Planet Interactive Fiction

October 10, 2015


Visual Novel: Higurashi: Onikakushi

by Gingy Gibson at October 10, 2015 12:02 AM


Higurashi no Naku Koro ni, better known as Higurashi: When They Cry or just Higurashi, is a kinetic horror visual novel that hooks you early with lovable characters, drags you on a harrowing adventure, and at last leaves you equally creeped out and heartbroken.  Though that holds true for all chapters, this review is only for the first chapter, Onikakushi, or the Abducted by Demons/Demoned Away chapter, since that is the only one released in the new version of Higurashi thus far.  I will go ahead and say that for the Higurashi series, you essentially need to review each chapter on its own, since every chapter forms its own inclusive storyline.  Each chapter features the same characters in the same setting, but always changes which character is the “villain” of that particular storyline.


I’ll also preface this review by saying that reading the Higurashi VN was not my first foray into the Higurashi series.  I’d already seen most of the anime episodes and read the manga that had been produced after the original VN came out in 2002, but I wanted to read the source material, since everyone insists that although the manga and anime were done rather well, both failed to capture what really made the original VN so good.  I had the perfect chance to explore the VN take on the story this summer, when Mangagamer released a new version of Higurashi with an updated translation and new sprites.  Even though I knew what to expect going in, I was still incredibly pleased with what I got when I started to read it.

Higurashi tells the story of Keiichi Maebara, a high school boy who moved to the tiny rural Japanese village of Hinamizawa in 1983 and befriended four girls: Rena, Mion, Rika, and Satoko.  They attend school together, play together, and tease each other mercilessly as only best friends can do.  Because of the kindness of these four girls and the relaxing environment of the Japanese mountain village, eventually Keiichi grows to love his new life and is grateful to have left behind his old life in the city.  But something sinister is afoot as the day of the cotton drifting festival creeps closer and closer, and a series of deaths and disappearances come to light that have all been linked to a curse by the village guardian; soon, Keiichi will regret ever having come to Hinamizawa.

I consider Higurashi to be one of the greatest horror VNs ever made

I consider Higurashi to be one of the greatest horror VNs ever made largely because it seems so innocent and light-hearted in the beginning.  A lot of horror media nowadays sets up a situation that is clearly going to result in someone getting haunted or having an axe jammed through their skull, either because some dumb couple moved into a cursed house or a kid talked to that invisible friend living in the closet or someone burned a Ouija board.  These shows or games aren’t scary because you know what to expect as soon as the main character walks into a house that looks like a cozy cabin getaway for Pyramid Head from Silent Hill 2.  Higurashi isn’t like that.  True, you’re treated to a brief prologue with a crunching sound playing in the background as someone voices a truly mournful lament, but after that it’s all about Keiichi and the girls trying to outwit each other in a variety of games and club activities.  Your initial experience with their characters and their world is sweet, innocent, and incredibly enticing.  Honestly, for the first hour or so the Higurashi VN could pass for a normal slice-of-life comedy about a perfectly average group of school children.  But then, things start to go wrong.


The entire pretty picture of Keiichi’s new life comes crashing down from one seemingly innocuous comment made on the fly.  One day after school, Keiichi and Rena go treasure hunting at a local dump, and while Rena digs through the mountains of trash to find cute things, Keiichi hangs back and eventually gets into a conversation with a visiting photographer who stumbles upon the two kids.  Keiichi makes a joke to a photographer that his friend is digging through a trash pile to find a buried corpse, and instead of being weirded out or laughing it off, the reporter just says, “Oh, yeah, that was really terrible what happened here.”  So now Keiichi knows that there’s something a little messed up in Hinamizawa’s past, but none of the girls will tell him what occurred and in fact insist that nothing happened at all.  Keiichi’s search turns up increasingly unpleasant information, and by the day of the Cotton Drifting festival things can never return to normal for him.  The final results are less than pleasant.  And the worst part?  Since this is a kinetic VN, no choices or dialogue options appear at any point.  There’s no way for you to get out of town or try to argue your way out of this mess as the story progresses.  You just have to sit back and let terrible things that are completely out of your control happen to Keiichi and destroy his whole world.



Just in case you can’t tell by now, the strong point of Higurashi is the story and how it’s told.  I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about this chapter of the Higurashi story because the Onikakushi arc was always my least favorite arc out of the manga and anime adaptations of the Higurashi story, but after playing the VN I like it far more.  The girls are more alive, there’s more time invested in developing and explaining Keiichi’s relationship with the people around him, and the gradual descent into pure horror is far more upsetting when you’ve spent so long living a happy, normal life in Hinamizawa and risk losing people that feel like real friends.  It was a trip through a very well-developed world with delightful, flushed out characters.  Frankly, even if the game hadn’t gone down a dark and twisted route, I would have wanted to keep playing it just so I could see if Keiichi ever beat Mion in a game of wits or finally dodged all of Satoko’s traps in the schoolhouse.  The bond between these five seems much stronger than what I saw in the anime or manga, even stronger than what I’ve seen in many other VNs, which makes the ending all the more tragic.

 From a technical standpoint, well…honestly, I was expecting better.  I and many other Higurashi enthusiasts had to wait months upon months for this release of the game, which promised a better translation and sprites than what was then available via fan patches via fan translations and PlayStation 2 sprites.  Reading through the story after its initial release, I noticed multiple typos and grammar mistakes that should have been caught in the months they spent on this single chapter.  The fullscreen mode works but creates ugly black bars around the edge of your screen, and you can hear the sound cut out where it loops.  A lot of these issues have been fixed since then via various patches, but we were waiting well over a year for a game to come out that had already been translated and patched multiple times, so bugs like this have no excuse.

It’s not a dealbreaker, but I feel like some scenes (such as when Rena rescues a Colonel Sanders statue from a garbage mound) would have made nice CGs.

In addition, I wish that they had thought to introduce a few CGs to the game since they were already redoing most of the art by creating new sprites.  It’s not a dealbreaker, but I feel like some scenes (such as when Rena rescues a Colonel Sanders statue from a garbage mound) would have made for nice CGs.  Also, Higurashi does not use text boxes, but rather has the lines of dialogue appear over the character sprites, starting at the top of the page and going down.  Honestly, I prefer to have my text contained within a box under the sprites so I can see them, and also have a name written in the text box so I know for sure who is speaking (and yes, that was an issue a few times in this story).  I later found out that the PlayStation version of the game had voice acting and CGs you could patch into the PC version (the new one, anyway), and that just made things even more frustrating to know that such a valuable element of the game was left out.  As for the normal sprites and backgrounds, I honestly like them both, especially since the sprites look so cute and innocent but the backgrounds are rough and smudged, as if to hint that not everything in Hinamizawa is as beautiful as you’d like to believe at first.


This may sound like the Onikakushi arc has a lot of issues, but I don’t think that any of these faults are strong enough for me to tell people to turn away.  The story is still excellent, the characters look good and appropriately creepy when things start to fall apart, the music is great at all points, and the world is very well developed.  Even with some technical problems, Higurashi is still Higurashi; a delightfully sweet yet horrifically twisted story of five kids, a curse, and one horrible summer.

 Higurashi is currently available on Mangagamer and Steam, for $6 on both sites.  Considering that this chapter took me about 6 hours to read, that’s an incredibly good deal.  I highly recommend picking it up, and experiencing the horror for yourself.  The others chapters are being translated one by one, and if you like the Onikakushi chapter be on the lookout for a chance to preorder the others.  Buying Onikakushi before release on Mangagamer got you a free Steam copy, so you could share the horror with your friends, and I sincerely hope they do something similar with the other chapters.  My final recommendation is get it, read it, and then join the many fans like me who are eagerly waiting for the Watanagashi chapter to release later this year.

The post Visual Novel: Higurashi: Onikakushi appeared first on .

Emily Short

IF Comp 2015: Life on Mars? (Hugo Labrande)

by Emily Short at October 10, 2015 12:00 AM

The 21st annual Interactive Fiction Competition is currently on, through mid-November. Voting is open to the general public; the only prerequisite is that you not be an author, not vote on games that you tested, and submit votes on at … Continue reading

October 09, 2015

Doug's World

5 minutes to burn something (review)

by Doug Egan ( at October 09, 2015 11:03 PM

"5 minutes to burn something" is parser style interactive fiction written by Alex Butterfield in Z-code for the 2015 interactive fiction competition.  This game appears first in alphabetical order.  Therefore it has been screaming at me to play it every time I log in.  I will remember this when I next enter the competition and title my game "1.1 Aardvark".

Veteran players of IF may remember other games set in someone's low rent crappy apartment.  Veteran players may remember other games where the object was to solve a series of absurdist puzzles in order to escape a small location, even a single room.  For some veteran players, that familiarity may breed contempt.  But I did not wish to prejudge this game just because it falls back on some much-loved cliches.  Jeremy Freese included many of the same features in "Violet" a one room puzzler in a familiar location which went on to win first place.  I thought that maybe "5 minutes to burn" took some of its inspiration from "Violet", but whereas the backstory in "Violet" is about an obsession based on love, the backstory in "5 minutes" is an obsession of hatred.  When choosing which emotions to infuse into your comic one-room puzzler, Love is the better choice.  "Violet" was a better game in many other ways also.  Which is not to say that "5 minutes" is horrible.  It has some admirable features to it, which I'll mention after the page break.  But it is also imperfect in some critical ways.

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These Heterogenous Tasks

IF Comp 2015: Forever Meow

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at October 09, 2015 09:01 PM

In Forever Meow (Moe Zilla) you play a cat left alone in a room, messing about with stuff. The limited perspective this affords means that not knowing what’s going on is somewhat important for the experience, so: spoiler warning alert. Aaand: . . whitespace. As it … Continue reading

Undo Restart Restore

IFComp 2015 review: Capsule II – The 11th Sandman

by Juhana at October 09, 2015 09:00 PM

Capsule II cover Science fiction doesn't generally need to explain why its setting includes extraordinary technological advancements. Strong artificial intelligence? Sure. Interstellar travel? Naturally. Telepathy? Why not. The audience doesn't need convincing that such things exist. Science fiction's entire genre premise is imagining futuristic technology and its repercussions.

The trick to writing credible scifi is justifying the things it lacks. Take for example Dune: several thousand years into the future, humanity has regressed into a feudal society with relatively primitive technology. This is explained by the aftermath of a war against intelligent machines that caused a ban on artificial intelligence and advanced computing. They prefer melee weapons because shooting the ubiquitous energy shields will kill the shooter as well. Everything that doesn't fit the expectations of future technology has an explanation.

Capsule II is a choice-based story about someone who wakes up in a giant starship that is transporting half a billion humans in suspended animation from dying Earth to a new planet. The journey takes more than a hundred years and the ship wakes a single person at a time for 8 year shifts to handle unexpected issues.

The setting raises more questions than it answers, and not in a good way. If they knew eight years of solitude has a high chance of driving people crazy, why are the maintenance shifts that long? Why not wake up a team of people for a year at a time? How is it possible that they provided only a year's worth of entertainment when even a single modern iPad can hold more data than that, especially if they were concerned about people losing their minds to boredom? Why would cryogenically frozen people need nutrients? Why does this immensely big starship that must be as big as a city carry so little water and food that the only person consuming them has to ration? Why does the person literally responsible for the entire human race act like the only training they've got for the job was a weekend long crash course? Things like these need some kind of in-universe explanation. Cryosleep and starships transporting millions of people are still within genre expectations, but unexplained organizational problems are not.

The other issue is the humor. Not that the jokes themselves would be bad, but they're just so out of place and incredibly tacked-on in the otherwise dark tone the prose is going for. There's nothing that breaks immersion faster than a random throwaway joke. For example, when the protagonist switches on the ship computer it responds with a surfer dude personality. After this brief initial interaction the personality is discarded, never mentioned again, and from then on the computer displays a neutral voice. So what was the point?

That said, on the whole these are still minor quibbles. Capsule II closely resembles Moon both in style and content; I would be very surprised if it wasn't used as an insipration. The story has a certain vibe to it that compares favorably to classical 50s/60s scifi literature and space travel aesthetics brought on by Alien. The graphical design is spot on and the text effects, graphics and layout fit together perfectly.

Occasionally the story evokes vivid imagery of solitude-induced dementia. During the endgame the viewpoint switches rapidly between two characters, which underlines the chaotic situation the protagonist is in. The author has succeeded in one of the hardest design challenges of choice-based fiction: pacing the story so that it keeps moving forward without the whole or any individual part feeling too short or too long.


Kickstarter: Bertram Fiddle

by Amanda Wallace at October 09, 2015 05:01 PM

Bertram Fiddle is an episodic, comedy 2D point and click adventure currently seeking funding for their second episode on Kickstarter.

The game is set to follow episode 1 of the series, Bertram Fiddle: A Dreadly Business which follows the adventure of Victorian era sleuth Bertram Fiddle as he searches for (and hopefully locates) Geoff the Murderer. While the first episode was on sale on Steam and iOS, the developers at Rumpus Animation didn’t make quite enough money to fund the second one to their liking. So they’ve currently set up a Kickstarter to help fund episode 2 as well as a partnership with German game developer Deck13.

BertramFiddleThe money made from Bertram Fiddle Episode 1 will be used to cover the voice acting and music from the game, which it’s definitely worth checking out if that’s a selling point for you (their Kickstarter page has an animated and audio-filled video to give you a taste). According to their Kickstarter description:

So the money raised by this campaign will pay for our trusty animators, Dan Emmerson and Leah Panigada, to work full-time on bringing Bertram and his world to life, background art by myself and Emily Kimbell and additional puzzle programming by Rex Hancox.

That is, admittedly, quite a bit of work that needs to be handled and the Kickstarter’s goal is about $38,000 dollars to bring the story of Bertram Fiddle to life. There isn’t a predicted date for delivery of the game, possibly because some of the stretch goals are quite involved and would effect a timeline. They do point to the first episode taking about a year, so with that in mind I would estimate somewhere around a mid year 2016 delivery date for their project.


Kickstarter awards are the standard for these types of games. You can get Bertram Fiddle stickers, or t-shirts or even more complicated prizes at higher level tiers. The game itself you can get for about $8 USD. The $15 tier unlocks both episode 1 and 2. If you’re interested in Episode 1 of the game, you can find more information here or check out the Kickstarter page. The Bertram Fiddle Kickstarter runs through November 6.


The post Kickstarter: Bertram Fiddle appeared first on .

Emanuil Tomov

IFCOMP'15: A Figure Met in a Shaded Wood, Michael Thomet

by Emanuil Tomov ( at October 09, 2015 12:52 PM

The subtitle of this is "A game about fortune telling and choices in video games." and the experience cleaves pretty close to it, except for the "game" part.

The commanding metaphor's tenor and vehicle are obvious, but I felt some ironic digs at other elements of video-games as well.

The thinly veiled Renaissance Italy where a vagabond wanders around, enters a clearing in the woods and has their fortune told, would probably be a reference to the thin fantasy settings that many RPGs take place. The choices, only three, leading up to the fortune-telling part in the clearing stretch rather comfortably on the "Self-interest - Altruism" axis, a perennial favorite of lazy RPG designers.

Now, I can't help but also wonder if that "video games" in the subtitle doesn't pointedly exclude text games. If so, the criticism I'm imagining would not be self-reflexively pointed at the very medium the author's chosen for it - and I think I'm okay with that. I believe that working interactively with text provides something much more fine-grained and suggestive to the people that are going to interact with it later, something that makes many graphical games with choices (especially the aforementioned RPGs) look like dull, clumsy slot-machines by comparison.

In the guise of the vagabond's life-path laid bare in the cards, AFMIASW also asks questions about the progression of a narrative where different choices would seemingly lead to different outcomes, including choices made apparently at random, like the manner in which the vagabond decides to shuffle the cards before the telling, and made simply, it seemed to me, to let the player see to what different outcome they could lead.

(There are lots of choices like that in many games, even choices meaningful by design, but made mindlessly by a tired/jaded/idly curious player who simply wants to see what more juice they can squeeze out of the game.)

Also, there's a certain, pretty creepily effective, metafictional moment at one point.

Now, I have a couple of criticisms, however. The entire experience is rather on the nose. It seems to care more about squarely making a point (directly or by implication) than doing that through engagement with the narrative. The subject matter is actually well-suited to the themes, but the writing was simply not up to par for me. There were a number of typos, like "sustinance" and "glistenes", also some grammatically and/or stylistically confusing sentences like these:

Looking down the path, the vagabond spies a light from the side of the path, flickering but warm. (you can't feel warmth from a light that you barely see) 
The vagabond walks along until they spy a figure, cloaked in shrouds and playing at something in their hands. After a moment's pause, the figure looks up, and a haggard voice emanates from the black void of the cloak. (playing at something? shrouds, plural? The haggard voice from a black void is also quite pushing the adjectival envelope, as well as the spying, again. I'm reminded of another game, not Tarot fortune-telling, that sort of spoils the atmosphere.)
 Too captivated to move, time seems to stretch out as the anticipation makes the vagabond lose nearly all sense of their self. (Grammatical agreement problem. Is time too captivated to move, or is it in fact the vagabond. Also, the whole sentence sort of trundles along rather heavily.)

These are symptomatic. Now, the whole thing is really short, so it's not that much of a problem, but still, it adds to my impression that AFMIASW doesn't really care about the narrative much. Still, I found some food for thought here.

Wade's Important Astrolab

IFComp 2015 review: Pilgrimage by VÌctor Ojuel

by Wade ( at October 09, 2015 12:42 PM

Pilgrimage is an atypically macro-scaled parser adventure which somewhat dazzled me with one brief-prose-vivid, new and geographically far-flung location after another. It's also a game whose finishability, as in the player's ability to complete it without being severely gated by a walkthrough, I would rate as close to zero percent. But then even with the walkthrough, I wasn't able to clear the game. Pilgrimage does list several testers, so I'm going to assume that I ran into some kind of circumstantial bug rather than that the game is literally unfinishable.

Pilgrimage's PC is a Roman woman (ancient Rome) of significant alchemical learning who leaves her hometown seeking further knowledge of an existential entity known as The Great Work. She is like Carmen Sandiego in that each move she makes in one of the traditional IF compass directions tends to take her to an entirely different country.

I was very interested in Pilgrimage's play up to a point, but its macroscopic strengths also turn out to be the source of its gameplay weaknesses. Aesthetically, it's an appealing game which seems to have a lot of erudition of research behind it, and one which keeps throwing surprises in the content and in the PC's behaviour.

What feels most novel about Pilgrimage is the way it scales the world it creates. I've hardly played any parser games that place a series of huge environments (cities, countries, et al.) in a series of single locations like this one does, and when I have, those games were more interested in the map connections between the locations rather than the locations themselves. So whether by not knowing conventions or by ignoring them, Pilgrimage sports a novel style. One I'd like to steal from at some point. In this regard I'd have to recommend the game to anyone who has a history with parser games. But have the walkthrough handy.

For full reviewage with spoilers, read on.

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Emily Short

IF Comp 2015: Map (Ade McT)

by Emily Short at October 09, 2015 11:00 AM

The 21st annual Interactive Fiction Competition is currently on, through mid-November. Voting is open to the general public; the only prerequisite is that you not be an author, not vote on games that you tested, and submit votes on at … Continue reading

Emanuil Tomov

IF Comp'15: Darkiss: Chapter One: The Awakening, Marco Vallarino

by Emanuil Tomov ( at October 09, 2015 08:00 AM

After my first few weeks of getting into IF, I haven't had the chance to play much parser fiction, and parser puzzles of the more usual sort aren't really my thing, so bear that in mind. (Having said that, Darkiss isn't really a challenge in that respect.)

The vampire Voigt, freshly awakened, has to find a way out of his own crypt and wreak revenge on the ones who drove a stake through his heart. Most of the narrative concerns Voigt restoring his memories by looking around the crypt's rooms, from which we learn that Voigt wouldn't be out of place either in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (to judge by the light-hearted glee Voigt feels at the remembered torture of friar), or Sesame Street (one of the puzzles involves counting snakes and spiders! Twice!)

I feel that this being a first chapter of a larger narrative sort of set me up to like this less than I otherwise would have. But I have other criticisms as well, unfortunately. 

The writing is pretty heavy-handed, and that's disregarding the fact that it's a translation, unless the siren call of writing in a foreign language prompted the author to add lots of ten-dollar words to the prose. In almost every place where an adjective could be inserted, it is. Now, sesquipedalian gyrations are more or less the norm in Gothic writing, but here the riff on Stoker is a bit too noticeable, even if it was intended (?) as a spoof.

Also, the conversation with the parser was rather stumbly, not because of difficulty issues, but because of the sheer amount of text in each response. It felt like Vallarino has tried to write a Gothic novel in parser form, and I'm not sure the two forms fit. 

Wade's Important Astrolab

IFComp 2015 review: Ether by Brian Rushton (but not THAT Brian Rushton)

by Wade ( at October 09, 2015 05:17 AM

The 'not THAT Brian Rushton' quip is a minor joke you'll get once after you've typed CREDITS in this game.

Ether is a charming parser adventure in which you play a flying nautilus that must collect and manipulate objects in a world of pristine X-Y-Z elemental axes. Air pressure varies along one axis, weather virulence along another and temperature along the third. You can move up, down, west, east, north or south, or in combinations of these directions, to fly around within the virtual cube of the gameworld.

The nautilus has positively-tinged existential concerns and enjoys doing the things it does. The game's puzzles are uncomplicated and almost arcade-gamey in some ways. Also arcade-gamey is the manner in which the nautilus can acquire various power ups as it goes along.

Considering Ether's technical polish, its environment assembled from graceful, procedurally generated prose, its general ease of play and short playtime, I find it easy to recommend it to any compgoers – except perhaps those who find themselves boggled by spatial relationship problems. Nautilus's challenges are light by the standards of such problems, and there aren't even that many of them, but I suspect that some people simply can't handle this kind of 3D thing in prose.

Further review with spoilers beyond the cut.

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October 08, 2015

Doug's World

Growbotics (review)

by Doug Egan ( at October 08, 2015 10:41 PM

Growbotics is a web-based interactive fiction written by Cha Holland, entered in the 2015 interactive fiction competition.  It features an attractive interface and some up-beat introductory text (with some clever interactive features that allow the player to "design" their own lab).  But when it came to the central game element, testing a machine which is allegedly capable of manufacturing "anything," I found the navigation links were buggy and most of the essence combinations I tried failed to produce anything.  The things I did discover made me happy and were presented with cute schematic graphics and pleasant tones.  I hope the author will continue to post updates to this game, to make the experience more robust.

Sibyl Moon Games

A Game That Wasn’t For Me

by Carolyn VanEseltine at October 08, 2015 10:01 PM

I played a game last night and I didn’t get it.

I understood the mechanics. I understood the events in the game. I hadn’t played it “wrong”. But I had to search for reviews to understand what everyone else saw in it.

This isn’t the first time it’s happened. I can think of at least three other games where the intended experience was utterly lost on me. I had to ask other people, “What did you get out of this game? Why did it affect you that way?”

Two key factors involved:

  1. Hype. I was surrounded by people saying “Thing X is amazing!”
  2. Background. My lived experience (or just my personal taste) was a clear mismatch for the target audience.

Last night’s example included both factors. I kept evaluating and reevaluating the experience, wondering when it was supposed to blow my mind. Then I reached the end, mind distinctly un-blown, and thought, “Well, that was a thing all right.”

I admit it – I’m a tough audience. And worse, I’m a contrary audience. There is nothing to make me more skeptical and unemotional than a friend claiming I’m gonna Feel Stuff. (My internal measure of Steven Universe‘s success: I Felt Stuff. Though part of what I felt was annoyance that I Felt Stuff.)

There’s a huge range between “Argh I Felt Stuff” and “Wait, What?” For professional reasons, I play games for analysis as much as for fun (usually at the same time). Even if I don’t have the intended experience (emotional or otherwise), I expect to understand why other people did, and what the intended experience was.

It’s a very strange feeling when I don’t get it.

Is everyone really having this experience? What if everyone just thinks they’re supposed to have this experience? Am I the only one who sees the emperor naked?

From Wikipedia: “In psychology, cognitive dissonance is the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time, or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values.”

  1. Person W did Thing X, and they report having Experience Y.
  2. I have done Thing X, and I did not have Experience Y.

I haven’t formally studied psychology, and I don’t have solid opinions about cognitive dissonance theory. But I find this situation disconcerting, and I think most people do.

Humans understand each other through empathy in action. If we both do Thing X, we expect that we’ll both have Experience Y. And if that’s not the case… well, it bugs people.

This happens a lot on the Internet. It happens a lot in games. And it specifically happens a lot on Steam Greenlight, where users browse potential offerings and answer: “Should this game be available on Steam?”

People vote on potential games and leave comments, exactly as they’re intended to do. The comments are generally mini-reviews, and they’re visible to everyone. Some comment threads smolder. Others explode.

In the situation:

  1. Person W did Thing X, and they report having Experience Y.
  2. I have done Thing X, and I did not have Experience Y.

…there are three basic conclusions that can be drawn.

  1. I was wrong about my experience. I really did have Experience Y.
  2. Person W is being dishonest. Person W did not have Experience Y.
  3. It is possible for Thing X to produce different experiences in different people.

Personally, I trust that people are accurately reporting their experiences. Therefore, I consciously opt for 3 (possibly with an unconscious scattering of 1.) I might not understand why other people have Experience Y, but I believe they did and I want them to explain.

But I do not expect my taste to be definitive.

When I see livid comments on Greenlight, they don’t come from a vacuum. Either the game itself has angered the poster beyond measure (less common), or the post is contradicting someone else’s opinion.

In a contradictory post, 1 is off the table and 2 is pretty rare. Most upset posts are trying to express:

  • It is possible for Thing X to produce different experiences in different people, but my experience of Thing X is more valid than your experience of Thing X.

As an example, see the comments thread for 12 Hrs by Kiva Bay. For context, this is a Twine game about being homeless.

12 hrsSome people tried the game (or had tried games like it, or wanted to support the creator). They wanted 12 Hrs to succeed. A sample comment from this perspective:

  • Thessilian, Sep 29 @ 6:02 AM: I played an earlier version online (there’s a link above if you want to try it out). Interesting, incredible and heartbreaking game. There’s a lot of replayability. Good luck with it!

Other people tried the game (or had tried games like it, or wanted to oppose the creator). They wanted 12 Hrs to fail. A sample comment from this perspective:

  • Riond, Oct 1 @ 8:54 PM (excerpt only): First off, this isn’t a game. I dunno what this is, but it’s not a video game. There is no gameplay to it. All you do is click on highlighted text to try and make something happen…. My point is that this isn’t a video game and that it doesn’t belong on Steam. There’s about a hundred other garbage titles on the Steam store that we don’t need another one clogging things up and garnering support from hipsters and SJWs to flood out things that actually have potential….

What’s interesting about the second comment is the assertion that the people voting for 12 Hrs are “hipsters and SJWs”. (This distancing behavior is not exclusive to the opposition; there were comments that mentioned “haters” and “dudebros” among the supporters.)

In both cases, it’s a grab for authority. “My opinion is more valid than this other opinion, because the people with this other opinion are this other kind of person, so their opinion is less valid than mine.”

Steam Greenlight isn’t a space designed for compromise. From Valve’s perspective, it’s good when a game’s comment threads go incendiary, because it demonstrates that people know about and care about the game. This means people will buy the game if Valve greenlights it. Which is good for Valve.

And I can imagine where people are coming from when they argue against the value of a game. They’re reading the hype, but they don’t have the background to get it. They’re coming from the space that I was in last night, but colored with a veneer of hostility.

“The emperor has no clothes. Can’t you see that? It’s obvious to me, so how is it not obvious to you?”

I’ve reviewed games before. I’ll assuredly do it again (likely before the end of IFComp). But I’m not a reviewer at heart. I’m someone who makes games, and makes mistakes, and learns from those mistakes, and studies other people’s games to learn from those games too – rinse, repeat, continue.

So I’m not going to write a review. Or even tell you what game it was (though it wasn’t 12 Hrs). I’m just going to say: it’s a very strange feeling when you don’t have the experience and everyone around you does. And I have empathy for some unexpected people today.

Of course, the feeling can’t excuse the reaction. And I have no sympathy with some of those reactions. But the feeling itself? I think it’s universal and human. And not too much fun.

I played a game last night and it wasn’t for me.

…I wish it had been.

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These Heterogenous Tasks

IF Comp 2015: Darkiss: Chapter One: The Awakening

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at October 08, 2015 10:01 PM

Darkiss: Chapter One is an old-school vampire story (sadistic lords in remote castles, rather than leather trenchcoats and high-school angst). The PC was killed and sealed in his lair by vampire-hunters, but has somehow survived; his memory has been somewhat impaired in … Continue reading


Interactive Fiction: the Beginner’s Guide

by Amanda Wallace at October 08, 2015 09:01 PM

Beginners Guide

This guest post was written by Bruno Dias. If you want to hear more from him, check him out on Twitter or his website

It’s all but impossible to talk about the Beginner’s Guide without spoiling it extensively. Suffice to say, at first, that it is worth playing. But this really is the kind of experience that is best taken in blind; as such, if you haven’t played yet, I do recommend you go and do so – it’s a really smart examination of the relationship between audiences and authors framed as the story of a relationship between two people. It’s a mechanics-light story told using a mix of voiceover, level design, and a little bit of gameplay. The US price point is $8 on Steam.

Davey Wreden, best known for his work on last year’s the Stanley Parable, plays a fictionalized version of himself in the Beginner’s Guide. The game is presented as a stitched-together collection of short Source engine art games by a reclusive designer referred to only as Coda. Wreden connects the games together, and adds in his own voiceover – which supplies context, but also interpretations and a personal history of Wreden’s own relationship to Coda. Sometimes he intercedes in the games themselves, supplying modifications to the games which streamline the experience of playing through Coda’s games. For the sake of brevity, I’ll be referring to this fictionalised Wreden as “Davey”, while the actual person remains “Wreden”.

Wreden puts himself in the position of creator, critic, and audience. So the real Wreden is writing a fictional exegesis, delivered by the fictionalized Davey, about the real games that Wreden made, which in the fiction were made by Coda, a fictional character that Wreden created and Davey was friends with. This isn’t quite the same thing as Wreden making games for himself to critique and then packaging up the content and critique together as a game for the world to critique in turn, but it’s close.

Beginners Guide Door

The obvious comparisons here are to metafictional exercises in other media. To Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation, a film about the writing of its own screenplay. Or Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, a novel that begins: “You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller” – and follows on in second-person perspective as “you” realize you have the wrong book entirely.

But the Beginner’s Guide isn’t interested in exactly this kind of representational game. It’s a much more personal story, a walk through Davey’s relationship to Coda, presented in turn as a walk through Coda’s dreamlike game designs, constantly interrupted by Davey’s own impressions and recollections.

It’s a much more emotional story than the premise suggests – it’s not overly concerned with the direct issues of game design, or criticism, or how we construe meaning in games. Instead, it’s concerned with the limits of empathy; with how well we can understand someone through their work; with how much our attempts at helping others stem from a narcissistic need for validation; with how healthy it actually is to be a content creator; with how much of a claim an audience has on a creator.

It’s also a bit of a complicated sleight of hand trick. All of Coda’s games express something, they all add up to a work that is open to interpretations beyond those supplied by Davey.


Davey – the audience – begins his relationship with Coda by being overeager, and quickly moves on to overbearing and then outright unhealthy. Davey’s entire line of analysis is, from the start, tainted by his feelings towards Coda. If Davey can peel back the walls of Coda’s boxy worlds, maybe he can peel back the skin of the man himself, too, and understand. At the root of this need to understand is a fundamental envy about how much more complete, how much more fulfilled Coda seems than Davey. This is a story about Davey’s spiral, told through the framing device of Davey telling the story of the spiral he imagined Coda to be in. It’s telling that when Coda makes a cheerful, warmly domestic game, Davey’s immediate reaction is to mod it so that the happy moment Coda created can end.

Because Davey can only be satisfied by figuring it out, by getting to understand someone else. By taking another person’s subjectivity and swallowing it up to fill the gaps in himself. Coda was content to spend forever in the space between spaces, tidying up that warm home. Not Davey. Davey had to knock down the walls, and stop the music, and plant a big bright lamppost that he could point to and say: “I got it.”

Beginners Guide

If Davey is a proxy for the whole audience, then Wreden takes a dim view indeed of the audience. But I don’t think that’s the case at all; Wreden clearly empathizes with both ends of it. He clearly knows the position of being where Davey is – of feeling hollowed out, unable to experience happiness from a source that isn’t external validation, that isn’t feeling clever – worse, being told that one is clever, good, important. Or maybe I’m just projecting.

This is, after all, a game about how slippery criticism really is; about how facile statements like “he clearly knows the position of being where Davey is” are, about how easily we slip into a sort of pathological exercise in armchair diagnosis. But Davey is more than a critic; he’s a fan. And of course from the right angle, fandom is a process of stealing someone else’s wholeness, of hammering their work into narratives about ourselves. The Beginner’s Guide is a story about fandom curdling into a sort of illusion of proximity; the fan as an overimaginative foodie who tastes a steak and claims they can tell you what the cow’s life was like.

All this would not be so disturbing if not for Davey’s willingness to take his diagnoses of Coda’s mental state and run with them. Davey bemoans the idea of Coda “not giving [him] any way to fix the problem.” Throughout, his relationship to Coda’s work is increasingly predicated on “fixing” things. On modding or altering games to become something they’re not. The Beginner’s Guide has a particular interest in games with hidden, inaccessible content like that. What does it mean for someone to deliberately insert unused content into something? Or can mean anything at all?

If something in a game is only visible by modifying the game, is it even part of the text? Games – including my own – often ship with unreleased content, assets and levels that are still in the files but were at some point amputated from the experience, or simply never hooked up to it at all.

Is all of the unused text in my games – shut off from normal gameplay by being disconnected from the pipes but still quietly present in the source due to my own laziness – a part of the text of the work? And therefore passible of criticism and analysis, “fair game” for the thoughts and impressions of others? God, I hope not. In many ways, pursuing this content seems like almost as much of a breach of trust as Davey’s redistribution of Coda’s games.


At some point, Davey is going beyond his stated role as a curator, fan, and critic. At one point he starts using Coda’s games as a material for his own assemblage, appropriating Coda’s voice in the process. In the end, in the only moment where Coda is allowed to speak explicitly with his own voice, he specifically calls out this behaviour; it’s clear that his grievances with Davey go well beyond just what Davey himself is saying.

But whereas Davey is all about lacking something and being desperate to get it, Coda is all about having something and being overprotective of it. He’s withdrawing to the point of making us question why he makes games at all. In many ways, Coda is the most absurd subject for Davey’s exercise – a designer so impersonal that reading his work as a deeply personal expression of his feelings is ridiculous.

But Davey’s obsession stems from that very withdrawing nature in Coda’s work. From a sense that, not only is all art autobiographical, we can access that autobiography by reading the work. From the right angle, the exercise of creating this kind of deeply personal content – be it “empathy games” or personal essays – appears as a morbid exercise in commoditizing one’s trauma. Coda seems to explicitly flee from this; for the most part, he builds chilly dreams and nightmares that seem to resist a direct emotional interpretation. The people in his games are stationary mannequins with glowing boxes proclaiming their function to the world; the spaces are vast and empty. If Coda’s designs are about himself at all, he’s using dreams and allegory as a smokescreen, as a way of distancing himself as a person from the authorial voice.

This smokescreen is, in many ways, a necessary piece of safety equipment for creators, especially for creators who struggle with something other than mere jitters. Producing content often depends on some form of vulnerability, on exposure. This observation has become so trite it’s filtered down to the most pedestrian writing manual: show off your vulnerabilities. People whose livelihood is content creation, indeed, are in the oft-uncomfortable position of having to expose themselves like that. Allegory and genre are popular ways of revealing without revealing, of exposing something without exposing oneself. Walking through Coda’s cold and distant halls made me realize how much I use politics as a way of doing exactly that, of writing personal stories while my person stands kilometres away from the story – though I will defend myself by claiming that in this case, the smokescreen is as true and important as the feelings it’s supposed to conceal.

The way the story is framed suggests complicity between Davey and the audience; the player is an unwitting participant in his plot to regain Coda’s attention – and then a horrified witness to Davey’s final cathartic epiphany. Laura Hudson played through the game once without realising it was all fictional, and was outright upset at what she had experienced. Davey makes you an accessory to his crimes: note how he rarely breaks Coda’s games outright – instead he requires you to press a key to break them. In that, too, you’re his unwitting accomplice; “would you kindly expose this person’s subjectivity for me?”

The Beginner’s Guide is many things – a critique of our complicity in usurping and appropriating the interior life of writers and artists we care about; a powerful (accidental?) argument for death-of-the-author criticism; a questioning look at the limits of criticism in general. In many ways, Davey and Coda’s back-and-forth through games are just a medium for a deeper human problem about how much our empathy can be predicated on a need for validation – on needing to feel like we matter, like we can “fix” something. It rests on the idea that art, technology, and its criticism are not found outside the fraught landscape of human relationships. That Davey is no safer (from his own narcissism, from his fears, from his incompleteness) when approaching Coda through his work than Coda’s own character is when approaching a woman he admires at a party.

And, of course: Coda, in spite of what he believed, in spite of what he tried to do, was no safer exposing himself through his games than he would have been doing it face-to-face.


The post Interactive Fiction: the Beginner’s Guide appeared first on .

IFComp News

Minor updates to the full-comp zipfile

October 08, 2015 09:01 PM

A couple of changes we’ve made to the comprehensive full-competition zipfile (173.16 MB) over the last week:

  • Renamed the folders containing the games Life on Mars? and Midnight. Swordfight. so that they no longer contain punctuation marks. Windows-using players reported that these filenames would otherwise cause problems.

    If you find that you haven’t been able to see or play these two games in your downloaded copy of the competition, please feel free to download a fresh copy of the whole zip, or download these games individually from the browse page.

  • Removed Emily is Away and Paradise, which have withdrawn from the competition (as noted in this blog’s previous two posts).

Doug's World

Midnight. Swordfight. (a review)

by Doug Egan ( at October 08, 2015 08:59 PM

"Midnight. Swordfight" is a parser-style interactive fiction by Chandler Groover for the 2015 annual interactive fiction competition.

One of my favorite things about the IF comp season is the opportunity to play so many different styles of games with limited preconceptions about what I'll experience.  Sometimes I jump straight into a game without reading the blurb.  During my first fifteen minutes with this one, I mistakenly thought I was playing an "Adrift" entry.  ("Midnight. Swordfight" is actually written with Glulx).  I'm glad I double checked that before writing this review.  That would have been an embarrassing mistake to go uncorrected.

Nothing Spoilery until after the page break.

"Midnight. Swordfight" is a fable, set on the grounds of a castle or manor house, in some alternate fairy tale universe.  Depending on the choices a player makes, the story could either be an absurd fantasy or a bloody horror tale.  In that sense, it is a proper tribute to the classical fairy tales (Grimm Brothers tales, or one from any number of other European or non-European sources).  The contrast of horror and comedy makes for good story telling.  It builds tension, then releases, and back again.  My favorite TV shows are, in the modern venacular, "dramedies".

As a game, this one has some interesting features.  Traditional compass directions are replaced with clock themed directions (future, past, clockwise, counterclockwise).  The difference, however, is mostly superficial.  Time has stopped for all but the player and a few NPCs.  There are no time-dependent puzzles, no puzzles at all, really.  Multiple endings are available, depending in part on which props the PC carries at the end-game.  Each game is short and the player is encouraged to try again.

Object implementation is strong.  There was scarcely a thing mentioned in the story which couldn't be examined or offered as a conversation topic to the one NPC who will talk to you.  I liked the way the conversation system was handled.  While in conversation mode, the player simply has to mention conversation topics.  No need to repeatedly type "ask NPC about ..."  The verbs in this game are implemented less well, but player expectations are managed carefully.  The player has been instructed what verbs are allowed through an in-story mechanism, and the player quickly learns not to test the limits of the parser.

Nice game, not too long or fancy or philosophical.  My spoilers follow the break.

Read more »

IFComp News

"Paradise" is withdrawn

October 08, 2015 06:01 PM

The author of Paradise has elected to withdraw the game from the 2015 IFComp. It is no longer visible on the online ballot. Judges who have already rated the game will still keep this rating as counting towards their minimum five ratings.

The competition’s organizers were unaware before recently that the original, sandbox-style engine the game runs on, the free exploration of which provides a large part of the Paradise play experience, had been publicly available in 2014, and the subject of multiple online magazine articles which linked readers directly to it (e.g. this PC Gamer story).

The author did reset the Paradise landscape with original content prior to the competition. However, since — intrinsic to the nature of the work — the lines between this new content, the underlying sandbox engine, and things built by other players using that engine is blurry at best, the IFComp organizers have ruled that this work as a whole has already seen a public release predating the start of the judging period. As such, it runs counter to author rule #3. The author has agreed to withdraw the work from the competition on these grounds.

Paradise will continue to run at the author’s own website, just as it had during the first week of the judging period. IFComp’s organizers encourage players curious to explore an interesting multiplayer text-based interactive structure to visit it.

Renga in Blue

IFComp 2015: Taghairm

by Jason Dyer at October 08, 2015 06:00 PM

By Chandler Groover. Not finished. Sorry. Animal Cruelty Simulator 2015 (Now With Sound Effects) is not my thing.

Emanuil Tomov


by Emanuil Tomov ( at October 08, 2015 01:15 PM

Heavily customized and customizable Twine 2 toy, consisting solely of combining words to create objects.

The fictional setup is next-to-nonexistent, not that it needs any, as the entire thing is an exercise in random generation and recombination. The "device" you use can combine either two or three notions, called primary essences, together - combining two gives you a secondary one. The essences themselves have to do with the senses, with matter, and abstractions of the mind. The final product, however could be anything, from a "misguided sense of righteousness", to an "edible sniper rifle", my personal favorite after a number of replays, with the hilarious follow-up, when I decided I'm not pleased with my creation: "It's not too much of a problem to dispose of your edible sniper rifle – these
things come and go." Indeed.

Of course, GROWBOTICS is entirely dependent on chance for its effects. (Including this neat little result, when I tried to combine a number of essences - "identity", "mind" and "space", against the rules: "You have created an unstable product. Tubes gurgle slightly and draw away the offending gooey mess, leaving behind a faint chemical smell.")

As far as it goes, it's an enjoyable, and really well visually customized piece.

sub-Q Magazine

Author Interview: anna anthropy

by Devi Acharya at October 08, 2015 01:01 PM

anna anthropy is a 30-year-old teen witch. She is a play designer, author of Rise of the Videogame Zinesters and ZZT, and maintains the game history archive ANNARCHIVE.COM. She lives in Oakland, California with her familiar, a black cat named Encyclopedia Frown.

This interview was conducted by email in September 2015.


anna anthropy—sub-Q Interview

anna anthropy


Devi Acharya: To begin, tell me a bit about yourself—who you are, where you’re from, a strange confession?

anna anthropy: hi! my name is anna. i’m from the bronx, new york. i grew up in a neighborhood where people hung out on their front stoops and there was a place on every street corner that’d sell you a slice of pizza bigger than your head. most of those places are still open, if not under the names i originally knew them by.

currently, i live in oakland, california. but probably not for much longer. everyone i know here is packing up and leaving. everyone’s too burnt out trying to eke out a living in a place that gets more expensive by the day, where—i know i’m not alone in this—it’s hard to really feel community any more. i was here before most of the people i’ve grown close to. now i’m afraid of being here after they’re gone. no one’s really close to each other here any more.

i’ve got my cat, though.


Devi: I don’t think it’d be an overstatement to say you’ve rocked the interactive fiction world. How does IF help you tell your stories?
anna: was it me that rocked the interactive fiction world, or was it twine, and i was just the first person using twine to do weird, gay, sexy stuff? as much as i like a lot of my own writing, if popularizing twine becomes my interactive fiction legacy i’ll be happy. it’s sincerely changed everything. my first book, rise of the videogame zinesters, was developed from a piece about how game-making tools like inform 7 were going to change the world, but the truth is parser-based interactive fiction was never going to reach anyone who wasn’t in driving distance of MIT. it’s too hard to play, and much too hard to write. i discovered twine while i was working on the book: right place, right time. long overdue.

i’m consistently happy with how much of working with twine is just writing, and not struggling with code. i resisted doing a lot of technical stuff in my interactive fiction for a very long time. i’ve finally started doing it, and i find myself grumbling each time i have to enclose something in brackets. if twine were even a spoonful more complicated, i would probably just write paper “choose your own adventure” books.

those are really what made me love interactive fiction. people are always down on the writing and the supposed shallowness of the interactivity, but the wild leaps of imagination that resulted when a cheap paperback potboiler was injected with a little interactivity! what interactive fiction authors today are brave enough to let their stories branch into completely contradictory, wildly different outcomes at the result of almost any minor choice? authors are SO SERIOUS. it’s that kind of creativity i try to live up to whenever i write interactive fiction.


Devi: You talk about a lot of personal experiences in your games. Do you find it difficult sharing these stories with the world?
anna: not really.

the thing i always like to say is that there came a time when staying silent about my experiences became scarier, more painful, than speaking them aloud. but i think there’s also a thing where i’m careful about how autobiographical i’ll actually let a game be. metaphor is a way of protecting myself. i never actually say “trans woman” in witches & wardrobes, for example. i say “witch.” i say “plucking hairs from warts” instead of “shaving my face every morning.” i think i’m wary of casting myself as a victim. it’s too easy, and i’m tired of people using my games to make themselves feel like they’re good people for sitting and listening to me.

i mean, i say this having just released “ohmygod are you alright?,” my most blatantly autobiographical game so far. i guess there’s just a point where you’re so hurt and so angry that you can no longer keep up the pretense that the tiny pixel girl bobbing around the screen isn’t just you. i try to make things that will outlast my moments of pain, but the pain got too big, and here were all these people sitting around and talking about what great listeners they were. i wanted to really be heard for once.


Devi: In the same vein, what has the reader response to your work been like? 

anna: they don’t like the right games! my biggest seller—the game everyone emails me asking if they can exhibit—is still this game about hormone replacement therapy i made four years ago. i would disown it if it didn’t provide such a big chunk of my income. i made the exhibition fee $200 so people would stop emailing me.

the projects i’m proudest of are weird interactive fiction pieces no one else seems to care about. star court has almost 30,000 words—the length of some of my books—but you only see a fraction of the game in any single playthrough. i spent weeks on the mystery of the missing mythics—this weird, very silly adventure game i built around this “image search madlibs” idea. the idea is that the game will give you a phrase—”weird beard,” for example—and you image search it. pick your favorite image from the results, tell it to the game, and the game will spring it on you at some point in the story. i’m really proud of how i used many of the images.

but it’s a lot to ask players to sit and do twenty image searches before they start the game, i guess. you can’t control what people will like, but i wish more of my new stuff met with anywhere close to the enthusiasm this hormone game that’s—from my perspective—ancient history still does.


Devi: Loved taking a look at “Witches and Wardrobes“! Can you tell me a bit about the inspiration behind it?
anna: think of it as my version of the “what i wanted to wear” hashtag. if you haven’t seen this, it’s trans women posting photos of the outfits they would have liked to go out in versus the outfits that, for safety’s sake, they actually did. i’m a white woman, and i’m a big, tall woman, and i’m a fat woman so i’m less desirable to the kinds of dudes who hit on trans women and then react to the “discovery” of their transness with violence, so it’s less dangerous to be me than to be a lot of other trans ladies, especially trans women of color.

but every time i go out, i have to deliberate over what i feel like i can get away with. what ways will this outfit invite strangers to question my womanhood? what failings of my trans body to look cis will this outfit emphasize? do i have the self-confidence today to weather the judgement (and catcalls, and harassment) of strangers? maybe if i wear tights i won’t have to worry about people looking at my legs. maybe i can get away with wearing pants and a simple top today.

witches & wardrobes” is about how every decision feels like a compromise, but also the bravery, the strength even in those compromises, in ways we’re able to take care of ourselves, how we’re able to endure as women. the ability to find femininity where we can, to fully inhabit even smaller expressions of our womanhood. even these are victories.


What's this?


Devi: Where do you see your future headed? Any big interactive fiction plans?
anna: i’m working on two books right now. neither of them are technically announced yet, so i can’t say much. but one is a traditional gamebook, lone wolf-style. it’s set in the future bay area, where water is scarce and all government functions have been privatized to san francisco startups. the other is—well, it will hopefully produce some new interactive fiction authors. stay tuned!


Devi: Is there anything else you want to talk about?

anna: well, if you’re reading this and it’s october, then i just put my kid detective halloween adventure game, “a very very VERY scary house,” on sale at a big discount. it’s free! you can find it on my page.

i wrote this game a few years ago for jerry belich’s “choosatron” project—a machine that prints out physical interactive fiction (in the “choose your own adventure” mold) on receipt paper. when you’re done playing, you get to take the story you created with you. “v.v.V.s.h.” was my largest attempt at a “pure” choose-your-own-adventure work—there’s no stat-tracking of any kind, and the game branches widely into over fifty different, mutually exclusive endings. i’m really proud of it, and it’s perfect for halloween.


Devi: How can others find out more about you and your work?

anna: here are some links: is the home for all my tabletop projects. most recently: a two-player role-playing game where a dungeon janitor and their apprentice argue over who’s going to clean up the minotaur poop. it’s also where you can get “be witching,” a game about witch fashion that might be appealing if you like “witches & wardrobes.” actually, “witches & wardrobes” was originally going to be the name of that game, but the game changed to the point where that name no longer really made sense. is where you can support all the free games i make and get updates on all the new stuff i turn out. i post a lot of previews and sneak peeks that are patron-only; if you want to play my new games before anyone else, this is the place to be. is my storefront. you can get many of my tabletop and digital games there, including several pieces of interactive fiction.

finally, isn’t really about my own work, but i want to mention it anyway. it’s where i host all the scans i do of documents i think are important to games and technology history. my most recent additions are martin amis’ invasion of the space invaders and the 1993 book the joy of cybersex. possibly by the time you read this, i will have started scanning and posting issues of lisa palac’s future sex magazine, one of the first ongoing attempts to chronicle the world at the intersection of sex and technology.

i keep busy i guess!


Devi: Thanks so much for your time!
anna: thanks for the interview!

The post Author Interview: anna anthropy appeared first on sub-Q Magazine.

Emanuil Tomov

IFCOMP'15: Crossroads, Cat Manning

by Emanuil Tomov ( at October 08, 2015 12:11 PM

Has a number of good ideas about it - playing with the text's timing, customizing small details, - but it could've done much more with them, the way I see it. In Twine.

Now, let me start by repeating that white text on black background is not the way to go for me. I've never understood why one of the basic Twine layouts had to look like that, but it really taxes my eyes. Obviously, that's not a criticism against the author, who probably doesn't have much experience with the platform, but next time she could try out some other css styles, like Leon Arnott's. (I see he's helped out with the coding.)

Then, the story - the PC is in the woods, waiting for a witch, seeking a fix. Something has pushed her to thiat (the PC, I mean, and I can't really imagine it as a man somehow), and defining that "something" is the object of many of the interactive elements here, as well as the fix she seeks.

I liked that to some extent the pacing is out of my hands, since the text of a passage is displayed automatically, in portions. The gaps weren't annoyingly long and they let my imagination fill in the silence in the meanwhile, mostly with the sense of passing time stronger than what it would've been if I just clicked and read in quick succession.

(By the way, I'd have really liked if interacting with the text in between displaying portions were possible, and if it changed stuff along the way. In the "Breathe. In", passage, for instance, I clicked away like mad in one playthrough, and didn't click at all in another. If it acknowledged that, I'd have been thrilled. Also, the coding's not really hard to do.)

On the other hand, I didn't find the text customization fruitful enough. I usually like reflective choices that let me create a sense of personality out of disparate little choosings, but here the character-defining elements mostly asked me to impart a sense of greater conflict, a theme to the whole thing, and a symbolic structure, choosing stuff such as a driving emotion, whether I've hurt other or have been hurt, whether and why I seek death - or else completely immaterial things like the color of the PC's eyes, that rather fall into the other end of the spectrum.

Setting-and-atmosphere-wise it's all rather gothic stuff - goth, even, - and slightly heavy-handed for my taste. The writing is good, but a bit rich on the Anne Ricean trappings, intense words, sentence-fragments and one-word-sentences. And in such an interactive structure, where the sense of character is entirely made out of player decisions, I would've preferred something more fruitfully stark, so I can fill it up with my own imaginings, instead of vague, the way it sounds to me as it is.

Emily Short

IF Comp 2015: Nowhere Near Single (kaleidofish)

by Emily Short at October 08, 2015 12:00 PM

The 21st annual Interactive Fiction Competition is currently on, through mid-November. Voting is open to the general public; the only prerequisite is that you not be an author, not vote on games that you tested, and submit votes on at … Continue reading

October 07, 2015

IFComp News

"Emily is Away" is withdrawn

October 07, 2015 08:01 PM

The author of Emily is Away has elected to withdraw the game from the 2015 IFComp. It is no longer visible on the online ballot. Judges who have already rated the game will still keep this rating as counting towards their minimum five ratings.

The competition’s organizers were unaware before recently that the game has been touring through various public independent-game festivals, with plans for a commercial release on October 16 — a third of the way through this year’s IFComp judging period. The author and the competition organizers have agreed that, while we love seeing another step in the very recent re-entry of interactive fiction into the commercial space, this renders the game essentially incompatible with the IFComp’s rules and intent.

We encourage the IFComp audience to visit the game’s official website. It does look like a personal, polished, and highly original work of interactive fiction that deserves the praise it has earned so far.

Renga in Blue

IFComp 2015: Much Love, BJP

by Jason Dyer at October 07, 2015 08:00 PM

By Megan Stevens. Finished on computer. Let me get this out of the way first: the structure and interaction aren’t too enthralling: So let’s talk about the story instead. It’s built of artifacts; a father has collected his daughter’s newspaper writings from different countries. It is very fragmentary. I was often unclear what was going […]

These Heterogenous Tasks

IF Comp 2015: Arcane Intern (Unpaid)

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at October 07, 2015 07:01 PM

Arcane Intern (Unpaid) (Astrid Dalmady) does pretty much what the title implies. Trying to break into publishing, you stumble into a hidden society of magic-users. It’s still a crappy unpaid job, but with more magic sigils and dragon baristas. Games that … Continue reading

Emily Short

IF Comp 2015: Cape (Bruno Dias)

by Emily Short at October 07, 2015 05:00 PM

The 21st annual Interactive Fiction Competition is currently on, through mid-November. Voting is open to the general public; the only prerequisite is that you not be an author, not vote on games that you tested, and submit votes on at … Continue reading

Emanuil Tomov

IFCOMP'15: To Burn in Memory, Orihaus

by Emanuil Tomov ( at October 07, 2015 01:59 PM

Something that has obviously had a lot of effort put into it, both in graphical and textual presentation, and that nevertheless manages to hit almost all the wrong notes that I personally listen for, in prose and interactivity. A hand-made engine.

Let me start by saying the general structure of this piece would've kept me from enjoying the prose, even if that sort of writing was something I enjoyed.

Pacing a choice-based game by providing nothing more than movement options through empty scenery is not, in my opinion, the way to go at all. Especially when that empty scenery is exclusively architecture, putting me in mind of reading an overenthusiastic guide to historical buildings. Minute descriptions of spatial dimensions are not what language is most effective at, for this reader, and the attempts at pathetic fallacy felt more to me like excess verbiage than trying to infuse some sort of subtly felt life in the otherwise lifeless surroundings.

Though blackened windows teased entrance, the tower itself allowed no
means of ingress at this level.
(...)gold hue belying the fortitude of a stronger metal — bright brass fashioned to
call to mind the sun in all its radiance.
What remained of the gate had forgotten its elegance that moment its strength fell before the sheer force of the German artillery barrage — filigree metalwork twisted and made harsh, to call now to mind the form of a corpse, ribcage exposed.  
Straining after some notion of fine writing, a notion I don't share though I do have my own ideas about that, the writing sometimes abandons the very imagery it's trying to evoke.

Gates can never call to mind the form of a corpse. They can call to mind the notion of a corpse, but a collapsed, twisted gate looks nothing like a corpse. The fortitude of a stronger material is simply "a stronger material".

By all appearances it [a crystalline gate] did not seem to be operable from the exterior.
Which, I gather, means simply: "Apparently it couldn't be opened from outside."

All else adds nothing to the image, apart from an air of "fine writing". It rings false to me, I'm sorry to say, and the writing is simply full of this.

Now, the inert setting can still work if there's a distinct and memorable consciousness looking out at it. Here, there isn't. The PC is a camera eye, and occasionally a hand that takes items and adds them to the inventory. All the emotion of the descriptive passages, as well as sounding overwrought to me, seems not to originate anywhere in the mind of the PC, but solely in the narrator.

The memories that come with each location are similar in style, though to be honest they're better written. They're disparate scenes between people or pieces of  and are probably supposed to provide a sort of  fractured narrative. Unfortunately, the writing stumbles into various sorts of quasi-philosophical ruminations that didn't really contain any narrative, so the back-story of this city will remain a mystery to me.

Finally, it was the sheer aimlessness of the experience that did me in. I realize I should've maybe kept a map, but really, it's not just the general spatial confusion, it's the lack of goals that I can't overcome. I managed to collect every item in the inventory, and the puzzles aren't really that, to be honest: the relevant "solve puzzle" buttons appear as soon as you have all prerequisites, and it's just a matter of arriving at the particular place.

Technically, there were a few hiccups, for example having to examine a certain door and find its hidden handle every time I came to it. (I chalk it up to a certain the text not accommodating itself flexibly to my progress, which I felt in a couple of other places too.) Also, white text on black background wouldn't be my reading preference, ever. After 40 minutes or so of reading my eyes started hurting.

Despite everything, I'm sure that the author has thought things out carefully enough to deliver a strong ending, when the player finally pieces together everything, and once you have the through-line, the story would merit rereading. But the pacing is so out of my rhythm, and the prose so out of my preference that I simply couldn't do it.

The Digital Antiquarian

MIT and GUE (or, The Annotated Lurking Horror)

by Jimmy Maher at October 07, 2015 12:00 PM


We have a fair number of games and events still to cover in the ongoing history of Infocom that’s been biting such a good-sized chunk out of this blog for so long, but the end is slowly heaving into sight. The same was also true, albeit in a less certain and more intuitive way, for those actually at Infocom at the time of The Lurking Horror‘s release. The winds of the industry were quite clearly blowing against them, and even if they could manage to eke out another hit or two it wasn’t at all clear how they could remake themselves to conform to the new order in the longer term. Meanwhile some of the Imps were beginning to wonder what the point of surviving as a developer of interactive fiction might be anyway. They knew how to make rock-solid text adventures in their traditional style, but they didn’t quite know how to advance beyond that. Given that they were unlikely to ever make a better game in that traditional style than Trinity, and that their players had proved unreceptive to their one attempt to radically upend the formula with A Mind Forever Voyaging, that was a problem. Infocom wasn’t populated by the sort of people who are comfortable just reworking the status quo year after year.

All of these feelings must have fed into David Lebling’s decision to set his game for 1987 at a lovingly recreated MIT, known as GUE Tech in the game. With commercial pressures threatening to crush an Infocom that had long since lost control of their own destiny and artistic ennui threatening to crush the Imps’ souls as well, it was nice to think back to the simpler days at MIT where it had all begun as just another hacking exercise, where that original mainframe Zork had represented for Lebling and his earliest co-Implementors something so inspiring and genuinely new under the sun. By way of honoring those feelings, I thought we could also take one last lingering look back along with Lebling today. I’d like to take you on a guided tour through The Lurking Horror‘s MIT… oops, GUE. If you haven’t played this one before, or if it’s been a while, feel free to play along with me. I won’t solve the puzzles for you — although a little nudge here and there may be in the cards — but I will tell you a bit more about what you’re seeing. For what follows I’m hugely indebted to Janice Eisen (MIT Class of 1985), a Patreon supporter who not only pays me for each of these articles but all but did my job for me when it came to this one by sharing her own experiences of life at MIT as it was then and presumably still is today. So, come along with Janice and me and let us tell you a little about the place where Infocom began.

Whether you’re playing along or not, the map found in the center of the GUE Tech brochure that accompanies The Lurking Horror is well worth referring to now and throughout this tour. It roughly corresponds to the heart of the real campus, albeit with some important differences that I’ll be explaining when we come to them. If you’re feeling particularly motivated, you may also want to pull up MIT’s official campus map for comparison purposes. To orient yourself, know that the Great Dome is found on Building 10 on that map.

G.U.E. map

We start our adventurous evening one dark and snowy winter night in GUE Tech’s so-called “Computer Center,” which corresponds to MIT’s Building 13 (an ominous start, no?).

Terminal Room
This is a large room crammed with computer terminals, small computers, and printers. An exit leads south. Banners, posters, and signs festoon the walls. Most of the tables are covered with waste paper, old pizza boxes, and empty Coke cans. There are usually a lot of people here, but tonight it's almost deserted.

A really whiz-bang pc is right inside the door.

Nearby is one of those ugly molded plastic chairs.

Sitting at a terminal is a hacker whom you recognize.

Know first of all that this is not the place where so many future Infocom staffers worked throughout the 1970s, and created Zork near the end of that decade. That work took place on the leased top floor of the nine-story Building 47. Standing some distance to the north of the campus core, Building 47 is described by Steven Levy in his seminal Hackers as “a building of mind-numbing dullness, with no protuberances and sill-less windows that looked painted onto its off-white surface.” It still looks about the same today, and houses MIT’s Center for Biomedical Engineering and Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies among other tenants. Building 13, meanwhile, is not and never has been earmarked as a computer center; it houses the Material Sciences and Engineering Center among others.

That said, the description of the place, unholy mess included, is very typical of the computer labs that were and are scattered all over the campus. The hacker who inhabits it alongside us is certainly worth a look.

>examine hacker
The hacker sits comfortably on an office chair facing a terminal table, or perhaps it's just a pile of old listings as tall as a terminal table. He is typing madly, using just two fingers, but achieves speeds that typists using all ten fingers only dream of. He is apparently debugging a large assembly language program, as the screen of his terminal looks like a spray of completely random characters. The hacker is dressed in blue jeans, an old work shirt, and what might once have been running shoes. Hanging from his belt is an enormous ring of keys. He is in need of a bath.

It’s instructive to compare this depiction of a prototypical hacker — i.e., practically Richard Stallman in the flesh — with Michael Bywater’s “horrible nerd” from Bureaucracy. Lebling, while certainly not blind to his character’s annoying eccentricities, also shows a knowing familiarity that borders on affection. Bywater… doesn’t. Particularly knowing on Lebling’s part is the hacker’s typing ability, or if you like the lack thereof. Hackers have always looked on proper ten-fingered typing as a sure sign that the person in question is not one of them.

Richard Stallman

Richard Stallman

I trust I’m not giving too much away if I mention that that “enormous ring of keys” will become a critical part of the game. Strange as it may sound, keys, the more exotic the better, are in fact a status symbol at MIT. Keys imply knowledge of and access to the labyrinthine tunnels and cubbyholes that riddle the campus. “Roof-and-tunnel hacking,” something we ourselves will be indulging in on this snowy night, has always been a popular pastime at MIT, tolerated if not officially condoned by the administration and campus police — tolerated not least thanks to the fact that, contrary to The Lurking Horror‘s GUE Tech brochure, no known deaths can be attributed to the practice. Janice told me the the story of joining a “very unofficial student-run tour of the roofs and tunnels” as a freshman. After making their way down a creepy old steam tunnel, they popped out through a grating in a sidewalk right in front of a campus policeman. “You’re not supposed to be in there! Go back the way you came!” he ordered, leaving them no choice but to scurry back down the tunnel. One can imagine a self-satisfied character like our hacker here leading just such a tour, flaunting his knowledge and his enormous ring of keys before the newbies.

The word “hack” itself originated at MIT, where it originally implied both campus explorations of the sort just described and the sort of clever and usually elaborate practical jokes in which MIT students, once again with the tacit acceptance of the campus police and administration, have always indulged. In time anything done in an original, clever, and/or cheeky way came to be called a “hack.” By the 1960s it was being applied to computing at MIT, to the burgeoning culture of unrepentant oddballs who spent their lives trying to make these strange new machines run better, faster, and smarter. As former MIT hackers got jobs in private business and accepted postings at other universities, the usage became universal.

But we do have an assignment to write, so let’s see what we’re up against.

>examine assignment
Laser printed on creamy bond paper, the assignment is due tomorrow. It's from your freshman course in "The Classics in the Modern Idiom," better known as "21.014." It reads, in part: "Twenty pages on modern analogues of Xenophon's 'Anabasis.'" You're not sure whether this refers to the movie "The Warriors" or "Alien," but this is the last assignment you need to complete in this course this term. You wonder, yet again, why a technical school requires you to endure this sort of stuff.

Many an MIT student over the years has doubtless wondered the same thing. Like all accredited American universities, MIT conforms to the “balanced person” ideal of education, which demands that each student take a smattering of humanities and other subjects outside her major during her first year or two at university. Derided as the requirement often is, I tend to feel we could use more balanced people in the world today. The collision between technology and the humanities at MIT in particular has yielded some fascinating results, such as Janet Murray’s Hamlet on the Holodeck and Nick Montfort’s work in many areas of computational creativity.

Buildings at MIT are, with only a few exceptions, referred to only by their numbers, and the same holds true for courses; thus the “better known” in the passage above is literally accurate. The prefix of “21” does indeed correspond to the Department of Humanities at MIT.

Let’s turn to that “really whiz-bang pc” and see if we can get to work.

>examine pc
This is a beyond-state-of-the-art personal computer. It has a 1024 by 1024 pixel color monitor, a mouse, an attached hard disk, and a local area network connection. Fortunately, one of its features is a prominent HELP key. It is currently turned off.

It’s a bit odd that The Lurking Horror refers to this machine as a PC at all; it’s obviously a workstation-class machine, generally considered a different species entirely from the more humble PC during the 1980s. Not only is this computer far beyond what would have been available to Lebling during his time at MIT, it’s also far beyond what the average student even in 1987 could hope to have at her disposal. It appears to represent a 3M workstation, a term first coined by Carnegie Mellon University professor Raj Reddy in the early 1980s. More of an aspiration than a practicality at that time, a 3M machine demanded at least 1 MB of memory, a display consisting of at least 1 million pixels, and a CPU capable of processing at least 1 million instructions per second. While a few such machines were available by 1987 and others were in the offing — after leaving Apple in 1985, Steve Jobs founded NeXT with this very specification in mind — very few were likely to be at the disposal of ordinary students looking to write Classics papers. Back in Lebling’s day, almost all of the work at the Laboratory for Computer Science was being done on text-only terminals — no mouse, no hard disk, no color, and for that matter no pixels that didn’t form textual characters — attached to a central DEC PDP-10. Indeed, this was largely the way that an increasingly anachronistic Infocom was still working in 1987. Nowadays, of course, a Raspberry Pi blows right past most of the 3M specification and just keeps on going for orders of magnitude afterward.

Let’s login, shall we?

>turn on pc
The computer powers up, goes through a remarkably fast self-check, and greets you, requesting "LOGIN PLEASE:". The only sound you hear is a very low hum.

>login [you'll have to figure this out for yourself]
The computer responds "PASSWORD PLEASE:"

>type [this too]
The computer responds "Good evening. You're here awfully late." It displays a list of pending tasks, one of which is in blinking red letters, with large arrows pointing to it. The task reads "Classics Paper," some particularly ominous words next to it say "DUE TOMORROW!" and more reassuringly, a menu box next to that reads "Edit Classics Paper."

>click menu box
The menu box is replaced by the YAK text editor and menu boxes listing the titles of your files. The one for your paper is highlighted in a rather urgent-looking shade of red.

The “YAK” text editor is an obvious reference to Richard Stallman’s GNU project, an attempt to create a completely free and open-source operating system that he began at MIT in 1983. One of the tools Stallman brought to the GNU project at its founding was his everything-but-the-kitchen-sink text editor Emacs, a great favorite with hackers to this day. After years of uncertain progress, the utilities developed by Stallman and others for GNU were merged with Linus Torvalds’s new Unix-like kernel in the early 1990s to create the operating system known as “Linux” today — or “GNU/Linux,” as Stallman would undoubtedly correct me. The first two letters in the name of The Lurking Horror‘s YAK editor were and are very common in hacker acronyms, standing for “Yet Another.” As for yet another what in this instance… your guess is as good as mine.

Stallman was at MIT throughout the 1970s, but he worked for the other half of MIT computer research’s split personality, the AI Laboratory rather than the Laboratory for Computer Science. (The names were of little relevance, with the latter often conducting AI research and the former often wandering far afield from it.) His path doesn’t seem to have crossed those of the future Infocom crowd with any great frequency, especially given that the Laboratory for Computer Science always had the reputation of being the more pragmatic and commercially oriented of the two groups. He would have held Infocom in contempt for attempting to market their innovations. Never one to hold back his opinions, Stallman liberally bestowed epithets like “fascist” on those who defied his “free as in freedom” hacker ethics by, say, trying to install a reasonably secure password system onto the campus computer systems.

I’ll leave it to you to read the paper, which turns out to be something very different than expected, and to talk with the hacker about it; be sure to appreciate the “explosion in a teletype factory” line, one of the best Lebling ever wrote. Afterward let’s have a look in the kitchen.

This is a filthy kitchen. The exit is to the east. On the wall near a counter are a refrigerator and a microwave.

Sitting on the kitchen counter is a package of Funny Bones.

>open refrigerator
Opening the refrigerator reveals a two liter bottle of Classic Coke and a cardboard carton.

>x carton
This is a cardboard carton with an incomprehensible symbol scrawled on the top.

>open carton
Opening the cardboard carton reveals Chinese food.

A joke among MIT hackers had it that the four basic food groups were caffeine, sugar, salt, and grease. What with caffeine and sugar getting pride of place even on that list, the infamous switch to the New Coke formula in 1985 hit them particularly hard. When the Coca-Cola Company bowed to popular demand and reintroduced the old formula as “Coke Classic” just a few months later, many hackers latched onto the theory, since disproved, that it was all a big conspiracy to switch out real sugar for high-fructose corn syrup in their favorite drink.

The connection between hacking and Chinese food is just as longstanding. A Chinese menu is a system of flavor combinations that’s infinitely intriguing to a certain kind of mind, and thus MIT hackers have been haunting Boston Chinatown since the late 1950s. Many bought Chinese-English dictionaries in order to translate the Chinese menus that were normally only given to Chinese patrons; these were always much more interesting than the safe choices reserved for English speakers. Yes, sometimes the results of the hackers’ culinary experiments could be vile, but other times they could be magnificent. In a sense it didn’t really matter. It was all just so interesting, yet another fascinating system to hack.

A favorite of the future Infocom staffers, as it was of many MIT hackers, was a place called The House of Roy, presided over by the inimitable Roy himself, whose sense of humor was surprisingly in sync with that of his favorite non-Chinese patrons. I love this anecdote from a regular customer:

We asked for tea and Roy (we think this was the family name) told Suford she would be allowed to go into the kitchen and make it for us. When she returned she informed us that the kitchen was ruled over by a large tom cat. (“Did you pet him?” “No, he was on duty.”) When we queried the owner his response was that the cat kept down vermin and was safer than chemicals. We asked about the Health Inspector and were told “cat cleaner than Health Inspector.”

Roy had only recently died at the time that The Lurking Horror was written, his beloved restaurant closed. Lebling pays tribute to this lost and lamented MIT institution by including it as the only nonfictional “Favorite Hangout” in his GUE Tech brochure.

If we put the Chinese food in the microwave for far too long — don’t try this at home without saving first! — we get an interesting description when we look at it again.

>x chinese food
This is a carton of radioactive Szechuan shrimp. Lovely red peppers poke out of the sauce.

The association of microwaves with nuclear bombs, and particularly the now ubiquitous slang to “nuke” one’s food, would appear to be another MITism that has entered the larger culture. Janice remembers hearing the slang during her time there as an undergraduate in the early 1980s, yet online etymologies claim its first documented use dates from 1987, the very year of The Lurking Horror.

At this point I’ll leave you to do something for the hacker and get something from him in return. Once you’ve taken care of that, let’s head for the elevator to begin to explore the rest of the campus.

This is a battered, rather dirty elevator. The fake wood walls are scratched and marred with graffiti. The elevator doors are open. To the right of the doors is an area with floor buttons (B and 1 through 3), an open button, a close button, a stop switch, and an alarm button. Below these is an access panel which is closed.

>x graffiti
"'God is dead' --Nietzsche
'Nietzsche is dead' --God"

The elevator doors slide closed.

"Tech is hell."


The nickname of simply “Tech” in reference to MIT is like many traditions there in that it goes back one hell of a long way. Between its founding in Boston in 1861 and its move across the Charles River to Cambridge in 1916, MIT was more commonly referred to as “Boston Tech” than by its official name. In student parlance part of the nickname stuck around even after the move.

“I.H.T.F.P” is another phrase with which all too many students are casually familiar. Sometimes described as the university’s unofficial motto, it stands for “I hate this fucking place.” Much as so many come to cherish their time at the university, the graffiti highlights a fact that can often get lost amid descriptions of all of the assorted traditions and tomfoolery (often one and the same) that go on at MIT: the fact that it is indeed, as Infocom’s GUE Tech brochure says, “a high-pressure school.” In fact, it’s the most demanding STEM university in the world. For decades there have been dark jokes among the student population about suicide, along with suspicions that the actual suicide rate is not being accurately reported. How’s that for a spot of horror?

Let’s take the elevator down a floor — be sure to check out that access panel first! — and then head out to the street.

You enter the freezing, biting cold of the blizzard.

Smith Street
Smith Street runs east and west along the north side of the main campus area. At the moment, it is an arctic wasteland of howling wind and drifting snow. On the other side of the street, barely visible, are the lidless eyes of streetlights. The street hasn't been plowed, or if it has been, it did no good.

Massachusetts winters can be every bit as brutal as the one described here; they’re as much a fixture of life at MIT as any other tradition. As for the streets themselves: MIT’s Vassar Street is slyly replaced here by Smith Street, Smith being another of the “Seven Sisters” of prestigious, historically female liberal-arts colleges. Just down Smith Street to the east is an innocuous-looking “temporary building” with one hell of a story to tell.

You push your way into the comparative warmth of a laboratory.

It is pitch black.

>turn on flashlight
The flashlight clicks on.

Temporary Lab
This is a laboratory of some sort. It takes up most of the building on this level, all the interior walls having been knocked down. (One reason these temporary buildings are still here is their flexibility: no one cares if they get more or less destroyed.) A stairway leads down, and a door leads north.

There is a metal flask here.

>get flask

Temporary Basement
During the Second World War, some temporary buildings were built to house war-related research. Naturally, these buildings, though flimsy and ugly, are still around. This is the basement of one of them. The basement extends west, a stairway leads up, and a large passage is to the east.

This rattletrap of a structure corresponds to the real MIT’s now long-gone Building 20, one of the most storied places on the campus. It was built quickly and cheaply in 1943 to house vital wartime research into radar. The expectation was that it would be destroyed as soon as the war was over. But, with postwar attendance booming thanks to the G.I. Bill and research space at a premium, no one quite got around to it for more than fifty years. Building 20 was a famously ramshackle place, showing ample evidence of its cheap and rushed construction. Walls were made of exposed plywood; ceilings were hidden above a tangle of pipes and wiring; floors were treacherously uneven; the roof leaked; windows never really fit right, and had a disconcerting habit of falling off entirely; the whole structure creaked alarmingly in the winds that blew right through its interior. It was sweltering in the summer and freezing in the winter, and coated with a litigator’s wet dream worth of asbestos and lead-based paint. Yet the people who worked inside it loved the place, dubbing it their “plywood palace.”

Building 20

Building 20 would be of great historical importance were it only for the World War II research that went on there. Research into radar was funded almost as lavishly as the Manhattan Project, and was even more important for actually winning the war; “Radar won the war, and the atom bomb ended it,” goes the old saying. Much of that war-winning effort was centered right here.

But that was only the beginning. In later years countless other groups moved in and out of Building 20, doing important research into physics (an early atomic accelerator was built here, as was the world’s first atomic clock); linguistics (Noam Chomsky worked here for many years); neurology (Jerome Lettvin’s pioneering experiments on the relationship between the eyes and brains of frogs took place here); acoustics (Amar Bose, founder of Bose Corporation, worked here). Researchers loved Building 20 precisely because it was such a dump. They could feel free to drill holes in walls for cables — or knock them down entirely for that matter — and do plenty of other things that would require reams of paperwork and several safety reviews and months of bureaucratic wrangling to do anywhere else.

Most fascinating of all for our purposes, Building 20 is also Ground Zero for hacker culture. During the late 1950s it was the home of the Tech Model Railroad Club, about half of which consisted of typical train enthusiasts and half of which were there for the intrinsic interest of the plumbing, so to speak: all those wires and switches and diodes found underneath the big tables that supported the track layout. Much of the vocabulary they developed remains with us to the present day: a bad design was “losing”; a broken piece was “munged” (“mashed until no good”); unnecessary extra pieces were “cruft”; and, yes, a “hack” was a particularly clever technical feat, and “hacking” was… you get the idea. This diction and, even more importantly, the way of thinking behind it was transferred into a new field when a former TMRC member and current MIT professor invited some members to have a go at a new toy: a home-built something called the TX-0, one of the first transistorized computers and one of the first designed to be programmed and operated interactively rather than functioning as essentially a huge static calculating and collating machine. Several of the men who had helped design it went on to form Digital Equipment Corporation, donating the very first complete prototype computer they ever made, of their debut PDP-1 model, to MIT for more TMRC alumni to swarm over. Thus cemented, the links among DEC, MIT, and hacker culture persisted through the heyday of the original PDP-10 Zork and on into the 1980s. Infocom’s own aging PDP-10, on which The Lurking Horror itself was written, was just one more testament to the durability of those links.

Building 20 was demolished at last in 1999 to make room for the Stata Center, a massive slab of postmodern architecture, sort of a 21st-century Sagrada Família, that was opened in 2004. In the tradition of its predecessor, the Stata Center has been plagued by leaks, plumbing problems, and structural failures since its opening. Perhaps a ghost or two lives on?

The Lurking Horror departs from reality in giving its version of Building 20 a basement and an underground connection to the central buildings of the campus. In the game’s defense, visitors to Building 20 often remarked that the ground floor was so dank and dark that it felt like a basement. For reasons that have been lost to history, MIT chose to label that ground floor, normally Floor 1 in the university’s nomenclature, as Floor 0, as if it was indeed a basement. Just after the building was demolished in 1999, a student hack stuck an elevator in the midst of the rubble leading to a “previously hidden” subbasement stretching five stories below ground-level, presumably home of some top-secret and quite possibly nefarious government research. Aliens, anyone? These days the joke is that Building 20 is actually still standing, but hidden behind an invisibility field — perhaps a gift of those same aliens?

At some point you’ll meet an urchin skulking about down here in the basement.

>x urchin
This is an urchin. He's a youngish teenager wearing a ski hat, running shoes, and a bulky, suspiciously bumpy, threadbare parka. He's jumpy, and looks suspiciously at you.

I’m going to spoil things just to the extent of telling you that what he’s carrying beneath his parka is a pair of bolt cutters. It appears that this fellow is a bicycle thief, a consistent plague on the MIT campus since time immemorial. Kids like this one who hang about, usually for shady purposes, are indeed known as “urchins” in student parlance. When their crimes get particularly blatant, “urchin alerts” are sent out to the affected areas to warn students and faculty to keep a close eye on their valuables.

At this point you’ll likely want to do something about those old pallets off to the east and then do a bit of exploring in that direction. When you’re ready, let’s go all the way west and down the stairs to the subbasement, and then squeeze northwest through the crack.

This is a tiny, narrow, ill-fitting room. It appears to have been a left over space from the joining of two preexisting buildings. It is roughly coffin shaped. The walls are covered by decades of overlaid graffiti, but there is one which is painted in huge fluorescent letters that were apparently impossible for later artists to completely deface. On the floor is a rusty access hatch locked with a huge padlock.

>read graffiti
It reads "The Tomb of the Unknown Tool."

The Tomb of the Unknown Tool is a real place at MIT, and another semi-legendary one at that. Legend has it that long ago there was an MIT student who was trying to study — to “tool” in student parlance; similarly, the noun “tool” is a dismissive term for a good, conventionally diligent student — but couldn’t because of all the loud parties in his dorm. So he found a little cubbyhole far underground, filled with heating and air-conditioning pipes and ducts, and made it his home, eating there, sleeping there, and most of all tooling there in peace. The unknown tool himself was long gone even by the time Lebling first arrived at MIT in the late 1960s, but his legend lives on. Always an early destination of aspiring roof-and-tunnel hackers, the real Tomb is situated in roughly the same location as the one that’s found in the game. And its walls are indeed covered with graffiti left behind by the many who have visited.

Tomb of the Unknown Tool

The Lurking Horror is actually not the first game in which Lebling referred to the Tomb of the Unknown Tool. The original PDP-10 Zork includes a “Tomb of the Unknown Implementors,” with graffiti of its own that says to “Feel Free!”

In that spirit, feel free to go through the hatch here and explore even deeper. When you’re ready, let’s go southeast from the Tomb, up twice, south to the Infinite Corridor (which we’ll come back to in just a moment), and finally west into the great outdoors again.

Mass. Ave.
This is the main entrance to the campus buildings. Blinding snow obscures the stately Grecian columns and rounded dome to the east. You can barely make out the inscription on the pediment (which reads "George Vnderwood Edwards, Fovnder; P. David Lebling, Architect"). West across Massachusetts Avenue are other buildings, but you can't see them.

The Rogers Building

We’re now standing at the front door to MIT. The address of the imposing building that stands here, 77 Massachusetts Avenue, is the official address of the institution as a whole. Erected in 1939, the Rogers Building (Building 7) gets its name from that of MIT’s founder, William Barton Rogers. It also bears his name on its pediment, although no “Architect” is credited.

Massachusetts Avenue is the only MIT street name that remains unaltered in the game. That it shows up in abbreviated form as the location name is not accidental; it’s universally pronounced “Mass. Ave” by students.

But it’s cold out here, no? Let’s go back inside.

Infinite Corridor
The so-called infinite corridor runs from east to west in the main campus building. This is the west end. Side corridors lead north and south, and a set of doors leads west into the howling blizzard.

There is a plastic container here.

There is a largish machine being operated down the hall to the east.

The Infinite Corridor during MIThenge.

The Infinite Corridor during MIThenge.

The Infinite Corridor is another source of much MIT lore. It’s the longest university corridor in the world, stretching east from the Rogers Building under the Great Dome and across the pre-World War II heart of the campus to Building 8 — a distance of 825 feet. One of the most celebrated events at MIT is the so-called “MIThenge,” when twice per year the sun shines just perfectly into the corridor to illuminate it down its entire length. If all that wasn’t enough to ensure the Infinite Corridor’s notoriety, many fondly remembered hacks have also taken place here. A popular theme for decades had been to deck out the Corridor like a highway of one sort or another, often complete with lane markings, road signs, and billboards.

>get container

>x container
It's a plain plastic container with something written on it. The plastic container is closed.

>read container
"Frobozz Magic Floor Wax (and Dessert Topping)"

The joke above isn’t quite original, and for once it’s not an MIT-specific in-joke. It harks back to a classic skit from the very first season of Saturday Night Live, in which Gilda Radner, Dan Aykroyd, and Chevy Chase bond over Shimmer, a floor wax and dessert topping. One can imagine Lebling laughing at this around the same time he was working on Maze War at MIT, the world’s first networked multiplayer first-person shooter which he helped create almost two decades before Doom.

Moving down the Infinite Corridor to the east, we come upon a maintenance man.

A maintenance man is here, riding a floor waxer.

The maintenance man’s presence is a very subtle shade of in-joke. MIT’s housekeeping and custodial staff tended to do their work in the middle of the night, when the campus was largely deserted. Hackers like Lebling and company, however, tended to keep exactly same sorts of odd hours, another tradition that stretched all the way back to the days of the TX-0; “legitimate” users always kept that machine booked during the day, leaving it available only during the nighttime for the likes of the Tech Model Railroad Club. Hackers were often the only students that the janitors and housekeepers ever actually encountered, and some surprising and kind of sweet friendships formed thanks to the forced proximity between these very different walks of life.

This particular maintenance man, however, definitely doesn’t want to be our friend. I recommend that you deal with him now, if you can. If you’ve been dutifully gathering up the stuff you come across, you should have everything you need. I’m going to go south from the center of the Infinite Corridor, but you don’t want to follow me to where I go next unless you save first because the door will lock behind us, and for once our master key won’t open it (a rather pointless bit of cruelty on the whole, although to his credit Lebling does warn us).

Great Court
In the spring and summer, this cheery green court is a haven from classwork. Right now, the majestic buildings of the main campus are almost invisible in the howling blizzard. A locked door bars your way to the north.

We’re standing now at the center of the original 1916 Cambridge campus, designed by architect William Welles Bosworth. This court was also known as the Great Court at the real MIT until 1974, when it was renamed Killian Court after former MIT president James Rhyne Killian. Despite the rechristening, the old name stuck around for a long time, especially among folks like Lebling who were here before the change. MIT architecture in general is noted for its complete disharmony, a riot of mismatched buildings that seems to include at least one example of every American architectural school of the last century along with plenty of bland beige buildings with no discernible style at all. This original part of the campus, however, is coolly neoclassical, the lushly manicured central court bordered by trees, the buildings on either side forming arms that seem to bid the world to enter, much like St. Peter’s Basilica. It’s here, the only really bucolic place on campus, that commencement ceremonies are held every year.

Killian Court

Back inside — and assuming you’ve dealt with the janitor — let’s go up, up, up, all the way to the very tiptop of the Great Dome. You’ll need to solve a puzzle or two to manage it, but I’m sure you’re up to it.

You scramble up icy surface of the dome, almost slipping a few times, but finally you make it to the top.

On the Great Dome
This is the very top of the Great Dome, a favorite place for Tech fraternities to install cows, Volkswagen Beetles, giant birthday candles, and other bizarre objects. The top is flat, round, and about five feet in diameter. It's very windy, which has kept the snow from accumulating here. The only way off is down.

In the exact center of the flat area is a bronze plug.

Bitter, bone-cracking cold assaults you continuously. The temperature and the blizzard conditions are both horrible.

Despite interlopers like the Stata Center, the Great Dome, referred to affectionately by students as “the center of the universe,” still stands as the most enduring architectural image of MIT. As the game has made evident, just getting up here at all is a major feat of roof-and-tunnel hacking. For the even more ambitious, it’s also the ultimate location for an MIT hack (in the practical-joking sense, that is). Over the years a police cruiser, an Apollo Lunar Module, a Doctor Who phone box, a self-propelled solar-powered subway car, and a living cow have all appeared up here. The Great Dome has been coated with tin foil and has been turned into R2-D2, Tolkien’s One Ring, a giant cupcake, and a Halloween pumpkin, while the lights that illuminate it at night seem to change color constantly to celebrate one occasion or another. One of the earliest and most legendary of the Great Dome hacks occurred in 1959, when a complete working Volkswagen was torn down, carted up to the Dome, and reassembled there in the course of one long night.

A fire engine perches on the Great Dome.

A fire engine perches on the Great Dome.

After you’ve investigated thoroughly up here, let’s get back to ground level and go east to the end of the Infinite Corridor. Going north, we pass through the Nutrition Department.

Fruits and Nuts
This is the central corridor of the Nutrition Building. The main building is south, and a stairway leads down.

The MIT Nutrition Department is indeed referred to with a certain contempt as “Fruits and Nuts” by hackers. (Think back to those four basic food groups…)

Going down the stairs here and then southeast takes us to the basement of the Brown Building. Let’s go up to the lobby and outside again.

Brown Building
This is the lobby of the Brown Building, an eighteen-story skyscraper which houses the Meteorology Department and other outposts of the Earth Sciences. The elevator is out of order, but a long stairway leads up to the roof, and another leads down to the basement. A revolving door leads out into the night.

You enter the freezing, biting cold of the blizzard.

Small Courtyard
This courtyard is a triumph of modern architecture. It is spare, cold, angular, overwhelming in size, and bears a striking resemblance to a wind tunnel whenever the breeze picks up. Right now this is true of the whole campus, though. A huge mass lurks nearby, and an almost featureless skyscraper is to the north.

>x mass
You see nothing special about it.

Bitter, bone-cracking cold assaults you continuously. The temperature and the blizzard conditions are both horrible.

Green Building

GUE’s Brown Building stands in for the real MIT’s Green Building, which is even taller, a full 21 stories and almost 300 feet. Built in 1964, it’s yet another architectural outlier in this campus full of outliers, not only the only structure of its kind at MIT but also the only one in Cambridge; no other building there comes close to its height. As such a blatant violation of MIT and Cambridge’s normal philosophy of “horizontal continuity,” its construction was greeted with considerable controversy, not to mention outrageous rumors about the methods used to circumvent Cambridge’s normal building laws. The first tenants found that its height and proximity to the rest of the campus created a sort of artificial wind tunnel, the breeze coming off the Charles River getting so amplified that on blustery days it was impossible to even open the doors. Luckily, there were also connecting tunnels (like the one we just came through) leading to other buildings, preventing a change in the weather from trapping people inside. The original doors were eventually replaced with revolving doors. These largely alleviated one problem, but, as the description from the game relates, the courtyard remains a remarkably unpleasant place, particularly in winter.

Not really one of MIT’s more beloved buildings for all of these reasons, the Green Building’s height and general prominence on campus have nevertheless made it a target for hacks to rival the popularity of the Great Dome. For almost as long as the Green Building has existed, it’s been a Halloween tradition to throw dozens or hundreds of pumpkins down from its roof. In 1974, a professor and some of his students launched a concerted effort to operate the world’s largest yo-yo from the roof of the building, but for once this ambitious hack never quite worked out. Since the advent of cheap LED lighting, the Green Building has taken on a new role as a massive billboard telling the world what MIT students are thinking about at any given time. In 2012, students made the national news by turning it into the world’s biggest game of Tetris, inviting passersby to have a go for all of Cambridge to see. (No pressure!)

The Big Sail

The undefined “huge mass” that Lebling describes is a sly dig at another polarizing structure that sits before the Green Building, Alexander Calder’s monumental slab of modernist sculpture The Big Sail. When it was erected just a year after the Green Building itself, conventional wisdom had it that its primary purpose was to alleviate the wind-tunnel effect. But campus officials insisted that, no, this… whatever it is… exists only for aesthetic purposes. Oh, well… what better spot for a Big Sail than a wind tunnel? It does look a bit like one of Lovecraft’s horrid winged creatures might, at least if you squint just right, so I suppose it makes a good fit for the game.

The Green Building really does house, among other departments, many of MIT’s Meteorology and Earth Science facilities. In that respect its controversial height has been a blessing: the roof supports much meteorological and radio equipment used in various experiments. Let’s head inside and up there now.

Top Floor
This is the top of the stairway. A door leads out to the roof here, and you can hear the wind blowing beyond. There is a sign on the door.

>read sign
It says "NO ADMITTANCE!" In smaller, hand-written letters below, it says "This means you!" and below that in different handwriting, it says "Who, me?"

>unlock door with key
The door is now unlocked.

>open door
You push the door open, revealing a windswept, snow-covered roof. Frigid wind whips snow into your face.

When Dave Lebling was at MIT, he used to make his way out to the roof of the Green Building through a fire door that was much like this one. Its sign read, “Positively No Admittance, Opening Door Sounds Alarm.” The first student to trepidatiously push it open found that it did no such thing, and thus was yet another interesting space opened for exploration.

Let’s head onward, shall we?

You enter the freezing, biting cold of the blizzard.

Skyscraper Roof
A low parapet surrounds a small roof here. The air conditioning cooling tower and the small protrusion containing the stairs are dwarfed by a semitransparent dome which towers above you. The blowing snow obscures all detail of the city across the river to the south.

>x dome
The dome is large and semitransparent. It's made of some sort of milky-colored plastic. It dominates the roof. You can climb up to the entrance via a short ladder.

Bitter, bone-cracking cold assaults you continuously. The temperature and the blizzard conditions are both horrible.

You push your way into the welcoming warmth inside.

Inside Dome
You are inside a large domed area. The dome contains equipment that makes it clear it is a weather observation station. For some reason, it also contains a small peach tree. Wind whistles outside, and snow blasts against the semitransparent material of the dome.

Something smashes against the glass of the dome! You turn and see a dark shape clinging to the outside of the structure.

As you can see from the picture of the real Green Building, its roof supports a large dome much like this one, full of meteorological equipment, albeit one that is opaque rather than transparent. Lebling insists, however, that there was once another dome that was semi-transparent like this one. Further, he insists that there really was a tree inside said dome, although he’s not sure that it was actually a peach tree. No one he asked seemed to have any idea who put it there or what its purpose was. Mysteries like this aren’t particularly unusual at MIT. Incomprehensible equipment from one esoteric research project or another positively litters the campus, often stashed in the very out-of-the-way corners that make roof-and-tunnel hacking so enticing.

Given that, why not a burgeoning temple to an eldritch god as well? Let’s head for the last stop on our tour, The Department of Alchemy — as soon as you’ve investigated the dome thoroughly and dealt with that inconvenient monster, that is. Afterward, you want to go back down to the basement, up into Building 8, and south from the eastern end of the Infinite Corridor.

Chemistry Building
This corridor is lined with closed, dark offices. At the south end of the corridor is a door with a light shining behind it. There is something written on the door.

>read door
Painted on the door, in calligraphy indistinguishable from any other door at Tech, is the phrase "Department of Alchemy." You always used to wonder what was behind that door.

Department of Alchemy door

As was the case with the Tomb of the Unknown Tool, you may be surprised to learn that the Department of Alchemy is a real place at MIT — or, at any rate, that this Department of Alchemy door is real. Like in the game, it’s inside the Department of Chemistry, an example of a hack dating back many decades that was just too good to ever unhack. And, again like in the game, the real door conceals a laboratory. But the people inside do not attempt to summon blasphemous creations from the Beyond, at least as far as anyone knows.

Inside the door you’ll find a tricky — and very dangerous! — sequence awaiting you. You definitely want to save before this one, as you’re probably about to get sacrificed a few times before you get it all sorted. When you do (get it all sorted, that is), you’ll have a class ring at your disposal.

>x hyrax
The G.U.E. Tech class ring is a gold ring depicting a hyrax eating a twig. Such rings are familiarly known as "brass hyraxes."

MIT class ring

The actual MIT class ring shows, for some reason, an alleged beaver eating a twig. But it looks more like a rat, and is thus commonly referred to as a “brass rat.”

And at this point we’ve largely seen the sights in The Lurking Horror that relate back to MIT. But there’s still lots of puzzles to solve and a blasphemous evil to defeat, so I’ll leave you to it. Remember the four basic food groups — particularly the first — when you get tired, and remember that Hollywood Hijinx isn’t the only Infocom game that evinces a certain fascination with elevators. I hope you’ve enjoyed this little tour. If you have, I’m pretty sure there are a couple of virtual tip jars around here if your scroll to the top and look to the right. Good luck!

(If you’d like all of these annotations and more in a succinct form, feel free to download the gloss of the game that Janice Eisen so kindly prepared for me. This document was the basis for much of what I’ve written above. The Lurking Horror itself is available for purchase along with most of the other Infocom games as part of an iOS app.)


Doug's World

Why review?

by Doug Egan ( at October 07, 2015 10:13 AM

A running theme in several IF comp blogs currently is a discussion of why and how people review interactive fiction.  We haven't quite come to a point of seeing reviews of individual reviewers, but since this is a community that enjoys writing and giving feedback (a community which is overall very good at those things) it wouldn't surprise me to read even more meta-analysis of meta-analyzers in the future.

These are blogs of note I've read on the topic of reviewing interactive fiction.

Wade challenges IF comp bloggers to articulate their motives.  He points out that mis-matched adgendas (between authors and reviewers) can lead to miscommunication and hurt feelings.  That's a great challenge Wade presents, but an embarrassing one, because it starts out by admitting that a core motivation for bloggers of all topics is narcissism.  I think I'm super-clever and I want other people to read me.  I could, after all, keep my writings private, or email my more constructive comments directly to the author.

Racing past that embarrassing truth to the more noble goals of writing.  I've written two works of IF (remarkably, both published in the same year).  I really enjoyed reading the reviews that my beta testers sent me, and later reviews shared publicly during the competition.  I even enjoyed the bad reviews.  I appreciated the feedback, and I liked knowing that someone who had played my game was interested enough to write about it.  That's one reason I review.  To pay respect to the authors.

I don't write just to announce "this is what score I'm giving to this game".  In most cases I don't post a number.  I don't want the author of a game to fixate on that number and overlook the specific feedback I've given.  I don't ever want to eviscerate an author just for sport, but I do sometimes post reviews of games I didn't overall enjoy.

I write for future authors as much as current ones, to share my philosophy of game design.  Prior to publishing my first game(s), I had already been reading for years, so even on my first game I knew what to expect.  The Spring Thing and IF comp do not have to be (should not be) a testing ground to discover what other players like and what they find irritating.  I hope that my reviews can help some future author avoid common traps.  I suspect that some authors don't care if their games will be popular (again, those mis-matched agendas).  I write for authors who want their games to be well received by a majority.

I write for people who have already played a game, so we can compare thoughts.  I don't write so much for people who haven't yet played the game, because my reviews contain spoilers.

Thanks to Wade for inspiring this self reflection.