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.)