Author Archives: Andrew Plotkin

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.

Continue reading Text in spaaaace: FTL, Out There, Voyageur.
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A very long time ago (as times go), back in 2011, I released an iOS app titled My Secret Hideout. It was...

...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 caveats:

  • 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.

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More 2017 IGF nominees

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
  • Inside
  • Burly Men at Sea
  • A Normal Lost Phone
Continue reading More 2017 IGF nominees.
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2017 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 (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
  • Virginia
  • Orwell
  • Event[0]
  • 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.

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. 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.)

Continue reading 2017 IGF nominees: my comments.
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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.

Continue reading Quern: Undying Thoughts: design ruminations.
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Hadean Lands on sale this week!

You may have noted that Steam has launched its Thanksgiving sale. It's not Black Friday yet; I dunno, maybe it's Purple Wednesday. They don't tell me these things.

Anyhow, Hadean Lands is part of this sale. My first Steam sale! Until Nov 29th, you can buy the game for 35% off. Exciting times indeed.

While you're at it, you might want to nominate your favorite text adventure for the Steam Awards. Interactive fiction winning such an award in the braoder gaming market? Sounds unlikely, doesn't it? I guess we'll find out!

We do not neglect other platforms! I've applied the same 35% discount to Hadean Lands on Itch.IO, the Humble Store, and the iOS App Store.

(Yes, the iOS version has a lower base price. That's just the way things are right now.) (Also note: due to the way Apple prices bundles, the "Zarf's Interactive Fiction" bundle is not available this week.)

...Oh, and since somebody is going to ask: no. The Steam DLC Solo Adventurer Pledge Certificate is not discounted. Discounting the certificate would only make it less valuable. Sheesh.

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I finished up all the games I bought from Steam's summer sale, so I bought a bunch more in Steam's Halloween sale. Nice how that works out, right?

Note: I am involved in IGF judging again this year. However, I played all of these games before I started doing that, and I bought them all on my own dime (minus the Halloween sale discount).

Hue: A short casual-puzzle game. It's a 2D platformer with a theme of color-shifting; any object that matches the background is invisible and therefore doesn't exist. The puzzles explore this premise adequately -- no enormous surprises but everything is solidly designed. The platforming requires light jumping-reflex skills, nothing hardcore.

As for the story, well, it's in the genre of sentimental art games about children. A lot of background voiceover about Love as the silent protagonist jumps around. We've seen a lot of these, I'm afraid.

Pavilion: Another short casual-puzzle game. The puzzles are decent; they have a playful, exploratory variety of mechanics, but they're not very difficult or complex as puzzles per se. But the real point is the game art and the soundtrack, which are hallucinatory and fantastic. (Warning: designed for game controller; awkward on keyboard. The developer swears that they're working on a mouse UI.)

Apartment 666: Yeah, I dunno. The combination of highly repetitive environments and a cheesy there's-a-murderer "horror" story turned me off quick. I quit out before finishing, and I gather the game wasn't long to begin with.

Abzû: I'm glad that Journey wound up defining a class of games (a form). Sometimes I just want to sit down with a couple of hours of narrative experience that has arc, theme, variation of interaction model, a bit of challenge, and (not tangentially) is really, really pretty.

If you add serious puzzles to that you have a short adventure game. If you add blood and jump scares you get horror. If you add boatloads of text you get some kind of IF. I am sometimes in the mood for each of these, but then sometimes I'm not, so Abzû is a good sort of game to have around.

Subject 13: Another old-school adventure game; this one is third-person. Even has the classic pop-up verb menu.

The early puzzles take excellent advantage of the 3D engine; you have puzzle-boxes to examine from all sides and manipulate. I like those. And then... bam! Slider puzzle. The first two chapters have some simple slider puzzles, which I don't mind, but chapter 3 throws you the classic tedious squares-and-rectangles slider puzzle. It is 2016 (or 2015 when the game was released, same difference). That means you have to pay me $50 to solve the slider puzzle again. This game didn't pay me $50. Discard.

Haven Moon: A Myst-clone. Small and enthusiastic, but I can't say it's an outstanding example of the genre. It's not a bad game either! It has a lot of good ideas and puzzles. But the visuals are a little weak (the world gets samey-samey as you explore); the puzzles are a bit sparse and many of them are underclued.

I suppose this gets into a philosophical game-design debate. Here we have a solo project, an adventure game built by one author. If it were text IF, I'd expect it to be totally solid -- text IF can be built solo, we all recognize that. But for graphical adventures? Modern tools (Unity, in this case) let a small team build a high-quality graphical game. But going it alone is still hard!

So the author gets my respect for doing it at all. But, on the other hand, is this the right tack? I said both the world and the puzzles felt sparse. This implies that the author could have done better -- or made me happier, at least -- by tightening things up, packing the same amount of work into less floorspace.

But then, of course, there is a joy to architecture and open space. I don't want to squash that. (I recall The Guest, a charming example of a right-sized adventure in a claustrophobic hotel room. Must every game look like that? Of course not.)

So I don't have a simple "you should have done this differently!" message. Which is good, because who wants to hear that? I will just gesture at the range of possibilities, which includes tiny, densely-packed puzzleboxes.

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Alchemy game notes, circa 2003

Here's a bit of a thing. I happened to look at my "game design" folder, which is of course full of random snippets of text dating back years. The oldest file is from 2003:

alchemy-game

Research: enter a book "room", use standard IF search techniques to explores, find "exits" to other pages or other books. Books can be hidden in "real life", or just not indexed in the library. Similarly, a section of a book might not be findable until you find a reference elsewhere, and search for it.

(Library is a real-life room; the books you're familiar with are pulled out, handy. Reading one enters the book "room".)

Alchemical operations form a deep skill tree. As you perform operations successfully, they're added as single action. ("distill alcohol", "resublimate thiotimoline"). Lots of room to explore. Operations have logic, but also exceptions.

Time limit? If you screw up, or take too long, your supplies and tools are restored to their original state -- new day begins -- but you retain your skills. Maybe even get pre-made supplies of stuff you're very familiar with.

Operations take particular amounts of time? So there's an optimization problem, even for skills you've learned. (Ameliorated by pre-made supplies.)

No idea what the story looks like. Something about the reason why you are taking this alchemical test and have an infinite number of retries.

That's all I wrote back then. It's old enough to have MacOS-Classic line breaks instead of Unix/OSX line breaks.

When I started planning HL in mid-2010 I started a new notes file, but I left the old one in place. Obviously some of that old stuff went out the window. Although now I like the idea of books as environments which you "enter" to do research. Maybe I'll try that again someday.

For more fun, here's a snippet from the 2010 notes file:

Planetary types: (A marcher doesn't normally visit these, but they're familiar from the academy and from sailor's stories. The protagonist has never seen one before; he's only visited Gaian lands, and rarely left the Retort except in inhabited places.)

  • Gaian lands: where people can live.
  • Hadean lands: rock, little or no air, "night" sky. (The Moon, Mars.)
  • Helian lands: like Hadean lands, but with a big honking sun. (Mercury.)
  • Erebian lands: like Hadean lands, but covered in ice and with little sun. (Pluto, etc.)
  • Thalassan lands: oceans (of something) and atmosphere. (Titan, probably.)
  • Aeolian lands: only clouds visible. (Jupiter, but also Venus.)
  • Hermetic lands would be fairyland or Atlantis. Places populated by the Wise. The term is from popular fiction rather than science.

All of that is canon, but it's only briefly referred to in the released game.

I'm holding onto the hermeticlands.com domain as a placeholder. For what, I don't know yet.

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It's IFComp time! And I haven't played any of the 58 IFComp games! But I have been playing down my backlog of random Steam walking-simulator-and-other-exploration games. So here are some more notes.

Metrico+: Stylish little platformer which attempts to substitute observation and cleverness for twitch-jumping. I don't think it completely succeeds. That is, it succeeds at avoiding too much reflexology. You have to combine jumps, shots, horizontal and vertical motion, and so on in various ways to solve the puzzles. However, the specific effects of those actions are left for you to determine in each level. This produces a slogging rhythm: every level begins with a bunch of pointless button-flailing as you try to guess what's connected to what. I wish the "infographic" style had been used to convey that information.

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter: Begins with an outright apology for its gameplay flaws. ("This game is a narrative experience that does not hold your hand.") I respect that.

So my expectations were low going in, but I wound up deciding it was quite strong. Remember when I said Everyone's Gone to the Rapture needed one more element? Ethan Carter had the right number of elements to grab me. Pretty scenery, mostly exploration, simple puzzles -- or interactive pacing challenges, if you like. Just enough of them. Story threads that felt disparate but looped together at the end. Surreality.

Ilamentia: Another "bunch of disparate levels" abstract platformer. It brags of having 96 levels; I solved the first and then stopping making progress. I tried five or six other levels, failed at all of them to various degrees. Clearly not on my puzzle wavelength.

NaissanceE: Yet another abstract platformer. This has a thoughtfully minimalist chiaroscuro style: nothing but light, shadow, and cubes. Artfully composed! However, an endless maze of that with no story gets wearing. I eventually hit a point where I had to chase a racing dot, which worked poorly on my controller, and I decided it was time to give up.

The Guest: An unrepentantly old-school first-person adventure. I could have reviewed this in 1998. Okay, in 1998 it wouldn't have been free-roam 3D and it probably would have been a bit longer, but otherwise, yeah.

Anyhow, perfectly pleasant puzzle excursion. Did not overstay its welcome. Many puzzles verged on being arbitrary, but generally on the right side -- I only had to look at one hint. Not much story but so what? Enjoyed.

The Ball: Very much in the first wave of post-Portal physics-gimmick platformers. The gimmick is okay, but the graphics feel a few years pre-Portal instead. The designers try to keep varying the scenery and the puzzles, but there's only so many ways they can mix up their elements, and there's no story to speak of. I found myself getting weary a quarter of the way through; gave up.

(If the later chapters have more elements mixed in, I apologize, but I didn't have the stamina.)

Rise of the Tomb Raider: I wanted more Tomb Raider, and that's exactly what this was. More of the 2013 game. Lots more. I enjoyed all the pieces, and yes, I spent the time to scour every corner of the game world. But by the end I was wishing the game had been half the size for half the price.

I played on easy-combat mode; I would have skipped the big fights entirely if that had been an option. If there are any non-combat acrobatic-climby-puzzle games out there, please let me know. (More acrobatic than Submerged, ideally.)

...I feel like I should talk about the story. (It's credited to Rhianna Pratchett, whom I trust to stay at least a notch above the usual videogame plot-stodge.) The 2013 TR was full of dramatic events, most of which involved Lara Croft's friends and allies dying horribly in front of her. Over and over. Well-written, but a strain to play, honestly.

This iteration avoids that trope, and does some quiet subversion on the TR standards. For example, there's a Lost Tribe who are good guys; quite a lot of the story involves Lara helping and being helped by them. There's a pair of villains who are not only characterized but have some plot arc.

However, these scripted scenes are still embedded in a Tomb Raider game. So on the one hand you have Lara Croft, junior explorer of the world's wonders; and on the other hand you have Lara Croft, bloody-handed slaughterer of armies and destroyer of every antiquity in arm's reach. (The friendly tribe is up against faceless mercenaries and faceless zombie Byzantine warriors. Lara gets to murder scores of both.) (As for the antiquities, we never see Lara close any of the fragile reliquaries and sarcophagi she cracks open.)

Conclusion: AAA gaming is just not kind to the creative writer. I bet you're all surprised to hear that.

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My Obduction nonreview

Obduction is a really good adventure game. You should play it.


I finished the game a week ago and I've had a heck of a time thinking of anything to say. To be sure, my Myst review was written in 2002 and my Myst 5 review in 2010, so the sensible course is just to wait five or ten years and see where Cyan's gotten to. An Obduction review will make an excellent retrospective.

But I do want you to buy the game. (To help make sure Cyan makes it another five or ten years.) So, yeah, it's a really good game and you should play it.

Continue reading My Obduction nonreview.
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(This has been widely noted, but I wanted to summarize what's known.)

At the beginning of September, some Dropbox users got email:

We’re writing to let you know that we’ll be discontinuing the ability to render HTML content in-browser via shared links or Public Folder. If you're using Dropbox shared links to host HTML files for a website, the content will no longer display in-browser.

(Text copied from a post on the ChoiceOfGames forum -- thanks jeantown.)

Dropbox has posted a more complete summary on their web site:

Dropbox Basic (free) users: Beginning October 3, 2016, you can no longer use shared links to render HTML content in a web browser. If you created a website that directly displays HTML content from your Dropbox, it will no longer render in the browser. The HTML content itself will still remain in your Dropbox and can be shared.

Dropbox Pro and Business users: Beginning September 1, 2017, you can no longer render HTML content.

In other words, in a month (for free users) or twelve months (for paid users), people will no longer be able to play your HTML-based games directly off of Dropbox. They'll either appear as raw HTML or as "download this file" links -- it's not clear which. (Other kinds of files, such as images or CSS files, will not be affected.)

Continue reading Dropbox dropping support for playable HTML.
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Very quick takes on recent games

Recently played games, that is. I bought many of these during the July Steam sale... by browsing the "Walking Simulator" tag and grabbing anything that looked interesting.

(Like many of my friends, I missed the brief period when "walking simulator" was pejorative. It is an awesome term and I would love to work on one.)

The themes of this list:

  • Miserable solitude (but look how pretty it is).
  • My wife/daughter/sister died and I went crazy (but look how pretty it is).
  • The game is a trip and the finale is tripping balls. Also, pretty.

Footnote: The era of the text walkthrough may be over. Everybody knows how bad video walkthroughs are, right? You're just doing it because you're lazy and for the ad revenue?

Right, games:

The Eyes of Ara: I backed this on Kickstarter (around the same time as Obduction, in a burst of enthusiasm about Myst clones). It turns out to be an enthusiastically old-school graphical adventure, where by "old school" I mean "not very sophisticated about puzzle design". It's mostly find-the-key, spot-the-clue, and slider puzzles. This means that if you're stuck, you have to revisit all the rooms in one wing and try to find the key or clue that you missed. Not my favorite, so I used walkthroughs freely.

Everyone's Gone to the Rapture: Extremely pretty and well-written, but I think it needed one more element to really capture my attention. Fantastical scenery or puzzles or a chance of saving the planet would have done it. I realize none of those fit this story, I'm just saying what kinds of game elements I like some of. (But I finished the game anyway!)

Lifeless Planet: I respect the tactic of making your sparse game design thematic, but it was still a sparse game design. A lot of climbing over low-fi boulders. I kept wanting to parse the occasional clapped-out Russian shack as Bradburyseque surrealism but the story didn't go there.

Eidolon: I ate some mushrooms and blackberries. I failed to catch any fish. I found one bit of plot. After an hour of walking across this expansive landscape with no more plot, I gave up.

Submerged: A pleasant tower-climbing vacation. More or less fulfils my desire for "the good parts of Assassin's Creed". Happy ending is pasted on, but so what? I climbed all the things.

Mind: Path to Thalamus: This is constructed in unconnected levels. The first several were fun, but eventually the lack of continuity and repeated gameplay elements wore me down. I skipped ahead through another couple of levels and then gave up. Still: nicely laid-out scenery.

Californium: I enjoyed this one. Short and charmingly enthusiastic about its homage (to Phil K. Dick, if you didn't know). The puzzle mechanic is rough -- sometimes the clues are too inconsistent or inconspicuous to spot, and then you wind up back at the walkthroughs. (Terrible, terrible video walkthroughs.) But it's worthwhile for the gonzo visual design.

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Very quick takes on recent games

Recently played games, that is. I bought many of these during the July Steam sale... by browsing the "Walking Simulator" tag and grabbing anything that looked interesting.

(Like many of my friends, I missed the brief period when "walking simulator" was pejorative. It is an awesome term and I would love to work on one.)

The themes of this list:

  • Miserable solitude (but look how pretty it is).
  • My wife/daughter/sister died and I went crazy (but look how pretty it is).
  • The game is a trip and the finale is tripping balls. Also, pretty.

Footnote: The era of the text walkthrough may be over. Everybody knows how bad video walkthroughs are, right? You're just doing it because you're lazy and for the ad revenue?

Right, games:

The Eyes of Ara: I backed this on Kickstarter (around the same time as Obduction, in a burst of enthusiasm about Myst clones). It turns out to be an enthusiastically old-school graphical adventure, where by "old school" I mean "not very sophisticated about puzzle design". It's mostly find-the-key, spot-the-clue, and slider puzzles. This means that if you're stuck, you have to revisit all the rooms in one wing and try to find the key or clue that you missed. Not my favorite, so I used walkthroughs freely.

Everyone's Gone to the Rapture: Extremely pretty and well-written, but I think it needed one more element to really capture my attention. Fantastical scenery or puzzles or a chance of saving the planet would have done it. I realize none of those fit this story, I'm just saying what kinds of game elements I like some of. (But I finished the game anyway!)

Lifeless Planet: I respect the tactic of making your sparse game design thematic, but it was still a sparse game design. A lot of climbing over low-fi boulders. I kept wanting to parse the occasional clapped-out Russian shack as Bradburyseque surrealism but the story didn't go there.

Eidolon: I ate some mushrooms and blackberries. I failed to catch any fish. I found one bit of plot. After an hour of walking across this expansive landscape with no more plot, I gave up.

Submerged: A pleasant tower-climbing vacation. More or less fulfils my desire for "the good parts of Assassin's Creed". Happy ending is pasted on, but so what? I climbed all the things.

Mind: Path to Thalamus: This is constructed in unconnected levels. The first several were fun, but eventually the lack of continuity and repeated gameplay elements wore me down. I skipped ahead through another couple of levels and then gave up. Still: nicely laid-out scenery.

Californium: I enjoyed this one. Short and charmingly enthusiastic about its homage (to Phil K. Dick, if you didn't know). The puzzle mechanic is rough -- sometimes the clues are too inconsistent or inconspicuous to spot, and then you wind up back at the walkthroughs. (Terrible, terrible video walkthroughs.) But it's worthwhile for the gonzo visual design.

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Mysterium news roundup

The Mysterium fan convention is going on this weekend in Salt Lake City. I'm not there, but the events have been streamed on Twitch so I've been able to follow along.

The Starry Expanse team gave their annual report. This is a fan group that has been reconstructing Riven in a modern 3D engine. In fact they're on their third engine! They starting out with Plasma (Cyan's homebrew engine, which was used for Uru and Myst 5). Then they moved to Unity; now they're on Unreal Engine 4.

As a result, Starry Expanse has regressed somewhat, at least to the eye. In previous years the team had fully-textured playable demos of a couple of areas, built in Unity. Now, with UE4, they have larger areas, but untextured (except for some metallic-surface effects and ripply water). On the plus side: one of the tram rides is animated and ready to go! Watch the video to see it.

The other great Mysterium tradition is the videochat with Rand Miller. Cyan is of course head-down on finishing Obduction, but Rand took time out to chat with the fans.

These chats are generally not full of exciting news. (Because if you have a big announcement, you blast it to journalists, not little fan conventions.) Nonetheless, there were a few tidbits.

Continue reading Mysterium news roundup.
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Mysterium news roundup

The Mysterium fan convention is going on this weekend in Salt Lake City. I'm not there, but the events have been streamed on Twitch so I've been able to follow along.

The Starry Expanse team gave their annual report. This is a fan group that has been reconstructing Riven in a modern 3D engine. In fact they're on their third engine! They starting out with Plasma (Cyan's homebrew engine, which was used for Uru and Myst 5). Then they moved to Unity; now they're on Unreal Engine 4.

As a result, Starry Expanse has regressed somewhat, at least to the eye. In previous years the team had fully-textured playable demos of a couple of areas, built in Unity. Now, with UE4, they have larger areas, but untextured (except for some metallic-surface effects and ripply water). On the plus side: one of the tram rides is animated and ready to go! Watch the video to see it.

The other great Mysterium tradition is the videochat with Rand Miller. Cyan is of course head-down on finishing Obduction, but Rand took time out to chat with the fans.

These chats are generally not full of exciting news. (Because if you have a big announcement, you blast it to journalists, not little fan conventions.) Nonetheless, there were a few tidbits.

Continue reading Mysterium news roundup.
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I played The Witness to an ending, and then I went back and played until I had finished it to my satisfaction. (504 +82. I looked at just two hints, and no thanks, I am not going to beat the Hall of the Mountain King. Two of my friends did; I am happy to bask in their reflected glory.)

The Witness must be the most painfully-analyzed game release of the past few years. Painstakingly-analyzed? Both. I haven't even gone looking for the discussion threads. They're out there, because we all love to talk.

So I doubt I can say much. But (I love to talk) I will take a shot at the aspect I find most interesting, which is the game's presentation of its point of view. Your point of view? Both.

(This post will contain very general spoilers about the kinds of puzzles in The Witness.)


You can't talk about The Witness without mentioning Myst, but The Witness has curiously little to say about Myst. "Curiously" because Braid, the designer's previous game, was an extended and careful riff on Super Mario Brothers. Oh, it was plenty of things beyond that. But the design of Braid reflected SMB in its art, its enemy design, its jumping mechanics, and its frame story of a lost princess. And this was not unreasonable, because SMB has (perhaps retroactively) assumed the mantle of a videogame archetype.

So when I heard that Jon Blow's next game would be puzzles on a mysterious island, I said "Oh, he's doing Myst now." Myst is as much a videogame archetype as Adventure and Tetris. Taking apart Myst's conventions and assumptions won't necessarily make a great game (it might get you no farther than Pyst did) but it could be an excellent launching point.

Well, as everyone informed me the minute The Witness launched, it's not Jon Blow doing Myst. He went off in other directions -- fine. (One could make the argument that it's more of a riff on Portal.) But we can still pick up the thread, because it is a first-person graphical environment, and the conventions of Myst's design loom over all such games.

You are you; the game is your view of the world; you act by manipulating the world directly. These ideas were never perfectly implemented -- the original mouse cursor and 544-pixel-wide window strained to hold the illusion of being your hand and your eye. But the ideal seemed so obvious as to require no argument.

The Witness, with due consideration and no explanation(*) at all, rejects each of these conventions. Not blatantly; you won't even notice at first. But they all fall apart upon inspection. A disagreement so understated and distinct must be deliberate, I think.

(* Until near the end. We'll get there.)

Continue reading Point-of-view in The Witness: design ruminations.
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SFWA, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, has announced that game writers will soon be eligible to join. (The rule change goes into effect on August 1.) This applies to writers who work on videogames, RPGs, and tabletop games.

SFWA is a professional society for SF writers (and fantasy, yes, and no you don't have to be American. The acronym is way out of date). Their membership page gives an overview of what they do: support and professional/legal advice for authors, particularly authors just starting out. Also a newsletter and so on. Also SFWA runs the Nebula Awards (the SF awards that aren't the Hugos).

The notion of admitting game writers has been floating around SFWA for a while now. Last September they added Choice of Games to their qualifying markets list, and they've also reported that a broader rule change proposal has been in the works. Apparently it was voted in, so here we are.

The formal criteria are described here. Cat Rambo, SFWA president, has added more detail on her blog. The summary is:

  • Sell a game containing at least 40000 words to a qualified (paying) market.
  • Or sell three games of 10000 words to a qualified market.
  • Or sell (to players) a game of at least 40000 words that makes at least $3000 in a year.
  • Word count includes the narrative content, not instructions or game mechanics.
  • To count, games must have a narrative element, be in English, and be SF, fantasy, or horror.
  • Work done for hire is not eligible.

Rambo notes that the rules are subject to further discussion and change (particularly on that last point). They're feeling their way forward on this.

To compare, the SFWA criteria for prose authors are "one novel of at least 40000 words, or three short stories of 10000 words." Or screenplays or stuff of equivalent lengths. Or a self-published work that makes $3000. So these rules are a direct translation, with the caveats about game mechanics and work-for-hire.

(I get the impression that when they say "not game mechanics", they're thinking of an RPG sourcebook which contains both narrative scene-setting and instructions for playing the game. For a videogame, it would make sense to separate user-displayed text from source code.)

Turns out there's some history to this, which Brian Moriarty mentions on Twitter:

It happened before, briefly, in the late 80s. Only three people (Meretzky, Lebling and me) joined before it was disallowed. (-- @ProfBMoriarty)

I don't know the story behind that. Brian points a finger at Greg Costikyan but I couldn't find discussion from that era. Anyway, it was long ago and no doubt the fannish furor has been forgotten.

(Meaningful pause for someone to recount fannish furor in horrifying detail...)

We'll see. In the meantime, I did a quick word-count and verified that, yes, I qualify for membership! Hadean Lands has about 73000 words of displayable text (out of about 240000 words of Inform source code). For a more accurate number I'd want to discount credits, tutorial, and parser messages, but it will still be comfortably over 40000. And I have passed the $3000 minimum for a self-published work.

So... I'm still thinking about this. The $100/year SFWA dues aren't high, but they're not completely trivial either. But, on the other hand, there are benefits. Plus I'm doing this non-profit thing; I want to keep a toe dipped into all the relevant professional circles, and SFWA now counts as one. And... there's a following-in-the-footsteps aspect which is awfully attractive.

(I should note that many, many game writers are already SFWA members! It's perfectly common for people to have game-writing credits and write novels or short stories. I just happen to be someone who is well-known as a game designer without also having professional writing credentials.)

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Soma: meanderings by a wuss

(This post will be generally spoilery for the setting and background of Soma. I will avoid specific plot details, however.)

I've had Soma on my stack for several months. Last month I pulled it off the (virtual) shelf to take a look.

Contemporary-world prologue: good setup. Transition to the creepy future undersea base: excellent. Creepy undersea base: admirably creepy. I pushed through the first bit of the base, moving very cautiously -- though, from a design standpoint, this was clearly the "shadows in the corner of your eye" phase. The monster was not yet on screen.

So then I get to the room where the Frictional monster comes on screen. "Oh," I said, "look, it's the Frictional monster."

I've played through Amnesia: Dark Descent and A Machine for Pigs(🐷). They have the same monster. It shambles towards you and kicks your ass. And I remember specifically, in Pig Machine, that the monster is fundamentally harmless. If you just stand there and wait, it shambles up and whomps you and then disappears. I mean, you die -- or almost die, or the game gives you another shot, or something -- but the monster is gone and you can get on with the plot.

I can see how the designers got there. Getting stuck isn't particularly good for the game flow, and the threat of sort-of-death is a still a decent incentive to sneak around and play the game "right". For most people. I guess. Not me. "Face your fear!" I shouted, and let the monster walk up and pop like a soap bubble.

In that light, the Frictional monster is hapless and pitiable. Poor poor fleshy monstrosity.

Continue reading Soma: meanderings by a wuss.
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Hadean Lands, two weeks in

So, Zarf, how did that launch go?

Pretty good! Hadean Lands has been on sale on Steam for sixteen days now. And three hours. (Am I counting the minutes? Not really, but it's fun to check.)

In that time it garnered several articles about the DLC certificate, notably from Kotaku and Eurogamer.net. (Those two articles interviewed me a bit on the subject.) Emily Short posted a stellar writeup of the game on Rock Paper Shotgun, and I also got a very nice review on ExtremeTech. And of course many other people said positive things.

Thank you!

Extra props to RayganK, who is leading a crew through HL on his Twitch channel. This is very cool! And... Twitch works very badly for me, for some reason, so I've only seen bits of it. They're two sessions in. Good hunting, folks.

But really, how is it selling?

I won't get into hard numbers, but... HL sold a fair number of copies in the first three days. Then the Steam summer sale started, which took the wind out of the sales. Or maybe it was just a three-day launch spike; it's about what I expected either way.

Then the nice reviews appeared, which led to several more days of good sales. Yay! At this point we're settling back down to the long-term tail rate, but I don't yet have an idea what that is.

And yes, to answer the obvious question, I've sold some certificates. A few. Not nearly as many as I've sold copies of the game. That's fine; I worked a lot harder on the game.

Other news?

This past weekend I posted a small update. (Also available on Itch and Humble.) It doesn't affect the game content, but adds some UI features:

  • "Full Screen" menu option. (F11 on Win/Linux, cmd-ctrl-F on Mac.)
  • "Find..." and "Find Next" menu options (ctrl-F/G or cmd-F/G). These let you do a simple text search in the story window. Note that the scrollback is not infinite -- sorry.
  • In the "Preferences" dialog, there is now an option for "Other Font..." This lets you enter the name of any font installed on your system. (Although you have to type it in rather than looking through a list. Enter the name as you would see it in a CSS file -- the game's display engine is HTML, after all.)
  • In the Alchemy Journal window, the list of rituals now shows "(*)" to mark rituals that you've learned but not yet tried. (Same as the RECALL RITUALS command in the story window.)
  • Fixed a bug where a formula description in the Journal window might not be updated when it should be.

(Due to the nature of Inform 7, I will probably never update the game content of the Steam release of HL. Any change would inevitably wipe everybody's save-game positions, and that just isn't acceptable for a Steam game.)

And that's the current color of the ritual bound, as it were. At this point I've done everything to Hadean Lands that I ever planned to, and more; it is entirely and completely shipped.

(Except for that bit of the KS reward that I still owe a few backers... yes, I know.)

I'm finishing up a contract project this month, and then it's back to thinking about Designing A New Game. Since I'm a game designer and all.

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Here's something new!

Today we are announcing the Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation (IFTF), a new 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting the software and services that underlie modern IF.

The web site (iftechfoundation.org) has all the information. But the quick overview goes like this:

For the past 25-ish years, IF has been primarily a free hobby supported by free-time volunteers. This is great; it's organized around a community (or communities) rather than being pinned to one company's fate. But it's also a weakness. People's free time varies. Services and tools go unmaintained.

The goal of IFTF is to support these efforts; to provide an umbrella organization that can manage projects when the original creator doesn't want to; and to be a visible donation point for benefactors who want to support IF.

(To be clear, IFTF does not plan to directly support creators or become a paying market for IF. The "technology" in the title means tools, services, and web sites.)

Our first project involves assuming stewardship of IFComp, lending the event (and its website) the legal and financial backing of a formal organization. Jmac will still be in charge of IFComp, but he will now do it wearing an IFTF hat. And IFComp will now (through the parent organization) own its own web-site code and copyrights and so on.

Our plans for the near future include support for Twine and doing a study on accessibility of existing IF tools. Beyond that, well, we'll have to see how much money comes in.

Who are we? A bunch of IF fans, authors, and people generally known in the community:

  • Chris Klimas (Twine, Blue Chairs)
  • Flourish Klink (Muggle Studies)
  • Jason McIntosh (IFComp, The Warbler's Nest)
  • Andrew Plotkin (Glulx, Hadean Lands)
  • Carolyn VanEseltine (ParserComp, Ollie Ollie Oxen Free)

We also have a large advisory committee drawn from across the various IF worlds.

I could burble on about this project, because we've been swinging at it for several months and the ideas are flowing rapidly. But today's the day we announce it, so I'll stand back and let the news percolate.

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