Monthly Archives: May 2010

Torchlight, Lost, and Blow's Treadmill

4.jpgIn terms of popular culture, May 2010 goes into the annals under the headline “The month that Lost ended.” For some of us, another fact about the month is at least as significant: Valve released its Steam content-delivery service — and corresponding a passel of new games — for Mac people. And for me in particular, this meant that I could immediately start playing Torchlight on my Mac.

While one of these things is a game and the other a television show, both represent implementations of the thing I’ll call Blow’s Treadmill, that diabolical device eloquently deconstructed by Jon Blow in a talk we’ve linked to before. Blow’s Treadmill, in a nutshell, describes any system of game mechanics that give a game player a sense of accomplishment and advancement when, for all practical in-game purposes, they remain right where they started.

While the Treadmill criticism is most frequently levied against CRPGs (Blow’s archetypical example is World of Warcraft), Matthew “DefectiveYeti” Baldwin applied it admiringly to Lost in an excellent essay from a couple of years ago:

During each show you gain a little experience in the form of new information: about the island, the characters, or both; every four episodes or so you level up, as some (allegedly) major piece of the overall puzzle falls into place. After leveling up in a CRPG, you typically head to Ye Olde Flail ‘N’ Scented Candle Emporium, sell all your current equipment, and buy the improved weapons that your enhanced abilities now allow you to wield; likewise, after a revelatory LOST episode, fans chuck all their old theories into the dustbin and cook up new ones consistent with the revised facts. Then, having done so, each-the player of a CRPG, or the viewer of LOST-is handed a brand new quest, or puzzle, or plot plot. The ephemeral thrill of leveling vanishes, replaced by a longing to hit the next milestone. You never disembark from the treadmill, it just goes faster.

Continue reading Torchlight, Lost, and Blow's Treadmill.
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Interactive Fiction Bits

Two recent bits:

  • Following the success of the IF summit at PAX East, the Seattle IF group is organizing some IF content at PAX Prime in Seattle this September.
  • IF newcomer Neophyte has teamed up with IF veteran Juhana to build a game that will act as an IF trainer, teaching people what they need to know to play other IF games. They're collaborating on a wiki for everyone to see. Right now they have some of the initial concept done, and they're hoping to have the game done by September 1 (just in time for PAX Prime, although I think their timing has more to do with the annual comp than PAX).

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Portal Is Free

In case for some reason you didn't hear this elsewhere, Portal is now free for the next week and a half. They're doing it to draw attention to Steam being available for the Mac now, but it's free for everyone. So, never having played Portal before (except the 2D version), I downloaded it onto my PC laptop and tried it out. I was at first a little worried because they told me that they didn't recognize my video card, but everything seemed to play fine. I played for about half an hour, and I really enjoyed it. It's certainly playable with my laptop's trackpad for now, but I think I'll hook up the mouse to make it a bit more comfortable, since, like most shooters, you move with WASD and aim with the mouse.

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[Boston] PR-IF June Meetup, June 28, plus extras

Distant early warning for our June meetup, since we (read "I") have been a bit late lately getting the meeting time settled. So, our next monthly meetup will be on Monday, June 28, at 6:30 in Nick Montfort's office at MIT, 14N-233. Agenda to be determined, but we'll likely talk about a couple of June conferences/meetings that will have taken place, the ELO_AI conference and @party. All are welcome, regardless of your experience with or knowledge of interactive fiction. Afterwards, usually around 8:00 or 8:30, we head over to the CBC for food and/or drinks.

I'm sure we'll also be talking about two PR-IF splinter groups that will have met for the first time. This Sunday is Grue Street, the first meeting of an IF writer's group. And then on the day before the meetup, Sunday June 27, we'll have the first meeting of an IF reader's/player's group. Links to information on both of these (as well as a link to our mailing list) can be found on our website.

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I have not played Echo Bazaar

I have not played Echo Bazaar. But whoo-ee, a whole lot of my friends sure are playing it.

The reasons I'm not playing are as banal as I can possibly make them. I don't want to use my Twitter account that way! I want to play once a night, not once every 70 minutes! I like whining on the Internet!

...I'm busy writing stuff, and I have no time to get hooked on new games. Except for these iPad hidden-object time-wasters! And the new Prince of Persia retread is coming out soon!

...No, look. The truth is that I love this kind of game -- I was an early Kingdom of Loathing fan. Worse, for years I've wanted to write this kind of game. But I only have scraps of filthy sketchwork and insoluble economics diagrams, and those Echo Bazaar people have actually gone ahead and done the thing. And I hear it's awfully cool.

What's even cooler is when a horde of highly literate gamers, designers and interactivity freaks get hold of something like this and start whaling on it in four-part harmony. And suggesting new design ideas. And then the game creators notice and start commenting back.

So, without ullage:

I do not have time, I do not have time...

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Zeno Clash: Subtle horror, done right

MA_revisions_06-large.jpgThe opening cinematic of ACE Team's Zeno Clash shows a towering and unearthly creature -- cowled, hunchbacked and literally bird-legged, yellow eyes glowing like lanterns over a beaklike proboscis -- tenderly caring for some chubby, babbling babies. We see it helping one learn to walk, letting the child grasp its absurdly long, bony finger, leading it along gently.

The scene is not played as a shocking reveal; the entire, bizarre tableau is displayed at once, as soon as the game loads. The game knows damn well that you downloaded it after reading a blurb, either on Steam or on Xbox Live, that led you to expect an action-adventure about beating people up. And then it shows you this.

That, my friends, is a hook.

Here is another hook:

Mrs. Sloan had only three fingers on her left hand, but when she drummed them against the countertop, the tiny polished bones at the end of the fourth and fifth stumps clattered like fingernails. If Judith hadn't been looking, she wouldn't have noticed anything strange about Mrs. Sloan's hand.

"Tell me how you met Herman," said Mrs. Sloan.

This the opening of "The Sloan Men" by David Nickle, whose work I discovered via Pseudopod, a podcast of new short stories in the horror genre. I started listening to the show a couple of years ago as a change of pace from Escape Pod, the trailblazing SF podcast that became popular enough to spawn a handful of subgenre-specific shows, Psuedopod among them. I quickly came to prefer it over its parent show -- to my surprise, since I have never identified as a horror fan. And while I don't love every story it features, it manages to air a real winner with sufficient frequency that I look forward to each week's new show.

I quote Nickle because his stories, and the experience of having them read to me by Psuedopod's varied but consistently fine vocal talent, came to mind as I started to play Zeno Clash. From my perspective, the game appeared without warning or fanfare on Xbox Live Arcade last week. (It's been on Steam for a year, but, not much of a PC gamer, I hadn't noticed.) By coincidence, I'd purchased Nickle's collection Monstrous Affections earlier that same day -- after hearing and loving, for the third time, a story of his on Pseudopod -- so stories like "The Sloan Men" were fresh on my mind.[1]

The two stories' openings share the tactic of taking something familiar and domestic -- one parent lovingly caring for its infant children; another, enthroned in her kitchen, casually grilling her son's new girlfriend -- and mixing in something very wrong, letting it jut out in plain sight, as obvious as an exposed fingerbone. The disconnect, when executed correctly, produces a thrill in the audience, a recognition of the normal world gone horribly (aha!) awry somehow, and generates a hunger to learn more.

Continue reading Zeno Clash: Subtle horror, done right.
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In early 1995, when I was a tiny ickle thing and had only written one major interactive game (not a text adventure), I played a web game.

...That sentence requires a respectful pause, because, you remember 1995? Vas you dere, Charlie? Were there games on the toddler World Wide Web?

Okay -- there were; quite a few by then. Not so many that a person couldn't play all of them, or try. I gathered some young fame as the maintainer of Zarf's List of Interactive Games on the Web, and if you were a Mosaic user in those early years, you remember me. Hi!

1995 was the last year of The List, because that summer is when everything went zoom and there were more web sites, and web games, than any human being could shake a stick at. But one of my favorite additions of that January -- really, of the whole list -- was David Levine's Contact Project.

Because he posted it on, which became, the original Contact Project web site is still available. Kai the historians!

The format was straightforward. A message was posted -- notionally a sequence of musical tones received from Tau Ceti. (The creator politely transcribed them into letters for us, but no other hints were provided.) The challenge: translate the alien message. As players made progress, more messages appeared, with more symbols (tones) to translate.

So, to begin with -- if you enjoy a translation puzzle challenge, go look at the messages. It's completely fair, and both creative and clever in its use of familiarity (the aliens want their message to be translated, like our golden tablet) and foreignness (they are aliens nonetheless).

Levine set up a web forum (undoubted the first web forum I ever used!) for players to post messages and share information. Looking back on it now, I startle myself: I had completely forgotten how involved I was! I posted frequently, contributed some source code for decoding tools, and maintained a web page of all the information we discovered. (My page is unfortunately lost, but you can reconstruct everything by reading through the archived posts.)

I was also more of a tone-deaf Internet jerk back then. Heya, youth.

That's not what this song is about.

A couple of days ago, David Levine posted a long article about the Contact Project, its origins, and its consequences.

At the end of March 2010, I found out that I was apparently a central figure in a conspiracy theory regarding aliens and a government cover up. This is perhaps the strangest thing that has ever happened to me.

-- from I am a one-man conspiracy, apparently, David Levine

Continue reading Aliens built the pyramids and all I got was this lovely translation puzzle.
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