Monday, November 23, 2020

A shut-in-year's worth of puzzle games

I've been playing more games than usual -- guess why! -- but writing less about them. Furthermore, my habitual January review-blast is going to be delayed this year. The January reviews stem from IGF judging, and IGF runs at GDC, and GDC is officially "delayed until July".
(Conferences in July sound optimistic as hell, even with the recent good vaccine news. But leave that aside.)
The point is: I have been leaving you, gentle reader, in a haze of undirected game-floundering. How will you know what puzzle games are interesting without my anodyne guidance? Unless you look at the entire rest of the flippin' Internet. Okay, fine. But here's my round-up post on puzzly games, regardless.
...But not all of them. Tune in tomorrow for my top-recommended puzzle games of 2020! (So far.) Today is a lot of short takes. In this post:
  • The Pedestrian
  • Lumote
  • Etherborn
  • Arise: A Simple Story
  • Lightmatter
  • Lumina
  • Weakless
  • Phantom Path
  • Creaks
  • Relicta
  • Sensorium
  • Zof
  • Carto
  • Timelie
  • Ethereal

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Tour Bibliotekh

Today is the (revised) launch day for "If on a summer’s night a game designer...", the Calvino game jam. My entry is called Tour Bibliotekh.
("But what is the entry's name?" Shush.)
It's a rather self-indulgent piece which is set (I am dead serious) in my apartment! Specifically in my library room. I finally set up all my bookshelves the way I wanted, and then I wanted to show them off. So I took some (360┬║) photos. Then I remembered about the Calvino jam, and realized this would be an apropos setting.
I should say that this isn't a game in the way you might expect. It's not a puzzle and there is no "winning". It's a walking simulator; or, I suppose, a browsing simulator. Poke around and see what you find.
I'll tease one bit: connect things up right and you'll find my secret history of why the Charleston Shoe Thieves are called the "Shoe Thieves". No, I'm not a serious blaseball fan, but I see enough chatter about it to keep current. And the wiki explanation of the team name really didn't satisfy me at all. Maybe you'll like this one better.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Boosting some current Kickstarters

I promised to have my Calvino game jam entry up yesterday. But if you look at the jam page, you'll see that the deadline -- and therefore the release date -- has been extended to Sept 30. I like the idea of kicking another week's worth of stuff into it, so you get to wait a bit longer for that.
In the meantime, let me mention some Kickstarters that I think deserve some love.

Club Drosselmeyer is an interactive theater / puzzle / music / circus-arts event which has played for the last few years in the Boston area. I went last year for the first time and had a blast.
The theme is The Nutcracker, only it's gonzo-WW2 swingtime era, so the Nutcracker is a dancing robot and there are Nazi spies creeping around stealing blueprints. Also, live music and acrobatics! The live show was a smart construction. You could go for the puzzles, the LARP-style interactions with characters, or just to cut it up on the dance floor.
This is not the year for live theater, so the Drosselmeyer crew has planned out an interactive radio show. Again, you can go for the puzzles or just listen in on the audio broadcast. If you want to get involved, there will be some kind of call-in system -- audience interactions will shape the direction of the night's show. But you can also play on your own schedule; the event will remain playable as an interactive web site.
Note that if you have a group that wants to play as a team, you can share one Kickstarter registration. The registration only lets one phone call in, but you can set up a Zoom chat or whatever you want for audio sharing.
Drosselmeyer has been a treasure of the Boston theater-game scene since it opened in 2016. This is your chance to check it out from anywhere in the world -- well, anywhere that can make phone calls to the US. The Kickstarter has been stuck at 40% for a few weeks now and it deserves better.
Bonus: here's me looking somewhat suffused in my 1940s getup for the show. Yes, in the bathroom, that's where the big mirror is.

IndieCade is going virtual like everything else this year. They're planning a week-and-a-half slate of talks, demos, a showcase of indie games, and online community. I like this plan! (Although, hint from the trenches: nine days is a really long show. Stay hydrated.)
Furthermore, they want to keep an active community and game showcase running year-round. The Kickstarter is to fund tools, streaming, and staff to support this.
I've only been to one IndieCade, in 2015. I was invited to demo Seltani, which I did (with Carl Muckenhoupt's help -- thank you!) I also kicked around the festival and met a bunch of cool people, including Sam Barlow and Cat Manning, and generally -- not to repeat a cliche -- I had a blast.
So I would like to see what IndieCade does as a virtual entity. Consider it.

Romancelvania: Honestly I have no idea about this one. The KS page isn't up yet. But this writeup sounds hilarious: Castlevania plus The Bachelor. Honestly, I could use a game where the devs say "We were all making each other laugh hysterically."
So I have no idea if it'll be any good, but it's worth a mention.

That's all I've got on my active (or not-yet-active) KS list. Of course there's a long, long list of backed games in progress. I'm not going to count. You know how Kickstarter works. (My KS game was four years late; complaining would be extra-silly.)
But I'll have my Calvino game up next Wednesday -- promise! And you'll have all day to enjoy it before the IFComp games go live on Thursday...

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Myst VR teaser drops

I'm sure you already saw it, but I strive for completeness here, so here you go: a trailer for Myst in VR. The Steam page and GOG page are also up.
There's really not much to say about this. As Cyan's announcement says, they've been teasing this for a while now:
In fact, we suspect that some of you were onto us as far back as last summer when Rand gave his keynote at Mysterium 2019... We’ve been holding our breath ever since that video hit the internet hoping his keynote speech wouldn’t go viral, so for those of you who picked up on what we were laying down last year... Thanks for helping us keep things under wraps!
(From today's Firmament news update, one of the places where Cyan announced this.)
I take that last bit as a direct poke, since I blogged about Rand's keynote in 2019! VR possibilities and all! No, Rand didn't say "VR" -- he just called it a "definitive edition of Myst". But we all knew what he meant.
The real surprise here is that they're announcing it now. Firmament is currently on track for probably 2022, so this is looking like parallel development rather than sequential. Of course, it's impossible to know how the schedule will fall out.
The trailer and screenshots indicate that they've gotten a good ways into development. And it is very pretty.
Other tidbits:
  • The title is just Myst, no modifiers.
  • It will be VR-only and Quest-exclusive at launch, but flatscreen Windows and other VR platforms will follow.
  • The Steam page says "Built from the ground up to play in VR and flatscreen PC with new art, sound, interactions, and even optional puzzle randomization..."
  • The teaser has a slightly different opening narration in Rand's inimitable voice.
  • The D'ni text seen in the Myst book is a rather delightful easter egg for fans. See the top comment on the youtube page for a transcription.
I am of course pleased by this news, although I'll have to wait for the flatscreen release. Mind you, Firmament is still top of my wanted list.
The note about "puzzle randomization" is interesting. Many of the puzzles in Myst are entirely suitable for this. (Think about the clock tower, for example -- the required time code could be anything.) This isn't a huge expansion of the game's design, but it will be a nice change for people who want to replay it without feeling like they're following an invisible teleprompter. And it will be "optional", so detail mavens don't need to freak out.
The video and screenshots imply that they've scaled the island up a bit, and added lots of detail. But they haven't redesigned anything from scratch. It's still the classic, "noncanonical" Myst. Trap books will still be trap books. The puzzles will still be mostly nonmimetic insertions. Myst Island will not have bathrooms or living spaces.
...Or will it? Cyan could add practically anything as new bonus content; we'd cheer for it. It's really just a question of how much scope they allow themselves.
Okay, back to waiting mode, everybody.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Recent additions to my Infocom collection

Last year, after the Infocom source code dump, I posted my Obsessively Complete Infocom Catalog.
This was the same data -- source code and some playable game files -- but with every version separated out and tagged. Release date, release type (alpha/beta/etc), game file version, all the information I could find.
Since 2019, people have sent me a fair number of pointers to "new" source code. Some of these were previously collected in various places; some have been dug out of MIT tape archives. I've been adding them to the page as they came in.
Want a quick tour?

Saturday, August 22, 2020

Hadean Lands: minor update

I have posted an update to Hadean Lands on Steam, Itch, and the Humble Store. This includes improvements to the UI framework only. (No changes to the game content.)
The game now supports OS dark theme. If you have your system OS theme set to "dark", all of the game windows (including the journal, map, preferences, and so on) will use a light-on-dark theme.
The story window will still be set to the color theme you last selected (Dark, Light, Sepia, Slate). You can adjust this to match in the preferences.
The preferences menu now has two system-responsive options: "Light/Dark" and "Sepia/Slate". These allow the story window to adjust if you switch your OS theme back and forth. I don't know why you would, but the game allows for it. (New players will see "Light/Dark" as the default preference.)
Other changes:
  • The Electron framework has been updated to 8.4.1. This should fix the "harfbuzz" library error that some Linux users were seeing.
  • There is a "Display Cover Art" menu option in the View menu, should you wish to bask in that.
  • The Mac version is now notarized.
Let me know if you run into any problems. Thanks!

Friday, August 21, 2020

Fan-built Ages in Myst Online

I've been writing about the idea of user-contributed content in Myst Online for almost long as Myst Online has been around. Then the game got cancelled in 2008. Then it was brought back as a static legacy server (source code available).
So people started experimenting with the tools for creating new Ages. A bunch of fan-run "shards" went up, both to test client fixes and to collect fan-built worlds.
Did I write about this new activity? Nope. I did not.
Playing around in the shards was a hassle. I'd have to figure out which sites to watch; I'd have to run variant client software; I'd have to keep track of bugs and age format details and who knows what else.
I don't mind going shoulder-deep in a steaming pile of half-working software! It's literally what they pay me for. But I have so many IF tools and systems on my plate that I just didn't need another one. So I said, look -- I'm going to blog this stuff for the typical Uru user. And the typical user doesn't know or care about shards. They log onto MOUL, Cyan's official shard. So I'll write up new content when it's imported into MOUL.
That was, oh, I think it was 2010 when I decided that.
Guess what happened today!

Sunday, August 16, 2020

The parser and the Myst plot hole

Occasionally someone asks, "Could Myst be done as a parser text game?" Sure! But you wouldn't want the translation to be too literal. Some of the puzzles would be less fun, more difficult, or more tedious when rendered in text form. So it's worth going back to rethink the design.
(Ironically, the sub maze -- Myst's most-reviled puzzle -- would translate pretty well. The relevant clues could be worked into environmental text. Plus, text IF has no movement delays, so if you missed the cues, brute-force mapping would be rather less tedious...)
But the most interesting design question is: do you allow TAKE? Myst is full of objects, but you can't carry any of them except book pages. (And one lit match.) But parser IF is all about the joys of acquisition! Do we stick to the limitations of the original game? Or shall we update the puzzle design to include keys and crowbars and lamps and all those other adventuring tools?
And while I was thinking about that, I realized... huh. The original game missed something.
To recap briefly (and spoilerifically): when you find enough red or blue pages, the evil brothers tell you how to open the secret fireplace compartment. That contains the last red and blue page and the green D'ni linking book. The green book shows you Atrus, who tells you to find and bring him the white page. His copy of the Myst book (his exit from D'ni) was sabotaged, and he needs the white page to fix it.
But in fact Atrus doesn't need the white page! And Atrus should know it! There's a simpler way to free Atrus which has nothing to do with the white page. This alternate solution isn't implemented in the game, but it is absolutely possible according to the logic of the story.
If you feel like solving the puzzle, I'll leave a bit of spoiler space.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Mysterium starts Friday, online

Every year I write a Myst news wrapup post after Mysterium. This is because I enjoy hanging around the fandom, and then I pick up news, so I post it. Last year I even visited Cyan HQ; that was a trip and a half.
This year, of course, there are no trips. Trips are virtual. This means that you can hang around Mysterium as easily as me! It's the usual online setup: talks on Twitch and/or Youtube, chatter on Discord. Schedule is here.
Let me also bump your recollection of the Myst documentary Kickstarter, which has a week left. It's been running slow. I know a documentary isn't as exciting as a new game (also running slow), but a bunch of historical material will come out of this. We've already gotten this snippet of raw Achenar footage from the original Myst production files. Come on, you want more.
Opening stream is 7:45 pm Eastern on Friday. See you there.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Trademarking Infocom, again, part two

I posted yesterday about a company called SmartMonsters, who are running a port of (MIT) Zork in a MUD framework. They are trying to register the "Infocom" trademark.
But it turns out that someone else is trying to do the same thing. If you look at the URL, you'll see a bare-bones site which claims "Infocom and the Infocom logo are trademarks of Infocom LLC." According to business records, Infocom LLC is a company formed in Colorado Springs in 2015.
Now, a US trademark search turns up no mention of this crew. And it looks like they've been claiming the "Infocom" trademark for years with no registration. But I am told that they are objecting to SmartMonsters' use of it. I don't really know how the trademark-tussling process works, so let's just say it's "in contention".
(I need hardly say that registering the Infocom trademark gives you no rights at all to the Infocom games. Those are covered by copyright, an entirely separate matter.)
So what are they doing with the trademark? The answer is a job posting that appeared last week:
In this position you will be provided with the source code for a proprietary assembler that consists of slightly under 4,000 lines of code. The source code you will study was written in assembly language to run on the TOPS-20 operating system on the PDP-10 mainframe computer. [...]
In this position you will play an important role by writing a functional specification document that describes the functions, program flow, error handling, and other information of the assembler that the person operating inside the clean room will need to know to develop a compatible replacement program. The replacement program is expected to be able to process the same input files and to generate bit-identical output files. [...]
The final specification will be made available under GPL-3.0-or-later. The software developed inside the clean room will be released under AGPL-3.0-or-later.
"Freelance Specification Writer" posted by Infocom LLC
This is an exact description of Infocom's ZAP assembler, which was part of their ZIL toolchain. (ZILCH turned ZIL code into Z-code assembly; ZAP turned the assembly into a Z-code game file.)
The source code in question turned up in the Infocom source-dump which appeared last year. Nobody noticed it right off. But a few months ago, a sharp-eyed user spotted ZAP buried in the MiniZork source directory.
The file "zap.mid" is MIDAS assembly code, an MIT variant of PDP-10 machine language. And it is indeed about 3800 lines long.
The job post describes a classical clean-room setup. You do this if you want to make a work-alike copy of someone else's program that isn't derived from their source code. The result does the same job -- "identical output", like the post says -- but you own it. This is legal because algorithms aren't copyrightable. (It may be ethically sketchy -- that's another whole question. But it's legal.) (Unless the algorithm is patented, but that's not the case here.)
So that's what this company is trying to do. The next question is, why? This is where my brain falls flat on the floor. And not just mine. I asked Jason Scott. He passed the word along to the old Infocom folks. Nobody, I mean nobody, can figure out what the point is.
The site has two games up, which look like Lode Runner clones -- Linux only. This doesn't give much clue what line of business they're in, other than "not in it for the money".
(Yes, I sent them email, in case they were willing to tell me. They said "no further comment beyond what has already been made public.")
Let's be clear about what already exists. There are several open-source compilers that handle Z-code assembly. zasm does it; Inform 6 and ZILF both include the capability. We also have throrough descriptions of the Z-machine architecture, both Infocom's original document and the modern reconstruction. And of course there are dozens of open-source interpreters which play Z-code games.
All of these tools derive from the reverse-engineering work that went on in the late 1980s. The InfoTaskForce's seminal Z-code interpreter is archived here.
That was no kind of a "clean-room" project! The InfoTaskForce group dug into Infocom's proprietary games and interpreters, figured out how it all worked, and reimplemented it. (The Infocom spec document I linked didn't turn up until years later.) If Infocom, the original company, had wanted to make a legal issue of it in 1989, they probably could have. But they didn't.
After that, everything discovered by the ITF was public knowledge. The modern Z-machine spec (originally written by Graham Nelson) was a collation of that knowledge; Graham did not have to decompile Infocom interpreters. That spec has a Creative Common license (BY-SA-4, noted here). It's freely usable in every practical sense.
You can say that all modern Z-code/ZIL tools are "tainted evidence", due to the original ITF reverse-engineering. But it's a tenuous argument. And it still leaves the question of what you'd use a "less-tainted" ZAP assembler for.
Academic purposes? Studying Infocom's tools and processes is a worthwhile (and fascinating) goal. But it makes no sense to use a clean-room tool for that. You want to study every scrap of information available!
Compiling Infocom's ZIL source code for fun? There are plenty of people doing that already, using existing open-source tools. Some folks are even tackling bug fixes and modernization. (Yes, Activision's copyrights are a question here. The concensus is that volunteer updates to the source code are fan activity and basically okay. Don't go selling them, is all.)
Compiling Infocom's code for profit? A clean-room compiler or assembler doesn't give you any leverage there. You're still building a game file derived from proprietary source code. Again, selling it without Activision's permission would be right out.
Writing new, original ZIL games for fun? As I said, this is already a popular hobby. The forum is buzzing with ZIL programming chatter.
Writing new, original games for profit? I gotta tell you, ZIL is not the right tool for that job. Even if you think you're going to get rich off parser IF (tricky at best), you'll want a modern tool which can handle dense, highly-detailed games. Of all the Infocom alumni who revisited parser IF (Marc Blank, Mike Berlyn, Bob Bates), none of them chose ZIL.
For the sheer challenge of the hack? Maybe? But people usually don't put down money for that sort of fun. This setup involves hiring a documentation writer and a copyright lawyer, for a start.
So I'm left with nothing. My best guess is that they want to write unauthorized sequels to the Infocom canon, but they don't understand either the legal realities (a clean-room assembler gains you nothing) or the IF community. My second guess is that they want to contribute a legally unencumbered open-source tool, but they don't understand that this has no practical value. I dunno. They're certainly doing nothing to dispel the impression that they might have sketchy intentions.
On top of which, they consistently present themselves as "Infocom". Not "Infocom enthusiasts" or even "a new generation of Infocom". This tweet (from last year) is an eye-rolling example. I also see a discussion thread in which someone said they were (briefly) selling the old Infocom games without permission? I can't verify that, but jeez.
I guess we'll find out, or else they'll sink without a trace and we never will.

Monday, July 27, 2020

Trademarking Infocom, again, part one

It must be a Monday -- someone has trademarked "Infocom"!
No, this doesn't happen every Monday. But over the past twenty years, a surprising number of people have tried to register "Infocom" as a game-related trademark.
The original Infocom company trademarked their name in 1979. Activision purchased the company and the trademark in 1986. But, of course, the Infocom brand didn't last long after that. Activision allowed the trademark to lapse in 2002. (They let "Zork" lapse in 2003. Curiously, they renewed the trademark on "Return to Zork", which remains live today.)
This set off a weird slow-motion frenzy in which some Infocom fan or other would notice the dead trademark and try to do something with it.
  • Oliver Klaeffling filed a registration in 2007. He posted a web page for a game called Triumvirate, apparently a fan-sequel to Trinity. (I wrote about this in 2010.) The game never appeared.
  • Omni Consumer Products also filed a registration in 2007. This is a silly but real company run by Pete Hottelet. It sells real version of fictional products like Fight Club Soap and Stay Puft Marshmallows. Omni held onto the trademark until 2016.
  • Bob Bates, one of the original Infocom folks, filed a registration in 2017. This was shortly after his Thaumistry kickstarter. The game shipped that year, but the trademark registration was not completed.
And now, just a few months ago, a company called SmartMonsters has filed for it.
Interestingly, this registration only covers "online, non-downloadable" videogames. If you look at the SmartMonsters site, you'll see that it runs a set of old-school MUDs. By old-school, I mean they are strongly oriented around RPG-style stats, skills, and XP. This is what all MUDs were like before the "social" TinyMUD/MUSH/MOO tree branched off.
One of their available games is a port of Dungeon. It claims to be "mashed-up from several of the 1980s C ports". It's running in a MUD framework, but it's not multiplayer. It's also pretty alpha; I couldn't manage to take inventory or attack the troll.
The SmartMonsters people are clearly long-time MUD-and-IF folks. Their IF resources page links to IFDB, the forum, and a bunch of classic games (including mine). Their bio page describes co-founder Gary Smith as "...the guy who ported Zork from MDL to C on the PDP."
(I'll note that this is an unrecovered port! All the extant C versions of Zork/Dungeon are translated from Bob Supnik's Fortran version. I dropped SmartMonsters a note asking about it. They say Gary's C port is lost, but he might have a VisualBasic port lying around from the old days...)
I'm pleased to have stumbled across SmartMonsters. But that's not the weird part of this story! There's another company trying to pick up the Infocom trademark right now. I'll post about them tomorrow.
("How do you keep a dornbeast in suspense?")

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Myst documentary kickstarter

Today's news: a documentary about Myst has popped up on Kickstarter.
This has been under way for a while. I mentioned last year that Philip Shane, the filmmaker, was wandering around Mysterium, talking to people and filming random "life among the Myst fans" footage. (So it's not impossible that I'll show up in the background of the documentary...)
The project goal is $200k, which will cover further filming at Cyan and other locations. According to the project page, Shane wants to visit the places where the Millers grew up, talk to people involved with the Mac and Hypercard (where Myst was originally built), tour the modern game industry looking for Myst followups and influences, and generally construct a very broad-spectrum view of the game and its context. The documentary is aimed to release at the end of 2022.
For more info on the documentary, and comments from Robyn and Rand Miller, see this VentureBeat article (published yesterday).
This offsets the bad news from earlier in the week: Firmament, Cyan's upcoming game, is delayed until probably 2022. Its original Kickstarter estimate date was mid-2020 -- this month -- but, well, game dev is game dev. Cyan's original notion of a medium-sized game and an 18-month dev cycle has grown into a "bigger story arc". On the up side, the documentary should be able to wrap with a view of the Firmament launch! Hopefully this will all dovetail into a Cyan media moment, as it were.

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Followup on Apple Arcade

Back in September I wrote up my impressions on Apple Arcade's goals and where it might settle down.
Not long after that, I fired up my free trial month on the Arcade and started poking around. Which was fun! As always, I was most interested in short narrative games and clever puzzle toys. In that line, I was happy to discover Assemble With Care, What the Golf?, Card of Darkness, Over the Alps, Where Cards Fall, Tint, Discolored, and others.
(I'll also mention Manifold Garden, Neo Cab, and Mutazione. I played those three on PC, but they also fly the Arcade banner. Platforms should be tripping over each other to fund titles like those.)
At the end of my trial month, I let Arcade lapse. No regrets, no surprise. I'm not implacably opposed to subscription entertainment packages, but I'd rather pay for my fun (and spend my free time) a la carte. So far I've stuck to that plan. Yes, I watched Game of Thrones and Star Trek Discovery a year behind everyone else. Turns out I'm okay with that.
Now Apple Arcade hates me, right? I tried but didn't buy. I'm apparently not alone, either. This article just popped up:
Apple Inc. has shifted the strategy of its Apple Arcade gaming service, canceling contracts for some games in development while seeking other titles that it believes will better retain subscribers. [...] Apple is increasingly interested in titles that will keep users hooked, so subscribers stay beyond the free trial of the service [...].
For what it's worth, this fits with what I hear on the indie grapevine. So what does it mean for Arcade?
It's clear what it means for me: Apple Arcade doesn't want me back. It's jettisoning exactly the subgenres I care about. Myst/Room-style puzzlers (Discolored) are not meant to be replayed. Short narrative games or visual novels (Over the Alps, Neo Cab) may be worth two or three sessions to try different endings, but you're not going to sink hours into them every week. Puzzle collections like Tint can offer hundreds of levels, but honestly, I'm going to put them aside after twenty or fifty. (If it has only twenty or fifty more-focused levels, then I'll get completist about it.)
I'll occasionally get hooked on a roguelike or Brough-like (Card of Darkness), but that's rare.
No complaints! I declared that I wasn't in Arcade's target market; they turned elsewhere. Fair.
But it's a blow to the premium/unique/boutique brand that they launched with. Turns out, Arcade is chasing the same addiction-loop games as everybody else in the freemium market. Their fixed monthly fee precludes the worst "buy gems for your next move" abuses, but it's still the same genre. Games must be designed to hook you and maximize playtime.
In other words, no more Neo Cab, Mutazione, or Manifold Garden. Nothing like Monument Valley, either. Too bad for Apple.
This doesn't exactly match any of the imaginary futures in my post. Oh, my #2 was close: "Apple stops pumping money, continues curating a [narrow] list of games for Arcade." But I was thinking of curated premium games. Arcade has moved out of that space entirely. The games I care about are back where they were last year: poking hopefully at the smart indie publishers (mostly Annapurna), or trying to wangle deals with the other platform holders. (Sony, Microsoft, and Epic are still funding some interesting stuff. Nintendo is... still Nintendo. The Switch isn't completely played out yet for developers, which I admit surprises me.)
Those games are also appearing in the App Store, to be clear. Back in the fall, when Arcade was still launching five titles a week, the regular App Store got seriously quiet. But it's rebounded; my sort of stuff now pops up at the usual rate. (Song of Bloom, Samsara Room, The Almost Gone, If Found...)
Is Arcade a failure? It's certainly past its season of buzz. Nobody talks about Arcade any more. It will never again be the epicenter of exciting mobile games -- not unless Apple changes course yet again.
But look. Sometimes Apple puts up an unexciting product, lets it run long after everybody has written it off, adjusts it a few times, and then announces that it's making a zillion dollars a year. "Services" is now 22% of Apple's revenue. Maybe in a couple of years, Arcade will be an unstoppable powerhouse of... games I don't play much. Or maybe it will be quietly folded up and put away. I guess I'll post again when I know.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

NarraScope starts tomorrow

I'm sure I don't have to remind you, but the streaming of NarraScope talks begins tomorrow at noon (Eastern time) on the NarraScope Twitch channel.
At 12:00 (Eastern) on Thursday we'll have Graham Nelson speaking on the future of Inform 7. Then at 5:00 pm, Chris Klimas and Stuart Moulthrop will talk about Twine's Chapbook format.
Sorry, we know it's confusing to have two talks -- with a gap between them! -- on the day before the formal conference kickoff. Thursday was supposed to be all workshops, and then stuff changed.
So, to be clear, tune in Thursday for the presentations on Inform 7 and Twine. Then come back Friday (noon Eastern) for our official opening micro-ceremony and Xalavier Nelson Jr.'s keynote address. Then it's wall-to-wall talks from noon to 6:30 pm (Eastern), every day from Friday the 29th through Thursday the 4th. That's eight straight days of NarraScope talks.
Q&A and session discussion will happen on our Discord. Conveniently, that's also the place to ask any questions which I forgot to answer in this post.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Subcutanean and variations thereof

I have now finished reading two of Aaron Reed's Subcutanean. This is not a game; it is a novel generated from an algorithmic framework that allows every printed copy to be a different text. Thus it partakes of some aspects of game design (procedural generation, unique reader experience) but not others (no interactivity or player agency). This is interesting!
(I've read recensions 10881 and 10966, in case you're keeping track.)
Before I go winding off down corridors of theory, I should say that Subcutanean is an excellent short horror novel. Orion (or Ryan, or Ry) lives in an amorphous post-college group house, trying to figure out his crush-or-friendship with-or-on his housemate Niko. Then the two of them discover a hidden stairway leading down into the house's basement. The house shouldn't have a basement and "amorphous" shouldn't be this literal. Doors lead out into corridors, corridors lead to more doors, a sense of unreality begins to grow. And then the two start to catch glimpses of other explorers -- people who look like alternate versions of themselves.
The world of Downstairs starts creepy and gets creepier, and it reflects the uncertainty of Orion's headspace. The social world of queer-and-out is as hard to navigate as any psychogeographic underworld; Niko is the partner Orion doesn't know how to explore with. Then it all goes wrong -- wronger -- and I'll let you find out how it wraps up. Which may not, of course, be exactly how it wrapped up for me.
When I (or Aaron) says "a novel where no two copies are the same", you might imagine two structures. Either:
  • A branching story with two or four or sixteen different outcomes. Like a classic CYOA book except that the choices have been pre-selected for you at random. Or:
  • A traditional novel with a set storyline, but a lot of incidental details chosen at random. They turned left or right, they were startled by a screech or a burst of sparks, the carpet was beige or brown.
Subcutanean is neither of those. Or rather, it has bits of both: some details are randomized, and the story has a couple of significant variations of the climactic scene. (I saw two, anyhow.) But the overall shape of the story is under fairly firm control, and the details that vary aren't always the incidental ones.
The work is more interested in how the narrator can vary. Orion may be more laconic or more voluble; he may be an optimist or a pessimist; he may prefer slang or avoid it. He may be the sort of person who gets awkwardly drunk at parties or the sort who stays awkwardly sober. These choices are maintained throughout the text. Particular events may be inserted or omitted, or key details changed; but the system tracks these so that later scenes can reflect them back. Perhaps with an added sentence, perhaps with just a well-placed "again".
Aaron has documented this design and its hiccups in a development blog -- well worth a look either before or after you read the book. No spoilers.
The goal, obviously, is to create a text that reads as a coherent narrative, with all the large-and-small-scale push-and-flow that a traditional novel would provide. It doesn't always work perfectly; I ran into an obviously repeated anecdote in version 10966. But on the whole it's successful. (Aaron has done at least one round of bug fixes since then, so the problem I found may have been eradicated from future versions.)
I have to admit my bias here: I have a lifelong obsession with the Unbounded House of Many Doors. If you've played any amount of my work you realize this! Subcutanean is exactly what I want, except with an accelerating curve of wrongness and decay, which is not where I usually take it. Also, of course, the ramifying underground space calls back to a long history of much-loved games, from Wumpus and Adventure through to KR0 and the future.
As I said, the book shares some aspects of game design in a non-interactive context. Really, most narrative games have pieces that work like Subcutanean. A single NPC response is a non-interactive text -- a sentence or paragraph -- whose content varies depending on the prior history of your session. It's easy to focus on your immediate interactive choices: choose a dialogue option, get a response. But really, that response could be influenced by lots of factors, overt or invisible, random or contingent.
Subcutanean is that experience with the "invisible" and "random" knobs turned up and scaled to novel-length. You never make a choice; the text is printed and fixed. But then, in Heaven's Vault, not much of the narrative variation depends on choices you know you're making. And of course the book involves all the game-design problems of keeping a variable narrative experience within the intended bounds.
Subcutanean also produces that quintessentially game-ish response which I mentioned in my Heaven's Vault post. When you finish, you immediately want to start again and see how different it could have been. "I've seen the covers, now I can open the book." Happily (though also through necessity), the book is short enough to do this without feeling bogged down. Maybe I'll read a third copy pretty soon.
We are left with the question of whether Subcutanean is the only procgen novel that could be written. Sometimes an experimental narrative so perfectly marries form and content that it's hard to imagine what else could be done with the idea. The Monster at the End of This Book, for example. Or take Jason Shiga's Meanwhile. If you're going to iterate through variations of a narrative, learning more each time, you almost need time machines, memory loops, and the threat of total narrative collapse. (Outer Wilds is an interesting comparison here -- a very different story which is nonetheless drawn into many of the same tropes.)
So if you're going to write about variations of a narrator, do you need to set it in an infinite branching space with the growing threat of utter alienation? Surely not, but some of the choices do feel kind of inevitable.
Others were unexpected. Subcutanean plays with the idea of playing by its own rules. You want to believe that every version of the book is narrated by an Orion, one of the infinite number exploring the interconnected Downstairs. If I were writing such a story, that's absolutely what I'd do! But Aaron's book doesn't. Or maybe some subset of the texts do, but not the two I read: the rules of Downstairs aren't quite consistent between them. It's upsetting.
But then, it's horror. Your certainties are supposed to come unmoored.
It doesn't have to be horror. I hope more authors take on this sort of structure. Subcutanean doesn't have to be the only one. Narrative design is no longer an abstruse mysterious field; lots of writers have dabbled in both static and dynamic prose. I'd like to see the variation-novel become an established form. Get on it, folks.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Compiling for the Z-machine version 3

The Inform 6 compiler has been pretty stable for the past several years. It's still in active use as part of the Inform 7 toolset, but the I6 compiler hasn't changed much.
However, I've put in a few I6 updates over the past week. Exciting news? Maybe not for most of us, but these changes are important to people who are trying to write really old-fashioned Inform games.
Let me go back to the old days. (Jangly harp transition...) In 1979, when Infocom ported Zork to personal computers, they designed the famous Z-machine platform. It went through a couple of iterations, but by 1982 the "version 3" Z-machine was firmly established as Infocom's workhorse.
The V3 machine was tightly constrained in some ways. For example, it could only support 255 objects (counting rooms, items, scenery, NPCs, and the player!) But this was deliberate; it was intended to run on some really tiny computers like the TRS-80 and Commodore 64.
Infocom games got larger and more sophisticated, but they kept on stuffing them into V3. The Zork trilogy, Enchanter trilogy, Hitchhiker's, Planetfall... it wasn't until AMFV in 1985 that they had to design a V4 Z-machine. And even then they kept using V3 for any game that fit.
Mind you, the Infocom people didn't say "V3" and "V4" back in the day. They referred to V3 as "ZIP". V4 was "EZIP", for "Extended ZIP". Then "XZIP" (V5) came along in 1987, and "YZIP" (V6) in 1989. These updates allowed more objects and more content. They also added a parade of new features: bold/italic text, expanded status window, sound, timed input, and finally graphics.
But this only underlines that V3 was Infocom's standard technology. You used V3 unless you had some specific need for one of the larger, fancier platforms.

Jump forward (jangle jingle) to the "modern" era of 1993. The Z-machine has been reverse-engineered; we have open-source interpreters that support all versions. Graham Nelson releases Inform, a compiler which can generate Z-machine game files.
Inform let you write games for any version, but in practice, your choice was between V3 and V5. (V1/2 were too antiquated to bother with. V6 was a headache for reasons I won't get into here. And V4 was like V5 minus a few features; if your game outgrew V3, you might as well go straight to V5.)
But among Inform users, unlike Infocom, it was V5 that emerged as the "standard platform". If you look at the games/zcode directory on the IF Archive, there are over 300 .z5 games and just five .z3 games!
The reasons are obvious. Everybody had modern Mac/PC machines which could run the largest Z-code games with ease. Authors felt free to put more scenery, more detail, more responses into their games. In that atmosphere, the V3 limit of 255 objects really pinched. And the other V5 features were nice to have around. Most games didn't need sound or timed input, but bold and italic text always look good. Why not build your game on V5 and have all the amenities available, just in case?
(Then, in 1995, Graham Nelson's Jigsaw overflowed V5 and he had to invent V7 and V8 in a hurry. But never mind that.)
So Inform's V3 compiler code was barely ever tested after the mid-90s. And we know what happens to untested code: it breaks. A couple of bugs crept in and nobody noticed.
That is, not until 2020 (jingle bloop). A couple of projects are now working on Z-machine tools for retro machines. MetroCenter '84 and PunyInform are Inform libraries optimized for size; Ozmoo and Pitch Dark are Z-machine interpreters which run on the C-64 and Apple 2.
Running on that classic metal means embracing all the memory limitations which we forgot about in the 90s. Every object and every byte counts. V3 is once again the order of the day. And presto -- the bug reports started rolling in.
Okay, only two bug reports. The fixes were a couple of lines each. Now Inform 6 can compile V3 games again!
While I was in there, I added a feature which could be of additional help. I6 games can now contain "static arrays", whose data goes into ROM rather than RAM. (Yeah, the Z-machine has ROM and RAM. I'm simplifying a bit but that's the idea.)
Static arrays may not be a lot of help. I first considered this idea when I was working on Hadean Lands -- a game which was originally planned for the "limited hardware" of the iPhone. (This was back when mobile phones didn't have gigabytes of memory.) I knew HL's alchemy system would require a lot of data and I thought that putting it into ROM might be worthwhile. But, long story short, it turned out not to be. So I didn't do it. Until now.
(Before you ask: yes, Hadean Lands is written in Inform 7, and it uses the Glulx VM rather than the Z-machine. The I6 compiler is still part of the toolchain and the concept of static arrays applies equally well to Glulx ROM and RAM.)
So there's your history lesson of the week. I could have tweeted "Inform 6 bugs fixed", but this is more fun to read, I hope.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Historical rediscovery: Zarf's Old Time Religion search

Aaron Reed posted a request this morning, asking for examples of web-native text-based IF from the earlier days of the Internet. ("Before Twine", basically.)
He got a bunch of good answers. I'll pick out Kingdom of Loathing, Planetarium, the Eastgate catalog, and a half-serious mention of the Internet Oracle -- just to have something to link to. Read the Twitter thread for more. Feel free to throw in more.
One of the games suggested -- not by me! -- was my Praser 5 puzzle game. And this leads me down a bit of a rabbit-hole.
It's true that Praser 5 isn't exactly web-native. It was originally a bunch of files and directories living in a shared Unix filesystem at CMU. You'd look around by typing ls; the room description was just a blank file with a long name! The room showed you puzzles, and you could enter answers by running a program which lived in that directory. If you answered correctly, the program would notify me and I'd add you to the access list for the next directory. Yes, manually. It was just my friends at CMU.
This was a great solution for an "online" puzzle game in 1989. But a few years later, of course, we had the Web. So in early 1994, I reimplemented the whole thing as a web app. It was 2000 lines of C code (K&R, not ANSI!) and I ran it off my office machine at CMU. (I'd graduated and gotten a staff job at a CMU software project by then.) In 2005 I ported Praser 5 to Inform and made it available on my web site as a Java applet; in 2010 I updated that to use Parchment. So that's a potted history of P5 and its many lives on and off the Web.
But what does this have to do with religion? I hear you ask. Well, in that 1994-1995 period, I had other ideas for web apps. For example, some friends and I put together the first Internet Easter Egg Hunt. I only had one office machine, so the easiest way for me to add a new app was to recompile the P5 web server with some added functionality.
So, when P5 came up in discussion today, I peeked into my old source archive and saw a bunch of files. Hey, it's egg.c! That was where I implemented the Easter Egg Hunt! Wait, what's this file lyrics.Z?
I popped it up, just like you just did when you saw the hyperlink. And what is it? Six hundred verses of a filk song called "Gimme That Old Time Religion". Wikipedia says that it was popularized outside the SF/Usenet/Pagan world by Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie. I had forgotten that, but I must have heard their version on the radio growing up. (Mary Cliff's folk music program on WETA, every Saturday.)
Usenet and the early-Internet FTP sites carried lots of versions of the song. I downloaded all the ones I could find. My original site includes this credit:
Particular thanks to Ioseph of Locksley [...] for his immense collection of verses.
(Ioseph of Locksley was the SCA name of Joe Bethancourt. Bethancourt's web site claimed to have over 1000 OTR verses when last it was active. Obviously he kept on collecting 'em long after my project.)
But my web app wasn't just a page containing the lyrics. (75 kilobytes of text on a single web page? Probably would have crashed Netscape.) It was a search app. Honest-to-, er, honest real live case-insensitive keyword search. Not efficiently implemented by any means -- I'm cringing as I re-read this code. But it let you type the name of a deity or religion and get back a list of every verse which mentioned it. As you see, I even supported synonyms (search terms in {braces}) and "see also" links.
I implemented limits to prevent people from searching "a" and getting back the entire database. It would have crushed my server.
Today, of course, 75 kilobytes isn't even a sneeze. So browse all you like. The text-search facility in your browser is far better than anything I made available.
The original site also included this line:
Disclaimer: If you are offended by this page, don't read it.
"Political correctness" hadn't been trademarked by neo-Nazis back then, but it is true that the collection mentions a very great number of religions and deities with very little respect. Not to mention a lot of shallow offhand stereotypes and slurs. Back then, my attitude was "It's the Internet -- grow up." Well, I was young.
Now, of course, my attitude is "This is a historical artifact which was last updated in 1995, including chunks that go back to the 1970s. So, um, it is what it is."
I must say that the cross-section of cultural references is fascinating. Obviously a lot of the verses came straight from practictioners of off-beat religions. You can practically hear them singing "We're here, we're Pagan, get used to it." Quite a bit of deep-cut Pagan-community politics, too. And a lot of mockery of the televangelists of the era. Then you get into the sci-fi and fantasy in-jokes, and, well, it goes on for a while. In alphabetical order. (I can't remember if that part was my doing.)
Like I said, quite a historical rabbit-hole. Again, see Joe Bethancourt's Real OTR page for more on the history of this thing.
There is no verse about Zarf. Sorry.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Myst TV tidbit: A writer signs on

Here's the first sign of real progress since last June, when Cyan announced their new TV partnership with Village Roadshow.
The television adaptation of classic video game Myst has moved forward a level after X-Men: First Class writer Ashley Edward Miller signed on to the Village Roadshow Entertainment Group project. [...] Miller, who has also written and produced series including Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Black Sails and Lore, will write the pilot and showrun the adaptation.
That's the entire story. To be clear, there is still no show in production. Writing a script is easy. Cyan has already written several.
Getting a TV-famous person on board to write your script, with the intent of being a showrunner, is more exciting, but there's nothing yet to showrun. It's still all just good intentions.
(I feel like I have to say this because Myst fans can be really enthusiastic about scraps of news. I try to be the voice of reality. Sorry folks.)
For what it's worth, I thought the Terminator TV show was terrific. I wish it had lasted more than two seasons. If the writer does half as well with the Myst franchise, this take on the saga will be worthwhile.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Plague and the stories we tell

These days are strange territory. I keep looking for ways to understand it all. (Yes, to distract myself. I can't look straight at the news, but I can't look away either.)
I realized why it feels so strange. In this plague, if you catch it, other people die.
I'm middle-aged but healthy. COVID-19 probably won't kill me. It likely won't kill any of my friends. (My father lives in a different state. Let's not talk about your mother.) If we were all unaware, I'd be one of the people shopping as usual, gaming with my group, coughing a bit, and spreading the bug everywhere.
And we'd mostly be fine. Down with a nasty bug for a couple of weeks, but then fine. Except, also, millions of people would die. If everyone like me gets it, then everybody gets it, and 1% of everybody is a lot of people.
We don't have this story. We don't have a way to understand it. Or, we do, but it's called "mathematics" and people suck at it.
I grew up in the 80s. The science fiction of my time spoke of plague; the plague was AIDS. The moral of AIDS was simple. Do the wrong thing, and you die. Sin equals contamination equals death.
(Let me be clear: I'm not talking about AIDS or HIV in the real world. I'm talking about the stories we told each other about it. Even the queer authors, even the sympathetic stories. You might not have sinned, but you were still a person who Did It Wrong and there was no coming back.)
Of course the stories pulled in many directions. Greyscale; the Descolada; MutAIDS. In the computer age, the plague became an information virus: Vinge's Blight, Barnes's One True. Put a seductive smile on the infection and you get vampires and werewolves. But it is still a story about the unforgiveable act.
There were plague stories before AIDS. We remember the Plague, the Black Death, although we like to remember it safely in the past. (Its moral was even simpler: God is angry and everybody dies.) We have stories of measles, whooping cough, polio. You got them or you didn't, and then you got better or you died -- or you grew up sickly or paralyzed. Meningitis, rather than scarlet fever, probably struck Mary Ingalls blind, but it wasn't a punishment. Life was just like that.
Salk and Fleming changed life. Then AIDS changed it again, practically overnight. We grew up with the new plague and its inescapable moral. The treatments slowly caught up, but I think the language -- your choice, your consequence -- has remained pervasive.
But now the coronavirus. You get better (probably) and other people die.
(Even as I write this, the news shifts. The CDC says the young are at higher risk of hospitalization than we initially thought. Widespread testing in Iceland shows that half the infected never show symptoms at all. Even if you do the math, you're working off of fragmentary evidence.)
The sin is collective. The punishment is statistical. Your restaurant table (bar, game night, ...) is probably clean -- but the germ is on someone's table (doorknob, gas pump handle, ...). If everyone stays in, the risk is contained. If everybody goes out, the risk is 100%. The Prisoner's Dilemma and Kant's Categorical Imperative have ridden out of game theory papers and bestride the land on their pale horses.
We're trying to grapple with a world where the moral consequences are entirely collective. The language of AIDS -- that most personal of viruses -- is inadequate. "My ass, my decision, my risk" doesn't work any more. It's everyone's ass together. We're gonna need a bigger story.

If there is a bright spot -- a less-dark spot -- it is that we'll be able to compare stories. The virus is spreading across the world, but the distribution is so wildly uneven. The US has hot spots... some of which we know about. Others will become visible once serious testing gets underway. But it will be very clear which cities have their hospitals swamped and which don't (yet). We may even be able to tell stories about where an outbreak started. (Here in Boston, we say "Biogen conference" like Calvinists say "original sin". But it could have been PAX East, a day later and 100 times as many people...)
I have no pat ending to that thought. Watch the news, as best you can. Deny the liars and the self-deluders. Talk to people about what we're doing. Take walks -- being outdoors isn't inherently dangerous. Hug the people you live with.
Best wishes.

Saturday, February 29, 2020

Advent Door: a very small IF puzzle

A few months ago, some of us started tossing around the idea of a new collaborative IF project. Something like Cragne Manor, although more sensibly scaled. (That is: much smaller.)
The goal was an IF Advent Calendar -- pun intended! -- with one game for each day of Advent season. Since an Advent calendar has you opening a door each day, we'd create games in the old Planescape setting: Sigil, the "City of Doors".
The project wound up not coming together. So I'm posting my game on its own today. (A misplaced calendar day would turn up on February 29th, right?)
Advent Door is a snack-sized IF puzzle written in Inform 7. There's not much to it beyond the single puzzle. Imagine a series of games like this, each one ending at a planar portal that leads to the next game in the series.
The only other Advent Calendar game to be released -- as far as I know -- is Gateway of the Ferrets by Feneric.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Randomness with temperature

If you've messed around with neural net packages, or even read about them, you've probably encountered the idea of a "temperature parameter". This is usually described as some kind of chaos level. If the temperature is low, the algorithm is boring and sticks close to the source material. If the temperature is high, the algorithm can jump wildly in unexpected directions.
I think this is pretty cool -- no pun intended. It seems like it would be useful in all sorts of systems! For example, in a storylet-based narrative structure, you might want a temperature parameter in the selection engine. Lower temperatures mean the player gets storylets that are highly relevant to recent events. Higher temperatures mean the player gets a more random selection, more prone to non sequiturs and topic shifts.
In AI research this is called the softmax function (or "softargmax" if you want to be even nerdier). You can find lots of example code, but it's usually meant to run in the context of an AI algorithm. I couldn't find a version that worked on a weighted list of options.
So I wrote one. Here it is in Python 3. (Attached at the end of this post, or see this gist snippet.)

Monday, February 10, 2020

Numinous/Cyan announces Area Man Lives

It's been a busy weekend for me. (Did I mention that NarraScope 2020 is now open for early registration?) However, I have to catch up on new Cyan announcements too.
Numinous Games and Cyan Ventures have announced that they're publishing Area Man Lives. It's a VR-only mystery set in a small-town radio-drama world.
AML is a new take on an unfinished Numinous project called Untethered from a couple of years ago. Untethered was announced as an episodic VR experiment in late 2016. (It was an exclusive for the Google Daydream, a VR headset which made no impression on my memory or, I expect, on anybody else's.) Funding dried up a couple of years later and Untethered was shelved after delivering just two episodes.
Now they've hooked up with Cyan's publishing arm to rebuild the project for Quest, Rift, Vive, Index, and probably other VR sets. It's scheduled for this year -- presumably as a complete game, not episodic.
The game site is up, along with an in-character KQVR Radio site. (Which mentions a contest, and Cyan is never averse to a few ARG-ish shenanigans, so you might want to start poking around.) The press release is also good for a grin.

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Kentucky Route Zero: quick thoughts

It seems pointless to write a full review or deep analysis. Practically everybody reading this has (long since) played at least some of KR0, or else decided (long since) that they're not interested.
I picked up KR0 a week ago, the day the final act launched. I've been avoiding the game and all spoilers since 2013. "I'll play it when it's done," I said; that's what I did. Now I'm seven years behind on the discussion and I don't expect to catch up. I'm sure someone has a theory about what the brick sandwich represents -- if the authors haven't explained it all in a developer interview. You don't need mine. Which is good, because I don't have one.
But I suppose I have to say something. If nothing else, to repay the honor the designers have done me with that riff in Act 3. (Which was a complete and delightful surprise, by the way. Did anyone tell me that was going to happen? Maybe, but it would have been 2014 and I would have done my best not to remember the spoiler.)
I will, then, talk about the pacing.
(This will not be spoilery, except in describing some of the ways the game will surprise you. Okay, I guess that's somewhat spoilery. I won't get into any details though.)

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Meanwhile 1.1.0 on Steam, Itch, and Mac App Store

I've posted an updated version of Meanwhile for Mac, Windows, and Linux. All versions have been updated on Steam and Itch.IO. (The iPhone/iPad version was updated last month.) And now, for the first time, the Mac version is available on the Mac App Store!
This is a very minor update. The only differences are that I've updated the Unity framework to Unity 2018.4, and the Mac version is now properly signed and notarized. You shouldn't see any differences in play.
(If you do, or if you have any trouble running the new version, please let me know!)
Meanwhile is Jason Shiga's classic choose-your-own-path comic book about mad science, global catastrophe, and happiness. 2020 is the tenth anniversary of the hardback publication of Meanwhile, and the ninth anniversary of the interactive app version! I'm really happy to still be supporting this excellently brain-bending comic after all these years.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

2020 IGF nominees: adventure plus

We come to the last post. Maybe it should have been the first post. These are the games that are closest in shape to the classic adventure game... at first glance. But each one of these games climbs out of that shape and strikes out for the horizon. We'll see explorations of dialogue structure, explorations of narrative variation, fourth-wall games, interactivity tricks, topics far beyond the golden-age puzzle-hunt.
I'll confess that most of my favorite games of the IGF fall into this group. Then again, I've already said that the groups are a bit arbitrary.
  • Observation
  • Sunless Skies
  • Jenny LeClue - Detectiv├║
  • Afterparty
  • Mutazione
  • Over the Alps
  • Heaven's Vault
By the way, as I wrap up this review series, remember that I didn't play everything. I've commented on 29 games this week (!) but there are still scads of narrative nominees that I'm interested in trying. Night Call, Tales from Off-Peak City, Falcon Age, Guildlings, ... I could keep flipping through the list. And I will. Except more games keep coming out...
(Note once again: I was on the narrative jury and played free review copies of most of these games. I bought Sunless Skies, Heaven's Vault, and Observation. I played Over the Alps in my free trial month of Apple Arcade.)

Monday, January 13, 2020

2020 IGF nominees: interactive storybooks

Ever since Device 6, we've had this notion of a game category, but there hasn't been a label for it. I've started saying "interactive storybook"; I doubt that will catch on, but it's what I've got. It's characterized by text with whimsical interactions. No full simulated environment. Often puzzles.
Then there was Gorogoa, which is the same thing except wordless. So I say "interactive picturebook". That's broader, of course -- you could count Plug & Play, maybe even Hidden Folks. I'm willing to be fuzzy about it.
Quite a few of these this year! Here are my favorites:
  • Arrog
  • Song of Bloom
  • Alt-Frequencies
(Note: I was on the narrative jury and played free review copies of these games. Except Alt-Frequencies, which I bought and reviewed earlier in the year.)

Sunday, January 12, 2020

2020 IGF nominees: topical games

For your consideration: games that are engaged with the times. An arbitrary boundary, yes? Every narrative game is about something or it wouldn't have an audience.
These four games raise their social issues more explicitly. So I declare them a group. But, understand, the groups are somewhat arbitrary and I did a lot of juggling. Lionkiller and Divination almost wound up in this post -- they're certainly both political and politically aware. Go back and read about those games in the context of these four.
  • Eliza
  • Adventures With Anxiety!
  • Forgotten
  • American Election
(Note: I was on the narrative jury and played free review copies of these games. Except Eliza, which I bought earlier in the year.)

Saturday, January 11, 2020

2020 IGF nominees: puzzles

Now a quick break from narrative games. I enjoy puzzlers as well as story-based games. Of course plenty (most?) story games have some kind of puzzle element, but there's also the Portal-ish genre -- puzzle games with some kind of story element.
Both evolved from an era where we didn't distinguish the two genres so much. Didn't treat them as ends of an "adventure game" spectrum, anyway. Yes, I oversimplify; there have been pure-puzzle and pure-narrative/hypertext games since videogames began. But now we can talk about a cohesive Portal-like category: long sequences of puzzles iterating on a rich mechanic, depicting an immersive first-person environment but not much relying on the physicality or history of that world as a place. Think Talos Principle, Xing, that sort of game.
(I won't get into The Witness, which plays coy about the physicality and history of its island world! It rather deliberately walks both sides of this category boundary.)
Anyway, we got a fine selection of puzzle-focused games. Here are some notable examples.
  • Manifold Garden
  • Alucinod
  • The Sojourn
  • Kine
(Note: I was on the narrative jury and played a free review copy of Kine. The others I bought and played on my own.)

Thursday, January 9, 2020

2020 IGF nominees: Shakespeare

A short list today: it's games about Shakespeare and his world.
  • Elsinore
  • Astrologaster
(Note: I was on the narrative jury, but I bought these two games before IGF judging began.)

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

2020 IGF nominees: hit and miss

My next group of games are the ones that interested me, but didn't really work for me. I have to emphasize "for me"; each of these games had enthusiastic defenders in the judging discussion. So I want to point them out. But I will necessarily have more to say about what I disliked than about what I admire! So you might want to read more people's comments than just mine.
  • Ord.
  • DARQ
  • Divination
  • Anodyne 2: Return to Dust
(Note: I was on the narrative jury and played free review copies of these games. Except DARQ, which I bought earlier in the year.)

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

2020 IGF nominees: a good mood

The IGF finalists have been announced. 2019 was a heck of a game year, folks. There were so many brilliant narrative games rolling around jostling for attention like fuzzy puppies in a sandbox. Okay, some of them were grim and bitter fuzzy puppies, but we take all sorts.
My habit is to post reviews of the narrative finalists. This year that's spilling over into finalists for other categories. And entrants that weren't finalists but I still want to talk about them. And... It's going to take a while! I have reviews cued up; I'll do a post a day for the coming week. Or maybe a post every couple of days; we'll see how life runs.
It's no use trying to structure these reviews into a numbered countdown. Spoiler: my top-favorite games of 2019 were Baba Is You, Outer Wilds, and Heaven's Vault. Baba and OW won IGF awards during development (2018 and 2015 respectively) and weren't eligible this year. So my "top nominees" post would be "why Heaven's Vault is amazing", and I already wrote that review, right?
(A couple people have asked about Disco Elysium and Pathologic 2. Those games weren't on the entrant list either. I don't have any information on why not; I'd guess they just weren't submitted.)
Anyhow, this year, I'm breaking my list up into rough categories of form, subject, or style. First up: fuzzy puppies!
No, seriously. I played several games which were just good-natured, honestly and sincerely. They left me feeling good about myself and my life. This is a feeling which 2019 was desperately short on -- and 2020 looks to be headed downhill fast. So it's worth calling out the games that stood against the tide.
  • Eastshade
  • A Short Hike
  • We Met In May
  • Wide Ocean, Big Jacket
(Note: I was on the narrative jury and played free review copies of WOBJ and We Met In May. I bought Eastshade and A Short Hike earlier in the year.)