Monday, December 31, 2012

Favorite game mechanics of 2012

I am initiating this seasonal tradition here at the Gameshelf -- which may turn out to be a singleton tradition, that's always a danger, like New Year's resolutions, but we'll give it a shot, right?

Frequently I play a game and think "Hey, that was a well-designed game." It's not so often that I play a game and think "Wow, that one design element really stands out -- and I've never seen it before! Clever." So I wanted to pick out a few of my favorites from this year.

I'm not talking about featured gimmicks here. I'm talking about ideas that other games might reasonably think about adopting. Yes, Portal has a core game mechanic, it's very clever. If you use it, you're writing Portal 2. (Or Darksiders, but let's not get into that here.) There have been a spate of these core-puzzle-mechanic games -- Quantum Conundrum and Unfinished Swan were two fine examples I played in 2012. But I want to talk about the mechanics that quietly make your game better.

Behold, my choices for 2012. No doubt I'll think of another favorite tomorrow morning.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Zarfplan: And that was November

Plan for the month: get all the shortcutting code finished, before the end of the month. Result: it's 11:59 pm on November 30th. Drat! But it is finished. Pretty much finished.

Sometimes code is painful. Sometimes code don't want to be written. That is to say, sometimes you just don't wanna write it. I am no more immune to this than the next hacker. Maybe the next hacker has a better strategy, but I try to get some progress made every day, and not think about the looming mass of progress I haven't made. Eventually the looming mass shrinks, and that's what's happened this month.

Why was this painful? Just an annoying collection of cases, all of which have to be handled differently, with guards against infinite loops and other such game-creating failures. See, there are shortcuts for going places, finding objects, and creating objects. Sometimes finding an object means creating it; sometimes it means going to where it is. And then there's the distinction between checking if a goal is possible, and actually carrying out the goal. None of this is conceptually difficult, but I have to get the code structure right, which means some false starts and then rewriting once I have a clearer idea of all the requirements.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

A question for Google people -- Usenet dump?

Here's a question for data-liberation people in Google. (I know some people who work for Google, but I'm not in contact with whoever can directly answer this.)

For some fifteen years, most of the online discussion about interactive fiction -- probably most of the IF discussion, period -- happened on two Usenet groups: and

We have archives of those discussions from 1992-1997 and some of 1999-2002. (See IFArchive directories for RAIF and RGIF.) Outside those ranges, we rely on Google and its Groups service -- as you can tell from my two links above.

Google Groups has historically been iffy about Usenet. It started by acquiring the Deja News post archive (which itself only started in 1995, and was not completely preserved). Google's Groups service was then built on top of that -- rather in the sense of a rhinoceros being built on top of an old rollerskate -- and its Usenet access dwindled in priority. Its indexing was famously gappy for many years, although Google fixed that a couple of years ago.

I could get into a long post about Google's treatment of Usenet and its long-term consequences, but that's not this post. My question: we, the IF community, would like to hold our own data here. What's the best way for me to get a complete dump of all messages posted to those two Usenet groups, ever?

Scraping through the Google Groups web interface is a way to do this, but it's not very good, for a couple of reasons. (a) Google tends to shut down automated trawlers after some number of requests. (b) I'd have to deal with an extra layer of content encoding, which is more room for encoding to go wrong. (c) I don't know if Google's indexing is really complete, even now.

So it would be way better if some nice Google person could tap it at the source and send me a tar file. Or a DVD, or a hard drive, whatever. Anybody?

The qualifications:

  • Obviously there's no such thing as complete. I'll take whatever Google has, and merge it with the Archive records.

  • I mean all posts with either or in the Newsgroups: line. I also want all the crossposts, including the off-topic ones, the ones troll-crossposted to a zillion irrelevant groups, all of them. Think Newsgroups:.*rec\.(arts|games)\.int-fiction.*

  • I think I want spam, too. Probably. It depends on how much spam there is. (Google's index lets through a lot of spam, but maybe there's a thousand times as much which it doesn't show.) Tell me if it's horrible, we'll discuss it.

  • Original post file format, if possible.

  • My intent is to take whatever I get, ball it up, and stick it on the Archive. Then (at some point, not necessarily soon) I will go through, cull out the off-topic trolls and spam, and post it as a nice browsable web site on the Archive. Or maybe somebody else will do that part. Collect data first; massage later.

  • This is a one-shot request, as discussion on those newsgroups has mostly (not entirely) ceased as of a couple of years ago. A dump from beginning-of-time through this month is fine. (The community has shifted to these days. Archiving the web forum is a separate topic, which I also have feelers out on.)

If you can help, please comment here, or email me ( Thanks.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Zarfplan: October, more or less

Plan for the month: create a major new subsystem, supporting shortcut actions! Outcome: ...part of it. Sorry. This month was a "missed expectations".

What threw me off track was -- well, in part, I admit, The Fool and his Money. It came out last week, after ten years of development, and it's a heck of a game. (See my review from a couple of days ago.)

But that game was released on the 25th, so no, it didn't devour the entire month. The larger time-sucker was a series of improvements and bug fixes to the Inform 6 compiler. This is the IF development language that I started out using. (Well, really I started out using BASIC, and then got serious with Inform 5. But Inform 6 is an evolutionary improvement on Inform 5 -- it's still "the same language", whereas Inform 7 is a whole new deal.)

I6 has been largely superseded by I7, and development on it has mostly ceased, although it's still invisibly present in the I7 toolset. (The I6 compiler is I7's low-level code generator.) Nonetheless, some people still use I6 in its own right. It so happens that a couple of months ago, David Griffith picked up the thread of I6 development, and has been working on a new I6 release -- the first since 2004.

David's work required some new I6 compiler features. I've handled most of the (sporadic) I6 code work in the past few years, so I was in the best position to pick up those requests. While I was in there, I grabbed a bunch of other code cleanup I'd been meaning to do. There went the first two weeks of October.

These updates will primarily benefit I6 authors; most of them will not affect I7 authors. One exception: I added an optimization to reduce the game file size by omitting unused functions. Right off the bat this knocks 6% off the size of Hadean Lands. (The I7 compiler inserts some features that I'm not using, and is also imperfectly efficient about building support code for the classes in my code. Turns out that these total about 6% -- more for smaller I7 games.)

So, okay, this is not a crucial milestone in HL development, but it was important and I didn't want to roadblock David's work. So now it is done.

Returning to HL, I got through a chunk of the shortcut-action feature. The game can now track all the objects you find, and answer questions of the form "Where the heck did I leave X?" Not as trivial as it sounds: the answer might be "You transfigured it into Y, then hammered that into a Z, and then threw it into a furnace, so tough luck, buddy." If you type "RECALL X", the game will actually tell you all of that.

(Okay, it won't say "tough luck". That would be unkind.)

This sort of tracking is necessary, because you might type "CREATE FOO POTION" -- this being after you've learned how to make the Foo Potion and gone through the ritual at least once. So now the game is willing to do all the work for you... but it knows you need an X. Where the heck did you leave that? If X is in another room, you have to be able to get there; but if you've thrown X in a furnace, the game will have to explain why the Foo Potion is now a problem for you.

This is a fairly standard recursive-dependency problem, and it's not going to kill me. I just have to crank through it, and I have now cranked as far as "Where is X?" Cranking will continue.

I've started the next bit, the "walk to room Q (where X is)". But just like an hour ago, and only so that I can get up tomorrow morning in an already-rolling mood, rather than "Ungh, gurk, must start a major new feature, maybe after lunch." Always leave a sentence unfinished before bedtime, sort of thing.

I shall endeavor to get all the shortcutting code finished in November, and hopefully before the end of the month, so I can post a more encouraging update then. Merry Halloween.

As you are well aware, tomorrow is the second anniversary of the Hadean Lands kickstarter going live. I continue grateful to you all. While admittedly distracted by The Fool and his Money, I have taken some lessons from it. One: don't announce a release date that you can't make good on. Two: the game is finishable. No matter what anybody says. I'm really sure that it won't take me ten years.

Monday, October 29, 2012

The Fool and His Money -- talking about the game now

Okay, I did my moral homily, now I'll talk about the game. It occurs to me that some of my readership may not have played The Fool's Errand.

Well... probably most of my readership here has, because my friends include a lot of Mystery Hunt types. Plus people who (like me) were already gamers when TFE came out in (oy) 1987. Plus people who played System's Twilight, my TFE homage from (gah) 1994.

So, for the rest of you! The Fool and his Money is a puzzle collection wrapped in a narrative, with more puzzles hidden in the gooey center.

It's not an adventure game. The early example of TFE played hell with my notion of what an adventure game was, because it had puzzles and text and a story just like Zork, but it... was... something else. Years of research and meditation (--playing more games) clarified the distinction: The Fool games do not present you with an explorable game world. You don't find a puzzle by looking under a rug; you find a puzzle on your screen. This is not a flaw, this is a different outlook.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Fool and His Money is up

I was planning on writing this blog post Friday afternoon, and cueing it up to hit the streets at 9:01 PM. But that rat Johnson has tripped me up yet again and released The Fool and His Money a day early.

My download meter says "5 min 29 sec remaining", so that's how long I have to finish this post.

I was going to make a speech about not being a sardonic smartass about this sort of thing. I guess I still want to make that point. The past seven years have been punctuated by a lot of comments from That Guy -- you know who I mean -- the Guy Who says "Ha ha, 'the fool and his money', you're the fool, Cliff Johnson stole your money, he's never going to finish the game."

If you're that person, be ashamed. Doubt is easy; I've doubted. Calling somebody a liar is also easy, but it costs more. Don't impugn someone's honesty just to make a weak pun about the game's title. That's jackassery.

(Some of my friends are That One, and I'm sorry for lecturing you about this. I think it's important to say this.)

Yes, I am a biased commentator. I am a dude who is late with a game. Nobody's called me a liar yet, but I'm sure it'll come along. It won't break my spirit. That's not the point. The point is this:

If you have been 100% confident all along that Cliff Johnson would finish his game, today you are riding high. Your game is here and you're excited to play it.

If you have been hopeful -- or even doubtful! -- that Cliff Johnson would finish his game, today you are riding high. The world has justified your hopes, or the world is brighter than you expected; you are excited to play the game.

If you have been going around telling people that Cliff Johnson would never finish his game, that he was a liar, that we were idiots to believe it -- today you are horrified. You are disappointed. You're not the smart one after all. You invested yourself in believing the worst of someone, and the world has crushed your hopes. Your soul is smaller today.

I am here to tell you that you can be better than that. Your heart can grow three sizes today. It will hurt, though. Apologies always do.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Kairo, quick comments

Kairo was one of the two extremely abstract first-person puzzle adventure games that excited me at PAX this spring. (Is that an acronym yet? EAFPPAG? No? No.) (The other one was Antichamber, which I'm still looking forward to.) Kairo was just released for Mac/Win, with Linux and iOS promised later this year. I grabbed it on Sunday and jumped in.

Kairo is pleasant, but quite short; I finished it in two evening play sessions. Why evening? Because the stark architectonic worlds work better with the lights off. It's not exactly a beautiful game, not like Dear Esther or the highly-rendered graphical adventures of decades past. But the author chose his style and worked the living hell out of it. With little more than rectangles, distance fog, baked shadows, a little focus-blur, and a few concrete textures, Kairo builds an impressive range of architecture -- thematically unified but not repetitive -- and invests it with a startling sense of scale.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Pocket Storm on sale today

(If I was sensible I would have posted this last night...)

I just kicked Pocket Storm 1.1 out to the App Store, and to help spread the news, I'm lowering the price to one dollar -- today only. Call it Thunderstorm Friday! (In real life it's just drizzling out there in Boston, but with technology, we can do better.)

I got the download size down below Apple's 50-meg limit, so you can install the app over 3G now. There are a handful of other small improvements. (The fade-out timer behaves more sensibly now; you can use headphone controls on PS; and I plugged in the necessary vacuum tubes for the new iPhone 5 display size.) But app size is the important change. Apparently people make impulse purchases -- who knew?

And, as before, I am donating 10% of Pocket Storm revenues to, because of the awesome service they provide to indie game designers and other artists. In particular, they provide CC-licensed thunderstorm noises to me! Thus far Pocket Storm has not been a huge moneymaker, but I am hoping that over time, people support it.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Zarfplan: September work

A month not of dramatic improvement, but of improvement regardless.

Jumping in a pool now works. Jumping into various other infelicitous environments -- details elided for spoiler reasons -- all work. You can draw metal rods into wire, and pound wire back into metal rods. There are now four different ways you can set things on fire, with different responses. Some of these behaviors support puzzles; others are just to keep the world believably fluid. (If an object is described as "dusty", and then you jump into the pool, it should stop being dusty.)

Why four different ways to set things on fire? Basically, I wrote up one set of responses for the sort of "burn X with Y" action where you hold a match to X. If you hold a match to a candle, the candle catches fire. But then I set up the retort, a glass vessel with a bunsen burner underneath. That's a different situation -- if you heat a candle in there, the candle melts. Maybe now you have a quantity of wax to play with. If you stick the candle into a kiln, it vanishes completely, poof, gone. (I'll leave the fourth as a surprise.)

All of this is a parcel of work, or four parcels, but fortunately I don't have that many cases of heat-responsive substances. (I can ignore rocks and steel tools, for example.) Each rulebook only has to cover ten or twelve cases.

Then, as I work, I think of cases that run into each other -- for example, as I was writing this post, I realized that I have one object which gets damp in water but then dries off in the kiln. I added a rule to cover that. (Most dampenable objects just incinerate in the kiln, so there's no need for a special case there.)

All game design is exponential explosion -- but if you can keep the exponent down around -0.3 or -0.4, the series sums to a finite value and the process eventually ends.

(Or, I should say, the process eventually gets into alpha-testing. That will be another whole ball of melted wax. I know I'm missing things, but the important ones will turn up over time.)

Monday, September 24, 2012

BostonFIG followup

I was at the Boston Festival of Independent Games and it was pretty darn awesome.

(Photo credit to BostonIndies.)

I had Shade and Meanwhile sitting out on iPads, and people played both of them! It wasn't literally eight straight hours of IF demoing -- there were gaps -- but it's not like people ignored the IF in favor of the interactive comic, either. Several people played a significant fraction of Shade. One dedicated player ran through the whole thing. (With some nudges from me. The ending requires a certain degree of relaxed experimentation and persistence, which isn't easy to maintain in a crowded demo room.)

(Yes, I wrote down a bunch of synonyms and action phrasings that I forgot to implement back in 2000. I will add them to the game when the iOS version comes out. User testing!)

Naturally I had a stack of IF cards to hand out to Shade players. I also got to show off the XYZZY Award I won for it, way back. And the puzzle-key I designed for the MakerBot promo game. (In the photo, the puzzle-key is sitting on top of the XYZZY. Sorry, I would have arranged that better if I'd known. Also I'd have been looking at the camera.)

Meanwhile was also popular, of course. It demos very well -- hand it to someone, and they'll get the idea instantly.

(I also had Pocket Storm running on an iPod. You can see the headphones in the photo, but nobody picked them up. Oh well. The good news is, I now know that an iPod can run PS for eight hours without recharging, even with the screen set to stay lit.)

Monday, September 17, 2012

Two notes on Darksiders 2

Last night I finished an epic -- for me -- drive through Darksiders 2. I've been playing it for two weeks now. (It was my self-reward for the last HL milestone.) I think the counter on my save slot reached 36 hours. I know that's not large for a modern RPG, and weighs as a feather in the MMO world, but I don't play those genres much; for me, this is an enormous game.

Fortunately for me (I count my ambivalence quietly), the immersive, 3D, explore-puzzle-fight genre is in a gentle recession these days -- at least on consoles. I suppose its golden age ran from Tomb Raider to Sands of Time? There have been some excellent ones recently, mind you; Arkham Asylum counts, Bioshock counts, and we shouldn't neglect the finely-written Enslaved. But, again, those were rather smaller. I won't expect to burn this kind of time again until (presumably) a Darksiders 3 appears in (presumably) three years or so.

My first comment mirrors what I said about the original Darksiders: The writing is adequate. The acting, ditto. The plot is an overcomplicated mess, floating in a tepid goulash of Milton, Revelation, and second-string Vertigo. The characters are stock cardboard ("oh, look, a big grim muscleman") and every single game mechanic is lifted from an earlier game. But so what because the level design and puzzle construction are the best all-around work in the genre.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Zarf at BostonFIG

I am happy to announce that I will be showing off Shade for iOS at the Boston Festival of Independent Games, at MIT next weekend. I will also have Meanwhile, Pocket Storm, Fealty, and the rest of my iOS portfolio ready to demo.

(BostonFIG: Saturday, September 22, 10 am to 10 pm, MIT buildings 34 and 26. Free and open to the public.)

More IF stuff at FIG: Jason Scott will be a keynote speaker, and he will be showing Get Lamp at some point. Plus there's this whole showcase of other indie games. It'll be cool.

What, you ask? Shade for iOS? It's still in development -- don't go running off to the App Store to find it. As with Dreamhold, I'm planning to leave the game file unchanged from its circa-2000 release, but I will add in-game feelies of some sort. Only not a map. A map of Shade wouldn't be very interesting.

Hope, faith, etc

I've been checking Cliff Johnson's Fool and His Money production schedule regularly, as it ticked down past the diagnostic four-week mark. (In previous cycles, Johnson's habit has been to chime in at around four weeks to go, apologize, and reschedule.) As I write this, it says:
Sep-10   Finale & Bugs
Sep-17   Finale & Bugs
Sep-24       Done

However, I missed this additional note:

As priorities shift on an hourly basis, it is becoming clear that The Finale is falling behind schedule.

I concentrate my energy on the gameplay & on the bugs.

Do I release the Game without The Finale on September 24th and then publish the Game with The Finale at a future date?

What are your thoughts?

That's a tough question. Tougher because he's certain to get both answers from different groups of people, and they're both justifiable answers. Some of the answerers (on both sides, I'm sure) will be using exclamation points. I've gotten hypersensitized to Yelling On The Internet. Maybe my answer should just be "Dude, do what you're going to do, and don't let the Internets throw you off course."

But no. I am too much the Internet loudmouth myself to let the opportunity pass, so here goes.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Pocket Storm

I am delighted to announce Pocket Storm -- a generative audio environment for your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch. Pocket Storm is my first Boodler project for iOS.

It starts with a calm summer night. Soon you'll hear thunder in the distance, then wind and a spatter of rain. After half an hour you'll be in the thick of the storm. By the end of the hour it will have faded into the night again. Then the cycle begins again.

The Pocket Storm is not like other environmental audio apps. Every thunderstorm is different! Wind, rain, thunder -- even chirping crickets -- every sound is chosen from a library, with subtle variations of pitch and timing. The Pocket Storm weaves these elements into a tapestry of sound which will never repeat.

Here's my Pocket Storm web page; or snarf it straight from the App Store.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Zarfplan: On through August

Last time I said, "I can confidently say I'll finish the alchemical ritual code in August." Which I did! Barely. (I just finished the last unit test, at 8:30 pm on the 31st.)

I now have 34 alchemical rituals working. And 265 unit tests, which demonstrate that they're working. I'm feeling a little dizzy, honestly.

You'll recall I said something about "burning bits of wood and an alchemical retort" being the last bits of infrastructure. Well, inevitably, those were a nightmare. Burning things is one of the archetypical Hard Things To Do In IF. The other two are mixing liquids, and rope. Well, I implemented all the liquid-mixing back in July... and this game is not going to contain any rope.

(There's a silk cord, but you can't tie it to things.)

Long story short: I now have a setting-things-on-fire engine, to go along with the liquid-mixing engine and the ritual state machine. This is where I get very grateful for Inform 7 and its rulebook architecture.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

On behalf of Dominique Pamplemousse

I know this project has been widely spoken of in indie-games-land over the past few weeks, so maybe I'm just gilding the grapefruit here. But Deirdra Kiai's indie musical claymation adventure kickstarter(*) is moving into its final week of fundraising, and it has half a progress bar still to go.

(* Kickstarter in this case is Indiegogo, but you know what I mean.)

Check out the online demo of Dominique Pamplemousse in "It’s All Over Once the Fat Lady Sings!" (Demo is Flash, but the completed work will be Win/Mac/iPad.)

The Kickstarter world is currently full of remakes, re-releases, decades-belated sequels, and other wonders of nostalgia -- do I even need to hunt down example links? Amid all this, we need some attention for new, original games by people who weren't already famous in 1995.

I think a stop-motion light-opera adventure game counts as original. I mean, I'm not familiar with too many games that do either of those things(*). And if you're still hooked on nostalgia, well, Pamplemousse is a third-person graphical adventure of the old Lucas/Sierra model.

(* I never managed to play The Neverhood.)

The artwork is charming; the music is charming; the sung and spoken dialogue is well-done and apropos. But this is not the soul of the matter. When I played Deirdra's last graphical game, Life Flashes By, I wrote: "Not too many authors sit down to write a straight-up high-quality story, in the interactive mode." That is what we are offered here.

It will be a shame if, amid all the crowd-funding frenzy, this project gets lost on the wayside. So, please give Deirdra some money. The funding deadline is the end of August.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Zarfplan: On through July

At the beginning of July, I had three rituals implemented in my game engine. I now have seventeen. Plus their unit tests (130 tests in total!) That's pretty much my July, as far as Hadean Lands goes.

I had hoped to finish all thirty-odd of the game's alchemical rituals. But it turns out that the ritual engine isn't as separable from the rest of the game as I'd thought. For example, some of the recipes include mixing chemicals -- pouring one substance into a beaker of another substance. Well, that means I need a chemical-mixing engine, distinct from the ritual engine. (The player might go pouring acid into water, or vice versa, in any situation.)

So I had to spend some time setting that up. And then some rituals create potions, so I need to implement potion-drinking; some rituals create lenses, so I need to implement a "peering through" action; and so on. All of this infrastructure is still base cases -- none of the potions do anything yet -- but IF infrastructure is always harder than the specific cases that will make use of it.

Given the rate of progress, I can confidently say I'll finish the alchemical ritual code in August. (The remaining bits of ritual infrastructure are: burning bits of wood, and an alchemical retort. The glassware kind, not a smart remark.)

In other news, I released a Dreamhold bug-fix update, and have made excellent progress on the secret project. Hopefully that'll show up in August as well.

More July news: we had an IF meetup at NoShowConf, a new game-dev conference here in Boston. In the course of that weekend, I unexpectedly wound up sitting in a panel discussion next to Jim Munroe (IF guy and filmmaker) and Randall Munroe (xkcd guy, no relation to previous). You can find a link to audio of that discussion in this blog post. The rest of NoShowConf is also streamable online. None of the presentations were specifically about IF, but various IF-known people were among the presenters. I intend to plan IF events at next year's NoShowConf, so stay tuned.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Myst movie drama

The Myst movie project has been silent for several months. We just got an update, which describes a bunch of turmoil and sadness within the project team:

In our initial informal meetings with every major studio in town and their top brass, it became clear that the BoT [Book of Ti'ana] was going to be VERY hard if not impossible to sell as a starting point for the movie franchise. There is a litany of reasons for this, which have been discussed in detail in previous posts so I won't bore you with them.

As the necessity for a new creative direction became clear, it was harder for some to accept then others. Of course Adrian and Patrick spent years developing and working towards a very specific vision for the BoT, including writing a full length spec script based on the book. As the changes were discussed among our LA partners, Cyan, and MFG, it became clear that Adrian and Patrick's plan to move forward was not aligning with everyone else. I don't think this is the time or place to get into the details, but Cyan ultimately came to the decision that the best thing for the property was to have Adrian step down as MFG's lead producer, and have me step into those shoes. (If you remember Patrick stepped down as producer for personal reasons a couple years ago.) This was of course, very difficult for everyone involved, but most of all for Adrian. I want to make it clear here that Cyan made a very difficult but well-informed decision, based on what was best for the property. Everyone involved sans Adrian and Patrick were in full agreement with their decision.

(-- Isaac Testerman, July 20, forum post) (cached on my web site)

To be clear, this isn't a case of Cyan hiring their own people and throwing out the original producers the next day. Adrian Vanderbosch and Patrick McIntire started this ball rolling; they pitched it to Cyan; Cyan gave them the movie rights. Over the course of the next few years, they worked with various people, including Isaac Testerman. I don't know the exact organization, but from the outside, it was a team. (Collaborating closely with Rand Miller and the Cyan people.)

It appears that the team ran into a classic case of Irreconcilable Creative Differences. The simplistic explanation seems to be "Do we adapt the Book of Ti'ana into a movie, or do something else?" but I'm sure there was a lot more detail than that. At any rate, it was ultimately Cyan's decision, and Cyan made it:

After a couple months both parties were not able to reach agreeable terms and as Cyan's option (the legal document that allows you to control the rights) with MFG was expiring, they chose not to renew it with them. Delve Films then entered into negotiations with Cyan and purchased the option, obtaining the audio/visual rights to the Myst property going forward.

(-- same post)

("MFG", Mysteria Film Group, is the group that Patrick and Adrian started. Delve Films is Isaac's baby. So this translates to "Patrick and Adrian got cut out", if you want to put it crudely; but more in the sense of "that company has become paralyzed, so we'll drop it and start over with as many of the same people as we can.")

The old project web site at remains un-updated and may be moribund at this point. Followers and fans are blogging at

So, at this point, we have some sort of Myst movie project, but not the one we thought we had. I have no more details than anybody else, so I won't try to predict what will happen next. The post alludes teasingly to "[bringing] in millions of new fans through multiple audio/visual and interactive platforms". Could be anything, then.

Update, July 24th:

Adrian Vanderbosch has updated the blog with his side of the story.

It is, I think it is fair to say, an angry denial and denunciation of Isaac Testerman's story:

To put it bluntly, my departure from the "Myst" movie project was due to nothing short of a coup, orchestrated and executed by Isaac, with the support of the company heads of Cyan Worlds.

(-- Adrian Vanderbosch, July 23, blog post) (cached on my web site)

I will not try to summarize the post, nor would there be any point in me taking sides. It was already clear that the breakup of this effort was acrimonious. Isaac's post was short, politic, and general; Adrian's is long, emotional, and specific -- so there's no point-by-point disagreement. It's all a question of who did what in good or bad faith.

I will note the timeline, though: the "coup" (Adrian's term) or "[decision] to have Adrian step down" (Isaac's) occurred more than a year ago, in April 2011. Everything since then has been (failed) legal negotiation and people waiting for the clock to run out on MFG's film option.

My original comments stand: this is a bunch of turmoil and sadness. And whatever film project is in progress, it doesn't bear any resemblance to one we started hearing about several years ago. ("...we've had to go back to the drawing board", in Isaac's words.) We just don't have any meaningful details.

Update, July 25th: As was fairly predictable, the posts and threads I have linked to have been pulled down. I believe it is better to have a historic record, so I have cached these documents on my web site.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Zarfplan: Progress report about progress

If I want to call this the "June report", I'd better get it posted in the next couple of hours... That is, if you're in the US. Everyone else can blame the leap-second.

Last month, I was saying I had a complete picture of the puzzle structure. I can now add to that:
  • An update of PlotEx which can handle the puzzle structure. (I wasn't kidding about it needing optimization, woo boy.)
  • A map! (Not complete in detail -- I may split up some rooms and shift closets around -- but complete in structure.)
  • A rough list of where everything in the game belongs on the map. (Again, not yet fixed in terms of what goes in what closet.)
  • The basic Inform code for the ritual engine.
  • The first three rituals.
  • A unit-testing script for testing new rituals as I implement them.
  • A Secret Project.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Everything I know about digital preservation

(but was afraid to ask)

The first session I dropped into at the ELO Conference was the "Archiving Workshop". The eye candy here is Bill Bly's hypertext piece We Descend, running on the Mac Classic platform that he originally started writing it on. (That's System 6-point-something, I believe.) Enjoy the pixelly nostalgia!

The point, of course, is that getting data off of such antique equipment is a permanent and increasing headache. (This Mac was borrowed from a library, so Bly had the equal headache of trying to get the app onto it from his much newer Mac laptop.) The piece was originally written with a proprietary tool, Storyspace -- an old version which is no longer supported on current OSes. (He has since updated the project to the current, but still proprietary, Storyspace 2.)

The whole notion of archiving and replaying digital art (and games, etc) is rife with these issues. See, for example, the ELO's 2004 publication titled Acid-Free Bits.

The session turned into a lively roundtable discussion, and in the course of that, I popped in a mention of the IF Archive. I knew our community is pretty good about that stuff -- I've always been proud of it, and to be part of it -- but I was startled when some of the other participants vociferously lionized us for it. "The IF community is the gold standard for archiving!" Exact quote. Yikes!

(Apologies, by the way: I'm not going to even try to remember everybody's name. This post will be all "somebody" and "that guy". Feel free to comment and fill in blanks.)

The discussion alternately surprised and startled me with the different assumptions that people had about archiving. Like, for example, everybody thought this was a hard problem and the IF people had done something very difficult in solving it. "It's a distributed, mirrored archive containing every IF game ever created. When you put it that way, it does sound kind of impressive!"

Okay, that was Aaron Reed who said that. I know his name. But point taken.

Let me try to tease out some of those assumptions, what turns out to be easy, and what's probably more difficult than it looks. I will do this in the best way: with a set of Taoist aphorisms!

Thursday, June 14, 2012

RealMyst for iPad

As promised, Cyan's port of RealMyst for iPad has just hit the iOS App Store.

It requires an iPad 2 or the new (third-gen) iPad. Cyan's original promos also promised support for the newest iPhone, but apparently they couldn't make that work, because it ain't there. The planned price is ten bucks, but they're doing a launch sale at seven. So snag it now, if you're into buying Myst a lot. (We recall that the original flat-image Myst appeared for iPhone/iPad in 2009.)

It's very pretty -- of course; albeit with the slightly simplified RealMyst world. (The original Myst allowed arbitrarily detailed images, but a 3D engine has to count polygons.) This is probably at the limit of what the newest iPad can handle. Load times between Ages are pretty awful, and even moving between rooms induces a second or two of delay to load new textures. However, that aside, walking and looking around are quite smooth. The skies and ripple-animated water look fantastic. The only missing graphical element (so I am told) is the day-night lighting cycle in some of the Ages.

(And, may I say, the new iPad has a fantastic display. Go ahead, click through to the full-sized screenshot. 2048x1536, baby, and you can just spin around like an acrobat.)

Monday, June 4, 2012

Anatomy of a bug hunt

As my loyal followers know, I released Dreamhold on a Friday, and then spent most of Saturday trying to figure out why it was crashing for some players. Nobody ever wants a software release like that, but I did find the bug, so it's as much of a win as one can hope for. The bug fix just hit the App Store.

I thought it might be interesting to detail the whole sequence of events. Or maybe it'll be as dull as ditch dirt! I don't know. It seems like a good narrative to me, but I was dere, Charlie.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Dreamhold for iOS

It is up on the App Store! Go take a look.

(If you have an iPhone or iPad or whatever, I mean. If you don't, you can still play Dreamhold on my web site or however you like. For old time's sake.)

(The Dreamhold cover art is based on a photograph by Trey Ratcliff: The Festival of Lights in Lyon (CC by-nc-sa).)

I know most of you have already played Dreamhold -- it's a 2004 game, after all -- but it's been a fun game to revisit. This iOS release has a nifty map and some nifty (if cliche'd) trophy achievements, so maybe that will spark some competitive spirit or speedrun hijinks out there in Internet-land.

Unfortunately, I managed to ship the thing with a crashy bug. Several players have reported "Fizmo fatal error: Caught signal 11" messages. It isn't happening to everybody, and some people have gotten past it simply by quitting and restarting several times. (The problem seems to be showing up only on iPhone 4 and 4S, so far.)

I apologize for the bug, of course, and I hope to hunt it down this weekend. (EDIT-ADD: I have submitted a bug fix, as of May 27th. It is awaiting App Store review.) (June 4th: Bug fix is available; grab the 1.0.1 update.)

Bugs aside, what does this mean for the greater world of interactive fiction?

Saturday, May 19, 2012

A couple of Myst links

Heather Larkin has started adapting The Book of Atrus as a web comic. (This is the first of the three Myst novels, written by David Wingrove from Robin and Rand Miller's storylines.)

The comic starts with Atrus as a child, living in the desert with his grandmother. It's kind of adorable. I wasn't a huge fan of The Book of Atrus as a novel, but this presentation is simpler, more direct, and touching. (Only three chapters are posted, covering roughly the first two chapters of the book; we'll see if it stays on track.)

(Also: Russian translation!)

Cyan has already released Myst and Riven as iOS apps, but now they're working on porting RealMyst to iPad. (Currently labelled as iPad 2 and 3 only.)

Yes, it's yet another release of the same damn game, but it will include the Rime Age. Rime was added for the original RealMyst release and is not available in the current iOS Myst (nor other ports of the 2D Myst engine).

Also, the technology is more up-to-date. As I understand it, this uses the Unity engine. The 3D navigation looks pretty smooth -- it avoids the trauma of the virtual d-pad, at least. (Don't ask.) Unity is well-supported these days, so it would be an easy port to other platforms, or as a starting point for a new original game.

Well, we can hope.

A couple of preview videos: Myst Island and Channelwood. The release date is given as "Spring 2012", which at this point means "when it's done", I suppose.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Thoughts on Dear Esther

Dear Esther came out in February, but I don't have a Windows box (worth mentioning) so I skipped all the commentary and waited for the Mac port. That just showed up; huzzah! (Unironic cheer there. Three months is sharp porting. I'd love to see Fez three months from now, but I doesn't expect it.)

Because I skipped all the commentary, I won't try to do a full-on review. I'm sure it's mostly been said. Instead, you get assorted thoughts about interactivity.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

iOS Interpreter milestone

After only a couple extra weeks of work (and non-work -- oh, PAX, you great distraction) I am declaring my iOS IF interpreter ready for beta-testing.

Again, this is not Hadean Lands. The first game I will distribute this way will be The Dreamhold, a tutorial IF game. It will be a free download. (Really, The Dreamhold is already a free download -- you can play it on my web site or in iPhone Frotz. I will be packaging it as a standalone IF app with my new interpreter code.)

As I said, I'm doing this for buzz, and to get feedback on the UI design. But as a bonus, this release of The Dreamhold will contain a brand-new dynamic map. I figure that mobile IF players don't want to draw their own maps. (I mapped all the IF I played when I was a kid... stacks of scrap paper all over the computer room. When you're standing on the subway in rush hour, it's not so simple.) So the game will track your progress, and fill in a map for you as you play.

I hope testing won't run too long, and The Dreamhold will be out by the end of April. (I know, last update I said "early April". Turns out that was wrong.)

Monday, March 26, 2012

Apollo 18+20: The IF Tribute Album (now playing)

A very quick note, as Kevin has gone to bed:

The Apollo 18+20 IF album is now live. Most of the games are playable in your web browser; they can all be downloaded and played in your IF interpreter tool of choice.

This after ten minutes of work by me and three months by Kevin. So benificence upon him and all the album contributors. Also thanks to Ryan Veeder for the cover artwork.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Apple's turn-based game API (and what it needs)

As I have alluded in some blog post or other, I've been working on an iOS port of the board game Fealty, designed by R. Eric Reuss. For the project, I chose to use the "turn-based game" API which is built into iOS 5.

(This is part of the GameCenter toolkit, aka GameKit; but not the whole thing. The original GameKit, in iOS 4.1, supported achievements, leaderboards, and peer-to-peer games, but it didn't have a system for turn-taking games. That came along in iOS 5. Just to be clear about the background.)

Building a game using Apple's API was kind of an adventure, which I may document on this blog someday. But the thing is, Jmac and I spent 2005 and 2006 building a platform for these sorts of games, with servers and APIs and everything. It was called Volity; it was very clever. (We weren't nearly so clever about PR, which is why nobody used it, which is why we took it down a few years later, which is why I'm not linking to it.)

We are not Apple, but we are gamers, and our Volity system is more general than Apple's toolkit. It can be used for more kinds of games. This blog post is my attempt to rattle off the differences. Not for bragging rights (Volity is down today, GameCenter is up, end of story) but to point at features that GameKit will (I hope) adopt in future releases.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

It is the (mostly technical) progress report

I commented on Monday that I would get an update posted "in a couple of days". That wasn't procrastination; I wanted to be able to say I'd hit an interesting milestone before I headed off to a week of GDC. Didn't happen! Sorry. So, here's the somewhat-less-than-a-mile marker of progress I've got.

First, the game: the game is progressing. That is all I have to say about it. (Yes, there will be more detailed reports before the "It's done" report. But not right now.)

First and a half: Let's assume that if I had a release date to announce, I'd announce it, okay? (I wish I didn't have to explain that every time.)

But here is what I can say, because this is the open-source part: I have made great progress this month on the technical end of the project. That is to say, the iOS port of the IF interpreter.

Ico: Castle in the Mist (book review)

by Miyuki Miyabe; translated to English by Alexander O. Smith

I suppose I should write two reviews here: one for folks who love Ico the videogame, and one for folks who have never heard of it. (If you're in between, flip a coin and read both.)

Ico was a 2001 videogame (for the Playstation). I loved it; I still love it. It remains a landmark in atmospheric, engaging videogame storytelling. Notably, it was almost entirely wordless. Everything was conveyed through architecture, lighting, the body language of the protagonists, and -- most important -- the physical struggle of the game's challenges. If you haven't played the game, this makes no sense to you. Let me put forth that the most important button on the game's controller, the one about which the story revolves, is "hold hands".

So how does this experience translate into a novel?

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Spacewar at MIT

Today I dropped by MIT to see a demo of Spacewar, the Very First Videogame -- originally written for the PDP-1 in 1962; now reconstructed by GAMBIT for the Arduino.

My photos aren't terrifically clear, but you can see the two spaceships maneuvering around a central sun (and its gravity well). They shoot at each other, and that's a videogame. The starry background, famously, is based on actual star charts.

The original source code to Spacewar has long been available (here, for example) but it is minimally-commented PDP-1 assembly code and not very accessible. The GAMBIT folks have worked for several months to reverse-engineer the code and figure out what's going on. See their blog posts on the project.

GAMBIT has promised (nudge, nudge) to post their marked-up copy of the original assembly, to document what they've discovered. I'll add a link when that happens.

If you missed Spacewar today, you should drop by the MIT Museum this Friday evening (5:30 pm); the game will be demoed again.

More photos below the dotted line.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Meanwhile update -- and a one-day sale

I've just released an update to Meanwhile. Is this exciting? I hope it is, because this release contains new high-definition artwork. Digitally remastered from Jason Shiga's original files!

(I've always wanted to say "digitally remastered". One has fewer and fewer opportunities these days.)

On iPhone 4 (or other retina-scale displays, such as the newer iPod touch) you will see a sharper, clearer Meanwhile. You can also zoom in farther than before, a full 2x, to see this art in all its detail.

Older devices (such as iPad 1 and 2) cannot display the sharper artwork at normal zoom. But you can still zoom in to 2x to see the high-resolution art.

To celebrate this, I am offering Meanwhile for a impulse-buy-delighting $0.99 -- for today only. Jason and I think that the app is its own best advertisement -- everyone who plays with it is immediately in love with the design. So, we want more people to play with it. Pass the word around to your friends.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Going Cardboard

I just got back from a preview showing (I think the first public preview showing?) of Lorien Green's documentary Going Cardboard. It was pretty great.

The movie covers the modern era of board games, what Green calls "designer" and I call "Euro" games -- Settlers of Catan and its genre-descendants. Jason Scott did the editing, so Get Lamp fans will recognize the style: lots of interwoven interview clips, giving an overview of a community and then several takes on particular aspects of it. We get some history (and an amusing sequence of gamers being ambivalent about Monopoly); we get a view of Spiel Essen, the mightiest of board-game conventions. (Fascinating to me, as I've only been to the relatively puny Origins.)

Going Cardboard has a bit more narrative than Get Lamp, I'd say. It follows a couple of people through full-circle story arcs. We see Don Vaccarino taking Dominion from a homebrew prototype, through publication at Rio Grande Games, to winning the Spiel des Jahres in 2009. And we watch Bryan Johnson recounting his tribulations publishing a game called "Huang Di" from 2006 to 2011. (Johnson just got a version of the game funded through Kickstarter, so that story has a happy ending -- the final cut of the film will likely mention that.)

I am peripheral to the board-game universe, but I recognized plenty of names of interviewees -- Vaccarino, Alan Moon, Klaus Teuber, Friedemann Friese, and others. Reiner Knizia, of course. I know a few of the faces as well. (Nice to see Kory Heath being typically enthusiastic about game design.)

Plus, I saw myself! One of the crowd shots at Unity Games distinctly shows the back of my head. I was wearing a Werewolf t-shirt. So, you've got that to look forward to also.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Key Features: a new (small) Zarf IF game

A new (tiny) IF work -- Key Features! This was commissioned by MakerBot Inc. in honor of their upcoming product announcement, which will be at CES on Monday.

MakerBot is a nifty 3D printer company, and that's what's neat about this game: you can literally print out the feelies as real-life objects as you play! If you have a 3D printer. (If not, you can still look at the model renderings to see what they'd look like. The links will appear as you play.)

You can play Key Features online or download the game file. (Use your browser's "download" option to do that, as the game file may come across as text.)