Planet Interactive Fiction

November 01, 2014

These Heterogenous Tasks

Forthcoming Interactive Fiction Events

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at November 01, 2014 12:01 AM

The judging period of IF Comp has two weeks remaining; it seems like a good time, before it’s over and we get down to dissecting the results, to remember that the Comp isn’t the only event in the IF calendar, and … Continue reading

October 31, 2014

Classic Adventure Solution Archive

CASA Update - 89 new game entries, 65 new solutions, 51 new maps, 4 new hints, 4 new fixed games

by Gunness at October 31, 2014 01:47 PM

It seems people have been busy - 6,000 games seems like a long time ago!
Personally I've been going through each and every issue (I think) of the multiformat SoftSide Magazine to uncover and update the various games, all 36 of them. Which has been rather complicated but in a challenging way. It's been a bit difficult to tell which computers their games originally ran on, so there are bound to be more changes.

Image
Among them is Dog Star Adventure, which has the honour of being the first game to ever have been published in a magazine. The majority of SoftSide's games were released on disk or tape rather than in the magazine itself, but they're all here to explore and enjoy. So feel free to dive in. Thanks to everybody for being so active at the moment!

Contributors: Alex, iamaran, Gunness, pippa, Richard Bos, Darkiss, Sylvester, ChickenMan, Ambat Sasi Nair, Juan, Destiny, Dorothy, bbc_nettle, dbrimley

The Gameshelf: IF

All codes have now been distributed

by Andrew Plotkin at October 31, 2014 03:15 AM

Whew. The game is up, and all of the gifts and promo codes have been sent out. If you didn't receive something you should have received, contact me.

(This was an epic tale involving late-night gnashing of teeth, a lot of confusing problems, and three distinct phone calls to my bank. Rockland Trust, cheers to them, they were very nice and made everything work. Once it was, you know, banker's hours.)

The web site (http://hadeanlands.com/) now has the purchase links for the iOS App Store, Itch.IO, and Humble.

(Note that the game doesn't appear on the Humble Store site itself. I'm using the Humble Widget to sell the download off my own site.)

Also note this excellent write-up of the game by Emily Short. She was a beta-tester, so it is not an unbiased review, but she gets why the game is built the way it is.

The next phase is the physical rewards. (CDs, postcards, posters, etc.) But before I start focussing on those, I am going to take a bit of a victory tour. I will be speaking about Hadean Lands at the WordPlay festival in Toronto (November 8th). I will also be attending (though not speaking at) the Practice conference at NYU.

Now, I just have to get the leaderboard page updated, and go to bed. Going to bed: important.

These Heterogenous Tasks

IF Comp 2014: The Secret Vaults of Kas the Betrayer

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at October 31, 2014 02:01 AM

The Secret Vaults of Kas the Betrayer (A.E. Jackson) is a CYOA fantasy cave-crawl made in Twine. As you’d expect from the title, we’re talking full-on high fantasy here: constructed geography and history, a backpack full of dungeon-delving gear, a powerful … Continue reading

October 30, 2014

Choice of Games

Buy Choice of the Deathless 34% off on Steam for Halloween

by Dan Fabulich at October 30, 2014 10:01 PM

Choice of the Deathless, Max Gladstone’s interactive necromantic legal thriller, is 34% off on Steam, starting today. The sale ends November 2nd. If you’ve ever wanted to be an undead skeleton lawyer wizard working with clients from another plane of reality–and who hasn’t?–this is your game. Buy it today at our lowest price ever!

Sibyl Moon Games

ParserComp 2015

by Carolyn VanEseltine at October 30, 2014 07:01 PM

Parsercomp console font logo

PARSERCOMP

Writing window begins November 1, 2014
Theme: TBA November 1, 2014

What is ParserComp?

ParserComp 2015 is a ranked, long-form game jam for parser games (also sometimes called text adventures).

What is a parser game?
ParserComp schedule
ParserComp awards
How do I enter my game?
Writing for ParserComp
Judging ParserComp
Tools for writing parser games

What is a parser game?

Parser games are a well-known form of computerized fiction. To play a parser game, players type commands at a prompt, and the game attempts to parse those commands and carry out actions.

A traditional parser game looks something like this:

Homecoming screenshot

Popular parser games include Will Crowther’s Adventure, Infocom’s Zork and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Andrew Plotkin’s Spider and Web, Admiral Jota’s Lost Pig, and Emily Short’s Counterfeit Monkey, among a great many others. In the modern era, many parser games can be played directly in a web browser, though others may require an interpreter.

ParserComp schedule

Writing window: November 1, 2014 through February 1, 2015
Polish window: February 1, 2015 through February 14, 2015
Voting window: February 16, 2015 through March 14, 2015

ParserComp awards

There are 6 judging categories:

  • Writing
  • Story
  • Puzzles
  • Use of Theme
  • Technical
  • Overall

A winner, second place, and third place will be awarded in each of the categories above. There will be no prizes – just the pride of accomplishment.

How do I enter my game?

The site interface for entering and judging the competition will go live by the end of the year. Keep an eye on sibylmoon.com or intfiction.org for updates, or follow SibylMoonGames on Twitter.

Writing for ParserComp

Games must be parser games
For the purpose of this competition, a parser game is one that accepts typed input, processes that input with a parser, and interprets the parsed commands within a world model. A list of tools for making parser games can be found here.

Use of the theme is optional
If you don’t want to use it, you don’t have to. Games that do not use the theme will not qualify for the “use of theme” category. They will not be penalized in any other way.

Games must be written in the designated window
If you started work on a game before Nov. 1, that game does not qualify for ParserComp.

Games can be previously released, as long as they were written in the window
If you write a game for a different event, or release your game in advance, that’s just fine. You could participate in the New Year’s SpeedIF, for example, and then put your game in ParserComp. (However, no writing can be done before November 1, so IntroComp games would be disqualified.)

Three games per author maximum
One game per author is recommended, but if you get really inspired, that’s okay. Just don’t get too carried away.

A first draft must be submitted by February 1, 2015
The first draft must include a walkthrough that demonstrates the game can be played and finished. Only games that have a first draft in by February 1, 2015 will be eligible to participate in ParserComp.

A final draft must be submitted by February 14, 2015
The purpose of the polish window is to allow time for betatesting, bug fixing, etc. However, your first submitted draft can be your final draft if you don’t have any changes.

Authors may only discuss their own games during the voting window
Talking about your own game is okay, but don’t talk about other people’s games.

Discussing the competition is okay, but canvassing for votes is not
Stay classy.

Judging ParserComp

Open judging
Anyone who isn’t participating can judge the games. A judging link will be provided when the games are released in February.

Judges must play at least half the games
This helps ensure a level playing field.

Games will receive scores in 6 categories
Judges will score each game 1-5 or N/A in the following categories:

  • Writing – Is the game’s prose well-written?
  • Story – Is the game’s story interesting and enjoyable?
  • Puzzles – Does the game have puzzles? If so, are they well-designed?
  • Use of Theme – Did the game make use of the ParserComp theme? If so, was the theme integrated well?
  • Technical – Is the game polished or buggy? Did the game do anything unusual or noteworthy with the parser format?
  • Overall – What is your overall opinion of the game? Would you recommend it to other people?

These scores will be used to determine awards, but they will not be publicized or provided to the authors.

Judges will provide feedback to authors
In order for a judge’s ratings to be accepted, the judge must provide a few sentences of feedback on the game as well as the numeric ratings. This feedback will be delivered anonymously to the game’s author at the end of the competition.

Tools for writing parser games

Want to participate? Not sure how to start?

Each of these authoring tools has been the basis for one or more games submitted to the Annual Interactive Fiction Competition within the last five years.

If you need to find beta testers, want to talk about your ideas, or hit any snags while authoring, you can get help from an active support and discussion community at www.intfiction.org.

Other useful community links:

  • IFWiki – the Interactive Fiction Wiki.
  • IFDB – the Interactive Fiction Database, a game catalogue and recommendation engine.
  • Planet IF – a feed aggregate of interactive fiction bloggers.
  • IFMud – “A MUD Forever Voyaging” – real-time communication with interactive fiction enthusiasts.

Good luck!

These Heterogenous Tasks

IF Comp 2014: Transparent

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at October 30, 2014 07:01 PM

Transparent (Hanon Ondricek) is an I7 parser game, a horror piece in the well-beloved explore-the-house genre. Transparent kicks off as a very traditional kind of IF: a little-characterised outsider explores an abandoned mansion. You’re a photographer working as part of a … Continue reading

The People's Republic of IF

Hadean Lands has launched

by zarf at October 30, 2014 07:00 PM

Famed PR-IF member *Andrew Plotkin* has released his all-new, full-scale IF game: Hadean Lands. Four years of development! Four years of apologetic Kickstarter update posts! All done now!

You can purchase this wonder for a mere five US bucks on via Humble, Itch.IO, or the iOS App Store.

Web site: http://hadeanlands.com/

(Yes, I’m writing about myself in the third person. I think I’m entitled. Thank you all for your patience.)

Emily Short

Hadean Lands (Andrew Plotkin)

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

Hadean Lands is Andrew Plotkin’s massive parser IF game about an alchemy-driven spaceship. It’s been several years in the making, after a substantial Kickstarter. And it’s now available. I backed the initial drive, I’ve been following the dev blog since, … Continue reading

Renga in Blue

IFComp 2014: Ending comments

by Jason Dyer at October 30, 2014 01:00 AM

I have finished reviewing every game from IFComp 2014, so have collected links to every review as a page on this blog. You can check that page for just the list, but I reproduce it here along with some general comments about the competition: (Stars (*) indicate personal/subjective choices.) Highly Recommended AlethiCorp by Simon Christiansen […]

October 29, 2014

Emily Short

Writing in Collaboration with the System

by Emily Short at October 29, 2014 11:00 PM

I’ve written in the past about the value of a systematic mechanic. What I mean by this is something that most game designers wouldn’t bother to preface with “systematic”: it’s just the mechanic, the thing the player does in the … Continue reading

Post Position

Polish Reviews of World Clock

by Nick Montfort at October 29, 2014 05:47 PM

I mentioned a few of these earlier, but there are more. I’ll try to keep an updated list of reviews here for any curious Polish-reading visitors:

Update Oct 31, 2014: Review of Zegar światowy Gazeta Wyborcza.

Update Oct 30, 2014: Review of Zegar światowy in kulturalnie.waw.pl.

Review of Zegar światowy in Portal (nie całkiem) Kulturalny.

Review of Zegar światowy in SZORTAL.

Review of Zegar światowy by Katarzyna Krzan.

Review of Zegar światowy in Pad Portal.

Review of Zegar światowy by Julia Poczynok.

There was also review of Zegar światowy in the major Polish weekly magazine Przegląd (the review is not online).

The book was also discussed in an interview I did on Radio Kraków.

Lab of Jizaboz

IF Comp 2014 Reviews: A - F

by Jizaboz (noreply@blogger.com) at October 29, 2014 03:53 PM

There are a lot of entries this year, and I'm trying to at least try to play them all. Here are some short reviews of what I've played so far. While I'm not doing any scoring here, (I've been making private notes for that to use when voting time arrives) there are some spoilers here. If you don't want to risk spoiling any of these games you haven't played yet yourself, then don't scroll down.




S

P

O

I

L

E

R

S

- ALETHICORP -

First game on the list. I'll just click "play in browser" and away we go. No, wait. There's another link waiting for me there, to apply for a job. Interesting. Wonder what the pay rate will be? The 2nd job sounds like one perhaps I can do. Oh great, a personality test. I failed one of these miserably when I applied to Pizza Hut as a teenager.

"If you were a bear, what type of bear would you be?" I would most definitely be a Were-Bear. Unfortunately, that isn't on the list. Okay, Smokey Bear it is. Team player? 9, of course (total lie). A few more questions and.. accepted! Wow, that was easy.

As the game moves along, I find myself going through many texts in the form of emails, reports, and conversation logs while flagging some things as suspicious. The constant train picture and comparison in some of the emails is pretty humorous. I seem to be doing not such a great job, but not horrible either. One person who calls themselves "Alpha" is asking me to not do my job and delete as much as possible. I am ignoring them.

Eventually, when asked to make "recommendations", I recommend Alpha at threat level 9. Doing so results in my termination from the company, as it was obvious to everyone but me that I was letting all the bad people slide. Oh well. "Those 'Smokey Bear ' types are never reliable."


- AND YET IT MOVES -

x me
How very vain of you.

Okay, not a big deal. This is a game about Galileo and all, so I'm letting it slide.

"inventory" says I've got a travel case that contains what looks like useless scenery, but that I've also got a bag with a list in it. Hey, I'm going to start grabbing some stuff off that list! I remember seeing some fruit outside!

I go to take an apple, but can't due to my morals. However, I see a bit of metal, which is of course a key. I try to take the potato, and it tells me about the bit of metal again. A bit later, I discover a hint on an object referring to this key. I hope anyone reading this did not have trouble finding this key.

There are little slightly annoying bugs around but nothing game-stopping yet. Things like the latch on the globe can not be seen after the description of the globe telling you that it is affixed with a latch, which is locked. Soon, we are upon lack of capitolization in within various sentence beginnings. Pretty neat how it throws the items from the list into the bag once I buy them, though. Argh, multiple objects that seem to do nothing and do not have plural understandings; with exception to taking things.

Visiting the trinket shop, I notice there's no shopkeeper, so I'm going to loot the place. I start with the "marbles", and get 57 lines of:

marble: If you want that marble, pay for it.

Seems obvious the next course of action at this point is trying to find the new location of the bank so I can cash in the note so I can pay for the bookbinder's services. Found it.

"Now you just need some supplies, and you can be leaving for Holland. There is a market nearby, and you have a list of things to buy in your bag."

Cool. But I wonder what would happen if..

>give bag to bookbinder
(the bag to the bookbinder)
You give the bag to the bookbinder.

>take bag
Which do you mean, the bag or sack of coins?

>the bag
Which do you mean, the bag or sack of coins?

Very impressive and extensive hints system. Though the game seems a bit too simple for all of these. It also fails to tell me why I can't complete the 4th(out of 5 according to the hints) scene when I have paid to get the book bound and have walked into Alighieri street holding 2 apples, 3 pumpkins, a water vessel, and a veal slice. I did this with the items in and out the bag. Waited. Gave up.

Had good points and was fun at moments, but the bugs killed the experience for me.


- ARQON -

This game comes with a warning for anyone who may be offended by IF RPG. I will press SPACE to continue.

It doesn’t take long before a combat encounter begins in this game. I keep meaning to check out Kerkerkruip, so I can’t really compare that to this.

Starting out, I go check out a temple which houses a priest. I pray and receive bless and curse (strangely, the same 2 scrolls I already have with me). Praying again gives the same result. Over and over. You can’t actually talk to the priest though because “You can’t see any such thing.” You can ask the owner of the trading post about “the trading post”, but “ask trader about trading post” gives no reply. There is a free scroll referred to at the trading post, but I can’t seem to buy or take it.

The popular typo theme in this one seems to be missing ending sentences. While the game doesn’t describe my defeated enemies pooling into thin air, there’s no trace of the body after the combat to search for loot or whatever. After a while, I just became disinterested in this one and moved on to the next.


- BEGSCAPE -

Beg. Beg. Beg. Choice.

That’s where the choices end with this one. Your only possible action is “beg” over and over and then you asked if you should stay in the current town or move to another (unless you are kicked out.) Then you die. Then you restart. This being advertised as a randomized game, I gave it another try. I replayed it roughly 5 times.

The lack of options here makes for a disappointing experience. Descriptions of opportunities float by, yet there is no “ask dude @ bakery for a job”, etc option to click. Why can’t I stop begging after getting enough money for shelter for the day? There are very few options other than dying and seeing a slightly more detailed death message in this game. There’s no background to anything. WHY can’t I do anything but beg? I could start to imagine this for myself, but I feel the story should give me a lot more explain this lack of options. At least I can complete it.


- BUILDING THE RIGHT STUFF -

This game has an interesting layout, though it does look a little rough. I like the green coloring of the screen, but waiting on it to refresh can be kind of annoying. Checking bioscans between turns gives some cool results, it's just too bad that the game wouldn't let me go back to the menu and essentially froze on my 4th or 5th bioscan.

On my first play through, I accidentally exited the game by hitting escape. On the 3rd turn, the game ended due to "space sickness" despite talking to GENE as frequently as I thought to, though scared to do it too much in fear of triggering the freeze bug again. Bug fixes and some randomization of the messages would make this game more worthy of play.


- CAROLINE -

The game starts with a dinner date, and my date wants to play footsies. We leave after getting crappy wine from a creepy waiter, and away we go to her house. She agrees to cook spaghetti, but won’t give me her secret recipe. I think her disgusting secret is carrots in her spaghetti sauce. I like both, but the two don’t go together.

Again, I don’t feel like I have enough choices here. The “correct” ones seem obvious to keep from pissing off Caroline. Our next date is quite strange. “Do I forgive myself?” for what? I’ve been on my best behavior with Caroline. Whatever, I’ll say yes. I have to yes a few times once in the church to properly role-play. Doing this did make for an amusing (and pretty ridiculous) ending. No show-stopping bugs to be found, but the lack of choices going on here prevents me from rating much higher.


- CREATURES SUCH AS WE -

This game starts off as a typical CYOA style game, then (at least for me) quickly ended in a bad ending. Then, I was poked at in a “R U MAD, BRO?” sort of fashion. A few more replays later, I don't really find much fun to be had here.


- EIDOLON -

When this story begins, I mistakenly think there are flying saucers outside. Instead, there's some really strange and creepy things going on here dealing with insomnia, alternate realities, and dreams. We have a few choices here, but nothing story-forking. However, we do have some cool puzzles in this Twine game!  While there were parts of the story I did not enjoy, there was a lot that I did.

The game presented itself well aside from one typo that stood out to me which I will mention later, never bugged out, had a cool and solid story, and was genuinely fun to play.

The only hitch was in the end: ”and now I just want everything to over"


- ENIGMA -

Got off to a rough start despite not getting many parser errors, and looked at the walkthrough. Lack of paragraphs makes this one a bit harder to read. Way too much typing to think and examine instead of just “doing” things to make this much fun for me.


- EXCELSIOR -

One of the bricks in the tower wall is black. That’s odd, you didn’t notice it before.

> x brick
It looks just like the other bricks, except black.

> take it
That’s not a command I recognize. Type “help” for command info.

> push brick
That’s not a command I recognize. Type “help” for command info.

“help” reveals a “use” command which is usually completely alien to me aside from graphic adventures with text parsers. The game advertises a streamlined parser, but it just feels more limited and frustrating to me. Not being able to use more than one line at a time is annoying once I glance at the walkthrough.


- FIFTEEN MINUTES -

After some examining and waiting, it's obvious that there's some time-travel puzzling going on here. I used to get helplessly stuck in Day of the Tentacle, so I don't have high hopes for this one. After bumbling about a bit, I consult the hints, then the walkthrough. This just doesn't seem like it's a game for me. Moving on again.


- FOLLOWING ME -

The lack of indenting and paragraph spacing in this one gets on my nerves, but the story
feels like something bad must happen, and that keeps me interested in moving forward. As it progresses though, things get pretty cheesy and profanities seem tackily overused. A few more typos pop up like lack of periods and a random % mark. I'm not sure how much impact my choices are making, but 2 plays didn't reveal much.

I would have made those bad guys pay a lot more, for sure.


Emily Short

Terror Aboard the Speedwell, Lights Out, Please, and Her Pound of Flesh

by Emily Short at October 29, 2014 03:00 PM

In keeping with the season, three short reviews of horror IF. The review of Her Pound of Flesh gets into some spoilers, but they’re clearly marked; otherwise, these should be safe to check out even if you haven’t played the … Continue reading

Post Position

10 PRINT is CC Book of the Day on Unglue.it

by Nick Montfort at October 29, 2014 02:47 PM

The site Unglue.it, which offers books that can be made free after a certain number of purchases, also promotes born-free e-books such as the Creative Commons PDF of 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10. They have featured our book today, in fact. The founder pointed out to us that there are now 11 different “editions” of 10 PRINT in WorldCat, thanks not to the hardback, paperback, and e-book editions but to variant titles and author entries.

Choice of Games

Choice of Games Opposes GamerGate

by Staff at October 29, 2014 07:01 AM

Choice of Games condemns the misogyny and hate speech of the GamerGate movement. GamerGate’s primary effect is to drive women from the gaming community. For many participants in GamerGate, stigmatizing and threatening women gamers, game designers, and game commentators is not merely an effect of GamerGate, but is the underlying purpose. Even GamerGaters who do not themselves engage in hate speech against women contribute to the hostile environment of GamerGate when they hold themselves out as comrades-in-arms with people who make rape and murder threats, who engage in doxxing attacks against women for speaking out against GamerGate, and who strive

Continue Reading...

The Gameshelf: IF

Zarfplan: Less than 24 hours now

by Andrew Plotkin at October 29, 2014 06:12 AM

App Store approval came through on the 25th. Everything is now queued up to launch the game on the 30th. Again, that web site: http://hadeanlands.com/

Let me reiterate the launch process, now that I know (nearly) all the details.

At one minute after midnight (Eastern time), I will update the web site to show Hadean Lands on sale.

Next, I will send out a batch of email containing Humble and Itch.IO keys. The email will be marked "From: support@zarfhome.com", so keep an eye on your spam filters. Emails should all go out by 2 AM Eastern time.

The iOS app, again, is tricky. I have to employ several different mechanisms and the help of some generous volunteers. (Generous with their time, I mean. I'm covering all the costs.) So the iOS apps will go out in several batches at various times. I hope that they'll all be credited to your accounts by the evening of the 30th.

I wanted to make this perfectly simultaneous, but perfection was not available. I apologize.

The details: if your iTunes account is based in Great Britain, Canada, Germany, or Finland, you will receive the iOS app gifted from one of my volunteers. (Thanks to Juhana Leinonen, Christoph Ender, Brian Lavelle, and Tucker McKinnon for helping!) If you are in another non-US country, you will receive a code in email from support@zarfhome.com; redeem it in iTunes. If you are in the US, you will receive the app gifted from me; the exact time depends on arrangements with my bank.

If you have trouble getting the app, or if you fail to get email that you think you should receive, contact support@zarfhome.com and I'll fix it.

Finally: I will be running... not a contest, exactly. But I'd like to track who solves Hadean Lands first, or at least who makes the most progress in the first week.

I've set up a "Leaderboard" page on the web site. ("Leaderboard" is a silly word for a puzzle adventure game, but it's what everybody recognizes.) If you want to show up on it, tweet to the hashtag #HadeanLands when you complete a ritual for the first time or visit an interesting room for the first time. I'll keep an eye on the hashtag and update the page with your progress.

(I'm updating the page by hand, so don't expect instant results. As I said, I'll only be doing it for the first week or so. There is no prize for this other than the glory of your Twitter-handle in lights.)

(And, obviously, the leaderboard page will have some spoilers! It won't give away puzzle solutions, but it will reveal the names of rituals and actions that you might not have discovered yet.)

That's all I've got. Final preparations tomorrow, and then at midnight -- the magic begins.

Good luck to everybody. Including me.

Renga in Blue

IFComp 2014: Transparent

by Jason Dyer at October 29, 2014 06:00 AM

> flash The camera flash reveals, for an instant, a pale arm reaching out of the dirt. Transparent by Hanon Ondricek is a parser game that involves exploring a manor while wielding a camera. There is supposed to be a second unit helping take photographs, but they seem to have gone missing. Exploration games live […]

Post Position

La Mort Des Imagistes

by Nick Montfort at October 29, 2014 03:18 AM

Students published the first digital Des Imagistes in 2008, chose to self-host it without sending me a copy. It’s gone.

Wired: It’s up on the Internet Archive. Tired: Without scraping that I can’t get the CC BY-NC-SA site.

Beautiful class project. The preservation strategy was not so great. I should have required the files be sent to me, too. Live, learn.

October 28, 2014

Renga in Blue

IFComp 2014: Sigmund’s Quest

by Jason Dyer at October 28, 2014 11:00 PM

One morning, a messenger arrives from Götaland, bearing a letter from Siggeir. The letter reads, “Dear Sigmund, Signý and I hope this letter finds you well. We would like to invite you and your family to the harvest festival, here in Götaland. We hope to see you and your marvelous sword there.” Sigmund’s Quest by […]

The Digital Antiquarian

Starflight

by Jimmy Maher at October 28, 2014 04:00 PM

Starflight

Fair warning: this article spoils the ending to Starflight, although it doesn’t spoil the things you need to know to get there.

Starflight, one of the grandest and most expansive games of the 1980s, was born in the cramped confines of a racquetball court. Rod McConnell, a businessman who had been kicking around Silicon Valley for some years, happened to have as his regular playing partner Joe Ybarra, an Apple executive who in late 1982 decamped to join Trip Hawkins’s fledgling new Electronic Arts as a game “producer.” Intrigued by Ybarra’s stories of “electronic artists” and an upcoming revolution in entertainment based on interactivity, McConnell wondered if he might somehow join the fun. He thus started discussing ideas with a programmer named Dave Boulton.

Boulton, who died in 2009, is the unsung hero of Starflight. His involvement with the project wouldn’t last very long, but his fingerprints are all over the finished game. He was, first and foremost, a zealot for the Forth programming language. He was one of the founding members of the Forth Interest Group, which was established just at the beginning of the PC era in 1977 and did stellar work to standardize the language and bring it to virtually every one of the bewildering variety of computers available by the early 1980s. More recently his hacking had led him to begin exploring the strange universe of Benoit Mandelbrot’s fractal sets fully eighteen months before Rescue on Fractalus! would make fractals a household name for gamers and programmers everywhere. Boulton enticed McConnell with an idea much bigger than Lucasfilm’s simple action game: an almost infinitely vast planet which, thanks to the miracle of fractals, the player could roam at will.

McConnell founded a company named Ambient Design and hired a couple of young programmers to help Boulton. One, Alec Kercso, was just finishing a degree in Linguistics in San Diego, but was more interested in his hobby of hacking. The other, Bob Gonsalves, was another dedicated Forther who wrote a monthly column on the language for Antic magazine. He was hired on the basis of this as well as his intimate familiarity with the Atari 8-bit platform, which thanks to its audiovisual capabilities was the great favorite around EA circles during that first year or so, until the Commodore 64 came online in earnest. On the strength of McConnell’s friendship with Ybarra and little else — the  whole group of them had among them neither any experience with game development nor any real plan for what their game would be beyond a vast environment created with fractals — EA signed them as one of the first of their second wave of contracts, following the premiere of the first six, reputation-establishing EA games. Ybarra would be their producer, their main point of contact with and advocate within EA. He would have his work cut out for him in the years to come.

The idea soon evolved to encompass not just a single planet but many. The game, to be called Starquest, would let you fly in your starship across an entire galaxy of star systems, each with planets of its own, each of which would in turn be its own unique world, with unique terrain, weather, life forms, and natural resources. For Boulton, the man who had got this ball rolling in earnest in the first place, it was suddenly getting to be too much. You just couldn’t do all that on an 8-bit computer, he said, not even with the magic combination of Forth and fractals. He walked away. He would go on to develop early software for the Commodore Amiga and to join another unheralded founder, Jef Raskin of the original vision for the Apple Macintosh, to work on Raskin’s innovative but unsuccessful Canon Cat.

Left on their own with only Boulton’s prototype fractal code to guide them, Kercso and Gonsalves felt over their heads. They needed to be able to show each planet as a rotating globe from space, complete with the fractal terrain that the player would be able to explore more intimately if she elected to land, but didn’t know how to map the terrain onto a sphere. McConnell soon found another programmer, Tim Lee, who did. Lee had already written firmware for Texas Instruments calculators and written very complex policy-analysis applications for life-insurance companies. Yet another Forth fan, he’d just finished writing an actual game in the language, an IBM PC port of the Datasoft action game Genesis which Datasoft would never ship due to its incompatibility with the PCjr. With the graphics code he’d developed for that project, plus his own explorations of fractal programming, Lee was more than up to rendering those spinning terrain-mapped globes.

One of Tim Lee's spinning terrain-mapped planet. He was also responsible for most of the fundamental low-level architecrure of the game.

One of Tim Lee’s spinning terrain-mapped planets. He was also responsible for most of the fundamental low-level architecture of the game.

Lee also brought with him his programming expertise on the IBM PC. This prompted the team to take a big step: to abandon their little 8-bitters and move to the bigger 16-bit MS-DOS machines. They had recognized that Boulton had been right: their ideas were just too big to fit into 8 bits. MS-DOS was just finishing up its trouncing of CP/M to become undisputed king of the business-computing world, but had managed little penetration into homes, which were still dominated by the likes of the Apple II and Commodore 64. On the one hand, the IBM was a terrible gaming platform: its CGA graphics could show only four colors at a time in palettes that seemed deliberately chosen to clash as horribly with one another as possible and give artists nightmares; its single speaker was capable of little more than equally unpleasant bleeps and farts; even standard gaming equipment like joysticks were effectively non-existent due to a perceived lack of demand. But on the other hand, the IBM was an amazing gaming platform, with several times the raw processing power of the 8-bitters and at least twice the memory. Like so much in life, it all depended on how you looked at it. Ambient Design decided they needed the platform’s advantages to contain a galaxy that would eventually encompass 270 star systems with 811 planets between them, and they’d just have to take the bitter with the sweet. Still, it’s unlikely that EA would have gone along with the idea had it not been for the imminent release of the PCjr, which was widely expected to do in home computing what its big brother had in business computing.

Starflight

About this point the last and arguably biggest piece of the development puzzle arrived in the form of Greg Johnson, Kercso’s roommate. Not much of a programmer himself, Johnson had like his roommate also just finished a degree and wasn’t quite sure what to do next. He had listened avidly to Kercso’s reports on the game’s progress, and eventually started drawing pictures of imagined scenes on his Atari 800 just for fun. He was soon coming up with so many pictures and, more importantly, ideas that Kercso got him an interview and McConnell hired him. Just like that, Johnson became the much-needed lead designer. Until now the team had been focused entirely on the environment they were trying to create, giving little thought to what the player would be expected to actually do there. As Kercso would later put it, what had been an “open-ended game of exploration” now slowly began to evolve into “a complex story with interwoven plots and twists.” Johnson himself later said his job became to come up with what should happen, the others to come up with how it could happen. Or, as Lee put it, Johnson designed the scenario while the others designed “the game system that you could write the scenario for.” And indeed, he proved to be a boundless fount of creativity, coming up with seven unique and occasionally hilarious alien races for the player to fight, trade, and converse with during her travels.

Critical to those conversations became a designer we’ve met before on this blog, Paul Reiche III, who spent two important weeks helping Johnson and his colleagues to hash out a workable conversation engine which made use of the system of conversation “postures” from a game he had co-designed with Jon Freeman, Murder on the Zinderneuf. Reiche, an experienced designer of tabletop RPG rules and adventures as well computer games, continued to offer Johnson, who had heretofore thought of himself as a better artist than writer or designer, advice and ideas throughout the game’s protracted development.

The system of conversation "postures" from Murder on the Zinderneuf.

The system of conversation “postures” from Murder on the Zinderneuf.

Starflight's implementation of conversation postures.

Starflight’s implementation of conversation postures.

“Protracted” is perhaps putting it too mildly. The process just seemed to go on forever, so much so that it became something of a sick running joke inside EA. The project appeared on more than three years worth of weekly status reports, from the time that EA was mature enough to have weekly status reports until the game’s belated release in August of 1986. Over that time the arcades and home game consoles crashed and burned; the home-computer industry went through its own dramatic boom and bust and stabilization; countless platforms came and went, not least among them the PCjr; EA gave up up on the dream of revolutionizing mainstream home-entertainment and accepted the status of big fish in the relatively small pond of computer gaming; IBM achieved business-computing domination and then ceded it almost as quickly thanks to the cloners; the bookware craze came and went; Infocom rose to dizzying heights and crashed to earth just as quickly; the Soviet Union went from an Evil Empire to a partner in nuclear-arms control. And still, ever and anon, there was Starflight, the much more elegant name chosen for Starquest after the release of Sierra’s King’s Quest. McConnell’s company name changed as well before all was said and done, from Ambient Design to Binary Systems (get it?).

EA very nearly lost patience several times; McConnell credits his old friend Joe Ybarra with personally rescuing the project from cancellation on a number of occasions. With the contract structured to provide payments only after milestones that were few and increasingly far between, McConnell himself took personal loans and worked other jobs so as to be able to pay his team a pittance. Throughout it all he never lost faith, despite ample evidence that they didn’t, to be painfully blunt, entirely know what they were doing. The team members themselves lived on savings or loans when their meager salaries ran out. Many months were consumed by fruitless wheel-spinning. As Lee later admitted, they were so entranced with this model universe that they “spent a lot of time trying to model things that didn’t add to the play of the game.” Forth was never the most readable language nor an ideal choice for a large group project, and as the project wandered off in this or that direction and back again the code got nightmarishly gnarly. This just made trying to modify or add to it take still longer. With McConnell only able to afford a tiny office and most of the team thus working remotely most of the time, just keeping everyone on the same page was difficult. Given the situation and the personalities involved, a certain amount of freelancing was inevitable. “There was no master plan detailing each and every task to be done,” said Kercso later. “We had an idea of what the major modules had to be and we added a lot of final design as we got into programming each of the modules”; then they did their best to mash it all together. Starflight was a prototypical runaway, mismanaged, overambitious project, the likes of which the industry has seen many times since. The difference was, instead of being ignominiously cancelled or shoved out the door incomplete, Starflight somehow ended up amazing. Call it serendipity, or credit it to a team that just wouldn’t give up. Once the core group was assembled, nobody thought of quitting, everyone was determined to finish the game — and on its own original, insanely ambitious terms at that — or die trying. “I remember saying that I didn’t care if I died after it came out,” said Johnson later, but “please, God, let me live until then.”

The hopeless combat screen.

The hopeless muddle of a combat engine.

Some of the confusion and occasional lack of direction is visible in the final game. Even the biggest Starflight fan would have trouble praising the arcade-style in-space combat engine, for instance, which manages to be both far too simplistic and far too baffling to actually control. There’s a disconnected feeling to certain elements, as of clever ideas that were never fully woven into the holistic design. You can gather flora and fauna from the planets you visit and return them to your base to study, for example, but you make so little money from doing so as opposed to mining minerals — and the controls for stunning and gathering your specimens are once again so awkward — that you’re left wondering what the point is. Ditto most of the intriguing alien artifacts you find, which you cart excitedly back to base only to find that they “reveal very little of interest” and are “totally useless to us.” And the game has what should be a fatal case of split personality, being half stately space opera and half silly romp filled with sci-fi alien caricatures.

And yet it really doesn’t matter. Starflight is that rare piece of work that actually justifies the critic’s cliché of being more than the sum of its parts. It’s not a tight design; appropriately given its theme, it sprawls everywhere, sometimes seemingly uselessly so. But even its blind alleys are fascinating to wander down once or twice. It’s the opposite of a minimalist masterpiece like M.U.L.E., whose every last note is carefully considered and exhaustively tested and blended carefully into the whole. And you know what? It’s every bit as awesome.

But for the benefit of those of you who haven’t played it it’s really high time that I tell what the game’s all about, isn’t it?

Your home starbase, where you outfit your ship, select and train your crew, buy and sell equipment and resources, etc.

Your home starbase, where you outfit your ship, select and train your crew, buy and sell equipment and resources, etc. It was largely the work of Alec Kercso.

Starflight starts you off at your base on your home planet of Arth — no, that’s not a typo — with a rather shabbily equipped ship and a little bit of seed capital. If you’re smart, you’ll spend most of the latter training a crew, which will include, in the tradition of a certain classic television series that went where no man has gone before, a Captain, a Science Officer, a Navigator, an Engineer, a Communications Officer, and a Doctor. You’ll also need to save enough to add a cargo pod or three to your ship, so you can begin to earn money by landing on nearby planets and scooping up minerals for sale back at Arth. You need money to upgrade your ship with better engines, weapons, and defenses, to train your crew, and to buy something call endurium (if you can’t find or mine enough of it), Starflight‘s equivalent to dilithium crystals, the semi-magical fuel that enables faster-than-light travel. As you build up your ship and your bank account, you can travel ever farther from Arth, exploring an algorithmically generated galaxy so vast that, like the Fibonacci galaxies of Elite, even Starflight‘s creators hadn’t seen all of it before the game’s release. And so you fly and land where you will, searching for mineral-rich planets you can mine and, even better, habitable planets you can recommend for colonization; you receive a substantial finder’s fee in return. Alien races inhabit various sectors of the galaxy. Some you may be able to befriend or at least achieve a level of mutual toleration with, others you’ll have to fight. Thus the need to fit out your ship with the best possible weapons and defenses.

Exploring the surface of a planet. This module was largely the work of Bob Gonsalves.

Exploring the surface of a planet. This module was largely the work of Bob Gonsalves.

This, then, is Starflight the sandbox game. While it’s in no way derivative of EliteStarflight‘s creators couldn’t have even been aware of the older game until quite late in their own development cycle, since Elite didn’t reach American shores until late 1985 — Starflight does generate a similar compulsion to explore, an addictive need to see what all is out there. But everything about Starflight is richer and more complex, with the exception only of the combat system that was the heart of Elite but a mere afterthought in Starflight (if you had to spend much time in Starflight actually fighting, it would be a very, very bad game). With so much more computing horsepower at their disposal, Binary Systems was able to add layer after intriguing layer: the ability to land on planets, and once there to engage in an exploring and mining mini-game that is as absurdly addictive as it is superficially simplistic; the chance to converse with the aliens you meet instead of just shooting at them; the whole CRPG angle of training a crew and keeping them healthy; sensor- and Navigator-confounding nebulae and wormholes to negotiate. Whereas Elite sessions soon settle down into a comfortable routine of trade-jump-fight-dock, rinse and repeat forever, Starflight always seems to have something new to throw at you.

But the most important difference is the plot that Starflight layers over its sandbox. I realize everyone is different on this point, but personally I always have a little bit of trouble with purely open-ended games (see my review of Seven Cities of Gold for another example). When I play Elite I eventually start to get bored for lack of any real narrative or goal to shoot for beyond the almost impossible one of actually becoming Elite. Ian Bell and David Braben originally wanted to include a real plot, but there just wasn’t room to contain it inside a 32 K BBC Micro. Starflight, however, has the sort of plot-driven direction that Elite so painfully lacks.

So, having told you what you can do in Starflight, let me now tell you why you do it. Evidence has recently turned up on Arth that the planet’s inhabitants did not evolve there; that it was colonized at some point in the distant past, that the colonists regressed into barbarism due to war or other pressures, and that only now has civilization recovered. A cache of old documents has also revealed the secrets of endurium and faster-than-light travel. All of which is great, except that Arth has even bigger fish to fry. A strange wave is spreading across the galaxy, causing stars to flare — with disastrous results for any orbiting planets — as it strike them. Thus your mission is not just to explore and get rich, but to discover the source of the wave and to stop it before it reaches Arth.

Starflight has an unusually elaborate plot for its day, but unlike in so many more recent games it never straitjackets you to it. The plot is more backstory than story. The game is essentially a big scavenger hunt, sending you off to reconstruct quite a complicated galactic history. Follow the trail long enough and you should turn up the clues and objects you need to end the threat to Arth and the galaxy by blowing up a certain Crystal Planet that’s the source of all the trouble. There’s not all that much that you actually need to do to beat the game when you know how. In fact, you can do it in less than two game days. It’s the clue- and object-scavenging that’s all the fun, the process of putting the pieces of the backstory together. When you discover Earth, for example — yes, those original colonizers of Arth came, inevitably, from Earth — it gives a thrill when you first look down on those familiar continents from orbit. Other pieces of the puzzle are almost equally thrilling when they come to light. If you’re playing cold, sans walkthrough — which is honestly the only way to play; you’ll otherwise just be left wondering what all the fuss is about — you’ll need to look everywhere for clues: to the occasional emails you receive from your overseers on Arth; to messages and artifacts you find on the planets; to the map and other materials included in the game package. And, most importantly, you need to talk at length to all those aliens, a goofy and amusing rogue’s gallery of sci-fi clichés. They’re the silly part of this odd mixture of stately epic and silly romp — but they’re so much fun we’ll take them just as they are, cognitive dissonance be damned.

The Elowans, a race of plant-like hippies who evince peace and love along with passive aggression.

The Elowan, a race of plant-like hippies who evince peace and love along with passive aggression.

The Thrynn, who have such weird issues with the Elowan that they'll attack if you have one in your crew.

The Thrynn, who have such weird issues with the Elowan that they’ll attack if you have one in your crew.

The unforgettably loathsome Spemin, who lack backbone -- literally.

The unforgettably loathsome Spemin, who lack backbone — literally.

The Mechans, a group of robots who think you're just what they've been waiting for all these millennia.

The Mechans, a group of robots who think you’re just what they’ve been waiting for all these millennia.

Now, this plot-as-scavenger-hunt approach to gameplay is hardly an innovation of Starflight. The Ultima games in particular had been trolling these waters ever more assiduously by the time it appeared. The breadcrumb-following approach to game design always gives rise to the possibility of getting yourself stuck because you’ve missed that one little thing in this absurdly vast virtual world on which all further progress depends. Yet there is a difference here, not so much in kind as in quality. Starflight is a much more friendly, generous game. Whereas Ultima seems to relish making you fail by hiding vital clues in the most outlandish places or behind the most unlikely parser keywords, there’s a sense that Starflight really wants you to succeed, wants you to solve the mystery and save the galaxy. There are multiple ways to learn much of what you need to know, multiple copies of some vital artifacts hidden in completely different places, multiple solutions to most of the logistic and diplomatic puzzles it sets before you. Yes, there’s a time limit, what with Arth’s sun destined to eventually flare, but even that is very generous, operating more as a way to lend the game excitement and narrative urgency than a way to crush you for failing some hardcore gamer test. Its generosity is not absolute: in my own recent playthrough I had to turn to a walkthrough to learn that you need to be obsequious when you talk to the Velox or they’ll never share an absolutely vital piece of information that I don’t think you can glean anywhere else (remember that, would-be future players!). Still, even these few choke points feel more like accidents than deliberate cruelties strewn in your path by cackling designers. Starflight really does feel like a welcome step toward a more forgiving, inclusive sort of gaming.

Spoilers begin!

No discussion of Starflight‘s plot can be complete without the shocker of an ending. When you finally arrive at the Crystal Planet and are preparing to destroy it, everything suddenly gets deeply weird via a message from an earlier visitor:

I can hardly believe it! Those weird lumps are actually intelligent life. The Ancients are endurium! And we have spent hundreds of years hunting them to burn for fuel in our ships. Their metabolism is so much slower than ours that they live in an entirely different time framework. I don’t think they even know we are sentient. I believe it was only because of a link thru the Crystal Planet that contact was made at all. This Crystal Planet was their last defense. I can hardly blame them. Carbon-based life must have seemed something like a virus to them.

Despite this discovery, the only option — other than to simply stop playing — is to blow up the Crystal Planet anyway, thus annihilating the home planet of a race much more ancient and presumably more sophisticated than your own. It’s a strange, discordant sort of ending to say the least. Some have made much of it indeed; see for instance an earnest article in Envirogamer that would make of Starflight an elaborate allegory for our environmental problems of today, with endurium representing fossil fuels and the stellar wave standing in for global warming. I’m not really buying that. Not only does the article strike me as anachronistic, an argument born of 2009 rather than the mid-1980s, but I somehow have trouble seeing Starflight as a platform for such deliberate messaging; it strikes me as a grand escapist space opera, full stop, without any rhetorical axe to grind. But is Starflight‘s ending a deliberate subversion of genre convention, like the controversial ending to Infidel? Maybe. It’s not as if the game is not without a certain melancholia in other places; for instance, you’ll occasionally meet a race of interstellar minstrels who roam the spacelanes singing sad songs about glories that used to be. Yet after you do the bloody deed on the Crystal Planet the game immediately leaps back to unabashed triumphalism, gifting you with medals and music and glory and a chance to roam the galaxy at your leisure with an extra 500,000 credits in your account, burning genocidal quantities of endurium as you do so with nary a moral qualm to dog your steps. What to make of this seemingly obliviousness to the ramifications of what you’ve just done? You’ll have to decide for yourself whether it represents subtly or just a muddle of mixed messages that got away from their creators. It’s just one more of the layers within layers that make Starflight so memorable for just about everyone who plays it.

Spoilers end!

In addition to its innovations in the softer arts of design and narrative, Starflight has one final, more concrete quality that sets it apart from what came before, one that can be very easy to overlook but is nevertheless of huge importance. It’s the first of these big open-world games that offers a truly persistent virtual world to explore. Due to the limitations of 8-bit floppy-disk drives, earlier games all fudge persistence in some way. The Wizardry and Bard’s Tale games, for instance, save only the state of your characters between sessions. Everything else resets to its original state as soon as you leave the game, or, indeed, just travel between dungeon levels or between the dungeon and the city. Amongst numerous other oddities, this means that you can actually “win” these games over and over with the same group of characters; they literally forget you’ve done so almost immediately after showing you the victory screen. The 8-bit Ultimas do only a little better: the outdoor world map does persist along with the details of your characters, but cities and dungeons, again, reset themselves ad infinitum. You can go into a town, murder a dozen guards and rob every shop in town, then exit and return to find all restored to peace and tranquility again. Indeed, solving the early Ultimas is virtually dependent on you doing exactly this. Starflight, however, is different. Its whole vast galaxy remembers what you have done, on both a macro- and micro-scale. If you discover a juicy new planet, name it, and recommend it for colonization, it goes by that name for the rest of the game. If you befriend or piss off a given alien race, they don’t forget you or what you’ve done. If you strip-mine a planet of all its minerals, they don’t reappear the next time you land on it. If you make notes in your “Captain’s Log” (a first in itself), they remain there until you delete them. If you blow up an alien race’s home planet thereby destroying their entire civilization, it stays blowed up. This is a huge step forward for verisimilitude, one enabled by Binary Systems’s choice to throw caution to the wind and target the bigger, more capable MS-DOS machines.1

As Starflight neared release at last, it was very much an open question whether it would find an audience. By now the PCjr had come and gone — just as well given that the game’s memory requirements had ballooned past that machine’s standard 128 K to a full 256 K. No one had ever released such a major title exclusively on MS-DOS. Normally if that platform got games at all they were ports of titles that had already proved themselves on the more popular gaming machines, delivered months or years after their debuts elsewhere. Binary Systems and EA could only make sure Starflight supported the popular Tandy 1000’s enhanced graphics and hope for the best.

The best was far better than they had bargained for: initial sales far exceeded the most optimistic expectations, leaving EA scrambling to produce more copies to fill empty store shelves. It would eventually sell well over 100,000 copies on MS-DOS alone, a major hit by the standards of any platform. Starflight placed owners of other computers in the unaccustomed position of lusting after a game on MS-DOS of all places, a platform most had heretofore viewed with contempt. Appearing as it did even as owners of the new generation of 68000-based machines were reveling in their Macs, Amigas, and Atari STs, Starflight was an early sign of a sea change that would all but sweep those platforms into oblivion within five years or so. With it now clear that a market of eager MS-DOS gamers existed, the platform suddenly became a viable first-release choice for publishers and developers. Only years later would Starflight belatedly, and not without much pain given the unique Forthian nature of its underpinnings, be ported to the Amiga, ST, Macintosh, Sega Genesis, and even the little Commodore 64 — the latter of which would probably have been better bypassed. It would sell at least 200,000 more copies on those platforms, a nice instance of creativity and sheer hard work being amply rewarded for Rod McConnell’s idealistic little team of five.

Most of Binary Systems stayed together long enough to craft a fairly workmanlike sequel, Starflight 2: Trade Routes of the Cloud Nebula, released in 1989 for MS-DOS just as the first ports of the original game were reaching those other platforms. It was playable enough, but somehow lacked some of the magic of the original. Most then drifted away from the games industry, with only Greg Johnson continuing to work intermittently as a designer, most notably of the Toejam & Earl games for the Sega Genesis. Starflight had been such an all-consuming, exhausting labor of love that perhaps it was hard for the others to imagine starting all over again on another, inevitably less special project. Making Starflight had been the sort of experience that can come only once in a lifetime; anything else they did in games afterward would have been anticlimax.

If we’re looking for something to which to attribute Starflight‘s success, both commercially and, more importantly, artistically, we’re fairly spoiled for choice. Alec Kercso credits the way that he and his colleagues were allowed to work “organically,” experimenting to see what worked and what didn’t. Credit also the odd idealism that clung to the team as a whole, which prompted them to never back away from their determination to make something bigger and qualitatively different than anything that had come before, no matter how long it took. Credit Joe Ybarra and the management of EA who, skeptical as they may sometimes have been, ultimately gave Binary Systems the time and space they needed to create a masterpiece. Credit Rod McConnell for giving his stable of talented youngsters the freedom to create whilst finding a way to keep the lights on through all those long years. And credit, almost paradoxically, the limited technology of the era. With their graphics capabilities sharply limited, the team was free to concentrate on building an interesting galaxy, full of interesting things to do, and to tweak it endlessly, without needing to employ dozens of artists and 3D modellers to represent every little idea; tellingly, the only artist on the team was Johnson, who was also the lead designer. And of course credit Johnson for giving the game a plot and an unforgettable, quirky personality all its own, without which all of its technical innovations would have added up to little.

There’s a stately dignity to Starflight even amidst all the goofy gags, a sense of something grand and fresh and new attempted and, even more remarkably, actually realized. Few games have ever quite captured that science-fictional sense of wonder quite this well. If you start playing it — and that’s very easy to do now; Starflight 1 and 2 are both available in one-click-installable form from GOG.com — you might just find yourself lost in its depths for a long, long time. This, my friends, is one of the great ones.

(Useful vintage articles on Starflight include an interview with Rod McConnell in the March 1987 Computer Gaming World and especially one with Tim Lee in the July/August 1987 Forth Dimensions. Alec Kercso wrote about the game in, of all places, Jonathan S. Harbour’s Microsoft Visual BASIC Programming with DirectX. Good recent articles include ones in The Escapist, Gamasutra, and Sega-16. Tim Lee gave part of the source code and many design documents to Ryan Lindeman. He once made even more source and documents available online, some of which can still be recovered via the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. Similarly available only via the Wayback Machine is Miguel Etto’s technical analysis of the game’s Forthian underpinnings.)


Comments
  1. This is not to say that all is smooth sailing. Starflight constantly saves updated versions of its data files to disk as you play. It then relies on you to “commit” all of these changes by cleanly exiting the game from the menu. If you ever exit without properly saving, or get killed, your game becomes unplayable until you reset it back to its original data — whereupon you have the joy of starting all over. My advice is to make backups of the files “STARA.COM” and “STARB.COM” after every successful session; then if you get killed or have some other problem you can just copy these back into the game’s directory to get back to a good state. Or, if you like, here’s a DOSBox startup script you can use to automatically keep a few generations of states. Just copy it into the “{[autoexec]” section of the game’s “.conf” file, editing as needed to suit your directory names. 

Renga in Blue

IFComp 2014: The Secret Vaults of Kas the Betrayer

by Jason Dyer at October 28, 2014 06:00 AM

Attempts to locate the party failed, primarily because of poor villagers being paid for their silence by Kas’s crew. The few reports that did reach the King’s court consisted of rumors about a dwarf who split the mountain and built a palace filled with riches before the sunset on a single day. A.E. Jackson’s The […]

Sibyl Moon Games

Scoping for Game Jams

by Carolyn VanEseltine at October 28, 2014 12:01 AM

The first time I participated in a game jam was the 2012 Global Game Jam, and I impressed Courtney Stanton. She asked me afterward:

How were you planning to finish that in a weekend? If you had a month, maybe… but 48 hours?”

Once I got over being A Special Kind of Impressive, I learned an important lesson about scope.

What’s scope?

In the context of game development, “scope” refers to the projected size and complexity of a game project.

Good. Fast. Cheap. Pick two.

You’ve likely seen this diagram before, or one like it. (Probably not this one, since I whipped it up a few minutes ago as part of this post.) This diagram is applicable to any project, but it can function specifically as a description of scope in game dev.

Of course, it’s a simplification. Rather than a simple “pick two”, you balance among the three. A better version for game dev is this one:

Production pick two

In a large game dev project, the producer is in charge of keeping an eye on the scope of the game. What’s the vision for the project (aka, what do we want to make?) What resources do we have? How fast can we create that vision with those resources? (Is it even possible?)

Schedule ↓ : resources ↑ or vision ↓
Resources ↓ : schedule ↑ or vision ↓
Vision ↑ : resources ↑ or schedule ↑

That’s why the producer is also responsible for reining in scope creep.

Scope creep

It creeps… It crawls…

Scope creep happens when features get added to a project after the initial time and budget estimates are done, especially when those features are added in an uncontrolled, undocumented way. It’s extremely easy for this to happen, especially in games, where it’s often hard to tell what will be fun, interesting, or necessary until the project is well underway.

One of a producer’s most important jobs is to protect the devs from scope changes, both those coming from outside the team (“I think we need a miniboss on this level”) and those coming from inside the team (“I know I said this system was done, but it will be so much easier to work with later if I refactor the code now!”) Learning to say no is an important skill.

That isn’t to say a producer’s job is to say no all the time. That code refactor might save months down the line, and that miniboss might be the best thing that goes into the game – but every feature change costs time and requires personnel. Instead, a producer’s job is to make sure the changes have a good reason and that the cost of those changes is understood and approved before anyone starts working on those changes.

Back to the game jam

In a game jam, you likely don’t have a formal producer, and you almost certainly won’t have someone dedicated to the role. In order to get this right, you’ve got to get it right from the beginning – despite having all the same uncertainties about tools, personnel, and “will this be fun?” that a giant studio and a giant game project have.

The good news is, you have all the pieces of the puzzle available.

You know your resources. Your budget is nothing (unless you’re way more enthusiastic about game jams than I am.) You have yourself, you have the rest of your team (maybe 2-3 people), and you have whatever skills and software your team already owns (or can beg or borrow for the time being.)

You know how much time you have. You have 48 hours, minus whatever time you need for eating, sleeping, showering (important), and not going mad.

Take a good look at that…

Vision. 48 hours. You + your team.

Two points of that triangle are fixed. You can only affect one of them.

To scope for a game jam, the question is:

What can you make in that period of time, with those resources, with that budget, that is a viable game?

Make that game.

Step 1: Start with a plan

At the top of the jam, plan your project out in advance, and look specifically at the minimum viable product.

– What is the simplest, smallest form of your game concept?
– What is the minimum execution of your game mechanic?
– What is the minimum amount of design work you need?
– What is the minimum amount of art you need?
– What is the minimum amount of sound you need?

Once you have those estimates, ask yourself: is this feasible in 48 hours, with this team, without any external resources?

If the answer is “yes”, you have a good game jam project. Go for it!
If the answer is “no”, then your game jam project is too big. That’s unfortunate, but you’re better off realizing that immediately, while you still have time to change your mind, instead of 48 hours down the line, when you are sad.

Step 2: Execute that plan

Many game jam teams don’t produce a finished game. If you produce a finished game – something a player can start and finish, with gameplay in the middle – then you’re ahead of the curve.

If your plan is correctly scoped, and you take that plan and successfully execute it to the minimum, then you have created a game. Hooray! At that point, you can add whatever features you want without endangering the project as a whole.

You will be tempted to expand your feature list before you finish that minimum execution. Don’t succumb to this temptation. It might not look like you need the time – but it’s amazing what can go wrong along the way. I’ve been doing digital game jams for years, and there have been major bumps along the road in every single one, with reasons ranging from “None of the programmers are running the same OS” to “Can’t art, unrelated drama is destroying my brain” to “What do you mean, ‘version control’?”

Once you get the minimum execution done, then you can add features on top of your minimum without any risk of failing to complete a game. And that’s fantastic! Consider it a cookie for your hard work.

When I participated in iamagamer.ca, our team was really well-behaved about sticking to the plan. We got our minimum done by Saturday evening, and I got really excited because it looked like we were going to have time to implement a fourth enemy type.

Trapper lizard

Rats, hounds, evil blobs, AND adorable lizards! It was going to be the best!

Our artist Caelyn did all the work… but there just wasn’t enough time for me and Ethan to get the lizards implemented mechanically. The lizards languished tragically in the folder where unimplemented lizards must go.

It happens. It’s a game jam. We released Trapper’s Trials and moved on.

Most of us moved on. It’s hard to be an unimplemented lizard.

The most important thing about game jams

If your game jam project doesn’t work out, that’s okay! Game jams are 48 hour projects, and at the end of those 48 hours, you can wipe the slate clean. Game jams are educational and good for networking and good for skill-building, and they give you opportunities to try new and different things – but at the end of the day, they’re primarily for fun.

Which pretty much means:

Yay game jams!

October 27, 2014

These Heterogenous Tasks

IF Comp 2014: HHH.exe

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at October 27, 2014 07:01 PM

HHH.exe (Robot Parking) is a CYOA Twine game based (with permission) on the 1990 graphic adventure Hugo’s House of Horrors. Having never played the original, I’m at something of a disadvantage here; I hurriedly patched together some context from glancing at YouTube videos. HHH.exe … Continue reading

Sibyl Moon Games

“What Are Little Girls Made Of?”

by Carolyn VanEseltine at October 27, 2014 05:05 PM

“What Are Little Girls Made Of?” was written in three hours for Ectocomp 2012, the annual Halloween SpeedIF competition, where it received 2nd place. It’s a short, dark, and disturbing game that latches onto a couple childhood fears and never lets go.

When I first released this game, it was in parser format, but one of the most frequent questions I received was, “Why did you use a parser format instead of a choice-based system?”

I didn’t have a good answer for that!  So, in honor of the season, I’ve rebuilt it as a Twine game (with additional content and polish) and I’m re-releasing it here.

what are little girls made ofWhat Are Little Girls Made Of?
Release date: October 31, 2012 (Version 1, Inform 7)
Re-released on Sibyl Moon: October 3, 2014 (Version 2, Twine)

Play in browser

“[T]his was the game that most effectively summoned up an atmosphere of horror, which makes it the comp winner in my book.” – Sam Kabo Ashwell

“An impressively creepy and coherent little story, my favorite of the competition.” – Emily Short

The Stuff I Don’t Know

by Carolyn VanEseltine at October 27, 2014 05:05 PM

maw and coffee

With a cameo by The Maw.

It’s 10:10 AM, and I just brewed a second cup of coffee, even though I usually limit myself to one. I need the second cup because I didn’t get enough sleep last night and I’m trying to learn how Unity converts between world space and screen space.

I have a plan for what I want to do, but I’m sure there has to be a better way, so I’m reading about clip planes and render paths and screen coordinates. I don’t know the best way to do this yet, and it’s making my head spin. I deserve this second cup of coffee.

This is a blog post about the stuff I don’t know. And I’m a little bit shy about writing it, because –

We don’t usually talk about the stuff we don’t know.

That’s funny, isn’t it? Because the world is full of stuff we don’t know. I don’t know anything about cricket strategy, or the economics of farming, or the math behind origami, or how to fix a broken toaster. (Although I’m pretty sure wires are involved. With the toaster, that is.)

sad toaster

Sorry toaster.

Of course, I don’t claim to be a cricket player, economist, origami expert, or toaster-repair-service. I do claim to be a game dev – I am a game dev – but I’m a game dev who doesn’t know how to convert Unity coordinates. And I’m calling out my lack of knowledge. That’s weird.

It makes sense that it’s weird. We want to look competent and impressive, and we want to be authorities. We talk about the stuff we do know (once we know it), and we lay out signposts to help people behind us.

I don’t have any useful signposts about Unity coordinate conversions. I’m just learning this stuff, and I’m learning it by searching for the signposts that other people left.

But I do have useful signposts to give about learning. And that’s why I’m writing about the stuff I don’t know.

Learning is easy sometimes. It’s that breathlessly smooth moment of picking up a new skill like you always had it, like you learned it fifteen years ago and just have to dust off the rust. Ten years ago, I was studying to become an American Sign Language interpreter, and I learned ASL that way – like something I’d always known and had just forgotten along the way. When learning is easy, it’s a ridiculous amount of fun.

When learning is hard, it feels horrible. Learning something hard is like moving to a new city, when all the maps don’t make sense and you can’t even find the grocery store and oh my broken toasters, haven’t you people ever heard of grids, I’m going to be lost forever.

Boston Google map

Oh Boston.

I’m wrapping my head around Unity right now. Some of this is easy – I know C, for example, so I can read example scripts in C# or Javascript without too much trouble, and some of my GameMaker experience translates over. But some of it is hard, such as camera positioning and vector movement.

I don’t have signposts to share about Unity yet. But here are some signposts about learning.

1) Tailor your learning experience to your own learning style.

Biometrics was the second-hardest class at my college, by unofficial student consensus. (Genetics was the hardest.) It was a lecture class; I breezed through.

The science class I dropped? Chemistry 101 – one of the easiest science classes, by most accounts, but not by mine. During my time at Beloit, all sections of Chemistry 101 were taught as pure lab courses. I fled before the week was out.

Make it easy on yourself! Not everyone learns the same way. Regardless of what you’re trying to learn, it will be easier if the techniques fit your own learning style.

If you’re directing your own learning,  survey the resources available and choose options that will make it easiest for you to learn. If you’re taking a class, make that same survey and see if you need to harness resources outside the classroom.

http://unity3d.com/learn has a fantastic set of tutorials – if video tutorials fit your learning style. I slogged through Project: Roll-a-Ball and half of Project: Space Shooter before admitting to myself that this wasn’t going to work for me.

After that, I picked up two books on Unity (Unity 4.x Game Development by Example and Beginning 3D Game Development with Unity 4), and everything got dramatically easier.

2) Have a project to help you learn.

The learning theory of constructionism holds that students learn best by making things. It’s the theory behind the Logo programming language, among other things. (Seymour Papert, one of Logo’s inventors, was an education researcher who originally proposed the theory of constructionism.)

This absolutely matches my experience of programming. Once I have a couple solid tools in hand, I’ll learn much faster by leveraging those tools toward my own goals than by walking through pretend goals.

Right now, I’m building a project for Flying Toast With Jam. This event is basically a screensaver jam, as submitted projects are supposed to entertain the viewer without the need for player input. I’m going to keep it simple and build a little project where a cartoon dog wanders among randomly-generated objects.

dog adventure screenshot

Still working on vertical placement.

If I were just using tutorials, I would learn exactly what the tutorial author wanted me to learn, and make the considerations that the tutorial author already made. But here, I’m asking my own questions and trying to come up with my own answers, which takes me into corners of Unity that I wouldn’t have otherwise explored. And later, when I ask the same questions on different projects, I’ll remember the experience of finding these answers, and have an inner library of answers to draw on.

3) Reward learning for its own sake.

There’s an excellent essay by Salman Khan (the founder of Khan Academy) about praising people for persevering rather than for their innate traits or talents. He encourages people to approach new learning tasks with an open growth mindset, rather than a fixed trait mindset.

This is still important when the trainer and the student are both me.

I can be proud of myself just because I’m trying. I don’t have to go from 0 to 60 instantly all the time – maybe I can only go from 0 to 20, or 10, or 5. But as long as I’m going somewhere, the distance will get covered, so I concentrate on being proud of myself for trying. It makes everything a lot easier.

4) Remember that it will get better.

I spent the summer of 2013 on an intensive, self-guided crash course in C. As a result, I can pinpoint the hardest thing I’ve ever learned, which is how to use pointers.

Pointers are a programming language concept. They’re like variables, but they refer to stored values by their memory addresses rather than storing the values directly. And they are awful when you’re first learning them. (Or they were for me – your mileage may vary, and I hope it does.)

I hated pointers.

I read and reread Head First C on pointers. I repeated the pointer tutorials, I diagrammed pointers on the office whiteboard, I talked endless pointers with my fiancee the software architect. They still didn’t make sense.

Same couch. The dog is a new addition.

Same couch. The dog is a new addition.

I remember one afternoon when I worked on pointers for an hour, went downstairs to cry on the couch because I felt stupid, and then came back up and sat down to do it all over again, maybe two or three times that afternoon. (Maybe three or four.)

But I was determined to learn C, and I had a project that needed pointers.

So I forced myself to use pointers again. And again. And again and again and again and again and again and again. (Imagine you’re hearing this in the tone of the narrator from The Horribly Slow Murderer with the Extremely Inefficient Weapon.) And by the end of the week, I had internalized pointers.

That experience was awful, but it gave me a special edge. Now I can always tell myself: no matter how confusing Unity is, it won’t be worse than pointers. And I mastered pointers, so I can master this.

(Signpost for Inform 7 experts learning pointers: The difference between a pointer and a value is like the difference between an I7 “object that varies” and the object itself.)

5) Be kind to yourself.

It’s hard to admit that things are hard. And learning hard things is hard.

If I were planning to run a marathon, I wouldn’t do it by running 26 miles on day 1. I also wouldn’t do it without eating breakfast, or without enough sleep, or without a decent pair of running shoes. I’d make careful preparations over an extended period of time to set myself up for success.

In a similar vein, if I’m in the process of learning something hard, I try to stack my priorities in a way that will set me up for success. I take extra care to ensure that I’m getting enough sleep and eating a variety of foods that will give my brain protein and vitamins. I don’t try to learn at times when I feel hungry or sleep-deprived or socially deprived, because first off, it’s no fun, and second off, studies show there’s only so much willpower to go around. I alternate between focusing on my learning project and taking breaks to do other things (such as writing this blog post!)

And I ask the people around me to recognize that I’m working on something hard, and to be kind to me, and to celebrate my successes with me. Because learning something new is worth celebrating.

And the stuff I don’t know… becomes stuff I do know

I took a break from Unity today and sat down to write about the stuff I don’t know.

It’s hard and scary to not know stuff. It’s even harder and scarier to admit that I don’t know stuff.

But I can only write about that now, because it won’t last. I don’t know Unity now, but I’m turning the stuff I don’t know into stuff I do know.

And by this time next year, I’ll be an expert – not in all aspects of Unity (let’s be fair, it’s a big system!), but in the places where I’ve focused and worked and learned. I’ll be ready to tell you about the blind paths I took and the better techniques I learned and the refactoring I did and the amazing things you can make with Unity, if you just want to give it a try.

I’ll have signposts to show you Unity, not as someone coming from ignorance, but through experience. And I’ll look back here to when I was lost, and I’ll smile, because all the hard work will have paid off.

Stay tuned.

prototype cards

First paper prototype for the big project. I expect this will be unrecognizable by the end, because first paper prototypes are like that.

Collaborating with the Audience: “With Those We Love Alive” and “Elegy for a Dead World”

by Carolyn VanEseltine at October 27, 2014 05:05 PM

“With Those We Love Alive”, a new Twine work by Porpentine, does something I’ve never seen before.

It does this.

When people finish playing this game, they have an armful (or handful, or footful) of symbols that they’ve drawn upon themselves. Many of them photograph their icons and tweet them at Porpentine (@aliendovecote) afterward, and she retweets their photographs.

It’s an amazing promotional tool that inspired my curiosity from the first time I saw someone do it. How would a game possibly convince players to draw on their arms? In Sharpie, no less?

Answer: The game asks nicely.

White text on black reads: Before living this life, have a pen or sharpie nearby, something that can write on skin. Leave room to draw. Like you were drawing a path.

From the second page of “With Those We Love Alive”.

As the game progresses, players are periodically asked to draw various icons on their own bodies, with the exact nature of each icon left to each player’s interpretation. And they do.

This is hardly the first time I’ve seen creative expression in a game. Players are encouraged to express their own creativity in games ranging from Minecraft to Farmville. But the creativity lives inside the game’s enclosed lines, executed in a framework of mechanics. The game provides a platform for creativity and then houses the results within itself.

By contrast, “With Those We Love Alive” goes beyond providing a platform for creativity, and simply encourages creativity. Drawing on your arm is part of the game, but it’s not inside the game. The player could be drawing on paper instead of skin, or the player could skip the drawing process entirely. The game never requires proof that you drew. The game mechanics would never know.

But you would know. And you would have a different experience of the game because of it.

There may be a technical term for this kind of game. I think of it as collaboration.

The experience of playing “With Those We Love Alive” is a collaboration between Porpentine and each individual player. Porpentine has already provided her creativity; she invites each player in turn to provide theirs. And if you follow directions while playing the game, then you will come out the other side with a piece of artwork that is uniquely yours, despite being shaped by Porpentine’s game.

When I look for another game that accomplishes the same things – a creative, collaborative experience shared between author and audience – I think immediately of Elegy for a Dead World, by Dejobaan Games.

Elegy for a Dead World isn’t out yet – in fact, as I write this, it’s in the final 48 hours of a successful Kickstarter. (Backers will receive beta access when the Kickstarter ends, and the full game is scheduled for release in March 2015.) But it’s receiving a lot of attention because it is a game about creative writing.

The basic idea: You play as a far-future explorer, traveling through portals to distant worlds and documenting what you see. Each of the worlds is uninhabited now, and the player is charged with writing about the people who once lived there. This task is facilitated by simple prompts provided within the game – prompts like “I felt the frigid air and realized…” or “These sculptures signify…”

Elegy animated screenshot

Unlike “With Those We Love Alive”, the creative expression of Elegy takes place within a game interface. But like Porpentine’s game, Elegy does not attempt to judge the quality or quantity of the player’s creation, and the inspiration is abstract enough to allow for a great deal of interpretation. Over the course of playing the game, each Elegy player will create a piece of creative writing that is unique to that player, despite being shaped by the shared experience of playing the game.

And after finishing Elegy, just like finishing “With Those We Love Alive”, players have the opportunity to share their creation (in this case, via Steam Workshop) and see what other players created.

“With Those We Love Alive” and Elegy for a Dead World are tapping into something special. By collaborating with their own players – by transcending game mechanics – both of these games access a design space where they can empower players with their own creativity.

I look forward to more developers experimenting in this design space. I’d love to see what we can make together.

Renga in Blue

IFComp 2014: Tea Ceremony

by Jason Dyer at October 27, 2014 06:00 AM

“And now you presume to speak to one of the hrrugh without a proper introduction? Insolent blorg!” (Great. Apparently your translator module is faulty.) “I cannot hold a grrbog under such conditions. Produce your rrha or cease wasting my time.” Naomi Hinchen’s Tea Ceremony involves some awkward and under-prepared diplomacy with an alien. It’s reasonably […]

These Heterogenous Tasks

IF Comp 2014: Jacqueline, Jungle Queen!

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at October 27, 2014 03:04 AM

Jacqueline, Jungle Queen! (Steph Cherrywell) is a parser-based game made in Quest. I am biased by some existing familiarity with (and slightly-bemused fondness for) the author’s webcomics Intragalactic and Gorgeous Princess Creamy Beamy. A feature of those is a tendency to go for dense, zany detail, kind … Continue reading

October 24, 2014

Emily Short

Three Hours with Velvet Sundown

by Emily Short at October 24, 2014 05:00 PM

Last month when I ran my charity auction, the three-hour winner was the team behind Velvet Sundown, an interactive drama that I’d heard about but hadn’t had a chance to check out. Their request was that I spend some time … Continue reading