Tuesday, August 6, 2019

A quick trip to Riven, and further VR thoughts

Yesterday I said that I was a VR skeptic. I've mentioned this before. But I admit that I don't have an awful lot of VR experience to base my opinion on. I've spent a few minutes playing with a Vive, and I tried out the VR Firmament demo at GDC a couple of years ago.
(I've also spent a couple of minutes playing with a Magic Leap devkit unit. But that's AR, a different category.)
Don't get me wrong: I've enjoyed each of these demos. VR is a good trick. My problem is that it's not that much better than the usual sort of videogame experience. For example, I played Zed a couple of weeks ago. When I think back on that play-through, I don't remember being looking at a flat screen -- I remember being there. That's how I react to first-person videogames. It's how I reacted to Myst and Riven in the 90s, on those terrible 800x600-pixel CRTs. VR certainly gives that sense of being there, but why should I pay hundreds of dollars extra when I can get the same experience from a TV? Plus the ability to drink from my water glass.
However! At Mysterium I had the opportunity to try the latest Starry Expanse demo in VR. I also could have tried Zed and Obduction in VR, but the lines were longer for those, so I just did the one.
This was a very small and unpolished demo. It started in the tram-car station of Survey Island, and then you could walk in to the elevator chamber and summon the elevator. That's it. You couldn't board the tram or ride the elevator.
The game locomotion is still set up for regular controllers: two-stick walk-and-turn navigation. This is widely agreed to be the worst setup for VR motion sickness. Nearly all VR games offer teleportation, tunnel zip, or some other alternative. Starry Expanse is still very much in progress; it hasn't gotten those modes working yet.
As it happens, I didn't feel ill at all -- at least not in my ten-minute session. Moving around was quite comfortable. The most disconcerting effect came after I took the helmet off. Walking away, I felt like I was drifting underwater. The world wasn't wobbling but it was distinctly... shock-absorbed. The sensation passed off after a minute or two.
Apparently my body's reaction to vestibular inconsistency isn't to get sick, but rather to shut my inner ears right down. That's good to know.
So have I changed my opinion about VR? No, but I've refined it some.
The demo pulled me into the world of Riven instantly. That's what felt different from a regular flatscreen game. I'm used to a period of adaptation. I launch the game, I wrangle the preferences, I find the "New Game" button. Then I slide into the first-person experience and the screen fades away. It doesn't take long -- a few minutes at most -- but it does take time. VR is helmet, bang, you're there.
It strikes me that this aspect of VR is more advantageous to quick demos than to long-form games. I mean, if you're in a flashy-noisy PAX expo hall, the instant transition to a fantasy world -- cutting out all the distraction -- is really striking. It gives you something that a flatscreen in the demo booth can't. But at home? In a quiet room where you've already decided to spend your time? That advantage flattens out.
So I wonder if the whole VR craze isn't based on a misapprehension. Maybe the tech companies who demo VR at game shows are drawing false conclusions -- seeing reactions that just don't carry over to home gamers in the living room.
Or maybe I'm just not a typical gamer. Wouldn't be the first time.
Anyway, my original position stands. It's been two days since I walked down that tunnel on Survey Island. I remember being there... just like I was in 1997, when I first played Riven. Of course it was full 3D rather than the old slideshow, but you know what? I don't remember 1997 Riven in slideshow either. The flaws in the experience have annealed in memory. It's a seamless world now, like all the magical worlds I've visited before and since.
I look forward to visiting again. And I'm grateful that the Starry Expanse team is building it for me. (Perhaps under Cyan's imprimatur, if the roadmap holds up.) But I still don't think I need the helmet for it.

Monday, August 5, 2019

News from Mysterium 2019

I imagine you think of this as just an annual news post. "Hey, here's some Myst news that isn't a kickstarter!" But we really do get together once a year and have a weekend of community love. I don't go to every Mysterium, but this year is the 20th gathering and it's (approximately) the 25th anniversary of Myst's release. We're celebrating Zed being released and Firmament being in production. So I felt I really had to take part.
Plus, a chance to tour the Cyan office! Come on.

But I'll spare you my vacation photos and anecdotes. Here's the news post. This information is straight from Rand Miller's presentation on Saturday, plus other people who presented over the weekend.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Early Myst Online prototypes recovered

A couple of days ago, Cyan's Eric Anderson posted some delightful links via Twitter:


Here's a fun treat for all the Myst/D'ni/Uru fans out there... The original pre-Uru, pre-Mudpie "DIRT/Descent" demo, in all its fully-playable glory! Don't ask us for support, just cross your fingers and hope it works. PS: This thing is 19 YEARS OLD! tinyurl.com/DIRT-Descent pic.twitter.com/hxzYqKLD2F

And for all you HARD CORE fans: Here is the 20-year-old Pre-DIRT "Nexus" Demo built before Cyan even acquired Headspin! It's so old you need to install a (included) Glide GPU wrapper! Also, I have no idea how to solve the "puzzle". Enjoy! tinyurl.com/NexusDemo99 pic.twitter.com/DtoR0PEpBt

Extra Double Bonus!!!!!! Here is the playable "Hector Cove" demo as well (also from around 2000)... Because why not - right? Go harass some janky birbs! tinyurl.com/HectorCove pic.twitter.com/o2yYaMEF5I
(Headspin was an independent studio which developed the first version of the Plasma 3D engine. Cyan acquired Headspin in 1998 and used their engine for RealMyst, Myst 5, and all the versions of Uru / Myst Online. A GPL version is now available.)
I never played these demos; I didn't start tunnelling into Myst Online fandom until 2003-ish. And I'm sorry to admit that I still haven't played them. My Windows gaming machine is currently packed in a box, and it'll be a couple of weeks before I have access to it again.
But you're not me, so have at it.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Apps, tools, and what I use to get through life

Apple did their annual developer announcements last month. The general response is that there's good stuff in store for the Mac/iOS/tvOS ecosystem. Common dev toolkit across all platforms, a new declarative interface builder, multi-window UI and thumb-drive support for iPads, a consistent undo gesture. Decent controller support for iOS games.
I could link to articles with titles like "Audacity" and "Changes Everything". Let's just go with this summary from Dave Mark.
I have spoken to a lot of longtime developers, and many new developers this week to gauge the reaction of what’s going on behind-the-scenes at WWDC. The response has been overwhelmingly positive for what Apple has introduced publicly and what they are saying and doing in the talks and labs during the conference. [...] If developers are happy, consumers are going to be pleased because we are going to get some great apps in the coming months.
(--Dave Mark, Thoughts on WWDC 2019)
That all sounds nice, and I bumped along for a few weeks in a cloud of mild Apple euphoria. But at some point I started trying to figure out what this means for me, specifically. How does my life improve?
Turns out -- it doesn't. I know that sounds weird; I'm a lifetime Mac user and I have no intention of jumping ship. But somehow, I'm not in the app market. I just don't buy productivity tools.

Let me try to quantify this. I've just spent a year helping to organize and run an IF conference. As co-chair, I was involved in every aspect of this thing -- the web site, the program book, the budget, everything. What was my toolset for this daunting job?
  • BBEdit. My Mac text editor since forever. I spent a surprisingly long time on the free BBEdit Lite and TextWrangler tools, but when TextWrangler retired a couple of years ago, I paid for the full version. Therefore, I am now out of the market for text editors.
  • Emacs. Yes, I use both Emacs and BBEdit. I go back and forth without thinking. Don't ^@ me.
  • Numbers. This is the spreadsheet that comes free on Mac/iPhone/iPad. We kept piles of data in spreadsheets. However, there was nothing specifically Apple about the way I did it. I could have used Excel or Google Sheets. In fact, when sharing data with the rest of the team, I always exported it to .xlsx files, .csv files, or Google.
  • Pages. This is Apple's free word processor, sibling to Numbers. Again, it was nice to use a native app, but any number of equivalent tools would have worked. The end goal was always to export a PDF. (If I didn't want a PDF, I'd be in Emacs or BBEdit.)
  • Inkscape. Open-source vector illustration editor. This is actually in a precarious state -- the Mac port is two years out of date and about to capsize in the MacOS 32-bit purge. But it's still my go-to tool for any kind of illustration.
  • Google Forms and Google Docs. We ran several attendee surveys and questionnaires.
  • Dropbox. Our shared document repository.
  • Slack. For what you use Slack for.
  • Python. For ad-hoc everything. Also for the web site, which was based on the Pelican static generator.
Really, you ask, Python? Yup. For example, when I laid out the program book, I did it in two columns for the two-page spreads. Oops -- the printing service wanted one column per page. Rather than reformatting, I wrote up a quick script to (1) convert the PDF to image data; (2) slice that into left and right halves; (3) write them out as PNG files.
Similarly, when I sent out email to attendees, I used a little script which chewed through the attendance spreadsheet (in .csv form) and sent email to each address. Stuff like that. There's plenty of ways to do these tasks, but I reach for a script.
This is why I bounce off all those articles saying "I've switched to the iPad as my regular work machine!" We got another round of them this month -- not without justification. But the fact is that all of my workflows eventually expand to include a Python script. It sounds like a joke, but it's the honest truth.
(I'm writing this blog post in BBEdit. When I'm done, I'll pipe it through a script to convert the Markdown syntax to HTML, and shove that into Google's Blogger interface. That's how I roll.)

This is probably more detail than you need about my tech obsessions. It boils down to: I like open-source tools and tools which can interoperate with them. And I'm quite resistant to changing gears. If something works, I'd rather figure out how to keep it working.
As a result, I have no idea what the last dozen hot new drawing apps are. Sorry! (Nor am I asking for recommendations.) I suppose this entire post is an indulgence of cane-waving. Sure, new tools can be fun, but haven't you already figured out how to do your work twenty years ago? Rarggh, kids, lawn, etc.
When I look at my iOS devices, the last serious app I installed was Slack. And Slack's been going for a while now, right? Oh, and I installed a bank app because I opened an account at a new bank.
(Note that games are a different scene entirely. I grab new iOS games at a whim; I regularly browse the app store lists looking for new ones. Sometimes I'll try a new game because it's a lazy morning and I'd rather pay three bucks than get out of bed right then. You know how it is.)
Let me turn the question around (before this gets any more embarrassing). What are the tools that have changed the way I work? And when did I adopt them?
(I'm not going to count software development languages, because that's work in its own right. I'm talking about tools that help me with not-inherently-software tasks. Like running a convention.)
  • Text editors (Emacs, BBEdit). Before that I think I wrote stuff down in my terrible handwriting until my hand cramped. I used word processors in high school, but mostly for assignments, not saving data. Then I got my first computer account where I could save files -- and not in the uncertain hell of floppy disks. Life-changing. (Arguably, this includes the crucial flip-side skill of "organizing files in a directory tree".)
  • Email. Any serious communication, I want it in email. Email is my memory. Plain text please; HTML just gets stripped. Attachments are fine but I'll save them off separately.
  • Vector graphics (PostScript, Inkscape/SVG). I did not do art until I could program it. Then I found out about PostScript and started trying stuff like this. Not that this is terrific art, but it was a space I could mess around with. I worked up to projects like the Hadean Lands map, which I did in Inkscape.
  • Scripting languages (csh, Python). See above. Perl happened to a lot of people of my generation, but I skipped it.
  • Online chat (Zephyr, MUDs, IRC, XMPP, Slack). Many different work, social, and mixed-work-social circles. Chat has gone through a lot of different platforms; I've used all of them in roughly the same way. I can coordinate with people entirely via email, but chat complements email by letting you have a discussion right now. Yes, Slack has nice amenities -- file attachments! -- but when Slack is ruined by corporateness we'll move on to something else. (Note: Discord is a bad replacement and will not survive.)
  • Distributed version control (Git). Yes, I used SVN before Git. And RCS before that. RCS was bad, SVN was fine. But Git was when I said, oh right, I should use this on anything that might need revisions. No server setup, just git init and start work. Revelatory.
  • Spreadsheets. I came very late to spreadsheets. I didn't start one until I wanted to track sales of iOS apps, which was 2011. They certainly solve a bunch of problems, though.
  • Bug/issue trackers? I'm not sure this looms as large as the other items, but it's a runner-up.
And... that's it. That's the toolbox. Oh, I use innumerable other tools ad hoc, but these are the ones that rearranged how I do everything.
You see immediately that these are all old technologies. I picked most of them up in college. Git and spreadsheets are the only recent additions, and of course spreadsheets were around much earlier. So if there's a moral (and I've been rambling long enough that there better be a moral), it's that I've been a conservative old fart my entire life.
That said, you never know. I did figure out spreadsheets at age 40, and I'm not dead yet.
pbpaste | blogmark.py | pbcopy

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Myst TV rights involved in yet another vague but probably exciting deal

Apologies for the skeptical headline. I've been covering this story in various forms for a decade now.
Village Roadshow Entertainment Group, the Australian-American co-producer and co-financier of the “Matrix” and “Sherlock Holmes” franchises, has acquired the rights to the first-person graphic adventure. [...]
Village Roadshow says it will use the games to develop a “multi-platform universe including film, scripted and unscripted television content.” The company will develop and produce the content with original co-creator Rand Miller and his youngest brother Ryan Miller, as well as Isaac Testerman and Yale Rice at Delve Media.
For the past few years, Cyan has been partnering with Legendary Television to try to make a Myst TV series or movie or something. (E.g. the failed Hulu deal in 2014.) It sounds like Legendary is no longer involved. So this news could be summed up as "Cyan switches production partners". But Village Roadshow has put down money for the rights, so that's a step forward.
(I need hardly remind people that "paid for the rights" is a long, long way from "greenlighted the production of a show." And "multi-platform universe" basically means "we haven't decided what we want yet".)
The article mentions Isaac Testerman's Delve Media. This is interesting. The last time I saw Delve mentioned in relation to this story was this backroom wrangle in 2012. I didn't realize they were still involved, or had become involved again.
Anyhow, despite my world-weary tone, this is exciting. Hopefully we'll hear more about it in August at Mysterium.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

NarraScope 2019: complete

NarraScope 2019 is over. Here's what I wrote about it.
You've probably already read this blog post. But NarraScope was such a large part of my past year that I need to at least mention it on my personal blog.
Yowza, that was great.
See you in 2020.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Notes on recent games: big narrative

Observation

You are the system AI of an LEO space station which has just gone wrong. The surviving astronaut reboots you. Fix the problems.
This feels rather old-fashioned, for a couple of reasons. Narratively, you're on rails; Emma gives you tasks and you carry them out. You have enough leeway to hunt around the station and collect notes -- journals and logs in a very classic environmental-storytelling mode. But the next task is always clear. Your only real narrative choices are how exhaustively you want to hunt journals.
As for the mechanics, the basic navigation model is simple. You can switch cameras in each space station module, and switch to new modules as they come online. You can connect to any station device visible on camera; you can report anything you see to Emma. Later, you get to steer a floating drone. Pretty much everything else you do in the game is a matter of "connect to a device, figure out its controls, do what Emma asks." Or "Figure out its controls, see a problem, report it." You wind up using most devices twice or more, so you get the sense of learning a toolkit, but it doesn't really have systematic mechanics that build on each other.
So that makes Observation sound pretty dishwater, doesn't it? But the game works really well! It's a series of crises -- as you would expect from a barely-functional space station -- and the sense of urgency carries you right on through all the mini-quests and button games. All of which are fun. They may not have a deep narrative or mechanical basis, but you feel good when you get something right and Emma gasps in relief. Reporting a problem may be a matter of selecting a trouble spot and pushing a button, but Emma seizes on your intel and advances the plot, and there's your sense of agency.
Furthermore, being on rails fits your narrative role. You are, after all, only a computer. Your NPC partner is doing the real work of fixing the station. You're taking care of all the background mechanical stuff that Emma either can't reach or can't spare the time for. You've always got a job to so. It's a simple trick, but as I say, it works really well.
If I have a real complaint, it's that the puzzles involve too much searching around with the slow-and-grindy camera controls. When I got stuck, it was always because I'd failed to find one critical switch or sticky note. The only way to advance was to keep panning around. It's a dense environment, but it's mostly space-station clutter; it's not that much fun to explore.
(A couple of scenes move outside the station, and the view is stunning -- but it's also a much larger environment and it's really easy to get lost.)
So I can't say that Observation pushes any boundaries. But everything it does is so engaging and nicely constructed that I don't care. It's a terrific experience. Recommended.

Close to the Sun

It is impossible to talk about this game without mentioning Bioshock. On the one hand, that's a problem. On the other hand, it's an easy problem to ignore. Monumental Art Deco follies are awesome; we've played in them before Bioshock; why not play in some more?
Plus, the pitch is "Bioshock without zombies", which gets me up out of my chair dancing. I didn't mind the combat in Bioshock; it's a gun game. But that wasn't what interested me. I was there for the environments, narrative, and puzzles. Close to the Sun is all those minus the gun. Great!
Well, pretty good. I mean, it's fine. I mean...
For a start, it doesn't seem to have much to say. Bioshock starts with a thinly-veiled Ayn Rand declaiming the glories of personal liberty; and the game was about free will and liberty. CttS gives us an alt-history Nikola Tesla declaiming the glories of pure scientific genius, and somehow it comes to exactly the same thing. You have giant gilt rooms inhabited by extremely rich people. This Tesla is an extremely rich power magnate, hounded by resentful Edison terrorists -- which is a nice bit. But there's no take here. Except for portraying Tesla as kind of a clueless lunatic, which comes off as watered-down reality and a watered-down Cave Johnson, both at the same time.
The story involves running around the dead ship looking for your sister-the-scientist. There's the expected sisterly banter on the radio, plus Tesla diatribes and a few other characters. The characters never really came to life, though. At least as far as I got.
For all my gripes, it's a perfectly playable game with kickass visual environments. Some kind of time-fracture story is building up, which has potential. I'm perfectly willing to play through such a game. However -- I didn't finish CttS. At a certain point you get chased by a lunatic with a knife. (The Whitechapel killer, of all the really-not-Art Deco figures.) You have to run away or get messily stabbed. I tried running away six or eight times. Five times in a row, I tripped over a low barrier because the "vault" button refused to work. Then I gave up.
I wanted to like CttS more, but there just didn't seem to be much meat on the bones. Observation did more, quicker, with less dialogue.

Zed

And now, the awkward bit where I like a game, I recommend a game, but everything I have to say about the game is negative.
First, unsetting the expectations. When Zed launched its Kickstarter in 2016, it billed itself as a puzzle adventure. The pitch invoked Myst early and often. (Underscoring that, Zed wound up being published by Cyan.) But development is hell, as we know, and the final release has evolved into something a lot more Gone Home than Myst.
That's fine, as long as you don't walk in jonesing for puzzles. Walking sims are great. My complaint is that Zed spends much of its (short) length walking through well-trodden territory. It's a symbolic exploration (check) of someone's life (check) laden with loss, regret, and nostalgia (check) and affairs with hot young grad students. No, wait, that last bit is a different genre. This one is an artist being screwed over by Hollywood.
And the play consists of finding symbolic objects that trigger memories. Find all four in a scene and you can go on to the next. Repeat until sentimental ending symbolic of new beginnings.
None this is bad, but we've seen it before. A lot. Even more so on the psychological-horror side of the walking-sim fence. Zed doesn't go the horror route, but the techniques are still familiar.
In theory, Zed explores the life of an artist suffering from dementia. I say "in theory" because that aspect seems barely present in the narrative, and not at all in the gameplay. I have not lived through the hell of a parent or loved one falling into dementia, but I have friends who have. They talk about progressive inevitable loss: loss of memory, loss of ability, loss of the person they once knew. Every remnant you find is a tiny miracle -- and crushing, because it's got an expiration date.
Zed isn't about loss. It's about memory, yes, but your experience is the opposite of loss: you build someone's complete life. Everything you find is crystal-clear. Winning means finding it all.
Okay, this is a hard problem. I'm not saying Zed had to tackle the experience of loss this way. But it feels like a missed opportunity that it didn't even try.
(The obvious comparison is Stephen Granade's Twine game Will Not Let Me Go, but I'm embarrassed to say that I've never played through it. It's the right comparison anyhow.)
Okay, enough negatives. Zed is a visual treat -- large, striking, vivid environments, wildly varied and each appropriate to its theme. If you are a VR enthusiast, I'm sure you will enjoy wanding through them as much as I enjoyed the old-fashioned flatscreen experience. The voice acting is lively and convincing. It avoids the cliche of walking-sim monologue narration while still staying focused on the protagonist's voice; a good trick.
And the story pulls together solidly at the end. It's a genuine and moving conclusion.
And I've still spend four times as long complaining about Zed as I've spent praising it. It's good, you should play it. I just wish there was more for me to buy into, rather than just to watch.

Outer Wilds

(Not "Outer Worlds", an unrelated and as-yet-unreleased game.)
I haven't finished Outer Wilds. I'm still working on it. I'm not going to write much, because it's not the game I thought it was when I started. And it's not the game I thought it was half an hour later, when the (SPOILER) started. So I'm probably still wrong about what game it is.
But it is 100% adorable, with banjos, marshmallow roasts, and spaceflight among St-Exupery-sized planets. It's also deeply nerdy. And it's, I'm pretty sure it is, no I'm sure, it's incredibly clever.
Play this one. Don't wait for me to talk more about it.