Tuesday, October 4, 2022

Recent puzzly games: we love The Witness

And now, a round of puzzle games that made me think about The Witness!
(It's a change from thinking about Myst, right?)
  • Taiji
  • The Looker
  • Linelith
  • Kredolis

Saturday, September 17, 2022

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Jason Shiga's Leviathan

Jason Shiga, the author of Meanwhile, has a new path-picking comic book! It's called Leviathan and it's out today from all your better comic book stores.

Cover of the hardback edition
But wait! Does that mean... Yes! Just like Meanwhile, Leviathan will become a fully-playable interactive game... comic... thing of its kind. Jason has reformatted his new book into a five-foot-square "infinite canvas" layout, and I am in the process of building a new app which uses that layout.
The details:
  • Leviathan will be released first for Mac, Windows, and Linux. It will be available on Steam and Itch.IO. Wishlist the Steam version today! We love that.
  • I am also planning an iPhone/iPad/AppleTV version of Leviathan. However, that will take longer. Steam will be first.
  • I don't have release dates for you yet. Watch this space.
  • Is there a squid? My friends, Leviathan is about the squid.
  • Did I mention that the hardback edition is out today? You can buy it.
Oh yes -- while I was updating the Meanwhile app framework, I also updated the Meanwhile app itself. (On Steam and Itch.) You won't see any big changes on the surface. This is just keeping the engine fresh. It natively supports the new Macs, that's about the only interesting part.
More news as it happens. Until then, how about a sneak peek at Leviathan?
The entire map of Leviathan... actual size. (Ok, not actual size.)


Monday, August 15, 2022

Mysterium 2022: The Cyan-adjacent news

(Continuing my Mysterium report; see part 1...)
Not all the presentations were from Cyan folks! The fans working on community Myst Online support gave talks on their work.
On the software side, the H'uru group has a fork of the official (open-source) Myst Online client with a whole stack of improvements. (64-bit Intel and ARM support; native Mac and Linux support in progress.) The chart they showed gave a mid-2023 estimate for integrating these improvements into the official client.
As for content: new fan Ages continue to pop up on the Myst Online server. (Tiam in December; Elonin in April. The Gahreesen climbing wall was also reactivated in April.) The next release is expected to be a garden Age called Eder Naybree on September 9th.
There were also presentations from the creators of Area Man Lives, The Last Clockwinder, and Walkabout Mini Golf. Again, I'm not a VR fan so I don't have much to say about these.
Oh, in case you missed it: the guy who did Myst for the Apple 2 is now showing off Myst for the Atari 2600. In case you thought there was nowhere to go with that.

The Myst documentary continues apace. Philip Shane says that they're working hard to have it done for next year's Mysterium. If it's not finished by then it should be in the final editing stages, at least.
(It only now occurs to me that we've been calling it "the Myst documentary" all this time. Does it have a title? It's funny that nobody's ever asked... The press page says "THE MYST DOCUMENTARY" so I guess that's the title.)
The movie will be released on the usual streaming services. If you have a local theater that shows documentaries, it could show up there too. And maybe game conventions? I didn't ask about this, but Get Lamp showed at PAX and some other cons, so who knows.
Philip showed an outline of the documentary. Details were blurred out (awww) but the movie will cover the creation of Myst, Riven, and Uru, the near-collapse of Cyan in 2005, the resurrection of Cyan and Uru in 2006-7, and then the "new era" of Obduction and Firmament. With side trips to Rand and Robyn Miller's childhood and formative computer experiences.
Shane describes Rand and Robyn's story as the "spine" of the movie, but it will also deal with everyone else whose life impacted or was impacted by Myst. That includes other Cyan creators like Chuck Carter, Richard Vander Wende, Richard Watson, and so on; and also the fan community in all its glory.
The second half of the presentation was about the Community Vault of Myst stories. This was a high-level backer reward: get your personal Myst memories into a public archive which will accompany the documentary.
The Vault is now live! They started accepting stories three days ago. As of Shane's talk, they've gotten 56 contributors with 126 pages of text, photos, video, and audio. These numbers will certainly shoot up in the next few weeks. It looks like about 700 people backed the documentary at the Vault level. If you didn't, donations are still open at Fangamer, so you can still get in if you want.
(Disclosure: I did not back at that level. But I'm considering it now.)
As you saw when you insta-clicked, the Vault site is presented as an interactive library environment. No Myst without libraries! The creator, Elana Bogdan, cites the US National Archives and the Stockholm Public Library as inspirations. Open the gates, click on the shelves, browse the books. If you've got a backer code to add material, the center desk provides an in-browser editing interface for your book.
This is extremely cool, and absolutely lovely, and also somewhat awkward. (Warning: I start getting opinionated here. Lecture and suggestion follows.)

The idea of creating a Myst-style immersive environment on a web site is very nearly as old as the Web itself. I've always loved it. You can browse my library that way! However, for an archive... I worry that the concept is getting in the way of the information.
During the Q&A session, a few questions came up about the interface. Is there a card catalog? Is it searchable? Can you browse by date to find new material? Have you tested the site for visual accessibility? (I asked that last.)
The answers were, basically, "We want this to be like Myst". The Vault is supposed to be a sensory, tactile experience. You have to poke around the shelves. You have to pick up books and leaf through them, one book and one page at a time.
I get that. It's a great design and people will have a lot of fun playing around in the site. But to force people to use this site interface isn't fun; it's precious and exclusionary and inaccessible. The result was that the Vault presentation had a running backdrop of apologies.
  • The site does not work on a phone, sorry. It requires a large browser window. (It was functional on my iPad but the edges of everything were cut off.)
  • No, it does not support screen readers. There's an option for "accessible fonts" which changes the handwriting to typewriter -- full credit there -- but true visual accessibility is not supported. (They hope to work on that after launch.)
  • No, you can't search. You can't find recently-updated books. You can't link to content. Sorry, that would break the immersion.
  • No, you can't page through a book quickly. The 1.2-second crossfade is unskippable.
  • What if someone in the community dies and I want to search through every memory for mention of their name? Or even browse as quickly as possible? Sorry.
There's also the question of future support. What will this site look like in five years? Ten years? As the Myst community knows very well, web sites go down. SQL servers choke. Domains expire. People leave the fandom or disappear or die. A lot of what we thought of as crucial fan sites in 2003 or 2007 are long gone to dust. Only the Wayback Machine remembers... but the Community Vault site is completely inaccessible to crawlers! The Wayback Machine can't see it. If the server falls over, all that contributed material is gone.
This is not doing right by the memories that have been entrusted to you.
But, I think all of these problems can be addressed with a single update! My suggestion:
  • Put a link on the front page which says "browse in plain mode". That should link to a simple HTML list of contributors. No jQuery, no shelves, no book jpegs, no infinite scrolling. Just a plain <ul> list of links in alphabetical order. Each entry is a name, the page count of how much content has been added, and the date of last edit.
  • If you want to get fancy, add a second index page (different URL) which lists the same links in chronological order, most recent update first.
  • When you click on a link, you go to a web page showing all that person's content. That's all. Plain HTML with all their text and images. Links to the audio and video. Stable URL -- everything is permalinks. (Keep the "accessible fonts" menu option; that's solid.)
  • Make sure the plain-mode index and all the contributor pages are visible to web crawlers, including the search engines and Wayback Machine.
That's all. That gets you mobile support and visual accessibility and page-search and Google search and a fallback for when the site goes down. And citeability, for when someone's writing their PhD thesis on Uru and wants to link to a specific person's entry.
When you start to think "But that breaks the experience..." No. Let that go. You can't force people to have an experience. If someone uses the plain interface, they need the plain interface. If someone finds a text through Google and clicks through, they're reading the text. Success! That's what an archive is for.
I'm not saying add this feature right now! I realize that the site just went up last week and you're still hammering out the first wave of bugs. The contributions are still rolling in. I love the site and I'm happy to see it working.
But when you get back to thinking about accessibility, please consider this idea. And please don't stay stuck on the "force people to play a Myst game" idea. It's too narrow for what you want to accomplish.
(There's other ways you could accomplish these goals, of course. You could package up all the contributed data in a big zip file every three months, hand it over to the Guild of Archivists, and say "Here! Archive this!" I think that would be more work though.)

Mysterium 2023 will be in Spokane. See you all next year, I very much hope.

A footnote: My regular readers know who I am. But if you got here through Mysterium links, you might not understand where I'm coming from or why I care about accessibility.
Hi! I'm Andrew Plotkin, or Zarf, or Belford. I'm a big fan of Myst. I'm also a big fan of old-school (Zork-style) text adventures. I do volunteer work for the Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting, preserving, and advancing IF tools and services.
IFTF runs a bunch of community services including the IF Archive, the IF Database, and the IFWiki. Some of these services go back 25 years or more. We have games, articles, and community content saved from the early 1990s. Seriously.
Part of our job is to go around to IF services -- whether we run them or not -- and ask, "What's your backup plan? Is your service accessible? Is there data export? Do you need a safe place to drop database dumps? What happens if the site developer gets bored or gets another job? Just checking that you've thought about this stuff."
This is why, for example, you can go to this archive page and download quarterly SQL dumps of the IFDB database. (The public parts of it, that is.) It's an ugly format and nobody would browse it for fun. But if people ever want to do research on IF history -- it's right there.
I hope I will be around 25 years from now. I know the community will be. They will look back at 2022 and say "Someone saved that stuff and we still have it." That's important.

Sunday, August 14, 2022

Mysterium 2022: The news from Cyan

I did not go to Denver for Mysterium. I wish I were there; the fan expedition to Meow Wolf sounded like a big hit. But the conference is hybrid-format this year, so I was able to tune into most of the presentations from home.
(The online videos are currently viewable on Twitch. They will make their way to Mysterium's Youtube channel in due course.)
This post got so long that I chopped it in half. This is the stuff about Cyan itself and what they're doing (Myst, Firmament, etc.) Part 2 will be fan activity and community contributions, including the Myst documentary.

Cyan offered a "State of Cyan" video, hosted by Hannah Gamiel and Eric Anderson. With cameo intro from Rand Miller, who is on vacation in the UK.
So, what's the state of Cyan? The short answer is "super busy with Firmament." That was pretty much every third sentence out of the Cyan folks' mouths. But I'll summarize the other details they dropped.
Last Mysterium, we were still waiting for the new Myst to land on PC. Now it has! Also Mac, Xbox, and a bunch of other platforms. They've gotten patches and improvements out too. The new Myst has won a Webby award for technical achievement in games and been named Apple's Mac Game of the Year. So that's a pretty impressive year.
They've started working on Myst's bonus Rime Age (they dropped that hint a few months ago), but there's no release date in sight. Again, Firmament is a higher priority.
More Myst updates in planning: node-based navigation? A director's-commentary mode? More platforms? "Keep your ear to the ground."
They note that 2022 is the 25th anniversary of Riven! But they're really busy with Firmament so they don't have time to celebrate properly. Instead, they're pushing the celebration to 2023, which is of course also the 30th anniversary of Myst. It'll be sort of a Myst/Riven Advent calendar: "We're going to have something new and exciting every month in 2023." Examples: Myst-themed challenge coins; new Cyan swag; previously unreleased material from Riven's development years; secret fan projects from the community.
(Before you ask, no, none of those community projects involve Seltani. Sorry. I haven't pushed the idea and nobody's come asking.)
Oh, and they plan to re-release the three Myst novels as ebooks. These haven't been available for a few years, but they should be out for the 2023 celebration. They also want to do fancy printed editions but that's less certain. Printed books are a lot harder, particularly nowadays.

On to Firmament. First answer: No release date set. They've previously said they're aiming for the end of this year, but no guarantees.
Firmament is targetting PC/Mac/PS4/PS5. The VR version will require PSVR2, which means VR will not work on PS4. As for Quest, that's a maybe-someday idea. ("Design high and optimize down", but it will take a lot of optimization to squeeze the game onto Quest hardware.)
They showed some work in progress video of Firmament as it currently exists. This shows two of the game's worlds, the "Glacial" and "Coastal" environments. It's flybys in the editor, no gameplay -- spoilery for visuals only.
(Local color: everybody in the Cyan office calls these the "Glacial Age" and "Coastal Age". That's just force of habit though. Firmament is an original story, not connected to Myst or Obduction.)
On the gameplay side, they only said that the role of the Adjunct, the little flying drone, has changed some since the original 2018 proof-of-concept demo. It's less autonomous now; more of a go-where-I-send-you tool. But the game still revolves around using the Adjunct to activate sockets around you.

On the Cyan Ventures side of the company, Area Man Lives and The Last Clockwinder have both been released. Walkabout Mini Golf is getting a Myst-themed golf course in Q4. These are all VR-only games so I haven't paid much attention, but they're out there.
(The golf game is coming to iPhone/Android in some kind of AR mode. "Look through the screen, then swing your phone like a golf club"? I'm nervous, to be honest, but I'll try it.)
Also, Cyan Ventures is shifting focus. It was originally pitched as Cyan's publisher arm; now they're describing it as a development-support group. They'll help their clients with porting, VR optimization, console qualification, storefront setup on various platforms -- that sort of thing.
This mostly sounds like they're adjusting the marketing to conform with reality. "Publisher" implies that they fund games, and Cyan hasn't been cash-heavy since about 2001. But expertise in shipping games, particularly VR games -- that they got.

Cyan also hosted a live Q&A session, which was fun to watch but didn't provide much grist for this post. Go watch it yourself.
They mentioned what they call "Miller's Pillars", the game-design principles that Cyan is built around: a balance of Story, Environment, and Friction. This fits in nicely with how I think about games. (I've defined "puzzles" as "anything that provides pacing". "Friction" sounds like another way of phrasing the same idea.)
Yes, they have a roadmap for what to work on after Firmament ships. No, they're not revealing it. I guess they're a little gun-shy after talking a whole roadmap in 2019 and then immediately departing from it.

And now the sour note of the day: the Starry Expanse update.
You will recall that Starry Expanse was a fan project to rebuild Riven in true 3D. (With Cyan's blessing!) This was a huge undertaking. It started in 2008 and progressed at the rate that big fannish volunteer-based projects usually progress, which is to say, slowly but with great love. They presented their progress every year at Mysterium and always wowed the crowd.
In 2019, Cyan announced that they were working with the Starry Expanse project on an official 3D (and VR) Riven. They didn't specify what "working with" meant -- whether that was hiring the SE developers, or working collaboratively, or what. Presumably they were still figuring that out.
How'd that go? The Starry Expanse crew posted one more update in January 2020, and then... silence. No update at Mysterium 2020. No update at Mysterium 2021. In April 2022 someone added a note to the web site saying "We will share more news as soon as we are able!" I think there was a tweet from one of the original developers saying "Sorry, NDA."
This was not exactly reassuring. Cyan often plays their cards close, and they can be particularly secretive about new projects. But they're not shy about teasing good news for known projects. (See the Rime Age update above.) They're also not too shy about announcing when projects are delayed or rescheduled. (Again, Rime.)
So two and a half years of dead silence about Starry Expanse was out of character. (Remember, they'd been posting several updates per year for ten years!) Was the project going full steam? Had it bogged down? Was there some problem moving it under the Cyan umbrella? Or had it crashed and burned so badly that Cyan was applying NDA threats to keep the disaster under wraps?
In this year's Cyan video, Eric Anderson finally broached the question. "We're long overdue to tackle this. So, what's the deal with Riven?" And Hannah says, "So..." And then they cut to a fake "Technical Difficulties" screen. "BEEEEEEEEP... (click) I'm so glad we had the opportunity to talk about that." "You can stop asking now."
Yeah, ha ha. Everybody laugh. I laughed. But I also felt hurt. Disrespected. I had to spend a while pinning down exactly why.
Look. Sometimes fans deserve to be (gently) slapped down. The writer is not my bitch. I get it. Sometimes it's even a running gag. People have been asking about the Book of Marrim since my first Mysterium -- that's the putative fourth Myst novel. The question is always ostentatiously ignored. We know the answer, anyhow. There ain't no Book of Marrim.
But Starry Expanse is not a Cyan project. It's a community project. We're not just upset that a game is behind schedule. We're legitimately worried that Cyan has sucked in a fan project and then mishandled it so badly that it bled to death.
Nobody wants to think that, but it's really hard to see another explanation for all this silence. This is not how you build up a project which is nearing success. Cyan can run their games under wraps, but not our games.
And then, in that situation, to openly mock the fans who are asking questions? For caring? No. Not funny.
I lost some respect for Cyan this weekend. Lost all benefit of the doubt, too. From now on, if someone asks me what happened to Starry Expanse, my answer is "Cyan must've killed it." I hope I'm wrong but I can't see a reason for optimism.
To be clear: nobody said the words "Starry Expanse" in this year's update. They talked about "Riven" or "Riven in VR". So maybe the whole Starry Expanse thing fell through and they've been working on a new 3D Riven release, entirely internal to Cyan? But that's the same situation! What happened to the Starry Expanse devs? Have they all quit in disgust? Silenced by NDA? Is Cyan using their work or not? We deserve more transparency than this.
Sorry to end on a down note. I will admit that the chat-room response to Cyan's gag was 80% laughs and 20% frown-emoji. Most people seem to have let it go. I may be the only one writing up a butthurt screed. But here it is anyhow.
Up tomorrow: The Cyan-adjacent news from Mysterium 2022!

Monday, July 25, 2022

I am a person who bought a Steam Deck

Last year I pre-ordered a Steam Deck. I said it seemed like an "obvious winner move on Valve's part". People want a portable that plays their Steam library. I like a big screen for some kinds of games, but then there are little thinky puzzlers which I want to pick up and play one or two levels over lunch. For that, a portable device is ideal.
Supply chains being what they are, my Steam Deck shipped just about exactly a year after my pre-order went in. And then shipping was a bit of a clown show. (No props to Fedex for delivering my package to the building next door, where it sat in the lobby for three days... but I got it eventually.)
I've only tried out a few games so far. But: so far, I like it! The thing does what I want. Mission success.
Yes, it is big and clunky. It is not a carry-everywhere-in-your-bag device like an iPad or a Switch. It's a hang-out-on-the-coffee-table device.
The biggest constraint on the hardware is obviously the Intel architecture. Steam (Windows) games are x86 binaries, so the Steam Deck can't go ARM like every other portable device. That means it sucks power like a newborn calf. If calves sucked electricity. You know what I mean. The Steam Deck's battery is more than twice the size of the Switch's, and reviews are still frowny about the play time. (Another reason to keep it on the coffee-table -- next to the charger.)
(But, again, I didn't buy this thing to play God of War. 2D puzzle games are way less battery strain.)
The good news is the OS. It's Linux. Nobody cares! It doesn't matter! Windows games just run. Proton (WINE) is that solid now.
The compatibility headaches I ran into were all about input. The thing is definitely thumbstick-first, touchscreen second, keyboard a distant third. Games that support controller input will either work out of the box, or will require minimal updates. Everything else is iffy.
I tried one indie game that I thought supported controller input. Nope, it really wanted WASD keyboard control. I couldn't even get past the "Hit any key to begin" prompt. Another WASD-and-mouse game was playable -- the thumbsticks worked and it accepted touchscreen input -- but the screen was too small or my fingers too fat for the "mouse control" to be practical.
The Steam Deck UI has extensive support for customizing each game's controller input. I haven't looked at it much because I want things to magically work. In theory, even if a game doesn't have official controller support, players can contribute mappings (under "Community Layouts"). I'm not seeing it yet, but as I said, I've only looked at a handful of games.
Naturally, I've tested my own games! Here's what I've got:
Meanwhile magically works. This is where Valve's efforts really pay off. Meanwhile uses a five-year-old Unity build with a third-party controller toolkit grafted on, and it works perfectly on Steam Deck.
The only nuisance is that you have to click through the pick-your-resolution dialog box when you launch. This requires a touchscreen tap to hit "Ok". After that, controller buttons work as expected. You can play directly on the touchscreen, too -- that's no problem.
(I will do my best to get rid of the launch dialog in a future build.)
Hadean Lands, um, not so magical. Don't bother trying. It runs but the on-screen keyboard covers up half the screen. And then the keyboard gets confused and starts flickering on and off. Not playable.
The Steam developer SDK must have ways to stick the keyboard in place and position the game window above it. But plumbing that into the Lectrote interpreter (Electron framework) is probably not worth it. The screen is small, the on-screen keyboard is small, you're locked in landscape mode. This is not a device for lots of typing.
(I thought maybe a bluetooth keyboard? But I couldn't get mine to pair with the Steam Deck. Oh well.)
Upshot for Windows developers: I think Steam Deck support is now a big deal. Surprise: your game already runs on Linux! Test it, yeah, but don't be scared. But: you must have game controller support if that makes sense for your game at all. If not, dive into Steam's controller template docs and start tweaking.
And raise a glass to the Proton/WINE people. This is their moment of quiet glory.

Sunday, July 10, 2022

Severance and the Prisoner of Tomorrow

I normally avoid subscription TV, but my new phone came with three months of free Apple-watching, so I watched Severance. Also Fraggle Rock and Foundation. But Severance is the one to talk about.
(Big ol' SPOILERS for Severance, if that wasn't clear. Read this post after you've finished watching the first season.)
It doesn't take a lot of digging to connect Severance to The Prisoner. If the paranoia, surveillance, off-key horror of daily minutiae, and aseptic surrealism didn't tip you off, you probably caught Helly's last line in the last episode: "We're prisoners--"
Come to think of it, isn't that also the point of the red pajamas in the opening credits? It must be a prison jumpsuit. Just realized that.
But I think there's more to this than a few in-jokes. Severance is aesthetically a tribute to The Prisoner (1967), but it's thematically a reboot-done-right of the 2009 remake miniseries, also called The Prisoner.
The 2009 show wasn't a success, despite Jim Caviezel and Ian McKellen. I wrote about it at the time. My conclusion was that McKellen was magnificent, Caviezel did a great job, the underlying cinematological gimmick was laser-gaze brilliant; but it wasn't The Prisoner. It wasn't memorable either. The 1967 show has a loyal and enduring fandom; the 2009 show vanished without a cultural ripple.
This is a bit of a pity. The 2009 show really did try to reconstruct the themes of the original for the (then-) modern era. Rather than the faceless manipulative forces of the Cold War nation-powers, we had the faceless manipulative forces of corporate America. Number Six has resigned from some kind of corporate data analyst job. It was the right approach; it just didn't do anything convincing with it.
Now Severance picks up the same theme -- with one new insight which pulls it all together. Your opponent, the new Number Two, isn't the Handler or the Boss. He's you. The modern dystopia of employment, after all, is the prison that you check yourself into every morning. The question hanging over your head is: "Why DON'T you resign?" What's stopping you? You are, Number Six!
Severance literalizes this and runs with it. That's what makes the show compelling as hell. The creepy white corridors and the goats and the waffle thing are the set dressing, and they're great, but they're not the show. The show is that, no matter how much you like your job, you're of two minds about it.
This still isn't The Prisoner. The original show gave us the solitary purity of perfect paranoia. Who do I trust? Nobody. Every relationship in Number Six's world is a trap and a betrayal. He only triumphs when he plays others better than they play him.
Severance doesn't go there. Oh, Cobel is a faceless enigma and Milchick is a creepily smiling one. Nobody trusts them, nor Graner or the Board or (whoops) Miss Casey. But the good faith of the MDR team is not really in question. The four protagonists are on the same side. And then the middle arc of the season demonstrates the same about Optics and Design. Lumon wants the teams to be hostile and suspicious of each other, but we know that Irving and Burt's love is pure. (Turturro and Walken are the big names of the cast, and their scenes together show why.)
This is another point that the 2009 Prisoner missed, although I didn't realize it at the time. If the Village is your job, then the Village must admit the possibility of solidarity. We can't trust ourselves but we can trust each other, if we can only realize that.

This is not to say that Severance is perfect. (The Prisoner was perfect.) I think Severance fails to balance the early Village-esque everything-is-weird episodes with the "final" reveal. We spend too much time on the goats and the finger-traps and the scary number screens. Why are Mark's outie friends all flaming weirdos? Why is Cobel spying on his sister? Why is security so ostentatiously bad? It's great setup, but when we get around to the last episode, the only answer on order is "Lumon wants to stress-test the severance procedure." Which means it's all flummery and busywork; it doesn't mean anything. (Except for the specific test of throwing Mark and Miss Casey together.)
It's a fun ride, but it's a bit disappointing when you look back on it. The Prisoner was full of surrealistic theater, but you could fit it into a pattern: everything was intended to wind up Number Six. Everything was an assault on his integrity. Confusion and disorientation were par for the course. I don't think Severance sells its pattern. It's just weird because the audience likes that kind of thing.
(Note how nobody breaks character, not even behind the scenes, until the gala in the last episode. Cobel is a true believer even when it's just Milchick in the room. The Board talks through a mouthpiece, why? Because it was a good gag in Counterpart? None of this has anything to do with severance or Lumon's ostensible goals. And yes, they've got a second season to pull in some of the loose threads, but as it stands I'm not really convinced.)
Anyway, waffling aside, Severance is a good show. Recommended. And I'm happy to see Patrick McGoohan's this-man-is-an-Island isolation disappear with the 20th century. We need more than that to survive today.
("Waffling." Heh.)

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

I went to a conference and nobody spread COVID

People are not all on the same page about COVID planning. I don't just mean vax-deniers. My social circles -- the good and sensible people reading this post -- range from "I am planning in-person social events" to "in-person social events are morally indefensible".
Nor does this boil down to everyone deciding their own risk tolerance. Every person does decide their own risk tolerance, but it's a collective risk and it has to be managed collectively. By people with different goals and different levels of vulnerability. This is not easy! "Minimize all risk" and "minimize risk involved in living my life" aren't even two ends of a spectrum. They're two vectors in a branchy mess of decisions.
How does this apply to conferences? We haven't decided. It's not a minor question. We're now seeing events relax their COVID policies at the last minute, and it's hard not to read that as a calculated attempt to sucker people in. On the flip side, PAX East killed someone. Of my coworkers who went to GDC this year, nearly all of them caught something (not all tested positive for COVID but there were gobs of fevers and sore throats). It scared me good.
Then again, I've been going into grocery stores regularly through the whole pandemic, wearing a cloth -- not N95 -- mask. So who am I to sneer?
No sneering here. A couple of weeks ago I hit my introvert wall: I attended a conference in Montreal. This was Scintillation, a tiny sci-fi convention. I went to the first Scintillation in 2018 and really enjoyed it. I missed 2019; 2020 and 2021 were cancelled; this year the organizers and regulars collectively said "Dammit we're doing this." Reader, I did it. Air travel and all. I had a great time. (I took part in a couple of panel discussions about different authors.)
And: nobody got sick. That we can tell! It's impossible to be certain about these things. One person reported a marginally positive antigen test two days after the conference, but they followed up with a PCR and that was negative. Another person felt like crap a week later, but the first test is negative, and the timing doesn't really fit. Our conclusion is that, by diligence or luck, no COVID was spread at the con.
This post is neither a brag nor a confession. Rather, I want to explain the event policies that kept the risks low and, ultimately, were successful at keeping people safe.
  • This was a small event. I think attendance was about 75 people. Everybody fit in one function room.
  • Proof of vaccination was required to pick up your badge.
  • Indoor masking was required, and we were serious about it. If you were in the hotel, aside from your own hotel room, you wore a mask. (Obviously we couldn't enforce this for other hotel guests but we were the only occupants of the function-room floor.) If you wanted to drink water, you went to the con suite and lowered your mask long enough to take a swallow.
  • The con had some rapid tests available at the check-in desk.
  • Someone made a couple of box-fan air filters for the event. One ran in the function room, one in the con suite. I hadn't heard of this project but it gets good reviews from professionals.
  • Indoor dining was not banned, but for people who wanted to avoid it, the conference posted a list of restaurants which would deliver to your hotel room.
  • A couple of outdoor gatherings (picnics) were scheduled; these were unmasked.
For my own part:
  • I stayed away from social gatherings, even small ones, for several days before the event.
  • I got a PCR test three days before the event. (This turned out to be a waste, because the test web site was down and I didn't see the result until the day I got home! But it was negative after all.)
  • I wore an N95 mask while in the conference space, and also for all air travel (airports and airplanes). I switched to a cloth mask when wandering around Montreal museums and shops.
  • I got my second vaccine booster two weeks before the event, so as to (hopefully) be at max immunity.
  • I did a couple of rapid tests in my hotel room during the event.
  • I got most meals take-out. (Mmm, bao.) I ate in restaurants a few times, but I tried to pick uncrowded restaurants, and I ate either alone or with one other person at the table.
  • I yukked it up without a mask at the outdoor picnics.
  • I kept doing rapid tests for the week after the event. And stayed away from social gatherings, well, at least until Thursday.
So, as you see, we were pretty careful. But we could have been more careful in some ways. But this is what we did.
The intangible factor was that the conference organizers cared about safety and were willing to make firm rules. We had discussions in advance about how masking would work, how hydration would work, how everything would work. What were the accessibility needs? (With 75 people registered and no at-the-door entry, this was a well-defined list.) Would we bring back the singing social events from the first two Scintillations? (No way.) And so on. Everybody was on board with the situation before they arrived. We all knew the people in charge were prepared to say "Mask up or get out," and because of that, they never had to.
I can't prove these precautions will protect everybody. I don't know how to estimate the odds. (If we were lucky enough to have zero contagious people show up, then we wouldn't know how well the masks and filters worked!) But this is, I would say, a minimum level of diligence for events in the 100-person range.
Masks suck, and everybody hates 'em, and this is where we are.
I can't even think about events in the 10000-person range. GDC and PAX still scare me, and will continue to scare me until the vaccine situation changes a lot.
I hope this information is useful.

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

AI ethics questions

Last week an "Google AI ethics" article went round the merry-go-discourse. I won't bother linking except for this apropos comeback from Janelle Shane:
Stunning transcript proving that GPT-3 may be secretly a squirrel. GPT-3 wrote the text in green, completly unedited! (...transcript follows)
-- @janellecshane, June 12
We're facing piles of critical questions about AI ethics. They do not include "Is Google oppressing sentient AIs?" Here's a starter list of real issues:
What's the difference between using an AI algorithm as part of your artistic process and using it as an artistic process in itself?
Using an AI image algorithm as a source of idea prompts? Tracing or redrawing pieces of the output in your own work? Using pieces of the output directly? Generating ranges of output and iterating the prompt in the direction you want? Generating ranges of output and using them as PCG backgrounds in a game? What will we count as legitimate and/or desirable artistic work here?
How much human supervision do we require on procgen output?
If the background imagery of a game (movie, whatever) shows AI-generated cityscapes, sooner or later something horrible will appear. If an AI is generating personalized emails, sooner or later it will send vile crap. Do we hold the artist/author responsible or just say "eh, it's AI, Jake"? Do we insist on a maximum "error rate"? What's the percentage?
(Do we hand the problem of preventing this off to another AI? "Generative adversarial network" in the literal sense!)
How do we think about ownership and attribution of the data that goes into AI training sets?
Is the output of an AI algorithm a derivative work of every work in the training set? Do the creators of those original works have a share in the rights to the output?
If an image processor sucks up a million Creative Commons "noncommercial use only" images for its training set, is the output of the net necessarily Creative Commons? What if it accidentally grabs a couple of proprietary images in the process? Is the whole training set then tainted?
(We're already deep into this problem. The past few years have seen a spurt of AI image tools with trained data sets. They're built into Photoshop, iOS and Android camera apps, AMD/NVidia upscaling features, etc, etc. What's the training data? Can we demand provenance? Is this going to turn into a copyright lawsuit morass?)
What does it mean if the most desirable artistic tools require gobs of cloud CPU? Will a few tech giants monopolize these resources?
Will we wind up with a "Google tax" on art because artists are forced to use Colab or what have you?
(This isn't new to AI, of course. Plenty of artists "have to" use a computer and specific hardware or software tools. The tech companies aren't shy about extracting rents. But AI could push that way farther.)
What about the environmental costs? Will artists get into an arms race of bigger and more resource-intensive AI tools? All computers use energy, but you really don't want a situation where whoever uses the most energy wins. (Bl*ckchain, cough cough.)
What does it mean when AIs are trained on data pulled from an Internet full of AI-generated data? Ad infinitum. Does this feedback loop lead us into cul-de-sacs?
What assumptions get locked in? It's easy to imagine a world where BIPOC people just disappear from cover art and other mass-market image pools. That's the simplest failure mode. AI algorithms are prone to incomprehensible associations. Who knows what bizarre biases could wind up locked into our creative universe?
How do we account for the particular vulnerabilities of AI algorithms? Can we protect against them once this stuff is in common use?
What if saboteurs seed the Internet with pools of images that are innocent to human eyes, but read as mis-tagged garbage to AI algorithms? Or vice versa: hate speech or repugnant images which AI algorithms pick up as "cute kittens". Could that get incorporated into training sets? Turn every AI tool into a Tay-in-waiting?

The meme-y AI art is all visual and text. But I'm particularly interested in how this plays out for audio -- specifically, for voice generation.
I love building messy, generative text structures. I also love good voice acting in a game. These ideas do not play together nicely. (I guess procgen text is a love that dare not speak its name?)
Text variation like this is trivial in Inform 7:
say "[One of]With a start, you[or]Suddenly, you[or]You blink in surprise and[at random] [one of]realize[or]notice[at random] that your [light-source] is dimming. In just [lifespan of light-source], your light will be gone.";
But if you're writing a fully voice-acted game, you don't even consider this sort of thing. Not even so simple an idea as contextual barks in a shooter game: "Get [him/her], [he/she]'s behind the [cover-object]!" It's not in scope. Which is a shame!
AI voice generation is an obvious path towards making this possible. It's also an obvious path to putting all the voice actors out of work.
How do we negotiate this? What does it mean to put an actor's unique performance into an infinitely extensible corpus of text? How do we pay people when "per line" is a meaningless measurement? How much sampling do we need for a good result? Do we need direct-recorded "cut scenes" for the really emotional bits? What about applying "moods" (angry, tired, defeated, scared) to specific lines to match the current state of the character? There's lots of possibilities here, and we have no idea how to work them out in a way that's fair to both designers and performers.

Anyhow, I am nothing like an expert in this stuff. This post is very much off the top of my head. Some folks who know way more than me and have more experience with AI tools: Janelle Shane, Max Kreminski, Mike Cook, Lynn Cherny.

Tuesday, June 7, 2022

Aaron Reed's "50 Years of Text Games" is now crowdfunding

You probably followed Aaron's blog series last year. Now it's becoming a book with revised articles, bonus material, a lovely layout, and fancy binding. A half-century of the history of text-based games. (You may recall that one of my games is on the list.)
I admit to mixed emotions about Kickstarter these days. They haven't backed off on their crypto horseshit. They haven't pushed it forwards much either, that I can tell. There was a followup post in February which doesn't say much beyond "We're listening to feedback." (I think you get the gist of mine.)
But of course I want Aaron's book to succeed. Which it has! -- it crossed the goal line as I was writing this post. Now I want it to do multiples. I also want Kickstarter to see pushback. Aaron has thoughts about this too; see the FAQ on his KS page. He also notes that there will be other ways to pre-order the book after the KS campaign is over. Read, decide what you want to do.
However you get it, the book will be a must-have for the shelf of the IF scholar. Or enthusiast. Or you.

Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Cragne Manor source code (some of it)

You may remember Cragne Manor, the collaborative exquisite-corpse IF game that launched in 2018. (My post about it at the time.) The project was a tribute to Mike Gentry's Anchorhead, organized by Ryan Veeder and Jenni Polodna. It turned into an absolutely absurd agglomeration-fest of eighty-four IF authors. Each author wrote a separate game in Inform 7, following certain guidelines, and then the editors stitched them together.
Cragne Manor includes contributions from many of the IF authors of the '90s and '00s, as well as more recent years. It's a really interesting snapshot of a variety of styles. However, the original project didn't encompass releasing the source code. We talked about it! But Jenni and Ryan had enough on their plates trying to make the game work. Asking them to create a source release too would have been ingratitude.
As it happened, a couple of weeks ago, Jason Love -- one of the 84 Cragne authors -- up and posted his source code on the forum. Jason's post set off a wave of other people doing the same.
Seize the moment, right? I got permission from each of those people to archive their Cragne source files on my own web site. I include my own, of course.
As of today, my page includes thirteen of the game-files which constitute Cragne Manor. I started the weekend with five. There's a bunch more. Let's put the word out!
If you want your Cragne source on my site, please send me the source file. (The raw code -- that's Source/story.ni in your I7 project folder.) Or, if it's already posted somewhere, pass me a link and let me know I have permission to include it.
Thanks! I doubt this will ever be a complete collection, but it would be nice to gather as much as possible.
(But please don't harass Ryan and Jenni about this. This is my effort, not theirs.)

Monday, May 30, 2022

Recent puzzly games: summer 2022 edition

Sephonie

Three scientists of Taiwanese descent explore a mysterious ecology. This is an oddly lumpy hybrid of parkour metroidvania, tetromino puzzles, and character-centric story game. Each mode is pretty enjoyable but switching felt like an interruption.
This didn't bother me too much, and I progressed through a large part of the game. (Through four key species.) Unfortunately, I could not get my head (or fingers) around the wall-running-and-jumping mechanic. I got as far as I did through sheer bloody-minded flailing, but I never really understood how to chain moves to get where I wanted to go. This is a pity -- the parkour mechanics are puzzle mechanics; I was enjoying the challenge of looking around and figuring out how to proceed. Like the best Prince of Persia games -- except that PoP made you feel great at executing moves, and this game does not. Eventually I fell too many times and quit.

The Inheritance of Crimson Manor

A pleasant first-person puzzler in a creepy Victorian mansion. The puzzles never get very hard; nor do they achieve the hands-on haptic satisfaction of the Room series. But there's lots of them. You can have a satisfying wander around, happily overwhelmed by an abundance of locked doors and mysterious puzzle-boxes.
(There is one sliding-block puzzle, but it's quite easy of its kind, so I didn't have to flip off the developers.)

Skábma: Snowfall

An action-platformer in the traditions of the Sámi people. You fell asleep on reindeer watch -- oops! While pursuing an errant doe, you discover a noaidi drum, the tool of the Sámi shaman. Good timing, because the village is falling ill from some strange infectious ooze...
This is really well done! You run around a big, knotty mountain landscape, chasing spirit familiars and gaining metroidesque powers. The platforming is puzzly, not reflex-oriented; you are trying to figure out what to do, not trying to execute it. It's not on rails, but the margins of error are extremely generous.
You can explore freely -- plenty of collectibles to root out -- but you're meant to follow the trails which are revealed by the beat of your drum. The drum is central to the game, just as it should be: besides showing your goals, it also lets you manipulate ooze outbreaks, illuminates dark caves, restores your health, and keeps time with the background music. (That last always put a smile on my face.)
My only complaints are, first, some of the cave and forest scenes are really too cramped for the camera mechanics. Yes, you need those narrow tunnels and dense trees to contrast with the mountaintops and vast caverns later on. (Landscape: gorgeous! Highly varied!) But when you're scurrying through a rabbit warren and the camera can't see around corners, it's more annoying than atmospheric.
And, second, they fell victim to one of the classic blunders: the climactic action scene is the hardest. You have to use all your jumpy powers, fine -- but with a giant kicking your butt! That's not how you've been practicing. Sigh. I powered through but it threw the tone off.
(Third, there are ooze zombies. I usually have a no-zombies rule but these aren't the really threatening kind. They're very slow. You just have to drum and sometimes jump on them.)
Satisfying, beautiful, educational -- if you're unfamiliar with Sámi traditions, which certainly describes me -- and very approachable. Try it.

Recursive Ruin

A first-person puzzle game with a "nested" world. The space contains itself at a smaller scale, and so on infinitely inward (and outward). Now you're recalling Maquette; but Recursive Ruin feels quite different.
RR has a glitchy fractal aesthetic rather than cozy toy tilt-shift, but that's not the main difference. In Maquette, you stayed the same size as you walked inward or outward. So each copy of the world was smaller or larger than the last. In RR, you shrink or grow to match the world-instance you're entering. You can go inwards/outwards forever.
This is brain-twisty from the get-go. Maquette allowed you to distinguish where you were by size; but in RR, every instance is the same size. Sort of. You really have to visualize the world as cyclical. On top of that, you have a "shift" button which slides the inner/outer world up or down, changing the relative locations of everything.
RR's mechanics drag you into its warped reality -- and they just work better. Maquette's scaling meant that you couldn't go very far inward; the world got too small and crowded to deal with. Similarly, going outward, the world became vast boring stretches of pavement that you had to run through. RR avoids this problem and feels much better laid out.
RR tends to flip back and forth between pure-puzzle mode and a narrative about an artist's traumatic past. Plenty of games have alternating scenes like this, but RR has alternating chapters -- sometimes you get a full-length walking-sim episode in between puzzle chapters. Mind you, it's a good walking sim (in the psychological-horror mode). A bit heavy-handed, but mostly I just wanted smoother pacing.
At any rate, the puzzles are pretty solid. Not extremely difficult once you wrap your head around the geometry, but a good variety of stuff built on that basic idea.
And, hey, after Maquette I thought "That is a cool mechanic but I bet more could be done with it." Now more has!
(Sorry, this whole review comes off as backhanded shade on Maquette. I enjoyed Maquette! It did interesting story things! The last chapter had clever puzzles! But the puzzles felt hit-and-miss before that point, and you had to spend a lot of time running across vast boring stretches of pavement.)

Platonic

A first-person puzzle game in an abstract low-poly world. This would be Yet Another One Of Those except that the puzzles are really well-designed! I finished it a couple of days ago and now it's high on my puzzle recommendation list for the year.
It's definitely in the Myst sphere of influence rather than Talos/Xing/Portal. Every enviroment, every mechanic, and every puzzle is unique... except that's not true. Each idea comes back deeper. You'll solve a puzzle, move on, and then realize there was more to the original mechanic than you thought. So you return to it -- or solve a similar puzzle -- but now you're working at a different level.
(I suppose a better comparison is Antichamber or the recent Sensorium. Abstract world; simple visual style; not a trace of story; a deep, serious focus on the puzzle design.)
The "progression by learning" idea recalls Outer Wilds. I don't mean that Platonic is a pure-information game. It's not; when you unlock a door it stays unlocked, when you solve a puzzle it stays solved. But there's still that sensation of space opening up around you. And this happens a lot. The designer has done a really creditable job of having every puzzle idea recur and build on itself. They get tangled up with each other too. Sneaky stuff.

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Patricia McKillip (1948-2022)

This afternoon, Locus posted an obituary for Patricia McKillip.
I have trouble finding what to say. Really a large part of everything I've written has started with "Maybe I could do that too." After reading Riddle-Master or Changeling Sea or Fool's Run or just remembering a line or a phrase or a turn of thought.
I'm gonna just go back into my book room and pick out some words.
"If you hate the sea so now," Mare asked in wonder one day, "why don't you leave?" Mare was a few years older than Peri, and very pretty. She came to work in the morning with a private smile in her eyes. Down at the docks, Peri knew, was a young fisherman with the same smile coming and going on his face. Mare was tidy and energetic, unlike Carey, who dreamed that the king's son would come to the inn one day and fall in love with her green eyes and raven tresses. Carey was slow and prone to breaking things. Peri attacked her work grimly, as if she were going to war armed with a dust cloth and a coal scuttle.
That same smile.
He woke in the morning, face-down in a book. Nyx was stirring the fire.
"You should never sleep between two spells," she commented.
Witches and magicians turn out to be the protagonists. It's common these days but back then they drifted on-stage as helpmeets and quest-givers and destinations. McKillip's could be confused, arrogant, ignorant, and central. Sometimes the sorcerer ran off with the girl or the boy rather than vice versa.
"...Then, outside the seventh door, his name was called again; but the Thing did not touch the door. He waited in despair for it to enter, but it did not. Then he grew impatient, longing for it to enter, but it did not. Finally he reached out, opened the door himself. The Thing was gone. And he was left to wonder, all the days of his life, what it was that had called out to him."
He stopped. Elliard said in spite of himself, "Well, what was it?"
"Kern didn't open the door. That is the only riddle to come out of Hed. The stricture, according to the Riddle-Masters at Caithnard is this: Answer the unanswered riddle. So I do."
So I do, when I'm most myself.
The walls flickered around them at the changing hour. The chartreuse heated to a vibrant orange that caused them both to duck over their beers.
"Lord," Sidney said painfully. "I had no idea what goes on here at this time of morning."
My virtual space on IFMud runs in those times and colors. Well, my colors, not the Constellation Club's. Later, I put them in Dreamhold. I may yet run them up the walls of my house.
Calyx made a satisfied noise. "Here we are. According to Chrysom, the power to move Ro House is passed from generation to generation of Holders' children, who are born with an innate ability, for the Holders instinctively seek out as mates those who may inspire the power within the child conceived."
...They all gazed at Iris. She put down her needlework uncertainly, flushing. The Holder's brows had risen. She pulled a pin out of her hair absently, her mind running down the past; a smile, reminiscent, wondering, touched her eyes.
"Mother," Iris said accusingly.
"Well, I didn't know," the Holder said. "He seemed a very practical man."
Just look at them.
Peace, tremulous, unexpected, sent a taproot out of nowhere into Morgon's heart.
For us all.

Thursday, April 28, 2022

Inform 7 open-source release

Today is the traditional Inform 7 birthday. Okay, April 30 may be more traditional, but close enough. The point is, today Graham posted the full source code for a new release of Inform 7. Here is his announcement forum post.
This is tagged as a beta release, and the IDEs have not yet incorporated the new compiler. So it's not fully ready for use. But I have successfully downloaded it, compiled it, and run some tests.
In other good news, the Inform bug tracker is back, now in Jira form.
Some notes:
Do you like NeXT-style release numbers, named releases, datestamps, or semantic versioning? Inform has you covered every which way! This release is formally "Inform 7, v10.1.0-beta+6U93 'Krypton' (28 April 2022)".
Some older versions of I7 now have semantic version numbers as well, and will be available as options in the IDE:
  • 6L02 (May 2014): Inform 9.1
  • 6L38 (August 2014): Inform 9.2
  • 6M62 (December 2015): Inform 9.3
This is good news for existing users, as upgrading a large game across Inform versions has always been a moderate headache. It's even possible that users will contribute bug fixes to the 9.x branches.
Compiling Inform is not a one-liner. This is because Graham has actually released three packages: inform, inweb, and intest.
All three are written in inweb, a "literate programming" meta-dialect of C. Read the forum post or the inweb manual for a full explanation of this. The micro-summary is that it's C code annotated with documentation such that it can generate either an executable or a manual.
The fact that inweb is written in inweb means that the whole mess requires a certain amount of bootstrapping, in the original sense. But it's just a few commands, and they go smoothly on Mac/Win/Linux. See the READMEs for details.
Reading source code in this style is somewhat unnerving to us old coders. You can look at a source file, or the equivalent web page -- they're blatantly the same thing; just nicer formatting on the web version. It reads like a manual with bits of sample code. But of course this is the code. You're looking at it. If you want to fix a bug, you fix this file; the change applies to executable and manual alike.
The effect is somehow like one of those night-in-the-museum fantasies where the buffalo and the Transparent Woman start walking around and talking to you. In the manual (or source), Graham quotes Christopher Wyk (CACM 33.3, 1990): "...no one has yet volunteered to write a program using another's system for literate programming." This may yet remain true.
This I7 release doesn't change the language much from the last (2015) release. The big changes are under the hood. The classic two-stage compiler (I7→I6→Glulx) is now three stages (I7→Inter→I6→Glulx). But the new Inter stage can also be compiled to C source and then a native executable. More formats like JS or C# could be added in the future. This is still experimental, but it opens the possibility of using Inform as middleware in other game frameworks. (This has always been possible with enough layers of hackery, but now it's more sensible.)
Plenty more could be said, but I think that'll do for tonight. Have fun poking around.

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Yes, I will quit Twitter

Lot of Twitter discussion on Twitter today about the news. My response is pretty simple: if Elon Musk buys Twitter, I'm quitting Twitter. I decided that last week when it seemed like it wasn't going to happen. Now it seems like it will happen. Okay.
Note, Tuesday: I waited 24 hours before posting this, because I made it about one-in-four odds that Elon would shout "Psych!" and withdraw his offer. Not so far. Could still happen though.
So I will soon be an ex-parrot. I will explain my reasoning in the form of passive-aggressive Reply Guy questions. We are, after all, talking about Twitter here.

Monday, April 18, 2022

Hey, submit a NarraScope talk

The deadline for NarraScope's call for proposals is Friday! Did I mention that? NarraScope is back. We want you to talk about interactive narrative on the weekend of July 30. Send us your proposal!
The conference is once again all-online. (An in-person conference might be reasonable this year -- depending exactly when you ask. But we really didn't want to start planning one and then have to tear up those plans in, like, June. So online it is.)
We are still working out how online social interaction will work; more news on that is coming.
As before, we are accepting proposals for 60-minute, 30-minute, and lightning (15-minute) talks. Panel discussions can also happen; see the CFP page.
Hope to hear from you, unless we already have, in which case thank you!

Saturday, April 16, 2022

Is Apple Arcade even a thing any more?

(Previous posts on Apple Arcade: Sept 2019, July 2020.)
I bought a new iPhone SE last month. ("What's the smallest iPhone with TouchID? That one please.") This purchase comes with three free months of Apple Arcade. Oh yeah! I haven't looked at Arcade since my first trial month (late 2019). Or maybe I signed in once in 2020 to do some reviewing, but I didn't stick with it. So this is a good time to check back, right?
As of this writing, I still haven't pushed the "Redeem 3 Months Free" button. The game list just doesn't have much for me.
I talked about this in 2020 -- Apple's apparent shift of its Arcade strategy from "unique voices" to "grabby time sinks". I am interested in weird little narrative experiments and first-water puzzle gems. It seems like Apple no longer courts those titles. The "Puzzle" category under Arcade is strikingly thin. It's wall-to-wall familiar IPs like Monument Valley, Temple Run, and Tetris. You have to scroll down to the bottom to see the interesting stuff like Discolored and Manifold Garden, because they were added way back in 2019. (And I played them then.)
The "Adventure" category is better -- fewer stock IPs, more interesting concepts. (Gibbon and Wylde Flowers look cool.) But you still don't have to scroll far before you reach 2019.
Arcade's current strategy seems to be to find existing hits and invite them to create a "Plus" version. (Hidden Folks+, The Room 2+, and so on.) When I look at the "New Games" tab in Arcade, it's twelve "Plus" titles out of eighteen! Thirteen if you include a "Remastered".
The overall picture is a subscription service which wants me to replay my favorite old games forever. That's exactly what I don't want in my life. So I don't visit, not even to hunt for surprises.

Here's the problem: I've stopped visiting the non-subscription part of the App Store too.
For many years I had a regular ritual. Every week or two I'd pull up the "New Games" tab of the App Store and scroll down. Pretty regularly I'd see a nifty-looking puzzler or hidden-object game and blow a few bucks on it. That's how I got onto the Isoland series, Faraway, and innumerable grid-puzzle games like Pipe Push Paradise. I didn't find something every week, but I could scan through every single new title that hit the tab and at least think about it.
Somewhere in the last year, Apple broke the "New Games" tab. (Again, I'm talking about the main App Store, not Arcade.) It's now called "New This Week", and it's not new games; it's new updates. Oh, brand-new games still trickle in. But the tab is dominated by bugs-and-incremental updates by the giants who can afford to push new builds forever.
Looking at "New This Week" today, I see... Harry Potter, Star Trek, Hearthstone, Two Dots, Pokemon Go, Sky: Children of the Light, NBA Live, and ferchrissake Angry Birds 2. There might be one genuinely new release in here, but it's not worth tapping through the list to find it.
Effectively, new games no longer launch on iOS. As far as I'm concerned! New games happen on Steam -- that's where I look. (I never log into Epic any more, not even for freebies. As for Itch, I'm glad it exists, but I don't browse there.)
It's a pretty shocking shift from where we were ten years ago. I don't want to say "Apple has lost the thread", because (a) terrible cliche and (b) the market has grown by a ridiculous factor over that time. Revenue-wise, they've added about sixteen new App Stores to the one they had in 2012. Of course they're not all the same as the original! But it's still worth a headshake, or an eyebrow-raise, or something.

Sunday, April 10, 2022

Puzzle dossiers and boxes, 2022

The past decade or so has seen a modest revival of puzzle books. I suspect it's expanded out from the escape-room craze -- that's demonstrated a general audience for puzzle stuff. Plus Kickstarter, of course, which has been good for all sorts of niche markets.
I've tried a few of these puzzle books, although not every available one by far. (See blog posts on Daedalian Depths and the Sherlock Holmes Escape series.) I also don't frequent escape rooms. Even before the pandemic, I was more of a stay-at-home solver. Which is fine; there's plenty of Mystery-Hunt-style online puzzle events these days.
However, the pandemic has popularized another format: the mail-order puzzle artifact. It's sort of a hybrid -- triangulating the ideas of the puzzle book, the online hunt, and the escape room. What the heck, I thought, and backed a few on Kickstarter.
As it happened, three showed up in the same month! So a couple of (vaccinated) friends and I got together to try them.

Redl0ck

This is a pure puzzle-box. Well, there's a bit of frame story on the web site; you can watch a short introductory video. But it's more of a framing trope list. Someone is trying to solve a puzzle; there's a murder. Spy stuff, check. Get on with the puzzles. (The video is not a puzzle.)
The puzzle is nicely constructed in laser-cut wood, with sliders and knobs and dials on the outside and the promise of more within. It's a little flimsy, but everything moves smoothly without requiring force. If you mean to play fair, you can make it work. (If you don't mean to play fair, you wasted your money.)
The puzzles are pretty good. You basically cycle between solving physical slider puzzles, figuring out symbol-matching puzzles with the info thus revealed, and dialing in combinations with the symbols. That unlocks another piece; you find another slider puzzle; repeat. About two and a half layers and you're at the gooey center. We spent about 45 minutes on it -- short as puzzle hunts go, but pretty impressive for a single physical object.
We ran into one mechanical failure: when we opened the first layer of the box, an internal panel came loose. (The nine-square maze panel.) It wasn't immediately obvious that this was a mistake, so we unlocked the next stage by directly observing the "hidden" gears. Once we figured out what had happened, we backsolved the skipped puzzle to make sure it made sense. (It did.)
An enjoyable construction, if short. Without the loose panel, our solving time would have been closer to an hour.
The original Kickstarter page details a whole "season" consisting of four boxes, four short films, and a branching storyline with multiple endings. I hope the designers make it that far. My rule of episodic story games is "they never get finished". Play optimistically, but don't hold your breath.
I'll buy the next one, anyhow.

The Vandermist Dossier

Amsterdam, 1979: Your sister Abigail Vandermist has disappeared. She's left you a dossier of her investigation into earlier disappearances. Everything is clues. Start solving!
This is reminiscent of "crime dossier" games like the classic Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective. You get maps, letters, a notebook, a scribbled-on napkin, and so on. But it's definitely a puzzle-solving experience (cryptograms and hidden messages) rather than a detective game (interviews and witness statements). The clues generally fit into the story logic; they are messages that Abigail deliberately hid. However, the designers are willing to stretch the bounds of mimesis for the sake of a sneaky clue.
It's a wonderfully high-quality production. The newspaper page is newsprint and the torn-out directory page is crumpled. The letters are in envelopes and the tourist map comes in a decorative box. Everything feels real as you unpack, unwrap, and unfold it.
This leads to a few design problems, though. You can discover a lot by unwrapping, unfolding, and so on. The game is clearly meant for an escape-room-style "examine everything" mentality. However, some of the puzzles exist only to reinforce this point. That is, sometimes you'll solve a puzzle and the solution says "examine [thing] real close!" If you already did, because why wouldn't you, then the puzzle is redundant and you feel a bit let down. We had a few of those moments. But then, we also had some moments where we shouted "The [thing]! Quick, examine it!" and made a delightful discovery. It works both ways; you just have to roll with the non-linearity.
We spent about two hours on the dossier, and completed the main story quest. (There's bonus puzzles that we didn't look into.) We had a bit of trouble verifying our answer -- the web site didn't accept an obvious synonym for one field. However, that didn't spoil the fun. We just poked at the online hints, which verified stuff we already knew and then gave us the correct spelling of the answer. There's a nice epilogue on the web site, too. And a hook for a sequel! Works for me.

The Emerald Flame

An investigation into an enigmatic alchemical society in Prague.
This is another dossier -- or rather three dossiers. You get three complete episodes, each a folder full of stuff. There's also a prologue (the "Apprentice Pack") which you can order separately as a teaser. As of this writing, we've played the prologue and the first episode, which took about three hours total.
The dossier provides a heady mix of maps, diagrams, and some nifty etched-acrylic puzzle parts. It's all high-quality printing, although it doesn't quite match the materiality of Vandermist's distressed and torn papers.
As long as I'm comparing the two... Vandermist was a mix of puzzle, clue-hunting, and narrative. Its codes and puzzles were hidden in personal letters and journals which advanced a storyline. Emerald Flame is much heavier on the puzzle than the story. You don't spend much time inspecting the artifacts or reading the letters; you're pretty much straight into the solving. Whether you think that's a strength or a weakness will be a matter of taste! Either way, it absolutely oozes alchemical character. Everything is herbs, crystals, and occult geometry. The Voynich-esque herbal booklet is particularly nice.
The puzzle structure felt nice and tight. There are four major puzzles to work on, and you can work on them in any order (or in parallel) once you figure out which clues relate to each other. We had three solvers so this worked out well for us. As for the puzzles themselves, there was a bit more trial-and-error than I prefer, but nothing broken. We got stuck on one puzzle and peeked at one clue, which isn't a bad ratio for three hours of solving.
Definitely excited to play the other two episodes.