Planet Interactive Fiction

May 06, 2016

The Digital Antiquarian

Corrupted Fish

by Jimmy Maher at May 06, 2016 07:00 AM

Anita Sinclair’s original vision for her company Magnetic Scrolls cast it as Britain’s answer to Infocom, pumping out multiple finely crafted traditional text adventures each year — albeit text adventures with the commercially critical addition of attractive illustrations. As 1988 began, Magnetic Scrolls had barely begun to execute on that vision, having released just three games. But the times were changing and the text-adventure market clearly softening, and those realities were already beginning to interfere with her plans. Already by the beginning of the year, Magnetic Scrolls was underway with by far their most ambitious project to date, a radical overhauling of the traditional old parser-driven text adventure that was to gild the plain-text lily with not just pictures but clickable hot spots on said pictures, sound and music, animation, clickable iconic representations of the game’s map and the player’s inventory, a clickable compass rose, a menu of verbs, and much, much more, all tied together with an in-house-written system of windows and menus — “Magnetic Windows” — borrowing heavily from the Macintosh. Lurking almost forgotten below all the bells and whistles would be a game called Wonderland, an adaptation of Lewis Carrol.

We’ll get to Wonderland, released at last only in 1990, in due course. Today, though, I’d like to look at the twin swan songs of Anita Sinclair’s earlier vision for Magnetic Scrolls, both of which were already in the pipeline at the time the Wonderland project was begun and both of which were released in 1988.

Corruption

Corruption, the first of the pair, was the brainchild and personal pet project of Rob Steggles, designer in the broad strokes of Magnetic Scrolls’s earlier The Pawn and Guild of Thieves. Having worked with Magnetic Scrolls strictly on an occasional, ad-hoc basis heretofore, Steggles finished university after the spring semester of 1987 and called Anita Sinclair to ask for a job reference. Instead, she asked if he’d like to come work for Magnetic Scrolls full-time. Once arrived, Steggles convinced her to let him pursue a project very different from anything Magnetic Scrolls had done to date: a realistic, topical thriller set in the present day and inspired by Infocom’s early trilogy of mysteries. She agreed, and Hugh Steers, another of Magnetic Scrolls’s founders, came to work with Steggles as programmer on the project. Largely the creative vision of Steggles alone, Corruption represents a departure from the norm at Magnetic Scrolls, whose games, much more so than those of Infocom, tended to be collaborative efforts rather than works easily attributable to a single author.

Whether accidentally or on purpose, Steggles captured the zeitgeist in a bottle. This being the height of Margaret Thatcher’s remade and remodeled, hyper-capitalistic Britain, he chose to set his thriller amid the sharks of high finance inside The City of London. He had enough access to that world to give his game a certain lived-in verisimilitude, thanks to friends who worked in banks and a father who went to work every day in the heart of the financial district as an executive for British Telecom. Steggles nosed around inside buildings, chatted with traders, and pored over the Insider Trading Act to get the details right.

In December of 1987, the film Wall Street, with the immortal Gordon Gecko of “greed is good!” fame, debuted in the United States. It appeared in Britain five months later, corresponding almost exactly with the release of Corruption. Magnetic Scrolls couldn’t have planned it better if they’d tried. Today, Corruption is one of the relatively few computer games to viscerally evoke the time and place of its creation — a time and place of BMWs and Porches, lunchtime deal-brokering at the latest trendy restaurant, synth-pop on the CD player, cocaine bumps in stolen bathroom moments.

In Corruption, you play a young City up-and-comer named Derek Rogers. You’ve just been promoted to partner in your firm for — you believe — your hard work in landing an important deal. In the course of the game, however, you learn that the whole thing is an elaborate conspiracy to frame you for the illegal insider trading for which another partner and his cronies are being investigated. The ranks of the conspirators include not only the head of the firm and many of his associates but even your own wife, who happens to be having an affair with the aforementioned head. Revolving as it does around betrayal and adultery, with drugs thrown in to boot, Corruption is certainly the most “adult” game Magnetic Scrolls would ever make. Steggles says that it was written in a conscious attempt to address an “older” audience — a bit of a reach for him, given that he himself was barely into his twenties.

Corruption acquits itself pretty well in some ways, remarkably so really given its author’s youth and inexperience. The atmosphere of cutthroat high finance comes across more often than not, and the grand conspiracy arrayed against you, improbable though it may be, is no more improbable than those found in a thousand Hollywood productions, among them Wall Street. A crucial feelie is a conversation on an included cassette, professionally produced by Magnetic Scrolls’s resident music specialist John Molloy and scripted by Michael Bywater, still a regular presence around the offices. Like much in Corruption, it’s very well done.

Drawn by Alan Hunnisett and Richard Selby rather than Geoff Quilley, Corruption's pictures look a little drab in comparison to Magnetic Scrolls's fantasy games.

Drawn by Alan Hunnisett and Richard Selby rather than Geoff Quilley, Corruption‘s pictures look a little dark and drab in comparison to Magnetic Scrolls’s fantasy games — but maybe that’s the right choice for this milieu.

Unfortunately, as a piece of game design Corruption falls down badly. Unsurprisingly given that it was inspired by the Infocom mysteries, Corruption is a try-and-try-again game, the process of solving it a process of mapping out the movements of the characters around you and learning through trial and error where to be when and what to do there to avoid their traps and crack the case. But it just doesn’t work all that well even on those polarizing terms. The Infocom mysteries, for all that they rely heavily on what would be attributed to coincidence and luck in a conventional detective novel, do hang together as coherent fictions once the winning path through the story is discovered. Corruption doesn’t. Whereas the Infocom mysteries all cast you as a detective charged with investigating a crime that has already taken place, in Corruption you start as just a happy bloke who’s gotten a big promotion. On the basis of no evidence whatsoever, you have to start following your associates around, stealing keys and breaking into their offices and cars, laying traps for your dearly beloved wife, all of which does rather raise the question of who’s the real sociopath here. Worse, some of the actions required to win the game simply make no sense whatsoever, not even in the context of you being the most suspicious, paranoid, and devious person in an office full of them. At just the right point, for instance, you have to deliberately walk out into traffic so as to get hit by a car and wind up in the hospital. Why? Because a later puzzle — a puzzle your character couldn’t possibly anticipate — demands that you have something you can only find — or, rather, steal — in the hospital. So, in addition to being a suspicious and devious jerk with a death wish, old Derek Rogers needs to also be a hopeless kleptomaniac. Or is he just a paranoid schizophrenic? I don’t know; you can diagnose him for yourself.

Corruption is one of those games that I wonder how anyone ever solves without benefit of hints or walkthroughs. In addition to all the problems of timing, some of the individual puzzles are really, really bad. The hospital sequence in particular is a notorious showstopper, its purpose for being in the game as tough to divine as the right way to come out of it. Conversations are a more constant pain; you never know when you’re supposed to tell someone about something, nor, given the parser’s limitations, quite how to say it.

In an interview, Steggles made a statement I continue to find flabbergasting every time I read it. Speaking of Corruption‘s try-and-try-again mode of play, he said, “Believe it or not, it wasn’t a deliberate choice to do it that way and I think that if someone had made that comment about it during development we’d have stopped it because it wasn’t really ‘fair’ on the player.” But really, how could he not know what sort of game he was creating, given that he was inspired by the Infocom mysteries that offered exactly this approach to play? Still, let’s take his words at face value. Not initially realizing what sort of game he was creating — and how hard that game would inevitably turn out to be — speaks to an inexperienced designer whose ideas outran his critical thinking; we can forgive that as a venal sin. But for Magnetic Scrolls not to have arranged for him to have the feedback he needed to know of his game’s failings and correct them… that sin is mortal. It speaks to yet another adventure game released without anyone having ever really tried to play it.

There are signs that some at Magnetic Scrolls knew Corruption wasn’t quite up to snuff. Anita Sinclair came very close to actively discouraging Magnetic Scrolls’s fans from buying the game: “It doesn’t follow that if you enjoyed Jinxter, or even Guild [of Thieves], you will enjoy Corruption.” Corruption, she said, would likely have “limited appeal.”

She would be able to muster much more enthusiasm for Magnetic Scrolls’s second game of 1988. And for good reason: it’s a gem, my personal favorite in their catalog.

Fish!

The game in question is called Fish!, and is the product of an unlikely collaboration involving a musician, a journalist, and a civil servant: John Molloy, Phil South, and Pete Kemp respectively. One day on a long bus ride, good friends Molloy and South were riffing on some of the absurdly difficult and unfair adventure games that were so typical of those days. The discussion proceeded to encompass satirical ideas about possible new scenarios for same. “What if you started the game as a goldfish and you had to save the world?” asked one of them at some point (neither can quite remember which). Thus was born Fish!.

Molloy, who had been doing music for Magnetic Scrolls for a couple of years by then and in addition to being a working musician wasn’t a bad programmer, was attracted to the idea of seeing how the other half lived, of designing and helping to implement a complete game of his own. As Phil South succinctly describes it, “He pitched it to Magnetic Scrolls, they went nuts.” Kemp, another good mate of Molloy’s, joined after the latter gave him a pitch he also couldn’t refuse: “A bit of fun, a bit of money, and everlasting obscurity.”

South and Kemp were soon introduced to the intimidating cast of eccentrics that was Magnetic Scrolls. South:

I remember Magnetic Scrolls being in a rather grimy and unsavoury Victorian suburb of South London and having to brave the trains late at night to get there. I remember Anita being small but scary, and possessing a wisdom far beyond her years. She terrifies the crap out of men twice her size just by looking at them. I remember Ken [Gordon] being the most laid back Scotsman I’d ever met, which puts him on track for being one of the most laid-back guys worldwide. Rob Steggles has an evil sense of humour and at the time had a real passion for Games Workshop’s BLOODBOWL board game. Michael Bywater is scary smart, hugely funny, and also possibly one of THE most grumpy men I’ve ever met.

Fish! casts you as an “inter-dimensional espionage operative” who warps Quantum Leap-style among times, bodies, locations, and dimensions on the trail of criminals. At the beginning of the game, you’re enjoying a spot of rest and relaxation as a goldfish in your own private aquarium, when you’re notified that a gang of anarchists who call themselves the Seven Deadly Fins have stolen something called a focus wheel, needed to keep a planet of fish called Aquaria hydrated. First you need to assemble the pieces of the focus wheel, which the Fins have scattered across three different worlds. Then you can warp to the city of Hydropolis, capital of Aquaria, to set it into operation before the last of the water evaporates and everyone drowns.

I find Fish!'s more colorful, surrealistic graphics to be more attractive than those of Corruption.

I find Fish!‘s more colorful, surrealistic pictures to be much more attractive than those of Corruption.

As you’ve probably gathered, Fish! isn’t a very serious game. It’s rather a surrealistic riot of fishy puns and absurdist humor in the style of Douglas Adams. The prospect of neither surrealism nor Douglas Adams-style humor excites me all that much when starting a new game because those things are usually (over)done so badly, but Fish! pulls it off with aplomb. The fishy wordplay comes fast and furious, inducing groans and smiles in equal measure: “the archway is a magnificent example of craftfishship”; “any old eel could slip in here and break into every apartment on the block”; “some dolphins rush in where angelfish fear to tread”; “the police station is fished day and night by a stalwart dogfish who is ready to solve the troutiest of crimes”; “Tuna Day’s Music Ship is cluttered with amateur musicians, most of whom are playing versions of the ancient heavy-metal hit ‘Smoke Underwater'”; “glancing toward the toilet, you see a trout emerge, adjusting his flies.”

Thanks doubtless to Molloy’s background, much of Fish! is informed by music and the life of a musician. In addition to “Smoke Underwater,” he makes time to acknowledge that timeless classic “Sole Man” by Salmon Dave, and to make fun of buskers.

You notice several students loitering with intent. One of them produces a guitar and starts singing: "Come on feel my nose. The girls grab my clothes. Go why, why why any more." Oh no, he's started busking! Luckily, the other students attack and carry him off before you hear too much.

I love one early puzzle involving a Svengali music producer and his cowed assistant Rod. I know it’s anachronistic, but somehow I always picture Simon Cowell in this scene. (Spoiler Warning!)

An important-looking beetroot-faced producer enters the room behind you. "You," he shouts charmingly, "make some coffee or you're fired." He strides out.

>rod, make coffee

"Sure thing," says Rod, rushing down the corridor. You hear the kitchen door slam, then a few seconds later it slams again as Rod comes out. "That's the way to do it," he beams as he returns, holding a steaming mug of coffee.


The producer appears and grabs the mug. He looks at you and smiles a sickly smile as Rod leaves. "Well done," he says, taking a slurp, "you'll go far in this business. You've already learned the golden rule: if in doubt, delegate." Then he stomps out, looking pleased with himself.

In marked contrast to the confused and confusing Corruption, Fish! is quite fair, at least according to its own old-school lights. The three early acts, each involving the collection of one piece of the focus wheel, are all fairly easily manageable. The final act in Hydropolis, the real meat of the game, is much more challenging, another exercise in good planning and careful timing given that you have only one day to a complete a very complicated mission. So, yes, it’s another try-and-try-again scenario, and far from a trivial one; I found one puzzle in particular, another entry in the grand text-adventure tradition of mazes that aren’t quite mazes, to be so complicated that I ended up writing a program to solve it for me. But the clues you need are always there, and there’s never a need to do anything completely inexplicable like throwing yourself into traffic. Good planning and careful note-taking — and maybe a handmade Python script — will see you through. I love games like this one that challenge me for the right reasons.

Whether because Anita Sinclair was much more personally enthusiastic about this project or because it was a true collaboration from the start, the authors of Fish! got the feedback that Steggles apparently lacked in writing Corruption. Phil South:

Sometimes during play testing it came out that the puzzle was too hard or to too easy. We adjusted the hardness by leaving clues. Sometimes the puzzle was taken out altogether. We played other people’s games and saw how they solved the hardness problem.

After Corruption was finished, Steggles joined the team to do some final polishing and editing, a role he describes as “basically acting as a sub-editor to bring the writing into the house style.” Michael Bywater once again took responsibility for most of the feelies.

Released in time for Christmas 1988, Fish! fell victim to a breakdown in the relationship between Magnetic Scrolls and their publisher Rainbird; it never enjoyed the distribution or promotion of Magnetic Scrolls’s earlier games, even as Anita Sinclair said that it stood alongside Guild of Thieves as her personal favorites in the catalog. (As a glance at my own Hall of Fame will attest, that’s an assessment with which I very much agree.) We’ll get into the breakdown with Rainbird and what it meant for Magnetic Scrolls in a future article. For now, though, suffice to say that the release of Fish! marked the end of Magnetic Scrolls’s era of greatest popularity and influence. Molloy, South, and Kemp all moved on with their lives and day jobs, leaving their days as text-adventure authors behind as a fond anecdote for their scrapbooks; none would ever work in the games industry again. Steggles departed in December after a “storming row” with Anita Sinclair over his salary and his general unhappiness with the direction of the company; he also moved on with life outside of games. Michael Bywater’s business relationship with Magnetic Scrolls ended in correspondence with the end of his romantic relationship with Anita.

In a fast-changing market, with so many of the old gang suddenly leaving, Magnetic Scrolls’s future depended more than ever on Wonderland. That project… but I said we’d save that for another day, didn’t I? In the meantime, go play Fish!. Really, how can you can not love a game that describes another featureless dead end as, “This is as far as the corridor goes. On the first date anyway.”

(Sources: Games Machine of August 1988, November 1988; Computer and Video Games of July 1988; Commodore User of June 1988; The One of July 1990; ST News of Summer 1989. Online sources include “Magnetic Scrolls Memories” by Rob Steggles on The Magnetic Scrolls Memorial and an interview with Steggles at L’avventura è l’avventura. And huge, huge thanks to Stefan Meier of The Magnetic Scrolls Memorial for digging up a dump of Peter Verdi’s apparently defunct Magnetic Scrolls Chronicles website, including original interviews with Rob Steggles, Michael Bywater, Phil South, and Pete Kemp. You’re a lifesaver, Stefan!

CorruptionFish!, and all of the other Magnetic Scrolls games are available from Stefan’s site in forms suitable for playing with the Magnetic interpreter — or you can now play them online, directly in your browser, if you like.)


Comments

May 04, 2016

what will you do now?

The Warbler’s Nest

by verityvirtue at May 04, 2016 10:01 PM

By Jason McIntosh (Parser; IFDB)

viewgame.jpgCover art: a bank of reeds on a sunny day

Time to completion: 15-20 minutes

You are searching amongst the reeds for eggshells. If you believe the tailor, these are what you need to take back what is yours.

The Warbler’s Nest doesn’t immediately give up its story, but rather reveals it both through cutscenes and through environmental detail. This is aided by the mechanic, which is basically a treasure hunt. Given that this game is rather short, though, to reveal more about the story would spoil it. All I will say is that this game taps on faerie folklore and rituals related to them. It follows the interpretation of faerie folk as being intensely selfish yet bound by immoveable, arcane rules, which gives a quietly sinister air to the game as a whole.

Overall: understated horror is one of my favourite genres, and I really like how The Warbler’s Nest handled that. This is a gem of a short story, well worth the 20 or so minutes it takes to play.


May 03, 2016

These Heterogenous Tasks

IF Comp Unmuzzled

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at May 03, 2016 07:01 PM

This year, IF Comp is planning to experimentally relax its long-time ban on public author discussion; as long as authors don’t encourage voters to break the rules (most obviously, by getting people to vote in bad faith), they can in theory say whatever they want about their own game or other competitors’. [Edit: emphasis on the planning. The official decision is still a little way off, and the request for comment remains open.]

In general, I’m a cautious advocate for keeping the gag rule. But as an experiment, I’m interested. I could be wrong! Changes to the Comp’s discussion rules have improved the event before*. I enjoy reading things that authors write about their games. I think it’s prima facie a good idea for there to be more discussion around the Comp.

Here’s the thing, though.  In professional static fiction, there’s a well-established best practice that authors should never, ever respond to negative reviews; regardless of how awful the reviewer is, engaging with them will almost always make the author look worse.

We’ve talked about The Author’s Big Mistake here before. The Author’s Big Mistake is replying in any way whatsoever to a bad review. The term seems to have been coined by Paul Fussell. And really-o, truly-o, pay attention to this. Do not make the Author’s Big Mistake. Because you know the proverb, “When you set on the path of revenge, first dig two graves”? You can watch that get played out every time someone commits the ABM.

Jim Macdonald

This is sometimes also phrased as “never respond defensively to a bad review in a public forum.” (Emphasis mine.)

The same principles are true of IF. (Kind of. We’re a much smaller world, which makes things work a little differently.) But if you’re a first-time author – of which there are generally many in the comp – you may not be familiar with this. The Comp is an intense time for authors, and some might be moved to defend their work. This is understandable! You’ve invested a lot into your work, and now its reputation is taking shape before your eyes; who wouldn’t have an urge to try and influence that? In the past, the gag rule created a mandatory cool-down period; without it, authors are more likely to embarrass themselves.

In general, I enjoy talking to authors about their games, and sometimes it helps me understand the work better – but at the heart of things, I want to judge the work, not the author. If the game can’t be properly appreciated without the author looking over your shoulder and offering advice, the game has a problem.

This can be difficult to do in the world of IF, which remains small and tightly-knit. It’s harder to do if the author is busily self-promoting – perfectly nice people can get weird when they’re advocating for their own product. And it’s near-impossible if the author is presently fighting other reviewers in comment threads, or passive-aggressively subtweeting about how nobody understands their vision, or melting down in their blog about the reception their game is getting.

So here are some guidelines about how best to deal with reviews during Comp season. To many of you, this might come across as an extended labouring of the bloody obvious. Honestly, I expect that most comp entrants won’t need any of this advice, most of the time – but the best of us can have momentary lapses of good judgement when something we care about deeply is involved.

  • Reviews are not written primarily for the benefit of the author. A reviewer is not your tester, not your editor, and definitely not your mentor. A review that is useless to you may be very useful to other readers. If you find something in a review that helps you grow as an author, or that makes you feel proud and happy, or that you can use as a pull-quote to promote your game, that’s great! But it’s a secondary benefit.
    • In the IF world, where many reviewers and readers of reviews are also practicing authors, this can be muddied a bit. Often a reviewer will be willing to expand on their comments for your benefit. Sometimes they’ll even be willing to act as a tester on your future work, if you ask. Still: if they do this, it’s out of generosity, not obligation.
  • Don’t try to argue reviewers into liking your game. This is silly, rude, and will not work. It’s also very unlikely to sway any onlookers to your side. If you do choose to respond to a negative review, sit back a moment and consider “Am I really just trying to argue people into liking my game?” If that’s the case, no good can come of it.
  • “Every review is useful feedback for the author!” is bullshit. A reviewer may not be your intended audience, in which case their feedback may be pretty irrelevant to you. That’s OK: it’s foolish to try to please everyone, and you have every right to make games for whoever you want, including yourself alone (hiding them in the sofa-cushions). You’re not obliged to give a damn about what a particular reviewer thinks.
    • But by entering your game in the Comp, you made them your audience, even if they’re not the kind of reader you wanted. You can ignore them if you want, but if you complain that the wrong kind of reader is responding to your work, you’re going to look foolish. If you write an intensely personal game and publish it on a personal blog for family and friends, and then I sweep in out of the blue and review it, I’m being a jerk. If you submit that same game to the comp, you’ve asked me to play and respond to it.
  • No matter how amazing your game is, someone is going to hate it. There is nothing you can do to avoid this. You should be prepared for it. Lost Pig, the only IF game ever to win the Comp and the Best Game XYZZY and the year’s highest IFDB rating, earned at least one scathing review in its Comp year (some guy on YouTube sneered at the orcish baby-talk).

Let me say this again: bad reviews? Really long angry reviews about how insanely mad a book made a reader? Really wonderful squeeful reviews about how wonderful the book was? Reviews that say, “Meh”?

This is what we signed up for when we published.

SB Sarah

  • Reviewers are not obliged to consider your work on the terms you prefer. Maybe prose style isn’t important to you, and only want your game addressed in terms of gameplay. Maybe your work is a cri du coeur and you don’t want analysis, just support from like-minded people. Maybe you consider Marxist literary criticism to be the only lens through which your work can truly be understood. Doesn’t matter. Here’s what I’ve said elsewhere on the subject:

I make no pretense at rating games objectively, because that is a silly thing to do. I’ll make some attempt to consider games on their own terms, but ultimately the critic’s job is to unpack their own response to the work, not speak on behalf of some imagined ideal audience. To say the same thing from a different angle: while I’m somewhat interested in whether a work succeeds at the goals the author set for it, I don’t think that that should be my primary consideration.

  • Reviewers don’t owe you a review. If someone hasn’t reviewed your game yet, don’t hassle them about it; there are a lot of games in the Comp, and playing and reviewing all of them – or even some large proportion – is a substantial amount of work. (If they’re actually engaging with it, it can also entail a lot of emotional labour.) Someone who’s normally fine with review requests may be a lot less receptive to them during comp season.
  • Correction of straightforward factual inaccuracy is worth doing. But don’t get grumpy about it! Imparting information within the game is part of your job as an author – and one of the more difficult challenges of game design. If a reviewer was confused, it might be because your game was confusing.
  • Keep things in perspective.
    • Keep the whole review in mind, as well as the score if it’s included. Don’t jump from ‘they disliked one specific thing’ to ‘they hate the game.’ Bear in mind that comp reviews are often written in a hurry, and rarely devote equal consideration to every aspect of a work. Authors look especially bad when they blow up over a single negative point in a generally positive review.
    • Don’t just read your own game’s reviews. When you’re considering what a review means, look at some of the other things the reviewer has written. See what their thoughts are on other games you admire. Maybe they’re just a grouch about everything.
  • You are not your game. Your game is not you.
    • You are not the final authority on your game! You have a pretty important perspective on it, sure, but other people can see things you don’t. Reviewers can be wrong about your game – and so can you.
    • The reviewer is not judging the time, effort, hopes, intentions or circumstances that went into your game. They’re not judging your artistic vision. They’re judging the work that is actually in front of them. If the work successfully expresses some or all of the former, great – but that’s not a given.
    • If someone dislikes your game, it does not automatically mean that they dislike you, or that they think you’re a terrible author. Good authors produce bad work sometimes.
  • What about engaging with positive reviews? That’s a happier situation with fewer pitfalls. I mean, you shouldn’t lobby the reviewer to change their 7 to an 8 or anything, but hopefully that’s obvious. You certainly shouldn’t feel obliged to respond (but if you can’t think of anything to add, a ‘thank you’ is always appreciated.)

I’ve also got some personal expectations! They may not be true of every reviewer.

  • If you’re going to gripe about reviews, do it in private – and I mean in private. I heartily encourage you to curse my name to your friends in your local pub or in the Comp authors’ private forum. Passive-aggressive subtweets and the like, I have little tolerance for.
  • If you think I hated your game, please refer to the explanation of my voting scores. There is a lot of space between ‘loved it’ and ‘hated it’ – in most comps, that space encompasses a majority of the games. In some spaces, any vote less than the maximum possible score is considered bad. That is not true here.
  • Sometimes I will criticise games for elements that are sexist, racist or the like.
    • This does not necessarily mean that I think you are a terrible person. (See: ‘your game is not you.’) It is very easy to do this kind of thing by mistake. If your game is full of bugs, I don’t automatically assume that it’s because you were trying to make a buggy game; I assume that you did a bad job of debugging.
    • I might not always go into the problem in great detail; usually this is when the criticism is of a fairly minor element, the sort of thing that doesn’t seem malicious and isn’t all that central to the work. Lengthy explanations, here, could make the issue seem more important than it is. If your attitude, as an author, is “hunh, maybe I did something badly, but it’d help if I understood more fully what that was” then I’m happy to expand upon it. If your attitude is “fuck you, there’s no way I did anything wrong, and I must stand up to clear my good name,” then you would be best-advised to avail yourself of aforementioned local pub.
    • If you think this is an inherently illegitimate or mean-spirited form of criticism, you are wrong, and I have no interest in debating the point.
  • You shouldn’t expect me to have read your dev blog, or anything else you’ve written about your game. I might do that, afterwards, if I’ve played the game and enjoyed it. But if there’s information which is necessary for me to properly appreciate the game, that information should be in the game.

 


* Formerly, you couldn’t discuss the games in public spaces at all during the voting period, lest voters influence one another; everybody’s reviews came out in a single tidal wave after voting closed.


Ron Newcomb

AI Isn't a Subsystem - by Ron Newcomb

May 03, 2016 07:00 PM

Demystify AI by viewing it as an extension of existing subsystems.

Oreolek's silence

Analytics in web games and how to cook them

by Oreolek at May 03, 2016 05:00 PM

What feedback options do you have when writing in Inform, or Undum, or Twine, or any other popular IF engine?

You have betatesting, some player reviews on IFDB and some critique articles on IF Planet blogs. If you’re lucky, there can be Twitch streams and Youtube too.

Web games can have more than that.

Just the basics

The easy way is to just install some plain analytics script and be done with it. The analytics scripts are very powerful nowadays.

You will learn about the devices your game starts on. Tablets? Mobiles? Desktop computers with 1024x768 EGA monitors? Who knows!

Maybe your script will tell you that your Sci-Fi Pulp Erotic Lesbian Adventure attracts mostly Canadian bearded males in 14-40 age range… okay, scratch that.

You can view what sites give you more players, what sites give you most devoted players (look for average playing time).

But this is dancing around the game. What happens inside?

We have to dissect the game to dissect the audience.

Click to enlarge.

It’s a screenshot from my Piwik installation, stats for one of my WIPs. The only person playing the game is the author, that’s why the stats are so low. But they are live, the game collects and analyzes them.

Piwik thinks these are pages, but in reality there are only “rooms”, or smart passages. Every room has an internal title, and Piwik treats it as a separate page.

What do I get out of that?

  • “Pageviews”: how many times people entered this room
  • “Unique pageviews”: how many people entered this room
  • “Exit rate” shows how many people gave up and closed the game standing in this room
  • “Bounce rate” shows how many people did it right after entering (15 seconds or fewer)
  • “Avg. time on page”: how much time people spent in this room
  • “Avg. generation time” is not useful at all because the game is 100% client-side, so every room loads almost instantly.

Now, how to do it with Salet. (These recipes should be good for Raconteur too but you’ll have to tweak the syntax a bit.)

The recipe: passage analytics

croom = (title, salet, options) ->
  options.before = (salet) ->
    _paq.push(['trackPageView', title]) # <--- THIS IS IT
  return room(title, salet, options)

croom "begin", salet,
  tags: ["start"],
  optionText: "begin_title".l()
  choices: "#start2"
  dsc: (salet) -> "begin".l(salet)

Obviously, you have to connect Piwik too (the usual way, just add <script> tag somewhere)

I’ll try to be short with the technical explanation: in this code block I make a new room type, croom, and construct it with custom before callback that calls Piwik API. Then I use it. The l() functions are for localization (my games are bilingual).

UPD: when using this code, you will not be able to set before callbacks anymore. It’s not a big problem in Salet, you still have enter functions. If you are on Raconteur, though, you’ll have to be careful with that, maybe define a new realBefore property or something.

Okay, this is cool, but I’m not finished yet. For my shooting game, I wanted to have Telltale-like graphs, like “5% of people shot that robot”.

And this is why I recommend Piwik over Google Analytics, Yandex.Metrica and other solutions. It’s super easy to do this:

Click to enlarge.

It’s not a perfect chart, because you have to know that 0 stands for “No”, 1 stands for “Yes” and the “Value not defined” stands for “The player blocked the analytics gathering somehow or did not play long enough to view that event”. But it’s easy enough to make.

The recipe for custom charts

First, you have to install the Custom Dimensions plugin on your Piwik instance.

Then you create a Custom Dimension.

Scope "Visit" is for something that you want to track once per playthrough, like “found the key” or “finished the game” are things that won’t change after the player got them. They are NOT TRUE on the game start but become TRUE later on, and you want to track that change.

The "Action" scope is for something that you want to track in all possible states for all playthroughs. You can use that to track room views too, but I didn’t test that.

Then you do something like this:

before: (character, salet) ->
  salet.character.shot_pacifist = 1
  _paq.push(['setCustomDimension', 2, salet.character.shot_pacifist])

Hmm. I guess I could use “true” and “false” instead of “1” and “0” but– oh well.

Now what?

You can these tricks in betatests or releases.

You can look at your branches and see what choice is more popular.

You can look at your puzzles and see how many people get stuck at what point.

So I trust you to check this pulse of your game and get better with it.

Emily Short

Card-Deck Narratives

by Emily Short at May 03, 2016 04:00 PM

In a previous post about narrative structuring, I promised a followup about stories based on card decks — not simply the card metaphor that Failbetter uses in StoryNexus, but actual physical decks, sometimes accompanied by rules.

I’ve covered a few narrative card games here before. Gloom is a popular card game about Gorey-esque horrible events, in which you accumulate misfortunes for your characters until at last they die; each event is named briefly on its card, like “attacked by ducks,” and it’s up to the player to describe how this fits into a larger sequence, if at all. Some players work harder on their narration than others.

Gloom has a number of expansions and spin-offs at this point, including a Cthulhu version and a fairytale recasting. There are also a few features in Gloom designed to encourage continuity, symbols on some event cards that determine whether later events can be played, but in general any chains of causality are invented by the players at game time, rather than baked into the rules or the behavior of the deck. And because Gloom is emulating a type of story in which one bad thing arbitrarily happens after another, there also is not much attempt to guarantee a well-paced story arc.

Once Upon a Time is light in both writing and mechanics: it’s a sort of trope toolkit that the players can use to stick together stories, so that your card might just say “Brave” and leave it up to you how the concept of bravery applied to a character in the story will enhance what is already going on. Or there are Story Cubes, which are dice with trope-y images on them. The line between game and brainstorming device is pretty thin here, though, and I wouldn’t accuse either Once Upon a Time or Story Cubes of actually being or having a story already in any meaningful sense.

Then there’s Dixit, which provides image prompts and it’s up to the player to find some way to describe what is happening in the image. The narrative content is pretty light here, though, and I’ve found that usually we become more engaged with the wordplay of it — what is an interesting, slightly misleading way of characterizing this picture? — than with anything of narrative merit. Perhaps a more successful and storyful version of the Dixit idea exists in Mysterium, which game reviewers Shut Up and Sit Down really liked, but I haven’t had a chance to play that yet. (It was available at Shut Up and Sit Down’s curated board game area at GDC, which was awesome, but I was there at the wrong time to get a try at it.)

Meanwhile, there are also aleatory traditions of literature to consider here: Marc Saporta’s Composition No. 1, a book in a box with unbound pages, to be read in any order; BS Johnson’s The Unfortunates, with chapters the reader may reorder. Nick Montfort and Zuzana Husárová have written about shuffle literature in more depth, including those works and several others.

So it is in light of those various traditions that I’m going to have a deeper look at two particular card narrative games that recently came my way: Jedediah Berry’s The Family Arcana, and the USC Game Innovation Lab’s Chrono Scouts.

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FamilyArcana“SHUFFLE CARDS BEFORE READING” says the sticker on the tuckbox of The Family Arcana, a story in cards by Jedediah Berry. (Berry is also the author of the excellent Twine Fabricationist DeWit Remakes the World.) The deck is a standard pack of cards, except that each card contains a paragraph of text; and except for two jokers and two nameless, rankless cards with pictures on them.

The pictures start to signify things, after you’ve been reading a while. The texts describe the life of a very odd family, and (often) that family’s approach to making meaning and determining its own membership:

“Grandmother’s stories don’t have endings or beginnings, they’re just middles piled one after another.”

Sometimes the juxtapositions are particularly striking: a card about planting rivets and watching “machine roses” come up, followed by another card about dreams of seeds and soil. One card will hint at a mystery and another hint at its resolution, though you might interpret differently if you got them in the other order. Cards refer to some characters allusively: “our aunt, the sleepy one” or “the brother who was pickled.” Resolving these references means patching together what else we know, only this absolutely is a world in which people can be pickled whole (and then still walking around to talk about it).

I found the queen of diamonds particularly relevant to the themes of the whole project. Its text reads, in part:

“…there roams a thing for which we have no words, and if we find the words, the thing will retreat farther into the woods, and then we will need more words, and heavier boots, and a song like a lantern to make us brave through the night.”

Of course, a playing card deck is not the same as 52 sheets of blank paper. Heart Suit, one of the shuffleable stories described in Husárová and Montfort’s article, explores exactly this point: the feel and appearance of the cards are important, and the piece includes an instruction to read the joker last, however the rest of the cards are placed. (I am working entirely from the article description here, as I have not played with Heart Suit myself.)

If I were creating a work like this, I would not be able to resist the urge to make suits and numbers mean something. I might tell readers to shuffle the deck, but I would certainly hide connections that would come clear if you read the deck in order, or set up contrasts to emerge when the cards were layered black-and-red as in a game of Solitaire. I initially told myself that I would read Family Arcana according to its rules, shuffled, without looking for suit and number connections — and I did read it that way the first time — but I wasn’t able to keep from coming back for another look, just in case the system meant something.

And the suits and numbers do matter. Spades cards tell about the siblings who are the first person plural narrators of the story. Clubs tell about the extended family: father and mother, aunts and uncles, cousins, grandmother and grandfather. Diamonds tell of the house and lands and temporal rituals, which furniture is where, what grows outside and what actions are performed on which days. Hearts tell of key points in the relationship between Father and Mother. Ace text is pithy. Kings and Queens have to do with men and women respectively. Jacks are possibly to do with disguises and deceptions. Twos have to do with the image of the black square, the blank space, the thing that cannot be seen or, if seen, cannot be recognized. I think. Nines are about multiplicity and/or pickles. I am not sure of all of my interpretations. The nine of diamonds is a list of vegetables, certainly both various and susceptible to brining.

In any case, the sense of hidden significances — readings of the arcana — is integral to the experience and makes the deck into a sort of puzzle.

If you like, you can order from the same press a Supplementary Pack of cards, The Family Arcana Card Game, which introduces a ruleset, several more illustrated cards, and a few curious extras, such as a card containing a recipe for Blackberry Thyme Shrub and others, ominously, for multiple types of pickle. This pack converts the original deck from an aleatory reading experience or divinatory apparatus into a playable trick-taking game.

An interesting thing about this is that the game is not about ordering the card-texts. Instead, the rules of the game implicitly create additional structure and meaning around the symbols in that deck. The card texts frequently refer to Poughkeepsie; in the game, Poughkeepsie is the name of the discard pile. The Bank People, mentioned in the deck texts, explicitly become antagonists to the Family: these are the names of the two teams in a four-person trick-taking endeavor. The image cards all have special functions in the game.

I haven’t had a chance to play it yet, but the rules make it look like a slightly surprising variant on the trick-taking concept: there are trumps, but they’re only established partway through a hand; meanwhile, there’s something called contract rank, a rank selected to be even more powerful than the trump suit. The game is also slightly asymmetrical, with different advantages for the pair playing The Bank People and the pair playing The Family.

So to the extent that this system contains a plot, it’s all in the rules of the card game, the unequal struggle between Family and Bank People, the fact that they are trying to one-up one another but that they adhere to slightly different rules. Contract ranks are Bank People-style power, bureaucratic, backed by the overwhelming force of the government, but comparatively rare and hard to enforce.

I begin to feel that by sorting the deck for my second reading, I have behaved in a very Bank Person way. Bank People believe in suits and numbers. I may have extracted a meaning from the deck by Bank-Personing it, but not the whole meaning, and there were necessarily things that defied me, including the jokers and the two extra numberless suit-less picture cards. In fact I felt that The Family Arcana invites its reader to be playful and undisciplined just as Nicholas Bourbaki’s if invites its reader to be systematic and persistent. Not only does it require the reader to come up with a reading strategy, but the strategy chosen then illustrates something about how the work relates to the reader.

Bandcamp has an audio version of the story, with different readers for each card. Shuffle tracks before listening, it says. I like the cards that I can hold in my hand. But I also like the audio version for the proliferation of reading styles, suited to a story told from a first person plural perspective. Emma June Ayres reads the list on the Nine of Diamonds in a way that savors the name of each vegetable.

Recommended, especially for people who like Berry’s other writing; people who enjoyed Little, Big; people who collect unusual card and tarot decks; people interested in the way symbols can flex and bend and point towards different meanings; people whose relatives play a lot of trick-taking card games. I am all of those people.

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chronocards3dudesDeveloped at the Game Innovation Lab at USC, Chrono Scouts is a very different entity, designed to teach historical inquiry to students; though non-fiction, it falls firmly in the games-of-co-authorship category.

On each card is some assertion about the events that led up to the outbreak of World War I: “The ideals of nationalism spread throughout Europe,” for instance; or “Britain had a long-standing agreement to protect Belgium.”

The aim of the game is not to figure out what happened, in the sense of establishing particular events, but to construct a coherent explanation about the causes of the war that the whole team will accept. Players start with five cards open on the table representing the current explanation for what happened, but they may swap in cards from their own hands, or rearrange the sequence already on the table.

A few additional elements complicate matters. There are several optional audio tracks you can use to provide a timer for the game and to add some special events after a certain amount of playtime has elapsed. Mission cards can require or forbid players to incorporate in their sequence cards with a particular thematic symbol: so for instance, you might be forbidden to include any explanations with the “alliances” symbol.

Even just playing this as a solitaire pursuit is kind of interesting: I found that I disliked certain kinds of explanation and was eager to clear them off my spread; also that I wanted to build up as long a chain of causes as possible, which made me tend to get rid of redundancies when there were multiple explanations for the same outcome. And yet, the variety of the cards and diversity of the actors on them serve as a reminder of just how complicated a system Europe was at the time. So it makes a neat systematic demonstration of how human pattern-making produces many different, possibly conflicting, and certainly individually inadequate interpretations of a chaotic situation.

Of the works discussed in Montfort and Husárová’s article, the one that seems closest to Chrono Scouts in some regards is Eric Zimmerman and Nancy Nowacek’s Life in the Garden, in which readers select three, five, or seven pages with vignettes set in the Garden of Eden and read them in sequence. In both Chrono Scouts and Life in the Garden (and in contrast with Family Arcana or Heart Suits), the player is taking a subset of the available texts and discarding the rest. But where Chrono Scouts is about constructing a causal explanation, Life in the Garden apparently goes the other way. Montfort and Husárová observe:

The stories selected have different emotional textures, but there are not strong ties of semantics or consequence between one page and the following one… The Garden of Eden, a space without the traditional sort of consequences, is a setting in which emotionally resonant, fabular, and allusive incidents can surface in different orders.

Could a causality-constructing system like the one in Chrono Scouts be used for fictional storytelling? I think it might: the cards of Chrono Scouts expect the players to have a bit of familiarity with the period, but only a bit, and mostly they’re suggesting causalities that we might elect to believe in or not. I could particularly imagine using a Chrono Scouts-like structure for elaborating fan explanations behind a sequence of canon events. I could also imagine one that focused on motivations in a romance or a family drama, perhaps working with a very tropey plot-line but more subtle and interesting explanations.

Indeed I often go through a phase with my own work where I have a number of vignettes I know belong in the finished piece, but have not yet woven them into the story. These live in notebooks or scattered text files on my computer, but I know some authors write them on index cards, waiting a time when they can be inserted into their proper place.

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There’s no hidden information in Chrono Scouts, so the backs of the cards are used for a second, different game called Fact Fuse: Fact Fuse has players constructing assertions about World War I, which they are then able to claim for points if the majority of other players agree that that statement is true. I didn’t attempt to play Fact Fuse myself in any meaningful way, but the elements here are nouns and verbs rather than longer chunks of text, and this makes for much more simplistic statements for debate. They were, I felt, less evocative and resonant, less like a story and more like a grammatical exercise.

This is not a criticism of the game, which may be quite useful in its intended educational purpose! But it’s interesting to see at what point a basically similar mechanic stops being perceived as narratively rich, based on the simplification of the elements being combined.

 

 


Tagged: chrono scouts, dixit, jedediah berry, mysterium, Nick Montfort, shuffletexts, tarot, the family arcana, usc, zuzana husarova

Inkle

Can a Story Game Have Too Much Game?

May 03, 2016 01:01 PM

On this week's inklecast we ask a question that's close to our hearts: when is the game part of your story game too much game for your story?

In all our projects, we try to marry the gameplay and the narrative elements so tightly together that neither could be removed - but is there an argument for the cutscene-and-play model? Have a listen and tell us what you think.

Never miss an episode - subscribe on iTunes or use the RSS feed!

May 02, 2016

Emily Short

IF Comp this year

by Emily Short at May 02, 2016 12:00 PM

For a long time, I have covered IF Comp by reviewing many or all of the games that were available to me to play. I am not doing that this year.

I do still encourage others to review and cover the games. I’m convinced that IF Comp will be healthiest if it has a rich and assorted variety of responses and critical takes, and that sometimes it is necessary for the louder people to be quiet in order to let others be heard.

I mention this now so that no one will be surprised when the comp rolls around.

(No, I am not entering.)


May 01, 2016

what will you do now?

You’re Tiny People. Can You Open The Fridge And Get The Lemon?

by verityvirtue at May 01, 2016 08:01 PM

By Clickhole. (Custom CYOA; IFDB; play here)

viewgame.jpgCover art: a tiny hand sticking out from a white grating

Clickhole has built a reputation for prolificacy, having released 20 games in 2015 alone. Their games are usually absurd and light-hearted. Their games usually have long titles which presents its central premise. Then again, I have not played many of Clickhole’s games, so I shouldn’t really generalise like that…

In Tiny People, you play a… group (swarm?) of tiny people, navigating someone’s apartment. At your size, everything is huge. How will you get to the lemon? And what’s Music Duck doing there?

Tiny People favours photos over textual room descriptions to illustrate the environment, which was really a welcome change to the usual Clickhole house style of generic stock images. It also features an especially location-based world model, even if it mixed cardinal directions with relative directions (you can go leftward and east in this game).

The perspective brings to mind other games with smaller-than-human PCs – A Day for Soft Food and Snack Time in particular. The close-up photos of everyday objects from a non-human perspective remind me of Mateusz Skutnik’s 10 Gnomes series.

The central premise (i.e. the fact that you, the PC, appear to be a swarm of tiny people) is already surreal enough, but the ending is even more so, almost to the point of incoherence. Your mileage may vary, here: fans of Clickhole’s writing will probably enjoy this, but those who are not may find it over the top. Still, I found this a reasonably enjoyable, short, slightly absurd piece.


The XYZZY Awards

2015 XYZZY Awards: final round

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at May 01, 2016 08:01 PM

The finalist games of 2015 are out. Congratulations, all!

Voting in the second round is open now, and will remain so through May 14. Go, vote!

Best Game
Birdland (Brendan Patrick Hennessy)
Brain Guzzlers from Beyond! (Steph Cherrywell)
Hollywood Visionary (Aaron A. Reed)
Midnight. Swordfight. (Chandler Groover)
SPY INTRIGUE (furkle)

Best Writing
Birdland (Brendan Patrick Hennessy)
Laid Off from the Synesthesia Factory (Katherine Morayati)
Midnight. Swordfight. (Chandler Groover)
SPY INTRIGUE (furkle)

Best Story
Arcane Intern (Unpaid) (Astrid Dalmady)
Birdland (Brendan Patrick Hennessy)
Cape (Bruno Dias)
Map (Ade McT)

Best Setting
Beautiful Dreamer (S. Woodson)
Chlorophyll (Steph Cherrywell)
Neon Haze (Porpentine, Brenda Neotenomie)
Sub Rosa (Joey Jones, Melvin Rangasamy)
Summit (Phantom Williams)
Sunless Sea (Failbetter Games)

Best Puzzles
Brain Guzzlers from Beyond! (Steph Cherrywell)
Chlorophyll (Steph Cherrywell)
Oppositely Opal (Buster Hudson)
Scroll Thief (Daniel M. Stelzer)
Sub Rosa (Joey Jones, Melvin Rangasamy)
Toby’s Nose (Chandler Groover)

Best NPCs
Birdland (Brendan Patrick Hennessy)
Brain Guzzlers from Beyond! (Steph Cherrywell)
Hollywood Visionary (Aaron A. Reed)
Midnight. Swordfight. (Chandler Groover)
Nowhere Near Single (kaleidofish)

Best Individual Puzzle
Catching the fairy in Oppositely Opal (Buster Hudson)
The Hard Puzzle in Hard Puzzle (Ade McT)
Identifying the murderer in Toby’s Nose (Chandler Groover)
The skull in Sub Rosa (Joey Jones, Melvin Rangasamy)
Understanding how the RPS cannon works in Brain Guzzlers from Beyond! (Steph Cherrywell)

Best Individual NPC
Bell Park in Birdland (Brendan Patrick Hennessy)
Dmitri in Midnight. Swordfight. (Chandler Groover)
Hana in Hana Feels (Gavin Inglis)
Winter Storm Draco in Winter Storm Draco (Ryan Veeder)

Best Individual PC
Bridget in Birdland (Brendan Patrick Hennessy)
Martin Voigt in Darkiss! Wrath of the Vampire – Chapter 1: the Awakening (Marco Vallarino)
Opal in Oppositely Opal (Buster Hudson)
Toby in Toby’s Nose (Chandler Groover)

Best Implementation
Laid Off from the Synesthesia Factory (Katherine Morayati)
Midnight. Swordfight. (Chandler Groover)

Best Use of Innovation
Aspel (Emily Short)
Laid Off from the Synesthesia Factory (Katherine Morayati)
Midnight. Swordfight. (Chandler Groover)
SPY INTRIGUE (furkle)
Sunless Sea (Failbetter Games)

Best Technological Development
Raconteur

Best Use of Multimedia
Secret Agent Cinder (Emily Ryan)
Sorcery! 3 (Steve Jackson, inkle)
Summit (Phantom Williams)
Sunless Sea (Failbetter Games)
We Know the Devil (Aevee Bee)

what will you do now?

Two tiny utopias

by verityvirtue at May 01, 2016 12:01 AM

The TinyUtopias jam is a very informal game jam, first mooted by Emily Short in a Twitter conversation two weeks ago. Cat Manning writes about it here. It was envisioned as a jam for very short games which encapsulate a utopia – a world which was, if not perfect, then better. The existing games, if listed on IFDB, can be found here, and I will say here that I, too, submitted the morning after to the jam.


The Shape of Our Container is by Rocketnia. (Twine; IFDB; play here)

The Shape of Our Container is a peaceful, conversation-led game about lying in the grass with your loved one. Similar to the other tiny utopias, there is a broad sense of forgiveness and peace. Structure-wise, the game has a broadly branching time-cave structure, allowing large variations between play-throughs. This gives the impression of living many parallel lives, of the impression of time passing.

Container is definitely polished and has fairly high replay value. Short, tender and intimate.


Fridgetopia is by Mathbrush. (Parser; IFDB; play here)

Fridgetopia has been described by the author as “mechanically utopian”, in that it doesn’t necessarily sketch out a utopia per se: there is not much world-building here. But this is not a slight against the game. Rather than describe your interactions with a specific space or time, Fridgetopia instead gives you tools with which you can create your own world, to a certain extent.

Fridgetopia is very short, and perhaps not very polished. It reads as much as a coding exercise (albeit an interesting one) as a game, but it does hide at least one secret, which… let’s just say it deserves the label of ‘fridge horror’. Very clever.


April 30, 2016

Emily Short

April Link Assortment

by Emily Short at April 30, 2016 11:00 AM

Upcoming live IF Meetups and events:

May 7, 1:00 PM, the SF Bay Area IF Meetup gets together at MADE.

May 7, 2:00 PM, Baltimore/DC IF Meetup is getting together to talk about IF and then to play Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective.

May 11, 6:30 PM, Boston/Cambridge, the People’s Republic of IF gets together to talk and also to attend a presentation of student IF.

May 26, 10 AM – 1 PM, Oxford. I’m doing an Intro to IF workshop based around inklewriter. It is primarily aimed at Oxford humanities people, but I may be able to arrange for a few non-University people to attend; feel free to get in touch.

June 2-4. Feral Vector is a game design conference in Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire. It’s explicitly designed to be affordable and accessible to indie/altgame types, especially those not ordinarily in reach of London events. I went last year and had a great time. This year I will be presenting, and of course will be up for chatting about narrative games in general. (Ordinarily I list events only a month or so in advance, but you should get your tickets for this sooner rather than later if you want to participate.)

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Worthy Things. Choice of Games is auctioning off cameos in a few of its upcoming games; proceeds benefit homeless youth. If you’ve ever wanted to appear in a Max Gladstone story, now is your chance.

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Classic IF Institutions. This month there’s a new SPAG (the article-based IF ‘zine) including an article on Clickhole adventures. SPAG is also seeking pitches and cover artists for future editions.

The XYZZY Awards are running now, and anyone familiar with IF is welcome to vote. (We’re just at the transition between first and second round voting — if you hurry, you might be able to sneak in a first-round vote to determine nominees.) In addition, the XYZZY website is running essays on last year’s nominees in each category (the “XYZZYmposium”), starting with Gabriel Murray on Best Story. Murray’s article starts with a useful enumeration of the qualities he’s personally looking for in Best Story games, which makes it useful even beyond its careful analysis of the specific pieces he covers.

If you liked my bibliography of IF history, you might also enjoy this Blind Panels podcast with Andrew Plotkin, in which he presents his own oral history of the evolution of interactive fiction. He goes into a bit more depth than I did both about his own work and how it fits into development, and about technical innovations in different periods.

I also did a bit of an overhaul on my IF community participation page. Probably still imperfect, but it is now less stuck in 2012.

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New Releases. These are by no means all the new releases in the past month, just things I happen to know/have heard a reasonable amount about. TinyUtopias is an accidental game jam — I mentioned the idea on Twitter and several people immediately participated; eventually I wrote a small thing for it as well. Cat Manning has a write-up collecting the entries and explaining a bit more about the backstory.

Lynnea Glasser’s new Choice of Games piece The Sea Eternal is now available, along with a sizable developer diary. (If you’re interested in design issues around ChoiceScript stat management, as I am, she has a whole post devoted just to that.)

Elixir is a Ludum Dare Twine about trans experience by way of fantasy and monstrosity — borrowing a page from Monsterhearts — and it also incorporates its own constructed language you gradually and partially learn in the course of play.

Porpentine has a miniature museum site with exhibits that you can only view at certain times of day. (At the time of writing, it appears to be open just after midnight in Pacific time.)

Reference and Representation: An Approach to First-Order Semantics is a new parser game by Ryan Veeder, even though it sounds like the PDF of a thesis. I haven’t had a chance to play yet.

The illustrated IF game Lifestream is now available, and is an attempt to do commercial IF that emulates trad parser IF but with a button/menu-driven interface and illustrations. I haven’t played, but Hanon Ondricek has written up some impressions from the demo.

And speaking of chatbot games (as we did earlier this month), Humani is a new one playable on Facebook Messenger.

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Tools. Here’s an article from No Time To Play that argues that the proliferation of IF authoring tools is not a problem, and takes a close look at Undum, Ramus, and Squiffy.

Here’s a Gamasutra write-up on ink and why inkle decided to open-source the tool; you can also see the video of their GDC talk. And, of course, I’ve written up some notes on the Oxford/London Meetup and our recent tools-focused meeting.

Yarn is a new tool designed for putting choice-based games onto mobile devices. It currently features some ports of existing Twine games, especially ones that aren’t too heavy on the hypertext features.

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GDC Vault coverage of IF-related topics. I highly recommend the Narrative Innovation Showcase, and maybe also this article about interesting use of AI in recent games including Ice-Bound.

All Choice, No Consequence is the slide set from a GDC 2016 Narrative Summit talk I didn’t actually attend, but talks about branching narrative design for Pocket Gems’ Episode series.(They are hiring, incidentally.)

As a matter of art, I tend to disagree with some of the suggestions here, or at least feel that they’re not universally applicable: they recommend minimizing the number of important branches and planning for a single through-line plot before considering any branches at all, which is certainly a valid approach but discounts a lot of opportunities to use mechanics to communicate. They also recommend that you make sure the choices you give players are being picked roughly equally, whereas I find that it’s sometimes fun to have one choice in a set that’s obviously a bit of an outlier or even that’s designed for players who are intentionally willing to play suboptimally. (See also: the Mr Eaten storyline in Fallen London.)

Nonetheless, it’s interesting to see: this is a company that doesn’t as far as I know have a huge amount of contact with the traditional IF community, but is doing lots and lots of branching narrative content creation.

If you are more interested in puzzles, here are the slides from Jolie Menzel’s workshop on puzzle design from GDC. Many of these observations will be familiar to long-time parser puzzle creators, but not all; I particularly appreciated the visualization of puzzle complexity in Portal and the way it maps against the development of the story arc. There’s also a nice bibliography, for those who get through the deck and want further reading.

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Business of IF and Narrative Gaming. Speaking of GDC videos, here’s a talk on the Indiepocalypse, which talks about Steam and indie game sales, and a slide set on Framed, which discusses their strategy for winning awards and establishing themselves as a quality piece of work. (Personally I wish there had been more to the actual story of Framed; the schedule they followed may have made it harder to come back to content issues.)

Also worth seeing free on the GDC Vault, the #1ReasonToBe panel presents some of the geographical diversity of game design, with designers from Zambia, South Africa, and a number of other countries that aren’t typically able to send representatives to GDC.

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R&D, Procedural Text, and Procedural Narrative. In this video, Chris Martens and Lindsey Bieda play Hearthstone while talking about Chris’ research. Chris is doing some really interesting, advanced work thinking about languages and tools that could produce new types of narrative experience.

Here’s Ross Goodwin on procedural narrative generation and the idea that this makes us “writers of writers”. This in turn I found from Liza Daly’s article on training a classifier to distinguish “nice” from “naughty” X-Files fanfic.

Practices in Procedural Generation is another GDC talk I wasn’t able to attend myself, discussing generating mythological backgrounds for Dwarf Fortress and Moon Hunters. The myth generator for Dwarf Fortress then establishes certain spells and functions that are going to work in that world, as well.

Michael Cook talks about how he wrote a bot to come up with punny hamburger names, using rhyming resources and corpora of movie names and common sayings.

Nick Montfort (Twisty Little Passages, Ad Verbum, et al) has a new book out from MIT Press on Exploratory Programming. Among other goodies, the contents include introductions to various ways of manipulating and classifying text, using WordNet, and other techniques that might be of interest if you’re looking into playing with procedural text but aren’t sure how to start. It also introduces visualization techniques, ways of manipulating sound, and more. To go with the book’s launch, he’s also doing a series of workshops.

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Criticism. Bruno Dias writes about environmental storytelling and the prevalence of corpses for Giant Bomb, and also appears on the Giant Bomb podcast.

Katherine Cross has a long article on Ice-Bound Concordance, in particular the way the AI character recapitulates some of the experiences and frustrations of female writers.

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Education. At the Interactive Pasts conference on gaming and history, archaeologists participated in a workshop in interactive fiction that introduced Twine, Inform, and Squiffy as possible tools for presenting historical settings or other stories teaching archaeology.

Adam Saltsman lists books about design he finds useful.

Mark Marino (Living Will, Mrs. Wobbles) has launched a new blog about electronic literature for kids.

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Adjacent storytelling fields. Escape from Reality is a new podcast about room escape games. The first episode talks about what design expectations are like in this space, about the differences between what room-escape enthusiasts want and what new players want, and ideas for future room escape designs.

VR/AR-curious readers may already have encountered Wired’s article about the tech and possibilities at Magic Leap, and the idea of Mixed Reality, a blend of our own surroundings and the surroundings layered over them by software.

Dan Grover writes a really interesting post about chat apps, what they are and aren’t good for, why they’re a bigger deal in China than in the US, and why possibly bots aren’t the platform of the future. Useful, especially if like me you’ve been curious about the hype surrounding this idea.

Sometime IF author Harry Giles writes about performance art and the artists’ responsibility of care towards the audience (and in some cases vice versa). It’s mostly describing live events, but much of what it has to say is applicable to games as well, especially when it comes to accessibility, content warnings, and the creation of safe spaces. I also appreciated the reflections about how useful it is to have quiet/chill-down rooms available at events.

Sam Kabo Ashwell cowrote a one-shot murder mystery/Monsterhearts LARP, and is blogging about how that went down.

Meanwhile, spooky action at a distance, the SF/IF review, interviews Max Gladstone about writing Craft universe novels and interactive fiction — and the differences between processes, between concepts of genre in different fields, and more.

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These are getting really long. I may move to doing link roundups every two weeks instead of once a month — would that be better? Or do you like the once-a-month thing?


April 29, 2016

Choice of Games

New Hosted Game! “Gambling with Eternity” by Ashlee Sierra

by Dan Fabulich at April 29, 2016 08:01 PM

Hosted Games has a new game for you to play!

Gambling with Eternity

Gambling with Eternity is a ghost story starring you! Explore the afterlife, discover the secrets of a mysterious Agency of spirits, and terrify anyone who gets in your way. But be careful—make the wrong choice, and you could meet a fate worse than death. Will you gamble an eternity?

  • Engage in a 50,000-word paranormal story of morality, mystery, adventure, and daring confrontation.
  • Create a unique and memorable personality by customizing a variety of distinctive traits like name, gender, job title, physical description, and more.
  • Play multiple times to experience all twenty-seven distinct endings.
  • Challenge yourself to reach fifty-one exciting and gratifying achievements. Can you find them all?
  • Enjoy an expansive storyline where any choice could take you down a distinctive new path.
  • Experience a haunting from the other side, utilizing a broad range of opportunities to develop your own unique style in terrorizing—or befriending—the living.
  • Confront a variety of challenges that stretch your situational and moral decision-making abilities.
  • Meet and interact with a cast of colorful, unpredictable characters—both living and dead.
  • Influence and shape various twists on the classic “ghost story” genre.
  • Uncover betrayal, corruption, adventure, and unexpected friendship within a massively powerful Agency of spirits.
  • Explore the wonders and dangers of the afterlife in a fresh, imaginative setting.

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

The Digital Antiquarian

Zork Zero

by Jimmy Maher at April 29, 2016 01:00 PM

Zork Zero

Zork Zero the idea was kicking around Infocom for quite a long time before Zork Zero the game was finally realized. Steve Meretzky first proposed making a prequel to the original Zork trilogy as far back as 1985, when he included it on a list of possible next games that he might write after finishing his personal passion project of A Mind Forever Voyaging. The Zork Zero he described at that time not only already had the name but the vast majority of the concept of the eventual finished game as well.

As the name implies, a prequel to the Zork trilogy. It would be set in the Great Underground Empire, and covering a long period of time, from the end of the reign of Dimwit Flathead in 789 through the fall of the GUE in 883, and possibly through 948 (the year of the Zork trilogy). It would almost certainly end “west of a white house.” There would be some story, probably about as much as Enchanter or Sorcerer. For the most part, though, it would be an intensely puzzle-oriented game with a huge geography.

The fact that Meretzky knew in what years Dimwit Flathead died, the Great Underground Empire fell, and Zork I began says much about his role as the unofficial keeper of Zorkian lore at Infocom. He had already filled a huge notebook with similarly nitpicky legends and lore. This endeavor was viewed by most of the other Imps, who thought of the likes of Dimwit Flathead as no more than spur-of-the-moment jokes, with bemused and gently mocking disinterest. Still, if Infocom was going to do a big, at least semi-earnest Zork game, his obsessiveness about the milieu made Meretzky the obvious candidate for the job.

But that big Zork game didn’t get made in 1985, partly because the other Imps remained very reluctant to sacrifice any real or perceived artistic credibility by trading on the old name and partly because the same list of possible next projects included a little something called Leather Goddesses of Phobos that everyone, from the Imps to the marketers to the businesspeople, absolutely loved. Brian Moriarty’s reaction was typical: “If you don’t do this, I will. But not as well as you could.”

After Meretzky completed Leather Goddesses the following year, Zork Zero turned up again on his next list of possible next projects. This time it was granted more serious consideration; Infocom’s clear and pressing need for hits by that point had done much to diminish the Imps’ artistic fickleness. At the same time, though, Brian Moriarty also was shopping a pretty good proposal for a Zork game, one that would include elements of the CRPGs that seemed to be replacing adventure games in some players’ hearts. Meanwhile Meretzky’s own list included something called Stationfall, the long-awaited sequel to one of the most beloved games in Infocom’s back catalog. While Moriarty seemed perfectly capable of pulling off a perfectly acceptable Zork, the universe of Planetfall, and particularly the lovable little robot Floyd, were obviously Meretzky’s babies and Meretzky’s alone. Given Infocom’s commercial plight, management’s choice between reviving two classic titles or just one was really no choice at all. Meretzky did Stationfall, and Moriarty did Beyond Zork — with, it should be noted, the invaluable assistance of Mereztky’s oft-mocked book of Zorkian lore.

And then it was 1987, Stationfall too was finished, and there was Zork Zero on yet another list of possible next projects. I’ll be honest in stating that plenty of the other project possibilities found on the 1987 list, some of which had been appearing on these lists as long as Zork Zero, sound much more interesting to this writer. There was, for instance, Superhero League of America, an idea for a comedic superhero game with “possible RPG elements” that would years later be dusted off by Meretzky to become the delightful Legend Entertainment release Superhero League of Hoboken. There was a serious historical epic taking place on the Titanic that begs to be described as Meretzky’s Trinity. And there was something with the working title of The Best of Stevo, a collection of interactive vignettes in the form if not the style of Nord and Bert Couldn’t Make Head or Tail of It.

Mind you, not all of the other projects were winners. A heavy-handed satire to be called The Interactive Bible, described by Meretzky as “part of my ongoing attempt to offend every person in the universe,” was eloquently and justifiably lacerated by Moriarty.

As you noted, this game is likely to offend many people, and not just frothing nutcakes either. A surprising number of reasonable people regard the Book with reverence. They are likely to regard your send-up as superficial and juvenile. They will wonder what qualifies you to poke fun at their (or anybody’s) faith. Why do you want to write this? Do you really think it will sell?

If Zork Zero wasn’t at the bottom of anyone’s list like The Interactive Bible, no one was exactly burning with passion to make it either. Few found the idea of going back to the well of Zork yet again all that interesting in creative terms, especially as Beyond Zork was itself still very much an ongoing project some weeks from release. The idea’s trump card, however, was the unique commercial appeal most still believed the Zork trademark to possess. Jon Palace’s faint praise was typical: “I’m sure this would sell very well. It’s certainly ‘safe.'” By 1987, the commercially safe route was increasingly being seen as the only viable route within Infocom, at least until they could manage to scare up a few hits. A final tally revealed that Zork Zero had scored an average of 7.2 among “next Meretzky project” voters on a scale of 1 to 10, edging out Superhero League of America by one tenth of a point, Titanic by two tenths, and The Best of Stevo by one full point; the last was very well-liked in the abstract, but its standing was damaged by the fact that, unusually for Meretzky, the exact form the vignettes would take wasn’t very well specified.

On August 7, 1987, it was decided provisionally to have Meretzky do Zork Zero next. In a demonstration of how tepid everyone’s enthusiasm remained for such a safe, unchallenging game, an addendum was included with the announcement: “I think it is fair to add that if Steve happens to have a flash of creativity in the next few days and thinks of some more ideas for his experimental story project (Best of Stevo), nearly everyone in this group would prefer that he do that product.” That flash apparently didn’t come; The Best of Stevo was never heard of again. Also forgotten in the rush to do Zork Zero was the idea, mooted in Beyond Zork, of Zork becoming a series of CRPG/text-adventure hybrids, with the player able to import the same character into each successive game. Zork Zero would instead be a simple standalone text adventure again.

While it’s doubtful whether many at Infocom ever warmed all that much to Zork Zero as a creative exercise, the cavalcade of commercial disappointments that was 1987 tempted many to see it as the latest and greatest of their Great White Hopes for a return to the bestseller charts. It was thus decided that it should become the first game to use Infocom’s new version 6 Z-Machine, usually called “YZIP” internally. Running on Macintosh II microcomputers rather than the faithful old DEC, the YZIP system would at last support proper bitmap illustrations and other graphics, along with support for mice, sound and music, far more flexible screen layouts, and yet bigger stories over even what the EZIP system (known publicly as Interactive Fiction Plus) had offered. With YZIP still in the early stages of development, Meretzky would first write Zork Zero the old way, on the DEC. Then, when YZIP was ready, the source code could be moved over and the new graphical bells and whistles added; the new version of ZIL was designed to be source-compatible with the old. In the meantime, Stu Galley was working on a ground-up rewrite of the parser, which was itself written in ZIL. At some magic moment, the three pieces would all come together, and just like that Infocom would be reborn with pictures and a friendlier parser and lots of other goodies, all attached to the legendary Zork name and written by Infocom’s most popular and recognizable author. That, anyway, was the theory.

Being at the confluence of so much that was new and different, Zork Zero became one of the more tortured projects in Infocom’s history, almost up there with the legendarily tortured Bureaucracy project. None of the problems, however, were down to Meretzky. Working quickly and efficiently as always, his progress on the core of the game proper far outstripped the technology enabling most of the ancillary bells and whistles. While Stu Galley’s new parser went in on November 1, 1987, it wasn’t until the following May 10 that a YZIP Zork Zero was compiled for the first time.

In sourcing graphics for Zork Zero, Infocom was on completely foreign territory. Following the lead of much of the computer-game industry, all of the graphics were to be created on Amigas, whose Deluxe Paint application was so much better than anything available on any other platform that plenty of artists simply refused to use anything else. Jon Palace found Jim Shook, the artist who would do most of the illustrations for Zork Zero, at a local Amiga users-group meeting. Reading some of the memos and meeting notes from this period, it’s hard to avoid the impression that — being painfully blunt here — nobody at Infocom entirely knew what they were doing when it came to graphics. As of February of 1988, they still hadn’t even figured out what resolution Shook should be working in. “We still don’t know whether images should be drawn in low-res, medium-res, interlace, or high-res mode on the Amiga in Deluxe Paint,” wrote Palace plaintively in one memo. “Joel claims Tim should know. Tim, do you know?”

Infocom wound up turning to Magnetic Scrolls, who had been putting pictures into their own text adventures for quite some time, for information on “graphics compression techniques,” a move that couldn’t have set very well with such a proud group of programmers. The graphics would continue to be a constant time sink and headache for many months to come. Steve Meretzky told me that he remembers the development of Zork Zero primarily as “heinous endless futzing with the graphics, mostly on an Amiga, to make them work with all the different screen resolutions, number of colors, pixel aspect ratios, etc. In my memory, it feels like I spent way more time doing that than actually designing puzzles or writing ZIL code.”

Zork Zero uses graphics more often to present the look of an illuminated manuscript than for traditional illustrations.

Zork Zero uses graphics more often to present the look of an illuminated manuscript than for traditional illustrations.

And yet in comparison to games like those of Magnetic Scrolls, the finished Zork Zero really wouldn’t have a lot of graphics. Instead of an illustration for each room, the graphics take the form of decorative borders, an illuminated onscreen map, some graphical puzzles (solvable using a mouse), and only a few illustrations for illustrations’ sake. Infocom would advertise that they wanted to use graphics in “a new way” for Zork Zero — read, more thoughtfully, giving them some actual purpose rather than just using them for atmosphere. All of which is fair enough, but one suspects that money was a factor as well; memos from the period show Infocom nickle-and-dimeing the whole process, fretting over artist fees of a handful of thousand dollars that a healthier developer wouldn’t have thought twice about.

The financial squeeze also spelled the end of Infocom’s hopes for a full soundtrack, to have been composed by Russell Lieblich at Mediagenic, who had earlier done the sound effects for The Lurking Horror and Sherlock: The Riddle of the Crown Jewels. But the music never happened; when Zork Zero finally shipped, it would be entirely silent apart from a warning beep here or an acknowledging bloop there.

Hemorrhaging personnel as they were by this point, Infocom found themselves in a mad scramble to get all the pieces that did wind up making it into Zork Zero together in time for Christmas 1988, months after they had originally hoped to ship the game. Bruce Davis grew ever more frustrated and irate at the delays; a contemporary memo calls him a “looming personality” and notes how he is forever “threatening a tantrum.” A desperate-sounding “Proclamation” went out to the rank-and-file around the same time: “The one who can fix the bugs of Zork Zero, and save the schedule from destruction, shall be rewarded with half the wealth of the Empire.” Signed: “Wurb Flathead, King of Quendor.”

Like a number of Zork Zero's illustrations, this one actually conveys some important information about the state of the game.

Like a number of Zork Zero‘s illustrations, this one actually conveys some important information about the state of the game rather than being only for show.

Time constraints, the fact that the beta builds ran only on the Macintosh, and Infocom’s determination to test Zork Zero primarily using new testers unfamiliar with interactive fiction meant that it didn’t receive anywhere near the quantity or quality of outside feedback that had long been customary for their games. Many of the new testers seemed bemused if not confused by the experience, and few came anywhere close to finishing the game. I fancy that one can feel the relative lack of external feedback in the end result, as one can the loss of key voices from within Infocom like longtime producer Jon Palace and senior tester Liz Cyr-Jones.

Despite the corner-cutting, Infocom largely missed even the revised target of Christmas 1988. Only the Macintosh version shipped in time for the holiday buying season, the huge job of porting the complicated new YZIP interpreter to other platforms having barely begun by that time. Zork Zero was quite well-received by the Macintosh magazines, but that platform was far from the commercial sweet spot in gaming.

The decorative borders change as you enter difference regions -- a nice touch.

A nice touch: the decorative borders change as you enter different regions.

A sort of cognitive dissonance was a thoroughgoing theme of the Zork Zero project from beginning to end. It’s right there in marketing’s core pitch: “Zork Zero is the beginning of something old (the Zork trilogy) and something new (new format with graphics).” Unable to decide whether commercial success lay in looking forward or looking back, Infocom tried to have it both ways. Zork Zero‘s “target audience,” declared marketing, would be “primarily those who are not Infocom fans; either they have never tried interactive fiction or they have lost interest in Infocom.” The game would appeal to them thanks to “a mouse interface (enabling the player to move via compass rose), onscreen hints, a new parser (to help novices), and pretty pictures that will knock your socks off!”

Yet all the gilding around the edges couldn’t obscure the fact that Zork Zero was at heart the most old-school game Infocom had made since… well, since Zork I really. That, anyway, was the last game they had made that was so blatantly a treasure hunt and nothing more. Zork Zero‘s dynamic dozen-turn introduction lays out the reasons behind the static treasure hunt that will absorb the next several thousand turns. To thwart a 94-year-old curse that threatens to bring ruin to the Great Underground Empire, you must assemble 24 heirlooms that once belonged to 12 members of the Flathead dynasty and drop them in a cauldron. Zork Zero is, it must be emphasized, a big game, far bigger than any other that Infocom ever released, its sprawling geography of more than 200 rooms — more than 2200 if you count a certain building of 400 (nearly) identical floors —  housing scores of individual puzzles. The obvious point of comparison is not so much Infocom’s Zork trilogy as the original original Zork, the one put together by a bunch of hackers at MIT in response to the original Adventure back in the late 1970s, long before Infocom was so much as a gleam in anyone’s eye.

A Tower of Hanoi puzzle, one of the hoariest of Zork Zero's tired old chestnuts.

A Tower of Hanoi puzzle, one of the hoariest of Zork Zero‘s hoary old chestnuts.

The question — the answer to which must always to some extent be idiosyncratic to each player — is whether Zork Zero works for you on those terms. In my case, it doesn’t. The PDP-10 Zork is confusing and obscure and often deeply unfair, but it carries with it a certain joyous sense of possibility, of the discovery of a whole new creative medium, that we can enjoy vicariously with its creators. Zork Zero perhaps also echos the emotional circumstances of its creation: it just feels tired, and often cranky and mean-spirited to boot. Having agreed to make a huge game full of lots of puzzles, Meretzky dutifully provides, but the old magic is conspicuously absent.

Infocom always kept a library of puzzly resources around the office to inspire the Imps: books of paradoxes and mathematical conundrums, back issues of Games magazine, physical toys and puzzles of all descriptions. But for the first time with Zork Zero, Meretzky seems not so much inspired by these resources as simply cribbing from them. Lots of the puzzles in Zork Zero are slavish re-creations of the classics: riddles, a Tower of Hanoi puzzle, a peg game. Even the old chestnut about the river, the fox, the chicken, and the sack of grain makes an appearance. And even some of the better bits, like a pair of objects that let you teleport from the location of one to that of another, are derivative of older, better Infocom games like Starcross and Spellbreaker. One other, more hidden influence on Zork Zero‘s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to puzzle design — particularly on the occasional graphical puzzles — is likely Cliff Johnson’s puzzling classic The Fool’s Errand, which Meretzky was playing with some dedication at the very time he was designing his own latest game. The Fool’s Errand‘s puzzles, however, are both more compelling and more original than Zork Zero‘s. Meretzky’s later Hodj ‘n’ Podj would prove a far more worthy tribute.

Zork Zero is a difficult game, and too often difficult in ways that really aren’t that much fun. I’m a fan of big, complicated puzzlefests in the abstract, but Zork Zero‘s approach to the form doesn’t thrill me. After the brief introductory sequence, the game exposes almost the whole of its immense geography to you almost immediately; there’s nothing for it but to start wandering and trying to solve puzzles. The combinatorial explosion is enormous. And even when you begin to solve some of the puzzles, the process can be made weirdly unsatisfying by the treasure-hunt structure. Too much of the time, making what at first feels like a significant step forward only yields another object to throw into the cauldron for some more points. You know intellectually that you’re making progress, but it doesn’t really feel like it.

I much prefer the approach of later huge puzzlefests like Curses! and The Mulldoon Legacy, which start you in a constrained space and gradually expand in scope as you solve puzzles. By limiting their initial scope, these games ease you into their worlds and limit the sense of hopeless aimlessness that Zork Zero inspires, while a new set of rooms to explore provides a far more tangible and satisfying reward for solving a puzzle sequence than does another object chunked in the cauldron and another few points. The later games feel holistically designed, Zork Zero like something that was just added to until the author ran out of space. Even The Fool’s Errand restricts you to a handful of puzzles at the beginning, unfolding its mysteries and its grand interconnections only gradually as you burrow ever deeper. That Infocom of all people — Steve Meretzky of all people, whose Leather Goddess of Phobos and Stationfall are some of the most airtight designs in Infocom’s catalog — is suddenly embracing the design aesthetic of the 1970s is downright weird for a game that was supposed to herald a bright new future of more playable and player-friendly interactive fiction.

The in-game Encyclopedia Frobozzica is a nice if somewhat underused feature. The encyclopedia could have provided nudges for some more of the more obscure puzzles and maybe even some direction as to what to be working on next. Instead that work is all shuffled off to the hint system.

The in-game Encyclopedia Frobozzica is a nice but rather underused feature. The encyclopedia could have provided more nudges for some more of the more obscure puzzles and maybe even some direction as to what to be working on next. Instead that work is all shuffled off to the hint menu, the use of which feels like giving up or even cheating.

The puzzles rely on the feelies more extensively than any other Infocom game, often requiring you to make connections with seemingly tossed-off anecdotes buried deep within “The Flathead Calendar.” I generally don’t mind this sort of thing overmuch, but, like so much else in Zork Zero, it feels overdone here. These puzzles feel like they have far more to do with copy protection than the player’s enjoyment — but then much of the time Zork Zero seems very little concerned with the player’s enjoyment.

I love the headline of the single review of Zork Zero that’s to be found as of this writing on The Interactive Fiction Database: “Enough is enough!” That’s my own feeling when trying to get through this exhausting slog of a game. As if the sheer scope and aimlessness of the thing don’t frustrate enough, Meretzky actively goes out of his way to annoy you. There is, for instance, a magic wand with barely enough charges in it; waste a few charges in experimentation, and, boom, you’re locked out of victory. There’s that aforementioned building of 400 floors, all but one of them empty, which the diligent player will nevertheless feel the need to explore floor by floor, just in case there’s something else there; this is, after all, just the type of game to hide something essential on,say, floor 383. And then there’s the most annoying character in an Infocom game this side of Zork I‘s thief, a jester who teleports in every few dozen turns to do some random thing to you, like stick a clown nose over your own (you have to take it off within a certain number of turns or you’ll suffocate) or turn you into an alligator (you have to waste a few turns getting yourself turned back, then deal with picking up all of your possessions off the ground, putting those things you were wearing back on, etc.). Some of these gags are amusing the first time they happen, but they wear out their welcome quickly when they just keep wasting your time over a game that will already require thousands of moves to finish. The jester’s worst trick of all is to teleport you somewhere else in the game’s sprawling geography; you can be hopelessly trapped, locked out of victory through absolutely no fault of your own, if you’re unlucky and don’t have the right transportation handy. Hilariously, Infocom’s marketing people, looking always for an angle, hit upon selling the jester as Meretzky’s latest lovable sidekick, “every bit as enjoyable and memorable as Floyd of Planetfall fame.” Meretzky himself walked them back from that idea.

Some of the puzzles, probably even most of them, are fine enough in themselves, but there is a sprinkling of questionable ones, and all are made immeasurably more difficult by the fact that trying out a burst of inspiration can absorb 50 moves simply transiting from one side of the world to the other. Throw in a sharply limited inventory, which means you might need to make three or four round trips just to try out all the possible solutions you can think of, and things get even more fun. Graham Nelson among others has made much of the idea that the 128 K limitation of the original Z-Machine was actually a hidden benefit, forcing authors to hone their creations down to only what needed to be there and nothing that didn’t. I’ve generally been a little skeptical of that position; there are any number of good Infocom games that feel like they might have been still a little better with just a little more room to breathe. Zork Zero, however, makes as compelling a case as one can imagine for the idea that less is often more in interactive fiction, that constraints can lead to better designs.

The in-game mapping is handy from time to time, but, split into many different regions and viewable only by typing “MAP” from the main screen as it is, is not really ideal. A serious player is likely to be back to pencil and paper (or, these days, Trizbort) pretty quickly.

Which is actually not to say that Meretzky was operating totally unfettered by space constraints. While the YZIP format theoretically allowed a story size of up to 512 K not including graphics, the limitations of Infocom’s least-common-denominator platform, the Apple II, meant that the practical limit was around 340 K, a fairly modest expansion on the old 256 K EZIP and XZIP formats used for the Interactive Fiction Plus line. But still more restrictive was the limitation on the size of what Infocom called the “pre-load,” that part of the story data that could change as the player played, and that thus needed to always be in the host machine’s memory. The pre-load had to be held under about 55 K. Undoubtedly due in part to these restrictions, Zork Zero clearly sacrifices depth for breadth in comparison to many Infocom games that preceded it. The “examine” command suffers badly, some of the responses coming off like oxymorons: “totally ordinary looking writhing mass of snakes”; “totally ordinary looking herd of unicorns.” The sketchy implementation only adds to the throwback feel of the game as a whole.

The hints are certainly nice to have given the complexity and scope of the game, but they unfortunately aren’t context-sensitive. It’s all too easy to accidentally read the wrong one when trying to sort through this jumble.

Another subtle hidden enemy of Zork Zero as a design is the online hint system. Installed with the best of intentions in this as well as a few earlier Infocom games, it could easily lead to creeping laziness on the part of a game’s Implementor. “If the player really gets stuck, she can always turn to the hints,” ran the logic — thus no need to fret to quite the same extent over issues of solubility. The problem with that logic is that no one likes to turn to hints, whether found in the game itself, in a separate InvisiClues booklet, or in an online walkthrough. People play games like Zork Zero to solve them themselves, and the presence of a single bad puzzle remains ruinous to their experience as a whole even if they can look up the answer in the game itself. Infocom’s claim that “the onscreen hints help you through the rough spots without spoiling the story” doesn’t hold much water when one considers that Zork Zero doesn’t really have any story to speak of.

More puzzling is the impact — or rather lack thereof — of Stu Galley’s much-vaunted new parser. Despite being a ground-up rewrite using “an ATN algorithm with an LALR grammar and one-token look-ahead,” whatever that means, it doesn’t feel qualitatively different from those found in earlier Infocom games. The only obvious addition is the alleged ability to notice when you’re having trouble getting your commands across, and to start offering sample commands and other suggestions. A nice idea in theory, but the parser mostly seems to decide to become helpful and start pestering you with questions when you’re typing random possible answers to one of the game’s inane riddles. Like your racist uncle who decides to help you clean up after regaling you with his anecdotes over the Thanksgiving dinner table, even when Zork Zero tries to be helpful it’s annoying. Nowhere is the cognitive dissonance of Zork Zero more plainly highlighted than in the juxtaposition of this overly helpful, newbie-friendly parser with the old-school player hostility of the actual game design. “Zork hates its player,” wrote Robb Sherwin once of the game that made Infocom. After spending years evolving interactive fiction into something more positive and interesting than that old-school player hostility, Infocom incomprehensibly decided to circle back to how it all began with Zork Zero.

The most rewarding moment comes right at the end — and no, not because you’re finally done with the thing, although that’s certainly a factor too. In the end, you wind up right where it all began for Zork and for Infocom, before the famous white house, about to assume the role of the Dungeon Master, the antagonist of the original trilogy. There’s a melancholy resonance to the ending given the history not just of the Great Underground Empire but of Infocom in our own world. Released on July 14, 1989, the MS-DOS version of Zork Zero — the version that most of its few buyers would opt for — was one of the last two Infocom games to ship. So, the very end for Infocom circles back to the very beginning in many ways. Whether getting there is worth the trouble is of course another question.

As the belated date of the MS-DOS release will attest, versions of Zork Zero for the more important game-playing platforms were very slow in coming. The Amiga version didn’t ship until March of 1989, the Apple II version in June, followed finally by that MS-DOS version — the most important of all, oddly left for last. By that time Bruce Davis had lost patience, and Infocom had ceased to exist as anything other than a Mediagenic brand. The story of Zork Zero‘s failure to save Infocom thus isn’t so much the story of its commercial failure — although, make no mistake, it was a commercial failure — as the story of Infocom’s failure to just get the thing finished in time to even give it a chance of making a difference. Already an orphaned afterthought by the time it appeared on the platform that mattered most, Zork Zero likely never managed to sell even 10,000 copies in total. So much for Infocom’s “new look, new challenge, new beginning.”

We have a few more such afterthoughts to discuss before we pull the curtain at last on the story of Infocom, that most detailed and extended of all the stories I’ve told so far on this blog. Now, however, it’s time to check in with Infocom’s counterparts on the other side of the Atlantic, with the other two of the three remaining companies in the English-speaking world still trying to make a living out of text adventures in 1988. As you have probably guessed, things weren’t working out all that much better for either of them than they were for Infocom. Yet amidst the same old commercial problems, there are still some interesting and worthy games to discuss. So, we’ll start to do just that next time.

(Sources: As usual with my Infocom articles, much of this one is drawn from the full Get Lamp interview archives which Jason Scott so kindly shared with me. Much of is also drawn from Jason’s “Infocom Cabinet” of vintage documents. Magazine sources include Questbusters of March 1989, The Games Machine of October 1989, and the Spring 1989 issue of Infocom’s The Status Line newsletter. Huge thanks also to Tim Anderson and Steve Meretzky for corresponding with me about some of the details of this period.

If you still want to play Zork Zero after the thrashing I’ve just given it — sorry, Steve and all Zork Zero fans! — you can purchase it from GOG.com as part of The Zork Anthology.)


Comments

Wade's Important Astrolab

Autumn All Stars 2016 review: Harmonic Time-Bind Ritual Symphony by Ben Kidwell and Maevele Straw

by Wade (noreply@blogger.com) at April 29, 2016 05:47 AM

The PC in Harmonic Time-Bind Ritual Symphony is a self-described middle-aged hippie in Wisconsin. He's a mystic, musician and computer programmer about to release the incredible ANTS software that will allow the alteration and merging of different strands of reality, to what I would euphemistically describe as great positive effect. The author says that the resulting trippiness is an attempt to convey the experience of a summer manic episode in which he believed himself to be a character in an interactive fiction game.

I think Harmonic itself is an amazing game. The crucial thing is that its manic astral mysticism and free-associating subject matter are the province of its prose, world and characters, but not of the underlying structure. The game design is well-considered and has many addictive mechanics recognisable from both old and recent gaming. Harmonic's core gameplay carrots reminded me of a bizarrely disparate group of life simulation games, from Animal Crossing on the Nintendo GameCube to Shenmue on the Sega Dreamcast.

In Harmonic, your PC's base is his house, and the game tracks time through each day and night. You can wander out and around the town, meeting and making friends, warping their realities and yours for the better, setting up projects for later and dealing with social engagements. Some characters will email you. Some events will occur spontaneously (eg a birthday party to attend) and others are unlocked, after a fashion, once you've brought the correct circumstances into alignment. Events are also gated by time, travel restrictions (you can summon your pushbike to your side at will by typing LUNAR, but you have to get your cycling skill up to be able to ride to further parts of town) and major social and puzzle progress through the game.

Why are you doing all these things? Primarily because you're living in the now and having a great time. You're also gradually advancing the cause of new positivity that you began by unleashing your reality-altering software. You can enjoy the experience of this world in its own right, but there's also a simultaneously generous and rigorous score system with a maximum score of 999 which tracks how much of the game content you've experienced. You can get points for doing all kinds of things both grand and elementary, from playing the piano or finding a new place in the city to major stuff like binding whole reality concepts together with your BIND power. There are also optional ending points at which the game tells you how awesome you've been for achieving a certain degree of completion, and then says something like, 'You can keep on playing, or just type WIN now if you'd like.' I was too engrossed in Harmonic to stop playing by the time I reached the first of these points, and carried on until I had more than 700 out of 999.

This IF take on life simulation is catchy in its own right, but it is the freewheeling prose and dialogue, bursting with musings on the mystical, the philosophical and mental health, that makes Harmonic a game that could exist in no other form than interactive fiction. In the same way that the sturdiness of the game's structure does not mirror the unfiltered flood of information you might associate with the recreational drug-taking writ large in the game's events, the writing itself is basically precise even as the ideas contained within it fly around and attach to each other easily. And crazily. Lots of them are cute moon pie, fireworks, astral explosions and love irradiation, but lots of them are interesting or novel in a more cerebral way. The two types are often wrapped around each other, and as long as the game was, I never got tired of reading new conversations, or of clocking the next philosophy of some coffee shop owner or Loonie co-op member.

An early coffee shop encounter with one of the female baristas the PC admires sees her politely listening to his musical-moon-unity theories even as she needs to shut him down just so that she can get her work done. The PC is a bit disappointed but soon puts things into perspective. I thought this was a good observation about kindness, practicality and acknowledging realities generated in others' minds. Later in the game, after the influence of ANTS has advanced considerably, what's in the PC's head becomes the freewheeling fabric and nature of the city itself, and the restrictions of the practical are lifted. There is lots of drug-taking (frequent enough that, paradoxically, I barely noticed) some care-free sex, parties, journeys on the wheel of time, teleportation, time travel, astral crystals, a pizza shop and an arcade with a Tempest machine. This is a game where the response to the WAIT command is, 'You feel yourself traveling through spacetime at the speed of light.'

Harmonic offers all kinds of helps for negotiating its great inventory of content. Actually, so many are offered at the start of the game that I was a bit overwhelmed. You can THINK about things to do, get general HINTS, get people or object-specific HINTs, EXPLORE at random, and you can also customise the progress of time and scheduled events, a concept you are unlikely to appreciate until you've been playing for awhile. There are also multiple meta commands which give you background information from the author, and in the reality-exploding style of the game, it's made clear that it's fine to read these before or alongside the game itself. Reality will eventually have exploded to the extent that I don't know if anyone could solve the last puzzles without hints, but this outcome seems to suit the nature of the whole piece, which is about drawing all realities into one plane. Life, the game, the author, the hints and all information in general. (Also, an anticipatory review the author wrote of the game as if someone else!) The game's cover painting conveys this collapse of dimensions nicely.

There's also a soundtrack of mp3s to be played at particular piano moments in the game, but I found this to be the only element that didn't really work. The first issue is that the songs are dispensed by copy-paste links within the game. Stopping typing, going outside the game, downloading the files one at a time and listening to one before continuing, if you intend to experience it at the directed moment, is too cumbersome to the overall flow, and something most players would consider technically cumbersome per se. The other issue is that the simple, average-fi room recordings of these piano songs are in no way able live up to the bath of figurative crystal light that the game's prose frequently emits.

Harmonic is a big, fun game that is generous about ways in which you might experience it. It offers a main story track, lots of optional content, lots of helps to access both of the above, interesting meta content and scores of ideas about existence, both wacky and thoughtful. Also, I didn't know anyone could make a game I'd really like that also had this much recreational drug-taking and Grateful Deadism in it, two things I would normally have to endure through gritted teeth. Philosophically, I understand that one of the (many) reasons I respond so positively to Harmonic is because the game is organised and disciplined art, even though it's about a lot of things and people that aren't necessarily organised or disciplined. I do feel the primary author shared or simulated (or both) a difficult-to-share personal experience successfully, too. This is my pick of the Main Festival Spring Thing games that I have played.

* Tech note – I'm also a little surprised the author managed to keep the whole game in the smaller Z8 Inform format, rather than having to go up Glulx.

April 28, 2016

Gamefic

Dynamic Conjugation

April 28, 2016 11:01 PM

The original version of the standard library was hardcoded to use the second person when referring to the player's character, e.g., "You go north." Not anymore. Scripts can access an object that defines grammar rules for the PC through the you method. Read More

Wade's Important Astrolab

Autumn All Stars 2016: Penultimate post

by Wade (noreply@blogger.com) at April 28, 2016 01:12 PM

For time reasons, the last game I will be reviewing in Spring Thing is the one I am currently playing: Harmonic Time-Bind Ritual Symphony. I am about halfway through it. After I post that review sometime tomorrow, I will be going to a low to no internet location for a week for a holiday. (Not a holiday from Spring Thing. A holiday in life.)


Emily Short

Mark Bernstein on Hypertext Narrative

by Emily Short at April 28, 2016 11:00 AM

Literary hypertext has a long history that isn’t always well understood or well acknowledged by interactive fiction authors, even though with the growing popularity of Twine and other hypertext tools, the techniques are more than ever relevant to us.

Storyspace3Map.jpg

Recently Eastgate released Storyspace 3, a new version of software used to produce many canonical works of literary hypertext; and, to accompany it, their chief scientist Mark Bernstein wrote a book, Getting Started with Hypertext Narrative, in which he discusses the challenges and the craft of writing in this form.

Whether or not you are interested in using Storyspace or writing literary hypertext, the book is worth reading, not least because it offers terminology and insights from a body of work IF authors seldom study.

In the exchange below, Mark and I discuss various sections of his book, together with other relevant tools in the space. We find some common structures and implementation strategies that cross over from one tradition to the other, and notice that Storyspace 3 might be a viable alternative to StoryNexus for people who want to experiment with quality-based narrative structures but don’t want StoryNexus’ art requirements or styling: what Mark describes as “sculptural hypertext” shares a lot in common with QBN.

All blockquotes are from the text of Getting Started with Hypertext Narrative: I sent these to Mark with my comments, and in some cases he had thoughts in response, so this is actually sort of a three-cornered conversation between the book, the author, and me. Thanks to Mark for supplying the text and taking the time to answer, and also for his patience with how long it took me to bring this together.

Emily: I like the distinction between calligraphic (sparsely linked) and sculptural hypertext (densely-linked, controlled by rules); though I think I tend to associate hypertext only with the former kind of work. When I hear “hypertext”, I assume something with minimal modeling behind the scenes.

Mark: This is an interesting – perhaps the interesting – distinction between the IF and hyperfiction traditions. IF is inclined to model story, while HT is inclined to model — or to believe itself to be modeling, plot. I don’t believe this has ever been stated clearly. Has it?

Emily: I don’t think it’s been stated in quite those terms. I think I broadly agree, with a few caveats:

First, how developed or abstracted a model are we talking about? Most of the time the plot modeling I see in HT works, or for that matter in standard CYOA projects, ChoiceScript games, etc., is not very abstracted. There are nodes or passages to move between on a case by case basis, but there is not an underlying procedural layer making decisions about what information should be revealed first; this has almost always been hand-authored.

StoryNexus gets quite a bit closer to at least allowing a developed model of plot, since the qualities that determine card exposure can reflect things like increasing drama, so that the author can specify ideas like “once the dramatic tension has risen a certain amount, unlock more drastic events”. Not coincidentally, of course, this is the tool that sounds most like your sculptural hypertext/deck descriptions.

Second: as with all generalizations, there are some cases at the borders.

In the IF world, Curveship, of course, doing some procedural work on how to narrate; I’m not sure that anyone but Nick Montfort has ever done that much with it, though. The text it produces is too obviously mechanical for most of the situations in which I might want to apply such a tool.

I also think some of these old distinctions are blurring these days, as we see more projects that cross over between different areas of experiment — partly because Twine has gained some traction with the IF community, and partly because people are more receptive than they used to be to parser/choice hybrids.

Or there’s Wunderverse, which as far as I can tell is in its initial stages and doesn’t have a lot of uptake yet, but combines narrative nodes with simulationist rooms, not really distinguishing between the two. I’m not sure whether this is an intentional design move or a failure to think through the difference between those use cases. (I find it slow enough to build new content in this system — all those drop-downs! typing on an iPad! — that I can’t say I’ve really thoroughly evaluated the potential of its model.)

Mark: The distinction is not always or necessarily clean. It’s possible to model finite state machines in the story with Storyspace guard fields

“Finding The Golden Key” —> unlock the chest
—> the chest is locked

but this has not been widely practiced. Conversely, so much emphasis is placed in IF tutorials on modeling elements (and characters) in the story world that it’s easy for a reader to miss that more conventional guard-field behavior is possible in TADS or Twine.

Emily: In TADS, maybe. In Twine, I don’t think so — Twine is a hypertext tool, and locked or hidden or real-time-delayed links are all common enough. It’s IF-style world modeling that becomes challenging to insert, though people have written methods for tracking player inventory and that sort of thing as an add-on.

*

In painting, it’s not always necessary to specify everything. Perhaps it’s not necessary in hypertext narrative, either. (30)

Emily: This idea appeals to me; a number of my own projects, especially the Versu projects, have left considerable room for variation in what the reader experiences. I think part of what I like about working procedurally on storytelling is that it allows me to focus more particularly on what I think is critical to the telling of the story: which scenes and character notes are essential for the reader to understand what I intend? What else is optional, or could happen in any of a number of ways? What is the range of possibilities, when I want to express a whole system of things?

*

Ruskin’s “rigidity” has been the source of much discussion, as Ruskin knew little and cared less about structural engineering. This rigidity arises, in his view, from the builder’s obstinacy, and might best be viewed in terms of “resistance” of the work, “the peculiar energy which gives tension to movement, and stiffness to resistance.” This resistance is a familiar experience of hypertext narrative; we often want to skip to the good parts – to get the MacGuffin, to undress the girl – but the hypertext has a will of its own. (47)

Emily: I’ve sometimes found it useful to think about this as a paired walking exercise, in which the story goes at the pace of its slowest participant. Sometimes the author needs to block the reader/player (as you suggest); sometimes the reader needs more time to explore the narrative before moving on.

Blood & Laurels offers quite a few scenes where it becomes possible to move to the next scene at a certain point, but the player might elect to extend the encounter, to debate more with the other characters or to try to find out additional optional information.

*

Whether we are reading about the man who wants to say that he may have seen his son die this morning, about the girl who is stitched together from many bodies (and who tends to fall apart), or one of the numerous car crashes that punctuate the landscape of hypertext narrative, the propensity of hypertext narrative for the grotesque is clear. (47)

Emily: That is borne out, certainly, in the Twine community as well: I think of a lot of Porpentine’s work, or to some extent furkle’s SPY INTRIGUE. Or Summit, by Phantom Williams, in which all people have a strange symbiotic relationship with fish, so much so that they cultivate the fish in a special organ called the fishstomach. Also Horse Master by Tom McHenry, or much of the body horror of Liz England — the list is really too long to complete here.

*

[Concerning the way that link markup plays against the way we actually want people to read hypertext:]

The underlying problem is more serious: typographically-distinguished text is usually emphatic. Titles, italics, bold fonts: all draw the eye. They literally underline a passage to demand attention. Emphasizing links is occasionally useful, but some links have no need for urgent, immediate attention: we want people to read and reflect, and only then to choose a link. (55)

Emily: That is definitely an issue. More than once I have found myself clicking on something even though I wasn’t finished reading the paragraph to which it belonged, and sometimes losing my place because of it.

*

In Storyspace 3, a note may have an expression called $Requirements that determines whether the note can be visited. If $Requirements is empty, or if it evaluates to true, the note can be visited. Otherwise, links to that note will not be followed, even if the link’s guard field is satisfied.

Note that a guard field applies to a specific link, while Requirements apply alike to all inbound links. (57)

Emily: Unquestionably useful. I think there’s also something to be said for an inversion of this technique: Blood & Laurels has a number of passages that introduce particular characters or bits of backstory, and they’re designed to fold into the narrative whenever and wherever the player happens to come across that topic for the first time. So, in that sense, it’s possible to have the text catch up with the reader, rather than vice versa.

Mark: This is a motivation for Shark links, which conditionally insert a writing space or episode.

BernsteinGraphic.png

*

[Concerning the challenge of granting meaningful agency at the beginning of a work:]

Here at the outset, the reader doesn’t know what sort of a story this is: the audience is on our side, they want to know what happens, they want to meet these people and they want things to work out for them. But unless they already know the story – unless we’re freeing yet another goddamn princess from yet another silly castle – how can they know which link they want? (66)

Emily: I take your point, but I think this is just a little unfair; one can frame a character who has some pressing immediate motive, and give the player some forward momentum even before the main gist of the piece has been revealed.

*

After following a link and arriving at a destination, readers often look for a theory that explains why the link they chose led where it did. Theory formation can be assisted by repeating the link at the opening of the destination, by acknowledging it or explaining it. The uncertainty caused by the transition may be minimized by minimizing the transition, connecting the destination to what has just been read. (67)

Emily: Le Reprobateur does a very interesting thing by having links based on images (so you click the picture to proceed). The images (often) echo one another in some respect of coloring or composition.

*

[Concerning branching structures, of which the book catalogs several:]

Though links may lean forward, the reader should not be corralled into a rigid sequence punctuated by occasional link excursions. If each excursion returns us to the same sequence, the reader will wonder whether the apparent choices that links have offered them are merely a sham, a pretext for eliciting their engagement. (77)

Emily: This piece strikes me as more prescriptive than much of the rest of the text. Yes, a piece with a gauntlet structure like this will likely reveal its linearity to the player fairly quickly — but perhaps that might be part of the point? I think of Michael Lutz’s My Father’s Long, Long Legs, for example.

*

[Still about structures within hypertexts, and the distinctions between several types of cycle structure:]

The cycle is the fundamental structure of calligraphic hypertext and the way readers perceive that the hypertext has structure. If a hypertext had no cycles, the reader would experience it as a sequence; the reader might not even know that it was a hypertext. Of particular interest are Joyce’s cycle, where we return to a previously visited note but then spin off in a new direction even if we do nothing new. Douglas’s cycle, in contrast, enters a tight loop that signals the exhaustion of the story or of the reader’s current strategy, insisting that the reader try something different or start over. (77/78)

Emily: Interesting.

I’d say there’s a third kind (but maybe you’d disagree with me that this is a third): what Failbetter would call a Carousel structure, or what is described as “Loop and Grow” in Sam Ashwell’s glossary (increasingly canonical within parts of the IF community).

In this form, certain beats recur in cycle, but the player may have new opportunities on the second or third path through the cycle.

Mark: Good point. I had not intended to taxonomise cycles, much less to suggest that these were all the cycles that exist, but that should be clearer.

*

[Concerning the idea of “guard fields”, features that prevent the player following certain links until others have been followed; Solarium is a good example of this kind of thing.]

Guard fields are invaluable for managing cycles and narrative energy in large and complex hypertexts; without guard fields of a similar dynamic link technique, large and densely-linked hypertexts tend to bog down as the reader wanders in place. (85)

Emily: This description very much seems to think of the lexemes as immutable and the passages between them as the only changeable aspect. It’s not until much later (“A Page That Changes Each Time It’s Read” — 154) that we get into the idea of passages embedded within other passages; and that is still treated as a rare special effect.

Does Storyspace have anything like Twine’s ability to morph in-line text on a mouseover or click? I’ve seen this done in Undum as well, in fact, in a lot of Bruno Dias’ work — Cape probably has examples within the first few interactions that exemplify it well. A looping inline morph (blue eyes -> brown eyes -> green eyes -> blue eyes…) has become a standard way to give players options, while a stopping morph (frustrated -> angry -> furious!) often indicates the narrator’s suppressed emotions or more honest thoughts.

Anhedonia (Maddox Pratt) does something quite raw with this, allowing the reader to click on certain depression symptoms and choose how much they want their character to admit to the therapist.

Mark: Traditionally, Storyspace does not. Of course, the effect can easily be simulated by creating a new note which differs only slightly from its predecessor, and some writers (especially Moulthrop, but sometimes Joyce) lean heavily on that. After some correspondence with Bruno Dias, I’m planning to beef up these facilities on Storyspace 3.

*

[In which Mark describes something that sounds quite similar to Quality-Based Narrative:]

A sculptural hypertext is like a shuffled deck of cards: any card might come next. We might add some narrative rules: some cards might be playable now, but others will only be playable later. Perhaps we can only play a red card now, or perhaps we must play a queen; we discard unplayable cards, or shuffle them back into the deck. (94)

Emily: I know you’re aware of Alexis Kennedy’s stuff since you mention it elsewhere, but the analogy is too striking not to comment on: the card deck seems quite similar to some of the ideas in StoryNexus and Varytale. Though there’s also the difference that in general in SN the player/reader has drawn several cards from the deck and is at liberty to choose among them.

Mark: In 2001, I tried and failed to shake up the ACM Hypertext community with a big paper about weird hypertext systems. Card Shark was one of them, and its formalism also gives the reader a deck and a hand of cards — only some of which may be playable at any given time — from which they choose a card to “play”. Card Shark also envisioned a second actor, the Opponent — probably to performed by the computer, with its own set of cards and its own play. I still think the could be interesting to do.

Emily: That does sound like fun!

It’s a very different model, obviously, but one of the things we did in some Versu experiments was to have an AI agent who functioned either as a drama manager or (in one case) as an antagonist of the player; in the ghost story, for instance, the ghost was a separate AI that moved around and could do things to mess with the players. (At one point we had thought about allowing a human player to play as the ghost, either as a multiplayer mode or as a way to enjoy the sandbox experience of messing with the NPCs.)

Mark: Narrativist tabletop games have done some extremely interesting work here. I’m thinking especially of Paul Czege’s My Life With Master and Jason Morningstar’s Fiasco and Grey Ranks. Each of these seems to be chiefly concerned with genre formula, but they’re really about the game-like tension between our desire for resolution and our desire for just a little bit more.

*

From time to time, we might tell the reader to swap the deck she’s reading (or that she’s exhausted) for a new deck. The young Aristotle exchanged the scroll he was reading for a new scroll. (95)

Emily: To extend the connection made just above: now I think of Chris Gardiner’s StoryNexus piece Below, which explicitly has Above and Below decks from which the player may draw. The Below deck pertains to events in the player’s present, exploring a dungeon; the Above deck pertains to events in the past, when the player was still aboveground. But the past events influence mood and resources, so the player frequently needs to draw on these in order to deal with what she encounters Below.

Certain actions allow the player to add new powerful help cards to their Above deck; certain failures add dangerous bad cards to the Below deck.

Yes, it’s ludic use of the idea, but I think relevant nonetheless. Managing what is in your deck — certain opportunities, certain resources — is also managing what might happen next in your character’s story, so it allows the player some intentional agency at the level of narrative as well as gameplay.

Mark: That’s brilliant. Changing decks may also, simply, be the way we move between episodes or acts, clearing the stage and setting a new scene.

*

Launching a Sequence… In contrast to the previous example, these notes should follow each other immediately: we don’t want to shout “thief!” and then sample the honey cakes, and only later chase the thief. (104/5)

Emily: This model is similar to the structure that I developed not for storytelling in general but for conversation modeling in Inform and later in Versu: topics that cluster related ideas together (similar to your Decks); quips (similar to your Notes) that represent individual dialogue segments; and the potential that quips must follow other quips either directly or indirectly to be valid.

Or, again, I notice that StoryNexus started out with ideas of free-floating events (their cards, equivalent to my quips and your notes), and some degree of ordering (qualities that determine when new cards become available); but that they subsequently found they needed a feature so that one quip could forcibly feed into another, rather than optionally.

Likewise:

“To avoid this, we might add a constraint to “Leaving The Flea Market”:
Name: “Leaving”

OnVisit: $Deck(/me)=””
DeckRequirements: $Visits(/me)>5″ (106)

…is similar to Versu’s ability to end a scene after a certain number of actions have elapsed, or StoryNexus scenarios that advance a counter to a certain level in order to unlock the next bit of story.

So in all these cases we have:

  • a general pool of elements that can belong to a particular scene/conversation topic
  • which have ordering principles
  • that control both immediate transitions (Y must come immediately after X) and longer-duration transitions (Y may come any time after X); while
  • scenes/conversations also have general rules about duration or other elements that must be discovered in order for that scene to be considered “over” so that the reader can move on.

I bring these similarities up because I think it’s encouraging that this pattern seems to have emerged more or less independently in several places in interactive literature. That suggests to me that there may be some intrinsic merit to the model.

Of course there are also implementation differences between these three cases, and those differences are still very important.

*

Whenever a reader arrives at a writing space, Storyspace checks to see whether that note has links with the link type “shark”. If there is more than one shark link with a satisfied guard field, Storyspace selects the highest-priority shark link, and the reader proceeds to that link’s destination. Shark links silently shunt readers to a new destination.

Emily: This also expresses an idea that is common in interactive fiction — the denial message.

Mark: Good point. Shark Links can also insert interstitial episodes that serve, for example, to establish facts that will be required in the scene.

Emily: Outside of parser IF we’re less consistent about how to present this. Versu simply doesn’t give the player conversation options unless they’re actually allowed to say those things, for instance; StoryNexus handles the problem through UI mechanics, by allowing the author to show the player which qualities must be satisfied before the player can select a particular card action.

It’s interesting to me that in Storyspace 3 you’ve handled this by blocking the destination rather than the action that leads to the destination.

There are merits to both, of course — to go to the most simplistic parser IF analogy, sometimes you want to model a locked door between two rooms, and sometimes you want to model an area that is dark and cannot be explored without a lantern, no matter how many open doorways lead to that space.

Mark: Guard fields block the action; $Requirements block the destination.

Emily: Quite possibly I’m imagining this wrong through not having played with Storyspace enough/recently. (I’ve never used the creator tool, largely for reasons of price tag; I’ve played some pieces, but it’s been a while since I last had a look.) But the distinction I was thinking of here was that, while a shark field/etc might tell you why you weren’t allowed to proceed, the guard field would simply lock off a link without explaining why that passage was not yet/no longer traversable.

The systems I know in the IF world vary a lot in how much information they give on a) which choices are traversable when and b) when they’re likely to become unlocked.

At one end of the spectrum, you have gamebooks based on paper gamebook design, which require the player to apply the rules himself, and consequently have total transparency about the model. (I’m thinking of the sorts of things entered for the Windhammer Prize.)

Then there’s StoryNexus, which can hide options for which the player is not yet ready, but can also show symbolically which requirements the player is still failing: an icon of carrots next to the currently-locked “Feed bunny” option, for instance.

ChoiceScript allows the author to hide options or show locked options greyed out, but it doesn’t offer any way to show why an option is currently unavailable. It also tends to lean towards very linear traversal — most ChoiceScript pieces avoid or make minimal use of loop mechanisms — which means that the player is less likely to be able to go away and acquire the stats required to unlock an option; so telling the player what is locked and why might be a lower priority.

Varytale allows the author to lock options and also attach additional text that shows to explain the lockout, something that I used from time to time in Bee.

In Twine, any behavior around this would have to be hand-rolled by the author.

*

Emily: I like the exercises you provide at the end: teaching people to be comfortable with interactive narrative structures is a) important and b) rarely done, as far as I can tell.

*

Edited to add: Pathfinders (suggested by Chris Klimas) provides a bit of documentary background on the early history of literary hypertext, showing traversals of several of the works as well as input from the creators and photos of how the works were originally presented; and this video shows Victory Garden being played.


Tagged: Hypertext, Storyspace

April 27, 2016

These Heterogenous Tasks

Murderhearts: Designing a One-Shot LARP

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at April 27, 2016 06:01 PM

Last autumn I got invited to a murder mystery dinner at a friend-of-a-friend’s place. It was a really fun evening, but the out-of-the-box scenario was very much a murder mystery dinner rather than a LARP. Its design assumed an audience unaccustomed to role-playing or improv: the central plot was driven wholly by scripted events, leaving players with campy one-dimensional characters whose agency was pretty much irrelevant to the main action. On the way home, somewhat fortified by the generous cellars of our host, I mentioned to Anna Armstrong that we could totally have written something better.

The next morning Anna said something along the lines of “hey, you know what would be a terrible ridiculous idea and we shouldn’t do it? A MonsterMonsterheartshearts murder-mystery.” Half an hour later we were mocking up how it might work, should we do it, which we definitely weren’t going to.

I’m going to be breaking this up into a series of posts. This first one is going to be about the design considerations that went into adapting a tabletop storygame into a theatre LARP; the second is going to be about design process and organisation, the actual work of putting a LARP together; the third will be about how things went and what I learned. This is not intended as a masterclass; it was the first LARP that either of us had designed, and the first I’d run, so it’s more ‘here’s what I learned’ than ‘observe my powers at work.’

Adaptation always means discarding something. If you’re going to adapt a work, you need to have a strong idea of what you most value about it – you need to design around that, and you need to be able to check back in to ensure that the Core Stuff didn’t get lost in the mix.

So what do I really like about Monsterhearts as a system?

Sexuality. Sex is central to Monsterhearts. You’re not in control of your own sexuality, although you’re always free to interpret what it means for your identity and actions. This is one of the big reasons that the game is totally not for everyone – given enough time, characters tend to gravitate towards pansexual polyamory, and it’d be really difficult to play an asexual aromantic character.

Sex is also a narrative big deal for MH. Sexuality disrupts the status quo, gives direction to the story, complicates it. A simple, well-trodden way to make a story interesting is to give the protagonist (at least) two sets of motives, then entangle them; and the most reliable secondary motivations tend to be family and romance. Aside from narrative concerns, multiple motivations are practically useful in a LARP, because if a player gets stumped on one objective they can switch focus to another. So I wanted flirting and attraction to be a big part of the game.

Emotional ties as weapons. An important resource in MH is strings, which represent emotional leverage over particular characters. Mechanically, a string can be used for a bunch of things, but what it boils down to is influence over how someone feels: fear, lust, dominance, longing, trust, respect, trauma, whatever – power. If you had to boil the themes of the game down to a single narrow thesis, it would be something like this:

Monsterhearts characters have damaging, unsustainable relationships because, as inexperienced, confused, urgently needy kids, they view all social interaction in a selfish, objectifying way; but only through fucking up, getting hurt and hurting others can they develop mature, caring approaches to relationships.

One of the coolest effects that games can pull off is to give you power, entice you to use it, make that choice meaningful and conscious, make you invested in its objectives; and then organically – that is, through the natural action of the power itself – reveal how that particular vector of power is poisonous. Monsterhearts is incredibly effective at this. I really wanted something similar – to give players power and room to screw up.

Mechanically, I felt that Strings would be kind of awkward to use in a LARP setting, so I decided to shift emotional power into backstory and special Moves.

Unique moves. In addition to a stock of common moves which get used most of the time, MH skins have individual powers which complement their play style. This is not exceptional stuff for RPGs, but I wanted to keep sight of it. Most characters should have unique powers.

Making templates your own. Monsterhearts – like most Powered by the Apocalypse games – begins from a set of trope-heavy character templates, but then encourages you to develop and customise them. There are no established rules for how vampirism works, for instance – you can decide on whatever best suits your character, theme and story. We really wanted to customise characters to suit their players, ideally with the active participation of the players themselves, rather than making up a bunch of characters and then trying to assign players to them.

As for the things which I like about LARP:

The information economy. Secrets, rumours and lies. The feel when you drop an interpretation of info into the pool and the ripples bounce back to you. The need to act decisively on incomplete information, and the possibility that you’ll dig your own grave in the process. The shear of doubt. This is all good stuff for a Monsterhearts setting – uncertainty, rumour and isolation are good teen-angst fuel.

In normal Monsterhearts, it’s kind of boring to have characters constantly doing reaction shots of the “…vampires exist?!” variety; it’s a lot smoother to go with the Whedon approach of “well, OK; let’s deal with it.” But in a hidden-information game, I wanted to play on the doubt of players: what kind of monsters are out there? What kind of powers do they have? I think I’m pretty badass, but what if there are things out there that are much, much worse?

Multiple goals. The need to work towards different objectives. Opportunity cost. Practically speaking, it’s good that if a player feels stumped about how to approach X, they can dedicate their attention to Y for a while. But it’s also dramatically interesting to have characters who are pulled in multiple directions – single-minded characters are just boring. I wanted to give every character at least two major motivations.

Other Influences

A lot of underlying assumptions were drawn from the Werewolf family of hidden-role games. Specifically, for the endgame I was thinking about The Resistance, which is like Werewolf without player elimination; a leader must pick a team for a mission, but if they pick the secret bad guys, they might act as saboteurs. I wanted players to be wondering about who they could trust – looking for a murderer – and then be forced to make that into a concrete choice.

We were making a game in which investigating the death of an apparently happy, popular kid exposes hidden badness, weirdness and sex, so I had Twin Peaks in the back of my mind a lot. In the event, we didn’t go anywhere near as dark as that, partly because we were being careful about player safety and partly because doing it appropriately would have been a more challenging writing job, and we were pressed for time.

We watched an awful lot of American high-school movies. This didn’t end up informing a lot of design decisions, but we did really want a trio of Popular Girls ruled over by a despotic queen, or at least a tough-as-nails one. [Edit: Anna says that this helped her get in the mindset to write Godawful Teenage Relationships.]

 Making Tabletop Work as LARP

Tabletop RPG and LARP are very closely related; but even if the differences aren’t big, they’re pretty potent. LARP typically involves way more players; a Monsterhearts game works best with 3-4 players plus an MC, and we were aiming at about four times that. This makes information a lot harder to share, which changes a great many things.

One of the first obvious choices was that dice rolls weren’t going to be a good idea. Rolling dice is awkward in a context where you’re standing up and walking around most of the time, and we wanted to keep mechanics as simple and quick-moving as possible. Some LARPs use dice-like systems, but they tend to be more oriented towards campaign play; in a one-shot, you can’t dedicate as much time for players to learn the system.

More than that, I didn’t think that the Apocalypse World dice roll system would work super-well in a LARP: it inherently involves a certain amount of interpretation, discussion, and GM fiat. Here’s an example of what a normal Monsterhearts roll might look like:

Jodie: I’m going to spend all class making suggestive eyebrow-waggles at Linley. Bite my lip a little. I think I’m being super-subtle about it.

MC: OK, roll to Turn On.

Jodie: 6. So with my Hot 1 that’s a 7. Woo!

MC: Partial success – OK, Linley, you’re into it. Your choice: you can give yourself to her, promise her something you think she wants, or give her a String on you.

Linley: Well, obviously I’m not going to fuck her in the middle of class –

MC: Doesn’t have to be sex; ‘give yourself’ is intentionally vague. It could be some really obvious PDA, or just a look loaded with unspoken but sincere promises.

Linley: I don’t think Linley’s anywhere near that brave. Hm. What do I think you want, hm hm hm.

MC: You can just give the String if you can’t think of anything.

Linley: Yeah, but that’s boring. OK, I think you want to spend more time with me, and I assume that means me and my friends because that’s how I roll, so I pass Jodie a note inviting her to hang out with us at Smoker’s Corner this lunchtime.

Jodie: Being vetted by your scary friends is the last thing I want.

Linley: Obviously, but that would never occur to Linley, and it seems like a good awkward scene.

This is really powerful in a tabletop storygame, but it would break up the in-character flow of a LARP. The consequences of the roll aren’t immediately obvious, and require considerable interpretation; being flexible in the interpretation involves time-compression and jumps in the action, while a LARP’s action is continuous; players discuss their motives and beliefs out-of-character, while the kind of LARP we were doing relies a lot on hidden information and immersion.

So I wanted the actions that players took to mostly have clear, non-random outcomes – the chaos and uncertainty would come from limited knowledge and player choice, not dice. So, for instance, a player might be able to automatically steal an object from another player, at the cost of the victim knowing who the thief was – but they might not know what it was they were stealing, or what its significance was, or whether their victim was a murderously dangerous werewolf likely to exact revenge.

Rituals

One of the moves in Monsterhearts is Gaze Into The Abyss, a vague category covering visions, divination, dreams, research, introspective realisations, and other underhand tricks used by authors to inject new information into the narrative. Gazing into the abyss is useful because – among other things – it lets you push the plot forwards.

This would be even more crucial in an information-driven theatre LARP, but it’d be really tough to handle if adapted verbatim: Gaze Into The Abyss can be carried out at any time, and lets players ask virtually any question of the MC. (Normally, the MC might make something up on the spot, but that’s less practical in a LARP.) Instead, we arranged a series of group rituals – mostly seances – during which everyone would receive new secret information, either by magic, thinking things through, or twiddling idly on their cellphones. These formed the backbone of our game pacing; the idea was that when things seemed at risk of flagging, we’d introduce the next ritual.

Having rituals meant that we needed, as MCs, to have character roles, people who could draw magic circles and make incantations. We wanted people who would be able to lay down the law a bit, but not really drive the main plot; we settled on guidance counselors who were also secret members of Shadowy Monster-Hunting Organisations.

Violence

Violence and the threat of it is important to Monsterhearts, but it’s handled in a fairly loose, drama-oriented manner. Fights are usually resolved with one or two Moves, and are not modeled in detail. And a complicated combat system is just not a good idea in a one-shot LARP, where players have limited bandwidth to learn stuff. We wanted it to be possible for characters to beat up and kill one another, but for that to be a pretty big deal – we didn’t want bodies dropping like flies.

We decided that fights could only take place off-stage, in the privacy of the Library Bathrooms (in reality, an exit ramp partially screened from the main play area.) They’d be really simple: a Move would give you a combat strength number, you’d compare numbers, and the higher score would win. The winner could choose to kill the loser, or just beat them up (and maybe take their stuff). Deaths wouldn’t be immediately obvious to most players – they’d be reported via the MC.

Dead players – unless they had some supernatural ability that let them survive a lethal attack, which a few did – would turn into Ghosts, with limited ability to communicate but a range of new powers and information.

The Flirt Card

I love rolls to Turn On, but they clearly weren’t going to work in a LARP. If flirting was going to be a major part of the game, we needed some other mechanic.

So the elements I wanted to translate were:

  • you have some idea who you’re attracted to, but also a lot of uncertainty: you can unexpectedly, unintentionally fall for people who are totally inconvenient or utterly Not Your Type, and this can turn your world upside down
  • you can be turned on for pretty much any reason, not just by someone consciously hitting on you.

What I came up with was giving everyone a Flirt Card, on which were two lists of characters: Crushes were strong motivators, while the Hotness list was more casual attraction. Both lists contained some secret symbols, representing unknowns; you wouldn’t realise that you were into them until they flirted with you. The other side of the card contained your own symbol, which you would reveal to the object of your Flirt actions. I tried to emphasize that flirts didn’t have to be intentional; the other person could request a Flirt action if they felt that you were behaving alluringly, even if you didn’t really mean to.

OK. That’s how I hoped it would work. Next time: the process of putting it together.


Emily Short

Notes on New and experimental IF Tools

by Emily Short at April 27, 2016 01:00 PM

Last night the Oxford/London IF Meetup had a session on three tools, and I promised to write up some notes for the benefit of the people who weren’t able to attend.

inkle’s ink, the open-source, Unity-compatible language used by inkle for 80 Days and other projects. If you’re curious about ink and missed the session, there’s always Joe Humfrey’s GDC talk on the subject; but Jon also talked to us about The Intercept, the new free and open source ink/Unity game.

Screen Shot 2016-04-27 at 12.37.02 PM

Jon was a bit apologetic about the fact that there is currently no specialist ink runner, meaning that if you want to create (say) an ink entry to IF Comp, you will need to use Unity to build standalone apps. But to me, this is also partly a selling point, in the sense that ink is designed to build custom, professional-looking apps and doesn’t constrain the author to something a bit bland.

Doing this doesn’t have to mean figuring everything out from scratch. What I hadn’t realized about The Intercept until that conversation — and it’s very useful to know — is that the whole Unity project is open-source, not just the ink script that goes into the game. This means that if you want to build an ink/Unity game of your own but you have very little Unity experience, you could download the whole thing and then copy or gradually adapt The Intercept‘s look and feel. (Also worth saying: a personal Unity license is free if you’re not making significant money from your projects.)

Edited to add: on Twitter, I learned about the existence of Blot, a rough and ready alternative Unity project using ink that has fewer genre-specific features than The Intercept. So you have options, even!

Personally I’ve found working with an existing Unity project to mod it into something of my own to be a great route into learning how Unity works, because it means I don’t have to tackle understanding every type of asset at once. So if you’re in the same boat, that might be a way to get an ink game functioning, and then later you could start to figure out things like changing the fonts and presentation. (If you want to! Because it’s open source, you could just keep the way it looks, too.)

Indeed, you may want to play The Intercept even if you have no interest in using ink yourself: it is a short piece, short enough to play through (if not necessarily win) in 5-10 minutes, and it makes interesting use of the conversational options, as in the above example. Especially early in the game, we’re offered the chance to lie without really knowing ourselves what the truth is; and I found myself hesitating over whether I wanted to take the course that seemed safest or whether I wanted to steer towards the option that might reveal most about the story. Did I trust the protagonist, or not?

James Long talked about his play-by-email system (slides; James’ previous interview about the system, from earlier in its development) developed for his Kickstarted game TOP SECRET. This system provides for a branching narrative in which the player’s responses are determined by picking keywords out of email they send.

Emails can be scheduled or time-delayed (and the times can be adjusted to reflect the player’s own time zone) so that you can tell a story where certain beats are keyed to time of day. If the player goes too long without replying to an email, you can also send follow-ups to nudge or remind them of what their choices are. (You would presumably want to apply this carefully so as not to make your player feel nagged by the system, but in an urgent situation it might be relevant.)

Another unusual affordance is that any given email exchange can trigger multiple followups, meaning that the narrative stream can split into several: you might get emails from two different characters, and your interactions with those characters could continue to branch.

In theory, of course, this means that you could get different parts of the narrative out of sync with one another, by answering one character a great deal but ignoring the other; however, because the system can react to the player ignoring an email stream, there are some provisions for getting the player to keep up on secondary strands if that is necessary to the plot progression.

But this also means that there’s world state variation that arises not only from what the player chooses to do but from in what order they choose to act, and which threads they’re pursuing actively. From my point of view this suggests some really interesting social/negotiation games where e.g. you might be motivated to try to stall one character while finding out something from another: for instance, if you have a job offer from X but you’re really hoping to be hired by Y, so you’re exchanging email with Y while trying to keep X warm.

It’s an interesting structure that’s not any of the usual forms of branching narrative but also not really quality-based narrative or any of the other exotica I talked about in my recent beyond-branching post. Multiple-thread CYOA, perhaps: it feels a little like parser games that make multiple puzzles available at the same time, yet it remains essentially a choice-based structure with strong narrative momentum.

*

Matt Thompson talked about a system (slides) he’s building around ideas from TV Tropes. His system uses deontic logic — saying what might happen and what must happen — to describe trope-based systems to work out what could occur next in a story; these systems are then solved using a descendant of Prolog to find what events can be valid next given these constraints.

So, for instance, in a classic murder mystery trope, we might say something such as

  • The Villain must kill the Victim,
  • Then the Victim must be found,
  • Then the Hero must find evidence of the Villain,
  • Then the Hero must accuse the Villain before the end of the Story.

(Apologies to Matt if I’ve mangled the syntax, but he is indeed using an Inform 7-esque English-language front end to expressing these pieces of logic.)

We might have several different tropes in play at a time expressing what the different characters could possibly do — or what they must do — and then these possibilities are presented as affordances for those characters. So if the player is playing as the Villain, her first affordance would indeed be to commit the killing. The system becomes more interesting when there are multiple tropes in play, possibly conflicting with one another.

There are various issues still to be solved here: how does the author skin this with something closer to a readerly experience? Is this even intended to produce something close to classic IF? How does it handle time scale differences, for instance if one trope applies over the course of a few minutes and another has requirements that describe an epic journey?

And something that only occurred to me later: would there be a viable game in which players go back and forth adding new tropes to the solver and watching the story reform around what they’ve just done? Perhaps with the aim of making their particular character seem more like the hero, or perhaps with some other more artistic purpose. But I find myself amused by the idea of a game where the actual gameplay moves consist of things like “The Villain is an Obstructive Bureaucrat, so she may Deny Applications.” Committing to a particular trope would then mean that you had to live with all the implications later on. (This is probably a silly idea.)


Inkle

Can a Story Game Have Too Much Game?

April 27, 2016 11:01 AM

On this week's inklecast we ask a question that's close to our heights: when is the game part of your story game too much game for your story?

In all our projects, we try to marry the gameplay and the narrative elements so tightly together that neither could be removed - but is there an argument for the cutscene-and-play model? Have a listen and tell us what you think.

Never miss an episode - subscribe on iTunes or use the RSS feed!

The People's Republic of IF

May meetup

by zarf at April 27, 2016 06:00 AM

The Boston IF meetup for May will be Wednesday, May 11, 6:30 pm, MIT room 14N-233.

Special of the month: Starting at 7:00, we will sit in on the final meeting of Nick Montfort’s Interactive Narrative class. Students will present their final IF projects.

(Meet in the Trope Tank as usual at 6:30. We will head upstairs to room 14E-310 at 7:00.)

April 26, 2016

The XYZZY Awards

Xyzzymposium: Yoon Ha Lee on Best Writing 2014

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at April 26, 2016 04:01 PM

Yoon Ha Lee is the author of the IF The Moonlit Tower, which placed 4th in IF Comp 2002 and won the 2002 XYZZY Award for Best Writing. He also authored the StoryNexus game Winterstrike for Failbetter Games. His short story collection Conservation of Shadows came out from Prime Books in 2013, and his fiction has appeared in Tor.com, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and other venues. His space opera novel Ninefox Gambit is forthcoming from Solaris Books in June 2016.

The Best Writing nominees for 2014 were Eidolon and With Those We Love Alive.

Eidolon (A.D. Jansen)

Eidolon begins deceptively quietly, describing the player’s awakening in the middle of the night, then adds poetic flourishes: “The bathroom is at the end of a long hall lined with tilted towers of moon”; there are “livid stripes on the carpet.” The problem your character is having is “insomnia” (mentioned in quotes in-game), which “you imagine [as] a seed planted deep in the ground.” Your character’s fantasies about this ailment foreshadow the stranger adventures that lie ahead:

The symptoms must go something like this, you’ve decided: At first you wake up in the middle of the night and don’t stay awake very long, just long enough to pee or sneak downstairs to steal a snack from the refrigerator. A harmless kernel of insomnia buried where no one else can see it. Come morning you might not remember the episode yourself. But then the seed takes root and begins to sprout, sends out sun-hungry shoots towards dawn and dusk. You start to wake up earlier, and fall back asleep later, until before you know it, you take only two short naps each night, like bookends, and then you stop sleeping altogether. And then—

In general, descriptions are evocative without being overwritten:

Collections of candles, jewelry, and seashells have accumulated on the dresser like sunken treasure half-buried in silt. You know there’s a globe lurking there, too, and a music box, and a terrarium made from a fish bowl, but you can’t distinguish them; all the junk forms a single amorphous mass.

Admittedly here is a rare misstep, as the prose overreaches itself:

Your throat is dry despite the water you drank in the kitchen. You don’t dare reach for the glass on the nightstand. When you do finally form the words, they seem to come from somewhere distant, as though you were a ventriloquist able to cast your voice across the snowy crests of the houses, across snow-cloaked peaks impaling snowdrop moons, across the snow-spattered churning of onyx oceans.

There is great attention to detail, becoming unsettlingly obsessive at appropriate times. For instance,

[w]hen you look at your mother’s picture, you can compare past mother to present mother and see how she’s different now (she looked so young back then, her hair was so short), and there are a million intermediary mothers in your memory you can also compare. You can draw a great long wavy Mother Line between them all: Here’s her fruit breeding phase, her obsession with mushroom hunting, the time when she would seemingly clean the whole house twice a day, the time when she broke her leg falling down the stairs and had to wear a cast and walk around on crutches for two months.

This recalls an earlier segment on imaginary vs. real numbers as two separate systems.

Throughout the game evokes a sense of paranoia through well-chosen detail:

You were having a dream when you woke up, but the moment your eyes opened, it diffused through the room like a drop of blood in bathwater. Now it’s indistinguishable from the real shadows surrounding you, the shadows of your desk, your dresser, your bookshelf, the clock on the wall. The darkness flickers rhythmically with the swinging of the pendulum.

Or this:

The thing in the mirror is barely there, a loose bundle of shadow stitched ineptly with spider silk.

Or, even more succinctly:

The shadows drink your voice to the last drop.

Other details suggest the otherworldly nature of reality the player is plunged into:

The room erupts and the mirror splinters. She is laughing her head off. Each laugh dies a star’s death, in a bouquet of combustion.

“Bouquet” is a particularly evocative word choice, contrasting with the cruelty and violence in the rest of the imagery.

In this example, the player becomes convinced that she, too, is becoming a part of the everywhere-pervasive otherworld.

You know a door is opening because you can see a broadening blackness in the gray. The darkness is dividing itself into shades: your eyes must be adjusting. You wonder if your pupils, thirsty for the few microscopic droplets of starlight that survive this far indoors, have become hypersensitive, swallowing up your irises, the whites of your eyes. You wonder if you might be undergoing a metamorphosis in this cocoon of darkness, if you might emerge and dry crinkled, colorless wings, a fully-formed creature of the night.

Horror and uncertainty are not the only moods the prose evokes; it changes with the situation. Here is nostalgia:

You are playing with your dollhouse beneath a star-dusted, angel-crowned evergreen tree in a warm, reddish room where candles sprout in clusters like toadstools. It is early morning and the world outside the window is dyed indigo. There are three members of the doll family: mother, father, daughter. You are putting them to bed one by one.

While the protagonist is characterized primarily by her narration and descriptions of the world around her, the mysterious girl is largely characterized through her dialogue. Her unfamiliarity with the rules of our world combines with her arrogance in this description of a TV:

“You people have the most delightful inventions,” she says coldly. She’s regained her composure quickly enough. “A box that blinds you and makes a horrid noise. Whatever will you think of next?”

Her tyrannical nature is no secret:

“I ought to have you locked away forever. I should melt the key to your cell and have you wear it as a ring around your finger! Who would miss you?” She laughs like a jackal. “But, luckily for you, I’m in a merciful mood. Even though you don’t in any way deserve my charity, I will allow you to leave this place if you can perform three tasks for me.”

In terms of prose, clever use of repetition brings unity to the text. For example, this segment appears both early in the game and toward the end, almost a chant centered upon the work’s title:

There’s an eye that opens when everyone else is asleep, and the name of that eye is Eidolon.

There’s a seed that sprouts in midnight soil, and the seed spawns a forest, and the name of that forest is Eidolon.

There is a hole in the sky, and the name of that hole is Eidolon.

Finally, the author shows mastery of the use of rhythm and onomatopoeia to emphasize key segments. Here “Listen closely,” “Snow is falling,” and “Stars are dying” all have four syllables, reinforcing the image of the clocks ticking.

. . . Hush now. Listen closely. Snow is falling. Stars are dying. All the clocks on all the almost-Earths are ticking . . .

In another example, the syllable counts hit like drumstrokes carefully measured out.

Boom. Hush. Groan. [three syllables]

“Come with me.” [three syllables]

Her hand flutters. [four syllables]

The door hinges howl. [five syllables]

A thousand eyes slam shut. [six syllables]

With its imagery at turns surreal and playful, its supple prose, and its distinctively depicted characters, Eidolon does an excellent job of using the written medium in a narrative game. I was especially impressed by the tactical use of rhythm, something that I don’t often see employed to such good effect. As a player, I came away most satisfied by this aspect of the game.

With Those We Love Alive (Porpentine, Brenda Neotenomie)

With Those We Love Alive has prose characterized by vivid, often gruesome imagery, startling and pointed shifts in register, and unusual neologisms. This not only paints a violently beautiful and unsettling world, but serves a rhetorical purpose as well. While the game setting gives an impression of baroque and decadent lushness–I was reminded at times of Michael Moorcock’s Melniboné–this effect is accomplished with admirable efficiency, as in this description of the garden:

Glass flowers on iron stalks. Canopy of leafbone. Statues sunk into the earth.

Or the contents of the ropes that crisscross the spaces between the buildings:

Laundry, drying meat, lanterns, festival ribbons.

This particular description doesn’t change as far as I was able to determine, but in a list of four items it suggests a busy city. On the other hand, the combinatorially ever-changing contents of the dream distillery suggest synesthetic horrors and pleasures, as in this example:

A bouquet of agorophobia, a powerful flavor of defiance, and an aftertaste of broken promises.

On occasion there is a grace note of beauty, as in the taste of three red berries, a gift from the empress:

Their juice stains your fingers. It lingers on your mouth, sweet turning to bitter like sun to evening.

Or this:

Moons roll across the water like phosphorescent marbles.

Unsettling coinages spill through the text, such as the “estroglyphs” and “spiroglyphs” contained in the player’s chest, and which must be periodically reapplied to maintain their form. In the nightmare factory, nightmare damage “unreal[s]” the wood, suggesting that dreams are more powerful than matter. My favorite eyeball-kick was the “kittenblind” princess spores.

The brutality of the empress’s rule is reinforced throughout by details large and small. For instance, the player contemplates a choice of material for one of the empress’s commissions:

You swirl the marrow. These are fairly pristine for heretic bones. No fire damage, only slight splintering from pressure. Rack? The placing of many heavy stones over a long period of time? Torn apart by horses?

It’s hilarious how many ways there are to destroy someone.

After the matter-of-fact speculation, the adjective “hilarious” is jarring, and deliberately so. At another point, when the player considers another material (angel leather),

You hear the empress removed the bones without breaking the skin. One of her better party tricks.

Even beauty is laced with cruelty during the new year celebration:

The sky is full of jellyfire like disemboweled rainbows.

The old year is ending.

Alliteration reinforces the terror of the empress’s hunts:

At the rear of the procession you listen to the always weapons and the sometimes screams.

The empress herself is depicted in terms that make her singularly unappealing:

You can smell her from here. She smells like dead candy.

And strength of word choice makes Sedina’s assassination attempt all the more gruesome as the blade exits the wound “drooling red.”

This game is extremely good at evoking horror, especially when it reveals what has been done to the protagonist. It’s the matter-of-fact “because she was your mother” that kicked me inside the head when I first read this passage:

When you were very young, it was popular among the rich to distill the dreams of children. This practice is no longer in vogue, but back then, every month or so, some children would be taken.

One night your mother stood over the stove and crumbled leaves into a cup of hot water. She stirred and stirred until it was dark green.

She gave you the cup. You drank it, because she was your mother.

That night you fell into a horrible fever. You sweated until it felt like strings threaded with broken glass were being pulled through your pores. You hallucinated. You fried. You could see nothing but the inside of your own skull.

When you woke up, you could no longer dream. In one night, it felt like you had dreamt all the dreams of a lifetime. It felt like an eternity of fire. Like what should have come slowly, gently, unfolding delicately at the whirling dance of your years, had instead been accelerated at a ruinous speed, burning away.

When the player’s old friend arrives, their conversation is in a shockingly different register:

“Hahah. Seriously. Really overrated. Breathing sucks too.”

In their conversations, the two sound like nothing so much as alienated teenagers–except they are artificer and witch under the power of tyrant. It comes as a thrill when it turns out that the witch has a plan, using a weapon so improbable as a “non-existent knife,” and whose operation is elegantly explained in this exchange:

A non-existent knife is lying on the floor. Your skin tingles.

“When is that knife going to exist?”

“Tomorrow.”

The following passage, however, is the keystone of the piece, to which everything else builds–the empress’s inhumane demands, the habits of the city, the necessity of rebellion:

To attack the sovereign body and fail is the same as wounding the sovereign body, because the body is not a body of flesh and blood, it is a body of power.

Power is wounded by anything that refuses to be destroyed by it.

In other words, the empress is the reification of tyranny.

And the ending is pitch-perfect, giving the choice of two equally valid answers to the dead person who has haunted you this whole time, representing, perhaps, your perceived inability to act in the face of a greater power. (I’m sure there are other interpretations; here the image’s polysemous nature reads as a strength rather than as vagueness.)

“I’m sorry, dead person, but you must leave.”

[choice] “Because you are dead.” / “Because I am alive.”

Either choice is equally valid–as the game says early on, there are no wrong chocies–and equally affirms the theme, but with differing emphases.

While there are only two contenders for XYZZY Writing this year, they’re both extremely strong. I was delighted to have the opportunity to review both. If I had to make a pick out of the category, I lean toward With Those We Love Alive because of its thematic unity, but one could make an equally strong case for Eidolon. Congratulations to both authors!

Wade's Important Astrolab

Autumn All Stars 2016 review: The Xylophoniad by Robin Johnson

by Wade (noreply@blogger.com) at April 26, 2016 01:50 PM

The Xylophoniad is a joking, mashup take on numerous characters and situations from Greek mythology. You play the part of veteran adventuress Xylophone, and find yourself assigned by a bored king to knock over a few light tasks like ending the Trojan War, rescuing prisoners from Hades and killing the Bicyclops.

I imagined the Bicyclops was going to turn out to have two eyes side-by-side, which would have had the effect of making it look like anyone else, which would in turn have resulted in comedic, illogical screaming from onlookers along the lines of: 'Argh! Two eyes! It's hideous!' – but it turns out that the second eye of a Bicyclops is above the first one. And that is pretty gross.

This entertaining parser adventure does remind of the classic Scott Adams games in some of its nature and puzzles, but rarely in degree. The aesthetic of those 16 kilobyte games was determined by the hard technical limit of the 16 kilobytes. There are no real limits here. There are choices, and any mimicry of older games is carried out to an irreverent extent rather than a slavish one. The Xylophoniad (or THE X as I will now abbreviate it) delivers its humour in some particularly goofy and cartoon-like ways, elicits jokes from cute and simple NPCs who appear as caricatures of their legendary selves – or 'non-canonical versions' as the game likes to say – and keeps the player busy with a large ancient world split into separate regions. The region separation feels like both a staple of gaming in general (like levels, a way to divide up content and aesthetics) and a way to make THE X feel more manageable. Because no matter how cute the game may appear to be at the outset, when a king tells you to perform three impossible-sounding tasks before breakfast (it was the 'end the Trojan war' one that especially raised my anxiety levels) – you're likely to feel at least a tad flustered about the day ahead.

Fortunately, and as I should probably have anticipated, the explicit solutions to the major challenges are pretty wack. Don't dwell on how to end the Trojan War all by yourself (... ARGH!!!). Just get out there and be the best traditionally klepto adventuress you can be, exploring, finding ways to pass recalcitrant portals, solving puzzles that crop up using a mixture of logic and illogic, and helping NPCs with their usually not-too-obscure problems. Achilles is histrionic, the medusa is apologetic, Daedalus is MacGyver and Helen of Troy emits unusual noises.

I don't think much knowledge of Greek mythology is required to deal with THE X's puzzles. In cases where a particular piece of knowledge might help with a particular puzzle, the game either tells you about it explicitly or collapses it into a joke that has the side-effect of indicating how the situation would have been in a canonical version of the story. I found myself at an impasse a few times and got past each one using the typical graduated hint system that comes with the game. If I'd had more time to play, I probably would have continued to experiment with the gameworld and overcome one or two of the impasses on my own.

---

This game runs in Versificator, the author's own parser engine. It seems to handle pretty well, though this game doesn't distress the actual parser part of it much in terms of the player having to type any complicated commands. I only encountered two things that bothered me, one tiny and specific and one a little more general. The former was that I did try looking UNDER or putting things UNDER other things in the game, and it didn't give sensible responses. The more general thing is that pronouns for people don't update to reflect who's in the room. For instance if you X ACHILLES, 'him' keeps referring to Achilles, even if you leave Achilles well behind and go and see Daedalus, and say TALK TO HIM.

I didn't think much (at all?) about parser pronouns until a few years ago when Emily Boegheim on intfiction.org pointed out she generally played parser games using pronouns all the way. This led to a poll, which led to a surprising result showing maybe half the respondents used pronouns a lot or all the time. I then went and reprogrammed my previous game so pronouns worked really well, and I've done them well ever since. Now I too use them when playing, because gosh darn it they're so convenient, especially when characters have names like 'Sisyphus' which must be typed in full. So my feature suggestion for author Robin Johnson and Versificator is that the engine's pronouns update themselves in smarter fashion.

April 25, 2016

Post Position

Hello, Globe

by Nick Montfort at April 25, 2016 08:45 PM

On Saturday, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death (and, happy birthday, too, Will), I delivered to Twitter, via post-haste dispatch, the following four Commodore 64 BASIC programs, versions of the famous “Hello world” program:

400 ? chr$(147)"hello world":for a=1 to 500:next:? chr$(19)"brave":new:rem #c64

400 ? chr$(144)chr$(79)chr$(84)"hello world":rem #c64

400 ? "hello world"chr$(4^3+(2b or not 2b)):rem #c64

400 for a=0to255:? chr$(147)spc(a)"(QRQ) hello world":next:? chr$(147):rem #c64

Type ’em in to a for-real Commodore 64 or to this Web-based emulator here. No special characters are involved, so entering these programs should be easy; lowercase letters will appear capitalized and the few capital ones will appear as graphical symbols.

Let me know what you think … and if you see the relationship to four of Shakespeare’s plays.

Great Workshop for New Programmers at Babycastles

by Nick Montfort at April 25, 2016 05:41 PM

I had a launch event Saturday afternoon for my new book, Exploratory Programming for the Arts and Humanities. Not a typical reading or book party, but a workshop for people completely new to programming but interested in pursuing it. It was at the excellent gallery and venue, Babycastles, on West 14th Street in Manhattan.

I don’t actually have the list of attendees – I’d like to sent everyone a note, but it will have to wait! – but two people I knew beforehand participated and ten others joined in, with some people from Babycastles also participating and helping out. (Special thanks to Lauren Gardner for hosting!) I was very glad that the group was diverse in terms of gender, race, background, interests … also, pleased that this time around we had more people who were genuinely new to programming. I’ve done similar workshops before, prior to the publication of Exploratory Programming, and often there are folks who have had some programming classes and done some programming projects before. I’m glad to help such people as they re-start work with code, but I tried to make sure this time that there was no crypto-prerequisite suggested; the session really was for those wanting to program but lacking background.

Of course we dealt with programming as culturally situated and meaningful within art, poetry, writing, and inquiry. We used the historical Memory Slam examples that I prepared a few years ago for another event in Lower Manhattan.

Because the book is out and registration for the workshop included a copy of it, I didn’t feel the need to go through particular code examples that are in there. I was able to frame the whole idea of programming and focus on a few early specifics in both JavaScript and Python – showing that code is just editing a text file; that there’s a difference between code and data (and parameters, too); and that error messages can be helpful rather than frustrating. We did work with specific code, but didn’t cover specific code discussions in the book or the exercises in there. The book is for use in a classroom, but also for individual learners, to allow people to continue their work as programmers formally and informally.

Many people introducing a new book will have book parties, with or without readings, that draw a much larger crowd that this event did. But, as Brian Eno said about the Velvet Underground’s first album, not many people bought it but all the people who did started a band. I hope everyone who participated in this modest event at Babycastles goes on to start a band, by developing a programming practice engaged with the arts and humanities.

Update: I should have mentioned – we’ll have a similar workshop on May 15 at the School for Poetic Computation!

Choice of Games

Name your own character in our 2016 charity auctions

by Dan Fabulich at April 25, 2016 05:01 PM

My Friend's Place

Choice of Games is proud to announce that we’re auctioning off cameos in six of our most anticipated games; proceeds will go to My Friend’s Place, an organization that assists and inspires homeless youth to build self-sufficient lives.

The auctions close on Thursday, May 19th.

Name a Dragon in “The Chronicles of Mornland”

Chronicles of Mornland

In The Chronicles of Mornland, the upcoming multiplayer interactive fiction from Choice of Games, players will take the role of dragon-riding barons and baronesses, ruling over their fiefs and seeking to dominate the realm of Mornland.

In this world, Princess Carmela is one of the candidates for the Mornlandish throne. She is a mighty warrior, a skilled general, and a chivalrous knight. Everyone trembles before her magnificent dragon.

If you win this lot, you get to name Carmela’s dragon!

The Chronicles of Mornland is a multiple-choice interactive novel, co-written by Adam Strong-Morse (Choice of the Dragon, Choice of Broadsides, Choice of Romance: Affairs of the Court) and Rebecca Slitt (Psy High)

Name a God or Goddess in “VERSUS: The Elite Trials”

VERSUS: The Lost Ones

The Wone are the self-proclaimed creation gods of the galaxy, worshipped by entire planets–though doubted as false idols by just as many. Win the opportunity to craft one of these all-powerful Wone beings in Versus: The Elite Trials, which will explore their opulent and fraught home planet. Name your Wone deity and name their House/Speciality (think Greek Mythology in space) to be considered among the ranks of Lady Venuma and Queen Ashe herself.

VERSUS: The Elite Trials is written by Zachary Sergi, author of Heroes Rise: The Prodigy, Heroes Rise: The Hero Project, Heroes Rise: HeroFall, The Hero Project: Redemption Season, and VERSUS: The Lost Ones.

Name a Space Wizard or a battlecruiser in “Choice of the Emperor”

Choice of the Emperor

In Choice of the Emperor, an epic space opera by Max Gladstone, a conquering Emperor must manage his galactic empire, surviving external threats and internal intrigue.

In this world, you may appear in a cameo as a wise Space Wizard, or you can name the Emperor’s prize battlecruiser!

Choice of the Emperor is a multiple-choice interactive novel written by Max Gladstone, author of Choice of the Deathless and Deathless: The City’s Thirst, as well as the Craft Sequence, a five-book series of urban fantasy published by Tor Books.

Create a new villain for “Community College Here: Knowledge is Power!”

Community College Hero

Emboldened by the Manipulator’s brash attacks on the city of Speck, a new villain has emerged looking to gain notoriety at the expense of the city’s overwhelmed rookie heroes!

This will not be a “single-scene” character! The villain and the main character will have their own story arc. The winner will collaborate with the author to create the details of the new villain, including name, gender, costume, physical description, and power set. The villain should be just powerful enough to pose a threat to the main character without being “overpowered.” Think Zenith level 3 or 4 and be creative!

Community College Hero: Knowledge is Power! is the sequel to Community College Hero: Trial by Fire, a multiple-choice interactive novel by Eric Moser and Hosted Games.

Create a supernatural associate in the sequel to “So, You’re Possessed!”

So, You're Possessed!

Have you always wanted to spread a little heavenly love or hellish chaos for the sake of Armageddon? The lucky winner of this auction will collaborate with the authors to do exactly that! Your character will help continue our journey through the light, the dark, and the minimum wage pizza delivery that that began with So, You’re Possessed!

The sequel, Have Human, Will Travel! is the second fiendishly fun multiple-choice text adventure by Tony R. Smith and Beth Townsend with Hosted Games.

Winner should submit:

  • Character’s Name (based on an adjective or emotion)
  • Character’s Gender
  • Character’s Divine Race (angel or demon)
  • Character’s Motivation (good, evil, or neutral)
  • Character’s Physical Description

Design a ship’s captain in “The Lost Heir 3: Demon War”

Lost Heir 3: Demon War

Set sail on the seas of fate as a ship’s captain to support or oppose the heir of Daria!

The story of the hero continues in Demon War, the sequel to 2016’s Forging a Kingdom. Now is your chance to work with the author to bring a character of your dreams to life! Winner will decide the character’s name, gender and sexual orientation, physical description, class (fighter, wizard, thief or cleric) and race (human, elf, dwarf, halfling, half-orc or gnome).

The Lost Heir trilogy is a multiple-choice text adventure by Mike Walter and Hosted Games. Mike is also author of the best selling Life of a Wizard and Life of a Mobster, also published by Hosted Games.

We’d like to thank BiddingForGood for hosting these auctions. BiddingForGood normally charges a fee, but Choice of Games is happy to donate the fee directly to My Friend’s Place, so you can rest assured that they’ll receive 100% of your bid amount.

Please tell your friends about these auctions! The more people bid, the more we’ll be able to raise for charity.

Wade's Important Astrolab

Autumn All Stars 2016 review: Three-Card Trick by Chandler Groover

by Wade (noreply@blogger.com) at April 25, 2016 01:16 AM

In the parser game Three-Card Trick you play Morgan the Magnificent, a magician seeking to assure that he's never again upstaged by Ivan, that other magician whom he considers to be a charlatan hack. This short, linear and impeccably written parser adventure debuted in the first Quadrennial Ryan Veeder Exposition for Good Interactive Fiction (an exposition whose name I hope to not have to type too often in life, and given its quadrenniality, my hope should be realised) and now reappears in Spring Thing 2016. Three-Card Trick manages to develop multiple dimensions of surprise and suspense over its duration, and thus, like a good magic trick, is itself surprising in a delighting way.

The archness, pride and arrogance of both magicians comes through in the narration and the dialogue via all kinds of showmanship, ranging form the boastful to the oily to the spectacular (spectacular within the parameters of a card trick). Each card that is turned over and each bold pronouncement presents another dramatic moment in which the story could easily take a sharp turn, and the author zooms in on a lot of these held-breath moments by having the player hit a key to draw out each word of a sentence. I personally think this device needs to be hitting home above a pretty high threshold to merit its use, but it's handled about equal best I've seen in this game.

The craft of directing player action to a single end in a linear parser game is wrangled breezily. The phrases you need to type are often dispensed verbatim as part of prose descriptions in the preceding paragraphs. Subtlety doesn't really matter because these directions coincide entirely with the strong motivations of the narrator and the scope of the required actions in the game. Nor does the overall linearity mean that Three-Card Trick is underimplemented. Most good idea tangents work, and almost all people and things I tried looking at were described through the consistent prism of Morgan's condemnational eye.

About the only thing that even mildly perturbed me was that the compass the player is handed at game start, which is supposed to make navigation super-easy by allowing one to type IN and OUT to move towards or away from goals, confused me. Not the idea of it, which is great, nor the explanation for it, which is basically 'it's magic', but just that in this scheme that's trying to be so simple, I found it ironically easy to be uncertain about where IN was going to lead next and where OUT was going to lead next. Sometimes I had to reverse when I found myself going the way I hadn't anticipated.

There's some weird humour attached to the title of the game in light of what it reveals to be the significance of the 'three-card' element of the trick. This plays to the idea of misdirection in magic, as if everyone who is amazed by this trick was somehow figuratively looking in the wrong direction, or figuratively dwelling on the wrong thing, in the first place. It's also strange that the people at the exposition can be repeatedly amazed by the same trick when it's being repeated in back-to-back performances, though the game certainly points a finger at their notions of fashionability. I found that these unusual little openings in the gameworld, applicable to but unnoticed by its characters, added a speculative dimension to the experience of a kind that I think is hard to get out of parser games that direct player action as strongly as this one.

---

I recently showed my three and a half year-old nephew how to do a magic trick using a special trick cup and ball that I got out of a showbag when I was a kid. I was impressed that he had the dexterity to manipulate the ball-hiding fake lid on the cup, but after he did the trick and I acted surprised at the ball's disappearance, he put his finger inside the fake lid and whispered confidentially, 'The ball's in here.'

April 24, 2016

what will you do now?

Kotodama

by verityvirtue at April 24, 2016 11:01 PM

By Aidan Doyle. (Twine; IFDB; play here)

showimageCover art: the kanji characters for ‘kotodama’

Tokyo has been hit by a poetry outbreak. You, a robot, have been sent to deal with it.

Kotodama is set in a world in which poetry is akin to a contagious disease, and that shapes much of the world-building. This much is evident from the first line:

The lobby of the Tokyo Skypoem is filled with panicked humans, their faces scarred by unbridled metaphor. Paramedics carry stretchers bearing limerick-riddled corpses and haiku-exposed skeletons.

The writing sparkles with wit, and the game’s use of metaphor (that is, making it have literal consequences) called to mind Patanoir. Kotodama also gives a welcome depth to the world-building by giving a nod to familiar narratives such as racism or the role of immigrants. This seems to have some link to the title: according to the Oxford Dictionaries blog, which the game quotes, the concept of ‘kotodama’ applies especially to Japanese in its ‘purest’ form – that is, the language without any loan words – yet, definitions of what counted as ‘pure’ varied over the years.

Kotodama is relatively short, but is highly polished (I found the Poetry Dojo to be a stroke of genius) and very cleverly written. Highly recommended.


April 23, 2016

Wade's Important Astrolab

Autumn All Stars 2016 sorta review: Fourdiopolis by Andrew Schultz

by Wade (noreply@blogger.com) at April 23, 2016 03:22 PM

What is the fourth dimension?

Some people say it's time.

Some say it's Odorama, the scratch and sniff card system that accompanied the John Waters film Polyester.

Some say the fourth dimension is the tesseract, the four-dimensional analog of the cube. As the cube is to the square, the tesseract is to the cube – and obviously that's all the explanation you need from me to perfectly understand the concept in its entirety. Dragon Magazine, a major resource for Advanced Dungeons & Dragoners, went a bit nuts with tesseract articles in the 1980s. You could dump a group of adventurers in a tesseract and then stand back and laugh at the poor bastards as they tried in vain to map the thing, or slew each other while arguing over where the ceiling was.

This all leads me to Andrew Schultz's Spring Thing game Fourdiopolis. It's the logically titled sequel to his 2013 game Threediopolis. Andrew's a friend of mine, so I don't normally review or rate his games in competitions and things, but since Fourdiopolis is in the Spring Thing Back Garden and I spent a few hours playing it this evening, I feel like talking about it. I will be as coy about the puzzle details as everyone has always been about the puzzle details for Threediopolis, for reasons that all of those people who have been being coy already get. Know that Fourdiopolis is, like its predecessor, a wordplay/quasi-maze game.

Before I booted Fourdiopolis up, I was wondering how this game would build on the mechanics of Threediopolis. The new addition is simple at a glance, but it very significantly increases the possibility set for the solutions. This multiplies the difficulties wrapped around the various methods you can lean on to solve the puzzles, and definitely makes for a harder game overall.

If you never played Threediopolis, the initial puzzle is just working out what you're meant to do. If you have played Threediopolis, Fourdiopolis begins with you resurrecting the skills mustered in the first game. Their interplay is trickier this time and you won't get as far taking wild, inspired swings. Not that there was anything wrong with those; there were a strangely high number of ways you could approach each puzzle in Threediopolis, including the wild swinging, and that number has increased in Fourdiopolis. I found I kept getting better at this game in basically a straight line fashion over the couple of hours of play. I continued to notice new interrelations, new clues and patterns, and they all helped me start to attack some challenges proactively rather than start out with guesses and then poke or jimmy the holes. At one point, the gears did change, leading me to think, 'OK, now I'm seeing the extra hardness that Andrew talked about in his unnecessarily-scaring-people-off blurb.'

The great thing about playing Three or Fourdiopolis is that the experience is very much its own thing. What I find most interesting is how the games give you basically no advice on how to go about things. Eventually you find one way to do something, then another, then others that relate to both, then more. It's like building a neural network whose structure becomes more apparent the longer you stare it. In the case of Fourdiopolis, non-savants might have to sink some serious time into it to progress with the further-in stuff. But there's not really anything else like either game, and they're very addictive once you get stuck in. They're also the kind of game where you can easily break off and come back later, or on another day, and you may find when you do so that having let things percolate in your mind in the interim can suddenly lead to a blast of progress.

If this all sounds interesting and you haven't played either game, you might want to start with the first one. Note that it's not essential to do so. But playing Lode Runner before trying Championship Lode Runner wasn't essential, either. It just made for an easier life overall. That's a non-enforceable analogy about the relationship between the games. I've already got a lot of satisfaction out of my progress in Fourdiopolis so far.