Planet Interactive Fiction

November 24, 2020

Renga in Blue

The Golden Voyage (1981)

by Jason Dyer at November 24, 2020 02:41 AM

I want to clear up a misconception I’ve seen elsewhere about Golden Voyage, #12 in the Scott Adams series.

— backtrack that, I’m going to let Scott Adams himself do it. This is from an audio interview on the Atari 8-bit Podcast; you can listen to the relevant portion from the man himself or just read the transcript below.

Kevin Savetz: Based on your feedback that you get, what do you think is your most enduring adventure game?

Scott Adams: Probably Pirate Adventure, a lot of people remember that and connected with it. That, I get a lot of response from. Voodoo Castle, which I didn’t do as much of the writing as my wife back then, tried to write an adventure and I had to clean it up with her. It has more of a woman’s touch to it, and that seemed to resound with a number of people. Another one that was popular has an interesting story behind it. That’s Pyramid of Doom. That was adventure number eight. That’s set in the sands of Egypt, a lot of people remember that and the Purple Worm. They know a lot about it. The interesting thing is I didn’t write that one at all.

I got a submission in the mail from somebody saying, I wrote this adventure game, take a look at it. It runs on your engine. I’m going what, wait a minute I never released an engine, I never told anyone how my engine works, it’s totally proprietary you couldn’t have.

I took it and started playing it and sure enough, he did it on my engine. It was a decent game. I contacted him, his name is Alvin Files, he’s still around, he’s in Oklahoma now, retired. He’s a lawyer and he was just interested in it.

He took my machine language, disassembled it, figured out what it was doing, and figured out my language, which is awesome. He’s not the only one that did that. Another fellow did it which is, I think it’s number 12 in my series, Golden Voyage, by William Demas. He did the same exact thing. In both cases neither one knew each other and neither had contacted each other.

I worked with them and I thought this is so amazing if they’re able to do it, I want to get their stuff published. I’ll give them publishing rights, I’ll give them royalties, and I’ll edit it with them because they were still rough gems, and I’d learned a lot of things about how an adventure should flow and so forth. I worked with them from that point of view. It’s amazing what they did.

So Golden Voyage, like Pyramid of Doom, is not really “by” Scott Adams, although his name is on the credits.

Misspelled, even. I am not making this up.

Demas was busy in 1981 with Timequest (which we’ve already seen) and Forbidden Planet (which will be coming up later in 1981).

The king lies near death in the royal palace – you have only three days to bring back the elixer needed to rejuvenate him. Journey through the lands of magic fountains, sacred temples, stormy seas, and gold, gold, GOLD! Can you find the elixer in time?

— From the back cover of the game, and yes, elixir is spelt wrong twice

I tossed this game in now while Ulysses and the Golden Fleece was fresh in my memory. Just like that game, you start in a small “town” area where you buy things, although the merchants in The Golden Voyage are a bit more bloodthirsty.

I haven’t seen a beatdown like this since Nethack. This amuses me rather than bothers me design-wise since it’s so easy to reset the situation. Ulysses and the Golden Fleece just says “YOU HAVE TO BUY IT” if you try for the five-finger discount.

Nearby is a palace, where you are given your quest and a giant bag of gold with a minimum of fuss.

This lets you go back and buy the sandals as well as a compass, telescope, and stone tablet (with a picture of a cave). But since this is a lot of gold, it also lets you buy an entire boat.

Just like Ulysses and the Golden Fleece, I had a hellacious time trying to launch the thing. That game I eventually hit upon GO OCEAN, which doesn’t work here.

The proper command is SAIL (direction), that is, SAIL NORTH or SAIL SOUTH or SAIL EAST or SAIL WEST. I was stuck for so long I thought maybe I was missing a crew or putting the sail somewhere in particular.

You incidentally can climb the mast to get to a crow’s nest, and go in the cabin to find a cot you can sleep in and have time pass.

Moving on, if you SAIL EAST twice and LOOK TELESCOPE while in the crow’s nest, you find land.

If you’re not wearing the sandals, the scorpions bite you and you eventually die.

However, there isn’t much more to see; you can go in the jungle (two rooms) and find a dark cave. The game had a slight delay before showing the usual “you can’t see” message, so I was able to assess there was a fountain inside with a strange liquid.

I’m stuck here although I’ve got a two ideas for experiment:

a.) Check sailing in different directions; it’s possible there’s only one island, but if this is anything like Ulysses there are more. I know TORCH is an accepted noun and given the jungle island seems to only have the cave (which I peeked into by less-than-official methods) I suspect I’m missing an area.

b.) Mess around with PRAY, which is an accepted verb. I tried putting the tablet in the fountain and praying after with no result, but maybe I need to use a different item?

For reference, here’s my verb list (verbs that work are marked in orange):

November 23, 2020

Zarf Updates

A shut-in-year's worth of puzzle games

by Andrew Plotkin ([email protected]) at November 23, 2020 10:42 PM

I've been playing more games than usual -- guess why! -- but writing less about them. Furthermore, my habitual January review-blast is going to be delayed this year. The January reviews stem from IGF judging, and IGF runs at GDC, and GDC is officially "delayed until July".
(Conferences in July sound optimistic as hell, even with the recent good vaccine news. But leave that aside.)
The point is: I have been leaving you, gentle reader, in a haze of undirected game-floundering. How will you know what puzzle games are interesting without my anodyne guidance? Unless you look at the entire rest of the flippin' Internet. Okay, fine. But here's my round-up post on puzzly games, regardless.
...But not all of them. Tune in tomorrow for my top-recommended puzzle games of 2020! (So far.) Today is a lot of short takes. In this post:
  • The Pedestrian
  • Lumote
  • Etherborn
  • Arise: A Simple Story
  • Lightmatter
  • Lumina
  • Weakless
  • Phantom Path
  • Creaks
  • Relicta
  • Sensorium
  • Zof
  • Carto
  • Timelie
  • Ethereal

The Pedestrian

2D platformer except that you can manipulate the boards on which the 2D action occurs. This is clever, and more than usually thematic for an abstract puzzle game. Or maybe I should say, more philosophically thematic. The theme is "the signifier is the signified, and vice versa."
(And now, spoilers for pacing, though not for puzzles:)
Many puzzle games take after Portal: an introductory act, a moment of narrative collapse, and then an act of applying your knowledge to a larger world. The Pedestrian does something like this, but it saves it for the endgame. You get a single large expand-your-understanding puzzle, a small coda puzzle that ties it all back to a narrative, and you're done. I thought that was good! The designers could have gone much deeper into the expanded mechanics and doubled the size of their game. But they didn't have to. It is sufficient.

Lumote

Third-person platformer in a living world that reacts to your presence. Your charged body causes polyps to expand, jellyfish to elevate, and doors to dilate. Unless they're red polyps, in which case they are engorged by inimical red energy and deflated by your blue energy. And so on. You are trying to infiltrate the red world with your blue presence, but of course you sometimes need to manipulate both polarities...
Not extremely difficult, but it's satisfying. Plus the visual style is "bioluminescent Tron jellyfish", which is so entirely up my alley that I spent the whole game with a goofy grin plastered on my face. Great soundtrack too.

Etherborn

Yet another entry in the "gravity shifts as you go around a curved corner" category (see Alucinod). Like Alucinod, this is pretty solid until the last level, which bloats out in an excess of "our last level must be enormous and mind-expanding". Spoiler: it's just too big and hard to get around. Fun otherwise, though.

Arise: A Simple Story

A wordless platformer about a person's life, and by the way, you're dead. This is the "tragic and touching" subtype (see Rime) rather than "tragic and creepy" (Inside, DARQ). As usual, the game wants to be a lot more heartrending than it is, but whatever. Pretty good platformering.

Lightmatter

A Portal-like with light beams and hungry shadows. Don't step out of the light. Nice visual style. The only flaw is the narrator, an overdone Cave Johnson wannabe. (He even says so, which doesn't help!)

Lumina

A Portal-like with light beams and mirrors. (No hungry shadows.) Redirect colored beams at targets to unlock doors. It's fiddly but basically pleasant, up until the last level, which -- say it with me -- bloats out in an excess of "must be enormous and mind-expanding". The enormousness is mind-expanding, I grant, but you have to get incredibly fiddly with those last few mirrors. I finished it, but I wasn't having fun at the end.

Weakless

Two-character action-adventure; one character is deaf, the other is blind. Natural state of their species, not disability. If that distinction makes sense in a fantasy game where you can't avoid the metaphor. I don't know. "Blind" uses the fantasy-standard trope of "not really blind, you have echolocation which is represented visually". I think that was worn out when Ben Affleck was playing Daredevil, which is not, you know, recent news. But as gameplay it works well.
I'm not sure it's a great game, but it got me nostalgic for the golden age of PS2 action-adventure puzzlers. Cyclopean architecture with elevator platforms! Weird character abilities! Inexplicable gongs!

Phantom Path

Top-down Zelda-ish puzzle game with keys and gates. It was fun up until the point where they added deathtraps. Why does a puzzle game need deathtraps? The second time I failed to dodge a poison jet and had to restart the level, I gave up.
(Maybe the designers were caught in the Zelda mindset? Dungeons of puzzles and danger? But if you delete the combat from a Zelda-like, you need to delete all the dying. Or else provide lossless checkpointing.)

Creaks

A 2D puzzle platformer in a giant creepy run-down mansion. Very much in an Edward Gorey style, down to the enormous fur overcoats. Which grow fangs and try to eat you. (It also strongly reminded me of James Stoddard's Evenmere trilogy, which probably doesn't mean anything to you, but there we are. Dodging hungry end-tables.)
This avoids the "creepy dark platformer" cliche by being sweet, in the end. Some of the creepy inhabitants of the High House turn out to be congenial, and you wind up celebrating the success of a cooperative venture. Cheers!
The puzzles are not intense, but you can explore assiduously in dark corners for bonus secrets. And you get to go all up and down and around an enormous House, using stairways and ladders and minecarts and rickety collapsing floors -- all carefully mapped out. I always love that.

Relicta

A Portal-like with magnet cubes. Good puzzling. More story and worldbuilding than this sort of game usually bothers with. I appreciated the well-worked-out non-Eurocentric future history. The plot runs into a midgame twist which feels extremely recognizable. (I won't list games where you've seen it before, but trust me, you have.) Nonetheless, good job.

Sensorium

A lot of recent puzzle games flail around the Portal / Talos zone, trying to do what The Witness pulled off. This one comes closer than most -- not as deeply involuted as The Witness, but still admirably creative in its puzzle design. The theme is the five senses; it carries it through surprisingly well considering that videogames only have two to work with. (I suppose haptics makes three, but this isn't a rumble-pack sort of game.)
The puzzles are based on wires and logic gates, but trust me, this isn't another tedious exploration of truth tables. Cleverness and variations abound, laid out around a pleasantly explorable map with secret passages and just a bit of environmental logic. There's a skull-rattling endgame that crosses all the sense-puzzles with each other. And then a set of extra secrets with more off-the-wall puzzle mechanics. I found those to be a mixed bag and didn't bother finishing them off. But the main game is entirely satisfactory.

Zof

A bit of a hybrid. It's not a Myst-like world with tangible history and environmental logic, but it's not quite a Talos-style sequence of framed puzzles exploring a single mechanic. There's a wide variety of puzzle types; but each one is revisited a few times with increasing complexity. And the puzzles tend towards "figure out the logic of the machine" rather exploring a really tricky state-space.
Really, what this reminds me of is casual puzzlebox amusements like Hoshi Saga or Bart Bonte's colors. Anything can happen; figure out what it is. Except you can climb around on the puzzlebox and it's an Unreal 3D pretty-landscape.
I got through most of Zof. The puzzles sometimes devolved into "figure out what the author was thinking". (I peeked at hints for the space-station droids.) Unfortunately, the big finale world combined moon-logic with some delicate footwork which I just couldn't manage with my controller, even after reading a walkthrough. So I stopped a little bit short of winning.

Carto

This is lightweight but it does such a great job of embracing its mechanic that I have to recommend it. You run around a little cartoon world. You can pick up map tiles, move them around, and rotate them. Yes, even the tile you're standing on. You can arrange tiles however you like as long as the edges match (think Carcassonne).
That's the entire game, but they get a really astonishing amount out of the gimmick. In one chapter you're following tracks through a trackless desert; in another you're looking at a lake and trying to match it up to local legends. I wish all puzzle games were this dedicated to their core idea.
I said it was lightweight; the puzzles are entirely suitable for kids. But the notion of rearranging the map gets brain-bending even for puzzle fiends. Plus the story is sweet (in a tiny-cartoon-world way). I liked it.

Timelie

Top-down stealther, but you have a pause button and a timeline slider to plan out your sneaking around. If you get caught by the evil robots, rewind and adjust your path. So it's really more like Hitman Go -- turn-based move planning. You also have a cat.
This is such an obvious variation of the stealth-game concept that I'm surprised I haven't run into it before. (Let me add a note to my Spider and Web: The Remake file...)
There's a story-like framework, but it doesn't amount to much more than "you have a cat and robots are chasing you". It's evocative but doesn't fit together. The protagonist doesn't have magic time powers -- notionally, you are visualizing your moves in advance. When you complete the level, you watch yourself carry them through perfectly. Except later you get magic hole-fixing and robot-smashing powers (tightly limited, of course). These are sort of presented as magic time powers -- rewinding the collapse of a floor -- but this doesn't really make sense and the game doesn't try. Just enjoy the puzzles.
The puzzles are nice! You mostly don't need to do fiddly move optimization. Generally, the level has a clever idea; you have to figure it out, not bash around the move space feeling for a gap. Each level introduces a different clever idea. (Okay, a couple of the levels require fiddly optimization.) There's a lot of cleverness going on. More in the last chapter, which involves revisiting earlier levels in nifty and thoughtful way. As I said, it doesn't exactly wrap up into a story, but it's pretty.

Ethereal

(Note: I'm about halfway through Ethereal as I write this. I haven't given up; this just happens to be the game I'm in the middle of.)
Abstract grid puzzler which isn't quite on a grid. The gimmick is that you can move freely east and west, but to go north and south, you must jump adjacent walls. Arbitrary, right? But it means that the apparently maze-like grids are mazes with a completely different geography than you're used to. I still can't visualize paths easily, although I can bang around and get where I'm going.
In a sense this is just a maze game with added mental friction; but that's valid. And then it tosses in new elements like "rotate the board 90 degrees", which of course changes the entire geography again. Selectively movable walls, vertical conveyors, and I don't even know what will turn up in the fourth chapter. It's been consistently challenging albeit somewhat repetitive in its minimalism.
The visual style is heavily glitched-up. I didn't have any trouble telling geography from decoration, but I know some people prefer a cleaner presentation. Look at screenshots, see what you think.

Wade's Important Astrolab

IFComp 2020 review: Alone by Paul Michael Winters

by Wade ([email protected]) at November 23, 2020 09:33 AM

 'A well-implemented parser game is a joy for ever.' - Keats

This will be my last IFComp 2020 review.

Alone, by Paul Michael Winters, is an adventure of survival set in a sparsely populated post-apocalyptic world. The initial situation of having your car break down out on the road leads gradually (but not too gradually) into a series of dense and satisfyingly overlapping puzzles, especially of the mechanical variety. With its keys, locks, recalcitrant security doors, fuseboxes, circuits and deserted environments, Alone's puzzlebox reminded me most of the Resident Evil games. Alone also steps into the equivalent IF tradition of the Resident-Evil-type game, though pointedly without gunplay, shooting or much violence at all. I'm now finding it harder to think of other similar parser IF games than I expected; there's Divis Mortis, and, with a supernatural spin added, One Eye Open. Calm has deliberately very fiddly mechanics in a post-apocalyptic world, but not any bogeymen if I recall correctly. Alone has The Infected. Zombies if you prefer.

Alone's puzzles are broadly familiar in the adventure game aesthetic, but that doesn't  matter when their execution and interweaving are as solidly performed as they are here. That doesn't mean the game's perfect – a couple of the most difficult actions only accept one very specific phrasing, and I had to use the walkthrough to get through those parts. But otherwise, there's consistent logic to all the mechanics. Alternate solutions to problems are considered by the game and well-excused. Nearly successful attempts on puzzles give feedback to point the player in the right direction. Irrelevant objects fob the player off to avoid time-wasting. These standards are maintained for the game's duration and that is very good work.

A few spoilers if you read on:

Read more »

November 22, 2020

Renga in Blue

Treasure Island Adventure (1981)

by Jason Dyer at November 22, 2020 10:41 PM

All videogame genres have norms; some are obvious (first-person shooters using WASD keys) and some are less visible (the lack of softlocks in modern adventure games). They can, of course, evolve (see softlocks in older adventure games) but they can feel as organic as the air, and it takes a off-kilter game that violates the norm to make them apparent.

The first two of the Softside Adventures of the Month (see: Arabian Adventure, Alien Adventure) both cadged liberally off movies, and I can tell you from peeking ahead that the September through December 1981 installments do relatively the same, but Treasure Island Adventure is a one-off: a traditional treasure collect-a-thon. It’s also Pete Tyjewski’s only game.

Softside, August 1981.

The “goal” is simply to find the pirate’s treasure, and if you want to declare victory with just that objective, you can. There’s a traditional building-with-vault to stick it in.

However, every single item in the game counts for points. So if you’re actually going for a maximum point total (258), you’re scavenging everything to bring back, not just ostensible treasure items. Specifically, the treasure chest is 50 points, three other treasure items are 20 points each, everything else is 2 points each. Oddly, some of the 2 point items are described as treasures, like a gold ring or a gold shield, equal to the “garbage” items which also count for 2 points, like a parchment giving the author’s name.

This is deep in the game, and the author’s name isn’t given elsewhere.

In addition, the game adds a point for every room visited (like Adventure 500) and it has a point bonus for finishing within a certain turn limit (like Adventure 430); handling both and getting all the items requires some serious routing.

Above-ground is very, very, plain, and establishes a minimal room-description style.

The only items are a keg of “whale oil”, a lamp, and some matches; those all go together to make a light source (FILL LAMP / LIGHT LAMP) which I’m fairly sure is unlimited.

Incidentally, the verb list is very small; other than lamp lighting, you can move around, pick up and drop, examine things, read things, and say words. That’s it. The experience is akin to Chaffee’s Quest (1978) in being mostly exploration and finding a treasure, but the game manages to eke out puzzles in the form of requiring items to be held for certain effects, and two magic words.

The sparse style is thrown for a loop by a couple rooms inside.

I think the norm being broken here was something like “at most 4 objects to a room”. A snath is a handle of a scythe.

I admit being somewhat boggled when I first hit these; I had spent a long time making my outdoor map (I still can’t guarantee it’s error-free) so the transition to having a cavalcade of items was both notable and confusing. Especially because so many of the items are “useless” except for the 2-point count. For example, in the Armory, the sword is useful, and only the sword.

This sword is magic
The runes say
ASTO REBLOF DOF
DESTO MARKO BLODD

I’ll get to the meaning of that in a second. There’s a gold coin two rooms away with a similar message (accompanied by an absolutely useless coil of rope).

The coin is magic, the runes are:
IFTO GOOTOO ROPTO BLUTU
MORTO FLORTO GORTO BORTU

Map-making remained slow because directions were usually but not always mentioned in room descriptions, which means I had to keep testing them all. Eventually I came across a maze, and progress was even slower. (I would say this was penance for skipping the maze in Castles of Darkness, but I had played through this part before Castles. I had shelved the game a while due to exhaustion before I got back into it two days ago.)

Inside the maze I found … nothing. Absolutely nothing. Similar to Microworld, this is because there was going to eventually be an object in the future, but I still felt a sliver of despair upon mapping the last unmarked exit with nothing to show for my efforts.

Another section of the map led me to Hell.

Hell is kind of tiny. Must be the Sartre kind of hell.

You need to have asbestos boots to cross a red hot iron bridge inside. (Just in your inventory, they’re apparently assumed to be worn — as I indicated earlier, tiny verb set. Compare with the bit in The Golden Baton where I got messed up due to having an invisibility cloak in inventory but not being worn.) Within Hell there’s an arch which requires a wizard outfit. Specifically: a robe, hat, and the 2-foot rod with a rusty star; yes, you use it as a costume, not as a magic item.

When I attempted to go farther the game said “You must have known a pirate and have a treasure to enter.”

Off in another direction there was a “scholar’s cave” with a treasure map, a book, and a parchment. Here’s the map:

The parchment is the author credits I mentioned earlier; the book translates the sword and the coin.

If you have this weapon, and say vargay, no door will ever, bar you way

If you have me with you, and say valoor, I will reveal, A secret door

The map indicates where to try VALOOR:

This led me to the desired treasure chest.

You are in a little nitch

There is a very large treasure chest here

Upon which the game threw another curveball similar to Quest: the routes back were either blocked by the wizard, who had come back…

…or used holes that the chest couldn’t fit inside.

I wandered a bit and the pirate came to steal and re-hide his treasure.

Suddenly Long John and the pirate leaps out of the gloom and takes the treasure

HAH, he shouts, found me treasure, did you. Well this time I’ll hide it better!
He dissappears into the darkness with the treasure

Fortunately, I had already mapped the maze, so it was a straightforward matter to reach the “more secret” hiding spot and get the treasure chest back. The chest is fortunately only stolen from you only once. (Aside: although we’re really the ones stealing the chest, right? I’m sure the pirate didn’t get his bounty through bake sales, but I get no sense the protagonist has a noble cause in mind.)

Having both the chest in hand as well as the encounter with Long John, I finally was able to go back into the lounge of Hell.

I’ve been taking a pass commenting on typos, but I can’t resist pointing out buccaneer is spelled wrong twice, and in two different ways.

This led to a (mercifully) tiny maze and an alternate exit which bypasses the wizard giving a straight shot to taking the chest to the vault.

The other valuable treasures are a Ming vase (it’s the Adventure puzzle where you have to drop a pillow first), a crown (that you get from a cage of the wizard that locks behind you; you use the magic word on the sword to get out) and an anvil (which if you EXAMINE tells you it’s secretly golden, which sounds kind of not-useful for an anvil).

When Dale Dobson tried this, he took a crack at optimizing, but threw in the towel. I tried a little, but unlike Madventure, it started to feel tedious rather than a tight puzzle; so, I’m going to stop here as well. I will say I appreciated the sheer oddness of a treasure hunt that was both simultaneously sparse (only 4 “meaningful” treasures) and packed (every item gives points) at the same time, where weapons are useless for killing, where one of the main antagonists only appears as something to avoid, and where a heavily restricted verb set nevertheless put forth a few tricky puzzles.

"Tracy Poff"

IFComp 2020: Stand Up / Stay Silent

November 22, 2020 10:24 PM

The revolution begins with you.

Stand Up / Stay Silent is a brief story--about fifteen minutes for all five endings--with an agenda: to promote the idea that taking action, any action, against injustice is preferable to staying silent.

It is positioned outside the game as a part of the Black Lives Matter movement, though within the game it's not clear what is being protested--some kind of unfair treatment of some people, in a far-flung future on the planet Mars. What's clear is only that the security forces are the Enemy.

There's too little story for us to become involved with the characters, and it's too on-point as a metaphor for current events. It is, for example, a little wrong in tone for the protagonist to say:

“But I want to help,” you reply, your voice hoarse. “Is there a fund I can send credits to? Somewhere I could drop off supplies?”

This to your partner, who you have just taken to a fancy restaurant for a birthday celebration. It's distant, and it's the kind of scripted "gosh, but how can I help" that you might see in a PSA. After the opening scene, there is no more life in these characters--they are defined solely in relation to the resistance. They are not real people, merely actors in a piece of propaganda.

As a work of interactive fiction, it's limited. Transitions between scenes are only a single link at the end of a page of text, and occasionally a choice, either to Stand Up or to Stay Silent. It doesn't make good use of the medium.

As a piece of protest art, it expresses a real need, but as IF, it's not sufficient.

Thinbasic Adventure Builder

Even The Devil Must Die

by catventure at November 22, 2020 07:41 PM

An offline downloadable text adventure for PC Windows XP and above (32/64bit) written by Mark Hancox (c)2003. TAB version by catventure 2020. More info and download:

https://catventure.itch.io/even-the-devil-must-die

As an agent for Death PLC you are hired to assassinate the Devil himself! Can you complete your mission successfully?

"Interactive Licktion"

IFComp 2020: Sonder Snippets

by Captain Abersouth at November 22, 2020 08:42 AM

Sonder Snippets is a Twine game by Sana. There are two main characters in the story: Safya and Dadi, her ancient grandmother. Dadi, using a language that Safya only partially understands, tells her up to three tales, all of which involve a character called the Thief, who causes grief in one way or another, usually...Continue reading »

November 20, 2020

The Digital Antiquarian

Ethics in Strategy Gaming, Part 1: Panzer General

by Jimmy Maher at November 20, 2020 06:41 PM

I apologize for liking German generals. I suppose I ought not to.

— Desmond Young

When I attempted to play the SSI computer game Panzer General as part of this ongoing journey through gaming history, I could recognize objectively that it was a fine game, perfectly in my wheelhouse in many ways, with its interesting but not overly fiddly mechanics, its clean and attractive aesthetic presentation, and the sense of unfolding narrative and personal identification that comes with embodying the role of a German general leading an army through the campaigns of World War II. But for all that, I just couldn’t enjoy it. When I conquered Poland, I didn’t feel any sense of martial pride; all I could see in my mind’s eye were the Warsaw ghettos and Auschwitz. I found I could take no pleasure in invading countries that had done nothing to my own — invasions that were preludes, as I knew all too well, to committing concerted genocide on a substantial portion of their populations. Simply put, I could take no pleasure from playing a Nazi.

So, Panzer General prompted me to ask a host of questions about the way that we process the events of history, as well as the boundaries — inevitably different for each of us — between acceptable and unacceptable content in games. At the core of this inquiry lies a pair of bizarrely contradictory factoids. The Nazi regime of 1933 to 1945 is widely considered to be the ultimate exemplar of Evil on a national scale, its Führer such a profoundly malevolent figure as to defy comparison with literally anyone else, such that to evoke him in an argument on any other subject is, so Godwin’s Law tells us, so histrionic as to represent an immediate forfeiture of one’s right to be taken seriously. And yet in Panzer General we have a mass-market American computer game in which you play a willing tool of Adolf Hitler’s evil, complete with all the flag-waving enthusiasm we might expect to see bestowed upon an American general in the same conflict. If the paradoxical attitudes toward World War II which these factoids epitomize weren’t so deeply embedded in our culture, we would be left utterly baffled. For my part, I felt that I needed to understand better where those selfsame attitudes had come from.

I should note here that my intention isn’t to condemn those people whose tolerance for moral ambiguity allows them to enjoy Panzer General in the spirit which SSI no doubt intended. Still less do I want this article to come across as anti-German rather than anti-Nazi. The present-day population of Germany is still reckoning with those twelve terrible years in their country’s long and oft-inspiring history, and for the most part they’re doing a decent job of it. As an American, I’m certainly in no position to cast aspersions; if a different game had crossed my radar, this article might have been about the legacy of the American Civil War and the ongoing adulation in many American cultural corners of Confederate generals who fought for the privilege of continuing to enslave their fellow humans. As always here, my objective is to offer some food for thought and perchance to enlighten just a bit. It’s definitely not to hector anyone.


Prisoners at the Dachau concentration camp greet their liberators, April 1945.

The occasional reports which reached the Allied countries of the horrors of the Holocaust during the early and middle years of World War II were widely dismissed, unfortunately but perhaps understandably, as gross exaggerations. But when American and British armies finally began to liberate the first of the concentration camps in late 1944, those reports’ veracity could no longer be denied. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme commander of the Allied forces attacking Germany from the west, made it a point to bear witness to what had taken place in the camps. He ordered that all of his men should pass through one or more of them: “We are told the American soldier does not know what he is fighting for. Now, at least, we know what he is fighting against.” Eisenhower also made special provisions for bringing journalists to the camps to record the “evidence of atrocity” for readers back home and for posterity.

After the war, the hastily convened Nuremberg trials brought much more evidence of the Holocaust to light, not just for the assembled panel of judges but for ordinary people all over the world; the proceedings were covered in great detail by journalists. But after the trials concluded in late 1946, with eleven defendants having been sentenced to death and a further seven sentenced to prison terms of various lengths, the Western political establishment seemed to believe the matter was settled, evincing a devout wish just to move on that was out of all keeping with the crimes against humanity which had been uncovered. To understand why, we need look no further than the looming Cold War, that next titanic ideological struggle, which had started taking shape well before the previous war had ended. Now that the Cold War was becoming an undeniable reality,  the United States and its allies needed the new West Germany to join their cause wholeheartedly. There was no time for retribution.

A pernicious myth took hold at this juncture, one which has yet to be entirely vanquished in some circles. It lived then, as it still does to some extent today, because it served the purposes of the people who chose to believe in it. The historian Harold Marcuse names “ignorance, resistance, and victimization” as the myth’s core components. It claims that the crimes of the Holocaust were entirely the work of an evil inner cabal that was close to Hitler personally, that the vast majority of Germans — the so-called “good Germans” — never even realized any of it was happening, and that most of those who did stumble across the truth were appropriately horrified and outraged. But in the end, as the reasoning goes, they were Hitler’s victims as well, unable to do much of anything about it if they didn’t want to suffer the same fate as the people already in the concentration camps.

There were grains of truth to the argument; certainly the Gestapo was a much-feared presence in daily German life. But the fact remains that German resistance to Hitler was never as widespread as the apologists would like it to have been; every metric we have at our disposal would seem to indicate that the Nazi regime enjoyed broad popular support at least until the final disastrous year or two of the war.

The claim of widespread public ignorance of Hitler’s crimes, meanwhile, was patently absurd on the face of it. The Holocaust wasn’t a plot hatched in secret by shadowy conspirators; it was a massive bureaucratic effort which marshaled the resources of the entire state, from the secretaries who requisitioned the stocks of Zyklon B poison gas to the thousands of guards who tortured and killed the prisoners in the camps. Could the “good Germans” really not have seen the trains lumbering through their villages with their emaciated human cargoes? Could they really not have smelled the stench of death which rose over the concentration camps day after day? In order not to know, one would have had to willfully closed one’s eyes, nose, and ears if not one’s heart — which may very well have been the case for some, but is hardly a compelling defense.

Nevertheless, the myth of the ignorant, resistant, and victimized “good” Germans was widely accepted by the beginning of the 1950s. The Germans who had actually lived through the war had every motivation to minimize their complicity in the abominations of Nazism, while the political establishment of the West had no desire to rock the boat by asking difficult questions of their new allies against communism. The Holocaust was treated as vaguely gauche — a disreputable topic, inappropriate for discussion in polite company. To confront people with it was regarded as an act of irresponsible political agitation. In 1956, for example, when the French director Alain Resnais announced Night and Fog, a chilling 32-minute film which juxtaposed images of the concentration camps as they looked in that year with archival footage from the war years, the West German government lodged an immediate complaint with the French government, which in turned pressured the Cannes Film Festival into rejecting the movie as anti-German agitprop. The attitudes inculcated during this period begin to explain the existence of Panzer General so many years later, casting you cheerfully and with no expressed reservations whatsoever in the role of a German general of the Second World War.


The ugly truth behind Panzer General‘s glorification of Nazi aggression: a group of Polish prisoners are lined up against a wall and shot in the fall of 1939. Images like this one run through my mind constantly whenever I attempt to play the game.

But they aren’t a complete explanation, given that it would seem to be even harder to believe in the guiltlessness of German soldiers than civilians. The former were, after all, the ones who actually pointed the guns and pulled the trigger; their crimes would seem to be active ones, as opposed to the passive acquiescence of the latter. Even if they wished to claim that they personally had only pointed their rifles at enemy combatants, they couldn’t possibly plead ignorance of the horrifying crimes against noncombatants that were committed right under their noses by those all around them, right from the first weeks of the war. But, remarkably, a defense was mounted on their behalf, one that was similar in the broad strokes at least to that of the “good” German civilians.

The myth of the “clean Wehrmacht” held that the vast majority of German officers and soldiers were in fact no more guilty than the soldiers of the Allied armies. Most or all of the German war crimes, so the reasoning went, were the work of the dreaded SS Einsatzgruppen who traveled just behind the regular army units, maiming, torturing, raping, and massacring civilians in staggering numbers. Anecdotes abounded — some of them probably even true — telling how the ordinary German soldiers and their “professional” leadership had regarded their SS comrades with disgust, had considered them no better than butchers — cowards who preferred enemies that couldn’t fight back — and had shunned their company completely.

To be sure, the Einsatzgruppen were real, and did fill precisely the grisly role ascribed to them. But they were hardly the only German soldiers who murdered in cold blood. And, even if they had been, the fact that the ordinary soldiers found them unappealing doesn’t absolve them of blame for facilitating their activities. Note that the “ignorance” part of the “ignorance, resistance, victimization” defense has fallen away uncontested in the case of the German soldiers — as has, for that matter, the claim of resistance. All that’s left to shield them from blame is the claim of victimhood. Their country ordered them to carry out ethnic cleansing, we are told, and so they had no choice but to do so.

For all its patent weaknesses as an argument, the clean Wehrmacht would become a bedrock of a new strand of historical writing as well as a culture of wargaming that would be tightly coupled to it — the same culture that would eventually yield Panzer General. We can perhaps best understand the myth and its ramifications through the career of its archetypal exemplar, not coincidentally a wargaming perennial: Field Marshall Erwin Rommel.


Erwin Rommel in 1942, during his heyday as the “Desert Fox.”

Like Hitler, Rommel fought in the trenches during World War I, albeit as a junior officer rather than an enlisted man. He remained in the army between the wars, although his progress through the ranks wasn’t meteoric by any means; by 1937, when he published an influential book on infantry tactics, he had risen no higher than colonel. Having expressed no strong political beliefs prior to the ascension of Hitler, he became by all indications a great admirer of the dictator and his ideology thereafter. Although he never formally joined the Nazi party, he became close friends with Joseph Goebbels, its propaganda minister. “Yesterday the Führer spoke,” he wrote in a letter to his wife in 1938. “Today’s soldier must be political because he must always be ready to take action for the new politics. The German military is the sword of the new German worldview.”

That year Rommel was assigned personal responsibility for Hitler’s security. The Fūhrer, who had read his book and felt the kinship of their front-line service in the previous war, took as much of a shine to Rommel as Rommel did to him. On March 15, 1939, in the final act of German aggression prior to the one which would spark a world war, Rommel entered what was left of an independent Czechoslovakia at Hitler’s side; he would later take proud credit for having urged Hitler to push aggressively forward and occupy Prague Castle with a minimum of delay. He was promoted to major general shortly thereafter.

Rommel played a part in the invasions of Poland and then France and the Low Countries in the early years of World War II, winning the Knight’s Cross for his bold leadership of an armored division in the latter campaign. Then, on February 12, 1941, the newly promoted lieutenant general was sent to command the German forces in North Africa. It was here that his legend would be made.

Over the course of the next twenty months, Rommel led his outnumbered army through a series of improbably successful actions, punctuated by only occasional, generally more modest setbacks. Hitler promoted him to field marshal after one of his more dramatic victories, his capture of Tobruk, Libya, in June of 1942.

The North African front was a clean one by the standards of almost any other theater of World War II; it was largely a war of army against army, with civilians pushed to the sidelines. Thus it would go down in legend as “the war without hate,” a term coined by Rommel himself. This was war as wargamers would later wish it could always be: mobile armies duking it out in unobstructed desert terrain, a situation with room for all kinds of tactical give-and-take and noble derring-do, far removed from all that messiness of the Holocaust and the savagery of the Eastern Front. North Africa was never more than a secondary theater, the merest sideshow in comparison to the existential struggle going on in the Soviet Union — but it was precisely this fact that gave it its unique qualities.

Rommel’s men came to love him. They loved his flair for the unexpected, his concern for their well-being, and the way he stood right there with them on the front line when they engaged the enemy. More surprisingly, the soldiers he fought against came to respect him just as much. By early 1942, they had given him his eternal nickname: “The Desert Fox.” They respected him the way an athlete might respect a worthy and honorable player for the opposing team, respected not just his real or alleged tactical genius but the fact that he waged war with a scrupulous adherence to the rules that seemed a relic of a long-gone age of gentlemen soldiers.

The growing weight of Allied manpower and equipment following the entry of the United States into the war finally brought Rommel up short at the Second Battle of El Alamein in northern Egypt in October and November of 1942, forcing him to make a months-long retreat all the way to Tunisia. (Winston Churchill famously wrote about this battle that “before Alamein, we never had a victory. After Alamein, we never had a defeat.”) Rommel was recalled to Germany in March of 1943, by which time North Africa had become a lost cause despite all of his efforts. The last German forces left there would surrender two months later.

In November of 1943, Rommel was placed in charge of the armies defending the coastline of France against the Allied counter-invasion that must inevitably come. By now, he was apparently beginning to entertain some doubts about the Führer. He flirted with a cabal of officers who were considering, as they put it, “extra-military solutions” to bring an end to a war which they now believed to be hopeless. Some of these officers’ discussions evolved into an attempted assassination of Hitler on July 20, 1944. The attempt failed; the bomb which Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg planted within the Führer’s headquarters caused much chaos and killed three men, but only slightly injured its real target.

There has been heated debate ever since about Rommel’s precise role in the conspiracy and assassination attempt. We know that he wasn’t present at the scene, but surprisingly little beyond that. Did he give the plan his tacit or explicit blessing? Was he an active co-conspirator, possibly even the man slated to take the reins of the German state after Hitler’s death? Or did he have nothing whatsoever to do with it? The temptations here are obvious for those who wish to see Rommel as an exemplar of moral virtue in uniform. And yet, as we’ll shortly see, not even his most unabashed admirers are in agreement about his involvement — or lack thereof — in the plot. There’s enough evidence to pick and choose from to support almost any point of view.

At any rate, Rommel had much else to occupy him at that time; the D-Day invasion had come on June 6, 1944. Three days before the assassination attempt, while he was out doing what he could to rally his overstretched, outnumbered army of defenders, his staff car was strafed by Allied fighters, and he was seriously wounded. Thus he was lying in hospital on the fateful day. Although he was not suspected of having been one of the conspirators for quite some time thereafter, Hitler had been none too pleased with his decision to fall back from the beaches of Normandy, ignoring express orders to fight to the death there. For this reason, Rommel would never return to his command.

Three months after these events, after having conducted dozens of interrogations, the Gestapo had come to suspect if not know that Rommel had been involved in the assassination plot at one level or another — and such a suspicion was, of course, more than enough to get a person condemned in Nazi Germany. Two officers visited him in his home and offered him a choice. He could commit suicide using the cyanide tablets they had helpfully brought along, whereupon his death would be announced as having come as a result of his recent battle injuries and he would be buried with full military honors. Or he could be dragged before the People’s Court on charges of treason, which would not only mean certain death for him but quite probably death or imprisonment for his wife and two children as well. Rommel chose suicide, thus putting the crowning touch on his legend: the noble warrior who makes the supreme sacrifice with wide-open eyes in order to spare his family — a fate not out of keeping with, say, a hero of the Iliad.


The book which, more than any other, is responsible for cementing the vision of an heroic, noble Rommel in the popular imagination.

For all that Rommel’s story perhaps always had some of the stuff of myth about it, his canonization as the face of the clean Wehrmacht was by no means always assured. It is true that, during his period of greatest success in North Africa, a mystique had begun to attach itself to him among Allied journalists as well as Allied soldiers. After his defeat at the Second Battle of El Alamein, however, the mystique faded. Few to none among the Allied brass were losing sleep over Rommel before the D-Day landings, and The New York Times mentioned his eventual death only in passing, referring to him only as a “Hitler favorite,” making no use of his “Desert Fox” sobriquet. At war’s end, he was far from the best known of the German generals.

The man responsible more than any other for elevating Rommel to belated stardom was a Briton named Desmond Young, a journalist by trade who saw combat in both world wars and somehow still managed to retain the notion that war can be a stirring adventure for sporting gentlemen. In June of 1942, while serving as a brigadier in charge of public relations for the Indian divisions fighting for the Allies in North Africa, he was captured by the Germans, and had a passing encounter with Rommel himself that left an indelible stamp on him. Ordered by his captors to drive over with them and negotiate the surrender of another Allied encampment which was continuing the fight, he refused, and the situation began to grow tense. Then Rommel appeared on the scene. Young:

At this moment a Volkswagen drove up. Out of it jumped a short, stocky but wiry figure, correctly dressed, unlike the rest of us, in jacket and breeches. I noticed that he had a bright blue eye, a firm jaw, and an air of command. One did not need to understand German to realize that he was asking, “What goes on here?” They talked together for a few seconds. Then the officer who spoke English turned to me. “The general rules,” he said sourly, “that if you do not choose to obey the order I have just given you, you cannot be compelled to do so.” I looked at the general and saw, as I thought, the ghost of a smile. At any rate, his intervention seemed to be worth a salute. I cut him one before I stepped back into the ranks to be driven into captivity.

From that one brief, real or imagined glance of shared understanding and respect stemmed the posthumous legend of Erwin Rommel. For in 1950, Young published a book entitled simply Rommel, a fawningly uncritical biography of its subject in 250 breezy pages. Even as he emphasized Rommel’s chivalry, courage, and tactical genius at every turn, Young bent over backward to justify his willingness to serve the epitome of twentieth-century evil. One passage is particularly amusing for the way it anachronistically places Rommel’s avowed support for Hitler into a Cold War, anti-communist context, revealing in the process perhaps more than its author intended.

Like ninety percent of Germans who had no direct contact with Hitler or his movement, he [Rommel] regarded him as an idealist, a patriot with some sound ideas who might pull Germany together and save her from Communism. This may have seemed a naïve estimate; it was no more naïve than that of many people in England who saw him as a ridiculous little man with a silly mustache. Both views were founded in wishful thinking. But the Germans, having had a bellyful of defeat and a good taste of Communism, at least had some excuse for believing what they wished to believe.

Only one component of the full legend of Rommel as it is known today is missing from Young’s hagiography: Rommel, said Young, “had never been a party to the [attempted] killing of Hitler, nor would he have agreed to it.” He had rather been the loyal soldier to the end, right down to his swallowing of the final poison pill.

Rommel became a success out of all keeping with any normal military biography upon its publication in Britain, then an equally big bestseller in the United States upon its publication there one year later. Some historians and thoughtful reviewers pointed out the problematic aspects of Desmond Young’s unabashed hero worship, but their voices were drowned out in the general acclaim for what truly was an entertaining, well-written, even oddly endearing little book. In the end, it sold at least 1 million copies.

Its initial success in Britain was such that Hollywood rushed a movie into production before the book had even made it across the Atlantic. Wanting to get the film out quickly, before the Rommel craze had run its course, 20th Century Fox didn’t have time to stage much in the way of battle scenes; the filmmakers would later admit that a closing battlefield montage of old newsreel footage was inserted in the hope that viewers would leave the theater thinking that “they have seen a lot more action and battle stuff than they actually have.” Rommel was played by stolid leading man James Mason; he and all of the other German characters spoke American English with the flat Midwestern enunciation so typical of the Hollywood of that period.

Although it hewed closely to Desmond Young’s book for the most part, the movie did make one critical alteration: it postulated that Rommel had turned definitively against Hitler late in the war and, after a long internal struggle over whether it was honorable to do so, had joined the assassination plot. This change was made not least because, even in this period of reconciliation and letting bygones be bygones, studio executives were nervous to release a film that made a hero out of a man who had died an unrepentant Nazi. But on the other hand, a repentant Nazi who saw the light, took action against evil, and died for having done so was, as the film’s screenwriter put it, a downright “Shakespearean” protagonist. From now on, then, this generous interpretation too became an integral part of Rommel’s legend.

Desmond Young, who served as an advisor for the film, didn’t seem overly bothered by its departures from what he believed to be the real circumstances surrounding the death of Rommel. In fact, to capitalize on what future generations would have called the marketing synergy between his book and the film, later editions of the former picked up a new subtitle: The Desert Fox.

The film proved a big hit, on much the same terms as the book: widespread popular acclaim, accompanied by the merest undercurrent of concern that a Nazi general might be less than entirely worthy of such full-throated approbation. Among the most strident of the critical voices was the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council:

We regard this film as a cruel distortion of history, an affront to the memory of the brave soldiers of all allied nations, a gratuitous insult to the free peoples who spent their strength and their substance to save a world from engulfment by Nazism. There is only one major villain in this picture: Hitler. The audience is asked to believe that only he was both a buffoon and an evil man; that the soldier Rommel — and other German generals — were military men, without “political” aims or motivations, carrying out orders. The world knows that totalitarianism infects the whole body politic of a nation, that neither fascism nor communism can be sustained except with the active collaboration in its depravity of politicians, diplomats, and generals — especially generals. To depict Rommel as less than such an active collaborator in Nazism is to twist history beyond recognition.

In 1953, the final building block of the legendary Rommel fell into place when the British historian and military theorist B.H. Liddell Hart published a book called The Rommel Papers. Hart was himself a complicated, vaguely pathetic character. At the end of the Second World War, he had been in nearly complete disgrace, having been one of the primary architects of the Allies’ disastrous would-be defense of France against the German invasion of 1940, a classic example of trying to fight the last war — in this case, imagining a repeat of the static trench battles of the First World War — rather than reckoning with the realities of the current one. But in the years that followed, he rehabilitated his reputation by latching onto some of his old writings from the 1920s, when he had been at least occasionally an advocate for a more mobile approach to warfare. Hart befriended many of the surviving German generals — often by visiting them in their prison cells — and bolstered his case via a tacit quid pro quo that would have gone something like this if anyone had dared to speak it aloud: “Say that you developed Blitzkrieg warfare by reading my old texts, and I’ll use my influence to promote the position that you were only a soldier following orders and don’t deserve to die in prison.” Being friendly with Desmond Young, Hart convinced the latter to include another assertion of his influence in his biography of Rommel: Rommel, wrote Young, had before the war “studied the writings of Captain Liddell Hart with more attention than they received from most British senior officers.” This was completely untrue; Rommel probably never even heard of Hart during his lifetime.

Be that as it may, Hart definitely did ingratiate himself with the general’s widow Lucia and his son Manfred after the war was over, and enlisted their aid for his own book about Rommel. The Rommel Papers proved a shaggy, unwieldy beast, combining together the following, presented here in order of historical worthiness: 1) what existed of a memoir which Rommel had been writing during the months of limbo that preceded the demand that he commit suicide; 2) a selection of Rommel’s wartime letters to Lucia; 3) Manfred Rommel’s recollections of the circumstances of his father’s death; and 4) Hart’s own oft-extended footnotes, “clarifying” and embellishing the other texts. Hart wrote of Rommel that “he was a military genius — more so than any other soldier who succeeded in rising to high command in the war.” He then went on to make the cheeky claim — writing of himself in the third person, no less! — that Rommel “could in many respects be termed Liddell Hart’s pupil” in the science of mobile, mechanized warfare. Meanwhile Manfred Rommel, who would go on to a long and fruitful political career, was almost as transparently self-serving in writing that his father had definitively “broken” with Nazism by 1943 and “brought himself, from his knowledge of the Führer’s crimes, to act against him.”

The Rommel Papers was another big success, its sales figures more than sufficient to drown out anyone who voiced concern about its editor’s patent lack of objectivity. The man who had for a time been Hitler’s favorite general was now firmly ensconced as an odd sort of folk hero in the postwar democratic West.


Brave warrior or foolish prima donna? Rommel leads the charge from his half-track.

We’ll return to our examination of how this romantic figure paved the way for the likes of Panzer General momentarily. Before we do that, though, it might be worthwhile to examine the sustainability of this version of Rommel’s life story. We can boil our skepticism down to two questions. Was Rommel really all that as a general? And what is his true moral culpability for the role he played in the Second World War?

The first question is, if not exactly straightforward to answer, at least somewhat less fraught than the second. Rommel’s primary asset, many students of military strategy now agree, was his sheer boldness rather than any genius for the intricate details of war. Throughout his career, he had the reputation of a maverick, born of a willingness to disobey orders when it suited him. And as often as not, his seemingly reckless gambits caught his enemies off-guard and wound up succeeding.

But Rommel certainly had his weaknesses as a battlefield tactician, as even many of his biggest fans will reluctantly acknowledge. The greatest of them was probably his complete disinterest in the logistics of war. Rommel made a regular habit of outrunning his supply chains in North Africa. “The desert,” he said, “is a tactician’s paradise and a quartermaster’s hell” — but he did nothing to make his quartermaster’s job easier. When his army ran out of fuel or bullets, he started by blaming his subordinates, then moved on to blaming the Italian navy, which was in fact delivering more supplies than his army actually required most days, only to watch them pile up on the wharves of the Middle East’s port cities for want of a way to transport them inland to an army that had burrowed too deeply too quickly into the enemy’s territory.

Rommel’s men may have loved him, but his peers in the hierarchy of the Wehrmacht had little use for him for the most part, considering him a glory hound whose high-profile commands were mostly down to his friendship with Joseph Goebbels. They pointed out that his much-vaunted habit of standing with his men on the front lines during battles, pistol in hand like a latter-day Napoleon, made it impossible for him to observe the bigger tactical picture. There was a reason that most other generals of the war stayed in their headquarters tents well back from the front, right next to a junction box of telephone cables — and this reason had nothing to do with personal cowardice, as some Rommel boosters would have you believe.

Len Deighton, a well-known author of military fiction and nonfiction, writes bluntly in Blood, Tears and Folly, his recent revisionist history of World War II, that “Rommel was not one of the war’s great generals,” calling him “more adept at self-publicity than skillful in the conduct of warfare.” He credits much of Rommel’s success in North Africa to the German signals-intelligence service, which tapped into most of the principal Allied communication networks. (To be fair, Rommel’s opponents would be given an even more complete picture of his own plans and movements before the North African war was over, once the Enigma code breakers fully came into their own.)

In the end, then, we can say that Rommel possessed a remarkable ability to inspire his men combined with no small measure of battlefield audacity, but that these strengths were offset by a congenital unwillingness to sweat the details of war and an inability to play well with others as part of a joint military operation. The degree to which his strengths outweighed his weaknesses, or vice versa, must inevitably be in the eye of the beholder. We can say with certainty only that the North African theater, which gave his audacity such a sprawling blank canvas to paint upon and which allowed him nearly absolute authority to do whatever he liked, was the perfect place to make a legend out of him. Fair enough. What of the other, still thornier question of Rommel’s moral culpability?

The linchpin of the absolution which Desmond Young, Liddell Hart, and so many others since them have given Rommel is that he was simply a professional soldier obeying orders as he had sworn to do, all while remaining studiously apolitical. As we’ve already seen, this doesn’t quite jibe with the facts of the case: prior to 1943 at least, Rommel was a personal friend of Goebbels and an enthusiastic follower of Hitler, and plainly stated before the war that he considered it a good soldier’s duty to be political. But let’s accept the premise on its own terms for the moment at least, and see what else we can make of it.

On a strictly legal basis, “I was just following orders” is far from a cut-and-dried defense. Most codes of military justice state explicitly that a soldier is obligated not to follow an order which violates international laws to which his country is a signatory, such as the Geneva Convention. When Rommel led an armored division into France in 1940, the Einsatzgruppen traveled behind it. The fact that Rommel may have been made personally uncomfortable by their actions, may have made a conscious or unconscious decision not to witness them, may even have managed to avoid having similar units attached to his army in North Africa, doesn’t absolve him of guilt any more than it does any other German soldier who was a knowing accomplice to atrocity.

But then, legalistic arguments are inadequate if we really want to get to the heart of the matter. Rommel’s actions in Czechoslovakia, in Poland, in France, and elsewhere in Europe led directly to the murder of millions of Jews. And had the “war without hate” in North Africa ended in German victory, the ethnic hatred of his Nazi masters would have made its presence felt there too soon enough. I believe that a human being has a higher moral duty that transcends jurisprudence and the military chain of command alike. Surely it ought to be eminently noncontroversial to say that being a party to genocide is categorically wrong. I don’t pretend to know what I would have done in Rommel’s situation, but I do know what would have been the right thing to do. Leading genocidal armies of conquest with the excuse that such is one’s “duty” as a soldier strikes me as moral cowardice rather than its opposite. I hope that we can someday live in a world free of the sort of didactic thinking that is still used far too often to excuse Rommel for doing so.

But you are of course free to make your own judgments on these questions; these are merely my opinions, which I present by way of explaining why I don’t wish to deify Erwin Rommel and why Panzer General‘s glorification of his ilk makes me feel so queasy.


The History Channel — also sometimes known as the “all World War II, all the time” channel.

“It is well that war is so terrible,” said Robert E. Lee, famously if apocryphally. “Otherwise we would grow too fond of it.” New Yorker profile writer Larissa MacFarquhar struck a similar note from the opposite direction in a recent interview:

People who are pacifists always talk about how terrible war is because it is so bloody and violent and wasteful. What they’re not getting is that people who like war — or don’t dislike war — admit all that; they know all that. It’s very obvious, but for them it’s worth it because of the stimulation, as they see it, to human greatness.

I cannot hope to solve the puzzle of humanity’s eternal attraction to war despite the suffering and death it brings. I can note, however, that one way to enjoy the good aspects of war without all that pesky suffering and dying is to wage it in the imagination rather than in physical reality. Once the political questions which wars decide have been settled and the casualties have been tallied and mourned, we can fight the conflicts of yore all over again in our imaginations, milking them for all of the drama, heroism, and adventure that may have been obscured in the moment by their other horrifying realities. Desmond Young, Liddell Hart, and their fellow travelers embraced this idea enthusiastically during the middle of the twentieth century, and in doing so founded what amounted to a whole new genre of books: the popular military history.

Many more broad-minded historians came to hate this new class of writers for their willingness to wave away the truly important aspects of history. Military historians, they complained, insisted on viewing war as a sport (American football and cricket were common metaphors) or a game (chess tended to be the point of comparison here), all whilst ignoring their causes and effects on the broader scale of human civilization — not to mention the many pivotal changes in the course of human history that have had nothing to do with wars and battles. Some went so far as to claim that the military historians weren’t writing proper histories at all, but merely escapist entertainments, the equivalent of romance novels for the middle-aged men who consumed them.

Personally, I wouldn’t put it quite so strongly, any more than I generally rush to criticize anyone for his choice of reading materials. It seems to me that military history can be educational and, yes, enjoyable, but one does have to be aware of its limitations. It provides a window into only a single, very specific area of human experience. Its obsessive interest in how wars were fought at a granular level leaves unanswered more important questions about why they were fought and how the world changed in their aftermath.

Nevertheless, military history has been the dominant face of popular history in the West ever since Desmond Young and Liddell Hart wrote about Erwin Rommel. By the 1990s, the “Military History” shelf of the typical bookstore was twice as large as all the rest of its history section put together. Authors like Stephen Ambrose sold millions of books with their vivid depictions of combat on land, in the air, and at sea, even as cable-television stations like The History Channel reran the greatest battles of World War II on an endless loop. Needless to say, the legend of the noble warrior Erwin Rommel featured prominently in all of this. One particularly overwrought television documentary, for example, labeled him “the last knight,” and concluded with these words: “Erwin Rommel, soldier, was laid to rest in the village cemetery of Herrlingen. It planted back into the soil of a disgraced Germany at least one seed of honor and decency for a new flower.” (Perhaps the romance-novel charge does have some merit…)


The first release of Afrika Korps. It’s telling that the game is named after Rommel’s army in North Africa, not the Allied one.

In the same year that The Rommel Papers were published, a correspondent for The Irish Times attended an odd museum exhibition in London that was devoted to Rommel’s exploits. He wrote the following afterward:

One fact was impressed upon me: that there is a strategy of warfare which, for the devotees, has little to do with blood and horror and death. The maps were being scrutinized like precious works. There was the impression that war was an enthralling game, like cricket. Viewing Rommel in this sense, I concluded that I had as much right to make a judgment as a professional footballer at a modern-art exhibition.

If military history approached war as a metaphorical game, then why not turn it into a literal game? After all, what could be better for a military-history buff than to live out the conflicts that had heretofore existed only within the pages of his books and try out alternate strategies? In 1954, Charles S. Roberts published a board game called Tactics through his new Avalon Hill Game Company. The canonical first commercial wargame ever, it depicted warfare in a somewhat abstracted, non-historical context. But six years later, Roberts and his company surfaced again with Gettysburg, the first wargame to engage with an historical conflict. Going forward, not all readers of military history would be wargamers, but all wargamers would be readers of military history.

Avalon Hill released a steady trickle of games over the next few years, most of them depictions of other battles of the American Civil War, the only conflict that even approached the popularity of the Second World War among American military-history readers. But by 1964 sales figures were trending in the wrong direction. Seeking to reverse the slide, Roberts shifted his focus to World War II, designing what would prove to be one of his company’s biggest and most iconic games of all.

As the name would imply, Afrika Korps dealt with the North African theater of the war, giving armchair generals a chance to step into the smartly shined boots of Erwin Rommel: “Now the legend of the Desert Fox is recreated!” trumpeted the box text. The game established several precedents. First, it made the North African front into a perennial favorite with wargamers for the same reasons that it was so popular with military-history authors and their readers: its wide-open terrain and the resulting room for tactical maneuvering, and its supposedly sporting, gentlemanly nature. Second, it taught many who played it that the Germans were simply cooler: they had better technology, better esprit de corps, even better uniforms than the stodgy Allies to offset their generally inferior numbers. And finally, it introduced the wargame cliché of the “Rommel unit”: a unit whose commander is such a superhero that he can break the rules that usually govern the game by sheer force of will. As a whole, notes Joseph Allen Campo in his recent PhD thesis on cultural perceptions of Rommel, “the focus on Rommel and more generally the German side (many wargames feature prominent German military motifs and use German military nomenclature) cater to a genre that customarily finds more interest in playing the underdog, relying on [the player’s] brains rather than overwhelming force, and accepting the challenge of reversing the historical result.”

Coincidentally or not, tabletop wargaming grew in popularity by leaps and bounds after the release of Afrika Korps. At its peak in 1980, the industry sold 2.2 million games.

I hope that the chain of causation and influence which brought us Panzer General thirty years after Afrika Korps is becoming clear by now. I won’t belabor it unduly, given that I’ve already told most of the story in other articles. Suffice to say that in 1979 an avid young tabletop wargamer named Joel Billings decided to found a company to bring his hobby to the personal computers that were just entering the marketplace at that time. That company, which Billings called Strategic Simulations, Incorporated, specialized in digital wargames for much of its existence, and was the very same one which brought Panzer General to store shelves in 1994.


The gallant panzer general gets his orders. (How can you argue with cool uniforms like these?) The game studiously avoids swastikas. In popular culture, the swastika has come to stand for the Gestapo, SS, and other “bad” Nazis, while the older iconography of the Iron Cross or eagle wings stands in for the “clean” Wehrmacht. But the real distinction is, as we’ve seen, less clear-cut than many would like it to be.

Erwin Rommel is never mentioned by name in Panzer General, but his larger-than-life persona of legend is stamped all over it. He is, after all, the personification of the Wehrmacht as wargamers know it — not as barbaric invaders and espousers of a loathsome racist creed which they are all too eager to use to justify genocide, but as clever, audacious, courageous warriors with great fashion sense and all the best kit. Afrika Korps: “You can re-create Field Marshall Rommel’s daring exploits at Bengasi, Tobruk, El Alamein, and points in between!” Panzer General:

Imagine that you are the Panzer General. You are the brightest and best of the new Axis generals in the Second World War. Go from triumph to triumph, invading and seizing the capitals of Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and ultimately the United States of America on your way to conquering the whole world!

In terms of the broader culture — the one that doesn’t tend to read a lot of military history or play a lot of wargames — Panzer General was already an anachronism in 1994. In 1960, the American journalist William L. Shirer had published The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, which over the course of its 1200-plus pages documented in meticulous detail exactly what the Nazi regime had done and how it had done it. Close on that book’s heels, the capture and trial of Holocaust administrator Adolf Eichmann in an Israeli court consumed the world’s attention much as the Nuremberg trials had a decade and a half previously — only now television brought the proceedings, and the atrocities they documented, to a much more visceral sort of light. In West Germany, the student activism of the hippie era, accompanied by the election of a social-democratic chancellor who was less beholden to the tradition of forgetfulness, finally pushed the country toward a proper reckoning with its past. A spate of unsparing books, films, and even museums about the Holocaust and the other crimes of the Nazi regime appeared in West Germany and elsewhere in the years that followed, fully acknowledging for the first time the complicity of those Germans who weren’t in Hitler’s inner circle. A new understanding became palpable among Germans: that they couldn’t escape from their past by denying guilt and wishing atrocities away; that the only way to ensure that something like the Third Reich never took root again was to examine how they themselves or their parents, living in a nation as civilized as any other in Europe, could have been tempted down such a sickening path.

These developments were as welcome as they were necessary, both for Germans and for all of the other citizens of the world. Yet Panzer General and the cultural milieu that had spawned it remained caught in that strange interregnum of the 1950s, as do most of the wargames of today.

So, having now a reasonable idea of how we got to this place where patriotic Americans bought a game in which they played the role of genocidal foreign conquerors of their country’s capital, it’s up to each of us to decide how we feel about it. What sorts of subject matter are appropriate for a game? Before you rush to answer, ask yourself how you would feel about, say, a version of Transport Tycoon where you have to move Jews from the cities where they live to the concentration camps where they will die. If, as I dearly hope, you would prefer not to play such a game, ask yourself what the difference between Panzer General and that other game really are. For your actions in Panzer General will also lead to the deaths of millions, at only one more degree of remove at best.

Or am I hopelessly overthinking it? Is Panzer General just a piece of harmless entertainment that happens to play with a subset of the stuff of history?

It’s a judgment call that’s personal to each of us. For my part, I can play the German side in a conventional wargame easily enough if I need to, although I would prefer to take the Allied side. But Panzer General, with its eagerness to embed me in the role of a German general goose-stepping and kowtowing to his Führer, is a bridge too far for me. I would feel more comfortable with it if it made some effort to acknowledge — even via a footnote in the manual! — the horrors of the ideology which it depicts as all stirring music and proudly waving banners.

Before I attempt to say more than that, I’d like to look at another game released the same year as Panzer General, designed by a veteran of the same wargaming culture that spawned SSI. It takes place in a very different historical milieu, but leaves us with some of the same broad questions about the ethical obligations — or lack thereof — that come attached to a game that purports to depict real historical events.

(Sources: the books Adenauer’s Germany and the Nazi Past by Norbert Frei, Divided Memory: The Nazi Past in Two Germanys by Jeffrey Herf, War Stories: The Search for a Usable Past in the Federal Republic of Germany by Robert G. Moeller, Rommel: The Desert Fox by Desmond Young, The Rommel Papers by B.H. Liddell Hart, In Hitler’s Shadow by Richard J. Evans, Legacies of Dachau: The Uses and Abuses of a Concentration Camp, 1933-2001 by Harold Marcuse, Blood, Tears, and Folly: An Objective Look at World War II by Len Deighton, War Without Hate: The Desert Campaign of 1940-43 by John Bierman and Colin Smith, The Real War (1914-1918) by B.H. Liddell Hart,  Uncovering the Holocaust: The International Reception of Night and Fog by Ewout van der Knaap, and The Complete Wargames Handbook by James F. Dunnigan. But my spirit guide and crib sheet through much of this article was Joseph Campo’s superb 2019 PhD thesis for UC Santa Barbara, “Desert Fox or Hitler Favorite? Myths and Memories of Erwin Rommel: 1941-1970.”)

"Adventuron"

Building A Classic Treasure-Hunt style Text-Adventure with Adventuron

by Chris ([email protected]) at November 20, 2020 04:51 PM

This article provides a basic template for building classic treasure hunt text-adventure games using Adventuron.


What are the traits of treasure-hunt text-adventure games?

Features of a traditional treasure hunt game are:

  1. Parser verb/noun input (type in a command to the game, and see a response to the command).
  2. Exploration + barrier mechanics (a map linked together via compass directions with optional obstacles that block onward progress until a puzzle or puzzles are solved).
  3. Each location has a short location descriptions.
  4. Concise / easy to scan object-list (interactive items in the location).
  5. Large numbers of in-game objects entities.
  6. Ability to take, drop, objects, and use other verbs with objects, in order to manipulate the state of the game world.
  7. Instant refresh of object list / exit list.
  8. Dense puzzles / fast fun gameplay.
  9. No need to scan for nouns in location description. All interactive nouns will be in player inventory or in the current location object list. This greatly reduces player friction as they do not have to scan a large amount of text for interesting nouns. The object list is very fast to scan.
  10. Focus on environmental puzzles over narrative.
  11. Enumerated goals (either collect object and place in treasure room, or complete a numbered set of objectives).
  12. Per-location graphics that appear at the top of the page, cleardown / refresh of screen when moving to new location. Graphics can change in response to the state of the game changing.
In treasure hunt games, the users own interactions form the basis of their "story", and objects lists are an excellent way of conveying game world state.

If you want to, you can imply a lot of story from the state of the game via objects that have been created or destroyed or swapped.

You don't need to narrate something that happened if the player can see the thing that happened via a change in objects in the current location object list.

A wonderful treasure hunt style game is OVER HERE! by Aureas (gameplay starts at 05:00) :



Another treasure hunt style game, Treasures of Hollowhill, by John Blythe (written in Adventuron). The game uses object lists to convey the current state of the location.



The following code is offered as a template, from which to create said styled games.

Annotated Source

For more information about the Adventuron code syntax, see the user manual.

The first few lines describe the configurion of the starting location, the treasure location, and the method that Adventuron should use to redescribe a location.

We tell Adventuron to start outside the cave (which corresponds to the ID of a location defined in the next section).

The treasure room is set as the "treasure_room" location ID.

We tell adventuron to use the "auto_beta" redescribe mode, which will make adventuron automatically update the object and exit list on a screen (by automatically redescribing) when they change.

If something is printed before the object list updates, then a press_any_key command is automatically placed after the print statement. This makes it really easy to write command handlers without worrying about manually refreshing the screen.


start_at      = outside_cave
treasure_room = treasure_room
redescribe = auto_beta


This section just adds two locations, one of which is the special "treasure room" location. We told Adventuron that the "treasure_room" location was the treasure room in the last code snippet.


locations {
outside_cave : location "You are outside the cave of magic." ;
treasure_room : location "You are in the treasure room" ;
}


This section is use to create connections from each location to other locations. Each connection is bidirectional, unless the "_oneway" suffix is added to the direction, e.g. "north_oneway".


connections {
from, direction, to = [
outside_cave, north, treasure_room,
]
}


We set up the objects in the game here. There are two items that are flagged as treasures, and two that are not. The golden_horn does not exist when the game starts (as it was not given a start location), but it is still counted as a treasure that must be placed in the treasure room by the game.

The game has one (terrible) "puzzle", which is that the player should blow the horn for the horn to transform into the treasure version of the horn, the golden horn. That logic is not contained here but we need to define the non treasure and the treasure version of the horn as shown below:


objects {
lamp : object "a lamp" at = "outside_cave" msg="a <red<10>> herring.";
spoon : object "a spoon" at = "outside_cave" treasure = "true";
horn : object "a horn" at = "outside_cave" msg="Waiting to be blown.";
golden_horn : object "a golden horn" treasure = "true" ;
}


(OPTIONAL)

The on_startup {} block is used to display a message at the start of the game. We use the "press_any_key" command to wait for user input (ENTER key, mouse button, tap touchscreen).


on_startup {
: print "Deposit the two treasures in the treasure room to win." ;
: press_any_key ;
}


(OPTIONAL)

The on_describe {} block is used to execute logic that will run when the location is redescribed (manually) or a location is entered into the first time.

In this case we just tell the player how to interact with the game. We use the <SOMETEXT<SOMECOLOR>> format to colour the text.

Text formatting codes can be found in the user manual.


on_describe {
: if (is_just_entered () && is_at "outside_cave") {
: print "<Right click objects to see common verbs, or click directions to go in that direction.<14>>" ;
: print "<Type 'HELP' to see a list of common commands.<13>>" ;
}
}


The on_command {} block is used to execute conditional commands based on what the player has typed (or spoken). 

In this super simple game, the player needs to type "blow horn" to swap the normal horn for the golden horn. The logic checks to see if the horn is carried, and if so, it swaps it. If the golden horn is carried, then blowing the horn again will do nothing.

Information on conditional statements and commands can be found in the Adventuron tutorials.


on_command {
: match "blow horn" {
: if (is_carried "horn") {
: swap o1 = "horn" o2 = "golden_horn" ;
: print "You blow the horn, and the horn turns to <gold<#r>>." ;
}
: else_if (is_carried "golden_horn") {
: print "You blow the horn, and nothing happens." ;
}
}
}


(Optional)


Adventuron supports theming your game, so that you can achieve a desired look and feel.

Treasure hunt games can benefit from displaying a status bar showing the amount of treasures deposited in the treasure room. They also benefit from a terse layout.

Below is a suggested layout, but themes are very adaptable, and you can skin your game to your own requirements.

themes {
my_theme : theme {
theme_settings {
capitalization = upper
font = plotter_bold_extended
layout = SB G D O X
layout_mobile = SB G DO X
columns = 48
}
colors {
treasure_pen = #r
status_bar_paper = #00e
status_bar_pen = #fff
}
screen { paragraph_spacing_multiplier = "1" padding_horz = "1"}
system_messages {
inventory_list_header = "Carrying:\s"
object_list_header = "Items here:\s"
exit_list_header_concise = "Exits:\s"
treasure_message = "Treasure!"
}
status_bar {
: fixed_text "STINGS QUEST II" ;
: treasure_score ;
}
}
}


Adding Graphics


To learn how to add graphics to your game, read the following section of tutorial A.




Final Source (Without Graphics)


start_at      = outside_cave
treasure_room = treasure_room
redescribe = auto_beta

locations {
outside_cave : location "You are outside the cave of magic." ;
treasure_room : location "You are in the treasure room" ;
}

connections {
from, direction, to = [
outside_cave, north, treasure_room,
]
}

objects {
lamp : object "a lamp" at = "outside_cave" msg="a <red<10>> herring.";
spoon : object "a spoon" at = "outside_cave" treasure = "true";
horn : object "a horn" at = "outside_cave" msg="Waiting to be blown.";
golden_horn : object "a golden horn" treasure = "true" ;
}

on_startup {
: print "Deposit the two treasures in the treasure room to win." ;
: press_any_key ;
}

on_describe {
: if (is_just_entered () && is_at "outside_cave") {
: print "<Right click objects to see common verbs, or click directions to go in that direction.<14>>" ;
: print "<Type 'HELP' to see a list of common commands.<13>>" ;
}
}

on_command {
: match "blow horn" {
: if (is_carried "horn") {
: swap o1 = "horn" o2 = "golden_horn" ;
: print "You blow the horn, and the horn turns to <gold<#r>>." ;
}
: else_if (is_carried "golden_horn") {
: print "You blow the horn, and nothing happens." ;
}
}
}

themes {
my_theme : theme {
theme_settings {
capitalization = upper
font = plotter_bold_extended
layout = SB G D O X
layout_mobile = SB G DO X
columns = 48
}
colors {
treasure_pen = #r
status_bar_paper = #00e
status_bar_pen = #fff
}
screen { paragraph_spacing_multiplier = "1" padding_horz = "1"}
system_messages {
inventory_list_header = "Carrying:\s"
object_list_header = "Items here:\s"
exit_list_header_concise = "Exits:\s"
treasure_message = "Treasure!"
}
status_bar {
: fixed_text "STINGS QUEST II" ;
: treasure_score ;
}
}
}


Adventuron Christmas Jam



If you are exited to build a treasure-hunt style game (or any other kind of text adventure) - with a Christmas theme, then do check out the Adventuron Christmas Jam (ends December 21st 2020). There are lots of prizes, such as a Raspberry Pi 400, retro books and more.

If you have any questions about Adventuron, check out the forum here.


Renga in Blue

Castles of Darkness: The Sun is Shining

by Jason Dyer at November 20, 2020 03:41 AM

There were a few struggles remaining, but light has returned to the world.

Plus, I got to experience some Apple II voice synthesis.

From the Gallery of Undiscovered Entities.

I had left last time on a bridge. I had an umbrella with M. Poppins on it, and the bridge was the right point to go flying. After OPEN UMBRELLA:

The new area has gloves which contain a boulder-removal cream, remarkably pertinent to the bridge dilemma. Using OPEN UMBRELLA again flew me over outside the castle, and I was able to walk back and apply the cream, getting rid of the boulder.

I then got a bit stuck until I realized that in addition to feeling for secret doors in the cardinal directions, I could FEEL UP and FEEL DOWN. sigh Thus began checking every single room in the game.

One room led down to some treasure and a “tarnished lamp”. Rubbing the lamp led to the voice synthesis: “THE MAZE, THE MAZE, THE MAZE”.

I tried to record the sound but was having trouble; I’ll update this post if I can get a video to work later.

This bit is optional — it’s supposed to be a hint as to where to go next.

The maze being referenced I found past another hidden staircase:

Some descriptions of various rooms:

I’M IN A EERIE, WINDING MAZE OF ROCKY, DARK PASSAGES ALL ALIKE

I’M IN A EERIE, ROCKY MAZE OF DARK, WINDING PASSAGES ALL ALIKE

I’M IN A WINDING, EERIE MAZE OF ROCKY, DARK PASSAGES ALL ALIKE

The four adjectives can be recombined in 24 different ways, so yes, there seem to be 24 different rooms. I started to map hoping things would hold sanity, but quickly realized that wasn’t going to be the case.

From The Book of Adventure Games by Kim Schuette.

I figured I’ve proven myself enough in other games that I know how to map a maze, so I just looked up the route. The only thing to find in the maze was a STRING. Once you have the string, the flexible yew pole from earlier can combine to MAKE BOW. I also found some ARROWS on looking at the dartboard I mentioned last time.

(Incidentally, the genie’s hint changes after you’ve gotten the string to “BREAK BALL”, which refers to an event at the end of the game.)

I knew when I had my bow and arrows where to go next: a dragon I found off another secret door.

This is animated; you walk in, he breaths fire, you run away.

Here I was horribly stuck, because the pattern was to enter the room and get chased off without being able to type anything. I poked at the hint sheet again and found the clue LEAVE THE CIRCLE.

Huh? The only thing I could think of was a ring I hadn’t used yet.

A RING WITH STRANGE SHAPES ON IT

I went ahead and dropped it off before entering the dragon room, and found I was able to react to the dragon rather than just run away. I was able to SHOOT, run away, SHOOT, run away, and SHOOT for a third time to slay the dragon. The accumulative damage being needed to slay the dragon was quite satisfying, but I had no idea what the ring was doing.

I found from commenter Odkin that my lack of sound earlier caused me to miss a clue: the game says BEWARE when you pick up the ring. That still makes the moment it happens kind of random, but it does impressively make for a second sound-based puzzle.

Past the dragon was a room of fire; I had a big roll of asbestos that I laid out in a way that reminded me of Kaves of Karkhan.

This was followed by one last locked door and me banging my head some more. I went ahead and spoiled: I missed the fact there was a bird earlier I could WHISTLE to and it would drop a MEDAL.

The medal has the description

ONE SIDE READS “A IS 26, B IS 25, Y IS 2, Z IS 1”
THE OTHER SIDE READS “AT LAST! IT OPENS!”

I already applied the code, but that last part of the text indicates the medal is also useful on locked doors. USE MEDAL opened up to the last room.

The wizard fries you unless you take the pill-of-lightning-resistance first, but TAKE PILL is easily followed by KILL WIZARD. You can then SMASH BALL (matching with the genie’s hint) to win the game.

Before signing out, I’d like to quote Kim Schuette, whose map I showed off earlier, writing in the early 80s:

The game offers a degree of animation and occasional spoken words, but some of the graphics leave a lot to be desired, particularly small and difficult to differentiate objects. Travel from location to location is on the slow side. Also, the limited vocabulary often makes progress frustratingly slow.

I can’t disagree with most of this? I think on some original screens the objects would look like a blurry mass (which really are tiny, check out those gloves on the first screenshot) and the trudging animation did start to get tiring when I had to keep looping back and forth (emulator turbo speed for the win, though). I find the comment on the parser most interesting, in that Mr. Schuette has tolerated quite similar (he called Savage Island Part 1’s parser “limited but adequate”, for instance) but I’m also guessing he didn’t use my “ram through a big verb list before getting too far in the game” method and just happened into run into issues by happenchance; I think USE MEDAL at the very end was quite a serious case in point (I’m still unsure what is being done with the medal, there).

In an analytical sense, the game had some pretty bad moments — needing to search every wall, floor, and ceiling, the tedious maze, the need to refer to clothing — but I still found the experience relatively fulfilling, I think just due to sheer originality. The 3D aspects of Deathmaze and other Med Systems works gave them an adventure-from-another-universe feel, and the same is true here. The intense focus on searching and occasional random combat (I left out some in my narrative where you just types KILL ORC or KILL WRAITH a bunch of times) yet utter refusal to incorporate “classic” CRPG elements like stats made the game feel quite different, and that’s not even including the unusual 3rd person animation aspect. I unfortunately can’t recommend the game for general play (it leaped off the cliff with the maze) but it’s still worth a peek from those fascinated by adventure game history. There’s an online version at the Internet Archive; at the very least it’s interesting to walk around the environment a little and see what protozoic 3rd person adventuring is like.

November 17, 2020

Renga in Blue

Castles of Darkness: Sounds

by Jason Dyer at November 17, 2020 06:41 PM

I was already planning on this follow-up post to discuss the sound, but what I did not expect is what is likely the first sound-based puzzle in an adventure game. That is, a puzzle reliant on literal sound made from the computer, not as described in text.

To continue from last time, I had a key I couldn’t reach. Hidden in one of the many cracks of the rooms was a parchment that read

OPEN LOCKS WHOEVER KNOCKS

I originally tested this on doors (the usual use in adventure games) but I realized the locked chest might be KNOCK-able.

The chest had a METAL BAR and STRANGE RING. When you pick up the ring it is described in inventory as a RING WITH STRANGE SHAPES ON IT. The bar is described as a METER LONG BAR. (This is a general pattern of the game; the initial description of an object is less detailed than what you see when the object is being held.)

I was able to get the key with the bar (it was magnetic), which let me open a door to … a dead end.

As the game’s HELP indicates, you won’t get anywhere fighting this troll, its skin is too tough.

I was seriously baffled for long enough I pulled up the game’s hint sheet, but it led me to being even more baffled.

From the Gallery of Undiscovered Entities.

The puzzles seem to roughly be in a sequence, and the one after using the key is CAN’T STOP CLICKING NOISE? Wait, clicking noise?

I knew there was sound (I had tested it and found in combat you could hear things; video below from Highretrogamelord)…

…but the game was silent otherwise, so I had shut it off (I sometimes play in scenarios where it would be impolite to have weird booping Apple II sounds, and to be honest, I’m not wild about weird booping Apple II sounds). After you hit the dead end, and assuming you can hear the Apple II’s noises, whenever you take steps, you hear (as the hints indicate) a clicking sound.

I still was somewhat baffled, although I did find LISTEN was giving a hint. If you LISTEN normally:

I DON’T HEAR ANYTHING

If you LISTEN after the clicking starts

STANDING HERE, I DON’T HEAR ANYTHING

Even though it isn’t mentioned as inventory, you’re supposed to look in your SHOE.

SOMETHING FELL OUT!

Inside there was a coin. Gah!

The only reason this is semi-fair is that there was a reasonably long puzzle sequence to get to that dead end, so I knew there had to be a secret of some sort. I don’t know if I would have ever got the idea of checking clothing on my own (I had to poke at a walkthrough, it’s not even clear from the hint sheet).

The coin’s magic word (EXCELSIOR) can be used on the second castle to open it.

There are some interesting items inside, like a ENVELOPE with a PILL where the envelope indicates you should eat the pill when lightning is about to strike. There’s a strange umbrella (PROPERTY OF M. POPPINS) and a “short, flexible yew pole” (I SEE NOTCHES ON BOTH ENDS). There’s also a dartboard on a wall (I have tried to throw the pole but no dice; maybe I need to assemble a full dart with items later).

I solved one other puzzle, but I need to rewind a bit first — remember when I said VANISH worked to get rid of a wraith? That was incorrect. Even if you don’t HIT WRAITH your character still is fighting, so what happened was I tried SAY VANISH at the same time my character coincidentally hit the wraith and it ran away. On a second playthrough (I was testing things out) I didn’t have the same effect and was baffled. Whoops.

So VANISH was still in play, but I got to use it here.

You can lift the cage (there’s a rope and pulley) but the wraith kills you. If you SAY VANISH first — remember this message came from the charm — it causes your character to go invisible. (Since the game is in third-person perspective, this is done purely graphically!)

This lets you get by the cage and get stuck by a large boulder, or at least that’s where I’m stuck at the moment. It seemed like a good stopping point.

November 15, 2020

Emily Short

Mid-November Link Assortment

by Mort Short at November 15, 2020 11:42 PM

Events

November 21-22 is the weekend for the 2020 WordPlay online festival.

November 24  is the next meeting of the Boston IF Meetup.

December 5  is the next meeting of the SF/Bay Area IF Meetup.

Contest, Jams, and Festivals

Hand Eye Society is hosting the 2020 WordPlay festival on November 21 and 22. The festival celebrates “the most interesting uses of writing and words in contemporary games.” The event is taking place online, and it is free to attend.

The IF Comp voting deadline is fast approaching. Players have until November 29 to vote on their favorites of this year’s games.

IF Comp is also continuing to accept prizes and contributions to the Colossal Fund.

AdvXJam (a non-ranked game jam hosted by the Adventure X Team) is underway, continuing until November 28. The jam focuses on story-driven games, and is open to authors at all levels of experience.

Renga in Blue

Castles of Darkness (1981)

by Jason Dyer at November 15, 2020 09:41 PM

As we get deeper into adventure game history, it is harder to pick out “notable firsts”, but I think Castle of Darkness has to qualify on some level. It is the first adventure to make extensive use of animation and the first the graphically represent the player character from a third-person perspective; in other words, a direct predecessor of the entire “point-and-click” genre.

From the Gallery of Undiscovered Entities.

It is the only game by Michael Cashen, and the only product published by The Logical Choice, a store chain in Baltimore. Quoting Michael himself:

Like a lot of small computer stores, back in those days, The Logical Choice had a meeting room where we fanatics gathered and discussed various problems. A big topic was how to maximize memory (64K RAM was huge then) and I figured out how to tap into the Apple II’s graphics in ways I could get a lot of bang for the byte. Castles of Darkness grew out of those methods since I could now fit a lot of information on a 5″ floppy disk. George, the owner of The Logical Choice, contracted to publish it and had to talk me out of writing a cassette version: I felt sorry for the many who had not yet graduated to floppy disks (most owners of the first Apple II’s transferred information with a standard audio cassette – and my Apple II Plus was one of the first: it had the serial number 00109).

This is “castles” plural, so you start out in front of two of them, here to break “the curse of the Evil Wizard Grimnacht”, who has plunged the world into perpetual night and captured a princess.

IT IS OUR HOPE THAT YOU, BRAVE SOUL, WILL FIND THE WAY TO END HIS CURSE.

While all action is viewed from a far third-person perspective, the game is not free-roaming; you still put in parser commands, and the character animates when moving around or fighting enemies. A sample:

A pickax is the only helpful item to start; on the far east you can DIG ROCKS to find a secret passage (this took about fifteen minutes of noodling to find). Inside there is an orc; combat is just a matter of KILL ORC over and over, but the animation makes the game feel slightly lively about it. I then got stuck until realizing the interface concept here: you need to often refer to directions. FEEL NORTH reveals a secret exit, and OPEN NORTH is the way to open it. (I quit in frustration at an early play-through by trying to OPEN DOOR.)

The need to feel for secret walls is extensive enough this feels slightly RPG-ish.

Also interesting is the graphical conceit: rather than each location being custom, like in the On-Line Systems games, there are a set of “standard” graphics that get mixed and matched. A sample, so you can see the re-use.

I found a charm with the message 5-26-13-18-8-19-4-12-9-16-8-18-13-12-13-22-9-12-12-14. The numbers (when matched to the alphabet backwards) spell out VANISH WORKS IN ONE ROOM. This was useful when I encountered a wraith.

Typing SAY VANISH causes the wraith to poof. I’ve also encountered a troll which I can’t put a dent in (although he’s not blocking anything, so maybe you’re just supposed to avoid him), some locked doors and a locked chest, and a key I can’t reach.

The game mentions 78 indoor rooms, and I’ve got 19, so I’m about a quarter of the way in.

Thinbasic Adventure Builder

Wade's Important Astrolab

Six now playable online et al.

by Wade ([email protected]) at November 15, 2020 05:26 AM

A Victorian primary school recently used my IF game Six as part of a literacy activity for year six students. Some of them even became converts to IF in the process.

As part of helping to prepare this exercise, I recompiled the game to version six and set it up for online play from my homepage.

Six hasn't been browser-playable before. You don't get the sound and music playing it this way, but you do get the graphics.

https://wadeclarke.com/if/six

November 14, 2020

"Interactive Licktion"

IFComp 2020: A Rope of Chalk

by Captain Abersouth at November 14, 2020 12:42 PM

A Rope of Chalk is a parser game by Ryan Veeder. There are four acts in the game, corresponding to each of the four characters whose perspective the player takes for each act. Lane, Alec and Hina organise a sidewalk chalk tournament with the help of Nathalie, whose role as the hydration officer is to...Continue reading »

November 12, 2020

Choice of Games

Jolly Good: Cakes and Ale—Get yourself in and out of another fine mess!

by Mary Duffy at November 12, 2020 04:42 PM

We’re proud to announce that Jolly Good: Cakes and Ale, the latest in our popular “Choice of Games” line of multiple-choice interactive-fiction games, is now available for Steam, Android, and on iOS in the “Choice of Games” app. It’s 30% off until November 19th!

Get yourself into and out of another fine mess! As the newest member of London’s elite “Noble Gases” social club, you’ll win glory, renown, and much-needed money through various cunning schemes that will seem like good ideas at the time.

Jolly Good: Cakes and Ale is a 1.2 million—million!—word interactive comedy of manners by Kreg Segall. It’s a standalone sequel to Tally Ho inspired by P.G. Wodehouse, 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 the close relation of an earl, you’ve managed to join the once-rather-elite Noble Gases just as you find yourself embroiled in dreadful scandal. But surely your clever new servant ought to be able to solve this knotty problem with both elegance and unruffled grace!*

*Elegance and unruffled grace not guaranteed. Allow four to six weeks for full servant acclimation. While supplies last. Additional restrictions may apply.

Lead your new social club through a world of pranks, debts, close shaves, passions, rivalries, and untold heights of splendor and absurdity amongst the cream of society. Will you lean into your shocking reputation, fight hard to redeem yourself in the eyes of the fickle public, or just relax with a cocktail by the fire? What is most important to you: your own comfort, loyalty to your friends, or the expectations of your family? Navigate the joys and troubles of membership in your new club: planning parties, gaining new members, taking down rivals…or winning them over as friends.

But it’s not all shenanigans and hijinks—there’s also hanky-panky. Find love with a dreamy artist, a former neighbor with a taste for rebellion, a dashing clubmate with a flair for the dramatic (and for golden trousers), or even your own servant! And, of course, spend time with some old friends from “Tally Ho.”

Perhaps–just perhaps–with the tireless aid of your cunning servant, your rollicking social club, and your merry new friends, you can weather the storm unscathed and manage it all before everything comes crashing down! It seems most unlikely, however.

• Play as male, female or nonbinary; gay, straight, or bi.
• Maintain appropriate boundaries with your servant or find yourself emotionally enmeshed.
• Choose from one of five scandalous backgrounds, significantly affecting the story, including museum thievery, over-festivity, and public brawling.
• Rub elbows with a famous actor, a politician, a diva, an annoying journalist, and a renowned artist—or maintain a lower profile, eluding the police and a criminal mastermind.
• Become unwittingly or wittingly entangled in the affairs of multiple secret societies, wealthy would-be sponsors, and criminal enterprises.
• Dress as a bellhop, a parlor maid, a military officer, or in bathrobe and slippers!
• Muck about with wireless radios and experimental steam-powered printing presses.
• Triumph in boxing, swimming, cards, handball, competitive eating, and spitting.
• Break into hotels, cars, safes, bookshops, dressing rooms and art galleries, some of them intentionally!
• Ghostwrite love letters, craft speeches, and edit damaging newspaper articles.
• Smash windows, pitchers, punch bowls, expensive tables, fine art—and hearts.
• Carry your club to victory in a tournament or get rich betting on other clubs.
• Enjoy access to special features—we prefer you not to call them “cheats”—with our “Extra Helping” in-app purchase.
• Pore over a detailed hint guide, available in our “Pleasantly Tipsy” in-app purchase.

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

The People's Republic of IF

November meetup (online)

by zarf at November 12, 2020 04:41 PM

The Boston IF meetup for October will be Tuesday, November 24, 6:30 pm Eastern time.

We will post the Zoom link to the mailing list on the day of the meeting.

November 09, 2020

Choice of Games

Author Interview: Kreg Segall, Jolly Good: Cakes and Ale

by Mary Duffy at November 09, 2020 01:41 PM

Get yourself into and out of another fine mess! As the newest member of London’s elite “Noble Gases” social club, you’ll win glory, renown, and much-needed money through various cunning schemes that will seem like good ideas at the time. Jolly Good: Cakes and Ale is a 1.2 million—million!—word interactive comedy of manners by Kreg Segall. I sat down with Kreg to get the scoop on his latest game.

Jolly Good: Cakes and Ale releases this Thursday, November 12th.

Jolly Good: Cakes and Ale is the first Choice of Games title to reach and exceed a million words. Tell me how you do that for a game that isn’t a sprawling epic fantasy, but in fact an homage to P.G. Wodehouse?

The trick is that as far as the characters know, they are in a sprawling epic fantasy, with the fate of the world at stake, mystical rituals that must be mastered, and grand evils that must be defeated. Only the world is the clubhouse, the ritual that must be mastered is how to placate one’s aunt, and the grand evil that must be defeated is that chap over there who insists on wearing lavender-and-yellow argyle socks with evening dress.

Cakes and Ale takes its inspiration from Wodehouse’s Drones Club series of short stories, and I tried to infuse my game with the feeling of those tales: various adventures piling up next to and on top of each other, different minor characters suddenly taking center stage for a few moments, blinking at the unexpected spotlight and then stepping back, and the setting focused upon a single clubhouse and perhaps a five mile radius around it.

Because I was based this game’s structure on short stories, I was able to be more sprawling, and I allowed myself to explore a particular story at length, even if it started multiplying into several side stories unexpectedly and ridiculously. My mental model for Cakes and Ale was for you, the player, to assemble a lengthy anthology of short stories that let you build and play your character, and get to know them intimately. Wodehouse’s stories are high comedy, but, as in Tally Ho, my goal is to walk the line between the comic and the dramatic as often as possible, dipping into multiple genres.

You’ll be spending quite a bit of time with your character over the course of the Jolly Good series, so I want you to love them and becomes invested in them and their friends. But to do that, especially to have you feel something for the NPCs, you need time with them. You need to have many scenes with these characters, in conversation, in action, in romance should you choose those routes, and in repose. So because I have a very large cast in this game, I needed to give you a lot of opportunities to hang out with these people. I want you to know and recognize all the names of your clubmates and feel things about them.

But that takes a lot of words.

Have you played any interesting interactive fiction while working on Cakes and Ale ?

Choice of Rebels: Uprising, which I played while outlining this game, is a master class in setting up a multi-part game and investing in super-branchiness and meaningful choices.

This is my third game for Choice of Games, but the first time that I have written a game that is going to have a direct sequel. Those who have played Tally Ho know that I really like to give all of the important NPCs secrets and branchy personal plotlines, and it was surprisingly challenging to set up those stories without resolving them fully while at the same time giving them a sense of completion!

Crème de la Crème, which I played a good deal as well is also stellar and should be played by everyone who likes sparkling conversation, elegant prose, and social intrigue. I am not wholly convinced that the world of Tally Ho and the Jolly Good games is a different world from that of Crème de la Crème.

Any regrets about making it so long?

To be perfectly honest, in the last few weeks before submitting the final draft I wanted to add an additional adventure to chapter five involving a bathrobe, a hotel detective, and a local magistrate with insomnia, a side story which would have added 40k more words to the game.

But then I was talked out of it by my friends and loved ones on the grounds that 1.2 million was a perfectly respectable number and that I should consider leaving some words unwritten for other people to use. And so I acceded.

What do you think players will enjoy most about this game? 

I hope that you compare notes with another player and realizing that they played through the same game but had essentially none of the same adventures as each other.

I also hope there are a few choices that make players want to step away for a bit and take a long walk around the block as they mull off a particularly tricky decision.

Finally, I very much desire for at least one player is required to send their clothing to the dry cleaners because they upset their beverage from pounding on the table in a fit of helpless laughter.

Who’s your favorite NPC?

Either Lord Chum (the main character’s uncle) or Parsnip (a charming young lady you may meet in Chapter Six)–incidentally, they are both characters whom the player may wholly miss in their playthrough–because they were both so much fun to write for and have such distinctive voices.

I hope you enjoy your time with both if you should happen to run into them. Please send them my very warmest regards.

Any personal advice for a good playthrough? You’ve added some interesting cheat mode and hint mode DLCs this time. 

Here’s a smattering of advice:

The different scandals you choose in chapter one will each give you a rather different chapter five. The various adventures of chapter six may become available and unavailable throughout the evening, depending on your relationships and previous choices, and the time.

Roleplay. Whether you play a sly opportunist, a impulsive adventurer, a wry fashionista, a good-natured nincompoop, or an oblivious intellectual, I want you to do what feels right to you in the moment without feeling like the game is out to get you. Don’t sweat the numbers. The stats are there in the background, and yes, various skills are being raised and lowered and checked. But don’t allow them to cause you the least bit of stress.

You cannot do everything in one playthrough. Pick a few plot threads and pursue them if you wish to see them through. Or dabble a bit if your character is a dabbler. That’s all right too.

There are no good endings or bad endings in the game. Every ending you get to will be able to be continued in the next game. You will not be locked out of a romance because of a choice you make here. You will not ruin your game by choosing something that you want to do but suspect that your skill is too low to accomplish. Indeed, some of my favorite parts of the game are only reachable by failing tests. You will be rewarded with funny consequence for failing things.

And, if you like, the DLC will let you mess with the numbers in a stress-free manner on the fly as you play, to experiment with different stat values and combinations easily.

Anything you care to share about what’s next in the trilogy?   

Next is Tea and Scones, where I will be drawing more of my inspiration from Wodehouse’s Blandings books. If Cakes and Ale is largely about club affairs, Tea and Scones will be much more about family, and will take place in the environs of your uncle’s lavish estate.

My sources in the Noble Gases tell me that there will be high-stakes golf, a most unsafe wishing well, a jumble sale, a variety show, a deadly treasure hunt, helpful Girl Guides, and a dramatic revelation on a rooftop under a full moon in high winds.

I would not be surprised to learn that various problems, escapades, and assorted friends, rivals, and associates from your club will be certain to follow you there, as well as a few characters from Tally Ho who didn’t show up in Cakes and Ale .

You can expect that the direction you choose to take the club in the final chapters will strongly influence the flavor of the adventures you’ll have in Tea and Scones. I can already tell that Tea and Scones will be satisfyingly lengthy, to account for all the big choices you make in Cakes and Ale.

"Interactive Licktion"

Ectocomp 2020: Cabin in the Forest

by Captain Abersouth at November 09, 2020 10:42 AM

Cabin in the Forest is a ChoiceScript game by William Loman. (Spoilers follow.) At the start of the game, the player is instructed to create a character who will be “placed into a horror pastiche”. Immediately after, the narrator, Pallas, is established as an important character. Gameplay involves, or seems to involve, putting together the...Continue reading »

November 06, 2020

The Digital Antiquarian

Opening the Gold Box, Part 7: Back to the Roots

by Jimmy Maher at November 06, 2020 05:41 PM

We made it simple yet complex enough for those people who really got into it. We added graphics and made it a beautiful game with a totally transparent interface. It took all the ugly stuff out of playing a military strategy game and left the fun and the gameplay. That was a conscious effort. It wasn’t just, “Gee, I like artwork in wargames, so let’s throw it in.”

— SSI marketing manager Karen Conroe, speaking about Panzer General in 1996

When we last checked in with Joel Billings and his crew of grognards turned CRPG mavens at SSI, it was early 1994 and they had just lost their Dungeons & Dragons license, by far their biggest source of revenue over the past seven years. While Billings continued to beat the bushes for the buyer that his company plainly needed if it was to have any hope of surviving in the changed gaming landscape of the mid-1990s, it wasn’t immediately obvious to the rest of the in-house staff just what they should be doing now. Ever since signing the Dungeons & Dragons deal with TSR back in 1987, virtually all they had worked on were games under that license; SSI’s other games had all come from outside studios. But now here they were, with no Dungeons & Dragons, no clear direction forward, and quite possibly no long-term future at all. Instead of devoting their time to polishing up their résumés, as most people in their situation would have done, they plunged into a passion project the likes of which they hadn’t been able to permit themselves for many years. And lo and behold, the end result would prove to be the game that turned their commercial fortunes around, for a while anyway.

The project began with Paul Murray, an SSI stalwart who had first begun to program games for the company back in 1981. Most recently, he had been assigned to port Dark Sun: Shattered Lands, SSI’s ambitious and expensive attempt to prove to TSR that they deserved to retain the Dungeons & Dragons license, to the Super Nintendo console. But cash-flow problems during 1993 had forced Billings to shelve the port, leaving Murray without much to do. So, he started to tinker with a style of game which SSI hadn’t done in-house in nearly a decade: a traditional hex-based wargame, based on World War II in Europe. From the beginning, he envisioned it as a “lite” game, emphasizing fun at least as much as historical accuracy — i.e., what old-timers called a “beer and pretzels” wargame. In much of this, he was inspired by a Japanese game for the Sega Genesis console called Advanced Daisenryaku, which had never been officially imported to the United States or even translated into English, but which he and his office mates had somehow stumbled upon and immediately found so addicting that they were willing to struggle their way through it in Japanese. (When Alan Emrich from Computer Gaming World magazine visited the SSI offices, he saw them all playing it “with a crude translation of the Japanese manual lying beside the Sega Genesis.”)

After Dark Sun was released to disappointing sales, thus sounding the death knell for the Dungeons & Dragons license, Murray continued to poke away at his “fast and fun little wargame,” which he called Panzer General. And a remarkable thing happened: more and more of his colleagues, both those in technical and creative roles and those ostensibly far removed from them, coalesced around him. Even Joel Billings and his right-hand man Chuck Kroegel, who between them made all of the big decisions in the executive suites, rolled up their sleeves and made their first active contributions to the nuts and bolts of an SSI game in years. They did so largely after hours, as did many of the others who worked on Panzer General. It became a shared labor of love, a refuge from those harsh external realities that seemed destined to crush SSI under their weight.

At this point, a music fan like me finds it hard to resist comparisons with some of great dead-ender albums in the history of that art form, like Big Star’s Third. If SSI’s beer-and-pretzels wargame doesn’t have quite the same heft as an artistic statement like that one, it is true that the staff there felt the same freedom to experiment, to make exactly the game they wanted to make, all born from the same sense that there was nothing really left to lose. Desperation can be oddly freeing in that respect. Billings still speaks of Panzer General as the most satisfying single project he’s ever been involved with. After the extended detour into Dungeons & Dragons, he and his like-minded colleagues got to go back to the type of game that they personally loved most. It felt like going home. If this was to be the end of SSI, how poetically apt to bring things full circle before the curtain fell.

But make no mistake: Panzer General was not to look or sound like the ugly, fussy SSI wargames of yore. It was very much envisioned as a product of the 1990s, bringing all of the latest technology to bear on the hoary old wargame genre in a way that no one had yet attempted. It would be the first SSI game to require high-resolution SVGA graphics cards, the first to incorporate real-world video clips and voice acting, the first to take full advantage of the capabilities of CD-ROM. Luckily, the nature of the game lent itself to doing much of this on the cheap. Instead of filming actors, SSI could simply digitize public-domain newsreel footage of World War II battle scenes. Meanwhile the voice acting could be limited to a single Reichsmarschall giving you your orders in the sort of clipped, German-accented English that anyone who has ever seen a 1950s Hollywood war movie will feel right at home with. Thanks to the re-purposed media and plenty of free labor from SSI staffers, Panzer General wound up costing less than $400,000 to make — barely a third the cost of Dark Sun.

In addition to all of its multimedia flash, Panzer General evinced a lot of clever design. During 1994, strategy-game designers seemed to discover all at once the value of personalizing their players’ experiences, by giving them more embodied roles to play and by introducing elements of story and CRPG-style character progression. X-COM and Master of Magic are the first two obvious examples of these new approaches from that year, while Panzer General provides the third. One can only assume that SSI learned something from all those Dungeons & Dragons CRPGs.

The overall structure of Panzer General draws heavily from Advanced Daisenryaku. It’s a scenario-based rather than a grand-strategy game. If you choose to play the full campaign, you begin on September 1, 1939, leading the Wehrmacht into Poland. You then progress through a campaign which includes 38 potential scenarios in all, covering the Western and Eastern Fronts of the war in Europe as well as the battles in North Africa, but you’ll never see all of them on a single play-through. Panzer General rather uses a Wing Commander– style campaign tree: doing poorly will lead you to the “loser scenario,” and can eventually get you drummed out of the military entirely; doing well leads you to the next stage of world domination, with additional rewards in the form of “prestige points” which you can spend to improve your army. There’s an inherent design tension in such an approach, which I discussed at some length already in the context of Wing Commander: it gives beginning or unskilled players an unhappy experience by punishing them with ever more brutally difficult missions, even as it “rewards” the players who might actually have a chance of beating those missions by bypassing them. Within its chosen framework, however, Panzer General‘s campaign is very well-executed, with plenty of alternative outcomes on offer. In the absolute best case — in game terms, that is — you can invade and defeat Britain in 1940, as Adolf Hitler so conspicuously failed to do in real life, then go on to take Moscow, and finally attain the ultimate Panzer General achievement: conquering Washington, D.C.

As that last unlikely battle in particular would suggest, Panzer General‘s fidelity to real history is limited at best. You don’t have to look too far to find veteran grognards complaining about all the places where it falls short as a simulation, perhaps most notably in its near-complete disinterest in the vagaries of supply lines. But then again, the realism of even those wargames that strive more earnestly for historical accuracy can be and often is exaggerated; those games strike me more as arbitrary systems tweaked to produce the same results as the historical battles they purport to simulate than true simulations in the abstract.

The most important thing Panzer General has going for it is that, historically accurate or not, it’s fun. The interface is quick and well-nigh effortless, while the scenario-based approach assures that you’re only getting the exciting parts of warfare; your forces are already drawn up facing the enemy as each scenario begins. And the game is indeed very attractive to look at, with the flashier elements employed sparingly enough that they never start to annoy.

Still, its true secret weapon lies in those aforementioned CRPG elements. Even as you play the role of a German general who collects more and more prestige, accompanied by more and more exciting battlefield assignments, the units you command also move from battle to battle with you, improving their own skills as they go. The effect comes close to matching the identification which X-COM so effectively manages to create between you and your individual soldiers; you can even name your units here, just as you can your soldiers in that other game. You develop a real bond with the units — infantry, artillery, tanks, airplanes, in places even ships — who have fought so many battles for you. You begin to husband them, to work hard to rescue them when they get into a jam, and find yourself fairly shattered — and then fairly livid — when an enemy ambush takes one of them out. You can even mold the makeup of your army to suit your play style to some extent, by choosing which types of units to spend your precious prestige points on. This makes your personal investment in their successes and failures all the greater; the emotional stakes are surprisingly high in this game.


Each scenario in Panzer General begins with some vintage newsreel footage, an approach which has ironically aged much better than the cutting-edge green-screened full-motion-video presentations of so many of its contemporaries. Unlike them, Panzer General has remained an aestheically attractive game to this day.

The map where all of the actions take place. The game is entirely controlled by clicking on your units and the strip of icons running down the right side of the screen. You can mouse over a unit or icon to see a textual description of its status and/or function at the bottom or top of the screen — as close as any 1995 game got to the tool tips of today. SSI’s overarching priority was to make accessible a genre previously known for its inscrutability.

Clashes between units take place right on the main map, accompanied by little animations which spice up the proceedings without overstaying their welcome.

A unit-information screen, showing not only its raw statistics but a running tally of its battle record. You can name your units and watch them collect experience and battle citations as the war goes on.

You can tailor the makeup of your army by spending prestige points to purchase units that suit your style of play.



While his staff beavered away on Panzer General, Joel Billings continued to cast about for a buyer for his company before it was too late. It wasn’t easy; with the loss of the Dungeons & Dragons license he had lost his most enticing single asset. All of SSI’s core competencies were profoundly out of fashion; CRPGs in general were in the doldrums, and wargames were niche products in an industry that had little shelf space left for anything beyond the broadly popular. Nevertheless, he managed in the end to make a deal.

The backstory leading up to that deal has much to tell us about the waves of mergers and acquisitions that had been sweeping the industry for years by this point. It begins with The Software Toolworks, a company founded by an enterprising kit-computer hacker named Walt Bilofsky all the way back in 1980. He quietly built it into a major player in educational and consumer software over the course of the next decade, by jumping early into the distribution and media-duplication sides of the industry and through two blockbuster products of the sort which don’t attract the hardcore gamer demographic and thus seldom feature in histories like this one, but which had immense Main Street appeal in their day: The Chessmaster 2000 and Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing. The combined sales of these two alone exceeded 750,000 units by 1989, the year The Software Toolworks acquired Mindscape.

The latter company was formed in 1983 by one Roger Buoy, and went on to make a name in educational software as well as with innovative games of a slightly intellectual bent: the civilian-spaceflight simulation The Halley Project; a line of bookware text adventures; the early point-and-click graphic adventures developed by ICOM Simulations; Balance of Power, Chris Crawford’s seminal anti-wargame of contemporary geopolitics. Then, too, Mindscape imported and/or distributed many additional games, including those of Cinemaware. But as the decade wound down their bottom line sank increasingly into the red, and in December of 1989 Buoy sold out to The Software Toolworks for $21.5 million.

In the years that followed that acquisition, The Software Toolworks moved into the Nintendo market, releasing many games there under the Mindscape imprint; console titles would make up 42 percent of their overall revenue by 1994. At the same time, they continued to enjoy great success on computers, with the Mavis Beacon series in particular. That entirely fictional typing teacher — a black woman at that, a brave and noble choice to have made in the mid-1980s — became an odd sort of virtual celebrity, with other companies going so far as to ask for her endorsement of their own products, with journalists who joined much of the general public in assuming she was a real person repeatedly asking for interviews. In 1994, The Software Toolworks’s annual sales hit $150 million. On May 12 of that year, the Pearson Group of Britain bought the fast-growing company.

Pearson was a giant of print publishing, both in their homeland and internationally. Formed in 1843 as a construction company, they began buying up magazines and newspapers in the 1920s, building themselves a veritable print empire by the 1970s, with such household names as Penguin Books in their stable. Their sudden plunge into computer software in 1994 was endemic of what we might call the second wave of bookware, when it was widely anticipated that interactive multimedia “books” published on CD-ROM would come to supplement if not entirely supplant the traditional paper-based variety. Bookware’s second wave would last little longer than its first — it would become clear well before the decade’s end that the Internet rather than physical CD-ROMs was destined to become the next century’s preferred method of information exchange — but while it lasted it brought a lot of big companies like the Pearson Group into software, splashing lots of money around in the process; Pearson paid no less than $462 million for The Software Toolworks. Being unenamored with the name of the entity they had just purchased, Pearson changed it — to Mindscape, an imprint that had heretofore represented only a quarter or so of The Software Toolworks’s overall business.

But the wheeling and dealing wasn’t over yet. Within weeks of being themselves acquired, the new Mindscape entered into serious talks with Joel Billings about the prospect of buying SSI. The latter was manifestly dealing from a position of weakness. The Dungeons & Dragons license was gone, as was the reputation SSI had enjoyed during the 1980s as the industry’s premiere maker of strategy games; that crown had been ceded to MicroProse. The only really viable franchise that remained to them was the Tony La Russa Baseball series. Nevertheless, Mindscape believed they saw talent both in SSI’s management and in their technical and creative staff. Said talent was worth taking a chance on, it was decided, given that the price was so laughably cheap. On October 7, 1994, an independent SSI ceased to exist, when Mindscape bought the company for slightly under $2.6 million. Billings was promised that it would be business as usual for most of them in their Sunnyvale, California, office, apart from the quarter of existing staff, mostly working on the sales and packaging side, who were made redundant by the acquisition and would have to be let go.

Once that pain was finished, a rather spectacular honeymoon period began. Mindscape was able to give SSI distribution they could only have dreamed of in the past, getting their games onto the shelves of such mainstream retailers as Office Depot and K-Mart. And in return, SSI delivered Panzer General. Released just a month after the acquisition was finalized, it garnered a gushing five-out-of-five-stars review from Computer Gaming World, who called it “not just a wargame but an adventure” in reference to its uniquely embodied campaign. Add to that its attractive multimedia presentation and its fun and accessible gameplay, then sprinkle over the whole the eternal American nostalgia for all things World War II, and you had a recipe for one of the breakout hits of that Christmas season — the first example of same which SSI had had since Eye of the Beholder back in 1991. Helped along no doubt by Mindscape’s distributional clout, it went on to sell more than 200,000 copies in its first fifteen months. Eventually it surpassed even the sales figures of Pool of Radiance to become SSI’s most popular single game ever. In fact, Panzer General still stands today as the most successful computerized wargame in history.

The game’s success was positively thrilling for Joel Billings, now ensconced as a “regular, full-time employee” of Mindscape, complete with a 401(k) plan and eligibility for the Executive Bonus Plan. His real passion had always been wargames; those were, after all, the games he had originally founded his company in order to make. To have come full circle here at the end of SSI’s independent existence, and to have done so in such smashing fashion at that, felt like a belated vindication. There was only one slight regret to mar the picture. “I wonder what would have happened if Panzer General had come out before the Mindscape acquisition…” he can’t help but muse today.

Taken as a whole, Panzer General deserved every bit of its success: it was and is a fine game. For some of us then and now, there is only one fly in the ointment: we have no desire to play a Nazi. I’ll return to a range of issues which Panzer General raises about the relationship of games to the real world and to our historical memory in my next article. For today, however, I have another story to finish telling.



To say that Mindscape was initially pleased with their new acquisition hardly begins to state the case. “We rocketed!” thanks to Panzer General, remembers Billings: “Mindscape loved us!” And why not? As an in-house-developed original product with no outside royalties whatsoever to pay on its huge sales, Panzer General alone recouped two and a half times the cost of purchasing SSI in its first year on the market. A set of three shovelware collections which between them included all of the old Gold Box Dungeons & Dragons CRPGS also did surprisingly well, selling more than 100,000 profit-rich copies in all before the final expiration of even SSI’s non-exclusive deal with TSR forced them off the market on July 1, 1995.

In the longer run, however, the mass-market ambitions of Mindscape proved a poor fit with the nichey tradition of SSI. To save production costs and capitalize on the success of Panzer General, SSI used its engine as the basis of a 5-Star General series, first presenting World War II from the perspective of an Allied general in Europe, then moving farther afield to a high-fantasy setting, to outer space, to World War II in the Pacific. Although those games certainly had their fans — Fantasy General in particular is fondly remembered today — the overall trend line was dismayingly similar to that of the Gold Box games: a rather brilliant initial game followed by a series of increasingly rote sequels running inside an increasingly decrepit-seeming engine, resulting in steadily decreasing sales figures. By the time the engine was updated for Panzer General IIPeople’s General, Panzer General III, and, Lord help us, Panzer General 3D Assault, a distinct note of desperation was peeking through. SSI’s other attempts to embrace the mass-market, such as a series of real-time strategy games based on the tabletop-miniatures game Warhammer, felt equally sterile, as if their hearts just weren’t in it.

Certainly Joel Billings personally found the mainstream market to be less than congenial. In February of 1996, he was promoted to become the head of Mindscape’s entire games division, but found himself completely out of his depth there. Within six months, he asked for and was granted a demotion, back to being merely the head of SSI.

But even SSI was no longer the place it once had been; it seemed to lose a little more of its identity with each passing year, as the acquisitions and consolidations continued around it. Mindscape was bought by The Learning Company in 1998, after Pearson’s realization that software — at least software shipped on physical media — was not destined to be the future of publishing writ large. Then Mattel bought The Learning Company in 1999. They closed SSI’s Sunnyvale offices the following year, keeping the name as a brand only. That same year, they sold The Learning Company once again, to the Gores Technology Group, who then turned around and sold all of the gaming divisions to the French publisher Ubisoft in 2001. SSI was now a creaky anachronism in Ubisoft’s trendy lineup. The last game to ship with the SSI name on its box was Destroyer Command, in February of 2002 — almost exactly 22 years after a young Joel Billings had first started calling computer stores to offer them something called Computer Bismark.

Billings himself was long gone by 2002, cast adrift with the final closing of SSI’s Sunnyvale offices. Thoroughly fed up with the mainstream-gaming rat race, he returned to the only thing he had ever truly wanted to do, making and selling his beloved wargames. For almost two decades now he’s run 2 By 3 Games with Gary Grigsby and Keith Brors, two designers and programmers from the salad days of SSI. They make absurdly massive, gleefully complex, defiantly inaccessible World War II wargames, implemented at a level of depth and breadth of which SSI could only have dreamed. And, thanks to the indie revolution in games and the wonders of digital distribution, they manage to sell enough of them to keep at it. Good for them, I say.

Melancholy though SSI’s ultimate fate proved to be, they did outlive their erstwhile partners TSR. After flooding their limited and slowly shrinking market of active Dungeons & Dragons players with way too many campaign settings and rules supplements during the first half of the 1990s, TSR saw the chickens come home to roost right about the time they parted ways with SSI, when sales of the paperback novels that had done much to sustain them to this point also began to collapse. For all that they had never been anyone’s idea of literary masterpieces, the early Dungeons & Dragons novels had been competently plotted, fast-paced reads that more than satisfied their target demographic’s limited expectations of them. For years, though, editorial standards there as well had been slowly falling, and it seemed that readers were finally noticing. After the Christmas season of 1996, Random House, who distributed all of TSR’s products to the bookstore trade, informed them that they would be returning millions of dollars worth of unsold books and games. TSR lacked the cash to pay Random House, as they did to print more product. And, laboring under a serious debt load already, they found there was no one willing to lend them any more money. They were caught in a classic corporate death spiral.

The savior that emerged was welcome in its way — any port in a storm, right? — but also deeply humiliating. Wizards of the Coast, the maker of the collectible card game Magic: The Gathering which had done so much to decimate TSR’s Dungeons & Dragons business in recent years, now bought their victim from Lorraine Williams for about $30 million, with much or most of that sum going to repay of the debts TSR had accrued.

Still, TSR’s final humiliation proved a welcome development on the whole for their most famous game; in the eyes of most gamers, Wizards became a better steward of Dungeons & Dragons than TSR had been for a long time if ever. They cut back on the fire hose of oft-redundant product, whilst streamlining the rules for new editions of the game that were more intuitively playable than the old. Ironically, many of the new approaches were ported back to the tabletop from digital iterations of Dungeons & Dragons, which themselves found a new lease on life with Interplay’s massive hit Baldur’s Gate in 1998. Meanwhile the “open gaming” D20 license, which Wizards of the Coast launched with great fanfare along with the official third edition of Dungeons & Dragons in 2000, drew from the ideals of open-source software. While tabletop Dungeons & Dragons would have its ups and downs under Wizards of the Coast, it would never again descend to the depths it had plumbed in 1997. A world without Dungeons & Dragons now seems all but unimaginable; in 1997, it was all too real a prospect.

All of which is to say that Dungeons & Dragons will continue to be a regular touchstone here as we continue our voyage through gaming history. Whether the computerized versions of the game that came after the end of an independent TSR and SSI are up to the standards of the Gold Box line is of course a matter of opinion. But one thing cannot be debated: the story of Dungeons & Dragons and computers is far from over.

(Sources: As with all of my SSI articles, much of this one is drawn from the SSI archive at the Strong Museum of Play. Other sources include the book Designers and Dragons, ’70 to ’79 by Shannon Appelcline; Computer Gaming World of June 1994, September 1994, December 1994, and January 1995; PC Review of June 1992; Retro Gamer 94 and 198; Chicago Tribune of December 2 1985 and December 6 1989; New York Times of June 13 1994. Online sources include Matt Barton’s interview with Joel Billings, the Video Game Newsroom Time Machine interview with Joel Billings, and the Mental Floss “profile” of the fictional Mavis Beacon.

Oddly given its popularity back in the day and its ongoing influence on computer wargaming, the original Panzer General has not been re-released for digital distribution; this is made doubly odd by the fact that some of the less successful later games in the 5-Star General series have been re-released. It’s too large for me to host here even if I wasn’t nervous about the legal implications of doing so, but I have prepared a stub of the game that’s ready to go if you just add to the appropriate version of DOSBox for your platform of choice and an ISO image of the CD-ROM. A final hint: as of this writing, you can find the latter on archive.org if you look hard enough.)

November 05, 2020

Choice of Games

New Hosted Game! Score of a Lifetime by John Lance

by Kai DeLeon at November 05, 2020 02:42 PM

Hosted Games has a new game for you to play!

Money! Romance! Cars! Half a billion dollars is up for grabs. Track down the fortune without letting a new flame steal your heart—unless that’s your plan! When a vehicle with a million-dollar bounty goes missing, you and your boss know it must lead to an even bigger payday.

It’s 33% off until Nov 12th!

Score of a Lifetime is an exhilarating, succinct 43,000 word interactive adventure/romance novel by John Lance 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.

  • Play as male, female, or non-binary; gay, straight, bisexual, aromantic, asexual, or polyamorous.
  • Discover a hidden fortune and return it… or keep it for yourself!
  • Find romance with a charming used car salesman and/or a beautiful, high-powered personal assistant.
  • Solve puzzles to unlock the biggest possible payday.
  • Get yourself invited to dinner with the 1% or take everything they have.
  • Feel the rush of a cross-country car chase.
  • Choose the path that works for you: strive to become a novelist, take an entry-level job and climb… or stay at home and literally never leave the couch!

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

November 03, 2020

"Interactive Licktion"

Ectocomp 2020: Toadstools

by Captain Abersouth at November 03, 2020 08:42 AM

Toadstools is a Twine game by Bitter Karella. At the beginning of the story, the protagonist wakes up in a forest with no recollection of what happened to them, or why they are there. As they look through the items in their possession, they start to remember their identity as an employee of Caesar Psychopharmaceuticals,...Continue reading »

IFComp News

A game has been disqualified

November 03, 2020 05:41 AM

A game was disqualified after the competition organizers were made aware that the game had been publicly available prior to the beginning of the competition. There are now 103 entries. 

If you are a judge, and the game that was removed was one that you had voted on, you will still qualify as a judge so long as you vote on four other games (i.e. it will still count toward the requirement that you rate five games total).

November 01, 2020

Aniamosity

Impulsing: #devtober Post Mortem

by Jay Nabonne at November 01, 2020 07:42 PM

Here it is, November 1st, and devtober is now no more. It has been a wild month. I have had highs of creativity and several periods where I was so depressed, I felt like I would never be able to progress.

Lots of takeaways, in no particular order:

I enjoyed writing each day. I used to write more, and it felt good to write again.

Being part of devtober forced me to do a little each day, just to have something to write about. It wasn’t much, and sometimes barely anything at all, but there was daily effort and daily progress of some kind.

Writing the daily entry stirred thoughts that didn’t occur otherwise. Perhaps it’s a bit like “talking to the duck”.

The most frustrating parts were struggling with the Godot engine, in terms of learning how particular features worked and then working around idiosyncrasies in the implementation. When you use a game engine, you’re at the mercy of the features as they are implemented.

Some of the most rewarding parts were becoming competent in those same features in the Godot engine. You have to go through the pain, but you come out the other end with something that works better than you would have had if you had done it on your own. You are really standing on the shoulders of everyone who has worked to make the engine what it is. The body of knowledge, experience, and expertise embodied in the engine is tremendous. And there is so much I haven’t explored yet.

Making screen captures is a really good way to see progress. And it’s really nice to see the progress, to look at where you were and where you ended up and know, “I did that.” Without a way to measure, you can have a dim view of what you actually accomplished, which means you’re deprived of that energy that can help keep you going.

Sometimes it’s good to walk away for a while and then come back.

I need to – and want to – get better at art. I’m often pleased with what I can do, frustrated with what I can’t do, and determined to increase how often I’m in the former category.

You will have times when you know exactly what the next step is, and you will have times when you have no idea not only what the next step is but where you’re going at all.

If you want to complete a project like this, you have to be persistent. Never forget what you’re trying to do. Don’t compare yourself to others how have “made it”, thinking you can never do that. You may not do what they did, but you can still do what you can do. And what you can do is something that is yours, your creation, and part of you. If you want to share it with the world, then make it happen.

Game programming is hard. I have been writing software for over 30 years, and I’m continually surprised how working on a game is different from other software in a way I haven’t been able to quantify yet. Part of it, I think, is that you can’t fudge things. You can’t cut corners. Everything is right up front. Everything is part of the player’s experience.

That’s all. Well, there’s probably more, but I’m running dry. In half an hour, I might have ten more thoughts. But I don’t know if anyone is going to read this anyway.

I’m glad I took part in devtober. It has been an eye opener in many ways, and what I started here is something I want to continue.

#devtober, ober and out.

Emily Short

End of October Link Assortment

by Mort Short at November 01, 2020 12:41 AM

Events

November 7 is the next meeting of the SF/Bay Area IF Meetup.

November 15 is the next meeting of the Seattle Area IF Meetup, focusing on games from this year’s IF Comp.

November 21-22 is the weekend for the 2020 WordPlay online festival.

Contest, Jams, and Festivals

Hand Eye Society is hosting its 2020 WordPlay festival on November 21 and 22. The festival celebrates “the most interesting uses of writing and words in contemporary games. Each year there will be a curated game showcase, talks by creators about the craft, and ways for the public to learn about making games.” The event is taking place online, and it is free to attend.

The submission window has closed for both IF Comp and Ectocomp 2020, but the voting period is now underway. For Ectocomp, you can cast votes on your favorite games until November 15. For IF Comp, you have until November 29 to vote.

IF Comp is also continuing to accept prizes and contributions to the Colossal Fund.

AdvXJam (a non-ranked game jam hosted by the Adventure X Team) is coming up during the second half of the month, November 14-28. The jam focuses on story-driven games, and is open to authors at all levels of experience.

October 31, 2020

Aniamosity

Impulsing: #devtober Day 31

by Jay Nabonne at October 31, 2020 08:42 PM

Today ended up being the most productive Saturday I have had in a while.

After my write up last night, my brain was branching off on new ideas and thoughts. I began envisioning the levels being platforms in a broad 3D space, and when you finished one, it would whisk you off to another with slick animation. And you could see in some form the levels around, beside, below, etc.

It was a really cool idea. And it was far too ambitious to try to do right now.

Granted, it would be fun to try, and there’s nothing ruling out doing something like that ultimately. But what stuck in my mind was this image of the puzzle level sitting on this thin sort of platform floating in space or air or whatever you like.

First thing this morning, I swapped out the plane used as a background with a thin, broad cube – the same side, but not with some depth. Given the angle of view, it was hard to see the depth, so I bumped it up a bit.

Then I bumped it up a bit more.

Then for grins, I bumped it up a whole lot more, and suddenly I saw something I really liked. It’s probably not fantastic in the gaming world, and it’s not what I would go with if I had more artistic talent or a better vision. But I like it enough that I’m happy to settle on this for now. I mean, this is just a passion indie game that likely will never go anywhere. I want to get it to the point where people can play it. I just need something to build on.

I sometimes feel like I’m avoiding working on the levels. Perhaps I am. But there is also a rationale for getting some of the more global details settled: it’s easier recreating a few levels than a few hundred. With what I have now, I feel like the idea is solid enough that (hopefully) things won’t change too drastically, at least for this first round.

Here is the first level, reworked:

Initially, it was just a cube (properly sized). That was easy to deal with. The next level has jog in it, and I wanted the background to follow. If nothing else, it helps to see the 3D.

Man, that was a pain.

Sure, you can resize and move blocks fairly easily in Godot, but trying to butt blocks up against each other isn’t easy. And if you want to make a block larger, it resizes from the center, so then you have to guess around how large it will be and then reposition it. Not bad for one or a few, but after completing the even more complex third level (which wasn’t even that complex), I was at the point where I knew that approach wasn’t going to be workable.

Then it occurred to me that perhaps this was a good time to re-evaluate GridMaps, now that I know what will actually be in them. I started out with a simple tall narrow cube, full height but 1×1. Immediately, I hit the problem that the GridMap was centering this tall cube in the Y direction, whereas I wanted it to be top aligned.

I tried offsetting the GridMap to make the top line up, but then the perspective camera made painting the blocks impossible. (You would need to figure out where the bottom way down there would be.) Thinking now, a top view or orthogonal camera would have solved that. What I did instead was to research the problem, and I learned that others had it, and there was no solution in Godot for it besides creating your own mesh in an external tool like Blender.

That’s what I ended up doing. A lot more transpired after that, including some really frustrating things around getting the mesh to show up and the fact that the GridMap plane can be moved up and down, and to pan the view you use the middle mouse button plus shift, and it turns out that if you hold down the shift key and spin the mouse wheel, the plane moves up and down. I noticed the grid had changed colors, and the objects being placed no longer lined up. It took me too long to figure out what the heck was going on. Even now, even being careful, when panning I will occasionally move the plane by accident and have to reposition it.

On the positive side, being able to move the plane up and down opened up some creative possibilities in terms of level design (“artistic” more than functional), so it ended up net positive after quite a while of hair tearing. You can see how the corners in the above picture are a little lower. It’s not worthy of hanging in a museum, but it does break up the monotony a bit.

Some more levels:

I finally feel like I know it string the levels together now.

Time to start building out the game more.

Day 31: A bit scary at times. But also something sweet in the end. (Ok, corny. I know.)

The final day of devtober. The month has flown. Not every day was great advances, but a little each day gets you somewhere.

I’ll write up the post mortem tomorrow.

IFTF Blog

Retiring the Twine wiki

by Chris Klimas at October 31, 2020 05:37 PM

After many years, the official Twine wiki will be retiring at the end of 2020 in favor of the Twine Cookbook. The reason for this is that the Twine Cookbook has proven to be a much more successful resource than the wiki has been, and now that the most recent version of the Cookbook has incorporated almost all content that was in the wiki, there’s little reason for the wiki to continue.

An archive of the wiki will be created before its retirement and uploaded to the IF Archivefor reference. The Cookbook continues to accept contributions from the community through pull requests to its source repo, and in fact is currently seeking volunteer editors to help review PRs and otherwise maintain the Cookbook. If you’re interested in helping with maintenance of the Cookbook, please contact IFTF.

"Interactive Licktion"

Happy Halloween!

by Captain Abersouth at October 31, 2020 02:42 AM

It’s that time of the year again! At this point I’ve played, or tried to play, slightly over half the IFComp games, writing reviews for those that I felt I had something interesting or constructive to say about. I’ll be focusing on Ectocomp for the next two weeks because the deadline for voting is November...Continue reading »

Aniamosity

Impulsing: #devtober Day 30

by Jay Nabonne at October 31, 2020 12:42 AM

Another one of those days. Not much done externally, but a lot of time spent thinking and doing some research. I have a set of levels, but I need to work out how to connect them together – the overall strategy to build the game from the levels.

I could just string them all together, but that makes for a linear game. And it creates a situation where if someone can’t solve a puzzle, they’re just stuck and can’t proceed. I’m determined that the player will have more freedom, but that means some sort of navigation of puzzles, as well as being able to exit a level or more to a different puzzle or section of puzzle in the same level. Also, some levels might have different puzzle sections, so it’s important to be able to come back to a level and continue it. (At this point, I plan on every level you visit remembering its state. The entire game is in play at once. That has some interesting ramifications in terms of whether you can do irreversible actions.)

To list that out explicitly:

  1. There are multiple levels that can be navigated among.
  2. You can exit a level and come back to it, and the level will be in the same state.
  3. There may be multiple ways to leave a level (places to go to), with some being easier and some being more advanced.
  4. There is some sort of overworld or other type of hub level that the other levels branch off from.

Of course, that could all change. I had originally envisioned a single level with all parts of the machine on it, which you would massage into operation as a single master goal. My reluctance to do that has two aspects: 1) having smaller “bites” to focus on might be easier for the novice player to deal with in the beginning, and 2) I have concerns about performance for something that large all operating as a single network.

Stating things like this, in and of itself, has stirred some thoughts. Perhaps I should do this more often, even if only to myself.

Penultimate but not. Life will continue beyond devtober.