Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Quick links: creepy games done dirt creepy

The Terrible Secret of Animal Crossing

A retelling, or reinterpretation, of that creepy game-timesucker-thing. The creepy part is how little reinterpretation the author had to do. Illustrated with direct, unedited screenshots. (Okay, later on they're supplemented with original artwork.)

It suddenly penetrates my 8-year-old brain like a brick through a convenience store window. They're all in on it. The mysterious cabbie that took off with all my shit, being forced to wear work clothes, the impossible sudden debt, the guarded gates... it's all one big conspiracy.

I'm trapped here. And I'm alone.

(Link thanks to tleaves.)

Butchering Pathologic

A review of Pathologic, a 2005 holocaustic CRPG that won a huge trail of rewards in Russia and that I never heard word one about. The game sounds astonishing, and I think I want to never play it. It's a button-buster of a review, anyway.

You will not get paid money when you carry out the whims of the town's leaders. There will not be a health pack hidden behind the thug. You will not find a loaf of bread at the back of the cave. You'll find a stone wall at the back of the cave, because it's a fucking cave.

Instead, survival is its own entirely separate entity. To keep up a stash of supplies you have to learn to master the town's nightmare economy. Example: giving a child a cutthroat razor in exchange for stolen jewelery, trading these jewels in at a grocers for a heel of bread.

Review is spoilery; part 3 of the review is seriously spoilery.

(Link thanks to Nancy Lebovitz.)

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Myst Online to be open source

Cyan said a few days ago that they had a big change in the works. I wasn't expecting this:

So, Cyan has decided to give make MystOnline available to the fans by releasing the source code for the servers, client and tools for MystOnline as an open source project. We will also host a data server with the data for MystOnline. MORE is still possible but only with the help from fans.

This is a bit scary for Cyan because this is an area that we have never gone before, to let a product freely roam in the wild. But we've poured so much into UruLive, and it has touched so many, that we could not just let it whither and die. We still have hopes that someday we will be able to provide new content for UruLive and/or work on the next UruLive.

(posted Dec 12 on mystonline.com; reprint on Spokesman Review blog.)

Damn. Mondo cool. I wish I had the free energy to pitch into this full-time.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Something I learned about Alternate Reality Fiction

This week I learned something you can do with alternate reality fiction that you can't do with regular, localized fiction. You can create text that's part of two separate stories.

(You can go back to my previous post on alternate reality fiction, or here's the short form: it's the sort of fiction that has pieces of a universe supporting it. Web sites for fictional companies, fictional people blogging and sending email, so on. When it's a game you call it an "alternate reality game", but it's not always a game, right? You can support a novel or a TV show that way. So, "alternate reality fiction.")

(Yes, I am now using the flimsiest excuse for posting this on a gaming blog -- it's a followup to my previous post on this blog. Sorry, Jmac.)

Now follow along; this will take a bit to set up. Let us venture into the world of fanfic.

(Not because there's anything specifically fanfic about the idea. It's just the first example I noticed.)

Take a look at this web site: nielsonmitchell.com. Looks like typical corporate crap (except for the disclaimer). But if you're familiar with the Stargate TV show, you'll recognize Cameron Mitchell as a character from the last two seasons. (If you're really familiar with the TV show, you might guess who JD Nielson is. But that's not important right now.)

Now take a look at this flyer for the company (270kb PNG image). Indeed, the guy at the bottom right is Ben Browder, who plays Cameron Mitchell on the show. So you're getting the picture -- these two artifacts belong to the same storyline, in some sense. Maybe the flyer doesn't appear on the web site because it's not professional enough, but they fit together. Right?

(I created that flyer, by the way. The amateur photoshopping is all my fault. So is the fact that it's completely silly. The role of JD is played by Michael Filipowich. The nielsonmitchell.com web site was created by synecdochic.)

Now take a look at this livejournal account. (Now emigrated to dreamwidth -- Ed.) It lists nielsonmitchell.com as its web site, the location matches, it's got a "fictional person" disclaimer, and the name is shown as "Cammie"... wait. Nobody ever calls Cameron Mitchell "Cammie" on the show. Does Ben Browder look like a "Cammie" sort of person? No no no. Further, if you look at some of chemicalfuel's journal entries -- and those of vtwopointoh, who is JD Nielson -- you will rapidly deduce that Cammie is a woman. Cameron Evangeline Mitchell.

So you look back at the web site, and you think, hold on -- there ain't no pronouns on that page. It does not specify whether Cameron (or, indeed, JD) is male or female. So the web site is consistent with the flyer, and it's consistent with the Livejournal pages. But they're not consistent with each other. They can't all be the same storyline.

(Unless it's a storyline with magical sex-changing technology. Which is not actually beyond the bounds of the Stargate universe, and certainly not beyond the bounds of fanfic. But you'd want some corroboration before you took that interpretation.)

At this point I will spill the beans. These sites are sideline material for a bunch of Stargate fan stories by synecdochic and ivorygates. Two disparate serieses of stories. In the Broken Wings series, Cameron Mitchell is permanently disabled after his Antarctic crash, and so he retires from the Air Force and starts a software company. The Mezzanine series has exactly the same premise, except that Cameron Mitchell is a woman. Different things happen. (Each series has a JD Nielson, who are both guys, but they're not quite the same guy.)

The nielsonmitchell.com site is ARF material for both storylines. This is something I have not seen before.

Why not? Normal fiction has no ambiguity about its boundaries -- at least, that's the modern convention. You know when you're looking at fiction; and (we generally take for granted) you know what fiction you're looking at. The publisher slaps "Hogwarts year N" or "a Repairman Jack novel" on the cover to make it obvious. But when you dissolve the first assumption, and release material which pretends to be real life, the second assumption gets fuzzy to. Why shouldn't a work fit into two different sequences?

I am not, understand, talking about the crossover story. In a crossover, we point at two storylines and pretend they're the same -- Batman is fighting Spiderman, which means Gotham City is more New York than usual; they're the same place. Or Spiderman took Amtrak. (Or, since the two worlds continue to ignore each other's premises outside the suspended disbelief pentagram of the crossover, we might consider that we've created a third storyline, of limited detail, which shares some premises of each.) But however you consider it, the crossover text represents one story. Batman meets Spiderman.

To truly match the nielsonmitchell.com case, you'd have to write a story in which a man named Bruce Wayne meets a man named Peter Parker, and one of them is a superhero, and the other is a regular dude who lives in New York / Gotham City. But the text wouldn't tell you which. It would fit into either the DC or the Marvel universe, but in each case it would mean something slightly different. (Perhaps something radically different!)

I know I'm way out on a theoretical limb here, and maybe you can't think of a reason to write such a story. But you could try. Somebody should.

ARF (or ARG) material is, I think, more suited to these tricks than plain prose -- simply because such material is usually not a story per se, but a small piece of a story -- or sideband information which enriches a story. It conveys by implication; which means you are imputing meaning based on context; which means the meaning can change in different contexts.

Regular prose stories also convey stuff by implication, to a lesser degree. And (pace my original claim) I can think of some novels which pull tricks in this vein.

  • A scene in Rosemary Kirstein's first Steerswoman novel, in which a boy dies while trying to open a cursed chest. In this case, there is "really" only one storyline -- but the reader knows something that the protagonist doesn't (or at least has the chance to figure it out). So the characters see one storyline; the reader sees two, made up of the same incidents.

  • Sharon Shinn's Archangel (first of its series). Again, the reader can see a storyline (science fiction) where the characters see another (theological fable). This works because both are good stories; they have weight and emotional heft and change the characters' lives.

  • Inversions, by Iain M. Banks. A better example, because it reads differently depending on whether you think it's part of a series or not.

  • And, to bring this whimsically back to Stargate, the original Stargate movie. The people who made the movie are not same the people who made the Stargate: SG-1 TV series. This led, at one point, to the movie writers publishing a set of tie-in novels which were also sequels to the movie's story, but went in a completely different direction from the TV show (and its tie-in novels). Two storylines with the same first chapter.

The first two of these examples display differences in interpretation. The characters may disagree with the reader about what happened, but we can reasonably say that the characters are wrong (or uninformed) -- there's only one sequence of events.

The latter two examples are more interesting, because the reader can take different views on what's going on -- depending on context, as I said. This doesn't change what the story is directly showing us; but it does change what else we believe has happened. That is, the implied, off-screen events vary. That's the right parallel. The nielsonmitchell.com site doesn't have events, but it does have directly conveyed information (the names and bios of two people) and off-screen information (their existences, including gender).

Here's where I ought to tie all my rambling together into one glorious conclusion that illuminates the future of Narrative 2.0. Haw haw.

No, I have no idea where I'm going with this. It's a gimmick! It's neat. People should use it more.

What if there were a community web site dedicated to ARFs (and ARGs), which became a focal point for participating in them? People would be discussing the various projects, but some of the people would also be fictional, and be conveying in-character information as they interacted. (Go where the fans are, right?) You could take it as a giant crossover where all ARGs meet (St. Elsewhere!), or you could take each fictional world separately. In this world, character X knows about the AIs infiltrating society. In that world, character Y sees the fnords, but person X is just a guy playing an ARG. Get it?

(For all I know, ARGNet or Unfiction already does this.)

Less apocalyptically: what if Chaz Villette invited JD Nielson over for dinner?

What if an ARG included several different universes, all playing out on the Web, unaware of each other's existence but sharing web sites and (alternate versions of) characters? Three universes, say.

(Recognized those Michael Filipowich images, did you?)

Pick your own path.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Michael Mateas talk on Facade

This past Thursday, I went to a talk by Michael Mateas: "The Authoring Challenge for Interactive Storytelling". Mateas runs the Expressive Intelligence Studio at UC Santa Cruz. The talk naturally centered around Facade, an interactive drama released in 2005 by Mateas and Andrew Stern.

2005 was a long time ago now, which saves me the effort of explaining what Facade is. (What? Click on the link.) (What? Okay, here: Facade is a short game in which two friends, Trip and Grace, invite you over for dinner. They then proceed to have a horrible nasty argument and drag you into it. The interface is a real-time, free-form, natural language text prompt; the characters respond in spoken text and animated movement. It's free, go download it.)

(Admission of guilt: I never got around to playing Facade before I went to the lecture. Fortunately Mateas started by showing a trailer (youtube link), so I wasn't lost. Yes, I've now played with the thing.)

The lecture was nifty. So nifty, in fact, that I will transcribe all the notes I took. (My notes, to be sure, were not anything like a complete transcript of the lecture. I'm putting my notes under quote bars, but please take them as my interpretation of what I heard. I'll intersperse my own commentary.)

What is interactive storytelling?
  • not choose-your-own-adventure books
  • not paper-and-pencil RPGs
  • not hypertext
  • not an "embedded linear story" in a game (the most common story model for videogames, where a fixed story plays out in cut scenes, unintegrated into the gameplay mechanics)

The text adventure (Zork) is close to what Mateas is imagining. (The usual notional model is Star Trek's holodeck -- thus Murray's Hamlet on the Holodeck and so on. But even as a fictional ideal, the holodeck has been problematic.)

Yay text adventures. (I am, as you will soon see, thinking about this talk from an IF-author's point of view.)

As a distant spectator to the academic world, I don't know what narratologists think is problematic about the holodeck idea. (I mean, aside from it nearly destroying the Enterprise every six weeks.) I guess it's clear that the Star Trek writers had no deep notion of what interactive drama would be -- they just stuck a subordinate static narrative into the static narrative of their TV show. Except for that Moriarty episode, which showed how interactive stories didn't work...

CYOAs and hypertext are easy to implement, but don't provide much sense of agency. This is even more true of linear embedded stories, obviously. D&D provides true interactivity, but you need a human game-master to run it. The holodeck, similarly, needs a 24th-century computer. So we are led to the idea of AI underpinning interactive story. AI (or at least AI techniques) seem necessary for:
  • story generation
  • story understanding (figuring out what the player is trying to do)
  • drama management (selecting and ordering bits of story to create dramatic arc)
  • autonomous characters

This is where a lot of discussion in the IF world runs aground. We say things like "To really improve text parsing, you'd need real AI." Then, since none of us are AI researchers and we're pretty much implementing everything in low-level, C-like languages, we give up and say "Okay, so what can we do really well without AI?" (At least, I do. And I think I've gotten excellent answers to that latter question, but it's still fair to see it as a dodge.)

Current research into interactive storytelling has been disappointing. A lot of people come up with theories of how it could work. Some people implement engines or mechanisms based on their theories. Some of those then go on to create story demos within an engine. Very few create a complete interactive story -- not just a demo, but a work that can stand on its own.

Mateas and Stern created Facade out of a belief that to move research forward in an artistic sphere, you need to create complete works.

In other words (my words), a demo for a new game model can demonstrate the engine, the programming techniques, etc. But it can't demonstrate the validity of the artistic approach. To do that, you need to do art. It can be a short work, but it has to be something you're aiming at players. You find out whether you're right by seeing how players react.

This has been common wisdom in the IF world for a decade. Right from the beginning of the amateur-IF era, the community developed a strong response to on-line theorizing: "That sounds great. Write a game and show us." (Mateas mentions this himself, later on.)

They were hoping that Facade would provoke works in response, but it hasn't. Nor have the techniques been adopted by the commercial game world. (Although some of the most recent crop of games, such as Fable 2 and Far Cry 2, are beginning to do things like it.) Nor, for that matter, have they been adopted by the indie/amateur game world.

At this point Mateas played the demo reel.

When the creators first started planning Facade, they wanted game-like interactions -- no explicit game goal, but many opportunities for the user to pick up on a play mechanic and try to do something with it.

(Mateas mentions that in the beginning, he sternly resisted calling Facade "a game". Nowadays, sure, it's a game. He didn't say whether this was a shift in his attitude or a broadening of the expectations of the gaming audience.)

Eventually they went with a model from pop psychology, transactional analysis: Eric Berne's Games People Play. The characters Trip and Grace are playing head games at each other, using you as leverage ("Courtroom", "See What You Made Me Do", "I've Got You Now, You Son of a Bitch"...)

(See here for game examples from the TA literature. Or see any Woody Allen movie from his "miserable couples snipe at each other" period; Mateas cited Husbands and Wives.)

This gives the player several ways to dive into the game:
  • the affinity game: take Trip's side or Grace's side.
  • the hot-button game: find topics that provoke the characters and see how they react.
  • the therapy game: try to help the characters understand themselves. (This is the most subtle, but it has the strongest effect on which ending you reach.)
  • the tension level toy: the tension level in the game always rises, but you can play with it by trying to calm it or fan the flames. (Not exactly a game.)

Note that the creators don't expect players to stay in character, or take any particular role. You don't have to be a therapist. They expect players to try prodding at the edges of the story world (e.g., by talking nonsense, bringing up outrageous topics, kissing the characters, etc.) They wanted Facade to provide satisfying responses for that sort of play, just as much as for in-character or realistic play.

Nor do you have to stick to one goal throughout a session. (Although Mateas does, in some articles, describe the game as an "affinity half" followed by a "therapy half". See this article, which also gives a more detailed form of the next part of the talk.)

Facade offers multiple, mixable story progressions.

The idea is that in a simple linear interactive story, you can either Do The Next Thing (in which case the plot advances), or you Do Something Else (which fails in some sense, and the plot doesn't advance). In Facade, there are several story elements going on at any one time. If you type something that doesn't make sense in one storyline, maybe it pushes a different one forward. These storyline threads are called "beats".

I got confused at this point, because I was assuming a "beat" to be the smallest particle of performance. That's how the term is used in theater: in a back-and-forth dialogue, each line is normally a beat. (Or one character can pause a beat before replying, or so on.)

Mateas uses "beat" to refer to an entire scene fragment, in which all three characters may interact. (For example, the PhoneCallFromParents beat: the phone rings, Trip and Grace argue about whether to answer it, the player may ask them to answer or ignore it.) I am going to cheat and swap around the next few lines to introduce the concepts more clearly:

Facade contains just 27 beats, of which half might activate in any one run-through. Each beat has a chain of narrative goals, plus variations and reactions that depend on what the player does. Each goal is made of "joint dialogue behaviors", and each JDB consists of up to five lines of dialogue. (The JDB is more or less the smallest particle of performance, although you can interrupt one in mid-line, so they're not absolutely atomic.)

Facade contains about 2500 JDBs. So each beat contains about a hundred JDBs, on average.

There are three kinds of story progression, each handled by a story manager:
  • the beat sequencer: manages the library of beats (27 of them), and picks which one to activate when the previous beat ends (or is interrupted).
  • the beat goal sequencer: manages the goals of the currently-active beat; runs through them, or chooses variations based on player input.
  • global mix-ins: a set of hot topics that can interrupt the currently-active beat if the player brings them up. (E.g., sex, divorce, alcohol, the view out the window, etc.)

Just one beat is active at a time, but these managers hand control back and forth fluidly as the player interacts. This lets Facade provide multiple, mixable story progressions for the player to mess with.

(About two-thirds of the JDBs are in beats, one-third in globals mix-ins. Then there are a small handful of JDBs which run in the background, handling "fidgeting" personality behaviors like sipping a drink or playing with a magic 8-ball.)

Mateas then went on to the central point of his talk, which was that this is a hell of a lot of work. (2500 JDBs is, what, six or eight thousand lines of dialogue?)

Writing the text is more difficult than writing the text of a play, because there are lots and lots of ways for lines (or groups of lines, or groups of groups) to be strung together. You have to think about the meshing at every level.

Mateas and Stern tried to work with a traditional playwright, but he never got the hang of writing dialogue that fit in with Facade's machinery.

There are several other areas of Facade where the implementation requires design work. For example, parsing the player's input happens in two stages. The words are parsed into a topic or phrase (as in IF). But then, the phrase has to be interpreted as an action.

For example, saying "I like [Grace's] painting" could be construed as complimenting Grace, or (if Grace and Trip are arguing about the painting) as agreeing with Grace, or disagreeing with Trip, depending on exactly when you do it. There needs to be custom logic to decide which action you've taken, which is then further customized for the ArgueOverRedecorating beat. This is all design work.

Then there's art design -- even the very stylized artwork of Facade has lots of code to manage body language and facial expressions. And so on.

Facade took two people five years to create. Mateas estimates that creating another game with the same model and technology would take a year and a half. Is this too long? It's too long for a decent feedback cycle, either in academia or among indie game designers.

Implicit is the point that the commercial game industry, which takes at least a year and a half (usually more) to produce a high-profile game, is also too slow for a decent feedback cycle.

Mateas gave explicit props to the IF community, for our strong tradition of small, experimental games. (Just to talk about myself for a bit: Shade, Hunter in Darkness, and Delightful Wallpaper each took me a month to write. Each did interesting stuff. We don't get games responding to games every month -- the annual IFComp cycle slows things down -- but it's still a high rate of creativity, with lots of people involved.)

To do interactive storytelling, do you have to be an artist/programmer? ("Artist" in the general sense, including "writer". Mateas and Stern each worked on both the dialogue and the implementation of Facade.) Mateas says he once thought so, but has changed his mind: he is now interested in how a powerful authoring system can support an artist who is not a programmer (or a programmer who is not an artist!)

Open questions for inventing an authoring system:
  • how much help will it provide?
  • will it help artists, programmers, or both?
  • is it trying to replace a weak facility, or help the user improve his facility?

Attempts in progress:

Mateas is also planning a project, "Story Canvas", in which a user enters linear narratives; the system then remixes and spins them out into an interactive drama (with the collaboration of the user).

As a final note, Mateas said that his vision for AI in interactive drama was not to replace human creation; he sees AI as being an expressive medium, a field in which artists can work.

That was the body of the talk. I will summarize some of the questions and answers that followed.

Did Facade have debugging tools? Yes, lots. It's essentially impossible to diagnose bugs from the player's-eye level. You have to turn on verbose logging to figure out what's going on.

If branching story threads are difficult for writers (who aren't programmers), what is difficult for programmers (who aren't writers)? Ambiguity, maybe -- attacking a problem which has no clear definition, where you have to invent the problem statement and the solution in parallel.

I loved this answer, because that's exactly what I think of as the fun part of being a programmer. Implementing an algorithm to achieve a specified goal is work. Figuring out what the goal should be is what the work is for. And it is design work, artistic work -- art.

What about interdisciplinary teams? (That is, having an artist and a programmer work together, instead of an artist-programmer.) It's possible but Mateas hasn't done any work in that direction. It seems like it must be difficult -- all the work that an artist-programmer would do, plus the work of coordinating, communicating, and understanding each other's needs.

This would have been my question, but someone else asked it first. This is, of course, the approach that Dave Cornelson is trying with Textfyre.

Is Facade sociology? (That is, is it extending our knowledge of how people interact?) Um... no.

Why the "kitchen drama" genre? Because it turns lots of game conventions on their head. No fantastic setting, no expansive landscape to explore, no physical danger. Mostly conversational interaction as opposed to physical interaction. Also: it's such a familiar genre that it's easy to tell if the work succeeds or fails.

Could menus be substituted for Facade's natural-language prompt? Not easily. Facade allows twenty-ish speech acts, many of which are parameterized ("agree with X", "insult Y", "inspect object Z"). A menu system which really let you choose any available interaction would be huge and unwieldy. However, Mateas has considered other interface changes: perhaps displaying the system's interpretation of what you entered, or giving you an "undo" button to rewind time.

As an IF weenie, obviously, I see the free prompt as Facade's big strength. You can bring up any topic at any point, and the range of topics feels infinite. It isn't really infinite, but the point of having a clear genre demarcation is to let you speculate about what topics will get interesting responses, and be usually right. (So sex, divorce, the couple's courtship, Grace's art, Trip's drinking, the things in the apartment, etc, etc.)

Whew. Okay, long blog post. I hope you enjoy it. Again, I apologize for anything Michael said that I have miscontrued, misquoted, or just plain made up. It's accidental, honest.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

One more past blast: Enigma

The Oxyd games, by Meinolf Schneider, were one of the great puzzle-game series of the early 90s. They originated in the Atari world; I played them on Mac. I played them for hours, because they were big, big and evil and full of puzzle goodness. I still have the Per.Oxyd shareware code book.

Now -- or rather, two years ago -- an open-source implementation of the game appeared: Enigma. This means you have to play it. Now. Available for Mac/Win/Linux.

(It is not, I admit, a well-chosen name. There must be dozens of puzzle games called "Enigma", not to mention Enigmo, etc. But who cares?)

Oxyd is a physics puzzler, in the Marble Madness line. You roll a black ball around by nudging your mouse. When you hit certain blocks, they open, revealing a color. Then you play Concentration. Hit two blocks of the same color, and they're done. When all the color-blocks on a level are done, the level is solved.

Simple! Of course! Not. You'll see walls and mazes. You'll fall into water and drown. You'll fall into quicksand and drown slowly (if you don't struggle out in time). You'll hit switches to open and close doors. You'll blow up bricks with dynamite. You'll find slopes, gravity, crates, one-way doors, timed doors, springs to jump walls, lasers, pipes, deathtraps, and mailboxes (evil, trust me). There are regions of high friction, low friction, and no friction. It's very tactile -- the mouse interface practically lets you feel the wood, carpet, or metal that you traverse.

In some levels, you have to steer many marbles at once. In others, you can switch back and forth between two marbles, essentially controlling two cooperating "characters". There is, in short, a hell of a lot of variety, packed into what looks like a simple tile-based game.

Enigma is a startlingly faithful reconstruction of Oxyd, considering that 640x480 was a giant-sized screen when it first appeared. The graphics have been scaled up without losing the original style. All the levels from the original Oxyd games are included; and then a big batch of new levels. And then, since it's open-source, a steady stream of user-contributed levels. The game engine is capable of emulating Sokoban, and so a set of Sokoban levels is included. Stuff like that.

I could easily spend the rest of the holiday season playing through this thing. I won't, honest -- too many other games to play. (I've barely even started Mirror's Edge!) But I could.

Note that Enigma is a fan recreation of Oxyd. I don't know how the original author feels about it; the web site doesn't say, except to thank him for the inspiration. There is a recent game which is an official descendant of the Oxyd line -- Oxyd Extra 2.0. (Free but not open-source.) I haven't looked at it.

(I would have included this in my Forerunner Foray post if I'd known about it at the time... but I didn't. Thanks to jayisgames for tipping me off.)

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Forerunner foray (or, blasts from the past)

I blogged a while ago about Adventure on the iPhone -- Colossal Cave, that is, not the text adventure. Now Peter Hirschberg brings us the other one: Atari 2600 Adventure on the iPhone. It's a free download.

(As Nick Montfort likes to remind me, Warren Robinett intended his Atari Adventure game to be a port of the text game Adventure. It's extremely stylized, of course, but it's got the mazes and the monsters and the keys and the puzzles... the giant bat must be a reject from Wumpus, however.)

While my back was turned, Fantasy Flight Games got the rights to republish Cosmic Encounter. Great Bird of the Galaxy!

Cosmic was the game of my college years; we played a couple of games just about every Sunday afternoon. It was already out of print from its second publisher, and then (in 1991) reprinted by a third, and I could go on all day about the shortcomings of its various incarnations. And the expansion sets. (I had the enormous luck to find a copy of Eon's original Expansion Pack #8 in a dusty Pittsburgh gameshop. Kickers, kickers were key. I never cared for flares that much.)

Cosmic reappeared in 2000 in a nicely-produced -- but expensive and oversimplified -- box set from Avalon Hill. Then Cosmic Encounter Online, a capable (okay, still simplified) browser-based game which is still going strong. And now the wheel turns again: a new box set. Fantasy Flight's web site says it will ship this month for US$60.

The new edition looks pretty good. The famously complicated turn structure is diagrammed on each alien power card, with the important phase (for that power) highlighted. (Preview examples: Mind, Pacifist, Parasite, Loser, and newcomer Tripler.) No star-system hex boards, but you can make your own if you want the classic experience.

The all-important artwork is satisfactory. (And when I say "satisfactory", I just mean "I will always be wedded to the Eon artwork of my youth.") Kevin Wilson, the game designer in charge of the project, calls the style "retro-futurism", which I'd agree with -- old pulp covers, more than a hint of Frank Kelly Freas.

It will ship with 50 aliens, a decent selection -- handily graded by play-difficulty, if you want to introduce new players to the game. Expansion sets are promised. To be sure, each republisher of Cosmic has promised expansion sets, and I don't recall that any have succeeded except for Mayfair's minimal More Cosmic Encounter in 1992. Hopefully FF's edition will get enough love to keep growing.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Muggle collegiate Quidditch

For many years, Capture the Flag with Stuff reigned as the supreme overelaborated fantasy-themed sport played by overenergetic college students. Or, well, probably not. I have no idea what the kids get up to these days, really. I didn't know what kids got up to in those days. But CtFwS was the one I was aware of -- mostly because I started it. (It has evolved considerably since then; see the new KGB rules used at CMU.)

(Moopsball was the supreme overelaborated fantasy-themed sport not played by enthusiastic college students. Sadly, it is no longer not played because it's too much work; it is now not played because nobody remembers it. Sic transit the guy with the hula hoop.)

But the new generation has arrived, and that means Quidditch. As in, the kids who struggled through Philosopher's Stone at age 8 are now in college. Quidditch is what they want, and they have made it work.

(Here I tried to interpolate some joke about what the devoted fans of Twilight will be playing at college in five-ish years. My first idea was too creepy to put in writing and they went downhill from there. Make up your own, I'll be hiding under this extremely sparkly rock.)

If you've read the Harry Potter books, you know how Quidditch works. If not, this blog post will do nothing for you... okay, look, hit Wikipedia and come back. Or don't come back, because that entry has a summary of Muggle Quidditch, so what do you need me for? Huh? I'll just go hide under that extremely sparkly rock over there.

(PS: Wikipedia keeps its Quidditch page up to date, but they delete the page explaining Kosho? 1000% lame.) (EDIT-ADD: Thank you Deletionpedia.)

Muggle Quidditch! Rule one: you must run around holding a broomstick between your legs. ("Harder than it looks, and just as awkward," says one player.) Rule two: throw the Quaffle (a volleyball) through the goal hoop. Rule three: you must drop the Quaffle if someone clobbers you with a Bludger (dodgeball). Rule four: the game ends when someone grabs the Golden Snitch. The Golden Snitch is played by a very fast person, dressed in gold, with a tennis ball tied around his or her waist. There are other rules but they don't seem to prevent shoving and tackling, so that's basically what the game winds up being about.

So it's simultaneous tackle rugby, tag, and dodgeball, all being played on the same field among different subsets of the players. I know it sounds like I'm making fun of this; but I'm impressed. All the players have to have a clear idea of what's going on, to make this work.

I also admire that it's not just a game -- it's an event. The 2008 World Cup at Middlebury College had costumes, characters, role-playing. (See, there's a reason I brought up Moopsball.) There are extravagant team names. There are people on stilts. The league commissioner wears a top hat. Everything is better when top hats are involved.

The biggest difference between this and Rowling's fictional Quidditch -- well, is that the players can't fly. (Everyone agrees that it's a really, really muddy time for all. On the positive side, if you slip, it's not 150 feet to the ground.)

The biggest chosen difference is that grabbing the Golden Snitch is worth only 30 points, or three times the value of a goal -- not fifteen times, as Rowling had it. This brings the game into something like balance. Both Seekers have to keep an eye on the score as well as the Snitch. Unless the score is very close, one Seeker will be actively running interference against the other, rather than trying to catch the Snitch herself.

Here's an article about the 2008 World Cup. There's also a rudimentary IQA web site. See also, a documentary produced by Justin Bogart (youtube video).

Sunday, November 9, 2008

I am totally done with Silent Hill 5

When I say "Silent Hill 5", I mean the "Homecoming" game that just shipped. And when I say "totally done", I mean that I got a third of the way in and I'm stuck.

It's the police station. There are about eight of the axe-headed bastards between me and the exit. I can generally kill about five of them. Seven if I'm lucky. I have essentially no health at the save-point -- burned it all on the previous boss monster -- and there isn't enough in the game to be getting on with. I just failed to make it through, four times in a row. So I'm done.

(As per my usual rule for video game series, if I can't finish a game, I'm not interested in the sequel. Devil May Cry, I'm looking straight at you. Also Onimusha, next time one of those comes out.)

So tell me: why is there no Easy Mode in SH5? All the previous games, you could choose Easy as an option (for the combat, I'm not talking about the puzzles). There was a well-understood penalty for wimps: you couldn't get all of the variant plot endings, not without going back through the game on the higher difficulty modes. But in this game, your choices are Normal and Hard.

I played the four previous games in Easy Mode. I enjoyed them. I was happy with the endings I got. I was a fan of the series. With this new game, the designers seem to have decided that I was not enough of a fan, because they threw me off the bus.

Some games have adaptive difficulty. If SH5 does, I'm not feeling it. Some games offer you an Easy option after you've gotten your ass kicked a few times. SH5 doesn't -- at least, it hasn't happened to me, and the walkthroughs I found on the web don't mention it.

So who benefits from this? Were there people posting all over the gaming community, lamenting that the Wrong Kind of People were playing their precious survival horror game? Did people regret succumbing to temptation? I understand well the attraction of the dull path -- this comes up in adventure game design all the time, albeit with puzzle-solving skills rather than button-mashing. Players will take the easy way out, be it brute force or infinite health, and then complain that it made the game no fun. I get that.

But this isn't a new format. Anyone who is interested in this thing is probably satisfied with the original game model -- at least enough to have bought SH2, 3, and 4. It's not like there was a tide of hardcore gamers waiting to rush in as soon as Easy Mode was deleted.

Or was there?

Answers, tips, and infinite-health cheats welcome.


Over the years this post has become a comment magnet for people complaining about Silent Hill 5. It's a bit silly now, eight years later. The designers have long since moved on, and the franchise itself has come to a halt -- it has entered the realm of remake-reboot-or-reimagining.

(I thought "Shattered Memories" was great, speaking of.)

Anyway, there's no point adding more complaints now. I have turned off the comment thread on this post. Unfortunately that means the old comments are now invisible -- sorry.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Grim Fandango puzzle design document

Another in our series of historic game development trivia! (This is completely coincidental, stuff just keeps popping up.)

Tim Schafer at Double Fine has posted the puzzle design spec for his classic adventure game, Grim Fandango. It is that game's tenth anniversary; it was released on the Day of the Dead, 1998.

Read the Grim Fandango document (2.4 meg PDF).

This document is a first draft, dated April 30, 1996. It has lots of puzzles which didn't make it into the final game. Schafer also notes:

We didn’t have the last puzzle designed when I wrote that document, so I wrote two nonsense paragraphs and then overlapped them in the file so it would look like the final puzzle description was in there, but obscured by a print formatting error. That way I could turn the document in by the deadline.

Bonus: Grim Fandango cake.

EDIT-ADD (11/13): Schafer has taken down his blog post and the document, with no direct comment, but a very indirect hint that it wasn't his to post. Since we at the Gameshelf believe in historic preservation, I have put a copy on our own web site. So the link above works again.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

More bad news for Cyan

Recalling Cyan's status in late summer: their game development division was down to a skeleton crew, whose only funded project was iPhone Myst. They were working getting Uru back up as a low-budget, low-profile sandbox for fans to play in. Most of the company's revenue came from CyanTest, their game-testing service.

Unfortunately, in October, Cyan announced that "a major revenue stream to Cyan was disrupted". We now have a little more information: CyanTest's biggest customer was Gamecock Media -- which was recently bought out by SouthPeak Interactive. Cyan's testing deal with Gamecock apparently didn't survive the acquisition.

As a result, we now hear that fifty employees of CyanTest were laid off today. (News article from the Spokesman-Review.)

Presumably Cyan has spent the past month looking for new customers, and failing. The layoffs leave seven people in CyanTest. So, a skeleton crew on both sides. They have a few small game-testing customers, and iPhone Myst is on track, but Cyan is now nearly nonexistent.

Cyan has pitched the idea of a new video game to several publishers but hasn’t been given any funding yet. If the new project is funded, the game development side of the company will ramp up, [CEO] Fryman said. (ibid.)

As long as I've got this thing lit up, have some comments from Rand Miller on Myst Online, given at a panel discussion at the Austin GDC in September.

Elaborating on why the game couldn't manage to initially keep itself alive, Miller said, "I'm always going to fall back on 'we were ahead of our time,' because it's easy."

"The biggest thing we did was an all or nothing proposal from an entertainment point of view," he continued. "It's not like you can start up a new TV network and give one show a month and expect it to be successful... We couldn't quite pull that off with the money we had." (from the writeup on gamesindustry.biz)

EDIT-ADD: The layoffs may have been as early as October 7th, the day Cyan posted about revenue trouble. The news article only says "recently" (and not "today", as I originally misread). Rumors about layoffs popped up that day (see this forum thread), although I had no confirmation until now. Some time between then and now, anyhow.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Vote, youse

This is not a political blog, although we who post in it have political opinions. (You can figure mine with a minimum of Googling.) So this will remain a non-partisan post:

Tomorrow, Tuesday, is voting day in the US. Vote, you (American voting) bozos.

If you are not sure whether you are a qualified American voting bozo, or how to do the deed, start here. If you have done the early voting thing and your pebble is in the jar already, I thank you.

If you are sick of this election, I apologize. (But that doesn't get you off the hook.)

Partisan comments in this thread will be squished because, frankly, there are forums better able to manage that kind of firefight. Talk about the Race for the Galaxy expansion instead. I got clobbered on Saturday because I couldn't get enough blue planets oh, fudge.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Prince of Persia reference video

Jordan Mechner has been posting his development journals from the original Prince of Persia -- from twenty-three years ago.

Recently he put up the video he shot as an animation reference for the Prince's moves. It's his brother David running, jumping, and climbing around a parking lot. If you've ever played the game, you will bounce straight up in the air and shout "That's it! That's exactly it!"

Watch the Prince of Persia reference video.

But it's also worth browsing through Mechner's other entries (there aren't too many). This early comment is both delightful and a little heartbreaking:

And... the games business is drying up. Karateka may make me as little as $75,000 all told, and it’s at the top of the charts. There’s no guarantee the new game will be as successful. Or that there will even be a computer games market a couple of years from now. (July 5, 1985)

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Alternate reality fiction

I have not blogged about Shadow Unit, because this is the Gameshelf, and Shadow Unit is not a game. I love Shadow Unit. It's a collaborative storytelling project by four well-known fantasy authors. You might call it a series of short stories about a mutant-hunting FBI team. You'd be closer if you called it a prose work with the structure of an episodic TV series. It's great writing; X-Files with human beings instead of Hollywood/TV heroes. It isn't a game.

I say that because I didn't do anything; I read the episodes as they were posted. (And I dropped some cash in the hat.) No interactivity, no game. Easy distinction, right?

But would Elizabeth Bear, Will Shetterly, Sarah Monette, and Emma Bull agree with that? Do they feel like they're playing a game? I'll ask around. But let's stay outside the circle of creators for now.

Or... maybe not. Shadow Unit has imported some of the aspects of an ARG, an alternate reality game. Supporting web sites pop up. Characters in the story have ongoing Livejournals.

You can comment in these journals. (As long as you don't break the fourth wall.) People do. Real people have long conversations with fictional people. They trade recipes and favorite TV shows.

Who's playing now?

Let me reach back to my post about Alternity, the Livejournal-mediated Harry Potter RPG that started recently. I called that a "game", even though it's got a bounded circle of creators and no ARG elements. Why was that a game? For one thing, the circle is larger -- twenty-ish? But mostly, I was thinking of the game model. You and your friends could set up your own game of "that thing", with your own scenario. "That thing" is fairly structured; it has rules ("journal posts only", the 15-minute correction rule, etc). The creators are continually making posts in these constrained ways. Whereas Shadow Unit's "thing" is both more nebulous and more generic: traditional short stories appear on a web site.

But then, the Livejournals have a rule... Okay, I'm constructing a difference out of degrees. Never mind.

A new one is launching tomorrow: Continuous Coast. (Or is it called "Mediators"? These alternate reality thingies don't name themselves!)

You can read a slideshow about this thing, by creators Reesa Brown and Kit O'Connell. They presented this at Arse Elektronika 2008. They're working with fantasy author Steven Brust, plus a cast of thousands, on a... a...

I have no idea. We'll find out more on October 9th, or so I hear.

It has some web sites and blogs, as I linked above. It has a Twitter feed. But of course that's not the Twitter feed of the project. It's the Twitter feed of the Mediators, the ?police ?steering committee ?resident psychiatrists of a city that is clearly not on Earth, and perhaps not in our universe...

So is this a game? It is impossible to describe without the perspective of ARGs. Continuous Coast is an alternate-reality presentation, in the sense of ARGs. ARGs are games. Continuous Coast is not -- by the early descriptions -- a MMO puzzle-quest in the sense of I Love Bees. It is described as interactive, in that the circle is open. Everything is Creative-Commons licensed, and the creators invite everyone to play in the sandbox.

"Play" invites "game", doesn't it?

Let me fling out some terminology. Shadow Unit and Continuous Coast are ARFs: alternate reality fiction. "Alternate reality", again, in the ARG sense: that which spills out from the page and mixes and blurs into our reality. "This is not fiction." Web sites, stories, art, all lived in-character.

(No relation here to "alternate history", the subgenre of science fiction that deals with what-if divergences of history. Sorry about that confusion. "Enhanced reality" and "ERGs" might have been a better term, back when the Beast and the Bees came along; but that spaceship has sailed.)

I'm not trying to distinguish ARFs from games, in the broad sense. I'm just trying to distinguish it from the well-described category of ARGs. I don't care whether ARF is a "game" -- doesn't matter, it is play. People will interact to shape an experience that comes as much from them as from the original designers.

Really, I want to drop a different division down the cloud, and say that an ARG is alternate reality interactive fiction -- the subset of ARFs which involve specific challenges for the players to defeat. We could even distinguish between multi-player ARIF and solo ARIF: imagine a game that's spread across web sites and in-character blogs, but which is sized for a single player to work through without help. (I don't know any examples of this, but I want to avoid wiring in assumptions.)

Or maybe that's silly terminology, because it's all "interactive", ARFs and ARGs and journal games and the lot. We take for granted that alternate-reality presentations are participatory. The whole point of bleeding into your reality, right, is that you live in your reality. It wouldn't be AR if you weren't involved.

Or, as Brown and O'Connell write: "21st-century storytelling blurs the line between canon and fanon."

Damn. Now I want to go back and rebuild my lamented Myst Online from scratch, using these ideas. I knew they were missing something...

Ads in flash games

I play a lot of teeny little Flash games. These games are free and ad-supported. Therefore, they recapitulate the entire history of Web advertising, and we could repeat it right down the line in the comments, and maybe we will. I will try to short-circuit it with the following assertions. (Expletives have been BSGified for public consumption, but really, I wrote this with a lot of swears.)

  • People frakking hate web ads. They hate banner ads, they hate pop-up ads, they hate them all. More people hate them with silent grumbling than by jumping up and down screaming "feldercarb!" but the hate is there.

  • This is because they are noisy, ugly visual pollution which exist to drag your attention away from what you care about.

  • Ad companies politely pretend this hate does not exist. They pretend they are presenting valuable relevant content in parallel with your web-browsing experience. This is a load of bat-dren, but it lets them sleep at night.

  • Some people use ad blockers and such. This makes ad companies weep, and then you get the whole "You're killing the Web 2.0 economy! You are destroying the sites that you visit!" argument. This is right up there with the "Software piracy costs 250 billion dollars a year!" argument: there is a real concern there, but it is comprehensively snowed under by phony hysteria, which is to say, an ocean of decaying dingo's kidneys.

  • The reason this is hysteria is that, even without in-browser ad blockers, people grow ad blockers in their brains very quickly. Ad companies sit around discussing "dwell time" and "optimal ad positioning" as if they weren't staring at the proof that everybody hates them, and discussing their strategies for making everybody suffer more by breaking their brains.

  • Therefore, speaking as a consumer, I avoid lots of ads, and you can't make me feel guilty about it. No, not even if you're the game designer who makes money off the ads. I love game designers, you're awesome, kid, now shut up.

How does this apply to Flash games? Well, we have lived through the following stages of the war:
  • A game appears on a web page
  • A game appears on a web page with ads around it
  • An ad appears on a web page, and then turns into a game
  • ...and then ads appear inside the game itself (between games, or even between levels)

We hit stage 3 a couple of years ago -- managed by ad companies like Mochiads. We are just now hitting the point of stage 4.

Rather than trying to make a moral or aesthetic argument about this progression, I will describe my rules for dealing with it.

  • When I fire up a web page with a game, if I see a splash-page ad, I'm going to bury the window and wait for it to finish loading. I saw your ad, now I'm doing other stuff. I'll be back later. Sorry!

  • If you show a loading progress bar with an ad above it, I understand. I'm not watching it load with glazed consumer eyes, but I get that you're making use of dead space.

  • If you show a falsified loading progress bar, which ticks up for 20 seconds even after the game has finished loading, you're a frakking liar. This is not a moral argument about your ad, this is a moral argument about you. "You" meaning Mochiads. You're dishonest sleazeballs when you do this. Sorry!

  • The only thing that blinks on my screen is the game I'm playing. Animation is an emergency signal. Misuse it and I'll resize the window to cut your ad right the frell off. Sorry!

  • Honestly, a row of brightly-colored, high-contrast ads is pretty damn noisy even if they're not animated. I'll trim them off too. There's a reason that Google Ads are homogenous in style and blend with the overall page: it makes the page suck less.

  • You can put an ad on the "click to start game" screen.

  • Once I click to start the game, ad time is over. I'm playing a game now. The next ad I see is the end of the game. I mean that literally: the next time I see an ad, I shout "game over!" and close the window. No, I am not playing again. You lost fired me.

  • If you can't make a living this way, I'll play other people's games. I'm fine with that. Yes, I do design games for free.

  • Maybe someday ad technology will get so sophisticated that I can't play Flash games at all. Do you want to go there? No, don't worry -- I don't really expect it to happen. Web ad blockers seem to be in fine shape these days.

  • So, if you want to try to go there, you're frakked. One way or the other.

What does all of this boil down to? Seriously, this: web ads are an attention tax levied on the people who don't care about them very much. I care about them a lot, so I block a lot of ads (by various means). You cannot get me to start watching ads by making them more intrusive; you can only make me hate you more.

So back the hezmana off and be happy with the (large majority) of ad-viewers you've got now. Most people aren't juggling windows around to avoid your dren. You don't have to yotz up the game experience itself to make your garbage-spreading cash quota.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Steve Meretzky speaks in Boston tomorrow

This has been announced in many places around Boston, but just in case you missed it:

Infocom star Steve Meretzky (Planetfall, A Mind Forever Voyaging, Leather Goddesses of Phobos, Hitchhiker's Guide, Spellcasting 101/201/301, etc) will be speaking at MIT on Monday.
  • Monday, Oct 6, 6:00 pm
  • MIT, Stata Center, room 32-141

This lecture is part of Nick Montfort's Purple Blurb colloquium.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The library

They say you can blog about whatever you want, really. But I don't have a cat, and it's not Friday. So this is Irregular Holy Crap I Wish That Were My Life Wednedays.

Jay Walker's private library -- article by Steven Levy in Wired

The article is game-related only in that videogames, particularly adventure games, often have imposing libraries. Some of them even look this good. But in a game library, inevitably, there are only three or five books you can look at.

Just occasionally, reality is better.

I've been upgrading my own library, the past few days. But when I say "upgrading," I mean "I crammed in one more small bookshelf, plus a DVD rack, and then added a second lamp so that there'd be a little more light in the back." I didn't put in floating balconies and a Nuremberg Chronicle and a Sputnik. Nor is my apartment done up in a surprisingly harmonious mixture of wood inlay and fiber-optic glass.

Maybe next year.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Infocom sales figures

Simon Carless at GameSetWatch tips us off to a crazy piece of geek trivia: an internal sales report of Infocom text adventures.


Click for links to complete image scans. The watershed between the two documents is Activision's 1986 acquisition of Infocom.

These scans were posted by Jason Scott as part of the research he's done for his upcoming Get Lamp documentary.

I don't have a lot to add to the observations in the GSW column. Zork 1 was the biggest hit, and stayed strong throughout the company's existence. Hitchhiker's Guide was their second biggest game; then Zork 2, Deadline, and Zork 3. (But the Zork sequels never did half as well as the original -- a pattern echoed, for example, by the Myst series a decade later.)

I am surprised by the relative weakness of Sorcerer and Spellbreaker -- the latter was hit by nasty stock returns in 1986. (Was there some marketing or distribution screwup there? A lot of the numbers in the '86 column look too small, even assuming the report was written partway through the year.) Contrariwise, Cutthroats was a bigger hit than I ever realized. Probably my biases towards fantasy and against "mundane" fiction are showing. Of Infocom's later games, Wishbringer, Leather Goddesses, and Beyond Zork were the strongest -- but Zork 1 and HHGG just kept on selling.

And then there's Cornerstone, whose story I need not tell.

Are these the numbers I should be trying to beat when I launch my commercial IF career into triumph? Heck, I don't know. Probably not. Even comparing the sales numbers from 1981, 1985, and 1989 is somewhat apples to pomelos, given the enormous expansion of the computer game market over that era. Today's market makes 1989 look like a grape -- and then it's split and split again (consoles, casual gaming, MMO gaming...) and merged with a dozen other industries (movies, cell phones, advertising...) If I imagine a successful IF career today, I see something that runs between casual gamers and reading/blogging devotees. (Yes, folks, people read on the Internet.) Hasn't happened yet, no. I'll let you know.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Rec Zarf some PS3 smack

I noticed a few months ago -- I guess when the E3 PR wave was cresting -- that a new Silent Hill game was coming. Also a Prince of Persia game, and a Tomb Raider game, and now a God of War game, and this "Mirror's Edge" thing looks pretty slick, and it was about then that I realized that I was going to wind up buying myself a PS3 this Consumptimass.

I had tried to avoid it. I have a PS1 and a PS2, but when Sony started piling on the screw-you features (I am not your blu-ray sales rep) I said "You know what? I'll pay a third as much, and ride out this generation of consoles on the Wii. The decent games will be cross-platform anyhow."

As it as turned out, Tomb Raider was cross-platform. Everything else quietly receded into the distance. I played a lot of PC adventure games.

So, okay, I'm getting a PS3. But I haven't been paying attention to the market. Two years' worth of games came out, and I don't know which of them are worth looking at. Time for me to trawl the minds of the Gameshelf Collective. What released PS3 games should I grab?

Assume that I like action-adventure games -- the titles I mention above are a guide. I also liked the Soul Reaver series, Fatal Frame, Sly Cooper, Ratchet+Clank, Okami, and (inevitably) Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. Beyond Good and Evil was decent but I wasn't bowled over like everybody else. I'm okay with the more fight-y action games like Onimusha and Devil May Cry, except that I'm not quite good enough to be their target audience (DMC3 was way the hell beyond me). Squad combat and shooters are not my style.

That's a one-dimensional picture, so feel free to mention the quirky and weird as well. (I liked Rez and Katamari too.)

What should I look for in the used-game bin?

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


So Spore is out. Everyone I know is either playing it or talking about it. This includes people who do not play videogames. So to that degree, Will Wright has pwned the planet.

As a gamer, the biggest discussion I see about Spore is that DRM argument. (Don't buy Spore (yet) says my friend peterb, and then goes on to talk about the completely terrible game experience that so many people are having. Boingboing inevitably picks up the topics, etc.) The notable statistic is the Amazon product page, which shows -- as I write this -- 1911 one-star reviews hating on the DRM, versus just 166 with higher ratings (two stars or more). For a game released four days ago.

Now, I'm pretty sure this Amazon review thing is a stunt. No videogame gets that many reviews that fast. Katamari Damacy, a hit for the past four years, has just 244 reviews; The Sims 2 (the previous Will Wright megablast, also four years old) has 889.

More importantly, Amazon reviews are notoriously a big pile of hooey. They're one step above Youtube comments, and you can find 1900 Youtube commenters willing to fart in five-part harmony just by turning over a rock and filming it.

However, it's a valid stunt. Fred Benenson, an early commenter on this mess, calls it "dis-organized collective action". Nobody thinks 90% of Spore players are dissatisfied customers -- but the dissatisfaction with crappy usage restrictions has made a big visible splash this week. That will resonate with the vast silent majority of game players, who grumble about stupid policies but eat the shit sandwich because it doesn't usually affect most of them.

And if this turns out to be organized collective action, hey, it's community organization. That's how stuff gets done.

I have nothing to add about the Spore experience, because I didn't buy Spore.

I bought the Spore Creature Creator -- the play-with-dolls part of the game, which was released a few months ago by itself -- because it seemed like a quirky idea and I wanted to support that. As it turned out, none of my computers can run the Creature Creator. (The Mac desktop isn't Intel, the Windows box has horrible sound-card pops, and the laptop is still on OSX 10.4.) One day I will upgrade the laptop, or the Windows sound drivers, and the thing will probably work then.

Then I looked at Spore, looked at all the hoo-ha, and bought Spore Origins -- aka iPhone Spore. Ten bucks in the iPhone App Store. No activation codes. No three-machine limit. No being arbitrarily yelled at for being a thief. You download it, tap the icon, and you're playing a bacterium.

Obviously the iPhone is not a DRM-free device. It is restricted up the wazoo. But Sporigins isn't any more restricted than any other iPhone app. I'm using it under the terms that I've already bought into. So, there's no resistance there.

Similarly, I'm looking forward to playing Bioshock this fall. Bioshock was released using the same oft-maligned SecuROM copy-protection that Spore uses. I will bypass this -- legally -- by buying Bioshock for Playstation. DRM? Sure, but it's not infecting my computer with anything, and it's not making the PS3 any more broken than it is out of the box. So the hell with it.

(This is not a blind "I don't care about DRM on iPhone/PS3" position. I will be able to play that copy of Bioshock for as long as I can find PS3s on eBay. That is an important criterion and I wouldn't buy a console without it. The iPhone is a less certain proposition, but the active jailbreaking community gives me some assurance that if and when Apple lets the iPhone drop by the wayside, I will be able to monkey my apps into it if I really want to. Or, more likely, into some kind of emulator.)

Electronic Arts wants you to believe that your computer is broken out of the box. If they're right, you don't care about SecuROM, you don't care that your software doesn't work reliably, and you don't care that your game purchase is a rental. This is a political position which they will win or lose, depending on how many people they convince -- and how many people are convinced they are wrong. That's why a wave of Amazon reviews, stunt or not, is at the heart of the matter.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Another forum game

I've written a couple of short articles about role-playing games on web forums. (Including one game I ran myself for a few weeks.)

The context of those posts was Myst fandom. But my original inspiration was a Harry Potter fanfic RPG called Nocturne Alley.

I don't know how the thing got started; it only hit my attention at its end, in mid-2004. That was the culmination of a two-year arc of Livejournal posts. A group of people took the roles of characters from the HP books -- one each, and their real identities were not public. And the characters started keeping public journals. And commenting in each others' journals. And stuff happened.

The game started in Hogwarts Year Five, I believe. (The fifth book was not yet out at that point, so they were working in as-yet-unmapped territory.) Naturally, being fanfic, it diverged rapidly from Rowling's plan. (Sirius and Remus wound up married. That sort of thing. Fanfic.)

It was a long-running, collaborative performance which contained a wealth of detail and characterization. More detail, in fact, than anyone can possibly assimilate. There's no way you can read Nocturne Alley. I've linked to the LJ community page, and there's an indirect index too, but you'd spend weeks re-reading everything. This is an art form which, in an odd way and despite being online, exists only in real time.

(A single link I found interesting: questions answered by an organizer, afterwards.)

So why am I mentioning this now? Because Alternity has just started. This is a new Harry Potter game, and it starts from the beginning -- September 1, Harry's first day at school. Only not as in The Philosopher's Stone. In this scenario, Voldemort, er, won. As Lord Protector Marvolo, he controls England... and he's just sent his eleven-year-old adopted son Harry Marvolo to Hogwarts.

The conceits of the game:
  • It's in real time. Today is September 4th, 1991, game time. The first-years are in their fourth day at school. Christmas is Christmas, summer break is summer break, and -- at least in plan -- Alternity will run for seven real years.
  • Journal posts are journal posts. The game consists of what people say in their (public) journals. There are no transcripts of what is "really" happening, unless a character chooses to write about it.
  • Journals are public. (Voldemort's Ministry of Magic wants to encourage discussion that they can eavesdrop on.)
  • One exception: the good-guy conspiracy has managed to set up a private conference. (Posts marked "Order Only" are presumed visible only to Order of the Phoenix members.) It is implied that the bad guys can do something similar. Naturally, first-year students are not trusted with such secrets, no matter how well-raised they are.

Some announcements and public discussion appears on the community page, but most of the action will be on the friends page. Follow if you dare.

(Well, that's easy to say. I don't know how much I'll be following myself. My daily net-reading habits are not set up to just add a stream of livejournal. I try to avoid passive reading; if I don't take action to go look, I don't see it. And seven years is a long time. But I'm interested in how these things run.)

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Myst news sizzling off the griddle

I promised, didn't I?

On the Myst Forums, from Chogon (Mark DeForest, CTO of Cyan):

This is a small project that probably a very few of you know about. We are porting Myst to the iPhone. Ok, before some of you start groaning, this is an outside funded project that is keeping a few developers employed... but it is really more than that. It is an interesting and fun project. This is also a very small team with three of us (which includes Derek, Rand (not Randy) [Miller] and myself).

The groaning, I assume, is because of the Nintendo DS port of Myst, which debuted a few months ago to an avalanche of held noses. (Someone was passing it around at the Myst fan convention I mentioned a couple of weeks ago. I didn't get a close look, but the disgust oozing from that side of the room was tangible.)

So hopefully iMyst will be smoother.

Other bits from that post:

MORE - UruLive: The current focus is to get the servers back online and subscribers back in the game (in other words, launched!) before the end of the year. [...]

Other projects: We do have a number of other projects that are suspended waiting for publisher approval or other outside funding. These range from a large epic multi-console game to smaller single console games with a number inbetween. All of the games are unique, artistic and have different aspects of exploration... and I can't tell you anything about them until they become active.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Race for the Piggy

Blog regulars will be familiar with my attitude towards the New Hotness in games (of any sort). I hear about something cool, wonder vaguely if I should try it, hear about it some more, get told in strenuous voice that I must play it, avoid spoilers, hear spoilers anyway, procrastinate, and eventually -- after several months, perhaps -- I try it.

It's a secret blogging strategy. By the time I post about something, all the obvious things have been said by everyone else, so I am forced to come up with clever and original observations. (Witness my post about Portal. Hint: I am lying about the secret blogging strategy.)

There are of course exceptions; I have my fanboy obsessions. You will hear Myst news here still sizzling off the griddle. Text adventure technology, I'm pretty good about. (Text adventure games, I'm years behind on.)

Nonetheless, I sat around for weeks while all my friends learned Race for the Galaxy, a card game designed by Thomas Lehmann. By the time I went looking for it, it was out of print. Then it reappeared, and all my friends bought it (except the ones who fanboy-obsessively had bought it on day one). But I still didn't play it with my friends. Why? Because I was on vacation at Worldcon, where, as it happens, my other friends all showed up with Race for the Galaxy, and so I played it a bunch.

Clever and original observation: it's good!

Okay, skip that. How about this: Race for the Galaxy is better than any other game I know at being Interstellar Pig.

Interstellar Pig is, of course, the imaginary game in William Sleator's eponymous science fiction novel. If you spent your teenage years having the crap scared out of you by Sleator novels, you know it. If not, go read it. (Although House of Stairs is more brutal and The Green Futures of Tycho is better.)

The game is described pretty well in the book. Each player is a member of a different alien race, travelling around the galaxy. Each player has the advantages and weaknesses of his species, plus an array of tools, technologies, and weapons -- some in hand, most hidden on various planets. One player owns (or has hidden) the goal object: the Piggy. Whoever holds the Piggy when the timer goes off is the winner. The hunt is on; duke it out.

As given, Interstellar Pig is a lousy game. (No criticism; it serves its role in the story, and Sleator is a writer, not a game designer.) One player starts out ahead, knowing where the Piggy is hidden. Or one player starts with the Piggy, which should be a good strategy -- all you have to do is run away from everyone else. Several card combinations, and at least one single card, are described as unbeatable: if you have the deadly virus and its antidote, you can sit on the Piggy and watch everyone else die.

The use of a timer is all wrong for a strategy board game. Even if you convert it to a more reasonable mechanism -- a fixed number of turns, or some sequence of game events -- the games described are too short. The most a player can do is run to one or two planets to retrieve tools, and then try to get to where another player is heading (if you can guess who knows where the Piggy is). You may not get there in time -- unless you hit a wormhole, which is pure luck, or unless you have the (rare, overpowered) teleport card. If you do get there, you may find the environment unsurvivable with the tools you've got. If the factors do not align, all your play and planning are irrelevant. You just lose.

On the other hand, it's a great fictional game. And it has elements which are undeniably awesome. You get to be an alien, with powers and vulnerabilities which influence your strategy, and make each game a distinct experience. The game has lots of Stuff -- poisons, antidotes, weapons, protective gear, teleporters. The Stuff and the alien powers interact in interesting ways. Also, of course, it's set in outer space.

So if Interstellar Pig, itself, is not the ideal real Interstellar Pig game, what is?

Cosmic Encounter is an excellent choice. You are an alien race with an alien power! You're trying to conquer the universe! There's -- well, there isn't any Stuff per se, unless you count Flares. But I remember wandering through game stores when I was ten or twelve, staring with enormous eyes at the wonderful expansion sets full of alien powers and planets and moons. Now that was Stuff, in real life.

It's a wargame with rule quirks, but the rule quirks -- the alien powers -- are so pervasive that you are constantly thinking in their terms. Your game identity determines how you see every move and skirmish. That's the heart of Cosmic; that's why I played it every weekend during college.

This doesn't mean that other games can't be Interstellar Pig too. The Awful Green Things from Outer Space (as seen on The Gameshelf) is set in outer space; it has alien races; it has Stuff. (Pool cues and fire extinguishers!) It's a wargame clobberfest, rather than a hunt-the-prize game; but then Cosmic is clobbertastic as well.

The Awful Green Things from Outer Space is, most importantly, awesome. Particularly when you're twelve. It's not a particularly awesome game -- lots of room-by-room fighting; I could reasonably describe it as Risk with Stuff. But the theme is so delightfully done, with little cartoon aliens and critters and a three-eyed blue chicken. It glows with personality. It's impossible to pick it up without imagining you're there, pelting aliens in the Ward Room with canisters of zgwortz. It has a comic-book prologue and a CYOA epilogue! Nothing about this is less than awesome, and that's why it is Interstellar Pig.

And that brings me around to Race for the Galaxy. (Which I keep mispronouncing as "Rails Across the Galaxy", because Analog magazine was awesome too when I was twelve. But never mind.)

It's quick. It's in space. There are alien planets; there are technologies to develop, which are Stuff, close enough. It's neither an egg-hunt nor a wargame, but a civ-building resource race, the favoritest genre of discerning modern strategy gamers. And Race is a discerning modern game, designed with a careful eye to balance and strategy. Which makes it entirely unlike Cosmic or Green Things, those gleeful triumphs of the "heave your every idea at the wall and insist they stuck evenly" school of game design.

Why is it Interstellar Pig?

For all the care and finickiness of Race's rules, they all support the theme. Take an bonus card for your brown planets. Reduce the cost of yellow planets by two. Keep an extra card when you draw. Each of these, as you combine them with other powers, evolves into a game strategy. And as you play, each game strategy evokes a story: you are the mining combine, you are the interstellar explorer fleet, you are the technological hothouse, you are the fearless archaeologists amid the Forerunner ruins.

These roles aren't just labels for various suits of cards. Each has a different set of mechanics, and takes advantage of different rules. Theme emerging from gameplay, rather than painted on as "color", do you see? Nor are the roles assigned to you -- you figure them out. Select one, or part of one, or a mix of several; whichever fits your hand and your luck. That has always been the real root of interactive fiction: complicity. You care most about what you do.

Which is why, as someone who hasn't been twelve for a few years now, I think Race for the Galaxy is awesome. Just like Interstellar Pig.

(Although, I admit, not quite. To really be Interstellar Pig, you'd have to imagine that if you don't wind up with the most victory points, then all your planets explode at the end of the game. Now that's awesome.)

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

More iPhone adventures

A quick note: Craig Smith has ported Frotz to the iPhone. This means that you can play I am not kidding hundreds of text adventures, including all of mine. Frotz is a free download in the iPhone App Store. (It's a Google code project.)

The app comes with a nice stack of games. (Including the famous Zarf games A Change in the Weather, Spider and Web, and The Dreamhold. Also the famous not-by-Zarf-but-he-shows-up game Being Andrew Plotkin.) But the really boss trick is that it lets you browse IFDB, directly from the Frotz app. Select any Z-code game, and it's automatically downloaded and added to your game list. Think of it as a mini App Store for IF -- only all free.

(I really have to adopt some cover art for my games. I did a cover for Shade that I rather like. For the rest, I will go back and look at Emily Short's IF Cover Art Drive. There were some great contributions in there, but I never bestirred my butt to accept any of them.)

iPhone Frotz is a 1.0 release, and I see some rough edges, but very small ones. The worst problem I've found is that The Dreamhold plays very slowly -- not every move, but when you do something interesting. This bothers me, because The Dreamhold is my shot at an introductory IF game -- it's designed to coach players who have never tried IF. I want it to run well. My current theory is that displaying italicized text is much slower than printing plain text.

More later. (I forgot to charge Mr Shiny since getting back from vacation, and I should save what's left of the battery for, maybe, receiving phone calls.)

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

A Tale of Two Dwarves

Now, here’s the thing about dwarves: they’re not like you and me. We wake up, we shower, we get dressed, we go to work, and while we’re doing all this, sometimes we get an idea. "I should write a cookbook that focuses on pomegranates," we think, and then we get out of the shower and towel off and we don’t write the book.

...from A Tale of Two Dwarves, peterb, on tleaves

This sort of post needs no comment of mine, except to say that peterb is touched, sometimes. Own up to it.

On the other hand, this does tie into a conversation I once had with a friend. My friend had spent many teenage hours playing old CRPGs -- The Bard's Tale, for example. This is no unusual thing among my friends. I did it. Lots of us did it.

I finished The Bard's Tale with pages of obsessively notated graph-paper maps. And, possibly, some notes on how to give yourself a zillion hit points with a disk sector editor.

My friend finished The Bard's Tale with countless imagined stories about how each bard and wizard and fighter had comported himself or herself in the game world. How brave or desperate each one was? How they worried about each other's wounds, how thrilled they were to be rescued or healed? Secret crushes, secret hatreds? I don't know; our discussion didn't get into these details. It sure as hell wasn't the game I had played.

And so it is worth noting, as we game designers crouch in our forges, trying to weld together plot and conflict and resolution from our fragile rules and pixels, that occasionally we will look up and realize that the players have buggered off to play on the beach. Without us.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008


This past weekend, Boston hosted Mysterium, an annual convention of Myst fandom. I attended -- my first time -- and I had fun.

Mysterium is the small end of the con scale; I believe about fifty people showed up this year. (In a week I'm off to Worldcon, population circa 5000.) What do you do with fifty gamers in Boston? The answer, it appears, is to caravan them off to play Tomb.

Which is what this post is really about. No, I'm not going to blog about the salacious details of Myst fandom at play. There were chocolate chip cookies, let's leave it at that.

Tomb is a thing. It's this -- thing. Ummmph. Nobody has a name for what Tomb is, because it's the first one. It's the lineal descendant of a cornfield maze, by way of Myst and out of a LARP -- but not so much real live-action role-playing games, as the SF version envisaged by Niven and Barnes in Dream Park.

(Can I suggest "live-action interactive fiction"? That term makes sense if you know what IF is... which, okay, makes it a terrible term. Skip it.)

Anyhow, I don't think it's an accident that Tomb's logotype is a direct swipe of Zork.

Here is what Tomb is. After a brief orientation, you walk into a plaster-and-styrofoam Egyptian tomb. The door grinds shut behind you -- oh no! The Pharaoh's spirit speaks! He challenges you to solve his riddles or die!

That's what it is. You are in an immersive fantasy environment -- stone walls, mysterious lights, sound effects, glow-in-the-dark symbols, fog. The construction will immediately remind you of a theme-park ride, except for two small details: you're not riding anything, and it's interactive. Solve the puzzles and you'll discover the secret of the Pharaoh's tomb. Fail, and -- well, I don't know; we didn't fail. Hah. But I'm told that you undergo a horrific death and leave through a side door. Feel free to buy another ticket and try again.

Our guide, Squee

Your group has a guide. (Our guide, Squ'ee, is shown here dealing with her sudden induction into Myst zoology.) The guide is responsible for herding you through doors, making sure you don't miss anything really obvious, and nudging you along if you seem to be stuck. A run is scheduled for 45 minutes -- it's in a sequence of rooms, so they can start a new batch every 15 minutes.

I was impressed by the interactivity. It is, literally, hands-on; you are always feeling at tiles and buttons and moveable panels. You make things happen. There are some narrative tricks and traps, which I would never be so crude as to give away, but they were nicely designed; I felt like I was the one things were happening to.

Many of the story events, such as the Pharaoh's voice, are pre-recorded. Others, as I said, are the guide telling you what to do. Interestingly, the pre-recorded ones had better pacing. At several points I thought the guide was too pushy -- pointing at the next puzzle before we realized that we'd solved the last one. The sense of triumph got stepped on. On the other hand, we didn't solve any puzzles purely by luck; so we got to feel triumphant anyhow.

And how are the puzzles? This thing has been open for four years, and I've been living in Boston for three. I never visited until now, because, honestly, I heard the puzzles were kind of lame.

Which they are, to a puzzle devotee. Tomb is built to be solved by most people -- not just by most gamers. If you've played three computer adventure games, you've seen most of Tomb's puzzles already, or puzzles much like them. (I believe we won in just over 30 minutes.)

But -- I had a good time anyway. It's a social puzzle game, and that's more fun than sitting at home alone. You win or lose as a group. The puzzles are built as group activities. Even a puzzle that you've seen fifteen times before, which you can solve as fast as mouse can click (and I think you know which puzzle I mean), turns into a party game when the guide tells you to line up and make one move per person. Much cheerful yelling ensues.

So, go with friends. I think they aim for ten people as the average group size. If you show up with twelve, you can reserve a tour all by yourselves; if you have fewer than eight, or it's crowded, you could get mixed in with strangers. I recommend not being mixed in with strangers. (The Myst group wound up being split into three tours of about fifteen each, which really was too many. Small rooms were crowded, and some people wound up on the sidelines of any given puzzle.)

Moral and physical health guides: Tomb has darkness, fog, and bright flashing lights. Not strobe-flashy, but sensitive brains might still want to avoid it. Also, at one point you're exhorted to stand around chanting "All hail Pharaoh!" In good fun, but it was a bit of a "you know, this really is against some people's religion" moment. I promise that neither your guide nor your teammates will mind if you chant "Whatever, Pharaoh" instead.

According to the web site, the operators are planning to swap out Tomb for a new, spy-themed adventure "in 2008". I have no idea if they're on schedule with that. I hope so, because I want to do another one.