Planet Interactive Fiction

July 07, 2015

Emily Short

Pry (Tender Claws)

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


PRY is an iOS story that combines video segments and text to explore the inner and outer worlds of a veteran who is still struggling to process his experiences in the war, who is suffering from vision impairment thanks to wounds sustained there, and who is now trying to hold down a job in demolitions.

The interaction consists entirely of swipes and touches of the text: not, as in a hypertext environment, selecting particular words and choices, but instead pinching portions of the screen together, pulling them apart, or sliding along a line of text. The hand is in contact with the screen almost all the time, and movement is almost always meaningful; operating PRY feels tactile and analog, like playing an instrument.

The conceit is that there are several layers of reality happening at a time. Though this is handled in different ways in different chapters, the general rule is that if we spread the page open, we’re opening the protagonist’s eyes, looking outwards, and seeing objective reality. Sometimes that objective reality takes the form of video about what is happening around us; sometimes it’s different text. Or, again, if we pinch the page closed on itself, we’re retreating into the subconscious, where flickering surreal images and rapidly cycling single words of text indicate our fears, our memories, our connections with the present. The subconscious recollection of childhood, or of an incident in war, might underlie our uncomfortable reaction to what is happening on the job site.

pry_brailleThemes of sight and the ability to see are crucial. In one chapter, we can read a braille passage about Jacob and Esau by swiping over the braille text; this functions as an audio scrub, moving the voiceover forwards and backwards. One can read tentatively, a single word at a time, or fast, fast enough to turn the words into semi-gibberish. This appealed to me on several levels: because it recapitulated the physical experience of the protagonist, and that is a level of involvement that iOS games are very rarely able to offer; because it put me in a position of temporary and uncomfortable illiteracy (I can’t read braille and the string of dots meant nothing to me on their own) that suggested helplessness; because I felt relieved when I was able to get the translation after all, via unconventional means.

(Ironically, I suspect that this would be a very difficult game to make accessible to visually impaired players, but I’m not sure.)

Elsewhere, PRY offers a text that opens and opens and opens. Initially there are just a few lines of text on the screen. Pinch them apart, and new sentences appear between old ones, expanding the narrative outward. Sometimes, in a virtuoso trick, the new sentences change the meaning of the sentences that come afterwards: a pronoun now refers to someone different, a description to something else. But the text has to work in both its closed and its open formats. There’s a lot of content here, too — you can keep expanding, keep reading more and more into the screen, for longer than seems plausible. And when there’s no more detail text to be read, sometimes peeking between the lines will instead reveal the subconscious response, flickering words that convey the protagonist’s ambivalence or fear. The lines that have been fully and wholly explored fade gently to a darker grey, guiding the reader to where new material remains to be seen.

It is, in short, an ergodic work that requires a reasonable amount of effort from the player, but the smoothness of the design means that that effort is low in friction and typically enjoyable. There are no choices available that will change what happens in the story, or even how the protagonist feels about them; our decisions are entirely about how deep we will go into the protagonist’s understanding, and what aspect of his experience we want to look at when.

PRY was released without all of its chapters, but even as it stands it is appealing and evocative, and very unlike most other interactive story interfaces I’ve encountered.

(Disclaimer: PRY came to my attention during IGF judging, but I played a copy that I purchased.)

Web Interactive Fiction

FyreVM and FyreCall

by David Cornelson at July 07, 2015 04:01 PM

As I’ve mentioned, I have two approaches in the works to implementing channel IO in a JS-based Glulx VM. One is a branch of quixe and the other is a new TypeScript implementation. I’ve been trying to come up with a name for all the I7 library code and I guess it’s just FyreVM. FyreVM Core, FyreVM Game Information, etc.

Setting that aside, I’ve been going through the numerous versions of FyreVM from 2008 through today and realizing some important features are missing. Or at least one. It was there in the early versions, but I somehow stripped it out. This being the handler for bold, italic, and roman type.

This led to a review of how FyreVM actually works. We implement a new opcode called FyreCall. The first parameter of a FyreCall is the type of FyreCall, which also has been abused over the years, but this is what we’re going to start with going forward.

1 – read line
2 – read key
3 – set style
4 – to lower
5 – to upper
6 – set channel
7 – set veneer

We’ve had other calls in here, like “Transition” for “Continue” button presses at ends of scenes, but with HTML that’s probably not necessary. I’m going to set up the FyreVM Core library to make these values permanent. Additional fyrecalls will need to start at 8 and go up.

Set style has further enumerations:

1 – roman (removes all styles, sets weight to 400)
2 – weight, number (100 to 900, 400 is normal, 700 is bold)
3 – italic
4 – deleted (strike through)
5 – inserted (underline)
6 – underline
7 – superscript
8 – subscript
9 – variable width font (if implemented in UI, chooses variable width font)
10 – fixed with font (if implemented in UI, chooses fixed width font)

I can’t think of any other styles that would be textual and simple Inform 7 tags. Hyperlinks are probably something dealt with at an extension level.

Weight is the alternative to using just [bold type]. That will still work, but get translated into set style (2,700). Not sure what the alternatives will be, but maybe [weight “100”] or something. Not sure about the Inform 7 syntax. Everything else will just be tags like [deleted], [inserted], [underline], [super], [sub], [variable], [fixed].

All other style decisions will happen in the front-end. There will likely be extensions that enable authors to choose placement and styling, but those are undetermined at this point and will probably be template-oriented. More on that later.

July 06, 2015

These Heterogenous Tasks

Microscope Explorer, three expansions for the Microscope RPG

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at July 06, 2015 11:01 PM

Fractal history-building RPG Microscope was my introduction to modern storygames; within that niche of gaming, it’s kind of a foundational work. If you’re interested in GMless, narrative-focused, low-prep, and/or diceless tabletop role-playing games, or even just in history-focused world-building, it’s a must-play. Its first official expansion, Microscope Explorer, is now in Kickstarter. (Disclaimer: author Ben Robbins is the lead organiser of Story Games Seattle, at which I’m an event organiser; I’ve enjoyed many excellent games with him.) At 2500 US$, it’s a pretty lean Kickstarter, and it passed its target before I had time to finish this post.

Here’s how I usually pitch Microscope: it’s a game about big swathes of history, covering hundreds or thousands of years. You fill in a time line of eras – like chapter titles in a history book – and then zoom in on specific events within those eras, and play out scenes that elaborate on those events. It’s non-sequential, so you can zoom out and move the action to any part of the timeline. If something you were really interested in gets destroyed, no problem – go back to before it was destroyed and do some more scenes about it. You don’t play the same characters in every scene: it’s rare that the same character appears in more than one scene.

My main problem with Microscope is that I’ve played it dozens of times, many of them with new players, and often new players come up with pretty similar histories and scenes. Part of that is my own fault – as a game facilitator I need to learn how best to steer players towards more uniquely interesting scenarios, while still respecting the things they’re enthusiastic about. But that’s extra brain-load – I often find it difficult to come up with super-creative ideas and teach a game system at the same time.

There are two obvious ways to keep things fresh: game seedswhich are premises for kinds of story crafted ahead of time, and hacks, reworkings of the rules to make them apply to a more specific purpose. The Microscope book already comes with a few seeds, and hacks already exist – notably Jackson Tegu’s Kaleidoscope, in which, rather than recounting a history, you’re piecing together the weird art movie you saw last night and didn’t really understand.

But, well, Ben has played this game approximately a thousand times more than I have, so he knows this better than anybody. Microscope Explorer adds a bunch of seeds – but, most significantly, three major hacks that push the game into directions that go a little bit against the normal grain of Microscope games, letting you play games that are still Microscopey but work in significantly different ways.

Base Microscope isn’t really about the stories of individuals, only touching them in passing – which is fine if you’re doing a big sweeping history, and is excellent practice for letting go of ‘this is my character and I’m going to advocate for them as hard as possible’ – but what if you wanted something that was still a history, but a bit more personal? Microscope Union develops a family tree rather than a timeline, and explores how things are inherited. Time-travel and changing established history is usually a terrible, game-breaking idea in Microscope – so Microscope Echo is designed specifically to accommodate it. Microscope often sprawls over vast areas and stretches of time, a different planet every scene: Microscope Chronicle tightens the premise to the history of a single thing – a city, a sword, a book.

If you’ve read the successfully-Kickstarted Kingdom book, you’ll have some idea of the diligence and craft that Ben applies to his work. Clear layout and organisation are often pretty weak in indie RPGs, leaving you leafing awkwardly through the book in search of an ambiguous rule while your players tap their feet; Kingdom is organised and presented with simple, inobtrusive but really usable design: the core game and its summaries are strictly kept apart from play-advice and setting materials, the headings are situated to be maximally legible when quick-flipping through the book, that kind of thing. There’s similar care taken over honing mechanics. You can expect a professional-quality game.

Of the three versions, I’ve only played a late beta of Microscope Union (Emily has a play report up here, and also wrote a more general review of Microscope some time ago.) It’s a welcome change of gears, although the narrative jumping-around feels a little trickier to handle in a more confined format; there’s a sense of putting a puzzle together, rather than scrawling freely on blank paper. But I’m always really interested in games that explore family connections (I really need to finish up Infinite Cadence, dammit).

July 05, 2015

Emily Short

Choose Your Own Autobiography (Neil Patrick Harris)

by Emily Short at July 05, 2015 06:00 PM

Screen Shot 2015-06-17 at 1.10.49 PM I’m not a big reader of celebrity memoirs, but this one came my way for Christmas: Neil Patrick Harris’ autobiography takes the form of a choose your own adventure book, in which Neil’s life story, together with some made up incidents clearly recognizable as fantasy, are narrated as happening to “you”.

This sounds like a gimmick, since the set of people who know of Neil Patrick Harris because of Dr. Horrible or How I Met Your Mother likely has a good overlap with the set of people who retain warm fuzzy nostalgia feelings about Choose Your Own Adventure books. But it turns out that it’s formally interesting as a CYOA piece, too.

Off the top, the autobiography establishes its genre-savvy with a variety of standard CYOA Clever Tricks: not one but two pages you can only reach if you’ve been paging through the book on your own (one designed to be signed by NPH at a book event, should you happen to be at one), choices that send you to do things outside the realm of the book itself, a choice that sends you back to the very beginning and your own birth. There are nodes that you’re supposed to read before returning to whatever page you came from (like the sinister section 13 in Life’s Lottery). Other formal curiosities include a page formatted as a series of tweets, a couple of cocktail recipes (Neil apparently enjoys jalapeños in his beverages), a crossword puzzle, and instructions for card tricks. Sometimes these are offered as diversions or relief after a particularly stressful narrative passage.

But it’s also an interesting work at a macro scale. Here’s the chart:


Several things are notable about this. In Sam Ashwell’s CYOA structure terminology, it’s neither time cave (branching wildly without rejoining) nor gauntlet (mostly linear with occasional diversions). It doesn’t really have organized sub-nodes like the quest structure, nor is it geographically based.

Instead, it feels more like a structure expressing inevitability. Many paths through the narrative do lead to one of the two happy pink-marked endings, one of which is kind of a jokey celebration of NPH’s showbiz career, and the other of which is a more heartfelt expression of how happy he is to have found his partner and started a family. There are a handful of comedy sudden death endings (being eaten while passing through the jungle on the way to visit Steven Sondheim, which suggests Sondheim should consider a more accessible address). Several other bad endings lead to page 19, where it turns out that all of NPH’s life is just a daydream by a sadder, less fortunate man who works in a sandwich shop. But a lot of the “mistake” endings are pretty clearly flagged as such, or are the work of a moment to undo. It’s not challenging, as a player, to find your way to one of NPH’s happy outcomes. This makes a certain amount of sense, given that the book is mostly nonfiction, and is nonfictional in intent.

Reviews on goodreads suggest this format didn’t work for everyone:

It reads like Neil Patrick Harris wanted to write an autobiography, but was frightened of how vulnerable it would make him, so he hid behind two layers of comedy, one of which works really well and the other of which doesn’t work at all. It almost made it painful to read in a way, uncomfortable, like that through his avoidance to tell the story in a linear fashion and despite the overall positivity the words bring, I was witnessing some inner-turmoil that I shouldn’t be seeing and that still hasn’t been resolved. I am probably reading way too much into it, but I also can’t change the fact that that is how I felt reading this. I think this book is more emotional than people realize.

Maybe I’m a sucker, but I read the format quite differently. Here is a guy who had the good fortune to be born into a comfortably-off, loving family with no significant traumas, who had lots of talent combined with the opportunity to cultivate it throughout his life, who repeatedly came to the attention of people who could help his career along. Over the course of the autobiography we read about his successes on TV and Broadway, how he married the love of his life, and how he collected a range of celebrity buddies all happy to write messages about how great he is. Obviously a lot is down to his ability to work hard and cultivate relationships, but equally obviously not every hard-working, emotionally grounded person winds up with the same level of outcome. NPH also enjoyed a lot of luck and a lot of structural privilege.

So by the time I got to the part where “you” are vacationing at Elton John’s villa in Nice, I was aware that I would probably be starting to resent the author if it were a straight memoir; there’s only so much “and then we had champagne and caviar with Bono before riding along the corniche road in convertible Bentleys” that I can take. But the CYOA format did a lot to help break that up: to say, “look, I can’t believe I wound up here either! I’m not under the illusion I earned all this. Look, here are a bunch of places where it could have all gone differently.” Even if jokingly, it fills in the awareness of those alternate outcomes. Choose Your Own Autobiography is using the choice structure to acknowledge the function of fate and contingency — which is so often what happens when CYOA is put to thematic use, as witness both Life’s Lottery and if.

Moreover, by positioning everything as being about “you”, it helps rub away at least some of the sense that he’s bragging. It’s all a rhetorical sleight of hand, sure, but it felt less like it was trying to hide some deep trauma and more like it was in service of the reader’s enjoyment.

Indeed, a lot of the other structural features seemed to be designed to help the reader curate their experience of the book. As I mentioned, there are “take a break” bits where you can choose to go read about a cocktail or do a puzzle before coming back to the story, but there are also quite a few loops in the structure where two nodes point to one another, and several long leaps backwards in the book from quite late on. The effect is to let you follow any of several themes (NPH’s stage and screen career, his relationships and discovery of his sexuality, his interest in magic performance) according to your own interest. A few times the book teases the reader with the fact that you can’t choose to make NPH be straight, but much of the rest is about giving you access to the parts of his story that most interest you.

There’s one bit I haven’t quite understood: if you look closely at the above chart, you’ll see there’s a node 38 — I’ve colored it light blue to make it stand out — which has no inputs, but which does have outputs, and isn’t one of the two pages that explicitly say “you can only get here if you cheat.” I’m not sure what’s going on here. Maybe I mapped wrong (though I went through twice looking for how to get to 38, it’s conceivable that I still screwed up). Maybe it’s a bug (though that would surprise me). Or maybe you get there by solving a puzzle somewhere along the line that I just didn’t solve. I’m not sure. But leaving this book with a little bit of mystery seems about right.

July 03, 2015

Choice of Games

New Hosted Game! “Double/Cross” by Toni Owen-Blue

by Dan Fabulich at July 03, 2015 03:01 PM

There’s a new game in our Hosted Games program ready for you to play! In Double/Cross, by Toni Owen-Blue, you are the head bodyguard assigned to protect the richest, most powerful man in England. Enter a house filled with secrets and intrigue, and see if you can uncover the truth about the colourful cast that inhabits it. Choose between a host of romanceable characters, both male and female, but don’t forget to protect your own interests too. Will you abide by your contract or will you discard your morals for something more inviting? 85,000 word romantic drama. Make friends and

Continue Reading...

IFComp News

Entrants: register your forum handle

July 03, 2015 01:01 PM

The website did grow one new feature relevant to IFComp entrants between the seasons: You may now, if you wish, specify your forum handle as part of your user account.

If you are an entrant to this year’s competition, then registering your handle this way will allow the organizers to more quickly grant you access to the forum’s annual authors-only sub-forum, which appears around the comp’s entry deadline. As it’s not a public space, IFComp entrants can and do use this sub-forum to chat freely about the comp with each other and with organizers during the six-week judging period in October and November. (The rules otherwise forbid public discussion by authors about entries during these weeks.)

To set your forum handle via if you already have an account there, simply visit your account page and fill in the appropriate form field. Otherwise, you’ll have an opportunity to provide your forum handle while setting up a new account. If you don’t have a forum account now, you can always return and fill in your handle once you do.

Emily Short

IF-related ideas in computational creativity: ICCC 2015

by Emily Short at July 03, 2015 11:00 AM

ICCC is a conference dedicated to computational creativity, which includes a wide spectrum of work: programs that create artwork and images, music generators, systems that invent metaphors and jokes, story and poetry creation systems. I gave the keynote, about Versu, Blood & Laurels, and the work I’m doing in response to the feedback that we got from that process. There was a lot of fascinating content; here are a few of the highlights that had most to do with interactive fiction:


Procjam assets

Michael Cook gave a passionate talk on the value of jams, especially jams that have been modified to make them more accessible — providing a timeframe including two weekends for people who work for a living, removing some of the constraints on what can be entered, furnishing resources to help people get started, and getting rid of the competition aspect. In particular, he’s running PROCJAM again this year, a jam for “making things that make things”; and he’s providing a set of art assets (sample shown above) for people who want some combinable art to work with. This looks like a really neat jam, and would certainly have room for IF-related work (whether that’s a generator to build IF or IF with procedural content).

He also pointed towards, a lightweight website designed to help would-be game-makers find the tools they need for their particular project. (It discusses IF tools including Twine and Inform, but a number of other types of game-making tool as well.)


Peter Mawhorter spoke about choice poetics (PDF): how we classify types of choices in choice-based interactive fiction, from “obvious choice” and “dilemma (in which the two options are equally problematic)” to more esoteric types; he used a CYOA story generator called Dunyazad to produce choices that he felt ought to conform to different choice classes, as a way to interrogate the theory more deeply. This paper from FDG 2014 provides some more background on the concept of choice poetics.


Kate Compton talked about casual creators, creative tools that are a pleasure to explore and encourage playfulness and pleasure. There’s a very nice introduction to the concept online, and she’s made a wide range of examples, including Tracery, a lightweight text generator that George Buckenham has built into an easy twitterbot tool called cheapbotsdonequick.

I used cheapbotsdonequick to make IFDB Sommelier, a bot that tweets IFDB searches that combine random parameters — I was intrigued by the ability to build randomized URLs as well as randomized content text. If you are looking for something a little more NSFW, I recommend Squinky’s AbhorrentSexBot, or perhaps Jacob Garbe’s orcish insult bot.


While there I also learned about the What If Machine:

Screen Shot 2015-07-02 at 11.40.35 AM

The What If Machine generates speculative premises and imagined outcomes for them. Some of these are more persuasive than others, but they’re all rather cool and evocative. I kind of like this one:

Screen Shot 2015-07-02 at 11.32.42 AM

Sibyl Moon Games

Excuse Me, You Call This Clear Source Code?

by Carolyn VanEseltine at July 03, 2015 07:01 AM

Two years back, someone asked me to review some Inform 7 code and make some bugfixes. I opened the source in question, updated it to the latest version of Inform, cracked my knuckles, and loaded up the bug list.

I read the first bug.

I stared at the source code.

I looked at the bug again.

I looked back at the source.

Then I said a few choice phrases in the kind of language I don’t use in front of my father. Because no matter how readable the code was, I had no idea what was causing this bug or how to go about safely fixing it.

I wouldn’t be so hard on the coder, except that she was me.

Why I didn’t comment (and why I should have)

When Caelyn and I were writing One Eye Open, I didn’t comment my code. At all. Inform 7 looked like English, so I figured I didn’t need to. Besides, no one was ever going to look at it except me and Caelyn, and I was the primary coder.

When you’re in the thick of a project, you understand how everything fits together, and it’s even better if you’re coding solo. You know the design, large scale and small, and you understand the logic driving that design. In essence, the code is commented – but for you, and only you. The comments are living in your head, and if you’re the only one working on it, then you don’t need to explain your code to anyone else.

But Future You might have an opinion or two about that decision. Future Me certainly did.

My code specialty is kludging. If all I have is a hammer, then I can use it as a screwdriver, a lever, a s’more stick, a ruler, a bottle opener, a panini press, or whatever else the job calls for, and I’ll get the project done… somehow. But my hammer-centric results aren’t as pretty as the results of using the proper tools.

Caelyn and I released One Eye Open in 2010. I’d worked with Inform 7 before, but OEO was my first full game, so I was still learning how the language works. I wouldn’t say the whole game is a kludge, but… I’m not going to pass around the source code, either.

On a line-by-line basis, it’s easy enough to read the OEO source. But figuring out how it all fits together… or why I made some of the decisions I made… that’s another matter entirely. And if I don’t understand my code well enough to see why I thought something was a good idea, then a well-intentioned fix might introduce more bugs than it resolves.

I have a lot more tools in my toolbox now, and my s’mores are much prettier for it. But the OEO comments that used to live in my head are long gone, and the way I write I7 code in 2015 is not the way I wrote it in 2010. If I’d commented my code in the first place, the OEO fix process would be a lot faster and a lot less painful.

Many people (such as Jeff Atwood) have opined that sufficiently well-written code should not need comments, as the first goal should be to optimize the readability of code. I do not disagree with this goal, but I find that it’s tricky to judge the clarity of my own code. Having burned myself in the past, I would rather overcomment than undercomment.

Useful comments

Design summaries – how puzzles and areas were set up.
It’s surprisingly easy to forget a puzzle solution, especially when multiple steps are involved.

Complex activities and rulebook changes – what the purpose of the code is.
It may be easy to see what the code does without understanding why it was necessary or desirable. For example, the current build of “Rainbows and Dance Parties!” includes extensive alterations to how player commands are processed. These changes are bugfixes to resolve disambiguation problems, but it’s not necessarily obvious from the code why the command to go inside should always be rejected and replaced with “fly to Indiana”.

Extension hooks – how other people should use the code.
The most widely distributed pieces of Inform 7 source are extensions  (Inform 7 libraries, essentially). If you’re writing a piece of code for other people, then it’s important to document how they should use the code, with particular notice to whatever variables, activities, kinds, etc. are important for an outside user.

Future plans – things that need to be added or changed.
If I leave these notes in a notebook, I’m going to forget about them. If I put a big splashy ***CONTINUE note in a comment, there’s no way I’ll forget. (“Todo” is more traditional, but mine are easier to spot at a glance.)

Potentially useful comments

Architecture notes – how the code is organized.
My source structure varies significantly by project. The headers (book, part, chapter, etc) are helpful for navigating, but if I have any doubts about whether related code is easy to find, then I include a comment about where to find related code. (For example, if NPCs are grouped together separately from rooms, then I’ll include a comment near each occupied room about which NPCs are in it.)

Code summary – what the code actually does, high level.
Inform 7 looks like English, so it’s not unreasonable to expect the code to be fairly readable. But it has a whole lot of internal jargon, and not everyone has inhaled the entire manual. (What’s the difference between an action, an activity, a rule, and a rulebook?) If I’m doing something in an unusual way (linking rooms via a table of room exits, for example) then I often include a quick summary of how the code works.

Sporadically useful comments

Code explanation – what the code actually does, low level.
Asserting that this can be useful is a somewhat controversial position. Many new coders hear that commenting their code is important, but they’re not entirely sure what comments to make, so they write their code twice (once in code, once in the comments). This is rarely a good use of time, and it’s obnoxious to anyone else reading the code.

But when you’re still learning a language, it can be tricky to understand just what the code is doing, and it’s better to have overly commented code that you understand than uncommented code that bewilders you. In that case, leaving comments can ensure that your comprehension level stays high. For example, my understanding of Inform 6 is quite terrible, so I comment all my I6 inclusions in detail to save myself from confusion later.

TL:DR; As a best practice, comment your code

If you’re working alone, then you don’t have to comment your code. No one will complain if you don’t. It will save you time in the short run. Your files will be more concise.

But by commenting your code, you can crystallize your understanding of the project and pass it along to everyone else who reads it, which can be the difference between a three-line change and a painful slog through your entire code base.

Future collaborators will appreciate it, even (especially!) if they’re you.

Thank you to everyone supporting Sibyl Moon through Patreon!
If this post was useful or interesting, please consider becoming a patron.

July 02, 2015

Emily Short

Hollywood Visionary (Aaron Reed, Choice of Games)

by Emily Short at July 02, 2015 06:00 PM

hollywood_visionaryHollywood Visionary is a game by Aaron Reed, published by Choice of Games. And before I say a lot more about it, I need to put up a big disclaimer, because a) I beta-tested the game; b) I am currently under contract to Choice of Games for a project of my own. For those reasons, I hadn’t been planning to write up the game at all. However, since its release I’ve found myself thinking a lot about a couple of things that it does. I’d like to write about those, just so long as you know how I relate to the project and that this doesn’t qualify as a disinterested review.

So. Hollywood Visionary is a game about artistic vision and realization in the context of both complicated personal loyalties and a tough political climate. It’s the 1950s, McCarthyism is in full swing, and you’re trying to find enough money and enough talent to put together the project of your dreams while at the same time avoiding any unfavorable attention.

To make the artistic aspect interesting, Visionary allows for a degree of combinatorial invention that most Choice of Games pieces don’t really attempt: you can combine genres, figure out how many leads you’re going to have and of what genders, give your movie its own title. You can also hire unknown or celebrity historical figures to direct and star in it — bring on Alfred Hitchcock, if you can afford him. The result captures some of the generative humor of Game Dev Story, but within a much more narrative setting.

At one point I set up to make a black & white racy religious fantasy set in a convent, featuring a nun at odds with forces beyond her control. I was picturing this as a Joan of Arc story that sexualized her religious passion. I didn’t really have a way to express the Joan of Arc concept within the game, but I had been allowed to pick enough details that they shaped how I imagined all the filming and decisions afterward.

Aaron’s mentioned that he’s gotten a lot of messages from people telling him about the different movies they created within Hollywood Visionary — a clear sign, I think, that there’s enough freedom in these choices to let people feel some creative ownership over their movie concepts. Which is a pretty cool thing for a game like this to achieve.

Now the more spoilery bit.

The other thing that I found noteworthy was Hollywood Visionary‘s approach to romance. Most Choice of Games pieces provide multiple possible romantic interests for the protagonist, and allow for gay or straight interests. This game goes a bit further, in two respects: it doesn’t assume that gender is binary, so there is the possibility of presenting as genderqueer. This seems to have some subtle political ramifications, but the game characters mostly honor it. And second, it allows for the possibility of winding up in a poly relationship, if you’ve successfully romanced two particular characters right up through the endgame. (Others may be jealous or monogamous.)

That final scene, in which you negotiate with both of your two love-interests, came as a surprise to me: I hadn’t seen anything in the story up to that point that suggested it was going to be possible for me to keep both lovers. I’d assumed that by pursuing both of them, I was steering us towards an angry showdown of some kind. So there was a curious sensation that the rules of the game had cracked open to set me free, which mirrored what was happening to the character herself.

The “visionary” aspect of the title, in other words, isn’t just about your ability to imagine an inspiring movie (though it gives you room to work on that). It’s also about your ability to imagine for yourself a lifestyle that might be seriously at odds with the prevailing norms of 1950s society, and then pursue and live that lifestyle. And while the game can’t go deep enough to let you then play out the next thirty or fifty years of living with that decision, it does provide some interesting consequences in the epilogue scenes.

These Heterogenous Tasks

A Year Without Zombies 7: Bring Out Your Dead

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at July 02, 2015 04:01 PM

(For 2015, I am trying to avoid playing any games or consuming any static media with zombies in them. My reasons, and other fun things like ‘what exactly counts as a zombie?’, are explained here.)

The Steam summer sale entirely failed to fill me with the Christmas-morning feeling that Steam sales have sparked in the past. But it did have that minigame thing.

monstersummergameIt was essentially Clicker Heroes but as an MMO, and it involved unlocks and stuff. As is usual with Steam’s sale-related minigames, it didn’t really seem as though the outcome (more games on sale that Steam wanted on sale anyway!) was in much doubt, and (also as usual) it was far from self-explanatory and left you feeling that it was mostly designed for the amusement of people who like Steam trading cards. Anyway, the monsters you autofight seem to be pixel-blocky versions of videogame characters, maybe? like chibi but, y’know, more gamerish. They include zombie-looking things. This was as good an excuse as any to ignore the whole deal, although possibly my avatar was still in there auto-smacking things.

For grim completeness, here is every game I saw in the sale that has zombies in the central premise, without specifically looking for them: The Walking Dead. Dying Light. Sniper Elite: Nazi Zombie Army Trilogy. Dead State. H1Z1. Killing Floor 2. DayZ. Project Zomboid. Fist of Jesus. How to Survive. Plants vs. Zombies. Three Dead Zed. Dead Island. Rebuild 3: Gangs of Deadsville. Resident Evil (various). Miscreated. Zombie Bowl-O-Rama. OMG Zombies! Infectonator: Survivors. Call of Duty Complete Zombie Experience. Left 4 Dead 2. 7 Days to Die. Zombie Kill of the Week. Atom Zombie Smasher. Organ Trail. Deadlight. Dead Rising 2 & 3. I, Zombie.

Patterns from that list: any game where you shoot things is likely to tack on a zombie mode even if its SERIOUS ARMY MANS premise would normally exclude zombies. (Immediately after the sale I also saw that Counterstrike Nexon had a zombie mode.) Also, if you’re making a zombie game, be as uncreative with your title as possible.

And zombies are commonly used in goofy ways – they’re inherently kind of silly, and if there’s one thing nerds love to do with overused nerd tropes, it’s to make jokes about them.


Increasing trend: putting zombies in your game in order to snark at zombies being used to market every game. I do not endorse this, but I have to admit that Coffee Stain Studios are on point.

While we’re talking about Steam, here are some analytics. Of note:

Japan is often regarded as a console market with PC games being just a niche. It’s true to some extent — only 1 percent of Steam gamers are coming from Japan. But add zombies into your game and suddenly you’re looking at 4.5 percent of Japanese players, even before proper localization! So if your game has zombies, don’t forget about a Japanese localization and some marketing there.

Whaaat. I can speak with confidence about the cultural reasons for zombies’ popularity in the West, but Japan? I could make a lot of guesses – Japan’s unique relationship with apocalypse? urban overcrowding and alienation? hungry ghosts? but it wouldn’t have much basis in actual understanding.

Somewhat Meta

toyzombieLittle Inferno is a game about throwing all your toys in the fire; alternately, it’s Plato’s Cave as a casual game. Getting combos unlocks catalogues which let you buy more kinds of burnable item, in a not-particularly-understated satire on consumer culture. One catalogue is videogame-themed, and of course it includes a zombie. This gave me enough pause that I quit the game to consider.

The zombie is not depicted as an actual zombie, but a toy, a representation of a zombie, and that’s OK in theory. But Inferno blurs the lines rather. Its toys move their eyes around, make noises, move autonomously, the idea being to unnerve you when you set them alight. They’re still crude simulacra: burning an Inferno plush cat is not, and is not depicted as, anything like as horrific as throwing an actual cat in the fire would be, but it’s still creepier than burning an inanimate toy. Inferno concerns how we treat representations, and the destruction of represented entities that forms such a massive component of videogames.

Whenever you see conversation about violence in media, there are a lot of very conflicting intuitions going on with regard to the fourth wall and how certain acts pierce it, how violence in a fictional world might reflect on the author or the audience. Inferno fucks around with that line.


Survival Horror. A first venture into commercial interactive fiction; the author showed up on the forums offering some free codes for design feedback. I was mildly curious purely on design grounds, because it apparently has an unusual approach to hyperlink mechanics; but it’s conspicuously zombie-centred. Interactive fiction generally does not have a conspicuous lack of zombie games, but they’re less prevalent than in many fields of gaming; this is the first such I’ve dealt with this year. Action-driven plots are less of a natural fit for text games, on the whole; relatively few IF works are built around combat mechanics, and those which are still tend to focus more heavily on individually-designed enemies rather than hordes of undifferentiated mooks.

Tales of Maj’Eyal. I played this highly-developed Angband variant yonks ago when it was freeware (and most famous for its copyright-ravaged history); it had a reputation for being the most narrative-heavy of the major *bands, but I never really got past the early game. It is now rather polished-up, has a tileset and a commercial release, and I have heard good things spoken of it. Maj’Eyal has ghouls and skeletons, but they appear to be playable races, and zombie PCs automatically get a question mark – if you’re smart enough to be a player-character, and presumably making complicated strategic decisions all the time, your zombie status is in question. Still and all, the evidence suggests that they’re also used as nondescript sword fodder, so giving this one a miss.

Dominions 4: Thrones of Ascension. I played a demo of an earlier iteration of this some years back. Very much a game in the style of indie games before they were cool, and turn-based strategy from the age of door-stop manuals. It actually took me quite a while to figure this one out; there doesn’t seem to be a unit list anywhere, and there’s a wiki but it’s fairly sparsely populated. Undead were definitely a thing, but that didn’t necessarily entail zombie undead; at least one of their undead nations is all ghosts and shadows. Eventually I dug into the manual itself, which contained enough references to raising battlefield corpses to give me maybe 80% confidence.

Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines. I know folks who speak fondly of this. Failed a routine zombie sweep.

Fallout Shelter,  the promotional mobile game for the forthcoming Fallout 4 which everyone is hopping up and down about, almost certainly has feral ghouls in it. (At least, in the text-based wasteland-adventures bit.) Also Fallout 4, obviously, which is making me drool a bit even though I don’t generally do pre-orders; the franchise is too well-loved at this point to risk evolving by subtraction, and yup, there are some feral ghouls in the trailer at 1:49, in a shot so brief that I missed it the first time around. I’ll just sit here and dream about an alternate-universe Fallout with no power armour, immortal mutants, beam weapons or giant robots.

Dead Free

I attended all three days of Go Play NW. I was kind of expecting to have to say no to zombies at least once. I didn’t expect it would be a big deal – storygames culture is very committed to respecting the boundaries of players – but I did expect that I’d have to ask. Nope. Not once in three days of gaming. Never even got edgy about it possibly coming up. Fuck, that was nice.

It’s not as though storygames don’t have their share of zombie content; off the top of my head there’s Zombie Cinema and the forthcoming Dead Scare. It’s not as though storygames are esoteric artsy things that sneer at well-trodden nerd-beloved genres: postapocalyptic and horror storygames are really common. And it’s certainly not because storygames don’t involve violence; in the course of the con my characters stabbed out and ate a wizard’s eyeball while he was still alive (Fall of Magic), summoned a giant alligator to assassinate a nominal ally in the middle of a gunfight (The Carcass), tried to duel a dragon and made the bloody discovery that dragons don’t play by the rules (Dungeon World/Planarch Codex), participated in a tense, guns-drawn standoff over a trade in electricity (Downfall), forced open cargo bay doors to bring a spaceship’s blasters to bear on the people inside (Free Spacer), and attacked Earth by setting off a chain nuclear reaction that temporarily turned Jupiter into a small sun (Microscope).

What storygames don’t generally have is generic violence. If there’s a weapon drawn, a blow struck, a battle fought, that incident will usually be treated as deserving its own special treatment. And that dramatically curtails the function of zombies, particularly in games where they’re not part of the core concept. So, proposed: the usual purpose of zombies is facilitate generic violence.

It’s worth noting that the usual complaint in trad videogames is ‘only 40 hours of gameplay? what a rip-off’, while the difficulty in storygames is more often ‘ach, this takes so long to set up! I can’t get people at a con to commit to a four-hour game!’ An awful lot of videogame genre, I suspect, is defined by answers to the question ‘what kinds of experience remain kind of exciting even when they’re rendered generic?’

Zombie As Nerd-Culture Touchstone

Every community or identity has markers of ingroup identity. Some (shibboleths) are used to identify and exclude outsiders, but as often they’re more important as signifiers of membership, as ways for members of the same group to recognise and relate to one another, to offer comfort and express commitment, to strengthen relationships within the group through shared rituals.

Zombies fall fairly solidly into this category. If you wear a zombie t-shirt or the like, you’re not only, or even primarily, broadcasting your particular enthusiasm for that one trope; you’re announcing membership in Greater Geekdom and specific sectors thereof. The specific qualities of zombies may not be what’s intended, so much as ‘I’m going to a nerd thing, let’s wear a nerd shirt.’ This is particularly likely when zombies are portrayed as silly tropes, functioning rather like an in-joke.

Culture markers are not inherently bad: it’s probably impossible to have an actual community or subculture without them. (Having tons of shibboleths is likely to be a sign of severe insularity; but no social group is perfectly permeable.) But culture markers are rarely arbitrary; they carry baggage that can’t be disposed of. Here’s another answer.

Zombie As Disgust Object

On the plain face of it, a zombie is a corpse, usually a decomposing one. A rotting corpse is a fundamental, cross-cultural object of disgust.

Although the cognitive content and aetiology of disgust suggest that in all societies the primary objects – feces, other bodily fluids, and corpses – are likely to be relatively constant, societies have considerable latitude in how they extend disgust-reactions to other objects, which they deem to be relevantly similar to the primary objects.

Martha Nussbaum, Hiding from Humanity

How a person handles disgust is a learned process, which goes through some standard stages through childhood. The part I’m interested in, though, is adolescence, where childhood disgust and squeamishness is overcome (or reinforced, or elaborated upon) through exposure, theory, and peer pressure. There is a competitive element to this, particularly among boys: displaying commitment to and comfort with the correct attitudes is taken as a mark of maturity. There is a bluffing game that goes on in adolescence, a raising of the stakes to try and put other boys off-balance. When we did dissections in Biology, for instance, the game was to show that you were cool with it and that other kids weren’t; and raising the bar, finding grosser things to do with your cow heart without quite crossing the line, was a way to gain a few small points of social advantage.

This isn’t just about disgust, per se; adolescence was full of rituals designed to demonstrate one’s comfort with uncomfortable things. There were plenty of products marketed to this end. Lad-mag smut displayed women calculated to intimidate – tall, lean, in expensive surroundings, bearing scornful expressions. I remember some confusion – if this stuff is meant for wanking, does that mean that most teenage boys are great big subs? No. Private consumption wasn’t the point: the point was to raise the bar, to frame sex as highly intimidating and then affect, through association, to be unintimidated.

Victor Gijbers’ experimental tabletop RPG Vampires (a game almost entirely composed of trigger-warnings) makes the discomfort game explicit: its players are male vampires locked in a struggle for dominance, who draw their power from exploitative, abusive, controlling relationships with women. The trick is that the amount of power you derive from doing awful things is reliant on how uncomfortable they make the other players:

It is absolutely vital for the success of the game that scoring happens with reference to the actual feelings of discomfort of the players. If you are simply having fun and enjoying the tale, don’t score above 2. Vampires is designed to transcend the borders of fun.

I doubt that I’d ever want to actually play Vampires. It’s not meant to be played. Its virtue lies in rendering explicit dynamics that are usually unspoken, including the use of discomfort as a social one-upmanship.

There is no particular virtue in squeamishness. Seeking out and confronting the horrific and threatening, re-evaluating whether your horrors have a reasonable basis, is a vital part of becoming an adult. The issue here is with its role as an ostensive, social act, and with media that boil down to that sole purpose, things which aim to be distressing primarily to make you feel cool for not being distressed, creating a threat so that we can be seen to overcome it, while other people are seen not to.

So we have the zombie, and we say: this is a revolting monster, an ambulatory pile of rotting flesh, but you know what? I’m totally cool with it. Barely even notice any more. You cool, bro?

Disgust is, of course, also instrumental in social exclusion, in establishing who is to be despised. I’ve certainly seen zombies used for that purpose, but I’ve already blathered on for too long; we’ll have to talk about the subtype of Fat Zombies some other time.

The Digital Antiquarian


by Jimmy Maher at July 02, 2015 03:00 PM


Shortly after designing and programming F-15 Strike Eagle, the million-selling hit that made MicroProse’s reputation as the world’s premier maker of military simulations, Sid Meier took a rare vacation to the Caribbean. Accompanying him was his new girlfriend, whom he had met after his business partner Wild Bill Stealey hired her as one of MicroProse’s first employees. A few days after they left, she called Stealey in a panic: “I can’t find Sid!” It eventually transpired that, rather than being drowned or abducted by drug smugglers as she had suspected, he had gotten so fascinated with the many relics and museums chronicling the golden age of Caribbean buccaneering that he’d lost all track of time, not to mention the obligations of a boyfriend taking his girlfriend on a romantic getaway. She would just have to get used to Sid being a bit different from the norm if she hoped to stay together, Stealey explained after Meier finally resurfaced with visions of cutlasses and doubloons in his eyes. She apparently decided that she could indeed accept Meier as he was; in time she would become his first wife. And yet that was only one of the two life-changing seeds planted on that trip. Meier now had pirates on the brain, and the result would be a dizzying leap away from military simulations into a purer form of game design — a leap that would provide the blueprint for his brilliant future career. If there’s something that we can legitimately label as a Sid Meier school of game design, it was for the game called simply Pirates! that it was first invented.

That said, the reality of creativity is often much messier than writers like me with our preference for tidy narratives would prefer. Old habits dying hard, Meier first conceived of the game that would become Pirates! as a fairly rigorous simulation of ship-to-ship combat in the Age of Sail, heavily inspired by the old Avalon Hill naval board game Wooden Ships and Iron Men. Such a game would have marked a bit of a departure for MicroProse, whose military simulations and strategy games had to date reached no further back into history than World War II, but would still broadly speaking fit in with their logo’s claim that they were makers of “Simulation Software.” Problem was, there were already computer games out there that claimed to scratch that itch, like SSI’s Broadsides and Avalon Hill’s own Clear for Action. While few outside the ultra-hardcore grognard set had found either of those games all that satisfying, Meier couldn’t seem to figure out how to do any better. And so Pirates! found itself on the back burner for quite some time after his return from the Caribbean, while he went back to business as usual inside Wild Bill’s simulation-industrial complex, making military porn for the Tom Clancy generation: designing and programming a World War II submarine simulation called Silent Service, developing the “Command Series” of strategic wargames with Ed Bever, giving vital help to Arnold Hendrick’s Gunship development team.

Greg Tavares's windowing engine in action.

Gregg Tavares’s windowing engine in action.

Meier was inspired to pick up his pirate game again by a seemingly innocuous bit of technological plumbing developed by Gregg Tavares, a MicroProse programmer who specialized in user interfaces and the decorative graphics and menus that went around the heart of their simulations. Like programmers at many other companies around this time, Tavares had developed what amounted to a very simplistic windowing engine for the Commodore 64, allowing one to wrap text messages or menus or graphics into windows and place them in arbitrary spots on the screen quickly and easily. “We had this way of bringing the game to life in a series of pictures and text, almost like a literary-ish — for the time — approach,” Meier says. It started him thinking in terms for which MicroProse was not exactly renowned: in terms of storytelling, in terms of adventure.

With the idea starting to come together at last, Meier soon declared Pirates! to be his official next project. In contrast to the large (by 1986 standards) team that was still busy with Gunship, the original Commodore 64 Pirates! would be created by a team of just 2.5: Meier as designer and sole programmer and Michael Haire as artist, with Arnold Hendrink coming aboard a bit later to do a lot of historical research and help with other design aspects of the game (thus returning a number of huge favors that Meier had done his own troubled Gunship project). Meier, never a fan of design documents or elaborate project planning, worked as he still largely works to this day, by programming iteration after iteration over the course of a year or so and putting them in front of a large pool of testers that included members of two local Commodore user groups, keeping what worked and cutting what didn’t to make room for other ideas. By project’s end, he would estimate that he had cut as much code from the game as was still present in the finished version.

Stealey was, to say the least, ambivalent about the project. “I said to Bill, ‘I’m going to work on this game about pirates,'” says Meier. “And he said, ‘Pirates? Wait a minute, there are no airplanes in pirates. Wait a minute, you can’t do that.’ And I said, ‘Well, I think it’s going to be a cool game.'” Stealey’s disapproval was an obvious result of his personal fixation on all things modern military, but there were also legitimate reasons to be concerned from the standpoint of image and marketing. He had worked long and hard to establish MicroProse as the leader in military simulations, and now Meier wanted to peel away, using time and resources on this entirely new thing that risked diluting his brand. Even a less gung-ho character might have balked. But, as Stealey had had ample opportunity to learn by now, the shy, mild-mannered Meier could be astonishingly stubborn when it came to his work. If he said he was doing a pirates game next, then, well, he was going to do a pirates game. Stealey could only relish the small victories — he had only recently convinced Meier at last to give up his beloved but commercially moribund Atari 8-bit machines and start developing on the Commodore 64 — and hope for the best.

Pirates! represented more than just a shift in subject matter. It introduced an entirely new approach to game design on Meier’s part, amounting to a radical rejection of the status quo at MicroProse. Fred Schmidt, MicroProse’s director of marketing at the time, described the company’s standard research-first approach to design thus in a 1987 interview:

We do nothing but research on a subject before we begin a project. We spend time in the library, with military personnel, with Major Stealey (U.S.A.F. Reserve) and his contacts to really find out what a subject is all about. We try to take all that information and digest it before we begin to design a game.

But Pirates! would be a very, very different sort of proposition. As Meier has often admitted in the years since, its design is based largely on his memories of the old Errol Flynn pirate movies he’d loved as a kid, refreshed by — and this must have really horrified Stealey — children’s picture books. Those, says Meier today with a sheepish look, “would really highlight the common currency” of the topic: “What are the cool things? That would give us some visual ideas, but also tell us what to highlight in the game.” “The player shouldn’t have to read the same books the designer has read in order to play,” he notes in another interview. Indeed, piracy is a classic Sid Meier topic in that everyone has some conception of the subject, some knowledge that they bring with them to the game. Far from undercutting swashbuckling fantasies with the grim realities of scurvy and the horrors of rape and pillage, Pirates! revels in a romanticized past that never actually existed. Most of its elements could be the result of a game of free-association played with the word itself in the broadest of pop-culture strokes: “There’s gotta be swordfighting, there’s gotta be ship battles, there’s gotta be traveling around the Caribbean, and the evil Spaniard guy.”

Errol Flynn duels Basil Rathbone in 1935's Captain Blood.

Errol Flynn duels Basil Rathbone in 1935’s Captain Blood.

Dueling in Pirates!.

Dueling in Pirates!.

Meier and his colleagues at MicroProse derisively referred to adventure games — a term which in the mid-1980s still largely meant parser-driven text adventures — as “pick up the stick” games, noting that for all their promises of fantastic adventure they were awfully fixated on the fiddly mundanities of what the player was carrying, where she was standing, and how much fuel was left in her lantern. Theirs wasn’t perhaps an entirely fair characterization of the state of the art in interactive fiction by 1985 or 1986, but it was true that even most of the much-vaunted works of Infocom didn’t ultimately offer all that much real story in comparison to a novel or a film. If Meier was going to do an adventure game, he wanted to do something much more wide-angle, something with the feel of the pirate movies he’d watched as a kid. In fact, the idea of Pirates! as an “interactive movie” became something of a bedrock for the whole project, odd as that sounds today after the term has been hopelessly debased by the many minimally interactive productions to bear the label during the 1990s. At the time, it was a handy shorthand for the way that Meier wanted Pirates! to be more dramatic than other adventure games. Instead of keeping track of your inventory and mapping a grid of rooms on graph paper he wanted you to be romancing governors’ daughters and plotting which Spanish town to raid next. You would, as he later put, be allowed to focus on the “interesting things.” You’d go “from one scene to the next quickly, and you didn’t have to walk through the maze and pick up every stick along the way.”

Allowing the player to only worry about the “interesting things” meant that the decisions the player would be making would necessarily be plot-altering ones. Therefore a typical fixed adventure-game narrative just wouldn’t do. What Meier was envisioning was nothing less than a complete inversion of a typical adventure game’s narrative structure. In an Infocom interactive fiction, the author has made the big decisions, mapping out the necessary beginning and end of the story and the high points in between, leaving the player to make the small decisions, to deal with the logistics, if you will, of navigating the pre-set plot. As the previous contents of this blog amply illustrate, I think the latter approach can be much more compelling than it sounds from the description I’ve just given it. I think the interactivity adds an experiential quality to the narrative that can makes this type of approach, done right, a far more immersive and potentially affecting experience than a traditional static narrative. However, I also think there’s something to be said for the approach that Meier opted for in Pirates!: to have the player make the big decisions about the direction the story goes, and let the game make — or abstract away — all of the small decisions. Put another way, Pirates! should let you write your own story, a story you would own after it was complete. To return to the movie metaphor, you should indeed be the star. “You could go wherever you wanted to and you were clearly the central character in the story and you could take it wherever you wanted to go,” says Meier.

What would a pirate game be without a treasure map? "X" -- or in this case a chest icon -- marks the spot!

What would a pirate story be without a treasure map? “X” — or in this case a chest icon — marks the spot!

But how to offer that freedom? One key was, paradoxically, to limit the player’s options. When one is not in one of its action-oriented sub-games, Pirates! is entirely menu-driven, resulting in an experience simultaneously more accessible and more limiting than the parser’s cryptically blinking cursor with its admittedly unfulfillable promise of limitless interactive possibility. With his menus filled only with appropriately piratey choices, Meier could fill his game, not with stories per se, but with story possibilities drawn from the rich heritage of romanticized maritime adventure. Dodgy characters who hang out in the bars will occasionally offer to sell you pieces of treasure maps; evil Spaniards have enslaved four of your family members, and it’s up to you to track them down by following a trail of clues; the Spanish Silver Train and Treasure Fleet move across the map each year carrying fortunes in gold and silver, just waiting to be pounced on and captured. There are obvious limits to Pirates!‘s approach — you certainly aren’t going to get a narrative of any real complexity or depth out of this engine — but having the freedom to write your own story, even a shallow one, can nevertheless feel exhilarating. With no deterministic victory conditions, you can become just what you like in Pirates! within the bounds of its piratey world: loyal privateer aiding your nation in its wars, bloodthirsty equal-opportunity scoundrel, peaceful trader just trying to get by and stay alive (granted, this option can be a bit boring).

Which isn’t to say that there’s no real history in Pirates!. Once the design was far along, Arnold Hendrick came aboard to become a sort of research assistant and, one senses, an advocate for including as much of reality as possible in the game. It was Hendrick who convinced Meier to go against the grain of basing his game on the legends of piracy rather than the realities in at least a few respects. For instance, Pirates! takes place in the Caribbean between, depending on the historical period chosen, 1560 and 1680, thus forgoing the possibility of meeting some of the most famous names associated with piracy in the popular imagination: names like Edward Teach (the infamous Blackbeard), William Kidd, Jean Lafitte. The eventual 80-page manual, largely the work of Hendrick and itself something of a classic of the golden age of game manuals with its extensive and fascinating descriptions of the history of Caribbean piracy, dismisses pirates like Teach as unworthy of attention.

Those men were psychotic remnants of a great age, criminals who wouldn’t give up. They were killed in battle or hung for evils no European nation condoned. There was no political intrigue or golden future to their lives, just a bullet or a short rope. We found them unattractive and uninteresting compared to the famous sea hawks and buccaneers that preceded them.

That’s perhaps laying it on a bit thick — those getting raped and pillaged by the “sea hawks” might beg to differ with the characterization of their era as a “golden age” — but the historical texture Hendrick brought added much to the game. Amongst other things, Hendrick researched the six different starting years available for free-form play, each with their own personality; designed six shorter historical scenarios based on famous expeditions and battles; researched the characteristics of the nine different vessels available to fight and sail, including the dramatic differences in the sailing characteristics of square-rigged versus fore-and-aft-rigged ships. And then there was the appropriately weathered-looking cloth map of the Caribbean that shipped in the game’s box and that was faithfully recreated in the game proper. MicroProse would hear from many a schoolchild in the years to come who had amazed her teacher with her knowledge of Caribbean geography thanks to Pirates!.

A battle at sea.

A battle at sea.

At the same time, though, Meier held Hendrick’s appetite for historical reality on a tight leash, and therein lies much of the finished game’s timeless appeal. We can see his prioritization of fun above all other considerations, a touchstone of his long career still to come, in full flower for the first time in Pirates!. Over the years I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve described a number of examples of systems that ended up being more interesting and more fun for their programmers to tinker with than for their players: think for instance of the overextended dynamic simulationism of The Hobbit or the Magnetic Scrolls text adventures. Pirates!, whose open dynamic world made for a fascinating plaything in its own right for any programmer, could easily have gone down the same path, but Meier had the discipline to always choose player fun over realism. “We could totally overwhelm the player if we tossed everything into the game, so it’s a question of selecting,” he says. “What are the most fun aspects of this topic? How can we present it in a way that the player feels that they’re in control, they understand what’s happening?”

In a 2010 speech, Meier made a compelling argument that early flight simulators such as the ones from MicroProse on which he’d cut his teeth managed to be as relatively straightforward and entertaining as they were as an ironic byproduct of the sharply limited hardware on which they had to run. When more powerful machines started allowing designers to layer on more complexity, everything started to go awry.

One of the things we pretend as designers is that the player is good. You’re really good! That’s kind of a mantra from us. We want the player to feel good about the play experience and themselves as they’re playing.

One example of where this perhaps went off the tracks is the history of flight simulators, going back a number of years. Early on they were easy to play, very accessible. You’d shoot down a lot of planes, have a lot of fun. But then we got to where every succeeding iteration of flight simulators became a little more realistic, a little more complex, a little more of a “simulation.” Pretty soon the player went from “I’m good!” to “I’m not good! I’m confused! My plane is on fire! I’m falling out of the sky!” The fun went out of them.

We have to be aware that it’s all about the player. The player is the star of the game. Their experience is what’s key. Keeping them feeling good about themselves is an important part of the experience we provide.

Notably, Meier abandoned flight simulators just as vastly more powerful MS-DOS-based machines began to replace the humble Commodore 64 as the premier gaming computers in North America. Still more notably for our purposes, Pirates! is an astonishingly forgiving game by the standards of its time. It’s impossible to really lose at Pirates!. If you’re defeated in battle, for instance, you’re merely captured and eventually ransomed and returned to your pirating career. This, suffice to say, is one of the most ahistorical of all its aspects; historical pirates weren’t exactly known for their long life expectancies. Pirates!‘s approach of using the stuff of history to inform but not to dictate its rules, of capturing the spirit of a popular historical milieu rather than obsessing over its every detail, wasn’t precisely new even at the time of its development. There are particular parallels to be drawn with Canadian developer Artech’s work for Accolade on what designer Michael Bate called “aesthetic simulations”: games like Ace of Aces, Apollo 18, and The Train. Still, Pirates! did it ridiculously well, serving in this sense as in so many others as a template for Meier’s future career.

Sailing the Caribbean, the wind at my back. If only it was possible to sail west all the time...

Sailing the Caribbean, the wind at my back. If only it was possible to sail west all the time…

Pirates! in general so successfully implements Meier’s player-centric, fun-centric philosophy that the few places where it breaks down a bit can serve as the exceptions that prove the rule. He admits today that its relatively strict simulation of the prevailing air currents in the region that can often make sailing east an exercise in frustration, especially at the higher of the game’s four difficulty levels, is arguably going somewhat too far out on the limb of realism. But most disappointing is the game’s handling of women, who exist in its world as nothing more than chattel; collecting more treasure and honors gives you better chances with better looking chicks, and marrying a hotter chick gives you more points when the final tally of your career is taken at game’s end. It would have been damnably difficult given the hardware constraints of the Commodore 64, but one could still wish that Meier had seen fit to let you play a swashbuckling female pirate; it’s not as if the game doesn’t already depart from historical reality in a thousand ways. As it stands, it’s yet one more way in which the games industry of the 1980s subtly but emphatically told women that games were not for them. (Much less forgivable from this perspective is Meier’s 2004 remake, which still persists in seeing women only as potential mates and dancing partners.) Despite it all, MicroProse claimed after Pirates!‘s release that it was by far the game of theirs with the most appeal to female purchasers — not really a surprise, I suppose, given the hardcore military simulations that were their usual bread and butter.

This governor's daughter is at least liberated enough to spy for me...

This governor’s daughter is at least liberated enough to spy for me…

Pirates! is a famously difficult game to pigeonhole. There’s a fair amount of high-level strategic decision-making involved in managing your fleet and your alliances, choosing your next targets and objectives, planning your journeys, keeping your crew fed and happy. When the rubber meets the road, however, you’re cast into simple but entertaining action games: one-on-one fencing, ship-against-ship or ship-against-shore battling, a more infrequent — thankfully, as it’s not all that satisfying — proto-real-time-strategy game of land combat. And yet the whole experience is bound together with the first-person perspective and the you-are-there, embodied approach of an adventure game. Small wonder that MicroProse, who weren’t quite sure what to do with the game in marketing terms anyway, gave it on the back of the box the mouthful of a label of “action-adventure simulation.” It doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, does it?

The adventure elements in particular can make Pirates! seem like something of an anomaly in the catalog of Sid Meier, generally regarded as he is as the king of turn-based grand-strategy gaming. In reality, though, he’s much less a slave to that genre than is generally acknowledged. Pirates!‘s genre-blending is very much consistent with another design philosophy he has hewed to to this day, that of prioritizing topic over genre.

“I find it dangerous to think in terms of genre first and then topic. Like, say, ‘I want to do a real-time-strategy game. Okay. What’s a cool topic?'” I think, for me at least, it’s more interesting to say, “I want to do a game about railroads. Okay, now what’s the most interesting way to bring that to life? Is it in real-time, or turn-based, or is it first-person…” To first figure out what your topic is and then find interesting ways and an appropriate genre to bring it to life as opposed to coming the other way around and saying, “Okay, I want to do a first-person shooter; what hasn’t been done yet?” If you approach it from a genre point of view, you’re basically saying, “I’m trying to fit into a mold.” And I think most of the really great games have not started from that point of view. They first started with the idea that “Here’s a really cool topic. And by the way it would probably work really well as a real-time strategy game with a little bit of this in it.”

I think a good example of this is Pirates!. The idea was to do a pirate game, and then it was “Okay, there’s not really a genre out there that fits what I think is cool about pirates. The pirate movie, with the sailing, the sword fighting, the stopping in different towns, and all that kind of stuff, really doesn’t fit into a genre.” So we picked and chose different pieces of different things like a sailing sequence in real-time and a menu-based adventuring system for going into town, and then a sword fight in an action sequence. So we picked different styles for the different parts of the game as we thought were appropriate, as opposed to saying, “We’re going to do a game that’s real-time, or turn-based, or first-person, or whatever,” and then make the pirates idea fit into that.

This approach to design was actually quite common in the 1980s. See for example the games of Cinemaware, who consistently used radically different formal approaches from game to game, choosing whatever seemed most appropriate for evoking the desired cinematic experience. As game genres and player expectations of same have calcified over the years since, this topic-first — or, perhaps better said, experience-first — approach to design has fallen sadly out of fashion, at least in the world of big-budget AAA productions. Mainstream games today are better in many ways than they were in the 1980s, but this is not one of them. Certainly it would be very difficult to get an ambitious cross-genre experience like Pirates! funded by a publisher today. Even Meier himself today seems a bit shocked at his “fearlessness” in conjuring up such a unique, uncategorizable game. In addition to sheer youthful chutzpah, he points to the limitations of the Commodore 64 as a counter-intuitive enabler of his design imagination. Because its graphics and sound were so limited in contrast to the platforms of today, it was easier to prototype ideas and then throw them away if they didn’t work, easier in general to concentrate on the game underneath the surface presentation. This is something of a wistfully recurring theme amongst working designers today who got their start in the old days.

Pirates! was not, of course, immaculately conceived from whole cloth. Its most obvious gaming influence, oft-cited by Meier himself, is Danielle Bunten Berry’s Seven Cities of Gold, a design and a designer whom he greatly admired. There’s much of Seven Cities of Gold in Pirates!, at both the conceptual level of its being an accessible, not-too-taxing take on real history and the nuts and bolts of many of its mechanical choices, like its menu-driven controls and its interface for moving around its map of the Caribbean both on ship and on foot. Perhaps the most important similarity of all is the way that both games create believable living worlds that can be altered by your own actions as well as by vagaries of politics and economy over which you have no control: territories change hands, prices fluctuate, empires wax and wane. I would argue, though, that in giving you more concrete goals to strive for and a much greater variety of experiences Pirates! manages to be a much better game than its inspiration; Seven Cities of Gold often feels to me like a great game engine looking for something to really do. Both games are all about the journey — there’s no explicitly defined way to win or lose either of them, another significant similarity — but in Pirates! that journey is somehow much more satisfying. The extra layers of story and characterization it provides, relatively minimal though they still are, make a huge difference, at least for this player.

After you retire, you're ranked based on your accomplishments and the amount of wealth you've accrued. This is as close as you can come to winning or losing at Pirates!.

After you retire, you’re ranked based on your accomplishments and the amount of wealth you’ve accrued. This is as close as you can come to winning or losing at Pirates!.

Just about all of the other elements in Pirates!, from the trading economy to the sword-fighting, had also been seen in other games before. What was unusual was to build so many of them into one game and, most importantly, to have them all somehow harmonize rather than clash with one another. Meier himself is somewhat at pains to explain exactly why Pirates! just seemed to work so well. A few years after Pirates! he attempted a similar cross-genre exercise, a spy game that combined action and strategy called Covert Action. He himself judged the end result of that effort to have been much less successful. It seemed that, while the various elements played well enough on their own, they felt disconnected in the context of the whole, like two or more games rudely crammed together: “You would have this mystery you were trying to solve, then you would be facing this action sequence, and you’d do this cool action thing, and you’d get out of the building, and you’d say, ‘What was the mystery I was trying to solve?'” Pirates! was charmed in contrast; it’s various elements seem to fortuitously just work together. Meier has since theorized that this may be because all of its individual elements, taken in isolation, are quite simple — one might even say simplistic. But when blended together they turn out to be a perfect mixture of easily digestible experiences that never last long enough to lose the overall plot, a classic example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.

I’d be remiss not to also briefly mention just what a little technical marvel Pirates! is in its original Commodore 64 incarnation. It’s all too easy to overlook Sid Meier the brilliant programmer when thinking about Sid Meier the brilliant game designer. Yet it’s as much a credit to the former as the latter that the Commodore 64 Pirates! remains amazingly playable to this day. The disk loads are snappy enough to barely be noticeable; the fonts and graphics are bright and atmospheric; the occasional music stings are well-chosen; the various action games play fast and clean; the windowing system that got this whole ball rolling in the first place does its job perfectly, conveying lots of information elegantly on what is by modern standards an absurdly low-resolution display. And of course behind it all is that living world that, if not quite complex by the standards of today, certainly is by the standards of a 64 K 8-bit computer. While I’ve placed a lot of emphasis in my other recent articles on how far Commodore 64 graphics and sound had come by 1987, Pirates! is a far better game game than any I’ve talked about so far in this little series, worthy of attention for far more than its polished appearance or its important place in history, even if it is well-possessed of both. In fact, I’d go so far as to call it the greatest game ever born on the little breadbox, the peak title of the Commodore 64’s peak year.

Once Pirates! was ready in the spring of 1987 there was still the matter of trying to sell it. Director of marketing Schmidt was clearly uncertain about the game when Commodore Magazine interviewed him just before its release. Indeed, he was almost dismissive. “It takes us into territory MicroProse has never gone before,” he declared, accurately enough. “It is a combination text, graphic, simulation, action game.” (More of those pesky genre difficulties!) But then he was eager to move on to the firmer ground of Meier’s next project of Red Storm Rising, a modern-day submarine simulation based on Tom Clancy’s bestselling technothriller that was about as firmly in MicroProse’s traditional wheelhouse as it was possible for a game to be. As that project would indicate, Meier didn’t immediately abandon his old role of Wild Bill’s simulation genius to fully embrace the purer approach to game design that had marked the Pirates! project, not even after Pirates! defied all of Stealey and Schmidt’s misgivings to become MicroProse’s blockbuster of 1987, joining 1984’s F-15 Strike Eagle, 1985’s Silent Service, and 1986’s Gunship in a lineup that now constituted one of the most reliable moneyspinners in computer gaming; all four titles would continue to sell at a healthy clip for years to come. One suspects that Meier, still feeling his way a bit as a designer in spite of his successes, did Red Storm Rising and the game that would follow it, another flight simulator called F-19 Stealth Fighter, almost as comfort food, and perhaps as a thank you to Stealey for ultimately if begrudgingly supporting his vision for Pirates!. That, however, would be that for Sid Meier the military-simulation designer; too many other, bolder ideas were brewing inside that head of his.

There’s just one more part of the Pirates! story to tell, maybe the strangest part of all: the story of how the introverted, unassuming Sid Meier became a brand name, the most recognizable game designer on the planet. Ironically, it all stemmed from Stealey’s uncertainty about how to sell Pirates!. The seed of the idea was planted in Stealey by someone who had a little experience with star power himself: comedian, actor, and noted computer-game obsessive Robin Williams. Stealey was sitting at the same table as Williams at a Software Publishers Association dinner when the latter mused that it was strange that the world was full of athletic stars and movie stars and rock stars but had no software stars. A light bulb went on for Stealey: “We’ll make Sid a famous software star.” It wasn’t exactly a new idea — Trip Hawkins, for one, had been plugging his “electronic artists” for years by that point with somewhat mixed results — but by happenstance or aptitude or sheer right-place/right-time Stealey would pull it off with more success than just about anyone before or since. When the shy Meier was dubious, Stealey allegedly gave him a live demonstration of the power of stardom:

I had my wife, he had his girlfriend, and we’re sitting at dinner at a little restaurant. I said, “Sid, watch this. I’ll show you what marketing can do for you.” I went over to the maître d’ and I said, “Sir, my client doesn’t want to be disturbed.” He said, “Your client, who’s that?” I said, “It’s the famous Sid Meier. He’s a famous author. Please don’t let anybody bother us at dinner.” Before we got out of there, he had given 20 autographs. You know, we were a small company. You do whatever you can do to get a little attention, right?

As with many of Stealey’s more colorful anecdotes, I’m not sure whether we can take that story completely at face value. We are, however, on firmer ground in noting that when Pirates! made its public debut shortly thereafter it bore that little prefix that in later years would come to mark a veritable genre onto itself in many people’s eyes: the game’s full name was Sid Meier’s Pirates!. Gaming has generally been anything but a star-driven industry, but for some reason, just this one time, this bit of inspired star-making actually worked. Today Sid Meier’s name can be found tacked onto the beginning of a truly bewildering number of titles, including quite a few with which he had virtually nothing to do. The supreme irony is that this should have happened to one of the nicest, most unassuming, most humble souls in an industry replete with plenty of big egos that would kill for the sort of fame that just kind of walked up to Meier one day and sat down beside him while he hacked away obliviously in front of his computer. Not that it’s undeserved; if we’re to have a cult of personality, we might as well put a genius at its center.

Like Meier’s new approach to design, it wasn’t initially clear whether the “Sid Meier’s” prefix was destined to really become a long-term thing at all; Stealey judged the names and topics of Red Storm Rising and F-19 Stealth Fighter strong enough stand on their own. But then old Sid went off the military-simulation reservation and started to get crazy innovative again, and Stealey faced the same old questions about how to sell his stuff, and… but now we’re getting ahead of the story, aren’t we?

(Paper Sources: Gamers at Work by Morgan Ramsay; Game Design: Theory and Practice by Richard Rouse III; Computer Gaming World of November 1987; Commodore Magazine of September 1987; Retro Gamer 38, 57, and 82; Game Developer of February 2002, October 2007, January 2009, November 2010, and February 2013.

Online sources: Metro’s interview with Meier; Adam Sessler’s interview with Meier; Meier playing the 2004 Pirates! on IGN; Meier’s 2010 GDC keynote; Matt Chat 78.

You can download from this site disk images of the Commodore 64 Pirates! that Meier himself still considers the “definitive” version of the original game. Note, however, that this zip doesn’t include the essential manual and map. You can get them by buying Pirates! Gold Plus from Trust me, it’s worth it.)


July 01, 2015


Visual Novel: Bionic Heart 2

by Amanda Wallace at July 01, 2015 11:01 PM

Bionic Heart 2

Recently my editor asked me to review Bionic Heart 2, either because she really enjoyed my review of the first game or actually hates me with a passion, possibly because I’ve started coming over to her apartment 5 out of 7 days of the week and encouraging her fiancé to steal her socks.  I told her I’d do it in exchange for alcohol, and then remembered that she’d oh so kindly bought me a jar of moonshine just the week before.  Well if ever a game deserved something above 30 proof to play, this series was it, so I broke out the ol’ shotglass again, downloaded Bionic Heart 2, and gave it a shot (literally and metaphorically, if you’ll pardon the pun).  Dear editor, I hate you, and you owe me another quart of moonshine for this.

Bionic Heart 2 begins with Tanya the psycho cyborg locked up in police custody, which frankly after the events of the first game is probably the best place you could put her.  She reviews the events of the past few weeks, which I’m reasonably certain was the “true ending” from the original visual novel (VN) that I never got around to playing because Bionic Heart was awful and should be crucified for the dishonor it brings to the visual novel community.  Apparently Julia Storm (the other murderbot from the last game) was, in the true ending at least, sent to seduce Tom, Luke’s best friend (a difficult feat, since Tom was apparently sleeping with Luke’s girlfriend Helen in multiple routes of the last game and had a crush on her in the others). Julia was supposedly killed by Tanya, and then Tanya bought several I.D.s on the black market and stuck Luke, Helen, and Tom on a secret spaceship to a super secret space colony on Mars (why no one questions a space shuttle leaving the planet with passengers and overshooting the moon each flight is a mystery for another time).  Tanya is captured shortly thereafter, presumably around the same time that Helen is on the shuttle and being drugged by Luke and Tom so she can’t fight being taken off Earth.  Moving to the sequel, Tanya begins the game by breaking out of a police station, and from there things really go to shit.

Bionic Heart 2

Let’s start with some of the improvements to the game, because Winter Wolves deserves some praise for the changes they implemented in Bionic Heart 2.  The music works, has multiple tracks, and is pretty good.  There is no voice-acting at all, so I don’t have to complain about that not working.  The backgrounds look sooo much better.  There’s actual detail to them now, they’re numerous, and I feel like the artist spent more than 15 minutes doodling them.  The sprites are also much-improved; the women look like women, and both men and women have detail and shading now.  However, similar to my complaint with the first VN, many of the characters only have one sprite, who is occasionally flipped over in a mirror image to change its pose slightly (not good enough, Winter Wolves!)  The only characters who merit additional sprites are the women, presumably so that the artist could show off how much they’ve improved at drawing skimpy outfits and cleavage.  Regardless of gender, their faces are flat as a pancake, and the expressions on them are copy-pasted from the first game (much like Othello the cat’s one and only sprite).  Also, whatever bogus language they used to translate “New Athens” as “Atina Nea” was an insult to anyone who understands Latin or ancient Greek (like this reviewer).

See how quickly the list of improvements devolved into complaints?  That should tell you something about this VN.  Three hours of playtime into Bionic Heart 2 as a reviewer felt like being a medic on a Civil War battlefield three days into the fighting, having been constantly bombarded by the stench of misery and howls of human suffering throughout the entire experience, and now having to decide which gangrenous limb among thousands deserved the first cut of my hacksaw after the whiskey and ether had both run out.


The writing is, once again, shit.  The first scene of Bionic Heart 2 involves you playing as Tanya, handcuffed in the police station with Rob and Tina, the officers from the first game, trying to interrogate you.  You insult Tina, and then somehow manage to convince her that a suicide from a year ago was really a murder.  Suddenly a fire breaks out in the archive room (how, in a futuristic society where nothing can be recorded on paper since real trees no longer exist on Earth?), and no, the game never revisits this issue.  The plot-device fire leaves Tanya alone with the other cop, Robert, who naturally assumes that since she is a woman and he is a man, sexual attraction can save her.  Tanya seduces and then headbutts him before making her escape, and the scene ends there.  If you think for half a minute the writing improves after that episode, you’re sorely mistaken.

Honest to god though, I can see that they at least tried with this story.  The reader constantly switches from character to character, bouncing between London and the Mars colony as Luke’s group tries to stay hidden, Tanya tries not to be captured, and officer Tina tries to figure out what the hell is going on.  Plus rather than focusing entirely on Tanya, nanotech, and advancements in robotics within a single company, now there’s a whole angle about how the advanced technology of Mars could fix Earth but the Martians don’t want to, so you get into questions about human nature as well.  On paper, that sounds like an awesome way to keep the story exciting and introduces some natural points at which to pause the visual novel for the day each time the POV switches.

But frankly, the writing is boring, bogged down with characters bitching to one another about how they can’t trust each other for this or that, and as always is laced with Winter Wolves’ not so subtle suggestion that all men are misogynistic pigs who suck at understanding loyalty or female emotions, and most women are overly-emotional things who need men to protect them and/or calm them down.  SPOILER: I kid you not, at one point Rob tells Tina, his capable and brilliant partner of god knows how many years, that he took a bribe from Nanotech so that he could marry her and have her settle down to stay at home and raise their kids.  And this scene was meant to be romantic.  If there is a stronger phrase for that than patronizing sexist bullshit, please, dear editor, find it and type it about a dozen times here in all caps, and you’ll get a rough idea of how insulting I found that scene to be. End spoiler

But the biggest issue is that the writing just comes across as juvenile.  At least in the first Bionic Heart you could write off the central plot issues as just one asshole running one evil company, and the characters you met might have negative character traits but still possessed at least one redeemable quality.  In the world of Bionic Heart 2, all corporations are bad, all rich people (especially the ones on Mars) are murderous sociopaths, the colony on Mars very obviously drew its design from Rapture in Bioshock, as in:

  1. everyone living there was hand-picked to join the secret colony by its founder, who
  2. felt that his government wanted him to give them for free what he’d invested his own money into, and
  3. if you’re not a brilliant cutthroat entrepreneur with a massive superiority complex who openly hates welfare programs, then you’re the scum of the human race.

Also, the vast majority of the characters are one dimensional with only one or two character traits.  It’s like someone sat down and laid out this great story about cyborgs and intrigue and murder, but lacked the skill to execute it in a good manner and tried to draw on ideas from other sci-fi and romance stories they’d grown up playing or hearing about.  Again and again while reading, I kept thinking that I should be drawn into this story (and a few times I really was), but most of the time I had to force myself to keep going.  It just didn’t interest me.

Speaking of good concepts but poor executions, apparently just giving Bionic Heart 2 a variety of dialogue choices wasn’t enough to hook the average visual novel reader, so now they’ve added these segments that, I shit you not, are called social boss fights, complete with spinning title to announce their presence every time you initiate one (though I think you can shut that part off by turning off the hint system).  Basically, you have to pick a series of correct actions or dialogue options within a limited timeframe, either to fill up a meter in so many steps or complete your task before the full meter runs out, and often in a specific order.  The big issues with this mechanic is that it was clearly intended to add suspense to the story by forcing you to guess and make your choice, but it fails to add anything to the VN but more frustration.

Bionic Heart 2

Previously I’ve complained that Winter Wolves’ games are awful about letting you know as soon as you make a dialogue choice whether it improved or damaged your relationship with a character because of the relationship meter.  In the social boss fights (my god, who thought that was a good name?), if you make the wrong choice, you can just scroll up with the mousewheel and use process of elimination until you figure out the right order.  There’s no suspense because you can immediately rewind and correct any errors you make.  I was able to seduce Rob at the beginning of the game by just rewinding my choices until I’d figured out the proper order necessary to make him grope Tanya.  Why bother?  As a final complaint, the game crashed on me ten seconds into my first playthrough, and from then on I was saving after every choice like someone was paying me to do so.

Overall, I did not like this visual novel.  The art and the music improved (somewhat), there were more characters (but often appearing briefly and one-dimensional, sadly), the story was longer and had more variety to your options (no real complaints there), but that wasn’t enough to save a VN with a heavy-handed message, weak writing, and the fact that most plot problems seem to have been ironed out with cold-blooded murder.  Maybe it seems like I’m being overly critical of Bionic Heart 2, but that’s because it’s an original English language visual novel, or OELVN.  I’m one of those people who loves Japanese visual novels; I squealed for joy when the Grisaia series and Clannad got adequate Kickstarter funding for a proper English translation and release.  The best way to make sure that more Japanese VNs get translated and sold here is to show that there’s an interest in VNs in the U.S., and often that means seeing how people respond to already accessible OELVNs.  Frankly, it wouldn’t surprise me if people whose first experience with an OELVN was Bionic Heart 1 or 2 chose to condemn the entirety of visual novels as boring and obnoxious.  These VNs have to be held to a higher standard, which stories like Juniper’s Knot or Rising Angels: Reborn either meet or come close to meeting.  Games like the Bionic Heart pair just give other VNs a bad reputation.

Bionic Heart 2 was picked up in the same bundle that gave me Bionic Heart, so I have no idea what the game actually costs.  I don’t care what it sells for, and I will not tell you who sells it.  Don’t buy it.  It’s not so bad that it’s good, it’s just bad.  An open mind will not make this VN better.  Six shots of moonshine will not make this VN better.  Nothing would help this series except a new writer and a fundamental overhaul of how Winter Wolves perceives character depth, plot development, and gender relations.  Please dear reader, just walk away.

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These Heterogenous Tasks

Fall of Magic

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

fallofmagicThe immediate draw of Ross Cowman’s successfully-Kickstarted storygame Fall of Magic is that it’s a really cool artifact: the game comes as a physical scroll of silk-screened cloth, which you unroll to reveal a map as the story progresses. The act of unrolling one side of the scroll as you roll up the other is pretty compelling, especially when you haven’t seen the whole map before; and it’s just an impressive object to slap down on a gaming table. The character tokens are attractive custom-made coins. It makes a particularly big contrast in storygames, where we spend a lot of time wrangling ratty PDF printouts and index cards.

The story is a stock heroic-Eurofantasy voyage, aiming for the more sombre notes of Tolkien and Lewis: magic is going out of the world, and as companions of the Magus you follow him on his final journey. The story doesn’t put the PCs up against a big bad or through epic battles; sword-swinging heroics feature a little bit, but are less dominant than travel, reflection, hospitality. At first you pass through familiar regions, which are likely to include the homelands of some of the PCs, but the world grows stranger, bleaker, more shadowy as you progress. You could probably manage the tone of this to some extent, but it’s got a pretty strong slant towards the melancholy of things passing and towards character development.

The form relates to the content here, beyond the scroll’s status as vaguely-medieval fantasy accessory. Scrolls and their unfurling figure heavily in Western culture’s central apocalyptic work, the Book of Revelation, an association strengthened because shortly afterwards they began to be replaced by codices. In there, the unfurling of scrolls is what causes the destruction of the world; books do not just prophesy or record the end, they create it. In the end was the Word. So the scroll, and the act of unfurling it, confer a weight to the story – and your involvement with it – that would not be present if it was rendered as a bunch of loose-leaf printouts.

The mechanics are very simple. It was pitched at Go Play (not by the author) as a game that essentially teaches itself, and while there are a few details where the rulebook matters, it is very mechanics-light; it’d be a suitable game for a first-time storygamer with no RPG background. It seems designed to get you playing as quickly as possible. Character-creation is minimal: you pick a name from one list, then a role and homeland from another. Everything else about them you learn through play.

At each location on the map players can start a scene from a story prompt, or move the party to the next location and describe it. Each story prompt consists of a name that feels a little like a chapter title – often the name of a place within that area – plus a short piece of text that invites elaboration: “your face in the water,” “what is lost,” “why you follow the Magus.” Some of the story prompts add traits to a character, some of them have different outcomes based on a dice roll, but they’re all evocative and brief, evidence of some tight craft. The journey divides a few times in the middle, so you won’t visit every location; this branching is not super-broad, and bottlenecks quickly, so you’ll visit the majority of the map on a single playthrough.

As a game system, there’s not a lot to Fall of Magic: it’s one of those games which chiefly consists of a bunch of story prompts. As such, it’s a game that’s as good as its players, and the style of play is highly reliant on how you’d like your characters to operate. I’ve spoken to people who have played it multiple times and always ran out of time. Our group mostly relied on dictated scenes rather than big in-character interaction scenes, developed their personal stories more than relationships between PCs, and finished in about three hours. (We were playing in the very last time-slot of the con, and big in-character scenes may have been a bit more than we had energy for.) Still, we came up with some good stuff – I was quite pleased with my character, a talking raven who feared that the passing of magic might leave her a mute animal; things built up concerning the nature of the raven people’s ancestral bargain with the Magi, and their ability to steal visual memories by eating the eyes of (usually) corpses. By the end she had lost her language, but still concluded the bargain with the Magus, taking his eye and flying off with his secrets, now forever unspeakable. (The game system doesn’t enforce this level of squick at all, but I kind of wanted magic, and the Magi, to feel a little more sinister.)

Some players expressed dissatisfaction with the ending, which effectively turns the ambiguity up to 11 and lets the players sort it out. In general I think endings are really hard in games, and that more storygames could use distinct mechanics for the endgame rather than iterating the central mechanic one last time and then cutting out, but I’m not sure what else Fall could really have done here. I get that, well, you’ve been building towards this destination for long enough that it’s really important that you get something other than an anticlimax. I personally got a satisfying ending out of the final prompts  – but I had to effectively construct it myself out of character themes I’d been building over the course of the whole game. That’s an OK thing to expect of experienced storygamers, but newer or less confident players might feel a bit let down here.

I wouldn’t expect Fall of Magic to be replayable a great many times; as a story-prompt-based game, much of its creative spark lies in how you interpret prompts which you haven’t considered before. To have staying power, that kind of game needs a very big pool of prompts, or ways to provide a radically different context for them. Fall lets you select different characters, and you could choose somewhat different routes and stipulate different stuff about the world; but unless you played with some folks who had really different ideas about it, I suspect that it’d start feeling repetitive after a few games. Even if its particular genre is something that you intensely love and would like to inhabit regularly, I think you’d eventually want a more generalised system – a way of generating journey-maps and prompts, rather than a fixed list. That’s fine; some storygames are Swiss army knives, but sometimes it’s good to play something that’s focused on a more specific experience.

(At present, Fall of Magic is available only to the backers of a now-closed Kickstarter; I played one of the prototype scrolls. The final version will evidently have a bunch of extra content that expands the replay value of the game – an extension of the map on the reverse side, random islands to populate the ocean. I wouldn’t rely on a second printing of the scrolls, but it seems likely that the digital version will see a general release at some point.)

IFComp News

The 2015 IFComp is open for entries

July 01, 2015 03:01 PM

The day has arrived once again: the twenty-first Annual Interactive Fiction Competition is now open for entry registration and prize donation. Please visit to learn all about the competition and register entries.

We just installed a new schedule page, but the most important two dates for entrants at this point are these:

  • All intents to enter must be submitted by September 1 (11:59 PM, Eastern time).

  • All games must be submitted by September 28 (ibid).

As always, we welcome any inquiries you may have about the IFComp via email: You may wish to follow the IFComp on Twitter, as well.

Last year was the first under new management in quite some time, so the IFComp has seen a few rules or structural changes since July 1, 2014. Among the most important ones to note:

Finally, it’s time to build the prize pool again! The IFComp welcomes prizes of most any form or magnitude. If you’d like to donate a prize to the pool, please contact the organizers.


News: New IF Publication sub-Q

by Amanda Wallace at July 01, 2015 12:01 AM


This post was written by sub-Q founder Tory Hoke, who has written for us previously. You can find more from Tory on Twitter

On Tuesday, August 4, sub-Q Magazine launches its first issue of interactive fiction.

This may be a good time to discuss what the hey sub-Q is.

Details about us–our pay rates, our tastes, our technical specifications–can be found at our website. We accept original and reprint speculative fiction, including fantasy, science fiction, and horror.

We want a lot of things.

We want to bridge the gap between interactive and traditional fiction. We want to get established pro writers–Nebula nominees, novelists, Lightspeed regulars–making IF, and we want to put work from IF creators in front of people who’ve never seen it before.

We want to see work from all the different IF tools–Twine, Inform 7, ChoiceScript, custom libraries, and more. Anything than can be viewed in a browser can be published in sub-Q.

We want stories that can’t be told anywhere else but on a device. Whether it’s choice, sound, or animation, let there be some vital element of the story that can’t be experienced on a page–or a Kindle.

We want stories that break people’s minds, and we also want good old fashioned adventure. Our starter list of ideas is here, but the best ideas haven’t been had yet. That’s why we need you. Leave no mind unbroken.

On top of that, we want to engage readers, get them passionate about the medium, the work, the creators, and the human species in general.

As for me, I’m a writer, illustrator, and programmer based in Los Angeles. My fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Drabblecast, and Three-lobed Burning Eye, and my art has appeared in Apex, Spellbound, and Strange Horizons, where I also act as art director. I’m a multimedia B performer uniquely positioned to give A+ performers a new stage.

Joining me is Interactivity Editor Devi Acharya, another writer-artist-dev and founder of the late, beloved IF magazine Inky Path. It remains a pleasure to find someone as obsessed with IF as I am, an education to have her insight, and an honor to have her support.

If you have questions, reach out via Twitter @subQMag or via our contact form. If you have a story to submit, we’d love to see it.

No matter what, keep up the good work. See you in August.

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June 30, 2015

Emily Short

June Link Assortment

by Emily Short at June 30, 2015 03:00 PM

stickerphotoMy casual storygame San Tilapian Studies is running at a free exhibition of play at The Wellcome Collection in London the evening of July 3. Many other terrific things will be there too. I can’t be there myself, but I am really excited to have the game played in such a cool space.


The next Oxford IF meetup will be Sunday, July 12. Oxford meetups tend to be cozier than the meetups in London, making them a great place to bring works in progress or concept ideas to throw around with the group.


Competitions are opening shortly: IF Comp starts accepting intents to enter on July 1 (tomorrow!). Meanwhile, the Windhammer Gamebook Prize starts accepting submissions August 1.


When I wrote up Feral Vector, I couldn’t find a good online source talking about the game poems Harry Giles had introduced. Now there is one! Harry wrote up a primer on the form with some examples; it also discusses Twine poetry, art in text adventure form, and a number of other interesting topics.

Somewhat related: this page of 200-word indie RPG rulesets. They’re trying perhaps a little harder (sometimes) to describe something you could practically play, but again have an intriguing focus on getting across a core gameplay concept distilled to its essence.


This actually ran last month, but I didn’t find it until June: Polygon’s interview with Tim Schafer is a fun read.


Also really from the end of last month, Maddy Myers writes about why it is that strong female lead characters seem so seldom to have stable romantic relationships.


Caballero says this kind of scene where a player looks into a character’s eyes can work far better in VR than on a screen.

Cali is a game for VR with a romance storyline (alongside the perhaps obligatory platformer elements), and the article raises some interesting points about what VR’s sense of presence might add to NPC relationship modeling. It also talks a bit about whether an NPC who wasn’t totally obedient might be more fun or more realistic in the context of a virtual relationship.


Hamlet Ludens is a short essay about interactive fiction versions of the play, from Ryan North’s To Be or Not to Be to some more obscure examples.

Personally I’ve never managed to like To Be or Not to Be as much as I want to like it: there’s loads of clever metafictional stuff, and the gamebook-within-a-gamebook bit is adorable, and Tin Man Games did a spiffy job of making it into an app, and there are Kate Beaton illustrations (among others), and many individual lines are funny, and yet… so much of the humor essentially turns on critiquing how ridiculous the plot of Hamlet is and how little its characters conform to modern mores. And while I can’t really dispute either of those points, they feel too slight and too shop-worn a set of observations to carry a work of this size, and I would rather have had something that either explored Hamlet slightly more seriously on its own terms, or else jumped off from the play to tell some solid stories about the other characters. To be fair, it never advertised it as anything other than a jokey project, so it’s on me if I wanted something else. But, it turns out, I did.

Anyway, other people have thoughts on interactive Hamlets too.


Stepping into games is like arriving at a cheese-tasting party where most of the crowd is angrily murmuring that cheddar and swiss are always and objectively the best cheeses on grounds of utility and pleasure, that assholes offering a plate of mold-laced bleu are an affront to any real cheese-lover, that brie may simply be too soft to be a real cheese.

Naomi Clark writes about how people appreciate games, the received wisdom about what games should offer their players, and what sorts of people make the best playtesters. Also, mentions a lot of cheeses.


Here’s a long review of Squinky’s Dominique Pamplemousse — particularly, how the noir genre conventions interact with the game’s themes about gender and economic justice.


Cubus Games is running a Kickstarter for Frankenstein Wars, a project that appears to involve a post-Napoleonic army of Frankensteinish monsters, based on a concept by Dave Morris. He is eager to let us know that this is not a zombie story.


Meanwhile, Chris Crawford is raising Kickstarter funds for Siboot, a social simulation interactive narrative project. This is working in an underexplored area of game development, and I’m curious where it’s likely to lead, almost regardless of whether it produces a successful game or not. There’s so very little being done in this area that every experiment is likely to offer valuable insights. And, in general, social simulation is something I’d like to see a lot more of.


If you liked my interview with the Mysterious Package Company, you might also enjoy reading about God Rest Ye Merry, a weekend-long LARP experience featuring a rented haunted house, absolutely masses of props (including document packs sent to participants to establish their characters), flame bars, puppetry, smoke machines and video projectors, a stunt performer who jumped out a window, and the strategic application of an Oculus Rift.

Warning: there’s so much fascinating stuff here that if you share my curiosity about this kind of thing, you may be exploring this website for hours.


Also, this line of investigation has also led me to discover that there are multiple companies distributing special scents for setting the appropriate mood in an RPG or similar context. I’m not talking about the Tahitian Vanilla Room Candle from your local bath shop here. I mean scents like Adventure Scent’s Mayan Temple or Dale Air’s Wartime Underground. For those looking for unusual wearable scents, Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab is still around.


Advice from Safari about how to write job descriptions that will appeal to a more diverse range of applicants.


Offworld continues to be one of my favorite sites for reading about games, and this month it brings us Daniel Starkey on Ehdrigohr, a fate-core RPG inspired by Native traditions and understanding of time. Meanwhile, over at Gamasutra, Katherine Cross writes about gender handling — specifically, the mechanical treatment of gender and sexism — in the Apocalypse World-based RPG Night Witches.


Raph Koster has some useful, if moderately depressing, thoughts about games and pricing.


The Future of Storytelling Prize gives out $10,000 to the top-ranked interactive story piece. I don’t know a huge amount of the backstory on this one; last year’s prizes look like they went to things with some interactive visual/film component, and I have no idea how receptive they’d be to something predominantly text-based. Also, I note the large “presented by TimeWarner” tag. But for what it’s worth, this is a thing that exists.


Many students flourish when encouraged to respond to the text creatively. Creative work can be just as intellectually rigorous as writing an academic paper, and academic and creative writing can inform one another. The students learn to engage closely with the text by writing academic papers, and then are able to write creative pieces which are tightly interwoven with the text that they are responding to. Sometimes writing creatively about a text will spark an interest which can be taken up later in an academic essay.

This from an excellent article on teaching the Aeneid in prison.

When I was still a junior professor of Classics, I incorporated a fair amount of creative work into my classes alongside more conventional academic papers; among the assignments or class exercises turned in to me were a sketch for a vase painting of the underworld, a rap lyric about Polyphemus, and a first person (bow-)shooter pitch based on the life of Odysseus. One of my students choreographed and led the rest of the class in a dance that brought to life the relief sculptures on the Ara Pacis.

I did this partly because it worked: students who had a hard time understanding the concept of genre in Ovid got it a lot better once we’d talked about how stories might be adapted between genres they already understood. Students who mostly tuned out at the back of the class would get really invested when they were allowed to draw. Students who were not that excited about textbook descriptions of Mediterranean trade routes were able to engage much more profitably with the material when asked to think about designing a sim game of the region.

It was also partly because I was so thirsty for that in my own academic life: building artwork in response to Classics was generally considered a self-indulgent (at best) spare time activity when I could have been doing proper research. But there are ways we respond to and understand texts that are ill-suited to academic expression.

The People's Republic of IF

July meetup

by zarf at June 30, 2015 03:00 AM

The Boston IF meetup for July will be Monday, July 13, 6:30 pm, MIT room 14N-233.

June 29, 2015

Sibyl Moon Games

One Weird Trick That Could Save You… (Inform 7 tables)

by Carolyn VanEseltine at June 29, 2015 11:01 PM

If you’re working with large and complex tables in Inform 7, don’t do it in the IDE. The Inform 7 IDE is wonderful in many ways, but complicated tables get really, really hard to read  – especially if you have more columns than screen space.

table image

And if you want to insert a new column, rather than adding it at the end, then things get really messy.

Instead, build your table in a modern spreadsheet. (I’m fond of Calc in the OpenOffice suite, but LibreOffice and Excel are just fine too.) You can add columns, remove columns, sort data, swap around rows – all the good stuff you need.

When you’re ready to go, just copy your data and paste it into Inform, where the column separations will come in as tabs. Which is exactly what Inform 7 wants.

This weird trick brought to you by “Rainbows and Dance Parties!” and 18 Rooms to Home: Room 15 (still in-progress).

…and their tables.

(so many tables.)

These Heterogenous Tasks

Cheat Your Own Adventure

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at June 29, 2015 06:01 PM


Go Play NW is a Seattle-based con for playing games; there’s an emphasis on indie and narrative-oriented role-playing games, but there are usually some board and card games in the mix. I love it because, not having any vendors, it’s heavily designed around play, not consumption: a game distributed as a two-page, free PDF is on the same level as a blockbuster product from a major company. I love it because it structures your activity, and I really don’t enjoy the wander-about-and-browse aspect of cons. And I love it because you get introduced to weird games that you hadn’t heard of before.

Cheat Your Own Adventure is a super-light storygame. The author (Shane McLean) describes it as a game poem, although it doesn’t match up particularly well with what I associate with the term, mostly as explored by Harry Giles, except perhaps insofar as it implies shortness and simplicity. Some of the folks I played it with were put in mind of Action Castle, but it’s a lot more participatory and no-prep than that.

The premise is that you’re playing through a paper-and-ink CYOA book, and you’re perfectly willing to cheat – to pretend to have inventory items that you never heard of before, for instance, or to keep your finger in the page in case you choose a bad option. You choose a book title (by default, something that evokes cod-fantasy; we went with The Winds of Eternity) and start narrating a story in second person, off the cuff. After a paragraph or so, you stop and the other players offer options: “if you fight the troll princess, turn to page 65″, and so on. The current player chooses an option, and narration passes to the player who offered it.

At this point you roll dice; on a pass, the new player continues the story and solicits new choices, and on a fail they must narrate a failure ending and return to the previous set of choices. The original has 2d6 and a 1-12 difficulty rating that rises over the course of play, with the game ending once you succeed at a difficulty-12 check. There’s obvious fertile ground for simple hacks to get the game experience you want, though; we played with a d12 for a more finishable game, and I can imagine people wanting to play with a different difficulty level, or no mechanically determined ending, or no deaths. I suspect a no-dice, no-required-conclusion version would be suitable for car journeys or hiking.

We played with a relatively large group – the original suggests that 4-5 players is ideal, and we had about 8, which led to some disparity in who got to contribute. We played it after dinner on the second day of the con: it was (by Seattle’s relatively mild standards) a hot and muggy day, and we were variously tired, creatively and socially drained, and tipsy. It’s kind of an ideal game for that situation. There is little expectation of narrative coherence, and not a whole lot of pressure to come up with something awesome on the spot. And it makes you laugh together. It was hugely cheering with relatively little effort.

The caveat, of course, is that this was a group of people strongly self-selected for an interest in telling extemporaneous stories. From playing other super-light storygames (Gloom, Once Upon a Time) in more general gamer contexts, I tend to expect that at least one person in a group will turn out to be really uncomfortable with that, but feel socially obliged to keep playing – which is a crap experience for them and tends to bring the group down. This happens even when you issue warnings. (One of the biggest challenges of tabletop, I think, is making sure that all the players really want to be playing the same game.) The good news is that Cheat Your Own Adventure is pretty resilient: we had players drop out and jump in, and it made very little difference.

Much of the pleasure of the game comes from the outlandishly mismatched list of options, rather than the chosen narrative itself. Since the game puts cheating front and centre, there’s a good deal of encouragement for meta elements; our game featured a series which included a lot of options for switching back and forth between different books with rather different subject-matter, presumably as a particularly obnoxious form of cross-promotion, and the possibilities this conjured were more interesting than the mildly wacky hero’s-journey plot.

Action tends to occur at the scene-to-scene scale of classic Choose Your Own Adventure, and having a straightforward genre plot to follow helps. I can see the right group of people playing this with a less gonzo theme, or at least a more consistent one – Pretty Little Mistakes springs to mind – but producing a story that stands up in its own right is very much not the strength of the system.


News: Eczema Angel Orifice Comes to

by Amanda Wallace at June 29, 2015 05:01 PM

Eczema Angel Orifice

Porpentine has released a Twine compilation of 25 works, including some of her award-winning hyper-text fiction, on as well as Steam Greenlight. Eczema Angel Orifice features an all new launcher, updated versions of several of the works as well as some new soundtracks by Porpentine collaborator Brenda Neotenomie.

Some of the games featured in this compilation include Their Angelical Understanding (with an all-new soundtrack), Howling Dogs, & Ultra Business Tycoon 3. These games are some of the best known games from Porpentine, but Eczema Angel Orifice doesn’t appear to be a comprehensive collection of games from this developer. For example, I didn’t see Crystal Warrior Ke$ha (editors note: Porpentine reached out to me through Twitter to fix my error on this regard)

The game is currently available on for $5, as well as going through the approval process on Steam Greenlight where it is currently being voted on for inclusion on the launcher. If you’re interested in Porpentine, or would like to get a primer on this unique hypertext writer, then Eczema Angel Orifice is a route to do so.

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June 28, 2015


Another Weekend, Another Refactoring

June 28, 2015 08:01 PM

The Director class that handles actions just went through a major overhaul. Most of the changes are internal, so the impact on plot scripts should be minimal. Among the changes: Read More

The Digital Antiquarian

A Digital Antiquarian Hall of Fame

by Jimmy Maher at June 28, 2015 05:01 PM

I’ve just added a new feature to this site: a sort of canon, if you will, of really worthwhile games and other interactive works that balances historical importance with those concerns about playability and fairness that are always so important to me as well. I must admit that I’ve created this list as much for myself as for anyone else, having realized that I’ve now written about so many works that I’m in danger of losing all track of which ones I really consider to be the great ones. That said, I hope some of you may find it interesting and/or useful as well. It will of course continue to grow as we continue on our little journey through history here in the blog proper. You can always get to it by clicking the link over on the right-hand sidebar or selecting it in the sub-menu under “About Me” above. Some further justifications and explanations can be found on the page itself, so I won’t belabor the subject any more here.

Thanks so much for your continuing support, especially those of you who have been generous enough to sign on with Patreon or donate through PayPal. It’s making a big difference in the amount of time I can devote to this work, as I hope the end results show!


June 27, 2015

Sibyl Moon Games

“Rainbows and Dance Parties!”

by Carolyn VanEseltine at June 27, 2015 06:01 PM

On June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that same-sex marriage is a constitutional right under the Fourteen Amendment.

I dropped all my other plans for the day and wrote this game, which I’d describe as the casual, text-based offspring of a Pride parade and Plague, Inc.

“Rainbows and Dance Parties!” is puzzle-free and includes helpful instructions for new players.

CoverRainbows and Dance Parties!
Release date: 6/27/2015
Format: Inform 7 (Glulx)
Play in browser

Download to play offline (requires an interpreter such as Gargoyle)

Thank you to everyone supporting Sibyl Moon through Patreon!
If you enjoy this game, please consider becoming a patron.


Choice of Games

It’s Killing Time: Travel the world, meet new people, assassinate them

by Dan Fabulich at June 27, 2015 04:01 PM

We’re proud to announce that It’s Killing Time, the latest in our popular “Choice of Games” line of multiple-choice interactive-fiction games, is now available for iOS, Android, Kindle Fire, and, and, via the Chrome Web Store, Windows, Mac, and Linux. It’s 25% off until July 4th. Travel the world, meet interesting new people, and assassinate them for money! “It’s Killing Time” is an ultra-violent 140,000-word interactive novel by Eric Bonholtzer, where your choices control the story. It’s entirely text-based—without graphics or sound effects—and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination. Earn respect, reputation, and wealth as a hired

Continue Reading...

June 25, 2015


First Person Exploration: Home is Where One Starts

by Amanda Wallace at June 25, 2015 10:01 PM

Home is Where One Starts

I remember when I was a little girl, waiting at the end of my driveway. I had already missed the school bus, but I stood there anyway… envying the birds.

It’s clear to see where David Wehle got his inspiration to make Home is Where One Starts. In terms of gaming, it has clear ties to other “walking simulators,” like Dear Esther and Gone Home. But even the casual observer can see the literature he’s referencing — from his Steinbeck-ian portrayal of the downtrodden American to the T S Eliot quote that the title draws from. Wehle likens the game to a short film — if Terrence Malick stopped making art house films and instead made independent games, then maybe he’d make something like this.

My frustration with Home is Where One Starts is actually similar to my frustration with some art house films. It lingers where it is not wanted, it begs you to chew the scenery while tugging you every mindfully towards the plot. Despite being 15-30 minutes long, the game has a slow pace. You’re meant to be in that moment, drawn out in the rigors of memory. It has the art house film quality of making you feel kind of stupid.

As with many games with VR support, your method of interaction is a cursor in the middle of the screen that alters when hovered over objects you may interact with. It’s simple, but effective. With a game like Home is Where One Starts, you don’t need to be able to jump or sprint, you need to be able to look

Home is Where One Starts

With Gone Home, searching objects usually gave you prompts as to what they were. Their importance was plainly spelled out for you in big, friendly letters. Home is Where One Starts eschews this method as being a bit too hand-holdy. If you want to find out what the importance of the object is, you’re going to need to sit down and figure that out yourself. The English major in me delights in this method of writing as it is the epitome of show, don’t tell. The reviewer in me was lost trying to complete the game and being unable to find a key.

This also means that you’ll occasionally be permitted to pick up objects, a book in one room with a highlighted passage almost too small to read or a rubber duck in a pile of garbage, whose existence is not readily explained.  Or really ever explained.

The story is relatively simple, a wise decision in a game that could take you a lunch break to complete, and focuses on the reminiscing of an important day in a young girls life. We know she is young because the narrator, an older version of the girl, tells us this is the case. About halfway through the game I realized that my body was playing in the present while the narration spoke from the future, and this was partially due to the ruinous nature of the place that I called home. I honestly could not tell if it had been abandoned for twenty years or if the people who lived there simply did not care.

Easily one of the biggest strengths of Home is Where One Starts is in the visual style. The game is lovely and melodic, and my quibbles are minor. I wished that the plants did not appear so flat, or that the skybox looked more like a sunrise rather than a sunset. But these worries would be swept away when the wind would shake through the area. The game was almost designed for gifs.

While later the game references its own invisible walls, it does not make them less frustrating as a player. Limiting the world is one of the ways that games like Dear Esther and Gone Home kept things in a natural kind of state. In Dear Esther, you were trapped on an island, and in Gone Home you found yourself in a house on a dark and stormy night. These limitations are artificial, but they are a bit more realistic than simply finding yourself unable to continue because of a flat plane you cannot see.

There’s a Banksy quote (itself a paraphrase of an earlier quote from Finley Peter Dunne) that says “Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comforted,” and for one main reason I’m reminded of Home is Where One Starts. This is not a happy home, even if you look beyond the poverty. There are beer cans in the closet, and the narrator tells you how the house smells a bit like mold and booze. While you are the only character who is ever in the space, there are moments when you can hear the muffled yelling of a mans voice as if through paper thin walls. Within those raised words you can hear the promise of violence. It makes the hope of escape and survival — referenced by the older woman’s narration — all the more tangible.

If you’re interested in first person experiences (3D graphical interactive fiction, walking simulator, whatever you call them) then this is certainly one to check out. The field is admittedly limited at the moment, but despite its issues and opaqueness, Home is Where One Starts promises to be a worthy addition to the line-up of similar games.

Home is Where One Starts is available on Steam and for $2.99 on PC, with optional Oculus DK2 support.

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Undo Restart Restore

How to make a great IntroComp entry

by Juhana at June 25, 2015 09:00 PM

IntroComp 2015 logo It’s IntroComp season again! IntroComp is one of the oldest active IF competitions, run yearly since 2002. The idea is to make a short intro that showcases a work-in-progress that will eventually be expanded into a full game. Competition judges are asked to rate the entries based on how much they would want to play the full version.

Here are some tips for competition participants on how to make the best of their entry.

Plan further than the intro

This is perhaps the most common sin of IntroComp entries: the author has not designed the game beyond the entry itself, which makes it hard to continue building the full version.

It would be wise to have the story and gameplay thought out at least twice as far as the actual intro, preferably all the way to the end, at least conceptually. This includes visioning what happens immediately after the intro ends and what is the overall story structure: the intro is the beginning but what happens in the middle and how the full story is resolved in the end. Otherwise there’s a good change that the intro ends in a creative dead end with no easy way forward.

It’s not hard to tell if an author has planned the story beyond the intro. Intros with short term design are often tightly self-contained and convey no feeling of there being something else beyond what you see. When the world and the general plot is well thought out, it’s almost automatically visible in the resulting work. (See also a previous article discussing the subject.)

Start with the relevant story

Sometimes the word “intro” is taken too literally and the entry ends before the actual story even gets to start.

A fictitious example: Your story is a retelling of the 12 labors of Hercules. A good intro would contain the first labor to its completion; it would give a good indication of how the gameplay works and judges could easily imagine what the rest of the story would look like in its full version.

A bad intro would be about Hercules packing his backpack and a puzzle about finding a map for the location of the Nemean lion, and it would end just after reaching the entrance to the lion’s cave. It would tell very little about what the game is actually like.

So cut off everything that’s inconsequential to the big picture and start right from the action.

Make a proper ending…

Even though we’re talking about introductions, it’s still important that the entry reaches some kind of conclusion of its own. Sometimes that’s easy to do when the story can be neatly divided into independent scenes (like in the 12 labors of Hercules example), but sometimes you’ll have to work harder to find a good place to end the intro.

As a rough generalization you’d have one or two short term goals that are resolved during the intro while the overall goal is both left unresolved and made clear to the player.

…but leave some loose ends untied

This comes back to the “plan ahead” advice. Even though it’s good to resolve a short term goal or two, there should be some kind of hook that makes the player want to continue playing the finished work.

A cliffhanger is a traditional way to end the intro, but it shouldn’t be the only hook. As said before, the intro’s purpose is to build expectations for the full version. It shouldn’t be self-contained: leave room for future expansion. A couple of locked doors, interesting inventory items with reuse potential, references to NPCs not yet encountered. Anything that makes the player’s imagination run wild.

Remember though that it’s important that you as the author know where the loose ends are going – you can’t just drop a locked door somewhere without knowing where it leads. Anything that serves a purpose usually comes across as such in the writing, whereas pointless scenery is often easy to spot.

Have the entry betatested

While technical issues are not explicitly in the judging criteria, bugs and spelling mistakes will reflect poorly on the entry. After all nobody wants to play a buggy game and the intro is taken as an indication of the finished entry’s quality.

You don’t need a whole army of testers, one or two should be sufficient for a short intro (although more is always better.) It’s easier to find testers for IntroComp entries than for many other games because potential testers know that the game should be short and therefore doesn’t require a huge time commitment. Testers can be recruited from the beta testing site or from the forum, among other places.

Remember that choice-based entries need testing too for things such as spelling, tone, and pacing.

The Digital Antiquarian

Accolade Gets Distinctive

by Jimmy Maher at June 25, 2015 03:01 PM

Only a few publishers managed to build a reputation to rival that of Epyx as masters of Commodore 64 graphics and sound. Foremost amongst this select group by 1987 was Accolade, riding high on hits like Dam Busters and Ace of Aces. Both of those games were created by Canadian developers Artech, who in 1987 would deliver to Accolade two more of their appealing “aesthetic simulations” of history. Chosen this time were the glory days of NASA for Apollo 18 and of the French Resistance for The Train. Yet Accolade’s big hit of the year would come not from Artech but from another group of Canadians who called themselves Distinctive Software.

Don Mattrick and Jeff Sember, the founders of Distinctive, were barely into their twenties in 1987, but were already has-beens in a sense, veterans of the peculiar form of celebrity the home-computer boom had briefly engendered for a lucky few. The two first met in their high school in late 1981 in the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby, bonding quickly over the Apple II computers that both had at home. During their summer break, Mattrick suggested to Sember that they should design their own game and try to sell it. Thus, while Mattrick worked at a local computer store to raise money for the endeavor, Sember wrote a simple little collection of action games called Evolution in all of three weeks. Its theme was an oddly popular one in 1980s gaming, a chronicle of the evolution of life through six rather arbitrary phases: amoeba, tadpole, rodent, beaver (a tribute to the duo’s home country), gorilla, and human. They took the game to the Vancouver-based Sydney Development Corporation, a finger-in-every-pie would-be mainstay of Canadian computing whom we’ve met before in connection with Artech. Sydney liked Evolution enough to buy it, giving it its public debut in October of 1982 at a Vancouver trade show. With this software thing taking off so nicely, Mattrick and Sember soon incorporated themselves under the name Distinctive Software.

A very young Don Mattrick and Jeff Sember on CBC's Front Page Challenge, March 20, 1983.

A very young Don Mattrick and Jeff Sember on CBC’s Front Page Challenge, March 20, 1983.

They had arrived on the scene at the perfect zeitgeist moment, just as Canada was waking up to the supposed home-computer revolution burgeoning to its south and was beginning to ask where Canadians were to be found amongst all the excitement. These two young Vancouverites, personable, good-looking, and, according at least to Sydney, the first Canadians ever to write a popular computer game that was sold in the United States as well as its home country, were the perfect answer. They became modest media celebrities over the months that followed, working their way up from the human-interest sections of newspapers to glossy lifestyle magazines and finally to television, where they appeared before a panel of tedious old fuddy-duddies on CBC television’s game-show/journalism hybrid Front Page Challenge. The comparisons here come easily, perhaps almost too easily when we think back to the other software partnerships I’ve already chronicled. It’s particularly hard not to think of David Braben and Ian Bell, who would soon be receiving mainstream coverage of much the same character in Britain. Mattrick was the Braben of this pair, personable, ambitious, and focused on the bottom line; it was he who had gotten the ball rolling in the first place and who would largely continue to drive their business. Sember was the Bell, two years younger, quieter, more technically proficient, and more idealistic about games as a creative medium.

It’s not clear to what extent all of the hype around Mattrick and Sember translated into sales of Evolution. On the one hand, it apparently did well enough on the Apple II for Sydney to fund ports to a number of other platforms and to advertise them fairly heavily across Canada and the United States. And most of the big trade magazines, prompted to some extent no doubt by Sydney’s advertising dollars, saw it as a big enough deal to be worthy of a review. On the other hand, most of those reviews were fairly lukewarm. Typical of them was Electronic Games‘s conclusion that it was okay, but “not really one of the world’s great games.” Nor is it all that well-remembered — whether fondly or otherwise — amongst gaming nostalgics today. Certainly it’s hard to credit claims that this eminently forgettable game sold “over 400,000 copies.”

Regardless, after the hype died down Sydney ran into huge problems as the home-computer market in general took a dive. Looking to simplify things and reduce their overhead in response, they elected to get out of the notoriously volatile games-publishing business. Thus the follow-up to Evolution, promised by Mattrick and Sember in many an interview during 1983, never arrived. Their fifteen minutes now apparently passed, it seemed that they would become just one more amongst many historical footnotes to the abortive home-computer revolution.

But then in 1985 Distinctive unexpectedly resurfaced. Alan Miller and Bob Whitehead, having recently founded Accolade, released their own first in-house-developed games, and begun a fruitful developer/publisher partnership with Artech, were looking for more outside developers. They were very receptive to the idea of continuing to work with Canadian developers, believing that they had begun to tap into a well of talent heretofore ignored by the other big publishers. Not the least of their considerations was the Canadian dollar, which was now reaching historic lows in comparison to the American; this meant that that talent came very cheap. When Distinctive’s old connections with Sydney and by extension Artech brought them to Accolade’s attention, they soon had a contract as well.

That said, in the beginning Distinctive was clearly the second-string team in comparison to the more established Artech, hired not to make original games but rather to port Accolade’s established catalog to new platforms. But after some months of doing good work in that capacity, Mattrick, whose sales skills had been evident even in that first summer job working at the computer store — his first boss once declared that he could “sell a refrigerator to an Eskimo” — convinced Miller and Whitehead to let his company tackle an original project of their own.

Over the course of a long career still to come in games, Mattrick would earn himself a reputation as a very mainstream sort of fellow, a fan of the proven bet who would be one of the architects of Electronic Arts’s transformation following Trip Hawkins’s departure in 1991 from a literal band of “electronic artists” to the risk-averse corporate behemoth we know today. Seen in that light, this first game for Accolade, as ambitious as it is boldly innovative, seems doubly anomalous. Given what I know of the two, I suspect that it represents more of Sember’s design sensibility than Mattrick’s, although both are co-credited as its designers and I have no hard facts to back up my suspicion. The game in question is called simply Comics — or, to make it sound a bit less generic, Accolade’s Comics. It is, the box proclaims, the “first living comic book.” “First” anything is often a problematic claim, particularly when it appears in promotional copy, but in this case the claim was justified. While a few earlier games like the licensed Dan Dare: Pilot of the Future had dabbled in a comic-book-style presentation, none had tried to actually be an interactive comic book like this one.

Accolade's Comics. Notice the arrow sticking out of Steve Keene in the top left panel. If you think that's so stupid it's funny, you'll probably enjoy this game. If you think it's just stupid, probably not.

Accolade’s Comics. Notice the arrow sticking out of Steve Keene in the top left panel (“I got your message…”). If you think that’s so stupid it’s funny, you’ll probably enjoy this game. If you think it’s just stupid, probably not. In the same spirit: your boss runs a “Pet Alterations” shop, which is the reason for the poster of the fish with legs at top right.

At its heart, then, Comics is a choice-based narrative which is presented not in text but in comic form, an under- if not completely unexplored approach even today. You make choices every few panels for Steve Keene, a likable but not entirely competent secret-agent sort of fellow who trots the globe on the trail of a kidnapped cable-television inventor or reproducing fire hydrants — no, this isn’t a very serious game. Every once in a while the story will dump you into a little action game which you must get through successfully — you have five lives in total, which you expend by failing at the action games or making choices that result in death — to continue. Like the rest of Comics, these are fun but not too taxing. The look was retro even in its time, drawn to evoke Archie Comics during their 1960s heyday; the price of 20 cents on the virtual front cover that opens the story is a dead giveaway. There’s even a gag based on those perennial old back-of-the-comic-book advertisements for remedies for bullies kicking sand in one’s face and making off with one’s girl. Indeed, there are lots and lots of gags here, most really stupid but in a really clever sort of way. Mileages are notoriously variable when it comes to humor, but personally I find it charming as hell.

It’s very difficult to convey the real spirit of the game through words or even through still screenshots, so here’s a movie clip that shows it off to better effect. Old Steve Keene looks a bit like an orangutan in the beginning because I’ve just completed an action game that had him swinging across bars above a pool of water containing something best described as a sharktopus (don’t ask!).

There are a couple of things I’d like you to pay attention to in the clip above, starting with the high production values of the thing (by which I mean the game, sadly not the clip). Note that the music plays while the disk drive loads the next panel, a tricky feat that you simply wouldn’t have seen in an earlier Commodore 64 game. Note how the art, despite the low resolution and the limitation of 16 colors, manages to ooze personality; you’ll never mistake this game for any other. Note the aesthetic professionalism of the whole, as seen in the the way each new panel is drawn in with a transition effect rather than just popping into place, the page-flipping animation that introduces a new chapter of the story in lieu of a jarringly abrupt screen-blanking, and the way the music themes also fade out and in during transitions rather than cutting out abruptly.

And then there’s another great gag in the sequence above, one of my favorites in the game. The portrayal of the all too typical American abroad displays a lot more cultural knowingness than one might expect from a couple of sheltered Canadian kids barely out of their teens — as does, for that matter, the decision to reach back so far into comics heritage for inspiration. Comics is filled with dumb jokes, but they don’t really feel like dumb teenage jokes. As someone who’s been exposed to all too much in-game teenage humor in researching this blog over the past years, that may just be the best compliment I can give it.

By the standards of a Commodore 64 game, Comics is an absolutely massive production, spilling across six disk sides and containing almost 400 unique panel illustrations (many with spot animations), a couple of dozen different musical themes, and eight arcade games that each had to be coded from scratch. The team that made it was correspondingly huge for the times, including five artists, a composer, and four programmers in addition to Sember — quite a logistical and financial achievement for a still tiny company run by a 22- and a 20-year-old. For all that, though, Comics hardly feels epic when you play it. It is by design a casual trifle to be enjoyed over the course of just a couple of evenings — one for each of its two completely separate stories that branch off from the very first decision point in the game. That’s fair enough from the perspective of today, but, not for the first time, it was almost untenable in light of the way that commercial software was actually distributed in the 1980s. Upon its release in February of 1987, reviewers noted that Comics had lots of charm, but also noted, reasonably enough, that its price of $35 or more was awfully steep for a couple of evenings’ light entertainment. Many adventure-game purists, not always the most tolerant bunch, complained as well about the action games and the casual nature of the whole endeavor. Shay Addams of the respected Questbusters newsletter, for instance, pronounced that what it really needed was fewer action games and “more puzzles,” proof of the way that genres were already beginning to calcify to a rather depressing degree. Comics had been built with a view to turning it into a series, but, especially in light of how expensive it had been to make, it proved to be a commercial disappointment and thus a one-off in a market that just didn’t quite have a place for it. It nevertheless remains one of my favorite forgotten Commodore 64 gems, and, despite all of its silliness, an interesting experiment in interactive narrative in its own right.

With Comics having failed to set the world alight, the indefatigable Don Mattrick buckled down to try to deliver to Accolade a guaranteed, can’t-miss hit that would establish the Distinctive brand once and for all. At the same time, he began the process of easing Sember out of the company; the latter’s name begins to disappear from Distinctive’s credits at this time, and Mattrick would soon buy him out entirely to take complete control. For his part, Sember would continue to work independently for more than a decade with Accolade as a designer and programmer, most notably of their long-running Hardball series of baseball simulations, before dropping out of the industry around the millennium. As for Mattrick, his first game as a solo designer would be a blueprint for his long future career, evolutionary rather than revolutionary, extrapolating on known trends rather than leaping into the blue. While perhaps not as interesting to revisit via emulator today as its predecessor, it would prove to be much more important in the context of the commercial history of the games industry and, indeed, of Distinctive and Mattrick’s own futures. It would be called Test Drive.

On the road in Test Drive. Note the police in my rear-view mirror.

On the road in Test Drive. Note the police in my rear-view mirror.

Commercially calculated as it was, Test Drive was also an oddly personal game for Mattrick, very much inspired by his own obsessions. It becomes almost uncomfortably clear on the first page of the manual that you’re living his own personal fantasy: “Your lifelong quest has been to drive one of the world’s most exotic sports cars. Now’s your chance. You just made your first million going public with your software company.”

Don Mattrick has always loved fast cars. One can practically chart the progress of his career merely by looking to what he had in his garage during any given year. He used his first royalty check from Evolution for the down payment on a Toyota Supra; the scenario of Test Drive, of driving as quickly as possible up a twisty mountain road whilst avoiding or outrunning the fuzz, was inspired by his own early adventures therein. By 1987 Distinctive’s success as an Accolade porting house had enabled him to step up to a Porsche 944. But already, as Test Drive‘s manual attests, he was dreaming of an IPO and of leaving his poor man’s Porsche behind to get behind the wheel of a real supercar. I hope I’m not spoiling the story if I reveal that he would indeed soon have a Ferrari in his garage. Decades later, when he was head of Microsoft’s Xbox division and thus one of the most powerful and well-compensated people in gaming, he would reportedly have a ten-car garage stuffed with exotic European metal. If Test Drive represents the dream of every young man, Mattrick would be one of the few to get to actually live it.

Yes, the genius of Test Drive — or, if you like, the luck of the thing — was that Don Mattrick’s personal fantasy was also an almost universal one of young men all over the world. In retrospect, perhaps the most surprising thing about it is that no one had done it before. Driving games of various stripes had been a staple of the arcades for years; Outrun, for instance, arguably the biggest arcade hit of the year prior to Test Drive, had prominently featured a Ferrari Testarossa. Yet virtually no one had created even an alleged simulation of driving, a state of affairs that seems doubly odd when one considers how crazily popular aircraft simulations were, with two of them of 1980s vintage, SubLogic’s Flight Simulator and MicroProse’s F-15 Strike Eagle, eventually exceeding one-million copies in sales in an era when such numbers were all but unimaginable. A car simulation was low-hanging fruit by comparison. As Mattrick himself once said, “A car still has more controls that you’ll find on a joystick, but the components of movement and your choices are fewer.” And yet it just never seemed to occur to anyone to make one.

Test Drive

Test Drive would correct that oversight, resoundingly and for all time. At the same time, however, Mattrick and his small team at Distinctive lavished at least as much attention on the lifestyle fantasy as they did on the mechanics of the game. Each of the five featured supercars — the Porsche 911 Turbo, Ferrari Testarossa, Lotus Esprit Turbo, Lamborghini Countach, and Chevrolet Corvette — gets its own loving literal and statistical portrait like the one above, while the dash and interior layouts in the game proper also change to reflect the model you’ve chosen to drive. Test Drive is pure, unabashed car porn. As such, it was tremendously appealing to the demographic that tended to buy computer games.

Still, some reviewers couldn’t help but notice that there just wasn’t really that much to the game. Despite the aspirations to simulationism, it’s hard not to notice that, say, the heavy Corvette with its big, torquey American iron in the front doesn’t drive quite as differently as one might expect from the lighter, notoriously spin-prone Porsche 911 with its buzzy little high-revving engine in the rear. In fact, all of the cars handle rather disconcertingly like they’re on rails, until they suddenly derail and you fall off the side of the mountain. And then there’s the fact that there’s just not that much to really do in Test Drive; you just get to drive up the same mountain over and over again, avoiding the same cops and presumably trying to improve your personal time, with no multiplayer options and no other challenges to add interest. And yet for hundreds of thousands of car-mad kids it just didn’t matter. Test Drive in its day was peculiarly immune to such practical complaints, proof just as much as the works of Cinemaware of just how much the experiential side of a game — the fantasy — can trump the nuts and bolts of gameplay.

Previewed at that same 1987 Summer Consumer Electronics Show to which we’ve been paying so much attention lately and released in plenty of time for Christmas, Test Drive became a hit. More than a hit, it spawned a franchise that is still at least ostensibly alive to this day (the last game to bear the title was released in 2012). More than a franchise, it became the urtext of an entire genre, the automotive-simulation equivalent to Adventure. After going public, buying that first Ferrari, and making his own personal Test Drive fantasy come true, Mattrick sold out to Electronic Arts in 1991, where he morphed Test Drive, whose intellectual property he had left behind with Accolade, into the even more successful Need for Speed series, another franchise that seems destined to continue eternally. At the core of Need for Speed and the several showrooms’ worth of contenders and pretenders that have joined it over the years is that same lifestyle fantasy that Test Drive first tapped into, of having access to a garage full of really sexy cars to inspect and drool over and drive really, really fast. As long as there are young and not-so-young people whose dreams are redolent of well-weathered leather, hot metal and oil, and sunlight on chrome, their continuing popularity seems assured.

(Sources: Questbusters of June 1987; Retro Gamer 59; Computer Gaming World of March 1987, June/July 1987, and February 1988; Compute!’s Gazette of October 1983 and March 1989; Electronic Games of December 1983; Kilobaud of June 1983; The Montreal Gazette of December 15 1982. See also The Escapist’s online article on Mattrick and Distinctive.

Most of the copies of Comics floating around the Internet have one or more muddy disk images. I’ve assembled a set that seems to be 100 percent correct; you’re welcome to download it. It still makes for a very unique and enjoyable experience if you can see fit to install a Commodore 64 emulator to run it. Test Drive, on the other hand, is probably best left to history. Given that, and given that it’s an entry in a still-active franchise, I’m going to leave you on your own to find that one if you want it.)




Visual Novel: Bionic Heart

by Gingy Gibson at June 25, 2015 12:01 AM


There are some visual novels that make a reader laugh because they’re incredibly funny. There are some visual novels that make the reader laugh because the writing or characters are so bad that they’re unitentionally funny. And then there are some visual novels that never make the reader laugh because said reader is too busy cringing as they try to bungle their way through the story, wondering why on god’s green earth this VN is even a thing. Bionic Heart is one of those that falls into the third category, and trying to decide where to start with a review of it is like trying to figure out which train car you want to start pulling dead bodies out of after a major flaming derailment.

Bionic Heart follows the life of Luke Black, a technician who works at Nanotech to produce nanotechnology (yes, that’s really how the game chose to introduce him) alongside his only friend and coworker, Tom. He lives in post-apocalyptic London, where it is always raining (not entirely sure how that differs from the present-day city). He’s currently dating Helen, a woman he’s been engaged to for 10 years who would really like to get married before another 10 years pass. One night, a mysterious robot girl named Tanya appears at the door with half her face torn off to reveal the robotic bits underneath. She forces her way into the home and threatens to kill Luke if he doesn’t help her (while simultaneously refusing to say exactly what she needs or why his help specifically is required). And in case you were wondering, yes, she is a possible love interest in this game.


The backgrounds are okay, but pretty basic if I’m being honest. The CGs in your gallery are just backgrounds with zoomed-in sprites on them. The sprites themselves are just plain lazy. To save time and effort, the artist used the same sprite over and over again but just plastered on a different facial expression. This means that happy Tom, worried Tom, and sad Tom all have the same pose, which just makes the characters seem very unemotional overall. The girls at least had two or three sprites, but these sprites were awful in their own right. I remember looking at the statue of the Venus de Milo as someone pointed out that I was clearly not looking at a female body, but a thin male’s body with boobs grafted on. That is what the girl sprites in Bionic Heart look like.

The relationship mechanic with the people around you is the same as it is in any Winter Wolves game: you have two (sometimes three) dialogue options, wherein picking the right one earns you positive points on the relationship meter (which pops up after you make your choice) and picking the wrong one loses you points. Honestly, if you quicksave before every choice you’ll have no problem making sure that the right answers are always selected. Personally, I prefer the games where you don’t know right away which option is correct, and have to make an educated guess based on what you’ve learned about the characters so far. You know, like what proper dating sims do?

Onto the plot and writing now. I have never been so barely invested in a story since I read Sepia Tears, and that was a free VN that may or may not have been the writer’s first foray into the field, I can’t recall for sure. So basically they had an excuse. Bionic Heart does not have an excuse for poor writing with grammar mistakes or its extremely weak plot. Luke is inexplicably attracted to Tanya and dreams about her constantly, despite the fact that she seriously threatens to kill him at least once a day. He’s suddenly moved to the biotics section of his workplace because plot and is able to figure out in a day an issue that’s been eluding his superior for months. Global warming wiped out food supplies and now everyone including Luke’s talking cat eats flavored mousse. Also evil corporation is evil, but that was such an obvious twist even Stevie Wonder saw it coming. Why is any of this even a thing? I’ll admit that I started to find the story funny on my fifth run through, but that was more a commentary on the strength of the whiskey I took just to keep playing this game than a suggestion that the game gets better. It doesn’t.


Now for the options menu. My god, what a mess. Why do they even have a voice or music volume setting if there’s no voice acting and the music is only there 10% of the time, if that? You have to play in windowed mode, and yes, your mouse can escape the bounds of the game screen. Also, unlike other games that let you hold down spacebar to skip through read text, Bionic Heart will make you click through each line of awkwardly written dialogue again, and again, and again. The nicest thing I can say about the game from a technical standpoint is that you can safely run it without crashing, in my experience.

This is not a good romance story. This is not a good sci-fi story. Apparently the game has 20+ endings, but you know what? In order for that to be a selling point for your visual novel, the rest of the story has to be so good that I want to go back through and play it again and again until I get all those endings. And by the time I’d unlocked ending number five, I was done with this game.

I don’t know where Bionic Heart is being sold right now, or for how much. I’m not going to make any effort to seek out that information either, because that might lead some of you to think that purchasing this game is a good idea. I picked up Bionic Heart for pennies in a Humble Bundle, and frankly I feel guilty for giving Winter Wolves even that much money. Don’t buy this game, don’t look for this game, and if you fail to heed my warning, buy it and come out as disappointed as I was by Bionic Heart, you have no one but yourself to blame. It’s bad, guys. Really bad.

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June 23, 2015

Adventures in Alan v3

These Heterogenous Tasks

Hollywood Visionary

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at June 23, 2015 01:01 AM

I have been greatly looking forwards to Aaron Reed’s Hollywood Visionary, in which you play the founder of an ambitious new Hollywood studio in the 1950s, trying to make your first independent movie.


Visionary is a long way from the kind of bold innovation that I generally associate with Aaron Reed; it closely follows the Choice of Games house style (character-creation, multiple easily-wooed romance options, branch-and-bottleneck structure, a plot that follows a high-flying career, a relatively large granularity of action, capably unobtrusive prose). But within that range it does some atypical and cool stuff; it’s definitely among my favourite Choicescript works to date.

In the opening scene, you pitch your beloved movie idea to the head of an established studio, who always shoots it down: this is a small but effective negative-agency moment, a play on the CoG expectation of, basically, declaring what you want and being given it. Visionary is centrally about the artistic process, and what you’re willing to give up for your art; your political ideals, your creative control, friends, lovers or family, the favour or respect of your co-workers, solvency, health and peace of mind? The difficulty level, the need to compromise something, is pitched somewhat higher than is usual for CoG; the first couple of times I played, stress sent my character to the hospital.

It has, in toto, somewhat broader options in the sexuality / gender department than I’ve seen in a Choicescript game before – there is the possibility of a polyamorous ending, distinctions between various layers of gender expression, and you’re given the explicit choice to determine the gender and name of your love interests. Taken individually, none of this is massively audacious – they’re all next steps on an obvious trajectory, and other games have done similar things before – but taken together, and in the context of the 1950s, it’s non-trivial. While it doesn’t confront you directly with the worst of it, the game makes it quite clear that certain kinds of presentation, identity, relationship are hazardous in this era, and place an extra strain on an already-straining situation.

The really striking thing about Visionary is that its major subplot is about McCarthyism and the Hollywood blacklist, and that it draws strong parallels between the McCarthyite witch-hunt and certain contemporary reactionary movements in videogames. It doesn’t insist on the parallel in all its details; these are two separate things. But it does present the question: what does one do, as an artist, when you find yourself at risk of being targeted by unscrupulous radical conservatives, who might identify you as an enemy based on the most arbitrary and ridiculous of grounds, and who are eager to destroy anyone who doesn’t toe the line? How much of a stand are you willing to take for your art, or your politics, or on behalf of friends and colleagues who get it worse than you? If you’re going to take a stand, where should you make it? And how much damage is done directly, and how much by nervous moderates who don’t want to take a risk on controversial artists? The advantage of the Choicescript approach here is that this question gets presented not as a single cheesy dilemma, but a whole organic series of them, situated in a broader context of other needs. And it retains a much tighter, more personal focus than, say, the broad-survey approach of Choice of Robots.

Visionary is not very good at depicting the actual movie you’re making, which is not surprising. This is a thing that most stories about artists struggle with, and it’s massively compounded by the player’s broad ability to choose between artists, genres and styles. It’s possible, I think, to make this work as a field for the player to fill in with their imagination; I fondly remember playing Sim Cinema Deluxewhich honestly offers considerably less information about each film you make than Hollywood Visionary does, and forming vague but fond imaginings of the movies. But Visionary‘s focus is so weighted towards things other than content that this never really figured for me. Similarly, the pace, scope and player-defined characters of CoG’s house style have always made strong characters difficult: some efforts have been made here to give the major romance options an existence beyond their roles as satellites of the PC. In an earlier post I talked a little about how Visionary‘s NPC-renaming attempts to pick out individual tokens of a character (I didn’t mention that the ‘pick a random name’ option didn’t seem to work properly, producing the same name for a given character every time). These are sensible steps to take, but they don’t overcome the basic difficulty.

There’s one sequence, round about the middle of the piece, which is obviously a homage to slapstick comedy of a certain era, although my knowledge isn’t good enough to identify its exact provenance: you’re at a party, a lapdog has stolen something irreplaceable, and capers ensue as you try to get it back. This stands out because, for a substantial period, the scale and pace of the action breaks from the big-jumps-between-major-decisions Choicescripty default and zooms in to lavish attention on a continuous train of action; it’s totally a set-piece, playing out much the same regardless of your choices up to that point. There’s a good deal more going on in this scene than comedy – it establishes Fish as your reliable ally, moves along an important subplot, it makes a point about being at Cool Parties with Famous People – but mostly this feels made out of a love for the form. A good deal of my initial interest in the game has to be ascribed to the sense that Aaron was having a great deal of fun making it.