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Hadean Lands release 2.1.0

I have updated the Mac/Win/Linux version of Hadean Lands on Steam. These are small UI changes, mostly inherited from the past year's worth of Lectrote updates. The gameplay has not changed, and save files will continue to work undisturbed.

The same UI changes have gone out to and the Humble Store. (Last week, really.)

  • In the journal window, you can now sort items by name or by date (the order you discovered them in the game).
  • Added two new color themes: Sepia and Slate.
  • Changed the "Reset" menu item to "Reset Completely" (to match the in-game command for completely starting over).
  • Changed the "Close Window" menu item to "Close Game" for the main game window. (Except on Mac, sorry. The Mac's menu bar works poorly with this app framework.)
  • Fixed a slight size miscalculation in the status window.
  • Updated the Electron app framework to 1.4.16.


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Hadean Lands on sale this week!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hadean Lands, two weeks in

So, Zarf, how did that launch go?

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

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

Thank you!

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

But really, how is it selling?

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

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

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

Other news?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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So I bought a Steam Machine. How did that go?

A year ago I wrote this post I am a person who will buy a Steam Machine, then Followup on Steam Machines, and I felt all clever. To reiterate the basic argument:

  • PCs are a horrid swamp of choosing hardware parts with model numbers a mile long and people calling you an idiot for picking the wrong third letter. Plus, I don't want to maintain Windows. But they run all the games.
  • Macs have a few easy-to-choose models, which is good, but they don't get all the games. Some of the games, but not all the games.
  • Consoles have just one model (per decade) and run all the games. But I don't want to do business with Sony or Xbox (Windows).

I've been getting along all-Mac for a long time. But, well, The Witness. And other cool-sounding indie titles. And then there's Obduction, which will be available for Mac, but... the recommended graphics hardware just isn't cheap on the Mac side of the universe.

SteamOS looked like a tolerable compromise. It's not Windows. (I know how to maintain Linux.) But it's as cheap as Windows. There are too many models, but if I pick one brand it's only about four models and I don't have to read about graphics cards until my eyes bleed. I figured Valve was a big enough gorilla to corral the game studios into Linux/SteamOS support. Maybe not top priority, but some support.

So, last winter I bought a Steam Machine. Alienware, one of the middle models, I don't remember the letters and numbers. It arrived in December.

(Long embarrassing pause...)

The machine then sat in its carton for six months.

Here's the thing. Games fall into these rough categories:

  • Games from giant publishers that can do cross-platform development. Some of these ship for Mac and Windows simultaneously. Others ship for Windows first, Mac later. Others ship for Windows and the hell with everything else. Linux/SteamOS support might come along with Mac support, or later, or never.
  • Games from indie publishers using cross-platform tools (usually Unity). These ship for Mac and Windows simultaneously. Maybe Linux/SteamOS too, maybe not.
  • Games from indies who write directly in Windows. Mac comes a long time later, if ever. Linux is hosed.

In no case does the SteamOS version come before the Mac version. Oh, occasionally it happens. I looked through Steam's list and found... the Saint's Row series was Win and SteamOS but not Mac. There might have been another example. But not the stuff I cared about.

My Steam hardware was getting me exactly zero leverage in playing new games. So much for the big gorilla argument.

(Further embarrassed pause...)

So last weekend I uncrated my Steam Machine, stuck a Windows 10 thumb drive into it, and wiped that puppy clean. Fresh Win10 install. Worked great. Installed the Steam app, installed The Witness, launched it. I'm up to two lasers.

That's pretty much my whole blog post.

It's kind of embarrassing for everybody, really. If it weren't for the brute momentum of the industry, would we want the epicenter of gaming to be glued to Windows? Of course not. Windows is the only consumer OS that costs money -- and when it inevitably goes free, it will be because Microsoft has tied Windows to some other miserable business model. Desktop ads or force-integrated Office subscriptions, who knows. It won't do gamers any favors, you can bet.

Consoles are run for the benefit of their owners -- not game developers or players. The Mac world is, yes, run for the benefit of Apple.

(Sure, I'd argue that Apple wants to make Mac users happy. But that's not the same as "game developers and players". The iOS App Store is harsh terrain for devs these days; the Mac App Store is worse; nobody wants to see those conditions spread industry-wide. Anyhow, Apple already launched their living-room console-oid, and it didn't make much splash.)

It's hard to avoid the conclusion that a dominant Linux gaming console would be better than what we've got now. PC-equivalent hardware prices; no Windows license fees; a common hardware model anchored by Valve, whose biggest motivation is "make sure all games run well". It's clearly the vision Valve was shooting for. They just failed to make it happen. Insufficient gorilla.

(If Valve were the size of Apple, they would have rolled their own hardware. And if I were as powerful as Doctor Manhattan, I'd have a birthday party on Mars.)

So what will actually happen to Steam Machines? I see that Alienware, at least, is doubling down on the idea... but why not, right? It's just a PC gaming rig with a different software setup. They're already in that business. And they got my money; I just wasted the marginal cost of buying Win10 retail.

(As for the Steam controller, it has turned out to be a distraction. You can like it, hate it, or ignore it -- it's doing fine on Witness for me. But it's platform-neutral hardware, irrelevant to the SteamOS/Steam Machine effort.)

I doubt Valve will kill their SteamOS effort, but I doubt it will gain much momentum either. In the meantime, I will (dammit) be playing games on a Windows box.

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Hadean Lands is now up on Steam

You can buy HL on Steam. That is the whole blog post.

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Hadean Lands: update available on Humble and Itch

Hey! I am back from Balticon, and so it's time for the HL release train to rumble into motion. Here's the first stage:

I have posted a new release of Hadean Lands to my Humble Store and Itch.IO pages. This is the new Lectrote-based app, for MacOS, Windows, and Linux, with autosave and integrated map and journal windows.


Bug reports are very welcome. Any bug I fix before the Steam launch is a win.

This release includes both a native app and the bare HadeanLands.gblorb game file, so you can play HL on any Glulx interpreter. (But you don't get the dynamic map and journal if you play that way.)

If you have saved games from the original (2014) release of HL, they are not compatible with this release. Sorry! I've stuck the original HadeanLands-2014.gblorb in the package too, so if you really want to go back to your old save files, it's possible.

(The differences between the current 2016 release and the old 2014 release are small. A few typos, a couple of fixes for obscure ritual corner cases, some improvements to parser disambiguation.)

Here's the important announcement: On June 20th, the price is going up! When HL launches on Steam -- that's June 20th -- it will launch at a price of $12 US. On that day, I am raising the price on the Humble and Itch stores to match. (The iOS version will remain at $5.)

This means that you have three weeks to buy the new version of the game at the old price. Think of it as a secret preparing-for-Steam sale.

Obviously, it's not a secret secret that the game is still available for $5. This is the Internet and you're reading it. But it's a fine line between "I underpriced HL when I originally released it" and "you're jacking up the price on us, you jerk." I don't want to get into that argument on the Steam store page for HL. My position there is "This is a $12 game." Keep it simple, keep it focussed on the Steam launch.

Okay, what else is going on...

If you've looked over the Steam store page you've probably noticed the DLC! Yes, Hadean Lands will have DLC, and no -- I'll spill the joke right away -- it's not extended game content. It's the Hadean Lands Solo Adventurer Pledge Certificate. That is, you can pay extra money for a certificate that you sign promising not to look at hints. Purely optional, I assure you.

The certificate will only be available through Steam. I've put up a detailed explanation on the DLC page. So far, comments are running 100% for "clever idea"... okay, that's 100% of one comment. Still, a positive response. Might even make me some extra money.

Speaking of commentary, Hadean Lands was discussed in three Xyzzymposium posts recently:

(These posts discuss the nominees for the XYZZY Awards in those categories for 2014. HL won all three of those categories that year, along with Best Puzzles.)

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The irritating case of Hadean Lands pricing on Steam

(Cases that are "curious" are as overdone as things "considered harmful". This one is just a nuisance, but I still have to solve it.)

When I started planning HL for iOS, I figured that I'd charge $5. It wasn't a casual-tiny price, it wasn't full-on-desktop-game. (2010 was early in iOS history but we could already see what "race to the bottom" meant.) I wrote up the Kickstarter page and offered $3 as the basic backer pre-order level -- "a $5 value!" So that was pretty well locked in.

During development I decided to release the game for Mac and Windows as well, but I kept the $5 price point. I'm not sure I had any hard logic for this beyond "I don't want to think about it." With a dash of "nobody will complain if it's the same price everywhere." I've had a couple of limited-term sales, but HL has basically been $5 since it launched.

Now I'm (slowly) approaching a Steam release. Scary! And worth revisiting my old assumptions. Should I raise the price?

(I'm not lowering the price, don't be silly.)

The good example on everyone's mind this week is Stephen's Sausage Roll, which launched with a $30 price-tag and an equally brazen attitude of "I'm worth it". Or, more, precisely: "Do you want this particular kind of puzzle? Are you going to jump up and down on it until your knees catch fire? If so, I'm worth $30 to you. Everybody else, just walk on by."

Also, as my friend Chris noted: "if this was a $5 game i'd just put it down and say 'whatever, too hard' [...] but being invested means i have to play it." Buying a game is buying into the game. We all know this, but the difference between $5 and $30 really throws it into the spotlight.

So maybe this all describes Hadean Lands too? Parser IF is niche appeal in a nutshell. Maybe I should kick it up to $7 or $10 on Steam. Or more?

I asked around my IF friends, and several of them said sure, they'd pay $10. Of course, they all own the game already, so it's not exactly a useful sample!

Many factors collide here.

  • What price? Dare I go beyond $10?
  • Do I also raise the iOS price?
  • Do I also raise the Mac/Win price? (On Itch.IO and the Humble Store.)
  • I'm adding the journal and map features (which exist on iOS but have never been seen on Mac/Win). I could say it's an "enhanced version" because of that.
  • I'm also fixing some minor but long-standing bugs. It's probably asinine to call it "enhanced" on that account, though.
  • I really don't have time in my schedule to extend the game in any way (beyond the journal and map UI).
  • When it comes down to it, will Steam users come after me in a torch-bearing mob for raising the price of an already-released game? Or is "new to Steam" good enough?

(But one major point of the "I'm worth it" strategy is to signal to the torch-bearing mob to go elsewhere, because they wouldn't be interested in the game to begin with! SSR has a delightfully high rating on Steam, because it's only purchased by people who want it.)

Comments? Opinions?

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More progress towards Hadean Lands on Steam

Here's a work-in-progress shot of Hadean Lands on MacOS. I'm using an extended version of Lectrote, with HL's map and journal windows added in. (The iOS release of HL has always had these, but not the Mac/Win releases. Until now!)

Yes, two different windows are titled "Map of the Marcher". I'll fix that.

(Background: Lectrote is a new interpreter for Glulx IF games -- meaning most recent Inform 7 games. It runs on Mac/Win/Linux, and it supports all Glulx features except audio. I still have a "beta" label on it, but it's been stable for people so I think it's about ready to 1.0-ify.)

Once this is ready, I'll soft-launch it as an update for existing HL users (people who bought the desktop version through Itch or Humble, plus Kickstarter backers). I'll also post the process of turning your Glulx game into a Lectrote app like this.

In other news, I was interviewed on another podcast! Guy Hasson of Blind Panels talks to me about pretty much the entire history of IF. Plus other stuff I've done.

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Followup on Steam Machines

A few months ago I posted "I am a person who will buy a Steam Machine". This month Valve put up a pre-order page, allowing us to pre-order the controller, the streamy widget, and the first two SteamOS boxes (from Alienware and Syber).

It would be narratively satisfying to title this post "I am a person who has bought a Steam Machine!" Sadly, it's not true. Yet! I will -- I figure I'll order in time for the headline launch date of early November. Pre-ordering might get me a console by mid-October, but am I that excited? Not really. Also, I have a whole lot of work to do this summer and fall.

(I'll have a whole lot of work to do this fall and winter, too. But I will at least have been paid for the summer work!)

The Steam Machine hasn't gotten a lot of good press -- not in comparison to the rapturous E3-load of promises from Sony and Microsoft. A quick news scan turns up headlines like "Don't buy a Steam Machine" (The Verge) and "Microsoft is building the Steam Machine Valve can't" (TechRadar). Well okay.

(On top of that, The Last Guardian really is shipping. Nothing Valve can do about that, obviously.)

I agree with the common criticism: Valve needs to push the "buy this and it works" console brand. Their pre-order web page touts customizability, not simplicity, and then it launches me into a pair of OEM product pages. (I credit Syber for showing me a clean good/better/best sales page, although they then ruin it with pop-up alphanumeric spew. Alienware's page is a mess; four models at the bottom of the page, just above the Beats headphones. Not even ordered by price.)

Just point me at a machine and explain why it's great. Marketing, people!

So. I'll still give it a shot. Valve and its partners are, unsurprisingly, bullish on the coming SteamOS game lineup. (See this quote from Alienware.) That's half the target they need to hit. The other half is to avoid a swamp of hardware-configuration noise which is indistinguishable from PC-land.

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Hadean Lands greenlit! It turns out

A few days ago my idle twitter-browsing was upended:

Huh. I just checked the Greenlight page for @zarfeblong's Hadean Lands... I somehow missed the news that Valve had started the GL process (@andetkaihetera)

Really? I, um, missed the news too. But a quick glance at the HL Greenlight page showed:

This game has been Greenlit by the Community!

The community has shown their interest in this game. Valve has reached out to this developer to start moving things toward release on Steam.

I was off at Balticon, so I couldn't dig into the matter right then. (Which is why everybody else announced the news before me.) But now I'm back and more or less caught up on life. So here's what I know.

If Valve reached out to me, I missed it. The Greenlight page says "Updated: May 12 @ 7:24pm", and the voting stats stop on May 11. So I guess the game was officially greenlit two weeks ago and nobody noticed until this weekend? O the embarrassment.

The site now offers me a link to "become a Steamworks partner". So I have begun that process. I have filled out a great many forms' worth of tax and banking info, the usual excitement. (And the usual confusion about whether I should use Zarfhome LLC's EIN or my personal SSN, a question which I will never, ever get right on the first try.)

Bureaucracy aside, what does this mean for Hadean Lands? I wish I could just push a button and launch the thing onto Steam. But no -- not that simple.

The Mac/PC/Linux download packages that I built last year are playable. But they're not nice. Gargoyle doesn't even have a font preference menu. (You can bejigger a text config file, of all the archaic monstrosities.)

Worse problem: Gargoyle doesn't handle high-res displays. It renders text at the old-school resolution, which means it looks fuzzy and awful. "Retina" displays are standard on high-end Macs and are moving steadily down the product line, and now we're seeing them on Windows machines too. So this is serious.

I would like to switch to other interpreters, at least on Mac and Windows. However, the options are currently Mac Zoom (crashy) and WinGlulx (backscroll is hidden behind an obscure keystroke). Um. I'm very much afraid that I'll have to spend a couple of months fixing up other people's interpreters before I can build Steam-acceptable games.

Now, in some ways this is great. I like contributing fixes to open-source projects! Particularly for IF interpreters! But it's a lot of work, and no cash up front. What's up front is learning curve -- I haven't built either Windows or MacOS apps, not since the 1990s.

I'd probably want some game-specific interpreter features, too. There's the dynamic map -- or, if I can't swing that, I should at least display the static map in a separate window when asked. Same for the IF postcard.

On top of that, I need to browse through Steam's SDK and figure out how it works. I have to think about achievements (probably not) and trading cards (I don't even know). I have to look into whether Steam's libraries can legally be wedged in with IF interpreters, which tend to be GPL.

Plus: this would be a terrific opportunity for that HL bug fix release, right? An impressive bug list has piled up since October. I've barely touched it. Surely it's worth putting my best foot forward for the Steam release.

Whew. All of this will happen, but it will happen in parallel with other work. For example, look at this exciting teaser page that I put up last week...

What is this? I'm not saying! Except to note that it is neither parser-based nor traditionally choice-based (hyperlink or menu style). Fun, eh?

And now, the traditional "green it forward" section:

Cyberganked, Robb Sherwin's retro text RPG, has just gone up on Greenlight. Character classes! Live photos! CGA palettes! Live photos in CGA palettes! Surely a winner.

Porpentine, Twine author and winner of multiple IF awards, is Greenlighting Eczema Angel Orifice, a collection of over 20 of her works. You can't talk about the past few years of choice-based IF without talking about Porpentine.

And some IF works which have been on Greenlight for a while, and are still working their way towards the goal line:

Jack Toresal and The Secret Letter (Mike Gentry and David Cornelson)

The Shadow in the Cathedral (Ian Finley and Jon Ingold)

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Hadean Lands on the Humble Store

I am happy to announce that Hadean Lands can now be purchased directly from the Humble Store. (It's currently listed under New Releases, though of course it will scroll off that page pretty soon.)

This is the same version that's been available all along. (No, I have not done a bug-fix release. I know, it's getting to be time...)

The Humble Store is fixed-price, not pay-what-you-want. The win is that 10% of proceeds go to charity.

You can still buy HL through the pay-what-you-want widgets on my web site. It's still in the Adventure Gamers Store. And of course the iOS version is still available from Apple.

(Have you voted for Hadean Lands on Steam Greenlight?)

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I am a person who will buy a Steam Machine

Yesterday Valve lit up their Steam Machine store page, offering previews of the upcoming Steam-based gaming consoles. (All "available November 2015".) It's a somewhat preposterous range of hardware -- sub-$500 boxes up to $5000.

I am not and never have been a connoisseur of graphic-card model numbers. ("More digits is better, right?") Come November, I'm going to have to browse a lot of tech-rag web pages to figure out which way is up.

I did a little of that browsing today. Naturally it's all handwaving at this point, and this post will only throw more hands in the air. But here are the first two articles I found:

You can read the articles if you want, but the headlines sum it up. Either the Steam Machine is a rising force in the console market, or it's a laughable dead end. Journalism!

I can't speak to the market appeal of these things. But I was excited by the original Steam Machine announcement of 2013, and I still expect to buy one this fall. Why? Many factors converging.

I didn't grow up a console gamer, but I was a console gamer from 1997-ish to 2010-ish. That is, roughly the PS2 and PS3 generations. But the genres I enjoy -- action-adventure stuff -- have been tailing off for years, and have almost never been console-exclusive.

Meanwhile, the interesting indie games are resolutely Steam-focussed. (When they can get into Big Distribution at all, but that's a separate argument.)

My Mac isn't working out as a game machine. Some games turn up on MacOS, some don't, some do but it takes too long. My iMac's graphics capabilities are merely adequate these days.

And yet I don't want a Windows box. I'd have to pay attention to it. Even the modern auto-updating OS models are too much work for gaming hardware. The console promise is "I will never not work or do anything surprising." General-purpose PCs can't achieve that.

Look, I never wanted my work machine to be my gaming machine anyhow. Separation of domains! I don't want my game service to spy on my web browsing or my email stream. If Steam gets compromised that shouldn't affect the box I do work on.

Sony can bite me. They're a bunch of pigboinkers, and they will never stop screwing up on customer security. I'm done with Playstations.

Xbox can bite me. Oh, I know, it's cool that Microsoft is now the struggling underdog. I even root for them sometimes. But not enough to buy into their tightly-gripped entertainment ecosystem. (Same goes for their Office ecosystem.) You just know that the pigboinkery is lurking in the middle-managers' offices... waiting.

Nintendo has nothing I want. Sorry. I played some Wii games back in the day (hi @mrsambarlow), but they ran out.

Conclusion: the combination of console-simplicity, Steam's library, and not having molested porkflesh in my presence puts the Steam Machine high on my list.

And now, the risks!

Too many models. If the customers don't want your product, they won't want twelve variants of your product twelve times as much. Steam's store page is a nightmare. I really hope that one of those models bubbles to the top as "here, just buy this one".

Linux gaming might fail yet again for the thousandth time. The idea of "Steam's whole library on SteamOS" is still a hope, not a promise. I would love to see Linux (even just SteamOS's Linux instance) become a first-rank target for new Steam games, as Windows is today. I will happily spend a few hundred dollars in that hope. But then I'll have to sit back and see if it happens.

Valve might boink a pig. Right now they have the trust of a large segment of gamerdom. They could do something awful and lose that.

The Last Guardian. You never know. It might ship.

Finally, the factors that I don't care about...

Price. It is true that Steam consoles will cost more than the current Xbox/PS4 deals. It is as yet unclear what the "average" or even "cheapest acceptable" Steam Machine will cost. I realize that lots of people will be swayed by price. (Nor will Steam be a prestige-brand thing like Apple has going.) But me, I am okay with paying a two- or three-hundred dollar premium for my concerns.

Linux gaming per se. It's great if Steam makes Linux take off, but that's not something I'm pushing for.

Apple is just as bad as Sony or Microsoft! Yeah fine. I respect the parallelism of your position, but that doesn't mean it's my position. You know perfectly well that if Apple enters the (supra-mobile) console race I'm going to get their box anyway.

Gamers who build their own fancy rigs will pooh-pooh it. Nobody builds expensive Windows gaming rigs. You live in a bubble. (I live in a different bubble. Actually I once built an expensive Windows gaming rig, but it was a huge waste of time and money.) The point is, consoles are already a way bigger market than the kind of gamer who will compare motherboards and graphics cards. That's the market that Steam is aiming at.

VR headsets. Investment capital in search of a problem.

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Hadean news of the week

I thought this was the boring part of the release process. Hadean Lands has been out for a couple of months, I've done a couple of iOS updates, time to settle down and work through the Kickstarter rewards. Plan for more distribution platforms, like Steam and the Humble Store. Boring stuff.

Wrong! It's crazy excitement time.

First thing this week, two fantastic reviews appeared:

"The best video game I played last year is a science-fiction thriller about alchemy, and it has no graphics or sound effects." -- David Auerbach, Slate

"Hadean Lands is an endlessly clever experience." -- Sean Clancy, Pocket Tactics

Suddenly the sales rate is going nuts, Twitter activity is buzzing, and my head is spinning.

When a wave of publicity hits, that's when you want a Steam Greenlight page, right? (Greenlight is the voting system that Steam uses to gauge public interest in new indie games.) So I have spent the past day constructing one. Here it is:

Vote for Hadean Lands on Steam Greenlight!

This isn't a purchase; it just indicates to Steam that this is the kind of game you want them to offer. When enough "yes" votes accumulate, I get a slot on the Steam storefront. (No, I don't know how many votes is enough.)

(Speaking of Greenlight, I note that two other parser IF games went up this month: Jack Toresal and The Secret Letter (Mike Gentry and David Cornelson) and The Shadow in the Cathedral (Ian Finley and Jon Ingold). There's also Her Story, which is not a text game, but is by IF author Sam Barlow. And that must only scratch the surface; I haven't even tried to survey the Greenlight world.)

Other news:

  • The process for getting a Humble Store slot is already under way. They say there's a queue for games to show up there, and I'm in it.

  • The current sales widgets (Humble Widget and Itch.IO) now offer separate downloads for Mac, Windows, and "generic" (everything else). The generic download is the same package that's been available all along; it contains the game file and instructions for finding an interpreter. The Mac package contains the interpreter, ready to install. The Windows package has a standard Windows installer which sets everything up for you.

  • David Welbourn has written a detailed walkthrough of HL. Massive spoilers, obviously! When it comes to HL hints, I like to send people to the IF forum rather than a walkthrough. I think it's more engaging to talk to other fans about the game, rather than finding a file of answers on the Internet. But David's work is terrific and deserves recognition. (Also, maybe, a tip? He's got a Patreon for creating IF walkthroughs.)

  • The Kickstarter reward CDs are in production. They should reach me by Feb 6th, says the duplicator.

  • I have the reward books now; they just have to be packaged up and hauled to the post office.

  • The reward posters have arrived, but the printer screwed up somehow. Half of the posters are smeared. The other half are fine, but I want to ship them all in one batch, so there will be a delay. I have contacted customer service and hopefully it will all get straightened out; I don't know when. Sorry about this.

  • For added fun, I have jury duty next week. That will fill up an unknown number of work days.

I want to address one other issue: the font preferences in the Mac and Windows interpreters. "But there are no font preferences in the Mac and Windows interpreters!" Yes, Watson, that is the curious thing.

In fact you can adjust the fonts in Gargoyle. You have to edit a file called garglk.ini, which is bundled with the interpreter (on Windows) or in your home directory (on Mac). On Linux I believe it's named .garglkrc. Go in there with a text editor and bump up the propsize line, and also leading while you're at it.

(If you used the Windows installer, you'll have to make the file editable first. Select Properties on the garglk.ini file, select Security, edit the permissions).

Yes, this is a rigmarole. Why did I stick you with it? The short answer is, well, the Kickstarter was for a game and an iOS interpreter. I didn't have time to write desktop interpreters too. Gargoyle is the best interpreter available right now, but it started as a Linux project, it's got this Unix-style config file, and that's just the way it goes.

(For the Steam release, I'd like to modify this. But no bets right now.)

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RealMyst Masterpiece Edition

The updated RealMyst is now up on Steam (for Mac/Win). It also appeared on the Mac App Store briefly yesterday, but Cyan pulled it back out citing "a small issue". (It's not clear what the issue is, or if the Steam release has the fix already.)

(Screenshots from an iMac, 2.7GHz, lots-o-RAM, AMD Radeon HD 6770M 512 MB. I don't know a damn thing about video cards but maybe that means something to you.)

As you can see, this "Masterpiece Edition" is very shiny. I don't have the original (2000-ish) RealMyst around to take comparison screenshots, but you can internets it.

(To settle one issue for good -- this app still uses the Unity3D engine. Cyan's upcoming game Obduction is planned to be Unreal Engine 4, so there was some speculation that RealMyst would be ported to Unreal, but nope.)

(Apropos of this -- Starry Expanse, the ongoing fan remake of Riven, just announced that it would be switching to Unreal.)

Anyhow. The new RealMyst has nicer textures, a bit more model detail, and some lighting effects such as bloom and dynamic shadows. Most blatantly, it has a lot more sun/moon/clouds environmental shifting. All the Ages (I think) have a day-night shift, which cycles in real time as you play. Sunset on Myst Island was terrific.

Oh, and you have a flashlight. Hit F to switch it on and off. I don't know whether they added the flashlight because the night-phase is so dark, or if they deliberately dropped the ambient lighting to make the flashlight more fun. It works pretty well, anyhow.

(No, I haven't yet checked to see how the flashlight interacts with Stoneship's illuminate-the-dark-tunnel puzzle. I kind of hope your flashlight just flickers and dies in that Age.)

Performance was pretty good for me at the default settings. (The interior of the Mechanical fortress gets a bit draggy, as others on Cyan's forum have noted.)

I'm somewhat less happy with the interface. It's WASD keyboard control, with mouse-look active if you hold down the right button or if you're walking. (It took me a good long time to figure out that you don't have to hold down the right button while you walk.) When you're standing still, the mouse moves the cursor around instead. (As well as the flashlight beam.) Click and drag on things in the usual Myst style.

Maybe I'm over-familiar with the Uru control setup, but this feels really awkward. Something about the mode-switch -- right button versus walking -- is hard to get used to. I flail trying to look around, and then I navigate tight corridors like a long barge rowed by short mammoths. I dunno. I didn't have this problem with the iPad version.

If it's really unbearable, you can switch back to original-Myst-style node-and-hotspot navigation. But is there anybody left in the universe who wants node-and-hotspot navigation, except as a workaround for clumsy 3D UI?

(Mind you, I'm a terrible judge of what's popular. From the mainstream point of view, I'm a hardcore gamer. Scary, right? So maybe I should shut up about what everybody wants.)

Anyhow. This post is just an excuse to post the shiny screenshots, and I've done that, so you're on your own now. Eighteen US bucks.

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Portal Is Free

In case for some reason you didn't hear this elsewhere, Portal is now free for the next week and a half. They're doing it to draw attention to Steam being available for the Mac now, but it's free for everyone. So, never having played Portal before (except the 2D version), I downloaded it onto my PC laptop and tried it out. I was at first a little worried because they told me that they didn't recognize my video card, but everything seemed to play fine. I played for about half an hour, and I really enjoyed it. It's certainly playable with my laptop's trackpad for now, but I think I'll hook up the mouse to make it a bit more comfortable, since, like most shooters, you move with WASD and aim with the mouse.

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Zeno Clash: Subtle horror, done right

MA_revisions_06-large.jpgThe opening cinematic of ACE Team's Zeno Clash shows a towering and unearthly creature -- cowled, hunchbacked and literally bird-legged, yellow eyes glowing like lanterns over a beaklike proboscis -- tenderly caring for some chubby, babbling babies. We see it helping one learn to walk, letting the child grasp its absurdly long, bony finger, leading it along gently.

The scene is not played as a shocking reveal; the entire, bizarre tableau is displayed at once, as soon as the game loads. The game knows damn well that you downloaded it after reading a blurb, either on Steam or on Xbox Live, that led you to expect an action-adventure about beating people up. And then it shows you this.

That, my friends, is a hook.

Here is another hook:

Mrs. Sloan had only three fingers on her left hand, but when she drummed them against the countertop, the tiny polished bones at the end of the fourth and fifth stumps clattered like fingernails. If Judith hadn't been looking, she wouldn't have noticed anything strange about Mrs. Sloan's hand.

"Tell me how you met Herman," said Mrs. Sloan.

This the opening of "The Sloan Men" by David Nickle, whose work I discovered via Pseudopod, a podcast of new short stories in the horror genre. I started listening to the show a couple of years ago as a change of pace from Escape Pod, the trailblazing SF podcast that became popular enough to spawn a handful of subgenre-specific shows, Psuedopod among them. I quickly came to prefer it over its parent show -- to my surprise, since I have never identified as a horror fan. And while I don't love every story it features, it manages to air a real winner with sufficient frequency that I look forward to each week's new show.

I quote Nickle because his stories, and the experience of having them read to me by Psuedopod's varied but consistently fine vocal talent, came to mind as I started to play Zeno Clash. From my perspective, the game appeared without warning or fanfare on Xbox Live Arcade last week. (It's been on Steam for a year, but, not much of a PC gamer, I hadn't noticed.) By coincidence, I'd purchased Nickle's collection Monstrous Affections earlier that same day -- after hearing and loving, for the third time, a story of his on Pseudopod -- so stories like "The Sloan Men" were fresh on my mind.[1]

The two stories' openings share the tactic of taking something familiar and domestic -- one parent lovingly caring for its infant children; another, enthroned in her kitchen, casually grilling her son's new girlfriend -- and mixing in something very wrong, letting it jut out in plain sight, as obvious as an exposed fingerbone. The disconnect, when executed correctly, produces a thrill in the audience, a recognition of the normal world gone horribly (aha!) awry somehow, and generates a hunger to learn more.

For me, this artful juxtaposition of the mundane with the monstrous is the very definition of contemporary horror at its best, far more so than the zombies and vampires that bulk up the genre's stereotype. What struck me about Zeno Clash, as I worked through the first hour or two of its single-digit playtime total, was its successful implementation of this particular flavor or horror literature into the videogame form, and the fact that I couldn't recall the last time I'd seen such a thing -- at least, not outside interactive fiction, which has long used the strengths of its text-based medium to establish its own tradition of horror-themed games.

You can say a lot of nice things about Left 4 Dead, but it doesn't make much room for narrative subtlety. The storied survival-horror videogame subgenre that informs it (Alone in the Dark, Resident Evil, et al) relies on the formula of an audience-identifiable outsider trapped in a dark place they don't belong, trying to fight their way back to normalcy. The player-character of Zeno Clash, on the other hand, lives among the monsters of his world as a native; and unlike, say, the Oddworld games, the situation isn't played for ironic laughs. Instead, you-the-player find yourself both repulsed and tantalized by the game's setting, unable to completely sympathize with the alien protagonist but nonetheless finding just enough familiarity among the unsettling scenery to be drawn in.

The game does an excellent job maintaining the uneasy tone established with the opening nursery scene. The tutorial level takes place in an uncertain dreamscape. Your fighting instructor, while teaching you how the controller works, keeps saying odd things, always concluding with the repeated insistence "But you are not dead" in a breathy growl. What kind of trainer is this, exactly? Soon after the plot gets underway, the main characters find themselves in a forest populated by a tribe of gibbering madmen wearing bizarre costumes. Unexpectedly, the protagonist displays admiration for them, revealing that he used to be one himself. Between fights with the colorful (and spry) lunatics, he introduces them to his traveling companion, calling them by name and noting the unique, single-minded purpose that each displays. As the camera pans over a masked figure slumped against a fallen tree, the hero beams, "She peed on herself and starved to death anonymously, because that is what she did." This is perhaps the oddest thing my Xbox has ever said, and -- as the line came delivered via good, understated voice acting -- served to trigger the connection I drew between this game and my listening to the stories of Pseudopod.

The writing keeps its high quality throughout the game, sometimes seeming somewhat too good for a game whose interactive sequences mainly deal with pounding people to a pulp with your fists. It features perhaps the least intelligence-insulting bit of foreshadowing I've seen in a console game's story: an unusual event that happens early in the game remains memorable enough that, when it's echoed by a major mid-game plot development, it relies on no supporting flashbacks or voiceover to remind you. It's subtle enough that I missed the connection while playing, realizing it only when I stopped to take a break, and I laughed with delight. (That introductory cutscene plays a similar trick, incidentally. It, and a few short subsequent cinematics, play every time you load up the game. If you play through the game over several sessions, as I did, those scenes re-contextualize themselves with every repeat viewing, and the result made me smile each time.)

The artwork is fine, too, weirdly blending a gunpowder-using society with a neolithic aesthetic, looking something like the organic landscapes of Moebius by way of Jack Kirby. I could keep going, but the game is too short to pick apart further without spoiling the rest. I'll just place Zeno Clash among the most refreshing of console-style videogames I've had the pleasure to experience in a long time. I recommend playing through the trial which -- at least on the Xbox version -- gives you a taste of both the narrative flavor and the nature of the martial-arts simulation that defines the game's action sequences. If both appeal to you, you could do worse than invest in the full game, which offers several hours of phantasmagoric fighting and storytelling of a sort I've never quite seen before.

[1] Nickle has the full text of "The Sloan Men" on his website, but I especially recommend giving a listen to the story's audio version, read by Cunning Minx.

Posted in Essays, Jmac on Games | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments


I played through Portal yesterday.

jmac: So did you enjoy portal?

zarf: yes

zarf: I should make a Gameshelf post, but it would be a one-liner.

jmac: That's fine.

jmac: It would be like saying "Hey I just saw this 'Star Wars' movie OK" at this point

zarf: yep

jmac: I trust in your judgement / ability to say something original despite everything

zarf: I'm gonna quote this exchange... :)

I finished the game off at 2:30 AM, so you should be wary of my ability to get nouns and verbs in the same sentence, much less be original. But I appreciate the vote of confidence.

(I briefly considered making a long post about playing Portal, the 1986 hypertext science fiction novel/game by Rob Swigart. But I've got little new to say about that Portal either. Except that, drat, the Web-based version is no longer working.)

It is worth noting that I signed up for Steam almost 24 hours ago and nobody has come to collect my soul. I haven't even gotten any bothersome promotional email. That puts them ahead of a lot of web sites I've signed up for. (Big Fish, I am pointing this plasma rifle at you. I never did manage to unsubscribe to your newsletter. By "plasma rifle" I mean "welcome to my spam filter".)

That damn song is stuck in my head, but that's been happening on and off since it first hit YouTube.

I don't blame you. I don't hate you. Shutting down.

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