Tuesday, June 21, 2022

I went to a conference and nobody spread COVID

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

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

AI ethics questions

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 7, 2022

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

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

Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Cragne Manor source code (some of it)

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

Monday, May 30, 2022

Recent puzzly games: summer 2022 edition


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

The Inheritance of Crimson Manor

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

Skábma: Snowfall

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

Recursive Ruin

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


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

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Patricia McKillip (1948-2022)

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

Thursday, April 28, 2022

Inform 7 open-source release

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

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Yes, I will quit Twitter

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

Monday, April 18, 2022

Hey, submit a NarraScope talk

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

Saturday, April 16, 2022

Is Apple Arcade even a thing any more?

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

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

Sunday, April 10, 2022

Puzzle dossiers and boxes, 2022

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


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

The Vandermist Dossier

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

The Emerald Flame

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

Friday, March 25, 2022

SFWA membership is easier to qualify for

Way back in 2016, SFWA -- the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association -- announced that game writers and narrative designers were eligible to join. And indeed I joined, and I've been a member in good standing ever since.
However, the membership criteria were kind of contorted. There was stuff about word count and how much money you made on a single work. I was lucky that Hadean Lands happened to fit the criteria. They dated back to the original conception of SFWA as an association of novelists, or maybe short story writers -- but novels were definitely better -- in a stable market of known publishers.
Well, stability is a dim memory, isn't it? So SFWA has spent the past twenty years patching the rules. First indie publishers, then self-publishing, digital publishing, cross-media publishing... the organization has expanded its membership criteria over and over. It got messy.
Cleanup time! The membership has overwhelmingly approved an update to the bylaws which simplifies the whole thing. The membership requirements now say:
A candidate shall be eligible for Full Membership if:
  • Their catalog of paid work in science fiction, fantasy, or related genres equals or exceeds an industry standard set by the board. ($1000)
  • For co-authored works or team projects, the candidate’s share must equal or exceed an industry standard set by the board. ($1000)
  • Proof of earnings will be guaranteed by affidavit.
This includes writing work on books, stories, videogames, tabletop games, comics, screenplays, whatever. Pretty much anything as long as it's English-language writing work in the genre, and your lifetime earnings total $1000.
(Poetry and criticism/non-fiction are currently not included, although this may be reconsidered. There is a separate Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association, mind you.)
(The "affidavit" thing basically means that this is on the honor system. You don't need to get a letter from your boss or publisher proving that you made $1000.)
(The $1000 requirement is for full membership. SFWA also has associate members (non-voting, lower requirement) and affiliate members (for non-writers in the industry who want to stay in the loop with the writers' group).)
(Oh, and while I'm doing footnotes -- the web site still says "Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America". But the org is in the process of dropping the "America" part; it will just be "...Association" in the future. SFWA is open to writers of every nationality.)
If you're a professional game writer and you're reading this, you probably qualify.

So why do you care about SFWA? Is it worth the $100/year dues?
They've got a "Why Join" web page. I admit it's not very game-focused at the moment. However, I'm glad to be involved with the org, just as a representative of (one corner of) the games industry. I've had a hand in shaping the Nebula Award for Game Writing which launched in 2018.
Plus there's SFWA forums and chat sites where you can hang out. You know, how professional organizations do.
But in general, as more game writers and narrative designers join up, SFWA will become more relevant to games and the needs of game people. So that's why I'm writing this.
Take a look; see if it makes sense.

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Roberta and Ken Williams are making a VR Colossal Cave

I am not at GDC. I miss GDC. I miss the narrative summit talks; I miss the indie and narrative game dev crowd at Golden Gate Pub. I also miss the game showcases. Not the triple-wazoo giant-booth nonsense, but the interesting stuff: the IGF showcase, alt.ctrl.gdc, the Indie Megabooth (sadly on hiatus).
Here's interesting:

Photo by Ryan Stevens
Ken and Roberta Williams, the founders of pioneering game development studio Sierra Online, are getting back into the game (so to speak) with a graphical remake of the groundbreaking text adventure Colossal Cave. [...]
"We have completely recreated Colossal Cave for the millions of fans that grew up with it and a new generation of gamers," Ken Williams said. "It takes place in a fully immersive 3D and VR environment for a realistic cave exploration experience that is intended for the whole family."
-- PCGamer, March 21
There's a teaser web site with an FAQ and some concept art (or screenshots?) They're aiming at Quest 2 for VR, plus regular PC and Mac ports.
GDC is their big reveal; they've got a VR demo running. Ryan Stevens captured a few seconds of video in this tweet. (Thanks to Ryan for alerting me to the GDC demo, by the way. Ryan was an IF community regular and IFComp competitor back in the day.)
That's definitely a steel grating! ...is about all I can say.

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Recent narrative games: winter 2021 edition

Or is that winter 2022? What I've played since January, anyhow.
  • Aspire: Ina's Tale
  • Spirit of the North
  • Conway: Disappearance at Dahlia View
  • Inua: A Story in Ice and Time
  • Fallow
  • Far: Changing Tides

Tuesday, February 22, 2022

These violent delights

I've spent the past few days working on an Inform 6 compiler patch to tighten up generated code. While I was working, I tweeted this screenshot of a buggy game:

I feel silly posting an image of text, so here's that again:
 At End Of Road                                      Violence isn'Violence isn't
tease oti n.

Welcome to Adventure!

Violence isn't the answer to this one.Violence isn't the answer to this
one.Release 5 / Serial number 961209 / Inform v6.37 Library Violence isn't the
answer to this one. S

At End Of Road
Violence isn't the answer to this one.


Inside Building
Violence isn't the answer to this one.

Violence isn't the answer to this one.

Violence isn't the answer to this one.

Violence isn't the answer to this one.

Violence isn't the answer to this one.

I tweeted it because it was funny; my followers volubly agreed. (Thanks folks!) But how did this happen? Hey, I haven't written a code post in a while. Let's dig into it.

Saturday, February 19, 2022

Shade and Heliopause fall off the iOS App Store

I mentioned a couple of years ago that I was no longer supporting the IosGlk framework or the iOS IF apps that depend on them. Thus, Hadean Lands, Heliopause, Shade, and Dreamhold have gone three years without an iOS update.
I expected them to last about five years before Apple yanked compatibility out from under them. (Recall that My Secret Hideout lasted six years without an update.) But apparently Apple has gotten more proactive. A month ago I got notices on Heliopause and Shade saying, in short, "update them or it's yank city."
Well, fine. I already decided I wasn't doing that. So this weekend, down they came.
This also takes down an app bundle I had featured -- "all four apps for the price of HL alone!" This was a promotional gimmick, of course, but a pretty effective one. At least I think it was. Ah well.
Apple has some interestingly undocumented policies on what they yank. All four apps have exactly the same update history and software framework, but only two of them have been removed. Maybe they're going after cheap (one-dollar) apps first? (Dreamhold is free, and HL is "premium".) Or maybe it has to do with popularity -- Shade and Heliopause sell two or three copies a month each, where HL is more like ten or fifteen a month.
Anyhow, the important summary is that Hadean Lands is still available on both iOS and Steam, and all the other games can be played for free on my web site, just like they always have. I'm really just posting this as an information point. Three years from last update. When the other apps get their takedown notices, we'll know one tidbit more.

Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Job status update: 2022

I don't mention my day job much, but here's an update. As of today, I am signing on with The Molasses Flood as a Narrative Systems Engineer.
If you recall the news from a few months ago, that means I am employed by CD Projekt. That's the Polish studio responsible for the Witcher games, Cyberpunk 2077, and GOG.
What am I working on? Everybody's favorite, the Unannounced Project! But to quote the press release:
The Molasses Flood [...] will be working on its own ambitious project which is based on one of CD PROJEKT’s IPs.
So, um, count up CDP's IPs and pick one.
This is less of a jump than it seems. I spent a good chunk of 2020 contracting for Molasses Flood, working on a narrative/dialogue system for a different game. That game wound up shelved -- but when Molasses and CDP started cooking up this project, the Molasses narrative engine was a key component. So Molasses brought me back on as a contractor last August. I've been working on Unannounced Project for the past six months, adapting and updating the engine for the new requirements. I like the Molasses folks, they like me, I want to see the game through -- so now I'm wearing the hat.
(And getting the health care benefits. The ACA has been great for me as an indie, but who knows what happens the next time it lands before the Supreme Court.)
Anyway, the upshot is that I'm still doing all the same stuff for IFTF; I'm still selling Hadean Lands and Meanwhile; I'm still writing game reviews and stuff here.
This is a strange moment for me. Everybody knows me as a games guy, but the last time I started as an employee of a game company was... 1995. (Working on the Mac port of Icebreaker.) And that lasted less than eighteen months.
I won't reiterate my career, but it's involved a lot of boring ordinary software-dev work. I took a few years off for HL and Meanwhile, but that wasn't self-sustaining. Then I fetched up at SpiritAI, working on game-related tools, but it wasn't a game company per se. Then I did contracting here and there, which led to Molasses, and now... I'm working on a game. An "ambitious" one, according to the press release. Not what I expected!
But my job title is "Narrative Systems Engineer", and that's pretty darn cool.
More news when there is news.
(The Molasses Flood is hiring, by the way.)

Friday, January 28, 2022


It's been an entertaining month for crypto and NFT dunks.
(I promise not to turn this into a crypto-dunking blog, but I do want to comment sometimes. I'll try to keep it to game-relevant topics.)
I'm writing in the middle(?) of a serious crypto price crash. I don't want to read too much into that. For all I know prices will recover next week. But the smart commentary condemning this stuff continues to pile up.
We had this Moxie Marlinspike piece on why "web3" and NFTs will never do what their proponents say. (NFTs can be stolen; they can be confiscated; they cannot confer ownership. The value that they do confer -- as witness the big centralized NFT platforms -- would work better and be more profitable if they ditched blockchain entirely. Etc.)
We had Dan Olson's videotalk on "The Problem with NFTs". I admit I haven't watched all of it, but the segment on play-to-earn is good. I trust the rest is equally solid.
This week, we had this long and furious economics essay from Yanis Varoufakis, which draws together everything from old-style digital economies (the Valve marketplace) to China's digital currency to what do to about capitalism. (He has ideas. Blockchain doesn't figure in.) Way too much to summarize, but I must quote the quotable line about play-to-earn games:
[...] the idea that people must now play like robots to earn a living so as to be human in their spare time is, indeed, the apotheosis of misanthropy.
I'm leaving out the bit about armies of UBI robots -- I'm in favor, but I said I'd stick to the game-relevant.
The complete bankruptcy of Axie Infinity as a play-to-earn ideal is well-reported. (See the Olson talk.) (To be clear, the company behind Axie Infinity isn't financially bankrupt. I'm talking ethically. The initial gold rush is a lure that must and will and already has dried up.)
But play-to-earn won't just victimize its late-arriving players. It'll burn us all, and I'm not talking about climate change.
The crypto boom relies on its evangelists. It's been successful because, essentially, it pays its evangelists. In fact it penalizes them for not evangelizing. The value of your stake goes up if you convince more people to buy in. If your bitcoin is going down, you're not boosting bitcoin hard enough -- go bother someone! This is how all pyramid schemes work, but crypto/NFT schemes have a particularly strong feedback loop.
Remember this every time you see a pro-crypto take, by the way. Any pro-crypto take.
The loop applies at every level. One asshole shouting at you on Twitter; a dozen libertarian thinkpieces; crypto VCs pushing "web3 is the future". A bitcoin exchange loaning itself millions of dollars to stay liquid and avoid a bitcoin price crash. (Bitfinex in 2018, if you don't remember that story.)
Now apply this to gamers.

Thursday, January 20, 2022

Way up in the middle of the air

"Biblically accurate angels" are a semi-regular topic on Twitter and such. Particularly around Christmas, of course. You've probably seen photos go by of a Christmas tree topped with a bizarre halo of wings and eyes. I see it's a regular tag on Etsy, too. Wings and eyes, eyes and wings, wheels within wheels.
(From https://www.reddit.com/r/excatholic/comments/kj87fq/biblical_angel_christmas_tree_topper/ and probably a bunch of other places on reddit too)
When people do this stuff, they're recalling the Book of Ezekiel:
And I looked, and behold four wheels beside the cherubim, one wheel beside one cherub, and another wheel beside another cherub; and the appearance of the wheels was as the colour of a beryl stone.
And as for their appearances, they four had one likeness, as if a wheel had been within a wheel.
When they went, they went towards their four sides; they turned not as they went, but to the place whither the head looked they followed it; they turned not as they went.
And their whole body, and their backs, and their hands, and their wings, and the wheels were full of eyes round about, even the wheels that they four had.
That's Ezekiel chapter 10. (There's similar stuff in chapter 1. You know when you find two slightly different verses for the folk song, I mean holy text, and you can't decide so you copy them both down to sort out later?)
Now, the first version I encountered wasn't that Biblical text. It was the old spiritual, the version arranged by William Dawson. I sang it in junior high school choir, I do believe.
Ezekiel saw the wheel; way up in the middle of the air! Ezekiel saw the wheel, way in the middle of the air!
Everybody loves this stuff -- holy men tripping balls. Ezekiel is great for it. (Not just wheels! If you're a fan of The Prisoner, you know what the hip bone's connected to, dem dry bones: that's chapter 37.) So quite a few modern texts have picked up the imagery. I grew up with these covers of A Wind in the Door, for example.

More recently, I've become fond of Kill Six Billion Demons, an over-the-top web comic about angels and demons kung-fu-fighting. The angels are chaotic -- well, not chaotic -- assemblages of wings, wheels, and eyes. They bleed wings and eyes.

(From Kill Six Billion Demons, page 2-29.5)
On the videogame side, I recall the original Bayonetta going heavily for wheel-and-wing angels. The PS2 Dororo had some wheely monsters too. (El Shaddai and Darksiders didn't, but they should have, c'mon.)
But that's not really what this post is about.
Here's a (sorta) secret: I always feel a little smug at these illustrations of wheels and wings and eyes. Why? Ten years ago, I saw them.
Literally. Way up in the middle of the air.

(Andrew Plotkin, Medford MA)
This was October 27, 2012. Hurricane Sandy was bearing down on the East Coast. It hadn't struck yet, but the atmosphere was in motion, and that afternoon it slung a whole lot of moisture into the upper air. That means high-altitude ice crystals.
Water droplets in sunlight form rainbows, because water droplets are round. Each droplet refracts light from the sun in just one way; so you see refracted light at just one angle from the sun. That makes a circle in the sky. Part of the circle is cut off by the ground (unless you're lucky in an airplane) so a rainbow is always an arch.
Ice crystals in sunlight refract and reflect light in several directions. If they're all aligned -- which they tend to be -- you see many arcs and circles. Here's another photo, taken by David Hathaway in Alabama on Oct 30th:
(David Hathaway via Spaceweather.com)

But if you're not thinking about hexagonal crystals and angles of reflection, what do you see? What are those shapes? Any child or holy man will tell you: those are wings, and eyes, and wheels within wheels.
That was one of the more unexpectedly stunning afternoons of my life. A thing that I, a Jewish atheist, call holy. But that's not really what this post is about either.
Lots of people saw that sky! My neighborhood Livejournal page had a thread of photos. Local news reported it. People collected photos and photo galleries.
You know what all those links have in common? They're all broken today.
The neighborhood group shifted to Dreamwidth (and copied over the post history, so I can still link to it, thank you). The Universal Hub page is still up but the images are broken. (Wayback Machine got it, thank you.) Lockerz doesn't even remember that it exists. And so on, and so on.
It's been a bit under ten years. Frankly, it's embarrassing. Frankly, we're doing this wrong.
I wish I had a better idea. Run your own web sites, kids. (It's a lot of work.) Keep supporting the Internet Archive and Wayback Machine. (They're great but they can't be solely responsible for saving civilization.) Save your photos and keep backups. Also, backups.
(Someone is going to comment with "bl*ckchain" and I will laugh as I moderate that horsecrap into the ether. Don't bother.)
I guess my point is that nothing on the Internet stays around without people -- actual people, not profit centers -- actively working to keep it around.
Web sites stay up because of love. Long run, nothing else works.
What I've done today is go through all those old busted links and trawl out every photo I could find of those solar arcs and halos. I've stashed them on one page -- the same page I created ten years ago to hold my own pair of humble sky photos. That page is mine; I run it; it's not in the pocket of any social media company. I think it will still exist in 2032.
If not, try the Wayback Machine link. (Which is probably how you're reading this if my web site died.) It should have captured the page and all its photos, as of this writing. If you try to click through to one of the images and it doesn't appear, try hitting "Latest".
(Note that this is all blatant copyright violation. I've linked and attributed every single image, but nobody gave me permission to grab copies of them. (Except the one from Wikipedia, which is CC-BY-SA.) I hear the copyright gorgons are on the march again. But that, again, isn't really what this post is about.)
Look. I can't think of much to say beyond, "I'm tired and this isn't going to get better." It's 2022; that's all of us. I've tried to save one good thing.
If you have photos from the hurricane-weather skies of October 2012, feel free to pass them along.

Monday, January 10, 2022

2022 IGF nominees: fireworks

We come to the end of my IGF review posts: the games that made me stand up and say "Holy zorch, you did not just do that!" Because, let's be clear, they just did that.
As I said at the beginning, this is not the same as being my "favorite game of the year". All of these games also did something else that I wasn't into. Maybe I didn't even play them all the way through.
But this is an important point! I don't want my favorites to become the best-of-the-year stars. I mean, yes I do, of course I do. But next year's games aren't going to be the same as this year's award-winners. They're going to build on these games. They're going to learn from them. So we must talk about the games that pushed the boundaries of technique or design or straight-up bravura.
  • Inscryption
  • Overboard!
  • Opus: Echo of Starsong
  • Tux and Fanny
(Necessary footnote: I was on the narrative jury and played free review copies of some of these games. I bought Inscryption, Overboard, and Opus: Echo of Starsong on my own before IGF judging started.)

Sunday, January 9, 2022

2022 IGF nominees: miscellaneous

Yeah, I tried to come up with a category to fit this batch into. Nope, didn't work.
You could maybe call these "familiar game genres with a twist", but then you could say that about every game, right? We're all in the business of offering reassuring familiarity with a twist.
  • Sable
  • Papetura
  • Lacuna
  • Dagon
  • Kathy Rain: The Director's Cut
  • Chronicles of Tal'Dun: The Remainder
  • Strange Horticulture
(Necessary footnote: I was on the narrative jury and played free review copies of most of these games. But I bought Sable on my own before IGF judging started. Dagon is entirely free. Strange Horticulture and The Remainder are not yet released.)

Saturday, January 8, 2022

2022 IGF nominees: intimate and/or personal

Some of these are cozy. Some are the opposite of cozy. All of them tell you straight-up where the authors come from.
Several of these reviews wind up saying "This is really good but I didn't entirely connect with it." Honestly, that's 2021 talking. Connection is hard. We're all walking around with deflectors at maximum.
  • Unpacking
  • No Longer Home
  • TOEM
  • Last Call
  • Lake
  • An Airport for Aliens Currently Run by Dogs
(Necessary footnote: I was on the narrative jury and played free review copies of most of these games. But I bought Lake and Airport Dog on my own before IGF judging started. NORCO is not yet released; I played a demo chapter.)

Friday, January 7, 2022

2022 IGF nominees: on history

IGF finalists are out! Only eight months since the last time I said this, I know. Here we go.
My theme this year is... mixed reactions. I throw no shade! I played a lot of great games. But I didn't come away with overall favorites. Instead, I played a lot of games that did something fantastic but then this other game did something else fantastic and I want to talk about all of them.
...I say "all of them", but of course this week's posts are a highly curated list. IGF got over 400 entries this year -- and that's light; it's usually 500+. I didn't play every game and I'm not going to post about every game I played. Not even every finalist. Think of this as a collection of spotlights. A glint here, a facet there.

In this post: games which interrogate history.
Several of these games use, or riff on, the "database" game model -- a collection of story snippets which the player is free to explore at will. (Or perhaps just the illusion of free will.) These days the database game is familiar from Sam Barlow's Her Story and Telling Lies, but fans of this blog will not needed to be reminded of Rob Swigart's archetypical Portal.
The database game is an easy fit for a game about history, because the database is static. It's a slice of history. The player makes no choices except what to read next. Or is that necessarily true? Let's see.
  • Closed Hands
  • Blackhaven
  • Neurocracy
  • Inua
  • The Rewinder
(Necessary footnote: I was on the narrative jury and played free review copies of most of these games. Blackhaven is entirely free, mind you. Inua is not yet released; I played a demo chapter.)