Planet Interactive Fiction

December 02, 2016

The Digital Antiquarian

A Working-Class Hero, Part 3: Ace and Tactician

by Jimmy Maher at December 02, 2016 06:00 PM

A British S.E.5a literally shoots a German Fokker to pieces.

A British S.E.5a shoots a German Fokker to pieces high above the front.

What makes a hero? Is a hero a cool cucumber who feels no fear, who charges into peril without giving a thought to life and limb? Or is a hero someone who quakes with terror but charges in anyway? I know which side I come down on. There are stories from the Second World War’s Battle of Britain of exhausted British pilots — Winston Churchill’s storied “few” — who were so petrified at the prospect of going up to meet the German attackers yet again that they literally had to be carried out to their planes and strapped into the cockpits, shaking, with tears streaming down their faces. Yet somehow, finally, they found the strength to enter the maelstrom again. If you ask me, courage isn’t the opposite of fear. Courage is rather feeling terrified but doing it anyway.

Edgar “Mick” Mannock would never truly banish his fear, for fear, like addiction, is something one can never eradicate; one can only overcome it on an ad hoc, day-to-day basis. Yet Mannock would, like Churchill’s few, find a way to do his part despite his fear. This being a real rather than a Hollywood story, there is no single watershed moment we can point to and say that this marks the instant when he was transformed from a quivering greenhorn into a steel-eyed veteran. Instead there is a whole series of gradual steps. Mannock himself would come to regard May 9, 1917, when he returned to his aerodrome in such a state that his commanding officer took him off active duty for a short time, as being of some significance, marking as it did a crossroads where he faced a choice between accepting the shame of a transfer back to the home front or continuing to struggle with his raw terror in the air; he chose, of course, the latter. And it’s certainly tempting to mark June 7 on the calendar as well, the day that Mannock downed a German Albatros — his first official victory over an enemy airplane. (“My man gave me an easy mark,” he wrote in his diary. “I was only ten yards away from him — on top so I couldn’t miss! A beautifully coloured insect he was — red, blue, green, and yellow. I let him have 60 rounds at that range, so there wasn’t much left of him. I saw him going spinning and slipping down from 14,000 [feet]. Rough luck, but it’s war, and they’re Huns.”) Still, the process really was most of all a very gradual one. As Mannock grew less erratic in the air, and as he simply continued to live far beyond the normal life expectancy of a new scout pilot, his comrades in 40 Squadron slowly let go of their early judgments of him and accepted him into the life of the mess hall. And that acceptance in turn helped him to control his fear, a virtuous circle that transformed him in time into one of the squadron’s reliable old hands.

As Mannock was allowed to join in with the life of the squadron’s core, he joined them in the many coping mechanisms that soldiers at war develop. Rather amusingly, he was first encouraged to let his hair down by one B.W. Keymer, the squadron’s unusually earthy and thoroughly beloved chaplain, who understood and accepted that young men have needs of the flesh as well as the spirit. Keymer told Mannock that he should abandon his lingering resentments of class and politics to join the others on their drinking excursions into Saint-Omer. Meanwhile, through the example of his patronage, the good chaplain helped to convince others in the squadron to accept Mannock into their own good graces. In time, Mannock became one of the lives of the party at 40 Squadron, always willing to join in with whatever horseplay was afoot. One of the squadron’s favorite airborne pranks was astoundingly cruel really, but such are the ways of war: Mannock and his mates loved to swoop down out of the sun on unsuspecting friendly observation planes, just like they were Germans on the attack. From his diary:

Amused ourselves by dodging about the low clouds and frightening the engine out of sundry crawling “quirks” doing artillery work. Great sport. You come down vertically at approx. 160 mph on a poor unsuspecting observer and bank away to the right or left when almost cutting off his tail. You can almost hear him gasp.

One does have to wonder why no one ever got a nose full of machine-gun fire for his trouble…

But most of the squadron’s hijinks took place on the ground. Inevitably, alcohol became a key coping mechanism. Frederick Powell, one of Mannock’s squadron mates:

The centre of the squadron seemed to be in the bar. When you think of the tensions they lived through day to day — they would come in in the evening and ask about their best friend, “Where’s old George?” “Oh, he bought it this afternoon!” “Oh, heavens!” The gloom would come, the morale would die, and the reaction was immediate: “Well, come on, chaps, what are you going to have?” That was the sort of spirit that kept you going, and although people are against alcohol I think that it played a magnificent part in keeping up morale.

Coupled with the drink were other coping mechanisms of a more aggressive character. Games of rugby, sometimes played indoors right there in the mess hall, could get very rough indeed, yielding black eyes and broken fingers. Political discussions, in which Mannock was as strident as ever in advocating his socialist worldview, sometimes degenerated into brawls. Mannock and another flyer, a Second Lieutenant de Burgh, took to beating the sod out of one another as a matter of course on nearly a nightly basis. De Burgh:

Mannock was very keen on boxing, and as I had done a good deal [of it], we often used to blow off steam by having a set-to in the mess. It fact, it used to be a stock event, if the evening was livening up, for Mannock and me to have a round or two — and he nearly always said, “Let’s hit it out,” and we used to have a good slog at one another. I think, on the whole, that I used to get more than I gave, as he had the height of me and a slightly longer reach, but I had him at footwork.

The bad feelings engendered by the more violent nightly episodes seldom persisted beyond the alcoholic haze that did so much to create them. Living under almost unbelievable tension, knowing each successive flight had a good chance of being their last, the pilots were simply doing what they needed to to get through each successive day.

Mannock’s greatest fear was the same as that of many other pilots: to go down in what was called with typical forced jocularity a “flamer.” In an airplane made from a wooden frame covered with doped fabric, with a thin unarmored tank filled with many gallons of fuel, an aerial conflagration was never more than a single stray bullet away. Many pilots of stricken aircraft chose to jump to their deaths — parachutes were nonexistent prior to some German experiments very late in the war — rather than be burned alive with their planes. Mannock himself always carried a revolver up with him; “I’ll blow my brains out rather than go down roasting,” he said. To cope with this greatest fear, he indulged in elaborate black humor that made even many of his squadron mates, whose own humor was hardly of the most sensitive stripe, a bit queasy. The German aircraft that he shot down in flames he called “sizzlers” or “flamerinos.” He would describe their endings with a pyromaniac’s glee, finishing on a note of near-hysteria, whereupon he might turn to one of his comrades and suddenly burst out, in a jarringly high and strangled voice, “That’s what will happen to you on the next patrol, my lad.” The squadron would, remembered one pilot, dutifully “roar with laughter,” but it was uncomfortable laughter, its tone all wrong. “He is getting obsessed with this form of death,” thought one of them. “It is getting on his nerves.”

For all that Mannock loved to loudly and proudly proclaim his hatred of Germans, the killing he did in the air quite clearly affected him as much as did his constant fear for his own life. This was the other side of the supposedly glorious, chivalrous war in the air. The folks on the home front who tallied up the latest victory counts and ranked the aces failed to understand that war is not sport but rather a brutal exercise in kill or be killed. On July 13, after scoring his fourth victory, over a German two-man observation plane — he killed the pilot, but the observer somehow survived the crash — Mannock ventured into the trenches on foot for the first time to inspect his handiwork. While his diary describes the event with typical terseness, it can’t entirely disguise the effect the experience had on him.

I hurried out at the first opportunity and found the observer being tended by the local M.O., and I gathered a few souvenirs, although the infantry had the first pick. The machine was completely smashed, and rather interesting also was the little black-and-tan terrier — dead — in the observer’s seat. I felt exactly like a murderer. The journey to the trenches was rather nauseating — dead men’s legs sticking through the sides with putties and boots still on — bits of bones and skulls with the hair peeling off, and tons of equipment and clothing lying about. This sort of thing, together with the strong graveyard stench and the dead and mangled body of the pilot (an N.C.O.), combined to upset me for a few days.

This earliest incarnation of aerial warfare was an unnervingly intimate affair; it was often possible to hear the screams of pilots and crew as they were burned alive. Mannock’s attitude toward the killing he engaged in was, like so many things about this complex man, contradictory, swinging between manic glee at the death of another of the hated Huns and the guilt of, as he himself expresses it in the diary passage above, committing murder. On September 4, he shot down another flamer, killing both the pilot and the observer; it marked his eleventh victory. “He went down in flames, pieces of wing and tail, etc., dropping away from the wreck,” he wrote in his diary. “It was a horrible sight and made me feel sick.” He ventured out to the trenches to try to locate this kill as well, an act that now seemed to be becoming a compulsion for him. This time, however, he failed in his quest to examine his gruesome handiwork — probably, one has to think, for the best. While other aces were somehow able to fool themselves into believing they were destroying only machines, not men, Mannock was unable to delude himself in this way. At some level he seemed to revel in the knowledge that he was a mass killer, even as the same knowledge rent his psyche daily.

Months after his eleventh kill, a plaintive message that had been dropped over the front reached him while on leave in London.

I lost my friend Fritz Frech. He fell between Vimy and Lieven. His respectable and unlucky parents beg you to give any news of his fate. Is he dead? At what place found he his last rest? Please to throw several letters that we may found one. Thank before.

His friend, K. L.

P.S. If it is possible, please a letter to the parents:
Mr. Frech
Pr. Vord Vorstadt 48/52

The Fritz Frech in question had been the observer in the plane Mannock had shot down and watched burn up on September 4. Mannock did indeed write to the parents, explaining that their son was dead but sparing them the full details of how he had met his end at their correspondent’s own hands. If only such small human mercies could outweigh the horrors of war.

Despite those ongoing horrors of war, things were, relatively speaking, looking up for Mannock as 1917 entered its second half. On July 19, in an event that surprised him as much as anyone, he was awarded the Military Cross for his “conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty,” despite having yet to score his coveted fifth kill and thus win the designation of ace (he would not accomplish that feat until August 5). In truth, such awards were being handed out with rather shocking liberality as a morale-boasting hedge against the enormous casualties among the airmen, but Mannock was nevertheless duly proud of the honor. Shortly after, he was promoted to a patrol leader with 40 Squadron. In less than three months, he had gone from faceless cannon fodder to mistrusted shirker to respected veteran in the eyes of his squadron mates. Such was the war in the air, where lifetimes were often measured in days.

But even that ugliest of statistics was starting to look better. By the fall, the average lifespan of a new British scout pilot on the Western Front had extended from the mere days of Bloody April to a downright generous ten weeks. This welcome development could be credited to a number of causes. The Arras offensive had, like all of the offensives before it, long since petered out into stalemate, and the fighting in the air had grown slightly less intense as well as a result. British standards of flight training were also improving, with more attention paid to the crucial skill of aerial gunnery and with trainees finally being given a reasonable amount of time in the sorts of aircraft they would actually be flying into battle at the front.

The Sopwith Camel

The Sopwith Camel

Yet the biggest cause of the improving British fortunes of war was the arrival of two new aircraft that at last proved a match for the dreaded German Albatros scouts. The Sopwith Camel, destined to become the most iconic airplane of the entire war thanks largely to a certain cartoon dog, was indeed a dogfighter’s dream. Extraordinarily maneuverable, it could do things in the air that literally no other plane could do. But it was also notoriously tricky to fly; the torque from its rotary engine, combined with its deceptively heavy tail, killed dozens if not hundreds of green pilots, who inadvertently slammed a wing or the tail into the ground on takeoff or landing or threw the plane into a hopeless spin when practicing aerobatics. “It was always teetering on being out of control,” writes the military historian Peter Hart of the Camel — and that was a good thing, for “if the pilot barely knew what was happening how could his opponent?”

The Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5a

The Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5a

The other new British plane is less famous than the Sopwith Camel, but in reality played an even more important role in swaying the balance of power in the air. Certainly it was much better suited to a no-nonsense aerial tactician of the sort that Mannock was rapidly becoming. The Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5a wasn’t the purist pilot’s plane that the Sopwith Camel was. It was heavier on the controls and a bit lumbering really; if the Camel could turn on a dime, the S.E.5a needed at least a quarter. On the other hand, it could fly faster than the Camel, could climb faster and higher, and could take more punishment. It was also as forgiving of new pilots as the Camel was dangerous, and offered a wonderfully stable platform for its potent armaments, which consisted of the traditional British Lewis machine gun mounted on the upper wing along with, at long last, a Vickers mounted on the cowl of the fuselage, synchronized to fire between the propeller blades. The two guns were operated by one trigger, and were angled to intersect on a sweet spot about 100 yards ahead — or the pilot could aim and fire the Lewis manually for, for instance, raking the underside of an enemy aircraft that had on him the crucial advantage of height. Mannock would wind up scoring 46 of his eventual 61 victories in an S.E.5a. It was ideally suited for his favored tactic of swooping down on a German formation at high speed, raking it with gunfire from medium range, then using the kinetic energy of the dive to zoom back up into the sun for another go if necessary.

Still, Mannock’s relationship with the S.E.5a started out decidedly rocky. When 40 Squadron received the new aircraft as replacements for their trusty old Nieuport 17s some weeks before Christmas, they found them still beset with teething problems. Their water-cooled piston engines — much more complex than the air-cooled rotaries found on the Nieuports — were chronically unreliable, and, more than two years after the Germans had perfected their machine-gun synchronizer technology, the British were still struggling with theirs; the cowl-mounted gun could shoot off the propeller if something went wrong, leading many pilots to refuse to use it at all when over enemy lines. Mannock ranted bitterly about the S.E.5a to any superior who would listen, demanding fruitlessly that 40 Squadron be given back their Nieuports. He would manage to score just one victory in an S.E.5a in this the final stretch of his first tour at the front.

Nevertheless, when Mannock left 40 Squadron in January of 1918 he left as, in the words of fellow flier Gwilym Lewis, “the hero of the squadron,” with 16 official victories to his credit.

He came on to form having been older than most of us and a more mature man. He had given great, deep thought to the fighting and had re-orientated his mental attitudes, which was necessary for a top fighter pilot. He had got his confidence and he had thought out the way he was going to tackle things. He became a very good friend of mine, and I owed a lot to him that he was so friendly. I was unnecessarily reserved, and he liked to give people nicknames — he called me “Noisy”! He was a lot of fun.

As a pilot and a fighter, Mannock was the polar opposite of the impulsive Albert Ball, who despite having been killed in May of 1917 still remained Britain’s most famous ace by far. Loath though he doubtless would have been to acknowledge the similarity, the ace Mannock most resembled was none other than Manfred von Richthofen — the legendary Red Baron, the greatest of all the German aces and, indeed, the greatest of the entire war. Like Mannock, Richthofen devoted much effort to codifying a system of rules for aerial combat as a disciplined team effort, leaving to the romantics who celebrated his achievements all the stirring poetics about jousting “knights of the air.” It would be no great exaggeration to say that the serious study of aerial combat as a tactical discipline unto itself really begins with these two men. The axioms they developed were often amazingly similar. Mannock, for instance, had learned after one or two early misfortunes the importance of checking his weaponry over thoroughly before flying into battle, and pounded this theme home relentlessly with his charges after being given command of his own flight. Here is Richthofen on the same subject:

It is the pilot and not the ordnance officer or the mechanic who is responsible for the faultless performance of his guns. Machine-gun jams do not exist! If they do occur, it is the pilot whom I blame. The pilot should personally examine his ammunition and its loading into the belt to ensure that the length of each round is consistent with that of the others. He has to find time to do this during bad weather or in good weather at night. A machine gun that fires well is better than an engine that runs well.

Both men regarded “stunt pilots,” those who placed their faith in reflexes and fancy maneuvers rather than sound tactics, with near contempt. Richthofen said that he “paid considerably less attention to flying ability” than he did to tactics and gunnery: “I shot down my first twenty whilst flying itself caused me the greatest trouble.” Both men were thoroughgoing pragmatists, willing to engage in battle only when the odds in terms of numbers and position were in their favor, and willing to break off any engagement rather than bring undue risks upon themselves. Most of all, both men were great leaders and teachers. Already during his first tour, Mannock was noted for his patience with the new fliers who came under his charge; his own rocky first weeks with 40 Squadron gave him much empathy for these greenhorns’ plight. He would place them in relatively sheltered positions during their first flights and work to indoctrinate them into his teamwork-oriented, “no individual heroes” approach. Similarly, Richthofen could at times sound more like a fussy schoolmarm than a dashing fighter ace:

It is important and instructive that a discussion be held immediately after each Jagdgeschwader flight. During this everything should be discussed from takeoff to landing and whatever had happened during the flight should be talked through. Questions from individuals can be most useful in explaining things.

If it’s difficult to reconcile Mannock the patient teacher and cerebral tactician with the hooligan who liked to beat people bloody in a bar every night, count it up as yet one more contradictory aspect of this hopelessly contradictory man.

By this time, seasoning a new squadron with two or three combat veterans had become standard practice in the Royal Flying Corp. Thus, after some weeks of much-deserved leave, Mannock was sent to join the brand new 74 Squadron in England. The commander of the squadron, a tough Kiwi named Keith Caldwell, deferred greatly to him, treating him almost as his equal in the chain of command. It was a golden opportunity for Mannock to indoctrinate a mass of unformed clay into his theories of air combat. This he proceeded to do over the several weeks prior to his return to the front with his new squadron, driving home easily remembered rules of thumb like “always above; seldom on the same level; never underneath.” He wasn’t unwilling to use occasional tough love on his skittish charges; a pilot who broke formation might be terrified by a burst of live machine-gun fire, deployed by Mannock to get his attention and force him back into position.

Among the fliers he instructed was one Ira Jones, who would go on to write the most famous biography of Mannock, albeit one so drowning in Jones’s unabashed hero worship that it’s sometimes more interesting as a psychological study of its author than it is for its ostensible subject. Here, for instance, is Jones’s breathless description of his first impression of his squadron’s new flight leader:

His tall, lean figure; his weather-beaten face with its deep-set Celtic blue eyes; his modesty in dress and manner appealed to me, and immediately, like all the other pupils, I came under his spell. He had a dominating personality, which radiated itself on all those around. Whatever he said or did compelled attention. It was obvious that he was a born leader of men.

Aided by Caldwell’s strict discipline and Mannock’s tactical mastery, along with the latest iteration of the S.E.5a, from which the Royal Aircraft Factory had finally shaken out the bugs, 74 Squadron would be a remarkably successful combat unit, losing very few pilots in proportion to the kills they scored against the Germans.

A squadron of S.E.5a scouts on the flight line.

A squadron of S.E.5a scouts on the flight line.

They would need to be. The front to which Mannock returned with his new squadron on March 30, 1918, was a very different place from the one he had left, thanks to two titanic political events of the previous year. One had been the declaration of war by the United States upon Germany and its allies; the other had been the Russian Revolution, following which the government of the new Soviet Union had signed peace terms with Germany. The army of the United States, still a sleeping giant on the world stage just waking up to its own potential, had been very nearly nonexistent prior to the declaration of war. It would take the Americans more than a year to train, equip, and ship enough soldiers across the Atlantic to make a significant difference in Western Europe. Once that happened, however, the jig would be up; Germany couldn’t hope to continue to hold the front against the combined armies of France, Britain, and the United States. The German commanders believed, logically enough, that they stood just one chance: to shift all of their forces from the old Eastern Front to the Western and throw absolutely everything they had against the Allies during that spring of 1918, in the hope of breaking through and sweeping to the coast in these last few precious weeks before American forces began to arrive en masse. This, then, was the desperate battleground that 74 Squadron flew into.

When the squadron flew into action for the first time on April 12, the young Ira Jones, much like the Mannock of almost exactly one year earlier, performed poorly and returned to the aerodrome in a very bad way.

The feeling of safety produced an amazing reaction of fear, the intensity of which was terrific. Suddenly I experienced a physical and moral depression which produced cowardice. I suddenly felt I was totally unsuited to air fighting and that I would never be persuaded to fly over the lines again. For quite five minutes I shivered and shook.

Departing markedly from the treatment his old squadron mates had meted out to him in the same situation, Mannock quietly pulled Jones aside and told him about his own early struggles, sharing some tips on how he had learned to manage his fear and thus how Jones might as well. Jones’s ardent lifelong hero-worship of Mannock seems to date from this exchange — and understandably so. Motivated perhaps as much by his horror of disappointing his hero as by anything else, Jones soon rounded into one of the squadron’s steady hands.

Jones’s story was hardly unique. Mannock was brilliant at motivating and instilling confidence in new fliers in general. A favorite technique was to “break the duck” of a hesitant newcomer by taking out the gunner of a German observation craft himself, then signaling the greenhorn to finish the job and thus come away with his first victory. Doing so wasn’t quite the sacrifice that it might first appear; the rules for scoring the war in the air stipulated that every pilot who helped to bring down an enemy airplane received credit for that victory, meaning Mannock could feel free to spread the wealth around without sacrificing his own tally. Nevertheless, it was a generous act, even as it was also a rather macabre act — but, again, such are the ways of war.

Caldwell and Mannock molded their squadron into a disciplined fighting unit the equal of the Red Baron’s dreaded “Flying Circus.” Jones:

He [Mannock] not only mystified and surprised the enemy, but also the formations he led. Once over the lines, he would commence flying in a never-ending series of zigzags, never straight for more than a few seconds. Was it not by flying straight for long periods that formation leaders were caught napping?

Suddenly his machine would rock violently, a signal that he was about to attack. But where was the enemy? His companions could not see them, although he was pointing in their direction. Another signal and his SE would dive to the attack. A quick half-roll, and there beneath him would be the enemy formation flying serenely along, the enemy leader with his eyes no doubt glued to the west. The result [was] a complete surprise attack.

Mannock would take the leader if possible in order to give his pilots coming down behind him a better chance of an easy shot at someone before the formation split up and the dogfight began. Having commenced the fight with the tactical advantage of height in his favour, Mannock would adopt dive-and-zoom tactics in order to retain the initiative.

Thanks not least to Mannock, 74 Squadron was one of the happiest on the front, even if that happiness was always tinged with the usual unnatural mania, always shadowed by the stress and terror it worked so diligently to cover up. Jones again:

Mannock was always full of pranks. His favourite one was to enter a comrade’s hut in the early hours of the morning after returning from a “night out”. He would enter, usually accompanied by Caldwell, who would be carrying a jug of water. Once inside, Mannock would pretend that he had wined and dined too well, and would make gurgling noises as if he was going to be sick. As each retching noise was made, Caldwell would splash an appropriate amount of water on the wooden floor. The poor lad asleep would suddenly wake up and jump out of bed to the accompaniment of roars of laughter as his legs would be splashed with the remaining water.

Despite the emphasis on teamwork in the air, Mannock’s personal victory count soared during this his second tour of duty — as incontrovertible a proof as any of just how effective his tactics really were. In barely two months, he increased his tally from 16 to 52, an astonishing run that often saw him shooting down multiple German aircraft on a single day or even a single patrol. His pace during this period was unequaled during any similar stretch of time by any other ace of the war. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order on May 24, then the same medal again just two weeks later after destroying eight German aircraft in five days.

British soldiers carry souvenirs away from the wreckage of Manfred von Richthofen's airplane.

British soldiers carry souvenirs away from the wreckage of Manfred von Richthofen’s airplane.

Given the doctrine he preached to his pilots, one might think that Mannock would have been uninterested in his personal tally and the personal glory that went with it. But, once again, to do so would be to underestimate the complexity of this endlessly complex and contradictory man. On April 21, 1918, shortly after Mannock’s return to the front, a gunner on the ground shot down Manfred von Richthofen largely by luck, firing a bullet toward his Fokker Triplane that pierced his heart and lungs, killing him almost instantly. When the pilots in 74 Squadron’s mess hall that night proposed a toast to their fallen nemesis, Mannock merely scowled and said, “I hope he roasted the whole way down!” He now had a static target to strive for: Richthofen had tallied 80 victories. First, however, he would need to oust his old friend and rival James McCudden, currently back in England with 57 victories to his name. Ominously, he wrote home that he intended to beat all the other aces’ tallies or to “die in the attempt.” Did he, a working-class man, want so desperately to unseat the Red Baron — who, as evidenced by his nickname, was a member of the Prussian aristocracy — as a comeuppance to the class system that had so often used him so badly? We can only speculate.

The British buried Richthofen with full military honors, and even dropped pictures of his grave behind German lines. Mannock, needless to say, wasn't susceptible to such sentimentality.

The British buried Richthofen with full military honors, and even dropped pictures of his grave behind German lines. Mannock, needless to say, wasn’t susceptible to such sentimentality.

By June, the final frenzied German attack on the ground had largely exhausted itself. It had been a near thing on multiple occasions, with the Allied lines buckling at times far more than than they had in all the previous years of war. Still, the Germans had never quite managed to achieve the full-on breach for which they had died in so many thousands. Now, with fresh American troops at last beginning to pour into France to take up the fray against the battered German armies, the war could only end one way; it was merely a question of when. For the first time, the soldiers and aviators on the front could realistically look forward to the prospect of peace in the near future.

And yet Mannock, still the picture of leadership and camaraderie on one level, was falling apart on another. Increasingly obsessed with his victory count even as the terror and guilt he constantly felt threatened always to master him, he was caught in a downward spiral from which he didn’t know how to extricate himself. His obsession with going down in a “sizzler” became more pronounced than ever; even the starry-eyed Ira Jones had to admit that his hero was “getting very peculiar about the whole business.” He took to asking the other pilots, “Are you ready to die for your country today? Will you have it in flames or in pieces?” Even more disturbingly, he began to abandon some of his own tactical dicta. On June 16, for example, he initiated an attack on a German formation that outnumbered his flight by three to one, a clear violation of everything he had always taught his charges; he shot down two planes that day, but the rest of his pilots felt lucky just to escape with their lives. Premonitions of death began to creep more and more into his correspondence. He wrote to his old friend and mentor Jim Eyles:

Things are getting a bit intense just lately and I don’t quite know how long my nerves will last out. I am rather old now, as airmen go, for air fighting. Still, one hopes for the best. These times are so horrible that occasionally I feel that life is not worth hanging on to myself, but “hope springs eternal in the human breast”.

On June 21, Mannock was informed that he was to assume command of 85 Squadron, another unit at the front. He would now be given the rank of Major, a remarkable ascent for a working-class man less than three years removed from the Territorial Forces. His new squadron was another very effective unit; it had lately been commanded by Billy Bishop, a Canadian who with 72 victories to his credit would go down into history as the ace of aces of all the British Commonwealth airmen. That said, Bishop’s actual tally may well have been much lower. There is reason to believe that, eager to inspire the fighting men of the Commonwealth, British commanders may have deliberately inflated his victory count; some historians are willing to credit him with as few as 27 real, confirmable victories. Regardless, Bishop was considered to be of huge symbolic importance. For this reason, he had been withdrawn from active duty; witnessing what a blow to German public morale the death of the Red Baron had been, there was concern about the potential fallout if Bishop should be killed in action. But about Mannock, who despite his achievements remained peculiarly obscure among all but the airmen actually at the front, there was no similar concern. Thus the expendable Mannock was to inherit Commonwealth hero Bishop’s command.

Canadian Billy Bishop, the British Commonwealth's alleged ace of aces, who probably wasn't the conscious fraud some have claimed he was but who may very well have benefited from a less than rigorous kill-verification process in light of his immense propaganda value.

Canadian Billy Bishop, the British Commonwealth’s alleged ace of aces, who probably wasn’t the conscious fraud some have claimed he was but who may very well have benefited from a less than rigorous kill-verification process in light of his immense propaganda value.

Before he took over 85 Squadron, Mannock was granted the small mercy of two weeks’ leave back in England. He repaired to the town of Wellingborough, where he had enjoyed the most peaceful three years of his life living under the roof of Jim Eyles — a stretch that must truly have felt like another lifetime to him by this point. Eyles was as shocked by the version of “Pat” Mannock who knocked on his door on this summer day in 1918 as he had been by the one who had returned sick and malnourished from a Turkish prison three years before. To judge by Eyles’s description, Mannock may have been in the throes of a full-blown nervous breakdown by this point; his hands and body trembled constantly. One day Eyles came upon him unaware, standing in the house’s cozy little kitchen:

He cried uncontrollably, muttering something that I could not make out. His face, when he lifted it, was a terrible sight. Saliva and tears were running down his face; he couldn’t stop it. His collar and shirt front were soaked through. He smiled weakly at me when he saw me watching and tried to make light of it. He would not talk about it at all.

Eyles would later say that, although they didn’t express it in words, the two old friends shared a mutual understanding that this would be the last time they would be together. There was “something very final about it” when the two shook hands on the last morning of Mannock’s leave and Eyle’s old companion in socialism and cricket set off down the garden path, just as he had done hundreds of times before while working as a rigger for the National Telephone Company right there in Wellingborough. But, alas, the job to which he was returning today was a far more deadly business. Hadn’t he done enough for his country? Apparently not. He was in a state of complete psychic collapse, yet the powers that were in England still didn’t respect him enough that anybody had bothered to notice. Again — for the last time this time — Major Edward “Eddie/Paddy/Pat/Jerry/Murphy/Mickey/Mick” Carringham Mannock was going to war.

(Sources: The same as the first article in this series.)


December 01, 2016

Choice of Games

Support Heather Albano’s “Keeping Time” Kickstarter

by Dan Fabulich at December 01, 2016 06:01 PM

"Keeping Time" trilogy

Heather Albano, author of Choice of Broadsides, Affairs of the Court: Choice of Romance, Choice of Zombies, and A Study in Steampunk: Choice by Gaslight, is running a Kickstarter for her “Keeping Time” trilogy of non-interactive steampunk time-travel novels. They tell the story of a girl, a pocket watch, Frankenstein’s monster, the Battle of Waterloo, and giant clockwork robots taking over London. Backers will get access to the final book in the trilogy, Timebound, as soon as it’s finished.

Heather is a great friend of Choice of Games and we’re all huge fans of her work. The Kickstarter fully funded just six hours after it launched. Additional support will fund the development of more of Heather’s extraordinary writing. Support this Kickstarter today! Even if you can’t afford to back it, please share it with friends.

Empyrean — Take down your father with his own secret airship!

by Dan Fabulich at December 01, 2016 06:01 PM


We’re proud to announce that Empyrean, the latest in our popular “Choice of Games” line of multiple-choice interactive-fiction games, is now available for Steam, iOS, and Android. It’s 33% off until December 8th!

Overthrow your father’s regime with his own secret experimental fighter plane! Dogfight dieselpunk aeros to save your city and the iron jungle beneath it.

Empyrean is an interactive “flying ace” novel by Kyle Marquis where your choices control the story. It’s entirely text-based–325,000 words, without graphics or sound effects–and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination.

Far below the city of Actorius lies the mysterious world of the Deep Tech–creatures and plants both living and mechanical, and powered by unknown forces. Your father harvests the tech to create experimental airships, and the Revolution that fights his every move races to do the same. Your father’s aero, the Empyrean, is governed by Deep Tech dynamics not even he understands.

Only you can fly the Empyrean, match wits against ruthless oligarchs and devious spies, and take to the sky to fight your city’s enemies. But who is the enemy? The Revolution, or the government they say is corrupt? Foreign invaders, or the Deep Tech itself?

In a world of gleaming towers and downtrodden laborers, streaking aeros and deadly rooftop duels, when you risk it all, the sky’s the limit!

  • Fly the Empyrean, the greatest aircraft ever designed
  • Play as a man, a woman, or nonbinary; romance men or women.
  • Explore the Deep Tech, a savage mechanical ecosystem below your city.
  • Conceal your true identity from your family and the secret police.
  • Befriend Wesh, a denizen of the Deep Tech who is both human and machine
  • Cross swords in top secret research facilities, elegant cafés, and even atop airplanes in flight!
  • Use the Deep Tech and your political authority to improve and protect your city
  • Side with the revolution, the government, foreign powers, or the Deep Tech itself!

We hope you enjoy playing Empyrean. We encourage you to tell your friends about it, and recommend the game on StumbleUpon, Facebook, Twitter, and other sites. Don’t forget: our initial download rate determines our ranking on the App Store. The more times you download in the first week, the better our games will rank.

Emily Short

Those Trojan Girls (Mark Bernstein)

by Emily Short at December 01, 2016 01:00 PM

Screen Shot 2016-11-30 at 1.09.05 AM.png

Those Trojan Girls is a hypertext novel by Mark Bernstein, written in Storyspace. Storyspace is Bernstein’s project, and the blurb for Those Trojan Girls describes how the tool might add to the possibilities of the medium:

Those Trojan Girls is also the first published hypertext to use the new Storyspace 3 facilities for stretchtext and sculptural hypertext – ideas explored in the research literature for more than a decade but that remain little known outside the research community.

In practice, stretchtext and sculptural hypertext refer to ideas that already exist in interactive fiction. As discussed in an interview with Bernstein here, “sculptural hypertext” refers to having pieces of text that appear based not on links but on other variable conditions, similar to quality-based narrative. Stretchtext refers to replacing a section of text with a longer, more detailed section, which is one of several things Twine texts do fairly routinely with text replacement macros. So “little known outside the research community” might be a slight exaggeration.

But the point, I think, is that the piece is attempting to introduce some of these features and methods to a community of practice — academic/literary hypertext — that has historically not paid terribly much attention to the IF community of practice, despite very significant overlap in many of the technological affordances of their tools.

Those Trojan Girls is definitely unlike game-like hypertexts, and avoids the kinds of agency found therein. I’m not sure I’d say there’s much of what I typically think of as “readerly” agency either. It’s hard, for instance, to decide on a theme, character, plot point or other element you want to pursue and track that train through the narrative (in contrast with Arcadia, which is designed for exactly that type of reading, or if, which thematically encourages completionist rigor).

There are a few formatting challenges familiar from Twine and not exactly solved here. Some blue links expand in place, while others lead through to a new passage of text — a frequent complaint about Twine works as well — and in Storyspace (or at least in this implementation) one can’t predict which is which without either clicking through or referring to the map, which appears in the lefthand side of the screen and moves as you read:

Screen Shot 2016-11-30 at 1.24.02 AM.png

But despite the map, I found Those Trojan Girls more disorienting to navigate than the average Twine piece, because there isn’t a clear back button, and occasionally I would click a link that popped me clear out of the flow of narrative and into some completely different place. For example, clicking a link about a girl’s collection of school books whisked me away to a bibliography, from which there was no obvious return to the story flow I’d been in previously.

Actually, if I clicked again anywhere in the bibliography page, I would be sent back to where I came from — but that wasn’t what I expected. Perhaps this is because I just haven’t been accustomed to play a lot of Storyspace work, and haven’t previously tried anything in Storyspace 3. Likewise, command-apostrophe does function as Back, but I find this unintuitive and didn’t realize it during my first five attempts to read the book.

As a rule, clicking on the page you’re currently reading, even if there’s no visible link, is likely to advance things in some fashion. This might sound not much different from a Twine piece with a lot of pages that end in a single forward link, but in practice I felt as though I had much less agency as a reader. This practice also thwarts any attempt to copy and paste text from the book.

At “sculptural hypertext” points in the narrative, the map is also the main thing that tells you you’re experiencing something sculptural. Here, for instance, is a segment where I believe I could have wound up seeing any of four text passages depending on how I’d reached this point in the narrative. The map indicated the existence of the other three possible passages, while clicking forward through the pages carried me automatically to the one that Storyspace had selected for me:

Screen Shot 2016-11-30 at 2.03.01 AM.png

I don’t know why I got “individualism” rather than “honor,” “money,” or “learning,” though if I want to insist, I can use the map to navigate to and read the alternative passages. In that respect, the piece is less transparent about its sculptural narrative mechanics than anything written in StoryNexus, where it’s typically overtly stated which qualities you need to have in order to unlock a particular storylet.

Meanwhile, the Storyspace Reader leaves in a lot of features of the authoring tool, and it’s not immediately obvious, if you’re a reader, what if anything you’re supposed to be doing with those. For instance, here I’ve somehow lost my position in the text entirely, and then clicked on a button that looked like it might possibly take me back somewhere; but instead it offers me the option of “parking” a link. Is this an authorial thing to do? A readerly one? I am not sure. I don’t know what it does, and I don’t know how to go back to reading, or in what order I was supposed to be reading to start with. Maybe veteran Storyspace users will be scoffing at my total hypertext illiteracy at this point.

Screen Shot 2016-11-30 at 2.12.26 AM.png

So the effect of all this, at least for me, is of an anti-curated reading experience: a machine that makes me responsible for ordering its various passages, and for understanding the meaning of its mechanics, but refuses to authorize any of those strategies as the correct official strategy and from time to time sends indications that I am doing it Wrong. I was fighting the thing trying to extract a story from it, and mostly losing that fight. If there is a way to save your place in the Storyspace Reader, I didn’t find it; there is a “save” option in the menu, but that’s clearly meant for authors to save their work in progress, and this proved to be locked. Once it crashed to desktop and lost my place as well, but I’m pretty sure that wasn’t an intended part of the experience.

There’s loads of UI, much more than with pretty much any other IF reading system I can think of. I can show or hide the map view, enlarge it or shrink it, “focus” it, set it to standard size; I can rotate through assorted alternative ways of looking at it, named things like “treemap” and “roadmap” and “outline” and “chart.” Here are some states I got the screen into, by accident, while trying to figure out how to find a part of the text that might be chronologically related to the part of the text I had been reading immediately previously:

Click to view slideshow.

What I cannot get it to do: tell me how to read this story. I mean, really tell me. There’s a whole instructional how-to-read passage at the start of Those Trojan Girls, and I wondered that it should be necessary to have such a thing at the beginning of a hypertext novel, but after I’d tried to make some headway, I realized it was not only necessary but insufficient.

It took me an embarrassingly long time to see the point of all this. In order to read a Storyspace piece (or at least this one), you are first supposed to be a Storyspace author. You’re supposed to know this tool already, intimately, and not be flummoxed by the numerous features that have nothing to do with reading. People who are not Storyspace authors are not the intended audience and are unlikely to get the work at all. It’s as though, to play an Inform game, you got sent the whole Inform 7 IDE complete with source code (locked so you wouldn’t accidentally change anything) and were then expected to play it in the built-in Inform game screen, figuring out how to bypass otherwise impenetrable puzzles by looking at Inform’s built-in index screens and auto-generated maps.

I was warned. “First: the work is very much an insider argument,” Bernstein told me in email: it’s to and for its own small community. 

When I asked, he said that he felt that it would be best if the reader didn’t rely on the map too much. But without the map, because there are so few overt links in the text, most of the experience is tapping one’s current page to continue to another, without necessarily knowing whether the transition is randomized, dependent on past choices, or fixed. For long stretches of the book, it’s like reading a shuffle text where the pages have already been shuffled and then bound into a conventional book before you receive it.

Even with the map, sometimes I just got confused, felt that I’d stepped out of sequence somehow, and wandered into a part of the story I wasn’t ready for yet, and wasn’t sure how to get back again. There are a lot of characters in Those Trojan Girls, and many passages narrate as though you’ve already been introduced to particular characters, even when that isn’t the case. There are long pages of dialogue in which none of the lines are attributed to speakers. Even when I tried to stay on-track and just tap forward to the next passage over and over, I would now and then get marooned and confused and feel like I should have read something else first.

So I read a significant amount of the text in the story, but because of the organizational challenges, I can’t say that I ever experienced it as a full and straightforward arc. I probably read less of the text associated with the end than with the beginning, inasmuch as those are even meaningful categories for this piece. Some passages I read, or at least tapped through, three or four times over the course of my multiple attempts to read the text from the beginning.

Enough of structure: what about content? Those Trojan Girls is a riff on Trojan Women by way of British boarding school novels. The inspiration is explicitly books, not the rather more mechanics-heavy tradition of school IF and visual novels. The girls have loads of sex, drink champagne, refer to their fathers as pater, play lawn games on their estates; critique the wines served at their school dining hall; discuss, with naive anthropological curiosity, the characteristics of the far-away city of Milwaukee, or the purpose of wearing school uniforms. They talk about French foods, not in the style of people who genuinely enjoy those things and take pleasure in discussing them, but as markers: certain sorts of people eat confit de canard. They have names like Cassie (Cassandra, obviously) and Polly Xena and Brianna Helena. Brianna happens to be sleeping with Mr. Paris: science teacher, first name Eric.

Trojan Women is about what happens to women on the losing end of a war, and how they are defenseless against violence, rape, abduction, the destruction of their families and the loss of their children; playwrights since Euripides have drawn from its material to comment on European imperialism, the Holocaust, Hiroshima, the war in Iraq. Those Trojan Girls deploys the names but not the themes.

In an interview, Bernstein talks about the story as a pot-boiler, aiming at excitement of a kind of often missing in literary hypertext narrative, but also avoiding the branching narrative he associates with Twine stories. That description oversimplifies the range of narrative agency in choice-based IF, as there’s plenty of non-Storyspace hypertext in which the reader can’t ultimately change the course of the narrative: Stone Harbor and Mere Anarchy allow the reader to explore corners of the story world without altering the main arc; Birdland always tells the same romance story but with lots of different angles on the protagonist’s self-performance and the details of dialogue.

Those Trojan Girls may figure itself as a demonstration to other literary hypertext authors of how, in theory, to do outreach towards a more low-brow, plot-hungry audience. But it never felt like a pot-boiler to me. The text is constantly posing tests to the reader (do you get this allusion? what about this one? do you understand why you are seeing this piece of text? do you know how to find another related piece of text?). The characters are constantly testing one another as well: do you understand your place in this social hierarchy, and how to navigate it? At one point, one student bequeaths another an old family ring and invites her to make use of it if she can. The recipient, not being an aristocrat by birth, might or might not be able to pull off the claim to inherited power and culture. But to what end? I wasn’t able to find out. If that character ever does use the ring, I don’t know how, or why.

Those Trojan Girls sells for $14.95, a reduction from its initial list price of $24.95.

Disclosure: I received a free copy of this work. For additional reference, there’s a conversation between Bernstein and Stacey Mason about the piece as well, here. For school-oriented interactive fiction and visual novels, see also Brendan Patrick Hennessy’s in-progress Known Unknowns; Hanako Games’ Magical Diary and Black Closet.

Tagged: mapped plot, Mark Bernstein, sculptural hypertext, Storyspace, stretchtext, Those Trojan Girls

Web Interactive Fiction

FyreVM Installed Stories

by David Cornelson at December 01, 2016 10:01 AM

I just finished the first draft of code that will allow users to install a fyrevm story into their browser. One of the issues that comes up is that local storage has a hard limit of 5mb. I’m looking into using IndexedDB, another browser storage mechanism, but I’m not sure if it’s reliably standard.

I hacked a copy of the loaded story from the Chrome debugger below (in JSON format). The storyFile object is an ArrayBuffer containing the ulx file and the quetzal object is the save game state for turn ‘0’.

As the user continues to play, more turn objects would be appended to ‘turnData’.

The ‘key’ is the IFID from the story itself.

Content types are one of text, json, number, or css. More can be added, but the FyreVMWeb/FyreVMMem typescript files would need to be updated to handle that content…or you’d make any new content text/json and handle any further transformation in your own code.

More coming next week!

    key: "69DE4C7B-CF54-42E4-A6D1-0DEE7197DB6A",
    storyFile: { },
    storyInfo: {
        debugMode: "",
        inform6Library: "6.33",
        inform7Build: "6M62",
        inform7Library: "6/12N",
        releaseNumber: "1",
        serialNumber: "161130",
        storyAuthor: "The IF Community",
        storyCreationYear: "2016",
        storyHeadline: "A basic IF demonstration using FyreVM",
        storyTitle: "Cloak of Darkness",
        strictMode: ""
    turnData: [
        {    bannerContent: "Cloak of Darkness
A basic IF demonstration using FyreVM by The IF Community
Copyright © 2016
Release 1 / Serial number 161130 / Inform 7 Build 6M62 (I6 lib/v6.33 lib 6/12N )
             command: "",
             contentTypes: "1296124238,text,mainContent;
             dateTime: "",
             locationName: "Foyer of the Opera House",
             mainContent: "

You are standing in a spacious hall, splendidly decorated in red and gold,
with glittering chandeliers overhead. The entrance from the street is to the
north, and there are doorways south and west.

             prologueContent: "Hurrying through the rainswept November night,
you're glad to see the bright lights of the Opera House. It's surprising that
there aren't more people about but, hey, what do you expect in a cheap demo

             prompt: ">",
            quetzal: { },
            score: 0,
            time: "540",
            turn: 1
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November 30, 2016

Emily Short

End of November Link Assortment

by Emily Short at November 30, 2016 07:00 PM


December 3 is the Bay Area IF Meetup.

December 14, the People’s Republic of IF meets at MIT to look at some of the remaining IF Comp winners and discuss future project plans.

December 30 is the Scouring of Scotia, a live-via-Twitter shared gamebook/IF experience.

The Oxford/London IF Meetup takes a holiday in December.

cover-teeth-and-ice-hannah-powell-smith.pngNew Releases

Quite a lot of good stuff has come out this month, even not counting the end of IF Comp and the ECTOCOMP games I reviewed previously.

Sub-Q brings us a new story from Hannah Powell-Smith, a Raconteur piece called Teeth and Ice. It’s the story of a selkie trying to retrieve her skin; I lost several times, but it is possible to succeed, if you manage your resources right.

Xalavier Nelson Jr. (author of the comp game SCREW YOU, BEAR DAD) has a new piece out called Mazurka – A Ghost in Italy, now available on for $0.49. It is a short, reflective story about prejudice, race, mental health, and fitting in vs. not; like some of Nelson’s other work, it uses link clicks very extensively to pace reading, and I found that more than usually effective in this particular work.

Ibis, Fly is a poetic new piece from Mary Hamilton, about being a bird who befriends other birds. Clicking the text often cycles between human and bird perspectives, turning familiar words into less recognizable descriptions of the way a bird might perceive these items. (See also Hamilton’s previous work, Detritus.)

Laura Michet’s Brigand Story is a horror piece about a tale told and retold and retold around the campfire, and what goes wrong with the telling and the tale. The words break down, repeat, stumble on themselves and change. It’s definitely its own thing, but might appeal also to people who enjoy Michael Lutz‘s horror.

Burnt Matches from Pippin Barr is concrete poetry…

Screen Shot 2016-11-30 at 12.37.56 AM.png

…in which each screen is a textual space to be traversed. Many of the interactions are subtly witty: long walks that head off the edge of the screen, words that ripple as your cursor passes over them. The whole doesn’t really yield to simple literal explanation (or it doesn’t for me), but it describes a journey that feels at least tonally consistent. There are echoes out of The Waste Land, lilacs and tarot cards and full fathom deep. But then also flickering screens of chess moves and alphabets I don’t read, which often must be manipulated (without understanding) in order to open the transition to the next screen: a content-free form of hacking that reminds me of 90s cyberpunk novels. And then just cold, frost and chill rooms and water, everything guttering until the world-text disintegrates into a field of simulated Twine errors. (Like, but also completely unlike, B Minus Seven’s use of Twine errors in Inward Narrow Crooked Lanes.)

Then also, new from Porpentine, Miss Clemory and the Wall of Fire:

Screen Shot 2016-11-29 at 1.04.06 PM.png

Its sole IFDB review at the moment describes it as good writing draped over not much story, but I disagree with that assessment. Yes, there’s a lot of metaphorical language in this piece, but the choice of metaphorical content is itself extremely revealing: the protagonist is very self-conscious about being a narrator, and the narration tells you quite a bit about who she is as a person. Meanwhile, the core of the story is about the distance between siblings, and the relationship between creative people, and the way we use language to manage and control and keep someone away. It has a short-story-shaped plot rather than a big bold adventure plot, but that suits this particular work.


At AdventureX I got a chance to try Antioch: Scarlet Bay, which is a two-player choice-based interactive fiction where you and the other protagonist are trying to solve a murder. A lot of the interaction is about how your relationship develops with the other main character, though you’re also trying to push the investigation forward by noticing clues. It’s not in full release yet, and I didn’t get to play all the way through to the end, but I found it intriguing and I continue to wonder about the possibilities for minorly multiplayer IF, so I’m looking forward to this coming out.

Reviews and Articles

IF Comp ended! You can visit the complete results, but the top three placers were Detectiveland by Robin Johnson; Color the Truth by Brian Rushton; and Cactus Blue Motel by Astrid Dalmady.

The Short Game podcast covers the games that won IF Comp and offers some impressions of the competition as a whole.

A number of authors have also shared postmortems of their work, including

Elsewhere, I wrote about Steph Cherrywell’s work for Rock Paper Shotgun.

Procedural Generation Things

November was the month for PROCJAM and NaNoGenMo, so lots of interesting generation going on.

Chris Martens offers an assessment of story generators that might be suitable for NaNoGenMo (constructing a 50K-word novel). There’s less in that space than one might hope, but the overview document is quite interesting if you’re into that sort of thing.

Lea Albaugh ran a recurrent neural network on a bunch of Inform 7 code, producing some entertaining new procedurally generated stuff, like so:

The description of the player is "It is stone."

The printed name is "smoke" as the probably property.

The secretary is a fluid container.


Rogue Process talks about Tanya Short’s procedural work in Moon Hunters:

Each time you play Moon Hunters you’re not playing the same game in a similar place as different people – you’re playing the exact same events in the exact same place as the exact same people. Every playthrough of Moon Hunters is about the same people, the same places, and the same events. What changes is the person telling it – each playthrough is the mythology being handed down to a new generation, and its variations and differences are the misremembering, embellishment, confusion and flourishes of a new storyteller.



And Failbetter Games has been blogging about their plans for Sunless Skies, the forthcoming sequel to Sunless Sea, with some followup commentary then also appearing on Rock Paper Shotgun.


November 29, 2016

Choice of Games

Author Interview: Kyle Marquis – “Empyrean”

by Mary Duffy at November 29, 2016 10:01 PM

Choice of Games’ latest release will be Empyrean, a flying ace adventure set in a fantastic world. I sat down with the author, Kyle Marquis, who has written novels, graphic novels, RPGs and now interactive fiction. Look for Empyrean later this week, releasing on Thursday, December 1st.

Tell me about what influenced your world creation for Empyrean. What kind of a world is this set in?

I love cities–real and fictional–and most of Empyrean takes place in Actorius, a city inspired by Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Actorius is full of skyscrapers, airplanes, colossal and sometimes-unfathomable machines; also deranged inventors, downtrodden laborers, scheming plutocrats. Despite Empyrean being a text-based game, most of my influences are visual. I pulled from film (The City of Lost Children), comics (Akira), cartoons (Batman: The Animated Series), and even games (Megaman). Then I tried to imagine describing those cityscapes to people who had never seen them. The result was Actorius.

The Deep Tech–the mechanical wilderness beneath the city–derives from my longstanding fascination with artificial life. When I was a little kid, I had a Commodore 64 programming book that contained coding instructions for the Game of Life. Life uses a few simple rules to simulate an evolving population of “cells” on the computer screen. Which start conditions would result, after enough iterations, in extinction? In a pattern eternally repeating? In true complexity–an ever-changing, unpredictable configuration of cells? The Deep Tech is like that, and also like a jungle full of robot dinosaurs.

What are some of the social issues you had in mind as you were writing the game?

While Empyrean can be played as a straightforward pulp adventure, it’s hard to tell a story about flying aces in an Art Deco city and not talk about fascism. And it’s hard to talk about cities without talking about labor. Empyrean is about who owns what, and why. The city of Actorius thrives based on an accident of geography–it was built over the Deep Tech–and by its willingness to exploit both those resources and its own citizenry. You, the player, are the beneficiary of that plundered wealth. Empyrean is about how you react to that.

The characters are incredibly well-drawn in this game. In particular, Mogra and Wesh stood out to me as favorites. Which did you enjoy spending time writing?

Writing Wesh was fun because she’s a concept that’s been rattling around in my head forever. I love grabbing characters from one genre or setting and dropping them in another to see if they’re viable. Pulps were full of Tarzan-like characters, but moving one from the jungle to a machine wilderness let me re-energize a stale concept. I also enjoyed Dominicar (the character’s father, and one of the game’s “villains”) for his fundamental shallowness, despite his intelligence and ambition. Here’s a man who has discovered and mapped a mechanical wilderness, and what does he do with it? Not wonder where it came from, or how it works. He starts stealing whatever he can to reverse-engineering radios and fighter planes.

I also enjoyed writing characters like Mogra, Lectini, and the nameless pilot of the mole machine aero, who hint at a world larger and stranger than the struggle between two cities for control of the Deep Tech. I worked hard to strip Empyrean of needless complexity, but I didn’t want the game to feel like it took place in a snowglobe. The murky origins of characters like Mogra and Lectini let me hint at a sprawling and complex world without muddying the central narrative.

What were some of the challenges for you writing in ChoiceScript, and what were the joys? You’re a very prolific writer–Empyrean clocks in at over 300,000 words, which is fantastic, and makes it one of our longest Choice of Games titles.

Writing in ChoiceScript has a wonderful rhythm that helped me avoid the tyranny of the blank page. Organizing everything around choices means the writer always has a structure to fall back on: you look at your stat list, you use your stats to come up with 3-5 choices, and you try to make it clear to the player what’s going on. That last part is the trickiest: you need to imply the mechanics that underlie each choice without just coming out and saying it. If the writing is too mechanical, the game becomes an exercise in stat-calculation for the player; if the writing is too florid, the nature of the choices becomes confusing and, eventually, frustrating.

You’ve also written some RPGs, novels, and comics, yes? Tell me about those.

Before Empyrean I spent several years writing a fantasy webcomic called The Water Phoenix King, and I created a fan game for the World of Darkness tabletop RPG setting called Genius: The Transgression, about mad scientists. I’ve also written several fantasy novels that I’m currently shopping around to agents and publishers. I actually think of myself as a high fantasy writer, but everything I do that’s successful involves airships and robots. Weird.

What are you working on for your next game?

I had so much fun in the Deep Tech that I wanted to spend more time doing a “jungle adventure” game. My next game is a Lost World-style story full of dinosaurs and savage adventure! Expect time-traveling angels, Byzantine imperialists, people turned into ambulatory wasp nests, were-pterodactyls…you know, the usual stuff.

Proust-style Questionnaire questions:

What profession other than writing would you like to attempt?

I would like to be able to make and/or fix something: cars, houses, tiny decorative jars. My family always discouraged me from anything not strictly academic, but sometimes I want to work on something concrete, rather than tapping away all day.

Which would you never like to try?

You mean, never like to try again? Menial service work. I’d rather trap squirrels in 17th century Russia than go back to re-folding novelty t-shirts while tourists explain to me their political opinions and try to guess my ethnic makeup.

Favorite word?

“Conflation,” unfortunately. I’m not proud of it, but there it is.

What do you do to reward yourself after a long day of writing?

I cook food, and then I eat it! Mostly Italian food–I’ve spent several years trying to rebuild the meals my grandmother would make when I was a kid.

Ketchup or catsup?

I believe the ketchup people and the catsup people aren’t so different, and should be able to work together to stop the people who say “I could care less.”

End Game and Victory Design

by Adam Strong-Morse at November 29, 2016 09:01 PM

As part of our support for the Choice of Games Contest for Interactive Novels, we will be posting an irregular series of blog posts discussing important design and writing criteria for games.  We hope that these can both provide guidance for people participating in the Contest and also help people understand how we think about questions of game design and some best practices.  These don’t modify the evaluation criteria for the Contest, and (except as noted) participants are not required to conform to our recommendations–but it’s probably a good idea to listen when judges tell you what they’re looking for.  In today’s entry, I’m going to be discussing our thoughts on how to design the end of a game in a way that makes choices meaningful and interesting.

If these topics interest you, be sure to sign up for our contest mailing list below! We’ll post more of our thoughts on game design leading up to the contest deadline on January 31, 2018.

When the Choice of Games staff looks at an interactive fiction game, we always focus some attention on the end of the game–what we sometimes talk about as the game’s victory design. What makes interactive fiction different from plain-old fiction–novels and short stories–is that the player makes choices that matter. Those choices should matter throughout the game, but they absolutely need to matter at the end of the game. If the game always ends the same way, then the choices along the way can’t be very meaningful.

We’ve identified two ways to design the end of a game that ensure that the choices along the way are meaningful and significant. The first is to create multiple, independent goals for the player, all of which are significant for the end of the game. The second is a structural design we refer to as the arm-and-fingers structure.

Multiple, Independent Goals

One of the pitfalls in interactive fiction design is to structure the whole game as an answer to the question, “does the player win?” For example, imagine that a game is about leading a heroic rebellion against an evil empire, and that it has two endings: either the player wins and overthrows the evil empire, or the player loses and the empire continues to oppress people. As soon as the game designer adopts that structure, the choices in the game become much less meaningful. They can still be tactically difficult and interesting–which of choices A, B, and C has the best chance of producing a winning outcome?–but fundamentally, the game can tell only two stories.

A variant on this problematic design is to have multiple different goals, but to make the goals overlap so they are not independent. Continuing with our rebellion example, perhaps the heroic rebel has several goals: recruiting the allies you need to overthrow the empire; developing the military strength to fight off the empire’s troops; and becoming a hero who’s remembered in legend after the victory. At first glance, this seems to solve the problem of only having a single goal, but in reality, the problem persists. If you overthrow the empire, you either necessarily or likely become a hero who’s remembered in legend. And if you fail to recruit needed allies, you can’t overthrow the empire. There might be a little differentiation–maybe it’s possible to win without allies, just difficult–but the basic problem remains: the player either wins or loses.

The solution to this problem is to make the different goals independent and indeed often in tension with each other. My partner Jason Hill uses the example of the different goals a student might have in college. A college student’s goals might include: getting good grades and graduating with honors; lining up a good job after college; winning the big game in their sport against the rival school; keeping their student job and earning enough money to pay tuition and other expenses; going to parties and having a fun time; building friendships that will last; and having a satisfying relationship with a significant other. That’s a mix of different goals, all of which could be interesting in an interactive fiction game about attending college.

In order for this approach to work, the goals need to be independent. Getting good grades has nothing to do with winning the big game–a player could achieve one goal and not the other, achieve the other goal, achieve both, or not achieve either, and that variety of outcomes means that choices along the way have room and scope to be meaningful. The player’s choices can tell different stories, whether that’s the story of a jock who wins big but fails out of school or of a student-athlete who leaves the team entirely to concentrate on their studies. And precisely because of those tensions, the victory design sets up interesting choices along the way: should the player character head to the gym for more practice, study up for the test, spend time with their S.O., or concentrate on an internship that might lead to a good job? There isn’t enough time in the day to pursue every goal fully, and the player has to decide which goals to prioritize and how.

The goals don’t have to be completely independent in order for this design to work well. For example, earning good grades can help to get a good job offer, and being a star athlete can result in invitations to exclusive parties and impress some other students. And some underlying characteristics and approaches can help with multiple goals: a smart character will do better at both schoolwork and jobs, and a charismatic character will find it easier to get job offers as well as easier to make friends. But the player will still need to decide what goals to prioritize and how. When your S.O. has a problem the night before a big exam, which wins out: studying or helping your S.O.? When your coach wants you to practice and your boss wants you to meet your work schedule and there’s homework to be done, how do you spend your scarce time? If you try to burn the candle at both ends and just cut back on sleep, will you cause everything to fall apart? These choices are conflicting–you can’t pursue all of the goals fully–yet combinable so that the player can choose to pursue any two of them.

By designing goals that are independent, a game designer gives the player’s choices space to be meaningful.

Arm-and-fingers structure

An important technique for ensuring that player choices have a major impact on the conclusion of an interactive novel is to have a major branch point late in the game with several different possible final chapters–what we refer to as an “arm-and-fingers” structure. To understand why that structure is valuable and how it works, it’s easiest to start by considering the problem that it solves.

One of the traditional tensions in interactive fiction design is between introducing branches and forcing the storyline to largely progress in a fixed way. Some of the earliest examples of interactive fiction relied heavily on branching, which cause player choice to have a larger effect on the game but also require much more writing and shorten the length of each playthrough. If every choice produces another branch point, than a game that has 10 choices each with 3 options ends up with 3^10 different branches–nearly 60,000 branches! As a result, some of the old “choose a path” books were a hundred or two hundred pages long, but with average playthrough lengths of 5 or 6 pages. The other extreme from branching on every choice is to make the game design linear, with each choice leading to the next in lock-step, which makes the game design and writing process manageable and feasible but can make multiple playthroughs feel repetitious.

Choice of Games recommends in general designing games as a stack of bushes. Each scene has branches, but the branches merge back together at the end of a scene. Then, variables and delayed branching can be used to make choices remain meaningful beyond a given scene. A stack-of-bushes with delayed branching is a good basic technique, but it can still feel frustrating when every playthrough of a game ends with the same climax.

An arm-and-fingers structure is a game with several different final chapters where the player’s decisions determine which final chapter they experience on a given playthrough. Most of the game is the arm, with chapter leading to chapter more or less automatically, but the structure of the end of a game is like a hand, with entirely distinct and separate fingers branching off in each direction. Kevin Gold pioneered this structure in Choice of Robots to great effect, and Lynnea Glasser also used it well in The Sea Eternal. It can maintain a manageable structure that does not require writing thousands of different branches, while still creating the feeling that the end of the game depends on the player’s choices, not just in determining a final outcome, but in determining the entire feeling and plot of the game’s climax.

By introducing a major branch point before the last chapter, the arm-and-fingers structure underscores the importance of the players’ choices. Not only does the outcome of the final conflicts of the game change, the nature of the climactic conflict changes as well. As an example, imagine a fantasy game in which the player plays the heir-apparent to a monarchy. Depending on the player’s choices, the final chapter could be one of four entirely different choices. If the player built a strong base of support in their court and among the nobles of their country, the final chapter could be a conflict with a neighboring kingdom that could be resolved through warfare or through diplomacy. If the player focused on the study of wizardry, the main character could renounce the throne altogether and pursue true mystic power on a personal quest. If the player fostered new ideas about politics and rights, the last chapter could be about fostering a new more democratic regime and breaking the power of the high nobles. And if the player lost control of their country, the last chapter could be a story of a monarch in exile fighting a civil war to retake power. Every one of those chapters is a satisfying, dramatic conclusion to the story, but replays offer wide variation and the player’s choices have meaningful impact by determining which branch the story goes down (and of course how that branch resolves).

At the same time, the amount of additional writing required is manageable: instead of a 10 chapter game with each chapter following linearly, the last chapter might be replaced by one of 4 possible end chapters, requiring writing 13 chapters total. That’s not a trivial increase in work compared to writing 10 chapters, but it is a far cry from an exponential explosion of different branches. And the pay-off is very substantial, making each playthrough of the game feel very different and making the player’s choices drive the outcome of the game. The arm of the game should be a traditional stack of bushes, and the introduction of a set of separate branches at the end–each with multiple choices and telling a satisfying climactic story–will make all the difference in making the choices feel meaningful and different.

As you think about outlining a ChoiceScript game–and as you think about how to maximize your game’s score on the “conflicting goals with satisfying endings” criterion in the Choice of Games Contest for Interactive Novels–we urge you to design a game with multiple independent goals and to implement an overall arm-and-fingers structure. Neither is strictly required, but if you implement both your game will be miles ahead of a game that has a linear structure with a “do you win?” goal design and maybe a separately tracked measure of romance success. So think about how to make a compelling set of goals, each independent from the others, and then think about how those goals and player choices can drive the game to one of several different climactic chapters.

November 27, 2016


Dynamic Entities and Subplots

November 27, 2016 02:01 PM

A while back I quietly introduced an improvement to dynamic entities. It's always been possible to generate entities at runtime, but for a long time they weren't compatible with snapshots. In other words, any entity created at runtime would be lost in an undo or restore. Gamefic 1.0 was the first release to handle dynamic entities properly in snapshots. The latest version extends this capability with a new feature called subplots. Read More

Wade's Important Astrolab

IFComp 2016: "Whoops!". And other updates.

by Wade ( at November 27, 2016 07:33 AM


My plan to start reviewing IFComp games in a more targeted fashion was obviously a great one. The problem was it immediately fell down when I passed what time I’d hoped to spend on it to action in the categories of music and ‘life stuff’.

In retrospect, it was dumb of me to start out reviewing in a random order when there were so many entries in the comp. A moment’s planning would have made me realise I’d no chance of getting far into the catalogue overall. The trouble is, reviewing at random is really fun. I remember that from the years when circumstances allowed me to review everything (or close to it) to a certain personal standard, and in a mostly random order dictated by the IFComp site.

Maybe I just won’t be able to do that again, especially if the number of entries continues to rise. So I think I need to say to myself, ‘Right, I’ve had that particular fun in the past, I don’t need to try to recreate it,’ and change to a more targeted reviewing tack next time I come at this.

So, congratulations to Robin Johnson for winning with Detectiveland, and then to all the other entrants for everything else. Also, I know a few people were keen for me to review their IF, and I didn't get to it. I will eventually, but just because it looked like I was probably going to get to it during the comp and I didn't, I'm sorry.

American Financial Restoration Sale

I eventually noticed there was this Black Friday sale thing going on in the USA. If I’d been more on the ball, I might have taken advantage and put Leadlight Gamma on sale again. Instead I was too sluggish on the uptake, so I think I’ll just wait ’til Christmas or something. This way I also get to say I’ve avoided participating in yet more cultural behaviour doled out by Americans.

Works in Progress

My CYOA Extension for Inform 7 has been coming along really well. I need some third party tech put in place before I'll be able to finish it.

I continue to gather notes for my mystery IF project. The phrase ‘mystery IF project’ makes it sound like I’ve talked about it in this blog before, but I haven’t. What is it? Not telling! Yet, anyway.

I’ve been getting annoyed at myself over the past year for losing too many good ideas for the project. When I say lose, I mean that I didn’t write them down or type them up at the moment I had them. I think my lack of vigilance came from the feeling that their graceless accumulation in a few text files was amounting to a disorganised idea splat for the future that would probably annoy me in the future. How would I sort, find or string together relevant bits from the splat? And there are different types of bits in there. Dialogue riffs, character ideas, incident ideas, structure ideas, etc.

In response to these note-organising problems, I downloaded and am trying out the writing software Scrivener. (Interjection: Holy crap, it's on sale for Black Friday! I must buy now! Buy Buy Buy!) I find it’s working well. It allows me to store all my notes, research materials and prose for a piece in a single document in ways that make it easy to index, connect and rearrange that material. I expect I will produce the text of the IF project in Scrivener and then port it into my CYOA extension. It turns out that I can actually make a pretty direct correlation between blobs of text in Scrivener and choice nodes in a game.

An incidental bonus is that using Scrivener is looking like a good way to write manuals, too, and I expect to have to write a manual for the CYOA extension. I may even be able to publish it directly as an e-book from Scrivener.

November 26, 2016

The People's Republic of IF

December meetup

by zarf at November 26, 2016 12:00 AM

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

We will look at the IFComp winners (that we haven’t looked at already). We can also discuss plans for MIT IAP.

November 25, 2016

IFComp News

A survey about IFComp 2016

November 25, 2016 10:01 PM

I just created a short survey about this year’s annual Interactive Fiction Competition. If you participated in any way this year, I would feel most grateful were you to spend a few moments filling it out. I will collect responses through Monday, December 12.

Thank you!

Choice of Games

All of our games are 25% off or more in Steam’s Autumn Sale

by Dan Fabulich at November 25, 2016 06:01 PM


All of our Steam apps are 25% off or more until November 29!

(Except for Congresswolf, which released less than a month ago with a 25% discount. Steam doesn’t allow games to go on sale more than once in a 30-day period.)

The Digital Antiquarian

A Working-Class Hero, Part 2: Bloody April

by Jimmy Maher at November 25, 2016 04:00 PM

The grim reality of war in the trenches.

The grim reality of war in the trenches.

The real impact that airplanes had on the course of World War I was very limited in contrast to the wars that were still to come. That press and public latched onto the exploits of the airmen so eagerly was largely down to the sheer ugliness of the war on the ground, which proved notably lacking in the martial glory and strategic derring-do everyone had anticipated when the armies had first marched off to battle.

After the initial German advance into France was finally halted in late 1914, the ground war devolved into a static slaughter the likes of which no one had ever imagined it could become, for the very good reason that the world had never seen anything like it. The situation was born of the fatal combination of weapons of mass destruction with primitive command-and-control systems that made it impossible to use them in the service of anything other than the most indiscriminate, random killing. Heavy artillery had a disconcerting tendency to wipe out friendly rather than enemy forces, while poison-gas attacks, one of the most truly horrifying technologies of warfare ever invented, consisted during World War I of nothing more than opening huge tanks of the stuff when the wind was blowing toward the enemy lines and hoping it didn’t shift direction for a few hours. “Strategy” on the Western Front devolved into one side or the other getting antsy from time to time and launching a massive frontal assault at one spot or another along the line, leading to the gruesome spectacle of soldiers with rifles climbing laboriously over barbed wire in the face of hundreds of machine guns, while the generals stood behind them hoping the enemy would run out of bullets before their side ran out of men. Occasionally, at the cost of thousands or tens of thousands of lives, the enemy lines might bend a little under the onslaught, but they never broke.

With no real strategic gains to which to point, the generals were left to justify each successive bloodbath by waving vaguely at the effect it might be having on the enemy’s morale, or, bringing things down to the final brutal arbiter, claiming to have just possibly managed to kill slightly more enemy than friendly soldiers. Here, for instance, is what the British General John Charteris had to say in 1916 to justify the otherwise inconclusive Battle of the Somme — a battle which began with the bloodiest single day in the history of British arms and wound up killing or maiming more than 1 million men in all.

There is deterioration in the morale of the German Army in this battle, although people at home will not recognize it. Surrenders are more ready than they were at the beginning. Though far from being demoralised as an army, the Germans are not nearly so formidable a fighting machine as they were at the beginning of the battle. Our New Army has shown itself to be as good as the German Army. The battle is over and we shall not know the actual effect it has had on the Germans for many a long day, but it has certainly done all, and more, than we hoped for when we began. It stopped the Verdun attack. It collected a great weight of the German Army opposite us, and then broke it. It prevented the Germans hammering Russia, and it has undoubtedly worn down the German resistance to a great extent.

The years of war still to come would beg to differ with almost every one of even these tepid assessments. In this new inflationary era of warfare, 1 million causalities bought very, very little.

The Somme in 1916, looking like a scene out of Dante.

The Somme in 1916, looking like a scene out of Dante.

In the face of all this ugliness, the air war alone seemed like the clean, noble sort of war the public had expected going into this thing. Not for nothing did the metaphors that were applied to it always reach back to the eras of knights or gladiators — to allegedly cleaner, nobler eras of warfare. “They are the knighthood of this war, without fear and without reproach,” enthused British Prime Minister David Lloyd-George about the aviators, “and they recall the legendary days of chivalry, not merely by the daring of their exploits, but by the nobility of their spirit.” (What, one has to ask, of the thousand acts of quieter heroism that occurred among ordinary soldiers every hour inside the trenches on both sides? Had they no “nobility of spirit?” Even in war, the hierarchies of class remained as strong as ever.) Journalists covering the front began to tally up official “victory counts” for the pilots, with 5 victories making any individual pilot an ace, and thus worthy of closer observation as an up-and-comer. The ultimate honor was to become the ace of aces, the pilot with more victories than any other. The latest tallies were printed in newspapers, to be eagerly perused over the home-front breakfast table the way that peacetime readers might turn to the horse-race results or the latest cricket scores. The most successful aces became veritable celebrities, complete with adoring fan bases. As Edward Mannock was transferring to the air corps, baby-faced Albert Ball, the first of the great British aces and to this day still the best remembered, was much in the news for his exploits. Not yet 21 years old, he presented the very picture of modest, chivalrous young British manhood. “I only scrap because it is my duty,” he said. “Nothing makes me feel more rotten than to see them go down, but you see it is either them or me, so I must do my best to make it a case of them.”

Albert Ball, who broke all the rules and got away with it for quite some time thanks to sheer skill. He preferred to attack from below rather than above, preferred to prowl alone rather than as part of a flight. Mannock would spend much time later in the war trying to break would-be Albert Balls of their delusions of single-handed heroism.

Albert Ball, who broke all the rules and got away with it for quite some time thanks to his sheer skill as both a pilot and a gunner. He preferred to attack from below rather than above, preferred to prowl alone rather than as part of a flight. Mannock would spend much time later in the war trying to disabuse would-be Albert Balls of their delusions of single-handed heroism.

Mannock would prove a very different sort of air fighter than the famously reckless Ball, who is known on at least one or two occasions to have thrown himself into battle alone against six German planes. Certainly Mannock didn’t enter into the Royal Air Corps with any particularly romantic notions about it, even if he did write in his diary upon his acceptance that he would “strive to become a scout pilot like Ball.” He was simply seeking a way to do some good — and to kill some Germans, which he defined as largely the same thing.

Although the war as a whole was half over by the time Mannock learned to fly, what would come to be regarded as the classic era of World War I dogfighting, subject of countless future books, movies, and games, was really just beginning. When the war had started in 1914, the air forces of the various combatants had consisted of no more than a few dozens or hundreds of rickety unarmed planes. Little thought had been given to the prospect of aerial combat; it was dangerous enough just trying to fly one of the things from Point A to Point B. The airplane was rather regarded as the ultimate reconnaissance tool, even better than the observation balloons armies had been using for years. United by the shared brotherhood of flight, the pilots for the opposing sides, who might very well know each other given how tiny the world of pre-war aviation had been, would blithely wave to one another when they happened to meet on their reconnaissance rounds and continue on their way. Only as casualties mounted and true hatred between the combatants began to set in did it begin to occur to pilots that it might be a good idea to prevent the aviators for the other side from returning home with a cockpit full of valuable information on the positioning of friendly forces. Thus many fliers took to carrying pistols or rifles up with them and taking potshots at enemy planes. Others started carrying up bags of bricks and chucking them at the enemy. But it’s doubtful whether any airplane ever managed to down another using such crude methods; nor were the heavy, slow, two-man observation craft themselves all that suited for aerial jousting. Clearly something better was needed if the war truly was to be taken into the sky. The era of the so-called “scout” plane — the name is a misnomer if ever there was one; its goal was not to “scout” anything but to shoot down enemy reconnaissance planes — was nigh.

A French Nieuport biplane with machine gun mounted, less than ideally, above the pilot.

A French Nieuport biplane with machine gun mounted, less than ideally, above the pilot.

Almost from the beginning, it had been clear that the ideal weapon of airborne war would be a machine gun mounted directly in front of the pilot, so that he could, to borrow the parlance of a later era, simply point his plane in an enemy’s direction and shoot. But the obvious problem with that was the propeller in the nose of the plane; it would be shot to splinters long before the pilot could hope to down an enemy. One possibility might be to mount the gun in the nose of a “pusher” aircraft — an aircraft in which, like in the original Wright brothers’ plane, the propeller “pushed” the airplane through the air from behind rather than “pulling” it along from in front. (Just such a design was the De Havilland DH.2, the only single-seater Mannock got a chance to fly before being posted to the front.) But the pusher configuration was inefficient and aerodynamically awkward, for which reasons it was already passing into aeronautical history; certainly it was hardly possible to build a fast and maneuverable would-be fighter plane using it. The best compromise anyone could come up with for a “tractor” aircraft — a plane with the propeller located in the nose of the fuselage — was to mount the machine gun above the pilot’s head, on the upper wing of a biplane. That way the bullets would fly over the propeller — but that way also meant that aerial gunnery became much more difficult, as the pilot had to reach over his head to fire a gun whose bullets would fly above his plane’s arc of flight.

Roland Garros's propeller, complete with bullet deflectors.

Roland Garros’s propeller, complete with bullet deflectors.

In April of 1915, a French pilot named Roland Garros briefly terrorized the Western Front with a rather hair-raising solution to the problem of the nose-mounted machine gun in a tractor plane: he bolted heavy metal plates to the propeller blades of his little Morane monoplane, in the hope that they would deflect away those bullets that struck them. It worked, after a fashion, despite the ever-present danger of the force of the bullets’ impact eventually breaking the propeller, or of a bullet ricocheting into the engine, or for that matter into the pilot’s face — risks which do much to explain why no other Allied pilots proved willing to implement Garros’s scheme. Still, Garros managed to shoot down a few German planes with the setup before being forced down himself and taken prisoner. His captured plane was given to Anthony Fokker, a Dutch aeronautical engineer working for the Germans, with orders to come up with something similar. What he actually did come up with was something much, much better.

A Fokker Eindecker ("monoplane") of the sort which, equipped with the first synchronizer gear, terrorized the Allies on the Western Front during the fall of 1915.

A Fokker Eindecker (“monoplane”) of the sort which, equipped with the first synchronizer gear, terrorized the Allies on the Western Front during the fall of 1915 despite being a mediocre performer in all respects other than gunnery.

Fokker devised a system of gears that would prevent the machine gun from firing during those instants when a propeller blade was directly in front of the muzzle. It was far from foolproof — especially during the early months, hapless pilots could and did occasionally shoot off their own propellers when the mechanism slipped a gear — but Fokker’s invention set the pattern that would hold true for all of the remaining years of the air war: that of a constant game of technological one-upsmanship. Introduced on the Western Front late in the summer of 1915, the synchronizer gear led to a period of absolute German dominance of the skies that Allied pilots came to call the “Fokker Scourge.”

In a telling measure of just how unexceptional the Fokker Eindekker really was, it was a two-man pusher, the Royal Aircraft Factory F.E. 2B, that ended the Fokker Scourge and briefly tipped the scales in favor of the Allies even as they still struggled to perfect a reliable synchronizer gear. Still, the F.E. 2B would be the last effective fighter of its type. The future belonged to the "tractors."

In a telling measure of just how unexceptional the Fokker Eindekker really was, it was a two-man pusher, the Royal Aircraft Factory F.E. 2B, that ended the Fokker Scourge and briefly tipped the scales in favor of the Allies again even as they still struggled to perfect a reliable synchronizer gear of their own. Still, the F.E. 2B would be the last effective aircraft of its type. The future belonged to the “tractors.”

The tide of the air war ebbed and flowed throughout 1916, but by early 1917 the Allied forces were once again clearly getting the worst of it. Indeed, Mannock arrived just time for the month destined to go down in infamy as “Bloody April.”

An Albatros D.III, the scourge of Bloody April, seen from above -- the only angle from which any Allied pilot wanted to see one, if he had to see one at all.

An Albatros D.III, the scourge of Bloody April, seen from above — the only angle from which any Allied pilot wanted to see one, if he had to see one at all.

It was a case of quality over quantity. To support the latest fruitless British offensive, near the village of Arras, France, the Royal Flying Corps could field 754 aircraft, 385 of them scouts. The Germans had just 264 airplanes on that section of the front, 114 of them scouts. But offsetting the three-to-one advantage the British enjoyed in sheer numbers was the technical superiority of the German planes and pilots. The latest German Albatros scouts were faster and tougher than anything the British could muster, and could climb much higher thanks to their high-compression engines — a critical advantage in air combat, where he who enjoys the advantage of height most often enjoys victory. Just as critically, they were armed with not one but two synchronized Spandau machine guns mounted on the cowl, capable of unleashing a devastating barrage of 1600 rounds per minute. The British, by contrast, had yet to perfect a foolproof synchronizer gear of their own. Their French-built Nieuport scouts — the plane the newly arrived Mannock would fly into battle — were equipped only with a single Lewis machine gun mounted above the wing. In addition to having to aim the thing in the middle of a dogfight without losing control of his airplane or being shot up by someone else — no mean feat in itself — the pilot had to constantly change out ammunition drums that held just 47 rounds each. This was the heyday of the German Jagdstaffeln (“hunting squadrons”), or “Jastas,” which ranged freely across the front at altitudes the Allied planes couldn’t dream of reaching. From their lofty perches, the German Albatroses could swoop down out of the sun and destroy their enemies before they even knew what was happening. The most feared of all the Jastas was Jasta 11, commanded by Manfred von Richthofen — the Red Baron, greatest ace of them all. He and his cohorts were always identifiable by the blood-red paint jobs their aircraft sported in arrogant defiance of the usual drab military color scheme.

The Red Baron (center) with some of his fellow Flying Circus performers.

The Red Baron (center) with some of his squadron mates. This picture was sold as a postcard in Germany, where Richthofen was celebrated as his era’s equivalent of a rock star.

The consequences for the men of the Royal Flying Corps were horrendous. As airmen were killed, they were replaced by sketchily trained greenhorns, often with less than 25 hours of total flying time, and with no real instruction whatsoever in the rapidly evolving wiles of airborne warfare. Little better than cannon fodder for the Jastas, after going down in flames they were replaced by still more hastily trained and activated new recruits. The vicious cycle came fully to a head in Bloody April. That April of 1917, the British lost 275 aircraft, leading to the death of 207 men and the wounding of 214 more. Set against the carnage taking place in and around the trenches, these numbers may have been minuscule, but in relation to the relatively tiny numbers who took part in the war in the air they were staggering. One out of every three airplanes the British had on-hand at the beginning of April had been shot down by the end of the month; another airman was killed for every 92 hours of total flying time by British airplanes as a whole. April of 1917, Mannock’s baptism by fire, was the absolute most dangerous time of the entire war to be a British flyer.

Major-General Hugh Trenchard, the man in charge of Britain’s air war on the Western Front, had an inflexible strategy for dealing with the psychological fallout of casualties. It was best summed up by the oft-repeated maxim “no empty chairs at breakfast.” The fallen were not to be mourned or even acknowledged. Instead the possessions of a fallen airman were quickly whisked out of his room to make space for his replacement, who would likely arrive within hours from a pool of fresh faces waiting in the town of Saint-Omer, a staging area located just across the English Channel. Mannock spent just a few days there waiting for a spot to open up — i.e., waiting for someone to die, a wait that never took long — before being sent on April 6 to 40 Squadron, posted near the village of Bruay, west of the town of Lens.

Most soldiers who go to war have the comfort of doing so as a group, with the same people with whom they have trained and prepared for months. Not so Mannock and the other fledgling flyers arriving in France to plug the holes made by the relentless Albatros patrols. They went to war alone. The experience of one Second Lieutenant Geoffrey Hopkins, who somewhat unusually was posted directly from Britain to 22 Squadron, likely mirrors that of Mannock in most other respects.

I travelled by the ordinary leave train from Victoria to Dover and thence by ship to Boulogne, where we arrived about dark. Everybody else disembarking there seemed to know exactly what to do and where to go, but I had no idea whatsoever and stood by my camp kit and valise, feeling rather lost. Some kindly soul, who had perhaps had the same experience himself at an earlier date, asked me where I was going and, when I told him, advised me to report to the RTO (Railway Transport Officer). He laughed when I naively asked him what an RTO was! The RTO said, “Oh, yes, 22 Squadron, RFC. They’ll pick you up at Amiens railway station. You can catch a train early in the morning. The squadron is at a place called Bertangles.”

Next day an RFC corporal met me on the platform at Amiens station, took my kit to a Crossley tender outside, and drove me to a bar where, he said, I would find some other officers from the squadron. I found them there having a drink before returning to the aerodrome. I was introduced all round and we had a drink before setting off. We had a very crowded and noisy drive back. They belonged to C Flight and told me that I’d been posted to B Flight, where they dropped me at the mess, on a very cold night with thick snow on the ground. The first person I met on going into the mess was Gladstone, who had joined up with me from school. He introduced me to the others there, told me that the commanding officer and our flight commander were not there that night, and I should report in the morning. After something to eat and drink, I was shown my billet. This was a farmhouse in the village, my room being a sort of cubbyhole off the main living room with a bunk bed containing a pallisasse, filled with straw. I have no recollection of any bathing or sanitary arrangements — I don’t suppose there were any — but have vivid memories of how cold it was.

The veterans who made up of the core of a squadron weren’t in the habit of being overly welcoming to the wide-eyed newcomers who were constantly washing up in their mess hall. It was a matter of emotional self-protection; the life expectancy of the average greenhorn at that time was measured in days rather than weeks or months, so there was little to be gained and much to be lost from forming bonds destined so quickly to be rent. If a pilot managed to stay alive for a few weeks, seemed to have a real knack for combat flying, then and only then would his relationship with his comrades deepen beyond the most cursory of formalities. It made for a cold reception indeed for many an already disoriented, uncertain young man.

For his part, Mannock had an unusually difficult time integrating into the life of 40 Squadron. For one thing, the man he was replacing was not another faceless, barely-remembered greenhorn, but rather a well-liked veteran who had finally met his match; Mannock’s presence in his bunk and in his chair at breakfast was a constant reminder of the old boon companion he was replacing. Mannock’s other problem was more typical of him. Determined as ever to assert himself and not to be cowed by his alleged betters, he overdid it, creating a very unfavorable first impression, as remembered by a fellow flier who betrays traces of the same old class snobbery that had dogged Mannock throughout his life:

His manner, speech, and familiarity were not liked. He seemed too cocky for his experience, which was nil. His arrival at the unit was not the best way to start. New men took their time and listened to the more experienced hands; Mannock was the complete opposite. He offered ideas about everything: how the war was going, how it should be fought, the role of scout pilots, what was wrong or right with our machines. Most men in his position, by that I mean a man from his background [emphasis mine] and with his lack of fighting experience, would have shut up and earned their place in the mess.

New fliers arrived at the front in a state of unpreparedness that must strike us today as extraordinary. With modern, combat-worthy aircraft virtually all earmarked to the front to replace the endless stream of losses, the airplanes the new arrivals had flown in training were wildly different from those they would be expected to fly into combat. Mannock had never before in his life flown a Nieuport 17, the nimble but rather under-powered and under-gunned French scout with which 40 Squadron was equipped. For that matter, he had flown a single-seat “tractor” aircraft of any sort for the first time only after arriving in France, when he was allowed a few practice flights in an obsolete Bristol Scout at Saint-Omer while waiting for his final posting. And trainees like Mannock had been given virtually no instruction in the vital discipline of aerial gunnery — a discipline whose mastery was made all the more vital by the awkward over-wing Lewis machine guns on the Nieuports that made every shot an exercise in deflection shooting.

The veterans of 40 Squadron may have been cool to newcomers, but a sense of fair play demanded that they at least give the fledglings a chance to put in a bit of practice flying and shooting in a Nieuport before being sent out over the front. Mannock was allowed about a week to do what he could to prepare himself. Gunnery practice involved laying a sheet of brightly-colored fabric of about six feet by six feet on the ground to serve as the target. Pilots would then dive toward it and take their shots, an exercise that would in theory force them to master the art of maintaining control of their aircraft while also manipulating the Lewis gun. It was damnably tricky. One William Bond, who arrived at 40 Squadron a few weeks before Mannock, later recalled being disappointed to learn after his first attempt that he’d managed to hit the target with just one shot out of 97. When he expressed his disappointment, the man in charge of the target range told him he had been the first in the last five days to hit the target at all.

Inevitably, some wiped out on the target range, wounding or killing themselves before they ever met an enemy airplane. Second Lieutenant Gordon Taylor of 66 Squadron describes an all too typical accident:

Pilots dived individually on a ground target near the aerodrome, firing their guns at the outline of a German aircraft laid out on the grass. I was watching a [Sopwith] Pup dive on this target only a day or two after we arrived. He was coming down steeply with engine on, firing, but holding his dive beyond the time when he should have started to pull out. I was in agony, trying to will him out of the dive before it was too late. He must have realised his mistake, seen the ground coming up, and pulled back too heavily on the stick. With a ridiculously harmless sound, like a child’s balloon bursting, the aeroplane disintegrated. The fuselage dived straight into the ground with the crunching noise of somebody treading on a matchbox. Tattered fragments of wing followed it, fluttering slowly to earth. The silence which settled over the scene was appalling.

Mannock’s career as a combat pilot very nearly ended before it began on the same tragic note. Pulling out of a dive at the end of a run, his right lower wing literally came off, pulling right out of the fuselage, the result of yet another problem that plagued the Allied pilots in their struggle against the Germans: the often terrible build quality of their airplanes, which were thrown together in haste in jerry-rigged factories to meet the constant demand for replacements. In what even his many detractors had to admit was a fine bit of flying, Mannock managed to bring his plane in upright for a crash landing that he escaped without injury. In his diary, he claimed that he was told he was the first pilot ever to manage such a feat.

On April 17, Mannock’s practice period, such as it was, was declared finished, and he made his first combat sortie over the front that evening. Herbert Ellis, another green pilot who had arrived at 40 Squadron at about the same as Mannock, had turned heads that very morning by shooting down a German plane on his own first sortie. As William Bond later told the story, Ellis accomplished this feat largely by accident, after getting lost in the clouds and losing all contact with the other two planes that formed his flight: “He searched around for some time, not knowing at all where he was, and then suddenly a Hun two-seater came out of a cloud and flew at him. Ellis fired promptly and saw the Hun turn over, go down spinning, and crash to the ground.” Such were the fortunes of war. Mannock’s own debut would be far less auspicious.

No pilot ever forgot his first glimpse of the front, a sight of a devastation so complete as to be surreal, like flying above the surface of the moon. A pilot named Marcus Kaizer described (or perhaps failed to describe) it thus:

There was not a house left standing — just as if a big steamroller had passed over them. As we went further east, the shell holes in the ground grew more numerous until we reached the zone where each hole literally touches four or five others. I cannot describe the appearance of this to you — there were billions and all full of water. The whole looked like a wet sponge — hardly a tree or house visible.

An antiaircraft gun.

An antiaircraft gun.

As Mannock, flying in formation with five other Nieuports, was struggling to comprehend what he saw below, a German antiaircraft, or “Archie,” barrage began against them. Like so many other technologies of modern war, antiaircraft gunnery was in its infancy during the First World War, as gunners struggled to adapt to this strange new need to hit targets above them in the sky. Accuracy, at least when firing at planes at reasonably high altitude, was far from good, a fact that veteran pilots came to understand very well. In general, they simply ignored the Archie fire and continued on their way, trusting to the odds against the one-in-a-thousand lucky shellburst that might actually do them harm. For a newcomer like Mannock, however, all those bombs bursting in air around his airplane were profoundly unnerving. They caused him to commit the worst sin possible in the eyes of his peers: he panicked — “I did some stunts quite inadvertently” with “feelings very funny,” he wrote laconically in his diary that night — careening wildly out of formation in the hope of getting away from the barrage. When he regained his self-control, he found he had no idea where the rest of his patrol was. At last he blundered back to his aerodrome, alone in his ignominy. His comrades, who had already marked him for a blowhard in the officers’ mess, now began to see him as untrustworthy in the air as well — quite possibly a coward. That impression would only harden in the days to come.

The famous but indefinitely attributed description of war as “months of boredom punctuated by moments of extreme terror” dates from the First World War. In the case of fliers as well as their trench-bound counterparts, the months of boredom also encompassed enormous physical discomfort. It’s difficult indeed to overemphasize how taxing combat flying during World War I really was on the bodies of those who engaged in it. Mannock and his comrades typically patrolled the front at altitudes approaching 20,000 feet, right at the limit of what their Nieuports could manage, thereby to minimize one of the principal advantages enjoyed by the Germans: the fact that their aircraft could climb still higher. At that height, whether in winter or summer, the air was biting cold and terribly thin. A typical patrol began at dawn, the pilots emerging from the mess with as much protection from the cold as they could contrive. One Flight Lieutenant Robert Compston:

We were muffled up to the eyes and wore fleece-lined thigh boots drawn up over a fleece- or fur-lined Sidcot suit, a fur-lined helmet complete with chin guard and goggles with a strip of fur around them. Any parts of bare skin left open to the air were well-coated with whale oil to prevent frostbite. For our hands we found that an ordinary pair of silk gloves, if put on warm and then covered with the ordinary leather gauntlet gloves, retained enough heat for the whole patrol.

The dawn quiet of the aerodrome would ring out with the coughs and backfires of engines springing reluctantly to life. Flight Commander Colin Mackenzie:

All pilots should be in their machines five minutes before the time of starting, the engines having been previously tested by the petty officer of the flight. When all engines are ticking over and the petty officer signals to the leader that all the engines are running satisfactorily, the flight leader leaves the ground; the remaining four machines, if head to wind, should get off in thirty seconds, the order of getting off corresponding to each machine’s position in the formation.

Once all airborne, the flight would form up and set off for the front line, climbing all the while in the encroaching light of dawn into ever cooler and thinner air, straining for every bit of the precious altitude that could spell the difference between life and death. Compston:

While gaining height we saw away on our starboard beam a dark mass, which we knew to be the town of Arras, while the silvery, twisting thread straggling eastward showed us the River Scarpe. An occasional bursting shell and some Very lights betrayed the whereabouts of the lines, while a star shell threw into clear relief the chalky contour of the Hindenburg Line. Rudely we disturbed that quiet hour before the dawn.

A Nieuport 17 on patrol.

A Nieuport 17 on patrol.

This was flying at its most elemental, flying in a way that few modern pilots have ever known it. Up there in their rickety little open-cockpit aircraft, they felt like they could reach out a hand and touch the vault of heaven. If they could forget for a moment the grinding cold, the shortness of breath and pain in their heads and extremities brought about by oxygen deprivation, and the gnawing awareness that enemy aircraft could be lurking almost anywhere, they could appreciate the stunning beauty that surrounded them. Lieutenant George Kay:

These April clouds are perfectly clearly defined, and are like great mountains and castles of snow. You are sailing along in the sparkling sun under a clear blue sky and underneath is a fluffy white carpet.

Unfortunately, dwelling on the beauty of the scene was an excellent way to get yourself killed. Any one of those fluffy clouds could hide the Red Baron and his mates. The tension was unbearable, almost worse than the minute or two of chaos and terror that followed when the dreaded thing did finally happen, when German aircraft swept down out of the clouds or out of the sun. Lieutenant Cecil Lewis:

Our eyes were continually focusing, looking, craning our heads round, moving all the time looking for those black specks which would mean enemy aircraft at a great distance. Between clouds we would not be able to see the ground or only parts of it which would sort of slide into view like a magic-lantern screen far, far beneath. Clinging close together, about twenty or thirty yards between each machine, swaying, looking at our neighbors, setting ourselves just right so that we were all in position.

Contrary to myth and legend, extended dogfights, those much-vaunted extended aerial duels between these knights of the air, were quite rare. Mostly death came swiftly and unannounced; many a casualty of the war in the air literally never knew what hit him. The emotional toll of this life of overarching, eminently justified paranoia was staggering, while the physical toll it took was almost equally enormous. Spending several hours each day in a condition of oxygen deprivation brought on constant headaches and constant fatigue. Mannock wrote home to Jim Eyles that “I always feel tired and sleepy, and I can lie down and sleep anywhere at any time.” The oil and unburned fuel thrown off by the engine got into the skin and hair and was almost impossible to scrub out, while the quantities of the same noxious stuff which every pilot inadvertently inhaled led to persistent stomach cramps and diarrhea.

High-strung by temperament, Mannock didn’t cope very well with the strain — not ever really, and certainly not in his first weeks at the front. “Now I can understand,” he wrote in his diary, “what a tremendous strain to the nervous system active service flying is.” Unlike the majority of his peers, he survived as his first days turned into his first weeks at the front. But he didn’t acquit himself with any particular glory in so doing; while it’s true that he managed not to get shot down, it’s also true that he didn’t come close to shooting down anyone from the other side. Many of his comrades grew more than ever to see him, rightly or wrongly, as a shirker, the sort of flier who by some happenstance always seemed to be elsewhere when the going got really tough. When he turned for home early once or twice from particularly dangerous patrols due to what he claimed to be engine problems, it was viewed with great suspicion. George Lloyd, a fellow flier who arrived at 40 Squadron very shortly after Mannock:

Mannock was not actually called yellow, but many secret murmurings of an unsavoury nature reached my ears. I was told that he had shot down one single Hun out of control [Mannock was never officially credited with even this kill], and that he showed signs of being over-careful during engagements. He was further accused of being continually in the air practising gunnery, as a pretence of keenness. In other words, the innuendo was that he was suffering from cold feet.

Skeptical of the motivation behind it though Lloyd is, his comment about Mannock’s habit of constant gunnery practice points I think to something important. Even as he undoubtedly struggled to master his very real terror, Mannock was also at some level studying the nature of air combat, looking for ways to get better at it. It was perhaps every bit as much for this reason as any other that he seemed to hold himself apart from the fray; he was studying the field of battle before he threw himself into it. The polar opposite of a natural pilot and intuitive warrior like the famed Albert Ball, Mannock’s was, despite his relative lack of education, a very analytic mind. Nothing about fighting in the air seemed to come to him easily, but, once finally learned, lessons were never forgotten.

Take, for instance, this incident, which he wrote about in his diary on May 3:

Two mornings ago, C Flight escorted four Sopwiths on a photography stunt to Douai Aerodrome, Captain Keen, the new commander, leading. We were attacked from above over Douai. I tried my gun before going over the German lines, only to find that it was jammed, so I went over with a revolver only. A Hun in a beautiful yellow and green bus attacked me from behind. I wheeled round on him and howled like a dervish (although of course he couldn’t hear me), whereat he made off towards old Parry and attacked him, with me following, for the moral effect! Another one (a brown speckled one) attacked a Sopwith, and Keen blew the pilot to pieces and the Hun went spinning down from 12,000 feet to earth. Unfortunately, the Sopwith had been hit, and went down too, and there was I, a passenger, absolutely helpless, not having a gun, an easy prey for any of them, and they hadn’t the grit to close. Eventually they broke away, and then their Archie gunners got on the job and we had a hell of a time. At times, I wondered if I had a tailplane or not, they were so near. We came back over Arras with the three remaining Sopwiths, and excellent photos, and two vacant chairs at the Sopwith squadron mess! What is the good of it all?

Forced bravado aside (“they hadn’t the grit to close…”), a very shaken Mannock learned from this incident and one or two others like it to check his weapon personally before taking off. He would laboriously go over the gun itself and over each drum of ammunition, bullet by bullet, trusting no one else with the task out of the simple logic that no one else could possibly consider it as important as he, that no one else could possibly be guaranteed to do it as thoroughly as he would.

A German "Drachen" (literally "dragon"), or observation balloon, about to go aloft.

A German “Drachen” (literally “dragon”), or observation balloon, about to go aloft.

On May 7, Mannock and five companions attacked six German observation balloons hovering just above the front lines, a frenzied exercise that entailed screaming barely ten feet above the trenches at full throttle hoping not to be hit by the rifles and machine guns cannoning around them, then raking the balloons from below with their Lewis guns as they passed under them. Mannock managed to take one them out in a blossom of flames before sprinting madly for home, his machine riddled with bullet holes and his nerves in an equally frazzled state. His was the only plane to make it back for a proper landing at the aerodrome. “I don’t want to go through such an experience again,” he wrote in his diary. The event marked his first kill in two senses. It was his first official tally as a pilot  — and it was the first time he could definitively know that he had killed at least one other human being.

On the very same day, Albert Ball, who had now tallied 44 official victories, was shot down and killed, possibly by the Red Baron himself, whilst, as was his wont, prowling the front recklessly all alone. A torch had been passed, although it would be a long time before anyone realized it. Certainly anyone who had told Mannock’s squadron mates that the unstable, untrustworthy, uncouth big “Irishman” in their mess would someday replace the fallen hero Ball as Britain’s leading ace would have been roundly jeered. Mannock seemed anything but destined for glory. Just two days later on May 9, after another inconclusive engagement which raised the eyebrows of his squadron mates, he wrote in his diary how he had landed “with my knees shaking and my nerves all torn to bits. All my courage seems to have gone.” His commanding officer, showing more sympathy than would have most of Mannock’s other fellow fliers, took him briefly off active duty, judging him to be in no condition to fly at all, much less to fly and fight.

And yet, little by little, in a process that would require months yet to reach any sort of fruition, the worm was turning. Mannock the shirker was soon to become Mannock the reliable old hand, and waiting in the wings was Mannock the ace.

(Sources: The same as the first article in this series.)


November 23, 2016

The Gameshelf: IF

Hadean Lands on sale this week!

by Andrew Plotkin at November 23, 2016 06:35 PM

You may have noted that Steam has launched its Thanksgiving sale. It's not Black Friday yet; I dunno, maybe it's Purple Wednesday. They don't tell me these things.

Anyhow, Hadean Lands is part of this sale. My first Steam sale! Until Nov 29th, you can buy the game for 35% off. Exciting times indeed.

While you're at it, you might want to nominate your favorite text adventure for the Steam Awards. Interactive fiction winning such an award in the braoder gaming market? Sounds unlikely, doesn't it? I guess we'll find out!

We do not neglect other platforms! I've applied the same 35% discount to Hadean Lands on Itch.IO, the Humble Store, and the iOS App Store.

(Yes, the iOS version has a lower base price. That's just the way things are right now.) (Also note: due to the way Apple prices bundles, the "Zarf's Interactive Fiction" bundle is not available this week.)

...Oh, and since somebody is going to ask: no. The Steam DLC Solo Adventurer Pledge Certificate is not discounted. Discounting the certificate would only make it less valuable. Sheesh.

what will you do now?

Sigil Reader (Field) post-mortem

by verityvirtue at November 23, 2016 12:01 AM

This was my first entry into the IFComp, and I’ll be honest: ideas for improvement proliferated as the comp went on and as I read reviews.

This game started as a purely exploratory game (like Staying Put), and Inform 7 remains one of my favourite tools for creating spaces. To get people to explore these spaces, though, I needed a story. The first thing that occurred to me was something along the lines of ‘something terribly wrong has happened here, you need to figure out what’, which… tends to be my go-to. For some reason.

A lot of what I learned from the reviews (and from my beta-testers) was basic storytelling and writing principles, and a few of these are highlighted below. There is much I have yet to learn.

The good:

  • setting
    • There are what I hoped would be distinctly Singaporean/Southeast Asian flavours to the setting (the calendar, the pickles), with an extra layer of weirdness (the rabbit skull).
    • There were comments that it had a definite sense of place, which was what I was angling for.
    • However, an office space suggests routine and mundanity – not great for a game! Sigil Reader didn’t allow players to do sufficiently un-office-like things (I’m thinking of Michael Gentry’s Little Blue Men and Arcane Intern (Unpaid)) to make the setting an efficient starting point for an urban fantasy story.
  • Juxtaposition of the urban mundane with the ~~magical~~ stuff.

The bad:

  • SPAG and technical errors
    • I should have done much more proofreading. That is all.
    • There were a handful of synonyms that I didn’t anticipate, and added on in an update early in the comp.
  • Links between objects the player needed to interact with and story progress
    • This game makes frequent use of events which were triggered by changes in stats (which themselves change when the player examines or does certain things). When these were announced to the player, they seemed incongruous: the event seemed unlinked to the action that triggered it.
    • I’d say this is due to poor signposting – a failure of communication.
  • Lawnmowering
    • Some players complained about having to go through every room and comb through objects, in a bit to find the one which would unlock the next part of the story. Again, this was a failure of signposting.
  • Ignoring the most novel thing about this game
    • The sigils, that is! Days before the deadline, this was only 10% implemented, and I realised that this would most likely involve designing a few new puzzles, something I struggle with.
  • It was hard to establish emotional stakes
    • The PC is emotionally very attached to Station 31, in no small part because the staff of the Station see each other all the time, but it was hard to communicate this to the player, especially since there were barely any NPCs, so the PC never gets to act out these relationships.
    • We meet the PC as a ghost, so at the start of the game the PC has no influence over the fate of our co-workers or the setting; the PC acts purely for themselves.
  • It was hard to signal progress to the player
    • I used a numeric indication in the status bar, showing three domains in which the player could grow in knowledge (namely: the PC’s relationship with their colleagues, the PC’s knowledge of the past and the PC’s knowledge of sigils.) I found this distracting, though, and didn’t want it to lead to lawnmowering. Not that removing the numerical progress markers changed things…

What I learned:

  • the importance of signposting – it took lots of ironing out from beta testers to figure out ‘blind spots’, or spots where I’d expected the player to read my mind. I fear it may have become too obvious in parts.
  • There is an extraordinary demand for puzzles in parser games. Puzzles are a way to gate story content, but here I did not intend for them to part of the appeal of the game; I wanted the appeal to be the revealing of memories. But then there were reviews from what were obviously experienced parser players who were unsatisfied with the simplicity of the puzzles.


  • Sigil Reader (Field) suffered for its under implementation (despite everything!) so… either set parameters clearly, laying out what is unimportant to the player and testing, testing, testing.
  • Link important objects to events so that it’s clear how the player’s actions are affecting the game world and their progress
  • Letting the player >INSCRIBE and >INSPECT
    • I want the player to be able to play around with the sigils; the PC is, after all, the only one in the station who knows how to handle these with dexterity
  • Greater customisation of playthroughs depending on the PC
    • I liked the idea of having multiple, distinct set PCs to add flavour to the experience, but this wasn’t implemented much in the comp game.
  • Creating puzzles and making them flow is still something which unreasonably puzzles (ha) me. I’d like the puzzles to make sense in the context of the story. A bit of reading is in order…

TL;DR: made some silly mistakes, post-comp version will probably take much longer than expected!

Tagged: game design, IFComp 2016, postmortem, Sigil Reader (Field)

November 22, 2016

Interactive Fables

Developing an experimental Browser UI for Inform parser games

November 22, 2016 12:45 AM

Based on some of the interest shown for the UI elements of both Worldsmith and Game of Worlds TOURNAMENT! I set myself an interesting technical challenge to look at how I could use the excellent framework Furkle has developed to post-parse channels of Inform output and present it to the player in a custom UI. Rather than say anymore, here is a short video of what I came up with: It is all pretty buggy, hacky and hard-coded at the minute, but I will try and clean it up, abstract it, and post

November 21, 2016

Versificator IF blog

Detectiveland won IFComp!

by robinjohnson at November 21, 2016 03:01 PM

I’m so happy to have won the 2016 Interactive Fiction Competition with Detectiveland.

I’m grateful to all the organisers, players, and other authors; and to my testers, David Court, Brendan Hennessy, Mathbrush, Mike Preston, Andrew Schultz and especially Eve Morris. My biggest takeaway from this competition is how cool it is to see so many experimental forms: reduced parsers, new systems, parser games that feel storyish, choice games that feel puzzlish. My personal favourites included Inside the Facility, FairTake, and Color the Truth, which is the piece I thought would win.

I chose the $200 prize and donated it half each to Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union. Take care of each other.

Here’s the traditional postmortem on

The Digital Antiquarian

Memos from Digital Antiquarian Corporate Headquarters

by Jimmy Maher at November 21, 2016 01:00 PM

From the Publications Department:

I’m pleased to say that the latest edition of the ebook series collecting the articles published here is now available. Volume 11 centers roughly on the year 1989. (Yes, this means we are now moving into the 1990s, which is quite a milestone. Little did I imagine this blog would turn into what it has when I started it five and a half years ago.) As always, we owe big thanks to Richard Lindner for putting these together.

From the Quality Control Department:

As anyone who’s delved seriously into the history of computer games and videogames will attest, concrete sales numbers were closely-held secrets back in the day and can still be damnably difficult to dig up today. Given that, I’m sometimes forced to make surmises based on the preponderance of the evidence. And, inevitably, sometimes those surmises turn out to be wrong.

Some time ago, I credited SSI’s Pool of Radiance, which I know sold precisely 264,536 copies thanks to internal sales figures found in the SSI archive at the Strong Museum of Play, as the best-selling single CRPG of the 1980s. Well, I recently found — in the March 1991 issue of Questbusters of all places — some official Electronic Arts figures for the first Bard’s Tale game: a very impressive 407,000 copies sold. This of course means that it easily eclipses Pool of Radiance for the title of best-selling (Western) CRPG of the 1980s. I’ve changed my articles dealing with Pool of Radiance and the Bard’s Tale series to reflect this, as credit is certainly owed where it’s due; Volume 8 (1986) and Volume 10 (1988) of the ebooks have also been updated. My thanks to my fellow historian Alex Smith, who tried to get me to look at this question again back when I first made the claim in my Pool of Radiance article. You were right to be skeptical, Alex.

From the Referrals Department:

As long as we’re on the subject of CRPGs, I’d like to pass along a recommendation for a tool that I’ve really come to love. I’ve spent a lot of time in the past searching for an alternative to graph paper and a pencil when it comes to mapping old-school dungeons. Everything I came across was either too sketchy or way too over-the-top, designed for making elaborate decorative maps for tabletop RPGs rather than mapping as you go from a computer game. But at last some months ago I found just what I was looking for: Grid Cartographer by David Walters. It’s not often I see such a polished and usable application in such a niche area as this. You do have to pay for the full version, but I’ve found it to be well worth it. I have no affiliation with David and have never even corresponded with him; I’m just a happy customer passing along a recommendation. I’ve long since come to suspect that many of you love old-school CRPGs much more than I do (it tends to be a genre, as many of you know, that tries my patience pretty quickly these days). You will doubtless be able to get even more use out of Grid Cartographer than I have.

And for text-adventure mapping, of course, there’s Trizbort, which is totally free and open source. I can hardly express how much more playable both tools make the moldy oldies in their respective genres.

From the Planning Department:

To wet your whistle, here’s a quick look at what you can expect in the months to come; those of you who prefer to be totally surprised by each new article will want to jump down to the next heading now. In other words, spoiler alert!

We’re entering another of those periods of transition where many publishers and developers fall by the wayside. So, after we finish the series we started on Friday, we’ll start a new series writing the last word about some companies who have been with us for quite a while, but who, alas, won’t be with us any longer. Lest that sound too depressing, know that the stories of these deaths manage to cover a huge amount of interesting ground, including patents from hell, the first color handheld videogame console, more early experiment with CD-ROM and full-motion video, and even more nefarious deeds by our favorite villain around these parts, Jack Tramiel. Death, so the philosophers tell us, begets life, so after that we’ll look at the birth of Legend Entertainment, the heir to Infocom (another recently deceased company of the 1980s, come to think of it). Speaking of which: we’ll stop by the amateur text-adventure scene to cover the early history of TADS, the first freely distributed development system capable of making adventure games as polished and complex as those of Infocom. Then an examination of early academic experiments with hypertext fiction, especially Michael Joyce’s afternoon, a story. Next we turn to Lucasfilm Games (soon to become LucasArts), who truly came into their own as adventure developers in 1990 with not one but two of the genre’s stone-cold classics. We’ll check in with Sid Meier, who also published two games in 1990, one an immensely influential strategy classic, the other… well, not so much. But both are very instructional. Then more on SSI and their coveted Dungeons & Dragons license, an interesting experiment in accessible family-oriented multi-player gaming from Sierra, and a visit to Origin for Ultima VI and another era-defining game that, improbably, actually became even more popular than that latest installment in Richard Garriott’s seminal CRPG series. Somewhere in there we’ll also take time out for a technical article on the much-ridiculed 640 K limitation of MS-DOS and how developers finally got around it. (Did Bill Gates really say, “640 K should be enough for anyone?” Stay tuned to find out!)

Whew! I know I’m excited, and I hope you are too. Which brings mean to…

From the Accounting Department:

No one has ever tried to write a history of these topics of the scope and depth of the one I’m attempting. To continue to do so, I continue to need your support. To keep this site clean and fast-loading and to protect my neutrality and your privacy, I keep it ad-free. But that does mean that you’re all I’ve got when it comes to financial support. If you’re already a supporter, my heartfelt thanks. If not, and if you’re a regular reader who’s come to value what I do here, please do think about pitching in with a one-time donation (see the button to the right) or, even better, by becoming a Patreon patron at whatever level you can easily afford and that feels right to you. As I’ve said before, for the cost of a good cup of coffee each month you can make a material difference to the cause of serious gaming history, and ensure that you have an entertaining, interesting new article to read (almost) every Friday as well for years to come.

Speaking of which: see you this Friday with the next installment in the ongoing saga of Mick Mannock. Thanks for being the best readers anywhere!

(UPDATE, November 28 2016: As Leigh points out in the comments below, I accidentally left an article out of the new ebook. This has now been corrected, so you’ll likely want to download that volume again if you want to read about Arthur: The Quest for Excalibur offline.)


Emily Short

Mailbag: Mysteries in CYOA

by Emily Short at November 21, 2016 11:00 AM

I sometimes print letters I’ve received and what I wrote in response. This is usually for one of two reasons: I’d like to pass on what the writer had to say, or the writer asked a question that requires a long detailed answer, and I think other people might benefit from seeing that as well.

I am experimenting with doing this in a more formal way, with a regular mailbag post. Reprinted letters may be edited for length; if so, I will note that editing has occurred. I do not do this without the permission of the letter-writer, so if you write to me and would be open to seeing your email appear as a blog post, feel free to mention that fact. On the other hand, I do not guarantee to print every letter that grants permission.


[Negotiation redacted, but this letter exchange began with the writer asking how much of a question they could ask before my response started to get into paid consulting territory. Which was considerate! In practice it didn’t seem like we needed to go there yet, so this is just a casual conversation so far.]

Briefly, then, the project is called [redacted] and is an interactive noir in the technological/interface vein of 80 DAYS, SORCERY!, and FIRST DRAFT. I’m using “ink” for the base nonlinear narrative scripting, and will be custom-implementing an interface in Unity (which I’m very experienced with, so won’t need to talk about that.) Broadly, [a previous game in the same world] is about sowing chaos in a city during a coup, and [redacted] is about the ensuing power vacuum, fallout, and human cost, in the general direction of THE THIRD MAN and CHINATOWN. 

That’s the premise, here’s the problem: I want to make something that is current in terms of IF design, and after MAKE IT GOOD, to a lesser extent AISLE/HER STORY, and recent releases (I’m behind on my IFComps), how exactly does one design an interactive mystery narrative? I don’t want to go Keyser Soze, it would be not-trivial-but-understood to just write a mystery novel with interactive stage business, but I don’t think either approach would be responsible to the player/reader. The aim is to make a solid CYOA-style mystery, and there is a very real problem with that format – any investigation is necessarily telegraphed by the options given to the player.

I can think of several approaches, but none are particularly satisfying. Additionally, there’s the problem of presentation/retention: Jon Ingold suggests that the ‘standard’ pace of an ink story should be 1-200 words between choices. I enjoy working within constraints, but the basic problem of a mystery piece with suggested actions complicates this particular guideline.

On top of all this, although I’m an enthusiastic hobbyist and pro-am IF theorist/creator, I’ve primarily used Inform 7 to date, which is entirely different than a multiple-choice approach, so I had also hoped to glean some insight about your work and study of CYOA and hyperlink/Twine narrative in recent years.

CYOA doesn’t at all preclude having puzzles, especially if the choices are backed by a world model of some kind rather than being presented as a transition from one narrative node to the next. What’s more, there are lots of games that have a kind of hybrid construction and present layered choices or menus that are hard to lawnmower. Any of these approaches would give you enough obscurity to make sure that the player is actively thinking of something they’d like to investigate, then performing the investigation, rather than simply stepping through tightly defined options.

For initial examples of at least modestly challenging mysteries in a choice interface, I’d look at

The Axolotl Project (Samantha Vick, Twine)

Detectiveland (Robin Johnson, this year’s IF comp)

Contradiction (adventure with FMV, hammy but fun)

And possibly also Color the Truth (mathbrush, IF Comp this year): that is a parser game but its core mechanic of linking topics to make new ones could be rendered in menus or a drag/drop topic inventory. Open Sorcery (Abigail Corfman) isn’t exactly a mystery but it also has some system mechanics and some clever discoveries; that might be an inspiration as well.

That all assumes that you want to center the player’s action on discovering the truth through evidence (physical evidence or NPC testimony). 

If you see this more as a case for moral decision-making, though — which sounds like a thematic fit, from your description — you might consider mechanics instead focused on revelation, persuasion, and protection: less how you get information and more what you decide to do with it. My instinct is that that type of story could potentially be told through a constantly-progressing CYOA style, where you’re presented with one hard decision after another, and the tale was about how compromises stack on one another. (And of course they always would stack, because there isn’t any good route through a Chinatown game…)

November 19, 2016

Web Interactive Fiction

FyreVM-Web Templates

by David Cornelson at November 19, 2016 09:01 PM

The work on a standard reusable template has begun with a target of mid-December for functional completion. Depending on how it looks, I may let a designer friend play with it before releasing, but extensions and documentation will all be published as soon as it’s feature complete.

The standard template will come with several options that are driven by I7 code. Some behavior will be different than most interpreters and this includes:

  • Every turn is saved, along with turn data. This allows the story to be reloaded with history/scrollback/pages and allows the reader to jump to any historical turn and “branch” their play. If a player does page back to a previous turn and enter a different command, the previous line of story is saved as “branch 1” and stored separately from the “running branch”. The player can create as many branches as they wish. The player will be able to add/edit a description to each branch.
  • We’re using ReactJS for the templating system and all of the front-end code will be simple with clear separation of concerns. Each portion of the template will be a self-contained component controlled by the larger template.

Some of the template feature choices include:

  • Story Title Header (optional)
  • Status Bar (optional)
    • Location Name (on/off)
    • Turn (on/off)
    • Time (on/off)
    • Score (on/off)
  • Main Content (required, select one)
    • Scrolling
    • Paging
  • Command Line (required, select one)
    • Embedded
    • Static Footer
  • Menu (required)
    • Install New Story (required)
    • Save Story To File (required)
    • Start Story (required, must have installed stories or will be disabled)
    • General Help (required, provided but modifiable by author)
    • Story Help (optional, generated by I7 extension “FyreVM Story Help”)
    • Story Hints (optional, generalted by I7 extension “FyreVM Story Hints”)
    • About (optional, generated by I7 extension “FyreVM Story About”)

There are many features and options to add, such as turning off the command bar and making a choice-based selection list of links, allowing embedded directional links, embedding magic word links, embedding images, and creating more complex templates. I plan to publish a story with an alternate template and release it next year at some point, possibly for the 2017 IF Comp. Requests for features will be welcome, but I’d also encourage others to try their hand at creating their own components and templates. For anyone with basic HTML, CSS, and JavaScript knowledge, this will not be too difficult.

Add a Comment

IFComp News

IFComp 2016 is over

November 19, 2016 08:01 PM

The 22nd Annual Interactive Fiction Competition has come to an end. Congratulations to Robin Johnson for Detectiveland’s first-place finish!

This marks the first IFComp win by a work not in the traditional, parser-driven text-adventure mode – though it’s still very much a text adventure, identifying itself as such in its own instructions screen.

And as in all recent IFComp years, the top-ranked entries continue to demonstrate a beautiful variety of platforms and play-styles. I feel hopeful that this pattern will stick for many years to come, and as organizer, I couldn’t feel happier about it.

We’re now awaiting the entries’ ingestion into the IF Archive for permanent public availability, and I’ll make a followup post here when they’re up. (No action required from authors, here; the archive is in possession of everything as I write this.) In the meantime, you can still download the whole, 222-megabyte archive of every competition entry as they stood on October 1.

November 18, 2016

The Digital Antiquarian

A Working-Class Hero, Part 1: Proletariat, Prisoner, and Pilot

by Jimmy Maher at November 18, 2016 05:00 PM

You may wonder what on earth the following is doing on “a history of computer entertainment.” If so, please trust that the meaning behind my madness will become clear in the course of the next few articles. In the meantime, I hope you’ll enjoy getting away, just for a little while, from computers and games and business machinations involving them to an earlier time that was even more fraught and no less fascinating.


Edward Mannock, Great Britain’s ace of aces of World War I and of all time, was also a man of a bewildering number of names. He wasn’t even born as Edward Mannock, but rather as Edward Corringham.

His father, another Edward Mannock, was the black sheep of an otherwise respectable middle-class London family. In 1878, in debt and likely in trouble with the law, he joined the army as an enlisted soldier, an occupation that was considered so ignoble at the time that his family begged him to assume an alias. Thus he became Edward Corringham, and it was as Corporal Edward Corringham that he married an Irish girl named Julia Sullivan in 1883 in Ballincollig, Ireland, the village at which his regiment was stationed. Four children, two boys and two girls, followed, the family moving all the while around Ireland and England behind Edward’s regiment. Young Edward, the third of the children, was born on May 21, 1888, in Brighton, England. Despite being born in England to an English father, the boy would always self-identify as at least as much Irish as English. That identity came complete with his mother’s brogue, an accent he may have actively cultivated as an act of defiance against his cruel drunkard of an English father.

In 1891, his father was discharged from the army, and the family reverted to his old surname of Mannock, with young Edward taking Corringham as his middle name for old times’ sake. Moving back to London in the hope of being accepted back into the respectable Mannock family’s good graces, they found nothing of the kind on offer. On the contrary, the other Mannocks were all too willing to visit the father’s sins upon his children, continuing to disown them all completely. Edward the elder had difficulty finding steady work, both due to the disrepute in which an ex-soldier was held and his own fondness for drink, and the £40 severance he had been awarded at the end of his service quickly evaporated. By the end of eighteen months, the family was living in horrid squalor and poverty, abused daily one and all by the man of the house, who took his frustration out on his wife and children with fists and kicks.

With no other prospects on offer, Edward the elder rejoined the army, enlisting with a regiment that was about to be shipped off to India. Once again, wife and children duly followed him to this latest posting. Life there was a little better; the family, not even considered on the level of the servant class back in England, could actually afford a servant of their own in India. With the economic stresses now eased, some of the physical abuse slackened, although it would never entirely go away.

It was in India, in these much improved if hardly luxurious conditions, that young Edward, now typically called “Eddie,” passed most of his childhood. In the beginning, he was a rather sickly boy, a result of the malnutrition, unsanitary conditions, and constant abuse that had marked his old life back in England. He contracted a serious amoebic infection in his eyes, which blinded him completely for as long as a fortnight.1 But in time he grew into an active boy with a keen interest in sports of all types.

Eddie received a reasonably good primary-school education in India via a local Jesuit mission. In 1899, his father sailed with his regiment to South Africa to take part in the Boer Wars while his wife and children were left to await his return in India. He wound up spending three years in South Africa, at one point actually volunteering to join another regiment and remain there rather than return to his family — as sure an indication as any of just how estranged he really was from them. At last, in 1902 he was shipped back to Canterbury, England, without ever returning to India at all; his wife was left to book her own passage with her children to join him.

Eddie was 14 upon their return. With virtually no memory of England, he had to acclimate himself to life in Canterbury, which was not yet the tourist trap it is today, just a rather anonymous English market town surrounding a grand cathedral. Then, within a few months of the family’s arrival, his father walked out on them for the last time. Father and son would never see each other again.

Any thought of further schooling for Eddie must now be forgotten. With no other means of support, the entire family had to go to work. For years, Eddie worked menial jobs. His first was that of a grocer’s boy, schlepping crates full of food around the town. Later he worked as a barber’s boy, sweeping floors, washing hair, and mixing vats full of shaving soap. Both jobs offered only long hours of the most stultifying labor for the most meager of wages, but needs must.

But meanwhile his older brother Patrick had had a stroke of luck. The best educated of the family thanks to his having come to the good offices of the Jesuits in India at an older age than his little brother, he found employment as an accounting clerk at the National Telephone Company. When another opening came up some time later, he was able to secure it for the now 20-year-old Eddie. This really was an extraordinary stroke of luck by most people’s measure. A clerk’s job offered relatively reasonable working hours spent indoors in an office, sitting relatively comfortably behind a desk. At the end of 45 years or so, it even offered the relative security of a modest pension. For a young man of Eddie Mannock’s social standing, this was about the most he could reasonably hope for in life. No, the work itself wasn’t especially exciting, but what work open to him was? The vast majority of young men in his position would have accepted the job gratefully and remained there for the rest of their working life. Indeed, Patrick Mannock did precisely this. Eddie, however, accepted it only with some reluctance, and almost immediately started looking for a way out.

Eddie Mannock was developing into an ambitious man who refused to accept that this seeming best lot in life offered him by the Edwardian class system was the only one possible. Well over his childhood sickliness, he was now a strong young man who, while hardly well-educated, had a certain native mechanical intelligence that made him very good at solving practical problems of many descriptions. He played cricket at every opportunity, loved to fish, and loved to tinker with engines and electricity whenever given the opportunity. He joined the Territorial Force, the forerunner to the modern British Army Reserve, where he drilled regularly with his cavalry unit, becoming quite a good horseman.

From the beginning, the circumscribed indoor life of an accounting clerk rankled. Better, he thought, to be at the scene of the action, rigging cable out in the field as a linesman for the same National Telephone Company that now employed him as an office worker. At last, after some three years behind a desk, he asked for a transfer to the field, thus stating his willingness to forgo his cushy office job for a much more difficult and dangerous life of physical labor. Everyone thought he was crazy, but his request was finally granted.

To take up his new duties, Mannock was transferred to the village of Wellingborough in the East Midlands. His fellow workers there, taking note of his Irish brogue, rechristened him “Paddy.” Products of the working class just as he was, they accepted with equanimity his radical politics, which he didn’t hesitate to share with them. At some point during his years in Canterbury, you see, Edward Mannock had become a committed socialist.

It should be noted that most of the policies for which Mannock argued, so radical in the context of Edwardian England, have thanks to the steady march of progress long since become accepted baseline standards by even many conservative Western politicians. He wanted universal suffrage for all, regardless of class, sex, race, income, or land ownership (or lack thereof). He wanted, if not necessarily to abolish the nobility and the monarchy, at least to strip them of political power. He wanted a livable minimum wage, a ceiling to the number of hours one could be expected to work per day and per week, and the abolition of child labor. He wanted a progressive tax system to redistribute the nation’s wealth more equally, but he was certainly no full-blown Marxist. His socialism didn’t even imply any particular discomfort with the notion of a British Empire, or the notion of taking up arms to defend it, as shown by his enthusiastic continuing participation in the Territorial Force. Likewise, he remained, while not overly religious by any means, a member of the Catholic Church. Even his views on the age-old question of Ireland, with its inflamed passions on both sides, sound oddly moderated today. Despite his proud Irish ancestry, he was in favor only of Home Rule — the creation of a separate Irish Parliament that would be able to adjudicate many questions of domestic politics for itself — rather than a fully independent Ireland.

The three years Mannock spent in Wellingborough were good ones, perhaps the best of his short life. The work was every bit as difficult and dangerous as had been advertised, but he found it suited his need for physical activity and his tinkerer’s instinct alike. Soon after his arrival, he met Jim Eyles, the manager of a small foundry in town which made pipes and gutters. Typically enough for Mannock the avid cricketer, they met at a cricket match. Eyles was playing, Mannock was only watching, but the former had a boil on his neck that was giving him all kinds of problems, and so the latter offered to bat for him. He was out for a duck, but the two struck up a conversation and, soon, a friendship which grew so close that Eyles asked Mannock if he’d like to move in with him and his wife and son. Mannock became known around the Eyles household, the first version of a comfortable family life he had ever known, by the slightly more dignified sobriquet of “Pat” rather than “Paddy.”

He regarded Eyles, who shared his political views, as a mentor and a father figure, a role the latter was more than happy to play. Eyles encouraged him to read the books found in the family library, which helped to give his socialism, previously a patchwork of good intentions and intuitive beliefs, the framework of a coherent political ideology. The two would sit up well into the night after the rest of the family had retired, discussing the ideas therein along with all the latest political news. And with Eyles’s encouragement Mannock’s socialism began to go beyond mere talk: he helped to found a branch of the socialist Independent Labour Party right there in Wellingborough. Passionate, idealistic, and articulate in his rough-hewn way, he might, Eyles began to think, have a real future in politics.

Nevertheless, a certain endemic restlessness that seemed always to exist at the root of Mannock’s character began in time to reassert itself. He sought adventure, wanted to make his way in the world outside of provincial England. He considered trying to become a diamond miner in South Africa or a plantation owner in the West Indies, but in the end he settled on the slightly more sober scheme of continuing his current trade in Turkey. The “sick man of Europe” though the Ottoman Empire may have been for decades if not centuries, its government was still doing its feeble best to modernize. Of late, these efforts had come to include the construction of a telephone network. It seemed the perfect opportunity for an ambitious man of Mannock’s’s talents. Thus one bleak winter day a melancholy Eyles family walked him to the local train station to begin the first stage of a long journey to the edge of the fabled Orient.

Mannock’s new life in Turkey could hardly have started out better. He showed up at the offices of the National Telephone Company in Constantinople, which was responsible for installing the new telephone network, showed his credentials, and was immediately offered a job as a rigging foreman. Placed in charge of others for the first time in his life, Mannock showed a knack for leadership, even though those he was leading were Turks with whom he could barely communicate thanks to the language barrier. He proved himself an eminently capable man on a project where capable men were sorely needed, and moved up quickly in his superiors’ estimation, being handed more and more responsibility. When not working, he lived, like virtually all of the British expatriates in Constantinople, in a small enclave with the air of a country club, where opportunities for swimming, rowing, riding, and playing tennis, croquet, and of course his beloved cricket were abundant. All told, it made for a fine life for the vigorous young man, who was now going by  the nickname of “Murphy,” yet another name given him in tribute to his Irish heritage. The only problem was the date: the 27-year-old Edward “Eddie/Paddy/Pat/Murphy” Corringham Mannock had arrived in Constantinople in February of 1914. A war that absolutely no one saw coming was soon to engulf much of Europe and the world.

Why should anyone have been thinking about war as the lovely spring of 1914 turned into the most bucolic summer anyone could remember? There hadn’t been a truly major, extended war in Western or Central Europe since Napoleon’s final defeat back in 1815. The intervening century had been on the whole the most peaceful in recorded European history, marked only by a handful of brief conflicts that had ended with fairly minimal casualties, along with more extended but remote proxy wars like the Crimean War and the Boer Wars in which Mannock’s father had fought. Historians of later times would be able to identity all sorts of plausible reasons to call the Europe of 1914 a “powder keg”: an entangling system of ill-considered alliances all but guaranteed to turn local conflicts into continent-spanning ones; the rising tide of nationalism and its less pleasant little brother militarism; the decrepit dysfunction of the Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Czarist Russia; the destabilization that resulted from dynamic young Germany sitting right next to all these staid old men; a nostalgic glorification of the wars of old, and with it a feeling that, with Europe not having had a really good war in such a long while, perhaps now was a good time for one; a desire on the part of many nations to try out all the modern military hardware they’d been so busily accumulating. But none of these feel terribly satisfying as a real reason to wage war. The greatest tragedy of the First World War must be that it was waged for very little concrete reason at all.

The Turks had been drifting closer to Germany for years. Indeed, they had quite the crush on the younger power. They struggled with mixed results to remodel their ragtag military in the German Army’s hyper-disciplined image, and their commanders and statesmen affected the side whiskers favored by the German general staff. The prospect of using Germany to inflict revenge for past slights upon Greece and Russia, their two most longstanding ethnic enemies, held immense appeal. When the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Francis Ferdinand by a Serbian nationalist caused the dominoes to begin to fall in Europe that summer of 1914, Mannock wrote home that “things [are] very serious here. War in the air. Great anti-British feelings displayed by the people.” Still, Turkey remained at least ostensibly neutral through that fateful summer and for some time thereafter, leaving the little expatriated community in Constantinople in an uncomfortable limbo. Certainly for Mannock, who was moving up so quickly, forgoing his life in Turkey must have felt like a bitter pill to swallow. So, like many of his fellows, he cooled his heels. If it held true to recent form, this latest European war would be a quick, clean one, after which everyone could settle down again and concentrate on the jobs they’d come to Turkey to do. And if the government of Turkey did begin to make a clear public shift in the direction of Germany, there should still be time to get out before war was declared.

He was wrong on both counts. Referencing a list of recent grievances against Britain in particular, the Ottoman Empire unexpectedly declared war on Britain, France, and Russia on October 29. Mannock and his fellow Britons were immediately interned.

Actually, “interned” is far too soft a verb to use. While the women and children were treated comparatively gently and soon sent home, the men were thrown in prison, where they lived under the most appalling conditions; not for nothing has the term “Turkish prison” become such a cliché in reference to man’s inhumanity to man. Eyewitness accounts of Mannock during this period are somewhat sketchy, but they describe a man who repeatedly defied the guards, and in return was subjected to beatings, starvation, and solitary confinement even more extreme than that endured by the other prisoners. He came to be regarded as a leader and a role model by his comrades, many of whom were older and more frail than he. One of them later described him as “our philosopher, friend, and guide”: “He was always cheery and helpful, and kept the men ‘British’ all through.” He dug a hole under the fence surrounding the prison, which he used not to attempt to escape but to make nighttime journeys to a nearby black market, returning with food to supplement the prisoners’ meager daily ration of black bread and water. For the first time in his life, he showed himself capable of genuine heroism. In a different, perhaps better world, we might admire him more for what he did during these five desperate months than for what he would later accomplish in the cockpit of an airplane.

After much negotiation, largely undertaken by the American ambassador to Turkey on behalf of the British government, an exchange of British and Turkish nationals was finally worked out. On April 1, 1915, Mannock and his fellow prisoners were released — only to be packed on board a train for a long, circuitous journey across the Balkans that proved as physically trying as life in prison had been. Reaching Greece at last, they sailed for home. Upon Mannock’s return to Wellingborough, Jim Eyles was shocked at the appearance of his surrogate prodigal son. He looked, Eyles would later say, “an absolute mess,” still wracked by dysentery and malaria from his time in prison and quite possibly pneumonia from exposure to the elements on the long journey home.

Still a strong young man at bottom, Mannock would recover physically from the Turkish nightmare. But in another sense he was changed forever. He had become a very bitter man, his idealistic enthusiasm for the international socialist movement now exchanged for a darker, more violent worldview. He reserved his greatest hatred not for the Turks but for the Germans; manifesting the casual racism of the times, he regarded them as the Turks’ masters, and thus the true cause of all his recent suffering. What with his connections to international socialism, Mannock must have known at some intellectual level that Germany as a whole was no more of a political piece than was Britain, that there were plenty inside the country, even plenty fighting on the front lines, who lamented the reactionary militarism of the Kaiser and the war that was being fought in its name. But somehow none of that seemed to register anymore. Germans were a scourge, an affront to everything Mannock and his fellow socialists believed in. He wanted not just to make the world safe for socialism; he wanted to kill Germans.

This darkness in Mannock’s character, which would only grow more pronounced with time, is something his biographers and hagiographers alike have always struggled to come to terms with. Certainly it’s tempting to put on one’s psychologist’s hat, to speculate on whether in hating Germans so rabidly he was sublimating the frustration and rage of a lifetime over the course of which, no matter how capable he proved himself or how nobly he conducted himself, he must always be looked down upon by his alleged betters in the strict Edwardian class hierarchy, must always be condescended to and made subtly to understand that he could never truly be of the class of men who were so happy to make use of his talents. Then again, maybe a cigar really is just a cigar in this case. It certainly wasn’t unusual for even ardent socialists to support the British war effort wholeheartedly. For each of them who elected to endure ridicule by sitting out the war, sometimes in prison, as a conscientious objector, several more went to war willingly, convinced both that the war was worth fighting on its own merits to combat German militarism and that, having fought and won it for their alleged betters, the British working classes would have to be rewarded with new opportunity and equality.  It would only be after the war was over, when new opportunity and equality most conspicuously failed to materialize, that the British left’s view of the war would harden into that of a colossal, pointless, criminal sham perpetuated by the ruling classes upon the working men who fought and died in it.

In this sense, then, Mannock was fairly unexceptional among his creed in eagerly rejoining the Territorial Force just as soon as his health would allow, well before mandatory conscription, the inevitable result of the casualties the volunteer army was sustaining, went into effect in 1916. He was assigned to an ambulatory force which drilled in England for months on end without ever getting sent to the front. This situation rankled Mannock deeply, as did the very notion of serving in a noncombatant role. In November of 1915, now fully recovered physically from his ordeal in Turkey, he applied for a transfer and an officer’s commission with the Royal Engineers; he thought, rightly, that they would be pleased to have a man of his practical experience with rigging and wiring. He told Eyles that his ultimate goal was to join the so-called “tunneling” forces. One of the dirtiest and deadliest jobs on the front, tunneling meant literally digging tunnels from friendly trenches under those of the enemy and planting explosives there. It seldom worked out all that well; in keeping with so many aspects of trench warfare, the whole enterprise tended to take on a farcical, blackly comic tone, with the tunnelers often winding up in the completely wrong place and blowing up nothing more than a few trees, or blowing themselves up with the touchy explosives of the era long before they made it to enemy lines. Nevertheless, the notion struck a chord with Mannock’s sheer bloody-mindedness. “Blow the bastards up!” he told Eyles. “The higher they go and the more pieces they come down [in], the better.”

Transferred to a newly established Royal Engineers unit in Bedfordshire in early 1916 and commissioned as an officer, Mannock, who for some reason was now going by the nickname of “Jerry,” found himself in a social environment very different from that he had known as a Territorial. Here, in this unit that had accepted him at all only due to his practical experience as a telephone rigger, he was surrounded by much younger men — Mannock was now pushing thirty — from the upper classes. They didn’t take any better to his gruff working-class manners than they did to his forthrightly radical politics; ditto his Irish brogue, especially when the Easter Rising began that April. They didn’t know whether he committed so many social faux pas because be didn’t know any better, because he didn’t care, or because he was actively tweaking them — but, increasingly, they began to suspect the last. And for good reason: Mannock judged most of his comrades to be the worst sort of drones of the English class system, shirkers who had used their family connections to win a posting to the Royal Engineers in the hope that the long period of training that must precede transfer to the front would let the war get finished before they had to take part in it. Having joined the unit for precisely the opposite reason, he was a man apart in the officers’ mess in this as in so many other ways.

When he learned upon completing several months of basic training that he might have to spend another full year training to become a tunneler — news that must have struck his comrades as wonderful — Mannock applied yet again for a transfer, this time to the air corps; absurdly counter-intuitive as it strikes us today, it actually took far less time to learn how to fly an airplane in those days than it did to learn how to dig tunnels and blow stuff up. His unit’s commander, perhaps weary of this capable but confrontational socialist firebrand who was constantly disrupting life in his officers’ mess, pushed this latest transfer request through. After passing the various medical and psychological exams, Mannock began aviator ground school in Reading in August of 1916.

Ground school filled about two months, during which Mannock and his fellow trainees were expected the learn the details of eight different types of aircraft engines. Other subjects included “General Flying,” “Aircraft Rigging,” “Theory of Flight,” “Bombs,” “Instruments,” “Morse Signalling,” and “Artillery Cooperation.” As the last two subjects attest, the real value of the airplanes of the time — the only roles in which they would make a really significant contribution during the war — was as the ultimate reconnaissance platform, taking photographs of the enemy lines and rear areas and guiding artillery barrages in real time. All of the exploits of the renowned “knights of the air,” the great fighter aces who were followed so eagerly by press and public, surrounded and perhaps too often obscured this real purpose. Aerial observation was therefore considered a skill that one and all needed to learn. Ground school included a rather fascinating early interactive simulator to help them do just that, as described by one Second Lieutenant Frederick Ortweiler:

In a large room, laid out on the floor was a model of the Ypres Salient and re-entrant by Messines, made exactly as it would be seen from an aeroplane 8000 to 10,000 feet up. With a squared map it was possible to pick out all the various roads, etc., and we were given practice in picking out points on the map. Then, by a system of little lights in the model, we were made to imagine that a battery was firing on a target and we were correcting. We would first be shown the target by having it lit up; then a flash would appear as the battery fired and another where the shot fell. Then we would have to send corrections over the buzzer till an “OK” was registered and the shoot finished.

Wars, if they go on long enough, produce a social leveling effect. The Royal Flying Corps, strictly the domain of “gentlemen” early on, was broadening by necessity to admit men like Mannock, who made up for in practical skills what they lacked in breeding. The class blending produced inevitable conflicts of the sort with which Mannock was all too familiar by now. A simpering gentleman named Dudley McKergow sniffed:

There are some perfectly appalling people here now. Their intonation is terrible and you can pick out hairdressers, Jews who would sell tobacco, the typical shop attendant, the comic-turn man at the very provincial show, and the greasy mechanic type. These are the class of fellows from cadet school — hardly one of them has any pretence of being a gentleman. There are still a very good crowd of observers and we keep to ourselves.

Mannock, of course, did nothing to make himself more palatable to the Dudley McKergows around him; he was as unashamed of his accent as he was of his political opinions. On the front, at least, the snobbery would fade somewhat in the face of the more elemental realities of life and death.

A Maurice Farman biplane

A Maurice Farman biplane

After ground school, it was off to Hendon Airfield in North London for flight school. It’s difficult to fully convey today how new and wondrous the very idea of powered flight was in those days, quite apart from any applicability as a tool of war. It had, after all, been barely a decade since the Wright brothers first flew at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. A body of best practices for the teaching of new pilots was still all but nonexistent. The standard training aircraft were Maurice Farman biplanes, ungainly contraptions dating from before the war that looked hardly more airworthy than the original Wright brothers glider. They flew about the same as they looked, slewing sluggishly through the sky. Still, they responded so slowly to the controls that it was difficult to get into irreversible trouble with them, and they proved surprisingly durable when the trainees bounced them down hard on runways or taxied them into trees. The Farmans were equipped with dual controls for the trainee and his instructor, but the engine sitting directly behind them both was so loud that spoken communication was impossible. If an instructor felt he absolutely had to say something to his pupil, his only way of doing so was to turn the engine off for a moment — a risky procedure, as an engine once switched off wasn’t always guaranteed to start back up again.

What with the short and sketchy ground-school curriculum that preceded each trainee’s first flight, the job of the instructors could sometimes be almost as perilous as that of the front-line pilots. Indeed, some took to calling their trainees “Huns” (the universal British appellation for the Germans) because they considered the scariest of them every bit as dangerous as any German ace. Many of the very worst of the trainees — the ones who most needed instruction — were pushed through having barely taken the controls at all, simply because the harried instructors lacked the time or patience to correct their failings. Plenty of these hapless fledglings wound up killing themselves in routine exercises before they ever made it to the front. Those who did survive that long could look forward to a life expectancy even shorter than that of the average greenhorn on the front.

What Mannock made of the whole confused process has not been recorded. However, given the yeoman work he would later do in systematizing the art of air combat into something approaching a science, he must have been fairly appalled at the chaos. Regardless, he was certainly among the better fledglings of his class, proving himself an able pilot if not quite a superb one, his native mechanical aptitude serving him well yet again. He was good enough that upon earning his “ticket” — his pilot’s license — and beginning to fly solo, he was earmarked for posting to a “scout,” or fighter, squadron rather than being relegated to a slower, heavier observation plane along with the less promising pilots. Problem was, actual scout aircraft were in short supply. He therefore spent some months after his training was supposedly finished being moved rather aimlessly around England, making occasional flights in obsolete De Havilland DH.2s. He seethed at each new domestic posting and dreamed of the day when he would finally get to go to the front. In the meantime this man of many names at last acquired the sobriquet by which he would go down in history: he became known as “Mick” or sometimes “Mickey” among his jittery fellow fledglings, yet one more tribute to his Irishness.

De Havilland DH.2

De Havilland DH.2

In March of 1917, at the end of this period of impatient waiting, the veteran ace James McCudden, who would come to be credited with 57 victories, second most of any British pilot of the war, spent some time giving Mannock and his fellow inexperienced pilots some final instruction before the long-awaited posting to the front came. This encounter between Britain’s eventual aces of aces and the runner-up led to one of the most famous stories about Mannock — famous despite or perhaps because the incident is so atypical of him. One day, McCudden told his charges that it was impossible to pull an airplane out of a spin that began below 2000 feet in time to avoid hitting the ground. The next day, Mannock threw his DH.2 into a spin at just 1500 feet. If he had hoped to prove McCudden wrong, he didn’t quite succeed: he managed to regain just enough control to plunk his plane roughly down on its wheels directly in front of the Vickers Ammunition Factory, yards away from rows and rows of sheds stuffed full of high explosives. Mannock insisted to his livid superiors that the whole thing had been an accident, which may very well have been true; unlike so many of his fellow aces, he would never acquire a reputation for heedless daredevilry. McCudden, however, was convinced that the “impetuous young Irishman” — McCudden was about to turn 22, while Mannock was almost 30, making the description rather rich — had done it deliberately to show him up.

Although the two men would never fly into battle together, they would cross paths regularly over the fifteen months or so each had left to live. During this time they would build a friendship but also a marked rivalry, only to die within three weeks of one another. For now, though, for the older but much, much greener of the pair, training days were finally over. On April 1, 1917 — two years to the day after he had been released from a Turkish prison — Second Lieutenant Edward “Eddie/Paddy/Pat/Jerry/Murphy/Mickey/Mick” Carringham Mannock arrived at St. Omer, France, for final posting to an active-duty squadron on the front lines. At long last, he was going to war.

(Sources for this article and those that follow in this series: Mick Mannock, Fighter Pilot by Adrian Smith; The Personal Diary of ‘Mick’ Mannock, introduced and annotated by Frederick Oughton; The Knighted Skies by Edward Jablonski; The American Heritage History of World War I by S.L.A. Marshall; Aces Falling by Peter Hart; Bloody April by Peter Hart; King of Airfighters by Ira Jones; Mount of Aces by Paul R. Hare; Winged Victory by V.M. Yeates; The First World War by John Keegan; A Short History of World War I by James L. Stokesbury.)

  1. Generations of hagiographers would later claim that the infection left Mannock’s vision out of his left eye permanently impaired if not destroyed entirely, thus giving rise to the legend of “the ace with one eye,” a story worthy of a Biggles novel. Manly lad that he was, the accounts claim, he never revealed his handicap to any but those who were closest to him out of a horror of being pitied. Instead he worked for hours on end to find ways to compensate when, for instance, playing cricket (a sport at which he was actually quite accomplished). Thus did the hagiographers neatly sidestep the fact that the vast majority of those who remembered Mannock remembered absolutely nothing of note about his vision, other than perhaps an unusually intense stare when he talked with them.

    Similarly, the hagiographers claimed that he managed to pass at least three eye exams with ease prior to becoming a pilot by using a photographic memory that is in evidence nowhere else in his life’s story to memorize the optical chart. As it happens, one Lieutenant Gilbert Preston, who had lost his left eye as a ground soldier at Gallipoli before deciding to sign on with the Royal Flying Corps, tried to fool the doctor in exactly the same way Mannock is claimed to have done. It didn’t work out terribly well for him:

    I thought that I had fooled the doctor, because after I had read the reading board with my right eye, he turned me to the window and said, “Tell me what you see out of the window.” I knew that I would have to come back to reading the eye chart, so I memorised all of the lines on the board. When I finished describing what I had seen out the window, he swung me around, and covered my right eye and said, “Will you continue reading the eye chart?” I knew what was coming, so I started to “read” the board. Suddenly he said, “You’re blind in that eye, aren’t you?” I said, “Oh no, not quite.” He told me, “Uncover your right eye and look again at the chart.” While I had been looking out the window, and unknown to me, he had turned the chart over and the only single letter on that chart was the letter “E.” I was heartsick as I thought my own chances were non-existent. He then announced, “Don’t take it too much to heart, because I have orders to send you to the Flying Corps – whether you can see or not!” To my disappointment he informed me that I could not qualify as a pilot and that I would go to France as an observer.

    So, the stories of Edward Mannock as “the ace with one eye” are all, needless to say, almost certainly complete bunk. Nor are they necessary for casting him in the role of hero; his story is plenty heroic without them. 

Adventure Blog

Hiring: Part-Time Project Manager [PAID]

November 18, 2016 07:01 AM

We’re currently looking for a part-time(~5-10h/week) Producer/Project Manager (paid) to help keep our little team of freelancers on task and on schedule. While you may have some production responsibilities, we’re looking mainly for someone to keep the rest of us focused and make sure we’re getting the right things done.

Here’s the full story and how to apply. Post any questions here or by email, thanks!

November 16, 2016

Versificator IF blog

IFComp impressions

by robinjohnson at November 16, 2016 04:01 PM

IFComp is closed to votes. The games are still playable on the site and will remain so, and the results will be announced at 4pm EST (2100 GMT) tomorrow.

It has been so much fun to participate in IFComp again. Everybody’s game made some people smile, and I hope and trust that most authors entered to share their creativity and take part in an important IF community event, rather than out of wanting to beat other people. Prefacing cliches with “It’s a cliche but” is a cliche, but it’s a cliche but we all win.

These are my brief impressions of other people’s IFComp games. REVIEWING IS HARD: I don’t have full reviews, I haven’t played as many games as I’d like, I haven’t written up every game I played or liked, and I haven’t said as much as I’d like to about most of the games I did write up.

Spoilers are rot13‘d and coloured pink.

Cactus Blue Motel by Astrid Dalmady
Brilliant look and styling, and a good story. The writing was atmospheric and interesting. I did get stuck for a little while in the middle; I thought I’d explored everywhere but I hadn’t (having some of the location entrances differentiated only by room numbers might have been a thing here.)

I’d assumed at first that my goal was to escape from the motel, so it was a little jarring when I realised I was supposed to want to stay, or at least the protagonist wanted to. Then shortly after I’d shrugged and decided to play as if I want to stay, she decided she wanted to leave.

I didn’t get the chance to Have A Talk with Lex before I got to my ending, but I assume that possibility is in there somewhere. I certainly enjoyed myself enough to try for another ending once I’ve had a chance to forget some things.

Fair by Hanon Ondricek
This is funny, and busy, and highly replayable. All of the NPCs are entertaining and the small scope and timespan really work to its advantage.

The Game of Worlds Tournament by Ade
First impressions, the graphics in the web version are beautiful, and it’s an innovative idea.

I’m still getting used to the game itself – like many players, I didn’t quite clock the existence of the rulebook until I’d been playing a while – but it certainly makes me want to learn the tactics.

There’s something really nice about the layers of abstraction and stories-within-stories here – it’s an IF game, about going to a tournament, to play a card game, that itself tells a story about war.

I’d pay money for a printed Game of Worlds set.

Inside the Facility by Arthur DiBianca
My favourite so far. It’s an unashamed puzzle with a reduced parser – the only commands it accepts are NORTH, EAST, SOUTH, WEST, WAIT, LOOK and STATUS, with actions like picking things up and giving them to NPCs triggered automatically. This is surprisingly effective, and the game contains a variety of puzzles of different types. There was one that I solved by accident (tvivat gur ynopbng gb gur znvyebbz pyrex) and a couple where I resorted to the walkthrough (Tebire gur tneqrare, naq gur purzvpny zvkvat ng gur raq) but neither of those felt unfair in retrospect.

I was initially put off by the request to print off a map to fill in as you go, but found it added to the fun, like solving a crossword, and there are certainly puzzles that would have been both harder and less enjoyable without it.

The author knows how to use brevity of writing to good effect – with such a large map, longer descriptions would have made the game more tiring. But they managed to squeeze every drop of clarity and characterisation out of the one-sentence descriptions: I even ungrq Gunqqrhf, naq jnf qryvtugrq gb frr uvz fghoovat uvf gbr nsgre tvivat uvz gur zvfsbeghangbe.

Mirror and Queen by Chandler Groover
Loved this one. It’s another game with an extremely reduced verbset – reduced to zero – but it has a HUGE number of nouns. I think I got a default response maybe twice, and it’s well enough handled that I’m not even certain they were default responses. This is the way to do a puzzleless game without sacrificing the player’s sense of agency. The excellent, slightly disconcerting prose and the horror-adjacent theme were all very Chandler Groover. Anyone who’s a fan of his other works will enjoy this, and probably has already.

Night House by Bitter Karella
Somehow, this is the first time I’ve played a Quest game, and I have to begin by saying how impressed I am with the Quest platform. It’s smooth, lets you click links or type into a parser, and I found it more comfortable to use than any of the web-based Inform/TADS interpreters. I later found out that it has a tendency for it to time out, though, which is a dealbreaker.

As to the game itself: this is a horror story with a child protagonist set in the ’80s or ’90s, so it immediately put me in mind of “Stranger Things”. The atmosphere is created skilfully, making the right nostalgic feeling from the childish perspective and the presence of Ataris, trapperkeepers and so on. For me, the puzzle involving gnxvat onggrevrf sebz lbhe cneragf’ frk gbl broke it a bit – apart from general squeamishness, it relied on me having knowledge that the player character didn’t.

It suffers a lot from underimplementation: many items mentioned in the room descriptions give an “I can’t see that” response. Worse, many objects are referred to by nouns *in their description* that aren’t supported by the parser, such as the “Betamax cassette” which you have to refer to as TAPE. Reasonable verbs are also unsupported – PULL CURTAIN works but OPEN CURTAIN doesn’t. The description of the flashlight says it doesn’t work, even after you put the batteries in it.

After I explored most of the house, it abruptly stopped responding to commands and I gave up. I’ll have another go later, when the author has hopefully had time to fix some bugs.

Screw You, Bear Dad! by Xalavier Nelson Jr
This is a fairly linear Twine story about a bear infiltrating a secret arms facility for… some reason. There are flashbacks to the bear’s childhood and abusive father, which I found tough going, and flash-sidewayses to a simultaneous scene involving some of the people working in the facility. I would have liked to know more about the bear himself and exactly what he’s doing there.

The Skull Embroidery by Jeron Paraiso
It’s great to see so many of the games experimenting with interfaces and world models in this comp. This one is an implementation of a CRPG, with stats, levels and combat, using a text interface written in Ruby, with input by way of one- or two-key choices. It felt like something between a roguelike and a parser game. I was compelled by the story, even though it’s little more than an old-fashioned forest-and-cave crawl, but found the interface a bit repetitive and clunky, especially in combat, where the well-written descriptions are undermined by the fact that after a short time you’re just scanning for the numbers. The author has hinted that they’re going to redo this as a browser game with link-driven controls and separate windows, and I look forward to playing that incarnation.

Toiletworld by Chet Rocketfrak
Okay, I played this one for about one minute, approaching it as a joke or troll entry after reading other people’s reviews. And I have to say, approaching it from that direction, this made me laugh out loud:

You can’t see any such thing.

That’s worth at least a 2 in my book.

November 15, 2016

Sibyl Moon Games

Why Yayfrens?

by Carolyn VanEseltine at November 15, 2016 11:01 PM

In February 2015, Caelyn Sandel and I created the Twitter bot Yayfrens as a “loving friend bot”. She posts encouraging and cheerful comments throughout the day, and she sends nice replies to people who tweet at her or RT her.

When we released Yayfrens, some people understood the point immediately, but others were critical of the project and skeptical that a bot could provide meaningful comfort. I wanted to defend Yayfrens, but I didn’t say anything at the time because I didn’t know what to say. I knew Yayfrens was important, but I couldn’t put it into words.

This past weekend, Khadeja Merenkov and I gave a talk at GaymerX East called “Writing a ‘Real’ Fictional World Using Current Theory of Culture”. I’m very proud of our presentation; it combined her academic perspective and expertise with my hands-on experience with worldbuilding. But I bring it up now because of two slides from my side of the presentation.

Here’s the first one:

The slide reads: "People make sense! 'I suspect most people feel more or less the same when they're being chased by bees.' - Max Gladstone, 'Max Gladstone on Diversity and Bees'." There is also an image of a young black woman leaning against a city wall. There are silver patterns on her arm, and she is holding a glowing knife.

(Image credit: Chris McGrath’s cover art for Three Parts Dead, by Max Gladstone.)

And here’s the second.

This is a slide reading: "1) People do things that make sense. 2) The vast majority of people want to be good people. These two principles affect how people interact with their surrounding culture." There is also an image of a serene woman wearing an elaborate mask and headdress.

(Image credit: Michael Whelan’s cover art for The Snow Queen, by Joan D. Vinge.)

At this point, Yayfrens has 3,352 followers. Some are surely bots and spammers, but the rest are people, and I’m confident that I know how the vast majority would react if they were being chased by bees.

I don’t have a lot of faith in humanity as a whole (particularly now). But I do have a lot of faith in individual humans. I believe that the vast majority of people have a moral compass, and that the vast majority of people want to do good things according to that compass.

Those compasses differ, of course – because of upbringing, teaching, experiences, circumstances, and history. (Hell on earth spawns from two people trying to do the right thing in opposite directions.) I don’t agree with everyone’s moral compass, but I do agree with the importance of wanting to do good things.

I think everyone gets sad and discouraged and hurt sometimes, even if – especially if – they’re trying to do good things. I think people deserve support when they’re trying to do good things and they’re having a hard time of it.

When I’m comforting or encouraging one of my friends, many of the things I say are widely applicable: “You’re not alone.” “You’re going to get through this.” “I believe in you.” “Please don’t forget there are people who love you.” “Do you want a hug?”

I don’t use these words repeatedly because I think my friends are interchangeable. I use them because hurt and fear and sadness are nigh-universal human experiences. When I’m feeling low, it helps to be reminded that I’m not alone, that I’m going to get through this, that someone believes in me and loves me, and yes I do want a hug, thank you. When I say these things to someone else, they come from empathy.

Yayfrens, as her critics have pointed out, isn’t personal. She cannot advise you on your exact situation, or remind you of specific people who love you, or point out your individual strengths and skills.

Yayfrens has thousands of followers, more than me and Caelyn combined, and we don’t know most of them. There are simply too many. But Caelyn and I can make some reasonable assumptions about the Yayfrens followers: we can assume that they are good people, and that they go through hard times, and that, if we were friends, we would want to support and encourage them when they do.

Yayfrens is a statement about our common humanity. She is an expression of faith and love in potentia. If 1 in 1,000 of her followers doesn’t deserve that support, then we created her for the 999 followers who do.

That’s why Yayfrens.

Emily Short

Mid-November Link Assortment

by Emily Short at November 15, 2016 09:00 AM

November 19, London, is Wordplay, held at the British Library. [Not Museum, as I stupidly mis-typed earlier.]

November 20, also London, AdventureX is running the interactive fiction-y part of its content. I’ll be talking about IF past, present, and future.

November 25, London, Parallel Worlds is a game design conference running at the V&A museum.

ICIDS is running this week, with the latest academic work on interactive digital storytelling. The papers are currently available (though at some cost); or, through December 9, if you go through the link on, you can download the full PDF for free.


Choice of Games is running a new competition for interactive fiction in their house style. There are very detailed descriptions of what they’re looking for. Top-placers will win up to $5000 and publication with royalties via Choice of Games; the competition runs through January of 2018 to give you plenty of time to put something together. Entrants that do not win may still be eligible for publication through CoG’s “Hosted Games” program.

New releases

Screen Shot 2016-11-06 at 9.30.28 AM.png

Known Unknowns is a new adventure from Brendan Patrick Hennessy, set in the same overall universe as Bell Park, Youth DetectiveBirdland and Open Up!. This time Bell and Bridget are not the main characters, though you can expect a cameo or two. Known Unknowns is being published in episodes, but episode 1 is now available.


bringmeaheadEctoComp dropped in a whole bunch of new Halloween-themed games, which are still open for judging through November 30. I mentioned a few I tried and liked in a previous post. Since then, I’ve also checked out and enjoyed Chandler Groover’s Bring Me A Head! — a one-puzzle story with multiple solutions, and typically Grooverian in the way it smuggles its most startling content into the story under a cloak of narrative voice:

“Supreme horologist. He’s got more arms than most horologists, hence his supremacy. That shadow on the wall, looks like an arachnid, it’s his.”

four_sittingsOr you might like Bruno Dias’ Four Sittings in a Sinking House. To describe what I like most about this one requires a semi-spoiler, so I’ll rot13 and you can decide for yourself whether you want to know:

Gur tnzr vapyhqrf bar bs gur zber fngvfslvat rkbepvfz fprarf V’ir frra, orpnhfr vg’f npghnyyl nobhg fbzrguvat naq abg whfg n enaqbz zlfgvpny-jbb fprar jurer sbe fbzr ernfba n ohaqyr bs fntr naq n srj yvarf bs n qrnq ynathntr qevir bss gur tbngl uryy-ornfg.

Try it: it runs a few minutes, no more.

There are 21 games in all, most with very short play times, so there’s a lot to find beyond what I’ve previewed here.


Those Trojan Girls is a new piece of hypertext narrative from Mark Bernstein, sold through Eastgate Systems.


The Recombinant Armorial Roll is a procedurally generated catalog of dynasties, created for ProcJam by Bruno Dias. There are many other Procjam goodies as well, which you can find at its page.


The Mirror is a short Twine piece augmented with a bit of imagery, about body positivity.


Somewhere between IF and civilization simulator, Epitaph is a game about sentient life developing on planets. You’re allowed to help the civilizations along from time to time, but they’ll often die off — either because your gift of (say) fire has caused them to burn down every tree on their planet accidentally, or because some random environmental event has happened. The point is a bit different, and the interface is a streamlined choice interface, but I found myself thinking of the opening puzzle of Worldsmith.


Dialogue from Tea-Powered Games is available on The piece focuses on conversation and correspondence with other characters: there are passages where you’re revising what you want to write to other people, and then two different dialogue mechanics for conversation. Some conversations are timed choice-making dialogues as in Telltale games, where you have a certain number of seconds to take action before the choice times out. Others use a more overtly puzzle-like maze metaphor, where you’re looking for leads in the conversation to open new conversation topics. For instance, here’s a moment where the player has two leads to follow up that might connect to new conversation nodes:


Podcasts and Other Coverage

FLOSS Weekly talks with representatives of the IF Technology Foundation about their work, particularly around making interactive fiction more accessible.

Clash of the Type-ins is up to episode 39 at this point, with Chandler Groover and Buster Hudson as recent guests.

Related games and diversions

I enjoyed this gorgeous article with photographs of real-world mazes and labyrinths, executed in everything from stone and hedge to mirrored glass.

Sam Ashwell writes about Dogs in the Vineyard, a tabletop RPG with some intriguing narrative mechanics.

I’m hearing good things about the combination of board game worker-placement play and storytelling play in Above and Below.

Other resources some of us may need right now

Grieving and self-care

Here and here are some past lists of IF games I’ve recommended as mood-lifters or sources of comfort.

Protection and planning

This is a quick set of suggestions about how to intervene safely and effectively if you witness Islamophobic street harassment; the same methods would apply for any kind of racist or sexist harassment.

Lambda Legal fights for queer and trans rights. They have a page about what to expect after the election and how to deal with it.

The ACLU fights civil rights violations of all sorts in the United States. They will sue to fight unconstitutional actions on the part of the government.

The Southern Poverty Law Center tracks extremism and hate groups. Personally I am not sure this is quite as effective as the ACLU’s direct legal action, but YMMV. They do provide some tracking on what is currently going on.

CAIR tracks and reports on factors that affect Muslims in America.

This document collects many resources and pieces of advice for different groups likely to be affected by the change of administration.

DonorsChoose provides teacher-requested supplies for classrooms in the United States — including classrooms of students of color and immigrant students. Classrooms are a front line right now as children look for reassurance about their place in the US, and/or replicate the bullying attitudes they see in the surrounding culture. Teachers need to be supported and well-equipped. You can search specifically for ESL classrooms/projects if you want to send particular support to immigrant populations. (More on why this specific issue resonates with me.)

Activism and resistance

Cassandra Khaw curates a list of opportunities for writers from marginalized backgrounds.

Masha Gessen writes on living in an autocracy; Harold Pollack, less extremely, on what is likely to be necessary in the short term. Or there’s this from Jon Schwarz, or these reflections in the New Yorker.

November 14, 2016

Adventure Blog

Redesigning Strayed: Italics vs Oblique

November 14, 2016 03:01 PM

We’ve been receiving quite a bit of feedback on Strayed, which is super exciting! Everyone seems to love the prose and the atmosphere so far. The one issue that we keep hearing about is that the app’s design itself can hinder immersion, since the bright text links on a white background undermines the feeling of being all alone in the dark woods.


We’ve been experimenting with a variety of different fonts, and this is what we’ve settled on so far!


With a smaller, thinner font, and a muted colour for the text links, this design does a much better job of enhancing the atmosphere.

One of our writers, who happens to be a typography nerd, also pointed out that the italicized link text isn’t really in italics, it’s just an oblique font.

The difference? To make a font oblique, you take the regular font and distort it, while italicized fonts are specifically redesigned to be a slanted version of the regular font.

The latter tends to stand out more, which is what we need, since we need our choices to really stand out from the regular body of text. Players tend to skim the body of the text and get straight to the interactive parts; our design should be facillitating that process, not frustrating it.

So here is what the latest version of Strayed looks like:


Much better, right? Let us know what you think on Facebook or Twitter!

Versificator IF blog

Wordplay and AdventureX

by robinjohnson at November 14, 2016 01:01 PM

This coming weekend I’ll be in London for two IF-related events:

  • The Hand Eye Society’s Wordplay on Saturday 19th. Draculaland has been chosen as part of the showcase.
  • The second half of AdventureX on Sunday 20th.

Come and say hello!

November 13, 2016


New release: The Recombinant Armorial Roll

November 13, 2016 08:37 PM

My project for this year’s Procjam, the Recombinant Armorial Roll is a procedurally-generated dynastic history of a fictional empire, assembled from a relatively small corpus and rendered in the form of a finite but very deep hypertext.

Like the Annals of the Parrigues, the Armorial Roll is a finite document. It’s by necessity more repetitive than Parrigues, with a much smaller corpus for a much bigger text — there are theoretically 65,535 dynasties in the Roll, though I can’t guarantee they all are accessible through links from the starting dynasty; I literally don’t know.

The Roll can also be seen here, which you can also use to save and share permanent links to specific dynasties.