Planet Interactive Fiction

October 24, 2020

Aniamosity

Impulsing: #devtober Day 24

by Jay Nabonne at October 24, 2020 11:42 PM

Today was one of those days.

After having some success the past couple of days, I hit a bit of a wall. When it comes to writing code or making something work behaviorally, I’m right there. When it comes to how things should look, I’m less so. I keep hoping something will coalesce, come together in a scheme. But perhaps it doesn’t work that way. Perhaps you have to actually make it happen. It ended up just being frustrating, almost to the point of wondering if you can even do it in the end.

I spent some time looking at 3D tile sets, many of which were nice.

I tried a couple of things in the game itself, including some block CG meshes, a stab at hexagonal tiles (won’t work for numerous reasons) and even just having a straight up texture behind the level.

Looks nice, but I’m not sure if it’s what I want. I’m not really interested in having either the same texture behind everything or just random ones not tied to some sort of purpose. But I don’t know what the purpose is yet.

Hexagonal tiles pose some interesting problems. First, you have to be really careful to make sure they meet up properly, which involves some mathematics that may not end up precise. Whereas rectangular tiles are really straightforward. The main problem with hex tiles, though, is UV mapping. The default mapping of a texture is… well, let’s just say it’s interesting. And unusable. And I haven’t worked out either how I’d want it to be or how to do what I don’t know yet. Overall, it adds complication with no perceivable benefit.

The game graph is on a hex grid, but there is absolutely no reason that the environment needs to be as well. And keeping them separate that way (in terms of different methodologies) helps to reinforce how unnatural the game’s “machine” is.

I had planned on exploring restricting node dragging, but I didn’t get to that experimentation. I did go through the 2D game and document all the levels I have so far, because those are the sort of “training” levels so far, and it will be important to have those, but also to have them organized properly. At least now I know what I’m starting with.

Day 24: time to sleep, perhaps to dream. Aye, there’s the rub. Where’s your muse when you need one?

October 23, 2020

Aniamosity

Impulsing: #devtober Day 23

by Jay Nabonne at October 23, 2020 11:42 PM

With the extension of the sparse nodes yesterday to allow a much larger working space, I set out to try recreating one of the more extensive levels today. For the most part, it worked nicely, but it did expose some things I needed to fix.

Fortunately, they were small.

First, I remembered (when it happened) that an item selected from the editor palette was being dropped near 0, 0 in the level – no matter where you were looking at the time. That obviously is not desirable, and I was able to fix it fairly quickly.

Another issue is that the Soojin node wasn’t serializing its “locked” property. Again, it didn’t take long to fix.

Both of those were nice in that the system more or less worked, and where it didn’t, I had all I need at my fingertips to make it work. It’s really satisfying when you have built a system enough that it eventually starts to make your life easier. You put in the work, and it pays off at some point.

There was another issue, but it’s not something affecting the level design at the moment. I did try it out, and it failed at first and then did something weird. The case was where you save a level when you’re not at camera position 0, 0. It does serialize the values, but there is no code positioning the camera on load. Then when I went to move, it whipped me off to where it should have been. That should be an easy enough fix, but I haven’t done it yet. A new card for the Trello board perhaps.

The new level shows up a glaring problem, though: I have no idea what I want these things to look like. And some of the nodes are really dark, even when on a bright background:

On a darker background (where the sidewalk ends), it’s even worse:

So I need to work out what these will look like, as that will determine what the nodes will look like. Or I’ll need to good layouts that work with the existing nodes, possibly with colors tweaked.

Still, exciting to be able to bring the level together and see it work. Progress is being made. If only I had more of an artistic vision for this.

(For contrast – and for fun – here’s what the 2D version looked like:

Perhaps even something simple like that could work.)

Day 23 – Friday before a Saturday!

The Digital Antiquarian

Master of Magic

by Jimmy Maher at October 23, 2020 03:41 PM

Steve Barcia started thinking about his second grand-strategy game well before he had finished creating his first one. While he was waiting for his latest iteration of Master of Orion to compile each day in the cramped Austin, Texas, offices of his company SimTex, he sketched in the mental details of a follow-up that would take place in a fantasy rather than science-fictional milieu. As soon as the one game was finished, he wrote up a design document for the next one and shared it with the rest of the SimTex staff. Within two weeks, they were charging full-speed ahead on Master of Magic. It would ship under the MicroProse imprint in time for the Christmas of 1994, only a year after its predecessor, despite being one of the most complex strategy games yet made for a computer. If there’s no rest for the wicked, it would seem that Barcia and company had been very bad indeed.

Given the new game’s title and its short development cycle, one might suspect it to be little more than a reskinned Master of Orion. In reality, though, such could hardly be further from the truth. Master of Magic is a wildly different experience from Master of Orion, enough so that one would scarcely guess it to have come from the same designer. Where Master of Orion is polished to perfection, its every element carefully considered and tested, Master of Magic is a far more ramshackle affair, a pile of diverse ideas thrown together — some more fully realized than others, some literally not working at all if we want to get pedantic about it. Nevertheless, it all comes out okay in the end; the game’s variety, generosity, and sheer chutzpah win through. Master of Magic is simply fun —  every bit as much fun as Master of Orion. Just don’t try this at home, budding designers.

Master of Orion was frequently billed as “Civilization in Space” by a slightly lazy press. It’s therefore ironic to note that it’s actually Master of Magic which betrays a major influence from Sid Meier’s 1991 magnum opus. Barcia began laying down the basics of his first game in the late 1980s, and thus its mechanics and interface are most indebted to the conquer-the-galaxy board and computer games which appeared before that point. By the time he started on Master of Magic, however, Barcia had had plenty of time to play and admire Civilization and to clone some of its approaches. It’s thus at least a bit more defensible to call Master of Magic “Fantasy Civilization,” as was and is done from time to time, even if doing so still falls well short of a complete description. Certainly the magazine Computer Gaming World made no bones about it in its review of the game:

The city display will be familiar to players of Sid Meier’s Civilization. In fact, we wouldn’t want to suggest that the same code was used, but it sure looks like it could have been. From the graphic representation of the buildings themselves to the rows of farming, working, and rebelling citizens, the city display is a near-verbatim copy of the earlier design.

The city-management screen in Master of Magic, which is almost a carbon copy of the one in Civilization. Many of the systems behind it work exactly the same as well.

This, then, is one important aspect of Master of Magic. You start with a single village which you must grow and develop. Meanwhile you send out settlers to found other cities, or armies to conquer ones that already exist. You improve your cities by ordering their populations to build structures that increase their production or otherwise cause them to function more efficiently. All of this will be very familiar indeed to any Civilization veteran. That said, the city-building side of Master of Magic is generally simplified in comparison to Civilization. There is, for example, no tech tree to research in order to unlock new types of buildings. Instead buildings themselves unlock other buildings, as shown by a handy chart included in the manual: constructing a builder’s hall unlocks the granary, shrine, library, miner’s guild, and city walls; constructing a granary unlocks the farmer’s market; etc., etc. Steve Barcia, who was eager for understandable reasons to ensure that the similarities to Civilization weren’t overstated, explained the simplifications by noting that the two games had fundamentally different design goals: “Civilization focuses on internal problems. In Master of Magic, it’s the external; it’s conquest.”

The main Master of Magic screen, where you examine the map and move your units around. While it departs a bit more from the layout of Civilization than does the city-management screen, the inspiration remains obvious, right down to the shortcut keys.

So, although you move your units around the map exactly as you do in Civilization — to be fair, that game in turn borrows the approach from the much older Empire — things go in a dramatically different direction once combat begins: Master of Magic places much more emphasis on combat than does Civilization. In the latter game, each unit moves independently over the map; in Master of Magic, you form larger armies by “stacking” up to nine units together. When two units bump into each other on the world map in Civilization, one loses and is completely destroyed and the other wins and survives completely intact, all depending on a single roll of the virtual dice which is compared against their respective attack and defense ratings. In Master of Magic, by contrast, combat takes place on a separate screen, with plenty of room for your tactical genius to make its presence felt. Units here can be “wounded” by having only some of their number killed, needing time to heal and replenish themselves.

Fighting a tactical battle. Given that I have only one group of halberdiers against seven groups of zombies and and one of skeletons, my best option here is to flee — assuming I don’t have a Turn Undead spell at my disposal, that is.

But the most important addition of all to the combat model, the game’s first real stroke of genius, is that of experience points: as units fight and survive battles, they become better, tougher and stronger, able eventually to punch well above their rookie weight. Granted, Civilization too has the barest inkling of this; a unit which wins a battle there has a chance of becoming a “veteran,” with a bonus to its attack and defense. Master of Magic, however, takes the concept to another level entirely. And then it adds a second stroke of genius: heroes, individual captains who can be recruited to join your cause and lead your armies into battle. They too earn experience and improve their skills; you can even find or make magical weapons and armor for them.

A hero levels up.

In the context of its own day, Master of Magic thus joined Julian Gollop’s X-COM, which was released about six months before it, as one of the foremost exemplars of a new trend in strategy games, that of using CRPG elements to forge a more personal, even emotional bond between the player and the figures she commands. It works brilliantly here, just as it does in X-COM. You come to identify deeply with your units and especially your heroes as you nurture their development, and come to mourn the loss of one of them almost like that of a real friend.

The debt which Master of Magic owes to the CRPG genre extends to other areas as well. Its randomly generated maps are seeded not just with neutral and enemy towns but with “fallen temples,” “abandoned keeps,” and “mysterious caves.” You can send your units and heroes to confront what is found within, if you dare; your reward for doing so is booty and the experience they earn, assuming they survive. Just exploring the world, revealing and clearing out more and more of the map, is thoroughly enjoyable even before you meet any of the computer players who are doing the same thing.

Do we dare to enter the fallen temple?

But it’s the game’s third and final layer rather than the city building or unit management that is its most defining attribute, not to mention the source of its name. The fact is that you really do play a master of magic, a wizard competing to conquer the world against up to four other wizards under the control of the computer. As such, you have spells at your disposal… boy, do you have spells. The magic system draws heavily from Magic: The Gathering, the collectible card game of fantasy combat that took the culture of tabletop gaming by storm in the early 1990s. Magic here is divided into five “books”: Life, Nature, Sorcery, Chaos, and Death. When you begin a new game, you choose your wizard from a list of fourteen possibilities, each of which specializes in one or two books of magic and has some other individual advantage to boot. Or, if you’re playing at one of the higher difficulty levels, you can also build your own wizard from scratch.

Most hardcore players wouldn’t think of playing with anything other than a customized wizard; you see one of them being made here. Not being much of a power gamer, I’m generally happy taking one of the fourteen pre-made wizards, which offer plenty of variety in themselves.

Either way, you enter the game with just a few low-level spells in your particular book or books. In place of the technological research trees of Civilization and Master of Orion, here you research new spells. Their number and variety are positively mind-boggling: there are 40 spells associated with each book, plus 16 that everyone can learn regardless of specialty, for a total of no less than 216 in the game as a whole. But Master of Magic borrows a trick from Master of Orion to great effect: not all of the potential spells in your books are available for research on any given playthrough, meaning that the sort of rote strategies that are possible in climbing Civilization‘s static research tree cannot be relied upon here. Because you get a different set of possible spells even if you play the very same wizard twice in a row, you constantly have to think on your feet. Needless to say, your overall strategy must be dictated to a large extent by the spells that show up in your research list. If you gain early access to Floating Island, for example, you have a handy means of crossing oceans before your opponents may be able to; if not, you might need to build expensive shipyards early on in at least some of your coastal cities.

Hmm… which spell should I research next?

Your source of spell-research points is mana, which you harvest from the land’s so-called “places of power.” It’s the most essential resource in the game, and thus the source of some agonizing decisions. For mana, you see, is not only important for research. You must balance the amount of it which you devote to research against that which goes to casting spells in the field and that which goes to improving upon your innate spell-casting capabilities; this last category of mana, in other words, serves as your wizard’s equivalent to experience points.

You change the ratio of mana you devote to various purposes by manipulating the three staffs to the left.

The thoroughgoing watchword of Master of Magic is variety, applying not only to the list of spells but to every aspect of the game. The sheer amount of stuff here would be impressive in a modern game, and was well-nigh unprecedented at the time of this one’s release. In addition to choosing one of fourteen starting wizards, you choose a starting race for her to command from another fourteen possibilities; each of these races comes with its own unique set of units to be unlocked and raised, as well as a unique mix of buildings that it can erect in its towns. You can choose a world with small, medium, or large land masses, with weak, normal or powerful magic. All these possible starting parameters alone ensure that the game will take a long time indeed to get old. Then, once you actually begin to play, you find an absurdly wide array of monsters to contend with, heroes to recruit, and magical arms and armor to dredge up. And then there are all those spells: spells to buff your units and heroes and to nerf your enemies’, to summon fantastical creatures to join your ranks, to disrupt your foes’ own magic. Eventually your powers become downright Biblical, as you control the winds and blight your enemies’ fields and forests — but be aware that they can potentially do the same things to you. By way of a final touch, you have not one but two complete worlds to explore and conquer; there are two separate dimensions in the game, the relatively mundane Arcanus and the magic-rich realm of Myrror. You can move between them by means of special portals on the landscape which you must discover and secure — or, inevitably, via yet another spell you can research. It will take you a long, long time to see everything that Master of Magic has to offer.

You can explore and conquer two different planes. This map shows part of just one of them.

Master of Magic‘s huge diversity of content does as much as its theme and its core mechanics to give it a very different personality from that of its predecessor Master of Orion. I love both games just about equally, but most others I’ve talked to tend to express a marked preference for one or the other. Board-game aficionados often speak of two schools of design, named after their typical continents of origin: the Eurogame, where a fairly small number of moving parts is carefully tuned for a perfectly coherent, perfectly balanced, Neoclassical experience; and the “Ameritrash” game, which is distinguished by its Romantic exuberance in throwing everything but the kitchen sink into the mix, just to see what will happen. It’s hopefully clear by now that Master of Magic is very much the latter sort of game. While there are whole worlds of emergent strategy to be found in all of its variety, there are also moments of friction when things don’t quite gel.

The most disappointingly half-baked aspect of Master of Magic is, perhaps not coincidentally, its one feature that actually was lifted wholesale from Master of Orion: its diplomatic model. You communicate with the other wizards here just as you do the leaders of the other alien races in the older game, but it’s harder to divine why you should do so. In some circumstances, it’s possible to win a game of Master of Orion without ever firing a shot in anger, by persuading your counterparts to vote you into supremacy via clever diplomacy. Master of Magic, however, lacks any equivalent victory condition; the only way to win here is to wipe out your foes. This fact turns your negotiations over treaties and favors into an even more cynical exercise than it is in Master of Orion; it’s a foregone conclusion that absolutely everyone is only playing for time before unsheathing their trusty daggers for the backstab. Further, there’s little ultimate point to all of your diplomatic contortions. Any opposing wizard who agrees to a peace treaty is probably weak enough that you can defeat her in war, or is just trying to milk a little bit more tribute out of you before she declares war on you three turns later. There’s very little reason to ever even initiate diplomatic relations, other than perhaps to trade for a spell you have an urgent need for. I know that I tend to ignore diplomacy entirely, and have never felt overly disadvantaged by it — a statement one could never make about Master of Orion. When playing Master of Magic, I do sometimes find myself missing the intricate dance of negotiation in Master of Orion, which can be as exciting as any space battle — but then, Master of Magic is, as I’ve already noted, a very different game.

Those who’ve played Master of Orion will find this menu very familiar. Alas, it’s used to far less compelling effect here.

One consequence of your inability to schmooze your way to victory is a drawn-out endgame, a problem all too typical of these types of grand-strategy games which Master of Orion manages to deftly avoid thanks to its Galactic Council. There comes a point in every game of Master of Magic when you know you’re going to win — or the opposite. Assuming it’s to be the former, everything becomes a bit rote from that point on, even as conquering those last pesky cities of your enemies can be quite time-consuming. Although you can win by advancing all the way up the spell-research tree and casting the “Spell of Mastery” instead of wiping out all of your opponents militarily — this is the game’s equivalent of blasting off for Alpha Centauri in Civilization — that process is even more time-consuming. And because all of the enemy wizards rush to attack you with everything they have as soon as you start to research the Spell of Mastery, your game is still guaranteed to end in genocidal total war.

Master of Magic also runs afoul of another typical problem of its genre which its predecessor mostly manages to sidestep: the micromanagement bugbear. Most players develop a consistent pattern for building up their cities early on, one which they vary only under special circumstances. While the game does offer a “vizier” who can manage your cities for you, his choices tend to be hopelessly nonsensical. A way of setting up building queues in advance for each city, coupled ideally with a default queue you could define for yourself, would have been a wonderful addition. As it is, you’re in for an awful lot of busywork in the later stages of building your fantasy empire.

One final area of the game that’s frequently singled out for criticism is the artificial intelligence of your opponents, which leaves a lot to be desired. In the grand tradition of Civilization and Master of Orion, cranking up the difficulty level doesn’t make the other wizards smarter; as far as I can determine, it doesn’t actually change their set behaviors at all. What it does do is cheat on their behalf ever more egregiously, by giving them bigger and bigger production bonuses. Many understandably find this solution to the problem of making the game challenging for the veteran player to be less than ideal.

Still, a recent development in the small but surprisingly active world of ongoing Master of Magic fandom provides an object lesson in being careful what you wish for. Just this year, a group of fans, working in association with the current owners of the game’s intellectual property, released Caster of Magic, a comprehensive patch/expansion that, among many other things, dramatically upgrades the artificial intelligence. Personally, I find it no fun whatsoever, and I’ve heard many others say the same thing. Playing against its smart, ruthless, ultra-agressive enemy wizards only served to clarify for me what I really enjoy about Master of Magic: exploring the worlds, building up my units and heroes, researching and trying out new spells. For me, it’s as much experiential CRPG as zero-sum strategy game. If I could add something to the game, it would be more diverse encounter areas, possibly with elements of story to them, to further emphasize these qualities. This is not to say that you’re wrong to play in a different way, wrong to enjoy the game for other reasons; certainly there are many who love what Caster of Magic does to the game. It does, however, serve to illustrate that the field of ludic artificial intelligence, which is so often characterized as simply the struggle to make the computer play just like a human, becomes more complicated than that formulation just as soon as it collides with real-world game design.

Caster of Magic is in fact merely the latest example of a long tradition of patching Master of Magic, stemming from the fact that the game as originally released desperately needed all the patching it could get. Both before and after their acquisition by Spectrum Holobyte in 1993, MicroProse was among the publishers most prone to ship games before their time in response to external financial pressures. As one of the company’s big titles for the Christmas of 1994, Master of Magic fell victim to this unfortunate tendency. In yet another marked contrast to Master of Orion, Steve Barcia’s second grand-strategy game shipped so riddled with bugs that it was essentially unplayable; the game crashed more often than not during battles. (“Save every turn, save before every battle, save every time you can,” became the player’s rule of thumb as summarized by Computer Gaming World.) A series of patches gradually solved the worst of the issues, but there remain to this day spells in the game that don’t quite work correctly. Master of Magic could have used its own incarnations of Alan Emrich and Tom Hughes, the two outsiders who took an early interest in Master of Orion during its development and offered so much feedback and practical advice over the months that followed that co-designer credits wouldn’t have been out of order. Failing that, just a few more months in the oven and a round or two of proper testing could have done much for it.

Although its overall reception was gravely impacted by its unconscionable state at the time of its release, a small group of players fell in love with the game for its crazy multitudinousness and kept its memory alive for years, then decades. They did so not least because Master of Magic became the opposite of Master of Orion in one final, supremely ironic way: whereas Master of Orion spawned about a thousand 4X rule-the-galaxy copycats of varying degrees of quality, nobody else has ever done a game quite like Master of Magic. The year after it appeared, New World Computing released Heroes of Might and Magic, a superficially similar blending of strategy and CRPG elements, but one that was dramatically different in the details: it was a more tightly focused effort, with pre-crafted maps in place of randomly generated worlds, a modest but carefully tuned suite of spells and creatures in place of a decadent cornucopia of same, and a multi-mission story-oriented campaign in place of a wide-open sandbox to play in. When Heroes of Might and Magic — admittedly, a superb game in its own right — became the hit that Master of Magic had not, it became the model for fantasy strategy games going forward.

So, Master of Magic remains a unique experience to this day. While it’s definitely no paragon of balanced game design, its rambunctious riot of possibility ensures that it stays interesting over the long term; this is one quality that it certainly does share with Master of Orion. In fact, I like to play Master of Magic just like I play that game: I throw the dice to set up the parameters of my world, my wizard, and my minions, and then have at it, assured that, whatever awaits me, it will be completely different from the last time I played. That’s the kind of variety that can keep you playing a game forever.

Each race has its own set of city names. Those of the barbarians are real-world German cities — including Flensburg, where my wife grew up. What’s up with that?

(Sources: Computer Gaming World of September 1994, December 1994, January 1995, May 1995, and October 1995; PC Gamer of January 1995; Electronic Entertainment of January 1995; Computer Player of February 1995; Next Generation of January 1995; InfoWorld of December 1994; Interactive Entertainment CD-ROM of October 1994 and November 1994; Hyper of June 1995.

Master of Magic is available for digital purchase at GOG.com.)

 

October 22, 2020

Aniamosity

Impulsing: #devtober Day 22

by Jay Nabonne at October 22, 2020 11:42 PM

I decided today to take a stab at making the sparse nodes truly sparse. And I had a bit of inspiration about how to do it that didn’t seem too onerous (using a simple dictionary with key of x combined with z). I did some reading about performance, and it didn’t sound too bad. The code ended up being fairly easy as well, after I got past an initial issue where, despite looking like integers (and even printing as such), the calculated indices weren’t, and they subtly didn’t equate. Quite frustrating until I threw an “int” cast around the index calculation, and things became sane again.

The idea is that all levels will have the same virtual space, which more or less defines the coordinates, but only the points used get recorded. Quite sparse. I just have to pick a good max size that will work with all levels. (Although… since the dimensions are stored, they could be made to vary per level without breaking old levels.)

Sometimes I wonder if I’m doing this to avoid working on levels. But actually, this stuff needs to be worked out now. In fact, I’m going to have to recreate the (few) levels I have so far, as the format has changed. I wouldn’t want to have to migrate a lot of them.

Once that is all in place, I’ll be ready to start recreating some of the more expansive levels from the 2D game.

Progress on day 22.

"Tracy Poff"

IFComp 2020: Last House on the Block

October 22, 2020 07:44 PM

Mr. Harrison was a quiet old man who lived in the house at the end of the block. No one really knew him, but everyone said he was rich; anyone who lived like as much like a hermit as he did had to be a millionaire. After lunch one day when you overheard your parents talking about how the old man had died with no family and how the city was coming to take the house and everything inside you decided on the spot that they wouldn't take everything...if there was any cash in there it was coming home with you.

In this game, you wander around the departed Mr. Harrison's house, searching for any hidden treasures. For the bulk of the game, you don't find any--no gold and jewels, at any rate. Instead, you find the sort of things you'd expect: old furniture and similar clutter of a home long lived-in.

For some of these items, you are given (brief) descriptions that give you a little insight into the old man's life, but for most items there is no description given. There's something particularly disappointing about reading "You see nothing special about the unusual rock." And there is a profusion of such useless items throughout the game. For example:

You open the knitting chest, revealing eight balls of wool (red wool, green wool, yellow wool, grey wool, black wool, white wool, blue wool and olive wool) and knitting needles.

You open the tackle box, revealing five red-tasseled hooks, ten green-bobbed hooks, three blue-feathered hooks, six fish-shaped hooks, a jelly hook, seven orange-feathered hooks and a fishing line.

I'm reminded somewhat of Hill 160, which similarly included rather too many individual objects:

You open your backpack revealing:

a blanket, a bayonet, a spare pair of socks, a singlet, a bunch of underwear, a mess kit, a shovel, a canteen, a bunch of sweets, a powder jar, a cigarette tin, a cigarette lighter, a boot laces, a bunch of spare buttons, a spool of thread, a needle, some safepins, a bar of soap, a toothbrush, a pair of wirecutters, a gas mask, twelve grenades, twelve ammo clips and twelve shotshells.

Implementation aside, the puzzle design is disappointing. Most of the objects really are useless, and there's only one real puzzle in the game: how to open the trapdoor in the closet. And its solution, unfortunately, involves guessing the correct objects to stack on each other in order to climb high enough to reach it. And to do this while subject to a timer in the form of a dying cell phone battery. Not a pleasant puzzle.

The game has a nice little gimmick: at the beginning, you select a companion who accompanies you throughout the game by picking up an object associated with them. This would be great, except that the characters have very little personality and there's no way to interact with them. They're as underdescribed as the clutter in the house.

The concept of an IF game that uses the generic conventions in a realistic setting is nice. Here we have exploration, puzzle solving, a search for a treasure. This has been done better in other games, but the idea is a good one. And the final payoff at the end is suitable: fitting in with the cold war era environment, you eventually find a bunker in which a 'treasure' is stashed.

With deeper implementation and better puzzle design, the basic outline of Last House on the Block could make a very good game, but the game as it stands feels aimless and unsatisfying.

Play time: 58 minutes.

Renga in Blue

Circle World: Something of Value

by Jason Dyer at October 22, 2020 06:41 PM

Huzzah, my Kzin problem is solved. I think.

A Kzin, from the graphic novel version of Ringworld illustrated by Sean Lam. Larry Niven also put in them in an episode of the Star Trek Animated Series, so they’re technically crossover into that universe, too.

Voltgloss found out that if you have the mysterious NIPWEED in your inventory, and you get raided by the Kzin, it takes the nipweed back to its lair and goes to sleep. By my stealth method of “peeking at the source code” I have determined this (probably) means the obstacle is no more.

Voltgloss also deciphered his way past my verb frustration with the LASER/FLASHLIGHT object. When you LOOK LASER (you can’t refer to the noun as a FLASHLIGHT) the message is

FLASHLIGHT ON/OFF OR BLAST

which is meant to suggest literal syntax. You can type

FLASHLIGHT ON

to turn on the flashlight part of the device, or

BLAST LASER

to fire the laser. This is really bizarre at a theoretical level — not only is the same object treated separately with two nouns, one which normally doesn’t work, but the format for the secondary mode is is NOUN-VERB instead of VERB-NOUN, and “ON” is only sort-of a verb (it gets used in this era as an abbreviation akin to “N” for north or “I” for inventory).

(By the way, this game doesn’t let you type N for north. You have to type GO NORTH in full, or since you only need the first two letters of each word, GO NO. I am trying hard to not linger so much on the parser this time like I’ve done with other Aardvark games, but jeepers, they’re making it hard.)

From the Museum for Computer Adventure Games. We’ll see the gizmo the protagonist is using in a moment.

The flashlight is enough to combine with the “THE LIGHT IN THE FOREST” clue to get to a PARACHUTE hidden in the dark forest. Once I had this parachute, I went back to the volcano where I slipped a fell last time (due to the rope not being long enough) and managed to make it safely down.

This is another bizarre move for the game, and I’m not talking about the ENERGIZE typo. The disc is right there in the room. You can GO DISC and EN DISC. (I already had the ID card from digging at a beach.)

This is another new area, with a RAMJET #3, a GOLD WIRE, some OIL, a locked door, and a chasm.

I haven’t made progress with any of them. The gold wire is interesting in that you can’t take it back with you on the disc. Trying to GO DISC with it in your inventory leads to:

YOU CAN’T TRANSPORT WITH THAT

In the usual cryptic form of the game, it doesn’t tell you what “that” is, but I only had the one new item; when I dropped it I was able to board and zip back. I wanted to transport the gold wire in particular because of one other puzzle I solved. Back at the altar I mentioned a book with a “hero” message.

A HERO’S NAME IS THE KEY
SPEAK IT OUT, I TO ME

If you try to PRAY at the altar the game asks what you want to pray for, so I went through some heroes and hit gold with HERCULES. (Any hero that starts “HE”, like, uh, “HERO” will work.) The game then said

SOMETHING OF VALUE

and left it at that. Was that just a clue? Did an item appear somewhere? I have no idea. What is the status of the message even in a meta-sense; am I supposed to imagine some booming voice spoke it, or it was a whisper in my head, or am I literally listening to the computer narrator injecting themselves into the story? I thought, perhaps, the gold wire was “of value” and holding it while praying would be of use, but that’s clearly off the table.

Graham Nelson famously wrote that adventure games are a “crossword at war with a narrative” but with Circle World, it’s like the referee entered the fight and knocked both the crossword and narrative senseless with a chair.

ADD: Now that I’m back in the game, after the Machine World the disk is going to multiple locations but not the starting volcano. I could have swore it just warped back, but this game is disorienting. That means (while I can’t go back yet) there are some more locations to go to.

Choice of Games

Way Walkers: University and Way Walkers: University 2 Out Now on Steam With New 150,000-word Halloween Additional Content!

by Kai DeLeon at October 22, 2020 02:42 PM

Hosted Games is proud to present an update and expansion to Way Walkers: University by J. Leigh!

First, both Way Walkers: University and Way Walkers: University 2 are out now on Steam, and Way Walkers: University has a brand new content expansion.

In this massive, 150,000 word new Way Walkers Adventure co-written by Mac J Rea, unlock four new chapters to explore how the magical city of Tar’citadel celebrates Halloween–or as they call it, the Night of the Thinned Veil: when anyone can see ghosts and spirits, be they Talented or no!

It’s 25% off until Oct 29th!

The Embassy District throws open their doors to one and all on Thinned Veil Night, and you can choose to explore three of the eleven embassies– Clan Lands, with their vampiric race and the Way of Protection, Furōrin-Iki, the plant-like people who uphold the Way of Healing, and Kinawa, home to the bird-race and the Way of Truth!

Explore these with your friends Kess and Umbrave, or your roommate and fellow kinsperson. And for the boldest of you– head out with Semryu after midnight for the true meaning behind Thinned Veil Hauntings!

Way Walkers: University is a 345,000 word interactive science-fantasy novel by J. Leigh, where your choices control the story. It’s entirely text-based—without graphics or sound effects—and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination.

  • Will you follow the Way of the Healer, or carve your reputation as a Warrior? 
  • Shall gossip and relationships fill your days, or shall you choose the Way of Truth and study? 
  • Will you seek fame along the Way of Creativity, or hone your Abilities under the Way of magic?
  • Will you choose a righteous path, or fall to the Way of Evil?

New adventures await you in Night of the Thinned Veil DLC! Buy now for an additional 4 chapters.

J. Leigh 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.

"Interactive Licktion"

IFComp 2020: How The Elephant’s Child Who Walked By Himself Got His Wings

by Captain Abersouth at October 22, 2020 10:42 AM

How The Elephant’s Child Who Walked By Himself Got His Wings is a Twine game by Peter Eastman. The player is a child being told bedtime stories by their father. These stories are pourquoi stories, explaining why certain animals are the way they are. Gameplay consists of responding to the narrator’s prompts, usually regarding the...Continue reading »

October 21, 2020

Aniamosity

Impulsing: #devtober Day 21

by Jay Nabonne at October 21, 2020 09:42 PM

It all came together today, which was nice. At least, the part I have been working on did. So I can now edit a level’s “space” (the number of steps you can scroll in any direction). And rather than inputting numbers, it uses a more visually intuitive way, which I’m happy about. It works nicely. I might still show the values at some point, if that makes sense, but for now it doesn’t seem to need it.

You can see the new controls in the following screen shot:

When you’re on the edge of the world in edit mode, you can click the “+” to add more space in that direction. Then the navigation arrow appears. When you’re not on an edge, you get the navigation arrow and, when in edit mode, you get a “-” button that makes the world space one smaller in that direction. The arrows update appropriately.

It works more spatially than, say, entering the bounds as numeric values.

The only niggle for me is the use of the “-” button when not one away from the edge of the world. If the world space is, say, three steps away, hitting the “-” will make it one smaller in that direction, but you won’t see any change (since you’re still not on the edge). The alternative, which might make more sense in the way it’s going to be used, is that the “-” simply removes all space in that direction. (Basically, why would you only want to delete only one in a direction if you’re not on the edge?) I’ll keep that in mind as I move forward as an option. Have to see how it all feels!

In the process of implementing the above, I created some new mechanisms that I’m happy about. A scene when loaded notifies the editor (if it exists). This is handy as things are quite stable at that point, so the game state will exist with loaded data.

The edit buttons are now in their own separate component. Nice and self contained.

Good stuff like that.

I had a thought last night when I was lying in bed “not sleeping” (which occurred when I should have been not “not sleeping” – or, as it’s known more positively, “sleeping”) about a new use for an existing potential component that I only had one use for before. I wasn’t going to bother with it, even though it seemed cool, as I could only think of one use, in one puzzle. But last night, I realized that the new Soojin component behavior opened the door to another use for this other component, which is really cool. Makes it worth implementing.

On a walk tonight, I had a small breakthrough in terms of how the “overworld” could be structured. I have been struggling with this for a while. I knew there would be puzzle levels, but how are they all hooked together? How do you get back to a level (something I wanted)? How are you constrained in the beginning and then set free once you get past the initial training levels? I don’t have all of that worked out, but I have the germ of an idea now, which is quite exciting.

Day 21: This game jam can party now!

Renga in Blue

Circle World (1981)

by Jason Dyer at October 21, 2020 06:41 PM

Ringworld (1970) is a science fiction novel by Larry Niven about a group (two humans, aged 200 and 20 respectively, a “Pierson’s puppeteer” known as being cowardly, and a member of the warlike-catlike race known as Kzin) that explores a massive artificial ring around a star, which has a habitable surface area of three million Earths.

From a 1988 edition.

I could go at length about the book but a.) despite winning the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards, I’m only mildly enthusiastic about it and b.) despite being advertised as direct fan-fiction, the game at question today is only tangentially connected.

Circle World, the first adventure game of Bob Anderson, is another in the roster of Aardvark’s adventure games, which includes Deathship (dire), Vampire Castle (their most straightforward game) and Trek Adventure (their best game of 1980).

If you were hoping for more parser improvements since last time, I regret to inform you: no. The parser may have even degenerated. It still only looks at the first two letters of each word, with very little feedback given on commands.

It was originally for Ohio Scientific computers like the other games, but that edition isn’t anywhere on the internet, so I went with the Commodore PET version instead. It’s just BASIC source code (which you can peruse at GitHub here), so any differences are likely quite minor.

Like three of the other Aardvark games (Deathship, Trek Adventure, Nuclear Sub) the game starts on a vehicle headed for destruction, the difference here being the vehicle is an entire ringworld.

I’ve found the RAMJET in question, but I can’t examine it or otherwise interact with it.

I’ve got access to a bucket, sand, an ID card, a shovel (which I used to get the previous two items), a laser/flashlight, a rope, candles, and nipweed (whatever that is).

You can PRAY at the altar where the message-of-destruction is; the game asks what you want to pray for, but I haven’t found a response that causes anything to happen. Near that same altar is a BLUE BOOK

YOUR COMMAND? READ BLUE

A HERO’S NAME IS THE KEY
SPEAK IT OUT, I TO ME

and a GREEN BOOK.

YOUR COMMAND? READ GREEN

THE LIGHT IN THE FOREST

I assume the latter message means I need to bring a lit item to a “dark forest”…

…but neither the laser/flashlight nor the candles do anything without a match. (I suspect I am just using the wrong verb on the laser/flashlight combo.)

There’s also a section with a rope and a volcano where you can tie the rope to go inside, but you fall and die; the rope doesn’t seem to be long enough.

YOUR COMMAND? TIE ROPE
TO WHAT?? WOOD
THE ROPE UNCOILS AND IS 30 FEET FROM FLOOR OF THE PIT

YOUR COMMAND? GO DOWN

YOU ARE AT:VOLCANO PIT
YOU SEE
PLAQUE
YOU FALL TO YOUR DEATH

In addition to the headaches above, there’s a KZIN that will randomly come and scatter your items.

A CAT-LIKE KZIN HAS WANDERED THROUGH-TOOK ALL YOUR POSSESSIONS AND SCATTERED THEM

This appears to be the “pirate character” a la Adventure that other games have felt obliged to include, but here the items really do scatter all across the map so when it happens you have to scour the entire thing again. So far it is small:

The game advertises itself as “our largest yet” but that might not mean much, given the file size is only a smidgen above Aardvark’s other games (10K instead of 8K). Still, there are likely a few places I’m missing.

I’ll keep hacking at this for a while, but the opaque parser combined with the Kzin-scattering above makes for an infuriating experience. I’m happy to accept any advice; you don’t even have to bother with ROT13. Don’t hurt yourself, though — there’s a walkthrough out there for this one.

(Link for online play here. Click “Disk Directory”, then checkmark “load as BASIC”, pick “CIRCLE WORLD”, and “Load”.)

Interactive Friction

IF Comp 2020 Review: Red Radish Robotics by Gibbo

by Unknown ([email protected]) at October 21, 2020 05:31 PM

These are quick thoughts about an entry in the 2020 Interactive Fiction competition.

In Tim Heidecker's Mister America (2019), a mockumentary which features his right-wing blowhard character from On Cinema running for District Attorney in San Bernardino, California, Heidecker promises to return the city to the "good old days". "Good for who?" replies a black man in a barbershop. Gibbo's choice-based interactive fiction story Red Radish Robotics describes itself as "dystopian sci-fi". To which the only reply must similarly be: "dystopian for who?"

We've seen robots as an allegory for slaves, or an "othered" underclass, since their inception in science fiction. It's not a new phenomenon in interactive fiction either. I previously grouched about Charlie The Robot from IFComp 2017 leaning too much in that direction, with its robot workers "stealing" human jobs, although that game overcame my initial misgivings. And there is the excellent LASH - Local Asynchronous Satellite Hookup, a nominee for the Best Game award at the 2000 XYZZY Awards, which leans so far in it almost topples over, breaking the fourth wall in the process, as its robot rebels against its master. These are conscious decisions to use robots allegorically, but it's equally interesting when an author uses a robotics theme  without trying to introduce a subtext. I don't think Red Radish Robotics was written with any kind of political undertone in mind, but nevertheless a clear political undertone reveals itself when you read it through the lens of race, class and identity.

You play a humanoid robot, waking up on the seventh floor of the titular robotics company offices to find the place deserted, and your hands temporarily disabled by the professor who built you - he has removed your fingers. Your task is to explore the premises to find your missing appendages, figure out what happened here, and ultimately reunite with the professor. It's an entertaining, well-balanced and well-paced explore-'em-up, in the traditional parser-based text adventure style, although this is a Twine game and entirely choice-based. Locations are inaccessible without suitable tools, doors are locked until you find the right keys, computers are unusable without passwords. It works well. The writing is rather bland, but it fits the personality of the naïve, innocent player-character, who initially doesn't even recognize themselves as a robot, well. The only obvious improvement would be the addition of "status" and "inventory" options, to be able to check how many fingers you have and what you are carrying at any given moment. 

On top of this, Red Radish Robotics adds a neat layer of mechanics around your fingers (or lack of them): many traditional text-adventury actions (taking things: "You cannot without an opposable thumb", pushing handles to open doors: "You cannot grip the doorknob") are simply not possible without fingers. As you slowly find and replace your fingers, you gain the ability to push handles to open doors, but still may not have enough to manipulate the items you find on the other side of those doors. The game presents a good number of locations, and a good number of objects, that you have access to early on, but in almost all cases you cannot do anything with them. A great way to represent the inherent frustration you would inevitably suffer in the situation, as you fumble and stumble around uselessly, unable to do anything you normally would. 

*SPOILERS*

What I found most interesting, though, was the back-story. Your product line, a robotic home-assistant, has been suffering malfunctions, with reports of strangling owners in the news. That's why your fingers were removed. You, however, are loyal to your professor, and would never dream of hurting a human. It turns out, inevitably, that your fellow robots are becoming self-aware, and are violently turning against their owners. But not you. "You don’t mind being the professor’s possession if that means things returning to normal." you state at one point. "The humans are my friends! I might look like you, but I am not the same as you!" you later tell a robot NPC. Storywise, everything as presented as if you are the good guy. And sure, from the perspective of the humans, you are. You're docile, unthreatening, happy to dance to the tune of your masters. You're Uncle Tom. Look at the robots as slaves, or in the 21st century as the black and ethnic minority populations of the western world, and the picture being painted ain't pretty. As far as violent uprisings against an oppressive controlling class goes, it's a massive oversimplification to present, for example, Malcom X as pro-violence and Martin Luther King as pro-peace. Yet the player-character here is beyond even Martin Luther King's stance, happy to exist in the existing discriminatory system of servitude without complaint. You're never gonna get uppity. One line clearly stresses whose side you are on: "You wish the bad ones didn’t look like you." 

The "bad ones". A rallying cry for the All Lives Matter/Blue Lives Matter crowd. If only BLM wasn't so violent, damaging property and hurting cops just "doing their jobs". Why can't blacks be more like [insert unthreatening black figure here]? The Sunken Place. While I'm sure the author in no way consciously intended this to be the message of Red Radish Robotics, it subconsciously betrays a level of privilege in its framing that is emblematic of how so many white people see minorities today. Our hero, a race-traitor, desperately seeks acceptance from his white overlords, and is willing to murder an anti-racism activist to achieve it. In the end, there is no acceptance to be found. His professor is nowhere to be seen. The very fact that the "bad ones" look like you has been enough to damn you to eternal suspicion. It doesn't matter how many hoops you jump through, they will never accept you as their equals, their ally/friend status is entirely conditional, and now you have been abandoned, just like the "bad ones" you betrayed. 

Again, I believe this is a game with no conscious political undertones. The subconscious political undertones, therefore, must represent the default, majority white view. The status quo. The mainstream. Red Radish Robotics perfectly crystallizes a mode of thought that dominates our culture and our politics today, and it does so without consciously trying. That it requires a subtextual analysis to glean this only makes it more interesting as a contemporary political work.

October 20, 2020

Aniamosity

Impulsing: #devtober Day 20

by Jay Nabonne at October 20, 2020 11:42 PM

This was one of those days where you do a certain amount of work, and then it ends up not feeling like much. The goal was to get the buttons hooked up for adding and removing space from a level. In the end, I spent all my time getting the button signals set up only to realize they were in the wrong place (the main game controls scene instead of the editor scene).

I moved the buttons (easy enough) and the code (also easy enough), but then I found I had no way to trigger the updates. I then spent the rest of my time plumbing in a new signal to fire when the camera moves. That worked well in the level base scene itself.

The editor raised an interesting problem. It is a Godot “autoload” scene, which means it gets loaded once into the overall tree (outside any loaded level). But its “_ready” method is only called once, when it gets initially added at game startup. As such, I can’t hook the editor up to the game state at that point because there is none.

What I need is some sort of signal saying “level has been loaded”. I haven’t found something like that yet in Godot, which means I’ll probably end up doing it myself – which is annoying, as I have to sort of force it in certain places and hope I have caught them all.

I’ll keep looking. Maybe there is what I need. Otherwise, I know what I’ll be doing tomorrow…

Day 20. The month is flying by.

October 18, 2020

"Interactive Licktion"

IFComp 2020: Electric word, “life”

by Captain Abersouth at October 18, 2020 01:42 PM

Electric word, “life” is a Twine game by Lance Nathan. The protagonist is a working adult, Perry, whose roommate, Sanjay, is hosting a Halloween party. His best friend, Andy, shows up unexpectedly, and they chat with some mutual friends until Perry, in response to one of their requests for a drink, gets up to go...Continue reading »

October 17, 2020

Renga in Blue

The Time Machine: TIME SLIP ACTIVE

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

I finished the game, but I had to wreck my original plan in the process.

From the Museum of Computer Adventure Games; one of the Digital Fantasia covers which makes the game feel like it’s going in a psychological/philosophical sci-fi direction. (It is not.)

The time machine has a forward and a reverse button. Pressing the button leads to an animation. It is too blinky in GIF form so I’ll give you a still.

Just imagine the “background symbol” keeps changing.

I don’t know if there was some other intent to how the buttons work that the author decided to axe, but in what I played the buttons work entirely at random.

The above locations are merely for color. The really important places are:

1. The swamp with the brontasaursus

2. The ship Mary Celeste

3. The sphinx area

I’ve given screenshots already of places 1 and 3 in my last post; here’s #2.

Each has a glass prism; once the glass prisms are added to the time machine, one last area is unlocked, where Dr. Potter is being held by the “outlaws” and the evil plan must be foiled.

The ship is the most straightforward part of the game; there are no real obstacles other than finding where the glass prism is in the first place (you have to climb up a “rigging” and it is randomly up in a crow’s nest). There’s a lot of items, though: salted beef, biscuits (this is a UK game so “cookies” for you Americans), rope, a torn sail, and a thread and needle. ADD: Or, based on the comments, the biscuits could be the ship’s variety, although I think the scene after is much better if they are cookies.

I mentioned a brontosaurus last time who didn’t want a ham sandwich; but apparently, biscuits go over well.

The brontosaurus lumbers off into the swamp with the biscuits

Handy tip for time travelers! Past the dinosaur is a small boat which is busted, near an island. (Where did the boat come from? More time travelers?)

With a ROPE, NEEDLE, and SAIL, you can FIX BOAT.

Thats better! Its shipshape now!

I have FIX on my standard list of verbs to test out when starting a game so I knew it worked, otherwise I’d have had more trouble with this puzzle. You can then take a SHOVEL from the sphinx area to the island and dig up the second glass prism.

The third glass prism requires going in the a secret tunnel at the sphinx.

This puts you in a long hall. At one end there’s a lever (near a spear) where pulling the lever indicates a grinding sound from the end of the corridor. Trying to go to the other end just finds a solid wall. I sussed out this was a timed thing, but when my original attempts to RUN to arrive fast enough were for naught, I tried to use the spear and a rock (from the above screenshot) to hold the lever in place. I eventually had to to resort to hints: the command is JAM LEVER, not PUT ROCK or INSERT SPEAR or anything like that. (Theoretically, what’s interesting is that I was focused on applying the right verb to the direct object I was using, not the indirect object I was applying the rock to.)

With the lever jammed up, I was able to enter a “small door” at the wall and find a temple. It had a statue; CLIMB STATUE led to the third glass prism.

The “growling noise” was a dog at the foot of the statue. You can either KILL DOG (with the spear) or (according to a walkthrough I checked) FEED DOG with the beef. Alternate solutions are very rare for this time; it’s fun to see one tied in with a moral choice.

With the three prisms in the machine, a new destination is added (although the buttons still work at random, so you have to hit them a bunch of times to reach it).

… and here my game was wrecked by bugs. The prism disappeared on me. (I also had an earlier bug where trying to use the boat to get to the island led to the shovel disappearing from my inventory). I said I was going to pass on the BBC Micro version, but I had to switch to get to the end. On the way, I found the usual much-more-minimalist prose:

Im in an old cellar. There is a strange glass machine in the middle of the floor! Large enough for a person to stand in!

I’m in a Cellar

The ham sandwich was left out, but more significantly, all of the “red herring” time travel locations are left out — no 2001 reference, no Mount Doom, no nuclear wasteland. This is simultaneously worse and better at he same time. Worse in that by narrowing down on the “important” locations the time travel antics don’t feel much like time travel any more, but better in that the randomly-operating buttons have less locations to visit (often in the TRS-80 game I needed to try 10+ times to reach a specific place). So many decisions in game design aren’t unilateral “good” or “bad”, but tradeoffs.

In the BBC Micro version of the finale, you arrive at a grass plane with a metal plate. You have to CROWBAR or PRISE PLATE (not PRY) to get it off, and then find a robot guard; the “outlaws” are robots. (Twist!) With a pistol you can SHOOT ROBOT (“BANG!”); past the robot is a GENERATOR.

You can SMASH GENERATOR (it turns into a Broken Generator) which opens up a “Guard-Room” with Doctor Potter inside.

Meh. I enjoyed the setting and setup of the TRS-80 version but the later (but bug-fixed!) minimal version lacked texture. I did appreciate the puzzles were essentially easy, but it meant the parts I got stuck on (like the rock and the lever, and realizing CROWBAR could be a verb in addition to a noun) were verb issues rather than grand insights.

It’s still true the segmented map was psychologically pleasing. I have the additional theory that this sort of map is easier to contain in memory; I could be out in swamp land and want to head back to the Mary Celeste and immediately know the exact steps I needed to make rather than having to check.

These are the three time travel zones that have glass prisms.

Also, this was a marked improvement over The Golden Baton; I did genuinely want to see what happened next in the story, as opposed to feeling I was being buffeted by random puzzles. So I’m still happy to try more Howarth games; however, even though he has another 1981 offering for us (Arrow of Death Part 1) I’ll be saving that for when we’re closer to 1982 so I don’t have a large gap between that game and Arrow of Death Part 2.

If you want to try The Time Machine yourself, the BBC Micro version is easy to get to and play online.

Doug's World

Dr Ego and the egg of Man-Toomba

by Doug Egan ([email protected]) at October 17, 2020 01:02 PM

"Dr Ego and the egg of Man-Toomba" by Special Agent. Based on the irregularly capitalized title and pseudonymous author, I wasn't expecting much. Yet even in the opening scene my expectations were improved. The PC is an explorer searching the jungles of Papua New Guinea for the fabled MacGuffin "Egg of Man-Toomba". The player can skip the first scene (a trip up-river) by typing "wait". Yet I found so much detail implemented in the tiny canoe and the player's possessions that the boat ride was over before I had run out of things to do. The game calls to mind the characters and setting of "Indiana Jones". Indeed, the final puzzle (replacing a treasure with another of the same weight) is directly borrowed from the opening scene of the first film.

The world modelling is deep enough that a player can immerse themselves in examining details, even while they may be temporarily stalled on a puzzle. I was able to solve all the puzzles without hints (except for one, where I overlooked an obvious side exit) and finished the game in just under two hours. I reached a "win" state with only six of nine points, suggesting there may be a few optional puzzles I missed.

If there is one point where this above average entry might elevate itself to the top of the competition, it would be with better characterization of the PC. I tried to play as a callous European colonialist but wasn't getting enough feedback to suggest this was the characterization intended. Who, then, is this PC? A sensitive ethnobotanist? An academic wonk? An agent of greedy foreign collectors? But this is a minor critique.

My favorite puzzle involved trading goods for services with a native wood carver.

This game has been entered in the 26th annual interactive fiction competition.  More interactive fiction can be found at the interactive fiction database

October 16, 2020

"Interactive Licktion"

IFComp 2020: Lore Distance Relationship

by Captain Abersouth at October 16, 2020 05:42 AM

Lore Distance Relationship is a Twine game by Naomi “Bez” Norbez. (Spoilers follow.) The protagonist is a transgender girl, Kayla, who creates an account on the Neopets-like site, Ruffians, and accesses it regularly as she grows older. She makes an online friend, Bee, who is of the same age as her, and who also logs...Continue reading »

October 15, 2020

Emily Short

Mid-October Link Assortment

by Mort Short at October 15, 2020 11:41 PM

Events

October 25, the London IF Meetup is having a virtual IF Comp game playthrough – 2 PM to 5 PM, you can join us on Zoom. As there are a hundred games this year, we’ll only get through a few of them, but we’ll aim to have a mix of game styles represented.

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

Contests & Jams

IF Comp has just opened for judges to play and rate this year’s games. Judges must play at least 5 games and rate them by November 29.

The competition is also continuing to accept prizes and contributions to the Colossal Fund.

Meanwhile, the 23rd Annual Saugus.Net Halloween contest is still accepting entries for another week, with the deadline on October 22. Ectocomp 2020 is still open for submissions as well, until October 30.

In a typical year (not this one) the AdventureX Narrative Games Convention would have been held in the UK in mid-late autumn. Because the convention this year was canceled, the AdventureX team has instead decided to host a non-ranked game jam from November 14-28. AdvXJam focuses on story-driven games (but this can be broadly and creatively interpreted) and it is open to authors at all levels of experience.

Kickstarters

“What if you could dive into a Wikipedia rabbit hole in the year 2049 and use that information to investigate a high-profile assassination?” That’s the question asked in the premise of Neurocracy, a project by Joannes Truyens and Matei Stanca of Playthroughline. The game is currently in the early stages of development, and still needs some additional funding, if you are interested in helping it get off the ground. You can check out the preview here:

Renga in Blue

The Time Machine (1981)

by Jason Dyer at October 15, 2020 06:41 PM

As a Newspaper reporter you are sent to investigate the eccentric professor who lives in the old house on the Moors. What is his secret and why is his house now deserted?
— From the cover of the BBC Micro version of The Time Machine

Brian Howarth’s second Mysterious Adventure was again originally written for TRS-80 and converted later to the Scott Adams database format; I’m going to just go with the TRS-80 version this time rather than trying to play two versions at once.

For a bit of color, here’s the title screen from the Acorn Electron version, via Everygamegoing.

I was genuinely excited to get to this game, because

a.) despite “time travel” being roughly as standard as “fantasy”, there’s more flexibility for the adventure author to get creative

b.) the plot presented itself as integrated rather than slapped on

c.) based on prior my time travel adventures, the genre forces a self-contained geography

Let’s discuss the last point a little more–

Past a certain level of experience, writers tend to go too long more than too short. While forcing minimalism is not always a guaranteed route to quality, and there are some top-notch writers who are also long-winded, brevity can temper some of the rougher excesses (I gave an example of this back when I posted about Chou’s Alien Adventure).

While we don’t often think of creating imaginary map geography as “writing”, it can be its own form of artistic creation. Crowther/Woods Adventure was based around a real cave, and had a solidity to it despite some truly random parts; authors who tried to mimic this later didn’t necessarily fare better. For example, both Goblins (the 1981 version) and Intergalactic (from the Atom Adventures collection) turned out particularly dire. Both examples share a need for contiguous terrain, and interlinking designed for sheer pain.

The time travel games we’ve seen, by their nature, force small sections; authors discovered you sometimes don’t need more than a handful of rooms to indicate an era. It becomes much harder to make a sprawling cavalcade of bad decisions. (1982’s Time Zone might bust through this by its sheer size, but that was on six floppy disks.)

As the intro text indicated, you start out not as a mad scientist, but as a journalist looking for one.

Rough opening: the above is a tiny maze, where you have no objects and more or less have to drift at random. If you step wrong, you end up in quicksand.

I was seriously stumped upon first hitting this point. Late the same night I tried one more shot at the section on my cell phone, and hit upon (after my second turn) the command GRAB BUSH:

Whew! That was a close shave..Better watch my step!

Rather than hammering on the unfairness of the guess-the-verb here, I want to point out it is fascinating that I broke through the puzzle by tackling it in an entirely different environment. One of the standard pieces of advice for adventure gamers is to play with a group, but here I managed the same effect by having my brain “reset” as if I was enlisting a member of my Clone Army.

Proceeding onward, I found a house with gloves and a bellpull.

I was able to punch through a nearby window while wearing the gloves.

This is what happens if you aren’t wearing the gloves.

Inside I found: a key hidden behind a picture, a pistol, a flashlight, a ham sandwich, and a room with a mysterious machine.

The cassette player had a tape. Playing it led to this message, given “slowed down” in real time:

I’m unclear on the sequence of events that led to being able to send a cassette player through time but not Dr. Potter himself. I can envision a few scenarios (sample: the tape is a “failsafe” Dr. Potter had set up prior to his trip to allow recording from the future), so I wouldn’t call this a true plot hole.

But hey: rather than just a treasure hunt for glass control prisms, we have a lost person, a mysterious enemy, and the fate of the world at stake (in a way that feels more concrete than just fantasy-bad-guy-is-bad). Good plot thread!

Oddly, the “forward” and “back” seem to rotate through options, rather than being “future” and “past”. I don’t think I’ve seen the future yet. I’ve made it to a scene with the Sphinx:

…a swamp with dinosaurs…

Well, one so far at least.

…and a ripoff from the book (and movie) 2001.

I’m still exploring to learn more, so this is a good stopping point. Based on the opening map (see below), I’d say the “forced brevity” idea is holding out.

Interactive Friction

IFComp 2020 Review: BYOD by n-n

by Unknown ([email protected]) at October 15, 2020 05:45 PM

 These are quick thoughts on an entry in the 2020 Interactive Fiction competition.

"A strange game. The only winning move is not to play" said the self-aware AI Joshua in 1983's classic hacker film WarGames. "How about a nice game of chess?". Later. Let's play BYOD instead.

Launching BYOD drops you into an authentic-looking DOS terminal, with the contents of the game directory listed. In the style of 90s-era cracking scene, you've got an assortment of text files, NFO and DIZ files, an executable, and the all-important "PLAY.BAT" to start the game proper. 

It's well worth digging through some of this other stuff before you begin: you'll find the first issue of "Technarchy", an ASCII-text e-zine, the "electronic digest dedicated to the computer underground", with a review of a "game-changing network tech". The NFO and DIZ will seem very familiar to anybody who's been mixed up with software piracy. There is even a graphical demo thrown in with flashy visual effects and scrolling text, very reminiscent of the old "Fairlight" cracking group's self-promotional crack intros on Commodore 64 games. Avoid BYOD-SOL.TXT (it's the walkthrough) and choose either "PLAY.BAT" to play online or "BYOD.Z~1" to download the zblorb file itself. 

The game itself is traditional parser-based interactive fiction. It's the first day of your internship at a tech giant, but your boss hasn't shown up so you have been stuck sitting at reception all day, with only your smartphone for company. A smartphone with the aforementioned "game-changing network tech" installed. How will you spend your day?

BYOD ("Bring Your Own Device") showcases an excellent central mechanic based around hacking into unsecured wireless devices, one that I don't recall ever having seen in this format before. The way this is presented, as a text terminal emulator with a command-line interface, is of course perfectly fitting for a text adventure game. I don't know about anyone else, but I have sometimes found myself typing the Unix "ls" command instead of "look" during a text adventure, by mistake. Conversely, I have also found myself typing "look" at a Unix terminal prompt. Why not merge both worlds together? The two modes of interaction, regular parser commands and irregular app commands, flow really well together in a way so much "computer hacking" presented in mainstream media, including videogames, doesn't. 

So the premise, and gameplay mechanics, are really promising. It's a shame, then, that BYOD feels like it got lost on the way to IntroComp. There are literally two puzzles to solve, and it's over. As an IntroComp entry, I would be scoring it very highly indeed, looking forward to the full game being released. Visions of the player-character stumbling on trade secrets, being contacted by shadowy figures to perform corporate espionage, unraveling a global conspiracy... Yes, I know, that's been the standard formula for hacker-based stories since WarGames, and yes, there should be space for other hacker-based stories that don't follow that template. The problem is, this isn't (yet) a story. It's just a first act, albeit an effective one, with top-quality presentation, A+ feelies and a killer mechanic. This intern's adventures could still go in any number of interesting directions. I hope to see at least one of them in the future.  

Choice of Games

Fox Spirit: A Two-Tailed Adventure—Dazzle humanity or destroy it as a magic fox!

by Mary Duffy at October 15, 2020 12:42 PM

We’re proud to announce that Fox Spirit: A Two-Tailed Adventure, the latest in our popular “Choice of Games” line of multiple-choice interactive-fiction games, is now available for Steam, Android, and on iOS in the “Choice of Games” app. It’s 33% off until October 22nd!

Dazzle humanity or destroy it as a magical, two-tailed fox!

Fox Spirit: A Two-Tailed Adventure is a 250,000-word interactive fantasy novel by Amy Clare Fontaine, where your choices control the story. It’s entirely text-based, without graphics or sound effects, and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination.

Seek the mystical Star Ball that will grant you immortality. It is hidden somewhere in Hoshimori, the human village where your family was killed.

Weave illusions, shapeshift, or control minds! Will you become a benevolent guardian, a playful trickster, or a fierce demon? Avenge your family or strive to change their killer’s heart? Beguile a human love interest or woo a vulpine mate?

One way or another, you’ll set the world on fire!

  • Play as male, female, or nonbinary; gay, straight, bi, asexual, or poly.
  • Master shapeshifting, illusions, mind control, or foxfire.
  • Make mischief, decimate foes, serve the gods, or aid the needy with your magic.
  • Get foxy with humans, foxes, or all of the above.
  • Explore the world with the heightened senses of a fox.
  • Dazzle people with fireworks, or blast them with your flames.
  • Support the human empire, or stage a vulpine revolution.
  • Achieve immortality, or destroy the Star Ball that sustains it.
  • Convince a fox-hating farmer to change his mind—or obliterate him.

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

The People's Republic of IF

October meetup (online)

by zarf at October 15, 2020 04:41 AM

The Boston IF meetup for October will be Tuesday, October 27, 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.

"Interactive Licktion"

IFComp 2020: Congee

by Captain Abersouth at October 15, 2020 03:42 AM

Congee is a Twine game by Becci. The protagonist is a working adult in the UK, originally from Hong Kong. They become ill and text their friend, Allison, who advises them to have some congee, something they used to have in Hong Kong when they were ill. However, despite checking numerous delivery sources, the protagonist...Continue reading »

October 13, 2020

Renga in Blue

The Golden Baton: A Renowned Hero

by Jason Dyer at October 13, 2020 11:41 PM

I wasn’t too far from the end, but there was a fair amount of parser struggle to get there.

Via Mobygames.

Let’s take care of the raft first. I went as far as searching for synonyms for RIDE (not the first time I’ve whipped out a thesaurus to play an adventure game), but I still had to look at hints; the elusive verb was SAIL.

I then found a lake with nothing useful on it — it turns out the lake is the final destination of the game. I went back to whacking at the places of the castle I was still stuck on.

First, a chunk of glowing quartz in the “sorcerer’s lab”. The quartz is non-portable (I didn’t quite understand if was “stuck” or just too big). I had a staff with runes around it, so it felt magic-ish enough to try WAVE STAFF.

There’s a helmet that also has runes on it, and if you’re wearing the helmet you can then examine it (which previously had “unreadable” runes that you can now read) to get a magic word. Say the magic word…

…and you are finally awarded with the quartz, and no other assistance. Well, drat. (The glowing doesn’t even substitute for the lamp, unfortunately.) I succumbed to the lure of the hint sheet, because, rather arbitrarily, you have to wave the quartz at the adjacent room, with a lizard man.

It wasn’t an unsolvable puzzle, surely — there wasn’t much left to work on — but I still felt all manner of grumpy after finishing this part. It’s quite standard for magical items in text adventures to have arbitrary effects only discoverable by experimentation, and in theory that should be fine, but in practice stumbling into an answer by chance rather than some thought process just isn’t that satisfying.

Moving on! SEARCH LIZARD yields a jeweled knife. The only other part of the castle I had yet to solve was the gorgon, and I once again reached for hints, because I had the right idea (use the small mirror) but the wrong action. You have to HOLD MIRROR before entering the room with the gorgon.

I suspect the vast majority of players, including myself, thought of using the mirror here, but where stymied when the desired effect didn’t happen automatically. I can conceptually see how HOLD MIRROR might be, to the author’s eye, declaring action in a way that isn’t otherwise present, but for the player who visualized this as already happening, it is intensely irritating.

The parchment with the gorgon gives the final steps for getting the baton. I already knew how to get to the lake, and I had the horn at the ready.

I guessed THR was THROW, but what was I throwing? Well, by process of elimination, the only major item I hadn’t used: the jeweled dagger I got from the lizard man.

The Golden Baton was hurt by two elements I’ve observed before: 1.) it’s hard to include undocumented magical items without a lot of guesswork and 2.) without complex daemons and/or characters, difficult puzzles arise from amping up the obscurity of verbs and arbitrariness of action. Also, the fantasy world is fairly drab compared to the lore-dense opening. I honestly can’t recommend this game except for completionists.

Don’t worry, Howarth fans: this is only the first out of eleven games. There’s still time to improve! (A review from 1985 notes “Later titles in the series appear to be far more intriguing.”) In fact, I have started Mysterious Adventure #2, and it’s already better than #1, so look forward to that for my next post.

BONUS READING: Dale Dobson played the C64 version and wrote about it, so you can see what the game looks like with pictures.

October 12, 2020

Choice of Games

Author Interview: Amy Clare Fontaine, Fox Spirit: A Two-Tailed Adventure

by Mary Duffy at October 12, 2020 02:42 PM

Dazzle humanity or destroy it as a magical, two-tailed fox! Seek the mystical Star Ball that will grant you immortality. Fox Spirit: A Two-Tailed Adventure is a 250,000-word interactive fantasy novel by Amy Clare Fontaine. I sat down with Amy to talk about the joy of writing about animals. Fox Spirit releases this Thursday, October 15th. Today you can

  • Wishlist it on Steam
  • Play the demo on our website
  • Pre-order the game on the Apple App Store (Note: you will be charged for your purchase now, and automatically receive the game on Thursday.)

This is your first foray into interactive fiction, but you’re a very accomplished writer! Tell me a little about your other work.

Currently, I have two published books. Mist, my young adult fantasy novel, tells the story of a group of kids who stumble into a magical forest and develop the power to turn into animals. My most recent book, a novelette called Beyond Acacia Ridge, is an animal fantasy like Watership Down with spotted hyenas as the main characters. Hyenas have a bad reputation, but they are actually amazing animals. I studied them in the wild and grew to love them, so I tried to write a book that would reflect their behavior more accurately and dispel some of the myths surrounding them.

I’ve also had more than twenty short stories and poems published in various anthologies. And although when I started Fox Spirit I had never written interactive fiction before, I enjoyed the process so much that I’ve since self-published a few text-based games on itch.io.

What inspired a story about foxes?

I’ve loved canids all my life, and foxes—both the real animals and their counterparts in folklore and fairy tales—possess a special charm. When I was growing up, I developed an interest in Japanese mythology thanks to video games like Pokémon and Okami, which featured modern twists on legendary beasts such as kitsune, or fox spirits. I read every book I could find about magical creatures, and I quickly became fascinated with fox spirits in particular.

Foxes are captivating figures in East Asian mythology. They have magical powers and long lives, and they are morally ambiguous. They can be divine servants or ruthless demons, selfish tricksters or tenderhearted lovers. I felt that their enigmatic nature would lend itself well to a choice-based game, in which you can use your vulpine abilities—shapeshifting, foxfire, illusions, and mind magic—for good or for ill, and for a diverse range of purposes.

And what is your current focus in mammalian research?

I’m actually starting graduate school this month! For my thesis, I will be studying honesty in communication—essentially, how the reliability of information encoded in acoustic signals may change as a function of social context. I will be using the singing behavior of rock hyraxes (Procavia capensis) as a model to address this question. This will involve field work in Israel. I am from the United States and have never been there, so I’m very excited to go!

What was the most challenging thing for you in writing this game?

I think my biggest challenge was learning to approach a story from a nonlinear perspective. Coming from a background in traditional fiction, I tend to conceptualize a story as a journey from Point A to Point B, with well-defined characters who have distinct personality traits and goals, particular plot milestones they reach over the course of their adventure, and character arcs through which they grow and change in ways that I direct. Interactive fiction is much more open-ended. The name, personality, gender, goals, relationships, and plot milestones for the main character of Fox Spirit are all directed by player choice. Writing about a character who is more like a blank slate to be filled in by the player was a bit tough for me at first.

Balancing the needs of the narrative with the mechanical requirements of the game was tricky for me too. I tend to imagine that certain personality traits in characters lend themselves only to certain types of goals: a selfish character would pursue their own ends, for instance, while an altruistic one would strive to help others. But working on this game helped me to see character development with fresh new eyes, as something that’s more malleable and complex. How might a selfish character gain a heroic reputation? How might an altruistic character achieve a demonic reputation? Why would a worldly character pursue a role as a divine messenger? These kinds of questions became almost a philosophical or spiritual exercise for me at times. Playing with the advantages and constraints of storytelling in this medium was a lot of fun.

Do you have a favorite NPC you enjoyed writing most?

I’m not sure I have a favorite. They were all interesting in different ways, and they all found ways to surprise me. Rinka turned out to be battier than I expected, in a way that was creepy but fun to write. Chiyo had a tragic past I didn’t know about. Kahi’s strange mixture of ancient wisdom, playful mischief, and misanthropic pyromania was complicated but compelling.

In terms of which character I’d most likely befriend, I would go with either Ren or Kusora. Kusora cares deeply about helping others and doing the right thing, a trait I find extremely admirable. And Ren’s love of nature and art and desire to create beautiful things are qualities we have in common.

What magic powers would you deploy if you were an immortal fox?

Definitely shapeshifting! That’s always been my power of choice, as it’s really a bunch of powers wrapped up into one. Whether you need to fly, shrink, grow, dive deep underwater, see objects from a great distance, or pack a powerful punch, there’s an animal that’s got you covered. Plus, I would just love to explore the world with the senses and cognitive abilities of a nonhuman animal. You could learn so much that way! Such a shift in perspective would be life-changing.

October 11, 2020

Doug's World

Lovely Assistant

by Doug Egan ([email protected]) at October 11, 2020 12:13 PM

“Lovely Assistant” by Bitter Karella is parser driven interactive fiction. Karella has written many past IF comp games set in Tim Burton like settings of dark whimsy. This game shares that familiar style. The PC is a magician’s assistant (Trixie) whose magician (Mugwort) has been kidnapped by a devious rival. Trixie explores Mugwort’s mansion, collecting various magical props and using them to open up new locations for exploration. The map is fairly sprawling, about twenty five rooms arranged in a highly branched pattern making it easy to overlook exits.

The writing and puzzle design are as delightful as past works by this author, but the implementation and parser are still rough around the edges. There is wine that can’t be drunk and a clown that isn’t parsed with the word “clown”. There is a good in-game hint mechanism, but the fussy parser renders some puzzles frustrating even when the player knows what to do. Many of the author’s past works have been written in Quest, so I imagine that the switch to Inform has come with a learning curve. This will be an excellent game after additional testing.

This game has been entered in the 26th annual interactive fiction competition.  More interactive fiction can be found at the interactive fiction database

"Interactive Licktion"

IFComp 2020: Babyface

by Captain Abersouth at October 11, 2020 08:42 AM

Babyface is a Twine game by Mark Sample. The protagonist is a woman whose mother recently passed away. While visiting her father to check up on him, she is shown a series of photos that were apparently taken by her mother. These photos trigger memories of a fable popular during her childhood, that of the...Continue reading »

October 10, 2020

Doug's World

You Couldn't Have Done That

by Doug Egan ([email protected]) at October 10, 2020 12:30 PM

"You Couldn't Have Done That" by Ann Hugo is a short (fifteen minute) Twine story which puts the player into the shoes of teenager on the autism spectrum, who has just begun her first day on the job at a shopping mall clothing store where she doesn't know anyone. She is anxious. Who wouldn't be on their first day? But her spectrum diagnosis adds another layer to that anxiety. (limited spoilers below the cut break)

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Read more »

October 09, 2020

"Tracy Poff"

IFComp 2020: Quintessence

October 09, 2020 08:10 PM

The Forever Cat stalks through this universe, collapsing it when the Others come close or shiny objects are too far apart. Will you end the Forever Cat's destructive cycle and help this universe's quanta join the multiverse?

You begin the story (again and again...) as a particle in a mass of particles before time begins, and as the story proceeds--I think--you become part of larger objects, including (depending on your choices) a dog or a human, in which case you take on their perspectives. The theme of the story is pulling together or pushing apart, whether that is particles attracted by gravity or humans drawn together as a family--or separated by death.

The concept has some merit, but as a game (or interactive story) it fails. In most cases, you are presented with a little text and then two or three choices, and in many cases only one choice allows the story to proceed, the other sending you back to the start. Once you've been through the beginning and handful of times, the only thing to do is click through the early choices on the sole path that allows the story to continue, in order to get back to the point that--maybe--will allow you to proceed. This is dreadfully dull.

Additionally, for all the writing has a common theme, there's not a coherent plot. An individual scene isn't connected with any other. There's no sense of progress, and you learn nothing interesting as the story proceeds.

I reached an ending (number 2 of 5, I believe), and I did play on a bit more, but I found the repetitiveness boring and the dead-end choices frustrating, so I didn't continue to seek out the other endings.

Play time: 18 minutes. Got one ending after about 10 minutes.

Choice of Games

New Hosted Game! Too Different by Andrew Kenneth Specter

by Kai DeLeon at October 09, 2020 04:42 PM

Hosted Games has a new game for you to play!

Unravel the mysterious past of your parents and homeland while journeying through four unique lands! As you travel, you may discover friendship, love, or things better left unknown…But whatever you decide, you will change the world forever, or understand what it means to truly be too different.

It’s 40% off until Oct 16th!

Too Different is a 200,000 word interactive science-fantasy novel by Andrew Kenneth Specter, where your choices control the story. It’s entirely text-based—without graphics or sound effects—and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination.

  • Play as male, female, or nonbinary; gay, asexual, or straight.
  • Choose the origin of your mother from one of four familiar species.
  • Romance a childhood frenemy, quiet classmate, sassy A.I. helper, forgetful priest, human-obsessed romance novelist, slam poet, or hacktivist.
  • Complete a secret poem and discover the surprising history behind the Second Capital.
  • Work with the oppressive Board or end their tyranny forever!

Andrew Specter 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.

October 08, 2020

Interactive Friction

IFComp 2020 Review: Stoned Ape Hypothesis by James Heaton

by Unknown ([email protected]) at October 08, 2020 08:52 PM

These are quick thoughts about an entry in the 2020 Interactive Fiction Competition

Caveman discovers weed. Caveman discovers fire. Stone Age begins. That's not what happens in Stoned Ape Hypothesis, latest entry in the minor sub-genre of "caveman interactive fiction". Curiously, several works set during prehistory have focused on how early man made the evolutionary advances that got them away from bashing two rocks together and towards tool-making, hunting and complex societies. The Edifice (1997) postulated a 2001-style alien intervention in early man's development. Yeah, it was the 1990s. The X-Files was popular. Fingerprints of the Gods was a best-seller. Ancient Astronaut and Atlantis theories hadn't been co-opted by the far right yet. A more innocent time. Reference and Representation: An Approach to First-Order Semantics (2016) reflected a more positive view of our ancestor's capacity for figuring things out for themselves. The protagonist doesn't need outside help to create art, maps or language. Getting chased by a historically inaccurate dinosaur helps, though. Stoned Ape Hypothesis goes for middle-ground: it was the magic mushrooms that did it!

This is loosely based around Terence Mckenna's theory that early man's consumption of psilocybin changed their consciousness and gave them an evolutionary edge, their quest to find more of the hallucination-inducing mushrooms in hostile terrains leading them to adapt to new environments and develop new skills, which in turn, gave them even more of an evolutionary edge, creating a virtuous circle of physical and mental development. In the game, we are presented with an opening location in single-syllable caveman-speak. Find and ingest a mushroom, and suddenly that same location is described more lucidly, with multi-syllable words. We are now intelligent enough to be able to travel out from the start location, encountering further puzzles to solve, and a few NPCs to interact with. Wandering around (like a meanderthal) and eating more mushrooms will unlock even more detailed descriptions of your surroundings, which yield even more possible choices in the lists presented. A neat encapsulation of the "virtuous circle" concept central to the theory. 

It's when the player-character starts relying on other NPCs to making tools for them that things fall apart. Why are they already more advanced than you? Why are you still relying on mushrooms to level-up mentally if there are already advanced folk in your society? That's not how the hypothesis works at all! It does a disservice to Mckenna, who never suggested that psilocybin works like Popeye The Sailor Man's spinach, magically boosting an individual's intelligence immediately. The effect happens on an evolutionary scale, over generations. Mckenna's theory has its problems, but that isn't one of them. 

So this story doesn't work in the way it's presented, as if it's all happening to one lone individual. The whole thing needs re-framing so that each evolutionary leap happens to a different, later descendant of the first guy, if it really wants to name-check Mckenna. It would only need a few small changes, actually, to achieve that. My thoughts are turning to one work of interactive fiction that did the "multiple sequential player characters" thing absolutely brilliantly: C.E.J. Pacian's Dead Like Ants (2009). That's the ideal model to use for a game with this structure. 

In the end, it's a superficial take on the subject matter: it never feels like the author has really engaged with the hypothesis. Anybody intrigued by the game's blurb will likely be disappointed. On the other hand, if you'd like to play well done implementations of tic-tac-toe and other simple board games written with the Ink development tool, this is the game for you. That seems to have been the author's real focus here, with all the other stuff as a backdrop.