As in years past, the People's Republic of Interactive Fiction is organizing a summer gathering of the IF folks of the world. If you are interested in hanging out and talking about IF, you are invited!
The weekend: September 14-15. The locale: Boston (the MIT area).
These are both great events, and I'd happily recommend coming into town to visit either one. Both on the same weekend... is logistically complicated, I confess. But it will only make the weekend more awesome!
Sometime in the latter midgame of Bioshock Infinite, I happened to notice that an archway I was about to scoot under was decorated with little bas-relief cherubs. Slowing down my usual breakneck pace through the map, I tilted my view up as I walked under the arch, and observed that, yes, the cherubs were fully three-dimensional, not simply a shadowed texture painted onto a flat surface. Someone at Irrational had taken the time to carefully model this sculpture and place it at this one spot in the game world.
What a shame, I thought.
Short update this time. Puzzle barriers implemented this month: seven. (Some, again, with multiple solutions.) Also another substantial chunk of the automatic move-around-the-map code. That has been going in slowly because it's so integrated with the puzzles -- going from one area to another usually requires a puzzle solution or two.
As I said in February, this is a weird development process, because I am implementing both the puzzles and the mechanism to bypass the puzzles. So it feels like there's no more game here then there was in January. I can start the thing up, type "ZAP-OMNI" (to mark all the puzzles as understood), then type "GO TO ANTECHAMBER" -- that's the second-hardest room to reach in the game. Zwoop. 41 lines of automated activity, and I'm in the Antechamber.
(This post is not about the definition of "game".)
Eleven years ago, I wrote a post entitled Characterizing Interactive Fiction. I wanted to put the pin in what I called "IF" and, more usefully, why I found that category to be interesting and distinct from other kinds of games.
My definition at that time -- here, I'll quote it:
A program which reveals a story (or related stories), created by an author (or authors), to a player (or players); such that the range of action available to the player is only partially known to him, and must be understood in terms of the story world; and such that the majority of important results of the player's actions are unique results, specifically created by the author to support that part of the story which the player is experiencing.
Notice that I don't say anything about a text parser, or even about text. This is because I was pointing at a structural similarity between (parser-based) text adventures and (first-person) graphical adventures.
I still find this a useful category. But it's not much of an observation these days, and designers have managed to incorporate those sorts of elements into lots of different kinds of games. (When I reworked the essay for the 2011 IF Theory Reader, I went with "a game that is controlled by textual input..." Mostly because the Myst-style adventure genre had more or less faded away.)
These days "interactive fiction" is a whole different argument. My 2002 essay relegated "those pesky CYOAs" to an end-note. That wasn't even controversial, because you could (at that time) still regard choice-based games as the genre of the simple branching plot tree -- Cave of Time on a computer. Those games that elaborated on the model did so in the direction of adding CRPG elements (potentially interesting, but not adventure-like) or by trying to become more like Zork (generally not interesting).
Playing Bioshock Infinite reminds me how much I wanted to write about I Am Alive, a game I finished earlier this year and found both easier to enjoy and quite uniquely thought-provoking. So let’s do that now.
This Ubisoft-produced survival-horror game appeared as a downloadable console title last year to little fanfare (which is to say, nobody on my Twitter timeline had much to say about it), and I bought it on a hunch, putting it aside for later. Even though it took me another year to actually pick up and play through, I found I Am Alive a delightful and rewarding surprise. While the game’s narrative isn’t spotless, I found the script and voice acting very good, and think the game explores genuinely new directions for survival-horror games in terms of both mechanics and story.
Let me describe here what I especially liked about the mechanics, because that’s the easy part. I hope this’ll be a warm-up for the narrative stuff, which I expect to have harder time writing well about. The game is about a man searching through a destroyed city for his family, and among the various situations he faces while under the player’s control are frequent encounters with opportunistic ruffians. That’s the bit I want to talk about here.
The taxes got done, anyhow.
If we are counting puzzle barriers, I finished... five this month. I'm counting one door twice, because walking out of that room is a different puzzle than walking into the room. Actually walking into the room is one puzzle with two solutions, but that's getting too fiddly to worry about, so let's call it five.
I consider that under par. But number two involved quite a lot of environmental coding -- yet another effect that can be applied to nearly any object in the game. (I don't mean it does something interesting to every object in the game. Trying to stay focussed here! But I still had to write a rulebook and deal with the most obvious special cases.)
I also spent some time cleaning up the verb set, and polishing parser error messages. You may recall in the teaser -- well, you probably don't recall, but I was pretty proud of this: if you type "SEARCH WORKBENCH CAREFULLY", the game replies:
I understood the command "search workbench" (that is, search the workbench); but not the word "carefully" at the end.
The Inform default error is not that specific. I had to do some hacking to get the words to quote correctly. This month I redid the hack and applied it to the current build. (It didn't transfer over exactly, because the teaser was written with an older release of Inform 7.) So, that kind of parser polishing.
That was pretty much Hadean Lands in March.
I’m pleased to announce Spoilerific, a new web-based service I created to allow the safe discussion of story spoilers on Twitter.
Spoilerific represents a followup-in-action to a Gameshelf post I wrote last year, Let’s use rot13 for game spoilers. As Spoilerific’s About page says, my suggestion to end encoded tweets with a link to rot13.com never really caught on. And of course no major Twitter clients have recently added rot13-encode/decode features, which remains the thing I really would love to see. So, for lack of any of that, I offer this.
Jon Irwin wrote a piece for Kill Screen about Spoilerific’s place in the the rich ecology of community-created retrofits for technologies that don’t quite reach as far as we’d like, and I take that as a compliment. I’d love to hear what you think, too.
I posted the sixth episode of Play of the Light last month, rounding out our first six-episode season of “a conversation about videogames” featuring myself and the much wiser and more handsome Matthew Weise.
The full episode list, in a nutshell:
- Episode 1: Fallout: New Vegas and how changing US political attitudes can stamp themselves on a decades-long game series.
- Episode 2: Dark Souls and the gulf that can form between a complex work’s surface reputation and its true, deeper shape.
- Episode 3: Mass Effect and the tension between a big-budget videogame’s desire to tell a compelling story while also being an exciting pew-pew gamey-game.
- Episode 4: Deadly Premonition and how videogames are uniquely suited to present their own style of cross-medium adaptation and homage of other works.
- Episode 5: Various multiplayer games, from Hero Academy to J.S. Joust, and the fundamental differences between solitaire-player design and multiplayer.
- Episode 6: The Walking Dead and ZombiU and the role of The Zombie across western media over the last half-century.
The podcast’s homepage contains relevant RSS feeds and copious per-episode links. Please enjoy at your leisure.
 We’d planned to complete the season in three or four months, not ten. (I announced the podcast here last April.) I ended up adding a six-month delay halfway in so that I could pursue Sixis; only after that shipped in November could I resume Play of the Light production. A personal education in how many things I can do at once (as well as what counts as “a thing” in this equation), but I regret that the podcast suffered in neglect as a result.
Barring further cataclysmic weather phenomena, my snow-postponed Warbler’s Nest presentation shall now happen at 5:30 PM on April 22, 2013, in MIT’s room 14E-310. As before, and like all events in the Purple Blurb series, it shall be free and open to the public. Please come join us as we traverse the game together on the big screen, with a discussion period to follow.
A word on context: Purple Blurb is a series of smart and diverse digital writing presentations originally organized by long-time Boston-area IF supporter Nick Montfort, and I encourage Boston-area readers to check out the other events on the Blurb’s schedule this spring. All cost nothing to attend and are full of further electronic-text-mashup goodness, a rich field of which interactive fiction is merely one facet.
It feels short, anyway. By more of a factor than exists in reality. Stupid February.
A lot happened this month, but you read my post two weeks ago. The most interesting of course is that Heliopause is now up on the iOS App Store. But I will also repeat my plug for Versu, Emily Short's dialogue-AI project at Linden Labs. (Also on iOS, but coming for other platforms, um, not sure when.)
Also there was this extremely nifty interview with me posted at Gamasutra.
New stuff: earlier this month, I finally connected the goal-seeking part of Hadean Lands up with the map and the map puzzles. It was a very strange feeling: I started the game, typed "DOWN", and the game instantly solved the entire teaser for me. (You will recall in the old HL teaser that the primary puzzle is opening a trap-door. So now the game picks up the necessary ingredients, performs the ritual, applies it to the trap-door, opens it, and goes down.)
Of course this is in a debug environment. I actually had to type "ZAP-OMNI" first, which is the debug command to set every ritual as "known and practiced". In the final version, you'll have to, y'know, solve the puzzle yourself. The point is that the mechanism all works.
(You may also recall that teaser starts out in darkness, and the first puzzle is turning on the lights. I think I'm going to drop that stage. It doesn't really fit into the magical structure that I've developed. Also, the darkness didn't quite follow standard Inform darkness rules, so I had to write an unwieldy amount of code to make it all work right. Also, waking up in the dark? It's been done.)
(I tried to link to an online-playable version of Hitchhiker's there, but the one at the BBC has broken and the one at douglasadams.com is a Java applet. I hope you've all deactivated Java in your browers, it's hitting like two security holes a month recently. Anyway. Sad times for HHGG.)
So, beyond the sheer nervous shock of seeing several months of code actually sit up and work for the first time, HL is moving along okay. I have now implemented, let me count, ten goal barriers. Not all of these are really puzzles -- even an unlocked door counts as a goal barrier, because I have to create an "open the door" goal. Of course, that's a very simple goal to implement -- no requirements, no failures, one step. I got the unlocked ones out of the way weeks ago.
What I am finding is that I can't just implement a locked door or a puzzle with zero description. (Back in December, I thought this would be my plan.) To automate a puzzle's mechanics, I need to implement the puzzle's mechanics; but for this I need to implement the manual solution, with verbs and everything; and for that I need to actually write out the response messages. And the failure response messages for trying the wrong thing. And the descriptions of everything, so that I know the response messages make sense.
So I only have ten puzzles, or "puzzles", out of (very roughly) thirty-five on the map. But they're much nicer than I thought anything in the game environment would be at this stage. Locked doors, stuck doors, locked things-which-are-not-doors. And when I get to the end of the map, I will actually have completed a large chunk of the hard part of this thing.
...Which is not to say I will have anything playable. There will still be all the room descriptions, plus the story elements which are not puzzle-based, not to mention a long hard polishing pass to make all of this out-of-order text flow together. But moving along: yes it is.
Coming up in March: more of the map. Also, doing my taxes. Also, I hope, the release of a secret part-of-a-project which I have not yet revealed, because it is secret. (IF-related! But not a game, nor even programming; it's documentation work.)