Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Patricia McKillip (1948-2022)

This afternoon, Locus posted an obituary for Patricia McKillip.
I have trouble finding what to say. Really a large part of everything I've written has started with "Maybe I could do that too." After reading Riddle-Master or Changeling Sea or Fool's Run or just remembering a line or a phrase or a turn of thought.
I'm gonna just go back into my book room and pick out some words.
"If you hate the sea so now," Mare asked in wonder one day, "why don't you leave?" Mare was a few years older than Peri, and very pretty. She came to work in the morning with a private smile in her eyes. Down at the docks, Peri knew, was a young fisherman with the same smile coming and going on his face. Mare was tidy and energetic, unlike Carey, who dreamed that the king's son would come to the inn one day and fall in love with her green eyes and raven tresses. Carey was slow and prone to breaking things. Peri attacked her work grimly, as if she were going to war armed with a dust cloth and a coal scuttle.
That same smile.
He woke in the morning, face-down in a book. Nyx was stirring the fire.
"You should never sleep between two spells," she commented.
Witches and magicians turn out to be the protagonists. It's common these days but back then they drifted on-stage as helpmeets and quest-givers and destinations. McKillip's could be confused, arrogant, ignorant, and central. Sometimes the sorcerer ran off with the girl or the boy rather than vice versa.
"...Then, outside the seventh door, his name was called again; but the Thing did not touch the door. He waited in despair for it to enter, but it did not. Then he grew impatient, longing for it to enter, but it did not. Finally he reached out, opened the door himself. The Thing was gone. And he was left to wonder, all the days of his life, what it was that had called out to him."
He stopped. Elliard said in spite of himself, "Well, what was it?"
"Kern didn't open the door. That is the only riddle to come out of Hed. The stricture, according to the Riddle-Masters at Caithnard is this: Answer the unanswered riddle. So I do."
So I do, when I'm most myself.
The walls flickered around them at the changing hour. The chartreuse heated to a vibrant orange that caused them both to duck over their beers.
"Lord," Sidney said painfully. "I had no idea what goes on here at this time of morning."
My virtual space on IFMud runs in those times and colors. Well, my colors, not the Constellation Club's. Later, I put them in Dreamhold. I may yet run them up the walls of my house.
Calyx made a satisfied noise. "Here we are. According to Chrysom, the power to move Ro House is passed from generation to generation of Holders' children, who are born with an innate ability, for the Holders instinctively seek out as mates those who may inspire the power within the child conceived."
...They all gazed at Iris. She put down her needlework uncertainly, flushing. The Holder's brows had risen. She pulled a pin out of her hair absently, her mind running down the past; a smile, reminiscent, wondering, touched her eyes.
"Mother," Iris said accusingly.
"Well, I didn't know," the Holder said. "He seemed a very practical man."
Just look at them.
Peace, tremulous, unexpected, sent a taproot out of nowhere into Morgon's heart.
For us all.

Thursday, April 28, 2022

Inform 7 open-source release

Today is the traditional Inform 7 birthday. Okay, April 30 may be more traditional, but close enough. The point is, today Graham posted the full source code for a new release of Inform 7. Here is his announcement forum post.
This is tagged as a beta release, and the IDEs have not yet incorporated the new compiler. So it's not fully ready for use. But I have successfully downloaded it, compiled it, and run some tests.
In other good news, the Inform bug tracker is back, now in Jira form.
Some notes:
Do you like NeXT-style release numbers, named releases, datestamps, or semantic versioning? Inform has you covered every which way! This release is formally "Inform 7, v10.1.0-beta+6U93 'Krypton' (28 April 2022)".
Some older versions of I7 now have semantic version numbers as well, and will be available as options in the IDE:
  • 6L02 (May 2014): Inform 9.1
  • 6L38 (August 2014): Inform 9.2
  • 6M62 (December 2015): Inform 9.3
This is good news for existing users, as upgrading a large game across Inform versions has always been a moderate headache. It's even possible that users will contribute bug fixes to the 9.x branches.
Compiling Inform is not a one-liner. This is because Graham has actually released three packages: inform, inweb, and intest.
All three are written in inweb, a "literate programming" meta-dialect of C. Read the forum post or the inweb manual for a full explanation of this. The micro-summary is that it's C code annotated with documentation such that it can generate either an executable or a manual.
The fact that inweb is written in inweb means that the whole mess requires a certain amount of bootstrapping, in the original sense. But it's just a few commands, and they go smoothly on Mac/Win/Linux. See the READMEs for details.
Reading source code in this style is somewhat unnerving to us old coders. You can look at a source file, or the equivalent web page -- they're blatantly the same thing; just nicer formatting on the web version. It reads like a manual with bits of sample code. But of course this is the code. You're looking at it. If you want to fix a bug, you fix this file; the change applies to executable and manual alike.
The effect is somehow like one of those night-in-the-museum fantasies where the buffalo and the Transparent Woman start walking around and talking to you. In the manual (or source), Graham quotes Christopher Wyk (CACM 33.3, 1990): "...no one has yet volunteered to write a program using another's system for literate programming." This may yet remain true.
This I7 release doesn't change the language much from the last (2015) release. The big changes are under the hood. The classic two-stage compiler (I7→I6→Glulx) is now three stages (I7→Inter→I6→Glulx). But the new Inter stage can also be compiled to C source and then a native executable. More formats like JS or C# could be added in the future. This is still experimental, but it opens the possibility of using Inform as middleware in other game frameworks. (This has always been possible with enough layers of hackery, but now it's more sensible.)
Plenty more could be said, but I think that'll do for tonight. Have fun poking around.

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Yes, I will quit Twitter

Lot of Twitter discussion on Twitter today about the news. My response is pretty simple: if Elon Musk buys Twitter, I'm quitting Twitter. I decided that last week when it seemed like it wasn't going to happen. Now it seems like it will happen. Okay.
Note, Tuesday: I waited 24 hours before posting this, because I made it about one-in-four odds that Elon would shout "Psych!" and withdraw his offer. Not so far. Could still happen though.
So I will soon be an ex-parrot. I will explain my reasoning in the form of passive-aggressive Reply Guy questions. We are, after all, talking about Twitter here.

Monday, April 18, 2022

Hey, submit a NarraScope talk

The deadline for NarraScope's call for proposals is Friday! Did I mention that? NarraScope is back. We want you to talk about interactive narrative on the weekend of July 30. Send us your proposal!
The conference is once again all-online. (An in-person conference might be reasonable this year -- depending exactly when you ask. But we really didn't want to start planning one and then have to tear up those plans in, like, June. So online it is.)
We are still working out how online social interaction will work; more news on that is coming.
As before, we are accepting proposals for 60-minute, 30-minute, and lightning (15-minute) talks. Panel discussions can also happen; see the CFP page.
Hope to hear from you, unless we already have, in which case thank you!

Saturday, April 16, 2022

Is Apple Arcade even a thing any more?

(Previous posts on Apple Arcade: Sept 2019, July 2020.)
I bought a new iPhone SE last month. ("What's the smallest iPhone with TouchID? That one please.") This purchase comes with three free months of Apple Arcade. Oh yeah! I haven't looked at Arcade since my first trial month (late 2019). Or maybe I signed in once in 2020 to do some reviewing, but I didn't stick with it. So this is a good time to check back, right?
As of this writing, I still haven't pushed the "Redeem 3 Months Free" button. The game list just doesn't have much for me.
I talked about this in 2020 -- Apple's apparent shift of its Arcade strategy from "unique voices" to "grabby time sinks". I am interested in weird little narrative experiments and first-water puzzle gems. It seems like Apple no longer courts those titles. The "Puzzle" category under Arcade is strikingly thin. It's wall-to-wall familiar IPs like Monument Valley, Temple Run, and Tetris. You have to scroll down to the bottom to see the interesting stuff like Discolored and Manifold Garden, because they were added way back in 2019. (And I played them then.)
The "Adventure" category is better -- fewer stock IPs, more interesting concepts. (Gibbon and Wylde Flowers look cool.) But you still don't have to scroll far before you reach 2019.
Arcade's current strategy seems to be to find existing hits and invite them to create a "Plus" version. (Hidden Folks+, The Room 2+, and so on.) When I look at the "New Games" tab in Arcade, it's twelve "Plus" titles out of eighteen! Thirteen if you include a "Remastered".
The overall picture is a subscription service which wants me to replay my favorite old games forever. That's exactly what I don't want in my life. So I don't visit, not even to hunt for surprises.

Here's the problem: I've stopped visiting the non-subscription part of the App Store too.
For many years I had a regular ritual. Every week or two I'd pull up the "New Games" tab of the App Store and scroll down. Pretty regularly I'd see a nifty-looking puzzler or hidden-object game and blow a few bucks on it. That's how I got onto the Isoland series, Faraway, and innumerable grid-puzzle games like Pipe Push Paradise. I didn't find something every week, but I could scan through every single new title that hit the tab and at least think about it.
Somewhere in the last year, Apple broke the "New Games" tab. (Again, I'm talking about the main App Store, not Arcade.) It's now called "New This Week", and it's not new games; it's new updates. Oh, brand-new games still trickle in. But the tab is dominated by bugs-and-incremental updates by the giants who can afford to push new builds forever.
Looking at "New This Week" today, I see... Harry Potter, Star Trek, Hearthstone, Two Dots, Pokemon Go, Sky: Children of the Light, NBA Live, and ferchrissake Angry Birds 2. There might be one genuinely new release in here, but it's not worth tapping through the list to find it.
Effectively, new games no longer launch on iOS. As far as I'm concerned! New games happen on Steam -- that's where I look. (I never log into Epic any more, not even for freebies. As for Itch, I'm glad it exists, but I don't browse there.)
It's a pretty shocking shift from where we were ten years ago. I don't want to say "Apple has lost the thread", because (a) terrible cliche and (b) the market has grown by a ridiculous factor over that time. Revenue-wise, they've added about sixteen new App Stores to the one they had in 2012. Of course they're not all the same as the original! But it's still worth a headshake, or an eyebrow-raise, or something.

Sunday, April 10, 2022

Puzzle dossiers and boxes, 2022

The past decade or so has seen a modest revival of puzzle books. I suspect it's expanded out from the escape-room craze -- that's demonstrated a general audience for puzzle stuff. Plus Kickstarter, of course, which has been good for all sorts of niche markets.
I've tried a few of these puzzle books, although not every available one by far. (See blog posts on Daedalian Depths and the Sherlock Holmes Escape series.) I also don't frequent escape rooms. Even before the pandemic, I was more of a stay-at-home solver. Which is fine; there's plenty of Mystery-Hunt-style online puzzle events these days.
However, the pandemic has popularized another format: the mail-order puzzle artifact. It's sort of a hybrid -- triangulating the ideas of the puzzle book, the online hunt, and the escape room. What the heck, I thought, and backed a few on Kickstarter.
As it happened, three showed up in the same month! So a couple of (vaccinated) friends and I got together to try them.

Redl0ck

This is a pure puzzle-box. Well, there's a bit of frame story on the web site; you can watch a short introductory video. But it's more of a framing trope list. Someone is trying to solve a puzzle; there's a murder. Spy stuff, check. Get on with the puzzles. (The video is not a puzzle.)
The puzzle is nicely constructed in laser-cut wood, with sliders and knobs and dials on the outside and the promise of more within. It's a little flimsy, but everything moves smoothly without requiring force. If you mean to play fair, you can make it work. (If you don't mean to play fair, you wasted your money.)
The puzzles are pretty good. You basically cycle between solving physical slider puzzles, figuring out symbol-matching puzzles with the info thus revealed, and dialing in combinations with the symbols. That unlocks another piece; you find another slider puzzle; repeat. About two and a half layers and you're at the gooey center. We spent about 45 minutes on it -- short as puzzle hunts go, but pretty impressive for a single physical object.
We ran into one mechanical failure: when we opened the first layer of the box, an internal panel came loose. (The nine-square maze panel.) It wasn't immediately obvious that this was a mistake, so we unlocked the next stage by directly observing the "hidden" gears. Once we figured out what had happened, we backsolved the skipped puzzle to make sure it made sense. (It did.)
An enjoyable construction, if short. Without the loose panel, our solving time would have been closer to an hour.
The original Kickstarter page details a whole "season" consisting of four boxes, four short films, and a branching storyline with multiple endings. I hope the designers make it that far. My rule of episodic story games is "they never get finished". Play optimistically, but don't hold your breath.
I'll buy the next one, anyhow.

The Vandermist Dossier

Amsterdam, 1979: Your sister Abigail Vandermist has disappeared. She's left you a dossier of her investigation into earlier disappearances. Everything is clues. Start solving!
This is reminiscent of "crime dossier" games like the classic Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective. You get maps, letters, a notebook, a scribbled-on napkin, and so on. But it's definitely a puzzle-solving experience (cryptograms and hidden messages) rather than a detective game (interviews and witness statements). The clues generally fit into the story logic; they are messages that Abigail deliberately hid. However, the designers are willing to stretch the bounds of mimesis for the sake of a sneaky clue.
It's a wonderfully high-quality production. The newspaper page is newsprint and the torn-out directory page is crumpled. The letters are in envelopes and the tourist map comes in a decorative box. Everything feels real as you unpack, unwrap, and unfold it.
This leads to a few design problems, though. You can discover a lot by unwrapping, unfolding, and so on. The game is clearly meant for an escape-room-style "examine everything" mentality. However, some of the puzzles exist only to reinforce this point. That is, sometimes you'll solve a puzzle and the solution says "examine [thing] real close!" If you already did, because why wouldn't you, then the puzzle is redundant and you feel a bit let down. We had a few of those moments. But then, we also had some moments where we shouted "The [thing]! Quick, examine it!" and made a delightful discovery. It works both ways; you just have to roll with the non-linearity.
We spent about two hours on the dossier, and completed the main story quest. (There's bonus puzzles that we didn't look into.) We had a bit of trouble verifying our answer -- the web site didn't accept an obvious synonym for one field. However, that didn't spoil the fun. We just poked at the online hints, which verified stuff we already knew and then gave us the correct spelling of the answer. There's a nice epilogue on the web site, too. And a hook for a sequel! Works for me.

The Emerald Flame

An investigation into an enigmatic alchemical society in Prague.
This is another dossier -- or rather three dossiers. You get three complete episodes, each a folder full of stuff. There's also a prologue (the "Apprentice Pack") which you can order separately as a teaser. As of this writing, we've played the prologue and the first episode, which took about three hours total.
The dossier provides a heady mix of maps, diagrams, and some nifty etched-acrylic puzzle parts. It's all high-quality printing, although it doesn't quite match the materiality of Vandermist's distressed and torn papers.
As long as I'm comparing the two... Vandermist was a mix of puzzle, clue-hunting, and narrative. Its codes and puzzles were hidden in personal letters and journals which advanced a storyline. Emerald Flame is much heavier on the puzzle than the story. You don't spend much time inspecting the artifacts or reading the letters; you're pretty much straight into the solving. Whether you think that's a strength or a weakness will be a matter of taste! Either way, it absolutely oozes alchemical character. Everything is herbs, crystals, and occult geometry. The Voynich-esque herbal booklet is particularly nice.
The puzzle structure felt nice and tight. There are four major puzzles to work on, and you can work on them in any order (or in parallel) once you figure out which clues relate to each other. We had three solvers so this worked out well for us. As for the puzzles themselves, there was a bit more trial-and-error than I prefer, but nothing broken. We got stuck on one puzzle and peeked at one clue, which isn't a bad ratio for three hours of solving.
Definitely excited to play the other two episodes.

Friday, March 25, 2022

SFWA membership is easier to qualify for

Way back in 2016, SFWA -- the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association -- announced that game writers and narrative designers were eligible to join. And indeed I joined, and I've been a member in good standing ever since.
However, the membership criteria were kind of contorted. There was stuff about word count and how much money you made on a single work. I was lucky that Hadean Lands happened to fit the criteria. They dated back to the original conception of SFWA as an association of novelists, or maybe short story writers -- but novels were definitely better -- in a stable market of known publishers.
Well, stability is a dim memory, isn't it? So SFWA has spent the past twenty years patching the rules. First indie publishers, then self-publishing, digital publishing, cross-media publishing... the organization has expanded its membership criteria over and over. It got messy.
Cleanup time! The membership has overwhelmingly approved an update to the bylaws which simplifies the whole thing. The membership requirements now say:
A candidate shall be eligible for Full Membership if:
  • Their catalog of paid work in science fiction, fantasy, or related genres equals or exceeds an industry standard set by the board. ($1000)
  • For co-authored works or team projects, the candidate’s share must equal or exceed an industry standard set by the board. ($1000)
  • Proof of earnings will be guaranteed by affidavit.
This includes writing work on books, stories, videogames, tabletop games, comics, screenplays, whatever. Pretty much anything as long as it's English-language writing work in the genre, and your lifetime earnings total $1000.
(Poetry and criticism/non-fiction are currently not included, although this may be reconsidered. There is a separate Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association, mind you.)
(The "affidavit" thing basically means that this is on the honor system. You don't need to get a letter from your boss or publisher proving that you made $1000.)
(The $1000 requirement is for full membership. SFWA also has associate members (non-voting, lower requirement) and affiliate members (for non-writers in the industry who want to stay in the loop with the writers' group).)
(Oh, and while I'm doing footnotes -- the web site still says "Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America". But the org is in the process of dropping the "America" part; it will just be "...Association" in the future. SFWA is open to writers of every nationality.)
If you're a professional game writer and you're reading this, you probably qualify.

So why do you care about SFWA? Is it worth the $100/year dues?
They've got a "Why Join" web page. I admit it's not very game-focused at the moment. However, I'm glad to be involved with the org, just as a representative of (one corner of) the games industry. I've had a hand in shaping the Nebula Award for Game Writing which launched in 2018.
Plus there's SFWA forums and chat sites where you can hang out. You know, how professional organizations do.
But in general, as more game writers and narrative designers join up, SFWA will become more relevant to games and the needs of game people. So that's why I'm writing this.
Take a look; see if it makes sense.