Planet Interactive Fiction

February 28, 2015

These Heterogenous Tasks

ParserComp: Terminator

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at February 28, 2015 09:01 PM

terminNext up in ParserCompTerminator (Matt Weiner), no direct relation to the very similar-looking Terminator Chaser.

Story: A spaceship has crashed, and you have to carry out search and rescue under sub-optimal conditions using remotely-controlled drones. That’s pretty much it; this game is conspicuously not focusing on the story side of things.

Even as a piece of engineer SF, this doesn’t have anything resembling narrative development. I’m going to call this a - thin justification for gameplay.

Writing: Again, prose is not the thing that this is cares about, at all. Stripped-down information delivery – in very small snippets, and lots of it – is the idiom here; it does well enough at this.

The one glimmer of rhetorical flourish is the names of the astronauts, which are randomly generated – and a big multicultural melange, which is nice. I am a big sucker for random name generators, and the use here forms a pleasing contrast to the sterile, mechanical information that the robots otherwise use for everything. Still, I don’t think that suffices to move the writing up a notch; by the book it’s a 3 (‘does the job, not an active drag on the work’), even though that feels really high for a game so unconcerned with prose.

Puzzles: The entire game is effectively one large spatial/mapping puzzle. You command six (!) robots, three scouts (who move and see a long way, and carry signal beacons) and three haulers (slow, but can rescue astronauts). These are scattered around a procedurally-generated board, along with the astronauts and a handful of desolate-planetary-surface-type landmarks; you have to find the astronauts and get them back to your spaceship before the terminator sweeps across the board and kills them all.

Robots can be commanded individually or en masse; given the time limit, you want to move them together wherever possible. They can either move in directions, towards visible landmarks, or towards a beacon regardless of where it is. So some simple strategy emerges immediately: you want scouts to comb the area and find astronauts, then summon haulers to the rescue.

There is an awful lot of information to keep track of here. Initially, none of the robots know where they are relative to one another or to the spaceship, except what they can immediately see, so figuring out relative position is as much of a puzzle as finding the astronauts. Every turn, each robot spits out a whole pile of current status information – and I couldn’t help but feel that this information could have been presented way better in a graphical format.

That said, it is not prohibitively difficult. I found 5/6 astronauts on my second try, without mapping or taking notes. (I didn’t feel super-enthusiastic about mapping, because I’d have to draw six separate maps and then collate them as the robots recognised each other, and then keep them updated… oy.) That may have been a fluke – randomly generated boards are always going to have variable difficulty – but it confirms that you can do fairly well without an immensely systematic approach.

Referring to Emily’s list of puzzle qualities (since this is a pretty unusual puzzle for IF and I feel the need of a framework):

  • It has substantial extent: you are still figuring things out at the end of the game. That said, once you’ve learned how the game basically works, the pattern doesn’t develop new elaborations.
  • It is not very explorable, and there is very little surprise: you are told all the parameters for play at the outset, and flashes of insight or shocking new information are not really relevant.
  • This does, however, make it quite fair.
  • In terms of originality, games about controlling a team of robots to overcome a crisis are not exactly new territory in IF, but this particular approach is not something I’ve seen before.
  •  Because the puzzle forms the justification for the entire game, narrative and structural integration come as standard, though they’re less satisfying.

Overall I think this is a 4; it’s enjoyable enough as an abstract exercise, but for me that has never been enough to really dig an IF puzzle. On my last run, I felt no anguish at deciding to cut my rescue short, leaving as-yet-undiscovered astronaut 6 to die, any more than I feel when sacrificing meeple in a board game.

Theme: Sunrise is, once again, the Looming Problem that hangs over everything. It’s central to the game, but there’s not a whole lot that’s unexpected here. 3.

Technical: This is, no question, a technically ambitious piece; NPCs being marshaled around a grid, alone or in groups, and reporting information about adjacent regions – a lot to do here.

The difficulty of the exercise is substantially reduced by the sterile, regular content of the game: robots are easier than people, a big empty grid presents few special-case circumstances. So a lot of the places where I’d normally be looking for technical polish simply don’t apply.

I only encountered one bug, but it repeats, annoyingly, over every. single. command. that you issue to robots:

>gamma, w
You’ll have to say which compass direction to go in.

Gamma: traveling west.

Scout Gamma reports nothing notable visible in the vicinity.

This aside, though… hm. A provisional 4, but I’ll probably be re-arranging the scores in this category a bit, and this feels like a strong contender to be upgraded.

Overall: An effectively-designed puzzle game, but an experience that’s closer to Minesweeper than it is to interactive story. 3.

The Gameshelf: IF

Trinity: design ruminations

by Andrew Plotkin at February 28, 2015 08:46 PM

This is not a detailed review of Infocom's Trinity, because Jimmy Maher has just finished that job. His sequence of posts (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9) puts the game into its context in Infocom's history and, more broadly, in the history of the Atomic Age (remember that?) and the Cold War. Go read.

Inevitably Maher comes around to the question of the ending -- the "...what just happened?" denouement. (You can read just that one post if you're familiar with the game.) It's not the first time, of course. Maher links to a Usenet thread in which we went 'round this topic in 2001.

It's generally agreed that the plot logic of the ending doesn't really hold together. In fact, my teenage self was moved to write a letter of complaint to Infocom! I received a gracious response -- I think it was written by Moriarty himself -- which basically said "The game ends the way we felt it had to end." Which is unarguable. (This letter is in my father's basement somewhere, and one day I will dig it out and scan it with great glee.)

But today I am moved to be argumentative. If I were the author of Trinity, what would I have done?

(Oh, sure, I'm being presumptuous too. All due apologies to Moriarty. But we're both thirty years older; we're different people than the author and player circa 1986. It's worth a rethink.)

(I will assume that you've played the game and read Maher's post. If not, massive spoilers ahoy.)

As everybody has pointed out, Trinity is already constructed in the language of whimsy and metaphor; it starts out with a Lewis Carroll quote and builds from there. So expecting rigid logic is a fool's errand. Nonetheless, I do want a story to make sense when read at face value. (James Nicoll: "I don’t mind hidden depths but I insist that there be a surface.") Or, if the logic goes all Looking-Glass, it should do so in a thematic way.

Trinity offers the notion that the first atomic bomb would have "blown New Mexico right off the map" if we hadn't sabotaged it. Atomic bombs are vastly more powerful than we think. The little 20-kiloton blast that 1945 witnessed was "quantum steam", a side effect of changing history from a catastrophic New Mexino disaster to the timeline we know.

Maher discusses this in terms of eternal tragedy. Fine, I'd buy that -- except that it matters that atomic bombs don't work. Or work differently. Oppenheimer and Teller were wrong! All the physicists since then have been wrong. You can't just drop that into the story and not care what it means. Politics: all the mad calculations of MAD were orders of magnitude off-true. Science: the notion of fusion power, whatever that's worth, is built on quicksand. That's not a theme of "history is inevitable, we have come full circle" -- it can't be, because our history isn't what we think!

Or else the game isn't even about us, but about some other universe full of people. Sucks to be them.

But how else could the story have been cast?

Trinity could have followed through on its implied promise: you will prevent Trinity. Thus you prevent Hiroshima and Nagasaki; and the nuclear detente of the Cold War; and the envisioned nuclear conflict which ends civilization. A game which goes down this road is clearly pablum. It trivializes every triumph and disaster of our postwar history with a jovial "Well, don't do that then!"

Alternate history is tricky at best. We've all seen "if this goes on" think-pieces, which project some pet peeve into (inevitably) some variety of jackbooted dystopia, all in three smug pages and a glowering byline. They're laughable. You can just about build a respectable novel this way, if you spend the pages to develop an actual world and characters; if you have the human insight of an Orwell or a Walton. Infocom's shot at this was of course AMFV, and we generally agree that it didn't work. The world they packed into 256k of Z-code was just too sketchy.

For Trinity, whose body was a solitary metaphorical puzzle-quest, to develop a vision of a nuclear-free utopia in the last scene -- it would be a joke. We'd have no reason to care, and no reason to believe it beyond the author's "I said so." Scratch that plan.

Trinity could have ended by snatching the candy out of your hand. You begin in our history, foreseeing a nuclear war. You try to sabotage Trinity to prevent it. But you cannot: the Laws of Time (or whatever) are immutable. Thus, all comes to pass. We got the Bomb, they got the Bomb, we are rushing towards the end.

This would be bleak. (Bleak is already on the table, of course.) It would fit Maher's discussion of the moment of the abyss, the Great Change in the midst of inevitable tragedy.

But, on the other hand, you'd have to make it work as a game too. It's hard to make failure work as a satisfying ending of a puzzle-quest. Possible, of course! But Infocom had already done Infidel (with mixed success, although teenage-me was satisfied). Repeating that ending would make it seem even more of a gimmick.

You'd have to rearrange the ending, anyhow. Infidel works because the final puzzle has powerful narrative momentum (Indy always finds the secret treasure!) and a direct link to the tragic ending (the tomb has One Last Trap). If Trinity's final puzzle is sabotaging the bomb, you're going to sabotage that bomb. Any other outcome would feel like a failure to solve the puzzle. If the puzzle were to reach the bomb -- and reaching it truly felt like a climactic moment -- then the player might accept some other denouement. But, more likely, it would feel like a cheat.

A variation would be for the protagonist to refuse to complete the sabotage. It's hard to imagine the player buying into this, though. You'd have to spend the whole game arguing for the preservation of history. Sure, erasing it all is empty polemic, but -- faced with the awful alternative -- the player engaged with the story has every motivation to try it.

So scratch that too.

We might leave the final choice unresolved; leave the future in the protagonist's hand, and thus in the player's imagination. This avoids both the unsatisfying failure and the just-so story of success. If done barefaced, though, it would be just as unsatisfying as an unsolved puzzle.

One can imagine ways to make it work. Perhaps build the entire story around choice, with visible glimpses of alternate outcomes for each scene. More ambitiously: have every major puzzle embody a choice, so that multiple solutions serve as multiple paths-not-taken for the story. These wouldn't have to form an exponentially-branching tree; a collection of independent (but irrevocable, in the story-world) choices would make the point. Have the paths-not-taken hover and haunt the player. Now the player, facing an unknown and unresolved ending, will do the work of imagining the alternatives for us. Or so we hope.

Being me, I have to suggest the indirect, metaphorical ending. You leave the conclusion open to interpretation: what was dream, what was metaphor, what was the hallucination of a brain being incinerated in nuclear fire?

Infocom went some distance in this direction, or we wouldn't have long blog posts about the ending to begin with. But I'd say they provided a single clear narrative for the ending -- terse, but clear. Other aspects of the story (such as the time-loop nature of the Wabewalker and their corpse) are left more open; to me, more satisfyingly open.

This stuff can be made to work, if you spend the game building up plausible hypotheses. And the author has to have a logical framework, even though it's not explained to the player. I'll admit up front that I have such a framework for Hadean Lands, and no, I won't talk about it... But I'll go through the process of imagining what might underlie this alternate Zarfian Trinity.

The hallucination-while-dying gag is even more of a gimmick than the Infidel ending. Go ahead, accuse me of using it anyway. Well, if Terry Gilliam can pull it off after Ambrose Bierce closed the book on it... But we won't try to repeat it here.

Nearly as common is the you-are-not-who-you-think-you-are gag. This, at least, can be varied to suit the storyline. We might decide that the protagonist is a guardian of history, a peer of the giggling narrator. Or that the protagonist is the giggling narrator, talking to themself across the timeline. Or maybe the protagonist is Oppenheimer?

Not Oppenheimer, let's say, but all of the innocent (or guilty) bystanders in each of the history scenes. You are not the London vacationer; you take their viewpoint temporarily, up to the point where they enter the explosion. Then you take the viewpoint of a Russian technician, and so forth. The realization that you are in a different body in every scene would arrive gradually. This would require a different approach to some scenes, of course. (There is no NPC viewpoint in space, and the Bikini test -- the dolphin perhaps?) Then, at the Trinity site, you are Donald Hornig, babysitting the equipment until -- contra real history -- you/he find yourself at risk. There's your crucial, personal choice.

I rather like this plan; it gives us a chance to read the story from a real person's perspective, rather than the Infocom-style everynerd. (Of course, at the time Trinity was being written, Hornig was teaching down the street at Harvard! There's a real-people-fiction discussion to be had there, but I won't get into it.)

All of these storytelling gimmicks, while certainly gimmicks, serve to refocus the player's attention on the story. That's why I keep coming back to them. Rethinking everything that's happened from a new perspective is, well, thinking about everything that's happened! And when your ending is difficult to accept, it always helps for the player to figure it out rather than being handed it on a plate. It gives 'em a sense of investment, right? That's the point of interactive narrative in the first place.

Finally (for this post) we have the ending in which you choose between our history and some more terrible one. This was Moriarty's option, and I think it's workable. My objection is to how Trinity framed that choice: as a forked history in which neither choice is really our world.

Can it be reframed? Not, I think, with "sabotage the bomb" as the final puzzle. If the winning outcome is our world, the bomb must go off as planned. Perhaps the player discovers some deeper threat -- aliens? time police? paradox itself? -- and must divert, at the last moment, from sabotaging Trinity to defeating this enemy.

"Paradox itself" is a tidy way to frame the threat: the bomb must go off, or history evaporates in a puff of logic! Except that this really falls back under the "immutable Laws of Time" scenario we covered earlier. It comes off as a cheat.

No, we need an enemy that the player will feel good about defeating. Aliens are too out-of-the-blue. Nazis are too Godwin (even in a WW2 game scene). Time travellers could work; a faction from the collapsing Soviet Union, perhaps. (Science fictional in 1986!) Say they pose an extreme threat -- say, a plan to change the outcome of the war, followed by a joint Nazi-Soviet hegemony of the world?

This would have to be developed at some length, and again, it's unclear whether Infocom had the resources to pull off a solid alternate history. But it's the option I'd try. If, you know, I knew anything about history.

Emily Short

February Link Assortment

by Emily Short at February 28, 2015 06:00 PM

The classic IF magazine SPAG has been, for most of the years since the mid-90s, a source of IF interviews, reviews, and news. The last couple of years it has been on a bit of a hiatus, but it is now under the management of a new editor, Katherine Morayati, and is once again soliciting content. Details are here, and you should get in touch if you have something you’d like to contribute.


In addition to this resurrection of an old classic, the IF scene has also seen the appearance of an all new IF-focused zine, IFography. The first issue features an interview with Geoff Moore, author of Surface and Witch’s Girl, together with some reviews and essays.


This is not a new piece, but I just ran across it: Autumn Nicole Bradley’s review of Hanako Games’ Magical Diary covers the game’s pro-adolescent worldview in considerable detail — a view that respects the autonomy and intelligence of young people and treats their decisions as non-failures. Worth a read. It is an article from ZEAL magazine, a Patreon-supported project that focuses on covering less-known games.


Holly Gramazio has written a poem about game design and bees. My favorite verse:

When designing an FPS for a team of bees,
Make sure that the drones feel valued.
Provide a sniper role for them to fulfil,
Waiting and watching,
Honing their hive-born abilities.


Maddy Myers writes on the emptiness of video game romance, and the difficulty in believing that the NPCs exist when she’s not interacting with them:

Usually, in Bioware games, their trust towards you is built upon them asking you to do them a big favor (rescuing a dangerous artifact, saving their hometown, blah blah)—this is not only a transactional approach to relationships, but also, a theatrical and unrealistic way to expect people to interact.

Overall, the piece gets at some of the same issues raised in Creatures Such as We.


Kotaku ran an exchange of letters about representation of blackness in video games, by several black devs, journalists and critics. I especially appreciate Austin Walker’s point about non-black authors needing to make sure they’re researching their black characters and communities using materials that themselves present a variety of black experiences. And several of the contributors recommend specific books and TV shows about that might help with that.


New Stories Retreat is a weekend-long retreat in May, in Olympia WA, for interactive story creators of various kinds — LARPers, tabletop RPG creators, and game designers — and organized by Avery McDaldno, creator of Monsterhearts and some of my other favorite tabletop storygames. This sounds pretty cool to me. (Canceled, alas — see comments.)


ParserComp, a competition for parser-based games only, is running now through the end of March 14. You can find the games as well as criteria for judging at the ParserComp site.


AdventureJam is a forthcoming 14-day game jam for adventure games. IF and text adventures are explicitly welcome, as are more graphical variants.

February 27, 2015

These Heterogenous Tasks

ParserComp: Six Grey Rats Crawl Up The Pillow

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at February 27, 2015 11:01 PM

six gray ratsOn with ParserComp! Six Grey Rats Crawl Up The Pillow (Boswell Cain).

Story: You play Rinaldo di Gorgonzola, a petty fop in a Varicella-ish modern-Renaissance-Italy (plastics, modern firearms, aristocracy, not much in the way of effective medicine), spends the night in a haunted house on a bet. Things are very Gothic-weird; the house is extravagantly dilapidated, and Rinaldo – not someone accustomed to being alone and un-entertained for long, one suspects – finds himself entangled in memory. The worldbuilding is just enough to suggest a lot of things and make me want more, without delving into pedantry.

Much of the narrative is told in memory; Rinaldo is a member of a Decameron-like circle of poor little rich kids, finding amusements for themselves amid the stalled world of a plague. There is no great overarching plot here, just fragmentary vignettes, a certain number of lingering glances, a good deal of melancholia. Which is fine; they’re good vignettes, and sketch out enough to make me want to know more about this world and its inhabitants. They’re largely delivered in a lawnmowery fashion, albeit in a context where it makes narrative sense.

More generally, I got the sense that the author really wasn’t all that interested in beginning-middle-end narrative here; as with Robin & Orchid, the focus is on piecing together parts of a world that don’t necessarily fit together into a unified story arc. That’s a workable approach, but I think it requires two things to be satisfying as story: a pretty broad scope, and subject-matter that makes the audience relish poking around for tasty, game-irrelevant information. This falls a little short on the former count. 4.

Writing: Now this, my friends, is how you do an initial inventory listing:

You are carrying:
a brass key
a poniard
a sausage
The Return of the Worm
an herbal sachet

You are wearing:
a shiny black raincoat
a silk shirt
a pair of slacks
a pair of wingtip shoes

You recall:
a memory of Lorenzo

Yyyyyyes. One of the things I greatly enjoy about a really solid parser game is the delicious aesthetic of the inventory listing, and this is the first game in ParserComp to really recognise and tap into that.

The writing accomplishes its extravagant Gothic mood with admirable economy. If it has a flaw, it’s that it is perhaps a little too reliant on bland parserese assertions about significant items:

A chamber with a stifling atmosphere. The ceiling is a plaster dome, still intact, though marbled with ghostly mold. The floor is invisible beneath layered carpets and dust clots. The hall is west, and to the east is a doorway to a tiny balcony.

In the center of the room is a four-poster bed.

There is a small hook on the wall. Hanging on the hook is a forbidding portrait.

Across from the bed is an armchair.

On the armchair are a dusty, desiccated corpse and a gold-plated automatic pistol.

At times it turns this briefness to good comic effect, however:

> x sausage
It is reminiscent of other sausages you have known.

This writing may have had some flaws in places, but it was evocative and image-rich and characterful, and I enjoyed it immensely. The thing it reminded me most of, honestly, ws I-0: Jailbait on the Interstate: a capable writer enjoying themselves by dicking around with entertaining, light material. 5.

Puzzles:  At times the interaction clicked pretty well, imitating pretty well the anxious fussing about that goes with sleepless nights. (Anchorhead already did this to a certain extent, but no matter.) There’s, perhaps, one thing that really counts as a puzzle, which I managed to completely miss the point of and required help for. This is… a game that’s invested in interaction, certainly, as a mode of comedy and to regulate the narrative and a way of poking around the edges of the world, but it’s not really much of a puzzle game. 3.

Theme: Sunrise as a thing you have to either wait for or get things done before is a pretty regular theme in this comp, and the version here feels a bit… well, it’s OK, but it’s not really the thing that the story’s invested in. The plague angel is kind of a last-minute trumpery, and its association with the sunrise is momentarily striking but not really something that connects with anything that has gone before. 3.

Technical: I must have typed LIE ON BED twenty times. This prejudices me somewhat; ENTER BED is what the game wants, and I got it right the first time precisely 0 times.

It helpfully allows the player to treat memories like normal objects, and X them rather than fuck around with the awkward THINK ABOUT every darn time.  There are plenty of good responses to reasonable-yet-non-obvious actions, though there are (as is nigh-inevitable) some gaps here.

(first taking yourself)
You are always self-possessed.

It is in no way a technically ambitious piece, but it does perfectly well at what it sets out to do. A strong 3. (I have not awarded a 5 yet in this category, so I may need to go back and rebalance a little at the end.)

Overall: I got numerous moments of glee from this, and this is obviously the work of a capable writer. It’s a bit haphazard in some ways, though, and feels like more of a snapshot than a story. 4.

Post Position

This Issue is Full of the Demoscene

by Nick Montfort at February 27, 2015 09:22 PM

It’s also in Polish, and should serve to inspire Anglophones! As my colleagues in Ubu’s homeland explain:

Ha!art 47 demoscene

Last November, the independent Polish publishing house Korporacja Ha!art devoted an issue of its quarterly to the demoscene, a hacker subculture dedicated to creating multimedia computer programs on retro platforms. What we attempt to chronicle is a half-forgotten, mostly European scene of hard-core coders and ephemeral groups, who dedicate hundreds of sleepless nights with their Amigas and Spectrums, trying to outdo one another, to write terser code, to come up with new visual effects, to wow the audience. In the pre-Internet era, they even came up with their own publication and distribution channels. Always eager to present what is little known and under-researched, we trace the roots of the movement in the 1980s and its growth in Piotr Czerski’s exhaustive article; we look more closely at various platforms that formed the core of demoscene (Amiga, ZX Spectrum, Commodore) and at Polish wizards of code (some of whom, interestingly, looked up to Russian hackers); our authors tackle all sorts of ideas from the interplay between demoscene and glitch to schizophrenia as a tool of interpretation in media analysis. They also ponder the problematic relations between flashy, seemingly puerile demoscene productions and digital literature in an attempt to find the missing link in the evolution of electronic art. Trips down the memory lane by Jakub Noniewicz and Yerzmyey let us see demoscene forays into the world of (often irreverent) short stories and generative poetry. In fact, this kind of textual approach to demoscene has not been attempted before. We show how coders, working collaboratively, used computationality and tried multiple genres to bring the lexical and the audiovisual together. Last but not least, the perspectives of guests from across the Atlantic, Val Grimm and Nick Montfort, show how demoscene is, at heart, about breaking free from societal constraints. The issue is part of Korporacja Ha!art’s effort to present seminal scholarship in digital media.

These Heterogenous Tasks

ParserComp: Down, the Serpent and the Sun

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at February 27, 2015 09:01 PM

downserpentNext ParserComp entry: Down, the Serpent and the Sun (Chandler Groover).

Story: An apocalyptic sequence, very loosely inspired by Mesoamerican myth – although I felt there was as much Ragnarok in it as anything. A vast serpent has swallowed the sun, and the mythic-heroic PC also gets swallowed and must Fix Things.

I like a good literary apocalypse (not really as though I can pretend otherwise at this point) and this one has a forceful vision. The rules are a bit different for a story in a mythic or folk-tale mode: I’m more willing to accept a protagonist who is hazily defined, for instance, and in the right hands a monumental inevitability can outweigh a predictable plot.

That said, I felt the tight and inevitable focus of the action, and the vagueness of both the character and the world outside, made this feel more like a vignette than a fully realised story; I wanted something more than ‘the hero must do X; figure out how.’ Neither a 3 nor a 4 feel quite right to me, but by the book it’s a 3.

Writing: Daaaaamn, this is some full-on purple prose. After playing a cluster of games that err rather on the side of low-affect, I’m more liable to be entertained by this manner of thing: it’s like Fallen London/Sunless Sea without the restraint:

Enormous crimson globules leak along the walls, running in channels between numberless gemstones embedded in the rubbery muscle.

A glow radiates from somewhere deep below, its faint brilliance ensnared in the faceted gems like fireflies imprisoned in amber.

C’mon, bro, drop an ‘incarnadine’ in there somewhere! Drop two! I gots faith in you! Seriously, though, I am super-glad to see a game which has a strong idea about the prose style that its story needs, and goes all-out to attain that, even if I’m going to have some quibbles.

One of the things I regularly find a bit awkward about interpretations of traditional myth, particularly from non-Western cultures, is that it tends to get cleaned up an awful lot – pre-industrial farming, most cultures weren’t nearly as squeamish about buckets of blood as we are – but this is going in precisely the opposite direction. The game really wants to squick you out about giant snake guts.

Partly because of how much it wants to emphasize that Shit Is Gross And Terrible, there were a few elements that felt like a mishandling:

>x altar
A soapstone grotesquerie sculpted with obscene tableaux wherein animals and humans, death and birth, are represented with deformed organs and visages ambiguously ecstatic or terror-stricken. The altar is soaked with spilled blood.

‘Soapstone grotesquerie sculpted with obscene tableaux’? That ain’t the voice of a traditional myth or of a hero within one, that’s the voice of a Victorian getting all hot and bothered about a culture he doesn’t really understand. (Or Lovecraft, who is an honorary hot-and-bothered-Victorian.) The attentive reader will have already recalled that Overexcited Victorian Guy and H.P. Lovecraft occupy entries #1 and #2 on the List of People Who You Really Should Not Trust To Retell Non-European Mythology.

Lovecraft, in particular, was not a writer whose racism can be treated as an incidental or minor feature; it is at the very heart of his fiction’s worldview, it permeates his style, and unthinkingly following either will likely lead you unwittingly into his nastiness. Here’s a translation of the Lovecraftese:

obscene tableaux wherein animals and humans, death and birth I don’t know what any of these figures represent
represented with deformed organs and visages ambiguously ecstatic or terror-stricken I don’t understand the stylistic conventions of this culture’s art
altar is soaked with spilled blood my religious tradition quit doing this long enough ago that it feels scary and weird

And, OK, we’re talking about an apocalyptic monster, so things should feel pretty fucked-up – but this is a pattern in itself, of going over a cultural tradition and only picking out/combining the bits that make for a really scary Big Bad, the Temple of Doom approach. (Lest it needs saying, I think this is just ill-considered, not malicious.)

And at this point I find myself wondering what the point of making this specifically a Mesoamerican-flavoured story was – sun-eaters and apocalyptic serpents are a widespread enough thing, and the Mesoamerican elements are drawn on so indefinitely, and most of the story takes place in goopy snakeguts land which has no particular relation to any tradition, except maybe Jonah via Pinocchio. So while the Mesoamerican imagery may have served as the initial concept, it feels as if the game ended up using it just as a surface gloss to make things feel more savage and alien, and given that it’d have done better to just drop the feathered part and leave it ambiguous about whether we’re talking Apep or Tiamat or Jormungand.

Anyway. I approve of going for strong prose style, but that needs to come with some judicious editing beyond what’s in place now. At present, the style’s an asset to the game at times, a drag on it at others – let’s split the difference. 3.

Puzzles: This is very much a story piece that has puzzles because that’s how character action is represented, rather than because of any special interest in puzzles. To its credit, this action fits in perfectly with the epic-body-horror tone, but it’s not especially playable: it’s a little too easy to miss the active elements among the explosive profusion of squicky bits.

I think this is a - it’s got a flavour, for sure, and it connects up strongly to the narrative, but some of it is a little too read-author’s-mind. As a caveat, I didn’t manage to figure out the final puzzle; maybe that’s more ingenious than the rest.

Theme: Central to the game’s narrative, not an immediately-obvious concept. 4.

Technical: Promiscuous with its nouns, this nonetheless appears to have accounted for all the details I happen to poke at. There is an ask/tell NPC who has most reasonable topics covered. Parser response messages are customised a good deal to make contextual sense. So there’s a good level of diligence, although I wouldn’t call any of it ambitious. I might have liked a slightly more helpful hint system, given the non-obvious shape of some of the puzzles. 4.

Overall: This has some strong things going for it – ambitious prose, a strong mythic feel, a really strong idea of the mood it wants to evoke – but those same things drag some pretty big problems along with them. This is a 3, but a promising one.

Post Position

“Textual Demoscene” by Piotr Marecki

by Nick Montfort at February 27, 2015 03:21 PM

A Trope Tank Technical Report (“Trope Report”) on the “Texual Demoscene” has just been posted. Here’s the abstract:

The demoscene is a mainly European subculture of computer programmers, whose programs generate computer art in real time. The aim of this report is to attempt a description of the textual dimension of the demoscene. The report is the effect of efforts to perform an ethnographic exploration of the Polish computer scene; it quotes interviews with participants of demo parties, where text plays a significant role: in demos, real-time texts, IF, mags or digital adaptations. Media archeology focusing on the textual aspect of the demoscene is important to understanding the beginnings of digital literature and genres of digital-born texts.

Piotr Marecki really goes to the “ends of the earth” to investigate this, even reporting on a Polish demoscene production that is a text game and is called The Road to Assland. Here’s the full report.


Twine: Orifice Clique

by Amanda Wallace at February 27, 2015 03:01 PM

and she had the earth dug up, and they found blue and evil-looking bones…

There is a feedback, white noise that comes through my headphones. The light hum of a dryer in the other room. The steadily increasing chill that causes my finger tips to turn white. This is the soundtrack by which I played Orifice Clique, a game by Porpentine commissioned by the Yearbook Office.

There are few games where I feel like an enemy to the main character. In this case, it occurs solely because of my gender. I am a cisgendered female, and it feels like I may be defined in this piece as a member of the orifice clique.

The game starts out with our character as someone whose skull doesn’t fit into their skin, a condition that is an all consuming obsession. There is too much space between the skin and the skull, and it feels uncomfortable. This discomfort is meant for both you and the character. You rest within her life, with a femme’d up computer and an apartment submerged in the miasma of unhappiness. You rest there, but it’s a torturous place to be, jarring and ill-fitting. You go to work, but work appears to be little more than being water boarded by cis-women. The author tells you that it’s a kindness — that they are only drowning you in lukewarm water when they could’ve dumped acid on your face. The game ends.

I tried storing my flesh in a box called starvation, but that box kept springing open.

It’s been explained to me in the past that a high point of art if when it makes you think outside of yourself, when it puts you in a position of both empathy. I don’t know if I feel so much as empathy as exhaustion, a point of well-tuned horror at the displacement of others. If art is meant to make you feel uncomfortable, then Orifice Clique succeeds in that regard. You are asked repeatedly, with the dog cone wrapped around your neck and the cis-women pouring water over your face, if you want to drink or inhale. But it doesn’t matter — you are powerless in this position. Your agency is placed in the hands of people whose skull fits.

The datanet is one of the stand out moments in Orifice Clique. You are given the opportunity to explore the room, and on the computer you can “jack in” to the datanet. You can find the stories of others in the dots and dashes, the experiences of sadness and desperation, of suicide attempts and rapes. It’s a moment of honesty and starkness in the surreal world that Porpentine has created.

When the game ended, I stared at the final screen in a fog of static, until the black became overridden with the reflection of my nearby blinds, until it faded away into the credits.

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These Heterogenous Tasks

ParserComp: Lockdown

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at February 27, 2015 04:01 AM

lockdownMore with the ParserComp: Lockdown (Richard Otter).

Story: The protagonist is a janitor at a Science! institute; when play begins, he has just locked the base down and then murdered everyone inside it. The actual game involves him walking around the base and figuring out how to mess up the experiment in order to explode everything.

I think this is aiming to be a psychological thriller, but it doesn’t have quite enough going on in either department.

On the psychological drama side, this is a story about a mass shooting/suicide, told from the perspective of the shooter. The shooter has serious mental health problems and a great deal of resentment, and uncovering this is a major focus of the game. Most of this doesn’t add much to ‘serious mental health problems and a great deal of resentment’, though. On encountering the dead bodies of his former co-workers, we get a little information about how he didn’t like them.

The media res opening suggests that it might be intended as that venerable old saw of psychological thrillers, the Dreadful Past Conveniently Obscured by Amnesia, but – thankfully – this turns out to just be the effect of the player’s limited knowledge, rather than the protagonist’s.

And on the thriller side, there’s kind of a lack of thrills. You’re fortified inside a base, with The Authorities hammering on the door – that’s a reliable premise for building tension over the course of a story, but beyond its initial introduction, it’s basically ignored. You have an objective at the outset of the story, and advance steadily towards that objective until you accomplish it. That’s OK for gameplay purposes, kinda, but really bad for story.

The story isn’t hugely interested in the SF part either; we never really learn what the science guys are studying or why. The parts you can interact with are all rather pulpy: Big Machine With Buttons, Huge Shiny Crystal – but the overactive enthusiasm and melodrama that I generally take as hallmarks of self-conscious science pulp are absent. The principal reason to situate the action in a science base, rather than in any other workplace, is so that puzzles are required to complete the action.



You speed read the document which is your annual appraisal written by John Myers. Although the document does mention your overall performance it seems to be mainly be about your mental stability. A number of lines stand out, “prolonged depression”, “strong feelings of anger”, “delusions and hallucinations”, “inability to cope with daily problems and activities”, “denial of obvious problems”, “suicidal thoughts” and so on.

One further section catches your eye. “Williams has a habit of introducing himself as a Junior Technician and has stopped wearing his Maintenance badge.”

This kind of verges out of the normal territory of an appraisal and into a psychiatric report – the language is largely about the PC’s internal states, which you don’t really care about if you’re seeking justifications to fire someone – but in writing terms, the problem is that it’s a big old violation of Show Don’t Tell. I was put in mind of an old Adam Cadre review of Kim Stanley Robinson’s approach to characterisation and worldbuilding:

To a great extent, the purpose of narrative is to explore people’s psychological makeup. We follow characters around and watch what they do, what decisions they make, and come to understand what makes them tick. This process is entirely short-circuited by having a character sit down in a chair and say, “Here’s what makes me tick, doc.”

The symptoms and behaviours described don’t form an implausible background for a mass shooter, but at the end of it you don’t feel as though you know Peter Williams much more deeply than the police report and news articles that’ll come out in the aftermath. Fiction’s great strength is its ability to go beyond what an outsider could reasonably know, to go beyond the general to the acutely-personal specifics. Without that, it’s just non-fiction without the credibility. 2.

Puzzles: The mechanic here is that you have to set up the testing chamber in such a way as to destroy the base. You have a checklist of things to do, and the action principally comprises walking around the base, searching for the things you need to do and then doing them. This is fundamentally a bit tedious – there’s no creative thinking required for any of it, and the activation sequence involves a certain amount of pointless busywork (the doors around you lock, and you have to reset everything before you can unlock them).

The one puzzle in the game which does involve an ingenious approach is as follows: late in the game you need a small iron object, so you tear down a shelf in order to get at the nails. Perfectly reasonable, and if I had been doing this kind of puzzle all along I might very well have got it; but by this point I didn’t have much expectation of anything beyond ‘find thing, use in the obvious way’, and my brain had pretty much disengaged.

Finally, the narrative integration could stand to be stronger: if, for instance, we had more about the science of the project and Williams’ interest in it, this could have developed into an OK theme. But since we don’t even know what this stuff is for, ‘I’ll show them all’ – and thus the main motivation of the puzzle – is kind of disconnected. 2.

Theme: At one point it’s mentioned that it’s only a few hours until sunrise – this is tied to a clock, but as far as I could tell there’s no significant time limit, nor any particular reason why things have to be wrapped up by sunrise. Present, but an insignificant detail. 2.

Technical: I did not encounter any significant bugs, and it all pretty much works fine. 3.

Overall: 2.

Lautz of IF

IFography #2 Released

by jasonlautzenheiser at February 27, 2015 01:01 AM

IFography #2 - March 2015

IFography #2 – March 2015

Another issue of IFography has been released and is available at:

Articles in this issue include

++ Interview with Ryan Veeder, author of Taco Fiction and Captain Verdeterre’s Plunder.
++ The World of IF – how you can help fellow IF enthusiasts.
++ Tools section – Update on the newly released version of Trizbort by your truly.
++ Reviews, News and more

This is turning into a nice little magazine put together by fellow enthusiasts.  Thanks to the editors Matt Goh and Marshal Tenner Winter for putting together.  And a special thanks for a job well done goes out to Robert Patten for all his design work he did on this issue.

Filed under: Announcements, IFography

February 26, 2015

Sibyl Moon Games

Where IF Met LARP: Remembering Versu

by Carolyn VanEseltine at February 26, 2015 08:01 PM


In February of 2013, the interactive fiction community was buzzing over a new project called Versu. Narrative innovator Emily Short and AI researcher Richard Evans had teamed up to create a new interactive storytelling platform with the backing of Linden Lab (the makers of Second Life).

Where typical parser-based IF focused on manipulating objects in a simulated environment, Versu focused on emotional interactions between simulated entities. Play transcripts looked more like screenplays than anything else.

One of the most interesting characteristics of Versu was that it automatically supported multiple potential protagonists. After the player selected a character, Versu AI would run all the other characters, making decisions about each character’s actions via AI logic in much the same way that the player decided upon the protagonist’s actions.


In some ways, Versu suffered from the same problem that Seltani suffers now – it was clearly very cool, a huge leap forward in technology and potential, but… what did you do with it?

I was in the Versu beta, and I had a plan.

What’s a LARP?

LARP stands for Live Action Roleplaying Game. The term may conjure up images of foam-padded swords, masked monsters in the woods, and people flinging beanbags while yelling “Lightning bolt, lightning bolt!” – but it can also refer to theater-style LARP, which bears a much closer relationship to improv theater.

(Describing a “typical LARP” is like describing a “typical novel” – for everything I say below, there are many valid counterexamples. Bear with me!)

A convention-length theater-style LARP usually takes place in a single large conference room, often with hallway space or a second room available for breakout space. There may be props involved, either actual replicas of in-game items or index cards labelled with explanations. In this space, two to four GMs run a multiplayer storytelling event that lasts between two and six hours and involves between six and thirty players.

Every player is responsible for portraying a separate, single character, and each of those characters has a background, goals, and established connections to some number of other characters. The GM writes each of those characters up and distributes the information to players in a character sheet (see an example here from The Melpomenauts’ Dying of the Light).

The process of writing a theater-style LARP is rather like building an elaborate narrative pinball machine, if pinball machines normally launched a dozen balls at a time.

When the game begins, the GM loses control. Goals and connections draw characters together or bounce them apart like physics acting on the balls in the pinball machine. If Ms. Bagpipe’s bluesheet says “You want to quietly discuss the rumors of a hostile Vulpinion takeover with Ms. Parsley”, then the GM can expect Ms. Bagpipe to seek out Ms. Parsley. If Mr. Pincushion’s bluesheet says “You have heard that Ms. Bagpipe and Ms. Parsley may be colluding against the Dauphin”, then the GM can expect Mr. Pincushion to keep an eye on Ms. Bagpipe and Ms. Parsley and to get worried when they start chatting in the corner.

…but maybe not. Maybe Ms. Parsley gets too caught up in her intrigues with Mme. Millipede to respond to Ms. Bagpipe’s overtures. Maybe Ms. Bagpipe decides Mr. Pincushion seems loyal enough to loop him into her suspicion about the Vulpinions. Or maybe Mr. Pincushion drinks the poisoned cocktail intended for Ms. Millipede and spends the next half hour under intensive medical care with Mr. Ellipsis, entirely missing his chance to observe any whispering in the corner.

In short, there are no guarantees. The player is the final determiner of what the character sheet means and how the character would respond. The GM doesn’t get to run in and say “Wait, wait, that’s not what I meant!”

What’s more, every character portrayed by a player is a protagonist. For the LARP to be successful, the story has to be equally interesting and satisfying for Ms. Bagpipe, Ms. Parsley, Mr. Pincushion, Mme. Millipede, Mr. Ellipsis, and every other pinball bouncing around the table.

This should sound familiar. The skill set and narrative design principles used to build a LARP – multiple protagonists, focusing on characters over things, individual goals, constantly considering emotional dynamics and information flow – are perfect for building a short story in Versu.

The fate of Versu

My initial story for Versu was a short piece called Strings and Sharps. It played out an encounter between three brilliant musicians and three of their biggest fans – who happen to be vampires. (It was definitely influenced by my experiences running Vampire: the Masquerade back in college.) Each of the six characters had distinct goals, inclinations, and information that influenced their interactions with the other five, creating a wide variety of possible outcomes from this relatively simple premise.

I sketched out Strings and Sharps at a narrative level, but ran full-force into problems with the Windows build of Versu. Unfortunately, those problems were never resolved.

On February 19, 2014, Linden Labs announced the end of Versu development. Emily Short made an effort to acquire the codebase and IP for Versu and the games created in beta, but Linden Labs refused her. There’s an excellent Gamasutra article that talks about Emily Short’s experiences and the end of the Versu road.

If Strings and Sharps ever sees daylight (as ’twere), it will happen as a LARP. The conversion from digital to nondigital won’t be difficult, because I already know what this game looks like on a narrative level. I can explain to each of the six protagonists who they are, what they want, and what tools they have to reach their goals. I can set up the pinball machine and watch it play out.

But the truth is, I want Versu back. We need Versu, or something like it.

An opportunity waiting

Computer games provide experiences that we can’t access in real life. In real life, I can’t parkour across space station bulkheads, slay dragons with fiery arrows, or identify books in foreign languages by magic. But as a digital game designer, I can give a simulated equivalent for each of those experiences to other people.

I suspect that most of the people reading this article haven’t ever played in theater-style LARPs. Maybe some of you will be intrigued enough to try it, after reading this. And maybe you have access to theater-style LARPs – maybe you’re in New England near Intercon, or on the West Coast near Wyrd Con, or in Scandinavia near Knudepunkt, or near another of the global opportunities to try this interactive storytelling form.

But there are some people who don’t have access and won’t have access. For whatever reason – distance, time, money, social uncertainty, or simply opportunity cost – this interactive storytelling form is just not available to some people.

Like dragons. Or space stations.

I want Versu back because Versu was the best tool yet created for bringing a LARP-style, character-driven, interaction-based story into computer simulation. I want to give that experience to my players – the experience of interactively creating a story in partnership with other intelligent, emotional entities.

Linden Labs has made their stance pretty clear, so I don’t expect to see Versu return. But since the dawn of computer games, people have been looking for better ways to simulate emotional connections and interpersonal interaction. There’s an open opportunity for someone else to examine the problem and find a new, even better solution.

And when the next Versu happens, I’ll be here.

The Digital Antiquarian

Trinity Postscript: Selling Tragedy

by Jimmy Maher at February 26, 2015 05:01 PM

Like A Mind Forever Voyaging, Trinity seemed destined to become a casualty of an industry that just wasn’t equipped to appreciate what it was trying to do. Traditional game-review metrics like “fun” or “value for money” only cheapened it, while reviewers lacked the vocabulary to even begin to really address its themes. Most were content to simply mention, in passing and often with an obvious unease, that those themes were present. In Computer Gaming World, for instance, Scorpia said that it was “not for the squeamish,” would require of the player “some unpleasant actions,” that it was “overall a serious game, not a light-hearted one,” and then on to the firmer ground of puzzle hints. And that was downright thoughtful in comparison to Shay Addams’s review for Questbusters, which tried in a weird and clunky way to be funny in all the ways that Trinity doesn’t: “It blowed up real good!” runs the review’s tagline, which goes on to ask if they’ll be eating “fission chips” in the Kensington Gardens after the missiles drop. (Okay, that one’s dumb enough to be worth a giggle…) But the review’s most important point is that Trinity is “mainly a game” again after the first Interactive Fiction Plus title, A Mind Forever Voyaging, so disappointed: “The puzzles are back!”

Even Infocom themselves weren’t entirely sure how to sell or even how to talk about Trinity. The company’s creative management had been unstintingly supportive of Brian Moriarty while he was making the game, but “marketing,” as he said later, “was a little more concerned/disturbed. They didn’t quite know what to make of it.” The matrix of genres didn’t have a slot for “Historical Tragedy.” In the end they slapped a “Fantasy” label on it, although it doesn’t take a long look at Trinity and the previous games to wear that label — the Zork and Enchanter series — to realize that one of these things is not quite like the others.

Moriarty admits to “a few tiffs” with marketing over Trinity, but he was a reasonable guy who also understood that Infocom needed to sell their games and that, while the occasional highbrow press from the likes of The New York Times Book Review had been nice and all, the traditional adventure-game market was the only place they had yet succeeded in consistently doing that. Thus in interviews and other promotions for Trinity he did an uncomfortable dance, trying to talk seriously about the game and the reasons he wrote it while also trying not to scare away people just looking for a fun text adventure. The triangulations can be a bit excruciating: “It isn’t a gloomy game, but it does have a dark undertone to it. It’s not like it’s the end of the world.” (Actually, it is.) Or: “It’s kind of a dark game, but it’s also, I like to think, kind of a fun game too.” (With a ringing endorsement like “I like to think it’s kind of a fun game,” how could anyone resist?)

Trinity‘s commercial saving grace proved to be a stroke of serendipity having nothing to do with any its literary qualities. The previous year Commodore had released what would prove to be their last 8-bit computer, the Commodore 128. Despite selling quite well, the machine had attracted very little software support. The cause, ironically, was also the reason it had done so well in comparison to the Plus/4, Commodore’s previous 8-bit machine. The 128, you see, came equipped with a “64 Mode” in which it was 99.9 percent compatible with the Commodore 64. Forced to choose between a modest if growing 128 user base and the massive 64 user base through which they could also rope in all those 128 users, almost all publishers, with too many incompatible machines to support already, made the obvious choice.

Infocom’s Interactive Fiction Plus system was, however, almost unique in the entertainment-software industry in running on the 128 in its seldom-used (at least for games) native mode. And all those new 128 owners were positively drooling for a game that actually took advantage of the capabilities of their shiny new machines. A Mind Forever Voyaging and Trinity arrived simultaneously on the Commodore 128 when the Interactive Fiction Plus interpreter was ported to that platform in mid-1986. But the puzzleless A Mind Forever Voyaging was a bit too outré for most gamers’ tastes. Plus it was older, and thus not getting the press or the shelf space that Trinity was. Trinity, on the other hand, fit the bill of “game I can use to show off my 128″ just well enough, even for 128 users who might otherwise have had little interest in an all-text adventure game. Infocom’s sales were normally quite evenly distributed across the large range of machines they supported, but Trinity‘s were decidedly lopsided in favor of the Commodore 128. Those users’ numbers were enough to push Trinity to the vicinity of 40,000 in sales, not a blockbuster — especially by the standards of Infocom’s glory years — but enough to handily outdo not just A Mind Forever Voyaging but even more traditional recent games like Spellbreaker. Like the Cold War Trinity chronicles, it could have been much, much worse.


T Plus 6: All Prams Lead to the Kensington Gardens

by Jimmy Maher at February 26, 2015 05:01 PM


‘Twere better Charity
To leave me in the Atom’s Tomb –
Merry, and Nought, and gay, and numb –
Than this smart Misery.

– Emily Dickinson

And so, as another Infocom game once put it, it’s all come down to this. We have indeed come a long way, looked at a lot of history. But now it’s time to refocus on the game of Trinity. Fair warning, then: massive spoilers ahead.

Throughout its considerable length Trinity has constantly implicated the Wabewalker, and through him we who pull his strings, in the tragic history of the atomic age, refusing to allow us the comfort of abstraction. We’ve been forced to cold-bloodedly kill a couple of cute, innocent little would-be pets to show us that killing is ugly and heartbreaking, not a mere matter of shifting columns and figures around on a spreadsheet showing projected death counts. We’ve met the same woman in two different times, once as a happy little girl in Nagasaki just before the bomb dropped and again as an old woman still bearing the visible scars of her suffering there many years later. We’ve frolicked with a dolphin who’s about to be stupidly, senselessly cooked alive by a hydrogen bomb in the name of some ephemeral geopolitical advantage, bringing home to us what these terrible weapons do to the fragile ecosystems of our one and only home. We’ve made a bomb of our own and experienced some of the heady rush that comes with harnessing such elemental forces of nature — the same rush that captured and possibly consumed both Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Teller, each in his own way. We’ve watched history being written down before our eyes into a permanent and remorseless Book of Hours. And we’ve located the fulcrum of history in that fateful moment on the morning of July 16, 1945, way out in the New Mexican desert.

It eventually becomes apparent that the overriding objective of Trinity the game is to sabotage Trinity the first test of an atomic bomb. All of our hopscotching through time has been to set us up for that goal. At last, we achieve it. We expect something triumphant. Surely this means that humanity has been steered away from this senseless course, that all this tragic history we’ve been experiencing has been averted.


Well, what we get is this:

You slide the blade of the steak knife under the striped wire and pull back on it as hard as you can. The thick insulation cracks under the strain, stretches, frays and splits...

Snap! A shower of sparks erupts from the enclosure. You lose your balance and fall backwards to the floor.

"X-unit just went out again," shouts a voice.

"Which line is it, Baker?"

"Kid's board says it's the informer. The others look okay. We're lettin' it go, Able. The sequencer's running."

The walkie-talkie hisses quietly.


You turn, but see no one.

"Zero minus fifteen seconds," crackles the walkie-talkie.

"You should be proud of yourself." Where is that voice coming from? "This gadget would've blown New Mexico right off the map if you hadn't stopped it. Imagine the embarrassment."

A burst of static. "Minus ten seconds."

The space around you articulates. It's not as scary the second time.

"Of course, there's the problem of causality," continues the voice. "If Harry doesn't get his A-bomb, the future that created you cannot occur. And you can't sabotage the test if you're never born, can you?"

The walkie-talkie is fading away. "Five seconds. Four."

The voice chuckles amiably. "Not to worry, though. Nature doesn't know the word 'paradox.' Gotta bleed off that quantum steam somehow. Why, I wouldn't be surprised to see a good-sized bang every time they shoot off one of these gizmos. Just enough fireworks to keep the historians happy."

And then we’re stuck right back where we started, in the Kensington Gardens on the eve of World War III, to do everything we’ve already done all over again… ad infinitum.

There are two levels on which to wrestle with this strange, bitter ending: on the physical, as realistic storyworld plot logic; and on the symbolic or poetic. Let’s start with the first.

While it’s hardly crystal clear, we can best surmise that Trinity portrays an alternate reality whose laws of physics dictate that that first atomic bomb — and presumably all the ones to follow, should anyone have been able to create them — should have blown up vastly bigger than the scientists who created it expected — and bigger also than the bombs we know from our own reality. Thus the gadget of this subtly different universe “would’ve blown New Mexico right off the map.” Like so much else in Trinity, it’s an idea with an historical basis, which is discussed at some length in The Day the Sun Rose Twice by Ferenc Morton Szasz. This book, published only shortly before Moriarty started working on Trinity, became his bible for the details of the Trinity test; Szasz himself became an informal personal adviser.

As early as 1922 Nobel Lauerate Francis William Aston warned against “tinkering with angry atoms,” voicing concerns that a physicist might accidentally start a chain reaction that would fuse hydrogen in the earth’s atmosphere into helium, the same process that powers the sun — and the hydrogen bomb. The question of whether a human-induced chain reaction taking place inside a bomb could start a runaway chain reaction in the atmosphere at large would continue to nag in the background for a long time, right up through the Trinity test and even well beyond it. In July of 1942, when the Manhattan Project was just getting started in earnest, Edward Teller of all people produced a series of calculations that seemed to show that a fission bomb could in fact create enough heat to ignite the atmosphere. All work came to a halt for several panicked days while the other scientists checked his numbers. It was decided that a probability of better than 1 in 3 million of such an apocalypse actually occurring would be enough to scuttle the Manhattan Project entirely. In the end some of Teller’s numbers were proved to be in error, the probability judged to be somewhat less than 1 in 3 million, and work resumed.

Yet even after they had checked and rechecked their calculations a certain nervousness persisted amongst the scientist preparing for the Trinity test. Enrico Fermi dealt with the question with his typical black humor, offering wagers on whether the bomb would cause a runaway chain reaction at all and, if so, whether it would take out just New Mexico or the whole world. (In either of the latter cases, the winner was likely to be sadly unable to collect…) When the bomb finally exploded, a number of scientists recall an instant of panic at its sheer scale, an instant of wondering if the runaway chain reaction they had all shoved into the backs of their minds was happening before their eyes. Their relief as it became clear that the explosion had reached its limit was perhaps even greater than their relief and sense of triumph that the Manhattan Project had succeeded in its mission.

So, that’s one important part of Trinity‘s ending. But if we can feel ourselves on firm ground with a supersized version of the Trinity bomb absent the Wabewalker’s interference, the rest of what’s happened is rather less clear. Rather than causing the Trinity bomb to simply not work at all, our act of sabotage has merely reduced the scale of its explosion to the Trinity test we know from our own reality — i.e., to the scale the scientists were expecting all along. It seems very hard to believe that cutting a wire would really have allowed the Trinity bomb to blow up nevertheless, only not as big as it otherwise would. Still, we may have to accept the Wabewalker’s act as having had just that outcome. If we do, we must then assume that “bleeding off that quantum steam” entails that all future nuclear explosions will also be reduced in power to correspond with the one that’s just been sabotaged, as a result of some sort of heretofore undiscovered self-correcting quality of the universe. The Wabewalker, whom we might better name Sisyphus, must cycle again and again through time, (partially) sabotaging the Trinity bomb over and over to prevent that paradox that nature “doesn’t know” — the paradox that must be if he doesn’t perform the actions that give birth to the world he knew when he took his $599 London Getaway Package. We might consider him a hero, except that it’s not at all clear that his actions are a net positive. If “blowing New Mexico right off the map” would have led humanity to stop this madness and thus averted the nuclear apocalypse that comes in the Kensingtion Gardens, then according to the terrible logic of war in the nuclear age the lives of all those New Mexicans would better have been sacrificed in the name of saving billions more all over the world. Our victory in Trinity is the very definition of Pyrrhic.

This chain of conjecture is a sometimes flimsy one, some of its logic a bit wobbly. Yet one feels that trying to parse Trinity‘s ending any more closely gets us into the fan-fiction territory of, say, hardcore Ultima fans trying to reconcile with itself Richard Garriott’s ever-changing world of Britannia, of frantic ret-conning to make sense of things that just, well, don’t make sense. As Andrew Plotkin once said of Trinity‘s ending, “I’ve always been uncertain about how well it hangs together. But just uncertain enough that I think it might be cooler than I am capable of grasping.” It’s Trinity‘s ability to evoke the doubt expressed in that second sentence that may just be its saving grace as a time-travel fiction.

But you know what? I’m not sure how much I care about the real-world logic behind Trinity‘s ending, simply because it’s so powerful on a poetic and philosophical level. Taken as just the culmination of a time-travel puzzle, it’s very clever, yes, if not quite clever enough to feel entirely bulletproof. (Where did the umbrella actually come from? If, as would seem to be implied, that’s your corpse you meet in the magical land, how to reconcile that with the apparently eternal loop you’re stuck in?) It’s clever in a way that any science-fiction fan has seen many times before, clever in the way of that cool twist at the end of a great thriller. Taken more abstractly, however, it becomes much more than merely clever. And it’s on that more abstract level that I find I really want to discuss it.

Before I do that, though, I should take a moment to talk a bit more about why I’m so willing to forgive Trinity its faults as realistic fiction. It’s a question I’ve spent quite some time considering, using as a point of comparison Trinity‘s perpetual point of comparison, Infocom’s other unabashed striving for the mantle of Literature A Mind Forever Voyaging. As many of you doubtless remember, I dinged that game pretty hard for its own various failings as realistic fiction. I therefore owe it to you to explain why I’m so blasé about this aspect of Trinity. One possibility is of course that I simply like Trinity better, and am thus more willing to excuse its failings. However, while the first part of that statement is certainly true, I’m not so sure about the second. Roger Ebert (every gamer’s favorite critic, right?) often used to say that every movie deserves to be reviewed on its own terms — i.e., on the terms of what it’s trying to be. If a movie wants to be a moody art-house character study, how much insight does it give into the proverbial human condition? If it’s a fast-paced action flick, how well does it get the adrenalin pumping? If it’s a porno… well, you get the idea. Unless I’ve misjudged its intent entirely, A Mind Forever Voyaging wants to be a compelling piece of hard science fiction, a realistic extrapolation of current trends in the spirit of the fictions it references on its back cover, Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four. Trinity, though, wants to be something quite different, more poetic than realistic, more a philosophical meditation than a plot-driven story. Particularly when we’re in the magical land that serves as the hub of our historical explorations, we’re literally literally wandering through a landscape of symbolism, of ideas cast into physical reality. Trinity is a philosophical meditation given the superficial form of a story, like Gulliver’s Travels or Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

I think it’s fair to judge its ending in particular on those terms. I consider Trinity‘s ending to be both the bleakest and the most profound in the Infocom catalog, much more so than that of Infidel in that Moriarty’s ending serves as the essential culmination of his game’s message, not as a mere experiment to see whether a tragic ending could “work” in an interactive medium. Indeed, one could use the word “experiment” to describe most of Infocom’s pre-Trinity nods toward Literature. The ending of Infidel, the friendship and sad fate of Floyd in Planetfall, arguably even the political message and puzzleless structure of A Mind Forever Voyaging were treated almost as technical challenges: “Can we use interactive fiction to do XXX?” Trinity alone feels like a mature, holistic statement rather than an experiment. It doesn’t even bother wasting time on the question: “Of course we can, and now here’s an historical tragedy for ya.”

I want to come back to the idea of Trinity as a tragedy, but first I want to look more closely at another phrase I’ve thrown out there from time to time in this series of articles: this idea of Trinity as a “meditation on history.” Ridiculously simplified, there are two ways of viewing history, of viewing time itself: as a ladder or as a wheel.

History as a ladder is an ongoing process of improvement and perfection. Wars and other terrible things sometimes happen that knock us a notch or two back down the ladder, but we always pick ourselves up and start to climb again. As long as we keep working at it, the lives of most of the people on earth will most of the time continue to get better. It’s an idea that by this point seems intertwined into the very DNA of most Western societies. You can find it in the Christianity — particularly Protestant Christianity — whose moral precepts are still at the root of our systems of laws: a Christian, born into a heritage of sin, spends her life striving to overcome that heritage and improve both herself and the world around her, after which she’s rewarded with the ultimate perfection of Heaven. You can find it in our economic systems: capitalism is based on the assumption that we can always make more money than we did the previous year (an assumption which, as Karl Marx among others have pointed out, may not be sustainable in the long term). The United States, amongst the most Christian and the most unabashedly capitalist of Western societies, hews to the idea particularly closely: what else is the American Dream but an idealized narrative of personal improvement and eventual perfection, a secular version of Christianity’s spiritual journey? In the euphoric aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union, American historians started enthusiastically writing about “the end of history,” declaring the world to have reached the top of the ladder and attained perfection at last — in, naturally, the image of the United States. But I’m not here to condemn the notion of history as progress. Far from it. As an American myself, it’s largely the way I too see the world — and, I would even say, with good reason. Still, we should give due weight to the other point of view.

Circumstances come and go, says the circular view of history, but through it all there is the Eternal Now. As the Book of Ecclesiastes, one of the most beloved and most theologically problematic books of the Old Testament, says: “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.” It’s a view that’s actually even older than Ecclesiastes, stretching back to the pre-Socratic Greek philosophers whose works often survive only as fragments. Since then it’s tended to be most prevalent in non-Western societies. Certainly we can see it in Hinduism and Buddhism with their nearly perpetual reincarnation of the soul rather than the single life as a journey toward perfection (or damnation). It was resurrected in the West only in the last few hundred years by the school of European continental philosophy, whose tolerance for ambiguity and subjectivity tends to stand it in opposition to the analytic tradition that dominates in Britain and the United States, with its emphasis on rationalism and empiricism. Thus you can find it in Nietzsche’s idea of the Eternal Recurrence. You can find it in our old friend Robert Pinsky’s metaphor of the Figured Wheel. You can find it in its most nihilistic incarnation in many apocalyptic fictions of the Cold War, such as Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, which posits a humanity destined to pull itself out of the Dark Ages only to destroy its civilization as soon as nuclear weapons are (re)invented, over and over again in a futile cycle of stupidity spanning endless millennia. And of course you can find it in Trinity, which posits your grand adventure to be a perpetual loop — or, to choose another symbol from the game itself, a Klein bottle with no beginning, no end, and no measurable property of progress in between.

Trinity‘s despairing nihilism is a result of Brian Moriarty’s own conviction as of 1986 that nuclear war was inevitable, that it was only a question of “when” and “how,” never “whether.” Any thoughtful person studying the history of atomic weapons and the Cold War as of 1986 could experience the same sense of predestination, the sense of the futility of the individual, that permeates Trinity. Time and time again the reasonable men had been battered down by the paranoid and the power-mad. Robert Oppenheimer’s case is just one example. Another, perhaps more immediate one for Moriarty would have been the story of President Carter, who entered office determined to reduce the United States’s nuclear arsenal to a “minimal deterrence” level of just 100 to 200 missiles and reach reasonable accommodations with the Soviet Union on a host of issues; he exited four years later amidst boycotts and spiking tensions, and having initiated the arms buildup that would go on to become the most extreme in the peacetime history of the country under Ronald Reagan. Against the forces of history, it seemed that even a good and powerful man like Carter was ultimately powerless.

Can I, the individual, alter the course of history? My answer must first depend on whether I believe in free will. Trinity would seem to tell us that we do have free will on an individual, granular level. The Book of Hours we discover in the magical land shows the Wabewalker’s actions in its pages only as he performs them, not before. Yet on the other hand, virtually everything else in the game is set up to make us feel, as Moriarty put it in an interview published immediately after Trinity, “the weight of all this history, crushing you.” There’s not a lot of individual agency allowed by that description, is there? The magical land of metaphor that serves as the spine of the game would certainly seem to represent a view of time that’s mechanistic and eternally recurring. The sun sweeps around and around its perimeter under the control of the mechanical sundial at its center — literally a wheel of time — its shadow falling again and again on the same set of historical events. “No new thing under the sun” indeed. This is the tragic view of history.

And now, having stumbled upon that word yet again, I think it’s time for us to really think about it. Like so many words, it has at least a couple of valid usages. In everyday speech we use it pretty much any time something really sad or really unjust happens to anyone. So, yes, the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and Copenhagen were tragic. But they weren’t tragedies in the philosophical or literary sense that Trinity is a tragedy.

Most of us were inculcated as schoolchildren in another version of tragedy: it’s all about the “tragic flaw.” A noble, virtuous, and capable man is utterly undone by a single failing in his character: perhaps Lust, perhaps Greed, perhaps Ambition, perhaps Jealousy. The tragic hero must of course die for his failing, but in the process of doing so he will be redeemed and restored to at least a measure of his former greatness through self-discovery and acknowledgement of his sins. Originating with Aristotle in roughly 350 BC, it proved to be a conception very well-suited to later Christian societies, for the cycle forms a neat allegory of the central narrative of Christianity: the Creation, the Fall, and Redemption in the after-life. How appropriate then that the earliest great tragedy of the Elizabethan era, Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, not only follows this outline perfectly but has its protagonist directly interacting with metaphysical specters of Christian good and evil.

Still, despite lots of hammering and prodding over the centuries, the tragic flaw actually sits rather uncomfortably upon lots of tragic heroes. What’s the tragic flaw of Oedipus? He quite sensibly did everything he reasonably could to derail the prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother, only to have the universe screw him over anyway. What’s the tragic flaw of Hamlet? Some critics have tried to say it’s indecisiveness, but one can’t help but feel that wishy-washyness lacks a certain moral grandeur. What’s next? Messiness as a tragic flaw? (If so, and as anyone who’s ever seen my office will attest, I’m screwed.)

Aristotle’s word that is generally translated as “tragic flaw” is “hamartia.” It’s a term with its origins in archery, where it’s used to refer to a “missing of the mark.” It was removed from this context by Aristotle, and extended to mean any general mistake or failing. Later, Christian translators may have anachronistically inserted the concept into their own worldview, giving it a moral, even spiritual dimension it does not generally possess in Greek tragedy. There is no grand Christian narrative of guilt, punishment, and redemption to be found here, but rather a sort of cosmic joke and an illustration of the powerlessness of even the mightiest in the face of a universe determined to have its way with us no matter what we do. This is the conception of tragedy hinted at in the works of the philosophers who lived during and before the time of Sophocles, well before the time of Aristotle. It’s the conception of tragedy that Nitszche would rescue and begin to expound in the nineteenth century after centuries of neglect. Trinity also connects itself to these classical currents, not least via another in its arsenal of symbols: the ferryman Charon. In Greek mythology, he carries souls from the land of the living to that of the dead. In Trinity, he carries the Wabewalker to the Trinity site, the beginning of the end.

The ancient Greeks called the elemental, irresistible force of the universe, the “what will be must be” of existence, “physis.” Some people prefer to call it God; some prefer to call it science — or, more specifically and interestingly, physics. Whatever you call it, it can be a bitch sometimes. The real key to Trinity the tragedy may lie in those lines from Hamlet quoted on the back of its box:

The time is out of joint;
O cursed spite, That ever I was
born to set it right!

Hamlet is arrogant enough to believe he’s some sort of Aristotlian tragic hero, destined to “set it right” through his redemptive, sacrificial heroism. What he fails to understand is that the universe is destined to kick his ass no matter what he does. The Wabewalker is arrogant enough to believe in his sweet, clueless American way that he can “fix” history and make everything better. He’s likewise about to get a swift kick in the ass to disabuse him of that notion. Oedipus the King, Hamlet, and Trinity all in fact share a protagonist who’s deluded enough to believe he can prevent or correct a monstrosity that should not be: a son married to his mother in Oedipus; a brother who has committed fratricide and married his sister-in-law in Hamlet; the atomic bomb in Trinity. The joke’s on them. The universe is, as Trinity‘s climactic text implies and as a little game called Zork once stated outright, “self-contained and self-maintaining.”

So, are we left with nothing more than a sick cosmic joke? An essential component of the Aristotelian conception of tragedy is the hero who is redeemed at last through his suffering. Where is the Wabewalker’s redemption? Those of us who play Trinity today can of course take comfort in the fact that what Moriarty saw as inevitable did not come to pass. Instead a hero emerged named Mikhail Gorbachev who, it turned out, actually was capable of breaking the tragic cycle and just possibly saving the world in the way that Oppenheimer, Carter, the Wabewalker, and so many others were not. Because of him life did not imitate Trinity‘s art.

But playing the Gorbachev card is kind of cheating, isn’t it? Is there redemption to be found within Trinity without recourse to external events? I’m not sure I know how to answer this question, how to describe or explain the way that Trinity makes me feel, but I’ll try.

The ancient Greeks talked about something called the “kairos moment,” the orgiastic instance when physis wells up and Great Change happens. Call it God time if you prefer; call it the ineffable transcendence. At that moment we’re at one with the universe, at one with time. The time is no longer out of joint; we’re living in time, oblivious to it. Those scientists in the New Mexico desert experienced a kairos moment when they saw their gadget explode — so awful and so awe-full. Somehow, in a way nobody has ever adequately described and that I certainly can’t begin to, we can also experience a vicarious kairos time at the culminating moment of tragedy, stare into the abyss and come away redeemed. It’s not about seeking redemption for Oedipus or Hamlet or the Wakewalker. It’s redemption for us.

When Nietzsche wrote of a wheel of time, of the Eternal Recurrence, it wasn’t an exercise in nihilism. Just the opposite. He was looking for a way to escape from the tyranny of linear chronology, from the eternal tragedy of the human condition, which is to live out of joint with time, always casting our mental gaze forward or backward, almost never living in the Eternal Now that is Life. If you’re like me, maybe you feel a bit wistful from time to time when you watch your pets play or eat or love, completely in the moment. They have something we can only touch occasionally, unpredictably. And yet it’s important to try. Because even if the world is headed to hell, even if the missiles are going to fly tomorrow, we have the Now. Because even if our individual Books of Hours are already completely written and we can’t do a damn thing about any of it, we still have the Now. Inside Trinity, we wind up after the supreme futility of the sabotage that wasn’t quite the sabotage we thought it was back in the Kensington Gardens. Okay, fair enough. Let’s take a stroll, feel the sun on our skin, enjoy the happy babble of life around us. Who cares if this is the last moment ever? It’s a moment, isn’t it? Pity to waste it. Anyway, last I checked there was a soccer ball and a perambulator and an umbrella to be gathered…


The XYZZY Awards

Best Supplemental Materials is now Best Use of Multimedia

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at February 26, 2015 03:01 AM

Back in 2010, the XYZZYs changed up the awards roster, creating (among other things) the new category Best Supplemental Materials. Based on community feedback, the award was specifically crafted to focus on material outside the work proper – predominantly feelies and books.

There are some historical reasons for that focus, but these don’t seem as relevant to games being made now. In an age where IF is overwhelmingly distributed by download – which has been the case for over two decades – feelies are inevitably a little anachronistic. A really cool anachronism, to be sure – but it’s tough to justify as the centre of a category, or to expect that they’ll appear in a wealth of games each year.

As such, the award has always been a little bit uncomfortably apples-and-oranges. Nobody would really deny that Aaron Reed’s Creating Interactive Fiction with Inform 7 was deserving of the inaugral 2010 award – but at the same time, its competitors included a teaser image for the as-yet-unreleased Counterfeit Monkey – nice work, to be sure, but odd to weigh on the same scales. Supplemental Materials has had the lowest first-round voting of any category; I think this indicates that it’s confusing and doesn’t quite fit with what’s needed. Some voters have used it to vote for in-game art, which – as was the case with Best Use of Medium before it was split in two – suggests a need that wasn’t being clearly addressed. And text-entry always presents a problem about how specific or general a nomination should be.

So this year, we’re renaming the award Best Use of Multimedia and making it a drop-down choice rather than a text-entry one. (We’re conscious of the irony that this bold, forward-thinking word choice puts us into the bright new era of 1997.) The award covers all aspects of media used by a game, beyond straight text within the game itself: sound and graphics, presentation and fancy text effects, feelies, tie-in novels, whatever. This does exclude work in the IF sphere that wasn’t tied to a specific game – though if Creating Interactive Fiction with Inform 7 was released today, you could still justify it under Sand-dancer.

Stay tuned for the first round. (We are running behind a little this year, for which I apologise.)

Emily Short

Going to GDC / Seattle. Want to get coffee?

by Emily Short at February 26, 2015 03:00 AM

GDC is nearly upon us! I will be speaking as part of the Design Microtalks session, but there are also a number of other IF-related highlights. (I’ve put a list of the IF/narrative talks that looked particularly intriguing after the fold.)

This trip means I’ll be in the Bay Area March 1-7 and then in Seattle March 7-14. My schedule is filling in, but there are still some slots here and there. Necessarily I put a priority on meeting with clients, friends, and students looking for mentorship, but every year I’ve met at least a couple awesome new people who were none of the above. So if you’re in the area and you’d like to get together and talk — about that totally unfair review I gave your game five years ago, about possible collaborations, about your dreams for the future of interactive narrative, about whatever common interest leads you to read what I write in the first place — please do ping me and I’ll see what I can do.

As promised, cool-looking GDC talks:

Monday, March 2 | 11:15am – 11:40am
Harvesting Interactive Fiction
Speaker: Heather Albano (Choice of Games LLC)
Heather is talking about what can be learned from the last several years of IF production.

Monday, March 2 | 3:35pm – 4:00pm
The Design in Narrative Design
Speaker: Jurie Horneman (Independent)
Jurie is talking about something very dear to my heart: the intertwined nature of systems design and narrative design.

Tuesday, March 3 | 4:30pm – 5:30pm
When Story is the Gameplay: Multi-Genre Writing for Telltale Games
Speakers: Kevin Bruner (Telltale Games), Ryan Kaufman (Telltale Games), Pierre Shorette (Telltale Games), Mark Darin (Telltale Games), Tom Bissell (Freelance)
…looks like a good time.

Wednesday, March 4 | 5:00pm – 6:00pm
Adventures in Text: Innovating in Interactive Fiction
Speaker: Jon Ingold (inkle)
Background on the Sorcery! series and 80 Days, on both the design and technical side.

Wednesday, March 4 | 5:00pm – 6:00pm
Thinking About People: Designing Games for Social Simulation
Speaker: Mitu Khandaker-Kokoris (The Tiniest Shark Ltd.)
Another topic near and dear to my heart, unfortunately the same time as Jon’s talk; I’m going to wind up going to one of these and watching the other one on GDC Vault, most likely.

Also Wednesday afternoon, Lost Levels is a free, GDC-adjacent unconference that always contains some really interesting material in counterpoint to the more commercial aspects of the industry.

February 25, 2015


Dating Sim: Coming Out on Top

by Amanda Wallace at February 25, 2015 10:01 PM

coming out on top

Disclaimer: Coming Out on Top is a NSFW game, so the review will include references to the actions inside the game that are also NSFW. If that makes you uncomfortable then this isn’t the review for you. 

You continue pushing into him, his colon snuggling your dick..

Coming Out on Top is the perfect dating sim if you’re looking for more penis in your life.

When I found out that Coming Out on Top was written by a woman, I was not surprised. It comes from the same world as thousands of pieces of slash fanfiction, a genre commonly written for and by women. Coming Out on Top is the Harry Potter/Supernatural College AU slash fanfiction that you wrote when you were in college and were feeling a bit racy.

coming out on top

The world is populated by myriad of attractive men, all muscular and either bearded or not to your specifications. They also all happen to be both gay and sexually interested in you (with some persuading). They’re all sexually compatible too, no getting into bed and finding out that your partner is a top when you are a top. You have no refractory period, everyone is clean and STD free (whether you toggle condoms on or off). Simultaneous orgasms. No matter who you screw, the beautiful neighbor upstairs with the tats or the floppy haired best friend, everything will ultimately show up under a sexually rose-colored glass.

The only thing that Coming Out on Top truly fails at in this regard is a diversity of options. There are no bears, even though the game offers you chest hair and beards they’re light, bare dusters of hair.  In that sense, it’s almost clinical — There’s a progression of naked, underwear models with slight variations on personality but basically identical body types. They all have inexplicable six packs, the kind of physical definition that is impossible without a daily gym workout they all somehow manage to sneak in.  This game has the sexual diversity of two Ken dolls being smashed together (if the Ken dolls came with porn-star penises).

For more on the subject of how Coming Out on Top generalizes the queer form, you can read Todd Harper’s fantastic Paste article on the subject. 

The game is fun, don’t get me wrong. There is humorous dialogue and connections to be made at Orlin University, but it departs from real human interaction in favor of bored stereotypes and perfect, beautiful specimens of gay manhood. There is definitely a market for that — rigid muscles and “turgid” penises abound, and if you want to collect images of sexually attractive men then this is the game for you.

She’s moaning about holes being filled or somesuch. You think maybe she should pursue a career in road maintenance.

The writing in the game often falls on the tired cliches of pornographic writing. Men “shoot out ropes of semen,” and men’s cocks strain against their zippers. It’s not the most original script in the world, mostly because it relies not just on the accepted language of pornography but also on the stereotypes of characters. There’s the empty headed jock, the morale-teacher-you’d-like-to-bang, and the dopey best friend. It doesn’t challenge any of your conceptions about the medium, except that all of the characters that you can romance are dudes and you are also. If anything this allows the writers to capitalize on some of the tropes of gay media as well — the closeted jock or the homophobic military man who’s hiding the fact that he’s closeted.

Ultimately, Coming Out on Top is a fun bit of media that is perfect if you’re looking for a bit more interactive gay porn in your life. Outside of that, it is little more than the dating sim equivalent of cotton candy.

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Thinbasic Adventure Builder

TAB Retro-Adventure Project

by catventure at February 25, 2015 05:00 PM

I am returning to this Windows Only adventure game project after some time and have recently released a minor update.

I have also updated the TAB youtube playlist:


February 24, 2015

These Heterogenous Tasks

ParserComp: Sunburn

by Sam Kabo Ashwell at February 24, 2015 10:01 PM

sunburnContinuing with ParserComp: Sunburn (Caelyn Sandel). This game deals centrally with harassment and abduction, and the review obviously will too, so let’s start out behind a cut.

Story: Vampire Laura has been kidnapped by some douchebag she dated once, and trapped in a room that will soon be exposed to sunlight. She has to escape the room and then figure out what to do about aforementioned douchebag.

There’s a little inconsistency with one of the endings – if Laura just runs away, it suggests that the cops hate vampires and it’s a bad idea to go to them. But going to the cops is presented as a reasonable option after biting the guy, which seems unintuitive. (I can come up with a handful of perfectly good explanations for this – maybe Laura just feels more optimistic about things when properly fed, maybe the legal system in this world tends to look more kindly on cases where violent self-defence takes place – but if it’s not present in the work, it’s kind of a problem.)

More generally, there’s a built-in problem with the X-Men formula for talking about oppression – with paranormals representing whatever marginalised group you want to be talking about – because the thing about paranormals is that they’re more powerful than regular people. Your standard-issue vampire, in particular, is solidly in the oppressor camp – aristocratic, inherently more powerful than humans both socially and physically, reliant upon predating the weak. Even relatively sympathetic vampire stories emphasize that it takes a huge struggle for vampires to eschew murdering and controlling people; and this means that even relatively progressive readings of the trope tend to wander into awful territory (the vampire in A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night murders a homeless person because, y’know, if you have to murder someone…)

And in a lot of stories we can gloss over this to some extent, in the same way that we can agree to sometimes ignore how superhero stories are kind of premised on the idea that vigilante violence would be totally fine if it were carried out by really powerful vigilantes. But this is a story that’s aiming at relatively serious material, and doing so via the well-trodden trope of the Feminine as Monstrous, so it’s tough to write this off as incidental.

A lot of this boils down to: this story would be stronger if we had a more developed picture of Laura, both as a person and in terms of what ‘vampire’ really entails in this world. Early on we get this:

Looking good, Laura. At least … you assume you look good. You’re still dressed in your date clothes, and you think you’ve still got makeup on, too. You’re a little underfed right now, but you’re rocking the skinny look.

And I thought, OK, this is a start, this is looking to be a particular character with her own voice – but that doesn’t ever have a chance to get expanded upon. So I think this has something of the same problem I had with Impostor Syndrome: that the better I know a fictional character the more deeply I’m able to care about them. 3.

Writing: This is largely functional, deliver-info-and-get-out-of-the-way stuff. I think that the default parser tone takes over a little more than is optimal, carrying over to sequences where it’s rather less appropriate:

Leaving Paul no time to react, you let your instincts to take control and lunge forward teeth-first. He tries to raise the crossbow, but you knock it to the side and sink your fangs into his neck. He struggles to break free, but your bloodlust lends you a desperate animal strength.

As Paul’s lifeblood flows into your body, you feel your strength
returning. The beast inside you urges you to drain him dry and cast his shriveled body aside, but you steel yourself, tear your mouth away from his skin, and drop his body to the floor.

This isn’t bad by any means – it’s not as if it fails to mention any emotional responses – but it ends up feeling a little perfunctory, a little too flat for the kind of mood it’s representing. There’s a degree of reliance on stock metaphor and phrasing – ‘the beast inside you’, ‘a desperate animal strength’ – to the point where it feels a little bit like ‘c’mon, you know how this kind of scene goes.’ As a climactic moment of triumph, it’s… OK.

I wondered a little whether this might have been intended as the point – to tame horrific fears by couching them in the calming conventions of stock-parserese, in a world where every problem can be reduced to a puzzle (I strongly suspect that for at least some players, the impersonal, gentle-paced, anodyne, methodical default mood of trad parser represents an active good).

The other thing about the writing is that the villain of the piece, Paul, represents a category of actually-existing people whom, were they a fictional creation, would be laughed out of the slushpile for being too ludicrously villainous and blinkered. The tack here is very boiled-down: given his premise, he’s exactly what you’d expect. Which makes sense – you could hardly lampoon or exaggerate beyond reality, and making him sympathetic would be beside the point – but it does make him essentially dull. (And not even jarringly dull, in a banality-of-evil loving-father-is-death-camp-guard way). There are one or two well-observed details – the relation between fetishisation, icky conditional acceptance and contempt that is going on with Paul’s attitude to vampires – but to a large degree this is just, yeah, this thing exists and is shit.

(It’s a decent detail that you don’t actually have to listen to his rant, but because of game-y convention – generally if something is plot-significant it’ll contain details that are play-significant, too – I only realised this in retrospect.)


Puzzles: The puzzles are simple dry-goods affairs, not completely trivial but a little too straightforward to be satisfying. It’s effective at making play run smoothly, with well-deployed pointers – in fact, so much so that it undermines the pacing a bit, because I didn’t really have time to feel threatened or trapped. (Compare, say, Marika the Offering.) In one instance I wasn’t quite sure why I was doing something until after I had done it: I sprayed the ID card with laminate spray because, well, I had laminate spray and it was the only suitable object, and only then thought ‘maybe I could use this to jimmy the latch.’ 3.

Theme: Sunlight presents the immediate threat. On the other hand, ‘vampire is trapped/imprisoned by enemies in space where sunlight will fall’ is a stock vampire-story element, and this is not an unusual use of it. So it’s a significant use of the theme, but not a deeply-engaged one. 3.

Technical: This is basically fine, although it’s a small game with simple puzzles and a stripped-down environment, so there’s not a huge amount to really go wrong. There’s an unimplemented synonym or two (‘fireball’). There is, now that I go back to look, a nicely-organised hint system. Competently executed, but not a stand-out. 3.

Overall: This felt like a piece intentionally designed for small, manageable objectives; it’s all capably made, but I found it hard to find any one thing to get excited about. 3.

The Gameshelf: IF

Sweet formatting for Inform 7 source code

by Andrew Plotkin at February 24, 2015 05:17 AM

One of my limited, high-level Kickstarter rewards was "The Hadean Lands source code, in book form". I had these printed in January, I mailed them out last week, and some of my backers have already received them. They're a hit!

@zarfeblong Hadean Lands source book looks fantastic. If I7 source is readable in book form, this is about as good as I'd expect it to look. (-- @dan_sanderson)

My Hadean Lands Source Codex book arrived. Wow - really nicely done. I'm in love with this strange artifact. Thanks @zarfeblong! (-- @telehack)

@zarfeblong Book received, really nice! What service did you use? Did I7 output source that nice-looking or did you post-process a lot? (-- @dan_schmidt)

That last is an excellent question. Everybody deserves nicely-printed source code, so here's how I did it.

(Spoiler: here's my Python script.)

Inform 7 syntax-coloring is a solved problem... sort of. The I7 IDE does it, right? Syntax-coloring plugins have been contributed for several editors and tools. But, of course, none of them were exactly what I wanted. So I had to grab a shovel and start digging.

(Maybe I should avoid that metaphor, given the past month of Boston weather. Hm.)

The most prominent syntax-coloring tool that I'm aware of is Pygments. GitHub uses it. Pygments picked up Inform (6 and 7) support in release 2.0, which is why you can visit a GitHub page like this Kerkerkruip test extension and see nicely-colored source code.

...well, sort of nice. There are some obvious problems here. The latest version of Pygments does a better job (I guess GitHub is using a pre-release version?) but it's still not ideal.

For I7, I want just a few text styles:

  • Ordinary code
  • Comments -- italics
  • Strings -- boldface
  • Interpolations (square brackets) inside strings -- bold-italics
  • Headers -- large font
  • Inform 6 inclusions -- fixed-width font

It's a little trickier because I6 inclusions can themselves contain comments and strings, so you also need fixed-italics and fixed-bold. That's still just eight styles total.

(Yes, you can further color I6 inclusions into seventeen styles based on the details of I6 syntax, but that's a terrible idea.) (I did toy with distinguishing I6 dictionary words from I6 strings, which is important for I6 programming, but I decided not to.)

Marking up I7 code this way is only moderately fiddly. (Fiddliest detail: I7 comments can be nested!) I've already written a BBEdit plugin that does it, so I just had to port the algorithm to Python and build a Pygments lexer class.

Problem solved... sort of. See, I decided to use Pygments's RTF formatter -- I wanted to generate RTF and then import it into AppleWorks. (I mean ClarisWorks. I mean iWorks. Oh, never mind--) What I found was that Pygments's RTF assumes a text-editor-like display -- all the same font, all the same font size. I had to hack around and repurpose some style attributes to get the effect I wanted.

Of course RTF is a terrible, stupid legacy format, but the Pygments people have done the hard work of figuring it out.

So, problem now solved? Well...

Here's the script I built to do the job: It contains my custom I7 parser, my custom RTF generator, my custom stylesheet, and some code to read in a bunch of files and glue them together. (HL comes as a set of nine files -- a master and eight extensions. I7 prefers one giant file, but I can't work that way.)

The script can generate colorful RTF, or plain black with only the font variations to distinguish styles. Obviously, for the book, I went monochrome.

Loading this into PagesWhatever went smoothly -- praise the little hobgoblins of consistency. However, I still had to do some hand-tuning. I added page breaks between each files. I also marked the title line of each file with a custom style, so that Pages would generate a table of contents for me. I added all the necessary fore-matter -- title page, copyright page, introduction. And then I spent a while tweaking margins and tab stops and font sizes so that the thing wasn't quite so much of a brick.

Generate a PDF, package it up, send it off to Whoops, nearly forgot the cover art... And then wait for the proof copies to arrive.

The proof copies arrived, and -- wow, they were bricks. Just because A4 paper size is a valid Lulu print option doesn't mean you want to ship thirty of them across the country. Or lift one of them, for that matter.

Also, there was an extra blank page after the title page. Yes that matters! My copyright page was on the right-hand side! All my page numbers were in the gutter!

I guess it goes to show that PDF is also a terrible, stupid legacy format. I verified with customer support that they had the same PDF I sent, and it didn't appear to have an extra blank page when they looked at it, but when it came out of their printer... oh well.

I had to reformat anyway, because A4 was hopeless. I knocked down the font size and the page size. (I settled on comic-book trim, 6.6"x10.25".) I messed with the margins some more. Magically, when I sent in the new PDF, the extra-page error went away. I'll never know why.

That's the story. Now I have Hadean Lands books. Twenty-nine lucky backers soon will too.

February 23, 2015


Dating Sim: Always Remember Me

by Gingy Gibson at February 23, 2015 11:01 PM

always remember me

I’ll preface this review by saying that Always Remember Me isn’t what I would specifically call a visual novel, but rather a dating sim with visual novel elements mixed in.  The story bits are scattered throughout Always Remember Me, tucked away in random locations that you stumble into at specific points in the game, and you’ll spend more time trying to woo the boy of your choice than reading about your feelings or what’s going on story-wise.  So if you’re looking for a pure visual novel, look elsewhere.

always remember me

Always Remember Me starts out with our protagonist Amarantha (thankfully shortened to Amy by most) and her current boyfriend Aaron talking about how much Aaron’s dad hates Amy for simply existing.  The two decide to go for ice cream on Aaron’s motorcycle, sans helmets or protective gear.  They make it as far as a traffic light before a car plows into them and understandably sends both of them straight to the hospital.  Through the miracle of plot armor what should have been a fatal accident manages only to injure Amy and Aaron; Amy hasjust sustained minor bruises, but Aaron now suffers from a tragic case of amnesia that has erased his memories specifically from the last few years, including everything he knows about Amy (gasp).  Amy now has to try and help Aaron slowly regain his memories so that he can remember her, and they can live happily ever after.  She only has until the end of the summer to do so, however, for reasons the game never adequately explains.

A game focused on trying to rebuild a relationship with an amnesiac boyfriend would have made for a great story all on its own, with the game exploring all the ways one could try and fail to start the relationship over from square one.  But that’s not what Winter Wolves decided to do, and instead went down a path that honestly made me question my morals as a human being.  Amy has another choice, other than helping Aaron recall lost memories, you see.  Rather than sticking with Aaron to try and rebuild their several years old relationship while he’s trapped in the hospital, she can abandon him to the clutches of his crazy ex-girlfriend and date one of three other boys in town to find true love in just under three months.  There’s Lawrence the sensitive coworker, Hugh the wise-cracking artist, and Eddy the young doctor who is treating Aaron at the hospital.  After the first week or so in-game, Amy can essentially just ignore Aaron for the remainder of the playthrough without any sign of remorse from her (which I was quite happy to do, and only felt slightly guilty about).

always remember me

Regardless of which boy you pick, all pursuits are the same.  Winter Wolves’ games typically have an affection meter for each character to show how strong or weak your relationship is with them, and Always Remember Me is no exception.  Every boy starts out with 5 out of 100 points of affection towards you.  Successfully talking to a boy will gain you 1 point, and failing to talk will result in no points gained or lost.  However, every once in a while you will encounter special events that will ask you what to do with a character in a certain scenario.  Usually the answer you need to pick is pretty straightforward, and picking the right answer will net you 5 points (except for the final encounter, which gets you 10), but picking the wrong answer will lose those points.  The goal is to pick one boy and get his affection meter all the way up to 100.

At the same time that you’re trying to earn a boy’s affection, you also need to work on honing specific traits.  Each boy has one trait (culture, creativity, romance, or discipline) that he particularly likes, so which boy you pursue should also dictate which trait you pursue as well.  For some reason the traits max out at 99 instead of 100, and these points can be frustratingly difficult to earn.  We’ll talk more about that later.

always remember me

There are 9 possible endings to Always Remember Me: 4 regular endings earned by maxing out the affection meter for each boy (usually involving you and the guy of your dreams at an ice cream parlor), 4 special endings earned by maxing out both the affection meter and the trait he has an affinity for (usually you landing a job that complements your man’s career), and 1 ending earned by not maxing out anyone’s affection meter which results in Amy ending her summer alone.  Earning 1 of the 8 good endings gets you a special ending scene, but getting the bad ending will allow you to restart the game with some of your trait points carried over to increase your chances of winning the second time around.  Not a bad mechanic to have, particularly for first time players.

Some dating sims or visual novels will try to steer you towards only interacting with one boy after a certain point at the risk of losing points with him or getting a bad ending if you talk to other boys, because heaven knows talking to more than one guy makes you an unlovable slut.

Another nice mechanic of this game is not having to worry about interactions with one boy affecting your relationship with another.  Some dating sims or visual novels will try to steer you towards only interacting with one boy after a certain point at the risk of losing points with him or getting a bad ending if you talk to other boys, because heaven knows talking to more than one guy makes you an unlovable slut.  Always Remember Me doesn’t care which boys you talk to or how often, though you’ll only get the special events for the boy you spend the most time with.  However, time is very limited in the game; you only have from June 8 to September 6 to win someone’s heart, and that flies by much faster than you would think.  Even though you can interact with the other boys, you simply do not have the time to focus on more than one of them unless you want to risk getting the bad ending.

With the exception of Aaron, you can only talk to each boy once per day (You can both talk to and read to Aaron each day).  Sometimes these talks will succeed and earn you an affection point, and sometimes they will fail and earn you nothing but a loss of morale and energy.  It’s completely random, so you need to try talking to the boy of your choice every day you can.  When you’re not romancing the boys directly, you’re attempting to make yourself more appealing to them by doing activities that boost one or more of the four traits.  Exercising at a gym boosts discipline, writing a poem boosts creativity and/or romance, etc.  The game tells you what activities will boost which traits before you do them, and what the penalty is for failure (usually losing morale and energy).  Going to different locations from your map at different times of day dictates what activities you can and cannot do.  Be mindful that Always Remember Me divides the day into seven time periods, some activities are only available during the day or night, and some activities will only take 1 period of time while others need 2.  The game doesn’t say how long these activities take, however, so you will have to try to remember on your own.  Spend your time wisely, and you can net the boy of your dreams!

Spend your time wisely and you can net the boy of your dreams!

That’s the gist of how you play.  So, how is Always Remember Me as a game?

I’ll start out with the positives, but even these have negatives of their own.  I really did like the art in this game.  The the sprites had beautiful facial expressions and body language whether they were joyful or miserable, and it was very colorful yet tasteful.  The background art was also lovely, but the map artwork should have been redone to make certain locations much more obvious to the player’s eyes.  There’s nothing to make the buildings that you can visit stand out from the ones that are just on the map for decoration.  It took me until my third playthrough to discover that there was a nightclub you could visit, and I only found it because one of the boys invited me there for a date.

always remember me

The writing is ok.  Some of the characters are better developed than others, though none were particularly memorable for me.  At least Amy came across as likeable; nothing is worse than a dating sim with a protagonist that you hope ends up alone and miserable.  Aaron especially fell flat to me; I played through both his routes and still cannot tell you a single thing about that boy as a person except that he likes books and cats, not unlike Amy’s dear old Aunt Gwen.  I’m not sure if his character was handicapped to allow for the appearance of his father and ex-girlfriend in his storyline, or if they were added later because he was so weak as a character.  Bottom line, I had no interest in the boy who was supposed to be the love of my life and quickly abandoned him for better prospects.

Bottom line, I had no interest in he boy who was supposed to be the love of my life and quickly abandoned him for better prospects.

There’s not much to say about the music either.  I was hoping that such a pretty game could afford decent music, but I could only hear 5 distinct tracks throughout the entire game, only 1 of which was an actual song instead of a soundbyte on a loop.  It’s not awful music by any stretch of the imagination, but it got old quickly.  If you’re wondering about voice acting, the only voice is Amy’s which either cheers or whines when you succeed or fail at a task.  Personally I found it rather annoying and muted it from my second playthrough onwards.

The music and writing could both be forgiven if the gameplay was incredibly fun, but it wasn’t.  Honestly, I found Always Remember Me to be pretty boring and monotonous after a while.  You start out every weekday at your job at the ice cream parlor for two turns, then you are free to do as you please.  This usually involves visiting your desired boy followed by doing an activity to boost a trait, maybe writing or jogging or cooking or blogging.  Sounds fun, right?


Remember how I said you start out with 5 points with each boy and need to get that up to 100?  Well each encounter only gets you 1 point if successful.  You click “talk to [name]” and see whether it was a success or failure.  No actual dialogue takes place.  Either you had a nice chat or they were too busy/distracted to see you.  And you have to do that again, and again, and again, watching as your affection meter creeps up towards 100 at a painfully slow pace.  It got really old really fast.

Meanwhile, you also have to get your boy’s favorite trait up to 99 if you want the best ending for him.  It’s the same mechanic as talking: you click “practice writing” to boost culture or creativity, and hope for a success pop-up notice.  If you fail, no points.  But even if you succeed, you might only get 1 or 2 points for just a single trait, not both.  I once spent 4 turns on a Saturday practicing my writing and only came away with 1 point for creativity but 3 for culture.  The only time you’re guaranteed to get points is if you take a writing or art class, and you have to pay for those with money you might need to buy gym memberships or buffs at the mall.  There’s no time to try activities that won’t get you the points you need, but why would you want to try them anyway if the only thing you get is a success/failure message with a different chibi sprite beneath it?  Oh, and occasionally there were bugs in the activities.  I remember going to a nightclub to boost energy and morale but got a random creativity point too (but just once).  In another event that was supposed to boost my romance, I instead got a culture bonus that wasn’t even listed as a possibility.  So even if you do the right activities and succeed at them, you still won’t get the right points all the time.

So that’s how you spend your days in Always Remember Me.  Click to earn money, find boy, click to talk, find activity, click to do, go to bed and see a screen pop up to show your changes in stats.  There’s no variety at all except for when special events occur with a boy, and we get a bit of actual dialogue with choices to make.  I lived for those parts of the game, but sadly they were few and far-between (probably because you get such nice affection bonuses from them).  Mostly it was just clicking and glancing at the game’s calendar to make sure I wouldn’t fail and have to do a whole summer all over again.

Ideally, a good dating sim should revolve around the main character’s story and struggles as she attempts to date someone, so that the relationship is part of a bigger story.

Overall, this is just a very weak dating sim.  Ideally, a good dating sim should revolve around the main character’s story and struggles as she attempts to date someone, so that the relationship is part of a bigger story.  Always Remember Me forgoes any part of Amy’s story that isn’t directly connected to the boy she’s currently pursuing in favor of having you run around town to buff skills or hit the conversation button.  And none of the boys are really interesting enough to hold up a story with just their dates with Amy.  If more playing time could have been sacrificed in favor of talking about Amy’s hopes or dreams, I would’ve been ecstatic.  But apparently the developers couldn’t risk plot getting in the way of game mechanics, regardless of how boring those mechanics may get after the first hour of playing.

Getting all 9 endings took me about 4 and half hours, but I read a little faster than most so let’s round the play time up to 5 hours.  Did I want to play the game until I got all of those endings?  Yes.  Do I have any desire to go back and play it again?  No.  Would I recommend it to people?  That depends.  It’s a nice enough dating sim to get people into the genre with reasonably friendly mechanics, but I’d still try to find something a little more entertaining first.  I definitely wouldn’t recommend paying the requested $18 for this, particularly since I’ve been able to find much longer and better developed dating sims for free.  If you can get it on sale for cheap, it’s not the worst thing to pick up.  But it’s definitely far from the best.

always remember me

Always Remember Me is one of those dating sims you play when you’re just starting to dip your toes into the visual novel genre and want to play something simple and accessible.  I certainly liked it once upon a time, so perhaps other players new to dating sims will like it as well.  Amy is cute, shopping for skill buffs was fun, and you certainly felt a sense of accomplishment when getting each ending. The problem is that I’m not a beginner anymore, and I’ve played so many better dating sims than this (some of them actually made by the Winter Wolves company).  No cute protagonist or pretty ending cutscene is enough to save Always Remember Me from a difficult map, boring boys, bland music and writing, and incredibly boring game mechanics.  I’m glad I played this game again, but can’t see myself picking this back up anytime soon.  Final recommendation: get it on sale if you’re new to the genre.  Otherwise, find something else.

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Sibyl Moon Games

Antholojam 1 (including Canned Rice) is live!

by Carolyn VanEseltine at February 23, 2015 06:01 PM

Remember “Does Canned Rice Dream of a Napkin Heap?”, our digital storytelling game? It’s live now, along with the 14 other sci-fi-themed games created for Antholojam I!

Pay what you want to download Antholojam I (support your local devs!)
Alternately, play all 15 games online for free!


The premise of Canned Rice: Two aliens, a robot, and a canine cosmonaut walk into a spaceport bar, and to convince them to pay for your drinks, you have to entertain them with a tall tale of galactic intrigue. Your audience will ask clarifying questions as you tell the story, and at the end, they’ll decide whether to pay your bill or sentence you to parsecs of spacedishes.


You also get a transcript of your story at the end. Here’s one of my favorites from Twitter: the definitive story of Huey Lewis and the News.

The rest of the anthology includes…

  • Tonight Dies the Moon: From the author of HORSE MASTER: THE GAME OF HORSE MASTERY, comes a Twine game about life during war between the Earth and Moon in the year 2000. Fall in love, subsistence farm, make spreadsheets, and wear colorful jumpsuits!
  • Killing Time at Lightspeed: On a time-dilated voyage away from earth, one minute of your time can stretch for years back home. There’s only one thing to do: Browse social media, of course.
  • Steal My Artificial Heart: On an android moon colony, a brutal murder of a metal madam seeds mystery in a cobalt-collar bar. Piece it together in this beautifully-illustrated neo-noir whodunit.
  • Fire Theft: A government agent is sent to investigate a power spike in an industrial district, only to find a warehouse playing home to a group of runaway AIs working towards… Something.
  • Planet of a Poisoned Past: Discover the true purpose of your mission as a member of a research and mining team sent to extract Ultra-Steelium from an alien planet in the far-off year of 2003.
  • Valkyries of Vela: Keep your rayguns at the ready and join the Valkyries in this intergalactic card-based dungeon crawler.
  • The Absence of Is: In a future world where humanity has developed the technology to explore the fringes of consciousness, a group of researchers takes the first journey to record the afterlife.
  • Intergalactic Ambassador: Negotiate with alien lifeforms entering our solar system to determine their intent, build bridges, or torch them outright.
  • The Lost Chrononaut: Craft a unique story as you pursue your destiny in this card-based time-travel adventure.
  • A Call to Mars: A signal from another planet brings Earth’s nations together to send five representatives to alien soil. Met with a desert out of a dream, how will they reconcile with their environment and each other?
  • A Planet Wakes: Work your way towards a space elevator off a barren alien planet in this base-building terraforming sim.
  • Voice of Vamana: An lifeless alien ship, the first proof that we are not alone in the universe, enters our solar system on a collision course with the sun… And you are the first person to intercept it.
  • Orison of Mercury: As a deep-space miner, you are duty-bound to extract and deliver a payload with limited resources. Your computer’s interception of several anomalous transmissions may tempt you otherwise.
  • Space Journey!: A tabletop improv game where you and your friends star in a popular pulp sci-fi space exploration show… Where the director has lost the script. The show must go on!

My sincere thanks to Zoe Quinn and Alex Lifschitz for running this project. It was inspirational, experimental, educational, and overall amazing, and I hope there will be more Antholojams in the future.

Go play the games!


News: ParserComp 2015 Judging Open

by Amanda Wallace at February 23, 2015 05:01 PM


ParserComp 2015 is the inaugural year for a parser specific interactive fiction competition. The competition began judging on February 16 and will continue to March 14. The competition features fourteen games from a variety of different parsers.

ParserComp is designed specifically for parser games, meaning that only games that use that form of input will be permitted. The competition defines a parser as:

For the purpose of this competition, a parser game is one that accepts typed input, processes that input with a parser, and interprets the parsed commands within a world model.

All games were made during the November 1 through February 1 window and include fourteen total pieces. Judging is open to anyone who is not directly participating in the competition, so if you want to make your voice heard you can head over to the ParserComp page here.  All the games are available for zip download there, with a few having the option to play online.

The games included in ParserComp 15 are:

  • Mean Streets by BadDog
  • Six Gray Rats Crawl Up the Pillow by Boswell Cain
  • Chlorophyll by Steph Cherrywell
  • Terminator Chaser by Bruno Dias
  • Down, the Serpent and the Sun by Chandler Groover
  • Delphina’s House by Alice Grove
  • Oppositely Opal by Buster Hudson
  • An Adventurer’s Backyard by lyricasylum
  • Endless Sands by Hamish McIntyre
  • Lockdown by Richard Otter
  • A Long Drink by Owen Parks
  • Sunburn by Caelyn Sandel
  • Three Days of Night by spaceflounder
  • Terminator by Matt Weiner

If you’re interested in judging, the window is open til March 14th on the ParserComp page.

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Emily Short

ParserComp: Endless Sands

by Emily Short at February 23, 2015 04:00 AM

ParserComp is a competition for parser-based IF games only, run by Carolyn VanEseltine and continuing through the 14th of March. It is designed to encourage this form of game, and also to provide detailed feedback: games are ranked on multiple categories, and judges must submit textual feedback along with their scores. More judges are welcome, so please check it out and share your own thoughts as well.

Discussion here on Endless Sands, a shortish, lightly comic timed puzzle game with multiple solutions.

Endless Sands (Hamish McIntyre) is a shortish, lightly comic timed puzzle game with multiple solutions. You’re a vampire who has offended the wrong vampire queen, and in a kind of mafia hit, she’s had her goons take you out into the desert, where you will certainly die at sunrise if you don’t find shelter. There are several potential shelters, but all of them are challenging to enter for some reason, so you’re best advised to pick one and work on getting in before dawn. It’s open-ended and sandboxy, but easy enough that I found it quite possible to solve on my first try.

There are a few patchy aspects to the implementation — in particular, the spacing of text is a bit peculiar, and in the ending I got, the epilogue was all printed in the boldface usually reserved for YOU HAVE DIED messages.

I also felt that the story could have been more compelling: the vampire queen is angry with the PC for basically no reason, and there is minimal background about their life before this point, which leaves them as a blank slate; so I didn’t have much emotional context to help me care about my character. As a rule, I am more heavily invested in characters who seem to be in the middle of having a life when their story begins — that is, they have goals, a context, tasks that they’re working on, relationships — whereas a lot of characters in games seem to have been born 30 seconds before the story began. If they’re not amnesiacs, they’re the next worst thing, people without any histories worth remembering. This particular game is by no means the most serious offender in this area, but it attracted my attention on this front because the opening overtly side-steps the opportunity to characterize the PC:

It’s so dark, you can’t see a thing. Where are you? How did you get here? And what the hell is that buzzing noise? Let’s see, what do you remember? Well, you remember your name, your favourite colour, and the fact that you’re a vampire. Okay the main things are still there, how about more recent events? What’s the last thing you remember?

It’s a bit hazy, but you think you’d just gotten up and dressed, ready to face the night. You were getting some cereal for breakfast (it still counts as breakfast if you’re eating it at 7:00 PM, right?), then suddenly you felt a splitting pain in the back of your head. And then…

In fact this is just the beginning of a long cut-scene intro that still somehow avoids committing to very much information about the protagonist at all. (Could there be a less defining personality trait than that you eat cereal for breakfast?) At the same time, Endless Sands is not really trying for the Nameless Adventurer Who Could Be Anyone effect. The PC does have a handful of definite features besides the vampirism — a favorite band, an ill-advised tattoo — and in some sequences the game does narrate how you’re feeling about things that happen to you.

There are many positives to counterbalance these issues, though. Part of the reason the game lacks narrative pace is that the author has chosen to prioritize simulation and player freedom instead. Endless Sands models a desert in which you can see long distances, and it describes landmarks in various directions in different rooms — a rare example of this kind of behavior. The game is also tracking time carefully to determine when the sun is supposed to come up, and assigning different lengths of time to different actions, so that a conversation turn might take one minute but trudging some distance across the sand might take 5 or 10. The environment thus gains a sense of continuity and extent that is not modeled in very many text games.

I also thought it was interesting that the game explored the limitations of vampirism rather more heavily than its possible advantages. I never bit any other creature; I never turned into a bat or experienced unusual night vision or enjoyed the benefits of superhuman strength, never mesmerized anyone or sensed anyone’s presence just from the smell of their blood. My skin did not appear to be sparkly, and if I gave off an ineffable sense of vampire Cool, the game never mentioned the fact to me. I did, however, have to cope with garlic, sacred ground, and the inability to enter homes uninvited, not to mention the overarching problem that the sun might torch me as soon as it came up. It’s pretty much an anti-power fantasy.

February 22, 2015


Editor’s Note: Storycade Now Has a Tip Jar

by Amanda Wallace at February 22, 2015 09:01 PM

editors note

In the right sidebar there is now a tip jar, a PayPal donate button that will allow you to donate to Storycade.

This is a project that I do not make any money off of, and this is a product of love. Myself, and the writers who guest post, are not financially compensated for our work. This is a passion project, because we love the medium. I’ve had great opportunities to showcase fantastic writers on the site, people who really care about interactive fiction and who have something interesting to say.

tip jar

This tip jar is a way to say thanks, ideally. I’m never going to be able to quit my day job and work solely on Storycade, and that’s frankly not the point. If you like what you see, and you’re so inclined, feel free to drop a few bucks into the tip jar. Help a writer buy a cup of coffee. Or a candy bar if they’re not a coffee drinker.

If you want to donate to a specific writer, please let me know in the “Purpose” section on the PayPal donate screen. This will allow me to point the money in the right direction.

As with a tip jar in a restaurant, this is completely optional. You don’t have to donate anything and we certainly won’t think less of you for not giving money to the site. I’m not going to pester you about it on the bottom of every post.

If you have any questions or want to write a guest post on Storycade, please feel free to contact me through the Contact tab on the top bar of the site.

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February 21, 2015

Emily Short

ParserComp: Terminator Chaser

by Emily Short at February 21, 2015 01:00 PM

ParserComp is a competition for parser-based IF games only, run by Carolyn VanEseltine and continuing through the 14th of March. It is designed to encourage this form of game, and also to provide detailed feedback: games are ranked on multiple categories, and judges must submit textual feedback along with their scores. More judges are welcome, so please check it out and share your own thoughts as well.

Below, some thoughts on Terminator Chaser (not to be confused with Terminator, also entered in this comp).


Terminator Chaser (Bruno Dias). This game takes place in a mining colony on Mercury, just before sunrise; and as daytime on Mercury is going to be long (several Earth months) and brutally hot, your job is to shut the colony down for the time being, and get out. It’s a neat inversion of the “get this abandoned base working again” trope, and as you work your way around the station you learn some additional backstory, about a long running labor dispute over how to run colonies like this, and whether the management is acting in good faith. The first few puzzles involve relatively straightforward exploring and pushing buttons on machines, and I trucked along happily for a while.

Then I ran into a rather fiddly puzzle and things became less fluid. The base has multiple garages with multiple airlocks, and in order to accomplish one of your main tasks, you’ll need to manipulate these using some verbs and objects that I hadn’t initially assumed would be useful. (Tip: remember that Inform has a PUSH [THING] DIRECTION command, even if you’ve hardly ever had occasion to use it in a game.) To complicate the problem, there were hints, but the hints were sort of written for someone who already knows what they’re trying to accomplish. Specifically (rot13‘d for spoilers):

Gurer vf n oebxra ebire naq n jbexvat ebire, naq V fgneg bhg xabjvat gung V arrq gb bcra hc gur oebxra ebire va beqre gb ercnve vg. V nyfb xabj V pna bayl bcra vg vs V pna or va gur oebxra ebire’f tnentr jvgu zl jbex fhvg bss (juvpu zrnaf cerffhevmvat gung nern). Gur uvagf qrfpevor ubj gb cerffhevmr gur tnentr jvgu gur jbexvat ebire svefg. Vg gheaf bhg va gur ybat eha gung V qb arrq gur ernpgbe bhg bs gur jbexvat ebire va beqre gb ercnve gur oebxra bar, naq fbzrbar jub nyernql xabjf nyy gung jbhyq cebonoyl fnir gvzr ol svefg cerffhevmvat gur jbexvat ebire’f tnentr, pnaavonyvmr gur arrqrq cnegf, gura cerffhevmr gur oebxra ebire’f tnentr naq chg gur cneg va. (Lbh pna bayl unir bar cerffhevmrq ng n gvzr.) Fvapr V qvqa’g xabj gung, gubhtu, V sbhaq gur uvagf snveyl zlfgrevbhf naq ohzoyrq nebhaq sbe dhvgr n juvyr.

So I found myself doing puzzle tasks more or less on faith that they would result in something I wanted, rather than having a clear goal and then trying to figure out how to accomplish that. Which is a bit non-ideal.

I wouldn’t have minded just a bit more information about the backstory, either. The social and political situation is vague enough that I wasn’t quite sure whether I wanted to just escape the station or do something more destructive before I left. Having multiple endings for the player to choose — and having those neatly integrated into the game’s mechanics — is swell, but this was a case where I genuinely wasn’t sure which I would prefer because there wasn’t enough context around the probable ramifications. Clearer stakes make for a better story.

Everything I’ve just described I think could be resolved with some changes to the hint content writing and some elements of the description text of the game itself; though I sympathize a bit with Sam Ashwell’s criticism that some parts of the puzzle solution get repetitive, I didn’t find that as severe an issue as just not quite being sure why I was going through some of these hoops.

Despite this griping, there’s a lot to like here. Implementation is pretty solid. The in-browser presentation is handsome and shows more effort than is typical for Parchment-run IF games; the science fiction elements feel fairly realistic, which is unusual for interactive fiction. (Though see also Stephen Granade’s Fragile Shells for another near future, hard-SF take on the escape game.)


My SPAG Valentines!

by katherinestasaph at February 21, 2015 04:00 AM

Yes, that’s right — your Valentines are finally* in! (Love has no season, why’s there gotta be a separate day for it, grumblegrumpexcuse.) Thanks for the response! We have three entries, and befitting the broad nature of modern-day IF, they are all in different forms: one in Twine, one in Inform, and one in text. They are below:

Valentines are hosted via Dropbox, except which is in sonnet form, and below:

Bravo to the scribes of Inform 7:
like Prometheus’ theft of fire,
such a gift could be sent down from heaven —
advent crowed by troubadour and crier.

Thinking thoughts out loud is all one’s needing
to create a universe uniquely
yours — and all your furtive fruitful seeding
blooms in others’ gamboling obliquely.

Now must I kowtow upon the floor.  You
gave us all the tools for work and playing
freely and without a catch, therefore: to
Mister Nelson’s crew, here’s much hooraying!

For a gift, you see, that keeps on giving;
text adventures’ triage back to living.

Thanks everyone! We hope to see you again next Valentine’s Day, with even more author and developer love.

* Your editor is clearly the Gretchen Weiners in this scenario.

Lautz of IF

Trizbort Update

by jasonlautzenheiser at February 21, 2015 03:01 AM

coloredmapMost of you are at least somewhat familiar with the mapping tool Trizbort, created by Genstein. Back in 2013, on this thread (viewtopic.php?f=38&t=7473) he announced his decision to opensource the code. Then in March 2014, on the same thread, forum user wertle, made some updates (which turned out to be pretty useful) and fixed a few bugs. Then nothing, there seemed to be little movement on new development. This last December, I asked my writing group if they felt there would be interest in making some updates. I received some great encouragement and Andrew Schultz (aschultz) specifically stepped up with some great ideas and feature requests. So work began.

Today I’m announcing a new beta release. I incorporated a few other branches that were made (including those from wertle) and many suggestions from Andrew, who became the primary tester. Main new features include:

What’s New?

  • Copy and paste (from wertle’s branch)
  • Fix for large maps (from wertle’s branch)
  • Support for Regions – You can specify room colors in any case, but regions make it easy and allow you to group rooms together.
  • SmartSave – quick shortcut to save PDF & default image type to base directory.
  • Join room – shortcut to join two selected rooms based on position on map.
  • Many updates and fixes in the export of code (regions only supported in I7 export)
  • UI enhancements – Beginning to add context menus, tooltips on rooms, improvements on keyboard functionality and shortcuts
  • Quite a few bugfixes.

Where to get it?SetRoomRegion

Link to zip file:

Simply unzip the file to a folder and run the executable (make sure all files included in the zip file are in the executable’s folder).

Andrew and I are making plans for more features and improvements so please if you have ideas let us know. You can also check out our bug / feature tracking at

Andrew is currently working on updating the documentation (with the blessing of Genstein) and he has put up a draft at … shtml?dl=0 and is of course open to suggestions to improve the documentation (still working on getting images updated).

If you’re so inclined you can see the source at

Again, remember this is beta software. Please let us know of any bugs that you find or features you think will be useful.

Filed under: Coding, Trizbort

February 20, 2015

Choice of Games

Two New Hosted Games: “The Lost Heir” and “Seven Bullets”

by Dan Fabulich at February 20, 2015 08:01 PM

There are two more games in our Hosted Games program ready for you to play! The Lost Heir: The Fall of Daria — Take back the throne that was rightfully yours! When demon-summoning usurpers assassinate the king and queen, the right of rulership falls to you, their only child. Develop your own unique prince or princess, discovering a world of fantasy, magic, mystery, and adventure. The Lost Heir: The Fall of Daria is an epic 145,000-word interactive fantasy novel—the first of a trilogy—by Mike Walter, author of Life of a Mobster, Life of a Wizard, and Paradox Factor, where your

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Sibyl Moon Games

Cheerfully misinterpreting the Microsoft System Error Codes (0-499)

by Carolyn VanEseltine at February 20, 2015 04:01 AM

If you missed the announcement – ParserComp is live! All 14 games are available as a zipped download here, and where possible, online play links will be appearing at this page over the next few days.

And now for something completely different.

Let’s be clear: Microsoft has a lovely explanation of what all its system error codes mean. But some rather beg for misinterpretation….

What did you feed the gladiators?

Be fair, you forget stuff too.

Global warming is likely involved.

Give me a minute, willya!

Insert bathroom joke.

Even though you listed U2, Pearl Jam, and Smashing Pumpkins.

Oh yeah? Well, who wrote this code, then?

An appropriate error to throw for Wolf+585, Sr.

Hard on the arms, bad for the eyes.

Oh no!

This isn’t Grand Theft Auto.

You left them at the daycare.

Only so many people can fit in this muxrestaurant.

You’ll never get on the debate team.


Sounds kinda sci-fi to me….

This puzzle ring is broken.

Stephen King should’ve stopped after Wizard and Glass.

Shoo, pigeons!

Wait… did you want this?

Piranha plants may be involved.

Spell it out: Electronic Arts.

If you wanted to sit with them at dinner, you should have signed up in advance.

Therefore, I don’t have to listen to you. Nyaaah!

Paging Mr. Mid… Paging Mr. Mid… Please pick up the courtesy phone, Mr. Mid.

Someone must have moved it while cleaning the observatory.

It says “Yankees”, but you’re in Boston.

Why did you have to put it on such a high shelf?

And yet, House dashes in without surgical scrubs anyway.

Data is not clean! Data will be sticky and gross!

Seriously, this looks like it was mimeographed in the 50s.

This is making it extremely difficult to deliver your pizza.

February 19, 2015

Emily Short

ParserComp: A Long Drink; Down, the Serpent and Sun

by Emily Short at February 19, 2015 06:00 PM

ParserComp is a competition for parser-based IF games only, run by Carolyn VanEseltine and continuing through the 14th of March. It is designed to encourage this form of game, and also to provide detailed feedback: games are ranked on multiple categories, and judges must submit textual feedback along with their scores. More judges are welcome, so please check it out and share your own thoughts as well.


A Long Drink (Owen Parks). You’ve just left the police force and gone for a drive when your car goes off the road. You struggle out of said car and are rescued by someone named Val, though your relationship to her is unclear. She drives you to a cabin where there is a dead man. You must now investigate.

I’m having trouble with this one. The story has left out a lot of context: why did I leave the force? Who is Val, and how did she know to come looking for me exactly at the moment that I was struggling out of the wreck of my car back to the road? (I have a cell phone with me, but I hadn’t used it; maybe the author’s intent was that you would have called Val for a pickup before you get back to the road, and I just happened not to have done that?) Why does Val take me to a cabin?

The world model is similarly sketchy, and this is really problematic in a game that presents itself as a search-for-evidence mystery. I’m shown a crime scene and invited to study it for clues, but a lot of the things in the room description aren’t implemented, or else the implementation is a bit fumbled. There’s a fair amount of this sort of thing:

> x papers
I thumbed through the pile on the desk, finding term papers and dissertations, collections of academic journals. Underneath most of it was something that caught my eye, a document with dollar signs on it and more zeroes than I’m used to seeing on paper.

> x document
I couldn’t see any such thing.

> search papers
I found nothing of interest.

This object is actually here — it’s a bank statement, and it shows up when next you LOOK — but the transition feels broken; and this is somewhat typical. Similarly, I tried five different ways to unbuckle my seatbelt before figuring out the command formation the game wanted.

I get the feeling that the author has big ambitions for this piece, but that they were just too big and complex to pull off in the available time. I spent a while wandering around the house and looking at things (and trying to look at other things that turned out not to be implemented). I did not finish.


Down, the Serpent and Sun (Chandler Groover). Points to this one for presenting a highly unusual setting: the body of a feathered serpent that has just (I think per Aztec mythology?) swallowed the sun. Gloom and gore abound.

There are some puzzles; I initially had some trouble with them because it wasn’t clear to me which things in the setting were insuperable obstacles and which I could resolve with a bit more work, and I died horribly on the first try without solving very much. A second attempt worked better, but even that time, it turns out that I missed either of the two main endings the author had in mind; I didn’t find those until I turned to the walkthrough, and in one case the solution involved interacting with things that I hadn’t realized were interactive. I think this is a case of the descriptions not doing enough to direct your attention (or mine, anyway) towards the aspects of the scene that might be useful.

Aside from this issue of direction, the prose is ambitious and a little undisciplined, using plenty of adjectives and plenty of 25-cent words to sell its descriptions: chunderous, diluvian, stygian. There are crimson geysers of blood and lakes of rotting corpses and rivers of cloacal sludge. This is so over the top that it actually undermines the horror a bit.

Or take this phrase, from the opening: “the moon dripping like fat from some roast animal spitted above a pit.” I came up short trying to envision this. What is the moon dripping from? Or in SAT parlance:

fat:roast animal::moon:?

And if the moon is quickly dropping from the sky, as that sentence seems to imply, then should we even say “is dripping” as though it’s holding some kind of continuous state? Or are we instead supposed to imagine that the moon is melting like spitted fatty animal, the main body holding its position while a portion of it renders away? I rather like the latter image, and it makes a lot more sense, but that’s not actually what the sentence says.

There’s some vivid stuff here, in other words, but I felt like it could have used a ruthless edit: pick the most important modifiers and get rid of the rest. Rely on clear imagery rather than fancy vocabulary, where there’s a choice between the two.