Planet Interactive Fiction

November 17, 2017

Web Interactive Fiction

Mikayla’s Phone

by David Cornelson at November 17, 2017 07:41 PM

So this “work” was conceived, written, and designed by my sixteen year old daughter Angeline. I implemented the user interface.

Angie had a ton of poetry and notes from middle school, a lot of which is pretty typical teenage angst. Some of it is more than that. A little over a year ago, I recognized that the anxiety was more than the usual teenage stuff and offered to introduce her to a therapist. She agreed and has been going regularly since. She’ll tell you it has immensely improved her life and as her father I can say it has immensely improved her disposition. She will always have anxiety (and depression) issues, but she’s building coping mechanisms, understanding triggers, and learning that she’s a pretty amazing person regardless.

She came to me in spring and said she wanted to learn how to make a video game. I asked what kind and she told me about her writing and the basic idea of a lost phone of a seemingly dead teenage girl. I told her she needed to outline everything first. She did that. I showed her Twine and explained how to put everything into a tree of choices. She did that. I did try to adapt Twine to a mobile phone look and feel, but I felt I’d need to learn way too much about Twine. So I just used basic html and jquery.

As we were putting this together, we looked at ways to put it in front of people. We thought about submitting it to SubQ, but I suggested the IFComp and after thinking about it, she agreed it was the best way to go.

We completed the game (it has quite a few rough edges) with 6 minutes to spare.

When I hit the Upload button, you could see the relief in her eyes, almost as if a weight of the past had been lifted. She really had a bad time in middle school. She could finally (mostly) let it go.

We were not expecting anything from the voters, but the reviews we’ve read are accurate and appreciated. We both laughed out loud at “wads of morose poetry” in one review. She read it and said, “He’s not wrong.”

There’s no doubt we could have cleaned up the interactivity quite a bit, possibly added some humor, and made it more of a game. But that was not the goal. It was meant to relay what it’s like, from a real person’s perspective, to be in middle school, to be a young girl, and suffer from anxiety and probably have some spectrum social issues.

Maybe someone will “play” it and realize they’re not alone and that seeking and investing in therapy is a real solution with tangible benefits.

The Digital Antiquarian

A Net Before the Web, Part 4: The Rogue, the Yuppie, and the Soldier

by Jimmy Maher at November 17, 2017 05:41 PM

Bill von Meister’s rude expulsion from The Source didn’t mark the end of his schemes to invent the world’s online future. In 1981, with his erstwhile partner Jack Taub’s $1 million settlement check burning a hole in his pocket, he launched into a plan as visionary as anything he had ever come up with. Almost two decades before Napster would rock the music industry by providing listeners with a convenient application for finding and downloading music online for free, almost a quarter of a century before Apple would legitimize digital music delivery via the iTunes Store, von Meister proposed to create The Home Music Store.

Courtesy of the singing Osmond family, he had secured the use of a satellite-transmitting station near Salt Lake City, Utah. He wanted to use the station to send music to cable-television operators all over the country, who would then send it on to their customers. If they paid a fee, said customers would be allowed to use the cassette recorders that had become so ubiquitous in recent years to make a permanent copy for themselves — a sort of “pay-per-listen” system similar to the pay-per-view systems cable television was already using for big-name boxing matches and other live sporting events.

Von Meister won the tentative support of no less a pillar of the music industry than Warner Bros., and the scheme seemed destined to move forward. But the music industry is, as anyone who has studied its uniformly antagonistic responses to new technologies over the years will attest, an inherently conservative, even reactionary institution. When news of the the plan leaked into Billboard magazine, Warner Bros. heard from record stores and record pressing plants alike that The Home Music Store would ruin them. The brick-and-mortar stores promised Warner Bros. a boycott if they continued with the plan. It just wasn’t worth it, the latter decided, especially not when the pivotal figure had as checkered a reputation as Bill von Meister. So, he was duly summoned to a Manhattan high rise to be given the bad news.

Warner Bros. did, however, mention a potential consolation prize. They happened to own Atari, currently the hottest company in consumer electronics. Could von Meister make his delivery system work for Atari VCS games instead of music? If he could prove that he could, they should all talk again. He walked out of the high rise incensed at what he saw as Warner Bros.’s betrayal of his music scheme, but excited about this new bauble they had dangled before him. Such was the life of Bill von Meister.

He formed yet another in his long line of startups in Vienna, Virginia, calling it Control Video Corporation. (Perhaps not inadvertently, the name echoed that of Control Data Corporation, a long-established maker of supercomputers that was making a push into the consumer marketplace at just that time via a big investment in The Source.) Then, with the help of a handful of hand-picked confidantes, he set about refining his new plan to offer downloadable Atari VCS games. The service was to be known as GameLine.

Would-be videogame downloaders would have to purchase, for about $60, a “Master Module” which plugged into the Atari VCS’s cartridge slot. It contained 8 K of volatile memory and a 1600-baud modem. After paying an additional $15 signup fee, customers would be able to download games using the Master Module for $1 apiece. At that price, the subscriber would actually be renting the games for a single session rather than purchasing them; only one game at a time could live in the Master Module’s memory, from whence it could be played only five to ten times before its lease expired. Thus the same subscriber might wind up downloading a game she really liked many times over. For the benefit of skeptical parents, von Meister noted pointedly that playing videogames in the home using his system should be far cheaper than dumping quarters into a standup-arcade machine. He even promised parental controls, allowing parents to set a cap on their children’s weekly usage.

As it happened, Warner Bros., the company that had guided von Meister’s thinking in this direction in the first place, never did come back to the table, nixing any hopes he might have had to make GameLine an official Atari add-on. In compensation, though, lots of venture capitalists who probably ought to have known better by now fell to his sheer passion and charisma — and to the fact that anything to do with videogames was so white-hot among their ranks in the early 1980s.

Bill von Meister hawks Gameline.

GameLine made its public bow in typically flamboyant von Meister fashion. For the Winter Consumer Electronics Show in January of 1983, he bought an enormous hot-air balloon, which he flew above the Las Vegas Strip with “GAMELINE” written on it in proud capitals. He invited selected show attendees to his suite at the Tropicana Hotel, where there awaited a chorus line of dancing showgirls and a drawing for a one-ounce bar of gold. “It was a lot of schmaltz,” admitted Control Video’s head salesman of the time, but it served the purpose. Everyone thought GameLine a smashing idea. Control Video surfed out of Vegas on a wave of good press, with pre-orders for 150,000 Master Modules from several major retailers. And yet the really significant result of that week in Vegas would only slowly reveal itself over the course of years.

That January of 1983, Steve Case was a 24-year-old marketing manager for Pizza Hut. His older brother, Daniel Case III, worked for Hambrecht & Quist, a Silicon Valley venture-capital firm that had invested majorly in Control Video. Forced by his own job to live in Wichita, Kansas, a place he loathed, Steve Case came to Vegas simply to enjoy the nightlife and to ride his brother’s coattails into places where ordinary members of the public weren’t invited. Among these was Control Video’s private suite at the Tropicana. He was immediately taken with GameLine and with the whirling dervish of charisma that was Bill von Meister, doubly so given that he had recently subscribed to The Source, von Meister’s earlier creation. (“When I finally logged in and found myself linked to people all over the country from this sorry little apartment, it was just exhilarating.”) Desperate to get out of Pizza Hut, where his job as a “marketing manager” largely entailed traveling to pizza shops all over the country and scoring their output on five criteria — the only thing he liked about these trips was that they got him out of Wichita — he asked his big brother for yet another favor.

Shortly after Winter CES, Daniel Case III called Bill von Meister, pointedly touting the merits of his little brother, who would very much like a contract to work with Control Video as a marketing consultant. With millions in actual and potential investments on the line from Hambrecht & Quist, von Meister had little choice but to hire this unknown kid whom he had apparently met but couldn’t actually remember at all.

Steve Case in 1986.

Indeed, a certain unmemorability had been the curse of Steve Case’s life to date, especially given the shadow cast by his hugely successful older brother. Nothing on his blandly handsome all-American face gave memory any hooks to hang itself on, and nothing of much notability ever seemed to emerge from his mouth either. The product of an affluent family and a privileged upbringing, his record as an undergraduate at Williams College had been undistinguished enough that he hadn’t been accepted by any of the MBA programs to which he had applied, leading him to enter the workforce as a low-level marketing functionary with the dry-goods giant Proctor & Gamble. There he’d been assigned to something called Abound, a moist towelette for the hair and scalp; “Towelette, you bet!” had been his best attempt at a tagline. When Abound flopped, he’d wound up at Pizza Hut as a glorified pizza taster.

If you’d told anyone in or around Control Video that one among their ranks was destined to become one of the most prominent online moguls of the 1990s, then asked them exactly who they thought that person was, it seems safe to say that Steve Case wouldn’t have topped anyone’s list. Von Meister took to calling him “Lower Case”; his big brother, whom von Meister judged to be far more critical to Control Video’s success, was of course “Upper Case.” Michael Schrage, the Washington Post‘s technology reporter, would later describe him as “the least quotable human at the company.” If a time traveler from the year 2000 had indeed told him that “Steve Case was chairman of AOL Time Warner,” Schrage would later muse, “you would have to hospitalize me for internal hemorrhaging. Silly beyond belief — Steve Case??”

Slowly, though, this gawky kid that had been foisted on him began to win von Meister’s grudging respect. Still a non-presence in meetings, Case started turning in written reports demonstrating a vision that dovetailed nicely with von Meister’s own, including a strong Machiavellian streak. “Erect barriers to entry (lock up category),” he wrote in one. “Concentrate on the perceptions of the product, not the realities of the product,” he wrote in another. Most of all, he pushed the idea that GameLine could eventually deliver far more than videogames into American homes. The long-term goal should be to “turn your game console into a home computer.” He proposed email, news, and online banking as possible applications; much the same applications, in other words, that were already being tried out on services like CompuServe and The Source. In fact, his ideas hewed very close to von Meister’s original 1979 vision of The Source, since watered down somewhat by various realities, as the “information utility of the future.” The difference was that GameLine’s technology would allow Control Video a measure of — appropriately enough, in light of their name — control over every aspect of the subscriber’s experience.

So, over the course of the spring of 1983 Control Video began to talk about GameLine in a new way. Von Meister, coming full circle back to those heady days of 1979, took to saying that it would “turn today’s video jock into tomorrow’s information genius.” Never a man of small dreams, his plans for GameLine seemed to grow with every telling.

In effect, we are turning those dedicated game units into multi-purpose communications terminals and bringing the benefits of sophisticated computers within the reach of the average household. A videogame console can now be a real teaching machine.

Several videogame manufacturers have announced their intentions to develop add-on equipment which will turn game units into small computers. Our system leaps ahead of those add-ons to tie VCS and compatible units into a national telecommunications network fed by the power of a large central computer’s database.

In keeping with Case’s exhortation to concentrate on perceptions rather than realities — certainly not advice von Meister needed to be given twice — plenty of reasons to wonder how all of this would work in the real world were swept under the carpet. Delivering VCS games via GameLine made a measure of sense in that the Master Module’s internal modem was merely a delivery mechanism for code which then resided locally on the console; estimates were that any extant game, thanks not least to the extreme limitation imposed on a game’s potential size by the architecture of the VCS itself, could be downloaded within one minute. But other forms of information couldn’t, as an executive with potential competitor The Source put it, “be quantified into units as games can.” For that matter, how on earth would you enter text on a “computer” equipped only with a joystick? Control Video’s plan to have the user select letters one by one from an onscreen list certainly didn’t sound like much fun. Trying to build an online service around the Atari VCS felt rather like trying to start a transcontinental airline flying Sopwith Camels.

Other difficult realities dogged even the part of the plan that did sound relatively feasible, the downloadable Atari VCS games. While von Meister had inked deals with an impressive-sounding nine VCS game publishers, conspicuously absent from the list were the two biggest publishers of all, Atari’s own software division and Activision, with the former adopting a wait-and-see attitude, the latter flatly rejecting having anything to do with GameLine under any circumstances. Von Meister tried to persuade reluctant publishers by offering up the idea of GameLine as a sort of try-before-you-buy service that could actually lead to increased sales of their physical cartridges, but his audience was plainly skeptical of the notion. It seemed that Activision in particular, whose games were widely regarded as the best you could buy for the Atari VCS and therefore sold at a premium, thought that their brand could only be diminished by the association. Von Meister hired programmers to create thinly veiled clones of some of the hit games that were unavailable to him, but in doing so he was entering some legally dangerous waters.

Still, all of those issues might conceivably have been overcome; the buzz that would have followed a successful GameLine launch might have convinced even Activision to come around. It was rather the launch date of July 1983 that truly killed any chance Gameline might have had. This was the summer of the Great Videogame Crash, when cracks that had been spreading through the foundation of the House Atari Built for at least a year suddenly brought the whole edifice down around everyone’s heads. Almost overnight, videogames went from being the hottest trend in business to an anathema. Control Video couldn’t have picked a worse instant for GameLine’s launch if they had tried.

Launch they did, though, trying to make the best of a bad situation. Whatever else you could say about the whole enterprise, the technology that brought it off was a virtuoso hacking feat. It was largely the work of a longtime von Meister compatriot named Mark Seriff, who had previously designed much of the original incarnation of The Source. The video below gives a rare glimpse of his GameLine work in action. Note that Control Video had a policy of offering unlimited free downloads on a subscriber’s birthday, one of a number of canny loyalty-building touches that might have turned the service into a success despite it all if the timing had been a bit better.

But the timing was just far, far too atrocious to be overcome; GameLine never had a chance. By a few months after the launch, it had managed to attract no more than 5000 subscribers, and new signups had fallen to just one or two per day — hardly enough to justify the complicated telecommunications infrastructure into which Control Video had had to invest heavily just to get the service started. In October, they slashed their predicted sales of 250,000 Master Modules by the end of 1983 to 100,000, and it was hard to imagine how they hoped to make even that figure when they had more boxes coming back from retailers than they were shipping out.

The venture capitalists, who had invested some $9 million in Control Video to date, were, to say the least, growing concerned. Von Meister may have been beset by market circumstances that were out of his control, but that didn’t keep them from pointing fingers. They noted wryly that the most profitable single transaction he had managed to date had been to resell the hot-air balloon he had flown over Vegas for $15,000, three times what he had paid for it. The jokes practically wrote themselves: von Meister may not be much good at selling videogames, but he sure can sell hot air. Now, he was telling them he needed another $3 million to execute the pivot from provider of videogames to general-purpose information service well before they had originally planned to make it. It was the only chance they had, he claimed. The venture capitalists couldn’t really disagree, but they did decide to attach some strings to this latest capital injection. Bill von Meister, they decided, needed some adult supervision. Luckily, one of them had an old army buddy who he thought would be just the man for the job.

After graduating from West Point, Jim Kimsey had served two tours of duty in Vietnam as an airborne ranger. Upon returning to civilian life, he became a wealthy man by opening a chain of bars across the Washington Beltway. Like von Meister, he lived fast — one acquaintance remembers him as a “skirt-chasing, hell-raising restaurant owner” — but West Point had instilled a sense of responsibility in his professional life which his peer manifestly lacked. More than anything else, he hated excuses. “If you are a platoon leader, and one of your men dies, there is no excuse,” he once said. “If you are a CEO, and thousands of your employees are laid off, there is no excuse.” His friend picked him for the task of saving Control Video not least because he regarded the very idea of any company with which he was associated going bankrupt as such a personal affront. He knew nothing about computer technology, and didn’t much care to learn, but he knew a lot about whipping any organization, whether a platoon or a corporation, into disciplined fighting trim. Which is not to say that he accepted the role of taskmaster at Control Video with any relish; he took the office next to von Meister’s strictly as a favor to his investor friend, announcing loudly that he was only there for as long as it took to right the ship. He would actually remain for twelve years.

Von Meister couldn’t have been happy about this intrusion on his authority, but if he wanted the venture capitalists’ money he would have to accept Jim Kimsey, just as he had earlier accepted Steve Case. Speaking of whom: one of the first decisions von Meister and Kimsey made together was to elevate Case from his part-time consultant’s gig to that of a full-time marketer. “What do you think about Steve?” von Meister had asked Kimsey. “He seems bright, he won’t cost you much,” the latter had replied. But once again there was an ulterior motive as well: Daniel Case III would be extra committed and extra patient with them all if Control Video became his little brother’s permanent employer.

Von Meister, Kimsey, and Case did their level best to make a success of the pivot from games to information. After all, those 15 million or so Ataris that remained in American homes post-Crash ought to be ripe for re-purposing now. Already in September of 1983, StockLine had gone up alongside GameLine, allowing subscribers to track prices on the New York Stock Exchange, the money markets, currency exchanges, and metal exchanges, and even to store a permanent personal portfolio of up to ten stocks, thanks to a few hundred bytes of non-volatile memory a forward-looking Control Video had quietly stashed away inside the Master Module. Control Video claimed that SportsLine was coming soon with all the latest scores and up-to-the-minute Vegas odds, and that MailLine, featuring email and a real-time chat system like CompuServe’s CB Simulator, would follow thereafter. “We’re not in trouble,” insisted von Meister (like a politician telling people he isn’t a crook, the very fact that he was being forced to make such an insistence was of course proof of the opposite in the minds of his interlocutors from the business press). “But we have changed our emphasis. We had always wanted to add a BankLine and SportsLine and StockLine to the original GameLine, but there was always the question of whether the adults in the family would want to access that kind of information from their kids’ games system.” Out of that concern, which was still very valid, Control Video planned to develop a Master Module for home computers.

But doing so was going to take time which they might not have. After a dismal Christmas, they had racked up $10 million in debt to go along with the $12 million in venture capital they had burned through. It was a glum group of investors who assembled one gray January morning to go over the state of the company. “Goddamn,” said Kimsey after an accountant had run through the painful litany, “we could have sold more of these things selling them off the back of a pickup truck on U.S. 1!” Another person in the room noted that “you’d have thought kids would have shoplifted more than that.” Kimsey sensed that the investors were looking more and more to him alone, swashbuckling war hero that he was, to rescue them from this mess of their own creation. Well, then, he’d do what he could.

In May of 1984, Control Video suddenly recalled all of the Master Modules that were still on store shelves. Far from an ending, everyone hoped this event would mark a new beginning. Von Meister’s silvery tongue had seemingly come through for them, winning them a tentative deal with Bell South, a regional telephone service. The plan was now to reboot and re-brand GameLine, which would henceforward be known as InterLink. They would rent the Master Module for the Atari VCS for $10 per month instead of selling it. More importantly, a new $5 million investment from Bell South would let them start in earnest on a Master Module for home computers.

Like GameLine before it, the InterLink service would only be accessible via Control Video’s own add-on hardware. The first focus would still be games, only now they would be games for the home computers that were in the eyes of the pundits and much of the public the natural, more long-lived successors to the console fad. Von Meister called Interlink “MTV for software”: just as music fans used the music-video channel to decide which albums to buy, InterLink would let computer owners try software before they bought it. (A less strained analogy might have been made with good old radio, but von Meister apparently wanted to show he was down with the latest pop-culture trends.) The service would be tested out initially in Atlanta, Houston, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. “We’re expecting the tests will prove that there’s a broad market for this kind of service,” said von Meister. If that was indeed the case, InterLink would hopefully go nationwide in early 1985. The participation of Bell South, noted Michael Schrage dryly in the Washington Post, “gave the troubled venture some badly needed legitimacy.”

As late as September of 1984, InterLink was still ostensibly on track, although the plan to make new Master Modules for all of the various models of popular home computers had been reluctantly abandoned as impractical; the service would now function using any standard modem. On October 3, Control Video claimed that the first trials would start by the end of the month.

Alas, the trials would never actually begin. At the behest of influential newspaper moguls like Katherine Graham of the Washington Post, who were nervous about the burgeoning era of online information exchange, Congress had recently enacted a law which made it illegal for telephone companies like Bell South to become “information providers,” as opposed to mere conduits for information. Someone — quite possibly a potential competitor like CompuServe or The Source — alerted the Federal Communications Commission to the plans for InterLink, and the FCC secured a court ruling that it should not be allowed to go forward. Six years before, the same entity had foiled a von Meister scheme to use the FM radio band to transmit private data. Now, the government bureaucrats had done it to him again.

Control Video was left high and dry, with no product, no viable plans for a product, no partners, and virtually no money. They did, however, have millions in debt and tens of thousands of useless Atari VCS Master Modules. They thought about selling the latter for salvage to raise some cash, but learned that delivering them to the recycling center would cost more than they’d get paid. So, Control Video chucked the Master Modules in dumpsters to be hauled away with the trash. Any reasonable person who had witnessed that scene play out, pregnant with symbolism as it was, would have shut out the lights and called it a day. Indeed, Bill von Meister, who had already spent more time with Control Video than with most of his startups, was now muttering about doing just that.

His colleagues, though, weren’t all in agreement. Jim Kimsey was a reasonable man in most respects, but he was also an inordinately stubborn one, determined not to allow a bankruptcy to stain his reputation. And young Steve Case, frantic not to be banished back to the life of a Wichita pizza taster, was equally determined to carry on with what could be his only shot at the big time. Bad as things were at Control Video, he personally was already moving up, to heights he could never have dreamed of reaching before middle age at Pizza Hut. While neither von Meister nor Kimsey necessarily saw him as an absolutely vital cog in their machine, he retained the advantage of being cheap. As Kimsey let go of the more expensive people above him, he rose through the ranks, finally winding up as head of marketing by the simple virtue of being the only marketer left standing.

With von Meister already half checked-out mentally and most of the rest of the staff gone, Kimsey the tough old soldier and Case the preppy young yuppie began to form an unlikely bond. Their relationship was a source of constant wonder to their colleagues; it was hard to imagine two men more different in terms of background, personality, or working style. Case, who was a bit of a prude at heart, would cringe and visibly blush when Kimsey would roar into the office on a Monday morning with his war stories from the singles bars; Kimsey took to calling that reaction Case’s “Elmer Fudd” look, and took great pleasure in trying to provoke it. But underneath, despite or perhaps because of all the ribbing, a real affection was evolving. “We found ourselves sort of in a foxhole because we both had aligned ourselves more closely with this company that was kind of going nowhere fast,” Case remembers. They found that they completed one another, and Case’s role at Control Video began to extend well beyond that of a typical marketing manager. Detail-oriented to the core, he put in long hours crunching the numbers and writing the reports that are essential to a smoothly functioning business, while Kimsey, who preferred not to bother with details if he could avoid it, went white-water rafting down the Colorado River or took a bicycle tour through the south of France. “He lived, ate, and breathed this shit,” an admiring Kimsey later remembered of his younger charge. The gregarious former soldier, meanwhile, taught Case, this young man who had always seemed so profoundly uncomfortable in his own skin, a bit about how to handle the back-slapping, social side of business, where the really important relationships are forged on golf courses and in bars as often as they are in executive boardrooms.

As Kimsey and Case developed their partnership, von Meister was increasingly left out in the cold. His final separation from this, his latest visionary but poorly executed venture, came in the first days of 1985. A group of the company’s many creditors was scheduled to come in that day to listen to Kimsey’s pleadings for patience. Given the nature of the visitors, it was essential that the few people still working for Control Video all convey the appropriate sense of austerity. (Not that they would need a lot of help with that: Kimsey had long since sold off all of the office cubicles for cash, cobbling together new dividers out of masking tape and old cardboard boxes.) But then von Meister unexpectedly chose that day to visit the office, roaring up in the shiny new BMW 735i he had just leased.

“How do you like my new car?” he asked as Kimsey and Case looked on aghast.

“We have a creditors meeting!” said Kimsey. “Are you crazy bringing that car? See that tree? They’ll hang you from it!”

“What are you getting all upset about?” asked a wounded von Meister. “Don’t these people understand I have a personal life?”

Kimsey told von Meister in no uncertain terms to get in his new car and go home. This incident signaled the end of von Meister’s association with what would become one of the greatest success stories of its era in American business. Unusually, he walked away from Control Video quietly, without any of the conflict and legal drama that usually marked his exits. Perhaps it had something to do with Jim Kimsey, with whom he had formed a real friendship despite the tensions that inevitably accompanied their assigned roles of dreamer and responsible adult. Even at the end, when he had become an active liability, Kimsey found it impossible to hate von Meister. “He was like a puppy you like a lot but you have to house-train,” he later remembered.

Indeed, underneath all of von Meister’s bravado and guile there always lurked a paradoxical innocence that made it difficult for many who had good reason to hate him to actually manage to do so. At some level, he had remained a child, always chasing after his latest shiny vision. One venture capitalist whom von Meister cost a bundle over the years described him as “like that cartoon character in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. He wasn’t bad; he was just drawn that way.” That so many of his crazy schemes were in fact so visionary makes him one of the great hidden figures behind online life as we know it today. Others may have created the practical technology that allowed the Internet and the World Wide Web to arise and thrive, but Bill von Meister was second to none when it came to the vision thing: online communities, online news, online shopping, digital music delivery, digital software delivery, information as a service… you name it, von Meister was there ahead of almost everyone else. If the execution was usually weak, the core ideas were often prescient, their only drawback being that they were so often a bit too far ahead of their time.

Von Meister died in 1995 at age 53, leaving behind millions in personal debt. The official cause of death was melanoma, but his friends sensed that his body had simply had enough after a life spent burning the candle at both ends, driving race cars or racing yachts when he wasn’t founding companies, drinking and smoking and eating too much, over-indulging in everything in a seeming attempt to swallow whole everything life had to offer. He remained full of ideas until the last. His sister reported at the funeral that he had spent his final days kibitzing over the technological state of the hospital he was in: “When I get out of here alive, if I’m alive, I’m going to show how this hospital can do things better.”

His death was little remarked in the press, meriting no more than the briefest of obituaries in a handful of newspapers close to the Washington Beltway where he had spent the bulk of his career. The corporate star power at his funeral, however, belied his obscure status. Among the cast of former friends and colleagues were Steve Case and Jim Kimsey, now the darlings of Wall Street, who still stood at the helm of what Control Video had become: America Online, the business story of the year if not the decade, and a company which still bore the stamp of many of von Meister’s key insights. A very gracious Case stepped up to deliver a eulogy, saying that “without Bill von Meister there would have been no America Online.” Incredibly, even some of von Meister’s own children had no idea what Case was referring to. “He left behind a series of miserable SOBs who benefited from his ideas,” said another old colleague, rather less graciously. “And yet he was always looking forward to tomorrow’s sunshine in the middle of a monsoon.” But it was yet another who offered perhaps the most cogent eulogy: “He was the most human of human beings I ever knew, and his faults were never disguised.”

(Sources: the books On the Way to the Web: The Secret History of the Internet and its Founders by Michael A. Banks, Stealing Time: Steve Case, Jerry Levin, and the Collapse of AOL Time Warner by Alec Klein, Fools Rush In: Steve Case, Jerry Levin, and the Unmaking of AOL Time Warner by Nina Munk, and The Must be a Pony in Here Somewhere: The AOL Time Warner Debacle by Kara Swisher; InfoWorld of May 30 1983, July 4 1983, October 31 1983, January 9 1984, April 2 1984, and May 21 1984; Antic of July 1983; Washington Post of November 1 1983 and October 3 1984; the episode of the Computer Chronicles television series entitled “Online Databases, Part 1”; the blog post “The Story of a Pathological Entrepreneur” by John M. Willis.)


These Heterogenous Tasks

Names in the Comp

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at November 17, 2017 02:41 AM

I keep meaning to do this every comp, and then leave it too late and get self-conscious about self-indulgent overreading. But, look, I think naming is really important in writing. Outside of poetry, there are few places where the choice of … Continue reading

November 16, 2017

Renga in Blue

IFComp 2017: Summary and Mini-Reviews

by Jason Dyer at November 16, 2017 09:40 PM

Voting has closed although as of this writing results have not been released for the 23rd running of the Interactive Fiction Competition.

I did “full” reviews of 18 games, which I’ve linked to below. I have added 6 more games to the list which I didn’t do a full review of (mainly because I didn’t finish the game or at least didn’t feel like I was “done” yet) and I’ve put mini-reviews of those games below.

Highly Recommended

10pm by by litrouke
Guttersnipe: St. Hesper’s Asylum for the Criminally Mischievous by Bitter Karella
Harmonia by Liza Daly
Unit 322 (Disambiguation) by Jonny Muir
The Wand by Arthur DiBianca


A Beauty Cold and Austere by Mike Spivey
Black Marker by Michael Kielstra
Bookmoss by Devon Guinn
The Cube in the Cavern by Andrew Schultz
Day of the Djinn by paperyowl
Deshaun Steven’s Ship Log by Marie L. Vibbert
Queer In Public: A Brief Essay by Naomi Norbez
Salt by Gareth Damian Martin

Not Recommended

1958: Dancing With Fear by Victor Ojuel
A Castle of Thread by Marshal Tenner Winter
The Fifth Sunday by Tom Broccoli
Haunted P by Chad Rocketman
a partial list of things for which i am grateful by Deon Guinn
The Richard Mines by Evan C. Wright
Run of the place by WD\x{1F479}K
TextCraft: Alpha Island by Fabrizio Polo
Ultimate Escape Room: IF City by Mark Stahl


1958: Dancing With Fear by Victor Ojuel: Possibly the greatest setting / premise of the entire competition (you’re in a Caribbean country during a revolution, the game is framed around it being a 50s era movie) but I got bogged down by the parser and had to use a walk-through for nearly every action. There’s a “THINK” command which is essentially a built-in walk-through but I think the main game could use some more nudges. Probably the one most likely to bump up a level if the technical issues are resolved.

AND WHEN I SQUINT IT LOOKS LIKE CHRISTMAS by Norbez: The closest I played to a straight CYOA-book style experience. Written for children; maybe a little too much on that end for adults to completely enjoy. (“Wizards are real?! I think to myself, trying not to say it out loud. Just like in my fairy-tale books?!”) Still a solid yarn in general, although I want to stop for a brief rant about the font. It uses OpenDyslexic. I know people try to be well-meaning, but the idea that OpenDyslexic helps with dyslexic readers is not backed up by science: see this 2013 study, or this more recent one from 2016. Dyslexia is not in the eyes, but in the brain. The best thing you can do for a dyslexic reader is maximize readability in general; as a bonus, this will make things easier on all your other players too.

Bookmoss by Devon Guinn: A story about entering books through magic moss. I kept worried there would be some horror element but everything stayed pretty light. Good with afternoon tea. Could probably use some more substantial characterization.

Day of the Djinn by paperyowl: Your sister has left you a curse, and your goal is to break it. This is an adventure game in Twine and it suffers the typical-to-Twine issue of reducing what should be gleeful discovery into Just Clicking Stuff. Still, this is very solidly made and has potential to bump up to Highly Recommended once I check more of the endings.

Deshaun Steven’s Ship Log by Marie L. Vibbert: You steer an underachiever on a space ship; the story is told through his diary entries after the action happens. I felt like I was bouncing around at random like one of the crazier choose-your-own-adventure books even though there clearly was some undercurrent of agency, but I was never able to figure things out. It was funny enough that this didn’t really matter to me, though.

Guttersnipe: St. Hesper’s Asylum for the Criminally Mischievous by Bitter Karella: Super sharp characterization, as “Lil’ Ragamuffin, the roughest toughest urchin” tries to escape a brainwashing asylum. I love the companion sewer rat Percy (who went to Oxford, who in addition to being a fun conversationalist can read things for the illiterate main character). Unfortunately I also got very stuck with the puzzles once things opened up, and I’m worried the design might have some flaws later.

These Heterogenous Tasks

IF Comp 2017 Roundup

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at November 16, 2017 07:41 PM

Voting is closed in the 2017 IF Comp. I made it through all of the top-tier games in my triage system and had time for a scattering of assorted pieces after that; I haven’t played anywhere near every one of the … Continue reading


Welcome to Heaven's Vault!

November 16, 2017 12:41 PM

Last weekend was the return of Adventure X, London's indie adventure game festival, which has been going from strength to strength over the last five years.


While there, we checked out a lot of great games (including two ink titles, the excellent iPhone game Bury Me, My Love and gorgeous Kickstarter-in-progress Du Lac and Fey) - and we presented a talk detailing the journey so far of Heaven's Vault from concept to design.

The archaeology of an archaeological game

That talk is now up on YouTube so you can see it for yourself - no spoilers, some screenshots, and a lot of detail behind our thinking. What's good about adventure games? Why aren't archaeology stories ever about archaeology? Does The Last Express have any flaws? Why don't English people wear swords? When's the darned game going to ship?

Find out the answers to all that and more right here, and let us know what you think in the comments.

November 15, 2017

Classic Adventure Solution Archive

CASA Update - 65 new game entries, 63 new solutions, 58 new maps, 1 new clue sheet

by Alastair at November 15, 2017 09:08 PM

Another update with a huge number of new games. Now many of these new titles are Speed-IF entries, so beware if you are not too keen on that series of competition - but if you do fall into that category the good news is now that the vast bulk of Speed-IF titles have been added to the site there should be far fewer added in future updates!

Contributors: Garry, dv8, fuzzel, iamaran, jgerrie, Alex, impomatic, Alastair, Dorothy, Gunness

Emily Short

Mid-November Link Assortment

by Emily Short at November 15, 2017 11:40 AM


IF Comp is nearly finished, so keep an eye out for results!

ICIDS, the academic digital storytelling conference, is in progress as we speak, in Funchal, Portugal.

New Releases

Robin Johnson’s classic Detectiveland is now available on Android.


Kate Compton presents this set of ideation cards to help with the design of generative art. Some really cool ideas in here.

Articles and Reviews

I wrote about some of the IF Comp games for RockPaperShotgun.

Bobby Lockhart proposes five unusual and novel dialogue mechanics. Some of these look like they’d require a lot of additional content in order to function in an interesting way — NPCs who have to be able to answer what you didn’t pick as well as what you did might require a bunch of extra content, possibly. And methods that involve putting together strings of words from a possible selection could be needlessly frustrating or slow for any extended conversation, so it would have to be something where there was expressive power in a fairly short space.

November 14, 2017

These Heterogenous Tasks

IF Comp 2017: Measureless to Man

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at November 14, 2017 09:41 PM

Measureless to Man (Ivan R) is an Inform game. It’s aiming for a weird-fiction / Lovecraftian horror kind of vibe: a doomed protagonist slouches towards an ominous fate for reasons which never become entirely clear. It’s a plot which is basically ‘weird … Continue reading

IF Comp 2017: Insignificant Little Vermin

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at November 14, 2017 08:41 PM

Insignificant Little Vermin (Filip Hracek) is a heroic-fantasy dungeon-crawl; the protagonist is an escaped slave in an orcish stronghold, and must fight their way out while doing as much damage as possible. There are illustrations. These are at their strongest when … Continue reading

Adventure Blog

November 12, 2017

XTads etc.

XTads pre-beta 7 is out

by xtadsetc at November 12, 2017 06:41 PM

XTads is a TADS 2/3 interpreter for macOS (version 10.9 and higher). It’s a GUI application, with native macOS look and feel. Game output is text-only, with limited/simplistic support for HTML.

New in this version:

  • Fixed a build issue related to macOS 10.13 (High Sierra).
  • Fixed several threading issues related to macOS 10.13 (High Sierra).

XTads is still a work in progress. Bug reports and suggestions are more than welcome – see contact info in the program’s About panel.




IFComp2017: All Games Considered

by Jack at November 12, 2017 10:41 AM

I played through all of the entries in this year’s IFcomp during the first month, so it’s been at least a couple weeks since the last game. I’d like to share a few thoughts about some of the entries now that the dust has settled and I can look back on them as a whole.

In general, I am happy to stick with my initial ratings, even for those games that I played early in the competition, as my scale is based on several years of IFcomp. I do think that my scale will need some weighting next year to put the average game closer to midscale, though.

The Top End

I still think the top three games this year are Harmonia, Eat Me, and The Owl Consults. I initially put Harmonia above Eat Me in terms of scoring, but would probably reverse that having had some time to consider the greater degree of interactivity in Eat Me. Immediately after playing Harmonia, I was in a state of shock that IF could look so elegant on the page. It could really go either way in terms of strength of writing, though. Ultimately, I think it is a matter of my personal taste, which leans towards more game-like works. I would put both a notch above The Owl Consults, but of the three, I would say that The Owl Consults was the most fun. I was surprised to see how many people were turned off by the visceral nature of Eat Me, so The Owl Consults may be a better game to recommend to a general crowd. In any event, with three days left in the comp, if you haven’t played these, you might want to bump them to the top of your list.

Second Tier

I ranked Charlie the Robot as fourth, but realize that I’m probably an outlier in that regard. It is a mixed bag, both in terms of story and presentation, but I enjoyed its frantic, absurdist nature. I would move The Wizard Sniffer up in the rankings towards the top of the second tier, and expect that many would put it in the top tier. I do think that it will be one of the most widely remembered games in this competition. I am not sure how Will Not Let Me Go will do in the competition. On one hand, the heavy theme probably turned off some players, but on the other hand those players probably didn’t take a look at it and wouldn’t (shouldn’t) rate it. I think that those that did play it would appreciate how well it addressed a delicate topic and how well it made use of hypertext as a medium.

Second Tier – Short form

I don’t distinguish in my rating system based on size or complexity of the work, but I don’t really think long and short works can be easily compared to each other. I would consider Swigian to be the top contender as a short game, and although less interactive, also include Unit 322: Disambiguation, which I thought was a clever use of the medium.

Solid Entertainment

I gave a lot of games a score in the range of six to nine (out of eleven) and even though they did not scrape the upper end of the scale, I felt all of them were worth my time. Many of these could have scored higher with better proofing — I don’t understand why authors put in so much work, but don’t at least run a spell check of some sort. Even better would be a couple manual proofing passes and/or play testing to smooth out the rough edges. I don’t have a discrete category for “fun”, but if I did, The Wand and VR Gambler would rate highly. Finally, I think a revised version of Tuuli could come in towards the top of this tier, or even make it into my second tier.

The Bottom Half

Frankly, I only a give a “1” to games that are intentional trolls. Run of the Place may even fit that category, but I thought it was kind of interesting as a technical demo of the floo interpreter.

Some of the games that fell below five were the results of first efforts, like Grue. My rating system can be punishing for new authors, as I tend to focus on implementation and player experience more than writing. As I read through a work, I can’t help but see the game as a beta-tester might, pushing at the boundary conditions and trying to get in the author’s head about why they chose one design option over another for a given authoring system. Hopefully, some of my comments will get rolled into revisions of these games, or perhaps benefit the author in future projects.

Other games at the lower end of the scale are there because they are more experimental or overly ambitious. TextCraft: Alpha Island is both, as the author flags with the “alpha” in the title. Escape From Terra looks like it was a ton of work and full of fun ideas, but was probably too sprawling to adequate proof and test in time for this year’s competition. It could be buffed into a playable game, but would take a lot of additional effort (maybe the best approach would be to pare it down to one of the four tracks now in the game, and polish just that one, with subsequent tracks released in periodic updates).

Translated Games

There were an encouraging number of games in this year’s competition by authors whose first language is not English. This was barely noticeable for Tuuli and 1958: Dancing With Fear (both of which I assume were written from the start in English), but a more prominent issue with A Common Enemy and The Adventure of Esmeralda and Ruby on the Magical IslandMy Night had implementation issues that went beyond translation, but even it had run smoothly, the writing would have been hard to follow. The three games submitted by Chinese authors (The Murder In The Fog, The Fifth Sunday, and  The Living Puppet) also lost a lot in translation. In the future, it would be helpful if IFcomp could accept an original language version as well as an English version, if authors produce both. Not everyone will be able to play the original versions, but some could — and it might expand IFcomp’s player base. In addition, for the English translation, I hope authors seek out native speakers to proofread their games for next year’s competition. It means that they will have to start early — it would not be efficient to hone the language before the game is in a relatively final state programmatically.

Tough Fits

Aside from rating short and long form games on the same scale, the hardest works to rate in this comp were the non-fiction essay, Queer In Public: A Brief Essay and the PDF-format CYOA, The Silver Gauntlets. In both cases, I don’t think the authors were gunning for top slots in the competition, but wanted to use the comp as a venue to get eyeballs on their works, which seems perfectly legitimate to me. It is not inconceivable that a nonfiction work could rate highly — it would just need be very innovative in terms of interactivity. As for non-electronic interactive fiction, I am not sure that putting it into IFcomp accomplishes the goal of having a lot of people play it. I had set a goal of playing every last game, but that’s not how most people approach the comp. As other reviewers have remarked, a pdf entry would get more play if it at least incorporated hyperlinks to aid navigation.

Looking forward to seeing how all this plays out when the votes are tallied in a few days!




The post IFComp2017: All Games Considered appeared first on Dhakajack.

November 11, 2017

Doug's World

not quite long enough for reviews

by Doug Egan ([email protected]) at November 11, 2017 02:56 PM

Following is a partial list of games I opened from the 2017 interactive fiction competition, but did not play long enough to justify a full review.

"a partial list of things for which i am grateful" is a Twine game by Devon Guinn. A sort of interactive art. Player clicks on individual letters in a word to bring up something else (starting with the same letter) for which the author is grateful. Contains hundreds of different words. A pleasant reading, but could only hold my interest for so long. Guinn also wrote "Bookmoss" another competition entry I reviewed earlier.

"The Fifth Sunday" by Tom Broccoli is one of several competition entries submitted by Chinese authors this year. The story (a murder mystery) seems to have some potential. But to advance the story requires multiple successive clicks through short lines of static text. Infuriating. The translation is imperfect, resulting in some curious choices of grammar and vocabulary.

"What Once Was" by Luke Jones is a traditional parser game set on a sprawling but weakly described university campus. Put on your pun-protective eye wear before attempting this. I love a good time-travel yarn (and the puns are amusing) but didn't have the patience for a parser game with such shallow implementation. I might come back to it though.

November 10, 2017

Doug's World

The Digital Antiquarian

A Net Before the Web, Part 3: Content and Competition

by Jimmy Maher at November 10, 2017 06:41 PM

We saw in the last article how CompuServe’s user-driven philosophy led to this online service becoming an online community, steered to a large extent by its subscribers. Yet the choice between a content-driven model and a user-driven model has never really constituted a zero-sum proposition, whether on the Internet of today or the CompuServe of the 1980s. In fact, virtually from the moment that Jeff Wilkins decided the nascent MicroNET had potential that was worth seriously investing in — a moment we can date to the very end of 1979 — he started casting about for information and applications which CompuServe’s users couldn’t possibly create for themselves.

The list of top-down initiatives CompuServe would launch over the next several years reads amazingly similar to the list of aspirations, sketchily fulfilled if at all, with which The Source had made its much more high-profile debut. But whether Wilkins really was checking off the items on Bill von Meister’s original list or coming up with this stuff on his own doesn’t matter much in the end. What is important is how much of the daily online life of today was first tried out on CompuServe in the 1980s. Sometimes, as we’ve already seen in the case of the attempt to launch a digital-download service for commercial software, the world would prove not quite ready for what CompuServe strove to offer it. Still, the simple fact of the striving has historical significance of its own.

Very early on, Wilkins determined to bring the news to CompuServe. With The Source having cornered United Press International, he chose to ask the other national news wire, the Associated Press, to make their feed of important stories available to his subscribers. The almost accidental result of his inquiries was something even more prescient, a full-blown collision between the titans of Old Media and what would soon be known as the New Media. Jeff Wilkins:

I had been thinking about news for a long time — the potential to have it be searchable and immediate. And of course it lent itself to text pretty well; we were still at that point in time limited to all text.

I called the local newspaper, the Columbus Dispatch, and said that we’re building this service, and we’d like to have the AP wire; that’s where all the news came from in those days. They said the AP didn’t do that, but you could work on a test to convince them to participate. So, they gave us a test feed, and our technical team took that and parsed it and figured out how to set up menus and all that sort of thing. So, we had a crude working model of a news feed.

Then I called the Associated Press in New York and said I’d like to come talk to them about an idea. Of course, they gave me to a lower-level staffer. But I met him in New York and told him what we were trying to do. He said, “The AP is all the newspapers. They have a board of directors who make all the decisions. I doubt they’d be interested in this, but we’re having our conference in Hawaii next week. If you’ll let me take this demo you’ve just shown me out there, I’ll show it to them and see what they think. Then I’ll get back to you.” His name was Henry Heilman. He was a great guy.

About a week later, I’m in Columbus in my office and the phone rings. “This is Henry Heilman. I’m in Hawaii. Our board would like to come to Columbus to talk about your proposal.”

I said, “That’d be great! When would they like to come?”

He said, “They’d like to come next week.”

I said, “Who’s coming?”

He started to name names. And I recognized a couple of them. One was Katharine Graham from the Washington Post. Another was [Arthur Ochs] Sulzberger from the New York Times.

So, we set it up. It was really funny. Katherine Graham’s secretary called me and said, “Can you have a car for Mrs. Graham?”

I said, “What do you mean by a car?”

He said, “A limousine.”

We didn’t have a limousine service in Columbus, at least not that I ever used.  But anyway, I made arrangements to have her and everybody else picked up.

So, ten of these people came to our little conference room, and we made a presentation.

They said, “What’s your proposal?”

I said, “Well, I would like to have ten newspapers participate in a test of an electronic-newspaper service, and in exchange I’d like advertising in your newspapers worth $250,000 apiece, talking about this project.”

They said, “Can we have a few minutes to talk?” They were in there 45 minutes. I remember sweating profusely, thinking they were never going to go on with this. But they came back and said, “Yes, we’ll accept the proposal — with one condition: we offer it to all our newspapers, and let any participate that want to, provided that the ten of us can [also] be in the test.”

So, that was how we kicked it all off. I said, “I have one final request: the Columbus Dispatch will be the first newspaper that comes online.”

They agreed, and that was how the electronic-newspaper [service] launched.

CompuServe is demonstrated to members of the Associated Press in 1980. Standing in the back row from left are Jeff Wilkins, Katherine Graham of the Washington Post, and John F. Wolfe of the Columbus Dispatch, which was soon to become the first newspaper in history to go online.

Wilkins’s tale serves to illustrate that the entrenched forces of establishment media aren’t always quite as hidebound as they may first appear. In fact, the vaguely defined idea of “electronic publishing” was very much en vogue at the time in certain circles, albeit greeted with equal measures of excitement and trepidation. It was the former impulse that led Readers Digest, by reputation at least about the most hidebound media institution of all, to buy a controlling interest in the The Source in 1980, the same year CompuServe struck their newspaper deal.

But the fear that would always remain at the root of traditional publishing’s long, fraught negotiation with the online world was never hard to find just below the surface. Jim Batton of Knight-Ridder Newspapers was one of the more prominent skeptics, voicing fears that were in their way as prescient as the more optimistic rhetoric that came to surround this brave new world of online news: “Our concern was that if people might get their information in this way, they might no longer need newspapers.” Katherine Graham was playing both sides of the fence, lobbying in Congress for legislation that would prevent telephone companies from becoming “information providers” even as she was signing on with CompuServe.

Indeed, it appeared the newspaper industry in general didn’t entirely know its own mind. Keith Fuller, president of the Associated Press, summed up the two views that were at war within the psyches of people like Graham in these terms: “One [view is] that electronic delivery is the future knocking at the door, and the other [is] that electronic delivery is a disaster hunting a victim.” The decision to get in bed with CompuServe was not without controversy inside the AP’s member newspapers. One union, The Twin Cities Newspaper Guild No. 2, held a 26-day strike against the Minneapolis Sun and Tribune after they elected to participate in the experiment. The union’s delivery carriers demanded guarantees that they would not lose their positions with a switch to electronic delivery, while editors and writers demanded that they receive the same residuals on electronically published articles as those they were accustomed to receiving for articles published on paper. It seems an absurdly early point for such conflicts to have begun, given the vanishingly small number of people who actually had the equipment and the willingness to reach their local newspaper online in 1980, but there you have it.

For CompuServe, on the other hand, the deal represented just another way to reach out to Middle America, to reach customers early and make their online service the only credible example of same in the eyes of most of them. They saw the importation of actual newspapers rather than just a news wire to CompuServe was a very significant step toward those goals. The news wires provided the skeleton of what people looked for in their hometown newspapers, but the meat, the bones, and the personality were found in the local human-interest stories, the opinion columns, the entertainment guides. These were the things that made spending a long, lazy weekend morning over the local newspaper and a pot of coffee such a mainstay of American life. In this light, the fact that it was the little Columbus Dispatch that first established an online presence rather than one of the big papers of record feels appropriate.

Each of the newspapers that participated in the program offered free time on CompuServe to any of their subscribers who wished to get a glimpse of the cyberspace future of journalism. The enormous attention the experiment garnered throughout the mainstream media made CompuServe a household name for the first time, at least among those interested in technology in the abstract. Rich Baker, a CompuServe executive:

All of a sudden, we had the biggest newspapers in the country running stories about CompuServe Information Service. The news stories spun off into wire stories, and our getting on the Today show. The Today crew came here so Garrick Utley could deliver the story. We got an incredible amount of exposure from the newspaper experiment. No amount of paid advertising could have accomplished such a feat.

While the experiment was a roaring success from the standpoint of CompuServe, the results from the newspapers’ standpoint were considerably more mixed — doubtless much to the relief of organizations like The Twin Cities Newspaper Guild No. 2. In the initial flurry of excitement, a few of the newspapers had devoted entire editorial staffs to their online editions, a practice that quickly proved untenable given the small number of online readers. Meanwhile even many of the early adopters among the reading public who had greeted the idea of an online newspaper with excitement had to admit in the end that it was a heck of a lot more pleasant to read a 25¢ physical newspaper than it was to watch stories scroll slowly onto a computer screen, bereft of illustrations or proper typesetting, at a price of $6 per hour — not to mention that it was a heck of a lot easier to read a paper-based newspaper at the breakfast table than it was to set up a computer there.

The trial program officially ended in June of 1982, and most of the fifteen or so newspapers who had participated ended their presence on CompuServe along with it. CompuServe’s grander plans for online news were eventually replaced by something called the Executive News Service, a much more limited digest of relevant wire reports for, as the name would indicate, the busy businessperson on the go. Tellingly, CompuServe shifted from telling potential customers about all the prestigious newspapers on offer to offering them the opportunity to “create your own newspaper” — a formulation much more in keeping with the user-driven ethos that had come to define so much of the service.

Another area where CompuServe reached toward a future that would prove to be just out of their grasp was online banking. On October 9, 1980, they announced a partnership with Radio Shack and the United American Bank of Knoxville, Tennessee, to offer the bank’s customers online access to their accounts. According to the press release, customers would be able to “receive current information on their checking accounts, use a bookkeeping service, and apply for loans,” with many more functions, including online bill paying and tax services, planned for the future. The service would represent, according to the bank’s president, “convenience banking without leaving home.” It certainly sounded promising, but it was a struggle to find any takers for the offer, limited as it was to United American Bank’s existing customers in eastern Tennessee. With computer security in its relative infancy, the safety of this, the most important of all their personal information, was a concern repeatedly and justifiably expressed by those who were surveyed on the topic. In the end, instead of becoming the first of many banks to go online, United American Bank elected to terminate the experiment within six months. It seemed that online banking, even more so than online newspapers, was an idea that was still just a little too far ahead of its time.

But other far-seeing ventures proved more successful. In 1982, just as the big newspaper experiment was ending, another electronic-publishing initiative was getting started. The World Book Encyclopedia went online with CompuServe that year, thus inadvertently hammering the first nail into the coffin of the paper-based encyclopedia. Countless wired schoolchildren were soon using this early ancestor of our own ubiquitous Wikipedia to write their reports without ever having to darken the door of a library.

Another, even more important initiative arrived in early 1984 in the form of the Electronic Mall. Once again, it had been The Source who had originated the idea of an online shopping emporium, making it part of their service from Day One. But, once again, online shopping had always been more of an aspiration than a reality there: few retailers initially set up storefronts, which led to few of the The Source’s already scant subscribers taking an interest, which gave few other retailers much encouragement to join the fray. And so it was left to the more methodical CompuServe to become the real pioneers of e-commerce.

In contrast to The Source’s shopping mall, CompuServe’s Electronic Mall debuted with a very impressive list of online storefronts, a tribute to how powerful and well-connected Jeff Wilkins’s erstwhile corporate data processor was becoming in the consumer marketplace. Many of the early names in the Electronic Mall could indeed be found in the typical American brick-and-mortar shopping mall: Sears, Waldenbooks, American Express, Kodak, E.F. Hutton, in addition to the expected list of computer-oriented shops, which boasted names like Commodore and Microsoft. But just as notable as all the big names were all the little ones. In another early testament to the leveling effect of so much of online life, small online-only vendors clustered side by side with some of the biggest corporate trademarks in the country. The Electronic Mall would remain a fixture for the next decade and change, doing very well for CompuServe and many of the entities who opened storefronts there. In the process, it became the first really successful example of e-commerce, yet another blueprint for what the future would eventually bring to everyone.

This page from CompuServe’s print magazine Online Today shows some of the wide variety of products that could be purchased from the Electronic Mall by 1989.

Speaking of which: the same year that the Electronic Mall went online, Trans World Airlines opened a gateway to their internal reservations system on CompuServe, allowing subscribers to book their own travel. “This will be the first time that comprehensive worldwide airline information and fares will be available to consumers,” said a proud Jeff Wilkins.  Other airlines followed, as did rental-car providers and hotels, precipitating a slow-rolling transformation in the way that people travel — and making life much more difficult for lots of professional travel agents.

So, already by the dawn of 1985 CompuServe encompassed an astonishing swathe of what we’ve come to think of as modern online life, some of it driven by users, some by content providers: email, forums, chat, news, encyclopedias, shopping, travel reservations. And even some of the things missing from that list, like digital distribution of commercial software and online banking, had been tried but had proved impractical. The range is so broad and so far-reaching that some of the technical pioneers who worked for CompuServe have in recent years made a lucrative sideline out of testifying to their prior art in patent cases, ruining the days of heaps of people who had believed themselves to be the innovators. “Almost everything people [have] tried to patent on the Internet,” notes Jeff Wilkins, “CompuServe had done in the early eighties.”

Having thus done his part for online posterity, Wilkins left the company in 1985 in order to get in on the ground floor of CD-ROM by opening a CD-pressing plant. His successor, Charlie McCall, made no dramatic changes to the solid framework Wilkins had left in place. For the remainder of the 1980s and well into the 1990s, CompuServe would just keep on trucking in business-as-usual mode, adding hundreds of thousands of new subscribers each year.

Prior to 1983, CompuServe had had the market for services like theirs virtually to themselves. Potential customers had only two other places to turn: The Source, which, perpetually mismanaged as it was, never posed all that much of a threat after 1980; and the network of private bulletin-board systems, which were regional, difficult to connect with, and, being usually able to host only one user at a time, were unable to offer anything like the same sense of real-time community. Indeed, CompuServe had deliberately tried to give the impression that theirs was the only online service that was or ever could be, deploying the word “utility” to foster a mental connection with the telephone system or the power grid (or, for modern sensibilities, with what the World Wide Web has become today).

But it was inevitable that others, seeing the growth CompuServe was enjoying, would want to enter the field. The first of these was DELPHI in March of 1983. Originally conceived as an online encyclopedia, it would always maintain a certain intellectual or literary focus. Shortly after its founding, for example, the service hosted what may have been the first online collaborative novel. In 1984, the science-fiction writer Orson Scott Card posted on DELPHI the entirety of Ender’s Game, destined to become his most famous novel, a year before it would see publication in print. Such coups aside, though, DELPHI lacked the corporate clout and the financial resources to challenge CompuServe for mainstream mindshare, and was never regarded by the latter as all that serious of a threat.

In October of 1985, however, a more serious threat did arrive in the form of GEnie. Formed by General Electric out of largely the same motivation that had led Jeff Wilkins to start MicroNET back in the day — the frustration of watching an expensive computing and telecommunications infrastructure sit all but dormant more than half of the time — GEnie arrived with an impressive array of offerings, many of them all too plainly modeled on those of its biggest competitor: chat, a forum system, shopping, news services, etc. Most of all, though, its owners planned to compete on the basis of price. In contrast to CompuServe’s $6.50 per hours, GEnie launched at a price of $5 per hour, an initial salvo in a slow-moving pricing cold war that would gradually bring down the average connection charge across the entire online-services industry over the years to come. While it would never even come close to catching CompuServe, GEnie would remain a force to be reckoned with in its own right for a long time.

And so it went, in accord with the implacable logic of capitalism. By the late 1980s there were several other viable online services as well, all orbiting the star that was CompuServe, defining themselves sometimes in their convergence, sometimes in their divergence. “We’re the more intellectual CompuServe!” said DELPHI; “We’re a cheaper version of CompuServe!” said GEnie; etc., etc. The fact that none of the services had any way of communicating with one another meant that each developed its own unique personality, partly defined by the priorities of its administrators but also partly, one senses, by random chance — or, rather, by the priorities of the people who happened to sign up in its earliest days.

For its part, CompuServe maintained always its reputation as the safe, steady online service, the one that might cost a little more than some of the others but that you knew you could rely on. A certain tradition of technical excellence which John Goltz had instilled from the company’s earliest days as a provider of corporate time-sharing services served them well in the consumer market. Their systems never — but never — went down, and even the odd glitches which often dogged their rivals’ offerings were all but unheard of. Some of their solutions to contemporary problems of the moment were so thorough that they have remained with us to this day. In 1987, for example, CompuServe developed the Graphics Interchange Format, or GIF, as a way to allow their subscribers using many different models of computer running many different kinds of software to share pictures with one another. It would go on to become the first truly ubiquitous cross-platform graphical standard; GIF images have been created in the literal billions in the decades since the format’s inception.

Even as it expanded, the burgeoning online-services industry managed to survive at least one existential threat. In mid-1987, the Federal Communications Commission made plans to implement a fee on the local access numbers which customers used to connect to the services without incurring long-distance charges. Discount long-distance services for voice calls that made use of a similar system had always been required to send part of their revenue back to the local telephone exchanges whose equipment they used, something CompuServe and the other online services had heretofore managed to avoid. In effect, the FCC argued, users of everyday telephone services were subsidizing users of these newfangled online services. They now planned to charge the latter $4.50 to $5.40 per hour for the privilege, a move with the potential to wipe out the whole industry at a stroke. “My opinion is that online information is horrendously overpriced right now,” said one analyst. “If you raise the price, you’re cutting out more and more people.” When word of the plan got to CompuServe, they enlisted their subscribers and everyone else they could find in a furious campaign to get it rescinded before it went into effect on January 1, 1988 — and they succeeded, another testimony to their growing clout. “Aunt Minnie,” as one of the FCC’s stymied attorneys put it, would have to go on subsidizing “Joe Computer User” in the name of keeping a developing industry alive. Not that the users of CompuServe and the other online services thought of it in those terms: for them, it meant simply that they got to keep on chatting and reading and writing and shopping and playing and all the rest without seeing the prices they paid for the privilege more than double.

As they were fending off this threat at home, CompuServe was already casting an eye outside their country’s borders. They expanded into Japan in 1987, then into Switzerland and Britain the following year; other European countries then followed. Soon the stories of friendship and romance that constantly swirled around CB Simulator took on an international character: an Indiana woman moved to Dublin to marry an Irish man; a Japanese woman and her daughter moved to California to join an American man. “I would feel the same about Suzuko if she were from South Africa or lived in Moscow,” said the last. Like so many Internet chatters who would come after them, the users of CB Simulator were learning the valuable lesson that people shouldn’t be judged by the passport they happen to hold.

Another landmark moment in Charlie McCall’s tenure — if one of more symbolic than practical importance by the time it arrived — came in 1989, when CompuServe, now 500,000 members strong, gobbled up their old arch-rival The Source, which was still straggling along with 50,000 members. Thus did a pioneer which had never quite lived up to its founders’ ambitions finally meet its end.

By the early 1990s, this net before the Web which Jeff Wilkins and Bill von Meister had first conceived almost simultaneously back in 1979 was reaching its peak, with CompuServe snowballing toward an eventual 3 million subscribers, with GEnie well into the hundreds of thousands, and with all the other services beavering along as well, filling their various niches.

And now, having reached this high-water mark, loading you down with so many data points describing so many firsts along the way, I feel keenly my failure to convey a more impressionistic sense of what it was really like to log onto one of these services. Unfortunately, I run into a problem that’s doomed to dog any digital antiquarian who tries to write about what the kids today like to call computing in the cloud: the lack of permanent artifacts to study in such an ephemeral form of media. There is, in other words, no preserved version of CompuServe that I can play in for research purposes or point you to to do the same, as I can the offline games I write about. I have only my imperfect memories from decades ago to go on — I was actually a GEnie man, having been lured by the cheaper price — along with what was written about the experience at the time. So, I’m going to take an unusual step, sort of an inversion of what we usually do around here. Instead of using the historical environment as a pathway to understanding why a certain game is the way it is, I’m going to do the opposite: suggest a game that you might play as a way of understanding the environment that spawned it.

Judith Pintar was a CompuServe regular in 1991 when she decided to write a game to simulate and gently satirize online life as she then knew it. Working with the text-adventure language AGT, she made Cosmoserve. If you’re at all interested in learning more about pre-Web online culture, I strongly encourage you to play it. Try to solve it if you like — it’s a very good game in its own right — but feel free to use a walkthrough if you prefer.

In Cosmoserve you’ll find much of what I’ve been writing about in this and the previous article: email, the Forums, chat, the Electronic Mall. From the struggle you sometimes had just to get online at all to the suggestive gossip on CB Simulator, from the ubiquity of Turbo Pascal to a killer computer virus — yes, we already had them this early on — it’s a perfect time capsule of online life circa 1991. I’ll have more to write about Cosmoserve in a future article, but for now suffice to say that it conveys all the experiential context that I can’t quite manage to give you in non-interactive, purely historical articles like these have been. You can almost hear the hair-raising howl of the modem connecting and the heavy clunk of a vintage IBM keyboard. Whether it happens to be a voyage of discovery or a nostalgia trip for you personally, I think you’ll find it has a lot to offer. Bless Judith Pintar for writing it.

As it happened, though, the online milieu Pintar so ably captured in 1991 was already being threatened at the time she wrote Cosmoserve. What we’ve been tracing to this point has been a certain approach to the commercial online service, one based entirely or almost entirely on text, allowing subscribers to connect using almost any terminal program. Yet by 1991 there was another approach out there as well, which in time would lead to the biggest single online service of all — yes, bigger even than CompuServe. And when we trace its origins back to the beginning, we find the familiar name of Bill von Meister. Jeff Wilkins may have wound up stealing his thunder last time around, but the magnificent rogue wasn’t yet done shaping history.

(Sources: the book On the Way to the Web: The Secret History of the Internet and its Founders by Michael A. Banks; Online Today of February 1988 and July 1989; 80 Microcomputing of January 1981; InfoWorld of November 24 1980, April 9 1984, May 21 1984, November 5 1984, and October 21 1985; Personal Computing of January 1981 and October 1981; Family Computing of March 1984; MacWorld of September 1987; New York Times of June 16 1987; Alexander Trevor’s brief technical history of CompuServe, which was first posted to Usenet in 1988; interviews with Jeff Wilkins from the Internet History Podcast and Conquering Columbus.)


November 09, 2017

These Heterogenous Tasks

IF Comp 2017: Harbinger

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at November 09, 2017 11:41 PM

In Harbinger (Kenna May, Twine) you play a talking crow on the run from an unleashed evil; initially isolated, you team up with a witch and her apprentice to deal with the apocalyptic threat. (Gosh, but this is a witchy … Continue reading

Choice of Games

Choice of Rebels: Uprising — Lead the revolt against a bloodthirsty empire!

by Rachel E. Towers at November 09, 2017 04:41 PM

We’re proud to announce that Choice of Rebels: Uprising, the latest in our popular “Choice of Games” line of multiple-choice interactive-fiction games, is now available for Steam, iOS, and Android. It’s 30% off until November 16th!

Lead the revolt against a bloodthirsty empire! You grew up under the iron fist of the Hegemony. Now is your chance to end their blood-fueled magic, as you forge a ragtag outlaw band into a rebel army.

Choice of Rebels: Uprising is a 637,000 word interactive fantasy novel by Joel Havenstone, 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 an outlaw rebel in the greenwood wilderness, you must steal to survive your first brutal winter, or watch your people starve if you can’t feed them. Win yeomen, helots, merchants, priests, and aristocrats over to the rebel cause…or turn them into your worst enemies. Will you defeat the army of the Hegemony’s Archon and the elite force of evil blood mages sent to destroy you, or will a personal betrayal put an end to your rebellion when it’s just barely begun?

• Play as male or female, gay, straight, or ace
• Fight as a renegade aristocrat or defiant slave
• Lead your outlaw band as a self-taught mage, a general, or a mystic priest
• Reform the empire’s religion or start your own
• Master the arcane magic of Theurgy and demolish the blood harvesters of the Hegemony
• Find romance amongst your fellow young rebels
• Root out spies, betrayers, and fend off a mutiny
• Survive attacks from assassins, mages, and the mutant Plektoi hounds

Will you gain a reputation as a compassionate idealist or ruthless insurgent? Can your rebels survive the winter and a vengeful army?

How much will you sacrifice to rebel, and save your homeland from an oppressive empire?

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

Emily Short

Game Narrative Toolbox (Heussner/Finley/Hepler/Lemay)

by Emily Short at November 09, 2017 10:40 AM


The Game Narrative Toolbox is designed to guide readers to become professional narrative designers — perhaps a seemingly slight difference from game writers, but this approach includes a certain amount of level design and mechanical design in the purview of the narrative designer, as opposed to simply producing words.

The book is structured as a textbook, with exercises at the end of each chapter, and lots of examples, images, and sidebars.(Indeed, I found the layout a little distracting; there are often several things going on on any particular page, in a way that often made me feel slightly anxious I might miss a part of what I was supposed to be reading because I’d forgotten to go back to the beginning of a multi-page sidebar. I am pretty sure this has to do with quirks in my own reading style, however.)

This is not to say that the book is unstructured. A lot of thought has clearly gone into making it useful for someone to use while self-training and transitioning to a job search. The exercises are designed to gradually build up the user’s portfolio of samples, taking the writer from a relative novice to someone with sample dialogue, narrative structure diagrams, and even practice resume/cover letter content. Meanwhile, the chapters follow the lifespan of development: preproduction planning, development of world and story and characters, writing the main content, and troubleshooting.

There’s less here than in some of the previous books I’ve surveyed about how to work with particular team members and how to arrange the life of a freelance game writer. (They do discuss these matters some, but they don’t approach, for instance, Skolnick’s discussion of how different game creation roles dovetail with narrative roles.) There’s also much less about what constitutes a good story in the first place.

On the other hand, there’s more about how to accommodate your work to different types of game. The Game Narrative Toolbox does not assume you’re necessarily working on a AAA console game, and includes guidance for MMOs, social and casual games, and mobile projects. Often this guidance is fairly high-level and general, but still unquestionably preferable to not acknowledging the existence of those game types at all.

The name “toolbox” is aptly chosen, in that it suggests something useful and standardized. The book is more focused on describing current norms and typical practices than on inspiring the reader with the joy of storytelling or with the potential of interactive storytelling specifically, let alone speculation about future formats and possibilities. The authors see narrative design as a job, and a job subordinate to the creation of the game as a whole; for instance

Telling a great story is awesome, but only if it doesn’t block and hinder the gameplay… (193)

Like Dille/Platten’s book, The Game Narrative Toolbox recommends template-based approaches to character- and world-building, though its suggested templates aren’t nearly so long-winded. The authors also introduce familiar basic structures for lightly branching story, for designing dialogue trees, and for designing quests with an element of choice. The section on dialogue gets into points like choosing a maximum line-length for UI fit, and making game-genre-based choices about how many blatant hints should be given to the player during a given exchange of conversation. Sections on editing and localization suggest ways to vet your dialogue for voiceover-readiness, and how to keep comments on your created content in order to support the efforts of the localization team.

Along the same lines, they also provide lists of pitfalls to avoid: stereotypes commonly used with particular types of minority, for instance — or guidance about how to avoid bruising the player’s ego. On the topic of moral choices in games, they advise that “bad” choices should not result in punitive mechanical effects lest the player become irritated and disengage.

What I missed in this book, given its title, was more exploration of mechanics. I tend to think of “narrative design” as distinct from a pure game writing role partly in that it can incorporate more involvement in things like systems and level design: not that the narrative designer is necessarily doing all of those things, let alone implementing them, but that you’re the person best positioned to advocate for ludo-narrative consonance. The Game Designer’s Toolbox acknowledges the importance of mechanics (24-26 of the book) and goes so far as to offer the distinction between mechanics and dynamics, which many books in this area will tend to conflate.

But it doesn’t really have a great deal to say about how to connect mechanics and storytelling effectively. There is a single page chart (page 29) that gives one to two sentence descriptions of the types of storytelling suitable for different genres as defined by their mechanics, but this is on the order of “RPGs have complex, slow-paced storylines” and “simulation games have short, non-distracting plots on the sidelines”. There are a couple of paragraphs under environmental storytelling (146) about examples from Bastion and Alan Wake that communicate something interesting via the mechanics, but this is handled very briefly, and without trying to account for how these elements work, let alone how you might try to invent your own.

The image I had by the end of the book was of story as a kind of exquisitely crafted inlay, painstakingly cut from various woods and precious stones, and then glued and varnished onto the surface of a game.

November 08, 2017

Choice of Games

Author Interview: Joel Havenstone, “Choice of Rebels: Uprising”

by Mary Duffy at November 08, 2017 04:41 PM

Lead the revolt against a bloodthirsty empire! You grew up under the iron fist of the Hegemony. Now is your chance to end their blood-fueled magic, as you forge a ragtag outlaw band into a rebel army.

Choice of Rebels: Uprising is a 637,000 word interactive fantasy novel by Joel Havenstone, and Choice of Games’ latest release. As an outlaw rebel in the greenwood wilderness, you must steal to survive your first brutal winter, or watch your people starve if you can’t feed them. Win yeomen, helots, merchants, priests, and aristocrats over to the rebel cause…or turn them into your worst enemies. I sat down with the author to talk about the game. Choice of Rebels: Uprising releases Thursday, November 9th.

Rebels is seven years in the making. Tell me a little about the history of this game. 

I started writing Choice of Rebels as soon as I played Choice of the Dragon.  (Well, probably after about the sixth playthrough.)  I’ve always loved telling interactive stories, but my earlier attempts to do that on a computer always fizzled out thanks to my weak programming skills.  With ChoiceScript, I’d finally discovered a language that I could get my head around.

The story grew out of a college Dungeons and Dragons campaign I ran years and years ago. A couple of CoG authors were players (Adam of Choice of the DragonBroadsides, and Affairs of the Court, and Rebecca of Psy High and First Year Demons). That campaign centered on a slave revolt against a magic-wielding empire; the players had to weigh their desire to bring down a terrible social order against the dangers of anarchy and the likelihood of even worse rulers filling the gap they’d created.

There are a couple of reasons it took me seven years to complete the first Rebels game. One is that it’s been very much a spare-time project, during a time of my life when I’ve had to juggle demanding day jobs and the arrival of two kids. The other is that as a fan of long, branching stories, I wrote some pretty long branches. I enjoy following ideas and seeing where they lead. Some of the length also stems from wanting to allow meaningful variety between characters; allowing the main character to come from either extreme of the social spectrum, or to be a wizard, religious founder, or military commander, required writing quite a lot of variation into the game.

What kind of world is Rebels set in? What influenced you in writing it?
It’s set in an empire that survives by killing its slave class through blood extraction. This system is also in growing crisis, ripe for the rebellion you launch — though only hints of that crisis are evident in this first game, which is entirely set on the empire’s periphery. Your home province is a sort of Britain colonized by Byzantines, where much of the high culture vocabulary comes from Greek rather than (as in our world) Latin. The world itself appears to work on many of the principles believed by ancient Greeks: four elements, humor theory of disease, an unmoved mover at the heart of the cosmos, and so on. The religion is a sort of nightmare version of my own evangelical Christianity which has thoroughly lapsed into divinizing the social order.

As for influences, can I say “the world of the 2010s”? The game’s evil empire takes its strength from a particular technology, one which it was the first to master and which now underpins its agriculture, transport, security, and industry. That technology requires the sacrifice of life, and while its collapse is foreseeable, it’s built so deeply into the system that it’s hard for the people in power to imagine changing it. Religion and national identity are being used both to challenge and to shore up an oppressive system, and some of the challengers are markedly worse than what they’re fighting. I didn’t and don’t want to write a straight-up allegory, but the parallels sometimes write themselves.

Are you a fan of interactive fiction? What are some of your favorites? 
I grew up devouring the paper kind, CYOA and Joe Dever’s Lone Wolf series, and played some early Infocom games like Zork and Hitchhiker’s Guide. These days, I enjoy a range of stuff in the broader IF genre, from Telltale’s Walking Dead to Hadean Lands.  There’s a lot of good stuff in CoG and Hosted Games, of course. I particularly loved Choice of Robots and A Study in Steampunk, as well as Sabres of Infinity and its sequel.

What are you working on next?
The next Choice of Rebels game.  If this game describes the “Robin Hood” phase of your rebellion — bandits in the wilderness — Game Two will see you spreading the insurgency across the countryside and cities of your homeland.  I’m planning five games in all, as your revolt expands beyond the borders of your province and ultimately succeeds in toppling the Hegemony. Then in Game Five, you’ll have to see what kind of new order you can build in the rubble of the old. It’s a big vision, and I don’t plan on working on any other writing projects until it’s done.

Did I mention George R.R. Martin in my list of influences? I probably should have mentioned George R.R. Martin. I’ve got a feeling we’ll be seeing that comparison more as the years go by.

Short answer, Bernard Pivot-style Questionnaire

Favorite color? Green.
Favorite word? Winsome.
Profession other than your own you would like to attempt? Trail maintenance in national parks.
Profession you would never wish to attempt? Politician.
Helot or aristocrat? I’m inescapably an aristocrat, but if I’m playing Rebels, helot all the way.

November 07, 2017

Emily Short

Some IF Comp 2017 Games

by Emily Short at November 07, 2017 10:40 AM


Over on RockPaperShotgun, I talk about five games (of seventy-nine) that I thought were particularly strong this year. If you’d like to play comp games and rate them, you’ve still got until November 15 — and with so many games in the mix, judges are extremely welcome.

November 06, 2017

Renga in Blue

IFComp 2017: A Castle of Thread

by Jason Dyer at November 06, 2017 09:40 PM

By Marshal Tenner Winter. Finished on desktop using Gargoyle.

This parser game is technically standard-issue fantasy, but still has a cool premise: you are one of the few people who speak the obscure language Ixteesh, and due to your talents you have been invited (for mysterious regions) to the distant town of Badushizd.

Don’t be a damn fool while you are away from the village. Remember, you are representing House Kober. Also, be sure to stay near Venkath Mock. He is there to protect you on this errand.
As for that, when you reach Badushizd, seek Deviah at the Vulgar Unicorn tavern. She is the go-between and will take you where you need to be.
Be swift in this task and return home safe, son.
-Headman Phandaal Kober

The opening has you on board a vessel bound for your destination when you find a note slipped under your door that says you are in danger.

This is ambitious: there’s all sorts of NPCs to interact with, including major action scenes where they try to kill you. Unfortunately, the technical demands here exceed the author’s capability; each NPC has only two or three things to say, and it’s fairly easy to run into issues that break the solidity of the world. (Get used to seeing “There is no reply.” quite a bit if you’re not using the walkthrough.) The puzzles are difficult enough that it’s unlikely a player will simply zero in on the right solutions, but there is very little helpful feedback when taking the wrong approach to things.

Even when you have the right solution the parser can be a struggle. Here’s two examples:

(some spoiler space)

You need to get water at one point from a sink to put out a fire. You have an empty jar. Various actions like “fill jar” and “put jar in sink” don’t work. “Take water” claims you don’t have a container. It turns out you need a bottle from a completely different room as a container.

Then, to extinguish the fire: “throw water” doesn’t work. “Extinguish fire” doesn’t work. “Pour water” doesn’t work. “Throw bottle” (which is the command given in the walkthrough!) doesn’t work. Only “throw bottle at fire” works.

There’s a bit later where you need to translate Ixteesh words on a rock. “Translate” doesn’t work. “Decipher rock” doesn’t work. Only “decipher words” works.

It’s possible if all of these types of issues are cleared up and the NPCs are made a little more conversational this might turn into a solid game. The interaction kept getting in the way so often I wasn’t able to focus much on the story. I really do appreciate the ambitious ideas; it’s too easy to make yet another adventure with sterile environments that have no characters or characters that serve as mere information-dispensers, but this game needs at least another two weeks of shake-down testing to be play-worthy.

November 05, 2017

Lab of Jizaboz

IfComp 2017 - 8 reviews

by Jizaboz ([email protected]) at November 05, 2017 07:35 PM

The Interactive Fiction Competition has many entries this year. Here are short reviews of those I've been able to play so far. You still have until November 15th to play and vote on games if you are interested.

By Marshal Tenner Winter

 A lot of games that involve “ships” whether they be in the sea or outer space have always confused me a bit as far as map layout versus the area I’m picturing in my head. This was kind of the case for me in this game too, but not as bad as others. I’m not sure how difficult of a time I would have solving some of these puzzles without a walkthrough because some of them seem kind of abstract. The 2nd part of the game you are off the ship and in a city called “Badushizd” where you’ll find a humorously-named inn. It went by pretty fast for me in contrast with the 1st part. Pretty cool game overall. Some technical issues and a few nags here and there. The pacing of the last part and ending of the game seemed appropriate.

*** GRUE ***

 Short game. Cool concept of being able to play from the perspective of a grue from the Zork series, but there just isn’t much to it. I was not able to finish the game; I think perhaps I didn’t get a timing puzzle right or something. Glancing at the walkthrough, there’s not much to the ending either.

By Matthew Pfeiffer

 I start in a crappy apartment. Apparently I’m a mad scientist. The game calls itself a 1-room escape game. There is no walkthrough and I couldn’t figure out how to escape the apartment.

*** MOON BASE ***
By Andrew Brown

 A short, creepy web game. I don’t think I reached the best ending, but seeing the consequences of apparently bad choices as a result was satisfying. Web games that seem to just go around in circles to reach only 1 or at the most 2 endings always seem to fail to keep me engaged or care to replay the game again. I would give this game another play if I wasn’t in the middle of all of these entries at the moment.

By Naomi Norbez

 This is more of an “interactive essay” than “interactive fiction”. It's not a game at all. I don’t identify myself as Christian or queer, (the 2 main elements being compared in this entry) so this really didn’t hit any nerve with me one way or the other. The conclusion is basically a “The Jesus I know is a cool dude that isn’t mean to people.” theme.

*** The Richard Mines ***
By Evan Wright

 A parser game in which you need to search through some old tunnels and make your escape. Short room descriptions. Short game for that matter. Fairly easy puzzles. Not a lot of story here, but not a lot to complain about either.

*** A Walk In The Park ***
By Extra Mayonaise

 In this parser game you play a punk wandering around a city. It had a couple of lines that made me chuckle, and the setting was nicely put together. However, I got stuck trying to follow the tutorial at the step where I should “say uhh”. Uhh…

*** Will Not Let Me Go ***
By Stephen Granade

 Another web game. Here you are an old man dealing with alzheimer’s. This is another one where I don’t feel like I have any real choice here but to just keep clicking links to keep the story chugging along. What makes up for it though was it actually was a good story. I think it could have been a bit shorter though and still got the same effect across.

Adventure Blog

Strayed: iOS iPad GameplayAppUnwrapper was kind enough to do a...

November 05, 2017 01:41 AM

Strayed: iOS iPad Gameplay

AppUnwrapper was kind enough to do a Let’s Play of Strayed here, so you can sneak a peek into this spooky interactive tale!

November 04, 2017

Doug's World

"Absence of Law" (review)

by Doug Egan ([email protected]) at November 04, 2017 01:30 PM

"Absence of Law" is a parser game written by Brian Rushton for the 2017 Interactive Fiction competition. I enjoyed Rushton's previous competition entries "Color the Truth" and "Ether".
I waited until late in the competition to play "Absence" because I suspected it would be a good one and I wanted to end the 2017 season with a good experience. I was not disappointed.

Mild spoilers may follow

Read more »

November 03, 2017

Renga in Blue

IFComp 2017: Salt, a partial list of things for which i am grateful, Run of the place

by Jason Dyer at November 03, 2017 10:40 PM

Salt by Gareth Damian Martin. Finished on desktop.

a partial list of things for which i am grateful by Deon Guinn. Finished on desktop.

Run of the place by WD\x{1F479}K. Not finished.

A triple review! These happen to share a minimalist vibe, although they don’t share the same levels of quality.

Salt places you in the water, swimming to the sea, in a lightly-defined fantasy universe (lightly defined enough everything might be going on in the player character’s head).

Text is displayed in short spurts of 12 words or so at most. You start “above the water”, where there is no interativity other than to wait as messages slowly go by.

The beach is a strip of heat.

You stand knee deep in the water, facing out to sea.

Familiar voices shimmer behind your head.

You take a breath, and then begin.

The main interactivity after is to “swim”, which involves hitting the space bar. The space bar needs to be timed, however; there’s a meter that moves inward, and to get maximum swim distance you should hit the button the moment the meter goes away. Wait too long and the swimming ends.


…impossibly tuquoise…

…and warm, like no sea you’ve known.

Every once in a while you can make a choice by picking “up” or “down” but for the most part these are for flavor. The fact you can end swimming at any moment does lend itself to more agency than it initially appears. (I have a suspicion there are at least three endings and possibly more.)

The atmosphere (and music) are solid enough this is definitely worth the 15 minutes or so it takes to play through once, but of course I have a few quibbles:

a.) Even 15 minutes is possibly too long, given the interface; I went from interested to immersed to irritated from having to press the space bar every second in order to keep reading the underwater text. I could easily see a player having trouble altogether and quitting early. Perhaps an “accessibility mode” would help (one where you can just switch swimming on or off at will)?

b.) There’s a high pitched whine when going from underwater to above-water. For people with sensitive ears it is painful. The game recommends headphones; I recommend not using headphones.

c.) There’s not enough clues to really get a handle on who the PC is, who the other figures are, where this sea is located, and what’s really happening to the PC. This is clearly Intentional, but that’s also literally the entirety of the Plot, so I found it too vague to be fully pleasing.

d.) The above-water message speed was slow enough that I found myself doing chores while the game was playing, which is a definite sign the message speed could be bumped up a little.

a partial list of things for which i am grateful is a quite literal title. This isn’t some story where a list is included, or an ironic work where no such list exists. This is just a list of things.

You navigate from one thing to another by clicking one of the letters of the previous thing. The links are essentially at random so there is no agency. This isn’t even like one of the McSweeny’s lists where there’s humor or a story arc involved; this is just stuff the author likes, given in random order. Entered into an interactive fiction contest.

>> deep breaths << I guess I can, er, write about how it holds up as a list?

I've done this before with non-fiction entered into the contest, and what was essentially static fiction, but I have no idea what sort of aesthetic values to even use here. I guess, as an activity, it’s nice to reflect on good things. I get the “private game” vibe and I gather there might be lots of meaning here for the author and people who know the author. This doesn’t do anything for me, though.

In Run of the place, you pick one of 6 vague options (shown above) and then are treated to a random cavalcade of text by holding down the space bar.

That’s it. You hold the space bar, text keeps going. You let go, text stops.

I never ran into any “racist language” but I easily believe there might be some. The text appears to be scraped from somewhere and mixed up in a random generative sense. I’m curious what the source was; it reads like Twitter filtered through a madman-crazy writing style like The Time Cube.

I guess if you’re into that sort of thing, you can put on some space music, set the window to full screen, put a rock on your space bar, and zone out for a while. However, I don’t think free-form political ramblings are the healthiest thing to do this to.

There is a timer that goes for 2 hours exactly. I have no idea if something special happens at the end. I’m not curious enough to know.

Part of the now-gone Time Cube website. Via Know Your Meme.

The Digital Antiquarian

A Net Before the Web, Part 2: Service to Community

by Jimmy Maher at November 03, 2017 05:41 PM

Then she generated the light, and the sight of her room, flooded with radiance and studded with electric buttons, revived her. There were buttons and switches everywhere — buttons to call for food, for music, for clothing. There was the hot-bath button, by pressure of which a basin of (imitation) marble rose out of the floor, filled to the brim with a warm deodorized liquid. There was the cold-bath button. There was the button that produced literature. And there were of course the buttons by which she communicated with her friends. The room, though it contained nothing, was in touch with all that she cared for in the world.

— from “The Machine Stops” by E.M. Forster

If we wished to compare The Source with CompuServe’s MicroNET in their earliest days, we might say that the former emphasized the content it would provide to its subscribers while the latter planned to set its subscribers free to make their own content for themselves. In a later era, the World Wide Web would offer both of these things in a hundred-car pileup between the forces of traditional media and millions of empowered creative individuals; we as societies are still struggling in many ways to come to terms with the sea change this represents. It’s of course the second part of the equation — all those empowered creative individuals — that marks the real diversion from the top-down media models of old. One might thus be tempted to say that MicroNET’s approach was the more visionary, hewing as it seemingly does to the philosophy sometimes known as “Web 2.0,” that guiding light of “mature” Internet culture. To do so, however, might be to give Jeff Wilkins and his colleagues a bit too much credit. The real driving force behind Wilkins’s MicroNET had little in common with the ideas that would come to be labelled Web 2.0, or for that matter the academic research that led to Web 1.0.

Wilkins had seen that computers were entering homes for the first time, but, raised on the big iron of institutional computing as he was, he couldn’t help but observe how absurdly primitive these new microcomputers really were. He thought of MicroNET as a way for people saddled with such toy computers to use them as the gateway to a real computer. Thus MicroNET’s early emphasis on programming languages. Why should hobbyists content themselves with the primitive BASIC dialects, 16 K (or less) memories, and slow and unreliable cassette-based storage of the first generation of microcomputers when MicroNET could offer them the chance to write and run larger programs in more sophisticated languages like Fortran and Pascal?

It didn’t take long, however, to see that most subscribers didn’t in fact come to MicroNET looking for a replacement for their little home computers. They rather saw it as a place to talk about the things they were doing on their micros: a place to trade tips, rumors, and ideas with one another. They were, in other words, less interested in writing programs on CompuServe’s big computers than they were in using them as a communications tool — as a way of learning how to write better programs on the TRS-80s and Apple IIs sitting right in front of them. Users groups were springing up all over the country for much the same purpose, but, valuable as they were, they were bound by all the constraints geography imposed on what was still a very small hobby in a very big country. What did you do between the monthly meetings of your users group? Some hobbyists logged onto MicroNET to get their fix of shop talk. And so, while the online programming environments sat largely unused, the email system and the public message boards were soon full of activity.

For all that this wasn’t quite what Wilkins had envisioned when he set up MicroNET, he adjusted to the reality on the ground with admirable alacrity. The first sign of the changing times came as early as December of 1979, when a new area called the “MicroNET Software Exchange” made its debut. Representing CompuServe’s first substantial investment of programming effort just for MicroNET subscribers, it was modeled after initiatives like the TRS-80 Software Exchange that was run by Softline magazine. With the commercial-software industry still in its infancy, these so-called “exchanges” gave programmers a conduit for selling their home-grown creations to the public. From the entrepreneurs whose wares could be found on them would be born many of the first generation of full-service software publishers — among them names like VisiCorp, Brøderbund, and Adventure International.

The MicroNET Software Exchange went online with 17 TRS-80 programs on offer, ranging in price from $1 to $49, with an average of $16.40. Subscribers who indulged could download the programs they purchased right away, seeing the price conveniently tacked onto their next MicroNET bill. But by the time MicroNET Software Exchange launched it was already clear to astute observers that this means of loosey-goosey commercial-software distribution — it wasn’t unusual for a single developer to “publish” the same program through half a dozen exchanges — probably wasn’t long for this world, doomed by the very same professional software publishers they had done so much to spawn. Despite the appeal to immediate gratification that downloading offered over waiting for physical cassettes to come in the mail, the MicroNET Software Exchange never took off. The era of digital download as a means of commercial-software distribution would require many years yet to come to fruition; this was one aspect of the digital life of the future that would indeed have to wait for a future that came equipped with the fast and reliable connections needed to download complex software painlessly.

CompuServe began to advertise MicroNET in early 1980 via simple spots like this one.

Still, the MicroNET Software Exchange did point to Wilkins’s evolving view of the service, just as the effort that went into creating it pointed to how MicroNET as a whole was moving out of the experimental phase, ready to take its place as an actively developed part of CompuServe’s business model. CompuServe began to take out some modest advertisements for the service in magazines like InfoWorld, and in the summer of 1980 dropped the separate MicroNET moniker altogether. The consumer online service was now known simply as CompuServe, all the former reticence about mixing corporate and consumer business in the same organization shoved aside. Many people within the company remained unhappy about the push into the consumer marketplace, but Wilkins dealt with the developing culture clash by isolating his small team of consumer-service developers in an office of their own, far from the jeering of their colleagues. Helping his cause immensely was the fact that Sandy Trevor, who had replaced John Goltz as the company’s chief technical architect, was himself an enthusiastic supporter of the consumer service, sending the skunk-works group many of his keenest technical minds. With him leading the way, almost all of the technical staff came around in fairly short order, and in time the rest of the staff would follow — especially as the consumer service started making the company real money. By 1987, it would constitute half of CompuServe’s revenue, nicely offsetting the continuing slow decline in the corporate time-sharing market.

It is true that early on the consumer side of the company grew fairly slowly; it would take until well into 1981 for it to reach 10,000 subscribers. Yet its perceived importance, both inside and outside of CompuServe, developed much more quickly. On May 12, 1980, the accounting giant H&R Block bought CompuServe in a deal which left Jeff Wilkins in charge and promised to let him continue on the path he was already steering. Wilkins himself believed that the potential of the consumer service was a major motivating factor — if not the major factor — prompting H&R Block to make the deal. He told one interviewer at the time that he believed H&R Block wanted “to put themselves in a marketplace that is growing faster than the tax markets.” Needless to say, such a description no longer applied to corporate time-sharing services, now a stagnant rather than an exploding market.

Radically different though the two companies’ histories, industries, and cultures were, the acquisition led to surprisingly little internal friction. Wilkins used the sense of security the name of H&R Block lent in corporate America to make deals for the consumer service that may very well have been impossible otherwise, while H&R’s deep pockets and willingness to take the long view made it possible for him to expand on his already excellent telecommunications network, thereby making sure that when the users were ready to come to CompuServe en masse, CompuServe would have the pipes to accept their business. “You have to have the ability to anticipate, to be two or three years ahead of the market,” said Wilkins. By mid-decade, it would be possible to establish a rock-steady connection with CompuServe’s PDP-10s in Columbus via a local call from virtually anywhere in the country.

The telecommunications infrastructure wasn’t the only aspect of the consumer service that required the constant attention of Wilkins’s best engineers. The steadily growing user roll brought plenty of challenges to the programming staff as well. In the old days, when CompuServe had been strictly a provider of time-sharing to corporate clients, each client was earmarked to a certain PDP-10 machine in the pool of same inside the data centers; said machine stored all their data and ran all their software and was thus the only one they needed to access. The demands of the consumer service, however, soon extended beyond the capacity of any one machine. Dividing subscribers into pools and assigning them to individual machines was no good solution, for all of the subscribers needed to be able to interact with one another in ways which CompuServe’s corporate clients didn’t. Sandy Trevor was the key designer of what came to be called the “yo-yo switch,” a methodology for balancing the load of the consumer service across the company’s range of twenty or more PDP-10s. Trevor:

When a user logs onto CompuServe and selects an option from the menu, he or she is automatically connected with the host on which the needed data is stored. If during an online session he later selects another item that’s on a different computer, he is quickly switched over to that host. Because it’s done so quickly, [the] user is unaware of the change.

This very divorcement of the details of computing hardware from computing in the abstract — to such an extent that the user never needs to think about the hardware at all — is the source of the adjective “cloud” in the modern notion of cloud computing. In the early 1980s, it was at the cutting edge of computer science, and points to how groundbreaking the CompuServe of that time was in a strictly technical as well as social and business sense.

While the engineers were thus occupied on the technical end, CompuServe’s evolving marketing department developed ways to get the service in front of potential customers with what one might call an engineer’s single-minded precision. In the summer of 1980, CompuServe struck a deal with Radio Shack, who were selling far more home computers than anyone else at the time, to stock what came to be known as the “Snapaks”: packets containing everything a new subscriber needed to log into the system for the first time and set up an account. A customer could go from opening the packet to using the service within minutes. The Snapaks thus represented a potent force in the consumer marketplace: instant gratification.

From store shelves, the Snapaks found their way into modem boxes, as well as those housing most of the popular home computers. Just as software publishers had long since realized that a stunning percentage of software was purchased at the same time as the computer used to run it, CompuServe understood that the best way to capture a potential customer was to nab her early, in the first blush of excitement that accompanied taking her new toy home. Thanks to their connections and financial resources, no one else could rival them in this kind of outreach. It became a key part of their success, especially after the inevitable competition in the market for online consumer services — some of it far more dangerous than the moribund The Source — began to arrive by mid-decade.

But we perhaps get ahead of ourselves; that’s a story for my next article. At this point, I’d like to flip the script on this business history with which we’ve occupied ourselves until now. It’s time to put on a social historian’s hat and ask what the people who used this most popular and sophisticated of all the 1980s online services were actually doing when they logged on.

It turns out that much of it wasn’t all that far removed from what people still do online today. That fact, far from minimizing the importance of this pioneering service, only serves to underscore how prescient it really was. Humans are, as the cliché goes, social animals. “Social media” may not yet have been a term, but as early as 1980 CompuServe was evolving into a prime example of exactly that. Advertised as a service, it very quickly became a community.

From the beginning, of course, there was email, allowing CompuServe members to send private messages back and forth for any reason they liked. Already in November of 1981, 80 Computing magazine could write of this subtly disruptive technology that “it may replace the postal system and take part of the load now carried by the telephone.”

While the concept of email — still generally referred to during the 1980s by more long-winded sobriquets like “electronic mail” — is a fairly obvious one, the fundamental issue which held back its acceptance as a replacement for paper mail for many years was the lack of inter-operability between the various email systems. For a CompuServe subscriber, this meant that she could only send and receive email to and from other CompuServe subscribers. In one of those quotations that become retroactively hilarious, Marvin Weinberger, a computer researcher, mused thus in 1984:

What we need is a sort of “Long Lines” carrier for electronic mail. It would be analogous to AT&T’s Long Lines, which transmits a message among the local telephone operating companies. So far, a few vendors have taken steps to exchange messages, but there are hundreds of mail systems. If electronic mail is really to become as useful as the telephone — meaning one could send a message to anybody, anywhere — then an entity of this type is a prerequisite.

Weinberger was overlooking the Internet, an entity of exactly the needed type which already existed and was in fact being used to exchange email all over the world as he said those words. Indeed, his words sound like the beginning of a joke: “Gee, if only there was an open computer network already in place for the purpose of sending all these data packets back and forth…”

But the Internet’s evolution into the publicly accessible World Wide Web was still years away; in 1984, it was available only to those with the right university, government, or corporate connections. In the meantime, the closed email systems of services like CompuServe did much to trap subscribers on the service with which they had originally signed up. Each online service was such a closed universe in all respects that moving from one to another meant literally abandoning one’s friends.

While email was a great tool for communicating with friends you’d already made on CompuServe, how did you make new ones? How, in other words, could you find people on CompuServe in the first place who shared your interests? The solution to this problem, arrived at already in its most basic form in 1980, were things that were first known as “Special Interest Groups,” then re-branded with the pithier moniker of simply “Forums.” Rather than dividing CompuServe’s offerings by function — email, bulletin boards, etc. — the Forum system divided them by topic. In a Forum, one could find and communicate with other subscribers who, one knew, were also there out of interest in the Forum’s topic.

Predictably enough, the earliest Forums tended to be dedicated to the computing hobby itself. Each brand of computer and, soon, each viable model of computer got its own Forum. These gatherings of like-minded subscribers came to wield considerable influence in the computer industry at large. Apple’s John Sculley and Steve Wozniak, for instance, both made themselves personally available from time to time on the Forum known as the “Micronetworked Apple Users Group.” It wasn’t unusual for journalists from the magazines to source their word-on-the-street reports from the CompuServe Forums, which came to serve them well as early harbingers of the way the public at large would react to any given plan, product, or announcement. Radio Shack developed the TRS-80 Model 100, the world’s first reasonably usable laptop computer, practically in partnership with the TRS-80 Forum. First they took the time to ask the people there what they wanted in a portable computer. Then they delivered prototype models to the Forum’s leading lights and collected their feedback — rinse and repeat through several more cycles. Throughout the process, the executives behind the project remained consistently available to the Forum’s members. The early subscribers to CompuServe were by definition trailblazers, and the people marketing home-computer hardware and software took their influence very, very seriously.

With time, though, CompuServe’s user base began to branch out beyond the hardcore hacker demographic, and the Forums reflected this in their growing diversity of subject matter. Jeff Wilkins has named aviation as the first non-computer topic to really take hold. Pilots, who were often early technology adopters, had congregated in enough numbers on CompuServe within a year or two that their pooled information on airplanes, airports, weather, and traffic became one of the best resources any aviator could have. Still more pilots started signing up for CompuServe just to have access to this goldmine, creating a snowball effect.

And as aviation went, so in time went heaps of other hobbies and topics of interest: law, medicine, gardening, religion, sports, travel, individual authors and musicians. Just as journalists in our own time have developed a sometimes disconcerting Twitter dependency, journalists by 1986 were finding a fair number of their alleged scoops on CompuServe. When the space shuttle Challenger blew up during launch in January of that year, the huge and active NASA Forum, with plenty of members perched at a privileged vantage point inside NASA itself, became the place to find the latest news about what had happened and why. By 1989, more than 170 Forums were in operation.

The real genius of the Forum system was CompuServe’s willingness to allow them to be driven by ordinary subscribers — a willingness that hearkens back in its way to the founding philosophy of the service. Recognizing that they couldn’t possibly administer such a diverse body of discussions, CompuServe’s employees didn’t even try. Instead they created a process whereby new Forums could be formed whenever enough subscribers had expressed interest in their proposed topics, and then turned over the administration to the experts, the people who knew best the topics they dealt with: the very same subscribers who had lobbied for them in the first place. Forum administrators — known as “sysops” in CompuServe parlance — were given free access, along with a cash stipend that was dependent on how active their domain was. For the biggest Forums, this could amount to a considerable amount of money. Jeff Wilkins has claimed that some sysops wound up earning up to $250,000 in the course of their CompuServe life.

Sysops enjoyed broad powers to go with their compensation. It was almost entirely they who wielded the censor’s pen, who said what was and wasn’t allowed. As their Forums grew, they were permitted to hire deputies to help them police their territory, rewarding them with gifts of free online time. By all accounts, the system worked remarkably well as an early example of the sort of community policing on which websites like Wikipedia would later come to depend. It was a self-regulating system; those few sysops who neglected their duties or abused their powers could expect their Forum’s traffic to dwindle away, until CompuServe shut the doors. Those Forums with particularly enthusiastic and active sysops, on the other hand, thrived, sometimes out of all seeming proportion to their esoteric areas of interest. The Source, still hewing largely to its content- rather than user-driven model, failed to implement anything like the Forum concept until 1985, and was rewarded with a far more fragmented, far less active social space, even taking into account the growing disparity between the numbers of subscribers on the two services.

While the Forums were instrumental in making CompuServe what it was, it was a single technical rather than administrative development which did the most of all to bind CompuServe’s subscribers together into a real community — a development which stands out today as the most obviously, undeniably groundbreaking aspect of the entire service.

The consumer service’s formative period had been marked by a brief-lived but fairly intense craze for CB radio, fueled by corn-pone entertainments like Smokey and the Bandit, B.J. and the Bear, and The Dukes of Hazzard. For a while, cars sporting huge antenna rigs were a common sight on American highways, and truckers were left grumbling about all these amateurs muddying up their bandwidth. Radio Shack made a killing off the fad, selling CB kits in their stores alongside the TRS-80s that were fueling the contemporaneous early home-computer boom. The people who found CB radio interesting were very often the same ones who were buying computers and using them to log onto CompuServe.

Sandy Trevor

In late 1979, in the midst of the CB craze, CompuServe rolled out an addition to the operating system used on their time-sharing PDP-10s: a method of sharing segments of memory across multiple user sessions. It may not sound like the most exciting innovation, but it opened up worlds of new possibilities for direct, user-to-user interaction in real time. The synergy between CB enthusiasts and the computer enthusiasts on CompuServe inspired Sandy Trevor to use his programmers’ latest advance in the service of the first real-time online chat system. “It struck me that CB was something everyone had heard of,” he would later say. “Unlike many computer concepts, it wasn’t difficult for novices, and I thought it would provide a unique environment for meeting other people.” Jeff Wilkins recalls his first glimpse of what become known as “CB Simulator”:

We had an executive-committee meeting every Monday morning at 9:00; this was for the whole company. Sandy Trevor came to me before the meeting and said, “I want to show you what I did over the weekend. I call it CB. You pick a channel and you pick a username and you type, and everybody that’s on your channel sees what you’re typing.” He demonstrated it for me. I said, “Wow, that’s really interesting. I don’t know if people will use it or not, but we’ll give it a try and see. Let’s tell the executive committee about it, see what they think.”

So, we went to the executive-committee meeting and he gave a demonstration. I’ll never forget the expressions on their faces. They said, “You guys are insane! Nobody will ever use that! Why are we wasting our time on all this goofy stuff?”

Despite the committee’s objections, CB Simulator went live on February 21, 1980, with no fanfare whatsoever. CompuServe didn’t advertise it at all during its first four years of existence, and it wasn’t even on the menu system for the first year; would-be chatters had to learn the command to activate it from their more clued-in online friends. Sandy Trevor claims that this manifest ambivalence was shared by even Wilkins himself to a degree that’s perhaps obscured by the quotation above; “Jeff Wilkins,” he says, “thought it would be a fad.”

And yet CB Simulator went on to become CompuServe’s killer app, the place where the majority of subscribers spent the majority of their online time. A modern-day Wilkins, long since disabused of any doubts he might once have harbored, calls it out as the perfect combination of “high-tech” and “high-touch”; CB Simulator, more so than even the Forum system or anything else on CompuServe, provided that personal element that turned a conduit for information into a conduit for relationships. CompuServe’s advertising copy — after, that is, they bothered to start advertising CB Simulator — stated the case with only slight hyperbole: “There are students, lawyers, pilots, doctors, engineers, housewives, programmers, writers, all ready to welcome you from the moment you first access CB and type, ‘Hello, I’m new.'” For the people who used it, CB Simulator wasn’t a program or a service or even a technology; it was a social space where, once you’d learned the handful of needed commands, the technology quickly faded into the background.

Steven K. Roberts received a great deal of press attention for his two-and-a-half year trip across the highways and byways of the United States on his high-tech bicycle. On the cover of his book, he’s shown using a Tandy/Radio Shack portable computer — part of a model line designed, appropriately enough, in partnership with CompuServe subscribers — to connect to CompuServe via a satellite uplink. He was a CB Simulator regular throughout his adventure.

For most people of the 1980s, the idea of having online friends was still a deeply odd one, but for the people who were part of the CB Simulator scene the relationships forged there were as real and as pure as any they formed in the “real” world — or perhaps in many cases even more so. One regular chatter noted that on the CB Simulator “you meet someone from the inside out. You judge them on their heart and values, not what kind of jeans they wear.” Pat Phelps, CompuServe’s longtime CB Simulator administrator, beloved to the point of being called “Mother Superior” by her charges, spoke of the doors that were opened in similarly utopian terms:

There is no king or queen or worker class to it. Everyone is totally equal; it’s a fantastic equalizer as far as social order goes. It doesn’t matter what sex or race you are or what you look like, or handicaps, or whatever. People judge you on your ideas, on how you communicate.

Many handicapped people, for example, can’t leave their homes, and they’re withdrawn and concerned about the way they look. Here’s a way they can meet new people, make friends from all over the country. It doesn’t matter if they’re handicapped because everyone is accepted for the thoughts they share over the computer. If you meet a person who doesn’t fit the image of what you thought they should look like, it doesn’t matter because you already care for them and accept them.

“It’s like having a house guest in the corner who will talk to you anytime you want,” said another chatter. “It’s a form of communication, like hanging out on a street corner.” But of course many of the people hanging out on this virtual street corner were the very sort who would have been extremely uncomfortable doing so in the real world. “I’ve always been a loner, and this is a convenient way to meet people,” said one. “For the first time in my life, I have a group of people I can communicate with anytime.”

One of the first of many CB Simulator parties was organized by Pat Phelps in Columbus on June 16, 1984. These happy dancers have for the most part never met before in the physical world — but they seem to be getting along well enough.

Some of the friendships that were forged on CB Simulator evolved into something more — and this even before the “lonely hearts” channels became a thing. Pat Phelps claimed that even during the earliest period of CB Simulator’s existence several couples who met there wound up getting married. Although they were almost certainly not the absolute first of their kind, the first well-documented instance of a couple who met online getting married dates to February 14, 1983.

George Stickles and Debbie Fuhrman were better known online as “Mike” and “Silver.” He was a 29-year-old who worked at a copy shop near Dallas, Texas, she a 23-year-old secretary from Phoenix, Arizona. They got to know each other by chatting for “five or six hours” every night; “He would type in these jokes on the computer, and I felt really comfortable,” said Fuhrman. She eventually moved to Dallas to be with him. As a tribute to their unusual courtship, they decided to hold a wedding online, where their other friends on CB Simulator could participate. At first they thought of only a mock marriage. “Then after we got into it,” said Fuhrman, “we decided, why not do it for real. Pat [Phelps] said, ‘Yeah, yeah, by all means, do it for real.’ So we decided to go ahead and do everything at the same time.” The online spectators included Fuhrman’s parents, who had been unable to travel from Phoenix to join their daughter and future son-in-law. The bridesmaid was named Cupcake, the caterer “<< >>,” the usher Gandalf, the photographer Challenger, while the best man was the perfectly named Bestman. Three computers were placed in the same room in Dallas: one for each half of the happy couple, one for a 24-hour on-call minister who had been plucked out of the local phone book. As they went through the ceremony, each typed his or her words in addition to speaking them aloud. “I was quite surprised at the number of people who attended, as well as how well everything went,” said Stickles. The couple left the ceremony in a hail of virtual rice: “***************************.”

Stickles and Fuhrman were interviewed a number of times by journalists interested in documenting this strange new phenomenon of online dating. Some of the other adventures and misadventures their articles describe still ring true to anyone who has dipped a toe in these waters:

A couple who had been communicating over the lines for two months decided to meet each other at a local bar. They had been talking on the phone earlier. “The phone conversation was marvelous,” says the woman, who goes by the handle BigGal. “We chatted, laughed, and conversed for the better part of three hours. I couldn’t believe such a human being existed.”

And then they met. Damion, who had claimed to be 6 feet tall, had “mysteriously shrunk to about 5 feet 6 inches,” says BigGal. “The well-built body I had imagined assumed an avocado shape, and what was left of his brown hair was more of a dull, dusty gray color. Damion, supposedly 24 to 27 years old, also fibbed about his age. He looked old enough to be my father.”

Anecdotes like these reveal that judging the opposite sex exclusively on “their hearts and values” only got some chatters so far.

Still, we can presume that some of the supposed dishonesty that could lead to misunderstandings arose not so much from malignant intent as an earnest desire to try on different identities that weren’t going to fly in many real-world regions of an intensely hetero-normative country. One chatter told a journalist of some intense online time spent with what he assumed to be a “lovely, very philosophical” woman — only to learn that she was “really” a guy named Dave. Was Dave engaging in dishonest behavior, or revealing a truer self — or was Dave in some sense doing both at once?

Inevitably, some people were less interested in the relationship-building aspect of the whole romantic enterprise than they were in getting right down to the sex. Channels dedicated to sex chat could be found on CB Simulator almost from the beginning, and were quietly tolerated by CompuServe’s administrators — if not, for obvious reasons, publicized. Below is a precious historical document: real footage from 1984 of one of CB Simulator’s “adult” channels, as preserved by YouTube user Mathew Melnick. From the common area shown on the video, chatters could pair up in private rooms in order to… well, you know what they were doing, don’t you?

So, this sort of thing certainly had its place on CB Simulator. But, particularly after the media latched onto the topic of online sexy talk with predictable enthusiasm, it didn’t take long for the very sort of uncomfortable exchanges so many women had seen CB Simulator as an escape from to begin to spill over into their online life as well. Indeed, this became one of the few topics on which the usually sanguine Pat Phelps expressed real worry:

CompuSex is a very small part of what the medium is about. I’m not against it. If people want to do that, it’s perfectly alright. But now, because of the publicity, the majority of women have gotten extremely shy. Most of them aren’t even going to “talk” mode anymore. I don’t do it anymore, unless it’s with someone I know, because most of the one-on-ones are sex calls now. It’s kind of shut the door to friendships and meeting new people. Many of the women I talked to felt the same way. It’s sad. It’s shutting the door against the real reason that CB was originated in the first place, for fun and friendship and camaraderie and romance.

Thus, already by the time Phelps said those words in 1984, the Garden of Eden that had been CB Simulator in the eyes of its first adopters was starting to collect its share of snakes.

Other chatters were less predatory, but just as depressing in the way they brought some of the less savory aspects of the real world with them online. The head of the Republican Forum, speaking from the vast wisdom she had accrued in her 24 years, seemed determined to live up to every stereotype about her political party when she sniffed that “usually CB people are more educated, make a little more money. They’re a better group of people.” It all served to point out, for anyone who was in doubt, that the online life of the future wouldn’t be all unicorns and rainbows. If everyone was equal on CB Simulator, it seemed that some still believed they were more equal than others.

Another discordant note was lent by a new phrase which had begun to enter journalistic parlance for the first time by 1984: “online addiction.” The phrase is still heard all too often today, but one big difference between then and now is that those using CompuServe and similar services during the 1980s were paying by the minute for the privilege. Lurid stories emerged, usually based on hearsay rather than direct reporting, describing chatters who had supposedly lost house and home to the compulsion. While the scope was perhaps often exaggerated, the problem for some people was real. Monthly bills of $500 or more weren’t unusual among the CB Simulator hardcore, who occasionally confessed to forgoing niceties like a new car to replace that beat-up old clunker in order to have the money to keep chatting.

But there are downsides to any social revolution. The fact remains that the people hanging out on CB Simulator and other online spaces like it were at the vanguard of something extraordinary, something destined to be far more a force for good than its opposite. For countless people, home-bound or otherwise isolated by circumstance from those in the physical spaces around them, CompuServe became a vital part of their existence. I have no statistics to hand on how many people didn’t take their own lives or make some other tragic decision because of CompuServe, but I strongly suspect they number more than a few. Born as a prosaic exercise in corporate time-sharing, CompuServe’s evolution into the largest and most vibrant online community of the 1980s — it could boast 500,000 active members by 1989 — is one of the more unlikely and inspiring tales of a pivotal era in computer history. As yet, though, we’ve only seen half the picture. Next time, we’ll see how Big Media went digital for the first time thanks to CompuServe.

(Sources: the book On the Way to the Web: The Secret History of the Internet and its Founders by Michael A. Banks and Computing Across America: The Bicycle Odyssey of a High-Tech Nomad by Steven K. Roberts; Creative Computing of March 1980; InfoWorld of May 26 1980, March 14 1983, July 2 1984, July 9 1984, July 23 1984, and July 30 1984; 80 Microcomputing of November 1980 and November 1981; Online Today of June 1985 and July 1989; Alexander Trevor’s brief technical history of CompuServe, which was first posted to Usenet in 1988; interviews with Jeff Wilkins from the Internet History Podcast and Conquering Columbus.)


Interactive Friction

IFComp 2017 Review: A Castle of Thread by Marshal Tenner Winter

by snowblood ([email protected]) at November 03, 2017 02:13 PM

These are quick thoughts about an entry in the 2017 Interactive Fiction Competition.

This kicks off like its prepping a long fantasy novel, before it remembers the two-hour IFComp limit and brings out the cutting scissors instead. Interestingly, it doesn't opt to take one scene and flesh it out (the option chosen by Insignificant Little Vermin, which also wants to be a fantasy epic too long for the IFComp), but instead picks out three scenes to implement lightly, fading to black after each. You play as Polt Kober, a teenager fluent in the ancient, dead language of "Ixteesh", and you've received a mission to go on a journey to a mystery destination and translate something.

Here is a sequence on a ship, with a traitor on board. Fade to black. Here is a sequence at an inn, where you discover your contact already dead and are assailed by an assassin. Fade to black. And here you are at your destination, ready to complete your task. It really feels like you are missing out on huge chunks of the story, with each new sequence suddenly throwing a bunch of new people, places and names at you as if you are already familiar with them. Not that playing catch-up can't be fun: I think I actually prefer this approach to the on-the-nose exposition that starts the game. For instance, did we really need to know all this before the story has even started:

A century after The Cleansing Rains and a decade since the False Era ended and knowledge of the world returned to humanity, civilization reappears as independent city-states vie for power and territory.  The old borders are no more and new kingdoms struggle to emerge and flourish.  Weary of war, destruction, and corruption, many of these sovereignties, such as Slezamane and Badushizd, seek to avoid conflicts with neighbors and adopt isolationist or diplomatic policies.  Some, however, like the Sovereign State of Caleah, maintain the ways of war and aggression.

I don't recall "The Cleansing Rains" or "The False Era" ever becoming relevant during the story. I don't even think we ever find out what they are. What was the point of telling us this?

In the first sequence, the player-character immediately discovers a mysterious note telling him that he is in danger from a crew member. The note then proceeds to name that crew member, then tells you what to do to save yourself. Other games would have made this process of discovery playable: maybe you spend some time with the crew first, working and talking with them, before retiring to your chambers and finding a note slipped under your door? Maybe you survive an initial assassination attempt by luck, confirming that you're in danger? Maybe you need to investigate to find out who the traitor in your midst is? Not here. A Castle of Thread just likes to wash and go.

There are lots of characters here, all wandering around independently, all with their own potted back-stories if you examine them. Unfortunately, none of them have much to say. The ship's captain gives you a fetch quest, your personal bodyguard is almost mono-syllabic, and everyone else seems to ignore you. At least, that was my experience from the conversation topics I tried. The game uses an ASK/TELL conversation system. ASK VENKATH ABOUT NOTE, TELL RAKTON ABOUT STOVE, that kind of thing. But there are no guides about what topics are available to talk about, and almost none of what I tried elicited useful responses. This is frustrating, as the author clearly knows how to implement topic guidance: the very last NPC you converse with in the game does indeed get a "You could ask about...." followed by a list of topics. Why couldn't this be implemented for the other NPCs too? It seems like a missed opportunity to really flesh out these characters and this world, a chance to play catch-up on the large chunks of story that have been skipped to get to this scene.

The second sequence, an action-packed encounter at an inn, is notable for the nifty implementation of Venkath Mock, your bodyguard, who follows you around but one move behind, just like a bodyguard would, and the "alewife" who runs the inn. As soon as fighting breaks out and a fire starts, she runs into the basement to hide. Once you've cleared an exit route, she's quick to follow you out to safety. It's some neat scripting that gives a good sense of living characters actually inhabiting the space with their own goals and agendas, rather than robotic automatons just standing around waiting to dispense clues and keys to the player-character. Again, it's a shame that nobody responds to you much, but the sequence does a good job of upping the threat level and keeping you on your toes.

And finally, the third sequence is our destination. An artefact with Ixteesh writing, surrounded by encampments of NPCs from all the different states. There are a ton of new NPCs introduced here, and we get maybe two sentences of description and a single line of dialogue from each. I sense that you had maybe already met many of these characters in previous, excised scenes, hence the lack of introductions. Translating the writing tells you what you're supposed to do next. But when I tried, it didn't work, and there was no explanation why. Resorting to the walk-through, I realised I was supposed to read the author's mind to figure out how to proceed. A totally unclued, illogical action is required, with perfect syntax, typed in the one way the game is expecting it. This is a problem that also afflicted the previous scene (escaping the fire requires a very specific sentence, even though other alternatives I tried should have also been fine), and the first scene (you are supposed to magically know how to get hold of the cat, and what you do with it afterwards is, frankly, silly). This lack of affordance to the player feels like a relic from a past age of text adventures, an attempt to make a game artificially last longer by including impossible puzzles that can only be solved by calling a hint-line. There is no HELP or HINT option included in the game. Resorting to a walk-through inevitably feels like a failure of game design. There are NPC companions throughout the game, how about they chime in and offer advice and clues whenever its contextually appropriate? They're not doing anything else.

There is a good framework here. Everything in the room descriptions can be examined, and there are sensible responses to most actions involving them. The world-building is intriguing, it doesn't feel like generic Dungeons & Dragons (there are no monsters, for example), and I like the fact that there are a lot of mysteries that go unexplained (weirdly, there is no 'castle' or 'thread' in the game). I especially like the story-telling approach: just giving us the edited highlight reel of a much longer quest feels like playing a CRPG without all the random combat encounters. Yes, you lose something in terms of the pacing that builds that "epic" quality, but getting straight to the nitty-gritty means the game is confident enough in its story for it to stand by itself.

November 01, 2017

Choice of Games

Inclusivity in Choice of Games

by Becky Slitt at November 01, 2017 07:41 PM

As part of our support for the Choice of Games Contest for Interactive Novels, we will be posting an irregular series of blog posts discussing important design and writing criteria for games. We hope that these can both provide guidance for people participating in the Contest and also help people understand how we think about questions of game design and some best practices. These don’t modify the evaluation criteria for the Contest, and (except as noted) participants are not required to conform to our recommendations–but it’s probably a good idea to listen when judges tell you what they’re looking for.

If these topics interest you, be sure to sign up for our contest mailing list below! We’ll post more of our thoughts on game design leading up to the contest deadline on January 31, 2018.

Choice of Games is strongly committed to inclusivity. Our audience includes people of many different genders, races, orientations, abilities, ethnicities, and life experiences. We want our games to immerse readers in a world that shows the same diversity, and for people from all backgrounds to see themselves fully reflected in that world.

Therefore, in our contest, inclusivity is worth 10% of the score. When we assess whether a game is inclusive, these are the criteria we use:

  • Do the characters reflect the full diversity of the society in which the game is set?
  • Are all types of people (especially groups traditionally underrepresented in media) treated respectfully and non-stereotypically?
  • If there is romance in the game, are there equally satisfying romance options regardless of the player character’s orientation?

At minimum, if the PC’s gender is stated, then the PC must be playable as male or female. If there is romance in the story, the PC must be playable as gay or straight. Games which do not offer this do not simply receive a score of 0 for inclusivity, they aren’t eligible to be published as Choice of Games titles.

For the last criterion – how to offer good options for romanceable characters – our Author Guidelines give a lot of details and examples. So this blog post will focus on the other two points. We’ll discuss what those criteria mean, give you some best practices for creating an inclusive world, and offer some resources that will help you through your writing process.

Learning how to write inclusively is an ongoing process. We can’t possibly teach you everything there is to know about it, or cover every single detail, in a single blog post. What we hope to do here is to give you some starting points for your own learning process and some tips for how to approach the task. Keep reading; keep learning; keep listening.

Inclusive Environments

Choice of Games titles give the player a first-person perspective within the story. The PC always takes action as “I,” and the narration always addresses the PC as “you.” It’s what makes our stories feel so immediate and immersive: what’s happening to the PC is happening to you.

That means that many players like to construct PCs that match their real-world selves: the same gender, orientation, appearance, etc.  Therefore, we want to make sure that as many people as possible can see themselves in the main character. One way to do this is to include as wide a range of options as possible for the PC’s fundamental character traits. Offer names and backgrounds that make it clear that the PC can have many different potential ethnicities, races, and origins. Think outside traditional binaries of gender and orientation. ChoiceScript’s method of handling pronoun variables makes it very easy to add more options. So for gender, include the option for the PC to be nonbinary, genderqueer, genderfluid, transgender, etc. For orientation, include the option for the PC to be bisexual, asexual, aromantic, etc.

But being inclusive means more than having diverse options for the PC alone: it means having that diversity fully integrated into the world where the story is set.

To achieve this, you’ll have to think very carefully about some things that you might usually consider to be “neutral” or “default”. As Chuck Wendig recently said, “not being inclusive is also a political choice” – or, to put it another way, as Foz Meadows wrote, “default narrative settings are not apolitical.” What we consider “defaults” actually reflect deeply embedded structures of power and politics – for instance, the idea that a white character is “neutral” and characters of any other race need a “reason” to be in the story. Make sure that you’re mixing up your defaults, and including diversity in your minor NPCs as well.

Historical settings, both in the real world and in historically-flavored fantasy worlds, are especially susceptible to misconceptions. Kameron Hurley has written very eloquently about how difficult it is to overcome these preconceived ideas. Medieval Europe in particular was much more diverse and egalitarian than it’s often depicted as being. See the end of this blog post for some resources that will help you build an accurate medieval or medieval-fantasy setting.

So, if you’ve got a sword-and-sorcery fantasy game in which the PC is a knight, and the PC can be of any gender, that’s a good first step. But if all the NPC knights are men, then that’s not really inclusive. Likewise, if you include romance in your game and leave open the possibility for the PC to have a romantic partner of the same gender, that’s a good first step – but if all the other relationships that you depict are straight couples, then that’s not really inclusive. The NPCs should represent the same wide range of genders, orientations, ethnicities, abilities, etc. as the PC.

You don’t have to make this a major plot point; in fact, it’s usually more inclusive to not make a big deal about it. Normalizing diversity communicates to the player that the PC is part of a world that contains many other people like them – in other words, showing the player that the PC belongs in that world and isn’t an exception.

There are subtler ways to promote inclusivity beyond the types of people that fill a story. The language that we use communicates ideas about the world and its power dynamics.

Countless casual phrases perpetuate destructive stereotypes. “Man up” implies that only men are strong. Using “crying like a girl” as an insult implies that crying shows weakness, that girls are weak – and therefore, that girls are inferior. “Psycho” demeans people with mental illnesses. Describing a disabled person as “confined to a wheelchair” implies that wheelchairs are a punishment, when many wheelchair users say that wheelchairs give them more freedom and flexibility than they would otherwise have. Like those “default narrative settings” mentioned above, these phrases are so deeply embedded in our common language usage that many people don’t even realize the potential hurt that they can cause, or how they reinforce stereotypes. Being aware of the phrases you use can help you create a more inclusive environment within your game.

At the end of this post, you can find some links to useful websites that will help you fine-tune your prose to make sure that you’re using the most inclusive language possible.

Best Practices

With all of this in mind, here are some ways to work towards an inclusive environment for your game. Again, this isn’t an exhaustive list; no single list can be! These are some starting points for your thought and research.

  • Think about the structures of power in the gameworld: think carefully about who’s in power and why, and about what kinds of people you place in positions of leadership. Are all the assertive leaders men and all the nurturers women? If so, you should mix things up.
  • Be aware of the tropes in fiction that perpetuate stereotypes or destructive patterns of power. For example, don’t give tragic endings to gay couples, or magically cure a disability. Even “good” stereotypes can be harmful in that they limit our perception of what certain people can do, and what roles they can play in the world: don’t make your only Asian character a math genius or martial-arts expert; and don’t make your only black character a giver of folksy knowledge, or only there to assist a white character.
  • Pay attention to the way you construct scenes. Try switching around the genders or races of the characters: does the dialogue still feel authentic? Does the switch reveal some unconscious assumptions? If a man is chasing another man down a dark alley, it’s a standard action scene, but if a man is chasing a woman down a dark alley, then the scene acquires a very different kind of fear and tension.
  • Pay attention to the way you describe NPCs. Make sure that when you’re “looking” with the PC’s eyes, you don’t assume what the PC will find attractive or not. Make sure that you don’t assume that one race or gender is the default and another is “exotic” or “different.”
  • Get a diverse group of beta readers. The more first-person perspectives you can get on your writing, the better information you’ll have about how your audience will respond to your work. You may even want to consider getting an expert reader or sensitivity reader for some more targeted feedback about best practices for representing specific groups of people.
  • Listen to your feedback. If a reader alerts you to a problem, look closely at that problem and see what you can do to fix it. If you’ve made a mistake, apologize, fix it, learn from it, and do better next time.
  • If you do choose to include discrimination in your game, either because of the historical setting or to create narrative drama, handle it with respect and care. Understand that discrimination is something that many players have experienced in their real lives. Seeing it represented in a game can make that game feel more authentic, but it can also stir up painful memories and emotions. Take it seriously, don’t treat it lightly, and be considerate of the players’ experiences.

Further Reading

These are some useful starting points for your research about how to write inclusively. There are many many more resources out there on the internet!


IFComp credits its benevolent dependencies

by Jason McIntosh at November 01, 2017 01:39 AM

My family bought a new(ish) car towards the end of the summer, the first that any of us have owned with a flat-panel display integrated into the dashboard. You navigate through its offerings via some chunky buttons surrounding it; it rather reminds me of using an early iPod. One day while fiddling through its menus, I discovered a “Software licenses” option — which does nothing except display the text of the good old GNU Public License in its entirety. You can use the radio-tuner knob to scroll through it at your leisure, once you call it up.

The car didn’t make clear what among its myriad software components fell under the GPL, but clearly something did. I felt equal parts amused and impressed that our friends at Volkswagen had gone through the trouble to follow the license’s directions and post the thing prominently enough that I’d stumble across it while the very machine hosting the file carried us up interstate 95. (Don’t worry, my wife was driving.) Furthermore, it wasn’t the first place I’d unexpectedly run into open-source license text lately; earlier in the summer, I found myself reading the MIT license on my TV screen, attached to some tool or library running deep under the hood of my Sony Playstation.

These discoveries brought to mind how I had called a little more attention to IFTF’s GitHub repositories a few months ago, and made me think that the IFComp codebase hadn’t done a very good job of acknowledging all the open-source projects that it folds into itself. Fine and good for IFTF to boast of its own FOSS bonafides, but it suddenly struck me as a poor showing that various international corporations did a better job than our scrappy little nonprofit of offering proper by-the-book credit to the free software we use.

So I set about to fix that, and with the help of our legal counsel I this month published a new and stupendously wordy document to IFComp’s code repository. Most of the words belong to the licenses themselves, lovingly hand-pasted into place, but the top of the document lists the different open-source projects that IFComp incorporates.

As it happens, IFComp uses all these projects in order to support the in-browser play of Inform-based IF games. Stephen Granade and Dan Shiovitz first rolled these features into the comp software some years ago, making the play of IFComp games suddenly much more accessible than before. I, as IFComp’s current lead organizer, have worked to maintain this very important feature, and I have the following people and projects to thank:

  • Quixe by Andrew Plotkin, via the MIT License

  • IF Recorder by Juhana Leinonen, via the MIT License

  • Parchment by Atul Varma and maintained by Dannii Willis, via the Modified BSD License. It in turn uses Gnusto, originally by Thomas Thurman, via the GNU Public License.

I would point out that none of the above software was, to the best of my knowledge, created expressly for IFComp. Rather, these are independent projects by members of the interactive fiction community, and their public release inspired IFComp’s technical team to make creative use of them towards the competition’s own betterment. All this serves as a fine example of why we love open-source software at IFTF, and why we will always continue a commitment towards openness in all the software that we as an organization produce and maintain.