few obvious consequences. Captain Blood sold more than 100,000 copies worldwide despite its faults. For ERE Informatique, it felt like a validation of their new direction.

So, on June 12, 1988, they announced the formation of a new sub-label for artsy games like Captain Blood in an elaborate “happening” at the storied Maison de la Radio in Paris. The master of ceremonies was none other than Alejandro Jodorowsky, the Chilean filmmaker who had spent $2 million in an abortive attempt to make a Dune movie back in the 1970s. The name of the sub-label, Exxos, was derived from the Greek prefix meaning “outward.” The conceit had it that Exxos was literally the god in the machines at ERE Informatique, the real mastermind of all their games. After Jodorowsky’s introduction, Ulrich stepped up to say his piece:

Ladies and gentlemen, the decision was not easy, but still, we have agreed to reveal to you the secret of our dynamism and creativity, which makes ERE Informatique a success. If there are sensitive people in the room, I ask them to be strong. They have nothing to fear if their vibrations are positive; the telluric forces will save them.

My friends, the inspiration does not fall from the sky, genius is not by chance. The inspiration and genius which designed Macadam Bumper is not the fabulous Rémi Herbulot. The inspiration and genius which led to Captain Blood is not the unquenchable Didier Bouchon nor your servant here.

It is Him! He who has lived hidden in our offices for months. He who comes from outside the Universe. He that we reveal today to the world, because the hour has come. I name Exxos. I ask you to say after me a few magic words to remind Him of His homeland: ata ata hoglo hulu, ata ata hoglo hulu…

A group chant followed, more worthy of an occult ceremony than a business presentation.

Some months later, Rémi Herbulot’s Purple Saturn Day became the first big game to premiere on the Exxos label. It was a sort of avant-garde take on the Epyx Games sports series, if you can imagine such a thing. “O Exxos, you who showed us the path to the global success of Captain Blood, you who inspired those fabulous colorful swirls of spacetime!” prayed Philippe Ulrich before a bemused crowd of ordinary trade-show attendees. “Today it is the turn of Rémi Herbulot and Purple Saturn Day. Exxos, thank you!”

The shtick got old quickly. When ERE promoted the next Exxos game, a poorly designed point-and-click adventure called Kult, by dismembering a life-sized latex alien in the name of their god and distributing the pieces to assembled journalists, you could almost see the collective shrug that followed even in the French gaming press. Neither Purple Saturn Day nor Kult (the latter of which was published under the name of Chamber of the Sci-Mutant Priestess in North America) sold in anything like the numbers of Captain Blood.

Meanwhile Infogrames, ERE’s parent company, had gotten into serious financial trouble through over-expansion and over-investment. After a near-acquisition by the American publisher Epyx fell through at the last minute, Infogrames stopped paying the bills at ERE Informatique. Thanks no doubt to such ruthless cost-cutting, Infogrames would escape by the skin of their teeth, and in time would recover sufficient to become one of the biggest games publishers in the world. ERE, however, was finished. Philippe Ulrich and his little band of followers had been cast adrift along with their god. But never fear; their second act would prove almost as surprising as their first. For Ulrich and company were about to meet Dune.

Given the enormous popularity of the novel, one might have expected a Dune computer game long before this point. Yet, thanks to the high-profile but failed Dune film, the rights had been in limbo for the past five years.

As we saw in my previous article, the Dino De Laurentiis Corporation licensed the media rights to Dune — which included game rights — from Frank Herbert in 1982. About six months prior to the film’s release in December of 1984, they made a deal with Parker Brothers — best known as the maker of such evergreen family board games as Monopoly, Clue, and Risk — for a Dune videogame. But said game never materialized; the failure of the film, coupled with a troubled American home-computer marketplace and an all but annihilated post-Great Videogame Crash console marketplace, apparently made them think better of the idea. The Dino De Laurentiis Corporation went bankrupt in 1985, and Frank Herbert died the following year. Despite the inevitable flurry of litigation which followed these events, no one seemed to be quite sure for a long time just where the game rights now resided. The person who would at last break this logjam at decade’s end was a dapper 47-year-old Briton named Martin Alper.

Martin Alper with a display rack of cheap games. These were to be found in all sorts of unlikely places in Britain, from corner shops to booksellers, during Mastertronic’s heyday.

Alper had gotten his start in software in 1983, when, already an established businessman and entrepreneur, he had invested in a tape-duplication facility. At this time, British computer games were distributed almost exclusively on cassette tapes. “I asked the guy how much it cost to duplicate a tape,” Alper later remembered. “He said about 30p. Then I asked him how much they sold the games for. About eight or nine pounds. I couldn’t understand the massive difference.” In his confusion he detected the scent of Opportunity. The result would be Mastertronic, the most internationally successful budget label of the 1980s.

Alper and two others launched Mastertronic in April of 1984 with several games priced at £1.99, about half the lowest price point typical in Britain at the time. The figure was no accident: a survey had revealed that £2 was the average amount of weekly pocket money given to boys of twelve years old or so by British parents. Thus, while the typical kid might have to save up for several weeks to buy a game from the competition, he could buy a new one every single weekend from Mastertronic if he was sufficiently dedicated. And dedicated the kids of Britain proved to be, to the tune of 130,000 Mastertronic games shipped in the first month.

The established powers in the British games industry, however, were less enthusiastic. Claiming that selling games at such prices would set everyone on the road to ruin, distributors flatly refused to handle Mastertronic’s products. Unfazed, Alper and his partners simply went around them, setting up their own distribution pipeline with the likes of the bookstore chain W.H. Smith and even supermarkets and convenience stores, who were advised to place the freestanding pillars of Mastertronic games, with “£1.99!” emblazoned in big digits across the top, right where parents and children passed by on their way to the cash register with their groceries. “The problem with the conventional retail outlets,” said Alper, “is [that] they don’t encourage the impulse purchase. Supermarkets are much better at that.”

Mastertronic’s simple action games weren’t great, but for the most part they weren’t as horrible as the rest of the industry liked to claim either. If they lacked the staying power of many of their higher-priced rivals, that could be rationalized away in light of the fact that a kid could buy a new one every week or two. And Alper proved hugely talented at tempting his target demographic in all sorts of ways that didn’t depend directly on the quality of the games themselves. One of Mastertronic’s biggest early hits was a knock-off of Michael Jackson’s extended “Thriller” video, renamed to Chiller. (Predictably enough, they were hauled into court by Jackson’s management company and wound up having to pay a settlement, but they still came out well-ahead financially.) Another game, Clumsy Colin Action Biker, starred the mascot from a popular brand of crisps, and was advertised right on the packages of said junk food. (“They showed us how they were made. It’s revolting. You know those little plastic chips you get in packing materials? They’re exactly the same, with added flavoring.”)

It was all pretty lowbrow stuff — about as far as you could get from the high-toned pretensions of ERE Informatique across the English Channel — but Mastertronic’s games-as-commodies business model proved very successful. Within eighteen months of their launch, Mastertronic alone owned 20 percent of the British computer-games market, was expanding aggressively across the rest of Europe, and had become the first British software house to launch a successful line in the United States. In fact, Martin Alper had already moved to California, the better to steer operations there.

But Mastertronic’s glory days of huge profits off cheap games were brief-lived. Just like Infogrames in France, they tried to do too much too soon. Losing sight of their core competencies, they funded a line of coin-operated arcade games that went nowhere and acquired the prestigious but troubled British/Australian publisher Melbourne House for way too much money. At the same time, the army of lone-wolf bedroom coders who provided their games proved ill-equipped to take full advantage of the newer 16-bit machines that began to capture many gamers’ hearts and wallets as the 1980s wore on. Already by 1987, Mastertronic’s bottom line had turned from black to red.

Meanwhile Virgin Games, one of the smaller subsidiaries of Richard Branson’s globe-spanning media empire, had been quietly releasing games in Britain since 1982. Now, though, Branson was eager to get into the games market in a more concentrated way. Mastertronic, possessed of excellent worldwide distribution and proven marketing savvy despite their current financial difficulties, seemed a great way to do that. In early 1988, Virgin bought Mastertronic.

Initially, the new subsidiary took the name of Virgin Mastertronic and simply continued on with business as usual. But as Martin Alper looked upon a changing industry, he saw those more powerful 16-bit platforms continuing to take over from the simple 8-bit machines that had fueled Mastertronic’s success, and he saw older demographics with more disposable income beginning to take an interest in more sophisticated, upmarket computer games. In short, he felt that he had already hit a ceiling with his cheap little games; what had been so right for 1984 was no longer such a great fit for 1988. And so Alper, a man of enormous charisma and energy, maneuvered himself into the leading role at Virgin Games proper, overseeing its worldwide operations from California, the entertainment capital of the world. After having fallen into exactly the decline Alper had foreseen, Virgin Mastertronic would be sold off in 1991 to the Japanese console maker Sega, with whom they had a longstanding distribution agreement.

Alper loved Dune, connecting with its mythical — mystical? — qualities on a deep-seated level: “It presents a parallel with Christianity or Judaism, including the idea of the messiah who comes to save a strange planet. Dune begs questions about other civilizations that could exist: will they have the same beliefs, worship the same supernatural beings?” He had always dreamed of publishing a Dune computer game, but had known it just wasn’t practical on a Mastertronic budget. Now, though, with the more prestigious name and deeper pockets of Virgin behind him, he started pursuing the license in earnest. Beginning in 1988, he worked through a long, fraught process of first identifying the proper holder of the media rights — as far as could be determined from all of the previous litigation and bankruptcies, they seemed to have reverted to Universal Pictures, the distributor of the film — and then of prying them away for Virgin. Alper saw a Dune game as announcing Virgin’s — and his own — arrival on the scene as a major industry player in an artistic as well as commercial sense, making games far removed from the budgetware of the Mastertronic years.

Even as Alper was trying to secure the Dune rights, Philippe Ulrich and his friends were trying to free themselves from their entanglements with Infogrames and continue making games elsewhere. They found a welcome supporter in Jean-Martial Lefranc, the head of Virgin Loisirs, Virgin Games’s French arm. Manifesting a touch of Gallic pride, he wanted to set up a homegrown studio, made up of French developers creating ambitious and innovative games which would be distributed all over the world under the Virgin label. And certainly no one could accuse Ulrich and friends of lacking either ambition or a spirit of innovation. Lefranc helped to negotiate a concrete exit agreement between the former ERE Informatique and Infogrames, and thereafter signed them up to become the basis of a new Virgin Loisirs subsidiary.

Ulrich and company named their new studio Cryo Interactive, a play on cryogenic chambers and the computer-assisted dreams people would presumably have in them in the future. They announced their existence with all the grandiosity the world had come to expect from this bunch, saying that their purpose would be to “open the way to the next generation of software designers, artists, programmers, and so on,” who would “create expanding horizons for our imagination in tomorrow’s fascinating technology world.” “Infinite travel, magic, beauty, technology, adventure, and mystery” were in the offing.

In August of 1989, Rémi Herbulot flew to California to have a more prosaic conversation with Martin Alper about potential Cryo projects that might be suitable for the international market. Alper told him then that he was trying to secure the rights to make a Dune game, a project for which he saw Cryo as the perfect development team, without elaborating as to why. “But,” he said, “there’s seems to be little chance of actually getting the rights.”

Herbulot wasn’t sure what to make of the whole exchange, but when he told his colleagues about it back in Paris, Ulrich, who loved the novel unconditionally, was convinced that the project had been ordained by fate. Not only had he bought his first computer in a shop called Dune, but the hotel in Las Vegas where they had all stayed during the last Winter Consumer Electronics Show had had the same name. And then there was his friendship with Alejandro Jodorowsky, the would-be Dune film director of yore. What another might have seen as a series of tangential coincidences, Ulrich saw as the mysterious workings of destiny. It was “obvious,” he said, that Cryo would end up making Dune into a computer game — and, indeed, he was proven correct. Three weeks after Herbulot’s return from California, Ulrich got a call at home from Jean-Martial Lefranc. Martin Alper had managed to secure the Dune license after all, said Virgin Loisir’s chief executive, and he wanted Cryo to start thinking immediately about what kind of game they could make out of it. Ulrich remembers running out of his apartment building and doing several laps around the block, feeling like he was levitating.

But his ecstasy would be short lived. Virgin assigned as Dune‘s producer David Bishop, a veteran British games journalist, designer, and executive. The language barrier and the distance separating London from Paris were just the beginning of the difficulties that ensued. In the eyes of his French charges, Bishop seemed to view himself as Dune‘s appointed designer, Cryo as the mere technical team assigned to implement his vision. Given the artistic aspirations of people like Philippe Urlich and Rémi Herbulot, who so forthrightly described themselves as the vanguard of nothing less than a new artistic movement, this was bound to cause problems. Meanwhile Bishop, for his part, was convinced that Cryo was being deliberately obtuse and oh so inscrutably Gallic just to mess with him. The cross-Channel working relationship started out strained and just kept getting more so.

Following what was, for better or for worse, becoming an accepted industry practice, Virgin told Cryo that they had to storyboard the game on paper and get that approved before they could even begin to implement anything on a computer. Cryo worked this way for months on end, abandoning their computers for pencil and paper.

Adapting a story as complex as that of Dune to another medium must be, as David Lynch among others had already learned, a daunting endeavor under any circumstances. “We reread the book several times, got hold of everything we could find on the subject, and watched the movie over and over again,” says Philippe Ulrich. “Whenever we came across somebody who had read the book, we asked them what had impressed them most and what their strongest memories were.” The centerpiece of the book and the movie, the struggle for control of Arrakis between House Atreides and House Harkonnen, must obviously be the centerpiece of the game as well. Yet Cryo didn’t want to lose all of the other textures of the story. How could they best capture the spirit of Dune? To boil it all down to yet another game of military strategy in an industry already flooded with such things didn’t seem right, but neither did a point-and-click adventure game. After much struggle, they decided to do both — to combine a strategic view of the battle for Arrakis with the embodied, first-person role of Paul Atreides.

David Bishop hated it. All of it. “The interface is too complex,” he said. “A mix of adventure and strategy is not desirable.” Others in Virgin’s British and American offices also piled on. Cryo’s design lacked “unity,” they said; it would require “fifty disks” to hold it; it had “too many cinematic sequences, at the risk of boring the player”; the time required to develop it would “exceed the average lifespan of a programmer.” One particular question was raised endlessly, if understandably in light of Cryo’s history: would this be a game that mainstream American gamers would want to play, or would it be all, well, French? And yes, it was a valid enough concern on the face of it. But equally valid was the counterpoint raised by Ulrich: if you didn’t want a French Dune, why did you hire arguably the most French of all French studios to make it? Or did Bishop feel that that decision had been a mistake? Certainly Cryo had long since begun to suspect that his real goal was to kill the project by any means necessary.

Matters came to a head in the summer of 1990. In what may very well still stand as an industry record, Dune had now been officially “in production” for almost a year without a single line of code getting written. Virgin invited the whole of Cryo to join them at their offices in London to try to hash the whole thing out. The meeting was marked by bursts of bickering over trivialities, interspersed with long, sullen silences. At last, Philippe Ulrich stood up to make a final impassioned speech. He said that Cryo was trying their level best to make a game that evoked all of the major themes of a book they loved (never mind for the moment that the license Virgin had acquired could more accurately be described as a license to the movie). The transformation of boy to messiah was in there; the all-importance of the spice was in there; even the ecological themes were in there. David Bishop just snorted in response; Virgin wanted a commercial computer game that was fun to play, he groused, not a work of fine literary art. Nothing got resolved.

Or perhaps in a way it did. On September 19, 1990, Cryo got a fax from London: “We do not believe that the Dune proposal is strong enough to publish under the Virgin Games label. Consequently, we do not wish that more work be undertaken on this title.”

And then, at this fraught juncture, a rather extraordinary thing happened. Ulrich went directly to Jean-Martial Lefranc of Virgin Loisirs to plead his case one final time, whereupon Lefranc told him to just go ahead and make his Dune his way — to forget about storyboards and David Bishop and all the rest of it. Virgin Loisirs was doing pretty well at the moment; he’d find some money in some hidden corner of his budget to keep the lights on at Cryo. If they made the Dune game a great one, he was sure he could smooth it all over with his superiors after the fact, when he had a fait accompli in the form of an amazing game that just had to be published already in his hands. And so Ulrich took a second lap or two around the block and then buckled down to work.

For some six months, Cryo beavered away at their Dune in secrecy. Then, suddenly, the jig was up. Lefranc — who, as his actions in relation to Dune would indicate, didn’t have an overly high opinion of Virgin Games’s international management — left to join the movie-making arm of the Virgin empire. His replacement, Christian Brécheteau, was a complete unknown quantity for Cryo. At about the same time, a routine global audit of the empire’s books sent word back to London about a significant sum being paid to Cryo every month for reasons that were obscure at best. Brécheteau called Ulrich: “Take the first plane to London and make your own case. I can’t do anything for you.”

As it happened, Martin Alper was in London at that time. If Ulrich hoped for a sympathetic reception from that quarter, however, he was disappointed. After pointedly leaving him to cool his heels in a barren waiting room most of the day, Alper and other executives, including Cryo’s arch-nemesis David Bishop, invited Ulrich in. The mood was decidedly chilly as he set up his presentation. “This is not a game!” scoffed Alper almost immediately, as soon as he saw the first, heavily scripted scenes. Yet as Ulrich demonstrated further he could sense the mood — even the mood of Bishop — slowly changing to one of grudging interest. Alper even pronounced some of what he saw “remarkable.”

Ulrich was ushered out of the room while the jury considered his fate. When he was called back in, Alper pronounced their judgment: “You have five weeks to send me something more polished. If that doesn’t please me, I never want to hear about it again, and you can consider yourself fired.” A more formal statement of his position was faxed to Paris the next day:

Our opinion of the game has not changed. The graphics and aesthetic  presentation are impressive, but the overall design is still too confusing, especially if one takes into account the tastes of the American public. We are willing to support your work until July 15 [1991], by which date we expect to receive a playable version of the game in England and the United States. If the earlier concerns expressed by David Bishop prove unfounded, we will be happy to support your efforts to realize the finished game. However, we wish to point out that it will not under any circumstances be possible to transfer the Dune license to another publisher, and that no game of Frank Herbert’s novel will be published without our consent.1

Cryo bit their tongues and made the changes Virgin requested — changes designed to make the game more streamlined, more understandable, and more playable. On July 15, they packaged up what they had and sent it off. Three days later, they got a call from a junior executive in Virgin’s California office. His tone was completely different from that of the fax of five and a half weeks earlier: “What you have done is fantastic. Productivity has collapsed around here because people are all playing your game!”

Cryo originally planned to use this picture of Sting in their Dune game, but the rock star refused permission to use his likeness.

So, Feyd-Rautha, Sting’s character in the movie, had to get some plastic surgery for the game.

Work continued on the game for another nine months or so. Relations between Cryo and Virgin remained strained at times over that period, but cancellation was never again on the cards. At Virgin’s insistence, Cryo spent considerable time making the game look more like the movie, rather than their possibly idiosyncratic image of the book. Most of the characters, with the exception of only a few whose actors refused permission to have their likenesses reproduced — Sting and Patrick Stewart were among them — were redrawn to match the film. The media-savvy Martin Alper was well aware that Kyle MacLachlan, the star of the film, was currently starring in David Lynch’s much-talked-about television series Twin Peaks. He made sure that MacLachlan graced the front of the box as Paul Atriedes.

The game of Dune‘s cover art was a still from the movie.

Cryo’s Dune finally shipped worldwide in May of 1992, to positive reviews and healthy sales; one report claims that it sold 20,000 copies in its first week in the United States alone, a very impressive performance for the time. It did if anything even better in Europe; Cryo had been smart enough to develop and release it simultaneously for MS-DOS, the overwhelmingly dominant computer-game platform in North America, and for the Commodore Amiga, the almost-as-popular computer-gaming platform of choice in much of Europe. The game was successful enough that Virgin funded expanded MS-DOS and Sega Genesis CD-based versions, which appeared in 1993, complete with voice acting and additional animation sequences.

And what can we say about Cryo’s Dune today? I will admit that I didn’t have high hopes coming in. As must be all too clear by now, I’m not generally a fan of this so-called French Touch in games. While I love beauty as much of the next person and love to be moved by games, I do insist that a game work first and foremost as a game. This isn’t a standard that Philippe Ulrich’s teams tended to meet very often, before or after they made Dune. The combination of Ulrich’s love of weirdness with the famously weird filmmaker David Lynch would seem a toxic brew indeed, one that could only result in a profoundly awful game. Inscrutability can work at times in the non-interactive medium of movies; in games, where the player needs to have some idea what’s expected from her, not so much.

But, rather amazingly, Cryo’s Dune defies any knee-jerk prejudices that might be engendered by knowledge of Philippe Ulrich’s earlier or later output. While it’s every bit as unique a design concept as you might expect given its place of origin, in this case the concept works. For all that they spent the better part of three years at one another’s throats more often than not, Dune nevertheless wound up being a true meeting in the middle between the passionate digital artistes of Cryo and the more practical craftsmen in Virgin’s Anglosphere offices. For once, an exemplar of the French Touch has a depth worthy of its striking surface. Dune plays like a dispatch from an alternate reality in which Cryo cared as much about making good games in a design sense as they did about making beautiful and meaningful ones in an aesthetic and thematic sense — thus proving, should anyone have doubted it, that these things need not be mutually exclusive.

The game leads you by the nose a bit at the beginning, but it later opens up. The early stages function very well as a tutorial for the strategy game. Thanks to this fact and the simple, intuitive interface, the Dune player has little need for the manual.

You play the game of Dune as Paul Atreides, just arrived on Arrakis with his father and mother and the rest of House Atreides. From his embodied perspective, you fly around the planet in your ornithopter, recruiting the various Fremen clans to your cause, then directing them to mine the precious spice, to train in military maneuvers, to spy on House Harkonnen, and eventually to go to war against them. As you’re doing so, another form of plot engine is also ticking along, unfolding the experiences which transform the boy Paul Atriedes physically and spiritually into his new planet’s messiah. This “adventurey” side of the game is extremely assertive at first, to the point of leading you by the nose through the strategy side: go here and do this; now go there and do that. In time, however, it eases up and your goals become more abstract, giving much more scope for you to manage the war your way.

The fusion isn’t always perfect; it is possible to break the adventure side of the game if you obstinately pursue your own agenda in the strategy side. But it’s certainly one of the most interesting and successful hybrid designs I’ve ever seen. As the character you play is transformed by his experiences, so is the strategy game you’re playing; as Paul’s psychic powers grow, you no longer have to hop around the planet as much in your physical form, but can communicate with your followers over long distances using extra-sensory perception. Eventually your powers will expand enough to let you ride the fearsome sandworms into the final series of battles against the Harkonnen.

Dune is a strategy game inside an embodied adventure game.

Cryo’s Dune provides other ludic adaptations from non-interactive media with a worthy benchmark to strive for; it doesn’t always fuss overly much about the details of its source material, but it really does do a superb job of capturing its spirit. As an impassioned Philippe Ulrich noted at that pivotal meeting in London, there’s no theme in the book that isn’t echoed, however faintly, in the game. Even the ecological element of the book that made it such a favorite of the environmental movement is remembered, as you reclaim mined-out desert lands to begin a “greening” of Arrakis later in the game. Ditto that wind of utter alienness that blows through the book and, now, the game. This game looks and feels and, perhaps most of all, sounds like no other; its synthesized soundtrack has passed into gaming legend as one of the very best of its breed, so good that Cryo actually released it as a standalone audio CD.

An in-game encyclopedia is available for newcomers, but in truth it’s hardly needed. The game conveys everything you really need to know almost subliminally as you play.

The game manages to be so evocative of its source material while remaining as enjoyable for those who haven’t read the novel or seen the film as those who have. It does a great job of getting newcomers up to speed, even as its dynamic, emergent strategy element ensures that it never becomes a dull exercise in walking through a plot those who have read the book already know. Its interface is an intuitive breeze, and the difficulty as well is perfectly pitched for what the game wants to be, being difficult enough to keep you on your toes but reasonable enough that you have a good chance of winning on your first try; after all, who wants to play through a story-oriented game like this twice? I love to see innovative approaches to gameplay that defy the strict boundaries of genre, and love it even more when said approaches work as well as they do here. This game still has plenty to teach the designers of today.

The big picture…

Sadly, though, Cryo’s Dune, despite its considerable commercial success, has gone down in history as something of a curiosity rather than a harbinger of design trends to come, a one-off that had little influence on the games that came later — not even the later games that came out of Cryo, which quite uniformly failed to approach the design standard set here. Cryo would survive for the balance of the 1990s, churning out what veteran games journalist John Walker calls, in his succinct and hilarous summing up of their legacy, “always awful but ever so sincere productions.” They would become known for, as Walker puts it, “deadpan adventure games set in wholly ludicrous reinterpretations of out-of-copyright works of literature, in which nothing made sense, and all puzzles were unfathomable guesswork.” The biggest mystery surrounding them is just how the hell they managed to stay in business for a full decade. Just who was buying all these terrible games that all of the magazines ripped to shreds and no one you talked to would ever admit to even playing, much less enjoying?

Nor did anyone else emerge to take up the torch of games that were designed to match the themes, plots, and settings of their fictions rather than to slot into some arbitrary box of ludic genre. Instead, the lines of genre would only continue to harden as time went on. Interesting hybrids like Cryo’s Dune became a more and more difficult sell to publishers, for dismaying if understandable reasons: said publishers were continuing to look on as their customers segregated themselves into discrete pools, each of whom only played a certain kind of game to the exclusive of all others. And so Cryo’s Dune passed into history, just one more briefly popular, now obscure gem ripe for rediscovery…

But wait, you might be saying: I claimed at the end of the first article in this series that Dune left a “profound mark” on gaming. Well, as it happens, that is true of Dune in general — but not true of this particular Dune game. Those months during which Cryo and Virgin Loisirs took their Dune underground — months during which the rest of Virgin Games had no idea what their French arm was doing — had yet more ramifications than those I’ve already described. For, during the time when he believed the Cryo Dune to be dead, Martin Alper launched a new project to make another, very different sort of Dune game, using developers much closer to his home base in California. This other Dune would be far less inspiring than Cryo’s as an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s novel or even of David Lynch’s film, but its influence on the world of gaming in general would be far more pronounced.

(Sources: the book La Saga des Jeux Vidéo by Daniel Ichbiah; Home Computer of June 1984; CU Amiga of July 1991 and June 1992; Amiga Format of March 1990; Computer and Video Games of August 1985, November 1985, and April 1986; New Computer Express of February 3 1990; Amstrad Action of March 1986 and April 1986; Retro Gamer 90; The One of May 1991 and June 1992; Game Players PC Entertainment Vol. 5 No. 5; PC Review of June 1992; Aktueller Software Markt of August 1994; Home Computing Weekly of May 8 1984, July 17 1984, and September 18 1984; Popular Computing Weekly of July 19 1984; Sinclair User of January 1986; The Games Machine of October 1987; Your Computer of January 1986. Online sources include “I Kind of Miss Dreadful Adventure Developer Cryo” by John Walker on Rock Paper Shotgun and “How ‘French Touch’ Gave Early Videogames Art, Brains” by Chris Baker on Wired. Note that some of the direct quotations in this article are translated into English from the French.

Feel free to download Cryo Interactive’s Dune from right here, packaged so as to make it as easy as possible to get running using your platform’s version of DOSBox.)

  1. Virgin’s concern here was likely related to the fact that they had technically purchased the rights to the Dune movie. The question of whether separate rights to the novel existed and could be licensed had never really been resolved. They wanted to head off the nightmare scenario of Cryo/Virgin Loisirs truly going rogue by acquiring the novel rights and releasing the game under that license through another publisher. 

November 29, 2018

Choice of Games

Weyrwood — Advance in Society and defy your daemon overlords!

by Rachel E. Towers at November 29, 2018 05:41 PM

We’re proud to announce that Weyrwood, 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 December 6th!

Advance in Society and bargain with creatures in the Wood in a Regency fantasy of manners, daring, and magic. Will you join your daemon overlords in destroying your hometown or will you defy them?

Weyrwood is a 174,000 word interactive fantasy novel by Isabella Shaw, 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.

You are a fledgling member of the shabby-genteel, you’ve returned from your education to disentangle your inheritance from your small town’s oblique magical property laws. Attend assemblies, call upon friends and neighbors, withstand scandal and intrigue, and court prospective suitors as if your life depended on it—for it does. Maintaining your status as a member of the Gentry and living among the Willed depends upon keeping your spina, a magical currency. Otherwise, you will serve as a tithe to the daemons and join the Fallen, their Will-less thralls.

Yet you cannot remain only concerned with your own affairs. Someone is tampering with the magical contract that binds Prosper, the Wood, and the daemons to the tenuous arrangement that you now enjoy.

Can you survive long enough to claim your inheritance and return to the City—or to remain in Prosper and enjoy the abundant blessings that wealth, freedom, and influence can grant you?

• Play as female, male, or non-binary; gay, straight, bi, or asexual.
• Uncover the daemon plot and protect your town, or side with the daemons to destroy it.
• Win a high-stakes game of cards.
• Ally with the daemons or with the weyrs.
• Gain wyrdsense to perform sorcery.
• Fight a courtly duel.
• Court an eligible marriage prospect and take a lover.
• Gain influence at balls, assemblies, and social events.
• Avoid—or embrace—scandal.
• Bargain with the magical weyrs of the forest to preserve your Will.
• Advance to become a Pillar of Society.

What would you sacrifice to keep from Falling?

We hope you enjoy playing Weyrwood. 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.

November 27, 2018

sub-Q Magazine

Author Interview: Jac Colvin (November, 2018)

by Stewart C Baker at November 27, 2018 02:41 PM

Jac Colvin enjoys writing interactive fiction in the fantasy genre and “Ocean’s Call” is her second story to be published with sub-Q. (The first being “Lost Ones.”) She has also written two gamebooks for Hosted Games, with a 3rd due to be published next year. When not underwater, she can be sometimes be found on Facebook at

This interview took place via e-mail in November of 2018.

Jac Colvin

Jac Colvin

sub-Q: “Ocean’s Call” and “Lost Ones” (our March game from you) both feature mythological creatures of the water. What inspires you about the world beneath the waves, and do your creative endeavours change what you experience while you’re down there?

Jac Colvin: Each day is never the same under the surface of the water. There’s always something new to see and plenty of inspiration for writing ideas to be found there. It’s an entirely different world with its own unique set of inhabitants that range from beautiful to bizarre. If you’re lucky it might be a massive whale far bigger than anything on land that swims over to investigate, graceful rays that fly through the water instead of air, or even hordes of gigantic crabs marching along the seafloor in their thousands. Some things you see down there, I doubt I could have dreamed up myself. Sometimes when the water’s murky though, your imagination can run wild thinking about what could be down there, hiding just beyond your ability to see it.

sub-Q:These games and others you’ve published both use choicescript, a scripting language from Choice of Games. What advice do you have for game writers or authors who want to try out choicescript for their own work?

Jac: I find Choicescript is really nice for coding those classic choose your own adventure type stories in particular, with the added bonus that it is easy to personalise the game using variables and stats. It is pretty versatile though, and I’ve seen it used for everything from resource managing games, to text only adventures with no stats involved.

There is a little bit of a learning curve, particularly if you’ve never coded before, but the language itself is actually fairly easy to learn once you get the basics down. Some good resources to get started are guide on the Choice of Games website and the ChoiceScript Wiki. I also recommend signing up for the Choice of Games forum, as there’s a great community there who can help with questions, feedback for your game and any coding issues that may arise.

sub-Q: The mythological Charybdis was cursed by Zeus to drink–and then disgorge–sea water. Is the character in Ocean’s Call the same as this mythological creature, or do you have a different vision for the being who’s summoned the player into the ocean?

Jac: Yes, that’s the one! I thought it seemed somehow appropriate since Charybdis was a nymph and child of Poseidon before being transformed into a monster, that she’d be able to recognise and perhaps be involved in invoking a little transformative magic of her own. She was imprisoned and cursed by Zeus into her role, so you have to wonder what she might have planned if she were to awaken in a time when the old gods no longer hold the power they once did.

sub-Q: Do you have a favourite mer-creature? How about a least favourite?

Jac: Although I have a soft spot for mermaid stories, I also find there are a lot of creatures which I wish turned up more often including selkies, rusalki and the horse-like kelpies.

I’m not sure that I have a least favourite, although there’s quite a few I’m fairly sure I wouldn’t want to come face to face with in real life!

sub-Q: What’s coming up next?

Jac: I recently finished writing an interactive story for Hosted Games, which I hope will make an appearance early next year and is based on the tragedy of Oedipus Rex. I’m also currently working on finishing a game called Abysm’s Veil, which has a more modern interpretation on the rusalki that were seen in “Lost Ones”.

sub-Q: As always, it’s been a pleasure to chat with you. Thanks for letting us catch up! Readers, be sure to check out Ocean’s Call and Lost Ones so you don’t miss out on Jac’s excellent work.

The post Author Interview: Jac Colvin (November, 2018) appeared first on sub-Q Magazine.


NarraScope 2019 is accepting proposals for talks

by Andrew Plotkin at November 27, 2018 04:32 AM

The NarraScope planning process continues! We’ve just posted a call for proposals for talks and panels.

The details are all on the web site, but to sum up: we’re looking for cutting-edge discussions about adventure games, narrative design, interactive fiction, and anything else that falls under our umbrella. We hope to represent a wide range of viewpoints — indies, academics, communities outside the gaming mainstream.

NarraScope 2019 will take place at MIT (Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA) from June 14-16, 2019.

Proposals are due by January 18th. We expect to have one-hour talks and panel discussions, plus probably a session of lightning talks (five to ten minutes).

We regret we are unable to cover travel expenses for speakers this year.

Thanks in advance!

November 26, 2018

Renga in Blue

Recent Interactive Fiction and Text Adventure News

by Jason Dyer at November 26, 2018 04:40 PM

Sorry, I have been snowed under by work / personal things – I hope to get back to posting soon!

In the meantime:

  • The 2018 IF Competition (24 years running now) happened, and you can view the results here.
  • Cragne Manor: An Anchorhead Tribute organized by Ryan Veeder and Jenni Polodna is a giant multi-author text adventure tribute (I’ve lost track but it’s something like 50 people?) and is now in its final testing phase. I’m guessing a release this year?
  • AdventureX (the adventure game convention in the UK) happened and one of the games was Over the Alps, which explicitly takes inspiration “from fellow UK company inkle, and particularly from their interactive fiction adventure 80 Days.”
  • Choice of Games continues to release a whole mass of things. I recommend The Martian Job, a casino heist set on Mars.
  • I haven’t been able to follow visual novels that closely lately, but last week saw the release of Don’t Forget Our Esports Dream, about attempting to make it as a professional Starcraft player. “Minigames” (mini-Starcraft scenes, essentially) which focus on “actions-per-minute” speed are included.
  • I’m not sure if this counts as interactive fiction, but since Tin Man Games has done a lot in the space, I’ll post this video of Table of Tales, which is designed for Playstation VR.

  • ADD: A parser adventure game called The Lost Legends of Redwall: Escape the Gloomer came out this month on Steam based on the books of Brian Jacques. It includes the involvement of Scott Adams (the original author of Adventureland / Pirate Adventure / etc.)
  • redwall

  • ADD: Daniel Benmergui (I Wish I Were the Moon, Fidel) has (as of today) teamed up with Annapurna Interactive (Gorogoa, Donut Country) to finish Storyteller, “a puzzle game about building stories” that won the IGF Nuovo award back in 2012.

November 23, 2018


StoryCalc: A New Hope

by Bill Maya at November 23, 2018 05:42 PM

For the past twenty-six years Chris Crawford has been fighting the good fight, trying to jumpstart an interactive storytelling revolution. He says he’s failed and that his age, his perfectionist nature, and the complexity of the problem were the perfect storm that defeated him. He retires from the field, promising to put his software in public domain and work on other projects, but interactive storytelling will no longer be his primary focus.

StoryCalc is an experiment to see if it is possible to develop an open source, workable, extensible platform for interactive storytelling based on the principles Chris has outlined using his blog posts, books, and videos (here, here, and here) as primary sources. StoryCalc is not affiliated in any way with Storytron or Chris Crawford.

This experiment will be evolutionary, not revolutionary. I make no grandiose, earth-shaking promises. I am not asking for anyone’s help right now though I welcome feedback and discussion on the StoryCalc Slack group (click here to email me for an invite).

Up Next: Who is Chris Crawford?

StoryCalc: A New Hope was originally published in Storytron on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

What is Storytronics?

by Bill Maya at November 23, 2018 05:42 PM

You can divide Chris Crawford’s interactive storytelling work over the past twenty-seven years into two categories — Storytronics and Storytron.

  • Storytronics is a collection of principles that outline what Chris’ version of interactive storytelling is.
  • Storytron is Chris’ attempts to create tools that enable the creation of storyworlds built on Storytronic principles.

Storytronics puts the priority on people and their emotional actions and reactions instead of on things or places.

In a theater play, characters enter, exit, and move around the stage. They converse with other characters. They monologue their innermost thoughts to the audience. While they use scenery and props to support the fictional world they’re creating, their primary focus is on the other characters and their interaction with those characters. The same thing happens in a Storytronics storyworld.

For this to happen in a dramatic way appropriate to the storyworld a character’s motivation, emotions, and history must be algorithmically represented so varied and nuanced responses, not pre-scripted ones, are possible for a particular situation. For this to happen, a personality model is needed.

Personality Model

The personality model is the blueprint that is used to create each character. It consists of several components:

  • Intrinsic traits
  • Perceived traits
  • Moods

All traits and moods are represented by bounded numbers. A bounded number is a number whose value is always between -1.0 and 1.0. Bounded numbers allow internal calculations to be performed without overflow. In practice a bounded number calculation will always approach it’s upper or lower limit but never reach that limit.

Each actor’s personality is an instantiation of the personality model. Let’s look each of the traits and moods that make up the personality model in more detail.

Intrinsic Traits

There are three intrinsic traits in the personality model — bad_good, false_honest, and submissive_domineering. The three traits control how a character will behave in general, independent of how they feel towards another character. They are unique to each actor and they are constant, a character’s personality will not vary during play.

  • The bad_good trait indicates how pleasant and helpful to others someone is. A person with high, positive bad_good will perform kind and generous acts; a person with low, negative bad_good will be argumentative and stingy.
  • The false_honest trait indicates the integrity and truthfulness of a person. People with high, positive false_honest are fair and true to their word; people with low, negative false_honest are unscrupulous and exploitative.
  • The submissive_domineering trait represents charisma and force of personality, not physical strength. People with high, positive submissive_domineering are born leaders; people with low, negative submissive_domineering are meek, unassertive followers.

You can think of these intrinsic trait values as ranking characters relative to the other characters in a storyworld.

  • A character with a bad_good value of -0.4 is more generous and friendly than 30% of the population and more mean and unfriendly than the remaining 70%.
  • A character with a false_honest value of 0.0 is more honest than 50% of the population and less honest than 50% of the population.
  • A character with a submissive_domineering value of 0.8 is more authoritative and commanding than 90% of the population and less charismatic than the remaining 10%.

Because they involve only one character, intrinsic traits are frequently referred to as P1 traits.

Perceived Traits

A perceived trait involves two characters and is an indication of one character’s perception of the other character’s intrinsic trait. They can change over time. There are three perceived traits in the personality model — hate_like, distrust_trust, and fear_disdain.

  • The hate_like trait reflects how good one character believes another character to be. It is linked to the P1 trait bad_good. Noble, friendly actions by one character in another character’s presence should increase the latter’s hate_like towards the former. A character with a high like for another character finds them admirable and pleasant to be around.
  • The distrust_trust trait represents how false or honest one character believes another character to be. If one character lies, cheats, or steals from another character should decrease the former character’s distrust_trust for the latter.
  • The fear_disdain trait represents how powerful one character finds another. A soldier who is treated well by their commanding officer would have a high fear_disdain for that officer while insubordinate soldiers would have a low fear_disdain.

Because perceived traits involve two characters they are frequently referred to as P2 traits.

Here’s an example to illustrate how perceived traits relate to intrinsic traits. Three characters — Jack, Kate, and Sawyer — are stranded on a desert island in the Pacific. First, let’s look at each character’s integrity and honesty, represented in the personality model by the P1 trait false_honest.

  • Jack tries to do the right thing and operates from the maxim that “honesty is the best policy.” His false_honest of 0.50 means he will usually do the right thing 75% of the time but he is no paragon of virtue.
  • Kate is a felon with a shady past she is trying to hide. Her false_honest of -0.25 makes her more than willing to dissemble if it suits her purpose but she still has moments of integrity.
  • Sawyer is a con man and his first thought is “what’s in it for me.” With a false_honest of -0.50 he will manipulate a situation to his advantage if at all possible 75% of the time. But he is not totally without virtue.

These false_honest values for each character will not change during the entire time that the storyworld is played. They are fixed.

The perceived traits of characters in a storyworld start off set by the author but their values can change as the storyworld is played.

Intrinsic and Perceived Traits — Jack, Kate, and Sawyer

A character’s perceived trait towards another character can change during the playing of a storyworld depending on the second character’s actions towards the first character and how they differ from what they have said.

If Jack continues to behave at his 0.50 honesty in all his dealings with Kate and Sawyer, their distrust_trust for him could increase, approaching but never reaching it’s upper limit of 1.0. But if for some reason, Jack believes it is not in his best interest to continue behaving at 0.50 honesty (which he might do 25% of the time), Kate and Sawyer’s distrust_trust towards him could decrease towards -1.0 and the two of them will behave accordingly.

What holds true for Jack also applies to Kate and Sawyer. Their deeds and words in the storyworld will affect Jack’s distrust_trust towards them.


Moods represent a character’s current emotional state and are self-evident values, which means they can be perceived by other characters. Combined with their P1 and P2 traits, a character’s moods can play a role in determining what actions a character will take when presented with several choices.

Like perceived traits, moods are not static. They can change as the storyworld is played. However, moods seek an equilibrium, relaxing towards zero at a fixed percentage if not affected by another character’s actions.

There are four moods that make up the personality model.

  • sad_happy
  • angry_fearful
  • disgusted_aroused
  • tired_energetic

The traits and moods described above are just a starting point. Depending on a particular storyworld’s goal and theme it might be necessary to add or subtract from the traits and moods listed above.


Since Storytronics places a high priority on character relationships and social reasoning above spatial navigation, resource management, hand/eye coordination, or puzzles, faces will be a big part of the storyworld interface.

Teen Talk User Interface

In order to convey a character’s emotional state these faces need to be linked to the underlying personality model so they can accurately reflect what a particular character is feeling and how they feel about another character.

Teen Talk Faces (left to right) — Adorable, Great, Nice, Pleasant, So-So, Unpleasant, Not Nice, Nasty, Hateful

The facial styles should lean more towards caricature rather than realism since caricature makes it easier to convey emotion and intent.

Over the years Chris’ games have all included a facial component. Here’s a few of the variations that he’s created.

Faces in Chris Crawford’s Games (clockwise, from upper right)— Gossip (1983), Trust & Betrayal: The Legacy of Siboot (1987), The Global Dilemma: Guns or Butter (1990), Le Morte d’Arthur (2010), Siboot Remake (2015)


Characters in a storyworld have to communicate with one another for any meaningful dramatic action to happen. To do this they need a language.

Iconic Language from Trust & Betrayal: The Legacy of Siboot (1987). Icons are on the top, icon values are on the bottom.

Building off a variation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis Storytronics maps that language to the reality it represents.

Every word in the language includes all the algorithms and data structures that define its operation in the storyworld. Because of this 1:1 mapping language and universe are one and the same.

This language is tailored towards the specific type of storyworld being created and consists of a web of verbs that the characters can use at appropriate times to construct sentences when interacting with other characters.

Each verb has its own customizable sentence structure made up of wordsockets. There is an upper limit of 15 wordsockets per verb.

The first two wordsockets are fixed — the first is the subject and the second is the verb itself (every sentence always has someone doing something). The remaining wordsockets can contain any of the standard word datatypes (items in Bold are an instance of the type):

  • Actor - Vetvel want-to-find Wiki
  • Prop - Vetvel read-about mind-combat
  • Stage - Vetvel want-to-go-to Kendra-house
  • Verb - Vetvel desire-to kiss Zubi
  • Quantifier - Vetvel greets Skordokott sincerely
  • Attribute

Even with these limitations it is possible to create complex sentences, sentences like “Vetvel offer-to-reveal Gardibore Katsin [if] Zubi [reveals] Locksher Shial.”

Besides wordsockets, each verb also has a set of roles and each role has a set of options. When a sentence is performed, actors react to it by creating plans. A verb’s roles and options determine what plans the reacting actors can make.

Each roles represent a different points of view that an actor might take based on a given sentence. For example, if Vetvel, Skordokott, Wiki, and Zubi are in the same location, and Vetvel says “Vetvel tells Wiki [that] Kendra betrayed Zubi,” there are four roles that are available to be taken:

  • The one revealing the betrayal (Vetvel)
  • The one who the betrayal is revealed to directly (Wiki)
  • A neutral bystander (Skordokott)
  • A bystander who is the victim of the betrayal (Zubi)

When actors in the same location react to a sentence, each actor determines which role they best fit into using the inclination scripts associated with the role. If a role is appropriate for an actor they assume that role and experience any emotional reactions associated with that role (this could affect their moods or perceived traits).

Each role has a one or more options attached to it and each option represents an opportunity to react to the original sentence (each option is really a link to a previously created verb).

Once an actor assumes a role, they create a plan using one of the role’s options, the option choice being determined by the acceptable and desirable scripts attached to that specific option.

Once a role option is chosen, the actor fills out their reaction plan, i.e. creates their sentence, by assigned appropriate words to the option verb’s wordsockets. The type of word datatypes available for each wordsocket is controlled by acceptable and desirable scripts attached to the individual wordsocket.

Since Chris estimates that you would need thousands of verbs for a satisfying interactive storytelling experience the person playing would use an inverse parser to select options and create sentences.

Inverse Parser from Trust & Betrayal: The Legacy of Siboot (1987)

Plans, Events & History

The sentences created by characters come in two types: plans and events. A plan represents an intended action, one that will happen, while an event represents an action that has already happened.

All events are stored in a history book so they can be referenced by actors or by the narrative engine and Fate.

Narrative Engine & Fate

At its simplest, the narrative engine is a loop that starts the storyworld in motion and moves it one sentence at a time to its dramatic conclusion.

To do this the engine keeps track of storyworld time, advances the storyworld clock and, as the clock moves forward, process all character plans created to date. Based on each plan’s verb, roles, and options, it manages the process by which other characters come up with their reaction plans to a character’s actions.

The whole process continues until either nothing happens, i.e. there are no plans to execute, or the story reaches a satisfactory dramatic conclusion.

To help it reach a satisfactory dramatic conclusion the narrative engine has the services of one of the most important actors — Fate. Fate exists in every storyworld.

Fate makes things happen in a story outside of normal character actions.
Fate knows everything that happens in the storyworld and, based on a storyworld’s state or the progress of a particular series of events, it can trigger other events to heighten the drama or spin the storyworld off into a new direction. Fate is the author’s avatar in the storyworld, their deus-ex-machina.

It was Fate that made Han Solo come back at the right time to save Luke Skywalker in Star Wars: A New Hope. It was Fate that brought Gandalf back at the right time to save the fighters at Helm’s Deep in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. And it is Fate that will keep an eye on your storyworld’s meta-state and provide dramatic plot points at the appropriate time.


Encounters are vignettes or scenes that provide colorful glimpses into the storyworld milieu while allowing the player to influence their character’s relationship with the other characters. They usually occur based on Fate’s interventions and are handled outside of the normal action/reaction loop. Encounters can use verbs found in the storyworld’s verb web or they can provide more “natural” responses.

Encounters from Trust & Betrayal: The Legacy of Siboot (1987)

Chris estimates that it would take hundreds of encounters to flesh out the storyworld experience properly. One of his last pieces of work was a general purpose Encounter Editor.

Encounter Editor

Anyone interested in delving into any of these topics in greater detail can find a wealth of information at Erasmatazz, Chris’ personal site, or the old Storytron site.

Up Next: StoryCalc: Next Steps

What is Storytronics? was originally published in Storytron on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

StoryCalc: Next Steps

by Bill Maya at November 23, 2018 05:42 PM

TL;DR: StoryCalc is dead, long live StoryCalc.

In StoryCalc: A New Hope I wrote about developing an open source, extensible platform for interactive storytelling based on Chris Crawford’s Storytronic principles.

I didn’t have much more beyond that when I wrote that post but I felt that by sticking to the basic principles outlined in Chris’ blog posts, books, and videos as well as starting from scratch I could create something that had all of the benefits of Storytron but none of it’s flaws (though I didn’t doubt I’d add a few of my own).

I didn’t think it would be easy and I figured it would take a year or two working part time to get the very basics up and running. I didn’t know what form this first version would take but I envisioned something like Inform 6—you’d write code in a text editor that would be compiled into a storyworld file that would be read by an interpreter targeting a specific device (an architecture used for the old Infocom-style games like Zork or but with a visible parser resembling Journey). I figured I’d probably write it in Python since it’s one of the more popular programming languages out there.

I gave myself some time to think, writing Who Is Chris Crawford? and What Is Interactive Storytelling? In the middle of writing What Is Storytronics? Chris Conley emailed me about creating some small prototype Storytronic storyworlds rather than trying to boil the ocean.

After some emailing and slacking back and forth we decided to use Inform 7 as our back end and some yet-to-be-determined software, either lectrote, quixe, or iosglulxe, as a heavily modified front end for the I7 output. It wasn’t an ideal tool chain but we thought it best to try something with the tools we had available rather than wait for something like StoryCalc that hadn’t even been designed yet. We decided on a post-apocalyptic scenario set in the Hawaiian Islands called Hawaii Coup and started a design document.

I finished writing What Is Storytronics? and Chris Conley worked on shoehorning Storytronics into a tool not designed for it. We both also worked on fleshing out the Hawaii Coup design document. Then, on June 13th Chris Crawford published an essay entitled Why I Am Ending Further Work On Interactive Storytelling (which caught me by surprise since I thought he had thrown in the towel earlier with Not Quite The End).

After reading this latest essay I emailed Chris to ask if he was still planning on releasing the Storytron source code as open source. He posted this idea to the Interactive Storytelling group on Facebook, asking if there was any value in making the source code available since so few people grasped his algorithmic approach to interactive storytelling.

I told Chris both publicly and privately that if he were to release the Storytron source code as open source I would seriously consider putting StoryCalc on the back burner and, instead of writing new code, I would expend the effort making the Storytron code better. But there was one caveat — I wouldn’t work with someone’s proprietary code, I learned that lesson back in 2010.

I also let Chris know that Chris Conley had told me that he was inclined to use SWAT, the storyworld authoring tool, for Hawaii Coup instead of Inform 7 if the code were open sourced.

Long story short, Chris Crawford decided to release all the Storytron software into the public domain starting with SWAT. He wanted Chris Conley and myself to lead the effort after he did a pass through the code to comment any areas that were unclear. He expected to complete this work by August 1st.

Well, the code didn’t need as much commenting as Chris thought and he sent us a copy of the SWAT code on July 12th, ahead of schedule, catching both of us off guard. So far I’ve managed to get the code running in the latest version of the Eclipse IDE for Java Developers and have done some cleanup, mostly removing the old hidden Subversion files that are scattered throughout the directories. We expect to have the code up in its own Github repository sometime in the beginning of August.

So where does that leave StoryCalc? Well, for now, StoryCalc is in hiatus. I don’t see the benefit of reinventing the wheel and writing all that code from scratch when I can work with the original Java code and make it better.

At the very least we can make sure that Chris’ twenty-five year odyssey gets the recognition it deserves so that years from now he is recognized as the Babbage of interactive storytelling. At the very most, we might be able to build on what he’s done and create something sublime . I don’t know right now but I do know that we can get somewhere together.

Nanos gigantum humeris insidentes.

Up Next: The Once and Future Storytron

StoryCalc: Next Steps was originally published in Storytron on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.