Sunday, September 19, 2021

A plenitude of alchemical domains

This weekend was Emily Short's Seltani jam, which was a pleasant morning hangout and went off without a hitch.
(I'm writing this a week in advance, by way the way. If it went off with a hitch, I'm going to have did some hasty editing last night!) (Nope, was fine. Low on jam content, but plenty of people interested in the tour.)
My contribution was Mutuai Minor. This was a fix-up of two unrelated interaction concepts:
  • Upstairs: a mutable location (an island, or hill, or ridge, in an ocean or desert or ice-plain...) which requires five cooperating players to fully control.
  • Downstairs: an alchemy lab where you can make several colors of ink, and then color a model world.
At this point you fix me with a Vulcan eyebrow and say, "Really, Zarf, alchemy? Haven't you done alchemy to death?" Yes! I have done it to death, and yet I keep finding new and interesting angles. Or new angles, anyway. To convince you that they're interesting, I'm going to compare three different approaches.
(This post will have partial spoilers for The Dreamhold, Hadean Lands, and the alchemy lab in Mutuai Minor.)

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Myst (2020)

Well, the thing is out. (On Steam, Epic, GOG, Xbox, Mac App Store, Oculus store. Supports Oculus, Vive, Valve Index, and regular flat monitors like regular flat people use.)
(I am a flat person, by the way.)
I blog the Myst news, which means I need to write a post. Except there's no news here. It's all been said. This is the most expected game of the year. You've already read most of this.
  • It's awfully nice-looking. Let's all agree on that.
  • It's Myst. You've played it. Eric Anderson said, "Not the way it looked, but the way we remember it looking." And that's true! I don't remember Myst (1993) as having low resolution or an 8-bit palette. I remember the places. Now here they are again.
  • Myst is now on, I think, its fifth engine and its fourth graphical rebuild. (Hypercard, native slideshow app, Plasma, Unity, Unreal. Do we count the iPad Unity version as different from the desktop Unity version? I've lost track.)
  • But, yes, the textures glisten wonderfully if you turn up the graphics settings. Sunlight burns through the clouds. The mist that we speak of rolls in.
  • The island is somewhat larger. The tower is closer to real scale. (The original game had a lot of forced perspective. Plus the forest felt more encompassing in slideshow mode, didn't it?) Again, this mostly doesn't come across as a redesign. It's the size the original felt.
  • A couple of rooms, but just a couple, have been seriously redesigned. The added breathing space feels good.
  • The interactions have been modified so that everything happens in the "batter's box", between waist-height and shoulder-height. (So that the game is playable in chair-scale VR.) This means some puzzles and devices look different. All doors are sliding doors, because in VR, swinging doors whack you in the face.
  • They took extra care to make the game more accessible. No puzzles depend on red/green distinctions. You can turn on subtitles for both dialogue and audio puzzles (which includes background audio cues like water flowing in Channelwood).
  • The randomized-puzzle mode is a nice touch but it doesn't make the game harder. It prods you to go read all the clues and write them down, just like you did in the 90s. It will also entertain speedrunners, which I am not.
  • All the linking books are now bolted down. This fixes the "plot hole" that I had some fun with last year.
  • Most of the audio is the same. I think they re-recorded Atrus's lines. Sirrus and Achenar have new faces. I gotta say, the new Achenar doesn't match his voice. That's the face of a baritone.
  • I was prepared to bet that "third quarter" meant "September 30th". Cyan beat that deadline by five weeks. Showed me!
  • No Rime. The developers say it's planned, but no release date.
  • No Linux. Dunno what the plans are there.
The upshot is that you have a great opportunity to replay a game that you enjoyed, and it sure does look brand spankin' new. It'll kill an evening.
You're a VR fan? This release will ring all your bells. Have fun.
You've never played Myst? ...This is really the question! Nothing about this whole "definitive Myst" process is aimed at me. I'm the guy who killed an evening replaying a game for, I think, the fourth complete time in 28 years. (I admit that I had to look at a hint! I forgot how the Stoneship compass clue worked.)
Cyan said up front that this release is aimed at a generation of gamers who know about Myst but never bothered to play it. And I honestly don't know what they'll think. The reviews are written by people like me. Or people younger than me who played Myst as research or nostalgia, but they've played it, and not recently.
Myst is weird. The story is so fragmentary as to be sleight-of-hand. The puzzles have one foot in environmental worldbuilding and one foot in soup can land. The ending fizzles. Atrus does not have, and never will have, a bedroom or a bathroom. In 1993, people were torn between the world-flooding sensory detail and the confusion of a somewhat janky puzzle game.
And yet Myst happened. It just "happened to happen", as King Derwin once said. It happened to millions of people. Is it likely to happen again? Everything has come 'round again; the weird story, the somewhat janky puzzles, the flood-tide of a surreal world that looks as good in 2021 as those little JPEGs did in 1993.
Everything else is different, of course. The market and audience and the expectations. (I've put way more of my weekend into Psychonauts 2 than into Myst.)
I don't know. I don't know if it'll sell. I don't know whether Cyan will break even on this project. (Beyond the up-front funding that we're pretty sure Oculus laid down.)
My guess is that a lot of adventure game fans will play Myst (2020). The people who play it will mostly be people who've played it before. I think that, like me, they're happy to see it; they'll kill an evening on it and treat it as a Firmament teaser. Some newer story/puzzle gamers will try it for the first time; they'll decide it feels kind of old-fashioned but they're glad they tried it. Cyan will see a revenue bump and long tail. I don't think that anybody will still be talking about Myst (2020) in 2022.
That's fine, actually. That's a successful re-release.

Sunday, August 22, 2021

Seltani Jam, Sept 19

Emily Short has scheduled a Seltani build/play jam, hosted by the London IF meetup. This will be Sept 19, 3-5 pm London time. I will be hanging around as, I don't know, groundskeeper and tour guide emeritus?
Seltani was my Twine/Myst-Online/MUD mashup project from a few years back. (Technically it is none of those things. Nor is it holy, Roman, or an empire. But that's the best way to explain it.) I haven't touched Seltani in a long time, but I keep the server running.
See Emily's post for details and how to sign up for the meeting.

Sunday, August 8, 2021

Design ruminations: Subverting the ending

I played two games recently whose endings don't go like you might expect. They make an interesting contrast, though: Omno (Studio Inkyfox) and Minute of Islands (Studio Fizbin).
It is not my habit to spoil narrative in my reviews, but this isn't a review. I have to get into the details. So: complete and total SPOILERS for the stories of these two games! Play them before reading this, if you plan to. And you should: they're both enjoyable games which you can finish in a few evenings.

Monday, August 2, 2021

ZIL tidbits and Inform 6 dev news

I somewhat randomly stumbled across these two resources from a couple years back:
This is a detailed analysis of the classic Infocom parser. As we recall, the Infocom parser wasn't built into the Z-machine -- it was a pile of ZIL code which was copied into each game.
The parser was built to be flexible, but also had to be customized somewhat for each game. So there is no such thing as the Infocom parser. Rather, there was an evolving chain of versions. This document is based on Zork 1 but has copious notes on variations in later games.
ZILCH How-to by Roman Bartke
This is a step-by-step guide to getting Infocom's original ZIL compiler working. It starts with the PDP-10 ZIL source, which was dug out of old ITS tapes by Lars Brinkhoff. It then runs through emulating a PDP-10, getting ITS to run, making Muddle work, and compiling and testing Zork 2.
(Bartke uses Zork 2 as a test case because both the source and the compiled ZAP assembly have been preserved.)

Enough with ZIL. What's been going on in Inform?
I must say up front that there's no news about Inform 7. As far as I know, Graham Nelson is still chugging away on it. No release date announced. (Sorry, but someone always asks.)
However, I have exciting news about Inform 6! Well, exciting to a few of us.
I have just completed an overhaul of the compiler's memory management. The old memory limitations are completely gone. If you've used I6, you will bitterly remember the old errors:
Fatal error: The memory setting MAX_PROP_TABLE_SIZE (which is 30000 at present) has been exceeded. Try running Inform again with $MAX_PROP_TABLE_SIZE=<some-larger-number> on the command line.
These even percolated out into Inform 7. It would sometimes choke and awkwardly suggest adding a line like this to your game:
Use MAX_PROP_TABLE_SIZE of 50000.
These all stem from Inform's history as an early-90s C program which was meant to run on DOS, classic MacOS, and other extremely ancient platforms. (Even VAX!) The compiler is careful to allocate all its memory at startup, to avoid the possibility of running out and crashing -- which might take down the entire OS in those non-protected days. The compiler also goes through some contortions to never malloc more than 32K at a time. (See the technical notes, section 11.2.)
All of this fuss is entirely unnecessary on an OS with virtual memory. Modern software ("modern" means "the past twenty years") just allocates as much memory as it needs. The understanding is that no matter how much memory the program needs, it won't crash. Rather, it will bog down ("swapping") until the user gets annoyed and buys a bigger computer. This sounds like a joke but it's actually a practical solution!
Anyhow, the memory usage of Inform is minuscule compared to your web browser. A quick test compiling Hadean Lands finds that the compiler needs to allocate about 12 megabytes of working space.
So I've spent the past couple of months rethwacking all of I6's memory handling to "allocate what you need, when you need it". (Thanks to David Kinder for maintaining the I6 source code and reviewing my changes.) I fixed a few obscure bugs while I was in there, too.
These changes have not yet made it to a release, but you can get the I6 source and compile your own binary. You can even install it into your I7 package and get the benefits immediately. (Although if you're using the Mac version of I7, you'll need to unsign it first... probably not worth the hassle.)
I was worried that this rewrite would have a performance penalty. After all, the compiler is now calling malloc and realloc more often. But no! You'll be happy to know that I6 now runs both faster and slimmer. In my HL test above, the new compiler used 11% less RAM and ran 10% faster than the original (the 6.35 release).

With that out of the way, I am considering the future of Inform 6.
There are three major compiler features which have, historically, almost never been used. It's worth considering whether they can be stripped out of the codebase.
The temporary file option (-F1). This tells the compiler to put some of its working space in a disk file, instead of keeping it all in RAM. In other words, it's a cheapass virtual memory feature for machines that didn't have any.
Again, this is quite irrelevant on any machine less than twenty years old. As far as I know, even people doing retro development on old machines aren't using this option. (See forum thread.)
Module linking (-M, -U). This allows the user to compile parts of an Inform game (e.g., the standard library). Then, when compiling their game, they can recompile only the parts that have changed. This is analogous to the C model of compiling object (.o) files and then linking them together.
The module feature was a heroic effort by Graham Nelson. He comments in the tech notes:
(I have by now designed and painfully got working three different versions of the linker, and would not go through all that again for all the tea in China.)
Sadly, this appears to have solved a problem that nobody had, even in 1996. Module linking only works for Z-code. (I skipped it when adding Glulx support, and have never seen a complaint.) It is irrelevant to I7 development, as the I7 compiler generates monolithic I6 files which cannot be split up.
Infix mode (-X). Infix is an inline debugging feature for games. Some of its code is in a library file (infix.h); some is added during compilation. Infix allows you to examine game variables and object properties, and change them, at any time during play. (See DM4 chapter 7.6.)
This is an ambitious feature, which, again, doesn't seem to have gotten much use. Like linking, I skipped over Infix support when implementing Glulx. Like linking, Infix is not very useful for I7 games. In both I6 and I7, authors have generally added custom debug actions where needed, and not bothered with the idea of a generalized debug tool.
Rearranging command-line options. (This is a footnote, not a major feature.) I'm considering rearranging Inform's blizzard of trace/stat/report options into a tidier set. See notes here.

So what do we think?
I like the idea of ripping out the temporary-file and module-linking options. These don't let you make better games. They just let you compile the game you've got in "more convenient" ways -- which are worthless on any modern machine. Removing these options would simplify the compiler codebase for no real cost.
Infix mode, despite its limitations, is a real feature. One of the goals of I6 is to be able to recompile old Inform games, and that includes old games which use debug features. So I am inclined to let Infix stand as-is. I'd even accept a patch to support Infix for Glulx, if someone wants to put in the effort.
(A debugging interpreter, using the copious symbol info generated by the -k option, seems like it would be more useful than updating Infix. I leave that discussion to another time!)
What do you think? (I hate blog posts that end like this, but it's a real question.) Have you ever used any of these features? Would you shed a tear if they were dropped? Let me know.

Sunday, July 25, 2021

Kickstarter boost: of pawns & kings, Blue June

I back a fair number of story-game kickstarters. Usually I blog about them when the game ships and I've had a chance to play the complete game. But today I'm pushing a couple of projects which are still crowdfunding.
(I have no connection with these games except that I saw them on Kickstarter and said "hey, that looks cool.")

of pawns & kings is a point-and-click set in a lush 3D-rendered environment. A boy goes off into the wilderness to discover what happened to his grandfather. The author cites Monkey Island, Riven, and Labyrinth as inspirations. I just wanna run around that jungle and mess with puzzles.
There's a demo, but honestly I backed it on the strength of the KS intro video, which bubbles with enthusiasm.
The project has a week to go and is only at 27%. I say this is a shame.

Blue June is a 2D point-and-click about a girl pulled into a nightmarish dream version of her school. Stylized but atmospheric.
The project is in its last 24 hours and is 75% funded. Give it a push.

Monday, July 19, 2021

Mysterium 2021 report

Another Mysterium has come and gone. It was online again this year. I took lots of notes! But if you want to go directly to the goods, check out the Mysterium Youtube channel.
Some highlights:
Rand Miller doing a live let's-play of Myst. Not all of it, just an hour's worth of running around with off-the-cuff directory's commentary. This was Myst Masterpiece Edition (1999, still slideshow-style but improved resolution). Favorite bit: all the trees on Myst Island were rendered as perfect cones with a foliage texture. But when you look at screenshots, you see that the silhouettes are a little bit fluffy. Why? Because Rand loaded them up in Photoshop and smeared all the edges with the thumb tool. CGI magic!
Of course the big upcoming news is the Mac/PC/VR port, which is due "third quarter" -- which is to say, by the end of September. They did an hour-long State of the Union report on that.
(Panel, Youtube.)

Thursday, July 15, 2021

I see they called it Steam Deck

I wrote about Valve's rumored portable a couple of months ago, when the rumors surfaced. Now we see the thing! It is called the Steam Deck.
The point is that the Switch is super-duper-popular, but it only runs Switch games. The iPhone is super-duper-popular, but it only runs iOS games. Your regular gaming PC isn't portable, but it can run all games (except for a few console exclusives, but whatever). Fill the gap.
I don't have any particular clue, but this seems like an obvious winner move on Valve's part. In my earlier post I talked about wanting a portable device for quickie games -- puzzlers, micro-roguelikes, small narrative games. That's what this is. I'm not going to play giant immersive adventures on it. I'm going to play little things while I eat lunch.
Possible pitfalls for the Steam Deck? It's not cheap. It's heavier and bulkier than the Switch. The battery life can't possibly match Apple's vertical engineering. Valve is trying to support every possible game interface (thumbsticks, trackpads, touchscreen); at least one of those will probably suck. (Cough cough trackpads.) The GPU can't melt tungsten blocks, which means the noisy people will hate it. And Steam needs to trim their storefront down into something that makes sense to casual players on a small screen.
Doesn't matter. The wide-open Steam ecosystem is the selling point. I think that will be sufficient. As I said, I will go out of my way to make sure Meanwhile is a joy to play on it.
"But the Steam Machine flopped!" Okay look. The Steam Machine -- a custom Linux gaming box -- had no selling point over a "regular" Windows gaming box. It had fewer games. The hardware wasn't inherently better or cheaper. You saved the cost of a Win10 license, but that's marginal. As a replacement for the (huge, established) "buy a PC" gaming market, the Steam Machine had no leverage.
The Steam Deck is a new market. It's not a replacement for anything. There is no established line of Windows-compatible gaming portables. People who want that form factor have either a Switch or nothing, and this has way more games than the Switch. (I'm sure you'll be able to stick an Itch.IO client on it too.)
Also, Linux portability is way past where it was in 2015. Valve's developer page says that "most [Windows] games work out of the box" thanks to Proton. (Proton is basically WINE tuned for Steam games.) Developers will have to test on Linux, but Valve is betting that a burgeoning Steam Deck market will push most of them into it.
As I said, it's a smart move. If it works, it sets up a world where Windows and Linux are equivalent gaming platforms -- developers will support both and players just won't care. Then Valve will be in a position to relaunch the desktop Steam Machine. Right? No more MS tax, no more MS ads in the start menu, no more MS redesigning the UI every few years. Just two thumbsticks and a screen that plays games.
So, anyhow, yeah. I'm going to preorder a Steam Deck tomorrow. Maybe it'll all fall down again, but it's my fun-money. And Meanwhile will be well-tested on it, at least.
(I'll make sure Hadean Lands runs too. But a seven-inch screen with a virtual keyboard might not be ideal for parser IF. I'm still working on redesigning the parser model from the bottom up, sorry...)

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Daedalian Depths

Interested in a puzzle book of classic form? Try Daedalian Depths by Rami Hansenne. A tribute and homage to Christopher Manson's archetypical, unsolvable Maze. But this one is solvable!
(I will avoid puzzle spoilers in this post, but I will repeat some information that the book explains directly in the prologue. I am also going to talk about the puzzle design in very general terms.)

Friday, June 25, 2021

Narrative structure for dogs

I reviewed Cloudpunk last month, but I only talked about the (awesome) visual design and (awesome) soundtrack. That's because, ahem, I played Cloudpunk back in 2020 when it launched. I had thoughts about the narrative design but I forgot to write them down. Oops.
But now I've finished playing through Cloudpunk: City of Ghosts! That's the full-size DLC -- what we used to call a "sequel". And now I'm all thinking about the narrative structure again. So I'm going to totally cheat and write the Cloudpunk post I should have written. I'll call it my City of Ghosts review, but that's just the cover story.
(Which is to say, this post covers both games.)
(Psst: I'm also going to get to Chicory: A Colorful Tale and An Airport for Aliens Currently Run by Dogs. Don't tell anyone. It's a surprise. The surprise is dogs.)

Saturday, June 5, 2021

Hyperbolic text

I think about non-Euclidean space sometimes. Hyperbolic space in particular -- space with negative curvature. Parallel lines bend away from each other and are lost in infinity.
I've watched videos and played with math toys. Hypernom is pretty good. (Let it go full-screen, then move around with arrow keys, or touch the screen and use orientation on a mobile device. Or see other links at Henry Segerman's VR page.)
My favorite game to get a feel for hyperbolic space remains HyperRogue. This game has been around for a while (and I've never linked to it? Jeez). Give it a shot if you haven't. The author just added a VR option...
Now, I'm not talking about "wrapped" spaces like Manifold Garden. Those can hurt the head, but they're basically Euclidean -- parallel lines stay parallel. (A portal or two doesn't change the basic metric.) "Nested" spaces are more interesting; that's repeating infinitely at smaller and smaller scales, or larger if you go outwards. (Maquette, or that scene in The Room 4: Old Sins.) Again, nifty! But this post is about space which distorts with every step you take through it.
(HyperRogue is the best-known example, but other games are picking up on the idea. Hyperbolica looks like it could be good.)
When you wander around HyperRogue, you can tell there's more space than there should be. Whatever direction you go, you can get lost in a wilderness. You spot a small island in the distance, but as you approach, you realize its perimeter is a straight line -- there's just as much territory "inside" as "outside". And there are lots of these "islands"!
If this makes no sense, then you didn't give it a try when I told you too. Or just watch the video, okay? It's hard to describe! Which bothers me! I'm a text guy. Can we get this experience of hyperbolic space into a text game? Does that make sense?

Friday, June 4, 2021

New Myst Online dev material

Ryan Warzecha posted an announcement this afternoon in the Cyan Discord:
[2:09 PM] GreyDragon | Cyan:Intangible Assets
We are happy to announce that the MOULa Intangible assets are being released to the public. Lore on these “Unexplored branches” will be rolled out at https://guildofarchivists.org/. If you want to know more about the development of these spaces, check out http://openuru.org/index.php and https://www.guildofwriters.org/.
"Intangible assets" refers to a swathe of material that was planned for Myst Online but never completed or released. This includes everything from partially-built world models to concept sketches and scribbled planning documents. Some of these ideas were retooled for Myst 5, but by no means all. (In fact, some of it was retooled for different Myst Online Ages that did get released.)
This material is not brand-new. Several years ago, a group of fans started working with Cyan to update Myst Online. The company handed this Intangibles archive over to them for that purpose. Unfortunately, the project petered out after a couple of years. (You can see a remnant web page of the original Intangibles project. It was active from 2014 to 2016 or so.)
Cyan has now decided to release the entire archive under a Creative Commons license (CC-BY-NA-SA 4.0). The beans actually spilled last night when a few people noticed this pull request on the H'Uru (open-source Uru) Github repo. It has not yet been merged, but you can browse the files in Hoikas's repo or download the full package.
(Needless to say: spoilers.)
The Guild of Archivists site is now being updated with (in-character) information about the new Ages.
What happens next? The fan community is of course actively discussing this question. Everyone wants to see the material added to Myst Online, in whatever form it can be added. But this obviously depends on volunteer effort. The timeline for MOUL updates has always been "It happens when it happens." In the meantime, enjoy the concept art.
(Speaking of which, did you know that a new small Age was added just last month? You can follow my spoilery update log...)

Here's an unrelated Myst fan(?) project:
To all fans of the original MYST... I am remaking my original Selenetic age in Unreal 5 using the few things I’ve learned as an artist over the past 28 years since it was first released. I’ll post up progress and images here and on my Instagram page. There will be a free playable
[--@ChuckCarterART, May 28]
Chuck Carter was one of the lead artists on the original Myst. He hasn't been part of Cyan for a long time, but he worked with Cyan to publish his original game Zed a few years ago. Now he's going back to the original design document to create... what would you call it? Not exactly a reboot of Selenitic, and you can't say it's a fan project when the original artist weighs in.
In case you don't remember (hah), Selenitic is the Myst Age with audio puzzles and the Dreaded Subway Maze. Chuck says he wants to make the island larger and add more stuff to discover. Follow the twitter thread for more info. Should be fun.

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

I am a person who will buy a SteamPal, sure, why not

The game industry froth of the day is "SteamPal", a mobile console that Valve is maybe-sort-of-probably developing. (ArsTech article; Polygon article.) The rumor is a Switch-shaped device that can run any Steam game with a Linux port. Which is a lot of games, really.
Everybody's got the same take: the Steam Machine was a flop, but whoa, this looks nice. The gaming PC market is saturated, but this is a portable. The portable market is dominated by the twin kaiju of Switch and iPhone, but both of those are proprietary platforms with locked-down app stores. There is no portable "regular computer" device. If there were, and if lots of people had them, then lots of developers would support it because it's pretty much just a checkbox in the Unity build.
(I know, it's never just a checkbox. But I hear good talk about Valve's Proton. That's a Wine-y layer for getting your Windows app up and running on Linux.)
So what the heck. It's a Tuesday and six years ago I wrote "I am a person who will buy a Steam Machine". I might as well weigh in here.
First obvious point: that Steam Machine purchase didn't work out great, did it? Nope! It sat around for six months and then I installed Win10 on it. So why will this new thing be different?
Because in 2015 I had a specific problem: I couldn't play Windows-only games. And I didn't want to buy into Windows! I was hoping that Valve's support of Linux -- with a Windows emulation layer -- would get those Win-only developers to cross-compile. Then we'd have a solid gaming OS, free of the Microsoft tax and the Microsoft love of completely changing the UI every few years.
To be clear: there were plenty of Linux ports on Steam. But those were the cross-platform Win/Mac/Linux developers! I could already play those games. I was trying to get at the games that weren't launching on Mac. (You know, like the initial releases of The Witness and Obduction, both of which I was slavering for by 2016.) I wanted Linux ports for those.
Didn't happen. Drat. So I bought into Windows. I wasn't happy about it, but the problem was solved.
Today I have a different problem: I want to play games while I eat lunch. But I don't want to buy into Nintendo.

Roughly, I play two(*) kinds of game. Either:
  • I want to sit down and fall into a big screen for hours at a time. Or...
  • I want to screw around with it for ten minutes every time I need a break.
These are very different models. But don't make the mistake that one is "immersive" and the other is "casual". They're both ways of focusing my attention! But they are appropriate for different kinds of games.
Obviously, Witness and Obduction are all-enveloping visual environments. Those are "big screen for hours" games.
But plenty of great games aren't that. Sneaky little puzzlers where you just have to fiddle with the pieces a lot. Micro-roguelikes where a run takes ten minutes. Card games where the bot crushes you. I want to play those over lunch!
If a game is on iOS, I'll grab my tablet and do exactly that. I've racked up immense time on Cinco Paus, Ascension, FTL, and puzzlers like Pipe Push Paradise. I would never sit down in front of my big PC and play them for hours at a time -- but I play them a lot of hours in total.
On the flip side, games like Altered and Inner Tao gaze woefully from my Steam library. I'm stuck in both. (They're hard!) But if I sit down for a Steam session of either, it'll just end in tears. No progress. Quit out. I don't even want to launch them any more.
But if they were on my tablet? Sure, I'll pick one up during lunch and flick the pieces around. Why not? And sooner or later, I'll have a breakthrough. (This is exactly how I finished PPP. Which is hard!)
Now, Altered and Inner Tao aren't on my tablet, because porting to iOS is a headache and the overstuffed app store makes that effort a bad investment. That's the general sense I get from indie devs, anyhow. But if there were a mobile device where Proton/Wine handled 90% of the porting load?
Tempting. I hope. And that's not even counting the "gold rush" period, which the Switch enjoyed for a good few years. A SteamPal has the same potential upside. No guarantees -- but I'd certainly put in some work to make sure that Meanwhile ran clean on it.

(*) Footnote and digression: Of course there are more than "two kinds of game". The obvious third class is: "I want to lie on the couch with the lights turned down and fall into a small cozy screen." Which is to say, The Room. (And riffs like House of Da Vinci, the Faraway series, Isoland, Rusty Lake...) These have a sweet spot of not being overwhelmingly visual -- they can be pretty, but you don't have to live them from the inside. But they are intimately touch-oriented. You want them in your hands.
I don't need a SteamPal for these games, because they do get iOS ports. They're mostly iOS originals. They're the natural natives of the platform.
I'm sure Valve's device will be D-pad-centric. That's fine; it just means a different set of native inhabitants. Indie grid puzzlers? Maybe! I can hope, anyhow.
(And if the SteamPal fails... nah, I'm still not getting a Switch. Sorry; the Wii left me feeling unloved.)

Thursday, May 13, 2021

2021 IGF nominees: exploding with delight

And so we come to the end of another review post run. I have naturally saved my favorites for last.
As I said up top, this year was about delightful games. And that's a personal reaction! This post is not about flawless games, or universally loved games. It's about games that I played through with a big goofy grin on my face because they made me happy. You may feel differently. You may say "But that game utterly failed to do what I want!" That's fine. Just recognize that it did something, and it did it with a whole and joyful heart.
(Okay, A Monster's Expedition is flawless and universally loved. I don't make the rules, nor the exceptions that prove them.)
  • Lost Words: Beyond the Page
  • Blaseball
  • Genesis Noir
  • Umurangi Generation
And while I'm here, a few titles that I already wrote up. But this is the exploding-with-delight post, by gum, and I can't not mention these:
  • A Monster's Expedition
  • Cloudpunk
  • NUTS
  • Paradise Killer
And thus I close. Plenty of games I haven't talked about. Spiritfarer, OMORI, There Is No Game, Signs of the Sojourner are obvious omissions -- sorry! I have not yet played Chicory, Teardown, Bugsnax, Welcome to Elk, or many others. Ynglet and Moncage look like they'll be awesome when they're out. Jeez, I didn't even mention Kristallijn.
Plus, I just got my second Pfizer dose. I should probably get this posted before the fever comes on.
Here's hoping for a better summer and fall. Yow -- if things go well, IGF 2022 judging could start again this October! I better rest up.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

2021 IGF nominees: tiny adventures

A bit of a mix here. These aren't classic adventure games, but they're not the abstracted explorations that I call "story devices" either. I'd say the common strain is the old Flash adventure genre -- the weird little narrative worlds like Submachine. Of course there are plenty of other influences too. That's just the fuzzy center that I gathered this group around.
  • The Flower Collectors
  • HoloVista
  • The White Door
  • When the Past Was Around
  • Mirages of Winter
  • In Other Waters
(Note: I was on the narrative jury and played a free review copy of Mirages of Winter. I bought the others myself -- mostly last fall.)

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

2021 IGF nominees: puzzle time

Puzzle games and narrative games have a natural tendency to collide. I mean, yes, all genres want to hybridize these days, but the original "adventure game" was puzzle-narrative before anybody thought to disentangle the two. Besides, your narrative wants pacing -- that's puzzles -- and your puzzle game wants some kind of push-pull beyond "see the next room".
All of which is just to say that even though these are narrative game reviews, I also play a lot of puzzle games. I'll list some notable ones here. Not gonna be long reviews, and anyhow I've written some of these up before.
  • A Monster's Expedition
  • A Fold Apart
  • Carto
  • Shady Part of Me
  • Creaks
  • Lightmatter
(Note: I was on the narrative jury. I bought and played all of these games before IGF judging started, though.)

Monday, May 10, 2021

2021 IGF nominees: story devices

Sometimes I say "interactive storybook"; sometimes I say "story device". Usually textual (except when it's wordless). No model world or explorable map. Focus is on direct interactions with the text, or the story, or an abstract puzzly interface that makes no sense (until it does). What can I say, it's a "know it when I see it" category.
My comments in this post came out pretty mixed; I wasn't entirely into this year's story devices. This doesn't mean I was unhappy to see them, though! This is a relatively fluid sub-genre. There's more scope for exploration of form than there is in, say, parser IF. So it's always fun to see what people are going to do with it.
  • unmemory
  • Utility for the Soul
  • Arrog
  • Stilstand
  • LOVE - A Puzzle Box Filled with Stories
(Note: I was on the narrative jury and played free review copies of these games.)

Sunday, May 9, 2021

2021 IGF nominees: visual-novel-like-likes

And now some games in the visual novel orbit. Or outside it.
  • Neo Cab
  • Across the Grooves
  • Haven
  • Pendragon
I think "visual novel" is going down the same road that "interactive fiction" and "roguelike" have travelled over the past several years. On the one hand, they're enormously influential genres. On the other hand, that influence plays out in a lot of ways; maybe not ways that old-school VN fans would consider important.
Are we talking about visual novels as design tropes? (Dialogue-centric, no map or model world.) Or UI elements? (Talking heads over that dialogue.) What about themes? (Character-heavy with romance.) Art style? (Anime.) What about when those elements get hybridized into other genres? (Everyone talks about Hades, but is Disco Elysium also VN-inspired?) (Some recently asked me if Disco Elysium was an example of "choice-based interactive fiction", to which I had to say yes, pretty much...)
It's the same situation that led to the hairsplitting of "roguelike", "roguelite", "roguelike-like"... not that that clarified much. Ultimately it's up to the fans to decide where the center of gravity lies. Visual novels aren't my home turf, so I'll just throw some titles into this blog post and hope.
(Note: I was on the narrative jury and played free review copies of Across the Grooves and Haven. I bought Pendragon and Neo Cab myself.)

Saturday, May 8, 2021

2021 IGF nominees: cosmic horror and not-horror

Today's batch of games are Lovecraftian horror. Or games which are reacting to Lovecraftian horror. Or games which are Lovecraftian, but not horror. Or vice versa. Turns out there's a lot more room for experimentation than ol' HPL ever considered.
  • Call of the Sea
  • Transient
  • Paradise Killer
Also, it turns out I already wrote this post! I bought and played all of these games over the winter.
Read reviews here: Four (or five) recent Lovecraftians (January 2021)
(That post also covers Old Gods Rising and Moons of Madness, which were not IGF entrants.)
Don't worry, I'll be back with new reviews tomorrow.

Friday, May 7, 2021

2021 IGF nominees: stunning environments

The IGF finalists have just been announced. Usually this happens in January, so that the winners can be revealed at GDC. Guess what, this year is different! Again! But here we are.
Last year, I wrote:
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.
You know what? Even more this year.
They're not easy to talk about, though. Not like last year. What happened in narrative gaming in 2019? Heaven's Vault, that's what happened. State of the art: vaporized.
2020 wasn't about new frontiers in narrative technology. It was about games that were delightful. In lots of ways. Often in flawed ways! You're going to see a lot of comments about "what's wrong with this game" or "why I had trouble with that game". Or even "this game wasn't for me." But the theme of 2020 was, a game can be janky or fiddly or underimplemented or frustrating -- and still be a delight to play. If the creator wanted to do something and did the hell out of it, that shines through.
As usual, I'm going to group these games in rough categories. I'm not ordering them from best to worst (or vice versa) -- it's just games that seem to go together. Also, despite the post titles, I'm not limiting myself to nominees and honorable mentions! Any IGF entry is fair game.
(Necessary footnote: I was on the narrative jury and played free review copies of Beyond Blue, Nuts, and Mundaun. I bought Cloudpunk last year. I played South of the Circle in a free trial month of Apple Arcade.) (My second free trial month; I dunno how that works.)

In this first post: a batch of games whose environments just blew me away. They don't necessarily have the most intricate gameplay -- although some of them pull some fascinating tricks! But if the ambience pulls me in, I'm sold.
  • Beyond Blue
  • Cloudpunk
  • NUTS
  • Mundaun
  • South of the Circle

Thursday, April 8, 2021

IF talks at Flights of Foundry

A quick notice that I'm part of the program of Flights of Foundry, a virtual SF conference on April 16-18.
There's quite a bit of IF-related content on the schedule, in fact. I'm on two panels, but look at this:
That is, mind you, just the narrative-related topics with names that I recognized. There are entire other tracks for SF/fantasy prose, art, poetry, comics, tabletop games, and more. The organizers have taken the idea of a virtual, distributed conference as a license to run the thing round the clock. There is, as people say, a lot.
The event is run by Dream Foundry, a new nonprofit supporting "professionals working in the field of speculative literature". This is adjacent to SFWA, the SF writers' association. Dream Foundry's idea (I gather) is to include artists, designers, translators, editors, and other such people. Of course SFWA is also trying to expand to more kinds of creators, so it will interesting to see if the two organizations develop different focuses.
The upshot is that Flights of Foundry is more professionally-focused than the fannish SF cons I usually attend, but hipper and more game-literate than, say, Readercon. Which is not to see you won't see some of the same people at all these events! But, again, different focus.
Hope to see you around that weekend.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Unwinnability and Wishbringer

Someone asked recently about a version of Zork modified to avoid all the classical Infocom annoyances. Expiring light sources, random combat, crucial items stolen by the thief... Zork comes from an era where all these were simply part of the fun. You saved a lot, optimized your run, and tried again if you failed. But the gaming world -- I include myself -- has largely decided over time that this isn't fun.
As far as I know, there is no such modified Zork. But it's an intriguing idea! In fact someone is working on a modified Planetfall in just this vein. A new MODERN command switches to a mode with no hunger timer and, ideally, no unwinnable situations.
When we talk about those early games, it's easy to fall into the trap of calling those unwinnable situations mistakes or design flaws. Once you do that, you're stuck searching for explanations of why the designers made those mistakes. Answers come in two flavors. Either (a) the state of the art was too primitive to understand that unwinnable situations were bad; or (b) the designers were padding out their games to a given level of difficulty or play time.
Speaking as one who played the games back in the day: this is just wrong.
This Giant Bomb article puts it well:
The early generations of text adventure games tended to have a lot of chances that could lead players to unwinnable states, as a way to make a game deeper and more challenging; this kind of game design was not yet considered unfair to players. It was usually considered a product of the game’s difficulty rather than poor design and encouraged (or, as its critics would say, forced) replayability.
The need for many failed run-throughs before one figures out the perfect approach was certainly an element of the challenge. But it was never padding. It was as much a part of the design as the treasures and the magic words.
There's a deeper confusion, though. The same article goes on to say:
Mike Dornbrook, Infocom's Head of Marketing, conducted a customer survey in late 1984 which showed a clear correlation between the Infocom games players considered their favourites and the games they had actually finished. This piece of marketing intelligence led to the more foolproof design of Wishbringer and later games.
-- ibid
Wishbringer was Infocom's second junior-level game. It is friendlier than earlier games, more forgiving, and more generous in its design. Most of the major puzzles have at least two solutions. But it's a misconception to say that Wishbringer avoids unwinnable situations, or that Infocom changed its design stance after 1984.
It's true that Wishbringer was immediately followed by A Mind Forever Voyaging, which was focused on narrative exploration rather than puzzles. But this was just halfway through Infocom's high season. Their later slate (Spellbreaker, Leather Goddesses, Trinity, Lurking Horror, ...) embraced the model of failable game design and refined it into some of their best-regarded work. With Journey, Infocom redesigned IF from the ground up (discarding the parser!) -- but doubled down on failable puzzles, structuring the game around a limited resource system which took much trial and error to solve.
To untangle this, we're going to have to dig into the ways in which games can become unwinnable. How does it happen and why?

Friday, February 12, 2021

A couple of Myst fandom notes

We're still waiting for the PC release of the new rebuilt Myst. But that doesn't mean that nothing's going on.

This week Cyan announced official support for the long-standing Myst fan wiki at guildofarchivists.org:
We are delighted to announce that as part of the Lore Project, Cyan Worlds, Inc. will be utilizing the Guild of Archivists website as the Official wiki for the Myst franchise!
The Lore Team knows how important the preservation of the franchise’s mythos and our community’s history is, and wants to ensure it can live on a continuing platform which is not filled with ads or subject to shutting down.
To that end, while Alahmnat will still remain the Guild’s Grand Master, today Cyan is formally committing to providing server space and our support to ensure the Archive and other Guild of Archivists resources will remain online, independent, and ad-free forever!
-- Cyan announcement, Feb 9 2021
The Guild of Archivists (according to its own about page!) has been running for twenty years. If you look back into my old Uru pages you'll find many links to D'niPedia, the wiki's original home at dpwr.net. It's one of those fan resources which has become invaluable to the original creator, and Cyan's offer of support reflects this.

I also caught scent of an online documentary series called Preserving Worlds. I'm not familiar with Means TV, the studio that created it -- they seem to cover political topics primarily -- but they seem to have taken a stab at videogame history. The show was created by Derek Murphy and Mitchell Zemil; it consists of six thirty-minute episodes covering ZZT, Second Life, Myst Online, and other multiplayer games of yore.
(Bonus points for the Chicago font styling!)
I just watched the Myst Online episode. It consists of an in-depth interview with Zib (Max Batchelder), a long-time fan -- I've seen him around the forums and conventions forever. He gives a good thumbnail overview of Uru's checkered history and its many fan incarnations, followed by a tour of several fan-created Ages.
The background footage of the show is clips from Uru Ages. Some are familiar areas from Cyan's original game, others are fan Ages; but the documentary presents them on an equal footing. There's no hierarchy of "canon versus fandom" -- they stand entirely on their own merits until Zib begins to introduce particulars. (And then there's a credits list at the end.) I thought that was a nice touch.
The interview was recorded last summer, before Cyan's surprise release of three fan Ages on the official Myst Online server. Each of those three appears in the show; so do several others that I'd only seen as static snapshots in a gallery. I appreciated the walking tour.

Friday, January 8, 2021

Four (or five) recent Lovecraftians

"Lovecraftian game" is an improbable label to begin with. We don't say "Conan-Doylian game" or "Gibsonian" or "George-Lucasian". Games have adapted stories by Poe and Verne and so on, but not enough to talk about them as a category. Tolkien adaptations are an industry in themselves, but you'd say "Middle Earth games" -- maybe -- certainly not "Tolkienian".
Lovecraft, as always, is weirdly liminal: a collection of tropes that can be, and arguably should be, detached from the stories themselves.
So. A game genre (subgenre) is a set of conventions about what you do. Except Lovecraftian-ness isn't defined by what you do; it's defined by what happens to you. You are shaken out of your mundane reality and forced to confront the cosmically terrifying. (Or cosmically astonishing, but we'll get there.) What you do in your mundane reality is an open question. The opening and closing of the story, before and after revelation, can go anywhere! It's not like a "Sherlock Holmes" game where you know exactly what's on the menu.
Of course, a game that leads up to cosmic discoveries may well start out with mundane discoveries. That's an obvious model; it's why the Call of Cthulhu RPG is canonically about investigators. I don't have hard stats, but I'd bet that the most common Lovecraftian crossover is the hard-headed private eye who's seen it all and is about to see a whole lot more.
Now look: I'm going to ignore the kind of game where phallic oozing horrors swarm at you and you mow them down with a shotgun. That's Lovecraftian only in the sense of H. R. Giger and the Aliens franchise -- the influence is unarguable, but anything you can blow up ain't cosmic. (Nor run over with a boat; really, don't get me started.)
(Yes, I'm handwaving a lot of ground here. The FPS Gigeresques led directly to survival horror by simply deleting the shotgun. Many undeniably Lovecraftian titles there. But "shooting" and "dodging" are the easy answers in game design, right? And even with those answers, players demand at least a little plot.)
A lot of Lovecraftian games start out with the general question: what's going on here? As these games indeed do. But that doesn't mean that you do the same stuff in them. Let's compare.
  • Moons of Madness
  • Transient
  • Old Gods Rising
  • Call of the Sea
  • Paradise Killer