Tuesday, January 15, 2019

2019 IGF nominees: my favorites

There were my favorites among the IGF narrative finalists. I don't mean the best -- although the games I liked did well. I mean the games that I finished with a big grin on my face. The ones that spoke directly to me and said "Zarf, I am what you're here for." Or possibly "I am here for you." (IF authors have trouble telling first-person from second-person pronouns.)
  • Return of the Obra Dinn
  • Seers Isle
  • Wandersong
Repeat: I was on the narrative jury and played free review copies of these games.

Friday, January 11, 2019

2019 IGF nominees: mixed reactions

And now, IGF finalists that I didn't get into.
This is tricky to introduce. I'm not saying these games were bad. I'm not even saying that I had a bad time playing them. Rather, these are games that are aimed at an audience which isn't quite me.
So you're about to sit through why they didn't work for me. But this really is more audience-analysis than game-analysis.
  • Unavowed
  • Genital Jousting
  • Hypnospace Outlaw
(Repeat: I was on the narrative jury and played free review copies of these games. Except Unavowed, which I bought earlier this year.)

Monday, January 7, 2019

NarraScope 2019: still seeking talk proposals

Hello! Happy 2019! I know, this is my second blog post of 2019, I forgot. Rabbit vorpal rabbit.
Let me remind everybody that 2019 is the year of NarraScope 2019, the IF/narrative/adventure gaming conference which we will be running in Boston in June. Cambridge, I should say -- it will be on MIT campus.
Let me also remind you (this is the real point here) that we are still accepting proposals for NarraScope talks! And panels, presentations, lightning talks, and so on. If you're advancing the state of the art in interactive narrative, or just doing stuff you're excited to talk about, please sign up.
The deadline for proposals is January 18th, which is just under two weeks away. We hope to hear from you.
NarraScope celebrates the diverse voices of game design. We aim to create a safe, welcoming, and accountable space for all participants.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

2019 IGF nominees: something notable

The IGF finalists have been announced. It's an extremely awesome and diverse slate of games. I'm not going to try to fit them all into one post.
Today, I'm picking out games that might not have gotten a lot of attention -- but they did something narrative interesting, or clever, or just had nice writing that I want to point at.
  • A Case of Distrust
  • The Hex
  • Watch Me Jump
  • levedad
(Note: I was on the narrative jury and played free review copies of these games. Except A Case of Distrust; I bought that one earlier this year.)

Friday, December 28, 2018

"And tomorrow will be beyond imagining."

I took some of my holiday time to re-read The Dark is Rising. It's still good. Shorter than I remember.
Prompted by nothing but the season, I began to wonder: what sort of game might be made of this book?
It must be twenty years since I last read through The Dark is Rising. It was written in 1973, long before fantasy -- much less children's fantasy -- became the battle-hardened marketing category we know today. The devouring gyre of media resurrection has almost entirely overlooked it. (The 2007 movie was reviled by absolutely everybody, as far as I can tell, and vanished in a knot of shame.)
So perhaps nobody has even considered the idea of transforming the story into interactive form.

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.