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IF at Arisia

Arisia, one of Boston's many sci-fi conventions, is coming up this weekend. I won't be there (I'm at Mystery Hunt) but several Boston IF people will be, and there are a whole slew of IF-related panels and events.

First, there will be another Lost Pig performance (with audience participation) on Friday evening, 7:00 pm, Grand Ballroom B. Hosted by Brad Smith, with live performances and foley.

Panels of IF relevance... (Note: I'm pulling these from the Arisia schedule, which is subject to change. Also, these are just the panels I see which strike me as relevant and/or which include IF people I know. There's a whole Gaming program track which you could go to.)

Games and Minority Representation (Friday 10:00 pm, Alcott): Heather Albano, Bob Chipman, Caelyn Sandel (m), Pablo Miguel Alberto Vazquez III

Gender and Gaming (Saturday 10:00 am, Griffin): Chris Denmead, Brian Liberge, Meghan McGinley (m), Maddy Myers, Caelyn Sandel, Brianna Wu

DIY Digital: Homemade Video Games (Saturday 4:00 pm, Faneuil): Adri, Heather Albano, Caelyn Sandel (m), Carolyn VanEseltine

The Internet Hate Train: Moving Past Gamergate (Saturday 5:30 pm, Faneuil): Adri, Bob Chipman, Maddy Myers (m), Caelyn Sandel, Alan Wexelblat, Brianna Wu

Games as Interactive Literature (Sunday 4:00 pm, Adams): Adri, Meghan McGinley, Joshua A.C. Newman, Rebecca Slitt, Alan Wexelblat (m)

Video Games as Art (Sunday 5:30 pm, Adams): Bob Chipman, Israel Peskowitz (m), Caelyn Sandel, Carolyn VanEseltine

Go, enjoy, stay hydrated.

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IF Gathering 2013, quick notes

This weekend was awesome and contained practically no disasters at all. At least, none that happened directly to me or anything I was responsible for. I am very happy about that. (Some people did have travel-related disasters, but everyone showed up eventually.)

Friday: Met up with a small crowd of IF folks for dinner. The fish special at Mulan (in Cambridge) is not subtle about its szechuan peppercorns. I bit into a whole one. I have decided that szechuan peppercorn tastes like an ice-cream headache.

Then I went home and packed boxes of stuff for BostonFIG.

Saturday: Woke up way too early (for a works-at-home hacker). Loaded boxes of stuff into car. Drove to MIT. Figured out where the IF table was (ask me about last-minute organizational hassles!) Piled books, iPads, laptops onto table.

FIG was a nearly-solid eight hours of talking about IF in a very loud gymnasium. Some of the people who walked by were all "IF! I used to play that! It was awesome!" Others were all "I have no idea what this is." Several parents dropped their kids into the chair and made them play a few moves, which went over surprisingly well for many of the kids.

Adri and I were the primary table-wranglers. Nick Montfort and Noah Swartz hung around and helped out for some of the day.

The games we had on display were Counterfeit Monkey and The Legend of the Missing Hat. I also kept an iPad on hand and flipped between Meanwhile, Heliopause, Shade, and whatever else was good to demonstrate. As is traditional, one person sat down and played through an entire game. (Hat, not Monkey.)

The shelf of books was mostly decoration, but we waved Creating IF with Inform 7 and the Inform 6 Designer's Manual around when people asked us about tools. Nick also lent us some artifacts -- original editions of early CYOA books, and a couple of Infocom grey-box editions. (Brian Moriarty came by and signed Nick's copy of Wishbringer.)

I passed out a buttload of IF postcards.

Note for next year: displaying IF on a monitor is almost a good idea. It was Counterfeit Monkey on the monitor, but the laptop was facing me, not the crowd. So nobody could actually play the game. I demonstrated "wave X-remover at codex" every time someone looked at the screen, so it wasn't a waste of space, but maybe people would have played some of the game? Or maybe not.

(Clever idea: have a Bluetooth keyboard, so that the crowd and I can both type.)

At 3:00 I ran over to the student center, to introduce the public performance of Lost Pig. I say "performance" because we were graced with the presence of Tom Russell as the voice of Grunk, and Brad Smith as the voice of the Gnome. Julia Tenney volunteered to be the keyboard-wrangler (or, well, I volunteered her and she was okay with it). I passed out even more IF postcards.

The crowd was at least 50 people, most of whom were new to IF -- as far as I know. Everyone seemed to catch on in about thirty seconds, though and the session was blazing along when I headed back to the table. I am told the pig was found and the game won in about 90 minutes.

The expo hall closed at 6:00, which is good, as my throat was about wiped out from shouting over the crowd. We packed out the table. A bunch of folks headed over to see a panel discussion "Boston: The Cradle of Narrative Games", featuring Matthew Weise, Brian Moriarty, Dave Lebling, Terri Brosius, and Austin Grossman (although I'm told he was absent due to illness).

I did not get to the panel; I headed over to the Asgard to make sure it was set up for our IF meetup dinner. Turned out a crowd from NoShowConf was already there, so I needn't have rushed, but hey -- I was hungry. Everyone else showed up after the panel, anyhow. I wound up even hoarser from hanging out in a bar full of interactive-narrative-type people and talking for hours.

Then I went home, and that was Saturday.

On Sunday I slept late (no kidding) and got over to NoShowConf just in time for lunch. I only wound up catching two presentations: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Fighting Games (Maddy Myers, Todd Harper) and Chris Klimas's talk about the history of Twine. But there was extra bonus time for sitting around and talking (quietly). So that was fine.

Overall: the weekend was not the enormous IF gathering we had in 2010 (when Get Lamp premiered at PAX East). But it was pretty great. We will do this next year.

Thanks to everybody I mentioned above, helping out. Also to Val Grimm for setting up the Asgard event. And everybody who hung out at the table, and the Lost Pig event, and who showed up for dinner... and, you know, everybody.

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Boston summer IF meetup!

As in years past, the People's Republic of Interactive Fiction is organizing a summer gathering of the IF folks of the world. If you are interested in hanging out and talking about IF, you are invited!

The weekend: September 14-15. The locale: Boston (the MIT area).

Once again, we will be gathering at NoShowConf, a tiny little indie game-dev conference. We will also have a presence at the Boston Festival of Indie Games, which runs the same weekend.

These are both great events, and I'd happily recommend coming into town to visit either one. Both on the same weekend... is logistically complicated, I confess. But it will only make the weekend more awesome!

What's going on?

NoShowConf will run all day Saturday and all day Sunday.

NoShow is at the MS-NERD center, adjacent to MIT.

This will be the primary IF hangout zone. We will not have a separate IF track -- it's a cozy conference, not a cluttered one. However, I will be proposing one IF-related talk and I hope you folks will propose more.

Note that NoShow is considerably cheaper than it was last year. (Thanks to Microsoft for providing event space to the Boston tech community.) If you are on a tight budget, you can grab the Game Jam pass, which is even cheaper and includes all the hanging-out and the free lunch. Last year there were IF folks lounging around talking the entire weekend -- don't feel like the presentations are the only reason to attend.

BostonFIG runs all day Saturday.

This is an open-to-the-public indie game expo. It's running at the MIT student center (a fifteen-minute walk from NoShow). Registration is free; they are currently running a Kickstarter to raise funds.

We are organizing an IF table at BostonFIG! (Thanks Clara.) This is still in flux, but we are aiming for a demo space where we can show off IF to the public, demonstrate IF tools, possibly run a workshop. This is what I expect to be doing all Saturday afternoon. Anyone who wants to help with IF outreach is welcome to come by.

The People's Republic IF Demo, Beerfest, and Chowdown.

On Saturday evening (7 pm), we will meet up to eat, drink, and catch up on IF. (Location is still being planned.) We're going to grab function space in a bar or restaurant, and have a screen and projector available.

The idea is that everybody gathers, orders beer and food, and starts talking raucously about everything that's going on. Then, maybe at 8 pm, I wave a giant wooden spoon in the air, shut everybody up, and point at the projector. This is your cue to jump up, plug in, and tell everybody what you've done in IF in the past 12 (or 24) months. For five minutes! Lightning talk, or just a few screenshots, then next person.

Hopefully that will go for 30-ish minutes. Then we go back to drinking and eating and talking raucously until the bar throws us out.

And then back to NoShow for Sunday.

Perhaps this is a bewildering array of event options. (I like to think of it as "feature-rich", or perhaps "Turing-complete".) The capsule summary is:

  • NoShow: Cozy; conversation with IF folks and indie game devs; presentations for small interested groups.
  • BostonFIG: Big, noisy; present IF to the public (gamers, but not necessarily aware of IF).
  • Dinner: Our annual time to catch up on what's going on in the IF world. Also, beer.

And as I said, wandering back and forth between NoShow and FIG is easy.

What does this mean for you, dear blog-post reader?

  • Consult your calendar. (September 14-15, 2013.)
  • Register for NoShow if you want to take part.
  • Register for FIG if you will be in town at all. (Free, no reason not to.)
  • Donate to FIG's Kickstarter if you want to support that event financially.
  • Submit a NoShow talk proposal if you have an idea for one.
  • Email me if you want to show off anything at the IF dinner. Or at the BostonFIG table.
  • If you're planning to attend any part of this, please comment here, email me, or otherwise let me know. (Planning dinner space means coming up with a head-count, eventually.)

I hope to see lots and lots of you, this summer.

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Warbler presentation postponed

Due to the weather that buried Boston over the weekend, we’re postponing my presentation about The Warbler’s Nest at MIT, originally scheduled for Monday. I’ll post again when I know the new date.

Sorry about that. Stay warm, y’all!

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A public presentation of "The Warbler's Nest", Feb 11 at MIT

I am delighted to announce that my interactive fiction work The Warbler’s Nest will lead the Spring 2013 Purple Blurb events at MIT. Purple Blurb is Nick Montfort’s long-running series of guest lectures and presentations from a wide variety of digital-writing creators. Past talks have included play and discussion of IF I greatly admire, and I’m honored to have Warbler follow them.

We’re currently working out exactly how the presentation will work, but it will definitely involve a spectator-friendly playthrough and reading of the game, followed by a discussion period.

The presentation will happen on Feb. 11 at 5:30pm in MIT’s room 14E-310. Like all Purple Blurb events, it will be free and open to the public. If you’re around Boston in February, please visit!

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BostonFIG followup

I was at the Boston Festival of Independent Games and it was pretty darn awesome.

(Photo credit to BostonIndies.)

I had Shade and Meanwhile sitting out on iPads, and people played both of them! It wasn't literally eight straight hours of IF demoing -- there were gaps -- but it's not like people ignored the IF in favor of the interactive comic, either. Several people played a significant fraction of Shade. One dedicated player ran through the whole thing. (With some nudges from me. The ending requires a certain degree of relaxed experimentation and persistence, which isn't easy to maintain in a crowded demo room.)

(Yes, I wrote down a bunch of synonyms and action phrasings that I forgot to implement back in 2000. I will add them to the game when the iOS version comes out. User testing!)

Naturally I had a stack of IF cards to hand out to Shade players. I also got to show off the XYZZY Award I won for it, way back. And the puzzle-key I designed for the MakerBot promo game. (In the photo, the puzzle-key is sitting on top of the XYZZY. Sorry, I would have arranged that better if I'd known. Also I'd have been looking at the camera.)

Meanwhile was also popular, of course. It demos very well -- hand it to someone, and they'll get the idea instantly.

(I also had Pocket Storm running on an iPod. You can see the headphones in the photo, but nobody picked them up. Oh well. The good news is, I now know that an iPod can run PS for eight hours without recharging, even with the screen set to stay lit.)

I did not get much chance to look around the rest of the show, because I was standing and demoing for eight hours. That laptop in front of me? Didn't open it once. I thought I would be able to work on some HL code during slack time in the show. Ha ha.

But I could see some very nifty first-person 3D exploration games running across the room, and hear the shrieks of Conway's Inferno. (All my puzzle friends noted Conway's Inferno as a clear puzzle hit; I agree. When the iOS version ships, buy it.) And I got a few minutes to chat with Jason Scott before he showed his movie. I hear Peter Molyneux dropped by, but if I saw him, I didn't know it.

I did not win one of the show awards, which were voted by the crowds. (Didn't expect to.) You can see Shade got a string of yellow dots -- votes for "best narrative" -- although, to be fair, I think a couple of people were voting for Meanwhile. I don't see the winner list posted, but I know that the Best Narrative trophy went to Resonance, so congrats to Wadjet Eye.

Conclusion: this festival was a big success. It was an excellent way for crazy small-time developers like me to show off games, talk to people, and generally demonstrate our existence. Many people tried my games; more people watched the documentaries. I pushed the PR-IF link on anybody who expressed an interest in IF, so I expect we'll have a packed meeting in October. (Not yet scheduled, sorry.)

The show will happen again; it will be bigger next year. If you're a game maker in the New England area, and you're not big enough to set up a gigantic booth at PAX or GDC, you want to be at BostonFIG in 2013. I will be.

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Zarf at BostonFIG

I am happy to announce that I will be showing off Shade for iOS at the Boston Festival of Independent Games, at MIT next weekend. I will also have Meanwhile, Pocket Storm, Fealty, and the rest of my iOS portfolio ready to demo.

(BostonFIG: Saturday, September 22, 10 am to 10 pm, MIT buildings 34 and 26. Free and open to the public.)

More IF stuff at FIG: Jason Scott will be a keynote speaker, and he will be showing Get Lamp at some point. Plus there's this whole showcase of other indie games. It'll be cool.

What, you ask? Shade for iOS? It's still in development -- don't go running off to the App Store to find it. As with Dreamhold, I'm planning to leave the game file unchanged from its circa-2000 release, but I will add in-game feelies of some sort. Only not a map. A map of Shade wouldn't be very interesting.

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BostonFIG deadline extended

A tiny update to an earlier post: the BostonFIG submission deadline’s been extended by another 10 days, to Monday, August 20. That gives another week and a half to New England-based game creators, working in any medium, to submit their work for inclusion in this year’s festival.

A prize-list for the videogame showcase, comprising various hardware and software goodies, is starting to appear as well. Full details at the BostonFIG website.

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BostonFIG game submission deadline: August 10

Update: The submission deadline’s been extended to August 20.

WebBannerThis is a good year for inaugural game conferences in Boston. On the heels of No Show comes The Boston Festival of Independent Games, held around Cambridge’s Kendall Square on September 22.

BostonFIG will be a public series of events centering around locally produced games, be they digital, tabletop, or otherwise. Admission is free, though the event’s website does request that you register before showing up.

New England-based game makers have through August 10 — that’s this coming Friday — to submit their own works for inclusion in the festival. Each game submitted will be examined by at least one of the festival’s curators (the list of whom includes Y.T.), who will provide studied feedback to its developer. Submissions that meet BostonFIG’s display criteria become eligible for inclusion into the festival’s showcase.

The game submission fee for the videogame showcase is $15 ($10 for students), and is waived entirely for tabletop and street-game submissions. We’re especially interested in receiving student work, in fact, as well as card games and board games produced around these parts.

BostonFIG’s own copy about the festival submissions process, including relevant URLs and more specific instructions, follows. Hope to see your games!

Co-presented by MIT Game Lab and Boston Indies, the Boston Festival of Indie Games is a debut celebration of independent game development with emphasis on the New England region. Boston Festival of Indie Games seeks to support and showcase the efforts of independent game developers by providing a free public event that encourages attendees to share and interact with games in various forms, both digital and non-digital. The Boston Festival of Indie Games is focused on creating an intersection between community, academic and independent interests in game play. The showcase will include videogames and non-digital games (board games, street games, LARPs), produced in the area of New England.

The Indie Video Games Showcase is an opportunity for independent developers to show off their games, get feedback from the public, and win prizes. Voting will be open to the public in different categories. The submission free of 15$ per digital game; 10$ for submissions from students.

Game creators can also showcase their card games, board games, street games and LAPS to the non-digital games section of the festival. This section is non-competitive, and therefore there is no submission fee for submitting non-digital games. We hope to have prizes for non-digital games in the future.

Submissions will be first screened by Boston FIG volunteers who will make sure that the game meets our criteria. The games will then be reviewed by at least one of our curators, who will provide feedback to the developer. The curators will make the final decision about which games make it into the showcase.

Deadline for submissions is August 10, 2012.


What constitutes “indie” is always difficult to determine, so game makers should be ready to make the case for why their games are suitable for the showcase. These are some of the criteria to identify games that are suitable for the festival:

  • Games may be either recently released (within the last 6 months) or in production.
  • Games should be independently produced, though publisher funding/distribution is acceptable.
  • Games are not produced by a major publisher-owned studio, which is included in this list
  • Games should be produced by studios in the New England area.
  • Games should include at least one finished, playable level.
  • Game content and other materials are owned solely by the developer/designers or legal permission obtained to use any other copyrighted material.

Game makers should be ready to demo on their own hardware, or be able to send someone who can do it for them, on September 22nd, 2012. If we have hardware available, we will let entrants know asap.

If you have any questions, do not hesitate to contact us

If you have a game, please submit it via our online system

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No Show Conf and IF stuff (with bonus movie)

Ns logo smallThe very first No Show Conference is happening this coming weekend on the MIT campus. Organzied by local videogame producer Courtney Stanton, it’s angled at game-making professionals working in any medium. As I write this, there’s only a couple of dozen tickets left, so if you’ve access to Boston and this is your sort of thing, you may wish to get on that.

While it’s not on its official schedule, No Show shall play host to this year’s Interactive Fiction Summit, late of PAX East. The People’s Republic decided to give PAX a pass this year, in favor of a smaller and more developer-focused conference, and lo, one has appeared. As suggested by the fact that I write this post just a few days before the event, the Summit doesn’t quite have the definition it enjoyed during the PAX years; really, it’s just a call for IF authors and fans to come on by and find one another.

That said, No Show does itself take a IF-philic stance — the structure of the conference’s demo hall is inspired by the IF Demo Fair that Emily Short organized during last year’s PAX East. Furthermore, No Show speakers include IF authors Clara Fernández-Vara, Dierdra Kiai, and Jim Munroe, presenting on a variety of topics around games and culture. (I suspect that Dierdra’s alt-universe satirical examination of “Men in Games” will end up an especially popular talk.)

As a special treat, Jim Munroe will screen his new film Ghosts with Shit Jobs on Saturday evening, bracketing it with a panel discussion featuring our own Andrew Plotkin and local webcomic superstar Randal Munroe. That screening is part of MIT’s summer film series, not No Show, so it’s free and open to the public.

So, yes, that’s where I’ll be all weekend.

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Emoji Werewolf

Addendum to previous post: While searching for the method to make an inverted exclamation mark so that I could shout ¡El Hombre Lobo! at you properly, I came across Lion’s new Special Characters… menu, which for the first time includes a section just for emoji.

Here, then, is the Unicode glyph-string for a typical Werewolf village: 👨👩🐺👨👨👩👳🐺👨👩👩 .

Speaking of Werewolf, Scott Nicholson is giving a talk tomorrow afternoon at MIT’s Gambit GameLab on the topic of (mostly) co-operative games with a hidden-traitor mechanic. If you’re in the Boston area, feel free to stop by.

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A weekend chatting about electronic literature

I spent the weekend hanging out at Dangerous Readings, a small-scale (un-)conference about hypertext, interactive literature, and all that sort of thing.

The event was hosted by MIT, and organized by Eastgate, a publisher of hypertext and hypertext tools. They originally envisioned a BarCamp-style event, with sessions proposed and scheduled on the fly. But we didn't wind up being even that formal; it was just eight-to-twelve of us hanging out at MIT, talking about hypertext-like things for a weekend. Afterward there was pie.

I do not have a detailed report for you, I'm afraid. I had a really good time; the group was small enough to drill through my usual reticence. (At least by the second day...) So I was, for once, in the conversation rather than sitting back taking notes.

I'll note a few things, though:

Bill Bly introduced We Descend, an ambitious hypertext narrative (in progress) concerning a collection of archaeological artifacts. It's organized in layers of commentary. Bill began constructing the thing in Storyspace but is now using Tinderbox, a brain-organizer tool from Eastgate.

Mark Bernstein organized a reading of The Trojan Girls, a proof-of-concept piece in which two the "acts" have the same lines but in different orders. (The point is not to have a wildly different "outcome" the second time, but to have a reasonably seamless flow in both orderings. The stories are roughly the same, but with different emphasis, because the characters are generally responding to different remarks by different people in each "act".)

Angela Chang demoed Baby Duck Takes a Bath, a reading book optimized to help kids learn to read. The link is to a paper about an IF-style version, but Angela had an iPad prototype.

I got to show off Meanwhile, My Secret Hideout, and other prototypes in progress.

A notion that came up more than once: "Sifting" or "skimming" as a reading practice in its own right. (Not just a fast-and-careless habit of reading.) See also: The Hermeneutics of Screwing Around; or What You Do with a Million Books (a great title, and paper, by Stephen Ramsay). (Which, yes, I've skimmed.)

The question of where you find interesting interactive works. Or, where you hang out to inhale a stream of such works. The ELO collections are one entry point; IFDB is a very different one. Strange Hypertexts was also mentioned, although it's not currently active. Clearly we have a lot of communities with different aesthetics and goals. Speaking selfishly, I'd like them all to be aware of Meanwhile. Do they all want that?

The LED sign hanging in our Media Lab meeting room kept showing spelling errors. "SHUDTLE BUS", "ABRIVAL", "TUMSDAY". Are MIT grad students really bad spellers? (Okay, that wasn't a topic of conversation, I just noticed it and found it amusing. There's a good possible answer!)

Assorted other topics I recall: Is hypertext stuck in a cultural preconception of "a medium best suited to postmodern muddle"? What sort of introduction/tutorial does a hypertext work need? (Maps, "try this first" pathways, etc.) Do you need to teach the reading of hypertext to today's students? But do you need to teach writing it, as distinct from writing static text? If so, how? How do we (as authors) think about creating our works -- are we working from text to structure, or interactivity to content, or what? What new forms are implied by increasingly cheap storage and bandwidth? What communication tools are going to go mostly fallow in five years? (I.e., as the telephone already has.) Do we have enough pie forks to go around?

I'm not saying we got answers to those questions, of course. (Except the last.) It was a gab session.

I'm using the term "hypertext" here, because that was the language of the group. It was pretty distinct from my usual social circle; to some extent I was the token gamer-person. (Also one of the few programmer-people.) The discussion sort of took for granted that "hypertext" was an obscure, little-read medium -- whereas my usual viewpoint is that "interactive narrative" is a billion-dollar industry (mostly crap, mostly unaware of me, but still a huge thing). Doesn't invalidate any of the discussion, obviously; it was just a change of pace.

Anyway, good times was had by all.

(You can get another slice-view of the weekend by looking at the #danger11 twitter hashtag.)

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Colonial ninjas are go

Speaking of Kickstarter game projects involving children and mortal peril, Boston-based Lantana Games succeeded in their fundraising effort to complete Children of Liberty, a young-adult historical-fiction stealth platformer. Colonial America is a rich thematic source that games haven’t explored much, and I’m happy see this project funded. So here’s us also wishing the Lantana folks all the best while they screw on their tricorns and get down to business.

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Local puzzle hunts, part 2: Daffle and Bash

And now, the part where I review DASH and BAPHL (spring 2011 editions). Okay, not really review. The part where I call out some interesting aspects of each, and compare them. Because I like it when game design improves over time.

The first point of comparison is how well we did. (I speak for the mighty puzzle-solving engine that is Team Win Lose Or Banana.) BAPHL has not yet posted official results, but unofficially, WLB was the second team to finish, after Team Plugh. DASH's scores are also sort of unofficial, but it looks like we're at the 75% mark in the pack. (Both nationally and among Boston teams.)

Difficulty: I'd say the two events were just about at the same difficulty level. (For comparison, a Panda hunt is considerably harder.) DASH and BAPHL each had some good solid thinkers, some puzzles that took a lot of pencil-pushing but weren't really difficult, a couple of puzzles that made us say "That's all? I feel like this should have another stage," and a meta that we sweated over for 45 minutes, asked for a hint, and then felt stupid for missing the obvious.

The most obvious distinction between the hunts is that BAPHL, unlike DASH, has two difficulty settings: hard mode and easy mode. (Oh, they call it "normal", but I'm on a Mystery Hunt team so I'm allowed to call it "easy". Says so right here.) This year, the puzzles were the same in the two modes, but the easy players got more information -- free letters filled out, clearer instructions, etc. Last year, I believe, the easy mode had different puzzles (although generally related).

This dual approach is clearly a big win for puzzlers (albeit a big extra workload for puzzle-designers). It goes a long way towards addressing the "but how do we get into this sport?" problem that I talked about in my last post. This is not to say that all hunt designers should be doing this; the cost is obvious, and writing (e.g.) an "easy mode" for the Mystery Hunt would kill the designers dead. But it's worth thinking about.

This gets into the second-order question of whether puzzle hunts should be trying to attract new participants. Purely online hunts (like Panda) scale well, but real-life events don't. Larger groups have increased organizational costs, both in effort and (eventually) in money. ("We need a permit for this?")

I guess my position is that as more people become interested in puzzle-hunting, more hunts will arise. People will say "Damn, we should really do one of these ourselves," and presto -- new hunt event. Of course that's easy for me to say. I've never... ahem. I did run a tiny puzzle hunt event in college. (It wasn't very good. I wasn't part of the culture yet and had no idea how they were supposed to go.) Anyhow, I've never been on a modern hunt-running team, so I should talk, right? But I don't believe that this should be a closed hobby, where the same group of people write hunts and play hunts forever. Ergo, there should be more hunts. Ergo, there should be more puzzle creators (because the ones I know are already working their butts off!) Ergo, there should be more puzzle enthusiasts. It won't be a stress-free growth path, but hey.

What was I talking about? BAPHL and DASH, right.

Pacing: BAPHL used the traditional marathon model. All the teams start at the same time; when you solve a puzzle you get more puzzles immediately; the first team to solve the final puzzle is the winner. (With adjustments if you ask for hints.) This is how the Mystery Hunt works, and it's straightforward. It produces a somewhat frenetic experience, since you're always "on the clock", but for a lot of players that's part of the fun.

(Note that "on the clock" does not have to mean "rushed". My team has an enthusiastic-but-not-stressed policy -- this goes for my Mystery Hunt team as well -- and this leads us to comfortably high, but not first-place, outcomes. In particularly, we did really well in BAPHL even though we never felt like we had sprinted.)

DASH had a different setup. All the teams start the first puzzle at the same time, but they're only timed while solving; the clock stops once you solve a puzzle. You then discover the location of the next puzzle. (This is itself a puzzle, but a deliberately easy one). You hike over there, and when you pick up your next puzzle, the clock starts again.

This is clearly to avoid penalizing people in difficult-to-navigate cities (DASH is a multi-city event) and people with mobility problems. (Which included me, as it turned out. I twisted the heck out of my ankle after puzzle 3, and spent the rest of DASH limping and grinning and swearing I was fine.) But it has the extremely nice benefit that you can take breaks -- stopping for lunch between puzzles doesn't cost anything. BAPHL, in contrast, encourages you to grab a sandwich and eat it at the puzzle table.

Use of space: DASH, running in many cities simultaneously, necessarily treated its territory in a fairly generic way. We had a map, and (as noted) we had to find locations on it, but these were clued as arbitrary markers. Every city had the same markers scattered around a different map. I gather that each city's organizers tried to match the puzzles to local landmarks, but it wasn't particularly visible to the players.

BAPHL was specific to Brookline, MA, and it used its space very well indeed. Early in the hunt, teams were given a "runaround": follow directions through a few blocks of the city, noting clues. Traditional enough for a hunt. But a later puzzle was photo scavenging on the same streets, which was considerably more fun than it could have been, simply because we had walked the territory already. The meta, too, turned out to involve that path and its landmarks in a sneaky way. These were simple elements, and certainly not the hardest parts of the hunt -- running around the city was more of a solving break than a solving experience. Nonetheless, it tied the afternoon together very nicely.

(The BAPHL designers, when asked, confessed that they hadn't planned this. Well, good work anyway.)

The Metapuzzles: DASH's meta turned into a whole argument behind the scenes, we later found out. I'm going to skip that, because really, it was just one of those well-that-puzzle-was-a-little-awkward-wasn't-it things that crop up in every puzzle event ever. (Go listen to a bunch of puzzle players at a post-hunt dinner, if you don't believe me.)

Instead, I will note the experience that Win Lose Or Banana had in both hunts, which was overthinking the hell out of some part of the meta. Lesson: before you go writing down columns of words and looking for the common letters, try reading the diagonal.

(I apologize to you non-Mystery-Hunt readers, who are asking "why the diagonal?" Just trust me: the diagonal is the first thing you try. First letter of the first answer, second letter of the second answer, and so on. It's obvious and usually right. You have to have figured out what order the answers go in, of course. Looking for common letters in two columns is obscure, wacky, and probably wrong.)

Narrative: This is an odd-dude-out category, because the Mystery Hunt tradition has very clear ratios: twenty minutes of narrative setup, then 48 hours of puzzles, then a bit more storyline at the end when everybody is too punch-drunk to object. It's not that players object to storytelling, it's just that they don't want it to interfere with their fun.

However: I am interested in interactive narrative, so I get to talk about it. Says so right -- er, well, somewhere around here.

(I'm distinguishing here between narrative and theme. Theme plays well in hunts, because puzzles have flavor text -- which can contain clues. The puzzles also have organization and structure, which can be thematic in both obvious and sneaky ways.)

DASH had a fairy-tale theme, which was maintained throughout. However, the story content was a sheet of text at the beginning and another at the end, which we were more or less explicitly told to ignore. Pity.

BAPHL had much more going on. The theme was Lovecraftian (as the web site hints). The teams were started off with a quick spoken introduction -- basically what you see on the web page -- and then handed their first puzzles. However, this was not a solvable puzzle per se. Each team assembled a jigsaw puzzle into what was clearly a small piece of a larger jigsaw puzzle. Everyone therefore gathered to put their pieces together.

The designers were clearly aiming to draw players into the storyline by use of the game mechanics -- puzzles and puzzle-solving action. The initial jigsaws were of course very easy; and the reward for assembling everything was not a big puzzle, but a chunk of story. Nonetheless, the players all seemed happy with the setup. It came across as an introduction rather than a distraction.

The plot continued with some nifty twists in the middle and a satisfying (albeit low-budget) conclusion. Our only disappointment was that the cipher drawn on the initial jigsaw never reappeared. Obviously it wasn't practical to solve a cipher on the initial jigsaw -- eighty players packed around one sheet of paper can't all have a good time. But the designers could have handed us copies halfway through, to be used in the endgame somehow. Even as a token bit of decipherment, rather than a serious puzzle, it would have made a nice tie-up.

Organization: Ahem. Neither hunt has posted official team rankings. The events themselves went off fine, to be fair.

DASH had another whole argument behind the scenes, about the scoring. I still won't get into it, because I know some of those people (and I don't want to see them cry). Coordinating twelve local hunt-running groups is clearly difficult, let's just say that. Possibly it's not worth it? But then, having those twelve teams write twelve independent hunts would be a huge cumulative effort too. I don't know.

In conclusion: Fun!

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Local puzzle hunts, part 1: Puzzle whats?

I've played through two puzzle hunts in the past two weeks: DASH and BAPHL. I want to talk about these events, and in fact I've been asked to compare them (hi Julia!). But I also want to talk about puzzle hunts in general, for the benefit of people who have never tried them. This leaves me writing a post which is more than usually disorganized.

(Some people would ask "More than usual?")

Okay. Audience breakdown. Who of you out there have never done a puzzle hunt, and have no idea what I'm talking about? Hands up. This is your post.

(The rest of you, don't go away. I will come around to you next post.)

A puzzle hunt, or puzzle extravaganza, is -- a bunch of puzzles, usually with some narrative frame, whose answers all tie together at the end into one big puzzle. Typically it's a "live" event; the game designers act as game-masters, verify your answers, and hand out more puzzles as you progress through the hunt. (Although you can usually re-play old hunts online; they get archived.)

These things are generally tuned for groups of people. You can tackle a hunt on your own, but the kind of lateral thinking and brainstorming involved in these puzzles works much better with many eyes. A hunt may involve running around a city looking for clues, or sitting in a room staring at puzzles, or (most commonly) a little of the former and a lot of the latter.

The great grand-daddy of puzzle hunts (within the eastern US!) is the MIT Mystery Hunt, about which I have written before. The Mystery Hunt is a marathon-scale event -- it consumes an whole weekend, and a serious team might have forty or sixty solvers coordinating for that entire time. (I am not so serious about it: I sleep. Not all of my teammates do.) This post isn't about the Mystery Hunt. This post is about events that four people can finish in an afternoon.

My message to you, o person who has never done a puzzle hunt, is that you should try a puzzle hunt. They're fun! Find a few friends and sign up. The next DASH isn't for a while, but there are many events like this in various cities...

...Here's where it gets complicated.

Puzzle solving (like interactive fiction, and this is exactly not a coincidence at all) is a very enculturated pastime. By which I mean, puzzles are built on a shared set of conventions: how clues are conveyed, what can be left unspoken, what kind of puzzles players are familiar with, what kind of puzzles players are good at. The whole point, after all, is to induce players to think of the right thing without either telling them too much (giving the secret away) or too little (making the game unsolvable). If the players aren't all on the same page, they will fail.

And this is a multidimensional page, not a simple "how good a puzzle solver are you, a scale of 1 to 10". Being good at crossword puzzles doesn't mean you're good at cryptic crosswords. Being familiar with cryptics doesn't mean you're good at that crazy one where the words all bounce off angled mirrors in the grid, and by the way, we're not telling you where the mirrors are.

(But my teammate said "Oh, it's a mirror one" and started sketching in the lines. He'd seen 'em before. I hadn't.)

Just as in interactive fiction, players are dropped into a deliberately fuzzy range of possibility. You know certain tools (mechanics, approaches) are likely to be useful. Others are a stretch but might turn up. In other places, you will have to invent a new solving idea, but it will be similar to something you already know. Then a few things will be the craziest ideas the inventors could come up with. And you don't know which is where! Pick up a puzzle and start experimenting. No path is guaranteed, but if you're not familiar with the terrain, you're lost.

I don't want to sell a scare story. Newcomers do enter these events, and some of them do fine. But it's much smoother if you enter with more-experienced friends, and learn by watching. (Believe me, if you like any kind of puzzles, you will not be dead weight. I was crap at working out the mirror positions, but I helped with the crossword clues.) Or look at some archived hunts -- links in a minute -- and see how the common puzzles work.

...Did I mention complications?

Just as with any enculturated activity, there are many cultures. NPL puzzles are not Mystery Hunt puzzles, for example. There's plenty of overlap (due to the many people who take part in both) but they still have distinct ranges of what's-common-and-expected.

Better example: I heard about the Boston Hub Crawl, which turned out to be the same day as BAPHL. The web site describes it as an afternoon of "digital photography, puzzlesolving, teamwork and finding out how well you know your way around Boston". Same sort of thing as I've been talking about? Yes and no. The Hub Crawl's focus is on locating things and taking photos. The puzzles are light teasers that point at the target locations. This year's BAPHL happened to also have a photo scavenger event, but that was a lightweight intermission -- a rest break from the puzzles. You see the difference.

I do the Mystery-Hunt-style hunts, because I enjoy the scary evil puzzles -- and because that's what my friends enjoy, obviously. (Causality runs all ways.) Teaching you the common baseline knowledge of these hunts would be another complete blog post in itself. (Not currently planned, but ask if you're interested!) The very short form is: Figure out what you're looking for, then figure out what order it should be in. The answers to all the puzzles will fit together into the final puzzle (what we call the "meta"). There. You're set.

So what do you sign up for? As I said earlier, old hunts are often available online (because nerds love collecting). You can view the puzzles, and peek at solutions, for:

These, of course, are just a tiny fraction of the puzzle-related events that go on. Take a look at the Puzzle Hunt Calendar and see what's up in your area.

If you're not up for running around a city, you should check out Puzzles and Answers Magazine (affectionately or frustratedly known as "Panda", for reasons I hope you see). Foggy, the editor, sends his subscribers a complete puzzle-hunt -- of the "sit in a room and work it all out" variety -- every other month. (See the free samples PDF.)

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Upcoming Boston IF events

We have two IF events coming up on Saturday, May 7. They overlap, so you've got an opportunity to exercise meaningful player choice...

(Links narfed from the PR-IF meeting notes.)

Story and Play: Interactive Fiction for Children

(2:30pm to 4pm -- Cambridge Public Library, Whale Room)

An IF collaborative play event, for kids, hosted by Brendan Desilets. This is part of the Cambridge Science Festival. We'll be playing Mrs. Pepper’s Nasty Secret, a romp for children of all ages.

Adventuresome Creations: Interactive Fiction Graphical Adventures & Electronic Literature

(3pm -- MIT room 6-120)

A colloquium, hosted by Nick Montfort. This is part of the Purple Blurb lecture series and the Boston Cyberarts Festival. Speaking:

And as long as I've got the microphone, I'll recommend flipping through the Boston Cyberarts Festival event list. All sorts of cool stuff is happening or being demonstrated in the next two weeks.

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Boston Cardboard Game Jam

Last weekend, I attended the first Boston Cardboard Game Jam. It was like one of Boston Game Jams' usual events, but this time for card and board games instead of videogames. The basic idea is that a bunch of people congregate and split up into teams of 3–4 people and make a game over a weekend. I've never been to any of the videogame ones, but according to Jeff Ward, this one was way better.

It was a really great experience for me, and I'm really glad I went. The key takeaway for me was that being forced to collaborate with a small group of people for many hours with a hard deadline really gets the creative juices flowing, even if it can be frustrating at times. One of my teammates does a great job of explaining the various iterations we went through. There were definitely times I felt like quitting, and I'm sure my teammates were similarly frustrated at times, but we kept at it and developed a pretty nice auction card game that plays in around an hour. And having other people there to playtest it was key, since we certainly wouldn't have gotten it to where it needed to be without some key insights from other smart people.

I thought it was some neat synchronicity when, this week, Craig Perko talked about how college should be about doing lots of projects with people who share your interests, and last weekend really felt like a mini version of that. I'm keen to try this again in the very near future, although I don't know if I'd be able to organize something like this before Boston Game Jams decides to do it again. I'm also keen to just make more games, even on my own. If you're keen to do that, too, then you could do worse than checking out Ian Schreiber's free blog-based course that he ran two summers ago (and that is still around) called Game Design Concepts (and you could also check out his book with Brenda Brathwaite, Challenges for Game Designers).

I had a simple game idea, too, which I actually solidified enough to pitch at the game jam. I didn't get anyone to work on it with me, but I've been thinking about it since then and definitely have a set of rules to try out with some people the next time I can find three other people and have my Sevendeck and Icehouse pieces handy.

And I'm serious about wanting to think about pulling together another cardboard game jam, even if it's only with a group of 8–10 people (I'm not sure what the critical mass is, since having people for playtetsing, as I mentioned, is pretty key). If something like this were to happen again, even if it didn't take place in a cool place like GAMBIT, are there any Boston-area Gameshelf readers who would be willing to give it a shot?

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Where's Ichiro?

Either there’s some cross-promotional shenanigans afoot, or local indie superstar Ichiro Lambe of Dejobaan Games really is on the run from a certain beloved but homicidal mad-scientist AI.

Puzzle-solvers are invited to pore over his recent communications to work out his location, which may or may not have something to do with a highly anticipated puzzle-game sequel being released this month — and seems somehow related to fungal potato blight as well. You can share your research on the #whereichiro hashtag on Twitter.

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[Boston] PR-IF Meetup Tuesday, April 19

The next PR-IF meetup will take place on Tuesday, April 19, starting at 6:30 at the Trope Tank, 14N-233 at MIT. Some potential topics include:

  • Spring Thing entries have been released. We'll probably at least mention this.
  • PAX East postmortem.
  • Cambridge Science Festival.
  • Possible talk/demo of common-sense AI stuff.
Afterwards, usually around 8:00 or so, we'll head over to the Cambridge Brewing Company for food and/or drinks. Newcomers welcome, even if you don't know anything about interactive fiction. We also have a mailing list you can join to hear about events and whatnot.

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More Inform yapping at BarCamp, perhaps

Andy and I plan on attending the sixth annual BarCamp Boston this weekend, April 9 and 10. BarCamp is a geek-centric “unconference” whose schedule of talks is constructed on the fly by attendees. In my experience, each hour-long slot tends to end up with someone talking about jQuery, someone talking about Ruby on Rails, and then someone talking about volcanoes, or food science, or something else they’re passionate about and which doesn’t resemble my day job in any way. So I go to these third talks, one after the other, and have a grand time.

This year, at friends’ encouragement, I plan on myself pitching a talk that I hope falls into that third category. Unsurprisingly, this’ll be my introduction-to-Inform talk, yet again. In the likely event I manage to make it happen, that’ll be three times in the last eight months I’ll have presented it, just weeks after I busted it out for the PAX crowd (with Zarf’s assistance, which he may reprise once again here). It’s starting to develop into what Merlin Mann calls a Shake-and-Bake talk, one that a practiced speaker can perform with increasingly minimal preparation. I can’t say I really expected to ever develop such a thing, and I wouldn’t have predicted Inform 7 to be my topic if I did. But, so it goes.

If you’re in my town this weekend and this sounds like your idea of a good time, feel free to register online — Boston BarCamp is free to attend (though they’d appreciate a $20 donation, which’ll also net you a natty T-shirt).

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