Planet Interactive Fiction

September 25, 2020

Renga in Blue

Timequest: 12 Out of 12 Treasures

by Jason Dyer at September 25, 2020 11:41 PM

Thanks to comments from Matt and Voltgloss I trudged my way to victory.

My key sticking point was missing one of the game’s invisible norms.

From the Museum of Computer Adventure Games.

Navigation in Scott Adams-inspired games is often not just by compass directions, but by “GO LOCATION”.

I’M STANDING ON A DIRT ROAD. VISIBLE ITEMS:

MARBLE BUILDING. STREAM.

SOME OBVIOUS EXITS ARE: WEST

For the room above, while you can just type WEST, GO BUILDING and GO STREAM are also possible. The game uses this relatively extensively, and it seemed like the norm was that whenever a location was enterable, it would always be mentioned as a separate object (as opposed to implied by the location line).

This was a false assumption.

I AM STANDING OUTSIDE OF A MOUNTAIN. VISIBLE ITEMS:

STRANGE MACHINE.

SOME OBVIOUS EXITS ARE: SOUTH EAST.

By the description above it looks like east and south are the only exits (if you try to GO MACHINE the game gives the explicit syntax GET ON). However, you can GO MOUNTAIN.

I suspect the author didn’t even think this was really a “puzzle”; one of the items you find up the mountain is a book. The book hints that TURN ON and TURN OFF are syntax for the flashlight and that spinning the brass ring (the one in inventory from the start of the game) could make something interesting happen. If you haven’t found the book, you’re almost guaranteed to run across the flashlight and try to use it. Why would you put a parser hint for the flashlight in the book if you didn’t expect it to be read first?

Invisible norms still haunt pretty much every videogame genre, but to stick with adventure games, consider the norm where the main player has items in their inventory that go unmentioned until INVENTORY is typed. I think most modern authors would not consider that aspect a puzzle, yet it is something players could clearly get stuck on.

I found the remainder of the game fairly satisfying, so if you’re interested, now is the time to veer away before I spoil the rest of the game.

The mountain also had a jade buddha treasure and a glove.

This was enough the make the rest of the game go smoothly. The glove I immediately knew was used to pick up the diseased raccoon, which I fed to the lion blocking the cave. This led me to a waterfall (hiding some coins) and a slab.

The SPIN RING worked at a the slab to teleport. Then I was frozen instantly, but already had a coat for that problem.

I ran across the only live human in the game. For time travel in 1235, most games would visit some European area. (I’m not sure how aware people in 1981 were of the word “eskimo” being offensive.)

The spear (from the screen above) was sufficient to kill the angry mole I was stuck on last time. Additionally, the ring/slab combination also worked in the future to get me to a computer room.

This led to a few more treasures, and victory.

So: was this really a time travel game?

Genuinely, I wonder what the author was thinking: as I’ve already mentioned, the compartmentalization of time zones made for a good structural organization, but in the end I was dealing more with teleportation than time travel. The far-future computer device uses a reel of tape; one of the treasures is some TECHNICAL MANUALS and the only other gizmo is one that turns sand into a copper bar (Which is sort of impressive but not something I’d time travel for).

The cover (from my last post) suggests some sort of wild trip to the far future, with an odd creature in the center, and this game had none of that. Maybe this was somehow a well-planned enough time travel trip that the protagonist knew not to meddle with areas containing people (paradoxes, etc.) I did enjoy myself, but it was curious to play in a genre that lacked nearly all the elements of said genre.

September 24, 2020

Choice of Games

Out now! Vampire: The Masquerade — Night Road

by Mary Duffy at September 24, 2020 04:42 PM


In partnership with World of Darkness and Paradox Interactive, Choice of Games is proud to announce the release of Vampire: The Masquerade — Night Road now available on Steam, iOS, and Android.

It’s 20% off until October 1st! Furthermore, as a special offer, if you purchase Vampire: The Masquerade — Night Road by 11:59pm PDT on September 25th, we’ll unlock the options to play as Clan Tremere or Caitiff, “Usurpers and Outcasts,” for free. (Note: Steam purchasers who purchase during the release day period automatically have the DLC, no need to send us a receipt!)

The elders have entrusted you, an elite vampire courier, to deliver their secrets. Can you outrun the hunters, the other drivers, and the rising sun?

Vampire: The Masquerade — Night Road is a 650,000-word interactive horror novel by Kyle Marquis, based on Vampire: The Masquerade and set in the World of Darkness shared story universe. Your choices control the story. It’s entirely text-based—without graphics or sound effects—and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination.

It’s a new Dark Age for the dead. When the Second Inquisition’s vampire hunters hacked phone lines and computer networks to expose and destroy vampires all over the world, the elders turned to undead couriers like you. For ten years, you’ve raced across the desert between cities, delivering vital information and supplies. But when an old friend reappears with a plan to disrupt the blood trade across the American Southwest, everything you’ve built starts crashing down.

Outrun the Competition. Drive, hide, or fight back! Unleash the powers of your blood in ancient Disciplines to change form, vanish from sight, or dominate the minds of your enemies. Employ blood magic, inhuman strength, and the creatures of the night to escape destruction—or just run your enemies off the road and keep driving.

Deliver or Die. All secrets have an expiration date—and so do you. Race across the desert to deliver secrets, promises, and threats. Do whatever it takes to drop off your parcel. But when the job is done, will you stick around to exploit the situation?

Run Down Your Prey. Only blood can sate the Hunger. Charm, seduce, or seize what you need, but don’t let anyone know what you are. If you break the Masquerade, your fellow vampires will destroy you for your indiscretions, assuming the Second Inquisition doesn’t find you first.

  • Play as male, female, or nonbinary; gay, straight, or bi.
  • Hunt the alleys and back roads of the American Southwest to stave off hunger and resist the frenzied call of the Beast.
  • Join the Camarilla—the immortal society of the vampire elite—or break its hold on the border states.
  • Confront the horrors of your immortal existence in illegal hospitals, disease-ridden prison camps, and forgotten research facilities littered with failed experiments.
  • Modify your car for speed, durability, or smuggling, but remember—wherever you’re going, you have to get there by dawn.
  • Unlock the ability to play as Tremere or Caitiff with the Usurpers and Outcasts DLC.

Death is a hard road. You drive it every night.

We hope you enjoy playing Vampire: The Masquerade — Night Road. 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.

Zarf Updates

Boosting some current Kickstarters

by Andrew Plotkin ([email protected]) at September 24, 2020 03:48 AM

I promised to have my Calvino game jam entry up yesterday. But if you look at the jam page, you'll see that the deadline -- and therefore the release date -- has been extended to Sept 30. I like the idea of kicking another week's worth of stuff into it, so you get to wait a bit longer for that.
In the meantime, let me mention some Kickstarters that I think deserve some love.

Club Drosselmeyer is an interactive theater / puzzle / music / circus-arts event which has played for the last few years in the Boston area. I went last year for the first time and had a blast.
The theme is The Nutcracker, only it's gonzo-WW2 swingtime era, so the Nutcracker is a dancing robot and there are Nazi spies creeping around stealing blueprints. Also, live music and acrobatics! The live show was a smart construction. You could go for the puzzles, the LARP-style interactions with characters, or just to cut it up on the dance floor.
This is not the year for live theater, so the Drosselmeyer crew has planned out an interactive radio show. Again, you can go for the puzzles or just listen in on the audio broadcast. If you want to get involved, there will be some kind of call-in system -- audience interactions will shape the direction of the night's show. But you can also play on your own schedule; the event will remain playable as an interactive web site.
Note that if you have a group that wants to play as a team, you can share one Kickstarter registration. The registration only lets one phone call in, but you can set up a Zoom chat or whatever you want for audio sharing.
Drosselmeyer has been a treasure of the Boston theater-game scene since it opened in 2016. This is your chance to check it out from anywhere in the world -- well, anywhere that can make phone calls to the US. The Kickstarter has been stuck at 40% for a few weeks now and it deserves better.
Bonus: here's me looking somewhat suffused in my 1940s getup for the show. Yes, in the bathroom, that's where the big mirror is.

IndieCade is going virtual like everything else this year. They're planning a week-and-a-half slate of talks, demos, a showcase of indie games, and online community. I like this plan! (Although, hint from the trenches: nine days is a really long show. Stay hydrated.)
Furthermore, they want to keep an active community and game showcase running year-round. The Kickstarter is to fund tools, streaming, and staff to support this.
I've only been to one IndieCade, in 2015. I was invited to demo Seltani, which I did (with Carl Muckenhoupt's help -- thank you!) I also kicked around the festival and met a bunch of cool people, including Sam Barlow and Cat Manning, and generally -- not to repeat a cliche -- I had a blast.
So I would like to see what IndieCade does as a virtual entity. Consider it.

Romancelvania: Honestly I have no idea about this one. The KS page isn't up yet. But this writeup sounds hilarious: Castlevania plus The Bachelor. Honestly, I could use a game where the devs say "We were all making each other laugh hysterically."
So I have no idea if it'll be any good, but it's worth a mention.

That's all I've got on my active (or not-yet-active) KS list. Of course there's a long, long list of backed games in progress. I'm not going to count. You know how Kickstarter works. (My KS game was four years late; complaining would be extra-silly.)
But I'll have my Calvino game up next Wednesday -- promise! And you'll have all day to enjoy it before the IFComp games go live on Thursday...

September 22, 2020

Renga in Blue

Timequest (1981)

by Jason Dyer at September 22, 2020 09:41 PM

Timequest is also known as Time Quest, via the printed disk label and the opening title screen, and the title is given on a followup screen as Timequest Adventure. I’m honestly beyond being surprised when this sort of thing happens, although no game can match the pure naming chaos that was Dragon Quest Adventure. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Timequest shares a publisher in common: The Programmer’s Guild.

From the Museum of Computer Adventure Games.

The author of Timequest, William Demas, is better-known for doing the majority of work on Scott Adams Adventure #12 (it was a scenario like Pyramid of Doom where Adams just did some editing) and two “talking games” (Forbidden Planet and Forbidden City) for the TRS-80 published by Fantastic Software.

Timequest, on the other hand, has fallen down a memory hole of sorts; CASA is light on information, Mobygames has wrong information, and its existence doesn’t get mentioned at all in this interview with the author. There are no hints or a walkthrough anywhere, and nobody I can find has played it on video.

This is nearly identical to Journey Through Time in the premise: go through time, nab treasures, 12 in this case. However, the time periods don’t really have any theming; it’s more like you’re using a general teleportation device rather than visiting Nero or printing yourself a brand-new Gutenburg Bible.

Rather unusually, the game does not start with “home base” in the “present” of 1981.

Yes, 1886. I suppose a time traveler’s home base can be any-time and any-where. You can PUSH LEVER to go to 2930 or PULL LEVER to go to 1235. There are no other time periods (at least as far as I’ve gotten).

The “where” is somewhat important, though — there is some sense that you are fixed in location as you travel in time. The machine starts in a basement, but you can drag it outside (PULL MACHINE). If you travel forward in time while outside, you end up outside a mountain.

If you travel forward in time while inside, you end up inside the (fortunately hollow) mountain.

Traveling to the past while the machine is outside is fatal; your machine falls into a swamp. If the machine is in the basement, you get taken next to the swamp instead.

So (as of yet?) there are two 2930 locations, one 1886 location and one 1235 location.

My map so far, but certainly not complete, given I’ve only seen 3 treasures out of 12.

Even though the game doesn’t fully use the “fun” aspects of time travel (historical events and/or setting up paradoxes) the map still gets naturally broken up in sectors, which gives it a crisp and modern feel.

Besides figuring out the time machine itself, the puzzles so far have been straightforward; I found a key in a sandbox and used it to unlock a room that is supposed to hold treasures. The same room had a snorkel which I used to get a fish and gold trident from a river; I also found a flashlight lying around which led me to get a gold chain and shovel. The shovel then let me dig to an underground area in 2930.

I’m stuck on

1.) the underground area, which has a reel of tape, some silver coins, and an angry mole; while I can get in, the angry mole kills me if I try to get out.

2.) 1235 has a cave guarded by a lion.

3.) 1235 also has a swamp which you sink in and die if you try to go in (this may just be a trap)

4.) 2930 has a dead raccoon that is diseased and you die if you try to pick it up (the game implies you need gloves).

So far, I have yet to use a BRASS RING (that you start the game with), a FISH, a FROG, a FUR COAT, and some SAND. The two treasures I’ve gotten which may or may not be of use are a GOLD TRIDENT and a GOLD CHAIN. It is of course possible that the KEY, SNORKEL, and SHOVEL somehow get reused, but otherwise, that’s all I have to work with. (The snorkel doesn’t work on the swamp; you can’t kill either the mole or the lion with the trident.)

The game has me interested enough I haven’t resorted to hacking at the game file itself yet. If you want to try it out, this link will let you play online (it’ll delay, then give an error, then you need to type TYME2 and hit ENTER).

Frog is another William Demas game. This is the first I’ve ever seen an in-game ad for something sold by an entirely different publisher.

textadventures.co.uk

A Tutorial For Playing Parser-base Games

by pixiemusingsblog at September 22, 2020 04:41 PM

Ever wondered how to play interactive fiction?

Okay, probably not – chances are if you are reading this you already know. But perhaps you want to tell other people about interactive fiction, and you are wondering; where do I start? One option is here. This game will take the player through the basics of moving, and taking and dropping items, leading on to some more complicated interactions, including talking to other characters. At each step, the tutorial text (in blue) will explain what to do and why. There is also a comprehensive hint system.

You can find it here.

The TUTORIAL command allows you to toggle the tutorial comments, and play the game normally if you refer (just wait three turns at the start for the tutorial to open the door to the north) – I cannot claim it is classic, but the option is there.

It also showcases some of the features of Quest 6. It is quite a challenge creating a tutorial as the steps in the tutorial have to appear at the right moment. You need a game system that allows you to hook into every bit of it; for example, responding to the player saving the game. I also made the mistake of putting a rope in – boy was that tricky to do!

Have a play and let me know what you think. Any glaring omissions or errors?

The People's Republic of IF

August Meeting Post Mortem

by Angela Chang at September 22, 2020 06:41 AM

PR-IF August 2020 meetingPRIF August 2020 meeting

The People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction convened on Tuesday, August 18, 2020. Zarf, kay & carrington (Eaten by a Grue), anjchang ,Richard Lamb, Mark Pilgrim attended. Warning: What follows is probably not proper English, but just my log of notes from the meeting to jog people’s memories:

Carrington finishing Lurking Horror

Kay read a heartwarming letter from Clayton about Wishbringer. Using “grab.”

anjchang played Narrascope 2020 Game Jam games The Harold, Sohoek Ekalmoe.

Mysterium convention 2 weekends ago.

Myst documentary kickstarter! Talked about versions of Myst.
Myst demake for Apple II

Version DMAKE for the Apple2 Announced at Kansas Fest.

Mark P doing project on walkthrough of graphical BASIC games e.g. Cranston Manor, Scott Adams Games, and other games with Peter. To be released in 2025. Mark shares a preview of Meth Manor: a fully automated solution of Cranston Manor for the Apple ][, in 37 seconds
https://twitter.com/a2_4am/status/1295836881184264192

Underlying game drawing mechanics discussion.
Mentioned: Escape from Rungastan.
Recent work in disassembling Scott Adams format. Don’t know if it handles graphics.
Zarf updated Lectrote to support dark theme. Current Lectrote interpreter release: https://github.com/erkyrath/lectrote/releases/tag/lectrote-1.3.7


Remgl library update. Autosave functionality. Make it easier for online games.
Ion
Online runescape convention

RogueLike Celebration in October

IFComp spinning up. Reg dedline in Sept. Games happen in October. Need to promote other conferences too. IFComp has a lot of attention.

Discussion: Understanding the difference between the different types of IF venues. IF Comp history. 1995, Kevin Wilson launched for short Inform games (“a game you can finish in two hours). Adam Cadre started Spring Thing for showing off ideas rather than popularity, welcomes long games. IntroComp, only for first chapters of games, get early feedback.
XYZZY awards, intended to be an oscar style retrospective on the best of the year, regarding games from the previous year. All competitions are open to parser based things.

https://www.springthing.net/2020/

zarf is into Inform7. Interest in storylit design.

Italo Calvino game jam still open on itch.io!

July Meeting Post Mortem

by Angela Chang at September 22, 2020 05:41 AM

PR-IF July Meeting 20202July Meeting 2020

The People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction convened on Monday July 27 , 2020. Zarfnickmkaysavetz  (Eaten By A Grue), nickmMark Pilgrimanjchang, feneric, Jason Scott, Dave Thompson, Richard Lamb (StrandGames), welcomed first-timer Mitch. Warning: What follows is probably not proper English, but just my log of notes from the meeting to jog people’s memories:
Discussion of Infocom the name
Kansas Fest
C64 Cannabolt
Myst fan event
Zarf shared an awesome view of his library
Kay finished StationFall
Kay has finished Wishbringer (good times were remembered by all here)
The Lurking Horror is the last text-only Infocom game left
ELO Conference happened, good stuff.
Adventure/Zork language coopting discussion; parallels between the two games
Deadline for Taper, minimalist HTML5 E-Poetry on the Theme “Pent-Up”
Italo Calvino literary game jam on itch.io
NanoGenmo 2017 walkthrough every library branch with project gutenberg
Narrascope games review coming from Feneric
Discussion: What fonts have the best unicode coverage?
Richard mentioned BabelMap
Extend unzip and play coming to parchment games
Last month, we talked about minimalist basic games BASIC10Liner Contest
ROM basic discussion
AppleSoft programming- typewriter bell sound as you get close to end of line limit
Prisoner Game escape key knowledge
Arcadia review

September 21, 2020

Choice of Games

Author Interview: Kyle Marquis, Vampire: The Masquerade — Night Road

by Mary Duffy at September 21, 2020 05:41 PM

The elders have entrusted you, an elite vampire courier, to deliver their secrets. Can you outrun the hunters, the other drivers, and the rising sun? Vampire: The Masquerade — Night Road is a 650,000-word interactive novel by Kyle Marquis. I sat down with Kyle to talk about writing in the World of Darkness shared story universe, and Kyle’s abiding love for the opera.

Vampire: The Masquerade — Night Road releases this Thursday, September 24th. You can play the first three chapters for free now.

As a special offer, if you purchase the game on release day, and send us your proof of purchase, we will give you the “Usurpers and Outcasts” IAP, featuring the options to play as Tremere or Caitiff for free!

Go Wishlist it on Steam or pre-register on Google Play now!

As I learned from your Outstar interview here, you actually have experience playing Vampire: The Masquerade? Tell me about your background with that.

I followed a pretty common trajectory for gamers in the 90s: I fell in love with Dungeons & Dragons as a kid, fell out of love when I wanted a game with more bite, and then went all-in for the World of Darkness. I ran Vampire and Mage games, organized live-action role-playing events, and listened to a lot of industrial music about vampires.

My favorite part of writing in the World of Darkness was seeing how much our world—our regular world—has changed. Everything is cleaner now, even though a lot of people are even worse off. I had these weird little moments writing Night Road where I tried to describe a trash-strewn alley, but the trash has all changed! No more Styrofoam McDonald’s cartons, no more thick carpets of broken needles. Everything got cleaned up; people in charge learned how to hide the rot where tourists won’t see it. So that’s how I approached vampires. Everyone has a camera; you can’t just let it all hang out like you could thirty years ago. That makes everyone brittle and on edge, and it means that all the awful stuff happens behind closed doors, where no one can find out.

What’s the most off-the-wall idea you pitched to WOD that they accepted?

They were really tolerant of my eccentricities. I play it pretty straight when you’re in Tucson (your base of operations), but Night Road gets weird real fast once you’re out in the desert. Out where the Masquerade is a problem for “city ticks,” you’ll encounter polymorphic Gangrel inspired by Coyote (the shapeshifting god), swarming packs of necro-clones, Sabbat relics, and at least one Rolls-Royce with an aircraft engine in it. I think there’s also a giant crossbow for killing equally giant vampires. And Stonehenge.

I wanted to avoid the “ancient tomb” vibe a lot of Vampire material has, especially since, look, has “ancient tomb” stuff ever been cooler than the Ankaran Sarcophagus in Bloodlines 1? Why even compete with that? So Night Road skews toward mad science, forgotten experiments, and—especially with the Sabbat—this weird, eerie feeling that these people are just gone, leaving their art and science behind. What happened to them? Why did they vanish, leaving these empty monuments in the desert?

It’s sometimes easy for VTM players to slip from the mode of personal horror into that of blood-drinking superheroes. Night Road is very much not about being a superhero, but rather the gritty night-to-night existence of sleeping in dumpsters and scrounging enough cash to fill up the tank of your car. How did you navigate a balance between the spirit of the game, player expectations for doing cool vampiric stuff, and player satisfaction with what needs to happen in the story?

It wasn’t easy when I ran tabletop Vampire either, because hey: we’re all here to have a good time, to take charge of our destinies in a way we can’t in real life. No one wants to be a vampire nobody…at least not past chapter 2. But as a writer and game designer, you learn ways to give players a bit of dignity even if their characters are sad-sack dirtbags no one likes. Think of that first haven in Bloodlines 1: what a shithole! But it was your shithole. (Also nowadays that place would go for $2,600 a month, but never mind that.) You give players a bit of ownership, a bit of real choice—something Choice of Games stories allow for—and they won’t mind fighting stray dogs for rat blood.

Also, Night Road isn’t just a story, it’s a game, too. It takes some skill and attention to do well. You want to drive a Lamborghini and live in a Spanish mission with your sexy ghoul and the Prince at your beck and call? You better fight for it, and you better win those fights.

This was quite an ambitious project from a design standpoint. You previously wrote variable-order scenes for Silverworld, but that was only one set of three. Here, you did two sets of three. Any regrets?

Oh yeah, a lot of regrets. It was incredibly stupid of me to do that, but the results are great and the players are going to have fun. Freedom to move around was one of my key design goals going in, and I’m glad I kept the variable-order scenes despite all the headaches they caused me.

Let’s keep this between you, me, and everyone reading this interview, but one inspiration for Night Road is the old LucasArts comedy-adventure game Sam & Max Hit the Road. I wanted to give players a feeling that they could go where they wanted—at least sometimes. Because of how they’re designed, all Choice of Games stories have a relentless forward pace, but like with Silverworld, I wanted to introduce a few choices about where you went first, and why. Also like with Silverworld, I wanted a chance for players to shape their own environment a bit: when you’re back in Tucson, you can acquire property, check out guns ‘n’ gear, learn new skills and powers, even go on mini-missions with your ghoul. Because once you’re back on the road, you’re racing for your next destination.

How do you decompress from writing vampires all day?

I have a garden and a cat, and I cook—mostly Italian food. Please don’t use any pictures of my everyday life in the promotional material; no one would buy my Vampire stuff if they saw my cat lounging in the sun in front of that green bean trellis.

You tweeted a lot about opera while you were writing this game. Did you end up drawing on those stories for this game? Or was it just a way to decompress?

Around two-thirds of the way through designing a Choice of Games story, the pace always gets crazy. It’s because you know what the whole game needs to look like, so if you’re not careful, you’ll work every waking hour pushing toward that finish line. Opera meant that every night at 6 pm, I stopped and made myself do something else. It kept me from burning out, which is important: Night Road is over six hundred thousand words. That’s 4-5 Draculas, back to back!

What was it like working in a circumscribed environment: sharing Invidia Caul with Coteries of New York, watching LA by Night for potential overlaps, being careful to color within the lines of the official WOD lore…

One of the first things I did when developing Night Road was write up a list of things I wasn’t going to include, either because of editorial request, because they never excited me, or because they just weren’t going to work in a courier story. The World of Darkness is so huge that the real risk is overlap: I spent time checking developer notes for other games to make sure I wasn’t doing something that was going to show up elsewhere. But as I said, I received quite a bit of leeway from WOD. Night Road is unambiguously Vampire: The Masquerade, but it’s also definitely filtered through my perspective on the World of Darkness. You really grapple with the Masquerade as a concept, because I think the Masquerade, as an idea, is really cool. Other elements of the setting are skewed from the baseline but still recognizable: Julian Sim is an “Anarch,” but he’s not part of the movement–he’s doing his own weird thing; Tucson has a Gangrel Prince who used to be a First World War fighter pilot and who keeps spying on you with his eagle. In Tucson I wanted to strike a balance between the recognizable and the weird. You shouldn’t ever feel comfortable in the World of Darkness; you shouldn’t be able to walk into a new town and say “That’s the Prince, that’s the local Anarch, this is just like the last town.”

A lot of the canon-continuity work is just about sending the occasional warning email: “Hey, I want to talk about El Paso; is there anything I need to know?” “Hey, I’m bringing back an obscure plot line from a story from 1991 that no one remembers; is that okay?”

You originally wanted to pitch a Mummy game for the WOD license. What was the idea there?

I threw a lot of oddball ideas out when Choice of Games and WOD were working out initial plans for this partnership, from a hardboiled Mummy game where you investigate serial killers by taking on the appearances of their favored victims to…does anyone know what the Qyrl is? No one? Well, the World of Darkness has always been full of weird little corners, and I think that’s where a lot of the horror lies.

Writing for Vampire: The Masquerade is a balancing act in many ways, not just in terms of balancing the ugliness of vampire existence against the player’s understandable desire to be an awesome creature of the night. Balancing horror with WOD’s need to systematize their setting is hard. I was reading Rilke’s semi-autobiographical novel, The Notebook of Malte Laurids Briggs, while writing the first draft of Night Road, and I had the strange realization that a single scene in that novel—a memory of being a small child, and looking under a table, reaching into the darkness, and seeing another hand reach for your hand—was creepier than a lot of scenes in my ostensible horror game. So when I started the second draft, I drew from the more obscure corners of the World of Darkness and populated the story with the unknown, the incomprehensible—things that were a part of the setting, but not categorized and systematized the way Camarilla vampires are. Things that feel wrong and confusing, that shake even a veteran player out of their complacency. There’s bad weird shit out there, and even if you survive it, you might not ever learn its name.

Favorite clan?

Tremere. And not just because blood magic is cool. My favorite thing about the Tremere is how they (sort of) got their start in a completely different game with a different setting and metaphysics (Ars Magica). So they never quite fit in with Vampire. It’s like you can look over their left shoulder and see a whole different universe out there. I love how, no matter how canon changes to try to fit them smoothly into the setting, they never feel like they quite belong. They’re intruders from someone else’s game.

Favorite Tradition?

Do you know that when I was a little black-clad mall rat back before The Matrix came out I thought Vampire: The Masquerade was the least political of the World of Darkness games? I mean, Werewolf’s environmentalism and Mage’s defiant misreading of Baudrillard made their politics obvious, but I really went around for years unaware that a game about sadistic old parasites hogging all the resources and letting their descendants fight for the scraps was political. I was pretty stupid.

To return to the question, I’m very simple and I love the First Tradition: the Masquerade—don’t let mortals know what you are. I love it because it’s such a naked demonstration of “power does what it wants.” What’s a Masquerade violation? Whatever the Prince says. Is creating a ghoul a Masquerade violation? Is feeding? What about just being one of those really ugly clans, like the Nosferatu? Who knows, man. It looks like there’s some kind of coherent ideology, but the Masquerade—even more so than the other Traditions—is just an exercise in naked power. It was always fun running tabletop games, once I figured out what Vampire: The Masquerade was really all about, when new players started to realize that. Wait a minute, this government doesn’t reflect a consistent internal ideology at all! It’s just a load of self-serving bullshit to keep a bunch of old psychopaths in power? And a few minutes later they’d get their heads ripped off. Good times.

Who is your favorite vampire in books/tv/movies and why?

In my media-addled brain there’s a kind of statistical average “cool vampire,” an amalgam character created by comics, anime, and paperbacks I absorbed when I was young and impressionable, not the sophisticated and discriminating aesthete I am now. It’s hard to pull a single character out of that morass of gunfights, sex and witchcraft, but I think the closest single character might be Sonja Blue, of Sunglasses After Dark and subsequent novels. The Sonja Blue novels are violent, fast-paced, almost gleefully cruel at times; they’re not sophisticated entertainment, but if I want sophisticated entertainment I don’t read about vampires, you know? I just want someone to kick ass, live forever, and maybe feel bad about it.

Renga in Blue

Nijmegen Adventure: Finshed!

by Jason Dyer at September 21, 2020 05:41 AM

This was a small game; the Dutch of course slowed me down, but the text was generally simple and repetitive, and I only had to look things up on words like “traangasgranaat” (tear gas grenade).

(Just to keep the eyes on the prize in what follows: the goal is to get at a treasure. The treasure turns out to be hiding in the Church of St. Steven in Nijmegen.)

Where I really had trouble was getting in the same frame of thinking as the protagonist: make progress by any means necessary, including violent property damage. The tear gas should have been my first clue, and I later found a weapons shop selling a “thermischelans geweer raket” (“thermal bazooka”, I think?) but as Nijmegen is described as a “real city” my first tendency was to play in those terms. This stymies most early progress; while it is possible to get most of the starting map without solving any puzzles…

Reminder note: there are no compass directions, you move by typing GA (“go”) followed by the name of an adjacent location; for example, GA GROTE MARKT, “go great market”.

…one early thing you need to make much progress is to smash the parking meter in the first location and grab the money (>FORCEER PARKEERMETER — I don’t think “FORCE” is a verb I’ve ever seen in an English game, would it be easier to find playing in Dutch?) The money from within lets you visit the nearby Fotozaak (photography shop) to get some binoculars and the Shoenwinkel (shoe shop) to get some boots (that must have been a lot of change).

The other open place is a “tower” (you need a “latch” from nearby before you can go in) which has a basement with the hint “look in the distance”.

Climbing the tower lets you get up to a room you can use your binoculars and see the message “DRINK MEER BIER” which is a key phrase. Use it back in the basement to find a secret room and get yourself some dynamite.

You can use the dynamite to explode a building at a quay and get some gin, which seems a fair tradeoff for the property damage; the gin can be used to bribe your way into a new location with a crowbar. You can then use the crowbar to move a rock to get some keys, which let you break into the church (making sure you throw your tear gas grenade first).

Inside the church there is a “duck shaped” opening; you can use boots to reach high enough and use a duck from the park which opens a safe, finally yielding the treasure.

You’re rich, you managed to get the gold, are you very smart or very bad? (I’m not sure on the last two sentences, but it’s something like “now, go waste your money”.)

This was really odd and random to play; unlike Dracula which had layers of narrative, this was intended as a random path of adventurer destruction, where destroying an entire building to get some gin is a perfectly acceptable exchange. At least the game was self-aware about it.

Some quotes from here indicate that Wim Couwenberg himself made the original C64 port, and it is identical to the PET version, so there’s no need to go on a grand crusade to find the original (…unlike Dracula Avontuur, where I’m still curious). He doesn’t know who D.N.T is.

He also mentions his brother Jan made the story, so I’ll toss him in my credits. (I really am curious what the writing process for the story was like, since it comes off as a string of random puzzles.)

I apologize I couldn’t do any deep exploration of language learning this time around; most of the parts were all-or-nothing scenarios, where either I easily sussed out what was going on and what the right action is, or I had no idea and even when I did have an idea I didn’t know how to communicate it (for example, blowing up the dynamite is given by the walkthrough as BLAAS OP, “blow up”).

One last item of importance: while perhaps this game isn’t a candidate, the Hans Courbois predecessors (which I still have yet to find, but I’m working on it) might be vying for the title of “first graphical adventure where information is conveyed in the graphics” along with Mystery House; you have to, of course, have a loose definition of “graphics” which allows character graphics, but it’s still a noteworthy convergence, and one I don’t believe any texts in English on adventure game history have previously noted.

September 20, 2020

Key & Compass Blog

The Thinger Project

by davidwelbourn at September 20, 2020 04:42 PM

Goodness, I haven’t posted here in two years? I’m just not very good at keeping a blog, am I? I think it’s partly my being busy with other stuff, partly not knowing what to say, and partly never really getting comfortable with blogware. WordPress is always going to be a stranger to me. Sorry about that.

There are other things I want to talk about, but this post is about my Thinger project, which is a spin-off from my Responser project.

As you might know, my Responser project began as just a webpage where I collected responses to the magic word XYZZY in interactive fiction games. Curious readers wanted to see responses to PLUGH and PLOVER as well, so I made those pages too, and then I got curious myself about other commands like SING and PRAY which tend to be used in similar ways.

I’ve also, over the years, attempted to catalog status line styles, classify room names, track which games used which extensions, compare how things are coded differently in various authoring systems, and other esoteric ways of looking at or dissecting IF. So I suppose a project where I collect object descriptions was inevitable.

So, yes, Thinger is about the responses in works of IF where you EXAMINE something. It’s utterly ridiculously time-consuming to find and extract these text segments in the first place, but it also becomes less clear as I get more data on how to organize and present the data. It’s a work-in-progress, y’know?

You can visit http://plover.net/~davidw/things/ at any time to view the current status of the project. There’s quite a few categories of objects to look at now, and I’m always adding both more categories and more examples. I also have a small handful of super-categories for organizing the categories themselves. I recently implemented a way for a category to belong to more than one super-category; for example: pianos are listed under both fixtures and musical instruments.

For the most part, Thinger is heavily biased towards sampling works of IF that I’ve also written walkthroughs for. It’s just a lot simpler for me to work with those works, and believe me, that’s already a large (and growing) corpus to keep me busy.

And what’s the point of the Thinger project? I really don’t know. I find the mix of viewpoints side-by-side fascinating. Like, you look at a ladder. What does the author feel they need to tell you about it? What the ladder’s made of? How long it is? How sturdy or safe it is? Where it leads to? Or is there something else that needs to be said? Or perhaps we don’t care and it’s just a generic ladder. Right now, Thinger is just a curious museum of oddities and mundane-ities.

I think, though, at some point, I will want to start analyzing what sorts of information is conveyed by descriptions, and which sorts of info are associated with specific objects. For example, an author might feel it’s relevant to say who owns a goblet or a bed, but not who owns a boulder. And maybe I’ll try my hand at a description generator tool someday. But when will I have the time to do that? How do I have the time to do any of this?

I’m babbling. Time to stop the post here. Thanks for reading.

September 18, 2020

Renga in Blue

Nijmegen Avontuur (1981?)

by Jason Dyer at September 18, 2020 09:41 PM

I’ve lost track of all time and space lately, so I had to remind myself by checking: it was one year ago that I tackled and wrote about Dracula Avontuur, a very early text adventure in Dutch, without knowing any Dutch.

Nijmegen Avontuur is also very early; originally for the Commodore PET, but later ported for the Commodore 64, and that’s the copy that still exists. I’ve seen both 1980 and 1981 dates, and it potentially could be earlier than Dracula. There’s so little information it’s not worth it to fret over which came first.

It was written by Wim Couwenberg and apparently based on a text-adventure layout used by Hans Courbois. That means, yes, there are definitely earlier games, although I haven’t been able to find them as of yet.

Landscape with a View of the Valkhof, Nijmegen. Painted by Aelbert Cuyp around 1655-1660. The palace shown was originally built by Charlemagne.

Nijmegen Avontuur translates to Nijmegen Adventure, Nijmegen being a 2000-year old city in the Netherlands, close to the border with Germany.

De bedoeling is een SCHAT te vinden die ergens in Nijmegen verogen ligt.

The goal is to find a TREASURE somewhere in Nijmegen.

The opening screen gives some terse instructions and the quest above, and then some character-based graphics.

I’m guessing D.N.T. refers to the maker of the C64 port.

It most likely looked something like that in the original, given the reference to the “layout” of Hans Courbois being used.

Translations: JE HEBT = YOU HAVE

ER LIGT = THERE LIES

WAT MOET IK DOEN? = WHAT SHOULD I DO?

The room description seems to eschew compass directions and lets you go to places instead.

PLEIN ’44. JE KAN NAAR DE BLOEMERSTR.
DE GROTE MARKT HET PARK
EN NAAR DE MOLENSTRAAT
ER STAAT EEN PARKEERMETER.

PLEIN ’44. YOU CAN GO TO THE BLOEMERSTRAAT, THE GREAT MARKET, THE PARK, AND TO THE MOLENSTRAAT.
THERE IS A PARKING METER.

“Plein ’44” is the center of Nijmegen, the “city square”. The “Bloemerstraat” and “Molenstraat” are place names, and here we hit my first question for my Dutch-speaking friends — are they recognizable ones?

Given the text seems to be more minimal than Dracula, it may end up I have more trouble with culture/place than language on this one.

Locations marked on a Google map. There are two parks nearby so I don’t know which one the game means.

The Digital Antiquarian

X-COM

by Jimmy Maher at September 18, 2020 04:41 PM

X-COM seemed to come out of nowhere. Its release was not preceded by an enormous marketing campaign with an enormous amount of hype. It had no video demo playing in the front window of Babbages, it wasn’t advertised twelve months in advance on glossy foldout magazine inserts, it had no flashing point-of-purchase kiosks. It didn’t come in a box designed by origamists from the school of abstract expressionism. It featured no full-motion video starring the best TV actors of the 80s; it had no voice-overs. It offered neither Super VGA graphics, nor General MIDI support. It wasn’t Doom-like, Myst-like, or otherwise like a hit game from the previous season; it didn’t steal the best features from several other successful games. It wasn’t even on a CD-ROM!

In short, if you plugged X-COM’s variables into the “success formula” currently in use by the majority of large game companies, you’d come up with a big, fat goose egg. According to the prevailing wisdom, there’s no way X-COM could survive in today’s gaming marketplace. And yet it sold and sold, and gamers played on and on.

— Chris Lombardi, writing in the April 1995 issue of Computer Gaming World

In the early days of game development, there existed little to no separation between the roles of game programmer and game designer. Those stalwart pioneers who programmed the games they themselves designed could be grouped into two broad categories, depending on the side from which they entered the field. There were the technologists, who were fascinated first and foremost with the inner workings of computers, and chose games as the most challenging, creatively satisfying type of software to which they could apply their talents. And then there were those who loved games themselves above all else, and learned to program computers strictly in order to make better, more exciting ones than could be implemented using only paper, cardboard, and the players’ imaginations. Julian Gollop, the mastermind behind the legendary original X-COM, fell most definitely into this latter category. He turned to the computer only when the games he wanted to make left him no other choice.

Growing up in the English county of Essex, Julian and his younger brother Nick lived surrounded by games, courtesy of their father. “Every Christmas, we didn’t watch TV, we’d play games endlessly,” Julian says. From Cluedo, they progressed to Escape from Colditz, then on to the likes of Sniper! and Squad Leader.

Julian turned fifteen in 1980, the year that the Sinclair ZX80 arrived to set off a microcomputer fever all across Britain, but he was initially immune to the affliction. Unimpressed by the simplistic games he saw being implemented on those early machines, which often had as little as 1 K of memory, he started making his own designs to be played the old-fashioned way, face-to-face around a tabletop. It was only when he hit a wall of complexity with one of them that he reassessed the potential of computers.

The game in question was called Time Lords; as the name would imply, it was based on the Doctor Who television serials. It asked two to five players to travel through time and space and alter the course of history to their advantage, but grew so complex that it came to require an additional person to serve in the less-than-rewarding capacity of referee.

By this point, it was 1982, and a friend of Julian’s named Andy Greene had acquired one of the first BBC Micros. Its relatively cavernous 32 K of memory opened up the possibility of using the computer as a referee instead of a bored human. Greene coded up the program in BASIC, staying faithful to Julian’s board game to the extent of demanding that players leave the room when it wasn’t their turn, so as not to see anything they weren’t supposed to of their opponents’ actions. The owner of the tabletop-games store where Julian shopped was so impressed with the result that he founded a new company, Red Shift Games, in order to publish it. They all traveled to computer fairs together, carrying copies of the computerized Time Lords packaged in Ziploc baggies. The game didn’t take the world by storm — Personal Computer News, one of the few publications to review it, pronounced it a “bored game” instead of a board game — but it was a start.

The two friends next made Islandia, another multiplayer strategy game of a similar stripe. In the meantime, Julian acquired a Sinclair Spectrum, the cheap and cheerful little machine destined to drive British computer gaming for the next half-decade. Having now a strong motivation to learn to program it, Julian did just that. His first self-coded game, and his first on the Spectrum, appeared in 1984 in the form of Nebula, a conquer-the-galaxy exercise that for the first time offered a computer opponent to play against.

The artificial intelligence disappeared again from his next game, but it mattered not at all. Rebelstar Raiders was the prototype for Julian Gollop’s most famous work. In contrast to the big-picture strategy of his earlier games, it focused on individual soldiers in conflict with one another in a Starship Troopers-like science-fictional milieu. Still, it was very much based on the board games he loved; there was a lot of Sniper! and Squad Leader in its turn-based design. Despite being such a cerebral game, despite being one that you couldn’t even play without a mate to hand, it attracted considerable attention. Red Shift faded out of existence shortly thereafter as its owner lost interest in the endeavor, but Rebelstar Raiders had already made Julian’s reputation, such that other publishers were now knocking at his door.

Rebelstar Raiders, the first of Julian Gollop’s turn-based tactical-combat games. Ten years later, the approach would culminate in X-COM.

It must have been a thrill for Julian Gollop the board-game fanatic when Games Workshop, the leading British publisher of hobbyist tabletop games, signed him to make a computer game for their new — if ultimately brief-lived — digital division. Chaos, a spell-slinging fantasy free-for-all ironically based to some extent on a Games Workshop board game known as Warlock — not that Julian told them that! — didn’t sell as well as Rebelstar Raiders, although it has since become something of a cult classic.

So, understandably, Julian went where the market was. Between 1986 and 1988, he produced three more iterations on the Rebelstar Raiders concept, each boasting computer opponents as well as multiplayer options and each elaborating further upon the foundation of its predecessor. Game designers are a bit like authors in some ways. Some authors — like, say, Margaret Atwood — try their hands at a wide variety of genres and approaches, while others — like, say, John Cheever — compulsively sift through the same material in search of new nuggets of insight. Julian became, in the minds of the British public at least, an example of the Cheever type of designer. “It could be said by the cruelest among us that Julian has only ever written one game,” wrote the magazine New Computer Express in 1990, “but has released various substantially enhanced versions of it over the years.”

Of those enhanced versions, Julian published Rebelstar and Rebelstar 2: Alien Encounter through Firebird as a lone-wolf developer, then published Laser Squad through a small outfit known as Blaze Software. Before he made this last game, he founded a company called Target Games — soon to be renamed to the less generic Mythos Games — with his father as silent partner and his brother Nick in an active role; the latter had by now become an accomplished programmer in his own right, in fact surpassing Julian’s talents in that area. In 1990, the brothers made the Chaos sequel Lords of Chaos together in order to prove to the likes of New Computer Express that Julian was at least a two-trick pony. And then came the series of events that would lead to Julian Gollop, whose games were reasonably popular in Britain but virtually unknown elsewhere, becoming one of the acknowledged leading lights of strategy gaming all over the world.



The road to X-COM traveled through the terrain of happenstance rather than any master plan. Julian’s career-defining project started as Laser Squad 2 in spirit and even in name, the next manifestation of his ongoing obsession with small-scale, turn-based, single-unit tactics. The big leap forward this time was to be an isometric viewpoint, adding an element of depth to the battlefield. He and Nick coded a proof of concept on an Atari ST. While they were doing so, Blaze Software disappeared, yet another ephemeral entity in a volatile industry. Now, the brothers needed a new publisher for their latest game.

Both of them had been playing hours and hours of Railroad Tycoon, from the American publisher MicroProse. Knowing that MicroProse had a British branch, they decided to take their demo there first. It was a bold move in its way; as I’ve already noted, their games were popular in their sphere, but had mostly borne the imprints of smaller publishers and had mostly been sold at cheaper price points. MicroProse was a different animal entirely, carrying with it the cachet that still clung in Europe to American games, with their bigger budgets and higher production values. In their quiet English way, the Gollops were making a bid for the big leagues.

Luckily for them, MicroProse’s British office was far more than just a foreign adjunct to the American headquarters. It was a dynamic, creative place in its own right, which took advantage of the laissez-faire attitude of “Wild” Bill Stealey, MicroProse’s flamboyant fly-boy founder, to blaze its own trails. When the Gollops brought in the nascent Laser Squad 2, they were gratified to find that just about everyone at MicroProse UK already knew of them and their games. Peter Moreland, the head of development, was cautiously interested, but with plenty of caveats. For one thing, they would need to make the game on MS-DOS rather than the Atari ST in order to reach the American market. For another, a small-scale tactical-combat game alone wouldn’t be sufficient — wouldn’t be, he said, “MicroProse enough.” After making their name in the 1980s with Wild Bill’s beloved flight simulators, MicroProse was becoming at least as well known in this incipient new decade for grand-strategy games of or in the spirit of their star designer Sid Meier, like the aforementioned Railroad Tycoon and the soon-to-be-released Civilization. The emphasis here was on the “grand.” A Laser Squad 2 just wouldn’t be big enough for MicroProse.

Finally, Moreland wasn’t thrilled by all these far-future soldiers fighting battles in unknown regions of space for reasons that were abstract at best. Who could really relate to any of that? He wanted something more down to earth — literally. Maybe something to do with alien visitors in UFOs… that sort of thing. Julian nodded along, then went home to do some research and refine his proposal.

He quickly learned that he was living in the midst of a fecund period in the peculiar field of UFOlogy. In 1989, a sketchy character named Bob Lazar had given an interview for a Las Vegas television station in which he claimed to have been employed as a civilian contractor at the top-secret Nevada military base known only as Area 51. In that location, so he said, the American Air Force was actively engaged in testing fantastic technologies derived from extraterrestrial visitors. The interview would go down in history as the wellspring of a whole generation of starry-eyed conspiracy theorists, whose outlandish beliefs would soon enter the popular media zeitgeist via such vehicles as the television series The X-Files. When Julian first investigated the subject in 1991, however, UFOs and aliens were still a fairly underground obsession. Nevertheless, he took much from the early lore and legends of Area 51, such as a supposed new chemical element — called ununpentium by Lazar, elerium by the eventual game — which powered the aliens’ spaceships.

His other major source of inspiration was the 1970 British television series entitled simply UFO. In fact, his game would eventually be released as UFO: Enemy Unknown in Europe, capitalizing on the association with a show that a surprising number of people there still remembered. (I’ve chosen to use the American name of X-COM globally in this article because all subsequent games in the franchise would be known all over the world under that name; it has long since become the iconic one.) UFO the television series takes place in the then-near-future of 1980, when aliens are visiting the Earth in ever-increasing numbers, abducting humans and wreaking more and more havoc. An international organization known as SHADO (“Supreme Headquarters Alien Defence Organisation”) has been formed to combat the menace. The show follows the exploits of the SHADO operatives, complete with outlandish “futuristic” costumes and sets and gloriously cheesy special effects. Gollop lifted this basic scenario and moved it to his own near-future: to the year 1999, thus managing to nail not only his decade’s burgeoning obsession with aliens but also its unease about the looming millennium.

The game is divided into two distinct halves — so much so that each half is almost literally an entirely separate game: each unloads itself completely from memory to run a separate executable file at the point of transition, caching on the hard drive before doing so the relatively small amount of state data which its companion needs to access.

The first part that you see is the strategic level. As the general in charge of the “Extra-Terrestrial Combat Force,” or X-COM — the name was suggested by Stephen Hand and Mike Brunton, two in-house design consultants at MicroProse UK — you must hire soldiers and buy equipment for them; research new technologies, a process which comes more and more to entail reverse-engineering captured alien artifacts in order to use your enemy’s own technology against them; build new bases at strategic locations around the world, as well as improve your existing ones (you start with just one modest base); and send your aircraft out to intercept the alien craft that are swarming the Earth. In keeping with the timeless logic of computer games, the countries of the Earth have chosen to make X-COM, the planet’s one real hope for defeating the alien menace, into a resource-constrained semi-capitalist enterprise; you’ll often need to sell gadgets you’ve manufactured or stolen from the aliens in order to make ends meet, and if you fail to perform well your sponsoring countries will cut their funding.

The “Geoscape” view, where you place your bases and use them to intercept airborne alien attackers. You can find a wealth of discussion online about where best to position your first base — but naturally, most people prefer to put it in their home town. Like the ability to name your individual soldiers, the ability to start right in your own backyard forges a personal connection between the game and its player.

This half of the game was a dizzying leap into uncharted territory for the Gollop brothers. Thankfully, then, they were on very familiar ground when it came to the other half: the half that kicks in when your airborne interceptors force a UFO to land, or when you manage to catch the aliens in the act of terrorizing some poor city, or when the aliens themselves attack one of your bases. Here you find yourself in what amounts to Laser Squad 2 in form and spirit if not in name: an ultra-detailed turn-based single-unit combat simulator, the latest version of a game which Julian Gollop had already made four times before. (Or close enough to it, at any rate: X-COM, the culmination of what had begun with Rebelstar Raiders on the Spectrum, is ironically single-player only, whereas that first game had not just allowed but required two humans to play.) Although the strategic layer sounds far more complex than this tactical layer — and, indeed, it is in certain ways — it’s actually the tactical game where you spend the majority of your time, fighting battles which can consume an entire evening each.

The “Battlescape” view, where tactical combat takes place.

For all their differences, the two halves of the game do interlock in the end as two facets of a whole. Your research efforts, equipment purchases, and hiring practices in the strategic half determine the nature of the force you lead into the tactical man-against-alien battles. Less obviously but just as significantly, your primary reward for said battles proves to be the recovery of alien equipment, alien corpses, and even live alien specimens (all is fair in love and genocidal interplanetary war), which you cart back to your bases to place at the disposal of your research teams. And so the symbiotic relationship continues: your researchers use what you recover as grist for their mill, which lets you go into tougher battles with better equipment to hand, thereby to bring back still richer spoils.

The capsule description of the finished game which I’ve just provided mirrors almost perfectly the proposal which Julian Gollop delivered to MicroProse; the design would change surprisingly little in the process of development. MicroProse thought it sounded just fine as-is.



The contract which the Gollops signed with MicroProse specified that the former would be responsible for all of the design and coding, while the latter would provide the visual and audio assets. MicroProse UK did hold up their end of the bargain, but had an oddly casual attitude toward the project in general. Julian remembers their producer as “very laid back — he would come over once a month, we would go to the pub, talk about the game for a bit, and he would go home.” Otherwise, the Gollops worked largely alone after their first rush of consultations with the MicroProse mother ship had faded into the past. Time dragged on and on while they struggled with this massively complicated game, one half of which was unlike anything they had ever even contemplated before.

X-COM‘s UFOpaedia is a direct equivalent to Civilization‘s innovative Civilopedia, its most obvious single nod to Sid Meier’s equally influential but very, very different game.

As it did so, much happened in the broader world of MicroProse. On the positive side, Sid Meier’s Civilization was released at the end of 1991. But despite this and some other success stories, MicroProse’s financial foundation was growing ever more shaky, as their ambitions outran their core competencies. The company lost millions on an ill-judged attempt to enter the stand-up arcade market, then lost millions more on baroque CRPGs and flashy interactivity-lite adventure games. After an IPO that was supposed to bail them out went badly off the rails, Wild Bill Stealey sold out in June of 1993 to Spectrum Holobyte, another American publisher. The deal seemed to make sense: Spectrum Holobyte had a lot of money, thanks not least to generous venture capitalists, but a rather thin portfolio of games, while MicroProse had a lot of games both out and in the pipeline but had just about run out of money.

Spectrum Holobyte sifted carefully through their new possession’s projects in development, passing judgment on which were potential winners and which certain losers. According to Julian Gollop, Spectrum Holobyte told MicroProse UK in no uncertain terms to cancel X-COM. On the face of it, it wasn’t an unreasonable point of view to take. The Gollops had been working for almost two years by this point, and still had few concrete results to show for their efforts. It really did seem that they were hopelessly out of their depth. Luckily for them, however, Peter Moreland and others in the British office still believed in them. They nodded along with the order to bin X-COM, then quietly kept the project on the books. At this point, it didn’t cost them much of anything to do so; the art was already done, and now it was up to the Gollops to sink or swim with it.

X-COM bobbed up to the surface six months later, when the new, allegedly joint management team — Stealey would soon leave the company, feeling himself to have been thoroughly sidelined — started casting about for a game to feature in Europe in the first quarter of 1994, thereby to make the accountants happy. Peter Moreland piped up sheepishly: “You remember that UFO project you told us to cancel? Well, it’s actually still kicking around…” And so the Gollop brothers, who had been laboring under strangely little external pressure for the past 26 months or so, were now ordered to get their game done already. They managed it, just — UFO: Enemy Unknown shipped in Europe in March of 1994 — but some of the problems in the finished game definitely stem from the deadline that was so arbitrarily imposed from on high.

But if the game could have used a few more months in the oven, it nonetheless shipped in better condition than many other MicroProse games had during the recent stretch of financial difficulties. It garnered immediate rave reviews, while its sales also received a boost from another source. The first episode of The X-Files had aired the previous September in the United States, followed by airings across Europe. Just like that, a game about hostile alien visitors seemed a lot more relevant. Indeed, the game possessed much the same foreboding atmosphere as the show, from its muted color palette to MicroProse composer John Broomhall’s quietly malevolent soundtrack, which he had created in just two months in the final mad rush up to the release deadline. He couldn’t have done a better job if he’d had two years.

X-COM: UFO Defense shipped a few months later in North America, into a cultural zeitgeist that was if anything even more primed for it. Computer Gaming World, the American industry’s journal of record, gave it five stars out of five, and its sales soared well into the six digits. As the quote that opened this article attests, X-COM was in many ways the antithesis of what most publishers believed constituted a hit game in the context of 1994. Its graphics were little more than functional; it had no full-motion video, no real-time 3D rendering, no digitized voices; it fit perfectly well on a few floppy disks, thank you very much, with no need for any new-fangled CD-ROM drive. And yet it sold better than the vast majority of those other “cutting-edge” games. Many took its success as a welcome sign that gaming hadn’t yet lost its soul completely — that good old-fashioned gameplay could still trump production values from time to time.



The original X-COM‘s reputation has only grown more hallowed in the years since its release. It’s become a perennial on best-games-of-all-time lists, even ones whose authors weren’t yet born at the time of its release. For this is a game, so we’re told, that transcends its archaic presentation, that absolutely any student of game design needs to play.

That’s rather ironic in that X-COM is a game that really shouldn’t work at all according to many of the conventional rules of design. For example, it’s one of the most famous of all violators of what’s become known as the Covert Action Rule, as formulated by Sid Meier and named after one of his own less successful designs. The rule states that pacing is as important in a strategy game as it is in any other genre, that “mini-games” which pull the player away from the overarching strategic view need to be short and to the point, as is the case in Meier’s classic Pirates!. If they drag on too long, Meier tells us, the player loses focus on the bigger picture, forgets what she’s been trying to accomplish there, gets pulled out of that elusive state of “flow.”

But, as I already noted, X-COM‘s tactical battles can drag on for an hour or two at a time — and no one seems be bothered by this at all. What gives?

By way of an answer to that question, I would first note that the Covert Action Rule is, like virtually all supposedly hard-and-fast rules of game design, riddled with caveats and exceptions. (Personally, I don’t even agree that violating the yet-to-be-formulated Covert Action Rule was the worst problem of Covert Action itself.) And I would also note that X-COM does at least a couple of things extraordinarily well as compensation, better than any strategy game that came before it. Indeed, one can argue that no earlier grand-strategy game even attempted to do these things — not, at least, to anything like the same extent. Interestingly, both inspired strokes are borrowed from other gaming genres.

The first is the intriguing mystery surrounding the aliens, which is peeled back layer by layer as you progress. As your scientists study the equipment and alien corpses brought back from the battle sites and interrogate the live aliens your soldiers have captured, you learn more and more about where your enemies come from and what motivates them to attack the Earth so relentlessly. It doesn’t take long to reach a point where you look forward to the next piece of this puzzle as excitedly as you do the next cool gun or piece of armor. By the time the whole experience culminates in a desperate attack on the aliens’ home base, you’re all in. Granted, a byproduct of this sense of unfolding discovery is that you may not feel like revisiting the game after you win; for many or most of us, this is a strategy game to play through once rather than over and over again. But on the other hand, considering the fifty hours or more it will take you to get through it once, it’s hard to complain overmuch about that fact. Needless to say, when you do play it for the first time you should meticulously avoid spoilers about What Is Really Going On Here.

Learning more about the alien invaders via an autopsy. The game was ahead of its time; the year after X-COM‘s release, at the height of the X-Files-fueled UFO craze, the Fox television channel would broadcast Alien Autopsy: Fact or Fiction? in the United States. (For the record, it was most assuredly the latter.)

X-COM‘s other, even more brilliant stroke is the sense of identification it builds between you and the soldiers you send into battle. Each soldier has unique strengths and weaknesses, forcing you to carefully consider the role she plays in combat: a burly, fearless character who can carry enough weaponry to outfit your average platoon but couldn’t hit the proverbial broad side of a barn must be handled in a very different way from a slender, nervous sharpshooter. As your soldiers (hopefully) survive missions, their skills improve, CRPG-style. Thus you have plenty of practical reasons to be more loathe to lose a seasoned veteran than a greenhorn fresh out of basic training. And yet this purely zero-sum calculus doesn’t fully explain why each mission is so nail-bitingly tense, so full of agonizing decisions balancing risk against reward.

One of X-COM‘s most defining design choices is also one of its simplest: it lets you name each soldier for yourself. As you play, you form a picture of each of them in your imagination, even though the game itself never describes any of them to you as anything other than a list of numbers. Losing a soldier who’s been around for a while feels weirdly like losing a genuine acquaintance. For here too you can’t help but embellish the thin scaffolding of fact the game provides with your own story of what happened: the grizzled old-timer who went out one time too many, whose nerves just couldn’t handle another firefight; the foolhardy, testosterone-addled youth who threw himself into every battle like he was indestructible, until one day he wasn’t. X-COM provides the merest glimpse of what it must feel like to be an actual commander in war: the overwhelming stress of having the lives of others hanging on your decisions, the guilty second-guessing that inevitably goes on when you lose someone. It has something that games all too often lack: a sense of consequences for your actions. Theoretically at least, the best way to play it is in iron-man mode: no saving and restoring to fix bad outcomes, dead is dead, own your decisions as commander.

Beginning with just a name you choose for yourself and a handful of statistics which the game provides, your imagination will conjure a whole personality for each of your soldiers. Dwight here, for example, likes guitars, Cadillacs, and hillbilly music.

In one of those strange concordances that tend to crop up in many creative fields, X-COM wasn’t the only strategy game of 1994 to bring in CRPG elements to great effect. Ironically, these innovations occurred just as the CRPG genre itself was in its worst doldrums since Ultima I and Wizadry I had first brought it to prominence. Today, even as the CRPG has long since regained its mojo as a gaming genre, CRPG elements have become the special sauce ladled over a wide array of other types of games. X-COM was among the first to show how tasty the end result could be.

I have to say, however, that I find other elements of X-COM less appetizing, and that its strengths don’t quite overcome its weaknesses in my mind sufficiently to win it a place on my personal list of best games ever. My first stumbling block is the game’s learning curve, which is not just steep but unnecessarily so. I’d like to quote Garth Deangelis, who led the team that created XCOM: Enemy Unknown, the critically acclaimed franchise reboot that was released in 2012:

While [the original X-COM] may have been magnificent, it was also a unique beast when it came to beginning a new game. We often joked that the diehards who mastered the game independently belonged to an elite club because by today’s standards the learning curve was like climbing Mount Everest.

As soon as you fire up the original, you’re placed in a Geoscape with the Earth silently looming, and various options to explore within your base — including reading (unexplained) financial reports, approving manufacturing requests (without any context as to what those would mean later on), and examining a blueprint (which hinted at the possibility for base expansion), for example — the player is given no direction.

Even going on your first combat mission can be a bit of a mystery (and when you first step off the Skyranger, the game will kill off a few of your soldiers before you even see your first alien — welcome to X-COM!).

There’s certainly a place for complex games, and complexity will always come complete with a learning curve of some sort. But, again, X-COM‘s curve is just unnecessarily steep. Consider: when you begin a new game, you have two interceptors already in your hangar for bringing down UFOs. Fair enough. Unfortunately, they come equipped with sub-optimal Stingray missiles and borderline-useless cannon. So, one of the first tasks of the experienced player becomes to requisition some more advanced Avalanche missiles, put them on her interceptors, and sell off the old junk. Why can the game not just start you off with a reasonable weapons load-out? A similar question applies to the equipment carried by your individual soldiers, as it does to the well-nigh indefensible layout of your starting base itself, which makes it guaranteed to fall to the first squad of marauding aliens who come calling. The new player is likely to assume, reasonably enough, that the decisions the game has already made for her are good ones. She finds out otherwise only by being kicked in the teeth as a result of them. This is not good game design. The impression created is of a game that is not tough but fair, but rather actively out to get her.

Your starting base layout. By no means should you assume that this is a defensible one. In fact, many players spend a lot of money at the very beginning ripping it up completely and starting all over again. Why should this be necessary?

You’ll never use a large swath of the subpar weapons and equipment included in X-COM, which rather begs the questions what they’re doing in there. The game could have profited greatly from an editor empowered to pare back all of this extraneous nonsense and home in on its core appeal. Likewise, the user interface in the strategic portion operates on the principle that, if one mouse click is good, ten must be that much better; everything is way more convoluted than it needs to be. Just buying and selling equipment is agonizing.

The tactical game’s interface is also dauntingly complex, but does have somewhat more method to its madness, being the beneficiary of all of Julian Gollop’s earlier experience with this sort of game. Still, even tactical combat, so widely and justly lauded as the beating heart of X-COM, is not without its frustrations. Certainly every X-COM player is all too familiar with the last-alien-on-the-map syndrome, where you sometimes have to spend fifteen or twenty minutes methodically hunting the one remaining enemy, who’s hunkered down in some obscure corner somewhere. The nature of the game is such that you can’t relax even in these situations; getting careless can still get one or more of your precious soldiers killed before you even realize what’s happening. But, although perhaps a realistic depiction of war, this part of the game just isn’t much fun. The problem is frustrating not least because it’s so easily soluble: just have the remaining aliens commit suicide to avoid capture — something entirely in keeping with their nature — when their numbers get too depleted.

All of these niggling problems mark X-COM as the kind of game I have to rant about here all too often: the kind that was never actually played before its release. For all its extended development time, it still needed a few more months filled with play-testing and polishing to reach its full potential. X-COM‘s most infamous bug serves as a reminder of just how little of either it got: its difficulty levels are broken. If you select something other than the “beginner” difficulty, it reverts back to the easiest level after the first combat mission. In one sense, this is a blessing: the beginner difficulty is more than difficult enough for the vast majority of players. On the other, though… how the heck could something as basic as that be overlooked? There’s only one way that I can see: if you barely played the game at all before you put it in a box and shipped it out the door.

To his credit, Julian Gollop himself is well aware of these issues and freely acknowledges them — does so much more freely in fact than some of his game’s biggest fans. He notes the influence of vintage Avalon Hill and SPI board games, some of which were so demanding that just being able to play them at all — never mind playing them well — was an odd sort of badge of honor for the grognards of the 1970s and early 1980s. He would appear to agree with me that there’s a bit too much of their style of complexity-for-its-own-sake in X-COM:

I believe that a good game may have relatively simple rules, but have complex situations arise from them. Strategy games tend to do that very well, you know — even the simplest ones are very good at that. I think it’s possible to have an accessible game which doesn’t have amazingly complex rules, but still has a kind of emerging complexity within what happens — you know, what players do, what players explore. For me, that’s the Holy Grail of game design. So, I don’t think that I would probably go back to making games as complex as [X-COM].

Like poets, game designers often simplify their work as they age, the better to capture the real essence of what they’re trying to express.



But whatever their final evaluation of the first game, most players then and now would agree that few franchises have been as thoroughly botched by their trustees as X-COM was afterward. When the first X-COM became an out-of-left-field hit, MicroProse UK, who had great need of hits at the time to impress the Spectrum Holobyte brass, wanted the Gollops to provide a sequel within a year. Knowing that that amount of time would allow them to do little more than reskin the existing engine, they worked out a deal: they would give their publisher their source code and let them make a quickie sequel in-house, while they themselves developed a more ambitious sequel for later release.

The in-house MicroProse project became 1995’s X-COM: Terror from the Deep, which posited that, forty years after their defeat at the end of the first game, the aliens have returned to try again. The wrinkle this time is that they’ve set up bases under the Earth’s oceans, which you must attack and eradicate. Unfortunately, Terror from the Deep does little to correct the original’s problems; if anything, it makes them worse. Most notably, it’s an even more difficult game than its predecessor, a decision that’s hard to understand on any level. Was anyone really complaining that X-COM was too easy? All in all, Terror from the Deep is exactly the unimaginative quickie sequel which the Gollops weren’t excited about having to make.

Nevertheless, it’s arguably the best of the post-original, pre-reboot generation of X-COM games. X-COM: Apocalypse, the Gollops’ own sequel, was a project on a vastly greater scale than the first two X-COM games, a scale to which they themselves struggled to adapt. It was riven by bureaucratic snafus and constant conflict between developer and publisher, and the resulting process of design-by-fractious-committee turned it into a game that did a lot of different things — turned-based and real-time combat in the very same game! — but did none of them all that well, nor even looked all that good whilst doing them. Julian Gollop today calls it “the worst experience of my entire career” and “a nightmare.” He and Nick cut all ties with MicroProse after its 1997 release.

After that, MicroProse lost the plot entirely, stamping the X-COM label onto games that had virtually nothing in common with the first one. X-COM: Interceptor (1998) was a space simulator in the mode of Wing Commander; [email protected] Games: X-COM (1999) was a casual multiplayer networked affair; X-COM: Enforcer (2001) was a mindless shoot-em-up. This last proved to be the final straw;  the X-COM name disappeared for the next eleven years, until XCOM: Enemy Unknown, the reboot by Firaxis Games.

If you ask me, said reboot is in absolute terms a better game than the original, picking up on almost all of its considerable strengths while eliminating most of its weaknesses. But it cannot, of course, lay claim to the same importance in the history of gaming. Despite its flaws, the original X-COM taught designers to personalize strategy games, showed them how to raise the emotional stakes in a genre previously associated only with cool calculation. For that reason, it richly deserves its reputation as one of the most important games of its era.

(Sources: the book Grand Thieves and Tomb Raiders: How British Video Games Conquered the World by Magnus Anderson and Rebecca Levene; Amstrad Action of October 1989; Computer Gaming World of August 1994, September 1994, April 1995, and July 1995; Crash of Christmas 1988 and May 1989; Game Developer of April 2013; Retro Gamer 13, 68, 81, 104, 106, 112, and 124; Amiga Format of December 1989, June 1994, and November 1994; Amiga Format of December 1989, June 1994, and November 1994; Computer and Video Games of December 1988; Games TM 46; New Computer Express of September 15 1990; Games Machine of July 1988; Your Sinclair of August 1990 and September 1990; Personal Computer News of July 21 1983. Online sources include Julian Gollop’s X-COM postmortem from the 2013 Game Developers Conference, “The Story of X-COM at EuroGamer, and David Jenkins’s interview with Julian Gollop at Metro.

The original X-COM is available for digital purchase at GOG.com, as are most of the other X-COM games mentioned in this article.)

September 17, 2020

Renga in Blue

Cranston Manor (1981)

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

No, this game doesn’t have anything to do with Infocom. It does have to do with the virtues of text vs. graphics. I particularly like the quote from Softalk in the ad above about prose “far more graphic than any depiction yet achieved by an adventure with graphics.”

(You should read my posts about the original version of Cranston Manor before reading this post.)

The Cranston Manor Adventure by Larry Ledden was published by Artworx; On-Line Systems (the future Sierra) licensed it to keep the Hi-Res Adventures series going, the one started with Mystery House, Wizard and the Princess, and Mission: Asteroid.

On-Line changed the credits to be Harold DeWitz and Ken Williams (according to Mr. Ledden, he was a newbie and didn’t think to get a credits condition on his contract) but I’m leaving Larry’s name on.

Via Mobygames.

The objective is still “find the treasures”, sixteen of them. Text from the packaging, including the typo:

It seems that old man Cranston was not exactly your run-of-the-mill type millionare. Exactly how he made his fortune is unknown (it appears he wasn’t a man known for either scruples or morals). Before his untimely death, he had amassed an uncalculated fortune in jewels, gold and various other rare and expensive items. Cranston was aware of the fact he was dying. He had lived a life of excessive luxury, pleasure and sin, and knew that soon he would end up “paying the piper”! Being a greedy and covetous old man, he figured that if he couldn’t take it with him, no one would take it when he was gone. He hid his treasure throughout the mansion and property encompassing it.

The game shifts the action to “Coarsegold” (where On-Line Systems was located), abandoned due to Cranton’s plotting somehow. I haven’t quite worked out how this happened in either this version or the original. You may remember the hologram of Cranston directing his army of tin soldiers; were those terrorizing the town somehow? In this version, the treasures are explicitly stolen from Coarsegold, and finding and returning the treasures to Coarsegold somehow will return the town to livability. I get the impression there’s still missing backstory, but the even stronger impression nobody thought too seriously about the logic behind it.

The “droid” idea from the original is dropped (it was, admittedly, a little weird). The game simplifies the map; here is, for example, the opening town:

The original “outdoor section” took me about one hour to map; the new one took roughly five minutes. All the mazes have been removed, nearly all paths have been straightened. (There’s an odd bit where going west “jumps” the player over a room; it being just a bug is quite plausible. Remember, the last On-Line game we looked at left the asteroid-hits-the-Earth timer running even after winning the game so the Earth can be simultaneously saved and destroyed.)

Both an inventory limit and the need to rest at intervals have been dropped. There isn’t even, as far as I could find, a limit to the lantern light.

This all sounds great, and I suppose is; but the end result really felt more flavorless than the main game. Example:

You may remember from my original posts that the revelation of the armor in all the rooms being spooky and atmospheric. Here the armor is more obvious (and it’s much clearer it’s the same armor following you around everywhere) but it comes off as nearly goofy. The armor also stops you from getting items other than treasures, which is I suppose would be fine, except there are two exceptions (cheese and a cage) which it does let you take in order to capture a mouse, and use as the same way as before (dropping the mouse scares away the armor). I could see someone getting stumped here because they assumed they couldn’t get the items.

The library, which has a secret passage that opens with the word EMASES in both versions, now has the word placed in a book in the library, where it is the only book there. Now, the original wasn’t stealthy either, but the word was in the observatory; having it be right on the shelf that gets opened seemed a bit too on-the-nose, turning an easy puzzle into a near-trivial one.

Relatedly, the previous game’s “organ room” had the organ not actually do anything, and you could just enter the fireplace; this version has PLAY ORGAN open the fireplace. (While simpler, I’ll admit this was more satisfying to do than just realizing I could walk in the fireplace.)

The tin soldiers show up underground again, but this time there’s no way at all to kill them. The game includes the dagger, but the dagger doesn’t do anything, so all you can do is run away.

The computer room is still there, and this time the puzzle that requires busting the computer by throwing some water on it works (more on this in a second). However, there’s no scene of the tin soldiers charging themselves up; this room doesn’t connect with anything in the game other than the sphere being another treasure.

The pink bull is still in, except this time the time stasis field doesn’t hit right away. You have to turn off your lantern, and THEN a time stasis field hits (without even a meta-narrator, just some wizard does it…?) and then you have to walk by in the darkness. I imagine the idea was to enforce having the lantern on/off puzzle be solved, but it turned what was sort-of-fair-but-nonsense (you can just avoid second visits to the bull room in the original game) into complete nonsesnse (it’s not clear how the player character would even know about the stasis field while in total darkness).

The absolute worst change involves an item. In the original, you get a “cauldron” that you fill with water; it is used for both destroying a computer (as already mentioned) and priming a pump. I could not find the cauldron in the On-Line Systems version. I was very stumped and had to check a walkthrough. In the new version, the cauldron is now a “pot” and it is not mentioned in the room description.

I am somewhat supportive of the items-in-picture-not-in-text system pioneered starting with Mystery House — I didn’t run into guess-the-noun or be-unaware-an-object-even-exists with Wizard and the Princess so it’s possible to be clear, even with a janky art style — but I had no notion at all of a pot in the picture. It’s that partially-visible black thing on the stove, I guess. Also, when the armor is on the screen it entirely covers the pot.

I mentioned being stumped by the raft on the fountain due to a failure in visualization. Unfortunately, I can’t tell for certain how I’d react with this game, but I think I’d make it through; the raft is depicted as very tiny, so at least visually it does fit inside the fountain.

To summarize the changes:

1.) no inventory limit
2.) no lamp timer
3.) simplified map
4.) water container hard to find
5.) suits of armor more obvious
6.) tin soldiers can no longer be killed, removal of visible connection with computer room
7.) computer room puzzle now works as originally planned
8.) pink bull puzzle now enforces turning off the lantern
9.) EMASES is right where it gets used
10.) the organ is used to open a secret passage

There are a few more points, and summed up I think they mostly average out to neutral (except possibly the pink bull puzzle pushing slightly to negative). Yet, as I already implied, I liked the original text-only version better. Why?

While I have nothing against graphics, even bizarre looking ones, the text — despite it being erratic at times, and often just functional — somehow painted the world more vividly. Let me pick a direct example.

I’m standing in a long room with tall stained glass windows on the west wall. Hard looking wood pews line each side. There are exits to the north and east. Standing in one corner is a large black suit of armor.

Again, the text is almost completely pure function here, but my imagination paints the chapel much more strongly than the Apple II image does.

I wouldn’t welcome a text version of Wizard and the Princess; that game seems designed for its slightly odd characters and locations; I’m perfectly fine with Cranston Manor being reverted to all-text. I don’t know if it’s the sense of loss of setting that makes the difference (the “hard looking wood pews” being gone) or just the loss of part of my imagination, the “brain as graphics engine” as mentioned in the Infocom ad. When Ahab at Data Driven Gamer played both games and had the same reaction: “And as with Sierra’s previous graphical adventures, the graphics are really not very good, and came at the expense of verbosity, and while the writing in The Cranston Manor Adventure wasn’t exactly mind-blowing, it still wasn’t a good trade to lose it.”

One last oddity — and it would take some experiments in hacking the game to be sure — is I’m not sure if all the “positive” improvements even helped. Both the sleeping and lamp time were frustrating to cope with, but they added a rhythm to the game and added tension to explorations underground. Even though I skipped killing the tin soldiers in the original game, the existence of the possibility of doing so added an edge; I was making a strategic choice, one I sometimes questioned.

I also can’t really defend the convoluted map of the original that strongly, but still, I spent time in the opening abandoned town, whereas in the graphical version it was essentially a footnote. Spending time made the sense of abandonment more tangible. There clearly would be a better way to handle the same situation (with a shorter opening and more vivid text, perhaps some character dialogue) but it’s interesting that just dropping the flawed gameplay element ended up hurting the game when it wasn’t replaced by some element that conveyed the same effect.

It’s easy to whale on early adventure games (why is there another maze, why do I have to worry about lamp life, etc.) but sometimes, those flawed and now-outdated elements were still used with purpose.

Choice of Games

Giveaway! Unlock clans for free in Vampire: The Masquerade — Night Road

by Mary Duffy at September 17, 2020 04:41 PM


We’re super excited for the release of Vampire: The Masquerade — Night Road on September 24th!

As a special offer, if you purchase Vampire: The Masquerade — Night Road by 11:59pm PDT on September 25th, you can email us a copy of the receipt and we will credit you the “Usurpers and Outcasts IAP,” featuring the options to play as Tremere or Caitiff, for free.

Experience Vampire: the Masquerade — Night Road as one of the Usurpers, vampires who have stolen the secrets of blood sorcery; or play as an Outcast, a vampire who has no clan—a condition that can be both an asset and a liability. But in the American Southwest, it’s every vampire for themselves—even a Usurper or an Outcast can make it here.

Just email your receipt—Steam, Apple, Amazon, Google, or webstore—to [email protected] and we will grant you a key.

While we have your attention, wishlist it on Steam and pre-register on Google Play now!

September 16, 2020

Zarf Updates

Myst VR teaser drops

by Andrew Plotkin ([email protected]) at September 16, 2020 11:13 PM

I'm sure you already saw it, but I strive for completeness here, so here you go: a trailer for Myst in VR. The Steam page and GOG page are also up.
There's really not much to say about this. As Cyan's announcement says, they've been teasing this for a while now:
In fact, we suspect that some of you were onto us as far back as last summer when Rand gave his keynote at Mysterium 2019... We’ve been holding our breath ever since that video hit the internet hoping his keynote speech wouldn’t go viral, so for those of you who picked up on what we were laying down last year... Thanks for helping us keep things under wraps!
(From today's Firmament news update, one of the places where Cyan announced this.)
I take that last bit as a direct poke, since I blogged about Rand's keynote in 2019! VR possibilities and all! No, Rand didn't say "VR" -- he just called it a "definitive edition of Myst". But we all knew what he meant.
The real surprise here is that they're announcing it now. Firmament is currently on track for probably 2022, so this is looking like parallel development rather than sequential. Of course, it's impossible to know how the schedule will fall out.
The trailer and screenshots indicate that they've gotten a good ways into development. And it is very pretty.
Other tidbits:
  • The title is just Myst, no modifiers.
  • It will be VR-only and Quest-exclusive at launch, but flatscreen Windows and other VR platforms will follow.
  • The Steam page says "Built from the ground up to play in VR and flatscreen PC with new art, sound, interactions, and even optional puzzle randomization..."
  • The teaser has a slightly different opening narration in Rand's inimitable voice.
  • The D'ni text seen in the Myst book is a rather delightful easter egg for fans. See the top comment on the youtube page for a transcription.
I am of course pleased by this news, although I'll have to wait for the flatscreen release. Mind you, Firmament is still top of my wanted list.
The note about "puzzle randomization" is interesting. Many of the puzzles in Myst are entirely suitable for this. (Think about the clock tower, for example -- the required time code could be anything.) This isn't a huge expansion of the game's design, but it will be a nice change for people who want to replay it without feeling like they're following an invisible teleprompter. And it will be "optional", so detail mavens don't need to freak out.
The video and screenshots imply that they've scaled the island up a bit, and added lots of detail. But they haven't redesigned anything from scratch. It's still the classic, "noncanonical" Myst. Trap books will still be trap books. The puzzles will still be mostly nonmimetic insertions. Myst Island will not have bathrooms or living spaces.
...Or will it? Cyan could add practically anything as new bonus content; we'd cheer for it. It's really just a question of how much scope they allow themselves.
Okay, back to waiting mode, everybody.

Choice of Games

New Hosted Game! Hero or Villain: Battle Royale by Adrao

by Kai DeLeon at September 16, 2020 03:41 PM

Hosted Games has a new game for you to play!

Battle other heroes and villains in a gladiatorial contest to become the galaxy’s champion. Hero or Villain: Battle Royale is the second book of this epic saga, picking up from the epilogue of Hero or Villain: Genesis.

It’s 40% off until Sept 23rd!

Kidnapped from planet Earth by the mysterious Lanista and forced to fight in the Battle of Champions, you will have to balance your training with fighting injustice in an alien world…or becoming a criminal yourself!

Hero or Villain: Battle Royale is a 253,000 word interactive novel by Adrao, where your choices control the story. The game is text-based, but includes some artwork. Your choices control the outcome of the game entirely.

Will you follow the tournament to its conclusion, and claim victory over colleagues and foes? Or will you start your own criminal empire, and accomplish the biggest heist in the history of the planet? Are you a loyal subject, or will you join the ranks of the rebels attempting to overthrow the rule of the Elders over the galaxy?

• Import your character from Book 1, Hero or Villain: Genesis, or create a new one.
• Choose from dozens of powers. You can pounce on your enemies with the power of your fists, strike them down with hellfire, take control of their minds, dodge their attacks with your super-speed, or teleport behind their backs to strike them.
• Build your own gadgets, improving the quality of your armor or the weapons mounted on it.
• You can also learn new alien technology and design even more complex projects that will decide your fate in battles.
• Manage your relationships with your colleagues to help them succeed, or strike them down.
• Play as male, female, or nonbinary, and romance many of the other characters!
• Includes several illustrations to enhance your experience.
• Enjoy a variety of different game paths, with multiple side missions and endings.
• Try several different difficulty settings. Play as a mighty invincible hero, or just somebody only slightly more powerful than an average human.

Andrao 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.

September 15, 2020

Emily Short

Mid-September Link Assortment

by Mort Short at September 15, 2020 09:41 PM

Events

The Foundation of Digital Games is moving ahead with its conference this year as an online event, spanning from September 15-18. It only requires an online seat registration in order to attend.

September 23 is the next meeting of the Boston Area IF Meetup.

October 3 is the next meeting of the SF/Bay Area IF Meetup.

October 3-4 is the weekend for Roguelike Celebration 2020. This year it will be online-only. More specifics about the event can be found here.

Contests

It’s the final stretch! Entries for IFComp 2020 are due September 28. There is still time for interested parties to donate cash or other items to the prize fund.

IntroComp has just posted a list of the winners for their 2020 contest, and you can still check out any of the titles from the now-completed inkjam 2020.

XYZZY Award finalists for 2019 have just been announced – yes, later in the year than usual, but this is an unusual year. Congratulations to all the nominees! Anyone may vote for winners, in categories from Best Story to Best Individual NPC to Best Technological Innovation. This year’s nominees include a range of parser and choice-based work, and some games — from AI Dungeon to Disco Elysium — that are neither.

Releases

Inkle is about to unveil their latest game Pendragon, slated to release on Steam on September 22. The game promises to be a character-based adventure set around the mythology of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.

Meanwhile, September 24 is the release date for Vampire: The Masquerade — Night Road from Choice of Games and Kyle Marquis and set in the Vampire: The Masquerade universe:

It’s a new Dark Age for the dead. When the Second Inquisition’s vampire hunters hacked phone lines and computer networks to expose and destroy vampires all over the world, the elders turned to undead couriers like you. For ten years, you’ve raced across the desert between cities, delivering vital information and supplies. But when an old friend reappears with a plan to disrupt the blood trade across the American Southwest, everything you’ve built starts crashing down.

Resources

Someone recently asked me about writing for audio games. I had the wonderful good fortune to be educated by Jude Kampfner, a hugely experienced producer of radio for the BBC and others.

That process was one of the most effective professional learning experiences of my career. I continue to use techniques that she taught me. She’s very interested in games as a medium, and we had many many conversations about them while we put together Game Over.

I mention this because she’s now doing some freelance coaching, editing, and feedback on audio projects, as well as some broader workshops on creative career development. She is such a resource. If you are trying to learn the craft of writing for audio and you have funds for professional development, I definitely recommend talking to her.

September 14, 2020

The XYZZY Awards

XYZZY Awards 2019: final round

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at September 14, 2020 11:41 PM

The results are in for the first round of the 2019 XYZZY Awards. Congratulations to our finalists!

Voting in the second round will be open through September 27th.

The XYZZYs use your IF Comp login; if you need to register an account with the Comp, or you’ve forgotten your account details, go here. You can log in here (you’ll get kicked back to the front page, but you are in fact logged in) and then vote here

(Anyone may vote, but you are asked not to vote for your own work, or to organise voters to support a particular game or slate thereof.)

Best Game

  • Crème de la Crème (Hannah Powell-Smith)
  • Skybreak! (William Dooling)
  • Turandot (Victor Gijsbers)
  • Zozzled (Steph Cherrywell)

Best Writing

  • Crème de la Crème (Hannah Powell-Smith)
  • The good people (Pseudavid)
  • Limerick Heist (Pace Smith)
  • Out (Viktor Sobol)
  • Speed Demons (Pleroma)
  • Turandot (Victor Gijsbers)
  • Zozzled (Steph Cherrywell)

Best Story

  • Crème de la Crème (Hannah Powell-Smith)
  • Dull Grey (Provodnik Games)
  • The good people (Pseudavid)
  • Heretic’s Hope (G.C. Baccaris)
  • The Missing Ring (Felicity Drake)
  • Out (Viktor Sobol)
  • robotsexpartymurder (Hanon Ondricek)
  • Turandot (Victor Gijsbers)
  • Zozzled (Steph Cherrywell)

Best Setting

  • Additional Tales from Castle Balderstone (Ryan Veeder)
  • Dull Grey (Provodnik Games)
  • Founder’s Mercy (Thomas Insel)
  • Heretic’s Hope (G.C. Baccaris)
  • Pirateship (Robin Johnson)
  • Ryan Veeder’s Authentic Fly Fishing (Ryan Veeder)

Best Puzzles

  • Chuk and the Arena (Agnieszka Trzaska)
  • Hard Puzzle 4: The Ballad of Bob and Cheryl (Ade McT)
  • Pirateship (Robin Johnson)
  • Skies Above (Arthur DiBianca)
  • Sugarlawn (Mike Spivey)
  • Zozzled (Steph Cherrywell)

Best NPCs

  • Crème de la Crème (Hannah Powell-Smith)
  • Heretic’s Hope (G.C. Baccaris)
  • Mental Entertainment (Thomas Hvizdos)
  • The Missing Ring (Felicity Drake)
  • robotsexpartymurder (Hanon Ondricek)
  • Zozzled (Steph Cherrywell)

Best Individual Puzzle

  • Finding the good ending in Dull Grey (Provodnik Games)
  • Helping Madame Ping Ping with the séance in Zozzled (Steph Cherrywell)
  • Inspiring the artist in Zozzled (Steph Cherrywell)

Best Individual NPC

  • Kim Kitsuragi in Disco Elysium (ZA/UM)
  • The mother in Night Guard / Morning Star (Astrid Dalmady)
  • Pontiff Apocrita in Heretic’s Hope (G.C. Baccaris)
  • Turandot in Turandot (Victor Gijsbers)

Best Individual PC

  • Hazel Greene in Zozzled (Steph Cherrywell)
  • Leonora in Night Guard / Morning Star (Astrid Dalmady)
  • Sniff Chewpaw in Dungeon Detective 2: Devils and Details (Wonaglot)

Best Implementation

  • AI Dungeon (Nick Walton)
  • Dull Grey (Provodnik Games)
  • Pas De Deux (Linus Åkesson)
  • Pirateship (Robin Johnson)
  • Ryan Veeder’s Authentic Fly Fishing (Ryan Veeder)
  • Skies Above (Arthur DiBianca)
  • Sugarlawn (Mike Spivey)

Best Use of Innovation

  • AI Dungeon (Nick Walton)
  • The Ballroom (Liza Daly)
  • Dull Grey (Provodnik Games)
  • Flight of the Code Monkeys (Mark C. Marino)
  • Heretic’s Hope (G.C. Baccaris)
  • Pas De Deux (Linus Åkesson)
  • Pirateship (Robin Johnson)
  • Ryan Veeder’s Authentic Fly Fishing (Ryan Veeder)

Best Technological Development

  • AI Dungeon
  • Chapbook
  • dMagnetic

Best Use of Multimedia

  • Dull Grey (Provodnik Games)
  • The good people (Pseudavid)
  • Heretic’s Hope (G.C. Baccaris)
  • Mushroom Hunt (Polyducks)
  • robotsexpartymurder (Hanon Ondricek)
  • Wolfsmoon (Marco Innocenti)

Choice of Games

Vampire: The Masquerade — Night Road Demo Available Now!

by Mary Duffy at September 14, 2020 08:41 PM


We’re super excited for the release of Vampire: The Masquerade — Night Road on September 24th!

Today, for the first time, you can try the free demo!

Don’t forget to wishlist it on Steam and pre-register on Google Play now!

September 13, 2020

Retroactive Fiction

Digging up Adventureland (Scott Adams, 1980)

by Ant at September 13, 2020 08:42 PM

TL/DR: My BBC BASIC port of Scott Adams’s classic TRS-80 text adventure game Adventureland, as published in SoftSide magazine in 1980, is now complete and available to download or to play in your web-browser: Play Adventureland

Page 36, issue 22, SoftSide magazine, July 1980

Previously, I resurrected the original* version of Scott Adams’s second text adventure game, Pirate Adventure, and I ported it from TRS-80 BASIC to BBC BASIC — mostly for the heck of it but also because my port can be played in a web browser quite easily and the game is therefore more accessible now than it was before.

So I thought I might as well go back to the game with which Adams’s career as a digital dungeonmaster began: the TRS-80 BASIC version of Adventureland. I assumed that because I’d already ported Pirate Adventure to the Beeb, porting Adventureland would be a walk in the park.

Instead, I unexpectedly found myself puzzling over what appeared to be a forty-year-old bug. (Spoiler: it wasn’t.)

 

Dotty matrix

But first I had to get the program-listing into digital form, ready for converting. Like its successor Pirate Adventure, Adventureland had been published as a type-in listing, in the July 1980 issue of SoftSide magazine in this case, five months before Pirate Adventure appeared in BYTE.

Now, typing listings in by hand was bad enough in the 1980s, but today the twin problems of ageing and impatience have made it all but insufferable. Anyway, in the 80s most people had no choice but to type in a listing manually if they wanted to play the game. Today, though, in the internet age, there had to be another way to get hold of a digital copy of the listing, right? Okay, so the scan of the magazine at Archive.org wasn’t good enough to yield an accurate OCR of the text, but surely someone, somewhere, had already found a way around the problem. Right..?

Well, if there was a digital copy of the SoftSide listing out there, I couldn’t find it. I mean, the source code for several ports and variants of Adventureland is floating around, sure enough, but it all seems to derive from a later version of Adventureland (which is widely available, in “.DAT” format), and not from the SoftSide listing — but it was the SoftSide listing that I was specifically interested in.

What I ended up having to do was configure MAME to emulate an 8-bit TRS-80 Model I Level II microcomputer, which isn’t a job for the fainthearted, especially if you’re trying to set up the emulation on a Mac. I then downloaded a copy of Scott Adams’s adventure interpreter on a TRS-80 disk-image: the disk-image had kindly been made available by the Data Driven Gamer, who had also supplied the game-data for Adventureland as a .WAV audio file — which took a full twenty minutes to load into the interpreter!

Once the TRS-80 was up and running in MAME, I set about hacking the BASIC interpreter program so that it would not only read in the Adventureland game-datafile but also print out all the data values (i.e. the lists of numbers and text-strings that make up the content and logic of the game). I hacked the program using only the line-editing facilities provided by the emulated TRS-80, none of which I’d ever encountered before, and all of which I intend never to encounter again if I can possibly help it. (Retrocomputing nostalgia can be extremely overrated.) The hacked program was able to print out the data values to a “virtual printer”, which was actually just a plain text file on my Mac.

I had finally managed to acquire a digital copy of the game-data for the original* BASIC version of Adventureland, without having had to spend hours painstakingly typing in the listing myself — I had just had to spend hours figuring out how to drive a TRS-80 in MAME instead. Which was at least a new variety of frustration.

 

Separation of concerns

Anyway, I massaged the data into a form that could be pasted into the “adventure builder” program from SoftSide, which, luckily, was the same program — and even the same version (1.3) — that had been used in Pirate Adventure, and I had already ported that! So I had saved myself yet more typing (and swearing).

The adventure-builder program reads the lists of numbers and messages in the game-data and spits out a datafile. The adventure-interpreter program will then load the datafile and turn it into a playable game. Here again I managed to save myself a lot of work: last time, when porting Pirate Adventure, I had stumbled over the subtle differences between TRS-80 BASIC and BBC BASIC, which had made the task of porting the interpreter a little torturous, but now, thanks to Scott Adams’s forethought and software-design prowess, I found that I didn’t have to type in or otherwise digitise the interpreter program for Adventureland at all — instead, I was simply able to use the later version of the interpreter, from Pirate Adventure, which I had already sweated over and converted! And it seemed to work fine with Adventureland. Huzzah!

Page 44, issue 22, SoftSide magazine, July 1980

I was on the home straight. I could see the finish line and I was charging ahead, full tilt. All I had to do was tidy up the BBC BASIC programs and package them up in a disc-image, and, hey presto, they’d be playable online. So I did. And they were. And then I found the bug.

 

The alleged bug

WARNING! Spoilers ahead.

Early on in the game, you come across an axe that has the magic word BUNYON on it. If you take the axe to the quicksand bog — which happens to contain a treasure, a statue of an OX — you’ll find that you can’t SWIM out of the bog unless you either drop the axe into the bog (where it’s of no use to you) or say BUNYON, which magically transports the axe to the grove.

In my BBC BASIC port of the game, which was using the interpreter from Pirate Adventure, that was all that happened: only the axe was sent to the grove. The OX wasn’t affected by your use of the word BUNYON at all — it simply remained in the bog, and there was apparently no way to get it out! If you carried it, you couldn’t leave the bog because the OX was too heavy to swim with. The OX statue seemed to be stuck where you found it, never to be moved and never to be deposited in the treasury — which is where you have to put all the treasures if you want to win the game. So the game seemed to be unwinnable.

But if, as appeared to be the case, the game couldn’t be completed with a full score, then how come no one seemed to have noticed the bug when the game was first published in SoftSide? Where are all the errata and the corrections? Was it simply that no one had bothered to type in the original listing? Surely not — we were gluttons for punishment in the 80s, as I’ve already said…

So, what on earth was going on? Hmm. Well, perhaps the reason that none of the avid players of SoftSide’s edition of Adventureland had reported the bug, back in the day, is that they had found an alternative route to success. Because, you see, the BUNYON/OX problem has a workaround.

But the workaround requires the use of another object, which is hidden deep in the underground maze, and you’d probably only find this object much later on in the game, after you’d been playing for a good old while. So it seemed unlikely that Scott Adams had intended the workaround to be the official solution to the puzzle of the OX in the bog. If he had, he wouldn’t have bothered setting up and clueing the BUNYON solution, especially when memory was at a premium in a TRS-80 with just 16 kilobytes of RAM! There wasn’t the space to waste on red herrings — or at least not on red herrings as perfunctory as this. If BUNYON wasn’t meant to be the solution to the OX puzzle, then there was no point in including BUNYON in the game at all!

My suspicion that the BUNYON-fail was a bug was soon strengthened when I came across a copy of the game that actually seemed to have had the bug fixed. On his website, the redoubtable Jimmy Maher provides a link to the savestate that he used when he played through the TRS-80 BASIC version of Adventureland for his Digital Antiquarian blog. So here was another copy of the TRS-80 BASIC version of Adventureland that I could compare and contrast with the copy that I had just cobbled together.

The trouble was that Jimmy had created the savestate with an old piece of software called “MESS”, which is a long-dead ancestor of the MAME emulator, and Jimmy’s savestate was incompatible with the latest version of MAME, which, naturally enough, is what I had installed on my Mac. Aargh.

After a lot of false starts I eventually hit paydirt with a particular historical version of MESS for Windows (which I ran in a virtual machine on my Mac). That version of MESS did seem to be capable of loading Jimmy’s savestate — once I had fiddled around, configuring it to emulate a TRS-80 Model I Level II, of course. (Déjà vu, anyone?)

Wonder of wonders, the BUNYON/OX bug didn’t manifest in Jimmy’s copy of the game. Instead, BUNYON transported both the axe and the OX to the grove, as the creator had doubtless intended:

Bog-standard magic: no bugs in Jimmy Maher’s copy of Adventureland

At this point it would have been nice to inspect the data that Jimmy’s copy of the game was using, so that I could see how the putative bug had apparently been fixed. But, try as I might, I just couldn’t find a way to escape from the running BASIC program to inspect its variables, even after I’d worked out what the TRS-80 “Break” key mapped to on my Mac keyboard (Function + right-arrow, would you believe?) — because pressing Break just caused the emulated TRS-80 to hang. Nothing I did could then persuade it to respond to keyboard input!

I was at a dead end. I would just have to fix the so-called bug myself.

 

Fixing” the “bug(or vandalizing the game)

The game-data for Adventureland, as presented in the BASIC listing in SoftSide magazine, is just a comma-separated list of numbers, which doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue:

Light bedtime reading: the v4.2 game-data for Adventureland, as published in SoftSide

I could have tried to split the numbers (the “actions”) into groups of eight and to parse them all manually, with the help of Allan Moluf’s excellent guide to the Scott Adams database format (h/t pdxiv) — but even I’m not that much of a masochist! Instead, I turned to ScottKit, a very handy utility that can take the “raw” game-data and turn it into something that’s human-readable.

Of course, I first had to wrestle the game-data into a form that ScottKit could understand, which mainly involved padding the data out with a lot of empty strings and making sure that empty and non-empty strings alike had been properly enquoted. In due course I found myself looking at the “decompiled” Adventureland game-data, and there did indeed seem to be a bug in it. (In fact, ScottKit refused to proceed with the decompilation until I’d forced it to ignore bugs by specifying the “-b” flag.):

ScottKit’s decompilation of the v4.2 Adventureland game-data from SoftSide magazine

When the player said BUNYON in the quicksand, what seemed to be happening was that the game was moving the wrong object to a non-existent room! When I compared the decompiled SoftSide code with a decompilation of a widely available later version of Adventureland, the error appeared to leap out at me.

Surely, then, all I had to do was tweak the game-data and replace the embedded command-code 68 (“clear flag zero”) with command-code 60 (“clear the flag specified by the relevant parameter”), and suddenly everything would fall into place: when the player said BUNYON, flag 7 would be cleared and object 47 (the OX) would be moved to room 25 (the grove), just as Scott intended.

So that’s what I did. And everything seemed to be working. Problem solved!

 

Hubris

I appeared to have fixed a forty-year-old bug in a Scott Adams game! Wow. I was about to start writing this blogpost to crow about it when I was suddenly seized by doubt: what if the bug wasn’t actually, well, you know, real..?! I mean, of course it was. It had to be. The bug was right there in my BBC BASIC port, and that port was using the original game-data, so surely that was all the proof that anyone needed..?

But, then again, there was the fact that I was using a later version of the interpreter to play the game, rather than the interpreter that was actually published together with the game-data in SoftSide. Hmm. Perhaps I’d better just check that I was, in fact, able to reproduce the bug. I would use Data Driven Gamer’s copy of the TRS-80 BASIC version of the game — that would provide independent verification that the bug was real. I was sure I’d already done this at the start of my tanglings with Adventureland, but it couldn’t hurt to quickly check again…

So I spun up the latest version of MAME again. I booted the emulated TRS-80 and waited twenty minutes for Data Driven Gamer’s tape-image to load. Then, painfully slowly,** I made my way to the bog with the axe, and said BUNYON.

The axe vanished… but so did the OX!

The game was working fine..!?

OMFG.

The bug wasn’t real.

 

Solution

After I had come to, I began to reason thus: Data Driven Gamer’s copy of Adventureland was reading the game-data that had been published in SoftSide. And it was using the interpreter from SoftSide too. And everything was working without error.

In contrast, my port of the game was using that same SoftSide game-data but feeding it into the later version of the interpreter, from Pirate Adventure. So there had to be a key difference between version 4.2 of the interpreter (for Adventureland) and version 4.6 of the interpreter (for Pirate Adventure), and that difference must have been the cause of the BUNYON/OX bug in my initial port of Adventureland.

I had rashly assumed that the v4.6 interpreter would be totally compatible with the v4.2 Adventureland game-data, and, when I came across the BUNYON/OX bug, I had foolishly amended the v4.2 game-data to bring it into compliance with the v4.6 interpreter, naively thinking there was a bug in the SoftSide listing. Instead, what I should have done was port the earlier version (4.2) of the interpreter — you know, the one that had actually been written with Adventureland in mind! — and I should have used the ported v4.2 interpreter to read the original Adventureland game-data, as Scott Adams had obviously intended. To put it mildly: doh!

I had also allowed myself to be misled by the output of ScottKit’s decompilation of the SoftSide game-data, which seemed to suggest that there was indeed a bug in the game logic. The problem is that ScottKit has been designed to work with a later version of the Scott Adams game-data format — it’s not clear exactly which version, but this linked document suggests that versions of the data format (and hence of the interpreter) up to at least v8.5 may exist, so ScottKit may be expecting a much later iteration of the format than what I was giving it.

Okay. I would clearly have to bite the bullet and start porting the v4.2 interpreter to BBC BASIC — a task I was hoping to avoid, given how painful it had been to port v4.6 last time around. Fortunately, the design of version 4.2 of the interpreter program was similar enough to version 4.6 that I found that I was able to complete the new port in record time.

Having ported version 4.2 of the interpreter (as published in SoftSide) to BBC BASIC, I now needed to test the port to see if it was working correctly with the v4.2 game-data (also as published in SoftSide). And I found that it was! I permitted myself a relieved but tentative huzzah!

Then, just as a sanity-check, I combed through the BASIC sources for the two versions of the interpreter to see if I could pin down exactly where and how they differed. This proved to be surprisingly tricky. The two programs (v4.2 and v4.6) were similar enough in structure and functionality that they induced a sort of code-blindness in me, which made it hard to spot the difference.

In the end, though, the location (if not the detail) of the difference turned out to be somewhat obvious and unsurprising: whenever a specified flag had to be cleared, the Adventureland game-data would trigger some code in the v4.2 interpreter, and the code that was being triggered was effectively the “handler” for “command 68”, and what that handler did was simply redirect to the handler for command 60, and it was the handler for command 60 that finally did the work that needed doing.

The handler for command 68 in version 4.2 of the interpreter

In the later v4.6 interpreter, however, commands 68 and 60 performed two different functions — and the v4.2 Adventureland game-data had been triggering the wrong one! Hence the apparent bug whereby the OX never left the bog. Double-doh..!

 

Conclusion

What did we learn?

1. I was foolish to think I had found a bug in a well-known and seminal forty-year-old game — I should have just assumed that I had somehow messed up, which was always going to be more likely. I wasted so much time chasing phantom bugs!

2. Scott Adams seems to have added new features to his interpreter at short intervals, and sometimes in surprising ways. For example, I’m still not exactly sure why command 68 simply redirects to command 60 in v4.2. It’s almost as if command 68 was being used as a placeholder for new functionality that Adams wasn’t ready to implement yet..?

3. The differences between the various versions of the Scott Adams game interpreter (and hence of the game database format) aren’t fully documented. Even the generally excellent guide by Moluf doesn’t cover all the wrinkles, variations, and updates.

4. Scott Adams’s creation of an abstract adventure interpreter in the 1970s was highly ingenious and is still impressive today.

My BBC BASIC port of the version of Adventureland that was published in SoftSide magazine in 1980 is now complete and available to download or to play in your web-browser. A map and a solution are also available. See Github for links:

https://github.com/ahope1/Beeb-Adventureland

My BBC Micro port of version 4.2 of Adventureland by Scott Adams (running in Windows BeebEm under WineBottler (a WINE wrapper) on macOS Mojave)

* My use of the word “original” is extremely context-dependent (and probably wrong).

** Perhaps I’ve been spoilt by the relative speed of BBC BASIC, but I’m always struck by the sheer sluggishness of the TRS-80 BASIC version of Adventureland: even in the latest version of MAME it takes an age to respond to almost any command. Worse, in a historical version of MESS in a Windows VM — “double emulation”, as it were — not only is the game just as slow, but also the cooling-fan in my (admittedly ageing) MacBook Pro just spins faster and faster till it sounds like it’s about to explode.

September 12, 2020

Zarf Updates

Recent additions to my Infocom collection

by Andrew Plotkin ([email protected]) at September 12, 2020 10:13 PM

Last year, after the Infocom source code dump, I posted my Obsessively Complete Infocom Catalog.
This was the same data -- source code and some playable game files -- but with every version separated out and tagged. Release date, release type (alpha/beta/etc), game file version, all the information I could find.
Since 2019, people have sent me a fair number of pointers to "new" source code. Some of these were previously collected in various places; some have been dug out of MIT tape archives. I've been adding them to the page as they came in.
Want a quick tour?

We now have four versions of MDL Zork -- the "mainframe Zork" from MIT. These are dated 1977, 1978, 1979, and 1981.
You may know that the game was called "Dungeon" for part of its history. Of these four, the 1977 and 1978 versions introduce themselves by saying "Welcome to Dungeon"; the 1979 and 1981 versions say "Welcome to Zork".
I've also collected as much ZIL documentation as I could find from around the Net. This includes Infocom's specifications for the Z-machine, various tutorials and reference manuals for learning ZIL, and so on.
Finally, a couple of versions of the ZAP assembler. This is the stage of the ZIL compiler which converts Z-machine assembly into a playable game file. We've got a 1982 version written in PDP-10 assembly; I mentioned that a couple of months ago.
We've also got a version of ZAP from 1988 -- late in Infocom's history. This is interesting because it's written in C! Okay, it's K&R C and probably can't be compiled without a lot of tweaking. But it's very nearly modern.
There are even compiled binaries in the folder. The folder was originally called "sun", so we presume that these are SunOS binaries from a Sun workstation. (SunOS was Sun's Unix platform, later renamed Solaris.)
The comments say "Zinn Computer Company, for Infocom", implying that the work was outsourced. There are a few other programs lying around the folder as well; apparently tools for splitting up game files into (for example) Apple or Mac floppies.
None of this is revolutionary, but it's nice to get more versions of things under the same roof.
Thanks to Lars Brinkhoff, Torbjörn Andersson, Jason Self, and (as usual) Jason Scott.

September 10, 2020

Adventures in Alan v3

Alan v3.0 Beta 7!

by Administrator ([email protected]) at September 10, 2020 11:27 PM

Alan v3.0 beta7 is now available. You can view the details of the changes in the Changes Section. You are encouraged to update to this latest release.

September 07, 2020

The People's Republic of IF

September meetup (online)

by zarf at September 07, 2020 01:41 AM

The Boston IF meetup for September will be Wednesday, September 23, 6:30 pm Eastern time.

We will post the Zoom link to the mailing list on the day of the meeting. Please try to join the meeting on time.

September 04, 2020

The Digital Antiquarian

Bullfrog after Populous

by Jimmy Maher at September 04, 2020 04:41 PM

I’ll give you an analogy of what Populous is in my mind. Imagine if I had a blank canvas. Some people that are true artists will take a palette of paint and mix them together and carefully handcraft each and every single brushstroke until they have some beautiful and amazing picture. And then there’s me. I had the blank canvas, accidentally knocked a can of paint over, and it went splat. And an art dealer has seen it and said, “That’s brilliant.” Well, I know all I’ve done is kick a can of paint. And that’s what I believe really happened with Populous.

— Peter Molyneux

When we last met Peter Molyneux and his little database-developer-turned-games-studio Bullfrog Software, they had just made Populous and watched in disbelief as it blew up huge. The radically innovative game joined Will Wright’s SimCity as one of the progenitors of a hazily delineated new genre which the media labelled the “god game” for the way it gave you direct control over an environment but only indirect control over the people therein. As Populous became a hit on three continents and sold in the hundreds of thousands and eventually millions of copies, Bullfrog struggled to reckon with the cognitive dissonances of their changed circumstances. In a matter of months, they went from a handful of poverty-stricken dreamers pissing in the sink of their miserable, toilet-less hovel of an office to Britain’s single most successful and respected games studio of all.

The trappings of their success tended to trail behind their sales figures: when a group of Japanese executives stopped by the Bullfrog hole-in-the-wall to discuss plans for publishing Populous in their country, the senile pensioner who lived below met them at the bottom of the stairs with a mop and proceeded to beat them off the premises. “We had to get out of there as soon as possible,” says Molyneux. They wound up in a more conventional business park, whose more conventional tenants complained endlessly about their penchant for racing skateboards through the hallways and shooting BB guns out the windows. (“We were brats,” admits Molyneux today. “Horrible, horrible brats.”)

While certainly preferable to failure, success could be its own kind of mixed blessing. Expectations of Bullfrog, which had previously been nonexistent, were suddenly sky high. After a quickie add-on disk that brought additional levels and environments to Populous, they made a rather shockingly unambitious little platformer called Flood, a project of Bullfrog programmer Sean Cooper. Released only in Europe for the Commodore Amiga and Atari ST by Bullfrog’s publisher Electronic Arts, it garnered a collective shrug from the magazines; the market was already flooded with platformers much like this one, often with more compelling level designs. This sort of derivative work wasn’t at all what people had come to expect from Bullfrog after Populous.

Luckily, they had something else in the works. Released in late 1990, some eighteen months after Populous, the real-time war game Powermonger evinced a lot of innovation on its own terms even as it clearly drew from the same set of techniques and approaches that had yielded Bullfrog’s first hit. Instead of casting you as a god able to alter the very landscape of the world on behalf of your mortal followers, Powermonger cast you as an ordinary human on a mission to conquer the world — all 195 regional cross-sections of it, one region at a time. The ethos of indirect control that had made Populous so unique remained: you had to convince the people to rally to your cause, and had to work constantly to keep them loyal to you. Ditto a focus on large-scale environmental effects: you had to worry about the ecology of the land in order to feed, water, house, and equip your people. (After all, it’s hard to build much of anything if you’ve already clear-cut all of the forests…) While Computer Gaming World‘s Johnny L. Wilson, who was always eager to read meaning into games, may have been overstating the case when he called Powermonger “a dynamic treatise on the human capacity for aggrandizement and the potential consequences therein,” the same magazine’s description of it as the “thinking person’s Populous” was a good deal more tenable.

Unfortunately, it suffered from many of the same flaws as its predecessor — flaws which would become consistent hallmarks of Molyneux’s work in general. He obviously wanted to give players a lot of game by providing 195 levels, but, being all procedurally generated, they didn’t really build upon one another or force the player to reevaluate the tools at her disposal in interesting new ways. Powermonger was great fun at first — thus all the glowing reviews in the magazines — but it started to feel a little bit rote a little bit too quickly.

The graphics in Powermonger got a dramatic upgrade over those in Populous, yielding not only aesthetic but also practical benefits: it was now possible to rotate your view of the landscape and zoom it in and out as needed, while the variety of landscape features was dramatically greater. “In Populous,” noted Molyneux, “we had hills, houses, and rivers. Thanks to this new system, we’re able to generate waterfalls, cliffs, valleys, mountains, proper towns, road networks, forests… it’s a real world!”

Molyneux originally conceived of Powermonger not so much as a standalone game as an engine for running a variety of them. After the first game with its vaguely Medieval theme, he talked of making a World War I version, a high-fantasy version, an Asian version for the Japanese market, and a version focusing on the American Civil War for the punters in the United States. But Powermonger, while moderately successful, never became the sensation that Populous was, and most of those plans were abandoned; only the World War I data disk ever appeared. Powermonger “appeals to a lot of people who like very, very high strategic games, but it needed that extra element that would appeal to everybody and it didn’t have that,” said Molyneux after the dust had settled. He blamed the lack largely on the pressure Bullfrog was under from Electronic Arts to complete and release the game in time for Christmas, which meant that it didn’t get played prior to release to anywhere near the extent of Populous.

Still searching for that elusive second million-selling hit, Bullfrog opted to drink even deeper from the old Populous well next time around. Their game for the Christmas of 1991 was Populous II, which mated the improved interface and graphics of Powermonger to the literal god-game theme of Populous I. There was slightly more semblance of a plot this time out: you played a minor deity who must fight her way through a pantheon of some 35 Greek gods, culminating in Zeus himself. Your powers too were more varied than last time out; no longer could people scoff that the game was nothing more than an elaborate topography simulator, not with your ability to spawn tidal waves, whirlwinds, and lightning strikes. Yet one only had to glance at the screen, or read about its more than 1000 (!) anonymous, procedurally-generated levels to know that this was still very much Populous, for both good and bad. It sold well to the committed faithful and spawned the by-now standard expansion pack; in a sop to the Japanese market, where the first Populous had become so popular as to spawn graphic novels and symphony concerts recreating the game’s soundtrack, the expansion was set in ancient Japan rather than Greece. But even so, Populous II made relatively few new converts to the cause at home or abroad.

Populous II. Molyneux admits to feeling “ashamed” at the time to be doing a sequel at all, but he felt obligated to deliver a direct follow-up to such a massive hit. He considers Populous II a reasonable but somewhat unimaginative sequel, which in rather typical industry fashion added a lot more stuff to the template of its predecessor in the form of new godly powers, but failed to drill down on what actually made the original fun. A fair assessment, I think.

Although their latest games hadn’t sold quite as well as the original world-beating Populous, Bullfrog remained the preeminent British games studio in the minds of many. Their status was rivaled only by that of DMA Design, whose Lemmings had become upon its release in early 1991 the most successful single British game since Populous. But DMA was located way off in Dundee, Scotland, a country away from the press on Fleet Street, and when an intrepid journalist did make the trek out to those hinterlands its founder David Jones didn’t provide as many choice quotes as the gregarious Peter Molyneux, then as now one of his industry’s greatest raconteurs. The press loved him not least because he was so willing to go against the official industry position on many subjects, full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes. Asked about the effects of piracy — a subject guaranteed to produce predictions of an imminent gaming apocalypse from any other prominent industry figure — Molyneux shocked his interviewer by replying mildly that “to be honest, I don’t think that piracy hurts.” Likewise, he never hesitated to air his real feelings about competing products: “If you’ve got a crappy shoot’em-up style game, then that’s going to be pirated to hell — and it should be because it’s not even worth using this planet’s resources to produce the game.”

The chain-smoking, perpetually hyperactive Molyneux got on particularly splendidly with the laddish British Amiga magazines of the time. He was up for pretty much anything when they came calling — as when he agreed to be interviewed about a recent trip to Japan while sitting on the toilet. From here he regaled his interlocutors with anecdotes about geisha girls, and told them that “Peter Molyneux” meant “wooden tit” in Japanese: “If I wanted to break the ice anywhere I just said ‘Molyneux’ and the whole room would break up.” He cultivated the persona in such interviews of a slightly befuddled ordinary bloke who liked to spend his time down at the pub when he wasn’t making games, who had no idea how he had stumbled into this charmed career of his. Substitute playing games for making them, and remove the charmed career, and he seemed of a piece with most of the people reading the interviews. He never missed an opportunity to run down his programming skills. “When we wrote Populous,” he said, “we barely knew how to put a sprite onto the screen.” In the end, he claimed, “programming isn’t really that skillful. Anybody can learn to program, anybody, within a week.” Asked to describe Bullfrog in a single sentence, he did so in three words: “Disorganized but keen.” Or, as he put it on another occasion: “We write computer games. We’re not businessmen.”

The Peter Molyneux toilet interview for Zero magazine in December of 1991. Molyneux had by then perfected the art of press relations, which in the case of the gaming magazines often came down to the simple expedient of taking the youthful journalists down to the pub and getting them blind drunk.

In keeping with this everyman persona, Molyneux evinced no interest whatsoever in professional credentials. Recruitment at Bullfrog operated on the principle of “show us what you got,” via little classified advertisements placed in the nether reaches of the same magazines that were featuring Molyneux and his games on their covers. Bullfrog endeared themselves even more by running tutorials in said magazines, teaching graphics and programming tricks; at least one series of tutorials concluded with a contest for those who had been following along diligently, the prize a potential job with Bullfrog. “You too can make games!” was the message. And people loved Molyneux for it.

But there was also another side to Molyneux: the side that was a real businessman, whatever his claims to the contrary — a businessman who was watching his industry with eagle eyes. When someone deigned to ask him a serious question, he could deliver a cogent, sometimes even prescient response. For example, when asked whether personal computers would ultimately win out over consoles as game-playing devices, he had this to say:

Definitely not. PCs are too much bother, even with CDs. You’ve got to configure one of the 30 trillion sound cards’ 30 trillion settings. I don’t understand all these DMAs and IRQs and all that crap. I just fiddle around until I get it right. Until they sort that out, the machine is just going to terrify people.

About the general state of games in the early 1990s, he had this to say:

The current trend in games like simulations, adventures, and some sports sims is that they are getting progressively harder, cleverer, and more challenging. But that doesn’t necessarily make them better games. The trouble is that a lot of games are getting so hard that only the very best gamers can play them. The first rule of game design is that you mustn’t produce games that are too complex for people to play. Being overly complex for the sake of being complex is not a good idea. Complexity is good as long as it doesn’t get in the way of the game.

And this:

We’re into a new thing called interactive drama. Everybody’s doing interactive drama with interactive plots and interactive characters. But I think it’s going to be a tough, tough thing to do. Hollywood spends millions of pounds on scripts. They have hundreds and hundreds of scriptwriters and they get it right once or twice a year. And little game designers like us are coming along and we’re going to write this script which is going to have infinite variations, is going to be as entertaining as any Hollywood film, is going to have cinematic sequences in it, and we’re going to sell it for four times more than you can buy a video for. There’s something wrong there. Either we’re very, very clever chaps and Hollywood has been doing it wrong for the last 100 years, or perhaps we’re talking out of our arses.

Quotes like these made Molyneux into something of a spokesman for the British games industry, in the mainstream as well as the specialty press. Whatever the intrinsic merits of claims like those above, they had the advantage of poking holes in exactly the sorts of games which British studios tended to lack the resources to do as well as the Americans.

During this period, British games still largely meant Amiga games. Thus it was tough for Molyneux, both in his role as spokesman for his industry and as a proud Briton, to admit that Bullfrog just couldn’t continue to develop their games on the Amiga first and remain competitive in the international market; the latest MS-DOS machines were pulling too rapidly ahead of Commodore’s trusty old platform. Bullfrog’s next big project after Populous II would be developed first on MS-DOS and then ported to the Amiga in slightly downgraded form — the opposite of the studio’s earlier approach. For, as Molyneux put it, “you can let your imagination run wild” on an MS-DOS machine.

The same project would be a welcome, much-needed departure in both form and content from the games Bullfrog had spent the last few years making. It would be a much grittier, more down-to-earth affair of rival corporations doing battle with one another in an oligarchic worldwide dystopia of the near future. As such, it was of a piece with many of the print fictions which young men like the Bullfrog crew were reading in the early 1990s — think Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash and, reaching just a little further back, William Gibson’s Neuromancer, the original popularizer of cyberpunk cool. (Self-effacing as ever, Molyneux claimed that “I read the first three chapters of Neuromancer, but it all went a bit above my head.”) Still, Bullfrog did add their own sprinkling of dark British humor to the mountain of cyberpunk clichés. For many months, they called the game simply Bob, after the infamously ruthless British media mogul Robert Maxwell, whose suspicious death aboard his luxury yacht and the subsequent revelation of financial malfeasance throughout his empire dominated tabloid headlines during the period.

In the end, though, Bob became known as Syndicate. Bullfrog spent a full two years working on it, marking the longest gap between games in their entire history as a studio. They claimed the end result to contain as much code and graphics as every one of their previous games combined.

Whereas Populous and its descendants were played entirely from a single interface, Syndicate was a more disparate affair. As the owner of a tiny upstart corporation bent, naturally enough, on taking over the world, you had to allocate research funds for equipment and cybernetic enhancements for your army of operatives, whilst choosing missions to send them on from a Risk-like strategic map. But it was in the missions themselves, which played out in real time from an isometric perspective, that you spent the vast majority of your time. Here you had more direct control over your operatives than you did in Populous, but they still had minds of their own, which could cause them to react with a spontaneous burst of gunfire if, for example, an enemy agent popped up in their path; it might also cause them to refuse to obey an obviously dangerous command. The missions took place in living city streets replete with civilians as well as combatants, presenting ample opportunities for mayhem. Syndicate has been called a proto-Grand Theft Auto, what with the way it tempts its player to indulge in random violence and acts of destruction for their own sake.

Syndicate

Indeed, when it finally appeared in late 1993, just weeks before id Software’s landmark DOOM, Syndicate struck many as the natural British companion to that American game, another avatar of a movement toward ever more visceral forms of violence in games. As in DOOM, blood splashed everywhere in Syndicate with gleeful abandon, and much of the appeal of acquiring new weapons was in the visible carnage they created. This prompted a brief-lived round of nervous stock-taking in the magazines of both countries — until the same magazines, seeing that hordes of players loved the violence, learned to defer to the readers who buttered their bread.

Extreme though it was by contemporary standards, the violence in the finished Syndicate was reportedly toned down from earlier versions, where you had been allowed to kill babies and pets. Play testers “told us we were going too far,” mused Molyneux. “Funnily enough, they objected most to killing the puppies…” Yet he remained unapologetic on the whole:

We made Syndicate high in gore to be more realistic. I know this sounds like a cop-out, but it’s the player who’s violent, not us. All we’ve done is give a loaded weapon to the player and it’s up to them how to use it. I’ve always hated games that gloss over violence. Surely showing the realism of a violent act is better than disguising it? It’s not that Syndicate had done anything new with violence, it’s just that it shows it like it is.

For all the changes it evinced over what had come before, Syndicate was a typical Bullfrog game in other ways. It started out thoroughly entrancing, but went on way too long, with only a handful of fixed mission types on offer as you slowly — very slowly — took over the world. By the mid-game, you had discovered most of the cool gear and cybernetic enhancements, and what had started out fresh and exciting had begun to turn into a bit of a grind. Thus Syndicate became another Molyneux game that far more players started than finished. Nevertheless, its initial appeal was enough to make it Bullfrog’s biggest hit since the original Populous, and the game and its 1994 expansion pack are still fondly remembered by many today.

By this point, Bullfrog had grown from just a few employees to about forty, enough to have multiple projects on the boil at one time, all receiving varying degrees of attention from the hardworking and endlessly enthusiastic Peter Molyneux. Thus the next game arrived barely six months after Syndicate. It would prove to be one of Molyneux’s most influential creations of all.

The project had its genesis in the first game he ever made, a text-only business simulation called Entrepreneur, of which he had sold exactly two copies — one of them quite possibly to his mother — in 1983. That failure had continued to rankle even amidst all the success he enjoyed in later years, as did the urge to make another, less dry business simulation that would appeal to more people. “Then one day the perfect idea hit me,” Molyneux says. “I’d create a game where you control a theme park.” Molyneux:

I love theme parks, and it was a great excuse to do some really good research. It’s also something where you often go back and think, “If I’d been given the chance to design this place I wouldn’t have put this here, or that there, etc.” And it’s also something that people can immediately associate themselves with. If I tell you that this game enables you to design theme parks, then you immediately know what I’m talking about.

It was indeed a brilliant stroke, one with natural appeal well beyond the typical gamer demographic who enjoyed the likes of Syndicate. Visually at least, Theme Park would be the polar opposite of that game, cheerful and bright where it had been gritty and dark.

Theme Park

Released in mid-1994, Theme Park became a monster hit — bigger than Syndicate, even bigger than Populous after it was ported to every viable or semi-viable game-playing gadget in the world. Its bright and bouncy visual aesthetic presaged the Casual Revolution in games that was still some years away, while its impact on the themes and mechanics of games to come would prove even more pronounced. In particular, Rollercoaster Tycoon, a direct heir to Theme Park which was released by MicroProse in 1999, sold even better than Bullfrog’s take on the concept — in fact, became one of the best-selling computer games in history. Today amusement parks and roller coasters remain a staple of gaming, from the more elaborate examples of the breed available at online stores like Steam to more easygoing affairs that you can play right in your browser. Almost all of them owe not just a thematic (hah!) debt to Theme Park but a direct mechanical and visual one as well, from the thought bubbles that appear over the heads of the guests wandering through the park to their whimsically cartoony graphical style.

It thus pains even more than usual to note how horribly Theme Park itself has aged, even in comparison to most of the other early Bullfrog games. Few games evidence as profound a mismatch between their surface aesthetics and their underlying gameplay as this one does. The cutesy nature of the former can confuse you for a long time, disguising the fact that the latter really doesn’t represent as great a departure from the worldview of Syndicate as it seems to let on. At bottom, Theme Park is a nasty, cynical little game, amoral if not actively immoral — a game where your concern isn’t with the happiness of your guests at all, but strictly with the amount of money you can extract from them; a profitable theme park with miserable patrons is not only possible but the only practical road to success. This is the kind of game where you over-salt the patrons’ fries to get them to buy more soda, which cups you stuff to the brim with ice to… well, you get the picture. If you come to this game wanting to build a beautiful amusement park and show everybody who visits it a great time, as the Molyneux quote above would imply you can, you’ll wind up bankrupt and disillusioned in extremely short order.

It’s really hard to know what parts of Theme Park to attribute to intentional subversiveness and what parts to simple tone-deafness. The intro video is a perfect case in point. Was Bullfrog aware of just how weird and creepy this thing is? The dog has the right idea: “Hell, no, leave me at home!”

Even if you’re willing to play the game on its own cynical terms, it has all sorts of other problems. There’s a paucity of useful feedback on both a global and granular level, which often puts you in the supremely frustrating position of failing for reasons you can’t determine. The interface in general is inscrutable in too many places, the level of micromanagement required is exhausting, and, because this is a Peter Molyneux game, winning is a task so herculean that virtually no one has ever done so: after building your first successful park in Britain, you’re expected to choose another location elsewhere in the world and do so again, ad nauseum. None of these later parks are different in any fundamental way from the first — you have the exact same rides and shops and food stands at your disposal throughout — and so the whole exercise becomes absurdly repetitive.

Theme Park was a hugely innovative and massively influential game, but it just wasn’t a very good one, even in its heyday. Its appeal was always rooted more in what it purported to be than what it actually managed to be. Because everybody loves a theme park, right?

A ride goes haywire and a kid goes flying. I’m pretty sure this part is deliberately subversive…

Bullfrog’s second game of 1994 — also the last one which we’ll be visiting as part of this little survey today — might have appeared at the time to be an attempt to jump onto the 3D-action bandwagon unleashed by Wolfenstein 3D and DOOM. In reality, though, Bullfrog had been experimenting with first-person 3D in-house for years. Those experiments finally led, after many detours and false starts, to Magic Carpet, whose namesake you got to fly — because, as Molyneux wryly put it, every other possible form of flight had already been exhaustively simulated by that point. As one of several wizards, your goal was to build up your arsenal of spells and mana in order to conquer all of the opposing wizards and take over the world. And then — remember, this was a Bullfrog game — you were expected to do the same thing in fifty or so more worlds.

The first Bullfrog game not to be ported at all to lower-powered platforms like the Amiga, Magic Carpet was a stunning technical achievement in its time. While other 3D action games segmented themselves into discrete levels made up of interior spaces only, it gave you a complete open-ended world to explore. It was a forthrightly artsy game, something DOOM and the rash of similar games which followed it certainly never aspired to be. In that spirit, it contained no words during actual gameplay, nothing to distract from the evocative wonder of its world. Bullfrog’s staffers talked in interviews about the joy they got just from drifting around above its landscapes before they’d put any enemies in — playing as they did so, they said only half facetiously, their Enya albums. Magic Carpet even had a special stereoscopic 3D mode, for those able to buy or make 3D glasses to suit.

The graphics in Magic Carpet remain strikingly beautiful to this day.

By the time you got four or five levels into it, however, it revealed itself to suffer from the standard set of Bullfrog problems. Each of its worlds was superficially different from the one before, but not in a way that really challenged you or introduced a sense of progression beyond the increasing level number on your status screen. The game shot its bolt at the beginning, then just kept giving you more of the same. Peter Molyneux spoke often in interviews about his desire to give gamers lots of value for their money by making big games. Yet, like songwriters with a knack for melody who have no clue how to take it to the bridge, he and his mates consistently struggled to find ways of varying their formulas so that their games weren’t just more of the same for hours on end. As it was, what you saw in the first hour of a Bullfrog game was what you would continue to see for the next hundred hours.

And for once, this Bullfrog game’s presentation and theme alone weren’t enough to save it on store shelves. Its abstracted and almost aggressively artsy personality combined with its high production costs and high system requirements to make it Bullfrog’s first outright money loser since Flood.



How, then, should we sum up these five busy years in the life of Peter Molyneux and his first company? We can feel certain that anything we do say must apply almost equally to his career since 1994; whether you love or hate his work, its strengths and weaknesses haven’t changed very much over the decades. An unkind assessment — of which there have been many in the last ten years in particular, as Molyneux’s real or perceived penchant for over-hyping and under-delivering has come home to roost — might peg him as a bit of a dilettante, an ideas man unwilling to do the hard work to turn his ideas into balanced games that remain playable and interesting over the long term. But the reality is, as usual, more complex than any single pejorative — or compliment, for that matter — can encompass.

Some keys to the puzzle of Peter Molyneux can undoubtedly be found in the scene from which he sprang. His design aesthetic, like that of so many British game developers, was to a large extent forged by the limited resources — in terms of both target hardware and finances — which they had at their disposal. Bullfrog’s stubborn reliance on procedurally-generated rather than handcrafted levels, often to their games’ detriment, can be traced back at least to Ian Bell and David Braben’s Elite and the vast eight-galaxy universe it packed into a 32 K BBC Micro via the magic of the Fibonacci sequence. When one didn’t have much space to store handcrafted levels and didn’t have many people to hand to make them, procedural generation seemed the only practical way forward. But Bullfrog stuck with it to the exclusion of other approaches for too long — long after other approaches became viable.

Other pieces of the puzzle are more idiosyncratic to Molyneux himself, a fellow whose own personality was always all but inseparable from that of his company. Already by the mid-1990s, his tendency to stretch himself in too many directions at once was starting to become an issue. During the period of Theme Park and Magic Carpet, Bullfrog also worked on something called Creation, where you would breed predatory fish in an underwater base to attack your rivals on the ocean floor. Molyneux even mooted linking Creation with Magic Carpet: “If you’re playing Magic Carpet, you will be able to jump off the carpet and into the ocean. The computer will then sense whether you have Creation on your hard disk and plunge you straight into that, based totally on the world you were just flying around [in].” Another work in progress, with the highly inadvisable title of MIST (My Incredible Superhero Team), would let you build and control your own superhero: “If you want to make him strong and give him rubber wings and death vision, then you can do that. But of course, they’ve all got their Achilles heel.” And then there was Biosphere, featuring a more elaborate, planet-wide take on genetic engineering along with a fictional context shamelessly ripped off from Douglas Adams, where you would “run a team of genetic and planet engineers who modify planets for shiploads of colonists. Unfortunately for you, the colonists are generally hairdressers and telephone engineers, so when they get there they’re pretty useless — and they’ll probably be eaten by dinosaurs. So you have to protect them.” None of these games were ever completed, despite a substantial amount of time and resources being devoted to each of them. Indeed, as the resources available to him increased, Molyneux’s proclivity for rushing enthusiastically down such blind alleys increased in equal measure.

Molyneux’s passionate prioritization of experimentation over the nuts and bolts of game design made him a less complete designer than, say, a Sid Meier. And yet he, along with other designers of a similar bent, have been scarcely less necessary for the evolution of their medium. Few if any designers have dared to put more new stuff out there than Molyneux, even if often in imperfect form. Such experiments can become the building blocks for more grounded designers to build upon, as the example of the badly flawed Theme Park begetting the absolutely brilliant Rollercoaster Tycoon proves in spades.

Another component of Molyneux’s claim to the status of gaming visionary is more generalized: his complete conviction during the early 1990s that, as he put it, “multiplayer games are the future of gaming.” With the exception only of Theme Park, every Molyneux game from Populous on not only supported multiplayer sessions between players on separate computers1 but was literally designed for it first and foremost. That is to say that a serial or network link-up went into PopulousPowermongerPopulous II, Syndicate, and Magic Carpet long before anyone even began to think about adding a computer opponent. One might even call this fact the perfect riposte to all of my complaints about these Bullfrog games. If you played them alone, you were, in Molyneux’s mind anyway, playing them wrong in some fundamental sense. Complaints about the sameness of a game from level to level no longer carry much weight when you’re playing against that ultimate agent of unpredictability, a fellow human. While the nature of the times dictated that most people played them solo, there are nevertheless all sorts of anecdotes about the sharing of those early Bullfrog games among friends; my favorite might be the teenage next-door neighbors who made a 25-meter cable to run between their bedroom windows so that they could play Populous together every night to their hearts’ content. Stories like these, soon to be joined by tales of multiplayer DOOM, were clear signposts in their day to where much of gaming was heading, just as soon as the world’s telecommunications infrastructure caught up to the designers’ vision.

Bullfrog and Peter Molyneux have ironically suffered the opposite fate from that of the standard clichés about pioneers. Greatly appreciated in their own time for all of the bold new things they attempted to do and be, their games’ practical deficiencies seem all too obvious to our more jaded eyes of today. But, even if we can’t quite praise any one them as a standalone masterpiece, we can recognize the purpose they served in opening up so much virgin territory for exploration by later, often better games. And if Molyneux himself has sinned by promising too much too often, it should be recognized as well that his transgressions have never had their roots in greed or guile. He just wants to make really, really amazing games — wants to make lots of them, thereby to make lots and lots of people happy. There are worse character flaws to have.

(Sources: Retro Gamer 39, 40, 43, 69, and 71; New Computer Express of January 20 1990, October 27 1990, and May 11 1991; CU Amiga of October 1990, February 1991, December 1991, December 1992, November 1993, January 1994, and February 1994; Computer Gaming World of January 1991, April 1991, and December 1994; The One of April 1990, July 1990, December 1990, May 1991, July 1991, December 1991, May 1992, May 1993, June 1993, December 1993, October 1994, and March 1995; Amiga Format of February 1992, October 1992, 1992 annual, June 1994, and May 1995; Zero of December 1991; Edge of January 1994, June 1994, November 1994, March 1995, May 1995, July 1995, and November 1995; PC Zone of June 1993 and November 1994; PC Review of July 1992; Next Generation premier issue. Video sources include the documentary From Bedrooms to Billions and series 3 episode 3 of Bad Influence.

Populous II, Syndicate, Theme Park, and Magic Carpet are all available as digital purchases from GOG.com.)


  1. Multiplayer Syndicate was made available to the public only in the expansion pack. 

Wade's Important Astrolab

IFComp 2020 Music Prize info

by Wade ([email protected]) at September 04, 2020 12:06 PM

This post offers a few more details about the IFComp 2020 prize I'll be offering than will be able to fit on their screen.

The prize is a music commission. I'll compose and produce something for you, or derive something from unreleased recordings I have if they're the ideal match, for your chosen purpose.

I specialise in instrumental and electronic music, but can do or wrangle many styles and things, so long as you don't want me to supply vocals.

For last year's picker of this prize, I composed a theme song for the new version of his show opening:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qWppNq8N0kg

Here are my Restrictive Clauses!

  • For non-commercial use, the purpose can be almost anything. For commercial use, the piece can contribute to some creative project you've made or are making. I can decline if the purpose is hazardous, inscrutable or commercially murky, etc.
  • Length is a limitation, but up for reasonable negotiation in context. For instance, some electronic or ambient music can be made quite long in the same time it would take to produce a shorter piece in some other kinds or genres. Composing to vision also takes more time.
  • If you pick this prize, you have to call it in within a year.

Links to my music

  • My long-term electronic music project is Aeriae:

https://aeriae.bandcamp.com/

Peril Triage is my most recent EP. DE is a live set recording. Victris is my most recent album.)

https://aeriae.com/

  • Some other pieces I've made in different genres can be found on the following Bandcamp page:

https://wadeclarke.bandcamp.com/

of which, the ones listed below were actually for IF games:

Black Giant (sci-fi theme)

Andromeda 1983 (C64 style in-game)

Kerkerkruip (Diablo-esque)

Leadlight Gamma (horror, eclectic)

Ghosterington Night (cheesy spooky)

The Gaming Philosopher

Keeping the narrative pressure on

by Victor Gijsbers ([email protected]) at September 04, 2020 10:03 AM

I played another session of Trollbabe yesterday, and I would like to take the opportunity to write a little bit about GMing this game (and similar narrativist games). This is not a worked out manifesto so much as an attempt to think through an approach that I've been taking more or less instinctively.First, some context. This game was online, with two people I had never played with before: Judith

September 02, 2020

The XYZZY Awards

XYZZY Awards 2019, first round

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at September 02, 2020 08:41 AM

The XYZZY Awards, celebrating the interactive fiction of 2019, are open for first-round voting. (Unprecedentedly belated, I know. How’s everyone else doing?)

The XYZZYs use your IF Comp login; if you need to register an account with the Comp, or you’ve forgotten your account details, go here. You can log in here (you’ll get kicked back to the front page, but you are in fact logged in) and then vote here

Anyone can nominate up to two eligible games in each category. (You are asked not to vote for your own work, or to organise voters to support a particular game or slate thereof.)

First-round voting will remain open through the 13th of September (on US-Pacific time, if you feel like cutting it close).

August 31, 2020

Emily Short

End of August Link Assortment

by Mort Short at August 31, 2020 10:41 PM

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

September 13 is the next meeting of the Seattle Area IF Meetup, focusing on Lynnea Glasser’s Coloratura.

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October 3-4 is the weekend for Roguelike Celebration 2020. This year it will be online-only. More specifics about the event can be found here.

Contests

iftf_logo.png

The “intent to enter” deadline for IFComp 2020 is just around the corner, on September 1. The entries themselves are due September 28.

IntroComp, meanwhile, has its voting come to a close at the end of August. Results will be posted on September 15. And the games from the recently-concluded inkjam 2020 are still online to play.

Books

Celestory founder Pierre Lacombe’s recent work Writing an Interactive Story is an in-depth look at the topic of branching story-writing. The book contains interviews with David Cage, Jean-Luc Cano–among a number of other writers and storytellers–and is available from multiple sellers, including Blackwell’s and Bookshop.

Releases

A couple weeks ago, StoryFix posted a short bit about one of the projects I’ve been working on, an adaptation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. There isn’t an exact release date as of yet, but you can check out the Steam link here.

August 29, 2020

Not Dead Hugo

>FOLLOW SO-AND-SO "Which way did he go?"

by Roody ([email protected]) at August 29, 2020 02:07 PM

 To be honest, returning to game design hasn't been going all that well, so recently, I thought I could distract myself by looking over an old Roodylib "to do" list to see if there was anything I still wanted to add.

The first thing that sounded appealing was trying to come up with a solution to Hugo's default handling of >FOLLOW, as a game seems kind of dumb when you have just seen a character leave a room and >FOLLOW responds with "Which way did he go?"

I wrote a system that relies on using CharMove to move your NPCs.  The code takes note of the direction the NPC left in, and unless the NPC returns at some point, >FOLLOW will result in going in the same direction.  There was no ultra-clean method that didn't involve replacing some routines, but this was the most elegant solution that I could come up with.  Beyond including this code, authors would just need to remember to give their roaming NPCs the "last_dir" property that I have defined.



After writing this, I wanted to test it out in a game.  I first tried "Guilty Bastards" because I incorrectly remembered being able to follow someone at some point (although it definitely has a character following you).  I then tried "Spur," which I was reminded was actually the game that inspired this whole better-following thing in the first place, but I couldn't even use my code with it as it completely substitutes another character script routine for CharMove.  I mean, sure, I could have rewritten it all so my code would still have worked, but in my sandbox version of "Spur", I had already written a >FOLLOW SO-AND-SO workaround anyway.

So I just had to test it with my own code, and hey, everything seems to be working fine.  I'll probably just throw it in the "extensions" folder in my Roodylib distribution at some point.





August 28, 2020

ADRIFT News

5.0.36 out now

by Campbell ([email protected]) at August 28, 2020 02:21 PM

The latest version of ADRIFT is now available for download.  This update is mainly focused on searchable lists.  In detail, the changes are as follows:

Enable Search on Object Names in Lists (ID 18739)

When editing tasks or other forms where you need to select from a dropdown list, you can now type into the list to filter on your selected text.  For example, in Task Actions, you can type into the object list to find blue objects:

Or when overriding a task you can quickly find anything green:

This new feature defaults to being on, but if you prefer the lists as they were before, you can turn the feature off in Settings:

In addition to this, the following bugs have been fixed:

  • %text% reference doesn't work within conversations (ID 19182)
  • User function restrictions don't work in runner 35 (ID 19156)
  • Font tag isn't inheriting properly (ID 19123)
  • PutObjectsInsideOthers - restriction error (ID 19030)
  • New mandatory property does not update items immediately (ID 18891)