Thursday, March 23, 2023

I'm giving a talk next week at Northeastern

Almost forgot to say: I am part of the Games@Northeastern Lecture Series and am giving a talk on Tuesday the 28th! 6pm Eastern time. Ryder Hall, Northeastern University, Boston.
The talk description isn't on the web site yet, so here it is:
The Great War Between Interactivity and Narrative
We know there was no such war, because interactive narrative games happened and keep on happening. So why is it so easy to believe in the contradiction? Through what lens can we view game design to resolve the illusion?
The talk is free to attend, or you can watch online. Register here for online (Zoom seminar) attendance.
According to Northeastern's COVID FAQ, masking is not required. "Guests and visitors to all of our campus locations are expected to be fully vaccinated but are not required to provide proof of vaccination or a negative test."
Thanks to Chris Martens for inviting me to speak.

Thursday, March 16, 2023

April 1 is IF Source Code Amnesty Day

On the forum, Mike Russo writes:
One of the most valuable resources for folks learning an authoring system is source code for existing games, so they can see how others have solved problems similar to the ones they’ve faced. Publicly-available source is also nice to have for folks who appreciate a game and want to learn more about the nuts and bolts of implementation, and it also helps satisfy the archival impulse that animates many parts of our community.
[...] I’m proposing that April 1 be denominated Source Code Amnesty Day: a day when we can all show our dirty laundry to the world, confident that if we all do it at once no one person’s awful awful coding will come in for special attention or derision. Marking it to April Fool’s Day also hopefully indicates the degree of seriousness with which folks should take proceedings.
This is a great idea! Let's do it. End of post.

Friday, March 3, 2023

Portney's Earthshapes

Speaking of maps, let me tell you a map story...
(If you don't want to read the story, skip to the high-res scans.)
When I was a kid, I saw these posters up in a high school classroom:
A flat Earth

A dodecahedral Earth
...and ten more. Twelve images of fantastical Earths, each with a gnomic rumination on its shape.
What did they mean? Why were they there? They were clearly some kind of exercise in imaginative physics, but that's all I knew. I was somewhat obsessed with the tag lines, though. And the interrobangs.
Years later, I discovered the images on the web site of Litton Guidance & Control Systems. (Wayback link; the web site is defunct.)
This site told the story:
Earthshapes is a series of 12 hypothetical Earths as conceived by Joseph N. Portney in 1968 during a flight to the North Pole onboard a U.S. Air Force KC-135. The aircraft was equipped with dual Litton LTN-51 Inertial Navigation Units that were the primary navigation source for the flight. As the North Pole was reached, Portney looked on the icy terrain below and mused to himself, "What if the Earth were......?" The results of this imaginative lapse were the Earthshapes. The 12 hypothetical Earths were then sketched and captioned by Portney and given to the Litton Guidance & Control Systems graphic arts group to create the models. They were then photographed and became the theme of a Litton publication entitled Pilots and Navigators Calendar for 1969. Each month was introduced with a different one of the 12 hypothetical Earths. The calendar was an international sensation, receiving awards and heavy fan mail. To satisfy customer demand it was reprinted as a fiscal calendar.
Earthshapes was used on the cover of the U.S. Air Force publication The Navigator, displayed at the Los Angeles Central Library, appeared on TV, developed as an educational publication and referenced in math texts. Earthshapes has been shown in classrooms throughout the world by students and instructors for 27 years.
Fascinating! I downloaded the images and put them to good use on my Earthshapes cube.
A toroidal Earth

A cataclysmal Earth
A couple of years after that -- this was probably 2000 -- I was wandering through an educational supply store. The same place I got these dice, come to think of it. And behold! A package of "Earthshapes posters" from the Ideal School Supply Company. You better believe I bought them on the spot.
The package gave a few more details:
A modern navigation problem involves the safe guidance and control of high altitude, long-range aircraft (both military and commercial). Joseph N. Portney has been involved in solving this problem since joining Litton Guidance and Control Systems in 1960. He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and served as a navigator-bombardier in the U.S. Air Force. Mr. Portney has participated in the development of several inertial navigation systems and has aligned and tested several of these systems on flights over the North Pole. To show the capabilities of one of these navigational systems, Mr. Portney began to think, "What if the Earth were..." and the odd shaped models shown on the posters resulted. Merely by reprogramming the guidance system's computer, a plane could be guided safely over and around the odd curves and corners of different worlds.
That pamphlet is dated 1976 (copyright Creative Publications), but the posters themselves say "Designed by Joseph N. Portney; copyright 1969 by Litton Systems." I suspect that the star-chart background was added specifically for the posters, but without seeing the 1969 calendar it's impossible to be sure.
By the way, modern readers may not grasp how strange these images are. 1969 is pre-CGI! Somebody (I guess a Litton artist?) modelled them, I don't know, in plaster? Wood? And then painted the continents and ice caps! You can see they used thick green paint to provide just that little bit of terrain relief.
I'm pretty sure they used geometrically accurate projections to map the spherical Earth to each shape. Map projections was Portney's whole job. Anyone have software to project a sphere map onto a cube or cylinder? I'd love to see if they match up.
(The Wegeneroidal Earth isn't a projection; it just rearranges the modern continents to be closer together. Not an accurate reconstruction of Pangaea, of course, but it illustrates the idea.)

Anyway, there matters sat. Until...
A few months ago, I noticed that the Litton web site was dead. Litton had been acquired by Northrop Grumman in 2001, so it had been dead for years, really.
Earthshapes persisted on the web in a few places. A site called Navworlds has info about Portney and the Earthshapes. It seems to be a personal site created by (or for) Portney late in life. There's also a math page at Cambridge, although it doesn't seem to have been updated for many years.
(Interesting note: the Cambridge site seems to have a later edition of the posters: "copyright 1998". Two of them have additional footnotes. They're also brightened up, with the ice caps rather painfully blown out.)
Here's the thing, though. None of these sites -- not even Portney's own -- has good copies of the Earthshapes. Nothing high-resolution. The best images I could find were 750 pixels wide or so.
Wait, didn't I still have...somewhere in the back of my closet...
I had to dig up an A3-format scanner, but now the job is done. Behold: Earthshapes, the 1976 edition, scanned at 600 dpi. (Internet Archive link.) Also includes the educational pamphlet.
It's a great pamphlet, by the way. The bibliography includes Flatland, Sphereland (a lesser known followup by Dionys Burger), and a Martin Gardner essay.
Chart from the pamphlet
Yes, I am skirting copyright here. The formal rights to these posters must be buried somewhere in Northrop's legal vaults. The Navworlds site is probably the moral heir, and it's quite recent. (Seems to have gone up in August 2022.)
But, again, high quality images. There just weren't any. Other collectors might have physical copies of these posters; there are a few in university libraries. But nobody else was scanning. So I scanned.

One more mystery. The Navworlds Portney bio page says:
Joe created Earthgrids and Earthshapes that became award winning Pilots' and Navigators' Calendar-Atlas'.
...Earthgrids? Earthgrids?
I can't find a single trace of "Earthgrids" outside that one mention. (There's an ignorable New Age book, no relation.)
Anybody know?

Monday, February 6, 2023

A treasury of Zork maps

Yesterday a Reddit link started going around the IF circles:
"Wait," I thought, "haven't I seen that map before?" No, I had not. But I sort of had? Then I looked through my collection of Zork maps. Then I realized, oh no, I have a collection of Zork maps, and it's incomplete.
Project time! Let's start at the very beginning.

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

2023 IGF nominees: mind dot dot dot blown

Finally, my IGF top favorites. At this point I have entirely departed the realm of objective, considered judgement. These are the games which made me cackle with glee -- in my head at least.
  • Immortality
  • Tunic
(Necessary footnote: I was on the narrative jury and had access to free review copies of these games. But in fact I bought them all before IGF judging started.)

Monday, January 30, 2023

2023 IGF nominees: wildly miscellaneous

And now my "I couldn't think of a category" category.
  • Case of the Golden Idol
  • The Forest Quartet
  • Gnosia
  • Queer Man Peering Into A Rock Pool.jpg
(Necessary footnote: I was on the narrative jury and had access to free review copies of these games.)

Sunday, January 29, 2023

Colossal Cave (2023)

A year ago, Ken and Roberta Williams boothed at GDC with a demo of their coming-out-of-retirement project: Colossal Cave in 3d. I wrote some thoughts at the time:
In a graphical environment, how do we render the confusing exits of Witt's End? How do we show that your inventory matters in the Tight Squeeze? Can you really not move around in the dark?
These are interesting questions! You can have fun thinking about them. I hope Roberta and Ken have had fun thinking about them. But I'd say that the best answers are going to point to a free adaptation of the game.
Now it's out, and I can say: this is a tight, nay, a pedantic adaptation of the original game.
(Warning: I assume you've long since played or at least read about the original game. So SPOILERS top to bottom, here on out.)
(By the way, when I say "the original" I mean the 350-point Fortran Adventure by Crowther and Woods. That's the ancestor of nearly every other version. If you're curious about the earliest history of Adventure / Colossal Cave, Dennis Jerz's 2007 article is definitive. And if you want to play the original -- not exactly the Fortran version, but close -- click here.)

Saturday, January 28, 2023

2023 IGF nominees: the personal

A game can be one person talking about a thing, in their own voice, framed by a bit of game stuff. This is a well-understood category, although it doesn't have a name that I know of. "Topical" misses the author's voice. "Confessional" makes it prurient. I could suggest "listening simulator" if that didn't come off as snark, which is not how I intend it.
It's hard to say much about games like this. The game mechanics aren't the point. If you explain the point, you're pushing the author offstage. So these comments will be brief; the games can speak for themselves.
  • Of Moons and Mania
  • He Fucked the Girl Out of Me
  • Atuel
(Necessary footnote: I was on the narrative jury. The games in this post are free or name-your-price.)

Friday, January 27, 2023

2023 IGF nominees: good old adventures

You may recall that I wrote a blog post on recent old-school narrative games just a few months ago. Unsurprisingly, a bunch turned up as IGF entries. So I've written half this post already!
  • Return to Monkey Island
  • The Excavation of Hob's Barrow
  • The Past Within
  • Beacon Pines
  • Backfirewall_
  • Ib
(Necessary footnote: I was on the narrative jury and had access to free review copies of these games. Of course, I'd played some already, but I played Ib, Beacon Pines, and Backfirewall for free.)

Thursday, January 26, 2023

2023 IGF nominees: visual novels

I don't really follow visual novels. But there are a lot of them, and some turn up in IGF every year, and I play the ones that are getting the most attention. That doesn't mean the best visual novels of the year! Just a couple that happen to come my way.
  • Butterfly Soup 2
  • The Wreck
  • Eternal Threads
(Necessary footnote: I was on the narrative jury and played free review copies of these games.)

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

2023 IGF nominees: the RPG bonanza

Now, my usual habit is to lay down a stream of posts reviewing all my favorite nominees. And honorable mentions. And other IGF entries which I feel like reviewing.
However, this year will have to go a little bit differently, because I've already posted about a lot of the entries! So these posts will have a lot of "see previous review". Sorry about that.
Anyhow. You may recall that last year I had mixed reactions about the slate of entries. Lots of games doing great things, but few overall favories.
This year? Too many overall favorites. Seriously. I could name a dozen games that made my "game of the year" list. And I will! But let's take them one group at a time.

The first standout group of games: awesome narrative RPGs.
Of course I'm using "role-playing" in the sense derived from tabletop RPGs. You have stats, you have ways to improve your stats, you're dropped into a world full of stat-based challenges. You may also have to scrounge money (or whatever) to buy food (or whatever). Stuff like that.
Games like this stand or fall on their game mechanics. Sure, we've all played D&D, roll 16 on a d20 to hit armor class 4... But that's just the start of the road. How does the gameplay suit this particular story? Are you rolling for results or for options? Is the game about luck, planning, or negotiation?
  • Citizen Sleeper
  • I Was a Teenage Exocolonist
  • Roadwarden
  • Betrayal at Club Low
  • The Pale Beyond
(Necessary footnote: I was on the narrative jury and had access to free review copies of these games. I played a review copy of Roadwarden. The Pale Beyond is not yet releaseed; I played the public demo. The other games, I had already purchased by the time IGF judging began.)

Wednesday, January 4, 2023

And the misty brakefern way

You know the song, "The Witch of the Westmorland"? I got into a discussion about it a couple of days ago.
The song is by Archie Fisher, but it's more commonly associated with Stan Rogers. Stan sang it on his live album Between the Breaks. That album has launched a thousand pub sings -- it's got "Mary Ellen Carter" and "Rolling Down to Old Maui" and "Barrett's Privateers", for heavens' sake -- but let's stick to the one song.
I knew a couple of things about the Witch, and then there's a bunch of things I didn't know. There's a rabbit warren down there.