A video playthrough of the classic 1980s educational mathematics game L — A Mathemagical Adventure by the UK Association of Teachers of Mathematics, for the 8-bit BBC Micro computer :
A video playthrough of the classic 1980s educational mathematics game L — A Mathemagical Adventure by the UK Association of Teachers of Mathematics, for the 8-bit BBC Micro computer :
You can now play Wander online.
This em-dosbox repackaging of a DOS port of Wander was created by me, using blunt instruments. (I broke the SAVE and RESTORE commands, for example.) Please contact me if you know how to improve my rather crude hack.
Some of the Wander “worlds” that were recently recovered are 1980s versions, and include features that were added in response to ADVENT. (Peter Langston was apparently a member of the “UNIX Adventure Tastefulness Committee”, which was convened to sort out “Various design questions” during the conversion of ADVENT to UNIX.)
But the very first versions of Wander – which are still lost – date from 1974 or earlier, so you can’t help asking yourself (or at least I can’t) if Wander might have been an influence on the development of ADVENT, which was always thought to be the first work of interactive fiction on a computer.
Was Wander distributed widely enough for Will Crowther and/or Don Woods to have had the opportunity to see it before they wrote ADVENT?
If the answer is no, then that does that mean there’s something fishy going on? Surely two people couldn’t independently have come up with the idea of a textual game of exploration where you navigate using compass directions?
Um, why not? What else would you use, if not NORTH, SOUTH, EAST and WEST? Well, actually, you might use LEFT, RIGHT, FORWARD and BACK – and there is at least one game that does: The Secret of Arendarvon Castle (of which more later).
Okay, so it is possible to make a text adventure game with a different set of navigational commands, but compass directions are probably easier for the player to use and for the programmer to implement. Also, for Will Crowther, compass directions might have been the natural choice when he was writing ADVENT because he was a caver who used a compass to map out underground cave systems in real life.
But what about Peter Langston? If he started working on Wander in or before 1974, did he implement compass directions from the beginning? We may never know – unless the earliest source code is found, which seems unlikely. (But perhaps Jason Dyer’s forthcoming blogposts will dig up some interesting artefacts from the code we already have.)
So, do we know anything else at all about the origins of Wander? Well, I did ask Peter that very question (before finally realising that I ought to leave him in peace now). His reply:
As to Wander’s inspiration, as I was writing other games, I got to thinking about the non-deterministic non-linear story experiments I had heard of the French doing in the 1920s, where the reader made choices that determined how the story went. I figured that fairytales like Rapunzel or science fiction like the Retief stories would be a good basis for such stories and computers would be the perfect way to present them, but it would require a great deal of programming skills along with the storytelling skills. So Wander was an experiment to see if the programming part could be made easier by pre-coding the common kinds of actions and consequences. I had the vague idea that I could make it easy to use and then coax some real authors like Robert Sheckley into writing some wanders. I never got that far, of course.
It’s a crying shame that we never got to see the words “A wander by Robert Sheckley” flash up on a computer screen!
I’m not sure exactly who the French writers that Peter refers to are. Raymond Queneau’s Un Conte À Votre Façon (1967) has been suggested, but it arrived several decades after the period indicated by Peter. Let me know if you have any other suggestions.
I really have no right to take credit for this, because although I must have read about Wander in the Inform Designer’s Manual some years ago, it only really registered with me after I saw a list of lost mainframe games in Jason Dyer’s recent blogpost.
Wander was probably the first computer game that is recognisable as what came to be known as a “text adventure” (or “interactive fiction”) – pre-dating even ADVENT (a.k.a. Colossal Cave) by Crowther and Woods!
But Wander was more than that because it seems to have been designed to be a tool to allow users to create “non-deterministic fantasy stories” of their own. So perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Wander was in fact the earliest known precursor to modern interactive-fiction development-systems like Inform 7!
Wander was thought to be lost, presumably languishing on one or more of the slowly decaying tape-reels of mainframe history. But Jason’s description of Wander on his blog was so intriguing, and the thought that there might still be a chance of finding it again was so tantalising, that I felt I just had to try to get in touch with the original author and programmer, Peter Langston – which proved to be remarkably easy to do.
A few emails later, and Peter, who is incredibly obliging, sent me a file named “Wander.tgz”, which contained source code and documentation for a 1980s release of Wander, which he had extracted from archived emails and then massaged into a form that would be usable today.
Sure enough, after a little tweaking, necessitated by the quirks of the ageing version of Mac OS X that I insist on using for some strange reason, I successfully compiled and ran the code and was thrilled to see the following text scrolling up my Terminal window:
Just Imagine …
You are traveling as First Under-secretary to the Ambassador for the Corps Diplomatique Terrestrienne, (CDT). Your direct superior, Mr. Magnan, has managed to duck out of the action and leave you as sole assistant to his superior, Ambassador Pouncetrifle. (The Ambassador is a classic bungler and would, if left on his own, mess things up badly.)
You have been sent to Aldebaran III where you are to avert an uprising against Terran nationals expected at the end of April.
During your trip you were able to peruse the ship’s meager library and make a few notes on the history, life-forms and society of Aldebaran III, but much of Aldebaran culture is still a mystery.
It is the middle of the night; the ship on which you arrived has just departed from the small spaceport which you find to be windy and deserted.
wrdadd(ask, 0, 0, 0) returns 38 lastrw=38
which(“ask”) = 38
wrdadd(question, 38, 0, 0) returns 39 lastrw=38
which(“question”) = 38
I’ve omitted several more lines’ worth of diagnostic messages, which seemed to be running through the nouns and verbs in the “a3” demo game file that Peter sent to me along with the source code. The transcript now resumes (with the commands I typed in in bold):
You’re in the Aldebaran III spaceport. An electrified chain link fence surrounds the area with gates leading west and south.
There is a credit card here.
take credit card
Your account has 50 credits left.
(You can type balance any time to find current status).
Aldebaran III Spaceport
Your account holds 50 credits.
Aldebaran III Spaceport
Aldebaran III Spaceport
You are in the tiny waiting room for the spaceport. No one is around.
There is a large vending machine here with a dark window, several buttons, and a large slot marked “insert credit card here”.
You are carrying some official identity papers
and some notes
and a credit card
That would only help if the machine was broken, and it’s not!
I’m no expert on C programming or indeed on interactive fiction, so I’m still trying to work my way through the code and the documentation that Peter sent me, but I think I can say without hesitation that this has all been a completely astounding and wonderful turn of events.
[UPDATE 1: Peter Langston sent me a second version of “Wander.tgz”, derived from a 1980s release of Wander, which I had linked to here, but Peter has asked me to replace that second version with this third version “with save/restore actually working and with three more of the 1980 Wander worlds.” This third version still compiles on Mac OS X 10.6.8, and should compile on Linux too.]
[UPDATE 2: Another copy of Wander has now been found (along with the rest of Peter Langston’s 1980 PSL Games distribution, which Wander was part of). It was found by chineur Doug Merritt. This copy contains three more Wander “worlds”, in addition to the “a3” world that I’ve quoted from in the main post above. It’s now on Github.]
[UPDATE 4: I’ve hacked the source code to create a crude DOS port of Wander: it’s playable, but the SAVE and RESTORE commands are broken – please contact me if you know why. I then packaged up my DOS hack into an em-dosbox version which is playable online: click here to play Wander online. Again, please get in touch if you can improve either the DOS version or the web version, or if you know how to make a pure-emscripten port of Wander.]
 Quotation from the file “Wander.txt”, the man page for Wander, sent to me by Peter Langston with the source code.
This is the recommended starting point for 18 Rooms to Home, an experimental work of interactive fiction. The full game covers a day in the life of Yesenia Reed, whose life is far from ordinary, no matter what she might prefer.
18 Rooms to Home is a serialized game. As each update is released, the story will move further back in time – so the first release includes room 18, the second will include room 17 and 18, the third will include 16, 17, and 18, and so on.
18 Rooms to Home is an experimental work of interactive fiction. It’s a day in the life of Yesenia Reed, whose life is far from ordinary, no matter what she might prefer.
This story takes place over the course of 18 updates, which are presented in reverse chronological order. With every update, the story moves further back in time – so the first update includes room 18, the second will include room 17 and 18, the third will include 16, 17, and 18, and so on.
Releases to date
Room 18 (start here!)
(For 2015, I am trying to avoid playing any games or consuming any static media with zombies in them. My reasons, and other fun things like ‘what exactly counts as a zombie?’, are explained here.)
Around mid-April I took a trip to Zion National Park via Las Vegas. This means traveling through a lot of terrain that really, really looks like Fallout: New Vegas, and particularly the otherwise-indifferent Honest Hearts expansion, which is entirely set in Zion. A great deal of my reaction on reaching Zion Canyon was: hunh, when I played HH the colours felt artificial and oversaturated, but in fact they kind of nailed it. Over and over I realised, oh right, this is where they got that bit from.
I got a proper itch, I can tell ya. I’m thoroughly fascinated by games set in fictionalised versions of real geography, and what I really want to do is re-open HH and see how reality influenced the design, what was adopted, what was changed, what feels right and what couldn’t be pulled off. Alas, F:NV has a goodly number of effectively-zombie feral ghouls; even though they’re not prevalent in Honest Hearts, it can’t be played as a stand-alone.
It helped that I was still traveling after Zion, which meant that playing an AAA-scale game was a good deal less feasible. Along similar lines, I’ve been having my regular wistful urge to replay Torment, a game so centrally concerned with death and identity that it could scarcely not have zombies (usually this urge fizzles out when I remember how fucking awful the Baldur’s Gate combat system was and how annoying it is to juggle all those discs, but still).
Speaking of which, I’m avoiding (for now) the otherwise promising Pillars of Eternity, which includes a progressive continuum of undead. Here, lead narrative designer Eric Fenstermaker discusses the trope:
One of the strengths of the Eternity setting, in my opinion, is its ability to put a new spin on the familiar. Let’s be honest, you’ve seen undead before in a video game or two. I bet you’ve had a virtual conflict with a skeleton or perhaps even a zombie. But no matter how many times we see them, they’re fantasy RPG staples – it’d be weird not to have them, and many people would really miss them were they omitted.
So we did some thinking as to how we could have undead but have them be our own special brand of undead that makes sense in this world.
Oh, man. I feel a rant brewing. How do you even start on that set of assumptions?
How narrow a definition of fantasy; how swiftly staples turn to shackles. The idea that fantasy, genre of the impossible, shouldn’t feel weird. Somehow fantasy CRPG has become a stock recipe with a lengthy and known list of ingredients, and removing any of them – even if only in one game! – is an injury to the audience. (I love RPGs. I love fantasy. I love computer games. But I love them for their breadth, for their open possibility, for the possibility of things new and unexpected. I even quite like magic swords and elves, but I would like them infinitely more if they weren’t mandatory.)
…and evidently the role of a writer is to come up with narrative justifications for features that have already been determined. Taken on those terms, this is a decent job – vampires, ghouls, zombies and skeletons are just different stages of the deterioration of an undead’s body and mind. A vampire that doesn’t feed regularly becomes steadily more ghoulish, and so on. That’s… neat. Clever. Has potential.
Only potential, mind. There are ways that it could be compelling and fruitful, but they would all require that it become central to the story, rather than a detail of background lore. (Most obvious way to do this: the player character begins the game as a vampire.) More likely, however, it becomes a weak apology, our own special brand, a superficial Our Monsters Are Different in the same camp as the zombonym: a patina of originality on a wretched old saw.
The Girl With All The Gifts (novel). Visiting my parents. I don’t get back across the pond all that much, and when I do I find small kindnesses prepared in my old room: little bottles of last year’s home-made damson gin with Temperance-themed labels, an assortment of stouts and porters for Jacq, a pile of whatever books they’ve read recently that they think I’d enjoy. (On holiday I typically pack three books and end up finishing them all by the time I reach wherever it is I’m going. When it’s the UK I can at least restock in Hay-on-Wye.) I started Girl on a bright, chilly spring morning, sprawled over the bed in a nice warm yurt. It’s evidently a version of the Super Power Girl Raised In Abusive Science Facility story; zombies are suggested by page three, and some quick flicking-ahead gave me abundant confirmation. Zombonym: hungries, mode, a version of the Cordyceps parasitoid fungus.
“So the Dwarf Fortress guys have a Patreon now. Should we throw a buck or two their way?”
“Well, DF has given me hundreds of hours of enjoyment, is one of my favourite games of all time, has produced a whole host of entertaining derivative works, and somehow I haven’t ever got around to paying a damn thing for it, so, yes, that seems more than fair.”
Some hours pass, and then I remember that, yeah, DF has no shortage of zombies. Zombie elephants, even. I don’t know where a Patreon fits in; I am not playing the game this year, nor am I technically buying it, since it remains free. Honestly, I’m paying the developers back for experiences I had years ago. But there’s no question that I am materially supporting the ongoing development of a game with zombies in it.
I am a member of a small Minecraft world. (Minecraft is not just a zombie game, it is in many respects the zombie game.) My good compatriots know I’m on hiatus, and that’s fine. But I also have a handful of large-ish constructions not too far from the central village, and so the other day the world owner checked in with me about whether it was OK to build something in my general vicinity.
So the question here is: how much are the social elements of the game part of the game? I’m not logging in to Minecraft, so in that sense I’m not playing the game. But I’m still engaged in its willing suspension of disbelief, the idea that I have a stake in virtual properties. The discussion’s premise was that my 1:1 replica of the Yellowstone Inn is something that I have an interest in, and that other players should respect that interest. Chatting about it on those terms – even though my response was ‘sure, go for it, do whatever you like’ – is in some sense part of the game. This is kind of a wanky point; I’m bored just talking about it. But there it is.
The Sorceror’s Cave (board game). First published 1978, this is an early version of the D&D-lite ‘explore a dungeon by laying down map tiles’ mechanic; an unwieldy size and punishingly random, it’s still kind of charming. One of the official variant rule-sets mitigates the elimination mechanic by letting eliminated players become zombies, acting effectively as an NPC antagonist; several of the treasure cards in the base game refer to zombies for the purpose of this variant. Still, I was assured that there were no zombies otherwise.
The base game also includes the swarming, corpse-eating Ghouls (though it’s only one card, which never came up in our game). ‘Ghoul’ can refer to a number of different configurations of monster, not all of which fall into the zombie definition; but the weight of evidence here didn’t really support anything else. Even so, the general rule for multiplayer tabletop games is that I don’t quit mid-game if zombies unexpectedly emerge, because it’s pretty antisocial to do so. (For the record, I opted for the lone-Hero approach, acquired the One Ring, then fell through two traps in succession and ended up stuck on level 4.)
HUNTING UNICORN, Chandler Groover (play online). HUNTING UNICORN is the recasting of classic unicorn legends, the story of a poor and unattractive woman whose chief income comes from serving as unicorn-bait, drawing the animals out so that they can be captured by hunters. It often feels as though there is nothing she can do to improve her situation, and the story is in part about whether that is really true. The unicorn itself is a fearsome animal, not at all sparkles and rainbows, which can only be controlled via its own consent.
Groover’s authorial notes explain that one of his main aims is to make the player feel like it’s not necessary to replay, in contrast with forms that encourage lawnmowering all the possible endings. For me this partly worked and partly didn’t: when I got to the end I felt that I’d experienced an effective story with a good narrative arc. Certainly there was nothing that formally encouraged me to go looking for the other branches in order to understand the piece better.
At the same time, I felt as though I would be able to make more sense of the ending I did receive if I went and found out whether certain other possibilities were available. I mentioned this to the author, who went away and came back a few days later with a big chart.
This chart makes it clear that there are consequences for some of the early choices that aren’t necessarily signaled as being game-changers, that don’t have any obvious causal implications. Your character’s attitude towards the hunt changes what happens later. (Another player I talked to about this also mentioned being surprised by how early the game branches, and when.)
I suppose you could argue that what she said about her attitude affected how the characters perceived her and therefore how they acted later in the story; but nonetheless I felt that the universe surrounding the protagonist is more than usually malleable.
Iron Rabbit Encounter, Caeth (play online). Iron Rabbit Encounter tells a story in which most of the essential action takes place in dreamspace. The player trips over a strange iron rabbit sculpture, takes it home, and dreams about it several times. Relatively little happens in the real world, but the events of the dream world can be transforming.
This is a format of which I’m often pretty skeptical. Writing a character’s dreams often allows the author to be vague and fake-profound, to handwave the details of the character’s life, to set up colorful situations with no real-world stakes. The dream sequences that I do like are typically ones set deep into a story about a well-established character, ideally one who has already developed a certain symbolic vocabulary.
Iron Rabbit Encounter does not exactly escape these issues, but I nonetheless found some of the dream contents striking, particularly a sequence in which you visit a sinister pet shop. At one point, I was invited either to kill a creature, or to free it — but freeing it seemed to involve a metaphysical commitment whose meaning was not laid out explicitly ahead of time. I couldn’t bring myself to kill it, but I did waver. In the land of dreams and fairy-tales, it’s a bad idea to make an agreement with a supernatural being when the terms haven’t been fully laid out.
It’s a variation I find more effective than the usual choice between being evil and being virtuously self-sacrificial. I don’t know what I’m sacrificing. I don’t know whether it will affect only me, or others as well. Stopping to think about forces me to engage more at the story level, rather than simply labeling the two options as “teacher’s pet choice” and “subversive choice”. (There’s a similar ambiguous-effects choice in Cinders, if you ask help from a certain Fairy, and I hesitated in that context as well.)
And here again we run into plot branching that isn’t accounted for purely in terms of physical-world causality. In Iron Rabbit Encounter, which dream you have depends on what you’ve told the game at the beginning about your life: are you content, bored, frightened? The dreams vary radically according to that choice. As in Hunting Unicorn, the protagonist’s psychological state is as real as or more real than anything else in the game. And as in HUNTING UNICORN, I didn’t realize where the branch points were, or even that they existed, on my first trip through the game. When I first played I assumed it was fairly linear, and it was only when replaying to review that I recognized some of the points of branching.
In both stories, the mystical creature of the title is a force for revelation and change in the protagonist’s rather bleak and static life. And in both, causality works according to mystical logic: things that seem like reflective choices have a determining effect on the outcome. I certainly don’t consider that a problem, but I do find that I appreciate both pieces better when I’m aware of how and why they branch.
Two adventure games overshadowed all of the others in North America during 1986. The success of one of these could have been predicted long before it reached store shelves. Leather Goddesses of Phobos combined the Infocom brand, slightly battered by recent events but still widely regarded as the premiere label in adventure gaming, with Steve Meretzky, the company’s most popular and populist author, working in his wheelhouse of science-fiction comedy. And on top of that it added the ultimate temptation: sex. How could it not become a hit?
The year’s other big game, however, was not such a predictable proposition, coming unexpectedly out of left field in the form of a brand new company from the United Kingdom of all places. As I’ve already written, Magnetic Scrolls’s The Pawn wasn’t a terribly good game in a whole lot of very important ways. Yet that was hard to notice at the time in the face of its more immediately obvious strengths. Not only did it offer as much text as the typical Infocom effort combined with a parser that was at least superficially competitive with Infocom’s own, but it absolutely blew Infocom away when it came to presentation, sporting several dozen illustrations of unprecedented quality. Whatever else you could say about it, The Pawn was the best looking text adventure yet released. When one of those magnificent images scrolled down onto the screen the average player’s critical faculties scrolled off to oblivion to make space for it. The Pawn‘s success in both North America and Europe, which could largely be attributed to those pretty if irrelevant pictures — one could turn them off entirely without losing anything other than a bit of atmosphere — was made doubly strange by the fact that a year before its year of triumph it had already made one debut as a humble text-only adventure, only to die quickly of a fatal case of wrong-horse-backing in the form of the Sinclair QL. Yet here it was again. Sometimes you just can’t keep a good — or, in this case, superficially good — game down.
A number of fortuitous circumstances led to The Pawn‘s unlikely revival as a next-generation graphical showcase. The first of them was the sheer stubbornness of Magnetic Scrolls’s managing director Anita Sinclair, comparable to that of her beloved bull terrier Murdoch who made a habit of terrorizing visitors to the company’s offices. When it became clear that the QL was a flop and that the text-only adventure game she, Ken Gordon, and Hugh Steers had been working on for it for over a year couldn’t hope to sell more than a dribble, she was determined to keep going, to try again with other games on other platforms. She therefore arranged a meeting with Tony Rainbird at British Telecom, hoping to sell him on a couple of action-game prototypes she and the boys had knocked together during down times. He turned out to be nonplussed by those games, but, much to her surprise, keenly interested in her misbegotten, foredoomed text adventure.
And so Tony Rainbird’s passion for adventure games became the second of those fortuitous circumstances. Yes, this slick, gregarious would-be mogul genuinely loved adventure games, genuinely believed they could become the basis for an interactive literature of the future. Keeping as he always did one eye cocked toward North America, he was very aware of Infocom’s progress toward turning text adventures into interactive fiction, and felt keenly his own country’s failings in this regard. British programmers, writers, and designers were, he was convinced, every bit as talented as their American peers, but they had been ill-served to this point by the more primitive, usually cassette-driven hardware they had been forced to target as well as by British gamers’ predilection for cheap, simple games in lieu of the bigger, more ambitious releases typical across the pond. He thus saw adventure games as a major focus — perhaps the major focus — of his new luxury label Rainbird, designed as it was to compete with North America on its own terms with big, ambitious titles of its own. He had already started to pursue the most respected and consistent name in British adventure gaming, believing that he could take their games from Level 9 to whatever level Infocom was on on by giving them better packaging, better (i.e., international) distribution, and better hardware. And then along came Anita Sinclair.
In retrospect at least Tony’s interest in The Pawn seems natural, for it had been consciously designed to challenge Infocom, just as Rainbird had been to challenge American software in general. He was doubly interested when he learned that Magnetic Scrolls had granted only the rights to a QL version of The Pawn to Sinclair Research. There followed an intriguing proposal. Could Magnetic Scrolls port the game to other platforms and add some graphics? If they could do those two things for him, he could sell The Pawn all over the world as part of the collection of high-end, high-concept software he was now putting together.
Graphics had long since become a requirement for any kind of success in the British adventure market, as Tony was well aware; he may have been a text-adventure idealist, but he wasn’t stupid. Yet they proved to be a hard sell to Anita. While certainly excited by the idea of giving The Pawn a new lease on life, she was ambivalent about adding pictures. Indeed, she would never entirely shed her ambivalence on the subject. Heavily influenced by Infocom on this point as in so much else, she would declare even after Magnetic Scrolls had become known largely on the basis of their graphics that “if you have graphics it takes away from your own imagination and dilutes the imagery,” and admit that she often preferred to play her company’s games with the graphics off.
That said, many of her initial objections were practical rather than ideological. The pictures that had long since become standard equipment in all but the most modest, home-grown British adventures were almost universally what was known as line-drawn or vector graphics, a technique pioneered by Ken Williams in the United States way back in the days of Mystery House and The Wizard and the Princess. Under this technique graphics were stored not as pictures but as a series of instructions for drawing a picture: draw a line from this point to this point in this color, fill a rectangle having these boundaries in this other color, etc. The computer then recreated the image at run-time by stepping through this sequence of instructions. In the hands of masters of compression like the Austin brothers at Level 9, vector graphics could be packed by the hundred onto a single disk or cassette. Unfortunately, though, the nature of their creation limited them to straight lines, regular curves, and geometric solids filled in using a handful of primary colors layered on in big, garish swathes; anything like artistic subtlety went right out the window. That hadn’t always mattered all that much in the past, when the visual capabilities of the computers on offer, what with their low resolutions and limited color palettes, couldn’t manage much subtlety anyway. But clearly the traditional method made a poor fit for the new Atari ST, the machine that Tony Rainbird wanted Magnetic Scrolls to target first.
The alternative approach, used occasionally by companies in the United States like Telarium and enabled by the luxury of the disk drives that were common there, were bitmap graphics, where the color of each individual pixel that made up the picture was stored, one after another. While compression techniques could be used to shrink the size of the resulting file somewhat, pictures stored in this way nevertheless used vastly more space. Telarium’s games, for instance, which were generally much smaller than those of Level 9 that shipped on a single disk or cassette, routinely sprawled across four or even five disk sides thanks to their pictures. Still, bitmap graphics was the approach that Tony now advocated to Anita. The ST’s disks could store a lot more data than disks on the 8-bit machines or, God forbid, an 8-bit cassette. And it wasn’t really necessary to illustrate every single location in the game like Telarium did, just a reasonable subset of the more picturesque and interesting.
Tony even had someone in mind to make the pictures, a young artist and art-history scholar named Geoff Quilley who had just the sort of classy, classical sensibility that Tony and Anita alike wanted for the games of Magnetic Scrolls. Based in Oxford, Quilley had painted portraits as well as a mural for Wadham College, and had already done the graphics for a high-brow 8-bit adventure game based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Nowadays he was doing amazing things with NEOchrome, the simple little paint program that shipped with every Atari ST. When Anita still proved reluctant, Tony made her an offer that was difficult to refuse: give Quilley a week or so to illustrate one or two locations from the game, and see if she wasn’t convinced that they could add to The Pawn‘s commercial appeal without being an aesthetic embarrassment. She did, and she was. Quilley would remain with Magnetic Scrolls for years as their art director, drawing himself many of the pictures that would become the chief selling point of their games and supervising an eventual team of artists who drew the rest. Through it all he would remain inflexibly loyal to Neochrome and the Atari ST, even as Anita tried from time to time to tempt him with more advanced Amiga paint programs like Deluxe Paint. He liked to say that the results he got with his primitive tools spoke for themselves, and it was hard to argue with him after you’d had a look.
With their artist now on the job making the pictures, Magnetic Scrolls’s next challenge was to port The Pawn to the Atari ST and to find a way to add said pictures to an adventure game which they had never anticipated would need to contain them. For all that they had modeled so much of The Pawn after Infocom’s efforts, they had neglected to follow Infocom’s lead in one very important way. Instead of running in a virtual machine like Infocom’s Z-Machine, their adventure system compiled down to native 68000 machine language on the QL. Luckily, however, the Atari ST used the same 68000 processor as the QL, so the porting tasking wasn’t too daunting. The pictures proved to be the biggest challenge: they were done in low resolution so as to allow a palette of 16 colors, but the text really needed to be done in the ST’s 4-color medium-resolution mode so as to allow 80 columns. Magnetic Scrolls thus came up with a way to mix the two modes on the same screen, an impressive technical accomplishment in itself. The pictures could be unveiled by using the mouse to slide them down over the text like a window blind. Not only was it an ingenious way to maximize limited screen real estate, but in its day it was an absolutely stunning special effect, one that doubtless sold a fair few copies of The Pawn all by itself. The new engine also took advantage of the ST’s comparatively capacious memory to implement a number of other commonsense conveniences of the sort that Infocom really should have been adding to their own games for the bigger machines by this point, like the abilities to assign common commands to function keys and to recall the last command for editing.
But of course the Atari ST version was only the beginning. Many other platforms also awaited. The Macintosh and the Amiga, being yet more machines based on the 68000, were fairly easy marks. The Amiga version did get one notable addition: a theme song by John Molloy, one half of the pioneering synth-pop duo Mainframe, whose own DS:3 sampler, built around an Apple II, was enjoying some popularity; three, for instance, had been employed as part of the Live Aid stage setup. The songs of Mainframe themselves were getting a fair amount of play in British clubland, making the acquisition of Molloy’s services something of a coup for Magnetic Scrolls. The Pawn‘s theme, featuring a surprisingly lifelike acoustic guitar amongst other sounds, became one of the first to demonstrate the potential of sampled, as opposed to synthesized, instruments for game music.
The other ports were, alas, more fraught propositions, entailing as they must artful degradation rather than enhancement. In what can only be described as a masterful technical achievement, Magnetic Scrolls came up with a way to emulate enough of the 68000 instruction set on other processors to run the game. Even more incredibly, they somehow made it run fast enough on the little 8-bit Z80 and 6502 to be acceptable. They hired another artist, Tristram Humphries, to duplicate as best he could each of Quilley’s pictures on a Commodore 64. These were then used in ports not only to the 64 but also to a number of other 8-bit platforms. In cases where it was just hopeless to produce graphics with anything like fidelity to Quilley’s originals, as on the Apple II and the Sinclair Spectrum, the graphics were left out entirely.
Rainbird and Magnetic Scrolls went public with their new partnership at the Winter Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January of 1986; the choice of venues was a telling indicator of their hopes of challenging Infocom on their home turf. That April the finished Atari ST version of The Pawn was debuted in Britain in a big joint event featuring not only the principal players from Rainbird and Magnetic Scrolls but also the Austin family who ran Level 9, and whom Tony Rainbird had now also successfully courted for his new label. Tony and Anita even managed to convince Anita’s erstwhile mentor Clive Sinclair to drop in and lend some of his aura to the proceedings. The Pawn‘s big box that was unveiled that day included a glossy poster and, Tony being quite the fan of in-box novellas, A Tale of Kerovnia, a clever if superfluous stage-setting story written by Anita’s sister Georgina. The box also contained ciphered hints to be typed into the game itself for decryption. The Pawn may have been riddled with nonsensical puzzles, but at least players wouldn’t have to buy a hint book to get past them.
While the price of the game prompted shock — fully £20, £2 more than even the disk version of Elite — those gorgeous pictures sent even bigger waves through the British gaming community. Their importance to The Pawn‘s success can hardly be overstated. Whatever their value or ultimate lack thereof for the hardcore player, they gave the magazines visual pop to accompany coverage of the game. The Pawn made for a damn good cover; an Infocom game, not so much. In Computer and Video Games magazine, Keith Campbell, the most widely read adventure-game commentator in Britain, gave The Pawn its first big review. It was gushing: 10 for “Vocabulary,” 10 for “Atmosphere,” 10 for “Personal” (how’s that for an arbitrary scoring system?). He described the game as a well-nigh revolutionary product, “in most respects superior” to Infocom even if the graphics were discounted, destined to cause “the standard of software demanded by adventure players to skyrocket.” There was just something about The Pawn — and Anita Sinclair; we’ll get to that momentarily — that could turn even a hardened reviewer like Campbell to jelly. His review was such a coup that Rainbird shipped copies of that issue to North America along with the first copies of The Pawn to get a buzz going.
They needn’t have worried about it. The Pawn hit American shores like a hurricane. Reviewers there, as in Britain, just couldn’t seem to find enough superlatives with which to stamp it. It even did quite well in continental Europe, particularly the computing (and Atari ST) hotbed of West Germany. For that market Rainbird translated the novella, but left the text in the game alone; making the parser parse German was a task that no one at Magnetic Scrolls had the linguistic chops to manage. Undaunted, tens of thousands of Germans struggled valiantly with the oft-gnarly English text, laced as it was with slang and idiomatic usage. It was presumably all worth it for the pictures.
But graphics were just one of The Pawn‘s not-so-secret weapons, the other being the potent comeliness of Ms. Anita Sinclair. The British press, who had the most regular access to Anita and her charms, were the most smitten. One magazine admitted frankly that it would “grab any excuse to print a picture of Anita.” It’s hard to believe that national magazines with editorial staffs and all the rest actually published some of this stuff. Take this (please!) from Amtix: “The lovely Anita Sinclair came up to Ludlow especially to show me The Pawn. Well, I was really impressed… and the game was good too!” Keith Campbell, writer of that aforementioned glowing Pawn review, called his journalistic integrity into question and also shared much more than anyone really needed to know about his private fantasies when he put “Anita Sinclair in a brass bikini” on his year-end list of things he’d like to see in 1987. An even weirder Boris Vallejo-inspired fantasy life seemed to be lived by the writer who gave her the out-of-nowhere appellation of “ice maiden.”
That gem appeared in Sinclair User. And, indeed, it was that magazine that developed the most sustained obsession with all things Anita. A contest announcement there said they’d really wanted to gift the winner with “a fantastically beautiful and intelligent companion,” but, alas, “Anita Sinclair is already spoken for,” so readers would have to settle for a light gun instead. (Presumably she’d finally been forced to use the “I have a boyfriend” line on one of them.) In a year-end roundup Sinclair User‘s readers elected her “Most Attractive Programmer,” a category that mysteriously hadn’t existed the year before. (The many write-in voters who opted for “any female programmer” gave a perhaps even more disturbing glimpse of the state of the average reader’s love life.) This is not to say that the verdict was unanimous, mind you. For some time afterward debate raged over whether Anita really was All That. One letter writer weighed in on this pressing issue with particular force. “Anita Sinclair is about as attractive as a pig’s bottom!” he declared with a noble lack of equivocation. (One wonders what his girlfriend looked like.)
But my absolute favorite from this delightful little sub-genre is The Games Machine‘s review of Fish!, a later Magnetic Scrolls game. This — I kid you not — is the opening paragraph:
Anita Sinclair looks fab! I’ve always liked the lady but now that she has put on a little weight since giving up smoking she looks gorgeous. What a pity that on the day she took me to lunch (oh, do get on with it! — Ed.) she could barely walk due to some very painful blisters on her feet. She was also suffering from having a jolly good time at the Telecomsoft dinner the night before where the wine was free! Apart from discussing the PC show, other magazines, adventures in general, and her Audi Quatro, we did eventually get round to Magnetic Scrolls’s new game, Fish!.
As the extract above attests, Anita treated her little coterie of admirers with the bemused tolerance of the popular girl at school who deigns to let the lower social orders sit at her lunch table from time to time. She tactfully buffeted away questions like “Who would you most like to kiss under the mistletoe?” whilst gamely trying to focus her interviewers’ attentions back on the games in question. When some of her more sensitive interlocutors asked her feelings on all of the unwonted attention, she remained coy: “There is obviously interest in me because I’m female, but I don’t notice it very much. I think it could be an advantage.” Nor is there any sign that the other folks who worked at Magnetic Scrolls ever felt slighted by the attention lavished on Anita. To hear the magazines tell it, every Magnetic Scrolls game was practically a solo effort by Anita, even as in reality she drew none of the pictures, wrote very little of the text, and contributed to the designs only as a member of a larger team betwixt and between coding much of Magnetic Scrolls’s technical plumbing and of course running the company. The lack of outrage on the part of all parties at Magnetic Scrolls isn’t hard to explain: in a hugely competitive text-adventure market in which everyone was scrambling for a slice of a steadily shrinking pie, the attention Anita generated was precious, the best PR move Magnetic Scrolls didn’t have to actually make. Certainly their most obvious competitors in Britain, the three boffinish Austin brothers over at Level 9, didn’t have anything at their disposal to match it.
So, yes, there was a lot of smoke and mirrors behind the huge success of The Pawn, born of those pretty pictures and that pretty Anita and a media, heavily influenced by both, that was all too eager to see it as an Infocom-killer. In its way The Pawn is every bit as much a period piece as Starglider. Pointless parser permutations like the famous “USE THE TROWEL TO PLANT THE POT PLANT IN THE PLANT POT” aside, Magnetic Scrolls still had a long way to go to rise to Infocom’s level. A comparison of Leather Goddesses of Phobos with The Pawn doesn’t do the latter any favors. One design is air-tight, the other shambolic in all the worst ways. Magnetic Scrolls would get much, much better in their future games, but remains to this day slightly overrated in my opinion, benefiting just a bit too much from the awe so many of us felt back in the day when we saw those pictures for the first time. Much as their Infocom fixation might lead one to suspect otherwise, Magnetic Scrolls did innovate in their own right in some areas having nothing to do with graphics. Indeed, their later games sometimes verge on brilliance. But they always seem to disappoint almost as much as they delight, dogged by a frustrating inconsistency born, one suspects, largely from the lack of a testing regime to match Infocom’s and a willingness when under pressure to ship to let some things go — parser non sequiters, weird text glitches, underimplemented or underdescribed objects, puzzles that just don’t quite make sense — that Infocom wouldn’t.
Which is not to say that Magnetic Scrolls isn’t worthy of attention. Far from it. Their games are challenged only by the late games of Level 9 for the title of the most technically advanced and literate text adventures that the British games industry would ever manage. We’ll thus be looking at all of the Magnetic Scrolls games that followed The Pawn, beginning with the next two in my next article. Whatever else happens, I certainly won’t have to pan any of them quite as badly as I did The Pawn.
Before I leave you today, though, it’s worth thinking one more time about 1986, the year of the twin commercial triumphs of Leather Goddesses of Phobos and The Pawn. While no one could possibly have been aware of it at the time, it would turn out to mark the end of an era. The two big adventures of the following year would be Maniac Mansion and Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards — both driven by graphics rather than text. Text adventures as a commercial proposition still had a few years to go; rest assured that some of the most interesting specimens of the species are still waiting to get their due in future articles. Yet the number of companies working in the field was dwindling, and the genre would never again manage even one, much less two games in any given year with the commercial prominence of Leather Goddesses and The Pawn. Far from taking the text adventure to new heights, as Magnetic Scrolls and Rainbird were confidently predicting, the new 16-bit machines and the games that ran on them would for better or for worse transcend it entirely. Like the contemporary players who remained loyal to the genre, we’ll just have to enjoy the gems of this twilight era while they last.
(Sources for this and the next article: Zzap! of July 1987 and December 1988; Crash of August 1988; ZX Computing of August 1986; Computer and Video Games of December 1985, April 1986, July 1986, May 1987, October 1987, and February 1988; Your Computer of January 1988; Amtix of February 1987 and March 1987; Atari User of June 1986; Questbusters of October 1987; Popular Computing Weekly of January 23 1986; Commodore User of December 1986; Sinclair User of January 1987, February 1987, April 1987, October 1987, February 1988, and August 1989; The Games Machine of December 1987 and November 1988. There are two excellent websites dedicated to Magnetic Scrolls: The Magnetic Scrolls Memorial and The Magnetic Scrolls Chronicles. Francesco Cordella also conducted an interview with Rob Steggles, writer for The Pawn and two of Magnetic Scrolls’s eventual six other text adventures, which is available on his website.
The Magnetic Scrolls Memorial hosts an interpreter that will run the Magnetic Scrolls games on many platforms along with all of the games in a form that is ready to run under it. This is certainly the most painless way to play them today. That said, I think these games are actually best experienced as originally presented via an Atari ST or Amiga emulator. In that spirit, I’ve prepared a download of The Pawn with disk images for both platforms and all the other goodies that came in the box for those of you who are hardcore like me.)
So I’m coming up on some travel, and — since this worked out really well last time I tried it — I’d love to have coffee with IF/interactive narrative/social AI/game writing folks. As I said then: if you’re in the area and you’d like to get together and talk — about that totally unfair review I gave your game five years ago, about possible collaborations, about your dreams for the future of interactive narrative, about whatever common interest leads you to read what I write in the first place — please do ping me and I’ll see what I can do.
Next weekend I’m going to Feral Vector, a playful games conference with a good IF presence. I’ll also be in Manchester the afternoon before (Thursday the 28th), if you want to meet up at a time that won’t conflict with all the cool activities during the conference itself.
After Feral Vector, I’m hurrying back to Oxford for the Oxford IF meetup. Several people have said they’re coming who aren’t currently on the sign-up sheet there — feel free to join us.
I’m going to be speaking at the ICCC conference in Park City, Utah, June 29-July 2. Thanks to the mysteries of international flight pricing, it was cheaper for me to stay on an extra day than to fly home right when the conference ends, so I’ll be around Salt Lake City on July 3 as well.
Finally: I’m going to be in Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok later in the summer. I rather suspect it’s a long shot that I have many readers there who might want to meet up, but the same invitation applies.
For months now, I’ve been head-down in two major projects, which have occupied enough of my time that I haven’t released any smaller games for a while. But I miss writing short-form games, and people keep telling me they enjoy my short-form work, so I want to remedy that.
This Thursday, I’m releasing the first update in a serialized parser IF game called 18 Rooms to Home. It’s a day in the life of Yesenia Reed, whose life is far from ordinary, no matter what she might prefer.
Come back then!
10: HOW TO WIN A RIOT (Nôtre-Bloc). I’m in two minds about including a game so flamebaity in its self-promotion. The outcry over historical level pack Boston to Soweto was entirely predictable but worked marketing marvels: its splash page now quotes the laws under which it’s banned in eight (and counting) nations. It’s more agnostic than the titular ‘win'; whether you aim to maintain peaceful resistance or prod the Authorities into bloody, headline-grabbing overreaction is entirely up to you.
Credit where due – it was Judas Goat! that first twisted the casual-sheepdog genre by putting you in charge of the BrownianAlibi engine’s particles. But JG was more toy than game; Riot’s agency is deeper, with strong currents beneath the flailing. Particles come colour-coded: the black Organisers are under your direct control, but the rest – shading from shit-starting red Agitators to yellow Malcontents all the way to blue Onlookers – shift in colour and behaviour-patterns depending on how things play out, granting different levels of influence. The action is almost dreamlike, white Authority dots surging or breaking as rainbow patterns swirl inside the crowd: you usher and coax, but you never fully control anything. The real agency is in preparation, where you have to invest points in training, decide what kind of equipment to encourage, and learn about what the Authorities are likely to field (the level that combines sabre-wielding cavalry with teargas is the worst).
9: RZEŹ (Exfutura). The plot and character of this is not worth a damn – it’s a story of loyalty, jealousy and stupid teenage pride amid small-time gangs in Lublin, with a strong feel of slushpile screenplay about it – but the combat, oy. Rzeź is based around the idea that fights are a mix of posturing, mad rage and terror conducted by kids who are mostly faking it. Rather than designing a system to sing like wuxia choreography once mastered, it was designed for the messier parts of a Kurosawa battle sequence. All the love in the animation has been poured into stumbles, flailing arms, shocky hesitation, scrums, panicked flight, desparate ground-fights. The timeline of the story is brief enough that every non-disabling injury taken in a fight persists, so that by the finale the Nasty Crew – and their foes – tend to be sporting a great many grubby bandages. The cast is visibly finite.
It is a game about violence designed to nauseate. By about the midpoint, when the feud gets really vicious, I was hesitating because I didn’t want to see anyone else get kicked to death. At times this lent the schlocky writing a certain grace – “You’re weak!” yells second-in-command Liść after an inconclusive skirmish, “You don’t want this!” and no, no I don’t.
The studio talked a big game about every possible outcome of a fight affecting the story; in the event, it appears that they managed this by making very few characters really matter to the story. (Unless you decide that they do; hopefully you’ve all seen the Save Kamil Let’s Play, wherein Guy Heder tries to keep the scrawny redhead, an enemy whose main purpose is to die in the first skirmish, alive and walking until the end.) The conclusion is an oddly-enjambed anticlimax. The lack of a confident narrative is a gaping wound; this is a game that loses little if you don’t ever finish it.
8: THIS IS HEAVY PETAL (Heavy Petal, various). Those accusing the Institute of a certain favouritism towards Heavy Petal should recall that we excoriated their hackwork efforts Grand Ball and Hussar Princess, and found their biggest-budget work ever, Opera La Maupin, glittery but insubstantial. This Is Heavy Petal is a fanservice beer-money piece, for sure, but it’s still full of surprises. HP tapped into their extensive (and, frankly, really weird) fandom to create short, non-canon works in their worlds. So we have four pieces about Taffeta Kingdom, two from Couture and one Maupin. TIHP hasn’t seen much attention outside the inmost fan community, which is a shame, because there are some really solid works here.
Three of the TK offshoots are predictable but lovingly-rendered OTP vehicles about Taffeta characters, notable mostly for careful targeting to fandom conerns, written by community-favoured authors with their less palatable edges filed down. Footwork – focused on fan-favourite dancing-master Rodrigo – is more interesting for inverting the tutorial, letting you grant dancers techniques to manipulate events. Picaro is a Gothic-weird story about a knavish cad who unwisely buys a cravat from the Couture boutique; Silk Fractal takes the clothes-making heart of Couture and expands it into a beautiful, plotless but evocative toy. Eight Positions of the Blade is particularly dear to us because, briefly and sharply, it cuts through the spectacular artificial theatrics of Maupin to the nasty calculus of dueling culture.
7: THE SCYTHIAN QUEEN (Bytewax): Gonna say it: this is Bytewax’s long-heralded return to form. Since creating the modern GBG (before Analogie dependency-web games were an awkward niche-within-a-niche) they’ve rested on their laurels rather, putting out a game or two every year in precisely the Analogie mould while the genre they created outpaced them. Sure, Scythian Queen is a big step up from Bytewax’s recent output, but most of this is just belated adoption of techniques pioneered by their own successors. What makes it exceptional is writing and voice-acting: all the principal characters are voiced by RSC veterans, and the live stage version of Queen launched before the game itself.
Somewhere in Ancient Greece, four men, each luminaries in their field – historian, philosopher, poet, general – have gathered Symposium-style to discuss the Queen of the Scythians, sprung from legend and now advancing through Greece with fire and the sword. They tell stories to try and figure out who she is and what she represents, each elaboration more outlandish than the last. Servants move softly about in the background. The web builds in the darkness overhead, a precarious tower.
6: THE DUNGRADUSH (Vij Ghatak / Mikey Shakespeare / Cromlech Games). Only small children and the dying can see the Dungradush; it’s a combination of house-spirit, imaginary childhood friend and crochety immigrant grandmother. You never see more than glimpses of a whiskery snout and a scaly prehensile tail. It only wakes up at mealtimes, to swim in the soup-pot and meddle with its family.
Gameplay is akin to a cut-down Sims without the omniscient viewpoint. You can’t leave the home – a small terraced house with a scrap of garden, somewhere in the urban UK. You can’t create characters, and can only get them to do stuff indirectly. They’re hard to manage, so your motivation, as in most management games, is to multiply your influence. Here, that means ensuring a regular supply of small children (when they grow up they can’t see you), getting everybody home for dinner (absentees are beyond your influence), and making sure that soup is always served, because you can’t swim about to gain energy in pizza. Big family gatherings are the best, but if they don’t involve soup you get drained quickly. You also want to avoid family members moving out while they still have Last Requests attached to them. (The dying make requests of you: keep X out of trouble long enough to finish school, find a good spouse for Y or a secure job for Z. Fulfilling them is how you level up.)
Ghatak has said that Dungradush started out as a comedy based on her own family – “I was nineteen, attending university from home, and it was write this or murder my mum” – and the initial appeal is that you get to play the dreadful interfering mother-in-law from a bad sitcom. But it builds into a deeper piece, about the love of the old for the young, how hopes can stifle or nourish. “Early on I was tapping all my second- and third-generation friends for funny auntie anecdotes; the project only got serious once I started interviewing the aunties.”
5: ANDRASTE II NASTY (Double Door). Given what happens to the comments section every time we venture an opinion on A2N, we’re just going to compile quotes from our favourite takes on it.
“…the sequel to the cult hit has essentially… betrayed the audience that made it possible.”
“…in the intro when that hip-grind funk kicks in, yeah thrown outta heaven for being too nasty / she ain’t give a shit but she gets all the whaat, I’m like, holy fuck, they did it, I’m home, we’re home.”
— Voxel Astra
“To understand Andraste II, you have to get that there are two main ways to totally miss the point. The first is best-illustrated by that mod that lets you control Andraste’s shapeshifting – like, we didn’t even want that to be something we had full control over. The second is to play the game to completion without ever jerking it.”
— Pauline Breaks Their Warriors, lead developer
“…systematically face-sits every sacred cow of game fandom…”
— New York Record
“…we unequivocally condemn this colonial appropriation and objectification of our sacred heritage…”
— official statement, Unified Neoceltic Convention
“…reflects the ever-evolving nature of the Divine in an overflowing, authentic expression of that most blessed of joyous urges…”
— official statement, Iceni Nation USA
“Because what the world needed was a female Stiffy Makane.”
— qwertyriah, entire review
4: ADVENTURE CAPITAL (Swingeing Cuts). Adventurers flock to the small village of Ruddy Teme, flooding the market with treasure and inflating the price of ale and wenches. Oke Branter, mayor, town planner and de facto sheriff, must balance the needs and demands of locals, adventurers, wannabe-adventurers, failed adventurers and the adventurer-support industry, not to mention his own friends, self-enrichment and survival.
It’s more than a parable about the greed and short-sightedness of volatile growth, however: it concerns community and what should (or can) be done to nurture and police it. Much of this is management stuff, heavily augmented by vignettes in the best tales-from-the-village/dragonpasser tradition; the character writing is strong enough that one can care about the fates of minor NPCs. It has an excellent handle on how to keep catastrophic failure entertaining right to the bitter end.
3: MIDDEN MINER (Ghosted Past). In the future, archaeology digs will be done with nanobots, which will somehow be subject to the laws of human-sized gravity in order to work as a 2D dive-and-climb mining game. You guide your nanominer into the depths to collect potsherds, bone fragments and pollen, then assemble them into Conclusions and slowly piece together a profile of changing material cultures.
Conclusions need refinement, though, and sometimes can be outright misleading. The multiplayer version, a co-pete thing where you vie to contribute the biggest slice of the Final Synthesis, has a weirdly-balanced information economy: the main strategies appear to be Grant Hog (rush to make lots of shaky conclusions early on for grant money, intending to switch later on) and Hermetic (sit on all your best conclusions, wait for data to get cheap, then dump them all right at the end faster than anyone else can absorb); to my mind this is a completely different game from the contemplative dirt-boring, and also I am terrible at it.
2: THE PILLOW TWINE (Antonia Krebs): For twenty-seven years, beginning with the publication of Twine 2.0, Krebs wrote a short game every two weeks; all but a half-dozen were previously unreleased. With no particular objective in mind, the results are all over the map: maybe a third are diary entries or reconstructed memories, vignette re-tellings of particular moments. There are experiments with memory-palaces, mouseover glitch-poetry, artsy demakes. There is a good deal of smut. The degree of fictionalisation fluctuates hugely, which has led to much speculation and ill-considered amateur sleuthing, upon which Krebs has sensibly refused to comment.
Krebs’ facility with a dashed-off sentence improves massively over the first decade, too, so if you bounced hard off the thoughtstreamy noodling of the earlier pieces… play another hundred or so and it’ll get better. (The games refer back to one another so much that it’s ill-advised to skip forward, though. If you lack the time, our very own Pillow Twine Concordance diagrams the more obvious self-allusions.)
1: THE BOOK OF PRESTER JOHN (Gloria). Sprawling, side-trek-y CRPGlike. Somewhere in the East (the architecture is mostly Central Asian-ish; clothes and people look mostly East African; naming mostly Persian/Greek), around 400 AD. Prester John has unified a Christian kingdom, but he’s more of a charismatic than a theologian. Various tribal divisions, unconverted pagans, and turbulent neighbours threaten his nation. Sick, old and haunted by the prospect of schism, he tasks you with compiling an official Bible; you travel across the kingdom, copying books from religious communities and debating over which parts to authorise.
Sold as the biggest dependency-web game ever made, but – importantly for a form with a reputation for being opaque – it starts out small, builds gently, and has a deep and intuitive interface. It trains you on Old Testament choices before the more fiddly New Testament texts become available.
Between the towns and monasteries, you spend a lot of time riding mules through dusty scrubland, setting up camp, watching the stars by a campfire. At first this has a sort of austere tranquility about it, but as you hone your skills and acquire squabbling NPC followers this erodes. Everyone in the Kingdom has a noisy opinion: at one point you are kidnapped by bandits, but inevitably their leader throws down over Christ’s pre-existence and then it’s on. Everything is politics: on my first run I aimed at the Textualist approach, then faltered and ended up trying to build an Egalitarian/Ecumenical coalition, and eventually fell in with the centralising, pragmatic-moderate Palace faction because everyone else was mad at me.
The best part, though, is the ability to export your final canon into an actual Bible. This year’s Institute budget did not stretch to the calfskin-bound doorstop, but we are very pleased with our faux-leather pocket edition.
For the duration of ShuffleComp, I won’t be commenting on games because I don’t want to blow my own pseudonymity just yet. However, Jacques Frechet appears to be a real person, meaning he’s definitely not me; whereas all other ShuffleComp authors are either Doug Orleans or currently in a quantum state of simultaneously being and not being me. So I get to talk about Jacques’ submission, Ansible.
Ansible (Jacques Frechet) is a hypertext piece built using a custom system. Structurally, it’s a pure, stateless time cave. What sets it apart from traditional CYOA-style time caves is the presentation. Ansible uses an infinite scroll, similar to Undum, where content is added to the bottom of the page as the story “grows” with player choices. Unlike Undum, however, past choices are not cut off; every link remains active, allowing the player to go as far back as they want to change something. Effectively, Ansible is a deconstructed CYOA book, with all of its branches laid side by side as tabs that you can page through at will.
Much like in a traditional CYOA, too, Ansible has numerous branches that result in death. The ease of clicking back to explore other branches makes the experience more like a tightly refined try-die-repeat loop out of something like Super Meat Boy, though, and less like a punishingly cruel Twine. In effect, it’s turning lawnmowering into a game mechanic.
Overall, I thought the conceit was interesting enough that I’d like to see other games built using the same structure, though I didn’t think Ansible itself served that structure as well as it could.
This is about as much as I can talk about Ansible without spoiling story or plot details; so I do recommend you give the game a play (It’s quite short) before reading on, if you care about spoilers.
Ansible uses the same basic premise as Fail-Safe (Mild spoiler for a 15-year-old game): The player is communicating over an imperfect connection (the titular ansible) with a character in the game world who is taking instructions from them. In this case, they are receiving messages from a generic-fantasy adventurer equipped with a magical ring that seems to transmit thought and sound. All of the prose consists of dialogue and occasional asides from the protagonist, asking the reader to fill in the blanks of what’s going on. Often, the adventurer’s presumably grisly CYOA-style deaths are merely implied by a “connection terminated” message.
For the purposes of this review, I’ll be referring to the character receiving advice (on the “far side” of the ansible) as the “adventurer” and the character giving advice (on “this side” of the ansible) as the “angel”, to avoid confusion about what I mean when I say “player” or “player character”.
It is strongly implied, in a metatextual twist, that the angel has some kind of clarvoyance or time travel ability corresponding to the player’s ability to explore branches of the story and then go back. Acknowledging this ability to “calibrate” the ansible is the first thing that happens in the story, and the adventurer clearly understands that the angel “will have to try again” to properly get to the next branch of the story.
The rules of how their connection works were never quite clear to me, and after a while they take on a (perhaps unintended) existential horror quality. The adventurer expects guidance from the angel on almost everything, and understands that the angel knows better. So the adventurer is clearly willing to entertain every command from the angel, even when they don’t make sense, even though on the vast majority of cases those commands lead to death. Presumably our mediaeval adventurer doesn’t understand the concept of quantum branches, but I got the picture of the angel as some vast impersonal alien intelligence flipping through different versions of the universe, to find the one where Shrödinger’s adventurer is alive. More than that: Actively driving the adventurer towards death, in a way, to find out what to avoid.
At the same time, the angel is extremely limited. The information you get is incomplete at best, misleading at worst; and you can only communicate by echoing the adventurer – ie, by clicking on links, which are themselves words supplied by the adventurer. So there’s a dimension of helplessness to the angel’s position; you can’t really warn the adventurer of what’s going to happen, or indeed paint outside the lines of the options that the adventurer is enumerating for themself.
From the beginning of the story, I expected gameplay to hinge on gaining information from one “death” branch that would be applied to succeeding in another branch, but this almost never came into play. Eventually, there are few enough branches that lanwmowering becomes the answer, once the shape of the story is taken into account. The time cave structure also suggests, toward the beginning, that the game contains several wildly different stories; in practice, this isn’t true either: there is really only one well-developed plotline, with all other possibilities leading to swift death.
For me, Ansible works best as a piece of metafictional existential horror about Choose Your Own Adventure books. The distancing effect of the ansible, and the frequent death puts an undertone of menace on everything, aided by the writing. The panoply of magical items that is central to the game’s primary plot comes off as sinister, rather than wondrous.
Overall, like a lot of structural experiments, Ansible doesn’t succeed on all counts, but it’s interesting enough that I would care to see more on this mould or from the same author.
Tentacles Growing Everywhere is the story of three young tentacled aliens who are just transitioning into their lifeform’s version of puberty.
The primary mechanic is one of editing posts: each of the three protagonists keeps a blog, and you’re in the role of helping them write, sometimes deciding what to take out and what to leave in place — which puts this story in perhaps a very small genre with a few other interactive epistolary pieces. I happen to be quite fond of this form, which explores both what someone is thinking and what they’re willing to write down about their thoughts, and Tentacles uses it to good effect as the characters fuss over how their friends might interpret their adventures, whether it’s a good idea to give one another advice, and so on.
These interactive passages are interspersed with excerpts from a “helpful” guidebook to puberty, written in the same faux-casual voice so often employed for this purpose. Here’s its guidance about being bullied:
Overall the story is pretty linear: there are some choices to make, but I don’t have the impression that they have more than a local effect on the story (if there’s major branching available, I missed that fact). Even so, there’s a fair bit of text here — 77 pages, with your current page number clearly visible as you play. It’s a novella-sized interactive read, with each protagonist having their own plot arc, though they have a fair amount of interplay as well.
Each of the protagonists is struggling in some respect with their lifeform’s equivalent of gender — a sort of hormonal self-sorting into one of three categories — and their sexuality; the story relates some of the feelings around recognizing oneself as trans or genderqueer, and touches more lightly on the possibility of being entirely asexual. There’s a suggestion, too, that the gender-like-categories are supposed to correspond to introversion/extroversion or perhaps other aspects of social and intellectual functioning.
At the same time, Tentacles envisions a world where the gender-equivalent differentiation is something that the species has deliberately chosen to adopt for itself: at one time, the species was not so differentiated, but they decided through technology to regulate their citizens into different physical and psychological molds, the better to assign them to particular walks of life. Job sorting and gender sorting are both imposed from above based on some premise that this will make society more “efficient”, while in practice both prevent a full expression of who these individuals naturally are.
At one point the story offers us this bit of metacommentary:
I’ve occasionally found some of Squinky’s other work to be a bit on-the-nose to be as emotionally effective as I wanted (see the last paragraph of my coverage of Life Flashes By, e.g., or my struggles with Impostor Syndrome). In contrast Tentacles really worked for me. Partly this is because the protagonists are speaking almost entirely from a position of confusion, allowing them to explore issues without seeming to preach about it. Partly it’s because the multiple voices made the work feel richer and more fictional. Partly I think Squinky’s simply gotten technically stronger at writing character voices and sketching individual incidents that convey personality. I related especially to the part of the narrative in which one of the characters goes to a movie with a friend, isn’t sure if the event is supposed to be a date, kind of doesn’t want it to be a date, and yet is weirdly disappointed when nothing date-like happens. Being annoyed by the irrational nature of my own crushes was a big feature of my own early adolescence.
Anyway, I would say Tentacles does fulfill the aim of being unique and original. Funny, charming, meaty enough to play for a fair length of time, attractive, not at all difficult; and underneath some general questions about why it’s to our advantage to let ourselves be sorted into any kind of box, whether that’s by gender or by job or by social/neurological functioning.
With one thing and another, and to my great regret, I didn’t get a game made for Shufflecomp. Here’s some discussion of why, largely in the interests of Know Thyself, and because I think best in writing. (There’s also the aspect that, well, someone went to the trouble of collecting some nice things on my behalf, in the hope that a game might result; so this has a certain degree of the-dog-ate-my-homework.)
Of the playlist I received, the songs that most grabbed me, both as music and as potential game material, were Train Across Ukraine by Golem, and I’m On The Bus! by Satellite High. They conveniently shared a public-transit theme, but with somewhat different takes on it. And for most of the crucial period of Shufflecomp I was on planes, trains, buses, airports and stations, so I was looking out for things to riff off in writing. The thing is, the most prominent feature of transit is mild discomfort and annoyance, and that blank frame of mind created by trying to carve out a small bubble of private space in an impersonal public one. Human condition, yeah, but hard to get very inspired about.
I’m On The Bus! is about this kind of everyday experience: the small annoyances, inconveniences, isolations and anxieties of taking the bus. Context: riding the bus is a minor recurring theme in hip-hop, usually showing up as a signifier for the indignities of poverty that the speaker has escaped. Bus-riders are outsiders – modern cities were designed for the benefit of private vehicles, and everyone else must make do. So while this song is generally upbeat, it’s an ironic cheeriness – it’s following the patterns of bumping-in-my-ride songs, except that everything’s kind of crap. I’m inordinately fond of the hip-hop that deals with the unheroic, mundane, unglamorously broke.
Train Across Ukraine, on the other hand, is a lot more jolly and convivial. Its train is a kind of rolling village square, bustling with activity and interaction. The music has a bouncy, party feel, and there’s the sense that this party is transposed onto the train itself, that a train carriage transforms itself into a sort of community. There’s a strong element of good-old-days fantasy at work – Golem are from New York, a city famous for defensive ignoring in public areas.
Now, it’s perfectly possible to produce works of transcendent beauty and enduring artistic merit with a subject-matter of petty annoyances. But I was more interested in the other side of things. There are untold hordes of games about isolated, alienated PCs; that’s something I’m trying to get away from. So I immediately knew that I wanted to create a game with a focus on community and characterisation.
My plan, since I knew I wasn’t going to be able to create anything with the depth of Invisible Parties while traveling, was to use Twine, conform the narrative to a pre-planned structure, and add elaborations as time permitted.
The first problem with this is that as an authoring tool, Twine has never really worked for me. This is not the post where I go into detail about why, but suffice to say that I’ve started a dozen or so projects in it and have always ended up abandoning them in frustration. Fair enough; no platform needs to be all things to all people. But it was a tactical error to rely on this time being different.
My aim was to make a loop-and-grow structure, a circular structure that develops elaborations with each cycle. At first glance, this seemed like a good fit for a transit-themed game: you could be traveling a circular route, developing more options as you understood the world better. But when I came to write things, it turned out that this is a rather trickier job than I had anticipated.
Circular content tends to assume a certain level of repetition. And repetition, in game terms, tends to work towards anonymous, interchangeable, generic acts. In parser IF, this is solved by making the generic acts physical and minor; picking up a rock or walking from one room to another is usually the same every time. Get away from that, and repetition becomes harder to write for. Fallen London, reliant as it is on repeated action, really foregrounds this: NPCs are given functional names that flatten their individuality, an acknowledgement that you can repeat their story arcs over and over. Is this honey-addicted Artist’s Model the same as the one you already had a fling with, or is she just the same kind of person serving the same kind of function? Does the distinction really matter to the PC? If you get continual do-overs on incidents, relationships, their significance – to the story, to the world, to character – begins to blur, and tends towards the kind of impersonal, anonymous, type-not-token distance that I was really wanting to avoid in this game.
I struggled for a while to figure out how to make this work – it is not insoluble, as witness Bee, but it is not the kind of thing amenable to an off-the-shelf solution. I ended up in that standard double bind where you don’t really feel able to start creating content until you can feel confident about the structure, but you really need to have a better idea about the structure in order to build content for it. More than I had time to wrangle with, alas.
Let your mind wander! It may be time to rewrite the history books. At least the ones dealing with adventure games (ie. that's the important history books) After some digging and research, ahope1 aka. Anthony has helped uncover what might be the earliest adventure game yet! The Wander system, created by Peter Langston, was used to write Castle as early as 1974, at least two years before Colossal Cave Adventure. Excellent news indeed. The game is available for play, so feel free to dip your toes in adventure gaming at its earliest.
While the Apple Macintosh, Atari ST, and Commodore Amiga weren’t exactly flying off American store shelves in 1985 and 1986, they at least had the virtue of existing. The British computer industry, by contrast, proved peculiarly unable to produce 16-bit follow-ups to their 8-bit models that had made Britain, measured on a per-capita basis, the most computer-mad nation in the world.
Of the big three in Britain — Sinclair, Acorn, and Amstrad — only Sinclair really even tried to embrace the 16-bit era on a timely basis, announcing the QL the same month of January 1984 that the Mac made its debut. They would have been better off to wait a while: the QL was unreliable, ill-thought-out, buggy, and, far from being the “Quantum Leap” of its name, was still mired in the old 8-bit ways of thinking despite the shiny 68000 processor it shared with the Macintosh. It turned into a commercial fiasco, and Sinclair never got the chance to try again. Torpedoed partly by the QL’s failure but more so by a slowdown in Spectrum sales and Sir Clive’s decision to pull millions of pounds out of the company to fund his ridiculous miniature-television and electric-car projects, Sinclair came within a whisker of bankruptcy before selling themselves to Amstrad in 1986.
Acorn, meanwhile, gave their tendency to overengineer free rein, producing a baroque range of new models and add-ons for their 8-bit BBC Micro line while its hugely ambitious 32-bit successor, the Acorn Archimedes, languished in development hell. Undone by the same slowing market that devastated Sinclair as well as by an ill-advised grab for the low-end in the form of the Acorn Electron, Acorn was also forced to sell themselves, to the Italian company Olivetti.
That left only Amstrad still standing in an industry that had been just a year or two before the Great White Hope of a nation, symbol and proof of concept of Margaret Thatcher’s vision of a new, more entrepreneurial and innovative British economy. Unfortunately, Amstrad’s founder Alan Sugar just wasn’t interested in the kind of original research and development that would have been required to launch a brand new machine based on the 68000 or a similar advanced chip. His computers, like the stereos he had been selling for many years before entering the computer market, were all about packaging proven technology into inexpensive, practical products for the masses. There’s something to be said for that sort of innovation, but it wasn’t likely to yield a Macintosh, an Amiga, or even an Atari ST anytime soon.
This collective failure of the domestic makers meant that British punters eager to experience the wonders of 16 bits were forced to look overseas for their new toys. Yet that was a fairly fraught proposition in itself. The Macintosh was practically a machine of myth in Britain for years after its American debut, absurdly expensive and available only through a handful of specialized shops. Only wealthy gentlefolk of leisure like noted Mac fanatic Douglas Adams could contemplate actually owning one. And the Amiga, not even available in Britain until June of 1986, also suffered even thereafter from an expensive price tag and poor distribution.
That left the Atari ST as the only really practical choice. The situation was a surprising one in that Atari had not traditionally been a big player in Britain. The Atari VCS game console that had left its mark on the childhood of an entire generation in North America was virtually unknown in Britain, and, while Atari’s line of 8-bit computers had been nominally available, they had been an expensive, somewhat off-kilter choice in contrast to the Sinclair Spectrums and Commodore 64s that outsold them by an order of magnitude. But Jack Tramiel, previously the head of Commodore and now owner of the reborn post-Great Videogame Crash Atari, knew very well the potential of the European market, and pushed aggressively to establish a presence there. In fact, the very first STs to go on sale did so not in the United States but rather West Germany. By the end of 1985 STs were readily available in Britain as well and, at least in contrast to the Macintosh and Amiga, quite inexpensive. A British software industry looking for a transformative machine to lift home computing in Britain out of its doldrums placed its first hopes — admittedly largely by default — in the Atari ST.
Still, it was far from clear just what sort of form the hoped-for new ST software market would take. The ST may have been a bargain in contrast to the Macintosh and Amiga, but it was still a fairly expensive proposition within a country just getting back on its economic feet again after what felt like decades of recessions, shortages, and labor unrest. A reasonably full-featured ST system could easily reach £1000, many times what one could expect to shell out for the likes of a cheap and cheerful Speccy. The ST would seemingly need to attract a different sort of buyer, with more money to spend and perhaps a few more years under his belt. This expectation was one of the calculations that led to Rainbird, one of the most significant British software houses of the latter 1980s.
Rainbird was born from Firebird, a slightly older label that has plenty of significance in its own right. In 1984 British Telecom, solely responsible at the time for the telecommunications grid of all of Britain, was privatized, becoming a huge for-profit corporation as part of Margaret Thatcher’s general rolling-back of the socialist wave that had followed World War II. Even before the first shares were sold to the public on November 20, 1984 — the largest single share issue in the history of the world at the time — the newly liberated management of British Telecom began casting about for new business opportunities. It didn’t take them long to notice the exploding market for home-computer software. They thus formed the subsidiary of Telecomsoft, whose first imprint was to be called “Firefly Software.” That name was quickly changed to “Firebird” — it seems marketing manager James Leavey had just been listening to Stravinsky’s The Firebird — when they discovered a potential trademark conflict with another company. Firebird made its public bow in time for Christmas 1984 with a whole raft of mostly simple action games, selling for £2.50 (Firebird “Silver”) or £6 (Firebird “Gold”). Many turned into bestsellers.
Whether you considered British Telecom’s entrance into software a necessary result of a rapidly maturing industry or you were like Mel Croucher of Automata in considering them nothing more than “parasites” on software’s creative classes, it marked a watershed moment, a definitive farewell to the days of hobbyists meeting and selling to one another at “microfairs” and a hello to a hyper-competitive, corporatized industry destined someday to be worth many billions. If anyone was still in doubt, in December of 1984 another watershed arrived when newly minted software agent Jacquie Lyons presided over an unabashed bidding war for the right to publish Ian Bell and David Braben’s Elite on platforms other than the BBC Micro. Firebird, with the deepest pockets in the industry by far, won the prize.
Although published on the Firebird label, Elite would prove to be something of a model for the eventual Rainbird. Unlike Firebird’s previous releases, which had used the colorful but minimalist packaging typical of British games at the time, Elite‘s big, sturdy box contained not just the cassette or disk but also a thick manual, an equally thick novella to set the stage, a glossy quick-reference card, and a poster-sized ship-recognition chart (all licensed and reproduced from the Acornsoft original). All this naturally came at a price: £15 for the cassette version, fully £18 for the disk version. It marked a new way to sell games in Britain: as luxury products aimed at a classier, more sophisticated, perhaps slightly older consumer. In spite of the extra cost of all that packaging, the profit margins on its higher price points were to die for. If the Elite approach could be turned into a sustainable line rather than a one-off, British Telecom just might have something.
One person inside British Telecom who paid a lot of attention to Elite‘s launch and its subsequent success was Tony Rainbird, a former software entrepreneur in his own right who now worked for Firebird. He began agitating his superiors for a new software label, a sort of boutique prestige brand that would sell more sophisticated experiences at a correspondingly higher price point; it would be, if you can forgive an anachronistic metaphor, the Lexus to Firebird’s Toyota. His thinking was influenced by a number of factors in addition to Elite‘s success. He was very aware of the Atari ST that was then just arriving in Britain, aware that the people who bought that machine and in the fullness of time its inevitable eventual competitors would be willing and able to spend a bit more for software. And he was very aware of the American software market, which at that time was enjoying a golden age of gorgeous game packaging thanks to labels like Infocom, Origin, and Telarium. Games from those publishers and many others in the United States were marked by high concepts, high prices, and, yes, high margins to match. Elite, the first British game that could really compete in the United States on those terms, had been the first game that Firebird exported there; it became as huge a hit in the United States as it had in its native country. A new luxury imprint could continue to export games and other software that suited the higher expectations of Americans, whilst trading on the slight hint of the exotic provided by their British origins.
After getting permission to give the new line a go, with he himself at its head, Tony Rainbird decided that all the games should be published in distinctive boxes done in a deep royal blue, a color which to him exuded class. His first choice for a name was “Bluebird Software.” But, once again, a search turned up a conflict with another trademark, so he allowed himself to be persuaded to give the line his own name. Just as well; it fitted even better as a companion to the Firebird line.
Rainbird was launched quietly at the end of 1985 with two 8-bit creativity titles, The Art Studio and The Music System, that echoed more than faintly Electronic Arts’s Deluxe line of high-toned creative applications in the United States. But it was the following year that saw things get started in earnest, with two splashy game launches for the Atari ST. One of these, The Pawn, is an adventure game we’ve met before, along with its maker Magnetic Scrolls; we’ll continue their story in the next article I write. It’s the other, a space shoot-em-up called Starglider, that I want to spend just a bit of time with today. It’s not really a great game, but it is an interesting one to consider in its historical context, not least because of the colorful history of the person who wrote it, a young hacker with the perfect videogame-character name of Jez San (“Jez” is a nickname for “Jeremy”).
Jez San had already had a greater impact on British computing before his twentieth birthday than most programmers manage in a lifetime. It all began when his father, owner of a successful import/export firm, gave have him an American TRS-80 computer in 1978, when he was not quite thirteen years old. He first won attention for himself by coming up with a hack to let one attach the joystick from an Atari VCS — another piece of foreign exotica that came to him courtesy of his father’s business — to the TRS-80 for playing games in lieu of the awkward keyboard controls that were the norm. His skills had progressed so far by 1982 that his father agreed to become partners with him in a little software-development company to be called Argonaut Software — think “J. San and the Argonauts” — run out of his bedroom. Whilst writing software for whomever would pay him, San was also soon terrorizing the network of British Telecom. He became one of his country’s most skilled phone phreakers, a talent he used to become a fixture on computer networks all over the world. It was in fact as a network hacker rather than a programmer or game developer that he first did something to make all of Britain sit up and take notice.
On October 2, 1983, San hacked the email account of one of the presenters of a live edition of the BBC program Making the Most of the Micro, an incident that has gone down in British computing lore as the “very first live hack on TV.” Millions of Britons watched as the presenter’s computer displayed a “Hacker’s Song” from San in place of the normal login message. Like much involving San, it was both less and more than it seemed. What with War Games a huge hit in the cinema, the BBC wanted something just like what San delivered for their live show where, as the host repeatedly stated, “anything could happen.” San’s alleged victims were more like co-conspirators: “They knew I was going to hack, they were quite hoping I would,” he admits. Why else would they announce the password to all and sundry inside the studio over a live microphone just minutes before the program began? After that, it just took a phone call from a few of San’s friends who were hanging about the studio. Further circumstantial evidence of the BBC’s complicity in the whole incident is provided by the host and presenter’s weird lack of affect when the “Hacker’s Song” appeared on the screen — almost as if they expected it, or something like it, to be there. As for the “Hacker’s Song” itself, it was lifted not from some shady underground but from the very overground pages of the American magazine Newsweek, yet another gift of San’s importer/exporter father.
San was forced to cloak himself in anonymity for this great exploit, but he got the chance to advertise his skills to the world and earn himself some real money in the process soon thereafter, when he was hired by a dodgy little company called Unicom to help in the development of a new, ultra-cheap modem for the BBC Micro. He wrote the software to control the modem, much of which was supplied not on disk or tape but as a new ROM chip to be installed in the computer itself. The modem lacked approval from the British Approvals Board of Telecommunications, meaning that, in one of those circumlocutions only a hidebound bureaucracy could come up with, it was legal to buy and sell but not to actually use on the British telephone network; it was required to bear a bright red triangle on its face to indicate this. Undaunted, Unicom took the non-certification as a badge of street cred, painting little demons on either side of the BABT’s warning triangle that made it look like just part of the logo. The Unicom modem quickly became known as the “Demon Modem.” At a fraction of the price of its more legitimate competitors, it made outlaws of many thousands of Britons and earned San tens of thousands of pounds. Perhaps all those punters should have been more cautious about the people they did business with: in the book Grand Thieves and Tomb Raiders, San makes the eye-popping claim that he imbedded backdoors into the bundled software “to take control of a computer using his modem, to make it play sounds, or type words to the screen.” This sounds frankly dubious to me given everything I know about the technology involved, but I offer it nevertheless for your consideration. At any rate, San claims he mainly used his powers to do nothing more nefarious than cheat at MUD.
San first came face to face with the executives at British Telecom not, as you might expect, because he was hauled into court for his various illegal activities, but rather when he was hired by them to help David Braben and Ian Bell port Elite from the BBC Micro to the Commodore 64. Having accomplished that task in a bare couple of months, he parlayed the success into a contract for a 3D space-combat game of his own, to target the new generation of 68000-based home computers that were on the horizon. Eager to get started, and with the Atari ST and Amiga not yet released, he rented a Macintosh for a while to start developing 3D math routines for the 68000, then shifted development to the ST as soon as it arrived in British shops. When Rainbird came into being, this 16-bit prestige project was quickly moved from Firebird to the new imprint.
The finished Starglider that was released by Rainbird in October of 1986 was once again both less and more than it seemed. With Bell and Braben having already started squabbling and proving unable or unwilling to deliver a timely follow-up to Elite, Rainbird clearly wanted to position Starglider instead as that game’s logical successor. Just as Acornsoft had for Elite, Rainbird hired an outside author, James Follett, to write a novella setting the stage for the action. Its almost 70 pages tell the story of an alien invasion force that disguise themselves as Stargliders, a protected species of spacefaring birds, in order to penetrate the automated defenses of your planet of Novenia. You play Jaysan — didn’t I say he had the perfect name for a videogame character? — who with the assistance of his hot girlfriend Katra must save his world using the last manned fighter left in its arsenal. How’s that for a young nerd’s wish-fulfillment fantasy?
That said, connecting all of the texture provided by the novella to the actual game requires quite an effort of imagination. Starglider lacks the huge universe of Elite, and lacks with it Elite‘s strategic trading game and the slow-building sense of accomplishment that comes from improving your ship and your economic situation and climbing through the ranks. Most of all it lacks Elite‘s wondrous sense of limitless freedom. Rather than a grand space opera, Starglider is a frenetic shoot-em-up in which you down enemies for points — nothing more, nothing less. Get to and destroy a faux-Starglider, the “boss” of each level, and you advance to the next, where everything becomes a little bit harder. With no save facility beyond a high-scores table, it would fit perfectly into an arcade.
Which is not to say that Starglider wasn’t impressive in its day within its own more limited template. The game’s most innovative feature may just be its missile-eye view: when you fire a missile you can switch your view to a camera in its nose and guide it to its target yourself. There’s also a modicum of strategy required: you need to return to a depot periodically to repair your ship and restock your weapons, and you need to replenish your energy supplies by skimming over power lines located on the surface of Novenia (shades of Elite‘s fuel scoops). But mostly Starglider seems more concerned with showing off what its 3D engine can do than pushing boundaries of gameplay. Its wireframe 3D graphics aren’t exactly a revelation in comparison to Elite‘s, but there are far more enemies now with more complex shapes, which move more smoothly — the Stargliders themselves, enormous birds that smoothly flap their wings, are particularly well-done — and which are now in color.
The problem with a game that lives and dies on its technical innovations is that once those innovations are incorporated into and improved upon by other games it has very little to offer. Writing about Elite, I noted that Braben and Bell could easily have stopped after they had a workable 3D action game, the first of its kind on a PC, and been assured of having a sizable hit on their hands. What made Elite a game for the ages was their decision to keep going, to use that 3D engine as a mere building block for something grander. The lack of a similar grander vision is what makes Starglider, as reviewer Ashley Pomeroy put it, “a period piece.” Within a year or two other games would offer 3D engines that used solid polygons instead of wireframes — including, ironically, later versions of Elite itself. Many of Starglider‘s other aspects that were impressive back in the context of 1986 are most kindly described as quaint today, like the poorly digitized voice of Katra that occasionally screams out a monosyllabic exclamation. Most embarrassing of all is the brief digitized snippet of a studio-recorded theme song that plays as the game starts; it sounds like a particularly cheesy Saturday-morning toy advertisement.
The use of digitized sound from the real world is of course a signpost to the future of multimedia gaming, and represented a real coup in 1986, as San himself describes: “On the Atari ST Starglider was the first game to use sampled sound. I sat with my ST open, measuring voltages off the sound chip, and modulating the volume controls in real time on the three channels to find what voltages came out so that I could play samples.” Technically brilliant it may well be. Timeless, however, it’s not.
In its day, though, it was more than enough to make Starglider just the big hit needed to get the fledgling Rainbird imprint off the ground. Its sales soared well into the six figures once ported, with greater or lesser degrees of success, to quite a variety of 8-bit and 16-bit machines (a list that includes the Amiga and at long last the Macintosh, the platform where its development first began). The sheer number of ports illustrates what would soon become Rainbird’s standard business model: to release games first as prestige titles on the 16-bit machines, then port them down to the less capable but more numerous 8-bitters where the really big sales numbers could be found. Rainbird quickly learned that an Atari ST or Amiga game on the Commodore 64 still retained some of the cachet that clung to anything involving a 68000. (Cinemaware in the United States would quickly learn the same thing and engage in a similar triangulation.)
Jez San used the income Starglider generated to put his one-man-band days behind him, bringing in additional programmers to establish Argonaut as one of the mainstays of British game development for almost two decades to come. Argonaut became one of the leading lights of a certain school of game programming, centered in Europe, that would continue to program the new 16-bit machines largely as they had the older 8-bits: in raw assembler, banging right on the hardware and ignoring operating systems and all the rules of “proper” programming found in the manuals. The approach seemed to demand young minds. Indeed, it seemed to delight in chewing them up and spitting them out before their time. In 1987 a 21-year-old San was already starting to feel his powers fading in contrast to the young turks he was hiring to work for him; he declared he’d likely be “over the hill” in about two more years. He was therefore eager to complete the transition he’d already begun into a purely managerial role. Even professional sports didn’t worship youth like this brutal meritocracy.
San and his colleagues and the many other developers like them positively swaggered about their prowess at down-and-dirty to-the-metal assembly-language coding, treating those who chose to work differently with contempt. “I don’t believe you can write performance software in C,” said San bluntly in that same 1987 interview. What he apparently failed to understand or didn’t consider significant was that, in being forced to focus so much on the trees of registers, opcodes, and interrupts, he was forgoing a veritable forest of conceptual complexity and design innovation. Higher-level languages had, after all, been invented for a reason. It’s very difficult, even for an agile 20-year-old mind, to conceive really interesting systems and virtual worlds when one is also forced to manually keep track of the exact position of the electron gun painting the screen. Thus the games that Argonaut and houses like them produced were audiovisually spectacular in their day but can seem underwhelming in ours. The fundamental limitations of their designs are all too painfully apparent today, long after even the best of 1980s graphics and sound have lost their ability to awe. For that reason I don’t know that we’ll be hearing a lot from this school of game development in the years to come on this blog, but rest assured that they’ll be beavering away in the background, brilliant in their own ephemeral way.
(Sources: the film From Bedrooms to Billions; the book Grand Thieves and Tomb Raiders; Amazing Computing of November 1987; Retro Gamer 86 and 98; Amiga Computing of June 1988; Your Computer of January 1985, February 1986, June 1986, October 1987; Computer and Video Games of February 1985; Popular Computing Weekly of March 21 1985, November 7 1985, November 14 1985, and March 27 1986; Computer Gamer of August 1986; Home Computing Weekly of April 30 1985; Games Machine of October 1988. The web site The Bird Sanctuary is full of information on Firebird, Rainbird, and their games. If you’d like to experience Starglider for yourself, feel free to download a zip from here containing Atari ST and Amiga disk images along with all of the goodies that accompanied them.)
Occasionally, the thought crosses my mind: what if I created a game in every existing interactive fiction engine, something tailored to capture its strengths? It would be a whole lot of work, but it would also ensure that I know the strengths of every system out there (an appealing thought!)
I am not going to make 59 games. It would take too long.
However, if you have an interactive fiction project in mind and you’re searching for the perfect language to execute it, the list is certainly worth a look. Matt includes notes for all 59 engines on:
A number of these were entirely new to me. Personally, I’m going to look further into Fungus, which looks incredibly promising for game jams (it’s the development engine behind Steal My Artificial Heart!).
With the IGDA Write A Game Challenge starting on June 1, that’s particularly interesting….
An interesting new feature has been added with version 0.4.1 of Raconteur. From the changelog:
Each situation with content is now output as its own
<section> element. Each situation with content clears the
#current-situation id from previous situations and gives its content section that id.
Writers, instead of inserting before the
.options or at the end of the content spool, now insert at the end of the
#current-situation. This behaviour has ramifications if you’re doing strange things with Raconteur situations, but if you’re using most of the features as intended this change should be transparent.
The gain from this feature is significant: Situations can now be styled individually, or in groups by giving the situation a
The major potential pitfalls are: first, the “changeover” happens at the content-printing step of
RaconteurSituation#enter, so if you define a “before” function in your situation and refer to the
#current-situation that will still be the previous situation. Second, if you are using Undum’s low-level API to write to the end of the content spool (With
system#write for instance) and mixing that with Raconteur writers, you might have odd behaviour where text is popping up where you don’t expect it. The fix is to make sure you always
#current-situation section, OR that you use
system#write throughout that situation instead. It might be useful to create a new, empty
#current-situation at the bottom of the content spool by entering a situation with a function that returns empty string as its content.
I’ve merged this feature into the stable branch. If you try it out and have problems or questions, let me know.
ShuffleComp is an interactive fiction comp in which participants send in lists of songs; the songs are shuffled and redistributed, and each participant writes a game based on one or more of the songs they received. (Last year’s competition yielded some 34 games and is responsible for not one but two games titled Fallout Shelter.)
Here are some favorites from this year’s comp:
Submerge is the story of a sunk boat and a damaged life; it’s told in three strands distinguished by different background colors, and it’s not immediately obvious how those strands relate, though they eventually come together. It’s inspired by the songs The Mary Ellen Carter and Jusqu’a La Mort.
I particularly liked how the game honors both the literal plot content of “The Mary Ellen Carter” and its message about returning from an apparently losing situation.
To Spring Open is a surreal fantasy Twine story taking place in a land where the different seasons are struggling for dominance, where the citizens must wear the correct costumes to be allowed to travel in different areas, where a sinister crop is fertilized with what might be human remains. In this environment, the protagonist is sent on a series of delivery missions, inspired by the song Paper Planes, among setting details pulled from Tragic Kingdom (“They pay homage to a king / Whose dreams are buried / In their minds”, “cornfields of popcorn / Have yet to spring open”). As a transformation of the originals, this is surprising and virtuosic. Many specific lines from the lyrics, and its repeated BANG BANG BANG, have evident connections in the game, and yet the game is tonally and emotionally in a totally different realm from M.I.A. or No Doubt.
There are some neat CSS tricks as well; when you take the subway, words flit by and paragraphs bounce up and down in the motion of a train.
Meanwhile, the mechanics of moving around the game world and correctly costuming oneself provide just enough mechanical agency that I felt adequately grounded in the story even though so much of what happened was surreal and hard to understand. Even at the end, I’m not sure I could explain the world in which all this happens, but I was left with some strong impressions and images that sufficed to make it a good experience anyway.
Ansible uses a CYOA structure to narrative effect: it keeps a cumulative scrollback, but in contrast with, say, the typical Undum piece where old links become inactive, Ansible leaves all of its old links available. This means you can back up any time and take a different branch, exploring the tree of possibilities to give advice to the protagonist you’re interacting with.
What you are and what you’re doing is part of the story, so I won’t spoil it here, but this is another one worth looking at for those interested in alternative images of what hypertext interactive storytelling could look like.
Starry Seeksorrow is a puzzly parser game in which you are a magical doll who have been enchanted to protect a little girl; you come awake because she’s in trouble, and you must navigate a garden of magic plants, and wield their abilities, in order to resolve the situation.
I got a little stuck at one point because I’d failed to examine a piece of scenery — there’s some vital information that you need to get from thoroughly exploring object descriptions. And I felt that the situation I faced was urgent, which made me feel like I should be acting quickly rather than standing around looking at things, even after I realized there probably wasn’t a timer at work in this game. At one other point there was a clever solution that required a bit more lateral thinking than occurred to me; but that’s on me, and the solution was pretty satisfying once I’d read the relevant hints.
This is a fair, cheerful, and not over-difficult puzzle game which requires understanding the backstory in order to unlock the best ending.
When the Land Goes Under the Water begins with an request to play exactly once. I can think of two other games that do this — Attack of the Yeti Robot Zombies and The Matter of the Great Red Dragon — and such a request makes me feel like I’m going in without some essential critical tools, as a player.
The gameplay itself involves exploring the ruins of Atlantis, finding elements that suggest a past civilization and past events. As far as I can tell — though, as I only played once, I can’t really be sure — certain areas of the game gradually go off-limits as you explore, as the tides rise, with the result that no one player will be able to find all the past evidence on their single playthrough. My protagonist had once been the priestess of one of these gods; I have no idea whether that’s static or something that also changes for each player.
What I found in my exploration was evidence of a decadent but heavily religious society, one that gave great physical sacrifices to their gods to atone for various sins. The worship of the gods is described in some detail. I liked the worldbuilding, while at the same time wishing that there were a little more of a present to this game.
But I think part of the point may also be to discuss one’s findings with others, so I’d be curious to hear whether other players had similar experiences to mine, or whether they found entirely different things.
So about a month ago I entered a new Twine piece of mine, called Doggerland, into the Spring Thing competition, run by Aaron Reed. (And there are other great works of IF there that you should totally play!)
This is easily the most autobiographical work I’ve ever written, in any form. With this blog, when I’ve delved into personal matters, it’s usually been in the realm of writing–fears about writing, desires about writing.
But I’ve never really been one to delve into family too much.
The original poem, though, called “Why We’re Not in the Streets”, is one that I wrote with family obliquely in mind (about a year before the twins were born), after a few days I had spent at my wife’s family cabin on the edge of winter. I had posted it on my blog, actually, a few years ago, so you can read it there if you’re interested.
Even though the narrative flow of Doggerland eventually veers far away, content-wise, from the original poem–which keeps it pretty close to the scene of the cabin–I still think that, however imperceptibly, the piece hews close to the original intent of the poem.
Lorine Niedecker’s own Wisconsin wilderness–living almost her entire life in remote rural areas– also looms as an influence in this poem. Besides being one of my favorite poets, Niedecker described her own poetry as a “condensery”:
Grandfather advised me: Learn a trade I learned to sit at desk and condense No layoff from this condensery
–and I think of her work as a kind of lighthouse for not only what poetry can do, but also other forms of writing can do, particularly ones that can ebb and flow, like Twine is capable of.
Doggerland was in its first draft much more of a (perhaps early 90s style?) hypertext “maze”. That wasn’t working at all, upon much later reflection; I winnowed it down to two branches. It’s still hard for me to “know” how much choice to give to a reader, especially in a piece like this which is so personal. What are they navigating? What would be the purpose of a maze?
Instead of a maze the idea of “dredging” became the primary way to investigate the text, and so the hover replace macro in Twine became my dear dear friend.
I had no idea that Doggerland–the land bridge between continental Europe and Britain–even existed until I started working on this piece. And the historiography of Doggerland, as we understand it now, is definitely informed by climate change. (For example.) Incremental sea rise over thousands of years–with perhaps one giant tsunami giving a nudge–isn’t quite the same what we’re facing now, which is much, much faster and, of course, precipitated by our own actions.
Time is strange. On a geologic scale, even a couple of thousand years is nothing. The climate change we’ve experienced in, say, the last 30 years or so is less than an eyeblink. Yet when in the day-to-day, on a personal, human scale…sure, it can be hard to experience. That is to say, we do experience it, but the mind tangles up “weather” and “climate” all the time.
For my kids, though, it might be a different story altogether.
Finding PDFs of Barron County, Wisconsin topography maps: finding just how close the cabin was to the edge of the glaciers. Really close.
Choices winnow down when you’re in solitude for a few days. When you have children, they pretty much explode. And bringing this explosion of choice into our lives was…also a choice. At the same time, you make that choice having no real idea of what you’re getting into, and, frankly having every possibility of failure (the figures for IVF are readily available for any clinic. You are playing the odds.)
I think about my childhood all the time–how much is life as a child replicated in life as a parent?
There are no easy answers to this.
There’s more than one Sand Lake in Wisconsin, but I like to think that Niedecker had made this note-poem when coming across the Barron County lake she may, or may not, have visited in her travels and included in her Superior Notebook:
I’m sorry to have missed Sand Lake My dear one tells me we did not We watched a gopher there
I said I wasn’t going to write a postmortem for Mere Anarchy. Well, I kind of lied. This is the actual postmortem. As you might expect, it contains spoilers for the game; so if you haven’t played it yet, I suggest you do before reading.
Mere Anarchy was started almost as a companion piece / dyptich with Terminator Chaser. Terminator Chaser is a science fiction piece about realising that society has screwed you, and getting to the point of taking action that might be violent, reprehensible, ill-advised, and so on. Mere Anarchy was conceived as a fantasy piece that starts at that point and deals with the fallout of that decision. That was the original kernel of an idea I started from.
As I wrote on a previous post, it was very clear that I wanted to write a hypertext game. Parser games have very severe QA requirements that I was never going to be able to fit into the time I had to write Mere Anarchy, which is to say just over a month. That same post also detailed the process of settling on Undum as a development system.
Before I got to writing the game proper, I spent the better part of a week trying various permutations of the Pulpit’s shop scene in Twine and Undum, and then writing tools. Development on proto-Raconteur took place during that period, as I figured out what I would need to comfortably write all the content and logic in Mere Anarchy and implemented a library that supplied that functionality in a modular way.
When, at last, I was a good week into writing Mere Anarchy, I came to a realisation about hypertext games: They require writing a lot more content than a parser game. Mere Anarchy is quite short – it clocks in at perhaps 15 minutes of gameplay for a single playthrough, depending on how fast you read. The total word count for the game’s text content is nearly 12,000 words. That’s about half the size of a novella, but a single playthrough is only about 6,000 to 8,000 words long, leaving more than a third of the game’s content in unvisited branches. And Mere Anarchy doesn’t have a huge amount of branching or a lot of missable content.
Mere Anarchy doesn’t have any event loops or content repetition of any kind, meaning that I get the barest minimum in gameplay mileage for each word of content I write. If I write a complex response for an action in a parser game, that might represent several minutes of meaningful user interaction, as they try different things and explore the possibility space. If I write an event loop passage in a Twine game, that passage’s text might be seen by players dozens of times – writing text that doesn’t overstay its welcome in that situation is its own particular skill, but it’s true that a game like With Those we Love Alive lasts a lot longer in gameplay because it’s repeating itself to create a sense of time and routine.
Mere Anarchy does none of that; it’s a propulsive story, every click moving the player irrevocably onward. Every phrase that I write is going to be seen once in a given playthrough. The advantage of that is that I don’t have to worry about paring things down for the sake of not becoming overbearing. Heightened prose is a lot less appreciated when you have to wade through the same paragraph of it fifteen times in one play session.
Mere Anarchy has a reasonable amount of what I call variegation, ie moments in the story where text weaves together variations produced by different bits of state, without branching. That, of course, means writing a great deal of text that only shows up in a fraction of all playthroughs.
I do think the overall effect is very worthwhile – one thing I thought was really important to helping players connect with the magic in the game is that the overall look and feel of the major magical ritual in the story is a player-driven choice. Suggesting to the player that they are living in a magical setting of their own devising enhances their sense of choice and agency in a story where they don’t otherwise have a lot of control over outcomes.
It’s a technique that doesn’t seem to get a lot of use; the dominant mode, reinforced by Twine’s model, is that variation happens in branching. One advantage of the Undum setup I was using (and now Raconteur) is that building those complex variations is fairly simple. The big selling points of this system for me is that the logic and the text can be kept close together and easily changed together if something changes.
As I mentioned in my previous post, the first scene written for Mere Anarchy was the moment early on in Pulpit’s shop where the player character’s eye is wandering through the things on the shelves. That scene was a sort of early statement of intent for the game: Its tone, the kind of prose I wanted to build into it, and the exploratory link gameplay I wanted to play around with.
I’m not sure I quite lived up to the promise of that scene in the entire game – you may note that the density of those links goes down over the course of the game. Mere Anarchy was always planned as a Spring Thing piece, and as such it was scoped conservatively, with a fairly short deadline. The need to sit down and write some of my own tools, as well as my own underestimation of how long it would take to produce all the content, led to some late paring down of the game’s content. Branches were pruned; in the original design, the underground sequence had a whole alternate branch where the player would opt to walk instead. There was one other possible target besides the office building and the mansion; it was cut for being too similar to the mansion in structure while also being too horrific. I wasn’t able to allocate as much time as I would have liked to filling out the details, which mostly meant inserting exploratory links.
Mostly, this manifested in the relative clunkiness of the exposition – I didn’t have time to build a more slow and deliberate unveiling of the plot. The ending, too, was somewhat abbreviated to be more ambivalent and ambiguous than was originally planned. This is not to say that I think I shipped an unfinished game – Mere Anarchy is what it is, and I view it as a complete work.
Choosing what to do when you find yourself overshooting your deadline is never easy. In this instance I chose to cut scope and plan to finish the game on time, rather than pushing it back. Spring Thing had a lot to do with that decision – I had submitted an intent to enter, and I didn’t want to go back on that. I also had a strong desire to ship based simply on the fact that nearly six months would go before the end of the Spring Thing deadline and the opening of another major comp.
Ultimately, I think I made the right decision for the project – Mere Anarchy was planned as a short piece that would come out not too long after Terminator Chaser and contrasted against it, not as a longer piece meant to hit the 100-minute length mark typical of a comp game. Saving Mere Anarchy for the IFComp would have meant extensive retooling, risking losing what I thought was special about the game I had at that point.
Hypertext games are harder than you think: I had just finished a mid-level parser game project, so how hard could it be? Turns out, achieving what I wanted involved writing my own toolchain, from the Raconteur framework to a build system. Then I had to produce vastly more text than Terminator Chaser had. I’ve certainly revised down my estimations of how much hypertext gameplay I can produce in a given time period.
You can’t predict what will strike a nerve: The written feedback I got for Mere Anarchy – Four reviews that I’ve seen – has been overall positive, with praise for the game’s writing being brought up by all of them. Aaron hasn’t made the ribbon nomination numbers for Spring Thing public, so I don’t have a lot of data on the general reception of the game; from what I can tell, it was liked, but Toby’s Nose was better liked overall.
Importantly I was surprised to find how positive the reception of the choice in the game was; one of my apprehensions on release was that players would feel like the game’s story was too “on rails” to meet people’s standards of “interaction” in interactive fiction. I was wrong: From what I saw, players enjoyed the more textural type of choice, and there was real engagement with the story and character.
One important thing about actually shipping those games when you say you’re going to: You get the feedback, and you get to see how people react to what you put out there, and it gives you avenues of exploration you wouldn’t have gotten out of holding them back for a later release date.
Exposition is hard, dialogue is hard: And I’m still working on finding better ways of delivering plot to players in interactive stories. If you have thoughts on IF pieces that do this kind of track-laying well, I would love to hear about them.
ChoiceScript doesn’t have integrated version control. If I select three paragraphs of source code, cut them to move somewhere else, and then lose them out of the clipboard by cutting something else, then the only way to fix my mistake is with “undo”. And it only works if I figure it out fast enough.
If I figure out what I did two days later, when a whole room is missing from my game… well, that’s a particularly painful experience. And accidental deletions don’t feel any better in Inform 7, Twine, OpenOffice, or any other system I use.
Mercurial is a free, full-fledged source control management system that can hold its own with the likes of GitHub and Perforce. The way I use Mercurial just scratches the surface of its potential.
For team development, I recommend GitHub instead, as it’s a more widely-adopted solution and integrates into Unity. Generally speaking, Git – which drives GitHub – is the more powerful, more complicated cousin of Mercurial. But for solo development, Mercurial is all I need.
Alone, Mercurial ships with a command-line interface. I personally find this obnoxious. TortoiseHg is the Windows shell extension that makes Mercurial unobnoxious. It includes Mercurial, kdiff3 (a lifesaver!) and some other handy stuff.
TortoiseHg is available for Linux and Macintosh as well as Windows, but I’m working on Windows, so all my screenshots are Windows-based.
The instructions below may appear intimidating, but in practice, I just do an “extra save” on my files any time I stop for lunch, reach the end of the day, or finish a feature. It takes about three mouse clicks plus a description of what I did in my work session.
On Windows, it’s pretty much like installing anything else. The official docs have some notes about how to upgrade from legacy versions.
This takes a few steps.
Right click on the folder where you want version control. (For this walkthrough, I right-clicked my Twine folder.) You’ll see something like this:
Click on Tortoise HG and then pick “create repository here”.
It will ask you to verify the destination path and HG command. They should match the folder for the directory you picked. No need to change them.
Click on Create.
You will now see a giant green checkmark beside your folder name. This means that every file in the folder is part of the repository now.
What the question mark means is “Hey, this file isn’t in the repository!” Check the boxes for every file you care about. Then write something helpful in the top box. This is your commit message.
Generally speaking, a commit message should be a short (50 character) summary of the work that you’ve done between the last time you committed and this time. Try not to follow xkcd’s example.
Click Commit. It will say “Add selected untracked files?” Click Add.
TortoiseHg will flash up all the files in green text and then clear them. That’s a good thing! This means all your files are now being tracked.
How do you know? More giant green checkmarks!
Every tracked folder and file inside your tracked folder will now have a giant green checkmark next to it.
Right-click on the main folder again, and click HG Commit again. This is not as annoying as it sounds, because:
For example, you can see that I’ve added a file called example.txt. I’m checking it off to add it to the repository.
I went in and made some changes to the file. Now, instead of a green checkmark, it has a red exclamation point to warn me that I haven’t committed my changes.
That red exclamation point will show up on the main folder, too. But when I go to commit my project, the box is already checked for me, and all I have to do is add my message and hit Commit.
The main folder’s exclamation point may linger for a moment – you can refresh the window to make it go away. If it doesn’t go away, check again to make sure you checked in all the altered files.
Every time you commit, TortoiseHg will offer you the chance to add uncommitted files into your repository.
But what if you don’t want to add all those files? For example, I don’t need to track changes on the ChoiceScript examples in the screenshot below.
Right-click on the file name and choose Ignore. This will open up a menu where you can add files to the Ignore filter.
If you add a file to the Ignore filter, then TortoiseHg will stop asking if the file should be in the repository.
Right click on the specific file and choose Revision History. This will show you all the times that you changed this file and committed the changes.
Choose Revert to Revision on the revision you want.
You’ll get a popup with bad grammar that asks if you want to revert all the files, or just 1 file. Hit OK to revert only 1 file.
I use this system for spot recovery in the face of disaster – it’s good for “go back to where I was at the top of the day” or “go back to where I was at lunch.”
To cancel all the changes that you’ve made since your last commit: right-click on the folder, pick Tortoise HG, and then pick Revert Files. This will undo all your changes in the folder, not just one specific file.
Do not “remove files”. This will delete everything and you will be sad.
All the information about your repository is stored in the .hg folder inside the tracked directory.
If you delete the .hg folder, then all the files will be untracked again, and all the checkmarks and exclamation points will disappear. (You may need to refresh the window to see this happen.)
If you need to change computers in a hurry, copy the .hg folder onto a flash drive, and then copy the .hg folder into a new folder on the second computer. If you then right-click, choose Revert, and select all the files, then all your tracked files will appear on the second computer, along with the history of all your changes.
(Note that this will only work if you have TortoiseHg installed on the second computer. Without that, the .hg folder is useless.)
The files are red here because TortoiseHG thinks I have deleted them from the place where they always were. It’s wrong, but there’s no need to tell it that.
If anything here is confusing, please complain at me in the comments! However, your best bet is to check the official TortoiseHg documentation, which is clear, helpful, and provides far more detail than this post does.
This is Part 2 of a post-mortem series about my multiplayer Seltani game Aspel. Part 1 talked about things I omitted entirely from the design, and some things that I put in that didn’t work quite right. Part 2 talks about things that did work, and things that started out not working but that I think I improved over the iterations between tours.
These discussions are sort of implicitly a bit spoilery. You can decide how much that bothers you.
Things that did work (I think?):
1. Puzzles with informal “stations” of operation. Think of the bridge of the Enterprise: in theory anyone could man any of the stations, but in practice it would just be easier if certain people helmed certain controls. The first scene and puzzle includes this feature, and it was common for groups to appoint one person to handle the navigation cords, another to mess with the colors, and so on. This seemed to work fine for parties of up to 6 or 7; more than that and it got chaotic, but >7 is definitely outside the design parameters for the realm.
2. Debriefing room. Storygames often need a debriefing period; I felt like Aspel should have one too, a space after the major action was over where the participants could hang out, with a few minor actions available, and discuss what had just happened. I think this was straightforwardly a good idea and successful.
3. Modeling that added effects as player properties. Seltani doesn’t make inventory easy, but it does allow you to attach properties to particular players. This is how I modeled character memories and expertise. I had to rig something up to reset those properties if a new player entered the world (so if you play multiple times you’re not stuck with whatever choice you made the first time), but this seemed to work all right.
Things I modified during running:
1. random success/failure in a few cases to spin out an exchange.
Initially I had things set up so that if you tried fishing with the rod, you had a 50% chance of landing a fish. My thinking was that a team didn’t need all that many fish, so adding the randomness would make it so that (on average) multiple people would wind up getting to fish before the need for fish was satisfied.
In practice, this was stupid and exasperating. On one occasion players had such bad luck that they began to think that an area wasn’t fishable when it was. Even when things were behaving a bit more normally, in practice most of the players wanted to try the fish, and there was baiting the wicker cage to take care of as well, so fishing just slowed things down without meaningfully extending anyone’s experience of involvement. After the first tours I deactivated this and made fishing work 100% of the time.
2. inconsistency about indicating which links were going to lead to actions and which were essentially examining actions. This is an issue with Twine as well: some hyperlinks do something, some just give information, and it’s not immediately obvious which is which. I reasoned initially that with Seltani it didn’t really matter as long as big actions (such as traveling from room to room) were clearly signaled as such; and there didn’t seem to be a prevailing convention about this so far as I could see.
But in practice that was a bad idea. In the first room description in its initial edit there were interspersed actions that brought up a description and other actions that took effect immediately in some way. People had no way of knowing which was which, and this affected the communal experience because the world-model-changing actions could interfere with what others were doing or print output that made the chat stream noisy for everyone. It wasn’t possible for some participants in a large group to explore “quietly” while others explored more loudly.
3. decisions with asymmetrical information. This was one of my big ideas for this game: your team has multiple people with different specialties, and people with different specialties see different things. Specialties can be chosen at a bunch of different points during the story, so you get voluntary rather than mandatory player role assignment — something Seltani can handle.
People who’ve seen different things can then discuss what they’ve seen and how they interpret it before making final decisions.
For the first two teams, this didn’t work as well as I might have hoped, though it was not totally ineffective. In team one, there were just too many people, which meant too much happening. With so many events going on constantly, the room text was scrolling really fast. Seltani offers little scrollback, and people lost information they might have wanted to tell one another. Also, because it wasn’t always obvious what people’s motives were supposed to be, it was hard, sometimes, for people to know what they should be sharing and what they might want to keep to themselves.
Likewise, sometimes it wasn’t obvious to people when there was only one of an information-giving resource, and sometimes a single resource would be consumed when not everyone was there to see it. I’d sort of assumed that players would move in packs to explore the space, but this turned out to be false. This did lead to some entertaining moments, as when, in the first playthrough, Hernshaw tried to get everyone’s attention to explain that he’d eaten a piece of dead king, and no one was really listening…
Hernshaw says, “Everyone, perhaps it was ill-advised, but I ate a ruler.”
(no one really reacts, until the group gets onto the subject of the courtyard cannons)
Hernshaw says, “The former I (the king I ate) made them non-lethal on purpose.”
Lalswing asks, “You ate a king?”
Laura asks, “You ate the king?”
Hernshaw says, “Sorry to hog all the king, everyone.”
…but this was nonetheless plainly not ideal.
The first modification I made was to go through and italicize all descriptions that were specialist information. My goal here was to help people understand more clearly how their role choices were affecting play.
The second was to add a memory feature so that certain important pieces of information could be electively reviewed by the players who had first seen them.
As far as I can tell, those were helpful improvements.
4. Withheld information about how players accomplished something. In the first room, there was originally a piece of machinery which, when used, would report to onlookers, “$name does something you can’t quite see, and (thing results).” I did this because I liked the idea of variable expertise, of some players knowing the machines better than others. In practice, this was just confusing. It telegraphed to onlookers “something happened that you don’t understand,” but they had no way of finding out what it was other than asking the player who’d just taken action; which, with a smallish or slow-acting group, is more or less fine, but it is a lot more problematic with a large group in which people’s queries to one another could get lost in the noise.
It was just needlessly coy, so I changed it.
5. Lots of scenery in the final, dialogue-driven encounter with an NPC. In the original design, I tried to make it clear through the writing that the NPC could not hear (or would choose not to hear) what players said to one another; also that conversation with the NPC would result in a major decision. I envisaged that the players would all take their time looking around and discuss what they noticed about the character.
In practice, what happened was that some players started talking to the NPC while others were still laboriously working through all the scenery material, with the result that there was too much input for slower readers to be able to follow the scene at all. People with a deep-exploration approach rather than an action-first approach (relative to their co-players) were pretty much shafted by this scene design.
To somewhat streamline this, I took out a lot of the scenery so that there was way less to get hung up on. That extra imagery was interesting but it wasn’t as important as the conversation, so having it there just got in the way.
6. Fixed-length timer in the final, dialogue-driven encounter with an NPC. I originally set things up so that the NPC would make a decision after four pieces of information had been submitted. That was what had felt about right when I was playing through solo. The problem is, the more people you have, the fewer get a chance to say anything in this scenario.
To address this, I made the NPC’s readiness to make a decision depend on the total number of players in the realm. This is meant to give players in the room a chance to have a say; it’s also meant to make it less likely for one player to be able to get to the NPC’s chambers before everyone else and speed through the conversation while a large number of fellow-players remain behind.
7. Relying on players to inform each other when something interesting happened. In the first tour session, this didn’t happen very effectively at all. In the second, I told people in advance that there was a /yell command allowing them to communicate across rooms — which would have been more helpful if I’d remembered it was actually /shout — but we got this sorted out and people did shout about their discoveries some of the time. Nonetheless, even in the second session there was a fair amount of confusion from players who happened not to be around when a key discovery occurred.
For the last tour, I added a collective journal in which key events would be recorded as they happened. Output looks a bit like this:
Full team linked in from base camp; arrived with balloon platform intact. Aolius steered the platform to approach remains of a castle courtyard in the northeast corner of the survey area, but was knocked back by air cannon. Aolius navigated the balloon platform over the courtyard. Belford consumed a quantity of leather and revisited the life of a cow.
This seems to have made things quite a bit less confusing, though the third tour also did relatively little conversation among themselves. Did having the journal make it too easy to forego discussion? I’m not sure. Which leads us to…
Things affecting the multiplayer experience that the author cannot control:
Different tours played very differently because the players treated them differently. Sometimes the group stuck together, sometimes they split up. Sometimes they role-played and sometimes they talked exclusively out-of-character. Sometimes they shouted to one another to share information across the realm, and sometimes they didn’t. I think these choices strongly affected the experiences of the players.
There’s only so much an author can do about this, but I could have done more to set up expectations… if I’d had a clearer idea myself about the “ideal” way to experience something like this. It’s an area where I think solutions are still emerging.
I’m very grateful to those who played during tours, since it’s otherwise a lot harder to learn how the dynamics are working.
Mainland had been approved on Steam Greenlight (I think due to longevity — it had been on there a while) and has just appeared on the service.
Note that the “parser” is somewhat hybridized. You type a verb you want to use and the initial letters you type are used to generate suggestions that you can click (essentially like texting).
However, to finalize picking a verb you have to click, you can’t just type. The space bar does nothing.
After clicking a noun, there’s an option to continue using “with” or to simply enter the command.
Despite the oddities, this is good news for followers of commercial interactive fiction. Steam opens a vast new audience for text adventures. The game is free-to-play and should gather curious people that might normally not buy it.
At the time of this writing there’s a weird bug that makes the game hard to install. If you have the Steam service installed, clicking here should do the trick. (NOTE: The game is Windows-only.)
Shan Gui is a sweet kinetic novel about the adventures of a young Chinese woman and a mysterious girl she meets on a mountain trail.
Shan Gui begins with the main character, Han Hui, lamenting the heat of the mountain and her lack of water. She’s come to the mountain to recall memories of happier times, when her family used to travel there for vacation. Sadly she is lost, tired, and low on supplies. Worn out, Han Hui settles in at a small gazebo and gives her body and eyes a much-needed rest. She is then awoken by He Jia, a sweet girl who makes it her mission to help Han Hui regain those precious memories as she leads them around the mountain.
The art style here was amazing. I honestly felt like I was looking at a photograph in some moments and had to really look at the background images to confirm that they were painted. The two girls also had a very distinct style, slightly more pointy than what you’d typically associate with an anime-style character. The colors were extremely vibrant and saturated, which only strengthened the overall look of Shan Gui.
The music was all right; very peaceful, but not particularly memorable. But considering that this is a game about a woman travelling through nature in search of lost time, I think that a lack of music helped this game in most areas and allowed the readers to focus on the story and the peace that comes with trekking through nature. Also, I’m apparently alone in this sentiment since others simply gush about the music and their OST is available to purchase by itself.
The story was also well crafted. Shan Gui isn’t the best VN I’ve ever read, but this story isn’t trying to be the best VN ever written. It’s just the tale of two girls helping each other out, bonding over Han Hui’s past and her efforts to move forward. Han Hui starts out seeming like a cynical, whiny girl, but soon develops into a sweet woman who’s going through a difficult time and trying to work out her feelings on the issue. He Jia is there to help, but it’s up to Han Hui to actually deal with her issues and confront those feelings, good and bad.
The complaints I had for this VN were mostly very minor. First, the writing. I loved the story, but you can clearly tell that the dialogue was translated by a non-native English speaker. It’s readable with almost no grammar mistakes, but the language is so flowery that it reads like a Charles Dickens book more than a visual novel. I guess it’s supposed to emphasize how educated Han Hui is (since her educational background is an important plot point), but it really just came off as awkward.
I also had an issue with the way the girls were sometimes drawn. Han Hui has giant, gravity-defying boobs for no apparent reason, which I felt detracted from the overall “natural” aesthetic of the game. He Jia’s images had no problems until towards the end of the story, when she stripped down to her underwear to play in the water and had cameltoe. Cameltoe. On a girl that’s supposed to look like a middle school student. (SPOILERS: granted, I suppose they can get away with this because He Jia is actually an immortal ageless fox goddess, but still). Overall though, I liked their looks though.
My biggest grievance, and there’s no way to sugarcoat it, is the game’s handling of references to certain Chinese attractions or heritage sites. They realize that the reader might be unfamiliar with some places or attractions (like the Purple Mountain) so they change the color of the text and let you click on it for more information. However, rather than trying to compile information about these places in the game itself, the text actually serves as a hyperlink to Wikipedia, booting you out of the game to do so. The reader therefore has to choose between breaking the immersion every time they run across an unfamiliar term, or just wait to research them after they finish the game. Other games get around this issue by having an information section in their main menu, and I very much wish Shan Gui had done the same.
Shan Gui is a rather short visual novel, clocking in at an hour for me on the first playthrough and much shorter on subsequent reads. It’s available on Steam for $5 but regularly goes on sale for 50% off. If you’re curious about visual novels and want to see if a kinetic, rather than playable story, works for you, this is a great starter VN. Go check it out.
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I’ve already created several Inform 7 extensions as the foundation of quixe-channels, including the core (which was previously FyreVM Support), story info (contains all of the “version” or “banner” information), banner (which constructs a standard banner from story info), and scoring, which pushes scoring notifications to a specific channel. More of these extensions will be created, some of which will simply identify contextual output for authors, and others that will provide web components for standard themes.
I will be creating pages for common topic definitions so anyone that’s interested in my work can easily get up to speed and stay informed.
This is the same version that's been available all along. (No, I have not done a bug-fix release. I know, it's getting to be time...)
The Humble Store is fixed-price, not pay-what-you-want. The win is that 10% of proceeds go to charity.
(Have you voted for Hadean Lands on Steam Greenlight?)
Thanks to some contributors we’ve been able to keep development of Trizbort moving along. So I’m happy to release another minor update to Trizbort. This update (184.108.40.206), focused on a few new features and the beginning work on a somewhat neglected section of the application, the auto-mapper. Special thanks goes out to Matt Watkins for his many updates and continued support, especially in the auto-mapper updates.
Also I can’t forget about Andrew Schultz who has tirelessly updated the documentation as new features and changes come out. All while building some sample maps that are now in the repository and beginning to create a test suite for us to validate future updates against.
Here are the updates to the this new version of Trizbort:
Also after purchasing the domain and some talks with Genstein, I’ve setup a quick initial draft of a new Trizbort website, www.trizbort.com. Currently just a quick update on new versions as they come out and links to the documentation, I’ve got some ideas for future updates to the website. I just need to see how far I want to take it.
For now, I will continue to post here on new updates as well as as http://www.trizbort.com (and various forums and social media)
Please let me know if you find any issues or have suggestions.