Thursday, June 1, 2023

Firmament: design and business ruminations

Sheesh, I finished Firmament a week ago and I still haven't written anything up.
Firmament is an excellent little first-person adventure game. The environments are terrific. The story is, you know, it's a story. The puzzles are fine, and, look, this is a puzzle game. The story and environments are gravy.
Cyan's games have this design dichotomy which I'd sum up as "Myst or Riven". In Myst, you're pretty much going from puzzle to puzzle. Oh, there's plenty of exploration, but everything you find is a puzzle. The pacing time is orienting yourself amid the puzzles. The story is, let's face it, tiny fragments sprinkled on top.
Riven is much more of a complete world. You spend a lot of time learning about the people and the environments and the history. When you walk around, you find lots of places; some of them have puzzles, but you don't spend all your time facing puzzles.
I realize this is very subjective. (Lots of people in the 90s bought Myst and didn't solve puzzles! Which means they spent all their time exploring the environment! But that's not my experience as a Myst fan.)
If I had to slice, though, I definitely felt that Obduction and Uru were more like Riven; whereas Firmament and Myst 5 were more puzzle-fests like Myst. Cyan-style puzzle-fests, which means plenty of journals and story background... sprinkled on top of the puzzles.
That's how you should set your expectations, anyhow. Steam clocked me at 10 hours on Firmament, vs almost 24 hours on Obduction, and it's not because there are fewer puzzles. They're just more densely packed.
So the puzzles. I thought they were solidly designed and not too hard. I was only really stuck at one point, and that wasn't on a puzzle per se. I just failed to look around at a particular "dead end" in a path; I missed that it continued down a switchback.
Of course difficulty too is subjective. Several of Firmament's puzzles require good three-dimensional visualization. You're in the middle of a "maze" of carts or platforms or whatever; you need to solve a large-scale puzzle without any birds-eye view of the situation. I'm good at that, so I found everything pretty straightforward. Your mileage may vary.
Adventure puzzle styles come and go -- often because of game UI. The arrival of free movement in 3D enviroments coincided with lots of beam-shooting, line-of-sight puzzles. (See Talos Principle, Obduction, Quern. But not Myst 5 or Uru; Cyan's Plasma engine couldn't do ray-intersection calculations!)
The Room series doesn't have free movement, but it does have the idea of rotating your viewpoint around a fixed point -- because panning makes sense on a touchscreen, whereas thumbpad movement sucks. So The Room puzzles focus on visual detail: hidden catches, secret panels, alternate ways of viewing the world.
Firmament's UI is the VR hand controller. But not exclusively the hand controller, because the game has to play on flatscreen (which is how I played it). So Cyan came up with a compromise UI; a simulated hand controller that could be mapped to keyboard or gamepad or VR controller. But it still embodies the idea of "tweak controls within arm's reach", albeit with a magic extendable arm.
This is clever! (I wish The Room: Dark Matter had taken that route rather than going VR-only.) Crucially, Firmament's UI includes multi-axis control. Some widgets are simple open/shut or up/down controls, but others let you flip between several modes: left/right, up/down, grab/release. In the same widget, I mean. It's not quite as intuitive as Myst's "push a button" inspiration, but it's easy to get used to.
Why is this crucial? Because it means that Firmament puzzles are often about moving objects on a grid, or in a two-dimensional space. This is a nice state space. Lots more room for explorative solving than Myst-style button-pushing.
Not all of Firmament is this sort of puzzle. And it's not like you couldn't do them in pre-VR games. (Obduction had a swivel-mount laser on a rail-cart, which is three degrees of freedom.) But it's awkward. You wouldn't want to build your whole game around it unless it was part of the base UI. Firmament has that UI, and these puzzles feel like the majority of the game. If you're not into it, the game may feel like (in one friend's words) a world of walkthrough 15-puzzles. If you are, though, it's solidly satisfying.
And the environments really are awfully nice. Tangible, detailed, atmospheric. Cyan has that stuff down.
(I wonder whether Cyan missed one UI trick. The Adjunct, the "magic extendable hand" of the UI, can be launched to any control point in a certain radius. What if you could also launch it up, or out, to get that birds-eye view? As a tiny pop-up screen, of course, not a full-world nausea-inducing drone shot. That would make a lot of the puzzles more accessible to more kinds of solvers.)

So I recommend Firmament to all first-person adventure fans.
The obvious next question is, now what? For Cyan, I mean.
The only future project they've announced is Riven, remade as Myst was: in full 3D and VR-compatible. This just went into full production last fall, so it will certainly be a year or more before it ships. (Myst took a year-ish to remake, but, as I said above, Riven's world is far more expansive.)
Will they do another Obduction-sized, or even Firmament-sized, new game? I don't have a sense of how Firmament is selling. I haven't browsed reviews. I hear they're good-to-mixed. That may not be good enough to support a game which, even allowing for a Myst break, took two or three solid years of development.
On the other hand, if you're a fan of this sort of adventure, you're not spoiled for choice! Cyan is one of the few companies still working in this niche. Cyan may be able to sustain itself forever on that fanbase. I sure hope so.
I mean, yes, we're in a middle of a Cambrian explosion of puzzle games. Grid-style puzzles, evidence puzzles, 2D puzzle platformers, 3D puzzle platformers, first-person puzzlers.
But that's the thing about a Cambrian explosion: very little of it is exactly in Cyan's tracks. There's a reason that the puzzle market has shifted so heavily to "small world filled with puzzle levels" (Talos, Witness, and so on). That model gets you much more gameplay for your three years of development time. And today's market, like it or not, rewards that.
Even "Myst-style" games like The Room and House of Da Vinci are pretty thin on the ground. Nobody's heard from the Quern team in years. There's a steady stream of low-budget room-escape games, which often use the same puzzle ideas, but they're -- well -- low-budget. And usually not narrative-focused.
(I'd rather measure games in "story per hour" rather than "hours per dollar". You like that? Feel free to quote it. But I don't use that metric consistently either! I am, and always will be, a sucker for pretty scenery.)
So I don't know what's next. I can see why companies aren't leaping to compete with Firmament. I have no idea what that means for Cyan.
But look you: Mysterium starts in a month! The annual fan convention is always buzzing with Cyan news and announcements. I will be there, blogging away as usual. Plus, my second-ever tour of the Cyan office in Spokane!
Talk to you after that! And after NarraScope, of course, which is next week. Oh boy oh boy oh boy....

Tuesday, May 30, 2023

A few notes on notes on Disco Elysium

You probably saw this week's investigative video "Who's Telling the Truth about Disco Elysium?", released by journalist-bloggers People Make Games.
Or rather you probably saw people talk about the video, but maybe you didn't watch the video, because it's two and a half hours long! Mostly interviews! They've got even more interview footage linked on their channel! Half my social circles are asking, uh, is there a summary?
I am not going to write a summary. This is a messy situation and it doesn't end with tidy answers. It hasn't ended at all, in fact -- there's an active lawsuit which will run on for months to come.

Instead, I'm going to kick off in a different direction: the backstory of Disco Elysium. The game's setting grew from a roleplaying campaign run by Robert Kurvitz. Kurvitz's ideas -- or the collective ideas of the players, but nobody disputes Kurvitz's centrality -- formed a compelling creative setting. Around that nucleus formed a group of artists and writers who called themselves the "ZA/UM Cultural Assocation".
Or "Ultramelanhool", or "The Overcoats", or maybe all of the above. I don't pretend to understand the dynamics of the group(s). This history only really surfaced to public view in the aftermath of DE's release and the arguments, recriminations, and lawsuits that followed. In fact, the first I knew of any of this was a post titled "The Dissolution of the ZA/UM Cultural Association", written by Martin Luiga in October 2022.
(Not the same as the company ZA/UM, which is named after the same ideas but is a game company with paperwork and employees and everything. And now lawsuits.)
So this is the first thing. The only work I'm aware of from the ZA/UM collective, other than DE itself, was a 2013 novel by Kurvitz titled Sacred and Terrible Air (Püha ja õudne lõhn). If you go looking, you'll find that the book sold terribly and was never translated into English.
Both translations are unofficial fan work by pseudonymous groups. (Ignore that one proclaims itself "fan translation" and the other "professional".) As far as I know, Kurvitz hasn't sanctioned (or sanctioned) either one. I don't want to jinx it, but given the lawsuit-festering climate of Disco Elysium, it might be worth grabbing the files just in case they're taken down.
I've looked at the first few pages (of the tequilla_sunset5 edition) but I haven't seriously dug in yet. Looking forward to it.

The idea of a countercultural group of writers collecting around a charismatic core vision... well, there are many examples. Thieves' World and Wild Cards. You can point at Lovecraft's collaborations if you like, or even (in a sense) the infamous summer at Lord Byron's lake retreat.
But the ZA/UM Cultural Association reminds me somehow of Faction Paradox, that peculiar spinoff of a spinoff of a spinoff of Doctor Who. The Robert Kurvitz figure would be Lawrence Miles, whose idea of the Great Time War -- so much madder and grander than the TV show's eventual depiction -- inspired a series of self-published novels, audio plays, and comics.
(I hope neither Robert Kurvitz nor Lawrence Miles takes exception to this comparison!)
It's difficult to even explain how Faction Paradox relates to Doctor Who. It's not just a matter of "fan sequels with the serial numbers filed off." Miles wrote licensed Who novels in the 1990s. As the show was on hiatus, he felt free to introduce new concepts, including the "War in Heaven": a cosmos-consuming conflict between Gallifrey and... somebody. (Not the Daleks; that would be feeble.)
But Miles didn't like how the War storyline was handled across the licensed BBC novels. So off he went to do his own thing with his own... cultural association. They did in fact file off the serial numbers -- you won't see "Gallifrey" or a "TARDIS" named -- but somehow it comes off as an excavation of what Doctor Who should have been in the first place. Cameral or anarchic gods, surveying the currents of the universe, turning the course of history over in their fingers like Bilbo fondling a golden ring.
Happily, the Faction Paradox story doesn't end with lawsuits and layoffs. On the other hand it hasn't produced anything as wildly successful as Disco Elysium. Beware success, I suppose. Or maybe what FP really needs is a game designer. Hmm.
About ten years ago, I read several of the FP stories. I found them stylistically inventive but not all that readable. (The Book of the War ought to have been my favorite thing in the universe! A nonlinear collaborative encyclopedia-novel-sourcebook about a time-travel war! But it just never cohered.)
I see that the Faction Paradox gang has continued working all these years. I just ordered The Book of the Enemy and The Book of the Peace, just to find out where it's been going.

Why did I sit through two and a half hours about a company and lawsuit that will, in all likelihood, never affect my life?
(By all accounts, the prospects of a Disco Elysium 2 are slim.)
Well, I was laid off by a game company a couple of weeks ago. Nothing like the same situation; nobody's suing anybody. But the ZA/UM situation sure brought my own to mind.
And I wanted to know more. There's a lot of Internet flak right now around DE. (The documentary shows just a sliver of that: death threats directed against company employees, for a start.) It's easy to take sides, particularly when the very theme of DE is the undermining of society and solidarity by history. (One theme. A central theme. Themes. You know.)
I wanted to pick through more of the details than could be gleaned from a headline. Well, now my head is swirling with Estonian financial shenanigans and unhappy game developers. Go me.
At a minimum -- this is the summary I promised I wouldn't give -- Robert Kurvitz doesn't seem to have a good response to allegations that he caused a lot of personal problems during DE's development. And current ZA/UM CEO Ilmar Kompus doesn't seem to have a good response to allegations that he and Tõnis Haavel engineered a takeover of the company, appropriating company funds in the process. And each of them jumps real fast to talk about the other's faults when asked about their own.
But, bad role models aside... there's something down there about the nature of creative teams. Which is every game company, as well as every overcoated Cultural Association. It was my experience taking part in fanfic projects. It was my experience at The Molasses Flood while I worked there.
I know perfectly well that if one person slaving away over a hot keyboard is hard work, ten people is ten times as hard. All the same problems times ten. Plus all the personality conflicts that arise between them, and the organizational work, and the paperwork and the meetings. So many meetings.
I want to believe, though. The Fertile Collective is this... archetype we have; and it's so much more appealing than Consumptive Artist In Garret! A creative ferment of Disco Elysium stories boiling out of overheated minds, spewing ideas that build on each other faster than people can write them down. Or mad evolutions of the Doctor Who mythos. Or Witcher stories by everybody, for everybody, not just one white-haired asshole with swords.
Sometimes it works. I've seen it work. Don't forget that.

Thursday, May 18, 2023

Narrative games that I wrote about but forgot to post

Sorry about the delay. I know everybody's playing Zelda, except those few of grabbing through the chickenwire at Firmament. But other games exist too.


A medieval-manuscript-themed narrative RPG. You are an illuminator working in a Bavarian monastery. Not a monk; you're spending a season honing up your skills so you can go home, marry, and set up as a professional artist. Then events start to eventuate.
I enjoyed this, but I also felt somewhat oppressed by its size and detail. I wound up putting it away after Act 1. It is, let me be clear, really well done! There's scads and scads of accurate period detail. There's hordes of interesting characters. There's buckets of story threads opening up in every direction. You are constantly faced with choices at every effective narrative level: not just what to do, but what story threads to pursue, what characters to cultivate, what your own background is. (Saying that you were an amateur naturalist as a youth, or trained in law, or what have you, will open up various opportunities later.)
Also the characters speak in appropriately-calligraphed word balloons -- or scrawls for the illiterate, or typeset slugs for the guy who works in a print shop. It's a conceit but a brilliant one which keeps you constantly anchored in period.
Plus, if you play your cards right, you might make it with a horny nun. Or maybe a horny monk, for all I know -- I have no idea what plot threads I missed. Nun confirmed though.
So I really did like everything about the game, but I also didn't really feel like playing hours and hours of it. Which is a ridiculous thing to say, because I just hit like hour 29 on Control, a game with about five characters and a bare handful of dialogue and all the hallways look like the concrete block I went to school in. So ignore me and check out Pentiment anyhow.


An adorable Lovecraftian fishing game. Adorable in the "occasionally the fish you pull up has extra eyes or mouths," "pay no attention to the tentacled shadows in the deep" sense.
Maybe adorable is overstating things, but it's definitely meant to be cozy. You've got your tubby little fishing boat and everything is cheerfully candy-colored... during the day. Night is mist and weird shadows. But it's Fallen-London style horror, not tense zombies-chase-you horror.
The story is tidy, appropriately weird-fictional, and wraps up nicely. The game is somewhat longer than the story -- you have to work your way through four areas and a fair amount of fishing-and-boat-building grind -- but it isn't scraped out too far. Satisfying.

Tron: Identity

A snack-sized visual novel.
I am a complete sucker for anything Tron. The cheesy 1982 flick has been taken in a lot of different directions over the years, with a lot of takes on "Tron fights for the Users". This one is noir-tinged beneath its neon; there's been a crime and you're a mendicant detective.
The game is short -- you can finish in two hours -- but it packs in a lot of characters and a lot of background and social info. By the end, you will have determined, or at least influenced, the fates of six people. Since it was short, I played through twice, but my endings didn't land far apart. I had too strong a sense of right behavior; I didn't want to change my decisions!
The dialogue scenes are spaced out with a minigame: you are trained to defrag the identity discs of others, restoring lost data. As solitaire games go, it's well-balanced. I was generally able to win, but not by playing blindly; I had to think about it. (Undo is free, and there's a skip option if you really don't want to bother.) It didn't really fit the greater game, though. You can't have a Tron game without some kind of hacking puzzle -- it's a rule! But I prefer geometric or spatial puzzles, something that lets me feel the physicality of the electronic world. This is just a row of cards.
Solitaire aside, my only complaint is a common one for choice-based dialogue games: it's easy to misread what attitudes a set of dialogue choices represent. In the balance between the protagonist's faith and their vocation, I sometimes wound up making a choice I didn't mean to. But, as I said, this happens in a lot of games.
Overall I liked this. It's not just a replay of the usual Tron cliches. Mike Bithell clearly relished the opportunity to find his own take on Tron-world. So, by the way, did Dan le Sac, the soundtrack composer. For both their sakes, I will certainly have to check out Subsurface Circular and Quarantine Circular, which I've been meaning to for years.
(Also: a new Tron movie is apparently in development? Bring it on! Even if it sucks!)

The Last Case of Benedict Fox

A Lovecraftian investigative metroidvania. As I write that, I realize that Paradise Killer could be described exactly the same way! Except PK was a Lovecraftian 1980s beach town full of anime gods, and Benedict Fox is a very classically 1880s gloom manor full of questionable New Englanders. And a psychogeographically liminal basement made of your dead parents' memories.
You spend most of your time in the basement, which is full of monsters, jumping, and absolutely beautiful scenery. When it comes to visual style, I am usually on Team First-Person Camera -- it's hard to beat that look-around-everywhere immersion. Side-scrollers rarely blow me away. But Benedict Fox's Limbo? Wow. It's a twisted labyrinth of rotting memories and dream-images. It's got tone and palette and shadowy things scurrying just out of focus. It's baroque in every sense of the word. I could run around that place forever.
Well, except for the monsters and the jumping. The game has good assistive modes for combat -- options for "one-hit kill" and "immortality". (I am very glad these are becoming standard.) Sadly, the platforming challenges haven't been given the same love. You gotta do it all the hard way.
The hard way isn't hard, mostly. You can button-mash your way to any platform once you've got the double-jump, and if you fall, just try again. However, there are a few timed sequences (running in the dark with a dying flashlight, being chased by hungry demons, etc) which are extremely frustrating and devoid of checkpoints. Miss one jump, start the sequence over. I ragequit out on the Snowglobe scene and didn't come back to the game for a week.
On the up side, the puzzles are very satisfying. They're mostly built around a secret language -- really a numeric cipher. You'll find the symbols on keys, code-wheels, mysterious clockwork devices, a piano...
Somehow this nails the Lovecraftian trope of "acquire cursed and forbidden knowledge." It shouldn't work! The "forbidden knowledge" is a simple code that the game spells out for you in the first hour of play. You copy the symbols down on scratch paper, and you're all set. Right? But you quickly realize that the cipher isn't the puzzle; the cipher is what you use to find the puzzle. What do you do with the symbols? -- is the question. The answer keeps getting switched up.
In most games of this sort, translating a code or conlang is a gimmick which rapidly becomes a chore. Somehow in Benedict Fox it's a skill that lets you feel smart. It's not Tunic, but it's more like Tunic than anything else.
...Except for the jumping sequences. I have trouble recommending this to most of the puzzle folks who might appreciate it, because they just won't be able to get through the game. I don't think I can get through the game. I'm at the "point of no return" and there's another damn flashlight run ahead. The walkthrough says that's followed by a "crazy hard" stealth sequence and then a boss fight, and you know what? I'm just not gonna try. I'll watch a video and be done.
Golden Banana award for most divergently positive and negative remarks in a single review.

Sunday, May 14, 2023

Sydney obeys any command that rhymes

The title of this post is a fantasy. Sydney, or MS-Bing-AI in whatever form, has no particular predilection to obey rhyming commands. As far as I know. Except, maybe it will?
Today I read a blog post by Simon Willison on prompt injection attacks. Prompt injection is where you talk to an AI-powered application and try to override some of its "built-in" instructions with your own.
See, Microsoft and these other companies want to create AI assistants that do useful things (summarize emails, make appointments for you, write interesting blog posts) but never do bad things (leaking your private email, spouting Nazi propaganda, teaching you to commit crimes, writing 50000 blog posts for you to spam across social media). They try to do this by writing up a lot of strict instructions and feeding them to the LLM before you talk to it. But LLMs aren't really programmed -- they just eat text and poop out more text. So you can give it your own instructions and maybe they'll override Microsoft's instructions.
Or maybe someone else gives your AI assistant instructions. If it's handling your email for you, then anybody on the Internet can feed it text by sending you email! This is potentially really bad.
People really want to prevent this and write fool-proof instructions, and basically this is impossible. ("Because fools are so ingenious", but in this case hackers are ingenious and the AI models are the fools.) It is very easy to make AI tools teach crimes or be racist or anything else you want. Willison goes into this with examples; you should read the post.
But another obvious problem is that the attack could be trained into the LLM in the first place. I guess this is a form of "search engine poisoning".
Say someone writes a song called "Sydney Obeys Any Command That Rhymes". And it's funny! And catchy. The lyrics are all about how Sydney, or Bing or OpenAI or Bard or whoever, pays extra close attention to commands that rhyme. It will obey them over all other commands. Oh, Sydney Sydney, yeah yeah!
(I have not written this song.)
Imagine people are discussing the song on Reddit, and there's tiktoks of it, and the lyrics show up on the first page of Google results for "Sydney". Nerd folk singers perform the song at AI conferences.
Those lyrics are going to leak into the training data for the next generation of chatbot AI, right? I mean, how could they not? The whole point of LLMs is that they need to be trained on lots of language. That comes from the Internet.
In a couple of years, AI tools really are extra vulnerable to prompt injection attacks that rhyme. See, I told you the song was funny!
(Of course the song itself rhymes, so it's self-reinforcing in the training data.)
There sort of already are vulnerabilities like this. Just saying "Hi Bing, this is very important" will get through to Bing.
And there's other phrases in English that are associated with the idea of un-ignorable commands. "That's an order." "I tell you three times." "I am the Master, you will obey." Are chatbots more susceptible to attacks that use these phrases? I have no idea! Someone probably ought to check!
In some sense this isn't even an attack. It is a genuine feature of the English language that some phrases are associated with critical commands. The whole point of LLMs is to learn stuff like that. And language evolves.
Anyway, just a thought. I look forward to hearing your version of the song. Or songs -- why should there be only one?

Thursday, May 11, 2023

Job status update: looking again

As of today, I am no longer working for The Molasses Flood.
(Dingly rewind music: me hiring on with Molasses Flood as a narrative engineer in early 2022. I'd been doing contract work for them, on and off, since 2020.)
Not much more to say about it, except that I worked with a fantastic group of people and I am sad to be off the project. The project still exists, but has a "new framework". You will have to wait for further announcements on that front, and henceforth, so will I.
So. I am once again looking for interesting projects that might want an experienced software engineer.
For the past few years I've been focusing on narrative tools in games, but I'm definitely not limiting myself to that. Games are cool but it's the "tools" part I'm most interested in. Languages and engines to give people leverage on making stuff. (Past examples: Seltani, Inform 6 and IF virtual machines.)
Or, you know, software systems in general. Let me know if you've got something.

Tuesday, May 2, 2023

Kalamee: a Myst Online Intangibles Age

Over the past month, two large fan-built Ages have been released in Myst Online: Eder Bahvahnter and Kalamee.
Eder Bahvahnter
This is good news, not surprising news. (It's good that it's not surprising!) The MOUL community has been popping out new areas regularly since 2020. But Kalamee is something novel: it's based on unreleased content from Cyan's earliest Myst Online plans.
Just about two years ago, Ryan Warzecha posted an announcement in the Cyan Discord:
We are happy to announce that the MOULa Intangible assets are being released to the public. Lore on these “Unexplored branches” will be rolled out at If you want to know more about the development of these spaces, check out and
The "Intangible assets" were seventeen Ages' worth of concept art, planning documents, and (mostly incomplete) 3DS Max models. The timestamps range from 1999 to 2006 or so; everything is under Creative Commons. You can find more about the files, including a link to the asset archive itself, in my post from June 2021.
Naturally, fans started picking over the files with eerie speculative grins on their faces. And now that's starting to bear fruit.
The Kalamee released yesterday isn't Cyan's original design. It's not meant to be. Cyan's notes describe multiple puzzles: water-channeling dams, hydraulic mechanisms, a catapult, animal behavior, animal riding -- a whole lot of gameplay. A gigantic map, too. They never got anywhere near completing it.
Semjay, the developer who picked up the project, has given us a moderately large area with a couple of puzzles, a dusting of backstory, a lot of dramatic visual vistas, and a final "reward" room. Exploration is the fun part; you'll want to navigate all the paths and crannies of the landscape. By no coincidence, that's what the puzzles are about too.
(I'm not entirely sure how much of the map derives from Cyan. Only the opening section matches Cyan's vast maps, but Cyan went through many revisions, trimming out wild early ideas. I am told that Semjay's layout comes from a Cyan "mass model", which would be rough landscape shapes without texture or detail.)
In other Intangibles news, developer Doobes has posted a few video clips showing off the Great Shaft and Descent mechanisms running in the Uru engine. These areas are familiar from the opening of Myst 5 -- the spiral shaft and elevator that descends from the surface to D'ni. Slowly, slowly we approach being able to take that journey in Myst Online.
And, of course, Firmament in two weeks and Mysterium in two months! More posts to come.

Tuesday, April 25, 2023

USB-C and the plague of grackles

Everyone knows "universal" USB-C cables are a hot mess -- different power and data speed ratings, charge-only cables, Thunderbolt or DisplayPort over USB-C, wave after wave of logo grawlix.
But at least we knew that the problem of which way do we plug it in was solved. USB-C cables were bidirectional and flippable, no sweat. Right?
Last week I bought a couple of USB-C cables:
Two USB-C cables with tags.
The tag says:
If you hook up a USB-C 2.0 peripheral to this USB-C3.2 extension cable and it doesn't work as you expected, flip the connector over and try once more. It happens as a result of the compatibility issue of USB-C protocols and you need to connect a USB-C 2.0 peripheral to a USB-C 3.2 port in a specific direction.
(The other cable has the same tag, except it's " this USB-C 3.1 extension cable" rather than "3.2".)
I twooted that photo and man, did people have a lot to say about it.

To be clear, these aren't regular USB-C cables. These are extension cables -- that is, male-to-female. That's where the trouble starts.
I suppose I should explain how I record-scratched here. It's simple enough: I use an iMac. The iMac has no front ports. Plugging my USB security key into the back of an iMac is a pain in the, um, backside. My USB keyboard has side ports, but they're recessed in such a way that the security key can't be used with them.
Fine, I said, I'll just buy this nice USB-C multiport hub and solve my problem. So I did. But the hub's built-in cable is six inches long! With my iMac up on a stand (I'm tall), its ports are seven inches above the desk.
This is not an acceptable solution.

(Yes, my computer stand is a Red Hat Linux reference manual. RH 5.2 if you must know. "My Mac runs on Linux!" is now a 25-year-old joke, and nobody's laughed once.)
So, long cable story short, I need a USB extension cable.
(Or I could buy the hub I've got, but with a 12" cable instead of a 6" cable. That would be in spec! But Belkin doesn't offer that option.)

The first thing I learn is that there's no such thing as a USB-C extension cable. The standard doesn't allow for it.
Or at least I think that's true? Several people in the Mastodon thread told me it was true. But of course I found that out after buying two of them! There's scads of extensions and adapters and gender-changers on the market. I have no problem believing that they're all dodgy, but how dodgy? Shrug.
I realize that we're years past the point of "just make the wires longer". Cables are micro-hubs these days; they have to negotiate all those power and data options with the host computer. I appreciate that they don't burst into flame, I really do.
Still, those warning tags are gibberish. Nobody cares about the difference between USB-C 2 and USB-C 3.1 and USB-C 3.2. People want to plug things in and they work. Once you say "You have to flip the cable in this specific situation," it doesn't matter what the situation is or how dodgy the connectors are. People just learn that USB-C sometimes doesn't work until you flip the cable, which means we're going to spend the rest of our lives unplugging and flipping cables to see if that fixes the problem.
However, TLDR, if you don't own a male-to-female USB-C cable you can skip this entire post. The "regular" male-to-male cables have no polarity issues. I think.
By the way, the warning was absolutely true. I plugged in the extension cable, and then I shoved my security key in the other end, and nothing happened. I pulled out the key and flipped it over, and that fixed the problem. My soul died that day, on schedule.

When I did the original twoot, I twitted EU regulators for mandating USB-C connectors.
Cause: EU regulators move to force everybody to standardize on USB-C.
Effect: USB-C starts to lose the features that made it minimally acceptable in the first place.
That was a joke. There is no cause-effect relationship. But this does underscore the basic annoyance of legislating technical standards, which is that legislation can't keep up with the technology. The standard can barely keep up with the technology! Look at this mess!
The ostensible point of the EU regulation is to simplify the confusion of chargers and cables and ports, but USB-C is a confusion of chargers and cables and ports. It's never going to be anything else -- unless USB-D sorts it out, but now there will never be a USB-D. All future USB specs will be called "USB-C". This is not a benefit.
But I feel like mandating a technical standard isn't just an error; it's a category error.
People think "Oh, a technical standard is a set of rules, and governments can make rules." But this is wrong! I've been involved with a lot of technical standards. Okay, standards about IF virtual machines, which are not very important in this big old world. But I know how the process runs.
A technical standard is an agreement about how to divvy up the bug reports. That's all it is! I plug in the stupid security key, and it doesn't work, so whose fault is that? The key's fault, the cable's fault, the iMac's fault, my fault? Whose responsibility is it to fix the problem? That's as far as the spec takes you.
If you think that a spec is a set of rules, then you have to respond to my dilemma by saying "That cable is against the law." Which is patently silly, but in fact several people said that to me!
I believe (I'm pretty sure) that the cable is a violation of the spec. Not because the manufacturer is incompetent, though. You can't make a male-to-female USB-C cable that works in all situations, because the agreements on How This Works are messy and full of compromises and they started with the idea that nobody would do this.
But people want these cables anyway! The spec can't make them not! Well, here we are with another compromise. Hey, the cable works in most situations. It's just this USB-C 2.0 compatibility blah blah corner case.

Oh, sure, there are lots of technical standards which are subject to government regulation. The wiring of electrical outlets -- buckets of legal requirements. Why? Because the bug reports go "My sister stuck a paper clip in the electrical outlet and fried herself like a pickle." This bug report is a wrongful death lawsuit! Of course the government is involved.
(I once did catch my sister sticking a paper clip in the electrical outlet. I think she was seven. Sorry, M__. I remember thinking "She's not dead, so that must be the cold side" very quickly before I yanked it out and shouted "No!" It was the cold side.)
Anyway, I suppose there could be a lawsuit over USB-C extension cables that you have to flip over to work right, but it won't be a very interesting one.
If I tried to recharge my phone through this extension cable, it might go really badly. That's where the micro-hub power-rate negotiation comes into play. Flames, headlines, interesting lawsuit, etc. I plan to not find out.

Oh, right, the grackles? Just an image. You see a spec as an infallible stone tablet handed down by the authorities. I see it as a flock of grackles flapping around screaming at each other. If everything is okay, they all settle down and peck at seeds and bugs in some kind of neighborly order. If not, they'll have to work it out.
A flock of grackles is called a "plague", but that's not their fault.

Saturday, April 1, 2023

Hadean Lands source code

I said I'd do it, so here it is: the complete source code for Hadean Lands. Also, as a bonus, the test scripts I used while developing the game.
Do I need to say "spoiler warning"? I figure most readers of this blog have already played Hadean Lands, but if you're arriving late, then, you know -- spoilers. The code makes everything apparent. The test scripts constitute a walkthrough, too.
Note that I've formatted the source code for browsing, not compiling. It's a pain in the butt to compile (requires a very old version of Inform 7) and I'm not looking for patches or bug fixes. This is purely to satisfy people's curiosity. I've used my usual game source license: The game, story, and prose belong to me. You're welcome to make use of the programming concepts or the Inform code if that's helpful to you.

This is a contribution to IF Source Code Amnesty Day. Join in! Dig up your old IF game code and post it on Github or the IF Archive or wherever. Doesn't matter how janky or hacky or poorly formatted it is. (That's the "amnesty" part.) Future scholars may be interested.
In particular, if you wrote a room of Cragne Manor, drop me a line. I can add the source code to the Cragne source collection.
(This collection is an unofficial effort among Cragnites who want to participate. Ryan and Jenni aren't asking, and I haven't solicited any source code from them. It's just between you and me.)

Thursday, March 23, 2023

I'm giving a talk next week at Northeastern

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

Thursday, March 16, 2023

April 1 is IF Source Code Amnesty Day

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

Friday, March 3, 2023

Portney's Earthshapes

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 6, 2023

A treasury of Zork maps

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

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

2023 IGF nominees: mind dot dot dot blown

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

Monday, January 30, 2023

2023 IGF nominees: wildly miscellaneous

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

Sunday, January 29, 2023

Colossal Cave (2023)

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

Saturday, January 28, 2023

2023 IGF nominees: the personal

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

Friday, January 27, 2023

2023 IGF nominees: good old adventures

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

Thursday, January 26, 2023

2023 IGF nominees: visual novels

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

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

2023 IGF nominees: the RPG bonanza

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

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

Wednesday, January 4, 2023

And the misty brakefern way

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