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Planet Interactive Fiction

Monday, 17. June 2024

Renga in Blue

The Paradise Threat: Enter the Dragon

(You can read all my posts about The Paradise Threat starting here.) I had left off being baffled by a board (obtained from a pile of lumber) and some quicksand. My issue was half with the parser and half with visualization. To be specific, from the room marked YOU ARE AT THE EAST END OF […]

(You can read all my posts about The Paradise Threat starting here.)

I had left off being baffled by a board (obtained from a pile of lumber) and some quicksand. My issue was half with the parser and half with visualization.

From the Museum of Computer Adventure Games.

To be specific, from the room marked YOU ARE AT THE EAST END OF THE VALLEY typing LOOK gets the message that


My assumption was that I go east to the quicksand, use the board to stabilize the way, then proceed further east on to the pillar. That assumption was wrong.

You need to DROP BOARD to the west; if you then LOOK the game says


For this to make any sense to me physically — remember, we’ve been toting this bridge around — I suddenly visualized the “pillar” much different than I originally did; something fairly low. Let me invoke the power of Microsoft Paint to show what I mean:

This jives enough with the text descriptions to work for me, but I still couldn’t get across the board. A “normal” game would just land you on the pillar if you try to go east, but nope, you just go in the quicksand.

Fortunately, I had the power within me to “test every verb I have encountered in the game”, so I was able to stumble upon … CLIMB BOARD? Really?

I guess my visualization should have been such that the pillar would be much taller, so the board is more at an angle, but how would that make any sense anymore given this would indicate a board taller than a person? Incidentally, CLIMB BOARD is also the way to get back; there really is no consistency in this game in how to travel (CLIMB STEPS but just going WEST to go back, in another instance).

I had the suspicious powder and only one real obstacle, getting the key from Eichmann.

What he looked like in Lucifer’s Realm.

I took it back to the room with the secretary and the secretary was gone, but there was still a tray full of food there. Time for some poisoning!

Some more wandering — and finding the Nazi guard I had knocked out by scent had been replaced —

— and I rather delightfully found an unconscious Eichmann. I rummaged through his desk (applying the TINY KEY given to us by Jyym Pearson on the phone) and found a SKELETON KEY; we’d already been warned ahead of time by Abe Lincoln this would go back at the door in the haze.

Taking the key back leads to a trap, but the kind of trap that is easy to avoid as long as you haven’t been discarding your starting inventory items.

I was then in darkness in what appeared to be a maze and dutifully started dropping items and mapping out exits. However, I soon realized the items I dropped were simply disappearing, so this had to be a gimmick rather a maze. Applying all my senses, I tried LISTEN.

This had to be referring either to the gold ring or helmet. With the helmet off, typing LOOK gave the description of a breeze from above, so I tried UP to no avail, and also CLIMB UP (“YOU’LL FALL”), FOLLOW BREEZE (“I DON’T UNDERSTAND”), CLIMB (with no target: “YOU’LL FALL” again), GO TO BREEZE (“I DON’T UNDERSTAND”), JUMP (“IT’S TOO DANGEROUS”), ENTER PASSAGE (“I DON’T UNDERSTAND”), CLIMB PASSAGE (“IT’S TOO DANGEROUS”), JUMP PASSAGE (“IT’S TOO DANGEROUS”) and then UP again for good measure.

After a reset just in case I made a typo on something, I finally found you’ll move farther if you:

LOOK UP (not just look!)
JUMP (only immediately after doing LOOK UP)

As far as I can tell, if you miss your opportunity to jump, even though you still feel the breeze, you’ve softlocked the game. It’s great to have all this combined with a tricky parser, right? I knew LOOK UP was used previously by Pearson but it still isn’t an absolute standard of mine to test (maybe has only gotten used in 5 games so far from 1972 to 1982)?

The dark figure will run south to a brick wall with a window; there’s guards there that will kill you if you don’t still have on the UNIFORM. (I should incidentally point out I’m maxed out on inventory at this point; you have to take another loop to get here, so I brought the BOARD, PACKET of seeds, and TINY KEY over on an extra trip after intentionally dying in order to teleport to the start. So dying isn’t technically a completely negative thing in this game.)

From here there’s a crevice to the east, and you can use the board to get over (I suspect many players left it behind at the pillar so would need to return for it).

Then comes an ancient door (neither skeleton key nor tiny key work)…

…so you can veer south to find a dragon. The dragon is sleeping and no threat as long as you don’t try to hurt it or CLIMB it. (Why would you try to climb it? You’ll see in a second.) Heading south from the dragon mysterious leads to a “DARK MOIST PLACE” which I believe is just supposed to be literally inside the dragon. I tried dropping the sleeping powder there to make the dragon extra-sleepy but no dice.

Trying to drop the powder here into the mouth doesn’t work either.

Testing out various actions, I noticed DIG mysteriously told me “O.K” rather than denied my action. The last place this happened was somewhere soft enough to plant seeds, so I tried it again (“THE PLANT GROWS UP AND OUT OF SIGHT”) and then typed CLIMB. Oops.

The command defaults to the dragon. I was genuinely confused here for a bit because I thought the dragon was eating me because I made noise climbing up the plant. I finally found the eating to happen again when I tried CLIMB DRAGON and connected the dots.

The plant needs you not have much in the way of inventory, so you have to do the “drop everything, grab one item” shuffle, but it fortunately doesn’t take too long.

Along the passage I found a dead Nazi that did not react to any of my commands other than UNDRESS NAZI (I was told there was a quota of only one naked Nazi in this game). I highly suspect something useful is there but my verb-fu is failing yet again. Just a bit south is a Nazi demon, who is easily dispatched by your sword:

The demon may be ambidextrous, but one more slice kills the demon outright, leaving behind a severed hand. Unfortunately I am unable to pick up with the hand or interact with it in any way, and I’m stuck to the left by another locked door (again non-responsive to my current keystack).

I think the next step here is likely to comb over all the rooms again in case a new latrine has popped up or Jesus has made another call somewhere.

My biggest issue is I’m worried I might have a solution (like the powder does go with the dragon) but I’m fighting with the parser enough that I pass by thinking I’m wrong and waste time. Not my favorite scenario to be in but I’ll plug through. I’ve incidentally finally caught up to Will Moczarski, who (other than the demon) managed to get to this place in a single post.

Sunday, 16. June 2024

Zarf Updates

Indika: ruminations

Indika (Odd-Meter) is that Russian nun game. You're a teenage nun in 1900-ish (the setting is a bit fungible). You're not a very good nun -- relegated to a monastery for your sins, or perhaps because you hear the voice of the Devil constantly ...

Indika (Odd-Meter) is that Russian nun game. You're a teenage nun in 1900-ish (the setting is a bit fungible). You're not a very good nun -- relegated to a monastery for your sins, or perhaps because you hear the voice of the Devil constantly snickering in your ear and distracting you from your chores. Fed up with your twitchiness, the other nuns send you off to the city to deliver a letter. Thus your great adventure begins.

This is an odd one and I've been mulling it. It's almost a walking simulator. You do more than walk; you explore and collect icons and solve environmental puzzles and get chased by a dog. But the meat of the game, what it really loves doing, is walk-and-talk dialogue. You debate the nature of sin and free will, both with the Devil and with the dying soldier that fate (or God, or the Devil) throws in your path. He talks to God, or says he does.

All this in a game which is cheerfully unreliable about what is real anyway. Pixelly faux-Zelda interludes hint at your backstory -- but the same eight-bit rewards bleep forth from the religious icons you find. Find enough of them and you can level up. It's the most unconvincing portrayal of religious experience you can imagine, and deliberately so.

Even when the game isn't evoking 80s console gaming, the world is never exactly realistic. Right from the beginning there are unremarked touches of dreamscape. Hulking cows, inexplicable objects... in later chapters, factories and cathedrals grow into Social-Surrealist monstrosities. But then occasionally the world breaks down into explicitly hallucinatory hellfire. So is the rest of the game supposed to be literal? Or is the entire thing just Indika's broken mind? An RPG played on a bored girl's GameSwitch, for all we know.

I really want to compare this to Senua's Sacrifice. Wait, did I not review that one? Dammit. Anyway, Senua tried to portray the experience of a protagonist suffering from schizophrenic delusions. In the context of her culture this is a saga, a heroic journey into Hell. It was something of a mixed success. It was an engaging and powerful game (and I will certainly play the sequel!) But to some extent the portrayal of mental illness got jammed into the mold of a puzzle-solving superpower.

Indika is another take on this idea. It doesn't fall into the same trap, mostly because it refuses to be jammed into any mold. Like I said, it remains entirely unclear what is delusion, as opposed to fiction or metaphor or miracle. But also, Indika refuses to be pinned down as delusional. She doesn't just pray her way through puzzles. She is determined, forthright, mechanically handy (she fixed motorbikes before she took the habit). The core emotional moment of the story (I won't spoil it) is not solving a puzzle; it's Indika looking at a problem, exhaling, and choosing a solution.

But then the ending. (I will spoil this, in nonspecific terms.)

In the end, Indika gets hurt. She loses her faith. Or, if she had no faith, she loses her hollow faith-point rewards. The soldier loses his faith. They do not have a touching romance, or hot sex for that matter. There are no miracles. Did you expect miracles?

It ought to be an enormous downer. But somehow I don't feel like I played a depressing game. Or even an elegaic game about letting go (as so many walking sims are). It was... I was left thinking about the middle of the story, not the end.

In that story, Indika (the person) is better than the ending of her game. I think she's got somewhere to go after this. Maybe fixing motorbikes. Learning to play guitar. I don't know, it's not spelled out.

Indika ends optimistically because it's about letting go of what doesn't work. That's what I say.

Saturday, 15. June 2024

Renga in Blue

The Paradise Threat: The Parser From Hell

(Previous posts on The Paradise Threat here.) This is, without question, one of the worst parsers I have dealt with in a long time, and that includes all the other Pearson games. I had numerous points where I knew what I wanted but couldn’t communicate, or where I wasn’t sure if I was doing the […]

(Previous posts on The Paradise Threat here.)

This is, without question, one of the worst parsers I have dealt with in a long time, and that includes all the other Pearson games. I had numerous points where I knew what I wanted but couldn’t communicate, or where I wasn’t sure if I was doing the right thing.

First off, a little theory. I’m going to explain how the “rulebook sequence” in the parser for Inform 7 works (which is as modern as it gets) just to give a sense about the problem of message priority. From the Inform 7 handbook:

First it makes sure it knows what the input words are, and that the command makes grammatical sense … If there’s a typo in the input — or even if the parser knows all of the individual words but doesn’t understand how they’re strung together — the parser will reject the input before anything happens. Assuming the parser can figure out what the words are, and that they’re in a grammatical form that the parser knows, Inform starts processing the action.

The game then checks Scope to see if your item being referred to can be seen (or if it is a case where it makes sense to refer to something even if you can’

>open gate
You can’t see any such thing.

(You also get the same message if you try a noun that isn’t in the vocabulary — the game is trying to prevent “noun hacking” here to find objects that you haven’t seen yet.)

Once past that phase, things get more complicated:

There’s a Before section, which is checked before anything else. This triggers before any checking of the world environment, so this is for responses that override even checking if an action is plausible; it just checks if a verb is trying to be used. Suppose the player tries EAT CHEESE. A player controlling an alien with no mouth might just immediately be told they have improper anatomy; even if the cheese is in a locked container, it is much more logical to just say the action will never work.

The game then passes through an Accessibility check; even if the target of an action is “in the room” with the player it might be impossible to reach. So here is when EAT CHEESE might inform the player that the cheese is locked away and you don’t have any way of getting at it.

This is followed by an Implicit action check. This accounts for circumstances where the player expects item-juggling to be handled automatically, like unlocking a door with a key that is held in one’s pocket; the game can automatically take the key out of the pocket rather than force the extra steps, and will be explicit about this happening with a message like “(first taking the key out of your pocket)”. In the cheese-eating instance, if the cheese is close enough to reach, the game might have the player first pick it up before eating it.

Then comes the rulebooks Instead, Check, and Carry out. This is the “central” part of the parser and includes more specific checks like the cheese you’re eating is really a rock (which you find out by trying to eat it). Finally there’s an After section (there might be a chain reaction of other things after successfully eating the cheese, for instance).

This structure has been designed after a lot of experience with parsers having strange messages because of priority issues. Not every condition has been obvious. If you try to EAT PRIME MINISTER and there isn’t a single government official in sight (perhaps the Prime Minister walked to a different room and the player didn’t notice), the best response is to say you don’t see the Prime Minister, not “don’t be a cannibal”. The cannibal message feels appropriate but implies the Prime Minister is visible; the player then may try to GIVE LETTER TO PRIME MINISTER and be confused.

The Paradise Threat has (in addition to other parser sins I’ll get into) some priority issues. Suppose, having seen some timber described you try to GET TIMBER and you’re holding six items. The game will go


This implies “you’d be fine getting it, but only if you reduce your inventory”. So you do some item juggling and try to get the timber now, getting


Clearly, the fact that the timber is not considered “visible” is the more salient fact than the player’s inventory capacity. The game is essentially checking conditions in the wrong order.

I’ll hit other issues in context, let’s get back to the action–

Last time I had dropped off a wood box to get consumed by termites but couldn’t get at the result. I waited around a very long time and nothing happened. I had neglected one of the other Pearson tendencies: to have time pass based on entering certain locations. That is, in most games, if you have a timed event, you might think to type WAIT sufficient times and the game will move on; in the case of The Paradise Threat, sometimes you can hang out for many turns and find nothing will ever happen. The game is waiting for you to move to some other specific part of the map, and passing throw room X will cause the time-passing condition to happen in the earlier room Y.

I went over to the arrow-killing room, stepped back out (as long as you immediately go west you don’t die) and then found the termites were finally done with their snack.

The packet had seeds, so I took them to the soft area I was able to dig. After PLANT SEEDS I had to walk around a bit more; the “arrow-killing time pass” seemed to do the trick again.

There’s a cliff described as also being at 30 feet, so you have to wait around for the plant to get that high.

Before showing the result, I should mention I elided something important on the parser: PLANT SEEDS. PLANT is not understood as a standard verb elsewhere. Hence it turns out that this is a game with a “standard dictionary” of verbs and response to when they don’t work, but also a bespoke set of verbs-with-nouns that will work only in the particular cases they are intended. In that parser diagram, you have to imagine a brand-new list of phrases which all get interpreted on their own outside of the main structure.

PULL, which I originally thought didn’t work, works specifically here: you can PULL ROPE to get the crossbow to launch early.


This disarms the trap that had been stumping me. Looping back around to the trap and the next room:

If you just drop the scepter it disappears. The logical step to me seemed to be to attach the ivy to the scepter, but I went through


and many other permutations before arriving at the exact phrase TIE IVY VINE TO SCEPTER. This is the only way to do the operation. TIE IVY VINE along just gets “I DON’T UNDERSTAND”; trying to TIE IVY VINE TO SCEPTER while anywhere other than this specific room also gets “I DON’T UNDERSTAND.” This is about as mind-bogglingly misleading as a parser message can be, especially because it isn’t playing guess-the-verb, it’s playing guess the phrase.

Essentially, the “bespoke phrase” part of the parser skips any of the kinds of checks a good parser might have and only looks for: are you in the right room with the items, and have you typed the exact phrasing? If so, go on, otherwise, go to the generic non-understanding message.

You have to incidentally JUMP to get back (both JUMP VINE and JUMP IVY VINE work; the game inconsistently will sometimes need the two-word version of the noun and sometimes not). This reflects one of the other issues with the game, that map traversal requires very specific phrasing and reversing directions isn’t consistent. Normally, when outside a cave with steps, even our lower-tier parser games would accept at least a subset of GO CAVE, U, E, ENTER CAVE, GO STEPS; you have to CLIMB STEPS exactly. Trying to CLIMB STEPS to go back has the game say


being of course the exact same steps we just climbed up. No, you have to go WEST to go backwards. I have to essentially glance at my map every time I pass back and forth to make sure I’m typing in the right word. Door to the east? OPEN DOOR, not EAST. Going back, OPEN DOOR fails — “you can’t” — and you go WEST instead.

Once in the hall, the game takes a moment to go meta.


However, trying to make the conversation go further I was stumped; LISTEN gave me I HEAR NOTHING COMPREHENSIBLE; trying to ANSWER the phone again did as well. I assumed I was in another part of the game which required exact phrasing, so I ran through about 30 phrases before looking at the phone, which (after what looks like a cut-off conversation) has a tiny key.

Moving along…

From Lucifer’s Realm.

…I came across a Nazi guard at a door. Trying to KILL GUARD (we have a sword, after all) gets


which is the default “kill but not understood” response. If you TALK GUARD…

…only then do you have the opportunity to KILL GUARD and finally be understood. However, the guard just blasts you with his gun.

Being stuck I let the death happen, since that just warps you to the start, and explored around a little, keeping in mind Pearson was going full steam now on the “timed events” that were really dependent on you reaching some farther location.

As typical, it took an infuriatingly long time to figure out how to get into the hole (CLIMB HOLE) and then you just find out it is a latrine. The smell is enough to kill the guard if you go for a round 2.

We’re about to see a bunch of Nazis and none of them have this reaction.

Heading past, you get into a “huge hall” and a “reception room”. Taking the reception room first, we are encouraged to come back later, which sounds like another “timed” event to me.

There’s food on a tray we can access, so I assume he hasn’t actually started lunch yet.

Back in the huge hall, I did a LOOK HALL and found some lumber. LOOK LUMBER reveals a board.

Yet again I had enormous parser struggles, finally landing on PULL.

The board seems like it’d help with the quicksand, but no dice. I tried about 30 different parser commands, gave up, and went to check if Will had already gotten that far in his first writeup.

That’s not the case but moving on I find that I can indeed drop the board and thus access the quicksand room without sinking. I can thus reach the pillar and pick up some powder.

DROP BOARD, then go EAST? Nope. Drop board before arriving in the quicksand room, then going east? Nope. Not


etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. Still no idea what to type even though I’m following Will’s exact directions.

We’re mostly past this nonsense in 1982; the only parser from that year of comparable badness I remember is Grandell Island. What’s so baffling here is I certainly don’t remember this much trouble from the prior Pearson games. I think the author is trying hard to make a “compact” game where every step is interesting but the end result is that every step I can only manage on the fourth or fifth parser attempt.

The Paradise Threat: The Dying Land

(Continued from my previous post.) In a stark reminder of how different two experiences of an adventure game can be, Will Moczarski reports he finished this game in a handful of hours. I have put significant effort in with no real progress. This may be a matter of the Atari version of the game being […]

(Continued from my previous post.)

From Launchbox.

In a stark reminder of how different two experiences of an adventure game can be, Will Moczarski reports he finished this game in a handful of hours. I have put significant effort in with no real progress. This may be a matter of the Atari version of the game being more obscure, or me missing one single verb or object in the right place causing a cascade, or just bad luck.

I have found things in the rooms I’ve already mentioned but none of them have allowed me to pass my two main obstacles, the quicksand…

…and the arrow.

To be absolutely thorough, I made sure to LOOK in every room using every plausible noun as well as LISTEN and SMELL. The first useful LOOK was in the very first room of the dying land, where I did LOOK PLANT on the supposed plant-life and found an IVY VINE I could take.

Although the game is finicky and requires you type IVY VINE in full, not IVY or VINE, otherwise you get the weird sensation of typing TAKE VINE and having the game tell you it isn’t visible despite it being listed as visible.

The vine is described as “long and slender” and I assume will be a rope at some point. The next room over I found — again in the plant-life — a fallen-over tree with termites. However, I could not get anything else to happen with either TREE or TERMITES, and that’s after forming my standard verb-list and testing everything.

A quick aside on the testing-list: while it certainly is useful to instantly have at hand the game lets you TURN, PUSH, and MOVE things, forming this kind of list also helps get a sense of what the parser responses will be like beforehand, which can prevent chasing phantoms. For example, just typing PUSH by itself gives


which is detailed enough it might be a cue in some games that the action is right, just you need some assistance, like the truss in Pythonesque. Since this is clearly a generic not-even-type-an-object message, its appearance should not be marked as remarkable at all. Similarly, THROW with no verb says


which means you aren’t supposed to be improving your aim: you’re just barking up the wrong tree.

Returning to the game, the tree gave me no joy, and moving on to the very next room yielded a pillar.

I think from the description the pillar is supposed to be adjacent to the entrance to the quicksand to the east, or at the quicksand itself somewhere? Either way I cannot refer to it (again I ran down my verb list).

In the quicksand itself you get one extra message about how “you’re either shrinking or sinking” before you die. This indicates there should be an opportunity for extrication, but the way the parser works is odd: it intercepts basically everything I’ve tried to type except for dropping items. This includes some logical self-rescue attempts like THROW IVY VINE.

Moving south, to a misty haze, I technically found two things. One, by using LISTEN, was the voice of Abe Lincoln.

The other, just by typing LOOK, was finding an ancient door in the ground. The door is unfortunately locked.

To the east is a truly odd location: a field of soft earth where DIG (which normally fails to work) will “succeed” but with no result in the room as a consequence.

I tried DIG ten times just in case it was one of those cumulative dig puzzles (although so far games have gone that route have had an item you can find on turn 1, but a second item you can find on turn 2). My guess is I will be told in the future somehow I should dig here and that’s when digging will become useful.

Climbing up to where Demon Trivia was, I found nothing useful, so I started trying at the arrow room some more. Again, the weird “dropping takes no time” element of the parser game up…

…but otherwise, any other parser action at all resulted in death. (Including making a typo and putting in DRP HELMET trying to get the screenshot above.)

I feel like I’m missing something simple and fundamental like an exit. The diagonal directions do work but none of them have revealed a “new” direction, they’ve just duplicated the cardinal directions, so I have declined to map them.

Please no hints for now, unless you don’t know the answer and just want to speculate. I’ve seen this game described as “outtakes from Lucifer’s Realm” so it genuinely might be short, but that’s only true if you’re making forward progress!

BONUS ADDENDUM: While reviewing this post for typos, I thought to drop the wood box with no seams at the tree with the termites. The termites swarmed the wood box, but then I was unable to open or take it; LOOK WOOD BOX gets YOU CAN’T SEE IT WELL. So I’m doing something right here but I need to tweak my implementation somewhat.

Thursday, 13. June 2024

Renga in Blue

The Paradise Threat (1982)

THE CONTINUING STORY You died, and you weren’t a good person. However, someone else was being a worse person: Hitler. Hitler wanted to raise an army against Satan, so Satan gave notice that stopping Hitler would be worthy of a a ticket up to the pearly gates. While you needed to give over a powerful […]


You died, and you weren’t a good person.

However, someone else was being a worse person: Hitler.

Hitler wanted to raise an army against Satan, so Satan gave notice that stopping Hitler would be worthy of a a ticket up to the pearly gates.

While you needed to give over a powerful “Deecula” statue in the process (see gloating above), you managed to stop Hitler and gain the favor of both Jesus and Satan.

The end result is that Hitler’s army gets kicked out of Hell, so he decides to turn his fury towards Heaven instead. To save Heaven you have to a final showdown with the Führer of Evil himself.

From the Museum of Computer Adventure Games.

The Paradise Threat by Jyym Pearson picks up directly where the game Lucifer’s Realm leaves off, and marks the next step in Will Moczarski’s marathon of Med System games over at The Adventure Gamer. Just like with Lucifer’s Realm we are going to both be blogging it at the same time (his first post is here). He will be playing the TRS-80 version and I will be playing the … Apple Atari version.

Sorry, Apple II superfans: this one didn’t get illustrated like the last game. Text-only, making graphics with the power of your imagination!

Before really getting rolling, let’s briefly review the prior Jyym Pearson works, and most particularly the quirks and tendencies that need to be kept in mind while playing one of his games.

Escape from Traam
Curse of Crowley Manor
Earthquake San Francisco 1906
Saigon: The Final Days
The Institute
Lucifer’s Realm

Authors can of course add things to their style, remove things, and do one-off experiments, but they do tend to have certain “signatures” that are visible if you consider an oeuvre in aggregate. In Pearson’s case (with his sometimes collaborator, Robyn) he always has very intense use of the LOOK command. Getting through sections will often involve intensely applying LOOK to each and every noun mentioned, and then to nouns mentioned by using LOOK. Earthquake San Francisco went into shaggy-dog-joke territory, having a CREVICE with a QUARTZ with an INDENTATION with a FLAT SPOT with an OBJECT with a DIAMOND, requiring you to apply LOOK at every step in the chain.

LOOK UNDER is rare but did show up in The Institute.

Pearson also appeals to more than just visual senses; LISTEN was required to localize a child in Earthquake, LISTEN was used to find a dripping sound in The Institute. Lucifer’s Realm had multiple uses of SMELL.

While Escape from Traam was essentially linear, Pearson gradually started to add non-linearity by requiring re-visits to old locations; for example, Lucifer’s Realm had an early encounter with Beelzebub giving general quest information. Late in the game, upon encountering Jesus, he says you should speak to the “evil one” again, requiring a re-visit all the way back to Beelzebub.

With all this preparation I’m still probably going to get crushed somewhere, but that’s how adventure games go. Noteworthy is that this is the first time I’m playing the non-graphical version; I could tell from comparing the TRS-80 and Apple II versions of Lucifer’s Realm that puzzles sometimes went under revision. Here we’ll just have to deal with version 1.

The game starts almost like it ought to be the epilogue to the prior game where you get your long-deserved rest; you rise up to a tunnel and get led by Winston Churchill into heaven who ominously says “only you can help us”.

Abraham Lincoln shows up shortly after to explain that Hitler’s army still has the power of the Deecula statue and is now veering towards heaven. Because we were the one that restored the statue in the first place we are (by some mystical rules) the only ones who are able to destroy it.

The game thus rather generously starts you with a GOLD RING, HELMET, SCEPTER, and SWORD, essentially the Armor of God. At the very first room where you can really start acting (the peaceful meadow) if you LOOK you’ll see something floating in the river, and you can find a wood box that way.

Proceeding further leads to dead lands.

I don’t have much of a map done yet.

Early on you can land in trouble in some quicksand; I haven’t been able to get out and I suspect I might need an item I don’t have yet. Veering away from the quicksand to the south leads to a demon who asks you trivia.

Yes, really, trivia.

He says,Welcome to the new quiz show LET’S MAKE HIM SQUEAL.

Thus you need to know (or be willing to look up) what the capital of Ecuador is and how many yards are in a mile. This is not a moment Pearson has had before but it makes me wonder if the pattern will be demons trying to trick us and play games rather than having to do that much in the way of physical combat.

Past the demon is an ancient stone door.

I was unable to get through, so I stopped to LOOK (as is the Pearson Way) and immediately died.

We are apparently immortal and I could see this getting exploited in a puzzle somewhere. This seems like a good place to leave off for now. I need to do my verb-testing run and of course LOOK and re-LOOK in every location for clues.

Choice of Games LLC

Unsupervised—Once, you were a sidekick. Now, you kick ass!

We’re proud to announce that Unsupervised, 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. You and your friends were teenage sidekicks of the world’s greatest heroes. But now, the heroes are missing. It’s your turn to kick ass and save the world! It

We’re proud to announce that Unsupervised, 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.

You and your friends were teenage sidekicks of the world’s greatest heroes. But now, the heroes are missing. It’s your turn to kick ass and save the world!

It’s 40% off until June 20th! 

Unsupervised is a 660,000-word interactive superpower novel by Lucas Zaper and Morton Newberry, where your choices control the story. It’s entirely text-based—without graphics or sound effects—and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination. Which is not as cool as an actual superpower, but you get the idea.

The Omega Responders were the mightiest heroes in the world, defending Earth with their powers—time manipulation, elemental mastery, teleportation, and more. You and your friends were their sidekicks, their best and brightest. Then the Omega Responders left to face a mysterious anomaly in outer space—and never returned.

Without your mentors to guide you, it’s up to you and your fellow sidekicks to decide what kind of heroes you’ll be. You’re not old enough to have a beer, but you sure as hell are old enough to save the world… and have your first kiss. Or your first kill. Puberty just hits different when you have superpowers.

Lead your team, travel the world gathering allies, navigate the ups and downs of public opinion, and confront villains at every turn. Will you smash and fight until there’s nobody left standing? Will you help the villains talk about their feelings to understand how they went astray? Or will you turn to villainy yourself?

Meanwhile, government regulation of people with powers grows more intense every day. How will you deal with PARENTS: the Paramilitary Agency Responding to Extraordinary Non-compliant Threats and Supervillains? One of your former sidekicks is already working for the government. Will you join them?

And what will you do when the truth about the Omega Responders’ last mission starts to emerge?

• Choose your powers: super speed, exceptional strength, heightened senses, elemental mastery, or time manipulation!
• Romance any of several fellow heroes, including an idealistic teleporter, an ambitious rapper, a half-ghost, or a sidekick-turned-government agent!
• Deal with hero regulatory agencies: fight the power, find loopholes, turn their agents to your side, or work for them yourself.
• Name and design your secret lair high in the Himalayas.
• Follow a heroic legacy, or dive deep into villainy!
• Teleport around the world, confronting villains and uncovering conspiracies from New York to Paris!
• Customize your supersuit, choose your team name, and manage your fellow heroes’ strengths to make them into the best team they can be!

Every teenager wants to change the world. But only you can save it.

We hope you enjoy playing UnsupervisedWe encourage you to tell your friends about it and to 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.

Gold Machine

The Dickensian Turn: Narrative Surface Features of Trinity

On the Wabe, Trinity‘s “wide middle.” Last Time, on Gold Machine… In part one of this discussion of Trinity‘s narrative design, I asserted that, in terms of its shape, Trinity was a Zorkian “cave game.” This is something I’ve repeated more than once, notably in my last podcast episode. That being so, this multi-part series […] The post The Dicke

On the Wabe, Trinity‘s “wide middle.”

Last Time, on Gold Machine…

In part one of this discussion of Trinity‘s narrative design, I asserted that, in terms of its shape, Trinity was a Zorkian “cave game.” This is something I’ve repeated more than once, notably in my last podcast episode. That being so, this multi-part series considers Trinity in terms of that classic “narrow-wide-narrow” (in both narrative and mechanical senses) design. We’ve already discussed the narrow opening, which takes place in London’s Kensington Gardens. What happens when players are suddenly ejected from this near-real setting, only to find themselves nowhere and nowhen?

The Dickensian Turn

Let’s step back and consider the game’s transition from reality to surreality.

>enter door
As you wade to the threshold a familiar roadrunner flutters past. The ruby in its beak gleams enticingly as it slips through the white door.

All color abruptly drains from the landscape. Trees, sky and sun flatten into a spherical shell, with you at the very center. A hissing in your ears becomes a rumble, then a roar as the walls of the shell collapse inward, faster and faster.

"This way, please."

You turn, but see no one.

"This way," the voice urges. "Be quick."

The space around you articulates. "No!" your mind shudders. "That's not a direction!"

"It's a perfectly legitimate direction," retorts the voice with cold amusement. "Now come along."

While I’ve already asserted that multiple voices in Trinity–not only that of this editorializing stranger, but also of various literary and historical snippets both within and without the game proper–have a destabilizing effect that complicate our ability to interpret it, this passage seems an effort to teach us how to approach the work. Ignore, the suggestion seems to be, assumptions regarding the familiar and logical.

As the ending of Trinity approaches, a window containing an Emily Dickinson quote splashes across the screen:

‘Twere better Charity
To leave me in the Atom’s Tomb —
Merry, and Nought, and gay, and numb —
Than this smart Misery.

The passage makes Trinity the second (and last, so far as I know) Infocom title to quote Emily Dickinson. This opening transition for narrow to wide might remind readers of Dickinson of another poem, “Much Madness is divinest Sense – (620)”

Much Madness is divinest Sense –
To a discerning Eye –

The bookending of the game proper between a Dickensian endorsement of illogic as “divinest Sense” and the grim nihilism of the “Atom’s Tomb” is a bravura literary flourish, summarizing and encapsulating the dark absurdity of humanity’s atomic resignation. Adults the world over–who really ought to have known better–had collectively accepted that destroying everything and everyone was the natural and inevitable end-state of human history. To confront that truth as Trinity does is to confront the Absurd with a capital-A. The protagonist, in attempting to save humanity, must reject its collective acquiescence (“the starkest Madness – / ’Tis the Majority”).

The Wide Middle

Thus forewarned, players and protagonist find themselves in a “Wabe,” which, as Trinity tells us by way of Lewis Carroll, is “the grass-plot round a sun-dial. It is called like that because it goes a long way before it, and a long way behind it. And a long way beyond it on each side.” The passage comes from Through the Looking Glass, in which Humpty Dumpty attempts to explain the famously nonsensical poem “Jabberwocky.”

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;

This isn’t our first Wabe; in fact, it is a surreal amplification and distortion of the game’s opening area, Kensington Gardens. At the center is, as there must be, a sundial, though this one is the size of a mountain:

A giant triangle, thousands of feet high, rises above the eastern treetops. Its vertex casts a long shadow across the wood.

In the introduction, a boy blows bubbles in the park:

>examine boy
The boy pulls the bubble wand out of the dish, puts it to his lips and blows a big soap bubble.

The boy snaps his fingers to the headphone music as the soap bubble bursts with a flabby pop.

Like so many other things in the Wabe, the boy is both similar and radically different:

>examine boy
The boy measures approximately forty feet from head to toe, and probably weighs several tons. He's wearing a pair of stereo headphones.

The boy pulls the bubble wand out of the dish, puts it to his lips and blows a big soap bubble.

This is a world that is, rather fittingly, through the looking glass. In the case of puzzles, many scenarios appear impossible, yet they remain faithful to their own internal logic. For instance, passing through a pergola that is shaped as a Klein bottle reverses the threads on a gnomon (the triangular, shadow-casting element of a sundial), allowing it to be affixed, as it ought to be, to a sundial.

South Arbor

The "floor" of the pergola curves up and around in an inexplicable way that makes your eyes cross. It seems as if you'd be standing on your head if you went much higher. Little daylight makes its way through the thick walls of arborvitae.

Mechanically, many of Trinity‘s puzzles require equal measures of logic and illogic, often driving the player to make intuitive–yet retrospectively sensible–leaps.

As a narrative locale, Trinity‘s Wabe consists primarily of image and implication. Unlike the historical and pseudo-historical settings to be discussed in future posts, the Wabe is untethered both temporally and geographically. For instance, at one point the protagonist discovers their own grave, a thing that seems both inevitable and impossible. Inevitable, because Trinity is quite generous in terms of providing opportunities for player death. Impossible, because the game’s conclusion asserts that the protagonist cannot die.

>examine corpse
The solemn dignity of the crypt makes you suspect that the remains may be those of some great missionary or explorer. The shrunken body is wrapped in a gray burial shroud, and its wrinkled mouth is held shut with a bandage wrapped around its head. A pair of boots, one red and one green, completes the ghastly wardrobe.

Elsewhere, the Wabewalker discovers a cottage in which a magpie recites ingredients for a magical spell. Nearby, a massive book contains… the player’s command history!

>read book
It's hard to divine the purpose of the calligraphy. Every page begins with a descriptive heading ("In which Wabewalker meets a Keeper of Birds," for instance) followed by a list of imperatives (prayers? formulae?), each preceded by an arrow-shaped glyph.

The writing ends abruptly on the page you found open, under the heading "In which Wabewalker happens upon a Book of Hours, and begins to study it." The last few incantations read:


The cumulative effect of these sites and problems is disorientation in the best sense. While the Book of Hours acknowledges the player’s existence, it seems more a dehumanization than a knowing wink: the protagonist is reduced to a collection of near-English commands, typos and all. The contrast of corpse and outlandish, mismatched boots summons the spectre of humor, but said spirit never fully materializes. Perhaps these incongruities aren’t quite funny because, after all, it is the protagonist who is the butt of Trinity’s cosmic joke.


This fantastical, atemporal realm of metaphor pushes against the harder realities of atomic weapons application and development across history. It is encircled, both metaphorically and physically, by a forest of mushrooms. Some of them are massive, while others are more “realistically” sized. These are all representations of atomic explosions, or mushroom clouds, in histories past and future: the game takes place in an alternative timeline where Reagan’s “Star Wars” bore fruit. Nuclear explosions have birthed this unreality, and Trinity’s protagonist will pass from the Wabe’s borderlands to significant moments in this history. This boundary area, then, is a strange and highly figurative location that serves multiple vital purposes in the text.

It is the absurdist heart of the game, reveling in paradox, self-referentiality, and literary allusiveness. Distortions of scale, as in the mushrooms, sundial, and boy create a sense of awe. The spatial impossibility of the pergola is of one piece with a general sense of disorientation. The paradoxical, near-humorous discovery of the protagonist’s own corpse is never really explained, which, thematically, is all for the good.

Geographically and narratively, the player must travel from the Wabe to a handful of more realistic–unpleasantly so–locales to retrieve components for the Magpie’s spell. The experience is characterized by the text’s carefully calibrated tone, as things in Trinity are neither too fanciful nor too real.

This well-wrought balance persists until the endgame, whose uncharacteristic enthusiasm for historicity and realism will enjoy a discussion of its own. In the meantime, the contents of these real locations–each of which is reached by passing through doors in different giant mushrooms–must be considered. Additionally, this geographical schema, which is an innovative refinement of Spellbreaker’s–and, before it, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy‘s–warrants further discussion.


I feel pulled in many IF-related directions. Here are some irons currently in the fire:

  • The next piece in this series, which will be concerned with the modular part of Trinity‘s modular geography.
  • Another podcast episode, concerned with Trinity and the second edition (2001, or Inform Design Manual 4) of Graham Nelson’s The Craft of the Adventure.
  • More blogging about learning Inform 7.
  • Working toward a playtest of the first 20% or so of my current Inform 7 work in process.

Busy busy busy! I hope to get back to this soon, as I really enjoyed putting this post together.

The post The Dickensian Turn: Narrative Surface Features of Trinity appeared first on Gold Machine.

Wednesday, 12. June 2024


Coming Soon: Miss Mulligatawney's School for Promising Girls

Announced today -- a bold new venture for inkle studios: a girl's boarding school, opening soon in 1922. Created using a combination of ink script and time travel, we're pleased to announce that the school will be opening its doors a hundred years ago to teach the very best in Latin, Mathematics and Field Sports to Britain's finest girls. ♦ There is also one scholarship place avail

Announced today -- a bold new venture for inkle studios: a girl's boarding school, opening soon in 1922.

Created using a combination of ink script and time travel, we're pleased to announce that the school will be opening its doors a hundred years ago to teach the very best in Latin, Mathematics and Field Sports to Britain's finest girls.

The School Crest

There is also one scholarship place available. You can apply now via Steam though when the school eventually opens, application forms will be available via a variety of digital storefronts.

The prospectus

The best way to get a sense of what Miss Mulligatawney's School will have to offer is to browse the prospectus, which we've digitally scanned and uploaded below.


"The Old Nunnery"

Perfect Prefects

The Rose Window

The Owl

Hockey Champions

Apply Today!

Any questions?

Any questions or concerns you might have about the school and the safety and well-being of its students should be directed to the school secretary, Miss Lemon, who will be very happy to answer.

Please drop a comment below or contact us directly on Discord.

Renga in Blue

Golden Apple: The Dude Abides

I’ve finished the game, and this continues directly from my last post. I left off on the edge of a cliff where the game hinted I needed to use a “wishing staff” but I was unable to do so. The game needs, admittedly logically, the verb WISH. I am still unclear what action is really […]

I’ve finished the game, and this continues directly from my last post.

British schoolchildren (Andy Stoneman, Luke Youll, John Shaw, David Graham, Steven Iveson) using a Video Genie, from the Mirror, 1981.

I left off on the edge of a cliff where the game hinted I needed to use a “wishing staff” but I was unable to do so. The game needs, admittedly logically, the verb WISH. I am still unclear what action is really being taken by the player. I can concretely visualize “wave” or “shake” or even — to cause the wishing staff to shrink back to a normal staff — the verb “rub”. Does wish involve saying some magic phrase, or is it reflective of an internal state of mind? This is not purely theoretical: I know from experience I have a harder time summoning up such verbs when they occur.

The game is also finicky about how the item is held. You must be holding the staff to use wish (and then the game will have you drop it); you must have the item dropped to be able to use “rub” and undo the wish.

Crossing over reveals a “dynamite shack”. Despite visible threats to the contrary it will not tip over no matter how hard you try to whack at it.

The dynamite turns out to be what we need to break into the glass dome, but we need to be able to light the fuse on it first with a match (hence needing both a match, and a thing to strike the match on to light it). The switch either causes some pipes to make sounds (if you type OFF) or water to start running (with ON). I tried each and then running all around the map until I could find a result. With the water ON:

Just in case you want to see the result without the jacket on:

“scoulded most heinus” is a terrific one for the collection.

I was stuck a long time here and ended up finally prowling through source code. I didn’t hit much enlightenment other than finding there were multiple “cave” rooms. My prior attempts at poking in the dark cave led me to breaking my neck. Here is when I needed to take a leap of insight/faith.

We have seen many, many different methods now of coping with darkness. Darkness will randomly kill you if you are in it long enough (Crowther/Woods Adventure); darkness will kill you upon one step (Zork); darkness will kill you if you go “down” while it is dark (Ferret); darkness is safe as long as you don’t run into a wall (Scott Adams). Given this was designated as an Adams tribute, I should have figured it would be the last case, but I was originally treating the darkness more like Zork.

The other thing is: “exploring” in the dark in the Scott Adams games was always a sort of hack. In Savage Island, Part 1, you could technically skip solving a puzzle via tediously mapping through the dark, but it was obviously not an “intended” solution, so here, I was treating the darkness in a similar way. This was a mistake.

You have to feel through the darkness in this game.

This means, essentially, you have to map your way through with random fatal falls. There is the unspoken rule in some games that this level of randomness means you have reached “brute force” and need to lean off, but it doesn’t take long here if you start mapping to find some “strange oozy mud” which glows in the dark.

Here’s the map I made, including the “stubs” I added when I fell in the dark:

To the south you can pick up a match (as long as you’ve swapped the geyser from below-ground to above-ground) although you still need a way of lighting it. To get that you need to first get by a “large rock” in the cave. You are explicitly given the hint to try to “prise” it but I was having no luck. I realized the fact I could undo the wishing operation meant the staff was a likely candidate tool, and indeed:

The next step uses an object I only mentioned incidentally: a bone that’s sitting at the scary altar from last time. Past the rock is a valley of bones, so I tried (based on the game’s text) to return the bone back home.

The empty match box has the standard-issue friction surface on the side, which is sufficient to light the match. So we can take match, box, and dynamite back to the glass dome to win the game. (Mind you, this still took me a while, I tried commands like STRIKE MATCH and the like which were not understood; the game wants you to skip all the implicit action and go straight to BLOW DOME.)

Go bowling forever, I guess.

I’ve been wondering, from the author’s note in my last post about trying to publish the game, who he tried to publish with. The TRS-80 was not prolific in the UK; if you saw one, it was often the cheaper clone system Video Genie (seen the top of this post) instead of the proper Radio Shack system. Even given the clone presence, there wasn’t a giant stack of publishers to choose from like with the ZX-80/81/Spectrum; really the most likely possibility is Molimerx, which published the early Howarth work and also Temple of Bast. I wouldn’t say they were overwhelmed with adventures, though. My guess is if Paul Standen accurately reported that they wanted “arcade games” because of having too many adventures, it was rather that Golden Apple was not quite at the same standard as the other games. Or maybe the swearing and tone weren’t respectable-commercial enough. When in the dark you are told you “can’t see shit”; this is not the sort of message that would appear in any “respectable” adventures until, maybe, the late 90s? (I’m thinking Little Blue Men by Michael Gentry of Anchorhead fame, and Chicks Dig Jerks by Robb Sherwin who went on to make games like Cryptozookeeper.)

This game isn’t interesting as a grand moment in game design (although the philosophical handling of darkness was accidentally of note); it does give another good data point of what a schoolchild’s real game-writing was like, with the attitude of the “Adventure narrator” cranked higher in intensity and lower in maturity.

Just a joke bit.

Coming up next: A sequel, where we must battle against Hitler one last time.

Tuesday, 11. June 2024

Renga in Blue

Golden Apple (1982)

Paul Standen describes his game Golden Apple (or Glod) as written when was a “schoolboy”; he sent it to a software company (not specifying which) back in 1982: We do loads of adventures, we want arcade games is not what they said, but implied. I packed away my computer and joined a band. He then […]

Guiseley, a suburb of Leeds.

Paul Standen describes his game Golden Apple (or Glod) as written when was a “schoolboy”; he sent it to a software company (not specifying which) back in 1982:

We do loads of adventures, we want arcade games is not what they said, but implied. I packed away my computer and joined a band.

He then brought it out again in 1990, and with the aid of David Hunter, converted it to a system called AMOS for Amiga, releasing it to the public domain. AMOS was meant to be a language for implementing games on the Amiga (that allowed for compilation) and is probably most comparable to something like Gamemaker today.

He originally wrote it in “Scott Adams” style, although the game can be played more like an Infocom/Magnetic Scrolls game. I went with the author-preferred look.

To be clear, the author does not live at the address below any more, so my apologies if you are a “nice looking girl” who is wowed by the author’s writing prowess.

The object is simply to find and claim the golden apple, and the secret of immortality with it. The “claim” part is important because while I have found the apple I have not been able to get inside the container it is within and win the game.

Early on you find a “lagoon” where you can swim in and find a kipper. Examining the kipper indicates that snakes hate kippers.

This makes the next part seem like it ought to be easy, but I had to reckon with the parser a little.

The Scott Adams games quite universally had good noun discipline: if you saw a noun mentioned, you could at the very least refer to it. (It occasionally had a “secret noun” — that is, a noun you could refer to implied by the room description but not separated as a noun — but that doesn’t seem to apply to this game.) Because you do not need to refer to the mamba, the game here simply doesn’t even think that it exists in the corresponding parser command. This is a sign that the author isn’t using some kind of rigorous object-based system for their adventure but rather having parser commands accepted on the fly, making it harder to communicate with confidence.

This is a pattern of the game generally, where things are only half-implemented. It is a little like someone who writes a game based on a pre-written walkthrough but only does cursory checks for deviation. Mind you, you can at least die:

Swearing by the game was very unusual for this era. If anything the game chastised you for using such language. Also, the bronze sword is in the room adjacent to the snake and I haven’t found a use for it yet.

You don’t need to refer to the mamba because you can just drop the fish instead.

Past that is a tree, where if you climb it you find a basket full of snakes. I was baffled by the basket for a while.

At least you can refer to the basket with an examine command but the game fails to allow any interaction otherwise, including dying. Just in the spirit of experimentation I went back down to the tree (without climbing) and tested my various possible verbs on the tree itself.

I hit paydirt with SEARCH (which is distinct from EXAMINE in an unclear way), as the basket fell down from the tree along with some skeleton keys.

Moving on, there’s a dark cave and a locked gate.

The dark cave remains cryptic to me for now; you fall and die without a light source. The newly-found skeleton keys go to the gate, though, opening a new area.

The room descriptions look vivid but there’s not many objects to fill the imagination. There’s a spooky graveyard with a spooky house but I can’t even get nouns to be recognized in either.

The most glamorous location is a blood stained altar, where you can obtain a “shin bone”; just past that is a “vault” where you can find a “wishing staff”.

The wishing staff is quite odd and I suspect I’m missing something parser-wise. You can rub it to get the staff to shrink but only if you aren’t holding it.

EXAMINE STAFF gets the message “use it at the cliff” but I have tried to do so with no good result.

Not even JUMP at the cliff does anything. What self-respecting Scott Adams clone doesn’t let you jump to your doom, at least?

Mopping up the last locations, there’s a pond with some goldfish (can’t pick them up or refer to them in any way I can find) a field with a corn cob (which you can get, and is “corny”) and a door in a stump which leads to, perhaps anticlimactically, the golden apple.

In a narrative sense, having the golden apple be shown off so early is a strange move; in a gameplay sense, it is an interesting curveball. I’m guessing all we’re really questing for now is one good cutting item (some games use a diamond, so let’s say that).

I’m not ready to plunge into the source code yet (this is uncompiled, so I can read everything) but it is comforting to know it is there, because the somewhat hacky parser may turn out to be my nemesis.

(Thanks to benkid77 at the CASA forum who helped me find the game in the first place; you need to download the AMOS system separate from the Golden Apple source code which can be found on a public domain disk.)

Monday, 10. June 2024

Zarf Updates

Neutering spellcheck on MacOS

I hate the red squiggle underline. I know many people love it and many people rely on it. It's become a software standard, and for good reason. But I, personally, find it distracting and unhelpful. I spell pretty gud! So I always turn the feature ...

I hate the red squiggle underline.

I know many people love it and many people rely on it. It's become a software standard, and for good reason. But I, personally, find it distracting and unhelpful. I spell pretty gud! So I always turn the feature off.

The problem is, there's no system-wide way to turn off the red squiggle on MacOS.

You can turn it off on a per-app basis. It's usually a menu item called "Check Spelling While Typing". (Under "Edit / Spelling and Grammar". Sometimes you have to right-click in the text window to get that menu.) Many apps, like Slack, have a custom preference that does the same thing. So I turn it off for every app, and...

...the off switch doesn't always stay off.

For many apps it works great. Pages? Safari? Slack? BBEdit, where I'm typing this? No problem! Turn the preference off once, it stays off forever. (Or at least until I buy a new Mac, but that's once every several years.)

But for many apps, it just doesn't stick. I am very happy with Mona, the Mastodon client; but the "Check Spelling" preference resets on every single message you type. In the Zoom desktop client, it resets on every new call's chat pane. Even TextEdit, Apple's native text editor, loses track of the preference when I reopen a document. And then the red squiggles reappear.

For a while I had the "Check Spelling While Typing" menu item bound to a keystroke (cmd-opt-semicolon). So I could switch off the red squiggles in a given window with one power chord. Sadly, with recent versions of some apps (Mona, Zoom) this no longer works. Contextual menu items are no longer bindable with Mac's keyboard shortcut mechanism. (Not sure whether this is the fault of the apps, or SwiftUI, or MacOS. Doesn't matter though.)

So I've gotten pretty upset with the red squiggles. I'm not the only one.

If you search for the problem, you see a lot of people telling you how to turn off the "Correct Spelling Automatically" preference. (Example: this post.) That is a system-wide preference, and I turned it off years ago. But it's not the same thing. That preference is for auto-correction of spelling errors. I want to turn off the underlining of spelling errors.

Well, this week the problem got on my last nerve and I figured out a real and system-wide solution, which is abominable:

I created a spelling dictionary that accepts every English word as correct and told MacOS to use it exclusively.

Here it is!

How to install this (on MacOS)

Go to the release page, download "Source code (zip)", and double-click it to unpack.

Move abplus-dict.dic and abplus-dict.aff to your ~/Library/Spelling folder.

By default, the Library folder (in your home directory) is hidden. To get there, hold down the Option key while selecting "Finder > Go", and then select "Library". See this Apple docs page for more info.

Once you have installed abplus-dict.dic and abplus-dict.aff:

  • Open System Settings.
  • Select "Keyboard".
  • Press the "Edit..." button next to "Input Sources".
  • Open the dropdown menu for "Spelling". (It's set to "Automatic by Language" by default.)
  • Scroll all the way down to the bottom of the menu and select "Set Up..."
  • In the dialogue box, check "abplus-dict (Library)" and uncheck every other checkbox. (It refuses to uncheck every box; you have to leave at least one checked.)
  • Hit "Done".
  • Open the dropdown menu for "Spelling" again. Scroll down and select "abplus-dict (Library)". Not the "Set Up..." entry, but the one above it.
  • Hit "Done".
  • Quit System Settings.
  • Quit and restart any apps you have open to pick up the new spellcheck setting.

Congratulations. The "Check Spelling While Typing" setting is now irrelevant, because MacOS believes that every word is spelled correctly.

Other OSes

I have no idea. Windows has a system-wide preference that works (under "Settings > Time & Language > Typing") so I've never thought about replacing its dictionary.

The caveats

This should work for every Latin-script language. I've only tested it in English, though. And I've only been using it for a few days, so I might have missed some important cases. Suggestions welcome.

The dictionary includes all letters in the Basic Latin, Latin-1, and Latin Extended A/B blocks. (Up through U+024F.) I did not include Latin Extended Additional, IPA symbols, or other letter-like forms. So if you type "məssy" or "ḑḁḡḡḙṛ", that will still get a red squiggle.

I observe that Greek, Cyrillic, and other scripts do not get marked. (Even though I didn't include those letters.) I don't really understand MacOS's rules for when spellcheck is applied, but I guess that case works out non-squiggly.

Note that if you delete abplus-dict.dic and abplus-dict.aff from your ~/Library/Spelling folder, MacOS will silently revert to the default spellchecker.

I am abusing the heck out of the dictionary format, so it's possible that the spell-check process takes more memory or CPU than it's supposed to. It seems fine? I haven't noticed any problems? But I don't know.

How it works

The dictionary format is in theory documented here (neovim) and/or here (hunspell). I say "in theory" because neither is all that clearly written. I had to look at both, plus a bunch of examples (thank you wooorm!), plus some of the hunspell test cases, to sort out what I needed.

In the end I didn't need too much.

The abplus-dict.dic file lists every Latin-script character, all 450 of them, as one-letter words. Each of them has the s flag.

The abplus-dict.aff file defines the s flag:


This means that words with that flag can compound arbitrarily, even when they're only one letter long. Problem solved.

We also ignore apostrophes and dashes inside words:

IGNORE '_-–—“‘”’

The spellchecker wants to be fussy about the difference between they're and the'yre. This line tells it to not be. I'm not sure the other punctuation marks need to be listed, but it can't hurt.

Is this a good idea?

Don't ask me. If abplus-dict turns out to be the Speling Tormnent Nexis, I apologize.

Choice of Games LLC

Author Interview—Lucas Zaper and Morton Newberry, “Unsupervised”

You and your friends were teenage sidekicks of the world's greatest heroes. But now, the heroes are missing. It's your turn to kick ass and save the world! "Unsupervised" is a 660,000-word interactive superpower novel by Lucas Zaper and Morton Newberry, where your choices control the story. It’s entirely text-based—without graphics or sound effects—and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your
You and your friends were teenage sidekicks of the world’s greatest heroes. But now, the heroes are missing. It’s your turn to kick ass and save the world!

Unsupervised is an interactive superpower novel by Lucas Zaper and Morton Newberry. We sat down with Lucas and Morton to talk about their work. Unsupervised releases this Thursday, June 13th. You can play the first three chapters for free today.

One of the really fun and distinctive aspects of your game is the idea that all of these heroes have left the hero-ing biz and all have day jobs.  How did you go about building that world, where superpowers are both woven into society and closely regulated?

Lucas: You have all these sidekicks who suddenly found themselves without the guidance and protection of their mentors and have to face a worldwide escalation in supercriminal activity, increased scrutiny from regulatory agencies, and the mercurial nature of public opinion. All this while going through puberty.

So, some of them decided to use their powers for personal gain. Ghostling became a YouTuber specializing in haunted places, forging footage of the dead to make a living. Lil Biggie, now that he doesn’t have to answer to anyone, is following his dreams of becoming a rapper. And Multidude… well, I don’t want to give any spoilers, but he’s doing a lot.

Then there’s Flit, who’s trying to keep that Silver Age morality in an ever more cynical world, and the MC, who can be trying to do the same, acting more like a vigilante or being a downright villain. Or even, in perhaps the most evil choice of them all, become a politician.

We tried to make a world that feels real and self-consistent. There’s a timeline in the game that explains how the emergence of metahumans affected everything, from geopolitics to the cultural zeitgeist. Still, two clear examples that we can give are that we had a “cape race” instead of a “space race” during the Cold War, and that superhero comic books are a dying genre. Why read fictional stories on paper when you can watch the real thing live on TV?

(We took that idea from Watchmen, where pirates have replaced superheroes in comic books. In our case, it’s medieval fantasy.)

You’re both veteran ChoiceScript authors, with successful Hosted Games titles under your belts. What new challenges did you take on for this game?

Lucas: Having professionals giving feedback throughout the whole process is great. We had a rough start because we were so used to doing things our way–which meant an almost unreadable code for anyone that isn’t us–but I think we got the grip of it after the first couple of chapters. I want to thank everybody from CoG for their patience and for helping us get here.

Morton: The word count was a challenge in itself—Unsupervised is larger than any other story I’ve worked on. It’s bigger than Highlands, Deep Waters, The Vampire Regent, and Ghost Simulator. Also, as we wrote the scenes, the project changed substantially from the original outline. Looking back, I believe this deviation was a good thing, although it required a lot of flexibility and rewriting. And time.

How did you manage the co-writing process? What were the biggest difficulties? Did each of you gravitate towards a particular character or storyline?

Morton: We’ve been co-writing stories since 2016, and it’s been a challenging journey. I feel that our process has improved, but it invariably involves numerous rounds of feedback. And I guess it only works because we’re open and honest with each other. We don’t hesitate to say, “Man, what you wrote is really bad.” And then we throw it away and start again.

Our approach is to agree on main plotlines and story milestones, and then decide who’s going to write which scene. Then we write each scene individually and they go through rounds of feedback until we both find them acceptable. And this can take a while.

I think it’s natural that we gravitate towards particular characters and end up writing most of their scenes. That’s particularly true for ROs.

You’re both very active on our Forum and with fan engagement. How did fan reactions affect the development of the story?

Lucas: Comics taught me how to read; I’ve been reading them for over twenty-five years. I feel like I have a decent grasp on what superhero fans want from a game because I’m a fan myself, and I think when people read Unsupervised, they recognize that it is both a love letter to the genre and a hatemail to some of the industry’s practices.

If you ever got frustrated because a character wasn’t acting like they should, because of inconsistent power levels, or because a reboot or retcon invalidated something you held dear, you know what I’m talking about. But, by the end of the day, we fans only care so much about these characters and stories because we love them. And Unsupervised is, above all, a work of love.

So, my point here is that the story itself didn’t change much because we had a clear goal in mind: representing as many comic book tropes as possible and letting the players go wild. You can be Homelander if you want to, but you can also be All-Star Superman. We subvert some tropes, yes, but we also honor them.

Now, that doesn’t mean fans haven’t been essential in shaping the game. I can’t stress enough how much their feedback helped us with customization, balance, and bugfixing. In fact, I’d like to give a special shoutout to Denzil_Melgior_Nagel and Webtoonien, who probably have read the game more times than I have. There are others, too, but these two were relentless.

You’ve both talked openly about the process of finding bugs and bloopers during development. What was the funniest – or most frustrating – bug in Unsupervised?

Lucas: The game has a robust system for customizing your character’s superhero costume, allowing you to pick an item for each slot. I made various headgear, upper body gear, handwear, footwear, and capes, each with unique colors and the possibility of adding symbols.

But when we first made the demo public, I forgot to add lower-body gear. So it was like one of those recurrent nightmares where you suddenly find yourself wearing no pants in public. I always laugh when I remember it.

Morton: It isn’t a bug, but one scene in Vera City took at least four rewriting sessions to reach its final version. Oh, man.

Of course we have to ask: if you could have any of the superpowers mentioned in your game, which one would it be?

Lucas: People will always argue about which power is the strongest, and I’ve seen all kinds of different opinions on this. My favorite in the game is Enhanced Senses because you get so much new information and unique descriptions. But in real life, it would have to be Time Manipulation. There are just too many creative ways you can use it.

Morton: I love Miss Fortune’s power, Probability Manipulation. I used to play Mage: The Awakening with friends when I was younger, and I played an Acanthus character who could manipulate time and fate. I felt that this power would fit well in a superhero story like this one.

Interactive Fiction – Far Far Futures

Urban Exploration in Narrative Games

The newly released Moondrop Isle is many things: a mystery, a puzzle-fest, an experiment in multi-author interactive fiction… but it’s …Continue reading →

The newly released Moondrop Isle is many things: a mystery, a puzzle-fest, an experiment in multi-author interactive fiction… but it’s also about urban exploration. It’s about going to a place where people once lived and worked, since left to nature and the elements. This is something of which I have first-hand experience…

Exploring abandoned places is a natural fit for an adventure game. Poking around somewhere you’re not meant to be and piecing together clues from the past is perfect for a mystery game that can easily accommodate puzzles.

Inside the Lunarcade, in Moondrop Isle.

There are at least three elements to urban exploration (as opposed to, say, fantasy cave exploration) that make it a rich vein for games, especially narrative games with puzzles: Abandonment, Breaking & Entering, and Verticality.


In an abandoned place, the interloper catches a glimpse of the past, and when they do, they may be seeing one of three pasts, each layered on the other: the original function of the place, the frozen moment of abandonment, and the afterlife of abandonment. The layering of the pasts allows a story to be told of a place as it once was, and as it came to be.

Original function

An abandoned place can be frozen in good condition, and offer up something like an experience of what it would have been like to go through that place when it was in use, only with less people and no one stopping you poking around the back rooms. This is what it’s like to explore non-abandoned urban locations in real life (i.e. trespassing).

The rose to skull projector: most memorable part of Myst for me.

This is the fundamental design of Myst (1993): the strange machines are still mostly in good working order, the locations are mostly kept quite tidy. Its just everyone had gone. The real allure of Myst (at least for me) is not just tinkering with old mechanisms, but exploring the Ages to learn about the character of two men, finding out who they are by what evidence they have left behind. Discovering a working projector which transforms a rose into a human skull is an early dark hint at to the nature of one of the men that made that place his home.

The Frozen Moment

When you explore an abandoned place, especially if no one else has disturbed it since, you might see evidence of the final moments that marked the place’s abandonment. This layer of history is the key part of detective investigation. Return of the Obra Dinn (2018) presents a ship seemingly abandoned, the remaining evidence in the form of corpses and signs of destruction). Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture (2015) lets you explore a whole village just after everyone disappeared.

The first of many corpses in Return of the Obra Dinn.

Artistically deployed skeletons are a common trope in RPGs. In the Fallout series, they’re ubiquitous despite the apocalypse having taken place many decades before the events of each game. It’s common in such games to come upon a corpse in the state it was in when it died, perhaps with a diary in its inventory or the cause of death obvious from the scene dressing. Environmental storytelling of frozen moments can be more subtle, but you would be forgiven for thinking it always had to include a dead body.

Afterlife of Abandonment

Life goes on. Abandoned places don’t usually stay pristine like in Myst. Wildlife overgrows, brickwork crumbles, new people move in and start repurposing the old stuff. In Moondrop Isle swimming pools have become skate bowls, bamboo has clogged up courtyards, birds nest in a monorail station, and graffiti from previous urban explorers can be found scrawled on the walls. The more post-abandonment a place becomes, if life continues there then the less the original function of the place remains, until perhaps only a few ruins remain.

Breaking & Entering

A mystery requires secrets, and a game of exploration usually requires those secrets be physically manifested (as old letters, film reels, secret journals, keys). For a physical secret to remain secret, it must necessarily be hidden and guarded (if only by locks and walls). Breaking and entering is the means to get to such secrets. Puzzles around gaining entrance are straightforward to embed in the story and setting. This is the core dynamic in many adventure games: breaking into a place where you shouldn’t be. It’s most of the gameplay in Sub Rosa (2015), where you break and enter the house of your rival. It’s the first sequence in Anchorhead (1998), breaking and entering into the Estate Agent’s office.

Breaking and entering is the first of several transgressive moments in Anchorhead.

The transgressive act is the mark of the adventurer. If you’re where you should be, doing what is expected of you then you are not adventuring, no matter what ‘adventure playgrounds’ or climbing or kayak adventure package holidays would have you believe. In Broken Sword II (1997), you mostly play as George, but when you briefly play as his more normal friend, Nico, she will tell you “that’s something George would do” when you suggest stealing something from a museum.

Being blocked off from somewhere is itself a puzzle. It’s the most natural and common puzzle type for an adventure game because that’s what breaking and entering is: finding a way past walls, doors, and locks put there to keep you out. This is especially true for urban exploration: what makes it ‘urban exploration’ rather than a night time stroll is finding a way in to a place someone didn’t want you to go. Being blocked off in an abandoned building can happen at the three layers of time: a place that is always locked, a place that is closed off when it was abandoned, or a place blocked by something that happened in its abandoned state. Each of these states suggest in themselves different puzzles.


Here’s a confession, when I write urban exploration, I write from personal experience. I have explored empty buildings in the cities I’ve lived and worked in, and even on holiday, I climb onto rooftops, vault over railings, crawl into vents. In my games, I’ve tried to translate some part of this experience, the wonder and mystery, certainly, but also the verticality.

To get into an abandoned building, most often you have to climb. These places extend upwards and are usually locked off on the ground level. An abandoned tower block in Calm (2011) was modelled directly on an experience of traversing a block of partially-constructed flats: we had to go all the way up one stair case and through a hole in the wall at the top apartment before we could go down another set of stairs back to the main entrance. My experience climbing over a wall to gain entrance to a soon-to-be-demolished mechanics garage was described during one of the vignettes in IFDB Spelunking (2012).

Last year I took a closed off footpath in Pittsburgh. It being overgrown and forbidden was fun, or course, but this was enhanced by the verticality of it, with its inherent danger, beauty of vista, and promise of a new location to visit.

When the Festival Place shopping centre was built in Basingstoke in 2002, it was built over an older outdoor shopping arcade with upper storey concrete walkways. One of these walkways was never demolished, but is preserved, along with some abandoned maisonettes, on the roof of the mall. A normal person would never see this, but someone could visit if they are prepared and able to pull themselves up onto a half-descended service ladder to a shop roof, and then shimmy up in a gap stuffed with air conditioner units, on up to the roof of the shopping centre. This experience inspired one of several ingress points to the Lunarcade in Moondrop Isle.

Lure of Abandonment

Urban Exploration (in real life, but especially in the carefully constructed world of games) allows the interloper to…

  1. Experience mysteries of a place: what is was, what happened to it, and what it became.
  2. Solve problems driven by their own curiosity (i.e. how to get in!), and enjoy the thrill of going where one is not meant to go.
  3. Move through a space in unconventional ways: in windows, up drain pipes, through crawlspaces. Just traversing a place becomes a creative problem to solve.

So to adventure game designers, I say, head out in the night with sensible shoes on and don’t forget to bring a torch!

Sunday, 09. June 2024

Renga in Blue

Blog General Updates + Heathkit Request + Some New Games

Some miscellaneous news to clear out. First off, I’d like to apologize, as it looks like my spam filter for comments is more hypertense than normal, and I just had a whole slew that I had to approve. I don’t have any control over how it works so I don’t know why it suddenly got […]

Some miscellaneous news to clear out.

First off, I’d like to apologize, as it looks like my spam filter for comments is more hypertense than normal, and I just had a whole slew that I had to approve. I don’t have any control over how it works so I don’t know why it suddenly got spikier but maybe WordPress had some major troll invasions lately so they tweaked accordingly. In any case, if you ever make a comment and it doesn’t show, please feel free to drop me an email (it is on my About page) if that happens.

Secondly, I’ve sort-of made a special cameo over at Wargaming Scribe as he hit a game that was sort-of an adventure game. (My fictional counterpart, mind you — I didn’t play. I did participate in the multi-player Time Lords and completely couldn’t find anything no matter where I journeyed in time. Let’s just say Julian Gollop was ambitious but his better designs came later.)

Third, if anyone is familiar with the Heathkit computer, could I get some assistance? I’m trying to get a Heathkit only game to work and I am failing miserably even after trying every emulator available. My finest moment was getting H89 to work in MAME (already a troublesome feat, almost nobody has an up-to-date BIOS set) and getting an error that read “no error”. I am now also carrying TEA and NO TEA at the same time.

There’s no rush (it is a 1981 game, so on my loop-back list anyway) but I’d like to get this one at least ready for when it’s time.

There’s a video of disks working, but I think what happened is it was added to MAME support and taken out in a later version?

While I’m at it let me mention some games that are recent and not-quite-so recent that will be of interest to the readers of this blog who like the old-school text adventures.

First off: from very late in 2023, Never Gives Up Her Dead, by Mathbrush. The author has written some extremely good small games in the past, and this is his shot at a massively large difficult puzzle-fest of the old school.

Time is running out after a meteor strikes your interstellar starship. While the crew is under full alert, only you seem to notice the strange red portals opening up throughout the ship.

Explore ten different worlds, learn the truth of your destiny, and confront the mysterious figure who has been haunting you from the start in this epic sci-fi adventure.

Much more recently — as in two weeks ago — saw the release of Moondrop Isle. This is yet another giant game, but with many authors, specifically:

Ryan Veeder, Nils Fagerburg, Joey Jones, Zach Hodgens, Jason Love, Mark Marino, Carl Muckenhoupt, Sarah Willson, Caleb Wilson

It is playable online here and there seem to be some gimmicks that make it an online-specific game — I have yet to get that far but what I’ve seen is very good.

Finally, in old-but-recently-recovered news: on the Stardot forum, longtime poster leenew brought up that the game Satan’s Challenge was broken and seemed to be a bad dump. This led to a giant effort by another longtime poster (duikkie) and many pages of hand-written notes before a reconstructed version was made here. So the game Satan’s Challenge (Microdeal, 1984, BBC Micro) is finally playable for what is likely the first time for decades.

Zarf Updates

Even more spring games

No particular category here. Some narrative, some puzzle, some of both. Open Roads Animal Well Pilgrims Isles of Sea and Sky Harold Halibut Open Roads by Open Roads Team -- game site A walking (and driving, but you're a passenger) simulator ...

No particular category here. Some narrative, some puzzle, some of both.

  • Open Roads
  • Animal Well
  • Pilgrims
  • Isles of Sea and Sky
  • Harold Halibut

Open Roads

A walking (and driving, but you're a passenger) simulator about two women exploring their family history. The pitch here is pretty directly Gone Home as a two-hander: Tess, the teenage viewpoint character, exploring houses with her mother Opal. Plus the invisible presence of Helen, the grandmother who has just died. So a three-hander, really, spanning three generations.

(Compare The Wreck, which took a similar tack for a very different three-generation family.)

This is good but doesn't quite manage to be great. The back-and-forth dialogue between Tess and Opal is the whole of the game, obviously. It's got plenty of good bits, but I never managed to feel the whole thing as a complete story-arc-and-conversation. I suspect this is just the nature of voice acting in a free-exploration game. Every snippet of dialogue has to stand on its own, because you don't know what order the player will encounter stuff. So the actors don't have the crucial context of "we were just sniping / teasing / reminiscing with each other a minute ago."

The classical solitary walking sim is all monologue, which I guess is easier. You can shift tone at will and let the player imagine what's going on in the protagonist's head. Social dialogue needs more continuity.

Also, the visual-novel-style talking heads don't quite have enough variation. The animations are nice, but they start to feel stock pretty quickly: the laugh, the gasp, the scowl. The voice acting is more expressive but this just makes the animations look mismatched.

None of this is fatal, though. Like I said, it's a good game; solid writing, solid (if somewhat melodramatic) story. The two characters and their off-stage associates become very real, very quickly. The environments are vivid and varied. Exploring them is a good time, and having your mom along for the ride packs an emotional punch.

(It occurs to me that both Open Roads (2024) and Gone Home (2014) are set twenty years in their respective pasts. I assume this is what happens when adult game developers write about their childhoods, but it still leads to the delightful question of what these characters are doing today. Tess is in her thirties now. Sam and Lonnie are almost fifty; their kids could be on a road trip right now. I like to imagine them all these people meeting up for dinner occasionally.)

Animal Well

The most-discussed puzzle game of the year (so far!) so I hardly need tell you to play it. It's delightful. Not what we call "thinky" nowadays; it's a more approachable style of puzzle, exploration and clever platforming tricks and clues that the madding crowd will readily collate on the inevitable wiki page. But there's tons and tons of it. The world is enormous, and full of gizmos, and every time you find a gizmo you can go back and find more stuff to do in the world.

It's also delightfully generous about solving the traversal puzzles. Each time you find a new gizmo, some impossible screen become possible; that's the metroidvania way. But also, some difficult screens become easier. There's often several ways to get past an obstable, depending on which items you've found and how cleverly you use them.

And not everybody finds the items in the same order! Yes, there's some gating and a general outline of what happens when. But you have quite a bit of flexibility within that. So you can whale away on a manically precise bit of jumping -- or leave it and come back later. It may look completely different when you have the <spoiler> or the <spoiler>, and different again when you have both.

Secrets abound, as do endings-beyond-endings. I happily powered my way through the main quest, and then (just as happily) started peeking at spoilers to get bonus stuff. The generosity applies here too, by the way. The way I reached the bonus ending doesn't actually match up with the spoilers! There's multiple paths in; I don't think players have entirely sussed out the logic.

Anyhow, I now have all the gizmos, 61 of the 64 bonus you-know-whats, and two of the secret you-maybe-know-alsos. I can be done now. I had a great time.

(Spoilers indicate that groups of players are still discovering stuff, as I write this, two weeks after launch day. Players are still discovering new categories of stuff. This game is a heroic accomplishment by the creator, let me tell you.)


A little point-and-click game from Amanita Design. I see it's five years old, really. But it was buried in Apple Arcade, which I've mostly ignored. It shifted to a regular iOS app release last month so that's when I played it.

It's sweet, as you'd expect from Amanita. It's not really like any of their other games, also as you'd expect; Amanita has never felt constrained to repeat Samorost forever. In Pilgrims, you play a group of PCs. The combination of map location, active PC, and an inventory list (a tidy card metaphor) gives you a nice combinatoric range to explore. It reminded me of Grow, a bit, except with more graspable consequences.

If you're into trophy-hunting, there's a whole range of obscure corner cases to try to find. Enjoy.

Isles of Sea and Sky

A block-pushing puzzle game that takes the concept about as far as it can plausibly go, and then doubles down.

It starts with your basic concepts (push crates onto squares) and then rapidly starts to throw in variations. Holes, water, key-lock pairs, collapsing floors, crystals that grow when you step on them, ice, lava, (you knew there would be lava), ...

On the one hand, this is great: there's lots and lots of kinds of puzzles to be made from this stuff. And the game does! On the other hand, it's not the brain-breaking semantic godstuff of Baba Is You. It's just more kinds of crates and more kinds of squares. I eventually reached a point where there were too many different things on the screen; the prospect of exploring all their interactions got exhausting.

On the third hand, the environments are pretty awesome. They form cohesive environments -- islands, obviously -- which are loaded with sneaky secrets and hidden paths. The bonus puzzles aren't Animal Well deep but they'll keep you going for a while.

Come to think of it, some of Animal Well's multiple-solution factor applies to Isles. There are often several ways to solve a level. It may be impossible at first; when you collect a certain power it becomes possible, but tricky. Later, as you gain more powers, you can take shortcuts and the level becomes easier.

Mind you, this means that when you gain a new power, you have to run around a lot of places to see where it might apply. Animal Well did that too, but Animal Well is pretty speedy to traverse. In Isles re-exploring can be slow, and trying new stuff in a level can be really slow. Especially if it turns out you're still stuck on it. Once you reach the tricky levels, assaulting one might be ten or twenty minutes of block-fiddling -- trying various strategies in various combinations. (You hit "reset" a lot.)

And there are a lot of tricky levels.

I have to say that I've ground to a halt (at about 75 stars). It was a slow grind, because every couple of days I'd boot it up and run around an island looking for something I'd missed. And I'd find something! And make progress! A tiny amount of progress, for hours of work. (I've been looking at hints, too -- but not walkthroughs.) For my own sanity, I have to declare this game over.

But it's extremely clever. I enjoyed 90% of the puzzles I solved, if not 90% of the time I spent.

Harold Halibut

A big fat cinematic point-and-click game, if by "cinematic" you mean "Claymation". The titular Harold is the handyman on a starship stranded in an alien ocean. Life goes on, but where is it going? Clean the intake filters, scrub some graffiti... until a fishy alien person floats into view.

You'll find a few puzzles, but this game is mostly on the narrative side of the fence. You're steering Harold through the story rather than solving his problems. To be fair, Harold's problems are figuring out what his life should be. If a complicated machine is on stage, the game is (rather deftly) presenting the experience of messing with a machine, not using it to convey a puzzle per se.

So, the narrative. It's ambitious but somewhat unfocused. The game looks amazing: dense, hand-modeled sets blended with sea-lit underwater vistas. I'd love to know what the production process was like. (Spoiler: video.) The characters are completely convincing... clay animated figures? It truly looks like an animated feature. (Quite unlike the low-poly Wallace and Gromit games that Telltale once did.)

But this is where the plan starts to go wrong. The character animations are all crafted with perfectionistic care. It's clear that the designers wanted to render every action and beat. They never rely on point-and-click tricks like "your hand twitches and then we swap in the new object sprite". The problem is that too often, craft blows past fussiness and into tedium. When you click on something, Harold walks over and positions himself exactly right for the interaction. Every transition is slip-perfect -- but that means an extra half-second delay every time you do anything. Same goes for the cut scenes. So much care in the animation and direction, and for what? A nagging feeling that I could be peeking at my friends-list between lines of dialogue.

The story, too, is oddly unfocused. A whole lot of story happens, but it's hard to tell what the emphasis is, other than "Harold is a nice guy". He is, in fact. He is accustomed to doing everything for everyone, with only the shallowest of complaints at the routine of his life. The perfect fetch-quest protagonist, right? But also the sort of person who, upon seeing an alien fishy person in need of help, helps without stint or care for cost.

The rest of the cast is, well, comedy stereotypes. Only without the comedy? The game takes everything perfectly seriously. But not in the "ridiculous events taken seriously" sense of classic farce. It's just stuff happening to characters that include an Italian himbo schoolteacher and a one-handed Jewish auntie scientist. Nor is it satire; it's not driven by, e.g., Douglas Adams's neutron-collapsed rage at the inanities of life. The overly-corporate CEO isn't there for the narrative to lash out at capitalism. She's just part of the plot.

It's aiming at romantic comedy, or what romantic comedy would be if you substituted a phlegmatic pixie dream nonbinary fish person. Platonic comedy? But the rom-com model needs enough com-plot to balance the rom, and this story doesn't hang together.

All that complaining aside: a lot of the game works! Like I said, the visual construction is fantastic. The characters are one-note but thoughtfully played. I was happy to get to know them. At the end of the game, I happily took the time to go around to all of them and say goodbye. And, while I've taken my shots at the animation style, some of it works really well. There were some wonderfully conceived set-pieces in there. The comic timing sometimes worked. The cinematic direction has genuine flair.

If you want to relax in the vibe of being a good person, dreaming of a carefree life under the sea, Harold Halibut may be the game for you. You just have to be patient with it.

Saturday, 08. June 2024

top expert

the goal is in sight.

How much longer is he going to talk about actions and tables and goals? disclaimer. As I always say, I am a beginning programmer learning about Inform 7. Sometimes, I will come up with a better idea and change my code. This isn’t a manual, it’s a process! If you are also a beginner, maybe […]

How much longer is he going to talk about actions and tables and goals?


As I always say, I am a beginning programmer learning about Inform 7. Sometimes, I will come up with a better idea and change my code. This isn’t a manual, it’s a process! If you are also a beginner, maybe we can all learn to do interesting things with Inform 7. IF is for everyone!

what’s all this about tables.

Maybe you’re thinking, “Whoa, Drew, you’re moving kind of fast. What’s all this table stuff?” If you haven’t been following along since the beginning, you might have missed a lot of discussions regarding tables. Tables are a great way to keep track of stuff! You can track values, track actions, track things. You can keep printed text in them! In Repeat the Ending, I managed all of the footnotes in tables, using this example from the documentation as a model. All of the text from the “guide” was stored in tables, too. You might recall that in my other project, I used tables to keep track of text descriptions that changed based on which scene was active.

If you’d like to go back to the beginning, here is my first post about tables (tumblr).

If tables seem intimidating, that’s ok! They are definitely worth the trouble, so give it a shot.


The past couple of posts have been focused on building two large rules. By “large,” I don’t mean the amount of code involved. I mean that they have a large reach. Here’s how those rules begin:

before doing something:


after doing something:

That covers a lot of ground! More than half of everything, I imagine. These rules keep track of which player tasks and objectives are active, as well as what the player’s score is. They also track when these things became active, or inactive. To do this, our tables contain values, texts, and stored actions.

While we’ve been working with values and texts in tables for some time, stored actions are new. These are just what they sound like, actions stored in tables. Note that there is a distinction between stored actions and what are called described actions. Stored actions consist solely of actions and the relevant noun(s). “Going south” and “unlocking the red door with the silver key” can be used as stored actions. Described actions include further conditions. We usually use described actions in our action processing rules. “Going south from the darkened garage” is a described action, as is “unlocking the red door with the silver key while the green jacket is worn by the player.”

We can use stored actions in tables, but never described ones.

So in recent posts we’ve used custom stored actions with very readable names as substitutes for described actions. For example:

unloosing an unspeakable evil is an action applying to nothing.

instead of unlocking the red door with the silver key while the green jacket is worn by the player:
	try unloosing an unspeakable evil.

In this way, we can trigger readable, stored actions even though our conditions might be complex. Our so-called “large” rules can detect these specific actions and modify tables as needed.

That’s all working pretty well! But we don’t have much to show for it, yet. The data is there, yes, but we haven’t come up with a way to look at it. Since we know how to find things in tables, the real work will be the formatting. Formatting text in Inform 7 can be hard, depending on what you’re trying to do.

Looking over previous posts, I think we need to print text regarding the big goal, the little tasks, and the current score. In my current work, I’m presenting this as a kind of character sheet. Let’s think about building one.

a simple character sheet.

We’ll need an action, of course, with synonyms.

displaying the status screen is an action out of world applying to nothing.
understand "status" as displaying the status screen.
understand "charsheet" as displaying the status screen.
understand "character" as displaying the status screen.
understand "character status" as displaying the status screen.
understand "status sheet" as displaying the status screen.
understand "character sheet" as displaying the status screen.

I think new lines are required for command grammar? So this is looking a little busy. I always try to go wild with synonyms. A good goal is to respond to any reasonable request, and to some unreasonable ones, too.

Perhaps we don’t always want the player to view the status screen at the start of the game. We can use a value assigned to the player at the start of the game (we set that value two posts ago):

check displaying the status screen when the big picture objective of the thief is getting a clue:
	say "You need a moment to get your bearings first." instead.

But if the time is finally right, the player should be able to see their info. As a word of warning, I have some pretty funky text formatting here. Don’t worry, we’ll walk through it.

carry out displaying the status screen (this is the display player status rule):
	say "[fls][bk]CHARSHEET[cb][pb]";

I have some text substitutions here. I use them to print commonly-used characters and formatting directives. The first one sets a monospace font:

to say fls:
	say fixed letter spacing.

The second is an open bracket character, which can’t be typed directly into printed text because it has a programming function.

to say bk:
	say bracket.

cb prints the right half of a bracket pair:

to say cb:
	say close bracket.

pb is that classic, the paragraph break.

to say pb:
	say paragraph break.

OK? I do a lot with text formatting, and these moves save a lot of time.

Next, we’ll open the table with the player’s goals and print some text, the feedback entry, associated with that goal.

	let the player's goal be the big picture objective of the player;
	choose row with a big picture objective of the player's goal in the table of high-level goals;
	say "[fls][feedback entry]";
	say line break;

As you might recall from last time, tasks are nested under goals. There may be more than one task active at a time, so we will have to run through the entire table looking for matches.

	let the count of actionable tasks be zero;
	say "[fls]Current task(s):";
	repeat through table of to-do items:
		if task status entry is actionable:
			say line break;
			say "[tab][fls]- [task entry]";
			increment the count of actionable tasks;

There are no tab stops in Inform. We will need to create our own indent effect if that is desired. I have a few set up, with different lengths. Zed at the Interactive Fiction Forum deserves some credit, I once saw him make a suggestion along these lines.

To say tab:
	say "[fixed letter spacing]   [variable letter spacing]"

Switching to monospace prints a wider, non-relative space. This substitution is three spaces, sandwiched between monospace on and monospace off toggles. It works! Since it’s possible (though I’m not planning for this) to have no tasks active, we’ll need to check the count of actionable tasks:

	if the count of actionable tasks is zero:
		say "[lb][tab][fls](none)";

The announce the score rule is in the standard rules, and though I’ve tweaked the response message, we can invoke it directly.

	follow the announce the score rule;
	say line break;

Since the sheet can be checked after the game ends, the next sentence needs a bit of finessing:

	say "For an itemized list of points earned, enter [if the story has ended finally]*FULL SCORE* at the prompt[otherwise]*DS* (*DETAILED SCORE*) at the prompt.";

I’m not sure why the commands are different! I’ll look into that.

Now, just the bow on top.

	say "[fls][lb][bk]/CHARSHEET[cb][lb][vls]"

This is also how it would look in-game, since it is printed with fixed letter spacing.


The magic sustaining your unlife will soon vanish from the world, and you have not yet reached your family.

Current task(s):
- Find a way out of the cavern complex.
- Make your way past the Guardians of Zork

You have so far scored 350 out of a possible 350 in 15 turns, earning you the rank of Emperor's Second Spymaster.

For an itemized list of points earned, enter *DS* (*DETAILED SCORE*) at the prompt.


Should I have shared that? I think it’s ok.


This started with scenes, remember? We’ll return for one more post before moving on, and I’ll try to explain what goal-checking and scenes have to do with each other. Wish me luck!

Friday, 07. June 2024

Renga in Blue

Pythonesque / Streets of London: Gospel of the Holy Book of Armaments

I’ve finished the game, and this post continues directly from my previous one. While I mentioned it last time, let me delineate out carefully the four versions of the game: 1.) Pythonesque, the original 1982 version, released for PET and Commodore 64 (I played this version, on C64). The top of the screen at the […]

I’ve finished the game, and this post continues directly from my previous one.

While I mentioned it last time, let me delineate out carefully the four versions of the game:

1.) Pythonesque, the original 1982 version, released for PET and Commodore 64 (I played this version, on C64). The top of the screen at the start actually reads

PYTHONESQUE or The Cricklewood Incident

but the catalog just calls it by Pythonesque. Either title is appropriate, I suppose.

2.) Streets of London, a 1983 version just for C64. The intro screens are different and at least one of the rooms has a different name, so there is some tweaking going on despite the games allegedly being identical.

This is important because the walkthrough I used — and yes I absolutely, completely needed a walkthrough for this game — was for Streets of London (1983), not Pythonesque (1982), and it is possible, likely even, that I played a worse version of the game. This is a type of game where even a small (and non-obvious) change of variable might drastically change the gameplay experience.

This is called “Strip a go-go” in Pythonesque.

3.) The Kilburn Encounter for Oric. This seems to try to match the original.

4.) The Cricklewood Incident (alone, without the “Pythonesque”) for Electron, Dragon, and Spectrum, with at the very least textual changes.

From the Centre for Computing History. This feels closer to an actual graphic Monty Python would make than Streets of London did.

I have no plans to investigate items 2 through 4 thoroughly because, at least in the incarnation I played, the game was extraordinarily bad. Mind-rendingly bad. I think if I’d been able to follow the walkthrough as written, it might have been okay but still painful; I had to deviate and come up with my own route. It was rewarding in a “I finished something hard” sense but not in a “fun” sense.

To pick up from last time, I was in a scenario where I was occasionally getting money but I didn’t understand why, but I otherwise was either applying a magic word (OH YANGTZE) to move around or waiting to get teleported at random.

I first discovered that the source of my money was the magic — every time I used it, I would get 50p. However, the word is only usable a maximum of 3 times. The word lets you go almost anywhere in the game, including the second-to-last place you’re supposed to go. Behold:

I also discovered if I had money, and I hung out at the tree-lined lane at the start, I would start to get mugged continuously by the Hell’s Grannies. The amount they take is dependent on the difficulty level at the start of the game (remember I went with easy, which was a wise choice).

More rarely, this message happens. The flask of meths incidentally is useful once (only once) for a teleport just like the magic word, and subsequent uses send you to the hospital.

One major thing I was missing is that MUG is a word; that is, you can mug the grannies back. Sometimes you’ll just get some money (something like 10 to 110 pence), sometimes she’ll put up a fight.

I just jammed the keys as fast as possible. Your health resets on a hospital visit, which happens if you hit 0 health, but going to the hospital also drops your money by half.

I think an optimal strategy might be to jam the 9 key quickly (run away) and only get money from the “guaranteed” muggings.

There’s one other method of getting a large chunk of cash (more than 10 pound at once) but it requires an almost absurd leap: at a “squalid DHSS office” you can SIGN ON. (Which I guess means … pick up your pension check, maybe? … they don’t even exist anymore, so I have no idea.)

I also worked out the navigation in general, and this is where the nightmare truly begins. First and most simply, if you “die” for whatever reason, you land in a hospital (which takes half your money) and then you can travel back to the start.

The starting area has a bus stop. You can wait at the bus stop and spend money to ride a bus. This bus will drop you somewhere random off a list of 6 places. If you hang out near the bus stop and just wait for an “incident” to happen you might either land at a bus stop but you might also land at the hospital or just another spot on the tree-lined road.

A random teleport. It happens once every 60 turns or so but it truly is random, so if you are depending on it you might having to wait for 100+ turns.

Then, at one of the bus stop stations, there is also a train station. If you buy a “rail-rover” for 5 pounds (something I never was able to gather until the SIGN ON bit) you can also start riding the rails, and it means you can wait for trains. These trains will also take you to random places off a different list of 7 places.

The trains are likely to kill you (at least in Pythonesque). You sometimes are on the train with “skinheads”; if you have the machine gun you can kill them first, although you still are liable to end up with “travel sickness” unless you also have travel pills handy (which can be bought from a shop). I found if I left behind either the gun or the pills I almost always failed to ride the train before landing in the hospital.

One of the trains takes you to the “dark forest” area which is the final portion of the game (and eventually leads to that rabbit cave I showed off earlier).

In a meta sense, it looks like this:

Keep also in mind this game has an inventory limit, and if you’re playing without knowing the solutions first, you don’t know what you’re supposed to be toting around in what order.

Traveling with this structure is the most painful I’ve ever experienced in an adventure game. (This includes sluggish late era 90s CD-ROM stuff that made molasses look fast.) I knew (or prior to me deciding to lean on the walkthrough 100%, thought I knew) the place I wanted to go, but it often took 10 iterations to get there, and in the meantime it wasn’t hard to randomly end up in the hospital or just run out of cash by using the bus too many times. If you end up in the hospital from the train, to get back you have to first luck out and get to the right bus station, and then get back on the train from there. (Also keep in mind I also only discovered the “solution” for skinheads relatively late in my gameplay.)

The magic word, remember, can let you go anywhere, and it is what ended up letting me struggle to the end of the game.

So, here’s how things are supposed to go, and I’m going to give the “no magic word” version:

First, mug enough of the Hell’s Grannies to get money for bus rides and some purchases. That maximum I could get to was roughly 2.50, but I didn’t try doing the run-away strategy when the Grannies fought back.

Second, get the money from the DHSS office; in the meantime nab the machine gun (in the open), a truss from a chemist and some travel pills (the walkthrough ignores the pills, don’t do that), a shrub (maybe, I’ll get back to that). You’ll also find the cheese shop scene…

…but rather than shooting the owner, you need to shoot the person making music instead. The owner will be happy and give you a map. (The map, again, might be optional just like the shrub, I’ll get to that.)

Near where the train platform is you should buy a rail-rover ticket when you can. You should also get a green bottle with some “big boy macho tablets” from that weird coffee table scene I mentioned last time (Voltgloss pointed out it was from a Python sketch involving “Doug and Dinsdale Piranha”).

Note that amidst all this you’re skipping a bunch of items that seem like they might be useful (like a claw hammer and a ferret). Did I say already how mean this game is? I’m also ignoring the fact you don’t have enough inventory slots to carry all that above all at once so you have to ferry things in multiple trips.

You need to then hit the trains. You need to be holding the rail-rover to get on, but also machine gun and travel pills at all times on the trains. Make sure you kill skinheads if you see them, and take the travel pills otherwise.

You need to go to a sex shop to pick a doll (which costs money, hope you haven’t run out from the muggings, the Grannies will mug you on the train platforms too), a holy hand-grenade from a cistern, and a torch just laying out in the open. You will not be able to carry all these at once so multiple trips are required (probably involving trekking all the way from the start to the trains again and doing some more muggings and hoping you don’t land in the hospital).

The most important station is Inverness (I showed a version of this in my last post before it was connected to a station):

To get past the Dark Forest you need the map (to get by the “maze”) and the shrubs (to get by the Knights). You can then use the doll from the sex shop to distract an “oaf” and open a new path.

North of the oaf is the castle with the virgins, and there’s some garments and a spade there you need. You’ll end up at the hospital with the virgins unless you are holding the green bottle with the Big Boy tablets (but you don’t need to have eaten them … in fact, if you’ve eaten them, there’s some ravenous ladies that will tear you up on the train, so it’s a bad idea).

Then you can take the garments and TIE GARMENTS to make a rope for the nearby cliff.

Then you can finally get to the long-awaited killer rabbit, the “non-magic-word” way.

However, THROW GRENADE here is still a dud. You need the Book of Armaments. That’s back at the library, in the bus stop section. Additionally, to get that book, you need a library ticket. To get the library ticket you need to unlock a locker. To unlock the locker you need a key, which you obtain by moving a big rock near the cliff, and to move the big rock you have to be holding the truss.

It’s the hernia-patient thing that goes around your waist.

So you have to get all the way to the cliff area — with the many back and forth trips given you have basically one inventory slot free, and of course perfectly knowing exactly each items you need — and then take the key back to the bus station area, then get back to the train area once you have the book.

I didn’t have a torch the first time through here and wasn’t able to see in the cave.

As the above images imply, I was finally able to pull things off, but only with a little magic help in the middle. There’s enough locations in the cliff area that a random teleport gets there without too many attempts; so what I did after getting the truss was to OH YANGTZE may way to the rock and grab the key early. That allowed me to avoid some of the steps. Then when I had the green bottle, book, hand-grenade, doll, and torch (max inventory, notice no room for even the train ticket) I teleported back to the cliff area again trying to figure out how to wrangle the train ride and was able to finish the game. (All this implies the map and shrubs are technically unneeded, since this strategy skips past their use — of course you have to know all about this beforehand!)

Getting back is easy, since you can drop your rope (garments) and fall down the cliff to the hospital, then take two more steps back to home from there.

You know, I would be disappointed by the ending, but … sure. Fine. I was expecting that. After all, the original movie had an anti-climax and then filled the blank part of film after with organ music.

I still feel like I made everything appear smoother than it was. The narrative above assumes the straightforward path of how to do things, but I had so many instances of random jumping around, not having enough money, just having the train go to the wrong place over and over, and even having the train in one instance never stopping (a bug I guess, I was trapped forever) that Pythonesque was a prime example of me suffering so you don’t have to.

I did imply that a slight change of variables would make things better. I think the best single change would be to simply drop inventory limits — let the player carry everything and it would reduce the number of ferrying trips by 5 times. If the game also was more generous with magic word use — despite the fact it could be used to bypass some puzzles — and tweaked some other aspects (like maybe always get 100+ pence from a mugging) Pythonesque would be plausibly playable. It may be that some of the later versions have done those things. The walkthrough, as I’ve already implied, says absolutely nothing about needing a machine gun or travel pills on the train, despite the fact I only safely made a train trip one (1) time without them. This suggests the authors lightened up a little.

Regarding the humor, I don’t have much more to add from what I’ve said: it’s essentially references without punchlines.

Having the killer rabbit, Book of Armaments, and hand-grenade all used together might make someone recall the famous scene and enjoy it for its own sake, but it isn’t telling a joke. You just have to remember the “five is right out” line and “who being naughty in my sight, shall snuffeth” and chuckle internally, I suppose.

From Isaac Asimov’s Treasury of Humor.

Interactive Fiction – The Digital Antiquarian

The Last Days of Zork

If you follow the latest developments in modern gaming even casually, as I do, you know that Microsoft and Activision Blizzard recently concluded the most eye-watering transaction ever to take place in the industry: the former acquired the latter for a price higher than the gross national product of more than half of the world’s […]

If you follow the latest developments in modern gaming even casually, as I do, you know that Microsoft and Activision Blizzard recently concluded the most eye-watering transaction ever to take place in the industry: the former acquired the latter for a price higher than the gross national product of more than half of the world’s countries. I find it endlessly amusing to consider that Activision may have lived long enough to set that record only thanks to Infocom, that humble little maker of 1980s text adventures, whose annual revenues — revenues, mind you, not profits — never exceeded $10 million before Activision acquired it in 1986. And just how did this David save a Goliath? It happened like this:

After Bobby Kotick arranged a hostile takeover of a bankrupt and moribund Activision in 1991, he started rummaging through its archives, looking for something that could start bringing some money in quickly, in order to keep the creditors who were howling at his door at bay for a wee bit longer. He came upon the 35 text adventures which had been made by Infocom over the course of the previous decade, games which, for all that they were obviously archaic by the standards of the encroaching multimedia age, were still fondly remembered by many gamers as the very best of their breed. He decided to take a flier on them, throwing twenty of them onto one of those shiny new CD-ROMS that everyone was talking about — or, if that didn’t work for you, onto a pile of floppy disks that rattled around in the box like ice cubes in a pitcher of lemonade. Then he photocopied the feelies and hint books that had gone with the games, bound them all together into two thick booklets, and stuck those in the box as well. He called the finished collection, one of the first notable examples of “shovelware” in gaming, The Lost Treasures of Infocom.

It sold 100,000 or more units, at $60 or $70 a pop and with a profit margin to die for. The inevitable Lost Treasures II that followed, collecting most of the remaining games,[1]The CD-ROM version included fourteen games, missing only Leather Goddesses of Phobos, which Activision attempted to market separately on the theory that sex sells itself. The floppy version included eleven games, lacking additionally three of Infocom’s late illustrated text adventures. was somewhat less successful, but still more than justified the (minimal) effort that had gone into its curation. The two products’ combined earnings were indeed enough to give pause to those creditors who had been pushing for the bankrupt company to be liquidated rather than reorganized.

With a modicum of breathing room thus secured, Kotick scraped together every penny he could find for his Hail Mary pass, which was once again to rely upon Infocom’s legacy. William Volk, his multimedia guru in residence, oversaw the production of Return to Zork, a splashy graphical adventure with all the cutting-edge bells and whistles. In design terms, it was an awful game, riddled with nonsensical puzzles and sadistic dead ends. Yet that didn’t matter at all in the marketplace. Return to Zork rammed the zeitgeist perfectly by combining lingering nostalgia for Zork, Infocom’s best-selling series of games, with all of the spectacular audiovisual flash the new decade could offer up. Upon its release in late 1993, it sold several hundred thousand copies as a boxed retail product, and even more as a drop-in with the “multimedia upgrade kits” (a CD-ROM drive and a sound card in one convenient package!) that were all the rage at the time. It left Activision, if not quite in rude health yet, at least no longer on life support. “Zork on a brick would sell 100,000 copies,” crowed Bobby Kotick.

With an endorsement like that from the man at the top, a sequel to Return to Zork seemed sure to follow. Yet it proved surprisingly long in coming. Partly this was because William Volk left Activision just after finishing Return to Zork, and much of his team likewise scattered to the four winds. But it was also a symptom of strained resources in general, and of currents inside Activision that were pulling in two contradictory directions at once. The fact was that Activision was chasing two almost diametrically opposing visions of mainstream gaming’s future in the mid-1990s, one of which would show itself in the end to have been a blind alley, the other of which would become the real way forward.

Alas, it was the former that was exemplified by Return to Zork, with its human actors incongruously inserted over computer-generated backgrounds and its overweening determination to provide a maximally “cinematic” experience. This vision of “Siliwood” postulated that the games industry would become one with the movie and television industry, that name actors would soon be competing for plum roles in games as ferociously as they did for those in movies; it wasn’t only for the cheaper rents that Kotick had chosen to relocate his resuscitated Activision from Northern to Southern California.

The other, ultimately more sustainable vision came to cohabitate at the new Activision almost accidentally. It began when Kotick, rummaging yet again through the attic full of detritus left behind by his company’s previous incarnation, came across a still-binding contract with FASA for the digital rights to BattleTech, a popular board game of dueling robot “mechs.” After a long, troubled development cycle that consumed many of the resources that might otherwise have been put toward a Return to Zork sequel, Activision published MechWarrior 2: 31st Century Combat in the summer of 1995.

Mechwarrior 2 was everything Return to Zork wasn’t. Rather than being pieced together out of canned video clips and pre-rendered scenes, it was powered by 3D graphics that were rendered on the fly in real time. It was exciting in a viscerally immersive, action-oriented way rather than being a passive spectacle. And, best of all in the eyes of many of its hyper-competitive players, it was multiplayer-friendly. This, suffice to say, was the real future of mainstream hardcore computer gaming. MechWarrior 2′s one similarity with Return to Zork was external to the game itself: Kotick once again pulled every string he could to get it included as a pack-in extra with hardware-upgrade kits. This time, however, the upgrades in question were the new 3D-graphics accelerators that made games like this one run so much better.

In a way, the writing was on the wall for Siliwood at Activision as soon as MechWarrior 2 soared to the stratosphere, but there were already a couple of ambitious projects in the Siliwood vein in the works at that time, which together would give the alternative vision’s ongoing viability a good, solid test. One of these was Spycraft, an interactive spy movie with unusually high production values and high thematic ambitions to go along with them: it was shot on film rather than the standard videotape, from a script written with the input of William Colby and Oleg Kalugin, American and Soviet spymasters during the Cold War. The other was Zork Nemesis.

Whatever else you can say about it, you can’t accuse Zork Nemesis of merely aping its successful predecessor. Where Return to Zork is goofy, taking its cues from the cartoon comedies of Sierra and LucasArts as well as the Zork games of Infocom, Zork Nemesis is cold and austere — almost off-puttingly so, like its obvious inspiration Myst. Then, too, in place of the abstracted room-based navigation of Return to Zork, Zork Nemesis gives you more granular nodes to jump between in an embodied, coherent three-dimensional space, again just like Myst. Return to Zork is bursting with characters, such as that “Want some rye?” guy who became an early Internet meme unto himself; Zork Nemesis is almost entirely empty, its story playing out through visions, written records, and brief snatches of contact across otherwise impenetrable barriers of time and space.

Which style of adventure game you prefer is a matter of taste. In at least one sense, though, Zork Nemesis does undeniably improve upon its predecessor. Whereas Return to Zork’s puzzles seem to have been slapped together more or less at random by a team not overly concerned with the player’s sanity or enjoyment, it’s clear that Zork Nemesis was consciously designed in all the ways that the previous Zork was not; its puzzles are often hard, but they’re never blatantly unfair. Nor do they repeat Return to Zork’s worst design sin of all: they give you no way of becoming a dead adventurer walking without knowing it.

The plot here involves a ruthless alchemical mastermind, the Nemesis of the title, and his quest for a mysterious fifth element, a Quintessence that transcends the standard Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. The game is steeped in the Hermetic occultism that strongly influenced many of the figures who mark the transition from Medieval to Modern thought in our own world’s history, from Leonardo da Vinci to Isaac Newton. This is fine in itself; in fact, it’s a rather brilliant basis for an adventure game if you ask me, easily a more interesting idea in the abstract than yet another Zork game. The only problem — a problem which has been pointed out ad nauseam over the years since Zork Nemesis’s release — is that this game does purport to be a Zork game in addition to being about all that other stuff, and yet it doesn’t feel the slightest bit like Zork. While the Zork games of Infocom were by no means all comedy all the time — Zork III in particular is notably, even jarringly austere, and Spellbreaker is not that far behind it — they never had anything to do with earthly alchemy.

I developed the working theory as I played Zork Nemesis that it must have been originally conceived as simply a Myst-like adventure game, having nothing to do with Zork, until some marketing genius or other insisted that the name be grafted on to increase its sales potential. I was a little sad to be disabused of my pet notion by Laird Malamed, the game’s technical director, with whom I was able to speak recently. He told me that Zork Nemesis really was a Zork from the start, to the point of being listed as Return to Zork II in Activision’s account books before it was given its final name. Nevertheless, I did find one of his choices of words telling. He said that Cecilia Barajas, a former Los Angeles district attorney who became Zork Nemesiss mastermind, was no more than “familiar” with Infocom’s Zork. So, it might not be entirely unfair after all to say that the Zork label on Zork Nemesis was more of a convenient way for Barajas to make the game she wanted to make than a wellspring of passion for her. Please don’t misunderstand me; I don’t mean for any of the preceding to come across as fannish gatekeeping, something we have more than enough of already in this world. I’m merely trying to understand, just as you presumably are, why Zork Nemesis is so very different from the Activision Zork game before it (and also the one after it, about which more later).

Of course, a game doesn’t need to be a Zork to be good. And indeed, if we forget about the Zork label, we find that Nemesis (see what I did there?) is one of the best — arguably even the best — of all the 1990s “Myst clones.” It’s one of the rare old games whose critical reputation has improved over the years, now that the hype surrounding its release and the angry cries of “But it’s not a Zork!” have died away, granting us space to see it for what it is rather than what it is not. With a budget running to $3 million or more, this was no shoestring project. In fact, the ironic truth is that both Nemesis’s budget and its resultant production values dramatically exceed those of its inspiration Myst. Its principal technical innovation, very impressive at the time, is the ability to smoothly scroll through a 360-degree panorama in most of the nodes you visit, rather than being limited to an arbitrary collection of fixed views. The art direction and the music are superb, maintaining a consistently sinister, occasionally downright macabre atmosphere. And it’s a really, really big game too, far bigger than Myst, with, despite its almost equally deserted environments, far more depth to its fiction. If we scoff just a trifle because this is yet one more adventure game that requires you to piece together a backstory from journal pages rather than living a proper foreground story of your own, we also have to acknowledge that the backstory is interesting enough that you want to find and read said pages. This is a game that, although it certainly doesn’t reinvent any wheels, implements every last one of them with care.

My own objections are the same ones that I always tend to have toward this sub-genre, and that thus probably say more about me than they do about Nemesis. The oppressive atmosphere, masterfully inculcated though it is, becomes a bit much after a while; I start wishing for some sort of tonal counterpoint to this all-pervasively dominant theme, not to mention someone to actually talk to. And then the puzzles, although not unfair, are sometimes quite difficult — more difficult than I really need them to be. Nemesis is much like Riven, Myst’s official sequel, in that it wants me to work a bit harder for my fun than I have the time or energy for at this point in my life. Needless to say, though, your mileage may vary.

Zork Nemesis’s story is told through ghostly (and non-interactive) visions…

…as well as through lots of books, journals, and letters. Myst fans will feel right at home.

The puzzles too are mostly Myst-style set-pieces rather than relying on inventory objects.

The macabre atmosphere becomes downright gruesome in places.

Venus dispenses hints if you click on her. What is the ancient Roman goddess of love, as painted by the seventeenth-century Spanish master Diego Velázquez, doing in the world of Zork? Your guess is as good as mine. Count it as just one more way in which this Zork can scarcely be bothered to try to be a Zork at all.

Released on the same day in April of 1996 as Spycraft, Activision’s other big test of the Siliwood vision’s ongoing viability, Zork Nemesis was greeted with mixed reviews. This was not surprising for a Myst clone, a sub-genre that the hardcore-gaming press never warmed to. Still, some of the naysayers waxed unusually vitriolic upon seeing such a beloved gaming icon as Zork sullied with the odor of the hated Myst. The normally reliable and always entertaining Charles Ardai of Computer Gaming World, the print journal of record for the hobby, whose reviews could still make or break a game as a marketplace proposition even in this dawning Internet age, dinged Zork Nemesis for not having much of anything to do with Infocom’s Zork, which was fair. Yet then he went on to characterize it as a creatively bankrupt, mindless multimedia cash-in, which was not: “Give ’em a gorgeous photo-realistic environment full of fantastic landscapes, some quasi-liturgical groaning on the soundtrack, and a simple puzzle every so often to keep their brains engaged, and you’re off to the bank to count your riches. Throw in some ghostly visions and a hint of the horrific and you can snag the 7th Guest crowd too.” One can only assume from this that Ardai never even bothered to try to play the game, but simply hated it on principle. I maintain that no one who has done so could possibly describe Zork Nemesis‘s puzzles as “simple,” no matter how much smarter than I am he might happen to be.

Even in the face of headwinds like these, Zork Nemesis still sold considerably better than the more positively reviewed Spycraft, seemingly demonstrating that Bobby Kotick’s faith in “Zork on a brick” might not yet be completely misplaced. Its lifetime sales probably ended up in the neighborhood of 150,000 to 200,000 copies — not a blockbuster hit by any means, and certainly a good deal less than the numbers put up by Return to Zork, but still more than the vast majority of Myst clones, enough for it to earn back the money it had cost to make plus a little extra.[2]In my last article, about Cyan’s Riven, I first wrote that Zork Nemesis sold 450,000 copies. This figure was not accurate; I was misreading one of my sources. My bad, as I think the kids are still saying these days. I’ve already made the necessary correction there. Whereas there would be no more interactive spy movies forthcoming from Activision, Zork Nemesis did just well enough that Kotick could see grounds for funding another Zork game, as long as it was made on a slightly less lavish budget, taking advantage of the engine that had been created for Nemesis. And I’m very glad he could, because the Zork game that resulted is a real gem.

With Cecilia Barajas having elected to move on to other things, Laird Malamed stepped up into her role for the next game. He was much more than just “familiar” with Zork. He had gotten a copy of the original Personal Software “barbarian Zork — so named because of its hilariously inappropriate cover art — soon after his parents bought him his first Apple II as a kid, and had grown up with Infocom thereafter. Years later, when he had already embarked on a career as a sound designer in Hollywood, a chance meeting with Return to Zork put Activision on his radar. He applied and was hired there, giving up one promising career for another.

He soon became known both inside and outside of Activision as the keeper of the Infocom flame, the only person in the company’s senior ranks who saw that storied legacy as more than just something to be exploited commercially. While still in the early stages of making Activision’s third graphical Zork, he put together as a replacement for the old Lost Treasures of Infocom collections a new one called Classic Text Adventure Masterpieces: 33 of the canonical 35 games on a single CD, with all of their associated documentation in digital format. (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Shogun, Infocom’s only two licensed titles, were the only games missing, in both cases because their licensing contracts had expired). He did this more because he simply felt these games ought to be available than because he expected the collection to make a lot of money for his employer. In the same spirit, he reached out to the amateur interactive fiction community that was still authoring text adventures in the Infocom mold, and arranged to include the top six finishers from the recently concluded First Interactive Fiction Competition on the same disc. He searched through Activision’s storage rooms to find a backup of the old DEC mainframe Infocom had used to create its games. This he shared with Graham Nelson and a few other amateur-IF luminaries, whilst selecting a handful of interesting, entertaining, and non-embarrassing internal emails to include on the Masterpieces disc as well.[3]This “Infocom hard drive” eventually escaped the privileged hands into which it was entrusted, going on to cause some minor scandals and considerable interpersonal angst; suffice to say that not all of its contents were non-embarrassing. I have never had it in my possession. No, really, I haven’t. It’s been rendered somewhat moot in recent years anyway by the stellar work Jason Scott has done collecting primary sources for the Infocom story at No one at Activision had ever engaged with the company’s Infocom inheritance in such an agenda-less, genuine way before him; nor would anyone do so after him.

He brought to the new graphical Zork game a story idea that had a surprisingly high-brow inspiration: the “Grand Inquisitor” tale-within-a-tale in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 1880 novel The Brothers Karamazov, an excerpt which stands so well on its own that it’s occasionally been published that way. I can enthusiastically recommend reading it, whether you tackle the rest of the novel or not. (Laird admitted to me when we talked that he himself hadn’t yet managed to finish the entire book when he decided to use a small part of it as the inspiration for his game.) Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor is a leading figure of the Spanish Inquisition, who harangues a returned Jesus Christ for his pacifism, his humility, and his purportedly naïve rejection of necessary hierarchies of power. It is, in other words, an exercise in contrast, setting the religion of peace and love that was preached by Jesus up against what it became in the hands of the Medieval Catholic popes and other staunch insitutionalists.

For its part, Zork: Grand Inquisitor doesn’t venture into quite such politically fraught territory as this. Its titular character is an ideological rather than religious tinpot dictator, of the sort all too prevalent in the 20th and 21st centuries on our world. He has taken over the town of Port Foozle, where he has banned all magic and closed all access to the Great Underground Empire that lies just beneath the town. You play a humble traveling salesperson who comes into possession of a magic lantern — a piece of highly illegal contraband in itself — that contains the imprisoned spirit of Dalboz of Gurth, the rightful Dungeon Master of the Empire. He encourages and helps you to make your way into his forbidden realm, to become a literal underground resistance fighter against the Grand Inquisitor.

The preceding paragraphs may have led you to think that Zork: Grand Inquisitor is another portentous, serious game. If so, rest assured that it isn’t. Not at all. Its tone and feel could hardly be more different from those of Zork Nemesis. Although there are some heavy themes lurking in the background, they’re played almost entirely for laughs in the foreground. This strikes me as no bad approach. There are, after all, few more devastating antidotes to the totalitarian absurdities of those who would dictate to others what sort of lives they should lead and what they should believe in than a dose of good old full-throated laughter. As Hannah Arendt understood, the Grand Inquisitors among us are defined by the qualities they are missing rather than any that they possess: qualities like empathy, conscience, and moral intelligence. We should not hesitate to mock them for being the sad, insecure, incompletely realized creatures they are.

Just as I once suspected that Zork Nemesis didn’t start out as a Zork game at all, I was tempted to assume that this latest whipsaw shift in atmosphere for Zork at Activision came as a direct response to the vocal criticisms of the aforementioned game’s lack of Zorkiness. Alas, Laird Malamed disabused me of that clever notion as well. Grand Inquisitor was, he told me, simply the Zork that he wanted to make, initiated well before the critics’ and fans’ verdicts on the last game started to pour in in earnest. He told me that he practically “begged” Margaret Stohl, who has since gone on to become a popular fantasy novelist in addition to continuing to work in games, to come aboard as lead designer and writer and help him to put his broad ideas into a more concrete form, for he knew that she possessed exactly the comedic sensibility he was going for.

Regardless of the original reason for the shift in tone, Laird and his team didn’t hesitate to describe Grand Inquisitor later in its development cycle as a premeditated response to the backlash about Nemesis’s Zork bona fides, or rather its lack thereof. This time, they told magazines like Computer Gaming World, they were determined to “let Zork be Zorky”: “to embrace what was wonderful about the old text adventures, a fantasy world with an undercurrent of humor.”

Certainly Grand Inquisitor doesn’t lack for the concrete Zorkian tropes that were also all over Return to Zork. From the white house in the forest to Flood Control Dam #3 to Dalboz’s magic lantern itself, the gang’s all here. But all of these disparate homages are integrated into a larger Zorkian tapestry in a way Activision never managed elsewhere. Return to Zork is a compromised if not cynical piece of work, its slapstick tone the result of a group of creators who saw Zork principally as a grab bag of tropes to be thrown at the wall one after another. And Nemesis, of course, has little to do with Zork at all. But Grand Inquisitor walks like a Zork, talks like a Zork, and is smart amidst its silliness in the same way as a Zork of yore. In accordance with its heritage, it’s an unabashedly self-referential game, well aware of the clichés and limitations of its genre and happy to poke fun at them. For example, the Dungeon Master here dubs you the “AFGNCAAP”: the “Ageless, Faceless, Gender-Neutral, Culturally Ambiguous Adventure Person,” making light of a longstanding debate, ancient even at the time of Grand Inquisitor’s release, over whether it must be you the player in the game or whether it’s acceptable to ask you to take control of a separate, strongly characterized protagonist.

It’s plain from first to last that this game was helmed by someone who knew Zork intimately and loved it dearly. And yet the game is never gawky in that obsessive fannish way that can be so painful to witness; it’s never so much in thrall to its inspiration that it forgets to be its own thing. This game is comfortable in its own skin, and can be enjoyed whether you’ve been steeped in the lore of Zork for decades or are coming to it completely cold. This is the way you do fan service right, folks.

Although it uses an engine made for a Myst-like game, Grand Inquisitor plays nothing like Myst. This game is no exercise in contemplative, lonely puzzle-solving; its world is alive. As you wander about, Dungeon Master Dalboz chirps up from his lantern constantly with banter, background, and subtle hints. He becomes your friend in adventure, keeping you from ever feeling too alone. In time, other disembodied spirits join you as well, until you’re wandering around with a veritable Greek chorus burbling away behind you. The voice acting is uniformly superb.

Another prominent recurring character is Antharia Jack, a poor man’s Indiana Jones who’s played onscreen as well as over the speakers by Dirk Benedict, a fellow very familiar with being a stand-in for Harrison Ford in his most iconic roles, having also played the Han Solo-wannabee Starbuck in the delightfully cheesy old television Star Wars cash-in Battlestar Galactica. Benedict, one of those actors who’s capable of portraying exactly one character but who does it pretty darn well, went on to star in The A-Team after his tenure as an outer-space fighter jockey was over. His smirking, skirt-chasing persona was thus imprinted deeply on the memories of many of the twenty-somethings whom Activision hoped to tempt into buying Grand Inquisitor. This sort of stunt-casting of actors a bit past their pop-culture prime was commonplace in productions like these, but here at least it’s hard to fault the results. Benedict leans into Antharia Jack with all of his usual gusto. You can’t help but like the guy.

When it comes to its puzzles, Grand Inquisitor’s guiding ethic is to cut its poor, long-suffering AFGNCAAP a break. All of the puzzles here are well-clued and logical within the context of a Zorkian world, the sort of puzzles that are likely to stump you only just long enough to make you feel satisfyingly smart after you solve them. There’s a nice variety to them, with plenty of the “use object X on thing Y” variety to go along with some relatively un-taxing set-piece exercises in pushing buttons or pulling levers just right. But best of all are the puzzles that you solve by magic.

Being such a dedicated Infocom aficionado, Laird Malamed remembered something that most of his colleagues probably never knew at all: that the canon of Infocom Zork games encompassed more than just the ones that had that name on their boxes, that there was also a magic-oriented Enchanter trilogy which took place in the same universe. At the center of those games was one of the most brilliant puzzle mechanics Infocom ever invented, a system of magic that had you hunting down spell scrolls to copy into your spell book, after which they were yours to cast whenever you wished. This being Infocom, however, they were never your standard-issue Dungeons & Dragons Fireball spells, but rather ones that did weirdly specific, esoteric things, often to the point that it was hard to know what they were really good for — until, that is, you finally stumbled over that one nail for which they were the perfect hammer. Grand Inquisitor imports this mechanic wholesale. Here as well, you’re forever trying to figure out how to get your hands on that spell scroll that’s beckoning to you teasingly from the top of a tree or wherever, and then, once you’ve secured it, trying to figure out where it can actually do something useful for you. This latter is no trivial exercise when you’re stuck with spells like IGRAM (“turn purple things invisible”) and KENDALL (“simplify instructions”). Naturally, much of the fun comes from casting the spells on all kinds of random stuff, just to see what happens. Following yet again in the footsteps of Infocom, Laird’s team at Activision implemented an impressive number of such interactions, useless though they are for any purpose other than keeping the AFGNCAAP amused.

Grand Inquisitor isn’t an especially long game on any terms, and the fairly straightforward puzzles mean you’ll sail through what content there is much more quickly than you might through a game like Nemesis. All in all, it will probably give you no more than three or four evenings’ entertainment. Laird Malamed confessed to me that a significant chunk of the original design document had to be cut in the end in order to deliver the game on-time and on-budget; this was a somewhat marginal project from the get-go, not one to which Activision’s bean counters were ever going to give a lot of slack. Yet even this painful but necessary surgery was done unusually well. Knowing from the beginning that the scalpel might have to come out before all was said and done, the design team consciously used a “modular” approach, from which content could be subtracted (or added, if they should prove to be so fortunate) without undermining the structural integrity, if you will, of the game as a whole. As a result of their forethought, Grand Inquisitor doesn’t feel like a game that’s been gutted. It rather feels very complete just as it is. Back in the day, when Activision was trying to sell it for $40 or $50, its brevity was nevertheless a serious disadvantage. Today, when you can pick it up in a downloadable version for just a few bucks, it’s far less of a problem. As the old showbiz rule says, better to leave ’em wanting more than wishing you’d just get off the stage already.


“You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door.” Unfortunately, the property has been condemned by the Grand Inquisitor. “Who is the boss of you? Me! I am the boss of you!”

The “spellchecker” is a good example of Grand Inquisitor’s silly but clever humor, which always has time for puns. The machine’s purpose is, as you might have guessed, to validate spell scrolls.

This subway map looks… complicated. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a way to simplify it in a burst of magic? Laird told me that this puzzle was inspired by recollections of trying to make sense of a map of the London Underground as a befuddled tourist.

Nothing sums up the differences between Zork Nemesis and Zork: Grand Inquisitor quite so perfectly as the latter’s chess puzzle. In Nemesis, you’d be futzing around with this thing forever. And in Grand Inquisitor? As Scorpia wrote in her review for Computer Gaming World, “Think of what you’ve [always] felt like doing with an adventure-game chess puzzle, and act accordingly.”

There are some set-piece puzzles that can’t be dispatched quite so easily. An instruction booklet tells you to never, ever close all four sluices of Flood Control Dam Number 3 at once. So what do you try to do?

Playing Strip Grue, Fire, Water with Antharia Jack. The cigars were no mere affectation of Dirk Benedict. His costars complained repeatedly about the cloud of odoriferous smoke in which he was constantly enveloped. A true blue Hollywood eccentric of the old-school stripe, Benedict remains convinced to this day that the key to longevity is tobacco combined with a macrobiotic diet. Ah, well… given that he’s reached 79 years of age and counting as of this writing, it seems to be working out for him so far.

Be careful throwing around them spells, kid! Deaths in Grand Inquisitor are rendered in text. Not only is this a nice nostalgic homage to the game’s roots, it helped to maximize the limited budget by avoiding the expense of portraying all those death scenes in graphics.

Laird Malamed had no sense during the making of Grand Inquisitor that this game would mark the end of Zork’s long run. On the contrary, he had plans to turn it into the first game of a new trilogy, the beginning of a whole new era for the venerable franchise. In keeping with his determination to bring Zork back to the grass roots who knew and loved it best, he came up with an inspired guerrilla-marketing scheme. He convinced the former Infocom Implementors Marc Blank and Mike Berlyn to write up a short text-adventure prelude to the story told in Grand Inquisitor proper. Then he got Kevin Wilson, the organizer of the same Interactive Fiction Competition whose games had featured on the Masterpieces CD, to program their design in Inform, a language that compiled to the Z-Machine, Infocom’s old virtual machine, for which interpreters had long been available on countless computing platforms, both current and archaic. Activision released the end result for free on the Internet in the summer of 1997, as both a teaser for the graphical game that was to come and a proof that Zork was re-embracing its roots. Zork: The Undiscovered Underground isn’t a major statement by any means, but it stands today, as it did then, as a funny, nostalgic final glance back to the days when Zork was nothing but words on a screen.

Unfortunately, all of Laird’s plans for Zork’s broader future went up in smoke when Grand Inquisitor was released in November of 1997 and put up sales numbers well short of those delivered by Nemesis, despite reviews that were almost universally glowing this time around. Those Infocom fans who played it mostly adored it for finally delivering on the promise of its name, even if it was a bit short. The problem was that that demographic was now moving into the busiest phase of life, when careers and children tend to fill all of the hours available and then some. There just weren’t enough of those people still buying games to deliver the sales that a mass-market-focused publisher like Activision demanded, even as the Zork name meant nothing whatsoever to the newer generation of gamers who had cut their teeth on DOOM and Warcraft. Perhaps Bobby Kotick should have just written “Zork” on a brick after all, for Grand Inquisitor didn’t sell even 100,000 units.

And so, twenty years after a group of MIT graduate students had gotten together to create a game that was even better than Will Crowther and Don Woods’s Adventure, Zork’s run came to an end, taking with it any remaining dregs of faith at Activision in the Siliwood vision. Apart from one misconceived and blessedly quickly abandoned effort to revive the franchise as a low-budget MMORPG during the period when those things were sprouting like weeds, no Zork game has appeared since. We can feel sad about this if we must, but the reality is that nothing lasts forever. Far better, it seems to me, for Zork to go out with Grand Inquisitor, one of the highest of all its highs, than to be recycled again and again on a scale of diminishing returns, as has happened to some other classic gaming franchises. Likewise, I’m kind of happy that no one who made Grand Inquisitor knew they were making the very last Zork adventure. Their ignorance caused them to just let Zork be Zork, meant they were never even tempted to turn their game into some over-baked Final Statement.

In games as in life, it’s always better to celebrate what we have than to lament what might have been. With that in mind, then, let me warmly recommend Zork: Grand Inquisitor to any fans of adventure games among you readers who have managed not to play it yet. It really doesn’t matter whether you know the rest of Zork or not; it stands just fine on its own. And that too is the way it ought to be.

Did you enjoy this article? If so, please think about pitching in to help me make many more like it. You can pledge any amount you like.

Sources: the books Zork Nemesis: The Official Strategy Guide by Peter Spear and Zork: Grand Inquisitor: The Official Strategy Guide by Margaret Stohl; Computer Gaming World of August 1996, February 1997, and March 1998; InterActivity of May 1996; Next Generation of August 1997; Los Angeles Times of November 30 1996.

Online sources include a 1996 New Media profile of Activision and “The Trance Experience of Zork Nemesis at Animation World.

My thanks to Laird Malamed for taking the time from his busy schedule to talk to me about his history with Zork. Note that any opinions expressed in this article that are not explicitly attributed to him are my own.

Zork Nemesis and Zork: Grand Inquisitor are both available as digital purchases at


1 The CD-ROM version included fourteen games, missing only Leather Goddesses of Phobos, which Activision attempted to market separately on the theory that sex sells itself. The floppy version included eleven games, lacking additionally three of Infocom’s late illustrated text adventures.
2 In my last article, about Cyan’s Riven, I first wrote that Zork Nemesis sold 450,000 copies. This figure was not accurate; I was misreading one of my sources. My bad, as I think the kids are still saying these days. I’ve already made the necessary correction there.
3 This “Infocom hard drive” eventually escaped the privileged hands into which it was entrusted, going on to cause some minor scandals and considerable interpersonal angst; suffice to say that not all of its contents were non-embarrassing. I have never had it in my possession. No, really, I haven’t. It’s been rendered somewhat moot in recent years anyway by the stellar work Jason Scott has done collecting primary sources for the Infocom story at

Thursday, 06. June 2024

Zarf Updates

Lorelei: ruminations

Lorelei and the Laser Eyes (Simogo) is a stylish puzzle-box full of puzzle-boxes. I really liked it, and I also felt like it didn't want to be liked. This is an old-fashioned approach to puzzles. It feels more like a puzzle book. The Fool's ...

Lorelei and the Laser Eyes (Simogo) is a stylish puzzle-box full of puzzle-boxes. I really liked it, and I also felt like it didn't want to be liked.

This is an old-fashioned approach to puzzles. It feels more like a puzzle book. The Fool's Errand is maybe a better comparison, although I have trouble pinning down why I say that. Let's see:

  • A letter on a table next to a combination lock. The letter has underlined words which form a clue. Why? Because it's a puzzle. The suspended disbelief of puzzle environments is old hat, but this is a studied artifice.
  • Sets of clues which reveals more sets of clues which link up into a final answer. (Remember finishing a Cliff Johnson game amid a pile of crumpled-up clue notes?)
  • Unexpected use of the interface.

Now, the game also fills its fictional world with '80s computers, '90s consoles, puzzle books and puzzle boxes. And mazes. Multiple mazes. You literally find a book of puzzles which you carry in your inventory and whip out for various locked doors. So the game is quite explicitly invoking both the retro and the meta aesthetic. Old-fashioned in both form and intent.

But there's more. Lorelei is a story about retro art and retro artists -- 60s cinema, stage magic, Dada sculpture -- but reimagined as interactive art. Contemporary ideas of game design projected backwards into the past.

Ah, you say, artifice and history and anachronistic interactivity? That's Kentucky Route Zero. Indeed, that's a close neighbor. But KR0's take on interactive fiction is folksy and elegaic. It's the nostalgia of old-timey games, elaborated.

Lorelei's take, in contrast, is grand guignol. Mad artists gouging out eyes and plunging out third-story windows. Black-and-white cinema splashed with blood. If there's any nostalgia at all, it's for Silent Hill or Resident Evil -- games where you were uncomfortable all the time and also the tank-controls sucked.

It's not a cozy experience, is what I'm saying. Not precisely horror, but not cozy. Content warning bodily harm. I loved the puzzles but I was never happy just to be there.

What then of the puzzles? They were, by and large, easily solved. My biggest mistake in play was overthinking the solutions! But I still loved them, because every puzzle was a different idea; each started with that moment of "What is this? What am I looking at?"

Ah, there's the common factor with puzzle hunts and puzzle books and puzzle boxes. The modern approach to puzzles -- the root of the "thinky puzzle" tradition -- is iteration on a deep, explorable mechanic. There will be surprises, but they spring up in a field that you have mastered. Baba and Monster's Expedition start you out with a simple push.

But Masquerade and Maze (and latterly Gorogoa) were never like that. They threw you into a well of tantalizing maybe-clues and challenged you to find a pattern. That's the essence of Mystery Hunt puzzles. Lorelei may be a blood-spattered haunt of a game, but that's the living spark it's chasing.

And that spark leads us to the story, which is... allusive at best. A murder? A movie? A magic show? The game cheerfully hashes together its layers: screenplays about screenplays, books about books, games about games. No fourth wall is left unbroken. The environment itself is ostentatiously a rendering, as its puzzles are ostentatiously puzzles. If there's a "true" narrative, it exists in the negative spaces.

The endgame brings this together with a series of plot questions: what just happened? Who killed who? Who is fictional and who is real?

I like to call this sort of pop quiz "thematic apperception". (Yes, I'm misusing a psychology term.) It brings the game's story and theme on-stage as puzzle elements. I did this at the end of System's Twilight and felt very clever -- well, it was the 90s. Maybe it's on-the-nose (or in-the-eye) today.

But doesn't this exactly describe Obra Dinn and Golden Idol? Games where the puzzle is to figure out the game's plot events? Yes, and I've used the term that way.

But, hm, I've glossed over a distinction. The Obra-Dinners are pure inference: look at the clues, decide what happened. In System's Twilight I reversed the polarity a bit: I asked thematic questions, which (perhaps) got players to think about the story at a deeper level.

Lorelei takes this much farther. Its questions yanked me into thinking about the "real" story, the story behind all the metafictional layers. Wait, someone is imaginary? Someone really killed someone? I admit that I had waved it all off as a obfuscatory narrative haze, but the game wants specific answers. By asking, it created them.

...You know, this leads me to reconsider a cliche.

In Graham Nelson's classic essay "The Craft of Adventure", he writes:

An adventure game is a crossword at war with a narrative.

That was 1995 and I trust he'll forgive me for calling it a cliche today. We still quote that line, but we've also had thirty more years of creatively entangling narrative and puzzle design.

But I never spotted that a crossword is solved both ways. That's the whole point of the crossing words! When you figure out a DOWN clue, that gives you information towards the ACROSS clues, and vice versa. And then sometimes you guess, which helps.

If you think about solving an Obra-Idol-Roottrees, it feels a lot like solving a crossword. Try one option here, eliminate that option there, fill more of the grid. Knowing trivia may help. Sometimes you guess. There is no war; the crossword model is how you read the story.

And Lorelei handles its plot puzzles just that way. Story is DOWN, puzzles are ACROSS. The game gives you clues about the puzzles; the puzzles ask questions that give you clues about the game. You can guess if you need to. The narrative is checked letters.

Interactive Fiction – Far Far Futures

The Zany: Superhero League of Hoboken & deflating genre fiction

Adventure games, especially where intended to be comedic, tend towards the zany. These kinds of games are full of eccentric …Continue reading →

Adventure games, especially where intended to be comedic, tend towards the zany. These kinds of games are full of eccentric characters, bizarre inventory items, and anachronistic situations. The underlying tone is zaniness: a preference for fun, creative un-seriousness over developed themes or coherent settings. Legions of pathetic heroes — dabblers and dilettantes, ensigns and apprentices — fill the ranks of adventure game protagonists. Adventure game puzzles typically rely on encountering and overcoming ad hoc situations, the sort not the domain of a serious professional, but rather a series of unusual predicaments that can be solved at a leisurely pace by an underemployed kleptomaniacal packrat.

Monkey Island (1990) was replete with adventure game comedic anachronisms, on the solid bones of a genre-based pirate adventure story.

Steve Meretzky’s adventure games (apart from a few standouts like A Mind Forever Voyaging) are prime examples of this zany tendency. This can be seen in his first game, Planetfall where you play a glorified janitor (the same idea was later taken up in Sierra’s Space Quest games), through the adaptation of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, to the more sleazy later titles of Leather Goddesses of Phobos, and the Spellcasting 101 series. The culmination of this approach was his last game for Legend Entertainment, and his penultimate adventure game overall,1 Superhero League of Hoboken.

For those unfamiliar: Superhero League of Hoboken (hereafter SLoH) is a hybrid RPG/adventure game. It has a grid based world-map, a party of combatants with stats and equipment that fight battles, but the game’s plot, structure, puzzles, and humour are all from the adventure game. The core premise is that in a post-apocalyptic Tri-State area, a league of costumed superpowered heroes in the ruins of Hoboken have to traipse about the wasteland, fighting mutants, enduring radiation, and solving whacky adventure game problems all ultimately caused by a sentient jack-in-the-box, Doctor Entropy.

Typically silly quests in SLoH

The quests are all either resolved through finding the right object (sometimes in a short puzzle chain) and bringing it to some place, or by utilising one of the heroes unique abilities. As far as heroes and gear go, SLoH presents like the opposite roleplaying game hero fantasy to X-COM: UFO Defense which also came out in ’94. Instead of power suits and plasma pistols, they have jockstraps and broken bottles. It’s Rincewind-with-half-a-brick-in-a-sock humour.

Flaming Carrot Comics (1984)

The superhero with a weak or bizarre power is its own rich subgenre, usually but exclusively used for comedy. The Flaming Carrot comics of the 80s developed into the Mystery Men film in the 90s. In TV, Misfits in the 00s paved the way for Extraordinary, which is airing now. SLoH encompasses both ways the ‘weak hero’ approach can go. The heroes can be comedy one-notes where the power is actually weak (the Iron Tummy can “eat spicy food without distress”, which is used exactly once as indicated by the quest in the screenshot above). Or, they can be unexpected powerhouses where the power is actually quite good when you think about it, like dramatically increasing cholesterol or inducing rust.2 The game can exploit the humour in both directions this way: either the powerful hero is a joke, or an apparent joke is a powerful hero.

As for the post-apocalyptic side of things: absurd situations abound in game series like Fallout, Wasteland, and the earlier novels and tabletop RPGs that inspired them such Gamma World. Woops! the reportedly terrible post-nuclear-holocaust sitcom aired in ’92: maybe in that immediate post-Soviet collapse era, it was even easier to be silly about nuclear apocalypse, or more likely, perhaps by that point it had permeated in popular culture (like superheroes) for so long that its tropes were easy pickings for comedic treatment. During the end times, anything and everything can appear, and the bizarre is easy to justify. In this way, the post-apocalypse shares much in common with the superhero genre with its proliferation of mutations and science experiments gone wrong.

The Gamma World ttrpg (originally 1978, this 4th edition is from 1992) iterates that its main setting is for ‘short and self contained’ adventures in a ‘wild and wahoo’ post-apocalypse.

Silly names and deflating self importance are recurring elements in zany humour, and SLoH combines both. ‘Hoboken’ is an inherently funny sounding word. It’s a lot ‘Scranton’ used in Trixie the Giraffe Necked Girl from Scranton in Sam & Max Hit The Road. The humour here is bathetic, the bombacity of a Superhero League and the exoticism of a Giraffe Necked Girl is punctured by the paltry provincialism of Hoboken and Scranton respectively. This is the same approach taken in the comedic Great Lakes Avengers comics, which also feature Z-list heroes out in the sticks of Milwaukee.

There is perhaps a cultural and class element here too. Hoboken is on the outskirts of a great city. Compared to New York across the river, it was perhaps seen as more ugly, post-industrial, relatively deprived and charmless. This mirrors the relationship Slough (another funny word) has to London. Indeed, the original British iteration of The Office television series was set in Slough for precisely these associations. The heroes in SLoH are also coded as more working-class, or at most, middle-manager types like the Crimson Tape. They carry plungers and wear safety vests and rubber gloves. Like all classic adventure game protagonist losers (lovable or not), they can’t be too successful, professional or organised.

Typical inventory and powers of the Hoboken superheroes

A weakness that permeates zany adventure games, and is very much present in SLoH is that humour that relies on deflating is hard to sustain across a work, and silly names and puns becoming tiring very quickly. SLoH is at its weakest where it relies on rapidly dated cultural references (especially seen in the random enemies), and is at its strongest when its presenting short, picaresque scenes at the culmination of various quests that paint a world that is silly but has a distinct life of its own. Anachronism, 4th wall breaks, and punctured expectations can all work in moderation but if constant they can undermine the thinly suspended reality of the story, and the test the audience’s investment in the dramatic stakes necessary to sustain interest in a longer-form game or story. If any silly thing can and does happen, then a narrative is lost and all that remains is the individual entertainment of each absurd situation.

As interactive fiction has gradually left its text adventure roots behind, zaniness of heroes, puzzles and setting is longer so ubiquitous. While comedy games have continued to do very well in the annual Interactive Fiction Competition, the most successful of them like Hunger Daemon (2014), Brain Guzzlers From Beyond (2015), The Wizard Sniffer (2017), where still somewhat zany, tend to balance this with enough dramatic stakes and puzzles embedded in an internally consistent setting. As shorter games, they remain engaging and amusing for their play length.

Trademarked silly consumables and gadgets are a recurring Lucasarts joke, as seen here in Maniac Mansion (1987)
Thimbleweed Park (2017) recreates the style of Maniac Mansion (1987), with the same jokes.

Zaniness continues to haunt graphical adventure games, and a lot of this is due to a blanket of nostalgia that smothers creative impulses in a suffocating layer of nodding references. It’s hard to make something good if you’re self-consciously trying to recreate a past form that was only sometimes good itself. A joke can be funny in its time, but many adventure games try to recreate joke formats that were played out over thirty years ago. Nostalgic adventure games like Thimbleweed Park can have a lot of promising elements— fun situations, characterisations, puzzles and dialogue— but weigh themselves down by constantly inviting poor comparison with their predecessors. Where adventure zaniness still works is in the short concentrated form, such as with the very silly Investi-Gator which packs in a handful of absurd and amusing mystery cases with a lot of jokes for a very short episodic play time.

Investi-Gator is only three short episodes and so can be delightful.

Where zany works succeed, they’re either like Monkey Island which balances the very silly comedy with distinct characters, setting, and an actual plot; or they’re like Flaming Carrot where the bizarre situations are distinctly drawn and engaging on their own merits and the works are short enough to sustain interest in this. Steve Meretzky managed to explore adventure game zaniness in a dozen or so commercial games. It was the mood he was most comfortable with and at his best, the games could be creatively fecund, surprising, and fun. But his best comic work has a solid foundation of story and game design. SLoH‘s joke monsters grow tiring very quickly, the basic RPG gameplay lacks tactical depth and cannot sustain a game by itself, and so what is left is a string of amusing incidents tied together by some very transparent adventure game puzzle chains. Silly names, anachronisms, and bathos are best enjoyed as a spice to a more nutritious meal rather fare on their own.

  1. The last of Meretzky’s adventure games was, to my knowledge, The Space Bar, set in ‘The Thirsty Tentacle’ on the planet Armpit VI. ↩
  2. The non-zany web serial Worm managed to draw out 1.6 million words of story taking seriously the premise of the weak sounding but actually strong power (in this case ‘power to control bugs’). ↩

Choice of Games LLC

EXODUS: Climate Activist—Become an activist as you take down polluters.

Hosted Games has a new game for you to play! EXODUS: Climate Activist is 33% off until June 13th! Daniel developed this game using ChoiceScript, a simple programming language for writing multiple-choice interactive novels like these. Writing games with ChoiceScript is easy and fun, even for authors with no programming experience. Write your own game and Hosted Games will publish it for you, giving

Hosted Games has a new game for you to play!

Exodus: Climate Activist

Take control of a troubled young climate activist as you sabotage climate criminals and attempt to join the mysterious EXODUS activist group. A socially conscious coming of age action thriller where you will have the chance to express your strong beliefs on climate change.

EXODUS: Climate Activist is 33% off until June 13th!

EXODUS: Climate Activist is a 36,000-word interactive novel by Daniel Stephenson. It’s entirely text-based, without graphics or sound effects, and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination.

  • Attend real life protests in London and influence how much trouble you will cause.
  • Navigate the end of your high school years as you enter adulthood.
  • Explore the wilderness as you attempt to locate the Exodus camp, and meet various activist groups on your travels.
  • Infiltrate high security climate criminal energy companies and attempt to sabotage their operations.
  • Enter the workplace and attempt to impress your boss.
  • Meet the partner of your dreams.
  • Make the right choices throughout the game in order to impress and join the EXODUS Group.

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

Renga in Blue

Pythonesque / Streets of London (1982)

Can you escape the padded cell? Will the old lady hit you with her knitting? How much longer will you have to wait for a 96B bus? These and many other questions will be answered in PYTHONESQUE. — From the Winter 1982 Supersoft Catalog Supersoft we’ve seen twice now before: Brian Cotton’s game Catacombs (for […]

Can you escape the padded cell? Will the old lady hit you with her knitting? How much longer will you have to wait for a 96B bus? These and many other questions will be answered in PYTHONESQUE.

From the Winter 1982 Supersoft Catalog

Supersoft we’ve seen twice now before: Brian Cotton’s game Catacombs (for a while lost media, first of a series, we’ll get to the rest sometime) and more relevantly for today, their own version of The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

The company received permission from Pan Books to publish Hitch Hiker’s but got in a legal tangle trying to re-publish the game (so re-named it); here, we have a game that started life as Pythonesque — as in the Monty Python comedy troupe — and later again surfaced for the C64 as Streets of London. There was no legal tangle to speak of but perhaps the company was a little nervous.

From Mobygames.

The authors (Allen Webb and Grant Privett) also have credits on The Cricklewood Incident and The Kilburn Encounter which allegedly just rework the elements of Pythonesque on different platforms. They look different enough I’ll keep them separate for now (meaning they’ll wait for a later year).

The game starts, oddly enough, with you choosing a difficulty level (1 to 5, I went with easy, usually a wise choice on old adventures where the interest is more in puzzle-solving). You then wake up in a padded cell and decide you need to go locate the Holy Grail.

This one absolutely spins the wheel on random, and draws items from famous Monty Python movies and sketches, like the Holy Hand Grenade. The structure is heavily surreal in a way we have yet to see in this blog.

Namely, the game is spread out amongst many small micro-chunks. You teleport (either via random chance, or using a magic word I’ll show off in a moment) and might be in a one-or-two-room area, and one of the directions will drop you right back in front of the padded cell again.

The magic word comes from a piece of toffee paper just outside the entrance: “OH YANGTZE”. It teleports you to completely at random to one of the micro-chunks I’ve been mentioning.

If you don’t recognize the words (I admit I’ve only seen a couple episodes in whole and the “greatest hits”) they’re from the skit asking the deep question “Why is it that so many of Britain’s top goalies feel moved to write about the Yangtze?”

I’m not sure everything is meant to be a reference, although in the same area where you find the toffee paper is one of the most famous ones, one of Hell’s Grannies.

In game form, she isn’t as threatening, or at least I have yet to have her try to hit me as illustrated at the front cover at the top of this post. As implied, there’s also a bus stop there, but the problem is not getting beaten at the bus stop, but rather lacking in money.

I’ve gone through various runs where my character’s finances go up, but I have no idea why or how they do. Money is important not just for the bus but for the fact some places require you to buy things rather than just letting you take them.

The hand grenade just lands with a thud if you try to throw it and doesn’t explode (you can’t PULL PIN). The machine gun I’ve managed to use on the old lady but that just nets you a dead old lady and no game progress.

If you do have money to ride the bus it works like the magic word — you get on, get off, and find yourself at some new random location. Also, sometimes you randomly just get swiped up for no apparent reason and sent to a new place.

I don’t have anything resembling a complete map yet — the random aspect (and fact some directions will teleport you to the start, and you can’t tell which ones until you try) make my efforts scattershot, and I have some puzzles sticking me in some locations besides. Let me give a far-out view first, just to show general patterns:

Blue marks “teleport back to the start” rooms. The tag in the corner marks possible landing points (sometimes you get more than one in a section). You’ll also notice some rooms are completely closed in, and I’ve gotten myself stuck before, because the only way out seems to be via magic word, and the magic word only has a limited number of uses.

Above is one of the larger contiguous sections. Going “up” at the vertical cliff requires gear, you get stopped by an “oaf” trying to go north at the tavern, and while you can get past the Nasty Knight Types in order to enter the Dark Forest (they want a shrubbery for heading south, but will let you go north), the Dark Forest consists of two rooms where you get stuck in an endless loop.

I know where the shrubbery is — it is for sale elsewhere, but on the run where I had this encounter I didn’t have the shrubbery in hand (again, the only movement is random, and you have a limited uses of the magic word).

I have a hard time encapsulating all of what’s going on. Some of it is fairly raunchy (that Galahad scene from Holy Grail is in, you end up in the hospital; fortunately the hospital just lets you teleport back to the start). Some of it is plain confusing:

If you take the hammer somehow the table comes off and the whippet runs away. Is this another reference?

I’m not sure yet whether to be positive or negative about the game, although the number of softlocks I’ve hit is starting to tilt to a thumbs-down. Maybe there’s a way to manage the movement I’m not seeing. It’s simply very hard to test objects on things to see if they form solutions when there is very little guarantee I’ll have item X at puzzle Y.

I also don’t think the comedy is hitting, really — it’s so far just been references rather than actually trying to tell jokes — but I’ll reserve judgment on that until I manage to solve some puzzles (or grab for the walkthrough once I get frustrated by the randomness).

top expert

more goal-tracking: improvements and additions

In a complex game–perhaps even in a simple one–it is kind to help the player keep track of their current objectives. Sometimes figuring out what to do next is part of a game’s design–part of the fun–but when that isn’t the case, it might be best to just come out and say what it is. […]

In a complex game–perhaps even in a simple one–it is kind to help the player keep track of their current objectives. Sometimes figuring out what to do next is part of a game’s design–part of the fun–but when that isn’t the case, it might be best to just come out and say what it is.

As a reminder: this blog documents my experiences with Inform 7 as a beginning author. If you are new to Inform 7, we can hopefully all make progress together. Inform is for everyone!

If I find problems in testing, I’ll report them in the next post.

having thought about it….

Since I’ve had some time to think about my code from last time, I have some thoughts:

  • should this be rolled into an already existing “after” rule for updating the player’s score?
  • should there be error messages for weird conditions (multiple table matches, perhaps)
  • do I really want to have multiple definitions invoked by made up actions without grammar?

My answers, after kicking it around, are yes, no, and no. I want to use one rule that can keep things in sequence while remaining highly readable. I think error messages are overkill for this situation, but I’ll share a method in case anyone is interested. The big design change from last time is getting way from manually updating goals, instead automating checks and updates after every action.

In today’s post, I’ll use definitions to both update the score and evaluate goals. This will leave us with a clean-looking “after” rule. We can use those same definitions to “control-f” if we need a closer look at something. Under this model, I’ll first make a definition for updating the score (this is mostly identical to code I wrote last time).

To assess the score:
	let CA be the current action;
	repeat through Table of Demerits: [this code is almost directly copied from the "Bosch" example]
		if CA is the action performed entry and turn stamp entry is less than 0:
			now the turn stamp entry is the turn count;
			decrease the score by the point value entry;
			now score change is true.

The only new thing here is the “now score change is true.” I’m adding a truth state that I can use to check at the end of the turn (an “every turn rule,” since those fall at the end of action processing). Once everything else is done, I’ll work on that.

Next, I’ll move my goal-setting code into a new definition:

to assess the current goal:
	let CA be the current action;
	if there is an inciting act of the CA in the table of high-level goals:
		choose row with an inciting act of the CA in the table of high-level goals;
		if completed entry is less than zero:
			let the old goal be the big picture objective of the player;
			choose row with a big picture objective of the old goal from the table of high-level goals;
			now the completed entry is the turn count;
			choose row with an inciting act of CA from the table of high-level goals;
			now the initiated entry is the turn count;
			now the big picture objective of the player is the big picture objective entry;
			now goal change is true.

This has been tweaked a bit, now that it is running after every action. Last time, I was manually invoking this update after specific actions, but the basic principle is the same: check the current action against a table and update values as needed. Here’s how things have turned out:

After doing something (this is the character sheet rule):
	assess the score;
	assess the current goal;
	assess the task list; [see below for details]
	continue the action.

What is the benefit of this approach, rather than keeping all the code in a single chunk? I think having separate definitions makes for easier reading. It’s also easier to add and manage debug phrases if needed. Having one rule guarantees that my checks will run in a specific order, which may become important. On the other hand, if I want to break this code apart, the work is already done.

I did say I’d look into a check for redundant entries in my goal-setting table. It wouldn’t be too hard to set up a counter that increments every time a match is found. I think it’s overkill, adding unwanted complexity.

	let unique entries be 0;
	if there is an inciting act of the CA in the table of high-level goals:
		repeat through the table of high-level goals:
			if inciting act entry is CA:
				increment unique entries;
		if unique entries is greater than 1:
			say "Oh, my, the author has left duplicate entries in the table of high-level goals! How embarrassing. Please be so kind as to let him know.";

Here, we’re just running through the table, incrementing a value for every hit we find against the current action. If that value is greater than one at the end of that process, the code will print an error message. Again, I’m not doing this, as it feels needlessly complicated for a modest table like this one. Still, for reference, it’s a fairly easy way to check for redundant values, even adding printed text or error reporting if needed.

what about smaller tasks.

Things are moving along! We have a big rule that checks the current action against two tables to update score and broad player objectives. But what about individual tasks needed to complete an objective?

Maintaining a task list will be more complicated. While the player can only have one big goal, there can be multiple tasks required for achieving it. I won’t be able to use a value assigned to the player, nor will I be able to readily drop one and add another in-sequence. I’ll start with this:

task status is a kind of value.
the task statuses are undiscovered, actionable, and complete.

I’ll make a table–as similar as possible to my goal-tracking one, but with a few added columns. I could handle my task status value with the initiated and completed values, but I think it will be nice to just use one value and evaluation when it’s enough.

table of to-do items
task	inciting act	concluding act	task status	initiated	completed	original order
"Pass through the plain wooden door"	thief looking	thief reaching the hallway	actionable	1	-1	1

What’s new or different?

  • task: a printed text that will display while the task is active.
  • inciting act: the action that will make a task actionable (I use “thief looking” to avoid having an empty row when play begins).
  • concluding act: the action that will make a task complete.
  • task status: current task status value (as above).
  • initiated: a turn count for when the task is discovered. This is tracked in the table of goals, but here it can do double-duty as a sortable value.
  • completed: a turn count for when the task is completed (also can be used for sorting).
  • original order: This is probably not needed, but since I might be sorting the table, it’s good to have a way back.

The possibility of having multiple tasks coming and going all the time, plus future needs for displaying the information, makes this a more complex endeavor! Since I am already putting definitions into a single “after rule,” I’ll start out with a new definition. Bear with me, I’m working this out as I go.

to assess the task list:
	let CA be the current action;

How to proceed? It’s possible that multiple tasks will spawn from a single action, so the usual “choose row with a inciting act of the current action from the table of to-do items” won’t work. That simply selects the first matching row (running from row 1), then stops the search. We’ll need to check every row, since we may have multiple matches. We’ve run through tables before.

	repeat through the table of to-do items:
		if the inciting act entry is CA:
			if the task status entry is undiscovered:

Note that inciting act (stored action) and task status (value) are not comparable, so I’ve nested one “if” phrase atop another. If both apply, we’ll have a to-do item that is ready to start yet hasn’t started yet. We’ll update some information both inside and outside of the table:

				now the task status entry is actionable;
				now the initiated entry is the turn count;
				now task change is true;

In this way, we can catch all matching entries. Note that there is another truth state update, “task change.” Marking tasks complete is really just more of the same. Here’s the full definition:

to assess the task list:
	let CA be the current action;
	repeat through the table of to-do items:
		if the inciting act entry is CA:
			if the task status entry is undiscovered:
				now the task status entry is actionable;
				now the initiated entry is the turn count;
				now task change is true;
	repeat through the table of to-do items:
		if the concluding act entry is CA:
			if the task status entry is actionable:
				now the task status entry is complete;
				now the completed entry is the turn count;
				now task change is true.

I can put that into my character sheet rule, too. As promised, the need to read every table row, coming and going, makes for the longest and most complex definition of the bunch. But the way here taught us a lot, and we are relaying on familiar techniques.

There are two things left. I think it would be nice to let the player know when a goal or task has updated. I’ll check that in an “every turn” rule, since those fire at the very end of action processing. All of my checks and updates will already be complete. The rule will review these truth states, and give feedback as needed.

last every turn when goal change is true or task change is true (this is the status notification rule):
		say "A task or goal has changed. For more information, review your *STATUS*";
		now score change is false;
		now goal change is false;
		now task change is false.

I have this as “last” at the moment, so that it prints after other “every turn” texts. Adjustments might come later. Since the project currently uses Inform 7’s built-in score notification, I won’t do anything with that specific truth state. For now, anyway. If score notifications and status notifications make for an on-screen jumble, I may want to handle score reports manually. If so, I’ll do that here, in this rule.

But what about this *STATUS* command that I’ve mentioned? Well, it’s no use tracking this stuff if the player can’t check it! I’ll hopefully close the books on goal tracking next time with a new action and some final thoughts and warnings.


A final look at goals and tasks, then a last (for now) look at scenes.

Wednesday, 05. June 2024

Zarf Updates

Recall the dogs out

You can't sneeze right now without blowing over a "Microsoft's Recall is terrible" headline. The most positive take I've seen is "you might find this useful, but there are privacy concerns". The median take is less than positive. For details, ...

You can't sneeze right now without blowing over a "Microsoft's Recall is terrible" headline. The most positive take I've seen is "you might find this useful, but there are privacy concerns". The median take is less than positive. For details, check Kevin Beaumont's post which is the substantive analysis behind the current shouting.

I was struck, though, by Charlie Stross's post this morning, titled "Is Microsoft trying to commit suicide?"

Stross is a sharp writer and a sharp tech observer, and I entirely agree with the body of his missive: that Recall is terrible for many reasons. (Although he misstates that the feature is "impossible to disable". As commenters note, Recall installs default-enabled, but you can disable it in settings.)

But as a thesis statement, I am really not on board. Because the obvious answer is "No." Microsoft is not trying to commit suicide. Microsoft is trying to survive. And it's worth considering what this calamitous self-own tells us about Microsoft's mindset.

Microsoft's dedication to AI-as-a-feature began with the original Github Copilot, announced in 2021. I think it was the first big Github move after Microsoft acquired it. That is, Copilot was a clear signal of Microsoft's priorities as OpenAI's investor and Github's owner.

Since then we've gotten a thundering cascade of "you have to use AI" announcements, either from Microsoft or from the bubble-wave of startups committed to using OpenAI compute time. The rest of the equiv-tech stratum are cranking away on their own AI roadmaps, but they aren't really driving the hype. Apple wants to improve Siri. Google wants to improve Google search (and they're not fixated on AI as the only answer). Facebook has no actual ideas so why not open-source. None of them really seems interested in beating Microsoft to any particular punch.

But Microsoft is behaving like they are. MS acts like they have to be first to market, whatever market it is that Recall serves, and GoogAppleFace are hot on their heels.

Why? Spoiler: I don't know. I don't sneak into Microsoft's board meetings.

Stross suggests "to sell Windows on ARM", but I don't like that answer. ARM-based laptops sell themselves: vastly improved performance, vastly improved battery life, or any tradeoff you like between the two. Apple has been smirking about it since 2020 and Microsoft just needed to catch up, which they now have.

But the point is, it doesn't matter what catastrophe Microsoft sees in the future where they come in second. They think they're doomed without AI. Conventional wisdom is "Azure is doing fine", but maybe that's not true. Maybe it's only true if you factor in sky-high demand for AI compute. Maybe Satya Nadella sits on a Silicon Throne that stabs him in the butt every day that Microsoft isn't a market leader in something. (Windows no longer counts -- OSes are loss leaders now.)

"They think they're doomed" explains a lot about this whole situation. Notably, nobody at Microsoft is allowed to think about the downsides. AI is a bet they cannot hedge. Feature not ready for prime time? We're not delaying it, because this plan cannot fail. AI spews lies and hallucinations? Customers will love it anyway, because this feature cannot fail. Market not materializing? Shut up, yes it will.

Anybody who says otherwise gets ignored or steamrolled. La la la, "...when his salary depends on his not understanding it."

This is not to say that they cannot course-correct. Microsoft wants this stuff to succeed, not to destroy them. I suspect they will improve the security story around Recall. Maybe not by June 18th (the ship date of "Copilot+ PCs"), but over the course of this year.

Will they improve it enough? I have no idea. They have lots of smart engineers. Maybe they'll flex enough to consider a disable-at-install-time option. I don't know how it will shake out.

I expect a lot of corporate policies saying "turn that crap off on your work machine." I certainly will on my Windows box (which runs nothing but Steam anyhow). That's not really the question. The question is what security exploits arise to target the average user -- the one who never changes the defaults and clicks any "Install" button that pops up.

The longer-term question is, what happens if the AI bubble really does sputter out and MS leadership stops believing it will save them?

I don't mean "when AI goes away". I think we're past the point where it will go away. I mean the likely outcome: people stop shouting "AI will solve all human problems!" and start treating it like, I don't know, copy-and-paste. A neat trick which is ubiquitous and makes some things easier, but nobody thinks about it much.

(I remember the first article I read about copy-and-paste, back when it was a Xerox PARC tech demo. This Alan Kay article in 1979? Mm, not sure. Anyway, I didn't get it. "How does that help?" Hard to see until it's available everywhere, but I sure copied and pasted a lot in writing this post.)

Anyway, neat tricks are commodity, not differentiator. If it's ubiquitous, it'll be on Windows and Mac and anything Google-connected. Where will Microsoft be then? Doomed? Or just another tech company with some revenue streams?

I know that seems like a fate worse than death in today's venture-unicorn market, but somebody's gotta do it.