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.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Quick links: Zarf reviews adventure games (and one more)

I post some game reviews here, but I also write game reviews that appear on my own web site. I've been doing this for over a decade now, and I live in the iron grip of much shorter-lived habits than that, so I'm not going to abandon that page now.

And I don't want to double-post everything.

So, I'll just link to the backlog. Here are the last few adventure games I've reviewed:

Up in the next couple of months: Sherlock Holmes: Nemesis.

And now I will pass out, because I blew too many hours this evening playing Endgame: Singularity. This is a free casual Civ-style game which I found cute and clever. You're a newly-arisen AI, living in the Internet, trying to rent enough server space (under fake ID) to survive and grow.

I usually avoid Civ games, but this one had sufficient chill factor to pull me in -- once. Keep in mind that I avoid Civ games because I like the exploration factor, which means I hate failing and starting over. In fact, I don't even care for succeeding and starting over. I grabbed Endgame in order to play it once, and I succeeded (thank you, Easy Mode), so it was all good.

This is not a struggle of several AIs under symmetric rules. You are the AI. Your only enemy is the complacent herd of humanity: ignorant of your existence, and you'd better keep them that way, because if they find out about you, it's plug-pulling time. You set up computational bases on rented servers (and, eventually, larger facilities). Occasionally -- purely by chance -- one of your bases will be discovered and shut down. When this happens, humanity becomes more suspicious about Weird Stuff On The Internet; the more suspicious they get, the greater the chances of another base being discovered. You, in turn, can use your CPU and capital resources to research technologies to hide yourself better -- and, of course, to build better servers.

So, rather than a war, it's a building game with intermittent, localized disasters. Keep a few backups and don't get greedy, and you'll do well. This is the sort of dynamic I enjoy. (The dynamic I don't enjoy is when a rapacious horde of rivals comes over the Wicked High Mountains and outcompetes me. Or when an earthquake destroys my whole country. These are things that Endgame does not do to you.)

I also enjoyed feeling like I was a cross between Daniel Keys Moran's Ring and the bad guys from Odyssey 5. These are not virtues of Endgame, but riding a cultural wave is one of the things that games can succeed or fail at, and this one succeeds.

Open-source smugness: Endgame is a GPL project written in Python. Maybe somebody will write that multi-AI struggle version someday.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

iPhone adventures

The iPhone App Store has opened, and it is time for all game-bloggers of good will to talk about iPhone games.

(The ones of ill will are doing it too, as are those of ill mind, of weak will, and of bad wind. I won't fuss about which of these categories I'm in. Zog knows I can't climb that many flights of stairs without going all anaerobic on my mitochondria.)

I see there are... 219 games as I write this. I haven't found a good way to browse them; the in-phone browser doesn't do subcategories, and iTunes doesn't seem to have complete lists in any category. (At least, this doesn't look like it adds up to 219.) But never mind. I've skimmed through the lists, and seen the expected variety: shoot-up games, tilt-marble games, rhythm-tapping games, and the entire continent of casual puzzle games. (Which consists of the Republic of Rule Mazes, the Sodality of Sudoku, the Mahjongg Concord, the Other Sodality of Solitaire, and so on. All of which are pinched corners around the Grand Imperium of Click On Three Identical Cute Animals. Or jewels or what have you. But usually animals.)

Really, the only reason I post stuff on the Internet is to use the word "sodality" as often as possible. Thank you, Brannon Braga.

But I'm interested in adventure games. Adventures are a gaping hole in the iPhone lineup. Can this be? Surely adventures are common casual gaming fodder! Really -- do any web search on "room escape". Each of these games differs from Myst only in that it is small, indoors, and (usually) visually stylized rather than photorealistic.

It is true that every one of these tiny adventurelets is written in Flash. And the iPhone has no Flash player. But heck -- every shooting, tapping, marbling, mazing, three-animal-clicking games on the Web is in Flash too, and developers had no trouble porting those to Mr. Shiny.

The graphical adventure form needs few changes to run on a touch interface. You don't have the ability to click on tiny details -- but "hunt-the-pixel" was always the reductive failure of graphical adventures (as "guess-the-verb" is for text adventures). It's what happens when the game isn't working. So design your scenes for big hotspots. You don't have a cursor to change to indicate hotspots, either. Maybe dragging your finger around a scene should cause hotspots to flash, to indicate their existence that way. Or maybe you just need really good visual focus.

This is important because graphical adventures normally have two levels of response: one indicates that you can use an item (cursor change), the other is for when you decide to use it (click). And so puzzles can involve a certain amount of "What do I want to do first?" If tapping something activates it, most of your game interactions are going to be accidental. ("Hey, I guess that was a lever!") That's a big rethink of the form.

(Sure, you want to adhere to the "no death, no mistakes" rule -- casual adventuring demands that. But even a benign irreversible action is irritating, if you hit it accidentally. And room escape games have lots of irreversible actions. It's a design convention: when you push the button it stays pushed, when you solve the puzzle it stays solved. Keeps the player's momentum forward.)

Maybe we should roll with the dragging idea: design most of the game elements to require motion rather than tapping. Tapping just causes a quick bounce or jiggle reaction. So if you tap on a cabinet door, it jiggles; that tells you that you can drag it open. I like this idea, actually. Levers everywhere instead of buttons. Drag the carpet back to look under it. Drag found items to your inventory, then drag them back to target hotspots.

I'm not sure whether edge buttons or flick-scrolling is better for turning left and right -- that will require some testing. (If finger dragging gets coopted for one of the above ideas, I guess you're forced to use edge buttons.) Pinch-zoom seems like a clever idea for close inspection of scenes, but I suspect it will work best in moderation -- closeups only.

Text adventures! My character sheet says I'm supposed to talk about text adventures. (In fact I already have; this bit of bloggery is adapted from a couple of posts I made on

The App Store already has a text adventure -- the text adventure.

Advent Splash

This is a freeware application being distributed by "Pi-Soft Consulting" (which looks like it's the same as Shawn P. Stanley).

A bit of historic neepery which will be of interest to practically nobody: the splash text shown above is misleading. It is taken from Graham Nelson's Inform port of Adventure -- which, as the note says, is adapted from Dave Baggett's TADS version of Don Ekman's Fortran source code.

Which is fine, except that Shawn P. Stanley didn't use Graham Nelson's port. He adapted Jim Gillogly's C source code. This also descends from the Fortran version.

The two versions feel rather different. Were one to play Graham Nelson's version of the game, one would find a refined parser supporting features such as "get all", more synonyms, abbreviations like "x" for "examine", and a long historical introduction. Gillogly's port uses the original, simplistic parser. There are a few gameplay differences as well.

On the other hand, it's the same game. Both versions cover the classic "350-point" Crowther&Woods edition of Adventure, as opposed to any of several extended remixes. I just don't get why Stanley chose to write his credits this way.

(I'm not accusing him of misconduct. Adventure has always been, in hacker tradition, been considered free software. Jim Gillogly's port is explicitly licensed as open-source under the BSD license. And Stanley is distributing iPhone Advent for free.)

On both hands, the dedication to Stephen Bishop is appropriate to any version of Adventure.

Let's take a look at the game itself.

Inside Building

The interface is straightforward. You have an input line. When you tap on it, the usual iPhone tap keyboard appears, and you type your command. Hit Return and see what happens.

Well, perhaps not so straightforward. This implementation only shows the response to your most recent command. There is no scrolling game history, such as IF players are used to. If you type "get lamp" at the prompt above, the visible text changes to the single word "OK" -- poor context at best.

The obvious fix is to move the input line to the bottom of the screen, and show the game history above it. Right?

Wrong. The iPhone really wants the input line near the top of the screen, because the keyboard is always at the bottom. If the input line is at the bottom edge, it'll just slide uphill when the keyboard pops up, and that wouldn't be great.

So I want the input line at the top but a standard IF scrolling pane below it, with commands interspersed in the usual way. (You'd have to ensure that finger-scrolling only affected the text pane, not the entire screen. This is possible -- in fact Advent does it, with long responses such as the "help" output.)

(That model obviates the need for the input line to keep showing the last command, which is confusingly out-of-order.)

What else does the perfect iPhone IF application have? I'll move away from criticizing iPhone Advent, and talk about general features.

I'd like a special button to the right of the input line, which brings up a menu of one-touch common IF commands. A compass rose of movement commands, "look" and "inventory", maybe "undo". (iPhone Advent doesn't support "undo", but modern IF does.)

The splash page should have a "how to play" button. The mainframe-style "Do you want instructions?" when you start is all wrong.

PDA IF traditionally has some kind of "tap a word to paste it" interface. I want that but it's hard to do with a touch-screen, because words are tiny. The ideal solution might be to invisibly mark up the output text with "this word is important" spans. That opens up a certain amount of blind hunt-the-pixel exploration, but if brute force is tedious and generally useless -- ie, if only the obviously important words are marked -- I don't think it would sidetrack players.

Finally, the backgrounds. I rather like Advent's low-contrast cave photos. (Emily Short disagrees.)

Background Map Concept

However, what would be even keener would be a map. (I like drawing my own maps, but mobile IF players probably don't have a sheaf of blank paper handy.) Not a complete map, but one that's filled in as you play. You can see the nearby rooms that's you've already explored.

You wouldn't want text on it -- it is, after all, behind the game text, and text on text is hard to read. But a dynamic room map in unlabelled, simple shapes and low-contrast color would be cool. Highlight the current room (or keep it centered). This image is my quick sketch of the concept. Maybe it works? Maybe I'm nuts? Too bright yellow, for sure, but it's late so that's what you get.

Monday, July 7, 2008


I played through Portal yesterday.

jmac: So did you enjoy portal?

zarf: yes

zarf: I should make a Gameshelf post, but it would be a one-liner.

jmac: That's fine.

jmac: It would be like saying "Hey I just saw this 'Star Wars' movie OK" at this point

zarf: yep

jmac: I trust in your judgement / ability to say something original despite everything

zarf: I'm gonna quote this exchange... :)

I finished the game off at 2:30 AM, so you should be wary of my ability to get nouns and verbs in the same sentence, much less be original. But I appreciate the vote of confidence.

(I briefly considered making a long post about playing Portal, the 1986 hypertext science fiction novel/game by Rob Swigart. But I've got little new to say about that Portal either. Except that, drat, the Web-based version is no longer working.)

It is worth noting that I signed up for Steam almost 24 hours ago and nobody has come to collect my soul. I haven't even gotten any bothersome promotional email. That puts them ahead of a lot of web sites I've signed up for. (Big Fish, I am pointing this plasma rifle at you. I never did manage to unsubscribe to your newsletter. By "plasma rifle" I mean "welcome to my spam filter".)

That damn song is stuck in my head, but that's been happening on and off since it first hit YouTube.

I don't blame you. I don't hate you. Shutting down.