Planet Interactive Fiction

September 02, 2014

The Monk's Brew

Changelog 2014-09-01

by Rubes at September 02, 2014 02:00 AM


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

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

September 01, 2014

These Heterogenous Tasks

80 Days: Protagonism and Problematics

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

80 Days is a game about being on the outside of things. Fogg and Passepartout are tourists; their contact with any given culture is perforce brief, and they’re not heroes who ride through town, fix all its problems and ride on. They are both representatives of major colonial powers, in a piece that’s more concerned with the people who got colonised. At one level, all the effort you spend on getting from one place to another is just a highly involved way of traveling through other people’s stories that you only briefly touch.

Passepartout’s line “We are going around the world!” is a running gag – it paints him as naively enthusiastic, their voyage’s entire premise as a quixotic game of the idle rich. The responses it receives from NPCs generally confirm it: nice life if you can get it. Fogg is able to carry out the journey not only because of his personal wealth; that, alone, will almost never get you around the world. (It might be possible with some severe optimisation.) Rather, his status as an upper-class Brit gives him effectively unlimited credit at banks; even the money you make yourself, through the trading of luxury goods to specific destinations, is often only possible because of this unlimited credit. (This privilege gets highlighted by reversal in Panama, where the bank is only open to citizens of the local imperial power – Haiti.) Even if you lose the wager, Fogg is not actually ruined; he just declares that you’ll try again. The affordances offered to the player by games always place them in an effective position of spectacular privilege relative to NPCs; 80 Days actively engages with that.

Aouda / Aodha

Meg Jayanth:

So, when Jon and Joe from inkle studios asked me to adapt Around the World in 80 Days as interactive fiction… my first thought was “what am I going to do about Aouda?”

When I first heard about 80 Days and that Meg Jayanth was doing it, that was pretty much my first thought too, combined with ‘dang, I’m glad they gave this to someone qualified to deal with it.’ Jayanth is a British Indian woman whose previous work has addressed colonialism in the subcontinent; Aouda is an idealised Indian woman as defined by a white colonialist Victorian man.

80 Days revisits a number of sequences from the original Verne, and there was one particular element that I was curious about. In the original story, Fogg rescues Aouda, an Indian widow, from involuntary sati. Aouda gratefully follows him around the world and, as an element of the climactic reveal, marries him. It’s a twofer story, both a damsel-rescue and a White Man’s Burden story in which the superstition of the natives is cunningly turned against them. (Yeah, sati was a real thing and thoroughly awful, and the British did ban it – as had various Hindu states; but European accounts uniformly exaggerated the practice – its prevalence, the level of coercion typically involved, the breadth of its support among Hindus generally – in order to stress the barbarity of non-whites and non-Christians and the necessity of empire as moral education. Verne, to his credit, mentions some of this – he has a rather encyclopedia-flavoured style, having traveled very little – but then goes for the Maximum Barbarity version anyway.)

Verne has nothing but praise for Aouda, and is evidently cool with mixed-race marriage, but there’s a lot more going on here. Aouda isn’t a Hindu, but a monotheist Parsi, what Verne calls “the most thrifty, civilised, intelligent, and austere of the East Indians”; she’s at once an exotic beauty and thoroughly Westernised (not to mention pale). Here’s the section in which she’s first described, quoted at length because jeez:

When the poet-king, Ucaf Uddaul, celebrates the charms of the queen of Ahmehnagara, he speaks thus:

“Her shining tresses, divided in two parts, encircle the harmonious contour of her white and delicate cheeks, brilliant in their glow and freshness. Her ebony brows have the form and charm of the bow of Kama, the god of love, and beneath her long silken lashes the purest reflections and a celestial light swim, as in the sacred lakes of Himalaya, in the black pupils of her great clear eyes. Her teeth, fine, equal, and white, glitter between her smiling lips like dewdrops in a passion-flower’s half-enveloped breast. Her delicately formed ears, her vermilion hands, her little feet, curved and tender as the lotus-bud, glitter with the brilliancy of the loveliest pearls of Ceylon, the most dazzling diamonds of Golconda. Her narrow and supple waist, which a hand may clasp around, sets forth the outline of her rounded figure and the beauty of her bosom, where youth in its flower displays the wealth of its treasures; and beneath the silken folds of her tunic she seems to have been modelled in pure silver by the godlike hand of Vicvarcarma, the immortal sculptor.”

It is enough to say, without applying this poetical rhapsody to Aouda, that she was a charming woman, in all the European acceptation of the phrase. She spoke English with great purity, and the guide had not exaggerated in saying that the young Parsee had been transformed by her bringing up.

(At times I love Victorian writers for the same reason I sometimes love crappy writers: they do things so transparently. If a more modern and subtle writer had written this description with the same intent, quibbling might be possible; here, you can see exactly what the aim is.)

So what we have here is a common trope: alluringly exotic but not uncomfortably exotic. (Aouda switches into European dress as soon as circumstances permit, and can probably pass as white.) It shows up in both male and female love-interests, but you particularly want to watch out for it in situations where passive and exotic women are enthusiastic rewards for white manly virtue – creepy enough in its own right, and a narrative which serves as a mask for a considerably more complicated and exploitative reality.

The feminine ideal Aouda conforms to is largely passive: she is grateful, gracious, tender-hearted, devotedly loyal, kind to servants, endures hardship bravely and without complaint, and follows Fogg’s instructions. The one moment of active heroism she does get is itself a great big problem (she wields a revolver against Sioux ‘savages’ attacking a train). She’s also the one to propose to Fogg, rather than the other way about, but this feels more an expression of the odd emotional imbalance at work: Aouda shows romantic interest in Fogg almost from the outset, while the perfectly-temperate, emotionally-inaccessible Englishman does not respond until the story’s end.

Quick as a panther, the woman leapt to her feet and pressed the edge of a gleaming curved blade to my neck. Her lips were drawn into a grin more bloodthirsty than ladylike. "Good morning," she said in cultured English tones. "A pleasure to make your acquaintance."

Behind her, fireworks spelled out, in letters fifty feet high, the words NOT A DAMSEL.

There’s not much of the original Aouda to salvage once you take out the shitty parts. She’s assertive enough to fire a gun in self-defence and to take the initiative with a boy she likes, but this is slender material from which to reconstitute a character; it’s entry-level for being considered as a hero. 80 Days features a version of Aouda in a capacity both grown and reduced: to encounter her you have to take a specific (and rather expensive) route, and even when encountered she plays a smaller part. She is an English-educated raja’s widow, but sati is no longer an element; rather than the victim, she is the leader of a group of rebels, who capture the party and help them continue on their way. (I couldn’t figure out whether she was still Parsi; she’s certainly associating herself with Hindu symbolism, but religion and politics are complicated.) Rather than demure reserve, she has a rather pirate-queen attitude, laughing heartily and generally enjoying herself. She remains attracted to Fogg, and makes her move on him with a good deal more alacrity than Verne’s version; she does not, however, join the party, remaining with her rebels to fight the British.

It’s a fairly standard undamseling treatment; the character is no longer a victim, is granted agency, power, independent concerns and the right to enjoy herself, and rejects the narrative imposed on her by the previous work; rather than rejecting her culture, she fights for it; rather than sitting alone in rooms thinking about how noble Fogg is, she drags him off into the woods. Perhaps because she’s so straightforwardly an undamsel, so entirely an inverse of Verne’s Aouda, she isn’t one of the more interesting NPCs in the story; but she doesn’t need to be.

I can see why the sati was taken out. Taken seriously, rather than as a dragon for a white knight to ritually slay, sati’s such a horrific subject – suicide, violence against women, sexism of the ugliest and deepest kind, racist and sectarian propaganda – that it’d be hard to deal with it within the tone established by 80 Days. Bad stuff is touched on in 80 Days a good deal, but it tends to be abstract rather than graphic, melancholy rather than agonising. Slavery is discussed without needing to focus on whippings, riots without police brutality, displacement of indigenous peoples without massacre, female escape without violence against women; we know what those things mean, so they can be introduced briefly without doing injustice to the subject or getting graphic. In the West we don’t have a widely-known post-colonial account of sati – if you’ve heard of it, the last version you heard was probably a Victorian one – so this would have been much harder.

This is not to say that the game doesn’t contain women who are traveling to escape the sexism of their own cultures. There’s even a damsel-rescue sequence of sorts, in which Passepartout helps rescue a woman from an Ottoman harem – but it’s really a self-rescue, with Passepartout playing the role of comic auxiliary rather than white knight, and Fogg uninvolved. As for following Fogg gratefully around the world, the non-player characters have their own damn lives to lead. Indeed, nobody ever joins Passepartout and Fogg for the entire remainder of their journey – which I suspect is only in part because it’d have presented a great big pile of additional writing in a game that mostly isn’t built for long-arc threads. Aouda’s present in the work mostly as an echo – in the women whose erotic interest in Fogg or Passepartout has nothing to do with gratitude, who are active agents of their own liberation, who have husbands but are not subsumed to their interests, who do cool stuff whether the PCs are allowed to tag along or not.

The Moral Signal Choice

Fogg is the most prominent NPC by a wide margin, but given how much time you spend with him, he doesn’t do much. He maintains an air of near-complete indifference to the cities and cultures he travels through; where in the original his precise, unflappable character is at least somewhat a strength, the ideal of the indomitable English will, here it’s shown as arrogance and weakness. The gregarious, cosmopolitan Passepartout – somewhat less of a capering fool in this version – is his opposite.


“This city’s kind of cool; want to explore it?”

Very often in 80 Days you’ll be given a choice that boils down to: do you want to go and experience the city/talk to some people, or do you want to stay in your hotel room until the train leaves/stay in your cabin until you reach the next city? Most often this is phrased in terms of disapproval of the local culture, or unfavourable comparisons to Passepartout’s native Paris. This approach is generally the kind of thing you’d consider a Bad Choice, for two reasons. One, a game choice between ‘play along with the author, get some content’ or ‘disagree, get nothing’ is prima facie a crappy choice. And two, versions of it with moral overtones are particularly likely to suck.

I’ve talked a good deal before about CYOA with moral signalling. In moral-signal games, the game expresses its moral principles by rewarding virtue (with the ability to continue, success endings and bonus content) and punishing vice (with bad or premature endings, returns to earlier in the story, or missed content). The place I’ve seen it used most extensively is in the rather narrow niche of young adult romance CYOAs for girls, but also crops up in more male-oriented children’s CYOA to some extent, and has long been an element of videogames that incorporate multiple-choice elements. Moral signalling is always a trade-off: it strongly declares the moral perspective of the work, but by effectively compelling the player to enact that moral perspective – and by offering boring choices – it can undermine itself. Things begin to feel all Sunday-school: figure out what set of principles the game wants you to hold as received truths, then follow them as a way of earning reward and avoiding punishment. (And honestly, given that you’re playing 80 Days in the first place, why would you pick the ‘I’m not interested in cities and cultures of the world’ options?)


A more blatant ‘make friends, or decide that foreigners suck’ choice.

The usual remedy here is to reframe the question in a way that elides the disfavoured (and boring) answers. Indeed, there are a lot of choices about external attitudes in 80 Days concerned with distinctions other than the ‘engage with / reject different culture’ choice; Passepartout can show greater interest in men or women, in technology or politics, or different political concerns; in aesthetics or socialising; or various recombinations of the above. But none of these are anywhere near as consistently delivered as the engage / reject choice. And the difficulty with this remedy is that it always changes the focus, makes the story care about different things. 80 Days is fundamentally about these two attitudes. “You can stay in your hotel room like Fogg, refusing to engage with diversity, but doing so will only make your life more boring” is one of the central things the game has to say. Building choices around that theme is an important way to keep the focus on it, even if it’s not really possible to make that an interesting choice.

I don’t believe that a game designer’s job should always be to make every player choice as interesting as it can possibly be. That’s a design approach that can be fruitful, in some cases; but games are not for one thing. It’s OK – preferable, in many cases – to intersperse truly interesting player decisions with lower-stakes ones, and 80 Days packs a lot of interest into its other domains of choice.


Verne’s Aouda does not have an inner life. Great pains are taken in 80 Days to make you aware that its NPCs do have inner lives and independent concerns, and that these – as they often remind you – do not exist for the sake of the PC’s story, and will often make you uncomfortable. Part of the way that this works is the sense of possibility, of missed connections, created by the game’s scale. It’s a game that’s too large, too variable – not to mention lacking in save or undo – to be exhaustively known, which makes it harder to reduce NPCs to their mechanical parts. There’s often the sense that if you had gone another way, said something different, the story of this character might have been further revealed. “I sensed that the dew-drenched garden that surrounded the house was saturated, infinitely, with invisible persons,” writes Borges. The sense of possibility in that particular case is self-centred, a sort of CYOA expression of trait ascription bias that’s often, sadly, reinforced by game design. (The player-character can choose a different race, class and gender on subsequent plays, and rise from hapless novice to legendary hero; Skrug the bartender is always the same.) In 80 Days that sense of infinite saturation is not of versions of oneself in potential worlds, but of other people in the same world.

singulararticlePassepartout (and even Fogg) can, if you look for them, have fleeting moments of connection with the people you meet – rather a lot of fleeting moments, all things considered – but when you learn more about them it is generally as a reminder that while sincere human connection is possible, you cannot truly understand them. Brief moments of regret aside, Passepartout does not seem unhappy about this.

“Mr. Fogg is influenced by no one,” Verne says through Aouda; shortly after, she proves herself wrong. In the original, Fogg’s stoicism and disinterest in other cultures are only slightly played for laughs, and are generally taken as hallmarks of Empire-forging heroism; 80 Days shifts the focus to make Fogg pitiful, his snobbery a mask for social failings. “Mr. Fogg is influenced by no one” does not mean “Mr. Fogg is an indomitable expression of the rational will,” but “Mr. Fogg is very alone.” Beneath the optimistic mood and triumphant ending of 80 Days, its Fogg is ultimately a much more tragic character, precisely because he has gone on a great journey and returned not much changed.

(This started as one essay and turned into two. This part focuses on the game’s major characters; I’ll talk about worldbuilding, tech and fantasy later.)

August 31, 2014

Classic Adventure Solution Archive

CASA Update - 72 new game entries, 50 new solutions, 4 new slag hints, 29 new maps, 1 new hints, 2 new fixed games

by Gunness at August 31, 2014 07:17 PM


Bring out the champagne!
Another important milestone has been reached:
6,000 games in the database. Wow. Wow!
As always thanks to all you ceaselessly active users out there, but a particularly big thank you to our Dutch buddy Alex for entering the 6,000th game into our database. A number which I though we'd take a lot longer to reach.


If you're curious, the game in question is Digitaya, a French BASIC title which in many ways is representative of our mission here at CASA: to cover every text adventure under the sun - including the obscure, lost and forgotten ones. And in various languages (20+ and counting), too.

I don't think we'll reach 7,000 before the end of the year, but that's certainly an attainable goal in the future. Happy adventuring, everyone, and onwards with the next 1,000 games!

Contributors: Alex, Gunness, Richard Bos, pippa, Alastair, kritikov, iamaran, Barbara Gibb, boldir, Darkiss, Sylvester

August 30, 2014


Twine: Depression Quest

by Amanda Wallace at August 30, 2014 02:01 AM

Depression Quest

This guest post is brought to you by Steven Wright. You can check out more at his website or on Twitter.

If you’re the type of person who comes to reviews to read one little line, shrug your shoulders, and close the tab, here’s Depression Quest in that tiny little line: it’s the only game I’ve ever played that begins with a mission statement. In an era where 99% of games struggle to be about anything more than various degrees of foreigner getting shot, stabbed, or otherwise maimed, DQ’s iconoclastic stand is downright refreshing. Make no mistake; this is a video game With A Message, that is About Something, and it is willing to do anything and everything to get that Message across. Unfortunately, this razor-sharp focus on its own mission hinders the game’s own ambitions as a piece of interactive storytelling, and it ultimately sacrifices its narrative strength for mere inculcation.

Now, as a rule I typically avoid personal disclosures like the following, but considering this subject matter I think it informs my opinion of the game enough to justify a brief explanation. I, like so many others who have played Depression Quest, have battled with depression as long as I can remember. For this reason, I feel a personal obligation to echo the game’s own opening and say that, if you are prone to depressive episodes, you probably shouldn’t play this game. Though I did not personally experience an attack before, during, or immediately after my two hours with the game, I could easily see where it could negatively affect anyone who experiences the daily struggle DQ endeavors to depict.

Depression Quest

By design, Depression Quest tells its tale in the broadest of strokes, simultaneously its greatest asset and most glaring flaw. You are an amorphous, genderless blob of a twentysomething that works a nondescript crap job in Anytown, USA. The game’s largely-fixed plot chronicles the player character’s sufferings with the titular disease, which, according to the player’s choices, can either gradually improve or spiral out of control. Along the way, the player interacts with a handful of characters, including the protagonist’s doting girlfriend, their more successful brother, and – of course – the overbearing mother who just can’t seem to understand what’s got her child feeling down.

Now, the first reaction that a fellow sufferer like myself might have to a game like Depression Quest is to stomp one’s feet and bellow “that’s not my experience!” into the nearest computer monitor. In fact, this criticism is so obvious that the game’s mission statement even anticipates it, stating that “…this is an amalgamation of the experiences of the developers and several people close to them.” If the game is intended to be a teaching tool alone, this is a fine approach; the game succeeds in conveying, through clear and often pained prose, the cloudy darkness that ceaselessly invades the seemingly powerless victims of this foul condition.


However, in narrative terms, the true story of depression is that of lone individuals – people who have lived and loved in a variety of bizarre circumstances – forging through their own darkness in amazing, unique ways. Yet, no matter the routes you take, Depression Quest never quite adds up to one of these tales. Instead, it feels more like a collection of photocopies; cleaned-up, recolored versions of the most obvious events shared by all, with neon-lit paths to either absolution or doom. Spend a night out on the town, you’ll feel better. Go to bed early, you feel worse. Take pills, you feel better. Go off them, you feel worse. In Depression Quest’s world, there is no room for nuance, happenstance, or even personality. It’s a one-size-fits-all experience for perhaps the most deeply personal problem that one could ever know.

Does this mean, as so many angry internet commenters have claimed, that Depression Quest is not worth playing? Of course not – but only with proper expectations. Do not mistake me: Depression Quest’s lack of specificity remains a completely valid design choice, but – like almost every aspect of the game – it reports to its mission, not its storytelling. As such, Depression Quest is not so much an interactive story as it is a valuable piece of edutainment for a condition that desperately needs it. For many, it will prove startling but enlightening; however, those who desire a robust representation of depression in video game form may find themselves with only shaking hands and bad memories to show for it. It’s altogether necessary, but hardly mandatory.

The post Twine: Depression Quest appeared first on StoryCade.

August 28, 2014

Post Position

“Driverless” or “Self-Driving” Cars

by Nick Montfort at August 28, 2014 03:04 PM

So, I’m not saying they’re a bad idea, but why do these things get called “driverless” or “self-driving”? They are being driven by an immense corporation with the most massive store of data on Earth. They can’t function without this corporation or this store of data. They can’t drive themselves.

I dunno, maybe we should at least notice this sort of — hey! These cars are programmed to go up to 10 mph above the speed limit! Shiny!

(Prompted by Erik Stayton‘s great presentation of his thesis work on this topic yesterday. Erik works as my research assisstant in the Trope Tank.)

Forking Paths and Forest Platformer of Depression

by Nick Montfort at August 28, 2014 02:56 PM

I’ve revisited two games about depression which seem interesting to compare. One has been discussed more recently, particularly thanks to its recent release on Steam: the Twine game Depression Quest. (It’s also available on the Web.) The other, which is in Flash and on the Web, is the platformer Elude. The latter was developed at MIT, in the GAMBIT Game Lab.

Both of these games have seen plenty of discussion, but I wanted to mention an aspect that make them interesting to compare. Of course, Elude is graphical and played in real time, while Depression Quest is text-based and allows the user to select CYOA-style options. But that’s quite obvious.

More interesting to me is that “Elude‘s metaphorical model for depression serves to bring awareness to the realities of depression by creating empathy with those who live with depression every day,” while “Depression Quest is a game that deals with living with depression in a very literal way.” Of course, being literal or metaphorical goes beyond having a single axis or slider, and it isn’t tied to whether one has a graphical or textual game. It’s interesting to see two games about the same subject matter that declare their intent to be different in this way. I wonder if there is a pair of games on similar topics where the text game is very metaphorical and the graphical game literal?

August 26, 2014

The Gameshelf: IF

Zarfplan: August: the endgame

by Andrew Plotkin at August 26, 2014 10:47 PM

The month is not over, but I am heading to DragonCon for a week. So you get your report early. Conveniently this allows me to report "not quite done yet" without too much slippage past my mid-August deadline. And without smacking into the more realistic end-of-August deadline.

It's not quite done yet! But at least the update posts are getting closer together, right?

At this point the entire puzzle-line of the game is playable. That is, you can start at the beginning and solve every puzzle. (Without using cheat or debug commands.) This doesn't end the game; it leaves you in a state marked "endgame", although "denoument" would be a better term. It's the wrapping-up sequence which leads to the ending text. There are no puzzles here, but it's an interactive sequence. At least, probably interactive.

I've intentionally left the denoument flexible -- or, if you like, "undesigned" -- because I didn't think I could construct it without the whole of the game in my subconscious. It's the last whiff of my "implement the first scene first, then the next scene, and so on until the end" plan. I stick to that rule for short games. It would have been impossible for HL, but I am writing the last scene last.

So that's the last task, mostly. Plus I have a few bits of background color to fill in, and the extremely annoying travel bug that I mentioned last time. And there are still 59 "TODO" marks in the source code; I should look through them and (mostly) delete them silently.

I will do some of this work at DragonCon. (What? Travel is good thinking time. I can't convent for a week straight. There'll be a lot of time alone in a hotel room, or wandering around a strange city.)

At the farthest limit, I will have it all wrapped up in the first week of September. I will then pass the complete playable draft around to the beta testers, and start looking at the iOS work.

I will also write another update post at that point. So -- you'll hear from me in less than two weeks. At that point I'll be able to talk more about the process of Shipping The Damn Thing. Strange and scary as that prospect may sound.


News: Loose Strands Interactive Novel Coming to Mobile

by Amanda Wallace at August 26, 2014 09:01 PM

Developer Darned Socks has just released their kid-friendly interactive fiction novel Loose Strands. Available on iPad and Android tablets, Loose Strands is a choose your own adventure fantasy novel that definitely plays on a serious Lemony Snicket/Don’t Starve vibe.

Loose Strands tells the story of Roland Bartholomew Dexter the Third, a young boy whose whole world revolves around the Barbershop he calls home. Fittingly, the game plays on elements of hair. Inside the world itself, everything is made of hair from the outfits the characters wear to the places they sleep. The story tends to fall in the realm of traditional teen lit with boy meets girl, boy discovers more about the outside world.

The first chapters are available for free on the Google Play and App store, and the game requires an iPad 2 or higher to play and is only available for tablets. Loose Strands is rated for 9 years old and higher.

The post News: Loose Strands Interactive Novel Coming to Mobile appeared first on StoryCade.

IFComp News

On translations

August 26, 2014 04:01 PM

We wrote yesterday about author rule #3, which forbids IFComp entries that have already seen public releases. We should note, however, that this year the IFComp is experimenting with a new and significant exception to this rule: The competition welcomes translations of already-released games.

By “translation”, we mean between two written languages used by humans. For example, if a certain work of IF has existed through this year only in Polish, and permission from the game’s rights-holder (if such is necessary) has been obtained, then one could translate the game into English and submit this as an IFComp entry. One could also take an English-language game and submit a new Arabic translation, or submit a translation from Swahili to Icelandic. And so on.

Translations of this sort were expressly forbidden from entry to the IFComp prior to this year. The competition experiments with lifting the ban in the spirit of the rapid growth the IF community has enjoyed in recent years. Just as the classically parser-focused IF table has lately welcomed innovation with CYOA and hypertext fiction, we’d also like to invite the world outside of the Anglosphere to join us too — both by making its existing games accessible to English-readers, and by exposing the largely Anglophonic IF community to more non-English work.

We would ask that authors who do submit translated work clearly and prominently credit the translator or translators involved, and offer links or other references to the original work. (If the translator and the author are the same person, please do note that.)

The Monk's Brew

Changelog 2014-08-25

by Rubes at August 26, 2014 05:00 AM


Well, it’s been a little bit since the last update, hasn’t it?

Work has been somewhat slow lately, owing to several things. A week of vacation was followed by a week of work-related travel, so not a lot of progress was made over that time. We did accomplish a few things; NR finished his work on the last two holy water rmodels (“dull” and “boiling”), and passed them on to me for implementation, so at this point all holy water versions are complete and functional. The “dull” version was a bit challenging because I wanted the water to appear cloudy, and that isn’t an easy thing to do in Torque. The solution that worked best was to create underwater smoke emitters, which was effective [More...] Read the rest


Twine: Depression Quest

by Jed Pressgrove at August 26, 2014 01:01 AM

Depression Quest

Through gossiping and bandwagons, the online video game community often does a disservice to what it supposedly cares about: discussing games. Depression Quest is the first Twine game to make it to Steam. While this fact might amount to nothing more than trivia, the game deserves our honest evaluations at this time, if only to counterbalance the heehawing and lack of self-examination that some members of the game community prefer.

During Depression Quest’s pre-Steam release, game critic Cameron Kunzelman said the game “is as perfect of a simulation of depression as I think we are likely to ever get.” If nothing else, Depression Quest demonstrates that developers Zoe Quinn, Patrick Lindsey, and Isaac Schankler have a highly technical understanding of how audio and visuals can provide insight into human experience. I agree with Alan Williamson that Depression Quest’s “dialogue options you cannot choose” — visually represented as crossed-out (dead) hyperlinks — promote understanding about how depression impacts one’s life. I also agree with Richard Goodness that the game’s audio glitches powerfully convey the sensual disorientation of depression. Even the background of Depression Quest has an important function: the gray static makes the game’s text tiring to read, urging the player to engage with the exhaustion of managing depression.


The game works quite well as a simulation of the depression of a working-class, 20-something white person, though it does not address the variability of backgrounds and feelings.

At the same time, I disagree with Kunzelman’s statement. Depression Quest is not as perfect of a simulation as it might have been, nor does it trump the lessons of 2010′s Elude and 2012′s The Cat Lady. The game works quite well as a simulation of the depression of a working-class, 20-something white person, though it does not address the variability of backgrounds and feelings. (Attention to human variability is why Cart Life is more of a “perfect” simulation of street vending than Depression Quest is of depression.) To its credit, Depression Quest admits its limited scope in a preface.

Given the game’s honesty about its scope, the biggest weakness of Depression Quest is its use of exposition. Why can’t the story, the experience, stand by itself? At the beginning of Depression Quest, I was compelled to click hyperlinks in the body of the text. These hyperlinks didn’t lead to experiences; they approached relationships like note cards (in contrast, last year’s Actual Sunlight establishes the significance of the protagonist’s parents with a phone call and a reassuring thought). Thankfully, once Depression Quest gets going, the relationships become part of the player’s experience, which makes the game stand apart from other games that address depression. But the exposition does come back in obvious ways, as in this example: “You dial the phone number of the house you grew up in, the number that hasn’t changed during your entire life. Your old number.” This text struggles to make details experiential rather than referential.

Depression Quest

Some text struggles to make details experiential rather than referential.

Exposition also accompanies the main game mechanic in Depression Quest. Like Elude, Depression Quest indicates that depression has different degrees. In Depression Quest, degrees of depression determine the choices that you can or cannot make. The game reminds you of this with expositional text at the bottom of the screen, such as, “You are depressed. Interaction is exhausting, and you are becoming more and more withdrawn.” Why is this text necessary, outside of providing a constant explanation for having dialogue options struck out with a line? In Elude, degrees of depression are clearly communicated through what you experience as the protagonist, the relative lack of control (in both conceptual and mechanical terms) as you try to live. Getting the text at the bottom of the screen in Depression Quest to change doesn’t feel as fluid or natural. This unnaturalness is especially apparent if you play Depression Quest more than once and recognize the specific choices that grant you the ability to make progress. The simulation further weakens if one wonders if a choice should or shouldn’t have changed the direction of the game (that people with depression don’t necessarily have similar histories, feelings, or impulses was a fundamental point in The Cat Lady).

Despite these flaws, Depression Quest has noble purpose. The game’s most compelling accomplishment, aside from its sophisticated audiovisual effects, is disentangling depression from everyday working-class struggles. A lot of working people can say that waking up to an alarm is difficult, that fearing to leave work early is normal, that the drudgery of 8 to 5 is reality, and that never intending to work at the same job is common. Depression Quest acknowledges these sentiments, but unlike the Marxist Actual Sunlight, the game specifies that working-class struggles are not its primary concern. Even though the expositional design and storytelling in Depression Quest might reject imagination, the game’s conviction to illuminate the added weight of depression on life is intensely personal.

The post Twine: Depression Quest appeared first on StoryCade.

August 25, 2014

Stuff About Stuff

Tales of the Soul Thief, by David Whyld

by Andrew ( at August 25, 2014 08:07 PM

So, yeah, this may not be the most momentous thing to post to planet-if (I'll probably lump the other games I didn't test in groups of 2 or 3--or maybe all 5)--but seriously, IntroComp is worth looking into, if you haven't. You have about two more weeks. There are some good games. Even those that aren't, can be good.

I've been busy releasing Threediopolis and getting close to Shuffling Around thanks to some great work by Sean's taken a lot out of me, and in fact I even forgot to bump back my post-dated IFComp review index, but I find re-releases worth it, to get rid of obvious bugs and trip-ups.

I hope IntroComp authors find it in them to release something post-introcomp, even if it's not fully complete. It'd be nice to see results, small or bing--I know Akkoteaque had some good bug fixes and believe it will get done, and get done well--and speaking from experience, it's nice to know I've fixed bugs and worked to improve something I wrote, even if the bugs were dumb in the first place.

Like the header says, I'm going to start with David Whyld's Tales of the Soul Thief. It's more serious than most of his efforts. He entered Best Laid Plans last year, and I was hoping he would finish it, because it was amusing and had a lot of things to do, and a lot of places it could go, too.

Spoiler: this is a bit harsh on him as he has the talent and work to improve the game, but as it stands, there was a lot to struggle through. While the game was paced well, and the world was believable, the technical side comes up a bit short. Still, I'd be interested to see how, where and when you can use your skill--for good or evil. Even allowing both, or having a Cliff's Notes at the end for those who don't want to replay, would augment the story greatly.

 In the game you play a soul stealer, someone with an amulet that can take other people's attributes from them. Then you can use them wherever. This starts with alternate solutions for an early puzzle, and it goes on. You can steal others' souls, some of the time. There's a cool instadeath, and there's some soul stealing that doesn't matter.

I got frustrated in several parts here. The implementation is okay, but not great. Zacharias, the old man, can't be referred to as an old man--but you aren't told his name when you go back. He doesn't stand out in the room description, though it is cool to try to steal his soul. The construct guarding the museum, well, I tried everything but walking past it, until I said "Oh, that probably can't work, but why not." It wasn't immediately clear to me if I should keep hanging around in the tavern, and I thought for a bit that I needed to impress the men by stealing the bard's soul, but I hit a dead end stealing it before I talked to them. With 18 rooms, there's a bit of a walk-about, but no real super tricky puzzles. In theory, you should be able to poke around and do what you need (e.g. pray in church.) But some of the deaths--like the final bit where you are nailed by a magic trap--don't give quite enough clues.

Being an experienced ADRIFT programmer, David seems to have made the transition to Inform pretty well, but there are a lot of holes. Some of that is due to inexperience with the power Inform has, but I think he would be up to it if he completes his game. I'll note a few things, just because they're useful in general. I'll also get into Inform coding, hopefully to show that some of my requests aren't *too* hard to integrate.

1. HINTING. Synonyms help=hint are nice, and there is an easy way to test this.

volume basic stuff

debug-state is a truth state that varies.

section xyz - not for release

debug-state is true.

every turn when debug-state is true:
  say "DEBUG HINTS: ";
  try hinting;

You can, of course, have a separate command to flip the debug-state boolean in a NFR section. You can use debug-state elsewhere to print out text.

to d (myt - indexed text):
  if debug-state is true:
    say "[myt][line break]";

Bingo! Debug text you don't have to worry about seeping into the release build. And do you see what the first code does? It lets you pick off your own hints. You can, if you want, use your players' commands to see what their hints would've been. More complex code can print these hints to a file. At any rate, you can just use a TEST command to spin through the game and check hints any move, even without playing through by hand. There is a lot to be found. My games would be even buggier without this.

So obviously I think hinting is very important, not just to make sure players have a way through the game, but because it's a great way to vet yourself. Have I made this puzzle sensible and logical, etc.? Have I covered everything a player can do? You can not only make sure the player is guided through, but you can anticipate mistakes and converse with yourself and even try to sidetrack yourself to get bad hints.

This game had some hints, but too frequently it gave blank text, and while fixable, that's no fun for a frustrated player. For instance, I tried HELP by the construct and got something blank--a simple "say [if player has token and east-room is unvisited]You can walk east[else if east-room is unvisited]You don't have an item that will move the construct[else]You can walk in and out freely[end if]." works. Even "The X is not relevant in the intro." is good. Yes, you're going to change that. No, that doesn't mean it should be blank now--it's a good check to make sure that, if you want to complete the game, you search and get rid of text like "not relevant."


More synonyms are always better than less. New verbs like EQUIP should also be handled a bit better. EQUIP (nothing) would be better giving a list of what to equip. Even the annoying disambiguation would work here, and maybe even being able to use initials (E INTIM for EQUIP INTIMIDATE) would help.

INVENTORY should, ostensibly, list your soul skills. This is tricky, but Sand-Dancer has been go-to source for me and would help with this. (I recommend the Sand-Dancer code in many, many ways.)


The RULES command allows you to see what default responses are hit. Inform's error messages are generally vanilla and non-offensive, but they are not one size fits all. For an intro game, it's probably not possible or practical to cover them all, but all the same, you should try to copy the most prominent ones. It is an easy way to give the game character, and you can look it up in the IDE (Index:Actions) or text searching Graham Nelson's Standard Rules. The one I always harp on about to my testees is for the blank line.

Rule for printing a parser error when the latest parser error is the I beg your pardon error: [blank command]
  say "Something other than I beg your pardon."

Not that these should be the first thing to attack--but MAN, when you have a bunch of potential small things to do, and the main ideas are dragging, the polish works here.

On balance, though, I'd like to see more of the game. The descriptions are adequate to good, and I'm left wondering what the other people are for, and how to get beyond them. What's the eye in the alley for? Perhaps there are a few stock characters like the slaver, etc., but the potential for alternate ways through is nice. Will you be able to give people their souls back? Do you lose power after a few hours, as (for instance) the bard gains his? Will you face someone you drained? Will you irreparably harm them? What about the ways you can't quite go yet? The game leaves enough for me to be interested, but more in a hm, if there was a walkthrough I'd definitely read it, though I'm not sure if I'd take the time, way.

However, I'd rather see Best Laid Plans, first. It felt better directed and like something the author was more comfortable with. There were even funny rejects for trying stuff that didn't work. And they weren't flippant, more the sort of "oh, I get it" humor.

I know it's tempting to rush forth with That Next Big Idea, or just to have fun with the next competiton. In fact, I wanted to for this IFComp. (I won't be. Ohai, 2015!) But I'm generally pleased with the ideas I refined in my re-releases of 3DOP (featuring a riff on the original area--now with 80 annoying pieces of scenery, but better organized hints) and (imminently) SA, also featuring better hinting and direction and, oh, bug fixing too. I learn what ideas work, what I can do, and where my weaknesses as a programmer/storyteller are. I can see how to rely on testers to help fill my blind spots, and I can see stuff I'm repeatedly reluctant to try, and instead of saying "Oh, that's how it is," I sit down and tackle it.

And unfortunately, moving from project to project may not help create the sort of detailed world people remember and love and use as inspiration to create their own. It steers the author away from the sort of details he should be noticing in his own world, the one that make readers smile and (if they're the writing type) even be a bit jealous the author found so much good stuff and want to try that themselves. Otherwise, all the writing you can do may get no more than "oh, yeah, good job."

IFComp News

About the no-previous-release rule

August 25, 2014 04:01 PM

One of the most common questions from prospective IFComp entrants we’ve fielded this year concerns author rule #3, which states “All entries must be previously unreleased at the opening of voting.

Authors write to outline the circumstances of how they’ve shared an earlier version of the game they want to enter, and ask if they can still enter a completed version into the competition. We more often than not respond to many of these letters with “sadly, no,” so we felt a clarifying blog post in order.

Here’s what the FAQ says:

It all depends on whether or not the game’s earlier version has been released to the public.

If you know that a few friends, family, colleagues or classmates are the game’s only players, then you’re clear to enter it (or an improved version of it). As far as the IFComp is concerned, these people were early playtesters, and the game remains safely unreleased.

However, if the game was available on the public internet, where anyone could find and play it, then the IFComp considers that a release – even if the game wasn’t finished yet. This would be the case if, for example, you linked to the game from a public forum.

The intent of the rule is that every entry comprises 100% new material. In so doing, it helps improve the chances that someone playing the game during the voting period approaches the game with as few preconceptions as possible about its content or quality.

If a judge remembers playing the game before, or has read other people discuss the game in public months before the competition, this would likely affect the way they rank the game. As much as possible, we want to set up an environment where voters feel comfortable ranking games based on solely on the time they spend playing it during the voting period, and not on any pre-existing reputation the work may have already gained.

(Many of the comp rules all have this same equal-footing goal in mind, as do various unofficial traditions such as well-known authors entering their games under one-time-use pseudonyms.)

This doesn’t apply to playtesters — authors can and absolutely should have a short list of trusted individuals run through the game and provide feedback, helping them refine and improve the work prior to submission. We ask only that authors carefully control who gets to see the game before the competition, rather than simply posting it to the internet and inviting the public to try it. (Note also that, per judge rule #5, people cannot submit IFComp ratings for any games that they’ve play tested.)

We absolutely welcome authors to re-use or remix concepts from released games into new, original works and then submit these into the competition. We also welcome further questions about this rule, or any other.

The People's Republic of IF

September meetup

by zarf at August 25, 2014 04:00 PM

The Boston IF meetup for September will be Tuesday, September 9, 6:30 pm, MIT room 14N-233.

August 24, 2014

These Heterogenous Tasks

80 Days: The Map Is The Territory

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at August 24, 2014 10:01 PM

Hwaet. 80 Days. I have a number of things that I want to talk about; firstly, how freaking well it handles structure and player knowledge.

Choice-based narratives tend to be organised in one of two ways. Either the branching structure represents the passage of time, or it represents travel in physical space. Space-based organisation is the more recent and uncommon arrangement.

Like many physical-space CYOAs, 80 Days has the kind of structure that I think of as a quest: it begins at a single point (London) and then branches out across a wide range of territory, before the strands ultimately rejoin at a single ending (also London). While there are some local bottlenecks, there are no mandatory nodes between the game’s opening and close. Most nodes offer > 2 options, and rejoining is very common but relatively conservative, mostly taking you back to the closer neighbours in the tree. Some routes can be traveled in either direction – not enough that you can elect to circumnavigate entirely westwards, but often involving a little westward backtracking to get to a desired point.


Map from Duelmaster 2: Blood Valley.

It’s not hard to see where this comes from: it’s a development from inkle’s savvy adaptation of Sorcery. A lot of RPG-influenced gamebooks, like fantasy novels, start with a map of the area in which they take place; in many cases, having some idea of the land you’ll be traversing is useful information. In some, like the Duelmaster books, getting a sense of where you are on the map is everything. The chain of inheritance goes back to old-school, heavily map-based RPGs in which the map of the dungeon formed the immediate structure of the narrative, and thence to Tolkien. (Come to think of it, Lord of the Rings is also a geography-organised story that starts at a single point, then branches widely across the landscape before reconverging.) Even those which didn’t have maps, or which took place almost entirely within a single point on the map, the layout of the game was often fundamentally one of geography*. The journey is the plot. The map is the story.

In paper gamebooks, this was always awkward to actually use during play: it was yet another place to keep with your finger, and the maps were intentionally imprecise, mapping the general layout of thsorcerye world but not directly showing how that corresponded to positions and options within the game. inkle’s slick, savvy iOS adaptation of Sorcery very sensibly acknowledged that the map and the plot structure were near enough the same thing, and tied them together more explicitly, using the map as a frame for the text events and a convenient way to rewind your story to an earlier point. The visibility of the map makes it easier for the player to have a grasp of where they are in the story, to locate their present situation relative to their past actions while suggesting what lies ahead. This is particularly crucial in choice-based formats, where it’s easy to feel disconnected from a narrative that’s plunging on regardless of one’s grasp on it.

80days1But Tolkien-descended fantasy maps have their limits. Unless you’ve already consumed a lot of stories set in the world in question, the map is just a pile of details that you have no associations with, a great big dump of no-context information. There are ways to ameliorate this – use over-the-top evocative names, crib heavily from real-world geography – but they don’t fix the central problem. Unless I’m already intimately familiar with the world in question, I don’t really have any feelings about going left rather than right at Gna’ash. So a well-known, real-world map has strong advantages – and a map of the world is damn-near perfect. 80 Days is, therefore, an inherently awesome premise for a choice-based story, because it comes pre-loaded with both a structure and a vast pile of context. We already know some stuff about this world. You already have some ideas about whether you’d like to visit Venice or Japan.

(It’s also worth pointing out that 80 Days is unusually large by gamebook standards. There are 144 cities – but really every city, and every route between cities, is not so much a node as a bundle of nodes, a lot of them state-dependent.)

The 80 Days map is a lot more explicit than the Sorcery map. Sorcery is merely retrospective; you know where you’ve been, but where you might go next is at best a guess, and long-range planning impossible. The map doesn’t show lines, just nodes. In 80 Days, the map is criss-crossed with reassuringly solid lines connecting firmly to city nodes. (A route-map, conveniently, is a diagram of a choice-based decision tree which everybody already knows how to interpret; unlike, say, the conversation tree in Alabaster or the GUI map of a modestly complicated Twine game, the player doesn’t need a tutorial or extensive annotation to know what it all means). This makes sense thematically: Fogg and Passepartout are not explorers, wanderers in a wilderness or pioneers on a frontier. The premise of Fogg’s wager is that the planet is known and developed; a central theme of the book is that discovery and wonder remain possible even in a world with no more Great Frontiers. But the thematic consistency is as nothing before its effect on player knowledge and gameplay.

The world map in 80 Days gives you a general sense of where you’re going, what that is and what that might lead to, but it has the luxury of not having to spell it out. If you head south to Nice rather than east to Cologne, you can infer that your next step is probably sailing the Mediterranean, and you can immediately see that this route brings you closer to Africa – but you might also be thinking about the difficulty of crossing the Sahara, or questioning the wisdom of heading far south on an eastbound voyage. You’ve got a lot of potential material to be thinking about beyond the simple dots and lines of the game itself – and when the knowledge you have does match up with the game-world, the sense of connection strengthens. (This is only one of the levels at which it relies on being a twice-told tale. More anon.)

The result is something that’s very well balanced between the ability to plan and the possibility of luck and unforseen opportunity – and a big part of what makes this possible is the pre-estabished sense of investment and connection with the map. But it doesn’t just assume that familiarity – it actively builds on and fosters it, revealing the existence of some routes well before they become useful, making conversations leap off to far-away places. You’ll probably be anticipating the Pacific crossing long before you reach a Pacific port. There’s a tangible sense of loss when you abandon plans – ‘oh, well, I suppose I don’t get to see Port-au-prince this time around’ – that motivates replay, but changing your plans is something you will want to do. You can predict some of what’s coming, and this is genuinely useful to you, but not so much as to make the game a tedious exercise in deterministic optimisation.

This is largely because of the route-discovery mechanic. All the cities on the map are revealed from the outset, but virtually all routes between them start out hidden. Unlocking routes is very, very common: there are multiple ways to do it, most of which occur regularly and often. But while there are predictable ways to unlock routes in general, you have imperfect control over which routes unlock – they tend to be routes useful to you in the near- to mid-future, but a good deal of chance is involved. You can infer that certain routes are likely – that strand of cities extending across Russia has to be connected – but that doesn’t mean that they’ll become available. Some routes can only be revealed by specific story content. Some will just randomly not get revealed unless you want to waste time searching for them. Further, even when you know about a route’s existence, you don’t know many things – how fast, onerous and expensive it is, how long you’ll have to wait for departure, whether you can negotiate that departure – until you reach the city from which it begins.

This is more complicated to describe than it is to play. Your actual options at any one time are kept to a manageable few, and the moderate predictability means that detailed long-range planning gives diminishing returns. So you’re encouraged to plan softly, even intuitively, and not worry about it too much.

In many simulation-y games, the most fun happens somewhere along the midway point of the learning curve, where you understand enough about the game to be able to plan and execute experiments, but not so much that you’re certain about everything. The real-world map and pre-mapped routes push that middle zone to a considerably earlier point (right from the outset you’re able to form vague plans) while the random elements extend it to later in the knowledge-curve (even when you know a lot about the routes from past experience, you may not get to use the ones you want.) That sweet spot, at which the player can grasp the world but does not rule it, is a huge part of why 80 Days is so fun and compelling.

August 23, 2014


Twine: Depression Quest

by Amanda Wallace at August 23, 2014 10:01 PM

Depression Quest

This guest post is brought to you by Wesley G, a freelance writer at Gameskinny.

It was all too easy to see myself as the game described: sitting in front of a TV all day just to feel numb. I remember those days where I felt like I was looking through the eyes of a person I had no control over. When my character’s girlfriend broke up with him, I thought I had lost. I remember thinking that this was it, this was when he was going to kill himself. When the game finally told me it was time to stop playing, I realized that it never made any indication that the girlfriend was the last straw that would lead to suicide. That thought was mine alone, because at one point in my life, that would have been true.

I remember thinking that this was it, this was when he was going to kill himself..

Playing Depression Quest was a horrible experience. I cannot recommend it enough.

Depression Quest (developed by Zoe Quinn and Patrick Lindsey with music from Issac Shankler) is a choose-your-own-adventure style text game that puts you in the shoes of a twenty-something “human being” suffering from depression. The first thing you’ll notice is the minimalist approach to the presentation. The visuals of the game only consist of three sections: A small photo establishing the scene, the description of the current activity/your available choices, and three gray boxes describing your current status (your depression level, if you’re currently seeing a therapist, and if you’re currently taking medication). This design choice puts all the focus on the narrative, which is where Depression Quest shines.

The way this game handles depression is so accurate that it’s uncomfortable. As you begin making decisions and seeing the consequences play out, it becomes impossible to separate yourself from the character you’re playing thanks to the top-notch writing. You’ll naturally begin to make decisions based on how you would act and begin sharing the uplifting moments from good choices and the hopelessness of the downward spiral the bad ones bring. There were points during my playthrough that hit a little too close to home, seemingly describing word for word parts of my life I’d rather never visit again. I can honestly say I hesitated clicking options not because I knew they were “bad” choices, but because it’s a choice I would have made in my weaker moments.

…Begin sharing the uplifting moments from good choices and the hopelessness of the downward spiral the bad ones bring.

After you begin making a few of these choices, however, Depression Quest’s weaknesses begin to start appearing. While the choices you make affect your depression status and thus your possible choices in the next scene, they’re sometimes not reflected in the story itself. Near the beginning of the game, for instance, you get a chance to adopt a cat to keep you company. In the very next scene, the game describes you and your girlfriend lazing around with no mention of the new kitty. The cat does come into play in the story later on, but not even having a paragraph describing my girlfriend’s reaction to my furry friend was disappointing. This moment and others like it show the seams of where these scenarios were sewn together during development.

Despite these weaknesses, however, the narrative shines through as one of the most accurate depictions of depression I have ever played through. Depression Quest excels at being both an outreach to other sufferers of depression and a teaching tool to those who wish to learn more about the illness. Since this is a free title, I highly recommend everyone reading to look past the minor design issues and play through Depression Quest at least once. If you are currently suffering from depression, please take the game’s message to heart and seek help. Remember, you are not alone.

Depression Quest gets a 7/10. You can play the free web version right now at the Depression Quest website, or on Steam.

The post Twine: Depression Quest appeared first on StoryCade.

Emily Short

Upcoming IF Events

by Emily Short at August 23, 2014 12:00 PM

Some things you might want to know about:

September 1 is the deadline if you’re planning to sign up to participate in the annual IFComp. The comp has a new organizer this year, and a snazzy new website. Also, if you don’t plan to participate but would like to donate prizes, you can do that too.

September 13 at the Boston Festival of Indie Games, the People’s Republic of IF is hosting two events: a reading of Lynnea Glasser’s comp- and XYZZY-winning Coloratura, followed by an interactive fiction tutorial covering Inform 7 and Twine.

Also Sept 13 on ifMUD, at noon Pacific/3 Eastern/8 British time, there will be a discussion on IF and audience: how authors adjust their work for a particular audience assumptions made, etc. In the past the IF community has talked a lot about adjusting games for beginner players or for children, and somewhat less (but still a bit) about writing accessible games for visually impaired players — but there are a wide range of possible audience considerations to discuss.

October 11-12 at GeekGirlCon in Seattle, Jacqueline Lott is running an IF intro tutorial in Twine and Inform 7.

More distant, but worth knowing about in case you want to plan ahead:

November 8 in Toronto, Jim Munroe’s Wordplay Festival will be accompanied by additional IF events.

I myself will not be there; instead I will be speaking at ICIDS in Singapore, November 3-6, where I will talk about lessons from Versu. I will likely also be running a short workshop in IF creation. More about those things when the schedule is nailed down a bit.

The People's Republic of IF

IF events at Boston FIG

by zarf at August 23, 2014 04:00 AM

The Boston Festival of Independent Games is coming up on September 13 at MIT. PR-IF will have a table demoing local IF. We also have two events scheduled:

Live Interactive Fiction: Coloratura
(11:15 am – 12:45 am, room 1)
We’ll run a live session of Lynnea Glasser’s creepy sci-fi adventure, Coloratura. The game will be up on the big screen; professional voice actors read the output; the audience calls out ideas for what to do next.

Interactive Fiction Tutorial: Twine and Inform 7
(4:00 pm – 4:45 pm, room 3)
Caelyn Sandel and Andrew Plotkin show two popular IF tools, and give lightning demonstrations of how to build games in them.

August 22, 2014

IFComp News

Online Play support in 2014

August 22, 2014 07:01 PM

Following up on our previous post on the matter, we’re still hard at work setting up how the IFComp will support online play for entries in 2014. The short answer is that everything will work at least as well as last year, and authors shouldn’t need to do anything special to take advantage of it.

That said, here’s some things for authors using various IF technologies to keep in mind in order to help ensure that their entries’ “Play Online” links look and work as expected:

  • For HTML games, such as Twine and Undum: If your game is a single HTML file, just upload it as usual. The competition website will present it as-is to players.

    If it’s larger than a single file (for example, it depends on a separate images/ directory), then compress the files into a single .zip archive, and upload that. The top level must contain, among its various files and subdirectories, either one (and only one) .html file, or a file named index.html. This file will be the one the competition website will deliver to players when they begin the game.

  • For games made with Inform: You have two options.

    • If your game has no feelies (other than its cover art and walkthrough, which you upload separately), you can just upload the main game file, be it a .z8 or a .gblorb or what have you. The IFComp website will wrap it in a simple Parchment page enabled for transcript recording, just as in past years.

      This will also be the result if you upload a .zip archive containing a game file but no website files. In that case, any other files you include in the archive will be presented to players downloading the game, but not those playing it online.

    • If you would like more control over players’ web-based experience of your game — linking to feelies, customizing the style, and so on — you can upload a whole website. Use Inform 7’s Release along with an interpreter magic to generate basic website files, customize these in any way you see fit, then compress your game’s whole Release directory into a .zip file and upload it as your entry.

      If you choose this option, note that your game’s Parchment-enabled page must be named play.html (which is what Inform 7 names it by default) if you want the IFComp website to enable server-side transcript recording with your entry.

  • For games hosted on other websites, such as ChooseYourStory: You’ll need to create and upload a webpage that links to your game, and upload that as your entry. If you need help with that, please let us know.

  • For all other systems: We’re hoping to add support for other systems that offer some sort of online-play feature (e.g. TADS), but can’t guarantee that it’ll be ready this year. We’ll keep y’all informed via this blog.

Post Position

A New Dave Lebling Interview

by Nick Montfort at August 22, 2014 04:47 AM

USgamer features a new interview with Zork co-author and all-around Infocom implementor Dave Lebling. Very nice!

The opening flourish of the article, though, implies that in the days of Adventure, people used either green-on-black or amber-on-black video terminals to access computers, and players would see glowing letters and the “darkness of an empty command line.”

This is actually fantasy, not history. As I’ve written about in “Continuous Paper: Print interfaces and early computer writing,” as others have experienced and noted, and an amazing binder of print terminal output from an MIT student testified to me, a great deal of very early interactive fiction interaction was done on print terminals, including but not limited to the famous name-brand “Teletype.” A few people (including Lebling!) had access to top-notch video terminals, but lots of interaction was done on paper.

Will Crowther even wrote the original version of Adventure in Fortran on an ASR-33 Teletype.

So, when writing and first playing Adventure, perhaps the space that you would see on the paper is intentionally left blank – but you aren’t likely to be eaten by a grue.

August 21, 2014

Post Position

Another Thought for the Day

by Nick Montfort at August 21, 2014 05:20 PM

If I used my Twitter account the way I’m supposed to, instead of as a conceptual writing project, I would have put that last post on Twitter.

Thought for the Day

by Nick Montfort at August 21, 2014 05:18 PM

If I had a Facebook account, it would be tagged as satire.


[Inkle] Terror in Seyland

by Amanda Wallace at August 21, 2014 05:01 PM

Terror in Seyland is a game that simulates terrorism and government responses to those acts and organizations. It is, at it’s heart, a tool for understanding conflict. Sarah Jameel, the writer for Terror in Seyland, was a student at the inception of the project and created an academic exercise where the participant gets to decide early on if they want to play the Government of Seyland (long embattled) or the local terrorist organization (fighting for the rights of the people, but doing so violently).

If you treat this game as an intellectual exercise, then you can more freely choose between either play style. However, if you approach this from a moral position, it becomes difficult to choose the terrorists at the beginning (their hands are seemingly already wet with blood) and to choose several of the options presented to the Seyland government. On the second point, this decision feels entirely intentional. The easy way, intellectually, would be to bomb the terrorists bases, to seek them out and to root them out in their mountain caves, so to speak. To talk, even when you think they have bombed a school bus of children, an attack you cannot verify, is much more difficult. It is these decisions, these points of conflict, where Terror in Seyland rises to the occasion.

The writing is perhaps the weakest point in Jameel’s story. She is a capable writer, but her tone fits more an academic paper or textbook rather than a political thriller. Before you get into the story, you are inundated with information about the region, some of which I never used. It is also peppered with what felt like unintentionally hilarious bits of text, like the one below:

A monarchy throughout most of its history, Souldagesh was ruled by the King Kong dynasty of kings from 1768.

These are the points where Jameel’s writing chops come into question.The history forward feels like a sloppy Silmarilion, and about as interesting and relevant to the rest of the plot. It definitely suffers from a tell rather than show dynamic where instead of weaving ethnic tensions and a lengthy history into the playable sections there is a large text dump at the beginning.

The strengths in Terror in Seyland are in the decisions, in the nitty gritty moments. Nothing about the game is easy, and that is part of what make sit interesting and engaging. There is also a lot of accompanying text, including a video, on one of the more polished sites I’ve seen for a piece of interactive fiction. If nothing else, it’s worth a look over.

The post [Inkle] Terror in Seyland appeared first on StoryCade.

August 20, 2014

These Heterogenous Tasks

Sunless Sea – first impressions

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at August 20, 2014 08:01 PM

Since back in the days when Fallen London was known as Echo Bazaar, I’ve been wishing (really, more of a portmanteau verb made of a wish and a grumble) for a version not built around the free-now,-gouge-later business model. Fallen London has, hands-down, some of the best prose and worldbuilding in both games and SF/F, not to mention that it has a strong approach to diversity, but the free-to-play model makes the actual gameplay experience maddening. (To be fair, Fallen London and StoryNexus in general are relatively well-behaved as free-to-play goes, and I’m confident that nobody at Failbetter would want that model if there was a viable alternative.) It’s in early access right now, but it’s a substantial, professional-looking early access (and, as befits a well-handled Kickstarter project, has a roadmap that inspires both confidence and anticipation). If you’d rather wait for the finished version, it’s planned for late SeptemberOctober. (This review is based on the Corsair’s Gold and Emerald releases.)


For those not already familiar, the premise of Fallen London is that Victorian London was stolen by bats and transferred to a vast underground cavern. Life goes on, very differently but very much the same; demons, weird nonhumans and the sinister Masters of the Bazaar have wangled their way into the life of the city, undeath and insanity are commonplace, and diets contain a lot more fungus; yet the worlds of crime, commerce, politics and art shamble on. Fallen London is more Gothic gaslight fantasy than steampunk; it’s heavily informed by the Lovecraft mythos but generally avoids its trappings, and has very strong sympathies with the New Weird of China Miéville and Jeff VanderMeer. While the original game is set principally within London itself, Sunless Sea is about the Unterzee, which fills most of the cavern.

Sunless Sea‘s basic gameplay is nothing shockingly new: you have a ship, equip it with gear, officers and crew, and sail around from port to port, exploring the edges of the map, running errands, shipping cargo and fighting pirates and sea beasties. So, it’s essentially Pirates!, which is a sound model but not an overly-common one.

The sea is full of pirates and sea monsters, but you can generally either outrun or outfight them, with a little trial and error. The real threat comes from inefficient travel: spending time in remote, unlit waters (most of the Sea) increases Terror, and fuel and supplies decline continuously. Lighthouses, safe coastal waters and light-buoys protect against Terror, but hopping from one to the next is often not a very direct route, and there are big stretches of open water. So navigation involves a little more thought than just knowing where the destination is and plugging towards it.

Exploration is inherently inefficient, but provides the great majority of your experience-point gain, and opens up ports that allow lucrative missions and new content. It becomes substantially less hazardous on subsequent plays, when you know pretty much where the islands are and can steam straight for them – except that in the most recent update the map shuffles around somewhat in every game, which keeps things scary and perilous. The feeling of a wild cast into the unknown, going out into a lonely land far from help, is critical to the game; you need the audacity/madness/pig-headedness/inhumanity of a Columbus. As in Fallen London, your hero is a person who may not be a monster, necessarily, but certainly inhabits the borders of monstrosity. Make a bad guess and you’ll find yourself on a ghost-ship limping back into harbour, ravaged by nightmares, mutiny and suicide, the drowned dead swimming in your wake.

Sunless Sea removes the limited-actions feature of the candle. So how does it pace content? Most obviously, there’s travel: a lot of missions are fetch-quests of the ‘go there and come back’ variety, and your ship travels at a fairly slow pace. Many storylets can only be accessed when you’re new in port, so you use up the currently-available options in any given port – even London – rather quickly. Other options require rare or expensive items.

At the smaller scale, there is virtually no grinding for experience. Unlike Fallen London, you don’t boost stats through stat-based challenges: you level them up by spending Secrets, which are patched together from Fragments. You can loiter around in suitable waters to fight monsters for Fragments, but doing so gives you very little XP compared to exploration and story content, which is a strong motivation to keep exploring. You could grind for money by tackling pirates, to some extent, but it would not be a highly fruitful process.

That said, at this point of development the directed plot cuts off fairly early on, and you find yourself in a pattern of doing the same kind of mission over and over: which is a larger-scale kind of grind, true, but one with more potential for interesting variation. The space in between the easiest-to-access storylets and the longest-term ones is not very filled out.

The other pacing element is that, by default, it uses roguelike death: one save, restart (mostly) from scratch. (You can turn this option off and have normal saves, but I haven’t played that way yet.) I’m mixed about this. It’s in line with the dark and unforgiving world of the Unterzee, true, but one of the big draws of roguelike death is that it generally exposes you to new experiences – different character classes, different generated content, that kind of thing. At present, there isn’t very much in Sunless Sea to make new playthroughs distinctive: the world is the same, somewhat-reshuffled world every time, and different officers or refocused stats don’t, at least at this stage of development, have a very large effect on how you play. Having high Veils gives you different advantages compared to, say, high Pages, but these advantages don’t (yet) translate into distinctive play strategies or grant access to a substantial amount of different content, so there’s less range for replay. This is, of course, the kind of thing that’s very likely to emerge as more is added to the game.

The trademark Failbetter prose remains consistently powerful and evocative. I found myself particularly impressed with the logbook entries, which suggest a great deal within a very tight space. Some of them convey information – telling you when you’re passing into a new region of the Zee, for instance – but many are purely atmospheric. Out of context many might seem overwrought, but Sea sustains an an air of solemnity and menace that makes them hit home like dagger-thrusts. The enduring image I have from this game is not drawn from any of its graphic art, and has little to do with pirate ports or sea-battles: it’s the image of looking out on a still, dark sea from a ship’s dark deck, between an unseen sea-floor and cavern roof, with water lapping against the hull and the crew softly going about their business in the background. Watching and waiting for something unknown.


That said, the map art is polished and impressive. Light, darkness and varying degrees of obscurity, through mist or murky waters, are big elements of the Fallen London world, so it’s very cool that the art has a strong sense for this. The text demands a highly atmospheric world – the somewhat-unreal quality of things deep under water, the scariness of being far from land in dark, unexplored waters, the cold yet comforting gleam of harbour lights, the fearfulness of vast things half-seen – and the art is all sickly glows, formless mists and feeble lamps. Where it’s less than perfectly harmonious with the atmosphere, it’s mostly for gameplay purposes. The world of Fallen London is centrally about mystery and the lure and horror of the unknown; many things are hidden and most are half-seen. This should be a world where corsairs ambush from the shadow of a sea-stack, where drowned cities are half-glimpsed through waters murky with silt, where you don’t see the giant fucking shark until it’s too late to run. But even in darkened areas and beneath deep seas, you can generally see everything within the bounds of the screen. (This isn’t a huge failing – I so often need a word for the situation when there is an obvious opportunity to do something difficult but astoundingly great, but it isn’t quite taken. Indeed, given how heavily Fallen London draws on the superior ability of text to suggest without revealing, it’s impressive how much this sense is sustained in a more graphical format.)

(This touches on one of the stock challenges of game authorship: often gameplay requires clarity while the narrative would be better-served by being less explicit. A lot of games end up with ponderous and repetitive exposition and artificial diction because they can’t trust the players to pay close attention. And it would suck to get ambushed out of nowhere by an enemy that you couldn’t defeat, or to miss seeing something cool because the water was too hazy. But still.)

In other respects, too, the gameplay already seems balanced to fit the game’s tone and themes. Combat is sometimes easy but rarely safe – some things can hand you your ass even if you have high stats and an upgraded ship, and even the crap opponents that hang out in the starting areas always have the potential to cause you non-trivial harm if you don’t pay attention. This is, I suspect, never going to be the sort of game where it’s sound strategy to take on every enemy you see (though apparently combat is due for a radical overhaul in the next update). This isn’t to say that there aren’t enemies who can be reliably useful to attack, but you can’t get complacent. The other thing is: while you spend a fair amount of time and money on kitting out your ship for battle, I’ve never found myself going to sea for the express purpose of looking for a fight. Fighting is not at the core of things. Similarly, trade is very rudimentary right now: I suspect that at some point it’ll become a way to make a little extra money on the right voyages, but it seems unlikely to become a major focus.

It’s a big shiny package, but the thing it’s enclosing – the tasty prose and unfolding plot – is not ready yet: right now, there are a lot of vignettes, a relatively small handful of short-arc plots and a much larger set of things that will become story at one point. I wait, in darkness, hungry.

August 19, 2014

The Digital Antiquarian

Leader Board

by Jimmy Maher at August 19, 2014 04:00 PM

Leader Board

Like just about every other sport, golf made it to computer screens quite early. A textual version was passed around in BASIC circles even before the arrival of the trinity of 1977, and was included in the landmark 1978 book BASIC Computer Games. Two years later, Atari released their blandly if descriptively named Golf cartridge for the VCS. Yet neither of these crude efforts, nor the ones which followed over the next few years, did the sport much justice. Those that had graphics at all were all played from a disembodied overhead perspective that could make them feel more like pinball than golf, and no one came close to computerizing the mix of science, art, and exquisite terror that is the golf swing. Then, as these things so often happen, a whole field of golf games appeared in 1986 which showed their courses from an actual golfer’s perspective and put the player’s focus squarely where it belongs, on the swing itself.

BASIC Golf running on a Commodore PET

BASIC Golf running on a Commodore PET

Atari's Golf cartridge for the VCS

Atari’s Golf cartridge for the VCS

Of this suddenly crowded field the two most popular turned out to be Accolade’s Mean 18 and Access’s Leader Board. If you try them both out today, you’re likely to be more impressed, at least initially, by the former than the latter. Mean 18 is a much more complete simulation of the real game, including trees, sand traps, water hazards, varying elevations, re-creations of actual courses, even the chance to make more courses of your own with an included editor. Leader Board, on the other hand, turns you loose in a surreally minimalist environment of empty land and water and absolutely nothing else. On a bullet list of features, there’s no comparison. Yet if you play them both a bit you might just find that Leader Board, for all that it lacks, nevertheless feels better. For me anyway, it’s just somehow more fun. But even if you still prefer Mean 18, Leader Board deserves respect, as well as the chance to be graded on something of a curve. While Mean 18, you see, ran only on the bigger 16-bit machines, Leader Board was born and bred on the humble Commodore 64.

Mean 18

Mean 18

Leader Board

Leader Board

Given the technical and conceptual achievement it represents, I thought we’d do something we haven’t done in quite a while: look at Leader Board as the Carver brothers would have seen it, from the perspective of designers and programmers putting it together piece by piece. I will get just a bit technical in some of what follows, so you might want to review my earlier articles on the Commodore 64 and its capabilities, as well as the parts of my Elite history that dealt with the fraught transition from 2D to 3D graphics.

So, the Carver brothers wanted to create a golf simulation from a 3D perspective on a computer with a 1 MHz processor and 64 K of memory. Where to start? Well, the first thing to do was to simplify the bounds of the simulation brutally, out of the knowledge that anything you abstract away today represents the best kind of work, the kind that you don’t have to do at all. Any simulation is a simplification of reality. The art of the science is figuring out just how much detail is necessary. Suffice to say that the Carver brothers drew that line much farther along than anyone could get away with today. Maybe they could add some complications back in later, once they had an initial working version. In the meantime, much of what we think of when we think of the game of golf got tossed out the window, not without the occasional groan of regret: trees, sand traps, any notion of fairways as opposed to roughs, any notion of a putting green as anything other than a perfectly circular area around the hole with a radius of 64 feet, any concept of elevation when not on the green. Wind made the cut, but with the odd yet simplifying quality that it will always blow in the same direction relative to the golfer no matter which way he faces.

Despite all the editing, the Carvers still needed to map a 3D landscape, simplified though it may be, into the Commodore 64′s memory and be able to display the scenery in proper perspective from any location, facing in any direction, as the player hacked her away toward the hole. Additionally, given the success their earlier games had enjoyed in Europe it was critical to them that this one also be playable from cassette, meaning the whole program — including the four separate 18-hole courses they wanted to include — should reside in memory at once. This was hardly playing to the natural strengths of the 64, whose graphics had been designed with 2D sprite-based games in mind. The solution they arrived at was to first design and store about 30 different polygons, each of which could be used to represent an “island” on the course, which was otherwise assumed to be pure water. Each hole of each course could then be built by arranging these islands, up to seven of them per hole, in different, often overlapping configurations. Just as his tile-graphics system allowed Richard Garriott to build huge worlds by mixing and matching reusable chunks of landscape, these reusable polygons saved the Carvers gobs of precious memory. The views of the course must be drawn using the Commodore 64′s multicolor bitmap mode; they were too irregular for character graphics. Thus every bit of memory saved was doubly precious, as a multicolor bitmap display consumes a full 10 K of the 64′s 64 K. If you look at the diagrams of the holes, you can see how they’re all built from the same pile of interchangeable parts.

Leader Board course diagrams

By applying the mathematics of 3D perspective, it was now possible to display views from any arbitrary location and facing for every hole — the first necessary step for a 3D golf game. As you can see from the video clip a bit further down the page, when playing the game you can actually watch each polygon/island being drawn in outline form and then filled in with color as each new perspective of the course is generated.

Next must come the golfer himself. It was hugely important to the Carvers that he should make a correct, believable swing. Bruce therefore filmed Roger taking swings under carefully controlled conditions using a high-quality video camera. About every fourth frame of the swing was developed as a slide and projected onto a glass screen, from which Roger could trace it onto graph paper using colored pencils, to be translated from there into the grid of bits that makes up each frame of each sprite in the Commodore 64′s memory. Or rather, six different areas of the image were each individually translated: the actual golfer, club included, is built from no fewer than six of the 64′s eight available sprites, each of a single color and carefully placed in relation to its siblings; thus the golfer’s white shirt and hat are made from one sprite, his brown pants from another, his black club from yet another, etc. (Although Bruce Carver first made his reputation through his mastery of multicolor sprites, Leader Board actually makes no use of them.) As the golfer goes through his swing, each sprite steps through its own sequence of bitmaps to recreate as closely as possible the smooth swing that had been originally captured on video.

Bruce Carver films Roger taking a golf swing.

Bruce Carver films Roger taking a golf swing.

Roger Carver traces his own image from a frame of video.

Roger Carver traces his own image from a frame of video.

Now how to have the player actually control the swing? After much experimentation, the Carvers hit upon a system that didn’t try to duplicate the actual motions of a swing via complicated joystick jerks of the sort Epyx tended to favor in their Games series, but somehow just felt better than anything else. (The developers of Mean 18 came up with an almost identical system simultaneously but apparently independently.) This so-called “three-click” system has persisted with only modest variations for decades as the go-to control scheme for computerized golf; any new game that deviates from it always provokes intense debate, and those that opt for something other than this by now traditional approach often all but define themselves by their rejection of the golf-swing status quo.

In Leader Board, then, you first aim the shot horizontally with a small targeting cursor, then press and hold the joystick button to begin your back swing. You release it when you’re ready to end the back swing — more back swing will hit the ball farther — but must be careful not to wait too long. The golfer now begins his forward swing. Hit the button again just as the club strikes the ball to “snap” it straight, or slightly before or after to deliberately — or, more likely, accidentally — hook or slice it to the left or right. Timing being so critical in this, the very heart of the game of golf whether played in the real world or on a computer, the simulation here had to be absolutely smooth, consistent, and precise. As in many other places in Leader Board, the Carvers took advantage of the Commodore 64′s timer-interrupt system to be sure of this. (Timer interrupts work similarly to the raster interrupts I discussed in an earlier article, except that they are triggered not by the movements of the electron gun which paints the screen but rather can be set to occur at a precise interval of microseconds.)

After the ball is struck, its X, Y, and Z vectors are calculated, taking into account the swing itself, gravity and air resistance, and, if you’re playing at “Professional” level, the wind. The ball is represented by a seventh sprite, which can have a number of possible sizes depending on its distance from you. In a nice touch that adds a welcome note of verisimilitude, the eighth sprite is employed as the shadow of the ball in flight; before the ball is struck, when it’s lying on the ground before you, this sprite is used to represent the targeting cursor. The movement of the ball and its shadow are again tied to the 64′s interrupt timer to assure that they are absolutely smooth and believable. If the sprite lands in the water, you have to try again; likewise, in yet another simplification, if you send it off the screen to left or right. Otherwise another view is generated from where the ball landed, and the hole continues. It is possible to hit the ball directly into the hole from the fairway, even to score a hole in one on some of the shorter holes, but it’s very, very difficult; in the couple of dozen complete games I’ve played recently (we got a bit obsessed with Leader Board around here for a while), I’ve managed it exactly once.

More commonly, you’ll eventually end up on the putting green, defined in Leader Board as simply an arbitrary circle 64 feet in radius around the hole. With no need for the concept of a snap, the control scheme is here simplified: just aim with the targeting cursor, then hold down the button until the power meter reaches the desired level, keeping in mind that a ball that’s traveling too fast when it reaches the hole will bounce right over it.

In order to make putting any real challenge, the Carvers were forced to add back in the concept of elevation they had excised from the rest of the simulation. The problem became how to portray slope on the relatively small surface of the green given a screen resolution of just 160 X 200. The ideal method would have been to add color shading to visually indicate contour, but they already needed to keep available four colors — the maximum permitted by the Commodore 64′s VIC-II graphics chip in any 4 X 8-pixel region — for drawing the other elements of the landscape. The somewhat kludgy and not entirely intuitive solution became a visual indicator, conveniently drawn in two of the available colors, to the left of the golfer. The vertical line represents the magnitude of the slope; the other represents its direction. The same system is used to represent wind intensity and direction when not on the green.

With that, plus a small battery of sound effects which are often cleverly reused — for instance, the splash when a ball strikes water is always the same waveform played at one of four volumes depending on the distance of the ball — the Carvers had something quite special, if also something that was, like any game, full of sacrifices and compromises. They had always seen this minimalist world of green land and blue water as a mere jumping-off point. Now, however, their planned shipping date loomed, and Access wasn’t in a financial position to miss it. Therefore Leader Board went out the door as-is very early in 1986. When it proved a hit, the Carvers happily returned to the Leader Board well again and again: via Leader Board Tournament, a bare-bones sequel featuring four new courses but the same engine; via Executive Leader Board later in 1986, which added sand traps and trees; and finally via World Class Leader Board and three course expansion disks (Famous Courses of the World) in 1987 and 1988. By this time, the Carvers had something that approached a real game of golf, with real-world golf courses like St. Andrews and Pebble Beach, fairways and roughs and a whole variety of trees and other hazards, and variably shaped and sized greens. They had also largely remade Access in the eyes of gamers, from the Beach-Head company to the Leader Board company. Having accomplished all they felt they could on the Commodore 64 and seeing which way the industry winds were blowing, the Carvers now turned to bigger MS-DOS machines and what would become the most successful golf franchise of all, Links — a story for another time.

Executive Leader Board

Executive Leader Board

World Class Leader Board

World Class Leader Board

Before we say goodbye to Leader Board, I want to take a moment here to say just how ridiculously entertaining it is, even in its most minimalist configuration. There’s something elegant and classic about those bifurcated, abstract landscapes of the first Leader Board — enough so that, while the later Leader Boards are certainly more impressive as golfing simulations, I’m not entirely sure they’re all that much better as computer games. Leader Board is an engaging little diversion played alone against the course, trying to come in under par (there is no computer opponent available). But get some friends together and it’s absolute magic, like so many of the best Commodore 64 games and so many of my personal favorites. Find yourself an open-minded friend or two or three who are willing to overlook 8-bit-era graphics and give it a shot; I’ve prepared a download that includes the original Leader Board, Executive Leader Board, and World Class Leader Board — which I think I can without causing a great deal of controversy call the definitive 8-bit golf game — with all the course disks also included courtesy of some ingenious hackers from the days of yore. Fire up a Commodore 64 emulator and try it even if you wouldn’t be caught dead on a real golf course. Golf just works on a computer, as millions of players with no interest whatsoever in the real game have discovered over the years. A grand tradition begins in earnest right here.

(Sources this time out are the same as for the last article.)


August 16, 2014

IFComp News

Authors: Hold the hype until voting's over

August 16, 2014 08:01 PM

Before today, the first paragraph of author rule #4 stated (emphasis mine):

Authors of a competition entry may not discuss any of the entries in a public forum, blog, or social network during the voting period, nor may they use these media to canvass for votes. However, authors are free to link to or write about the existence of their entries as part of the larger IFComp.

I’ve just adjusted it to read as follows:

Authors of a competition entry may not discuss any of the entries in a public forum, blog, or social network before the end of the voting period, nor may they use these media to canvass for votes. However, authors are free to link to or write about the existence of their entries as part of the larger IFComp.

While it’s almost certainly true that attention paid to the IFComp is far higher during the October-November judging period than the summertime development season, publicly advertising or otherwise discussing your own game in the weeks leading up to voting can still influence perception of your work among the people waiting to play the annual crop of entries. That would go against the spirit of the rules.

So: even if you finish up your entry months before voting begins, please refrain from any public discussion, advertisement, or promotion of your (or anyone else’s) upcoming IFComp game. (Once voting ends, this restriction no longer holds, and you can hype all you want.)

As the rest of the rule states, we both allow and encourage authors to publicly promote the competition itself, and in so doing mention the fact that they happen to have an entry within it. We want judges to approach each entry with as few preconceptions as possible regarding its content or quality, making the votes they cast more fair for everyone.

August 15, 2014

These Heterogenous Tasks

GPNW: Danger Patrol, Capes

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at August 15, 2014 11:01 PM

gpnwEarlier this summer, I spent the weekend at Go Play NW, a Seattle storygaming-and-friends con. Go Play turns out to be pretty much a perfect con for me – very modest in scale, a strong focus on structured activities, almost completely non-commercial, a bunch of people I know, and (in my case) very little travel required. Getting to Capitol Hill on Pride weekend isn’t pretty, but it beats flying.

The other thing is that Story Games Seattle, where I do the bulk of my roleplaying, has a particular set of foci – some of it explicit (SGS doesn’t do games with GM roles) and some of it more a matter of preference, habit or culture. There are a lot of kinds and purposes of game grouped under the ‘storygames’ banner, and not all of them get the same level of attention at SGS.

In particular, there are a lot of games where the general intent is closer to traditional D&D-like roleplaying: playing to make your heroic character succeed, rolling a bunch of dice to see who wins conflicts. To at least some people, a central point of storygaming is to streamline and de-munchkinify the traditional action-oriented RPG experience; the games that serve this goal are much closer relatives to Fate than to issue-centred, player-fiat games like A Penny For My Thoughts or Dog Eat Dog.

Two games that I played right at the end of the weekend were occupying this kind of territory: they’re GMless games, focused on intense, tropey, pulpy action, in which you’re gunning for a heroic victory (and rolling lots of dice to see whether that happens). Capes is a superhero game, focused on players competing against one another; Danger Patrol is pulp action-SF where players cooperate to overcome threats.

(In the accounts below, I’m describing the games as I played them. A problem with writing about storygames is that games often go through a lot of revisions, some public, some passed around privately; then people house-rule them to make them GMless, or better-suited for one-shots or cons, or simpler, or to overcome recurring issues, and those changes are passed down as people learn games through playing them, and the facilitator’s individual style matters a great deal too; so when you actually go back and look at the system as written there can be some very big differences.)

caperySuperhero game Capes, by Tony Lower-Basch, is all about character templates: you create your superheroes by combining a power module (Speedster, Godling, Animal Avatar) with a personality one (Angsty Nice Guy, Psychotic Loner, Spunky Kid). This gives you a list of abilities, which you winnow and assign power ranks to. Characters are linked by conflicts, which might be as straightforward as ‘I want to steal the magic artefact thing, she is honour-bound to protect it'; each active conflict has dice on either side of it that determine who’s presently winning. (Which conflicts are currently active seem to be the main determinant of current plot focus.)

Turns go around the table; on your turn, you narrate how you’re using an ability to influence the outcome of a conflict, which lets you reroll dice; then the other players get the chance to react and change your roll. Some powers are limited-use; others need to be activated by taking on Debt (or Angst), tokens that represent your emotional or raison d’etre investment in a conflict. Since failure on a high-debt conflict can make life harder down the road, there’s a certain aspect of bidding in this – which conflicts does your character really care about? what core identity values are they willing to imperil? – but in a oneshot game that wasn’t as prominent, and it made more sense just to pile up Debt in hope of a victory.

The presence of multiple conflicts on the table, and the limited actions you have to mechanically affect them, adds an element of prioritisation and opportunity-cost that’s straightforwardly compelling: and because it plays out over a good number of rounds, it offers players more sophisticated strategies than ‘save either Lois or the train full of Nobel laureates.’ It might seem that Lois is fairly safe by this point. You might invest a lot of effort in the Nobel laureates to relatively little effect.

Among the people I storygame with most often, there’s a strong scepticism about dice. Dice have their uses, is the perspective, but they don’t know what makes a fun, interesting story as well as the players do. It’s an inversion of the Primetime Adventures advice to not to go for a conflict if the different outcomes aren’t equally interesting:  ‘go for the conflict, figure out what would be the most interesting outcome, decide that it happens.’ And that is a problem with Capes: in spite of some dice-splitting mechanics that make a total lockout unlikely, it’s possible for the dice to conspire to suck all the drama out of your story, and the content of the story doesn’t necessarily match the mechanical game state very well. We set up a story in which the villains were forgotten gods, ancient and terrifying; the heroes were more mundane in scope, and had stumbled onto something too big for them. For much of the game the heroes were trapped in a hospital basement, trying to protect a vital NPC, desperately throwing up magic force-fields and scrambling to rescue loved ones from the frustrated villains’ rampaging. The story said that the heroes were under siege, clinging on by the skin of their teeth; in this kind of story, victory should only come at the last minute, or at a great cost. But the dice said that they were comfortably in control of both their objectives more or less throughout.

We nonetheless worked through it and had a damn fine time, but for me it really confirmed the basic vulnerability of letting the dice choose. For some players, this will be an acceptable risk – there’s always something that can potentially mess up a game, after all.

dangeryThe Danger Patrol (John Harper) are some kind of organisation – formal or informal, secretive or open, government or not – dedicated to protecting… something, quite possibly the world, from crazy-ass pulp menaces. The exact flavour can vary depending on your setup, but it’s strongly rooted in golden-age pulp: the threats you face are created by adjective-noun combinations that produce four-colour titles like The Etheric Monstrosity, The Ghost Paradox or The Robotic Vortex. Character types are created by a similar process, producing Mystic Commandos, Atomic Flyboys and Two-Fisted Professors.

Quite a lot of the setup involves figuring out what these weird-sounding threats mean and how they’re linked together into one acceptably-coherent premise; a willingness to concoct story-serving mumbo-jumbo on the fly is pretty important. We ended up concocting a strange world of interdimensional travel and culture shock, ley-lines, an unstable wormhole from a hell-dimension that created a psychic maelstrom that mind-controlled Manhattan; said maelstrom was inhabited by a malign and near-incomprehensible being that murdered psychics who tried to deal with the storm. Much of this was the moon’s fault.

There’s some obvious influence from Fate and the Fate-based pulp-edisonade Spirit of the Century; in a near-direct lift, you link your characters by a ‘Previously, on Danger Patrol…’ sequence recounting the heroes’ daring rescues of one another.

Attacking the threats involves rolling a great big handful of variously-polyhedral dice, which you assemble from basic attributes (Daring, Science), plus assists from your own traits and those of other PCs. Rolls of 1-3 hurt you, 4+ hurt the threat. The distinctive bit is that you can also add dice (d6, which are mixed blessings) by describing different ways in which the thing you’re attempting is dangerous. There’s a substantial element of metagaming here: you can pretty reliably knock out a threat by piling on danger dice, but the more dice you add the more likely it is that you’ll take yourself out in the process. (Heroes who are taken out aren’t necessarily dead, but need to be rescued by other heroes before they can do much.)

The tendency, at least in the pocket version, is to make every conflict a big, cataclysmic, high-stakes team effort. The full version seems to have an interlude element to cool some of the intensity off, and I suspect this was downplayed in the interests of finishing the story; but this is fundamentally a story about taking big heroic risks.

Rather like a three-hour explosion-filled superhero movie, the constant push towards the biggest, riskiest action sequences felt as though it flattened out the arc of the story a little. Character development has to happen in action-serving ways, or else gets squeezed into the cracks. This is kind of a shame, because the setup makes for flavourful PCs with good hooks in one another; I’d love to play this with a more campaign-style pacing, a bit more mechanical incentive for interpersonal-focused scenes, perhaps as a recuperation method necessary to tackle big rolls. (Maybe that’s how interludes work! I don’t know.)

The Digital Antiquarian

Access Software

by Jimmy Maher at August 15, 2014 05:00 PM

Bruce and Roger Carver,  1985

Bruce and Roger Carver, 1985

The canon of Access Software is crazily varied in light of its relatively modest size. It begins with a utility and then proceeds through a series of frenetic action games of sometimes questionable taste, only to do an abrupt about-face and embrace that most staid of sports, golf. That long-line line of simulations is then joined by a series of gloriously cheesy full-motion-video adventure games. The variety is even more remarkable when you consider that the output of this modest company is largely derived from the minds of just three men: brothers Bruce and Roger Carver and one Chris Jones, instantly recognizable to adventure-game fans as the trench-coated future-noir detective Tex Murphy. The Access story begins in 1982, long before the technology that enabled Tex was more than a dream, when Bruce Carver took home one of the first Commodore 64s to be sold in Salt Lake City.

Bruce was hardly your stereotypical computer whiz kid. Reared in the conservative bosom of Mormonism, he was a settled 34-year-old family man, more than ten years into a career in industrial engineering, when he bought his 64. He’d been introduced to programming some fifteen years earlier at university, then gotten a baptism by fire in his first job after, in the San Francisco offices of the Pacific Fruit Express Company.

They had a computer that no one knew how to work. One day the boss dropped a pile of manuals on my desk and, “Learn how to work this thing — I see you’ve taken Fortran in college.”

I dug through the books until I figured out how it worked and programmed a lot of it myself. By that time, I was working in machine language, something I had never done before — I was used to working with high-level languages. At that point, I fell in love with computers.

After “talking his wife into” the idea years later, he bought a Commodore 64 system from Steve Witzel, owner of a local store called Computers Plus. Bruce found the 64 captivating, rediscovering a passion for hacking that had been lying dormant all these years. Soon he was devoting all the time he could spare to figuring out how the little machine in his basement worked.

That could be a more difficult proposition than you might think. In years to come the 64 would see its humble innards plumbed and charted and exploited to a degree matched by few other platforms in computing history. Those first machines, however, preceded the foundation for most of the vast literature to follow, Commodore’s official Programmer’s Reference Guide, by almost a year. The only source early buyers had for understanding the machine was the sketchy outline provided in the manual in the form of yet another BASIC programming primer. And the 64 was an unusually inscrutable machine at that. Its BASIC was of little use for divining or exploiting the 64′s true capabilities, given that it was the exact same BASIC that Jack Tramiel had purchased from Bill Gates for the Commodore PET back in 1977. It thus lacked any support whatsoever for most of what made the 64 special, like colors and sprites and the SID sound chip. The only way to access these capabilities in BASIC was to POKE values into memory locations and to PEEK at others to see what was inside. Problem was, you had to know what these memory locations were in the first place, for which the manual was of only limited help at best. And so thousands of early adopters like Bruce Carver set out to divine them for themselves, to construct a map of the machine and its capabilities, by methodically POKEing each of the 65,535 addresses and seeing what happened. It was madness, but it was a delightful sort of madness for the right sort of mind.

Bruce’s personal obsession became the 64′s sprite system, particularly a little-understood, semi-mythical something called a “multicolor” sprite that was mentioned in passing in two tables inside the manual but otherwise went completely unremarked. As I wrote in an earlier article about the 64′s technical capabilities, and as Bruce now discovered after a “long systematic search” just to find the video chip, a multicolored sprite let you use up to three colors rather than just one to construct it, at the expense of half the object’s horizontal detail. Bruce’s discoveries led to his first real Commodore 64 project, an editor which let him design single- or multicolor sprites interactively, then save them in a format easy to incorporate into either BASIC or assembly-language. He took it to Computers Plus to show Witzel, who told him that, if he applied just a bit more polish and wrote a manual for it, he’d have a perfectly salable product. This encouragement led to the founding of Access Software just four feverish months after Bruce had first set up his Commodore 64. Witzel, who would become a lifelong friend, knew very well how software distribution and sales worked, and was thus able to help Bruce get a foot in the door of the software industry.

Spritemaster Spritemaster

Both Access’s first product and the first 64 product of its type, Spritemaster proved to be quite successful. It also led to an unexpected windfall of another sort. Bruce:

In December of 1982, I decided to attend a small Commodore dealer show in San Francisco. It was the perfect stage to introduce my new program to the public. The Commodore representative who was running the show came over and asked me if that was multicolored sprites I was displaying on the screen. I replied, yes, it was. He was so impressed with my work that he offered me a Xerox of a Commodore folder containing 64 technical information. He also warned me not to tell anyone else that I had it. So I returned home with a valuable prize that would save me many long hours of playing around with the computer.

Neutral Zone

The first Access game, Neutral Zone, arose directly out of Bruce’s latest technical explorations. It placed the player in charge of a missile battery defending a space station from hordes of aliens. The big gimmick was the way that the player could pan her weapon — and with it the screen — horizontally through a full 360 degrees to target aliens who flew in from everywhere. This was accomplished by taking advantage of scrolling registers that were not even hinted at by the Commodore 64′s manual and whose existence was thus completely unknown to most programmers. Aided by that precious notebook, Bruce was developing a reputation as one of the machine’s programming gurus. While he himself would later admit that Neutral Zone “isn’t a terrific game,” it was one hell of a technical tour de force for early 1983. At another trade show, this time in Florida, the same Commodore representative approached Bruce again to praise it, apparently without recognizing the fellow for whom his own help had been so instrumental.

Neutral Zone did well enough that Bruce decided to quit his day job at Redd Engineering, managing the neat trick of convincing some of Redd’s owners to invest in Access in the process; he would soon set up Access’s first office on the top floor of Redd’s own building. At this point Chris Jones enters the stage, in the uniform not of a roguish detective but rather a mild-mannered accountant — specifically, the Redd Engineering colleague Bruce had hired to do Access’s taxes. In the midst of that, Chris became entranced with the work Bruce was doing. Never of a technical bent himself, Chris was full of creative ideas for the application of Bruce’s ever-growing mastery of Commodore 64 graphics and sound. The two now agreed to do a game together, the first “real game” from Access that had been “planned in depth ahead of time, before any programming.”

Beach-Head Beach-Head

Beach-Head was inspired by the pair’s love for old World War II movies of the gung-ho John Wayne stripe. It charges you with recapturing an island that has been occupied by an enemy known only as “the Dictator.” Doing so requires the successful completion of no less than five individual action games. You must guide the invasion fleet toward the island whilst avoiding mines and torpedo attacks; fend off an enemy air attack on your fleet, followed by a surface attack; and finally storm the beaches and complete the final assault on the island’s central fortress. While hardly a cerebral exercise, it’s interesting for the amount of narrative it grafts onto its action-game template, and for being more sophisticated in some ways than you might expect. Far from being just five separate games packaged together, actions and, most importantly, casualties sustained in earlier phases actually affect later ones, leaving you with a tidy, unique little story at the end about your invasion (or invasion attempt).

Geoff Brown

Geoff Brown

Soon after Beach-Head‘s late 1983 American release, opportunity walked through the door in the form of the slick and stylish Englishman Geoff Brown, a former rock musician who owned and ran a major British software distributor called Centresoft. (In an interesting coincidence, “Center Soft” was one of the names Bruce had rejected for what became Access Software.) Brown now had the idea of starting his own software line called U.S. Gold, which would, as the name would imply, license the best games from the United States, repackage them for Europe — which would generally involve adapting them to work on cassette — and promote the living hell out of them; if there was one thing Brown was good at, it was promotion. For American publishers, U.S. Gold would be a cheap, painless way to maximize their markets, while for Geoff Brown it would turn into gold of another stripe; he would soon be driving one of only twenty Ferrari Testarossas on the roads of Britain. U.S. Gold’s client list would soon include a major swathe of the American games industry: Adventure International, Microprose, Epyx, Datasoft, SSI, Accolade, Sierra On-Line. Within a year they would own 25 percent of the British games industry, while Brown collected plenty of hate from domestic publishers for his blunt claim that American software was just better than European software as well as for an advertising budget that ran to five times the size of his nearest competitor. Yet it all started when Brown convinced Bruce Carver and his tiny company Access to let him bring Beach-Head to Europe as the very first U.S. Gold game.

Beach-Head was a perfect template for Brown’s vision for U.S. Gold: flashy, fast-paced, not very dependent on text, and thanks to its modular design very playable off cassette. “I couldn’t believe how fantastic it looked, with smooth animation and very realistic graphics,” Brown would later say. “The gameplay was like nothing I had ever seen in the UK, streets ahead of the competing UK product.” With Brown’s promotional savvy behind it, it became huge in Europe, selling in the vicinity of 150,000 units in its first year there and making of Bruce Carver a programming hero for countless European kids. Brown claims that it prompted home-grown British developers to “scrap everything they were working on” and start over to try to reach the bar set by Beach-Head. He also claims today that he shipped 1 million copies of Beach-Head through U.S. Gold, but it should be said that he is a bit prone to hyperbole and this number sounds extreme. Regardless, the game went on to become not just the most successful by far of Access’s early efforts but one of the seminal Commodore 64 titles, one that absolutely every kid with a 64 knew, owned, and played, whether legally or (as was much more the norm) illegally acquired.

Raid Over Moscow Raid Over Moscow

Bruce came up with the title of Access’s next game, Raid Over Moscow, whilst driving home from the Winter Consumer Electronics Show in January of 1984 with some friends. The game, another multi-stage “arcade adventure,” was designed around the name. But this time Bruce and Chris walked, by their account naively, into controversy. In place of the abstractly fictional Dictator of Beach-Head, Raid Over Moscow posits a sneak nuclear attack by the very real Soviet Union, which you must defend against using an SDI-like system. It climaxes with the eponymous assault on Moscow itself; if you succeed here you leave behind a smoking nuclear crater. In questionable taste though it was, the game attracted little concern in the United States, where its jingoism felt sadly in step with those times when Ronald Reagan’s “Evil Empire” rhetoric was reaching a peak, the real SDI program was all over the news, and the superpowers were closer to the brink of nuclear war than they had been since the Cuban Missile Crisis.

In Europe, much closer to Moscow and much more aware of the horrors of war thanks to recent history, it was a different story: Raid Over Moscow caused the proverbial shitstorm upon its release through U.S. Gold. The magazine letter pages in Britain erupted with condemnations: “nuclear war is not a subject for fantasy”; “another sick episode of this American hang-up with the people of Russia”; “provocative, insulting, and harmful”; “a nasty little number”; “vicious propaganda”; “a load of American rubbish.” Others were equally strident in declaring Raid Over Moscow harmless, “just a game,” as the controversy spread from gaming circles to television newscasts, radio shows, and of course the always overheated London tabloids. In France and West Germany the game was released as simply Raid!!!, but that didn’t help in the latter country, whose government promptly banned it — and Beach-Head for good measure — from being advertised, sold to minors at all, or even displayed on store shelves. But the most extreme reaction of all happened in Finland, where the controversy made it to the halls of Parliament and prompted an official protest from the Soviet Union to the Finnish Foreign Ministry, calling the game “military propaganda” amongst other choice epithets. Naturally, Raid Over Moscow spent the several months that followed as the top-selling Commodore 64 game in Finland.

Even as he publicly dismissed the controversy by taking the “just a game” angle, Geoff Brown rubbed his hands in glee in deference to the old maxim that no press is bad press. Bruce Carver and Chris Jones, who whatever their personal politics did seem genuinely bewildered and at least somewhat bothered by it all, later claimed that Brown deliberately sparked the flames by contacting known “hawks” and “doves” in London political circles to tell them about the game and get them squawking at each other before it even came out. Later Brown supposedly stoked them by paying people to picket the Soviet Embassy in Raid Over Moscow tee-shirts, until Bruce finally told him to please just cool it.

Meanwhile back in Nevada, the last piece of the Access puzzle had fallen into place in the form of Bruce’s younger brother Roger, who had spent the last nine years in the Navy programming mainframe-based flight simulators. Intrigued by his brother’s programming exploits, he bought a Commodore 64 of his own, and quickly made a poker game that was quite playable. Impressed, Bruce convinced Roger not to reenlist but rather to come work with him instead in June of 1984; by this time Access was turning at last into a real company, with real offices and real employees. The two brothers worked along with Chris Jones on the inevitable Beach-Head II: The Dictator Strikes Back, yet another episodic military action game but one which did stretch the formula considerably by making it possible for two players to play against each other, one in the role of the Dictator and the other in that of the hero.

Beach-Head II Beach-Head II

Beach-Head II‘s other obvious innovation marked the onset of another of the Carvers’ longstanding technical obsessions. Inspired by the digitized speech snippet in Epyx’s Impossible Mission, they started looking for a way to incorporate speech into their own game. They caught up with Doug Mosser, whose company Electronic Speech Systems had been responsible for that snippet, at the January 1985 CES. Together the two companies were able to shoehorn quite a variety of spoken exclamations — all performed by Access’s package artist, Doug Vandergrift — into Beach-Head II, no mean feat given the limited speed and memory of the Commodore 64; just playing back one of these samples required about half of the 6502 CPU’s cycles, leaving precious little for everything else going on. While they didn’t come up with anything quite as indelible as Impossible Mission‘s “Stay a while! Stay forever!,” wounded soldiers in Beach-Head II scream for a “Medic!”; hostages whine, “Hey, don’t shoot me!”; the Dictator himself cackles and issues appropriate Evil Mastermindish threats. The Carvers would continue to relentlessly push the (often rudimentary) sound capabilities of the computers on which they worked, culminating in a patented system, which they dubbed RealSound, for getting, well, real sound and speech out of the IBM PC’s primitive bleeper of a speaker. It would be licensed to a number of other companies, until the arrival of ubiquitous sound cards made it moot.

Beach-Head II foreshadowed Access’s future in still another way. The opening sequence sees your forces parachuting into the Dictator’s stronghold from helicopters, then mounting an initial assault on the defensive perimeter. Trying to make the soldiers’ movements as realistic as possible, the three Access principals went out to a local park and filmed themselves running and scaling walls on a new video camera Roger had recently acquired. They then traced still frames of their figures to make the sprites in the game. This interest in the incorporation of live-action video footage — Roger and Chris were both to one degree or another frustrated filmmakers — would mark virtually every project Access would undertake for the next fifteen years.

For all its small-scale innovations, Beach-Head II, Access’s third episodic military action game, could be read as too much of a good thing. Sales certainly bore that out: Beach-Head had been a massive hit, Raid Over Moscow, despite all of the controversy and the attendant publicity, slightly less of one, while Beach-Head II sold yet worse. Access thus decided on a major change in direction: to make a multi-event sports simulation, a genre in which their developing motion-capture techniques might give them a big edge over the competition. From a commercial standpoint if nothing else, it made a lot of sense; Summer Games I and II from Epyx were absolutely huge in both North America and Europe (where they were released, naturally, under the U.S. Gold imprint).

The original conception for what would become Leader Board hewed very closely indeed to the Epyx model. Access imagined a game that consisted of four separate events: a baseball home-run derby, a soccer penalty kick, a “closest to the pin” golf challenge (meaning each player got three shots to get as close to a single hole as possible), and something else to be determined in the fullness of time. Roger being an excellent golfer, with a handicap that had been known to get as low as 3, they decided to make the golf challenge first. By the time they were done, it seemed obvious that they had something special, worthy of being expanded into a full-fledged 18-hole golf simulation. The other three events were forgotten, and Leader Board was born.

(The longest and most detailed accounts of Access’s early history are found in the July 1987 and August 1987 Commodore Magazine, the June/July 1985 Commodore Power Play, and Retro Gamer #120. Geoff Brown and U.S. Gold are profiled in the June 1985 ZZap!, the July 1986 Commodore User, and the October 1986 Your Computer. A sampling of reactions to Road to Moscow can be found in the October 1984, December 1984, February 1985, and March 1985 Computer and Video Games, and the April 1985 Sinclair User. And finally, not reading Finnish, I must admit that I sourced the Raid Over Moscow controversy in Finland straight from good old Wikipedia.)


August 14, 2014

These Heterogenous Tasks

Introcomp 2014 – 1st And Last of the Ninja

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at August 14, 2014 08:01 PM

1st And Last Of The Ninja, by nmelssx, is an attempt to emulate a CRPG in the chooseyourstory format. It classifies itself as fan-fiction but doesn’t clarify of what. Something anime-ish? My guess was Naruto, since that is the ninja-related thing that all the durn kids are into these days; I eventually confirmed this when a shopkeeper greeted me as Naruto, which seems like the wrong point to mention it. It falls into the category of fanfiction that does nothing to explain itself: it assumes that you’re already very familiar with all the elements of the story.

The Rules section suggests that this is meant to work as a fairly orthodox CRPG oriented around combat, with leveling, magical techniques powered by ‘chakra’, bartering, theft, and equippable armour and weapons. This immediately makes me apprehensive, because there are a lot of people who show up in the IF world wanting to make complex, ambitious CRPGs in platforms which aren’t really designed for it, often without any prior experience of game design. Typically, they set themselves goals heavily influenced by major commercial CRPGs, far in excess of what a lone, inexperienced amateur can hope to accomplish; refuse to compromise their vision; and fade out of existence. (There are people who have made successful CRPG-influenced games in IF formats; universally, they’ve adapted the CRPG model to make it work better as IF.)

So it’s mildly surprising that the intro seems to have most of the stuff that the designer envisages. Partly this is because it’s emulating a style of CRPG that is kind of choice-based anyway. There are stores for food that restores HP, a training ground for combat, some woods where you can go for slightly different combat, and so forth. At the beginning of the game, most of these options are way above your abilities, but it’s pretty straightforward to level up with judicious use of techniques.

The writing has a lot of errors: there are basic grammar mistakes, the style is awkward, and there are regular problems with clarity that I think go beyond those caused by its fanfic nature. I don’t know that the author is very interested good writing, one way or another. My expectation is that anybody making IF should be enthusiastic about text, should have text as a preferred medium, should consider good writing one of the most important things in a game; here it feels as though it may be being treated as a medium of last resort. If that impression’s incorrect, then the author should probably start by making a habit of recruiting proofreaders to catch errors, and testers to point out where the writing’s unclear.

The chooseyourstory interface is not really designed for the kinds of interface that the game wants to use. At one point you have to enter a four-digit password, which you do by clicking through four successive sets of hyperlinks. The game has an ‘inventory’, but really this means ‘all the submenus that the game needs to keep available at all times’, one of which is your actual inventory. Whenever a submenu gets added to that list, it appears as an item that you have to pick up. When you’re in shops, you don’t know how much money you have to spend unless you go into your backpack, hit ‘use’, then hit ‘previous page’ to get back to the shop text. More or less everything you do is affected by similar jankiness in the interface; it works, mostly, but it’s very clearly a kind of game that is not native to this medium.

Do I want to continue playing? No. This is intended for a fandom audience of which I am not a member, and it does not do much to explain itself to outsiders. It obviously represents a nontrivial effort, but that effort is not aimed at me.

Now, there’s nothing particularly wrong with fanfic that relies on having an audience that’s very familiar with the original work. That’s pretty normal, in fanfic. But if you’re presenting your fanfic for a more general audience – by, for instance, entering it into a competition – you need to make it accessible and comprehensible to people outside your fandom. You need to assume that your audience doesn’t know or care about Naruto. That’s a much harder thing to do, and if you’re not interested in doing that, that’s fine; but if so, you should make it clear that your game is Naruto fanfic and not try to get people who aren’t Naruto fans to play it.

Great Evil: A substantial amount of effort has been put into implementing this. Not being fully familiar with chooseyourstory, I’m not sure how much of the interface awkwardness is to do with the limits of the platform and how much is implementation. There are definitely bugs, though. At one point I got stuck in my house; I wasn’t allowed to use the map to leave, for some reason. There’s inconsistent use of art, most of which appears ganked. And the writing is in bad shape.

Again, I dunno. I’m from a community which expects high standards of polish and professionalism from amateur works, that expects that authors who enter comps are doing so in large part to solicit critical feedback. That is not the norm in other places. It’s kind of unfair to have authors who come from that kind of expectation competing against authors who are perfectly happy with being amateurish, or people who are learning out loud, or kids.

Little Evil: Really pretty good: we know basically what the game is going to involve and how it’s going to work.

The Gameshelf: IF

IF meetup at WordPlay, Toronto, Nov 8th

by Andrew Plotkin at August 14, 2014 05:14 PM

We would like to invite the IF world to show up and hang out at WordPlay in Toronto on November 8th. (Free admission.) That whole weekend, really -- we'll have some kind of dinner and stuff.

For the past few years, the Boston IF gang has hosted community get-togethers in association with various local game-related shindigs. (First PAX East, then NoShowConf.)

What with one thing and another, that's not happening in Boston this summer. (Although we will be in attendance at BostonFIG in September.)

However! Jim Munroe is running his second annual WordPlay festival in Toronto on November 8th. This seems like an excellent opportunity to declare a get-together. So let's do that.

(Discussion on forum thread: