Planet Interactive Fiction

April 28, 2017

Adventure Blog

Strayed at Playcrafting Spring Play Expo!

April 28, 2017 05:01 AM

Hey, new followers! We’re Adventure Cow, a bunch of people who really love playing and talking about story games! In fact, we’re making our own interactive story as well - a creepy Choose-Your-Own-Adventure style game called Strayed.

Ever had a lonely night where everything seems just a little bit off? Imagine driving through darkened woods, alone but for the thrum of the engine and the scratching sounds of something - you’re not quite sure what - in the back. What happens depends entirely on you.

We also made a fantasy gamebook that you can play online, DestinyQuest Infinite. 

Yesterday, we showed off both Strayed and DestinyQuest Infinite at a game expo in New York - it was so cool to see everyone try our games out!

You can try out the alpha version of Strayed here and DestinyQuest Infinite here - if you do, make sure to let us know!

April 27, 2017

Versificator IF blog

Upcoming stuff

by robinjohnson at April 27, 2017 09:01 PM

I’m pleased that Detectiveland has been shortlisted for Reading Digital Fiction’s digital writing competition, with a bunch of other cool stories/games. The winner will be announced at their event in Bangor on 25 May, which I don’t think I’m able to get to.

On 31 May I’ll be at a London IF meetup on new IF tools, presenting the Javascript system behind Draculaland and Detectiveland. Come and say hello!

Lastly, if you’ve left a comment on my blog in the last month or four… sorry. I hadn’t activated the spam filter properly and I’ve come back to 23,000 of the damn things. So they’re almost certainly all getting deleted, babies and bathwater alike.

April 25, 2017

Renga in Blue

Adventure 500: Mazes of Cruelty

by Jason Dyer at April 25, 2017 11:00 PM

The world had not only failed to learn the right lessons, it seemed to have internalized the wrong ones.

— From “Inside Every Utopia Is a Dystopia” by John Crowley

The quote above, which is about the more serious issue of social design, also captures for me the history of art.

Something fabulous and novel is made, other artists duplicate the ideas, and then there are copies of those copies. Generally, artists aren’t copying everything, just what they think made the original fabulous and novel in the first place. This isn’t necessarily a bad approach to art, but sadly, sometimes it’s the wrong things that get copied.

Do adventure games need a maze? Nearly everyone from the era seemed to think so. They just needed to do them “better” than Crowther and Woods Adventure somehow.

Adventure 500 takes the maze concept and runs it off a cliff. I’ve never quite seen anything like this.

First, the twisty maze of passages, which is the first maze encountered in the game (the other one can’t be reached without an item in this maze):

This certainly doesn’t look too bad, but there are two tricks, one common, one nasty.

The common trick is that when entering the maze from the outside, you start in what I call a “all-or-nothing” structure. All exits are possible, but any exit except for the correct one will lead you to the space marked “start from NE forest entry”. I’ve seen this sort of structure lots of times, presumably because it makes it very hard to just guess your way through the maze and luck into the correct 4-move sequence (WEST, EAST, SOUTH, UP).

The nasty trick occurs in original Adventure (Crowther, even before Woods) in that when outdoors there is a link that will randomly take you to a different forest area than you usually go to. However, the extra area is totally optional and the intent seemed to be to add an aura of mystery.

Adventure 500 puts this same trick in the maze:

Going down in a particular place will *usually* loop you to the same place, except for something like a 20% chance where it takes you to the room with the planks of wood instead. The planks of wood are absolutely necessary for beating the game. I found this by sheer luck (I had already mapped the loop, but went down by accident).

On top of the evil above, there’s this:

You are about to enter an area of Colossal Cavern for which you must carefully prepare. Do not proceed unless you are ready.
> e
You’re in a crazy maze of weird passages.

First I was unsure as to the gimmick; I dropped a bunch of items to start mapping by dropping them in the rooms, as normal. I ran out of items, blundered my way to the exit, and grabbed some more items.

So far, so normal. But then, the new set of items ran out, and there were yet more rooms.

And more rooms.

And more rooms.

This is only part of the map. I started running out of space on the paper and scrawling everywhere. I’m not done — there are more rooms I haven’t mapped. I’m guessing the total is around 35 rooms or so.

Surely the author wouldn’t be so cruel as to pull the same-passage-goes-two-ways trick? Yes, he would. Not only that, it appears the random chance of a particular passage going to an “alternate exit” is rolled upon entering a room, which means saving one’s game and testing out an exit repeatedly will not help.


April 24, 2017

Emily Short

Spring Thing 2017: Balefires Burning

by Emily Short at April 24, 2017 11:00 AM

Screen Shot 2017-04-20 at 3.58.33 PM.png

Balefires Burning is a Twine story about a girl nearing the age of initiation in a village that practices witchcraft. She is in love with a young man who, though not a blood relative, is off-limits for other reasons of clan tradition. The text (as shown) is formatted like poetry, which initially felt a bit self-important, especially when I encountered dialogue arranged that way. This put me off the first time I tried the piece.

On a second try, I got used to the format as I read, and came to see it as representing the narrator’s ritual-inflected perspective on the world, where everything that happens is keyed into traditional practices and calendars. Meanwhile, the writing also accomplishes quite a bit else with its space — communicating the protagonist’s problem, introducing half a dozen or so additional characters, getting us familiar with the setting, suggesting the natural beauty of this world.

The piece feels very influenced by young adult genre fiction (and I notice the game is tagged as “teen fiction”). I found myself wishing for just a bit more edge to the fantasy in a couple of respects.

The setting is utopian: though we see hints of possible conflict to come, the village appears to be well-run with significant female leadership. The technology level is notionally low, but the village experiences plenty — of food, of fuel and housing, of free time, of casual changes of clothes even for people who aren’t supposedly rich — to a degree usually not found in pre-industrial cultures. There is magic of a kind customized to rebalance certain power imbalances in traditional patriarchic societies. We’re explicitly shown that every girl in this village is prepared with contraceptive instructions and is allowed to begin having sex at maturity. Other passages suggest that the village also uses magic to maintain its agriculture. This is all (apparently) managed with organic teas and a little light blood magic. Women routinely spill a few drops of blood to conduct some small witchery, but at least so far, the story does not explore any of the obvious follow-on questions, like what happens when they need to do a large witchery.

In the realm of plot rather than world-building, I also found myself wishing that the characters would be more specific and less allusive sometimes about the threats to the village and the discords that could occur there. A bit of foreshadowing is well and good, but at certain points the story slipped from foreboding into just a bit generic.

Despite those reservations, though, I did find this pretty engaging on my second reading, and by the end was sufficiently invested to play through a second time and see how much I could change.

The story is only a first chapter, which is perhaps why it is a Back Garden entry. But even as a first chapter, it’s fairly substantial, and it works on its own as a Call to Adventure episode. It also offers the player a couple of seemingly very important decisions, and when I finished I was not at all sure how future chapters would cope with the level of branching that seemed implied by what I’d just seen. On replay, it does manage to stick to the same basic set of events, but the player is free to very significantly change how the protagonist feels about what happens to her — and how the other members of her family and clan regard her.


April 23, 2017

Renga in Blue

Adventure 500: Tilted

by Jason Dyer at April 23, 2017 07:00 AM

I think most of my readers are familiar with the Crowther and Woods version of Adventure, but just in case, here’s a link to my playthrough.

Being familiar with the original is necessary to be rattled by responses like this one:

> xyzzy
I don’t know the word xyzzy
Please rephrase that.

Yes, XYYZY has been left out entirely.

Other curious aspects:

1.) The underground map is strongly oriented along the diagonals, with lots of travel northeast/northwest/southeast/southwest.

2.) Instead of dwarves, you are attacked by orcs:

An ugly and mean orc has found you.
The orc throws a knife at you.

It misses you!
> throw axe
You’ve killed an orc.
He disappears in a cloud of greasy black smoke.

3.) The dragon is here, but the “bare hands” gag from Adventure is not present. I’m not sure what to do here yet.

This room is filled with the foul odor of a dragon. The floor is littered with the remains of ‘Johnny come lately’ Adventurers. The dragon blocks your way!

> throw axe
The axe bounces harmlessly off the dragon.

4.) The bird has the desired effect on the snake, but you have to THROW BIRD to indicate you are directing it at the snake.

5.) There’s a boat and an underground lake (I think more than one expansion of Adventure added waterways, and there’s the river in Dungeon, so that feels like a perfectly natural expansion at least).

6.) In addition to the lantern requiring matches to be lit, it also fairly quickly runs out of oil.

The lantern is running low on fuel.
You may be able to fill it WITH some oil.

There’s a pool of oil in the twisty maze; I don’t know how many uses I get before it runs out (hopefully it won’t)?

I also want to warn everyone ahead of time it’s possible the game is not winnable in its current state. First, the port (which is based on an scan of a paper printout of the source) has some text bobbles here and there. It’s faintly possible there are code errors on the side, although I haven’t run into any. Second, there is this part of the game:

> d
This is the bottom of a chimney beneath the bedrock room. There
is a doorway to the south made out of massive iron.
The iron door is rusted shut.
> oil door
Please rephrase that.
> pour bottle
The oil frees the door and it swings open.
> s
Colossal Cavern is under construction in this area. Please return
to this location at a later date for interesting Adventures.
Th43e iron door is open.

which suggests to me that there was a definite intent for expansion, but it could also mean the treasures necessary to reach the desired 500 points hadn’t all been added yet.


Adventure Blog

SPRING PLAY: NYC Game Expo!

April 23, 2017 02:01 AM

SPRING PLAY: NYC Game Expo!:

adventurecow:

Hey everyone! Strayed has been in development for a while now; thank you so much for all your support so far. We’re close to the finish line, and we’d love to invite you to join us and try out the latest version of the game at the Spring Play expo. Come find us and we’ll feed you pizza!

Strayed is an atmospheric interactive story about the strangely long fifteen miles of forest between you and home. Click here to try out the Android alpha demo.

Just a friendly reminder that we’ll be presenting Strayed at the Playcrafting Spring Play expo on April 27th! Get your tickets here and drop by for games+pizza if you’re in NYC!

April 22, 2017

Renga in Blue

Spelunker: Finale and Final Comments

by Jason Dyer at April 22, 2017 04:00 PM

IN THE DRAMATIC ENDING:

We fled by the ghost, who wasn’t blocking our passage, and found an ogre guarding some gold.

screenAH

As you enter this room, the first thing that you notice is a pile of golden treasures nestled into a nook on the far side. Before you take another step, a foul-smelling ogre jumps out from a hole in the side wall and rushes forward to protect his gold.

With two strikes of our mighty ax, we were able to defeat the ogre.

?USE AX
ASSAULT ON OGRE , 85 UNITS
ITS LIFE FORCE IS NOW 15%
ATTACK BY OGRE
?USE AX
ASSAULT ON OGRE , 66 UNITS
ITS LIFE FORCE IS NOW -51%
OGRE HAS BEEN ELIMINATED

screenM4

We were rewarded by a generous supply of gold! (How we were able to carry such a heavy weight, a common superpower of all adventurers, remains a mystery.) Passing by the ghost again (who wanders from room to room) we came across the last treasure of the cave guarded by bats:

screenM1

Bat room: The ceiling is all but invisible for the tens of thousands of bats sleeping there. In one corner of this room lies an old, rusted chest. As you open the chest, the bats begin to stir. Inside the chest is a king’s ransom in jewels: diamonds, rubies, and emeralds.

The bats were indeed guarding, because our attempt to just take the treasure and run failed:

screenM6

We attempted to swing our lantern to scare off the the bats, but at the moment of our swing the ghost wandered in and took the hit instead!

screenM8

None of our weapons were effective on the bats afterwards. Pondering for a bit, we found a burning fire and brought it over:

screenM9

With the bats gone, we had a clear route take all 4 of our treasures to the exit in triumph!

Where we traded our treasure for cold, hard, cash; accounting for inflation that’s about $161,000 in 2017 money. I feel like we may have been ripped off. Probably we took it to a pawn shop or something.

Or possibly we went the altruistic route and gave most of it to a museum and only sold off a few items to fund our expenses.

Still, we survived without wasting too many clone bodies, huzzah!

Side note: we had one monster we hadn’t slain. It doesn’t guard a treasure, so it’s optional. It has a “CURSE” in the room which strongly reduces attack value, supposedly neutralized by the apple. However, even with using the apple I still was only able to do 1 hit point of damage with using the fire, and the bones are quite good at killing us back, so I had to leave it be.

Assorted final comments:

1.) As pointed out by the players, the second half of the game was rather like a Dungeons and Dragons campaign. Given the built in feature that the game is supposed to be played with a dungeon mast — er, guide, that isn’t too surprising. You might want to read the article with the type-in, though — it really feels like one of those campaign books, complete with tables of enemies and weapons.

Link to the magazine with the article

2.) Being a guide let me smooth over a lot of issues that have might made the game otherwise unplayable. In some cases the players threw out 5 or 6 verbs in an attempt to do something, and I was able to just pick the right one. In other cases they weren’t using the right verb at all, but I went ahead and did it for them, because that’s a silly way to get stuck.

Also, even on successful commands the game doesn’t give a lot of feedback (there’s a very tight line / memory limit to the game, so I imagine the author just didn’t have room). As a guide I was able to work around that a little, except for cases where I couldn’t understand what was going on, even with access to the code.

The general feeling was a Mechanical Turk-type scenario where a computer’s very limited intelligence was “enhanced” by my being behind the controls.

3.) I still have no idea what rubbing the lamp does. It’s an understood command, and the lamp (if maybe not the verb) seems to be accounted for in the code, but I don’t quite understand this line.

2335 IF NOUN=28 AND M(50)>0 THEN 1070

4.) I never pointed it out, but the GUI with the 4 separate windows really is quite audacious and innovative for the time. I don’t think we’ll get another dynamic compass rose that displays available directions until 1980.

The author Thomas R. Mimlitch does show up later in the history of interactive fiction:

Educators who use Apple Writer II for word processing can create branching texts similar to Story Tree’s by taking advantage of WPL, Apple Writer’s built-in Word Processing Language. WPL lets users automate editing routine by writing short programs that take over the word processing. It was designed for repetitious tasks like printing envelopes or adding addresses to form letters, but it can be put to more imaginative uses. Thomas R. Mimlitch describes an ingenious WPL program which enables youngsters to write branching stories using all the editing features of Apple Writer. Once the story is typed in, the program runs in page by page, displaying each page on the screen and waiting for the reader to answer yes or no questions which determine the next page. In addition to a complete annotated listing, Mimlitch includes a sample story written by a ten-year-old. He tells about a group of neighborhood twelve-year-olds who became so engaged in their seventy-page narrative that they spent five months on the project.

[From The Electronic Text: Learning to Write, Read, and Reason with Computers by William V. Costanzo.]


April 21, 2017

Post Position

Salon 256 on May 1

by Nick Montfort at April 21, 2017 10:48 PM

SALON 256 is a forum for presentation and discussion of very small creative computer programs. Such programs have featured in digital art and poetry, electronic literature, computer music, and the demoscene.

YOU are invited to present a tiny program of yours:

Monday May 1 . 5pm-7pm . MIT’s 14E-304

Presenters already confirmed:

  • Mike “Dr.Claw” Piantedosi
  • Angela Chang
  • Sofian Audry
  • Nick Montfort
  • Chris Kerich
  • Willy Wu

Programs in an interpreted language are fine, as long as the code is 256 bytes or less; compiled programs with an executable file of 256b or less are fine, too.

Building 14 also holds the Hayden Library and is not Building E14. If you’d like to present, leave a comment or sign up at the event.

A Purple Blurb / The Trope Tank production.

The Digital Antiquarian

From Squadron to Wingleader

by Jimmy Maher at April 21, 2017 03:00 PM

Chris Roberts and Richard Garriott, 1988

At the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in June of 1989, Origin Systems and Brøderbund Software announced that they wouldn’t be renewing the distribution contract the former had signed with the latter two years before. It was about as amicable a divorce as has ever been seen in the history of business; in this respect, it could hardly have stood in greater contrast to the dust-up that had ended Origin’s relationship with Electronic Arts, their previous distributor, in 1987. Each company was full of rosy praise and warm wishes for the other at a special “graduation party” Brøderbund threw for Origin at the show. “Brøderbund has been one of the few affiliated-label programs that truly helps a small company grow to a size where it can stand on its own and enter the real world,” said Origin’s Robert Garriott, making oblique reference to the more predatory approach of Electronic Arts. In response, Brøderbund’s Gary Carlston toasted that “it’s been rewarding to have helped Origin pursue its growth, and it’s exciting to see the company take this step,” confirming yet one more time Brøderbund’s well-earned reputation as the nice guys of their industry who somehow kept managing to finish first. And so, with a last slap on the rump and a final chorus of “Kumbaya,” Brøderbund sent Origin off to face the scary “world of full-service software publishing” alone.

It was a bold step for Origin, especially given that they still hadn’t solved a serious problem that had dogged them since their founding in the Garriott brothers’ family garage six years earlier. The first two games released by the young company back in 1983 had been Ultima III, the latest installment in Richard Garriott’s genre-defining CRPG series, and Caverns of Callisto, an action game written by Richard’s high-school buddy Chuck Bueche. Setting the frustrating pattern for what was to come, Ultima III soared up the bestseller charts, while Caverns of Callisto disappeared without a trace. In the years that followed, Origin released some non-Ultima games that were moderately successful, but never came close to managing a full-on hit outside of their signature franchise. This failure left them entirely dependent for their survival on Richard Garriott coming up with a new and groundbreaking Ultima game every couple of years, and on that game then proceeding to sell over 200,000 copies. Robert Garriott, as shrewd a businessman as any in his industry, knew that staking his company’s entire future on a single game every two years was at best a risky way to run things. Yet, try as he might, he couldn’t seem to break the pattern.

Origin had a number of factors working against them in their efforts to diversify, but the first and most ironic among them must be the very outsize success of Ultima itself. The company had become so identified with Ultima that many gamers barely realized that they did anything else. As for other folks working in the industry, they had long jokingly referred to Origin Systems as “Ultima Systems.” Everyone knew that the creator of Ultima was also the co-founder of Origin, and the brother of the man who directed its day-to-day operations. In such a situation, there must be a real question of whether any other game project, even a potentially great one, could avoid being overshadowed by the signature franchise, could find enough oxygen to thrive. Added to these concerns, which would be applicable to any company in such a situation, must be the unique nature of the cast of characters at Origin. Richard Garriott’s habit of marching around trade-show floors in full Lord British regalia, his entourage in tow, didn’t always endear him to the rest of the industry. There were, it sometimes seemed, grounds to question whether Richard himself knew that he wasn’t actually a monarch, just a talented kid from suburban Houston with nary a drop of royal blood coursing through his veins. At times, Origin Systems could feel perilously close to a cult of personality. Throw in the company’s out-of-the-way location in Austin, Texas, and attracting really top-flight projects became quite a challenge for them.

So, when it came to games that weren’t Ultima Origin had had to content themselves with projects one notch down from the top tier — projects which, whether because they weren’t flashy enough or were just too nichey, weren’t of huge interest to the bigger publishers. Those brought in enough revenue to justify their existence but not much more, and thus Robert Garriott continued to bet the company every two years on his brother’s latest Ultima. It was a nerve-wracking way to live.

And then, in 1990, all that changed practically overnight. This article and the one that follows will tell the story of how the house that Ultima built found itself with an even bigger franchise on its hands.


Chris Roberts

By the end of the 1980s, the North American and European computer-game industries, which had heretofore existed in almost total isolation from one another, were becoming slowly but steadily more interconnected. The major American publishers were setting up distribution arms in Europe, and the smaller ones were often distributing their wares through the British importer U.S. Gold. Likewise, the British Firebird and Rainbird labels had set up offices in the United States, and American publishers like Cinemaware were doing good business importing British games for American owners of the Commodore Amiga, a platform that was a bit neglected by domestic developers. But despite these changes, the industry as a whole remained a stubbornly bifurcated place. European developers remained European, American developers remained American, and the days of a truly globalized games industry remained far in the future. The exceptions to these rules stand out all the more thanks to their rarity. And one of these notable exceptions was Chris Roberts, the young man who would change Origin Systems forever.

With a British father and an American mother, Chris Roberts had been a trans-Atlantic sort of fellow right from the start. His father, a sociologist at the University of Manchester, went with his wife to Guatemala to do research shortly after marrying, and it was there that Chris was conceived in 1967. The mother-to-be elected to give birth near her family in Silicon Valley. (From the first, it seems, computers were in the baby’s blood.) After returning for a time to Guatemala, where Chris’s father was finishing his research, the little Roberts clan settled back in Manchester, England. A second son arrived to round out the family in 1970.

His first international adventure behind him, Chris Roberts grew up as a native son of Manchester, developing the distinct Mancunian intonation he retains to this day along with his love of Manchester United football. When first exposed to computers thanks to his father’s position at Manchester University, the boy was immediately smitten. In 1982, when Chris was 14, his father signed him up for his first class in BASIC programming and bought a BBC Micro for him to practice on at home. As it happened, the teacher of that first programming class became a founding editor of the new magazine BBC Micro User. Hungry for content, the magazine bought two of young Chris’s first simple BASIC games to publish as type-in listings. Just like that, he was a published game developer.

Britain at the time was going absolutely crazy for computers and computer games, and many of the new industry’s rising stars were as young or younger than Roberts. It thus wasn’t overly difficult for him to make the leap to designing and coding boxed games to be sold in stores. Imagine Software published his first such, a platformer called Wizadore, in 1985; Superior Software published a second, a side-scrolling shooter called Stryker’s Run, in 1986. But the commercial success these titles could hope to enjoy was limited by the fact that they ran on the BBC Micro, a platform which was virtually unknown outside of Britain and even inside of its home country was much less popular than the Sinclair Spectrum as a gaming machine. Being amply possessed of the contempt most BBC Micro owners felt toward the cheap and toy-like “Speccy,” Roberts decided to shift his attention instead to the Commodore 64, the most popular gaming platform in the world at the time. This decision, combined with another major decision made by his parents, set him on his unlikely collision course with Origin Systems in far-off Austin, Texas.

In early 1986, Roberts’s father got an offer he couldn’t refuse in the form of a tenured professorship at the University of Texas. After finishing the spring semester that year, he, his wife, and his younger son thus traded the gray skies of Manchester for the sunnier climes of Austin. Chris was just finishing his A-Levels at the time. Proud Mancunian that he was, he declared that he had no intention of leaving England — and certainly not for a hick town in the middle of Texas. But he had been planning all along to take a year off before starting at the University of Manchester, and his parents convinced him to at least join the rest of the family in Austin for the summer. He agreed, figuring that it would give him a chance to work free of distractions on a new action/adventure game he had planned as his first project for the Commodore 64. Yet what he actually found in Austin was lots of distractions — eye-opening distractions to warm any young man’s heart. Roberts:

The weather was a little nicer in Austin. The American girls seemed to like the English accent, which wasn’t bad, and there was definitely a lot… everything seemed like it was cheaper and there was more of it, especially back then. Now, the world’s become more homogenized so there’s not things you can only get in America that you don’t get in England as well. Back then it was like, the big American movies would come out in America and then they would come out in England a year later and stuff. So I came over and was like, “Ah, you know, this is pretty cool.”

There were also the American computers to consider; these tended to be much more advanced than their British counterparts, sporting disk drives as universal standard equipment at a time when most British games — including both of Roberts’s previous games — were still published on cassette tapes. In light of all these attractions, it seems doubtful whether Roberts would have kept his resolution to return to Manchester in any circumstances. But there soon came along the craziest of coincidences to seal the deal.

Roberts had decided that he really needed to find an artist to help him with his Commodore 64 game-in-progress. Entering an Austin tabletop-gaming shop one day, he saw a beautiful picture of a gladiator hanging on the wall. The owner of the shop told him the picture had been drawn by a local artist, and offered to call the artist for him right then and there if Roberts was really interested in working with him. Roberts said yes, please do. The artist in question was none other than Denis Loubet, whose professional association with Richard Garriott stretched back to well before Origin Systems had existed, to when he’d drawn the box art for the California Pacific release of Akalabeth in 1980.

Denis Loubet

After years of working as a contractor, Loubet was just about to be hired as Origin’s first regular in-house artist. Nevertheless, he liked Roberts and thought his game had potential, and agreed to do the art for it as a moonlighting venture. Loubet soon showed what he was working on to Richard Garriott and Dallas Snell, the latter of whom tended to serve as a sort of liaison between the business side of the company, in the person of Robert Garriott, and the creative side, in the person of Richard. All three parties were as impressed by the work-in-progress as Loubet had been, and they invited Chris to Origin’s offices to ask if he’d be interested in publishing it through them. Prior to this point, Roberts had never even heard of Origin Systems or the Ultima series; he’d grown up immersed in the British gaming scene, where neither had any presence whatsoever. But he liked the people at Origin, liked the atmosphere around the place, and perhaps wasn’t aware enough of what the company represented to be leery of it in the way of other developers who were peddling promising projects around the industry. “After my experiences in England, which is like swimming in a big pool of sharks,” he remembers, “I felt comfortable dealing with Origin.”

Times of Lore

All thoughts of returning to England had now disappeared. Working from Origin’s offices, albeit still as a contracted outside developer rather than an employee, Roberts finished his game, which came to be called Times of Lore. In the course of its development, the game grew considerably in scope and ambition, and, as seemed only appropriate given the company that was to publish it, took on some light CRPG elements as well. In much of this, Roberts was inspired by David Joiner’s 1987 action/CRPG The Faery Tale Adventure. American influences aside, though, Times of Lore still fit best of all into the grand British tradition of free-scrolling, free-roaming 8-bit action/adventures, a sub-genre that verged on completely unknown to American computer gamers. Roberts made sure the whole game could fit into the Commodore 64’s memory at once to facilitate a cassette-based version for the European market.

Unfortunately, his game got to enjoy only a middling level of sales success in return for all his efforts. As if determined to confirm the conventional wisdom that had caused so many developers to steer clear of them, Origin released Times of Lore almost simultaneously with the Commodore 64 port of Ultima V in 1988, leaving Roberts’s game overshadowed by Lord British’s latest. And in addition to all the baggage that came with the Origin logo in the United States, Times of Lore suffered all the disadvantages of being a pioneer of sorts in Europe, the first Origin title to be pushed aggressively there via a new European distribution contract with MicroProse. While that market would undoubtedly have understood the game much better had they given it a chance, no one there yet knew what to make of the company whose logo was on the box. Despite its strengths, Times of Lore thus failed to break the pattern that had held true for Origin for so long. It turned into yet another non-Ultima that was also a non-hit.

Times of Lore

But whatever the relative disappointments, Times of Lore at least wasn’t a flop, and Chris Roberts stayed around as a valued member of the little Origin family. Part of the reason the Origin people wanted to keep him around was simply because they liked him so much. He nursed the same passions for fantasy and science fiction as most of them, with just enough of a skew provided by his British upbringing to make him interesting. And he positively radiated energy and enthusiasm. He’s never hard to find in Origin group shots of the time. His face stands out like that of a nerdy cherub — he had never lost his facial baby fat, making him look pudgier in pictures than he was in real life — as he beams his thousand-kilowatt smile at all and sundry. Still, it was hardly his personality alone that made him such a valued colleague; the folks at Origin also came to have a healthy respect for his abilities. Indeed, and as we’ve already seen in an earlier article, the interface of Times of Lore had a huge influence on that of no less vital an Origin game than Ultima VI.

Alas, Roberts’s own next game for Origin would be far less influential. After flirting for a while with the idea of doing a straightforward sequel to Times of Lore, he decided to adapt the engine to an even more action-oriented post-apocalyptic scenario. Roberts’s first game for MS-DOS, Bad Blood was created in desultory fits and starts, one of those projects that limps to completion more out of inertia than passion. Released at last in 1990, it was an ugly flop on both sides of the Atlantic. Roberts blames marketplace confusion at least partially for its failure: “People who liked arcade-style games didn’t buy it because they thought Bad Blood would be another fantasy-role-play-style game. It was the worst of both worlds, a combination of factors that contributed to its lack of success.” In reality, though, the most telling factor of said combination was just that Bad Blood wasn’t very good, evincing little of the care that so obviously went into Times of Lore. Reviewers roundly panned it, and buyers gave it a wide berth. Thankfully for Chris Roberts’s future in the industry, the game that would make his name was already well along at Origin by the time Bad Blood finally trickled out the door.

Bad Blood

Had it come to fruition in its original form, Roberts’s third game for Origin would have marked even more of a departure for him than the actual end result would wind up being. Perhaps trying to fit in better with Origin’s established image, he had the idea of doing, as he puts it, “a space-conquest game where you take over star systems, move battleships around, and invade planets. It was going to be more strategic than my earlier games.” But Roberts always craved a little more adrenaline in his designs than such a description would imply, and it didn’t take him long to start tinkering with the formula. The game moved gradually from strategic battles between slow-moving dreadnoughts in space to manic dogfights between fighter planes in space. In other words, to frame the shift the way the science-fiction-obsessed Roberts might well have chosen, his inspiration for his space battles changed from Star Trek to Star Wars. He decided “it would be more fun flying around in a fighter than moving battleships around the screen”; note the (unconscious?) shift in this statement from the player as a disembodied hand “moving” battleships around to the player as an embodied direct participant “flying around” herself in fighters. Roberts took to calling his work-in-progress Squadron.

To bring off his idea for an embodied space-combat experience, Roberts would have to abandon the overhead views used by all his games to date in favor of a first-person out-the-cockpit view, like that used by a game he and every other BBC Micro veteran knew well, Ian Bell and David Braben’s Elite. “It was the first space game in which I piloted a ship in combat,” says Roberts of Elite, “and it opened my eyes to the possibilities of where it could go.” On the plus side, Roberts knew that this and any other prospective future games he might make for Origin would be developed on an MS-DOS machine with many times the processing power of the little BBC Micro (or, for that matter, the Commodore 64). On the negative side, Roberts wasn’t a veritable mathematics genius like Ian Bell, the mastermind behind Elite‘s 3D graphics. Nor could he get away in the current marketplace with the wire-frame graphics of Elite. So, he decided to cheat a bit, both to simplify his life and to up the graphics ante. Inspired by the graphics of the Lucasfilm Games flight simulator Battlehawks 1942, he used pre-rendered bitmap images showing ships from several different sides and angles, which could then be scaled to suit the player’s out-the-cockpit view, rather than making a proper, mathematically rigorous 3D engine built out of polygons. As becomes clear all too quickly to anyone who plays the finished game, the results could be a little wonky, with views of the ships suddenly popping into place rather than smoothly rotating. Nevertheless, the ships themselves looked far better than anything Roberts could possibly have hoped to achieve on the technology of the time using a more honest 3D engine.

Denis Loubet, Roberts’s old partner in crime from the early days of Times of Lore, agreed to draw a cockpit as part of what must become yet another moonlighting gig for both of them; Roberts was officially still supposed to be spending his days at Origin on Bad Blood, while Loubet was up to his eyebrows in Ultima VI. Even at this stage, they were incorporating little visceral touches into Squadron, like the pilot’s hand moving the joystick around in time with what the player was doing with her own joystick in front of the computer screen. As the player’s ship got shot up, the damage was depicted visually there in the cockpit. Like the sparks and smoke that used to burst from the bridge controls on the old Star Trek episodes, it might not have made much logical sense — haven’t any of these space-faring societies invented fuses? — but it served the purpose of creating an embodied, visceral experience. Roberts:

It really comes from wanting to put the player in the game. I don’t want you to think you’re playing a simulation, I want you to think you’re really in that cockpit. When I visualized what it would be like to sit in a cockpit, those are the things I thought of.

I took the approach that I didn’t want to sacrifice that reality due to the game dynamics. If you would see wires hanging down after an explosion, then I wanted to include it, even if it would make it harder to figure out how to include all the instruments and readouts. I want what’s taking place inside the cockpit to be as real as what I’m trying to show outside it, in space. I’d rather show you damage as if you were there than just display something like “damage = 20 percent.” That’s abstract. I want to see it.

Squadron, then, was already becoming an unusually cinematic space-combat “simulation.” Because every action-movie hero needs a sidekick, Roberts added a wingman to the game, another pilot who would fly and fight at the player’s side. The player could communicate with the wingman in the midst of battle, passing him orders, and the wingman in turn would communicate back, showing his own personality; he might even refuse to obey orders on occasion.

As a cinematic experience, Squadron felt very much in tune with the way things in general were trending at Origin, to such an extent that one might well ask who was influencing whom. Like so many publishers in this era in which CD-ROM and full-motion video hovered alluringly just out of view on the horizon, Origin had begun thinking of themselves more and more in the terms of Hollywood. The official “product development structure” that was put in place around this time by Dallas Snell demanded an executive producer, a producer, an assistant producer, a director, an assistant director, and a lead writer for every game; of all the positions on the upper rungs of the chart, only that of lead artist and lead programmer wouldn’t have been listed in the credits of a typical Hollywood film. Meanwhile Origin’s recent hire Warren Spector, who came to them with a Masters in film studies, brought his own ideas about games as interactive dramas that were less literal than Snell’s, but that would if anything prove even more of an influence on his colleagues’ developing views of just what it was Origin Systems really ought to be about. Just the previous year, Origin had released a game called Space Rogue, another of that long line of non-Ultima middling sellers, that had preceded Squadron in attempting to do Elite one better. A free-form player-directed game of space combat and trading, Space Rogue was in some ways much more ambitious than the more railroaded experience Roberts was now proposing. Yet there was little question of which game fit better with the current zeitgeist at Origin.

All of which does much to explain the warm reception accorded to Squadron when Chris Roberts, with Bad Blood finally off his plate, pitched it to Origin’s management formally in very early 1990. Thanks to all those moonlighting hours — as well as, one suspects, more than a few regular working hours — Roberts already had a 3D space-combat game that looked and played pretty great. A year or two earlier, that likely would have been that; Origin would have simply polished it up a little and shipped it. But now Roberts had the vision of building a movie around the game. Between flying a series of scripted missions, you would get to know your fellow pilots and follow the progress of a larger war between humanity and the Kilrathi, a race of savage cats in space.

Having finally made the hard decision to abandon the 8-bit market at the beginning of 1989, Origin was now pushing aggressively in the opposite direction from their old technological conservatism, being determined to create games that showed what the very latest MS-DOS machines could really do. Like Sierra before them, they had decided that if the only way to advance the technological state of the art among ordinary consumers was to release games whose hardware requirements were ahead of the curve — a reversal of the usual approach among game publishers, who had heretofore almost universally gone where the largest existing user base already was — then that’s what they would do. Squadron could become the first full expression of this new philosophy, being unapologetically designed to run well only on a cutting-edge 80386-based machine. In what would be a first for the industry, Chris Roberts even proposed demanding expanded memory beyond the traditional 640 K for the full audiovisual experience. For Roberts, stepping up from a Commodore 64, it was a major philosophical shift indeed. “Sod this, trying to make it work for the lowest common denominator—I’m just going to try and push it,” he said, and Origin was happy to hear it.

Ultima VI had just been completed, freeing personnel for another major project. Suspecting that Squadron might be the marketplace game changer he had sought for so long for Origin, Robert Garriott ordered a full-court press in March of 1990. He wanted his people to help Chris Roberts build his movie around his game, and he wanted them to do it in less than three months. They should have a preview ready to go for the Summer Consumer Electronics Show at the beginning of June, with the final product to ship very shortly thereafter.

Jeff George

Responsibility for the movie’s script was handed to Jeff George, one of the first of a number of fellow alumni of the Austin tabletop-game publisher Steve Jackson Games who followed Warren Spector to Origin. George was the first Origin employee hired explicitly to fill the role of “writer.” This development, also attributable largely to the influence of Spector, would have a major impact on Origin’s future games.

Obviously inspired by the ethical quandaries the Ultima series had become so known for over its last few installments, Chris Roberts had imagined a similarly gray-shaded world for his game, with scenarios that would cause the player to question whether the human empire she was fighting for was really any better than that of the Kilrathi. But George, to once again frame the issue in terms Roberts would have appreciated, pushed the game’s fiction toward the clear-cut good guys and bad guys of Star Wars, away from the more complicated moral universe of Star Trek. All talk of a human “empire,” for one thing, would have to go; everyone at Origin knew what their players thought of first when they thought of empires in space. Jeff George:

In the context of a space opera, empire had a bad connotation that would make people think they were fighting for the bad guys. The biggest influence I had on the story was to make it a little more black and white, where Chris had envisioned something grittier, with more shades of gray. I didn’t want people to worry about moral dilemmas while they were flying missions. That’s part of why it worked so well. You knew what you were doing, and knew why you were doing it. The good guys were really good, the bad guys were really bad.

The decision to simplify the political situation and sand away the thorny moral dilemmas demonstrates, paradoxical though it may first seem, a more sophisticated approach to narrative rather than the opposite. Some interactive narratives, like some non-interactive ones, are suited to exploring moral ambiguity. In others, though, the player just wants to fight the bad guys. While one can certainly argue that gaming has historically had far too many of the latter type and far too few of the former, there nevertheless remains an art to deciding which games are best suited for which.

Glen Johnson

Five more programmers and four more artists would eventually join what had been Chris Roberts and Denis Loubet’s little two-man band. With the timetable so tight, the artists were left to improvise large chunks of the narrative along with the game’s visuals. By imagining and drawing the “talking head” portraits of the various other pilots with which the player would interact, artist Glen Johnson wound up playing almost as big a role as Jeff George in crafting the fictional context for the game’s dogfights in space. Johnson:

I worked on paper first, producing eleven black-and-white illustrations. In most games, I would work from a written description of the character’s likes, dislikes, and personality. In this case, I just came up with the characters out of thin air, although I realized they wanted a mixture of men and women pilots. I assigned a call sign to each portrait.

Despite the lack of time at their disposal, the artists were determined to fit the movements of the characters’ mouths to the words of dialog that appeared on the screen, using techniques dating back to classic Disney animation. Said techniques demanded that all dialog be translated into its phonetic equivalent, something that could only be done by hand. Soon seemingly half the company was doing these translations during snatches of free time. Given that many or most players never even noticed the synchronized speech in the finished game, whether it was all worth it is perhaps a valid question, but the determination to go that extra mile in this regard does say much about the project’s priorities.

The music wound up being farmed out to a tiny studio specializing in videogame audio, one of vanishingly few of its kind at the time, which was run by a garrulous fellow named George Sanger, better known as “The Fat Man.” (No, he wasn’t terribly corpulent; that was sort of the joke.) Ever true to his influences, Chris Roberts’s brief to Sanger was to deliver something “between Star Wars and Star Trek: The Motion Picture.” Sanger and his deputy Dave Govett delivered in spades. Hugely derivative of John Williams’s work though the soundtrack was — at times it threatens to segue right into Williams’s famous Star Wars theme — it contributed hugely to the cinematic feel of the game. Origin was particularly proud of the music that played in the background when the player was actually flying in space; the various themes ebbed and swelled dynamically in response to the events taking place on the computer screen. It wasn’t quite the first time anyone had done something like this in a game, but no one had ever managed to do it in quite this sophisticated a way.

The guiding theme of the project remained the determination to create an embodied experience for the player. Chris Roberts cites the interactive movies of Cinemaware, which could be seen as the prototypes for the sort of game he was now trying to perfect, as huge influences in this respect as in many others. Roberts:

I didn’t want anything that made you sort of… pulled you out of being in this world. I didn’t want that typical game UI, or “Here’s how many lives you’ve got, here’s what high score you’ve got.” I always felt that broke the immersion. If you wanted to save the game you’d go to the barracks and you’d click on the bunk. If you wanted to exit, you’d click on the airlock. It was all meant to be in that world and so that was what the drive was. I love story and narrative and I think you can use that story and narrative to tie your action together and that will give your action meaning and context in a game. That was my idea and that was what really drove what I was doing.

The approach extended to the game’s manual. Harking back to the beloved scene-setting packaging of Infocom, the manual, which was written by freelancer Aaron Allston, took the form of Claw Marks, “The Onboard Magazine of TCS Tiger’s Claw” — the Tiger’s Claw being the name of the spaceborne aircraft carrier from which the player would be flying all of the missions. Like the artists, Allston would wind up almost inadvertently creating vital pieces of the game as a byproduct of the compressed schedule. “I couldn’t really determine everything at that point in development,” he remembers, “so, in some cases, specifically for the tactics information, we made some of it up and then retrofitted it and adjusted the code in the game to make it work.”

Once again in the spirit of creating a cohesive, embodied experience for the player, Roberts wanted to get away from the save-and-restore dance that was so typical of ludic narratives of the era. Therefore, instead of structuring the game’s 40 missions as a win-or-go-home linear stream, he created a branching mission tree in which the player’s course through the narrative would be dictated by her own performance. There would, in other words, be no way to definitively lose other than by getting killed. Roberts would always beg players to play the game “honestly,” beg them not to reload and replay each mission until they flew it perfectly. Only in this way would they get the experience he had intended for them to have.

Warren Spector

As the man responsible for tying all of the elements together to create the final experience, Roberts bore the titles of director and producer under Origin’s new cinematic nomenclature. He worked under the watchful eye of Squadron‘s co-producer Warren Spector, who, being older and in certain respects wiser, was equipped to handle the day-to-day administrative tasks that Roberts wasn’t. Spector:

When I came on as producer, Chris was really focused on the direction he wanted to take with the game. He knew exactly where he was going, and it would have been hard to deflect him from that course. It would have been crazy to even want to, so Chris and I co-produced the game. Where his talent dropped out, mine started, and vice versa. We did a task breakdown, and I ended up updating, adjusting, and tracking scheduling and preparing all the documentation. He handled the creative and qualitative issues. We both juggled the resources.

In implying that his own talent “dropped out” when it came to creative issues, Spector is selling himself about a million dollars short. He was a whirling dervish of creative energy throughout the seven years he spent with Origin, if anything even more responsible than Richard Garriott for the work that came out of the company under the Ultima label during this, the franchise’s most prolific period. But another of the virtues which allowed him to leave such a mark on the company was an ability to back off, to defer to the creative visions of others when it was appropriate. Recognizing that no one knew Chris Roberts’s vision like Chris Roberts, he was content in the case of Squadron to act strictly as the facilitator of that vision. In other words, he wasn’t too proud to just play the role of organizer when it was appropriate.

Still, it became clear early on that no combination of good organization and long hours would allow Squadron to ship in June. The timetable slipped to an end-of-September ship date, perfect to capitalize on the Christmas rush.

Although Squadron wouldn’t ship in June, the Summer Consumer Electronics Show loomed with as much importance as ever as a chance to show off the game-to-be and to drum up excitement that might finally end the sniggering about Ultima Systems. Just before the big show, Origin’s lawyers delivered the sad news that calling the game Squadron would be a bad idea thanks to some existing trademarks on the name. After several meetings, Wingleader emerged as the consensus choice for a new name, narrowly beating out Wing Commander. It was thus under the former title that the world at large got its first glimpse of what would turn into one of computer gaming’s most iconic franchises. Martin Davies, Origin’s Vice President of Sales:

I kicked hard to have a demo completed for the show. It was just a gut reaction, but I knew I needed to flood retail and distribution channels with the demo. Before the release of the game, I wanted the excitement to grow so that the confidence level would be extremely high. If we could get consumers beating a path in and out of the door, asking whether the game was out, distribution would respond.

With Wingleader still just a bunch of art and sound assets not yet wired up to the core game they were meant to complement, an interactive demo was impossible. Instead Chris Roberts put together a demo on videotape, alternating clips of the battles in space with clips of whatever other audiovisual elements he could assemble from what the artists and composers had managed to complete. Origin brought a big screen and a booming sound system out to Chicago for the show; the latter prompted constant complaints from other exhibitors. The noise pollution was perfect for showing the world that there was now more to Origin Systems than intricate quests and ethical dilemmas — that they could do aesthetic maximalism as well as anyone in their industry, pushing all of the latest hardware to its absolute limit in the process. It was a remarkable transformation for a company that just eighteen months before had been doing all development on the humble little 8-bit Apple II and Commodore 64. Cobbled together though it was, the Wingleader demo created a sensation at CES.

Indeed, one can hardly imagine a better demonstration of how the computer-game industry as a whole was changing than the game that had once been known as Squadron, was now known as Wingleader, and would soon go onto fame as Wing Commander. In my next article, I’ll tell the story of how the game would come to be finished and sold, along with the even more important story of what it would mean for the future of digital entertainment.

(Sources: the books Wing Commander I and II: The Ultimate Strategy Guide by Mike Harrison and Game Design Theory and Practice by Richard Rouse III; Retro Gamer 59 and 123; Questbusters of July 1989, August 1990, and April 1991; Computer Gaming World of September 1989 and November 1992; Amiga Computing of December 1988. Online sources include documents hosted at the Wing Commander Combat Information Center, US Gamer‘s profile of Chris Roberts, The Escapist‘s history of Wing Commander, Paul Dean’s interview with Chris Roberts, and Matt Barton’s interview with George “The Fat Man” Sanger. Last but far from least, my thanks to John Miles for corresponding with me via email about his time at Origin, and my thanks to Casey Muratori for putting me in touch with him.

Wing Commander I and II can be purchased in a package together with all of their expansion packs from GOG.com.)


Comments

Emily Short

Mailbag: Teaching Spatial Storytelling

by Emily Short at April 21, 2017 02:00 PM

A Twitter follower asked me for resources to teach students to pair space and story in a meaningful way, and they were already familiar with my article Plot-Shaped Level Design.

Screen Shot 2017-04-21 at 1.36.22 PMTo state what will be extremely obvious to some of my readers, but probably new to others: this is classic craft territory for parser IF, where maps are generally developed in tandem with plot and puzzles.

The primacy of the map, in this tradition, is why Inform had a map index much earlier in its development than it had a scene index: charting the space, together with its doors and access points, was understood as more critical (and also easier to do programmatically) than diagramming a CYOA-style node structure.

Classic text adventures rarely experimented with treating space as continuous rather than room-based, even though the possibility of doing so cropped up in discussion at least as early as 1991, with another discussion in 1996. Some of that may have had to do with technical challenges, genre convention, and the relative difficulty of expressing quantitative information in prose. But I suspect another major factor was simply that the room-based approach to map design offered a lot of leverage in controlling which parts of the story the player saw at a time. Games such as Ether that allow for very free movement through a highly connected volume have to rely on alternative methods to control narrative presentation, or else have story content that can safely be encountered in any order.

In classic parser IF design, the companion of the map was the puzzle dependency chart. Puzzle dependency charts showed which barriers had to be crossed before which others; maps represented how this manifested in physical space.

In most parser IF, not all of the map is available at once, and the player has to solve puzzles to open particular areas, whether by unlocking a door, getting past a guard, throwing light on a dark room, etc.: many of the classic IF puzzles reward the player with access to new spaces, though there are many different ways of setting up the challenge initially.

That progression of spatial access was typically what let the author control the difficulty curve (only give the players puzzles that they’ve proven they’re ready for) and the plot reveals (put the more important clues deeper in the map). Often, reaching a particular location, or reaching it under particular circumstances, or interacting with an object there, would serve to trigger dramatic scenes marking a major advancement in the story.

Then there’s the question of pacing and content density. How much story material belongs in each room? How much real space does a given room represent, and how does that connect with narrative presentation? Adam Cadre’s review of Lost New York gets into detail about some of these topics, and the problem of representational space vs. literally simulating a large area.

So with all that background explanation, here are a few other resources beside the links already given, but if anyone reading wants to recommend others, please feel free to comment as well.

rathmore-manse-grid-patreon.jpgExercise. I’ve partially developed, but never actually run in its current form, a workshop meant to give students practice in designing story to line up with a map.

The idea is to give them some example maps to start with that I’d pre-selected because they provided layered access to different spaces, and then have teams design stories meant to be set in these areas. I was planning to work with maps by Dyson Logos, a D&D map level designer whom I support on Patreon (see right), but there are other possible map sources available online.

Because my workshop notes are designed for myself to run, they’re a bit more terse than they would be if I were handing this exercise off to someone else. However, the instructions as written so far are in a PDF, and here are sources for the blank Dyson Logos maps. He does loads and loads of castles, dungeons, cave systems, houses, and other setting maps designed for RPG play, which makes them a convenient jumping-off point for this exercise.

Writings and talks. Some of these are old, but off the top of my head:

Here’s Ron Gilbert’s post on puzzle dependency charts from a graphical adventure game perspective; CE Forman wrote about them for XYZZYnews with a focus on textual IF, and Gareth Rees offered an interesting reply. Andrew Plotkin built a tool to model these problems explicitly.

Steve Gaynor gave a related (though not IF-specific) talk at PRACTICE in 2011, which looked at storytelling and spatial access as well as the tools available to the player. The slides can be found here and Leigh Alexander’s reporting of the talk here. Gaynor’s talk was focused on physical puzzles, but one can also gate on methods that require the player to demonstrate knowledge of the narrative.

In Where We’re Going, We Don’t Need Roads, Juhana Leinonen talks about the relationship between story node maps and geographical node maps, and how open world is not the same thing as narratively branching.

My post-mortem for Bronze is a very detailed look at how the map, plot beats, and puzzles work together; because it assumes familiarity with the game, it may not be useful to all audiences.

Likewise, this post-mortem for Counterfeit Monkey talks about how the puzzle/plot chart connects with the regions in the map layout (see the section labeled Puzzle Discipline) and also part two of the same post-mortem under Structural Work.

Adam Cadre’s classic work Photopia tweaks the player’s (then) expectations about the map-story relationship by doing a magician’s choice move: at a particular point in the story, you reach a certain location no matter which way you choose to go. Here’s Lucian Smith on this topic (scroll down to the review of Photopia, as it’s a post on all the competition games that year).

The IF Theory Reader has some pertinent articles about how space can be used to gate a story and control access to particular beats; I wrote about modeling geography there (“Challenges of a Broad Geography…”), including a section titled “The Map and the Plot,” which talks about designing the map to cause the player to encounter particular story beats in a particular order. (It’s hard to link into the PDF, unfortunately, but the title page is pretty clear.)

David Fisher’s IF Gems selection is a list of quotes lifted from different game reviews, about what’s expected from a parser game and how to achieve that; it includes some lines relevant to this discussion.

Here I am in 2001 having a gripe about a game whose open map structure made it difficult to play, in my opinion at the time; here is Brett Witty on the same game, with some different but related observations about the challenge of the open map.

Graham Nelson’s Craft of Adventure treats the prologue, middle game, and epilogue in very spatial terms. The whole thing is still very much worth reading, decades later: some of it does seem rather out of date now, but there is a lot of core game design that I first learned from this article.

There’s a lot else to find: how the map supported (or failed to support) the story is a frequent topic in reviews of interactive fiction ca 1990-2005. If you want to do more archaeology yourself, Past RAIF Topics is a big index of major discussions from rec.arts.int-fiction during the 1990s and early 2000s, and hugely useful if one is looking for historical background on these or any other topics. IF-Review and the archives of SPAG Magazine also have a number of in-depth reviews of many, many past IF works.


Tagged: mailbag

April 20, 2017

The People's Republic of IF

May meetup

by zarf at April 20, 2017 06:00 AM

The Boston IF meetup for May will be Wednesday, May 17, 6:30 pm, MIT room 14N-233.

We will look at the class projects from Nick Montfort’s Interactive Narrative class! And possibly also the Spring Thing ribbon-winners.

IFTF Blog

More volunteer-seeking: the Accessibility Project

by Andrew Plotkin at April 20, 2017 12:20 AM

Since IFTF’s launch party, we’ve been talking about the Accessibility Testing Project. “The Testathon”, for short. The plan was (and is) for a community effort to test IF tools and make sure they’re usable by everybody. IF has a long history of being open to gamers with visual disabilities. We want to make sure that remains true, and also that it extends to other groups of gamers.

Last fall, we put together a committee of people with experience in accessibility tools and testing — and experience in IF, of course. Then… things kind of bogged down. Turns out we didn’t think hard enough about experience in organizing a committee and making things happen.

Rookie mistake, right? And precisely because nobody was pushing the thing forward, the problem slipped to the bottom of everybody’s priority list and now it’s April. But now it’s time to start pushing again.

So: we are looking for someone to take on the Testathon organizer role. This is primarily about organizing meetings, making decisions, resolving disagreements, and generally chivvying people along to the next step. The organizer does not need to be an expert on either IF software or accessibility testing/tools; that’s why we have a committee. But they should know enough about both fields to understand what the rest of the committee is saying when they say it.

If you’re interested, or you know someone who is interested, please contact us. Thanks!

April 19, 2017

Renga in Blue

Adventure 500 (1979)

by Jason Dyer at April 19, 2017 10:00 PM

The 2008 comedy movie Be Kind Rewind introduced the idea of “sweding”, recreating scenes of a movie from memory.

Yes, this is relevant to the game at hand. Let me back up a moment.

One of the legendary “lost copies” of Adventure is by George Richmond from 1979 (“with assistance from Mike Preston”). It was written in CDC Pascal and while people reported playing it in the late 70s / early 80s, until recently it was considered to be entirely lost.

That is it *was* considered lost, until roughly a year ago a mysterious “Tom A.” sent a source code package to Arthur O’Dwyer. However, it’s sat since then, and I can reliably say nobody except for possibly “Tom A.” has ever played it since 1982.

Still, maybe nothing to get excited over. With another lost version of Adventure, you might think (as I first did before booting this up) that all we have here is yet another port, with extra rooms tossed for flavor.

That doesn’t describe this at all.

It’s more like — the author played Adventure, liked it, had some notes — then decided to write his own game from scratch, riffing off his notes but filling in the gaps with his own imagination. It’s like he made a full length sweding of Adventure.

The picture above is a (mostly complete) map of the outdoors. You have to go *southwest* to the entrance of the cave, not south. There are two routes deep in the forest that lead directly to the maze of twisty passages (and not the same maze as the original game!) There’s a lake to the west that requires a boat to get across.

You’re in front of a Wellhouse. A stream flows to the southwest.
> in
You’re in a Wellhouse. The center of the room is occupied by a well.
I see objects here.
A bottle full of water.
Tasty food for nourishing Adventurer and beast.
A ring of unmarked keys.
A kerosene lantern. It is hard to tell how much fuel is left in it.

As far as I can tell so far, the game uses almost none of the original room descriptions. Early on you find a box of matches (which is required to light the lantern) and a claw hammer. Instead of XYZZY as a magic word, you get this:

You’re at a dead end. A plaque on the walls is inscribed with the saying: “If you were in a hurry you would ‘     ‘ along”. Unfortunately, the word you need is obscured.

This is going to be quite the ride, is what I mean.


Spelunker De-Spunked

by Jason Dyer at April 19, 2017 07:00 PM

Quick post this time —

Just making a general plea; we’re getting close to the end of Spelunker, but have lost our players. Please come and participate! Just say what you want to do in the comments.

Current thread here:

https://bluerenga.wordpress.com/2017/04/15/spelunker-play-by-post-iv-slaying-the-mighty-clam/


April 16, 2017

Emily Short

All Hope Abandon (Eric Eve)

by Emily Short at April 16, 2017 10:00 AM

allhopecoverI’ve been meaning to catch up with All Hope Abandon for years now: back in 2005 when it came out, it pulled down a number of XYZZY nominations (Best Game, Best Story, Best Setting, Best NPCs, Best Individual Puzzle, Best Individual NPC). It’s one of a handful of religiously-themed IF works reputed not to be especially preachy. Eric Eve is a theologian, and his story starts out with the protagonist listening to a stultifying lecture on the relation of the gospels to one another and to the historical Jesus.

From there, the protagonist experiences an ambiguous health event and moves to a surreal allegorical hell-scape. Hell, when you get there, is in the process of being “demythologized,” thanks to trends in theological scholarship. A demon is taking down the lettering over the gate.

Some of the game incorporates lessons about Biblical scholarship into the gameplay proper. The hell section features, among other things, a puzzle on the methods of criticism used to guess which gospel elements likely came from Jewish tradition or backdated early Christian tradition, and which might reflect historical truth. THINK often provides some genuine insights into the current situation, unusually for IF. And much of the game’s setting concerns a contrast between the old way of understanding spirituality — a landscape of angels and demons and lashing chaotic seas — and a more modern way, which is portrayed as even darker and gloomier, mechanized and full of warfare. (There are also other puzzles that are more standard text adventure fare, like trying to find some ink to refill a pen.)

It’s harder — or at least it was harder for me — to say that there’s a consistent message behind all this. I have various thoughts about this, but they’re pretty spoilery, so I will put them after the break.

We’re in search of Hope (about which more in a minute), and the more fatuous forms of Biblical scholarship are shown to mire Hope and threaten to destroy it/her. Being reunited with Hope is a win condition, and losing her is a loss of the game as a whole. At least some of the time, the game seems to be concerned with the state of the protagonist’s soul, and seems to portray lectures about the Q Source as something of an impediment to the soul’s well-being.

But it’s not always clear whether we’re meant to paint modern theology in general as problematic. Or is the problem, in fact, a discrepancy between theological intellectualization and faith, between theories about a possible historical Jesus and a personal commitment to follow him?

Perhaps curiously for a game that visits the Garden of Eden, the mount of Golgotha, and the empty tomb, All Hope Abandon doesn’t commit itself on the question of God.

There’s a moment when we visit the site of the crucifixion and find three empty crosses. The left and right cross have markings to indicate the crimes committed by those crucified, but the sign on the center cross is empty. Traditionally, the sign on Christ’s cross would be depicted as INRI, an abbreviation referring to his claim to be king of the Jews: a message with political implications. In the game, we can put a word there of our choice — hope, integrity, love, truth, or several other things. The options are all positive abstractions. But every option is an abstraction, not a person; not someone the contemporary authorities regarded as politically dangerous, and also not an incarnate god.

At another point, we’re offered a high and a low road into the afterlife. The low road is easy, gentle, and obviously incorrect. Follow it, and we find eternal oblivion, which sounds okay, except that oblivion is a hopeless condition. In order to win, we must leave this area behind and trudge up the hard and narrow path instead.

If anything, the devil gets a bit more representation, though even that’s on the ambiguous side. Visit the shore of a chaotic sea and you may have visions of a sinister, Satanic face. But you can also find the snake in the garden, and it’s a cheery, cooperative sort that warns you off eating the tedious apple, and helps you with rescuing Hope.

Who is a woman, obviously. That’s the other thing.

The game’s handling of women is a bit uncomfortable, and I say that even with the awareness that Christian allegory tends to assign ladies to portray various virtues. Pilgrim’s Progress does at least send Christiana out on a journey of her own.

Throughout All Hope Abandon, you are seeking a woman-trophy by the name of Felicity Hope, who is sinking into an allegorical swamp, and whose main character note is being blonde.

At one point (quite late in the game), she challenges you about whether you believe in gender equality; saying yes is part of the losing, not the winning sequence. This doesn’t go anywhere as detailed or as developed as the end of Lewis’ That Hideous Strength, which enraged me even when I was much younger and less feminist by instructing its major female character, “Go in obedience and you will find love. You will have no more dreams. Have children instead.” Even then, I was pretty irked by the implication that this was woman’s only natural goal, and that having, for instance, an academic career was not a suitable purpose for me. There, at least, Jane has a personality, and some internal thoughts.

All Hope Abandon simply requires that you, as the stronger male character, must save Hope because the opposite arrangement is physically impractical. She exists in the real world as well as the surreal hell-scape, and in both worlds you are apparently in love with her, despite knowing almost nothing about her. You are told that you admire the Gestalt of her face, a comment so absurd that I took it as a (pretty decent) joke at the narrator’s expense. But all the same Hope is never given a personality to speak of.

On the other hand, if you’re not careful, you may instead run into a green-skinned demoness and wind up tempted by her. You’re allowed to specify what kind of temptation you’re into, and if you go for sins of the flesh, you wind up expiring thus:

It is the most amazing experience of your life (or should that be death?), so that the more she gives you, the more you want, and the more desperately and passionately you want it. And still she goes on, feeding your desire until desire becomes obsession, obsession turns to addiction, and addiction becomes total enslavement.

Within a few hours ever growing desire for Agrath has banished every other thought and feeling from your mind, and still you carry on rutting with her, your need for her ever growing, your thought and will and humanity ever diminishing, until you become no more than an Agrath-bonking automaton.

*** YOU ARE AGRATH’S SEX-TOY FOR ALL ETERNITY ***

Other possibilities include asking for money, so that you wind counting your cash eternally; asking for food, so that you are eternally eating until you drown in your own vomit; asking for fame, so that you are mobbed with admirers and can never escape their demands for autographs. If you ask for sleep, you will get oblivion, which is to my mind the least distressing of the possible options.

So here is the sense of the worldview I took from this game. It shares a traditional Christian sense of sin and purity. It is disturbed by lust, which is a sufficiently dangerous phenomenon to lower the narrative voice to such unaccustomed terms as “bonking.” It dislikes intellectual carelessness. In the manner of Tolkien and Lewis, it has an aesthetic horror of the modern, that being industrialized and dominated by war. It insists on the hope of eternal life and refuses the possibility of a bleaker, more total atheism. As for the cross, it is lurid (shown under a black sun that pulls light out of the sky) and yet painless (no particular focus on the physical reality of a crucifixion).

All Hope Abandon manages, in a curious way, to spend all its time in the Empty Tomb and yet perpetually to avert its gaze from the actual matter of the Resurrection. Which of the details of the tomb story are best attested? What can we conclude from the texts? Do we agree with the criteria applied to those texts? Don’t we think it’s funny how certain scholars swaddle the whole matter in an excess of German? And these questions are fair enough, of course — even the last — but they do not give the path to the heavenly city, which All Hope Abandon shows us perpetually on the horizon.

So both the theological and the romantic angle of this story seemed to me to be missing something: the other party. Here is salvation, but no Savior; love, but only a paper beloved.

After I played, I found myself thinking about Connie Willis’ Passage, which speaks to the conflict between the desire to hope for an afterlife, and the scientific certainty that none exists. It felt to me as though the narrator of All Hope Abandon desires the consolations of religion, but cannot rationally justify them, and thus will not argue for the existence of God — not even within the confines of metaphor.

*

One final point: in the interpreter I used, the Greek quotations lacked breathing marks and accents, and had the final sigmas confused with mid-word sigmas. I assume this must have been a lapse of technology, but it was disconcerting.

 


April 15, 2017

Emily Short

Mid-April Link Assortment

by Emily Short at April 15, 2017 12:00 PM

Events

May 6 is the San Francisco Bay Area IF Meetup.

May 11 is Hello Words in Nottingham, a text game writing group.

May 15-16 I will be at the Creative Coast festival in Karlshamn, Sweden, where I will speak about interactive narrative structures beyond branching narrative. Because I am out of town a lot this month, there is no Oxford/London Meetup planned for May, though I’m hoping to be able to do a tools-focused meetup in June.

The Machine Learning for Creativity workshop is accepting papers until May 16 and will be held on August 14; the speaker lineup has people who are interested in computer-aided storytelling or various forms of generative narrative.

PCG Workshop 2017 has a call for papers out; the theme is “PCG in context” and proposals are due May 22.

The British Library is running an Interactive Fiction Summer School as a weeklong course in July, with multiple instructors from a variety of different interactive narrative backgrounds. More information can be found at the British Library’s website.

The Spring Thing Festival of Interactive Fiction is live; you can play the games here, and I’ve written some thoughts on this blog and at Rock Paper Shotgun; other reviewers are starting to share thoughts on festival games.

Work

Xalavier Nelson, who wrote Screw You, Bear Dad for IF Comp 2016, has published Ellipses RPG, a ruleset for playing collaborative narrative tabletop games without a great deal of reading up on the system; it’s available for pay-what-you-want at itch.io.

A Cock and Bull Story is a parser IF wordplay game about recognizing common sayings and phrases, and interacting accordingly; that puts it a little in the style of Puddles on the Path or certain segments of Nord and Bert. I felt like it could probably use a little more polish — there are places where objects are described twice, or where an obvious permutation of one of its idioms isn’t recognized by the game — but it’s nonetheless a fun conceit.

A couple of devs from Hungary have a Kickstarter campaign to get English translation and localization for “Saving Mikey”, a finished choose your own adventure game in the style of Lifeline. The story seems to be about guiding a young boy through a hostile landscape filled with people who are infected with a dangerous virus, and you can find out more at their Kickstarter page.

Alcyone is also on Kickstarter; it’s a sci-fi narrative game that seems to be inspired by Failbetter’s StoryNexus system of quality-based narrative.

AlcyoneScreenshot.pngPlayers guide their PC as they uncover a conspiracy about the Nihility, an apocalyptic event that occurred in the past, and the City’s six ruling factions.

Neven Mrgan has released Out Line, a short piece of interactive fiction about a breakup that offers one single choice–when to end the narrative. It might remind players, at least in content, of Possibilia, an interactive film experience in which the viewer can shift the scenario around the couple’s words.

foggy-road-cover.jpgJulie Landry has released Foggy Road, a choose your own adventure story made in Twine, to tie in with the release of her novel Bless the Skies.

Assorted

This interview with CM Taylor about his work in science fiction, which delves into how he sees interactive narrative and digital technologies impacting his own work.

Robert P. Fletcher’s article in Electronic Book Review about augmented reality in electronic literature discusses Aaron Reed and Jacob Garbe’s Ice-Bound Concordance.

For those interested in wordgames, Hardback’s kickstarter has launched. Hardback is the sequel to Paperback, but adds several new mechanics, which you can see detailed on their launch page.

A French literature teacher is using Inform7 to teach his students; their work can be found here and might be of significant interest to IF’s Francophone community.

Jason McIntosh has published some thoughts about IF Comp 2016 and what the outcomes mean for the 2017 edition of the competition.


April 14, 2017

IFTF Blog

IFComp: Surveying 2016, and pondering 2017

by Jason McIntosh at April 14, 2017 08:23 PM

More than sixty IFComp participants responded to a survey that I prepared after last year’s competition wrapped up. (That’s around one-quarter of everyone who either entered or voted in IFComp 2016, and that’s great!) As I hoped would happen, several common threads emerged from the responses. A few highlights:

  • Of those who thought that lifting the ban on public author commentary significantly changed the competition, ten times as many people found it an improvement versus a detriment.

    As a result — and mixing in my personal observation that everything seemed to operate just fine under the simpler ruleset — we’re likely to keep this change in-place for 2017.

  • Lots of people, both judges and entrants, wish that judges could optionally leave some anonymous free-text feedback to entrants alongside their ratings. This never really occurred to me alone, so the spontaneous, many-voiced desire for it surprised and interested me.

    At least one fellow contest-organizer I’ve spoken with since expressed surprise that IFComp doesn’t do this already. I fully admit that, in nerdish naiveté, I figured that allowing entrants to include their contact information on the ballot filled this need well enough. So, this discovery alone made the survey feel worthwhile to me.

  • Many respondents would like to see a stronger link between the IFComp materials hosted on ifcomp.org and all the reviews, playthroughs, and other player-created material that the IF community (and, increasingly, the larger game-playing world) generates during the six-week judging period.

    These responses resonated the most with me. I have for years wanted to more officially recognize “reviewer” as an IFComp participatory role, just as important as “entrant”, “judge” and “prize donor”. And I have, as the evidence shows, fallen short of any action in this direction.

    So let me say it now: I hope to make 2017 the year of the review, for IFComp. We’ve got a few months before judging starts, and I plan to make use of this time to lead the IFComp committee and volunteer dev-team in discussing and implementing some simple ways to link IFComp entries with reviews. Ideally I’d like to increase reviews’ discoverability without upsetting the neutrality of the ballot itself. IFComp is larger than its ballot page, of course, and I feel confident we can find some routes that will work splendidly.

We’re still more than two months out from accepting entry-intents for this year’s competition, but it’s never too early to contribute either to the prize pool or to the IFTF fund that helps make IFComp itself possible. We set up a page about both kinds of donations last year, and every word remains true as written.

Please accept my gratitude for your interest in reading this far, your generosity should you choose to contribute to IFComp, and your shared excitement for what IFComp’s 23rd year will bring us both.

Choice of Games

New Hosted Game! The Daily Blackmail by Mary Duffy

by Rachel E. Towers at April 14, 2017 05:01 PM

Hosted Games has a new game for you to play!

Something is rotten in City Hall—can you uncover it and…win a Pulitzer? When the mayor unexpectedly resigns, it’s up to you, the rookie reporter on the City Desk to find out the real story and get it into print. Right away you smell a rat. As you track down sources and information, your reporter’s instincts, brains, heart, or impeccable writing will lead you to the truth.

“The Daily Blackmail” is a 33,000 word interactive fantasy novella by Mary Duffy, where your choices control the story. It’s entirely text-based—without graphics or sound effects—and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination.

In The Daily Blackmail, you’ll get all the news that is (and isn’t!) fit to print.

• Play as male, female, or non-binary.
• Cross paths with an evil editor, a mobster, and even scarier: the publisher.
• Lie, cheat, and steal to get your front page story.
• Press your colleagues, political cronies, and underworld sources for information.
• Reach for every reporter’s dream—a Pulitzer Prize.

Mary Duffy developed this game using ChoiceScript, a simple programming language for writing multiple-choice interactive novels like these. Writing games with ChoiceScript is easy and fun, even for authors with no programming experience. Write your own game and Hosted Games will publish it for you, giving you a share of the revenue your game produces.

New Hosted Game! Paradigm City by James Rhoden

by Rachel E. Towers at April 14, 2017 05:01 PM

Hosted Games has a new game for you to play!

The Golden Age of heroes is over, but you’re just beginning. Will you use your powers to help the world or help yourself? Set on a near-future Earth that has been irrevocably altered by the arrival of superhumans, the world has been dealing with a radical shift in the nature of humanity. For thirty years, those with world-altering powers – referred to as capes – have been at the forefront of the world’s media. There has been heroes, there has been villains, and there has been world-shattering confrontations when those two groups came into contact. For a time, those individuals walked the world like modern deities. For a time, it was good.

But things change. Given time, all things resolve to entropy.

The Golden Age is over. The player, a member of the newest graduating class of an international academy for powered individuals, needs to find their place in this new world, and whether that place will be determined by their own hand – or by the machinations of others. Assigned to the troubled Paradigm City, it’ll be up to the player to determine whether their name becomes a byword for fame or infamy, idealism or pragmatism, and loyalty or ambition.

“Paradigm City” is a 110,000 word interactive fantasy novel by James Rhoden, where your choices control the story. It’s entirely text-based—without graphics or sound effects—and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination.

• Play as male, female or non-binary, straight, gay or bi!
• Experience your life from youth to the end of your first big mission!
• Multiple endings, with differences both big and small! How will your actions affect the future of the world?
• Utilize the three precepts of epic heroism – brawn, bravado and brains – to solve challenges!
• Increase the potency of your electrokinetic superpower to overcome dangerous threats!
• Work with a team of elite heroes to solve a mystery – your relationships with them will determine their fates, and whether you’ll learn their stories.
• Uncover and unveil a conspiracy, or work to use it for your own ends!
• Embrace the traditional values of the classical crusader, or embody the cutting-edge pragmatics of modern powered heroes!
• Sixty achievements!
• Three romance options to choose from – or don’t, and keep things strictly professional!

James Rhoden developed this game using ChoiceScript, a simple programming language for writing multiple-choice interactive novels like these. Writing games with ChoiceScript is easy and fun, even for authors with no programming experience. Write your own game and Hosted Games will publish it for you, giving you a share of the revenue your game produces.

The Digital Antiquarian

The 640 K Barrier

by Jimmy Maher at April 14, 2017 04:00 PM

There was a demon in memory. They said whoever challenged him would lose. Their programs would lock up, their machines would crash, and all their data would disintegrate.

The demon lived at the hexadecimal memory address A0000, 655,360 in decimal, beyond which no more memory could be allocated. He lived behind a barrier beyond which they said no program could ever pass. They called it the 640 K barrier.

— with my apologies to The Right Stuff1

The idea that the original IBM PC, the machine that made personal computing safe for corporate America, was a hastily slapped-together stopgap has been vastly overstated by popular technology pundits over the decades since its debut back in August of 1981. Whatever the realities of budgets and scheduling with which its makers had to contend, there was a coherent philosophy behind most of the choices they made that went well beyond “throw this thing together as quickly as possible and get it out there before all these smaller companies corner the market for themselves.” As a design, the IBM PC favored robustness, longevity, and expandability, all qualities IBM had learned the value of through their many years of experience providing businesses and governments with big-iron solutions to their most important data–processing needs. To appreciate the wisdom of IBM’s approach, we need only consider that today, long after the likes of the Commodore Amiga and the original Apple Macintosh architecture, whose owners so loved to mock IBM’s unimaginative beige boxes, have passed into history, most of our laptop and desktop computers — including modern Macs — can trace the origins of their hardware back to what that little team of unlikely business-suited visionaries accomplished in an IBM branch office in Boca Raton, Florida.

But of course no visionary has 20-20 vision. For all the strengths of the IBM PC, there was one area where all the jeering by owners of sexier machines felt particularly well-earned. Here lay a crippling weakness, born not so much of the hardware found in that first IBM PC as the operating system the marketplace chose to run on it, that would continue to vex programmers and ordinary users for two decades, not finally fading away until Microsoft’s release of Windows XP in 2001 put to bed the last legacies of MS-DOS in mainstream computing. MS-DOS, dubbed the “quick and dirty” operating system during the early days of its development, is likely the piece of software in computing history with the most lopsided contrast between the total number of hours put it into its development and the total number of hours it spent in use, on millions and millions of computers all over the world. The 640 K barrier, the demon all those users spent so much time and energy battling for so many years, was just one of the more prominent consequences of corporate America’s adoption of such a blunt instrument as MS-DOS as its standard. Today we’ll unpack the problem that was memory management under MS-DOS, and we’ll also examine the problem’s multifarious solutions, all of them to one degree or another ugly and imperfect.


 

The original IBM PC was built around an Intel 8088 microprocessor, a cost-reduced and somewhat crippled version of an earlier chip called the 8086. (IBM’s decision to use the 8088 instead of the 8086 would have huge importance for the expansion buses of this and future machines, but the differences between the two chips aren’t important for our purposes today.) Despite functioning as a 16-bit chip in most ways, the 8088 had a 20-bit address space, meaning it could address a maximum of 1 MB of memory. Let’s consider why this limitation should exist.

Memory, whether in your brain or in your computer, is of no use to you if you can’t keep track of where you’ve put things so that you can retrieve them again later. A computer’s memory is therefore indexed by bytes, with every single byte having its own unique address. These addresses, numbered from 0 to the upper limit of the processor’s address space, allow the computer to keep track of what is stored where. The biggest number that can be represented in 20 bits is 1,048,575, or 1 MB. Thus this is the maximum amount of memory which the 8088, with its 20-bit address bus, can handle. Such a limitation hardly felt like a deal breaker to the engineers who created the IBM PC. Indeed, it’s difficult to overemphasize what a huge figure 1 MB really was when they released the machine in 1981, in which year the top-of-the-line Apple II had just 48 K of memory and plenty of other competing machines shipped with no more than 16 K.

A processor needs to address other sorts of memory besides the pool of general-purpose RAM which is available for running applications. There’s also ROM memory — read-only memory, burned inviolably into chips — that contains essential low-level code needed for the computer to boot itself up, along with, in the case of the original IBM PC, an always-available implementation of the BASIC programming language. (The rarely used BASIC in ROM would be phased out of subsequent models.) And some areas of RAM as well are set aside from the general pool for special purposes, like the fully 128 K of addresses given to video cards to keep track of the onscreen display in the original IBM PC. All of these special types of memory must be accessed by the CPU, must be given their own unique addresses to facilitate that, and must thus be subtracted from the address space available to the general pool.

IBM’s engineers were quite generous in drawing the boundary between their general memory pool and the area of addresses allocated to special purposes. Focused on expandability and longevity as they were, they reserved big chunks of “special” memory for purposes that hadn’t even been imagined yet. In all, they reserved the upper three-eighths of the available addresses for specialized purposes actual or potential, leaving the lower five-eighths — 640 K — to the general pool. In time, this first 640 K of memory would become known as “conventional memory,” the remaining 384 K — some of which would be ROM rather than RAM — as “high memory.” The official memory map which IBM published upon the debut of the IBM PC looked like this:

It’s important to understand when looking at a memory map like this one that the existence of a logical address therein doesn’t necessarily mean that any physical memory is connected to that address in any given real machine. The first IBM PC, for instance, could be purchased with as little as 16 K of conventional memory installed, and even a top-of-the-line machine had just 256 K, leaving most of the conventional-memory space vacant. Similarly, early video cards used just 32 K or 64 K of the 128 K of address space offered to them in high memory. The 640 K barrier was thus only a theoretical limitation early on, one few early users or programmers ever even noticed.

That blissful state of affairs, however, wouldn’t last very long. As IBM’s creations — joined, soon enough, by lots of clones — became the standard for American business, more and more advanced applications appeared, craving more and more memory alongside more and more processing power. Already by 1984 the 640 K barrier had gone from a theoretical to a very real limitation, and customers were beginning to demand that IBM do something about it. In response, IBM that year released the PC/AT, built around Intel’s new 80286 microprocessor, which boasted a 24-bit address space good for 16 MB of memory. To unlock all that potential extra memory, IBM made the commonsense decision to extend the memory map above the specialized high-memory area that ended at 1 MB, making all addresses beyond 1 MB a single pool of “extended memory” available for general use.

Problem solved, right? Well, no, not really — else this would be a much shorter article. Due more to software than hardware, all of this potential extended memory proved not to be of much use for the vast majority of people who bought PC/ATs. To understand why this should be, we need to examine the deadly embrace between the new processor and the old operating system people were still running on it.

The 80286 was designed to be much more than just a faster version of the old 8086/8088. Developing the chip before IBM PCs running MS-DOS had come to dominate business computing, Intel hadn’t allowed the need to stay compatible with that configuration to keep them from designing a next-generation chip that would help to take computing to where they saw it as wanting to go. Intel believed that microcomputers were at the stage at which the big institutional machines had been a couple of decades earlier, just about ready to break free of what computer scientist Brian L. Stuart calls the “Triangle of Ones”: one user running one program at a time on one machine. At the very least, Intel believed, the second leg of the Triangle must soon fall; everyone recognized that multitasking — running several programs at a time and switching freely between them — was a much more efficient way to do complex work than laboriously shutting down and starting up application after application. But unfortunately for MS-DOS, the addition of multitasking complicates the life of an operating system to an absolutely staggering degree.

Operating systems are of course complex subjects worthy of years or a lifetime of study. We might, however, collapse their complexities down to a few fundamental functions: to provide an interface for the user to work with the computer and manage her programs and files; to manage the various tasks running on the computer and allocate resources among them; and to act as a buffer or interface between applications and the underlying hardware of the computer. That, anyway, is what we expect at a minimum of our operating systems today. But for a computer ensconced within the Triangle of Ones, the second and third functions were largely moot: with only one program allowed to run at a time, resource-management concerns were nonexistent, and, without the need for a program to be concerned about clashing with other programs running at the same time, bare-metal programming — manipulating the hardware directly, without passing requests through any intervening layer of operating-system calls — was often considered not only acceptable but the expected approach. In this spirit, MS-DOS provided just 27 function calls to programmers, the vast majority of them dealing only with disk and file management. (Compare that, my fellow programmers, with the modern Windows or OS X APIs!) For everything else, banging on the bare metal was fine.

We can’t even begin here to address all of the complications that are introduced when we add multitasking into the equation, asking the operating system in the process to fully embrace all three of the core functions listed above. Memory management alone, the one aspect we will look deeper into today, becomes complicated enough. A program which is sharing a machine with other programs can no longer have free run of the memory map, placing whatever it wants to wherever it wants to; to do so risks overwriting the code or data of another program running on the system. Instead the operating system must demand that individual programs formally request the memory they’d like to use, and then must come up with a way to keep a program, whether due to bugs or malice, from running roughshod over areas of memory that it hasn’t been granted.

Or perhaps not. The Commodore Amiga, the platform which pioneered multitasking on personal computers in 1985, didn’t so much solve the latter part of this problem as punted it away. An application program is expected to request from the Amiga’s operating system any memory that it requires. The operating system then returns a pointer to a block of memory of the requested size, and trusts the application not to write to  memory outside of these bounds. Yet nothing besides the programmer’s skill and good nature absolutely prevents such unauthorized memory access from happening. Every application on the Amiga, in other words, can write to any address in the machine’s memory, whether that address be properly allocated to it or not. Screen memory, free memory, another program’s data, another program’s code — all are fair game to the errant program. Such unauthorized memory access will almost always eventually result in a total system crash. A non-malicious programmer who wants her program to a good citizen would of course never intentionally write to memory she hasn’t properly requested, but bugs of this nature are notoriously easy to create and notoriously hard to track down, and on the Amiga a single instance of one can bring down not only the offending program but the entire operating system. With all due respect to the Amiga’s importance as the first multitasking personal computer, this is obviously not the ideal way to implement it.

A far more sustainable approach is to take the extra step of tracking and protecting the memory that has been allocated to each program. Memory protection is usually accomplished using  what’s known as virtual memory: when a program requests memory, it’s returned not a true address within the system’s memory pool but rather a virtual address that’s translated back into the real address to which it corresponds every time the program accesses its data. Each program is thus effectively sandboxed from everything else, allowed to read from and write to only its own data. Only the lowest levels of the operating system have global access to the memory pool as a whole.

Implementing such memory protection in software alone, however, must be an untenable drain on the resources available to systems engineers in the 1980s — a fact which does everything to explain its absence from the Amiga. Intel therefore decided to give software a leg up via hardware. They built into the 80286 a memory-management unit that could automatically translate from virtual to real memory addresses and vice versa, making this constantly ongoing process fairly transparent even to the operating system.

Nevertheless, the operating system must know about this capability, must in fact be written very differently if it’s to run on a CPU with memory protection built into its circuitry. Intel recognized that it would take time for such operating systems to be created for the new chip, and recognized that compatibility with the earlier 8086/8088 chips would be a very good thing to have in the meantime. They therefore built two possible operating modes into the 80286. In “protected mode” — the mode they hoped would eventually come to be used almost universally — the chip’s full potential would be realized, including memory protection and the ability to address up to 16 MB of memory. In “real mode,” the 80286 would function essentially like a turbocharged 8086/8088, with no memory-protection capabilities and with the old limitation on addressable memory of 1 MB still in place. Assuming that in the early days at least the new chip would need to run on operating systems with no knowledge of its full capabilities, Intel made the 80286 default to real mode on startup. An operating system which did know about the 80286 and wanted to bring out its full potential could switch it to protected mode at boot-up and be off to the races.

It’s at the intersection between the 80286 and the operating system that Intel’s grand plans for the future of their new chip went awry. An overwhelming percentage of the early 80286s were used in IBM PC/ATs and clones, and an overwhelming percentage of those machines were running MS-DOS. Microsoft’s erstwhile “quick and dirty” operating system knew nothing of the 80286’s full capabilities. Worse, trying to give it knowledge of those capabilities would have to entail a complete rewrite which would break compatibility with all existing MS-DOS software. Yet the whole reason MS-DOS was popular in the first place — it certainly wasn’t because of a generous feature set, a friendly interface, or any aesthetic appeal — was that very same huge base of business software. Getting users to make the leap to some hypothetical new operating system in the absence of software to run on it would be as difficult as getting developers to write programs for an operating system with no users. It was a chicken-or-the-egg situation, and neither chicken nor egg was about to stick its neck out anytime soon.

IBM was soon shipping thousands upon thousands of PC/ATs every month, and the clone makers were soon shipping even more 80286-based machines of their own. Yet at least 95 percent of those machines were idling along at only a fraction of their potential, thanks to the already creakily archaic MS-DOS. For all these users, the old 640 K barrier remained as high as ever. They could stuff their machines full of extended memory if they liked, but they still couldn’t access it. And of course the multitasking that the 80286 was supposed to have enabled remained as foreign a concept to MS-DOS as a GPS unit to a Model T. The only solution IBM offered those who complained about the situation was to run another operating system. And indeed, there were a number of alternatives to MS-DOS available for the PC/AT and other 80286-based machines, including several variants of the old institutional-computing favorite Unix — one of them even from Microsoft — and new creations like Digital Research’s Concurrent DOS, which struggled with mixed results to wedge in some degree of MS-DOS compatibility. Still, the only surefire way to take full advantage of MS-DOS’s huge software base was to run the real — in more ways than one now! — MS-DOS, and this is what the vast majority of people with 80286-equipped machines wound up doing.

Meanwhile the very people making the software which kept MS-DOS the only viable choice for most users were feeling the pinch of being confined to 640 K more painfully almost by the month. Finally Lotus Corporation —  makers of the Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet package that ruled corporate America, the greatest single business-software success story of their era — decided to use their clout to do something about it. They convinced Intel to join them in devising a scheme for breaking the 640 K barrier without abandoning MS-DOS. What they came up with was one mother of an ugly kludge — a description the scheme has in common with virtually all efforts to break through the 640 K barrier.

Looking through the sparsely populated high-memory area which the designers of the original IBM PC had so generously carved out, Lotus and Intel realized it should be possible on almost any extant machine to identify a contiguous 64 K chunk of those addresses which wasn’t being used for anything. This chunk, they decided, would be the gateway to potentially many more megabytes installed elsewhere in the machine. Using a combination of software and hardware, they implemented what’s known as a bank-switching scheme. The 64 K chunk of high-memory addresses was divided into four segments of 16 K, each of which could serve as a lens focused on a 16 K segment of additional memory above and beyond 1 MB. When the processor accessed the addresses in high memory, the data it would actually access would be the data at whatever sections of the additional memory their lenses were currently pointing to. The four lenses could be moved around at will, giving access, albeit in a roundabout way, to however much extra memory the user had installed. The additional memory unlocked by the scheme was dubbed “expanded memory.”  The name’s unfortunate similarity to “extended memory” would cause much confusion over the years to come; from here on, we’ll call it by its common acronym of “EMS.”

All those gobs of extra memory wouldn’t quite come for free: applications would have to be altered to check for the existence of EMS memory and make use of it, and there would remain a distinct difference between conventional memory and EMS memory with which programmers would always have to reckon. Likewise, the overhead of constantly moving those little lenses around made EMS memory considerably slower to access than conventional memory. On the brighter side, though, EMS worked under MS-DOS with only the addition of a single device driver during startup. And, since the hardware mechanism for moving the lenses around was completely external to the CPU, it would even work on machines that weren’t equipped with the new 80286.

This diagram shows the different types of memory available on PCs of the mid-1980s. In blue, we see the original 1 MB memory map of the IBM PC. In green, we see a machine equipped with additional extended memory. And in orange we see a machine equipped with additional expanded memory.

Shortly before the scheme made its official debut at a COMDEX trade show in May of 1985, Lotus and Intel convinced a crucial third partner to come aboard: Microsoft. “It’s garbage! It’s a kludge!” said Bill Gates. “But we’re going to do it.” With the combined weight of Lotus, Intel, and Microsoft behind it, EMS took hold as the most practical way of breaking the 640 K barrier. Imperfect and kludgy though it was, software developers hurried to add support for EMS memory to whatever programs of theirs could practically make use of it, while hardware manufacturers rushed EMS memory boards onto the market. EMS may have been ugly, but it was here today and it worked.

At the same time that EMS was taking off, however, extended memory wasn’t going away. Some hardware makers — most notably IBM themselves — didn’t want any part of EMS’s ugliness. Software makers therefore continued to probe at the limits of machines equipped with extended memory, still looking for a way to get at it from within the confines of MS-DOS. What if they momentarily switched the 80286 into protected mode, just for as long as they needed to manipulate data in extended memory, then went back into real mode? It seemed like a reasonable idea — except that Intel, never anticipating that anyone would want to switch modes on the fly like this, had neglected to provide a way to switch an 80286 in protected mode back into real mode. So, proponents of extended memory had to come up with a kludge even uglier than the one that allowed EMS memory to function. They could force the 80286 back into real mode, they realized, by resetting it entirely, just as if the user had rebooted her computer. The 80286 would go through its self-check again — a process that admittedly absorbed precious milliseconds — and then pick back up where it left off. It was, as Microsoft’s Gordon Letwin memorably put it, like “turning off the car to change gears.” It was staggeringly kludgy, it was horribly inefficient, but it worked in its fashion. Given the inefficiencies involved, the scheme was mostly used to implement virtual disks stored in the extended memory, which wouldn’t be subject to the constant access of an application’s data space.

In 1986, the 32-bit 80386, Intel’s latest and greatest chip, made its public bow at the heart of the Compaq Deskpro 386 rather than an IBM machine, a landmark moment signaling the slow but steady shift of business computing’s power center from IBM to Microsoft and the clone makers using their operating system. While working on the new chip, Intel had had time to see how the 80286 was actually being used in the wild, and had faced the reality that MS-DOS was likely destined to be cobbled onto for years to come rather than replaced in its entirety with something better. They therefore made a simple but vitally important change to the 80386 amidst its more obvious improvements. In addition to being able to address an inconceivable total of 4 GB of memory in protected mode thanks to its 32-bit address space, the 80386 could be switched between protected mode and real mode on the fly if one desired, without needing to be constantly reset.

In freeing programmers from that massive inefficiency, the 80386 cracked open the door that much further to making practical use of extended memory in MS-DOS. In 1988, the old EMS consortium of Lotus, Intel, and Microsoft came together once again, this time with the addition to their ranks of the clone manufacturer AST; the absence of IBM is, once again, telling. Together they codified a standard approach to extended memory on 80386 and later processors, which corresponded essentially to the scheme I’ve already described in the context of the 80286, but with a simple command to the 80386 to switch back to real mode replacing the resets. They called it the eXtended Memory Specification; memory accessed in this way soon became known universally as “XMS” memory. Under XMS as under EMS, a new device driver would be loaded into MS-DOS. Ordinary real-mode programs could then call this driver to access extended memory; the driver would do the needful switching to protected mode, copy blocks of data from extended memory into conventional memory or vice versa, then switch the processor back to real mode when it was time to return control to the program. It was still inelegant, still a little inefficient, and still didn’t use the capabilities of Intel’s latest processors in anything like the way Intel’s engineers had intended them to be used; true multitasking still remained a pipe dream somewhere off in a shadowy future. Owners of sexier machines like the Macintosh and Amiga, in other words, still had plenty of reason to mock and scoff. In most circumstances, working with XMS memory was actually slower than working with EMS memory. The primary advantage of XMS was that it let programs work with much bigger chunks of non-conventional memory at one time than the four 16 K chunks that EMS allowed. Whether any given program chose EMS or XMS came to depend on which set of advantages and disadvantages best suited its purpose.

The arrival of XMS along with the ongoing use of EMS memory meant that MS-DOS now had two competing memory-management solutions. Buyers now had to figure out not only whether they had enough extra memory to run a program but whether they had the right kind of extra memory. Ever accommodating, hardware manufacturers began shipping memory boards that could be configured as either EMS or XMS memory — whatever the application you were running at the moment happened to require.

The next stage in the slow crawl toward parity with other computing platforms in the realm of memory management would be the development of so-called “DOS extenders,” software to allow applications themselves to run in protected mode, thus giving them direct access to extended memory without having to pass their requests through an inefficient device driver. An application built using a DOS extender would only need to switch the processor to real mode when it needed to communicate with the operating system. The development of DOS extenders was driven by Microsoft’s efforts to turn Windows, which like seemingly everything else in business computing ran on top of MS-DOS, into a viable alternative to the command line and a viable challenger to the Macintosh. That story is thus best reserved for a future article, when we look more closely at Windows itself. As it is, the story that I’ve told so far today moves us nicely into the era of computer-gaming history we’ve reached on the blog in general.

In said era, the MS-DOS machines that had heretofore been reserved for business applications were coming into homes, where they were often used to play a new generation of games taking advantage of the VGA graphics, sound cards, and mice sported by the latest systems. Less positively, all of the people wanting to play these new games had to deal with the ramifications of a 640 K barrier that could still be skirted only imperfectly. As we’ve seen, both EMS and XMS imposed to one degree or another a performance penalty when accessing non-conventional memory. What with games being the most performance-sensitive applications of all, that made that first 640 K of lightning-fast conventional memory most precious of all for them.

In the first couple of years of MS-DOS’s gaming dominance, developers dealt with all of the issues that came attached to using memory beyond 640 K by the simple expedient of not using any memory beyond 640 K. But that solution was compatible neither with developers’ growing ambitions for their games nor with the gaming public’s growing expectations of them.

The first harbinger of what was to come was Origin Systems’s September 1990 release Wing Commander, which in its day was renowned — and more than a little feared — for pushing the contemporary state of the art in hardware to its limits. Even Wing Commander didn’t go so far as to absolutely require memory beyond 640 K, but it did use it to make the player’s audiovisual experience snazzier if it was present. Setting a precedent future games would largely follow, it was quite inflexible in its approach, demanding EMS — as opposed to XMS — memory. In the future, gamers would have to become all too familiar with the differences between the two standards, and how to configure their machines to use one or the other. Setting another precedent, Wing Commander‘s “installation guide” included a section on “memory usage” that was required reading in order to get things working properly. In the future, such sections would only grow in length and complexity, and would need to be pored over by long-suffering gamers with far more concentrated attention than anything in the manual having anything to do with how to actually play the games they purchased.

In Accolade’s embarrassing Leisure Suit Larry knockoff Les Manley in: Lost in LA, the title character explains EMS and XMS memory to some nubile companions. The ironic thing was that anyone who wished to play the latest games on an MS-DOS machine really did need to know this stuff, or at least have a friend who did.

Thus began the period of almost a decade, remembered with chagrin but also often with an odd sort of nostalgia by old-timers today, in which gamers spent hours monkeying about with MS-DOS’s “config.sys” and “autoexec.bat” files and swapping in and out various third-party utilities in the hope of squeezing out that last few kilobytes of conventional memory that Game X needed to run. The techniques they came to employ were legion.

In the process of developing Windows, Microsoft had discovered that the kernel of MS-DOS itself, a fairly tiny program thanks to its sheer age, could be stashed into the first 64 K of memory beyond 1 MB and still accessed like conventional memory on an 80286 or later processor in real mode thanks to what was essentially an undocumented technical glitch in the design of those processors. Gamers thus learned to include the line “DOS=HIGH” in their configuration files, freeing up a precious block of conventional memory. Likewise, there was enough unused space scattered around in the 384 K of high memory on most machines to stash many or all of MS-DOS’s device drivers there instead of in conventional memory. Thus “DOS=HIGH” soon became “DOS=HIGH,UMB,” the second parameter telling the computer to make use of these so-called “upper-memory blocks” and thereby save that many kilobytes more.

These were the most basic techniques, the starting points. Suffice to say that things got a lot more complicated from there, turning into a baffling tangle of tweaks, some saving mere bytes rather than kilobytes of conventional memory, but all of them important if one was to hope to run games that by 1993 would be demanding 604 K of 640 K for their own use. That owners of machines which by that point typically contained memories in the multi-megabytes should have to squabble with the operating system over mere handfuls of bytes was made no less vexing by being so comically absurd. And every new game seemed to up the ante, seemed to demand that much more conventional memory. Those with a sunnier disposition or a more technical bent of mind took the struggle to get each successive purchase running as the game before the game got started, as it were. Everyone else gnashed their teeth and wondered for the umpteenth time if they might not have been better off buying a console where games Just Worked. The only thing that made it all worthwhile was the mixture of relief, pride, and satisfaction that ensued when you finally got it all put together just right and the title screen came up and the intro music sprang to life — if, that is, you’d managed to configure your sound card properly in the midst of all your other travails. Such was the life of the MS-DOS gamer.

Before leaving the issue of the 640 K barrier behind in exactly the way that all those afflicted by it for so many years were so conspicuously unable to do, we have to address Bill Gates’s famous claim, allegedly made at a trade show in 1981, that “640 K ought to be enough for anybody.” The quote has been bandied about for years as computer-industry legend, seeming to confirm as it does the stereotype of Bill Gates as the unimaginative dirty trickster of his industry, as opposed to Steve Jobs the guileless visionary (the truth is, needless to say, far more complicated). Sadly for the stereotypers, however, the story of the quote is similar to all too many legends in the sense that it almost certainly never happened. Gates himself, for one, vehemently denies ever having said any such thing. Fred Shapiro, for another, editor of The Yale Book of Quotations, conducted an exhaustive search for a reputable source for the quote in 2008, going so far as to issue a public plea in The New York Times for anyone possessing knowledge of such a source to contact him. More than a hundred people did so, but none of them could offer up the smoking gun Shapiro sought, and he was left more certain than ever that the comment was “apocryphal.” So, there you have it. Blame Bill Gates all you want for the creaky operating system that was the real root cause of all of the difficulties I’ve spent this article detailing, but don’t ever imagine he was stupid enough to say that. “No one involved in computers would ever say that a certain amount of memory is enough for all time,” said Gates in 2008. Anyone doubting the wisdom of that assertion need only glance at the history of the IBM PC.

(Sources: the books Upgrading and Repairing PCs, 3rd edition by Scott Mueller and Principles of Operating Systems by Brian L. Stuart; Computer Gaming World of June 1993; Byte of January 1982, November 1984, and March 1992; Byte‘s IBM PC special issues of Fall 1985 and Fall 1986; PC Magazine of May 14 1985, January 14 1986, May 30 1989, June 13 1989, and June 27 1989; the episode of the Computer Chronicles television show entitled “High Memory Management”; the online article “The ‘640K’ quote won’t go away — but did Gates really say it?” on Computerworld.)


Comments
  1. Yes, that is quite possibly the nerdiest thing I’ve ever written. 

Emily Short

Spring Thing 2017: Not Quite a Sunset

by Emily Short at April 14, 2017 03:00 PM

notquitecoverNot Quite a Sunset describes itself as a hypertext opera, a research project into allowing the player to influence how the music changes and evolves, together with the plot of a story. I had a weird time with it, and I’ll describe what that experience was, but I’m not sure the results deserve to be called an actual review.

I am not an expert in music, and post-Wagner opera I would identify as particularly a weak point of mine: I’ve seen Akhnaten in person, heard a little other Glass here and there, and that’s about it. I don’t feel equipped to comment on the form of the opera, nor about how interactivity might affect that form.

What I can say, in my musically uninformed way, is that the music in this game had a primacy that soundtracks usually do not. Individual instruments stand out. There is an articulate quality to the tune. The game’s blurb describes it as “a story with a soundtrack,” but what I experienced from it was very much not that; soundtracks fade to the back, supporting. What I experienced was a musical piece sufficiently interesting that I had a hard time concentrating simultaneously on the longish blocks of science fiction that accompany the opening.

This is especially true because that text often feels textural and not especially important from moment to moment. For example:

The dehydrated food of the first astronauts were a thing of the past, they were proudly told during training, but these meals were clearly developed to favor ease of storage and transport over flavor. It took quite a bit of creativity to alter them for personal taste, as the kitchen next door was not much more than a glorified microwave, but after a shift she was usually so hungry it didn’t matter. Ration Pack 5A/Chicken – good enough. She moved next door and placed the Pack in the food preparer.

The description goes on in this vein for a bit; and I felt, from the music that went alongside it, that I was meant to feel a chill alienation from the mechanics of this character’s life, and that her food preparation was dull and anti-aesthetic on purpose.

The first portion is instrumental — an overture, I suppose now, but at the time I thought that was all there was going to be, so despite the word “opera,” I was actually a bit surprised when a voice began singing some of the lines of the text. At that point, the text and the music start coordinating quite a bit more, with some of the lines timed to emerge only when the music reaches the right point. Dream sequences, it seems, are partially sung or spoken; waking passages, instrumental only.

So, thoughts, in no particular order.

I am impressed by the quality of the music, which seems to me to be some of the most ambitious I’ve ever heard associated with an IF piece. It really is the main point of the exercise, and admonitions like “you should play this with headphones” don’t go far enough to convey that.

I could tell that the music was responding to my actions for reasons of timing — new sections beginning when I clicked a link, often in a pretty seamless way — and that I had probably selected one of two sung passages in the first dream.

But I didn’t feel as though I was making choices that were responding to the music as music; I wasn’t choosing to hit a particular link, or hit it at a particular time, out of any desire to make something happen within the music. When I think of interactive music, I am more often thinking of something along the lines of Guitar Hero, or (much more obscurely) the layering effects in Le Reprobateur, where I’m altering performance or controlling instrument choice.

Even viewed from the interactive fiction angle rather than the interactive music angle, the player’s choices are pretty low-agency, because you’re mostly choosing in each chapter which of a few locations you’re going to visit, and otherwise hitting Continue links.

The story is less interesting to me than the music. In the first two chapters, which is what’s currently available, it’s largely about a woman on a space station waiting to find out more about a sample from the planet below. Not very much happens until late in the second chapter, and the stakes are low. She has somewhat evocative dreams, but it’s hard to tell what they mean, and her waking life would not make that great a piece of hyperfiction on its own. I think I personally would be inclined to have less text, and especially less text per screen, but aim for it to be a bit punchier and create a stronger framework for the dream passages. I can’t say for sure whether this would suit the author’s intent, however; and perhaps the dreams are meant to stand out in their vividness against the comparatively grey daily life that she experiences.

The layering of text and music worked best for me during the passages with sung lyrics, because then the text came out fairly slowly, and what was printed provided extra context for singing that might otherwise have felt a bit cryptic.

Anyway. All that said, there’s obviously a huge amount of work and craft that went into the operatic aspect of this, and I really admire that. I’m not quite sure that its pacing of text or its choice of textual content is doing as much to support the music as it deserves — and I think the work probably should be approached from that direction, of “how does the text support the opera?” rather than “how does the music support the story?”


Adventure Blog

SPRING PLAY: NYC Game Expo!

April 14, 2017 01:01 PM

SPRING PLAY: NYC Game Expo!:

Hey everyone! Strayed has been in development for a while now; thank you so much for all your support so far. We’re close to the finish line, and we’d love to invite you to join us and try out the latest version of the game at the Spring Play expo. Come find us and we’ll feed you pizza!

Strayed is an atmospheric interactive story about the strangely long fifteen miles of forest between you and home. Click here to try out the Android alpha demo.

April 09, 2017

what will you do now?

Now Play This 2017

by verityvirtue at April 09, 2017 08:01 PM

Now Play This is an exhibition of unusual, experimental games, some of which were specially commissioned. This year’s spread of games were much less focused on text, unlike last year, but there were nonetheless intriguing little gems. The following pictures highlight some of the things that caught my eye. Last year’s post can be found here.


20170409_140242

Impossible games, games still half-formed, were exhibited in the Library. It was a delight to see Nate Crowley’s (@frogcroakley) game ideas – one thousand of them he’s written, and some of them were printed on slips of paper, arranged first in a grid, until they piled up in a corner. There are so many. Some bonus news: Nate’s working with Rebellion Publishing to produce an art-heavy book featuring the game ideas, and part of the proceeds will go to Zoological Society of London, to support frog conservation!

The Library also featured Becca Rose’s Bear Abouts, one in the unusual controllers category. It’s a story of a bear going on a journey, played on a tablet, where placing different physical props on the tablet screen produced different results. The game is still in development, but the possibilities are intriguing. Could you send out props as ‘feelies’? Or send people the conductive paper and magnets for them to make their own?


The Window Room played with mirrors and was overall a quieter space in the hubbub of Somerset House.

A GAME FOR ONE PLAYER: DECIDE ON A YES/NO QUESTION TO ASK THE WORLD; THEN STATE IT OUT LOUD. WITH CLOSED EYES, KNOCK YOUR FIST ON THE PLINTH THREE TIMES, THEN CIRCLE YOUR HAND OVER THE PLINTH THREE TIMES. POINT. OPEN YOUR EYES. DON'T MOVE. WHEREVER YOUR POINTING FINGER IS REFLECTED, THAT'S THE ANSWER TO YOUR QUESTION.Game instructions written on a mirrored plinth, with the aim of finding an answer to a yes/no question

Game instructions were printed on mirrored plinths. Some were basically divination rituals; others were cooperative games.

20170409_140509Top view of above plinth: a plastic tile reads “please rephrase the question”

Some of the answers the plinth provided were less than helpful… In divination, after all, the burden of interpretation falls on the participant, and interpreting the results you get is part of the gameplay.


Dead Pixels, by Tatiana Vilela dos Santos and Olivier Drouet, is a multiplayer game in which players moves their avatar around to ‘claim’ territories on the screen. The catch: contested territories become dead pixels, which belong to no one. This unexpectedly got me thinking about how conflict scars places and things and people, and how it’s so often not so much about the territory gained itself, than about power.

20170409_140950_cropDead Pixels in action

10000 Years, by Heather Robertson, explored a topic which fascinated me when I first read about it – the design for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, a design meant to keep people away for ten thousand years – for the radioactivity in this place will make it deadly long after the last person forgets about it. The blurb for 10000 Years puts it well: “We can never truly escape the consequences of our actions.” The protagonist in this game is from the future, then, and only incompletely understands the significance of the symbols. The symbol for radioactivity, for example, is a sigil resembling an angel. Is it redemption, then, of a sort, for beauty to reveal itself, even in such cruel environments?

Danger seems to emanate from below, and out of the Keep in the form of stone spikes-- The shapes suggest danger to the body... wounding forms-- They seem not _ Picture of game screen, because I couldn’t take a screenshot. It looks more… post-apocalyptic this way

The graphics, here, are really ASCII characters. Interaction reminded me somewhat of Kitty Horrorshow’s games – wander through a barren land, discover notes left for you.


The Letter Room featured Aïda Gómez’s Joy is Here, which turned the entire room into a wordsearch. What struck me was how, faced with such an open invitation, some people created their own rules.

20170409_142253.jpgWalls turned into a blackboard, with letters written at regular intervals; people have chalked circles around letters to form words

I love Burly Men at Sea so much. Pastel illustrations; a charming, fairy tale-like story (and, for me, easy to use controls…), creatures from folklore… displayed alongside the game were physical representations of a possible path through the story.

Page of a book in the sun - there is a pastel-hued illustration of three men with round beards, all soft edges and round shapes. There is story text above the illustration, too small to read.Page from one of three books displayed

Another charming, peaceful one was Sandcastles by Patrick Smith, a touchscreen game in which pulling upwards creates a pleasingly geometric sandcastle. It’s hard to get it ‘wrong’, and whatever you do, it’s washed away in the tide seconds later, so it’s forever a clean slate. This is one I could envision as an idle game. This was also pretty hard to film… but here is a GIF for your viewing pleasure.

sandcastle_game.gif


General impressions

Now Play This felt more crowded this year. More people? Smaller space? I don’t know. While I’m happy the games appear to be reaching a larger audience – an audience which might not otherwise know about these games – the crowd made it hard to really get into any of the games, not with five other people standing around watching you play. On the other hand, though, watching is perhaps also a form of participation,

I appreciated spaces and rooms which invited players to another world. Last year, it was Larklamp that so captured my imagination. This year, there was the Haunted Room, in which you play with hand mirrors to capture spirits. There was some technical wizardry involving a projector and mirrors, but unfortunately the room filled up so quickly that I couldn’t squeeze in to find out what was going on.

There were lots of children, especially at the Library, playing with the unusual controllers.

Above all, though, the games featured in Now Play This overwhelmingly have a sense of playfulness, of whimsy, of exploration. While people clamour for bigger worlds and more complex stories and better simulations – while people constantly seek more, more, more in their games, I welcomed the invitation to come in, stay a while, and explore small, self-contained worlds.


Tagged: events, festivals, London, Now Play This

April 07, 2017

>TILT AT WINDMILLS

Spring Thing 2017 is now open!

by Aaron A. Reed (noreply@blogger.com) at April 07, 2017 07:40 PM

I'm very pleased to announce that the 2017 Spring Thing Festival of Interactive Fiction is now open!

Held annually since 2002, Spring Thing is a smaller, more informal counterweight to the busier fall Interactive Fiction Competition. Originally a ranked competition for parser IF, the Thing today puts the focus more on bringing authors together to celebrate new text games in many different formats: choice-based stories, gamebooks, hypertext fictions, visual novels, text adventures, narrative roguelikes, and wild new experiments.

This year, there are twenty-two games, spread across two categories. Authors chose whether to submit games to the Main Festival, where they are eligible for ribbon nominations and the prize pool, or the Back Garden, which opts out of ribbons and prizes but has looser entry requirements (including allowing excerpts from unfinished or commercial games).

In the Main Festival:

Back Then, by Janelynn Camingue - Twine
Bobby and Bonnie, by Xavid - Inform/Glulx
The Bony King of Nowhere, by Luke A. Jones - Quest
brevity quest, by Chris Longhurst - Twine
The First Quest, by Matthew Mayr (with some help from Mike Bryant) - Twine
A Fly On The Wall, by Peregrine Wade - Ink
Get Seen Tonight, by Hannah Powell-Smith - Texture
GNOEM, by Joyce Lin & Matthew Reed - Twine
Guttersnipe: Carnival of Regrets, by Bitter Karella - Quest
Happy Pony Valley Riding School, by Lynda Clark - Twine
If You're Here, by Serene Sherman - Twine
Ishmael, by Jordan Magnuson - Twine
Niney, by Daniel Spitz - Inform/Z
Refugee, by Mark C. Marino - Ink
Ted Strikes Back, by Anssi Raisanen - ALAN 3

In the Back Garden:

Balefires Burning, by Cassandra Wolf - Twine
Buck the Past, by Andrew Schultz - Inform/Glulx
Enlightened Master, by Ben Kidwell and Maevele Straw - Inform/Z
A Fly On The Wall, or An Appositional Eye, by Nigel Jayne - Inform/Glulx, Squiffy
left/right, by chandler groover - Inform/Glulx
Not Quite a Sunset - a hypertext opera, by Kyle Rowan - Twine
The Weight of a Soul, by Chin Kee Yong - Inform/Glulx

You can play the games and find out everything you need to know about the festival at the official site, or follow us on Twitter at @SpringThingFest.

Instructions for making ribbon nominations will go up in a couple of days. There are two ribbons this year: an Audience Choice ribbon, which anyone may nominate games for, and an Alumni's Choice ribbon, with nominations made by any prior participant in the Thing. (If you're an alumni and not on our notification list yet, please get in touch.)

The festival will be open for ribbon nominations until 11:59 PM PST, May 5, 2017.

To all the players, and all the entrants, have fun!

-- Aaron

IFTF Blog

Our Open Books Policy

by Flourish Klink at April 07, 2017 07:26 PM

When IFTF was founded, the initial slate of board members agreed that we wanted to work towards as much transparency as possible. To this point, we’ve tried to do that, communicating via several channels (including this blog!). In January, we released a Transparency Report for 2016, detailing our financial goings-on for last year.

Today, we’re pleased to announce we’ve adopted an official Open Books Policy that requires us to publish a Transparency Report each year. In full, it reads:

IFTF seeks to be a transparent organization. Therefore, at the end of each calendar year, the Secretary and Treasurer will together write and publish a Transparency Report, which will include (but is certainly not limited to):

  • The amount and source categories of incoming funds;

  • The amount and expenditure categories of outgoing funds;

  • A general accounting of volunteers, their hours, and where these hours were spent;

  • IFTF’s monthly and yearly spending rates;

  • An assessment of the overall financial health of IFTF.

We hope to become more transparent as time goes on, not less. Therefore, while the 2016 Transparency Report is a good starting point, we commit ourselves to providing more detail in subsequent years, particularly with regard to individual projects.

We’re excited to continue operating as transparently as possible going forward!

Choice of Games

How We Judge a Good Game—Part 3

by Rachel E. Towers at April 07, 2017 05:01 PM

As part of our support for the Choice of Games Contest for Interactive Novels, we will be posting an irregular series of blog posts discussing important design and writing criteria for games. We hope that these can both provide guidance for people participating in the Contest and also help people understand how we think about questions of game design and some best practices. These don’t modify the evaluation criteria for the Contest, and (except as noted) participants are not required to conform to our recommendations–but it’s probably a good idea to listen when judges tell you what they’re looking for.

If these topics interest you, be sure to sign up for our contest mailing list below! We’ll post more of our thoughts on game design leading up to the contest deadline on January 31, 2018.

This is the final part of our three part series in designed to give concrete ways in which our Guidelines connect with our Judging Rubric. For a refresher, here’s the previous blog post where we covered Creative Stats, Balanced Choices, and Conflicting Goals with Satisfying Endings, and here’s the first blog post where we covered Inclusivity, Length and Coding Efficiency, and Setting and Plot. Here we’re going to cover writing Original, Interesting Characters, and what we look for in Prose Styling, in addition to explaining what the judges personally look for in games to give you a better understanding of how we approach things.

Original, Interesting Characters (15% of score):
Characters should be fresh, interesting, and distinctive. They should feel different from each other, and have their own personalities and motivations distinct from the PC’s. Interesting characters require a balance of characteristics that make them identifiable, relatable, and unique. The details of what this means, however, is fairly specific to the game. For example, a gritty noir may have characters that are most identifiable by the different way each one talks, relatable in that they have very human vices, and unique in their complex motivations and desires. A more heroic epic, on the other hand, may require characters to be identifiable in much more vivid and exaggerated descriptions, relatable in that they represent more absolute emotions and thoughts, and unique less in their complexity and more in how literally one of a kind they are.

In keeping with the ideas of inclusivity, characters should not play into stereotypes. While the reasons negative stereotypes are damaging to marginalized groups is relatively obvious (anyone should be able to understand the implications of having all the villains be the same ethnicity, and all the heros be another), games should also avoid ‘positive stereotypes’ such as “all women are nurturing”, “all Asians are good at math”, “all black men are good at sports”, and “all indigenous people are naturally spiritual.” These stereotypes limit characters from being unique and interesting in addition to limiting our understanding of the roles available to minority groups.

Games with characters which are fun, interesting, engaging, and relatable are likely to score higher in this category. Games with characters that are entirely defined by their tropes, or their physical characteristics, or that are indistinguishable from each other, are likely to score low on Interesting Characters. Games that lack enough distinction between characters, or that otherwise lack characterization, may receive an 0 in this category.

Prose Styling (10% of score):
Your writing should attempt to be as word-perfect as possible: that means correct spelling, grammar, and usage. While prose styling beyond those elements is subjective (How good is this writing? Does it engage me and do I want to keep reading?) we expect to see evidence that you’ve worked to submit clean copy to us. Writing should conform to our Style Guide both in terms of text (second person games should use first person options) and punctuation (no smart quotes, correct em-dashes, etc.)

Games which are beautifully written, or that deeply engage the player with their prose, are likely to score higher in this category. Games which are boring to read, or that that contain odd, confusing, or difficult writing are likely to score lower. Games which are unintelligible, which lack proper punctuation, or that are otherwise very poorly written may receive an 0 in Prose.

Judge’s Choice (5% of score):
The Judge’s Choice category is, obviously, how much the judges like your game. While it’s possible to discuss what makes a “good” game to the point of exhaustion without getting anywhere–especially once you start trying to account for taste–there are still three major things we can start off for games that are widely appealing. Most objectively, how does your game hold up as a cohesive whole? Cohesiveness can mean a good, logical interaction between stats and end states, while the lack of game balance, like having branches that are excessively difficult or far too easy to reach, or that have systems that make the player’s choices meaningless, can indicate some cohesiveness problems. Likewise, stats that match up meaningfully with theme and storytelling indicate a good game, while games that have odd combinations (such as a core choice of strength, agility, intelligence in a love story) might lack a sense of cohesion.

There are also more subjective standards. For example, is the game enjoyable? There’s a certain element of “fun” which can be very elusive both to make and describe, but the degree to which a game is gripping–how much it makes you want to keep playing to see the end–is a strong indicator. It’s very possible to paint by the numbers and end up with a game that at first glance appears decent, but in actual play isn’t all that enjoyable. In avoiding that, it’s very necessary not to lose that element of enjoyment in trying to hit all the right keys. Finally, and already mentioned briefly, is taste. While our rubric is designed to put the best games at top irrespective of our personal tastes, the fact of the matter is that we all play games and read stories to have a good time. So rather than break down what’s good and what’s bad for this category, here’s what the judges have to say about what they personally enjoy in our games:

Dan: A good story is like a good joke. The ending has to be surprising but inevitable in hindsight. A great ChoiceScript game makes players complicit in the process, allowing them to surprise themselves in ways only they could have predicted.

Jason: The thing that I want is to not be asked the same question repeatedly. I want the choices to be in different registers; about different plotlines; to be at cross-purposes. I want narrative tension. I want to be anguished by having to make a decision. In short, I want to be compelled to replay the game.

Becky: Does the story make me feel something? Does it make me want to know what happens next – by letting me connect with the characters enough to feel invested in their stories; by setting up enough tension in the plot to make me want to see how it gets resolved?

Adam: I focus on whether a game keeps me hooked. I want a game to grab me early on and make me determined to play more. I want choices that keep me interested–and that means I want variety of choices, not a repetition of the same choices over and over again. When I get to the end of the game, I want there to be different strategies that call out to be tried in a replay.

Mary: I tend to look closely at the prose of a game. I like to see polish at a sentence level–that is, prose that moves me through a scene in an exciting way, or slows down to a level of detail when I need to know more about an interaction or what’s happening. The dictum of fiction is: “Does this sentence reveal character or move the plot forward?” If it doesn’t, cut it.

Rachel: There’s a certain joy in having everything intricately–yet still neatly–tied together. When subtle changes in one early choice ripples out, the consequences of which gather steam until it shifts the whole course of the story, it feels like anything can happen.

And so along with the rest of the Judging Rubric, that makes up everything we’ll be judging our games on. Of course no game is or can be perfect in all of these categories, but each should make should strive to be as good as they can in all of them.

Post Position

Apply to Be Trope Tank Writer in Residence 2017-2018

by Nick Montfort at April 07, 2017 03:59 PM

The Trope Tank invites applications for a writer in residence during academic year 2017-2018, to start July 1 and with most involvement during the Fall, January, and Spring terms at MIT.

Our mission is developing new poetic practices and new understandings of digital media by focusing on the material, formal, and historical aspects of computation and language. More can be discovered about the Trope Tank here:

http://nickm.com/trope_tank/

Recent projects of the Trope Tank include Renderings:

The Renderings project is an effort to locate computational literature in languages other than English — poetry and other text generators, combinatorial poems, interactive fiction, and interactive visual poetry, for example — and translate this work to English. Along the way, it is necessary to port some of this work to the Web, or emulate it, or re-implement it, both in the source language and in English. This provides the original language community better access to a functioning version of the original work, some of which originates in computer magazines from several decades ago, some of which is from even earlier. The translations give the English-language community some perspective on the global creative work that has been undertaken with language and computation, helping to remedy the typical view of this area, which is almost always strongly English-centered.

as well as explorations of very small programs (256b) programs, which includes developing creative work of this sort. The Trope Tank also teaches about computing, videogaming, and the material history of the text in formal and informal ways and conducts other research into related areas. Those in the Trope Tank have also curated and produced exhibits and brought some of the lab’s resources to the public at other venues. The lab hosts monthly meetings of the People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction and occasional workshops.

Trope Tank artist/researchers, 2016-2017

There are no fees or costs associated with the residency; there is also no stipend or other financial support provided as part of the appointment. A writer in residence has 24-hour access to and use of the Trope Tank, including space to work, power and network connection, and use of materials and equipment. As a member of the MIT community, writers in residence can access the campus and check out books from the MIT Libraries. We encourage our writer in residence to attend research and creative discussions, which occur weekly, and to join us in project work and other collaborations, but this is not expressed with a particular requirement to be in the Trope Tank some amount of time per week.

To apply, email me, Nick Montfort, at moc.mkcin@mkcin with short answers (in no case to exceed 250 words each) to the following questions:

  • What work have you done that relates to computation, language and literature, and the mission of the lab? Include URLs when appropriate; there is no need to include the URLs when counting words.

  • How would you make use of your time in the Trope Tank? You do not have to offer a detailed outline of a particular project, but explain in some way how it would be useful to you to have access to the materials, equipment, and people here.

  • What is your relationship, if any, to literary translation, and do you see yourself contributing to Renderings and other work in literary translation of and supported by digital media? If so, how?

  • What connections could you potentially make between communities of practice and other groups you know, either in the Boston area or beyond, and the existing Trope Tank community within MIT?

Include a CV/resume in PDF format as an attachment.

Applications will be considered beginning on June 1.

We value diverse backgrounds, experiences, and thinking, and encourage applications by members of groups that are underrepresented at MIT.

The Digital Antiquarian

Ultima VI

by Jimmy Maher at April 07, 2017 03:00 PM

After Richard Garriott and his colleagues at Origin Systems finished each Ultima game — after the manic final crunch of polishing and testing, after the release party, after the triumphant show appearances and interviews in full Lord British regalia — there must always arise the daunting question of what to do next. Garriott had set a higher standard for the series than that of any of its competitors almost from the very beginning, when he’d publicly declared that no Ultima would ever reuse the engine of its predecessor, that each new entry in the series would represent a significant technological leap over what had come before. And just to add to that pressure, starting with Ultima IV he’d begun challenging himself to make each new Ultima a major thematic statement that also built on what had come before. Both of these bars became harder and harder to meet as the series advanced.

As if that didn’t present enough of a burden, each individual entry in the series came with its own unique psychological hurdles for Garriott to overcome. For example, by the time he started thinking about what Ultima V should be he’d reached the limits of what a single talented young man like himself could design, program, write, and draw all by himself on his trusty Apple II. It had taken him almost a year — a rather uncomfortable year for his brother Robert and the rest of Origin’s management — to accept that reality and to begin to work in earnest on Ultima V with a team of others.

The challenge Garriott faced after finishing and releasing that game in March of 1988 was in its way even more emotionally fraught: the challenge of accepting that, just as he’d reached the limits of what he could do alone on the Apple II a couple of years ago, he’d now reached the limits of what any number of people could do on Steve Wozniak’s humble little 8-bit creation. Ultima V still stands today as one of the most ambitious things anyone has ever done on an Apple II; it was hard at the time and remains hard today to imagine how Origin could possibly push the machine much further. Yet that wasn’t even the biggest problem associated with sticking with the platform; the biggest problem could be seen on each monthly sales report, which showed the Apple II’s numbers falling off even faster than those of the Commodore 64, the only other viable 8-bit computer remaining in the American market.

After serving as the main programmer on Ultima V, John Miles’s only major contribution to Ultima VI was the opening sequence. The creepy poster of a pole-dancing centaur hanging on the Avatar’s wall back on Earth has provoked much comment over the years…

Garriott was hardly alone at Origin in feeling hugely loyal to the Apple II, the only microcomputer he’d ever programmed. While most game developers in those days ported their titles to many platforms, almost all had one which they favored. Just as Epyx knew the Commodore 64 better than anyone else, Sierra had placed their bets on MS-DOS, and Cinemaware was all about the Commodore Amiga, Origin was an Apple II shop through and through. Of the eleven games they’d released from their founding in 1983 through to the end of 1988, all but one had been born and raised on an Apple II.

Reports vary on how long and hard Origin tried to make Ultima VI work on the Apple II. Richard Garriott, who does enjoy a dramatic story even more than most of us, has claimed that Origin wound up scrapping nine or even twelve full months of work; John Miles, who had done the bulk of the programming for Ultima V and was originally slated to fill the same role for the sequel, estimated to me that “we probably spent a few months on editors and other utilities before we came to our senses.” At any rate, by March of 1989, the one-year anniversary of Ultima V‘s release, the painful decision had been made to switch not only Ultima VI but all of Origin’s ongoing and future projects to MS-DOS, the platform that was shaping up as the irresistible force in American computer gaming. A slightly petulant but nevertheless resigned Richard Garriott slapped an Apple sticker over the logo of the anonymous PC clone now sitting on his desk and got with the program.

Richard Garriott with an orrery, one of the many toys he kept at the recently purchased Austin house he called Britannia Manor.

Origin was in a very awkward spot. Having frittered away a full year recovering from the strain of making the previous Ultima, trying to decide what the next Ultima should be, and traveling down the technological cul de sac that was now the Apple II, they simply had to have Ultima VI finished — meaning designed and coded from nothing on an entirely new platform — within one more year if the company was to survive. Origin had never had more than a modestly successful game that wasn’t an Ultima; the only way their business model worked was if Richard Garriott every couple of years delivered a groundbreaking new entry in their one and only popular franchise and it sold 200,000 copies or more.

John Miles, lacking a strong background in MS-DOS programming and the C language in which all future Ultimas would be coded, was transferred off the team to get himself up to speed and, soon enough, to work on middleware libraries and tools for the company’s other programmers. Replacing him on the project in Origin’s new offices in Austin, Texas, were Herman Miller and Cheryl Chen, a pair of refugees from the old offices in New Hampshire, which had finally been shuttered completely in January of 1989. It was a big step for both of them to go from coding what until quite recently had been afterthought MS-DOS versions of Origin’s games to taking a place at the center of the most critical project in the company. Fortunately, both would prove more than up to the task.

Just as Garriott had quickly learned to like the efficiency of not being personally responsible for implementing every single aspect of Ultima V, he soon found plenty to like about the switch to MS-DOS. The new platform had four times the memory of the Apple II machines Origin had been targeting before, along with (comparatively) blazing-fast processors, hard drives, 256-color VGA graphics, sound cards, and mice. A series that had been threatening to burst the seams of the Apple II now had room to roam again. For the first time with Ultima VI, time rather than technology was the primary restraint on Garriott’s ambitions.

But arguably the real savior of Ultima VI was not a new computing platform but a new Origin employee: one Warren Spector, who would go on to join Garriott and Chris Roberts — much more on him in a future article — as one of the three world-famous game designers to come out of the little collective known as Origin Systems. Born in 1955 in New York City, Spector had originally imagined for himself a life in academia as a film scholar. After earning his Master’s from the University of Texas in 1980, he’d spent the next few years working toward his PhD and teaching undergraduate classes. But he had also discovered tabletop gaming at university, from Avalon Hill war games to Dungeons & Dragons. When a job as a research archivist which he’d thought would be his ticket to the academic big leagues unexpectedly ended after just a few months, he wound up as an editor and eventually a full-fledged game designer at Steve Jackson Games, maker of card games, board games, and RPGs, and a mainstay of Austin gaming circles. It was through Steve Jackson, like Richard Garriott a dedicated member of Austin’s local branch of the Society for Creative Anachronism, that Spector first became friendly with the gang at Origin; he also discovered Ultima IV, a game that had a profound effect on him. He left Austin in March of 1987 for a sojourn in Wisconsin with TSR, the makers of Dungeons & Dragons, but, jonesing for the warm weather and good barbecue of the city that had become his adopted hometown, he applied for a job with Origin two years later. Whatever role his acquaintance with Richard Garriott and some of the other folks there played in getting him an interview, it certainly didn’t get him a job all by itself; Spector claims that Dallas Snell, Robert Garriott’s right-hand man running the business side of the operation, grilled him for an incredible nine hours before judging him worthy of employment. (“May you never have to live through something like this just to get a job,” he wishes for all and sundry.) Starting work at Origin on April 12, 1989, he was given the role of producer on Ultima VI, the high man on the project totem pole excepting only Richard Garriott himself.

Age 33 and married, Spector was one of the oldest people employed by this very young company; he realized to his shock shortly after his arrival that he had magazine subscriptions older than Origin’s up-and-coming star Chris Roberts. A certain wisdom born of his age, along with a certain cultural literacy born of all those years spent in university circles, would serve Origin well in the seven years he would remain there. Coming into a company full of young men who had grand dreams of, as their company’s tagline would have it, “creating worlds,” but whose cultural reference points didn’t usually reach much beyond Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, Spector was able to articulate Origin’s ambitions for interactive storytelling in a way that most of the others could not, and in time would use his growing influence to convince management of the need for a real, professional writing team to realize those ambitions. In the shorter term — i.e., in the term of the Ultima VI project — he served as some badly needed adult supervision, systematizing the process of development by providing everyone on his team with clear responsibilities and by providing the project as a whole with the when and what of clear milestone goals. The project was so far behind that everyone involved could look forward to almost a year of solid crunch time as it was; Spector figured there was no point in making things even harder by letting chaos reign.

On the Ultima V project, it had been Dallas Snell who had filled the role of producer, but Snell, while an adept organizer and administrator, wasn’t a game designer or a creative force by disposition. Spector, though, proved himself capable of tackling the Ultima VI project from both sides, hammering out concrete design documents from the sometimes abstracted musings of Richard Garriott, then coming up with clear plans to bring them to fruition. In the end, the role he would play in the creation of Ultima VI was as important as that of Garriott himself. Having learned to share the technical burden with Ultima V — or by now to pass it off entirely; he never learned C and would never write a single line of code for any commercial game ever again — Garriott was now learning to share the creative burden as well, another necessary trade-off if his ever greater ambitions for his games were to be realized.

If you choose not to import an Ultima V character into Ultima VI, you go through the old Ultima IV personality text, complete with gypsy soothsayer, to come up with your personal version of the Avatar. By this time, however, with the series getting increasingly plot-heavy and the Avatar’s personality ever more fleshed-out within the games, the personality test was starting to feel a little pointless. Blogger Chet Bolingbroke, the “CRPG Addict,” cogently captured the problems inherent in insisting that all of these disparate Ultima games had the same hero:
 
Then there’s the Avatar. Not only is it unnecessary to make him the hero of the first three games, as if the Sosarians and Britannians are so inept they always need outside help to solve their problems, but I honestly think the series should have abandoned the concept after Ultima IV. In that game, it worked perfectly. The creators were making a meta-commentary on the very nature of playing role-playing games. The Avatar was clearly meant to be the player himself or herself, warped into the land through the “moongate” of his or her computer screen, represented as a literal avatar in the game window. Ultima IV was a game that invited the player to act in a way that was more courageous, more virtuous, more adventurous than in the real world. At the end of the game, when you’re manifestly returned to your real life, you’re invited to “live as an example to thine own people”–to apply the lesson of the seven virtues to the real world. It was brilliant. They should have left it alone.
 
Already in Ultima V, though, they were weakening the concept. In that game, the Avatar is clearly not you, but some guy who lives alone in his single-family house of a precise layout. But fine, you rationalize, all that is just a metaphor for where you actually do live. By Ultima VI, you have some weird picture of a pole-dancing centaur girl on your wall, you’re inescapably a white male with long brown hair.

Following what had always been Richard Garriott’s standard approach to making an Ultima, the Ultima VI team concentrated on building their technology and then building a world around it before adding a plot or otherwise trying to turn it all into a real game with a distinct goal. Garriott and others at Origin would always name Times of Lore, a Commodore 64 action/CRPG hybrid written by Chris Roberts and published by Origin in 1988, as the main influence on the new Ultima VI interface, the most radically overhauled version of same ever to appear in an Ultima title. That said, it should be noted that Times of Lore itself lifted many or most of its own innovations from The Faery Tale Adventure, David Joiner’s deeply flawed but beautiful and oddly compelling Commodore Amiga action/CRPG of 1987. By way of completing the chain, much of Times of Lore‘s interface was imported wholesale into Ultima VI; even many of the onscreen icons looked exactly the same. The entire game could now be controlled, if the player liked, with a mouse, with all of the keyed commands duplicated as onscreen buttons; this forced Origin to reduce the “alphabet soup” that had been previous Ultima interfaces, which by Ultima V had used every letter in the alphabet plus some additional key combinations, to ten buttons, with the generic “use” as the workhorse taking the place of a multitude of specifics.

Another influence, one which Origin was for obvious reasons less eager to publicly acknowledge than that of Times of Lore, was FTL’s landmark 1987 CRPG Dungeon Master, a game whose influence on its industry can hardly be overstated. John Miles remembers lots of people at Origin scrambling for time on the company’s single Atari ST in order to play it soon after its release. Garriott himself has acknowledged being “ecstatic” for his first few hours playing it at all the “neat new things I could do.” Origin co-opted  Dungeon Master‘s graphical approach to inventory management, including the soon-to-be ubiquitous “paper doll” method of showing what characters were wearing and carrying.

Taking a cue from theories about good interface design dating back to Xerox PARC and Apple’s Macintosh design team, The Faery Tale Adventure, Times of Lore, and Dungeon Master had all abandoned “modes”: different interfaces — in a sense entirely different programs — which take over as the player navigates through the game. The Ultima series, like most 1980s CRPGs, had heretofore been full of these modes. There was one mode for wilderness travel; another for exploring cities, towns, and castles; another, switching from a third-person overhead view to a first-person view like Wizardry (or, for that matter, Dungeon Master), for dungeon delving. And when a fight began in any of these modes, the game switched to yet another mode for resolving the combat.

Ultima VI collapsed all of these modes down into a single unified experience. Wilderness, cities, and dungeons now all appeared on a single contiguous map on which combat also occurred, alongside everything else possible in the game; Ultima‘s traditionally first-person dungeons were now displayed using an overhead view like the rest of the game. From the standpoint of realism, this was a huge step back; speaking in strictly realistic terms, either the previously immense continent of Britannia must now be about the size of a small suburb or the Avatar and everyone else there must now be giants, building houses that sprawled over dozens of square miles. But, as we’ve had plenty of occasion to discuss in previous articles, the most realistic game design doesn’t always make the best game design. From the standpoint of creating an immersive, consistent experience for the player, the new interface was a huge step forward.

As the world of Britannia had grown more complex, the need to give the player a unified window into it had grown to match, in ways that were perhaps more obvious to the designers than they might have been to the players. The differences between the first-person view used for dungeon delving and the third-person view used for everything else had become a particular pain. Richard Garriott had this to say about the problems that were already dogging him when creating Ultima V, and the changes he thus chose to make in Ultima VI:

Everything that you can pick up and use [in Ultima V] has to be able to function in 3D [i.e., first person] and also in 2D [third person]. That meant I had to either restrict the set of things players can use to ones that I know I can make work in 3D or 2D, or make them sometimes work in 2D but not always work in 3D or vice versa, or they will do different things in one versus the other. None of those are consistent, and since I’m trying to create an holistic world, I got rid of the 3D dungeons.

Ultima V had introduced the concept of a “living world” full of interactive everyday objects, along with characters who went about their business during the course of the day, living lives of their own. Ultima VI would build on that template. The world was still constructed, jigsaw-like, from piles of tile graphics, an approach dating all the way back to Ultima I. Whereas that game had offered 16 tiles, however, Ultima VI offered 2048, all or almost all of them drawn by Origin’s most stalwart artist, Denis Loubet, whose association with Richard Garriott stretched all the way back to drawing the box art for the California Pacific release of Akalabeth. Included among these building blocks were animated tiles of several frames — so that, for instance, a water wheel could actually spin inside a mill and flames in a fireplace could flicker. Dynamic, directional lighting of the whole scene was made possible by the 256 colors of VGA. While Ultima V had already had a day-to-night cycle, in Ultima VI the sun actually rose in the east and set in the west, and torches and other light sources cast a realistic glow onto their surroundings.

256 of the 2048 tiles from which the world of Ultima VI was built.

In a clear signal of where the series’s priorities now lay, other traditional aspects of CRPGs were scaled back, moving the series further from its roots in tabletop Dungeons & Dragons. Combat, having gotten as complicated and tactical as it ever would with Ultima V, was simplified, with a new “auto-combat” mode included for those who didn’t want to muck with it at all; the last vestiges of distinct character races and classes were removed; ability scores were boiled down to just three numbers for Strength, Dexterity, and Intelligence. The need to mix reagents in order to cast spells, one of the most mind-numbingly boring aspects of a series that had always made you do far too many boring things, was finally dispensed with; I can’t help but imagine legions of veteran Ultima players breathing a sigh of relief when they read in the manual that “the preparation of a spell’s reagents is performed at the moment of spellcasting.” The dodgy parser-based conversation system of the last couple of games, which had required you to try typing in every noun mentioned by your interlocutor on the off chance that it would elicit vital further information, was made vastly less painful by the simple expedient of highlighting in the text those subjects into which you could inquire further.

Inevitably, these changes didn’t always sit well with purists, then or now. Given the decreasing interest in statistics and combat evinced by the Ultima series as time went on, as well as the increasing emphasis on what we might call solving the puzzles of its ever more intricate worlds, some have accused later installments of the series of being gussied-up adventure games in CRPG clothing; “the last real Ultima was Ultima V” isn’t a hard sentiment to find from a vocal minority on the modern Internet. What gives the lie to that assertion is the depth of the world modeling, which makes these later Ultimas flexible in ways that adventure games aren’t. Everything found in the world has, at a minimum, a size, a weight, and a strength. Say, then, that you’re stymied by a locked door. There might be a set-piece solution for the problem in the form of a key you can find, steal, or trade for, but it’s probably also possible to beat the door down with a sufficiently big stick and a sufficiently strong character, or if all else fails to blast it open with a barrel of dynamite. Thus your problems can almost never become insurmountable, even if you screw up somewhere else. Very few other games from Ultima VI‘s day made any serious attempt to venture down this path. Infocom’s Beyond Zork tried, somewhat halfheartedly, and largely failed at it; Sierra’s Hero’s Quest was much more successful at it, but on nothing like the scale of an Ultima. Tellingly, almost all of the “alternate solutions” to Ultima VI‘s puzzles emerge organically from the simulation, with no designer input whatsoever. Richard Garriott:

I start by building a world which you can interact with as naturally as possible. As long as I have the world acting naturally, if I build a world that is prolific enough, that has as many different kinds of natural ways to act and react as possible, like the real world does, then I can design a scenario for which I know the end goal of the story. But exactly whether I have to use a key to unlock the door, or whether it’s an axe I pick up to chop down the door, is largely irrelevant.

The complexity of the world model was such that Ultima VI became the first installment that would let the player get a job to earn money in lieu of the standard CRPG approach of killing monsters and taking their loot. You can buy a sack of grain from a local farmer, take the grain to a mill and grind it into flour, then sell the flour to a baker — or sneak into his bakery at night to bake your own bread using his oven. Even by the standards of today, the living world inside Ultima VI is a remarkable achievement — not to mention a godsend to those of us bored with killing monsters; you can be very successful in Ultima VI whilst doing very little killing at all.

A rare glimpse of Origin’s in-house Ultima VI world editor, which looks surprisingly similar to the game itself.

Plot spoilers begin!

It wasn’t until October of 1989, just five months before the game absolutely, positively had to ship, that Richard Garriott turned his attention to the Avatar’s reason for being in Britannia this time around. The core idea behind the plot came to him during a night out on Austin’s Sixth Street: he decided he wanted to pitch the Avatar into a holy war against enemies who, in classically subversive Ultima fashion, turn out not to be evil at all. In two or three weeks spent locked together alone in a room, subsisting on takeout Chinese food, Richard Garriott and Warren Spector created the “game” part of Ultima VI from this seed, with Spector writing it all down in a soy-sauce-bespattered notebook. Here Spector proved himself more invaluable than ever. He could corral Garriott’s sometimes unruly thoughts into a coherent plan on the page, whilst offering plenty of contributions of his own. And he, almost uniquely among his peers at Origin, commanded enough of Garriott’s respect — was enough of a creative force in his own right — that he could rein in the bad and/or overambitious ideas that in previous Ultimas would have had to be attempted and proved impractical to their originator. Given the compressed development cycle, this contribution too was vital. Spector:

An insanely complicated process, plotting an Ultima. I’ve written a novel, I’ve written [tabletop] role-playing games, I’ve written board games, and I’ve never seen a process this complicated. The interactions among all the characters — there are hundreds of people in Britannia now, hundreds of them. Not only that, but there are hundreds of places and people that players expect to see because they appeared in five earlier Ultimas.

Everybody in the realm ended up being a crucial link in a chain that adds up to this immense, huge, wonderful, colossal world. It was a remarkably complicated process, and that notebook was the key to keeping it all under control.

The chain of information you follow in Ultima VI is, it must be said, far clearer than in any of the previous games. Solving this one must still be a matter of methodically talking to everyone and assembling a notebook full of clues — i.e., of essentially recreating Garriott and Spector’s design notebook — but there are no outrageous intuitive leaps required this time out, nor any vital clues hidden in outrageously out-of-the-way locations. For the first time since Ultima I, a reasonable person can reasonably be expected to solve this Ultima without turning it into a major life commitment. The difference is apparent literally from your first moments in the game: whereas Ultima V dumps you into a hut in the middle of the wilderness — you don’t even know where in the wilderness — with no direction whatsoever, Ultima VI starts you in Lord British’s castle, and your first conversation with him immediately provides you with your first leads to run down. From that point forward, you’ll never be at a total loss for what to do next as long as you do your due diligence in the form of careful note-taking. Again, I have to attribute much of this welcome new spirit of accessibility and solubility to the influence of Warren Spector.

Ultima VI pushes the “Gargoyles are evil!” angle hard early on, going so far as to have the seemingly demonic beasts nearly sacrifice you to whatever dark gods they worship. This of course only makes the big plot twist, when it arrives, all the more shocking.

At the beginning of Ultima VI, the Avatar — i.e., you — is called back to Britannia from his homeworld of Earth yet again by the remarkably inept monarch Lord British to deal with yet another crisis which threatens his land. Hordes of terrifyingly demonic-looking Gargoyles are pouring out of fissures which have opened up in the ground everywhere and making savage war upon the land. They’ve seized and desecrated the eight Shrines of Virtue, and are trying to get their hands on the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom, the greatest symbol of your achievements in Ultima IV.

But, in keeping with the shades of gray the series had begun to layer over the Virtues with Ultima V, nothing is quite as it seems. In the course of the game, you discover that the Gargoyles have good reason to hate and fear humans in general and you the Avatar in particular, even if those reasons are more reflective of carelessness and ignorance on the part of you and Lord British’s peoples than they are of malice. To make matters worse, the Gargoyles are acting upon a religious prophecy — conventional religion tends to take a beating in Ultima games — and have come to see the Avatar as nothing less than the Antichrist in their own version of the Book of Revelation. As your understanding of their plight grows, your goal shifts from that of ridding the land of the Gargoyle scourge by violent means to that of walking them back from attributing everything to a foreordained prophecy and coming to a peaceful accommodation with them.

Ultima VI‘s subtitle, chosen very late in the development process, is as subtly subversive as the rest of the plot. Not until very near the end of the game do you realize that The False Prophet is in fact you, the Avatar. As the old cliché says, there are two sides to every story. Sadly, the big plot twist was already spoiled by Richard Garriott in interviews before Ultima VI was even released, so vanishingly few players have ever gotten to experience its impact cold.

When discussing the story of Ultima VI, we shouldn’t ignore the real-world events that were showing up on the nightly news while Garriott and Spector were writing it. Mikhail Gorbachev had just made the impossibly brave decision to voluntarily dissolve the Soviet empire and let its vassal states go their own way, and just like that the Cold War had ended, not in the nuclear apocalypse so many had anticipated as its only possible end game but rather in the most blessed of all anticlimaxes in human history. For the first time in a generation, East was truly meeting West again, and each side was discovering that the other wasn’t nearly as demonic as they had been raised to believe. On November 10, 1989, just as Garriott and Spector were finishing their design notebook, an irresistible tide of mostly young people burst through Berlin’s forbidding Checkpoint Charlie to greet their counterparts on the other side, as befuddled guards, the last remnants of the old order, looked on and wondered what to do. It was a time of extraordinary change and hope, and the message of Ultima VI resonated with the strains of history.

Plot spoilers end.

When Garriott and Spector emerged from their self-imposed quarantine, the first person to whom they gave their notebook was an eccentric character with strong furry tendencies who had been born as David Shapiro, but who was known to one and all at Origin as Dr. Cat. Dr. Cat had been friends with Richard Garriott for almost as long as Denis Loubet, having first worked at Origin for a while when it was still being run out of Richard’s parents’ garage in suburban Houston. A programmer by trade — he had done the Commodore 64 port of Ultima V — Dr. Cat was given the de facto role of head writer for Ultima VI, apparently because he wasn’t terribly busy with anything else at the time. Over the next several months, he wrote most of the dialog for most of the many characters the Avatar would need to speak with in order to finish the game, parceling the remainder of the work out among a grab bag of other programmers and artists, whoever had a few hours or days to spare.

Origin Systems was still populating the games with jokey cameos drawn from Richard Garriott’s friends, colleagues, and family as late as Ultima VI. Thankfully, this along with other aspects of the “programmer text” syndrome would finally end with the next installment in the series, for which a real professional writing team would come aboard. More positively, do note the keyword highlighting in the screenshot above, which spared players untold hours of aggravating noun-guessing.

Everyone at Origin felt the pressure by now, but no one carried a greater weight on his slim shoulders than Richard Garriott. If Ultima VI flopped, or even just wasn’t a major hit, that was that for Origin Systems. For all that he loved to play His Unflappable Majesty Lord British in public, Garriott was hardly immune to the pressure of having dozens of livelihoods dependent on what was at the end of the day, no matter how much help he got from Warren Spector or anyone else, his game. His stress tended to go straight to his stomach. He remembers being in “constant pain”; sometimes he’d just “curl up in the corner.” Having stopped shaving or bathing regularly, strung out on caffeine and junk food, he looked more like a homeless man than a star game designer — much less a regal monarch — by the time Ultima VI hit the homestretch. On the evening of February 9, 1990, with the project now in the final frenzy of testing, bug-swatting, and final-touch-adding, he left Origin’s offices to talk to some colleagues having a smoke just outside. When he opened the security door to return, a piece of the door’s apparatus — in fact, an eight-pound chunk of steel — fell off and smacked him in the head, opening up an ugly gash and knocking him out cold. His panicked colleagues, who at first thought he might be dead, rushed him to the emergency room. Once he had had his head stitched up, he set back to work. What else was there to do?

Ultima VI shipped on time in March of 1990, two years almost to the day after Ultima V, and Richard Garriott’s fears (and stomach cramps) were soon put to rest; it became yet another 200,000-plus-selling hit. Reviews were uniformly favorable if not always ecstatic; it would take Ultima fans, traditionalists that so many of them were, a while to come to terms with the radically overhauled interface that made this Ultima look so different from the Ultimas of yore. Not helping things were the welter of bugs, some of them of the potentially showstopping variety, that the game shipped with (in years to come Origin would become almost as famous for their bugs as for their ambitious virtual world-building). In time, most if not all old-school Ultima fans were comforted as they settled in and realized that at bottom you tackled this one pretty much like all the others, trekking around Britannia talking to people and writing down the clues they revealed until you put together all the pieces of the puzzle. Meanwhile Origin gradually fixed the worst of the bugs through a series of patch disks which they shipped to retailers to pass on to their customers, or to said customers directly if they asked for them. Still, both processes did take some time, and the reaction to this latest Ultima was undeniably a bit muted — a bit conflicted, one might even say — in comparison to the last few games. It perhaps wasn’t quite clear yet where or if the Ultima series fit on these newer computers in this new decade.

Both the muted critical reaction and that sense of uncertainty surrounding the game have to some extent persisted to this day. Firmly ensconced though it apparently is in the middle of the classic run of Ultimas, from Ultima IV through Ultima VII, that form the bedrock of the series’s legacy, Ultima VI is the least cherished of that cherished group today, the least likely to be named as the favorite of any random fan. It lacks the pithy justification for its existence that all of the others can boast. Ultima IV was the great leap forward, the game that dared to posit that a CRPG could be about more than leveling up and collecting loot. Ultima V was the necessary response to its predecessor’s unfettered idealism; the two games together can be seen to form a dialog on ethics in the public and private spheres. And, later, Ultima VII would be the pinnacle of the series in terms not only of technology but also, and even more importantly, in terms of narrative and thematic sophistication. But where does Ultima VI stand in this group? Its plea for understanding rather than extermination is as important and well-taken today as it’s ever been, yet its theme doesn’t follow as naturally from Ultima V as that game’s had from Ultima IV, nor is it executed with the same sophistication we would see in Ultima VII. Where Ultima VI stands, then, would seem to be on a somewhat uncertain no man’s land.

Indeed, it’s hard not to see Ultima VI first and foremost as a transitional work. On the surface, that’s a distinction without a difference; every Ultima, being part of a series that was perhaps more than any other in the history of gaming always in the process of becoming, is a bridge between what had come before and what would come next. Yet in the case of Ultima VI the tautology feels somehow uniquely true. The graphical interface, huge leap though it is over the old alphabet soup, isn’t quite there yet in terms of usability. It still lacks a drag-and-drop capability, for instance, to make inventory management and many other tasks truly intuitive, while the cluttered onscreen display combines vestiges of the old, such as a scrolling textual “command console,” with this still imperfect implementation of the new. The prettier, more detailed window on the world is welcome, but winds up giving such a zoomed-in view in the half of a screen allocated to it that it’s hard to orient yourself. The highlighted keywords in the conversation engine are also welcome, but are constantly scrolling off the screen, forcing you to either lawnmower through the same conversations again and again to be sure not to miss any of them or to jot them down on paper as they appear. There’s vastly more text in Ultima VI than in any of its predecessors, but perhaps the kindest thing to be said about Dr. Cat as a writer is that he’s a pretty good programmer. All of these things would be fixed in Ultima VII, a game — or rather games; there were actually two of them, for reasons we’ll get to when the time comes — that succeeded in becoming everything Ultima VI had wanted to be. To use the old playground insult, everything Ultima VI can do Ultima VII can do better. One thing I can say, however, is that the place the series was going would prove so extraordinary that it feels more than acceptable to me to have used Ultima VI as a way station en route.

But in the even more immediate future for Origin Systems was another rather extraordinary development. This company that the rest of the industry jokingly referred to as Ultima Systems would release the same year as Ultima VI a game that would blow up even bigger than this latest entry in the series that had always been their raison d’être. I’ll tell that improbable story soon, after a little detour into some nuts and bolts of computer technology that were becoming very important — and nowhere more so than at Origin — as the 1990s began.

(Sources: the books Dungeons and Dreamers: The Rise of Computer Game Culture from Geek to Chic by Brad King and John Borland, The Official Book of Ultima, Second Edition by Shay Addams, and Ultima: The Avatar Adventures by Rusel DeMaria and Caroline Spector; ACE of April 1990; Questbusters of November 1989, January 1990, March 1990, and April 1990; Dragon of July 1987; Computer Gaming World of March 1990 and June 1990; Origin’s in-house newsletter Point of Origin of August 7 1991. Online sources include Matt Barton’s interviews with Dr. Cat and Warren Spector’s farewell letter from the Wing Commander Combat Information Center‘s document archive. Last but far from least, my thanks to John Miles for corresponding with me via email about his time at Origin, and my thanks to Casey Muratori for putting me in touch with him.

Ultima VI is available for purchase from GOG.com in a package that also includes Ultima IV and Ultima V.)


Comments

April 04, 2017

Classic Adventure Solution Archive

CASA Update - 44 new game entries, 29 new solutions, 29 new maps, 2 new hints

by Gunness at April 04, 2017 02:54 PM

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For a lot of Kickstarter backers (including me), last week's release of Ron Gilbert's Thimbleweed Park was a long-awaited event. Obviously the game falls outside the scope of CASA, but nothing's going to keep me from giving a loving nod to Mr. Gilbert's second game, a little, classic something called Maniac Mansion. Which obviously (?) falls outside the scope of CASA, too, but I love the game and there are certain perks to being webmaster. So there!

Did you know that four of Infocom's titles were released in Japanese?
Neither did I, until one of our readers pointed me in the right direction. Among other oddities I also came across a version of Zork I for the Sega Saturn and Playstation - with sound and visuals. Nothing is sacred I guess :)

As always, thanks to all you hard working people out there - so many things updated this time around.

Contributors: Sudders, Garry, Juan, chlamydiamagic, Alex, Highretrogamelord, impomatic, iamaran, Gunness, Alastair

April 03, 2017

Inkle

New hires!

April 03, 2017 09:00 AM

We're thrilled to announce two new members joining the inkle team full-time today.

Anastasia Wyatt

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First up is Anastasia Wyatt, a 2d illustrator who graduated in Game Art and Design just last year.

Annie's been working with us as a contractor for the last few months, drawing Aliya and Six from every conceivable angle as they squeeze through gaps, lift skulls, fall over, and do everything else they need to do in Heaven's Vault.

She's also been designing the rest of the cast of the game, and providing us with concept art from props in the world, most notably Aliya's ship, the Nightingale, which Annie elevated from "very strange idea indeed" to "beautiful, functional sailing vessel". Right now she's drawing stone gods.

It's always exciting to discover talent, and seeing Annie's artwork front and centre in our coverage on Eurogamer, Rock Paper Shotgun, and in print in Edge magazine, has been really exciting for all of us, and we can't wait to share more of her characters.

Laura Dilloway

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Laura Dilloway is joining us as a senior artist, and she'll be leading the environment team. (Two people is a team, right?)

Laura's extremely experienced, with 10+ years experience working at Sony's Cambridge studio, most recently on Little Big Planet PSP, Killzone and RIGS.

She's been responsible for individual assets, environments and level design, and she'll be using that experience - as well as an entirely coincidental interest in archaeology - to bridge the gap between the written script that forms the core of Heaven's Vault, and the beautiful, strange spaces that Aliya will be exploring.

The team

Laura and Annie brings inkle's full-time team - after five and a half years - to six-and-a-half people, and for the first time pushes the art department to over fifty percent. (Our next hire will be a goddamn writer I swear.) You can find out more about us here.