Planet Interactive Fiction

December 21, 2014

Gamefic

First Prototype of the Gamefic IDE

December 21, 2014 03:01 AM

The Eclipse plugin for Gamefic is finally a functional proof of concept. Basic features like creating projects and editing files work. Syntax highlighting is partially implemented. Embedded JRuby libraries allow for realtime code analysis and debugging on the fly. Read More

Emily Short

Hatoful Boyfriend

by Emily Short at December 21, 2014 12:00 AM

Screen Shot 2014-12-20 at 10.32.14 PM

Hatoful Boyfriend is a visual novel of the dating sim genre(ish), in which all of the possible romantic leads are birds. You are a female human attending an otherwise all-bird school, and you have your choice of pigeons, quails, and doves, each possessing a characteristic personality. What initially seems like a whimsical premise gradually develops a bit more depth; there’s even a website devoted to the writings of a prominent in-world pigeon blogger.

Quite a lot has already been written about Hatoful Boyfriend, often by people more familiar than I am with visual novel conventions — though the visual novel community, like the gamebook community, often seems so relevant to interactive fiction that it’s a little mystifying that there isn’t more communication. As with many other dating sims, the game is designed to be replayed to unlock new content: you begin by romancing different suitors and finding out their secrets, which then allows you to access a different ending to the story. In contrast with a lot of “ultimate ending” finales, though, the unlockable content in Hatoful Boyfriend is both much longer than the per-suitor stories, and of a different genre: a horrific mystery, rather than a romance, and one that does a lot to explain how a world of sentient pigeons has come about.

I couldn’t help thinking as I played about some of the arguments in Creatures Such as We, especially the idea that it’s hard to explore consent in a game in which all NPCs are prizes for the protagonist. With Hatoful Boyfriend, I felt that I was experiencing the opposite effect of this: the game expects you to play many times, and each time you must mold the protagonist in order to suit the tastes of the bird she’s pursuing. There are only a few characteristics of hers that remain absolute, such as her vitality and love of running (and that proves to have an important plot relevance, eventually). Otherwise, a lot of the potentially freighted moral choices dissolve with repetition and the fact that she has to take different sides of each issue depending on whom she wants to impress. The cumulative effect, at least for me, was that the protagonist came to seem less and less important, even as my playerly understanding of the other characters increased.

But then — well, let’s give this a spoiler jump first.

It takes at least four or five playthroughs to unlock enough to get at the mystery storyline, codenamed Bad Boys Love. This version of the game runs through the same initial choices and experiences as before, but then abruptly partway through the year the protagonist is brutally murdered, and the player takes on the viewpoint of other characters in order to investigate her death. Doing so elicits a lot of further information about the world, the past relations of the characters, and everyone’s motives: the mystery arc is much, much longer than any of the dating sim bits (though also, as far as I could tell, impossible to lose). And it felt fine to me to erase the protagonist because, as mentioned, her personality had already been so thoroughly whited out.

Visual novels often felt a bit slow and a bit overlinear to me: plot development happens almost entirely through dialogue, which is presented one gradually-printed sentence at a time, and though you can click to speed that up, it’s inevitably a slower process than clicking through almost any Twine story. (Clearly this is a thing that visual novel aficionados are used to and barely even notice, the same way that parser players are used to dealing with error messages, so I’m trying to get to the point where I don’t react badly to this.) Meanwhile, for reasons of genre convention, characters often talk in hints and ellipses, sometimes having an entire conversation play out in which one character hints at having an important secret but not revealing anything about it. In consequence, I sometimes find VN stories a bit watery: not enough salient information happening quickly enough, too little progression.

Hatoful Boyfriend does not exactly avoid these issues, but it gains energy from the fact that almost all of the characters have important relationships with one another, as well as with the protagonist; and those relationships are complicated and keep revealing more subtlety. This is a story about a community of people, in other words. A few runs through the dating sim lets us meet all the characters and learn something about what they want from the world and who they are individually, but then the mystery story allows us to explore how they change when confronted with extreme stress and the destruction of a lot of things they thought they knew about themselves. The mystery also includes some viewpoint swapping, as well — and viewpoint swapping that isn’t signposted very strongly in the UI. It works precisely because, by the time it happens, we know all the characters well enough to understand whose head we’re in.

Now that I’ve played that longer arc, the first few dating stories feel like alternate universe fanfic, or daydreams on the part of the characters: (mostly) happy might-have-beens that were revealing about what people wanted, but which did not pan out in reality. It’s a curious reversal of the usual play-multiple-times-to-win structure in which the player first experiences a bunch of failures and then gets to the “good” story with enough effort.

I don’t want to oversell this: the mystery is really very linear, and is solved by the characters rather than by the player. Most of the player choices exist mostly to determine which of two mandatory segments you’re going to read first. The tone shifts from goofy to gross with very little warning. Despite the world-building, there are a lot of issues that still don’t make a lot of sense (not least why sentient birds keep using machinery and buildings designed for humans even when the humans are largely out of the picture).

Nonetheless, as a piece of CYOA structural design, it’s pretty interesting, and it’s also a standout for handling a big set of characters who all have different attitudes to one another.

(Disclaimer: I received a copy of Hatoful Boyfriend as part of the judging process for Wordplay 2014, the Toronto-based festival for text games.)


December 20, 2014

Post Position

NaNoGenMo 2014: A Look Back & Back

by Nick Montfort at December 20, 2014 04:26 AM

There were so many excellent novel generators, and generated novels, last month for NaNaGenMo (National Novel Generation Month).

I thought a lot of them related to and carried on the work of wonderful existing literary projects — usually in the form of existing books. And this is in no way a backhanded complement. My own NaNoGenMo entry was the most rooted in an existing novel; I simply computationally re-implemented Samuel Beckett’s novel Watt (or at least the parts of it that were most illegible and computational), in my novel generator Megawatt (its PDF output is also available). For good measure, Megawatt is completely deterministic; although someone might choose to modify it and generate different things, as it stands it generates exactly one novel. So, for me to say that I was reminded of a great book when I saw a particular generator is pure praise.

Early in month, Liza Daly’s Seraphs set a high standard and must have discouraged many offhand generators! Liza’s generator seeks images and randomizes text to produce a lengthy book that is like the Voynich Manuscript, and certainly also like the Codex Seraphinianus.

Allison Parrish’s I Waded in Clear Water is a novel based on dream interpretations. Of course, it reminds me of 10,000 Dreams Interpreted (and I am pleased, thanks to my students from long ago, to have the leading site on the Web for that famous book) but it also reminds me of footnote-heavy novels such as Infinite Jest. Let me note that a Twine game has already been written based on this work: Fowl are Foul, by Jacqueline Lott.

I found Zarkonnen’s Moebius Tentacle; Or the Space-Octopus oddly compelling. It was created by simple substitution of strings from Moby-Dick (one novel it clearly reminded me of), freeing the story to be about the pursuit of an octopus by space amazons. It wasn’t as polished as I would have liked (just a text file for output), and didn’t render text flawlessly, but still, the result was amazing. Consider how the near-final text presents the (transformed) Tashtego in his final tumult:

A sky-hawk that tauntingly had followed the main-truck downwards from its unnatural home among the stars, pecking at the flag, and incommoding Lazerbot-9 there; this spacebat now chanced to intercept its broad fluttering wing between the hammer and the plasteel; and simultaneously feeling that etherial thrill, the submerged robot beneath, in her death-gasp, kept her hammer frozen there; and so the spacebat of heaven, with archangelic shrieks, and her imperial beak thrust upwards, and her whole captive form folded in the flag of Vixena, went away with her spaceship, which, like Satan, would not sink to transwarp till she had dragged a living part of heaven along with her, and helmeted herself with it.

Sean Barrett wrote two beautiful generators (at least) – the first of which was How Hannah Solved The Twelve-Disk Tower of Hanoi. Deliberate, progressing, intelligent, and keeping the reader on the edge of her seat – this one is great. But, that generator (drafted by November 9) wasn’t enough, and Barrett also contributed (only a day late) The Basketball Game, an opera generator that provides a score (with lyrics) and MIDI files. It’s as if “I got Philip Glass!” indicates that one is rebounding.

Eric Stayton’s I Sing Of takes the beginning of the Aeneid as grist, moving through alternate invocations using WordNet. I like the way different epics are invoked by the slight changes, and was reminded of Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler.

Sam Coppini’s D’ksuban Dictionary, although also just a text file, is a simple but effective generator of a fictional language’s dictionary. Less like the Devil’s Dictionary, more like the (apparently unpublished) lexicon of Earth: Final Conflict. I’m sure literary works in D’ksuban will be forthcoming soon.

Ben Kybartas’s Something, Somewhere is wonderfully spare and evocative – more Madsen than Hemingway.

Finally, Thricedotted’s The Seeker is an extraordinary concrete novel in the tradition of Raymond Federman’s Double or Nothing. The text, based on wikiHow, is good and serves well to define a protagonist who always wishes to do right, but the typographical framework is really excellent.

These are just a few comments before NaNoGenMo goes as stale as a late-December pumpkin. I hope you enjoy tis work and other work that was done last month, and that you keep an eye peeled for further novel generators – next November and throughout the year.

Emily Short

Device 6, The Sailor’s Dream, The Sensational December Machine (Simogo)

by Emily Short at December 20, 2014 01:00 AM

device_6_screen02Last year, Simogo produced Device 6, a game I found myself stubbornly disliking despite its massive app store popularity and the number of people hailing it as the next big thing in interactive fiction. Unquestionably a beautiful piece of typographical design with a 60s style evocative of the Prisoner, Device 6 disappointed me both as story and as puzzle collection.

As a story, it told about a largely unknown character in a surreal and unexplained environment: long on mystery, low on meaning. I tend to think of this as “Lost Syndrome”: writing that offers the player or reader a lot of suggestive and intriguing hints but does not demonstrably have any plan to resolve them all. In the end, it turns out that the entire business has been — oh, I won’t spoil it, since the evidence suggests that most people enjoy this piece more than I did. But let’s just say that the ending falls into a standard category that annoys the heck out of me.

As for the puzzles, they were not that well integrated into the story and varied widely in style and difficulty. More often than I liked, they turned on whether or not you had noticed some particular image or some particular correspondence between images: in my puzzle taxonomy, they’re basically all puzzles of surprise, typically without a lot of extra hinting available. If you got stuck, that meant a lot of time wandering around looking at things trying to have the perception shift that would reveal what you’d missed. Meanwhile, for a game requiring a lot of exploration, Device 6 didn’t make the process comfortable: you had to swipe back and forth (and back and forth, and back and forth) along long passages of shaped text. Over time the initially pleasing architectural nature of that text became a burden. By the time I got to the end I was thoroughly grumpy.

Now along comes The Sailor’s Dream.

thesailorsdream_screen_071 The art, again, is really lovely, though completely different in style from Device 6: small intricately pictured buildings on islands, lapping waves, everything seen through a soft sea mist. It’s a romanticized ahistorical ocean, the dream of a simple and beautiful fishing life, which reminded me of nothing so much as the fictional cookbook The Feasts of Tre-mang. Inside the buildings are objects with attached stories: a smoking pipe, a star chart. There are some dreamy Myst-like machines that make sounds or produce minor animations. The result is something between explorable space and toy.

The story itself is yours to assemble from the recordings and object-related texts, which fits thematically: memories are flotsam, and we sail without knowing exactly what we will encounter. Parts of the tale are open to some interpretation, but the results were nonetheless (in my view) both more coherent and more emotionally rich than the story of Device 6.

There’s still some scrolling and swiping to do in order to get from one explorable area to the next — indeed, the prevalence of swiping and the parallax when you do so is arguably the most distinctive trait shared by The Sailor’s Dream and Device 6. But The Sailor’s Dream provides fewer reasons to need to revisit the same spaces over again, and offers a more branching structure, so that the burden of navigation is much reduced.

There’s also very little pressure about this piece. The Sailor’s Dream forces you to take your time in order to explore fully: each day of the week you will find a new bottle bobbing on the waves of your little ocean, which can be opened to release a song; in a tower there is a sort of radio system that broadcasts only on the hour. There’s no urgency about this, and if you miss a chance to see the content on one hour or one day, you can come back later. (Or you could monkey with your system clock, but I feel like that’s kind of obtusely missing the point.) I’m generally a bit skeptical of games that want you to come back at particular real-time intervals, but in this case it’s not that you’re going to miss out on a spectacular carrot crop if you wait too long. Rather, the pacing device encourages you to take things easy, to visit and revisit the Dream, to treat it as a vacation spot. Although there are certainly dark things in the story, the experience overall suggests a gentle remembered happiness, rocked by the sound of waves.

*

Screen Shot 2014-12-18 at 4.08.20 PM

The Sensational December Machine is a tiny holiday piece from Simogo, a minimally interactive words-and-images experience that takes just a few minutes to traverse. It tells the story of a woman who wants to make a machine that can touch people’s hearts, a fairly unsubtle parable about creating interactive art and interactive fiction in a world dominated by games and functional apps. In that vein, it felt a little odd to me — it’s not as though Simogo’s own interactive art/fiction goes unappreciated, I’d say — but I’m sure they nonetheless get enough “what’s it FOR?” feedback to feel like they wanted to respond somehow anyway.

Unlike the other two, “The Sensational December Machine” is a) able to run on a PC and b) free — so if you’re curious about Simogo’s work but not set up to run things on an iPad, this is a possible way in. Though the experience is short, the atmosphere is highly characteristic.


December 19, 2014

Choice of Games

Choice of Robots: Your robots will change the world, but at what cost?

by Dan Fabulich at December 19, 2014 06:01 PM

We’re proud to announce that Choice of Robots, the latest in our popular “Choice of Games” line of multiple-choice interactive-fiction games, is now available for Steam, iOS, Android, and Kindle Fire. It’s 40% off until January 2. The robots you design will change the world! Will you show them the true meaning of love, or conquer Alaska with your robot army? “Choice of Robots” is an epic 300,000-word interactive sci-fi novel by Kevin Gold, where your choices control the story. It’s entirely text-based–without graphics or sound effects–and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination. Play out thirty years

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December 17, 2014

Emily Short

Necklace of Skulls, The Sinister Fairground (Cubus Games)

by Emily Short at December 17, 2014 05:00 PM

cubusCubus Games is a maker of gamebook apps, and they have released a version of Necklace of Skulls by Dave Morris as well as a game called The Sinister Fairground.

In both cases, I felt that the UI was a bit clumsy and a bit unpolished, compared with the sleekness of 80 Days and inkle’s other work, or the splashy dynamism of Tin Man Games’ Appointment with FEAR. When you encounter new objects in the text — things that you might write down as keywords in a paper gamebook — you have to tick off a checkbox to acknowledge them as part of your inventory. I didn’t realize this in my first playthrough of Necklace of Skulls and got really confused about why I seemed to be missing objects that the text said I possessed; and indeed it’s not quite clear to me why it’s useful to make the player do this.

Along the same lines, the navigation through the helper pages for Necklace of Skulls (map, items, journal, checkpoint, table of contents) had me thoroughly confused and tapping in circles: there isn’t a clear hierarchy of how these pages relate to one another, and the icons and back buttons don’t all do quite what I would have expected.

sinister_fairground_big_UILikewise, UI elements sometimes feel out of proportion, with text or icons the wrong size for one another: for instance, this “journal update” allows you to see only a fragment of what is being updated, while consuming a substantial amount of the readable area. The text in The Sinister Fairground also seemed a bit big on my iPad — perhaps the font sizes were chosen to account for the proportions of a phone, instead? And there can be a disconcertingly long pause after making a selection in Necklace of Skulls, which sometimes had me wondering whether my tap had really registered at all.

There are some good touches as well, though. The art for Necklace of Skulls is colorful and evocative, with just a few enlivening animations to give them energy. The map for The Sinister Fairground provides easy navigation through the related stages of the story. Even with the bits I found suboptimal, I’d infinitely rather be playing these apps than working my way through a Kindle gamebook edition.

In terms of overall play, they’re quite different experiences. Sinister Fairground is definitely intended to be viewed primarily as a puzzle rather than a story. Its locations function as self-contained stages, each of which is individually scored after you’ve played through, and while there is an arc narrative about looking for your girlfriend, most of the content in individual locations is gross-out horror stuff. Inventory items abound, to such an extent that the shop of weapons and potions and miscellany can feel overwhelming. There are quite a few insta-death possibilities, but also some set-piece riddles and puzzles that require you to type the correct key word.

Necklace of Skulls, meanwhile, is an implementation of Dave Morris’ paper gamebook published in the 90s; as a matter of fact it also has a Kindle edition, though I imagine that that makes for a much less colorful experience than the custom app. I know of Dave Morris originally from the inkle-published Frankenstein re-envisioning, but this just means I came to his career totally backwards: his list of publications is extensive. (His Down Among the Dead Men is also an inkle production, though they advertise it as “snack-sized”, perhaps to set it apart from the more substantial Sorcery! series.)

In any case, having read Frankenstein first, I was half expecting something literary and character-focused, but Necklace of Skulls is definitely an adventure book. You are a young man or woman in a Mayan kingdom. Your brother has been lost and you must go look for him, and along the way you encounter a number of folkloric creatures and a journey to the land of the dead. I’m not familiar enough with Mayan lore to say anything about the authenticity of these elements, but they felt creepy and surprising, a welcome change from western fantasy standbys.

Necklace of Skulls is a fairly substantial piece. I played five or six times and never actually won, though I think I got close, and in each case there was pretty significant variation in my experience of the midgame. It’s possible to take several different routes on your journey to look for your brother (picking up, of course, a wide range of codewords and inventory items along the way). In the late game, this can yield satisfyingly fairy-tale payoffs in which creatures you earlier helped came to your rescue, or mysterious gifts from elderly peasants turn out to be the basis of an ingenious bit of self-rescue.

There’s a special combat system for Necklace of Skulls, in which you pick a series of moves (defend, attack, rest) and then the result of these choices depends on what your opponent has chosen to do at the same time. I don’t know that it was possible really to guess what the other guy was going to do, though, so all this felt pretty arbitrary to me. Fortunately, combats came along fairly seldom relative to other aspects of the story; but I would not have minded doing away with them entirely.

Overall: sometimes clunky, but if you’re someone likely to enjoy these gamebooks, the app version is much more fun than working through a paper version with a pencil. And if you do want to give them a shot, both are on sale at the moment for 99 cents in the US iOS app store. (This really is a coincidence — I had this post all written before I heard about the sale.)


The Digital Antiquarian

Simon & Schuster’s Treks to Nowhere

by Jimmy Maher at December 17, 2014 02:00 PM

Star Trek

In 1983 the powers that were at Gulf and Western Industries, owners of both Paramount Pictures and Simon & Schuster, decided that it was time to bring Star Trek, a property of the former, to the computer under the stewardship of the latter. To appreciate this decision and everything that would follow it, we first should step back and briefly look at what Star Trek already meant to gamers at that time.

In late 1971, just as Star Trek was enjoying the first rush of a syndicated popularity that would soon far exceed that of its years as a first-run show, Mike Mayfield was a high-school senior with a passion for computers living near Irvine, California. He’d managed to finagle access to the University of California at Irvine’s Sigma 7 minicomputer, where he occasionally had a chance to play a port of MIT’s Spacewar!, generally acknowledged as the world’s first full-fledged videogame, on one of the university’s precious few graphical terminals. Mayfield wanted to write a space warfare game of his own, but he had no chance of securing the regular graphical-terminal access he’d need to do something along the lines of Spacewar! So he decided to try something more strategic and cerebral, something that could be displayed on a text-oriented terminal. If Spacewar! foreshadowed the frenetic dogfighting action of Star Wars many years before that movie existed, his own turn-based game would be modeled on the more stately space combat of his favorite television show. With the blissful unawareness of copyright and intellectual property that marks this early era of gaming, he simply called his game Star Trek.

One of the many variants of Mike Myfield's classic Star Trek

One of the many variants of Mike Mayfield’s classic Star Trek.

A full-on Klingon invasion is underway, the Enterprise the only Federation ship capable of stopping it. You, in the role of Captain Kirk, must try to turn back the invasion by warping from sector to sector and blowing away Klingon ships. Resource management is key. Virtually everything you do — moving within or between sectors; shooting phasers or photon torpedoes; absorbing enemy fire with your shields — consumes energy, of which you have only a limited quantity. You can repair, refuel, and restock your torpedoes at any of a number of friendly starbases scattered about the sectors, but doing so consumes precious time, of which you also have a limited quantity. If you don’t destroy all of the Klingons within thirty days they’ll break out and overrun the galaxy.

Within a year of starting on the game Mayfield moved on from the Sigma 7 to a much slicker HP-2100 series machine to which he had managed to convince the folks at his local Hewlett Packard branch to give him access. He quickly ported Star Trek to HP Time-Shared BASIC, in which form, along with so many other historically important games, it spread across the country. It was discovered by David Ahl, who would soon go on to found the immensely important magazine Creative Computing. Ahl published an expanded version of the game, Super Star Trek, in 1974 as a type-in listing in one of Creative Computing‘s earliest issues. In 1977, Byte published another version, one of the few game listings ever to appear in the pages of that normally staunchly tech-oriented magazine. In 1978, Ahl republished his Super Star Trek in his book BASIC Computer Games. This collection of old standards largely drawn from the HP Time-Shared BASIC computing culture arrived at a precipitous time, just as the first wave of pre-assembled PCs were appearing in stores and catalogs. Super Star Trek was the standout entry in BASIC Computer Games, by far the longest program listing as well as the most complex, replayable, and interesting game to be found within its pages.

On the strength of this, the first million-selling computer book in history, Star Trek spread even more widely and wildly across the little machines than it had the big. From here the history of Star Trek the computer game gets truly bewildering, with hundreds of variants on Mayfield’s basic template running on dozens of systems. Some added to the invading Klingon hordes Star Trek‘s other all-purpose villains the Romulans, complete with their trademark cloaking devices; some added graphics and/or sound; some added the personalities of Spock, McCoy, Scott, and the rest reporting developments in-character. And the variations continually one-uped one another with ever more elaborate weapon and damage modeling. In 1983 a small company who called themselves Cygnus (later renamed to Interstel) reworked and expanded the concept into a commercial game called Star Fleet I: The War Begins! to considerable success. In this version the serial numbers were to some extent filed off for obvious reasons, but Cygnus didn’t really make the most concerted of efforts to hide their game’s origins. Klingons, for instance, simply became “Krellans,” while their more creatively named allies the “Zaldrons” have, you guessed it, cloaking devices.

This, then, was the situation when Simon & Schuster secured a mandate in 1983 to get into home computers, and to bring Star Trek along for the ride. Star Trek in general was now a hugely revitalized property in comparison to the bunch of orphaned old syndicated reruns that Mayfield had known back in 1971. There were now two successful films to the franchise’s credit and a third well into production, as well as a new line of paperback novels on Simon & Schuster’s own Pocket Books imprint regularly cracking bestseller lists. There was a popular new stand-up arcade game, Star Trek: Strategic Operations Simulator. And there was a successful tactical board game of spaceship combat, and an even more successful full-fledged tabletop RPG. There was even a space shuttle — albeit one which would never actually fly into space — sporting the name Enterprise. And of course Star Trek was all over computers in the form of ports of Strategic Operations Simulator as well as, and more importantly, Mike Mayfield’s unlicensed namesake game and its many variants, of which Paramount was actually quite remarkably tolerant. To my knowledge no one was ever sued over one of these games, and when David Ahl had asked for permission to include Super Star Trek in BASIC Computer Games Paramount had cheerfully agreed without asking for anything other than some legal fine print at the bottom of the page. Still, it’s not hard to understand why Paramount felt it was time for an official born-on-a-home-computer Star Trek game. Even leaving aside the obvious financial incentives, both Strategic Operations Simulator and Mayfield’s Star Trek and all of its successors were in a sense very un-Star Trek sorts of Star Trek games. They offered no exploring of strange new worlds, no seeking out of new life and new civilizations. No, these were straight-up war games, exactly the scenario that Star Trek‘s television writers had had to be careful not to let the series devolve into. Those writers had often discussed the fact that if any of the Enterprise‘s occasional run-ins with the Romulans or the Klingons ever resulted in open, generalized hostilities, Star Trek as a whole would have to become a very different sort of show, a tale of war in space rather than a five-year mission of peaceful (for the most part) exploration. Star Trek the television show would have had to become, in other words, like Star Trek the computer game.

But now, at last, Simon & Schuster had the mandate to move in the other direction, to create a game more consonant with what the show had been. In that spirit they secured the services of Diane Duane, an up-and-coming science-fiction and fantasy writer who had two Star Trek novels already in Pocket’s publication pipeline, to write a script for a Star Trek adventure game. Duane began making notes for an idea that riffed on the supposedly no-win Kobayashi Maru training scenario that had been memorably introduced at the beginning of the movie Star Trek II. The game’s fiction would have you participating in an alternative, hopefully more winnable test being considered as a replacement. Thus you would literally be playing The Kobayashi Alternative, the goal of which would be to find Mr. Sulu (Star Trek: The Search for Sulu?), now elevated to command of the USS Heinlein, who has disappeared along with his ship in a relatively unexplored sector of the galaxy.

Simon & Schuster’s first choice to implement this idea was the current darling of the industry, Infocom. As we’ve already learned in another article, Simon & Schuster spent a year earnestly trying to buy Infocom outright beginning in late 1983, dangling before their board the chance to work with a list of properties headed by Star Trek. An Infocom-helmed Star Trek adventure, written by Diane Duane, is today tempting ground indeed for dreams and speculation. However, that’s all it would become. Al Vezza and the rest of Infocom’s management stalled and dithered and ultimately rejected the Simon & Schuster bid for fear of losing creative control and, most significantly, because Simon & Schuster was utterly disinterested in Infocom’s aspirations to become a major developer of business software. As Infocom continued to drag their feet, Simon & Schuster made the fateful decision to take more direct control of Duane’s adventure game, publishing it under their own new “Computer Software Division” imprint.

Star Trek: The Kobayashi Alternative

Development of The Kobayashi Alternative was turned over to a new company called Micromosaics, founded by a veteran of the Children’s Television Workshop named Lary Rosenblatt to be a sort of full-service experience architect for the home-computer revolution, developing not only software but also the packaging, the manuals, and sometimes even the advertising that accompanied it; their staff included at least as many graphic designers as programmers. The packaging they came up with for The Kobayashi Alternative was indeed a stand-out even in this era of oft-grandiose packaging. Its centerpiece was a glossy full-color faux-Star Fleet briefing manual full of background information about the Enterprise and its crew and enough original art to set any Trekkie’s heart aflutter (one of these pictures, the first in this article, I cheerfully stole out of, er, a selfless conviction that it deserves to be seen). Sadly, the packaging also promised light years more than the actual contents of the disk delivered.

This alleged screenshot from the back of The Kobayashi Alternative's box is one of the most blatant instances of false advertising in gaming of the 1980s.

This alleged screenshot from the back of The Kobayashi Alternative‘s box is one of the most blatant instances of false advertising of 1980s gaming.

What the game actually looks like...

What the game actually looks like…

Whatever else you can say about it, you can’t say that The Kobayashi Alternative played it safe. Easily dismissed at a glance as just another text adventure, it’s actually a bizarrely original mutant creation, not quite like any other game I’ve ever seen. Everything that you as Captain Kirk can actually do yourself — “give,” “take,” “use,” “shoot,” etc. — you accomplish not through the parser but by tapping function-key combinations. You move about the Enterprise or planetside using the arrow keys. The parser, meanwhile, is literally your mouth; those things you type are things that you say aloud. This being Star Trek and you being Captain Kirk, that generally means orders that you issue to the rest of your familiar crew. And then, not satisfied with giving you just an adventure game with a very odd interface, Micromosaics also tried to build in a full simulation of the Enterprise for you to logistically manage and command in combat. Oh, and the whole thing is running in real time. If ever a game justified use of the “reach exceeded its grasp” reviewer’s cliché, it’s this one. The Kobayashi Alternative is unplayable. No one at Microsmosaics had any real practical experience making computer games, and it shows.

A strange new world with a notable lack of new life and new civilizations

A strange new world with a notable lack of new life and new civilizations

The Kobayashi Alternative is yet another contender for the title of emptiest adventure game ever. In fact, it takes that crown handily from the likes of Level 9’s Snowball and Electronic Arts’s Amnesia. In lieu of discrete, unique locations, each of the ten planets you can beam down to consists of a vast X-Y grid of numerical coordinates to dully trudge across looking for the two or three places that actually contain something of interest. Sometimes you get clues in the form of coordinates to visit, but at other times the game seems to expect you to just lawnmower through hundreds of locations until you find something. The Enterprise, all 23 decks of it, is implemented in a similar lack of detail. It turns out that all those empty, anonymous corridors we were always seeing in the television show really were almost all there was to the ship. When you do find something or somebody, the parser is so limited that you never have any confidence in the conversations that result. Some versions of the game, for instance, don’t even understand the word “Sulu,” making the most natural question to ask anyone you meet — “Where is Sulu?” — a nonstarter. And then there are the bugs. Crewmen — but not you — can beam down to poisonous planets in their shirt sleeves and remain unharmed; when walking east on planets the program fails to warn you about dangerous terrain ahead, meaning you can tumble into a lake of liquid nitrogen without ever being told about it; crewmen inexplicably root themselves to the ground planetside, refusing to follow you no matter how you push or cajole or even start shooting at them with your phaser.

Following The Kobayashi Alternative‘s 1985 release, gamers, downright desperate as they were to play in this beloved universe, proved remarkably patient, while Simon & Schuster also seemed admirably determined to stay the course. Some six months after the initial release they published a revised version that, they claimed, fixed all of the bugs. The other, more deep-rooted design problems they tried to ret-con with a revised manual, which rather passive-aggressively announced that “The Kobayashi Alternative differs in several important ways from other interactive text simulations that you may have used,” including being “completely open-ended.” (Don’t cry to us if this doesn’t play like one of Infocom’s!) The parser problems were neatly sidestepped by printing every single phrase the parser could understand in the manual. And the most obvious major design flaw was similarly addressed by simply printing a list of all the important coordinates on all of the planets in the manual.

Interest in the game remained so high that Computer Gaming World‘s Scorpia, one of the premier fan voices in adventure gaming, printed a second multi-page review of the revised version to join her original, a level of commitment I don’t believe she ever showed to any other game. Alas, even after giving it the benefit of every doubt she couldn’t say the second version was any better than the original. It was actually worse: in fixing some bugs, Micromosaics introduced many others, including one that stole critical items silently from your inventory and made the game as unsolvable as the no-win scenario that provided its name. Micromosaics and Simon & Schuster couldn’t seem to get anything right; even some of the planet coordinates printed in the revised manual were wrong, sending you beaming down into the middle of a helium sea. Thus Scorpia’s second review was, like the first, largely a list of deadly bugs and ways to work around them. The whole sad chronicle adds up to the most hideously botched major adventure-game release of the 1980s, a betrayal of consumer trust worthy of a law suit. This software thing wasn’t turning out to be quite as easy as Simon & Schuster had thought it would be.

While The Kobayashi Alternative stands today as perhaps the most interesting of Simon & Schuster’s Star Trek games thanks to its soaring ambitions and how comprehensively it fails to achieve any of them, it was far from the last of its line. Understandably disenchanted with Micromosaics but determined to keep plugging away at Star Trek gaming, Simon & Schuster turned to another new company to create their second Star Trek adventure: TRANS Fiction Systems.

The story of TRANS Fiction begins with Ron Martinez, who had previously written a couple of Choose Your Own Adventure-style children’s gamebooks for publisher Byron Preiss, then had written the script for Telarium’s computerized adaptation of Rendezvous with Rama. Uninspiring as the finished result of that project was, it awakened a passion to dive deeper and do more with interactive fiction than Telarium’s limited technology would allow. Martinez:

If this was really an art form — like film, for example — you’d really want to know how to create the entire work. In film, you’d want to understand how to work a camera, how to shoot, how to edit, how to really make the finished product. For me, as a writer, I understood that I had to know how to program.

Like just about everybody else, I worshiped the Infocom work, was just amazed by it. So, my goal was to do two things simultaneously:

1. Learn how to program, so that I could —

2. Build an interactive-fiction system that was as good or better than Infocom’s.

Working with a more experienced programmer named Bill Herdle, Martinez did indeed devise his own interactive-fiction development system using a programming language we seem to be meeting an awful lot lately: Forth. Martinez, Herdle, and Jim Gasperini, another writerly alum of Byron Preiss, founded TRANS Fiction to deploy their system. They sincerely believed in interactive fiction as an art form, and were arrogant enough to believe themselves unusually qualified to realize its potential.

We started as writers and then learned the programming. Of other companies, we used to say that the people who built the stage are writing the plays. We used to look down our nose at people who were technical but had no sense of what story was all about attempting to use this medium which we thought would redefine fiction — we really believed that. Instead of having people who were technical trying to write stories, we thought it really had to come the other way, so the technology is in the service of the story and the characters and the richness of the world.

Thanks to their connections in the world of book publishing and their New York City location, TRANS Fiction was soon able to secure a contract to do the next Simon & Schuster Star Trek game. It wasn’t perhaps a dream project for a group of people with their artistic aspirations, but they needed to pay the bills. Thus, instead of things like the interactive version of William Burroughs’s novel Nova Express that Martinez fruitlessly pursued with Electronic Arts, TRANS Fiction did lots of work with less rarefied properties, like the Make Your Own Murder Party generator they did for EA and, yes, Star Trek.

I can tell you that it wasn’t with great joy that we were working with these properties. There’s something soulless about working with a big property owned by a conglomerate. Even though we might love Spock, it was still a property, and there were brand police, who had to review everything that Spock might say or do. We would extend the world and try to introduce new aspects of the history of these characters, but they’d have to sign off on it.

Given Martinez’s attitude as well as that set of restrictions, it’s not terribly shocking that TRANS Fiction’s first Star Trek game, The Promenthean Prophecy, is not all that terribly inspired or inspiring. Nor is its parser or game engine quite “as good as,” much less “better than,” Infocom’s. A much more conventional — perhaps too conventional — text adventure than its crazy predecessor, its status as the most enjoyable of all the Simon & Schuster-era Treks has more to do with the weaknesses of its peers than its own intrinsic strengths.

Star Trek: The Promethean Prophecy. We're back on much more conventional text-adventure territory here...

Star Trek: The Promethean Prophecy

The Promethean Prophecy doesn’t try to be a starship simulator to anywhere near the same degree as its predecessor. While it does open with a space battle, said battle is largely an exercise in puzzle solving, in figuring out the next command that will drive the hard-wired plot forward and not get you killed, rather than a real tactical simulation. After that sequence, you beam down to Prometheus, the only planet in the game, and start on a fairly standard “figure out this alien culture” puzzle-driven text adventure which, other than having Kirk, Spock, and company as its stars, doesn’t feel all that notably Star Trek-like at all. What with its linear and heavily plotted opening followed by a non-linear body to be explored at your own pace, it reminded me more than anything of Infocom’s Starcross. This impression even extends to the puzzles themselves, which like those of Starcross often involve exchanging items with and otherwise manipulating the strange aliens you meet. And yet again like in Starcross, there is no possibility of having real conversations with them. Unfortunately, coming as it did four years after Starcross, The Promethean Prophecy is neither as notable in the context of history nor quite as clever and memorable on its own term as a game. From its parser to its writing to its puzzles it’s best described as “competent” — a description which admittedly puts it head and shoulders above many of Infocom’s competitors and its own predecessor. The best of this era of Star Trek games, it’s also the one that feels the least like Star Trek.

Still, The Promethean Prophecy did have the virtue of being relatively bug free, a virtue that speaks more to the diligence of TRANS Fiction than Simon & Schuster; as Martinez later put it, “Nobody at Simon & Schuster really understood how we were doing any of it.” It was greeted with cautiously positive reviews and presumably sold a reasonable number of copies on the strength of the Star Trek name alone, but it hardly set the industry on fire. An all-text game of any stripe was becoming quite a hard sell indeed by the time of its late 1986 release.

After The Promethean Prophecy Simon & Schuster continued to doggedly release new Star Trek games, a motley assortment that ranged from problematic to downright bad. For 1987’s The Rebel Universe, they enlisted the services of our old friend Mike Singleton, who, departing even more from The Promethean Prophecy than that game had from its predecessor, tried to create a grand strategy game, a sort of Lords of Midnight in space. It was full of interesting ideas, but rushed to release in an incomplete and fatally unbalanced state. For 1988’s First Contact (no relation to the 1996 movie), they — incredibly — went back to Micromosaics, who simplified and retrofitted onto the old Kobayashi Alternative engine the ability to display the occasional interstitial graphic. Unfortunately, they also overcompensated for the overwhelming universe of their first game by making First Contact far too trivial. The following year’s adaptation of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, oddly released through Mindscape rather than using Simon & Schuster’s own imprint, and 1990’s The Transinium Challenge, another product of TRANS Fiction and the first game to feature the cast of The Next Generation, were little more than interactive slide shows most notable for their heavy use of digitized images from the actual shows at a time when seeing real photographs of reasonable fidelity on a computer screen was still a fairly amazing thing.

It was all disappointing enough that by the beginning of the 1990s fans had begun to mumble about a Star Trek gaming curse. And indeed, it’s hard to know what to make of the handling of the franchise during this period. Gifted with easily one of the five most beloved properties on the planet amongst the computer-gaming demographic, Simon & Schuster refused to either turn it over to an experienced software publisher who would know what to do with it — virtually any of them would have paid a hell of a lot of money to have a crack at it — or to get really serious and pay a top-flight developer to create a really top-flight game. Instead they took the pointless middle route, tossing off a stream of rushed efforts from second-tier developers that managed to be unappealing enough to be sales disappointments despite the huge popularity of the name on their boxes, while other games made without a license — notably Starflight — proved much more successful at evoking the sense of wonder that always characterized Star Trek at its best. It wouldn’t be until 1992 that Star Trek would finally come to computers in a satisfying form that actually felt like Star Trek — but that’s a story for another day.

For today, I encourage you to have a look at one or more of the variants of Mike Mayfield’s original Star Trek game. Eric Friedrichsen’s JavaScript port, for instance, is one of a number of very good versions that you can play right in your browser. One of the first really compelling strategy games to appear on computers and, when taking into account all of its versions and variations, very likely the single most popular computer game on PCs during that Paleolithic era of about 1978 to 1981, it’s still capable of stealing a few hours of your time today. It’s also, needless to say, far more compelling than any commercial Star Trek released prior to 1992. Still, completionism demands that I also make available The Kobayashi Alternative and The Promethean Prophecy in their Commodore 64 incarnations for those of you who want to give them a go as well. They aren’t the worst adventures in the world… no, I take that back. The Kobayashi Alternative kind of is. Maybe it’s worth a look for that reason alone.

(The history of Mike Mayfield’s Star Trek has been covered much more thoroughly than I have here by other modern digital historians. See, for instance, Games of Fame and Pete Turnbull’s page on the game among many others. Most of my information on Simon & Schuster and TRANS Fiction was drawn from Jason Scott’s interview with Martinez for Get Lamp; thanks again for sharing, Jason! Scorpia’s review and re-review of The Kobayashi Alternative appeared in Computer Gaming World‘s March 1986 and August 1986 issues respectively.

For an excellent perspective on how Star Trek‘s writers saw the show as well as the state of Star Trek around the time that Mayfield first wrote his game, see David Gerrold’s The World of Star Trek. Apart from its value as a research source, it’s also a very special book to me, the first real work of criticism that I ever read as a kid. It taught me that you could love something while still acknowledging and even dissecting its flaws. I’m not as enchanted with Star Trek now as I was at the Science Fiction Golden Age of twelve, but Gerrold’s book has stuck with me to become an influence on the work I do here today. I was really happy recently to see it come back into “print” as an e-book.)


Comments

December 16, 2014

Post Position

A “Trope Report” on Stickers

by Nick Montfort at December 16, 2014 10:59 PM

Not literally on stickers, no. This technical report from the Trope Tank is “Stickers as a Literature-Distribution Platform,” and is by Piotr Marecki. It’s just been released as TROPE-14-02 and is very likely to be the last report of 2014. Here’s the abstract:

Contemporary experimental writing often directs its attention to its writing space, its medium, the material on which it is presented. Very often this medium is meaningful and becomes part of the work – the printed text transfered to another media context (for instance, into a traditional book) would become incomprehensible. Literature distributed on stickers is a form of writing that is divided into small fragments of texts (a type of constrained writing), physically scattered in different locations. One of the newest challenges in literature are books with augmented reality, AR, which examine the relation between the physical (the medium) and the virtual interaction. Sticker literature is a rather simple analog form of augmented reality literature. The stickers have QR codes or web addresses printed on them, so the viewer who reads/sees a random sticker in the public space can further explore the text online. The viewer can read other parts of the text on photographs (the photograph being another medium) of other stickers placed in different locations. The author will discuss the use of stickers throughout literary history, beginning with 20th century French Situationists, through different textual strategies applied by visual artists and ending with literary forms such as the sticker novel Implementation (2004) by Nick Montfort and Scott Rettberg or Stoberskiade (2013). The author shall try to explain why writers decide to use this form, how the text is distributed and received and how the city space is used in such projects.

Emily Short

Hybrid interfaces: Texture; Contrition (Porpentine); Spondre (Jay Nabonne)

by Emily Short at December 16, 2014 01:00 PM

Lately we’ve been seeing more and more work that falls somewhere between parser-based IF and hypertext: in the past six weeks or so, I’ve run across two new games and a creation tool that push the boundaries in various directions.

Jim Munroe and Juhana Leinonen recently released Texture, a system designed especially to produce touch-based IF that will play well on mobile devices. Texture features the idea of applying verbs to passages of text:

Screen Shot 2014-12-16 at 11.55.07 AM

When a verb is used on text, it replaces that text with something new, or else moves forward to a new page, mimicking the change-or-advance link distinctions in many Twine games. (With Those We Love Alive actually makes this distinction obvious by coloring these links different colors.)

The pairing of verbs and nouns means that navigation is a bit less obvious than in most pure hypertext Twine pieces, allowing for puzzles. The back end is still extremely simple, though, so although it might appear to be a system that would compete with the parser, in practice there’s no way (yet) to build up an extensive world model. The verbs that are available may change from page to page, and the author is handcrafting each verb-phrase interaction.

To the best of my knowledge there aren’t any released pieces yet that use Texture, but I’ll be interested to see what comes of it.

*

Screen Shot 2014-12-16 at 12.04.19 PM

Contrition is a new Porpentine work inspired by Weird City Interloper. Weird City Interloper is a parser game that moves forward by keywords; Contrition is a Twine game that places a shifting palette of verbs and usable nouns on screen, as well as a list of reachable locations. The result has some of the appeal of a traditional parser world model — affordances are partially obvious and partially discoverable, and the ability to traverse the world and apply a sort of inventory makes it feel like the player has more effective agency than typical in Twine. Instead of verb-object, the player often needs to think in terms of verb-location: what will this activity do in that place? Which place/activity combinations will be interesting?

Porpentine’s places are explorable through the verbs: LISTEN is the equivalent of LOOK in a parser game, the verb that brings up the default description of a place, but with the difference that it focuses on social interactions happening there. Other, more mystical senses later come into play. Likewise, there are some objects that are essentially keys to locks in particular places. But these spaces also create a strong sense of emotional and even ritual context: to feel sorrow in one place has a different meaning than to feel sorrow in another, because the cause of that sorrow and the witnesses to it will change.

Contrition blurs the distinction between object-manipulation gameplay and internal-emotion gameplay, and that’s extremely interesting to see.

*

Screen Shot 2014-12-16 at 9.12.05 AM

Spondre is a short interactive story about a man in an oppressive empire who has been imprisoned for unspecified crimes. The story itself is reminiscent of others I’ve read, but the interface gives it a new flavor. Executed in Quest, Spondre offers another new take in IF’s ongoing UI explorations: you may click on any word in the body text in order to continue the story. None of the words are explicitly highlighted as links. If you click on something that has no associations, you’ll get a short response reminiscent of parser IF, saying that there’s nothing more to learn about that object. There are also a handful of special keywords at the bottom of the screen that allow you to refocus textual attention on really important objects, such as the room that you’re in and the main non-player character.

Occasionally clicking on a topic will bring up a small menu of related actions, if there are multiple things you could hypothetically do with that object: this is reminiscent of the noun menus found in Sigmund’s Quest and a handful of other pieces, or the “point-and-click text adventure” idea raised by Dan Fabulich in our recent New Directions in IF talk.

There are some obvious strengths to this idea. For one thing, it encourages a kind of close engagement with the text to sift out which nouns (or other words, for that matter) might be important: this is the same kind of thing that makes ASK/TELL conversation appealing when it works well. At the same time, it gets rid of typing, for those who find that a cumbersome way to interact. And because the story doesn’t accumulate error messages, you wind up with a transcript that reads like a clean short story.

It retains some of the downsides of both parser and hypertext games, though. Discoverability is sometimes a challenge. Like parser games, it overpromises what the game can do relative to what it actually delivers. Where the parser says “type whatever you like”, Spondre makes the rather less grandiose offer that you can click whatever you like; all the same, the word coverage is such that many of the words you click aren’t going to do anything, especially in the later part of the game. Meanwhile, like many hypertext games and unlike the other pieces profiled here, Spondre doesn’t mostly allow for verbs: except when you’ve popped up a special menu, you’re clicking simply to activate topics, which removes the constructive agency that comes from thinking of what you want to do and then carrying it out. Maybe for this reason, Spondre is very much a reactive sort of story: you’re not so much pursuing goals of your own as you are choosing how to react to the proddings of an NPC.

Overall, I think the most serious issue here is that so many of the words do nothing. I can imagine some ways to reach full-text responsiveness that wouldn’t involve the author having to code a special response to every single word. For instance, one might use WordNet or something similar to assign emotional valences for all of the words that appear in the text, and use these to shift the narrative tone: if the player clicked on a bunch of negative words, say, the narration might become correspondingly darker and more pessimistic. (Allison Parrish’s NaNoGenMo novel I Waded In Clear Water explores using sentiment analysis of this kind, though for non-interactive output; so does the Georgia Tech paper on Scheherazade that I wrote about here.) Something like this would require a bunch of tech work as well as some UI elements to indicate what was happening with those tonal shifts, though; and it would also require training the player to understand and expect that sometimes clicking on a word just meant “I am putting more emphasis on this concept”. So while that’s one possible way of applying a UI like this to a consistent underlying model, it certainly wouldn’t be suitable for everything.

Still, a cool experiment, and definitely playable: the issues I listed are distracting but don’t at all get in the way of finishing the game. Meanwhile, the wall of undifferentiated text created a sense of mystery and potential that I don’t always get from conventional hypertext.


Sibyl Moon Games

Signposts: Pointers in C and Classes in C# for Inform 7 Programmers

by Carolyn VanEseltine at December 16, 2014 04:01 AM

Introduction

A while back, I wrote a post about the experience of learning something hard and new. I used two specific examples that were difficult for me: learning pointers in C last year, and learning classes in C# this year.

Now that I understand pointers and classes, I can see analogies from Inform 7 that would have helped me learn. I don’t know how many other people will come through here the same way I did – I feel like most people start with lower-level languages first – but on the other hand, I can’t be the only interactive fiction writer who wanted to get her hands goopy with underlying code.

So I’m writing this blog entry as a signpost for whoever comes after me. I hope my experience will be useful to you.

Disclaimer #1: All syntax is valid for C and C#. I won’t make any promises about what this looks like in any other language.

Disclaimer #2: These are a working analogies to increase understanding, not exact ones. There are all kinds of holes you can poke in them.

Disclaimer #3: If you’re coming at this from the other direction, as a programmer interested in gripping the guts of Inform 7, I will instead recommend Ron Newcomb’s Inform 7 for Programmers, which gives a good overview of Inform 7 from a computer science perspective. You might also wish to dig into Graham Nelson’s paper “Natural Language, Semantic Analysis, and Interactive Fiction” .

Pointers

Consider the following Inform 7 code:

The apple is a thing. The orange is a thing. The banana is a thing.
The designated object is a thing that varies.

The designated object can be the apple, or the orange, or the banana. It is not itself the apple, orange, or banana – it just points to one of those objects.

In Inform 7, I can say “the weight of the apple” and “the weight of the designated object” interchangeably, as long as the designated object is pointing at the apple. Effectively, Inform 7 dereferences the designated object on its own.

This is not the same as in C.

In C, a pointer is a reference that points to an address in the computer’s memory.

If meridian is an integer, then &meridian points to the place in memory where that integer is stored. &meridian is not itself meridian – it just points to the place where meridian can be found.

In C, I always need to state whether I want an address in memory, or whether I want to follow through and see the value found at that address.

Consider the following C code:

int meridian;
int *longitude;
meridian = 0;

longitude = &meridian;

The number 0 is stored at an address in computer memory, which is designated by meridian. If I do something with meridian, it will look at the contents of that address in computer memory. But if I do something with the pointer variable longitude, I am looking at the address itself, rather than what that address contains. If I want to see the actual contents at that address, then I need to dereference it by adding a * on the front.

In the example above, longitude will return a computer address, but *longitude (dereferencing that address) will return 0.

In the Inform code, it is possible for the designated object to be nothing. Nothing is the catch-all thing that any “thing that varies” can point at. It is not possible for the apple to be nothing, however, because the apple is itself a thing. The apple does not vary.

Similarly, in the C code, it is possible for longitude to be null. If longitude is null, then longitude is pointing at the address /0, which means it is pointing nowhere. But it is not possible for meridian to be null, because meridian is an integer, and null is not an integer.

Monodevelop ponyStructs

I’m getting to classes, but I’m going to go there by way of structs. And ponies.

I love structs. They instantly made sense to me.

Struct stands for structure, and what it actually means is a record that stores more than one value. Instead of storing a lot of values separately

char *pony1_name;
int pony1_age;
int pony1_weight;

char *pony2_name…

…you can store them all together.

typedef struct {
    char *name,
    int age,
    int weight
} pony;

Since all the records are bound together in a struct (here, the pony struct), you can access the various records in an organized fashion.

pony princessPony;

princessPony.name = “Celestia”;
princessPony.age = 500;
princessPony.weight = 800;

pony crabbyPony…

Does this look familiar? It should! Here’s the Inform equivalent:

A pony is a kind of animal. A pony has some text called the name. A pony has a number called the age. A pony has a number called the weight.

The princess pony is a pony. The name of the princess pony is “Celestia”. The age of the princess pony is 500. The weight of the princess pony is 800.

Of course, being a kind of animal inherits all the properties of things and people and animals in Inform implementation, while the princessPony in C has no existence apart from those three fields.

Classes

C# is an object-oriented language. A C# object is a data structure containing both data fields and methods.

The data fields part is simple – it’s like one of the structs we were looking at earlier. You can take every variable you need for an object, and put them all together as part of the class.

The methods are a little harder to understand. All the functions that apply to ponies, are actually part of the pony (as long as it’s a well-designed pony.)

public class Pony {
    string name;
    int age;
    int weight;

    public void feedPony (int hayTotal) {
        //code goes here
    }

    public void groomPony () {
        //code goes here
    };

    public void ridePony (int miles) {
        //code goes here
    }
}

The code above isn’t a pony – it’s a template for the existence of ponies. It’s the equivalent of the Inform code

A pony is a kind of animal. A pony has some text called the name. A pony has a number called the age. A pony has a number called the weight.

To feed (thisPony – a pony) about (hay-total – a number) pounds of hay:
   [code goes here]

To groom (thisPony - a pony):
   [code goes here]

To ride (thisPony - a pony) for (miles - a number):
   [code goes here]

In Inform, it's not possible to trigger "groom a pony" when "pony" is a kind and there aren't any ponies in the game. There has to be a pony for the grooming to apply to, and you have to specify which pony you want.

In C#, the same holds true. Effectively, every class in C# is the equivalent of a kind in Inform 7. Once you have princessPony, you can groom princessPony with the C# syntax

princessPony.groomPony();

just like you could groom the princess pony with the Inform 7 syntax

groom princess pony;

When calling a method on a C class, you need always to make sure that an instance of the class exists, just like making sure that an instance of a kind in Inform 7 exists. It isn't meaningful to try this in C:

Pony.name = "TwilightSparkle";
Pony.groomPony();

any more than it would be meaningful to try this in Inform 7:

now the name of a pony is TwilightSparkle;
groom a pony.

The exception is when you mark a class, method, or data field with the static keyword.

public class Pony {
    static int numHooves;
    string name;
    int age;
    int weight;
}

In this case, all ponies everywhere would share the same value for numHooves, and changing the numHooves on one pony would change the numHooves on all ponies. (Evil spell, perhaps?) There isn't really an equivalent of static in Inform 7.

Conclusion

These Inform-to-C/C# comparisons should be considered analogies for greater understanding, rather than a true representation. But in both cases, they're comparisons that helped me, so I hope they help you.

Resources that have particularly helped me:

The C Reference Guide
The C# Reference
Stack Overflow
Head-First C (Amazon)
Code Complete 2 (Amazon)

Happy coding!

December 15, 2014

Storycade

Kickstarter: [Bracket] Games “To Azimuth”

by Amanda Wallace at December 15, 2014 10:01 PM

To Azimuth
[Bracket] Games is trying to make an adventure game, a narrative adventure about searching for clues and evidence in what may be just a disappearance or something more.

Zach Sanford, of [Bracket] Games writes that to Azimuth is a game about dialogue:

Through these dialogue choices, as well as through decisions made outside of dialogue, players shape Susannah and Nate into their own unique take on the character. This will affect the story of the game in both conspicuous and subtle ways; while every decision may not always completely change the outcome, it will color the story very differently based on the way that the characters are being played.

Zach is not new to interactive fiction. [Bracket] Games is the name behind the title Letters to Babylon, which Richard Goodness wrote about earlier this year. To Azimuth is not a Twine, but rather a more 3-D interactive experience. The art style evokes Kentucky Route Zero, and the element of mystery is perpetuated in the shadows shown in art from the game as well as the trailer.

The game operates in the world of shadows as your character navigates between conspiracy theories and space agencies, the world of alien abductees and family dramas. Set in 1970′s Alabama, it seeks to combine the region with late 70′s science fiction movies and the classic TV series the X-Files.

ToAzimuth3

To Azimuth is intended for a PC release, and has already been Greenlit on Steam. You can back it on Kickstarter now, where [Bracket] Games is hoping to reach $20,000 for funding of the game.

The post Kickstarter: [Bracket] Games “To Azimuth” appeared first on StoryCade.

The Gameshelf: IF

Holiday iOS app sales

by Andrew Plotkin at December 15, 2014 08:33 PM

It is Christmastime, the time of bundles... okay, every month is the time of bundles these days. Bundles have become continuous. We get it. We're joining in!

I have posted Zarf's IF Bundle on the iOS App Store. Basically, you buy Hadean Lands through this link, you get my Shade and Heliopause apps thrown in free. Why not? If you've already purchased HL for iOS, the "complete my bundle" link should let you download the other apps.

And while I'm at it: Meanwhile for iOS is now on sale for two bucks, through the end of the year. That's 60% off! Or like 87% off as compared to the hardback book!

(Let us not speak about the relative values placed on creators by the book and software industries these days. I'm trying to gin up some product excitement here.)

So go buy Meanwhile now, if you haven't. If you have, why not gift a copy to a friend? Or an enemy? Two weeks only! Imagine lying on the living-room floor, next to the tree or bull's-head or aluminum pole or whatever your December celebratory decoration is, scrolling around Jason's mad-science fairy tale and trying to remember where you left the branch that doesn't involve zapping the Earth clean of human life.

And then buy Hadean Lands too. The nickel beads demand it.

Sibyl Moon Games

Emily Short’s “Reading IF”

by Carolyn VanEseltine at December 15, 2014 01:01 AM

Emily Short just revised the “Reading IF” section of her website. It’s now an excellent survey of what has been done so far with interactive fiction, examining different interfaces, plot structure and narrative, characters and conversation, and so forth. If you’re interested in parser game design, it’s definitely worth a look.

December 14, 2014

Z-Machine Matter

Papers, Please! Now on iPad

by Zack Urlocker at December 14, 2014 05:41 PM

Papers please ipad

The brilliant, quirky indie game Papers, Please is now available for iPad. This is an 8-bit retro style simulation where you work as a border control agent in the cold-war era Soviet republic of Arstotzka. If you haven't tried Papers, Please in the original Mac / Windows / Linux versions, this is a great port. The game is still just as creepy as the original. While there's no new content, the touch interface of the iPad works very well in viewing, stamping and passing documents over the counter.

There was a brief flap earlier this week when Apple told indie developer Lucas Pope to remove the nudity from the game (which appears when you use the x-ray machine. But thankfully all of that's been resolved.

Best of all, Papers, Please is on sale this weekend on iTunes for just $5.99.
Glory to Arstotzka!

These Heterogenous Tasks

Long Live The Queen

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at December 14, 2014 05:01 AM

lltqLong Live the Queen (Hanako Games) is a  time-management, stat-training life-sim about rulership, intrigue and teenage angst. Elodie, age 14, is the crown princess of Nova; her mother’s dead, and Elodie is due to ascend the throne on her majority, at 15. Assuming she lives that long.

Elodie is in a strange position: she’s both the head of state and an initially-clueless kid who isn’t always allowed to do whatever she wants. She has forty weeks to educate herself before her coronation – but some matters of state can’t be delayed, and she has to decide them now. You rarely shed the sense that you’re running to keep up.

Each week works in three parts. You choose what to do around the castle over the weekend: this alters your mood (determined by four separate sliders). You pick your classes for the week: these train a wide variety of skills, arranged in complementary groups. Finally, as time progresses you’re given multiple-choice story options – this is where the skills get used, as you either fail, succeed or partially succeed to overcome a hidden threshold.

The mood system makes things a little more complicated than just choosing which stats to train: it sometimes takes a few days to get into the best mood to train a certain skill, and external events change your mood. The mood bonus is big enough that you really need to use it as much as possible, so there’s a regular temptation to diverge from your plans in order to train a stat that has a current bonus.

Princess Maker plus feminism

The most obvious way to categorise Long Live the Queen is as a bishojo (‘cute girl game’, mostly aimed at dudes) life sim: specificially, it’s a close descendant of Princess Maker, a series of games in which the player-character oversees the education of an adoptive daughter. The commonalities are obvious: percentile stats grouped by category, naive girl-child as blank slate whose personality and future you must craft through an education schedule. Right down to the bedroom background!

princessmaker

Princess Maker 2 (never-completed English port.)

Princess Maker is a game with some big sexist problems, and Long Live the Queen pretty much goes for them head-on. The player-character is not a creepily vague (but always male) adoptive parent who controls the girl: you play the girl, and she has considerable real power over the world. The kingdom of Nova has a succession system that’s gender-neutral, and a lot of the most influential figures are female. Housework does not feature among your stats. And ‘princess’ is your starting-point, not your goal. Your goal is queen.

But perhaps most importantly, it has a strongly interior perspective: Elodie is very much a viewpoint character. It’s a game that’s about being a teenager – of feeling frustrated, judged, isolated; of the overwhelming pressure of being aware that this is a crucial and fleeting stage of your life, and that you’re doing nothing but screw it up; of asserting yourself just to show that you can, then feeling like a stupid petulant child for doing so. It is not a fantasy about having the power to mould someone else into whatever you want.

(I mean, you’re still playing a big-eyed underage waif who sometimes wears ridiculous outfits that your dad would not approve of; but given the conventions of the medium, it’s pretty amazing.)

Choice of Games plus failure

Like the standard Choice of Games piece, Long Live The Queen offers you a huge pile of stats and encourages you to specialise in some subset of them. The difference is that the typical CoG approach is to almost always to let the player win – they might win differently, but the house style is that any set of strengths can lead to success, as long as you remember to play to those strengths. There should always be enough multiple-choice options that you can succeed at one of them, and recognising which one should be straightforward.

warriorqueenLong Live The Queen isn’t like that. While its structure is not unlike CoG’s house style – a mostly linear plot with lots of optional side-treks – the skill economy is such that most you will fail most challenges. The more important events often offer two or more routes to success – be agile enough to dodge the arrow, or know enough battlefield medicine to survive it – but the thresholds are high enough, and the stats numerous enough, that overcoming a challenge is unlikely unless you’ve targeted it. (Sometimes it’s a matter of ‘succeed at this stat, or at these two stats.’) You need to decide which challenges are worth overcoming.

And the process you go through in picking them is kind of amazing.

Choice of Games‘ message is, more or less, ‘be whoever you want to be: as long as you remember what that is, you’ll do great!’ And that’s the kind of attitude I went with initially: I want to be intriguey and witty and great with a sword! But I also felt that I should be at least a little of an all-rounder – as a leader you don’t need to be an expert at everything, but you should have at least some familiarity with all the things that really matter. That one went out of the window fast: I was running an absolute monarchy, not delegating to a cabinet. I needed to figure out what mattered and specialise in that.

That process required, not just a decision to invest in certain skills, but a conscious decision about which skill groups were going to be dump stats, in a brutal triage process. I found this really uneasy: I’m OK with a political leader not being conversant in musical instruments or animal-handling, sure, but one who decides that history, economics and military strategy deserve not the slightest moment of attention? That’s odd. Alarming, even.

My first focused approach was to try not fucking up – which at the immediate level, mostly meant attending to courtly skills, the Conversation / Royal Demeanour / History stuff that makes you not routinely look like an idiot. And then that got abandoned pretty hard, because frankly it didn’t matter that much if I looked like a prat at the Grand Ball. I could placate the local nobility by making story choices that favoured them, anyway. I shifted my approach to statecraft: Intrigue, Military, Economics.

That went better, but it wasn’t enough. And creeping in underneath was a new principle, one that became dominant: don’t fucking die. Abandon any ideal vision of who you’re going to be, of how you’re going to rule: just focus on the shit that keeps you alive. There will be specific threats. Train the skills you need to survive those.

The first time I actually won, I didn’t realise until I had almost finished that I had completely neglected the entire Intellectual bracket. No history, no intrigue, no economics or medicine or strategy. Over in the social bracket, no art. Just raw power and a lot of charm. I’d only been able to keep the throne by being precisely the kind of person who should never have it.

Varicella plus stats

primo

Elodie’s best Primo impression. SUCH OSTENATIOUSLY BOURGEOIS DECOR, HOW UNSEEMLY

Varicella features a struggle for power in a pseudo-medieval palace, a struggle so tangled and vicious that it is basically guaranteed to kill you the first dozen times you play. You’re on a timer; a specific sequence of events plays out in every game, and you have to carefully manage a sequence of actions in order to win. And a big way you’ll learn is by getting killed, over and over again.

Thus also Queen. (Georgina Bensley was active in the IF community c.2000-2003; Varicella is a 1999 release, so it isn’t much of a stretch to suspect some influence here.) Queen has a lot more optional branching than Varicella, and each individual challenge is a good deal more straightforward, but there’s very much the same feeling about how you approach winning the game.

Varicella‘s worldview is much darker: it’s a world where the strong necessarily abuse the weak, where desire for power and moral depravity are so strongly linked as to be near-identical, where thrones are always Babylon. While far less fluffy than the pink hair and sparkly hearts would suggest, Queen is less all-consumingly dark. In part it’s because it’s less contrasty: there are people with influence and power who are not entirely malicious and who may help you, though their interests may not always align with yours. That said, the game gets pretty strongly at the lonely, separate status of rulership (and player-characters), a loneliness that rests particularly heavily on a fourteen-year-old girl. The game briefly offers Elodie a friend before snatching her away; you’re conscious of everyone around you needing something out of you. (Of the four mood sliders, one has two poles: Lonely and Pressured, which feels just right for a teenager’s social feelings.)

Another major difference: replayability. To win Varicella is to understand everything – or close to it. You can finish Queen and still not really know what the hell was going on with a lot of stuff.

Part of this is because its worldbuilding is a lot less tightly controlled: there’s a sprawl of characters to keep track of, many of whom you actually encounter either briefly or only by reputation. (Elodie’s day-to-day life is fairly isolated. There are romance options, apparently, but apart from fairly distant political marriages, they’re evidently buried rather deep.) This is pretty good when the idea is to show you as a clueless kid overwhelmed by the demands put on her, but for me it didn’t ever develop into a more firm grasp, even when Elodie clearly knew what was going on. I think that at least part of this has to do with my own levels of attention and retention: a lot of the intrigue and history knowledge just didn’t grab me very much, and that might have something to do with how Nova feels a lot like a Generic Anime Fantasy Kingdom.

OK, it’s not wholly generic. But you have the sense of a world built up in too much of a ponderous post-Tolkien manner: too much Jaggedy Mountains and Wiggly River, not enough cool memorable detail. And a lot of the information it delivers comes in the form of little snippets which, because you learn them through classes, are generally out-of-context information you can’t use until much later – and some don’t ever seem to become relevant. Sometimes that information gets repeated (through skill-checks) when it does become relevant, but it’s still tricky. I felt as though I needed to be taking notes in order to keep track of the worldbuilding. That’s a bad sign. Good worldbuilding, of worlds that get retained, involves not just the design of the world but the delivery of it.

Another thing: Varicella’s replay works because it’s irregular: while play rotates largely around manipulating other people, it doesn’t do so in any mechanically consistent way, which forces closer attention. You can skip over lots of text, but if you do anything new then you’ll know about it and be paying attention. That’s not true of Queen: when you’re in hurried-replay mode, you can quite easily miss new snippets of information, at least in the training-menu.

*

In common with visual novels, Queen seems designed for exhaustive play: there’s a lot of optional content that’s quite hard to ferret out, and an in-game checklist of deaths, endings and achievements that I haven’t come close to completing. The difficulty level is balanced just about right, I think, for winning to feel like an accomplishment, but rather too high for optional-content-hunting to feel like fun.

Too, I think that partial successes were underused; I’m prejudiced here because I play a lot of RPGs where the partial successes are the most narratively interesting results. ‘Succeed, but at a cost or complication’ is, I suppose, a hard principle to render mechanically; but man, it’s tantalising.

Anyhow. If you like life sims, or optimisation-type puzzles, or games about being an angsty teenager, or feminist sf/f, you should play this.


Emily Short

Transcript Live, and a few other Changes

by Emily Short at December 14, 2014 05:00 AM

The IF Discussion Club met again, this time on New Directions in IF, and the transcript is now available.

Also: for a long time the “Reading IF” section of this blog has had lists of games to play, but those lists hadn’t been updated since ca. 2007 and were getting seriously out of touch with what is going on in current IF. (A lot of the links pointed to Baf’s Guide or the IF Scoreboard rather than IFDB, for instance, which made them essentially deadweight.)

I thought about just cutting this portion of the site entirely, but site stats suggested that some people were actually reading the lists still, for all I considered them horribly rusty. So I have now totally overhauled these pages. They’re now explicitly intended as lists of lists. That is, there are various topics one can explore and get a little bit of an overview of some of the kinds of features that occur in IF games, but when it comes to delivering specific suggestions, they then mostly point onward at IFDB polls, lists, and tags, as well as game-list-y blog posts (and in one case, a Pinterest board of screenshots of IF interface types).

My hope is that by relying partly on IFDB, I’ll have an at least partially self-maintaining system (in that other people besides me add tags). Even if that part turns out over-optimistic, at least I’ve gotten rid of the stuff that treats choice-based IF as a rare and peculiar deviation from the norm. I also got rid of the “world model” page, which were feeling — not even 2007, but more 2001 or so, thanks to the somewhat breathless excitement about games that implemented ropes and fire. (I was really excited about ropes and fire back then.) Likewise, the “setting” page was very heavily oriented around the assumption that IF was always organized into rooms, and that’s so far from being the case now that it just seemed a bit silly.

Some things went in, too. Added more puzzle types to the puzzle page, especially wordplay things. Added more narrative structure coverage. I expect I’ll keep tweaking this, and/or linking in additional game lists as appropriate, but if there are things I could be doing to make these resources more useful to people, let me know. (And then I may or may not do anything about it depending on how demanding the request is, but…)


December 13, 2014

The People's Republic of IF

January meetup

by zarf at December 13, 2014 06:00 PM

The Boston IF meetup for January will be Wednesday, January 7, 6:30 pm, MIT room 14N-233. (Note: not Monday or Tuesday, but Wednesday!)

December 12, 2014

These Heterogenous Tasks

The Interdependent Ludic Institute of Tlön’s GOTY List

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at December 12, 2014 08:01 PM

10. CRY UNCLE (Illwind): Because what the world really needed was a concentration-camp MMORPG. (Yeah, it’s on Mars and the guards have plasma rifles, but even Illwind seem smugly confident that nobody really credits their fig-leaf.) At this point everyone has weighed in on it – either it’s monumentally disrespectful, the Stanford Prison Experiment as entertainment, or it’s a devastatingly brilliant leverage of Internet assholery as window into the depravity of the human condition; regardless, it’s a game that most people will prefer to experience through carefully-curated Let’s Plays. Uncle has ended and reset three times since its January release – once in a bloody battle between Concord troops and camp guards, once in a death-march, once by a steady choking-off of the resource stream. At this point, by all accounts, the early chaos has stabilised, the user-base has been whittled down to a grizzled core of expert douchebags, and the kind of quietly heartbreaking stories that the thing produced in its first few months are no more: but holy shit, that was a thing while it lasted.

9. POWER BOUNCE HEROES (Linda Muzorewa /Perehilion): Grognards have been lamenting the commercial death of the platformer genre since the early 90s, but 2014 was the year that offered some hope that they might have a future again. Purists may insist on calling mobile-targeted, twitch- and precision-free games like Hooray Balloon, Princess Expedition and From the Clouds ‘jumplikes’, while the comments sections remain choked with clueless kids who appear sincerely angry and confused at the concept of two-dimensional characters who can jump many times their own height – but the professional polish, accessible design and guileless humour of Power Bounce Heroes made me, at least, a tentative convert.

8. HEADSHOT HITLER (Wolfsshanze Foundation): Yes, it’s been available in some shape or other for the better part of the last six years, but this is the year that the weird, obsessive alternate-history piece, haphazardly developed by a tightly-knit and inscrutable community, somehow constituted itself into a nonprofit and Greenlit the thing, and the rest of the world took to Twitter to yell about whether it was a Nazi re-enactor’s fantasy (the detail on those uniforms, contrasted against the grey, faceless crowds and false-front landscape, makes this hard to discredit), a revenge shooter, a big middle finger to German content restrictions, or a treatise on ballistics and the human body. Its thirty levels – each representing actual or planned attempts on Hitler’s life at wildly varying degrees of historical speculation – rarely last more than ten minutes apiece, but take an awful lot of practice to overcome. On the rare occasions that I managed to wing Schicklgruber before going down under a pile of meaty-headed SS thugs, the anatomical bullet-trajectory diagram and authoritative-sounding mortality percentage was strangely soothing.

7. TAFFETA KINGDOM (Heavy Petal): Spiritual successor to the 2003 cult hit Silk Kingdom, Taffeta Kingdom’s five sultry heroes manipulate the political fate of Ruritania through strategic ballroom dance. Even if you have no interest in mastering the more abtruse points of the dance system or remembering why you should care about the Baron von Echtensdorf, it’s always fun to send your career into a Scandal death-spiral with cross-dressing, indiscriminate flirts and (whisper it) waltz, then seeing whether you can keep your social standing afloat until someone invades. Heavy Petal has already announced the sequel, Charleston Republic,  for mid-2016; it’s an open question as to whether I’ll have got through all of the DLC by then. (Seriously, you haven’t experienced TK if you haven’t got Charming Rustic Dances. Two words: peasant rebellion.)

6. CIA SHADOW GUARDIANS IV: HOMELAND STORM (PanArts): The year’s biggest first-person security game can hardly escape mention. To outsiders, the plot’s continuing ramifications are deeply confusing – perennial all-American hero Thad Harding, by this point, is a professor of constitutional law, the most decorated soldier in the history of the Special Forces, and either the officially-appointed Director of the CIA (there’s also a de facto Director and a shadow Director), a hunted traitor, and/or the faceless founder of a landless nation that exists only as a ghost of the intelligence community. He has personally eliminated somewhere between five and eleven heads of state, depending on how you played the first four games. Fortunately for mere mortals, it’s possible to ignore the greater portion of the byzantine plot and entertain yourself with upgrading your big black SUV, strategically drone-striking Connecticut, and rage-sneaking around the world’s scenic hotels and dungeons ruining the lives of your former allies when their icons go Traitor Red. If you want to know what any of it is meant to be about, the edit wars on the wiki seem to have mostly simmered down by this point.

5. MALT QUEST (Wee Radge): Theoretically a promotional game for Invermar distillery, the all-text Malt Quest appears to have metastatised into its own thing, a blend of abstract tower defence (fending off the excisemen by day) builder RTS (gathering ingredients and dodging bogles by night) and expressionist-crafting (making the actual whisky). Like a lot of browser-based things, it’s a horrible attention-sink that will glom up all of your spare moments and slowly intrude upon your actually-doing-shit until you either finish the damn game (unlikely) or perform an intervention on yourself. But about midway through – okay, I’ll try not to spoil too much, but it coalesces a striking protagonist out of basically nothing and then proceeds to hit all my buttons on the Intangible Melancholy front.

4. LIMINAL (Richard Onny / Black Shuck Studios): Among the hordes of games looking to cash in on the magical-realist autobiography genre in the aftermath of Jacinta Fuentes’s Campeche (2012), the standout is undoubtedly Liminal, Onny’s meticulous re-creation of his rural English childhood hometown, transfigured by the intrusion of a fairy wood that comes and goes like the ebb of the tide. Most reviewers have focused on the atmospherics and charmingly grotesque goblin antics, but the thing’s real accomplishment is how it managed to elicit mainstream appeal for what’s basically a walking simulator / interactive diorama with only the most fragmentary shreds of plot. My sense is that it’s all down to impeccable balance and pacing, but that’s mostly just a fancy way of saying that I can’t fully analyse its strange magic.

3. KAROO (Songline): I know I’m going to get comments over this, but: I think this was a really slow year for dragonpassers. The much-anticipated Nomad IV pretty much abandoned any attempt at a coherent mythology, while simplifying intratribal tensions so much as to make them narratively irrelevant; Covenant of Feathers sells itself as an over-the-top ironic revisit of the silly animal-people tribes that characterised early-aughts games, which would have been briefly cute if last year’s Schweinvolk hadn’t already done it better; Fyrd Oath admittedly had some bad-ass raiding mechanics, but good lord was the level of detail given to concubinage creepy. But the relatively low-budget Karoo absolutely nailed the two things I love most about passers: a rich cultural backdrop (a sort of alternate-universe Boer-Khoisan syncretism) and a strongly-characterised, heavily-involved council. And yeah, okay, like apparently everyone else on the internet I have a big ol’ crush on Vygie. Shut up. The archaeology frame-story mode has got a lot of attention (and spawned a giant ‘pots are people!‘ meme that needs to die soonest); I’m not sure it’s anything more than a neat gimmick, but it’s a really neat gimmick and that deserves credit.

2. WFTDA: JAM LINE NIGHTMARE 2014 (PanArts). I know this is going to ruin my indie cred, but I’ve always had a soft spot for the Jam Line series – it’s based on the one sport I actually follow, and it has consistently had the most interesting off-court narrative options of any of the major-league tie-ins. Like any sane person, I default to creating wacky fantasy leagues and messing around with the sliders to make big-hit blocking viable and nerf Gotham and and suchlike. And yeah, sure, it looks like a bajillion-dollar game and plays slicker than a lubed-up otter and has a thousand variant animations and everyone can live out their being-Bonnie-Thunders dreams if they want, but. BUT. This wouldn’t make the list even slightly if it hadn’t gone so utterly crazy on the off-court stuff. If you haven’t been playing these things for a while – look, normally this is sort of generic and muted and represented through excitedly vague newspaper headlines, but in WFTDA 2014 the off-court stuff is like an entire different game, and it’s a game that’s basically reality TV if it stopped giving a shit and snorfled up a big pile of coke and went all-out. In my current game I got invited to the White House and threw up in the Oval Office and then kissed the President’s daughter so nice that she married me, even though I was already rivalmancing Tehran’s star jammer. Like, rivalmancing so hard that her likeness is tattooed across my entire bicep because I lost a drunken bet. Then I won Internationals (obviously) and celebrated by buying the Space Needle and turning it into my Star Crib, where I spent the entire off-season doing deadlifts in a gold lamé dressing-gown while assorted celebrities drop in to complain about their love lives, beg me to play cameo roles in their current projects, and raid my bar. Oh, and I own a snow leopard. His name is Eternal Justice, and he pisses on the rug whenever Willem Dafoe comes round to discuss our yoga-pants brand. Look, I’m invested, OK?

1. TRAVESTY (Games In The Round). Gestural theatre RP is a kind of an acquired taste, but Travesty shows some encouraging signs of being a breakout hit – at least, once it gets a few more of its features rolled out. Travesty‘s biggest accomplishment, to my mind, is how effectively the deck-building structure sets player expectations (and limits bad behaviour) even for pickup games. I’ve played better games in Nobilis Open and ModaLARP, but those were scheduled events with hand-picked groups, and even those collapse fairly often. Travesty pickups are consistently enjoyable and tonally consistent, largely because it does such a good job of directing you towards players with similar goals – a tough job in tabletop, let alone online. The other big advantage is how deck-set creation provides an easy entry point for scenario and character creators: a relatively small core community has created a lot of content in the six months since it came out, and some of it is already rivaling the default scenarios in quality.

There’s a long way to go – multi-session support is still a way off, the spectator system needs a serious overhaul, an authoring tool that doesn’t rely on the cloud would be really nice, and having more than one NPC tends to clog up the action flow, particularly if you’re one of the wackos who for some reason thinks that it makes sense to play competitively. It’s not perfect in every way – I probably had more fun in Jam Line 2014 and Taffeta Kingdom, for instance. But this is, no question, the game that I expect we’ll be talking reverentially about ten years from now.


Choice of Games

Psy High — Read minds, fight evil, and save the junior prom!

by Dan Fabulich at December 12, 2014 05:01 PM

We’re proud to announce that Psy High, the latest in our popular “Choice of Games” line of multiple-choice interactive-fiction games, is now available for iOS, Android, Kindle Fire, and, via the Chrome Web Store, Windows, OS X, and Linux. When the kids at your high school start developing psychic powers, you and your friends must team up to stop the principal from taking over the world! Psy High is an interactive teen supernatural mystery novel by Rebecca Slitt, where your choices control the story. It’s entirely text-based–without graphics or sound effects–and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination.

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Choice of Games Presents “Creatures Such as We” by Lynnea Glasser

by Dan Fabulich at December 12, 2014 05:01 PM

Choice of Games is proud to announce that Creatures Such as We by Lynnea Glasser is now available for free on iOS, Android, and our web site. Creatures Such as We is a philosophical interactive romance novel where your choices control the story. It’s entirely text-based–without graphics or sound effects–and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination. It’s completely free, including no in-game advertisements and no in-app purchases. In Creatures Such as We, living on the moon is lonely, and stressful, and exhausting. Video games have always offered you an escape to a better life. The easy, happy

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Sibyl Moon Games

Writing Mechanically Solid Parser Games

by Carolyn VanEseltine at December 12, 2014 02:01 AM

Introduction

I’m running a long-form text adventure game jam called ParserComp, and I’ve been writing an accompanying series of articles about how to write parser games in Inform 7.

Perhaps because I’ve been steeped in mechanics, this article is a particularly mechanical look at game design – what can be done with parser, rather than what should be done with parser. It’s a post at the ten thousand foot view, rather than getting down to the nitty-gritty of how to write an effective room description, how to build an effective puzzle, or how to guide players forward without putting the game on rails.

I’ll write those later. Promise.

Understanding the Medium

pong

From Stephen Granade’s adaptation of “Pong”.

There are some things parser games do very well. There are some things parser games do very badly.

The key to writing a mechanically solid parser game is to focus on the things parser games do well, and steer away from things parser games do badly – or to find a way around what normally goes badly, and showcase whatever you did that makes it work so well.

Key Parser Constraints

For each of these examples, there are counterexamples, but they’re not common, and they require a great deal of work to implement. If you’re just starting to write text adventures, you should expect to work within these constraints.

Parser games are text-based.

Players enter typed commands. The game responds with composed prose. Sound and graphics (ASCII or otherwise) are minimal or nonexistent.

Parser games are turn-based.

Players have as long as they want to consider their next action. There is no concept of true time pressure. There is no “twitch” gaming aspect.

Parser games are single player.

Players can’t expect real-life friends to log in and join them.

Parser worlds are divided into discrete, separate rooms in space.

Each room is encapsulated. While other rooms exist, players can’t normally observe or interact with anything outside the current room.

Contrast this with a game like Minecraft, where you can stand on top of one mountain, stare over the forest valley to the far ocean, and then hike to the shore without a screen load. It’s kind of like binary versus analog.

Parser worlds are divided into discrete, separate actions in time.

In reality and static fiction, our actions blend one into another and overlap one another. People can simultaneously walk to the convenience store, chat with friends on the phone, and dodge dog poop on the sidewalk.

Parser games don’t have that luxury. While careful programming may create the illusion of simultaneous action, the reality is that parser game time passes at one speed – command-sized chunks. In real life, “WALK TO GROCERY STORE” might take 15 minutes, while “CALL FRIEND ON CELL PHONE” might take 8 minutes, and “DODGE DOG POOP” might take 1 second. In a parser game, the player’s input is discrete each time, and the game’s reaction as well.

Parser games offer a reality of finite player choice behind an illusion of infinite player choice.

At any given point, it is possible to build a list of every command available to a player in a given parser game. There may be many hundreds of choices on that list – everything from “EXAMINE ME” to “RUB LAMP” to “USE THE TROWEL TO PLANT THE POT PLANT IN THE PLANT POT” (as Magnetic Scrolls used to brag about their parser).

But the player can only make choices that have been implemented by the author and the system. The illusion of infinite choice depends upon anticipating choices the player will want to make. Providing intelligent responses to those choices is the biggest mechanical challenge faced by a parser game author.

What Parser Games Do Well

The Bartle Test of Gamer Psychology classifies players of multiplayer online games into four categories, based on whether they prefer to act on or interact with other players or the world. Bartle divided players into Killers, Achievers, Socializers, and Explorers with these axes.

Bartle test

These axes were designed to examine player inclinations, but they can also be used to talk about the opportunities available in a game.

Parser games are best at providing opportunities for exploration and achievement. Traditionally, parser games are full of puzzles, which fit both categories squarely – the achievement appeal of solving a puzzle, and the exploratory appeal of accessing whatever new content lies behind the puzzle.

Parser games feel spacious and versatile. No matter how many rooms a parser game actually has, it will feel vast in space, time, and opportunity to a player who hasn’t yet encountered its limits. If a parser game correctly guides the player, the player will make choices and move in directions that have been anticipated by the author, producing an ongoing pleasurable experience that reinforces that illusion of infinite choice.

In the special effects department, interactive fiction : video games :: books : movies. When your special effects are lines of prose, you can execute anything you can write about. Time travel, psychic powers, shapeshifting, casts of thousands – it’s all within the reach of prose, and therefore all within the parser’s potential reach.

What Parser Games Do Poorly

Everything that can go wrong in parser game design involves breaking one of two illusions: the illusion of infinite choice, or the illusion of a consistent world.

When those illusions break, the player experience goes downhill fast, producing problems such as guess the verb (where the action is obvious but the command is unclear), psychic author syndrome (where the solution to a puzzle cannot reasonably be derived from the environment), and crimes against mimesis (a variety of immersion-breaking problems with the surrounding universe).

In order to maintain those two illusions, a certain level of skill is required from the player – or carefully crafted handholding, hinting, and guidance from the game. It is difficult enough to maintain those illusions for an experienced player, who is cooperating with the parser. To a novice, “SEARCH THE HOUSE FROM TOP TO BOTTOM UNTIL YOU FIND THE MISSING NECKLACE” looks like a completely reasonable instruction, and it is difficult to teach new players how to operate within a parser’s moment-to-moment protocol.

Parser games are single-player, so the only other “people” in parser games are ones that have been pre-programmed. It is extraordinarily hard to write a believable, realistic NPC (non-player character), one who responds to conversation and the player’s potentially bizarre actions alike. This means that it is difficult to cultivate some emotional responses in players, since the obviously artificial nature of other NPCs acts as a turnoff.

It is also particularly difficult to simulate things that are by nature interconnected with the surrounding world. Fire, water, and rope are three classic examples, each carrying its own huge list of associated design decisions.

  • What items are flammable? What are the properties of an object on fire? How does fire spread? What happens to a fully burnt object? Should fire produce ashes, soot, and smoke?
  • Can objects get wet? What are the properties of a wet object? Does water drip off or evaporate? Can some water be separated from the rest of the water? Can objects be damaged or destroyed by water?
  • Can the player tie objects together? Can the player drag objects at the end of the rope? Can the player tie something to the end of the rope and then throw the other object and keep the rope? Can the player cut the rope apart and make multiple ropes?

Authors can avoid messy design decisions like these by choosing discrete, solid objects to go in the game.

Recommendations for Leveraging Parser Strengths

Keep the setting small.

Parser games often feel larger than they are, but they never feel smaller, and unless you’re an experienced parser author, every room will take longer than you think it will. Each additional room requires additional writing, additional objects, additional implementation, additional testing, and (eventually) additional brainpower or mapping time for your players as they try to remember where everything is. Trust the medium, and reduce your map.

Implement objects with a light hand.

Realism isn’t everything. There are more than 40 objects on my desk right now – and that’s when some objects are grouped together, such as “a stack of index cards”, “a stack of papers”, and “a stack of business cards”. Imagine this in a game:

>look desk
On the black wooden desk, you see a copy of Creating Interactive Fiction with Inform 7, a copy of Plots Unlimited, a white Xbox controller, a black Xbox controller, a tiny black screw, a pink spiral-bound notebook, a cell phone, a pair of rhinestone-studded arm warmers, a wide-screen computer monitor, a smaller computer monitor with a prominent scratch, a purple Bic mechanical pencil, a green Bic mechanical pencil, a rubber band, a blue hair tie, an arcade token, a stack of business cards, a wireless keyboard, a pink tube of hand lotion, a green butterfly coaster, a can of Dr. Pepper, a flying squirrel puppet….

That’s only 20 things so far! It’s a world of red herrings and hurt from the player’s perspective, especially because the most prominent items are buried in the wall of text. But it’s nowhere near that confusing in life.

And I didn't even label the mouse!

>GET ALL

I will admit that I need to clean my desk. But it still demonstrates why everything present in real life shouldn’t be implemented in a game.

Build problems that can be solved by acting on objects.

A parser game can be conceived as a series of explorations that are divided by a series of blocks. The player explores, then encounters a block (a puzzle) that stops exploration in that direction. The player takes one or more actions to resolve the situation and then moves forward.

Those actions, like everything else the player does, must be conceptualized in light of the discrete nature of parser spacetime. Generally speaking, they will look something like “Take action X with object Y” – resulting in player commands like “Drop bird”, “Give food to bear”, or “Wear 3D glasses”. (Lock and key puzzles are very popular for a reason, and they can be dressed up in a remarkable variety of ways.)

By contrast, puzzle solutions that cannot be divided into discrete actions on objects are much harder to build and much harder to implement. Examples of these puzzles would be things like “Convince the guard to let you go on account of your wounded mother”, “Train the dog to pick up the soda bottle on command”, or “Use the potted plant as cover while advancing on the shooter”. All of these would work fine in static fiction, but they break down under the command-by-command, moment-by-moment nature of the parser.

Build stories that relate to people.

Okay, this recommendation isn’t mechanical. But I think it’s important, and I typically think of it back-to-back with the last one, like so:

Build problems that can be solved with objects. Build stories that relate to people.

It’s hard to write parser games that include people, because people are really hard to simulate without breaking the illusion. But if a text adventure is “a crossword at war with a narrative” (as Graham Nelson said in The Craft of Adventure) then the narrative must exist as well as the crossword. Puzzles are easier to program than people, but people are more interesting than puzzles.

If your story relates to people, and the people are interesting, then they’ll be interesting even in absentia. You can show them through flashes of memory, or voices over loudspeakers, or psychic impressions, or simply by allowing your player to wander through spaces they own. Whether you’re trying to withstand enemy interrogation (Spider and Web), work on your dissertation (Violet), save the souls of an alien race (Coloratura), or just deliver the mail (Wishbringer), having a core context related to people will help the story aspect hugely.

Play to learn

The best way to learn about the possibilities in parser games: play parser games.

Play good games and then read the reviews, so you can see what they did right. Play bad games and then read the reviews, so you can see what they did wrong. (You can find examples of games by checking the IFComp site, and lists of reviews by checking IFWiki.)

Play old classics, like Zork or Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and then compare them to more recent games like Andromeda Apocalypse or Rover’s Day Out.

Play games in different engines – not just Inform (Zcode or Glulx), but TADS, Hugo, Alan, and others – to see how the parser changes, and how that affects the game.

And just play because it’s fun.

December 11, 2014

Post Position

My Reading from #! at Google

by Nick Montfort at December 11, 2014 09:15 PM

Video of my #! reading, which I did at Google Boston on December 2, is now online.

I actually forgot to present a few things. I’d wanted to at least show something from both Memory Slam and Renderings. Ah, well.

Classic Adventure Solution Archive

CASA Update - 13 new game entries, 8 new solutions, 7 new maps, 1 new hints

by Gunness at December 11, 2014 02:28 PM

So.... this is the time of year where I'm supposed to point you in the direction of seasonal titles of questionable merit. Right?

Image
Well, not so this year. Currently we're trying to untangle the complicated history of the Topologika games, which originated on mainframes, got released in truncated form for the BBC, then later re-released in complete (?) versions by Topologika. I'm sorry to say that I've only played a few of these, but the quality seems to go hand in hand with the difficulty level!
We're still editing the various entries to clarify which machines they were released on, but feel free to dive in and take one or more of them for a spin right away.
As always thanks to everybody who have chipped in, with a special nod to Leenew and Richard Bos for assisting with the Topologika entries.

Contributors: Alex, Gunness, Alastair, ChrisJT, Richard Bos, Quantum, dunjenkeepa

Post Position

Renderings (phase 1) Published

by Nick Montfort at December 11, 2014 03:31 AM

For the past six months I’ve been working with six collaborators,

  • Patsy Baudoin
  • Andrew Campana
  • Qianxun (Sally) Chen
  • Aleksanda Małecka
  • Piotr Marecki
  • Erik Stayton

To translate e-lit, and for the most part computational literature works such as poetry generators, into English from other languages.

Cura: The Renderings project, phase 1

After a great deal of work that extends from searching for other-langauge pieces, through technical and computing development that includes porting, and also extends into the more usual issues assocaited with literary translation, the first phase of the Renderings project (13 works translated from 6 languages) has just been published in Fordham University’s literary journal, Cura.

Please take a look and spread the word. Those of us rooted in English do not have much opportunity to experience the world-wide computational work with langague that is happening. Our project is an attempt to rectify that.

December 10, 2014

Sibyl Moon Games

Progress note on the ‘Welcome to Adventure’ series

by Carolyn VanEseltine at December 10, 2014 05:01 AM

This little quick-start guide has come a long way!

At this point, the Welcome to Adventure series provides a quick-start understanding of:

  • how to make and connect rooms, with doors, lockable and otherwise
  • how to make objects, including containers and supporters
  • how to make new verbs, including out-of-world verbs like Help
  • how to alter existing verbs for new functionality
  • how to use if/then statements to check object properties
  • how to change the state of existing object properties
  • how to move the player from room to room
  • how to make new kinds of objects with new properties
  • how to turn on scoring and give points to the player
  • how to end the game with custom messaging

It’s a good tool set, and definitely enough to make a game from scratch.

I’m still planning three more lessons, but I reconsidered the lesson plan today. This isn’t set in stone, but I think I’m going to cover:

  • how to implement the dwarves
  • how to implement a maze of twisty little passages
  • how to implement darkness and the lamp

If there’s something else you’d really like me to cover, let me know. I’m discussing this in a thread on intfiction.org, and of course I’m reading the comments here!

Because this is a quick-start guide, I knew I’d only scratch the surface of Inform 7, but writing these tutorials has given me a whole new appreciation of the versatility and power available. My thanks to Graham Nelson (the creator of Inform), Emily Short (design advisor and primary documentation author, which means this is a microscopic version of her macroscopic effort), and everyone else responsible for Inform 7.

St. Baldrick’s Foundation

The Welcome to Adventure series began on November 3, 2014 as a Work for Charity Day project. If this guide is of use to you, please consider making a donation to St. Baldrick’s Foundation, which funds childhood cancer research, in honor of Rebecca Meyer and the Meyer Family.

Donation link

Welcome to Adventure: Lesson 6 (Scoring, New Properties, New Kinds, and Ending the Game)

by Carolyn VanEseltine at December 10, 2014 04:01 AM

Introduction

This is the sixth in a series of quick-start Inform 7 tutorials using examples from Colossal Cave Adventure. More information about this tutorial series can be found here: A Quick-Start Guide to Inform 7.

Scoring

In the early days, many text adventures relied upon a scoring system to encourage players along. By default, Inform 7 games do not have scoring, but this can be changed easily. To turn on Inform’s built-in scoring system:

Use scoring.

(Sometimes, it’s just that easy.)

With scoring turned on, the next step is to specify a maximum score:

The maximum score is 350.

Here’s how to award points to the player:

Some bars of silver are a thing. The bars of silver are in Low N/S Passage.

After taking the bars of silver:
    increase the score by 5;
    continue the action.

The reason for the “continue the action” instruction is that after rules replace report rules. The report rule for taking is what prints “Taken” at the end, so without that “continue the action”, there would be no announcement of the action’s success. (For more about Inform 7’s action rules, see Lesson 5.)

Adding New Properties

There is a small problem with the syntax above – not a programming problem, but a design problem. The score increase triggers every time the player takes the bars of silver.

silver abuse

This kind of abuse can be avoided in a few ways. The best way for this exact example is probably to use the built-in property “handled”.

handled option

Another way to handle this is to add new properties. Here, I’ve added the “scored” property to the bars of silver.

Some bars of silver are a thing. The bars of silver are in Low N/S Passage. The bars of silver can be scored or unscored. The bars of silver are unscored.

After taking the bars of silver:
    if the bars of silver are unscored:
        increase the score by 5;
        now the bars of silver are scored;
    continue the action.

scored option

Using Kinds

It’s all very well to put “scored” and “unscored” on the bars of silver. But there are many treasures in Adventure, and adding a new property and an “after” rule for every single one would be extremely cumbersome and dull.

The items you’ve been creating – the wicker cage, the little bird, the tasty food, the bars of silver – are all things. They share certain properties, such as edible/inedible, and certain fields, such as the initial appearance and the description.

When we created the wicker cage, we didn’t call it a thing – we called it a container, instead. A container is a kind of thing. It has all the properties of a thing, but it has additional properties that belong specifically to containers.

Similarly, when we created the little bird, we called it an animal. An animal is a kind of person, and a person is a kind of thing. An animal has all the properties of things, plus the properties of people, plus the properties of animals.

You can get a detailed look at all of the kinds in the game by going to Index, to Kinds, and then dragging down. You can also see every representative of every kind listed there – so you can see the wicker cage listed under containers, and also under things.

all the kinds in the game

You are not limited to the kinds that are pre-populated in Inform. You can create new kinds from any of the existing kinds, or from any new kinds that you create.

In this case, let’s create a new kind of thing called treasure to make treasure scoring easier. By transferring all the rules from the bars of silver onto the new treasure kind, we can create a template that will affect any other treasure we want to create.

A treasure is a kind of thing. A treasure can be scored or unscored. A treasure is usually unscored.

After taking a treasure (called the current treasure):
    if the current treasure is unscored:
        increase the score by 5;
        now the current treasure is scored;
    continue the action.

Some bars of silver are a treasure. The bars of silver are in Low N/S Passage.

Some precious jewelry is a treasure. The precious jewelry is in Low N/S Passage.

Some rare coins are a treasure. The rare coins are in Low N/S Passage.

And that will work just fine.

lots of treasure

Note that the words “the current treasure” could be anything – “the loot”, “the grabbed thing”, “your hippopotamus”. It’s just a temporary variable to indicate which treasure you mean.

Why specify “(called the current treasure)” at all? Why not just say “if the treasure is unscored” and “now the treasure is scored”?

First, “now the treasure is scored” won’t compile. The game has to know which treasure should be scored. It won’t pick one at random.

Second, “if the treasure is unscored” is equivalent to “if a treasure is unscored” – which is true if any treasure is unscored, not just the one being handled. This will compile, but it can lead to some truly devious bugs. Being specific is better.

Ending the Game

The full mechanics for ending a game of Adventure are fairly complex, seeing as they involve orange smoke. But most games do need an end, and since this is a quick-start guide, this will be a quick-end game.

Like every other instruction to be carried out during play, ending the game needs to be built into a rule. I’m going to build it into our existing treasure setup, just to make life easy.

 After taking a treasure (called the current treasure):
    if the current treasure is unscored:
        increase the score by 5;
        now the current treasure is scored;
        if the score is 15:
            end the story saying “Hooray, you win!”;
    continue the action.

There are some fine-tuned variations available in endings, such as the difference between ending the story (which can be reversed) and ending the story “finally” (which cannot, and potentially reveals hidden menu options to the player), but these are beyond the scope of this article.

Further Reading

The most helpful chapter for follow-up reading is Chapter 4, which covers building new kinds and goes into extensive detail about how to use them. Other helpful sections for this lesson include:

§2.12 Use options
§3.5 Kinds
§3.6 Either-or properties
§3.7 Properties depend on kind
§8.4 Change of either/or properties
§8.15 Calling names
§9.2 Awarding points
§9.4 When play ends

Post Position

Megawatt, the Paperback, Can Be Bought

by Nick Montfort at December 10, 2014 02:53 AM

… from the Harvard Book Store.

And if it’s digital data you’re craving, it’s also available for free as a PDF and as an EPUB. And the code that generated these books is free software.

Gamefic

Using a Dictionary Database to Build a Smarter Parser

December 10, 2014 01:01 AM

One major challenge in parser-based adventure games is avoiding guess-the-word problems. Players can get frustrated when they attempt to push, activate, or turn on a button, only to discover that the game expected them to press it. Developers typically have to rely on extensive testing and their own meticulousness to make the parser as comprehensive as possible. Right now I'm experimenting with a more automated solution: querying a dictionary database for synonyms of implemented verbs. The game can use this data to make sensible recommendations for unrecognized commands. Read More

December 09, 2014

These Heterogenous Tasks

More War Stories

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at December 09, 2014 08:01 PM

reallygoodhaulThis War of Mine is winnable. As is usual in games, there’s a few tricks to it; some of specific objectives, some of general approach. After a few more false starts, I worked out how to get through Sniper Junction, how to scavenge without getting cornered and killed (mostly), how to keep my people warm and fed. Katia, Arica, Emilia and Marin weathered the worst the war could throw at them, largely avoiding injury, sickness and depression along the way. Nobody died, nobody had to kill.

I won’t spoil how, though, because the key experience in this game is not victory: it’s how you fail the first playthrough. This should be experienced alone, with headphones, in a slightly-underheated room in the first week of December.

Trigger-warning for the rest of the post: PTSD, sexual assault.

Brutality.

lydiasrsly

Lydia and I are equally impressed by the impaled, flayed corpse.

An awful lot of games make a point of their brutality, but this is typically undercut. One way this happens is a sort of brutality inflation: games have been using horrific corpse mutilation as casual scene-dressing for so damn long that it barely even registers any more – or, if it does, it registers mostly as a tool of adolescent posturing, in much the same way that the kids in school who had seen Reservoir Dogs considered themselves more grown-up and serious than those who hadn’t, or who couldn’t stomach it.

Of equal importance: the player is not subject to brutality. The player is the baddest motherfucker in the goddamn valley: strapped with gear and hit-points, and able to go back to a save if by some chance they fail to destroy all in their path. Horrific fates are something that happens to other people. You don’t look at room full of torture-corpses and think, shit, I could end up like that. You likely don’t even register them as meant to be something that was a person once. Brutality tends to end up distancing the player from the fears and ethics of the game, because it highlights just how much they’re exterior to them.

This War of Mine is able to treat brutality with vastly more success because it takes it more seriously than as a prop in a power fantasy. It can use the realism excuse because it’s actually concerned with pertinent realism, and extends that realism to the player.

In This War, you spend much of the time armed – if at all – with shovels and butcher knives, praying you won’t have to use them. Later on you might get pretty well tooled-up, with an AK and body armour, but you never lose the sense of vulnerability, the sense that there are much, much scarier people than you around, that your life is fragile. A bandit lair is not a perfunctory threat, a thing to be cleared out; it’s a dark tower, a Golgotha, a thing beyond your power to overcome.

Single-save stealth. The thing about stealth games, in general, is that you get a lot of do-overs. Stealth is inherently kind of hard – fuck one thing up and it all goes to hell. Most stealth games offer generous autosave, or let you run away and try again at no great cost. This War of Mine‘s scavenging missions often become stealth missions that you can’t replay.

In This War running away costs you – if you execute a full-blown retreat, the night’s over. A scavenging run that turns up no loot is a blow both mechanically and rhetorically. But not running away can be much, much worse. Sneaking around an occupied house to loot it runs a major risk of getting cornered. Combat is messy and unpredictable – not least because you don’t get to practice at it. And there are some enemies who are just way too tough for you. Zlata got caught while robbing a militia-run warehouse. She’d taken along a handgun and a handful of precious bullets as insurance – this was one of the scarier locations – but opted to run for it. Halfway out, she ran into a gunman coming the other way, trapping her. Somehow I got the gun out and put three rounds in something approximating centre mass: it barely hurt him, there was a stutter of automatic fire, and Zlata was dead. I don’t know if he was wearing Kevlar or if I only grazed him, but it wasn’t an experiment I could very well repeat.

This is hard to get used to. A big part of the trouble with my first couple of playthroughs was that my scavengers were taking way too many risks, pushing their luck, and getting killed for it. I didn’t learn skill so much as I learned to be afraid.

The vital importance of scavenging means that the characters you rely on the most are also the most likely to die. When you’re scavenging, inventory slots matter. Generally you find more shit than you can carry; given how marginal your resources are, having a couple of extra slots makes a hell of a lot of difference. This means that you rapidly come to rely on a favourite scavenger – and when she dies, it sucks. And this isn’t just an asset, some faceless mook, randomly-generated composite, or player-defined avatar: they’re an author-crafted character with a name, a face, a history, unique skills. You don’t have too many of them. The number of characters in your group – three or four, most of the time – is pitched about perfectly to give you familiarity and investment in each, without investing so much that their death is an effective game-over.

I really want more games that do not have a single player-character – where player perspective and control are distributed between multiple characters, either in sequence or simultaeneously; games which ameliorate the immortal power of the PC by spreading it around, without splitting it up so much that the characters become faceless pawns. I want more games where the player-character’s internal states are conspicuously distinct from the player’s. (But I digress. A topic for another time.)

All this contributes to a tone which lets the game deal with stuff that, in most games, would be pretty eye-rolling. There’s a scene where you rescue a woman from sexual assault by a soldier. In most games, this would be a trivial decision, a matter of preference: off-handedly kill the soldier, receive gratitude. In this case, though, the principal difference between Zlata and the victim was that Zlata had a hatchet. Against the soldier’s body armour and assault rifle. If it didn’t go well, I’d lose my best scavenger and the rest of the group would go hungry. I had to take a deep breath before opening that door.

Secondly, it didn’t play out as a fight to the death. Zlata opened the door with hatchet drawn, which was enough to let the victim run away; Zlata promptly legged it also. (Most hostile encounters go like this: a gun is brandished, a threat or two shouted, a hasty retreat beaten.) And finally, the gratitude speech didn’t come from the victim, but later, indirectly from a friend of hers – which feels a good deal less contrived and creepy.

This isn’t to say that This War of Mine is note-perfect about everything; its indifferently-translated writing alone makes that unlikely. But it’s a strong example of how mechanics, writing and scenario-creation are deeply interlinked, how a particular mechanical context necessarily enables some subjects and makes others impossible to do well.

It is a game where you can kill people and take their stuff, but this is not a light matter. Most games that impose consequences on horrible behaviour do so in terms of reputation. This is an old method and one that players are used to. Again, badassery can render it moot: the wronged parties attack you on sight and send assassins after you, thus throwing more lootable bodies into the meat-grinder. Where reputation is contextual – by faction, or whatnot – players can be rampaging sadists in one town, then wander over to the neighbouring village, still splattered in gore, and be greeted as heroes. But far more insidious is that this approach treats ethics as a wholly external force: as in Glaucon’s challenge to Socrates, the most profitable position is to be bad but be seen as good. Ethics is bullshit imposed on the character by Other People.

This War of Mine exerts consequences mostly in terms of mental health. If you steal, or kill someone over a can of beans, it has some consequences. On my second failed playthrough I had a character, Roman, who had a militia background. I had in the back of my mind the idea that I might need to be more aggressive to survive this time around. Roman got cornered in a basement by the residents of a house he was looting, a man and a woman. They had a single knife between them, but they were going to protect what was theirs. Roman had a shovel and some paramilitary training. He lived. They didn’t.

(The game’s attitude is that it is more OK to steal from the strong than from the weak; I’m not sure if the same standard applies to killing, because I haven’t killed anybody strong yet.)

When Roman got home, he was not only badly injured but depressed, and everybody else was sad about it too. They knew what he’d done; they talked about it in horrified tones. Roman hunkered in bed, with injuries that wouldn’t heal. A couple of nights later, he got in a fight with Bruno and beat him up – only superficial injuries, but enough to plunge Bruno into depression too. Bruno’s sobbing kept everyone from sleeping. Roman had gone from a useful ally into someone whose mere presence was poison. The barricaded house felt newly claustrophobic. (Once he was well enough, I sent him out on the more dangerous scavenging runs, and was a little relieved when he got shot.)

I don’t know that mental health effects are an infallible tool – both The Sims and Dwarf Fortress use it as a primary tool of character influence, and in both you can overcome the pain of losing a loved one through sufficiently expensive décor. But here, oh my.


December 08, 2014

These Heterogenous Tasks

IF Comp 2014: Zest

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at December 08, 2014 04:01 AM

zest

Zest,  by Fear of Twine (a collective title which will in no way cause confusion with the game jam-ish thing of the same name, comprising Richard Goodness, lectronice and PaperBlurt) is a CYOA Twine piece that bills itself as a management game.

(IF Comp 2014 is over, but I have a couple of reviews to finish up for the sake of completeness. They’re belated on account of I’ve been sick and brain-dead.)

From the blurb, I had assumed that ‘zest’ was a nod to the lemonade stand as the archetypal American symbol of small business – and, indeed, the game’s protagonist does work in the citrus-oriented service industry – but in fact zest is a stand-in for drugs. Mostly weed, although needles and mirrors show up also.

zest

Zest presents itself with console fonts and grubby pixel art that suggests rather than shows. This is a cultural divide, right here. For some set of people – a big set, in the indie gaming world – this stuff is catnip, the aesthetic equivalent of King James English to a traditionalist anglophone Protestant. I’ve never been there. My reaction, when first shown Mario and Sonic, was (and basically remains) ‘god, that’s ugly and inane.’ Maybe this is because I grew up with Macs and never owned consoles – all my friends had more and better games, but theirs all looked hideous. So, yeah, when it comes to this aesthetic I always feel as though everyone else is being directed to these warm snuggly nostalgia feelings and I get a lump of coal. This mode is the one way in which it even half-works – where the point is that things are ugly and shit.

The protagonist, Billy, is not in a great place. He’s sleeping on a couch, working an insecure service job, toking up regularly – evidently more as palliative than out of any enjoyment. It’s by no means the most astoundingly shitty situation one could be in – which is emphasized in your encounters with homeless panhandlers on the bus – but it’s still pretty shit. There is never any privacy: whether you like it or not, when you go home you’re hanging out with fellow messed-up stoner Frankie, who rambles on about stupid stoned-inspiration projects he’s planning on, all of which are attempts to get over his ex. You can acquire stuff – hey, I’ll get a pipe, then I won’t have to waste money on papers and tobacco – but you’ll probably just break it with stoned fumbling. There are stoned hook-ups that mostly leave you hungover and grody.

We don’t actually see a lot of this; the narrative is delivered in brief snippets with a lot of space in between them. There’s a sense that a lot of Billy’s life is fogged-out routine. We don’t see what Billy looks like when he’s snapping at the customers – we can’t tell if he’s a little snippy or a towering asshole. We don’t see what Frankie’s like when he’s not on a stoned rant. “I always have my best ideas under the shower,” it declares when you take a shower, followed by no ideas.

Billy’s a Catholic, and this seems like a pretty big deal to him – PRAY is one of the regular options, and there aren’t a whole lot of those – but he’s not in good standing. There’s a sense that this is as much to do with the church as with him: confession is only possible in a tiny time-slot on one day of the week, and attending it results in a great deal of invasive questioning, the response to which is a prescription for a number of Hail Marys. (This anticlimax is a pretty regular thing in any story with a confession-box scene, no? So I assume that this imbalance is uncomfortable even to Catholics.)

There is a lot of text that’s delivered in timed ways, with faded-out effects and the like. This adds weight to the words that they would not otherwise have, but it gets kind of excruciating when you’re replaying – and for me, it’s a little over the saturation point for effect, like a movie which has SUPER ENORMOUS ORCHESTRAL SOUNDTRACK BEATING INTO YOUR EARS WHAT THE APPROPRIATE EMOTION IS AT EVERY MOMENT.

Zest has, for a game about being stuck in a shitty trap of an existence, very few actual bastards: mostly it has a lot of people who would like to be good to one another but are extremely ineffectual at it, or are busy protecting their own scarce resources or trying to cope with their own issues. (This venality can have big consequences, however.)

Too, for a game about being stuck in a shitty trap of an existence, it feels as though it’s very easy to get out. It’s almost as though it’s making a gesture to something you know already – yeah, you’ve played Cart Life and howling dogs and Papers Please, you know how this sort of game is meant to go, now let’s talk about some endings.’ Games about shitty situations are a fine balance – if you repeat the shittiness ad nauseam then you lose all your players, but if you escape too early then they’re left with a sense that it isn’t really as bad as all that, right? Looking at other reviews, I see a bunch of people who found the game super-monotonous and got bored – and yeah, there is a pretty good piece of repetitive tedium in this thing, which is much worse when you’re replaying. (Given that it’s tracking previous playthroughs, a mode where previously-read text appeared immediately rather than going through the whole dance again would be a really valuable addition.)

Other things about the balance of this gave me pause; you start out with enough zest that all my playthroughs reached an ending before I needed to visit my dealer. This isn’t really a game about struggling to grub up cash for your next hit; I only missed getting high for stupid-mistake reasons, like forgetting to buy papers.

Golly gee, but the reviews made this look like a strong Banana contender. A number of people seem to have seen this as a woohoo-gettin’-baked kind of thing, and… I didn’t get that at all, really. Nobody in this story really does drugs for fun – well, your manager, perhaps. Everyone else is doing it as an (highly imperfect) way of coping with their issues. My sense of it was much more towards Emily’s take of undeserved grace – perhaps because I get zero warm fuzzies from pixel art, perhaps because I didn’t really pick up anything enthusiastic about the depiction of zesting, perhaps because the endings I got were all fairly upbeat and redeeming, and also featured the strongest writing of the game.

I suppose – okay, it calls itself a life sim. Everything in that category exists in the shadow of The Sims, in which the basic story is an American capitalist dream in which consistent work leads predictably and swiftly to material prosperity and a perfect family; you never need to interact with your community the slightest bit more than you want to, and no catastrophe exists big enough to disrupt your chosen course. Zest‘s stance is that life is more of a punctuated equilibrium than a matter of steady growth and stat-nursing: you’re basically in a holding pattern most of the time, and then something happens – crisis or opportunity – which you didn’t really forsee and which changes everything. To a certain extent this can feel cheap, in game terms – you bother going to Mass once and bam, now you’re an inspirational preacher. But life isn’t always what you deserve.

Overall, very mixed about this. Some strong moments, some mutton dressed up as lamb; an odd mix of nasty-spirited jabs and humanism. An ill-balanced thing, with saving graces.