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