Planet Interactive Fiction

August 31, 2015

Sibyl Moon Games

GameLoop: Dating Sims

by Carolyn VanEseltine at August 31, 2015 08:01 PM

Earlier this August, I attended Boston GameLoop, an annual game development unconference. I’ve been going for years, and I’m always impressed by the sheer wealth of knowledge available.

I take notes. Lots of notes. And I’m writing up my notes from this year (in fleshed-out form) for everyone who wasn’t there.

GameLoop participants: Apart from the discussion leaders, I have not attached anyone’s names to these writeups, and I’ve mostly scrubbed personal anecdotes out to maintain the privacy of attendees. Please contact me (carolyn at if:

  • I included something you said that should not be included, or
  • I quoted you without attributing (when you would prefer attribution), or
  • You think I got something from the discussion wrong

…and I’ll make a correction. Thanks!

Dating Sims

Discussion leaders: Arden Ripley and Amanda Cosmos

Arden Ripley: created Kindness Coins, currently working on Date or Die
Amanda Cosmos: ran the #iluJam dating sim game jam, also wrote “How to understand and play dating sims” on Polygon

There’s been a huge resurgence of dating sims lately. Many Japanese dating sims are getting localized, particularly on PS Vita and Steam.

There’s a big difference between Japanese dating sims and Western dating sims. In the Western perception, any game that involves dating someone is a dating sim, so all romantic visual novels qualify.

Dating sims are character-driven stories. It’s a challenge to make characters that actually induce emotion.

Hatoful Boyfriend was released in 2011, but it’s becoming increasingly popular lately because it’s been ported to modern systems. It was originally a commentary on dating sims. Why people love Hatoful Boyfriend is what happens after you date all the pigeons – it unlocks another story entirely.

Dating sims should be seen as story databases. The expectation isn’t that people will play once – it’s that people will play repeatedly and see all the branches.

Another way to look at this: dating sims are completionist puzzle games. You’re not being asked to roleplay. You’re solving puzzles based on how well you know the characters.

The dating sim experience isn’t really about dating. It’s about observing stories + completionism.

Virtue’s Last Reward – a visual novel, but not a dating sim. A good example of the completionist puzzle view: make all the choices, see all the paths, put together the real story. Handles branching and relationships well.

People have “favorite routes” through dating sims – but that doesn’t necessarily correspond to “favorite character”. It can mean that route has the best story instead.

Dating sims can be a safe environment to explore problematic things. Magical Diary – this is the story of a super toxic relationship, and it doesn’t pretend otherwise. Diabolik Lovers – extremely popular in Japan; visual novel about being preyed upon by vampires.

Dating sims are essentially a safe space. In both of the examples above, you know what you’ve signed up for and you can walk away if you want to.

If you want to write a dating sim, Ren’Py is a fantastic tool for making dating sims. It’s very user-friendly.

Use static art assets. Animations take too much time.

This genre is easy and nontechnical, but rein yourself in. The more branches and more characters you have, the more overwhelming the writing will be.

Stat-based sections are whole new layers of complexity. Handle with care.

If you’re doing a dating sim game jam, you want a good vertical slice – maybe just one route, not many. Save writing time by constricting the main story and reusing narrative beats.

Some sims shift you down routes as you make choices. Others give you the opportunity to explicitly choose what path you want to go down.

Japanese dating sims are highly restrictive – they usually don’t allow you to date both guys and girls. Western devs have been increasing diversity and changing the ways PCs are represented.

Some games go over the top in ridiculousness – you can date skeletons, date the school mascot, etc.

Procedural generation + dating sims don’t combine well to date. People are into dating sims for the story, and procedural generation reduces the amount of story available. The more you substitute systems for writing, the more generic everything gets. Remember that character and story are the draw!

Some games change the dialogue if you delay (Ladykiller in a Bind, Alpha Protocol) <– keep in mind this technique reduces accessibility.

Mass Effect syndrome: when players make choices, but don’t feel the results match what they chose <– this is why playtesting is so important!

It’s OK for players to die, get dumped, etc, as long as the story is interesting.

80 Days (also not a dating sim) is an interesting example of collaborative play, because you’re not making in-world choices so much as directing the narrative.

Some dating sims have blank slate characters, some have preexisting characters.

Increase story richness by decreasing story width. With too much breadth, players get lost. Limitation matters.

Exciting new elements gaining traction in the genre: interesting failure states, and games that are not necessarily 1:1 monogamous.

Entry level dating sims
Sweet Fuse
Hatoful Boyfriend
Analogue: A Hate Story
Magical Diary
Loren the Amazon Princess
Tusks: The Orc Dating Sim (this is in development)

King of Dragon Pass was also mentioned – it’s not a dating sim, but has some similarities.


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Help! It’s A Hero!

by Carolyn VanEseltine at August 31, 2015 08:01 PM

Hero logo 1

Save the hero!

Wait. No. Second try.

Save the monster FROM the hero!

Navigate the dungeon (read: wide-open space) to find hidden monster parts (read: in boxes)! (But they really are monster parts.)

As you increase your monster’s Stealthiness or Scariness or Sneakiness, you increase your monster’s chances of survival. But unless you can figure out what kind of hero is coming, you won’t know how to maximize your monster’s survival!


“Help! It’s A Hero!” was written in 48 hours for Ludum Dare 33, based on the theme “You Are The Monster”.  I liveblogged the entire creation process for this game.

Help! It’s A Hero!
Release date: August 21, 2015
Format: Graphical (made with Unity)

Play in browser (requires the Unity web player)

Windows (windowed mode recommended – fullscreen is not working correctly)

screenshot 5


Emily Short

August Link Assortment

by Emily Short at August 31, 2015 07:00 PM


It’s been a good month for revisiting classics. Andrew Plotkin’s classic Shade is now out in a French version.

Meanwhile, Adam Cadre’s groundbreaking 1998 IF game Photopia is now available as a stand-alone iOS app, which advertises some UI updates. These aren’t updates in the sense of leaving the parser behind or even offering any particular extra tools for dealing with it — Hadean Lands has more of that kind of thing — but the transition from one color passage to another is slightly animated, and the colors themselves feel like a more natural fit for iOS than they did for the janky old interpreters for which Photopia was originally written.

Finally, Wade Clarke’s Leadlight Gamma — a reworking of his comp game Leadlight, but for modern IF engines — is on sale at for $1.00 until the end of August (which is to say, the rest of today).


Another piece of IF-related excitement this month: the debut of Sub-Q magazine, which has published three new and one reprint IF story, as well as a bunch of interview and blog posts. This interview with Chris Klimas gives his thoughts on Twine and where it’s going.


Digital Antiquarian is always good value, but I especially enjoyed this article on graphical adventure design and its flaws, which looks at Space Quest and Uninvited.


So far there are only teasers or advance websites for these games, but I’m curious about two forthcoming IF-y pieces: Sun Dogs and Wheels of Aurelia.

sundogsSun Dogs is set in our solar system and appears to have mechanics based on the orbits of the planets, but with a large number of events described in text depending on where the player is and the state of the orbits. It will include extensive modding tools for those who want to expand on its range of options. Anticipated release date is in late October. It’s currently being Greenlit, so if this sounds interesting, you can vote for it on Steam. To quote their own pitch:

Sun Dogs is a game of exploring our solar system once humanity has spread across it. As you travel, you gather items, skills, and alterations to your body. These will affect the text of the world and your journey through it.

WOA01Wheels of Aurelia, meanwhile, pitches itself as half driving game and half interactive fiction, and concerns a female driver in 1970s Italy. That, and the art released so far looks amazingly cool. There’s also a mailing list to sign up for updates, or people going to Fantastic Arcade can get a first look.

Both of these look to combine location-based models with textual gameplay, and that combination has worked out really well in other contexts, from Sunless Sea to 80 Days. So I am curious and optimistic.


At Offworld, Leigh Alexander writes about &maybetheywontkillyou, a game with a digital version but primarily designed as a live roleplaying experience reflecting unjust policing standards and the experience of black Americans. One of the things that strikes me as interesting about this is that the antagonist player doesn’t play as any individual police officer or white person, but as the System, representing the cumulative unfairness of a situation made up of the choices and unconscious biases of many different individuals. The press kit refers to this as a performative empathy experience.


Also at Offworld: Here’s Anna Anthropy on what makes for accessible game-making tools. (And if you like that, you might also be interested in Kate Compton’s work on casual creators, tools allowing non-experts to make art, music, dancing animations, and more.)


Daniel Stelzer has been posting what he calls sketchbook pieces: standalone bits of code that aren’t enough for a full game or might be too gimmicky to belong in one, but that were interesting exercises in themselves. I like this idea; I think small things like this can be beautiful and informative even if they’re not complete games, and I think framing their release as “sketches” makes it a little more possible to put these things out there.


Failbetter Games is offering incubation opportunities for London-based indie game developers, including some office space and informal mentoring.


Warren Spector writes for Gamasutra about how game choice without consequence is valueless. I disagree — I think there’s room for reflective and aesthetic choice, and I’ve specifically defended Season 1 of Walking Dead about its use of choice that doesn’t always lead to major branching. But I certainly share Spector’s dislike for Fable-style metering of the player’s choices, and simplistic moral feedback to the player. So there’s that.


Daniel Parker writes about anxiety as produced by and simulated by Queers in Love at the End of the World and Creatures Such As We.


Brenda Neotenomie has posted some notes about composing the soundtrack for Neon Haze. Interesting in its own right, and doubly so because there’s relatively little IF with audio or discussion of the thinking behind it.


Seven days remain to submit gamebooks for this year’s Windhammer Prize.


Stuart Dredge writes on Victoria Bennett and Adam Clarke’s Minecraft poem My Mother’s House in honor of Bennett’s mother, who has been diagnosed with cancer.


From the BBC, a story of computational creativity for T-shirt slogans, gone horribly wrong.


Of possible interest to Counterfeit Monkey fans, here’s a cool article about some unusual constructed languages.

Sibyl Moon Games

ChoiceScript adds RandomTest features

by Carolyn VanEseltine at August 31, 2015 05:01 AM

Dan Fabulich and Choice of Games just announced three new options for ChoiceScript’s randomtest feature that should reduce headaches in testing. Now, you can check boxes for:

1) Avoiding the use of previously-selected choices. This will help find bugs faster, especially edge case bugs.

2) Reducing the display text (like randomtest_nodisp) so that you can run 10,000 iterations of your game without looking at 10,000 sets of choices. (Okay, this is actually an uncheck, but you get the idea.)

3) Pronoun highlighting, where hardcoded pronouns are colored differently from pronouns stored in variables.

You can download the updated version from the ChoiceScript GitHub page (or go here for the full ChoiceScript zip.)

The Best Baklava

by Carolyn VanEseltine at August 31, 2015 01:01 AM

I was in a lousy mood when I walked into the Armenian bakery this morning. Last night was hectic and miserable, because my fiancee’s birthday party was interrupted by a trip to the ER. She is okay, but many frustrating things happened, and we were both feeling exhausted and abraded in the aftermath. I didn’t know if shawarma would help, but I thought it might, and good enough.

I ordered two beef shawarma rollups, and while I waited (this was clearly not McDonald’s!) I wandered over to look at the case of baklava and kunefeh, which were variously labelled for pistachio and cream and walnuts and hazelnut and other delicious-sounding things.


Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The man behind the counter came over. “Baklava?” he inquired.

“Yes, I’d like three of those pistachio roll-ups,” I said.

Instead of boxing my baklava, he studied me for a moment. “Have you had baklava before?”

“Yes, I have.”

“Have you had our baklava?”

“…no?” It was my first time in the store.

“Here, try our baklava first.” He cut half a piece of baklava for me and pushed it across the counter.

Thanks to my low mood, I thought I was going to fail some kind of baklava appreciation test – “Leave our store at once, you do not deserve baklava!” – but then he broke into a huge grin. “You will love it,” he told me. “We make the best baklava.”

I took a bite. It was sticky with honey and incredibly flaky and crunched softly with the pecans. As I was chewing, he told me, “We make our own filo dough in house. That’s why it’s soft and not hard. Our baklava is so good.”

First off, his baklava was amazing. (Armenian Market and Bakery, Watertown, Massachusetts.)

But what really overwhelmed me was how happy he was to share his amazing baklava with me. He knew it was damned good, and he was proud of making something so good. I’d already placed my order, but he wanted to see my reaction.

I’m not a baklava connoisseur. I don’t know how his baklava ranks up in the Grand Order of Baklava. But I do know the world is a better place because his baklava exists.

If you put something good into the world, you deserve to be happy about it. You deserve to be proud of what you do.

And driving home, I thought: I’m really bad at that.

Many creators have trouble celebrating their work. Ann Friedman created a useful chart called the Disapproval Matrix, which breaks negative feedback down into rational vs. irrational and “know you” vs. “don’t know you”. The “irrational/know you” quadrant is labeled “frenemies”, and one of the entries is “yourself”.

disapproval matrix

I’m proud of my creative work – but I wish it were better, and my weasel brain thinks that “not better” means “bad”. Those opinions go to war whenever I think about my writing, let alone talk about it.

So I lean on hard evidence to show you that I’m competent, and I lean on other opinions to tell you my work is good. I rarely show my happiness, and I rarely show my pride, and there’s usually a disclaimer. And I never sound like the man who makes the best baklava.

But today, I’m going to be braver.

Hi! My name is Carolyn, and I make interactive fiction games.

A few favorites:

Beet the Devil is a vegetable-laden religious comedy. The puzzles are inspired, thematic, and ridiculous, and at least one is really satisfying (in the way That One Puzzle from Spider and Web is satisfying). It’s worth playing for the puppy alone.

18 Rooms to Home is experimental and artistic, but it’s also fun. If you enjoy Brandon Sanderson’s Reckoners series, you’ll probably enjoy this game. It’s serialized, so if you’re up to date on 18 Rooms, you can join a group of people talking about each release, just like everyone watching a TV show together. Also, you can see Room 15 on Google Maps, which pleases me greatly.

This Is A Real Thing That Happened is only about five minutes long, but in that “perfect short story” way, because it’s exactly what I wanted to make. It’s also one of the truest games I’ve ever written, both because it’s nonfiction and because of its metafictional take on “what is a game?”

I also write a twice-weekly game dev blog at Sibyl Moon, which fills a key niche at the intersection of indie game dev and interactive fiction. My writing is honest, clear, and entertaining, influenced by a unique perspective ranging from AAA producer to solo IF author.

My games are amazing, and my blog is important. I’m glad that I can do this creative work, and I’m proud of my contributions to the medium, and I’m joyous about sharing both with you.

That’s my “best baklava” – an explanation of what I do and how it’s good, without any disclaimers or apologies.

What’s yours?


My best baklava is supported by Patreon subscribers. Please support my baklava.


August 30, 2015

Emily Short

The Island of Doctor Wooby (Ryan Veeder)

by Emily Short at August 30, 2015 06:00 PM

Screen Shot 2015-08-17 at 1.44.37 PM

All around you, huge white ribs slice out of the ground like angry grabbing chthonic fingers, and from the center of this ossified ampitheatre a colossal pointed skull looks up at you with toothy indifference. This is a macabre location.

The Island of Doctor Wooby is a short, friendly piece of parser IF, with the chatty narrator, solid parsing, and lightweight puzzles familiar from a lot of Ryan Veeder’s work. It’s somewhat shorter than Dial C for Cupcakes and probably a bit easier than Nautilisia. The premise is that you’re exploring a toy-like island covered with felt dinosaurs sewn by Doctor Wooby.

As for the dinosaurs, their names and characteristics are procedurally generated, giving them different colors of felt and different physical attributes, as well as a range of cute behaviors. You can pet them, feed them, and interact with them in a few other ways — which makes sense considering that Island of Doctor Wooby was an entry in PetJam.

Several of the puzzles turn on recognizing that you’re dealing with artificial things rather than real ones, and therefore you can deal with them differently than you might initially have expected. The game acknowledges its own status as an artificial construct, too:

The sand isn’t diggable in this game. This may be because its components are too securely joined. Maybe it is intended to be a sympathetic character, and digging it would violate the contract of nonviolence implicit in this game’s player-parser relationship. Or perhaps “digging a sand” is just bizarre concept.

In one spot, a river scene is described as “Edenic”; elsewhere, a description of a garden is supplied by a substantial quote from Paradise Lost, though the things described in the quotation are of course not really present, and an attempt to interact with them provokes a disambiguation asking if you’re referring to “the literary flowers”. The setting is thus both childlike and prelapsarian, and yet neither the felt nor the poetry is quite real. In this respect it’s a little reminiscent of Delphina’s House, though DH allows the player to swap between realities rather than making them simultaneously present as Veeder does.

Ultimately the effect of all this remains primarily playful. Gentle, charming, took me about 10-15 minutes to play.

Wade's Important Astrolab

Switching to Andromeda

by Wade ( at August 30, 2015 09:53 AM

Through things I said recently in a podcast, and in extremely vague form on the front of my Heiress Software homepage, I communicated that the next Inform 7 IF game I would do would be 'the murder one'.

I expected and expect this to be very difficult to do, for concept and design reasons. That's on top of my having had few specific story ideas for it yet.

The thing at the moment is that I need my creativity to be bolstering my motivations in life in general, not vexing me. Persisting with the planning stage of something really difficult ('the murder game') has been vexing me. So I've decided to switch to a project I'm confident will start to give me some gratification immediately. The third listed project on the Heiress webpage, namely 'A sci-fi game set in the Andromeda universe'.


If you don't know about the Andromeda games, they're a series of parser-driven sci-fi adventures started by Marco Innocenti with Andromeda Awakening, which he entered in IFComp 2011. His sequel, Andromeda Apocalypse, won the 2012 IFComp. Then Marco held two Andromeda Legacy competitions in which he invited other IF authors to make games set in the same universe. I co-judged both competitions.

The first comp produced Joey Jones's Andromeda Dreaming (the winner) and Paul Lee's Tree and Star. Both games expanded on the Andromeda mythologies in interesting ways.

The second comp produced Jim Warrenfeltz's Andromeda Ascending (the winner) and Joey Jones's Andromeda Genesis (not on IFDB now, but probably will be real soon thanks to my badgering).

I'm replaying all the games at the moment. I need to revisit Ascending in particular to remember how it fit in. I found Genesis to be disappointing when Jones's Dreaming was so good.

Collectively, the Andromeda games show that the concept of different authors producing IF parser games set in one universe is both viable and doable. The games fit together far better than anyone involved expected – not that there was even a rule saying they had to – and what's interesting is that the connections were produced entirely by the individual authors. There was almost no oversight or top-down coordination. The authors just kept generating material that fit into the sockets of mythology established by the original game, and by Marco's 'cheat sheet'.

I suppose there are actually a lot of examples of this kind of thing going on in fiction at large. What immediately comes to mind is Star Wars's expanded universe. All of those offshoot novels and comics that had to submit to some rules set above them. Maybe what helps the phenomenon work in any venue is when the people involved are attracted to the original material enough that they want to stick to its rules. The more you follow some of the rules, the more you may feel like you're a part of the entity you admire.

Andromeda is not Star Wars. This is unfortunate in the sense that I would like to be involved in a franchise that would rake in millions of dollars. But Andromeda Awakening has something in common with Star Wars in that it established a universe mysterious, charming and open enough to attract admirers interested in expanding it. The results so far have shown an impressive coherence of aesthetic, and been impressive in general. And I want to join in and add my bit.


As this will be a full-sized game, I'll have the luxury of my bit being large-ish. I've had some good conceptual ideas and specific story ideas so far, and I continue to cogitate on them and write them down (type them in) as they come.

Technically, I'm concerned about progress on various Inform fronts based on the example of the past few years. (I list these gripes and apologise for them about once a year on This year they are additionally informed by my experience of selling Leadlight Gamma.) My concerns will probably cause me to skew towards having fewer bells and whistles in the game than I'd like. There are lots of Inform play venues with no sound, no graphics, no colours or none of the above. There's no up-to-date Mac interpreter. No Mac interpreter advances for four years. No screen reader support on Macs.

I found it headachey trying to get Leadlight Gamma to deal with all these hurdles as best it could in a commercial context. A wise man (David Kinder) once said to me, 'Don't write around interpreter bugs.' That inspired me to strike forward as much as I could, but when I found I was going to have to tell players to be mindful of problems A and B and C and D to compensate for all the exceptions in the game delivery system, I slid backwards, because I don't want to tell players that stuff in the case of a commercial game. People don't want to pay for a game and then kick off their experience with it by reading through a list of potential problems and omissions it may exhibit.

Ultimately I balanced the game features so I could retain some moderately advanced tech (the dynamic map works everywhere) and only have to warn players about a few possible problems. Doing all the accessibility work on Leadlight Gamma and then not being able to share it with Mac users remains a particularly teeth-gritty point.

Regarding the content of my Andromeda game, I won't say more than what I've already said. I'm not much for talking about a thing I'm working on. That's what interacting with the thing once it's finished is for. I know that's not what the kids want these days. They want ceaseless updates and promo stills and character information and stretch goals and not-too-spoilery-spoilers and personality videos and ARGH!!!...

I might cave in later. Otherwise, at least on the front of this game, I'll see you when it's done. Which will not be for a fair while, obviously.

August 28, 2015

Web Interactive Fiction

Creating an IF CMS

by David Cornelson at August 28, 2015 03:05 PM


So I’ve convinced myself that framing my web IF work with FyreVM and the new Glulx-TypeScript virtual machine as a new IF specific content management system is the way to go.

The logic in my head goes something like this:

  • Author creates story in Inform 7 using custom extensions for FyreVM and web release.
  • Author uploads story file to, a new site that will be an online CMS for IF stories.
  • The site will actually load and play through the entire game using a built-in walk-through provided by the author via a custom extension. While it’s doing this, it will identify all of the locations/states and content types. This may seem like a lot of work, but if the walk-through is correct, FyreVM can record all of the output into a database.
  • Offer the Author a standard template and tools to layout all of the content types. Drag and drop, previewing, and filtering can be used to make the template work fluidly. The author will be able to page through turns to see how everything looks at any given point in the story.
  • Offer alternate templates, provided by or by other template builders.
  • Once all of the content types have been implemented in a selected template, the author can choose to publish privately or publicly.
  • When the story is changed and uploaded again, the site will determine if there are any deltas (new content types) and where those content types are in the walk-through. The author can implement those new content types and re-publish.
  • The site would provide detailed information about content types, their usage, testing/blessed, and percent completed.
  • Users can be directed to the finished story template and play/read the authors story.

Some caveats:

  • could be used to publish a “standard” user experience with the status line, body, and command line, but this would not be the default template. My goal is to inspire new user experiences.
  • I can envision a story using multiple templates, so this will be a consideration as I build the CMS.
  • The source code for the CMS will be on GitHub and freely available to self-host.
  • Authors would be able to upload images or have them extracted from a blorb file.
  • I have no idea what tools I’ll use to build this, but probably AngularJS 2.
  • I would embrace any offers from those wanting to join and make it successful.
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Choice of Games

New Hosted Game! “So, You’re Possessed!” by Tony R. Smith & Beth Townsend

by Dan Fabulich at August 28, 2015 03:05 PM

There’s a new game in our Hosted Games program ready for you to play! Love a good “demon meets human, demon uses human, demon unlocks apocalyptic force within human” story? Help uncover the mysterious plot that draws an eclectic group of divine beings together and save your soul! So, You’re Possessed! is a 50,000-word contemporary fantasy novel where your choices impact how the tale unfolds. It’s entirely text-based—without graphics or sound effects—and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination. Can you keep your dark side in check when your world turns upside down? Will you nurture a team

Continue Reading...

Emily Short

This Book is a Dungeon (Nathan Meunier)

by Emily Short at August 28, 2015 12:00 PM

Screen Shot 2015-08-19 at 1.14.01 PM

As indicated in this screenshot, This Book is a Dungeon is a) a Kindle book about game development with Twine and b) the Twine-based dungeon developed as described in the book. The word “Bookumentary” makes my teeth itch a little, so I will pretend I didn’t see that. And I can’t comment on the success of this piece as a self-publishing experiment, so I’ll just talk about the first two aspects.

The book is 81 pages long, which means that the book and game together are definitely far outside the usual “I will play this in 20 minutes in my lunch break” realm occupied by most Twine pieces — though it’s written in a breezy, confident, slightly repetitive style that makes it a pretty fast read:

It’s truly rare to find me doing only ONE thing at a time. Ever. I’ll admit that my rampant ADD is partly to blame. I try to work this incessant need for chaos and spinning plate juggling to my advantage, though it sometimes bites me in the ass. I can’t ignore this one, though. The drive is too great. Plus it’s new and shiny, so off we go!

A lot of what Meunier has to say is about his emotional landscape while writing his game, how he planned the press push for it, and a little about how his work fits into his day-to-day economic reality, a topic of some discussion around indie/IF blogs as well. He mentions some of his design motivations — wanting to produce something more visual than most IF, something that provided guidance rather than just a wall of text — but mostly he isn’t going into deep analysis of specific design decisions, nor is he explaining the technical details of amending Twine to support his added features.

I’m an avid reader of fairly technical making-of pieces, so I wouldn’t have minded more discussion of exactly when he needed to resort to javascript hackery or where he found specific macros. But part of Meunier’s avowed purpose here is to talk about Twine as an accessible route into game-making, and perhaps the book wouldn’t have made that point quite as strongly if he’d started with the tech nuances.

The portions that talk about self-publishing do go into a bit more detail, about things ranging from how to take pre-orders on Amazon to the advantages of putting a free demo up on to how to write a press release. The press release sample Meunier puts in his book is slightly on the cute side for my tastes, but the email he sent me offering me a review copy was really well targeted. (I actually thought at the time not only “I should check out this thing” but “this email could stand as an example to other people trying to get me to check out their work.”) There’s some solid advice on this topic.

The book suggests that you can take your choice about whether to play first or read first, but I actually approached it as an interleaved experience — read some of the book, then play some of the game, then back to the book — and this worked pretty well for me, because Meunier starts out talking about how he built the introduction and then moves further in, so you’re not getting spoilers from page one.

What about the game? It looks like this:

Screen Shot 2015-08-19 at 1.42.34 PM

It’s a dungeon-crawl executed in Twine, just as the description might lead you to expect. There’s a fair amount of moving back and forth between rooms to get to where you’re going. There’s an inventory. There are combat sequences with randomized portions. There are fetch-quests for NPCs, traps and locked doors and lightweight puzzles. Death without warning is common, and when it happens you have to restart. It’s not a roguelike — the layout of the levels isn’t randomized — but the experience is otherwise a bit old-school even in parser IF terms.

I wanted to like this more than I did. I love seeing rich world models and things that might once have been parser games produced through a more accessible medium, and though I’m not always a huge fan of pixel art, I liked some of this specific pixel art and the level map. So I was well-disposed when I started.

However, two things put me off it a bit. One: the setting goes right for the disgust-horror without much preamble, so that you’re wading through body parts and sorting jars of embalmed, worm-infested monsters within a couple of rooms of the entrance. It’s more squicky than frightening, and as far as I can tell it’s essentially gross for grossness’ sake. Meunier describes this as the “WTF vibe” in his book. I know I review lots of works with body horror here. Porpentine’s work often captures something that is both beautiful and disgusting at the same time — sharpened curves of bone, affectionate slime creatures. Tom McHenry presents the physically distasteful as a test of the player’s will to become a Horse Master. Liz England and Michael Lutz use body horror and grotesque imagery to represent something horribly wrong with a relationship. This Book is a Dungeon skips the beautiful, touching, or emotionally grounded aspects. As a consequence, I was just repelled, rather than repelled and intrigued.

Reading Meunier’s bookumentary — sorry, I don’t want to let that word go — I felt bad about having this reaction to these scenes. He writes about how much effort he put into getting them disgusting enough, and the horror he felt at imagining these situations happening to himself. But the emotional connection wasn’t there for me.

The other issue, though, is the fairness of the game design. I got killed, killed, killed, and eventually gave up. There are no save-game options I could find. The splash screen does let you jump into one of two checkpoints in the game, but solving after death is still likely to involve a fair amount of repetition. People who are more into the game’s genre might have more inclination to push through that.

Meunier’s book several times mentions the idea that the deaths are shedding more light on the world in which you find yourself. In theory, I approve; if you’re killing the player frequently, it’s worthwhile making those deaths part of the storytelling. That is not the experience I had, though. What I learned from dying was “there are arbitrary traps and monsters in this dungeon!”

This is because I didn’t have much hypothetical framework to put new information into. The dungeon crawl starts with the player being drawn into a magical book from an unknown source. It’s a portal story, but doesn’t use the portal to establish the protagonist’s character, culture, or needs in the external world. Falling into the book means that the rules and stakes of the real world do not apply, but I need some new rules and stakes to care about.

Once in the dungeon, I don’t have a clearer question than “What is going on here?” — indeed, I don’t have strong reasons to think that anything is going on here, other than randomness. So, for instance, discovering a tentacled monster in a pool does not fill in gaps about the ecosystem of life in this dungeon. It just makes me think that maybe the author read the same Rose Estes CYOA with the water weird I read as a kid. The more coherent the opening and the more the player has well-formed questions, the more likely she is to plug new pieces of information into that understanding of the world.

It may be that had I played a bunch more times, I would have uncovered a thematic unity that made sense of all this. As far as I got, it felt like random encounters for the sake of it, except without the tactical combat challenge that makes e.g. Kerkerkruip interesting.

So after a few iterations I went back and finished the book without playing any more. That was fine. I didn’t need to have played the late game to make sense of the rest of the book, which sometimes slides into self-help-umentary:

If you get anything out of reading this, I hope it’s the idea that YOU can make things happen. You can do this, even if you don’t know how. You can create something awesome. You have the power to do that. You just need to DO IT. Take the first step. Dive in. Follow through. And make it happen. You’ll survive the process, hopefully, and learn a lot along the way.

…and Meunier then goes into how many people lead dull, mundane lives because they never push themselves to do something more interesting, such as, say, writing a game.

I totally agree with the advice to write a game sooner rather than later if game design is your ambition. Waiting to get hired postpones the day that you become a game designer, and makes it less likely you’ll be hired in the first place. It is possible you’ll find out that you don’t really like it and that your dream of writing games is based on a misapprehension, and that’s okay too — at least you’ll know that and have more discernment about what you’d like to do instead. (Tabletop RPGs? Computational creativity? Novels? Something totally unrelated?)

But Meunier’s formulation feels a bit facile to me, both as psychology and as a way of describing artistic process. “Just do it!” doesn’t always work on me; if I’m struggling with a task, sometimes I need to stop and figure out first why it is making me anxious. Also, people who do not write games are often fascinating people doing fascinating other things, and after time steeped in the game industry it can be a huge relief to spend time with them.

Meunier’s book and game touch on most of the aspects of game creation — why he decided to write, what his life was like while he did so, what tools he used, how the scheduling and scoping worked, how he publicized the results. Depending on what you need to learn, the results may be useful to you. It’s also always heartening to read about someone who felt freed by an IF tool to build what he wanted to build. But Meunier digs least deeply into the topics that I find most critical, questions about the meaning of what he is creating.

Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this work.

August 27, 2015

Sibyl Moon Games

18 Rooms to Home: Room 15

by Carolyn VanEseltine at August 27, 2015 11:01 PM

This is the fourth installment of 18 Rooms to Home, an experimental work of interactive fiction. The full game covers a day in the life of Yesenia Reed, whose life is far from ordinary, no matter what she might prefer.

18 Rooms to Home is a serialized game. As each update is released, the story will move further back in time – so the first release includes room 18, the second includes room 17 and 18, the third includes 16, 17, and 18, and so on.

The recommended starting point is Room 18.

18 Rooms cover art18 Rooms to Home (Room 15)
Release date: 8/27/2015
Format: Inform 7 (Glulx)
Play in browser
Download to play offline (requires an interpreter such as Gargoyle)

The Digital Antiquarian


by Jimmy Maher at August 27, 2015 09:00 PM


“Writing a book is staring at a piece of paper until your forehead bleeds.”

— Douglas Adams

Shortly after the release of his second Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy novel, with the money now pouring in and showing no signs of stopping, Douglas Adams moved from his dingy little shared flat in Islington’s Highbury New Park to a sprawling place on Upper Street. Later to be described down almost to the last detail as Fenchurch’s flat in So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, the place had one floor that consisted of but a single huge L-shaped room that, coming complete as it did with a bar, was perfect for the grand parties he would soon be holding there.

There was just one problem: he couldn’t get his bank to acknowledge the fact that he had moved. For the rest of his life Adams swore up and down that he had done everything exactly as one was supposed to, had dutifully gone personally down to his local branch of Barclays Bank, filled out a change-of-address form, and handed it to a woman behind the counter. Barclays duly acknowledged the change — and sent said acknowledgement to his old address in Highbury New Park. Adams wrote them back, pointing out the mistake, which the bank promptly and contritely apologized for. Said apology was sent, once again, to Highbury New Park. This cycle continued, as Adams told the story anyway, for no less than two infuriating years. Toward the end of that period, having tried politeness, bluster, threats, and reason, he resorted to charm and outright bribery in a letter to one Miss Wilcox of Barclays, gifting her with a book and even holding out a tempting possibility of marriage to a hugely successful author — namely, him — if she would just change his damn address in her bank’s computers already.

My address is at the top of this letter. It is also at the top of my previous letter to you. I am not trying to hide anything from you. If you write to me at this address I will reply. If you write to me care of my accountant, he will reply, which would be better still. If you write to me at Highbury New Park, the chances are that I won’t reply because your letter will probably not reach me, because I don’t live there any more. I haven’t lived there for two years. I moved. Two years ago. I wrote to you about it, remember?

Dear Miss Wilcox, I am sure you are a very lovely person, and that if I were to meet you I would feel ashamed at having lost my temper with you in this way. I’m sure it’s not your fault personally and that if I had to do your job I would hate it. Let me take you away from all this. Come to London. Let me show you where I live, so that you can see it is indeed in Upper Street. I will even take you to Highbury New Park and introduce you to the man who has been living there for the past two years so that you can see for yourself that it isn’t me. I could take you out to dinner and slip you little change-of-address cards across the table. We could even get married and go and live in a villa in Spain, though how would we get anyone in your department to understand that we had moved? I enclose a copy of my new book which I hope will cheer you up. Happy Christmas.

History does not record whether this passionate missive was the one that finally did the trick.

Most writers collect interesting, humorous, and/or frustrating incidents as they go about their daily lives, jotting them down literally or metaphorically for future use, and Douglas Adams was certainly no exception. He tried to shoehorn this one into Life, the Universe, and Everything, his third Hitchhiker’s novel, via an extended riff about a change-of-address card that fouls up a planet’s central computer systems so badly that they initiate a nuclear Armageddon, but it just didn’t work somehow. The whole sequence ended up getting condensed down to a one-line gag in an extract from the in-book Hitchhiker’s Guide, listing “trying to get the Brantisvogan Civil Service to acknowledge a change-of-address card” as one of life’s great impossibilities. Still, he continued to believe the anecdote was worthy of more than that, worthy of more even than becoming just another of the arsenal of funny stories with which he amused journalists, fans, and party attendees alike.

It seems that it was the process of making the infuriating, subversive, brilliant Hitchhiker’s game with Infocom that first prompted Adams to think about making a game out of his travails with Barclays, along with the insane bureaucratic machinations of modern life in general. It was at any rate during Steve Meretzky’s visit to England to work on the Hitchhiker’s game with him that he first mentioned the idea. Meretzky, busy trying to get this game finished in the face of the immovable force that could be Adams’s talent for procrastination, presumably just nodded politely and tried to get his focus back to the business at hand.

Seven or eight months later, however, with the Hitchhiker’s game finished and selling like crazy, Adams stated definitively to Mike Dornbrook of Infocom that he’d really like to do a social satire of contemporary life called Bureaucracy before turning to the sequel. Asked by Electronic Games magazine at about this time whether he would “soon” be starting on the next Hitchhiker’s game, his answer was blunt: “No. I really feel the need to branch out into fresh areas and clear my head from Hitchhiker’s. I certainly have enjoyed working with Infocom and would very much like to do another adventure game, but on a different topic.”

The desire of this boundlessly original thinker to just be done with Hitchhiker’s, to do something else for God’s sake, certainly isn’t hard to understand. What had begun back in 1978 as a one-off six-episode radio serial, produced on a shoestring for the BBC, had seven years later ballooned into a second radio serial, four novels, a television show, a stage production, a pair of double albums, and now, so everyone assumed, a burgeoning series of computer games. Adams himself had a hand to a lesser or (usually) a greater extent in every single one of these productions, not to mention having spent quite some time drafting and fruitlessly hawking a Hitchhiker’s movie script to Hollywood. It had been all Hitchhiker’s all day every day for seven years.

Being the soul of comedy for millions of young science-fiction nerds had never been an entirely comfortable role for Adams. Sometimes the gulf between him and his most loyal fans could be hard to bridge, could leave him feeling downright estranged. Eugen Beers, his publicist, describes the most obsessive of his fans in terms that bring to mind a certain beloved old Saturday Night Live skit:

One of my abiding memories is how much he loathed book signings. It’s always a scary time for an author when you actually meet your fans, and Douglas had some of the ugliest and certainly some of the most boring people I’ve ever met in the whole of my life. They would come up to him to get their book signed and say, “I notice on page 45 you refer to…” and Douglas would say, “I haven’t got a clue what they’re talking about.”

Beers notes that Adams was “incredibly patient, in fact patient beyond anything I would have been.” Yet, and ungenerous as Beers’s description of the fans may be, the disconnect was real. Adams’s heroes growing up had been The Goon Show and later Monty Python, not Arthur C. Clarke or Robert A. Heinlein. He desperately wanted to prove himself as a humorist of general note, not just that wacky Hitchhiker’s guy that the nerds all like. Yes, Hitchhiker’s had made him rich, had paid for that wonderful Islington flat and all those lavish parties, but at some point enough had to be enough.

Infocom’s great misfortune was to have barely begun their own Hitchhiker’s odyssey just as Adams finally decided to bring his to an end. On the one hand, Adams’s desire to explore new territory must have sounded a sympathetic chord for many of the Imps; they had after all refused to continue the Zork series beyond three games out of a similar desire to not get stereotyped. But on the other hand they all had, and not without good reason, envisioned Hitchhiker’s as a cash cow that would last Infocom for the remainder of the decade, a new guaranteed bestseller appearing like clockwork every Christmas to buoy them over whatever financial trials the rest of the year might have brought. For Mike Dornbrook it must have felt like a nightmare repeating. First he had been deprived far too soon of the Zork series, the first of which still remained Infocom’s best-selling game; now it looked like something similar was happening even more quickly to the would-be Hitchhiker’s series, whose first game had become their second best-selling. In describing why he was “concerned” about making Bureaucracy Infocom’s Douglas Adams game for 1985 and pushing the next Hitchhiker’s game to 1986 at best, Dornbrook unconsciously echoes Adams’s own reasoning for wanting to move on: “The whole financial deal we had signed with him was based on a bestselling line of books that was very, very popular, very well-known. He hadn’t proved himself at anything else yet, for one thing. It was a little hard telling him that…”

It was a little hard to tell him, so Dornbrook and Infocom largely didn’t out of a desire to keep Adams happy. As his current contract with Infocom only covered Hitchhiker’s games, it was necessary to negotiate a new one for Bureaucracy. Dornbrook had some hopes of getting Adams at something of a discount, given that he’d be coming this time without the Hitchhiker’s name attached, but he was stymied even in this by Ed Victor, Adams’s tough negotiator of an agent. Infocom was left saddled with a game that they didn’t really want to do, which they would have to pay Adams for as if it was one that they wanted very badly indeed.

As Dornbrook and other staffers have occasionally noted over the years, there was nothing in Infocom’s Hitchhiker’s contract that technically prevented them from just going off and doing the next Hitchhiker’s game on their own, whether in tandem with or instead of Bureaucracy. The contract simply gave Infocom the right to make up to six Hitchhiker’s games for the cost of a certain percentage of the revenue generated thereby, full stop. They’ve stated that it was their respect for Adams as a writer and as a person that prevented them from ever seriously considering making Hitchhiker’s games without him. I don’t doubt their sincerity in saying this, but it’s also worth noting that to go down that route would be to play with some dangerous fire. While Adams may have been personally sick to death of Hitchhiker’s, he had shown again and again that he considered the franchise to be his and his alone, that if anything got done with it he wanted to do it — or at least to closely oversee it — himself. Not only would a unilateral Infocom Hitchhiker’s game almost certainly spoil their relationship with him for all time, but it risked becoming a public-relations disaster if Adams, never shy of stating his opinions to the press, decided to speak out against it. And could any of the Imps, even Steve Meretzky, really hope to capture Adams’s voice? An Adams-less Hitchhiker’s game risked coming off as a cheap knock-off, as everything that Infocom’s carefully crafted public image said their games weren’t.  Thus Bureaucracy — and, for now, Bureaucracy alone — it must be.

In light of its being rather forced upon them in the first place and especially of the exhausting travail that actually making it would become, it’s difficult for most old Infocom staffers to appreciate Bureaucracy‘s intrinsic merits as a concept. Seen in the right light, however, it’s a fairly brilliant idea. Douglas Adams was of course hardly the first to want to satirize the vast, impersonal machines we create in an effort to make modern life manageable, machines that can not only run roughshod over the very individuals they’re meant to serve but that can also trample the often well-meaning people who are sentenced to work within them, even their very creators. What was the Holocaust but a triumph of institutional inertia over the fundamental humanity of the people responsible for its horrors? Years before those horrors Franz Kafka wrote The Trial, the definitive comedy about the banality of bureaucratic evil, a book as funny in its black way as anything Douglas Adams ever wrote. Just to make its black comedy complete, all three of Kafka’s sisters later perished in the Holocaust. Set against those events, Adams’s struggle with Barclays Bank to get his address changed seems like the triviality it truly was.

What, though, to make of this idea of a satire of the bureaucratic impulse as interactive fiction? I think there’s a germ of genius in there, a germ of something as brilliant and subversive as anything in the Hitchhiker’s game. Playing a text adventure — yes, even one of Infocom’s — is to often feel like you’re interacting with the world’s pettiest and most remorseless bureaucrat. We’re all only too familiar with sequences like this one, which as it happens is taken from the eventual finished version of Bureaucracy:

>put blank cartridge in computer
[This story isn't allowed to recognise the word "blank."]

[Your blood pressure just went up.]

You're holding an unlabelled cartridge, an address book, a small piece of laminated card, an airline magazine, $57.50, an envelope containing a memo, a power saw, a Swiss army knife, a coupon booklet, a damaged painting of Ronald W. Reagan, a flyer, a Popular Paranoia magazine, your passport, your Boysenberry computer (containing an eclipse predicting cartridge), a small case and a hacksaw. You're wearing a digital wristwatch, and you have a deposit slip and a wallet in your pocket.

>put unlabelled cartridge in computer
You'd have to take out the eclipse predicting cartridge to do that.

>get eclipse cartridge
You're holding too much already.

>drop painting
You drop the damaged painting of Ronald W. Reagan.

You're beginning to feel normal again.

>put unlabelled cartridge in computer
You'd have to take out the eclipse predicting cartridge to do that.

>get eclipse cartridge
You take the eclipse predicting cartridge out of your Boysenberry computer.

>put unlabelled cartridge in computer
The unlabelled cartridge slips into your Boysenberry computer with a thrilling little click...

One of Adam’s initial ideas was to have a blood-pressure monitor that would increase every time you got into a tussle with the parser like the one above. This idea made it into the finished game. Yet there are signs, fleeting clues, that that should only have been a beginning, that he would have gone much further, that his idea was to create a game that would end up as, among other things, a self-referential commentary on the medium of interactive fiction itself, a further venturing down the road that the Hitchhiker’s game had already started on with its lying parser and its willingness to integrate your typos into its story. Tim Anderson of Infocom recalls a puzzle involving a pile of boxes, of which you needed to specify one that the parser would obstinately refuse to recognize. How fun such a game could have been is very much up for debate; it sounds likely to run afoul of all of the issues of playability and fairness that make Hitchhiker’s the last game in the world to be emulated by a budding designer of interactive fiction. Nevertheless, I would love to see that original vision of Bureaucracy. While some pieces of it survived into the finished game in the form of the blood-pressure monitor and the snooty, bureaucratic tone of the parser, for the most part it became a different game entirely — or, rather, several different games. Therein lies a tale — and most of the finished game’s problems.

Endeavoring as always to keep Adams happy, Infocom assigned as his partner on the new game no less august an Imp than Marc Blank, who along with Mike Berlyn had been one of the two possible collaborators Adams had specifically requested for the Hitchhiker’s game; he’d had to be convinced to accept Steve Meretzky in their stead. Alas, Blank turned out to be a terrible choice at this particular juncture. He was deeply dissatisfied with the current direction of the company and more interested in telling Al Vezza and the rest of the Board about it at every opportunity than he was in writing more interactive fiction. Bureaucracy thus immediately began to languish in neglect. This precedent would take a long, long time to break. The story at this point gets so surreal that it reads like something out of a Douglas Adams novel — or for that matter a Douglas Adams game. Infocom therefore included it in the finished version of Bureaucracy as an Easter egg entitled “The Strange and Terrible History of Bureaucracy.”

Once upon a time Douglas Adams and Steve Meretzky collaborated on a game called The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Everyone wanted a sequel, but Douglas thought it might be fun to do something different first. He called that something Bureaucracy, and wanted Marc Blank to work on it with him. Of course, Marc was busy, and Douglas was busy, and by the time they could both work on it, they were too busy to work on it. So, Jerry Wolper [a programmer who had collaborated with Mike Berlyn on Cutthroats] got a free trip to Las Vegas to talk to Douglas about it before it was decided to let it rest for a while instead. Jerry decided to go back to school, so Marc and Douglas spent some time on Nantucket looking at llamas, drinking Chateau d'Yquem, and arguing about puzzles. Nothing much happened for a while, except that Marc and Douglas got distracted again. Paul DiLascia [a senior member of the Cornerstone development team] decided to give it a try, but changed his mind and kept working on Cornerstone. Marc went to work for Simon and Schuster, and Paul went to work for Interleaf. Jeff O'Neill finished Ballyhoo, and, casting about for a new project, decided to take it on, about the time Jerry graduated. Jeff got a trip to London out of it. Douglas was enthusiastic, but busy with a movie. Progress was slow, and then Douglas was very busy with something named Dirk Gently. Jeff decided it was time to work on something else, and Brian Moriarty took it over. He visited England, and marvelled at Douglas's CD collection, but progress was slow. Eventually he decided it was time to work on something else. Paul made a cameo appearance, but decided to stay at Interleaf instead. So Chris Reeve and Tim Anderson took it over, and mucked around a lot. Finally, back in Las Vegas, Michael Bywater jumped (or was pushed) in and came to Boston for some serious script-doctoring, which made what was there into what is here. In addition, there were significant contributions from Liz Cyr-Jones, Suzanne Frank, Gary Brennan, Tomas Bok, Max Buxton, Jon Palace, Dave Lebling, Stu Galley, Linde Dynneson, and others too numerous to mention. Most of these people are not dead yet, and apologise for the inconvenience.

Trying to unravel in much more detail this Gordian knot that consumed more than twice as much time as any other Infocom game is fairly hopeless, not least because no one who was around it much wants to talk about it. The project, having been begun to some extent under duress, soon become a veritable albatross, a bad joke for which no one can manage to summon up much of a laugh even today. Jon Palace is typical:

There may be some fun things left in the game, but it left such a bad taste in my mouth. At some point it became, the less I can have to do with it the better. It wasn’t fun doing that game. Bureaucracy is the only game I can remember that was just downright not fun to do.

The natural question, then, is just what went so horribly awry for this game alone among all the others. Infocom’s official version of the tale neglects only to assign the blame where it rightfully belongs: solidly on the doorstep of Douglas Adams.

Adams was a member of a species that’s not as rare as one might expect: the brilliant writer who absolutely hates to write, who finds the process torturous, personally draining to a degree ironically difficult to capture in words. Even during the seven-year heyday of Hitchhiker’s, when he was to all external appearances quite industrious and prolific indeed, he was building a reputation for himself among publishers and agents as one of the most difficult personalities in their line of business, not because he was a jerk or a prima donna like many other authors but simply because he never — never — did the work he said he was going to do when he said he was going to do it. The stories of the lengths people had to go to to get work out of him remain enshrined in publishing legend to this day. Locking him into a small room with a word processor and a single taskmaster/minder and telling him he wasn’t allowed out until he was finished was about the only method that was remotely effective.

It wasn’t as if Infocom had never seen this side of Douglas Adams before. His procrastination had also threatened to scupper the Hitchhiker’s game for a while. They had, however, as they must now have been realizing more and more, gotten very lucky there. With Infocom’s star on the ascendant at that time, the publishing interests around Adams had clearly seen a Hitchhiker’s Infocom game as a winning proposition all the way around. They had thus mobilized to make it part of their 1984 full-court press on their embattled author that had also yielded So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, the overdue fourth Hitchhiker’s novel. Infocom, meanwhile, had fortuitously paired Adams with Steve Meretzky, the most self-driven, efficient, and organized of all the Imps, who always got his projects done and done on time — as evidenced by his sheer prolificacy as an author of games, gamebooks, and lots and lots of fake memos. Even with Meretzky’s boundless creative energy on Infocom’s side, it had taken colluding with Adams’s handlers to isolate the two of them in a hotel in Devon to get Adams to follow his partner’s example and buckle down and work on the game.

With the industry now shifting under Infocom’s feet in ways that were hardly to their advantage, with Cornerstone threatening to sink the company even if they could find a way to keep selling lots of games, with the project in question a one-off that no one knew much about rather than another entry in the Hitchhiker’s line-up, Infocom lacked the leverage with Adams or his handlers to do anything similar for Bureaucracy. And Meretzky was staying far, far away, having apparently decided that he’d done his time in Purgatory with Douglas Adams and had earned the right to work on his own projects. Thus despite allegedly “working on” Bureaucracy personally for almost two years, despite all of the face-to-faces in Las Vegas, Nantucket, and London, Adams’s contributions at the end of that time amounted to little more than the rough idea he had brought to Infocom in the first place: the name, the blood-pressure monitor, and a few vague puzzles ideas like the boxes that sounded interesting but that no other than him quite understood and that he never deigned to properly explain. Meretzky:

Douglas’s procrastination seemed much worse than it was with Hitchhiker’s. That seems odd because he did the first game only grudgingly, since he had already done Hitchhiker’s for several different media, but Bureaucracy was what he most wanted to do. Perhaps the newness and excitement of working in interactive fiction had worn off; perhaps he had more distractions in his life at that point; perhaps it was that the succession of people who had my role in Bureaucracy didn’t stay with the project for more than a portion of its development cycle and therefore never became a well-integrated creative unit with Douglas; perhaps it was that, lacking the immovable Christmas deadline that Hitchhiker’s had, it was easier to let the game just keep slipping and slipping.

Brian Moriarty is less diplomatic: “Douglas Adams was a very funny man, very witty, a very good writer, and also very, very lazy. Anyone who knew Douglas will tell you that he really didn’t like to work very much.” Just to add insult to injury, when Adams did rouse himself to work on a game project it turned out to be for a competing developer. In January of 1986 he spent several days holed up in London with a sizable chunk of the staff of Lucasfilm Games, contributing ideas and puzzles to their Labyrinth adventure game. That may not sound like the worst betrayal in the world at first blush, but consider again: he devoted more time and energy to this ad-hoc design consultation than he ever had to what was allegedly his own game, the one Infocom had started making at his specific request.

The succession of Imps who were assigned to the project were forced to improvise with their own ideas in face of the black hole that was Adams’s contribution. Details of exactly who did what are, however, once again thin on the ground. The only Imp I’ve heard claim specific credit for any sequence that survived into the final game is Moriarty, who remembers doing a bit where you’re trying to order a simple hamburger in a fast-food joint, only to get buried under a bewildering barrage of questions about exactly how you’d like it. The inevitable punchline comes when a “standard, smells-like-a-dog’s-ear burger with nothing on it” is finally delivered, regardless of your choices.

By late 1986, as the Bureaucracy project was closing in fast on its two-year anniversary, it was not so much a single big game as a collection of individual little games connected together, if at all, by the most precarious of scaffolding, each reading not like a game by Douglas Adams but a game by whatever Imp happened to be responsible for that section. Not only had Adams’s ideas for leveraging the mechanics of program and parser in service of his theme been largely abandoned, but at some point a fairly elaborate satire of paranoid conspiracy theorists — sort of an interactive Illuminatus! trilogy — had gotten muddled up with the satire of impersonal bureaucratic institutions in general. As the recent revelations about the National Security Agency have demonstrated, the two all too often do go together. Still, those parts of Bureaucracy had wandered quite far afield from everyday frustrations like trying to get a bank to accept a change-of-address form. It had all become quite the mess, and nobody had much energy left to try to sort it out.

If you had polled Infocom’s staff at this point on whether they thought Bureaucracy would ever actually be finished, it’s unlikely that many would have shown much optimism. The project remained alive at all not due to any love anyone had for it but rather out of what was probably a forlorn hope anyway: that getting this game out and published would pave the way to the next Hitchhiker’s game, to another potential 300,000-plus seller. Having done their part in getting Bureaucracy done, with or without Adams, Infocom hoped he would do his by returning to Hitchhiker’s with them. Few who knew Adams well would have bet much on that particular quid pro quo, but hope does spring eternal.

And then, miraculously, more than a glimmer of real hope did appear from an unlikely quarter. Marc Blank was long gone from Infocom by then, but had continued to keep in touch with his old friends among the Imps. At the November 1986 COMDEX trade show in Las Vegas, he bumped into Michael Bywater, a good friend of Douglas Adams and a fellow writer — in fact, a practitioner of his own brand of arch British humor that, if you squinted just right, wasn’t too different from that of Adams himself. Knowing the fix his old friends were still in with the game he had been the first to work on so long ago, a light bulb went off in Blank’s head. He hastily brokered a deal among Infocom, Adams, and Bywater, and the last arrived in the Boston area within days to hole up in a hotel room for an intense three weeks or so of script-doctoring. Infocom’s Tim Anderson, the latest programmer assigned to the project, stayed close at hand to insert Bywater’s new text and to implement any new puzzles he happened to come up with.

Jumbling the chronology as we’re sometimes forced to around here in the interest of other forms of coherency, we’ve already met Bywater in the context of his personal and professional relationship with Anita Sinclair and Magnetic Scrolls, and the salvage job he would do on that company’s Jinxter nine months or so after performing the same service for Infocom. As arrogant and quick to anger as he can sometimes be (one need only read his comments in response to Andy Baio’s misguided and confused article on the would-be second Hitchhiker’s game to divine that), everyone at Infocom found him to be a delight, not least because here at last was a writer who was more than happy to actually write. In a few weeks he rewrote virtually every word in the game in his own style — a style that was more caustic than Adams’s, but that nevertheless checked the right “British humor” boxes. Just like that, Infocom had their game, which they needed only test and publish to finally be quit of the whole affair forever. Right?

Well, this being the Game That Just Wouldn’t Be Finished, not quite. Janice Eisen, a current reader and supporter of this blog and an outside playtester for Infocom back in the day, recalls being given a version of Bureaucracy for testing that was largely the same structurally as the released version and that seemed to sport Bywater’s text, but that nevertheless differed substantially in one respect. The ultimate villain in this version, the person responsible for all of the bureaucratic tortures you’ve been subjected to, was not, as in the final version, a bitter computer nerd seeking to exact vengeance on the world and (for some reason) on you for his inability to get a date, but rather none other than Britain’s Queen Mother. As a satirical theme it’s classic Bywater. He was and remains a self-described republican, seeing the monarchy as setting “an appalling example to the whole nation by making clear that there’s at least one thing — head of state — that you can’t achieve but can only be born to.”

Some weeks after testing this version of Bureaucracy at home as usual, Janice, who lived close to Infocom’s offices, got a call asking if she could come in to test what would turn out to be the final version on-site. She was also told she could bring a friend of hers, another Infocom fan but not a regular tester, to join in. They spent a Saturday playing through the game, with a minder on-hand to give them answers to puzzles if necessary to make sure they got all the way through the game. It’s not absolutely clear whether Bywater was involved in the further rewriting made necessary by the replacement of the Queen Mother with the nerd, but the lavishly insulting descriptions of the latter — “ghastly,” “sniveling,” “ratty,” and “ineffectual” number amongst the adjectives — sound nothing like any of the Imps’ styles and very much like Bywater’s. When she asked why Infocom had made the changes — she had enjoyed the Queen Mother much more than the nerd — Janice was told that Infocom had feared that they were going too far into the realm of politics, that they were afraid that the Queen Mother, 86 years old at the time, might die while the game was still a hot item, making them look “terrible.” (This fear would prove unfounded; she would live for another fifteen years.)

So, it was a tortured, cobbled, disjointed creation that finally reached store shelves against all odds in March of 1987, and apparently one that had been subject to the final violation of a last-minute Bowdlerization. For all that, though, it’s a lot better game than you might expect, a better game even than most of the Infocom staffers, having had it so thoroughly spoiled in their eyes by the hell of its creation, are often willing to acknowledge. I quite like it on the whole, even if I have to temper that opinion with a lot of caveats.

Bureaucracy shows clear evidence of the fragmented process of its creation in being divided into four vignettes that become, generally not to the game’s benefit, steadily more surreal and less grounded in the everyday as they proceed. The first, longest, and strongest section begins after you have just gotten a new job and moved to a new neighborhood. Your new employer Happitec is about to send you jetting off to Paris for an introductory seminar. You just need to “pick up your Happitec cheque, grab a bite of lunch, a cab to the airport, and you’ll be living high on the hog at Happitec’s expense.” Naturally, it won’t be quite that easy. It’s here that the game pays due homage to the episode that first inspired it: your mail had been misdelivered thanks to “a silly bit of bother with your bank about a change-of-address card.” Subsequent sections have you trying to board your flight at the airport; dealing with the annoyances of a transcontinental flight, which include in this case something about an in-flight emergency that will force you to bail out of the airplane; and finally penetrating the dastardly nerdy mastermind’s headquarters somewhere in the jungles of Africa.

Much of Bureaucracy‘s personality is of course down to Bywater (about whom more in a moment), but I’m not sure that he comprises the whole of the story. I’d love to know who wrote my favorite bit, which is not found in the game proper but rather in one of the feelies. Your welcome letter from Happitec is such a perfect satire of Silicon Valley’s culture of empty plastic Utopianism that it belongs on the current television show of the same name. The letterhead’s resemblance to Apple’s then-current Macintosh iconography is certainly not accidental.


From the cult of personality around Happitec’s “founder and president” to the way it can’t even be bothered to address you by name to the veiled passive-aggressive threat with which it concludes, this letter just so perfect. All it’s missing is a reference to “making the world a better place.”

Bywater, for his part, acquits himself more than well enough as the mirror-universe version of Douglas Adams, almost as witty and droll but more casually cruel. His relentless showiness makes him a writer whom I find fairly exhausting to try to read in big gulps, but he always leaves me with a perfect little bon mot or two to marvel over.

This is the living room of your new house, a pretty nice room, actually. At least, it will be when all your stuff has arrived as the removals company said they would have done yesterday and now say they will do while you're on vacation. At the moment, however, it's a bit dull. Plain white, no carpets, no curtains, no furniture. A room to go bughouse in, really. Another room is visible to the west, and a closed front door leads outside.

This deeply tacky wallet was sent to you free by the US Excess Credit Card Corporation to tell you how much a person like you needed a US Excess card, what with your busy thrusting lifestyle in today's fast-moving, computerised, jet-setting world. Needless to say, you already had a US Excess card which they were trying to take away from you for not paying your account, which, equally needless to say, you had paid weeks ago.

The stamp on the leaflet is worth 42 Zalagasan Wossnames (the Zalagasans were too idle to think of a name for their currency) and shows an extremely bad picture of an Ai-Ai. The Ai-Ai is of course a terribly, terribly rare sort of lemur which is a rare sort of monkey so altogether pretty rare, so rare that nobody has ever seen one, which is why the picture is such a blurred and rotten likeness. Actually, come to think of it, since nobody has ever seen the real thing, the picture might in fact be a really sharp, accurate likeness of a blurred and rotten animal.

The machine says: "Jones here. I'm the new tenant of your old house. There's a whole bunch of mail been arriving here for you. Urgent stuff from the Fillmore Fiduciary Trust. You know what I thought? I thought 'Do the right thing, Jones. Forward the guy's mail.' Then I found out about the termites. Then I found out about the nightly roach-dance. So I thought 'Rats.' I've returned your mail to your bank. Sort it out yourself."

So, when the scenario gives him something to work with Bywater can be pretty great. He’s much less effective when the game loses its focus on the frustrations of everyday existence, which it does with increasing frequency as it wears on and the situations get more and more surreal. He seems to feel obligated to continue to slather on heavy layers of snark, because after all he’s Michael Bywater and that’s what he does, but the point of it all begins rather to get lost. His description of your fellow passengers aboard an African airline as playing “ethnic nose flutes” is… well, let’s just say it’s not as funny as it wants to be and leave it at that. And his relentless picking away at the service workers you encounter — “The waiter squints at his pad with tiny simian eyes, breathing hard at the intellectual effort of it all.” — doesn’t really ring true for me, largely because I never seem to meet so many of these stupid and/or hateful people in my own life. Most of the people I meet seem pretty nice and reasonably competent on the whole. Even when I’m being gored on the bureaucratic horns of some institution or other, I find that the people I deal with are mostly just as conscious as I am of how ridiculous the whole thing is. As Kafka, who was himself an employee of an insurance company, was well aware, this is largely what makes bureaucracies so impersonal and vaguely, existentially horrifying. Ah, well, as someone who sees nothing cute about someone else’s baby — sorry, proud parents! — I can at least appreciate Bywater’s characterization of same as a “stupid, half-witted” thing emitting “hateful little bleats.”

The puzzles are perhaps the strangest mixture of easy and hard found anywhere in the Infocom catalog. The first two sections of the game are very manageable, with some puzzles that might almost be characterized as too easy and only a few that are a bit tricky; the best of these, and arguably the most difficult, is a delightful bit of illogical logic involving your bank and a negative check. When you actually board your flight and begin the third section, however, the difficulty takes a vertical leap. The linear run of puzzles that is the third and fourth sections of Bureaucracy is downright punishing, including at least three that I find much more difficult than anything in Spellbreaker, supposedly Infocom’s big challenge of a game for the hardcore of the hardcore. One is an intricate exercise in planning and pattern recognition taking place aboard the airplane (Bywater claims credit for having designed this one from scratch); one an intimidating exercise in code-breaking; one more a series of puzzles than a single puzzle really, an exercise in computer hacking that’s simulated in impressive detail. None of the three is unfair. (The puzzle that comes closest to that line is actually not among this group; it’s rather a game of “guess the right action or be killed” that you have to engage in whilst hanging outside the airliner in a parachute.) The clues are there, but they’re extremely subtle, requiring the closest reading and the most careful experimentation whilst being under, in the case of the first and the third of this group, time pressure that will have you restoring again and again. Bureaucracy raises the interesting question of whether a technically fair game can nevertheless simply be too hard for its own good. The gnarly puzzles that suddenly appear out of the blue don’t serve this particular game all that well in my opinion, managing only to further dilute its original focus and make it feel still more schizophrenic. I think I’d like them more in another, different game. At any rate, those looking for a challenge won’t be disappointed. If you can crack this one without hints, you’re quite the puzzler.

Although it’s Infocom’s third release in their Interactive Fiction Plus line of games that ran only on the “big” machines with at least 128 K of memory, Bureaucracy doesn’t feel epic in the way of A Mind Forever Voyaging and Trinity. A glance at the story file reveals that it uses less than half of the extra space allowed by the newer Z-Machine, in contrast to the previous two games in the line that stuff the format to the gills. I would even say that quite a number of Infocom’s standard releases subjectively feel bigger. One suspects that Bureaucracy became an Interactive Fiction Plus title more by accident than original intent, the extra space serving largely to give a chatty Michael Bywater more room to roam and to allow stuff like that elaborate in-game computer simulation. And given the way the game was made, I’d be surprised if its code was particularly compact or tidy.

Despite all of the pain of its creation and the bad vibes that clung to it for reason of same, Infocom released Bureaucracy with relatively high hopes that the Douglas Adams name, still printed on the box despite his minimal involvement, would be enough to sell a substantial number of copies even absent the Hitchhiker’s name. Adams, showing at least a bit more enthusiasm for promoting Bureaucracy than he had for writing it, gave an interview about it to PBS’s Computer Chronicles television program, during which it becomes painfully apparent that he has only the vaguest notion of what actually happens in the game he supposedly authored. He also appeared on Joan Rivers’s late-night talk show; she declared it “the funniest computer game ever,” although I must admit that I find it hard to imagine that she had much basis for comparison. None of it helped all that much. As was beginning to happen a lot by 1987, Infocom was sharply disappointed by their latest hoped-for hit’s performance. Bureaucracy sold not quite 30,000 copies, a bit better than the Infocom average by this point but short of Hitchhiker’s numbers by a factor of more than ten.

The game’s a shaggy, disjointed beast for sure, but I still recommend that anyone with an appreciation of for the craft of interactive fiction give it a whirl at some point. If the hardcore puzzles at the end aren’t your bag, know that the first two sequences are by far its most coherent and focused parts. Feel free to just stop when you make it aboard the airplane; by that time you’ve seen about 75 percent of the content anyway. Whatever else it would or should have become, as Infocom’s only work of contemporary social satire Bureaucracy is a unique entry in their catalog, and in its stronger moments at least it acquits itself pretty well at the business. That alone is reason enough to treasure it. And as a lesson in the perils of staking your business on a single mercurial genius… well, let’s just say that the story behind Bureaucracy is perhaps worthwhile in its way as well.

(As usual with my Infocom articles, much of this one is drawn from the full Get Lamp interview archives which Jason Scott so kindly shared with me. Reader Janice Eisen took the time to correspond with me about her memories of testing Bureaucracy, for which I owe her huge thanks. Other sources include the two Douglas Adams biographies, Hitchhiker by M.J. Simpson and Wish You Were Here by Nick Webb; the Family Computing of September 1987; the Electronic Games of April 1985; and the audio of Steve Meretzky and Michael Bywater’s joint conversation in London back in 2005.)


Emily Short

Windhammer Prize: ‘Normal Club (Philip Armstrong)

by Emily Short at August 27, 2015 11:00 AM

Screen Shot 2015-08-26 at 5.08.12 PM

The Windhammer Prize is a yearly competition for gamebooks, specifically the on-paper, distributed-by-PDF variety. Last year I covered a few of the games, and this year the competition is about to open again, so I thought I would honor the occasion by looking at Philip Armstrong’s ‘Normal Club, the winner of the top prize in 2013. (Past entrants are archived on the competitions site.)

The image I’ve used as the header illustration for this post is a map of the town you’re exploring, and it contains some information (besides the numbers themselves) that you may need to use to solve the adventure. Its cartoony but confident feel is a pretty good introduction to the experience as a whole: lighthearted, accessible, soundly constructed, with the game/puzzle side more prominent than the story side.

‘Normal Club here refers to paranormal research, which in this world is an after-school competitive activity like chess team or debate club. The protagonists are a Buffy-style Scooby gang, and you get to pick three of six prefab characters to include. This choice determines your gang stats and opens up a number of character-specific extra paragraphs throughout the story. For any given situation, one or two of the gang members might have a personal response.

As one might expect, the resulting narrative uses characterization mostly as a spice, and none of the protagonists can afford to have unique motivations that might cause a surprise swerve in the MacGuffin Quest. Likewise, most of the choices you encounter, up until the very end, are tactical rather than moral decisions.

Like many gamebooks, ‘Normal Club starts with some forms to fill out with these stats, and spaces for inventory. Initially I tried to play using the online PDF and just keeping my notes in a notebook, but that was a mistake, for reasons I’ll get into at the moment. If you want to play, you probably need to print this thing off. (It runs to 45 pages, so this isn’t insuperable, but I usually avoid printing longish documents for the sake of the planet.) You will also need a 6-sided die or a reasonable online facsimile.

The discussion below isn’t all that spoilery, but if you want an innocent first experience of this book, you may want to stop here.

Screen Shot 2015-08-26 at 5.08.23 PMThe book’s design assumes that you’re going to be writing on many pages. Sometimes this means checking off sections you’ve read before to prevent repeats, but the gamebook includes a few stand-alone activities like this picross puzzle. The instructions for the node where this appears say

If the puzzle is solved, turn to 24.
If the team is unable to solve the puzzle or if they choose not to try, they can investigate the occult section (if they haven’t already) by turning to 18.
or they can leave and investigate another location by turning to 1.

These are unabashed soup-can puzzle sorts of things: there is no compelling reason why they should affect the outcome of the rest of the story, and you can of course cheat.

In a gamebook that felt more serious or offered more narrative urgency, features like this might have made me a bit impatient. But because of the low stakes and lightness of the story, I approached it more as an activity book, and had fun with it.

Meanwhile, the mechanics that are more part of a standard gamebook repertoire — the die-rolling, the stats for your gang, the inventory — were well-judged to make the game fun, and let you read lots of special character-specific moments, without being overwhelming. I’m sometimes daunted by how much replaying a serious gamebook can expect of its reader, how much I need to explore the narrative space before figuring out how to unlock a good ending.

‘Normal Club doesn’t require — or strongly reward — hardcore replay dedication. For one thing, a lot of the challenges are knowledge puzzles. Once you’ve gotten through a single time, it would not be that interesting to try to reach the same point over again, even if your different party stats meant you uncovered a different selection of clues and red herrings. Two, when I did fail, it was usually enough to back up one node from a losing ending and try something else or redo a stat roll, and there were quite a few second chances.

The form factor also comes into play. The consumable nature of my gamebook discouraged me from starting over. By the time I reached my first dead end, my booklet was covered with marks in pink Sharpie. I was hardly going to go print off another 45 pages and start over. (I suppose a more meticulous person might have marked up their gamebook with a lightweight pencil and been prepared to erase it again. I am not that person.) And by the time I’d gotten a good ending, I felt like I’d seen almost all of the nodes in the book. The only thing remaining was to go back and check out some of the character-specific content for characters I didn’t include in my party. And that was satisfying, and I was done after an enjoyable couple of hours that included some light puzzling but no serious stuckness.

If you don’t have a lot of gamebook experience, but you do have plenty of printer paper and a taste for light puzzles, this might be a great place to start.

August 26, 2015

Wade's Important Astrolab

Leadlight Gamma - The sale I'm running and the competition I'm not

by Wade ( at August 26, 2015 02:22 PM

Have you noticed what month this is? Me too.

Do you know which events took place in the month of August five years ago? The events depicted in my game Leadlight.

Having noticed this anniversary, I'm announcing


Until August ends (about a week from today) you can buy Leadlight Gamma on for $1

You can still throw larger amounts of money at me during this time, but that's hardly the point of a sale.

After the sale window closes, the minimum price will revert to a more diabolical value. Maybe $6.66.

In technological developments: The game is now direct link-downloadable to the Frotz iOS app from Consider this a news item if you already own it, since any new files or features that are added to the page are available to anyone who has ever bought the game.


In other news: I briefly considered running a competition, too, with a prize for the first player* to send me a screenshot of the final easter egg from Leadlight Gamma's tour mode. However I've already donated a prize to IFComp, and I'm feeling too unemployed, ill and covetous to part with any of the horror-related items I was considering putting up for a Leadlight comp. So I shan't run one!

I will say that I think most people would find the final archive item shown in tour mode to be relatively surprising.

I view Leadlight as kind of a hardcore game, but by the standard of hardcore games, an easy one. It's considerably easier to finish the game per se than to finish it with all 80 points. So I saved Leadlight Gamma's tour mode as a reward for players who do get 80 points and who have thus demonstrated their commitment to the experience.

* Anyone mentioned in the game credits would not have been eligible to participate in the comp. But these people don't need to fret anymore, since I am not actually running the comp, only the sale.

Post Position

Paging Babel

by Nick Montfort at August 26, 2015 06:20 AM

About 12 hours ago I was reading “The New Art of Making Books” by Ulises Carrión, a text I’d read before but which I hadn’t fully considered and engaged with. As I thought about Carrión’s writing, I felt compelled to put together a short piece on the Web. That took the form of a Web page containing a rapidly-moving concrete poem. The work I devised is called “Una página de Babel.”

Screen capture of Babel

Many will surely note that it is based on Jorge Luis Borges’s “Una biblioteca de Babel” (The Library of Babel). And, I hope people are aware of some the other interesting digital projects based on this story. I have seen one from years ago on CD-ROM; one that is very nice, and available on the Web, is Jeremiah Johnson’s BABEL. There’s also the exquisite Library of Babel by Jonathan Basile.

My piece does not try to closely and literally implement the library that Borges described, although it does have a page that is formally like the ones in Borges’s library: 80 characters wide, 40 lines long. Given this austere rectangular regularity, I assumed a typewriter-like monospace font.

The devotion of “Una página” to what the text describes stops there; instead of using the 23-letter alphabet that Borges sketches to populate this 80×40 grid, I use the unigram probabilities of letters in the story itself, in the Spanish text of “La biblioteca de Babel.” So, for instance, the lowercase letter a occurs a bit less than 8.4% of the time, and this is the probability with which it is produced on the page. The same holds for spaces, for the letter ñ, and for all other glyphs; they appear on the page at random, with the same probability that they do in Borges’s story. Because each letter is picked independently at random, the result does not bear much relationship to Spanish or any other human languages, in which the occurrence of a glyph usually has something to do with the glyph before it (and before that, and so on).

“Una página” is also non-interactive. One can zoom, screenshot, copy and paste, and so on, but the program itself does not accept user input.

I sketched the program in Python before developing it in JavaScript, and when I was done with the HTML page that includes the JavaScript program, I thought I’d make a Python version, too. But when I did, I was disappointed; the Python program isn’t a page, and doesn’t produce a page, and so doesn’t seem to me to fit the concept, which has to be that of a page. Thus, I’m not going to release the Python program. The JavaScript version is the right one, in this case.

August 25, 2015

Web Interactive Fiction

Content Management Systems and Interactive Fiction

by David Cornelson at August 25, 2015 10:01 PM


Sometime this fall I will be spending more time on design and usability for parser based interactive fiction. This may include the funding on my own or via crowd-sourcing the hiring of an information architect, usability expert, web designer, and html/css programmer.

One of the possibilities in the design of an IF user interface is to consider the concept of content management. When companies roll out CMS systems for various internal and external projects, they will often hire someone to manage content strategy. One of the tasks for this person is to define content types.

It’s my belief that defining content types for interactive fiction is one of our primary goals in creating a well-received user interface. It’s also my belief that some of these content types will be common to many, if not all, works of IF. Of course each piece of work is likely to require new content types and the author and his/her designer will need help with that process.

A good example of this process can be seen in Inkle’s Sorcery games. They have several content types that I note, including: cast a spell, story text, list of advancement choices, and battle choices. You might include background sounds as a content type as well.

In parser-based IF we have basic content types that I’ve noted since FyreVM’s inception. I originally called these “channels” as a part of “channel IO”, but that might have been too abstract a term. Identifying these things as content types is more appropriate.

First, there are “meta” content types for parser-based IF. These are content types that are available at any point in the story and do not change. They include: story title, story author(s), story release date, inform 7 version, inform 6 version, inform 7 library version, inform 6 library version, publisher, and IFDB number.

Then there are base content types as a part of the story, all of which do change throughout the story. These include: chapter title, location title, current turn, current time, current score, inventory list, primary text (emitted in response to the player’s commands), and list of available exits/directions.

Setting aside that some of those could be ignored by any given IF story, these base content types give us the initial workings of a standard user interface. But we want more. We want a user interface that offers new users (and lazy old ones) the opportunity to progress through the story without prior IF knowledge and without breaking mimesis (too much).

So what content types can we add to improve the usability of our story?

Andrew Plotkin’sThe Dreamhold” gives us one answer. Andrew created a narrator that acts as guide through parser-based IF. Given this concept, we could add “narrator” or “guide” as a content type that changes throughout the story.

Aaron Reed’sBlue Lacuna” took the path of highlighting nouns as its primary “help” vehicle and this drew high praise. Aaron also added parser-helping mechanics, but those are out of scope from a content type perspective. They’re not out of scope for the larger “usability” discussion though. So let’s say “list of nouns” and “list of available verbs” are content types we might add on a contextual turn-by-turn basis. We would use scope and memory to decide what is listed.

So let’s pretend we have a story and we’ve started designing and writing. As we go through this process, we identify content types. We don’t worry so much about how they will be displayed to the player/reader. We just want to identify them and emit them separately. When we reach a point in our story creation that the content types have stabilized, we can then start designing a user interface that provides this information in the best desired manner.

Having someone that’s talented with design and usability would be highly beneficial. It’s clear that Inkle has such a person or persons and I attribute a great deal of their success on content and design.

My goal is to develop as much of the process and tools for content type identification and emission that focusing on the design and usability becomes second nature to all parser-based IF authors.

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Emily Short

Conversations We Have In My Head (Squinky)

by Emily Short at August 25, 2015 05:00 PM

Screen Shot 2015-08-08 at 10.21.01 PM

Conversations We Have In My Head is a very short, real-time dialogue game by Squinky, describing a conversation between a genderqueer protagonist (Quarky) and their ex (Lex). As the player, you’re choosing responses Lex can make to Quarky’s revelations and questions; new options come and go on the screen. This gives the game a smooth, relaxing quality — this is an odd analogy, perhaps, but it felt a bit like a driving game to me, in which you’re looking at the scenery sliding by and deciding which way you wanted to steer, but didn’t have any brakes.

If you want, you can be totally silent and just listen to Quarky monologue about the changes in their life. Or you can offer lots of feedback, or even more or less wrest the conversation around to yourself on a regular basis, reminding Quarky of the differences between you and of harm done in the past. I like the way this flows, though after about the fifth playing I started to wish I could fast-forward to important junctions in order to try some of the alternatives. Still, the game is so compact that even re-listening to the same opening doesn’t slow things down too much.

Squinky includes the following paragraph in their description of the game:

Many of us have voices in our heads that constantly remind us of our perceived failures and inadequacies. Sometimes, those voices appear to us in the form of a once-important, now-estranged person from our past. This is a game about having one of those conversations with that voice in your head, and the many ways it can go.​​

Despite the conflict implied in this paragraph, I found that the majority of the conversations I generated with Conversations We Have In My Head were net positives, rather than negative reflections on the protagonist or on what happened in the past. Perhaps growing up and coming to know themselves better has opened the possibility that the characters might be kinder to one another and keep things in better perspective than they used to. There are of course some exceptions.

This piece is an interesting counterbalance, too, to Squinky’s previous Interruption Junction: both games make a chief mechanic the decision to listen or interrupt, to make space for other people’s thoughts or to assert the importance of your own. But in Interruption Junction, those decisions always lead to frustration, never to any effective communication; in Conversations We Have In My Head, there’s something to be said both for listening quietly and for interrupting with your own thoughts some of the time, and you have some control over the content of what you’re going to say.

Mattie Brice has written about how Conversations touches on one of the messy aspects of human existence, the fact that our lives don’t always meet our own standards; that it’s challenging to advocate for better behavior and better communities when we ourselves have screwed up and indeed still retain some biases, some systemic bad habits, some misjudgment and poor understanding. We have to be able to forgive and try again; we have to be able to look at our own flaws, neither pretending to be perfect nor succumbing to self-hatred as a result.

August 24, 2015

These Heterogenous Tasks

Introcomp: Deprivation, Meld

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at August 24, 2015 03:01 AM

Deprivation (Michael Coorlim) is another example of a well-trodden IF trope: My Shitty Apartment. As is usual in the genre, the apartment is unexceptionally dull, and the player character’s only real characteristic is a general sense of malaise.

It is possible to make a striking game about being stuck in a shitty depressing apartment. It’s possible to write a compelling story about a character who does essentially nothing. But it’s tough, because the basic premise is really boring! It is safe to assume that your players already know what it is like to be alone and mildly depressed in a sorta-crappy home. They don’t need you to tell them. You need something more – scintillating prose, razor-sharp insights into the human condition, rich and complex character development, wit, imagination, something.

The ABOUT text gives something close to a statement of the author’s goals:

The game’s primary focus is on the player’s internal reality, rather than being focused on puzzles or exterior exploration.

Cool! Fine! But in that case you need a whole lot more internal reality, because right now it’s pretty thin on the ground. The PC’s issues are, within the scope of the intro, pretty generic. They’ve got insomnia. Their place is a little less tidy than it might be. They have some issues with self-esteem and food. These are all very common conditions, touched on very lightly, and so they offer very little information about this particular character or their particular problems. That’s boring.

Meld (David Whyld) is a game which wears its debt to Counterfeit Monkey on its sleeve: you’re a woman with object-transforming powers on a surreptitious mission in a fantasy city with an oppressive government.

Transformation puzzles are awesome, but as everybody else has already pointed out, melding doesn’t yield results that are even remotely predictable, which rather devalues the point of systematic puzzles. The game has fairly strong (even heavy-handed?) pointers in the early game, which get steadily less specific; that’s fine, but I found that my grasp of the puzzle mechanic didn’t grow enough to take over.

There are various ways to do a transformation mechanic without making something as intricate and laborious as Monkey or even Metamorphoses. In Juhana Leinonen’s Sparkle the game just tells you what transformations are possible; in Djibouti Dirigible Discombobulation I hand-coded things so that every combination of essence and object would reward the player with something – which only worked because the game is quite small and a lot of those somethings were instant death, sure, but it makes trial and error a lot less annoying. In Meld I eventually resorted to brute-forcing, trying every possible combination of inventory items – only to discover that I still didn’t have an appropriate item, so I needed to wander around looking for it.

The other thing is the story. Meld‘s narrative opens with a Mystery Mission, in which your mysterious client leaves a trail of mysterious clues as a Test before you actually gives you the job. (This is terrible behaviour from a prospective client – the PC is a freelance specialist, and I really hope that she’s going to be invoicing time spent on this trail of clues at her most exorbitant hourly rate). I’m not wild about this approach to mystery – it feels as though it’s there as a way to put off telling you what’s really going on, when really it ought to be a way of revealing what’s going on.

The worst possible opening to an IF game is “You wake up. You don’t remember who you are or how you got here. You’re in a featureless room…” No. Mystery shouldn’t be a way to hide things from the player. It’s a way to deliver them. Mystery’s not about withholding or indefinitely delaying information; it’s about giving your audience lots of information that doesn’t immediately match up.

This is particularly important if you’re opening in a brand-new fantasy setting, because in order for your audience to get engaged with a mystery, they need to know what normal looks like; without some sense of the parameters of the world and how it works, mystery is just obfuscation. Mystery can be the way you show the world – the mystery motivates exploration, and you use exploration to deliver lots of information to the player. But that doesn’t really seem what’s going on here: there’s quite a bit of city to explore, but that exploration doesn’t reveal all that much.

So, for instance, we’ve got mention that the PC’s sister went missing some time back, and that the Mystery Client has information about that – OK, if there’s an actual story there, that’s great, but if the sister is just a convenient MacGuffin to justify the PC’s interest, and/or a placeholder for Plot Goes Here Later, that’s really kind of crap. Give me reasons to trust that it isn’t.

I guess – hm. The thing I need from an intro, or a pilot episode, or a preview demo, isn’t the sense that the author is just kind of brainstorming the general concept, and aiming to figure out most of the details later. I need the sense that the author has got this, that they have so much stuff planned out that there isn’t really room for it in the intro.

Anyway. The fact that I’m mostly complaining about relatively high-level issues of pacing and delivery is indicative that this is pretty solidly put-together at the nuts-and-bolts level.

August 21, 2015

Choice of Games

VERSUS: The Lost Ones — Eliminate your enemies by stealing their powers!

by Dan Fabulich at August 21, 2015 07:01 PM

We’re proud to announce that VERSUS: The Lost Ones, the latest in our popular “Choice of Games” line of multiple-choice interactive-fiction games, is now available for Steam, iOS, and Android. It’s 25% off until August 28th. Steal alien powers and absorb their memories! Can you outlast your opponents to escape from planet Versus? “VERSUS: The Lost Ones” is a thrilling 123,000-word interactive novel by Zachary Sergi, author of our best-selling “Heroes Rise” trilogy. 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. Become an interstellar warrior, gifted with

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The Digital Antiquarian

Hollywood Dave’s Hijinx

by Jimmy Maher at August 21, 2015 11:00 AM

Hollywood Hijinx

Most happy offices, if they’re lucky, have one guy (or girl) who’s more important for the way he helps others enjoy coming to work than for the actual work he gets done personally when he’s there. He’s the guy who remembers birthdays and graduations; who organizes the softball team and the potlucks and the rotisserie baseball league and the NCAA basketball pools; who’s always willing to fetch lunch or (after working hours, hopefully!) a keg of beer; who’s always available for a meeting around the proverbial water cooler to laugh at a great new joke or commiserate with old disappointments. For Infocom, which for most of its lifetime was possessed of a very happy office indeed, that guy was “Hollywood” Dave Anderson.

A California boy through and through — one only had to hear his nickname or look at the loud beachwear he wore to work every day he could get away with it to divine that — Anderson had first come to Boston in late 1982 with his buddy Jeff O’Neill, executing a reverse Manifest Destiny to seek their promised land to the east. He was working in a sawmill a few months later when he saw an advertisement in the newspaper from a company he’d never heard of called Infocom, looking for game testers. He didn’t know much of anything about computer games, but getting paid to play them all day certainly sounded a lot better than life at the sawmill. He became one of Infocom’s first full-time testers, taking over from Steve Meretzky, who was already moving on up to write Planetfall. Soon O’Neill joined him in the same role. Hollywood was good at his job, thorough and insightful in everything from spotting typos to bigger questions of design and puzzle fairness. With the testing department growing rapidly around him in Infocom’s first bloom of major commercial success, within six months he was the grand old man of the group, officially given the title of Lead Playtester.

Something else that happened at nearly the same time does much to explain the even more important role that Anderson was already playing at Infocom. One day in November of 1983, he decided it was high time that somebody clean up the stagnant goldfish pond located outside Infocom’s Wheeler Street offices. He scooped out the three fish, moved them to a temporary holding tank, drained the pond and diligently scrubbed it clean, and put fresh water back in. Anyone who knows anything about fish — a group that apparently didn’t include Anderson or anyone else at Infocom whom he might have talked to about his scheme — can probably guess what happened when he put the fish back in the next day. They all promptly died, undone by a screwed-up pH balance or incorrect oxygen content or bad karma or whatever it is that makes domestic fish die if you so much as look at them wrong (one wonders how evolution ever spared this bunch). The others at Infocom decided to prosecute him for the fish’s murder, with Marc Blank acting as prosecutor, Steve Meretzky as his defense attorney, Mike Dornbrook as fishy expert witness, and nine upright Infocom employee/citizens as the jury. After a lengthy — okay, not really lengthy — trial, he was found not guilty, the victim of a frame job by the real murderer, a Micro Group programmer — and jury member to boot! — named Poh Lim. Lim was sentenced to life in the Graphics “Group,” a truly solitary confinement given the state of the company’s graphics technology at the time.

Hollywood’s trial passed into Infocom lore as one of the first grand comic absurdities of the sort that their staffers would raise to a high art. It also says much about his own role in daily life in the office, from the energetic helpfulness that led him to clean the pond so thoroughly in the first place to the gleeful way he jumped aboard to play his role in the whole (mis)carriage of justice. His name didn’t appear on the game boxes, but faithful readers of Infocom’s New Zork Times newsletter, if they were really paying attention, would have noticed that his name and sometimes picture crop up over and over in accounts of the cheerful insanity that was daily life at the company. He doesn’t hog the limelight — he wasn’t that kind of guy, not at all — but he’s always there, as a participant and as often as not an instigator.

Hollywood agrees to doff his trademark loud shirt to act as host of a live-action What's My Line? show.

Hollywood doffs his trademark loud shirt for once to act as host of a live-action What’s My Line? show.

Back in his preferred attire, Hollywood cuts a pumpkin with a chainsaw (!) at Infocom's Halloween party.

Back in his preferred attire, Hollywood carves a pumpkin with a chainsaw (!) at Infocom’s Halloween party. I guess the time at the sawmill did prove to be good for something after all.

It was for example Hollywood who, after seeing the noble sport at a lounge in his namesake city in California, brought hermit-crab racing to Infocom. Teams were established, and a prize collection of crabs bought by Hollywood at a local pet store auctioned off to each to carry its standard at Drink’em Downs raceway, constructed in the ample space left over inside the CambridgePark Drive offices after Cornerstone had come and gone.

Drink'em Downs track announcer Hollywood calls the action as Stu Galley looks on in suspense. Races could take a while, as the crabs had a tendency to say, "Screw this!" and stay in their shells at the starting gate.

Drink’em Downs track announcer Hollywood calls the action, assisted by track timer Stu Galley. The latter had a difficult job: races could take a while, as the crabs had a tendency to say, “Screw this!” and shrink into their shells at the starting gate.

But Hollywood’s most legendary exploits took place on the softball field. He was instrumental in setting up Boston’s Software Softball League, which included along with Infocom the likes of Spinnaker and Lotus. Hollywood became the coach of Infocom’s team, making the official uniform, inevitably, a loud floral shirt. The games became a pivotal part of Infocom’s social calendar, a bonding experience notable even by the company’s usual close-knit standards. In trying to explain how it was at Infocom during the early days when everything they touched seemed to turn to gold, many old employees turn back to those sun-kissed summer days on the softball field when a ragtag bunch of them would show up with several coolers full of beer and little idea who was even playing what position to compete against companies often several times their size, companies that held actual practice sessions and even had actual uniforms — and, much more often than not, Infocom would win. That said, those chalking the wins purely up to Infocom’s charmed early life were doing something of a disservice to their best player. It seems safe to say that Hollywood all but won some games by himself, what with his eye-popping yearly batting averages of .800 or better and his habit of hitting home runs by the handful.

Happy days on the softball field. Of the guys wearing the ridiculous straw hats, Hollywood is the one to farthest left.

A motley crew but an effective one on the softball field. Of the guys wearing the ridiculous straw hats, Hollywood is the one to farthest left.

The story of Hollywood Anderson at Infocom is to everyone who was actually there and, indeed, to him as well largely the story of an all-around good mate, not of a game designer. This fact highlights a distinction that perhaps isn’t always appreciated enough, setting into stark relief just how differently Infocom was and is regarded by those who were inside the company in contrast to those who just loved the games. The company that people like me love to idealize as visionaries of interactive storytelling was for the people there first and foremost just a great social experience, for many or most the very best of their entire lives. To them Infocom was about computer games only secondarily. The Infocom that they knew is one that we cannot — and, what with them being so hopelessly close to the sausage-making that led to the games, the opposite is also true. When interviewed by Jason Scott for his Get Lamp documentary, Hollywood didn’t seem to want to talk about his one and only game Hollywood Hijinx so much as all the great memories he has of Infocom as a place, memories that often deal only tangentially with the actual nuts and bolts of making interactive fiction.

Even taken on these terms, however, the story of Hollywood’s transformation from tester and life of the Infocom party to Implementor is an unusual one in comparison to that of his peers. Unlike Steve Meretzky or Jeff O’Neill, talented writers and frustrated artists who worked hard to get out of the testing department, and still less like Brian Moriarty, who accepted a job in the Micro Group with the secret agenda of becoming an Imp by hook or by crook, designing his own game just seemed to kind of fall into Hollywood’s lap. He was good at his job and took it seriously, but his passion for the medium didn’t exactly burn with the heat of a thousand suns. He himself notes that the staff was divided between those who believed they were on the cusp of a new form of interactive literature and those who saw their products as “just games.” He, no tortured-artist type by temperament or circumstance, saw them pretty definitively as the latter — the more game-like the better, in fact. Hollywood was an old-school guy who still held Zork up as a sort of gold standard. He was a member of the small minority of even old-school players who love mazes; he loved nothing more than to hunker down with a blank piece of graph paper and a full inventory to drop’em and map’em.

Of course, one would have to be a deeply incurious person to test interactive fiction as a full-time job for literally years without developing some interest in what went into making it. One year Infocom hired a high-school boy named Tom Bok to help with testing over the summer. He got hold of the ZIL source code to the original Zork and started playing around with it, first just by substituting text of his own but later by experimenting with the actual instructions. Both Hollywood and his old buddy Jeff O’Neill got interested in his explorations, and the trio made a spoof they called Zok — a portmanteau of Zork and Bok — that was widely played by others in the office.

Still, while those experiments led O’Neill in fairly short order to pitch and get accepted his idea for Ballyhoo, Hollywood’s own route to Imphood would be more circuitous. When Activision bought Infocom in mid-1986, one of Jim Levy’s first requests was that they start making more games — many more in fact, to the tune of twice as many releases per year as had been their wont. To meet that demand, they would need more Imps, and hard experience had taught them that hiring people off the street and expecting them to learn this absolutely unique art form didn’t usually work, even if they had the money in the budget for it (which they really didn’t). But right there was Hollywood, who’d been testing games for three years now and thus knew the form about as intimately as anyone who hadn’t actually written a game before could. And this was Hollywood, whom everyone liked and appreciated. Wouldn’t it be nice for him to see his name on a box? Hadn’t he earned that through his years of many and varied services? If the door wasn’t quite held wide for him, it was certainly somewhat ajar. All he really had to do was saunter through with a half-decent idea.

In a telling foreshadowing of how his game would end up being developed, even the initial idea wasn’t his. It was Liz Cyr-Jones, another tester who would be promoted to Hollywood’s old role of Lead Playtester upon his departure (how’s that for motivation?), who proposed making his game an extended homage to his long-standing nickname, so ingrained by now that The New Zork Times had taken to writing his name as “Dave” Hollywood Anderson. Hollywood Hijinx would be a scavenger hunt taking place on the mansion of your recently deceased Uncle Buddy and Aunt Hildegarde Burbank, B-movie moguls par deluxe. According to the terms of their will, you need to find ten mementos from their movies in the course of a single night to inherit their fortune. It seemed a fun premise to Hollywood, perfectly suited to his own gaming predilections and experience — or, rather, his lack thereof. It was essentially a Zork set in the present day, the focus firmly on the puzzles that were to him the most interesting part of interactive fiction. The deserted, static grounds of the mansion would make the programming easier, while the played-for-laughs B-movie premise would let him liven them up with a bit of humor and atmosphere while being surreal enough that he didn’t need to worry too much about realism or plot or any of the rest of the stuff that Infocom’s preferred characterization of their games as “interactive fiction” normally implied. He pitched Jones’s idea, and, sure enough, it was accepted. Just like that, he was an Imp.

While it would bear Hollywood Anderson’s name on its cover and it would certainly be him who had final say on the project, Hollywood Hijinx is one of the two Infocom games since the days of the original Zork that is best described as a true group effort. (The other would be their very next game, subject of my next article. Its development would take that path, however, for very different reasons.) Just about everyone in the testing department pitched in with ideas for puzzles and gags, treating it as a welcome chance to make a game of their own for a change instead of only breaking the games of others. But Hollywood’s collaborators also extended far beyond the testing people. The only really big fan of B-movies at Infocom — Hollywood himself barely even knew who Roger Corman was — was, perhaps surprisingly, “Professor” Brian Moriarty, on the surface at least the most serious and “literary” of all the Imps. He pitched in with lots of ideas to lend humor and texture to the game, and took the time to write some of Tinsel World, the dishy showbiz magazine that became the centerpiece of the feelies. Infocom’s packaging people reveled in their freedom from overly stringent Imp guidance to come up with much of the rest from their own whole cloth. Hollywood did most of the programming himself, but admits to spending a lot of time “running around the office groveling” to Steve Meretzky or Dave Lebling to help him when it got beyond “the basics” of ZIL. None of this should be taken as a dismissal of Hollywood’s ability, and certainly not as an accusation of dishonesty. A social animal if ever there was one, this was just his natural way of working. And, good guy that he was, everyone was more than happy to help.

I wish I could tell you that the game that resulted from all of this is one of the Infocom greats, a tribute to Hollywood’s infinite good will and subtle leadership. Sadly, however, I can’t. There are worse games in the catalog than Hollywood Hijinx, but I’m not sure there are any that feel quite so inessential as this one. Indeed, it has to be the single least innovative Infocom game ever. Its most immediately striking feature, not least because you encounter it almost immediately, is the mansion’s defiantly old-school hedge maze, the single largest, gnarliest example of its type ever to appear in an Infocom game. (I did mention that Hollywood loved mazes, didn’t I?) Thankfully you can, after solving a number of other puzzles, put together an in-game map of the thing that will see you through in lieu of solving it yourself; one suspects that this must have been added by Hollywood under duress after hearing from outraged testers. Problem is, it’s all too easy to not realize that’s possible when you first encounter the maze, especially because the map is hidden behind some fairly tricky puzzles that you may not believe are solvable without discovering what’s in the maze’s center first. Remember this, would-be players, and don’t spend several hours mapping the thing — unless, like Hollywood, you enjoy that sort of thing — as I did when I first played!

Of course, innovation isn’t everything, and there’s certainly always room for a well-done Zork-like puzzlefest. Unfortunately, though, Hollywood Hijinx doesn’t quite hold up even on those terms. Most of the puzzles are fine, some (like one involving a certain delightful Godzilla-themed interactive diorama) more than fine. But there’s also one that’s notably terrible, arguably the worst single puzzle to appear in an Infocom game since the infamous baseball maze and bank in Zork II. Because I seem to have developed a regular sideline (or form of personal therapy) in complaining about puzzles, I’m going to describe (and spoil) it in the next paragraph. Sensitive readers may want to skip what follows.

So, you discover a water-filled channel through which you can swim to resurface in a cave complex. Being a cave, however, it has no light. You have a flashlight and also some matches that are theoretically capable of providing some, but the flashlight isn’t waterproof. The obvious thing would be to find a Ziploc bag or other waterproof container to put a light source into, but the mansion’s larder, alas, isn’t well-stocked with such practical necessities. The solution that you eventually discover — or, more likely, look up in the hint book or walkthrough — requires you to coat a match with wax from a burning candle, then scrape it off when you surface on the other end of the pool. That’s an iffy enough proposition in itself, but the game’s text for some reason decides to make it even harder to believe — and to solve. When you “put wax on match,” the response is that “the match head [emphasis mine] is now covered with a thin coating of candle wax.” We have here another of that thriving subspecies of text-adventure puzzles that just don’t make any practical sense whatsoever given the consensus version of reality we presumably share with the games we play. Even if the wax has miraculously kept the match head dry, and even if it’s possible to scrape off all of the glop and still have a strikeable head, all of the rest of the match — you know, the part that actually burns — is still all wet. That it couldn’t possibly burn seems so obvious that I spent a long time banging my head against other walls, sure this particular action couldn’t have anything to do with this particular puzzle. I even took the game’s choice of describing the wax as coating only the head as a deliberate kindness meant to steer me away from seeing it as a solution to the problem of a comprehensively wet match. Little did I know…

The writing in Hollywood Hijinx is mostly fine, enlivening its puzzles with fun props and memories hearkening back to the Burbanks’ glory days. As with so much in this game, it’s hard to say how many of the atmospheric touches were devised by Hollywood himself and how many were passed along to him by others, but then it’s not ultimately all that important anyway. For a guy who was more interested in puzzles than text, Hollywood, to his credit, managed to oversee an enjoyable reading as well as playing experience. The only really jarring moment comes when you screen a copy of Uncle Buddy’s lost film A Corpse Line, when the tone suddenly shifts from gentle satire to full-on zombie horror. I’m still not entirely sure if the disturbing scene you witness and the death you suffer immediately afterward are meant to be parodic and just come off wrong or if they really are meant to be horrific. Either way, they stand out from the rest of the game like, well, a dancing corpse in a top hat.

Much more problematic for anyone trying to solve Hollywood Hijinx are just a few places where the scene that Hollywood is evidently seeing in his mind’s eye isn’t quite captured in its entirety in the text, making, whether intentionally or unintentionally, some things harder than they would otherwise be. (The inside of the fireplace is the most notable offender; know that the “loose mortar” that the game so casually describes apparently isn’t so much loose as irregular, providing lots of convenient… well, I’m sure you can figure the rest out for yourself. The other possibility is that you’re an acrobat who’s capable of sticking one toe into a hole at waist height, stepping up, and balancing there on the face of an otherwise smooth — and loosely mortared to boot — wall.)

The little glitches that dog Hollywood Hijinx may have something to do with the unique collaborative process that was its making. If most of the testers are pitching in with ideas and puzzles, the obvious danger becomes that they get too close to the design, unable to see it anymore as an objective outsider would. In short, if the testers are writing the game, who’s testing it? (There may be an aphorism in there somewhere…) Yet it’s also true that this would hardly be the last time that cracks in Infocom’s usual smooth veneer of polish would be noticeable in their last great surge of text-only games of which Hollywood Hijinx is the first. I’ll take up the question of precisely why that should be at greater length in another article, but will just note for now that Infocom was suddenly being asked to become prolific on a scale which they had never approached before in their history. Between January 1987, the date of Hollywood Hijinx‘s release, and January 1988, when they would release their last all-text adventure game, no fewer than nine titles would pour out of their offices, a rate of production nearly twice that of any other twelve-month period in their history. The number of personnel involved in making the games, meanwhile, did not increase. In fact, just the opposite: Infocom hired their last employee in 1985. As people left in the months and years that followed, they were never replaced. Even when Hollywood stepped up to become an Imp the testing vacancy he left behind remained unfilled in perpetuity, leaving the company with one less conscientious tester to cover a flood of new games that threatened to drown the whole department. Looked at in this light, the biggest surprise is that Infocom’s games of 1987 didn’t suffer still more, that Infocom managed in spite of it all to turn out a some final gems worthy of standing alongside anything from their less harried earlier years.

After Hollywood Hijinx hit the street and promptly became Infocom’s lowest seller to date, their first to fail to break even 20,000 copies, Hollywood Anderson evinced no particular burning desire to make another game. He rather parlayed his knowledge of Aldus PageMaker into his third and final role at Infocom. As their desktop-publishing expert, he helped to put together the newsletters that were still sent out every quarter to the remaining Infocom faithful. (Indeed, the newsletters seemed to grow in size and ambition almost in direct opposition to the dwindling sales of the actual games.) It was a perfect role for him. Even as the realities of life inside CambridgePark Drive grew ever more stressful, he continued to put a good face on it for the outside world, filling the newsletters with stories of the latest antics and coming up with delightfully goofy promotional ideas that could be used to drum up a little enthusiasm for very little of the money that Infocom increasingly didn’t have. The “take a picture of yourself holding an Infocom game on the Great Wall of China” contest, for example, became a particular favorite of fans and employees alike. Still, he remained as always most valuable not for what it said in his job description but for what he brought to daily life at the office. His peers during this last couple of years had more need than ever for his affable charm and unflappable sense of fun.

I’ve seen a few “where are they now?” pieces done on one-hit wonders of the music industry in which the subjects have noted how frustrating it can be to be perpetually framed with that negative label. After all, just getting one song played on the radio and bought in mass quantities by a fickle public — hell, just getting signed and getting a record out at all — is more than the vast majority of working musicians will ever achieve. Similarly, while his game is far from the best of the pack, Hollywood Dave Anderson is one of the vanishingly small number of people on the planet who can hold up an Infocom box with his name on the cover. That’s one hell of an achievement in itself. If the skids that got him there were just slightly greased in contrast to his peers, you’ll never meet a single one of them with a resentful word to say about it. Hollywood, because of who he was and what he brought to their lives every day, deserved his tiny little twirl in the limelight. As long as the Infocom catalog is remembered, there will be his game — his name — nestled in there among the others, a reminder of a great chum and a place that was for six or so great years a great place to be young and creative and happy. There are certainly worse legacies to have.

(As usual with my Infocom articles, much of this one is drawn from the full Get Lamp interview archives which Jason Scott so kindly shared with me. Thanks again, Jason! Other sources include Infocom’s New Zork Times and Status Line newsletters of Spring 1984, Summer 1984, Summer 1985, Winter 1986, Fall 1986, Winter 1987, Summer 1987, Fall 1987, Winter 1987, Spring 1988, and Summer 1988, and Down From the Top of Its Game, an academic paper on the company’s history.

Hollywood Hijinx and most of the other Infocom games are available for purchase as part of an iOS app.)


August 20, 2015

Stuff About Stuff

IntroComp reviews, part 1: Lair of the Gorgolath, Voltage Cafe, Walker's Rift

by Andrew ( at August 20, 2015 08:09 PM

I should've gotten through IntroComp earlier, but at least I got around to it, eh? We'll start with these three, and I'll post the other tomorrow.

Hopefully my reviews will have something new to say or, if they don't, help act as a deciding vote/deciding motivation for an author to say "I need to do this, or that."

I've avoided other reviews, so there may be repetition, but I think I'll be less biased that way. In the past, I sometimes poked at reviews to see how long/short a game is, to organize my own time, but that spoiled a lot more. (Note to IFDB admins or anyone: I think this would be a good feature to put in for a game. Have people vote on how long a game seems to take. I know lots of times I'd like to sit down with a game but I have no clue how long it is.)

If you haven't gotten through IntroComp, you have one more day. No game is terribly long, except for one that has a walkthrough anyway. (Note: walkthroughs are a good thing, in-game or not. Authors, even if you want people to see the bad ending or not be spoon-fed, maybe put the "right" path at the end? Or say so to start?)

I hope it's not rough to say these missed the cut for my top 3, but they had enough that it's worth saying a bit. I'd have said a bit more if I'd have started earlier.

Lair of the Gorgolath seems to have been miscast a bit. It's an introduction, yes, but a sequel to three parts. I mentioned to the author I wanted to read the first three, and I didn't, and that left me a bit mystified as to what was going on. And when you try to put zany humor on that, there's the additional bit that the player is missing a joke, or several jokes, which is a poor first impression.

Nevertheless the death I reached seemed to be about midway through of an actual story, so that was a good cut-off point. The problem was that I wasn't able to look back through what I did to see if I could've done better, because it was all a bit random. Still, I have a bit more motivation to try the previous games in the series, finally, so that is not a total wash for the author.

Voltage Cafe--well, one problem with writing an inspiration-for-thesis game is that people will compare it to Violet. And here the character doesn't have enough motivation beyond you're hungry, eat, and you're thirsty, drink. I started hoping for some insights or cleverness, but it's mostly WRITE a lot. And the writing about what you're writing seems very dry. And there's someone named Maru who it took a bit of time to figure was my waitress.

X ME is rather funny and shows potential, but then TAKE STICKER doesn't work. So it could use a lot of proofreading. X DEBIT card--well, it's a bit more than standard "my crummy life/work" but it has a way to go.

Also, in the bloopers department, X MARU.X HER notes that Maru is defined as male by Inform. I've made that mistake too, but in my sort of not really defense, most of the characters were male.

I'm sort of curious how to get that last point, but not enough. Obviously the game can continue with you going to your advisor, but unfortunately it's missing a good bit of detail. While you slowly learn what your dissertation is about, it's buried beneath some pretty general stuff to start.

Walker's Rift--confession, I'm not a huge fan of ChoiceScript. The interface doesn't work for me, even though I've mastered the tabs, and it takes the interactive out of interactive fiction because I don't even have a transcript to go back through--and there are times where I say, hmm, I'm missing something, I need to go back and check. Of course, allowing too much loop-back has its own pitfalls, but CS kind of slams it shut.

So that probably soured my view on this game, especially one that gave options that, if they didn't affect mechanics, provided interesting contrast. Such as hating being so public vs loving it.

Unfortunately there are games where I grit my teeth and say "this was competently done" or "Im sure others will like this" and it sounds like I'm patting the author on the head and giving them a cookie. Or I'm giving them a nice report card full of checks and check-plusses. But in this case, I wasn't really involved in the story. Part of that is, I don't like playing as Hugely Accomplished People, whether or not they're opposed to Big Powerful Politicians. So while I appreciated that you can choose how you made your way up in the world, and there's a realism that you're not a shiny knight, well...administrative stuff puts me to sleep! The game understands and addresses this, but not enough to grip me.

But as someone who likes plain straightforward writing that doesn't show off, I felt this could've used a few boosts. I wasn't caught up enough to suggest where. But if the author has any places where they felt they skated along a bit, that's a good place to focus.

Still, the overall pace seems right, and a Short Ending is clearly flagged as such, so the reader can try again, and in the main one, after interviewing a few victims of the sickness in the Walled City. And I found myself curious about what the other interns would do, since the game said the choice was critical. But ChoiceScript being ChoiceScript, I got fatigued before clicking through again. I hope it's just me missing an obvious save feature, but I doubt it.

Also the author is to be commended for having a development log. I assume it's locked until the competition is over. More of us should do this! It's not just the "If we build it, they will come" philosophy. It's helped me check off on big and small things. And it's hardly showing off, especially post-release.

So I think it's fair to say the piece is well beyond competent. I would not be surprised or disappointed to see it in the top 3. I could see it going to #2 or #1, actually, and I'd be more than okay with that. For all my criticism, this effort seems both worth completing and on track for completion. It feels organized and robust.

The People's Republic of IF

September meetup

by zarf at August 20, 2015 05:00 PM

The Boston IF meetup for September will be Wednesday, September 2, 6:30 pm, MIT room 14N-233. (Sooner than you think!)

Post Position

Tumblrs of the Everyday

by Nick Montfort at August 20, 2015 02:43 AM

I collaborate with Flourish Klink on two very specific Tumblr blogs, which are both open for submissons.

street_crts features photos of CRT televisions (or monitors) that have been placed on the street to allow others to take them away, or to allow them to be removed as trash.

xp_in_the_roost chronicles, in photos, the legacy of industrial/furniture designer Xavier Pauchard, who, without formal training, designed steel furniture early in the 20th century that seems to be in about 1/5 of all New York restaurants, bars, and coffeehouses, and in many, many other places worldwide. Pauchard does not, as of this writing, even have an English-language Wikipedia entry.

If you spot street CRTs, or the furniture of Pauchard, please submit photos to these two sites.

These Heterogenous Tasks

Hail to the King: on games telling you how great you are

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at August 20, 2015 01:01 AM

About a year back I got around to playing Brütal Legend. It’s pretty damn good, overall. As you’d expect of Double Fine, it has a distinctive premise, a vividly imaginative, joyfully over-the-top world, some kick-arse tunes, and more than one joke that’s actually funny. It’s got some problems, though, so obviously that’s what I’m going to talk about. (This is liable to degenerate into an attempt to figure out why certain things really bother me, so take a grain of salt and be prepared for some navel-gazing. Apologies in advance.)

Always the bridesmaid.

Always the bridesmaid.

A major theme of the plot is that protagonist Eddie Riggs is, as a roadie, vital but invisible, a guy whose job is making other people look good, doing most of the work and getting none of the credit. This is framed as the Character Problem at the outset of the game, recurs occasionally over the course of the story, and gets an acceptance reframing in the epilogue – he’s still an overlooked guy whose job is to make other people look good, but he’s cool with it because he’s acknowledged and appreciated by the people in the know. In the RTS battle parts, the Roadies – anti-tower stealth troops – are one of the most strategically vital units, precisely because they’re invisible. Some of the side-quests play on the fact that as a roadie it’s your role to go around doing chores, making beer runs, cleaning up messes.

But on the other hand, Eddie gets tons of recognition throughout the game. After the prelude, everybody knows him by sight. ‘Whoa, it’s Eddie Riggs,’ enthuse random headbangers when you run into them. Throughout, the major figures of the world implicitly acknowledge him as their peer, groundlings as their hero. Eddie drives and directs most of the action and does all the cool frontman-type things (explosive guitar solos, bitchin’ car, soaring on giant demon wings). Eddie can, if he so chooses, carve a giant representation of his own face across a mountainside. It’s traditional for escapist fantasylands to invert the protagonist’s frustrations, to turn ignored kids into monarchs, make the bullied strong, to bring the mighty down from their thrones and exalt the humble. But the thing is that it wants to push the overlooked theme at the same time, within the same Brütal Land in which Eddie is constantly recognised. When, a little before the final battle, Lita observes that Eddie never gets any credit for all his hard work, it rings so false, so out-of-place in an otherwise capably-written work, that I almost thought it must be a piss-take. There’s some serious narrative dissonance going on here.

In another genre, I might be tempted to say that this inconsistency was a significant clue, that perhaps (for example) it’s a sign that the Brütal Land is a fantasy of Eddie’s into which his anxieties keep intruding. But I think that’d be a bit like watching an action movie, seeing the hero escape unscathed in a hail of bullets, and then declaring (a la Pulp Fiction) that we should regard this as demanding an extraordinary explanation. The over-appreciated protagonist, like the bullet-immune action hero, is such a stock device in games that it’s not the kind of thing you can subtly lampshade.

In games generally – particularly CRPGs and their ilk – there’s a tendency to not just make the player-character the most significant person in the world: that significance has to be recognised. In Fallout 3, your exploits are recounted in glowing tones in news broadcasts in between the music playlist. Skyrim takes it a step further and makes the songs themselves folk-music about you. In Mass Effect 2 Shepard can trade on her celebrity status by endorsing stores. Once you’ve got some positive local reputation in Fallout: New Vegas, a member of street gang The Kings occasionally runs up to you with the greeting ‘You’re the one who’s been going around helping people?’ and gives you small gifts in appreciation. In L.A. Noire a high proportion of bystander chatter is along the lines of ‘Hey, there’s that cop who…’ The power fantasy offered by these games is not just about wealth, prowess and accomplishmentit’s about fame, recognition, adulation. You don’t just shape the fate of the world: you must be fêted for it.

This happened all the time in West Side Story.

This happened all the time in West Side Story.

It’s a very specific kind of fame, though.

Power-fantasy is not just about power per se, but about existential power, power over one’s identity. In the real world, your identity is never fully yours; you’re constrained by culture, biology, personal history, ability, reputation, institutional structure. (Not all of this is a bad thing. We wouldn’t want anybody unilaterally declaring themselves a heart surgeon.) It’s uncomfortable not to be recognised for greatness merely because one has failed to do anything to earn it. Games offer a trade-off: be this badass guy, and in return we will not just allow you to do badass stuff: we will never, ever allow the author’s voice to doubt or misconstrue that you are this guy. (Some restrictions apply.)

Partly it’s because the way that fame works is subtle stuff, and games are very rarely allowed to be subtle. I loved Beyond Good & Evil, but its account of media distortion was basically drawn in finger-paints. I was entertained by the way that that one war ballad in Skyrim has faction-specific variants, but it’s a pale, attenuated shadow of how fascinating real ballad variants are. In L.A. Noire you go from celebrated to condemned, but this is a no-brainer progression of your Only Honest Cop In Town identity (even though you’re taking the fall for, y’know, a dishonest thing which you did in fact do). In Mass Effect 2 you’re a hard-nosed pragmatist renegade unafraid to piss people off in order to get shit done, but everyone holds you in the highest respect except for one bargain-basement caricature of a Politician Who Only Cares About Politics. These games have a story to tell, and fame is only ever allowed to act as its chorus: it can’t contradict or confuse the narrative that’s being pushed. (Thus, why Eddie Riggs’ narrative of not being acknowledged keeps getting acknowledged.)

It’s not just that, though. Much of the time, the accolades are delivered by mooks rather than major NPCs: the fantasy is not just about being well-regarded, it’s about being looked up to by the groundlings. Well, and isn’t that an OK thing to want? Isn’t being admirable and exemplary a reasonable human goal? Wouldn’t a person totally uninterested in the good opinion of anybody else be a tiny bit sinister?

Frankly, it skeeves me the fuck out. A good deal of this, I’ll admit, is personal reaction: it seems pretty clear to me that these are moments intended to push through the distinction between player and player-character, bathing the player in the reflected warm fuzzies of the player-character’s popularity. I abhor an insincere compliment or a baseless reassurance with all my being; I have less than zero desire to be told nice things about myself by anybody whose opinion I don’t trust on the matter. The very last thing I’m inclined to trust is a program designed to stroke my ego. You don’t know me, machine, declares something deep within me. You are not actually a person who respects or cares about me, and it is fucking insulting to mimic one. Back the fuck off.

Clearly this is doing something for somebody, or it wouldn’t be so prevalent. There are lots of things in this general space. There are apps and twitterbots dedicated to delivering whatever flavour of reassurance you prefer; they make me grind my teeth, but surely they serve important and legitimate functions for plenty of people. I won’t pretend that I am a being of pristine rationality, immune to all forms of baseless encouragement; socially tricking one’s own brain into a more useful state is a powerful and important tool. I have walked across actual hot coals on that basis. I have become measurably, immediately stronger purely on the basis of people telling me that I am. And yet.

There’s an unspoken contract in place about delivering gratification to the player. When I write about interactive fiction design, I talk a lot about the need to give the player rewards early and often, to not take their active cooperation for granted, to offer incentives. In many mainstream games, no such advice is necessary: the problem is one of excessive focus on constant reinforcement, and of coming up with rewards that aren’t painfully crass. There’s a certain inflation at work here. I’ve heard people complain about how Oblivion, a game in which you can swiftly and reliably rise to the top of every significant institution in the world, fails to sufficiently acknowledge your status once you have done so. How could a game even manage that? How could you write a reaction line for a shopkeeper meeting a guy who’s Genghis Khan, Cecil Rhodes and Benjamin Jowett all at once, without exposing how ridiculous the whole thing is? ‘Thanks for holding together the very fabric of reality on four separate occasions, here’s a 20% discount coupon’?

A tension. Games are so often about wanting acceptance, wanting to belong; but they’re often simultaneously about an insistence on remaining the emotionally impervious lone-wolf outsider. (There’s an inherent asymmetry in single-player games: the player character is an outsider, categorically unlike any NPC.) The Witcher wants us to believe that witchers are a declined order, unfairly reviled and distrusted: but also that Geralt is at the heart of the turning world, trusted and relied upon by everyone from horny peasant girls to monarchs to minor gods, his deeds immortalised by bards; and also that he cares not for politics or worldly fame, and his relationships are either one-night stands or bothersome impositions. The core power fantasy is about unconditional acceptance, of getting it all without having to compromise anything of oneself. That’s… just a tiny bit adolescent.

Ravaged by injury and mutation, Geralt's grotesque body consigns him to an angst-ridden life of awesome fights and doin' hot babes.

Ravaged by injury and mutation, Geralt’s grotesque body consigns him to a lonely, shunned existence.

Art serves our needs.

There’s a spectrum I think in terms of – a crude and problematic one, based on an ad-hoc tradition of usage – between the purposes of art. Porn is art that serves one purpose. It is not coy about what that purpose is; the audience has a need, and the work sets out to gratify that need in the most straightforward, unconflicted way possible. Generally it’s pretty clear about what desire it’s serving. Baby animal videos, photos of expensive home interiors or tasty-looking food, ASMR, giant robot battles. Literature also relies on the audience having desires about its content, but there are multiple desires at play, and they’re brought into conflict. Most simply, you want the hero to succeed, but you’d feel cheated if it was easy. Difficult loves, incommensurate desires.

And there’s a place for both. Sometimes you just want to look at sexy naked people without dealing with all the complicated, conflicted nuance of real human relationships. Sometimes you want catharsis without a ton of caveats. Totally legit. But if that’s all you ever want, or all you’re ever offered, that’s a problem.

The relevant part, here, is that porn is a lot more make-or-break; if you don’t have the relevant need, at best it does nothing for you. At worst… well, it can be taken two ways. You might feel as though you’ve been erroneously treated as though you do have that need, and be pissed off that someone’s made assumptions about you. And you also might feel that you are not the intended audience, and wonder about who is, and feel uncomfortably as though you’re in the wrong place. For me, lavish game-praise prompts a little of both reactions.

Amanda Lange’s otherwise-awesome You’re Just Gonna Be Nice doesn’t really consider the significance of bleed, a phenomenon very well-acknowledged within Nordic LARP but only patchily addressed in the context of single-player games. Bleed is a huge part of the appeal of games, and too often it is used in very crude and pornish ways. I think that in order to get better at it, we need to do more to acknowledge its importance.

Some elements are much more susceptible to bleed than others, and elements relating to morality are among the strongest of these. ‘We have science fiction, but we don’t have moral fiction,’ one of my aesthetics lecturers once said; ‘we can accept it if Kirk flies a spaceship based on ridiculous pseudo-science, but we wouldn’t accept it if we were told that in the Star Trek universe it’s OK to kill black people for no reason.’ I’m not convinced of this as an absolute – I think we demonstrably have moral fictions of various kinds. But they are by nature permeable and precarious, prone to serious bleed. Moral fictions distort their worlds around the needs they serve, trails that you can’t help tracing back; and the more straightforward the needs, the more ugly and obvious the trail. All art distorts, including the thing that I self-righteously call literature; but single-point distortions are a lot harder to ignore.

It’s not that I’m indifferent to the prospect of playing a good person in games. It’s more that I’m deeply unsettled by games in which being virtuous, or looked up to, is presented as straightforward. The thing I love most about Telltale’s Walking Dead is not that there usually isn’t an author-anointed Good Option. It’s that it doesn’t let you be good just because you say you’d like to be.


Visual Novel: Romance is Dead

by Gingy Gibson at August 20, 2015 12:01 AM


Romance is Dead is a short visual novel about what happens when science meets the supernatural in the city of New Orleans, why voodoo should only be done by professionals, and how you should never completely write off the chance for romance.

Romance is Dead

The story follows Maddie Washington, a young college student studying cell biology at the University of New Orleans.  She’s recently broken up with her most recent boyfriend, and upon pondering her past relationships has decided that the kind of romance she’s after “died sometime around the 1950s,” so she might as well devote herself completely to science.  This plan might have worked, had she not then encountered a greaser zombie named Adam, a French vampire named Maurice who desperately wants to study Adam, and a ghost named Don who doesn’t think Maddie should trust Maurice because of what he saw about vampires in Nosferatu.  Together, the four set out to try and figure out why a zombie with no memory of his past can not only walk and talk freely, but seems inexplicably drawn to Maddie.

I’ll come right out and say that a big part of my enjoyment of this VN is because of Maddie.  First off, Romance is Dead has the only black lead female character I’ve ever encountered in a VN.  Besides that, she’s a smart, snarky, and capable woman with a passion for science that, barring a chemistry accident which destroyed her sense of smell, has always been a source of comfort for her.  She doesn’t swoon, her moments of panic are completely understandable, and she largely makes logical choices.  You understand her motivation, you empathize with her emotions, and you cheer when she realizes that the Internet is a great tool to help her find out about Adam’s past or voodoo rituals (but only after she finishes her classes and lab work, because she is an adult with responsibilities).  Honestly, she’s one of my favorite lead women in any VN I’ve read.

Romance is Dead

The guys are pretty all right as well.  Adam talks like something out of a 1950′s movie crossed with a cousin of the Fonz, but still manages to come across as sweet and sincere.  Maurice is over the top and dramatic, while being oddly knowledgeable and serious about the history and practice of voodoo.  And Don is as helpful as a non-corporeal being with an extensive knowledge of combustible engines can be.  I’m glad these four are well fleshed out, because you spend 99% of your game interacting only with them.  The cast of Romance is Dead is mostly limited to these four: if Maddie has any friends in New Orleans or family she keeps up with, they’re never mentioned or brought on screen.

Each male character has two endings: one good, one bad.  There are also three additional endings that are described as not providing any real closure to the reader regardless of what path they took, which in my book should count as bad endings rather than neutral endings.  The bad endings are easier to acquire than the good endings, mostly because readers will go into this VN with a traditional otome (girl seeking boy) game mindset. In other VNs, the general rule is that the player must pay attention to one man at a time and rebuff the other available men, sometimes in particularly harsh ways.  But unravelling the mystery of Adam, Maurice, and Don’s stories is a team effort, and you need to be on at least OK terms with everyone to get anyone’s good ending (as I found out after several flubbed attempts).  You won’t get a kiss with every good ending, or even true romance; and some of the stories will leave your heart sore, but the VN was worth replaying again and again to get every ending.

Overall, the writing was cute and made me laugh on multiple occasions (it turns out that you should not use Babelfish to help read the instructions for a voodoo ritual).  Still, I occasionally had some small issues with the writing.  Maddie and Don’s race is often brought up, in one instance when Don talked about his time in university in the 1920′s and referred to other black students as Negroes, and in another instance when Adam (still thinking it’s the 1950′s) comments about how bad an idea it would be if he (a white man) followed Maddie to “her part” of campus.  Of course these are things that sort of need to be brought up (Don and Adam are both very much products of their time trying to interact with modern girl Maddie), but sometimes the segues into those discussions or comments on race feel awkward or forced in a story about a scientist and her mysterious zombie friend.  On the other hand, race is something that almost never comes up in visual novels, so points to Romance is Dead for mentioning these issues at all.

Romance is Dead

The biggest grievances I had with Romance is Dead stem from technical limitations.  I thought the music was all right; not incredible, but fitting for this VN.  The art style is very cartoonish; one person described it as being rather Tim Burton-esque, which I suppose means big heads and eyes on top of skinny bodies, and definitely with gestures and poses that draw on old Warner Bros. characters rather than stock anime poses.  I liked it for at least presenting a different style than what I usually encounter.  The backgrounds are vague watercolors that bring more attention to color and lighting than details of the images, and felt more than a little reminiscent of the original backgrounds from the Higurashi series.  The textbox and font style were appropriately creepy, but with the size of the letters and the odd font choice, some readers might have trouble making out what’s being said without the help of their reading glasses (like I did, albeit only a few times).  My biggest complaint was the limited number of sprites for each character and the lack of any CGs, especially since some scenes and particularly the endings really would have been that much better with a nice finishing image.  The writer and director at least explained this in her comments to the readers, saying she lacked the skill to make CGs on her own as well as the funding and time needed to acquire CGs from a different artist (and she presumably had similar issues drawing more than 2-3 sprites per character).  But for a free VN, those are all relatively small issues that should in no way keep a reader from enjoying this story.

Romance is Dead can be found on the Lemma Soft forums and downloaded there for free.  All told, I needed somewhere around 2-3 hours to finish the whole VN, and I doubt most readers would need any longer than that unless they just wanted to replay their favorite routes.  The studio behind it, Tall Tales Productions, has put out other VNs in the past, but Romance is Dead was the first of their stories that I found and read through.  Give this one a shot, and if you like it go look for the other VNs they put out (before mysteriously going silent in 2014).

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August 19, 2015

The Gaming Philosopher

Introcomp 2015: Beyond Division, Deprivation, Walker's Rift

by Victor Gijsbers ( at August 19, 2015 09:46 PM

Beyond Division, by Joseph Geipel A parser-based game about interspecies telepathic communication, Beyond Division immediately creates a positive impression by its implementation. For instance, commands like "follow hare" are understood. During the entire game, the implementation just feels solid. The writing attempts to rise above the level of the mundane, but sometimes comes off as forced or

August 18, 2015


News: Episodic FMV MISSING Out Now on Mac

by Amanda Wallace at August 18, 2015 04:01 PM


The episodic FMV title MISSING: An Interactive Thriller is out now on Mac. The title, which is set in the style of 90′s full-motion-video games (a more recent example would be Her Story) is already out on Steam, and has been discounted in celebration of the Mac launch.

MISSING seeks to marry live-action video (shot not in low, VCR quality of Her Story or the older titles the style references, but in a more dynamic/cinematic style) with point-and-click adventure games. It’s not a standard FMV in the way we’d recognize, but it utilizes several of the tropes. The trailer promises a “TV-like” experience with smooth transitions. 

The story follows Detective Lambert as he explores several mysterious disappearances, which you must solve using a combinations of puzzles and light exploration. It seems to be heavily reliant on the elements of the thriller that it’s referencing, so if that’s not your cup of tea you might want to pass on this.

MISSING: An Interactive Thriller is currently out on Steam, where you can currently by the first episode for a $1.59 (60% off) for the week.

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August 17, 2015

The Digital Antiquarian

Two Books on Gaming History

by Jimmy Maher at August 17, 2015 04:00 PM

I’d like to tell you quickly today about two books that have recently crossed my desk, both of which do gaming history the way it ought to be done.

Dungeon Hacks

The first is David L. Craddock’s Dungeon Hacks: How NetHack, Angband, and Other Roguelikes Changed the Course of Video Games. It’s a collection of “making of” articles not all that different from many that I write here, except that they deal with a genre that I sadly don’t know all that much about. Perhaps the best compliment I can give the book is that, despite very limited personal experience with the games Craddock writes about that’s confined largely to a bit of dabbling here and there in NetHack, I found it interesting enough to stay up late to read it. Craddock is that good a storyteller, one who knows how to keep the anecdotes under control in order to keep the narrative flowing. I’m not entirely sure that he really makes the argument promised in his subtitle; this is a nuts-and-bolts books that focuses on personalities and the processes of making the games in question, and doesn’t spend the time on their greater impact that a phrase like “changed the course of video games” would imply. Especially if you’re a fan of the genre, however, I’m sure you’ll find it a very worthwhile read. I also recommend Craddock’s earlier history of Blizzard Entertainment, Stay Awhile and Listen, which has already proved a valuable source for one or two of my own articles.

Science Fiction Video Games

The other book is of a much broader scope. Neal Tringham’s aptly titled Science Fiction Video Games is just that, an attempt to catalog and set in context all significant science-fiction videogames, ever. Apart from some interesting if brief chapter introductions, the bulk of the book consists of capsule summaries of games grouped by genres: “Adventures,” “Computer Role-Playing Games,” etc. One might well argue that we have MobyGames already for that sort of thing, but Tringham’s project is redeemed by the even-handed nature of his summaries, summaries that cover not only the broad details of plot and mechanics but also the critical consensus on the games’ merits.  Each is a model of thoughtful concision that… well, let’s just say that many MobyGames reviewers could learn a thing or two from Tringham. I’m already finding it to be a valuable volume for my reference shelf. I just wish it covered all games instead of only those that are at least vaguely science fictional. I would change just two other things: a) organize the summaries chronologically rather than alphabetically to give a better sense of how each genre developed (there’s already an excellent index for looking up titles); and b) make it a hell of a lot cheaper.

Both of these books are professionally edited, carefully written, and well laid-out. I didn’t want to throw either of them against the wall ten minutes after starting to read. That may sound like damning with faint praise, but there are actually very few other books from self-publishers and small presses about which I can say the same thing. I hope we’ll soon see many more of similar quality, from these authors and the many others for whom they’ll hopefully serve as an example. Videogames are fun, but they’re also worth taking seriously.

(Full disclosure: I was gifted free copies of both books by their authors. I also gave Craddock some editorial feedback when his book was undergoing its final round of polishing.)


August 16, 2015

These Heterogenous Tasks

Introcomp: Beyond Division

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at August 16, 2015 05:01 PM

Beyond Division (Joseph Geipel) is a parser-based science fiction game. Earth has been attacked by aquatic aliens, the Tide; humanity has been driven to the interior of continents. The conclusion is reached that establishing communication represents humanity’s only hope; a project is started into inter-species communication. At the game’s opening, it has failed to establish communication with the Tide, but it has broken through to communicating with telepathic wolves (shades of The Game of Rat and Dragon here). You alternately play one such captured wolf, and a geneticist newly assigned to the project.

Oddly wrapped around this is a frame-story where all this is a story being told to you by your Latin study partner, who provides an overexcited-sounding author’s commentary through footnotes. From what I can make out, the frame and internal stories have no obvious need for one another at all. If anything, the frame sounds a little bit like an excuse – ‘if this seems corny, it isn’t my story, it’s a story being told by one of my characters.’ Which is not really required – the plot and the writing are fine, albeit not so spectacular to elicit a response of OH MY GOD YES I MUST KEEP PLAYING THIS.

The interaction to this point feels a little railroaded; this does not seem like a game that’s highly focused on exploration or experimentation. The first scene has you wandering around a forest, as the wolf, and there’s something that looks as though it might be a puzzle, but advances the plot more or less regardless of what you do. After this, the game is mostly keyword-based conversation, usually presenting you with two options at a time and rejoining pretty heavily. Thus far, this feels very much like a pre-established story in which the point of interaction is to draw the player along, rather than one where interaction itself provides significant interest; perhaps the conversation choices will have long-term effects, or telepathy will turn into a systematic mode of interaction, but there’s not much sign of it so far.

There’s some potentially fruitful dramatic tension being set up here: the wolf and its human captors can communicate, but they operate from fundamentally different mindsets, have different ideas about what to do about the Tide, and might just kill one another. But the intro didn’t leave me with very much idea about what to expect from the main body of the game; so far this all feels like preamble, as though the author doesn’t quite know how to get this story into a game-like shape.

August 15, 2015

The Digital Antiquarian

Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards

by Jimmy Maher at August 15, 2015 02:00 PM

The scene of Larry's final conquest plays homage to Softporn's famous cover art.

Larry’s dream girl, who also features on the Leisure Suit Larry box cover, pays homage to Softporn‘s famous cover art.

Ken Williams had always loved Softporn, right from the day he first discovered it and spent three or four hours obsessively playing it. It became on that day the only adventure game, ever, that he sat down and solved all by himself, just like any ordinary fan. And yet, while Softporn turned into a huge early hit for Sierra and helped to garner for the company some of its first national attention via an article in Time magazine, its shelf life was relatively short. Right from the beginning its text-only presentation — it was the only text-only game of any sort ever published by Sierra — placed it decidedly at odds with the rest of the company’s catalog. And not only was it an all-text adventure, but it wasn’t even a very sophisticated all-text adventure at that; it was a painfully slow BASIC-driven experience with a two-word parser. And then there was that cover art, with Roberta Williams, who by 1983 had become the wholesome centerpiece of much of Sierra’s public relations, posed topless in a jacuzzi with two other women and a mustached waiter straight out of Porn Chic Central Casting. Small wonder that Softporn was quietly dropped from the catalog that year. With Sierra now pursuing deals with the likes of Jim Henson and Disney, those days seemed like ancient history, the cover art a dispatch from another life.

By late 1986, with Sierra now known chiefly for Roberta’s family-friendly King’s Quest adventures, those wild early days seemed more ancient than ever. And yet Ken still couldn’t quite manage to forget Chuck Benton’s ribald game, so different in style and subject matter not only from any other adventure game in 1981 but also from anything available now, more than five years later. Always eager to see computer games as mainstream, mass-market entertainment, he was naturally eager to pursue any fresh fictional genre that could help push them there. The sex comedy had long been an established commercial winner in the cinemas, accepted or at least tolerated by all but the most morally conservative segments of society. Why not in the realm of games? If he needed further encouragement, it came about this time in the form of Infocom’s Leather Goddesses of Phobos, which rode Steve Meretzky’s naughty wit and more sexual innuendo than actual sex to near the top of the sales charts that 1986 Christmas season, becoming despite its increasingly passé text-only format Infocom’s last major hit and last title to make a real impact on the industry at large. Clearly sex sold in the realm of computer games just as well as it did in that of any other form of media. What, then, might happen if Ken gave the world a sexy game with pictures?

The New England-born Chuck Benton, after hanging around Sierra for a couple of years working on various lower-profile programming projects, had long since concluded that neither California nor the games industry was for him in the long term, fleeing back East to start a technology company of his own. He wasn’t interested in revisiting Softporn, but, as long as he was properly credited and remunerated for his original work, he wasn’t averse to someone else at Sierra doing so. Ken therefore invited Al Lowe to lunch, to ask if he’d like to have a go.

Judged on the basis of his work history at Sierra alone, Al Lowe would seem the strangest of choices to assign to a sex farce. Until now, he had been Sierra’s children’s software specialist, who had spent the last couple of years making games with Disney — about as far away from Softporn as one could get and still be working in the same industry. If you actually knew Al, however, it all made more sense. His reputation as a very funny guy preceded him everywhere; he was the sort of natural comedian who not only loved a good joke but knew how to deliver it in such a way that you almost couldn’t help but laugh. Nor was he bashful in the least if said joke was a little — or a lot — off-color.

Yet Al remained uncertain. Funny guy or not, he’d never tried to write a single line of comedy in his life. Like just about everyone else with an Apple II in 1981, he had played the original Softporn, but only vaguely recalled it. He asked Ken to give him a week or so to review the original and decide if he was really willing to spend months remaking it in Sierra’s AGI graphic-adventuring engine.

His first words to Ken at their next meeting, as repeated about a million times in interviews given by Al himself, have passed into industry legend: “This game is so out of touch it should be wearing a leisure suit!” Pop culture moves fast sometimes. Chuck Benton had written his tale of nightlife in the disco era at the frayed end of said era, approximately five minutes before disco became one of the greatest “what the hell were we thinking?” laughingstocks in the history of pop music. Thus just five years later, with the era of synthpop and hair metal now in full swing, Softporn did indeed seem as out of date culturally as it did technologically. Al would take on the project, he said, only if he could be allowed to not just remake Softporn but to make fun of it. Luckily, the line he’d used to introduce his argument had gotten a big laugh from Ken. Ken said sure, go for it.

But now, having secured Ken’s permission to make fun of Softporn rather than merely remaking it, Al found himself in a tricky situation for any would be satirist: his target, while it may have sold as many as 50,000 copies back in the day, was hardly likely to be known to everyone who might happen to pick up his new game. The vast majority of the many more people who would (hopefully) play his parody would have bought their computers after the original went out of print. And whatever else happened, the new game would need a new name; even Ken Williams wasn’t going to dare to release a game called Softporn in 1987. Al decided that what he really needed was a central character for both he and the player to abuse, one who would personify all of the outmoded disco-era thinking of this old Softporn game that most players wouldn’t know the first thing about. Indeed, amongst his litany of complaints about Softporn was the lack of any such central character; that game refers to its protagonist, Scott Adams-style, as simply your “puppet.” This was hardly unusual amongst adventure games of the 1980s; games that had you explicitly playing a character who clearly wasn’t you were very much the exception, and not always well-received exceptions at that. Still, Sierra’s own recent graphic adventures had always elected to offer a definite protagonist: King’s Quest‘s King Graham, Space Quest‘s stalwart space janitor Roger Wilco.

Batting around ideas with Sierra staffers, Al kept coming back to one employee that no one there liked all that much, a smarmy traveling sales representative named Gary whose sartorial and musical predilections were a decade out of date but who nevertheless always came back from his sales trips full of stories about his latest sexual conquests. Borrowing from the first joke Al had ever made in connection with the project, for a time the new game was to be called Leisure Suit Gary. John Williams had a sister-in-law with a reputation for hard partying that had long since garnered her the nickname of the “Lounge Lizard.” Al liked that so much that he was soon calling his game Leisure Suit Gary in the Land of the Lounge Lizards. Seeing the alliterative potential of a change of Gary’s name, and realizing that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to put a little distance between the game’s protagonist and his inspiration, he finally settled on Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards. Larry Laffer would be a “totally mild and lazy guy,” an unlucky-in-love 38-year-old — not quite the original 40-year-old virgin, but close — who’s decided to ditch his Air Supply and Barry Manilow records and head to Lost Wages (replacing Softporn‘s Lost Vagueness) to cover himself from head to toe in fake gold, cheap aftershave, and acres of white polyester, all with the goal of finally getting himself laid. Whether Al Lowe was really still making fun of Softporn by the time he’d found such a personification for that game’s out-of-dateness is more interesting philosophically than practically.

Despite Ken’s enthusiasm, this was a very risky project for a Sierra that was still not all that far removed from a near-death experience. To keep nervous investors at bay it was necessary to make Leisure Suit Larry almost a skunk-works project. Al Lowe’s contract reflected that. He had done the Disney stuff under straightforward work-for-hire arrangements, money paid for services rendered and projects completed. For Leisure Suit Larry, however, Ken convinced him to forgo upfront payment in favor of a very generous royalty on each copy actually sold, thus pacifying his restless investors by shifting virtually the entire risk to Al himself. The game would be written, designed, and programmed by Al alone using Sierra’s standard in-house tools. The only additional staffer assigned to the project was artist Mark Crowe, who had just finished illustrating and co-designing Space Quest, and even he largely worked on it over nights and weekends, devoting his regular working hours to more reputable projects. Al took a huge risk on Leisure Suit Larry, and he would be amply rewarded; in the end the royalties he would garner from the first Leisure Suit Larry and its many sequels would leave him set for life financially. At the time, though, it was all very uncertain. This was unknown territory in more ways than one.

If we address the game that Al and Mark delivered for publication in June of 1987 purely as a piece of adventure-game design, it’s worthy of superlative praise in comparison to any other adventure to come out of Sierra to date, manifesting to any serious degree only a couple of my recent list of “sins”: there is another annoying gambling minigame that can once again only be beat through constant saving and restoring, and, this being a Sierra game, there are one or two unforeshadowed sudden deaths. There’s also one puzzle that doesn’t quite make practical sense (highlight to read: how can you get out your pocketknife to cut the rope when you’re naked and both hands and feet are strapped to the bed?), but even there it’s clear enough what you need to do that it doesn’t matter as much as it might.

Otherwise, Leisure Suit Larry is downright progressive. The places where you can screw up without realizing it are relatively few and usually reveal themselves (sorry!) in fairly short order. The puzzles make sense and are fun to solve and are sometimes even optional in the interest of keeping you moving through the game, while the meta-puzzle that is the narrative sequence of the game as a whole is very satisfying to work out. There is a time limit — Larry has just the one night to score — but it’s generous enough that, what with the occasional saving and restoring you’ll be doing as you sort things out, it’s unlikely to become one of your major problems. Al Lowe bent over backward to address the typical AGI-engine pitfalls that stem from the disconnect between the textual parser and the graphical worldview. Simply typing “look around” in each new location gives you an overview of everything of note in the area and, just as importantly, what to call everything when referring to it through the parser. He also tried to make the anemic parser as usable as possible by gleaning your meaning from the most abstract possible constructions. Simply trying to “use” some applicable item in the general vicinity of a puzzle is usually good enough. Not all of this is exactly elegant (what’s the real advantage of a graphic adventure if I have to constantly type “look around” and read room descriptions?), but it’s a vast improvement over Sierra’s previous games and about the most you could ask of him given that the problems he was trying to address are largely fundamental to the engine itself.

There are a couple of obvious reasons for the huge leap Leisure Suit Larry represents in comparison to Sierra’s previous efforts. The first is that, eager as Al Lowe has often been to dismiss Softporn, Leisure Suit Larry truly is a remake of that game in the sense that, while the character of Larry himself and all of the writing are new, the puzzly spine of the design is all but unchanged. That’s significant because Softporn was itself an unusually friendly and fair game for its day, easily the most solvable adventure Sierra released before Leisure Suit Larry.

The other reason for Leisure Suit Larry‘s success as a game design is that it, very much at Al Lowe’s prompting and hugely to his credit, became the first Sierra adventure ever to go through a proper beta test. Al:

Since the game wasn’t too big, I got it done in about three months. But this was the first non-children’s game I had written, so I was scared to death it would be “dumb” and not understand everything a player could type in.

So I convinced Ken we should try something new: beta-testing. He posted an announcement on CompuServe’s Gamers Forum asking anyone interested in beta-testing a new game to e-mail him a 100-word essay on “why I should get a free game.” It worked. We got scores of replies and ended up with a dozen great beta testers.

To track all the “you can’t do that here” errors (which is what the game says when it doesn’t have a clue what in the hell you typed!), I wrote a special piece of code. Instead of just saying that phrase, it wrote a line to a file on the player’s game floppy. (Hard disks were few and far between back then.) That line told me the scene number, location, the phrase typed, and many other details about the state of the game at that time. I compiled all those files, sorted them scene by scene, and added literally hundreds of responses to the game.

Those testers came up with some great inputs, showing where and when they were frustrated. And because of them, the game makes you think it understands much more than most games of that period.

Absurd as it is that beta testing should represent “something new” to Sierra as late as 1987, it’s difficult to overstate how much better it made the finished game. If you want to know how important actual player feedback is to an adventure design, just play Space Quest or any of the earlier AGI games and then play this one.

Leisure Suit Larry

That said, it seems safe to say that very few people bought Leisure Suit Larry to find out whether Sierra’s design craft was improving. The question most of them were asking is the same as the one that may be on the lips right now of those of you who’ve never played the game: just how dirty is it? Al Lowe and others from the good old days at Sierra have tended to downplay the sex and promote the comedy in recent interviews, claiming that even the box copy really promised much more than the game delivered. Having just played through the game again, I have to say that it’s actually raunchier than their statements might imply, if nowhere near as raunchy as might have been wished by the many teenage boys who played it furtively back in the day, hoping it would help them to get off. No, Leisure Suit Larry is nowhere close to pornography, but it certainly pushes the envelope much further than its most obvious contemporary point of comparison, Infocom’s Leather Goddesses of Phobos. While that game was largely a standard save-the-world text adventure with a narrative voice that was inordinately fond of innuendo and the occasional fade-quickly-to-black sexual interlude, Leisure Suit Larry is all about the practical mechanics, if you will, of scoring. Taken in the context of its time, it’s pretty shocking, offering heaps of stuff that hadn’t been seen before in a game from a reputable publisher, or at least not since one called Softporn: blow-up dolls, hookers, pimps, Spanish Fly, condoms, venereal disease, dirty movies, dirty jokes, S&M. A strategically placed “Censored!” stamp appears when Larry actually gets his groove on, and there’s no real nudity other than a tiny pixelated Larry at times and an equally tiny if anatomically correct blow-up doll, but if Leisure Suit Larry had gone to Hollywood in 1987 it would definitely have been R-rated. It’s admittedly shocking not so much for its content in isolation as because its content is in a game, and games just didn’t include that sort of thing in the 1980s. Nevertheless, shocking it is if you’ve been living in the G-rated world of its contemporaries for a long time like your humble Antiquarian here.

It’s a bit hard (sorry!) to see Leisure Suit Larry as a paragon of feminism, even if some of the feminist critiques that have been levied against it over the years are themselves rather overblown.

Leisure Suit Larry was criticized as sexist in a number of the reviews that appeared immediately after its release. “The game contributes nothing to enlightened male attitudes toward women,” wrote MacWorld, while Amazing Computing opined that “many women will probably be incensed.” In the years since it’s only continued to be a lightning rod for feminist critiques of videogames. After all, how could this game whose whole objective is to help Larry score with some random chick or other not objectify and demean women? Al Lowe has long responded that, far from demeaning women, Leisure Suit Larry is itself actually a feminist work in that it’s Larry who’s the bumbling lust-addled idiot, while “the women were always smarter, better read, more knowledgeable, and hipper.” Well, I can’t quite get behind either point of view. The women — the ones in this first installment of the series anyway — are hardly paragons of independence and empowerment. We’ve got a low-rent hooker who’s never even given a name; a gold digger who demands diamonds, wine, and chocolate before she’ll put out; a buxom secretary in single-minded pursuit of some Spanish Fly to share with her boyfriend; a rich girl who apparently spends her evenings sitting naked in her penthouse jacuzzi just waiting for the next stud to come along. The game’s saving grace, such as it is, is that Larry and all of the men are equally pathetic, equally shallow, and equally stupid. Leisure Suit Larry is thus more accurately accused of misanthropy than misogyny. To what extent that’s an improvement must be in the eye of the beholder.

Leisure Suit Larry

Homophobic? Mmm… maybe…

Leisure Suit Larry

…but the jokes relating to straight sex are just as crude.

The most offensive moment in the game actually has nothing to do with sexism or even plain old sex, but is a blatant example of another nasty “-ism.” There’s a convenience store with a turbaned Indian or Middle Easterner behind the counter, a guy to whom even Larry is allowed to feel superior.

Leisure Suit Larry

This guy, who can sell you a condom amongst other things, has the “Engrish” problem of not being able to pronounce (or apparently write) his Rs: “There is a magazine rack near the front door, with a sign reading ‘This no library — no leeding.'”

Leisure Suit Larry

I feel like making fun of another person for his accent has got to be amongst the lowest and cruelest forms of “humor” imaginable. Yet the most shocking thing is this scene’s sheer laziness. It’s not speakers of Indian or Middle Eastern languages who sometimes confuse the English “r” and “l” sounds, it’s speakers of Japanese and other East Asian languages. If you’re going to indulge in broad stereotyping, at least try to get your stereotypes vaguely right according to their own lights. Al Lowe has occasionally noted how he and the others at Sierra were essentially making games for each other. This scene shows that culturally monolithic echo chamber at its worst. When I see a guy like this one behind a counter, I see someone who’s left his home and everything he knows far behind, who’s struggling to learn a new language and make a better life for his family, who’s doing something far bolder and braver than anything that the sheltered nerdy white boys at Sierra who’ve decided it’s appropriate to make fun of him have ever even dreamed of doing. He doesn’t need their grief.

Leisure Suit Larry

This always makes me laugh for some reason, maybe because it’s one of the relatively few places where Leisure Suit Larry shows a certain subtle empathy.

Refined humor this is not...

Refined humor this is not — but, yes, it is sometimes pretty funny.

I think the scene in the convenience store might just help us get to the core of what really bothers me about Leisure Suit Larry‘s humor, to the reason that, while it might make me chuckle here and there, I’ll never consider it great comedy. It’s all about mean-spiritedly making fun of people who are — or who are perceived as — weaker and more pathetic than the people who made the game. Al Lowe is a clever guy and he comes up with some clever gags, but his game is at heart an exercise in bullying, looking down on safe targets from a position of privilege and letting fly. There’s no real warmth and little empathy, no sense of shared understanding between the player and the caricatures going about their business onscreen, and certainly not a trace of the bravery that would be required to go after targets in a position to actually defend themselves. I can’t help but draw a contrast with Knight Orc, a game with a caustic edge even more finely honed than this game’s, but one that was willing to speak truth to power, to knock people down a peg who could actually use a little comeuppance. But most of all I think again of Leather Goddesses, a game I find myself liking even more when I compare it to this one. “Sex is fun!” Leather Goddesses tells us. “Everyone should be having it!” “Look at this loser who can’t manage to just score already!” says Leisure Suit Larry in response.

The "boss key" is another innovation Leisure Suit Larry "borrows" from Leather Goddesses. In this case, though, it's only applicable if you happen to work for a condom manufacturer...

The “boss key” is another innovation Leisure Suit Larry “borrows” from Leather Goddesses. In this case, though, it’s only applicable if you happen to work for a condom manufacturer. Leisure Suit Larry really likes condoms. At least it promotes safe sex. (Just try having sex with the hooker without one…)

Anxious to avoid accusations of selling filth to minors, Sierra came up with the clever idea of a trivia quiz using questions stemming from the 1970s and earlier to make the player “prove” that she really was as old as she said she was. Some of the questions are decidedly obscure, to such an extent that they create quite a challenge to those of us today who are well over the the age of eighteen, but, what with almost thirty years having gone by, aren’t quite up to scratch on our Baby Boomer trivia. Thankfully we have a secret weapon in Wikipedia.

Martha Mitchell was

a. a porno star.

b. a famous author.

c. the outspoken wife of an Attorney General.

d. all of the above.

Who starred in Bedtime for Bonzo?

a. Clint Eastwood

b. Fred Astaire

c. Cary Grant

d. Ronald Reagan

 Kwi-Chang-Caine became famous by saying

a. “I am not a crook.”

b. “The barren fig tree bears no plumes.”

c. “Hi, sailor. New in town?”

d. “Aaaaaiiiyeeeaagggh!”

As the sheer quantity and variety of questions will attest, the quiz became a huge source of amusement in its own right for Sierra, just about everyone around the office pitching in with a question or two. The questions’ time-capsule quality, the knowledge that these things were once common wisdom amongst people of a certain age, makes them one of the most interesting things about Leisure Suit Larry to an historian like me.

As for the quiz’s ostensible real purpose of keeping the kids out, it must have been moderately but hardly comprehensively effective even in the years before Wikipedia. Gamers in that era were, by necessity, incredibly patient, and there’s very little the average teenage boy won’t do if you promise to reward him with a glimpse of sex. Plenty were willing to patiently try again and again waiting for the same questions to recur, or to scour encyclopedias or libraries for the right answers. At worst, the quiz did allow Sierra to maintain the public position that they’d be horrified — horrified! — if an underage player managed to play their “adult” adventure game, that they were doing everything reasonable to prevent that from happening. Their case was strengthened by Ken Williams’s longstanding policy of not supporting the Commodore 64, the computer with the most active cadre of teenage users. The MS-DOS machines where Sierra focused most of their attention were much more expensive than the likes of Commodore’s little breadbox, and thus their user base tended to skew much older. Still, it it’s safe to say that lots of teenage boys evinced a sudden interest in the business computers their parents kept tucked away in their home offices, another sign of the coming Intel/Microsoft hegemony in the home as well as the workplace.

Sierra was in a delicate spot all the way around with Leisure Suit Larry, needing to protect their image as producers of wholesome products for the Radio Shack demographic whilst also getting the word out to those who might be interested. There was never any real possibility of being able to sell the game through Radio Shack, despite the close personal relationship Ken Williams had built with their senior software buyer Srini Vasan. Radio Shack’s roots were planted deeply in the soil of Southern Baptism; there was simply no way they were going to put a sex farce on their shelves. Thus Sierra’s task, which primarily fell onto the thin shoulders of their young marketing director John Williams, must be to make the game sell well enough through other outlets to offset the loss of the retailer that accounted for one-third or more of Sierra’s revenues every month, while at the same time not jeopardizing that very cozy relationship upon which they so completely depended.

So, a careful treading was seemingly called for. At the same time, though, John, despite being a grizzled veteran of the software wars, was still a very young man of barely 25. Everybody wants to feel like a rebel once or twice in his life, and John couldn’t resist a bit of crowing about the new ground Sierra was breaking. He greeted Leisure Suit Larry‘s release with a series of three feature articles for Computer Gaming World heralding the “new wave of adult entertainment software” — a wave at the forefront of which would naturally be Sierra. By the time of the third article the first returning tide of outraged reactions — which, one senses, John was expecting and almost welcomed in his rebel heart — had begun to pour in.

Dear Sierra,

I read with regret in your recent newsletter that you intend to go into the porno software business. How any company with your fine products and reputation can make such a poor decision is beyond me. The glorification of loose moral behavior has caused a rise in social disease and divorce and a general decline in the quality of American society. The money you make from this filth comes at a high price.

Dear Sierra,

Please drop that puerile, obviously immature slimeball John Williams into a greasy brown wrapper and drop it in the nearest trash compactor. Please remove my name from your customer list. I don’t need trash, I can get that anywhere.

Dear Mr. Williams,

Recently, I purchased your HomeWord Plus program. I am very happy with it, but I am returning it because I cannot tolerate your behavior. I have read your little “editorial,” where you trumpet the arrival of filth and perversity in computer gaming. I will not do business with any company that would give a job to someone like you.

Just as Infocom had experienced with Leather Goddesses, the reaction in the industry could best be described as “nervous. ” Shops and distributors were aware of Leisure Suit Larry‘s huge potential appeal but very timid about openly promoting it for fear of a backlash. Many chains sold it only discreetly, tucking it away quietly on a top shelf. One independent shop took a more definitive stand, sending a demo copy back to Sierra cut in two with a hacksaw. One of the major software charts simply refused to rank it. A customer-support person inside Sierra quit in protest when told she would have to answer questions about it; a newly hired programmer bowed out on his first day when told about it. Ken Williams himself got nervous enough that he ordered all of the jokes about “gay life” to be removed from future versions. If John Williams had deliberately courted controversy, he did indeed receive a modicum of it to enjoy.

The question of to what extent and how quickly that controversy led to sales for Leisure Suit Larry is a more complicated tangle than one might expect. In his many interviews Al Lowe has long told of what a flop Leisure Suit Larry was on its initial release, nothing less than “the worst-selling game in the history of the company.” He attributes much of this initial failure to Sierra’s alleged ambivalence about the game, which led to an unwillingness to promote it and a seeming desire — Ken having presumably thought better of his initial enthusiasm — to just bury it quietly. Only slowly and largely through word of mouth, as Al tells it, did the game build momentum, and it didn’t start doing really big numbers until, depending on the interview, six months to a year after its June 1987 release.

Leisure Suit Larry

Ken Williams gets a cameo. Note the reference to the original Leisure Suit Gary’s profession as a “traveling software salesman.” This is the only place it’s referred to in the finished game. Woops!

It’s a tidy narrative, but there are a lot of reasons to question it. In the last of his articles for Computer Gaming World, John Williams claims that, far from falling on his face in typical Laffer style out of the starting gates, Larry has been “our second most successful product launch, second only to King’s Quest III.” A list of bestsellers for September and October of 1987 published in Sierra’s newsletter shows an only slightly more mixed picture, with Leisure Suit Larry nestled comfortably behind King’s Quest III and Space Quest, the third best-selling of Sierra’s adventure games. That performance is made more impressive when one remembers that Leisure Suit Larry remained barred from Radio Shack, source of fully one-third of Sierra’s sales. The preponderance of the evidence would seem to indicate that Leisure Suit Larry was that rarest of all beasts: a game that was quite successful on its initial release but also turned into a grower, steadily building its momentum and continuing to sell well for years. Nor is there any evidence that Sierra was really all that scared by Leisure Suit Larry. While certainly aware that they had to avoid throwing it in the face of the likes of Radio Shack and other conservative retailers, they clearly conceived it from the beginning as a series, like all of their other adventure games; the finale explicitly (sorry!) promises a sequel which would indeed come in very short order (sorry!), within a year of the original. Nor were they shy about promoting it in their newsletters, or for that matter shy about writing major feature articles for Computer Gaming World heralding its arrival.

Whatever the precise timing, all are agreed that by the summer of 1988, the game’s one-year anniversary, Leisure Suit Larry had become the biggest game Sierra had ever released that wasn’t a King’s Quest, with the hapless Larry Laffer himself well on his way to becoming the most unlikely of videogame icons. The sequels poured out of Al Lowe for years, some strong, some not so strong, but taking more design risks than you might expect and always serving to maintain Leisure Suit Larry‘s place as Sierra’s second-biggest franchise, the perfect alternative to the family-friendly King’s Quest series. For a time there Hollywood was even seriously interested in doing a Leisure Suit Larry sitcom, going so far as to fly Al Lowe down for some meetings that ultimately never panned out. As so often happens in long-running series, Al took more and more pity on his perpetual victim as the series wore along, steadily filing down his sharper edges and finding unexpected seams of likeability. By the time of Leisure Suit Larry 7 in 1996 the little fellow was starting to become downright lovable, a far cry from the skeezy, crudely drawn weirdo of the first game.

Leisure Suit Larry 7: Love for Sail

Leisure Suit Larry 7: Love for Sail

While Leisure Suit Larry itself was a massive success, Ken William’s broader agenda of which it was a part, that of opening up the world of gaming to more diverse sorts of content, had much more mixed results. In the last of his Computer Gaming World articles, John Williams muses about the possibility of a movie-style rating system for games that could create havens for all sorts of new content: G-rated children’s software; PG-rated action games for the teens; R-rated interactive dramas telling realistic, topical tales; even X-rated games constituting the full-on pornography that Leisure Suit Larry, to so many teenagers’ disappointment, wasn’t. Putting their money where their mouths were, Sierra even had at the time another game in the pipeline that was “adult” in more subtle ways than Leisure Suit Larry: Police Quest, a gritty crime drama written by a veteran police officer. (Unfortunately, it would prove to suffer from most of the typical Sierra design flaws from which Leisure Suit Larry is so notably free.)

In 1988 Leisure Suit Larry won a Codie Award from the Software Publishers Association for “Best Adventure or Fantasy/Role-Playing Program.” Al Lowe remembers the mood on that night as Ken Williams, president of the SPA, gave the keynote address before an audience that included Robin Williams, Hollywood’s most noted games fan.

He [Ken] said that that he thought this was the first of many of these awards to come in the future, and that at some point the Academy Awards would be seen as merely the non-interactive video awards. The real awards would be for interactivity because once you’ve played interactive stories you won’t be content with sitting back and being passive, with watching stories. I thought that was a brilliant statement, and for five or ten years after I thought it was coming true.

This vision for games as a truly mainstream phenomenon like movies, games in a veritable smorgasbord of niches of which at least one or two were guaranteed to appeal to absolutely everyone on the planet, had been with Sierra almost from the beginning and would remain with them until the end. Ken, John, Roberta, and everyone else involved in steering Sierra fully believed that a new era of interactive entertainment was on the horizon. In some senses they would be proved right; games would indeed go mainstream in a big way. But in others they would be proved very, very wrong; games have still not challenged the critical respect or cultural relevancy of Hollywood. When other publishers saw how much money Sierra was making from the franchise and also saw that no one was burning down their offices because of it, Leisure Suit Larry was inevitably copied, sometimes so blatantly as to almost defy belief. Yet there seemed little desire from the industry at large to push beyond the occasional sniggering sex comedy into stories that were “adult” in more subtle ways.

So, then, was Leisure Suit Larry a bold work that tried to break down barriers and redefine the sorts of fictions that games could deal in? Or was it just another example of an industry caught in an eternal adolescence, one unable to address sexuality except through farce or porn? Perhaps it was one or the other or neither; more likely it was both.

(Sources: Computer Gaming World of August/September 1987, October 1987, and January 1988; Amazing Computing of February 1988; Retro Gamer 19; Sierra Newsletter Vol. 1 No. 2. Al Lowe has also written fairly extensively about his most famous creation on his personal site.

Much of this article is also drawn from my personal correspondence with John Williams as well as interviews with Al Lowe conducted by Matt Barton, Top Hats and Champagne, and Erik Nagel. Last but far from least, Ken Gagne also shared with me the full audio of an interview he conducted with Lowe for Juiced.GS magazine. My huge thanks to John and Ken!

The original Leisure Suit Larry is available for purchase from in a pack that also includes all of the sequels and even Softporn.)