Planet Interactive Fiction

October 01, 2014

The Gameshelf: IF

Zarfplan: State of the cranking

by Andrew Plotkin at October 01, 2014 04:42 AM

I have been turning the crank hard and I am tired. Admittedly, there've been a lot of FTL breaks. They get some of the blame for me being tired.

As you recall, a beta version went out to testers on September 8th. Since then, I have gotten loads of transcripts... five megabytes of transcripts! With 16000 commands! All of which I've read through!

Yes, I'm posting these statistics just to impress you with my diligence. A lot of that transcript-reading was "skim through parser errors and player notes." Nonethless, a lot of useful feedback.

The backer surveys have gone out. I have heard back from 610 backers, about 85% of you. Thanks!

If you are among the disappointing 15%, please check your Kickstarter account for the survey, or send me email. I don't need your email address right away, but I do need the stuff about your iTunes account (Apple ID), Humble Store account, or Itch.IO account.

Also the question about "how do you want to be listed in the credits". It will be difficult for me to make corrections to the credits list after the game ships. For various technical reasons, when you update an IF game file, you break all the old saved games. So I will be doing that cautiously in the iOS version at least.

So, here's where I am with the game.

  • I've dealt with most of the typos, bugs, suggested features, and other issues from the test transcripts. There are a few places where the game needs additional clueing; I have to think about those.

  • I have redone the cover art. Have a look. This is the same design as I used in 2010 for the Kickstarter page, but it's snazzier and has more Dürer. So that's a win.

  • I have built the iOS app and tested it on iOS8.

  • I've done all the app icons and launch images. (If you're an iOS developer, you know what a pain that is.)

  • The in-app catalog of alchemical recipes works, and correctly syncs to your game progress. It's still ugly, though.

Still to finish:

  • I need to extract the backer names (and nicknames, and "anonymous") from the Kickstarter survey results and stuff them into the game.

  • I've just barely started drawing the map. I've laid out the rooms and started laying down the graphical style, but there's a lot of work to do there.

  • Then I will have to integrate the map into the iOS app. (Tap to go to a room, etc.) The map will also be downloadable as an image on the web site, so nobody will miss out on it.

  • De-uglifying the in-app catalog of recipes. (Alchemy looks terrible in the default Helvetica font, and the font sizes are wrong on both iPhone and iPad.)

  • The help text in the iOS app works, but it's generic IF help right now. (Actually it all refers to Dreamhold because that's what I copied over.) I will have to describe the HL-specific commands.

  • Optimization. The game is playable as far back as iPhone 4 and iPad 1, but commands aren't speedy. I suspect the slowdown comes from the auto-save mechanisms (which allow you to launch the app and find yourself where you left off, and also support "UNDO"). I need to check into that and, if possible, speed up that code. If not, try to speed up something else.

  • I will need to set up the web site. (Right now it's a redirect to the KS page.) It will just be a couple of pages -- links to the App Store, Humble Widget, and Itch.IO buying points, plus promo stuff. ("Why you want to buy this game...") And the map.

  • I should probably write a goofy sample IF transcript like Infocom always did. Those were fun.

  • Build a script to mail out Humble/Itch keys.

  • Submit to iOS App Store. Await approval.

  • Pull the giant launch lever. (The game will be simultaneously available via Humble, Itch, and iOS App Store. Or as close to simultaneous as I can get. Within hours, anyhow.)

So that's where we are. It's looking more like "mid-October" than "early October", and I apologize for the continued slippage. But we're converging. I'm counting in weeks, and the number is decreasing.

In the meantime, I hear that IFComp games will appear "mmsometime Wednesday", and that's today. So play some of those!

September 30, 2014

Emily Short

Game Design Vocabulary

by Emily Short at September 30, 2014 03:00 PM

Screen Shot 2014-09-30 at 3.36.51 PM

Someone emailed me today to ask for books with which to learn about storytelling in choice-based games, and this reminded me that I haven’t yet mentioned A Game Design Vocabulary: Exploring the Foundational Principles Behind Good Game Design here.

It’s a collaboration by Anna Anthropy and Naomi Clark, and is intended for student-level use — each chapter ends with review bullet points and some suggested study activities.

“Introductory” doesn’t mean shallow, though. For instance, the section on game storytelling covers a number of standard topics (the structural challenges of a branching storyline, emergent vs authored stories) but also brings in a lot of more recent indie and IF community thought on things like reflective choice and shared storytelling. It includes coverage of parser IF, Twine pieces, and Choice of Games works, among others. (Full disclosure: Bee and Floatpoint both get a mention.) There’s also a solid appendix of further playing content. Recommended.

September 29, 2014

Emily Short

Charity Auction followup

by Emily Short at September 29, 2014 05:00 PM

Many thanks to those who participated in this past weekend’s auction! Thanks to the high bidders and some particularly kind people who made bidless donations, we brought in a total of $918 towards school supplies from Donors Choose, supporting

  • construction paper, paintbrushes, dry erase markers, and crayons
  • posterboards and resource books for a science fair
  • a Dell laptop
  • two Lego Mindstorms kits
  • worms for teaching about composting, terrarium supplies, and three live frogs
  • five pre-packaged STEM lab projects, an electricity activity set, and an inflatable solar system demonstration set
  • thermometers, beakers, pipettes, and other basic lab supplies
  • a non-fiction selection of science books and biographies
  • classroom subscriptions to TIME for kids and SuperScience magazine

(Some of these projects also received partial support from other Donors Choose donors.)

I really appreciate the response. This is a cause that means a lot to me. [ETA: and someone anonymously added a donation for a planetarium field trip, bringing the total to an even $1K. Thank you, anonymous benefactor!]

The Digital Antiquarian


by Jimmy Maher at September 29, 2014 03:00 PM

Thomas M. Disch, circa 1985

Thomas M. Disch, circa 1985

I feel fairly confident in stating that Thomas M. Disch trails only Robert Pinsky as the second most respected literary figure to turn his hand to the humble text adventure — speaking in terms of his literary prestige at the time of his game’s release, that is. The need for that last qualifier says much about his troubled and ultimately tragic life and career.

Disch burst to prominence alongside Roger Zelazny and the rest of science fiction’s New Wave in the mid-1960s. Yet Disch’s art was always even more uncompromising — and usually more uncompromisingly bleak — than that of his peers. His first novel bears the cheery name of The Genocides, and tells the story of the annihilation of humanity by an alien race who remake the Earth into a hyper-efficient nutrient farm, apparently without ever even recognizing humans as sentient. In its final scenes the remnants of the human race crawl naked through the innards of the aliens’ giant plants, stripped of even a veneer of civilization, reduced to feeding and fucking and waiting to be eradicated like the unwanted animal infestations they are. Camp Concentration — sensing a theme? — another early novel that is perhaps his most read and most acclaimed today, tells of another ignominious end to the human race, this time due to an intelligence-boosting super-drug that slowly drives its experimental recipients insane and then gets loose to spread through the general population as a contagion.

The protagonist of the latter novel is a pompous overweight intellectual who struggles with a self-loathing born of his homosexual and gastronomic lusts, a man who can feel uncomfortably close to Disch himself — or, more sadly, to the way Disch, a gay man who grew up in an era when that was a profoundly shameful thing to be, thought others must see him. Perhaps in compensation, he became a classic “difficult” artiste; his reputation as a notable pain in the ass for agents, editors, and even fellow writers was soon well-established throughout the world of publishing. He seemed to crave a validation from science fiction which he never quite achieved — he would never win a Hugo or Nebula for his fiction — while at the same time often dismissing and belittling the genre when not picking pointless fights within it with the likes Ursula Le Guin, whom he accused of being a fundamentally one-dimensional political writer concerned with advancing a “feminist agenda”; one suspects her real crime was that of selling far more books and collecting far more awards than Disch. Yet just when you might be tempted to dismiss him as an angry crank, Disch could write something extraordinary, like 334, an interwoven collection of vignettes and stories set in a rundown New York tenement of the near future that owes as much to James Joyce as it does to H.G. Wells; or On Wings of Song, both a sustained character study of a failed artist and a brutal work of satire in precise opposition to the rarefied promise of its title — these “Wings of Song,” it turns out, are a euphemism for a high-tech drug high. Disch wrote and wrote and wrote: high-brow criticism of theater and opera for periodicals like The New York Times and The Nation; reams of science-fiction commentary and criticism; copious amounts of poetry (always under the name “Tom Disch”), enough to fill several books; mainstream horror novels more accessible than most of his other efforts, which in 1991 yielded at last some of the commercial rewards that had eluded his science fiction and poetry when he published The M.D., his only bestseller; introductions and commentaries to the number of science-fiction anthologies he curated; two plays and an opera libretto; and, just to prove that the soul of this noted pessimist did house at least a modicum of sweetness and light, the children’s novel The Brave Little Toaster, later adapted into the cult classic of an animated film that is still the only Disch story ever to have made it to the screen.

The dawn of the brief bookware boom found Disch at something of a crossroads. On Wings of Song, published in 1979, would turn out to be his last major science-fiction novel, its poor commercial performance the final rejection that convinced him, the occasional short story or work of criticism aside, to write in other genres for the remaining quarter century of his life. He was just finishing his first horror novel, The Businessman, when his publisher Harper & Row came to him to ask if he might be interested in making his next novel interactive, in the form of the script for a computer game. Like just about every other book publisher in the United States, Harper & Row were in equal measure intrigued by the potential for interactive literature and terrified lest they be left out of a whole new field of literary endeavor. They were also, naturally, eager to leverage their existing stable of authors. Disch, a respected and established author of “literary” genre fiction who didn’t actually sell all that well as a rule, must have seemed an ideal choice; they’d get the cachet of his name without foregoing a bunch of guaranteed sales of a next traditional novel. For his part, Disch was intrigued, and jumped aboard with enthusiasm to write Amnesia.

We know quite a lot about Disch’s plans for the game thanks to a fellow historian named Stephane Racle, who in 2008 discovered his design script, an altogether fascinating document totaling almost 450 pages, along with a mock-up of Harper & Row’s planned packaging in a rare-books shop. The script evinces by its length and detail alone a major commitment to the project on Disch’s part. He later claimed to find it something of a philosophical revelation.

When you’re working on this kind of text, you’re operating in an entirely different mode from when you’re writing other forms of literature. You’re not writing in that trance state of entering a daydream and describing what’s to the left or right, marching forward, which is how most novels get written. Rather, you have to be always conscious of the ways the text can be deconstructed. In a very literal sense, any computer-interactive text deconstructs itself as you write because it’s always stopping and starting and branching off this way and that. You are constantly and overtly manifesting those decisions usually hidden in fiction because, of course, you don’t normally show choices that are ruled out — though in every novel the choices that are not made are really half the work, an invisible presence. With Amnesia, I found myself working with a form that allowed me to display these erasures, these unfollowed paths. It’s like a Diebenkorn painting, where you can see the lines that haven’t quite been covered over by a new layer of paint. There are elements of this same kind of structural candor in a good Youdunit.

Disch came to see the player’s need to figure out what to type next as a way to force her to engage more seriously with the text, to engage in deep reading and thereby come to better appreciate the nuances of language and style that were so important to him as a writer.

Readers who ordinarily skim past such graces wouldn’t be allowed to do that because they’d have to examine the text for clues as to how to respond; they’d have to read slowly and carefully. I thought that was theoretically appealing: a text whose form allowed me a measure of control over the readerly reponse in a way unavailable to a novelist or short-story writer. I’ve always been frustrated that genre readers are often addictive readers who will go through a novel in one night. I can’t read at that speed — and I don’t like to be read at that speed, either.

Philosophical flights aside, Disch didn’t shirk the nitty-gritty work that goes into crafting an interactive narrative. For instance, he painstakingly worked through how the protagonist should be described in the many possible states of dress he might assume. He even went so far as to author error messages to display if the player, say, tries to take off his pants without first removing his shoes. He also thought about ways to believably keep the story on track in the face of many possible player choices. One section of the story, for example, requires that the player be wearing a certain white tuxedo. Disch ensures this is the case by making sure the pair of jeans the player might otherwise choose to wear have a broken zipper which makes them untenable (this also offers an opportunity for some sly humor, an underrated part of Disch’s arsenal of writing talents). Even Douglas Adams, a much more technically aware writer who was very familiar with Infocom’s games before collaborating with Steve Meretzky on The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, couldn’t be bothered with this kind of detail work; he essentially authored just the main path through his game and left all the side details up to Meretzky.

Amnesia‘s story is not, outside the presence of a drug capable of inducing sustained and ever-encroaching amnesia, science fiction. It’s rather a noirish mystery in which no character, including the amnesiac protagonist, is pure, everyone has multiple layers of secrets and motivations, and nothing is quite what it initially seems. Disch almost seems to have challenged himself to make use of every hoary old cliché he can think of from classic detective fiction, including not only the device of amnesia itself but also hayseed Texans who shoot first and ask questions later, multiple femme fatales, and even two men who look so alike they can pass as identical twins. It takes a very good writer to get away with such a rogues gallery of stereotypes. Luckily, Disch was a very good writer when he wanted to be. Amnesia is not, mind you, deserving of mention alongside Disch’s most important literary works. Nor, one senses, is it trying to be. But it is a cracker of a knotty detective story, far better constructed and written than the norm in adventure games then or now. Among its most striking features are frank and even moving depictions of physical love that are neither pornographic nor comedic, arguably the first such to appear in a major commercial game.


Cognetics -- Pat Reilly, Kevin Bentley, Lis Romanov, and Charlie Kreitzberg -- trying to be EA rock stars and, with the notable exception of Benley, failing miserably at it.

Cognetics — Pat Reilly, Kevin Bentley, Lis Romanov, and Charlie Kreitzberg — trying to be EA rock stars and, with the notable exception of Bentley, failing miserably at it.

To implement his script, Harper & Row chose a tiny New Jersey company called Cognetics who were engaged in two completely different lines of endeavor: developing the user interface for Citibank ATMs and developing edutainment software for Harper & Row, specifically a line of titles based on Jim Henson’s Fraggle Rock television series. The owner of Cognetics, Charlie Kreitzberg, already had quite a long background in computing for both business and academia, having amongst other accomplishments authored a standard programming text called The Elements of FORTRAN Style a decade before. Working with some colleagues, Kreitzberg had developed an extendible version of the Forth programming language with a kernel of just 6 K or so to facilitate game development on the Apple II. He dubbed this micro-Forth “King Edward” for reasons known only to him. The actual programming of Amnesia he turned over to a local kid named Kevin Bentley; they had met through Kreitzberg’s wife, who shopped at the grocery store owned by Bentley’s family. And so it was poor young Kevin Bentley who had Disch’s doorstop of a script dropped on his desk — no one had apparently bothered to tell the untechnical Disch about the need to limit his text to fit into the computers of the time — with instructions to turn it into a working game. He had nothing to start with but the script itself and that 6 K implementation of Forth; he lacked even the luxury of an adventure-specific programming language like ZIL, SAL, AGI, or Comprehend.

It was of course a hopeless endeavor. Not only had Disch provided far, far too much text, but he’d provided it in a format that wasn’t very easy to work with. Disch, for understandable reasons, thought like a storyteller rather than a world builder. Therefore, and in the absence of other guidance, he’d written his story from the top down as essentially a hypertext narrative, a series of branching nodes, rather than from the bottom up, as a set of objects and rooms and people with descriptions of how they acted and reacted and how they could be manipulated by the player. Each part of his script begins with some text, followed by additional text passages to display if the player types this, that, or the other. Given the scope of possibility open to the player of a parser-driven game, that way lies madness. We’ve seen this phenomenon of text adventures that want to be hypertext narratives a surprising number of times already on this blog. Amnesia is perhaps the most painful victim of this fundamental confusion, born of an era when hypertext fiction didn’t yet exist outside of Choose Your Own Adventure books and any text- and story-driven game was assumed to necessarily be a parser-driven text adventure.

Harper & Row's original Amnesia box art

Harper & Row’s original Amnesia box art

In mid-1984, just as it was dawning on Cognetics what a mouthful of a project they’d bitten off, Harper & Row, the instigators of the whole thing, suddenly became the first of the big book publishers to realize that this software business was going to be more complicated than anticipated and, indeed, probably not worth the effort. (The depth of the blasé belief of which they were newly disabused that software publishing couldn’t be that hard is perhaps best measured by the fact that they had all of the box art for Amnesia prepared before Cognetics had really gotten started with the actual programming, evidently thinking that, what with Disch’s script delivered, it couldn’t be long now.) They abruptly pulled out, telling Kreitzberg he was welcome to do what he liked with Fraggle Rock and Amnesia. He found a home for the former with CBS, another old-media titan still making a go of software for the time being, and for the latter with Electronic Arts, eager to join many of their peers on the bookware bandwagon. EA producer Don Daglow was given the unenviable task of trying to mediate between Disch and Cognetics and come up with some sort of realizable design. He would have his hands full, to such an extent that EA must soon have started wondering why they’d signed the project at all.

In addition to being a noir mystery, Disch had conceived Amnesia as a sort of extended love letter to his adopted home of Manhattan. Telarium’s Fahrenheit 451, when released in late 1984, would also include a reasonably correct piece of Manhattan. Disch, however, wanted to go far beyond that game’s inclusion of twenty blocks or so of Fifth Avenue. He wanted to include almost all of the island, from Battery Park to the Upper West and East Side, with a functioning subway system to get around it. The resulting grid of cross-streets must add up to thousands of in-game locations. It was problematic on multiple levels; not only could Disch not possibly write enough text to properly describe this many locations, but the game couldn’t possibly contain it. Yet Disch, entranced by the idea of roaming free through a virtual Manhattan, refused to be disabused of the notion. No, EA and Cognetics had to admit, such a thing wasn’t technically impossible. It was just that this incarnation of Manhattan would have to be 99 percent empty, a grid of locations described only by their cross-streets, with only the occasional famous landmark or plot-relevant area poking out of the sea of nothingness. That’s exactly what the finished game would end up being, rivaling Level 9’s Snowball for the title of worst ratio of relevant to irrelevant locations in the history of the text adventure.

The previous paragraph underlines the most fundamental problem that dogged the various Amnesia teams. Disch never developed with Cognetics and EA the mutual respect and understanding that led to more successful bookware collaborations like Amazon, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and Mindwheel. Given the personality at the center of Amnesia, that’s perhaps not surprising. I described Disch as “difficult” earlier in this article, and, indeed, that’s exactly the word that Kevin Bentley used to describe him to me. His frustration with the collaboration was still palpable when I recently corresponded with him.

The conclusion I reached was that Tom wanted to write a book and have it turned into a game by creating a sort of screenplay adapted from a book. The trouble was that a screenplay to my mind was the wrong metaphor for an adventure game. The missing piece of the puzzle seemed to be that Tom didn’t grasp that an adventure game was a matrix of possibilities and it was up to the user to discover the route, and the point was not to cram the user toward the “conclusion.” Tom was very unhappy with the notion that the player might not experience the conclusion of the story the way that he intended in the script, so he insisted that the user be directed toward the conclusion.

Bentley and Kreitzberg met with Disch just a handful of times at his apartment near Union Square to try to iron out difficulties. The former remembers “lots of herbal tea being offered,” and being enlisted to fix problems with Disch’s computer and printer from time to time, but it’s safe to say that the sort of warm camaraderie that makes, say, the Mindwheel story such a pleasure to relate never developed. Before 1984 was out, frustrated with the endless circular feedback loop that the project had become and uninterested in the technical constraints being constantly raised as issues by his colleagues, Disch effectively washed his hands of the whole thing.

His exit did allow EA and Cognetics a freer hand, but that wouldn’t necessarily turn out for the better. Feeling that the game “was lacking in the standard sorts of gaming experience (like a score, sleep, food, etc.)” and looking for some purpose for that huge empty map of Manhattan, EA requested that Bentley shoehorn all that and more into the game; the player would now have to eat and sleep and earn money by taking odd jobs whilst trying to come to grips with the central mystery. The result was a shotgun marriage of the comparatively richly implemented plot-focused sections from Disch’s original script — albeit with more than half of the text and design excised for reasons of capacity — with a boring pseduo-CRPG that forces you to spend most of your time on logistics — earning money by begging or washing windows or doing other odd jobs, buying food and eating it, avoiding certain sections of the city after dark, finding a place to sleep and returning there regularly, dealing with the vagaries of the subway system — all implemented in little better than a Scott Adams level of detail. Daglow came up with an incomprehensible scoring system that tries to unify all this cognitive dissonance by giving you separate scores as a “detective,” a “character,” and a “survivor.” And as the cherry on top of this tedious sundae, EA added pedestrians who come up to you every handful of moves to ask you to look up numbers on a code wheel, one of the most irritating copy-protection measures ever implemented (and that, of course, is saying something).

All of this confusion fell to poor Kevin Bentley to program. He did a fine job, all things considered, even managing a parser that was, if not up to Infocom’s standards, also not worse than its other peers. Nevertheless growing frustrated and impatient with the game’s progress, EA put him up in an “artist apartment” near their San Mateo, California, headquarters in February of 1985 so that he could work on-site on a game that was now being haphazardly designed by whoever happened to shout the loudest. He spent some nine months there dutifully implementing — and often de-implementing — idea after idea to somehow make the game playable and fun. Bentley turned in the final set of code in November of 1985, by which time “everyone was over it,” enthusiasm long since having given way to a desire just to get something up to some minimal standard out there and be done with it. Certainly Bentley himself was under no illusions: “as a game I thought it sorta bombed.” Impressed with his dogged persistence, EA offered him a job on staff: “But I was 20 and far from home. I knew if I left immediately and drove back to New Jersey I could be home for Thanksgiving.” Unsurprisingly given the nature of the experience, Amnesia would mark the beginning and the end of his career as a game developer. He would go on to a successful and still ongoing career in other forms of programming and computer engineering. Charlie Kreitzberg and Cognetics similarly put games behind them, but are still in business today as a consulting firm, their brief time in games just a footnote on their website.

EA's released Amnesia package

EA’s released Amnesia package. Note that it’s simply called a “text adventure,” a sure sign that the bookware boom with its living literature and electronic novels has come and gone.

Amnesia, a deeply flawed effort released at last only during the sunset of the bookware boom, surprised absolutely no one at EA by failing to sell very well. It marks the only game EA would ever release to contain not a single graphic. Contemporary reviews were notably lukewarm, an anomaly for a trade press that usually saw very little wrong with much of anything. Computer Gaming World‘s Scorpia, admittedly never a big fan of overtly literary or experimental games, issued a pithy summary that details the gist of the game’s problems.

Overall, Amnesia is an unsatisfying game. You can run around here, and run around there, and work up your triple scores as a detective, a character, and a survivor, but so what? Much of what you actually do in the game doesn’t get you very far towards the ultimate solution. Boiled down to the essentials, there are only three things you need to do here: follow up on the clue from TTTT, get and read the disk, and meet Bette. There are auxiliary actions associated with them, but those are the key points. So when you think back on the game as a whole, you don’t see yourself as having done, really, a whole lot, as having been the main character. It’s more as though you came to certain places in a book, and turned a page to get on with the story.

Bottom line: terrific prose, nice maps, too much novel, not enough adventure.

Disch, despite having walked away from the hard work of trying to make the game better over a year before its release and despite having probably never even played the version of Amnesia which arrived in stores, took such reviews predictably personally. Amnesia, he pronounced, had been “one of the quickest disillusionments of my life.” He went on to blame the audience.

The real problem is that there’s simply no audience for this material, no one who would respond enthusiastically to what I do well. Those who buy it, who are aficionados of the form, are basically those who want trivial pursuits; and to offer them something, however entertaining, that involved reading and imaginative skills they did not care to exercise while playing with their computers was foolish. I felt like de Soto, who journeyed to Tennessee looking for the Fountain of Youth — an interesting enough trip, but neither of us found what we were looking for.

People who want to play this sort of game are looking, I suppose, for something like Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker, where they can have their familiar experiences replayed. The computer-interactive games that have done well — like the Hitchhiker’s or Star Trek series — have been tied in with copyrighted materials that have already had success with the target audience in prior literary forms. I don’t think the quality of those scripts compares to what I did in Amnesia — Adams’s scripts, for example, are actually very good of a kind, but it’s a matter of one little joke after another. The notion of trying to superimpose over this structure a dramatic conception other than a puzzle was apparently too much for the audience. In the end, I just produced another literary curiosity.

There’s more than a grain of truth in all this if we can overlook the condescension toward Douglas Adams that would be more worthily applied to one of his derivatives like Space Quest. A computer-games audience more interested in the vital statistics of dragons and trolls than the emotional lives of the socially engaged humans around them undoubtedly did prove sadly unreceptive to games that tried to be about something. And reviewers like Scorpia did carry into their columns disconcertingly hidebound notions of what an “adventure game” could and should be, and seemed to lack even the language to talk about “a dramatic concept other than a puzzle,” to the extent that Scopia’s columns on Infocom’s two most forthrightly literary works, A Mind Forever Voyaging and Trinity, are little more than technical rundowns and catalogs of puzzle hints — not to mention her reaction to one of Infocom’s first bold literary experiments, the ending to Infidel and poor Brian Mortiarty found himself actively playing down the thematic message of Trinity in interviews in the hope of actually, you know, selling some copies of this supposedly “depressing” game. It’s just that Amnesia, being well-nigh unplayable, is an exceedingly poor choice to advance this argument, and for that Disch deserves his due share of the responsibility. At some level, having just served up — or having at least allowed his name to be attached to — a bad game, he’s not entitled to this argument.

Disch one month before his death.

Disch one month before his death.

Disch’s ultimate fate was an exceedingly sad one. After the millennium, his world crashed around him brick by brick. First there was the shock of witnessing the September 11 attack on his beloved New York, a shock that seemed to break a circuit somewhere deep inside him; often open to charges of nihilism, extreme pessimism, even misanthropy during his earlier career, it wasn’t until after September 11 that his hatred for the people who had done this made him begin to sound like a bigot. Then in 2005 Charles Naylor, his partner of three decades, died. In the aftermath came an effort by his landlord to evict him from the rent-controlled apartment the two had shared, an effort which appeared destined for success. With his writing career decidedly on the wane, his books dropping out of print one by one, and his income correspondingly diminishing, he did most of his writing after Naylor’s death in his LiveJournal blog. Amidst the poorly spelled and punctuated screeds against Muslim terrorists and organized religions of all stripes, depressingly similar to those of a million other angry bloggers, would come the occasional pearl of wisdom or poetry to remind everyone that somewhere inside this bitter, suffering man was the old Thomas M. Disch. And suffer he did, from sciatica, arthritis, diabetes, and ever-creeping obesity that left him all but housebound, trapped alone in his squalid apartment with only his computer for company. On July 4, 2008, he ended the suffering with a shotgun. In 1984, for Amnesia, a younger Disch had written from that same apartment that “suicide is always a dumb idea.” Obviously the pain of his later years changed his mind.

One of the writers with whom Disch seemed to feel the greatest connection was another brilliant, difficult man who always seemed to carry an aura of doom with him, and another who died in tragically pathetic circumstances: Edgar Allen Poe. Disch once wrote a lovely article about Poe’s “appalling life,” the last year of which “seems a headlong, hell-bent rush to suicide.”  Like Disch, Poe also died largely forgotten and unappreciated. Perhaps someday Disch will enjoy a revival akin to that of Poe. In the meantime that Amnesia script sits there tantalizingly, ripe as ever to become a modern work of interactive fiction that need not leave out a single word, that could give us Disch’s original vision undiluted by scores and copy protection and money problems and hunger and sleep timers. Maybe he’d forgive us for trimming some of that ridiculous Manhattan. And maybe, just maybe, his estate would be willing to give its blessing. Any takers?

(First and foremost, huge thanks to Kevin Bentley for sharing with me much of the history of Cognetics and Amnesia. Disch himself talked about Amnesia at greatest length in an interview published in Larry McCaffery’s Across the Wounded Galaxies: Interviews with Contemporary American Science Fiction Writers. Disch’s writings on science fiction are best collected in the Hugo-winning The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of and On SF. Scorpia’s review of Amnesia appeared in the January/February 1987 Computer Gaming World.

I’ve made Amnesia available here for download in its MS-DOS incarnation with a DOSBox configuration file that works well with it. Note that you’ll need to use the file “ACODES.TXT” in place of the code wheel when the irritating pedestrians start harassing you.)


September 26, 2014

Emily Short

Jon Ingold interview, Ice-Bound design details

by Emily Short at September 26, 2014 06:00 PM has an interview with Jon Ingold about the fate and future of inkle, Jon’s feelings about parser IF, and commercial IF prospects in general.

Meanwhile, the Ice-Bound project (Aaron Reed and Jacob Garbe) has started posting blog entries about the combinatorial narrative design there.

Flash Charity Auction: 1, 3, 5 hours of work time

by Emily Short at September 26, 2014 01:00 PM

I am auctioning off some work time — 9 hours in total, in chunks of 5 hours, 3 hours, and 1 hour — in support of Donors Choose, a charity that provides educational supplies to underfunded classrooms in the US. Bidding runs through 5 PM Pacific today (1 AM British time) and the work is to be done this weekend.

How does this work?

Between now and 5 PM Pacific time, you can comment here to bid (in dollars, please).

Highest bidder gets the 5-hour chunk, second place the 3-hour, third place the 1-hour. So if you’re the only person to bid, you could wind up with the 5 hours for a super-low price. When time is up, I’ll determine who the winners are and comment with that information. It’s then up to you to fulfill your bid by donating here and letting me know what specifically you have in mind. I will start work tomorrow and will aim to have the tasks done by Monday evening.

That’s very little notice! Hardly any, in fact!

I know. It’s pretty unusual for me to know way in advance that I’m going to have a free weekend, though.

What if no one goes for this?

I make cookies instead. Mm, cookies. (Honestly, I have no idea whether this will produce any interesting results. It’s an experiment.)

What would that get me?

Some things you could have me spend time on include:

  • betatesting your WIP
  • giving feedback on a game design document or concept
  • making some (photo and text-based) cover art for a game
  • revising prose written by a non-native speaker
  • writing a review of a freeware game of your choice (it needs to be short enough that I can both play and review in the time slot, and needs to run on Mac OSX)
  • creating a custom I7 extension to tackle some irritating code problem (again, within limits — something like Threaded Conversation is not a 5-hour project)
  • curating a list of IF specific to an interest of yours
  • writing a short essay about an IF- or game-related topic
  • writing a tiny custom speed-IF (in the 1 hour slot this would probably need to be choice-based)

…but I’m open to other possible uses of time as well, if you have something else in mind.

So basically you’ll do what I say?

Er, within certain limits. Obviously: no illegal activities, no pornography, nothing unethical (such as having me write a glowing review of a work without disclosing the funding source). No hacks that aren’t really labor exchanges (“spend one hour mailing me your laptop”), or that would cost me additional money to perform unless we’ve talked it through first. If you have doubts about whether your request is reasonable, feel free to request clarification.

Why Donors Choose?

This gets long and is not about what this blog is usually about, but if you’re interested:

Why this cause?

There are pretty decent arguments to be made for something called effective altruism: rigorously researching the charities that will do the most to alleviate human suffering for the smallest amount of money, and focusing giving there. I see the value of that argument, and you can find some charities that match that description (according to certain research parameters, which the site defines in some detail) at (I donate to several of these as well.)

Effective altruism considerations aren’t always great at estimating long-term effects, however. And in my view, improving education and reducing the opportunity gap in the US is important in the long term — both in alleviating self-perpetuating cycles of poverty and injustice in the United States but also in preparing the next generation of citizens for the next generation of problems.

Why this organization?

Within that cause, Donors Choose offers a very high degree of transparency and accountability (it is always clear exactly what the money is buying) together with respect for the dignity and self-determination of the recipients (it allows teachers to determine what their individual classrooms most need). Donors Choose also produces large amounts of data about funding needs across the country, which can help make policy decisions in the longer term. I’ve been supporting Donors Choose for several years now and what I’ve seen has only increased my respect for what they do.

No, I mean why does this matter to YOU?

I had absurdly awesome opportunities growing up. The walls of my house were lined with bookshelves, and we went to the library for extra options at least every couple of weeks. I had my own microscope, chemistry set, rock collection, bug-capturing kits, electronics kit, and the best home computer my parents could afford at any given time, not to mention art supplies and musical instruments. We went to museums and zoos and plays and planetarium shows run by a friend’s dad (who also took me and his son fossil-collecting at one point). Though we weren’t rich, my parents — both graduate students when I was born — understood the education system well and put a lot of effort into maximizing all of my options. And the schools I went to supplemented all that with more field trips.

In sixth grade our class went to Yosemite for a week. I don’t know his name, but if I could retroactively grant some kind of trophy to the amazing park service employee or volunteer who ran our class activities, I would. He let us swim in the rivers and took us on a night hike to listen to nocturnal animal life and showed us which bits of plant were safe to eat and was generally superb.

When I was a kid I didn’t understand that this was unusual. It really is, and it’s especially unusual for the students who need it the most. To be honest, it makes me really angry to read through the Donors Choose site and see the kinds of things that classrooms are lacking, the level of need that exists. It’s not right.

September 25, 2014

Post Position

Zegar Światowy, the Polish World Clock

by Nick Montfort at September 25, 2014 09:24 PM

World Clock in Polish, displayed World Clock (book, code) has now been published in Polish. The translation is by Piotr Marecki, who translated the underlying novel-generating program and generated a new novel in Polish. ha!art is the publisher, and the book appears in the Liberatura series, which also includes some very distinguished titles: The Polish translations of Finnegans Wake and of Perec’s Life A User’s Manual, for instance.

The Polish World Clock on the shelf


Twine: Domain of the Cyberwitch

by Amanda Wallace at September 25, 2014 09:01 PM

You didn’t say “I wish you hadn’t said that so it would make me feel less bad when I throw your body into the blendocauldron and harvest your DNA for illegal, digital experimentation.

Not because you thought it’d be rude or anything, but because there’s no way you’ll feel at all bad upon doing that.

This entire review could be a discussion of cultural figures and the ownership we feel over them. In most works, even ones that claim a note of autobiography, the acknowledgment of a characters previously unknown sexuality and relationship rarely raises an eyebrow. After all, their being single or polygamous, queer or straight is important, but simply a facet of their character overall.

The element of autobiography is what complicates my feelings on Domain of the Cyberwitch. Not because I’m opposed to the open relationship described therein, but because I know of Anthony Burch. He is someone who, along with his wife, I have followed for years (mostly through the humorous web series “Hey Ash, Watcha Playing.”) I have seen him in person before, a peculiar experience because he was much shorter than I imagined (and isn’t that usually the case). This isn’t a slight to Mr. Burch, but merely an element of popular culture — because I do not know him, but only know a large body of his work, he is a concept rather than a person. I view him through a pre-made lenses, special made to fit all of my own personal criteria and imaginings. This wasn’t a decision I went through consciously, and I find it frankly embarrassed about it.

To clarify, Domain of the Cyberwitch is a story about an open relationship.

Anthony Burch

It’s not a secret hidden thing, I just wasn’t paying attention.

Not to worry, the rest of this review is not an ode to my primitive, knee jerk emotional response. Instead, it’s about the game itself. Domain of the Cyberwitch is a sweet, bizarre love story between a simple, perhaps pathetic man, and a cyberwitch. The story is not a straightforward tale. Elements from a classic weekend of a long distance relationship are relayed through a layer of weird, apparently full of in jokes, Evil Dead the musical and the world conquering desires of the cyberwitch in question.

As an example, you are given the task of picking apples. Instead of the standard orchard, however, the apples are full of razorblades that tingle when you bite down on them, the sound of the dying a slight symphony in the background.

These world specifics are highlighted by the dichotomous nature of the text. Half is written from the perspective of the cyberwitch, mostly in ALL CAPS and talking about murder and mayhem. The cyberwitch is a character pulled straight from science fiction, a creation cast from the world of reality and elements from popular culture at large. The male character is written a bit like a love sick fool, his tale written in such a standard way that it rises in sharp contrast to the rest of the Twine.




Mechanically, Domain of the Cyberwitch is fairly standard. Your choices have little consequence ultimately. It felt like a story that would have benefited from having some text that rotated option, or some of the other tools that Twine authors have utilized over the years. But this does not make the game bad or boring. I found myself interested and continued to be engaged through the end.

An element of Domain of the Cyberwitch that stands out is the note of authorship. This is a tale of lovers, written from the perspective of the woman for the woman, by the man. There is a slight element in discomfort in a lover telling about their partners feelings and thoughts, even if they are deeply strange and possibly manipulated. Unless the “cyberwitch” actually sees herself in this manner, in which case, solid writing. Additionally, as this was meant as a sort of personal love letter (though admittedly posted online) it has elements that detract from a more universal experience (references to Burch’s own career working as a writer on Borderlands 2 comes up). This ultimately feels like a weakness as it pulls you back to the author rather than the story. As this is auto-biographical however, self-insertion is literally required.

The strength of Domain of the Cyberwitch is how sweet is it. Sure, at given points, the Cyberwitch wants to take him apart for his DNA, but it comes across as a real story with emotion and depth. Burch’s talent is to take this extravagant character and make her feel like a real person (because she is). It’s a game worth playing, and I’m interested to see what Anthony Burch creates in the future.

The post Twine: Domain of the Cyberwitch appeared first on StoryCade.

Post Position

A Zine View of the Trope Tank

by Nick Montfort at September 25, 2014 07:36 PM

My most unconventional lab is documented in a new zine by Sherri Wasserman, one available for download and screen-viewing now; it will be available in DIY print-and-bind-your-own format soon.

The publication is Restore [Return] Shift, and it’s the second in a series of zines documenting spaces that preserve and offer access to creative computing.

A rare color photo can be seen on the Instragram announcement.

From Restore [Return] Shift

More Human at Cyberarts

by Nick Montfort at September 25, 2014 02:29 PM

Here are some photos from the opening of the show More Human at the Boston Cyberarts Gallery on September 12.

The site for the show also features a PDF of the catalog [2.5 MB].

My piece in the show is From the Tables of My Memorie. I read a bit from the piece last night, when I spoke at Boston Cyberarts with several other artists about our work and the theme of the show.

I’ll be speaking at the Boston Cyberarts Gallery again on November 19, this time about ports and translations in computational art – the topic of my Renderings project. That event is at 7:30pm. The gallery is in the Green St T Station on the Orange Line.

The Digital Antiquarian

Bookware’s Sunset

by Jimmy Maher at September 25, 2014 08:00 AM

As we push now into 1986 in this blog’s chronology, we’re moving into an era of retrenchment but also of relative stability, as the battered survivors of the home-computer boom and bust come to realize that, if they’re unlikely (at least in the short term) to revolutionize mainstream art and entertainment in the way they had expected, home computers and the games a relatively small proportion of the population enjoy playing on them are also not going to go away. A modest but profitable computer-games industry still remained following the exit of the pundits, would-be visionaries, and venture capitalists, one that would neither grow nor shrink notably for the rest of the decade. No longer fixated on changing the world, developers — even the would-be rock stars at Electronic Arts — just focused on making fun games again for a core audience that loved Dungeons and Dragons, Star Wars and Star Trek, and ships and airplanes with lots of guns on them. While publishers would continue to take a chance on more outré titles than you might expect, much that didn’t fit with this core demographic that stuck with gaming after the hype died began now to get discarded.

Amongst the victims of this more conservative approach were bookware and the associated dreams for a new era of interactive popular fiction. Bookware had, to say the least, failed to live up to the hype; the number of commercially successful bookware titles from companies not named Infocom could be counted on one hand and likely still leave plenty of fingers free. Small wonder, as the games themselves were, if often audacious and interesting in conception, usually deeply flawed in execution, done in by a poor grasp of design fundamentals, poor parsers and game engines, rushed development, and an associated tendency to undervalue the importance of playtesting and polishing for any interactive work. One could say with no hyperbole whatsoever that Infocom was the only company of the 1980s that knew how to consistently put out playable, enjoyable, fair text adventures — meaning I’ve spent a great deal of time and energy in the years I’ve been writing this blog merely confirming this conventional wisdom, but so be it.

So, bookware faded quietly away, done in both by gamers who were not terribly invested in games as literature and its own consistent quality-control problems; whether better works could have brought the former around, or found a new audience entirely, remains a somewhat open question. One by one the bookware lines came to an end. Telarium never released another game after 1985’s Perry Mason and Nine Princes in Amber, although one last game, a mystery called The Scoop which dispensed with the parser entirely, was completed in 1986 but not belatedly released until 1989 under the generic Spinnaker Software label. Bantam’s Living Literature line stopped after two titles; the Mindscape/Angelsoft line of book and movie adaptations made it to eight before the plug was pulled following an Indiana Jones game that was as underwhelming as all of the titles that preceded it; other publishers like Epyx abandoned the genre after one or two experiments failed to bear commercial fruit. And the Brøderbund/Synapse Electronic Novels were also not long for this world.


Breakers, written by a friend of the Synapse boys named Rod Smith, was the fourth and last of the Electronic Novels to be released. It’s also the largest, most complex, and most difficult — albeit mostly not in a good way. Breakers places you aboard a ramshackle space station in orbit around a planet called, I kid you not, Borg, proof that there’s a limited supply of foreboding science-fiction names in the universe. It’s somewhat unusual as both science fiction and interactive fiction in being told from the point of view of an alien who’s not just your typical Star Trek-style human with different skin pigmentation or unusually formed ears. The Lau, the race to which you belong, are residents of Borg whose culture is mystical rather than technological, who communicate via telekinesis. They’re now being punished for their disinterest in warfare by being rounded up and sold off as exotic slaves to customers all over the galaxy by many of the unsavory characters who inhabit the station. Meanwhile a cosmic apocalypse is in the offing which only the Lau can prevent by assembling four elements and performing a ritual. By happenstance, you’ve ended up loose on the station. You must assemble the elements to save your race and avert the catastrophe; even a text adventure that fancies itself an electronic novel often winds up a treasure hunt.

That said, the Electronic Novels seldom lacked for literary ambition, and Breakers is no exception. Smith does a pretty good job of showing the crazy cast-offs, pirates, and rogues — some with the proverbial hearts of gold, most responding to overtures only with laser blasts — from the standpoint of an apparently asexual and very alien alien. If not quite up to the standard of Lynnea Glasser’s recent, lovely interactive fiction Coloratura, it is interesting to view Breakers‘s stock-science-fiction tropes from this other, exotic point of view; the opening scene in a seedy bar filled with thumping music and humans and aliens of every description is unexpectedly compelling when viewed from the perspective of this protagonist despite being thoroughly derivative of a certain 1977 blockbuster.

All sorts of issues of technology and fundamental design, however, cut against the prospect of enjoying this world. The opening section of the game, inside that seedy bar, is so baffling that a magazine like Questbusters, one of the few with enough remaining interest in the Electronic Novel line to write about Breakers at all, dispensed with any semblance of graduated hints and just printed a walkthrough of the opening sequence — one that, tellingly, appears to rely on a bug, or at least a complete plotting non sequitur, to see it through. Smith had wanted to make Breakers rely heavily upon character interaction, a noble if daunting goal. In practice and in light of the problematic Synapse parser, however, that just leads to a series of impossible dialog puzzles that require you to say the exact right sequence of things to get anywhere. While the plot is unusually intricate, it’s essentially — if as-advertised in light of the “Electronic Novel” label — a novel’s plot, a series of linear hoops that require you to just slavishly recreate a series of dramatic beats, even when doing so requires that you deliberately get yourself captured and beat up. But, unlike in most linear games, you never know what the game expects next from you, leading to an infuriating exercise not so much in saving Borg as in figuring out what Smith wants to have happen next and how you can force it to take place.

Breakers was released by Brøderbund in a much smaller, much less lavish package than its predecessor, complete with cheesy art that looked cut out of an Ed Wood production. The Synapse name, which studio Brøderbund was now is in the process of winding down as an altogether disappointing acquisition, is entirely absent from the package, as is even the old “Electronic Novel” franchise name, although it remains all over the manual from which it would presumably have been harder to excise. The game is now just a “text adventures” again, a circle closed in somewhat ironic and very telling fashion.

So, Breakers would mark the end of the line for this interesting but frustrating collection. Reports from former Synapse insiders have it that a fifth Electronic Novel, a samurai adventure called Ronin, was effectively complete by the end of 1986, but it was never released. Two more with the intriguing titles of Deadly Summer and House of Changes also had at least some work done on them before Brøderbund pulled the plug on the whole affair. My inner idealist wishes he’d had a chance to play these games; my inner cynic knows they’d likely have been undone by the same litany of flaws that make all of the released Electronic Novels after Mindwheel disappointing to one degree or another.

Completed titles like The Scoop and Ronin which their publishers judged not capable of recouping the additional expense of actually releasing them make for pretty good signifiers of the state of bookware circa 1986. Still, we have a bit more ground to cover before we say our goodbye to this strange era of gaming. Next time we’ll look at a final high-profile author/developer collaboration, the last of its kind and the end of an era. In the meantime feel free to download and give Breakers a try; this is the MS-DOS version, and includes a DOSBox configuration that should work very well.


September 23, 2014

Emily Short

Assorted IF-related reading

by Emily Short at September 23, 2014 09:00 AM

I wrote a piece on the Best Individual Puzzle nominees from the 2013 XYZZYs. It is also an attempt to pull together some thoughts about how puzzles can be good in completely different ways and for different reasons — something I think last year’s spread of nominees demonstrates particularly stongly.

Meanwhile, Sam Ashwell has just posted a (long!) post about types of player agency in games. There’s lots there, but I’m especially interested in Sam’s ideas about the importance of author-player trust, and the effect that that trust can have on how well mechanics work for the player.

And speaking of off-site reading, it’s probably a good time to remind people about the Phrontisterion blog, which has a fair amount to say about IF despite not being aggregated at Planet-IF. It’s specifically taking an outsider’s view at the IF community and IF tools, from the perspective of people interested in Chris Crawford’s work.

Post Position

HBS Last Week, Cyberarts This Week

by Nick Montfort at September 23, 2014 02:53 AM

I read from #! and two other books at the Harvard Book Store last Thursday.

Harvard Book Store #! (shebang) reading

This Wednesday (September 24), I’ll be one of ten artists speaking about work in the COLLISIONcollective show “More Human.” The Art Technology New England event is in the gallery where the show is up.

That’s the Boston Cyberarts gallery, 141 Green St, Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts 02130 – connected to the Green Street T Station on the Orange Line.

The event starts at 7:30pm and will probably go to about 10pm.

The XYZZY Awards

Emily Short on Best Individual Puzzle

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at September 23, 2014 01:01 AM

Emily Short is the author of Best Puzzles winners Savoir-Faire and Counterfeit Monkey. She assists in maintaining Inform 7 and is one of the leads on the character-centric IF system Versu. She blogs about interactive storytelling at and can also be found at meetings of the Oxford and London Interactive Fiction Meetup.

The 2013 Best Individual Puzzle finalists were Threediopolis, Chemistry and Physics, Captain Verdeterre’s Plunder, Faithful Companion, Coloratura and ULTRA BUSINESS TYCOON III.

As I was writing this, I found myself repeating some of the same explanations and concepts in multiple reviews. So, at the risk of making this as much an essay as a review set, I thought I’d start by enumerating some features that I think make a puzzle particularly memorable:

Extent. Does the puzzle provide a significant amount of gameplay, and (equally important) does it stay fresh throughout? There are plenty of puzzles that require many turns to solve without being intellectually satisfying: 15-puzzles, straightforward mazes, towers of Hanoi, and all their equivalents are generally frowned on in IF because the bulk of the player’s effort goes into applying a solution algorithm rather than into discovering what that algorithm should be. On the other hand, puzzles that can be solved in a single move may feel a bit lightweight unless that move requires quite a bit of thinking first.

Explorability. Does the puzzle respond well to failed attempts at a solution? Is it fun to work on even before it’s solved? Is it a good toy as well as a good puzzle? If the player doesn’t immediately understand how the puzzle works, is the implementation responsive enough to help her learn what to do? Suveh Nux is a classic example of the highly explorable puzzle, offering the player lots of entertaining Easter egg rewards for playing with the mechanic while simultaneously helping her more thoroughly understand what the magic syllables do. An entertaining narrator can also improve puzzle explorability: the personality of Grunk in Lost Pig adds charm and humor to the exploration moves required in that game.

Surprise. Does the puzzle require a significant mental leap or a change of perspective to solve? Does it leave the player with the sensation that the world means something different than she expected, like the key puzzle in Photopia? Or does it require assembling diverse bits of information from different sources, or extrapolating further implications of clues learned earlier, like the most famous puzzle in Spider & Web?

Ingenuity. Is the puzzle complex enough that it leaves the player with a sense of mastery afterward, having put together a way through such a difficult terrain? This sounds like it means the same thing as “is the puzzle really hard?”, but with sufficiently good design it’s possible to make a puzzle that leads the player gradually through the learning necessary to implement a fiendishly complicated solution. There are exceptions, but high-ingenuity puzzles most often appear either a) towards the end of a puzzle game with a lot of easier preliminary puzzles, or b) in games that are meant to be replayed a great deal. The Babel Fish puzzle from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a classic high-ingenuity puzzle, as is the core puzzle of Rematch.

Originality. Does the puzzle present a challenge of a type that hasn’t been seen before, or hasn’t been seen in this genre? Or, alternatively, does it subvert the expectations associated with that puzzle type? Sliding a mat under a door to catch a key poked through from the other side is an ingenious puzzle — it’s just also one that has appeared many times in the IF literature and now qualifies more as a chore than a puzzle, at least for experienced players.

Fairness/accessibility. Is the puzzle consistent on its own terms? Does it avoid making the player read the author’s mind? Does it offer multiple solutions, or allow for partial successes? Does it avoid requiring esoteric knowledge from outside the game that only some players are likely to possess? When the puzzle has been solved, does it retrospectively make sense?

Structural integration. How does this puzzle fit into the overall puzzle design of the game? Is it a first introduction to an important new mechanic or ability, promising a wealth of entertaining gameplay to come? A capstone requiring the player to have learned from a number of earlier puzzles first?

Narrative integration. Is the puzzle thematically relevant to what is going on in the game? Is it a natural fit for its setting? Does solving the puzzle require the player to acquire or demonstrate an understanding of what is going on at the narrative level? How high are the stakes for solving it? Is the player rewarded for the solution with a key event or important new story information? Solving even a simple puzzle can be a powerful moment if it constitutes a critical transition in its story. Make It Good is possibly my gold standard for narrative integration, with puzzles that teach a detailed understanding of the story one is trying to resolve.

I’m by no means proposing this as some sort of scoring system or checklist. It’s exceptionally rare for a puzzle to demonstrate all of those qualities at once, and they’re not equally desirable in all contexts. Indeed, some of these values are typically at odds with one another: it is not easy to make a puzzle that incorporates both explorability and surprise. A puzzle with high narrative stakes and long extent can also be tricky, because tense narrative moments often need to be timed. Puzzles in choice-based games often have an easier time with accessibility than parser games (no guess the verb!), but a harder time achieving surprise (options are enumerated!). Etc.

Rather, nominees in this category showcase the diverse ways that a puzzle can succeed.

Discovering the type of route that works in Threediopolis (Andrew Schultz)

People who have hung around the parser IF community for long will inevitably have run into Graham Nelson’s quote from Craft of Adventure that an adventure game is “a crossword at war with a narrative.” Which sounds cool, but that particular line is quoted more than it deserves. Hardly any IF resembles a crossword. A crossword’s answers are simultaneously available and self-reinforcing. You can do any clue first, and each solved clue contributes new information towards the solution of any other clue.

Having puzzles that reinforce one another is a strategy akin to having multiple solutions: it makes it more likely that each player will succeed, while making it less likely that any given player’s route to success will be exactly the same as any other’s. It’s a significant gain in puzzle accessibility. But it’s very hard to build IF puzzles that way, especially if you’re also trying to make the puzzles gate narrative elements.

Largely ditching any attempt at narrative continuity and a plausible setting, Threediopolis embraces its pure-puzzle nature. (For instance, it states up front that room descriptions are randomly generated and can be switched off if the player finds them distracting.) As a result, Threediopolis is free to be one of the few IF games that truly deserves to be called a crossword: solutions are accretive, all of them are accessible at once, and the more you do, the better you understand the whole system and what the remaining options are likely to be. The challenge is to come up with words made up of the letters N, S, E, W, U, and D, and use them as travel sequences to reach the correct points in a three-dimensional grid. The puzzle hints give you information about word lengths, meanings, and where on the grid you’re going to end up — which means that you can determine some information about the relative number of Es and Ws (say) in the product word.

Before starting on the individual problems, though, you first have to make the leap of understanding what the clues mean. This is, to the best of my knowledge, a unique concept in IF games, born of Schultz recognizing the wordplay potential in the standard compass direction abbreviations.

Getting to that initial understanding may take people in different ways, and is likely to be at least a bit surprising, because so unusual. Some players might work it out just by staring at the list of hints. If they don’t, though, Threediopolis also provides some feedback for exploration. There’s not much else for the player to do except wander the map, and the game gradually spools out additional clues in response: that the grid is limited in each direction, that there’s not much point in trying to hit the edges, that several of the hints point to the same grid node, that “how you get there” must matter as much as the destination itself. The name of the NPC “Ed Dunn” is also a bit of a hint.

Once the player does figure out what kind of input is required, it’s possible to test that idea by solving a single one of the puzzles — which is quite likely to be a one-move solution, or at most (if he strings out the directions over multiple turns) a four or five-move solution. It’s explorable, original, surprising, and the gateway to all the rest of the puzzles in this piece.

Maximizing your profit in Captain Verdeterre’s Plunder (Ryan Veeder)

Captain Verdeterre’s Plunder is a game about rescuing goods from a sinking ship. It belongs to a fairly small group of replayable IF with a score rather than a binary win/lose outcome. The player’s score depends on how much valuable treasure she can rescue from the ship before it slips completely underwater.

To mimic the sinking effect, the game has a dynamic geography: the lowest rooms of the ship naturally fill with water most quickly, and while a room is filling, objects on the floor are endangered first, followed by others. Many IF games involve some change of geography partway through the story (Zork II famously features an earthquake that closes some game areas and opens others), but very few do this kind of progressive, move-by-move map change, which requires constant alterations to room descriptions and door connections. It’s a virtuosic technique, and lends the game a strong sense of urgency.

The result is a complicated optimization puzzle that the player cannot reasonably hope to solve on the first playthrough or two. It’s not immediately obvious which treasures will be worth the most, and your companion Captain Verdeterre is not a reliable source of intelligence. On the contrary, he actively encourages you to pick up things that are essentially worthless, but this is not obvious until the end of your first playthrough. And some treasures take a number of turns to retrieve, while the treasures located lowest in the ship are the first to become unavailable. Playing to optimize, therefore, means running through the game multiple times.

Captain Verdeterre does a lot to make this exploration more rewarding. He’s a highly reactive NPC with some quip to offer about most of your possible actions. The final score itself is also important, since you receive not only a list of the values of each of the objects, but some tidbit about what that object really was, or to whom you ultimately sold it; many of these effectively tell one-liner stories. And the fate of your character gradually improves as your score goes up, as well. Considering that you play as a human sailor in the service of a talking rat, the narrative of this game is not to be taken seriously, and it would be hard to say the puzzle is well integrated with it; fairer, perhaps, to say that the narrative does a good job of frosting the puzzle.

Another fun thing about this process is the way that it builds a fresh challenge out of a lot of simple old-chestnut interactions. There’s a lock and key puzzle, and a couple of puzzles about other ways of opening stubborn objects, and several sorts of searching puzzles (some effective enough that even after I had played the game seven or eight times, I was surprised to read about objects in ClubFloyd’s transcript of the game that I had utterly missed). Without the optimization frame, these would be comparatively ordinary (though even then, they’d still have Veeder’s prose and sense of humor to enliven them). In the context of the optimization puzzle, however, they add an extra dimension. If an object requires a key from another location, that contributes so many turns to the effective “price” of gaining that object — so is it worth it?

Finally, and importantly, this is a puzzle that allows the player to determine her own commitment level. If she wants to play through just a couple of times and call it done, that’s fine — and played at that level, the game is fairly accessible. If, on the other hand, she wants to make a chart of object values and sinking times and opportunity costs, and really commit to the effort, she can come up with a more intricate and ingenious solution.

Veeder’s design notes are a good read, and cover several points that I don’t mention here, as well as providing a little leaderboard for those who feel competitive. I did not beat the highest scores, but I did get my captain enough money to buy his own polar bear, and that’s enough for me.

Three-latch door in Faithful Companion (Matt Weiner)

The three-latch door puzzle is a fake-out, in which the player is initially misled about the very nature of the puzzle in play. It has a fair amount of company in this category. Ryan Veeder’s The Statue Got Me High pretends that it’s going to put you through a logic puzzle about place-cards, and then doesn’t. A number of classic IF works present a fake maze, where it feels as though the player is going to have to run through a standard maze-solution algorithm, but the real solution is something completely different; Photopia‘s recasting of the maze is especially renowned, but there are examples in Curses, Hunter, in Darkness, and many others.

The puzzle-type fake-out can be a dangerous trick, as the IFDB reviews on Veeder’s piece show: players sometimes get as far as recognizing that the puzzle is pretending to be something laborious but don’t play with it long enough to realize there’s a gentler route through, and quit instead. Faithful Companion gets around this: in contrast with many other puzzle fake-outs, it offers a fair, straightforward-to-execute puzzle masquerading as a different but also reasonably tractable puzzle type.

The basic set-up in Faithful Companion is that the player must get all three door latches into the correct position, but the ghost following the player keeps repeating the player’s moves two turns late, and as a result switches the first latch back to its original position before the player has a chance to flip the third.

In play, this feels as though it must be a parity-flipping problem. The latches are carefully implemented and described, and players are trained to focus especially on those aspects of a game that show a lot of authorial attention; and since the ghost doesn’t enter the room containing the latches until two moves after the player does, it may seem as though there’s some latch configuration the player could create during that two-move buffer that would allow him to outflip the ghost. Because the game is responding dynamically (if predictably) to the player’s actions, it’s possible to go on fiddling with the latches for quite a long time: it seems like an explorable puzzle, but is actually a surprise puzzle.

The true solution requires stepping back, viewing the situation through fresh eyes, and considering all of the available tools and options. In a larger game, this might feel unfair, but Faithful Companion is small and focused enough that it’s relatively straightforward to figure out, once the player has renounced the initial incorrect assumptions about unlocking the door in the ghost’s presence.

Getting out of the lab in Chemistry and Physics (Caelyn Sandel and Carolyn VanEseltine)

The main puzzle in Chemistry and Physics involves escaping Dane, a madman who is chasing you with a knife, through a disused laboratory where you used to work. The laboratory contains a number of dangerous objects that you might be able to use to your advantage, but not all of them are equally helpful, and you don’t have unlimited exploration time because Dane is coming after you. The space of the lab is designed so that you can often see him approaching and (usually) escape by going the other way — there are no dead ends to get stuck in — and there is a method of changing where he goes, though it usually has the effect of drawing him towards oneself, which isn’t always desirable.

It is also a timed puzzle: if I took long enough, Dane always caught me eventually even if I tried to be systematic about avoiding the beam of his flashlight approaching me.

The puzzle thus combines a (gentle) Theseus-and-the-Minotaur-style maze play with a time-limited exploration and a find-and-use-object challenge (reminiscent of the timed booby-trap setup in 10 Second Defence, though the object uses are more naturalistic here). While the maze aspect of the puzzle is not in itself terribly challenging, having to reason about how to reach the necessary props adds both urgency and difficulty to the problem of assembling a trap.

As this puzzle is pretty much the entirety of the gameplay, it is doing all the narrative work. Dane’s constant pursuit keeps up the tension and reminds the player of the high stakes of failure. Many IF games use puzzles as gating devices to the big narrative moments, rather than rendering tense or anxious scenes as puzzles. (Combat puzzles are an exception, but there are relatively few of these in the IF canon.) Chemistry and Physics avoids this.

Meanwhile, the exploration teaches your character’s backstory. You were working (evidently) on a secret, illicit experiment with poor lab safety. It is not perfectly clear what exactly happened, but the opening text suggests that Dane is angry with you because of deaths associated with the experiment.

The implementation is not completely flawless. On one playthrough I managed to wind up on a blank screen for no discernible reason; more generally, I found it a bit frustrating trying to find the one location where I would be allowed to set down the box of explosives, since the text was not very specific about what I should be seeking. I found myself wandering around the lab trying to put the box down, then undoing a move when that failed in order to save time. This became a tedious and automatic process that somewhat undermined the suspense the game had otherwise done such a good job of establishing.

Despite these minor issues, however, Chemistry and Physics offers a multi-stage puzzle that is integral to its narrative, based on a combination of mechanics not usually seen together, and with high stakes for the outcome. Alongside ULTRA BUSINESS TYCOON III, this piece is also yet another rebuttal to the assertion that it’s impossible to make CYOA- or Twine-based puzzles. C&P’s world model includes inventory, room areas, timing, and NPC movement — many things one might associate with parser IF — and uses them to construct a tense challenge with unmistakable gameplay.

Creating the Meat Monster in Coloratura (Lynnea Glasser)

The Meat Monster puzzle is a puzzle with a one-move solution, low in extent and explorability but very high in surprise, originality, and narrative impact.

The player, acting as the deep-sea alien creature The Aqueosity, discovers a freezer full of meat. The Aqueosity perceives the meat as suffering fragments of life, cut off from the rest of the universe, unable to participate in its great Song. Fortunately, the player by this point has had a chance to familiarize herself with the Aqueosity’s unique abilities, which include the ability to influence the emotional and psychological states of other entities. (Almost all of the puzzles in Coloratura involve this palette of abilities, allowing for a very original set of solutions that is nonetheless grounded in its themes and setting.) The player has already had to soothe or agitate other entities before reaching this point. With that background, it’s possible to guess that the protagonist will be satisfied if the meat is warmed and calmed, and to perform the action that will make that happen.

So the solution to this puzzle is not intricate, not extensive, not especially ingenious, but it does require narrative comprehension and the synthesis of some past puzzle learning to accomplish.

But what really makes it a standout is the reward the player receives for doing it. The awakened steaks don’t simply (as we might have expected) achieve a state of inert tranquillity. Instead they form together into a living meat creature, which rampages through the ship, horrifying the human inhabitants, before jumping off the deck into the ocean. To the protagonist, this is a very good thing, the birth moment of a new kind of being, but as readers, we’re also able to imagine the human reaction of confusion and horror.

The whole of Coloratura works by requiring the player to think from two perspectives at once: the perspective of the Aqueosity, which provides the narration and the mechanical possibilities, and the perspective of the shipboard humans whom the Aqueosity needs to manipulate for help. Much of the power of the story comes from the terrible difference between what the characters think they are doing to one another and what they are actually doing; the humans and the Aqueosity repeatedly do one another harm through misunderstanding. The distance between how the two groups understand the world is demonstrated especially powerfully in this scene, which manages to be funny, scary, touching, and terrible all at once.

And, there is also a gap between what the player thinks she going to accomplish by typing in the command, and what she actually does accomplish. After all, the Aqueosity is not surprised or disturbed by the meat golem. The Aqueosity is satisfied and pleased. It is the player who is startled.

In the terminology of the (often reductionist but still sometimes very useful) screenplay guru Robert McKee, the Gap is the distance between what the protagonist wants and what the protagonist gets, creating a tension that drives the plot. Interactive narrative adds the possibility of player-centric gaps, in which it is the player who faces unintended consequences; but such gaps are often difficult to manage well. If the player’s action makes the game state worse, she may want to undo. If the game can’t proceed without the player committing to some mistake, she may feel cheated, railroaded, or punished for something that wasn’t her fault. This is why it’s easy enough to start a non-interactive horror story with the protagonist (say) summoning a demon using a magic amulet despite the warnings of other characters, but rather more difficult to set up a satisfying story in which the player has to perform the ill-advised ritual. The player-expectation gap is challenging to use because it often disrupts the player’s agency.

However, that is precisely the kind of gap we have here.

To describe what has happened to player agency at this moment, it’s useful to look to Stacey Mason’s distinction between affect, the ability to control the world in mechanically predictable ways, and diegetic agency, the ability to influence the outcome of the story. The player’s mechanical expectations are fulfilled, while her narrative/diegetic expectations are partially fulfilled and partially subverted. The Aqueosity’s unhappiness provides the initial motivation for warming up the meat, and in that sense the player gets what she wanted: the unhappiness is resolved. For this reason, the outcome doesn’t feel like a failure, a mistake, or something that the player might want to undo. It’s success with a startling twist.

It could be argued that this outcome — a thematically resonant narrative moment in which the player’s action leads the story in a surprising direction — is not inherently a puzzle feature at all. It doesn’t depend on challenges or on the player figuring anything out, and it is something that one could in other circumstances imagine occurring in a puzzleless interactive story. But because it is joined to a puzzle in this case, it gives that puzzle unusual significance and power.

Earning One Million Dollars in ULTRA BUSINESS TYCOON III (Porpentine)

One of the first things you encounter in ULTRA BUSINESS TYCOON III is a door that can be passed through only by a person who has One Million Dollars. Almost all of the game’s challenge involves figuring out how to gain the money that will get you past this one door.

There are a number of stages to this process. There are fetch quests where NPCs need particular objects, and puzzles that can be solved by pure exploration, which are fairly representative of the types of challenges that might exist in a game like this, even if they are shown here through text rather than through a graphical interface. These sub-puzzles are sometimes violent or disgusting and often demonstrate an unhealthy obsession with corporate wealth, which is of course the thematic point of this sequence.

But quite a few of the contributing puzzle solutions also involve metagaming in some fashion. At one point, you have to change the game’s difficulty settings to get past different obstacles. Elsewhere, you must look beyond the Twine piece itself to find the NFO document where Porpentine provides a “shareware code” to get past a particular puzzle. I myself didn’t find the relevant NFO file until I went looking for a walkthrough for the game — but the act of seeking a walkthrough on the internet is entirely appropriate as part of the experience of playing this game, rather than being the immersion-breaking act that it would be for most types of game experience. Having to do this also reinforces identification with the protagonist, who is not rich enough to be able to pay the shareware fee. These metagame-focused puzzles toy with the distinction between ULTRA BUSINESS TYCOON III the Twine game that you are playing, and ULTRA BUSINESS TYCOON III the graphical game that your protagonist is playing.

So while it is not in itself difficult to get through the door, doing so is a capstone on everything else that the player has done up to that point.

Meanwhile, the act of passing through the One Million Dollar door is, within the internal game’s terms, a complete let-down. The player is shown this door at the very beginning of play and allowed to build up all sorts of anticipation about it — the door has tremendous structural prominence — and yet UBTIII provides only a brief final message, an encouragement to buy more shareware games. There’s no amazing revelation about the state of the world, which is what the protagonist has been looking for all this time. It’s Be Sure To Drink Your Ovaltine all over again.

It is only in the context of the framing story that the win is narratively satisfying. It is at this moment that the protagonist breaks free from obsession with the game and is able to perceive and interact with the much more important things that are happening around her in the real world. By ceasing to care about the One Million Dollars, the protagonist can belatedly connect with someone else in the real world.

September 22, 2014

Post Position

Code Poetry Slam in NYC Seeks Entries

by Nick Montfort at September 22, 2014 11:10 PM

ITP (the Interactive Telecommunications Program) at NYU is having a Code Poetry Slam on November 14. And they are seeking entries now! Send them along no later than November 7.

Shakepeare, coding away

These Heterogenous Tasks

A Bestiary of Player Agency

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at September 22, 2014 11:01 PM

Whenever there’s a discussion about choice or agency in computer games (at least, in my little corner thereof) I feel as if everybody’s trying to wade through molasses just to express their concerns, and that this is a big part of why … Continue reading

September 19, 2014

Lab of Jizaboz

Moving On

by Jizaboz ( at September 19, 2014 11:21 PM

Yesterday, I came home to a surprise. I went to update something related to my Ultima Online shard, and realized that my site now resolves to a help page. The site has resided there for about ten years now, as I never really needed a lot of space to host it. In about 3 hours I had uploaded all my data from a backup and redone all the URLS to the site, but you may still find a quirk here or there before I catch it. The old address was and the new address is

The new site is hosted by and so long as I keep refreshing the free domain name (or finally pay for it), it should stay there for some time to come. Also, all games and source code in my "Files" section should be working correctly now, because they are also hosted on the new server. The old site had a lot of files that were linked to Fileplanet, which is "no longer being updated and is in the process of being archived". Always a good idea to make frequent backups.

With that out of the way, I have a couple of game-related things to mention. The DPRK demo (Interactive fiction written in Hugo) is just around the corner. I just need a couple more hours to tie up some loose ends. The demo will feature the first PC's section of the game as well as an introduction to the second PC. I'm mainly looking for feedback on 2 things from the testers of the demo; how interested you are in certain aspects of the story (what should be focused on more) and what do you like or not like about the interface (The text parser commands, the layout of the windows, etc). It should only take a few minutes to play, but there are reasons for replay here and there due to story forks dependent on things like held objects and NPC interactions.

IFComp is also starting soon! I'm currently beta testing one game for it and hope to play a lot of the entries, and will try to review one or two once the time comes. I didn't really have anything near enough to completion to feel comfortable entering myself this year.

Retro Shard is back in order again lately new interest from a couple of people. My girlfriend has been doing a lot of play-testing on it, and I've gotten around to creating a new dungeon and finally creating a desert area. Next up will be creating a region within the desert area to allow for people to collect sand for glass-blowing. The new dungeon still needs some more spawners (monsters and treasure) to be fully complete, but that shouldn't take too long. Check out the Retro Shard section if you are interested in playing 2D Ultima Online on my server. It's free and fairly straightforward to set up.

There's been a new version and a few revisions of Inform7 released since I last worked with it. I'm interested in the OSX version, but figure the best thing to do is continue on DPRK until all of the extensions my last unfinished Inform project was dependent on are working in this new version. That last unfinished project was the "Interactive Dreaming" game. I recently took some pictures that I think will fit into the game nicely, and still have the beginnings of a cool sound track a friend of created a track for. The game itself was progressing okay as far as content, but the conversation system (the one I used in Lunar Base 1) was mothballed. If anyone has any recommendations for clean yet dynamic conversation systems that I may have missed in the past two years, I'd like to hear them.

September 15, 2014

These Heterogenous Tasks

Choose Your Frame

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at September 15, 2014 05:01 PM

CYOA has historically been presented in various frames. This has been a matter of marketing, identity and politics. The kids playing paper gamebooks like Lone Wolf or Fighting Fantasy were convinced that what they were playing was a sub-category of role-playing game, and I’ve seen … Continue reading

September 12, 2014


"Ice-Bound" is a 2014 IndieCade nominee!

by Aaron A. Reed ( at September 12, 2014 10:50 PM

I'm happy to report some good news on my latest ambitiously experimental interactive narrative (co-created with Jacob Garbe): Ice-Bound is an official selection for the 2014 IndieCade festival! You can watch our trailer here:

Ice-Bound combines a novel system for interactive storytelling with a nested, recursive story inspired by writers like Borges and books like Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves. The game begins with an iPad app, but can only be completed with the help of a printed book, the Ice-Bound Compendium. The player uses this 80-page art book (filled with story fragments, haunting images, and strange distorted transmissions) to communicate with a digital simulation of a long-dead author by choosing what pages to show him, and when.

Showing the iPad interacting with the printed book, Ice-Bound Compenidum, in the IndieCade finalist Ice-Bound

We're immensely proud of this project. One of my biggest challenges and motivations as a PhD student has been continuing to produce work that validates as literature and as game (or at least as "playable media"). So many cool academic projects exploring new models for interactive story don't get the exposure they deserve because of the difficulty finding the resources to finish, polish, and publicize within the university system. And on the other hand, there are incredible things happening in the world of indie storytelling games that are largely unknown and undiscussed among academics. We're glad, in our own small way, to help keep these two worlds talking to each other.

A screenshot of the interactive story in the IndieCade finalist iPad game Ice-Bound.

The project has also been a labor of love, born from a pitch to invent "the future of the book" that spun into an ambitious attempt to tell a story that required a physical book and a digital game working together: where neither was just a gimmick supported by the other. We think we've made an interesting stab at this goal. Ice-Bound is about the future of books, but also stories, sentience, and human rights. It marries hard sci-fi with historical fiction, tinged with fantasy and adventure. I'm really proud of it and can't wait to get it out into the world.

An image from the Ice-Bound Compendium, the printed book portion of the IndieCade finalist Ice-Bound.

Ice-Bound will be released early next year, but we'll have more big news before then, so stay tuned. You can keep tabs on the project by checking out the official Ice-Bound website, following us on Twitter or Facebook, subscribing to our RSS feed, or joining our mailing list (for major Ice-Bound announcements only).

The People's Republic of IF

October meetup

by zarf at September 12, 2014 05:00 PM

The Boston IF meetup for October will be Tuesday, October 21, 6:30 pm, MIT room 14N-233.

The Digital Antiquarian

The Magnificent Penguin Hangs Up His Tuxedo

by Jimmy Maher at September 12, 2014 10:00 AM

In April of 1984, Mark Pelczarski took a flight from Penguin Software’s home base of Chicago to San Francisco for the “Apple II Forever” event. Traveling with him were Steve Meuse, who had just written new extensions for Penguin’s graphics utilities to take advantage of the Apple IIe and IIc’s double-hi-res graphics mode, and Steve’s wife Marsha. Over the course of the flight, the three sketched out an idea for a series of computer games for “subversively” teaching geography, as had the old board game Game of the States and the perennial favorite Risk. By the time they made it to the Moscone Center to join the other Apple faithful, they had plans for no less than six games, one each for Europe, North America, South America, Asia, Africa, and Australasia. Each would have you traveling through its region of the world on the trail of a villain. Figuring out where your quarry was would require piecing together clues relating to the geography, culture, and history of the region. The Spy’s Adventures Around the World soon became one-third of Penguin’s grand strategic plan for the next few years, to stand alongside the graphics software and the new Comprehend series of adventure games.

Through that summer, at the same time that he was designing and implementing the Comprehend system with Jeffrey Jay, Mark worked with Marsha to put together a prototype. In the fall they refined it with the aid of some educational researchers, tested it out with actual classes of schoolchildren to see how well it held their interest, and hired artists to begin filling it with Penguin’s trademark colorful graphics. Meanwhile Mark developed a cross-platform database-driven engine to replace his original BASIC implementation.

As the work went on, and as has been documented in painful detail elsewhere in this blog, the software industry was becoming a more and more uncertain and dangerous place for a small company like Penguin. Mark therefore broached an idea to Doug Carlston of the larger and more diversified Brøderbund: would he be interested in acquiring Penguin, as he had recently acquired Synapse Software? It’s certainly not the sort of idea that any entrepreneur takes lightly, but Mark felt he had good reasons for approaching Doug — and only Doug: “Doug was by far the person in software publishing whom I most respected.”

The two went about as far back as colleagues possibly could in an industry as young as this one. Mark had first crossed paths with Doug before Penguin or Brøderbund existed, when he was working for SoftSide magazine and Doug was selling his first game through the magazine’s TRS-80 Software Exchange. Later, whilst they were visiting him at his home in San Rafael, California, Doug had introduced Mark and David Lubar to a hotshot programmer named Chris Jochumson who added animation to the Penguin graphical suite. Mark returned the favor at the West Coast Computer Faire of 1983 when an artist named Gini Shimabukuro approached him with a big collection of clip-art images. Not himself having any programs in the offing that could make use of them, he thought of Doug, who had just demonstrated for him an idea that would soon became famous under the name The Print Shop. Mark sent Gina over to the Brøderbund booth, and her art eventually became a big part of The Print Shop’s finished look. Working together, both men also played important behind-the-scenes roles in the founding of the Software Publishers Association to promote the industry, advocate for the rights of smaller players like Penguin, and rail against piracy.

When Doug expressed tentative interest in the acquisition, Mark flew out to California once again in January of 1985 with a briefcase full of financial reports and details of Comprehend and the Spy’s Adventures series. He shared all of that and then some with Brøderbund, including Penguin’s three-pronged strategy for the future. Doug and Gary Carlston and Gene Portwood listened with apparent interest. While they didn’t share the status of their business to anywhere near the degree that Mark did, they did show a few demos of ideas in development whilst also, Mark claims, expressing a certain level of concern about a lack of really compelling products in their pipeline. A few days later Doug called Mark to say they had decided “not to go forward with” the acquisition, and that was that. Mark, for whom the burden of complete responsibility for Penguin and everyone who worked there was becoming heavy indeed, remembers feeling “disappointed.”

But there was nothing to be done about it and no one else to whom he was inclined to entrust Penguin, so he went back to tweaking and refining the Spy’s Adventures series that was increasingly starting to look like the best thing Penguin had going as the air rushed out of the bookware bubble and the Apple II, The Graphics Magician’s bread-and-butter platform, got older in the tooth. Mark and his colleagues made it possible to play the Spy’s Adventures single- or multi-player, the latter in either a competitive or a unique cooperative mode. They produced guides and supplemental software for teachers looking to integrate the games into a curriculum. And they tested, tested, tested. They took their time, wanting to make sure the series was perfect. If they could get the first three games out by the end of the year, it should be more than early enough, given that schools traditionally budgeted and purchased for the next school year in the spring.

Then came the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in June. “Have you seen the Brøderbund booth?” a colleague asked Mark. No. “Well, you need to.”

Brøderbund was showing a demo of Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, a game you probably already thought of some time ago, when I first described Penguin’s take on the educational geographical adventure game. Livid, Mark tracked Doug down and confronted him right there on the show floor. The latter refused to engage in any discussion, other than to say that he “knew nothing” about Carmen Sandiego at the time of the January meeting and that he always did his best to exchange information with others to to avoid this sort of thing. Their friendship effectively ended right there. Mark:

My contacts with Doug after that were short. He either did not reply, or replied tersely. He was a lawyer. I don’t know if he felt he had to watch his words, thus the fewer the better?

At this point we want to be just a little bit careful. There was a period of time when Mark believed the most sensationalistic and dastardly interpretation of these events to likely be true: that Brøderbund blatantly stole his idea for a geographical educational adventure and rushed it out as Carmen Sandiego before Penguin could get the Spy’s Adventures out. Today he no longer believes that interpretation to be terribly likely. Nor do I. To believe it requires one to believe in a thirty-year conspiracy of silence amongst the considerable number of people who were involved in the creation of Carmen Sandiego, not all of whom proved to be all that committed to the Carlstons or Brøderbund in even the short term; Dane Bigham, for instance, architect and programmer of Carmen Sandiego‘s cross-platform game engine, left the company as something less than a happy camper just months after the game’s release when he was informed that he would have to start taking a fixed salary rather than royalties. It’s also difficult to believe that Brøderbund could have come up with the character of Carmen herself and the idea of the included almanac, neither of which were in Penguin’s version, and managed to design and program a demo featuring it all in the bare handful of months between January and June. Nor does it seem at all in keeping with Doug Carlston’s apparently well-earned reputation as one of the nicest, fairest people in software.

The real significance of this incident for Mark and for Penguin is more subtle, but perhaps all the more poignant for it. When he told the story to me in detail for the first time, I replied with a ham-handed array of practical questions. Did you not have Brøderbund sign some sort of NDA or other agreement before you told them pretty much everything there was to know about the state of your business? Once you gifted him with the information that you had such a similar project, what was Doug to do, potentially torpedo his own project by telling you? When you approached him with aggressive questions implying he had stolen your idea, can you really blame him so much for doing the lawyerly thing, limiting his liability by saying as little as possible and keeping away from you as much as possible from then on? Wasn’t Doug, in addition to being a nice guy, also a businessman with the livelihood of many others (including most of his own family) depending on the continued existence of his company, and doesn’t that sometimes have to trump friendship?

Mark replied that I “don’t really understand how magical those early years were, and how this was such a dramatic departure.” Doug should have told him that Brøderbund had something so similar in development, and they would somehow have worked something out. Even the mild bit of dishonesty that it’s quite hard to absolve Doug of — that he somehow hadn’t known that Carmen Sandiego was in development at the time of the January 1985 meeting, a claim he himself has refuted in many interviews since — seemed totally out of character for the straight shooter Mark thought he knew. Clearly Doug found himself on the horns of a difficult and ethically ambiguous dilemma. You can judge his behavior for yourself. For Mark, though, these events served as a canary in a coalmine telling him that the days of the software brotherhood were gone and the industry that had replaced it may not be someplace he wanted to be. If this tormented business could bring a nice guy like Doug to behave this way, what might it force Mark himself into doing? If Doug’s behavior represented simply “good business,” did he really want to be in business?

Penguin did publish the first three Spy’s Adventures games as planned, but by then Carmen Sandiego had already been out for a couple of months. Mark continues to believe that the Penguin games are better than their Brøderbund counterparts, noting that they contain all of the information the player needs to play them in-game rather than relying on an outside resource. The multiplayer possibilities, he notes correctly, also give them a whole additional dimension. Personally, I acknowledge the latter point in particular as well taken, but remember that big old almanac as a huge part of Carmen Sandiego‘s appeal, most definitely a feature rather than a bug. Whatever, there just wasn’t room for two lines of educational geographic adventure games, and Brøderbund cornered the space for themselves by releasing first and doing a masterful job of promotion; as Mark himself wryly acknowledges, just the names Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? and The Spy’s Adventures in North America tell you everything you need to know about the relative promotional flairs of the two companies. The Spy made it to North America, South America, and Europe, but no further, while Carmen eventually conquered time and space and even the PBS airwaves.

Whilst Mark was still reeling from seeing Carmen Sandiego at that CES show, there came another disillusioning moment: he was forced to change the ground of Penguin’s very identity, its name. A couple of years before, when the world of book publishing was beginning to eye that of software publishing with greedy eyes, the Penguin Group had legally objected to the Penguin Software trademark. His lawyers informed Mark that he had a reasonable chance of winning on the merits of the case — his company had been in software first, after all — but the other Penguin had the money and legal resources to make any victory so expensive and time-consuming that it couldn’t help but bury his little company — which was, one suspects, exactly what the Penguin Group, hundreds of times bigger than Penguin Software, was relying on. Mark played for time by dragging out the discovery process and subsequent negotiations as long as he possibly could. But at last as 1985 drew to a close Penguin Software began the difficult process of educating the public about their new identity as “Polarware,” a name that never quite fit and always rankled. A final agreement severing Polarware from the old Penguin name forever was signed in 1986. The bullying tactics of the Penguin Group are doubly dispiriting in light of the imprint’s noble history as the first to bring affordable paperback editions of great literature to the masses. (And, astonishingly, the tactics were still continuing a decade after Polarware closed up shop; see the threatening letter Mark has published on his own site, which leaves one thinking that surely their lawyers must have something better to be doing than policing collections of long-obsolete software for long-obsolete computers.)

With the Spy’s Adventures a bust, the newly minted Polarware must rely entirely upon the other two legs of that strategic triangle, the graphics software and the Comprehend line of adventure games. They released two more Comprehend games in 1986 to join Antonio Antiochia’s Comprehend-revamped Transylvania and its sequel of the previous year. Both 1986 games were also remakes, signs of a maturing industry now able to mine the “classics” of its own past.


One of them we’ve met before on this blog: Oo-Topos, one of the two science-fiction adventures Mike Berlyn had written during his early days with Sentient Software. Mark had known Mike for some years already by 1986, having first met him when Mike was working on an arcade game that Sentient would eventually release as Congo and called Penguin with some questions about how to use The Graphics Magician. As the Comprehend line was getting underway, Mark proposed to Mike, who was still at Infocom at the time, that Penguin/Polarware be allowed to remake Oo-Topos using the Comprehend engine. It sounded fine to Mike, but for two problems: his position at Infocom made it difficult for him to directly involve himself with the remake; and the actual rights to the game resided not with Mike but with his erstwhile partner at Sentient, Alan Garber, from whom he had split on less than amicable terms. Mark was able to work out a deal with Garber instead. Mike received no royalties, but gave his blessing to a remake which smoothed away most of the rough edges of the original and of course added graphics. The result was a very enjoyable adventure game.

The Coveted Mirror

The other game, a charming little fantasy called The Coveted Mirror, was of more recent vintage. The erstwhile Penguin Software had published the original, written and illustrated by freelance illustrator Holly Thomason and programmed by a Stanford systems programmer named Eagle Berns, in 1983. (Berns would go on to quite a career inside Silicon Valley, working most notably for Apple and Oracle.) The new version removed the several surprisingly good arcade-action sequences from the original, but added some additional locations and puzzles in compensation.

The Comprehend adventures are not innovative in the least, and indeed were already feeling like throwbacks in their own time, the last holdouts from the old Hi-Res Adventure approach to adventuring that Sierra had birthed with Mystery House and The Wizard and the Princess and long since abandoned along with most of the rest of the industry. For all that, though, I have a huge soft spot for the line. They are, mark you, full of the sort of old-school attributes that will drive most of you crazy: mazes, inventory limits, limited light sources and other sorts of timers, vital information hidden in the graphics, parsers that don’t understand simple constructions like “DROP ALL.” Yet there’s a certain sense of design craft to them that’s lacking in so many of their competitors, and most of all a welcome sense that their authors want you to solve them, want you to have fun with them. Excluding only a few misbegotten riddles in The Crimson Crown, there are no stupid guess-the-word parser puzzles, no cheap tricks meant to send you scurrying with cash-in-hand for the hint book. If you can accept the different standards of a different era, they’re just about the most consistently playable line of parser-driven adventures of the 1980s, excepting only Infocom. Others may have reached further and occasionally soared higher, but their literary aspirations much more frequently only led them to create games that didn’t really work that well as, well, games. Despite their branding as “Interactive Novels,” a mode of phraseology very much in vogue at the time of their conception, the Comprehend titles are content to just be fun text adventures, an impressively nonlinear web of locations and puzzles to explore and solve in the service of just enough plot to get you started and provide an ending.

In addition to five released Comprehend games, Polarware signed contracts for and storyboarded two licensed games that would never get made, one to be based on the Frank and Ernest newspaper comic strip, the other on Jimmy Buffett’s anthem “Margaritaville.” The latter makes a particularly interesting story, one that once again begins with Mike Berlyn.

One year Mark and Mike had found themselves on the same flight from Chicago to Las Vegas for the Winter CES, and arranged to sit together. The conversation came around to music, whereupon Mark mentioned his love for Jimmy Buffett. Long before the Parrothead circus began, Mark had seen him as a struggling singer/songwriter who passed through the University of Illinois student union to sing his poignant early songs of alcohol-addled losers and dreamers adrift on the Florida Keys. Mike mentioned that he had actually lived quite close to Buffett during his tenure in Aspen, Colorado, with Sentient, and that he believed Buffett still had a house there. Knowing only that Buffett lived (according to Mike) in the “Red Mountain subdivision” of Aspen, on a lark Mark sent a letter off to just that: “Jimmy Buffett, Red Mountain subdivision, Aspen, Colorado.” Four months later one of his employees came to him to to tell him that “there’s this guy who says he’s Jimmy Buffett on the phone for you.” There were plans in the works to make a movie out of “Margaritaville,” and it seems Buffett and his associates thought a computer game might make a nice companion (even given that it was somewhat, um, debatable how much of a cross-section there really was between computer gamers and Jimmy Buffett fans). But the movie plans fell through in the end, and neither movie nor game got made.

Penguin/Polarware had managed to stay afloat and even modestly profitable through 1985, but as the mass-market distributors gained more and more power they were increasingly able to impose their will on a small publisher, stretching the time between the shipment of an order and receipt of payment to thirty, sixty, ninety days or longer. Distributors came to dictate terms to such an extent that Polarware might ship them a $30,000 order only to have the distributor announce a few months later that they’d only sold $12,000 of it and thus would only pay for that, while, what with sales having been so slow, they wouldn’t even bother trying to move the rest — but no, they wouldn’t be paying for or returning the leftovers either. Bigger players might impose their own will on the distributors or set up their own distribution systems (as Electronic Arts did from the beginning), but there was very little that Polarware could do. While they did try forming a distributor, which they called SoftRack, to handle their own wares and those of a few other small publishers, it never penetrated much beyond some small independent retailers in the Midwest. For the rest, they must rely upon the established big boys, many of whom lived fast and close to the edge. At the beginning of 1986 what Mark had been dreading finally happened: a few distributors went bankrupt while owing Polarware a lot of money. With accounts suddenly deeply in the red, he was forced to embark on the heartbreaking process of laying off lots of employees he had long since come to regard as friends.

The frantic down-sizing and cost-cutting was enough to let Polarware weather this crisis, but Mark had decided by the end of the year that he’d had enough. The future looked decidedly uncertain. The Spy’s Adventures were a bust, while the Comprehend games had proved only modestly successful. And now the graphics utilities, always the company’s financial bedrock, also faced a doubtful (at best) future. The 8-bit platforms they ran on were now aged, with the press beginning to speculate on how much longer they could possibly remain viable, and Polarware had nothing in the works for and no real expertise with the next generation of 16-bit graphical powerhouses. The Comprehend line also desperately needed a facelift for the new machines, one that the down-sized Polarware wasn’t really in a position to provide. Meanwhile the stress of running Polarware was keeping Mark up at night and starting to affect his health. It was time to quit. Mark walked away, selling Polarware to a group of employees who still thought they could make a go of it. They would manage to release one more Comprehend game, an original with the awkward title of Talisman: Challenging the Sands of Time, in 1987 before accepting the inevitable and selling out to Merit Software.

Barack Obama shakes hands with Mark Pelczarski, November 7, 2012

Barack Obama shakes hands with Mark Pelczarski, November 7, 2012

For his part, Mark pursued a growing fascination with the then-new computerized music-making technology of MIDI. That led to an early MIDI software package, MIDI OnStage, and combined with the Jimmy Buffett connection he’d established at Polarware took him to Key West to help set up Buffett’s Shrimpboat Sound recording studio; his worked rated a mention in the liner notes of the first album Buffett recorded there, Hot Water. Since then Mark has filled his time with quite a variety of activities: setting up another studio for Dan Fogelberg; playing steel drums in a band; developing the mapping technology for early travel-planning CD-ROMs; teaching one of the first online courses ever offered and developing much of the technology that allowed him to do so; developing early web-forum software; teaching programming for twenty years at Elgin Community College. He’s now retired from that last gig, but remains busy and industrious as ever; when I first contacted him to ask him to help me tell the Penguin/Polarware story, I was surprised to find him volunteering as a technology architect for Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign. Mark escaped the chaos with little apparent psychic damage, something not necessarily true of all of his contemporaries.

When I put Penguin behind me, I felt like I’d already had a lifetime of experiences, much more than most people could hope for, imagine, or dream. And I kind of treated what came after as another lifetime. I joke, but only half so, about how “in a past life…’ I did this and that, when talking about things like Penguin Software. But it really does kind of feel like that, and that probably helped keep me sane in living another, more normal life.

(You can download the Comprehend versions of Oo-Topos and The Coveted Mirror for the Apple II, including manuals and all the other goodies, from here if you like.

For another and presumably final time, my thanks to Mark Pelczarski. His memories, which he shared with me in careful detail even though this period of Penguin/Polarware’s history is not his favorite to remember, were just about all I needed to write this article.)


September 11, 2014

Classic Adventure Solution Archive

CASA Update - 103 new game entries, 17 new solutions, 8 new maps, 1 new hints, 3 new fixed games

by Alastair at September 11, 2014 10:23 PM

Goodness! That was quick! Just eleven days have passed since the last update and now the number of games in the database exceeds 6,100. Many thanks to the Industrious Half-Dozen.

Contributors: Alex, dave, iamaran, Richard Bos, Justananomaly, boldir

IFComp News

Alert for Mac users of Inform 7's latest version

September 11, 2014 08:01 PM

For competition authors building their entries on the Mac version of Inform 7:

The latest version (6L38), while intended as a bugfix release, contains some fairly serious user-interface issues, as detailed in this thread on the forums. Problems include an inability to create new projects from the opening screen, install extensions from within the IDE, or use the cross-reference arrows from its error-report screen.

If you’ve upgraded to this version of Inform and are experiencing the problems described there, you may wish to try this unofficial modified version of the application, built by Andrew Plotkin. More about that in this thread; as he notes, it re-introduces known UI problems from the previous release, but on balance they’re rather less severe than the current ones. It’s intended as a stopgap until Inform’s core maintainer prepares an official release that fixes these new issues.


Twine: Quing’s Quest VII: The Death of Videogames!

by Kate Reynolds at September 11, 2014 07:01 PM

Quing's Quest

Amidst all the sexist hubbub of the past month, many game developers have taken to…well, making games to address the situation. Go figure. Deirdre “Squinky” Kiai (the developer responsible for Dominique Pamplemousse) is among these devs, and released Quing’s Quest for Ruin Jam 2014. Ruin Jam sprung up in response to #GamerGate (among other things) and has this to say about itself on its front page:

Ruin Jam is a game jam celebrating the nonexistent demise of video games, inspired by a lot of current events and  a certain blog post. It’s open to anyone and everyone who has been, is being, or plans to be accused of ruining the games industry. All Ruiners are welcome to contribute to the death of video games, provided that they adhere to the spirit of the jam.

In case you weren’t aware of the things that are ruining games, the site even provides a handy list of examples from things like “Forced Diversity” (having minority characters with agency) to everyday criticism and/or satire of existing game franchises. With a genderfluid protagonist, quirky music, and poignant social commentary, Quing’s Quest (get it?is quite positively a game ruiner, and one that makes me wish Kiai would ruin the entire industry for me.

The game was built in Twine, because according to Kiai “…nothing says “hey, that’s not really a game!” like Twine,” and you find yourself aboard a spaceship in the Captain’s Quarters. Before the “main action” of the game really begins, you can visit your wardrobe and bathroom to change your attire and make up. No matter oddball combination of colors and garments you choose, you will look FABULOUS….which is perhaps the most subtle piece of social commentary in the game. No matter how you wear your hair (green pompadour my first play through) or what color you paint your nails (rainbow, duh) the player character looks fabulous, and by extension, you the player feel rewarded for your decisions, and perhaps feel a little more fabulous about yourself.

Of course, then the “real” adventure begins.


There’s no rhyme or reason to the disk numbers. Linear counting is for squares!

You are aboard this ship, with your fellow genderfluid pirate Nero, because you both escaped the planet Videogames which was recently taken over by the misogynerds. Honestly, I would probably rate this game highly just for Kiai’s invention of the word misogynerd. It’s just so…apropos. I digress. Though you and Nero have escaped the misogynerds, there’s nowhere else to run (Academia, WeirdInternet, New Mediaart, and Hypertext won’t take you) and they’re hot on your tail.

What follows is a poignant depiction of what it feels like to make unique games and/or criticism in the game industry. The misogynerds are always after you because you won’t follow their rules, and even your friends have defected to the misogynerd siren call, simply because they won’t want to make waves and risk the wrath of the hoard. This narrative is all too familiar to many people in the game industry, yet seeing it played out as a game made the message resonate in a way it hadn’t previously done before.

The message took on a different cadence when I realized that in the game, you can actually try to change the narrative. It’s just you, Nero, and your ship the Social Justice Warrior, but as a team you three can make a difference against the misogynerds. This is in line with Kiai’s describes of the game as “…a silly, over-the-top power fantasy.” Yet even though it is over-the-top (you can attempt to “Escape to Narnia” when the misogynerds find you), Quing’s Quest offered me a fantasy I wasn’t aware I was wishing for: agency.


In a game where your choices don’t matter at all, it was strange to find myself feeling empowered at the completion. Yet in the game, I had impacted the world of video games in a way that I never have before in the non-game world. I was left wanting to fist-pump and dance, full of renewed energy to fight the misogynerds I encounter everyday in my web space. Power fantasies may be outlandish and silly, but as Kiai demonstrates in Quing’s Quest they’re also refreshing and needed.

So, should you play this game? As long as you don’t identify as a misogynerd the answer is….duh. Play this game, make your friends play this games, and make their friends play this game. Then, we can all go out and ruin games together.

The post Twine: Quing’s Quest VII: The Death of Videogames! appeared first on StoryCade.

September 10, 2014


News: Humble Bundle 12 Offers Gone Home

by Amanda Wallace at September 10, 2014 05:01 PM

Humble Bundle

The Humble Bundle has long defined itself as a great way to pick up independent games at a low price. The Bundle works by pairing lots of smaller, independent games (or bundling larger games for charity) and allowing you to pay what you want for them. The proceeds will go to a combination of worthy causes, from the developers themselves, to charities like Child’s Play or the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

This time around, the Humble Bundle is pairing $127 worth of notable games, with two tiers. The first is “pay what you want,” which allows you to pay as little or as much as you want for the available games. These games include Gunpoint, Hammerwatch, and Steamworld Dig. If you pay over $10, you get Alpha access to Prison Architect. For IF fans, probably the most interesting deal is if you pay over the average (as of writing this, it’s about $7) you can get a couple great games including Gone Home, but also Luftrausers, and Papers, Please.

This Humble Bundle is also home to a strange element known as the Humble Bundle 12 Entertainment System. For $65, you can get a shareware floppy, LP, T-Shirt and HIB Informer Magazine (with tips and tricks for the games featured in the Bundle). It’s an interesting package, and one that’s sure to excite indie games fan.

This whole deal is available on the Humble Bundle Website, and is a promotion that will run for only the next two weeks.

The post News: Humble Bundle 12 Offers Gone Home appeared first on StoryCade.

September 09, 2014


Visual Novel: Hatoful Boyfriend

by Amanda Wallace at September 09, 2014 09:01 PM

Hatoful Boyfriend

This guest post is brought to you by Emilie Reed. You can find more from them on Twitter and their website.

It’s the spring of 2012, and I’m having my first real grapple with the fact that something might be wrong with me. No, I’m not obsessed with dating pigeons, not yet anyways, but I’m starting to suspect that my chronic anxiety and depression may be something serious, rather than me just falling short, being irrational, or childish. Everything I have to do during the day seems like an intense, high-pressure performance I can’t keep up with, but to get my mind off it all in the evenings I used a coping mechanism I retain to this day, even though I’m in a much better place mentally: I play weird games I found on the internet. That was the context for the Hatoful Boyfriend demo coming into my life.  I forget where exactly I first heard of it, but it was presented as an oddball novelty (“dating birds!? Typical weird Japanese games…”) which is how many people are still introduced to it and after playing all of the routes in the original, as well as the Christmas-themed sequel and preordering the deluxe 1080p rerelease on Steam (now with added Java Sparrow route) I think it ultimately sells the game short. Saying Hatoful Boyfriend saved my life is obvious hyperbole, but it did improve it, and it is a very good visual novel even when the novelty of talking birds and a boarding school for intelligent pigeons wears off.

Hatoful Boyfriend

It’s hard to really mention anything about the overarching plot of Hatoful Boyfriend, beyond the budding friendships and eventual romantic confession scenes you can experience with eight different birds without going into major spoilers, so I won’t.  What I think is more important about the game is experiencing it. Even if you’re reading this, I imagine it’ll be hard for you to go into the game without initially scoffing at the ridiculous setup, that you’re the first human girl to attend a school previously only for birds. It’s a take on a common  premise for many girls’ dating sim games, that you’re the first girl attending a historically male boarding school, which gives you little competition and the most time and attention from the boys you can interact with. But then, Hatoful Boyfriend’s main character also attracts some unwanted attention… oh ok, I’ll stop there.

Hatoful Boyfriend

Hatoful Boyfriend is way more than just a send up of dating sim tropes using the absurdity of a human dating a pigeon to emphasize the ridiculousness of the genre. While there are, of course, some self-aware jokes and humour resulting from human-avian interaction, Hato Moa, the pseudonymous creator, plays it remarkably straight. While the dateable birdies may seem like two dimensional dating sim ‘types,’ at first, almost everyone, at some point in the game, begins to question why they’re having such intense or complex feelings about a character represented only by text and a stock photo of a bird. And then you just accept it. And then you’re one of us.

The community surrounding the Hatoful Boyfriend games includes long-time bird fanciers, and people who only began to fancy birds after playing the game. Me, I found a new source of happiness, appreciating the cooing, strutting co-inhabitants of the city around me in a new way, after I’d befriended them ingame. I made friends who had been through the same experience, of picking up the game on a whim because it was ‘weird’ and becoming enthralled. I’ve chatted with zookeepers, neurosurgeons, mothers, even people who offered me advice from their own experiences with GAD who all love the game. Its wide appeal and friendly fan community are certainly notable, but at the core is simply a well written, intriguing game. Take my word for it, after playing Hatoful Boyfriend it’s unlikely you’ll feel the same about birds. Or dating sims.

The post Visual Novel: Hatoful Boyfriend appeared first on StoryCade.

September 08, 2014


Twine: Depression Quest

by Amanda Wallace at September 08, 2014 11:02 PM

Depression Quest

This guest post is brought to you by Jonathan Kaharl. You can more from him on Twitter and at his blog. 

Depression Quest was something I played out of vague interest one day, and it really surprised me. As a game, it’s fascinatingly simple; the barest of choices made as the sole main mechanic, but making a lack of choice part of the mechanic and turning the game into a learning tool. I played it twice to date and got the best ending each time, but “winning” in this game obviously wasn’t the point to it.
Depression Quest
Depression Quest is important to me because it helped me understand something I never understood before. It successfully put me into the head space of someone suffering from depression, something I barely had any understanding of before, and through the simplicity of its designed game, I felt like I grew as a person. This is a game that taught me something, and I can only say that about very few games in my collection. TWEWY introduced me to sociology theory early, for example, but few other games come to my mind that really got me to realize something new like Depression Quest managed to do in just two hours. The pressure of the condition, the desire for an easy decision that just makes things worse, how few people truly understand the condition; the game really opened my eyes. How the mom interacts with you if you’re honest to her, or how trying to relax only puts you in a worse head space brought up things I never realized. The pain of your own self loathing and the difficulty of dealing with it, along with the well meaning yet ignorant words of your support net cutting into your trust with that person …it’s powerful stuff. It’s also very well written; the generic perspective is kept at a constant, and there’s some good bits of humanity mixed in (as a pet owner, how it feels to just spend a lazy day with your pet was a feeling I knew all too well). There was a lot of life experience poured into this, and it’s helping people learn more about a subject few people even bother to try and understand.
Depression Quest
Depression Quest is brilliant for such a small work, and it’s something everyone should play in the right head space. By that, I mean accepting of whatever it has to tell or teach you.

The post Twine: Depression Quest appeared first on StoryCade.

The Gameshelf: IF

Zarfplan: We have beta stage

by Andrew Plotkin at September 08, 2014 08:23 PM

Last night at 8 pm I tagged a branch, compiled a release build, ran the end-to-end test script, and pinged the testers about where to download it. Hadean Lands is now in beta.

(If you chose the "access to the closed beta-testing phase" backer reward, and you haven't gotten email from me, please contact me for testing info. Assuming you still want to test, I mean.)

This momentous day is a good time for some announcements!

Hadean Lands will be available both as an iOS app and as a portable (Glulx) game file. The Glulx version will be playable on Mac, Windows, Linux, and anything else that the (open-source) interpreter can be ported to. I expect to sell the Glulx version through the Humble Widget and through the Itch.IO game download service. The sticker price will be $5 no matter where you buy it from.

All backers will get the Glulx version as a free download. Yes, every person who backed me. Even if you contributed just a dollar; even if you asked for your money back; everybody. This wasn't part of the original Kickstarter plan, but you deserve something extra for waiting this long.

I am going to ship the game first, and physical rewards later. People signed up for postcards and posters and CDs and calligraphy and all that good stuff. It will all happen! But I am not going to worry about any of it until you have playable copies of the game.

(Footnote to the above: I do not plan to be on the Humble Store or in any bundle. I'm just going to use the Humble tool for selling downloadable content. I might wind up on the Humble Store at some point in the future.)

What's the timeline? Later this week I will send out the dreaded Kickstarter backer questionnaires -- one for everybody, one for people who get physical rewards. These will cover shipping addresses, App Store account names, whether you want your Glulx download from Humble or Itch.IO, and so on.

Beyond that, I have several tasks still in front of me, including cover art, a map, a web site, and integrating the game into my iOS framework. Plus the time it will take Apple to approve the app. I'm allocating a month. That's not a hard deadline, but as a rough target, think "early October" as our ship date.

This means that HL is likely to ship in the middle of IFComp voting. This is a right nuisance but we'll have to manage. I can't promise to get HL out before IFComp starts, and it would be stupid to delay it until after IFComp is over.

One of the tasks of my list is "the expectations-setting blog post". I was half-joking when I wrote it, but I think this is a good time to talk about how Hadean Lands has come out.

  • Hadean Lands is a hard game. Eight people have been working on the first (July) test release, and none of them have made it even halfway through (which is how much was implemented in July). Obviously nobody has been playing full-time for two months (or even for two weeks), and testers have not yet started to cooperate on puzzle-solving. But it is safe to say that this game will be a challenge for a solo solver.

  • HL does not come with hints. In an ideal world, every puzzle game would ship with hints, but this is not that world. Adding a comprehensive hint system would add months to the development cycle, and I'm not going to do that. Instead, I will point everybody to a forum thread and say "Exchange hints here!" (This approach worked fine for Counterfeit Monkey.)

  • HL is more about puzzles than story. As with The Dreamhold, I put in some background information which implies a story. I hope that is interesting. But your play experience will be about the puzzles.

  • HL involves a lot of typing. (My end-to-end test run is 1280 player commands. That's not absolutely minimal, but it gives you the order of magnitude of the thing.) You might say, what, I'm going to play a thousand-command text adventure on my iPhone? Well, that's one reason you get a desktop version for free. (I hope to have a way to exchange save files between iOS and Dropbox.)

Despite everything I've said... this is the game that I intended to make. It does what I wanted it to do. Oh, there's always a long list of failed dreams trailing behind any game -- everything you hoped it might do, which didn't work out because no game can do everything. But I stand behind this thing.

September 02, 2014

IFComp News

Authors: preview how your entries look

September 02, 2014 06:01 PM

I’m pleased to roll out a new feature for IFComp authors, available now on the website.

From your entry-management page, click the Preview these entries hyperlink under the Your current entries header (if you’ve already declared your intent to enter at least one game). This will take you to a new screen where you can see your entries just as IFComp judges would see them, were the competition to start at that moment.

Each entry’s preview includes Download and Walkthrough buttons, whose appearance depends on whether you’ve added game and walkthrough files to your entry, respectively.

An additional Play Online button will appear if your entry game file is browser-playable. This includes web-native games, such as those made with Twine and Undum. Thanks to the magic of Parchment, this also includes parser IF created with Inform. A more complete description of the logic the system uses to determine online-playability appears on the bottom of the preview page.

I would very much appreciate any bug reports or other feedback about this new feature. I hope you find it useful!

The Monk's Brew

Changelog 2014-09-01

by Rubes at September 02, 2014 02:00 AM


Well, yet another month is in the books. Weird August fact that only I find interesting: I know I don’t post a great deal on this blog compared with other blogs, but looking back over the years it seems that August is the month I have posted the least overall. In fact, until this year, I hadn’t posted a single blog entry in August since the first year of the blog, in 2008. I have no idea what this means.

This week was relatively quiet, but still important tasks were accomplished or started. As I mentioned last week, I installed Parallels on my Mac dev machine so I could do my modeling/animation/exporting work side-by-side with my programming and testing work without having to reboot [More...] Read the rest