Monthly Archives: December 2008

Speaking of Llamasoft

You may have known (as I did) that Space Giraffe's eye-bending visuals resemble Neon, the Xbox 360's built-in music visualizer, because they come from the same creator. But perhaps you did not know (as I didn't until just now) that Neon is meant to be a fully interactive experience, whose manual can teach you how to use up to four Xbox controllers to influence the on-screen animation, with each one modifying a different attribute, including camera position, tunnel effects, and "boingy".

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Space Giraffe flies again

I mentioned Jeff Minter's Space Giraffe on here a while ago. It's been out as an Xbox Live Arcade title for over a year, and Minter's Llamasoft just ported it to the PC. To help promote this new release, Minter created some text-n-video walkthroughs of the game's early levels.

To me, this is most notable for being a complete - and completely correct - reversal of Minter's initial reaction to the game's critical reception, including the infamous "grow a pair" post on his company's blog, where he attacked the idea that modern video games should contain tutorials of any sort. It's too bad he left that sulky post up on the blog's front page for a whole year, but I am willing to overlook all in the face of this clear good-faith effort to show that he is, in fact, listening to his audience.

Personally, I love the crazy graphics that so many have complained about, but playing it still makes me frustrated. There's a point about a dozen levels in where I lose all my accumulated lives without the foggiest notion why. I know from my reading of the game's development history that the information's in there somewhere - part of the challenge is learning how to read all the colors and sound effects whizzing by. But the game doesn't make this challenge explicit, so unless you are taught from an external source, like a GameFAQ or these videos, as far as you know your giraffe simply becomes suicidal after ten minutes of play.

In this sense, the videos are rather an overdue patch to a deeper design flaw, but I'm nonetheless pleased that they've appeared. I look forward to absorbing these videos and attempting a renaissance with my own copy of the game. And in any case, I maintain that the Xbox version of Space Giraffe is totally worth five bucks. It's a game that deserves experiencing.

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The Terrible Secret of Animal Crossing

A retelling, or reinterpretation, of that creepy game-timesucker-thing. The creepy part is how little reinterpretation the author had to do. Illustrated with direct, unedited screenshots. (Okay, later on they're supplemented with original artwork.)

It suddenly penetrates my 8-year-old brain like a brick through a convenience store window. They're all in on it. The mysterious cabbie that took off with all my shit, being forced to wear work clothes, the impossible sudden debt, the guarded gates... it's all one big conspiracy.

I'm trapped here. And I'm alone.

(Link thanks to tleaves.)

Butchering Pathologic

A review of Pathologic, a 2005 holocaustic CRPG that won a huge trail of rewards in Russia and that I never heard word one about. The game sounds astonishing, and I think I want to never play it. It's a button-buster of a review, anyway.

You will not get paid money when you carry out the whims of the town's leaders. There will not be a health pack hidden behind the thug. You will not find a loaf of bread at the back of the cave. You'll find a stone wall at the back of the cave, because it's a fucking cave.

Instead, survival is its own entirely separate entity. To keep up a stash of supplies you have to learn to master the town's nightmare economy. Example: giving a child a cutthroat razor in exchange for stolen jewelery, trading these jewels in at a grocers for a heel of bread.

Review is spoilery; part 3 of the review is seriously spoilery.

(Link thanks to Nancy Lebovitz.)

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Finding Legendary Wings

Every so often, I would think about this game I played as a kid. It was one of the first games I ever beat (or at least the most memorable early one), and I really liked the powerups. However, I didn't remember its name. I remembered that it was a vertical scrolling shooter for two players. The characters were angels or something, and the highest level powerup would turn your character into some kind of phoenix or something. I felt sure that if I saw the name I would remember it.

So, after thinking about it several times over a period of months, I finally decided to try to find it. I tried searching for various terms, but I didn't have any success. There was one particular friend I associated with this game, and I thought I remembered that this friend had a Sega Genesis, so I carefully combed through Wikipedia's list of Genesis games. I didn't find it. Just to be on the safe side, I also carefully combed through the list of Dreamcast games. No joy there, either. In desperation, I decided to check out the list of NES games, and there it was. Legendary Wings.

I read through the description, and it brought back many memories. I had one detail wrong, though. Apparently the characters were people with mechanical wings, not angels (although I don't think there's any mention of this in the game itself). So, thinks I, I guess I'll have to find out what's going on with NES emulators and try to hunt down the ROM to play. And then I notice that the first page of search results lists a place you can play Legendary Wings online. And lo, I did play Legendary Wings. And I discovered that it's a lot harder with one person, and it's a lot harder without a Nintendo controller. I've so far only managed to get the second powerup, and I got to the first boss but didn't beat him. I think maybe the little bullets from the ground guns are harder to see, too, but that could just be rationalization.

I explored the site a little more. It's a Java Nintendo emulator, and it reads ROMs from other sites, presumably for copyright reasons (although their copyright notice states that they've tried to contact copyright holders before even linking to the ROMs on other sites).

And exploring further, I saw that they have games for several other systems, including Nintendo Gameboy, Sega Master System, DOS, and, the love of my childhood, Commodore 64. Unfortunately, the controls on some of the Commodore games I tried out (Bruce Lee and Archon) were a bit wonky, so I may have to resort to downloading an emulator to try these out. And quickly browsing the site again to write this entry, I saw that they have Pirates! as one of their DOS games. I know their have been remakes, but I doubt they would hold up to my experience playing Pirates! way back when.

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Myst Online to be open source

Cyan said a few days ago that they had a big change in the works. I wasn't expecting this:

So, Cyan has decided to give make MystOnline available to the fans by releasing the source code for the servers, client and tools for MystOnline as an open source project. We will also host a data server with the data for MystOnline. MORE is still possible but only with the help from fans.

This is a bit scary for Cyan because this is an area that we have never gone before, to let a product freely roam in the wild. But we've poured so much into UruLive, and it has touched so many, that we could not just let it whither and die. We still have hopes that someday we will be able to provide new content for UruLive and/or work on the next UruLive.

(posted Dec 12 on; reprint on Spokesman Review blog.)

Damn. Mondo cool. I wish I had the free energy to pitch into this full-time.

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This week I learned something you can do with alternate reality fiction that you can't do with regular, localized fiction. You can create text that's part of two separate stories.

(You can go back to my previous post on alternate reality fiction, or here's the short form: it's the sort of fiction that has pieces of a universe supporting it. Web sites for fictional companies, fictional people blogging and sending email, so on. When it's a game you call it an "alternate reality game", but it's not always a game, right? You can support a novel or a TV show that way. So, "alternate reality fiction.")

(Yes, I am now using the flimsiest excuse for posting this on a gaming blog -- it's a followup to my previous post on this blog. Sorry, Jmac.)

Now follow along; this will take a bit to set up. Let us venture into the world of fanfic.

(Not because there's anything specifically fanfic about the idea. It's just the first example I noticed.)

Take a look at this web site: Looks like typical corporate crap (except for the disclaimer). But if you're familiar with the Stargate TV show, you'll recognize Cameron Mitchell as a character from the last two seasons. (If you're really familiar with the TV show, you might guess who JD Nielson is. But that's not important right now.)

Now take a look at this flyer for the company (270kb PNG image). Indeed, the guy at the bottom right is Ben Browder, who plays Cameron Mitchell on the show. So you're getting the picture -- these two artifacts belong to the same storyline, in some sense. Maybe the flyer doesn't appear on the web site because it's not professional enough, but they fit together. Right?

(I created that flyer, by the way. The amateur photoshopping is all my fault. So is the fact that it's completely silly. The role of JD is played by Michael Filipowich. The web site was created by synecdochic.)

Now take a look at this livejournal account. (Now emigrated to dreamwidth -- Ed.) It lists as its web site, the location matches, it's got a "fictional person" disclaimer, and the name is shown as "Cammie"... wait. Nobody ever calls Cameron Mitchell "Cammie" on the show. Does Ben Browder look like a "Cammie" sort of person? No no no. Further, if you look at some of chemicalfuel's journal entries -- and those of vtwopointoh, who is JD Nielson -- you will rapidly deduce that Cammie is a woman. Cameron Evangeline Mitchell.

So you look back at the web site, and you think, hold on -- there ain't no pronouns on that page. It does not specify whether Cameron (or, indeed, JD) is male or female. So the web site is consistent with the flyer, and it's consistent with the Livejournal pages. But they're not consistent with each other. They can't all be the same storyline.

(Unless it's a storyline with magical sex-changing technology. Which is not actually beyond the bounds of the Stargate universe, and certainly not beyond the bounds of fanfic. But you'd want some corroboration before you took that interpretation.)

At this point I will spill the beans. These sites are sideline material for a bunch of Stargate fan stories by synecdochic and ivorygates. Two disparate serieses of stories. In the Broken Wings series, Cameron Mitchell is permanently disabled after his Antarctic crash, and so he retires from the Air Force and starts a software company. The Mezzanine series has exactly the same premise, except that Cameron Mitchell is a woman. Different things happen. (Each series has a JD Nielson, who are both guys, but they're not quite the same guy.)

The site is ARF material for both storylines. This is something I have not seen before.

Why not? Normal fiction has no ambiguity about its boundaries -- at least, that's the modern convention. You know when you're looking at fiction; and (we generally take for granted) you know what fiction you're looking at. The publisher slaps "Hogwarts year N" or "a Repairman Jack novel" on the cover to make it obvious. But when you dissolve the first assumption, and release material which pretends to be real life, the second assumption gets fuzzy to. Why shouldn't a work fit into two different sequences?

I am not, understand, talking about the crossover story. In a crossover, we point at two storylines and pretend they're the same -- Batman is fighting Spiderman, which means Gotham City is more New York than usual; they're the same place. Or Spiderman took Amtrak. (Or, since the two worlds continue to ignore each other's premises outside the suspended disbelief pentagram of the crossover, we might consider that we've created a third storyline, of limited detail, which shares some premises of each.) But however you consider it, the crossover text represents one story. Batman meets Spiderman.

To truly match the case, you'd have to write a story in which a man named Bruce Wayne meets a man named Peter Parker, and one of them is a superhero, and the other is a regular dude who lives in New York / Gotham City. But the text wouldn't tell you which. It would fit into either the DC or the Marvel universe, but in each case it would mean something slightly different. (Perhaps something radically different!)

I know I'm way out on a theoretical limb here, and maybe you can't think of a reason to write such a story. But you could try. Somebody should.

ARF (or ARG) material is, I think, more suited to these tricks than plain prose -- simply because such material is usually not a story per se, but a small piece of a story -- or sideband information which enriches a story. It conveys by implication; which means you are imputing meaning based on context; which means the meaning can change in different contexts.

Regular prose stories also convey stuff by implication, to a lesser degree. And (pace my original claim) I can think of some novels which pull tricks in this vein.

  • A scene in Rosemary Kirstein's first Steerswoman novel, in which a boy dies while trying to open a cursed chest. In this case, there is "really" only one storyline -- but the reader knows something that the protagonist doesn't (or at least has the chance to figure it out). So the characters see one storyline; the reader sees two, made up of the same incidents.

  • Sharon Shinn's Archangel (first of its series). Again, the reader can see a storyline (science fiction) where the characters see another (theological fable). This works because both are good stories; they have weight and emotional heft and change the characters' lives.

  • Inversions, by Iain M. Banks. A better example, because it reads differently depending on whether you think it's part of a series or not.

  • And, to bring this whimsically back to Stargate, the original Stargate movie. The people who made the movie are not same the people who made the Stargate: SG-1 TV series. This led, at one point, to the movie writers publishing a set of tie-in novels which were also sequels to the movie's story, but went in a completely different direction from the TV show (and its tie-in novels). Two storylines with the same first chapter.

The first two of these examples display differences in interpretation. The characters may disagree with the reader about what happened, but we can reasonably say that the characters are wrong (or uninformed) -- there's only one sequence of events.

The latter two examples are more interesting, because the reader can take different views on what's going on -- depending on context, as I said. This doesn't change what the story is directly showing us; but it does change what else we believe has happened. That is, the implied, off-screen events vary. That's the right parallel. The site doesn't have events, but it does have directly conveyed information (the names and bios of two people) and off-screen information (their existences, including gender).

Here's where I ought to tie all my rambling together into one glorious conclusion that illuminates the future of Narrative 2.0. Haw haw.

No, I have no idea where I'm going with this. It's a gimmick! It's neat. People should use it more.

What if there were a community web site dedicated to ARFs (and ARGs), which became a focal point for participating in them? People would be discussing the various projects, but some of the people would also be fictional, and be conveying in-character information as they interacted. (Go where the fans are, right?) You could take it as a giant crossover where all ARGs meet (St. Elsewhere!), or you could take each fictional world separately. In this world, character X knows about the AIs infiltrating society. In that world, character Y sees the fnords, but person X is just a guy playing an ARG. Get it?

(For all I know, ARGNet or Unfiction already does this.)

Less apocalyptically: what if Chaz Villette invited JD Nielson over for dinner?

What if an ARG included several different universes, all playing out on the Web, unaware of each other's existence but sharing web sites and (alternate versions of) characters? Three universes, say.

(Recognized those Michael Filipowich images, did you?)

Pick your own path.

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