Introducing Lectrote, an interpreter

Today I posted the beta of Lectrote, a new IF interpreter application for Mac, Windows, and Linux. This is both more and less exciting than it sounds!

If you're familiar with the IF scene, you know that there are several applications which can be used to play these games. Zoom (Mac), WinGlulxe (Windows), and Gargoyle (multiplatform) are the most commonly used. And then there's Quixe, which is a Javascript-based interpreter used on iplayif.com and other web sites.

When I was looking to release Hadean Lands as an app, I found that none of these were really what I wanted. Zoom is unmaintained and buggy; WinGlulxe is weird about scrolling; Gargoyle has problems on hi-res displays. (I'm summarizing, it was a long messy story.)

Quixe had the UI that I wanted -- no surprise; it's the one I wrote the UI for! -- but it wasn't really meant to be used as an app. It exists as a web page, or a component of a web page. Also, it's slow. So I put it aside and went with Gargoyle.

However, the long messy story didn't end there! A few weeks ago I was gazing over the endless cycle of dev-tools and noticed Electron. Electron lets you wrap up a Node.js tool as a standalone app for Mac, Win, and Linux. And Node.js is, well, I don't really know what it is but it's a web thing. Seems ideal, right? Stuff Quixe's web page into Electron and we're done.

It wasn't quite that easy. Node.js has full filesystem access (unlike a web page), so I had to extend Quixe's load/save system to deal with ordinary files. (So you can exchange save files between Lectrote and other interpreters.) But that was still pretty easy. I stuck the IF postcard in a menu, too.

And now you can try it.

So what does this have to do with getting Hadean Lands onto Steam? Well, it's a very simple tweak to drop a Glulx game file into Lectrote. Then you've got a Mac/Win/Linux app that plays a single game. And it looks nice and the text layout is pretty and you can adjust the font size without editing a text file.

I haven't done that yet. I'll have to adjust the menus -- knock out all the support for opening multiple games.

More important, I'll have to add autosave. Right now, if you're playing a game and you close the window, your game is gone. Hope you typed SAVE! That's okay for an interpreter (used by IF habitués), but it's not ideal. It's really not acceptable for a Steam standalone game release.

Autosave for Glulx games is a bit of a nuisance, but I got it working on iOS. I will get it to work with Quixe. It will just take a few more weeks.

...oh, and then there's the speed. I mentioned that Quixe is slow, right? It's faster than it was but it might not be fast enough for Hadean Lands. If you own HL for Mac/Win/Linux, try it! In particular, try loading a mid-game save file and typing a command which requires many stages, like GO TO BAROSY.

(If you don't own HL, may I remind you that it's on sale for the next two days? I probably don't have to. But I do it anyway.)

Anyway, I may try plugging a different Glulx VM into Lectrote to speed it up. I can probably run RemGlk/Glulxe as a subprocess of the Node.js server... We'll see.

For now, Lectrote is a multi-platform interpreter app which has the UI I want, and that's a good start.

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Hadean Lands sale at IndieGameStand

I am happy to report that Hadean Lands is this week's deal on IndieGameStand. For the next four days, you can buy my alchemical IF puzzle hit for -- for -- whatever price you want. Go nuts.

Beat the average price to get some bonuses:

  • High resolution map: This is the artwork that I used for the Hadean Lands backer reward poster. It is larger than the version included with the general HL release, and includes a few additional details.
  • Hadean Lands source code samples: A few representative samples from the Inform 7 source code of the game.
  • Critical Hit: An unfinished prototype of a game I started in 2009. This has never been released on the Internet, although I included it on the HL backer reward CD.

IndieGameStand is offering Hadean Lands for Mac, Windows, and Linux. These are exactly the same versions that are available on the Humble Store and Itch.IO.

Play IF on iPhone or iPad? I've put the iOS version of HL on sale too! For the same period -- until Thursday. Or buy the bundle with Shade and Heliopause.

Note: the iOS version is not pay-what-you-want; it's a flat $2. And it does not include the IGS bonuses listed above. The two sales are separate; sorry, I have no way to link them together. But you can buy both if you want, right?

Enjoy.

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Journeying into modern multiplayer

As I noted in my previous post, my partner’s brother surprised us last month with the Christmas gift of a PlayStation 4. This machine has surprised me in turn by rekindling my interest in video games, more than a year after various events left me feeling deeply ambivalent about the medium and much less interested in writing about it. (I did, during this time, launch a different blog, where I write about books and movies and conferences such.) After a long break, I feel like I have a few new things to say about digital games.

I in particular feel very pleased with the many ways that PS4 games have demonstrated new ways of approaching networked multiplayer games, a topic of everlasting interest and much-historied heartbreak for me. Several years ago I pledged to permanently dial down the attention I gave to solitaire video games, but my success with this initiative has proven varying, at best.

To my frustration, I found multiplayer gaming on my long-preferred platform of the Xbox 360 a non-starter. With the exception of shooters, which I don’t really enjoy (my flirtation with Team Fortress 2 a sadly brief anomaly), I never saw an Xbox game with a truly viable multiplayer mode, even though so many tried. (I even launched a startup trying to singlehandedly repair this fault, and it, too, foundered.) I had more fun playing Hero Academy on iOS, at least for a while, until its asynchronous turn-pacing began to grate. And over the last three years or so I’ve enjoyed phases of temporarily waxing interest in Guild Wars 2 on my Mac, but found that playing it “properly”, as part of a focused and organized MMO guild, demands far more attention over a much longer span of time than I feel able to invest.

All this left me with no idea that the situation on PlayStation would prove so different! I have written about Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, so far the only PS4 game I’ve sampled which lacks multiplayer activity as a core mode or mechanic. Well, no, not quite: We did feel compelled to purchase Fallout 4 as soon as we could — but have not felt compelled to play it much, yet. When I do fire it up, I recall how Fallout 3, in large part, made me originally swear off single-player overexposure, and I cannot resist the call of the far more immediately interesting and thoroughly networked games installed on our console.

I hope to write individually about the many novel multiplayer angles I experience through this new exploration, but I feel I should begin by revealing that I have — at last! — played Journey, first released by Thatgamecompany in 2012. From there it swiftly became part of the canon, where I do believe it will live a long, long time. Zarf described its famously subtle multiplayer mechanics in a Gameshelf post from the end of that year, so I knew about that going in. I also knew how the game limits your direct communication with other players to only the controller’s ⭕-button, which makes your character emit a glyph while sounding a musical note. (I read this as the character speaking their name out loud. Names, and the speaking of them, resonate throughout Journey’s such-as-it-is story.)

The approximately two-hour experience still left a deep and I dare say permanent impression on me. Many days later, I remember key details of my journey very well, and two things strike me about them. First, they belong to me alone, among all the players of Journey, even though in broad strokes we all took the same trip. And this fact was made possible entirely through the way Journey’s multiplayer mechanic works.

Continue reading Journeying into modern multiplayer.
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Thoughts on "Everybody's Gone to the Rapture"

When I asked the internet what I should play on the PlayStation 4 we got for Christmas, Sam Ashwell immediately suggested The Chinese Room’s Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. Over the last week my partner and I played it across three sessions. I ended up finding it hard to process, not due to its content (which I rather enjoyed) but because it just seemed an overall unlikely artifact.

I didn’t carefully time it, but I think it took between six and eight hours to stride through, not playing as a completionist. I did try to trigger as many location-dependent story points as I could, but found that the player-character’s relaxed walking speed, inherited perhaps from the team’s previous effort Dear Esther, discouraged obsessive searching through every nook and cranny of the map.

The game invites you to explore the many interpersonal dramas within a modern English hamlet whose inhabitants possess various degrees of realization that the world’s coming to a sudden end. (No spoilers here — the title’s a little oblique, but only just a little.) Your lonely wandering occurs sometime after all the people have inexplicably vanished, leaving behind ghostly echoes of their conversations, fights and trysts across the eerily empty fields, homes and pubs. I found it reminiscent of the films Melancholia or Life After People, albeit married to the narrative conceit found in games like Bioshock (while leaving all its gunplay at the door).

I’ll have more to write about the experience of playing contemporary video games on the PS4 later, but allow me to say now that I spent much of my time with Rapture just… confused that humans had managed to build this. That seems very small-minded of me, as someone who has experienced Stendhal Syndrome in the presence of certain real-world architecture. Rapture didn’t make me weak in the knees, though; my wonder more resembled that of watching a master magician, perhaps, performing impossible actions at a personal scale. In the game I would make my way through a field of tall, rustling wheat stalks and into a shed, and stare straight up at the metal corrugated roof, noting the spattering of rust around its uneven seam. Like so many other things and structures in the game, the shed narratively served only as set-dressing, with no rules-mechanical purpose at all. I’d think about the effort it took to build this shed inside the game world, and how I’d leave it soon and never see it again. And I’d just think: how?

I mean, I know the basics of the process that must have gone into that shed. Initial design documents describing the fictional village of Yaughton and its adjacent farmland would have led to field research in the real world’s countryside that found and photographed, among many other things, little sheds with corrugated roofs. These would ultimately become amalgamated into a single digital shed built through the same processes of painstaking modeling and QA testing that the studio applied to every other object and structure found within the game. I get all that.

But as “I” stood there in the shed inside this game, staring at its ceiling, I couldn’t escape the feeling that it shouldn’t exist. None of it should have existed. On the aesthetic level alone, it seemed too beautiful and fragile to exist within the medium of video games. I hate how hokey that sounds, and I dislike how it sounds like I call the entire game a masterwork for the ages, because I’m not sure I would. The “player is a silent, invisible specter exploring a beautiful but lifeless world littered with talking books or audio diaries or whatever” setup is very well-trodden ground, and to say that Rapture does something new with it isn’t necessarily saying much at all.

It made me feel regret all over again for not visiting Sleep No More during its lengthy run in Boston, because I now very much wish to compare my feelings about exploring the spaces offered by the two works. I suspect I would find them both similar in their extreme unlikelihood, and yet in both cases: here I stand, inside them.

Let us leave the shed and return to the story. The very end of the game presents a tonal shift different from all that came before. At the closing credits rolled, my partner said, “That was confusing.” I didn’t disagree, and some hours into the following day, while she worked at her job and I sat around the house thinking about very slow video games, I composed for her an email writing out my take on the ending, and all else that the game’s last half hour or so reveals. And this follows.

Please note that the remainder of this post spoils the story of this game, and won’t necessarily make much sense if you haven’t played it, besides.

Continue reading Thoughts on "Everybody's Gone to the Rapture".
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IGF nominees: my comments

The Indie Games Festival nominees are now posted. The IGF is a showcase of indie games which exists as part of GDC (March, San Francisco, expensive). This year I was invited to be on the jury for Excellence in Narrative (along with Emily Short and some other folks you might know).

As I understand the awards process, it's a three-phase thing. A large pool of game experts and designers nominate a large list of games, and then spend a few months playing and commenting on them. (The long list was over 750 games this year.) Smaller groups of experts then look at the top-voted entries on the long list and select six finalists. The final winners will be announced from GDC on March 16th.

I was involved in phase 2, which meant playing a bunch of games (but like a dozen, not 750!) and then talking them over with the other folks on the narrative jury. I have permission to post my game notes (although not, of course, anything the other jurors said!) and that's this post.

The finalists in the Narrative category were (in alphabetical order): The Beginner's Guide; Black Closet; Her Story; The Magic Circle; That Dragon, Cancer; Undertale. Congratulations to all of them! And to the finalists in the other categories, too.

Important details:

  • These are my comments, not my votes! I'm not posting my votes. If you've read any of my Design Ruminations posts, you know that I love to talk about what went wrong and right in a game, which is not the same as how good it was or how much I enjoyed it.
  • I was also invited to vote for the Seumas McNally Grand Prize, but I declined. I don't feel I've played enough games this year to have a sense of what's best overall. I had enough trouble squeezing in the time to play the Narrative nominees!
  • I had access to free review copies of all of these games. (Pre-release copies, in the case of unreleased titles.) I had already purchased (and played) Her Story, Sun Dogs, and The Beginner's Guide on my own account.
  • I wrote these comments in the order that I played the games. Except for Her Story, Sun Dogs, and The Beginner's Guide, which I wrote up pretty much when they occurred to me.
  • Nearly all of the top-voted narrative games were available for Mac! Good news for us Mac folks. (I asked about this in advance; I wouldn't have accepted the invitation if I couldn't play the games.)
  • See also Emily Short's post of comments about the voting process.

My voting criteria were... well, Emily's post has a good list of points: mechanics that support the story, observant writing, and substance. I care about all of those things, but it's an extremely subjective process. I certainly didn't give a finely-graded point-based score to each game. I also didn't simply vote for my favorite games. Obviously my preferences color everything! But the audience here is people who follow indie gaming, not just me, so I tried to keep that in mind.

In the end, I tried to pick the games which will make gamers say "Holy crap, games are even more narratively awesome than I thought."

Games that I discuss in this post:

  • The Writer Will Do Something
  • Sun Dogs
  • Dr. Langeskov, The Tiger and The Terribly Cursed Emerald
  • The Beginner's Guide
  • That Dragon, Cancer
  • Her Story
  • The Magic Circle
  • Emily Is Away
  • Cibele
  • Read Only Memories
  • Oxenfree
  • Sunset
  • Undertale

Onward to the comments!

Continue reading IGF nominees: my comments.
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What Zarf is up to, winter edition

I survived my month of a thousand conferences. Three conferences, which feels like a thousand when you put them in a four-week span. IndieCade was great! WordPlay was great! I also went to Practice, which was great! Then I was tired.

Between all of that and some assorted client work, I have had zero time to put into The Flashpaper War. Oops. So the "coming later this year" notice that I posted in May turns out to be a lie. Sorry! (This is why I didn't Kickstart it, right?)

I've updated the Flashpaper teaser page to say "Coming in 2016". I really intend to hold to that. Not least because Flashpaper was my "make some money on IF in 2015" idea. Money is awesome. I'm very keen on having some new IF for sale in 2016.

I'm still excited about Flashpaper as a game concept, too. Now that I've taken a three-month vacation from working on it, I can see that the underlying concept needs to be hit with the iteration stick a few more times. It got good responses at FIG, but it's not as catchy as I'd like. Flashpaper is unlike most IF that's out there, so it has to build its own market in order to be a hit.

In the spirit of setting expectations, I will say: Flashpaper is not parser IF. It will be an iOS game, or at least an iOS-first game. It was conceived as a touchscreen game from the beginning and that's how it will work best.

(Android may follow eventually if it seems worth the effort of porting. Yes, I say that about all my iOS projects. Nothing yet has been enough of a success to be worth learning Android programming. I live in hope.)

As for other projects: I still want to do Meanwhile for AppleTV. I took a quick stab at porting the iOS version over, but the scrolling didn't work right and then I had to put it aside for client work. I'll get back to it over the winter break.

I am also -- and don't take this as a promise but come on this is awesome -- looking at entering the Imaginary Games Jam. Registration deadline is a week from today.

And I need to sew elbow patches on my hideous plaid jacket. That jacket has been in circulation since 1987-ish. Getting a bit worn around the seams.

So those are my winter plans. Plus the usual round of keeping an eye on Inform bugs, thinking about IF libraries, hanging out, and generally messing around. The next Boston IF meetup is Thursday, by the way.

Looking farther out, I'm gonna be at GDC in March. I'm not giving any talks or anything, just visiting. It's been four years since my last (first) GDC trip, and I've met way more cool game people since then, so it's probably time to go back.

I hope to have more exciting Zarf-does-stuff news soon...

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4000 pages of Infocom documents

I said 4000 pages of Infocom documents. You heard me, right?

These are paper records saved by Steve Meretzky while Infocom was operating. He saved them after the company fell down; he preserved them for decades; he let Jason Scott scan them while making Get Lamp. The originals are now at Stanford University. The scans (slightly edited to remove personal information) are now on the Internet Archive.

What's currently up there is all the design documents for many of Infocom's games. (I originally wrote "nearly all" but in fact it's seven of them.)

Further doc dumps (memos, email, schedules, business plans) will appear in the future -- they require more editing and permissions, since there's more personal information there.

Go nuts.

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The Room 3: design ruminations

(Or "roominations", har har.)

I have finished The Room 3, third in the series of gorgeous puzzle-box games for touchscreen. I didn't know it was in production -- The Room 2 seemed to wrap up the storyline, such as it was -- but I guess the designers have decided to ride this clockwork train for as long as it ticks. I'm not objecting; this entry in the series is a satisfying chunk of puzzle manipulation. It's longer than the first two games put together, and it expands the original game mechanic into an explorable environment. (By offering an architectural space of rooms, and also adding a new "zoom into tiny sub-rooms" mechanic.)

I want to talk about one particular aspect: the storyline. In idle post-game chatter, I tweeted:

I can't say I think of these games as narrative objects at all. (--@zarfeblong)

That may sound nuts; how different is the Room series from the classically-narrative Myst series? Puzzles + journals = IF. But there must be a difference. When I said above "the storyline, such as it was", I wasn't kidding. I literally don't remember anything about the storyline of The Room and The Room 2 except that R2 seemed to wrap it up. And there was "the Null", but that's something that R3 reminded me of.

Continue reading The Room 3: design ruminations.
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Pocket Storm for the new Apple TV

I'm happy to announce that Pocket Storm for the Apple TV is now available in the new Apple TV App Store. Apple's new set-top box ships today, and you can get your favorite thunderstorm on it.

To find it, open the App Store app on the TV's main screen, select Search, and enter STORM. (Or POCKET, or ZARF -- the text search is actually pretty good.)

Better yet -- if you've purchased Pocket Storm for iOS, you can download the Apple TV app for free! And vice versa. It's a joint purchase, which means you can buy it once and then install it on any iOS or tvOS device you own.

As always, I am donating 10% of Pocket Storm revenues to Freesound.org, because of the awesome service they provide to indie game designers and other artists. In particular, they provide CC-licensed thunderstorm noises to me!

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We showed off Seltani at Indiecade! To lots of people. Lots and lots. Not everybody was interested -- it was, after all, a text game in a hall crowded with flashing lights and VR headsets -- but plenty of people thought it was worth a look. Some were Myst fans (or even Myst Online fans); some were old MUD users; some were familiar with Twine but had never seen a multiplayer Twine-like.

I gave out stacks of postcards with this map I did of the Seltani District (the game's initial hub area). It had the URL on the back, obviously. (Note to self: next time I reprint the postcard, boldface the URL.)

In a wiser and more organized world I would have a story to tell about Indiecade, but it's not, I don't, and I'm moderately exhausted in a hotel as I write this. So you get lists.

Continue reading Indiecade happened and it didn't kill me.
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