Planet Interactive Fiction

May 23, 2016

The XYZZY Awards

Xyzzymposium 2014: Caleb Wilson on Best Setting

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at May 23, 2016 07:01 PM

Caleb Wilson has written interactive fiction such as Lime ErgotStarry Seeksorrow, and Six Gray Rats Crawl Up The Pillow, and has published non-­interactive fiction in Weird Tales, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and other journals. He is currently working on a project for Choice of Games about an 18th century musical virtuoso.

The nominees for Best Setting were  80 DaysHadean Lands, Invisible Partiesand With Those We Love Alive.

Setting is one of my favorite things about IF. It has two meanings to me.

First, it’s the world where the fiction takes place. The four nominees for Best Setting all take place in interesting worlds, so I’ll write a bit about that.

But secondly, and this is what distinguishes a lot of IF from static fiction, setting is the world model: the nature of this created place you can roam around, comb over, backtrack through, and explore. Even without much of a narrative at all, you can still enjoy poking around a well-made world, whether it’s built of a grid of connected rooms, or links, or routes on a spinnable globe.

A simple definition of IF is fiction that includes mechanics: rules that determine how you experience the story. Taken this way, the world model of an IF is a big part of its mechanics: how the setting is laid out and what you can do there, what it feels like to navigate the world, and how this affects the narrative or gameplay. In general games are at their strongest when their mechanic matches their theme: I find that these four games all match mechanics to theme in interesting ways.

80 Days (inkle, Meg Jayanth)

What a brilliant idea to take Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days and make it a steampunk adventure with airships and automatons and plenty of “mild peril.” (The most entertaining kind, according to Jon Ingold.) The idea reminds me a bit of mash-ups like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, except that this actually makes sense. One of the best-loved features of steampunk is its hissing and floating conveyances, which fit perfectly into a story that’s ostensibly all about different transports of varying efficiency, and one of the more troubling aspects of old-fashioned adventure writing is the colonialist, racist, and sexist attitudes, which can be eliminated or subverted with alternate history. 80 Days uses steampunk both to enhance the original and fix some of its flaws.

Victorian-era steampunk is pretty familiar by now, but 80 Days still manages to feel fresh and exciting. What it comes down to for me is that the world (made up of 169 cities you can visit, in the newest release) is fully imagined: this feels like a global setting and not just an Imperial one. The British Empire is not dominant, just as Fogg and Passepartout are not.

The writer Meg Jayanth talks about this aspect of the game specifically: one of her goals was to create a world where the PCs aren’t the most important people in it. Fogg’s own story, of trying to get around the world within the time limit, is so simple as to be tellable in a sentence, and so the player’s choices about Fogg’s story are more purely mechanical: which vehicle do we book passage on; which route do we take; how much luggage can we carry? What’s splendid about the writing is the narrative layer that Jayanth has added behind and inside this mechanical layer. There are in fact stories about people here: they are the stories of people met by chance in foreign cities, and other passengers who have booked the same routes! Really, the whole world is made up of other people’s stories, and when the player gets to make narrative choices, they are mostly about how much they want the PCs to engage in the struggles and lives of other people.

I mentioned the mechanics of Fogg’s story: there are a number of cool mechanics in the game, but the one most tied to setting is also my favorite, which is choosing how to move. It works more like a board game than traditional IF: you unlock routes on the game board, which are all labeled with their cost, and the board is wrapped around a sphere, creating a globe you can spin with your finger and then tap to signal where you want to go. I love the feeling of scrutinizing the map and trying to figure out what route to take. Even better, as you consider, you can see icons of other people who are playing right then, creeping along, perhaps on different routes, perhaps better routes… It makes what could have been static into a tiny bustling little world. Another boardgame-like mechanic is a simple pickup and deliver aspect which a) lets you make some money but also b) fills out the setting with themed props. These mechanics work together to make the setting feel like a living, teeming place. By always giving you more choices than you can possibly take, the game makes its world seem huge. It’s a clever way to make even routes not taken and goods not bought serve a purpose. Taken together, all the main mechanics of the game, by simulating the kinds of things that travelers have to think about (how good is the route I’m on, how good might have been the route I’m not on, do I have enough space for all my luggage, who are my fellow travelers and what are they up to) support the tone, which is one of light adventure studded with small emotional connections.

Invisible Parties (Sam Kabo Ashwell)

Invisible Parties starts us running without any explanations, in the style of good SF. There are no explanations right away but there are clues: in the opening paragraph I count three (four if you count the subtitle.) The characters are “clade-mates”: this implies that they are related in some way but almost certainly not a family like we know, so the setting is somewhat alien. The ways are twisting against you and you can’t find a person named Jave: still vague, but that ways can twist imply a setting which is malleable. The game takes place in a tangle, which fits well with twistable ways. Add in an interdimensional romance and it makes a little more sense. Of course, it’s easy to whip past this: the first time I played I was completely lost for a while.

From the description of the first room we realize we’re in a multiverse. A tangled multiverse that’s a trap, and a trap in a game is there to escape from: an obvious goal. The traditional X ME explains further: the PC and (presumably the clade-mates) are travelers who can move between worlds. The worlds are our worlds–or at least versions of them–the first of the Beckys is described as looking like a Roman matron. A tangle, which is what we’re in, is a confusing place made up of many worlds. It has a foyer, much like the ifMUD. Talking to Becky gives a command, to forgo Jave, and now the setting snaps into place, suggesting both a story and goal: Jave is here in the tangle somewhere, Becky doesn’t want you with Jave, so, you are meant to find Jave in this confusing place and both get out.

It’s a bit complicated to talk about “setting” in Invisible Parties, because the setting is made of settings. There are both the individual rooms in the tangle, each a distinct setting chosen for its singularity, and the grid-like tangle into which all these rooms are melded together. The rooms–patches in the patchwork–are beautifully written, each one standing out as a really cool and interesting place which could easily become nominated for the Best Setting XYZZY if expanded into a full IF. (Fractal settings?) I was always sad I couldn’t poke around and see what was “really” to the NESW of these places, and I think this is key to understanding the characters as well: they don’t have access to the full settings either. The people of Invisible Parties, in stitching this place together, have shown themselves to be expert curators and judges of setting, but they don’t have any true places of their own, only those they borrow. The best settings are made of emotional tone as well as landscape, architecture, and furniture. With all the variety to its rooms, the tangle should be a wild and off-putting medley, but the tone (collegial, wistful, tinged with melancholy that none of these places of community are yours to stay in permanently) is consistent enough between patches so that it doesn’t feel jarring to wander around between them. That’s the brilliance of the setting, that it works both room by room and overall.

The most inventive mechanic is directly connected to the settings: the PC’s gifts. These are essentially specialized verbs that do different things based on context and which work by disrupting the settings. So using TROUBLEMAKER in the 20th century middle-class living room full of partying teenagers causes the cops to arrive; using TEXTUAL CRITIC in the raftered viking hall lets you improvise insult-poetry to defeat a huge gnarly viking. The settings–untouched, static–are unchanging until the PC arrives, automatically transforming into a setting-appropriate guise, and finds the right way to stir things into motion.

At the game’s end, when the PC and Jave finally manage to escape together, there’s a dash through the patchwork, where now all the settings are crumbling into their own crises. It’s great effect, and–again–all dependent on exquisite scene setting. The Raftered Hall; Sun-sleeps-in-the-rock; Solitaire With Friends; and all the others, really: these are some of my favorite “rooms” I’ve ever seen in IF. It’s a great experience to visit them, and a strangely moving one to watch disaster befall them as the tangle they’ve been forced into starts to come apart.

Hadean Lands (Andrew Plotkin)

This is a wonderful illustration of how an author can pin down setting with great elegance. To start: there’s a quote from Mandeville which, although its significance might not be clear right away, suggests moons and planets and strange travels. The game starts with unusual smells coming from alchemical supplies, and creaking beams. Creaking is bad, *still* creaking means that we are in the middle of a disaster. Someone else’s blood. We are in a “secondary” alchemy station, which sounds like a place of lesser importance. But an “alchemy” station? A quote in italics confirms that we’re a swabbie (so indeed of lesser importance.) We are in something called “His Majesty’s Marcher The Unanswerable Retort”. An X ME tells us we’re an unpromising naval ensign. The air is split with weird fractures. A door opens into a dead, airless land: a Hadean Land.

So what do we have so far? This is an amazing amount of setting for such a tiny space! The naval jargon tells us we’re on a vessel of some sort–but what kind? “Marcher” is an unfamiliar term, but a “march” is a borderland. Taking into account the Mandeville quote and the existence of alchemy (referred to in the Iain Banksian punning name of the ship, no less) it would seem that we are on an alchemy-powered vessel designed to explore… borders… which has gone… into space. This is a post-disaster setting. A fracture in the air can’t be anything but a fracture in the world itself. The world is broken.

The game includes a map, which itself serves several purposes. One: it confirms that where we are is tucked out of the way, and so not very important. Right away this sets up an implied goal: get to those interesting spots on the map. Deep Lab? Cracks? Observatory? Scaphe? We must investigate these places! Two: it shows us a visual picture of the Retort itself, which, while still vague, is very intriguing. (Three: it lets you navigate easily without needing to make your own map, of course.)

In addition to being an intriguing Science Fantasy world where alchemy works, the setting of Hadean Lands is a puzzle box. There are locked doors to bypass, materials to alter, corrosion to remove, rituals to perform. I’m pretty sure this is the best “setting as puzzle box” I’ve ever seen; it’s jaw-droppingly elaborate. What all this opportunity for mechanically fiddling with the model means is that the world, which is written in lucid and fairly simple prose (imagine for a moment if the game were written with the process-hiding metaphors of real alchemical texts) becomes active and multi-layered. Materials burn and bubble, and vapors and scents and chiming tones fill the air, as the ruined and inert marcher comes back to life with alchemical rituals.

The standard inventory mechanic of parser IF, which allows for the carrying around and using of portable items, is used to great effect here: instead of a bunch of unique items used for solving puzzles (like an iron key you can find that opens an iron door) you have access to material components and ritual equipment, which you can combine using alchemy into more and different components. The components and the equipment all function as thematic props as well, though in a different way from most games with lots of items. The atmosphere is one of intellectual discovery: instead of searching for things, you are searching for *how to make things*; once you figure out the recipe, you can have as much as you want. Even if you don’t need all those materials this gives the setting a feeling of richness and generosity. The delight and player agency that come from figuring out how to create what you need, instead of just finding it under the bed, are significant. And since the game–which, though it offers the illusion of limitless possibilities, is very deliberately designed–forces the player to find their way through a map full of calibrated obstacles, the player’s sense of mastery and power over their environment grows along with the PC’s. It’s a wonderful thing to happen in a game, and parallels what I imagine real alchemists must have looked for and probably never found. I almost believe that now I know what doing alchemy feels like.

With Those We Love Alive (Porpentine, Brenda Neotenomie)

With Those We Love Alive uses a very elegant method for establishing an alien environment: first the game asks in what month you were born, and the choices are unfamiliar, and very evocatively so. A culture that names its months things like “Broken Coffin” and “Eye in the Ground” strikes us as both slightly morbid and poetic. Next the game asks you what is your element. The choices are petal, mud, fur, machine, feather. Here the game seems to be telling us even more firmly: this is not your world, and even the basic building blocks of existence are different than what you know. And lastly, you choose your eye color: a more mundane detail which can be perfectly normal “brown/blue/hazel” or more unusual “violet/black” but makes the point as well: this is an alien world, and you are in it.

In the first scene the PC (who will also have a randomized, alien name) is invited to join the (horrible monster) Queen’s court as a maker of objects–not only does this sound like the kind of invitation the character can’t turn down, the mechanics agree: there is no choice not to go.

The world of the court the PC ends up in is grotesque yet beautiful: everything is effluvium, broken machinery, and insectile creepiness; the screen switches between gradients of blue and pink and green while peaceful electronic music plays. In the genre of body horror flesh is mutable, and this is meant to appall us, but here mutable flesh and bone, made liquid by “melter”, are a good thing. Of all the things that are terrible to the PC, changeable flesh isn’t one of them.

I think I would call this neon gothic science-fantasy horror. But it’s a strange languid kind of horror. The setting is dreamlike: it’s not the kind of fantasy world where there is an ecology to work out; imagery and the feelings evoked by it are everything. The world is small and constrained: a few streets of the city, a garden, a lake, a balcony, a bit of the palace. Moving around these places waiting for something to happen brings on a curious mixture of intrigued boredom and dread. The player wants something to happen and yet is afraid of what it might be. There is the constant feeling that all opportunity for change is gone. The enemy is so strong that it’s pointless to resist, and the mechanics enforce this by simply not providing you with any way to do so. (Some of the more complicated choices involve what horrifying materials the weapons and masks the PC crafts for the Queen are made of. This is a great way to both add setting-defining props and add choices that won’t greatly alter the story.) The early-game lack of agency feels specific to this story; an enforced sleepiness, a flatness like that caused by depression. And yet Porpentine’s vivid (can I make up a word here?) slimepunk imagination somehow makes this world enjoyable to crawl through. This is a remarkable atmosphere to have conjured up in a game.

With Those We Love Alive is a great illustration of how emotion and setting can crystallize into one thing. Without its fantastic imagery making solid what the PC is feeling the emotions wouldn’t be as strong, and without the emotion, the setting would be weightless. Mechanically, for the escape at the end to be effective, the setting has to be a believable prison, and everything about it–the dreariness alternating with splattery horror, the constrained choices, the calming colors–reinforces its strength. The ending is extremely powerful, in part because I wasn’t sure escape was going to be possible from this setting at all. For much of the game, sleep seems to be the only chance to get away, and sleep is just a black screen that lasts no more than a few seconds. The PC’s dreams were all distilled away when she was a child.

May 22, 2016

Web Interactive Fiction

FyreVM-Web App Dev Begins

by David Cornelson at May 22, 2016 12:01 AM

It’s been a little over a year since I commissioned a Typescript version of FyreVM. The plan was to develop an app development model for IF stories that’s more “web” and less “IF”. Progress has been made and I’m going to talk about that here…

There are several moving parts to the technology under fyrevm-web. First there’s glulx-typescript, which is the basic Glulx virtual machine, coded in Typescript. Then there’s a layer on top of that called EngineWrapper, also written in Typescript. This first layer puts a sort of controller/state-machine on top of the interactions of glulx-typescript. It allows you to just load a story, send commands, and receive data. There’s now a third piece (second layer) on top of that called FyreVM.Manager, also written in Typescript. This second layer is what is implemented in an HTML page and handles the integration between HTML and data coming from FyreVM.

One of my visions was to simplify the data side of FyreVM, to make the story bits more accessible to web developers. FyreVM.Manager does this with a combination of a new I7 extension for FyreVM called FyreVM Content Management. It’s a simple idea. There’s a channel CMGT that is reported when play begins. It contains a semi-colon delimited list of descriptions of all of the data. So the main data, MAIN in FyreVM, is defined as “MAIN,text,mainContent;” The Manager will note that, take the data coming out keyed to MAIN and add it to the DOM as document.fyrevm.mainContent. The extension has all of the FyreVM required data defined and any extensions adding new data should add the bits to append their descriptors to CMGT.

In the WebStorm debugger, you can see how this comes through below. Note document = #document and then fyrevm and then all of the properties of fyrevm. This is all of the data for the sample story I’m executing. It even has the story information broken out into a sub-object.

fyrevm-web-content

The inline JavaScript code in the HTML page is fairly simple for a standard template. The template has to identify where the user is typing in commands and implement the line or key input switch (if the engine requests a key, then the template should send the key to the VM immediately, otherwise we wait for an Enter or whatever the UI requires for “execute command”. The template will have DIV tags for all of the content types it wants to display. The page will directly bind fyrevm values to the template or set the element directly.

There will be special cases where content is in JSON form and requires “logic”. I’m working on a sound extension that would qualify. The page has to take the sound “logic” from the story and implement that in the browser. It’s a marriage, similar to transposing the channel data into usable content types. But the story controls the sound, which is what we want.

Next steps are to implement Cloak of Darkness using plain JavaScript, Angular2, and React. The Angular2 implementation will come first and along with it the ability to auto-release as you edit in I7, push this to the app folder, and restart the story to see how it looks. It’s kind of cool to implement a new channel and see it just “appear” in document.fyrevm.

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May 21, 2016

Versificator IF blog

The Xylophoniad post-Thing release

by robinjohnson at May 21, 2016 09:01 AM

XylophoneBicyclopsMinotaur

I’ve updated The Xylophoniad with artwork for all the characters (which you’ll see when you EXAMINE them.) I’ve also released a zip file for offline play in your browser, or a compiled Windows executable if that’s your bag.

(I’m not entirely sure that the software I’m using to compile the Windows executables is the best choice, and I’ve had a report of a game hanging on startup; I’m looking into other ways to do this.)

There are also a couple of minor tweaks [very mild spoilers]: the barber now has a price list in his shop, and you can no longer permanently lose items in the Labyrinth.

Share and Enjoy!

The XYZZY Awards

Awards Ceremony 2015

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at May 21, 2016 09:01 AM

The XYZZY Awards ceremony for 2015 will be held on the ifMUD on Saturday, May 28, at 8 AM Honolulu time – or, should you inhabit a slightly more populous slice of the planet, 11 AM US-Pacific, 2 PM US-Eastern, 7 PM UK. We hope you can join us as we announce the winners.

As promised, I’ve been looking into possible alternatives to ifMUD; in that process, it has become clear that running the ceremony smoothly takes a pretty specialised setup, one which is very difficult to replicate in any kind of plug-and-play chatroom. At this point, I’m not confident about running a ceremony successfully from any of the alternative platforms I’ve looked at, and I’d rather not delay the Awards any more. I’m still very conscious that ifMUD is a difficult environment for anybody who doesn’t frequent it regularly, and I’m hoping to have a viable alternative in place by next year – even if that means recruiting a volunteer willing to build a custom platform. In the meantime, we’ll be producing a ceremony-specific guide to navigating the MUD – we don’t pretend that this is a complete solution, but we hope that it’ll help for the time being.

Voting is closed and will remain so through this week.

The People's Republic of IF

June meetup

by zarf at May 21, 2016 12:00 AM

The Boston IF meetup for June will be Wednesday, June 15, 6:30 pm, MIT room 14N-233.

Discussion topic of the season: what is the plot? Specifically comparing the player’s view of “the plot” with the author’s view. (Inspired by this post by Emily Short, this post by Juhana Leinonen, and various other things that have been going around.

May 20, 2016

The Digital Antiquarian

Kit Williams’s Golden Hare, Part 1: The Contest

by Jimmy Maher at May 20, 2016 05:00 PM

Kit Williams with a hare -- not the famous golden one.

Kit Williams with a hare — but not the famous golden one.

Fair warning: there is an image below that may be Not Safe For Work!

On a gray Saturday morning in March of 1976, two nattily dressed London sophisticates left the city, driving west toward the decidedly unfashionable environs of rural Gloucestershire. One of the two was Eric Lister, owner of a quirky art gallery called the Portal. The other had a much higher profile. At age 42, Tom Maschler was already something of a living legend in the world of publishing. He had become the chief editor of the storied but musty publishing firm of Jonathan Cape back in 1960, whereupon he promptly made his name by purchasing the British rights to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 for all of £250 and turning the book into a literary sensation in Britain well before it struck a nerve in Heller’s own homeland of the United States. The list of authors he proceeded to published in the next 27 years reads like a who’s who of late-twentieth-century literary fiction: Thomas Pynchon, Roald Dahl, John Fowles, Salman Rushdie, Gabriel García Márquez, Bruce Chatwin, Ian McEwan. In the late 1960s, he played an instrumental role in establishing the Man Booker Prize, the most prestigious award in modern British literature. Coincidentally or not, a disproportionate percentage of Maschler’s writers won the award in the years that followed.

But it wasn’t all high-toned literature for Tom Maschler. He first demonstrated his knack for the populist as well as the prestigious early on, when at the height of Beatlemania he procured for Jonathan Cape two books of John Lennon’s prose, poetry, and drawings. They both become bestsellers, cementing Lennon’s popular reputation as “the smart Beatle.” A pattern had been established, of Maschler as not just a curator of fine literature but a curator of books that sold. He possessed a gift for identifying just the right book to suit the popular zeitgeist of any given instant — or, alternately, for bending the zeitgeist to suit whatever he happened to have on offer.

It was more his role as a publisher of popular books than of fine literature that sent Maschler out to Gloucestershire in March of 1976. During the years immediately previous to the trip, he had sniffed out a market for lavishly illustrated children’s books — both classics and originals — which could find a home on the coffee tables of adults as well. Books like The Butterfly Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast had done very well for Jonathan Cape; indeed, The Butterfly Ball had been turned into a double-album rock opera by Roger Glover of Deep Purple fame. After visiting the Portal Gallery for a show by an artist named Kit Williams, Maschler had either suggested to Lister or had suggested to him — the two men’s memories would forever diverge on this question — the idea of a children’s book featuring Williams’s fantastic paintings. Thus this trip to visit the artist, who lived like the hermit he was in a moss-covered cottage in the middle of nowhere.

Kit Williams outside the Gloucestershire cottage where Masquerade was proposed, conceived, and executed.

Kit Williams outside the Gloucestershire cottage where Masquerade was proposed, conceived, and executed.

For most of its duration, the lunch-time meeting, conducted around Williams’s kitchen table whilst munching on the homespun country fare he served up, wasn’t especially productive. Williams was polite, but was fundamentally uninterested in the idea of a children’s book. He’d taken the meeting at all only as a favor to Lister. He was a painter, not a writer, he patiently explained. Fair enough, came the reply from Maschler; we can partner you with a writer. But no, no, that wasn’t how Williams worked; he worked alone on his art, doing absolutely everything himself.

Knowingly or accidentally, Maschler finally said the words that would make the book a reality just as he and Lister were walking out the door: “I still think you could do something that no one has ever done before.” The parting shot was perfectly pitched to strike its target just where it counted. Kit Williams, who could come across upon first meeting like one of the timid creatures of the forest he so delighted in painting, wasn’t quite what he seemed. His psyche harbored unexpected seams of stubbornness, pride, competitiveness, and even showmanship. Maschler’s words sounded like a challenge, and a challenge was something he found very hard to resist. Out of the blue some weeks later, long after Maschler had written off the meeting as a bust, Williams called his office to tell him he’d do the book after all. Just like that, Masquerade, soon to become the greatest mass treasure hunt of all time, was begun.

Born in Kent in 1946, Kit Williams had spent his life defying expectations. Take, for instance, the first thing any new acquaintance must remark about him, even if she’s too polite to say anything about it: the fact that his eyes point in different directions. What first seems a classic case of an untreated lazy eye is something much more unusual. Williams actually enjoys, or has cultivated, a peculiar ocular ambidexterity. When driving in traffic, admittedly not a frequent occupation for this lifelong hermit, he keeps one eye on the mirror, the other on the road in front of him. When he’s feeling tired, he might close one eye, getting it some literal shuteye while the other continues about its business, much to the alarm of his passengers if he happens to be driving. Far from being a handicap, his “lazy eye” is sort of like… well, it’s sort of like a superpower really. That’s just the way things are with Kit Williams.

Williams was a maker virtually from the moment he could walk, tinkering endlessly with machines and electronics. At age 12, he made for his family their first television set, using an orange crate for the case and a pair of knitting needles for the control knobs. He thought for a while that he wanted to be a scientist. Yet his talents never translated into success at school; his peculiar genius for making things, if genius it be, would always be intuitive, not intellectual. He counts as a defining moment the one in which he realized that he didn’t really want to be a scientist at all; he wanted to be a mad scientist, like the ones he saw on his homemade television. So he dropped out of school and ran away to join the Royal Navy.

That didn’t go any better than had his schooling. Once again, Williams realized he’d been attracted to the romantic notion of sailing, as seen on his orange-crate television, rather than the reality; he had wanted to Horatio Hornblower, not the workaday grind of being an enlisted seaman aboard a modern aircraft carrier. He spent most of his time as a sailor trying to convince the Navy they’d made a mistake in signing him to a six-year stint. After four years, they finally came to agree with him, letting him buy himself out of the rest of his enlistment for £200. Free at last, Williams settled down to the life he continues to live to this day: dwelling in rural seclusion, painting and building things when not tramping through the forest communing with nature. In 1973, Eric Lister’s Portal Gallery hosted the first public exhibition of his art.

"Penning Wedding," a typical example of Kit Williams's art: intricate, idiosyncratic, fantastic, and a little transgressive.

“Penny Wedding,” a typical example of Kit Williams’s art: intricate, idiosyncratic, fantastic, and a little transgressive.

Kit Williams’s paintings weren’t (and aren’t) the sort to win much traction with the scholars, critics, and tastemakers of contemporary fine art. Representational and literal when the abstract and the conceptual were all the rage, they seemed blissfully if not defiantly ignorant of every contemporary trend. Williams is rather part of a deeper, far older tradition in British and Irish culture. It’s a pastoral tradition, imbued with the sunlit beauty of hedges and hills, fields and streams, but also keenly aware of the darker, dangerous sides of nature and life. You can find it in Shakespeare, particularly in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest; you can find it in Tolkien, particularly in the Old Forest and its inhabitant Tom Bombadil; you can find it in Watership Down; you can find it in the music of Anthony Phillips and the Canterbury scene. Like those works, much of Williams’s art is vaguely disturbing in a way that distinguishes it from the paint-by-numbers pablum that is most fantastic art. He loves to pepper his meticulously constructed pastoral imagery with jarring obscenities and frank eroticism. He particularly loves to show fully clothed older men in the company of nubile young female nudes. Whether you find the motif alluring or simply creepy, it’s not quickly forgotten.

Surprisingly, it was the reclusive artist Kit Williams rather than the master popularizer Tom Maschler who came up with the idea of turning his children’s book into an elaborate puzzle and a treasure hunt — truly a publicity stunt for the ages. The idea arose, like most brilliant masterstrokes, from a mishmash of source material. Williams hated the way most people tended to flip through picture books quickly rather than lavish on the images the sort of attention they gave to words. He therefore wanted to give people a reason to spend some time lingering over his pictures. He fondly remembered the Victorian puzzle books he had enjoyed in his childhood, which challenged the viewer to find smaller pictures hidden inside larger. He less fondly remembered the cereal boxes which had promised him a hunt for “Buried Treasure” that proved to mean only a random drawing for some useless trinket. And, while Williams would always downplay the commercial motivation, he must have been keenly aware that a literary treasure hunt held the potential to sell a lot of books and make his chosen lifestyle of rural seclusion a much more worry-free one.

The Kit Williams who phoned Tom Maschler to tell him about his idea was a very different character from the reticent one the latter had met over lunch weeks before. A tangled torrent of words about riddles and hidden treasure tumbled over themselves in their rush to get out. Maschler didn’t fully understand it, but didn’t really feel he needed to. He heard the germ of a brilliant concept more than well enough, and told Williams to by all means get on with it. He issued only one stipulation, born of his awareness of his new author’s usual artistic predilections: there could be no nudity, no profanity, and no sex. This was, after all, at least ostensibly still to be a children’s book.

Masquerade was first a puzzle, then a collection of pictures, and finally a story, which corresponds pretty well to the importance of its various elements in the mind of Williams. After working out the puzzle, he embedded its clues into 15 largely unrelated paintings that were probably not all that different from what he might have created had he been painting them for his next Portal Gallery exhibition rather than the book (minus Maschler’s family-friendly stipulations, of course). Executed by Williams with his usual fussy meticulousness, these absorbed the vast majority of the three years it took him to deliver the finished book. Finally, he bound the paintings together with some 4000 words of rambling nonsense improvised to fit the pictures, about a hare named Jack who must carry a token of the Moon’s love to the Sun. Capped off with a title that bore no relation to the story, Masquerade wasn’t exactly a children’s classic. But, judged Williams and Maschler alike, it would do. The real point of it all was the treasure hunt.

The first of the book's pictures. The "one of six to eight" around the border is one of the few clues to the real puzzle transmitted in the clear, and the one that came to be understood by just about everyone who got close to the hare's resting place.

The first of the book’s pictures. The “one of six to eight” around the border is one of the few clues to the real puzzle transmitted in the clear. It’s also unique in that it came to be understood by just about everyone who got close to the hare’s resting place.

I don’t want to spend too much time here dwelling on the structure of the puzzle. In the years since Masquerade‘s publication, it’s been spoiled many times in painstaking detail, and there’s little I can add to that body of work. Its solution hinges on following the gaze of the various characters in the pictures through the angles formed by their fingers and toes to pick out individual letters from the poetic phrases that frame the paintings. Suffice to say that, created in complete isolation by a man who lays claim to no intrinsic interest in solving or creating puzzles, it’s not a very good one. While there is a definite logic to its solution, that logic is all but impossible to divine except after the fact. To complete cluelessness as to the nature of the puzzle, its starting point, or what parts of the book are important to it — the entirety of the 4000 words of text, for example, is completely meaningless — must be added the dozens of false trails and red herrings that Williams, sometimes deliberately and sometimes inadvertently, sprinkled through his pictures. Small wonder that not a single one of the tens if not hundreds of thousands of people who would soon be earnestly poring over Masquerade would ever solve it without outside help.

Looking back on Masquerade today, the most striking thing about its gestation is how much faith Tom Maschler and Jonathan Cape as a whole placed in their unproven puzzle-maker. Williams explained the puzzle to no one at Jonathan Cape prior to the book going to press. Maschler’s entire operation simply assumed that Williams’s puzzle would hang together, assumed Williams was operating in good faith. As a book publisher rather than a publisher of games or puzzles, they were equipped to do little else. Their editors knew how to correct Williams’s atrocious spelling and straighten out his grammar, but they had no idea how to measure the quality and solubility of his puzzle. If the end result has its problems, it could have been much, much worse. At least there was a solution, and the after-the-fact logic used to arrive at it hung together. A less fortunate Jonathan Cape might have been hauled into court on charges of fraud.

Kit Williams and Bamber Gascoigne set off to bury the hare on the evening of August 7, 1979.

Kit Williams and Bamber Gascoigne set off to bury the hare on the evening of August 7, 1979.

The first and last person to whom Kit Williams ever explained his puzzle in detail was Bamber Gascoigne, a well-liked and well-respected television presenter. Maschler recruited Gascoigne to serve as a witness and honest broker for the night of August 7, 1979, when Williams set off in his battered old plumber’s van to bury Masquerade‘s treasure. Said treasure took the form of a five-inch hare made out of gold, turquoise, ruby, and quartz, created by Williams himself in his home workshop and worth at least £3000 in raw materials alone. The burial spot was Ampthill Park, near the small Bedfordshire town of the same name in central England, a place Williams had become familiar with when he had had lived nearby before moving to Gloucestershire. A reader who solved the puzzle would be able to find the hare by digging at the tip of the shadow cast by a stone cross — a memorial to Catherine of Aragon, first wife to Henry VIII — at noon on the spring equinox. Williams had long since marked the spot by shallowly burying a magnet whose location could be detected with a compass.

The Golden Hare

The Golden Hare

Williams explained the entirety of the puzzle to Gascoigne on the drive up. The latter was immediately concerned that the puzzle was “infinitely more complex than Kit realized,” that “Kit’s judgment was distorted by the fact that he himself had thought of the riddle and its answer.” He felt himself in a very uncomfortable position, to the point of regretting having taken the assignment at all.

Kit had explained to me the basis of his puzzle, but even with that privileged information I was unable to make it work out. The cause of my growing uneasiness was the thought that if it was in fact impossibly difficult, then I was the only person in the world in a position to form that opinion. Kit considered it very possible, even perhaps dangerously easy, because he himself had invented it. The publishers considered it possible because Kit had told them it was. But if my hunch was right, and if people all over the world were beating out their brains and emptying their pockets in pursuit of the unattainable, what should I do? Insert a notice in The Times to the effect that Masquerade was insoluble? I would not have been popular in 30 Bedford Square [home of Jonathan Cape]. Yet clearly the one passenger who believes that a train is hurtling off the rails has an obligation sooner or later to pull the communication cord.

In the end, Gascoigne judged there was nothing for it but to let the show go on. For the next two and a half years, only he and Williams would know the location of the most sought-after pinprick of ground in Britain.

As publication day drew near, Maschler pulled strings in the media to ensure a splashy launch, including a full-color write-up in the Sunday Observer magazine and a segment on BBC News. The latter falsely claimed to show Williams leaving his cottage to bury the hare, then returning after having done the deed. Judging from the quality of the light, very little time seemed to have passed between his departure and his return. Many a treasure hunter would thus conclude that the hare must be buried close by in rural Gloucestershire — just one more red herring among many.

The publicity worked. Demand quickly exceeded Jonathan Cape’s initial print run of 60,000 copies, considered quite ambitious for a children’s book from an unknown author. Bestseller charts from the Christmas season of 1979, when Masquerade‘s sales reached their British peak, show it outselling Frederick Forsyth’s latest thriller as the most popular book in the land. After Williams and Maschler made it clear that anyone who simply wrote in to describe precisely where the hare was buried would be considered the winner — traveling to the spot and actually digging it up beforehand weren’t required — foreign editions pushed sales beyond 1 million copies. Sales in the United State alone may have equaled those in Britain, while readers in non-English-speaking countries struggled with the untranslated text surrounding the pictures but persevered anyway. Only Masquerade‘s Italian publisher sought and was granted permission to make a proper translation, devising their own puzzle and making their own hare, a clone of Williams’s original. Much more merciful than Williams’s puzzle, the Italian puzzle was solved and the hare found by a reader in relatively short order in comparison to the English edition.

The Italian version of the hare -- or rather, a message in a box telling the finder whom to contact to collect it -- was hidden beneath the heel of this striking statue of Neptune that is carved into a cliff near the village of Monterosso al Mare.

The Italian version of the hare — or rather, a message in a box telling the finder whom to contact to collect it — was hidden beneath the heel of this striking but little-visited statue of Neptune carved into a cliff near the village of Monterosso al Mare.

Like so many of Maschler’s earlier masterstrokes, Masquerade seemed to strike precisely the right cultural nerve at precisely the right moment. While there have been plenty of superficially similar public treasure hunts since — virtually all of them inspired by this one — none have ever enjoyed participation on anything like the same scale. For two and a half years, Britain and to some extent the United States as well had Masquerade fever. Rod Argent, former leader of 1960s hit-makers the Zombies, composed a musical based on the book that played to packed houses at London’s Young Vic theater. An enterprising charter airline called Laker Airways started running “Masquerade tours” from the United States to Britain; passengers were presented with a commemorative spade to aid their digging as they stepped off the plane.

Kit Williams became an international celebrity, courted by every newspaper, magazine, and talk show in the Western World. In later years he would come to speak of his fifteen minutes of fame in nightmarish terms, but it’s hard to avoid the impression that he wasn’t above enjoying his celebrity on occasion as well. By the time of a two-week promotional tour of the United States in September of 1980, he had taken to wearing bright green leprechaun shoes below a kaleidoscopic wardrobe and prancing about like the magical little forest sprite his hosts on the morning-show circuit so dearly wanted him to be, complete with bushy red hair, bright red beard, and that disconcerting wandering eye. As Maschler could have told him (and perhaps did), sometimes you just have to give the people what they want.

If the naivete of Jonathan Cape in not bothering to make sure that Masquerade‘s puzzle was viable is striking, equally so is their failure to plan for the thousands of mailed solutions that flooded their post box, especially after the announcement that treasure seekers could win without ever having to venture forth with spade in hand. With no one at Jonathan Cape having the first clue about the puzzle, all of the mail was packed up and shipped off to Williams’s cottage in sacks, hundreds of letters at a time. It’s here that we come to the real nightmare of the thing for Williams: forced to go through the letters one by one, making sure none contained the correct solution, he had no time left to do his art. He quickly noticed a difference between British and American treasure hunters — a difference into which you can read whatever cultural implications you will. British puzzlers tended to send in detailed, carefully worked-through solutions — albeit breathtakingly wrong ones — sometimes running to more words and pages than Masquerade itself. Americans, meanwhile, just guessed, throwing every British landmark they could think of at the wall in the hope that one would stick. When that failed, there were always abstractions like Love, Life, and Peace to be tried, which rather left one wondering whether these answerers had even understood the question.

Thanks to its name and its location in Kit Williams's known home of Gloucestershire, the protected area around Haresfield Beacon became one of the most popular spots for digging. The National Trust finally felt compelled to put up a sign warning treasure hunters away. They billed Williams £50 for their efforts.

Thanks to its name and its location in Kit Williams’s known home of Gloucestershire, the protected nature preserve around Haresfield Beacon became one of the most popular spots for digging. The National Trust finally felt compelled to put up a sign warning treasure hunters away. They billed Williams £50 for their efforts.

Children, supposedly the intended audience for the book all along, sent some of the most entertaining answers.

I am ten. Your puzzle is easy. The hare is in the Isles of Scilly. I think they are in England. It is hidden on the island of Samson. There are two hills on the island. The treasure is on the north hill. In an old grave. It is a moldy old grave. It is only a little island, so you know the one. Please send it to me. Your hare is very pretty. Thank you.

P.S. My mom said she will send this to you. I hope you will write another book and let me hide the hare. I think I could do better than you.

P.S. I am almost ten.


I hereby demand that to the solution of Masquerade the answer is that the Hare lost the precious jewel when he jumped into the fire.


I am 8 years old. But please would you tell me if Masquerade is in the Lake District or not.

P.S. My love is for a pony. But I have no money at all. I have no clue where it is. I don’t think I will ever find it.

Many of the adult treasure hunters drew elaborate, invariably false connections to British history, literature, culture, from Samuel Coleridge to Lewis Carroll, Isaac Newton to Francis Drake. The one important clue referencing British history in the book, the phrase “one of six to eight” on the border of the first picture, was thunderingly obvious in comparison to the connections devised by some of his correspondents: it referred to Catherine of Aragon, first of the six wives of Henry VIII, below whose memorial in Ampthill Park the hare was buried. Hare seekers could have saved themselves a lot of trouble if they’d just known Kit Williams. Again, his was an intuitive mind, not an intellectual one. He had absolutely no idea what most of his more erudite correspondents were on about.

But then, some refused to believe that Kit Williams himself was whom he said he was. One of the more persistent hunters continued to believe even after the hare was claimed and the puzzle revealed that it had all been cover for another, deeper puzzle devised by none other than Agatha Christie, the queen of British mysteries, on her death bed.

Numerological theories were very popular. One hunter spent 16 months working his way through the slim book, devising ever more complex theories by assigning values to and performing mathematical operations on groups of letters. Like the Agatha Christie fan and a distressing number of others, this hunter continued to believe in and pursue his theory even after the hare had been claimed. “I’m not bright enough to have made up the things I’ve been finding,” he said. His stubborn belief is one more aspect of Masquerade as psychological experiment, proof of the human mind’s determination to see patterns in everything. Masquerade became a new, far more compelling version of the Rorschach test; the most dedicated seekers saw exactly what they wanted to see therein.

Some hunters were convinced that Kit Williams was traveling around the country like the mischievous leprechaun he played on television, making clues — smoke signals were a popular possibility — erasing them, and/or just generally screwing with people’s heads. At least one began to suspect his drinking buddies down at his local pub, who kept trying to dissuade him from his obsession and advance their own theories to replace his, of being secret agents employed by Williams to throw him off the scent. The same gentleman caused some consternation in his village when he pulled some fifty yards of municipal cabling out of the ground, convinced that if he traced it to its end he’d find the hare.

Others decided the puzzle could be solved by replacing inspiration with perspiration. One practical-minded soul reasoned that all he had to do to find the hare was to scour every likely spot in Britain with a metal detector. He “wore a complete brand new car out, knocked out a complete brand new Audi” trying to do just that.

A woman in Wyoming hit upon the idea of sending off every single pairing of latitude and longitude in Britain, stated in degrees and minutes, one after another in letter after letter. She holds the record as the most prolific of all Williams’s correspondents, having sometimes mailed off dozens of letters in a single day. Even had she stumbled upon the right location — impossible in actuality, as Williams was looking for a much more precise answer and had little idea himself where the hare lay in terms of latitude and longitude — one has to wonder whether the hare’s value would have been enough to offset her postal bill.

But then, one could similarly question the effort-to-potential-reward ratio in the case of many of the treasure hunters. The hare was undoubtedly a pretty bauble, and undoubtedly worth a pretty penny, but there was clearly something more than the desire for material gain motivating its most dedicated seekers.

As Masquerade passed the one-year anniversary of its publication and Williams continued to report that no one had yet come within a mile of the methodology behind the puzzle, much less begun to solve it, Tom Maschler was starting to get nervous. An undercurrent of suspicious grumbling was starting to surface among both treasure hunters and the media. It seemed impossible to many that so many people could have been on the case for so long without managing to crack it. The unexciting but accurate explanation for the situation, that of a bad puzzle created in good faith, eluded those primed for outrage. The only possible explanation, they reasoned, must be skulduggery. Did Masquerade contain a real puzzle at all? Had the golden hare ever really been buried? Had someone (or many someones) solved the puzzle months ago, only to be hushed up or ignored by Kit Williams and/or Jonathan Cape, who were making lots of money selling books and wanted the contest to continue?

The thirteenth clue that appeared in The Times, and that would allow a pair of physics teachers to crack the puzzle wide open.

The thirteenth clue that appeared in The Times, and that would allow a pair of physics teachers to finally crack the puzzle wide open. If you fold the bottom three lines of the scroll up over the top three, shine a light on the paper from behind, and read it in a mirror, you reveal a (cryptic) secret message.

Perhaps becoming concerned himself about the veracity and solubility of a puzzle he still understood not at all, Maschler proposed to Williams that he use an upcoming feature interview in The Times to reveal a new clue that would hopefully push some people toward the solution before the grumbling reached a fever pitch. Williams, who was starting to wonder if he would ever again be able to paint pictures rather than spend his days opening envelopes, readily agreed. Thus in the December 21, 1980, edition of The Times, a new picture was revealed, much rougher than the ones in the book but containing, if you worked at it long enough and thought about it laterally enough, a vital piece of information about the puzzle’s central premise of following the gazes of the figures to find certain letters along the borders of the pictures. Doling out the additional clue in this way wasn’t quite fair, for The Times was widely available only to British readers. Treasure hunters in the United States and elsewhere largely never even knew of the additional clue’s existence.

One could make similar accusations against plenty of other aspect of the haphazardly run contest. Kit Williams could be far from the ideal neutral arbitrator, as is amply illustrated by the story of Peter Ormandy of Cumbria, the failed puzzle solver who came the most tantalizing close to his goal.

Ormandy had, somewhat oddly, fixated on only the “six to eight” in “one of six to eight,” deciding that it must refer to the sixth and final of Henry VIII’s wives, Catherine Parr, rather than the first. Legend has it that it was Catherine Parr who convinced Henry to found Trinity College, Cambridge. Therefore, Ormandy reasoned, the hare must be buried at Trinity College. (If the logic sounds strained, know that Ormandy’s reasoning is practically scientific in comparison to the theories of many other hare hunters.) When he sent his reasoning and his solution off to Williams, the latter couldn’t resist adding something to the standard form-letter rejection: “One day you’ll kick yourself.”

The insertion of Isaac Newton into the twelfth picture sent heaps of seekers scurrying in the wrong direction. The "plank" at the far left with the bell attached sent Peter Ormandy scurrying in the right direction, albeit for reasons never intended by Kit Williams.

The insertion of Isaac Newton into the twelfth picture sent heaps of seekers scurrying in the wrong direction. The “plank” at the far left with the bell attached sent Peter Ormandy scurrying in the right direction, albeit for reasons never intended by Kit Williams.

Realizing he must be getting warm, Ormandy managed to get hold of Williams’s phone number. He called him up for a chat, wheedling him for whatever further hints he might let drop. He came away with a strong impression that he had the wrong wife of Henry VIII. Another reading of “one of six to eight” gave him a pretty good idea which wife he really ought to be focusing on. He began researching all of the places in Britain connected with Catherine of Aragon.  With his list of such places in hand, he connected the book’s frequent references to morning — “A.M.” — and evening — “P.M.” — to AMPthill. Noting that “thill” means “plank” in Old English, he believed the rest of the name to be provided by a picture that included a plank. And to the plank was attached a bell, which Ormandy optimistically concluded would likely be rung at morning and evening — thus yet another reference to A.M. and P.M. By entirely erroneous reasoning, he had arrived at the correct location of Ampthill Park.

Peter Ormandy sent in with his solution this picture of the Amtphill Part Memorial and the hare's possible resting place beneath it.

Peter Ormandy sent in with his solution this picture of the Amtphill Park memorial and the hare’s possible resting place beneath it.

On September 6, 1981, he sent Williams his solution. Still unaware of exactly where the hare might be buried in the vicinity of the Ampthill Park memorial, he included a drawing showing it at the farthest rightward extent of the cross’s horizontal bar. As it happened, his guess was within twenty feet of the real burial spot. Williams, perhaps made nervous by the help he had given Ormandy, perhaps wanting to actively throw Ormandy off the scent in light of that help and the scandal it might cause, now did something that seems a little inexplicable by any other logic. He sent a form letter to his fifteen or twenty most persistent correspondents, including Ormandy.

Unfortunately, your recent solution is incorrect. Because there has been a solution submitted that was as little as twenty feet from the exact spot, I am unable to comment upon any solution that is not absolutely precise. I was unable to help that person and therefore feel it only fair that I should not help others.

Ormandy quite understandably read this missive to indicate that he was not in fact “that person” whom Williams refers to in the third person, but rather one of the “others.” He shifted his attention elsewhere, focusing next on Bournemouth, and that was that.

Even as Ormandy was coming so tantalizing close through luck, intuition, and social engineering at poor Kit’s expense, two physics teachers named Mike Barker and John Rousseau were also homing in on Ampthill Park by following a much more rigorous line of inquiry. The two came late to the game, on New Years Day 1981, when they spent an afternoon looking at the book that Rousseau had originally bought for his daughters. “We’ll be the ones to do this,” said Rousseau to his friend. “It needs a couple of physicists.” After following many false leads, the two became convinced, correctly, that the key to the puzzle lay in the phrases surrounding each picture. They noted the odd spacing of the bordering messages, as if Williams was sometimes crowding and sometimes elongating the text to make sure that certain letters wound up in exactly the right spot. They decided, again correctly, that there must be a way to use angles in the pictures to pick out individual letters from those phrases.

Right about the time that Ormandy was sending in his answer, they were decoding the additional Times clue, becoming the first and possibly only people ever to independently discover the full methodology of the puzzle — albeit, of course, only with the help of that one outside clue. By year’s end they had completely solved the puzzle, deducing that the hare must lay at the fullest extent of the shadow cast by the Ampthill Park memorial on the spring equinox. But, scientists that they were, they decided they needed to verify their discovery by actually digging up the hare before sending the conclusion of their research off to Jonathan Cape and Kit Williams. And to do that, they needed to wait for the spring equinox.

John Rousseau with (Mike's wife) Celia Barker and Mike Barker at Ampthill Park with Mike's homemade inclinometer.

John Rousseau with (Mike’s wife) Celia Barker and Mike Barker at Ampthill Park with Mike’s homemade inclinometer.

Or did they? They were, after all, physicists. After an initial investigatory trip to Ampthill Park on January 4, 1982, Mike Barker retired to his Manchester garage to construct an “inclinometer,” a device that would let him pinpoint the position where the tip of the shadow would be come the equinox. On February 18, he returned to Ampthill Park to dig at what he calculated with the aid of his new gadget to be the correct spot. He didn’t find the hare.

The question of why he didn’t find the hare is a mystery that will never be satisfactorily resolved. We know that he and Rousseau had completely and correctly unraveled the puzzle’s logic. We also can feel reasonably certain, based on events that would follow, that the inclinometer worked, that he was digging in the correct spot. We’re thus left with two possibilities. One is that Barker did in fact dig up the hare, but missed it. Williams had sealed it inside a small clay-colored pottery container, which would have been easy enough to miss amidst the mounds of earth extracted from the hole on a bleak February day. On the other hand, the idea that Barker could have been so careless at this final instant as not to thoroughly sift through the earth does contrast markedly with the dogged methodicalness he and Rousseau had demonstrated at every previous stage of the hunt. Television, newspapers, and magazines had many times shown Kit sealing the hare inside its earthen container; it’s not as if Barker could have been expecting to see the glint of gold inside the hole.

We must therefore consider another possibility, much as Kit Williams and the principals behind the contest undoubtedly wish we wouldn’t: the possibility that Williams buried the hare in the wrong spot, the wrong distance from the memorial. He was after all not a scientist himself — or at any rate only a mad one. Williams later admitted that the sun hadn’t actually been shining on that equinox of years before when he’d buried a magnet to mark the hare’s future position, that he’d dead-reckoned the right spot based on the shadow’s position shortly before and shortly after noon. Did he dead-reckon correctly? We’ll never know.

A deeply disappointed Barker and Rousseau were left to wonder if their whole chain of reasoning had been incorrect, if they’d fallen victim to another of Kit Williams’s cruel red herrings. Barker decided to return to Ampthill Park on the spring equinox, due a little over a month hence, to see if his inclinometer had somehow led him astray. If it had, he would dig again at the correct spot. If it hadn’t, he’d write to Kit Williams at last — such a letter would mark Barker and Rousseau’s first actual correspondence with the man behind Masquerade — outlining all of their discoveries and reasoning, just to see where it got them.

But by the time the equinox arrived, the point was moot; the hare had been dug up and the contest declared finished. Barker and Rousseau’s insistence on confirming their solution with their own spades proved their undoing. While they sat on their answer, constructing inclinometers and puzzling over the nonexistence of the hare where it was supposed to be, another, less scrupulous character was dashing in to snatch the prize away from them.

It’s at this late stage, then, that the villain of Masquerade appears at last. We’ll call him “Ken Thomas” for today, the name under which he first introduced himself to Kit Williams.

"Ken Thomas"'s original letter to Kit Williams, with its rough (and incorrect) depiction of the hare's position in relation to the Ampthill Park memorial. Although the letter is dated February 5, it wasn't posted until February 17 -- just one more of the unanswered questions surrounding the whole affair.

“Ken Thomas’s” original letter to Kit Williams, with its rough (and incorrect) depiction of the hare’s position in relation to the Ampthill Park memorial. Although the letter is dated February 5, it wasn’t posted until February 17 — just one more of the unanswered questions surrounding the whole affair.

On February 19, the day after Barker had gone out digging at Ampthill Park, Williams received a letter from Thomas. In the interests of security in case anyone should open the letter ahead of Williams, the park itself wasn’t named, but Thomas included a drawing that clearly showed the monument and surrounding landmarks, with the location of the hare marked in what looked to be approximately the right place. Eager as he was by this point for the contest to just be over, Williams leaped to the phone to inform Thomas that “You’ve got it!” All that remained was to go out to Ampthill Park and dig it up. To his shock, the man at the other end of the line sounded grumpy at having been disturbed, and informed him in no uncertain terms that he had a cold that day and certainly didn’t plan to go digging in this weather, thank you very much. That was Williams’s introduction to the sketchy, confounding, deeply unsatisfactory winner of the greatest public treasure hunt in history. Subsequent impressions would do nothing to improve on the first.

The story that Thomas begrudgingly told never did quite add up; he was either the luckiest man in Britain or something important was being left out. By his testimony, he had first come to Bedfordshire on the trail of the hare the previous summer. Aware that Williams had once lived there, he was looking for something, anything, that might parallel something from the book. Driving by Ampthill Park, he stopped to take his dog for a walk. He first noticed the memorial to Catherine of Aragon in the most banal way possible: his dog lifted a leg to pee on it. His thoughts, he claimed, immediately turned to the phrase “one of six to eight.”

Many months later — the delay, like so much else about Thomas’s story, went unexplained — he returned to Ampthill Park with a spade. This time he noticed a line of five neat holes that had been dug on a line running northward from the cross. Who might have dug these holes was a mystery, but Thomas decided they were worth further investigation. He visited Amphill Park on every one of the next eight nights, just days before Barker would arrive for his dig. He dug all along the line between the holes, but found nothing. At last, frustrated, he decided to send his crude sketch of the area and his best guess of where the hare might lie to Williams. Maybe it on its own would be good enough. Much to everyone but Thomas’s regret, Williams’s snap judgment declared it to be just that.

Even if we accept Thomas’s entire story at face value — something that’s very difficult to do — he should never have won the contest. The line on which he and his unknown other digger (assuming he existed) dug was oriented to the magnetic north of the memorial, not the true north of the sun at noon on the spring equinox. Barker had seen what may have been the remnants of Thomas’s dig on his February visit, noting the trench as a worrisome “slight depression” in the ground that might indicate someone else was hot on the same trail as he and Rousseau. In the end, though, he had put the depression out of his mind because it was in the wrong place. Thomas was little closer to his quarry than Peter Ormandy had been five months previously. Like Ormandy, he had solved virtually nothing of the real puzzle beyond “one of six to eight.” Like Ormandy, all the other connections he tried to make with Ampthill were accidents never intended by Williams. If Thomas’s answer was good enough, so should have been Ormandy’s.

None of this, it seems safe to say, was entirely lost on Kit Williams. When it began to dawn on him during that first unpleasant phone conversation how little Thomas really knew, he tried to step back from his declaration of a victor. Thomas would, of course, still have to dig up the hare before the whole thing was finalized, said an increasingly guarded Williams. Not quite sure what to do next, Thomas returned to Ampthill Park on February 20, the day after talking to Williams. There he immediately noticed a fresh hole, dug in the correct place by Mike Barker two days before. He spent the next three nights digging inward from Barker’s hole, toward the memorial, without success. He then contacted Williams again, who was flummoxed himself. If the hare really isn’t there, Williams said, the press must be contacted, as someone had apparently dug it up without telling anyone. With that statement, he confirmed once and for all for Thomas that he was digging in the correct place; he clearly wouldn’t have made a good poker player. On February 24, Thomas returned to Ampthill Park one last time, this time by daylight in the company of a friend. He found the hare, snug inside its bed of pottery, among the already turned-up earth. Whether he himself had dug it up and missed it or Mike Barker had done so earlier is, like so much about these final days of the contest, impossible to ever really know.

Ken Thomas wasn’t the winner that Kit Williams or Tom Maschler wanted, but, given the sloppy naivete with which they’d handled the whole contest, he was perhaps the winner they deserved. After informing Williams that he had found the hare, Thomas suddenly disappeared for a week, throwing everyone into a tither. When he surfaced again, he told Maschler that he would, on the condition of strict anonymity — “Ken Thomas,” everyone now learned, was a pseudonym — agree to do exactly one newspaper and one television interview in addition to appearing at the public unveiling of the hare. In every other respect, he was as uncooperative as could be. When the Victoria and Albert Museum asked if they might borrow the hare to display it publicly for a while as a memento of what had become a significant episode in British cultural history, he refused absolutely. At the unveiling, he appeared clothed like a homeless man, a cap pulled down low over his eyes, his back turned whenever possible to the camera, and refused to say a word. His single television interview took place, at his demand, behind a frosted pane of glass, his voice electronically distorted, like a Mafia kingpin turned state’s evidence.

A very reticent "Ken Thomas" with Kit Williams and Tom Maschler at the hare's unveiling.

A very reticent “Ken Thomas” with Kit Williams and Tom Maschler at the hare’s unveiling.

No one was more disappointed by Thomas than Tom Maschler, whose well-oiled publicity machine had been all primed to make an instant celebrity of whoever first solved the puzzle. The blow was felt all the more keenly about a week after Thomas’s anointment as winner, when Mike Barker and John Rousseau belatedly contacted Williams with the complete and correct solution. These two personable schoolteachers, who had solved the puzzle the way Williams had intended it to be solved, would have made a vastly preferable alternative to a sullen weirdo who dressed in rags. With such a vortex of anti-charisma now at center stage, Masquerade, for so long an ongoing media obsession, petered out about as quietly and anticlimactically as imaginable. The only thing left was the grumbling, of which there was plenty, and for good reason. Everyone knew this “Ken Thomas” was a cheat. Even if one accepted every word of and put the best possible spin on his story, he had still used guile rather than smarts to claim the hare.

But, as so many suspected, his true guile ran much deeper than his own story would have one believe. He was a cheat, and the full depth of his cheating would only come to light some six and a half years later. The Masquerade contest had ended in anticlimax and dark talk of scandal, but the full story was as yet far from told.

Next time, we’ll try once again to figure out this Ken Thomas character, and while we’re at it we’ll also tackle the less juicy but ultimately more important mission of understanding just how much Masquerade came to mean for our special interest around these parts: the world of computer gaming.

(Sources: The Quest for the Golden Hare by Bamber Gascoigne; Publisher by Tom Maschler; the paperback edition of Masquerade itself, which includes a forward by Kit Williams and the complete solution to the puzzle in an appendix; “Talent Spotter” by Nicola Wroe from the March 12, 2005 issue of The Guardian; “Unmasked: The Masquerade Con” by Barrie Penrose and John Davison from the December 11, 1988 issue of The Times; the website Masquerade and the Mysteries of Kit Williams; “Hare-Brained: Kit Williams’s Masquerade” by Paul Slade; the BBC documentary Kit Williams: The Man Behind the Masquerade.)


Comments

Choice of Games

Choice of the Pirate — Plunder ghost ships for cursed treasure!

by Dan Fabulich at May 20, 2016 02:02 PM

Choice of the Pirate

We’re proud to announce that “Choice of the Pirate,” the latest in our popular “Choice of Games” line of multiple-choice interactive-fiction games, is now available for Steam, iOS, and Android. It’s 25% off until May 27th!

Plunder ghost ships for cursed treasure! Battle the Crown Navy, sea monsters, and other bloodthirsty pirates on a quest to rival the Pirate King himself!

“Choice of the Pirate” is a fast-paced swashbuckler of an interactive novel by Alana Joli Abbott, author of “Choice of Kung Fu” and “Showdown at Willow Creek.” Your choices control the story. It’s entirely text-based—165,000 words, without graphics or sound effects—and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination.

Rise from a deck-swabbing sailor to fleet commander over five years of piracy in the tropical paradise of the Lucayan Sea. Command the winds with magic, or board enemy ships with your cutlass in your teeth.

Will you play as male, female, or nonbinary? Find romance as gay, straight, bi, or poly, or pursue friendships and alliances instead? Will you join the Crown as a privateer and bring pirates to heel? Will you parley with the Pirate King to protect the Lucayan from the navy’s rule? Or will you duel the Pirate King and claim his power for yourself?

Buckle yer swash and set sail for adventure!

  • Develop your skills as a swashbuckler, sailor, diplomat, scoundrel, or weather-mage.
  • Explore a chain of tropical islands where buried treasure and secret pirate camps are hidden.
  • Face pirate curses, haunted ships, terrifying monsters, and the wrath of the sea herself.
  • Spy for the Crown or become a double agent to support the Pirate King.
  • Become a celebrated hero or a ruthless villain.
  • Play as male, female, or nonbinary; gay, straight, bi, poly, or asexual.

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

Emily Short

Writing Interactive Fiction With Twine (Melissa Ford)

by Emily Short at May 20, 2016 12:00 AM

WritingInteractiveFictionA curious and fascinating thing about Melissa Ford’s Writing Interactive Fiction with Twine is how it combines hypertext craft advice and Twine syntax tutorials with design expectations largely derived from parser-based interactive fiction.

This is a 400 page book about Twine fiction whose index lists Anna Anthropy once (in a passage discussing how she did geographical description in one of her games) and Porpentine never — though it does refer, without attribution, to the tiny Twine jam Porpentine ran. Steve Meretzky and Brian Moriarty appear, but not Michael Lutz or Tom McHenry or A. DeNiro or Caelyn Sandel or Dietrich Squinkifer, nor Michael Joyce or Shelley Jackson or other luminaries from the literary hypertext tradition either. The book has early and prominent chapters about how to design puzzles, inventory, and a room layout; fonts, text transitions, and CSS effects come quite a bit later, despite being much more common than inventory systems in practice. The section on genres starts with a helpful definition of the word “genre,” then runs through bite-sized descriptions of some common fiction genres — rather than, say, trying to describe the range of genres represented in current Twine fiction. The section on story structure explains terms such as “climax” and “exposition” from scratch, assuming essentially no writing-workshop-style experience from the reader.

This writing style, along with the tendency to draw examples from Narnia and Harry Potter, suggests that the author intends the book to be accessible to younger users as well as adults. It would probably be a bit over the head of most young children, but I could picture a motivated tween handling it just fine. Possibly that accounts for a decision not to explore much of the most innovative content for which Twine has been used. If you’ve read Videogames for Humans, almost none of what you saw there is replicated or even mentioned in this book.

There’s a similar simplicity or conservatism to a good deal of the craft advice: or rather, perhaps more fairly, the book presents a lot of conventions as straightforward absolutes. For instance:

When you construct a Twine story, you write it in second person so that the player becomes the main character in your story. (3)

Or this, which in a sentence sweeps away the whole tradition of Twine games about disempowerment:

If you create lots of agency for your players, they’ll feel like active, important figures in your story, and that’s the point of writing interactive fiction in the first place. (14)

(Emphasis mine.)

Occasionally the instructions include the kinds of admonitions we generally only make to children:

How different were your endings? Where there four very different outcomes based on the actions of the main character? Think about your own life and how there are natural consequences for your choices. (19)

When I got to this page I got lost in a brief reverie about the way cause and effect in real life tend to be random and unfair. I thought about how much of the good in my life has come about through luck; also, about this man I know who has lost not one but two wives to cancer, and how that brutal circumstance was a consequence of nothing that he chose other than loving and committing himself to them in the first place. Then I remembered that that probably wasn’t what the book was getting at.

Every smart writer starts with an outline. (23)

Well, except when they don’t. “Some kind of planning is a good idea” makes for looser and less immediately applicable advice, though.

The section on genre is similarly prescriptive, many sentences starting with things like “The goal of an adventure writer is…”, and offering prompts like this:

Words that will help set the tone in an adventure story: muddy, khaki, ravishing, plummet, shining, jewel, forest, scaling, racing, and leaping. (119)

This is not a kind of advice I’m used to seeing even in fairly introductory-level writing craft books; it’s a lot more common in rulesets for tabletop roleplaying games. Monsterhearts character skins, for instance, invite a prospective player to circle an attribute for their protagonist out of a trope list like this one for the Ghost: “Forlorn, meek, distant, stuffy, out of place, brooding.” It’s really useful in RPGs where you want to keep all the players on more or less the same kind of story tack, and also in writing workshops where you want to prod people into producing things quickly in an hour or two. As the basis of a deep understanding of any particular genre history, it’s very limited. But that’s just not the goal of this book.

Meanwhile, Writing Interactive Fiction with Twine does provide a route into some of the more technically sophisticated aspects of Twine — specifically, of the Twine 2 Harlowe format — that are currently not especially easy to learn from the documentation at twinery.org. Ford’s gentle lead-in, numerous examples, and exercises do a lot to explain how you might do programming-like things under a Twine surface, and why you might want to. You’ll find discussions of how to manipulate variables, simulate inventory, calculate and make use of total turn count, and much else.

Likewise, the book combines technical and writing instruction in a really thoughtful way. Most chapters introduce a few pieces of Twine syntax in the context of particular examples, and combines those examples with broader observations about good interactive storytelling. The “either” and “random” macros are introduced alongside a discussion about player expectations and plot predictability. “prepend” comes in the chapter on foreshadowing. Various more and less obvious text-addition macros appear in a chapter about character depth, along with more narrative considerations about conveying interiority. Arrays — and this is admittedly something of a reach — appear alongside the concept of metaphor, as ways of packing considerable information into a small space.

And as to that explanation of arrays, it’s again extremely gentle, assuming no programming knowledge from the reader and offering analogies and illustrations to clarify what an array is for. Having a diagram to help me picture an array as a shopping bag with slots for different items feels like overkill to me in adulthood, but I remember that when I was trying to learn to code as a kid, I found arrays the most bewildering thing in my programming books: they seemed so fiddly, and what were they for anyway? I half wish I could go back to my much younger self and offer her this explanation and these tools. I spent a good decade and more frustrated by technical limitations before I was finally able to write my first IF.

So overall, I’d say there’s a definite rhetoric to this book, and it runs counter to a lot of what has been written about Twine before. Rise of the Videogame Zinesters talks about Twine’s accessibility, the ease of writing immediately, and the critical importance of that tool to give voice to the voiceless. Writing Interactive Fiction with Twine instead positions Twine as technically sophisticated enough to express many of the same things that are valued in the parser tradition. And I thought it did a good job of that: certainly I found it the clearest explanation I’ve yet read for the coding aspects of Harlowe and SugarCube. Given that Twine documentation and code samples are notoriously scattered all over many different sites and forums, it’s really valuable to have these materials in one place, organized in a logical progression, with plenty of examples. I can definitely foresee coming back to this book as a useful reference for any future Twine projects: I might not need the picture of what arrays mean, but I welcome the tidy presentation of related macro concepts.

Second, the book knits together mechanic and fiction, presenting the technical craft of IF implementation in clear relation to the technical craft of storytelling. It may be doing both at a fairly introductory level, but that doesn’t diminish the importance of that rhetorical move. Lots of previous writing about IF craft assumes either that you have already digested a lot of writing instruction and don’t need to be told, or else that you don’t at all care about conventional fiction writing (though it’s worth looking at Aaron Reed’s Creating Interactive Fiction with Inform 7). The book is less into game design per se — it tends to treat the concepts of puzzles and plot progression as already settled things, inviting the reader to pick some pre-established puzzle types and deploy them, rather than to think afresh about what interaction could involve.

Finally, Ford’s book offers loads of exercises one could imagine using in workshops or with younger users. I think it may offer a route in to classroom teaching of Twine in particular, and I recognize that some of the book’s glaring omissions about Twine’s cultural history may have been made in order to keep it palatable to the PTA.

Above all, it feels safe: concepts have tidy subcategories; advice is clear, generalized, and prescriptive; characterization starts with a discussion of Big Five personality factors; the most conventional formats of branching narrative are placed alongside the most conventional of writing advice. (There’s a full chapter on Show, Don’t Tell.) Depending on who you are, that could be a really good thing. The book is thorough and careful and well-organized, which are serious virtues in this context. It’s doing something useful, that isn’t being done in any of the other books on Twine, and the more I read, the more I was convinced that the simplicity of its explanations reflected expectations about the audience, rather than limitations of the author. The final chapters do suggest that the rules laid out earlier can be broken by someone who knows what they’re doing.

At the same time. At the same time. I’m glad this exists — I will use it, and I believe so will others. At the same time it makes me a little sad. Here is a book about Twine in which gender is mentioned for a third of a page at the back of the book; a book about Twine that includes the sentence “Most of the time you’ll be able to straddle both genders with your player character as long as you’re careful about not making gender-based assumptions.” Indeed. It’s the most usable explanation of Twine I’ve read, and also the least touched by the evangelical spirit, by the sense of holy fire.

(Disclaimer: I read a copy of this book I was sent for free by the publisher for review purposes.)


Tagged: melissa ford

May 18, 2016

what will you do now?

Eclosion

by verityvirtue at May 18, 2016 09:01 PM

By Buster Hudson. (Twine; IFDB; download to play)

Time to completion: 10-15 minutes (your mileage may vary)

Three cycles since fecundation. The pharates can taste our thoughts. Their pupal minds yearn for mothers’ milk.

You are sending commands to a parasitic, insectile entity, and there are a number of steps it must complete before it can successfully parasitise the host. Your task, then, is to figure out the correct order for the steps. By turns icky and sinister, Eclosion fits well in the Ectocomp

The puzzle is aided by informative failure messages, but even then, I took many turns to figure out a vaguely correct sequence. There is no question of error.

The writing in this game is deliberately wielded as well: the language is florid, like that favoured by Lovecraft, but terse; a tally of the casualties (or the pharates you fail to guide to eclosion) reminds you of the consequences of your clumsiness. This is body horror the way I like it.


Tagged: body horror, Buster Hudson, games played 2016, length: short, sequence puzzles, single puzzle

These Heterogenous Tasks

Narrow Parsers

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at May 18, 2016 09:01 PM

northnorthThe standard interactive fiction parser is the product of decades of refinements, but in its outline and general concerns, it remains broadly similar to the suite of actions available in Adventure. For a long time, many of the assumptions about improving the parser were to do with expanding its range, getting the game to recognise a higher and higher proportion of reasonable commands that the player might type in. As people like Aaron Reed and Juhana Leinonen started to gather and report on data about how parser novices actually played, however,  the conventional wisdom shifted; the scope of commands that an inexperienced player might try was so vast that expanding the parser began to be seen as a job with severely diminishing returns. Focus shifted to teaching and to automatically catching common input mistakes, but in-game tutorials and autocorrect features were also a huge burden on the author for relatively small gains in accessibility.

The other approach was to change the fundamentals of the parser to make it easier to use. A lot of the things that have been tried are, one way or another, hybrids of parser and choice-based games; but another popular option is to cut the parser down, reducing the number of available actions. This is an approach with a long history, but it’s become a lot more popular of late, so it’s worth taking a look at what it does.

(In general, in this article I’ll mostly be considering actions, rather than synonyms for those actions. I don’t consider eliminating GET as a synonym for TAKE, or X for EXAMINE, to be a tightening of the verb set – it’s just an annoyance. Having a bunch of synonyms for an action is useful even if you’re paring down your actions.)

There are over sixty standard actions recognised as default by Inform 7. (This doesn’t count out-of-world actions like SAVE, RESTORE or UNDO, and it counts all directional movement as the same action, GO.) Many of these, by default, do nothing but print a refusal message. In most games, most of them will either never be useful, or only be useful a single time. And the standard list of Inform actions doesn’t even cover every verb which has a substantial history of use in parser!

Experienced parser players have a list of these actions internalised, and a sense of which are more likely to be appropriate to the circumstances. Avoiding guess-the-verb is largely about the author and player having a similar understanding of this, however, so being an experienced player may not help as much if the author has unusual ideas about how a particular action should be expressed. Even with shared knowledge, every parser game involves at least a little bit of a UI-learning process; even with the same vocabulary, each game has its own dialect of use.

The standard stable of parser verbs may not be very appropriate for a given game – indeed, most games probably don’t use most verbs, and use many of the rest only once or twice. JUMP, for instance, is almost never used, and players probably won’t try it unless the game suggests it very strongly. A lot of those verbs can be traps for novice authors – as a teenager, when I was making my first Grand Unfinishable Epic, I had a dramatic scene which was meant to conclude with a particularly dramatic JUMP. (None of my testers ever figured this out on their own, for some reason.) Even the more useful verbs assume a game with a particular concern with the manipulation of medium size dry goods.

A much-reduced parser is a lot simpler to communicate and learn. If nothing else, players tend to remember actions better if they use them a lot, and if you have a narrow set of actions then the player should be using all of them fairly often. This speeds up play even for experienced players: if all you have is a hammer, you know to go looking for nails. And it gives a stronger sense that the protagonist is someone who knows what they’re doing, that they’re an expert specialist rather than a struggling generalist.

Relying on a reduced set of verbs can also bring a lot of thematic focus to a game. Parser IF is fundamentally driven by player action, by game verbs, in a way that’s not necessarily the case of choice-based IF. When you’re designing a protagonist, a world, a story, a gameplay experience, it’s useful to ask: what kind of action is this story about? What kind of activity is important in this world? What does the player-character do, and how does that reflect on them? That’s true of any game, but in parser you have the opportunity to really foreground that design decision, to turn it into something that the player sees and feels. This is particularly useful if your game doesn’t concern itself much with medium size dry goods.

And for some games, the default messages that respond to these vestigial verbs might not be wanted. As a matter of tone, sometimes the Voice of Graham (really, the accumulation of many voices, stretching back to Infocom) may not be a good fit for your prose, but adding in custom responses is a bunch of work and may not make a lot of sense either.

Finally, a limited parser can reduce the amount of work that an author has to do. Anticipating everything that a player might reasonably try is part of a parser author’s job; this is an impossible thing to do perfectly, and doing a pretty good job of it can take a huge amount of work. There is a certain kind of parser tester – worth their weight in gold – whose strengths include a proclivity to think up and attempt perverse, unexpected yet completely reasonable in context actions. Limiting the parser doesn’t eliminate their shenanigans, but it does limit them.

Baseline

I did a back-of-the-envelope count of verbs used in ClubFloyd transcripts a while ago. In the typical parser game, the vast bulk of well-formed, in-world actions are either movement, INVENTORY, LOOK or EXAMINE. Parser IF is centrally about walking around and looking at stuff. People talk all the time about the stereotypical parser protagonist being a kleptomaniac who will steal anything that isn’t nailed down; but more importantly, they’re a tourist who keeps anxiously checking their pockets. To be fair, TAKE is also pretty central to orthodox IF, and if you have TAKE then players generally expect DROP.

That’s baseline. That’s invisible. Which is to say, messing around with it is a bold and potentially interesting move, but not messing around with it doesn’t really make much of a statement one way or the other. It’s like tap-water in a soup; you could use white wine or coconut milk instead, but you can accomplish flavour effects just as potent by sticking with tap water and messing around with the other ingredients.

Periphery and Core

One approach to limited verb sets is to select a core suite of actions, design the game to be winnable with only those actions, strongly suggest those actions to the player, and make any other actions optional.

This is what I did in Invisible Parties; there’s a listed set of special-talent verbs which act as both inventory items and actions, and the game can be won by using just these plus INVENTORY and directions. EXAMINE and TALK TO are also fairly important for understanding the world, but you don’t need them to win; and beyond that everything is optional. The other verbs remain in place, and sometimes they offer responses; for instance, there’s a mildly complicated piece of code in there to generate random responses to the player typing swearwords. Some of them even change the state of the world a little (TOUCH, ATTACK), although they don’t really accomplish anything which couldn’t be done with the core verbs.

I went with a narrow core verb set for Parties in part because I was on a deadline, and figured that limiting player action would allow me to cover more ground with less work. I also hoped that it’d serve as a good shorthand method of characterisation, showing the lead characters in terms of what they were good at.

Games which stress a core verb set – particularly of special or unusual verbs – are nothing new; nor is restraining yourself to a small set of verbs necessary to win the game. But the approach offers a good portion of the advantages of a pared-down parser without having to make quite as many sacrifices.

Block Everything Unnecessary

Treasures of a Slaver’s KingdomS. John Ross’ consciously-pulpy take on Conan, relies upon five main commands.

Five “action commands” are the heart of the barbarian’s experience: REGARD (examine, consider), SEIZE (take into your possession), USE (make use of in some way), PARLEY WITH (converse with peaceably), and ASSAIL (do violence upon).

toask3Most of these are standard verbs (EXAMINE, TAKE, TALK TO) with some theming; the officially-approved versions of the verb suggest that particular fantasy-RPG tone that combines pseudo-medieval floweriness with awkward precision, which is precisely the tone that ToaSK is going for. (Getting the player to use your words, not just consume them, is a big part of the parser’s appeal.) The orthodox versions of the verbs still work, but presentation matters.

It’s worth stressing that ToaSK predates the current trend for cut-down parsers; rather than looking forwards, it was looking back to an era of primitive parsers. The barbarian player-character is a simple soul, and the limited verb set reflects his limited perspective on the world. He’s a specialist, not a general-purpose adventurer.

It’s worth considering the suggestive effect of lists here. Parser interactive fiction is very well-versed in the aesthetic of an inventory listing, but a verb list is pretty potent too – the goofily specific phrasings evoke the awkward wordings of games design in general and old-school fantasy RPG in particular.

This is not the complete list: ToaSK also uses the basic stable of out-of-world actions and tap-water actions. Venturing beyond these approved verbs earns you one of a variety of stern reprovals, exhorting you to check your game manual.

Gun Mute is another game which pares down the usable verb list to something quite tight. The protagonist can’t speak, so social interaction is limited to a very narrow set of actions: nodding, shaking your head, pointing, kissing, and waiting to see what happens. Most of the game is about a verb-set imported from FPS games; SHOOT, RELOAD, HIDE BEHIND, HOLSTER. It also restricts navigation to a single axis: FORWARD and BACK. (Whether through conscious imitation or convergence, many limited-parser games end up feeling like existing genres of graphical game: Dirk, Light My Way Home, portions of When Help Collides, Grandma Bethlinda’s Variety Box.)

With all this, Gun Mute‘s action set is still about nineteen commands, not counting out-of-world actions. You don’t have to cut the action list back incredibly hard to get the feel of a limited parser; more important is to really stress the core actions, and to establish a pattern of play that’s centred around them. Stressing some of the limits helps, too; Mute Lawson’s inability to speak, and the fact that he’s guided inexorably towards his goal by techno-shamanry, are major elements of the narrative.

A much stricter approach to parser-cutting shows up in Grandma Bethlinda’s Variety Box, which allows precisely four in-game commands – LOOK, EXAMINE, USE and WAIT. The effect is very much like a point-and-click game. The only real advantage that the parser offers here is as an easy-reference system – rather than have all the nouns visible on the screen at once, you can just type anything you can remember. That’s a mixed blessing, since it also means that you can forget important details a lot more easily.

The trick with restricting the parser is that you still need to leave enough flexibility to justify having a parser at all. Here’s Dan Shiovitz on Kristian Kirsfeldt’s IF Comp 2003 entry, Rape, Pillage, Galore!:

This isn’t really an IF game, despite having a prompt. Each turn you can type either >SLAY, which generates a random Arabian Nights-style fight chronicle; >LAY, which generates a random Arabian Nights-style smoochies scene; or >QUIT. I gravitated to the third option pretty quickly.

If your parser is pared down to two verbs, neither of which takes a noun, you and the parser may not have very much to offer one another, and things would probably be simpler if you went with choice-based (as with Chandler Groover’s Rape, Pillage, Makane!)

…unless you’re really concerned with negative agency, as in The Northnorth Passagein which the sense of freedom denied only works if the player feels the range of parser commands that they would like to type in if only they could stay. (It still manages to contain a guess-the-verb, just to be contrary.)

Back in 2013 I issued the Two-Word Title challenge: to make parser games that were winnable with only two verbs, which also made up the game’s title. In large part this was just a play-on-words exercise, taking advantage of the fact that a lot of English imperative verbs are also nouns, and as an imaginary-games exercise, but it did produce a number of small games – PaulS’s COCK BLOCK, Mike Snyder’s Trollface and Joey Jones’ Bus Stop. None of these are completely trivial to play, largely because their verbs all take nouns.

So, to recap, important motives for narrowing the parser include:

  • helping the player learn how to play
  • streamlining action; avoiding guess-the-verb
  • thematic focus on certain kinds of action
  • characterisation: protagonist as specialist, defined by their mode of action
  • consistent voice
  • adopting the gameplay of non-IF genres
  • making life easier for the author
  • negative agency.

The original prompt for writing this was the release of Alice Grove’s Parser Parer, a simple tool for disabling or conflating Inform 7 actions en masse. Parser Parer doesn’t add any functionality that isn’t in Inform already – you could just disable all the unnecessary actions yourself – but it’s nice to have them presented as a checklist, so that you know exactly what you’ve covered. (If I was going to add anything, it’d be to display the standard synonyms alongside each action, so that you’d know exactly what words you’ve dealt with.) [Edit: this feature has been added.]

Stay Natural

Reducing the parser defines the possibility space more tightly – and sometimes that’s exactly what you don’t want. A sense of broad and unbounded possibility is an important species of player agency, for all that it comes with some health warnings.

Emily Short, So, Do We Need This Parser Thing Anyway:

Fundamentally, however, we’ve got a bigger problem, which is that the command prompt is a lie. It tells the player “type something, and I’ll understand you.” Which it won’t.

The lie part is right – but that sense of broad and unbounded possibility is always a lie. Artists are inherently liars to some extent; the question should be about what effects of the lie we’re concerned with. (Emily was specifically thinking about outreach, in which case a broad parser is demonstrably a problem.) The main problem with the parser’s lie is that it doesn’t sit decoratively in the background, but actively invites you to test it.

So under what circumstances, and for what purposes, would you not want to cut back the parser?

The most obvious answer, I think, is a very classic style of IF: a slow-paced, lengthy game with a resourceful but inexpert protagonist and a broad sense of possibility, and action that’s varied but largely comes down to slow-burn puzzles and exploration. You may not want Nancy Drew to CLIMB over that particular fence, but she’s the sort of person who should be allowed to at least try.

A broad parser is also helpful if optional or hidden content is a big part of your game. In Aisle, Galatea and Pick Up the Phone Booth and Aisle, dreaming up unexpected-yet-reasonable things to try is a central element of the action. And adding little obscure details is an attractive element of games even if it doesn’t form the main action. This is one of the things that I miss most when I’m writing choice-based games – the ability to stuff the game with unnecessary details, odd little things for the player (but not every player) to discover. (You can do this in choice, but the main method to do it is to have the content unlocked with a very specific sequence of choices or a precise range of stats, which I find way more annoying than guess-the-verb.) I can hear a distant chorus of authors crying ‘why would I make cool stuff if most players will never see it?’ – well, that’s entirely your call.

Certain games include lateral-thinking moments or leaps of intuition which require the player to be ready to try an unexpected verb, and which would be spoiled if the player had a full verb list. These are risky, and will probably elude a substantial number of players, but for the players who do figure it out it can be a peak experience.

Finally, a parser’s scope can also be a signal of how much the game wants to engage with tradition. The parser is often thought of as a dialogue between the game and the player: “well, what do you have to say about this, game?” Perhaps the clearest example of this is with the shibboleth magic-word verbs, particularly XYZZY (one of those verbs with a long history that isn’t among the default I7 set). To type XYZZY is to directly ask a game about its attitude to IF nostalgia.


Emily Short

Plot-shaped Level Design

by Emily Short at May 18, 2016 05:00 PM

Periodically I find myself giving the same advice to new story-game designers, and I’ve been repeating it a good bit lately, so I’m writing it down here, though I’m sure many of my readers are already familiar with it:

Your job is to make it as hard as possible for the player to finish your game without understanding your story.

I don’t say “make it impossible” because you cannot control for a player who, say, is not completely fluent in the language of your story playing it on a glitchy mobile device three vodkas into a transatlantic flight. It’s possible for anything to be misunderstood. But the aim is for a person playing in good faith and with full capacity to be guaranteed a complete story.

This means that the player must encounter, and ideally make use of, every critical piece of information in the story. “Encounter” might mean “read on screen” or “hear in dialogue” or “see in a cut scene,” but encountering information is much less valuable in an interactive context than using information. So it’s best if the player needs to act on each of those critical beats.

To design for this, start by identifying critical beats. What are the facts the reader has to know in order to understand this story?

This is a subset, probably a very small subset, of all the facts the reader could know. Many world-building details and secondary character motivations can probably be omitted without ruining the experience. But if your story’s impact depends on the player learning the protagonist’s secret motives, then that information is vital.

If there are two (or more) possible endings to the story, each ending might require a different set of plot beats to work fully. (It’s long in the tooth now, but my 2006 game Floatpoint lets the player make an important diplomatic decision that can turn out any of a number of ways; however, in order to get the puzzle materials required to communicate a particular choice, the player has to experience vignettes that are relevant to that outcome. This was an attempt to guarantee that each ending hit all of its critical beats.)

Figure out which information is vital. Make a list. Be honest with yourself and keep the list as short as possible.

You might find yourself getting bogged down in minutiae that have nothing to do with your major themes and characters. (“I’ve worked out this really clever escape for the killer and there are 9 different fiddly things the player needs to understand in order to get it…”) If you find yourself in that situation, you need to streamline, find some emotional reason why those beats are interesting, or — if the whole fun of the thing really is an enormous logic puzzle — structure your game/story so it’s just that one puzzle. That can totally work — see Toby’s Nose, Oxygen, Orevore Courier, Rematch, and arguably Her Story. But don’t get precious. If something isn’t working, save it for next time.

Once you have your list of vital data, figure out dependencies. Which facts depend on other facts to make sense? Which facts have the greatest impact if they come after other facts? If learning the protagonist’s secret motive is more effective after we see them commit a crime, that provides a motivation for ordering. Turn your list into a dependency chart.

Next: this chart you made that looks strangely like a classic puzzle dependency chart or level design chart? It is one! Assign puzzles, geographical barriers, stat dependencies, or choice flows that match the shape of the plot chart. Theme accordingly. If your story requires the player to see the crime before learning the motive, gate the reveal of the motive with a puzzle that can only be solved with information from the crime, or place it in a room that can only be reached by passing through the space where the crime is committed.

This method still applies to choice-based narrative. For a nodal choice game, you have a lot more control over how the player moves through your story than you would in an open world game, for instance, but some of the same points apply when it comes to focusing player attention. If you have a key story beat, don’t just narrate it and move on. Players skim in interactive stories, especially in choice-based stories where they know they’ll be able to keep moving forward regardless of how well they learned the establishing details.

If you need the player to remember something, give them a choice about that thing. If you can’t let them choose whether the thing happens, you can still let them choose how it happens, or how the protagonist feels about it, or what they’re able to salvage from it.

 


May 16, 2016

Choice of Games

Author Interview: Alana Abbott on Choice of the Pirate

by Mary Duffy at May 16, 2016 07:01 PM

COG author Alana Abbott (Choice of Kung Fu, Showdown at Willow Creek) sat down with me over email to trade a couple questions about her experiences writing Choice of the Pirate which lands in stores this Friday, May 20th.

 

How did this game come about? I was especially impressed with your nautical knowledge and some of the sailing-related stuff.

I’ve always loved pirate mythology, and even after I grew up enough to realize that real-world piracy involved a lot of preying on innocent people, the legends remained a delight. I love the swashbuckling action of pirate movies. I really love the haunted superstitious aspects of some of the folklore. One of my favorite collections is a book about pirates and ghost ships I picked up when I was studying abroad in Venezuela. Plenty of eerie tales in that one. As for the nautical knowledge… I have an in-home sailor who has a ton of real-world boating experience, and I enlisted his fact checking more than once! I also visited Mystic Seaport in Mystic, Connecticut several times while writing the game. It’s a recreated, historical whaling village, and the ships there are a little newer than the golden age of piracy.

I love Mystic, yeah. That would be a very inspirational place for a game like this. You know, Pirate is unique for me in that it fulfills not just some, but all of the progressive options I like to see in a game. There are options to play the game as male, female, nonbinary; gay, straight, bi, and asexual. And, this is also our first game with a true poly option. That’s a lot. Authors sometimes shy from creating these options for players, but it’s certainly doable. Can you speak to your experience writing, for instance, not only an ace option but a poly option?

Romance is something I’ve struggled with doing well in all my games to this point, so I’ve constantly tried to improve each game from the last. I did start with an asexual option in Choice of Kung Fu, because a couple of my playtesters really wanted options that didn’t involve romance. I was touched to receive feedback after the game was released from a player who identified as asexual at how much the options resonated, so I set about making the asexual options more intentional from the get go–something my playtesters didn’t have to encourage.

The poly option came about because I’d already written an early romance possibility into the game when I reached the scene where most of the romance options were being introduced. From a design perspective, I didn’t want to be limiting, and I thought that poly relationships in the setting I had designed could be a really natural fit. So I played with making the coding work to allow a really wide variety of relationship possibilities, and introduced text that would respect the complexities of balancing a poly relationship–all while trying to take into account whether the actions the PC takes would damage or enhance those relationships. It was definitely tough to keep all the options fluid! But I hope that the players will find the results engaging, fun, and resonant.

Although that makes me wonder if someone who chooses to play as ace is necessarily going to have a shorter playthrough.

Not due to that choice, I hope! The ace option let me highlight the importance of non-sexual friendships, which I think can sometimes get lost in the romantic options, and friendships across genders is something I feel very strongly about! Players can always choose to spend more time developing their skills than spending time with their crew–which might end up feeling like a shorter option, because there could be less dialog. But I absolutely made an effort to open up similar conversation trees outside of the romance options, so ace players won’t be missing anything.

The world of Pirate is one in which magic can play a huge role. Tell me a little bit about “cambiar,” which in English means change or exchange. In the world of Pirate cambiar stands for a kind of magic or power over the natural world.

I wanted to create a magic system for Pirate that would involve things like wind and water, but wouldn’t feel too much like Bending from Avatar! My thoughts were really about invoking something natural and making it supernatural. How can you trip someone on deck with magic? Convince the wood on deck to rot beneath them–something it wants to do eventually anyway, you’re just changing the process. Likewise, the winds aren’t always constant, and using cambiar just convinces them to go a certain way they might go on a different day. Cambiar is harnessing the power of the natural world and just… changing it a bit here and there. Sometimes it’s a little more dramatic than others in the game, but most of it is practical nautical work: filling your own sails and cutting the wind to a foe’s.

The ghosts and curses, of course, are something entirely different!

This is actually not your first rodeo. You’re also the author of two other games for us, Showdown at Willow Creek and Choice of Kung Fu. These are some seriously disparate genres to write in. Going back to my first question, sort of, can you tell me a little about your process in finding a project/period/genre that interests you?

When I’m looking at pitching a new game to Choice of Games, I try to take a look at the ideas that have already been covered and find a hole to fill with something I like. I’m a martial artist and I love kung fu movies, and I had devoured Romance of the Three Kingdoms a few years earlier, and there weren’t any martial arts games in the catalog yet, so it seemed like a good fit. I wanted to try something entirely different for the next game, with a different structure and setting, and I’d written for Cowboys and Aliens II which was set during the same period, so I had a stack of research on the era. I picked a region a little farther north than where C&A took place, so I delved into the local tribes and politics of the era and got to play with a little bit of suffragette lore from that period as well! With Pirate, I got to stay in the Americas–albeit fictional ones–and I drew on the Caribbean Lit course I took in college, my own limited personal experience in the region, and a lot of folklore I already loved.

That may look like it’s all over the map–and that’s sort of the point. I love to travel, and I love to read in a wide variety of settings and periods (though mainly in SFF, with some romance in the mix). Because (thus far) my games are stand-alone, I have a great excuse to explore a totally different period and setting that I’m already interested in for each project.

What in particular attracted you to writing IF? How did you come to write for us in the first place?

Writing for Choice of Games is like this perfect hybrid of writing fiction (which I do) and writing for tabletop roleplaying (which I used to do a lot more than I do now)–although of all the writing I’ve done, I think it’s the most challenging! Like most gamers and fantasy readers around my age, I grew up on the Choose Your Own Adventure books and really enjoyed them, but always found it disappointing when you’d hit a tree that was only a few pages long and had to start over. I liked the idea of being able to design a story that would allow that kind of interaction, or, even better, interaction reminiscent of sitting around a game table, but would also feel like reading a novel. I’ve played many of the Choice of Games games by now, and I love how my choices matter as a reader. I’ve even loved those shorter ending death scenes on occasion–one of my favorite deaths is in To the City of the Clouds; I laughed out loud when I hit it, it was so entertaining.

I was recruited to write my first game at Anonycon, this wonderful, small game convention in Stamford, Connecticut. Adam Strong-Morse knew I was a gamer, game-writer, and a fiction writer, so he asked if I’d be interested. The rest is history!

In terms of the type of game design principles that Choice of Games puts forward in our editorial process, can you speak a bit to the constraints of how we design games? What do you like most about it, and what is sometimes a stumbling block for you?

I find the framework to be very helpful, honestly. I like the branching structure, and I like the guidelines that try to keep the story from becoming too linear–although as with any kind of interactive writing, that’s always a big challenge, even when you do your best to avoid railroading the players in any fashion. One of my biggest challenges tends to be not taking the branches too far in one direction so it’s hard to come back to what I think of as the main story line. I know my word count tends to be on the high side–but any given run through of the game sees only a portion of that, which can make the game seem shorter than the writing would indicate. I worked with the editors to hammer Pirate into shape so we could make sure that each play through has a really satisfactory amount of text, but also has a high replay value with the different text options.

Writing in the code is also a challenge in itself, because it’s applying the grammar of a foreign language (the code) to the prose, and then keeping track of where the heck I am inside of it. I learn something new from each game I write (and most of them that I read/play)–something I want to try differently the next time, or structure a different way. Each game has its own particular new and different hurdles to overcome!

Finally, I can’t resist a little short answer Bernard Pivot – James Lipton action with some IF flavor thrown in:

What is your favorite word?

Liminal.

What is your least favorite?

Deadline.

What turns you on creatively?

Sometimes there are ideas that just percolate for a long time before they finally bubble to the surface, so there’s no real “on” switch. But occasionally I’ve been so irritated by some fiction I’m reading that I decide to write something

What turns you off?

Lack of sleep. I find it really hard to be creative when I’m exhausted.

What is your favorite IF novel other than your own?

Can I list more than one? The game I loved in total surprise–because I didn’t think it would be my thing when I picked it up–was Slammed by Paolo Chikiamco which is amazing and really drew me in and made me care about the professional wrestling setting. I think Max Gladstone’s Choice of the Deathless is fantastic, and I’m a fan of the Craftverse, so it was huge fun to get to play in it myself. (Also, there are references to the game in future books, and I find that interplay utterly delightful.) And lastly, For Rent: Haunted House was so fun I went online and bought Gavin Inglis’s novel Crap Ghosts. Well worth it!

[Ed. Alana lists off some of my absolute favorites, which I consider somewhat hidden gems in our catalogue. You wouldn’t think you wanted to play a game about wrestling, but Slammed is fantastic, for instance.]

What strategies do you use to keep writing when you feel blocked?

The best strategy I’ve developed is one I got from Jennifer Lynn Barnes, and it’s called BIC. Butt-In-Chair. I have to sit there until I figure it out (without getting distracted by Facebook!).

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

There is so much room in what I do–I’m a writer and an editor, and I’ve just accepted the Editor in Chief position for Outland Entertainment, where I’ll be editing their comics line–that I feel like I’m always getting to do something new. I recently started writing more frequently for Den of Geek, where I get to analyze things like My Little Pony, Serial Fiction, and Star Wars. So there’s a lot of diversity in my current profession.

But if I had the training, I think I’d have liked to be an archaeologist. And I don’t have the height or the vision requirements or science background for it, but I always wanted to be an astronaut.

What profession would you not like to do?

I was really disappointed to find out that I don’t enjoy teaching. I find it to be a failing of character on my part.

Creamy or crunchy?

Creamy. I can’t handle bits in my bread, let alone my peanut butter!

May 15, 2016

what will you do now?

XYZZY nominee: Hana Feels

by verityvirtue at May 15, 2016 10:01 PM

By Gavin Inglis (Twine; IFDB; play here)

Time to completion: 15-25 minutes

[This game contains discussions of self-harm/self-mutilation. Please exercise discretion.]

Hana has been acting unlike herself lately. Can you find out why?

We, the player, see Hana’s feelings through the eyes of four different people. Each is meant to play a supportive role in her life, but their different personalities means that their support can express itself in very different ways. The catch: the only thing you can control is what other people say to Hana. Some of the NPCs would have been self-centred had we only been able to see from Hana’s point of view, but being able to play through their perspectives – and seeing their doubts and awkwardness – made them much more sympathetic, even when they say things which would be frankly hurtful.

Hana’s journal entries provide immediate feedback about your conversational choices. I found myself wondering how I could optimise outcomes for Hana – or, indeed, if it was even possible. But there’s something to this, isn’t there? No matter our intentions, our words of comfort can so easily be interpreted in the exact opposite of what we mean.

Depending on the branch you end up getting, the overall tone of Hana Feels could be either cautiously optimistic or achingly sad. Despite occasionally getting to experience Hana’s perspective, she remains distant; we can only ever reach her indirectly, through the filter of other people.

Hana has been nominated for Best NPC in the XYZZY awards, a fact which delights me, even if I’m never really sure what makes an NPC ‘good’. The most I can say, though, is that the emotional investment the PCs pay into their interactions with Hana pays off. Each character reacts believably and sensitively to what the other says. A comparable game would be Hannah Powell-Smith’s Thanksgiving or Aquarium, in which conversation is fraught and intricate as a dance.

Hana Feels ultimately deals with some weighty stuff – Hana, after all, has to deal with a lot and she doesn’t always do this in a healthy way – but there are areas of levity, and perhaps even hope.


Tagged: conversation, female protagonist, games played 2016, Gavin Inglis, mental health, multiple narrators, Twine

Emily Short

Mid May Link Assortment

by Emily Short at May 15, 2016 10:00 AM

Based on feedback, I’m experimenting with a twice a month approach to link roundups. I’m hoping this will mean each individual post will be less overwhelmingly long, and time-sensitive things will be fresher.

Events

This is only semi-IF-related, but there’s an event in San Francisco for enthusiasts of roguelikes, 6:30 PM, May 17. The talks include some discussion of procedural generation and narrative, so might be of interest to some here, though.

And, of course, Feral Vector is still upcoming: Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire, June 2-4. It will be fun. I will be talking.

If you liked the sound of Enter the Oubliette and you’re in range of Brixton, you’ll want to get tickets and go as soon as possible: the site is closing in another four weeks or so. Here’s Exit Games UK talking about the game and its closure, and a fuller discussion of why they’re closing over on their Kickstarter page. The short version is that their landlord has changed his mind about letting them renew the lease, and they don’t have a good place lined up to move to. Which is a shame — it’s a really fun experience. Here’s hoping they find another venue.

New releases

Bard Jam in April produced six works of Shakespeare-related IF. I haven’t had time to check them all out, but I was amused by David T. Marchand’s Armando the Bardo, which among other things uses some real-time effects that I don’t typically associate with Twine: for instance, there’s a guard character you have to sneak past when he’s described as looking the other way.

From Ryan Veeder, we got An Evening at the Ransom Woodingdean Museum House, a creepy parser game in which the protagonist is a docent at a historic home. It’s less silly and more scary than average for Veeder; and, as is often the case with Veeder’s work, it tosses in a bunch of elegant design tricks so casually that it would be possible to miss that anything virtuosic just happened. I’d really recommend this to people who are thinking about how to build a sense of dread in the open space of parser IF. The pacing of revelations, the use of light and darkness, the gradual changes in narration are all great. But An Evening is not played just for horror; it’s also a meditation on our relationship to the past.

The game comes with a link to a rainscape you can listen to while you play, and I recommend using this.

Alexander Systems (Darusha Wehm for Sub-Q) is a Twine story of dystopian work, punishment, and solitude. There are quite long passages between choice points, and the first few screens end with a single link-to-continue — the pacing feels rather different from the Twine average — but the prose is assured.

Starship Adventures is a new collaboratively-written ChoiceScript game, coordinated by Felicity Banks and including writing by a number of other authors:

You’re a naturally heroic and quick-thinking space captain flying a starship from world to world while keeping your hair groomed to perfection. It’s your duty to keep the engine running, the scotch flowing, the crew happy, and your outfit looking fabulous. There’s carnivorous flora, deceptive aliens, space anomalies, horrifying creatures, and too many arch enemies to keep track of them all! Can you survive?

Enchantedonsequel and Christyonsequel are two conversational games involving dialogue with a fictional character via Facebook, played on Facebook Messenger and “powered by Sequel”. These are adaptations of work by Felicity Banks and Joey Jones, originally available on other chat apps.

Mark Marino (of Living Will and the Mrs. Wobbles series) and Rob Wittig have also done a project with Sequel, which Mark describes thus:

In Baby Seals, Spencer and Heidi are drawn into a new Reality show in which Spencer gets to do fake Special Ops — unless they’re real.

My initial impression is that the interface, universal to all of these games, is a little on the clumsy side — Lifeline-esque choice-based interactions like this:

Screen Shot 2016-05-07 at 10.01.50 PM.png

…where the selection isn’t even about clicking the choice you want to make. Still, it’s interesting seeing various commercial attempts to do IF in the chat space. There are also times when you have only one option to select, and the UI makes it pretty unclear that it even is supposed to be your dialogue, rather than just a tap-to-continue after the previous person’s monologue. For instance:

Screen Shot 2016-05-12 at 10.57.22 AM.png

Here, context makes it clear that we’re selecting the (lone) option to say “I won’t,” but visually it’s not distinct from Spencer saying “I won’t!” and the protagonist doing a continue action. Then, too, the system doesn’t always cope gracefully with even a fairly brief distraction from the game. At one point I set Spencer aside for a moment to type up some notes — a pause certainly shorter than pauses that appear naturally in online chats in general, let alone a gap of hours — and when I returned and tried to pick an option, I got this:

Screen Shot 2016-05-12 at 10.59.32 AM.png

So it’s not entirely smooth or graceful yet, I’d say, and I already consider Facebook chat/messenger to be the Most Annoying Way To Chat (TM). That said, this is an accessible way to do Lifeline-alikes.

For my taste, this kind of game is immensely dependent on the appeal of the character you’re conversing with: during the time I played (which was not the full game), Marino and Wittig’s reality-show star Spencer reminded me very accurately of certain Hollywood-peripheral people I know in LA, and this kept things entertaining. Pieces with a less-strong protagonist voice might struggle to make the format work.

Craft Writing

As Spring Thing and the Ryan Veeder competition are over, it’s now the season for the flourishing of IF post-mortems, where you can find out what authors did and why. Recently published post-mortems include:

Meanwhile over at spooky action at a distance, the crossover IF/SFF review site, Arkady Martine writes about voice and cohesion in Birdland, and then the site also has a great interview with Brendan Patrick Hennessy about the writing process, touching on everything from Twine tech details to the experience of reading loads of lesbian YA novels to get a grounding in the genre.

Selling IF and IF-adjacent writing

It’s worth reading Harry Giles’ essay on selling Raik, which includes sales figures, information on time spent and pricing approaches, and some thinking about the state of artgames funding.

Cartridge Lit seeks fiction and poetry about, or set in the world of, video games.

Jams, Comps, Conferences, etc

Spring Thing is now over, with ribbons going to Tangaroa Deep and The Xylophoniad. If you missed the excitement, there are some additional reviews available now: from Robin Johnson, or from any of the several reviewers listed on the ifwiki page. You can also watch Lynnea Glasser Twitch-stream the games or check out the transcripts of some of the parser selections on ClubFloyd, where IF players go through the games together and comment. (ClubFloyd isn’t as well equipped to play hypertext games.)

Robin Johnson announces the Year of Adventure in honor of the 40th anniversary of the Crowther and Woods original:

a year-round, free-form, non-competitive jam for games inspired by, paying homage to, or otherwise related to Adventure or other early works of IF, running from now until the end of 2016.

Or if that’s not your fandom, perhaps you’ll prefer the Discworld Open Jam, running through July 28, for works inspired by Mr Pratchett.

Meanwhile, this IFDB poll invites authors to nominate the work of theirs they think is most underrated: personal favorites passed over by readers or perhaps not enjoyed as much as they deserve.

Further in the future, and more academic, but of possible interest to procedural text folks here: in September in Edinburgh there will be a workshop on Computational Creativity and Natural Language Generation.

Criticism and education

Melissa Ford has released Writing Interactive Fiction with Twine, available as an ebook or in hard copy. Chris Klimas tech-edited it, and has a post about the book and the editing experience.

ScholarsPlay is a Twitch channel that features commentators from UC Santa Cruz playing and discussing games. Their Firewatch video features Aaron Reed as a guest commentator, and gets into a lot of topics around story.

Not new this month, but new to me: I liked this Script Lock podcast with Ian Gil and Anna Kipnis, which among other things talks about how games can address cultures that are less familiar to us. They use the examples of Dear Leader and the USSR, and Never Alone with Alaskan Native culture. The podcast includes really neat specific details here about how game mechanics did or did not fit well with particular cultural and spiritual beliefs. There’s also bonus discussion about 80 Days and Crusader Kings 2, among other things.

Also new to me, here is Sergey Mohav’s talk from nucl.ai last year talking about using a chatbot for narrative functions in the upcoming game event[0].

And if you like conversation about respectful representation of cultures, you might also like this Failure Workshop talk from GDC 2015, Ben Esposito talks about the decision not to use Hopi imagery in Donut County.

IF-adjacent media

Bookish Blether is a podcast mostly for readers and about books, but this episode includes an interview with Hannah Flynn of Failbetter Games about interactive fiction. The interview portion of the podcast starts at around 18:00 and touches on Fallen London (of course) but also other examples including 80 Days and With Those We Love Alive.

If you enjoyed my post on card-deck narratives, you might like this interview with Jedediah Berry, author of The Family Arcana, in which he talks about his creative process, electronic and physical interactive projects, and the press he founded for stories in unusual shapes.

Other projects by IF folks

Adam Cadre’s Lyttle Lytton contest for bad prose is in its 16th year, and recently announced its latest slate of winners.


May 14, 2016

what will you do now?

13 Minutes of Light

by verityvirtue at May 14, 2016 08:01 AM

By Jod (Ren’Py; IFDB)

viewgame.jpgSplash screen: the title of the game on a maroon background

Time to completion: 20-30 minutes

You play Jack, whose girlfriend Elizabeth has left for Mars for a position teaching anthropology. Constrained by cost, the only means of communication you have with her are the letters, and each takes three months to arrive. Three months is a long time…

The gameplay reminded me of First Draft of the Revolution, with the epistolary format and the way branching is achieved. 13 Minutes of Light introduces a wider story arc of political unrest and social inequality to contextualise the relationship, contrasting the content of the letters with snippets from a mockup of Reddit’s /r/mars.

I particularly liked Elizabeth’s development from anthropology graduate to (Spoiler – click to show). This game also plays on the uncertainty and tension that comes with such a restricted form of communication as letters: how do you know what the other party really means?

There are some bits which could have been improved to make 13 Minutes of Light more enjoyable, one of which was a feedback system I didn’t understand. The game tells you which parts of the letter go off well, which don’t and which are mysteriously relevant to the story. This felt out of place with the theme, given that we are told (repeatedly) how long letters take to be delivered – and whose point of view are these from, anyway?

13 Minutes of Light could maybe stand to be aesthetically more pleasing, but it still represents a solid example of epistolary branching IF.


Tagged: epistolary, Jod, length: short, renpy, romance, setting: space

May 13, 2016

Renga in Blue

A Brief Update

by Jason Dyer at May 13, 2016 07:00 PM

I know I have people awaiting both a.) the next post in my All the Adventure series and b.) the reviews and pseudonym reveals from imaginary games jam (authors are still welcome to reveal themselves at any time, though).

I must apologize: have been working two jobs from the time since my last post and my mental energy has been spent of late. I will be down to one job after May 20th at which point normal posting can resume.


The Digital Antiquarian

Tales of the Gnome Ranger

by Jimmy Maher at May 13, 2016 10:00 AM

Nick, Pete, and Mike Austin of Level 9 pose with Ingrid the Gnome Ranger.

Nick, Pete, and Mike Austin of Level 9 pose with Ingrid the Gnome Ranger.

Of all the creators I’ve written about so far on this blog, the Austin brothers of Level 9 have frustrated me the most, purely on account of their immense unrealized potential. They could have been great, I tell you. They could have been contenders. But timing and circumstances kept it all from ever quite coming together for them.

At first glance, that may seem an odd statement. Certainly one could hardly say that Level 9’s life was cut unduly short. On the contrary, the Austin brothers got a good long kick at the can as such things go, releasing their first text adventures in 1982 and their last fully seven years later. While hardly a huge stretch of time in the grand scheme of things, that stretch does correspond exactly with the beginning and end of the period in which it was practically possible to earn a living selling text adventures in Britain. Level 9, in other words, had all the time at their disposal that, barring sweeping games-industry counterfactuals, they could possibly have been allowed. During those years, they released more text adventures than any developer this side of Infocom.

Compare this with the sharply abbreviated career of Magnetic Scrolls, their rival for the title of “the British Infocom.” Arriving on the scene in earnest only in 1986, Magnetic Scrolls had just barely enough time to cause a brief splash before getting to enjoying their chosen genre’s steady, painful decline into commercial obsolescence.

Look a little harder, however, and we can see that Magnetic Scrolls also enjoyed some advantages that rather offset the sheer brevity of their window of opportunity. Never more than a very small company though they were, in comparison to Level 9 Magnetic Scrolls was very well-capitalized, thanks to the considerable amount of familial wealth that co-founder Anita Sinclair had to put into her company. It’s doubtful whether Magnetic Scrolls even during their best years of 1986 and 1987 made more than a very modest profit, and that must have been more than wiped away by the unusually long technological run-up to those years of prominence — and of course by the painful years of decline that followed them. Like that of Infocom, the final balance sheet for Magnetic Scrolls must show a company that lost far, far more money than it earned, an abject failure by the harsh capitalistic logic of pounds and pence.

But Level 9 didn’t have the luxury of being able to lose money for years on end. Founded on a shoestring by a family of modest means, they needed to consistently earn at least as much money as they spent in order to keep the doors open. And with text adventures a relative niche market in Britain even at their commercial peak, the only way to do so was to pump out a lot of games quickly.

And so we come to the crux of Level 9’s problems, and the root of my own frustration with them. Forced to make three, four, even five games each year, the little trio of brothers couldn’t possibly test and polish each of them as they ought. The same relentless financial pressure forced them — so they believed, at any rate — to make their games available on the widest possible range of platforms, including the tape-based machines that Magnetic Scrolls (and Infocom) eschewed. Level 9’s compression techniques were truly masterful, the envy of any of their rivals, but even with them to hand there was only so much complexity and polish they could pack into 48 K of memory.

It should be noted that the judgments I make on Level 9’s games today are indeed contemporary judgments. In their day, most of them were very well-received. Used to short, primitive games created with the likes of The Quill, reviewers readily forgave dodgy puzzles, occasional parsing problems, and bugs and glitches galore to be able to wander in such comparatively huge and complicated worlds as those provided by Level 9. Some of their games contained as many as 200 locations, and their parser, while falling far short of Infocom’s standards, was certainly the best available from a British company prior to the arrival of Magnetic Scrolls. Yet, anachronistic as the judgement may be, Level 9’s games just haven’t aged very well in comparison to the games of Infocom and even Magnetic Scrolls, and we do need to acknowledge the failings that had to be there from the beginning to bring that about.

The situation is doubly infuriating in light of how good — how innovative — Level 9’s abstract design instincts were. In 1983’s Snowball, they endeavored to tell a consistent story in a coherent world, constructing a grand space opera with a premise worthy of Asimov or Niven at a time when virtually no one else in Britain was thinking of text adventures in those terms, before even Infocom had started referring to their works as “interactive fiction.” In 1985’s Red Moon, they combined a system of magic with combat and CRPG-like emergent mechanics, more than two years before Infocom’s text-adventure/CRPG hybrid Beyond Zork. In 1987’s Knight Orc, they pushed further into the realms of simulation and emergence, debuting their KAOS system of autonomous non-player characters, active inhabitants of an active world who can be not just fought but also befriended and ordered about by you, letting you become the director of your own little play.

Next to such innovations, the text adventures of Magnetic Scrolls, all very derivative of Infocom’s first handful of games, seem rather safe and, well, unadventurous. Some of Level 9’s ideas would still be regarded as innovative in a modern game. How heartbreaking, then, that all of the Level 9 games I’ve just mentioned, and so many more besides, are largely undone by some combination of bugs and playability issues. The situation is so frustrating that I often feel an urge to fix it, to go back through the Level 9 catalog and re-implement each game as it ought to have been the first time around, to bring all the good ideas to the fore where they can be appreciated at last. But that won’t be happening any time soon; maybe in my retirement years, when I’ve grown rich from blogging (a man can dream, can’t he?).

In the meantime, we must take Level 9 as we find them. How welcome, then, that not quite every game in their substantial catalog falls down before reaching the finish line. I’ve finally found my personal Holy Grail of a Level 9 game that doesn’t wind up infuriating me before it’s over. And I found it in a very unlikely candidate, in a game that’s far from being one of their more celebrated.

Gnome Ranger was created during 1987, a difficult period for Level 9. The contract they had signed with Rainbird the previous year, seen at the time as their big shot to take things to the next level (Level 10?), had instead left them playing second fiddle to Magnetic Scrolls; all of their own efforts for Rainbird wound up being overshadowed by those of their stablemate. Rainbird wasn’t thrilled with Jewels of Darkness or Silicon Dreams, Level 9’s reworkings of past glories. They were still less thrilled with Knight Orc, which the perpetually overworked Austin brothers delivered very late and riddled with bugs. With sales of all the Level 9 games lagging far behind those of Magnetic Scrolls, Rainbird saw little reason to retain a second British text-adventure house on the label. This parting was deeply disappointing for the Austin brothers, not least in that it dashed their fondest dream, that of breaking through in the United States; the three Rainbird releases had been the first Level 9 games ever to be made available to Americans.

But there was nothing for it but to soldier on alone. Gnome Ranger, the next game in the pipeline, would have been a Rainbird release if all had gone well. Instead they would just release it themselves, like they had done in the old days. They did, however, take some lessons from the split with Rainbird, making an effort to improve their quality control by instituting a real play-testing cycle of one month’s duration. One month wasn’t, needless to say, anywhere near enough to bring a Level 9 game up to the level of polish enjoyed by Infocom’s players, but it was a much-needed step in the right direction. The benefits are immediately apparent in the finished game, rough around the edges though it does indeed still feel in comparison to Infocom.

Like Knight Orc, Gnome Ranger is on the surface at least a comedy, a genre Level 9 had rarely explored in their many earlier games. And also like Knight Orc, Gnome Ranger is named after the character you play, this time a little busybody of a gnome named Ingrid Bottomlow who’s irritated her entire village so badly that they’ve contrived to teleport her far, far away just to get her out of their hair. As Ingrid the clueless perpetual innocent, who assumes the whole incident was just an unfortunate mishap, you have to make your way back home on foot. Adventure, naturally, ensues.

Like Knight Orc, Gnome Ranger uses scanned pencil drawings for illustrations. They were very polarizing at the time. I like their Impressionistic quality myself, and certainly think they suit this game much better than they did Knight Orc.

Like Knight Orc, Gnome Ranger uses scanned colored-pencil drawings for illustrations. They were very polarizing at the time. I like their Impressionistic quality myself, and certainly think they suit this game much better than they did Knight Orc.

Gnome Ranger resembles Knight Orc in many other particulars, among them a fun novella to set the stage, written by regular Level 9 collaborator Peter McBride, and the KAOS system of active non-player characters and the many puzzles revolving around giving orders to and coordinating the actions of same. Yet its tone is much, much gentler. Replacing the savage humor of Knight Orc is a more whimsical spirit one might even describe as “cute” — certainly an adjective you’re very unlikely to apply to anything about the earlier game. For instance, in a move you’ll either find hilarious or unbearably twee, every single word that starts with “n” in standard English starts with “gn” in Gnome Ranger: “Gnow what?” it asks when it’s ready for your first command. I find it unaccountably funny myself, and somehow even funnier that Level 9 is so dedicated to the joke that they seldom miss a word. (No, you don’t have to enter your commands using the alternative spellings, although you can if you really want to get into the spirit of the thing.)

Once again like Knight Orc and the other late Level 9 games, Gnome Ranger is divided into three separate acts, each a small, self-contained game in its own right. This division permitted the whole to run on the modest likes of a tape-based Sinclair Spectrum, and, more to our contemporary benefit, kept the design of each section compact and manageable. The three stages of Ingrid’s journey home each have a theme: animal, vegetable, and mineral. My favorite is the second, a series of brilliant little puzzles involving the assembling and use of a series of magic potions, culminating in a recipe for the ultimate cup of tea. Yes, this is a very English game, feeling much more naturally so than the sometimes strained attempts by Magnetic Scrolls to evoke the spirits of Monty Python and Douglas Adams for the American players they were hoping to reach. In contrast to the London-based Magnetic Scrolls, Level 9’s offices remained always in quiet villages and suburbs, in the real bosom of England’s green and pleasant land. The detailed descriptions of the flora in particular evince the love of gardening that was shared by the Austins and Peter McBride, who wrote much of the in-game text as well as the accompanying novella. Like so many other writers and readers who belatedly realize that small stories are usually more compelling than epic ones, the Austins are perhaps growing up here, deliberately eschewing the nerdy bombast of something like Snowball. Like the English countryside they so dearly loved, the pleasures of Gnome Ranger are modest in scale, but no less entrancing for it when you give the game a chance.

Gnome Ranger and most of the other late Level 9 games are among the few text adventures written in the third-person past tense.

Gnome Ranger and most of the other late Level 9 games are among the few text adventures written in the third-person past tense. The tense was presumably chosen to enhance the narrative qualities. In my judgment, it really doesn’t, but it doesn’t distract unduly either.

The KAOS system is still present in Gnome Ranger, the ordering about of a whole squad of helpers still the solution to many puzzles, but it’s toned down considerably here in comparison to the exercise in unhinged chaos (KAOS?) that is Knight Orc. Having developed a new set of tools, Level 9 is now learning how to use them. With most of the weirdness excised, what remains is a compelling set of puzzle mechanics that allows lots of alternate solutions to the problems you encounter, that gives solving the puzzles less of a feeling of stumbling onto the one arbitrary correct command and more of a feeling of taking advantage of emergent circumstance, of strategizing your way to success. Soluble but not trivial, gently funny without trying too hard to be, Gnome Ranger is wonderful to experience as crossword and narrative alike. It’s by far my favorite of Level 9’s games.

It seems that little Ingrid Bottomlow was also a favorite of the Austin brothers, for they chose to revisit her in a sequel, titled Ingrid’s Back!, in 1988. She’s arrived back home again only to find her village in danger of being steamrolled by one Jasper Quickbuck, a greedy real-estate developer whose presence provides a dash of political commentary about the ongoing gentrification of so many British towns and villages. Suddenly there’s need in her village for a busybody like Ingrid; it’s up to her — that is to say, to you — to save it.

The other inhabitants of the village are described with delightful wit.

He was a dwarf from the gnorth, who measured for pleasure with his pole in a hole and his theodolite on the right.


He was the local fishergnome, gnow doubling as the ferrygnome since the Dribble Bridge collapsed. He gnever did much ferrying because he was always busy fishing to supply the Green Gnome, which was crowded with stranded travellers who were waiting for the ferry.


He was a travelling leprechaun, who spent his days peddling his charms to housewives everywhere. He was very small, but very jolly, and given to saying that size wasn’t everything.


He was the family rabbit-herd. He couldn’t decide if he was keeping rabbits for their meat, milk, or fur, but it didn’t matter anyway because the rabbits wouldn’t let him have any of them.

For Ingrid's Back!, Level 9 switched to more traditional computer-drawn graphics, although theirs were never quite as good as those of Magnetic Scrolls.

For Ingrid’s Back!, Level 9 switched to more traditional computer-drawn pictures, although theirs were never quite as good as those of Magnetic Scrolls.

Once again, the second act is my favorite here. It deals with an assault on the village by a demolition crew of trolls. You have to dash about dealing with them one after another through tricks and booby traps. The presence of a harsh time limit makes the experience more stressful than anything in Gnome Ranger, but it’s great fun to dispatch the trolls one by one through ever more hilarious means.

I should take a moment to note that by “dispatch” I don’t mean kill; no one ever has to die in either of the Gnome Ranger games, something else I like about them. The Austin brothers regarded violent games with a certain contempt, calling them “vomit games” after the squelching sounds of blood and guts. Pete Austin:

Most advertising seems to emphasize the violent aspect of games, and, while nobody wants things like My Little Pony prancing about, it would be better to point out that computer programs can be interesting, informative, and broaden the mind. Unfortunately, violence does succeed in selling. If you have an essentially boring concept, the best way to jazz it up is to add some blood. This is what Hollywood has been doing successfully for years, but what you really need is a good script.

But sadly, Ingrid’s Back! itself lacks a good script — or, at any rate, a good puzzle structure — in its first and third acts. There’s precious little to really do at all during the last act in particular; with only a few exceptions, you just have to wander around and collect things. It’s as if in their newfound zeal for solubility the Austins have decided to remove the puzzles entirely. It makes a sad contrast to the compelling puzzles of Gnome Ranger, one almost certainly attributable to the time pressures that were now becoming even more acute as text adventures faded in popularity and each successive game Level 9 released sold fewer copies.

Many of the same old issues of bugs and playability began to creep back into Ingrid’s Back! and Level 9’s other late games. The experience of properly testing Gnome Ranger, while certainly resulting in a better game, provided a mixed lesson on the whole. Many of the outside testers, the Austins believed, decided to share the game with their friends; Pete Austin claimed that some of the problems he saw people writing into the magazines about existed only in the beta versions. Subsequent games were thus not tested as extensively — or possibly, given the state of some of them, not tested at all. “We have to walk this tightrope,” Pete said, “and make these compromises in getting it tested enough to get the bugs out but not enough to get too much piracy.” Such a “compromise” could have only a negative effect on the end result.

Also not doing much to cement Level 9’s commitment to quality control was the fact that they received little obvious reward for it either critically or commercially. Many reviewers, apparently poorly equipped by disposition to appreciate Gnome Ranger‘s pastoral pleasures, were nonplussed by Level 9’s eschewing of the epic for the intimate. There was considerable grumbling, considerable nostalgia for the good old days of sprawling maps with 200 locations — for, ironically, the very attributes Level 9 themselves had used as their primary selling points in the early days. It was all part of a general turning away from Level 9 on the part of the British gaming press, who had always feted them as the undisputed kings of adventure gaming in earlier years but were now hopelessly enamored with Magnetic Scrolls. For the Austins, who in contrast to Anita Sinclair and her band of upstarts had been on the scene since the beginning, it must have felt like a betrayal by old friends.

The Austins were reported to have a third Gnome Ranger game, the conclusion of what had always been planned as a trilogy, designed and ready for implementation by early 1989, but wound up retiring from the text-adventure scene before getting a chance to do so. Ah, well, at least we have the first two — and especially the first. Unloved and largely unremarked even in its own day though it was, its discovery marks the fulfillment of a personal quest I’ve been on for a long time now: the quest for at least one Level 9 game I can unreservedly enjoy and tell you to play. I can, and you should.

To make that as easy as possible for you, I’ve prepared a zip file containing Gnome Ranger and its sequel in two formats. The first, which is strictly for the hardcore or the purist, is the disk images of the original Amiga versions, playable in an Amiga emulator. The other, more accessible format will work under Glen Summer’s Level 9 interpreter, which is available for many platforms. Once you’ve downloaded the correct version of the interpreter for your computer, just fire it up and open the file “gamedata1.dat” from either game’s directory to play.

Soon it will be time to put a bow on the tale of the 1980s British text adventure in general and Level 9 in particular, but before we do so I want to take you on one final detour back to earlier years. My next story is not about a computer game at all, but it is a story some of you have asked for specifically, and one we’ve already met tangentially several times. And it’s most definitely a story that’s worthy of more than mentions in passing. So, next time we’ll finally do proper justice to Kit Williams and his golden hare.

(Sources: Retro Gamer 7; Crash of February 1988; Page 6 of July/August 1988 and June/July 1989; ACE of December 1987; Amstrad Action of September 1988 and October 1988; Games Machine of December 1988; Zzap! of January 1989.)


Comments

May 12, 2016

Ron Newcomb

AI Isn't a Subsystem - by Ron Newcomb

May 12, 2016 10:00 PM

Demystify AI by viewing it as an extension of existing subsystems.

Three Solutions to Three Problems in Interactive Fiction - by Ron Newcomb

May 12, 2016 10:00 PM

Agency vs Plot. Believability vs Playability. Control vs Empathy. Writing interactive fiction means dancing with these devils. Here's a few moves I've learned.

Versificator IF blog

The Xylophoniad (and Draculaland) postmortem

by robinjohnson at May 12, 2016 09:02 PM

Around the end of last year I had a craving to write an IF game again, which I hadn’t really done in about ten years. My last game had come mid-table in the 2006 comp and after that I got fairly serious about writing theatre.

I’m the sort of person who gets obsessed with things, and I wrote “Portcullis” in two or three weeks. I had expected it to take much longer and perhaps end up in the 2016 Spring Thing, but it was finished in time for the New Year’s Minicomp, so in it went. After all, I had plenty of time to write another game for Spring Thing.

But it turns out that “suddenly finding inspiration to write something quickly” and “writing something quickly on purpose” are very different. I started The Xylophoniad, because I thought Greek myth was both underrepresented in IF and suitably bonkers for my style (seriously – I know The Xylophoniad is surreal, but it’s really not that much wackier than much of the Greek canon.) I got most of the bits set in and around Troy written fairly quickly, which I still think are the best parts of the game, and then… the muse was gone.

I was playing some M Scott Adams games on my tablet when I thought of the engine that became the Draculaland engine. The Adams format seemed to suit mobile devices very well – ultra-terse room descriptions, simple commands, and separate screen areas for “what you can see” and “what’s going on” – if it weren’t for all that pesky typing. So I wrote the bare bones of that interface, whipped up Cloak of Darkness and another very small sample game, and got some positive remarks about it from the euphoria IF channel and elsewhere.

I was aware of the Ryan Veeder Exposition and really wanted to enter it, but I didn’t think I would be able to get a game finished in time. The deadline for intents to enter came and went.

My intention at that time was to finish work on The Xylophoniad for the Spring Thing, and to make a small but complete sample game in the new engine for the back garden. The new game had the working title “Zeppelin Adventure” (which may get finished one day), then somehow got switched to schlock horror as “Scary Castle”. When I realised I was enjoying writing this game more than The Xylophoniad – mainly because I’m a much less worse programmer than I was when I wrote the “versificator” engine 13 years ago, so the internal code structure is much less painful to work with – I decided to seriously attempt making it a good game, rather than a demonstrative one. I decided to make it an adaptation of Dracula. The plot had little in common except for the baddie being a vampire, but then, that’s true of several good adaptations of Dracula.

A couple of weeks later, I had finished “Draculaland”, and The Xylophoniad was still where I had left it. After coding something properly, working with the mess of my old homebrew parser was just too much of a headache. I even tried starting The Xylophoniad all over again with the Draculaland engine, but I had coded quite a lot of the game already and wouldn’t be able to finish in time.

I asked nicely if I could submit Draculaland late to the Ryan Veeder Comp, and Ryan and the stewards graciously allowed it (on forfeit of not being allowed a cash prize, and being punted to the end of the prize queue – fair enough.) So, unlike some of the games in the Ryan Veeder Comp, there was almost no deliberate gearing towards Ryan Veeder, except that I know he likes comic writing. The only really deliberately-done-for-Ryan-Veeder bit of “Draculaland” is the homemade theme music, with chords played on a melodica because it’s the thing I’ve got that sounds most like an accordion.

The Spring Thing deadline was approaching faster than I thought it had any right to, and The Xylophoniad still wasn’t finished. Most of the puzzles in Minos and Hades ended up being a lot simpler than I had envisioned them.

SPOILERS (select to read): Assembling the bicycle was a thing you were going to figure out yourself, and require more components, including handlebars and pedals. It turned out to be, essentially, Daedalus saying “BRING *TREASURES* HERE!” The handcart was going to start somewhere else and be pushable. There was going to be something about a snowball in Hades, where you had to carry the snow in Daedalus’s refrigerator, which was too heavy to lift so you had to put the fridge in the handcart. Prometheus and his vulture were going to be in Hades, giving you a choice of which two souls to rescue, and Cerberus was going to be on guard for three angry dog puzzles in one. Daedalus and the Minotaur would have been an actual puzzle rather than a throwaway gag. There was even going to be a whole other labour where you had to steal a thunderbolt from Zeus.

The result of this is that The Xylophoniad is a bit front-heavy: Troy and the Medusa have the best puzzles and NPCs, then Minos and Hades are a bit of a breeze. I thought of shuffling the areas around so the simple puzzles came first – easy enough to do with the temple teleportation system – but I just didn’t think they worked in any other order. I was proud of the Trojan Horse puzzle and wanted that to come first; I wanted the silliness to escalate with the Bicyclops; and Hades just seems to fit last thematically.

I recruited “beta” testers with about a week to go. They were all wonderful and found some horrible clunkers of bugs, some of which made the game impossible to complete. One of them gently asked whether I really thought the game was polished enough for Spring Thing. I worked intensely in that last week, not just fixing bugs but adding a lot of scenery descriptions and other “flavour” stuff, and if it hadn’t been for the testers I don’t think the game would have stood a chance.

When more than one reviewer called it “polished”, I was floored. When it won Alumni’s Choice I was through the floor and outright cellared. Thanks so much to everyone involved in the Thing, organisers, players, and the other authors.

May 11, 2016

Choice of Games

Bid on a new auction lot in our 2016 charity auction!

by Dan Fabulich at May 11, 2016 07:01 PM

Our 2016 charity auction is still ongoing. You can bid to name your own character in one of our upcoming games until the auction closes on Thursday, May 19th. Today we’re announcing the addition of a new seventh auction lot!

Name a Fallen God in “Exile of the Gods”

Exile of the Gods

The Gods of Xylhis have been banished to the Western Lands by their own mortal servants. Now you, the Champion, have been charged with returning the fallen deities to power, and punishing those who betrayed them. Will you carry out your mission as planned, or find a way to free your world from the gods once and for all?

The winner of the lot will have the opportunity name one of the fallen gods of Xylhis, one of the great generals of Xylhis, or a daring Agossian spy who infiltrates Xylhis during the story.

Exile of the Gods is the sequel to Champion of the Gods, a multiple-choice interactive novel by Jonathan Valuckas (The Fleet).

Please tell your friends about these auctions! The more people bid, the more we’ll be able to raise for charity.

Stuff About Stuff

Fourdiopolis/Spring Thing 2016 postmortem

by Andrew (noreply@blogger.com) at May 11, 2016 02:34 PM

This postmortem has spoilers for Fourdiopolis and Threediopolis. The TLDR is, I had an idea and waited on it a bit too long, but thanks to Spring Thing's forgiving format and rules, I pushed through with something I'm pleased to have finished, and I wasn't much worried about reviews, posterity, etc. But I'll have to do better preparation to enter IFComp.

Hanon Ondricek pushed me into it at first. His fake review of Onediopolis (we had a nice long thread for fake reviews) in the 2013 IFComp authors' forum got me laughing that it wouldn't be much of a game, and
neither would Twodiopolis.

Fourdiopolis, though? No! It'd be too tough to choose directions! It occurred to me that there were 20 choose 4, or (20*19*18*17)/(4*3*2*1) possibilities. 4845 in total. And teleports, well, they just SCREAM future, so they're perfect for a sequel.

I'm going to go with the technical stuff, first. If you want to skip it, search for the equals sign.

@unusedLetters = ('a', 'b', 'c', 'f', 'g', 'h', 'i', 'j', etc);

for $a (@unusedLetters) (etc)
{
grep -i "nsewud$a$b$c$d" files.txt | grep -i "[$a$b$c$d]" > "$a$b$c$d.txt"
}

Where files contains first names, last names and words.

I suppose I could have run a script to track all of them, and see which would've given enough words without giving too many, but I figured I could cut down on them by looking for obvious opposites. Kata and Ana fit the bill, as did From and To. Which way would From be, and which way would To be? And what would their displacements be? And how would they fit on a 10x10x10 cube? Some neat locations were sure to go out of bounds if the teleporters led anywhere interesting! And if they didn't, how were they different from walking?

These obstacles were too big to overcome, so I put the idea aside. But maybe something was there.

Then it hit me. I could make the city bigger in the name of progress and global overpopulation. That's always a good one! I just needed to know how--and the break came when I realized the locations didn't have to go 0, ..., 9, a, b but I could put 000 at the center. I remember Threediopolis slid by with you starting at 444, which is not the center but it said it was, until Jenni Polodna called me on it. I laughed a bit, because her reviews are good for that, then I fixed it. So it felt good to have a bona fide center.

So I felt having i..a 0 1..9 was also intuitive enough. It made things bigger. But I still had to decide on direction names! One thing I let trap me was that Inform wants directions to be opposite. Down/up, in/out, etc. But they don't have to be. I had an idea for a pinwheel sort of direction-collection, but I was just stuck on four moving directions, and rotating four moving directions through three physical directions didn't work. So stuff like +2x-2z, +2y-2x, +2z-2y was appealing, but I felt I needed another letter.

And so I thought for a first try I might have the four teleport directions be +2 x, +2 y, +2 z, -2 xyz. Or with the signs flipped. This was...symmetrical enough.  The most used letter would be the one that took all three directions. But it still felt a bit artificial. I mean, the game's ideas are, at their base, artificial, but it seemed like a pain to remember which direction was which. And how would you sort out the +2x directon from going east twice? And would the -2xyz be too obvious?

So. Teleports that kick you far enough away that they aren't confused with walking, well, at least until it gets hard. And some sort of symmetry. This was a tough one, but it wasn't until I saw a pyramid that I had a bit of an idea. What if each transport leap was at the edge of a regular pyramid? Where would the center be? I still had the idea +2+2+2 would be a good leap, and suddenly I saw -2-2+2 and the three others--well, every one was the same distance!

So I had my directions. I declared pairs (H/I and J/K) as opposite though they weren't. As for not being able to reverse? Well, pseudo science fiction mumbo jumbo takes care of that. Just--what if two people transporting the opposite way ran into each other? Too much risk. So that was solved.

I had trouble with the directions, though. But then I was reading about, well, something. Maybe it was Galois theory and why there's no quintic formula. But I recalled the Quaternions. And cross products, and so forth, and how IJ=K and JI=-K and so forth. I liked them, and both HIJK and IJKL gave a lot of results. They were equally enough matched that I became the donkey between the two haystacks. Well, not really, once I saw L would get confused with LOOK. Not much to do about I and Inventory, though really, you weren't going to HAVE inventory in the game.

I ported the Threediopolis fake-moving code over (did I mention there's only one room in each game?) made sure SID showed an entry and gave you a point, and then put it away til late March. The thing was, I had a vague idea that 100 things to find would be too much until they got too easy. It'd crowd out your inventory, etc.

===========================

The story took a long time to get going. I liked the idea of more friends--finding people is good first. And the idea of finding things: who wants what? Why? Supplies--what for? I didn't want some rich random guy telling you what to do, so I decided to go with the opposite route. You needed to escape detection. Doing things with technology was traceable. But I didn't want a super-big table that just sprawled, as that'd be a pain to search through, even if alphabetical listings would make it easier to track the next clue the more you had. Maybe smaller tables could organize things. And I just decided on 20, which turned out to be a perfect magic number.

I also might not have had an idea how to wrap things up if I hadn't grepped my last-names.txt file with nsweudhijk. But once I did, it seemed like a nice evil final puzzle, if you liked the rest of the game.

But all this took a while, even with a handy test file of all the possibilities. There was stuff I could've been doing even when I was deciding this. Okay, I wrote a rudimentary script to make sure a word-path didn't go outside the city bounds, Sorry, "hehheh" and "huhhuh," I need another way to make that Beavis & Butt-Head reference!

Just porting Threediopolis code to Fourdiopolis would've been big, though. Writing random stuff or helper functions or game text in. This doesn't seem big, but it has a way of building up, or making me feel at least I didn't forget (insert basic thing here). And if it doesn't feel inspired, it organizes things so I can just drop any inspiration in. And I brain-locked myself by saying, well, I'd better be working on the biggest thing, but it wasn't clear what it was. I didn't just hack ahead to see it--and I should've had faith I could get it done with steady progress. If I'd used my "off-days" to paint the corners, writing in commands or stubs big or small, I wouldn't have been worried about those details while writing the big stuff. This is non-technical stuff, about doing what you want with the time you have, instead of wasting it with something no longer (or never) fun that's just easier to start.

I didn't motivate myself to work on 4dop at the start, and it all piled up at the end once I realized it may be intimidating but I didn't want to leave it for another year. The result was several days of intense programming. And the stuff I was scared about? It wasn't hard to port from 3d to 4d, because I'd already made the big technical mistakes I wouldn't make again. And it would've been simpler to do so back in January, where if I made a mistake, I could just kick the can to tomorrow or next week with no stress. I had experience, but unfortunately, all I remembered was how long it took, when what I could've remembered was that the code worked, and cutting and pasting would get me 95% there.

Fortunately I'd taken time at the athletic club or on the bus to draw out the big picture: get a list of 20 or so different things, roughly related, and slap them together. Remember "x is a table name that varies." Change it with a save-file. This meant Fourdiopolis would have to be glulx, but eh well.

But given my silly procrastination I was grateful for the things that let me create and fix Fourdiopolis. I gave my testers something pretty, well, awful. One of Aaron Reed's "helper elves" managed to give me a mulligan to fix something pretty obviously broken. Then I started checking off what I could've done. With the few extra days, I even wrote up a script to detect clear errors in the logic document, e.g. if a location was wrong. And I wrote the logic document for more than just friends. Working through it, I realized a certain repetitiveness in the puzzle-solving. But I couldn't do much, then.

I also used bitbucket/source control before releasing, but again, I didn't use it enough. It was extremely helpful for in-comp updates, of which I had a lot. The pressure was off. I could offer a hint here or there. Or just take a feature from Threediopolis. I was aware the logic document was...rickety, but that took a back seat to actual bug fixing.

Still I got a nice list of bugs and features tweaked, and Aaron Reed let me roll in the updates, which was nice. I'm glad I took the time to mark my changes individually. I figured stuff like how to give "almost" clues where maybe you didn't realize there was a plural. I figured I'd have to put headers that listed all your tasks off until post-comp.

But...source control, again. Easy to revert if I made errors. I did some basic stuff for an hour or two, and, well, it looked okay! It looked more than okay! It was nowhere near as tough as for Threediopolis, which had modes depending on which scenarion you were in, and all sorts of toggles. With 4dop, all that mattered was the current table. I even snuck in a fix so the game didn't refresh the header *until* you found something new. This was something I'd have liked in 3dop, and it's going in, in the final release for that. Other things followed--cluing what "kinda far" and "far" meant will also go in, and even the logic document checker for 3dop got a rewrite. I found a few bugs.

So writing Fourdiopolis, which I worried would be frivolous, turned out to help me in a lot of ways: nailing down threediopolis features, really using BitBucket, and also being able to get through a project and not let it hang around. I also noticed the code was more compact than for 3dop--200k vs 120k.

And I think having that stressful week--for me and my testers--was the final straw. I set up things like my nightly build system to make sure projects, new and old, built. I even put my logic document checker in it. Any errors go right to an HTML file, so I know what's fixed, and I'm not worried what needs to be. It's already been a big help for my Stale Tales Slate (fixing bad anagrams and punctuation in my random tables, as well as flushing new random anagrams into the source--I'd written these scripts but they were a pain to remember) and Problems Compound (make sure the EXPLAIN verb tracks everything) as well as just generally making sure I've got no backlog of notes. There are a lot of tests to run, but it's nice to know what's messed up--and even to know that some stuff hasn't broken for a while.

So overall 4dop was worth my time, even though I should've spent that time better and earlier, and it was more than just something to get out of the way to clear my brain for a real game. I hope it was worthwhile for those who played it, whether you just browsed and grokked the idea or tried to solve all the scenarios. Given the bugs in the initial version (even after my helper-elf mulligan,) as well as the level of competition in the main entrance, I'm glad I put it in the back garden. But unlike Dirk, my entry last year which was clearly a joke with no real reason to go into a serious competition--even not a very intense one--4dop feels like it holds up and is a bit more lasting. If I'd prepared it better, I could've put it in the main event.

I feel like I can move sooner than from my other projects. Part of that's due to Fourdiopolis not having a lot of story nuances, and whatever technical nuances it has, I covered in 3dop. Of course, one more run through the logic document. Maybe add some more scenery, too--there's a text file with a few stragglers. But I feel like, once I got started, I knocked things down quickly enough. And writing 4dop wound up being more fun than the things I used to procrastinate it. That's a lesson, there, one I want to apply to my next work.

AutoIt: building in the Inform IDE automatically on Windows

by Andrew (noreply@blogger.com) at May 11, 2016 12:20 PM

You don't have to know much about AutoIt to do this, but I've found this helpful. You can just create a script like the following in notepad. I called the file ide.au3.

Local $project = "Compound";

if $CmdLine[0] > 0 Then
  $project = $CmdLine[1];
  if $CmdLine[1] == "pc" Then
    $project = "Compound";
  Endif
  if $CmdLine[1] == "3d" Then
    $project = "threediopolis";
  Endif
  if $CmdLine[1] == "4d" Then
    $project = "fourdiopolis";
  Endif
Endif

run("C:\\Program Files (x86)\\Inform 7\\Inform7.exe");

WinWaitActive("Welcome to Inform 7");

Send("!O");

WinWaitActive("Open a project");

Send("c:\games\inform\" & $project & ".inform!O");

WinWaitActive($project & ".inform - Inform");

Send("{F5}");
This will open up a project and compile it. You may want to change the c:\games\inform directory, or the project name, but I hope the code makes intuitive sense. The CmdLine stuff basically says I could try ide.au3 threediopolis or ide.au3 fourdiopolis or, better yet, theshortcut ide.au3 3d, if I wanted. Awkward code, but I'm too lazy to read if hashes are a Thing in AutoIt, and what I have works.

It's handy for me as it'd be nice to be the first thing to see in the morning, so I do that instead of silly internet browsing. Or if you edit outside the IDE (I use notepad++), pushing the button here can work.

You can obviously tweak this to check for if a window is already open, but this basic script says: build every night, and have the IDE open when you get started.

A script like this may not be profound in itself, but it certainly starts things right. Now I've done it, I feel like I should have a few years ago. These things seem like they only save a few seconds, but when they're more convenient than accessing a time wasting website, they can save a lot more time.

(Note: this was updated for ide.au3 to allow a command line argument as well as shortcut text)

May 10, 2016

Emily Short

Running an IF Meetup

by Emily Short at May 10, 2016 05:00 PM

Screen Shot 2016-04-06 at 9.41.33 AM.png

The Oxford-London IF Meetup has now been running for a little over two years, and I thought I’d stop and talk a bit about what we’ve experimented with doing and how it’s worked, and what I think could be better.

First of all, I should say that the meet has been more successful than I had imagined at the beginning, and I’m very grateful to everyone who’s come and contributed their ideas and input. I’m especially grateful to Failbetter for supplying a venue; without access to their space in London, we would have had to find (probably expensive) meeting rooms in central London, which would add quite a lot to the overhead of running the group. Having a supplied venue means that we can continue to offer the meetup without charge to members.

From an organizational perspective, though, it’s also been more challenging to run precisely because of the interest level. What I expected to have happen was that I’d announce a meetup, I’d get six or eight diehard IF community enthusiasts showing up, and we’d grow outward starting with a small set of committed volunteers who could help me figure out how to scale and who wanted to pitch in for what. In practice, we routinely have 30ish signups for London meetings, and people are coming from a range of backgrounds. So I’ve had to improvise a bit from the outset.

But I did have a set of specific goals in mind, which were

  • create social connections between people interested in IF (basic networking)
  • build a peer group to support people working on games and tools — which in an ideal world would mean everything from mentoring/encouragement for new authors to expert feedback for advanced tool-builders
  • educate myself and other people about the range of work currently being done

and — informally but importantly —

  • have enough fun that people come back

Here are some thoughts about what has worked and hasn’t:

*

Purely social meets. For a while I ran most of the Oxford meets simply as no-agenda hangouts in a restaurant or pub. Conveniently, that required very little setup on my part; on the other hand, attendance dropped off. I think it’s far enough to travel for many of the people involved, and the group is loosely-enough constituted, that we need some particular aim to bring people together to make it appealing in the long run.

But this is still probably a good thing to do when a group is first getting rolling, or getting rolling in a new location; we did a no-agenda pub meet in Cambridge earlier this year because it was the first time we’d met there, and that went well.

Our meetups do always include at least some social component — loosely for the Oxford group, and in London more formally, in that we go to the pub at the end and members can meet additional people and discuss what we just saw/did. Providing a context for networking and friend-making is important, I think: some people have gotten jobs or internships through the connections they’ve made there, and also it’s just harder to make a community run without some sense of individual interconnections. But this isn’t always enough to sustain a meeting, and having other content is an important ice-breaker.

Presentations with an audience. This seems to be a pretty standard style for tech-y meetups in general, but it isn’t necessarily the standard for live IF gatherings, so it wasn’t my first go-to idea about how to approach this.

We’ve done one or two things where we had one person talk for most of the meetup and then split to discuss, and that’s probably just a bit too much — too much work for one person, too much focus on a single topic. (I hasten to say I think this is about the format, rather than about particular speakers.)

It’s been more successful having several people each present on a related set of topics: we did a tools meetup in Oxford a couple of years ago that introduced new work on Inform and TADS 3 advlite, and just did another in London in April that looked at some more choice-based/experimental tools.

Large-group discussion, which consisted of declaring a topic in advance and letting 20+ people chat about that topic. In practice, this tended to mean that the most assured people in the group talked a lot while others didn’t say much at all; and while I don’t mind if some people are more comfortable being quiet, I wasn’t sure we were delivering a lot of value or letting people get to know one another.

At some point, it might be worth exploring the idea of doing intentional panel presentations, but framing something as a conversation if only a few people wind up talking is probably not great.

Unconference-style small groups. We experimented several times with letting people announce topics at the beginning of the evening and split into small groups to discuss. I think this worked better than the large group discussions in terms of getting more people involved and encouraging more interaction. However, it isn’t always a compelling pitch, and I find we get more RSVPs with a topic or activity better defined in advance.

Still, I think this does serve some portion of the group. I will probably experiment with cycling this back into our schedule, but as an alternative format, not as the main thing that we do.

Playing games together. This has generally gone very well, especially if we actually have the author present and have someone who is willing to function as a narrator and read the text aloud. We put the game up on a screen at the front of the room and let participants vote on what should happen next. This was a lot of fun as a way to go through the IF Comp games written by our own Meetup participants, and I am already planning that our October meet will do this again for IF Comp 2016.

We also did an evening of storytelling board/tabletop games, and that was well received also. That evening had the advantage of naturally distributing people into groups of 4-6, which is a good size of group in which to have a connected social experience. I’ll probably do some more like this in the future.

At the same time, I feel like we should do some other things besides just this in order to provide adequate substance and theory/craft discussion.

WIP exchanges. I suspect this works best with a relatively small group of people, but possibly you’d have just a few people bring WIPs and get feedback from the rest of those present. We did this before — once in response to a meetup member’s request — and it worked well enough that I’ve scheduled another session for this summer, which I hope will be about the right time that people working on IF Comp entries can get some helpful feedback.

The Seattle IF group used to do something where they’d get together in a coffee shop and just work together in the same space, which sounded cool, though I only went to one of these sessions. In practice, the Oxford/London participants are so widely spread geographically that I’m not sure they’d want to commit to that much travel just to work in a shared space with other people: London is immense; Oxford is of course a lot more compact, but a lot of its regular attendees are coming in by train from Reading or other adjacent towns, so again it’s a bit of a commitment.

Open problem sessions. We’ve run one of these in Oxford so far, very loosely on the model of the one at PRACTICE: the idea is that participants come with at least one reasonably specific and well-defined question about something they’re trying to solve or accomplish, and the others offer feedback and suggestions. If we have time and get through everyone’s first questions, we allow people to ask a second question.

This worked well enough that I’ve scheduled another for later in the year. We did this as a small group around a pub table, and that worked; it could also be scaled for a larger group if not everyone had questions they wanted to ask. At PRACTICE, there’s a whole auditorium of people responding to the questions, and those who want to ask sign up for a place in line.

Going together to external events. I tend to mention local IF-related events on the IF Meetup calendar even if we’re not organizing them, so that interested participants can find one another and go together — AdventureX, for instance. This almost doesn’t count as a Meetup activity, except in the sense that it provides an opportunity for group members who want to to spend more time together. We also organized an escape room trip for a few interested people, though this is more of a spinoff than the main meeting activity.

*

Things I have thought about but not tried:

Jams. This is straight-up an issue of personal preference/organizational capacity. I don’t enjoy game jams much, at least not the in-person incarnation with long hours and unhealthy snacks. I find them stressful physically and emotionally; I’m too old to be able to skip a night’s sleep without being headachey and sore for days afterward; and I feel on the spot to perform being a game designer. I’ve occasionally been in professional situations where I needed to participate in a game jam, at which point, I try to do as good a job as I can. (It still helps if they’re not all-nighters, though.)

Other people’s mileage obviously varies immensely, though! So if someone wants to run an IF jam in affiliation with our Meetup, I’m not going to discourage them, but I’ve not been motivated to try to arrange one myself. But generally I see this as an activity for young, able-bodied people whose external responsibilities are somewhat flexible, and that cuts out a lot of people including myself.

Workshops. I could imagine workshops that focused on teaching a particular tool, helping people get it installed and get used to it, etc., but I haven’t felt there was much call for this yet: some of our participants are very experienced, others are comfortably hacking away with Twine, and I’m not sure I’ve identified places where there’s a common need that would appeal to a significant subset of participants. But I’m open to it.

Streaming/recording talks. I’m not expert in what would be involved and also haven’t put the time in to figuring out what equipment we’d need; and mostly we haven’t been doing the kind of content where I felt it made sense to record and stream content. However, I do periodically get people asking me if we are streaming or if we’re going to start streaming, and I understand the desire. I do like the idea that there could be some larger community value or some lasting product produced by some of these conversations. So we’ll see.

Panels. Notionally we could do a panel discussion rather than having short speaker presentations. I would want to approach this carefully because, in my experience, panels tend to be all over the map in quality and amount of information per hour. Sometimes a panel is just an exercise in watching three or four genial but unprepared people have a nice chat about random stuff. Other times, they’re basically separate presentations anyway; or you get panelists who violently disagree, which is colorful but can be stress-filled. Getting a useful, insightful presentation that really builds on everyone’s expertise would be great, but I don’t feel I’m an expert in achieving that outcome — I’ve only moderated a couple panels in the past — so this might be another area where I’d need to educate myself more in order to be able to do a good job.

Reading room. I have loads of IF-related books, games, and other resources, some of them kind of rare or esoteric. I’d love to make those available for people to look through. This would make a very boring and uninteractive meetup, but it might be an interesting way to provision a chill-space at a larger event.

Demo fairs. This would be an opportunity for people to show off what they’ve made or are making: a kind of combination of WIP exchange and expo floor, since complete games and tools would be welcome alongside things still under development. I ran one of these years ago, and it worked well, but the ideal context is probably an event that people are going to otherwise anyway, because you want more than 30 people’s worth of foot traffic. So this might be something that the Meetup could notionally try to coordinate alongside an existing, larger event.

Crossover events. I talk a lot here and elsewhere about the need for more communication between different communities of thought and practice. Lately I’ve been speculating about the value of “collider” conferences — a violent term, I realize, and maybe I should think of something more pleasant.

The basic idea would be to pick two adjacent fields that aren’t really in communication but have significant shared craft concerns — IF and LARPing, say, or immersive theatre, or tabletop RPGs, or academic interactive storytelling studies, or procgen, or botmaking.

The first morning, start with some 101 sessions that introduce core vocabulary and canon of each field to members of the other, and try to get everyone to a point where they can usefully talk to each other. Next, move on to more advanced talks, ideally ones prepared with expert members of each field working together, that focus on challenges common to both fields. So things like “how do our mechanics allow players to express the idea of character change?” (to pick something that is currently on my mind).

But this sounds like at least a full-day event, or maybe a weekend; and it would need space and food and probably money for speaker fees and travel costs; probably it would have to be ticketed, or else sponsored to make it free to attend; I’d need co-organizers; and after putting in the effort to get good content, we’d definitely want to record and/or stream the results, so I’d need someone with the AV tools and savvy to set that up. So this is a high-ambition project and I’d need to think a huge amount more before trying it.

In the meantime, a much easier prospect for crossing (in this case literal) borders:

Bringing in speakers by Skype. So far we’ve only done this in one case where the speaker wasn’t able to get to the meeting at the last minute, as opposed to Skyping in people who were never going to be able to come to London.

Still, I’d like sometimes to hear from people from abroad, and provide content our group members can’t get elsewhere in London. And this is one way of addressing some of the accessibility and speaker-circulation issues I’ve talked about elsewhere. I don’t want to go to having this as the main experience of the group, since live interaction can be more compelling, but as a mix-in with live presentations I think it has promise.

*

Groups I’m not sure we’re serving well (yet?):

People with no IF experience at all. It would be hard to run our events with the expectation that we need to explain IF from scratch each time, but we do sometimes get participants who have had the group recommended to them and who aren’t very familiar with interactive fiction.

I’ve tried to address this a little by bringing some resources to the meeting — postcards about parser IF and about Seltani (because those are the postcards I have, not as a diss on choice-based IF!); a handout with URLs of resources; a list of upcoming competitions and events. I’m not sure that this completely addresses the issue.

People who want to use the group as a resource to get a snapshot of the current State of the IF Union. Again, because we’re not doing a recap every meeting, someone who comes wanting to get a high-level overview of current tools, commercial studios, active independent authors, etc., might be disappointed in the experience. I sometimes give some announcements at the beginning, but these are more like my blog link roundups than anything else.

I’m not sure I could fix this without making the meetup less useful for repeat attendees, though, so maybe it’s not a good idea to alter the format in order to accommodate the occasional drop-in visitor.

Instead, it seems like an area where we could put together occasional outreach presentations that give that kind of overview, and advertise that and hope interested parties find it. I’m still thinking about this.

Experts. This is the other end of the spectrum from the no-experience issue: conversations (especially in the unconference-group format) can wind up covering a lot of intermediate-level information, or consist of people describing to one another examples of a particular game style or narrative technique. That’s valuable for some participants; it might not be as compelling for people who are already familiar with the relevant canon and want to discuss advanced or experimental methods. I usually do enjoy these conversations, but I can understand the need to go deeper.

I’m still thinking about this one as well, though trying to make sure that speaker-based events are introducing genuinely new material seems like one approach, so going to more of those may help address the issue.

*

Not all meetups run this way. The People’s Republic of IF, which is what I envisioned trying to emulate when I started our meetup, is much more informal; typically there are fewer than ten people, and the participants talk about what they’re working on and what has happened lately in the IF world.

*

Other resources about running community events:

The website for Oxford Indies Ludolunch, a picnic with talks that was designed to be family-friendly.

Here’s Evan Czaplicki on running community hack nights rather than presentation/audience nights: why it’s productive (and builds connections between people) to let them work together on projects.

Dames Making Games runs a range of different events, including jams and workshops, and provides mentoring; the organization accepts donations.

Here’s a podcast I did with Victor Ojuel and Ara Carrasco, mostly about community building. They asked me about this as though I know something about the topic, which was very sporting of them!

Mike Schinkel on Meetup Best Practices, in general. I have not been charging, in contradiction of his advice, but we still get decent attendance — typically around 70% of signups. I don’t actually want to hassle people about this; I have times when I don’t have the energy for something I wanted to go to, or where a client’s needs come up and prevent me attending, so I understand why people might miss a meeting.

I do make a point always to tweet about upcoming meetups; typically when I set up the meetup date, I will schedule a tweet one week in advance and another tweet one day in advance, so that I don’t need to remember to do that later.

*

If you are starting your own IF meetup, I would be very happy to tweet/post and help get the word out to people in your area who might be following my blog or Twitter account. So feel free to let me know about that.

If you think you have something you’d like to share with the London IF meetup, please do get in touch with me about your pitch and we’ll see if it’s a good fit. Or, likewise, if you have feedback about what we’re doing or you’d like to see more/less of something.

*

Thinking of putting together a different type of event? I’ve also collected some summary information about running IF competitions; about putting together a one-off showcase of IF demos; and about running a content drive to produce cover art.


May 09, 2016

Wade's Important Astrolab

Leadlight Gamma '40 Secret Pages' sale for itch.io week 2016

by Wade (noreply@blogger.com) at May 09, 2016 04:08 PM

As part of the the inaugural itch.io week (May 9 to May 13) celebrations, I'm putting my 8-bit interactive fiction meets survival horror meets CRPG hybrid, Leadlight Gamma, on sale, and with a pile of bonus content that's only available during itch.io week: 40 scanned pages of handwritten design material and three alt and inbetween Belinda illustrations. None of this stuff has been released before in any incarnation of the game or on its websites. And once itch.io week ends, the extra stuff is going back offline.

Click here to go to the 40 Secret Pages Sale page on itch.io

Click here to go to the Leadlight Gamma page on itch.io

THE LEADLIGHT GAMMA 40 SECRET PAGES SALE DETAILS

  • For the duration of the week, the minimum price of the game will drop from its usual price-of-a-black-metal-album US$6.66 to US$2.20. That's a strangely evil saving of 67 percent!
  • If you buy Leadlight Gamma during this week, you'll be able to download the 40 handwritten pages and the Belinda illustrations.
  • Because I'm Australian and a day ahead of itch.io, my sale window will stretch from May 9 to May 14.
  • ALREADY BOUGHT THE GAME ON ITCH.IO SOME TIME IN THE PAST? Just log into itch.io between May 9 and May 14 and you'll be able to download the extras.

Here's a new vid with 89 Leadlight research pics in 20 seconds, set to 'Girls' from the game soundtrack, to get you in the mood (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m4ThmA-jpDs)


Versificator IF blog

Spring Thing non-reviews

by robinjohnson at May 09, 2016 03:25 PM

Spring Thing has been brilliant. I’m grateful to all the organisers, authors and players.

My game The Xylophoniad won the Alumni’s Choice ribbon, by which I’m delighted and, frankly, floored. Astrid Dalmady’s Tangaroa Deep won Audience Choice.

I haven’t played all the games yet, and as a participant I was never planning to write full reviews. Here are my thoughts on some of the games I’ve got round to, in no order at all.

Three-Card Trick, by Chandler Groover
Brilliantly macabre. The PC is a stage conjurer in what feels like a sort of grotesque Victorian circus setting, trying to outdo their smarmy rival. The playing area is small, but intricately implemented, and uses an ingenious navigation system (the only directions that matter are IN and OUT) to give a sense of being much larger. The twist, when it comes, is both horrifying and hilarious. Of all the games I played, this is the one I would have put money on getting a ribbon.

Dr Sourpuss is Not a Choice-Based Game, by P B Parjeter
This is one of those games where I am not sure what was going on, but I’m sure I enjoyed it. Dr Sourpuss is a talking, mortar-board wearing cat created by a genetic-engineering accident involving a lemon tree. He and a couple of other characters take the player on a winding story involving a sinister corporation that manufactures multiple-choice test marking machines, making good use of absurdity to smuggle a clever commentary on the effect of standardised, one-size-fits-all education on students. The puzzles are simple but clever: some objects, when they are mentioned in the story, appear in your inventory, and at any time you can go to a lab and choose two of them to combine into some new object that is the key to getting past each stage.

Tangaroa Deep, by Astrid Dalmady
Deep-sea diving simulation with excellent atmospheric writing, and a deserving winner of the Audience Choice ribbon. Like Will Crowther’s orginal Adventure before the fantasy elements were added, it’s an effective simulation in words of exploring a space, with some ambiguous fantasy elements in some endings. The conversation between the PC and her assistant on the surface is charming, and in a nice touch, the ending shows you pictures of the sea creatures you encountered.

Ms Lojka, by Jordan Magnusson
A surreal horror story. The text appears in a typewriting effect, which I thought was unnecessary till I saw someone else point out that this is a clever way of making players read rather than skim. Unfortunately I accidentally closed my browser somewhere near the end of the game, and the unskippable slow text made it too much trouble to catch up again (I’ll replay when I’ve had some time to forget the story so I can enjoy it again from the start.) The sound, illustrations and design were excellent.

Foo Foo, by Buster Hudson
A “cartoon animal noir” game in the vein of Who Framed Roger Rabbit or Jasper Fforde’s Nursery Crime books. I’m not familiar enough with the Veeder canon to get all the in-jokes, but enough to see why it won first place in Ryan’s Exposition. It stands on its own as a comic story anyway. As someone on &if said, noir is already abstracted enough from reality that making the characters cartoon animals actually adds something to the style.

 

Old IF books: “How to Write Adventure Games” by Peter Killworth, 1984

by robinjohnson at May 09, 2016 03:25 PM

When I was developing my keyboardless javascript IF engine (the one used in Draculaland), I first envisioned it as a thing for creating very old-school style, ultra-terse IF – in fact I came up with the idea while playing old Adams games on my small tablet – so I scoured eBay and the second-hand listings on Amazon for books from the 1980s and ’90s on writing text adventures.

Most of these follow a standard formula. There’s an introduction, sometimes written by a guest, telling of Colossal Cave, Infocom and Adventure International. There’s a discussion of what a text adventure is (the term “interactive fiction” is used occasionally) – the books are unanimous that an adventure is, at heart, a puzzle. The idea that the game might tell a story is still firmly on the back seat. Then there are the sample games, usually listed in some monstrous home-computer BASIC, with annotations going into various levels of detail.

Peter Killworth’s How to write Adventure Games for the BBC Microcomputer Model B and Acorn Electron is one of the most interesting of these books.

It has some nice thoughts on puzzle design – which it calls “plotting” – particularly about building multi-stage puzzles where the player must solve a chain of logical steps one after the other. These do make good puzzles – the Babel fish vending machine in Hitchhiker’s Guide being the canonical example. (Killworth prefers to kill the player off or make the game unwinnable when they get one of the stages wrong, which has happily gone out of fashion, but other than that his thoughts on this type of design are still worth reading.)

On the other hand, the sample game Roman is deservingly cited in the Inform Designer’s Manual as an example of bad design, because almost the entire game consists of essentially one such puzzle-chain, so there’s only one thing for the player to do at a time. This sort of game needs to be broad as well as deep, and if I had to choose one over the other, I’d choose breadth.

Killworth also sees it as fundamental to the job of the IF author to make the player suffer (I’m not interpreting; he repeatedly says this in exactly those words.) One of the things Roman has going for it is the choice of setting, ancient Rome. It’s a setting that’s easy for the player to imagine – which helps when you’re limited to a describing any room, NPC or object in a sentence or so – and instantly provides some seeds for plot or puzzle ideas: gladiatorial combat, corrupt senators, Julius Caesar as an NPC. Then in one room there’s a “pilum” lying about. This would be a nice bit of flavour if the game bothered telling you what a pilum is. Not a Latin scholar? Well, you’ve got Google. But in 1984 you might have had to go to a library to find your nearest Latin dictionary. This isn’t an oversight – Killworth discusses putting in this information but deliberately leaves it out: “If we refer to it as a pilum, the player will probably not know its use, which is all to the good.”

This might make some sort of sense in, say, a time travel game where a Roman legionary tells you about his pilum and you have to figure out what he means – but no, you are a Roman, you see the pilum itself, and the game chooses not to tell you what is in front of your eyes. There’s no EXAMINE. You really do have to go and look it up in a Latin dictionary or a history book (or, and I fear this might be what Killworth is thinking of, have the right sort of education.)

The great cryptic crossword setter Araucaria described setting a puzzle as “a game in which the goal is to lose gracefully” – you shouldn’t want to stump the player completely, any more than a novelist wants the reader to give up after chapter 2. The idea that the IF author is trying to ‘beat’ the player is one that’s thankfully alien these days.

The book does include something in its introduction that is still certainly true after 30-odd years, though: “No matter how small an Adventure you write, it will take far, far more time and effort than you thought it would.”

The Year of Adventure

by robinjohnson at May 09, 2016 03:25 PM

2016 is the fortieth anniversary year of Crowther and Woods’ original Adventure (also known as ADVENT, Colossal Cave, or Colossal Cave Adventure) – possibly the first work of computer interactive fiction.

Interactive fiction has grown, changed and branched in 40 years, and that is awesome.

Lest this momentous anniversary pass us by, I am announcing The Year of Adventure: a year-round, free-form, non-competitive jam for games inspired by, paying homage to, or otherwise tangentially related to Adventure or other early works of IF, running from now until the end of 2016.

Submissions can be of any length, developed in any system, parser, choice, hypertext, dice-and-paper or anything else, and may be (but are not limited to):

  • “cover versions” or reimaginings of the original Adventure (which is in the public domain)
  • revisits to old games, showing them from new perspectives or using new trends in IF technology
  • retro-style games evocative of the early IF era

If you want to make a game (or submit a game you’ve already made this year that fits the mould), go ahead and do it, then let me know! I’ll put it on my site, and the competition page at IFDB (which I’ll create when I’ve had a couple of submissions.)

To get the ball rolling I’m retrospectively submitting my game Portcullis.

More details at http://versificator.net/year-of-adventure .

May 08, 2016

what will you do now?

The Domovoi

by verityvirtue at May 08, 2016 11:01 PM

By Kevin Snow (Twine; IFDB)

viewgame.pngCover art: view from the inside of a dark hut

Your friend is a storyteller, and she’s polishing her latest work about a domovoi, or protective house spirit, lingering in a guttered hut. You are her audience.

The Domovoi is a game about storytelling. Like Whom the Telling Changed, you get to influence events in the story, but where the PC works against an antagonist in Whom the Telling Changed, here the story is a collaborative work. Your friend may express doubt or satisfaction at your choice, and the PC’s perspective outside of the story in the making allows for in-universe commentary. The unnamed NPC in Domovoi has her own views, after all, and if you suggest something with which she disagrees, she will probably slant the story to include that, but make her feelings known.

This game is also a pleasure to play, not least because it is styled attractively. Like Beneath Floes, it features illustrations that set the mood and whose colour schemes demarcate changes in perspective.

Perhaps true to oral tradition, the story you help to tell can vary between play-throughs, depending on the choices you make. The game didn’t dwell on the meta aspect much, though, focusing instead on the meat of the story.

In summary: The Domovoi is an introspective work which taps into Slavic folklore, with a lively NPC and a story within a story. Recommended, if nothing else than for its luscious illustrations and sound effects.


Tagged: folklore, games played 2016, Kevin Snow, story art, Twine

Emily Short

IF-Related Older GDC Vault Content

by Emily Short at May 08, 2016 01:00 PM

GDC Vault content from 2014 and earlier is now free to access, as of the release of 2016’s content. I’ve singled out a few talks that might interest my readers, but there’s lots more in there, including the full contents of multiple Narrative Summits.

Classic Game Postmortem on Zork, by Dave Lebling. Some of the history here will be familiar to followers of this blog, but the talk includes Lebling’s perspective on good and bad elements of the puzzle design, among other things. (2014)

Storytelling Rules and Tools, Evan Skolnick. This is slower-paced than most of the other items on this page because it’s the video of a multi-hour workshop rather than a 30 or 60-minute talk. The workshop introduces a lot of standard storytelling guidance about managing exposition, showing rather than telling, putting foreshadowing in place, and so on. (2014)

My Versu post-mortem on how we used Jane Austen and comedy of manners for the initial content on the Versu platform. (2013)

A World From Words, Jon Ingold on the potential for highly interactive stories in text. (GDC Europe 2013)

Beyond Eliza, a panel on social modeling AI that included content from me and Richard Evans as well as several other speakers in the space. This talk also looks at Prom Week and Storybricks as well as the work that would eventually become Versu. (2012)

Environmental Storytelling: Indices and the Art of Leaving Traces. Clara Fernandez-Vara on storytelling elements presented in hidden object games and other contexts. (2012)

AI and Interactive Storytelling, an overview of some methods of combining AI and interactive narrative, where I spoke about conversation modelling. (2010)

We Tell Stories. Adrian Hon of Six to Start talks about projects developed in collaboration with Penguin that were intended to explore interactivity in the context of publishing; this is one of the most book/literary-oriented GDC presentations I’ve encountered. (2008)

Multiplayer Interactive Fiction: On the Net Without a Safety Net, Eric Goldberg. This an old, buzzy audio recording from 1997, in which you can also hear audience shout-outs. Definitely a history piece rather than a current-design piece, but it’s interesting to hear people talking about what they think is going to happen as bandwidth access increases, as well as mentions of TinyMUD, multiply-authored works from Eastgate and Storyspace, and a multiplayer election game called President ’96 (which is analyzed, though in a somewhat hard-to-read format, here, and which apparently included actual walk-ons from real politicians including Mario Cuomo).

Goldberg’s talk is a bit of its time in other ways, with some ableist language and multiple references to how useful it is to display half-naked women as part of your content. Other bits may seem strikingly pertinent to 2016: “You need people with a large ego who can be easily seduced into providing content for your players. Like Donald Trump.”

Favorite quote: “Content is King? Content isn’t even the Dauphin.” (1997)