Author Archives: Jason McIntosh
Joe Johnston, who co-hosted various Gameshelf TV episodes with me back in the day, has lately taken to independently publishing adventures and play aids for Labyrinth Lord, a modern revival of circa-1980 tabletop role-playing games (and which all but states on its website that it’s essentially first-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons with the serial numbers filed off). You can find them for sale at RPGNow; some are pay-what-you-want PDF booklets, while others make print editions available as well.
His latest work includes Tranzar’s Redoubt, which challenges the players to break into a wizard’s hideout and rob him blind in grand fantasy-grindhouse tradition, as well as How to Hexcrawl, a guide to running traditional fantasy adventures in sprawling outdoor settings rather than familiar square-grid dungeons. Both feature excellent, original artwork by Dyson Logos.
(This news comes via Joe’s own gaming blog, Tabletop on the Desktop.)
I am pleased to announce The McFarlane Job, a short interactive caper story that I developed for House of Cool late last year. I built it with Massively, their new platform for creating and distributing IF that resembles SMS conversations.
While Massively has commercial aspirations, this game is free for all to enjoy. To play the game, download Massively onto your iOS or Android device, create an account, and then search for “McFarlane Job”.
Keeping to the pattern of IF I have written before, this game is quite short, so I shall say no more about the story. I shall instead say that it benefitted from Katherine Morayati’s expert QA, and enjoyed additional development by House of Cool’s Dylan McFadyen. I would very much welcome bug reports and other feedback!
Shout-out to Jim Munroe and the Hand-Eye Society of Toronto for organizing WordPlay, the November event which allowed me to cross paths with House of Cool, leading in turn to this work.
For the past few weeks, my partner and I have been striving to get out of house more, a tonic against the crushing isolation of Newport in winter — made all the worse on us as newcomers with few local friends. A couple of weekends ago we attended a board game meetup at my favorite local coffee house, our first such event since leaving our Boston-based circle of tabletop-loving friends. We didn’t know anyone there, and had a great time.
In the same vein, and at the same time, I decided to finally try Ingress. More than one friend of ours treats this game as a significant personal pastime, and I’d felt curious to examine it for months just from my usual semi-pro game-studies perspective. Ingress presents itself as an augmented-reality game that gets you exploring your neighborhood in a new way, and I imagined something like Geocaching: the RPG. It seemed like just the thing to escape a wintertime rut, at the cost of stomping around through snow and sub-freezing temperatures.
Well: the game is ostensibly like that. I had terrific fun for the span of a single weekend, but it ended up souring on me quickly. Before a week had passed, I had deleted the game from my phone, and found the willpower to keep it off. My problems with Ingress stemmed from how I found myself unable to stop playing the game. I don’t refer to addictive, repetitive play, here, even though it does involve a bit of level-up grinding. Rather, I mean that I felt literally unable to enter a state where I was not playing Ingress. I would put my phone away, I would get back to work, and yet I was still playing Ingress. I found this total bleed-through of game and life initially novel, then uncanny, and finally uncomfortable, especially once I started interacting with other local players. This culminated in an angry and cowardly action my part, the last thing I did within the game world.
Before describing this negative effect any further, I shall describe three inarguably positive experiences I enjoyed via Ingress during that first weekend.
No video game I have played as an adult has affected me as profoundly and personally as Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead has. I’ve already written about my technical admiration for Telltale’s interactive television dramas (whose titles have doubled in number between the date of that essay and just this week), but now I wish to get personal. This may take more than one post.
The rest of this post contains spoilers for seasons 1 and 2 of the “Walking Dead” video game.
I don’t have any skill for creating Grant Theft Auto mods, so I release this idea into the atmosphere:
Replace the main character’s model with that of a white cop in uniform. (Don’t worry too much about how this may clash with the game’s dialogue or voice acting.)
Modify the AI of all law-enforcement NPCs such that they always consider the player an ally.
This remains true even as the player’s violent activity summons — per the game’s unmodified rules — growing numbers of patrol cars and, eventually, military-style armored vehicles. The increasingly desperate police within show only unfailing loyalty to the player, no matter how obvious their on-screen crimes become. Consequently, the player faces little consequence for their actions, the (quickly suppressed) retribution of civilians notwithstanding.
That’s pretty much it. Feel free to run with it. I have, as I say, no knowledge for how to make these things, and I’ll be working on something else today anyway.
This post contains spoilers for the film “Gone Girl”.
I managed to catch Gone Girl during its last days in the first-run theaters. I feel glad that I did; it’s a stylish film, what I think of as a Fincher/Reznor collaboration (per The Social Network) where the latter’s synthesized instrumental score is nearly a character unto itself, stepping into the foreground during the tensest scenes, playing as important a role as the actors’ spoken dialogue. I liked that.
The film’s content, though, I feel less unqualified admiration for. Maybe this is informed to some degree by the coincidence of the title’s initials, but it struck me as a film quite in step with GamerGate’s anti-feminist, even gynophobic philosophies. Gone Girl’s story takes place in a world where women actually do the awful things that GamerGate accuses its own female harassment-targets of. I couldn’t help but see it as a window into the mind of men who are petrified with contemplation of the life-upending terrors they fear women as having the power to perpetrate.
I failed to mention, six months ago when it was new, that I made another very short IF piece called Barbetween. Here’s a little trailer I made for it last month:
I made that trailer because the Independent Games Festival requires that at every entry have at least one video attached to it — and, verily, I have submitted Barbetween an as entry to the 2015 IGF. Here it is in that context. (Zarf’s Hadean Lands is there too, by the way.)
Barbetween was originally written as an entry for Shufflecomp, a truly inspired interactive fiction game jam run by Sam Kabo Ashwell last spring. It challenged its participants to create games around songs that randomly assigned to them (based, in turn, on shuffled-up playlists submitted by other entrants). My playlist included “Between the Bars” by Elliott Smith, whose work I was not previously acquainted with. That’s what this game is based on.
I arrived at the transformed title because “The Barbetween Age” sounded like a legitimate name of a Myst level, to me. And that was relevant because I chose to build the game as a sort of art installation within Seltani, which Zarf’s described here before. The conceit is that the game is a “real” sculpture found on one of the byways of the Myst universe, meant to feel more like a visitable thing carved out of a real location, rather than simply a program running on a website. I tried to accomplish this by including in the work some subtle, perhaps surprising asynchronous communication with other visitors to the site, about which I shall say no more here.
If this sounds interesting to you, I invite you to spend 15 minutes or so in Barbetween, yourself.
Toronto’s Hand Eye Society has posted the schedule for WordPlay, an afternoon festival of digital writing and interactive storytelling held at the Toronto Reference Library on Saturday, November 8. (Yes, this coming weekend!)
As Zarf has already written, WordPlay centerpieces this year’s (somewhat geographically displaced) weekend for the IF gathering that the Boston crew has hosted more or less annually since 2010. He and I will both be in attendance, as well as many friends in interactive fiction from around the world. Do say hello, should you find yourself there too.
As the schedule notes, at 12:15 on Saturday I shall be narrating a group play-through of Sam Barlow’s classic work of minimalist parser IF, Aisle, taking next-move suggestions from the audience. I don’t know if this’ll be recorded, but if so we’ll certainly share the results here later.
The 20th annual Interactive Fiction Competition remains open for public judging through Saturday, November 15. There are 42 games this year, many of which you can play right in your web browser, and all of which are free.
This is my own first year as competition organizer, and while I rather expect that many readers of this blog already count themselves as IFComp judges, I humbly invite the rest of you to take a look at this year’s crop of short new text games and consider participating as a judge. If you start within the next few days, you’ll still have time to meet the minimum judging quota of five games.
I don’t mind saying that we’re already on-course for a very healthy vote turnout, with over 2,000 individual game ratings already submitted — but more ratings are better, and with such a large crowd of contestants, every rating does count. I hope you’ll join us!
The publisher itself doesn’t market them this way, and I haven’t run across anyone else applying the label. So, from my own perspective, let me say it first: Telltale Games’ most recent narrative video games, including The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us, have realized the ancient dream of true interactive television.
By this I don’t mean TV shows with audience call-in gimmicks attached, or experimental games delivered via broadcast television, or similarly venerable exercises of the medium. I mean an evolutionary application of contemporary television storytelling techniques to the naturally interactive environment of video games to create something entirely new, and deeply interesting.
When the excellent internet-culture podcast TLDR tweeted a couple weeks ago that its new episode featured an interview with someone who witnessed her persona within a certain video game get sexually assaulted by other human players, I had an immediate guess which game they’d name. I was right: the incident occurred in DayZ, a popular MMO with a nominal post-apocalyptic survival theme.
My knowledge of DayZ is quite limited. I’ve never played it. I have had one friend, a inveterate fan of actual role-playing in online RPGs, regale me at length about all the time she’d spent there with an online improv group, experiencing varying success at playing out story-games in its setting. When the game got a wider release on Steam last year, I read a long comment-thread on imgur about all the goofy ways new players had died, with a strange focus on other players force-feeding them rotten fruit or drain cleaner.
And then, earlier this year, I discovered this video, following a link describing it as something amazing that happened in the game. With my lack of knowledge about typical interactions in DayZ, and otherwise not knowing what to expect (outside of the video’s title), I found the first 40 seconds — which isn’t supposed to be the amazing part — very stressful to watch.
Those 40 seconds contain one of the most violent exchanges I have ever seen in a video game, even though (modulo some casual language) the incident, if dramatized on film, wouldn’t rate more than a PG in the US. In one sense, it’s just two men talking; neither so much as lays a finger on the either.
The third man who shows up at the 40-second mark is the star of the video, and immediately changes the tone in an unexpected and genuinely impressive direction. But from context, I take it that one player brandishing a gun and verbally instructing an unarmed player to kneel, humiliated, is such a typical interaction in the game that it doesn’t even bear comment. This video uses it as mere stage-setting; one gets the impression that if the third character hadn’t appeared, this player wouldn’t have bothered posting this video.
(An improvement, should anyone feel up to it, would involve letting one back out of the process via the resulting dialog’s Cancel button. Feel free to tell me about the existence of improved versions. I share this code as-is because helping the Twine community sit at the larger IF table makes me happy, and also because lazy.)
Jason recently played through LEGO Batman 2: DC Superheroes, and found himself quite impressed at not just its overall quality but its surprising and subtle characterization of Superman. Starting with a deeper examination of this game, Jason and Matt discuss adaptations of comic books into games and film, and the ways that some games can uniquely express character concepts not just through story but through the mechanics and language of gameplay.
Matt and Jason return after a long break intending to talk top-ten lists. Instead, beginning with a digression about the Interactive Fiction Competition, they discuss the changing face of game development away from monotonous triple-A dominance and towards something more inclusive to other voices and styles.
But: no revolution passes bloodlessly.
I still love Hero Academy from a design standpoint, and nothing will undo all the fun and fascination I had with it in 2012. I bagged the 40-wins achievement towards the end of that year and I still feel good about it. Once iOS-exclusive, the title now makes itself available across all significant desktop and mobile platforms, and I continue to encourage folks interested in the overlap of tabletop and digital games to check it out, for all the reasons I wrote about back then.
I last month dipped back into it and ended with only disappointment, though — not with the work itself, but with my own failure to see a single game through. I happily launched myself into four simultaneous games, much as I would have a couple of years ago. After a flurry of initial activity in each, though, I allowed all to lapse into default over the holidays. By not registering any moves during the 14-day limit, I automatically and tacitly sent my friends home with rather toothless victories.
Time was I loved games that moved at the pace of correspondence, taking days or weeks to play out, but I don’t believe it true any longer. I’d like to try examining why this may have come about.
Beyond being a surprisingly well-written entry among Traveler’s Tales’ more recent Lego-Whatever titles, Lego Batman 2 may contain the most poignant expression I’ve seen of Superman’s perhaps most obvious narrative problem: how does one make a literally omnipotent character dramatically interesting? What does it mean when there’s this one guy always front-and-center who can outdo any individual, super-powered or otherwise, at whatever thing they feel makes them special?
Lego Batman 2 shines a spotlight on these questions in the very best way a videogame can, purely through play mechanics, and with reserved brilliance. Much like the first (much weaker, far buggier) Lego Batman game, the first few acts of the story mode lend Players One and Two the unsurprising respective roles of Batman and Robin. At the start of the second act, the plot twists in such a way that the latter finds himself bumped into the wings when Superman swoops into the Player Two spot. And then things get interestingly weird.
A question from the blog-topics backlog which I’d now like to throw out to the readership: If you have ever played a combat-oriented tabletop role-playing game like Dungeons & Dragons, did you ever actually use miniatures on a grid, as the rulebooks generally assume of their players, with each square representing a 10’-by-10’ area? Or did the combat, as with the rest of the gameplay, stick to an entirely verbal format?
Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten has announced a new book project with the working title 12.28.86: One Day. For the next two years, he’ll research stories about what happened all around the United States on that date, whose numbers he drew from a hat.
Gene is currently collecting stories and research leads on the project’s Facebook page; one can also email stories privately to an address found in that page’s description. He states openness to anything from headline-making news down to personal narratives.
The date held immediate resonance with me, and so last night I wrote up a little remembrance. It crosses over with games (and the roots of my lasting interest in games) enough that I feel like sharing it here as well.
The XYZZYs are trying something new this year: every nominee must have an IFDB entry. While a perhaps bit wobbly in its homegrown editing interface, the IFDB nevertheless allows anyone to edit its existing game entries, or create new ones. In particular, a game’s creators are not barred from creating or updating their own works’ IFDB entries.
I stress that games you’d like to make eligible via the IFDB needn’t adhere to the classic parser-based IF format. This month I myself have added IFDB entries for both a web-based hypertext game and a commercial game-book adaptation for tablets, both of which I hope to see among the 2013 nominees. The competition’s post on the subject goes into more detail on what is and isn’t acceptable, under the section “Interactive fiction” — though it allows that this style of play does find itself in a period of definitional transition at the moment.
I shared the source of The Warbler’s Nest to GitHub last weekend, a project that took a couple of hours by one measure and nine months by another. I started getting the codebase ready for sharing last spring, shortly after giving an invited presentation about the game at MIT. I considered the event as good a capstone as any on the game’s active presence in my mind, and releasing the source struck me as appropriate epilogue. As it turned out, this preparation would end up perhaps the last personal project I picked up before a family crisis would occupy much of my attention until wintertime. And when, things calmer, I happened across this MetaFilter thread asking about Inform source examples shortly after I received an email from a Warbler player pointing out an embarrassing typo in the story, I thought: Oh, right. And so GitHub.
Mere hours after announcing all this on Twitter and such, I would laugh out loud from the solid upstaging my little effort would receive next to a truly delightful surprise: Daniel Ravipinto announced a special 10-year-anniversary re-release of Slouching Towards Bedlam, an IFComp-winning masterpiece released by Star C. Foster and himself in 2003. Daniel recast the game into Inform 7 (which didn’t publicly exist ten years ago) as an exercise, and this in turn allowed him to easily publish a web page linking to both the downloadable game file and its source text. I sincerely recommend taking this opportunity to try the game if you haven’t already; I quite look forward to playing it through again, myself.