Tuesday, May 11, 2010

I have not played Echo Bazaar

I have not played Echo Bazaar. But whoo-ee, a whole lot of my friends sure are playing it.

The reasons I'm not playing are as banal as I can possibly make them. I don't want to use my Twitter account that way! I want to play once a night, not once every 70 minutes! I like whining on the Internet!

...I'm busy writing stuff, and I have no time to get hooked on new games. Except for these iPad hidden-object time-wasters! And the new Prince of Persia retread is coming out soon!

...No, look. The truth is that I love this kind of game -- I was an early Kingdom of Loathing fan. Worse, for years I've wanted to write this kind of game. But I only have scraps of filthy sketchwork and insoluble economics diagrams, and those Echo Bazaar people have actually gone ahead and done the thing. And I hear it's awfully cool.

What's even cooler is when a horde of highly literate gamers, designers and interactivity freaks get hold of something like this and start whaling on it in four-part harmony. And suggesting new design ideas. And then the game creators notice and start commenting back.

So, without ullage:

I do not have time, I do not have time...

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Aliens built the pyramids and all I got was this lovely translation puzzle

In early 1995, when I was a tiny ickle thing and had only written one major interactive game (not a text adventure), I played a web game.

...That sentence requires a respectful pause, because, you remember 1995? Vas you dere, Charlie? Were there games on the toddler World Wide Web?

Okay -- there were; quite a few by then. Not so many that a person couldn't play all of them, or try. I gathered some young fame as the maintainer of Zarf's List of Interactive Games on the Web, and if you were a Mosaic user in those early years, you remember me. Hi!

1995 was the last year of The List, because that summer is when everything went zoom and there were more web sites, and web games, than any human being could shake a stick at. But one of my favorite additions of that January -- really, of the whole list -- was David Levine's Contact Project.

Because he posted it on sunsite.unc.edu, which became ibiblio.org, the original Contact Project web site is still available. Kai the historians!

The format was straightforward. A message was posted -- notionally a sequence of musical tones received from Tau Ceti. (The creator politely transcribed them into letters for us, but no other hints were provided.) The challenge: translate the alien message. As players made progress, more messages appeared, with more symbols (tones) to translate.

So, to begin with -- if you enjoy a translation puzzle challenge, go look at the messages. It's completely fair, and both creative and clever in its use of familiarity (the aliens want their message to be translated, like our golden tablet) and foreignness (they are aliens nonetheless).

Levine set up a web forum (undoubted the first web forum I ever used!) for players to post messages and share information. Looking back on it now, I startle myself: I had completely forgotten how involved I was! I posted frequently, contributed some source code for decoding tools, and maintained a web page of all the information we discovered. (My page is unfortunately lost, but you can reconstruct everything by reading through the archived posts.)

I was also more of a tone-deaf Internet jerk back then. Heya, youth.

That's not what this song is about.

A couple of days ago, David Levine posted a long article about the Contact Project, its origins, and its consequences.

At the end of March 2010, I found out that I was apparently a central figure in a conspiracy theory regarding aliens and a government cover up. This is perhaps the strangest thing that has ever happened to me.

-- from I am a one-man conspiracy, apparently, David Levine