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Thank you for reading

This is the final post to this blog. Its primary two contributors continue to write — about games, as well as other stuff — elsewhere:

I plan to keep all this blog’s posts online, and available at their present URLs, permanently. I reserve the right to edit various metadata and presentational trimmings of this website in the service of preserving twelve years of games writing and videos created by many talented individuals. I shall update this final post whenever appropriate, to best describe the site’s current state.

The Gameshelf began as a public-access TV show in 2005, ostensibly about more obscure video and tabletop games, back when games-focused media largely limited itself to highly commercial magazines and websites. The show’s creation coincided — rather unwittingly — with both the nascency of the indie-games movement, and the rise of technologies and services that would dramatically lower the barrier of entry for those passionate about underreported subjects to create and publish their own videos to the internet. Thus do we have today’s galaxy of independent critics, podcasters, and streamers, quite well covering the whole breadth of games.

I thought that was pretty great, actually, and in 2010 ceded that particular floor, declaring that this website would serve as an independent blog of games-focused essays from a number of writers, pulling talent initially from the TV show’s cast as well as a handful of guest bloggers. And we published some good stuff, that way!

But it couldn’t last forever; this was always and only a passion project, and people’s passions evolve with the years. Zarf’s final post here summarizes the blog’s end-state; by the start of 2017 it had become clear to the two of us still posting here that the time had come to move on to personal platforms. So, we have, as detailed at the top of this post.

I will always be proud of what The Gameshelf accomplished, first as a video series, then as an organized group blog, and finally as a humble essay-platform used only a couple of friends to think out loud about games now and again. I feel happy and fortunate that, by hosting this website myself, I can continue to share all our work indefinitely. I hope that the past contributions found here to the ongoing conversation about games can still serve some small purpose for present and future readers and creators.

— Jason McIntosh (, June 2017

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I'm shifting my bloggery to

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 <BLINK> tags.

So, behold my brand-new blog page! It now lives at

I'm using, 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, for everything.

(Except that I sometimes post on the IFTF blog, and the Boston IF meetup page is more or less a blog, and... well, life isn't simple.)

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, 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.

Posted in Zarfplan | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The history of Glk!

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.

(Possibilities for this fall: Practice, AdventureX, WordPlay, IndieCade. No, there is no way I can get to more than one of those.)

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Making navigation work

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 don't know if this scheme has a common name; I'll call it forward-and-back. Examples that I've played recently: The Frostrune, Agent A, Facility 47.

(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".)

Forward-and-back has some obvious advantages. The player always has the same orientation in every room, so the game only needs one image of each room. (Important for a low-budget game where the backgrounds are hand-illustrated rather than rendered from a 3D model.) If the player gets lost, they can smack "back" button until they're not.

The scheme doesn't really support complex 3D environments, or puzzles based on 3D environments. You can't move your viewpoint around to understand 3D relations within a room, and 3D relations between rooms are usually obscure. (The "forward" direction is usually different from one room to the next!) So the scheme has limitations, but okay, every scheme has limitations.

But after playing a bunch of forward-and-back games, I have a complaint. I always feel lost. Or, no, "lost" is wrong. I always know where I am. I have a mental map (a tree, of course). I usually remember what's behind me and what rooms are ahead. But moving around is a somewhat laborious process. These games always involve lots of running back and forth, and the running around takes effort; it doesn't feel automatic.

Compare this to the parser IF navigation scheme. IF compass directions take a lot of crap ("artificial", "unintuitive" -- here's the most recent of many threads on the subject). But, by dooley, if I want to get across Hadean Lands I type "N <enter> N <enter> W <enter> W <enter> W <enter> W <enter> S <enter>" faster than I can think. (Even in a game like HL which supports "GO TO GARDEN", I usually use the compass directions.) Thus, when I'm working on a puzzle, I'm always working on the puzzle. Even if I have to run around, I have no sense of being interrupted by the busy-work of navigation.

What's the difference? Why do six clicks in a graphical adventure feel like more work than six keyboard inputs in a text adventure?

My current theory (certainly overgeneralized): the forward-and-back scheme doesn't give you enough context to think about long journeys.

For the journeys in HL (and other parser IF), I plot out the entire course before I start typing. I enter the commands without reading the responses, or reading just enough to verify that I'm on the right track. (An unexpectedly locked door will stop me, but I might overrun by a few commands before my fingers stop.) But in the forward-and-back games, I can't do this. I enter a room, look around, pick out the right door, click it, and repeat. I can't click-click-click across the game world.

Of course the game designers want to give me context. They post signs; they make buildings visible in the distance. But this is rarely consistent, and it usually only signposts the next room -- not the destination of my journey. If I'm standing at a fork in the road, I have to visualize the world map, think about the next room, and then remember what the path to it looks like. That's the extra step.

Okay, that's a hypothesis. Let's test it against some other game schemas.

In the classical first-person adventure, all movement is "forwards", because you can turn around within a room. The original Myst had clunky slide-show turns, but the genre soon upgraded to 360-panning views (Myst 3) and then to fully 3D worlds.

Now, running around these adventure games is never trivial. There's always a lot of clicking (or holding the "run" button). It can take time. But it doesn't require much thinking, because (once you've learned the map!) you just orient yourself and go. The game gives you the context to look around, to build the entire world map in your head. You see the fountain across the lawn, but you recall that the clock tower is visible down the fountain path, so it's ahead and on the left, so... and the next several steps are clear.

(I am, of course, speaking from the privilege of my own head! I have excellent spatial perception and visualization skills. So this whole analysis may be bunk to you, but I have to work this out for myself first...)

Here's Submachine 1. This is a first-person view, but most of the navigation is up-down-left-right rather than forward-and-back. The world falls into a regular grid (or a few regular grids joined by "ahead" doors). Result: easy navigation! I can click-click-click around the world.

(Then the author makes the later Submachine games really big -- scores of rooms -- which makes the navigation harder again. But at least the difficulty buys me more game.)

In Seltani, my hypertext MMO/MUD, I struggled to make Myst-like physical environments accessible in text. It almost worked -- but traversing large Ages is laborious, even for me. Even the worlds I created! I enter a room, look around, pick the right hyperlink...

Isn't this where we came in? Navigating in Seltani feels exactly like navigating a forward-and-back graphical game -- at least to me. I can learn an area well enough to click the links faster, but it never gets fast; I can never click-click-click through the world. And I think the problem is the same: not enough context, no way to visualize the entire space. It's the feeling of trying to cook dinner without my glasses.

Here's a map of the area described above. Better, right? If I ever redo Seltani, I'll add clickable maps to all my Ages.

Finally, an odd case. Vignettes is a puzzle game with no physical space at all. You "explore" by transforming objects using Escherian perspective tricks.

I played a bit. Then I put the game down and said "Nice concept, but the navigation is terrible!" Is there navigation? Well, there's a map, as we see above. The map shows known, nearby transformations: from the fire hydrant, we can reach the trashcan and the pillcase.

But again: not enough context. The game challenges us to find every transformation, but the map never shows us the whole world -- not even the known world. Missing links are shown as question marks, but only the nearby ones. If the local zone is complete (as above), how do we run across the world to a new one? The map gives us no help. It's not even a clickable map; we have to redo every transformation to explore, even the known ones.

(Added frustration: one-way links. If you're trying to move across the map, you can fall down a chute and land back where you started.) (And even more: the chest metaphor lets you jump instantly across the world, but only to a region that you've completely mined out! It's useless for reaching incomplete regions, the ones you need to reach to finish the game.)

(For all this complaining, I did pick Vignettes back up and finish it. The map is small enough to be playable despite its faults. But I nearly had to draw a paper map to finish -- the unforgivable sin of a mobile game.)

So what qualities make a game truly navigable? I say:

  • the game must let you understand the entire shape of the world;
  • the game must let you apply that knowledge to move across chunks of the world without stopping to think.

There are plenty of strategies for each point. A large-scale map with "click here to jump" buttons will always solve the problem, but it's not the only possibility. The designer may not want jumping; they may want to preserve the experience of continuous movement. Or they may not have the resources to implement the jump button. (At worst, it can require implementing all your lock-and-puzzle logic twice, which is a minefield of potential game bugs. Ask me about Hadean Lands...)

A large-scale map without interactivity will help if the player can connect map features to game-world features. (This is where my Seltani district map falls short; map symbols don't match up well to text.)

(A player who draws a map is certain to understand the shape of the world! But asking the player to draw a map is pretty much unjustifiable if the game has any graphical capability at all. Grumble at these modern times or embrace them, as you like, but that's where we are.)

In a graphical environment, being able to see from one area to another is good; being able to look around and see the world from many angles is also good. Both together give the player a great deal of context. Regular grids, top-down views, and consistent viewing angles all help the player make sense of the world.

And finally, all these concerns apply even to completely abstract maps which have nothing to do with physical space. A limited horizon and inconsistent directions will leave a player feeling lost, even in a skill tree or a branching plot diagram.

Posted in Zarf on Games | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

IFTF's Adoptable Technology Archive

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)

(The Adoptable Technology home page now exists!)

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.

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Text in spaaaace: FTL, Out There, Voyageur

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.

Out There has a mix of practical snippets (like the one about gravitational damage) with diary entries, philosophical musings, and high-concept sci-fi encounters. The voice is distinctive, personal, and wry; it's delightfully reminiscent of Stanislaw Lem's old Star Diaries.

(To be sure, as @mossdogmusic reminds me on Twitter, it's also reminiscent of a sci-fi era when Our Hero was likely to be A Dude, with women absent from the story or purely decorative.)

The content of Out There's texts can be boiled down to "you gained fuel", "you lost oxygen", "you took damage", or "cut scene!" Nonetheless, I always read them, because the writing is so sharp and the mood so well-sustained.

FTL's texts are mostly practical, with a sprinkling of scenic description. Because the game is so focused on combat mechanics, I quickly found myself skipping the description. All that matter is whether I'm in a fight, whether I found a new weapon, whether intruders have teleported on board. And most of that information comes from the game's visual displays, not from the text. (If the ship is on fire, I can see fire alarms going off!)

There's one hilarious exception. One story encounter starts (as many do) by describing the local planet and its moons; but then it goes on to ask (on the next page) how many moons the planet has! If you got into the habit of skipping the descriptive paragraphs, you will have no idea, even though it just told you. The first time this happened, I laughed out loud, and kept at least a quarter of an eye on the descriptive text thereafter.

Finally we have Voyageur. The procedural structure means that Voyageur's planetary descriptions are endlessly varied. The same is true for many of the ad-hoc events, like "attend a local religious ceremony". There are also long-term plot sequences; the events in these sequences are not randomized, but you only encounter each once per play-through, so they don't become repetitive.

Despite the variety, I found the procedural texts to be flat; I stopped reading them almost immediately. It's not that the detail was boring. Rather, it was irrelevant to my goals. Nothing you find in a planetary description aids you in your travels. Maybe you're on a planet of rich tourists, where you can sell imported booze for a profit; but you'll see that fact in the market screen. If the planet has a fungus jungle, you'll want to explore it, but that fact will be highlighted with an "explore" action button. The travel screen lets you glean the underlying stats of planets before you travel to them, and that's important -- but it also means that you arrive already knowing that stuff.

So there's our comparison. FTL's texts are peripheral; you play it for the starship combat. Voyageur has a well-implemented algorithmic text engine, which is technically fascinating but not meaningful in play. Out There has the best writing, and so it's the game where I wind up actually reading the textual output.

Yes, I love procedural generation. In fact I just reposted a software toy which is nothing but generated room descriptions! No goals, no mechanics. And maybe that's as flat as Voyageur's planets. I can't make that comparison from the inside.

(I might suggest that the lack of mechanics in My Secret Hideout means you are not distracted. You're not rushing off to the market or fungus-jungle as you are in Voyageur. But then, maybe you just stop playing My Secret Hideout entirely.)

So, Out There is the text game in which I bother reading the text. That makes it my favorite game, right?

Nope nope. Let me talk about pacing.

The pacing of FTL is great. It's got lots of moving parts, so of course you can argue about the tuning of this bit or that bit. But you've got the right combination of challenge and stuff to strive for.

When you start your FTL game, you've got an underpowered ship with wimpy weapons, but you're fighting a stream of even wimpier ships. If you are careful, you'll beat them. Of course I'm not talking about your first game; you've got a learning curve. But once you know the mechanics, you win fights and collect money and resources.

The question is how much damage you avoid taking. The less damage you take, the more money you can save for weapons upgrades. Money means you can improve your ship. The opportunities to improve your ship are randomized; you might not find a store that sells that sweet cloaking device, but you'll find a store that sells something. Or if not, you can at least blow the money on better shields. (Like I said, a lot of moving parts.)

Naturally, the enemies get tougher as you move through the game. If you're below the difficulty curve, something eventually kills you. If you stay above the curve, you run into the Rebel Flagship at the end, which is a sharp uptick in the curve and probably kills you -- that's why it's the boss. It takes many runs through the game to finally win, but that's fine, because it's a fun challenge from start to finish. Even fighting the early "easy" ships, you can't slack; you have to win with minimum damage to save on repair bills.

So FTL is fun to play and replay. This is not news; it's a classic.

The pacing of Out There is very different. You start in an underpowered ship with wimpy engines. (No weapons, it's not a fighting game.) But the universe is already tough. If you can't gather enough fuel, you run out of fuel and die. If you can't find oxygen often enough, you run out of oxygen and die. Your ship is constantly breaking down, so you need metal and other elements to repair it, or else -- you know.

As you go, you discover plans for better technologies: improved FTL drives, sensors, and so on. But this is not fun, because you can't use them! You haven't found the exotic elements needed to build that tech. Hunting exotics takes fuel and oxygen you can't spare. Or if you do, the elements take up cargo space that you could be using to carry reserve fuel and oxygen. Or if by a stroke of mad luck you have both the plans and the necessary elements, then building the device also takes up cargo space -- same result.

As far as I can tell, the only way to play Out There is to keep restarting and dying until you find an alien ship with more cargo space. (There are a fair number of abandoned ships in the galaxy, but hunting them requires improved sensor tech, which you can't afford to build -- see above. So you just have to stumble across one.)

Once you have a larger ship, you can hold onto enough resources that tech upgrades become a strategy rather than an empty promise. At that point you're "really" playing the game. But you're still spending most of your time making inventory-juggling decisions. And not even strategic decisions like "keep this hafnium for a better FTL drive, or gold for a better telescope?" No, it's usually boring decisions like "Did I remember to feed my hydrogen to the drive before I scooped new hydrogen?"

(Because if you forget to feed the drive, then you have no free cargo space to store the new hydrogen, and you've wasted a scoop action. Wasting a scoop action can mean the difference between survival and death. That's the kind of game this is.)

I have enjoyed the lucky play-throughs of Out There, but the unlucky majority involve skating down the bare edge of survival, juggling inventory, until you die.

So, now, Voyageur.

My first Voyageur run felt very bare-edge-of-survival. I was short on money, but I bought some goods and hauled them to the next star for a small profit. Then I did it again. Then pirates caught me and stole my cargo; I was nearly wiped out. But I got lucky! A university paid me for my travel notes, so I was able to buy more cargo. Then -- pirates caught me again. I was broke, I ran out of fuel, and that was it for that game.

(This was the first release of Voyageur. The 1.1.1 patch added a gambling option if you run out of fuel and money, so you have a chance to move on. But it's still possible to "die".)

So, after one game, I decided Voyageur was another Out There. Nice text, a lot of potential, but fundamentally frustrating.

But was that really true? Second game: I hauled enough goods to have a decent money reserve. I discovered that there are a lot of random opportunities to make a bit of cash as you fly. The university thing was just one of them. There are more in some parts of the galaxy than in others, but if you keep flying you can expect to keep finding them.

It turns out that my first session was very bad luck. Most games, you'll quickly collect enough money to ensure survival. (Pirates may steal one shipment, but most runs are successful; cargo-hauling is strongly net-positive.)

In fact, I rapidly ran into the opposite problem: I had so much money that there was nothing left to spend it on! Cargo-hauling became pointless. I was just jumping from planet to planet, taking in the sights. It didn't take long to try all the common ad-hoc event opportunities. And then there was nothing left to do.

Now, this too was something of a mistake. There are long-term goals in Voyageur. Some even require enough money that you have to start caring about income again. The problem is, you can't really work at these long-term goals. They all derive from events that pop up on random planets; and you have to find a lot of them. You can skew the odds by targeting particular kinds of planets, but it still feels like progress is being dribbled out by a random number generator.

Thus, the typical Voyageur run-through is a whole lot of planet-hopping, mostly at random, with no danger or challenge. Ignoring all the nice generated text along the way. Eventually you have enough stuff to trigger an ending. There is a nice variety of endings available, but reaching them all is tedious.

Okay, that is a lot of design whingeing. How do I put these ideas together? What is my perfect text-RPG-in-spaaaace?

...I retract that last question. (Because if I had an answer, I'd be writing it.) Instead, I want to think about the games that Out There and Voyageur could be.

(We take for granted that FTL is already the best FTL.)

Out There just needs less inventory juggling. Honestly, if it just let you park your hydrogen outside the ship for a minute while you fed the engines and juggled the cargo, that would make the game 50% less annoying.

It'd be even better if the cargo system were smarter. Maybe have separate storage for bulk elements (hydrogen, oxygen, iron), exotic elements (hafnium, platinum, gold) and ship systems (technologies). Yes, the current system is brutally simple and I admire that. But having all these resources compete for space is a problem.

You'd still need to do some tuning to ensure that tech upgrades were always visible on the horizon. Something in hand, something better to work for. Make that the bread and butter of the game, with resource-mining as the low-level time-management task and the scripted encounters as the icing on the cake. That would work out great. (Except that I have just been sent to metaphor hell.)

Voyageur is tougher. It's built on the Fallen London engine, and with much of the same design sensibility. But it doesn't have FL's long ladder of "farm X, trade X for Y, trade Y for Z, ...." Market goods are just money; special items are either money (at the right dealer) or a component of one of the endings. You never get medium-term goals.

I feel like Voyageur has the beginning and ending of the game I want, but no middle. Obviously that's a design judgement; you could just as well say that I'm calling for grind for the sake of grind. But... I think I want grind for the sake of showing off the game's charms. I want intermediate trades that depend on the details of the planet. I want to trawl the markets for unique items relevant to my mission.

One possible way to extend the game: add crew actions. Currently, you can collect crew members who aid you, but they're mostly reactive. You get travel bonuses or better combat outcomes. Sometimes a crew member gets cranky, and then you can get negative outcomes. But you never have an option to "go out for a drink with the engineer", or whatever.

It would be neat if there were a slew of such options -- on the crew page, which is out of the way and doesn't invite lawnmowering. Say these options are always available, but usually uninteresting. (Again, not worth lawnmowering on every planet.) But your engineer is particularly fond of dance clubs on high-tech desert worlds. So if you're on such a world, and you notice phat beats coming from a nearby alley, you can go to the crew page and select that option. You'd either be advancing personal goals (shipboard romance) or intermediate stages in long-term plot threads (scouring a particular junkyard for unique items).

The point, obviously, is to add some "middle" and give the player a reason to keep an eye on the planet texts. (Remember the moons in FTL?)

To be clear, this is just my take on the game. I know the author has his own development plans. This blog post says that "more midgame content and more things to do with your money" are in train. We're all on the same page; I'm just spinning ideas about how to do it.

My conclusion, after all those words, is that I appreciate good text but I demand good game mechanics. Maybe that's a surprise. I think of good text as hard, but then I think of good mechanics as hard too. (Just a programmer at heart, me.)

The broad genre of "fly spaceship, find things" is a long-time favorite of mine. I played Sundog on the Apple 2 as a kid. However, most of these games wind up relying on combat models which don't catch my interest. (FTL got lucky with me, or I got lucky with it.) I keep an eye out for the story-oriented ones, which is how I came across Out There. Are there others?

Actually, speaking of Sundog -- there was a textual sci-fi story game a couple years back called Sun Dogs. I remember it as being under-populated, but take a look if Voyageur interested you.

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My Secret Hideout: now available on Itch.IO

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

Rusty Lake: Roots

You explore a creepy family's genealogy in their creepy house, down through the generations. I enjoyed this series back when it was Flash room-escape games. ("Cube Escape" was the original series title.) The author has kept the same puzzle style, but revamped the formula for mobile by wrapping up a bunch of escape "chapters" as one game.

I still enjoy them. The author is good at the creepy-surreal tone, and the puzzles have enough variety that they don't feel repetitive. There's a postgame puzzle sequence -- not quite what you'd call a metapuzzle, but it gives a really nice "ooh more to explore" feeling to the experience.

The one caveat is that the creepy sometimes degenerates into sophomoric nudge-wink innuendo. To be fair, the series always had a tendency towards cheap body-horror shock -- chopped-off fingers and popped-out eyes. Now that's been extended to include childbirth and wanking jokes. Is that worse? I roll my eyes more, definitely.

Able Black

I always love a mystery-interface interactive story, and I enjoyed this one. The visual design was striking and the story was pretty good. It's the "AI humanity test" story -- a SF trope which I admit is getting seriously overused in the past couple of years of gaming -- but it's well done.

The weak point were the puzzles, which were weak and unthematic. They did not feel like assessments that the android protagonist would undergo; neither did they feel like allegorical challenges within the theme of developing emotion and empathy. They didn't build on each other in an interesting explorable way, or with a metapuzzle. They were just a bunch of randomly-selected riddles thrown in for pacing. Pacing is important, but this is not the right way to go about it.

On the other hand, the game redeems itself somewhat in the "postgame" (whatever you call the puzzles after the five main chapters). I only got a little way into these, but they were integrated with the story and seemed to be interestingly explorable. Although, on the other hand yet again, the dexterity challenge was more of a nuisance than was warranted.

Neptune Flux

You operate an undersea waldo, collecting resources to preserve humanity after some kind of civilization-destroying event.

This is a puzzle game, but it's more of a homebrew action-adventure than a simple Myst clone. Oh, I suppose action-adventure is the wrong term -- no fighting, no jumping -- but you have a space to roam in and a couple of systematic tasks to occupy your time in between completing the main story beats.

It sounds like padding when I put it like that, but in fact those tasks pace out the game pretty nicely. It's still a short story, no question. But it's a short story that lets you poke around at your own pace; you can decide whether to rush to the next objective or scour the sea floor for a while.

(The traditional first-person adventure game would handle that pacing by flooding you with visuals: detail, detail, detail. And, you know, I'm a sucker for that. But there are other approaches, and this one is perfectly valid.)

All that said: the story does not work particularly well. It's trying to hand you a lot of concepts -- a post-catastrophe world, your job, your mother, AI, failed space colonies, alien artifacts, shipwrecks from various periods of history. But none of these really have a chance to settle in or feel real. I suppose this is where more visual detail would have helped! Or more game mechanics, or more characters... more engaging voice actors... more of anything to anchor the story. Lacking those, the story beats fail to connect up or have impact.

I feel like the designers tried to take a moderate approach -- just enough of everything -- but the total falls short.

(Note: I was a Kickstarter backer on Neptune Flux.)

She Who Fights Monsters

Last year I had trouble evaluating Undertale because Final Fantasy just isn't a big part of my gaming history. I recognize the tropes, but the way that the game riffs on them largely go over my head. Also, it's enormous so I never saw the thing as a whole.

SWFM is a simpler and shorter game with the same approach. Which is good, on the one hand, because I finished it and I pretty well understand what it's doing with its JRPG riffs. But, by the same token, it's less ambitious.

The topic is child abuse, and the game tackles it by means of traditional JRPG gameplay. That's interesting. And the story is clear and honestly offered. But the game doesn't do a whole lot with it beyond the basic concept of "let's present an emotional contrast using JRPG tropes". (Contrast, that is, between Jenny's fantasy life in games and her wounded reality.)

Perhaps I just wanted more story arc for Jenny. Her path in the story is essentially reactive and static. The new-game-plus options are trying to open this up, I think, but they feel awkwardly tacked on. The player is asked to re-experience (much of) the game, but in a distanced lens-of-memory way. The repetition mutes the impact. Or, I should say, the frame is inside out: I want the story to begin with mature Jenny reflecting on her history, and then ramp upwards to the raw impact of her early life. That's the "traditional" way you'd tell this story. But then of course the "final choice" of how you live your life would come at the beginning of the game, which is weird. I don't know! It's a hard problem.

Islands: Non-Places

That was a thing. It was just my kind of thing. 11/10 best puppy.

I'm not sure what else I have to say about this! It's a series of wordless images -- snippets of the urban landscape -- which you are invited to provoke into some kind of reaction. When you succeed, you move on to the next one. It's not a storybook; it's not a story at all; but it's involving and entirely charming.

I am going to tie this back to the genre of nonsense children's art: Graeme Base, David Wiesner, Shaun Tan. Nonsense which embodies a wordless looking-glass-logic. That's what this is. Not entirely new in videogames (anybody remember Haruhiko Shono?) but we can certainly use more of it.

Code 7 - Episode 0 - Allocation

This is a promo for an episodic game. I saw the Kickstarter go by but I didn't investigate it at the time. Now I see why people are talking about it. It's a smart take on the "text adventure" idea.

You wake up in a dark place with only a computer terminal to connect you to the outside world. You have to steer your friends through laboratory/complex/base by hacking on the computers that they connect you to.

If I put on my IF theorist hat, I would say that it's not equivalent to a full-on parser-based IF game. This is not a complaint; Code 7 goes off on its own thread, exploring the idea of a computer CLI rather than an object-based world model. That is entirely appropriate for the story it wants to tell. And it finds appropriate explorable mechanics within the CLI concept: the computers have a consistent (but expandable) set of commands, and the database search is a uniformly-available choice which the player can go back at will. There are also hacking scenes (which use a virtual map as a chase/puzzle environment), and scenes where the characters are chased by robots (same idea, but on a real-world map).

Altogether, a great pile of gameplay. Very polished presentation, too. My only complaint is that the real-time chase segments were a bit rough. The final hacking challenge took me a lot of tries -- enough that it wound up feeling tedious, rather than thrilling.

Now, the story is very old hat indeed -- a pile of sci-fi cliches. (With lanterns hung on them.) But the design is interesting, and the authors have the opportunity to take the story to more interesting places in future episodes.

Mu Cartographer

Excellent and indescribable!

I realize Mu Cartographer is pretty much aimed at my hot buttons: it's the love child of an abstract fiddly-toy and an explorable puzzle box. With bits of narrative about a psychogeographical landscape. I won't go so far as to say it's a story, but there's enough narrative text to provide a sense of place. Without that, it really would be an entirely abstract puzzle.

(Okay, there are snapshots of famous real-world landmarks. But those wouldn't sell sense-of-place on their own.)

My design quibble is that the various tasks aren't well balanced. There are three general categories of Things To Do (after "understand what to do".) One is pure grind (unless I missed a clue?) The second is easy (you can go straight to the solution); the third is hard (requires experimentation but you can tell when you're close). So you go back and forth between slog and non-slog, which makes the game pacing uneven. I finished it, but I felt that I'd spent too long on the job -- that is, too much blind-hunting time. Not the fun kind.

But this is a quibble. I enjoyed the heck out of this and would play six more just like it. ("Just like it" in the sense of each being completely different and unique, of course.)


A moody monochrome platformer, which is a genre. This is a beautiful example of that genre. The artwork takes a spare, minimal style and lifts it to breathtaking levels. Backgrounds, animation, lighting -- gorgeous.

The platforming mechanics are familiar terrain, but well-executed. You start with running and jumping, and move on to several other mechanics. These are (mostly) well-introduced and then mixed up in (mostly) reasonable variations; there's plenty of variety to keep your interest. Variety, heck -- the game physics achieves some brain-twisting weirdness.

The strength of this game is visual (of course) and... I don't want to say "world-building". The pieces do not fit together to build a world. But each piece is, individually, razor-sharp -- a lucid shape of game mechanics, scenery, and visual tone which conveys a situation.

The weakness of this game is that sometimes you just have no idea what it's trying to get you to do. You can screw around until you figure it out. I did. But you might die six times in a row while not learning anything. It's just a little too eager, sometimes, in introducing a new mechanic that's hidden in the scenery. Or maybe the scenery is a bit too distractingly artistic.

(They usually add enough blinky lights to clue you in, but not always.)

Inside is getting a lot of chatter as a superlative narrative game. It is a superlative game. But not narrative. Sorry! A narrative has a beginning, middle, and end. This has a starting point and a stopping point. That's not narrative.

As I said, the pieces don't fit together. Wordless platformers develop character, if they ever do, by giving you short-term goals which add up to game-spanning achievements. This game has the short-term goals, but they don't add up to anything. "You kept running." Not running to anything, or from anything. The threat in any given scene is clear, but you know no more at the end than you did at the beginning. I'll grant a thematic consistency -- the game is about control, and maybe that speaks to the platformer genre. But theme is not enough.

I loved Inside but it did not speak to me. It has a deep willingness to be nastily perverse, to bother the player. I admire that, and I've written works in that mode... but it's not the same as narrative.

Burly Men at Sea

Three burly sailors go on an odyssey. Then, if you like, they do it again!

It is undeniably adorable. The interaction is playful and distinctive -- more so when I got the iPad version. (Mouse control just doesn't suit the thing.) The writing is simple but sharp; I was immediately able to hear the characters' voices.

The visual design is great. The soundtrack is great (and makes me laugh). There's a nifty gimmick where you can buy any run-through as a printed storybook.

I feel like the game falls short of greatness, however. It asks for repeated play-throughs, but it doesn't particularly reward them. Scenes have first-time and subsequent-times variations, but no more than that. (That I saw.) They don't build on each other as you discover more of the map.

If the third run-through added as much as the second -- and so on, to some higher purpose -- this would have been one of my favorites of the year. As it is, it is a delightful toy that runs down too soon.

A Normal Lost Phone

  • (Accidental Queens / Rafael Martínez Jausoro, Estelle Charrié)
  • IGF entry page

A database game presented as the cell phone of a teenager in small-town America. As you explore the photos, email, text messages, and so forth, you uncover layers of Sam's life and how the phone came to be lost.

I expected this to be a fairly static environment. But you discover passwords and so on as you play, each of which unlocks a new section of the game. There aren't many of these; the story could be described as four gated "chapters" plus an epilogue. But then, the game is quite short overall, so it's not out of balance. The "puzzle" moments are all plausibly different, which wouldn't be possible in a longer game of this sort.

The designers do a good job of packing high school life into the non-linear environment of a phone. Exploration is gated by passwords, as I said -- but even within those chapters, you necessarily encounter the story piecewise. Messages and email are grouped by person, so you can't just browse Sam's entire life chronologically. This gives a nice putting-the-pieces-together feel even above the puzzle structure.

I won't be spoiling much if I say that the narrative turns into a coming-out story. The later sections involve a dating app and a support web forum. Again, these manage to convey a lot of information -- perhaps to the point of didacticism, but then I'm not close to the topic. If you are younger or these issues are personal to you, I think you'll appreciate the depth of detail.

The result is sweet and doesn't outstay its welcome. My only quibble is that the "American" setting is shaky -- not so much the character voices, which seem fine, but in random details like European date formatting and implausible town names.

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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.)


  • (Ocelot Society / Leonard Carpentier, Emmanuel Corno, Sergey Mohov)
  • IGF entry page

An adventure game in which you explore an abandoned starship. Your primary means of interaction is by talking to the shipboard AI. You do this by typing at the computer terminals that you find. Which is to say: this is a parser-based text adventure. I am very pleased with it, and not just for that reason. (Although a parser game always makes me happy.)

To be clear, this is not a traditional Zork-style IF text adventure (where you type commands from a conventional-but-extendable verb set). Nor is it a pure conversation game, which tries to simulate talking to a person. It's a hybrid. You can talk about any topic -- you're talking to an artificial person, after all. But you're trying to do things on the starship, and that means asking the AI to do them for you. You ask it to open doors, for example. But you have to stretch the command boundaries as you explore... so you get the conventional-but-extendable business after all.

The game takes its core mechanics -- looking at things, and then typing terminal commands -- with absolute conviction. Everything you do fits into that model, with a satisfying range of discoverable variation. If the UI had wavered and let you open a box or pull a lever with your hands, it wouldn't have worked nearly as well.

Free conversation input is of course a heck of a mechanic to wrestle with. Using it for a goal-oriented puzzle game is worse. The IF scene regards free dialogue as maybe usable for goalless character exploration; anything beyond that tends to bring up awful memories of Starship Titanic (1998, billed as a giant technological leap in NPC conversation systems; wasn't.)

This game, as far as I can tell, does not try to be a giant technological leap. (Perhaps the authors will tell me I am wrong, but...) It uses a standard approach: lots of keywords, a bit of pattern matching. I frequently caught the AI misparsing my input because it saw a keyword and ran away with it.

But it works, because the designers have put in reams and reams of effort. Not just on random topics (although there's plenty of that), but on contextual topics to keep the player moving forward. If you don't know what you're supposed to be doing, you can blather haplessly at the AI and it will put you back on the right track. It may be subtle or off-handed; it may just mention a topic that you missed. But it works.

(At least, it worked for me!)

The other nice bit are the broad hints that the AI cares about your phrasing. You can treat the AI as a topic index: just throw verbs and keywords at it. (That's what I did in Starship Titanic.) But it feels worthwhile to type complete sentences and say "please" and "thanks". Not because it gets better results -- but because the game politely asks you to.

Anyway. It's not a perfect game. The story, as SF, is rather thin. Plus I missed a lot of what the story was trying to convey, because I wasn't moved to trawl the AI about random background topics. And I got to a non-ideal ending because I wasn't sure what a particular command would do at the end. (It went boom. Should that have been clear in advance?) But it was a satisfying experience anyhow!

Recommended, for conveying its story entirely through its chosen mechanisms.


Oh, the arguments over this one. It's a medium-short narrative work which is wordless and uses strictly presentational interactivity. A daring combination!

(In the IF Competition, we have a special Golden Banana award for the game with the widest spread of high-vs-low votes. Virginia was definitely the IGF's Golden Banana candidate this year.)

There are lots of wordless narrative games, but they generally give you plenty of agency at the beat-by-beat scale -- you have puzzles or at least exploration goals to tangle with. So you have a sense of expressivity through the protagonist's actions; you are achieving things. Virginia skips right past all of that. You have moment-by-moment agency (walking around, looking at things) but the narrative proceeds without giving you much more than a "next scene" interaction. Sometimes, not even that. You can collect flowers but that's entirely on your own account.

And then, on top of that, it's a character story with no dialogue.

You have to be willing to go with the game on this, and I won't blame you if you don't. But I think it works really well. Virginia adapts the visual language of cinematography better than any other game I can think of, simply because it's entirely that language -- the cinematography isn't used as mortar between puzzles, dialogue scenes, or chunks of browsable text. Nor does the cinematography clash with the interactivity. A thematic transition will occur when you see an object; your attention is in the right place for it. Abbreviated scenes give you just enough time to look around. That sort of thing.

The story concerns a (black, female) FBI agent, circa 1992. You are sent with a partner to a small town in Virginia. (Hardcore X-Files and Twin Peaks fans will have to cover those narrative connections.) The mystery is a missing person, but (of course?) this is not a detective puzzle game.

So what is it? The narrative is, necessarily, a bit ambiguous. Not entirely -- some of the plot is meant to be clear, and is. But there's quite a bit of dream sequence, hallucination, flashback, and allegory; the designers are happy to let them blur into each other around the edges. With no dialogue or voice-over, you're left to put the pieces together, will you or no.

Yes, there are seams, and yes it leans on hallucinatory surreality more than it probably should. (Again, Twin Peaks fans may disagree.) But it's energetic, it's sincere, and it conveys a lot of emotion in its stylized way. I liked it.


Another database game! (I like this game format -- have since 1986.) But a pointed one. As the title implies, the database is a universal surveillance system run by the government. (Of a fictional Ruritanian nation, but that's thin drapery.) You are invited to be a volunteer investigator for the system, looking into a political bombing in "Freedom Plaza". The gimmick is that you are the human conscience of the system; it sees nothing until you decide to upload it. But, and on the flip side, your uploads are entirely contextless; you can upload one line of a conversation to makes someone look guilty or innocent. Truth is what you decide.

This game made me uncomfortable, and not for the reasons you might expect. It's last year's debate, see. An argument that a universal surveillance state is bad (or even good) based on an exploration of the effects? That's rational politics. We're past that now. (Relevant US and UK headlines omitted in despair.)

But I shoved the real world into a corner of my head... temporarily... and played through.

On its own terms, this is one smart construction of a game.

The gameplay comes in two basic phases: you search everything you have access to, then decide what to upload. (Uploading gives you access to more stuff, as the System expands its search to more targets. I mean people.) Both phases have just enough depth to be interesting without (much) risk of leaving the player stranded.

Search involves going through the game's simulated web pages, and (later) phone-taps and computer root-kits. You have to do a bit of clicking around to find everything; the UI cues you when a page needs more searching, so you won't get stuck. On each page, potential key phrases are highlighted. This is the decision phase; you can upload a chunk or mark it irrelevant. Sometimes two chunks contradict, and then you can only upload one of them. Again, the UI marks pages where you have work to do. The story advances when you've uploaded enough data for your government handler to arrest somebody or otherwise take action.

Thus, a potentially bewildering situation is constrained to a tight and reasonably clear model. It supports some nice variation -- technical hitches, a couple of real-time sequences, and twists at the end which I will not spoil. This suffices to keep the game fresh through a medium-short story of five chapters and about five hours of play time (my clock).

The weakness, I would say, is the early chapters of the game, which drop you in without much guidance as to your role. The System's goal is perfectly clear -- to suck up all data about everybody. (As personified by your smarmy handler, who reacts to every upload with gleeful suspicion.) And of course the game only progresses as you indict people. But I wasn't sure how much to care. Was it worth discarding evidence to protect this character or that one? Should I feel guilty about ruining their lives, or just play forward and see where the game was heading?

This laxity is more or less resolved by the end, which gets more personal and then offers you an explicit game-ending choice. (Nicely presented within the model you have learned.) But players may be turned off by the (apparent) uninvolvement up front. Of course, this is the whole point -- you are playing the disinterested all-powerful observer. Could the game pull you in without sacrificing that point? I'm not sure.

(Also, every time I decided someone was conspiring, more evidence turned up proving I was right. Is the engine conspiring to rewrite history for me, or am I just good at picking up cues? I would have to replay the game to be sure.)

Overall, I'm really impressed how this lays down a game model and then builds a story out of it. The actions you learn at the beginning remain consistent through the game, but they grow in important and relevance as the story progresses. This is not an easy trick. And then the story and characters are solid. A bit hammy, perhaps, but good enough to pull you through to the end.

One Night Stand

This is a short visual novel in the slice-of-life genre: you wake up naked in a strange girl's bedroom. You have a hangover and no clue how you got there.

(To be clear, my life has no slices that look remotely like this. I'm not very familiar with the visual novel genre, either, for that matter.)

The story has no genre twists (that I discovered!); it's a straightforward presentation of an awkward conversation. You can aim for more awkward or less awkward. You can snoop around to try to clue in about what happened. You can be gentlemanly or jerkly. Any way you cut it, the scene ends in about ten minutes and then you're on your way home.

This being the case, the game flies entirely on its writing and presentation. These do very well. The writing is convincing. (Somehow very, very British -- even before the girl uses the word "whilst" in cold blood.) The art uses rotoscoped animation (hand-drawn from live video, clearly) which is both charming and extremely expressive; the girl's face and body language carry as much weight as the dialogue.

The game offers a checklist of a dozen endings. I replayed to see three of them, but I didn't feel compelled to find the rest. The game structure wears a bit thin on repetition: many of your obvious choices are cut off and pulled back to the main story-thread. It's not that there are no interesting branches; rather it turns out that they're determined by the intervals where you're looking around the bedroom. You can look at just a couple of items at a time, and each one opens up a subject for the following conversation interval. So it's a more subtle structure than I expected, but searching it thoroughly would require a lot of experimentation. It would also require playing a bunch of unpleasant roles (the snoop, the bully, etc) and I just didn't want to go there.

At any rate, this tries to do something simple and constrained, but pulls it off with style.

Ladykiller in a Bind

A full-length visual novel about a high school graduation cruise. This is not to say that it is a slice-of-life story about high school. It's... well, it's not SF/fantasy; nor is it realistic contemporary fiction. I'm pretty sure the genre is anime, which is to say a sort of over-the-top implausible melodrama which doesn't pretend to be realistic but also doesn't include explicitly fantastical elements.

(Obviously there's SF/F anime too, but that's another genre again. Yes, there's a reason I'm off on genre again.)

So, in this case, we have twins swapping places, genius kids, millionaire kids, pirates, hackers, a voting game with a five-million-dollar prize, implausibly baroque social entanglements, and implausible amounts of baroque sex.

...Because the game is also smut. It is excellent smut. It features a diverse cast of characters -- I mean diverse in their attitudes, goals, and sexualities as well as their origins. Some of them want to bone you, and you can pursue these relationships or not. The sex scenes are themselves diverse, educational (if you have not encountered that diversity in your own life), well-written, and (not incidentally) really really hot.

Okay, it's good writing and it's good erotica. Is it a good game? I cannot answer this without talking about what I want out of games, which is complicated.

When I pick up a visual novel (or choice-based game in general), I tend to wrong-foot myself by asking "What am I trying to accomplish here?" Because of course the genre-convention answer is "Why ask me? Pick one of several available goals and pursue it, or, you know, just play and see what happens."

Not that these genres can't involve difficult challenges, or even explicit puzzles! They can; but that's something the author decided to add. (Just as, when we first talked about "puzzle-free IF" in the 90s, puzzles were something the author decided to omit.)

In fact Ladykiller has a couple of explicit challenges. You must try to keep people from suspecting your secret; you can try to win that social voting game. But these challenges mostly exist to serve the story framework. (E.g., the suspicion mechanic pushes you to interact with the character who can clear your suspicion stat.) The vote system, whether you care about it or not, is also currency for story entanglements. And the whole presentation of the game supports you thinking at the level of branching story outcomes. The game-mechanical stats are kept visible, and story choices are explicitly labelled with rewards and penalties. Story threads are tracked in scenes ("character X: scene 3 of 5") and you are regularly asked which thread you want to make progress on.

Again, this is all genre convention. Why am I going on about it? Well, as I've said, I haven't played many visual novels. Ladykiller is the first large one I've finished. So I'm trying to sort out what I think about them! (And you, lucky reader, get to follow along. Or else you rolled your eyes and bailed out four paragraphs ago. You decide.)

I think... I have never been entirely happy with the degree of control that choice-based games offer. A game that puts me into a single storyline: that's fine. The author dictates the story level, I control the moment-by-moment level. But when the core of the game is letting me steer the story branch-by-branch and chapter-by-chapter, I find that I'm not entirely on board with the options that are offered. I can get in the ballpark of what I want to do, but it's not quite there.

In my Ladykiller play-through, I wound up boinking three characters. I decided that X was a "never doing that again" experience; Y was "this was a very educational fling, thank you"; Z was "I have a giant crush on you and wish to keep you." And the game almost supported that. I wound up with an ending where X vanished and I got a negotiated OT3 relationship with Y and Z. And that's fine as narrative; it followed from the protagonist's scenes. But it wasn't actually what I wanted out of the story! The protagonist was way more interested in Y than I was, and I had no way to express that.

I could play another run, try to find "better" ending. That's what these games are built for -- exploring the potential space. But I'm never quite interested enough to spend the time. And that's my problem with choice-based games in a nutshell.

(Admittedly, the excellent smut is a strong motivation to replay, in this case...)

(I'm sure someone will argue that the negotiation between player control and author control is completely on-theme for the game. I would respond (a) it's not a negotiation after the author ships the game, I know that rodeo, kid, and (b) don't be a smartass. Although, okay, you're not wrong.)

Anyway. End of analytical tangent. Ladykiller is a solidly-constructed entry in the world of choice-based narrative IF. It is thoughtful and literate erotica and it's a lot of fun. I don't think it's my genre, but I still liked it.

1979 Revolution: Black Friday

Exactly what it says: a dramatization of the 1979 Iranian revolution, or moments of it, at least. You are a photojournalist, home from a year abroad, discovering that "home" is a word that covers a lot of ground. Contested ground.

Necessarily this kind of game serves two aims: the dramatic and the didactic. 1979 Revolution wants to immerse you in Iran-circa-1979; it wants to show you (the player, most likely a Westerner, in 2016) what that world was like; it wants to make you care. And it does these things successfully, but not smoothly. I felt like the game was always either in didactic mode or dramatic mode.

Didactic is a bit distanced. Here is Reza, the local boy, walking around examining the elements of his own life for your benefit. Yes, he's been out of town, and no, he doesn't act surprised at his home-town food or friends. The background material is wrapped up in an extra-diegetic journal that fills in as you go. But by the same token, it's a part of the game which is addressed to you, not to the protagonist.

As for the dramatic scenes -- the designers are clearly taking cues from the Telltale line. You have a lot of X/Y/Z dialogue choices, a lot of "Hossein will remember that!" tags, and frequent quick-timey interaction moments. These were, again, somewhat clunky. I failed quite a few scenes because I just didn't understand how to click-to-proceed. Eventually I figured out the game's UI conventions, and I got on well after that.

However, the question is not "how well-implemented is this story?"; it's "am I glad that someone told me this story?" And the answer is... well, it's not a happy story. I mean, it's not fun. You are involved in a chapter of Iran's history where people were arrested, tortured, or shot in the street by an autocratic regime. The game is about those people. It drops you into a torture prison, faces you with the (real-history) torturer-in-chief Asadollah Lajevardi.

It also drops you into Reza's life, with his ordinary-if-upper-class family, his friends, his city. You see his father's real-life home movies and his family photos. (Contributed by pointedly anonymous benefactors of the game project.) These are most honest and moving moments, I think -- more so than the cinematic scenes of being shot at or arrested.

It is an unashamedly biased presentation. From the inside, the revolution is idealistic, a fervent time of truth spoken to power. The protestors have been failed by the Shah's regime; they will be failed by the Islamic republic that is to come; they are betrayed by their own internal disagreements and the sins they will commit in the course of their revolution. The game nods to all of that. But it still casts them as heroes. It's hard to disagree.

So yes, I am glad that I have experienced this. I was in grade school in 1979; I remember hearing about the revolution as a distant, paper-thin shadow of an event. I remember that we didn't like Khomeini. I don't even remember how I knew that; it was schoolboy jokes, third-hand cultural miasma. This game is a window into the era for people like me -- a narrow slantwise window, but more than I had.

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Quern: Undying Thoughts: design ruminations

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.

Now I can talk about the differences -- which are smaller, but more interesting to discuss.

Quern has lots of visual detail, but it's not so good on focus. You will frequently find a workbench full of tools, and it's not at all clear which are the important tools and which are just scenery. So many hammers! There are things in the game that I want to smash! Sorry, no hammer for you. Even more annoying, there's a loose ladder in the very first room, but you can't take it or use it to climb anywhere.

In contrast, Obduction keeps the really tempting tools out of reach. It also avoids puzzles that make you think "if I only had a hammer..." (Or garden shears, or a couple of sticks, or...)

Quern is generally in tune with Cyan's house style, but it misses a few of the details. Obduction is good about showing the difference between a two-way switch (which can be flipped back and forth) and a one-way switch (which locks after you flip it). The control might retract to show that it's locked, or you might see a pin drop into place. Quern tends not to do this. Thus, one-way switches feel arbitrary. It's particularly annoying when the effect of the switch is not directly visible; then then you have no way to experiment to figure it out.

(You might say that every control should be flippable back and forth. That's how real life works! But when designing a game, you often want to simplify. Once the power has been turned on, it stays on. Once door X is open, it stays open for the rest of the game. And so on. This is a useful trick for keeping the player out of stuck-unwinnable states.)

Obduction was built primarily around one puzzle mechanism: the seed machines. There are other sorts of puzzles (starting engines, finding passwords, using the mine cart) -- but they're very much the Lord High Everything Else. I don't mean it's 99% seed puzzles, but you wind up thinking of the puzzles as "seed machines" and "the other stuff".

Quern, in contrast, has lots of puzzle types. It's downright exuberant with them. Slider puzzles, machine puzzles, symbol-finding puzzles, symbol-matching puzzles, letter puzzles, sound puzzles, light puzzles, weight puzzles, alchemy puzzles (yay!). That's not remotely a complete list.

Moreover, Quern mostly adheres to the puzzle design rule of "do everything twice". (Once as a directly-presented puzzle; once in a new context where you have to remember that thing you did earlier in the game.) Obduction does this too, but it has fewer puzzle concepts! With Quern, by the time you're halfway through, you are balancing a mental map of everything you've encountered. Any of the mechanisms or locations could wind up being relevant again. Not to mention a mental map of the island and where every unsolved puzzle is -- because any of them might be next.

The down side of this is that, with so many puzzle types, a few are worn-out hats. There's a Mastermind game. There's a block-slider. (But not the worst block-slider, which you have to pay me $50 to solve these days. Quern's slider was okay.)

There are, as I said, a couple of audio puzzles. I did not see any accomodation for hearing-impaired players. This is not a fatal strike (not like that flippin' Donkey slider!) but you want to ask if an accomodation is possible. In some games, the puzzle is "notice the audio component at all" -- any kind of subtitling would spoil it. The audio puzzles in Quern are different; they're about noticing qualities of sounds. A non-audio indicator could work. But you'd have to think about it.

There is one terrible puzzle. I know puzzles are subjective, but at one point I said "I hit a bad puzzle" and my friend said "There is one very bad puzzle" and we were talking about the same puzzle.

I don't want to rag on that one puzzle, because the developers have said in a Steam forum thread that they're considering ways to fix it. You can read the thread for the details.

However, it's a great example of the perils of puzzle design. So I'm going to dig into it a little. I will try to avoid spoilery specifics, but I will describe some elements of the puzzle. Starting... NOW.

The puzzle has two stages. ("Do everything twice", remember?) The first stage is a straightforward information-matching puzzle. You need to look at two clues, figure out what each diagram means, combine the information, and apply the result to a device. When you push the right buttons -- you're not finished. The device ostentiatiously turns upside down.

It's clear that you have to use the device again, but with a new button sequence. You now have to interpret the clues "upside down". There are a couple of things that could mean, so you try one of them. Then you try a different one. Then you try applying those ideas to the other clue. Then you start trying combinations of interpretations...

(If you look back at the forum thread, one player mentions trying sixteen possible input sequences, based on different combinations of what "upside down" could mean. I went down the same road.)

None of this works, so eventually you give up and go to the forum. Lo, there is a thread explaining what you missed: you have to go to the other side of the island and look in a place marked by a familiar symbol. There you will find a third clue, which supersedes one of the originals. Now the second stage is solvable.

So. What is the design problem here? Missing the third clue, right? I saw players talking about ways to make the marker symbol more visible, or making it easier to extract the third clue.

But I would say that the problem is not missing the third clue; it's believing that the first two clues are sufficient! The ambiguity of the upside-down hint, while a fine puzzle element in itself, misleads players into thinking that that's the entire second stage of the puzzle -- figuring out the right interpretation of "upside down". As I noted, there are several possibilities. Each time one fails, you look harder for another. Nothing points you at the idea that you've got the wrong clues in hand.

This is, of course, why game design is hard. You have to imagine the state of not knowing -- and then keep imagining every stage of figuring out. Including the dead ends.

Also, once someone has run out of patience and looked at hints, they're not likely to appreciate your clever design any more. I went and got the third clue (nice puzzle in itself!); but then I didn't have to energy to work it back through the puzzle logic. I just looked at a walkthrough.

(PS: Video walkthroughs are still terrible, but I admit that this game would have required too many diagrams for a text file.) (PPS: Wait, someone made a text walkthrough with diagrams! See this thread. Thanks!)

I don't want to give you the wrong idea. I've spent a page and a half talking about the worst puzzle in Quern, because it makes a good case study. Quern is packed with puzzles that are much better than that. I recommend this game! You should play it. The designers should make another game.

This is a good time for adventure games.

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