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Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling - Jul 05

Writing for Games: Theory & Practice (Hannah Nicklin)

Writing for Games: Theory & Practice is a new book from Hannah Nicklin, focused very specifically on the writing rather than the narrative design aspects of the field. If the difference feels fuzzy to you, you’re not alone: many indie game roles require writers/designers to do a bit of both of those things. There’s a … Continue reading "Writing for Games: Theory & Practice a day ago
Cover art for Writing for Games, showing an adventurer setting off towards a distant landscape.

Writing for Games: Theory & Practice is a new book from Hannah Nicklin, focused very specifically on the writing rather than the narrative design aspects of the field.

If the difference feels fuzzy to you, you’re not alone: many indie game roles require writers/designers to do a bit of both of those things. There’s a lot of industry conversation about determining what exactly is the difference, how we define roles in studios, what it means specifically to be a “technical narrative designer” or a “narrative systems designer”, etc.

Nicklin lays out the distinction as a difference between “storytelling through design” – what is being told through the game’s structures, ordering, roleplay, etc. – and “storytelling through words”, which includes not only dialogue but also any incidental text.

The book is also aimed at writers building indie games rather than big AAA projects, for the very sensible reasons that indie games are more of an entry point than AAA, and that they afford more freedom to work on different aspects of storytelling.

Overall, the book is readable, well-grounded, and full of practical advice and useful references. There’s enough introductory material that someone who hasn’t worked in games at all before can get started; Nicklin describes the book as representing what she might say to a mentee if she worked with them over the course of a year, and that feels about right. (It also describes the authorial voice throughout: the content is presented as advice offered to a junior, rather than, say, as a presentation of advanced methods described by one peer to another.)

Even for more experienced practitioners, though, there are a number of specific suggestions about methods – things you might like to add to your own toolkit, even if you already have a pretty developed craft.

Writing For Games: Theory and Practice is divided into three major parts: Theory, which contains a lot of the really introductory material; Case Studies, which looks at three specific games (Life is Strange, 80 Days, and Last Stop); and the Practical Workbook, which offers a lot of very specific recommendations about processes, things to consider when getting started, and methods of training oneself. A few of these recapitulate things Nicklin’s made public before, like her excellent workshop on self-training in dialogue.

Part I: Theory

The first several chapters of Part I cover vocabulary. Chapter 2 describes teams and roles in a studio. Chapter 3 covers storytelling structures, which (in my view sensibly) touches briefly on old screenwriting standbys like Blake Snyder and Robert McKee before bringing up a number of additional sources of inspiration especially from traditional theatre. Nicklin’s own academic background is focused on theatre, and this section in particular has some observations that may be new even to experienced game writers.

Chapter 4 talks through story components – plot, genre, story, assorted literary devices, and here Nicklin acknowledges some debt to The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative as well as other, less academic books.

Chapter 5, “Games Writing as a Discipline,” covers everything from the effect of pacing and UI on writing to constraints of scope and the interdisciplinary nature of game writing.

Then we get “Form-Led Design,” Chapter 6, perhaps my favourite chapter in the book. Here, Nicklin moves away from talking about standard knowledge and experience about writing and the games industry (useful though that is), and instead recounts a series of encounters with different art in different media, together with what she took away from each one. These stories are interesting in their own right and contain a number of valuable observations about art and the affordances of different media. But I also especially like how it models for the reader an open-minded, reflective, and exploratory kind of artistic practice, one that’s constantly learning from experiences that might not initially seem at all related to games.

The remaining chapters in this part are short – on comedy, on additional resources, and on the ethics of labour in this industry – but all with valuable thoughts. I also especially liked this observation: “A lot of ineffective comedy writing puts everything in one place – the voices of the characters. It might take its comedy register – ‘self-awareness’ – and put it in all the characters’ quips, all of whom now sound the same.”

Meanwhile, thanks to Nicklin’s background in theatre, her recommended further reading lists aren’t restricted to exactly the same set of novel-writing and screenwriting guides one often finds in other game writing books.

Part II: Case Studies

This is the briefest part of the book: Nicklin’s quite targeted about what to quote and talk about. The discussion of 80 Days also covers things that are probably familiar to IF fans who have seen any of Meghna Jayanth’s talks about the treatment of power and protagonism there. Generally, this section is less about finding new and surprising facts about the work covered, and more about giving some specificity and grounding to the theoretical discussion preceding it.

Part III: A Practical Workbook

Your practice is not your career.

p. 179

Nicklin includes a lot of personal and ethical advice, especially in the final sections of Part I and in the first chapter of Part III. One section on learning your own needs opens with “You are not a brain on a stick”; I know I have often lamented this disappointing fact about myself.

I realise not everyone is looking to a book on game writing to give them suggestions about work-life balance, studio labour ethics, or what we should expect (or not expect) from games as a source of “empathy”. But Nicklin is interested in the deeper implications of what we’re doing when we write (for money, for ourselves, for an audience, etc.) These sections feel very much coherent with the rest of the book, and indeed necessary to it.

The section about current job vs. career vs. personal practice particularly resonates with me, because it’s fundamental to how I’ve approached a lot of my own work, and it’s also something I’ve often struggled to convey clearly to mentees and friends. The way you approach your own work is different from the way you might approach a paid gig, and then the way you want your presence to interact with your industry as a whole is something different again.

After the general advice, Part III has chapters on getting started on a project; developing one already in progress; and doing finish and polish. There are good exercises and recommendations in each, but the “tools for developing” section offered the most new material that I hadn’t seen in other game writing books. Discussions about how to set up a successful feedback session, for instance, draw from theatre practice and writing workshops as well as from games playtesting conversations.

Nicklin says that she wrote this book in order to fill a gap she perceived in what’s available for junior entrants to the industry. I think that’s right: there aren’t many game writing books that focus this tightly on the writing part of the discipline, or really attend to exactly what makes writing for indie games different from writing in any other medium or context (including AAA). Very often game writing books will spend more time on topics like constructing choices and managing branching structure (something Nicklin largely sets aside as narrative design), and will refer readers to resources on other media for guidance about how to write good dialogue.

If you’re a newcomer to this field, or if you’re mentoring newcomers, it’s very much worth a look. And even if you’re not, you will likely find valuable approaches especially in the later chapters of Parts I and III.

Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher.

a day ago

Interactive Fiction – The Digital Antiquarian - Jul 01

Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars

The games of Revolution Software bore the stamp of the places in which they were conceived. Work on Beneath a Steel Sky, the company’s breakthrough graphic adventure, began in Hull, a grim postindustrial town in the north of England, and those environs were reflected in the finished product’s labyrinths of polluted streets and shuttered houses. […] 6 days ago

The games of Revolution Software bore the stamp of the places in which they were conceived. Work on Beneath a Steel Sky, the company’s breakthrough graphic adventure, began in Hull, a grim postindustrial town in the north of England, and those environs were reflected in the finished product’s labyrinths of polluted streets and shuttered houses. But by the time Revolution turned to the question of a follow-up, they had upped stakes for the stately city of York. “We’re surrounded by history here,” said Revolution co-founder Tony Warriner. “York is a very historical city.” Charles Cecil, Revolution’s chief motivating force in a creative sense, felt inspired to make a very historical game.

The amorphous notion began to take a more concrete form after he broached the idea over dinner one evening to Sean Brennan, his main point of contact at Revolution’s publisher Virgin Interactive. Brennan said that he had recently struggled through Umberto Eco’s infamously difficult postmodern novel Foucault’s Pendulum, an elaborate satire of the conspiratorial view of history which is so carefully executed that its own conspiracy theories wind up becoming more convincing than most good-faith examples of the breed. Chasing a trail of literally and figuratively buried evidence across time and space… it seemed ideal for an adventure game. Why not do something like that? Perhaps the Knights Templar would make a good starting point. Thus was born Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars.

Our respectable books of history tell us that the Knights Templar was a rich and powerful but relatively brief-lived chivalric order of the late Middle Ages in Europe. It was founded in 1119 and torn up root and branch by a jealous King Philip IV of France and Pope Clement V in 1312. After that, it played no further role in history. Or did it?

People have been claiming for centuries that the order wasn’t really destroyed at all, that it just went underground in one sense or another. Meanwhile other conspiracy theories — sometimes separate from, sometimes conjoined with the aforementioned — have posited that the Knights left a fabulous hidden treasure behind somewhere, which perchance included even the Holy Grail of Arthurian legend.

In the 1960s, the old stories were revived and adapted into a form suitable for modern pop culture by a brilliant French fabulist named Pierre Plantard, who went so far as to plant forged documents in his homeland’s Bibliothèque Nationale. Three Anglo authors ingeniously expanded upon his deceptions — whether they were truly taken in by them or merely saw them as a moneymaking opportunity is unclear — in 1982 in the book The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. It connected the Knights Templar to another, more blasphemous conspiracy theory: that Jesus Christ had not been celibate as stated in the New Testament, nor had his physical form actually died on the cross. He had rather run away with Mary Magdalene and fathered children with her, creating a secret bloodline that has persisted to the present day. The Knights Templar were formed to guard the holy bloodline, a purpose they continue to fulfill. Charles Cecil freely admits that it was The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail that really got his juices flowing.

It isn’t hard to see why. It’s a rare literary beast: a supposedly nonfiction book full of patent nonsense that remains thoroughly entertaining to read even for the person who knows what a load of tosh it all is. In his review of it back in 1982, Anthony Burgess famously wrote that “it is typical of my unregenerable soul that I can only see this as a marvelous theme for a novel.” Many others have felt likewise over the years since. If Umberto Eco’s unabashedly intellectual approach doesn’t strike your fancy, you can always turn to The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown’s decidedly more populist take on the theme from 2003 — one of the most successful novels of the 21st century, the founder of a veritable cottage industry of sequels, knock-offs, and cinematic adaptations. (Although Brown himself insists that he didn’t use The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail for a crib sheet when writing his novel, pretty much no one believes him.)

For all their convoluted complexity, conspiracy theories are the comfort food of armchair historians. They state that the sweeping tides of history are not the result of diffuse, variegated, and ofttimes unease-inducing social and political impulses, but can instead all be explained by whatever shadowy cabal they happen to be peddling. It’s a clockwork view of history, A leading to B leading to C, which conveniently absolves us and our ancestors who weren’t pulling the strings behind the scenes of any responsibility for the state of the world. I’ve often wondered if the conspiratorial impulse in modern life stems at least in part from our current obsession with granular data, our belief that all things can be understood if we can just collect enough bits and bytes and analyze it all rigorously enough. Such an attitude makes it dangerously easy to assemble the narratives we wish to be true out of coincidental correlations. The amount of data at our fingertips, it seems to me, has outrun our wisdom for making use of it.

But I digress. As Burgess, Eco, and Brown all well recognized, outlandish conspiracy theories can be outrageously entertaining, and are harmless enough if we’re wise enough not to take them seriously. Add Charles Cecil to that list as well: “I was convinced a game set in the modern day with this history that resonated from Medieval times would make a very compelling subject.”

As he began to consider how to make a commercial computer game out of the likes of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, Cecil realized that he needed to stay well away from the book’s claims about Jesus Christ; the last thing Revolution Software or Virgin Interactive needed was to become the antichrist in the eyes of scandalized Christians all over the world. So, he settled on a less controversial vision of the Knights Templar, centering on their alleged lost treasure — a scavenger hunt was, after all, always a good fit for an adventure game — and a fairly nondescript conspiracy eager to get their hands on it for a spot of good old world domination for the sake of it.

Cecil and some of his more committed fans have occasionally noted some surface similarities between his game and The Da Vinci Code, which was published seven years later, and hinted that Dan Brown may have been inspired by the game as well as by The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. In truth, though, the similarities would appear to be quite natural for fictions based on the same source material.

Indeed, I’ve probably already spent more time on the historical backstory of Broken Sword here than it deserves, considering how lightly it skims the surface of the claims broached in The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail and elsewhere. Suffice to say that the little bit of it that does exist here does a pretty good job of making you feel like you’re on the trail of a mystery ancient and ominous. And that, of course, is all it really needs to do.

In addition to being yet another manifestation of pop-culture conspiracy theorizing, Broken Sword was a sign of the times for the industry that produced it. Adventure games were as big as they would ever get in 1994, the year the project was given the green light by Virgin. Beneath a Steel Sky had gotten good reviews and was performing reasonably well in the marketplace, and Virgin was willing to invest a considerable sum to help Revolution take their next game to the proverbial next level, to compete head to head with Sierra and LucasArts, the titans of American adventure gaming. Broken Sword‘s final production cost would touch £1 million, making it quite probably the most expensive game yet made in Britain.

Having such a sum of money at their disposal transformed Revolution’s way of doing business. Some 50 different people in all contributed to Broken Sword, a five-fold increase over the staff hired for Beneath a Steel Sky. Artist Dave Gibbons, whose distinctive style had done so much to make the previous game stand out from the pack, was not among them, having moved on to other endeavors. But that was perhaps for the best; Gibbons was a comic-book artist, adept at crafting striking static images. Broken Sword, on the other hand, would have lots of motion, would be more of an interactive cartoon than an interactive comic.

To capture that feel, Charles Cecil went to Dublin, Ireland, where the animator Don Bluth ran the studio behind such films as The Land Before Time, All Dogs Go to Heaven, and Thumbelina. There he met one Eoghan Cahill, who had been working with Bluth for years, and got a hasty education on what separates the amateurs from the professionals in the field. Cecil:

I have to say, I didn’t take layout all that seriously. But he asked me about layout, and I showed him some of the stuff we were working on. And he looked at me and said, “This is not good enough.” I felt rather hurt. He said, “You need to see my stuff and you need to employ me.” So I had a look at his stuff, and it was so beautiful.

I said, “I think I really do need to employ you.” And indeed, he came to work at Revolution as a layout artist.

Although Don Bluth himself had nothing to do with the game, Broken Sword is as marked by the unique sensibility he inculcated in his artists as Beneath a Steel Sky is by that of Dave Gibbons. The opening movie is a bravura sequence by any standard, a tribute not only to the advantages of Super VGA graphics and CD-ROM — Revolution’s days of catering to more limited machines like the Commodore Amiga were now behind them — but to the aesthetic sophistication which Cahill brought to the project. Broken Sword‘s “pixel art,” as the kids call it today, remains mouth-wateringly luscious to look upon, something which most certainly cannot be said of the jaggy 3D productions of the mid-1990s.

The view with which the intro movie begins is a real one from the bell tower of Notre Dame Cathedral.

It’s worth dwelling on this movie a bit, for it does much to illustrate how quickly both Revolution and the industry to which they belonged were learning and expanding their horizons. Consider the stirring score by the noted film, television, and theater composer and conductor Barrington Pheloung, which is played by a real orchestra on real instruments — a growing trend in games in general at the time, which would have been unimaginable just a few years earlier for both technical and budgetary reasons.

Then, too, consider the subtle sophistication of the storytelling techniques that are employed here, from the first foreshadowing voice-over — the only dialog in the whole sequence — to the literal bang that finishes it. Right after the movie ends, you take control amidst the chaos on the sidewalk that follows the explosion. Assuming you aren’t made of the same stuff as that Notre Dame gargoyle, you’re already thoroughly invested at this point in figuring out what the heck just happened. The power of an in medias res opening like this one to hook an audience was well known to William Shakespeare, but has tended to elude many game developers. Charles Cecil:

There are two ways to start a game. You can give lots of background about a character and what he or she is doing or you can start in a way that is [in] the player’s control, and that’s what I wanted. I thought that since the player controlled the character and associated with him, I could afford to start a game without giving away a great deal about the character. So in the first scene, I didn’t want a long exposition. George is drawn into the plot unwillingly, having been caught up in an explosion, and he wants to do the right thing in finding out what was behind it.

All told, the jump in the quality of storytelling and writing from Beneath a Steel Sky to Broken Sword is as pronounced as the audiovisual leap. Beneath a Steel Sky isn’t really a poorly written game in comparison to others of its era, but the script at times struggles to live up to Dave Gibbons’s artwork. It bears the telltale signs of a writer not quite in control of his own material, shifting tones too jarringly and lapsing occasionally into awkward self-referential humor when it ought to be playing it straight.

None of that is the case with Broken Sword. This game’s writers know exactly where they want to go and have the courage of their conviction that they can get there. This is not to say that it’s dour — far from it; one of the greatest charms of the game is that it never takes itself too seriously, never forgets that it is at bottom just an exercise in escapist entertainment.

Remarkably, the improvement in this area isn’t so much a credit to new personnel as to the usual suspects honing their craft. Revolution’s games were always the vision of Charles Cecil, but, as he admits, he’s “not the world’s greatest writer.” Therefore he had relied since the founding of Revolution on one Dave Cummins to turn his broad outlines into a finished script. For Broken Sword, Cummins was augmented by a newcomer named Jonathan Howard, but the improvement in the writing cannot be down to his presence alone. The veterans at Revolution may have become harder to spot amidst the sea of new faces, but they were working as hard as anyone to improve, studying how film and television were put together and then applying the lessons to the game — but sparingly and carefully, mind you. Cecil:

When Broken Sword came out, we were riding on the back of these interactive movies. They were a disaster. The people knocking them out were being blinded; they wanted to rub shoulders with movie stars and producers, and the gaming elements were lost. They were out of touch with games. Of course, I am interested in film script-writing and I felt then and still do that there can be parallels with games. I felt we needed to learn from the movies with Broken Sword, but not mimic them. It was my intention to make Broken Sword cinematic — with great gameplay.

Revolution may have had global ambitions for Broken Sword, but it’s a deeply British game at heart, shot through with sly British humor. To properly appreciate any of that, however, we really need to know what the game is actually about, beyond the Knights Templar and international conspiracies of evil in the abstract.

Broken Sword‘s protagonist is an American abroad with the pitch-perfect name of George Stobbart, who is winningly portrayed in the original game and all four of its official sequels to date by voice actor Rolf Saxon. George is a painfully earnest everyman — or at least every-American — who in an earlier era might have been played on the silver screen by Jimmy Stewart. He wanders through the game’s foreign settings safely ensconced in the impenetrable armor of his nationality, a sight recognizable to any observer of Americans outside their natural habitat. To my mind the funniest line in the entire script comes when he’s accosted by an overzealous French police constable brandishing a pistol. “Don’t shoot!” he yells. “I’m an American!” Whole volumes of sociology and history could be written by way of unpacking those five words…

Anyway, as we saw in the movie above, the vacationing George is sitting in a Parisian café when a killer clown bombs the place to smithereens, in what seems to have been a deliberate — and unfortunately successful — act of murder against one particular patron. Earnest fellow that he is, George takes it upon himself to solve the crime, which proves to be much more than a random act of street violence. As he slowly peels the onion of the conspiracy behind it all, he has occasion to visit Ireland, Syria, Spain, and Scotland in addition to roaming the length and breadth of Paris, the home base for his investigations. And why does Paris feature so prominently? Well, it was close enough to Britain to make it easy for Revolution to visit in the name of research, but still held a powerful romantic allure for an Englishman of Cecil’s generation. “England was very poor in the 1960s and 1970s, and London was gray and drab,” he says. “Paris was smart. People walked differently and they wore brighter clothes. You sat in restaurants and ate amazing food. The mythology of Paris [in] Broken Sword came from that imagery of my younger days.”

George’s companion — constantly in research, from time to time in adventure, and potentially in romance — is one Nico, a French reporter with a sandpaper wit whom he meets at the scene of the bombing. She was originally created by the game’s writers to serve a very practical purpose, a trick that television and movie scriptwriters have been employing forever: in acting as a diegetic sounding board for George, she becomes a handy way to keep the player oriented and up to date with the ramifications of his latest discoveries, helping the player to keep a handle on what becomes a very complex mystery. In this sense, then, her presence is another sign of how Revolution’s writers were mastering their craft. “It meant we didn’t need to have lengthy one-man dialogs or 30 minutes of cut scenes,” says Charles Cecil.

The sexual tension between the oft-bickering pair — that classic “will they or won’t they?” dilemma — was initially a secondary consideration. It’s actually fairly understated in this first game, even as Nico herself is less prominent than she would later become; she spends the bulk of the game sitting in her apartment conducting vaguely defined “inquiries,” apparently by telephone, and waiting for another visit from George. [1]It’s telling that, when Revolution recently produced a “director’s cut” of the game for digital distribution, the most obvious additions were a pair of scenes where the player gets to control Nico directly, giving at least the impression that she has a more active role in the plot. Sadly, one of these takes place before the bombing in the Parisian café, rather spoiling that dramatically perfect — and perfectly dramatic — in medias res opening.

So much for the characters. Now, back to the subject of humor:

There’s the time when George tells Nico that he’s just visited the costume shop whence he believes the bomber to have rented his clown suit. “Yeah, I like it. What are you supposed to be?” she asks. Da-dum-dum!

“I didn’t hire a costume,” answers our terminally earnest protagonist. “These are my clothes and you know it.”

And then there’s Nico and (a jealous) George’s discussion with a French historian about Britain’s status during the time of the Roman Empire. “To the Romans, the Mediterranean was the center of the universe,” says the historian. “Britain was a remote, unfriendly place inhabited by blue-painted savages.”

“It hasn’t changed much,” says Nico. Da-dum-dum-dum!

“Well, they’ve stopped painting themselves blue,” says our straight man George.

“Except when they go to a football match,” deadpans Nico. Da-dum-dum-dum-dum!

You get the idea. I should say that all of this is made funnier by the performances of the voice cast, who are clearly having a grand old time turning their accents up to eleven. (Like so many Anglosphere productions, Broken Sword seems to think that everyone speaks English all the time, just in funny ways and with a light salting of words like bonjour and merci.)

And yet — and this is the truly remarkable part — the campiness of it all never entirely overwhelms the plot. The game is capable of creating real dramatic tension and a palpable sense of danger from time to time. It demands to be taken seriously at such junctures; while you can’t lock yourself out of victory without knowing it, you can die. The game walks a tenuous tightrope indeed between drama and comedy, but it very seldom loses its balance.

It wasn’t easy being a writer of geopolitical thrillers in the 1990s, that period of blissful peace and prosperity in the West after the end of the Cold War and before the War on Terror, the resurgence of authoritarianism, a global pandemic, and a widespread understanding of the magnitude of the crisis of global warming. Where exactly was one to find apocalyptic conflicts in such a milieu? It’s almost chilling to watch this clip today. What seemed an example of typically absurd videogame evil in 1996 feels disturbingly relevant today — not the Knights Templar nonsense, that is, but all the real-world problems that are blamed on it. If only it was as simple as stamping out a single cabal of occultists…

It’s hard to reconcile Broken Sword‘s Syria, a place where horror exists only in the form of Knights Templar assassins, a peddler of dodgy kebobs, and — most horrifying of all — an American tourist in sandals and knee socks, with the reality of the country of today. The civil war that is now being fought there has claimed the lives of more than half a million people and shattered tens of millions more.

With Nico in her Parisian flat.

Wars and governments may come and go, but the pub life of Ireland is eternal.

A villa in Spain with a connection to the Knights Templar and a grouchy gardener whom George will need to outwit.

Amidst ruins of a Scottish castle fit for a work of Romantic art, on the cusp of foiling the conspirators’ nefarious plot.

Revolution spent an inordinate amount of time — fully two and a half years — honing their shot at the adventure-game big leagues. They were silent for so long that some in the British press consigned them to the “where are they now?” file. “Whatever happened to Revolution Software?” asked PC Zone magazine in January of 1996. “Two releases down the line, they seem to have vanished.”

Alas, by the time Broken Sword was finally ready to go in the fall of 1996, the public’s ardor for the adventure genre had begun to dissipate. Despite a slew of high-profile, ambitious releases, 1996 had yet to produce a million-selling hit like the previous year’s Phantasmagoria, or like Myst the year before that. Especially in the United States, the industry’s focus was shifting to 3D action-oriented games, which not only sold better but were cheaper and faster to make than adventure games. In what some might call a sad commentary on the times, Virgin’s American arm insisted that the name of Broken Sword be changed to Circle of Blood. “They wanted it to be much more ‘bloody’ sounding,” says Charles Cecil.

For all of its high production values, the game was widely perceived by the American gaming press as a second-tier entry in a crowded field plagued by flagging enthusiasm. Computer Gaming World‘s review reads as a more reserved endorsement than the final rating of four stars out of five might imply. “The lengthy conversations often drag on before getting to the point,” wrote the author. If you had told her that Broken Sword — or rather Circle of Blood, as she knew it — would still be seeing sequels published in the second decade after such adventure standard bearers as King’s Quest and Gabriel Knight had been consigned to the videogame history books, she would surely have been shocked to say the least.

Ah, yes, Gabriel Knight… the review refers several times to that other series of adventure games masterminded by Sierra’s Jane Jensen. Even today, Gabriel Knight still seems to be the elephant in the room whenever anyone talks about Broken Sword. And on the surface, there really are a lot of similarities between the two. Both present plots that are, for all their absurdity, extrapolations on real history; both are very interested in inculcating a sense of place in their players; both feature a male protagonist and a female sidekick who develop feelings for one another despite their constant bickering, and whose rapport their audience developed feelings for to such an extent that they encouraged the developers to make the sidekick into a full-fledged co-star. According to one line of argument in adventure-game fandom, Broken Sword is a thinly disguised knock-off of Gabriel Knight. (The first game of Sierra’s series was released back in 1993, giving Revolution plenty of time to digest it and copy it.) Many will tell you that the imitation is self-evidently shallower and sillier than its richer inspiration.

But it seems to me that this argument is unfair, or at least incomplete. To begin with, the whole comparison feels more apt if you’ve only read about the games in question than if you’ve actually played them. Leaving aside the fraught and ultimately irrelevant question of influence — for the record, Charles Cecil and others from Revolution do not cite Gabriel Knight as a significant influence — there is a difference in craft that needs to be acknowledged. The Gabriel Knight games are fascinating to me not so much for what they achieve as for what they attempt. They positively scream out for critical clichés about reaches exceeding grasps; they’re desperate to elevate the art of interactive storytelling to some sort of adult respectability, but they never quite figure out how to do that while also being playable, soluble adventure games.

Broken Sword aims lower, yes, but hits its mark dead-center. From beginning to end, it oozes attention to the details of good game design. “We had to be very careful, and so we went through lots of [puzzles], seeing which ones would be fun,” says Charles Cecil. “These drive the story on, providing rewards as the player goes along, so we had to get them right.” One seldom hears similar anecdotes from the people who worked on Sierra’s games.

This, then, is the one aspect of Broken Sword I haven’t yet discussed: it’s a superb example of classic adventure design. Its puzzles are tricky at times, but never unclued, never random, evincing a respect for its player that was too often lost amidst the high concepts of games like Gabriel Knight.

Of course, if you dislike traditional adventure games on principle, Broken Sword will not change your mind. As an almost defiantly traditionalist creation, it resolves none of the fundamental issues with the genre that infuriate so many. The puzzles it sets in front of you seldom have much to do with the mystery you’re supposed to be unraveling. In the midst of attempting to foil a conspiracy of world domination, you’ll expend most of your brainpower on such pressing tasks as luring an ornery goat out of an Irish farmer’s field and scouring a Syrian village for a kebob seller’s lucky toilet brush. (Don’t ask!) Needless to say, most of the solutions George comes up with are, although typical of an adventure game, ridiculous, illegal, and/or immoral in any other context. The only way to play them is for laughs.

And this, I think, is what Broken Sword understands about the genre that Gabriel Knight does not. The latter’s puzzles are equally ridiculous (and too often less soluble), but the game tries to play it straight, creating cognitive dissonances all over the place. Broken Sword, on the other hand, isn’t afraid to lean into the limitations of its chosen genre and turn them into opportunities — opportunities, that is, to just be funny. Having made that concession, if concession it be, it finds that it can still keep its overarching plot from degenerating into farce. It’s a pragmatic compromise that works.

I like to think that the wisdom of its approach has been more appreciated in recent years, as even the more hardcore among us have become somewhat less insistent on adventure games as deathless interactive art and more willing to just enjoy them for what they are. Broken Sword may have been old-school even when it was a brand-new game, but it’s no musty artifact today. It remains as charming, colorful, and entertaining as ever, an example of a game whose reach is precisely calibrated to its grasp.

(Sources: the books The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln and Grand Thieves and Tomb Raiders: How British Video Games Conquered the World by Magnus Anderson and Rebecca Levene; Retro Gamer 31, 63, 146, and 148; PC Zone of January 1996; Computer Gaming World of February 1997. Online sources include Charles Cecil’s interviews with Anthony Lacey of Dining with Strangers, John Walker of Rock Paper Shotgun, Marty Mulrooney of Alternative Magazine Online, and Peter Rootham-Smith of Game Boomers.

Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars is available for digital purchase as a “director’s cut” whose additions and modifications are of dubious benefit. Luckily, the download includes the original game, which is well worth the purchase price in itself.)


1 It’s telling that, when Revolution recently produced a “director’s cut” of the game for digital distribution, the most obvious additions were a pair of scenes where the player gets to control Nico directly, giving at least the impression that she has a more active role in the plot. Sadly, one of these takes place before the bombing in the Parisian café, rather spoiling that dramatically perfect — and perfectly dramatic — in medias res opening.
6 days ago

The People's Republic of Interactive Fiction - Jun 30

July meeting (online)

The Boston IF meetup for July will be Thursday, July 7, 6:30 pm Eastern time. We will post the Zoom link to the mailing list on the day of the meeting. 6 days ago

The Boston IF meetup for July will be Thursday, July 7, 6:30 pm Eastern time.

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

6 days ago

Key & Compass Blog - Jun 29

New walkthroughs for June 2022

On Tuesday, June 28, 2022, I published new walkthroughs for the games and stories listed below! Some of these were paid for by my wonderful patrons at Patreon. Please consider supporting me to make even more new walkthroughs for works of interactive fiction at Patreon and Ko-fi. Dessert Island Adventure (2022) by Nils Fagerburg In […] 8 days ago

On Tuesday, June 28, 2022, I published new walkthroughs for the games and stories listed below! Some of these were paid for by my wonderful patrons at Patreon. Please consider supporting me to make even more new walkthroughs for works of interactive fiction at Patreon and Ko-fi.

Dessert Island Adventure (2022) by Nils Fagerburg

In this fantasy game, you play as Orange Mehringer, an apprentice to Mary Hollywood, the famous pastry wizard. As part of your midterm exam, you must find as many magic ingredients as you can from this dessert island. (And no, that’s not a typo.)

This game was written in Javascript and was a participant in the Text Adventure Literacy Jam 2022 (TALP 2022) event where it took 4th place.

IFDB | My walkthrough and map

A Very Hairy Fish-Mess (2009) by Byron Alexander Campbell

In this absurd horror-comedy, you were making a cheese sammich when Cthulhu summons you to her throne room deep below your home. She tells you that Fishmas, the Time of Giving, is nigh. She orders you to give Cthulhu the largest, stinkiest fish in Cthulhu’s Great Realm. Now begone! Fetch it, Human! There shall be much Fishmas Cheer!

This game was written in ALAN 3.

IFDB | My walkthrough and maps

The Witch’s Apprentice (2019) by Garry Francis

In this game, you play as Susan, a 14 year-old apprentice witch, assigned to Broomhilda, a much older witch. When you first meet in her basement, she orders you to find eight ingredients for her cauldron. She’s brewing a spell that will keep children safe from restless spirits this Halloween.

This game was written in Adventuron and was an entry in Adventuron Halloween Jam 2019 where it took 1st place.

IFDB | My walkthrough and map

Magic (2008) by Geoff Fortytwo

In this odd game, you play as a magician-for-hire the day after a bad gig and a night in the rain. You find your top hat and flip its catch to release Rupert, your rabbit, who immediately attacks you like a demon and starts a reign of terror. You also find a Meta trick that lets you COMPARE things to other things to transform them.

This game was an entry in IF Comp 2008 where it took 14th place.

IFDB | My walkthrough and map

The Blue Lettuce (2021) by Caleb Wilson

In this short fantasy, you play as a groundhog in a wizard’s garden. There’s lots of tasty magical plants you want to eat today, but the blue lettuce is the tastiest!

This game was a participant in the Text Adventure Literacy Jam 2021 event where it took 5th place. It was also a top-five finalist for the Scott’s Choice Award.

IFDB | My walkthrough and map

Dash Slapney and the Calamitous Candy Corn Cornucopia (2011) by Andrew Schultz

In this silly small buggy game, you play as Dash Slapney. You foil the bad guys with a bare minimum effort and dumb luck. Your new mission: save Halloween here in Vanillaville. It’s being taken over by candy corn.

This game was an entry in Ectocomp 2011 where it took 5th place.

IFDB | My walkthrough and map

Heated (2010) by Timothy Peers

In this frustrating slice of life, you wake up to the blaring of your alarm clock. But don’t get heated! Your future is at stake! Can you get to work on time, looking good, smelling good, and with a cool head? If you fail, you could lose your job. But success could mean a raise or even a promotion!

This game was an entry in IF Comp 2010 where it took 20th place.

IFDB | My walkthrough and map

The Queen of Swords (2003) by Jessica Knoch

In this one-room art piece, you play as a woman in a reserved room at the local library where you and your husband, David, will practise using electric fencing equipment. There’s quite a lot of it, and you’re not sure what order to put everything on or what connects to what. David, of course, will try to help.

This work was an exhibit at the 2003 IF Art Show where it was awarded a Best of Show ribbon.

IFDB | My walkthrough and map

Threediopolis (2013) by Andrew Schultz (writing as “Ned Yompus”)

In this wordplay game, you play as a citizen of the multi-level city of Threediopolis in the year 2100. Today, you got lost and found Ed Dunn in a penthouse. He immediately hires you to visit several people and places, but his list is rather cryptic. Still, it includes all the addresses, so how hard can it be?

This work was an entry in IF Comp 2013 where it took 7th place. At the 2013 XYZZY Awards, Threediopolis was a finalist in both the Best Puzzles and Best Individual Puzzle categories.

IFDB | My walkthrough and maps

Wedding Day (2014) by E. Joyce

In this short story, it’s your wedding day. You are not young for a bride. Once dressed, you try to enjoy the celebration in the village square. But as the crowd dances and the Village Elder stands apart, watching, you wonder if you can truly go through with it. Are you ready?

This story was an entry in Ectocomp 2014 where it took 5th place.

IFDB | My walkthrough and map

8 days ago

Impulsing The Game - Jun 26


Warning: There is this known phenomenon where, when certain words are repeated over and over, they cease to have any meaning and simply become odd sounds. If such a thing occurs in what is to follow, it is recommended to step away for a while until meaning returns. I’d like to start out by asking […] 11 days ago

Warning: There is this known phenomenon where, when certain words are repeated over and over, they cease to have any meaning and simply become odd sounds. If such a thing occurs in what is to follow, it is recommended to step away for a while until meaning returns.

I’d like to start out by asking a simple question. The reasons why will come up later, but I think the question in and of itself is interesting. The question is this:

What does the word “mean” mean?

Now, I know there are probably any number of people out there (like me) who will immediately point out that the word “mean” can have many different meanings. I’m really interested in the meaning of “mean” that has to do with meaning, though, not with with things like mathematical averages or people who aren’t very nice. So let’s restate the question in a way that is perhaps a bit more mind-bending but hopefully more precise:

What does the last word in this question mean?

Perhaps you are able to come up with a definitive answer immediately and can spit out verbatim a dictionary definition of the word “mean”. Perhaps you could come up with something after a bit of thought. Perhaps you weren’t able to come up with an answer at all. If I can be honest, I was a bit in that last camp myself.

Here is the thing, though: even if you had a tricky time coming up with an answer – or, in fact, couldn’t work up any answer – you still knew what the question was asking. It’s actually a fairly straightforward and common thing to do, to ask what words mean. This means that

even though you couldn’t come up with an answer in words to what “mean” means, you knew what it meant anyway. You just couldn’t express it using other words.

You understood the question, even though you couldn’t actually answer it, even though it was talking about a part of itself, which was something you understood.

Mind buzzing yet?

This raises something I realized at some point, which is that the meaning that we assign to words is not necessarily what is given in dictionary definitions. We typically don’t learn words by looking up their definition. I know that, personally, the vast majority of words I know I learned implicitly, through hearing or seeing them used in context. I know what those words mean, even if I can’t give you a dictionary definition of them. The word itself is how I describe that meaning. Maybe someone can give you its meaning in different words, but that doesn’t change the fact that I use that word to convey that meaning that I intend, because that is the word I use for its meaning.

Sometimes I will go look up a word that I have been using for a while (perhaps a long time) when it suddenly occurs to me that I may have been using it incorrectly all that time. What’s interesting is that usually my internalized meaning of the word agrees to a great extent with what the dictionary definition says, even though I never looked up the word before or had it explained to me in words. I was able to pick up on its meaning contextually.

Let’s add something else into the mix:

What is the meaning of the word “meaning”?

I don’t expect you to work up that one yourself. That one feels even deeper, and when I went to look up its dictionary definition, I discovered there were aspects to it that hadn’t made it into the sort of implicitly derived meaning I had assigned to it. The first definition I came across was this:

what is meant by a word, text, concept, or action.

Ok, well that’s not very useful. It relies on the word “meant”, which is tied up in “meaning” anyway. It’s sort of self-referencing. (More on that sort of thing later as well.)

So I found another, more interesting definition:

the thing one intends to convey especially by language

There are other variants of that that expand more, noting it might not be language as such. You could be using signs, symbols, sounds, gestures, or anything else that communicates.

What I find interesting about this is the “intends to convey” part – we have this thing inside us that we want to communicate to someone else, and we do that with words, gestures, etc. What that implies is that the words themselves are not the meaning. The words are a mechanism for conveying meaning, but they aren’t the meaning themselves.

Ironically, the answer to our question brings us back to the question: if meaning is this thing inside us that we wish to convey, and the words or whatever are just a means to do that, what the hell is meaning to begin with? It is what we intend to convey, but what does that actually mean? What is it that we translate into words or gestures or inarticulate sounds?

One answer might be that the words themselves are the meaning. There are any number of people out there who think that we think in words. I don’t know about them, but I certainly don’t, at least not in the serial, one-word-after-another fashion that I experience when reading or speaking. My brain makes connections much more quickly than that, wordlessly. And, for example, when I’m having a conversation with someone, as I’m listening to them speak, what I want to say next will come to me suddenly, in an instant, before I ever formulate words either out loud or in my mind. I know what I’m going to say, on some level, before I say it.

If you assume that words themselves are their meaning, then you run into an interesting problem: when you try to get to the heart of the meaning of any particular word (excluding for the moment tangible items, which you can sort of point to and say, “that”), you end up in this sort of circular regress: this word is defined by those words, but then what defines those words, and it’s other words which are then defined in terms of more words, or the same words, and it goes on and on. You never get anywhere. There is no foundation. It never bottoms out. You would need to have foundational or simpler words that the other build on… but then what defines their meaning?

And I think it’s born out in normal life: we don’t have an internal dictionary definition for all the words we use. We assign meaning to words and use those words to convey that meaning, but we don’t necessarily have to have, on hand, a knowledge of other words that we can use to express the same thing.

I wish that I could go back to before I knew any words, and to experience what it’s like to not only learn new words but new meanings… if that’s even the right word for what I mean. I don’t mean simply new arrangements of existing ideas. I mean learning something entirely new.

I recently subscribed to one of those “word a day” websites, because I thought it would be interesting to see what I could learn. Unfortunately, the first week was “portmanteau” week (where a portmanteau is a word blending together parts of other words, like “brunch” or “motel”), so it was just combining existing concepts into a new word. Nothing earth-shattering there. Later one of the words offered was “proparoxytone”. A rather imposing word. But it just means “Having stress on the third-from-the-last syllable.” Ok, so somebody made up a word for that. But that’s not really a new idea; it’s more a combining and refining of an existing idea. Words have syllables, syllables have accents, and we know how to count: combine them a bit. Nothing mind-expanding there.

But there was a time when I hadn’t heard the word “mean” before or even had an idea about what it meant. There was a time when I hadn’t encountered “love” or “justice”. We start off easy with things like “apple” and “block” and “hungry” and “mama, I believe I have soiled myself.” Those are tangible things, where we can know what someone means by the word, because it’s something right there, in the real world. Somehow, though, we pick up on more abstract ideas, and all just through context, by taking in how other people use them.

I wonder if we accumulate actual low-level meanings like that, or whether somehow – like language syntax – we have meanings built into our brains, just waiting for words to come along for us to make the connection and learn how to express. Ah, to go back in time, and undo all I know (except this question, of course)…

So why am I going into this? Meaning is something I have pondered often in my work as a computer programmer.

First, we can leverage a computer for anything that we can express in a way such that the computer can act on it. And I have wanted to create games or simulations with characters that could interact with the player, the virtual world within which they live, and each other. I wanted them to have conversations, to gossip, to pass knowledge around. But how do you represent that? How do you encode “meaning” in a computer? At least, can you do so in a (for lack of a better word) meaningful way?

I could simply dump a dictionary into the computer’s data structures. That would be all the words I know and a lot I don’t. But the words aren’t the meanings… Even if the computer could cross reference words with other words to try to come up with definitions, all the words just point to all the other words.

Meaning lies elsewhere.

Even knowing how to construct sentences… you not only have to know what words mean but also what role they play in sentences. All of this is wildly beyond my ability to comprehend.

(Google’s recent LaMDA AI chatbot raises an interesting issue. By using these incredibly large neural nets that train themselves, we may eventually have created consciousness and intelligence without understanding at all what consciousness and intelligence actually are. Buried in the mass of connections… And how will we know if a bit of software actually truly understands the real meaning of something? The “Chinese Room” thought experiment goes into that in an interesting way.)

The other aspect of meaning for me a computer programmer is a bit more down-to-earth: as someone writing code that others will want and need to understand, how do I express the ideas I have in my head in code in such a way that both the computer does well with them and a human being will be able to understand them? We often get hung up on syntactic or structural aspects of the code. Apart from the difficulty in naming things (and except for those times when someone just comes right out and says “this is confusing” or “I don’t get what’s going on), we don’t really emphasize meaning much, at least not in any sort of strong way. We generally want the code to be understandable, but we have very little that guides us in terms of making the code meaningful (in a comprehension sense, not a “higher purpose” sense), in terms of being able to effectively express what we intend to express.

And that, after all, is what meaning is.

So, I’ll continue to explore the idea of “meaning”. I may never get anywhere. It does have the advantage, though, of being something that’s going on inside me in a personal way, which is always a nice property to have.

(Post thought: I’m really interested in the idea about whether there can be new ideas or concepts to learn, on a fundamental level, for someone who is my age. Not repurposing or restructuring or refinement of existing ideas, but entirely new concepts, as we encountered when we were those “blank slate” babies. I’d be very happy to entertain any ideas people have about this. I suspect if so, it will be realms like mathematics, philosophy or something else that involves things existing in the mindscape.)

11 days ago

Renga in Blue - Jun 26

Quest (1980-1983)

Despite this blog’s visit with mainframes in Britain being solely through the Phoenix mainframe at Cambridge (Acheton, Quondam, Hamil, etc.) they were hardly the only game in town. Britain’s big commercial mainframe company (and competitor to IBM) was ICL, itself a merger of multiple other companies, including one that dates all the way back to […] 11 days ago

Despite this blog’s visit with mainframes in Britain being solely through the Phoenix mainframe at Cambridge (Acheton, Quondam, Hamil, etc.) they were hardly the only game in town. Britain’s big commercial mainframe company (and competitor to IBM) was ICL, itself a merger of multiple other companies, including one that dates all the way back to 1902.

Keypunch from the British Tabulating Machine Company, estimated to be from around 1915. The tabulating machine — originally designed to count the 1890 US Census — was also behind the founding of IBM.

ICL as a company proper was founded in 1968, and while it focused on larger machines at first it did start branching into desktop systems by the late 70s; today’s game was originally written for the their mainframe System 10, with a version by Doug Urquhart and Keith Sheppard developed from 1980 to 1981. Later Jerry McCarthy joined the team before a “final” version was released in 1983. As Doug writes:

Quest is, as they say, functionally rich. We packed over two hundred places into our small part of Cyberspace and peopled them with dragons, elves, insurance salesmen and some of our colleagues. One particularly hated manager was placed, name anagrammatized to avoid legal action, in a rubber goods shop down a sleazy alley near the railway line. He’s still there, if you care to look.

For a long time, the book I just referenced (An ICL Anthology: Anecdotes and Recollections from the People of ICL) is the only evidence we’ve had of the game even existing, even though it claims versions for “System 10, System 25, DRS 20, CPM, DOS and now Windows.” The problem is none of those had ever surfaced!

The game is also utterly obscure enough to not show up on any of my main references (CASA Solution Archive, Interactive Fiction Archive, Mobygames). I had come across it in the past, somehow, but it was in my “wishful thinking” list until a Dave Howorth from the UK (and former ICL employee) pinged me asking if I had heard of this game. I had, and was ready to give the bad news it was buried who-knows-where, when I was surprised to find, snuck two years ago on if-archive:


Quest, a text adventure written between 1980 and 1983 at ICL by Doug Urquhart, Keith Sheppard and Jerry McCarthy. Originally written to run on the ICL System 10 mainframe and later ported to System 25, DRS 20, CPM, MS-DOS and Windows. This is a Visual Basic 3 port that requires a version of Windows capable of running 16-bit Windows programs.

You may wonder “why isn’t it on the Interactive Fiction Database then?” Yes, the IFDB indexes nearly everything on if-archive, but it isn’t automatic, and there’s still the occasional “stealth” upload, as this one was.

I was thus able to deliver good news instead, although the version of Windows needed turned out to be all the way back to Windows 98. Instead of going through making a virtual machine I used a version of DOSBOX pre-set for Windows 98.

All the text for every room description is centered and also delivered all as one paragraph. The last point has major gameplay ramifications; there’s been a standard since Adventure to always separate out items that can be manipulated by at least a line break, but here you just have to parse them as the regular text.

I’m not 100% clear if the original game was like this, but I suspect the mash-the-paragraph-together formatting would be odd to add in the Windowsification phase so is authentic. I’m going to convert the text into ASCII rather than forcing you to parse screenshots. The opening screen above reads:

You are in a small log cabin in the mountains. There is a door to the north and a trapdoor in the floor. Looking upwards into the cobwebbed gloom, you perceive an air-conditioning duct. Lying in one corner there is a short black rod with a gold star on one end. Hanging crookedly above the fireplace is a picture of Whistler’s mother, with the following inscription underneath: ‘If death strikes and all is lost – I shall put you straight’.

(Notice how there’s an item that you can pick up jammed in the middle of the paragraph.)

Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, aka Whistler’s Mother, from 1871. Her name was Anna.

I haven’t gotten deep enough in to give a full lay of the land, but I can say the general structure seems to have entirely distinct “adventures” based on which direction you travel. If you go down to the underground you find the land of the Arborens.

The small but perfect specimen of a pedigree elvic fox hound has followed you. You are now in the land of the Arborons or tree folk. All around you in the dim light, unblinking pairs of pink eyes can be seen peeping at you through the tree roots. Arboron burrows lead off to the west and south. Lying in one comer there is a small box of .45 calibre ammunition.

I suspect this section may have been written first, given the instructions for the game state: “The object of the quest is to collect as much treasure as you can, and convey it back to the start, without suffering too much harm at the hands of the denizens of the caves.” There are plenty of non-caves to be found, though. If you go outside you can grab a parachute and jump your way into an open range with lots of directions you can go, including this strange machine room:

All your molecules are being disassembled. It is not a particularly pleasant process. You are standing on a dull metal floor, in the middle of a brightly lit room. All around you are banks of machinery whose thin film of dust betrays long disuse. The air is warm, with a hint of ozone, and a low humming noise is coming from the one console which is still functioning, The console comprises a row of eight numbered buttons and a large lever. The button labelled number 6 is illuminated. There is an airlock door to the north. A lambent pool of shimmering light is dancing on the floor, before the console.

If you go up you can find a steel tunnel…

Fighting against a current of air, toffee papers, and other less mentionable objects, you eventually stagger out high up in a mountain range. Looking down (a long, long, long way down) you can just see the log cabin wherein all this business started. To the west is an stainless steel tunnel mouth. In the far distance to the east, a barely discernible object is barely discernible.

…and a blue police box (this is a Brit-game, remember)…

You are now inside the police telephone box; much to your surprise, you discover that there is much more room inside than you would have expected by looking at the outside. In the centre is a control panel; a large button marked “press” is clearly visible thereon. There, standing wagging a cute little metal tail, with its cute little metal head to one side is a BASIC variable (ANSI standard only).

…and get teleported to a jungle land where you get chased by a dinosaur.

The great dinosaur, twice the size of an elephant and ten times as fierce looking has followed you. The passage opens out here, and in some strange strong light, the source of which is not obvious, the walls and ceiling shine with the brilliance of cut glass. They are not made of glass however, they are made of great clusters of sapphires and emeralds, many of them as large as walnuts, and each twinkling out that promise of untold riches that has driven men to war, crime or madness, since history began.

Even if all of the puzzles turn out to be the absurd unsolvable variety, I’ll at least have fun exploring the sheer chaos that seems to be the setting mash-up the game promises. And based on that last room description, at least one of the authors seemed to be all-in to making the writing look good, and being originally on a mainframe means they didn’t need to worry about word count!

11 days ago

Choice of Games LLC - Jun 23

Social Services of the Doomed—They have magic and fangs. You have red tape!

We’re proud to announce that Social Services of the Doomed, 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 25% off until June 30th! They have magic and fangs. You have red tape! In this epic conflict between fantasy and bureaucracy, will you save 14 days ago

Social Services of the DoomedWe’re proud to announce that Social Services of the Doomed, 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 25% off until June 30th!

They have magic and fangs. You have red tape! In this epic conflict between fantasy and bureaucracy, will you save your city, or sell your soul?

Social Services of the Doomed is a 400,000-word interactive urban fantasy novel by Fade Manley. It’s entirely text-based, without graphics or sound effects, and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination.

As an employee of the Department of Supernatural Social Services, it’s your job to mediate when a dispute breaks out between vampires and werewolves. Which is pretty often, these days. Tensions are rising in your city: not all supernatural citizens think that they have to abide by the law. Flocks of harpies are crowing prophecies of doom; wizards are slinging fireballs; trolls aren’t just having peaceful chats about tunneling technology anymore; there are demons in the werewolf dive bar; and something is up with the ley lines. Sometimes it feels like you’re the only one standing between the supernatural factions and a city in flames.

On the other hand, some factions are willing to cut a deal on the side, so if you really want the city to be in flames – and if you feel like that civil-servant paycheck isn’t stretching as far as you’d like – you could make that happen. Every faction knows that you could be useful to them.

How will you handle it? Will you sneak, fight, negotiate, confuse, or just whip out some obscure county regulations? There’s always more paperwork to be done, and if you fall too far behind, your boss might call you in for a chat about your monthly metrics. (Also, your boss might be a constellation. Don’t ask.)

• Make your way through the city as a demon, troll, wizard, or completely mundane human.
• Play as male, female, or non-binary; gay, straight, bi, or asexual.
• Advance your career, sink your rival’s career, or try to play nice with all your coworkers at once.
• Romance a troll, a demon, a werewolf, a vampire, or your office rival. (Who’s a snake person.)
• Chase demons out of the cubicle farm before everyone gets back from lunch.
• Thwart the dastardly plans of Hell’s minions, or sell your soul to them…or just flirt with a cute demon.

Demons and trolls, vampires and werewolves, wizards and harpies… and you’re standing in the middle with the most fearsome thing of all: paperwork.

We hope you enjoy playing Social Services of the Doomed. 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.

14 days ago

Zarf Updates - Jun 22

I went to a conference and nobody spread COVID

People are not all on the same page about COVID planning. I don't just mean vax-deniers. My social circles -- the good and sensible people reading this post -- range from "I am planning in-person social events" to "in-person social events are morally indefensible".Nor does this boil down to everyone deciding their own risk tolerance. Every person does decide their own risk tolerance, but it's a col 15 days ago
People are not all on the same page about COVID planning. I don't just mean vax-deniers. My social circles -- the good and sensible people reading this post -- range from "I am planning in-person social events" to "in-person social events are morally indefensible".
Nor does this boil down to everyone deciding their own risk tolerance. Every person does decide their own risk tolerance, but it's a collective risk and it has to be managed collectively. By people with different goals and different levels of vulnerability. This is not easy! "Minimize all risk" and "minimize risk involved in living my life" aren't even two ends of a spectrum. They're two vectors in a branchy mess of decisions.
How does this apply to conferences? We haven't decided. It's not a minor question. We're now seeing events relax their COVID policies at the last minute, and it's hard not to read that as a calculated attempt to sucker people in. On the flip side, PAX East killed someone. Of my coworkers who went to GDC this year, nearly all of them caught something (not all tested positive for COVID but there were gobs of fevers and sore throats). It scared me good.
Then again, I've been going into grocery stores regularly through the whole pandemic, wearing a cloth -- not N95 -- mask. So who am I to sneer?
No sneering here. A couple of weeks ago I hit my introvert wall: I attended a conference in Montreal. This was Scintillation, a tiny sci-fi convention. I went to the first Scintillation in 2018 and really enjoyed it. I missed 2019; 2020 and 2021 were cancelled; this year the organizers and regulars collectively said "Dammit we're doing this." Reader, I did it. Air travel and all. I had a great time. (I took part in a couple of panel discussions about different authors.)
And: nobody got sick. That we can tell! It's impossible to be certain about these things. One person reported a marginally positive antigen test two days after the conference, but they followed up with a PCR and that was negative. Another person felt like crap a week later, but the first test is negative, and the timing doesn't really fit. Our conclusion is that, by diligence or luck, no COVID was spread at the con.
This post is neither a brag nor a confession. Rather, I want to explain the event policies that kept the risks low and, ultimately, were successful at keeping people safe.
  • This was a small event. I think attendance was about 75 people. Everybody fit in one function room.
  • Proof of vaccination was required to pick up your badge.
  • Indoor masking was required, and we were serious about it. If you were in the hotel, aside from your own hotel room, you wore a mask. (Obviously we couldn't enforce this for other hotel guests but we were the only occupants of the function-room floor.) If you wanted to drink water, you went to the con suite and lowered your mask long enough to take a swallow.
  • The con had some rapid tests available at the check-in desk.
  • Someone made a couple of box-fan air filters for the event. One ran in the function room, one in the con suite. I hadn't heard of this project but it gets good reviews from professionals.
  • Indoor dining was not banned, but for people who wanted to avoid it, the conference posted a list of restaurants which would deliver to your hotel room.
  • A couple of outdoor gatherings (picnics) were scheduled; these were unmasked.
For my own part:
  • I stayed away from social gatherings, even small ones, for several days before the event.
  • I got a PCR test three days before the event. (This turned out to be a waste, because the test web site was down and I didn't see the result until the day I got home! But it was negative after all.)
  • I wore an N95 mask while in the conference space, and also for all air travel (airports and airplanes). I switched to a cloth mask when wandering around Montreal museums and shops.
  • I got my second vaccine booster two weeks before the event, so as to (hopefully) be at max immunity.
  • I did a couple of rapid tests in my hotel room during the event.
  • I got most meals take-out. (Mmm, bao.) I ate in restaurants a few times, but I tried to pick uncrowded restaurants, and I ate either alone or with one other person at the table.
  • I yukked it up without a mask at the outdoor picnics.
  • I kept doing rapid tests for the week after the event. And stayed away from social gatherings, well, at least until Thursday.
So, as you see, we were pretty careful. But we could have been more careful in some ways. But this is what we did.
The intangible factor was that the conference organizers cared about safety and were willing to make firm rules. We had discussions in advance about how masking would work, how hydration would work, how everything would work. What were the accessibility needs? (With 75 people registered and no at-the-door entry, this was a well-defined list.) Would we bring back the singing social events from the first two Scintillations? (No way.) And so on. Everybody was on board with the situation before they arrived. We all knew the people in charge were prepared to say "Mask up or get out," and because of that, they never had to.
I can't prove these precautions will protect everybody. I don't know how to estimate the odds. (If we were lucky enough to have zero contagious people show up, then we wouldn't know how well the masks and filters worked!) But this is, I would say, a minimum level of diligence for events in the 100-person range.
Masks suck, and everybody hates 'em, and this is where we are.
I can't even think about events in the 10000-person range. GDC and PAX still scare me, and will continue to scare me until the vaccine situation changes a lot.
I hope this information is useful.
15 days ago

Choice of Games LLC - Jun 17

Vampire: The Masquerade — Out for Blood Price Increase

“Vampire: The Masquerade — Out for Blood” price will increase soon! Though we still don’t have a release date, we are nearing the completion of the “True Faith” patch for Out for Blood. This will be a free update to everyone that owns the game, allowing new playstyles and new ways to vanquish the vampires of Jericho Heights. The price of Out for Blood will be increasin 19 days ago

“Vampire: The Masquerade — Out for Blood” price will increase soon!

Though we still don’t have a release date, we are nearing the completion of the “True Faith” patch for Out for Blood. This will be a free update to everyone that owns the game, allowing new playstyles and new ways to vanquish the vampires of Jericho Heights.

The price of Out for Blood will be increasing to $11.99 on July 1st. Buy it now—including the upcoming “True Faith” patch—before the price change.

19 days ago

Renga in Blue - Jun 17

Mad Monk (1982)

Fans of my previous posts may remember a mysterious individual, Mr. A. Knight, who wrote Galactic Hitchhiker, a surprisingly decent riff on Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy while using the vanishingly small 8K available on the UK101 computer (shown above). By the end of 1981 he mentioned another game, Mad Monk, that he had ready […] 20 days ago

From the Centre for Computing History.

Fans of my previous posts may remember a mysterious individual, Mr. A. Knight, who wrote Galactic Hitchhiker, a surprisingly decent riff on Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy while using the vanishingly small 8K available on the UK101 computer (shown above).

A. Knight was listed in 1980 as living at Simonside Walk, Ormesby, Middlesborough, Cleveland.

By the end of 1981 he mentioned another game, Mad Monk, that he had ready for sale; at least one person ordered it in March 1982 and never received it, and for a while it was thought perhaps the game was vaporware, until it appeared recently, recovered by baldwint from a stash of UK101 tapes on the Stardot forum. It seems to have taken until mid-1982 before it actually came out. Quoting from the August 1982 catalog:

A graphics Adventure program, all in machine code. We’re sorry about the delay in finishing this one but when you see it you will understand why it has taken so long. It is now receiving its finishing touches and, honest injun, it’ll be ready for mid August….yes, 1982. If you already have this one on order, please be patient just a little longer, as it really is worth waiting for. Again, apologies for the delay.

The catalog is incidentally for “Merlin (Micro Systems) Ltd”; while Knight originally sold software as a personal venture with no company name at all, by 1982 he had branched into a selection from multiple authors with the aforementioned Merlin attached, and later switched names again to Knight Software.

Unlike his previous game, it is fully in the roguelike-adventure mode, like The 6 Keys of Tangrin, Lugi, Mines, and a few others games we’ve seen. Nearly all room placements and exits are randomly generated, and all objects and foes are also placed at random.

The adventure starts with you in the entrance hall of the Mad Monk’s Monastery and your missions is to find and rescue one Lord Magnil the Magnificient, who is being held ranson by the Mad Monk and his acolytes.

Not a princess! Good job, Merlin (Micro Systems) Ltd.

You always start in an Entrance Hall, as shown above, and just to the south of Entrance Hall there is an entrance to a maze, which switches the game to 3D mode (!).

The text adventure part of the game contains a “magic map” and a “compass”. Having the compass will have the game always display what direction you’re facing; having the map will let you press M to get an automap.

While it isn’t clear from the instructions or the game itself, the 3D maze is the exit should only be entered once Lord Magnil is rescued; if you successfully pass through when he hasn’t been rescued, the game asks WHERE’S MAGNIL THE MAGNIFICENT? and ends.

The 3D maze is generated in such a way the right-hand rule works, so it honestly isn’t too distressing to have it in the game (even if the compass and/or map turn out to be elusive); if it was in the middle of the game it would be much worse to go through the effort, as the text adventure portion is quite deadly.

The way enemies work is they start “agitated” when you enter a particular room, and the longer you stay there the more likely they are to get angry and start hitting; other than CEREBUS as shown above you have to deal with THE SANDMAN, POTTY PRINCE YUSUPOV, CRAZY COUNT PAVLOVICH, IGOR THE INSANE, GREENY THE ERRANT INVADER, and the MAD MONK himself. The anger level seems to be a fixed increase, so you strategically only have 5 turns or so with an enemy to either eliminate it or skedaddle. Enemies can block exits so sometimes they have to be killed, although it is possible for them to also show at dead ends (meaning in such cases they can be ignored).

Some of them you can just stab with a dagger, assuming you have one (that’s a big assumption).

Others I have no idea what to do with and I just die. Greeny is only killable with a “zapper” as the instructions indicate, but he’s hard to hit.

The instructions hint that there’s some sort of mini-game to train your zapper ability: there’s an ARCADE GAME and a COIN and assuming you have them together (see animation below) you can put in the coin to get a Greeny Zapping session in with special controls. You need to (at least) entirely beat a wave in order to get enough accuracy, a feat I have (as of this writing) yet to manage.

The room description engine isn’t dense but it works out; most rooms are just “Monastery”, and sometimes with an environmental effect that is either permanent (“THE WALLS ARE COVERED WITH MOSS HERE.”) or temporary (“SOMETHING SLITHERS AWAY IN THE SHADOWS.”). Some rooms have special names like “Alcove” or “Pantry”; in a few cases the special rooms have fixed items. The Bathroom, if it appears, will always have a rubber duck. The bell tower, if it appears, will always have a rope you can pull.

Notice I said “if it appears”; I’m unclear about this for certain, but I think the map generator is busted. Sometimes it works, but sometimes you get one generated like so:

It is faintly possible I’m missing some trick but in this case the only thing available to reach was an arcade machine (and no coin, so I couldn’t test out the minigame). A much better generated map is something like this one:

There’s a bottom floor and a top floor; the top floor is constrained within a 5 by 5 section, and I think that’s in general the game’s default. That would imply the bottom floor also does the same, and it may have done so correctly, but my mapping was cut short by CEREBERUS THE SALTY DOG, and if an enemy is presenting as an obstacle, you can’t just sneak by.

I was able to get a DAGGER and stab both IGOR and the SANDMAN, but the parser just gets confused you even think about stabbing the dog. There’s a message (that has appeared only on a few iterations) about the dog being an “old softie” so I tried things like dropping a bear and a rubber duckie and some sausage in the room, but no dice. The verb list is heavily constrained, so I might be typing the wrong words.

This leaves out BLOW, which works because of a whistle which summons a police officer. The police officer is no help against the dog either.

I’ve done quite a fair number of tries, but it look the game’s logic force-makes Cereberus into a necessary-to-win obstacle, so I have to get by to succeed.

The only other aspect I’ve figured out (partially?) is the mad monk. The monk plays by its own rules and can “teleport in” to a room you’ve previously been in, as opposed to staying in place. Unfortunately, the monk stays put after, so if he’s blocking you (likely) you might be entirely stuck. The only way by I’ve found is to right the bell tower; for some reason this summons the monk away and you no longer have to worry about him at that location.

Despite the frustrations I was rooting for the game to work — or at least get me enough luck somehow I could ignore the dog — but after a significant number of lives wasted trying to find any verb that might be helpful (with the occasional “impossible” map) I’ll need to throw in the towel for now. If anyone is keen and giving it a whirl themselves, head over to here for a copy and instructions.

Neat concept, generally, but the game just didn’t work out. Hanging over it all was the lack of a saved game feature, which made experimenting very frustrating; I had the situation like Lugi where I wanted to test a theory about an object combined with a particular enemy, but I had to wait multiple restarts until the next situation rolled around only to find out my idea didn’t work. Having fatal puzzles combined with making it hard to test theories drains all the energy out of an adventure game.

We’re technically not done with the UK101 yet; the Merlin catalog I quoted earlier also has two games by David Harrison, Dragon’s Lair and Lost in Space, both cited as adventure games. It’s hard to know if they’re “really” adventures (as opposed to action games with a light skin) but tapes for neither have surfaced, so we’re left for now wondering unless another tape cache turns up.

20 days ago

Zarf Updates - Jun 16

AI ethics questions

Last week an "Google AI ethics" article went round the merry-go-discourse. I won't bother linking except for this apropos comeback from Janelle Shane:
Stunning transcript proving that GPT-3 may be secretly a squirrel. GPT-3 wrote the text in green, completly unedited! (...transcript follows)-- @janellecshane, June 12
We're facing piles of critical questions about AI ethics. T 21 days ago
Last week an "Google AI ethics" article went round the merry-go-discourse. I won't bother linking except for this apropos comeback from Janelle Shane:
Stunning transcript proving that GPT-3 may be secretly a squirrel. GPT-3 wrote the text in green, completly unedited! (...transcript follows)
-- @janellecshane, June 12
We're facing piles of critical questions about AI ethics. They do not include "Is Google oppressing sentient AIs?" Here's a starter list of real issues:
What's the difference between using an AI algorithm as part of your artistic process and using it as an artistic process in itself?
Using an AI image algorithm as a source of idea prompts? Tracing or redrawing pieces of the output in your own work? Using pieces of the output directly? Generating ranges of output and iterating the prompt in the direction you want? Generating ranges of output and using them as PCG backgrounds in a game? What will we count as legitimate and/or desirable artistic work here?
How much human supervision do we require on procgen output?
If the background imagery of a game (movie, whatever) shows AI-generated cityscapes, sooner or later something horrible will appear. If an AI is generating personalized emails, sooner or later it will send vile crap. Do we hold the artist/author responsible or just say "eh, it's AI, Jake"? Do we insist on a maximum "error rate"? What's the percentage?
(Do we hand the problem of preventing this off to another AI? "Generative adversarial network" in the literal sense!)
How do we think about ownership and attribution of the data that goes into AI training sets?
Is the output of an AI algorithm a derivative work of every work in the training set? Do the creators of those original works have a share in the rights to the output?
If an image processor sucks up a million Creative Commons "noncommercial use only" images for its training set, is the output of the net necessarily Creative Commons? What if it accidentally grabs a couple of proprietary images in the process? Is the whole training set then tainted?
(We're already deep into this problem. The past few years have seen a spurt of AI image tools with trained data sets. They're built into Photoshop, iOS and Android camera apps, AMD/NVidia upscaling features, etc, etc. What's the training data? Can we demand provenance? Is this going to turn into a copyright lawsuit morass?)
What does it mean if the most desirable artistic tools require gobs of cloud CPU? Will a few tech giants monopolize these resources?
Will we wind up with a "Google tax" on art because artists are forced to use Colab or what have you?
(This isn't new to AI, of course. Plenty of artists "have to" use a computer and specific hardware or software tools. The tech companies aren't shy about extracting rents. But AI could push that way farther.)
What about the environmental costs? Will artists get into an arms race of bigger and more resource-intensive AI tools? All computers use energy, but you really don't want a situation where whoever uses the most energy wins. (Bl*ckchain, cough cough.)
What does it mean when AIs are trained on data pulled from an Internet full of AI-generated data? Ad infinitum. Does this feedback loop lead us into cul-de-sacs?
What assumptions get locked in? It's easy to imagine a world where BIPOC people just disappear from cover art and other mass-market image pools. That's the simplest failure mode. AI algorithms are prone to incomprehensible associations. Who knows what bizarre biases could wind up locked into our creative universe?
How do we account for the particular vulnerabilities of AI algorithms? Can we protect against them once this stuff is in common use?
What if saboteurs seed the Internet with pools of images that are innocent to human eyes, but read as mis-tagged garbage to AI algorithms? Or vice versa: hate speech or repugnant images which AI algorithms pick up as "cute kittens". Could that get incorporated into training sets? Turn every AI tool into a Tay-in-waiting?

The meme-y AI art is all visual and text. But I'm particularly interested in how this plays out for audio -- specifically, for voice generation.
I love building messy, generative text structures. I also love good voice acting in a game. These ideas do not play together nicely. (I guess procgen text is a love that dare not speak its name?)
Text variation like this is trivial in Inform 7:
say "[One of]With a start, you[or]Suddenly, you[or]You blink in surprise and[at random] [one of]realize[or]notice[at random] that your [light-source] is dimming. In just [lifespan of light-source], your light will be gone.";
But if you're writing a fully voice-acted game, you don't even consider this sort of thing. Not even so simple an idea as contextual barks in a shooter game: "Get [him/her], [he/she]'s behind the [cover-object]!" It's not in scope. Which is a shame!
AI voice generation is an obvious path towards making this possible. It's also an obvious path to putting all the voice actors out of work.
How do we negotiate this? What does it mean to put an actor's unique performance into an infinitely extensible corpus of text? How do we pay people when "per line" is a meaningless measurement? How much sampling do we need for a good result? Do we need direct-recorded "cut scenes" for the really emotional bits? What about applying "moods" (angry, tired, defeated, scared) to specific lines to match the current state of the character? There's lots of possibilities here, and we have no idea how to work them out in a way that's fair to both designers and performers.

Anyhow, I am nothing like an expert in this stuff. This post is very much off the top of my head. Some folks who know way more than me and have more experience with AI tools: Janelle Shane, Max Kreminski, Mike Cook, Lynn Cherny.
21 days ago

Frotz Lamp - Nov 19


Serious, huge spoilers below to Diddleblucker! and Hollywood Hijinks. You have been warned.

I wanted a fun, one-word nonsense kind of name for my game that would sort of sum up the zaniness of the theme. Originally, it was to be called Snollygoster! (an actual word) and the name of the popcorn magnate was Salvatore "Snolly" Esposito. During beta testing, one of my teste over a year ago
Serious, huge spoilers below to Diddleblucker! and Hollywood Hijinks
You have been warned.


I wanted a fun, one-word nonsense kind of name for my game that would sort of sum up the zaniness of the theme. Originally, it was to be called Snollygoster! (an actual word) and the name of the popcorn magnate was Salvatore "Snolly" Esposito. During beta testing, one of my testers asked if my game was related to the "Snollygoster" game that was on Kickstarter. I freaked out and went to search for it. (FYI: It's here if you're interested.)

Their game had been put on Kickstarter within a month or so of me starting to write my game! I was seriously annoyed, but it wasn't their fault. They went public with their name first. I debated keeping the name, but ultimately decided to create an entirely new word and "Diddlebucker" was born. Salvatore/Snolly was renamed Desiderio/Diddy. I flatly refused to give him the nickname "Diddle," however. I could have called the game "Diddybucker," but it didn't have the same ring to it, so I went with "Diddy" and "Diddlebucker."

The working title of the game had been Snollygoster! for months and at first I wasn't happy about the name change, but ultimately it grew on me. Now I actually prefer Diddlebucker!, partially because it was my own creation and partially because it just rolls off the tongue better. And, I think it sounds a bit more like a food company.

Not this food company. I've never heard of this before.


Another issue I had to deal with was explaining why the player didn't have a team. I briefly thought about creating two NPC team members that would follow the player around, but I knew that would ultimately just be annoying. "David and Lori follow you" and "You see David and Lori here" would get old really fast, no matter how many ways I varied the text. Besides, they'd look like dunderheads because they would either stand around waiting for you to give them orders, or keep running through a list of actions that wouldn't really accomplish anything. "Dave reads the riddle card with a perplexed look on his face." "Lori searches the ground for a clue." Blech. I abandoned that idea pretty quickly.

So, I came up with the idea that your teammates eloped at the last minute and left you in the lurch. It neatly solved the no-team issue and had the extra bonus of at least being moderately funny. It was only later that I realized what a huge boon this inspiration was, because it solved another problem I had been dealing with.

The problem with an IF game that's a literal scavenger hunt is that the end is ultimately unsatisfying. After all, you aren't really racing against other teams and there is no million dollars. The player knows the other teams aren't actually going to get to the finish line first unless I either implement a time limit or a move limit, both of which suffer from the fatal flaw of being the exact opposite of fun.

What the game needed was a villain to overcome. An evil to conquer. I debated over this for a long time, trying to create a villain team led by some sort of henchman that had been a bully to the PC or who held some irrational hatred of the PC. Something along the lines of Harold and the blue team from Midnight Madness.

One of the principal faces of evil from my childhood

And I came up with nothing. I couldn't make it work. I couldn't make the villain evil enough to be worth conquering while keeping the game lighthearted enough to fit my zany theme. One problem was that I hadn't specified a gender for the player character. A guy bullying a guy can be funny if done right (The Tannens and the McFlys for example). Likewise a girl bullying a girl can work (Mean Girls). But when you mix the genders, things get dark. Perhaps it shouldn't be this way, but from an artistic standpoint, having a girl bully a guy or a guy bully a girl just takes on dark, unfunny overtones. It didn't work. At least I couldn't make it work. Perhaps in the hands of a better writer, but I couldn't do it.

And then it hit me. I already had a villain waiting off-stage and this villain wasn't a bully, but a traitor. And it worked. Lori was the perfect villain. She didn't make the game too dark because her motivation was simply money, not sadism. On top of that, she added a surprise twist to the endgame section! It was wonderful! The only problem was that I was so excited about writing this ending that I had to fight the urge to just jump straight to it. I restrained myself though. Getting to write that ending was the carrot that kept me working on the rest of the game.

Now, a few reviewers have noticed a similarity between this ending and the ending to Hollywood Hijinks. All of the reviewers were good-natured about it and I can only say that this is what I meant when I said in my earlier blog post that there were "unconscious tributes" as well as conscious ones to HJ. It did occur to me much later in the writing process that my solution was indeed similar to the ending of HJ, but I didn't realize it when I originally came up with the idea. But, I decided it would work as an homage, so I kept it in.

[Update 7/5/22]

I just realized that I never finished this page! For several years, the paragraph above ended with the words "More to come," which obviously never happened.

Rather than trying to go back in time and remember all of my thoughts about writing the puzzles and other aspects of Diddlebucker!, I just want to end by thanking everyone that has played it. I hope you enjoyed the experience as much as I did writing it.

over a year ago

IFComp News - Jul 01

IFComp 2022 Now Accepting Intents & Entries

Hello, everyone, and happy July 1! That date means a new Interactive Fiction Competition season has arrived. Now through September 1 at 11:59pm Eastern, our website is open for authors to declare their intent to enter this year’s competition: 

Final entries are due September 28th at 11:59 PM Eastern.

For 2022, we have decided to keep the rule change that was explored in 5 days ago

Hello, everyone, and happy July 1! That date means a new Interactive Fiction Competition season has arrived. Now through September 1 at 11:59pm Eastern, our website is open for authors to declare their intent to enter this year’s competition: 

Final entries are due September 28th at 11:59 PM Eastern.

For 2022, we have decided to keep the rule change that was explored in 2021 with respect to Judge Rule 4. Judge Rule 4 previously stated that authors could not judge the entries. For 2022 and going forward, authors may additionally participate as judges, but cannot rate their own entries. Thank you to those of you who provided feedback to help us evaluate this rule change.

In addition to games, we’re also accepting prizes! If you’d like to donate a prize for this year’s competition, you can email us at [email protected] - no prize is too humble or too grand. If you’d like to support author prizes but would prefer to donate money, our Colossal Fundraiser begins in August and we’ll announce that here when the time comes.

One final note: we are experiencing an issue with automated emails coming from and are looking into a resolution. In the meantime, we are processing confirmations for new accounts and entry registration manually, which means there’ll be a delay of up to one day. Apologies for this inconvenience. [Never mind! We seem to have resolved that issue!] 

Please note that all official email you receive will come from [email protected] and that email from any other address is unofficial and should be considered suspect.

Thanks to all, best of luck to everyone, and if you have questions, hit us up at [email protected]

5 days ago

Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling - Jul 01

End of June Link Assortment, Slightly Late

Events July 2 (tomorrow!), the San Francisco Bay IF Meetup gets together. July 10, 2-4 PM PDT, is the next session of the Seattle/Tacoma IF group. It will meet via Discord, and will feature a discussion on working with the Dialog development system. ParserComp games are now available to play and vote on through July 31. There’s … Continue reading "End of June Link Assortment, Slightly&# 6 days ago


July 2 (tomorrow!), the San Francisco Bay IF Meetup gets together.

July 10, 2-4 PM PDT, is the next session of the Seattle/Tacoma IF group. It will meet via Discord, and will feature a discussion on working with the Dialog development system.

ParserComp games are now available to play and vote on through July 31. There’s a health supply of entries: I’ve not had a chance to try, but the list of entries includes a prequel to the Frenetic Five games from veteran IF author Neil deMause; also some novelties, such as a game called Gent Stickman vs Evil Meat Hand in which it appears you type your input but the game’s output takes the form of hand-drawn images. Some players are reviewing these games over on the intfiction forum.

Narrascope registrations are open for July 30-31: the event is low-cost and remote, and features speakers on many aspects of interactive narrative.

This is some way in the future, but in early September, inkJam will be running to encourage new games written in Ink.


The book version of Aaron Reed’s 50 Years of Text Games series is live on Kickstarter, but only for a few more days – if you’re interested, now’s the time to pick it up.

Articles and Publications

ICCC, the conference on computational creativity, ran recently; Alex Calderwood presented a paper on using large language models to help author generative Twine games, and released Spindle, a tool to do this that requires access to the OpenAI API.

This paper also draws on an older one studying how novelists work with generative AI tools, and I find these observations familiar:

Generated passages display a level of narrative coherence that allows the model to ‘yes-and’ the user’s apparent authorial intention, while still enabling a degree of defamiliarization that results from the composition of nearly appropriate text, an attribute of AI writing which has been said to be prized by writers including the novelists Robin Sloan and Sigal Samuel, who respectively envision an AI writing assistant as “less Clippy, more seance” and describe feeling “strangely moved” by AI ´writing (Calderwood et al. 2020)

Calderwood et al., 2020

Pedagogical IF

People interested in using IF in the classroom might be interested in EscapeIF and, especially, this talk on how to build content around specific learning outcomes.

EscapeIF is a non-computer system designed to be used by teachers with minimal classroom resources, but the design guidance about how to apply learning outcomes and work towards playable experiences could easily carry over to other types of interactive fiction.

Inform Prototyping

This is an older article, but I’ve recommended it in a few places recently, especially with Inform now open-source: Bruno Dias on why Inform is great specifically for prototyping. makes it easier than ever to do that prototyping online and share it, as well, though if you try that, note that currently Borogove tends to let you do one project at a time.

And if this sounds fun but you want to be able to present an Inform prototype with choice-based input and/or other UI features, rather than a standard parser interface, check out Vorple.

6 days ago

The People's Republic of Interactive Fiction - Jun 30

June Meeting Post-Mortem

The People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction convened on Wednesday, June 16, 2022 over Zoom. Zarf, Hugh and anjchang, met up online. Warning: What follows is probably not proper English, but just my log of notes from the meeting to jog people’s memories:Nick sent in an article about IF by someone who has been part of PR-IF […] ↓ Read the rest of this entry... 6 days ago
June PR-IF attendees

The People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction convened on Wednesday, June 16, 2022 over Zoom. Zarf, Hugh and anjchang, met up online. Warning: What follows is probably not proper English, but just my log of notes from the meeting to jog people’s memories:
Nick sent in an article about IF by someone who has been part of PR-IF and mentions several people in the Boston area:
Hugh is working on a game about a tin mug and we talked about how people enjoyed making choices even if they didn’t further the narrative. Hugh’s story contained scenarios around what happens in a kitchen. It reminded Anj of Chi’s Sweet Home, a series of books from the point of view of a kitten. The narratives examine the everyday conflicts in mundane life. In Hugh’s game, a combination of anthropomorphism with the Slice of Life Genre provide interesting narrative explorations .
We talked about text scrolling problems in beta testing Hugh’s game. Sometimes, having an image within the text causes problems because the image loads after the text appears, causing the image to jump into focus after the text loads. This causes the user to have to scroll back to read the full text and access the choices.
Angela has rebooted her a copy of Sanitarium and is enjoying creepy scenarios with her kids. The game presents an alter reality that is nightmarish but intriguing to explore.

Perhaps there’s opportunity for more stories connecting with mythologies and folklore, such as Lochness, Bigfoot and Egyptian Mythology. Hugh mentioned that Egyptian hieroglyphics were mainly for simple ideas, such a sign posts and the laymen. Apparently, Egyptians had a cursive script (such as hieratic and demotic script) for writing more complex ideas and detailed legal documents.

We talked about the joy of lexical variations, and how nice it is to readers encounter new and unusal words. From a practical standpoint, it makes it easier to type alternatively spelled words than different adjectives with nouns repeatedly. For example, typing in tumbler vs. mug is preferable to “big cup” “little cup” “medium cup.”
We talked about how much hinting is useful for puzzles. Hugh mentioned giving successively more hints to help people solve a puzzle. Zarf says he usually doesn’t give out hints to his puzzles if people write him, because the answers can be found elsewhere. Also, having predictive hint suggestions while typing can spoil the exploration of the game. Angela is currently stuck during beta testing a puzzle, and the developer has given some hints, but it’s not enough to finish her testing. What to do?
We talked about IF copyright. Usually people use a code copyright license. If you want to be serious might use lawyers to draft a version of your code with a placeholder text.

Angela shared a link to plan for the next meeting in Early July. Please fill out by June 22, 2022 AoE. FYI, the next virtual meeting will be July 7, 2022 from 6:30pm-7:30pm. Hope to see you there!

6 days ago

Gold Machine - Jun 27

[1/3] Ant Farm Simulator 1984: Suspect

Suspect (1984)Implemented by Dave Lebling Packaging, Documentation, and Extras Suspect, gray box (MoCAGH)[for best results, open MoCAGH images in a new tab]Suspect Invisiclues map (InfoDoc)Suspect online Invisiclues (courtesy of Parchment and InfoDoc)The Obsessively Complete Infocom Catalog: SuspectNathan Simpson’s List of Infocom Bugs: SuspectMy transcript (rather dull, a speedrun really) 10 days ago

Suspect (1984)
Implemented by Dave Lebling

Packaging, Documentation, and Extras

Suspect, gray box (MoCAGH)
[for best results, open MoCAGH images in a new tab]
Suspect Invisiclues map (InfoDoc)
Suspect online Invisiclues (courtesy of Parchment and InfoDoc)
The Obsessively Complete Infocom Catalog: Suspect
Nathan Simpson’s List of Infocom Bugs: Suspect
My transcript (rather dull, a speedrun really)


(Courtesy of the Infocom Fact Sheet and this forum post). For comparison’s sake, Zork I‘s specifications follow in parentheses (this idea comes from the excellent Eaten by a Grue podcast).

Rooms: 57 (110)
Vocabulary: 674 (697)
Takeable Objects: 43 (60)
Size: 118.6KB (76KB)
Total Word Count (outputted text): 20,431 (14,214)

Opening Crawl

SUSPECT: An Interactive Mystery
Copyright (c) 1984 Infocom, Inc. All rights reserved.
SUSPECT is a trademark of Infocom, Inc.
Release number 14 / Serial number 841005

It's Halloween night. Veronica Ashcroft and her mania for Halloween parties are putting new twists on a 110-year-old tradition. It isn't a very nice night for a party. The rain has been pelting down since early morning, but the weather hasn't deterred many guests. The ballroom at Ashcroft Farm is filled with oddly costumed visitors. The rather ridiculous western outfit you are wearing was the only thing you could find at the costumer's on such short notice, but it's out of place only for its relative sobriety and taste in this crowd.

Ballroom, Near Bar
This is the south end of the ballroom, at the bar.
Elsewhere in this large ballroom, there are scores of other party guests dressed in all sorts of outlandish costumes, such as a short, cuddly-looking robot. On the dance floor are some of the older dancers. The band is playing "Breathless."

On the periphery of the room small groups can be seen, discussing everything from politics to local scandals.

The bartender is busy behind the bar, his only concession to the party a small domino mask.

Samuel Ostmann, enjoying himself hugely as a vampire, is here.

A sheik, whom you can recognize as Michael Wellman, and a fairy queen, presumably Veronica Ashcroft under her ornate mask, are discussing something with a small group of guests near the fireplace. The sheik notices you and waves for you to join them.

Never Go Back

Suspect is the last work in Infocom’s “Quantum Detective” series of games, and it is a bit of a disappointment. It is even a letdown as a follow-up to Stu Galley’s The Witness, itself a disappointing follow-up to Deadline. There is very little secondary and background writing on Suspect, and when authors are not talking about the shortcomings of the game, they tend to speculate about Infocom’s failure to deliver on the promises that the once-revelatory Deadline made.

Those criticisms are valid. There is something spent and exhausted about the incessant updates regarding character movement:

>go to office
(On your way to the Office.)
Front Hall
Alicia, off to the east, disappears from sight to the north.
Smythe approaches you.

(On your way to the Office.)
Front Hall West
The front hall runs south of the living room here, and a large doorway opens north into that room. East and south is the way back into the entry hall. Another hall intersects to the west.
To the west the Werewolf comes into view from the south.
Smythe is to the east, heading away from you.

(On your way to the Office.)
Hallway Intersection
Here a north-south hallway and a hallway to the east meet.
The Werewolf heads off to the east.
Smythe is to the east, heading away from you.

(On your way to the Office.)
Hall at Corner
The hallway makes an elbow bend here. In the distance to the north and west are doors leading outside. North of here another hall leads east.
Linda approaches you.

(On your way to the Office.)
Hall at Office
Off the hallway here are the office to the north and the morning room to the south.
Linda, off to the east, disappears from sight to the north.

Who, more than one player must have asked, the hell are these people? There is something impenetrable about learning to play Suspect. Its many characters are strange, rich people, sometimes masked, that make a show of going someplace, though they are often going nowhere. When you follow them, you go nowhere, too.

Comic character and billionaire Richy Rich and friends plummet through the sky riding a mine card. Richy is wearing his customary red v-neck sweater with a large, yellow R on the front.
Money Trouble

It Must Be the Money

Both Deadline and Suspect reflect Reagan-era fascination with wealth and privilege. Deadline is critical, or at least ambivalent, regarding such matters. Victim Marshall Robner was perceived as something of a human ATM by his survivors, who additionally demonstrated complete and heartless indifference regarding his mental illness. This is embedded in a story concerned with gender norms and classism. Deadline is a culturally rich game with a lot to say about its time and place, even if some of its messages are accidental. Suspect has a lot to say, too, but it may not be anything contemporary players want to hear.

Players might not have enjoyed hearing it back then, either. Suspect is primarily concerned with a bad element (read: poor, and perhaps not white) encroaching upon the sacred spaces of rich, white people who worry about losing places to fox hunt, of all things. The victim, it turns out, wishes to sell her land to developers so that she can put more space between herself and the unwashed masses. Beyond a basic objection to murder on moral grounds, few can identify with such a “problem” or its “solutions.” She’s no Marshall Robner, that new and self-invented man, preyed upon by parasites mostly born into privilege. Instead, she is a professional rich person who can’t even be bothered to count all the money she never earned.

I think that few people have written about Suspect without mentioning the massive CES party celebrating its release. It was a murder mystery gala with a simulated crime to solve and various tchotchkes for all 5,000 guests that was held in a rented Las Vegas mansion. This colossal overdose of irony happened in January 1985, the same month that a little program called Cornerstone hit store shelves. Never again would Infocom throw such a party.

Looking Forward

There are simultaneously so many and so few things to say about Suspect that it’s hard to know where to begin or stop. Next week, Gold Machine will take its customary look at paratext and narrative. Because of the way in which Suspect‘s mechanistic design overshadows its story, this assessment will have a greater focus on how the game functions. In a third and final piece, Suspect‘s wholly uncritical treatment of entitled classism and wealth, along with the massive party that celebrated it, will be examined as a temporal neighbor to that famous boondoggle, Cornerstone.

I hope you stick around! Get in touch via the contact form or Twitter.

[Note: ParserComp judging starts at the end of this week, and I’d like to cover some of those games. I will probably go lighter so that I can continue with scheduled Infocom content, but be on the lookout for some coverage of new text games!]

The post [1/3] Ant Farm Simulator 1984: Suspect appeared first on Gold Machine.

10 days ago

Impulsing The Game - Jun 26


Some things that I have found that give me that mental buzz: Making a connection between things that I hadn’t seen as being connected before. Making a distinction between things that I hadn’t seen as separate before. Both of these open up new ways of looking at things, and that can be quite exciting! 11 days ago

Some things that I have found that give me that mental buzz:

  1. Making a connection between things that I hadn’t seen as being connected before.
  2. Making a distinction between things that I hadn’t seen as separate before.

Both of these open up new ways of looking at things, and that can be quite exciting!

11 days ago

Renga in Blue - Jun 24

Skull Cave (1982?)

In the history of personal computers, the first significant home computer was the Altair 8800, which briefly made a cameo on this blog with the game Kadath. Quite soon after — designed originally as a terminal to use the Altair before it became its own project — was the Sol line, which appeared on the […] 12 days ago

In the history of personal computers, the first significant home computer was the Altair 8800, which briefly made a cameo on this blog with the game Kadath. Quite soon after — designed originally as a terminal to use the Altair before it became its own project — was the Sol line, which appeared on the July 1976 cover of Popular Electronics and was sold in three ways: in kit form, without expansion slots (Sol-10) and with expansion slots (Sol-20). At the time it was called the first complete small computer; it is now sometimes called the first “modern computer” or first “all-in-one” computer.

It did reasonably well — 10,000 units — but in historical memory it is overshadowed by the Altair and Apple I, and shortly after it landed it got bowled over by the Trinity of 1977 (TRS-80, Apple II, Commodore PET).

At the Smithsonian, from DigiBarn. The Apple I and Altair are on the table above, carefully labeled, while the SOL-20 is hiding underneath on the floor with no label at all. I’m not sure if the curator meant this as a metaphor.

The machine eventually was discontinued in 1979; the designer, Lee Felsenstein, ended up going on to design the first successful portable computer (the Osborne 1) but that’s a story for a different time.

Even when a computer is “discontinued” it still can have fans, and the SOL-20 has its diehards and events, like a 30th anniversary party. One such fan, Ray White, wrote what was more or less a private collection of games, including an RPG called Deathmaze. Skull Cave, his only text adventure (and what appears to be the SOL-20’s only text adventure) he estimates to be from 1982.

The setup has an Infidel vibe (“disease, hunger, monsters and desertion” taking their “toll” on your “hirelings”) but the better comparison is Dungeons and Dragons, especially because the final obstacle feels like a scene from one of the very famous early campaigns.

But also: there’s random enemies seeded around for combat. From the opening room above, you can head south (into the “mouth”) to do combat with a skeleton, or head up (through the “eyes”) to do combat with a goblin.

The author here ran into the same problem many adventure writers were running into: how to make the combat interesting? Adventure and Zork both used it a limited amount, so the encounter with (say) the Troll was colorful and not repetitive. Deadly Dungeon tried to give you arrows for a second method of attack, and Eamon added dynamic movement to the monsters, spells, RPG stats, and the possibility of emergent behavior.

Unfortunately, Skull Cave is just taking its cue from Adventure/Zork. Combat isn’t nearly as interesting as Eamon: the only thing possible to do is to ATTACK when entering a room with a monster and hope you win. You can’t even run away and choose to engage later.


Sometimes this sort of game has a “experience path” where if you’ve killed weaker enemies you’ll have an easier time against stronger ones. Unfortunately things are too random for me to be sure if this is true, but I found the best strategy is to attack as minimally as possible, because there’s always a chance of random death. You can spend some points for one reincarnation, but after a second death the game is over.

The game is in two sections. The first from the skull cave leads down to a locked gate, with a “Guardian of the Gate” enemy. Other than the initial skeleton-or-goblin fight the next one you have to do for certain is the guardian, and you just need to hope you get lucky and restart if you don’t (the game has no saved game capability, either).

I marked the start room at the top and the gate room at the bottom.

In the middle you can choose to fight a troglodyte and get a jeweled wristband, swipe a number of treasures (silver bars, emerald, painting), smash a statue to take its jeweled “eyes”, swipe a glass bottle and a chain, and battle a dragon (which drops gold if you defeat it).

There’s also a room with a magic word (“PLTMP”) which teleports you there and seems to work every time, being the only escape from combat (too bad I found it last when I was mapping!) There’s also a completely unmappable maze, and I’m not exaggering “hard and annoying”, I do mean unmappable:

If they meant to copy the “all different” maze than separate rooms need separate messages. The item-dropping method doesn’t work, any items just disappear instantly. I think the author may have literally messed things up from their intent.

Going back to the locked gate, if you defeat the Guardian (again, I just made a beeline and crossed my fingers, no tactics whatsoever) then you still have the locked-ness of the gate to deal with. I had found SEARCH worked from my various tests but mostly it shows nothing. However, if you happen to use it at the skeleton room at the very start, you can find a skeleton key.

This is _not_ a guaranteed search either! Again, I feel like the author might have had D&D in mind, but given SEARCH works almost nowhere, having it also possibly fail the one place it does work is just cruelty.

(The funky error line is because I made a typo and tried to hit BACKSPACE, which doesn’t work on this emulator. I assume SOL-20 had a backspace but I’m not sure how to trigger it.)

The key leads down to a slightly more interesting area.

Yes, slightly more interesting, just the usual Adventure puzzle where the bottle from the north side is useful to pour water on a plant to turn into a beanstalk. There’s also a scene with a “beautiful girl” which gives you a scroll with the spell NIGNOG which seems to be used for defeating one (1) enemy of your choice:

There’s a tiger attached to a pedestal where you can choose to walk away, but once you fight, you’re committed. Defeating the tiger reveals a gem. (I tried NIGNOG here and got no luck, but I think it was because I wasn’t technically fighting the enemy yet.)

With the gem in hand you can go back to revealing a sword stuck in a stone, and use the gem to free it. (MOUNT is a verb I got from the binary code of the game. Unfortunately it is in machine language so I can’t determine a lot of things otherwise.)

Then, with the sword, you can get to the scene which I mentioned reminded me quite directly of D&D.

Specifically, the infamous “Tomb of Horrors”, which originally debuted in the 1970s in tournament conditions, then got published in 1981 and has been used by GMs to gleefully torture players ever since. It has traps on traps on traps on traps, and a battle with a lich at the end assuming players even get that far (which is just a skull which floats and sucks out one soul per turn).

From a larger piece of art by Jason Thompson describing an actual play session.

I think there might be some more resources, but just NIGNOG (which stuns but doesn’t destroy) plus the sword were enough to destroy the skull. Just NIGNOG alone doesn’t cut it. I assume our player is the “monk” class since they’ve been going without a weapon most of the game taking down skeletons and so forth, but sometimes you need a little magic even when you’ve got fists of fury.

There’s a map up at CASA Solution Archive which includes a place with a “ring” I never got to visit — if you look at the plant room there’s hook where it seems a chain could go, but I could never find the right verb to make it work — and I also skipped entirely a spider guarding a room with a shield. These tools only came after the majority of combat in the game; Skull Cave really could have used spreading out some of the combat resources in a way that picking them up in the right order could have slowly leveled combat up so the player wouldn’t have to just roll the dice on the guardian or the tiger.

Oh, and I’ve failed to mention the thief. Ugh, yes, there’s a thief.

The thief grabs any treasures you’ve gotten — which seem to be purely for points — and stores them, I presume, in the maze. The problem is the mazes are broken! (In addition to the “all different” maze there’s an “all alike” maze which is equally broken.) So while the source code indicates a “lair” where presumably you can retrieve things…


…there is no plausible way to get there. Perhaps the author has the exact maze steps and if someone really was determined to hack at the binary code they could find out a way too, but as is, the treasure is all a sideshow to the main task of retrieving the pearl anyway.

For now, Skull Cave mainly serves as a warning as to how difficult it is to make combat fun in an adventure game without making any extra systems. The large number of adventures from this era where violence is actually a red herring seems to be linked to the same trouble: there need to be statistics, extra moves, a wealth of items, enemy AI, and so forth, none of which had an easy-to-copy model at the time–

From the printed Tomb of Horrors module.

–excepting Eamon, but if people wanted an Eamon game they just wrote it in that system. And incidentally, for those Eamon fans out there, yes, I might loop back sometime and do more than 2 adventures, even though they really lean much harder on the RPG than the adventure side. The backlog is just so, so long. And speaking of backlog, what I’ll be getting to next is a game which is very large, whose existence is recorded almost nowhere, and has only been available to the public quite recently.

12 days ago

Gold Machine - Jun 22

Gold Microphone: A Mind Forever Voyaging

Callie Smith and Drew Cook welcome guest Aaron A. Reed to discuss his 50 Years of Text Games project as well as 1985’s A Mind Forever Voyaging. Aaron’s experiences as both reader and author lead us to some great exchanges and insights into Steve Meretzky’s classic game about art, political witness, and as-yet unexplored possibilities […]

The post Gold Microphone: A 15 days ago

Callie Smith and Drew Cook welcome guest Aaron A. Reed to discuss his 50 Years of Text Games project as well as 1985’s A Mind Forever Voyaging. Aaron’s experiences as both reader and author lead us to some great exchanges and insights into Steve Meretzky’s classic game about art, political witness, and as-yet unexplored possibilities in computer games.

Aaron’s current project, 50 Years of Text Games, is a history of interactive text as told in essays, images, and infographics. See below for more information, including Aaron’s sample book chapter about A Mind Forever Voyaging. We’re looking forward to seeing the final product!

50 Years of Text Games: Kickstarter page
A Mind Forever Voyaging—sample chapter

New to Gold Machine?

This podcast (Gold Microphone) is a spinoff from Drew Cook’s project to play and document every Infocom game. You can find that content (still in process) at Gold Machine. Drew Cook and Callie Smith come together here to have less formal conversations about the joy of playing these classic games. Episodes should be available on your favorite platform. You can also listen to them on the web at

Get in Touch!

Drew and Callie don’t monetize any content from the Gold Machine project. The best way to reward our efforts is by reaching out. Start a discussion, suggest a game, or leave a nice review someplace. We started these IF projects to meet people and have some conversations about great IF.

[email protected]
Drew’s Twitter: @GolmacB
Callie’s Twitter: @golmac_callie

The post Gold Microphone: A Mind Forever Voyaging appeared first on Gold Machine.

15 days ago

Impulsing The Game - Jun 19

Everything I Know About Life I Learned from Programming Computers

I have been writing software for a long time. I have learned a lot in that endeavor that I realized applied to life in general. Maybe this will be of interest to someone. Just because something’s logical doesn’t mean it’s right or true. For any given amount of information, there are typically a number of […] 18 days ago

I have been writing software for a long time. I have learned a lot in that endeavor that I realized applied to life in general. Maybe this will be of interest to someone.

  • Just because something’s logical doesn’t mean it’s right or true. For any given amount of information, there are typically a number of possible explanations that make sense. But only one is actually true.
  • The more information you get, the closer you get to the truth. Diving deeper into something helps you to narrow the number of possibilities, refining your understanding.
  • Don’t trust your first instinct about what something is or means. Sometimes your first thought is right – you get lucky sometimes. But if you assume your first, uninformed opinion is the right one, it can prevent you from seeing what the truth actually is.
  • “Good” and “bad” are always subjective. Even when your metric is objective, the assignment of that metric to “good” or “bad” is subjective. It’s better to talk about the metrics themselves. Or just not get into it to begin with.
  • The larger the system, the more chaos creeps in. Breaking things down into small pieces that work doesn’t mean the larger thing will work. You have layers built on top of layers. Complex things are chaotic by nature. And people are inherently complex.
  • You can spend weeks or months planning only to have to modify or throw away your plans as soon as you make your first connection to something real. What you think is going to work might not be what actually will work. Sometimes it’s better to make some explorations, to confirm or discover what is actually real.
  • Imagination is a poor substitute for reality. I have learned to doubt, on at least some level, my first impression of anything. If you want to know what is really going on, you have to get out of your head.
  • Documentation is a poor substitute for reality. Just because someone wrote something down doesn’t mean it’s true.
  • Things aren’t always going to be fun. Sometimes you have to do things just because you have to do them. That’s just life.
  • Things aren’t always going to be easy. There will be challenges you never could have imagined. It’s in the facing of those challenges that we learn about ourselves and grow.
  • Don’t give up right away. Persistence can pay off. Sometimes the difference between success and failure is the fact that you didn’t stop trying.
  • Sometimes the best approach to a problem is to stop, back up, and look at it from a different point of view. It’s easy to get stuck in what you perceive is “the right approach”. But that could just be you running into the same wall over and over again.
  • Sometimes, the best approach to a problem is to talk to someone else. Talking out a problem can help you gain insight. And sometimes the other person just happens to know the answer – they have gone through what you have gone through.
  • Nobody can do everything. You get really good results from a group of people with different skill sets all working together. Every person can play a part, based on what they bring to the party. The trick to having things go well is to look at what people can do, not what you think they should do.
  • Communication is a dark art. No matter how much you might like to think that you’re being obvious and clear, the proof is in whether someone else actually thinks so as well. And if they don’t understand you, it’s not necessarily their fault… or yours. Communication is an interactive, two-way street. And people can differ even about what individual words actually mean, sometimes on subtle levels. To be effective, you have to listen as much as speak.
  • What matters is what a person does, not what a person is. Titles and status mean nothing, at the end of the day. Anyone can contribute. Anyone can create something amazing and worthwhile. Anyone can change the world.
18 days ago

Interactive Fiction – The Digital Antiquarian - Jun 17

Toonstruck (or, A Case Study in the Death of Adventure Games)

Some time ago, in the midst of a private email discussion about the general arc of adventure-game history, one of my readers offered up a bold claim: he said that the best single year to be a player of point-and-click graphic adventures was 1996. This rings decidedly counterintuitive, given that 1996 was also the year […] 20 days ago

Some time ago, in the midst of a private email discussion about the general arc of adventure-game history, one of my readers offered up a bold claim: he said that the best single year to be a player of point-and-click graphic adventures was 1996. This rings decidedly counterintuitive, given that 1996 was also the year during which the genre first slid into a precipitous commercial decline that would not even begin to level out for a decade or more. But you know what? Looking at the lineup of games released that year, I found it difficult to argue with him. These were games of high hopes, soaring ambitions, and big budgets. The genre has never seen such a lineup since. How poignant and strange, I thought to myself. Then I thought about it some more, and I decided that it wasn’t really so strange at all.

For when we cast our glance back over entertainment history, we find that it’s not unusual for a strain of creative expression to peak in terms of sophistication and ambition some time after it has passed its zenith of raw popularity. Wings won the first ever best-picture Oscar two years after The Jazz Singer had numbered the days of soundless cinema; Duke Ellington’s big band blew up a storm at Newport two years after “Rock Around the Clock” and “That’s All Right” had heralded the end of jazz music at the top of the hit parade. The same sort of thing has happened on multiple occasions in gaming. I would argue, for example, that more great text adventures were commercially published after 1984, the year that interactive fiction plateaued and prepared for the down slide, than before that point. And then, of course, we have the graphic adventures of 1996 — the year after the release of Phantasmagoria, the last million-selling adventure game to earn such sales numbers entirely on its own intrinsic appeal, without riding the coattails of an earlier game for which it was a sequel or any other pre-existing mass-media sensation.

There are two reasons why this phenomenon occurs. One is that the people who decide what projects to green-light always have a tendency to look backward at least as much as forward; new market paradigms are always hard to get one’s head around. The other becomes increasingly prevalent as projects grow more complex, and the window of time between the day they are begun and the day they are completed grows longer as a result. A lot can happen in the world of media in the span of two years or more — not coincidentally, the type of time span that more and more game-development projects were starting to fill by the mid-1990s. Toonstruck, our subject for today, is a classic example of what can happen when the world in which a game is conceived is dramatically different from the one to which it is finally born.

Let us turn the clock back to late 1993, the moment of Toonstruck‘s genesis. At that time, the conventional wisdom inside the established games industry about gaming’s necessary future hewed almost exclusively to what we might call the Sierra vision, because it was articulated so volubly and persuasively by that major publisher’s founder and president Ken Williams. It claimed that the rich multimedia affordances of CD-ROM would inevitably lead to a merger of interactivity with cinema. Popular movie stars would soon be vying to appear in interactive movies which would boast the same production values and storytelling depth as traditional movies, but which would play out on computer instead of movie-theater or television screens, with the course of the story in the hands of the ones sitting behind the screens. This mooted merger of Silicon Valley and Hollywood — often abbreviated as “Siliwood” — would require development budgets exponentially larger than those the industry had been accustomed to, but the end results would reach an exponentially wider audience.

The games publisher Virgin Interactive, a part of Richard Branson’s sprawling media and travel empire, was every bit as invested in this prophecy as Sierra was. Its Los Angeles-based American arm was the straw that stirred the drink, under the guidance of a Brit named Martin Alper, who had been working to integrate games into a broader media zeitgeist for many years; he had first made a name for himself in his homeland as the co-founder of the budget label Mastertronic, whose games embraced pop-culture icons from Michael Jackson to Clumsy Colin (the mascot of a popular brand of chips), and were sold as often from supermarkets as from software stores. Earlier in 1993, his arm of Virgin had published The 7th Guest, an interactive horror flick which struck many as a better prototype for the Sierra vision than anything Sierra themselves had yet released; it had garnered enormous sales and adoring press notices from the taste-makers of mainstream media as well as those inside the computer-gaming ghetto. Now, Alper was ready to take things to the next level.

He turned for ideas to another Brit who had recently joined him in Los Angeles: a man named David Bishop, who had already worked as a journalist, designer, manager, and producer over the course of his decade in the industry. Bishop proposed an interactive counterpart of sorts to Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the hit 1988 movie which had wowed audiences with the novel feat of inserting cartoon characters into a live-action world. Bishop’s game would do the opposite: insert real actors into a cartoon world. He urged Alper to pull out all the stops in order to make something that would be every bit as gobsmacking as Roger Rabbit had been in its day.

So far, so good. But who should take on the task of turning Bishop’s idea into a reality? The 7th Guest had been created by a then-tiny developer known as Trilobyte, itself a partnership between a frustrated filmmaker and a programming whiz. Taking the press releases that labeled them the avatars of the next generation of entertainment at face value, the two had now left the Virgin fold, signing a contract with a splashy new player in the multimedia sweepstakes called Media Vision. Someone else would have to make the game called Toonstruck.

In a telling statement of just how committed they already were to their interactive cartoon, Virgin USA, who had only acted as a publisher to this point, decided to dive into the development business. In October of 1993, Martin Alper put two of his most trusted producers, Neil Young and Chris Yates, in charge of a new, wholly owned development studio called Burst, formed just to make Toonstruck. The two were given a virtually blank check to do so. Make it amazing was their only directive.

So, Young and Yates went across town to Hollywood. There they hired Nelvana, an animation house that had been making cartoons of every description for over twenty years. And they hired as well a gaggle of voice-acting talent that was worthy of a big-budget Disney feature. There were Tim Curry, star of the camp classic Rocky Horror Picture Show; Dan Castellaneta, the voice of Homer Simpson (“D’oh!”); David Ogden-Stiers, who had played the blue-blooded snob Charles Emerson Winchester III on M*A*S*H; Dom Deluise of The Cannonball Run and All Dogs Go to Heaven fame; plus many other less recognizable names who were nevertheless among the most talented and sought-after voices in cartoon production, the sort that any latch-key kid worth her salt had listened to for countless hours by the time she became a teenager. In hiring the star of the show — the actor destined to actually appear onscreen, inserted into the cartoon world — Burst pulled off their greatest coup of all: they secured the signature of none other than Christopher Lloyd, a veteran character actor best known as the hippie burnout Jim from the beloved sitcom Taxi, the mad scientist Doc Brown from the Back to the Future films… and Judge Doom, the villain from Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Playing in a game that would be the technological opposite of that film’s inserting of cartoon characters into the real world, Lloyd would become his old character’s psychological opposite, the hero rather than the villain. Sure, it was stunt casting — but how much more perfect could it get?

What happened next is impossible to explain in any detail. The fact is that Burst was and has remained something of a black box. What is clear, however, is that Toonstruck‘s designers-in-the-trenches Richard Hare and Jennifer McWilliams took their brief to pull out all the stops and to spare no expense in doing so as literally as everyone else at the studio, concocting a crazily ambitious script. “We were full of ideas, so we designed and designed and designed,” says McWilliams, “with a great deal of emphasis on what would be cool and interesting and funny, and not so much focus on what would actually be achievable within a set schedule and budget. [Virgin] for the most part stepped aside and let us do our thing.”

Their colleagues storyboarded their ever-expanding design document and turned it into hours and hours of quality cartoon animation — animation which was intended to meet or exceed the bar set by a first-string Disney feature film. As they did so, the deadlines flew by unheeded. Originally earmarked with the eternal optimism of game developers and Chicago Cubs fans for the 1994 Christmas season, the project slipped into 1995, then 1996. Virgin trotted it out at trade show after trade show, making ever more sweeping claims about its eventual amazingness at each one, until it became an in-joke among the gaming journalists who dutifully inserted a few lines about it into each successive “coming soon” preview. By 1996, the bill for Toonstruck was approaching a staggering $8 million, enough to make it the second most expensive computer game to date. And yet it was still far from completion.

It seems clear that the project was poorly managed from the start. Take, for example, all that vaunted high-quality animation. Burst’s decision to make the cartoon of Toonstruck first, then figure out how to make use of it in an interactive context later was hardly the most cost-effective way of doing things. It made little sense to aim to compete with Disney on a level playing field when the limitations of the consumer-computing hardware of the time meant that the final product would have to be squashed down to a resolution of 640 X 400, with a palette of just 256 shades, for display on a dinky 15-inch monitor screen.

There are also hints of other sorts of dysfunction inside Burst, and between Burst and its parent company. One Virgin insider who chose to remain anonymous alluded vaguely in 1998 to the way that “internal politics made the situation worse. Some of the project leaders didn’t get on with other senior staff, and some people had friendships to protect. So there was finger-pointing and back-slapping going on at the same time.”

During the three years that Toonstruck spent in development, the Sierra vision of gaming’s necessary future was challenged by a new one. In December of 1993, id Software, a tiny renegade company operating outside the traditional boundaries of the industry by selling its creations largely through the shareware model, released a little game called DOOM, which featured exclusively computer-generated 3D environments, gobs of bloody action, and, to paraphrase a famous statement by its chief programmer John Carmack, no more story than your typical porn movie. Not long after, a studio called Blizzard Entertainment debuted a fantasy strategy game called Warcraft which played like an action game, in hectic real time; not the first of its type, it was nevertheless the one that really caught gamers’ imaginations, especially after Blizzard perfected the concept with 1995’s Warcraft II. With these games and others like them selling at least as well as the hottest adventures, the industry’s One True Way Forward had become a proverbial fork in the road. Publishers could continue to plow money into interactive movies in the hope of cracking into the mainstream of mass entertainment, or they could double down on their longstanding customer demographic of young white males by offering them yet more fast-paced mayhem. Already by 1995, the fact that games of the latter stripe tended to cost far less than those of the former was enough to seal the deal in the minds of many publishers.

Virgin Interactive was given especial food for thought that year when they wound up publishing Trilobyte’s next game after all. Media Vision, the publisher Trilobyte had signed with, had imploded amidst government investigations of securities fraud and other financial crimes, and an opportunistic Virgin had swooped into the bankruptcy auction and made off with the contract for The 11th Hour, the sequel to The 7th Guest. It seemed like quite a clever heist at the time — but it began to seem somewhat less so when The 11th Hour under-performed relative to expectations. Both reviewers and ordinary gamers stated clearly that they were already becoming bored of Trilobyte’s rote mixing of B-movie cinematics with hoary set-piece puzzles that mostly stemmed from well before the computer age — tired of the way that the movie and the gameplay in a Trilobyte creation had virtually nothing to do with one another.

Then, as I noted at the beginning of this article, 1996 brought with it an unprecedentedly large lineup of ambitious, earnest, and expensive games of the Siliwood stripe, with some of them at least much more thoughtfully designed than anything Trilobyte had ever come up with. Nonetheless, as the year went by an alarming fact was more and more in evidence: this year’s crop of multimedia extravaganzas was not producing any towering hits to rival the likes of Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective in 1992, The 7th Guest in 1993, Myst in 1994, or Phantasmagoria in 1995. Arguably the best year in history to be a player of graphic adventures, 1996 was also the year that broke the genre. Almost all of the big-budget adventure releases still to come from American publishers would owe their existence to corporate inertia, being projects that executives found easier to complete and hope for a miracle than to cancel outright and then try to explain the massive write-off to their shareholders — even if outright cancellation would have been better for their companies’ bottom lines. In short, by the beginning of 1997 only dreamers doubted that the real future of the gaming mainstream lay with the lineages of DOOM and Warcraft.

Before we rush to condemn the philistines who preferred such games to their higher-toned counterparts, we must acknowledge that their preferences had to do with more than sheer bloody-mindedness. First-person shooters and real-time-strategy games could be a heck of a lot of fun, and lent themselves very well to playing with others, whether gathered together in one room or, increasingly, over the Internet. The generally solitary pursuit of adventure gaming had no answer for this sort of boisterous bonding experience. And there was also an economic factor: an adventure was a once-and-done endeavor that might last a week or two at best, after which you had no recourse but to go out and buy another one. You could, on the other hand, spend literally years playing the likes of DOOM and Warcraft with your mates.

Then there is one final harsh reality to be faced: the fact is that the Sierra vision never came close to living up to its billing for the player. These games were never remotely like waking up in the starring role of a Hollywood film. Boosters like Ken Williams were thrilled to talk about interactive movies in the abstract, but these same people were notably vague about how their interactivity was actually supposed to work. They invested massively in Hollywood acting talent, in orchestral soundtracks, and in the best computer artists money could buy, while leaving the interactivity — the very thing that ostensibly set their creations apart — to muddle through on its own, one way or another.

Inevitably, then, the interactivity ended up taking the form of static puzzles, the bedrock of adventure games since the days when they had been presented all in text. The puzzle paradigm persisted into this brave new era simply because no one could proffer any other ideas about what the player should be doing that were both more compelling and technologically achievable. I hasten to add that some players really, genuinely love puzzles, love few things more than to work through an intricate web of them in order to make something happen; I include myself among this group. When puzzles are done right, they’re as satisfying and creatively valid as any other type of gameplay.

But here’s the rub: most people — perhaps even most gamers — really don’t like solving puzzles all that much at all. (These people are of course no better or worse than those who do — just different.) For the average Joe or Jane, playing one of these new-fangled interactive movies was like watching a conventional movie filmed on an ultra-low-budget, usually with terrible acting. And then, for the pièce de résistance, you were expected to solve a bunch of boring puzzles for the privilege of witnessing the underwhelming next scene. Who on earth wanted to do this after a hard day at the office?

All of which is to say that the stellar sales of Consulting Detective, The 7th Guest, Myst, and Phantasmagora were not quite the public validations of the concept of interactive movies that the industry chose to read them as. The reasons for these titles’ success were orthogonal to their merits as games, whatever the latter might have been. People bought them as technology demonstrations, to show off the new computers they had just purchased and to test out the CD-ROM drives they had just installed. They gawked at them for a while and then, satiated, planted themselves back in front of their televisions to spend their evenings as they always had. This was not, needless to say, a sustainable model for a mainstream gaming genre. By 1996, the days when the mere presence of human actors walking and/or talking on a computer monitor could wow even the technologically unsophisticated were fast waning. That left as customers only the comparatively tiny hardcore of buyers who had always played adventure games. They were thrilled by the diverse and sumptuous smorgasbord that was suddenly set before them — but the industry’s executives, looking at the latest sales numbers, most assuredly were not. Just like that, the era of Siliwood passed into history. One can only hope that all of the hardcore adventure fans enjoyed it while it lasted.

Toonstruck was, as you may have guessed, among the most prominent of the adventures that were released to disappointing results in 1996. That event happened at the very end of the year, and only thanks to a Virgin management team who decided in the summer that enough was enough. “The powers that be in management had to step in and give us a dose of reality,” says Jennifer McWilliams. “We then needed to come up with an ending that could credibly wrap the game up halfway through, with a cliffhanger that would, ideally, introduce part two. I think we did well considering the constraints we were under, but still, it was not what we originally envisioned.” Another, anonymous team member has described what happened more bluntly: “The team was told to ‘cut it or can it’ — it either had to be shipped real soon, or not at all.”

The former option was chosen, and thus Toonstruck shipped just before Christmas, on two discs that between them bore only about one third of the total amount of animation created for the game, and that in a severely degraded form. Greeted with reviews that ran the gamut from raves to pans, it wound up selling about 150,000 copies. For a normal game with a normal budget, such numbers would be just about acceptable; if the 100,000-copy threshold was no longer the mark of an outright hit in the computer-games industry of 1996, selling that many copies and then half again that many more wasn’t too bad either. Unfortunately, all of the usual quantifiers got thrown out for a game that had cost over $8 million to make. One Virgin employee later mused wryly how Toonstruck had been intended to “blow the public away. The only thing that got blown was vast amounts of cash, and the public stayed away.”

Bleeding red ink from the failure of Toonstruck and a number of other games, Virgin’s American arm was ordered by the parent company in London to downsize their budgets and ambitions drastically. After creating a few less expensive but equally commercially disappointing games, Burst Studios was sold in 1998 to Electronic Arts, who renamed it EA Pacific and shifted its focus to 3D real-time strategy — a sign of the times if ever there was one.

Such is one tale of Toonstruck, a game which could only have appeared in its own very specific time and place. But, you might be wondering, how does this relic of a fizzled vision of gaming’s future play?

Toonstruck‘s opening movie is not a cartoon. We instead meet Christopher Lloyd for the first time in the real world, in the role of Drew Blanc (get it?), a cartoonist suffering from writer’s block. He’s called into the office of his impatient boss Sam Schmaltz, who’s played by Ben Stein, an actor of, shall we say, limited range, but one who remains readily recognizable to an entire generation for playing every kid’s nightmare of a boring teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and The Wonder Years.

We learn that Drew is unhappy with his current assignment as the illustrator of The Fluffy Fluffy Bun Bun Show, a piece of cartoon pablum with as much edge as a melting stick of butter. He rather wants to do something with his creation Flux Wildly, a hyperactive creature of uncertain taxonomy and chaotic disposition. Schmaltz, however, quickly lives up to his name; he’s having none of it. A deflated Drew resigns himself to an all-nighter in the studio to make up the time he’s wasted daydreaming about the likes of Flux. But in the course of that night, he is somehow drawn into his television — right into a cartoon.

There the bewildered Drew meets none other than Flux Wildly himself, finding him every bit as charmingly unhinged as he’d always imagined him to be. He learns that the cartoon world in which he finds himself is divided into three regions: Cutopia, where the fluffy bun bun bunnies and their ilk live; Zanydu, which anarchists like Flux call home; and Malevoland, where true evil lurks. Trouble is, Count Nefarious of Malevoland has gotten tired of the current balance of power, and has started making bombing raids on the other two regions in his Malevolator, using its ray of evil to turn them as dark and twisted as his homeland. King Hugh of Cutopia promises Drew that, if he first saves them all by collecting the parts necessary to build a Cutifier — the antidote to the Malevolator — he will send Drew back to his own world.

All of that is laid out in the opening movie, after which the plot gears are more or less shifted into neutral while you commence wandering around solving puzzles. And it’s here that the game presents its most welcome surprise: unlike so many other multimedia productions of this era that were sold primarily on the basis of their audiovisuals, this game’s puzzle design is clever, complex, and carefully crafted. I have no knowledge of precisely how this game was tested and balanced, but I have to assume these things were done, and done well. It’s not an easy game by any means — there are dozens and dozens of puzzles here, layered on top of one another in a veritable tangle of dependencies — but it’s never an unfair one. In the best tradition of LucasArts, there are no deaths or dead ends. If you are willing to observe the environment with a meticulous eye, experiment patiently, and enter into the cartoon logic of a world where holes are portable and five minutes on a weight bench can transform your physique, you might just be able to solve this one without hints.

The puzzles manage the neat trick of being whimsical without ever abandoning logic entirely. Take, for example, the overarching meta-puzzle you’re attempting to solve as you wander through the lands. Assembling the Cutifier requires combining matched pairs of objects, such as sugar and spice (that’s a freebie the game gives you to introduce the concept). Other objects waiting for their partners include a dagger, some stripes, a heart, some whistles, some polish, etc. If possible combinations have started leaping to mind already, you might really enjoy this game. If they haven’t, on the other hand, you might not, or you might have fallen afoul of the exception to the rule of its general solubility: it requires a thoroughgoing knowledge of idiomatic English, of the sort that only native speakers or those who have been steeped in the language for many years are likely to possess.

While you’re working out its gnarly puzzle structure, Toonstruck is doing its level best to keep you amused in other ways. Players who are only familiar with Christopher Lloyd from his scenery-chewing portrayals in Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit may be surprised at his relatively low-key performance here; more often than not, he’s acting as the straight man for his wise-cracking sidekick Flux Wildly and other gleefully over-the-top cartoon personalities. In truth, Lloyd was (and is) a more multi-faceted and flexible actor than his popular image might suggest, having decades of experience in film, television, and theater productions of all types behind him. His performance here, in what must have been extremely trying circumstances — he was, after all, constantly expected to say his lines to characters who weren’t actually there — feels impressively natural.

Drew Blanc’s friendship with Flux Wildly is the emotional heart of the story. Their relationship can’t help but bring to mind the much-loved LucasArts adventuring duo Sam and Max. Once again, we have here a subdued humanoid straight man paired with a less anthropomorphic pal who comes complete with a predilection for violence. Once again the latter keeps things lively with his antics and his constant patter. And once again you the player can use him like an inventory item from time to time on the problems you encounter, sometimes with productive and often with amusing results. Flux Wildly may just be my favorite thing in the game. I just wish he was around through the whole game; more on that momentarily.

Although Flux is a lot of fun, the writing in general is a bit of a mixed bag. As, for that matter, were contemporary reviews of the writing. Computer Gaming World found Toonstruck “hilarious”: “With humor that ranges from cutesy to risqué, Toonstruck keeps the laughter coming nonstop.” Next Generation, on the other hand, wrote that “the designers have tried desperately hard to make the game zany, wacky, crazy, twisted, madcap, and side-splittingly hilarious — but it just isn’t. The dialog, slapstick humor, and relentless ‘comedy’ situations are tired. You’ve seen most of these jokes done better 40 years ago.”

In a way, both takes are correct. Toonstruck is sometimes genuinely clever and funny, but just as often feels like it’s trying way too hard. There are reports that the intended audience for the game drifted over its three years in development, that it was originally planned as a kid-friendly game and only slowly moved in a more adult direction. This may explain some of the jarring tonal shifts inside its world. At times, the writing doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be, veering wildly from the light and frothy to that depressingly common species of videogame humor that mistakes transgression for wit. The most telling example is also the one scene that absolutely no one who has ever played this game, or for that matter merely watched it being played, can possibly forget, even if she wants to.

While exploring the land of Cutopia, you come upon a sweet, matronly dairy cow and her two BFFs, a cute and fuzzy sheep and a tired old horse. Some time later, Count Nefarious arrives to zap their farm with his Malevolator. Next time you visit, you find that the horse has been turned into glue. Meanwhile the cow is spread-eagled on a “Wheel-O-Luv,” her udders dangling pendulously in a way that looks downright pornographic, cackling with masochistic delight while the leather-clad sheep gives her her delicious punishment. Words fail me… this is something you have to see for yourself.

Here and in a few other places, Toonstruck is just off, weird in a way that is not just unfunny or immature but that actually leaves you feeling vaguely uncomfortable. It demonstrates that, for all Virgin Interactive’s mainstream ambitions, they were still a long way from mustering the thematic, aesthetic, and writerly unity that goes into a slick piece of mass-market entertainment.

Toonstruck is at its best when it is neither trying to trangress for the sake of it nor to please the mass market, but rather when it’s delicately skewering a certain stripe of sickly sweet, creatively bankrupt, lowest-common denominator children’s programming that was all over television during the 1980s and 1990s. Think of The Care Bears, a program that was drawn by some of the same Nelvana animators who worked on Toonstruck; they must surely have enjoyed ripping their mawkish past to shreds here. Or, even better, think of Barney the hideous purple dinosaur, dawdling through excruciating songs with ripped-off melodies and cloying lyrics that sound like they were made up on the spot. Few media creations have ever been as easy to hate as him, as the erstwhile popularity of the Usenet newsgroup alt.Barney.dinosaur.die.die.die will attest.

Being created by so many insiders to the cartoon racket, Toonstruck is well placed to capture the very adult cynicism that oozes from such productions, engineered as they were mainly to sell plush toys to co-dependent children. It does so not least through King Hugh of Cutopia himself, who turns out to be — spoiler alert! — not quite the heroic exemplar of inclusiveness he’s billed as. Meanwhile Flux Wildly and his friends from Zanydu stand for a different breed of cartoons, ones which demonstrate a measure of respect for their young audience.

There does eventually come a point in Toonstruck, more than a few hours in, when you’ve unraveled the web of puzzles and assembled all twelve matched pairs that are required for the Cutifier. By now you feel like you’ve played a pretty complete game, and are expecting the end credits to start rolling soon. Instead the game pulls its next big trick on you: everything goes to hell in a hand basket and you find yourself in Count Nefarious’s dungeon, about to begin a second act whose presence was heretofore hinted at only by the presence of a second, as-yet unused CD in the game’s (real or virtual) box.

Most players agree that this unexpected second act is, for all the generosity demonstrated by the mere fact of its existence, considerably less enjoyable than the first. Your buddy Flux Wildly is gone, the environment darker and more constrained, and your necessary path through the plot more linear. It feels austere and lonely in contrast to what has come before — and not in a good way. Although the puzzle design remains solid enough, I imagine that this is the point where many players begin to succumb to the temptations of hints and walkthroughs. And it’s hard to blame them; the second act is the very definition of an anticlimax — almost a dramatic non sequitur in the way it throws the game out of its natural rhythm.

But a real ending — or at least a form of ending — does finally arrive. Drew Blanc defeats Count Nefarious and is returned to his own world. All seems well — until Flux Wildly contacts him again in the denouement to tell him that Nefarious really isn’t done away with just yet. Incredibly, this was once intended to mark the beginning of a third act, of four in total, all in the service of a parable about the creative process that the game we have only hints at. Laboring under their managers’ ultimatum to ship or else, the developers had to fall back on the forlorn hope of a surprise, sequel-justifying hit in the face of the marketplace headwinds that were blowing against the game. Jennifer McWilliams:

Toonstruck was meant to be a funny story about defeating some really weird bad guys, as it was when released, but originally it was also about defeating one’s own creative demons. It was a tribute to creative folks of all types, and was meant to offer encouragement to any of them that had lost their way. So, the second part of the game had Drew venturing into his own psyche, facing his fears (like a psychotically overeager dentist), living out his fantasies (like meeting his hero, Vincent van Gogh), and eventually finding a way to restore his creative spark.

It does sound intriguing on one level, but it also sounds like much, much too much for a game that already feels rather overstuffed. If the full conception had been brought to fruition, Toonstruck would have been absolutely massive, in the running for the biggest graphic adventure ever made. But whether its characters and puzzle mechanics could have supported the weight of so much content is another question. It seems that all or most of the animation necessary for acts three and four was created — more fruits of that $8 million budget — and this has occasionally led fans to dream of a hugely belated sequel. Yet it is highly doubtful whether any of the animation still exists, or for that matter whether the economics of using it make any more sense now than they did in the mid-1990s. Once all but completely forgotten, Toonstruck has enjoyed a revival of interest since it was put up for sale on digital storefronts some years ago. But only a small one: it would be a stretch to label it even a cult classic.

What we’re left with instead, then, is a fascinating exemplar of a bygone age; the fact that this game could only have appeared in the mid-1990s is a big part of its charm. Then, too, there’s a refreshing can-do spirit about it. Tasked with making something amazing, its creators did their honest best to achieve just that, on multiple levels. If the end result is imperfect in some fairly obvious ways, it never fails to be playable, which is more than can be said for many of its peers. Indeed, it remains well worth playing today for anyone who shivers with anticipation at the prospect of a pile of convoluted, deviously interconnected puzzles. Ditto for anyone who just wants to know what kind of game $8 million would buy you back in 1996.

(Sources: Starlog of May 1984 and August 1993; Computer Gaming World of January 1997; Electronic Entertainment of December 1995; Next Generation of January 1997, February 1997, and April 1998; PC Zone of August 1995, August 1996, and June 1998; Questbusters 117; Retro Gamer 174.

Toonstruck is available for digital purchase on

20 days ago

Stories by Aaron A. Reed on Medium - Jun 16

Thomas M. Disch’s “Amnesia” (1986)

Kevin Bentley woke up feeling awful, pulling back the curtains of his new apartment in San Mateo, California. Only a year out of high school, the New Jersey native had been hired by local software company Cognetics and turned loose on the project of simply “implementing” a script by well-known science fiction writer Thomas M. Disch: turning it into a fully playable interactive fiction game. No o 21 days ago

Kevin Bentley woke up feeling awful, pulling back the curtains of his new apartment in San Mateo, California. Only a year out of high school, the New Jersey native had been hired by local software company Cognetics and turned loose on the project of simply “implementing” a script by well-known science fiction writer Thomas M. Disch: turning it into a fully playable interactive fiction game. No one at Cognetics — or at Harper & Row, Disch’s publisher — seemed to think this ought to be too big a problem: the publisher had already prepared box art and marketing material before Bentley was even assigned to the project.

But a static script is not a playable game. There was way too much of Disch’s prose to fit in the two-disk budget the game had been allocated; the programming language he’d been asked to work in was a cut-down version of Forth, not well-suited for text adventures; the original publisher and then the author himself had pulled out of the project; and now Bentley had been shipped to the other side of the country so the game’s new publisher, Electronic Arts, could keep an eye on him and make sure their game got finished. EA had never published a text adventure, and they never would again. Despite this, they had opinions….

Read the full article on the 50 Years of Text Games Substack!

21 days ago

Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling - Jun 15

Mid-June Link Assortment

Events Games may be submitted for ParserComp, a jam for parser-based interactive fiction, through June 30; then there will be a judging window July 1 – July 31, where players can try all the games and weigh in on their favourites. July 2, the San Francisco Bay IF Meetup gets together. July 10, 2-4 PM … Continue reading "Mid-June Link Assortment" 22 days ago


Games may be submitted for ParserComp, a jam for parser-based interactive fiction, through June 30; then there will be a judging window July 1 – July 31, where players can try all the games and weigh in on their favourites.

July 2, the San Francisco Bay IF Meetup gets together.

July 10, 2-4 PM PDT, is the next session of the Seattle/Tacoma IF group. It will meet via Discord, and will feature a discussion on working with the Dialog development system.

Narrascope registrations are now open for July 30-31: the event is low-cost and remote, and features speakers on many aspects of interactive narrative.


The book version of Aaron Reed’s 50 Years of Text Games series is live on Kickstarter, and has handily blown away its funding goals – but there’s still time to opt in if you’re interested. The book comes in several different formats, all of them expanding on the basic text available on Aaron’s Substack – everything from digital and PDF editions to fancy collector sets with add-on feelies.

Also upcoming, Wade Clarke will be kickstarting a game in the Andromeda series – an SF interactive series with a number of well-regarded previous entries.

22 days ago