Nine years ago I made my blogging debut with a post titled Games that don't exist. I'd been on the web since 1993 (really!) but 2008 was my first venture into blogging -- which I guess I'd define as a semiregular series of nonfiction essays with an RSS feed.
The Gameshelf was a group blog run by my friend Jmac. I chose to participate because, well, I wasn't sure I'd be writing enough to sustain a blog on my own. Indeed, I never hit a daily or even weekly rhythm. But I got a couple of posts written each month -- which adds up. Over nine years I wrote 323 Gameshelf posts, documenting games I played, IF events I attended, and the entire development cycle of Hadean Lands.
But: everything shifts over time, and that includes the centers of gravity of web sites. Jmac moved his regular writing to a personal blog site. The Perl core of The Gameshelf (a Movable Type fork) rusted until it barely functioned. (That "323 posts" link above is supposed to let you browse all my Gameshelf posts, but it doesn't really.)
A few weeks ago, a routine Perl update broke the blog software completely. Fixing it was a one-line patch (thanks Jmac) but the writing on the wall had clearly acquired
So, behold my brand-new blog page! It now lives at blog.zarfhome.com.
I'm using blogger.com, which is, yes, part of the Google-monster. But it works, it's free, I got the layout the way I want, and I don't have to worry about patching security holes. And there is an RSS feed.
I have imported all 323 of my Gameshelf posts. (Here's that first one from 2008.) You'll note that this post appears on both blogs, but it will be my last Gameshelf contribution. From now on, blog.zarfhome.com for everything.
I expect I'll continue tuning the layout. There are a few remaining quirks:
Blogger's web import feature doesn't work (at least, it didn't work for me). I imported the old posts using Blogger's API.
Blogger doesn't understand Markdown. O woe! My importer tool did Markdown translation, but the resulting HTML is slightly munged. So the old posts may have slightly broken formatting.
All the images in the imported posts, and the cross-links to other posts, still point to The Gameshelf. The Gameshelf site will stay online for the foreseeable future, so that's okay.
I imported the blog comments too, but they appear as part of the post body. (For example, this recent post.) So the old posts all say "no comments" even though the comments are really preserved. (The Blogger API includes a verb for "fetch comments" but not "insert new comment". Why not? Who the heck knows.)
The search tool doesn't work. I think Google's crawler hasn't caught up with the imported posts yet. Hopefully that will fix itself.
For all anyone knows, Google will nuke Blogger next year. Or next week. (It's Google.) In that case I'll have to change platforms again. But I'll still host the site at blog.zarfhome.com, so no big deal, right?
Quirks aside, I am pleased with my new digs and so I bid The Gameshelf a fond and good-natured farewell. Posting will continue at the usual semiregular rate. See you all on the new domain.
I have updated the Mac/Win/Linux version of Hadean Lands on Steam. These are small UI changes, mostly inherited from the past year's worth of Lectrote updates. The gameplay has not changed, and save files will continue to work undisturbed.
- In the journal window, you can now sort items by name or by date (the order you discovered them in the game).
- Added two new color themes: Sepia and Slate.
- Changed the "Reset" menu item to "Reset Completely" (to match the in-game command for completely starting over).
- Changed the "Close Window" menu item to "Close Game" for the main game window. (Except on Mac, sorry. The Mac's menu bar works poorly with this app framework.)
- Fixed a slight size miscalculation in the status window.
- Updated the Electron app framework to 1.4.16.
Last weekend I gave a short talk at BangBangCon, a small New York conference dedicated to "the joy of computing". I talked about the development of Glk -- from its Z-machine origins to modern web-based interpreters.
It's a ten-minute talk (all of BangBangCon is ten-minute talks) so I focused on narrative arc rather than detail. If you're familiar with IF architecture you know this stuff already. If not, hey, you can get an overview in ten minutes.
Gameshelf compadre Jmac also gave a talk: I wrote to a dead address in a deleted PDF and now I know where all the airplanes are!.
BangBangCon was rather delightful, but also rather hard to get into. (Attendance is limited; the organizers use a pay-what-you-want model, which means memberships sell out instantly.) I had a great time and the crowd was full of interesting people. But I'm not sure I'll go back next year. Lots of interesting conferences come over my horizon, and I'm most interested in the game-oriented ones.
I've been playing a bunch of mobile games this spring (for no reason except that I played a lot of PC games over the winter) and I keep thinking about navigation.
Here's a navigation scheme which is common in casual first-person adventures: you always face forward. In every room, there's some number of exits, plus one invisible exit behind you. So you can go forward in various directions (unless you're at a dead end), and you can go back (unless you're at the start). If you bang the "back" button enough times you'll always return to the start room.
(I'm distinguishing forward-and-back from the common scheme of third-person adventures, where the room contains several exits but they're all visible and the character avatar walks from one to another. That's different; it has no sense of "forward" or "back", although it may have a sense of "left and right".)
An announcement went up last week on the IFTF blog. You may already have seen it, but it's important and I want to talk about it some more.
[...] While we wish we could take over and maintain software projects, we just don’t have the resources right now. What we can do instead is act as social matchmakers and try to connect projects with volunteers.
Toward this end, we’re establishing a new project called the IFTF Adoptable Technology Archive.
The IFTF Adoptable Technology Archive will be a public archive of adoptable technology on GitHub. If someone owns a project that needs a new owner, they can put it on a free and open-source software license (we favor the MIT license) and pass it over to us, and we’ll put it up on the archive. The benefit of using our archive (instead of putting it up on GitHub as an individual) is that it will be visible under the IFTF “adopt me!” umbrella. This will create a place where developers can go and see all submitted IF projects in need of adoption, while abandoned projects benefit from the related publicity. We’ll also announce all new additions to the archive via our social media channels.
(-- announcement, Feb 14, IFTF blog)
One of the unfortunate truths of the hobbyist IF field is that most of our open-source projects have lost momentum since the late 1990s. There are a couple of reasons for this. A cohort of fans who grew up with Infocom became energetic 20-somethings with lots of free time, but are now 40-somethings with families, mortgages, or other such temporal entanglements. Also, the IF field has become more diverse. When everybody was playing Z-machine games, there were lots of people working on Z-machine interpreters! But the field has broadened.
There have also been many, many experimental IF projects that never went anywhere. Some of these can be found on the IF Archive, or even on GitHub. But if you don't know they exist, they might as well have vanished.
The Adoptable Technology project is our first small step towards saving these projects. As the announcement says, we don't (yet) have the resources to actively maintain them. Instead, we can put them into a sort of showcase (a GitHub organization). This has two incremental benefits:
- Onlookers can see the list of projects in the collection. They are, at minimum, no longer invisible.
- If someone wants to pick up a stalled or abandoned IF project, they have a list of possibilities to compare.
To be sure, not every stalled or abandoned IF project needs to be in the collection. We're not pushing this as a panacea! Nor have we committed ourselves to filling it up. An IF project maintainer may just be looking to recruit volunteers, or to hand the project off in some other way.
Quest is an example from a couple of months ago. They spread the word that they were looking for new maintainers, and they were able to find people that suited their needs. We're happy to help pass along such requests from anyone in the IF field.
But if a project really loses all support, we've got a place for it that will help avoid total invisibility. That's what the Adoptable Technology collection is. It's currently empty except for a README. Perhaps it will remain so for a while. But it's our small step.
Bruno Dias's space-text-RPG Voyageur was released this week. I spent a bunch of time playing it, which reminded me that I'd just spent a bunch of time playing Out There, and a bunch more time last month playing FTL. Three games about flying through space -- a randomized construction of space, with many hazards between you and your (distant) goals.
Let me start by describing each game. If you're familiar with all of them, skip on ahead to the comparing and contrasting. :)
Voyageur is prominently tagged as "procedural". That is, every planet you land on is described by a little paragraph:
The spaceport district you land on is busy, and surrounded on all sides by endless cityscape. You hurry along the roads past a group of threatening-looking locals. Crimson political graffiti is sprayed across the walls, although you don't understand the context of the slogans. Trash piles up on the roads, sometimes collected by sullen-looking recycler drones.
The sentences and details within them are randomized, based on a set of general stats about the planet. (Urbanized/agricultural/industrial, terraformed/desert/iceball, and so on.) The markets are loaded up with randomized goods ("high-grade computers", "cheap whisky", "curious gold ore", etc). And each planet might have one or more special features: religious centers, alien satellites, universities.
What you do: travel, trade, try to accumulate enough money to keep going. Long-term goals involve accumulating enough special items to make life-changing science-fictional discoveries.
The solar systems in Out There are also randomly generated, but without the detail of Voyageur. Each one has basic stats (rocky, gas giant, or habitable; high-resource or low-resource), but the only distinguishing marks are special events which might pop up:
The gravitational waves in this area have played havoc on my equipment. I fiddled around and some of it is working again, but the rest is completely out of order. What a mess--
These text paragraphs are not procedurally generated; they're selected from a large database, effectively a library of micro-sci-fi stories. On the other hand, the effects can be randomized. In the above example, a couple of your ship's systems are randomly selected to take damage.
What you do: travel, mine, try to gather enough resources to keep going. Long-range goals involve reaching various distant points on the map, where life-changing science-fictional discoveries are hidden.
Finally, we have FTL, which is much less textual; you spend most of your time fighting hostile starships. Small textual encounters are frequent:
A Rebel captain appears on the screen. "I thought we had been doomed to backwater assignments. This is my chance to get back in Command's good graces! Charge the weapons!"
Some of these offer choices (trade with a smuggler or attack him?); others, as in this example, are simply announcements (time for a fight!). In either case, you spend much less time reading text than you spend on the action (combat, upgrading your ship, etc).
What you do: travel, upgrade your weapons, try to gather enough money to survive the fights. The long-term goal, which is presented up front, is to reach the final sector and defeat the Big Boss Rebel Flagship.
Each game offers short textual riffs, but the texture of the texts is quite different.
...a wacky, creative thing set in a treehouse. It’s not like any app you’ve seen before. Buy it! Play around with it!
My Secret Hideout has no goal, no score, no trophies. Explore it, or play with it, until you find a result you like. Will your treehouse be simple or complex? Can you guide it? What will you discover inside?
Which is to say, it was a procedural text generation experiment that I thought might sell a few copies. It did, in fact, sell a few copies. So I let it sit there on the App Store, generating its handful of dollars a month, and I went back to working on Hadean Lands and Meanwhile and all the other cool things I've done since 2011.
Then, last month, I got a notice from Apple that I really should update that app, please, or they'd yank it from the store. (Apple announced this policy last year.) This was not an illogical request: the last time I touched Hideout, it was to add support for iOS 5. The app never supported retina displays, much less the modern big-ass iPhones. It mostly still worked on current devices and the current iOS, but the layout had gotten screwy. The VoiceOver support was sort of broken. Also it had that "may slow down your device" warning, which I believe translates as "this is a 32-bit app, how Paleolithic, eww."
To be clear, I think that dropping apps from the App Store is a stupid policy. Apple's correct move would be to apply a "search death penalty", hiding obsolete apps from all browsing and keyword search. If someone still has the direct link and decides to buy the app for their ancient iPod, take their money! This is history! Preserve it, jerks.
But, to be equally clear, I could update My Secret Hideout for iOS 10. It's just not worth the time and effort, because the app makes no money. (I got a similar "please update" notice for my Heliopause app, and I jumped right on that, because it uses the same IF framework as Hadean Lands. Which makes a bit of money. All of my IF apps have now been buffed to a pleasingly modern shine.)
So is My Secret Hideout lost forever? No!
I decided that if I couldn't make money on it, I should make it free. But if I'm to make it free, I might as well make it free on a web page. That way, everybody can take a look, even those benighted souls without iPhones.
Thus: play My Secret Hideout on Itch.IO. If you like it, please consider the "donate" button.
- The leaf-dragging animations aren't quite as bouncy as on iOS, and there are no little rustly sound effects.
- It's not very accessible to sight-impaired users. This is sad, because the original iOS app supported VoiceOver. (Until that broke.)
- There is no longer any way to save or export trees. Sorry. You'll have to just copy text from the web page.
- I have a report that it doesn't work on Linux. Or maybe it doesn't work on hybrid touchscreen-and-mouse laptops. I'm not sure. (You'd think the HTML touch event interface would be solid by now, but no.)
On the up side, I was finally able to delete the Facebook account that supported the "Export your tree to Facebook" feature. Man, was that ever a waste of time.
More assorted comments on games!
Some of these were honorable mentions for the Narrative award; some were listed in other categories; some were games that just struck me as particularly nifty in some way.
(See Monday's post for the six Narrative nominees.)
Again, I had access to free review copies of these games, although some of them are games that I bought with my own money. (I was also a Kickstarter backer on one, Neptune Flux.) They appear in (roughly) the order that I played them.
In this post:
- Rusty Lake: Roots
- Able Black
- Neptune Flux
- She Who Fights Monsters
- Islands: Non-Places
- Code 7 - Episode 0 - Allocation
- Mu Cartographer
- Burly Men at Sea
- A Normal Lost Phone
The Indie Games Festival nominees are now posted. The IGF is a showcase of indie games which exists as part of GDC (early March, San Francisco, expensive). I was again invited to be on the jury for Excellence in Narrative.
This year, I also took part in the first-phase judging -- sampling a list of some 670 games of games, commenting on them, and passing recommendations up to the second-phase juries. So I have notes on lots of games!
The narrative nominees:
- Ladykiller in a Bind
- 1979 Revolution: Black Friday
- One Night Stand
In this post, I'll discuss these six games. In my next post, I'll talk about some of my other favorites from the candidate list.
- 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. While I looked at a lot of games, I concentrated on the story games and narrative experiments. I don't feel like I have a broad enough view of indie gaming to talk about "best of the year".
- I had access to free review copies of all of these games. (Pre-release copies, in the case of unreleased titles.)
Before I begin: I loved all these games. They were all high on my personal list during judging. I also loved many of the other entries!
This was a seriously hard year to judge. I don't mean it was a tight race; I mean... every game was on a completely different track. I was trying to compare text-dense games with completely wordless games. I was trying to compare visual novels with cinematic first-person games. At one point I was sitting there thinking "Which is more important to me -- good porn, real-world politics, or experimental film?" It's an unanswerable question! I wouldn't give up any of them!
Furthermore, all of the games were interesting -- which is to say, contentious in some way. I get that not everybody wants sex in games, or real-world politics in games, or (for that matter) experimental wordless film techniques in games. Every game on this list came in for some design criticism during the jury discussion. Nobody liked all the top nominees. You will see my pros and cons below, both.
In the end, I consulted my feelings and turned in a list of votes. But in a different month -- on a different day -- I might have put a different game on top.
(This post is not my voting order. I will discuss the games in the order that I played them.)
When the Obduction kickstarter fired up in 2013, it seemed like a good moment for adventure games in general. With Unity3D well-established and the Unreal 4 engine coming up, small teams were in a good position to produce really stellar visual environments. Then Cyan got a million dollars out of nostalgic Myst fans. Good sign, right?
Sure enough, a couple of years later, I saw several Myst-inspired projects on Kickstarter and Steam Greenlight.
Of those, I have now played Haven Moon (my notes in this post) and Neptune Flux (didn't have much to say). We're still waiting on Zed and Xing. (To be sure, Xing's Kickstarter predated Obduction's -- plus one point for foresight, minus one point for taking longer. Give the point back for making progress on a KS payout way less than a million dollars.)
And I have played Obduction, and now I have played Quern: Undying Thoughts. Spoiler: those are the two good ones, so far. In fact, the great ones.
(Note: I was a Kickstarter backer on Quern. Also on Obduction and Neptune Flux.)
Just as it was impossible to talk about Obduction without comparing it to Myst, I cannot talk about Quern without comparing it to Obduction. They're both aiming at the same target: a first-person adventure in which the puzzles span every aspect of the environment. They are graphical IF in the sense that I used to talk about: you must engage with them immersively, placing yourself in the world, imagining those objects around you (and in your hands), considering what makes sense to do in that physical reality.
(Note that that "Characterizing IF" post is harsh on CYOA games. That was me writing in 2002. The field has advanced.)
Quern and Obduction are both top-notch adventure games. Both have really great, creatively constructed puzzles. They both take advantage of the 3D world engine, both visually and in their puzzle design. Both are lonely worlds; they avoid human interaction (and thus the high costs of character modeling and animation). And I finished both in roughly 15 hours of play time. So those are obvious similarities.