Saturday, December 8, 2018

Cragne Manor is available to play

Cragne Manor, the absurdly monumental and monumentally absurd collaborative tribute to classic horror IF, is now available to play.

I mentioned this back in June:
A strong female character wanders the halls of a decrepit mansion. Her husband is in danger. She has to help him. Each room into which she points her flickering flashlight teems with arcane danger and unspeakable history. Each room has been designed and written by a different author.
The project was organized by Ryan Veeder and Jenni Polodna as a twentieth-anniversary tribute to Anchorhead. Anchorhead is Michael Gentry's seminal work of Lovecraftian IF. I played it twenty years ago (obviously) when the revival of IF was a new and shining star in the sky. (Michael Gentry has now released an updated, polished, illustrated version of Anchorhead; you can buy it on Steam and Itch. The original release remains free to play at IFDB.)
I remember Anchorhead fondly, and so, as it turns out, does everyone else. Eighty-four people showed up to contribute rooms to Cragne Manor. The author list includes many of the great names of interactive fiction -- including Michael Gentry.
It's glorious. It's a mess. It's a glorious mess. You have to understand: Cragne Manor was built exquisite-corpse style. Each author worked independently, not knowing what any other author was doing. Ryan and Jenni designed the underlying map, and handed out assignments like "your room must contain a library book" or "your room must have a puzzle that requires object X and reveals object Y."
Ryan and Jenni have labored mightily to compile all the contributed source code together. Inform 7, and IF design techniques in general, work best with a unified vision. (This is why IF-inspired MUDs always felt patchy and underimplemented.) If you ask eighty-four people to design rooms without even talking to each other... well, which do you mean: the iron key, the iron key, the rusty iron key, the iron key, or the large iron key? For a start. The organizers have done amazing work just to get the thing playable from start to finish.
The result, inevitably, is a wild mish-mash of tone, difficulty, and style. That was Ryan's grand vision; that's what he got. To quote the introductory note:
This resulted in a game that is ridiculous. The world the authors created is inconsistent and often nonsensical. Commands that are necessary to progress in one room might not work anywhere else. Many of the puzzles are, by ordinary human standards, deeply unfair. By ordinary human standards, this is not a good game.
Except I disagree; it's a great game, for what it is. It's a grand collection of vignettes by the biggest collective of IF authors ever gathered in one fictional Vermont town. It's a demonstration of varied styles, varied approaches to puzzle design, and varied takes on the idea of "Lovecraftian/Anchorheadian game". It's creepy and funny and gross and poetic. It's got simple rooms and inordinately complex rooms. It's got bugs. (There will always be bugs.)
It's also... well... enormous. I said that already. This thing will swallow teams of experienced IF players for weeks -- if you can find a team of experienced IF players who aren't on the author list. Or even if you are on the author list! I've only seen the first little bit; I have no idea how to reach my own room. The playtesting group took several weeks to finish the game, and that was working together.
And yet, somehow, Cragne Manor hangs together. I have no idea how. Maybe because IF games always feel like a strangely jointed reality -- little self-contained rooms floating as bubbles on a map. We're used to filling in the gaps and visualizing a world. Somehow, even when the landscape shifts surreally from one room to the next, the world is still there.
If you have ever had any love of interactive fiction, give Cragne Manor a look. It's a cross-section of my world for the past twenty years.

Monday, November 19, 2018

System Syzygy

Last week someone passed me a reference to System Syzygy, a new free-to-play puzzle game.

A motley crew (of autonomous programs), a peaceful (if perhaps mysterious) mission, and no enemy vessels for lightyears around—what could possibly go wrong? Just about everything, as it turns out. [...]
System Syzygy is a story and a puzzle game, in the style of Cliff Johnson's classic Macintosh games The Fool's Errand and 3 in Three, and of Andrew Plotkin's System's Twilight.
Naturally, this was a startling thing for me to run into! And at the same time, it's bizarre for me to be startled by it! After all, this is exactly what I did 25 years ago (!) when I started planning System's Twilight. I looked at a game, decided the world needed more of that, and started hacking.
As you can see, System Syzygy is a pretty sharp riff. The writing style is... okay, I'll admit this: after I started playing, I pulled out my original design notes to see if Syzygy's author had lifted my lines. He hadn't! He's just got a darn good handle on my style circa 1993.
The most disconcerting part (to me!) is that it's vintage DOS graphics instead of classic Macintosh. Totally different palette. But we'll always have Chicago.
The puzzles, mind you, are entirely original. I haven't played through the whole game, but so far I've seen a nice mix of grid puzzles, letter and symbol puzzles, and word puzzles. It's in the same general domain as SysTwi and the Cliff Johnson games. Like all those games, it's inevitably uneven in difficulty. That is, a given player will find some puzzles comfortable, some easy, and some awkward. Players won't agree which is which, though.
Syzygy also has a metapuzzle element, in the explicit style which 3 in Three had (and SysTwi did not). Each solved puzzle leaves a word or pattern on the screen, and (I expect) these will come together as clues in a final metapuzzle. As I said, I haven't gotten to the meta yet, but I got a delightful Cliff Johnson buzz from seeing the clues pop out. If you're not me, you will get a delightful Zarf buzz from seeing the whole thing!
Unlike its forebears, Syzygy is free from the get-go. You can play it for free, and the source code is available under an open-source license. (Art assets included. It's written in Rust, apparently.)
Recommended. Keep the faith, kids.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Cyan news updates, late 2018

We've gotten a trickle of various Cyan-related news this week, so I figured I'd make a post out of it.
The Myst 25th anniversary collectibles (the book-boxes and inkwells) have been delayed due to a late-caught manufacturing problem. (And the fact that shipping from China is just slow.) We haven't gotten an updated delivery date, but no sooner than February. The DVDs will arrive much sooner, perhaps by the end of this year.
Cyan has also announced a new publishing arm, Cyan Ventures. The idea is to partner with other studios creating VR narrative games. Their first release will be Zed, an adventure game developed by Eagre Games. Zed ran a kickstarter a couple of years ago (which I backed). They haven't had a lot of visible motion since then, but this announcement puts them back on the front burner. Zed is targeted at a Spring 2019 release date for PC, Rift, and Vive.
It's not completely clear what "publishing arm" means here. Normally we think of a game publisher as providing development funding and marketing contacts. But Cyan, by their own admission, "doesn't have huge amounts of cash lying around". (Or they'd be spending it on Firmament!) So I'm putting this deal down to sharing of marketing and distribution expertise, and leveraging Cyan as a prestige game brand. In unofficial chat, Eagre folks talk about Cyan's contacts with major game distribution networks. Plus it gets Cyan's name back in the headlines -- that never hurts.
Zed is a natural first project for Cyan Ventures. Chuck Carter, the designer, is a Cyan alumnus from the original Myst era. We'll see if this turns into a steady stream of Cyan-published adventure games from other studios.
And speaking of Firmament, what's up with that? Cyan hasn't made any public announcement since March. There's been no indication that they've staffed up to a full production team. However, they continue to talk about Firmament as a live project. They exhibited at GeekGirlCon just a couple of weeks ago, and I hear they said that Firmament was still in development. But there wasn't a lot more detail than they had back in March.
My sense is that they're still in the "concept sketches and design documents" stage, and will be until real funding arrives. But I'd be happy to be proved wrong.
Finally, a neat bit of fan art. On one of the Myst fan Discord servers, user Rasi Talon has been experimenting with a (proprietary) deep-learning image tool to scale up images from Riven. You can find them in this imgur album.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Four years ago in planetary exploration

I learned this weekend that Extrasolar is being shut down at the end of the month. Extrasolar is a weird little alternate-reality web game about exploring an alien planet. I blogged about it back in 2014, the year it launched.


The creator has written a brief postmortem.
If I had to name just one thing that prevented Extrasolar from being financially self-sufficient, I'd say this: We built an unmarketable experience. [...]
Once we got players through the front door, most were hooked. But every marketing campaign we tried fell flat. In a way, it's been comforting to hear fans tell me repeatedly — at festivals, through emails, and on our forums — "It's just too far ahead of its time."
(-- Rob Jagnow, Extrasolar Postmortem)
Let's run with that. If Extrasolar was ahead of its time in 2014, when is that time? Now?
In one sense, no. 2018 is a terrible time to launch an experimental, hard-to-explain indie game. (Or rather, it's a terrible time to spend significant money building one!) The market is full of highly-tuned experiences in comfortably familiar niches, or slight variations of those themes. Nobody has to search very hard to find a game they like. A few wild ideas will become unexpected hits, as they do every year, but the percentage of wild ideas that succeed has only slid lower since 2014.
But we do have a bit more vocabulary, and I don't think Extrasolar is as unpitchable as it was back then.
What is Extrasolar? It's real-time interactive fiction. We can say that because Lifeline introduced that genre in 2015. I don't mean Lifeline invented its gameplay mechanics de novo -- nothing does that -- but that was the big hit which spawned imitators and a category label. Extrasolar is graphical and exploratory, rather than branching and textual, but it shares Lifeline's rhythm: you make requests of a fictional distant partner and wait through a "realistic" delay for a reply.
Another obvious comparison is No Man's Sky, a game centered around procedural generation and rendering of alien worlds. Extrasolar doesn't offer infinite variety -- you explore one small island -- but the alien species are algorithmically generated. The characteristics of each plant, for example, are derived from the simulated environmental conditions of its location. (Sheltered or windy spots, sandy or rocky soil, and so on.)
The label "walking simulator" existed in 2014, but I'm not sure anyone used it to describe Extrasolar. It's not a bad fit, though. (Substitute "rolling" for "walking".) This is a game where the primary verb is Look At A Thing. If that doesn't advance the story, look closer or move on and look elsewhere.
And finally the label I started with: alternate reality game. That's easy to pick out. The game launched with an in-character web site (exoresearch.com) and an equally in-character opposition site (exoleaks.com, although that one doesn't seem to have survived). ARG-ish hacking and out-of-the-box exploration isn't the core of Extrasolar, but it's a nice frame which adds flavor to the experience.
So does that add up to a pitch? A walking simulator on wheels, as real-time IF, with procgen alien species and a ARG shell? Okay, that's trying too hard. My point is just that we have a larger ecosystem to compare Extrasolar to. Maybe the next wacky idea in this space will do better.
The post-mortem promises that when the game is taken down (December 1), it will be replaced by an archive that tells the story in static form. The creative work, the videos and emails that you received through the story arc, won't entirely disappear from the world. Good for him.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

A Nebula Award category for game writing

A couple of years ago, SFWA, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, announced that game writers were eligible to join. Or, I should say, writers were eligible to join SFWA on the basis of game writing.
I thought that was pretty cool, so I applied. It turned out that Hadean Lands qualified for both the word count and royalty level requirements. So for the past couple of years, I have been a card-carrying SFWA member. Okay, I never got a card, but never mind that.
Yesterday, SFWA took the next step: game writing is now eligible for the Nebula Awards. The Nebulas are one of the major awards in science fiction and fantasy.
(The Hugos are more famous, particularly in the last couple of years. I've argued for a videogame Hugo category, but the Worldcon people who run the Hugos have not made a move in that direction.)
The summary of the Game Writing Nebula:
  • The award goes to an "interactive or playable story-driven work which conveys narrative, character, or story background." This is intended to include both videogames and table-top roleplaying games.
  • The Nebulas cover science fiction, fantasy, and related fiction genres. I expect this will be interpreted broadly; horror and alternate history are traditionally considered siblings of SF.
  • Any size game is eligible. The lack of a word count requirement means that entirely nonverbal games are also eligible (think Journey).
  • A game is eligible in the year that it is first fully published in English or in the US. Demo, beta, and early-access releases don't count. A new release of a game can be eligible in its own right if it is a substantial update or change.
  • Since this is a writing award, a game must have at least one credited writer to be eligible. All credited writers will get certificates.
  • Nebula nomination and voting is done by SFWA members, but you don't have to be a SFWA member (or even have heard of SFWA) to have your game nominated.
  • The official Nebula rules are here.
I'm happy to say that I took part in the discussion around these rules. We tried to fit them to the realities of the videogame and tabletop markets.
This is all pretty cool. Hopefully it's part of a general trend towards recognizing games and interactive narrative as primary parts of the cultural canon.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Vote: USA 2018 edition

You have heard all of this before.
"Both parties are equally bad..." I said that in my first adult election year. Bush (senior) vs Dukakis. I didn't vote. I was eighteen years old. I was stupid and it was a stupid thing to say.
"If voting could change the system..." Yes, there was the gerrymandering and the vote suppression. But if Trump voters hadn't shown up to vote, Trump wouldn't have won. That was the story of 2016. They showed up.
"It's too late..." Yes, in many respects it is too late. The GOP has the Supreme Court for a generation. They have the climate change that they fought so hard for. 2018 happened and it sucked. The question is, what is it not too late to hold onto?
"This is the most important election..." That one's true. This is the most important election in your lifetime. 2016 was the most important election in your lifetime too. 2008 was the most important election in your lifetime. So were 2004 and 2000. We didn't lose all of them.
If you're an American voter, you need to vote. You've heard it before. People have been shouting it at you for months. Years. I have nothing to add, no magic argument.
I've already voted. (Massachusetts had early voting.) I have nothing left to do except wait, and post this. Posting this isn't anything. Posting this makes me feel futile and helpless. I realize you're the choir-iest crowd I could preach to. But I have two years of shared fear and despair pooled in my guts, same as you, and I have to say something. I can't leave it unsaid.
Vote on Tuesday. Against the fucking white supremacist party.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Restless released in EctoComp

I don't post much about my day job, but we have something to show off this week.
You've been haunting old Mrs Fagles for decades. Now she's sold the house, and the new owner's moved in. Sylvie's broke, bad at plumbing, and anxious about everything. And with a living, breathing, fretting roommate, how are you supposed to rest in peace?
Drink blood. Set fires. Tell lies. Give advice, loan out a wedding dress, reclaim your true name. Remix your dialogue options to reflect your mood or dig deeper into the topics that interest you.
Restless is a short menu-based narrative game by Emily Short. Emily built it using Spirit AI's Character Engine tool. The visual design and Unity interface were provded by Tea-Powered Games. Restless is part of EctoComp, a Halloween-themed game jam.
I didn't design Restless, but I'm one of the people who supports Character Engine. I built a lot of the logic which handles menu-based games of this type.
It's pretty cool. (I do say myself.) You may think it's a familiar Twine-style choice game, but look again. You can select a mood and/or topic; the current menu options are biased to include options which express your selections. You can freely adjust the mood and topic controls at any time, and the menu will be "re-rolled" to match. It's a nifty way to explore a conversation space.
SpiritAI has a beta program for IF authors who want to experiment with this tool. If you're interested, check out our web site. (There's a "sign up" link up top.)