One Riven puzzle considered

Monday, July 8, 2024

Comments: 3   (latest 8 hours later)

Tagged: riven, myst, cyan, ruminations, design, puzzles

In my Riven comments, I said that I didn't like the way one bit of a puzzle plays out. That discussion was too deep a dive for the review post, so I'm breaking it out here. Flippers up!

This is a full-on SPOILER discussion of one particular Riven puzzle. Stop here if you intend to play the game.

NarraScope in two quotes

Friday, July 5, 2024

Comments: 4   (latest 2 hours later)

Tagged: narrascope, iftf, zarf, if, interactive fiction

I haven't blogged about NarraScope, even though it's eaten the bulk of my energy and attention for the past two months.

(This is the silver lining of having been laid off in April. Free time to work on the conference! Mind you, that was also the silver lining of being laid off last May. At this point I'm full up on silver linings and could use some clear sunny skies for a while.)

Anyway! NarraScope went great. We ran it at the Strong Museum of Play, a pretty fantastic venue. I visited in 2013 but they've expanded since then.

The entrance to the Strong Museum. In the foreground is a fountain with a ten-ton granite sphere. This is objectively the best toy ever: a ten-ton sphere of granite that you can spin around with your bare hands. The Strong clearly knows its domain.

The Strong was more expensive than Pitt was last year. See our financial report for the breakdown. But IFTF is a donor-funded organization, and our supporters came through, so NarraScope happened.

Yes, there were some scary moments. I opened the conference by quoting the movie Shakespeare in Love, which I happened to rewatch in April. Early on, one character says:

Allow me to explain about the theater business. The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstables on the road to imminent disaster. But strangely enough, it all turns out well. I don't know how. It's a mystery.

That line is a leitmotif of the movie. I had it stuck in my head through April and May and June. But somehow everything turned out well.

Nat Clayton presents her keynote talk on stage. Behind her is a slide showing a videogame map. Justin Bortnick is slightly visible in the foreground. Nat Clayton, our keynote speaker. Knee by Justin Bortnick.

Now NarraScope 2024 is in the bag. (Except for posting the videos of the talks; we'll get to those as quickly as possible.) The finances are settled. We have started the email threads about finding someone to run NarraScope 2025.

And now I have a different line in my head.

Slowly he built up the image until it lived apart from his will, no matter where he turned his attention.

This is a description of ritual magic from a fantasy novel called Darkspell (Katharine Kerr, 1987). I don't particularly remember anything about the story -- I read it a long time ago -- but that line somehow caught in my head. "Until it lived apart from his will."

See, I first posted about NarraScope in early 2018. We hadn't even picked a name; it was just "Narrative interactive fiction adventure games convention." (NIFAGNCAAP?) It was a thing I really wanted to do, and I talked to people and passed out flyers and found more volunteers and... eventually we had a group of people who launched a conference.

Adri and I were co-chairs of that first conference. I did not chair again for the next few years. And the wacky part is, the conference kept going. It wasn't "Zarf's conference" any more. It happened because everybody wanted it to happen. It was a thing that lived apart from my will.

It's a mystery, or ritual magic, or something that we do.

Yes, I jumped back in as chair in 2023 and 2024. So my will has been pushing pretty hard for a couple of years. And, you know, I can feel the burn. Two years in a row is a year too many. But the point is that I can step back. Someone else will be there. Everybody will be there, come the day. The show will... you know.

Thank you all so much for doing it.

Replaying Riven

Tuesday, July 2, 2024

Comments: 4   (latest 4 days later)

Tagged: riven, myst, cyan, reviews, ruminations

I haven't played through Riven since 1997.

I've replayed Myst several times, once for each major remake. (RealMyst for Mac in 2002, iPad port in 2012, Unity remake in 2014, Unreal remake in 2020...) I replayed Myst 3 and Myst 4 when they showed up on Steam in 2018. I replayed Myst 5 on a whim in 2010 (it was five years old then) and then again recently.

I never replayed Riven. I'm not sure why. There was a high-def iPad release in 2013; I jumped in but drifted away pretty quickly. I suppose the slideshow interface is just exhausting to my 3D-adapted brain, and this was already true ten years ago.

But when I started to hear about a true-3D remake of Riven -- originally as the Starry Expanse fan project -- not replaying it became a thing. "Oh," I said, "I will save my re-experience for this upcoming new version. It will be great! I won't remember anything! It'll be like playing a whole new game!"

Of course that was 2013, or maybe 2012. I knew Starry Expanse would be slow. It crept along and switched engines and crept some more. Then in 2019, Cyan announced an official Riven remake, which was... either based on the Starry Expanse project or collaborating with it, they weren't real specific. Then another couple of years of awkward silence went by. And now it's out!

...Sorry; it's hard to find a narrative through-line. The timeline is lumpy, and if there was any drama, people kept it under wraps. I just kept waiting and one day a game turned up.

Then I replayed Riven.

Indika: ruminations

Saturday, June 15, 2024

Comments: 1   (latest 21 hours later)

Tagged: reviews, ruminations, indika, senua's sacrifice

Indika (Odd-Meter) is that Russian nun game. You're a teenage nun in 1900-ish (the setting is a bit fungible). You're not a very good nun -- relegated to a monastery for your sins, or perhaps because you hear the voice of the Devil constantly snickering in your ear and distracting you from your chores. Fed up with your twitchiness, the other nuns send you off to the city to deliver a letter. Thus your great adventure begins.

This is an odd one and I've been mulling it. It's almost a walking simulator. You do more than walk; you explore and collect icons and solve environmental puzzles and get chased by a dog. But the meat of the game, what it really loves doing, is walk-and-talk dialogue. You debate the nature of sin and free will, both with the Devil and with the dying soldier that fate (or God, or the Devil) throws in your path. He talks to God, or says he does.

All this in a game which is cheerfully unreliable about what is real anyway. Pixelly faux-Zelda interludes hint at your backstory -- but the same eight-bit rewards bleep forth from the religious icons you find. Find enough of them and you can level up. It's the most unconvincing portrayal of religious experience you can imagine, and deliberately so.

Even when the game isn't evoking 80s console gaming, the world is never exactly realistic. Right from the beginning there are unremarked touches of dreamscape. Hulking cows, inexplicable objects... in later chapters, factories and cathedrals grow into Social-Surrealist monstrosities. But then occasionally the world breaks down into explicitly hallucinatory hellfire. So is the rest of the game supposed to be literal? Or is the entire thing just Indika's broken mind? An RPG played on a bored girl's GameSwitch, for all we know.

I really want to compare this to Senua's Sacrifice. Wait, did I not review that one? Dammit. Anyway, Senua tried to portray the experience of a protagonist suffering from schizophrenic delusions. In the context of her culture this is a saga, a heroic journey into Hell. It was something of a mixed success. It was an engaging and powerful game (and I will certainly play the sequel!) But to some extent the portrayal of mental illness got jammed into the mold of a puzzle-solving superpower.

Indika is another take on this idea. It doesn't fall into the same trap, mostly because it refuses to be jammed into any mold. Like I said, it remains entirely unclear what is delusion, as opposed to fiction or metaphor or miracle. But also, Indika refuses to be pinned down as delusional. She doesn't just pray her way through puzzles. She is determined, forthright, mechanically handy (she fixed motorbikes before she took the habit). The core emotional moment of the story (I won't spoil it) is not solving a puzzle; it's Indika looking at a problem, exhaling, and choosing a solution.

But then the ending. (I will spoil this, in nonspecific terms.)

In the end, Indika gets hurt. She loses her faith. Or, if she had no faith, she loses her hollow faith-point rewards. The soldier loses his faith. They do not have a touching romance, or hot sex for that matter. There are no miracles. Did you expect miracles?

It ought to be an enormous downer. But somehow I don't feel like I played a depressing game. Or even an elegaic game about letting go (as so many walking sims are). It was... I was left thinking about the middle of the story, not the end.

In that story, Indika (the person) is better than the ending of her game. I think she's got somewhere to go after this. Maybe fixing motorbikes. Learning to play guitar. I don't know, it's not spelled out.

Indika ends optimistically because it's about letting go of what doesn't work. That's what I say.

Neutering spellcheck on MacOS

Monday, June 10, 2024

Comments: 3   (latest 9 hours later)

Tagged: macos, apple, spellcheck

I hate the red squiggle underline.

I know many people love it and many people rely on it. It's become a software standard, and for good reason. But I, personally, find it distracting and unhelpful. I spell pretty gud! So I always turn the feature off.

The problem is, there's no system-wide way to turn off the red squiggle on MacOS.

You can turn it off on a per-app basis. It's usually a menu item called "Check Spelling While Typing". (Under "Edit / Spelling and Grammar". Sometimes you have to right-click in the text window to get that menu.) Many apps, like Slack, have a custom preference that does the same thing. So I turn it off for every app, and...

...the off switch doesn't always stay off.

For many apps it works great. Pages? Safari? Slack? BBEdit, where I'm typing this? No problem! Turn the preference off once, it stays off forever. (Or at least until I buy a new Mac, but that's once every several years.)

But for many apps, it just doesn't stick. I am very happy with Mona, the Mastodon client; but the "Check Spelling" preference resets on every single message you type. In the Zoom desktop client, it resets on every new call's chat pane. Even TextEdit, Apple's native text editor, loses track of the preference when I reopen a document. And then the red squiggles reappear.

For a while I had the "Check Spelling While Typing" menu item bound to a keystroke (cmd-opt-semicolon). So I could switch off the red squiggles in a given window with one power chord. Sadly, with recent versions of some apps (Mona, Zoom) this no longer works. Contextual menu items are no longer bindable with Mac's keyboard shortcut mechanism. (Not sure whether this is the fault of the apps, or SwiftUI, or MacOS. Doesn't matter though.)

So I've gotten pretty upset with the red squiggles. I'm not the only one.

If you search for the problem, you see a lot of people telling you how to turn off the "Correct Spelling Automatically" preference. (Example: this post.) That is a system-wide preference, and I turned it off years ago. But it's not the same thing. That preference is for auto-correction of spelling errors. I want to turn off the underlining of spelling errors.

Well, this week the problem got on my last nerve and I figured out a real and system-wide solution, which is abominable:

I created a spelling dictionary that accepts every English word as correct and told MacOS to use it exclusively.

Here it is!

Even more spring games

Saturday, June 8, 2024

Comments: 4   (latest 2 days later)

Tagged: reviews, open roads, animal well, pilgrims, isles of sea and sky, harold halibut

No particular category here. Some narrative, some puzzle, some of both.

  • Open Roads
  • Animal Well
  • Pilgrims
  • Isles of Sea and Sky
  • Harold Halibut

Lorelei and the Laser Eyes (Simogo) is a stylish puzzle-box full of puzzle-boxes. I really liked it, and I also felt like it didn't want to be liked.

This is an old-fashioned approach to puzzles. It feels more like a puzzle book. The Fool's Errand is maybe a better comparison, although I have trouble pinning down why I say that. Let's see:

  • A letter on a table next to a combination lock. The letter has underlined words which form a clue. Why? Because it's a puzzle. The suspended disbelief of puzzle environments is old hat, but this is a studied artifice.
  • Sets of clues which reveals more sets of clues which link up into a final answer. (Remember finishing a Cliff Johnson game amid a pile of crumpled-up clue notes?)
  • Unexpected use of the interface.

Now, the game also fills its fictional world with '80s computers, '90s consoles, puzzle books and puzzle boxes. And mazes. Multiple mazes. You literally find a book of puzzles which you carry in your inventory and whip out for various locked doors. So the game is quite explicitly invoking both the retro and the meta aesthetic. Old-fashioned in both form and intent.

But there's more. Lorelei is a story about retro art and retro artists -- 60s cinema, stage magic, Dada sculpture -- but reimagined as interactive art. Contemporary ideas of game design projected backwards into the past.

Ah, you say, artifice and history and anachronistic interactivity? That's Kentucky Route Zero. Indeed, that's a close neighbor. But KR0's take on interactive fiction is folksy and elegaic. It's the nostalgia of old-timey games, elaborated.

Lorelei's take, in contrast, is grand guignol. Mad artists gouging out eyes and plunging out third-story windows. Black-and-white cinema splashed with blood. If there's any nostalgia at all, it's for Silent Hill or Resident Evil -- games where you were uncomfortable all the time and also the tank-controls sucked.

It's not a cozy experience, is what I'm saying. Not precisely horror, but not cozy. Content warning bodily harm. I loved the puzzles but I was never happy just to be there.

What then of the puzzles? They were, by and large, easily solved. My biggest mistake in play was overthinking the solutions! But I still loved them, because every puzzle was a different idea; each started with that moment of "What is this? What am I looking at?"

Ah, there's the common factor with puzzle hunts and puzzle books and puzzle boxes. The modern approach to puzzles -- the root of the "thinky puzzle" tradition -- is iteration on a deep, explorable mechanic. There will be surprises, but they spring up in a field that you have mastered. Baba and Monster's Expedition start you out with a simple push.

But Masquerade and Maze (and latterly Gorogoa) were never like that. They threw you into a well of tantalizing maybe-clues and challenged you to find a pattern. That's the essence of Mystery Hunt puzzles. Lorelei may be a blood-spattered haunt of a game, but that's the living spark it's chasing.

And that spark leads us to the story, which is... allusive at best. A murder? A movie? A magic show? The game cheerfully hashes together its layers: screenplays about screenplays, books about books, games about games. No fourth wall is left unbroken. The environment itself is ostentatiously a rendering, as its puzzles are ostentatiously puzzles. If there's a "true" narrative, it exists in the negative spaces.

The endgame brings this together with a series of plot questions: what just happened? Who killed who? Who is fictional and who is real?

I like to call this sort of pop quiz "thematic apperception". (Yes, I'm misusing a psychology term.) It brings the game's story and theme on-stage as puzzle elements. I did this at the end of System's Twilight and felt very clever -- well, it was the 90s. Maybe it's on-the-nose (or in-the-eye) today.

But doesn't this exactly describe Obra Dinn and Golden Idol? Games where the puzzle is to figure out the game's plot events? Yes, and I've used the term that way.

But, hm, I've glossed over a distinction. The Obra-Dinners are pure inference: look at the clues, decide what happened. In System's Twilight I reversed the polarity a bit: I asked thematic questions, which (perhaps) got players to think about the story at a deeper level.

Lorelei takes this much farther. Its questions yanked me into thinking about the "real" story, the story behind all the metafictional layers. Wait, someone is imaginary? Someone really killed someone? I admit that I had waved it all off as a obfuscatory narrative haze, but the game wants specific answers. By asking, it created them.

...You know, this leads me to reconsider a cliche.

In Graham Nelson's classic essay "The Craft of Adventure", he writes:

An adventure game is a crossword at war with a narrative.

That was 1995 and I trust he'll forgive me for calling it a cliche today. We still quote that line, but we've also had thirty more years of creatively entangling narrative and puzzle design.

But I never spotted that a crossword is solved both ways. That's the whole point of the crossing words! When you figure out a DOWN clue, that gives you information towards the ACROSS clues, and vice versa. And then sometimes you guess, which helps.

If you think about solving an Obra-Idol-Roottrees, it feels a lot like solving a crossword. Try one option here, eliminate that option there, fill more of the grid. Knowing trivia may help. Sometimes you guess. There is no war; the crossword model is how you read the story.

And Lorelei handles its plot puzzles just that way. Story is DOWN, puzzles are ACROSS. The game gives you clues about the puzzles; the puzzles ask questions that give you clues about the game. You can guess if you need to. The narrative is checked letters.

Recall the dogs out

Wednesday, June 5, 2024

Comments: 39   (latest 2 days later)

Tagged: recall, microsoft, windows, ai, llms, copilot, stross

You can't sneeze right now without blowing over a "Microsoft's Recall is terrible" headline. The most positive take I've seen is "you might find this useful, but there are privacy concerns". The median take is less than positive. For details, check Kevin Beaumont's post which is the substantive analysis behind the current shouting.

I was struck, though, by Charlie Stross's post this morning, titled "Is Microsoft trying to commit suicide?"

Stross is a sharp writer and a sharp tech observer, and I entirely agree with the body of his missive: that Recall is terrible for many reasons. (Although he misstates that the feature is "impossible to disable". As commenters note, Recall installs default-enabled, but you can disable it in settings.)

But as a thesis statement, I am really not on board. Because the obvious answer is "No." Microsoft is not trying to commit suicide. Microsoft is trying to survive. And it's worth considering what this calamitous self-own tells us about Microsoft's mindset.

Riven releases June 25th

Monday, June 3, 2024

Comments: 6   (latest July 2)

Tagged: cyan, myst, riven

Cyan's remake of Riven has a release date: June 25th. It also has a release trailer. Two, in fact -- PC (Steam/GOG) and Quest 2/3. (They're almost the same, but the Quest trailer shows a bit of VR UI at 1:06.)

A wooden walkway traversing a partially submerged cave. Snapshot from the release date trailer.

Cyan had said it would be a 2024 release, so of course I was expecting November. Nope!

(In fact that's the day after I get home from NarraScope. Oh boy. I guess I'm lucky it wasn't the day after I leave for NarraScope.)

So, what do we expect from this? Aside from eyewateringly detailed environments and a soundtrack that still defines immersive reality for me.

The Myst remake was impeccably faithful to the original in layout, mechanics, and puzzle design. They made the walkable areas a bit larger. They adjusted a few things to be more VR-friendly -- all objects and devices are reachable from a seated position. And they added the "randomize puzzle solutions" option to give the old fans a replayability boost. But it was the same game, the same presentation, and (options aside) the same puzzles.

I expected the same when Riven was announced. Cyan has been teasing new visual detail and more explorable corners all along, but I figured the puzzles were the puzzles were the puzzles.

Apparently I'm wrong about that too:

[...] the new Riven isn’t a carbon copy of the original. There are new puzzles, new locations, and new pieces of lore alongside structural changes to make the world more narratively consistent.

-- "Remaking a Masterpiece", Adam Morgan, Game Informer, April 1

And, let us recall, new Robyn Miller music tracks as well.

"Narratively consistent" is tricky terrain, of course. Myst fans will happily talk about a "real canon", of which the game Myst is only an abstracted representation. Cyan knows the fans love that stuff; see last summer's Riven announcement at Mysterium, with a "newly recovered" artifact. But they've carefully avoided muddying the mainstream presentation of Myst with it.

I suspect that will remain true when Riven hits the not-really-streets in June. But hey, I've been wrong before.

Microsoft cancels next surprise hit game

Thursday, May 16, 2024

Comments: 1   (latest straightaway)

Tagged: industry, layoffs, surprise, microsoft, satire

Dateline May 7th (or May 2, or Apr 12, or Mar 28, or...)

Microsoft shocked industry observers today by announcing the cancellation of its upcoming unexpected hit game. The title was still in production, and would have been launched with little fanfare, but would have blasted its way to the top of the charts as next season's surprise bestseller.

"Of course we don't know which game the hit would be," commented the team's (ex-) lead designer. "The next Arkane Austin game? The next Tango Gameworks? Alpha Dog? I guess now we'll never find out."

Microsoft executives insisted that the upcoming hit might not have been a Microsoft title at all. "For all we know, the surprise success might have been coming from Take Two or Electronic Arts. Or Sega. Or one of those Embracer acquisitions. Any of them! I mean," one executive added with a nervous cough, "Not any more. Obviously."

With the week's layoffs out of the way and the risk of a breakout success safely neutralized, Microsoft's remaining developers have settled back to work on their roster of sure-fire sellers. With its new focus on reliable, brand-tested IP and safe genres, the company can be certain that the only surprises in the next few years will be surprise failures.