Planet Interactive Fiction

March 26, 2015

The Gameshelf: IF

Designing alchemy in a puzzle game

by Andrew Plotkin at March 26, 2015 05:50 AM

A question about Hadean Lands from the tweet gallery: "Have you written anything about how you approached designing the alchemical system?"

Excellent question! The answer is "No, but I should, shouldn't I," yes okay. (Thanks @logodaedalus.)

My twitter-sized reply was "Sound cool while supporting the puzzles," but I can say more than that.

(Note: I will start this post by talking about HL in generalities. Later on I'll get into more spoilery detail about the game structure. It won't come down to specific puzzle solutions, but I'll put in a spoiler warning anyway.)

The keynote for HL's system was the alchemy puzzle in The Dreamhold. The Dreamhold lab had just two ingredients and three actions to take, but it felt like a dense explorable territory.

Dreamhold's principle was that any action you try on a given substance will produce a new and interesting result. And then you can try new actions on that! Obviously this exponential expansion has to be tied off pretty soon. Many of the combinations converge to common outcomes. The tree is only a few steps deep, really. (I think there are twelve possible substances to find.) But it's enough to give a sense of experimentation and discovery.

For HL, I wanted that sense, but bigger. Did I succeed? Heck no! It was an impossible goal. HL has forty-odd starting ingredients and thirty-odd magic words (not to mention other ritual actions, and the environmental influences, and...). Just providing the first step of a dense exploration tree would be... well, somebody might do it, but I wasn't going to.

So I developed HL with a less ambitious principle: you get recipes. When following a recipe, you should always be able to tell a right action from a wrong one. That is, a particular magic word will produce a unique response if you use it at the right time -- different from the response you get if you use it at the wrong time. The differences may be slight, but they're perceptible.

I didn't want to entirely crush the spirit of experimentation. So the second principle was: recipes aren't everything. The opening puzzle demonstrates this, and various later puzzles require you to substitute or invert ritual elements. I set up parallel structures and oppositional structures to make that make sense.

I think everyone agrees that I didn't hit the perfect balance. The game starts you with an off-recipe puzzle, but there's too long an interval before the next one. In between are lots of recipes that you have to follow perfectly; you lose track of the initial lesson. But most players were able to get onto the right track (or jump off the wrong one, if you like).

A followup question was "Did you have alchemical dynamics in mind when making the puzzles?" The answer is... mixed.

(Spoiler warning for the overall game structure, starting here!)

The core arc of HL is the limited supply of four key elements. You need all four for the endgame, and there are intermediate goals which require two or three. So initially you can only accomplish one intermediate goal at a time; then you have to reset.

That was my initial puzzle framework. I wrote that down, and then started complicating it. What ritual needs elements X and Y? Is it the ritual itself which needs those elements, or do I invent a sub-ritual which consumes X and provides a related X2? And so on.

At this point, I was inventing puzzles and alchemical mechanics in parallel. Or rather, I was going back and forth -- every decision on one side firmed up the possibilities on the other side. I needed puzzles whose solutions would seem reasonable; I needed mechanics which would feel like parts of a plausible magical science.

You'll note that I didn't start by creating a complete magical system and then deriving puzzles from it. Nor did I invent a bunch of puzzles and then invent alchemy that could solve them. Neither approach has ever worked for me. So if you're hoping for a complete, consistent model of HL alchemy -- I'm sorry. No such thing exists.

I knew that it couldn't exist, of course. That's one reason that the alchemy is described as being eclectic and syncretic. It fits nicely with the social background, too. The real-life British Empire did steal artifacts from all over the world. I evolved the idea that a magical British Empire would lift occult knowledge from every place they conquered, and jam it all together without regard for consistency or context!

(We assume this made them better at conquering. The game doesn't touch on much history, but references to the "East Empire" imply that they've got a firm grasp on Central Europe, and no doubt the New World as well. If I were a better writer, I'd have built a story about the Navy running into aliens and trying to treat them colonially... oh, well, room for a sequel.)

(There will be no sequel. That was a joke.)

The point is, I could make up whatever alchemical rules I wanted. I tried for a balance -- consistency in some places, chaos in others. I could draw on mythical, mathematical, or religious sources without having to be accurate about any of it. Convenient!

Back to the puzzle construction. As I said, there were a few key resources whose scarcity determined the game arc. Then I invented more resources -- both ingredients and formulae -- which either resulted from or combined with the key ones.

This could itself have created an ever-expanding tree of dependencies. But I constrained it, or at least bent it back on itself, with a third principle: everything in the game should be used at least twice. Ideally, in slightly different ways.

A naive adventure game uses each item exactly once. Indeed, many graphical adventures remove things from your inventory once you've used them successfully. This cuts against your sense of immersion -- not because of the anti-realism, but because you wind up watching the game mechanics rather than the game. An object disappearing (or being checked off) is a better signal of progress than the response of the game world. Text adventures don't have this disappearance convention; nonethless, the player learns to keep track of what's been used and ignore it thereafter.

I would rather teach the player that there's always more to learn. You may think you understand an item, but you still have to keep it in mind for future use. You have to keep everything in the game in mind at all times. This is the underlying challenge.

So I went over and over the list of rituals, looking for singletons. Magic word used only once? Work it into a new ritual. Alchemical potion only solves one puzzle? Invent a new place to use it. This added a richness to the mechanics. Two uses of a reagent imply there must be more; you have the sense that there must be underlying laws to explain it all. This is, as I said, an illusion; but it's a well-supported illusion.

Of course, it added up to a gob-smacking number of puzzles. Fortunately (or perhaps not), I was blessed with a very large list of formulae, resources, and recipes to scatter around the Retort. I could "use up" these extra puzzles as obstacles to various resources. (Thus all the locked cabinets.)

Also, since these puzzles weren't involved in the key resource plotline, it was okay if they had multiple solutions. (Some of the cabinets can be opened two or three ways.)

The final principle of Hadean Lands: involve all the senses. Let me go back to a line that I quoted in 2010, explaining the HL Kickstarter:

"If a witch could teleport (a thing that seems impossible, but I could be wrong), it would involve hours of preparation, rituals, chanting, and filling all the senses with the desired result until the spell would work in a blinding explosion of emotional fulfillment." (Steven Brust, Taltos)

Magic should be a transcendent experience. I tried to describe the effects of your rituals in colors, textures, sounds, scents... even the words that you speak are given synesthetic weight. Not to mention the ineffable air of things going wrong or right (so useful for cueing mistakes).

Of course, an adventure game involves lots of repetition, and nothing wears out faster than a repeated sense of transcendence. (Except maybe humor.) I dodged this problem with HL's PERFORM mechanic. When you PERFORM a known ritual, it doesn't repeat all of the descriptive text; I kept the output bare and mechanical. You're not reading it anyway! You just want to know whether the ritual succeeded. This preserves your sense of involvement with new rituals.

(Admittedly this falls apart when you're failing at a new ritual. That's a somewhat repetitive experience -- inevitably, I think.)

So there are my principles of magic design. I don't suppose I sound like a Hermetic occultist. I hope I do sound like a writer or designer describing his craft, because that's what this is. A lot of fussy details and a clear plan, is all.

Like the man said: writing is the art of causing change in a consenting reader, in accordance with the writer's will. You gotta be pragmatic about that stuff or you'll get nowhere.

Renga in Blue

Pirate Adventure: Beginner difficulty

by Jason Dyer at March 26, 2015 05:00 AM

Out of all the Scott Adams games, Pirate Adventure is the only one with a difficulty level of “Beginner”. Does the designation hold up? Heavy puzzle spoilers ahoy.

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piratemap2

The map is still a work in progress. Roughly in order of when I did things:

1. There’s a pirate in a grass shack. Getting rid of him is simply a matter of providing a bottle of rum. Then you’re able to take his treasure chest and parrot.

2. There’s a “maze”, but it nearly seems like a formality (unless I’m missing some secret) because the useful destination can be reached from the opening room.

3. The rug at the London flat gives this response upon an attempt to take it:

>GET RUG
Sorry I can’t
Its nailed to the floor!

Fairly early on there’s a “claw hammer”, which when brought back to the flat, you can “take nails”, and then “take rug”, which reveals a set of keys.

5. The keys then unlock the pirate’s treasure chest.

>UNLOCK CHEST
Its open

>GET PLANS
>READ PLANS
They’re plans to build the Jolly Roger (a Pirate ship!) You’ll need: hammer, nails,
lumber, anchor, sails, and a keel.

So far I’ve got the hammer, nails, and keel.

6. I know where everything else is, but it requires getting through a locked door in the maze.

I am in a pit. Visible items:
Mean and hungry looking crocodiles. Locked door.

Some obvious exits are: UP

>UNLOCK DOOR
Crocs stop me

So far, I don’t think there’s the unfair timing (bees, chiggers, limited light source) of Adventureland, and there hasn’t been what I’d call outright trickery so far. We’ll see if things stay fair.


March 24, 2015

Quest

IF Answers – a Q&A site for Interactive Fiction

by Alex Warren at March 24, 2015 10:01 PM

I’ve wished we had a Stack Exchange site for Interactive Fiction for years now – that is, a site where questions and answers can be voted on and edited by the IF community (like Stack Overflow). There was a proposal on Area 51 back in 2011, and another one in 2014. Both got quietly deleted after the initial interest faded away. Yet I believe the community has enough people in it, with enough questions, that a Q&A site would be a well-used and really valuable resource.

We have a chicken and egg problem though with the way the Area 51 process works. Prospective community members have to be persuaded to express interest in a site that doesn’t exist, and work out up-front what it might look like, before anything gets created. If they’re not heavily involved in other Stack Exchange sites already, that seems like a bit too much to expect.

I think an IF Q&A site would only gain momentum after it started existing, but there aren’t enough of us who really “get” the idea yet to get one started via the Stack Exchange Area 51 process. (And even though I happen to be an employee of Stack Exchange myself, I have no influence over what sites get set up).

Over the weekend I was upgrading phpBB on textadventures.co.uk, and remembering how much I think forums suck for getting answers to questions. Plenty of people ask questions about Quest in its forum, but I don’t think it’s the best solution.

After a tiny amount of research I came across an open source platform called Question2Answer which allows you to create Stack Exchange-style sites. It’s pretty easy to set up, so after a very short time I suddenly found myself having set up a new site called IF Answers.

We’re just getting started, but I think we’re doing pretty well in fleshing out the site with questions and answers even after only a couple of days.

Questions about Quest, QuestKit, Squiffy, Inform, Adrift, TADS, Twine etc. are all on-topic. Non-technical questions about things like IF game design are on-topic too, as are questions about specific games, questions about entering the IF Comp etc.

Check it out at ifanswers.com. Please help us with populating the content – answering your own questions is allowed (even encouraged, especially as we get going).


These Heterogenous Tasks

IFDB Roundup

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at March 24, 2015 07:01 PM

Being an occasional series in which I go through my IFDB reading-list and cross off a few entries.

Benthic Love (Mike Joffe; illustrations by Sonya Hallett). A short, illustrated CYOA made in Ren’Py, with the distinction of being:

The ONLY LGBT-friendly anglerfish dating sim!

anglerfish

This is a game about sexual dimorphism and its implications for relationships. Humans exhibit a visible degree of sexual dimorphism, albeit somewhat less than the norm among our great-ape relatives; what exactly that means for us is a subject of some debate, but humans are experimental generalists. If you wanted to pick a species for which biology would appear to be sexual destiny, you couldn’t do much better than anglerfish: they occupy a very specific niche, and are notable for having really extreme sexual dimorphism by vertebrate standards. Males are much smaller than females, and have no digestive system. They mate by the male biting into the female and linking up to her circulatory system, after which the male’s body atrophies to the point where they’re not much more than a set of gonads. Thus this line:

The world was not made for a love like yours between anglerfish.

…is very true regardless of how you might personally experience love. Taken as an actual story about anglerfish, the story engages in a degree of anthropomorphisation that is pretty nonsensical; talking about things like love, trust, wistful longing, language just doesn’t make any sense when the principals have brains smaller than a particularly wet sneeze. But clearly this is not the point intended.

I’m reading Calvino’s Cosmicomics at the moment, and Benthic Love has a great deal of the same tone – of deep, familiar longing juxtaposed against the implacable, weird particulars of science. Again and again in Cosmicomics, the protagonist is placed in bizarre situations that thwart his modest hopes; Benthic Love does not have Calvino’s writing chops, but – aided by the atmospheric art – it conjures a little of the same star-crossed tragedy.

Corvidia (Alan DeNiro). A prose-poem, juxtaposing uncanny fantasy with mundane yard chores. It bottlenecks a lot, but branches enough that it takes a few play-throughs to get a firm sense of the thing. As story, deficient; as poem, I am slow at judging poems. Like, really slow. It often takes me a week or so to decide whether I like a song; for poems, it could be longer. But it evoked some things, which is grist to a poem.

Art is the bath-house where we fuck in the dark. When I was in secondary school, there was a lane that led from town, up the hill, through the fields, to my house. The foot of the lane, between fire station, pub and church, was overhung with tall pines, in which the local crows flocked, squabbled and shat. The first time I came home from overseas, they had cut down the pines; ostensibly to protect the ancient graveyard wall, possibly as an arborist’s boondoggle. The lane feels exposed now, too open to the sky. The crows are gone.

Art is the bath-house where we fuck in the dark. When I lived in Yakutat, a town of a few hundred people with no road to the outside, where the winters are long, dark, wet, grey, snowbound and miserable: in spring the sandhill cranes would fly north in vast flocks, very high up, overlapping V-formations hundreds strong, calling and calling to one another with soft distant churrs. In autumn, they’d return, southward, and I knew I was fucked for another five months.

You Were Here (Joshua Houk).

youwerehereYou Were Here is a minimally interactive retrospective, composed of all the first lines in games listed in the Interactive Fiction Database for 2014. The game comes in two versions: a Twine piece where the text is static and organised by week of release, and an Inform one where the sentences get shuffled about. There’s no Markov-chain shenanigans within the sentences themselves, but it still produces the pleasingly surreal, glimmers-of-coherence effect common to generated works. IF openings tend to be either setting-establishing descriptions or dramatic cold opens, with a minority of character-establishing sentences; so there is just enough inherent structure to the randomness for it to have a kind of staccato consistency.


Renga in Blue

Favorite recent games of Tlön

by Jason Dyer at March 24, 2015 05:00 AM

Unlike The Interdependent Ludic Institute of Tlön, I don’t feel I have authority to decide the best of anything. But I can still pick stuff I like:

8. Blank Slate (Norfunder)
I don’t know if you caught the wave of AI-games about a decade ago, which invariably presented a raw intelligence to interact with and sold it as a game. The best examples — I’m thinking Grognard 0 and Lean Sykon here — spawned entire subnets and mod-scenes. Not long after the developers seemed to hit a creative wall, just because as stories the games seemed empty.

I don’t know how perfect a departure Blank Slate is, but boy, was it memorable.

Look — first scene — rather than the usual text communication, you enter individual characters and random gibberish splays across the screen. Many players thought their game was broken and inquired about a refund. Those who persisted five minutes in started to get text of a sort, but it was clear whatever creature inhabited the neural-net spoke no known language.

A bit more deciphering leads to its first words, in English. The weirdness doesn’t end there, because whatever is inside Blank Slate — everyone picks their own name for it, mine was Buddy — is from some linked universe where things are ever so slightly off, and then — I think this has been spoiled sufficiently to mention — the relevation that in that universe, the AIs are formed by “processing” living beings, killing them in the process.

The whole process leads to a moral/philosophical debate where you find by training Buddy’s intelligence he is capable of going back and destroying those who made him in the first place.

That’s just the first act.

7. Board Hero (Skizz)
Now that RFID+ is embedded in most athletic equipment, there’s been a boom of alter-sports games, but Board Hero keeps it simple.

Remember Tony Hawk Gaiden? Think that, but real life. Using some astounding algorithmic prowess, Board Hero detects the actual tricks being used on a skateboard and chains them together for combo points. The five minute leaderboard is fierce, but I’m more partial to the half-hour run which limits chaining allowing for a more leisurely ride.

Supposedly there’s some haywire bug involving the McTwist, but I’m never been able to do one, and I’m sure there will be a patch for it soon.

6. Ultimate Mod (-unknown-)
Some people argue if this is a game at all.

A mysterious file called Ultmod began getting passed around IRC and the fuzznets. People — I don’t know, I guess people with really good backups of their files — installed it on a whim but reported nothing. Then one of those brave experimentalists was playing Dark Wraith III (that RPG from five years ago) and noticed an entirely new area attached to the main quest. There was a series of cryptic numbers and pictures.

Other reports streamed in, from all variety of genres. Most memorable were the ghosts: a ghost train in SimCity 3, a ghost child in Couture, a ghost … tentacle alien thing in Super Pony Magical Stars.

Apparently Ultmod was designed to modify very specific games and add cryptic clues which fit together in a sort of meta-puzzle. Nobody has solved it yet, but rumors — perhaps started by the developers — hint at a genuine buried treasure somewhere in Iceland.

5. Triple Paradox (Interaxis)
The rash of time travel games is almost as bad as the zombie-boom we went through 10 years ago, but this one is something special because while most of game time travel is in a stable pre-designed framework (with enough mucking resulting in PARADOX GAME OVER), this one works in what I’d call butterfly effect mechanics. You attempt to stop some sort of tragedy (different each game) by leaping back and forth within a 24 hour window. HOWEVER, even the smallest change to reality changes the entire plot, all the way down, such that while the tragedy is stopped some other tragedy happens, so to stop that one you have to go back again, and of course killing your past selves is a viable option, and somehow the procedural-plot machinery under the hood is complex enough to handle it.

4. Mineral Survivor (Hologram Games)
I’m always been a fan of even the corniest of the games in the disaster-survival genre, but I’m confident this one will win over even non-genre fans.

You’re a miner-savant who has the ability to “see” from the perspective of minerals in the ground. It’s not see as in visual exactly, or even sonic; there’s this overlapping blend which really screams YOU ARE SOMETHING ELSE as you’re experiencing it. In any case, as is usual there’s a collapse disaster and there’s a lot of scenes where you have to navigate collapsed geology with precision timing but it’s a lot more forgiving than other such games because of the aforementioned mineral-sensing mechanic.

What really leaps this game to the next level are the memory-strands. Diamonds in particular have the ability to sense ramifications of causality, that is, observe scenes from the past and the future at the same time that are happening on the surface world. In the case of this tragedy — grieving families, lost opportunities — you get a kaleidoscope that would be overwhelming were it not for the developers adding a “blur” mechanic which allows you to see stories in less detail, only the salient points.

3. Ancestor (Glow)
This is the first time I’ve got to choose the method of my character’s demise in the startup screen.

After that, you play an ancestor ghost who follows multiple generations trying to nurture your family name to grand goals. The interface isn’t anything novel — it’s pretty much ripped off of Times of Leviathan — but the stories that emerge really are breathtaking.

For instance: Tolas-a-Yokikan was the first in a line that led expeditions to the fishing isle of Takkyiku, where she had her first encounter — nudged by my ghost, of course — with The Divine Tree, who tells her how to save the world. But on arriving at the third jewel, the coatylaptus finally caught up to her, but fortunately her progenitor egg had already been planted in the soil. So went the next three generations, all getting a little farther on the Holy Mountain, but each time being distracted by the Three Evils. The last generation — infertile, so I knew the stakes were high — managed to reach the Rock of All Murmurs and to scrawl the three words to restore the balance.

I know! I know! Certainly not for everyone. Still, the music, the visuals, and the sheer harmony of it all made me feel like something deeply profound had happened.

2. Greek Philosopher Simulator (Torchal)
I felt like the same developer’s Roman Senator Simulator was a disappointment because it focused solely on mechanics; pretty soon I was running the story like a spreadsheet.

Greek Philosopher Simulator ups the ante by not only including the politics and wars swarming the country, but requiring actual philosophical debate. While it seems odd to predicate a long speech on how the world is actually composed of fire (scandalizing the Pythagoreans, later leading to an all-out war) the game mechanics cleverly straddle the line between rationality and rhetoric.

My crowning moment was creating a logical argument — using the now famous predicate interface — that convinced a group of Peripatetics that nothing at all existed, including the philosophers themselves (somehow sidestepping the existence of the argument itself through a clever use of litotes). My screenshots somehow found their way to the devs who commented they didn’t realize such a thing was even possible.

1. Dragon Hall (22925)
I have never been a fan of the no-genre movement (that is, labeling games by story genre rather than gameplay genre) simply because it seems like everything I’ve tried has been a weak action-adventure made weaker by the lack of commitment.

In any case “just like the holodeck on Star Trek!” never seems to have happened.

Dragon Hall … well, didn’t change my mind, but for two hours or so, wow. First off, it’s a third-person corporate thriller (already being different there) where the interaction you’d think is primarily social, but really there’s so many options at any moment it feels like … ok, obviously I’m having trouble here. Look, in an adventure game, I feel like I’m constantly looking for locks to fit keys; in a strategy game, I’m always optimizing; in an action game, I’m priming my reflexes. Here, all I was thinking what would my character do? and somehow I could do every option I thought of, and for a while I was inhabiting a world rather than playing a game.

Then the sheen wore off and I was finding the optimum thing to say to the Twile Sisters so they would turn against the Syndicate and give me the password. But it was great while it lasted.


March 23, 2015

Sibyl Moon Games

A Tale of 20 Tarot Decks

by Carolyn VanEseltine at March 23, 2015 05:01 PM

The auction (involving 20 decks of Tarot cards)

The Vericon charity auction is a weird and wonderful thing.Vericon logo: a dragon wrapped around a shield reading "Vericon"

Vericon is the yearly science fiction/fantasy/speculative fiction convention run by the Harvard-Radcliff Science Fiction Association. In practice, it’s half undergraduate celebration and half alumni reunion, sprinkled with a light covering of nonaffiliate attendees (like yours truly).

The twin purposes of the charity auction are 1) to raise money for charity and 2) to have fun. This triggers intense, bizarre bidding wars over things like an Acrobat Robot Pen (“the pen… that goes… like… THIS!”) or seven plastic coat hangers (“If the bidding goes up to $100, we’ll throw in… thirteen more coat hangers! Twenty coat hangers, folks!”) Many of the items are legitimately rare or valuable – I sadly passed on a first-edition copy of Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep, and I watched with envy as someone snagged a bag full of galleys for unpublished Tor books.

The brown paper grocery bag didn’t look particularly impressive when it first came up for auction. But then the auctioneer started pulling out Tarot cards, deck after deck after deck, and reading off their names – “Tarot of the Elves. Witches’ Tarot. Vampyre Tarot. Atlantis Tarot. Two different Cat Tarot decks!”

I own two decks of Tarot cards (the Gilded Tarot, and Stephanie Pui-Mun Law’s Shadowscapes Tarot.) I’m fascinated by the symbolism, but I haven’t used it extensively in my creative work. It’s a relatively untapped space, always waiting in the background. I thought, What could I do with 20 decks of Tarot cards?

I said, “Forty dollars.”

“Forty-five.”

“Fifty.”

The auctioneer called, “Fifty, do I hear fifty-five?”

In an undertone, my friend asked, “What are you going to do with twenty decks of Tarot cards?”

“I have fifty-five, do I hear sixty?”

“I’m going to write a LARP,” I said. “Sixty!”

“Sixty-five,” my opponent shot back.

“Twenty dollars on Carolyn’s bid,” one of my friends called from the back.

“Oh yeah?” a fourth party called. “Twenty-five more,” against me –

By the time it was over, there were five people in my bidding coalition (including a Mysterious Benefactor, who was getting all updates via text and bidding by proxy), and seven in my rival’s, several of whom had joined in for the chance to buy one deck at $10. My allies were far more enthusiastic than me – I topped out at $60, but one person got up to $125 before I started laughing helplessly and telling my coalition to stop, stop, I would write the LARP even if I didn’t win the bid.

The bag went for $290 – not to me. (My esteemable rival offered to sell me a deck or two at $10 apiece, but I told her not to worry, I’d just go to eBay.) And I started thinking, what kind of LARP can I write with 20 decks of Tarot cards?

A LARP (involving 20 decks of Tarot cards)

There are four major components to a LARP:

  1. Mechanics.
  2. Characters.
  3. Setting.
  4. Plot.

For a theater-style game, the first is essentially optional. But here, every player gets their own Tarot deck – why else use twenty decks? (I can think of a couple other options – for example, place them around the room as environmental challenges, or give everyone an in-character reason to carry a deck of Tarot cards – but they’re less immediately enticing.) I want to use Tarot cards as the mechanical root of the game.

"03 - L' Imperatrice" by Oswald Wirth - Le Tarot. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia CommonsBeyond mechanics, I can tie each character thematically to one of the Major Arcana. (There are 22 Major Arcana, but I can easily strip a couple out – let’s say The World and The Tower, since they’re visually more place-like than person-like.) This immediately provides me with 20 different character archetypes, which will provide built-in prompts for writing different characters.

That gives me an immediate mechanical idea. What if the game mechanics revolve around spending cards? Perhaps you can spend another player’s Major Arcana to automatically win a challenge over that player. That feels good; I’m going to run with it.

How are normal challenges resolved? Hypothetically, it would be great to do a fast Tarot read mechanic followed by cinematic resolution (where both participants know how the challenge will resolve, but act it out in very impressive fashion for the benefit of those who don’t). However, I can’t expect everyone to be familiar with the Tarot (let alone know it by heart!), and asking people to grab a GM every time they want to know who wins a challenge is a Bad Plan.

Instead, I can use the numbers of the Minor Arcana to set up a system that everyone can instantly access. Players can resolve one-to-one challenges by spending 3 cards from the Minor Arcana – reflecting the standard past/present/future spread – and comparing what they spent. To add a strategic element, the cards must be revealed one by one, and there are three ways for the challenge to potentially resolve…

  • Possibility #1: If one player’s Past and Present cards are both higher in value than the other player’s, then the Future card never gets spent. The first player has already won.
  • Possibility #2: Otherwise, the challenge resolves in favor of the player with a higher Future card.
  • Possibility #3: Unless the Future cards are the same. In that case, spend another card.

Since there are 56 Minor Arcana, that allows for > 18 challenges per player inside 4 hours. I’m not concerned about anyone running out of cards (unless they’re particularly profligate, in which case, they just lose.)

Although the system above is intended for unsupervised player-versus-player challenges, it can easily be adapted to provide environmental challenges. I could even just leave a deck of cards on an environmental obstacle along with instructions about how to challenge the object sans GM. That’s kind of fun.

What kinds of challenges are available in this game? I’m thinking some kind of theatrical combat, for one, just because that looks so fantastic when it’s cinematically resolved. Some kind of magical or psychic powers would also be great, but that depends on the setting. I should get on that point.

What is the setting for this game? For thematic reasons, I want something that feels nicely mythic, but I want to avoid actually stepping on anyone’s religion or spirituality (which is particularly tricky here, given that many people take Tarot far more seriously than I do.) There are many options – I could ground it in folklore and fairy tale (like The Dance and the Dawn), or literally incarnate the various Arcana, or take some kind of science fiction/science fantasy twist. But I think it might be a better idea to find an existing fictional grounding. (Borrowing a preexisting setting is not unusual for this kind of LARP – the last Intercon included games based on Star Wars, Batman, P.G. Wodehouse, the sea shanties of Gordon Bok, and Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology, among others.)

Maison-Dieu_tarot_charles6When I was perhaps thirteen, I encountered the short story “More Light”, by James Blish (summarized here). It contains most of a complete text for The King in Yellow, but when I first read it, I was completely unfamiliar with the Lovecraft mythos. I loved the image of Carcosa, though – a mystery city that appeared overnight, on the shores of the lake but behind the moon, where all knew its name as soon as they looked upon it. Also, Blish’s Act Two is a masquerade, which is a good excuse for putting everyone in the same room….

…except that I’m not interested in borrowing Blish’s plot. Apart from the built-in spoilers problem, Blish’s story involves an incestuous love triangle and references Lovecraft’s racism. I am not prepared to tackle these (or ask players to tackle them) in a LARP. I just want to evoke my first impressions of the story – the myth, the wonder, the creeping hints of horror.

Time to fiddle with the plot. What if our players actually went to investigate the mystery city, rather than staying home and staring across the lake? To hold all the players in the same space (it’s important in LARPs) the city itself could be abandoned, but there could be a palace within the city, visibly occupied, with instructions (a plaque, or etchings in the street, or a voice from midair) that those who wish to enter must come at a certain day and time, and that those who enter will be rewarded, but no others will ever be allowed within. (In written fiction, this would be a ridiculously clunky device – but written fiction rarely locks twenty people in a single location for four hours.)

This gives me access to factions and the beginnings of a plot. Instead of bringing all the players across from the other side of the lake, I can start some characters in Carcosa. Also, if I use the warring cities theme from “More Light” (where Hastur and Aldebaran are presented as cities at war) and bring delegates from both to Carcosa, then I can have representatives of two historically hostile factions trying to deal with Carcosa and maneuver for advantage.

Visconti_Tarot_(51)Looping back to the Tarot, I can readily assign and separate factions by card. Death is a transformation card, and the appearance of Carcosa will transform Hastur and Aldebaran, so the Death character belongs in Carcosa. The Empress should be Cassilda from Hastur, and the Hierophant is Noatalba. The Lovers – perhaps I could assign two players to this card, where one is from Hastur and one is from Aldebaran? That could be a marvelous subplot – but all the players would see it coming out of game, if everyone can see everyone else’s Arcana. And if Arcana isn’t generally known, it damages the ability to automatically win a challenge. Hmm.

But this can be resolved with a mechanical tweak. What if players reveal their Arcana whenever challenged (giving the other player the chance to automatically win), but otherwise keep their Arcana secret? That could have some major benefits narratively – for example, it will be in the Devil’s interests to avoid conflict, because knowledge of that character’s Arcana would immediately encourage player distrust. This feels like a good idea, too.

I’m going to stop writing now, because I’m definitely venturing into spoiler territory, and I’d prefer not to have too many spoilers in the wild if I should develop this game in full. But one closing observation…

An observation (tangentially involving 20 decks of Tarot cards)

When I started writing this post, I was certain of two things – every player gets a Tarot deck and every character gets a Major Arcana. Here at the end, I’m well on the way to a solid game plan, and the notes above illustrate my creative process. There’s a basic pattern here:

  1. Find inspiration (I have 20 Tarot decks)
  2. Expand and elaborate (I can use Tarot spreads mechanically for challenge resolution)
  3. Assess the result for problems (People won’t necessarily know Tarot well enough to perform rapid readings)
  4. Reangle to avoid problems (I can use the minor Arcana number for challenge resolution)

…and continue steps 2 through 4 in a rinse-repeat cycle until the end, occasionally revisiting 1 for a new infusion of inspiration. It certainly isn’t how everyone works, but it does work well for me.

Thanks again to the coalition of backers who wanted me to have 20 Tarot decks. Even though we didn’t win, you made magic happen.

Renga in Blue

Pirate Adventure (1978)

by Jason Dyer at March 23, 2015 09:00 AM

This one’s credited by as being by Alexis & Scott Adams, which marks the first credit in the adventures I’ve played for a woman. (Alexis comes back again in 1979 as a solo credit for Voodoo Castle, and Roberta Williams doesn’t get started until Mystery House with 1980).

piratemap1

Unlike Adventureland (which while fun had a bog-standard setting) Pirate Adventure gives a feel of environment-as-story. The above map represents the starting area, where it’s possible to imagine oneself lounging in a London flat before going on an adventure. I even did some small amount of role-playing, feeling the rug and smelling the book (neither works, but the fact I wanted to is a good sign).

I also find it interesting the number of exits that aren’t n/s/e/w — for example, to go up in the first room you have to GO STAIRS. While slightly irritating in terms of user-friendly interface, it does go some way in unlocking the geography from “the grid” and the artificial “everything is oriented on the compass” feel of a lot of other interactive fiction.

Doing JUMP from the window sends the player to “Never Never Land”, but unfortunately not the good kind. The proper method of exit is the magical word YOHO.

I’M outside an open window
on the ledge of a very tall building

>SAY YOHO

Everything spins around and suddenly I’m elsewhere…

I am in a sandy beach on a tropical isle. Visible items:

Small ship’s keel and mast. Sand. Lagoon.
Sign in the sand says:
“Welcome to Pirates Island, watch out for the tides!”

Some obvious exits are: EAST

In contrast to Journey to the Center of the Earth Adventure which tries to convey a sense of location via its prose, Pirate Adventure relies on description-by-objects. By not relying on prose descriptions, Scott and Alexis were able to pack in richer detail and possibility given the limitations of the TRS-80.


March 22, 2015

Emily Short

The Toaster With Two Brains (Thrilling Tales of the Downright Unusual)

by Emily Short at March 22, 2015 06:00 PM

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Thrilling Tales of the Downright Unusual is a website for retro-futuristic illustrated choice-based fiction, set in a shiny chrome and leather universe with lots of Deco machines and mad science. Choices often run to 1-3 options, and there’s an always-present inventory list, reminiscent of but significantly fancier than ChooseYourStory games:

Screen Shot 2014-12-07 at 5.06.24 PM

The majority of the choices are exploratory: you are choosing which objects to examine and which questions to ask of NPCs. Very occasionally you’re offered choices that seem like they might affect events, but the plot strands rejoin almost immediately, via standard sorts of agency-denial: you ask a character to come with you, but they refuse; you attempt to head the wrong direction, but it’s blocked. Even the inventory is a bit deceptive: games with inventory usually let you accumulate and drop things in ways that are likely to make a difference later in the story, but as far as I can tell, your inventory is very much determined for you, and it’s impossible to get to a particular story branch with any variation in your inventory list.

You also several times have the option of following the male or the female protagonist, getting a significant portion of the story from their perspective. Later, when the characters meet up again, you get filled in on what happened to the character you did not follow. The overall effect is that the story does contain significant branching, since you see different nodes if you’re playing as Gwen than if you’re playing as Nat, but that branching provides reader agency rather than player agency.

This exploratory mode is borne out by the rest of the aesthetics. The illustrations are lavish and consistently high-quality: the creator of the website is an artist first and came to interactive story authorship second. There’s an action picture for each event in the story, and each inventory item gets a close-up picture and a detailed description:

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These close-ups are the reason I mentioned this site long ago in a post on the narrative of objects.

As for the story, it’s modeled on old TV or radio serials, with cliffhangers — and “The Toaster With Two Brains” is not complete, so at the end of the first episode, you’ll find yourself leaving the protagonists in a sticky situation. Meanwhile, the narrative voice is about 90% sass, constantly lampshading tropes and never taking anything seriously:

Big, hulking engines squatted there under the tower and spun, and cycled, and levered themselves in what could easily be a competition for “Loudest Cacophony, Basement Class”.

Just as she’d half suspected, she saw someone throwing the levers and spinning the knobs, a fellow who just had to have that word “henchman” in his resumé. He paused – he actually froze – when he saw her in the mouth of the tunnel.

For me, this is where the piece falls a bit short. The choices that we’re offered are inconsequential — either because they’re on the level of EXAMINE TOASTER or because they’re immediately blocked if they’re not what the author wants us to do — and they’re also placed in the framework of a flippant narrative that doesn’t allow me to feel any real apprehension on behalf of the main characters. I couldn’t help wondering whether an even more object-focused type of game might not have been a better fit for the author’s meticulous interest in the physical setting; maybe something reminiscent of the Dennis Wheatley crime dossiers.

Still, the presentation is significantly above average for freeware CYOA in terms of polish and general prettiness.


Renga in Blue

Journey to the Center of the Earth Adventure: Finished

by Jason Dyer at March 22, 2015 09:00 AM

journeyend

This one pretty much was over right when it began. Just to be warned, I spoil what is essentially the only puzzle in the game.

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It turns out getting past the hydra was the only thing to pose any difficulty. I found out the game has a HELP command which when applied in the hydra room gives this cryptic message: “CIGAR? CIGARETTE? TIPPARILLO?”

There’s a nearby cigarette lighter, and I thought — no, it can’t be —

>BURN HYDRA

THE HYDRA CRUMBLES TO THE GROUND DEAD.

Alas, the humble lighter was invented too late for Hercules.

Past the hydra there is a “Mac’s Earthdigger Body Shop” which has the “gonkulator” which you use to fix your ship. No treasures are necessary at all — you can just pick it up, drop in the ship, type FIX GONKULATOR, and get game over.

I hoped, perhaps, there would be challenge then in collecting all the treasures. The “secret passage” on the map has some randomization but other than that all the treasures are in the open.

I have marked on the map all the unnecessary parts. (Click for a full sized version.)

journeymapfinal

The “shiny sword”, “magic wand”, and “keys” are all useless. The “treasure room” is a joke. I don’t mean that flippantly. It is an actual joke room:

journeytreasure

If you go back to the Scott Adams interview I linked to when I wrote about Adventureland, he mentions when he hit the limits of the TRS-80 he knew he was done. The same thing must have happened here; I suspect the author had grand ambitions but ran out of space. Journey to the Center of the Earth Adventure gave me a greater appreciation for Scott Adams’s choice of minimalism in text allowing for greater complexity in game-world.

I have played a later Greg Hassett game (Devil’s Palace) which I enjoyed, so I know at least things are going to get better.


Journey to the Center of the Earth Adventure (1978)

by Jason Dyer at March 22, 2015 02:00 AM

journeytothecenter

I’m not going to go into the history on this one (although this Asio City overview is excellent) other than to say Greg Hassett was sort of a rival to Scott Adams but given he wrote his work between the ages of 12 and 14, he never managed the same leverage.

I’m also going to use the chronology given at Asio City, even though it differs from other sites:

Journey to the Center of the Earth, The House of Seven Gables and King Tut’s Tomb in 1978. Sorcerer’s Castle, Voyage to Atlantis and Enchanted Island in 1979. Mystery Mansion, Curse of the Sasquatch, World’s Edge and lastly Devil’s Palace in 1980.

So, is it based on Verne’s book? That would be “no”:

I AM IN A SHIP. ON A COMPUTER SCREEN IN HERE IT SAYS: SHIP WILL NOT FUNCTION — FRIBULATING GONKULATOR IS BURNED OUT. IT IS OBVIOUS THAT THE SHIP HAS CRASHED.

I CAN GO: NORTH, SOUTH, EAST, WEST

I’m honestly puzzled about the “crashed ship” opening because the rest of the game seems to be a “mimic Adventure” style fantasy. This includes treasures that need to be returned to the ship for points (although this objective is never explained in the game itself — I just testing by taking a gold nugget to the ship, dropping it, and seeing if my score increased).

Click the map for a full-sized version.

Not yet complete. Click the map for a full-sized version.

Notice the Maze of Twisty Little Passages, or the parrot in a cage, or the chasm which is crossed via (rot13 here) jnivat n jnaq.

Perhaps the only original contribution I have been able to find is this room:

I’M IN…AL’S DINER??? THERE’S A COKE MACHINE HERE. IT SAYS: ENJOY COCA-COLA. 25 CENTS (NO CANADIAN COINS, QUARTER ONLY)

THERE IS SOME TASTY FOOD HERE.

I CAN GO: WEST

Coke Is It!, circa 1978.

GULP GLUK GULP! (BURP) THAT WAS REFRESHING!

In all seriousness, I am stuck on a hydra that apparently needs food (but more than just the tasty food in Al’s Diner) a troll which straight out kills me.

A VOICE BOOMS OUT: WHO DARES TO ENTER MY PALACE??? (SOUNDS LIKE A TROLL TO ME!)

I CAN GO: WEST

ENTER YOUR COMMAND? W

HORRORS! THE TROLL THROWS AN AXE AT ME! I AM DEAD.

There’s also a “secret passage” leading to a “troll’s palace” except trying to go back the way I came leads to a loop. I am guessing some sort of magic word to escape, although the circumstance resembles a bug more than a puzzle.

(Also: not quite wrapped up with MUD1, but given the lack of a definite goal I’ll be poking at it gingerly while I run through my regular adventures.)


March 20, 2015

These Heterogenous Tasks

The Interdependent Ludic Institute of Tlön’s GOTY 201Xa

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at March 20, 2015 06:01 PM

The calendar is, of course, different in Tlön, so in celebration of the impending New Year, here’s my games of the year for 201Xa.

10: LARGE MAMMAL ENCOUNTER (P. Menzies / Nefarious Designs). Technically, this is an open-source AI engine with a series of examples cobbled together into something game-shaped. Menzies, whose day job is zoology postdoc, was tired of the depiction of dangerous animals in videogames, and collaborated with Nefarious Designs to produce a meticulously data-based AI. The game is mostly about short scenes in which you are ignored (and very occasionally savaged) by a variety of well-documented megafauna, under conditions determined by an impressively over-the-top range of sliders and tickyboxes. (This is the first game I’ve played where you can choose whether the PC is menstruating.)

The cool thing about this, for something so heavily-researched, is that it doesn’t pretend authority when it doesn’t have it – where the evidence justifying a behavioural rule is hazy, it pauses the game and offers you options. And you can set how often these interruptions come up, and thus much of a stickler for data you want to be – anywhere from Common Sense Guess to Hard Data Only. Even if you’ve got quibbles with the exact implementation, this is such an accessible demonstration of science’s relationship with probability and induction that all else is forgiven. LME’s original hope was that it’d be taken up by game designers; I don’t see that happening, but I sure as hell hope it finds its way into plenty of classrooms.

9: NEVER THE CITY (Unterhopt): NTC was designed as ‘a wordless, no-protagonist point-and-click adventure where anything you click on advances the story, and nothing is ever the same twice.’ While it doesn’t quite add up to this hype, it’s about as close as is reasonable to expect. The entire game is played within a single screen, a gorgeously-painted surreal city panorama with details you can zoom in on, inhabited by little faceless people. When you tap on things, buildings change, seasons and festivals come and go, people go about their lives. This is all seen from afar: no words, no expressions, as if you’re watching through a telescope, so you have to do a lot of guesswork. Many of the moments are throwaway – a cat runs along a parapet, a trombonist plays in the park – and at first it all seems disconnected, but then certain characters begin to recur – the girl with the hat, the two soldiers, the parkourist, the lost child, the man with the cane – you learn their moods, and you feel on the edge of piecing the vignettes together into a story. And then, if it’s your first time playing, the bigger picture pushes into the foreground – some kind of radical change transforms the city, and the game ends. Usually this takes about 45 minutes, half an hour if you rush it.

Sometimes, if you know what you’re doing and make a concerted push towards it, you can get some sort of resolution to the story of an individual character, but I never felt satisfied by them – they leave questions open, or put the character back where they started, or feel like small solace. I was much more engaged with this than with the vaunted 64 endings of the city’s plot: some of them are visually striking, but it felt a little too much like a time-cave, taking whatever input you happened to be throwing in and turning it into an either-or decision every few moves. For the most part, the changes alter the character stories only subtly (a meeting might take place on a balcony rather than a bridge) though there are a handful of vignettes with stronger dependence (the two soldiers behave quite differently when martial law is declared.)

8: THE EXEMPLARY BOYHOOD (Glory Productions). For the past decade, the best Hensi-language games have been shungfar, ‘superior play’, propaganda biographies of the super-rich, produced as status projects and sold dirt cheap for maximum cultural penetration. Most are untranslated, and they generally come with way too much cultural baggage to make them accessible to Western tastes. A couple of years back I played a fan-translated version of The 1024 Perfections of Minister Thun, and was at once impressed by how much conspicuous craft had gone into it, and almost completely incapable of figuring out anything whatsoever.

The construction magnate Tenhu Ingi commissioned a three-part shungfar about his life, to be titled Through Magnificent Seasons. The Spring portion, chronicling his childhood and adolescence, was nearing release when Ingi was arrested and promptly executed for treason-by-corruption. Amid the liquidation of his assets, Spring was shuffled around between a dozen or more holders, variously repurposed into The Exemplary Boyhood, and, eventually, professionally localised for foreign markets for profit.

The hero has been re-identified with Ifren, an enduringly popular figure created for Hensi children’s textbooks in the 70s; but even without digging very deep, it’s easy to recognise that he was originally Ingi. On top of this, it’s a standard device in shungfar for real figures to embody figures from folklore and popular culture some of the time, as allegory or throwaway rhetorical device, so it’s not as though Ifren really messes with things all that much. The point of the game is to perfect the Youthful Virtues of loyal duty, loyal honour, hygiene, virility, industry and generosity by playing exquisitely polished minigames, while wandering around an idealised version of Shifeni District c.1960. Longer-arc goals vary from the charming (raise a pig to win the District Fair; the entire relationship with your mother) to the nationalistic (expose an spy with your Youth Brigade buddies) to the downright weird (just about everything to do with Ifren/Ingi’s numerous adolescent sweethearts). And there’s the strange foreboding that inevitably hangs over this resolutely cheerful, dutiful youth: the whole story is about growing up to be an upstanding member of society, but you know that he will, in fact, grow up to be killed by that society, for reasons which will probably never become fully clear.

7: DISURBAN (Vitoria Salerni / Teo Poliakov / Seeded House). A construct-and-expand game, except that here the pristine wilderness you’re building on is the half-flooded ruins of a major city, which your clan of neo-primitives must re-green into something habitable. While external threats exist, they’re less troublesome than internal conflict (except for kudzu, which is basically Satan). This is basically a story about giving up power and trying to do so gracefully. As you gain more resources, your direct control inevitably recedes; without careful pacing this can be catastrophic. Ultimately, the only way to retain micromanagement-level power is to keep your people poor, undeveloped, homogenous and vulnerable. It’s a pretty uneven piece: the game’s authors don’t seem able to agree about whether the tone should be painfully earnest or gently snarky (and it should be no great shock that I infinitely prefer it in the latter mode). Regardless, it is very soothing to turn a world of grody, straight-edged concrete boxes into an unruly green.

While most city-builders are great sprawling things that take a goodly time to finish and reward replay, Disurban can be played to completion in about four hours, and doesn’t offer much variation on replay. The authors have made firm statements that they see no way to expand it without ruining the whole thing, so there it stands.

6: SEPARATE POWERS (Breeder Reactor). Everybody characterises this as ‘American Gods with the serial numbers filed off’, which will do until I can come up with something less lazy. You’re an Elector, a sort of second-tier demigod representing a particular district; your ultimate goal is to foil the schemes of the One Nation Undergod, a chthonic assimilationist, but to do this you have to wander the nation, forging back-room deals, gathering unruly and demanding allies, manipulating Cosmic Forces, and occasionally throwing down.

The immediate gameplay is OK, but thing that made me really impressed was the culture part of character-creation: rather than a simple race field, you get a whole set of sliders determining how closely you identify with/are connected to different US culture groups – some involve ancestry, some are regional, and there’s a grab-bag of persistent subcultures. These affect almost everything in the game – feats, relationships, spheres of influence – but most importantly, it affects your Attunement to various deities and pantheons, which in turn unlocks questlines. (This is a big deal because Separate Powers doesn’t have a main questline, really, until the very end.) The imbalance of this last has been extensively documented, and while DLC is slowly patching up some of the holes, the awesome promise of those sliders is still a long way off being fulfilled.

5: COUTURE (Heavy Petal). You know the thing in Like Water for Chocolate where – no, scratch that, let’s go with Chocolat – or, better yet, the hat shop in Howl’s Moving Castle. The deal is, you run a magical boutique in a close-knit neighbourhood where everyone has modest but intense problems, which you attempt to solve by designing magical clothes for them. The problems get solved, but until you’ve leveled up sufficiently in the relevant skills, they usually get solved way too hard, creating ever-escalating levels of chaos until you learn how to be more precise about it. The outfit-choice mechanics can produce some… odd combinations, so it’s probably safest to think of it as representing the cultural rules of a wholly foreign culture that just happens to resemble Europe entre-deux-guerres in some respects.

It’s oddly light-hearted for a game that’s fundamentally about tampering with people’s personalities with decidedly ambiguous consent, but I was pleased about how it portrays the PC’s romance subplots as being enabled by becoming less of an immature asshole, rather than earned by great deeds or something the player is inherently entitled to.

4: 19TH CENTURY LITERARY JOURNAL TYCOON (Mira Sistani / Ghosted Past).  Hire an editor, solicit contributors, discover and cultivate authors, and juggle Posterity and Fashion while trying not to go too broke. There’s a randomised Alternate Mode for hardcore spreadsheet-strategy fans, but I got the most value out of the meticulously-researched History Mode, which is way gentler (at least, if you already have some name-recognition ability when it comes to period authors, or are willing to look everything up on Orbis) and utterly fascinating as a non-fiction overview of English literature 1798-1914. The things that interested me most: watching the cachet of authors rise and fall, and its frank attention to how money affects art. (I tried to force H.G. Wells to insert a superfluous American character into War of the Worlds to boost US sales. He told me to go screw, but I’m pretty sure I could have managed it if I’d just built up more relationship. And hopefully you all saw some of that Twitch Ruins The Classics LP, or at least read the writeups.)

It’s a bit, well, dry – that said, I played this immediately after Couture, where scandalous affairs and outré passions are commonplace, so that may be an unfair comparison. As a starting-point for further reading, though – which is, after all, what it’s designed as, since Sistani originally wrote Tycoon as a teaching aid for her introductory-level literature class – it’s magnificent.

3: FIRE NEXT TIME (Seachange). The weird thing about it is that it’s a game about dragon-riding where you don’t get a dragon until about a third of the way in, and don’t get to ride it until the final scenes. The protagonist, a fourteen-year-old kid from somewhere in the Appalachians, finds herself in possession of a dragon egg stolen from the Confederates: a well-managed dragon is about as powerful as an ironclad warship, so everybody wants their hands on it, and most of the game is about eluding capture and making it to Union lines in a region of very dappled loyalties.

The dragon battles are appropriately chaotic adrenaline fun once you get to them, the richly detailed setting provides plenty of interest for the otherwise mediocre run-and-sneak sections, and the soundtrack is the best of the year (even if much of it is about a century too modern). But the best part of is – well, it’s been thoroughly spoiled by this point, so there’s no harm in spoiling it again: you start out by crafting your character, picking out clothes and hairstyles and jawlines, doing the usual thing of crafting someone awesome. And then the game breaks the bargain and applies that appearance to your best friend, Callie/Cal from the next farm over. You’re Midge, whether you like it or not. Midge is gangly, slouches a little, has unmanageable hair, and is not doing a great job of passing off the black part of her ancestry as Cherokee. Your first feeling about her is a reflex shit, this isn’t what I asked for, which is pretty much what Midge feels about herself. Whenever Cal shows up in the story again, it prompts this involuntary twinge of… something, I don’t know if envy is the right word. I found this element a lot more convincing than the girl-and-her-pony relationship with Smoke, which totally soft-pedals everything else we know about dragons in this world.

2: THE DEVOURING (Scuttlebutt). Miklasar is yer basic swords-and-sorcery port-city, a seething, villainous melting-pot. It therefore has the best restaurants. To this gilded cesspit rides Skrang the Devourer, barbarian restaurant critic. The player plays a series of chefs – or the same chef hopping jobs? this aspect is kind of weird – competing for star ratings from Skrang’s exacting palate. Seated at table, Skrang chows down with one hand while using the other to absent-mindedly slay wave after wave of off-screen foes, seen only as their loot (and body-parts) splatter onto your prep table. Your job is buffing through speed-crafting, basically: you have to combine looted ingredients into dishes and dispatch them to be eaten before Skrang gets overwhelmed.

There’s a lot to keep track of, here: Skrang needs carbs to keep smiting, protein to convert experience into skill-tree upgrades, and a whole array of buffs to overcome the most fearsome foes. A wider range of dishes increases your star rating, but you also want to prioritise more elaborate dishes for better cash. This is absolutely the kind of game that only works on a good-sized tablet: you’ll be using both hands most of the time, feverishly hurling low-grade Orc Briskets and Devil Tripe into the swill-bucket as you try to avoid ruining yet another bechamel. (Some people have reviewed this as a clumsy-interface-comedy piece; I can see why; even if I don’t agree that this is the soul of the game, you generally leave the kitchen in one hell of a mess). Thankfully, Devouring doesn’t force you to memorise recipes, and later on you can delegate a lot of the more repetitive sub-tasks to loyal Sous-Chefs.

Mostly I liked the implied metropolis of Miklasar, where Bavarians, Thais and Mexicans don’t just rub elbows with goblins and demonspawn: they open outlandishly-decorated fusion restaurants together. Dragons come in many breeds, from the unpalatable Zebu to the fearsome Wagyu. Goblin cuisine mostly rotates around cannibalism, each elf culture has more improbable dietary restrictions than the last, and every cuisine is shaped by a heavy reliance on monster products. Also pretty cool is its handling of Skrang’s gender in chargen: rather than tick a box, torso, arms and face are selected separately, with options ranging from hyper-gendered beards and hourglasses to androgyny of various stripes. The grammar of barbarian-speak (the end-of-level summaries are delivered as Skrang’s arch reviews) lacks pronouns.

1: HOUSE OF SMOKE AND ASHES (Nutshell): NK has been making second-tier social horror games (Time and Tide, Loa) for years; this year they stepped up into the big leagues, competing directly against Irredeemer and Anita Vs. Buffy III. It still bears the marks of its indie roots: Hosaa’s action is confined to a single lavishly-appointed building, in which a dissolute and fractured vampire clan are throwing a dissolute and fractured party for selected bigwigs and hotties of the paranormal community. You are a double (or triple, etc.) agent, trying to… well, the most obvious objective is to get the clan to implode, neutralising it politically. Given that their present cares rotate around drugs, sex and assorted merriment, those are your tools.

It’s possible to play Hosaa as a straight-up H dating-sim, starting a new game to target each character (probably using a strategy guide), finding their sex scenes and giving up afterwards. Indeed, evidence suggests that this how a substantial number of players approach it, which is hilarious, because this is a game where sex always means something, often many things. There are a lot of messy emotional needs underneath that carousing. Unlike most of its relatives, Hosaa doesn’t model emotional resilience mechanically – I contend that it really doesn’t need to if you’re properly engaged with it.

I’ve never played a game where your gender and appearance choices matter so regularlyI’ve also never played one where social interactions carried so much threat. You’re surrounded by volatile, needy people who are strong enough to pick up small cars and are constrained only by their equally-volatile peers. You need allies, however uncertain, and every new-made enemy evokes a lurch of dread. It is not, despite reports to the contrary, a no-combat game: by my count, you can kick the ass of a little over a fifth of the NPCs, given the right circumstances. But it’s fairly marginal, and it’s never the romancey sword-duel-that-ends-in-a-kiss genre standard. Similarly, love does feature, but it’s rarely good news: when I eventually happened across a plot arc that was actually kind of sweet (I am not spoiling which) much of its effectiveness was about how unexpected that was.

Previous Tlönology: GOTY 2014.


Post Position

Des Imagistes Lost & Found

by Nick Montfort at March 20, 2015 05:22 PM

Des Imagistes, first Web editionI’m glad to share the first Web edition of Des Imagistes, which is now back on the Web.

I assigned a class to collaborate on an editorial project back in 2008, one intended to provide practical experience with the Web and literary editing while also resulting in a useful contribution. I handed them a copy of the first US edition of Des Imagistes, the first Imagist anthology, edited by Ezra Pound and published in 1914.

Jason Begy, Audubon Dougherty, Madeleine Clare Elish, Florence Gallez, Madeline Flourish Klink, Hillary Kolos, Michelle Moon Lee, Elliot Pinkus, Nick Seaver, and Sheila Murphy Seles, the Fall 2008 workshop class, did a great job. The project was prompted, and indeed assigned, by me, but it’s the work of that group, not my work. The class put a great deal of editorial care into the project and also attended to principles of flexible, appropriate Web design. The cento they assembled and used for an alternate table of contents made for a nice main page, inviting attention to the text rather than to some sort of illustration. I’m not saying it would have been exactly my approach, but what they did is explained clearly and works well.

I told the class that the licensing of their project was up to them. They chose a CC BY-NC-SA license, more restrictive than I would have selected, given that the material was in the public domain to begin with, but a reasoned choice. They were similarly asked to decide about the hosting of the work. They just had to present what they’d done in class, answer questions about it, and let me look at and interact with it. While I would be glad to place a copy on my site, nickm.com, it was up to them as to whether they would take me up on the offer. They placed their work online on its own domain, which they acquired and for which they set up hosting.

After announcing this edition, readers, scholars, and teachers of Imagist poetry commented and thanked the class for it work. But as I bemoaned last October, Des Imagistes was no longer online a few years later. I asked around for files, but asking former students to submit an assignent six years later turns out to be a poor part of a preservation strategy.

Now, working with Erik Stayton (who a research assistant in the Trope Tank and is in the masters in CMS 2015 class), I’ve recovered the site from the Internet Archive. The pages were downloaded manually, in adherence to the robots.txt file on archive.org, the Internet Archive’s additions to the pages were removed, and something very close to the original site was assembled and uploaded.

Some lessons, I suppose, are that it’s not particularly the case that a group of students doing a groundbreaking project will manage to keep their work online. As much as I like reciprocal and equitable ways of working together, the non-hierarchical nature of this project probably didn’t help when it came to keeping it available; no one was officially in charge, accepting credit and blame. Except, of course, that I should have been in charge of keeping this around after it was done and after that course was complete. I should have asked for the files and (while obeying the license terms) put the project on my site – and for that matter, other places online.

Would you like to have a copy of the Des Imagistes site for your personal use or to place online somewhere, non-commerically? Here’s a zipfile of the whole site; you will also want to get the larger PDF of the book, which should be placed in the des_imagistes directory.

March 19, 2015

The Digital Antiquarian

MicroProse’s Simulation-Industrial Complex (or, The Ballad of Sid and Wild Bill)

by Jimmy Maher at March 19, 2015 07:00 PM

Microprose

Change was in the air as the 1980s began, the drawn-out 1960s hangover that had been the 1970s giving way to the Reagan Revolution. The closing of Studio 54 and the release of Can’t Stop the Music, the movie that inspired John J.B. Wilson to start the Razzies, marked the end of disco decadence. John Lennon, whilst pontificating in interviews on the joys of baking bread, released an album milquetoast enough to play alongside Christopher Cross and Neil Diamond on Adult Contemporary stations — prior to getting shot, that is, thus providing a more definite punctuation mark on the end of 1960s radicalism. Another counterculture icon, Jerry Rubin, was left to give voice to the transformation in worldview that so many of his less famous contemporaries were also undergoing. This man who had attempted to enter a pig into the 1968 Presidential election in the name of activist “guerrilla theater” became a stockbroker on the same Wall Street where he had once led protests. “Money and financial interest will capture the passion of the ’80s,” he declared. The 1982 sitcom Family Ties gave the world Steven and Elyse Keaton, a pair of aging hippies who are raising an arch-conservative disciple of Ronald Reagan; it was thus the mirror image of 1970s comedies like All in the Family. Michael J. Fox’s perpetually tie-sporting Alex P. Keaton became a teenage heartthrob because, as Huey Lewis would soon be singing, it was now “Hip to be Square.” Yes, that was true even in the world of rock and roll, where bland-looking fellows like Huey Lewis and Phil Collins, who might very well have inhabited the cubical next to yours at an accounting firm, were improbably selling millions of records and seeing their mugs all over MTV.

No institution benefited more from this rolling back of the countercultural tide than the American military. Just prior to Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, the military’s morale as well as its public reputation were at their lowest ebb of the century. All four services were widely perceived as a refuge for psychopaths, deadbeats, and, increasingly, druggies. A leaked internal survey conducted by the Pentagon in 1980 found that about 27 percent of all military personnel were willing to admit to using illegal drugs at least once per month; the real numbers were almost certainly higher. Another survey found that one in twelve of American soldiers stationed in West Germany, the very front line of the Cold War, had a daily hashish habit. In the minds of many, only a comprehensively baked military could explain a colossal cock-up like the failed attempt to rescue American hostages in Iran in April of 1980, which managed to lose eight soldiers, six helicopters, and a C-130 transport plane without ever even making contact with the enemy. Small wonder that this bunch had been booted out of Vietnam with their tails between their legs by a bunch of shoeless rebels in black pajamas.

The military’s public rehabilitation began immediately upon Ronald Reagan’s election. Reagan not only continued but vastly expanded the military buildup his predecessor Jimmy Carter had begun, whilst declaring at every opportunity his pride and confidence in the nation’s fighting men and women. He was also willing to use the military in ways that hadn’t been dared since the withdrawal from Vietnam. As I recounted recently in another article, the Reagan administration began probing and feinting toward the Soviet Union, testing the boundaries of its airspace as well as its resolve in ways almost unprecedented since the Cold War had begun all those decades before. On October 25, 1983, the United States invaded the tiny Caribbean island nation of Grenada to depose a Soviet-friendly junta that had seized power just days earlier. In later years this attack by a nation of 235 million on a nation of less than 100,000, a nation which was hardly in a position to harm it even had it wanted to, would be roundly mocked. But at the time the quick-and-easy victory was taken as nothing less than a validation of the American military by large swathes of the American public, as a sign that the military could actually accomplish something, could win a war, definitively and (relatively) cleanly — no matter how modest the opponent.

We need only look to popular culture to see the public’s changing attitude toward the military writ large. Vietnam veterans, previously denounced as baby killers and conscienceless automatons, were by mid-decade shown all over television as good, dutiful men betrayed and scorned by their nation. For a while there it seemed like every popular action series on the air featured one or more psychically wounded but unbowed Vietnam vets as protagonists, still loyal to the country that had been so disloyal to them: The A-Team; Magnum, P.I; Airwolf; Miami Vice. During the commercial breaks of these teenage-boy-friendly entertainments, the armed forces ran their slick new breed of recruiting commercials to attract a new generation of action heroes. The country had lost its way for a while, seduced by carping liberalism and undermined by the self-doubt it engendered, but now America — and with it the American military — were back, stronger, prouder, and better than ever. It was “morning again in America.”

Arguably the most important individual military popularizer of all inhabited, surprisingly, the more traditionally staid realm of books. Tom Clancy was a husband and father of two in his mid-thirties, an insurance agent living a comfortable middle-class existence in Baltimore, when he determined to combine his lifelong fascination with military tactics and weaponry with his lifelong desire to be a writer. Published in 1984 by, of all people, the Naval Institute Press — the first novel they had ever handled — his The Hunt for Red October tells the story of the eponymous Soviet missile submarine, whose captain has decided to defect along with his vessel to the West. A merry, extended chase ensues involving the navies of several nations — the Soviets trying to capture or sink the Red October, the West trying to aid its escape without provoking World War III. It’s a crackerjack thriller in its own right for the casual reader, but it was Clancy’s penchant for piling on layer after layer of technical detail and his unabashed celebration of military culture that earned him the love of those who were or had been military personnel, those who admired them, and many a teenage boy who dreamed of one day being among them. Clancy’s worldview was, shall we say, uncluttered by excessive nuance: “I think we’re the good guys and they’re the bad guys. Don’t you?” Many Americans in the 1980s, their numbers famously including President Reagan himself, did indeed agree, or at least found it comforting to enjoy a story built around that premise. I must confess that I myself am hardly immune even today to the charms of early Tom Clancy.

By 1986, the year that Clancy published his second novel Red Storm Rising, the military’s rehabilitation was complete and then some. The biggest movie of that year was Top Gun, a flashy, stylish action flick about F-14 fighter pilots that played to the new fast-cutting MTV aesthetic, its cast headlined by an impossibly good-looking young Tom Cruise and its soundtrack stuffed with hits. I turned fourteen that year. I can remember my friends, many of them toting Hunt for Red October or Red Storm Rising under their arms, dreaming of becoming fighter pilots and bedding women like Top Gun‘s Kelly McGillis. Indeed, “fighter pilot” rivaled the teenage perennial of “rock star” for the title of coolest career in the world. The American military in general was as cool as it’s ever been.

Joining the likes of Tom Clancy and Tom Cruise as ambassadors of this idealized vision of the military life were the inimitable John William “Wild Bill” Stealey and his company MicroProse. Stealey himself was, as one couldn’t spend more than ten seconds in his presence without learning, a former Air Force pilot. Born in 1947, he graduated from the Air Force Academy, then spent six years as an active-duty pilot, first teaching others to fly in T-37 trainers and then guiding gigantic C-5 Galaxy transport aircraft all over the world. After his discharge he took an MBA from the Wharton School, then set off to make his way in the world of business whilst continuing to fly A-37s, the light attack variant of the T-37, on weekends for the Pennsylvania Air National Guard. By 1982 he had become Director of Strategic Planning for General Instruments, a company in the Baltimore suburb of Hunt Valley specializing in, as their advertisements proclaimed, “point-of-sale, state-lottery, off-track, and on-track wagering systems utilizing the most advanced mini- and microcomputer hardware and software technologies.” Also working at General Instruments, but otherwise moving in very different circles from the garrulous Wild Bill, was a Canadian immigrant named Sid Meier, a quiet but intense systems engineer in his late twenties who was well known by the nerdier denizens of Hunt Valley as the founder of the so-called Sid Meier’s Users Group, a thinly disguised piracy ring peopled with enthusiasts of the Atari 800 and its sibling models. Sid liked to say that he wasn’t actually playing the games he collected for pleasure, but rather analyzing them as technology, so what he was doing was okay.

The first real conversation between Stealey and Meier has gone down in gaming legend. In May of 1982, the two found themselves thrown together in Las Vegas for a series of boring corporate meetings. They ended up at an arcade in the basement of the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino, in front of a game called Red Baron. Stealey sat down and scored 75,000 points, and was quite proud of himself. Then Meier racked up 150,000, and could have kept on going if he’d wanted to. When Stealey asked him how he, the quiet nerd, had beat a hotshot pilot, Meier said the opponents in the game had been programmed to follow just a handful of patterns, which he’d memorized whilst watching Stealey play. “It’s not very good,” he said. “I could write a better game in a week.” “If you could, I could sell it,” replied Stealey.

Sid Meier and Bill Stealey pose in 1988 with the actual Red Baron machine that led to the formation of Microprose. It was discovered in storage at the MGM Grand and purchased by Microprose.

Sid Meier and Bill Stealey pose in 1988 with the actual Red Baron machine that had led to the formation of MicroProse six years earlier.

Much more than a week went by, and Stealey forget about the exchange. But then, three months later, Meier padded up to him in the halls of General Instruments and handed him a disk containing a simple World War II shoot-em-up called Hellcat Ace. Shocked that he had come through, Stealey took it home, played it, and “wrote him a four-page memo about what was wrong with the flying and combat.” Seeing the disappointment on Meier’s face when he handed him the memo, Stealey thought that would be the end of it. But a week later Meier was back again, with another disk: “I fixed all of those things you mentioned.” His bluff well and truly called, Stealey had no choice but to get started trying to sell the thing.

First, of course, they would need a name for their company. Stealey initially looked for something with an Air Force association, but couldn’t come up with anything that rang right. For a while the two mulled over the awful name of “Smuggers Software,” incorporating an acronym for “Sid Meier’s Users Group.” But eventually Meier came up with “MicroProse.” After all, he noted, his code was basically prose for microcomputers. The “prose” also served as a pun on “pros” — professionals. With no better ideas on offer, Stealey reluctantly agreed: “It’ll be hard to remember, but once they got it, nobody will forget it.”

Packaging Meier’s game in a plastic baggie with a mimeographed cover sheet, Stealey started visiting all of the computer stores around Baltimore, giving them an early version of what would soon become known inside the industry as the Wild Bill Show — a combination of the traditional hard sell with buckets of Air Force bravado and a dollop of sheer charm to make the whole thing go down easy. Meier paid a local kid 25 cents per game to copy the disks and assemble the packages. By the end of 1982 sales had already reached almost 500 per month, at $15 wholesale per piece. Not bad for a side venture that Stealey had first justified to himself as a convenient way to get a tax write-off for his Volvo.

Early the following year Stealey managed by the time-honored technique of buying an advertisement to get Antic magazine to review Hellcat Ace. The review was favorable if not glowing: “While the graphics are not stunning, the game plays well and holds your interest with multiple skill levels and a variety of scenarios.” On the heels of this, MicroProse’s first real exposure outside the Baltimore area, Stealey took to calling computer stores all over the country, posing as a customer looking for Hellcat Ace. When they said they didn’t carry it, he would berate them in no uncertain terms and announce that he’d be taking his business to a competitor who did carry the game. After doing this a few times to a single store, he’d call again as himself: “Hello, this is John Stealey. I’m from MicroProse. I’d like to sell you Hellcat Ace.” The hapless proprietor on the other end of the line would breathe a sign of relief, saying how “we’ve been getting all kinds of phone calls for that game.” And just like that, MicroProse would be in another shop.

While Stealey sold like a madman, Meier programmed like one, churning out new games at a staggering clip. With MicroProse not yet having self-identified as exclusively or even primarily a maker of simulations, Stealey just craved product from Meier — any sort of product. Meier delivered. He reworked the Hellcat Ace code to turn it into Spitfire Ace. He combined the arcade hit Donkey Kong with the Atari VCS hit Pitfall! to produce Floyd of the Jungle, whose most unique feature was the chance for up to four players to play simultaneously, thanks to the Atari 800’s four joystick ports. He made a top-down air-combat game called Wingman that also supported up to four players, playing in teams of leader and wingman. He made a game called Chopper Rescue that owed more than a little something to the recent Apple II smash Choplifter and supported up to eight players, taking turns. (It would later be reissued as Air Rescue I, its original name having been perhaps just a bit too close to Choplifter‘s for comfort.) He made a surprisingly intricate strategic war game called NATO Commander that anticipated the scenario of Red Storm Rising — a Soviet invasion of Western Europe, with the specter of nuclear weapons conveniently hand-waved away — three years before that book’s publication. And finally there was Solo Flight, a take on civilian aviation that was more simulation-oriented than its predecessors, including a VHF navigation system and an entertaining mail-delivery challenge in addition to its free-flight mode. All of these gushed out of him in barely eighteen months, during most of which he was still working at General Instruments during the day. They found their places on the product lists with which Stealey continued to bombard shops and, soon, the big distributors as MicroProse slowly won a seat with the big boys of the industry.

Stealey and Meier had an odd relationship. Far too different in background, personality, and priorities to ever be real friends, they were nevertheless the perfect business partners, each possessing in spades what the other conspicuously lacked. Meier brought to the table technical wizardry and, as would only more gradually become apparent, a genius for game design that at the very least puts him in the conversation today for the title of greatest designer in the history of the field. Stealey brought business savvy, drive, practicality, and a genius for promotion. Alone, Stealey would probably have had an impressive but boring career in big business of one stripe or another, while Meier would have spent his life working comfortable jobs whilst war-gaming and hacking code as a quiet hobby. They were two of the luckiest people in the world to have found each other; neither would have had a chance of making his mark on history without the other.

It might seem a dangerously imbalanced relationship, this pairing of an Air Force jock who hit a room like a force of nature with a quiet, bookish computer freak. At his worst, Stealey could indeed sound like a Svengali putting the screws to his lucrative pet savant. Look closer, however, and you had to realize that Stealey genuinely respected Meier, was in awe of his sheer intellectual firepower:

One Christmas, I gave him a book detailing the days of the Civil War. Five days later, he gave it back to me. I asked if he did not like the book. He said he loved it, but had already memorized all the key dates and events in it, and thought I might like to read it too. Sid is brilliant!

And Meier wasn’t quite the pushover he might first appear to be. Retiring and shy as he was by disposition, he was also every bit or more as strong-willed as Stealey, sometimes to an infuriating degree. As conservative and risk-averse in his personal life as he was bold and innovative in his programming and design, Meier refused to give up his day job at General Instruments for an astonishingly long time. After pitching in $1500 to help found MicroProse, he also refused to invest any more of his own capital in the company to set up offices and turn it into a real business. That sort of thing, he said, was Stealey’s responsibility. So Stealey took out a $15,000 personal loan instead, putting up his car as partial collateral. Most frustratingly of all, Meier clung stubbornly to his Atari 800 with that passion typical of a hacker’s first programming love, even as the cheaper Commodore 64 exploded in popularity.

It was the need to get MicroProse’s games onto the latter platform that prompted Stealey to bring on his first programmers not named Sid Meier, a couple of Meier’s buddies from his old Users Group. Grant Irani specialized in porting Meier’s games to the 64, while Andy Hollis used Meier’s codebase to make another Atari shoot-em-up, this time set in the Korean War, called MIG Alley Ace. Showing a bit more flexibility than Meier, he then ported his own game to the Commodore 64. He would go on to become almost as important to MicroProse as Meier himself.

Unlike so many of his peers, Stealey steered clear of the venture capitalists with their easy money as he built MicroProse. This led to some dicey moments as 1983 turned into 1984, and consumers started growing much more reluctant to shell out $25 or $30 for one of MicroProse’s simple games. The low point came in July of 1984, when, what with the distribution streams already glutted with products that weren’t selling anymore, MicroProse’s total orders amounted to exactly $27. About that time HESWare, never shy about taking the venture capitalists’ money and still flying high because of it, offered Stealey a cool $250,000 to buy Solo Flight outright and publish it as their own. When he asked Meier his opinion, Meier, as usual, initially declined to get involved with business decisions. But then, as Stealey walked away, Meier deigned to offer some quiet words of wisdom: “You know what? I heard you shouldn’t sell the family jewels.” Stealey turned HESWare down. HESWare imploded before the year was out; MicroProse would continue to sell Solo Flight, never a real hit but a modest, steady moneyspinner, for years to come.

Still, it was obvious that MicroProse needed to up their game if they wished to continue to exist past the looming industry shakeout. While with NATO Commander and Solo Flight he had already begun to move away from the simple action games that had gotten MicroProse off the ground, it was Sid Meier’s next game, F-15 Strike Eagle, that would set the template for the company for years to come. Stealey had been begging Meier for an F-15 game for some time, but Meier had been uncertain how to approach it. Now, with Solo Flight under his belt, he felt he was ready. F-15 Strike Eagle was a quantum leap in sophistication compared to what had come before it, moving MicroProse definitively out of the realm of shoot-em-ups and into that of real military simulations. The flight model was dramatically more realistic; indeed, the F-15 Strike Eagle aeronautics “engine” would become the basis for years of MicroProse simulations to come. The airplane’s array of weapons and defensive countermeasures were simulated with a reasonable degree of fidelity to their real-life counterparts. And the player could choose to fly any of seven missions drawn from the F-15’s service history, a couple of them ripped from recent headlines to portray events that happened in the Middle East a bare few months before the game’s release. F-15 Strike Eagle turned into a hit on a scale that dwarfed anything MicroProse had done before, a consistent bestseller for years, the game that made the company, both financially and reputationally. It became one of the most successful and long-lived computer games of the 1980s, with worldwide sales touching 1 million by 1990 — a stunning number for its era.

The games that followed steadily grew yet more sophisticated. Andy Hollis made an air-traffic-control simulation called Kennedy Approach that was crazily addictive. A new designer, William F. Denman, Jr., created an aerobatics simulation called Acrojet. Meanwhile the prolific Sid Meier wrote Silent Service, a World War II submarine simulation, and also three more strategic war games, MicroProse’s so-called “Command Series,” in partnership with one Ed Bever, holder of a doctorate in history: Crusade in Europe, Decision in the Desert, and Conflict in Vietnam. Unsurprisingly, neither the strategy games nor the civilian simulations sold on anywhere near the scale of F-15 Strike Eagle. Only Silent Service rivaled and, in its first few months of release, actually outdid F-15, rocketing past 250,000 in sales within eighteen months. Meier, who “didn’t value money too highly” in the words of Stealey, who never saw much of a reason to change his lifestyle despite his increasing income, who often left his paychecks lying on top of his refrigerator forgotten until accounting called to ask why their checks weren’t getting cashed, couldn’t have cared less about the relative sales numbers of his games or anyone else’s. Stealey, though, wasn’t so sanguine, and pushed more and more to make MicroProse exclusively a purveyor of military simulations.

It’s hard to blame him. F-15 Strike EagleSilent Service, and the MicroProse military simulations that would follow were the perfect games for their historical moment, the perfect games for Tom Clancy readers; Clancy was, not coincidentally, also blowing up big at exactly the same time. Like Clancy, MicroProse was, perverse as it may sound, all about making war fun again.

Indeed, fun was a critical component of MicroProse’s games, one overlooked by far too many of their competitors. MicroProse’s most obvious rival as a maker of simulations was SubLogic, maker of the perennial civilian Flight Simulator and a military version called simply Jet that put players in the cockpit of an F-16 or F-18. SubLogic, however, emphasized realism above all else, even when the calculations required to achieve it meant that their games chugged along at all of one or two frames per second on the hapless likes of a Commodore 64, the industry’s bread-and-butter platform. MicroProse, on the other hand, recognized that they were never really going to be able to realistically simulate an F-15 or a World War II submarine on a computer with 64 K. They settled for a much different balance of playability and fun, one that gave the player a feeling of really “being there” but that was accessible to beginners and, just as importantly, ran at a decent clip and looked reasonably attractive while doing so. Stealey himself admitted that “I can’t even land Flight Simulator, and I’ve got 3000 flying hours behind me!” Fred Schmidt, MicroProse’s first marketing director, delivers another telling quote:

We’re not trying to train fighter pilots or submarine captains. What we’re trying to do is give people who will never have a chance to go inside a submarine the opportunity to get inside one and take it for a spin around the block to see what it is like. Our simulations give them that chance. They get a close-up look at simulated real life. They feel it, they experience the adventure. And at the end of the adventure, we want them to feel they got their money’s worth.

There’s an obvious kinship here with the idea of “aesthetic simulations” as described by Michael Bate, designer of Accolade hits like Ace of Aces. MicroProse, though, pushed the realism meter much further than Bate, to just before the point where the games would lose so much accessibility as to become niche products. Stealey was never interested in being niche. The peculiar genius of MicroProse, and particularly of Sid Meier, who contributed extensively even to most MicroProse games that didn’t credit him as lead designer, was to know just where that point was. This was yet another quality they shared with Tom Clancy.

That said, make no mistake: the veneer of realism, however superficial it might sometimes be, was every bit as important to MicroProse’s appeal as it was to Clancy’s. And the veneer of authenticity provided by Wild Bill Stealey, however superficial it might be — sorry, Wild Bill — was critical to achieving this impression. Stealey had started playing in earnest the role of the hotshot fighter jock by the time of F-15 Strike Eagle, the manual for which opened with an illustration of him in his flight suit and a dedication saying the game would “introduce you to the thrill of fighter-aircraft flying based on my fourteen years experience.” Under his signature is written “Fighter Pilot,” before the more apropos title of “President, MicroProse Software.” All of which probably read more impressively to those not aware that Stealey had never actually flown an F-15 or any other supersonic fighter, having spent his career flying subsonic trainers, transport aircraft, and second-string light attack planes. All, I have no doubt, are critical roles requiring a great deal of skill and bravery — but, nevertheless, the appellation of “fighter pilot” is at best a stretch.

Wild Bill Stealey

Stealey today freely admits that he was playing a character — not to say a caricature — for much of his time at MicroProse, that going to conventions and interviews wearing his flight suit, for God’s sake, wasn’t exactly an uncalculated decision. He also admits that other industry bigwigs, among them Trip Hawkins, loved to make fun of him for it. But, he says, “how do you remember a small company? It needs something special. All we had was Sid and Wild Bill.” And Sid certainly wasn’t interested in helping to sell his games.

Stealey seemed to particularly delight in doing his swaggering Right Stuff schtick for the press in Europe, where MicroProse had set up a subsidiary to sell their games already by 1986. Wild Bill in full flight was an experience that deserves a little gallery of its own. So, here are the reports of just a few mild-mannered journalists lucky or unlucky enough to be assigned to interview Stealey.

“See that,” he bawled, tapping the largest ring I’ve ever seen on my desk, waking up the technical experts in the Commodore User offices, “that’s a genuine American Air Force Fighter Pilot’s Ring. Do that in a barroom in the States and you get instant service… they know you’re a fighter pilot.”


As far as Stealey is concerned, the only real pilots are fighter pilots. “What about airline pilots?” I ask. “Bus drivers,” says Wild Bill. Alright then — what about the pilots who talk endlessly about the freedom, the solitude, and the spiritual experience of flying?

“You wanna talk spiritual? I’ll tell you what’s spiritual… flying upside down in an F-15, doing mach 1.5 high above the Rocky Mountains, with the sun behind and the Pacific Ocean ahead of you… that’s spiritual… the rest is just sightseeing.

“Whooosh,” says Wild Bill, thrusting his hand through the air to illustrate his point.


“I’m selling these games to men. If you haven’t got the right stuff, I don’t want to know. I’m not interested in the kind of guy who just wants a short thrill. If you want to spend £6 on an arcade game that you’re going to play for half an hour, I don’t want you buying my software.”


Despite MicroProse’s size, growth has been accomplished at an intentionally conservative rate. Bill Stealey attributes this to his fighter-pilot background. Wait a minute — fighter pilots as conservative? “Of course fighter pilots are conservative. We wait until we accumulate sufficient data and then we wax the bad guys.”


Bill Stealey tells you all this in his usual verbal assault mode. Being on the other end of this barrage is to feel disoriented and dazed. Gradually, your senses return. You realize that there are other software houses out there, a possibility Bill hardly admits.

As soon as finances allowed, MicroProse took the Wild Bill Show to the next level by purchasing for him an unusual sort of company plane: a Navy surplus T-28 Trojan trainer. The plane cost a small fortune to keep in service, but it was worth it to let Stealey take up queasy, knock-kneed gaming journalists — and, occasionally, the lucky MicroProse fan — and toss the T-28 through some high-performance aerobatics.

Wild Bill prepares to terroize another journalist, in this case Jim Gracely, Managing Editor of Commodore Magazine.

Wild Bill prepares to terrorize another journalist, in this case Jim Gracely, Managing Editor of Commodore Magazine.

Of course, one person’s charming fighter jock is another’s ugly American. Not all journalists, especially in Europe, were entirely taken with either Stealey’s persona or with what one Commodore User journalist pointedly described as the “militaristic and Cold War tinge of MicroProse’s products.” This undercurrent of grumbling would erupt into a real controversy in Europe upon the release of Gunship, MicroProse’s big game of 1986.

By far MicroProse’s most ambitious, expensive, extended, and problem-plagued project yet, Gunship was helmed by a new arrival, a veteran designer of board games named Arnold Hendrick, rather than Sid Meier, although Meier as well as Andy Hollis as usual contributed substantially both to the design and the technology behind it. Another helicopter game, it was originally conceived as a science-fictional “cops and robbers” scenario, playing on the odd but significant fascination the American media of the mid-1980s suddenly had with futuristic helicopters — think Blue Thunder and Airwolf. Development began on a prototype of Commodore’s new 68000-based computer, the Amiga, delivered to MicroProse early in 1985. But when the Amiga’s release was delayed, it was decided to switch to one of the platforms MicroProse knew best and the platform that consistently sold best, the Commodore 64. With the complex urban terrain planned for the original concept likely to be impossible to depict on the 64, and with Stealey increasingly eager to define MicroProse exclusively as a maker of realistic simulations, the premise of the game was overhauled as well, to become a more sober — relatively speaking — depiction of the real-world AH-64 Apache assault chopper. By the time it finally arrived on the market in late 1986, almost a year after it had first been announced, it had absorbed three times as much time and its development team had grown to four times the size originally anticipated. MicroProse had come a long way from the days of Floyd of the Jungle.

Just about everyone inside the games industry agreed that the delay had been worth it; this was MicroProse’s best game yet.  Gunship‘s most innovative feature, destined to have a major impact not only on future games from MicroProse but on future games in general, was the way it let you simulate not just an individual mission but an entire career. When you start the game, you create and name a pilot of your own, a greenhorn of a sergeant. You then take on missions of your choice in any of four regions, picking and choosing as you will among four wars that are apparently all going on at the same time: Southeast Asia, Central America, the Middle East, or Western Europe (i.e., the Big One, a full-on Soviet invasion). If you perform well, you earn medals and promotions. If you get shot down you may or may not survive, and depending on where you crash-land may end up a prisoner of war. Either death or capture marks the definitive end to your Gunship career; this invests every moment spent in the combat zones with extra tension. The persistent career gives Gunship an element lacking from MicroProse’s previous simulations: a larger objective, larger stakes, beyond the successful completion of any given mission. It invests the game with an overarching if entirely generative plot arc of sorts as well as the addictive character-building progression of a CRPG, adding so much to the experience that career modes would quickly become a staple of simulations to come.

But some bureaucrats in West Germany were not so taken with Gunship as most gamers. There the “Bundesprüfstelle für Jugendgefährdende Schriften,” a list of writings and other communications that should not be sold to minors or even displayed in shops which they could enter, unexpectedly added Gunship to their rolls, to be followed shortly thereafter by F-15 Strike Eagle and Silent Service for good measure, for the sin of “promoting militarism” and thus being “morally corruptive and coarsening for the young user.” West Germany at the time constituted only about 1 percent of MicroProse’s business, but was likely the most rapidly expanding market for computers and computer games in the world. The blacklisting meant that these three games, which together constituted the vast majority of MicroProse’s sales in West Germany or anywhere else, could be sold only in shops offering a separate, adults-only section with its own entrance. Nor could they be advertised in magazines, or anywhere else where the teenage boys who bought MicroProse’s games in such numbers were able to see them. The games were, in other words, given the legal status of pornography: not, strictly speaking, censored, but made very difficult for people, especially young people, to acquire or even to find out about. If anything, it would now be harder for even an adult to get his hands on a MicroProse game than a porn film. There was after all a shopping infrastructure set up to support porn aficionados. There were no equivalent shops for games; certainly no computer store was likely to make a new entrance just to sell a few games. Thus the decision effectively killed MicroProse in West Germany. Stealey embarked on a long, exhausting battle with the German courts to have the decisions overturned. By the time he was able to get the Silent Service ban lifted, in 1988, that game was getting old enough that the issue was becoming irrelevant. Gunship and F-15 Strike Eagle took even longer to get stricken from the blacklist.

The debate over free speech and its limits is of course a complicated one, and one on which Germany, thanks to its horrific legacy of Nazism and its determination to ensure that nothing like that ever happens again, tends to have a somewhat different perspective than the United States. The authorities’ concerns about “militarism” also reflected a marked difference in attitude on the part of continental Western Europe from that of the anglosphere of the United States and Britain, both beneficiaries (or victims, if you prefer) of recent conservative revolutions led by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher respectively. Europeans found it more difficult to be so blasé about the prospect of war with the Soviet Union — a war which would almost certainly be fought on their soil, with all the civilian death, destruction, and suffering that implied. In West Germany, blithely choosing to send your fictional Gunship pilot to the Western Europe region to fight against what the manual gushingly described as the “first team” in the “big time” struck much closer to home.

MicroProse was also involved in another, more cut-and-dried sort of controversy at the time of Gunship. Long before MicroProse, there had already existed a company called “MicroPro,” maker of the very popular WordStar word processor. As soon as MicroProse grew big enough to be noticed, MicroPro had begun to call and send letters of protest. At last, in 1986, they sued for trademark infringement. MicroProse, who really didn’t have a legal leg to stand on, could only negotiate for time; the settlement stipulated that they had to choose a new name by 1988. But in the end the whole thing came to nothing when MicroPro abruptly changed their own name instead, to WordStar International, and let MicroProse off the hook.

In the big picture these were all minor hiccups. MicroProse would continue to make their accessible, entertaining, and usually bestselling military simulations for years to come after Gunship: Airborne Ranger, F-19 Stealth Fighter, F-15 Strike Eagle II, M1 Tank Platoon, just to begin the list. In 1988 they cemented once and for all their status as the game publisher for the Tom Clancy generation with the release of Red Storm Rising, the game of the book.

The ultimate meeting of techno-thriller minds: Sid Meier, Wild Bill Stealey, Tom Clancy, and Larry Bond (his consultant and collaborator on the Red Storm Rising scenario).

The ultimate meeting of the simulation-industrial complex: Sid Meier, Wild Bill Stealey, Tom Clancy, and Larry Bond (Clancy’s consultant and collaborator on the Red Storm Rising scenario, as well as author of the Harpoon naval board game).

By then, however, the restlessly creative Sid Meier was also finding ways to push beyond the military-simulation template to which Stealey would have happily held him in perpetuity. In doing so he would create some of the best, most important games in history. Sid Meier and MicroProse are thus destined to be featured players around here for quite some time to come.

(Lots and lots of sources this time around. Useful for the article as a whole: the book Gamers at Work by Morgan Ramsay, Computer Gaming World of November 1987, Commodore Magazine of September 1987. Tom Clancy and cultural background: the book Command and Control by Eric Schlosser, New York Times Magazine of May 1 1988, Computer Gaming World of July 1988. General Instruments and the Red Baron anecdote: ComputerWorld of May 16 1977, Computer Gaming World of June 1988. On MicroProse’s name and the dispute with MicroPro: Computer Gaming World of October 1987 and November 1991, A.N.A.L.O.G. of September 1987. Reviews, advertisements, and anecodtes about individual games: Antic of May 1983 and June 1984 and November 1984, Computer Gaming World of January/February 1986 and March 1987, Commodore Magazine of December 1988, C.U. Amiga of August 1990. On the “promoting militarism” controversy: Computer Gaming Forum of Fall 1987 and Winter 1987, Commodore User of June 1987, Computer Gaming World of May 1988, Aktueller Software Markt of May 1989. Examples of the Wild Bill Show: Commodore User of May 1985, Your Computer of May 1985 and November 1987, Commodore Disk User of November 1987, Popular Computing Weekly of May 1 1986, Games Machine of October 1988 and November 1988. This article’s “cover art” was taken from the MicroProse feature in the September 1987 Commodore Magazine. If you’d like to see a premiere Microprose simulation from this era in action, feel free to download the Commodore 64 version of Gunship from right here.)


Comments

Storycade

News: Interstellar Site is Now a Text Adventure

by Amanda Wallace at March 19, 2015 04:01 AM

Interstellar

Christopher Nolan’s science fiction epic Interstellar is now a text-adventure. In preparation for the digital and DVD release of the film, the site has been changed over from the traditional film site to hosting a text adventure title called Interstellar. The text-adventure, browser based by played like a traditional parser IF, was written by executive producer Jordan Goldberg. It serves as a prequel to last years most divisive genre film.

A basic knowledge of Interstellar is probably necessary, but the game follows the journey of one of the twelve Lazarus astronauts. The Lazarus astronauts were the initial astronauts sent through the wormhole to find a new planet for the future of humanity. You play as one of these astronauts, having landed on a planet in the distant reaches of the galaxy — alone but with the company of one of the films rather peculiar robots.

The game is free and currently available to play in browser at the Interstellar website.

The post News: Interstellar Site is Now a Text Adventure appeared first on .

March 18, 2015

The Gaming Philosopher

IF top 50 results

by Victor Gijsbers (noreply@blogger.com) at March 18, 2015 11:03 PM

Thanks to the 38 people who voted, we have a new "Interactive Fiction top 50". The results can be found here.

Emily Short

French Comp 2015

by Emily Short at March 18, 2015 05:00 PM

FrenchComp is a yearly competition for French-language games, usually with just a handful of entrants: the French IF community is not large. For someone with rusty French skills, playing through the games can be a bit of a challenge — I read French a lot better than I speak it, and coming up with commands can be a stretch, especially if the game wants a non-standard verb that isn’t covered in this French IF manual. This year, though, I had the good fortune of playing with ClubFloyd, where we could share verb guesses and reinforce one another’s understanding.

IF in languages other than English doesn’t get nearly as much coverage as I’d like within the English-speaking community, so I’d like to talk about the games here, but I should also say that I’m not really equipped to judge them in quite the same way I might review English IF. I can’t really judge French prose style; I suspect I struggled in a few places that were down to the quality of my linguistic skills rather than the quality of the design; and then there may be different conventions in French IF. (One of them definitely seems to be a love affair with “press any key to continue”. I think there were more “key to continue” pauses in these three games than in the whole of the English IF Comp last year.)

So consider this more of an experience report than a review per se.

It is also spoilerific, since I want to talk about the story endings of a couple of the games. If you are planning to play these works and just haven’t gotten to them yet, you should probably read no further.

This year there were three entries, all parser games: Comédie by Edgar Havre; L’Envol by Anonymous; and Sourire de bois by A One-Legged Tin Soldier.

Comédie is a puzzle-y farce set in a theater. You’ve been brought in at the last minute to help resolve the play’s problems and get it staged this very evening, and the production suffers from assorted issues, such as a drunken actor, a costume collection in severe disarray, and a set of NPCs who can’t really stand one another. NPC dialogue is a big part of the experience here; it uses Photopia-style menus, so you can’t really get too lost, and all the NPCs have entertainingly outrageous opinions of one another. The setting and off-the-wall character interactions were a lot of fun.

The pacing was a little off, at least for me. My experience of Comédie was dominated by one particular puzzle: the protagonist is asked to fetch a costume from a 10×10 area in which the spots are labeled in Roman numerals and then also disordered according to a second principle you have to work out. While this is not exactly a maze — you’re always in a labeled room, so you always know where you are — it shares one of the annoying aspects of a maze: busywork. Each time you have a hypothesis about which costume number you’re meant to fetch, you have to go wander around the grid until you find the right spot; take the relevant costume; and then carry it off to show to an NPC several rooms away. As we went through a bunch of wrong guesses before realizing which was the right costume, this meant that a disproportionate amount of our playtime was expended on this one thing.

It is of course possible that we screwed up some hints that would have been clearer to native speakers. And aside from this, the puzzles were fairly doable and entertaining.

But what really took us by surprise was the ending. We’d completed the three puzzles initially laid out for us and were working on another when suddenly we were kicked out of the theater, informed that we hadn’t passed the test we were undergoing. This seemed to come from left field, and we couldn’t quite figure out what was meant; it seemed like a losing ending, and an arbitrary one at that. It took the input of one of the French IF folk to set us straight. This was, in fact, the winning ending, or at any rate the only one available; the premise was that we weren’t really at a theater, but at an elaborate simulation of a theater, playacting the role of befuddled assistant director, and cast out when our improvisation proved too weak.

So I don’t know what to do with that. It has a certain sad everything-is-futile, life-is-a-pointless-stageplay grandeur if considered properly, but it really wasn’t at all what I was expecting from the game. Maybe there were clues earlier on in the story about what was happening, but if so, I wasn’t reading well enough to perceive them.

*

L’Envol starts out in a fairly ordinary bedroom, though there are hints — a distant klaxon, a photo of your missing sibling — that all is not well. The bedside copy of a book by Anne McCaffrey becomes a bit more explicable when a dragon shows up on your roof. You must then overcome some obstacles in order to fly away with the dragon and have some adventures.

Though this was the winner of the comp, for me it posed the most problems. During the first part of the game, we found ourselves at something of a loose end. It’s not clear what the goal is initially, and the story moves forwards in response to triggers that we weren’t always hitting.

And some of the more overt puzzles were both tricky for me and tonally surprising. In order to climb on the dragon’s back, you must first disable an alarmed(!) air-conditioning unit so that you can safely step on that and use it as a mounting block. For this puzzle, you have an assortment of tools, several of which seem like they might be useful but of which only one actually has an application. I struggled with accomplishing this and also felt like it was a bit odd, in the presence of something so mythical and inspiring as a dragon, to be fussing around with electric wires.

That said, there was some lovely descriptive writing (insofar as I’m able to judge) of the dragon-back flight, once we get there, and the environments are somewhat more richly implemented than in some of the other games.

*

Sourire de bois was my favorite of the three. The protagonist is a marionette who dreams of being able to smile, to form some expression other than the one that has been painted on.

The puzzles all reflect this constricted and miniaturized world, requiring you to interact with your own strings, with the stage props of your marionette show, and with other toys. Because of the non-standard situations, we struggled a fair amount to find the right words, and at one point I had to Google some French synonyms for a verb I was looking for. However, I appreciated the imagination that had gone into picturing the protagonist’s miniature world and inventing a series of puzzles that would properly illustrate it, and many of which turned on exploring different kinds of constraints.

I also felt that the story’s innate melancholy elevated the material a bit: though the premise sounds like Toy Story, the emotional range is a bit sadder and more contemplative.

Ultimately the protagonist doesn’t manage to learn to smile — another thwarted goal, and one that again came as a surprise when I did not realize that the game was about to be over. In this case, though, I felt that the outcome was a little more in tune with the rest of the story than it had been in Comédie (or at least I understood it better). In Comédie, the thwarting is almost entirely extrinsic: someone else makes decisions about you that you may not even understand. In Sourire de bois, the protagonist realizes that the ability to smile is not only unattainable but unnecessary, an internal development that felt more coherent and meaningful. It is also foreshadowed somewhat, in that partway through the story we learn that one of the NPCs, a rat, has spent its life in the futile pursuit of a plastic gem it believes to be real.

It is just possible that in English this would have seemed over-sentimental to me, too much like an IF version of The Velveteen Rabbit. In French, however, I found it effective.


March 17, 2015

Emily Short

Shift Escape

by Emily Short at March 17, 2015 10:00 PM

Shift_escape_square

Shift Escape is an abstract puzzle game for iOS by Toby Nelson. Toby’s also maintainer of the Inform 7 IDE for Mac OS, and (non-coincidentally) my brother-in-law. So my remarks should perhaps not be viewed as wholly impartial, but I’m enjoying it. The interface has a cheerfully hand-drawn look; the puzzles themselves are elegant if occasionally fiendish.

The aim is to move your character to eat all the dots on each level before leaving, with the restriction that your motion can only be stopped by walls, so if you head in one direction, you’ll keep sliding along willy-nilly. The geometry of some levels means it becomes possible to lock yourself out of ever reaching certain dots, but even if you don’t do that, there’s the challenge of optimizing your number of moves.

The slide-til-you-hit-something rules make the floor-plate-activated flippers a significant complication:

redblueshift

It doesn’t all take place on a square grid, either…

shift_escape_hex

And here I am losing, because every time I try to get that dot in the lower right corner I have to pass over the blue diamond and that moves the blue flipper out of the way and I overshoot and argh

shiftmany


March 16, 2015

Classic Adventure Solution Archive

CASA Update - 145 new game entries, 12 new solutions, 14 new maps

by Gunness at March 16, 2015 09:56 AM

I haven't had much time for updating lately, and just see what happens when you're absent - the games keep flowing in. Particularly the German ones (thanks, Alex!). I noticed Brief im Dunkeln ("Letter in the Dark"), in which your dad has locked you up in the cellar just because your girlfriend has written you. If there ever was a game that offered a worthwhile challenge, this would be it.
Our German game count now stands at a very decent 489, so 500 seems within reach!

Contributors: Alex, Gunness, ahope1

Stuff About Stuff

On FrenchComp, and how I organized things to judge it

by Andrew (noreply@blogger.com) at March 16, 2015 07:36 AM

I got a lot done this weekend, though maybe not as well as I hoped. While I put off ParserComp, I realized I also managed to put off FrenchComp. This is one thing I was upset about. I meant to look at all four games last year, and I eventually did, but I wasn't able to judge.



This year, I don't think I really did a very good job, but I got through. So I'm happy about that. It's nice to see there are communities beyond intfiction.org that are able to put works out. I know I'm part of a couple private communities, and those have really helped, because I can say some things some places that don't quite feel right other places.

FrenchComp ended a day after ParserComp, leaving my procrastinating self squeezed a bit near the end of the 6-week deadline. Now I may have a bit of a leg up on French, as I took it in high school and got a 4 on the Advanced Placement exam. (I should've gotten a 5, but senior year in high school was a disaster.) I haven't used it a ton, but I used it enough to read a Le Petit Nicolas book (by Rene Goscinny, who also read Asterix) that hadn't been translated into English yet, and then the Histoires Ineditees. By the way, I recommend the English translations, regardless of your age.

But occasionally I still had some frustration with actually looking at a game, due to rust, not understanding context, etc. Of course there is Google Translate to help. I've grown less hesitant to use it when I need it for that spare word, although I am pretty well aware that I may be missing some context. Nevertheless, for the past two years, the writing hasn't tried to be too fancy, so I haven't needed to try anything drastic to figure what's going on.

But fact is, I needed a resource to guide against the mental fatigue that piled up anyway. Saturday night (3/14) with 18 hours til judging, I had a think. Sleeping on it broke it open.

This solution is Windows-specific, and it may work even better if you have two monitors side by side. But the main thing is: you can space things pretty easily. You can use a few keys to scroll around. And when I write this down, nothing feels terribly profound, but then, hopefully that means you can manage to get things going if you're curious. From what I've seen, the French games are not a tortuous length, and it may just be a matter of learning the basic verbs. There's very little guess the verbs.

I had problems remembering to use the infinitives (prendre vs prenez for take) but that is probably how I saw things. I would recommend Eric Forgeot's and Nathanael Marion's extension to help you with the basics. I didn't google, but I probably could.

Still, the question: how to translate the text without a parser? Here are my rules, well, for Windows:

  1.  resize the browser to, say, 1280x200. That will allow you to scroll down so your Google information disappears & you can see just the translation. I think it saves a bit of space, as I prefer scrolling to seeing all of a huge chunk of text (also: don't try to copy/paste too much text for translation at once.)
  2. Glulxe on the right. I really recommend it even for Z5 games because the text file seems to reload with each command, but it doesn't for Frotz.
  3. Notepad++ on the bottom 4/5 of the screen. I recommend it over others, since it can sense when a text file is modified, and I recommend Notepad++ on general principles (tabbed file browsing etc.) Actually, since you won't be using it much, it can take up the space below the browser, with WinGlulxe taking up the right 80%. You only need notepad++ to copy text into the translation box above. You want to TRANSCRIPT right away and then open the file transcripted to. You'll be using a lot of alt-tab between Glulxe, Notepad++ and your browser, too.
 This isn't a magic bullet, but it goes a long way.

If you can remember the basic French errors, that is a big help so you don't have to C&P everything. So it may be worth 15 minutes to try to take stuff that isn't there or try default verbs. Perhaps even have an empty story file combined where you can try the basic verbs and default reactions. I got comfortable pretty quickly & I only wish I'd given myself more time.

But of course I've got plenty of time to prepare for FrenchComp 2016 so I can judge in a more timely fashion. I'd like to try one game a month for 2015. Maybe you can, too.

I'd be interested in reading tweaks to these instructions, because if they get one more person comfortable enough to judge, that's a good thing. I hope this was helpful to anyone on the fence, or anyone worried they don't know enough French. (Google Translate is good, and I didn't have to tweak much. You may need to change J' to Je some places or know basic French abbreviations.)

Screenshot below. Yes, I saved Sourire de Bois's transcript as Envol.txt. But I hope the main point works! Having the Glulxe window largely overlap Notepad++ is ideal. You can use ctrl-shift-arrow to highlight text as needed.



March 15, 2015

The XYZZY Awards

2014 XYZZY Awards, first-round voting open

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at March 15, 2015 11:01 PM

The XYZZY Awards, honouring the best interactive fiction of 2014, are open for the first round of voting. whittling down hundreds of IF releases to a shortlist of 3-6 nominees in each category. Voting is open, so if you love interactive fiction, please consider taking part! (Your vote is especially important in the first round.)

Apologies for the slightly discombobulated login this year: the XYZZYs use the same login system as the IF Comp, and the Comp site has changed around. Your IF Comp account will still work fine for voting, but if you want to make a new account you’ll have to register over at the IF Comp site.

You can also log in with an existing account, and then vote over here.

 

Some guidelines for voters to keep in mind:

  • Anyone may vote, and you can vote in both first and second rounds. One ballot per person.
  • Authors may not vote for their own work.
  • While we’re happy for you to talk up the XYZZYs, canvasing for votes is strongly discouraged, either for your own game or on behalf of others. It’s fine to talk about the XYZZYs – but if doing so results in a flood of voters all voting for the same game, those votes will be discounted.

First-round voting closes April 5 at 0:01:00 US-Pacific.

Sibyl Moon Games

Announcing the 2015 ParserComp winners!

by Carolyn VanEseltine at March 15, 2015 09:01 PM

Parsercomp console font logo

When I announced ParserComp, I wasn’t sure what the response would be. I knew I loved parser games, and I knew other people did too, but I worried that no one would actually enter. Or, if people actually entered, that no one would judge.

My fears were unjustified on all counts.

A sincere thank you to the fourteen authors who entered this competition. I was deeply impressed by your enthusiasm, creativity, and skill. No matter what your experience level is now, I hope you’ll take the feedback from these games and continue on to make more.

My thanks also to the amazing volunteer judges and reviewers. This competition was successful because of you. (Trivia: The judging form asked for 50 characters of feedback minimum, but you collectively submitted over 26,000 words of feedback to ParserComp!)

And now a drum roll, please….

Best Writing
1st place – Chlorophyll
2nd place – Oppositely Opal
3rd place – Six Gray Rats Crawl Up The Pillow

Best Story
1st place – Chlorophyll
2nd place – Oppositely Opal
3rd place – Delphina’s House

Best Puzzles
1st place – Oppositely Opal
2nd place – Chlorophyll
3rd place – Delphina’s House

Best Use of Theme (“Sunrise”)
1st place – Chlorophyll
2nd place – Terminator Chaser
3rd place – Endless Sands

Best Technical
1st place – Oppositely Opal
2nd place – Delphina’s House
3rd place – Chlorophyll

Best Overall
1st place – Chlorophyll
2nd place – Oppositely Opal
3rd place – Delphina’s House

The ParserComp games will remain available here for play and download. They’re also available at the IFDB ParserComp page, where you can also read and write reviews.

The Gaming Philosopher

Victor's Variomatic #1: "Till Death Makes a Monkfish Out of Me"

by Victor Gijsbers (noreply@blogger.com) at March 15, 2015 08:16 PM

Want to play some interactive fiction semi-together? Check out the topic I just opened on the interactive fiction forum, where I invite everybody to join in playing Mike Sousa's and Jon Ingold's 2002 TADS2 game Till Death Makes a Monkfish Out of Me. I hope to see you there!

Post Position

My Five-Part Interruption

by Nick Montfort at March 15, 2015 07:23 PM

My both systematic and breezy presentation at Interrupt 3, phrased in the form of an interruption, began with a consideration of electronic literature’s “ends” and digital poetry’s “feet.” During the beginning of my presentation I played “Hexes,” a digital poem I wrote a few minutes before the session began. I went on to read every permuation of the phrase “SERVICE MY INTERRUPT FUCKFLOWERS,” using a technique famously employed by Brion Gysin on a text that includes a memorable compound word by Caroline Bergvall. I continued to read some hypothetical captions from “Feminist Ryan Gosling” image macros about Donna Haraway. I then read from “Use of Dust,” a new work that is an erasure of Alison Knowles and Janes Tenney’s “A House of Dust.” I concluded with this text:

Organize a fake interruption. Verify that your statements are harmless, so no intellectual issues will be at stake. Make it so that the operation creates as much commotion as possible — in short, remain close to the “truth,” in order to test the reaction of the apparatus to a perfect simulacrum. You won’t be able to do it: the network of artificial signs will become inextricably mixed up with real elements (a cell phone will really ring; a fire alarm will malfunction and sound; a person in the audience will actually take you seriously), in short, you will immediately find yourself once again, without wishing it, in the real, one of whose functions is precisely to devour any attempt at simulation.

The Gaming Philosopher

IF Top 50: Last reminder!

by Victor Gijsbers (noreply@blogger.com) at March 15, 2015 11:01 AM

Today is the last day you can vote in the IF top 50, so please go to the forum topic or send me an e-mail if you haven't done so yet. (Realistically I'm not going to finalise my spreadsheet before Monday 20:00 GMT, so if you wake up on Monday with the horrible realisation that you've forgotten something important -- well, consider that your grace period!)

March 13, 2015

Choice of Games

New Hosted Game! “The Volunteer Firefighter”

by Dan Fabulich at March 13, 2015 05:01 PM

There’s a new game in our Hosted Games program ready for you to play! An action-packed firefighting game, filled with humor, heartache, adventure, and romance! Fight fires! Save lives! Do you have what it takes to be a hero? The Volunteer Firefighter is an epic 130,000-word interactive fantasy novel by Stefanie Handshaw, 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. Walk in boots of a volunteer firefighter! Immerse yourself in more than 120,000 words of dramatic adventure, humor, romance, and heartache. Be a member of either

Continue Reading...

The Hero of Kendrickstone: Rescue a city held hostage by an evil wizard!

by Dan Fabulich at March 13, 2015 05:01 PM

We’re proud to announce that The Hero of Kendrickstone, the latest in our popular “Choice of Games” line of multiple-choice interactive-fiction games, is now available for Steam, iOS, Android, and Kindle Fire. It’s 40% off during launch week. Can a wanna-be hero like you rescue the city of Kendrickstone, held hostage by an evil wizard and his troop of black-clad soldiers? Face down fierce foes with spell, sword, or silver tongue. Outwit cunning rivals, cement your fledgling reputation, and maybe, just maybe, make enough money to pay your rent! “The Hero of Kendrickstone” is an epic 240,000-word interactive fantasy novel

Continue Reading...

Emily Short

ParserComp: Chlorophyll (and a digression about female characters)

by Emily Short at March 13, 2015 03:00 AM

Cover

Chlorophyll is a lighthearted science fiction story by Steph Cherrywell, the author of Jacqueline, Jungle Queen. The premise is that you’re a sentient, mobile plant and have been brought along on a space colonization expedition by your mother, who is trying to discover what’s gone wrong with an abandoned space station. Your need to photosynthesize constantly provides a combined light/hunger puzzle that puts a fresh spin on a pair of rather elderly text adventure tropes.

The other puzzles work pretty well too. Eventually I needed to reach for the walkthrough, but that was mostly for reasons of time and general exhaustion and wanting to get through enough ParserComp games to vote, despite GDC travel. I think in other circumstances I would have gotten through most or all of the puzzles on my own. As in Jacqueline, Jungle Queen, I felt like the author had a pretty much textbook mastery of puzzle/map design for a game this size: you get a confined intro, then access to multiple puzzles at once, then narrow again to a more dramatic couple of endgame puzzles. It may be a standard structure, but it’s a standard for good reasons.

I had a stronger reaction to the story than to the puzzle structure. Except for the photosynthesis concept, the implications of your plant-based origins are developed gently and selectively. Plant culture bears a lot of resemblance to human culture, down to toy stores and hair leaf salons. Plant-person society is apparently all-female: male Xyloids are grown in special gardens and appear to be objectified and possibly non-mobile or even non-sentient.

Meanwhile the protagonist is right around (human-like) puberty, and this was handled with a few well-selected moments and bits of inner monologue. We see a growing desire for independence, a mixed curiosity and disquiet around sex, ambivalent feelings about a position somewhere between childhood and adulthood, and opportunities to play both sides of that divide at different points in the game. In a hair-dressing scene that fills no plot-critical function, the protagonist can explore different ways of presenting herself: does she see herself as glamorous? tomboyish? like a smaller edition of her Mom? And as simple as these options are, they capture something about the personal stakes of such decisions. Plenty of media present young teen girls as obsessed with hair and fashion, but flag up that behavior as shallow or “girly” in a negative sense. From the inside, all this is the opposite of shallow: it’s a whole complicated and confusing process of figuring out who you are as a social being, where you stand relative to sex and adulthood, and what set of signifiers will help you communicate those discoveries — or, if need be, camouflage the things you’re not ready to share.

In an understated way, Chlorophyll understands all that. Its protagonist is, yes, immature in an absolute sense, prone to sullenness and resentment of adults. But she’s doing a good job of handling the life stage she’s at. She’s capable of handling machinery and scientific problems as well as anyone her age could be expected to; she’s perceptive about work culture, sensitive about her changing relationship to her mother, and brave in the face of danger, while still being distinctively a girl and dealing with the kinds of issues that female-identifying people often deal with during puberty.

Then there’s Mom. The protagonist’s mother is put out of action fairly early on, in classic children’s/YA-literature style: the only way to get young people into adventure-hero roles is usually to remove the adults who would normally be responsible for dealing with serious situations. But this is handled reasonably adroitly. And despite the mother’s absence for the majority of the time, there are still a number of references back to her. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the story is mainly about your relationship with her, but there are several points where it is important, and in particular one of the game’s key puzzle rewards doubles as a re-assessment of how Mom thinks of you.

This was enough to make me reflect on how rarely IF touches on mother/daughter relationships at all. There’s a bit of this in Common Ground, and some in my own work Bee, but I’m not thinking of a lot of other examples.

I wouldn’t really have pointed out mother-daughter relationships as a Thing That Is Lacking before playing Chlorophyll, but when I encountered it here, I found it refreshing all out of proportion with what actually happens in this game — which is a pretty good sign of an unsatisfied longing.

This is perhaps related to another wish I had previously identified: I want to play more games featuring middle-aged and older women in established career positions. I might be interested in a show about a female superhero or a female soldier, but I don’t identify with or aspire to those situations. I’m more excited by women who have agency and enjoy respect because of what they’ve built and accomplished, through dedication and talent and social savvy. I know women like this in real life, and am fortunate enough to count some as mentors and friends, but such characters don’t come along as often as I’d like in any of the media I consume. When you do get an older female character in a career role, she’s often portrayed as a stone-cold bitch, a Miranda Priestly or a Patty Hewes, having lost every humane impulse in the process of reaching her position. I want more CJ Creggs, please — and, indeed, more Annalise Keatings, because morally ambiguous though Annalise is, she is motivated by a mix of vulnerability, loyalty, ambition, and (sometimes warped) principle. Her brilliance and her success exist alongside all the other components of a human.

I want more of this kind of representation because, frankly, I am looking for hints. Navigating a career you take seriously often presents special challenges for women. There’s the challenge of finding a sweet spot between being too passive to be effective, and being assertive in ways that many people will accept only from men; between buying into the prevailing work culture too little to be an acceptable fit, or so much that one is doing nothing to make it easier for the generation of women who will come afterward; between being dismissed as unambitious, and being condemned for not being enough of a team player. In some positions and corporate cultures, no sweet spot exists. (See also Mattie Brice on The Lost Woman in Games.) Whether this issue is apparent on the outside or not, it is the subject of a lot of thought, and of many of the conversations I have with other women, both inside and outside the game industry.

So I welcome more examples of how to be, and when something with a mature female character with ambitions beyond family life does come along, I tend to watch/read/play that thing avidly despite whatever other problems it may have.

Anyway, Chlorophyll. I enjoyed it, and I’m glad to see another entry from Steph Cherrywell. I had a few implementation nitpicks I’ll put on the other side of spoiler space, but essentially it’s fun, gently challenging, with a fresh enough concept to keep things interesting, and a handling of its female characters that I found very welcome. And while it’s mostly focused on a pubescent girl, it sketches a few of those elusive mature female characters in the background, not only your mother but all the others who inhabit and run the station.

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There are a handful of issues. I had some trouble during the underwater segment realizing which directions were active. IN and ENTER SPACESHIP gave me (different) misleading messages when I tried to enter the spaceship, when DOWN was required, and as a result I spent a little while thinking it was unenterable scenery. I had a similar problem with the lean-to. It’s possible to READ entries in the book of stories, but not LOOK UP PLANET IN BOOK (for instance). Also, at one point (due to player confusion) I repeated snagging and unsnagging the cube in the presence of the dragonweed, and it “dropped” the fuse over again even though I’d already retrieved that.

On the other hand: another reviewer expressed confusion about how the mother moved around the station before you found her again. This didn’t bother me, because I assumed that the nockbeast had moved her.


March 12, 2015

Stuff About Stuff

Halfway through ParserComp

by Andrew (noreply@blogger.com) at March 12, 2015 06:43 PM

This is a post I hoped to make on March 1st, and I hoped to be making my wrap-up post today. Nevertheless, I encourage people to get to as many ParserComp games as they can, even if it is only 7. Or even if you get less than 7, if you can make a transcript (start a game and type TRANSCRIPT, usually,) it's a big help.

Unfortunately, my judging may be a bit impatient due to the time squeeze I put myself in, but that is sort of valuable--sometimes I'm less likely to let things skate and say "Oh, I can deal with that, I guess, I'm glad to see anything." Which is a good attitude to have in general, but it's tough to balance that with saying, well, let's help other authors fix what they can, because we don't know what might make a player flip a switch and start to love/hate a game. We can, however, stack the odds in favor of the first with observation and evaluation and such, even if we can't rigorously back ourselves up.

So, see what you can do! I imagine the authors have enough space from their original versions that they are ready to make whatever changes give the most value, and plus, it's always neat to get something just before a comp ends. Or even after it.

HERE is the full list of games. The games reviewed so far are below. I hope to have time to get through the remaining 5 4 3games I can judge.

An Adventurer’s Backyard, by lyricasylum
A Long Drink, by Owen Parks
Mean Streets, by BadDog
Sunburn, by Caelyn Sandel
Terminator Chaser, by Bruno Dias

Oh, and 2 bonuses--it happens that way, things getting done in clumps:

Endless Sands, by Hamish McIntyre
Six Gray Rats Crawl Up the Pillow, by Boswell Cain

Sibyl Moon Games

Why Mr. Ginsberg?

by Carolyn VanEseltine at March 12, 2015 06:01 PM

Ollie Ollie Oxen Free is the story of a hero. The protagonist, Mark Ginsberg, is an elementary school teacher faced with a crisis: the military base where he works has just been bombed, and he needs to locate his scattered students and get them to safety as fast as possible.

When I described the plot of this game to my mother, she asked: “Why Mr. Ginsberg instead of Ms. Ginsberg?”

It was a good question. After all, I reliably advocate for more female protagonists and more diverse characters in video games. The answer is rooted in a broader story – not one set in a fictional military base, but one taking place in schools all across America.

Mr. Ginsberg is gay.

This is not, in fact, pertinent to the plot. The plot is about finding your scattered students, rescuing them from their various predicaments, and then finding a way to get everyone out of the rapidly deteriorating building.

But it is pertinent to the character. And for me, that’s the heart of this story.

There are LGBTQ people teaching elementary school, just like there are LGBTQ people running Fortune 500 companies, hosting the Emmy awards, serving in our military, and travelling to space. But many LGBTQ people – including the vast majority of LGBTQ teachers – are trapped in the closet. Those who dare to leave face harassment, discrimination, and (in the case of teachers) unjustified parental complaints, which can easily cost them their jobs.

Not many men teach elementary school. Greg Mullenholz wrote, “[T]here’s the perception that if men teach young children, they must be predators or there must be something psychologically wrong with them.” This erroneous perception is harmful enough alone. When combined with homophobia, it’s devastating.

How many gay elementary school teachers are there? It’s hard to tell. To start with, there are 1,708,057 elementary school teachers in the United States (citation). I couldn’t find statistics for elementary school teachers specifically, but men make up approximately 2% of the kindergarten/pre-kindergarten workforce, and only 17% of the elementary/middle school workforce (citation). That suggests there are between 34,161 and 290,369 male elementary school teachers. Since 1.8% of adult American men self-identify as gay (citation), that suggests there are between 614 and 5,226 gay elementary school teachers in America.

Ollie Ollie Oxen Free is the story of a hero, because teachers who care about their students are heroes. Most teachers don’t show their heroism after getting crushed beneath a wall. Instead, they show it day after day, dealing with the joy, exhaustion, and often thankless heartache of their calling.

To be a teacher is hard enough. To do it while constantly in fear, constantly hiding part of yourself – that’s a nightmare that no one should have to endure.

Men who teach elementary school face prejudice and suspicion. LGTBQ teachers face prejudice and suspicion. In both cases, these negative feelings are unwarranted. If more people come from a place of empathy and understanding, then our schools will be a better place for teachers, and our students will be better off because of it.

The protagonist is Mr. Ginsberg because I wanted this story to be about a good teacher who is also a good husband, whose spouse happens to be another man. I wanted to honor the men who teach elementary school, to honor the many LGBTQ teachers in hiding, and to honor both kinds of teachers as heroes.

 

The Digital Antiquarian

Moonmist

by Jimmy Maher at March 12, 2015 04:00 PM

Moonmist

THE IMPLEMENTOR’S CREED

I create fictional worlds. I create experiences.

I am exploring a new medium for telling stories.

My readers should become immersed in the story and forget where they are. They should forget about the keyboard and the screen, forget everything but the experience. My goal is to make the computer invisible.

I want as many people as possible to share these experiences. I want a broad range of fictional worlds, and a broad range of “reading levels.” I can categorize our past works and discover where the range needs filling in. I should also seek to expand the categories to reach every popular taste.

In each of my works, I share a vision with the reader. Only I know exactly what the vision is, so only I can make the final decisions about content and style. But I must seriously consider comments and suggestions from any source, in the hope that they will make the sharing better.

I know what an artist means by saying, “I hope I can finish this work before I ruin it.” Each work-in-progress reaches a point of diminishing returns, where any change is as likely to make it worse as to make it better. My goal is to nurture each work to that point. And to make my best estimate of when it will reach that point.

I can’t create quality work by myself. I rely on other implementors to help me both with technical wizardry and with overcoming the limitations of the medium. I rely on testers to tell me both how to communicate my vision better and where the rough edges of the work need polishing. I rely on marketeers and salespeople to help me share my vision with more readers. I rely on others to handle administrative details so I can concentrate on the vision.

None of my goals is easy. But all are worth hard work. Let no one doubt my dedication to my art.

Stu Galley wrote the words you see above in early September of 1985, a time when Infocom was reeling through layoff after torturous layoff and looked very likely to be out of business in a matter of months. It served as a powerful affirmation of what Infocom really stood for, just as the misplaced dreams of Al Vezza and his Business Products people — grandiose in their own way but also so much more depressingly conventional — threatened to halt the dream of a new interactive literature in its tracks. “The Implementor’s Creed” is one of the most remarkable — certainly the most idealistic — texts to come out of Infocom. It’s also vintage Stu Galley, the Imp who couldn’t care less about Zork but burned with passion for the idea of interactive fiction actually worthy of its name.

Galley’s passion and its associated perfectionism could sometimes make his life very difficult. In the final analysis perhaps a better critic of interactive fiction than a writer of it — his advice was frequently sought and always highly valued by all of the other Imps for their own projects — he would be plagued throughout his years at Infocom by self-doubt and an inability to come up with the sorts of original plots and puzzles that seemed to positively ooze from the likes of Steve Meretzky. Galley’s first completed game, The Witness, was developed from an outline provided by Marc Blank and Dave Lebling, while for his second, Seastalker, he collaborated with the prolific (if usually uncredited) children’s author Jim Lawrence. After finishing Seastalker, he had the idea to write a Cold War espionage thriller, tentatively called Checkpoint: “You, an innocent train traveler in a foreign country, get mixed up with spies and have to be as clever as they to survive.” He struggled for six months with Checkpoint, almost as long as it took some Imps to create a complete game, before voluntarily shelving it: “The problem there was that the storyline wasn’t sufficiently well developed to make it really interesting. I guess I had a vision of a certain kind of atmosphere in the writing that was rather hard to bring off.” Suffering from writer’s block as he was, it seemed a very good idea to everyone to pair him up again with Lawrence late in 1985.

Just as Seastalker had been a Tom Swift, Jr., story with the serial numbers not-so-subtly filed away, the new game, eventually to be called Moonmist, would be crafted in the image of an even more popular children’s book protagonist with whom Lawrence had heaps of experience: none other than the original girl detective, Nancy Drew. She was actually fresher in Lawrence’s mind than Tom: he had spent much of his time during the first half of the 1980s anonymously churning out at least seven Nancy Drew novels for the Stratemeyer Syndicate, creators and owners of both the Tom and Nancy lines. As in Seastalker, you provide Moonmist with a name and gender when the game begins. The game and its accompanying feelies, however, would really kind of prefer it if you could see your way to playing as a female. Preferably as a female named “Nancy Drew,” if it’s all the same to you.

The plot is classic Nancy, a mystery set in a romantic old house, with a hint of the supernatural for spice. You’ve received a letter from your friend Tamara, for whom a semester abroad in Britain has turned into an engagement to a Cornish lord. It seems she has need for a girl detective. She’s living with her Lord Jack now at his Tresyllian Castle — chastely, in her own bedroom, of course — and all is not well. Lord Jack’s father, Lionel, was a globetrotting adventurer who recently died of “some sort of fatal jungle disease” that he may or may not have accidentally contracted. Lord Jack’s last girlfriend, the beautiful Deirdre, became entangled with his best friend Ian as well, and then allegedly committed suicide by throwing herself off some nearby cliffs after Jack broke it off with her in retaliation. Now her ghost is frequently seen haunting the castle and, Tamara claims, trying to kill her with poisonous spiders and snakes. Joining you, Lord Jack, Tamara, and Ian at the castle for a memorial dinner marking the first anniversary of Lord Lionel’s death are Vivien, a painter and sculptor and the local bohemian; Iris, a Mayfair debutante who may or may not have something going with Ian; Dr. Wendish, Lord Lionel’s old best mate; and a slick antique dealer named Montague Hyde who’s eager to buy up the castle’s contents and sell them to the highest bidder.

Labelled as an “Introductory” level game, Moonmist splits the difference between earlier Infocom games to bear its “Mystery” genre tag. It doesn’t use the innovative player-driven plot chronology of the most recent of those, Ballyhoo, opting like DeadlineThe Witness, and Suspect for a more simulationist turn-by-turn clock that gives you just a single night to solve the mystery. However, you the player don’t have to engage in the complicated, perfectly timed story interventions demanded by those earlier mysteries. After the events of the dinner party that sets the plot in motion, Moonmist is actually quite static, leaving you to your own devices to search the castle for clues and assemble a case that will reveal exactly what happened to Deirdre and who is dressing up as her ghost every night. (You didn’t think the ghost was real, did you? If so, you haven’t had much exposure to Nancy Drew or the works she spawned — like, for instance, Scooby-Doo.) You’ll also need to find a mysterious treasure brought back to Cornwall by Lord Lionel after one of his expeditions abroad. Depending on which version of Moonmist‘s mystery you’re playing, therein may also lie another nefarious plot.

But wait… which version? Yes. We’ve come to the most interesting innovation in Moonmist. The identity of the guilty one(s) and the nature of the treasure change in four variations of the plot, which you choose between in-character by telling the butler your “favorite color” at the beginning of the game: green, blue, red, or yellow. (I’ve listed them in general order of complexity and difficulty, and thus in the order you might want to try them if you play Moonmist for yourself.) Infocom had tried a branching plotline once before, in Cutthroats, but not handled it terribly well. There the plot suddenly branched randomly well over halfway through the game, leading you the intrepid diver to explore one of two completely different sunken shipwrecks. If the objective was to make an Infocom game last longer, the Cutthroats approach was nonsensical; it just resulted in two unusually short experiences that added up to a standard Infocom game, not a full-length experience that could somehow be experienced afresh multiple times. And randomly choosing the story branch was just annoying, forcing the player to figure out when the branch was about to happen, save, and then keep reloading until the story went in the direction she hadn’t yet seen. The worst-case scenario would have to be the player who never even realized that the branch was happening at all, who was just left thinking she’d paid a lot of money for a really short adventure game.

While it’s not without problems of its own, Moonmist‘s approach makes a lot more sense. I do wish you were allowed to name your color a bit later; this would save you from having to play through a long sequence of identical introductions and preparations for the dinner party that kicks off the mystery in earnest. Still, Moonmist‘s decision to reuse the same stage set, as it were — rooms, objects, and characters — in the service of four different plots is a clever one, especially in light of the limitations of the 128 K Z-Machine. It’s of course an approach to ludic mystery that already had a long history by the time of Moonmist, beginning with the board game Cluedo back in 1949 and including in the realm of computer games the randomized mysteries of Electronic Arts’s not-quite-successful Murder on the Zinderneuf and the hand-crafted plots of Accolade’s stellar Killed Until Dead amongst others.

Moonmist is, alas, less successful at crafting 4 mysteries out of the same cast and stage than Killed Until Dead is at making 21. Moonmist‘s variations simply aren’t varied enough. Although the perpetrator, the treasure, and the incriminating evidence change, the process of finding them and assembling a case is the same from variation to variation. After you’ve solved one of the cases, and thus know the steps you need to follow, solving the others is fairly trivial. The process of finding Lord Lionel’s treasure is literally a scavenger hunt, a matter of following a trail of not-terribly-challenging clues in the form of written messages until you arrive at its conclusion. The guilty guest, meanwhile, is readily identifiable as the one person who leaves the dinner party and starts poking restlessly around the rest of the castle. And once the treasure is secured and the guilty one identified it’s mostly just a matter of searching that person’s room carefully to come up with the incriminating evidence you need and making an “arrest.” The changes from variation to variation amount to no more than a handful of objects placed in different rooms or swapped out and replaced with others, along with a bare few paragraphs of altered text. Although they’re not randomly generated, the cases feel unsatisfying enough that they almost just as well could have been; there’s a distinct “Colonel Mustard in the lounge with the candlestick” feel about the whole experience. Even the exact words that the guilty party says to you never change from variation to variation. Most damningly, Moonmist never even begins to succeed in giving you the feeling that you’re actually solving a mystery — the feeling that was so key to the appeal of Infocom’s original trilogy of mystery games. You’re just jumping through the hoops that will satisfy the game and cause it to spit out the full story in the form of the few bland sentences that follow your unmasking of the mastermind.

Some of these shortcomings can doubtless be laid at the feet of the aging 128 K Z-Machine, whose limitations were beginning to bite hard into Infocom’s own expectations of even a modest work like Moonmist by 1986. Even reusing most of the environment apparently didn’t give Galley and Lawrence enough room to craft four mysteries that truly felt unique. On the contrary, they were forced to save space by off-loading many of the room descriptions into a tourist’s guide to Tresyllian Castle included with the documentation. So-called “paragraph books” fleshing out stories (and providing copy protection) via text that couldn’t be packed into the game proper would soon become a staple of CRPGs of the latter half of the decade wishing to be a bit more ambitious in their storytelling than simple hack-and-slashers like Wizardry and The Bard’s Tale. But a CRPG is a very different sort of experience from a text adventure, and what’s tolerable or even kind of fun in the former doesn’t work at all in the latter. Having to constantly flip through a slick tourist brochure for room descriptions in Moonmist absolutely kills the atmosphere of a setting that should have fairly dripped with it. Tresyllian Castle is, after all, set on a spooky moor lifted straight out of The Hound of the Baskervilles, and comes complete with everything an American tourist thinks a British castle should, including a hedge maze (thankfully not implemented as an in-game maze), a dungeon, and a network of secret passages.

The text’s scarcity is doubly disappointing because the writing, when it’s there, is… well, I’m not sure I’d label it “great” or even “good,” but it is perfectly evocative of the sort of formulaically comforting children’s literature Jim Lawrence had so much experience crafting. How you react to it may very well depend on your own childhood experiences with Nancy Drew — or, perhaps more likely if you’re male like me, with her Stratemeyer Syndicate stablemates The Hardy Boys (yet another line for which Lawrence, inevitably, wrote a number of books). Just the idea of a white-haired old man raised in the swing era trying to write from the perspective of a 1980s teenager is weird; Nancy, born a teenager in 1930, is like Barbie and Bart Simpson eternally stuck at the same age both physically and mentally. Given that Nancy is, like Barbie, largely an aspirational fantasy for those who read her, Lawrence tries to make her life everything he thinks a contemporary twelve-year-old girl — the sweet spot of the Nancy Drew demographic — wishes her life could be in a few years. And given the artificial nature of the whole concept and its means of production, Nancy, and therefore Moonmist, inhabit a sort of cartoon reality where people routinely behave in ways that we never, ever see them behaving in real life. See, for example, your first meeting with Ian and Iris, nonsensically dancing together to pass the time before dinner “to the faint sound of rock music from a portable radio on a table nearby.” I mean, really, who the hell starts dancing just to pass the time, and who dances to the “faint sound of rock music?” Once or twice the writing veers into the creepy zone, as when Lawrence declares, “My, what a fine figure of a woman!” when you take off your clothes preparatory to taking a bath. But mostly it manages to be quaint and nostalgically charming with its mixture of Girl Power and romantic teenage giddiness.

"My fiance, Lord Jack Tresyllian," Tamara introduces him. "Jack, this is my friend from the States, Miss Nancy Drew."

"So you're that famous young sleuth whom the Yanks call Miss Sherlock!" says Lord Jack. "Tammy's told me about the mysteries you've solved -- but she never let on you looked so smashing! Welcome to Cornwall, Nancy luv!"

Before you know it, he sweeps you into his arms and kisses you warmly! Let's hope Tamara doesn't mind -- but for the moment all you can see are Lord Jack's dazzling sapphire-blue eyes.

Considered as an Infocom game rather than a Nancy Drew novel, however, Moonmist is afflicted with a terminal identity crisis. Infocom had been making a dangerous habit of conflating the idea of an introductory-level game for adults with that of a game for children for some time already by the time it appeared. Seastalker, the first game to explicitly identify itself as a kinder, gentler Infocom product, had originally been marketed upon its release in June of 1984 as a story for children, trailblazer for a whole line of “Interactive Fiction Junior” that would hopefully soon be selling madly to the same generation of kids that was snapping up Choose Your Own Adventure paperbacks by the millions. Sadly, that never happened — doubtless not least because a Choose Your Own Adventure book cost $2 or so, Seastalker $30 or more. Upon the release exactly one year later of Brian Moriarty’s Wishbringer, an introductory-level game written using the same adult diction of most of Infocom’s other games, the “Junior” line was quietly dropped and Seastalker relabeled to join Wishbringer as an “Introductory” game, despite the fact that the two were quite clearly different beasts entirely. Then, in October of 1986, Moonmist was also released as simply an adult Introductory” game — but, as just about the entire article that precedes this paragraph attests, Jim Lawrence and Stu Galley apparently didn’t get a memo somewhere along the line. Moonmist the digital artifact was, in opposition to Moonmist the marketing construct, plainly children’s literature. At best — particularly if she used to read Nancy Drew — the adult player was likely to find Moonmist nostalgically charming. At worst, it could read as condescending. Any computer game released into the cutthroat industry of 1986 was facing a serious problem if it didn’t know exactly what it was and whom could be expected to buy it. Moonmist, alas, wasn’t quite sure of either.

That said, Moonmist actually did somewhat better than one might have expected given this confusion. Its final sales would end up at around 33,000 copies, worse than those of Seastalker but not dramatically so. There’s good reason for its modern status as one of Infocom’s less-remembered and less-loved games: it’s definitely one of the slighter works in the canon. Certainly only hardcore fans are likely to summon the motivation to complete all four cases. Despite its shortcomings, though, others may find it worth sampling one or two cases, and historians may be interested in experiencing this early interactive take on Nancy Drew published many years before the long-running — indeed, still ongoing — series of graphic adventures that Her Interactive began releasing in the late 1990s.

Moonmist would mark the last time that Stu Galley or Jim Lawrence would be credited as the author of an Infocom game. Lawrence returned to print fiction, where he could make a lot more money a lot more quickly than he could writing text adventures. Galley remained at Infocom until the bitter end, working on technology and on one or two more game ideas that would frustratingly never come to fruition. Given just how in love he was with the potential of interactive fiction, it does seem a shame that he never quite managed to write a game that hit it out of the park. On the other hand, his quiet enthusiasm and wisdom probably contributed more than any of us realize to many of those Infocom games that did.

(In addition to the Get Lamp interviews, this article draws from some of the internal emails and other documents that were included on the Masterpieces of Infocom CD. An interview with Galley in the June 1986 issue of Zzap! was also useful.)


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